Thursday, June 13, 2019

Fire and Fury, Inside the tRump Whitehouse, Michael Wolff


 
Wolff's title comes from the rant tRump impetuously directed at North Korea, that it would be met with “... fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen...” this irresponsible mouthing, a terroristic threat really, came in response to a reporter's question about North Korea at an August 8, 2017 discussion of the opioid crisis. Trump had been reading a statement in a monotone, bored stiff, anxious to get back to his golf game. The question perked him up and Dr. Jekyl became Mr. Hyde, a loose cannon of major proportions, hiring and firing staff as impulsively as he tweeted whatever crossed his mind, surrounded by lackeys sucking up and vying for position, trying to channel his presidential power down whatever road their particular variant of right-wing ideology demanded, using always the strategy most likely to succeed, flattery.

An email forwarded around the Whitehouse, from a disgruntled staffer, then out onto the net, summarized what working for tRump was like: It’s worse than you can imagine. An idiot surrounded by clowns. Trump won’t read anything – not one-page memos, not brief policy papers; nothing. He gets up halfway through meetings with world leaders because he is bored. And his staff is no better. Kushner is an entitled baby who knows nothing. Bannon is an arrogant prick who thinks he’s smarter than he is. Trump is less a person than a collection of terrible traits. No one will survive the first year but his family (meaning of staff). I hate the work, but feel I need to stay because I’m the only person there with a clue what he’s doing. The reason so few jobs have been filled is that they only accept people who pass ridiculous purity tests, even for midlevel policy-making jobs where the people will never see the light of day. I am in a constant state of shock and horror.
It bothers me when people call tRump an idiot. They do it out of anger and frustration and it’s hyperbolic. The man is certainly narcissistic but a literal idiot, no. Idiot Savant perhaps, for he’s capable of charming millions of people despite his many and dangerous faults. Referring to himself in the third person as a stable genius, hard to believe he isn’t joking but since he’s apparently not, something’s screwy.

The book covers the 9 month period of Steve Bannon’s tenure, a bazaar right winger with an anarchic streak toward chaos and strangely, in favor of single payer health care! Bannon and Kushner, tTrump’s son-in-law (with partner Ivanka, the president’s daughter) acted as though they were chief of staff while Priebus, the official chief of staff, suffered their interference and a more or less constant belittling from the president. Vicious, juvenile office politics ruled the White House from day one. The chief of staff is traditionally a powerful figure since everyone must go through him to get in to the oval office. tRump by turns megalomaniac and insecure narcissist... does all the talking in meetings, very little listening and makes decisions based on his “gut” unless relentless and massive interventions are applied. Even then, he can walk out of a room having agreed on some course and suddenly tweet the opposite. The whole administration is a failed state. tRump calls his daughter and Kushner the kids, supposedly New York liberals who he humors. Their intent seems to have been to bring in the Wall Street crowd to run things while Bannon’s was more in the scorched-earth Gestapo camp. Nothing much gets done except the cabinet appointees, all anti-democracy ideologues with frequent ethical lapses, out there doing damage from respective departments. House speaker McConnell stalled federal judge appointments under Obama, saving them for tRump, who attempted to reward a business crony with a judgeship. Staff intervention turned the appointment duties over to the Federalist Society, assuring over 100, to-date, right wing extremists now sitting on the federal bench, including of course the Supreme Court. This of course, in addition to those Bush/Cheney installed. In Georgia we can be grateful that somehow progressive judge Totenberg slipped through the ideological filters.

I.F. Stone, in his book on the Fifties shows how governmental abuse is not exactly new but he also cites a 1957 supreme court decision that put an end to senate and house committee trampling of citizen rights in hearings that were truly witch-hunts. The current supreme court would doubtless come down in favor of such congressional misbehavior though they would probably protect trump’s prerogatives under Dick Cheney’s theory that if the president does it, it’s legal. The recent movie Vice also confirms that sinister attacks on democracy are hardly unprecedented but trump’s administration is pretty unique in its clown car chaos. Fire and Fury narrates the downfall of Steve Bannon, though he is still out there in zany never right-wing land doing mischief, especially in Europe, working to birth a new fascism there. The book also provides a glimpse of billionaires who throw their disproportionate influence around our government, and it also documents the dysfunction we have voted upon ourselves which ought, we can hope, to inspire an uprising at the ballot box.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Ruminating on Utopia


The coming U.S. electoral struggle is going to be down and dirty. The right is entrenched, inflexible, outnumbered but more than willing to compensate with gerrymandering, voter suppression, Russian assistance, e-voting fraud and outright cheating. And, as Chomsky points out, the largest interference with our elections comes from U.S. corporations and wealthy elites. There will be no converting what Chomsky calls the most dangerous political party in our history, but it would be a mistake to allow them to set debate terms. It is the general voter who must be reached. The right wants the discussion to pit capitalism against socialism because of the advantage the former generally holds, given years of indoctrination in media, schools, churches and most institutional life in the U.S. They will try always to get their opponent defending socialism and link that to communism and the worst abuses of that system, ignoring/denying of course the worst aspects of capitalism. It might be helpful to consider that there is Big capitalism and little capitalism. To lump them together as the villain is to alienate some potential allies. The real issue is more clearly found on different terrain. The poles are not capitalism versus socialism but greed and domination versus decency and democracy. This gets us more immediately to the issues, by-passing a couple very loaded words and some default loyalties.

I.F. Stone's collection of essays, The Haunted Fifties, 1953-1963, a Nonconformist History of Our Time demonstrates that the anti-democracy tRump phenomenon, though certainly on steroids, is not new. Wisconsin Senator McCarthy was smearing reputations and careers and constricting debate to a narrow right-wing, jingoist range where few officials were safe from charges of disloyalty or “un-Americanism”... or courageous enough to speak out. McCarthy was embroiled in financial impropriety which, if revealed, could have stopped his rampaging much earlier but political cowardice won out. Eventually he, like Nixon, stepped on the wrong toes or out-lived his usefulness but while he conducted hearings the inquisition was live. One victim was Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein's parents who were reduced to managing a laundry mat to make a living. But they were far from being alone. On the other end of the fame-spectrum Charlie Chaplain was forced, or elected, to leave the country. Many Hollywood artists and writers were harassed and blackballed, some with the connivance of the president of the Screen Actor's Guild, Ronald Reagan. Most of the victims were exercising their constitutional rights by joining a party or engaging in political activity that resisted the ruthless domination of the ruling class. This technique of labeling those who demanded justice and real freedom as subversive was (and is) frequently found useful by those who orchestrate and profit from injustice.

In critiquing the then new Eisenhower administration Stone points out the appointment to key cabinet positions of defense contractors, oil industrialists and corporate lobbyists. One of the appointees, dismissing conflict of interest questions around his General Motors investments, commented that “...what is good for General Motors is good for America.” The more things change the more they stay the same. I think it's called BAU, business as usual. Joseph Heller in his magnificent novel, Catch 22, used that phrase to good effect to unmask insidious corporate nightriders.

Just as today we have anti-science climate change deniers, the political climate in the 50s allowed the U.S. to dismiss proposals to do away with nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union, claiming that the Soviets then would have a numerical conventional advantage. Even when the Soviets agreed to limit conventional arms the U.S. rejected, apparently ranking profits for the military industrial complex to survival of our civilization. Going against science and going against popular will, BAU.

Another more recent book, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, by Peter Pomerantsev. Confirms that Russia is completely corrupt, run by and for gangster/oligarchs and that as these characters attempt to park their wealth in safe places, particularly London, they bring their corruption. The author holds double citizenship in England/Russia so focuses on that relationship but, given other books on the subject, it is clear that the U.S. is hardly free of this spreading contagion.

Friday, April 26, 2019

White Supremacy and Extremism, Southern poverty Law Center



It used to happen that, arriving at a party, a perfectly innocent neighborhood party say, within five minutes I would be engaged with a fascist. I suppose there's one at every party and I'm for some reason a magnet and incapable of resisting baiting. This lack of judgement has had me embroiled in many fruitless on and off-line discussions. I eventually, however, recognize the futility and back away, always striving to maintain respect and civility while engaged, sometimes slipping. In a recent exchange I encountered the idea that the “violent left” is preparing an insurrection to grab “illegitimate power”. In the wake of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville and the murder of journalists in Maryland, this seemed preposterous, especially when used to characterize the whole “left” which apparently, from the right's point of view, is anyone not a fascist. I recall the provocateurs among anti-WTO demonstrators in 1999 Seattle, breaking windows, throwing bricks etc; I always thought there were under-cover police instigating at least some of that violence, a not uncommon police tactic from the 60s. Once a fringe group starts breaking windows the police can be turned loose with truncheons and pepper spray. They don't always need an excuse of course.

So in the mail comes recently a publication from the Southern Poverty Law Center (splcenter.org/hatewatch), Hate and Extremism in 2018. The 32 page tract is a selection from SPLC's Hatewatch blog investigating the Proud Boys and other elements of the radical right. Proud Boys is described as a collection of militaristic hate groups that frequently join neo-Nazi and white supremacist rallies. The Make America Great Again hats have a definite presence. Members seem to specialize in knocking critics to the ground and commencing the fine art of kicking them senseless. They talk a lot about “freedom” but it's hard to square such words with their actions. Maybe they mean freedom for them to violate the liberty of others. And the highly charged word is probably appropriated for its prestige and crudely associated to legitimize their violence, if only in their minds. The Oath Keepers militia planned training sessions for its members to use “lethal force” at far-right rallies, based on this wild belief that the “left” is planning violent revolution.

Organizers invited attendees to bring weapons to Rallies in Berkley, California and Portland, Oregon which were marked by assaults on counter-protesters, both by the right and by police. The police seem too often sympathetic to the right, ignoring their violence or deeming both sides at fault (tRump's “there are good people on both sides” remark comes to mind). The FBI seems more interested in infiltrating and containing legitimate free speech activists like Black Lives Matter than in right wing hate groups. Two white neo-nazis, however, were convicted in separate cases in Charlottesville for exercising their “freedom” to kick opponents to and on the ground.

Returning to my confusion around the right's paranoid claims of “left” violence, the reports include mention of a small faction among counter-protesters, antifa or antifascist, who do antagonize and mirror the right in their eagerness for confrontation and combat. Again, this is small, not characterizing the whole movement, and subject to the same skepticism about police provocateurs as above. There is no record of antifascist shooting or killing anyone in the past several decades but the racist “alt-right” has been involved in murdering 43 people and injuring 67 over the past four years alone.

The right “soldiers” I so foolishly attempted to engage remained silent when I asked where they got their information. I provided my sources - Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Jane Meyer, Commondreams.org, Fair.org, The Intercept, Democracynow.org etc; I did visit brietbart and found it a total bore. Maybe it was a bad day but I saw none of the outrageous stuff I expected. The SPLC report mentions right websites and web presence via instagram, twitter, reddit and many have been banned due to their hateful content. Censorship always makes me uncomfortable but I have mixed feelings about this stuff. Milo Yiannopoulous, a racist alt-right figure, was quoted that he was looking forward to vigilantes gunning journalists down on sight. Two days later we had a mass shooting, five dead, at a newspaper office in Maryland. This disturbing report reminds me of the post World War I. clashes in Germany where the right would provocatively march into neighborhoods that supported unions and the left and terrorize the population with assault, even killings. From a recent song on the album Protection on the cut Random Rifle Fire, “There's something awfully dreadful running through our age, lingering from last century ferocious karmic rage.” https://thinkspeak.bandcamp.com/track/random-rifle-fire

Friday, April 12, 2019

At Home, A Short History of Private Life, Bill Bryson

Bryson, in his various entertaining books, likes to poke at the reader's vulnerability with quick accounts of the many historical catastrophes, whether plague, war or primitive medical procedures. Or he might cite the coming nuclear holocaust, random meteor hit or volcanic eruption that will swiftly turn the earth into a vacant desert. To be sure, all this stuff is perfectly possible. In his sketches of remarkable individuals he also keeps our attention by citing their extreme financial success or, more often, their poverty, suffering and lack of recognition, despite contributing mightily to the march of civilization. I imagine him having a team of researchers who hand him lists of fascinating facts which he weaves into his text, around a theme. In his book One Summer, 1927, he uses events from that short fecund period as springboards to examine the broader picture. Lindberg crossing the Atlantic to look at aviation, Babe Ruth to look at baseball, its history, including salaries. He does much the same in At Home, spinning off the rooms in a rectory he purchased in England.

The small church graveyard near the rectory, he early in the book tells us, is final resting place to 20,000 souls, layered over the many years such that the church itself seems to be sinking into the rising land. As the author moves from room to room he expands outward in his narrative to some of the many stories his research has compiled. The “hall” for example evokes the evolution of the word and an examination of living conditions over time, from primitive, shared, no-privacy quarters to today's many-roomed mansions. How did early humans survive the winters, heat their quarters, cook their meals, order their affairs, treat their servants, serve their masters? How were parsons privileged, what was the typical culinary arrangement at the dinner table – or cave floor, depending on timeframe?

A typical story is of Joseph Paxton, humble gardener, who came up with a design for a grand exhibition building when nearly 300 proposals by architects were turned down as unworkable, too expensive and incapable of being built in the timeframe necessary. His design out-shown the professionals aesthetically, came in under budget and made the near impossible timeline. The solution was a very large scale greenhouse. Bryson uses the occasion to comment on the times, 1851, when glass was so expensive that most structures had small and few windows. Events coincided such that the lowering of a glass tax, Paxton's availability and a happenstance visit to a French exhibit contributed to the happy outcome. Paxton, incidentally, was the inventor of the Christmas card. And did you know that the outdoor privvy was the rule, in London and elsewhere, until this exhibition which had flush toilets, which turned out to be as popular as the exhibits and sparked a new trend?

Speaking of France, another spin-off, this time of the room called passage (or hallway). The Eiffel Tower was built of iron, just as it became, as building material, obsolete. Steel had just been invented, making way for the industrial revolution. That little aside, how steel was accidentally discovered by blowing air into pig iron, comes under the chapter titled, The Cellar. Anyway, Alexandre Gustave Boenickhausen-Eiffel had a reputation as a noted bridge builder. He also designed the superstructure for the Statue of Liberty, the thickness of which, Bryson informs us, is less than a tenth of an inch. Eiffel's solution to that problem, created the technique of curtain-wall construction, the most important building technique of the twentieth century, making skyscrapers possible. All that from the Passage. Of 100 entries in a competition for an iconic centerpiece for the Paris Exposition of 1889, Eiffel's was chosen. Who can think of Paris without bringing to mind this structure? Yet certain French celebrities embarrassed themselves in their opposition to this “atrocity!”. Not mentioning any names but some of their initials were, Emile Zola, Paul Verlaine and Guy de Maupassant. Bryson mentions that not only was it the largest thing ever built but the largest completely useless thing.

So merrily on goes Bryson, covering The Study, The Kitchen, The Pantry, The Garden, The Bathroom (of course – did you know that ancient Babylon had drains and sewage system and the Minoans had running water and bathtubs well over 3500 years ago?) , The Dressing Room, The Nursery and ending with, yup, The Attic. Bryon's attic has a tiny, architecturally baffling balcony from which he gazes out on the landscape, imagining how it must have appeared at various past times, - back to the Roman occupation, way back to lions, elephants and exotic fauna grazing on arid plains. And with this he explains that the difference there is attributable to a temperature that humans alive today will live to see again. A change humans will have to adapt to at a much faster than geologic pace. His closing sentence, “The greatest possible irony would be if in our endless quest to fill our lives with comfort and happiness we created a world that had neither.”

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Stillness Speaks, Eckhart Tolle



When the spirit of the ruler moves against ye, yield not. One might be forgiven for seeking an alternative to the urgings of Ecclesiastes, after beating one's head against the very unyielding obstacle of status quo politics for awhile. It seems only a tiny portion of the electorate recognizes the threat of Fascism, of environmental collapse by nuclear war, climate change or just steady and persistent pollution of the life system, and with overpopulation exacerbating the whole damned thing.

Solace is offered, often part of the problem – consumption, what capitalism recommends, or endgame superstition of your favored religion, or a nice hobby. More “spiritual” paths are also available, often leading to thickets of thoughts in the head, in the form of lists of dogma to embrace, heads to shave, foods to avoid, checks to write. Somewhere in there one of these might actually have something. Stillness Speaks is a collection of aphorisms distributed over ten chapters under headings like, Beyond the Thinking Mind, The Egoic Self, Death and the Eternal... all set forth as pointers, sign-posts, designed to bring one into presence, the here/now. In that state, it is said, one is connected to the intelligence permeating reality as opposed to the confines of egoic mind, and from there (here) one knows what to do. In presence one experiences interconnection, the greater self which is ONE. The feeling is joie de vivre. In that state of joy, sooner or later, arrives an impulse to creativity and that action, aligned with basic intelligence, will be congruent with what is needed. Possessed by ego one behaves egoically, the great dysfunction of our civilization and its greatest threat. Possessed of presence one behaves in ways respectful of the life system and the ONE life. This is the most powerful form of activism, not advocating or arguing for an ideology but being it. Since the whole physical array can be seen as vibrating frequencies, the specific frequency of presence affects other frequencies more powerfully than clever argument.

This appealing notion tempts - why not try it out since it has become abundantly clear where ego brings us, has brought us. One doesn't go, in this scenario, to presence to enhance and strengthen one's point of view. It may be that presence will bring one to conventional activism but the answer to what-to-do will come from connection not from thinking. We might approach the same old opponents with the same old arguments but with a presence that transforms. We also might do something completely different, a possibility if we set aside all preconceptions and get our “instructions” from the connected state.

Ok, so how does one get present? On the first page of the book Tolle states, “The only function of a (spiritual) teacher is to help you remove that which separates you from the truth of who you already are and what you already know in the depth of your being.” A bit later, “... words (the aphorisms) are no more than signposts. That to which they point is not to be found within the realm of thought, but a dimension within yourself that is deeper and infinitely vaster than thought.” Tolle advises putting the book down often, to pause, to reflect, become still. Because the words in this book, “come out of stillness they have the power to take you back into stillness, out of which you arose.” Instead of identifying with the passing personality, we shift to that state.

Focusing on the main task the book puts forth, namely freeing oneself from the prison of obsessive mind chatter and ego, assuming that possible, what is the obstacle? If it is true that mind-chatter dominates almost everyone then, whatever age you are, you have that many years of conditioning to overcome. Changing a lifetime habit is no easy task but if the result is a state of joy, and a chance to significantly contribute to saving the world, well hell, wouldn't we go for it? Haven't many religions offered something similar, pie in the sky etc;? I suppose Tolle would say that when these kind of promises were made they were either misunderstood or mere con-artist manipulation, or as in Elmer Gantry, a confused combination of the two. The basic intelligence might be just another wording for God, the joie de vivre another for heaven, pie in the sky – just words, signposts. But in the desperation of our dilemma, where an essentially fascist movement seems to be arising all over the planet and where conventional resistance has shown itself ineffective, well, we might try something else or at least adopt an adjunct strategy. Tolle expresses this polarity saying, “... the dysfunction of the old consciousness and the arising of the new are both accelerating. Paradoxically, things are getting worse and better at the same time, although the worse is more apparent because it makes so much noise.” That's cute. And a shot of hope.

Painting by Tom Ferguson, Warbucks (detail)

Friday, March 1, 2019

Fear, Bob Woodward


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Bob Woodward is known, aside from his Watergate fame, for a series of books on sitting presidents. His strategy of conducting numerous interviews with policy-making participants, many anonymous, to build a credible picture of an administration, probably works pretty well. That said, I'm suspicious of well known establishment journalists. They are the ones who rise to the top of a system that filters out “radicals”, advancing those who feel it in their bones, or at least pretend to, that the current system is the highest possible economic arrangement. The author tends to write snappy, slightly heroic descriptions of his subjects, especially military figures and politicians like Lindsey Graham, a sleazeball of the highest order - his behavior protecting Kavanaugh's supreme court appointment alone is enough to establish that. Woodward doesn't entirely let him off the hook though. He quotes a conversation between tRump and Graham where they are exploring options dealing with North Korea's nuclear threat. The idea of attacking North Korea before they can develop the capacity to reach the U.S. with nukes is one option. Another is to “take out” Kim Jong Un (works for the Mafia), or do nothing, depending on the guaranteed total disappearance of North Korea the U.S. can guarantee to keep them at bay. Lindsey wants to hit'em, which can only mean nukes, and when told of the risk to millions in South Korea and Japan he responded, “If millions are going to die it should be over there not here.” Even tRump, a guy not known for his empathy, says, “That's kind of cold.”

The North Korea topic comes up more than once, along with the Iran agreements that tRump ends up abrogating. It is disturbing that in these discussions it doesn't occur to the brainstormers that there are options beside war, threat of war or assassination... non-violent conflict resolution practitioners exist whose expertise could be called upon. The military hammer seems to be too readily reached for. Outrageous arms shipments to Venezuela in support of tRump's preferred faction there is another example, though unmentioned in Woodward's book. It was true for Obama, in his drone assassination program, who really should have known better, given his awareness of King and Gandhi and the civil rights movement. This arrogance is also evident in the stance where the U.S. sees no contradiction in demanding nuclear disarmament of Iran or North Korea but stands ready to pour trillions into expanding their own nuclear war capacities. They want to dominate, they want to “win”, they want, as Chomsky says, hegemony. They do not get it, the choice clearly stated in Chomsky's book title, Hegemony or Survival. We can't have both. Going for the former is a path divergent from the possibility of the latter. Utilizing the skills of non-violent conflict resolution is highly challenging but no less necessary for that. We've got to get really good at it as soon as possible if this civilization experiment is to continue.

The internecine struggle among tRump advisors, what one observer called predators, is very much parallel to the way mainstream media operates. It gives the impression of vigorous and serious debate but masks the narrowness of the parameters. Leading up to tRump's pulling out of the Paris Accords on Climate Change, factions in the administration ranged from, “get out now, climate change is a hoax”, to “yeah but we should stay in the accords for public relations reasons, just not honor them”. The exception to this being, tRump's daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who surprisingly pushed for staying in for the right reasons (maybe). Trump allowed these family “advisors” free rein around the White House, responding to staff complaints with “Ah, they're liberal democrats.” Cute kids, but na├»ve.

On immigration I was puzzled at the vehemence with which Bannon, Kelly and the rest of the anti-immigrant faction pursued their mean-spirited agenda, to end DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and deport Dreamers who had essentially lived in the U.S. their whole life, had probably never been in the country they would be deported to except as infants, possibly didn't even speak the language of that country. Why Such nasty intensity? Given Bannon's reputation it doesn't seem unfair to conclude something along the line of the nazi desire to maintain racial purity. That and the hysterical desire to un-do anything Obama.

Bannon, in a talk with Attorney General Sessions, is quoted as anxious to get agreement from Sessions, which he got, that the election showed the hand of god intervening for tRump. Many of the people swirling around the president, who come and go with abandon, seem intent on playing him, currying for favor but bumping up against an impetuous, insulting, dismissive, inconsistent guy who won't prepare or plan, who thinks his “instincts” are infallible and just goes with them. The factions work to push him their way on issues like immigration, the wall, Iran, Syria, Russia, China. Secretary of State Tillerson, after a frustrating tRumpt meeting with Pentagon brass, burst out the opinion, “The man is a moron!” Said moron spends 6-8 hours a day watching television, the news shows, and has frequent volatile twitter-reactions based on what he sees there. Of course his preference is for Fox facts.

The title Fear comes from a statement tRump made, “Real power is fear.” Not clear to me what that means. Is fear what power produces? Is fear a synonym for power? Are powerful people afraid? Is this a significant statement? Maybe tRump wisdom is so thin that Woodward had to settle for this ambiguous bit. Dysfunction might have been a better title.

Reading in The Nation (2/25/19) an article about drone attacks in Somalia I realize that the book doesn't go into that issue at all. Under Obama there were plenty of wedding parties etc; murderously disrupted but the restrictions to protect innocents (however ineffective) have been pretty much completely lifted under tRump. Curious that the war-game aspect of the presidency didn't come up. Nor the illegal meddling in Venezuela. The tariff and free-trade issue gets attention, staff arguing but the president rejecting their “facts.' I put facts in quotes because the pro-free trade and anti-tariff “facts” come from the 1% point of view, not environmental nor labor issues. And the tag-team tRump/Mueller gets coverage, a lot of inconclusive back and forth. If you depended on this book for your take on that issue you'd probably come away thinking there's not much there (as opposed to reading Collusion or House of Trump, books I hope Mueller has read). Trump's lawyer, John Dowd, resigned when tRump decided, against Dowd's advice, to cooperate with an FBI interview. Dowd felt that a compulsive liar going into an FBI interview was jeopardy he couldn't condone. Ultimately it was agreed that written questions would be submitted. Dowd's strategy, surprisingly, was complete cooperation, no stonewalling, all document requests honored. The lawyer apparently accepted from someone he deemed a compulsive liar, assurances that he was innocent as charged. We shall see (maybe).

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Twentieth Century, Howard Zinn


Howard Zinn's book is excerpted from his million-selling, A People's History of the United States (1978). Published just short of century's end, 1983, he is careful to set the tone by including from the earlier book his account of the great navigator Columbus' arrival in the Americas, devastating for the natives who were enslaved, slaughtered or ruthlessly exploited. Zinn chronicles the malignant force as it sweeps across and occupies the “new” continent, focusing on the United States. His sympathies obviously lie with the People as they resist the rapacious rulers. There are many discouraging defeats and you could describe the fewer successes as making up what is admirable about the U.S. today. Power yields nothing without a fight. Zinn remarks that... “in a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioner.”

Theodore Roosevelt, the soon to be president, is quoted in 1897, “I should welcome almost any war, for I think the country needs one.” and, the psychopathic, “...no triumph of peace is quite so great as the supreme triumph of war.” Zinn describes the U.S. war with Spain as not one of liberation, as the rhetoric would have it, but a supplanting of a colonial power. President McKinley claims that we must civilize and christianize the brown brothers, incapable of governing themselves, overlooking that thanks to the Spanish occupation most Filipinos were already catholic. In both cases, Cuba and the Philippines, the pattern persists: support rebel groups fighting the occupation then betray them, putting into place the same collaborators used by the former power. In the case of the Philippines that meant crushing the local resistance and allies with a brutality dictators throughout history would understand.

Socialists, at least the leadership, understood, claiming that in this war, as in most, we will provide the corpses, they will reap the profits. From selling rotten meat and guns to the military to dividing up the spoils of local resources, the critics were shown to be correct. Dictators and the Mafia soon owned Cuba, dictators and corporations soon owned the Philippines. There was disagreement at home; Mark Twain complained that the stars and bars should be replaced by the skull and crossbones. One labor newspaper cried, ...thousands of useful lives are sacrificed to the molach of greed, the blood tribute paid by labor to capitalism... industrial accidents and murderous thugs, whether police or national guard, brings forth no shout for vengeance and reparations,... no popular uproar is heard but when capital wants to invade another nation, out comes indignant rhetoric. Then the fever and drumbeat of war can hardly be resisted. Socialism is just a word to describe people of various economic opinions organizing for justice but it is also a word demonized by the wealthy in order to slap it on any movement opposing their rule.

Aside from believing that expansion was necessary to solve the problem of excess production (Guam and Hawaii were annexed around this time), the wealthy class also sought to distract the populace from the “socialist menace” then growing in popularity, thanks to extreme conditions for workers, where long, difficult, dangerous hours were required with no compensation for injuries, nor even death, on the job, frequent occurrences. Unionization was growing also for the same reasons. As today the debate among the rulers was whether to placate or suppress the masses and how much of each. Movement strength became such that the faction that thought, better to deal with a conservative union than to face a militant one, came to predominate. Theodore Roosevelt is portrayed as being an anti-business trust-buster but in reality, according to Zinn, he was of that faction. Private meetings with industrialists created the policies aimed to defuse the socialist and militant union movement. A compliant middle class was needed to buffer the rulers against “the menace”. Back and forth over the years did the ruling class argue over the size the middle class needed to be until most recently the parsimonious faction seems to have gained the upper hand.

Zinn provides a partial list of the 108 military actions taken by the U.S. between 1798 and 1945, taken from a State Department document. The 1823 Monroe Doctrine became the pseudo legal justification for many of these expansionist incursions.

To the rescue of the elite, under siege from the socialist/union menace, comes World War I. Eugene Debs, socialist leader, and significant presidential candidate, is jailed for speaking against the war, under the 1917 Espionage Act, still in force. The Act specifically stated that it in no way violated the first amendment but this doublespeak was ignored by the courts. Ten million will die in an incredible orgy of folly, all the time being mis-informed by the loyal free press. French and English troops began to mutiny to such an extent that the U.S., on flimsy pretext, ended its formal neutrality and joined the slaughter. The Act and the war were used to decimate unions and justice-seeking organizations. The peace was so vindictive that the rise of a Hitler for a second act was almost guaranteed. This helped bring the total killed in the 20th century to 100 million. But a lot of money, as usual, was to be made.

It might have been a different world had Franklin D. Roosevelt survived, or his earlier progressive vice-president remained in place to take the reins once Roosevelt died. These folks were of that faction, the one that aimed to thwart socialism by softening capitalism but their softening was, or would have been, significant. As it was, we got a cold warrior, Harry Truman, brought to us by those with a harder, more parsimonious view. But post-World War II. did involve widening the middle class while at the same time demonizing the left. With Reagan, slightly beyond the scope of Zinn's book but of the century, came swift roll-back with a vengeance – out sourcing, union-busting etc; Those coopted over the years were now set up and betrayed, the unions whose leaders so enjoyed golfing with the owners even while extracting worker benefits (but nothing too radical). The alienation felt across the hapless work force was easily channeled onto scapegoats or into the arms of demagogues or both, given that the primary source of information for most of the population, the mainstream media, were (are) owned by the 1%. The book is really worth a read, containing a myriad of details, way beyond what I can cover here, marking the century, indicting yes, but more importantly, elucidating what any reform movement is up against.


Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Crime and Punishment of I.G. Farben, Joseph Borkin



Joseph Borkin, as a young lawyer working for a 1934 Senate committee, was assigned to investigate munitions where he first encountered, I.G. Farben. For the rest of his government career he kept bumping into the German conglomerate. When he witnessed the results of war criminal trials following World War II. He vowed to write a book on the corporation, published in 1978.

The company history runs thus (detailed in the book): An executive of one of the dozen or so German chemical companies, early part of the 20th century, visiting the U.S., was informed of the measures Standard Oil had taken to consolidate its power, forming a trust. Inspired he returned to Germany determined to organize his competitors into what became the conglomeration known as I.G. Farben. Holding a virtual international monopoly via patents on key products, everyone grew rich.

The company responded during World War I., patriotically, putting their skills to work creating the first poison gas of the war, which might have left Germany victorious had I.G. Farben's vision of its use been quickly and ruthlessly utilized. The company was also complicit in Germany's damning use of slave labor. The military moved into Belgium and seized every able-bodied man they could lay hands on for the project. Generally less than enthusiastic about Hitler's rise to power, with a few significant exceptions, but preferring him to the left with its anti-capitalist agenda, the company threw their support that way, purging Jewish employees, even highly valued technical and executive level people, and eventually fully utilizing the “free labor” of concentration camp victims, working them to death in their quest to fill the rampaging German military's insatiable need for synthesized fuel and rubber tires. Borkin gives a horrifying account of what it was like under the cruel boot of the psychopathic Nazi machine. Malnourished prisoners were marched daily several miles to the I.G. Farben factory and worked long hours mercilessly. Those who weakened or fell were shot. A sadist at the factory gate would select out those he estimated were weakest and they'd be immediately taken to the gas chamber.

After the war the high-ranking Nazis who survived and didn't manage to flee were dealt with by the Nuremberg court with long prison terms and hanging. But the I.G. Farben top executives were able to stall the proceedings until things had cooled off somewhat, the cold war having kicked in and distracted the victors. Many were acquitted and those who were convicted served three to seven years, very light sentences for what they had done. Of course when the nation is taken over by sociopaths not going along is no longer much of an option, an important lesson to resist early. Jefferson (if he indeed said this, but it's solid whoever the author) knew of what he spoke - “eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.” The victors were not subject to the court so the fire-bombing of Dresden and Tokyo were not on the docket.

As well as resisting early, another lesson for statecraft is, avoid war entirely for it is brutal and dehumanizing. Although some tyrants openly glorify the practice, most will claim to trigger the nightmare only after all other options are exhausted. We can be skeptical, ready examples being the Bush/Cheney Iraq attack and the Obama drone war. When South Carolina has a grievance with Georgia the matter is settled by the courts not the National Guard. At least so far. No reason this model can't be extended internationally though of course those who are well armed feel they can “win” so why take the chance? The answer is plain, “We end war or we end ourselves.” MLK


Saturday, January 12, 2019

Where We Go From Here? Bernie Sanders


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A small indication of trustworthiness for a national leader is to be widely known by an affectionate first name, Bernie in this case. Polls indicate Bernie is the most trusted politician in the country. I hasten to add that this is, in itself, not enough. Stalin was known as Joe or Uncle Joe by many, who like tRump supporters somehow managed to maintain a mighty delusion despite ready facts, believing that if only Uncle Joe had known about the purges and killing he would have stopped them. Put another way, they became quite adept at avoiding or denying ready facts. But the appellation holds for Bernie. Not that there aren't hordes of the properly indoctrinated who dismiss the guy with tags like, socialist/communist, needing for some psychological reason a “strong leader” (like Joe). Both sides of this equation use words like freedom, democracy, justice but it isn't hard to decipher which side is serious and which side is seriously misusing the language.

Bernie begins his book with an account of the negotiations, for the Democratic Convention in 2016, which produced what he calls the most progressive political platform in U.S. history. When he recognized that Hillary had the delegates to win the nomination, by hook or by crook, he used his leverage to get 5 of his supporters on the 12 person platform committee. Climate specialist Bill McKibben and philosopher-activist Cornel West, notably. Included in the platform were commitments to make college tuition free, reduce student loan debt, funding of community health centers, a public option to allow citizens to opt into medicare at age 55 (a compromise since Bernie favored single payer, medicare for all), a $15 dollar an hour minimum wage, a tax on greenhouse gases, massive investments in solar, wind and other renewable energy (not nukes), a path toward legalization of marijuana, abolishing the death penalty, attacking the problem of corporations and the wealthy avoiding taxes by stashing cash off-shore, union-friendly measures, automatic voter registration... and other progressive items, achieving 80% of Sander's goals.

Recognizing that either Hillary or Trump was going to be president, Bernie set out to get that across to his troops, at the convention and across the country. Supreme Court appointments alone, as we have seen, was issue enough to back Clinton. Obstacles to preventing the disaster of a Trump victory were serious Republican cheating, gerrymandering, and deception, including probably collusion with Russian hacking and dirty tricks. Democratic victory required a huge win, to win. As we know, 2 million (or was it 3?) wasn't a big enough win to overcome these obstacles. But try he did. His book chronicles some of the speeches he made on his tour to support Hillary, a tour which was formidable for a man some considered too old to run. One could question whether the book has a lot of filler in the form of speeches Bernie made on this and other tours but, since they're good, important speeches, they justify themselves. Questioning U.S. foreign policy with its over-reliance on force, the massive military budget and corruption, subservience to Israeli intransigence and apartheid, collusion with dictators (right wing only if you please) highlights Bernie as one of the very few elected officials with the courage to go down those roads.

Asking the question how do we revitalize U.S. democracy and create a government that represents all the people, not just the few? How do we bring millions of new people into the political process and raise political consciousness? Bernie's answer is Our Revolution, an organization aimed to do just that. This section talks about the many who fail to vote, the disenfranchised, the demoralized and the uninspired. That last quality is understandable when a citizen can feel, if not articulate, that political life is largely controlled by a handful of billionaires and corporations. The Sanders presidential campaign netted millions of small donations and, for Our Revolution, millions of contacts that could be used to further the goals of the organization, which include electoral activity, resulting in many victories, ranging from local state school superintendent to U.S. senator. The democratic party split is represented by the Hillary/Bernie campaigns, an establishment figure and a revolutionary, and it runs across the party nationwide. Those comfortable with the status quo and who believe only “moderate” (read republican-lite) candidates can win versus those who believe, and have shown, that progressive candidates speaking to the general malaise can win. These candidates, naturally, coming out of the grass roots, express the diversity of the population in race, religion and gender, even sexual orientation.
The path to U.S. senator and presidential candidate was unique to Bernie and he lays that out for the reader, from his civil rights, anti-war activist days, his failed runs for senate and other offices, his successful bid for major of Burlington, Vermont, house of representatives and finally senate. Throughout this career, it is remarkable how consistent, from day one, has been his critique and understanding of the extent to which a wealthy elite runs this country for their own benefit. No one person has done more to further this understanding across the country. His determined optimism runs through this book and should help inspire many to join the fray.

Illustration by the author