Friday, January 27, 2012

God Has Demons?

Michael Parenti, in his 2010 book, God and His Demons, joins Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins in critiquing what all three would characterize as dangerous superstition. Dawkins and Parenti are careful to clarify that their subject is fundamentalism not all religion. But they do express puzzlement over the appeal of religion even on the less literal level. Dawkins suggests that the comfort, if that’s what is provided, is hardly worth the sacrifice of intellectual honesty required. Parenti takes it a bit further by dismissing even the oft-reported mystic’s feeling of ONENESS as so much self-delusion. So such “spiritual” teachers as Eckhart Tolle, according to Parenti, are at best delusional and at worst preying on the gullible. He does however acknowledge that many so-called people of faith constitute a positive force in promoting a more humane world. But they are not who he’s talking about in the book.

Like Hitchens, Parenti spends a great deal of time gleefully deconstructing biblical passages. His social concerns, beyond both Hitchens and Dawkins, are evident in one of his examples where he claims that the bible mentions homosexuality only 8 times but in one form or another offers numerous injunctions against unfair distribution of wealth. So why then is it commonplace for preachers to rail against homosexuality but nary a tribunal has been appointed to ferret out greedy landowners and financiers? The bible doesn’t mention abortion nor same-sex marriage yet these are the central issues for the majority of fundamentalist Christians. And in the new testament, family values don’t come up. In fact Jesus is a bachelor, by most accounts, hanging out with a dozen guys and in several instances is quite rude and dismissive of women and children.

Logical lapses occur in the great book, something the faithful apparently can skate right over without notice. And creative license with scripture is common. Jews for instance are often hatefully called “Christ Killers” yet very few Jews of the time could have met nor even have heard of Jesus. Why should all Jews be blamed? After all, Jesus himself was a Jew. Yet the formal church, once it came to power, more than occasionally burst forth with deadly pogroms, culminating in the 20th Century holocaust. Pope Pius XII was silent during World War II yet excommunicated all communist party members, world wide, in 1949. Parenti cites examples of wide-eyed individuals spared in natural disasters crediting God with intervening to save them, proclaiming that, “God is great” or such. Yet those who didn’t make it are not mentioned. Many Christians have prayer sessions for those with cancer or other terminal diseases. Do they think that the divine being can be swayed from his “plan” by sucking up? In fact studies by the American Health Journal to ascertain the efficacy of prayer do not support the belief and in some cases actually contradict it. Yes, those prayed for fared worse. The con-artists, for what else can we call someone like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson etc; have proclaimed that natural or other disasters show the deity’s displeasure with human behavior, 911 and Katrina for example being punishment for the tolerance of homosexuality (again) or maybe voting Democrat. The Onion did a lampoon, where God holds a press conference announcing that a recent tsunami was part of his longtime moving-in-mysterious-ways policy.

Speaking of fraud, Parenti has a devastating, for the uninitiated, chapter on Mother Teresa. It seems that she made claims in her fund-raising that turned out to be just a little bit untrue… numbers of schools, hospitals and orphanages her organization supported etc; Seems she spent 8 months of the year jetting around, in a private plane, fleecing the faithful, staying in luxury accommodations and lying about what she was doing in India. After her death her diaries revealed that her professed catholic beliefs were far from how she actually saw things. Never the less, she’s on the fast track for sainthood being as how she was such an effective fund-raiser. Of course she is hardly alone. The Catholic church is wealthier than any corporation you can name. But there’s plenty of competition for those believer dollars. The mega-church con-artists who populate our Sundays and public airwaves may not be in the same league but they’re doing all right. Sometimes they get a little overzealous. A Villanova University research project found that 85% of Roman Church dioceses in the U.S. had been hit by embezzlement over the 2001-6 time period. Jim Baker we all remember, was sentenced to 18 years (served 6) for diverting church funds to personal use. Msgr. John Woolsey of New York City was convicted for stealing $8 million. Even Billy Graham was revealed to have a “slush fund” of $23 million that his flock didn’t know about. Ag Khan, Iman of Islami Muslims owns 600 race horses, several factories, and over 600 “prayer and business” centers. Rev. Moon (why do we call these guys reverend?) was convicted in 1982 of conspiracy and tax fraud serving 13 months (seems when they do get caught they tend to get off kind of lightly… I mean we’re talking about millions bilked from gullible souls). The Moon daughter-in-law wrote a book exposing the family as extremely dysfunctional with drug use, infidelity and the usual lavish life style. In the 1980s 11 top Scientologists were imprisoned for infiltrating, burglarizing and wire-tapping private and government agencies, attempting to stop an investigation. Hundreds of adherents have left, reporting psychological and physical abuse, Some have successfully sued the church.

A section on cults documents abundant instances of serious abuse. The Jim Jones People’s Temple massacre may be the most spectacular but is hardly alone in sadistic psychological and physical practices, usually targeting women, always children and as often as not the men too. Parenti highlights the Mormon church for its sexist and racist beliefs but concludes the section with the thought that maybe the mainstream churches are just cults that have been around a longer time.

The book goes on to demonstrate how secular and religious authorities have worked hand in hand to advance their privileged positions in the social order but that is for my next post.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

An Adult Fairy Tale

The persistence of a fairy tale portraying the United States as a benevolent force in the world, promoting freedom, democracy, health and happiness for all is attributable in part to the fact that embracing the belief is often prerequisite to substantial material abundance, while questioning it can bar the road to such rewards. This would of course hold true, in one form or another, for any of the many empires littering the historical landscape, an insight that might be tolerable if held toward other societies, though it is probably wise to keep it to oneself, but never is it to be seen/said to apply here. Chomsky calls this view U.S. Exceptionalism.

Those who rise in the mainstream (corporate) pundit journalism profession are not those who point out inconsistencies in the tale, no more than those in the church who rise to Cardinal, Bishop etc; are those who question basic assumptions. No, it is “faith” that elevates one to the higher reaches. Those with little (or no) faith must apply only to the marginal congregations, the fringe journals that pay writers in the high two figures.

So reading Noam Chomsky demands a certain suspension of belief in order to consider evidence normally excluded as unduly disturbing to received wisdom. There in the UNwonderland one encounters some surprising notions – Power and Terror, Conflict, Hegemony and the Rule of Force, the Chomsky book under discussion here. The U.S. for example, as an Imperial Power, is a “settler-colonial society” meaning that the native inhabitants were not integrated into the colonial project but were rather exterminated or driven out. An even more unspeakable truth in the world of the mainstream pundit, or intellectual class as Chomsky likes to phrase it, is that “settler-colonial society” applies equally to one of the United States’ chief allies, Israel. This view, though at extreme odds with convention, has the advantage of evaporating the difficulty understanding the puzzling lack of progress in the Israeli/Palestinian “peace process”. There is no progress because the U.S. and Israel are “settler-colonial societies, standing in the way of a world-wide consensus for a two-state solution.

In 1967 Israel, in a quick little war, expanded it’s territory considerably. The United Nations in Resolution 242 called for a peace settlement where Israel would return to it’s borders. Egypt later expanded upon the resolution, adding the idea that a Palestinian state would reside in the occupied territories with security guarantees for Israel. In the U.S. a rivalry between Henry Kissinger and the State Department ended in Kissinger’s favor which meant a veto to support Israel’s decision to choose expansion over security, militarism over diplomacy. A consequence of this decision was the 1973 war with Egypt, a very close call for Israel. For a U.S. pundit, politician or policy maker, to perceive this account is dangerous, to speak it is a career killer.

But lest we stray into the treacherous charge of anti-semitism let’s consider the fairy tale as it applies elsewhere. Iran was “good” after its parliamentary democracy was overthrown (by the U.S. and Britain in 1954) and the Shah installed as a vicious dictator with one of the worst human rights records on the planet. Then it was “bad” when the people overthrew the puppet (unfortunately leading to a medieval theocracy). And it gets “badder and badder” as it continues to refuse to follow orders. It interferes with the internal affairs of Iraq whereas, in the fairy tale remember, U.S. presence is solely for the purposes of promoting freedom and democracy, nothing to do with oil or empire. This by the by also accounts for U.S./Nato bombing of Serbia – failure to follow orders! – but in the fairy tale the bombing was to stop ethnic killing. Even Molly Ivins fell for that one (see Chomsky’s The New Military Humanism).

Haiti, another example: Woodrow Wilson had Haiti invaded in 1915. Its parliamentary system was destroyed, 15,000 Haitains killed and slavery re-instituted. A brutal, murderous national guard was created, a force that has pretty much run things ever since. Two interruptions of note: the ascendancy of populist leader Aristide, twice, both ending in U.S.-supported coups (no U.S.-supported coups during the murderous regimes). How is this presented in the fairy tale version? The U.S., frustrated in its attempts to bring democracy to a backward nation that is perhaps not ready for such advanced ideas, plows on in its maybe na├»ve mission, to bring enlightenment to the dark corners of the world. By the way: Haiti hosted the first successful slave revolt. A French colony at the time, France, supported by the U.S., demanded reparations, re-payment for loss of its “investment”, a payment plan that kept Haiti impoverished right up until Wilson’s coup de grace.

More fairy tale: during Ronald Reagan’s presidency Nelson Mandala and the African National Congress (ANC) were branded terrorist organizations while South Africa, virtually enslaving the majority of its citizens and invading nearby nations to deadly effect (1. 5 million deaths) were participants in “Constructive Engagement”. Examining Amnesty International’s records on torture and U.S. foreign aid, Prof. Edward Herman reveals an interesting correlation. Not that the U.S. is interested in torture per se but it seems to accompany the kind of regimes the U.S. favors, regimes that just happen to have close (dependent) relations with U.S. corporations whose operations are so unfair to the general population that it turns out to be more economical to suppress and terrorize the population than to compensate properly for extracted resources and labor.

Thanks to the Occupy Wall Street movement we have very handy shorthand with which to characterize the long tradition of who rules in the U.S. and for whose benefit. And we can look to another slogan, slightly modified, to see what can be done about it - 99%-ers of the world, unite!

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Big Boys

For their book, The Big Boys, Ralph Nader and William Taylor lined up interviews with U.S. corporate CEOs to get a sense of the mid 1980s business world as viewed from that lofty perch. In a way, little has changed since. The basic motivation remains, profit. But the presence of greed has undergone what could under-statedly be called an amplification. Manufacturing an actual non-sweat-shop product was still an on-going operation in the U.S. You could buy U.S.-made shoes, tools, autos, dishwashers, VCRs… Steel Plants were still forging those ol’ I-beams, but not for long. The more lucrative short cuts of the casino-financial world had not yet fully kicked in, where profit is generated by manipulating or betting on market fluctuations.

Corporate raiders were the rage in this time-frame, not quite as damaging or sexy but still, you could turn a few million and devastate a community of workers. Take out huge loans to buy a company, sell off select assets, downsize workers, shifting the company’s primary focus to servicing its debt. Very lucrative fees involved. A family-owned lumber company in the Northwest which prided itself on its labor relations and ecological sensitivity was taken over. The tried and true pattern soon brought the company to cutting old growth forest and laying off workers. As expectations for profits increase for one class, damage to workers and other “losers” naturally must make up the difference.

Big Boys does a series of nine portraits of movers and shakers, based on interviews although three CEOs refused interview requests. The elusive Roger Smith, he of the Michael Moore film Roger and Me, and two others had to be sketched from comments in the media, their public speeches and other sources. Moore’s film pointed out that GM moved profitable(!) plants to Mexico, leaving Flint, Michigan, Moore’s hometown, a near ghost town. Greed is camouflaged with a euphemism – Globalization. To illustrate the corporate, top-down mentality, the book describes General Motors, under Smith, using its clout to locate a new plant, with its massive parking lot, in the middle of an old established working class Detroit neighborhood. Other options were clearly available but the air up in the GM boardroom was obviously too rarefied for such considerations. Smith’s fleet emphasis was profits of course but on flash and style rather than reliability and safety. Nader credits Smith with delaying the introduction of the airbag by years through his dogged and obstinate opposition. The cost in lives was real and substantial but neither Smith nor GM was ever held accountable. As with the tobacco companies, literally murderous policies face, at worst, monetary settlements.

What GM did for Detroit, David Roderick of U.S. Steel, did for Chicago and Pittsburgh. Facing “reality”, as he saw it, Roderick made decisions that devastated neighborhoods with job lay-offs and plant closings, even demolishing rather than sell plants to workers who tried to organize to that end. This experiment was not to be allowed. Apparently tycoons will instinctively oppose the rise of any non-hierarchal institution, even if it hurts profits. No surprise really. Their political bed-fellows in D.C. fear the same in third world nations and will rush to crush any serious questioning of the “free market”.

Now you can imagine when we get to Dow Chemical’s Paul Oreffice that there’s going to be some impressive practice of the fine art of denial. Again, comparing the tobacco companies, when profits are threatened by reality reality is going out the door. In its place is summoned well-paid “experts” who can attest to this or that mirage in long-winded pseudo-scientific verbiage – just think Global Climate change debate on Faux News. The remaining personalities in this book are all very interesting but they none of them stray more than centimeters from the notion that Milton Friedman’s economic theories are figurative tablets of self-evident God-incised wisdom. Sort of mirror-images of Soviet Union officials at the same time in history maintaining the infallibility of Karl Marx… or was it Mother Russia? Somebody’s going to have to take the Question Authority bumper sticker seriously here and steer us away from Lemming Cliff, and soon. Occupy and Roll!

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Smartest Thieves in the Room

The Enron debacle is maybe old news but still elucidates a corporate mentality that ever seeks dominion over our every thought and breath, that it may more effectively pick our bones. In their 2003 book, The Smartest Guys in the Room, Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind remind the gullible that so-called experts in the financial world need to be scrutinized carefully, that the respectability of their $300 haircuts and $4,000 dollar suits wither in the harsh light of a mug shot.

Wall Street apologists will caution that we should not judge a whole industry by the criminal behavior of a few bad apples but scrutinizing those bad apples reveals some interesting if wormy data: top Enron officers were among the loudest proponents of the “free market”, calling for deregulation when it promised them rip-off privilege but crying out for government largess when that would firm up their quarterly reports. The most prestigious of accounting firms, Arthur Anderson, turned a blind eye to illegal and/or deceptive Enron accounting methods since that was immensely profitable for the firm (short-term of course – ultimately it destroyed them). Wall Street analysts bought into Enron PR instead of analyzing. Politicians took the money and ran. Lawyers bent the law, Bankers took obscene fees while putting their depositors at risk. The central theme throughout the Enron story? Greed: million dollar fees left and right bought compliance and silence; multi-million dollar bonuses dazzled and corrupted; A vicious back-stabbing competitive Enron culture rewarded chicanery and weeded out employees with integrity, the few who mustered the courage to question the party line.

In the end co-conspirators were all frantically blaming someone else and one cornered big fish turned state’s evidence to reduce prison time. Enron’s Chief Financial Officer, Andy Fastow (CFO-turned-rat), served six country club years and, despite millions in fines, remains a millionaire. Top executives were urging employees to buy stock, “It’s going nowhere but up, we’ll all be rich!” while quietly selling off their own shares and squirreling away millions. Part of the function of accountability is to deter future crime, which apparently Enron and other corporate criminals rise above, ill-gotten gains only partially recouped. Another manifestation of this truly class war is the decision by our Muslim-Socialist-Communist-Uncitizen president not to pursue criminal charges against the previous criminal administration. To paraphrase a famous pirate, “Rob a convenience store and you’re a criminal, rob the U.S. treasury and you’re an entrepreneur.”

There was some meager justice in the Enron case: CEO Jeff Skilling spent $42 million in legal fees and will be in prison (albeit country club) until he’s 74. His family however remains free and holding, and enjoying, his remaining millions. The infamous Ken Lay, George Bush Jr.’s Kenny Boy, creator of Enron, would have received a stiff sentence also had he not gone and died – fruit for conspiracy theories here. His family also is enjoying whatever remains of his fortune not appropriated by defense lawyers and not squandered by his profligate spending. Most negative consequences however fell upon naive Enron employees and other investors. With the recent MF Global Holdings bankruptcy, larger even than Enron, it is clear that, to mix a metaphor, gangsters still have a pipeline into the henhouse and the guards… well, what guards? Why ever would the Free Market need guards?