Monday, February 10, 2020

A Words Worth

Language is a valuable (maybe essential) tool for exploring important ideas, ideas about justice in human relations, environmental or life system balance, and consciousness. Those two germs grew in my own intellectual development, you could say activism and metaphysics, in the form of support and exploration of what is loosely labeled “left” politics, and religious-ethical-philosophical studies. The two germs nurture each other, in a way, but language can actually block metaphysics when that is understood not as words about being but being itself.

Drawing, painting, music, dance and other arts language also engage in the metaphysical dialogue and they can, instead of referring to, talking about the subject, bring the artist/audience to the experience itself.

When the 1% gets nervous about its grip on the levers of power they sometimes will trot out a demagogue to seduce citizens their way, blaming this or that scapegoat for the indignities, injustices and insecurities foisted by selfish 1% policies.

Democracy is a high achievement of civilization, providing a means as it does, to settle disputes by reaching consensus, or peaceful agreement. The “losing party” might get part of their platform or can always look to another day, another issue where their view might prevail. This is a preferred option to always deciding the outcome of disputes by who has the bigger club. When the process becomes corrupted, when one party consistently cheats, or is merely perceived to, then the frustrated loser is tempted to reach for the club. If a faction is consistently excluded, even fairly, they too might see violence as useful. In a functioning democracy discontent is minimized so that “extremists” of this type cannot gather enough support to threaten the main body.

The 1% of course is such an extremist faction. They have already though corrupted democracy, by definition, to hold such disproportionate wealth, so their problem becomes masking the fact of their rule by use of scapegoats, media ownership, disproportionate influence in political, academic, religious and other institutional life, allocating relatively small portions of their vast wealth to this end.

I like to quote Arundhati Roy, “Remember, we are many, they are few.” It is true, the interests of the majority are fairly common; food, clothing, shelter, education, health care. The wealthy class' strength is, obviously money, and that can be (is) used to convince, persuade, muddy the waters, hire thugs, such that many will confusedly vote against their own interests. This is the dilemma Chomsky has recently cautioned about, that a candidate like Bernie will probably unite the 1%, a formidable coalition. And an establishment candidate will likely deflate progressive enthusiasm and will, even if elected, fail to address the climate/nuclear/equity crisis, thus continuing, though with less bluster, the drift toward the falls. For those who recognize that we end war or it ends us, that climate change is addressed or civilization implodes, it seems a Bernie-or-bust stance might be fully justified.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Who Rules the World?, Noam Chomsky

Chomsky's take on his title question can be reduced to this: Nation-states rule the world but who rules nation states? The 1%. He persuasively demonstrates this, and how even in so-called democracies it holds. For example, in the U.S., when 70% of the population favor a certain policy, like diplomacy over war, or health care, the population is ignored, the minority position prevails, the majority position “not feasible”. The policy-makers, the over-seers, do not put the interests of the people as their prime concern but rather the interests of that minority who put them, and keep them, where they are, in positions of power and prestige. This is certainly at odds with the patriotic narrative woven into our lives from birth, in school, church, hell, sports events where the national anthem is played before every game as if it were the most natural thing. No, the population's function is spectator, and consumer, or, they'd like you blind yes boss your mind no thought sleepin at the tube feelin no pain*. The important actors will take care of business.

But there must be a narrative to placate anyone paying attention. In foreign policy for example, Iran is a “destabilizing” actor in the mid-east whereas the U.S., “...illegally invading Iraq, resulting in hundreds of thousands killed, millions of refugees along with barbarous torture and destruction.... igniting sectarian conflict that is tearing the region to shreds and laying the basis for the ISIS monstrosity, – that is stabilization.” In 1970s Chile, a freely elected government must be overthrown because we seek the “stabilization” of General Pinochet's dictatorship. In 1953 Iran, we must overturn a democratically elected parliament, replacing it with a brutal dictatorship, with all the trappings – torture, secret police etc; in order to create “stability”. In Central America “stability” requires the support of more dictators, death squads etc; attacks on any signs of democracy brave enough to show themselves and, when those policies produce refugees fleeing violence, why we must create more stability with, say a nice border wall. Trade agreements, like NAFTA and GATT, which are actually investor protection agreements, also have their “stabilizing” effects, undermining local food production, sending rural people to sweat shops or the border where, once in the “belly of the beast” there is some opportunity for a bare living. One constant in this desire for “stability” is that the boss must be in charge, capitalism must not be questioned, no alternatives need apply.

One area where the boss is clearly not pursuing the interests of the general population is nuclear weapons. Proposals for a nuclear-free middle-east, supported by all area governments except Israel and its, ah, U.S. Patron, are shot down by those two governments. Hair-trigger nuclear warheads remain on alert in both Russia and the U.S., and nuclear plans for massive retaliation which would annihilate the life system and civilization remain locked in, violating treaties, international law and common sense. Plans for expansion of nuclear weapons, in the trillion-dollar range, routinely sail through the system despite the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) which, if honored, might give our species a shot at survival. There is no cry of, “How ever can we afford such projects?!” That is saved for proposals like health care and a minimum, livable wage.

Climate change, Naomi Klein asserts, is resisted so vehemently because the 1% and its minions recognize, or intuite, that capitalism, as currently practiced, is incompatible with what is needed to address that crisis. Denial at all costs! the order of the day. Apparently sea-level rise will be turned away at gated communities and elite mansions. The Republican party, Chomsky claims, is the most dangerous organization in history, committed as it is to the destruction of democracy and civilization. Via the bribery system known as campaign contributions, many democrats are also roped in as enablers.

It is clear to any serious student of history, or perhaps I should say, of Chomsky, that the narratives put forth by the ruling class have been shown to be false, on capitalism, Vietnam, the Middle-east, Central America, Latin America, U.S. History, Socialism, Cuba, Israel-Palestine... that the U.S., far from the benevolent, democracy-promoting, “exceptionalist” state, is the most murderous, plundering national entity on the planet. The current narrative, repeated constantly in the institutions and media, is difficult to shake off. The horrifying truth is immensely discouraging but, exactly where resistance must begin.

*from Power's Your Angel, a song by the author

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Hate Inc., Matt Taibbi

Embedded in Taibbi's lively reportage, the message of Hate Inc. is that U.S. mainstream media have evolved from maintaining a more or less calm and unified take on what stories are publishable and what are not, in service to power to be sure, to frenetic, partisan coverage with a point of view aimed at a particular demographic. Taibbi uses Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky's 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent, to describe this shift, a shift he fears has accentuated polarization and created a loss of media credibility among the electorate that is irrecoverable and very bad news for democracy. The chief culprit is “left” media's irresponsible, journalistically sloppy commitment to the Russian Collusion story.

Published just before the shift, Taibbi describes how Manufacturing Consent applies to the two periods. In the pre-shift phase the media had a lock on a profitable segment of advertising which the digital age unlocked, lowering profits and sending the industry into a panicked search for audience share to deliver to its advertisers. Fox News hit on it first. Following the sports model of picking a side and rallying the fans to rabid loyalty and emotional investment. CNN, MSNBC etc; soon followed, all using the same tactics: aim for a certain demographic, build loyalty, keep them pissed-off at the other side and sitting on the edge of their seat with “breaking news” and purchasing their advertisers' products.

The pre-shift media kept what Chomsky called the “parameters of discussion” to a narrow range, usually called conservative to liberal. This reflected the range of opinion among the owners who carefully hired people with the appropriate beliefs to run their business. So vigorous-appearing debates were actually quite constrained. Search that media in vain for socialist commentators, that point of view being outside polite discourse. I was aware of Manufacturing Consent and pretty much, for that reason, avoided mainstream news for a long time. The book didn't actually recommend this but rather an eyes-open critical reading. So I was taken aback, even delighted, when encountering Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews etc; on MSNBC mocking “wingnuts”. It took me awhile to realize that though things had stretched some, those same basic parameters were still there. Socialism could actually be mentioned now and then without hysterical demonizing, but not too often. The main thrust was going after those crazy lying right wingers on Fox, Republicans in the congress and administration, cheering for “our side”, the reasonable moderate liberals. Fox of course was the mirror image. The networks tried various mixes, CNN attempting sometimes to outfox Fox, even hire away its commentators, MSNBC fairly strictly sticking to the anti-right. The strategies were the same for both “sides”, just different targets. The big mistake, according to Taibbi, was bringing that strategy to the Russian Collusion story.

Taibbi condemns this shift as NOT journalism but entertainment. Previously news could be more like a book seller's prestige publications, not necessarily profitable but enhancing the brand. Now you had to hold your audience at all costs, with desperate measures and journalistic standards be damned. If a journalist was on a “team”, it was journalism, not a political party. This effort has been very profitable. The “product” comes from, is selected from, the same old sources, reporters, but of an ever-shrinking pool.

The author confesses that he is actually fairly non-political, more interested in his family than politics but “If tortured...” he'd confess to being progressive, voting, being lightly activist, giving a little money here and there but mostly he sees the world from an absurdist position. Humanity is the three stooges he says, we try our best but mostly fail. Taibbi confesses to having worked his audience from a niche called the vitriolic essay, a take-down artist but with always the right people being taken down. I remember sensing this reading him, being entertained as he “took down” the people I loved to hate but sensing something off. Especially if he included people I respected, like Bernie. He seems to recognize the urgency of climate change or the threat of nuclear holocaust, the obscenity of military spending, rule of the 1% etc; in one sentence then slip into, it's not all that important or the flippant statement that we used to hire people to do our vitriol, meaning elected officials. Taibbi does not mention that Hillary took the popular vote, by 2-3 million, when critiquing her campaign. Nor does he mention the obstruction of justice offenses in the Mueller report (and why didn't the dems include these in the impeachment?!). But I have to buy his take, that if you're looking for corruption you do it without partisan protection, you call a spade a spade. Without that objectivity there is a credibility loss that makes it easier to believe tRump's wild accusations of fake news.

Taibbi's book includes a section explaining why Rachel Maddow is paired with Hannity on the cover, the claim that both use the same partisan strategies to make money for their network (and selves). A second section is an interview with Noam Chomsky, discussing he and Ed Herman's book in today's context.

Friday, December 20, 2019

tRumper Factions

Pro-tRumper voters can be assigned into one or more of five categories: ideologues, evangelicals, racists, opportunists and working people who have felt abandoned by the democratic party... this last the only category at all likely to shift.

Ideologues: this personality is characterized by belief impervious to evidence. It is a psychological commonplace that encountering new information leaves one the option of expanding or tweaking one's point of view to accommodate the new information or denying the new information. The belief that my grandfather was a wonderful, loving man would be challenged by information that he spent the World War II. years with the SS enthusiastically exterminating inmates at Auschwitz. Deny or tweak? The good German denies the holocaust, the good Patriot denies or rationalizes U.S. torture or, say, reports of a president's lies. Democracy is wonderful in this view but only so long as the right side wins. Perfectly acceptable to suppress the votes of those too ignorant to see the shining truth.

Evangelicals: here denial is more pointed. First of all the basic dogma is bedrock truth, no facts or argument necessary, just as with the ideologue but now with a religious twist. Jesus died for our sins blah blah... evangelicals aren't troubled by reports of outrageous presidential behavior, no need to deny them when told by their pastor that God's warriors are sometimes a bit rough around the edges, just so they're doing God's work. And that they are doing, according to the pastor. This usually amounts to opposing abortion, family planning and gay marriage and especially defending Christianity from secular attack. This attack translates, on examination, into obstacles set up by “secularists” (maybe even communists!) to prevent christian evangelicals from imposing their own little “sharia law” on the rest of us. Laws like the First Amendment of the Constitution providing freedom of (and from) religion. The founders well knew the tyrannical form organized religion could take and sought to avoid this by not favoring any one religion, keeping state and religion separate. This is fine with evangelicals for other religions but not theirs, theirs being the only true one. Just what the founders were afraid of. Democracy is not big with this group except in so far as their votes can affect their issues. Getting god's dictator in power is a much higher value. The recent article in the influential Christianity Today, is no doubt causing some cognitive dissonance for the evangelical. It calls for tRump's impeachment on grossly immoral grounds.

Racists: hard to talk about this group since their tenacious commitment to the “cause” is so ugly and transparent one wonders truly how they can maintain it. And their resistance to contrary information is so dogged that the other groups seem almost liberal in comparison. It certainly is about ego, suggesting a desperate insecurity that requires someone to look down upon. Dylan's line sums it up, “The poor white remains, on the caboose of the train, but it ain't him to blame he's only a pawn in their game.” Well that implies that someone (the 1% perhaps?) cynically uses the issue in their divide and conquer strategy to maintain their privilege. Early union organizing was really hurt by this divide. I suppose it goes way back to the days where small bands of humans distrusted other bands based on difference. Hell, I remember being ready to fight other kids because they were from a town 11 miles away – foreigners! The civil rights chant comes to mind, “The people united will never be defeated!”

Opportunists: of course this population is always alert for any opportunity to gain power and prestige. Mussolini was a Socialist in his early days but soon saw where the money and power lay. Newt Ginrich, Linsy Graham, Dick Cheney, Kissinger, Kelly Ann Conway, and a seemingly endless list of other shameless individuals recognize that serving 1% interests is the fast and easy path to personal wealth and power. Ralph Nader comes to mind as someone who made a modest career of refusing this easy money. The old expression, “Nice guys finish last.” or Cheney's statement that “...principal is fine but it only takes you so far.” Or Kissinger's cynical, “The issues are too important to allow the people of Chile to decide them.”, as he abetted a coup very costly in freedom and lives... and misery. Ask these guys though what motivates them they'll swing out the flag and drum corp for “freedom and democracy.” Not persuasively to the informed but that's not who they're talking to.

Workers: Reagan began his presidency by gutting a union and this was what the 1% had been working toward since Roosevelt's terms in office. They had fought tooth and nail to defeat his notions of government serving the poor with programs like social security and recognition of unions. They were successful in watering many down and in their campaign to demonize the word socialism. World War I. Vets who marched on Washington demanding their promised bonus were met, by Hoover, with bayonets. Roosevelt sent them coffee. After World War II. there was a shared prosperity in the U.S., limited for sure, by race, gender and class, but still prosperity for a significant portion of the population. But the forces of greed were under the radar organizing, culminating with a vengeance in Reagan's election. More and more workers were returned to the pre-union world of low wages and boss abuse, the “Humiliation of the marketplace” as Chomsky called it. Alienation was certainly felt by workers and Reagan's invented “Welfare Queen” was meant to divert and explain it, provide a nice scapecoat. When Bernie came along to pull the curtain aside, naturally he had to be marginalized, leaving the field to the great con-artist and establishment.

One further category is the owners, the 1%. As Chomsky points out, they generally could care less about abortion and gay marriage but are happy to see such issues used to swing votes their way. It is said that in a meeting with the newly elected Adolph Hitler, German industrialists were asked for funds to help solidify the victory after which there would be no more elections for a hundred years. The checkbooks came out, overcoming any squeamishness they might have had about this uncouth deal maker with dancing visions of unimpeded profits. I don't think this has to be underlined in its application to 2020.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Media Complicity & Elite Rule

Mainstream media, aside from the disgusting Faux News, has been exposing tRump's lies for some time, and that's just responsible journalism. But lest we be naive, we need to recognize their own lies: when it comes to nation states such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Nicaragua, to the extent that they pursue a vision that challenges global capitalism with a more benign alternative; when it comes to “allied” nation states that violate the rights of their own citizens or subjects or neighbors but serve U.S. Interests (read, interests of the U.S. 1%) such as formerly South Africa and currently Israel, Egypt, the Philippines, Honduras, Columbia... and with the recent elections in Great Britain, a virulent strain of reaction seems be seizing power in far too many locales. Gerrymandering, voter suppression and foreign interference certainly seem to be rampant in the U.S., and probably abroad, unless we are to believe that a “landslide” of British subjects have suddenly embraced fascism. And, as Chomsky  has pointed out, interference by the 1% in elections dwarfs foreign interference.
Their lies? Take the issue of media spin on countries pursuing alternatives to global capitalism. Venezuela has frequently been described as a dictatorship despite its elected government, whether Chavez or current leaders. A coup against a democratically elected president in Honduras was quickly accepted by the U.S., this under Obama the communist muslim, with Hillary Clinton as Secretary of state. Obama did attempt a lightening up on Cuba but tRump put an end to that. When the U.S., under Reagan, was violently attacking Nicaragua in ways, that if conducted against the U.S. would clearly be denounced as terrorism (in fact the world court convicted the U.S. Of terrorism for its mining of Nicaraguan harbors in 1985). I remember watching mainstream television reporters standing in Honduras, at the border, pointing behind themselves with their thumb to the Sandinista-led “marxist” dictatorship, despite, again, being an elected government far more respectful of general liberties than the brutal fake democracies the U.S. Supported in El Salvador and Guatemala. U.S. rhetoric sings high praise to freedom and democracy but as just that, rhetoric. It claimed in the bad old days of the cold war that Russia was a repressive gulag but it turns out that it wasn't the brutality “we” objected to, but the anti-capitalism. In favored regimes, Guatemala and El Salvador, anyone advocating for a free press, unions or questioning of 1% rule soon were carted off to gruesome meetup with a death squad. Never a major problem for the caretakers of democracy in administration after administration.
Take the other issue, allies who routinely violate human rights. Recently Representative Ilhan Ohmar was villified, attacked by democrats and republicans alike, for mildly criticizing Israel's policies of land theft and oppression of Palestinians. According to Noam Chomsky, Israel's intent is to make life so miserable for Palestinians in the occupied territories that they will leave. This is increasingly applied also to Palestinian/Israeli citizens. Justification for this blind support is neatly summed up by Chomsky's statement that Israel, from the U.S. point of view, is “our” mid-eastern aircraft carrier, conveniently located near oil riches.
The U.S. was very slow to recognize the loss of its chief enemy, and justification for bloated but highly profitable, military spending, when the Soviet Union collapsed. At the first opportunity our democracy loving leaders supported the Yeltsin coup, shuttling aside Gorbachev who wanted a Swedish-style social democracy. Thus the arising of today's Russian gangster oligarchy. The “democratic spring” in Egypt caught our great leaders by surprise and they did what they could to support the ruling elite over those upstarts. And at home, did the police pepper-spray the bankers and stockbrokers pilfering the housing market and stock market or the uppidity protesters?
Well, these two categories of lies certainly lay out part of what those who actually prefer democracy are up against. And it is the anomie generated by these dominant forces that account for some of the attraction to tRump but it is clear that he is hardly a threat to but rather an amplification of elite rule, in a loose-cannon kind of anti-democractic caricature of populism. It is a quandry that we depend for information on 1%-owned media, a gradiant true, from Faux news on the hysterical right to CNN etc; supposedly liberal but actually maybe “moderate” to MSNBC which asks some great questions but in the end simply marks the left-most respectable position which DOES NOT question global capitalism. The New York Times and Washington Post might despise tRump but they do not pursue questions that discomfort their owners. A useful tool is which studies how the media is spinning things, the Intercept for a radical (read sensible) take. Speaking of that maligned term, who is radical? The politician calling for an assault rifle ban or the smarmy second amendment/NRA apologist? The advocate for nuclear disarmament or the proposal for trillion-dollar expansion of those doomsday arsenals? The idea of non-violent conflict resolution or military hegemony?                    Tom Ferguson (drawing by the author)