Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Next Extinction

Sigmund Freud, in his highly influential 1930 work, Civilization and its Discontents, posited the existence in humans of a subconscious, self-destructive impulse--a sort of "death wish." This "death drive" impulse or thanatos is the psychical counterpart to Eros or man's subconscious desire for love and sex. The death drive, according to Freud, reveals itself in characteristics of sadism, aggressiveness, narcissism, and self-destruction. Thanatos, then, becomes another psychological constraint in the tension between civilized man and his primal, baser instincts.

This "inclination to aggression," Freud wrote, "is an original, self-subsisting instinctual disposition in man...that...constitutes the greatest impediment to civilization."

Civilization marked a significant turning point in Freud's work. Published in the wake of the unprecedented devastation of the first World War--and the subsequent emergence of the consumer culture industry--the book found Freud profoundly shaken in his view of human nature. His overall outlook for the future of human civilization was, to put it mildly, not encouraging.

Freud's theory of the death drive (which he first introduced years earlier in 1920's Beyond the Pleasure Principle) gained little support in the psychological community at the time. Some 85 years later, with the earth on the brink of incalculable ecological destruction from climate change, it seems Freud may have been on to something.

Last week, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released a bleak and dire report on the potential impacts of global warming titled "What We Know." The authors state in the report's introduction,

[W]e consider it to be our responsibility to ensure, to the best of our ability, that people understand what we know: human-caused climate change is happening, we face risks of abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes and responding now will lower the risk and cost of taking action.

Attempting to put to rest, once and for all, the mind-numbing anti-science dismissals of right-wing climate change skeptics, and the campaign of deliberate misinformation funded by the fossil fuel industry, the report's authors state clearly and plainly:

[L]evels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are rising. Temperatures are going up. Springs are arriving earlier. Ice sheets are melting. Sea level is rising. The patterns of rainfall and drought are changing. Heat waves are getting worse as is extreme precipitation. The oceans are acidifying.

And yet our elected leaders in government seem incapable of taking any meaningful action to curb greenhouse gas emissions. (By imposing, for instance, a gas tax.) The best measure the Democratic-controlled Senate can produce is a tepid, market-oriented cap-and-trade bill--and it could not even get that through.

And let's be clear about who bears the most blame for the climate crisis: The corporate state.

Could you and I drive less and take greater steps to reduce our individual carbon footprints? Certainly. (Though this is difficult when you live, as I do, in a state that lacks a major public transportation system.) Yet our individual contributions to climate change, while not, in of themselves insignificant, pale in comparison to those of the fossil fuel industry. According to an article in The Guardian last fall (11/20/2013), just 90 corporations have been responsible for two-thirds of CO2 emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Of those 90 companies, 83 are coal, oil, and gas producers like Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, and BP.

It is as if we, as a species, are locked in an insane collective suicide pact. We march, like lemmings, toward the edge of the precipice, unable to stop ourselves. We delude ourselves with the childish fiction we can have an economy of infinite, unregulated growth on a planet of finite resources. This sort of thinking is not only illogical, it borders on the psychotic. It is a symptom of the disease that is capitalism.

Karl Marx understood that capitalism is a revolutionary force because it turns everything--including the environment, human lives, and ultimately, the ecosystem that supports all planetary life--into a commodity. Marx saw capitalism--whether we are talking about the "free-market," "laissez-faire," or "trickle-down" sort, or the more contemporary brand of "corporate capitalism"--as having an inherently self-destructive quality, which makes it ultimately unsustainable.

As Marx observed in Volume I of his three-part economic treatise, Capital, the entire concept of using money to generate more money (which he represents as the formula of "Money-Commodity-Money," an inversion of the traditional, "C-M-C") represented a fundamental shift in the structure of society.

"By virtue of being value, it [capital] has acquired the occult ability to add value to itself," Marx wrote. "It brings forth living offspring, or at least lays golden eggs" (p. 255).

Using money to generate more money becomes, for the capitalist anyway, the gift that quite literally keeps on giving. That is, until it consumes itself.

Perhaps it is not so much a death-wish we suffer from, as a case of collective denial.

Clive Hamilton, in his sobering book, Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change (Earthscan, 2010), argues anthropogenic or man-induced global warming represents such a fundamental existential crisis for humankind, we simply cannot accept the reality emotionally. Even those of us, Hamilton argues, that understand and accept the science of climate change intellectually, still have difficulty coming to terms with the worst case predictions emotionally. We simply do not want to accept that our planet could, in essence, become uninhabitable for us as a species. And this sort of emotional denial has prevented even the more rational, scientifically-literate among us from taking meaningful action to halt ecological destruction.

Like the Greek god, Icarus, mankind has flown too close to the sun on wings made of wax. In our hubristic attempts to conquer and control the natural world we underestimated the fragility of the Earth's natural homeostasis. The centuries-long crusade of human "progress"--in which the exalted Industrial Revolution and the corporate state's successful supplantation of democracy may well have been the final, terminal stages--has sowed the seeds of our own destruction.

Hugo Weaving's Agent Smith in The Matrix is correct about mankind: We are a virus.

As Freud wrote in Civilization and its Discontents:

Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs... still give him much trouble at times. Future ages will bring with them new and possibly unimaginably great advances in this field of civilization and will increase man's likeness to God still more. But... we will not forget that present-day man does not feel happy in his God-like character. 

Help keep Guerrilla Press running by making a donation via the "Donate" button on the right. Any amount is greatly appreciated. Adam Marletta can be contacted at adamd.marletta@gmail.com.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Spies, Damned Spies! (And Other Congressional Hypocrites)

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

In a well-known and frequently referenced scene from Casablanca, the corrupt Captain Louis Renault, grasping for a legal pretense to shutdown Rick Blaine's cafĂ©, claims he is "shocked--shocked!--to find that gambling is going on here!" He no sooner makes this sanctimonious proclamation, when one of his lackeys approaches him with "Your winnings, sir," which Renault promptly pockets.

One imagines Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, striking a similarly hypocritical tone. Feinstein took to the Senate floor last week to denounce, in some of the harshest terms from a member of Congress to date, the National Security Agency's spying on the Senate chamber and her colleagues.

The CIA-Congress "spat" as many reporters are referring to it, specifically revolves around Congress's years-long effort to obtain evidence of the CIA's torture programs during (but not limited to) the Bush administration. While the CIA's use of torture--or "enhanced interrogation techniques" in the bland, euphemistic language of the "objective" corporate media--has been well established (George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have publicly admitted to and defended the illegal acts), senators like Feinstein claim the practice goes "well beyond" anything they previously knew of.

According to Feinstein, the NSA wiretapped senators' computers without a warrant, a claim CIA chief John "Assassination Tsar" Brennan denies. Feinstein, a longtime proponent of CIA covert actions in general, and the NSA's surveillance program in particular, denounced the agency's actions. The CIA's search, Sen. Feinstein said,

[M]ay well have violated the Separation of Powers principle embodied in the United States Constitution, including the Speech and Debate Clause. It may have undermined the constitutional framework essential to effective congressional oversight of intelligence activities and any other government function.

Feinstein went on to add that the CIA's actions may also have violated the Fourth Amendment. (Gee, you think?) Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) concurred with characteristic hyperbolic flair. "This is Richard Nixon stuff," Graham declared. "This is dangerous to the democracy. Heads should roll, people should go to jail if it's true. If it is, the legislative branch should declare war on the CIA."

Feinstein, readers may recall, has been one of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden's most vociferous critics. In an interview with CBS's Bob Schieffer last summer (Face the Nation, 06/23/2013), she charged Snowden with "treason," and called for his extradition to the United States. During the broadcast, Sen. Feinstein also rattled off spurious claims that WikiLeaks helped Snowden flee the country, and that China was somehow involved with his actions--claims which she offered zero evidence to back up.

(Curious side-question: Is Dianne Feinstein, herself, now guilty of treason, given that she has effectively revealed the CIA's clearly necessary and well-intended congressional spying activities to the general public? Has she not now endangered Americans and given aid and comfort to our enemies with her disclosure? Take the comments section and discuss...)

Feinstein and her colleagues' rank hypocrisy on the issue of domestic spying--and the fact that Senators Feinstein and Graham can issue such scathing condemnations of the CIA with a straight face--is so absurdly contradictory it seems more like something out of The Daily Show than an actual news item.

Indeed, the Huffington Post may have put in best in a March 11 headline which read, "Senators Okay with Spying on Citizens, but Outraged it Happened to Congress."

Given how "liberal" the media is, one would think the Beltway rank-and-file reporters would be having a field day with our government's egregious double-standards when it comes to the surveillance state. One would, alas, be wrong.

Most of the coverage of this story has approached it primarily from the torture-angle, while conveniently underplaying Feinstein and her colleagues' glaring hypocrisy on the issue of spying. While the question of whether or not the CIA engaged in torture during the (still ongoing) "War on Terror," is certainly a significant one, it is a question everyone except those in the corporate media already knows the answer to: Yes. The torture question, then, becomes a diversion from the more timely issue of warrantless wiretapping.

Exhibit A is a recent front-page story from the New York Times ("Conflict Erupts in Public Rebuke on C.I.A. Inquiry," 03/12/2014).

The story, by Times veteran reporters, Mark Mazzetti and Jonathan Weisman, reads more like a glorified profile piece for Sen. Feinstein--long an exalted and esteemed member of the Senate. The article is typical of the Times' Washington Beltway reportage, relying predominantly on insider sources, White House spokespeople, and CIA personnel. The closest the reporters come to even acknowledging Sen. Feinstein's hypocrisy on the issue of warrantless wiretapping is the following passage:

Ms. Feinstein has proved to be a bulwark for intelligence agencies in recent years: publicly defending the National Security Agency's telephone and Internet surveillance activities, the C.I.A.'s authority over drone strikes and the F.B.I.'s actions under the Patriot Act against a growing bipartisan chorus of critics.
The piece goes on to quote Amy B. Zegart, a scholar of intelligence issues at Stanford University: "Feinstein has always pushed the agency [the CIA] in private and defended it in public... Now she is skewering the C.I.A. in public. This is a whole new world for the C.I.A."

The article goes out of its way to paint Feinstein as some sort of congressional hero--a whistleblower, even. Yet, Edward Snowden's earlier disclosure of the very same illegal spying, rather than registering shock and outrage from the corporate press, instead lead to a "debate" (in which all sides agree) over whether his whistleblower actions make him a "hero," or a "traitor." It is only when the elites have their unconstitutional practices turned on them that they begin to cry foul.

But then, I suppose we should not be surprised by this sort of tepid, "objective" news coverage. After all, according to longtime NYT reporter Elisabeth Bumiller, "You can't just say the president is lying," even when he is clearly and deliberately making statements that are factually untrue. "Objective" is not the right word for this sort of reporting. Obfuscation would be more appropriate.

Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans will end the surveillance state. It has now become such an entrenched tool in the interminable "War on Terror," that no future administration will give the power up willingly. Barack Obama had a chance to terminate the program, along with the other criminal excesses of the Bush administration. Instead, he expanded those abuses of executive power. He has proven as morally bankrupt and power-hungry as his predecessor.

It is only when the tables are turned and the ruling elites are subjected to the very same crimes they perpetuate on citizens--as the conflict in the Ukraine currently illustrates--that they start crying about the "rule of law," The Bill of Rights, and the Constitution. The law exists only to be bended and twisted to serve their needs. When it does not, it can be ignored.

As the iconoclastic journalist, I.F. Stone observed, "All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out."

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Monday, March 3, 2014

The Courage to Resist

An essay on man in revolt

Forbes op-ed columnist, Carrie Sheffield, joins the chorus of media intelligentsia attacking former NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden as a "traitor."

In a piece from last December ("Edward Snowden is Not 'Person of the Year,'" 12/18/2013), the conservative Sheffield--her byline reads, "Committed to free minds & free markets,"--echoes The New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin, that Snowden is a "grandiose narcissist who deserves to be in prison."

Sheffield chastises an alleged media landscape wherein publications are practically falling over themselves to "beknight" Snowden as a "hero" or First Amendment champion. I am curious to know which specific publications Sheffield is referring to. Editorials in every newspaper I pick up have nothing but denunciatory vitriol for the 30-year-old Booz Allen Hamilton contractor.

Sheffield's claims that Snowden, "undermined trust and transparency among the ranks of public servants who protect America," and that he "did not reveal one single abuse by the U.S. intelligence community," are childish in their level of ignorance.

She, like so many of Snowden's critics, trots out the ludicrous argument that Snowden should have gone through the "traditional government channels," (in Sheffield's case a "sympathetic member of Congress,") to expose his findings.

Yet it is the traditional channels of government--i.e. Congress, the Executive Branch, etc.--that have authorized and are carrying out these illegal methods of spying. Indeed, Snowden's revelations are not at all revelatory to members of Congress. They signed off on them!

As Glen Greenwald, the former Guardian reporter who broke the Snowden story, pointed out during an interview on Democracy Now! last year (06/24/2013), had Snowden gone through the "traditional" whistleblower channels he "would have ended up having to go to the very same members of Congress who think that not only are these programs good, but that they ought to remain secret."

This is how the power elite attempts to delegitimize whistleblowers, by quibbling over tactics and "proper channels," while ignoring the actual substance of what truth-tellers like Snowden have revealed. Their approach is the same every time: Shoot the messenger--ignore the message.

But the fact remains, we would not be talking about our government's mass-scale domestic spying apparatus if it were not for Edward Snowden. The NSA was never going to publicly disclose its "PRISM" program on its own. The Obama administration--just like all previous U.S. administrations--is more than comfortable lying to the American people about its clandestine and often illegal activities.

This is precisely why we need whistleblowers, reporters, and dissidents like Snowden, Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Upton Sinclair, and Seymour Hersh to act as a watchdog on government actions. These rebels make democracy possible.

As Howard Zinn once said, "Democracy is not what governments do. It's what people do."

Those who claim they have "nothing to hide," or who cynically dismiss Snowden's revelations as "unsurprising," do not understand the extent of what is happening. The NSA is currently collecting every email, text-message, Tweet, and phone conversation of every citizen. They can track our web searches, online banking activity, and Internet history. Orwell's dystopian nightmare envisioned in 1984 has become reality. Big Brother is literally watching us. Our lawmakers have obliterated the Fourth Amendment. And the NSA's surveillance is not limited to the U.S. They have spied on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and participants at the Copenhagen climate change summit in 2009.

We have become Orwell's Oceania. "The Party's surveillance tactics and technology are so advanced," Orwell wrote in 1984, "that even the smallest twitch can betray a rebellious spirit."

A citizenry under this sort of oppressive, constant surveillance is not free. Privacy is not merely a luxury. It is essential to democracy. It is only when we can be alone with our own private thoughts--far from the madding crowd, as Thomas Hardy famously phrased it--that we can engage in creative thoughts or projects, indulge in art or literature, and reflect on the broad, philosophical questions of our time. (You know--the questions we are so often forbidden from asking in the arena we spend the vast majority of our waking lives: The workplace.)

Indeed, without privacy, any form of political, social or cultural dissent is impossible. And that, as Orwell understood, is ultimately the point.

Consider what Snowden has sacrificed to bring us the truth. He will likely never be permitted to return to the United States--not without facing criminal charges and potentially life in prison. Congress members like California Sen. Diane Feinstein (a Democrat; just sayin') claim Snowden is guilty of treason and should be extradited to the U.S. Maine's favorite junior Senator, "independent" Angus King concurs, telling the media last summer he is "moving more and more toward the 'treason' end of the scale," when it comes to his opinion of Snowden's actions. He too, argues with a straight face that Snowden should have gone to Congress with his findings.

The fact is, we are all better off as citizens thanks to Snowden's disclosures, as well as to the reporters that have brought those disclosures to light. Democracy cannot function when the public is in the dark of its own government's actions--especially when those actions are illegal. Snowden displayed the moral courage and personal convictions so rare in our fearful, conformist society, and yet so crucial for democracy. And that is why the corporate state is so desperate to silence and discredit him.

French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus viewed rebellion as the single greatest affirmation of our individual humanity. A proponent of the philosophy of "the absurd," Camus believed life is meaningless and our individual fates are largely out of our control. But we can still choose how we live. And it is only through a constant state of rebellion, Camus argued, that one can create meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence. It is only through rebellion that one can be truly free.

"A living man can be enslaved and reduced to the historic condition of an object," he wrote in his 1956 book-length essay, The Rebel. "But if he dies in refusing to be enslaved, he reaffirms the existence of another kind of human nature which refuses to be classified as an object."

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