Monday, June 16, 2014

A Better Way is Possible

My wife Alma and I traveled up to Calabasas over the weekend to take a guided walking tour of the King Gillette Ranch. The ranch, situated on some 400 acres of mountainous desert chaparral, was one of the tribal areas of the Chumash peoples before Spanish colonizers arrived in the16th century.

Our guide for the tour explained how the Chumash lived intensely integrated lives with Nature. The Chumash did not have domesticated agriculture but did rely heavily on the products of the wild, among them acorns from the desert oak (used to make a kind of flour), the various varieties of sage, wild berries, and the Yucca plant (used for its sharply pointed stalks which made a type of needle).

During the walk, the guide produced from his knapsack a string of beads that he said were replicas of beads used by the Chumash. These beads, as it happens, were used as a form of currency. Most of the Chumash economy was transacted as 'barter.' For those items for which barter trade could not be arranged, beads were used to exchange value. When 'wealthy' Chumash died, the guide noted, their beads were buried with them.

When the guide said this, it came as a shock to me. Because with beads buried, the productive assets the beads as currency represented remained available for all to use.

Such a foreign way of thinking, to bury one's 'wealth' with one at death. Most Americans are unaware that the principal source of wealth in this country is not 'hard work,' or even 'chicanery.' Instead, the principal source of wealth is 'inheritance,' the passing along of accumulated assets from one generation to the next. What if, instead of that wealth being passed along, it were 'buried with its owner'? The assets that produced the wealth would still be here, still producing the stuff we want and need. But the accumulation and concentration of that wealth would last only for a single generation.

Chumash were not real big on 'owning' land, either, as I understand it. Although their tribes had an economic and social structure, organized around guilds and clans respectively, with a priesthood handling interactions with the spirit world and a tribal Chief providing executive direction, they were not a capitalist culture in any sense of the term. They were, in fact, a form of primitive communalism where the means of production were publicly controlled and where the produce of the society were shared according to tribal members' needs. (The guide related how tribal members each had their individual stores of acorns but the Chief's hut retained a larger granary from which tribal members could make withdrawals on an as-needed basis.)

I do not wish to romanticize the Chumash. No doubt they lived lives of hard work and privation. But I do think their example shows us that other ways are possible. Better ways perhaps. Einstein once famously remarked that he doubted whether modern man is any happier than his predecessors of 400 years earlier. Sure, we have more technology. We have more control. But with that technology and control comes alienation and spiritual decadence. I'd wager the average modern man or woman is no happier and indeed probably a lot more unhappy than his Chumash predecessors.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Trading with the Enemy: Imperialism, Desertion and Duty

I had the paper but I did not read it because I did not want to read about the war. I was going to forget the war. I had made a separate peace.

Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

Wow, is this American POW story gathering steam or what? It now turns out that the American soldier who was recently exchanged for five Afghan resistance fighters in a deal brokered by the Gulf state of Qatar may have gone AWOL or even deserted prior to being taken captive by the Afghan resistance.

According to the New York Times, Bergdahl left behind a note "saying he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the American mission in Afghanistan and was leaving to start a new life." In the ensuing manhunt for Bergdahl, perhaps as many as six U.S. soldiers died in ambushes and firefights linked to the search for him.

New York Times story

Reading this story today prompted some memories of the last time America was involved in a prolonged imperial boondoggle of invasion and occupation: Vietnam. Then as now a few American GIs became disillusioned with the moral bankruptcy of the American cause and chose to express their resistance by deserting to the NLF or NVA forces. (I do not know how many, no doubt no more than a handful.)

The ensuing years have vindicated those GIs who deserted the U.S. military in Vietnam and I have little doubt that the years to come will vindicate Bergdahl's act of resistance as well. For now, though, the military and right-wing busily fan the flames of 'stab in the back' resentment directed at Bergdahl, his father (who grew a beard in support of his son and is now excoriated by Fox News for 'looking like the Taliban') and, most importantly, Obama and his top aides. The Praetorian Guard that our military has become since the waning days of Vietnam with its poverty draft enlistees and ticket-punching business executive officer corps, is all puffed up with outrage that Bergdahl is getting treated as a quasi-hero. He's a deserter, these mercenary soldiers of fortune claim, and should be prosecuted under the UCMJ for desertion in a time of war.

Watching the ruling class tear each other to shreds over L'Affaire Bergdahl in paroxysms of rage brings forth a delicious sort of schadenfreude. After all, Obama made the fateful choice to escalate, to 'surge,' in Afghanistan shortly after his inauguration, at the urging of NeoCons and NeoLibs in his vaunted 'team of rivals.' Bergdahl was captured in late June of 2009 . . . after Obama's inauguration. So it is fitting that the chief architect of the Afghan escalation now face the music when its chickens come home to roost.

However enjoyable the spectacle of seeing Obama and his war mongering cadre brought to account, the Bergdahl matter brings forth a more pressing question. When one finds oneself trapped in and supporting a war crime like the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, what is one's duty? Does one try to work within the system to ameliorate the effects of that crime? Or does one borrow a page from Ernest Hemingway's stoic hero Frederic Henry and resolve to quit the affair entirely or even to go over to the other side? What is our duty to resist imperialism when we ourselves are trapped inside an imperialist venture?

I do not have an answer to that question but it is one that must be asked even if no answers readily come to hand. Perhaps each of us must strive to make 'a separate peace'.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Trading with the Enemy: A Chance for Peace?

The news today is full of stories about a prisoner exchange between the U.S. and Afghan resistance. In return for the U.S. freeing 5 Afghan resistance fighters held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the Afghan resistance (aka "Taliban") agreed to release one U.S. captive, Bowe Bergdahl, held since his capture in 2009.

Reuters' Condensed Timeline of Events

The prisoner swap -- akin to those we hear about frequently between Israelis and Palestinians -- was mediated by the Gulf state of Qatar (home to the Al Jazeera network). Terms of the deal are that the 5 Afghan resistance fighters must stay in Qatar for a year, with Qatar making suitable assurances to that effect to the U.S. government.

The news today is also full of the predictable expressions of outrage from Republicans at this exchange. Republicans forget that one of their saints, Ronald Reagan, negotiated with Iranians to provide them with arms in return for their assistance in convincing Hezbollah in Lebanon to free American captives (the so-called 'Arms for Hostages' component of Iran-Contra). Republicans' outrage is buttressed by a law that was passed and signed into law last year requiring the Executive to give Congress 30 days' advance notice of any prisoner exchanges involving Gitmo detainees. Schadenfreude is a wonderful feeling, as President Obama signed the law with an accompanying 'Signing Statement' that he would not obey the 30 days' notice requirement necessarily, as doing so would impose a violation on his powers as Commander in Chief. When Dems protested Bush's use of 'signing statements' back in 2001-08, Republicans pooh-poohed the outrage. Now the shoe's on the other foot and it makes me happy to see the Republicans hoist with their own petard.

However, and this is a big however, we were constantly told that the Taliban were 'terrorists' and that, furthermore, the U.S. government never negotiated with 'terrorists.' Thus, we could never 'win' our war on terrorism, short of killing every terrorist on the planet. Even if one accepts that nomenclature, one must surely recognize that we negotiated with our enemies on this prisoner swap. So either the Taliban were not terrorists OR we do negotiate with terrorists when it suits us. The point is that the whole charade is revealed as the empty rhetorical gesture it always was, is and will be.

Absent the total annihilation of one's enemies, the only way to end an armed conflict is through negotiated terms. We have shown that we can negotiate with the Afghan resistance to bring about mutually beneficial prisoner swaps; now we should try to negotiate for a lasting armistice.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Whose Plantation Is It, Anyways?

The recent contretemps over the racist remarks uttered by Donald Sterling, the owner of the professional basketball team The Clippers reminded me of a long-ago quote by Anatole France:
In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.
I don't know much about professional basketball and care even less. Oh, sure, I played basketball as a child and even tried out for the 6th-grade team. (My parents couldn't afford the regular commute to practices, the gear and what-not associated with the sport so, alas, my career in jockdom was rather short-lived.) So aside from catching a few moments of coverage on TV during the annual March Madness, the amount I know about basketball wouldn't fill the thimble of  a height-challenged person.

Here's what I do know. The owner Sterling is a billionaire real estate developer who happens to be white. Many of the athletes on his team are millionaires who happen to be black. And here's some of what Sterling allegedly told his mistress, one V. Stiviano:
It bother me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to? . . . . You can sleep with (black people). You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it … and not to bring them to my games.
And here's the thing: those of us who work for a living would be fired immediately were we to say 1/10 of what Sterling is alleged to have said. But when you're the plantation owner you can say anything you want and face only token consequences. At most, Sterling may be forced to sell his team? So what? He'll net several hundred million dollars from its sale. But he won't lose his livelihood. And, odds are, he'll continue on with his decadent, amoral lifestyle pretty much unscathed, unremorseful, unrepentant.

As for the Clippers team members, both minority and white? You'll forgive me if I don't give much of a shit how upset they are as they continue to rake in multi-million dollar salaries FOR PLAYING A FUCKING GAME! If they had any self respect, they would refuse to play at all. But too much money rides on keeping the plantation system up and running. Sure, the players will piss and moan about their evil plantation owner. But these players are the  'house slaves' on the plantation They've got a stake in seeing that that plantation system continues exactly as it has with, at most, a shuffling of personalities at the top.

Sterling may think he owns the plantation and, most of the time, his house slaves will do little to rock that comfortable world view. Lord knows, Sterling has his overseers, his Los Angeles Police Department, Sheriff's Department, FBI, NSA and so on, to preserve and safeguard his status as the plantation's owner. But every once in awhile, the veil slips and we see that the plantation owner and his house slaves only derive their unjust and obscene privileges from the value they extract from those doing the actual work to keep the plantation running.

Meanwhile, in the real world, those of us who must work for a living must try to be decent to one another, to look past non-essential characteristics such as the amount of melanin produced by our genetic makeup and manifested in our skin to more fundamental qualities like honor and integrity. to what we share that unites us. It's a constant struggle and, Lord knows, I've had more than my share of lapses over the years. But if we aren't struggling for this, then why struggle at all? When we are ready, we will come together to overthrow this plantation system once and for all. And then we will watch the Sterlings of the world tremble in fear..

Author's Note: In using the metaphor of plantation and slaves, I meant in no way to equate the situation today to the abomination in American history known as chattel slavery, intended never to diminish the suffering of its millions of victims, nor to demean in any way the heroic sacrifices made by actual slaves before 1865

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Has Obama Committed an Impeachable Offense?

I was talking with my wife this morning about the dust-up between the CIA and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (chaired by California Senator Dianne Feinstein) that came to a head earlier this week when Feinstein, in the well of the Senate, denounced the CIA for searching her Committee's computers without a warrant to find out the source of the supposed leak of the so-called Panetta Review to her Committee.

In the process of reviewing all the developments that had taken place, I happened to mention that the McClatchy newspaper chain reported separately this past week that Obama's CIA, apparently with Obama's blessings, has withheld from the Committee over the past five years some 9,000 pages of  documents that pertain to the CIA's secret torture programs from 2001-04.  "If proven," I said, "that allegation in the McClatchy story clearly rises to the level of an impeachable offense."

The McClatchy Story

"You know," I continued, "they impeached Nixon over a lot less." I immediately corrected myself. "Well, they didn't actually impeach Nixon. Nixon resigned before the full House voted on Articles of Impeachment, because Senator Barry Goldwater told Nixon that, impeachment in the House now certain, Nixon did not retain enough support in the Senate to survive the resulting trial. Nixon  may have wanted to preserve his pension benefits by resigning."

My wife said, "Oh, I wish you would write about this so I could share it with everyone on my Facebook list."

Being a dutiful husband, I had no choice but to accede to her wishes.

Thinking about Nixon's impeachment and the long chain of events known collectively as 'Watergate' brought back some vivid memories, of Sam Ervin's Committee, of Judge John Sirica, of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox and the Saturday Night Massacre, of Deep Throat, Woodward and Bernstein, of Rosemary Woods and the missing 17-minutes of tape. And Tricky Dick himself. I had just finished my freshman year of high school and would be starting my sophomore year that coming September of 1974, so I listened to these events on the radio - my family not owning a television - with a morbid fascination, neigh obsession, that only an adolescent teenage male in a persistently rebellious state can muster.

I remember the House Judiciary Committee considered several proposed Articles of Impeachment, among them the secret and illegal bombing of Cambodia, the obstruction of justice enveloped in Nixon's instructions to his aides to use the CIA to interfere with the FBI's inquiry, the abuse of power contained in ordering Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg's psychiatrist's office burglarized to try to get dirt on Ellsberg. Eventually, the House Judiciary Committee settled upon Abuse of Power and Obstruction of Justice as the principal Articles of Impeachment.

So has Obama's stiff-arm of the Senate Select Committee for the past five years risen to the level of an impeachable offense? And is it worse than what Nixon stood accused of? I must tentatively but sadly answer "yes" to both counts.

Article II, Section 4 of the United States Constitution provides that "The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors." Historically, this has meant that the House hears the case for impeachment and votes it up or down. A vote in favor of impeachment - analogous to a grand jury indictment in criminal court - results in a subsequent trial being held in the Senate, upon the conclusion of which the impeached official is either acquitted and remains in office or convicted on a 2/3 vote and removed from office.

These procedural niceties aside, what exactly constitutes an impeachable offense? Bribery and Treason are fairly unambiguous but what does "other high Crimes and Misdemeanors" mean? For an answer to that, we should turn to then-Congressman Gerald Ford of Michigan who stated, a few years before the main events of Watergate had transpired, that "An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers [it] to be at a given moment in history.” (Ironically, Ford said this on April 15, 1970, just as Nixon, Kissinger and other goombahs were ginning up the secret land invasion of Cambodia that would lead to the tragedy of Kent State and Jackson State Universities.) Was Ford articulating the -- gasp! -- secular humanist notion of 'moral relativism'? Was the Republican Ford of the party of  'Family Values' a covert apostle of situational ethics?  Hardly. Instead, what Ford seems to be getting at is that an impeachable offense and the impeachment process is always fundamentally political in nature, relying as it does on notions of a 'majority vote' and so on (as opposed to a criminal trial where a guilty vote must be unanimous in order to convict).

So, at its most base level, Obama's decision to allow the CIA to withhold 9,000+ documents from the Senate Committee could easily be deemed an impeachable offense by any House determined to check the powers of the Executive Branch. If such is the case, then why hasn't a rabid Republican House already impeached Obama? Leaving aside the crass political consideration that House Republicans will never impeach Obama for actions they would like a Republican President to have the power to do and thus do not want to establish a precedent that could be applied to future Republican presidents, there are other reasons why the House may not have impeached Obama yet. At this point, Obama would be unlikely to be convicted in any Senate trial where Democrats have a majority, even though his alleged offense has been against the Senate. At this point in his second term, Obama is still personally liked by most Americans, even though increasing numbers are beginning to disapprove of his conduct in office. Even with that mounting disapproval, though, I suspect few Americans yet believe that Obama has committed offenses worthy of the label of 'high crimes and misdemeanors'.

Here I must disagree. As Charles Pierce put it in a magisterial column in Esquire's The Politics Blog this past week, "By the Constitution, this isn't even a hard call. The Senate has every legal right to investigate what was done in the name of the American people during the previous decade. It has every legal right to every scrap of information relating to its investigation, and the CIA has an affirmative legal obligation to cooperate. Period." To the extent that President Obama has been ordering the CIA, or authorizing the CIA, not to comply with its obligation to cooperate with the Senate, Obama is abusing the powers of his office and obstructing justice. That, my friends, constitutes a 'high crime and misdemeanor.' That, my friends, is an impeachable offense.

The Charles Pierce column

Ah, but is it worse than what Nixon did? I would argue that it is not as evil as the secret bombing of Cambodia, one of the high crimes of which Nixon stood accused, since that crime comprised within it what the Nuremberg trials had established as the 'supreme crime against the peace.' But the secret Cambodia bombing was not an Article of Impeachment voted out of Committee. (Maybe Dems wanted their own presidents to be able to bomb other countries secretly without congressional approval or oversight? Nah, can't be, because Dems have principles. Right  . . . and if you believe that I have a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn.) So, of the articles that were voted out of Committee, namely abuse of power and obstruction of justice, are they less serious than Obama's offense?

I think so, because Nixon abused his powers to single out another political party and individuals opposed to his policies in southeast Asia. But Obama is abusing his powers to obstruct the workings of a co-equal branch of government. Co-equal - that means that the Legislature is the equal of the Executive, not its inferior. In ordering the CIA to withhold documents from a co-equal branch with constitutionally-ordained oversight responsibilities, Obama undermines the very fabric of our constitutional order. That is a far more serious offense than anything with which Nixon was ever charged.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Grey Lady Pimps The Ukraine Crisis

It's a fun pastime among the cognoscenti to bash The New York Times for lapses in its journalistic practice or ethics. Such efforts grew more significant after Judy Miller helped Cheney's cohort pimp the war in Iraq on bogus claims that Iraq was seeking uranium yellowcake from Niger. Then there was the case of Jayson Blair, the Times reporter who fabricated stories and quotes out of whole cloth and was unmasked in the summer of 2003, around the same time Miller's journalistic treason was coming unmasked.

I had been late to that Times-bashing party and feared I might never get my chance, seeing as how the Times charges subscription fees now once one exceeds a monthly limit of story views online. With the crisis in Ukraine unfolding, I had been going to the Times'  front page each morning to see whether I needed to prepare my wife and I for impending nuclear Armageddon. For a couple days there, I was seriously sweating it. On this past Monday and Tuesday, though, my concerns had begun to abate somewhat as Crimea's de facto secesssion from Ukraine seemed on the verge of becoming de jure and, two days ahead of a scheduled referendum by Crimea's residents, all that remained was for the U.S. and its EU allies to bleat about how Crimean secession violated 'international law' or some such nonsense. (See my earlier posts.)

So it was with some dismay this morning that I saw, on the left-hand rail of the online edition of the Times, the  following:

"Obama Raises the Stakes With Russia Over Ukraine"

The one-paragraph blurb was also alarming:

In a meeting with Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, interim prime minister of Ukraine, President Obama vowed retaliation if Moscow follows through with threats to annex Crimea.

Them are pretty strong words, 'vowed' and 'retaliation' and 'threats.'

So, wondering if we needed to pack the car and start our departure from LA to less-urban climes, I decided to burn one of my free-story allotment to find out how close the nuclear clock stood to midnight.

The story proper

I was relieved upon clicking to find a far less incendiary headline above the story proper:

"Obama Makes Diplomatic Push to Defuse Crisis in Ukraine"

The first and second paragraphs of the story proper also told a much less anxiety-inducing tale:
WASHINGTON — President Obama and Ukraine’s interim prime minister opened the door on Wednesday to a political solution that could lead to more autonomy for Crimea if Russian troops withdraw, as the United States embarked on a last-ditch diplomatic effort to defuse a crisis that reignited tensions between East and West.

The tentative feeler came as Mr. Obama dispatched Secretary of State John Kerry to London to meet with his Russian counterpart on Friday, two days before a Russian-supported referendum in Crimea on whether to secede from Ukraine.
The striking and obvious dis-connect between the headline and lead-in on the front page threatening war and the headline and lead-in of the story proper reporting on diplomatic efforts beg me to ask this question: is the Times hyping a story merely to drive traffic to its site? Is the Times stating that there will be U.S. "retaliation" if Russia carries through with "threats" when its own reporters are reporting no such thing?

Well, it makes sense. I've heard stories, make that "internet gossip," that the Times is in grievous financial shape, losing money and flirting with bankruptcy protection. Its readership has declined substantially, part of the larger shift in audience preferences that has killed off the traditional newspaper industry in my lifetime. But perhaps part also of a general distaste for the shoddy journalistic practices of a vehicle that would give the lies of Judy Miller front-page prominence, that would allow a new reporter to sling along its entire editorial staff for so many months on utter air and trifles and that, now, apparently, will publish inflammatory headlines bearing very little connection to the stories it itself publishes. Is the Times really that desperate for readers? Is the Times so lacking in editors who can write headlines and paraphrase accurately a story's contents?

To all readers of the Times, I say 'beware.'

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Ukraine: When the Imperial Mask Slips

 You have to give it to the New York Times' writers. Only they could write a paragraph that seemingly cancels itself out within the very paragraph itself.
Although President Obama has made it clear that the United States does not want to escalate the Crimean crisis, the Pentagon stepped up training operations in Poland and sent fighter jets to patrol the skies over Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, three former Soviet republics with sizable populations of ethnic Russians.
New York Times article

Let me make sure I've got this straight. At the same time that Obama is making it clear that the U.S. does not want to escalate the 'Crimean crisis,' he's escalating the Crimean crisis!

And how exactly has Obama 'made it clear'? With clarity like this, one hopes that Obama never seeks to 'muddy the waters.'

The article goes on to report that those dastardly Russkies may suspend provisions of the START treaty calling for a regime of live, on-site verifications. All to retaliate against the U.S. for its imposition of sanctions. Of course, no mention is made anywhere in the article that the U.S. had previously promised NOT TO EXPAND NATO's SPHERE OF INFLUENCE EASTWARD.

Yeah, that's right. Back when the USSR was dissolving, U.S. President George H.W. Bush promised Soviet Premier Gorbachev that there would be no eastward expansion if Gorby allowed the USSR to dissolve peacefully, a promise we promptly proceeded to break starting with Clinton's administration and proceeding steadily thereafter.

I really don't know why anyone takes anything the U.S. government says seriously any longer. Aside from the very real fact that the lunatic NeoCons and Russo-phobes have control of a huge thermonuclear arsenal and would no doubt use it were their grip on power to face existential threat.

All I can do is say that I support fully President Putin, Prime Minister Medvedev and the DUMA on this matter. Putin should only use his nuclear arsenal if the existence of the Russian Federation itself is threatened. But President Putin should take no other option off the table in this tit-for-tat war of escalation.

I'm so angry about the Times' prevaricating and propagandist coverage that I am not going to quote it further. Instead, here's Reuters' rather dry reportage of the Russian riposte.

Russia may suspend nuclear arms inspections set down in a treaty with the United States in reaction to Western sanctions over Ukraine, Russian news agencies quoted an unnamed defence ministry source on Saturday as saying.
The source said the ministry was studying the possibility of suspending on-site inspections agreed in the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) between Moscow and Washington.
 Reuters article