Monday, May 28, 2012

The Courage to Resist

War is on our minds this Memorial Day weekend, even if that is not the implicit theme of the various parades and observances. Yet, through the long weekend’s honoring of soldiers and military veterans, we are essentially condoning the wars they fought in.

The familiar refrain repeated during the Memorial Day observances is the veterans honored died “fighting for our freedom.” This facile assertion, so readily accepted even by those who oppose war in general, flies in direct contrast to the myriad legislative rollbacks of our right to privacy, due process, and to peaceful assembly to name just a few. Whether any of the United States’ major wars (not to mention, our current ones) have truly made us freer as a nation is, indeed, a debatable point.

Often overlooked in the Memorial Day festivities are the soldiers who refused to fight. These are the conscientious objectors who did not agree with the war, with killing in general, or who did enlist only to later regret their involvement.

My grandfather, David Dario Marletta, was one such conscientious objector. He spent World War II in an Italian prison because he refused to fight in Mussolini’s army. He emerged at the war’s end, according to my grandmother, extremely weak and emaciated. He and my grandmother emigrated to Scotland, and later America, shortly after.

My grandfather (“Nonno” to me as a young boy) was a lifelong pacifist. While he despised Mussolini’s fascist regime, he later claimed, anecdotally, he would not have fought alongside the Allies, either. My grandfather hated war, and would not even entertain the thought of killing another human being—no matter how “noble” or “righteous” the cause.

My grandfather’s story is similar to that of Aaron Hughes, an Iraq war veteran who, since returning from battle, has come to regret his military service.

Hughes now works with the peace group, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and took part in the NATO summit protests last week in Chicago. During the protest, Hughes and a group of veterans-turned-peace-activists publicly returned their service medals as a show of their opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was profiled in a recent episode of Democracy Now!

Hughes served in Iraq and Kuwait and was in the Illinois National Guard from 2000-2006. In the piece, he explains how he slowly became disillusioned with the Iraq war, and the overall “War on Terror.” Hughes recalls the presence of young children on the Iraq-Kuwait border who would steal supplies and food from the U.S. military convoys that would travel through. Initially, Hughes thought, “These are the kids I’m going to help. These are the kids I’m here to help build a democracy for.”

But as the war waged on, he was dismayed to find the children did not abandon the post. They remained in desperate need of supplies. That was when Hughes began to doubt the war’s stated humanitarian intentions.

He tells host Amy Goodman:

[O]n my last convoy out of Iraq I watched my squad leader…cry. He kept saying, “What have we been doing?” That’s something that haunts me every day. What have we been doing? I ask that of everyone, seriously. What have we been doing? A decade-long war, what have we been doing? And the individuals that have to carry those mistakes on a daily basis are the communities in Afghanistan and the service members, that then return to a society with…high unemployment and very little care for them when they return.

Hughes goes on to note, despite the lofty rhetoric of “democracy” and “liberating civilians,” he and his fellow soldiers spent precious little training time focusing on such themes. He says:

…We’re trying to win the hearts and minds when that’s something the military has never been trained to do. When I went through basic training, I never once learned about democracy… When I got deployed to Iraq, we got about a 24-hour briefing on the culture of Iraq. You know people spend years studying democracy, studying political science, studying different cultures, in order to have a better understanding. We spend nine weeks learning how to kill people. And that’s the reality. That’s what you’re asked and that’s what you’re trained to do.

There are then, always a handful of soldiers, like Aaron Hughes, who find the courage to resist. Or, conscientious objectors, like my grandfather, who refuse to fight in the first place. These few understand that no political rationale, no threats to world security or supposed stockpiles of dangerous weapons, can justify the immorality of war. They understand, as Chris Hedges explains in his bestselling War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, that war “dominates culture, distorts memory, corrupts language and infects everything around it.”

During this weekend’s Memorial Day observations, we will be reminded of the bravery and heroism of the men and women of the armed forces. I would argue it also takes a certain kind of moral bravery not to fight, not to take another human’s life. We should honor those Americans as well. 

Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War hurl their service medals at the NATO protest in Chicago.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Internet's Vast Wasteland

It is nearly impossible to avoid hearing about Facebook in the news these days. The popular social media website’s much anticipated public offering is expected to be one of the most lucrative ever.

But not everyone is buying the hype, it turns out. A recent Associated Press-CNBC survey indicates half of Americans view Facebook as a fad, rather than the “revolutionary” communication site it has been championed as. The Portland Press Herald conducted an online poll asking how often users log in to the site. Forty-three percent responded “Never. I’m not on it.”

Facebook is admittedly infantile. As a member of the “Millennial” generation, I’m supposed to embrace the website (along with Twitter, YouTube and the like) as my peers do. I will be honest: I was initially excited about Facebook, a few years back. I thought social networking would allow me an additional vehicle (as if I really need another one) to sound off on my personal politics, or share relevant news stories with friends.

Yeah…I quickly discovered Facebook is not really meant for such civic-minded ambitions. Or rather, the majority of Facebook users do not particularly care to use the site for such ends. Facebook, like so much on the Internet, primarily caters to mainstream, low-brow tastes and sensibilities. Move over TV—the Internet is the new “vast wasteland.”

Alas, here is a sampling of what passes for insight on Facebook: (All postings, including grammatical mistakes, are reprinted verbatim.)

USER “D”: See that kite, yeah I’m flyin it.

USER “J”: I cried a little bit at the end of Community. But only a little bit.

USER “C”: Waking up from a nap w/ two adorable labs jumping on you, priceless #relaxing

You get the idea.

At least the Egyptians have found more productive uses for Facebook. Americans, unfortunately, prefer to drown in the inane minutia of insipid factoids and “hey!-look-at-me!” narcissism. All brought to you by an antisocial, 28-year-old college dropout. I guess I am glad someone in my generation is doing well.

And it is not just Facebook. The entire Internet serves as one giant distraction. The Internet was supposed to herald an “Age of Information,”—a new Enlightenment era in which the traditional gatekeepers of information would be rendered irrelevant. (And where journalists, writers and musicians would see their work given away free of charge.) Information would finally be “free,” we were told by the techie utopists. No doubt there is a great deal of useful, educational value to the Internet, but it is routinely drowned out by celebrity news, time-wasting video-games, and the banal banter of social networking websites like Facebook.

Where earlier centuries were marked by information scarcity, Neil Postman explains in his prescient, though often overlooked, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, the twenty-first century is quickly being defined by information glut—and, as a result, information meaninglessness.

Postman labels the United States a “technopoly,” because he fears we have developed a one-sided, utopian view of all technology as a form of progress. We believe, naively according to Postman, that technology will be our savior—that there is no issue, or problem technology (be it the printing press, the steel mill, the personal computer or the iPhone) cannot solve for us. Technology, Postman fears, has become our new religion.

Yet has the progression of technology—the advent of television, computers and the Internet, in particular--made us more knowledgeable, informed citizens? Postman believes otherwise. He writes in regard to the invention of the telegraph:

“Here was information that rejected the necessity of interconnectedness, proceeded without context, argued for instancy against historical continuity, and offered fascination in place of complexity and coherence.”

“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys,” Henry David Thoreau famously observed, “which distract our attention from serious things…We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”     

Substitute Kim Kardashian, Lindsay Lohan, or “Snookie” for Princess Adelaide and it is clear just how prescient Thoreau’s warning was.

The Internet is already changing us in subtle though rapid ways. Already the point, click, and scan environment of the Internet has led to a significant decrease in reading for pleasure. Perhaps even more worrisome, Facebook has decimated the very concept of privacy. The government no longer needs to surveil us illegally. We willingly give up all our personal information ourselves. We have become a culture lost in screens.

There is a price to pay for all this addiction to technology. According to Greek mythology, the self-absorbed, Narcissus was so infatuated with himself he failed to recognize his own reflection in a pond. Narcissus became transfixed by the image, which, in a bit of homoeroticism not unusual to these tales, he believed to be another, beautiful man. In an attempt to reach out and touch his reflection, Narcissus plunged into the water and drowned. Narcissus’s name is believed to be derived from the Greek word “narke,” meaning “sleep,” or “numbness.”

Something to keep in mind the next time you log in to Facebook.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Judge Blocks NDAA Law

Click here to read my initial post on the National Defense Authorization Act.

And here for Chris Hedges' follow-up article on ("A Victory For All of Us," 5/18/2012).

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Generation Screwed: Millennials Confront Depressing Times

In The Sun Also Rises Ernest Hemingway chronicles the plight of the “Lost Generation.” These were the Americans who had fought in World War I, only to return physically and psychologically shattered, forever alienated from a nation they no longer felt a part of.

Now some have questioned whether my generation—the so-called “Millennials,” born around 1980---has become the new Lost Generation. The combined impact of the economic collapse, the burden of outrageous student loans, increased job competition from out of work Baby Boomers, and a general reluctance of companies to hire anyone has left young Americans feeling they may never get even so much as a taste of their slice of the American Dream.

According to a story in the Huffington Post (4/22/2012), one in two college graduates cannot find work. Those who can are underemployed and likely working at a low-skill service or retail job that does not utilize their education and pays little more than minimum wage.

I can certainly relate.

Last year at this time I was bagging groceries at the local Hannaford. While I was grateful for the little bit of money the job brought in (though, at part-time, I was ineligible for benefits), I felt, with my college education and master’s degree, like a failure. The situation is the same for most of my friends my age—all of whom have at least a bachelor’s degree. Most of them are unemployed. Those that do work are either underemployed, or can only get short-term contract jobs. Contract workers receive no benefits, no job security, and typically do not have union protection.

Welcome to the future of work. The traditional concept of holding one job after college for the duration of one’s working life—the route our parents, the Baby Boomer generation took, in other words—is over. In fact, experts predict my generation will not achieve the economic success and stability that our parents did.

Companies have essentially concluded employees are just another cost-cutting measure. Why spend all your money on 30 full-time employees, asks the miserly, penny-pinching manager, when you can run your business with, say ten and pocket the savings? And most nonprofits, having adopted the same shrewd, indifferent methods as businesses in order to stay competitive, are no different. They have become just as singularly obsessed with the bottom-line as their for-profit rivals.

“How does it feel,” Jello Biafra asks in the Dead Kennedy’s “Soup is Good Food,” “to be shit out our ass? And thrown in the cold like a piece of trash?”

Contrary to upbeat news reports of the economy’s supposed upturn, job growth in most states remains stagnant. My hometown of Portland, Maine is no exception. One cannot walk down Congress Street without being haggled by desperate looking, homeless beggars, looking for spare change. Many of them suffer from addiction or mental illness; others are just hard-working folks who fell on hard times. These people represent society’s most vulnerable.

But rather than getting the poor the help they need, Gov. Paul LePage and the state’s Republican legislature would rather grow their ranks, by passing an austerity budget that throws some 65,000 Mainers off of Medicare.

LePage received thundering applause at the Republican state convention when he callously chided welfare recipients to “Get off the couch and get a job.”  One would think LePage, who is constantly trumpeting his own struggle with childhood poverty, would sympathize with the plight of the poor. Instead, he and his budget-cutting conservative cronies make baseless claims about the dependency-inducing effects of so-called “entitlement” programs.

Republicans nationally, meanwhile, want to protect bloated, wasteful Pentagon funding at the expense of Medicare, Medicaid and disability compensation programs. Such a brazen show of warped, unjustifiable priorities cannot help but remind one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s profound words: “A nation that continues, year after year, to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

King uttered these words 45 years ago. What does it say about our unshakable thirst for war and empire that they still apply today?

Rather than focusing on job creation or boosting the economy, House Republicans remain singularly obsessed with the federal deficit. Instead of addressing the immediate, short-term relief struggling Americans so desperately need, budget-slashing conservatives have insidiously used the economic crisis as an excuse to roll back social programs they never approved of in the first place. This is precisely the sort of political exploitation of national turmoil Naomi Klein warns of in The Shock Doctrine.

This is the economy my generation is up against. One of my friends just graduated from USM over the weekend. I am honestly not sure whether to praise or pity him.

As the New York Times’ Paul Krugman notes in a recent piece (4/29/2012), long term unemployment is especially destructive to young Americans attempting to launch their careers. Young people, he writes, are “graduating into an economy that doesn’t seem to want them.”

He adds, “And research tells us the price isn’t temporary: students who graduate into a bad economy never recover the lost ground. Instead, their earnings are depressed for life.”

Depressing findings, to be certain. But then, for members of my lost generation, these are depressing times. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

Jill Stein's Green Revolution

Progressive voters looking for a real choice in this year’s presidential election need look no further than Green Party candidate, Dr. Jill Stein. I had the pleasure of meeting with Stein for dinner last week, and got an earful of her views on the issues.

(Stein is one of three candidates—along with Kent Mesplay and comedian Roseanne Barr—vying for the Green Party’s nomination. As of this writing, Stein looks to be the likely nominee.)

Stein’s progressive presidential platform includes forgiving outrageous student debt, ending Wall Street bailouts, cutting the defense budget by 30 percent, legalizing marijuana and making health care a universal human right. These initiatives are all part of Stein’s “Green New Deal” for America.

Stein, a Massachusetts native who earned her medical degree from Harvard, hopes to tap into both the Occupy Wall Street movement, as well as the waning enthusiasm for President Obama. Between the Arab uprisings, Occupy, and the global sense of discontent among the 99 percent, Stein insists the time is ripe for a Green electoral success.

“We are at this incredible historic moment,” she told me and a group of Green Party friends over dinner in Portland’s Old Port.

The spirit of democracy and justice is breaking out all over the place. People are breaking away from establishment politics which has gotten us to this god-awful place where the world is falling apart around us… It’s really an incredible moment for us to turn a breaking-point into a tipping-point, and to take back the promise of our democracy and the peaceful, just, green future that we deserve.

Stein went on to criticize not merely the Obama administration, but the two-party duopoly that dominates our political system.

“We’ve gotten to the place we are in—this breaking point for people, for the planet, for the economy, and for democracy—we’ve gotten here because the two-party political establishment has basically delivered crisis after crisis,” she said.

Stein has made the issue of student loans one of her primary concerns. As president she would effectively wipe-out student debt from college loans, which recently surpassed credit card debt nationally. She would also make college education free.

“Students are the economic engine of our economy,” she said. “But they have become indentured servants to Wall Street. Students with their tuition have been effectively underwriting tax-breaks for the rich.”

Furthermore, Stein would tax Wall Street transactions in an effort to reduce speculation, and tax capital gains as income. She would also establish a progressive income tax so that wealthy Americans pay their fair share.

On the international front, she would end the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, close the numerous U.S. military bases throughout the globe, and, taking a broader look, eventually end the very concept of war itself.

In short, Stein is the Ralph Nader of 2012.

But then there is that pesky “spoiler” argument… Stein addressed the tired third-party-candidates-take-votes-away-from-Democrats mentality upfront. “Voting for any of them [Obama or Romney] is a mandate for four more years of Wall Street rule,” she said. “That is the definition of ‘throwing away your vote’.”

Stein added:

The politics of fear has been drummed into us over the last ten years, telling you that you have to vote your fears and not your values. And how exactly is that working out for you these days…? Silence is not an effective political strategy. As Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” That is what our campaign is all about.

The following Saturday, Stein won the Maine Green Independent Party’s state convention. Roseanne Barr—who, along with Stein and Mesplay, addressed the convention via Skype—came in a close second.

But Jill Stein is not a comedian, or a Hollywood entertainer. Her campaign is not a joke. She is the real deal. Even MPBN’s Susan Sharon decided Stein was worthy of a brief interview during her visit to Maine. (Consider it the network’s token acknowledgement that Stein exists.)

“We deserve a voice in this election,” Stein said, “and a choice in the polls that is not bought and paid for by Wall Street.”

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Portland Occupiers Go on Strike

Photo appropriated from the Portland Press Herald, because (dammit Jim,) I'm a writer, not a photographer.

Occupy Wall Street protesters celebrated May Day with a nationwide general strike. Workers were encouraged to strike or call-out sick; students and teachers walked out of school; and members of Occupy groups held various rallies, marches, and teach-ins throughout the country. Strikers also put a 24-hour moratorium on banking, shopping, and any other routine chores. The goal was to disrupt business as usual and call attention to the high rate of unemployment, outrageous student debt, and the increasing war on workers’ rights.

Students at the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus walked out of classes at 10:30 a.m. and held a press conference at the entrance of Luther Bonney Hall. They explained their reasons for the strike which included the staggering amount of student debt from college loans, the lack of available jobs for those with college degrees, and the ongoing university budget cuts which lead to higher tuition costs. A handful of striking professors also lamented the general erosion of college education, particularly in the Humanities and liberal arts studies.

Protesters then marched in the rain to Congress Square where participants used a makeshift soapbox to voice their economic or societal concerns. Many students talked about their student loan debt. Last week, the national average of student debt reached the $1 trillion mark, surpassing credit card debt.

A number of speakers denounced the corporate two-party duopoly, though a couple of protesters confessed to me, as the Chair of the Portland Green Party, they do not believe a “viable” alternative to Obama exists. (I have addressed this issue at length in previous posts, so I will refer readers to them for my thoughts on why progressives routinely vote against their own interests.)

Economics major Will Gattis talked about the importance of workers to any business, and how paying workers a living wage can increase productivity, the quality of their work and overall job satisfaction. “Workers are actually the most expensive investment for any employer,” Gattis explained. “In fact, Henry Ford, for all his faults, at least understood that if you want to retain good, qualified workers and have them continue to do quality work, you must pay them what they are worth.”

Also present were two members of the Teamsters Union Local 340, and Jonah Fertig, owner and manager of Local Sprouts to pass out free cups of tomato soup to shivering protesters.

A protester named Paul explained he often attends similar rallies. He spoke about Occupy’s need to address, not just economic inequality, but the broader issue of power inequality. “Society is governed by power, and those who have the most power ultimately rule,” Paul said, echoing Marx’s views espoused in his article, “The Ruling Class and the Ruling Ideas.”

May Day has long been a day of national protest and worker solidarity demonstrations. But much of the tradition has been erased from history classes and textbooks. The origins of May Day (or International Workers Day as it is known overseas) are widely associated with the Haymarket Square riot of May 4, 1886 in Chicago.

A group of anarchists and labor rights activists gathered in the square to call for an eight-hour workday (at the time, factory and industrial workers often toiled for 12 hours a day or more; many of them were children as child-labor laws did not yet exist). The otherwise peaceful assembly quickly dissolved into chaos when a bomb was detonated by an unknown figure. (Some have speculated the bomb was set off by an agent provocateur working for the Chicago police, but to date no substantial evidence exists to verify this claim.)

The explosion killed seven police officers, and lead to the arrest of eight activists. Labor leaders throughout the country perceived the incident as a declaration of war on workers, and called for more strikes and rallies. While workers eventually succeed in securing a host of workers’ rights and protections (the eight-hour workday among them) a century after the Haymarket riot it is disturbing to see many of these fundamental rights under attack.

The concept of the general strike emerged with the understanding that it is American workers—not the business community--that fuel the economy. Every morning when we wake up and go to work, we are voluntarily consenting to a system that exploits, oppresses, and literally undervalues our labor. Indeed, the greatest irony of democracy is Americans spend the majority of their waking lives in the one arena where their Constitutional freedoms do not apply—their job.

But if we withdraw our consent for one day--ideally more--the system grinds to a halt. The 1 percent, in other words, are nothing without us. Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden drives home this point in a scene in the movie Fight Club, when he explains to a kidnapped 1-percenter, “The people you are after are the people you depend on. We cook your meals. We haul your trash. We connect your calls. We drive your ambulances. We guard you while you sleep.”

To be sure, Tuesday’s cold, rainy weather did not provide the best conditions for a public march and rally, but protesters’ spirits were high nonetheless. “You are all beautiful!” shouted USM student and principal strike organizer, Jake Lowry from the soapbox. “This is only the beginning!”