Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Friendly Fascism, Bertram Gross

One of the challenges Bertram Gross' book, Friendly Fascism, presents the reader with is this: if your views coincide with those that a major, long-term, well-funded propaganda campaign has aimed to instill, wouldn't it be prudent to reconsider those views? We don't come into this world armed with disinformation detectors. We tend to trust those around us and more or less uncritically adopt their values. Born into a Muslim world, chances are you'll be Muslim. Born into a Catholic family in Italy? Guess what religion you'll probably embrace? Born into a capitalist country with a highly effective indoctrination system chances are...

An interesting quote early in the book states that the United States is run by and for about 5,000 wealthy persons (mostly men of course) backed by about 50,000 beavers eager to take their places. This is the establishment. Gross disagrees a bit with the numbers, estimating it at 250,000, but accepting the basic premise. The difference between Friendly Fascim and the earlier, version typified by Nazi Germany and Musolini's Italy, is one of brute force but also in that instead of the state plundering industry it assists industry in plundering the population.

During the 1930s corporate excesses had pretty much alienated the general population. On top of that, the suffering brought about by the great depression added to the “danger” of people opening to an alternative to capitalism. The 1%, in self defense, wanting to keep their privileged position, gathered considerable resources in an effort to instill in the population some basic “truths”: capitalism is good; socialism is bad. In fact, they claimed capitalism has been replaced by, various terms here but mixed economy is one of the favorites. Thus instead of the profit-driven, dog-eat-dog paradigm, we now have a balance of interests, all represented equally as if guided by an invisible, benevolent hand. Everybody's happy, right? Well, if you're not it's due to your own individual failings. The system is perfect. We've arrived at the ultimate way to economically organize ourselves. Everywhere the 1% had influence, which was virtually everywhere, this message was amplified. Those who adopted the message, like house servants, stood to profit, their career paths lubricated. Those who resisted stood to be left behind, on the street. Owning the major media, sitting on the boards of universities and other institutions, funding the campaigns of politicians, tended to stack the deck, making certain views “respectable”, others beyond the pale. It is an exceptional person who questions received wisdom. Their numbers are insignificant and tolerable, though they need to be kept marginalized, so long as the mainstream message dominates everyone else.

Gross goes on to sketch existent mixed economy/capitalism, its alienation for many if not all, in terms of non-materialist values. The 60s rebellion and rejection of crass materialism may have eventually returned to the fold but brought an enrichment not to be denied, nor exaggerated. The writer describes the capitalist society as fostering material abundance for some and envy for others, and disillusionment for the super successful as they discover an empty pot at the end of the rainbow. Some of course then pursue with even greater vigor multiplications of the materialist prize, maybe most since visible alternatives are not obvious. Those who do find alternatives or who decline to remount the treadmill tend to not be who achieves power and so perpetuate the system.

In a section on the Shrinking of Capitalism, Gross breaks from his critique of capitalism to portray the spread of communism in a somewhat alarming or at least ambiguous way, making dire, even laughable, in hindsight, predictions. This was ten years before the fall of the Soviet Union but Gross is predicting the real possibility of communism taking over the Carribbean, Central America, Portugal (which had already happened he claimed – there was a military coup overthrowing a right wing regime), Spain, France and Italy. This clearly represents establishment fears after World War II. but not reality. There were actually many opportunities for peaceful co-existence that the U.S. chose to ignore since it would entail limitations on their emperious designs. Their fears of a successful socialist project were certainly also a factor. Why Gross makes this odd turn when until then his critique seemed spot on may be accounted for by his immersal in government, the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, especially the latter, a solid member of the religion of anti-communism and a victim or conspirator in that “reeducation” campaign mentioned above.

In 1975 the Tri-lateral Commission released a report on the Crisis of Democracy. The Commission was formed to search for a managerial formula to keep the concentration of wealth intact. Some of its own members dissented to its language as the unspoken rule among the oligarchy was that it was important to display a public pretence of democracy. The report unambiguously called for less democracy, responding to the 60s movements around civil and human rights, oppression, war profiteering, empire and corporate manipulation of government. There was no dissent however about the basic principle, the need for oligarchic integration to ward off the threat of “too much democracy”.

Gross discusses the business cycle and the professional economists, their self-serving theories and shenanigans. Roosevelt attempted to institutionalize the right to work (very unlike the coopted anti-union use of this phrase), wanting full employment and security for workers. The business community opposed this on ideological grounds, feeling that government regulations should be minimal and that full employment meant a loss for them in bargaining power. When there was plenty of work then workers could leave for better opportunities or demand better working conditions and pay, reducing profits and control. The business view was that unemployment should be as high as could be tolerated, the more the better, for them. Roosevelt's project died with him and the ascendency of Truman. Anticipating Roosevelt's death business interests had maneuvored to replace Vice President Wallace, a progressive, with the more reactionary Truman. Thirty years later the Humphrey-Hawkins bill attempted to reinstate some of Roosevelt's ideas but they were stripped from the bill and not long after the vicious attack on unions and workers began, full steam with Reagan.

The arrival of Friendly Fascism, Gross warns, will be on “little cat's feet” not a violent sudden coup. So gradually that the general population will not notice and even activists will miss much of it, realizing its full takeover only when it is too late. The book lays out eight paths, a chapter each, by which Gross sees Friendly Fascism coming to full power, then a section on the opposing force, True Democracy, which he sees as weaker but not yet defeated. He ends with a chapter, What You Can Do. 37 years have passed since the publication of this book so it is tempting to conclude that it is, indeed, too late. This was where I personally stood until seeing a clip of Amy Goodman interviewing Bernie Sanders after the election. His statement moved me to reevaluate my stance: “You do not have the right to give up. Too much is at stake - our democracy and our life system.”

Monday, December 5, 2016

After the Dustup, a Little Review - in 12 points

To many, the following outline might seem self-evident but given U.S. presidential election results, a review is apparently in order:

  1. The elite (1%) rule for the benefit of themselves, their agenda consisting always of the task of maintaining and expanding their power, privilege and profits.

  1. To this end they propagate the general population, masking their rule, encouraging patriotism - meaning unquestioning obedience to authority, facilitated by their control/ownership of the mainstream media. Public radio and television must be kept too intimidated, even though capturing only a small slice of audience-share, to deviate more than slightly from the party line. Corporate funding works well here as well as right-wingers on the board and as back-up in congress who periodically threaten to cut all funding.
    Identify with the state and any criticism of it is taken personally. The authoritarian, hierarchical organization of business, especially anti-unionism, confirms that democracy rhetoric is just that. They are careful to associate the words capitalism and democracy to lend legitimacy to capitalism but, again, they do not organize their businesses democratically. Clearly capitalism is their value, democracy their spin.

  1. A central concern is to demonize socialism, equating it with the very worst aspects of established Communism – torture, oppression, secret police etc; all while hypocritically supporting those same evils in nations that buy into “free market capitalism”, demonstrating that their stated objections are transparently false, their real objections being to equality and sharing, government programs aimed at the general population rather than the elite.
  2. Government is to be obeyed yet also used as the scapecoat for popular unrest. As the 1% whittles away at worker rights and share in the bounty the inevitable disatisfaction must be directed at the “liberal” end of politics, never the conservative end, the actual source of the attack. The “liberal” faction must also be constantly shifted rightward keeping discourse within comfortable boundaries. This is reflected in the mainstream media as well. Only exceptional persons will think outside the parameters of discourse when that is all they've ever encountered.

  1. Divide and Conqueor of course, Us versus Them, standard strategy for any tyranny since Machiavelli, will be utilized, exploiting racial, ethnic, gender, sexual preference differences... anything that works will do ie, abortion, religion, flag burning, supporting the troops, standing for the national anthem etc;

  1. Religion is to be promoted to the degree that it fosters obedience, and discouraged where it fosters questioning. The resistance to elite rule manifests in most institutions and must be vigorously beaten back wherever possible. The new Pope, for example, has become something of a problem but there are many ways to counteract such deviation from the “norm”. Fundamentalism is ideal as it promotes authoritarianism that does not threaten the elite and easily associates “America” with its foolishness, falsely and insultingly attributing their beliefs to the founders, “We're a Christian nation!” etc;

  1. This is also true of education, a more or less constant monitoring kept here. The tightening of strings attached to both government and private funding has evolved since the 60s, a response to that little rebellion. Benefits of these developments for the 1% include a more exclusive higher education climate accompanied by post-graduate debt that will keep students preoccupied well beyond their youth. As with government, the University is doubly portrayed, as leftist bastion and confirmation of capitalism. Studies have shown that there is in fact an ideological gradiant on campus, a few lefties, a somewhat larger (and growing) contingent from the right, with the largest number of faculty self-identifying as moderates, presumably Clinton democrats, republican lite. Critical thinking tends to correlate with education making for a difficult challenge for what Chomsky calls the commissars, those tasked with keeping dialogue within the proper bounds.

  1. Foreign Policy and Militarism: the danger of a successful democratic socialist state “infecting” other countries, even the U.S., must be fought with any means available, in this case secret, usually CIA, projects to undermine democratic movements and strengthen totalitarian capitalist systems. In these arrangements, U.S. aid props up an elite which rules and benefits, the majority excluded often to the point of malnutrition and poverty, usually necessitating military aid and severe measures to suppress resistance and criticism. So the “rabble” in the U.S., more and more the class that pays taxes, ironically funds the means to violently suppress their counterparts in those countries, victims who would obviously object to this arrangement. Not only does this help prevent the spread of the terrible virus of equality, it is profitable for arms manufacturers and merchants back home. It also drains limited treasury reducing what is available to address serious issues of justice and environment. These policies, smugly enacted, seem to be producing blowback, at least in the middle east. The social democracies in western Europe and Scandinavia are tolerated though probably the targets of more subtle interventions. The home country peasantry though must be kept ignorant of social democratic accomplishments, the successful healthcare systems, working conditions, wages, leave and vacation policies etc; Undermine where possible, misrepresent always.

  1. Campaign funding is important for, as Molly Ivins wittily remarked, “You dance with who brung ya.” Public financing of elections would go a long way toward promoting democracy since who “brung ya” would now be the people. Obviously this must be opposed and portrayed as more government big spending. The term big spending liberal was created for these kind of projects. This is government in the bad sense as opposed to the government-to-be-obeyed-not- questioned that goes to war – a frequent necessity to retain elite dominance, keep the machine oiled and put out a message to nations considering alternative directions, of what might happen. Chomsky likes to compare this behavior to the Mafia and, really, it's hardly an exaggeration.

  1. Other institutional domination examples are the “right” people sitting on boards of universities, heading up thinktanks, news organizations, non-profits, church groups etc; Billionaire funding of non-profits is another tool to maintain conformity or push further right. In so far as possible, anywhere a citizen turns, the same pro-capitalist narrative should be confirmed, with its variations to be sure, running from extreme whacko right, to republican lite. Bernie was an exception recently, a measure of just how far the project has come, how transparent it is to a fair number. Trump supporters, many intuitively aware of the game but without the analytic skills or information to penetrate the con, found their disenchantment exploited to the full.

  1. Range of opinion among the 1%. Not all, maybe not even a majority, are fully behind a complete return to Feudalism but a politically active segment are enthusiastically with that program and it is they running the show currently. As Jane Mayer stated in her book, Dark Money, in their vision, the only survivors of the bill of rights should be the right to own property and have it protected.

  1. Consequences and summary: our species and civilization is threatened on three main interrelated fronts: pollution; overpopulation; and nuclear warheads. The trajectories of these three interrelated issues are in an unsustainable direction, urgently with climate change but obviously when the planet adds a new San Francisco to the population every two days there's trouble ahead, and the nuclear arsenals, some on hair-trigger alert, are subject to deliberate or accidental launch, ushering in what Einstein tried to warn us against - unparalleled catastrophe. The very bad news is that in what very well may have been a last opportunity for humanity to address these looming, life-threatening problems, the most powerful nation on earth elects an advocate of full-steam-ahead business-as-usual who promptly sets about solidifying this “victory” by Neanderthal cabinet selections and, apparently, plans for even tighter voter suppression to insure that their denial goes unchallenged right up to the collapse. This is global suicide.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Off-Shore Pirates

A Coca Cola executive once told me that he had to throw an underling out of his office. Why? The guy attempted to ingratiate himself by proposing that Coke pump up the bottom line big-time with accounting practices that would locate profits off-shore, beyond the reach of the IRS. If your fondness for money exceeds your sense of civic responsibility, as say, in the case of our illegitimate president-elect, you would not throw this person out but rather promote them.

The New York Review of Books has a two-part examination (10/27, 11/10/16) by Alan Rusbridger of the whistleblower release of what have come to be called The Panama Papers. Investigative reporters Bastian Obermajer and Frederick Obermaier of the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, were contacted by a disgruntled source somewhere deep in the off-shore world of a Panamanian law firm called Mossfon. The source was weary of seeing wealthy people getting away with outrageous behavior. He, or she, fed the reporters a massive trove of documents that exposed heads of states, oligarchs, defense contractors, mafia dons, gamblers, fraudsters, drug and arms dealers, prominent families and individuals to embarrassing disclosures about their tax avoidance schemes, money laundering, corporate shells etc; The power of this class (who else needs financial management experts?), being in the cat bird's seat when it comes to influencing legislation, means that much of what they did was perfectly legal. Russian President Putin was one of these and was quick to point out that it broke no laws. Also of note, several news organizations the whistleblower contacted were not interested, probably part of their knee-jerk shielding of the 1% who of course own the mainstream media. You want to keep your job you don't investigate the boss. As it turned out the cache was so overwhelming that the newspaper decided to share with an international investigative reporter organization. There's safety in numbers, at least in the nations that have constitutional protections.

The Whistleblower was quite accurate in his/her assessment. The tax burden, especially in the U.S., has shifted from corporations to workers since the 50s, with a vengeange starting with Reagan. Those who benefit least from government policies pay the most. Commerz Bank in Frankfurt, for example, received $18 billion in taxpayer subsidies during the financial meltdown yet routinely helped German clients avoid taxes. The preponderance of the Panama Papers concerns clients of just one firm, Mossfon, of Panama. We can assume other companies do similar financial management “services” for the wealthy, allowing them to avoid taxes, law enforcement and vengeful spouses. 52 of 54 African countries have used Mossfon. Over $500 billion has fled Africa, twice as much as its debt. In an accompanying 2,000 word “manifesto”, the leaker claimed their intent was to expose inequality and how the wealth management industry had abetted crime, drug dealing and fraud on a truly grand scale involving trillions of dollars.

The various experts cited in the article hold little hope for reform. As the new administration comes into power here we can be sure that this particular business-as-usual will procede unimpeded, probably with new vigor. They do suggest that transparency would help, maybe embarrassing businesses and individuals into paying their share. We have public lists of who owns property, why not of who possesses wealth? Taxing corporations based on where their sales occur is another measure that might recoup some of the lost revenue. If a corporations's sales are primarily in the U.S. its taxes shouldn't be based on sales in Bermuda. It isn't just some numbers short on a balance sheet. Governments can't adequately address inequality, poverty, disease and starvation when the needed funds are parked off-shore. Corporations occupy our government so there is little chance those goals would even arise and even less chance that corrective measures would see daylight. Since billionaires, again, own the media, there is little chance the public will even know of these shenanigans, as opposed to say, Brad Pitt's latest divorce.

Google (if you use Goodsearch instead of Google, a penny per search goes to your favorite non-profit) made $13 billion by shifting its profits to the low-tax haven of Bermuda. Apple funnels profits to the Cayman Islands to this same end, all perfectly legal. Apple however was hit with a $13 billion fine when the European Commission ruled that Ireland's low tax rate amounted to an illegal subsidy. Ireland was only one stop on a Byzantine money route Apple had designed to reduce tax obligations. The lack of regulation and secrecy off-shore is the draw and like the downward spiral of sweatshop wages and work conditions, banks are subject to competition. The client can just move on to whomever offers the least tax, regulation and the most secrecy. The Koch Brothers et al., and Trump-level wealth preaches non-regulation as if it were a sacred principle blessing us all but we know, when we remove the blinders, who the beneficiaries actually are. I mean beneficiary in the sense that any addict benefits from the object of their addiction though that addiction ultimately represents dysfunction. When the addiction creates immense suffering, comes time for an intervention. When the addiction is unsustainable and leads toward irreparable environmental damage and extinction, it is time for an alternative. The election of an unapologetic denier of reality suggests that it might be too late. Perhaps some other planet in the vast cosmos will succeed in evolving beyond greed and war.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Fiasco, The American Military Adventure in Iraq, Thomas Ricks

What first struck me about Thomas E Ricks’ book, Fiasco The American Military Adventure in Iraq 2003 to 2005, was the sheer number of establishment figures who opposed the war, many of whom predicted the general consequences, to include Isis. Bush the elder, General Colin Powell (despite his eventual disgraceful performance at the U.N.), General Schwarzkoph, Brent Scowcroft, and Marine General Anthony Zinne – who, addressing a gathering of the U.S. Naval Institute and the Marine Corps Association, mocked the premature victory declaration and strategy of the administration, comparing it to Vietnam and received a standing ovation from many in this hawkish audience.
Below the level of top generals and yes-men, the military tended to question the invasion on basically the same grounds as the peaceniks: force was a first rather than last resort; falsified justification – WMDs and Hussein’s ties to Al Queda. However, orders from the top demanded rhetorical conformity.
Our beloved media failed, as usual, to bring us these alternative views, preferring instead to build consensus behind the war: the highly rated Phil Donahue’s firing from MSNBC as the studio head did not want the network to be seen as anti-war; CNN’s sending an executive to oversee coverage in Atlanta who stated on Democracy Now, one of the few outlets not captured by war fever, that the dialogue is over, the decision has been made, time to fall in line. You can guess where Faux News fell on this issue.
I remember a million person march in NYC, and across the planet in even greater numbers, which got scant mainstream coverage. Since significant establishment figures were in opposition though, they brought more of that into the media than usual if only in the Sunday political forums.
As Chomsky has said, the range of opinion in the mainstream media reflects the range, and only that range, among the rulers. On the congressional front, Democrats, according to Ricks, were gun-shy since those who opposed Bush 1’s 1991 invasion did not fare well. That was certainly the case in Georgia, remember Wyche Fowler? Byrd was the lone senator to vote against the legislation that gave Bush his Gulf of Tonkin resolution.
But the book is less anti-war than, as its title implies, a critique of the project, especially the occupation. Which boils down to this: so arrogant were the designers of the folly, assuming Iraqis would welcome with open arms the invasion of their country and even happily pay for it, that they made virtually no plans to govern in the aftermath. The military saw the administration as amateurs ignoring their expertise and blundering blithely into a quagmire. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz outmaneuvered Secretary of State Powell and all comers until, up to their necks in quagmire they later attempted to wash their hands of it.
The military war colleges make a distinction between strategy and tactics, the former being the overall goals that guide the latter. The Beltway bandits wanted yes-men below them and Senior Commander General Sanchez accommodated them. His failure to focus beyond tactics contributed mightily to the occupation’s failure. World War II. tactics were used, despite the lessons learned in Vietnam about counter insurgency, the importance of winning the hearts and minds of the population.
Military tactics mostly ended up aiding the insurgency. By rounding up all males between 14 and 60 years, busting into their homes at 3:00 A.M., humiliating them before their families, damaging property, and marching them off to Abu Ghraib for torture sessions preceded by long internments, they served as very effective recruiters.
In his Doonesbury strip, Trudeau made his character Duke Viceroy of Iraq. It was close to the truth.
The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) made the disastrous decision to de-baathize the Iraqui army and police. This left thousands of armed and trained Iraquis unemployed, with quite predictable consequences. Especially in tandem with the brutal military treatment of Iraqui men. One diplomat, a former Special Forces officer lamented that the three counter-insurgency “fixes”, Police, Power (electricity) and Political Process were not a priority. He failed to convince his “superiors” to take this seriously. While lavish commodities and life style were shipped into the Green Zone, the greater Iraqui populace languished without the “fixes” – not to mention food.
When reading books by reporters for mainstream media I take into account the vetting process that ensures that employees for these institutions embrace the establishment viewpoint. Knowing that advancement there depends on continued assurances of the embrace, ever more strictly the closer to the top, it is wise to bring one’s critical faculties along for the read.

In this case, Washington Post writer Thomas Ricks goes easy on the Bush administration, leaving out of his critique the widely held conclusion among anti-war groups that 911 was a convenient and dishonest justification for an invasion of Iraq that was among the foremost yearnings of its quest for empire. Oil as motivation is also hardly mentioned. On the other hand Ricks describes the invasion of Iraq as one of the most profligate decisions made in the history of U.S. foreign policy.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Email Fisticuffs

  • Author's Note: This is an edited and expanded version of one of my posts in an email exchange with a... well, someone with whom I disagreed, who had been enthusiastically equating Islam with terrorism (the exchange for me was an attempt to build a bridge rather than yell across the chasm... predictably destined for the futility file for all I got back were loud insults):

This is where we agree, I think: we both oppose people who harm others, who want to dominate, deny liberty, lie to make themselves look good and others bad, deny people their rights under the constitution and the bill of rights and also our rights under the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, signed I think by all member nations (this latter item provoked immediate condemnation).

This is where we disagree, I think: the things that we agree on up there should be the focus, we should hold ALL citizens to those principles. It isn’t ALL Muslims who violate them and it isn’t ALL U.S. citizens who follow them. We need to go after those who violate those principles whether they are in Saudi Arabia or the U.S.
And by we, I don’t mean the U.S. I mean anyone on the planet who cares about those principles. And by “going after” I don’t mean with violence. I mean with law and persuasion, and patience for we ourselves are not so enlightened that we might not be violating the rights of others without being aware… and if we are patient and prepared to listen as well as speak we might be persuaded and change our behavior when we realize we are mistaken – if we expect it of others then we must expect it of ourselves.
I started out to itemize where we disagree, now I’m finally getting to it. The source of the malaise and economic insecurity felt across our culture is not illegal immigrants, nor “lazy minorities”, nor lack of prayer in the schools or the ten commandments displayed at city hall, nor a liberal press and government. It’s not even Isis. It is in the long struggle between democracy and tyranny, typified in this country by that portion of the wealthy class who pour resources into undermining democracy and favoring oligarchy. It can even be argued that Isis would not exist were it not for the policies that have grown out of the success of these oligarchs.
Were it not for so-called free trade agreements, NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), GATT (Global Agreement on Tarriff and Trade) etc; immigration from the south would not be so unmanageable. NAFTA favored U.S. subsidies to agriculture, driving small farmers in Mexico and Central America out of business. They then flocked to the cities to try to find jobs in the sweat shops, created by the same agreements, or took the more appealing option of getting to the U.S. (the belly of the beast) where sweatshop wages have not yet prevailed.
The oligarchic response is to instruct their media pundits (actually to hire select personnell based on their capacity to anticipate the correct line) to demonize these victims, blaming them for taking “our jobs.”
When in fact what has taken our jobs is the wholesale migration of once profitable industries abroad, seeking the greater profits of cheap labor and loose environmental regulations. This is a runaway situation where once started it becomes not only more profitable to relocate, but uncompetitive to stay. William Greider points out in his book, One World, Ready or Not, a strong country like the U.S. could take the lead and demand environmental and worker protection. Instead, it goes with the flow, downward and off-shore.
This brings us to another point of disagreement. One doesn’t have to approve to understand the capitalist’s reasons, profit after all is what they are by definition about. But why would agovernment betray its own people in this manner?
Government is by for and of the people, right? Well, wrong. It’s by, for, and of corporate and wealthy “citizens.” Given the way politicians are required to raise money for electoral campaigns, given who donates and supports or opposes their campaigns, and of course, who the elected then owe. Whose telephone calls do you suppose they return? The politically active portion of the 1%, by and large, according to Jane Mayer’s book, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, are ideologically committed to ends that are far from democratic and basically reduce to the advancement, as they see it, of their interests, which basically reduces to money. The whole world as Third World to the oligarch for some reason beyond my psychology, seems to be the best of all worlds.
A completely ridiculous and modest proposal: why not put our great brains to work figuring out how we can divert the energy presently going into chasing money into creating a system that provides food, clothing, shelter, education and healthcare for all the inhabitants of the planet, in a way that doesn’t despoil the life system on which we all depend?
Outlandish as this proposal may seem, if we don’t make it our main priority, along with a commitment to non-violent resolution of conflict, then we will have war and with the kind of weapons available and developing, the planet and its people will perish in nuclear holocaust, if not directly then in the aftermath when the life-system breaks down, from radiation, nuclear winter and also from the pollutants that our life choices are more slowly but definitely disbursing – are we on the same page or are we still in different books?

Monday, September 12, 2016

Atheist Believers: A Religious/Existentialist Wedding

The meaning of the word God, in my congregation during my formative years, was conventional, literal biblical, bearded guy in the sky taking notes, who’s been naughty, who’s been nice. This got challenged, or should I say devastated, when I walked into a design class in art school conducted by Myron Kozman – think Richard Dawkins mischievously assailing received wisdom.
The standard response to information that conflicts with one’s point of view is either denial or point of view adjustment. My congregation, confronted with Professor Kozman, would have chosen, hands down, the denial. Migrating from Lutheranism to Bohemia made the paradigm adjustment choice feasible for me, still received wisdom I suppose but more thought out this time: Existentialism – Dylan’s line in “Visions of Joanna” sums it up, “We’re all sitting here stranded, doing our best to deny it.” As did Sartre and friend’s bleak take that there is no God, or s/he’s dead, no supernatural, a big NO to all that. Earth is a rock in space. Isolated individuals are subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune, and the nets of chance… and especially there is indifference, if not hostility, from a lifeless backdrop and a ruthlessly competitive economic system mirroring Darwin’s fitness test.
Glimpses of an enlarged, more appealing perspective began to appear in the 60s, at least in the West, in the form of Eastern thought, Buddhism and Hinduism, delivered by Hesse, Huxley, Alan Watts, the Beats, LSD and The Beatles. But these remained occasional, not always consistent, hazy if intense glimpses untilEckhart Tolle’s books brought the various strands into sharp focus. Others may have arrived at this view before Tolle, and as clearly but I’m not aware of them (Huxley’s book Island comes close). And the point is the view, not who gets credit for it.
The three phases I’m describing, that I went through, could be thought to be incompatible, irreconcilably antagonistic, or they could be seen as paraphrasing each other, pointing at the same thing. The language of Christianity (or any other religion) could be metaphoric, standing for or pointing at a difficult to describe reality. Existentialism could be seen to be pointing directly at the reality itself. Both views must jettison some baggage to arrive at a happy marriage: Religion must recognize the Mythology of its language, dropping the literalist interpretation that renders it ludicrous; Existentialism must quit its pessimistic and arbitrary conclusion that reality is horrifying. When the marriage is consummated we are in the Great NOW where the barricade of mind chatter is set aside, leaving a non-narrative presence, a felt recognition of interconnection, of Oneness, with its healing component, the peace, as the preacher says, that passeth all understanding.
I once said to a friend that all the religions are saying the same thing, just different language. I could see him process this and hesitatingly agree. I added, “Even atheism.” which he clearly could not accept. I wasn’t even sure what I meant when I said it. Thinking it out I reached this explanation: the story of any religion, say the Jesus story, is designed to bring one to an awareness of being, an awareness where interconnection is self-evident. The story serves the same function as ritual, the church service, saying of the rosary or chanting. That makes the story not literal history but a parable or myth. But how could atheism serve this same function? Well theism is belief in god. The fundamentalist idea of God is certainly at odds with atheism for an atheist considers that notion wishful thinking or projection without foundation. But if we define the word God as the intelligence obviously characterizing reality, none but a fundamentalist, atheist or not, could disagree. We might prefer a different word for it but IT is self-evident. And then it’s not a stretch to note that discreet moments and entities come into and out of existence and so postulate a source out of which they come and to which they return, call it essence, expansive continuum…. or whatever words satisfy, even God. Thus we pronounce this couple, Existentialism and Religion, joined in, if not holy then wholly, matrimony.
Post Script:
What comes after life? Same thing that comes before life. What’s that? It can really only be felt but it can be pointed at with words. There is what some in the East call “The Ground of Being” out of which all of what we call existence emerges, appears and disappears, dust to dust, ashes to ashes… to the degree that we identify with fleeting physical reality, the illusion of temporality, fear of death will dominate. What is happening here is thoughts (identifying with illusion, seeing/thinking it passing, seeing/thinking it leading to personal pain and extinction) creating emotions, fear, feelings of vulnerability. When you still the mind’s ceaseless chattering you can feel interconnection, the ONEness of the great NOW which is your essence, out of which flows the illusion of passing, sequential time. Attempting to picture an afterlife is part of the wish to extend the illusion, part of the identification with form as opposed to essence. Essence can only really be felt. It can be thought, that is, words can point at it but to know it is to feel it. This has been called prayer, meditation, connection, heaven, oneness, peace, insight… words pointing at the felt interconnection, the eternal oneness of reality. The key is, when the mind is still, one’s essence can be felt and that is the ultimate reality, that is who you are, your real self. As Eckhart Tolle has it, “To feel and thus to know, that you are; and to abide in that deeply rooted state is enlightenment.”

Monday, August 15, 2016

Dark Money, Jane Mayer, a review

The Billionaire’s Club is a 28-page political cartoon that is my take on how power works in the U.S. The book portrays billionaires getting together at the club and initiating a new member into the fold. It was a device I used to talk about how the 1% have disproportionate influence on our democracy and so are obstacles to addressing the crisis we face. I didn’t think that the 1% conspiratorially met, save socially – they do run in the same circles – it’s just that their interests overlap and acting separately, supporting similar causes, political candidates etc; it is as-if they acted jointly. This is true.

Jane Mayer also shows in her book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right that they actually have met and organized in significant numbers of rich guys, and even more significant numbers of dollars, to combat what they see as limitations on their “freedom.” They equate the word with less government and less taxes. The current leadership, the Koch brothers Charles and David, hold an annual gathering – a secretive conference aimed to gauge their success to-date and to plot further depradation. The first conference in the ’80s was lightly attended though it still jingled with heavy currency, but it didn’t take long to grow into a formidable gathering of old and new money.
The Koch’s come out of a John Birch Society-type ideology and their goal from the beginning was to shift the country to their fringe views. These include the libertarian mantra “less government” to such an extreme that in their utopia there would be no taxes, no government regulations, and the only survivor of the bill of rights would be the right to and protection of property. This I would venture is a politics of sociopathology. We haven’t gotten completely there yet, but they have created a significant shift that significantly erodes democracy. In one of the many prosecutions brought against the Kochs for their polluting, one worker testified that he was told not to worry about contamination, it’s cheaper to pay off a few cancer victims than to observe regulations. One of the biggest cases was scuttled by the Bush Administration’s replacing the chief prosecutor with someone more business friendly.
Mayer traces this anti-movement back through the Koch dynasty allied with other wealth including the Mellon-Scaife family in Pittsburgh, and even the early Rockefellers. It seems that when one accumulates a certain standing as measured by wealth, there comes an addiction commonly known as greed. Of course, the Koch conference attendees represent those who have been taken by this force. There may be others of this class who escape and spend their time in other pursuits. But these folks are serious sociopaths and given their resources, are a real threat to democracy.
I have wondered in print before, just what is so fearful to them about democracy? Is it the three Ps they might have to sacrifice – profits, privilege and power? Do they imagine themselves hung from the nearest telephone pole, pursued with pitchforks? One of the Mellons commented that when he had trouble sleeping he would count the rooms in his modest 60 room weekend retreat, instead of counting sheep as we lower elements have to content ourselves with. You can get used to that kind of privilege and convince yourself that you deserve it, are “entitled,” as Mitt Romney would have it about a different demographic.
It is worth noting that the Koch patriarch Fred Koch, traded with the Nazis, provided much-needed expertise on fueling Hitler’s diabolical war machine, and admired their system and that of Mussolini. He also provided similar service to Stalin though this he came to regret as he later embraced the religion of anti-communism. He wasn’t alone: the patriarch Prescott Bush also served the Nazis and came very close to prosecution for trading with the enemy. According to Michael Parenti some U.S.-owned corporate factories in Germany during WW II were on a no-bomb list, and those that were inadvertently bombed were given restitution after the war – not information we are likely to encounter in our mainstream media nor standard academic history.
Odd that these extremists were so alarmed about paying taxes, government regulations, and assistance to the needy. I suppose they longed for the good old days before the 1929 crash that caused great suffering to millions and eventually brought us Roosevelt and the New Deal.
The greed-force cannot envision “enough,” neither of money nor of control. This is a psychosis. One of the founding members of the Carthage Group, Andrew Mellon, was Treasury Secretary through the three administrations preceding Roosevelt. He worked diligently to cut taxes on the wealthy and roll back what meager progressive legislation existed in the ’20s. It wasn’t until 1913 that the U.S. instituted an income tax, and though he wasn’t successful in rolling that back, he was able to cut taxes for the 1%, both income and capital gains.
Roll-back, motivated by greed, is always justified by tame economists with lofty sounding theories, like trickle-down economics, where it is claimed, falsely, that cutting taxes on the rich will actually increase taxes collected, benefiting everyone. This errant argument gets rolled out periodically, with different names but the same old beneficiaries, promoted by for and of, the wealthy. The theory is bosom buddies with the NRA (National Rifle Association – appendage of the gun industry) adage that more guns make us safer.
A particular villain in this sad story creating a lot of damage is David Weyrich who made himself enthusiastically available in this lucrative endeavor to the boss men. He co-created the right wing think tank, The Heritage Foundation with Mellon providing much of the funding, buying them a nice ten story building across the street from the Supreme Court conveniently located near Senate office buildings and the capital.
Heritage is ostensibly a research center but the name hints at its values: I think a priori is a phrase describing research where you start with the desired conclusions and gather evidence to support it and ignore evidence that doesn’t. It is an indictment of mainstream media, which includes public TV and radio, that these propagandists were and are routinely consulted as “experts.”
Weyrich also co-founded with the repugnant Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority. Another creation on his resume is ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) whose function is to write legislation favorable to business and get it passed by state legislators. One of their projects is to block or slow the development of solar. This effort is supplemented by the bribery system known as campaign contributions.
Part of the aim and effect of Weyrich’s work was to push already existing think tanks, such as Rand and Brookings who did actual research, to the Right by accusing them of the sin of “liberality.” Ever sensitive to funder perception these think tanks then hired conservatives for “balance.” Funny that in the “search for “truth,” balance requires that you bring in some liars.
Part I of Mayer’s book is titled, “Weaponizing Philanthropy: The War of Ideas, 1970 – 2008.” Future reviews will cover part 2, “Secret Sponsors: Covert Operations, 2009 – 2010,” and part 3, “Privatizing Politics: Total Combat, 2011 – 2014.” Part 1 covers billionaires extending their narrow, self-serving influence. People like the Kochs, Mellen-Scaife, Olin and the Bradleys, touching on the earlier wealthy conservatives Rockefeller, Bush and others.
Beach Head: John Olin noted industrial polluter created the Olin Foundation and used his money for several insidious but influential endeavors. His strategy evolved into stealth, where he created what he called beach heads in the law schools. He had his minions create a course innocuously called, Law and Economy, endowing Law Schools including Harvard, Yale and Cornel to incorporate it into their curriculum – the only important school to decline the money based on ethical concerns was the Law School of the UCLA. The course was based on the Libertarian theory that law and regulations should be subject not just to fairness but to considerations of their economic impact. Gee, if we quit polluting the river it will affect our bottom line.
Another project was the Federalist Society, eventually a 40,000-member association of right-leaning lawyers including Ed Meese, John Ashcroft, Dick Cheney and all four conservative supreme court justices. Olin also sponsored all expense-paid “seminars” for judges, junkets really to exotic locales where a morning indoctrination lecture left the day free for swimming, golf, etc. Not satisfied with merely attacking democracy while he was alive, Olin left $100 million to his foundation with the caveat that it must spend all the money before its trustees died to insure that liberals could never hijack it as he thought had happened to the Ford Foundation (Henry being that famous anti-semitic, Hitler admirer).
So these guys, truly the 1%, its activist wing anyway, set about to systematically and disproportionately impact our government and institutions in a way that favored them and went a long way toward dismantling democracy. They have always been about this project – especially so since The New Deal, but the last 40 years marks an acceleration and attempt to more fully consolidate their position as, what Chomsky calls, the Masters. The decimation of unions, the trade agreements and “globalization” that moved U.S. production and jobs overseas and largely account for the immigration crisis, and the massive transfer of wealth to them from the rest of us is testament to their success. The TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) trade agreement down the pike offers us more of the same, including a transfer of national sovereignty to unelected and unaccountable corporate panels. A conservative Michigan legislature gave its governor the power to appoint overseers for troubled cities – overseers who can ignore and override elected officials and democracy. Flint is one result of that bargain and that is a model of what they seek for the whole planet. If we don’t resist we become Flint.
  • Image: The feature illustration, The Spoils of War, is by the author © Tom Ferguson