Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Why There is No Such Thing as a "Humanitarian" War

President Barack Obama became the fourth president in a row to authorize military action in Iraq, on Thursday. Obama ordered airstrikes over the region in retaliation to increased aggression by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS, a newly-formed branch of al-Qaeda. The president hinted over the weekend of further U.S. actions to come.

But fear not: This is strictly a "humanitarian" mission. We know this because, in addition to the countless Hellfire missiles the U.S. is raining down over Iraq, we are also dropping food packages for the Iraqi people. Hence, the New York Times headline the following day (Fri, 08/08/2014) reads, "U.S. Drops Food Aid to Iraqi Refugees; Militants Bombed." (The headline to the online version of the article differs from the print edition.)

This is what reporters typically refer to as "Burying the lead."

Indeed, given the similarity of Obama's actions to those of George H. W. Bush in the 1991 Gulf War, combined with the fact that the top-grossing movie in the country is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Americans may be forgiven for thinking they may have stumbled into some sort of time-warp. Relax: It's merely a glitch in the Matrix.

Just to review: The hostage situation in Iraq is a "humanitarian crisis," which "necessitates" a U.S. response. Yet, when Israel slaughters close to 2,000 Palestinian women, children, and civilians, well, that is just Israel exercising its "right to defend itself." It is a curious hypocrisy, worth reflecting on.

While many progressive commentators now lament Obama's sudden "shift in strategy" over Iraq, the truth is he never really was the anti-war champion the press has made him out to be. Candidate-Obama said himself, "I don't oppose all wars... What I am opposed to is a dumb war."

In fact, that one vaunted speech essentially constitutes the extent of Obama's supposed "criticism" of the Iraq War. And even despite his misgivings about the war, as a U.S. Senator, Obama dutifully voted for every single supplemental war-funding bill that came up during his term.

Likewise, the media narrative that Obama ended George W. Bush's war in Iraq is also an outright lie. Sure, he pulled some--but certainly not all--of the military forces out of Iraq. But the remaining 30,000 "non-combat troops" as well as private mercenary operatives like Blackwater/Xe, have allowed the brutal U.S. occupation of Iraq to continue all along. 

In fact, it is likely our initial 2003 invasion of Iraq, as well as our unwavering support for U.S. puppet Nouri al-Maliki, led to the creation of ISIS in the first place. Our latest terrorist bogeymen--just like al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden--are born out of our own imperialist overreach and shortsighted alliances. In our insatiable quest for global empire and corporate profits we, like Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, unwittingly sow the seeds of our own destruction.

The CIA has a term for these sorts of unintended consequences: "Blowback." 

To be certain, the situation in Iraq is dire. ISIS's takeover of the Mosul Dam in the town of Sinjar has sent tens of thousands of Kurdish refugees fleeing the area.

And so the inevitable question arises: "What should we do?" The goal of "humanitarian intervention" is a longstanding "go-to" rationale for waging war. (Comparing the enemy to Hitler is also popular with war-makers.) And it is one traditionally embraced and supported by supposedly "anti-war" progressives. Indeed, Bill Clinton's bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 was sold to the public as just this type of "humanitarian" intervention.

Yet, even when these sorts of humanitarian interventions are launched out of a genuine desire to stop violence, end human rights abuses, and save lives, they rarely achieve any of these goals. If anything, bombing civilians in an effort to save them tends to make matters worse.

As blogger and anti-war activist, David Swanson writes of the Iraq War in his 2010 self-published book, War is a Lie, 
Rather than "spreading freedom" with bombs and guns, what would have been wrong with spreading knowledge? If learning leads to the development of democracy, why not spread education? Why not provide funding for children's health and schools, instead of melting the skin off children with white phosphorous? (96)

Glenn Greenwald, writing at The Intercept.org ("U.S. 'Humanitarian' Bombing of Iraq: A Redundant Presidential Ritual," 08/08/14) concurs, pointing out the historical repetition of the so-called "humanitarian" war. He writes:

"Humanitarianism" is the pretty packaging in which all wars...are wrapped, but it is almost never the actual purpose. There are often numerous steps the U.S. could take to advance actually [sic] humanitarian goals, but those take persistence and resources, and entail little means of control, and are thus usually ignored in favor of blowing things and people up with Freedom Bombs.

Finally, the utter hypocrisy implicit in the very concept of a "humanitarian intervention" is, again, worth noting. Quite simply, if the United States truly desires to be the exalted "Cop of the World," then we cannot pick and choose which victims we save. We cannot, within the span of the same week, bankroll Israel's latest horrific onslaught of the Palestinians, but claim the Kurds are somehow more worthy of our help.

Is the crisis in Gaza not deserving of "humanitarian intervention"? Where are the "targeted airstrikes" and "precision bombings" over Israel? (Cue anti-Semitism accusations in five, four, three...)

The rank hypocrisy of the American military empire--wherein we strategically pick and choose which atrocities to condemn and which to condone as if the globe is one giant chessboard--reminds me of my favorite line in Stanley Kubrick's classic film, Dr. Strangelove. "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here!" declares Peter Sellers's U.S. President. "This is the war room!"

In the end, as Kubrick as well as Catch-22 author, Joseph Heller observed, all war amounts to little more than such contradictory absurdities.

War--whether it takes the traditional form of ground-soldiers and tanks, or that of modern high-tech weaponry like drones and "precision" bombings--is never a force for good. It does not save or "liberate" citizens, no matter how oppressed they may be.

This is not to suggest we do nothing to squelch the very real and deadly violence carried out by ISIS. But to insist, as so many do, that our only conceivable options are one of two polar extremes--War and Passivity-- constitutes an abysmal failure of imagination. Indeed, it is a damning indictment of civilized man--and so-called human "progress"--when war and mass killing are deemed our only acceptable means of resolving international conflicts.

Albert Einstein put it best. "War cannot be humanized," he said. "It can only be abolished."

Monday, August 4, 2014

Striking Market Basket Workers Rally Behind CEO

The actions of Market Basket workers in the last two weeks have been nothing short of remarkable. They have single-handedly--without any union support--shutdown the Massachusetts-based grocery store chain. Like last year's fast-food worker strikes, and the growing "Fight for $15" campaign, the Market Basket walkout is another encouraging sign that low-wage workers have finally reached their limit.

Employees at Market Basket stores in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Biddeford, Maine are striking in protest of CEO and family heir, Arthur T. Demoulas's ouster. In the latest escalation of a decades-long family feud between Demoulas and his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas over company ownership, Arthur T. ("Artie T." as Market Basket employees affectionately refer to him) was forced out of the family business in a corporate ouster last month.

The Demoulas brothers are heirs to the Market Basket franchise, which originally opened in Lowell, Mass., as Demoulas Super Market in 1917. Market Basket is known throughout Massachusetts and New Hampshire for its low prices.

The Biddeford store, which opened last summer, was originally intended to be the first of many in Maine. However, the strike has put any plans for additional stores on hold, indefinitely. Striking workers at all 71 Market Basket locations are encouraging customers to boycott the stores until the situation is resolved.

(Given the lack of union involvement, the protest at Market Basket cannot, technically, be considered an actual "strike." Regardless, many employees are refusing to work until their demands are met--which is essentially the same concept as a labor strike. As such, I use the word "strike" here loosely.)

Market Basket associates now worry their worker benefits--which include profit-sharing options, regular bonuses, and generous sick leave/vacation time--may be in danger. These benefits--which are highly uncommon in the retail industry--are not limited to full-time employees. Part-time workers are eligible for them, as well.

But beyond what some may perceive as motivations of purely personal self-interest, Market Basket workers want to retain their boss because he is, by all accounts, a really great guy.

"Artie T. is a man of integrity," Pat Berry, one of the striking workers at the Biddeford store, told me. "He is a humble leader who takes care of his employees."

Berry is clearly not the only one who thinks so. In fact, nobody seems to have anything bad to say about Demoulas.

Instead, I heard repeated stories of him visiting sick workers in the hospital, of attending funerals for employees or their families, and, on happier occasions, watching associates graduate from high school or college. During the Biddeford store's grand opening about a year ago, Berry recalled, it took Demoulas a full hour to walk from the outside ceremony to the inside of the store because he wanted to personally shake hands with every single person present.

Many of the striking workers held signs that read, "Bring back our 'Daddy,'" referring to Demoulas. Another stated, "Arthur T. is for MB & you and me." A number of workers talked of Market Basket as a "family."

To be certain, Demoulas seems like a relic from a bygone era: A sincere, compassionate boss who actually cares about his employees. Indeed, a growing body of evidence suggests most professional managers today are, quite literally, psychopaths. At a time when the average corporate CEO makes 330 times the average worker, according to a 2013 study by the AFL-CIO's Executive Paywatch, it is not hard to see why Demoulas is so loved.

As recent story in the Boston Globe (07/31/2014) notes:

The employee rallies on behalf of Arthur T. constitute an extraordinary show of support for a multimillionaire chief executive in an era when most corporate workers barely know their CEOs and would be loath to risk their jobs on behalf of top executives.

But here is what the corporate media won't tell you: The workers are winning.

Last week, Market Basket's co-chief executives warned it would start laying off striking employees who do not return to work by Monday, Aug. 4. The store is hemorrhaging millions of dollars a day, especially in wasted food. Threats of job-losses--however real--aside, this means the walkouts are having an effect. The Market Basket workers have successfully disrupted business as usual. The corporate chieftains are, predictably, angry.

"On their side the workers had only the Constitution," Mother Jones wrote. "The other side had bayonets."

While I would personally like to see the rallying workers take their demands even further--like pushing for worker ownership of the Market Basket stores, for instance--the protests are nonetheless interesting to watch unfold. Taken alongside the "Fight for $15" campaign, they represent yet another sign Americans are fed-up with low-pay, increased hours for decreased benefits, hyper-corporatization, and even, in some cases, capitalism itself.

Upton Sinclair's The Jungle remains the ultimate muckraking expose of the soul-crushing plight of the immigrant working-class in the unsanitary Chicago slaughterhouses. While the book became best known for its revealing, insider account of the lax health regulations rampant in turn-of-the-century industrial America, The Jungle is first and foremost a searing expose of the social injustice inherent in capitalism.

Sinclair writes of the plight of the meat factory workers:

Here is a population, low-class and mostly foreign, hanging always on the verge of starvation and dependent for its opportunities of life upon the whim of men every bit as brutal and unscrupulous as the old-time slave drivers; under such circumstances, immorality is exactly as inevitable, and as prevalent, as it is under the system of chattel slavery.

Solidarity forever!

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Monday, July 28, 2014

In Defense of Cutler (Sort of...)

Eliot Cutler. Photo from the Bangor Daily News.

Maine independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler should not drop out of the race. Frankly, I find all calls for him to do so--primarily coming from the Maine Democratic Party and liberal voters--highly anti-democratic.

A recent MPBN report on the candidates'  campaign finances ("Viability of Cutler Campaign Questioned in Wake of Finance Reports," 7/23/2014), finds Cutler trailing Republican incumbent Paul LePage, and Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud, with only $527,000 on hand. Michaud, meanwhile, is leading with more than $1 million, with LePage following close behind, with a little more than $900,000, according to the report.

The independently-wealthy Cutler is largely self-financing his campaign--a fact MPBN reporter, A.J. Higgins makes the focus of the story. In the warped logic of our money-driven political system, Higgins and other local media pundits are using Cutler's comparative lack of campaign cash to further justify calls for him to drop out of the three-way race.

Higgins goes on to raise fears that Cutler will "take away votes," from Michaud (as if the latter candidate is somehow entitled to them) and, thus, "spoil" the governor's race. This accusatory word, "spoiler," holds a unique place in the U.S. political lexicon in that it applies exclusively to third-party candidates. It is the same asinine, discriminatory accusation Democrats continue to hold over Ralph Nader for allegedly "costing" Al Gore the 2000 presidential election.

The truth, of course, is that Gore won that election. It was the conservative-led Supreme Court, in refusing to allow the Florida vote recount to continue, that essentially anointed George W. Bush president.

But, as is often the case in the contemporary world of corporate politics, if voters are fed a false talking-point enough times, most of them come to accept it as true. Besides, why blame the real culprits for a stolen presidential election when you can just blame the long-admired consumer advocate who just happens to be the only candidate talking about corporate crime and single-payer health care?

Thus, this notion that third-party challengers to the corporate two-party duopoly are "spoilers" for the "real" candidate (i.e. the Democrat) persists in the minds' of voters and has carried over to the state-level. As a result, the rage--and that is the only accurate word to describe it--that Maine Democrats display toward Cutler is not much different from that which they hold for Nader.

Cutler, to his credit, says he is giving "zero thought--maybe less than zero, if that's possible--to getting out of this race." He notes, likewise, he has been forced to largely fund his own campaign given how severely Maine's election laws are stacked against third-party and independent candidates. Those same laws are the reason why the Maine Green Party is not running a gubernatorial candidate this year.

Let me be absolutely clear: I am not a Cutler supporter.

In fact, I find Cutler, overall, to be only slightly less conservative than LePage. He supports charter schools and merit-based-pay for teachers. He is anti-union. He talks of "reforming" welfare. His previous career as a corporate lobbyist and his general ties to business are worrisome. And, in his previous bid for governor in 2010, both Cutler and LePage cited New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as a politician they admire.

In fact, Cutler is not all that different from Sen. Angus King: Socially liberal (i.e. they don't hate gays and minorities) and fiscally conservative. But, like King, Cutler does not challenge the fundamental workings of the economy, foreign policy or capitalism. Though both claim to be "Independent," each would fit right in with either the Democrats or the Republicans. (In fact, King may be headed to the GOP himself come November, depending on which way the political winds blow.)

As such, neither King nor Cutler are truly good examples of third-party candidates, which traditionally have operated outside both the two-party structure, and its corporatist ideology.  

That said, Cutler is by all indications not as extreme as LePage. He is clearly an intelligent, articulate adult, unlike the bullish, tantrum-inclined man-child currently representing the state. I do not think we would need to worry about a Gov. Cutler telling the NAACP to "kiss my butt," or making vulgar jokes about Vaseline to his opponents.

But I prefer to stick to the issues. Character traits and personality differences are best left to the cable-news networks to quibble over. While Cutler--and Michaud, for that matter--may not be as openly rude and hostile to the poor, welfare recipients or the unemployed as LePage has been, the two of them would pursue the same corporatist policies.

To that end, it is largely irrelevant who is elected governor in November. Strange as it is to be quoting George Will, the conservative syndicated columnist was correct when he claimed, in 2008, that elections are not about "whether elites shall rule, but which elite."

So, why am I standing up for Eliot Cutler if I do not even really support him, you ask? Because, unlike most liberals, I believe in every candidate's constitutional right to run for office--whether or not I agree with them ideologically. That is kinda the whole point of free speech, in fact.

Beyond that, I have this crazy idea that more candidates--and, thus, a wider range of discussion, debate, and choice--is actually a good thing for democracy. And why stop with just three candidates? I would like to see four, five, six...hell, ten, 15 or even 25 candidates from different parties on the ballot. Indeed, the U.S. remains stubbornly antiquated as the only industrialized democracy in the world that restricts its political choices to two parties. The fact that those two parties have become virtually indistinguishable in recent decades does not help matters.

If we utilized a ranked-choice or instant runoff voting system as many other countries do, not only would it create more room for a wider diversity of candidates, it would also negate the absurd "spoiler" argument as it would level the political playing-field. Such a system is not as "impossible" to achieve as one may think. Portland already elects its mayor via a ranked-choice ballot. Why not merely expand the procedure to Maine's statewide and Legislative elections?

Maine Democrats are, naturally, not too enthused about this idea. When I contacted Maine Speaker of the House Mark Eves earlier this year about the issue of ranked-choice voting, his assistant was adamant it is not something his party intends to pursue. In fact, the minute I said the words, "ranked-choice" she began yelling, "No! No! No!"

Adopting a ranked-choice voting system, Eves's spokesperson told me, would "ultimately be up to the people."

"But," she added, "it would never work if you didn't have a viable candidate."

Ummm... OK...

Whether the people the Speaker has answering the phones truly understand how ranked-choice voting works or have simply been instructed to stick to tired talking points of "viable" candidates, is not entirely clear.

I had a much less hostile--albeit briefer--conversation with Michaud's Communications Coordinator, Lizzy Reinholt. While she assured me Michaud, as governor, would remain invested in "opening Maine's electoral system to Democrats, Republicans, and Independents," restructuring the state's election system is, nonetheless, something he would approach with caution. Reinholt said Michaud would be particularly concerned about "the price-tag" such a restructuring would entail. She repeatedly stated such a "conversation" about IRV would have to be "serious," as if suggesting there is something inherently "non-serious" about the subject.

Clearly, the biggest hurdle to any sort of electoral reform in Maine--or nationally--is the Democratic Party.

This is ironic, given that it was the Dems' own candidate, milquetoast Libby Mitchell, who "spoiled" the race--to use their own word--in 2010 and got LePage elected in the first place. She received 19 percent of the vote. All the accusations that Cutler is "washed-up," and "incompetent" ignore the fact that he came within 200 votes of becoming governor.

Here is the takeaway: If Michaud is threatened by Cutler's campaign, the solution is not to disparage, demean, and otherwise denounce him into dropping out of the race. Rather, it means Michaud has to work all that much harder to convince voters that he--and not Cutler--is truly the best person to represent Maine.

But the Democrats are not interested in hard work. They think they are entitled to government office simply by virtue of being an Establishment party. Case in point is Nation reporter and standard-bearer liberal, Eric Alterman. In the Nader documentary, An Unreasonable Man, he derides third-party voters as "stupid," and "people who know nothing about politics."

But until we truly open our electoral system to a range of candidates and parties, I tip my hat to anybody who attempts to challenge that Establishment.

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Monday, July 14, 2014

World War II: Not so Good After All

One of the results of becoming politically conscious is you come to realize 95 percent of what you were taught in history class is simply not true. Columbus did not actually discover America; Abraham Lincoln's allegedly singular role in "ending slavery" is considerably overblown; the Founding Fathers were largely uninterested in democracy; and World War II was hardly the "good war."

Of course, this last one presupposes that any war can be considered "good," "great" or otherwise just. Certainly, there may be times in human history when a nation must resort to military force to defend itself from an invading country that cannot be reasoned with or appeased.

But once you start labeling certain wars with superlative adjectives (World War I & II, The Civil War, The Revolutionary War), it creates a false concept that some forms of mass slaughter are, ultimately, acceptable. The so-called "bad" wars, meanwhile (Vietnam, the Iraq War, Granada, Haiti, Cuba, the Spanish-American War, to name just a few), were not, we are told, so much "wrong" or "immoral" in terms of their justifications. ("We meant well...") These wars were fought for the "right reasons," the wars' architects assure us. They were just poorly executed.

World War II, more so than any other major military conflict, has taken on mythic status in American culture. Acclaimed movies like Saving Private Ryan, Schindler's List, and Flags of Our Fathers along with realistic (and disturbingly popular) video games like Call of Duty have further reinforced WWII's celebrated status.

Bruce Russett, professor of political science at Yale, sums up the war's unassailable status. "Participation in the war against Hitler remains almost wholly sacrosanct, nearly in the realm of theology," he writes.

Whatever criticisms of twentieth-century American policy are put forth, United States participation in World War II remains almost entirely immune. According to our national mythology, that was a "good war," one of the few for which the benefits clearly outweighed the costs. 

Case in point is the Brick Store Museum in my hometown of Kennebunk. The museum's featured exhibit of the summer is called "Vitamin V: How Food Fought the Second World War." In addition to the exhibit itself, local singer/songwriter, Monica Grabin performed a set of shows at the museum featuring folk songs from the two respective world wars.

Grabin--a dyed-in-the-wool liberal who boasts on her website of having Democratic Maine State Rep. Emily Cain join her on-stage to sing a song last year--regularly performs these sorts of "historical" folk shows. While there is certainly no debating Grabin's talent and musical prowess, her musical history lessons are not altogether different from your high school teacher's. Hers is more a sort of "pop" history, not unlike what one might find on The History Channel. She reinforces all the commonly believed myths surrounding WWI and II, while leaving the very notion of the moral legitimacy of these wars as less than an afterthought.

"But wasn't World War II fought for all the right reasons?" you ask. "Weren't we fighting to save democracy from fascism? Besides, wasn't Hitler just innately evil?"

Certainly, I am not suggesting the U.S. should have remained passive while hundreds of thousands of innocents were sent to death camps. And, while I am not a fan of labeling any human being as necessarily "evil"--or for that matter, especially "good"--there is no denying Hitler and the Nazis' acts were indisputably heinous.

That said, it is no great breach of morality--and certainly not a form of "anti-Semitism" as some may reactively suggest--to question the motives behind U.S. involvement in the so-called "good war."

Indeed, it is difficult to make the case America was fighting for any sort of moral high-ground in WWII (i.e. to "save the Jews") when it deliberately kept half of its own citizens--African Americans--segregated, cut-off from mainstream white society, and otherwise politically, economically, and socially disempowered.

As historian Howard Zinn writes in A People's History of the United States, "...blacks, looking at anti-Semitism in Germany, might not see their own situation in the U.S. as much different" (p. 409).

Ironically, black Americans who did enlist to fight overseas found themselves fully segregated from the white soldiers throughout their training and deployment. And this is to say nothing of the internment of thousands of Japanese-Americans at home.

Hmmm... I wonder how many songs Grabin sang about these racist double-standards?

The fact is, in 1939 while Hitler was rapidly conquering parts of Europe,  Americans were in no rush to enter a second world war. Not only had the devastating economic impacts of the Great Depression generated a strong sense of isolationism among Americans. But they also created a widespread--and conveniently ignored in high school history textbooks--feeling that capitalism had utterly failed.

While Roosevelt's New Deal programs helped stave off this attitude, American involvement in WWII was the real clincher. It was, to put it bluntly, a war to save capitalism. Saving the Jews, protecting democracy, defeating fascism--all of these concerns were secondary to maintaining Western capitalism and ensuring the United States' global supremacy.

As Leon Trotsky observed at the dawn of WWII:

The present war--the second imperialist war--is not an accident; it does not result from the will of this or that dictator. It was predicted long ago. It derived its origin inexorably from the contradiction of international capitalist interest.... The United States must "organize" the world. History is bringing humanity face to face with the volcanic eruption of American Imperialism.

Indeed, after the war, only two nations emerged as the indisputable super-powers of the globe: The United States and the Soviet Union. Less than 50 years later, the latter country ceased to exist, leaving America as the world's sole military and corporate empire.

The post-war era also marked a profound change in America's very identity, as the country shifted from a production-based economy, to one centered on consumption. Public relations pioneers, Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann utilized Sigmund Freud's controversial theories of psychoanalysis to manipulate public opinion, creating false needs and desires that could only be appeased through material consumption, and otherwise "manufacture consent," to use Lippmann's term. The very role of the individual dramatically changed during this time from one of citizen to consumer.

Indeed, one could argue all the various crises that currently plague our democracy--the dominating role of the corporate state; the legal pretense of corporations as "people"; the corroding influence of money in politics; the death of the liberal class and with it, the Democratic Party; the rise of the military-industrial-complex; the overconsumption that is ravaging the planet; the climate crisis, etc--were set in motion during the post-WWII years.

And here I thought we won the war. Seems more like a victory for the corporate state than the American people, if you ask me.

Finally, even if one concedes that World War II was "inevitable," that war with the Nazis was simply "unavoidable," nothing Hitler's armies did justified what was arguably the conflict's most egregious war crime: The use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

All historical evidence suggests the U.S. would have easily defeated Japan without the use of nuclear weapons. In fact, Japan was on the verge of surrendering before the U.S. dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, on Aug. 6, 1945. And the U.S. was well aware of Japan's impending surrender since they had, by that time, cracked their communication codes.

No, America's use of the first nuclear weapon was less about defeating Japan than about demonstrating military supremacy to the world--to the Russians, especially. As a result, some 100,000 Japanese were horribly killed. Thousands more slowly died from radiation poisoning.

We study history in order to learn from the mistakes of the past, so that they may not be repeated in the future. But how are we to truly learn from the past when so much of what we think we know about it amounts to propaganda, distortion, and outright lies?

More importantly, we need to move beyond this childish concept that some wars are "good,"--even "noble" or "desirable." War is always a choice. Often the choice to go to war is not made by the American people themselves, but by a small, zealous cabal of corporatists fighting for profits, interests and motivations that have no impact on the rest of us. But war is a choice, nonetheless. And it is rarely a wise one.

"War is by definition," said Zinn during a speech titled "Three Holy Wars," "the indiscriminate killing of huge numbers of people for ends which are uncertain.... The means are horrible, certainly. The ends, uncertain."

Monday, July 7, 2014

Capitalism and its Liberal Apologists

French economist, Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Sinclair Lewis, in his 1920 satirical novel, Main Street, uses the characters of Vida and Carol to illustrate the difference between liberals and radicals. Lewis, a socialist and fierce critic of the dehumanizing effects of Industrialization, wrote the novel as a scathing send-up of conservative small-town America.

Carol Kennicott, the novel's rebellious, free-spirited protagonist, moves with her more conventionally-minded husband from the city to the rural country town of Gopher Prairie, a fictional town modeled after Lewis's own hometown of Sauk Centre, Minnesota. Much of the novel's loosely-structured plot focuses on Carol's inept, at times perhaps naive, attempts to influence the uncultured, smug conservatism of Gopher Prairie with her progressive, feminist beliefs.

Ironically, Carol finds the greatest impediment to her efforts to "modernize" the town come, not from its conservative, middle-class residents, but from comfortable, unimaginative liberals like Vida. Vida criticizes Carol for trying to "work outside" the system with "foreign ideas."

The narrator explains:

Vida was, and always would be, a reformer, a liberal. She believed that things could be excitingly altered, but that things-in-general were comely and kind and immutable. Carol was...a revolutionist, a radical, and therefore possessed of "constructive ideas," which only the destroyer can have, since the reformer believes that all the essential constructing has already been done.

This, according to Lewis, is what separates liberals from radicals. Liberals--as currently embodied by the Democratic Party--prefer to tinker around the edges, while leaving the overarching structures of society (capitalism, corporate power, wealth inequality, class-struggle, etc.) intact.

Indeed, throughout history, it has always been the socialists, anarchists, communists, labor activists, anti-war protesters, radicals and revolutionaries, that have brought about fundamental democratic change in America.

Liberals in power merely adopt, co-opt, and water-down these ideas. Then they implement the second-rate versions and claim all the credit. (See: The Affordable Care Act as substitute for universal health care.) Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, unemployment, the five-day, 40-hour work week, child labor laws, free public education--all of these hallmarks of modern democratic society were born from the radical ranks of the Left. It was only through fierce, bloody, violent struggle that any of them were ever adopted by the power elite.

A popular bumper-sticker, erroneously attributing the development of earned-income benefits to Democrats, has it backwards. It should read: "Got Social Security? Thank a Socialist."

As the late Peter Camejo, Ralph Nader's 2004 vice presidential running-mate observes in the documentary film, An Unreasonable Man,

Every major progressive law in the United States--whether it's the right of women to vote, Social Security, rights of the labor party... Never [did] any of these major proposals come out of the two parties. They always came from the grassroots, from the people. And there were people who led those struggles who were independent and not functioning as agents of these two parties who were always called names and suffered personal abuses...

Which brings me to capitalism's latest liberal apologist, Thomas Piketty.

Piketty's bestselling book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a rarity in the publishing industry. A tome of economic theory, replete with intricately designed graphs, and nearly 100 pages of footnotes, it is, suffice to say, not the sort of book Americans are typically clamoring to read--especially in the summertime. Yet the book has spent 12 weeks on the New York Times's bestseller list.

Clearly, the book's success illustrates Americans' increasing impatience with the sour economy, their lack of faith in so-called "free-market" economics--perhaps even in the institution of capitalism itself. To wit, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center poll, 49 percent of young Americans ages 18-29 have a much more favorable view of socialism than older respondents.

Yet the title of Piketty's book--a seeming nod to Karl Marx's similarly lengthy 1867 treatise, Capital or Das Kapital in its original German--presents a bit of false advertising. Not only does Piketty's book have precious little in common with its titular forebear (the book actually has nothing to do with the nature and social role of capital; its primary focus is income inequality), Piketty himself claims to have never read Marx's work.

Here is the takeaway: Piketty takes 577 pages to arrive at the conclusion that, contrary to the claims of both conservatives and liberals, "free-market" capitalism does not evenly spread the wealth around. There is no "trickle-down" effect where the massive wealth of the exalted "job creators" magically flows down to the middle and working classes.

But this is hardly news to most of us on the Left. In fact, I think it is safe to assume anyone who is reading this blog long ago arrived at the same conclusion. Robert Reich, Joseph Stiglitz, and Paul Krugman have been saying more or less the same thing for the last decade or more.

And therein lies the difference between Marx, Piketty, and the aforementioned economists. Marx's writings were driven by an urge to fundamentally change society by abolishing capitalism in favor of a more equitable system--Communism, specifically. Piketty, on the other hand, merely wants to "fix" capitalism's unequal distribution--to make it "work for everyone," so to speak.

Yet, as Marx correctly observes in Capital, capitalism's unequal distribution of wealth is not something that can be fixed. It is not a flaw in the system. It is, rather, the inevitable result of an inherently exploitative, unequal system that favors the wealthy owner-class over the working-class.

"The philosophers of our time have merely interpreted the world," Marx wrote. "The goal, however, is to change it."

This is not to say there is no value in Piketty's Capital. The writing is fairly straightforward and accessible, and he deserves credit for his persuasive research. But throughout the book Piketty remains the stereotypical "objective" academic, going to pains to give equal weight to "both sides" of the income inequality debate.

This bogus concept that professors and journalists should not have their own beliefs and opinions on what they write about is the great disease of both professions. It has rendered the universities and the press incapable of taking moral stands, of pointing out society's ills, and giving voice to the disenfranchised. Howard Zinn was correct: You cannot be neutral on a moving train.

We cannot afford to tinker around the edges of the corporate state. We need a complete system overhaul. And liberal reformists will not help us achieve it.

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Monday, June 30, 2014

The Corporate Welfare State Revisited

In early 2013, I wrote a piece titled "Welcome to the Corporate Welfare State," which generated considerable reader response. It remains the most-viewed post on this blog to date, with close to 250 views.

In the post I pointed out that corporate welfare--in the form of bailouts, subsidies, handouts, loopholes, tax-breaks and Tax Increment Financing (TIFs)--far outpaces traditional or individual welfare.

(Contrary to Maine Republican Gov. Paul LePage's recent statements, Social Security is not welfare. It is an earned-income benefit that workers pay into throughout their working-lives.)

For instance, in 2012 alone the government spent $205 billion on corporate subsidies according to the Cato Institute. Compare that to the roughly $59 billion spent on individual welfare programs annually. In the words of U.S. Uncut co-founder, Carl Gibson, this means taxpayers spent "six times more on giving free money to companies making record profits than we did to making sure the people who were laid off by these corporations can still feed their families" ("Cut Corporate Welfare, Not the Safety Net," Huffington Post, 01/07/13).

He adds, the $205 billion in "corporate goodies" was "okay with [House] Speaker [John] Boehner, but $60 billion in Hurricane Sandy relief apparently wasn't."

Yet this disparity is almost never highlighted in media discussions of welfare.

Instead, most media "debates" on welfare remain myopically focused on individual welfare recipients (whom Ronald Reagan once callously dubbed "Welfare Queens"), typically thought of as single mothers, immigrants or people of color--even though actual welfare statistics dispel this stereotype. Statistically, black and white Americans take advantage of welfare benefits at nearly comparable rates.

Then again, most of our news comes from networks owned by the very corporations living high on the government teet (tax-dodger G.E.-NBC, for instance). So it makes sense they would not want to shine too much light on just how much they are costing American taxpayers.

Case in point is a recent front page story in the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram highlighting a recent poll on Mainers' views on welfare ("In Maine, a stark divide in attitudes about welfare," 6/23/2014).

The poll results are, frankly, nothing especially surprising or even newsworthy.

Conservative voters believe welfare "does more harm than good," and recipients "do not need the assistance and are taking advantage of the system." (The latter claim constitutes a wholly unsubstantiated accusation, which the story offers zero evidence to support.) Liberals, meanwhile, tend to be more supportive of welfare programs.

Overall, 46 percent of respondents claim welfare does "more harm than good," with a close 43 percent asserting the reverse.

Predictably, the nearly 1,700-word story by PPH staff writer Steve Mistler makes no mention of corporate welfare. The subject was not included in any of UNH's polling questions.

When I called UNH Survey Center director Andrew Smith to inquire why questions on corporate welfare were left out, he gave the telephonic equivalent of a shrug.

"It's not the kind of thing most voters think exists or see," he said.

But this logic is completely circular:

Voters are not knowledgeable about corporate welfare because the mainstream media--where the majority of Americans get their information about the world--rarely ever report on it. Reporters and editors, in turn, claim they do not cover the issue because their readers and viewers do not express concern over it. But how can they express concern over something they know nothing about...?

This is the same baseless excuse the corporate press use to exclude third-party candidates from their election coverage. There is a term for this deliberately selective sort of news coverage which intentionally leaves out major aspects of a story: Agenda-setting.

So, when are these behemoth corporations going to start working for a living? When will they pull themselves up by their own bootstraps? Most of them do not pay taxes as it is.

Thirty Fortune 500 companies routinely avoid paying any federal income taxes according to a 2011 report by the group Citizens for Tax Justice. Of the companies scrutinized, 280 paid "only about half" their obligatory amount at the current 35 percent tax rate. These corporate tax-dodgers include Proctor & Gamble, DuPont, Verizon Wireless, Wells Fargo, General Electric, and weapons-manufacturer Honeywell International.

Additionally, it is impossible to talk about corporate welfare without bringing up the minimum wage, as the two issues go hand-in-hand. In essence, we as taxpayers are paying low-wage workers at Walmart, McDonald's, and Starbucks because their employers are too cheap to.

A recent study by the University of California Berkeley finds U.S. taxpayers dole out nearly $7 billion a year to fund the public assistance programs utilized by the majority of fast-food workers, most of whom subside on $8.94 an hour or less. The fast-food industry--which accounts for 44 percent of job growth since the Great Recession--is a multibillion dollar industry, with McDonald's alone boasting profits of $1.5 billion last year.

This is yet another form of corporate welfare. Fast-food franchises intentionally keep worker wages low while they reap the profits. This is not "free-market" capitalism in any way, shape or form. It is socialism for the rich.

Furthermore, these pervasive instances of corporate welfare completely undermine Friedmanites' utopian vision of an unregulated economy free of any government "distortions." Corporate welfare is the ultimate distortion. As Naomi Klein makes clear in her seminal 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, such a completely unfettered capitalist economy has never existed in any human society on its own. Free-market ideologues and Chicago School disciples have always had to install such an economy by violent force and repression (a la Pinochet's military coup of Chile in 1973).

Turns out Adam Smith's "Invisible Hand" is not so invisible after all.

Let's just call these perpetual attacks on welfare and the social safety net what they really are: a war against the poor.

Both Republicans and Democrats have their sights on privatizing Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. The great irony--and one of the chief reasons neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama have been successful with privatization efforts--is these so-called "entitlement" programs are actually extremely popular with Americans of all political persuasions. Conservatives may rant and rave against welfare programs in polls like the PPH's, falsely believing they are to blame for our country's fiscal woes. But when it comes to their personal Social Security checks or Medicare benefits, they suddenly change their tune. (Funny how that works out, isn't it?)

Frankly, I think polls like this one do more to reinforce the bogus narrative there is a supposedly irreconcilable ideological divide between congressional Democrats and Republicans. But if papers like the PPH insist on conducting these surveys, let's at least present both sides of the debate--you know, "objectivity" and all of that.

"Freeloading large corporations have taken too much for too long," writes Ralph Nader ("President Obama--Get Tough on Corporate Welfare," Huffington Post, 02/12/13).

He is right. Let's make corporate handouts an integral part of welfare discussions. Goldman Sachs, G.M., Bank of America and others are the true "Welfare Queens,"--not the single mother working three part-time low-wage jobs just so she can (barely) get by.

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Monday, June 23, 2014

Iraq War Redux

I stood outside the town hall in my hometown of Kennebunk on Friday holding a hastily scrawled sign that read, "DON'T ATTACK IRAQ (AGAIN)!" I stood there for about an hour.

I did this in response to President Barack Obama's announcement last week he will send some 300 "military advisers" to squelch the ever worsening violence in Iraq. This action may be followed by drone strikes.

I honestly expected more of an angry response than I received. As it is, only one person yelled at me as he drove by.

"We need to be there!" he shouted at me. There are a lot of things this country needs: Universal health care, jobs, free college education, forgiveness of student debt, a robust clean-energy program, democracy, etc. Another Middle Eastern war is not one of them.

Two passerby actually praised me. One middle-aged man assured me as he jogged by, "I'm with you in spirit!" whatever that means. I have never heard of protesting wars "in spirit" only, but, thanks... I guess.

And Kennebunk police chief, Robert MacKenzie (the town hall is across from the police station) approached me, read my sign, and walked away. Had he given me any trouble, I was fully prepared to present him with my "permit": A pocket-sized version of the U.S. Constitution.

Most people, however, simply drove by. A few, stopped at the adjacent traffic light, read my sign then quickly and uncomfortably looked away. I suppose if my sign had said something like, "Justice for Mary Tanner!" or "Death to Cancer!" I would have received more support.

War, of course, is itself a cancer upon the human race, though we tend not to think of it in such terms. It is, as George McGovern said about the Vietnam War, "[A] moral and political disaster--a terrible cancer eating away at the soul of our nation."

I am not so naive as to think my lone protest, ignored, as it mostly was in my yuppie, Bush-worshiping town, will have any discernible impact on the president's plans for resuming military conflict in Iraq--let alone halt those plans. This was merely my means of registering my dissent. I remain unwavering in my belief--contrary to the defeatist excuses of most liberals--that any form of dissent, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, matters.

"Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty," wrote Henry David Thoreau. "The obedient must be slaves."

Resuming military conflict in Iraq is a horrendous mistake. Most Americans, I believe, realize that.

It is the corporate news media--over a decade after their complicity in launching the Iraq War--that still needs convincing, however.

Indeed, in the last week the corporate networks have faithfully, and without irony or shame, trotted out the very same people--Dick Cheney, Tony Blair, Bill O' Reilly, Bill Kristol--that lied and deceived the public about "Weapons of Mass Destruction" to sell us the last Iraq debacle. One would think these people have lost any iota of credibility they may have once possessed on foreign policy matters.

As FAIR's (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting) Peter Hart observes in a recent blog post, "It's obviously quite revealing that these people are invited onto television at all--further proof... that there is no accountability for being so wrong in so many important ways" ("'Drawn Back into War' in Iraq," 6/18/2014).

Have we learned nothing?

George W. Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq left well over 100,000 Iraqis killed, thousands more injured, the country destroyed, and opened massive, perhaps irreparable rifts between Iraqi factions--most notably the Sunnis and the Shiites which, contrary to popular perception, have not always been at each other's throats as they have been in recent years.

We left Iraq shattered. And now our proverbial chickens have come home to roost.

Arguments over whether Iraq would have been "better off with Saddam Hussein" in power are hypocritically hollow. Our collective historical amnesia--if not outright ignorance--makes us forget who allowed Hussein to come to power in the first place: The United States. Any WMD Hussein may have once possessed were those we sold to him during the Iraq-Iran war.

Hussein's replacement, the U.S.-installed, Nouri al-Maliki has proven just as morally degenerate. We merely replaced one dictator with another. Then we shamelessly and patronizingly chastise the citizens of Iraq for the turmoil we caused. I guess they simply did not want democracy enough, we shrug.

"They who have put out the people's eyes," John Milton famously wrote, "reproach them for their blindness."

And can we please end this pervasive myth that unmanned predator drones are somehow "safer," more "precise" killing machines?

Maine's U.S. Senator Angus King deserves a share of the blame for spreading this nonsense. Last year he told MSNBC's Joe Scarborough drones are "a lot more civilized" compared to 19th century methods of warfare. Except I can think of something even more civilized than drones: Not going to war in the first place.

"I think it's actually a more humane weapon," said King, "because it can be targeted to specific enemies and specific people."

Here is how "precise" drones are: The U.S. military counts every "military-aged male" within the vicinity of a drone strike to be an "enemy combatant," whether or not they actually are. This rationale, as revealed in a 2012 New York Times expose ("Secret 'Kill List' Proves a Test of Obama's Principles and Will," 5/29/2012), is based on the assumption that any civilian who happens to be within the general proximity of a known al-Qaeda operative is "probably up to no good."

In other words, if you are an American reporter covering the conflict in, say Syria or Pakistan, and you just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, as far as the U.S.. government is concerned, you are an "enemy combatant." That is how "accurate" drone strikes are.

We cannot squelch sectarian violence by bombing the hell out of people. Our renewed military presence in Iraq will only further inflame hostilities, anti-U.S. sentiments, and cause more innocents to die. It is the arrogance of imperialism that makes America believe it is the exalted, self-appointed policeman of the globe. Al-Qaeda was not present in Iraq until our 2003 invasion.

The Iraq War was the costliest, bloodiest, most morally reprehensible foreign policy blunder in my lifetime. I opposed it then--I oppose it now. It was a war of choice based on lies and deception. To date, none of the war's architects have faced criminal accountability for their crimes against humanity. These contemptible charlatans--most of whom have never served in combat themselves--should not be on television urging us to go to war again. They should be in prison.

I refuse to sit back and passively watch my government repeat the crimes of the recent past. I have learned and experienced too much in the last ten years to remain silent.

If that means standing alone, so be it.