Gulf Madness

June 2, 2010

[The following op-ed is featured in the June, 2010 issue of the Voice newspaper.]

It was a few weeks after the oil well started spewing millions of gallons of crude  into the Gulf of Mexico that I heard a radio reporter ask the increasingly commonplace question – “Where’s the outrage?”

Here’s a better question: where isn’t the outrage?

I’m outraged that 11 men died because a criminally negligent oil company (BP has a long track record) was cutting corners to save money.  I’m outraged that this same oil company clearly had no plan, no idea what to do in the event of such a catastrophic accident.  I’m outraged that their methods of “cleaning up” the oil haven’t changed since the Exxon Valdez spill 20 years ago, and that most of them are either ineffective (booms that only work when the sea is calm), or worse than the oil itself (dumping highly toxic “dispersant” into the ocean).  I’m outraged that they have clearly been lying about how much oil is pouring into the Gulf, and have been trying to keep reporters from seeing the worst damage.

I’m beyond outraged that our federal government has left this horrible, criminally negligent oil company in charge of the operation.  What happened in the Gulf (and will continue to wreak havoc for months and years to come) is the equivalent of a nuclear weapon explosion.  What the hell has to happen before the President organizes a truly national response?  Why hasn’t he mobilized every damn engineer in the country to try to stop the gusher?  Why hasn’t he brought any of our trillion dollars worth of military hardware and personnel, sitting on the other side of the planet in a different Gulf, back to help deal with this very clear and present threat to our nation?

I’m seething with rage that our government has allowed, if not helped, BP to hide the extent of the disaster so far.  And that government regulators were, once again, in bed with the industry they are supposed to oversee.  (Are they ever not?)  And that we have to settle for kabuki theater Congressional hearings where everyone blames everybody else, and you just know that no BP executive will go to jail for this horrendous crime.

I’m so outraged that when I think about it too long I start to shake.  And for the most part I can’t think about it – it’s just too much.  Instead I am continually, deeply depressed, because we are watching the greatest environmental catastrophe in history unfold before our eyes, and I have no idea what to do about it.  I suspect a lot of other people feel the same way.

And then I am stricken anew when I see a picture or think about the countless birds and turtles and fish and dolphins being choked to death on oil and wiped out, some species perhaps permanently since we are destroying their breeding grounds and nurseries.  Have we become so divorced from nature that this type of staggering devastation no longer registers with us?

About a year ago I was discussing climate change with my godkids, and I joked that they needed to grow up fast and solve these problems.  “We hear that a lot,” my goddaughter responded.

My God, is that what we humans have become?  The species that destroys the planet and then just turns to our kids and says, “Oops, sorry?”  What has to happen before we make radical changes in the way we live on this planet?  What the hell is wrong with us?

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Gordon Clark is the former national Executive Director of Peace Action, and the Project Director of Montgomery Victory Gardens (www.montgomeryvictorygardens.org)

Sheltering in Place

March 4, 2010

[The following commentary appears in the March issue of the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Voice.]

“There is more to life than increasing its speed.” – Mahatma Gandhi

I have long considered snowstorms to be the Universe’s way of telling us to chill out, and take the day off. So I was not at all surprised when public officials, in advance of last month’s historic blizzard, told us to prepare to “shelter in place” for 3 to 4 days.

Personally, I loved that week in February. In addition to all the shoveling (which, when paced correctly, is the best aerobic, upper body workout you can get), I went out and had fun, including some sledding with my godchildren. I read a book. I slept in a little, caught up on chores around the house, hung out more with my neighbors. My wife spent the time working on multiple paintings (she does art). We also both cooked a lot, and our simple pot of hot mulled wine was a big hit for all the shovelers on our block.

Many other folks, it would appear, had a much harder time of it. There were reports of people panicking when hearing the “shelter in place” advisories, of not knowing what to do or even what the phrase meant. And certainly some of  the instructions we received suggested a deep disconnect with our ability to take care of ourselves in a minor crisis: I heard commentators advising people who lost their heat (as we did), to put on extra layers of clothes, and to open window shades on sunny days to let the sun in. Literally – we had to be reminded that the sun is warm.

This is not to minimize the serious situations that some faced, whether the need to get to a critical job, or suddenly taking care of kids 24/7. But the fact is most of us get terribly anxious in the face of a situation which could be and should be thoroughly enjoyable. Slowing down.

Of course, the distress we feel has to do with more than the threat that we might be unable to get to a store for a couple days. The much more fundamental problem, I believe, is that the snowstorm threatens our way of life – meaning the industrial growth model, which also means our collective desire to run around all the time producing more stuff so we can all buy more and newer stuff, stuff which is hopefully bigger and faster too.

We go to great lengths to persuade ourselves that all of our economic activity, all the things we do in this endless pursuit of more, is worthwhile. One news story during the blizzard reported that we lost “$100 million of productivity” for every day the federal government was closed. Really? How measured? My friend Will Rogers used to joke that each day Congress was closed was one less day they could screw up.

Likewise,  heart bypass surgery and turning old growth forests into board lumber or pulp are both counted as positive contributions to the Gross Domestic Product, even though many of us would consider them indicators of a very serious problem. (And on the flip side, think how much we saved in greenhouse gas emissions the week everyone skipped sitting in traffic jams, whether commuting or shopping.)

We soldier on even when it’s clear our attempts to continually expand and accelerate are demonstrably harming us. To produce ever more meat we have created immense Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, which in turn produce tidal waves  of manure that are killing our waterways, including the Chesapeake. The increased use of insecticides and herbicides to grow immense fields of monoculture crops is leading directly to far more dangerous, resistant pests and weeds. And wasn’t the whole financial crisis that no one’s quite sure we’re out of caused by the incessant drive for ever larger profits on Wall Street – and all in the next quarter or year, however you get them?

Our incessantly churning economy  doesn’t work for us on a personal level, either. Measurements of happiness have consistently dropped since the 1960’s, precisely as our material prosperity has skyrocketed. To quote the Dalai Lama on one of the paradoxes of our age,  “We have bigger houses but smaller families; more conveniences, but less time.”

Many of us know instinctively that happiness does not come with things, but we also feel trapped in the hectic and seemingly necessary pace of our lives – and we were quite literally trapped when the snowstorm came along, and we were suddenly cut off from our normal routines. Yet a lot of us still yearn for something different than those routines.

That something different can come, ironically, from the very place we’re so often trying to leave. Your place. Your little corner of the planet, the place you live and the earth and land and neighbors right around you. The new agrarian and local food movements talk often about developing a sense of place, about a respect and responsibility for, and enjoyment of, the area and the earth where you live. It doesn’t have to be much earth, as the growing movement of urban agriculture is proving. It’s just where you are.

Although it can take some getting used to, given how we’ve been conditioned, the pleasures and benefits of place are very real, and provide a satisfaction and happiness, a true contentment, that are hard to beat.  It’s not for nothing that Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz got back to her heart’s desires by repeating, “There’s no place like home.” And it’s no coincidence the words “grounded” and “down to earth” describe people we really like to be around, people we’d want to be our friends.

Whether we like it or not, everything from energy shortages to more frequent and extreme weather events will force us into this situation more and more in the future – to live closer to home, a little slower and a little more simply. So why not learn to enjoy it now? It really is a better way to live.

For as someone wiser than I once noted, no one dies wishing they’d spent more time in the office. Or in a mall, for that matter.

Will Rogers Was Right

February 4, 2010

[The following article appears in the February issue of the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Voice.]

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“I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”

It’s close to a hundred years since legendary American humorist Will Rogers uttered his famous remark, but it has never been more true.

The shining pinnacle of the Democrats’ disorganization was the loss, last month, of the late, great Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts.  In terms of competence, losing a filibuster proof majority in the Senate in less than one year, and doing it in Massachusetts, one of the most liberal and consistently Democratic states in the union, is the political equivalent of not being able to hit the broad side of a barn with a basketball.

True to form, the Democratic leadership didn’t even see this one coming until a few weeks before the election, since their candidate at one point held a 30 point lead in the polls. How do you lose a 30 point lead? In Massachusetts??

Well, adding to the bitter irony was the fact that the loss was to a large degree the result of the Democratic party’s handling of health care, the issue nearest and dearest to Sen. Kennedy’s heart. Republican Scott Brown campaigned vigorously as the “the 41st vote” needed to successfully filibuster ( i.e.  – kill) any health care bill in the Senate.

Books will no doubt be written about the bungling of health care. Whether it was starting (as Democrats often do) with a compromise (even President Obama acknowledged single payer made the most sense), their inability to control the debate during months of “Tea Party” protests and town hall shouting fests, the string of broken promises (health care by August! public option! debate to be televised on C-SPAN!) or the  backroom deals with drug and insurance companies, the Democrats managed to take a wildly popular (and populist) issue and turn it into a 2,000 page political albatross.

This is nothing against the many, many Democrats out there in the Voice readership. I’ve voted for plenty of ‘em as you have, and most of my friends are Democrats – more than a couple of them elected officials. But there is something about national level politics that turns Democrats into the Keystone Cops, just as it has turned the Republicans into a party of rabid anti-government global warming deniers who would rather see the country collapse than concede an inch of ground to the (supposedly) governing party. (Again, no offense to my Republican friends.)

Remarkably, George W. Bush never had the Congressional majorities that Democrats now hold during his 8 year reign of terror – er, I mean Presidency – but that didn’t stop him from getting virtually everything he wanted, whether it was wars, Supreme Court justices or tax cuts for the wealthy. Why is it that the Republicans can now thwart anything President Obama wants (or claims to want) with only 41 votes in the Senate?

Could it have anything to do with the fact that many national Democrats have more in common with Republicans than they let on? (Was health care reform really advanced by having Democratic committee chairmen who take millions from the insurance industry?) Or could it be that Republicans have spent years purging members who didn’t follow the party line, while Democrats have spent the same time diluting their platform by moving to a mythical center, running any candidate they thought could win regardless of what they believed? Indeed, many of them, including the President, are already toning down or shifting their legislative agenda in the face of this “national” referendum delivered in Massachusetts.

The President’s mild State of the Union urging notwithstanding, national health care reform is dead. Everyone understands that. If the Democrats couldn’t pass a heavily watered-down, thoroughly compromised health care bill with a filibuster proof majority in the Senate, what is the chance they will do it without one, and in the face of a highly disciplined Republican party that has made clear its intentions to scuttle any major Democratic initiative?

What are the chances now for a real jobs bill, or for any semblance of a bill to address climate change? Could it get any worse?

Well, actually, it could. And it did, when just a few days after the Massachusetts debacle the Supreme Court made its worst decision since the Dred Scott case. In Citizens United vs. FEC, the court summarily dismissed decades of precedent on campaign finance, not to mention all common sense, and followed the delirious fiction that corporations have the same rights as actual human beings in ruling as unconstitutional most restrictions on corporations’ ability to spend money on political campaigns.

This is great news for Goldman Sachs, Monsanto, the oil and coal companies, the health insurance industry, pharmaceuticals or any other wealthy corporations that wish to further bend federal policy for their profit. For the majority of Americans who believed wealthy corporate interests already had too much influence in our government, it’s an unmitigated disaster.

Personally, I had long since grown tired of being dunned by MoveOn each time a new issue came up and they wanted my money to do battle with corporate lobbyists. Apparently asking Democrats to pass a public financing bill for federal elections, or to simply stop inviting lobbyists into their offices, was too much.

Like everyone else, MoveOn and the Democrats understand this new court decision will open the floodgates of corporate money in the 2010 election, and most of that money will flow to Republicans. So only now,  a day late and quite a few dollars short, they  are ginning up some response to reign in corporate contributions. Ironically, the Democrats have put some of their own fundraisers in charge of the effort. Anyone want to bet this will turn out any different than health care?

It’s hard to know what to do with the reality of a massively dysfunctional national government. On some issues, at least, we can do for ourselves locally what the federal government will not.  For example, we can invest in local credit unions if Congress cannot control the Wall St. banks. We can grow much of our own food if there is no federal alternative to the health-and-environment-destroying practices of industrial agriculture. In fact, as “Small Mart Revolutionary” Michael Shuman noted in last month’s Voice, we could and should be producing many of our own commodities locally, including energy.

Which is all to the good, because when it comes to depending on our national government to solve our problems, well, it’s probably best to keep your sense of humor. To quote Will Rogers again, “There’s no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you.”  Let’s just hope we can all still laugh this time next year.

Howard Zinn, Rest in Peace

January 29, 2010

“There is no flag large enough to cover the shame of killing innocent people.”

Howard Zinn, one of the great progressive historians, activists, and human beings of the late 20th century died yesterday. He was 87 years old.

Many people know Howard Zinn, or have at least heard of him, in connection with his seminal work A People’s History of the United States. The book was a revelation to me. In a world where we are taught about presidents and generals and business tycoons, here was a book that set all of that on its head, and told U.S. history through the eyes of “ordinary” and usually oppressed people: women, immigrants, farmers, slaves, Indians, low wage workers, minorities, those living in poverty, etc.

What quickly became clear – and I can only assume this was Zinn’s major point – is that history is not always what we’ve been taught in school. In fact, it rarely is. And that the great advances in human social progress have come about not because of the actions of presidents and generals, but precisely because of the actions, both individual and collective, of the persons that our history books tend to ignore in their narratives confined to the rich and powerful.

Howard Zinn was an enthusiastic bombardier in World War II. Only later did he come to understand and regret what he had done, and to become a fervent and lifelong opponent of war. But the struggle against war was only one of his passions; he enthusiastically supported and joined in the struggle for civil rights (he taught Alice Walker and other young black women in Spellman College in Atlanta in the 1950’s, eventually being fired for supporting their activism), women’s rights, workers rights – you name it, if it was a fight for equality, freedom and human dignity, you could count on Howard Zinn to be  involved.

And as the stories of these struggles became intertwined with the history that Zinn wrote, it also became clear that he understood “the law,” and it’s relation to human progress, more clearly than any other author, thinker or activist I’ve ever encountered.

The law, he realized, was not some holy writ. It was written by people, almost always men (and white men in this country), who were more often than not writing it for the benefit of powerful vested interests. His opinion was that laws should be obeyed when they functioned in the service of human rights and dignity. And that when they were not, they should be vigorously opposed – with one’s body if necessary. He was a vocal proponent and practitioner of nonviolent civil disobedience/resistance, noting (in another quote hanging in my office): “Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy. It is absolutely essential to it.”

As you might guess, Zinn’s attitude and behavior ruffled more than few feathers in academia. Some fellow historians considered him an undisciplined polemicist and agitator, despite the well-researched and primary source-filled nature of books like A People’s History. And John Silber, former president of Boston University where Zinn taught (and agitated) for many years, cited him as an example of teachers “who poison the well of academe.”

And so it should be, that those clinging to power attack those who challenge that power and the status quo. Silber’s comments remind of the saying that the greatest compliment old folks can pay to a younger generation’s music is when your parents scream at you to “turn that sh*t off!”

Zinn was in a class by himself. In the words of Noam Chomsky, Zinn’s writings “simply changed perspective and understanding for a whole generation. He’s changed the conscience of America in a highly constructive way. I really can’t think of anyone I can compare him to in this respect.”

But above all, for Zinn it was always about the ordinary person fighting for  dignity and human rights. I still choke up and get a chill down my spine when I recall his account of one of many civil rights battles in the South he participated in and documented, when a 9 year old black boy who had been arrested was asked for his name by the police, and answered simply  “Freedom.”

May Howard Zinn be long remembered. And may he be remembered as he would want to be, by the activism of people fighting for a better world.

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If you are interested in reading more of Howard Zinn, he never wrote a bad book. You can pick up any one of them and start reading in any place and your life will be enriched. His autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, is a great short read.

In addition, you might want to check out this obituary in the Boston Globe, or this short obit from The Nation, “Goodbye Howard Zinn,” which includes a few video clips of Zinn speaking.

And, in recognition of last night’s State of the Union speech, here is Zinn’s concise and cogent analysis of President Obama after his first year, printed just a couple weeks ago in The Nation magazine.

“I’ ve been searching hard for a highlight. The only thing that comes close is some of Obama’s rhetoric; I don’t see any kind of a highlight in his actions and policies. As far as disappointments, I wasn’t terribly disappointed because I didn’t expect that much. I expected him to be a traditional Democratic president. On foreign policy, that’s hardly any different from a Republican–as nationalist, expansionist, imperial and warlike. So in that sense, there’s no expectation and no disappointment. On domestic policy, traditionally Democratic presidents are more reformist, closer to the labor movement, more willing to pass legislation on behalf of ordinary people–and that’s been true of Obama. But Democratic reforms have also been limited, cautious. Obama’s no exception. On healthcare, for example, he starts out with a compromise, and when you start out with a compromise, you end with a compromise of a compromise, which is where we are now. I thought that in the area of constitutional rights he would be better than he has been. That’s the greatest disappointment, because Obama went to Harvard Law School and is presumably dedicated to constitutional rights. But he becomes president, and he’s not making any significant step away from Bush policies.”

Our Silly, Silly War on Terrorism

January 8, 2010

“Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.” — George Bernard Shaw.

I thought of this quote while reading recent dispatches from the “war on terror.”

Even during our holidays, the horror of people dying and being terrorized (often at the hands of our own government) continued. It can be extremely difficult to bear sometimes.

And yet, at the same time, if you can detach from that terrible reality for just a moment, our so-called war also has all the sublime absurdity of a Keystone Cops movie.

Take for example Tuesday’s Washington Post headline on the attack that killed seven CIA employees at a forward base in Afghanistan: “Bomber of CIA post was trusted informant.”

Yes, even though the man, Humam Balawi, had a history of supporting jihadist causes, was an administrator of a prominent online jihadist forum, and once told a magazine – a publication associated with al-Qaeda, according to the Post – that he  “had a predisposition for love of jihad and martyrdom since [he] was little,” THIS is the guy the CIA trusted. Right up until he blew himself up in their midst.

The rest of Afghanistan has been a regular dark comedy of errors as well. There were several U.S. military strikes over the holidays that allegedly killed civilians, including children, and which prompted significant public protests in Afghanistan. (You don’t read about them in our ever-shrinking mainstream newspapers, but they’re happening). And then, just this past weekend, the Afghan Parliament rejected 17 out of 24 of President Hamid Karzai’s Cabinet nominees. Which means that our guy in Kabul, the one we are counting on to form a stable government and nation in just 18 months so our additional troops can march in and then turn around to march out, is not only massively corrupt and intimately connected to war lords and drug lords (including his own brother), he won’t even have a functioning administration for – who knows? – maybe months to come.

Hysterical!

Of course, the most prominent recent event in what The Colbert Report is calling “the Crapification of the American Pants – scape,” was the Christmas Day attempt to blow up an airliner above Detroit. And instead of a shoe bomber, this time we were attacked, literally, by an underwear bomber. A tighty whitey al-Qaedy. The jokes practically write themselves.

And how did our vaunted homeland security perform during this attack? Could they possibly manage to single out and detain a passenger who was a) a young man traveling alone from Africa, b) paying for his ticket with cash, c) carrying no luggage, d) possessing only a one way ticket, and e) flying to Detroit… in f) the winter? Apparently not. (“Did they think he was going to Detroit because he heard there were jobs there?” was one Jon Stewart’s better lines.)

Better yet, how about the fact that the bomber was actually already on our terrorist watch list – because his own father repeatedly warned U.S. agencies that his son was becoming dangerously radical?

Nope, that’s still not quite enough information to go on. Luckily, though, there was an alert passenger to tackle the guy when he tried to ignite his drawers. Mission accomplished!

Here are a few more fun facts about the effort to secure our airports since the September 11 attacks: Most new screening equipment has been years late in arriving at airports. Virtually every time the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been tested, undercover agents manage to get bomb making materials on board more than 50% of the time. And the TSA screeners working our airports, who start at a slightly-better-than-french-fry-maker salary of $25,000 a year, are, as House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) stated just four months ago, suffering from “high attrition, low morale and severe workplace injury rates… since [the agency's] creation in 2001.”

Seriously, you couldn’t make this stuff up!  Can you blame the comics for having a good time with it? And can you blame the rest of us if watching comedians like Stewart and Colbert is pretty much the only way we can stomach the news anymore?

Finally, and naturally, our leadership is at its best at times like these.

Regarding the narrowly averted Christmas Day bombing, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano remarked that “the system worked” – an observation so ludicrous she had to retract it the next day. (Shades of Katrina and “way to go, Brownie?”)

Republicans are inanely attacking Obama for not saying the phrase “war on terror,” as if using these words would somehow change the situation, while Joe Lieberman, the Asshole Pro Tem of the Senate, (I’m only allowed to say it because it’s true!), is already talking about Yemen, the likely origin of the Christmas Day plot, as “the war of tomorrow.” That is, he says, unless we “act pre-emptively” – which is, I guess, to make it the war of today instead. There’s Joe-mentum for you!

And a CIA spokesperson, using the thoughtfully calibrated language of international relations and diplomacy, said that the attack on their base “will be avenged.” He continued: “Some very bad people will eventually have a very bad day.”

Woo-hoo! Let the cyclical blood-letting continue!

Of course, there is nothing remotely amusing about the whole damnable war on terror. People are dying and suffering in large numbers, countless lives are being disrupted, and the change we voted for in 2008 is turning out to be more of the same. Those of us committed to stopping this insanity will just have to slog on.

But sometimes, if only to get through a day, you just gotta laugh. Lord knows they’re giving us enough material.

The Best Sledding Hill in the World – A Holiday Wish

December 23, 2009

As I fretted last night about our upcoming trip to see the relatives, my possible lack of preparation (meaning gifts), and then, invariably. about the whole meaning of our wildly commercialized holiday season, I decided to take advantage of our recent winter storm here on the east coast, and headed to our local sledding hill.

It was the best idea I’ve had in weeks.

My wife and I didn’t realize it when we were buying our home in suburban Washington, D.C., but one of the major perks of this particular location is the middle school a few blocks down the road, and in particular the hill on its north side. The D.C. area is not known for snow, and even less so as our climate changes, but when we are lucky enough to get it, the middle school is transformed into one of the best sledding hills in the world.

The hill stretches a good 150 yards wide. Neatly bisected by a single line of stairs, the western half of the hill is a series of large earthen terraces, made to provide seating for the games in the soccer field beyond, while the eastern half is a long, smooth slope. On a good day after a snowfall, you will find literally hundreds of local residents sledding here. Even at midnight on a weeknight you will still find a couple dozen folks, usually teenagers, hitting the slope.

Conditions were excellent last night, dangerously so for a man of my age and injury history. The two feet of snow that had fallen a few days ago had been packed hard by a innumerable sled runs, and as a result of daily melting and refreezing, the surface was icy slick. All those runs had also created a series of mogels, or small hills on the side of the long slope, not unlike ripples of sand left by waves on the beach; each of them offered the inattentive or foolhardy a chance to go flying through the air.

Like my lunatic godson who wants to learn the skeleton, and who was recently seen going headfirst on his skateboard down a local street (he had to promise his mom he wouldn’t put the video on Facebook), I decided to go headfirst myself, as it seemed to offer at least a small margin (or was it an illusion?) of steering control as I raced down the hill. The night was crystal clear and not too cold, and as I lay at the bottom of the hill, laughing and catching my breath, I gazed upon a panorama of twinkling stars.

But the best thing about a good sled hill is the people, and as noted above you are never alone even if you come by yourself. It occurred to me that being on the sled hill is not unlike being in a community garden: everyone is happy, friendly, and wanting to share the experience. It wasn’t long before I was asking one of the teenagers if I could borrow their (obviously superior) sled, and it didn’t take long after that for a couple of them to convince me that the best way to go was with the two of them piled on top of me. We made it halfway down before spilling off the sides, yelping and shrieking as we did. They then tried to convince me to go over the jump some of them had built. I told them how much my chiropractor cost.

Run after run, and standing in groups at the top, it was wonderful to listen to the teenagers that evening. In other circumstances, these could well be what we older folks would call sullen or cynical youth. But on that sled hill they laugh and cavort like, well, like kids. For that matter so do the young adults. So do I.

There was nothing particularly Norman Rockwell about this tableau. Plenty of cell phones and Blackberries were in evidence, and plastic sleds had largely replaced the trusty Flexible Flyer. It was just a group of people having some simple fun.

And also, probably as a direct result, a profoundly good time. With no money, with little or no equipment (some sled on pieces of cardboard), people of all ages come together to enjoy themselves in nature, and for a time, it becomes as peaceful and as joyous as any scene of a bygone America Rockwell ever painted. It is such moments that can transform us, and it certainly transformed my surly demeanor. It reminded me of the powerful joy that can come from being with our fellow beings – and of what these holidays should be about. It was a wonderful blessing, and a great way to start my trip.

May we all be revitalized by similar blessings in the year ahead. With my best wishes for your holiday season, and the new year, Gordon

Giving the Gift of Love

December 9, 2009

[The following commentary is featured in the December issue of the Silver Spring/Takoma Park Voice.]

The day after Thanksgiving saw a repetition of the strange ritual with which Americans celebrate the beginning of the holiday season: millions of us rush out to start buying things. Many even stand in line for stores opening as early as 3am, crashing through the entrance the second the doors are unlocked. At least no one was trampled to death this year.

As a youngster I had a much more benign view of the holiday season.  Of course I loved the presents, I even loved purchasing them for others with my limited allowance. I loved the twinkle of the lights, the smell of the trees, the wrapping paper, and the music.

But as a child, even a more-or-less secular one, what really moved me was the feeling of universal good will – the idea that during this one time of year, at least, we were actively encouraged to set aside our grievances and demonstrate our love for the people around us. The gifts represented that love.

Those gifts have taken on a different cast over the years. In addition to the increasing importance of their monetary value, they’ve also moved from being purely personal gestures to becoming an economic necessity. Last year and this one, especially, we are bombarded with messages that our national economy hinges to a large degree on how much we Americans spend between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. (“Black Friday” is so named because it’s the time many retailers start making their profit for the year, or go into the black.)

And for the second Christmas in a row, that outlook is not very good.

It wasn’t always like this. While it’s estimated that consumer spending currently accounts for about  70% of the U.S. economy, it wasn’t until shortly after World War II that consumerism became our national ritual and identity, and the engine of our economy.

This development was not an accident. Our government pushed increased consumption as the way to keep the economy perpetually growing and corporations happy. (And it still does – witness former President Bush’s advice after 9/11 that we all go shopping.) Industrial designers created the concepts of planned and perceived obsolescence, whereby we are convinced or compelled to regularly replace perfectly good stuff because it’s not as fast or big or cool-looking as the newer version, or because they’ve stopped making replacement parts for the older models. Advertising did their part by constantly telling us that we couldn’t be happy, or properly show our love for others, without buying more of everything.

So it has gone for the past half century. But there are some big, big problems with this economic model, and we are now bumping up against them. The ever accelerating rate of global resource depletion is one of them, and Americans are especially to blame: we comprise 5% of the world’s population, yet consume 30% of the world’s resources. (And it’s not just oil, but also forests, metals, clean water… you name it.)

Products that are cheap enough for us to buy but still make a healthy profit for the corporations can also take a terrible toll of social injustice, whether it’s prison labor making our Christmas ornaments in China, sweat shops producing our apparel in Mexico (and so many other countries), or the thousands of Congolese children who drop out of school to mine coltan, a mineral used in the production of cell phones, DVDs, video games and computers – and one which has helped finance ongoing war in Africa.

And where does all this stuff go when we throw it away, which we must do in order to keep buying new stuff?  Where is “away,” exactly? Plastic, which comprises so much of what we buy (as well as the bags we put it in), is a perfect case in point. Originally designed to last forever, which it pretty much does, plastic has nonetheless become the quintessential “disposable” material, and much of what we discard ends up in the oceans. Researchers estimate that the “Great Garbage Patch,” collected by currents in the northern Pacific Ocean, is twice the size of Texas and growing – and it’s only one of five on the planet.  Worse still, our personal trash and pollution pales in comparison to the amount put out by industries producing our consumer goods.

(For an excellent synopsis of these issues, watch “The Story of Stuff” by local activist Annie Leonard.)

The point of all this is not to feel bad about the holidays, but to think about the consequences of what we buy – to buy from local stores, not chains, to buy items produced with clean energy, and without unjust or downright criminal labor practices.

And ultimately, to buy less. We need to realize that our spending during the holidays will not jump start the economy out of recession because the problem runs much deeper than that.  The economic model of consumerism – of making more so we can consume more so we can make more so we can consume more – is not sustainable, not for human beings and not for the planet we live on. In fact, it’s largely responsible for our current economic situation, and asking an increasingly jobless, debt-ridden population to supercharge their consumerism for the holidays will only drive us further into debt while creating few if any lasting jobs.

Of course reversing our economic paradigm of the past 60 years will not be easy.  Americans still love to shop, and public policies still favor building new homes over refurbishing existing ones, and building new roads for more cars over mass transit. But the tide is slowly turning toward sustainability and clean energy, toward stewardship and thrift.

We can give these positive trends a boost during the holidays by buying consciously, buying less, and remembering that the gifts we buy are only representations of the love, which is what we all really want for the holidays. And you don’t need to buy something in a mall to give someone your love.

Your Nobel Peace Prize at Work

December 3, 2009

So now it’s official. President Obama is going to escalate the war in Afghanistan. (Or as some are calling it, Vietghanistan.)

Given the rapid increase of U.S. troops in that nation (remember, Obama already sent more troops there this past spring), and the creeping withdrawal of troops from Iraq, our nation will now have more troops in those two countries combined than at any time during the Bush Administration. Yee ha.

Ironically, President Obama chose to announce this war escalation only a week before going to Norway to pick up his Peace Prize. One has to wonder if the Nobel Committee is having second thoughts.

This war escalation is, however, just one of a number of military, intelligence and foreign policy decisions in which the change promised by Barack Obama has turned out to be more of the same, following the terrible policies of his predecessor.

As has been noted previously in this space, President Obama is continuing the Bush policy of renditions (terrorism suspects being shipped to secret locations overseas for “interrogation”), as well as the Bush policy of indefinite detention without charges (it will just happen at Bagram Prison in Afghanistan now, instead of Guantanamo Bay).  And here is another you might have missed in the lead up to the Thanksgiving holiday last week: it was announced that President Obama will also, like President Bush, refuse to sign the International Treaty to Ban Landmines.

This baffling, appalling decision puts us at odds with most countries in the civilized world, including all our NATO allies. And it is yet another indication that on a number of crucial issues, the Pentagon seems to be calling the shots.

To watch (or read) Amy Goodman’s interview with Stephen Goose of Human Rights Watch on Obama’s landmine decision, click here. (The video opens with a State Department spokesman who is delightfully confused, and embarrassingly unable to explain this decision.)

And for Jon Stewart’s mighty funny take on Obama’s new war strategy, including his channeling of George Bush and the speeches we would have all preferred to see, click here.

Keep your chin up!

Listening to the Women of Afghanistan

November 24, 2009

[We have many things to be thankful for as we approach Thanksgiving, and one of them is that most of us in this country have never experienced the horror and utter devastation of war.  As President Obama deliberates sending yet more troops to Afghanistan, he would do well to listen to the citizens of that country - especially the women. They are quite clear on what war is doing to their homeland, and they've had enough. The following article is printed in the current November issue of the Takoma Park/Silver Spring Voice.]

It’s often said that if women ran the world, there would be no war.

Until that happy day arrives, it would be helpful if current leaders at least listened to women before making decisions on war, but as President Obama continues his deliberations on troop deployments in Afghanistan, his war council is, predictably, dominated by men.

Women play an infinitely more significant role in a U.S peace movement that opposes this war, and every once in a while one of them breaks through the barricades to that inner circle, as when Jodie Evans, co-founder of the ubiquitous women’s anti-war group Code Pink, got into a recent fundraiser and was able to make her case directly, if briefly, to Mr. Obama.

But listening to women first and foremost means listening to those most affected by war. And who, during this prolonged debate over our strategy, is listening to the women of Afghanistan?

One group of Afghan women whose voice needs to be heard is the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan. Founded in 1977, RAWA (www.rawa.org)  is both a humanitarian and a political organization, operating schools and mobile health care centers at the same time they fight for secular democracy in their country, which has meant fighting against the Soviet occupation, the Taliban, and now also the U.S. occupation. It is remarkable that an organization of secular women could survive so long in a country controlled by violent anti-woman Islamic fundamentalists – RAWA’s founder and many key activists have been killed –  and that alone should be reason enough to hear them out.

Zoya, a leader of RAWA, has been on a speaking tour of the U.S. coinciding with the 8 year anniversary of the war, and listening to her speak is a startling revelation.  The daily reality for most women in this desperately poor, war-torn nation is beyond what most of us can even imagine.  Scarce drinkable water, no electricity, and little food are compounded by a society where girls and women are still regularly beaten, raped and killed with impunity.

When asked what the U.S. and the world community can do to help, Zoya presents a clear-headed (if challenging) alternative to our current policy, one that includes disarmament of the fundamentalist groups, withdrawing support from the war criminals and drug lords who now sit in Afghanistan’s Parliament and positions of local power, and giving support – and funding – to local democratic organizations, or civil society.

And Zoya is quite clear on one other point: get the U.S. troops out, now.

This last point is not universally held, even among women. Some U.S. women activists returning from a recent trip to Afghanistan caused a minor controversy in the movement by suggesting a U.S. withdrawal should be “responsible,” an ill-defined descriptive which means, if nothing else, slower. They are saying this because of the fear expressed to them, by some in Afghanistan, of the violence that might follow the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

This is completely understandable. Yet to Afghan women such as Zoya, it is not persuasive, and she rebuts these calls for a slower withdrawal with a bracing critique of U.S. failure in Afghanistan, one that should be familiar even to those who know little more than what the U.S. mainstream media tells us. As Zoya notes:

* The Taliban already controls or heavily influences about 80% of Afghanistan outside of Kabul. (Indeed, that’s why it’s not safe to travel outside the capital.)

* The U.S./NATO occupation has not demonstrated, in 8 years, that it can give Afghanistan any measure of security, and it’s insulting to Afghanis to insist they endure continued occupation in pursuit of this illusion. Zoya heavily sites continued U.S. and NATO bombings, general lawlessness and lack of any justice system, coupled with the utter corruption of the current government.

* The U.S. is already talking with Taliban leaders in hopes of reaching some deal  (even while our forces continue to arrest or kill their young foot soldiers in the name of the war on terror).

These last two points speak directly to the types of “leaders” we’ve been setting up to follow our occupation of Afghanistan, and it’s not a pretty picture. Afghan President Hamid Karzai just oversaw a clearly fraudulent election, yet will be rewarded with another term in office. Corruption is rampant (Afghanistan regularly scores at the top of global corruption measures), and Karzai’s own brother is widely known to be a leading figure in the country’s massive opium trade – as well as being on the CIA payroll, according to the NY Times.

The opposition doesn’t get any better. Abdulah Abdulah, the man who just declined to participate in the run-off election against Karzai, is the former Foreign Minister of Afghanistan during the post-Soviet rule of the Northern Alliance (1992-1994), a period so brutal it’s what Afghanis refer to as their civil war. In the eyes of RAWA and others the Northern Alliance are war criminals themselves – they simply shave their beards and wear Western clothes. And they hold major positions in the Karzai government, and in Parliament.

Zoya goes so far as to assert that the Northern Alliance is happy to keep their old enemies the Taliban around, since their presence guarantees continued funding and support from the U.S. government.

Of  course, the twisted logic of pitting violent local thugs against each other and fueling the conflict with weapons is hardly a new idea in U.S. foreign policy. It’s why we propped up a corrupt and unpopular South Vietnamese government in the 1960s, why we aided Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran, and why we have supported Sunni tribal leaders (delightfully rebranded “The Awakening”)  with guns and cash during the current Iraq war. It’s also why our CIA supported Osama bin Laden against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and why we supported the Northern Alliance when we attacked the Taliban.

Unfortunately, such an arrangement almost always works out badly for the people on the ground. Particularly women. And particularly in Afghanistan.

It’s so bad that, in Zoya’s opinion, a civil war wouldn’t be much worse.  And when pressed by a reporter, Zoya said she’d rather die in a civil war than in a U.S. bombing . At least she would know she died fighting against the corrupt, fundamentalist forces who oppose a moderate, secular democracy in Afghanistan – and not at the hands of an occupying army that supports many of those same forces.

The key to any positive change for Zoya is disarmament. Human rights, women’s rights and democracy will never grow let alone flourish in a country overrun by heavily armed fundamentalists. She would even tolerate the presence of U.S. forces for another year in her country if they would focus their efforts on disarmament and the prosecution of war criminals, but barring that, she wants them to get out, and now.

Because one thing Zoya and the women of RAWA know from experience is that more men with guns will not solve their problems in Afghanistan. And it doesn’t matter if they are Taliban, Northern Alliance, or 40,000 more U.S. troops.

Here’s a prayer that someone at the White House hears this wise counsel from the women of Afghanistan.

Is the House Health Care Bill Better Than Nothing?

November 15, 2009

Is the House Health Care Bill Better Than Nothing?

 

Unless you investigate well-past the mainstream media, you can be forgiven for knowing very little if anything about what’s actually in the health care reform bill passed by the House of Representatives last weekend.

Is it “historic,” as Democratic House leaders say, or a “government takeover,” as Republicans and their teabagger allies allege? Or is it possibly neither – or something else all together?

While the post-vote debate this past week has been consumed almost entirely by the anti-choice Stupak amendment, an addition of massive significance that might sink the whole health care reform effort by itself, the more fundamental question remains: even if the amendment wasn’t there, does the House bill deserve our support? Meaning, will it actually do anything to improve our disastrously dysfunctional health care system?

It’s hard to get a more authoritative or respected opinion than that of Dr. Marcia Angel, senior lecturer at Harvard Medical School and former editor of the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.  As Dr. Angel points out in her article, “Is the House Health Care Bill Better Than Nothing?”:

* The “public option” in the bill is not really an “option” at all, but a program projected to cover only 6 million uninsured Americans.

* The House bill’s “individual mandate” forces every American to buy health insurance, thus delivering tens of millions of new and unwilling customers to the insurance industry. (Interestingly, former President Bill Clinton, who is now campaigning for this bill, considered the individual mandate an evil Republican idea when he was trying to get a health care bill passed in the 1990s.)

* The bill contains no cost control provisions, and would allow the insurance industry to raise premiums as it sees fit.

* The bill would pump billions of public taxpayer dollars into the coffers of the insurance industry, whether in the form of taxpayer subsidies to individuals to buy health insurance or the money that would be cut from Medicare and redirected to the private sector.

Even some of the best sounding provisions, such as the regulation outlawing denial of benefits due to “pre-existing conditions,” have potentially giant loopholes. If the bill does not specifically mandate that insurance companies cover all medically-approved treatment, do we really believe the companies won’t find some other excuse to deny coverage – or simply increase their premiums to cover the added expense?

To read Dr. Angel’s column “Is the House Health Care Bill Better Than Nothing?,” which includes here five point program for real reform, click here.

Some have protested Dr. Angel’s title, noting that under the bill 36 million more Americans (about 2/3 of the currently uninsured) would get some kind of insurance, and the bill would at least reduce the approximately 40,000 annual deaths which result from lack of insurance. Certainly that sounds “better than nothing.”

Yet at the same time, the bill would augment and enshrine the central role of the investor-owned insurance industry, which is in fact the single biggest problem in our health care system, and it would throw hundreds of billions more into a dysfunctional and fundamentally unsustainable system. More people would have insurance, but it will likely cost more and cover less.

Once again, those of us who care about universal health care are asked to make an excruciating choice to support this bill. (As opposed to the insurance companies, who make out like bandits either way.)

The argument for accepting this bill – and remember, it will only get weaker/worse as it makes its way through the Senate – is that you can take what you can get now, and then build on that in the future. Yet what examples are there of major government programs of social change being dramatically improved or expanded after passage, as opposed to being constantly attacked and whittled away?

And if the Democratic Party leadership is unwilling to fight for or even discuss a truly progressive health care system (single payer) – even at this moment when they control the White House and both houses of Congress with a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate – what are the chances they are going to come back and try to do better the next time around?

 

 


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