Thursday, August 23, 2007


It is beginning to occur to military and civilian leaders alike that Iraq is not about to become a Western style democracy.  Some are even saying they could live with a strong man (which is what Saddam was before we decided he was throwing too much weight around).  But this recognition doesn’t do away with the fundamental problem of equality - as in the French “liberte, egalite, fraternite,  or at least solidarity -  as in the Polish solidarnosc that began the process of bringing the Soviet Union to an end.

The revival of religious fundamentalism that is sweeping the world is about insecurity - the bomb, in shorthand - violence, which how some people cope with insecurity, and others cope with inequality, and tribalism (our God is the only true God).  But the most passionate cry of all fundamentalisms is reserved for the vulgarization of sex, which is a direct result of commercialization.  Sex has always had a market price, but as blow-back to centuries of puritanism, the advent of Madison Avenue and TV took the U.S. to the opposite extreme, the trivialization and vulgarization of sex.  When, in opposition to their assimilated parents, young American women of Arabic origin decide to wear the headscarf because, as Amanpour’s subject put it: “I don’t want other men to leer at me in the street”, that’s a sign that fundamentalism shares some important lifestyle concerns with many secular people.  (The similarities in lifestyle, revolving around modesty and prayer, between young Islamic and Orthodox Jewish couples is striking.)

So much for sex, but what about equality? Apropos the enormous number of Iraqis who have taken refuge in neighboring countries, we learn that Syria has free health care and education - and subsidized bread.  Syria is run by Ba’athists, Sunni Islam’s egalitarian political movement.  Not surprisingly, it supports Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Shia militia, which has made and kept its reputation by helping the poor.

Washington policymakers would do well to learn once and for all that the hallmark of all egalitarian militias has been and continues to be strict discipline with respect to money and sex, and the provision of health care and education to the poor, whether they be Marxist and secular or religious fundamentalist.

It’s sad to see presidential candidates talking about their relation to God and prayer from the point of view of a privileged class that cannot identify with the need for equality felt by the world’s majority and who, if they are fundamentally inclined, will use their power to further inequality in pursuit of a hierarchical vision of society that starts with God on top.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


Senator Obama, by merely coming out for easing travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans wishing to visit the island of their birth, you are failing to put your mouth where your mouth is.

You have courageously stood your ground in the face of attacks on your position about meeting with un-friendly foreign leaders, so why would that not include Raul Castro, who has said he is ready for a dialogue between equals with the U.S. (while Fidel doesn't believe it's going to happen) - especially if you are willing to talk to Chavez?

And surely you should not limit travel by non-Cuban Americans to Cuba - unless you fear growing demands for free government programs such as health care and education, as have all preceding administrations.

Breaking with the past implies at least as much social democracy as practiced in the rest of the highly developed world.  Unless you are willing to state that, you risk remaining behind Hillary Clinton, who has the "advantage" of being "highly experienced" in the maintenance of a systems that is determined to hold social democracy at bay.

Monday, August 20, 2007


Everywhere you look, you see hierarchies.  Even in small groups, elected leaders eventually move from representing the rest to imposing their will.

American democracy has degenerated into a sclerotic system which is democratic in name only.  So entrenched is this meme, that people at all levels take the system for granted, using it for their own ends when possible, and accepting it when it doesn’t serve their needs - which is most of the time. You could say that at present “being on top” is not only about money, or money and power in the traditional, recognizable sense.  It’s often simply that people no longer have time - or energy - for oversight of those they put in power.

Human nature, no doubt, but I can’t help thinking about those tribes mentioned in the recent book “Evolution for Everyone” by David Sloan Wilson, in which the best and the brightest are prevented from abusing their position by having their achievements constantly and publicly under-rated.

I wonder how that might have played out as a tribe went modern.....

In a related item, after “Sicko” and a timid report on CNN by Frank Cesno, in its August 12th edition, the New York Times  - the publication of reference for those “on top”, finally dips a tow in the troubled waters of American health care.  But though the article appears as an editorial, it is merely a list of facts, which one has to read attentively to discern a cautious opinion.  Reading the stilted prose, one can hardly believe that the majority of TIMES readers (however much  clout the minority of its readers may have) can possibly identify with the language and tone. And should our legislators form their opinion about the need to support universal, free health care, they will not be persuaded by carefully culled comparisons, in which we are matched against a mere five or eight countries.

Just another way, those on top stay on top.

Saturday, August 18, 2007


The stock market scare this week showed that the relationship between poverty and power isn’t only about workers and owners, it’s also about consumers and lenders.  The quality of a government depends on how ready it is to intervene on the side of the less well-off segments of society.

And the week’s news illustrated this very well:  an article in The Economist reveals that Chile, “a country that pioneered reform” at a time when most of Latin America was still ruled by caudillos, is well on its way to eliminating poverty.  This conservative publication reports matter-of-factly that a program called Chile Solidario has played a major role by ensuring that the poor take up various social benefits and keep their children in school, by offering training and a grant to set up a small business.  The poverty rate in Chile is about 15% compared to the overall rate for Latin american of close to 40%.

So it isn’t a surprise to learn that the government of Peru, while making an international appeal for help after the devastating earthquake,  according to the BBC, agrees with the US government the US help is not necessary (according to CNN).  One can surmise various reasons for this: US aid may be tied to purchases of US goods; help from the US may give the impression that the government is beholden to it, as so many have been in the past.

Rounding out the news from Latin America, Hugo Chavez announced a proposal to increase the presidential term from six to seven years and to allow the president to serve an unlimited number of terms.  The right-wing press of course sees this as creeping dictatorship, but wait!  The parliament having previously rejected a presidential proposal for a seven year term, cutting it back to six, this proposal will be put to a referendum.  The proposal also calls for lowering the work day from eight to six hours.

Would that our “democratically elected” governments did the same!  It’s long been apparent to many economists that the eight hour workday no longer makes any sense, with machines that practically run themselves and a constant struggle to maintain employment.  Together with a questionable need for ever more growth, is the need to utilize less energy and reduce waste by producing fewer unnecessary things, moving to a true leisure society, where the accent is on culture rather than consumption.

Monday, August 13, 2007


The existence of the t-shirt was picked up by the NYC press with headlines like “Gaza strip uprising in NYC.  As a result, the principal of an Arabic school that was due to open felt compelled to resign before the school even opened.  The reason:  the women’s group is hosted by the same Yemeni group that offered space to the school!

Bear in mind that the school is named after an internationally famous Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran, who lived in New York in the last century and that its mission is to bring an opportunity for teenagers of Arabic descent to learn about their heritage, and also to make Arab cultural contributions more widely known.  (One of the things few foreigners know is that for most Arabs, intifada refers to an internal struggle, getting onw’es own house in order.

Now for the second tee-shirt story:  Raed Jarrar is an Iraqi-born consultant for the American Friends Service Comnittee, who last year was prevented from flying on Jet Blue because he was wearing a tee-shirt that said, in Arabic and English: “We will not be silenced”.  On today’s program, he said that one of the agents who forced him to cover his tee-shirt before allowing him to board the plane explaiend to him that wearing it was the equivalent of someone going into a bank wearing a tee-shirt that said: “I’m a robber.”  (Jarrar’s website is

Beyond the frightening aspect of the treatment being meted out to individuals FOR SIMPLY EXPRESSING THEIR BELIEFS ON THEIR CLOTHING, is the juxtaposition of these behaviors to the call for a general strike.

While Americans invented the t-shirt as outerwear and the message tee-shirt as a form of protest, Europeans have a long tadition of practicing the general strike.  (One of the new French president’s first acts in office was to push through historic legislation that would ensure minimum service during transport strikes.  Such legislation has been mooted for decades, but always successfully fought off by French workers, who are the champions when it comes to French orneriness.)

The extent to which Europeans make use of the strike has become unimaginable in the United States.  That’s why, as documented in Michael Moore’s film “Sicko”, which is about more than just our unique backwardness when it comes to ensuring health care for all, American workers get on average two weeks vacation to the European norm of four, five and even six weeks. (In the sixties, in addition to six weeks vacation, Italian workers routinely got one or two extra months pay, which was specified in the job specs.)

The official banner for the call for a general strike on, mentions torture, corporate surveillance,  media and corporate government, tyranny, fascism and lies, It should also mention the poorest social benefits of the developed world.

Forty years ago, tee-shirts seemed like a daring cultural phenomenon, coming on the heels of the angry young men of the fifties, and the counter-culture of the sixties.  But it’s time to face the fact that tee-shirts are not much more than a form of self-cooptation.  Nothing gets to rulers like a broad-based strike.  Just look at Europe.

Thursday, August 9, 2007


At the same time that the polemic between democratic candidates over meeting with enemy leaders was going on, the news was matter-of-factly reporting on half a dozen high level international meetings, whose purpose was to try to solve various conflicts around the world.

Meetings are necessary  to thrash out agreement between opposing view of governments.  The antagonism between he US and Korea o, Iran and Venezuela are not the only cases of acute disagreement in the world.  Yet with respect to the other problems - be it Somalia, Sudan, the Palestinian issue, the future of Iraq, or the many live conflictual situations around the globe, those involved seem to routinely believe they should talk to each other.

Furthermore, agreement and disagreement are located on a continuum, and a highly fluctuating one at that.  To say, therefore, that at some point on the continuum it is not useful to talk to people we disagree with implies that we must use force to resolve our differences.

In all logic, in cases of profound disagreement, it is not enough for high level officials to meet.  It takes concertation at the highest level to break through to a phase transition and effectuate a bifurcation.  In the absence of a phase transition, profound disagreements lead to war.

It is interesting to note that high ranking American officials met and greeted Saddam Hussein, whom we ultimately had to depose.

Meetings between presidents of countries that have major disagreements must be of the meet and seek type: the leaders must seek to understand where the other is coming from.  Only leaders, as opposed to high level officials, can do this because they share a common basic situation:  broadly speaking, each will go to the limit of what his/her people will tolerate in order to remain in power.  That crude if inescapable fact provides leaders with a common language which their officials do not share: only those wielding ultimate power can thrash out pathways to cooperation through a terrain of irreconcilable differences.  But also, those wielding ultimate power share not only its advantages, but also its constraints - the greater or lesser constraints that their respective people throw up to limit to a greater or lesser extent their enormous power.

The world is a system - one system, a fact too often forgotten or overlooked in the face of the myriad of conflicts and challenges various parts of the system are suffering.  System processes are highly complex but they eventually lead to phase transitions. Only leaders are able to cut through the myriad layers and interdependencies of these processes to inflect them - - to some extent.

Only people who do not realize how low the world’s opinion of us is could imagine that enemy leaders could reap PR benefits from a meeting with our president: some of our candidate leaders fail to understand that those leaders could just as well be seen by their people as kowtowing to the American giant - even Tony Blair didn’t escape that label.
When Raul Castro announces that he is ready for a dialogue with a new US administration, his brother’s editorial might  was not slapping him down; it was opining that the chances of any US administration accepting to talk to the Cuba government were very slim.   Yet most Americans agree that normalization of Cuban-American relations on a basis of live and let live is long overdue.

Had this normalization taken place twenty or thirty years ago, indicating an  understanding of the intrinsic inequality of our relations with Latin America as a whole, perhaps there would be no Hugo Chavez today.

Are Americans going to choose another President who would essentially repeat the mistakes made with respect to Cuba?