Archive for September, 2009

Resisting Endless War in Afghanistan – Monday, October 5th

September 29, 2009

As I reflect on Afghanistan, it’s incredible to realize that the first nonviolent action in Washington D.C. resisting this war, organized by myself and a few colleagues, was nearly eight years ago, on January 20, 2002. Think about it – children who were only  ten years old when the planes struck the World Trade Towers and Pentagon on 9/11 are now being suited up to fight in Afghanistan.

When will this madness end?

When will we ever hear a clear or valid mission for our troops, or learn the true number of Afghani civilians being killed, or see the pictures of the ongoing death and destruction on our TV screens? When will someone in charge remember why Afghanistan is called “the graveyard of empires,” and acknowledge that our military occupation has no more chance of succeeding than did those of the Soviet Union, Britain or Genghis Khan?

It’s only getting worse. This year has already become the deadliest for U.S. troops in our eight years there, and it’s only the end of September. President Obama’s newly appointed commander in Afghanistan, General McChrystal, has arrived in Washington to urgently request more troops be sent –  as the military always requests when a war isn’t going well.

For his part, the president is now said the be “re-evaluating” the strategy in Afghanistan, with no deadline set for  a decision on more troops. And yet, as the relentlessly pro-war Washington Post editorial page reminds us, it was only this past March 27 when Mr. Obama set forth what he called “a comprehensive new strategy for Afghanistan” that “marks the conclusion of a careful policy review,” and sent thousands more troops there as a result.

So do we need a new strategy every six months? Or could the President’s reticence have something to do with the fact that the American public suddenly seems awakened from its slumber, with a majority now opposing our open-ended occupation of Afghanistan?

And it’s more than just Afghanistan, of course, as Mr. Obama is spreading this war into neighboring Pakistan more and more everyday through the illegal and immoral use of unmanned Predator drones – cowardly attacks that, according to Congressional testimony by David Kilcullen, former adviser to General Petraeus, kill about  50 bystanders and/or innocent victims for each targeted “extremist.” Yet drone attacks have increased under the Obama Administration, and incredibly enough they plan to increase them still more, even as newspapers report a (wholly predictable) increase in anti-American sentiment sweeping Pakistan.

As the late, great author and humorist Molly Ivins once noted, it’s hard to convince people that you’re killing them for their own good.

It seemed only fitting that, in the middle of all this, I had the privilege to see The Actors’ Gang production of The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, Daniel Berrigan’s play about the burning of draft files in 1968, a nonviolent direct action which helped spark the anti-Vietnam war movement. It was immensely powerful to hear the testimonies of the nine activists (and remarkable to realize how much they were allowed to say in court) –  to hear their personal encounters with American militarism around the world, from South and Central America to Vietnam, that compelled them to act.

It also seemed somehow dated, even quaint. It is difficult for a contemporary audience, so numbed by daily sanitized reports of bombings, violence and war, to comprehend how anyone could be so moved as to risk imprisonment (which they all received) in an attempt to call attention to a moral outrage being perpetrated by their own government. Too many Americans today have come to accept the belief that they are powerless to effect anything important. That’s our loss – and humanity’s.

Because the opinion of a large number of Americans, even a majority, is important, but it’s not enough to stop a war. When Henry David Thoreau observed that “dissent without resistance is consent,” he might as well have been talking about public opinion polls. Majorities telling their opinions to pollsters means nothing. Physical actions, including nonviolent resistance, do mean something, as we can see in every successful social change movement in our nation’s history.

Those who want to act against endless war in Afghanistan and Pakistan have an ideal opportunity this coming Monday, October 5th, the eve of the war’s eighth anniversary. On that day a coalition of national groups, including the War Resisters League, Witness Against Torture, Veterans for Peace, Peace Action, Voice for Creative Nonviolence and my old friends and colleagues at the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance, are organizing a direct nonviolent action at the White House, accompanied by local actions around the country.

The action is in opposition to eight years of a brutal and senseless war we are inflicting upon the Afghani (and now Pakistani) people, to our government’s continued occupation of Iraq, its continued use of indefinite detention (at Guantanamo and now Bagram prison in Afghanistan), and its unwillingness to seek accountability for torture.

For more information on the rally, march and nonviolent direct action, go to www.nogoodwar.org

Moral outrages and government crimes begun under the Bush Administration are now being continued by the Obama Administration, and our collective opinions will not be enough to stop them. Action, including nonviolent direct action, is required. It is time to start showing President Obama that we mean business, and bring these wars to an end – before yet another generation of children is sacrificed on their bloody altar. Join us on October 5th.

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Gordon Clark is the former national director of Peace Action (1996 – 2001), the nation’s largest grassroots peace organization, and founder and former coordinator of the National Campaign for Nonviolent Resistance, formerly the Iraq Pledge of Resistance (2002-2007).

The State of Hope – September, 2009

September 19, 2009

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

August is supposed to be a “slow” news month, but the one that  just ended was a busy one indeed, and the news not particularly encouraging.

Perhaps my favorite item was the Federal Reserve’s prediction that we might be headed toward a “jobless recovery.” Excuse me, but what exactly is a “jobless recovery?”

Probably a lot like what we saw over the summer: the newly recovered big  banks raking in record, multi-billion dollar profits and paying out huge bonuses to themselves, while at the same time home foreclosures continued at a record pace, and the economy shed hundreds of thousands of jobs.

But September is a fresh start, in many ways just as important as New Year’s, maybe even more so. We come home from vacations, we re-engage in our work,  start new projects and our kids begin a new school year.  It is a time of hope and change, like all new beginnings should be.  And as we enter this crucially important season it’s important to consider: where are the hope and change we voted for last fall?

Bank bailouts and the crippled economy persist as major bummers, to be sure. And these realities are not unconnected to the economic advisers President Obama has surrounded himself with, high rollers who come from the banks themselves and who helped create the financial crisis in the first place. Not surprisingly, the prospects of re-regulating the banks, to prevent another such calamity from occurring, seem to be dwindling with each passing month.

Ending the war in Iraq was supposed to be another point of hope for us, but what’s going on there? A slow motion withdrawal from that country has been coupled with a massive expansion of forces in Afghanistan, which is quickly becoming Obama’s Vietnam.

Military spending is up. Unmanned Predator drone attacks are way up. Civilian and military deaths are up.  The Obama Administration announced last month it will continue the Bush era practice of renditions, or sending terror suspects to other countries for “interrogation.” They even continue to employ Blackwater, the infamous private fundamentalist paramilitary operation populated by former Bush friends and officials.

Okay – how about the all-important battle against climate change? After years of delay and denial in the Bush Administration, this is another issue on which many of us had high hopes.

And yet  the Democratic-controlled House – one in which two Maryland Representatives, Steny Hoyer and Chris Van Hollen, are top leaders –  produced a climate and energy bill so compromised and corrupted by big oil and coal interests that NASA climatologist James Hansen, one of the world leaders in calling for dramatic action to confront global warming, denounced it as a “disaster ” and “less than worthless.” Many are expecting it could get even worse in the Senate – if anything even passes this year at all.

On related environmental fronts, the mindless process of blowing off mountain tops to remove the coal underneath will continue relatively unabated under the Obama Administration, which also recently okayed the deal to build a tar sands pipeline from Canada – tar sands being the most environmentally destructive way yet discovered to produce oil. (And the possible final nail in our climate change coffin.)

And what, finally, of the health care debate?

On this issue, August was truly a month of bizarre and surreal spectacles –  town hall meetings that turned into shouting matches, with Medicare-recipients demanding that government stay out of their health care (??), while  gun-toting patriots kept vigil outside. (At events with the President, no less; remember how they used to arrest you at Bush events just for wearing an anti-war T-shirt?)

The contribution by members of Congress hasn’t been that much better. Republicans for the most part have been fear-mongering cheerleaders, escalating hysteria with the most inflammatory accusations in an attempt to destroy any reform, while Democrats, with a few bright exceptions (such as our own Donna Edwards), are playing their usual role in big policy debates – confused, spineless, and all over the map.

So much so, it turns out, that there are key Democrats in the Senate who probably want to see real health care reform defeated almost as much as Republicans. (Hint: they take millions of dollars from the insurance industry too.)

How it will all turn out this fall is anyone’s guess, but as August closed and September starts, Obama and much of the Democratic party leadership seems perfecly willing to give up on a strong public health insurance option – already a major compromise from a single payer system, and the only policy component that would prevent the whole reform effort from being yet another massive giveaway to corporations (hello – drug companies making $300 billion a year are being asked to contribute a mere $8 billion a year in “savings” to the effort?). And this is happening largely because President Obama started to back away from it in his own public speeches, referring to it as only a “sliver” of the reform agenda.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is the utter lack of fight evidenced by the President and many Democrats. You fight for what you truly believe in, but on the issues above, can you name anything – anything – they have been willing to go to the mat for? And they control Congress, for goodness sake!

The activist right-wingers are often accused of being out of touch with basic facts, and we’ve seen plenty of them. But right now it takes an equal disregard for the facts to argue that the Obama Administration and this Congress are pursuing anything remotely resembling a progressive agenda.

So where does that leave our hope? Where it has always been, probably – in our own hands. We cannot depend on this Administration to fight for what we want – on many issues it appears we have to fight against them. We cannot depend on this Democrat-controlled Congress to do it either.

Nope, if we want those things we truly hope for and believe in during these extraordinarily challenging times, we’re the ones who are going to have to fight for them. With the Obama White House, with our members of Congress, and, most importantly, in our own communities.

This is probably not the work most of us were thinking about as we start our fall. But look at it this way – it will keep us busy while we’re looking for jobs.

After the Cheering Subsides, What Was Actually in Obama’s Speech?

September 11, 2009

Like many who watched President Obama’s health care address Wednesday night, I experienced moments of exhilaration.

There was some moral fiber, conviction and even passion to many of his words, reminiscent of his speeches on the campaign trail. And who couldn’t love the fact that he actually, finally, lambasted some of his critics on the right? I mean, when’s the last time you heard any politician denounce a lie as a lie, a “flat out” lie no less?

Hopefully, however, those of us who were thrilled by his words before have learned to exercise a little caution when it comes to applauding his actual policies – think Afghanistan, mountain top coal removal, climate change and energy policy, Wall St. bailouts, etc..

Because when you look at the actual policy he was proposing in his primetime speech, the assessment of one NPR reporter rings singularly true: the left got the rhetoric, and the centrists got the substance. Which means, of course, that the country will get the shaft.

But before I get ahead of myself, here’ s a quick look at some elements in his speech, and the profound problems with them.

“I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits.” Official factcheckers are already debunking the math behind this dubious assertion, as has (previously) the Congressional Budget Office. Of course Obama is far from the first politician to sugar coat a financial reality, so part of me wants to give him a break. But wouldn’t it be better to actually fess up to the real costs involved, and make the forthright statement that spending money on health care for all Americans is worth it? Because if we start with this false premise, how much health care will we lose in the future when it becomes clear what the real costs are?

“…not a dollar of the Medicare trust fund will be used to pay for this plan.” Following on the previous statement, Mr. Obama is telling us he will pay for most of his plan by wringing $500 billion in savings from Medicare in ten years – but only by cutting waste and fraud. Right. How often do politicians tell us this about cutting costs, and how often is it true? If I were a senior citizen, I think I’d have some real concerns about my Medicare right now.

“Under this plan, it will be against the law for insurance companies to deny you coverage because of a pre-existing condition.” This is a good idea and a real attention grabber, with its strong progressive tone, but how much does it ultimately matter? Health insurance companies and drug makers have spent years figuring out how to bend or evade every conceivable rule applied to them, and if they get caught every once in a while and have to pay a fine, that’s just a cost of doing business for them. Did you know for instance that earlier this month pharmaceutical giant Pfizer reached a $2.3 billion settlement with the U.S. Justice Department – that’s $2.3 BILLION –  for unlawful prescription drug promotion? And that in so doing, Pfizer broke a record set only seven months before by fellow drug maker Eli Lilly & Company, whose settlement at that time was described by the Justice Department as the “largest individual corporate criminal fine” in U.S. history?

“Now is the season for action….Now is the time to deliver on health care.” … but… “We will do this by creating a new insurance exchange….this exchange will take effect in four years.” Excuse me, but if it’s so bloody important to pass health care reform NOW, why will a supposedly central chunk of said reform, an insurance exchange for individuals to buy insurance at (allegedly) reasonable prices, have to wait another four years? Am I the only one that finds the timing a little suspect – that we’ll have to wait until after the next Presidential election for this plan to take full effect?

Elections aside, this delay is a perfect example of the moral timidity if not outright bankruptcy of many Democratic proposals. They tell us, for instance, we should be deeply concerned that upwards of 20,000 Americans die each year for lack of health insurance – more than one every 30 minutes – but when it comes to solving the problem… um… could they have a few more years? Perhaps someone should erect a “death clock” on the Capitol grounds, like the deficit clock in New York city, except this one would tally the number of Americans dying from lack of health care while we wait for Congress to deal with the problem.

“I have no interest in putting insurance companies out of business. They provide a legitimate service.” Really? And what might that service be – apart from funneling millions of dollars in campaign contributions to politicians and funding disinformation campaigns to kill any reform?

The various deceptions and policy problems above, while fairly damning, are typical of most politicians and are used on most issues. But at this point, President Obama is showing his true allegiances in this battle when he defends the hated (and rightfully so) insurance companies.

Let’s be very clear on this – health insurance companies do *not* provide any legitimate service in our health care. They perform no tests, no procedures, provide no health counseling. They never delivered a single baby or took a single temperature. All they do is stand between you and your doctor, make everyone’s life miserable when you try to get health care, and then take a big fat slice of your health care dollars for doing it. To quote a colleague, only in America would huge profits for a value-negative intermediary corporate process be considered as making any sense whatever.

And only if you’re one of the people making money from that deal, as Mr. Obama and the Democrats most decidedly are, every time they take another campaign contribution from those insurance companies.

And then, the clincher from the speech:

“An additional step we can take to keep insurance companies honest is by making a not-for-profit public option available in the insurance exchange…. by avoiding some of the overhead that gets eaten up at private companies by profits, excessive administrative costs and executive salaries, it could provide a good deal for consumers…. It would also keep pressure on private insurers to keep their policies affordable and treat their customers better.” However… “It is only one part of my plan… and we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal.”

So there you have it. President Obama finally gives a coherent, compelling explanation of why a public option is necessary – and then follows up by saying he’s not going to fight for it. Poof – you can consider it gone already.

Of course this is what he and his aides have been implying for some time now, and it’s just a logical follow up to his position of ruling a single payer plan off the table from the get go. And why not? Single payer is only the most proven, cost effective system for delivering  health care, one that is used in one form or another by every other industrialized country in the world, all of which surpass the U.S. in virtually every health statistic. Who would want that? Other than about 60% of the American public, that is? (And remarkable, isn’t it, how President Obama can call single payer “radical” even though it is supported by such large majorities of Americans.)

It may actually be good if this so-called public option dies, because it has already been so watered down in the health care bills coming out of the House that it might not achieve anything at all, other than giving public health insurance a bad name.

And on top of all that, the President and Congress want to mandate that everyone buy insurance, delivering us all, along with our money (whether paid individually or through a taxpayer-funded subsidy), to the tender mercies of the same private companies that helped create this massive problem to begin with. (And the president is using a faulty auto insurance analogy to support this. Sorry, but driving an auto is a privilege subject to all sorts of restrictions; health care is, or should be, a basic human right.) Not surprisingly, the individual mandate was the basic goal of the insurance industry all along, as it will force millions of new Americans to start giving them money.

As Rolling Stone columnist Matt Taibbi, whose detailed and delightfully expletive-ridden expose can be read here, sums it all up:

“First, they gave away single-payer before a single gavel had fallen, apparently as a bargaining chip to the very insurers mostly responsible for creating the crisis in the first place. Then they watered down the public option so as to make it almost meaningless, while simultaneously beefing up the individual mandate, which would force millions of people now uninsured to buy a product that is no longer certain to be either cheaper or more likely to prevent them from going bankrupt. The bill won’t make drugs cheaper, and it might make paperwork for doctors even more unwieldy and complex than it is now. In fact, the various reform measures suck so badly that PhRMA, the notorious mouthpiece for the pharmaceutical industry which last year spent more than $20 million lobbying against health care reform, is now gratefully spending more than seven times that much on a marketing campaign to help the president get what he wants.”

Nothing President Obama said last night, however momentarily inspiring, changes any of this.

Mr. Obama ended his speech with an emotional appeal to what he called “fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country.” Regrettably, the plan he is offering does not support fundamental principles of social justice, and the only thing it says about the character of our country is that we still have a government thoroughly controlled by wealthy corporate interests.

If this plan passes it may take us a few years to figure that out. But we will figure it out, because this legislation will not fix our health care crisis. You can count on it.