Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Making Everything Right

Most people are working in the morning, so they didn't see CNN's interview with out-going President Bush.  By the time they see a bit of it tonight, they will be too tired or distracted to react.

The progressive press is full of stories about the shocking, illegal things the Bush administration has been doing for eight years, not to mention the smears that highlighted the recent presidential campaign.

But this sycophantic end-of-reign interview constitutes a much greater danger, because it embodies the overarching technique that has been used for sixty years to lead the American people from one disaster to another.

That technique is the use of the fairy-tale. Not just the false alarms over weapons of mass destruction and other threats from every corner of the globe: but the fiction that by sitting down with the worst president in American history, and allowing him to appear smiling, decent and almost humble, the nightmare that is about to end never happened.

It's like a mother smoothing a band aid onto a scraped knee saying soothingly, "It's all better now."

It's as if, instead of putting Hitler's officers on trial in Nuremburg, we'd allowed them to reminisce about their childhood, their families, and yes, even their devotion to country.

Oh, we're going to try some of the prisoners held at Guantanamo, for associating with people who hate us, and maybe even training for guerrilla warfare - or "terrorism". But President Bush and Vice-President Cheney (will there be a sit-down chat with him too, CNN?) will go back to their respective ranches to live out their days between writing a book (Bush as author), and building yet another monument to ruthless thinking (a policy institute!).

The editor of Harper's Magazine, Roger Hodge, laments the Democratic party's congenital pusillanimity (about which more in another blog). Hodge writes: "Far from being a system in which the people rule, (modern democracy) is best characterized as the rule of the politician. The role of the people is simply to accept the leadership of the most successful politicians. 'Actually existing' democracy has little in common with the ideal of Enlightenment philosophers." Citing the early twentieth century political scientist Joseph Schumpeter, Hodge notes that "in democratic politics, the most creatively destructive actors tend to prevail."

The operative word here is 'creatively', as in fairy tales.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Is Nationalism the Way Forward?

Watch an hour or two of morning news programs to see the irony of the world kaleidoscope:

Today, the developed world continues to remember the great nationalist war fought almost a century ago, which some hoped would be the last. CNN interviewed Buzz Aldrin, the first man to walk on the moon. Instead of pointing out that everyone on earth looks up at the same moon, Aldrin talked about service to country. Then came a young veteran who was horribly disfigured in Iraq and has undergone twenty facial operations, with more to come.  He stressed how lucky he was to be alive, saying he could have stayed in bed feeling sorry for himself, but his family's love gave him the courage to get up every morning.  In his decorated uniform he looked every bit the proud, handsome Marine.

That's one face of the world.

At noon on Democracy Now, Vincent Harding, who wrote Martin Luther King's last speech, and Pulitzer Prize winning author Alice Walker both said we had to do away with war. Walker wrote an open letter to President-elect Obama that's worth reading on

The two public figures were followed by a Marine who, after serving several years in Afghanistan, refused to be deployed to Iraq, joining Veterans Against the War in Iraq instead. Sgt. Matthis Chiroux told how fifteen of those veterans had been rushed by mounted police outside Hofstra University, as they to ask the two presidential candidates who were debating, to state their plans for ending the war. Footage of the charge brought home the fact that worldwide, police and soldiers are expected to carry out the same brutal tactics, in the name of service to country. Yesterday, the veterans were charged with disorderly conduct by a Nassau County judge.

Today, stock markets across the globe continue down. Blaming the U.S. for the crisis that affects them,the Group of Twenty developing countries, led by China, announced in the New York Times their determination to impose fundamental changes in the way financial markets operate when they meet in Washington this weekend.

The time has come to ask the question: even with the best of all possible presidents, are we sure that nationalism, and "service to country" are still the way forward?

Monday, November 10, 2008

The MSM's Unbearable Downplay of Reality

Yesterday CNN indulged in an embarrassing exercise in damage control by airing "After Party", in which a Democratic and a Republican spokesperson each feigned to discuss with several panelists their opposing takes on the election. The result was a poorly scripted play in which the actors strove mightily to remember their lines. I called it damage control because it was obviously an attempt to mitigate the damage done to the national psyche by Sarah Palin's Obama baiting. The Republicans realize they've let an evil genie out of the bottle, and the wiser among them are desperate to tamp down the hate.

As if CNN weren't enough evidence of media whitewashing, on the News Hour this evening an economic expert reported that China plans to counter the effects of the global economic crisis by launching much needed health care and infrastructure projects.  The percentage of GDP devoted to the Chinese stimulus package would be equivalent to a trillion dollar stimulus in the U.S.  In another interview, two high level financial experts split hairs over how little the U.S. government should do.

I'll be curious to see if in the coming days any advisors to the present or future president suggest we should take a lesson from China - before we start taking orders from the the new economic superpower. (The interviewee's designation, not mine.) We may have to be content with knowing that China's domestic economic package will benefit our economy too, since one of our most successful exports is infrastructure machines.

Even as the Chinese president prepares to lead a hundred member delegation to the 20 nation economic summit hosted by President Bush, our governing class seems oblivious - like the 1920s flappers, or the trusting victims of the forties' Holocaust.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Genius Idea at the Checkout

This morning at Trader Joe's the checkout woman from the Caribbean noticed that I was still wearing my Obama button.  The next person in line, a black woman with a southern accent, chimed in that we should keep on wearing our Obama buttons, to remind him of what we expect.

Unlike bumper stickers that fade and fray over time, the message on a button is always readable.

Unlike lips.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Where will He, Can He, Take Us?

Obama's win has not put an end to opportunities for pundits to emit suppositions and theories.  I will do it in writing.

I believe that Obama knows as well as any progressive American that this country needs to become more like the other developed, civilized countries of the world. He knows we need universal health care, less war and more renewal at home, less consumerism and more discipline, if we want the planet to continue as a human habitat.

Although he won the election, progressives are still a minority, found mainly among the young, the minorities.  There are still a lot of older folks who'd just like corporate capitalism to be a bit more humane, and for America to be respected again. They don't want us to be seen as bullies, but they cannot really imagine a lifestyle radically different from the one their parents aspired to when they were struggling during the Great Depression.

So Obama will put Clinton figures such as Larry Summers and Robert Rubin in charge of the financial mess created by Wall Street, knowing these men are among the brightest of the old guard.

But he will side with the rest of the world's demands for a new international financial system, because he and the Clintonites know there is no alternative. Should he not obtain congressional approval, that change will be postponed until things get worse, due to the fact that the rest of the world will have implemented change without it.

Obama will push forward with health care, maybe even universal single payer health care, if the grass roots organization he has built up pushes as hard as he hopes it will. There is a better than even chance that this will happen, and that, in the face of resistance to "reasonable change" by the insurance industry, he will have a mandate to go further than what he promised on the stump. The financial crisis has already tarred the insurance industry with the feathers of the financial sector.)

Obama will prioritize a major renewable energy program that will provide green collar jobs.

Foreign affairs will at first get second tier status: the Iraq, Afghanistan/Pakistan region, Korea, Cuba and the Israeli-Palestinian standoff.  A concerted effort will be made to hunt down Bin Laden, but at the same time, quiet diplomacy with the Taliban will continue. These three areas of concern will only be amenable to sustained, long-term efforts, in which diplomacy will be the primary tool. Obama will not scale up the military as some have predicted, because it is not necessary and because too many other things are.

China will be recognized for what it is: a major creditor, and the next great power. For all Russia's lack of democracy, obama will recognize Europe's special relationship.  If his foreign policy advisors are as astute as I hope they are, they will realize that the world is organizing, not only into regional groupings, such as ALBA in Latin America, but also cross-regional alliances, such as the one between Russia, Iran and Venezuela.  I believe Obama realizes that America is no longer primo inter pares, but is expected to be a fair player on a multi-polar playing field.

The most crucial factor in how Obama governs will be  the grass roots structure he built to make it impossible to avoid the change he knows we need.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Shadow Cabinet?

In a first indication that the United States may be starting to do things like the rest of the world, the day after the election we hear that Obama's transition team is up and running, considering various candidates for crucial posts.  This is only the third election I have witnessed from within the country since I returned from Europe, but I don't remember that in 2000, George Bush was as much in the news after the hanging chads had been hung out to dry.

I seem to remember that after a president was elected, the country just waited for it to be January 20, knowing that it was lame duck season, with things bumbling along.

This time we can't afford to wait two months for sanity to move into the White House: maybe someone will propose legislation to shorten the transition time, next time. Obama will be present at the November 15th international conference on the financial crisis that President Bush has convened.  It's likely he'll be taking over Cheney's position as the power behind the throne. More importantly, the foreign participants will be talking to him.

Meanwhile, the Iraqis must be heaving a sigh of relief: they won't have to pretend to be discussing a status of forces treaty that would rip off the sovereignty we supposedly brought them; as for Medveydev, he staked out his position on Europe: if we put missiles in Poland, he'll line up his own toys. But that's not going to be the crisis that tests Obama in the first six months.

By the way, this morning CNN, which can't seem to stop repeating the words "President elect", finally played the entire sentence uttered by Biden during the campaign.  Biden said: "It wont be six months before the international community tests this man, as they did Clinton."  They must have been keeping the complete sentence in a drawer .....

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

An Obama Morning

Headquarters had called to ask me to volunteer this morning. On the streets of downtown Philadelphia, strangely devoid of traffic, young black voters sported lapel stickers saying "I voted for Obama". In the elevator, a carpenter for Obama, a young female bus driver for Obama, and a woman with a wolf dog wearing an Obama poster around his body like a sweater. In the huge room there were probably two hundred people doing phone banking, or waiting to be assigned a task by the four volunteer greeters.  I was directed to a table where corrective address stickers were being placed on long cardboard door hangers to inform people where their polling place was.

Drivers were standing by to take these last door hangers to wards not yet covered. A hanging TV showed images of polling places around the country. Two tables laden with food, everything from hot soups and veggie omelettes to cream puffs and other diet shattering temptations, coffee, coke and fruit. People constantly came and went, and inevitably, as on other days, someone started jumping up and down, leading a chorus of: "Are we Ready? Ready to Go!"

The closest thing I've seen to this were the Cuban Revolution in the early sixties, and the atmosphere in Paris after the socislist Francois Mitterrand was elected, in 1981. Obama cannot fail to know that this is a people's election. It won't take a Jerimiah Wright to hold him accountable. Ominously, as I walked to a bus carrying a red and white Obama sign for my polling place, a man signaled me saying: "I hope the best person wins, but beware what you wish for."

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Paradoxical Generosity of Americans

Here's a conundrum: Americans are incredibly generous when it comes to causes, whether it be save the whales or save the children. And yet, an alarming number of Americans cheer John McCain when he tells them that redistributing the wealth is bad, but generating more wealth is good.

The evidence shows that additional wealth goes to the wealthy, while Mr. and Mrs. Everyman struggle to make ends meet. Not much wealth trickles down.    The frontier ethos must have something to do with America's beliefs.

The first settlers (not the first Americans...) had to have plenty of grit to make it in a virgin land where everything had to be done from scratch. But two hundred years and two revolutions later (the industrial and the IT), waiting for the wealth to somehow miraculously trickle down is the equivalent of the frontiersman thinking the land would plough itself, and the fox wouldn't raid the chicken house.

The grit needed now is to require of government that it represent the solidarity of its people. As more and more countries evolve varying forms of social democracy, Americans are still expected to volunteer their time and efforts to help others, rather than pay more taxes so that their government, which after all represents the community at its broadest, can accomplish those tasks. Joe the Volunteer has to hope that when he is in need, "someone" will come to his aid, rather than being able to count on being helped by the broader community.

Little good it does him to have been able to buy a new car every two years, when he loses his job and his unemployment benefits run out.  Little help are the pictures he took in the Grand Canyon when his health care goes the way of his job. When he volunteers, he is in effect redistributing the wealth - his wealth, instead of the government, which benefits from economies of scale, doing it with everyone's money, taking care of the elderly, the after school kids, the addict.

McCain makes the argument that individuals can help more efficiently than government. But in a world as complicated as ours, that is open to question. Would a retiree prefer to count on a neighbor cooking him a hot meal when he/she has time, or prefer to count on meals on wheels? (If meals on wheels is staffed by volunteers, the food comes from public funds.) So when John McCain tells Joe Sixpack he wants him to keep more of his wealth, Joe should realize he has to donate a substantial part of that wealth to causes because government has "other priorities".

A Race Between Cuba and the United States

Most news and comment involving Cuba and the United States focuses on a fifty-year old standoff.  As with anything that's that old, it's bound to sooner or later become old hat.

A lengthy document posted this morning on CubaNews ( by a group of revolutionary Cubans (in Cuba), confirms what I'd intuited about Raul Castro's presidency and the relatively timid steps he has taken to loosen state control. This collective documents is a plea and a plan to steer Cuba toward "a more democratic and participatory socialism", as the next and necessary step in the revolution.

The document takes an uncompromising look at the revolution's failures, acknowledging the role played by the American blockade in creating popular dissatisfaction. But couched in language that makes unequivocal the drafters'deference to Marx, Marti and the 26th of July movement founded by Fidel and Raul Castro, this initiative has the legitimacy that has been lacking in previous efforts to modify the Cuban political landscape.

Coming in the midst of the most far-reaching economic and financial crisis the world has known since the great depression of 1929, and on the eve of a momentous American presidential election, in which the candidate favored to win is accused of socialism, this manifesto throws down the gauntlet: which country, Cuba or the United States, will make the transition to democratic socialism, putting "human beings, not the state, at the center of the national life", first.

For Cubans, it's "not the state", for Americans, it's "not the military-industrial-governmental imperium".

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Time to Get Fascism Out of the Closet

It's strange that the right in America is permitted to bash socialism while the left never utters a word about fascism.

For those who are too young to be familiar with the background to the second world war, a few facts: Germany and Italy had instituted nazi or fascist regimes, both of which became subsequently known as fascism.  Fascism is a form of capitalism in which the state is an all powerful overseer of private enterprises.The war was billed in America as a fight for freedom, but in Europe, it was a fight against communism, twenty some years after the Russian Revolution, and attempts at revolution in several European countries, most notably in Hungary.

After the war, America remained on the alert for fifty more years against the danger of communism.  Meanwhile, the Scandinavian countries, which had been largely underdeveloped until then, instituted social democratic regimes and progressed to become the most broadly affluent countries in the world.

The permanent campaign against communism was also a campaign against socialism, because communist regimes actually considered themselves to be socialist regimes striving for the higher status of communism.

Communists, meanwhile, were virulently opposed to social democrats, whom they saw as weak-kneed, not daring to take on the capitalist monster.  Yet the evidence today strongly suggests that countries which on the surface may look very different, such as Russia, Venezuela and Iran are tending toward a recognition that while capital is required for investment, the fruits of labor must be equitably distributed. In America, which would like to be seen as the best country in the world, the difference between "socialism" and social democracy has been conveniently ignored.

The right has managed to convince constituents who have little in-depth schooling, that redistribution is about taking money from them, to give to those too lazy to work.  In reality, redistribution is still, as in the days of Robin Hood, about forcing the wealthy to give a leg up to those less healthy, educated or talented than they. And the kind of family you are born into, whether working class or upper class, has a lot to do with your future health and education.

Another way in which the wealthy skew the political discourse is to pretend that those who are actually poor are "middle class". They would have us believe that class warfare is something to be ashamed of, thus leading many to in fact vote against their own interest.

In my next blog I will address the curious absence of the words "lower class" or "poor" in the political discourse.  in America, that has become the first step toward fascism.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Two Streets, Same Solution

The left should be saying yes to socialism for Wall Street. Why?  Because the global market needs global regulation.

Nothing has come so close since the 1917 Russian Revolution to demonstrating the need for control on a global scale.  But only if finances and resources are held or regulated by national governments, can there be effective international regulation.

The financial structure that keeps the world turning is crumbling. Not because many countries fund solid social support systems, but because of the way humans will instinctively take advantage of a market free for all.

This should give us pause: for the first time ever, progressives have an opportunity to make a case for a social democratic organization of the global polis: it is naive to believe that the financial sector can remain stable without regulation, and it is cynical to dismiss crises whose real victims are the poor.  Wall Street fears the nationalization of oil and health care, but both of these would improve things for Main Street.

We've know for a long time that individual countries cannot meet global challenges such as bird flu, climate change, dwindling resources, water shortages, nuclear weapons, energy. What prevented this evidence from leading to the conclusion that we need world government has been the belief that an unregulated global-financial structure is the indispensable guarantor of all activity.

In the United States, uniquely, this myth has been compounded by the remnants of McCarthyism, whose strength is renewed with each Republican administration. Currently, after a period in which socialism as bogeyman was replaced by Islamo-fascism, we are hearing vociferous accusations that Barack Obama is a socialist because he wants to tax the rich to give to the poor - as did Robin Hood.

Pundits proclaim the need for change, but their unique points of reference are the founding principles of this country. It is time for public voices to point out that these principles, when carried into the twenty-first century, on a planet with more than six billion (as compared to less than a billion in 1776), must be enlarged to include the social democratic principle that no human should go hungry.

A powerful campaign has been waged for decades in the United States to convince people that if they value freedom, they must be totally self-reliant. But as John Donne, the seventeenth century poet and preacher famously said: "No man is an island."  And we now know that humans survived and prospered through cooperation, not competition.

In a world of six billion, effective cooperation runs through government, and the form of government that has best implemented cooperation is social democracy. The myth of government ineptitude must be debunked: where government as safety net is respected, government workers are just as effective as those in the private sector. I experienced that living in strictly socialist countries behind the Iron Curtain, as well as in France, which can be described as a wavering social democracy.

Although the next "Jeopardy" will feature questions about the U.N. (perhaps not coincidentally), precious little is given for us to know about life in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark or Holland, which are arguably the most successful countries in terms of freedom, equity and standard of living.

More on that in another blog.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

From Freedom Fries to French Crow

A few years ago, miffed by France’s opposition to the war in Iraq, Americans re-christened French fries, and John Kerry derogatorily portrayed as ”French”, was hammered for suggesting that we should pay attention to what the rest of the world thinks.

If you saw the arrival at Camp David of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso yesterday, you saw the crows coming home to roost: in a fitting final act to his lexicographic handicap, President Bush felt compelled to coin a new code word: Democratic Capitalism, as opposed to the Democratic Socialism that prevails in one form or another in most European countries.

Unlike Jacques Chirac, the current French president, besides being a centrist convinced of the merits of capitalism, admires the United States for its energy and creativity.   But he is the product of a highly centralized state, where banking has been regulated since the time of Louis XIV’s minister Colbert,  who brought the economy back from the brink of bankruptcy, regulated the guilds and saw to it that the rich paid their taxes.

President Barroso, before being elected to head Europe’s most powerful governing body, was a social democratic professor of political science.

The two most powerful Europeans came to Camp David to read the riot act to the president of the country that for almost a century has dominated world economic affairs.  Moreover, and strange as it must seem to most Americans, they are joined in their resolve to change the way finance is structured worldwide by President Putin of Russia.  In fact, I am not aware of any significant disagreement in this respect, with the exception, perhaps, of some members of the former Soviet Bloc who harbor resentment at Western Europe’s failure to side with Washington against Moscow at the time, and often show it by siding with America.

Although the American media has sought to portray finance reforms as having started in the U.S., only to be taken up by Europe, things actually happened the other way around: the reforms were started by Britain’s (Labor) Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and were quickly adopted by the other countries of Europe.  Sarkozy’s and Barroso’s visit was intended to spell out the agenda for a larger meeting between the European Union and the U.S.

The Europeans pressed for rapid action, but President Bush, acting on impulse rather than common sense, said nothing will happen until after the election. Delay can only make matters worse: the rest of the world was compelled to go along by the realities of international finance; but it has always had deep doubts about the justice and long-term viability of “the American model”.  Now that events have vindicated its concerns, it will impose changes. And international and national regulations will reflect the widely held belief that the State owes its citizens protection against the misfortunes of birth or life, in line with basic social democratic values.

Senator McCain seems to have succeeded in convincing millions of Americans who stand to gain by it, that it is a bad thing to redistribute wealth.  If McCain were to become president, those supporters, far from benefitting, would suffer what in soccer is called an “own goal”, when you mistakenly shoot the ball into your own net, raising your adversary’s score.

Beyond the hype about Wall Street versus Main Street, an Obama presidency will have to gradually undo America’s hypnotic fear of socialism, which now goes under the code-name of “redistribution”: self-reliance is a good thing, but we cannot program our lives for success, and when we falter, we must be able to count on the solidarity of the larger community, formalized in the state, which democracy allows us to control.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Who Would Have Thought....

....that the supremacy of the United States would be shaken by the very characteristics that built that supremacy?  Never mind whether Marx is dancing in his grave, for all we know, explanations for the financial crisis that rocks the world could include manipulation by Bin Laden sympathizers.

Although the Russian stock market closed yesterday, Russia responded affirmatively to Iceland's distress call.  That NATO ally got the cold shoulder from its pairs in the European Union, and Russia rode to the rescue.

Obama, brilliant, compelling, passionate about doing what is right, is becoming a barn door - elected after the damage has reached irreparable proportions.  His strongest advantage over all his competitors had been his understanding of the world of tomorrow, as opposed to the world of yesterday. But tomorrow has turned into a another era.

We know he would have had to be extraordinarily deft to scrape a modicum of reform from the power brokers: now he will be expected to fix a broken system while being denied the necessary tools: he would need to be able to nationalize the financial institutions that have caused the mess and institute currency controls.  Can you imagine any president being allowed to do that?

It would be funny, if it weren't tragic, that a century of anti-socialist propaganda has made both financiers and the man in the street so afraid of regulation that it has led to the collapse of the most powerful country the world has ever known.  While we - and those who imitated us - flounder, Venezuela has plenty of money with which to ride out the crisis, even with oil prices falling, because the government has controlled the wealth.

As a recent press report stated: "Venezuela has suffered little direct effect from the market chaos because Chavez nationalized the most important companies that once traded on the minuscule Caracas stock exchange and because, like a number of other countries, he has implemented exchange controls."

American workers have been tamed to the point where the likelihood of a classical revolution is nil.  But the factors that, under other circumstances, could lead to revolutions, have instead lead to economic collapse.  Nothing ever happens in ways that can be foreseen.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Palin's Roman Circus

Hearing the enthusiastic roars of the crowd, like Spartacus soundtrack, I wondered if unlike previous rallies, this was a big one. The camera never showed the entire scene, but when it panned over those directly behind the speaker I realized that the spectators had been arranged in rows of red, white and blue. (I"d previously noticed that those directly behind the speaker were all wearing red.) This was a carefully designed backdrop for the star that Sarah Palin has become, and I would wager my week's food money that she has been let loose to do her thing, without any prepping by the professionals. Because she's way ahead of them. Where Roman Emperors delivered soaring rhetoric to old men in togas, Sarah Palin has mastered the soundbite for a People's Senate, from the tribute to victory, to the claim that there's nothing patriotic about paying taxes.
We knew the campaign would get really nasty as McCain's numbers plummet with the stock market, so it was no surprise to hear his running mate, whose husband belongs to an Alaskan separatist party, indict Obama for being friendly with a man who, when Obama was eight years old, indulged in terrorist activities. We've been told that Obama is not going to allow himself be swift-boated, but the spokesperson brought on afterwards by CNN, did nothing to defend him.

The problem is not that McCain must be tickled pink to have gone with his instincts and picked a barracuda/gladiator for veep. The problem is that, dressed for the occasion or not, there are perhaps too many Americans who love a Roman Circus.

Friday, October 3, 2008


There has been much talk of the Great Depression, and Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal that rescued us from its disasters.  But little has been said about Republican characterization of the bail-out as corporate socialism.

In particular, no one seems to have noticed the implications of that opposition: the fear that indeed, the only viable solution to the financial crisis ringing the world would be government control of the financial system.

The last time around, 1932, was the prelude to the Second World War, which was partly a war between fascism and communism.  And so far, it doesn't look like we're going to get it right this time around.  Fascism was a partnership between big business and government.  Communists wanted the workers employed by big business to run things. Now we're seeing a partnership between big finance and government, and Republicans fear the logical implications of repeated government bail-outs: that workers might say "What's good for General Motors is good for us."

Meaning yes, we do want single-payer universal health care, such as they have in Canada, Europe, Japan and Singapore, where people get to choose their doctor in return for an equitable tax that enables the government to foot the bill without for- profit insurance companies adding to the cost.

If you pay attention to what our allies around the world are doing about the financial crisis, you'll notice that it involves significant government intervention in a sector that was already heavily controlled.

It will be interesting to see how long it takes the Republicans, brought up on blind faith in the free market,  to come to the realization that the country does need corporate socialism if its economy is to survive.

The question is, will the next President be able to steer this country to an overall more socialist form of democracy, or will fascism avenge its Second World War defeat?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Meltdown

As long as cowboy capitalism was only hurting the poor, those in power saw no reason to rein it in.  Now that it’s hurting Wall Street, the free-marketers are, in Senator Dodd’s words, gasping for air.

The commentators are as eloquent as they are shy of saying what they know has to be done - at least in their gut.  They argue about the need for more regulation, with a few braver souls murmuring that the system itself has to be reformed.

When you say that the system has to be reformed, as opposed to regulated, you are saying that free market capitalism has run its course.  One analyst actually admitted that the reason why the present situation is inevitable is that humans have a tendency to always want more. That means that advertising feeds into a basic human trait which eventually leads the entire society to the poorhouse.

Sandwiched in between other comments, several commentators on today’s talk shows mentioned health care as one of many examples of how bad things are, but they weren’t brave enough to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.  Why would they pronounce the words health care in the same breath as financial crisis unless they wanted to imply that both need to be socialized?

Fareed Zacharia, who continues to be the one talk show host who is really worth listening to - Sunday at 1 pm on CNN - interviewed Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, now eighty-five years old and still better informed on world affairs than most office holders.  Zacharia chided him gently for forbidding the chewing of gum in his authoritarian regime (you can get nicotine gum with a prescription), but having looked it up it turns out that Singapore also controls what people see on electronic media.  Singapore is among the dozen or so countries that ban porn (Saudi Arabia, Iran, Bahrain, Egypt, UAE, Kywait, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Kenya, India, Cuba, China), and this allows me to transition to my next point, which is that although Singapore is not a predominantly Muslim country, the government attitude toward the vulgarization of sex is similar to that of Muslim countries - and Christian and Jewish fundamentalists

Kew calls himself a social Darwinist, but his interpretation of the term is somewhat different from that which prevailed in the late nineteenth and earlay twentieth century: that only the fittest can be expected to - and should - survive.  Kew interprets it as meaning that the task of government is to help individuals to survive, even if that implies an authoritarian regime.

Interestingly, a June article in the NYR describes Obama’s economic approach as “behaviorist”, defined as “seeking to marry the insights of psychology to the rigor of economics”.  That sounds to me like a back door approach to social-democracy to me.  Not surprising, since we have a lot more knowledge at our disposal than the social democrats of a hundred years ago.  We can combine a belief in equality with insights into how people make economic decisions, as well as recognition of the need for incentives to move things along.  And if you listen carefully to Obama’s comments on the subject, you’ll catch him saying just that.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Service (sic)

There is great confusion out on the campaign trail and in the world at large:

The two American presidential candidates recently devoted an hour each to answering questions about “service”, yet both endorse a forty-five year old blockade of a country whose political philosophy is based on the notion of service.

In case this isn’t immediately crystal clear, let me be more precise:  In Cuba, the principle of solidarity (which is the moral basis of service) is taught from nursery school on.  Cuban medical personnel not only serve their own people on salary, many of them spend time in distant lands to help others.

The stated purpose of a socialist government is to ensure that the community supports the individual in his life and endeavors.  In the U.S., volunteers are expected to do for others what the government doesn’t do.  Americans pay taxes AND are expected to pick up the slack when their taxes don’t cover basic support.  In socialist countries, salaries are low but there are no taxes and the government is expected to provide health, education and welfare to its citizens, in addition to organizing things so that everyone has a job and food on the table.

Even though we support monetarily and militarily a large array of dictators across the globe who have no concept of service to others, successive presidents have continued to do all they could to bring down the Cuban regime. Even after the Russians had removed their missiles from Cuba, in the sixties, even after the Cold War with the Soviet-Union-now-Russia had ended, even after we started talking with the North Koreans, the only Cubans we talk to are dissidents.

Clearly, the Cuba experiment in trying to make socialism work must have both Democrats and Republicans - and this is where the relatively small difference between the two is most apparent -  very worried.  Currently, the emphasis is on the fact that the Cuban government deems it necessary to remove from the public arena those of its citizens whose opposition the U.S. government supports, so that some of the Cubans we talk to become political prisoners.

Hmmm.  Is that worse than the U.S. government arresting Americans whom it suspects of sympathies with any one of a long list of enemies, and is known to spirit them off to places where the level of human rights is such that they can be tortured?

Meanwhile - and this is where it gets really confusing - the (for want of a better word, and notwithstanding its political overtones) capitalist system, which has spawned an international money market, is teetering on its heights because the free flow of goods, services and money is unregulated by governments.

Progressive commentators rightly point out that we’re witnessing a kind of socialism for the rich,  but I’m not aware of any discussion of what a social-democratically inspired international monetary system would look like. (Keynes?) According to the April review in the New York Review, of Joseph E. Stiglitz’s most recent book “Making Globalization Work”, this former chief economist at the World Bank uses that word approvingly, in yet another small sign that American intellectuals may be timidly abandoning their McCarthy-inspired self-censorship.

I think the world is struggling on many fronts and at many levels toward a social-democratic version of modernity based on sustainable development, where individual service would not be an antidote to runaway inequality, but the functioning basis of government.

And I am convinced that unless the new president can steer this country in that direction, the world is going to be an increasingly confused and scary place.

As a first step, talking to the Cuban government would start to brush the cobwebs out of our heads.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Nine-Eleven’s Invisible Legs

What’s significant about nine-eleven for me is that it begins to put the U.S. on an equal footing with the rest of the world when it comes to the back-story of political attitudes and behaviors.

Living for most of my life in various European countries has made me aware that both public and official reactions to events are colored by past history, learned and repeated over generations of life-times.  Until now, the U.S. has not possessed the kind of history that has marked other peoples: the only wars on our soil were of our own making.  Nine-eleven marked the first attack by an outside enemy on what we only now call “the homeland”.  Other nations have used that expression, as in “the fatherland”(Germany), or “the motherland (France), for generations.

Yet tragically, our political class does not seem to have been in any way transformed by that now-shared experience.  We still don’t understand why the Europeans are reluctant to accept “defensive” missiles intended to deter Teheran, and why they are not going to go head to head with Russia over Georgia - or anything else.

Another example - particularly sad at this moment - is our insistence on punishing Cuba for being an experiment in socialism.  For almost fifty years’ we’ve maintained a blockade on that tiny country, while cheerfully accepting abusive regimes by the dozen.  I don’t think it’s only because these might serve our purposes - or because of the exile vote. The policy is so old that American leaders have ceased to examine its rationality.  While Cuba could be seen as a threat when it harbored Soviet missiles, that was forty-five years ago, and the same country (now called Russia) that provided the missiles is now a partner of sorts.

Newscasters report hundreds of deaths in Haiti, compared to half a dozen in next door Cuba, without being allowed to add that the Cuban government has created well-oiled means and mechanisms for protecting the lives of its citizens, much less that these citizens live rent and tuition free, and have enjoyed free health care since the very earliest years of the revolution.

Nine-Eleven's legs could carry us far, but they're still invisible.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Taming Horses and Adversaries

A few days ago I happened onto an old Western, The Big Country, in which Gregory Peck tames an unridable horse.  In this fifties film, he achieves the horse’s submission by getting up again and again to ride him after being thrown, having the horse’s bridle held by another person while he mounts, or turning the horses head to one side with the reins.

I couldn't help but compare this approach to one I’d seen on a recent Nature feature, about a program for men serving jail time, in which they learned to tame horses using a completely different method than the one in Peck’s film:  they worked over days and weeks to gain the horse’s confidence and allow him to become familiar with his future master.

Undoubtedly, these two filmed narratives reflect the fact that since the fifties, psychology has become a major element of our culture.  Sadly, this progress has not extended to the way we deal with our political adversaries.  Barack Obama would have us apply the method documented in the Nature program, while John McCain touts the cowboy method.

Sadly, again, we witness the predominance of the cowboy approach to adversaries in the behavior of too many soldiers, as documented in several films about the Iraq war.  I don’t remember the title of the one I saw a few months ago on television, shot by a soldier with a camera, that documented language and behavior both in the barracks and on duty.  The vulgarity of the language was only the icing on the cake, so to speak: the soldiers were filmed breaking down doors, raping and killing civilians whom they had decided deserved to be chastised.

Aggressive behavior could be brushed off as untypically American, yet half of us appear to respond enthusiastically to the candidate whose rhetoric is all about winning and the honor thereof.  In case anyone still thinks McCain’s use of the word honor corresponds to the classical definition of the term, they should remember that, in true cowboy fashion, it includes ‘Bomb, bomb Iran.’

Friday, September 5, 2008


John McCain probably had several reasons for picking a little-known governor of a peripheral state as his running mate:

  1. The Alaskan Republicans wanted her out of their hair.

  2. She was part of a group calling for the oil-rich state to become an independent country.

  3. She presents an excellent profile for a future Republican ikon: a female George W. Bush, the guy you could see yourself drinking a beer with,while the presidency was run by the boys in the back room. What they perhaps didn’t bargain with, is that she is also a Dick Cheney clone.

P.S. True to its lapdog credentials, the media sees nothing wrong with a potential VP having campaigned for a state to secede.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Foreordained By the Powers-that-Be

In the U.S., nothing happens unless it is decided by the powers-that-be.

Nowadays, the TV screen fairly shrieks with demands for energy independence, conservation, new sources of energy.  Only occasionally does someone whisper off-stage that some of us have been calling for these same changes for almost forty years.

In yet another of my diatribes about the differences between Americans and other citizens of the world, this surely is the most salient: we are told what those in charge want us to know, hence we accept their agenda, their projects.

The primary project, since the end of World War II, has been for Americans to consume: work/consume, work/consume.  Interestingly, during the same period, the French coined the expression: metro/boulot/dodo, which translates as subway/ work/sleep.  I don’t know if it has been up-dated to include “buy”, (which may not have a slang counterpart - yet), but one thing is certain: The French too love to consume, but the ability to do so came late enough in the twentieth century for them to have firmly anchored ideas and beliefs about life(all different, of course!), that make them put politics above consumerism.  These parameters hold just as true for other European countries.

We, however, have been trained to work and consume, not work for the commonweal, but work for individual (if short-lived) satisfactions.  And therein lies the crucial difference: American individuals are not expected to contribute to the common well-being, and neither is the government that represents them.  That’s why people who cannot afford to see a doctor will tell you that government-run health care is bad: that’s what they’ve been told, and they believe it because for all these years, the media has failed to cover the most significant story going: in countries where government runs basic services, people live longer, healthier lives.

The entire world is hooked on automobiles, the Chinese are as bad as we are.  It’s going to take a monumental effort to get everybody to realize they have to go for major life-style changes.  When the oil companies and the automobile companies decide that they’ve gotten all the benefits they could out of drilling and paving, and prepare to invest in solar, wind and batteries, out come the advertisements exhorting the rest of us to demand these things.  But what major industry will benefit from more fundamental changes in the way we live?

Dennis Kucinich, the least commented upon speaker at the Democratic Convention had it exactly right:  “Wake up, America!”

Friday, August 29, 2008


You know how we always complain when the Xmas decorations go up after Halloween, and we think “why can’t they wait until it’s time”?

Well, Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at the Mile High Stadium in Denver was a foreordained happening.  It didn’t have to wait for election night.  And however ridiculous that sounds, it’s because it embodies the foremost fact about this election: America knows it has to have a president like Obama or it will become, in George Bush’s ill-chosen words a propos the United Nations, irrelevant.

The music and the fireworks, the streamers and the balloons, celebrated America’s awakening after a much longer sleep than that officially acknowledged.

Continuing on the theme of yesterday’s blog: “America’s High Wire Act”, I will say again that the appearance of a return to the “fundamental values” of the Democratic Party has only been possible because even the most cynical politicians realize that the United States has over time dug itself into a bottomless pit.

The world is moving (largely without us) toward resolution of an eternal struggle, which is now rendered more complex by the requirements of sustainability (or maintaining the planet as a human habitat), and belonging.  In many parts of the world, tribal and territorial conflicts overlay the struggle for fairness.  These need to be sorted out, but we must not lose sight of the fact that belonging is a fundamental human need, while nationalism is a construct whose time has passed.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

America's High Wire Act

I’m not referring to the election, or even the standoff with Russia over Georgia.  I’m referring to the fact that politicians as well as political analysts have finally realized that inequality is closing in on them.

A high wire act is required to confront inequality without breaking the long-standing taboo against concepts such as “class warfare”, “left/right”, progressive, or, God forbid, socialist.

If you’ve been listening carefully you may have heard Howard Dean say “We want fairness”, or last night, Bill Clinton tell us the Republicans have increased inequality.  But the most in your face affirmation of the new political opening came from Denis Kucinich, who, in a passionate speech to the convention pleaded;  “Wake up, America”, and “This is not about left/right, it’s about bottom/up,” using geometry to break a centuries’ long mold.

Since the American War of Independence, our discourse has been all about freedom, while in other parts of the world it continued to be about left/right, or the few versus the many (that expression too is creeping into the discourse. I believe Bill Clinton used it last night, and so did another speaker - forgive my lack of precision here).

After decades of decay, the Democratic Party realizes it has to move from a two hundred year-old discourse about freedom, which can cover a multitude of sins, most noteworthy horrific wars to supposedly “bring freedom” to other peoples, to the only one which has always counted, that about the few versus the many.

How to do that in a country that has spent fifty years combatting communism, the signature term for the idea of equality that made it easy to throw out the baby with the bath-water?

The only way to circumvent the left/right dichotomy is to go for bottom/up (not “lower/upper” which brings in the idea of class). Bottom/up is also what Barack Obama is talking about when he insists that change can only come from the bottom, as he did in his brief appearance last night.

In the latest issue of the little-known magazine Orion, a former Carter and Clinton advisor and head of the U.N. Development Program, Gus Speth, offers some concrete ideas as to how the new geometry could begin to be implemented, sketching the outlines of a different kind of capitalist system. It would start with a redefinition of the corporation, whose iron law would no longer be to bring maximum returns to investors, but rather, as Speth puts it, to serve all the factors that generate wealth, all the stake-holders. There would also have to be “a real revolution” in market pricing. Things that were environmentally destructive would be prohibitively expensive. And thirdly, as people have been saying for a long time without having plugged the notion into a broader context that makes it feasible, we would only grow very specific things in a very targeted way: education, health care, green-collar industries. Finally, there would be a move to a wider variety of ownership patterns: more coops, more employee ownership plans and less rigid lines between the profit and the not-for-profit sectors.

This is the first time I’ve seen a simple yet comprehensive enunciation of how we can get from here to there: the design of a trapeze act that would by-pass a concept Americans have been taught to be wary of, yet result in comparable outcomes and thereby bring us back into the fold that humanity has always known, the pursuit of relative equality, transforming it from a struggle into a tending-toward.

Struggle has been the means used until the present by the powerless many against the powerful few. Technology has brought us to the point where struggle comes dangerously close to obliteration. It must therefore be replaced by tending-toward, as I explain in “A Taoist Politics: The Case for Sacredness”. With the struggle between fascism and communism over, the world can tend toward social-democracy, that will allow us to replace mindless growth, unevenly distributed, by a more equitable sustainability.

To start with, this will require a sharp eye for the distortions of the corporate media, which is where the high wire act is located.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


To understand why the governments of Poland and the Czech Republic have been eager to accept the U.S. proposal to set up missiles interceptors and tracking devices in their respective countries, you have to go back to the Cold War era.

It’s not just that these two countries were under Soviet domination, part of the Warsaw Pact for defense and the Comecon economic organization.  It’s the fact that in that situation, they saw the United States as their saviour. Prominent dissidents, especially in Poland, felt the countries of Western Europe, with their large and prominent left-wing parties and peace movements, were not hawkish enough toward the Soviet Union.

When President Bush contrasts the new Europe to the old Europe, he is referring  precisely to that difference in attitudes.  And it’s that same difference that explains why the two Eastern European governments (though not their populations), have been enthusiastic about NATO, and the defensive systems it will supposedly aim at Iran.  In all likelihood the Polish and Czech governments are not more sanguine about Iran than their Western European colleague: their abiding fear is of Russia.

Thomas Friedman’s recent piece gets it right in apportioning blame for the Georgia tragedy, but I disagree that we forced NATO down the throats of Eastern Europe.  Although coming two decades after their liberation from the Soviet grip, membership in the North Atlantic club means more, on a certain level, than joining the European Union: the latter represents the fulfillment of a cultural dream: recognition of the East as being an integral part of Europe, while the former represents a guarantee of the East’s survival.

When Condoleeza Rice said in the same sentence that it was absurd for Russia to see the interceptors as an act of hostility toward it, but that she was glad the agreement would also provide for short-range patriot missiles, she was referring to the host country’s fear of its big neighbor.
And yet, not enough attention has been paid by the defense establishment to the fact that Russia is accustomed to having a buffer zone between itself and putative enemies. That was the role played by the countries of Eastern Europe from 1945 to 1989. They were under tight control in order to protect the Soviet Union from Germany, following a war in which the Russians lost more than 13% of its population (compared to less than 1/2 of 1% of the U.S. population). Americans are accustomed to speed - fast-moving events and making decisions quickly. But Russians are probably not. While Russian tanks moved speedily into Georgia, the conflict had been brewing for a decade; it was a question of preparing for the right moment. In the eighties, Mikhail Gorbatchev had floated the idea of a “European House” that would have included the Soviet Union, a suggestion wisely ignored, since it would have resulted in a critical imbalance. It would appear that Vladimir Putin is still trying to counter-balance the weight of the sole European Union, instead of seeing a Eurasian continent in which Russia is one of several large entities, together with the European Union, India, China, and a less well-defined Muslim rim.

My guess is that it will take another decade for fear of encirclement to give way to matter-of-fact cooperation, allowing Bela Rus, Ukraine and Georgia - which it now calls the “near abroad” - to be part of a multi-faceted hemispheric “abroad”, none of which is perceived as a threat.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Many Governments, One Rule

Today's Democracy Now featured Naomi Klein and Christian Parenti, two progressive journalists who have recently been following events in China.

But the relevance of their testimonies was neither in the Olympics, nor China's spectacular economic rise.  It was about surveillance and its growing universality.

In my blog of  July 31, entitled "Semantic Differences",   I stated that governments are in agreement among themselves on the need to keep their respective people's in order, whatever their differences vis a vis each other.

Nothing better illustrates this reality than the fact that Western companies involved in the production of surveillance equipment are making a killing in China, where everything from internet cafes to streets are being linked to police stations through surveillance cameras.

But that's not all. The two journalists agreed, this is a worldwide trend, with ubiquitous street cameras in London and other cities. Hopefully, more political commentators will accept that we are really living in one world, where no matter the surface political orientation of governments, they are dealing with the same problem, the control of the many by the few.

This would greatly facilitate the task of interpreting political events and eventually influencing them in ways that redress the imbalance between the many and the few.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

New Use for Words

I'm not trying to compete with William Saffire, but I'm struck by the novel ways in which words are being used in conflicts.

We're all familiar with our president's repeated references to freedom, and his desire to spread it around the world.  President Sakashvili of Georgia learned the lesson well: every third word in his desperate pronouncements are about the place of freedom and democracy in the tiny country he rules.  However, like other leaders of small countries or groups around the world, he fails to recognize the right words to not bring hoped for results.

After the American failure to support the Shia uprising in southern Iraq following Desert Storm - or the Kurdish uprising of around the same period, the Ukrainian orange revolution a few years ago (or, for that matter the Hungarian uprising of 1956 or socialism with a human face in Prague 1968), the Georgian president is the latest in a long line of pro-Western leaders who have wanted to believe that America puts its troops where its mouth is. Today on Democracy Now, in an ironic coincidence, Ron Suskind, author of a new book called "The Way of the World; A Story of Truth and Hope in an Age of Extremism" tells the story of Benazir Bhutto's belated realization of the power of the democratic idea. Roughly, what she said to him was that because the democratic idea had actually taken hold, the people of Pakistan had come to oppose President Musharraf, and this had strengthened her position, even though Musharraf was the one the American proponents of democracy, were backing. As Suskind sees it, the irony is that America failed to match its rhetoric with an order to Masharraf to see that his opponent in the democratic election was protected - and as a consequence, she was assassinated. This brings us back to the point of this post, which is that increasingly, talk of democracy and freedom is used by all sides in conflicts, no matter what their actions. Vladimir Putin refers to Russia's obligation to protect its citizens in South Ossetia, even though the status of South Ossetia would not, under international law, entitle its citizens to the Russian passports they have been given. President Sakashvili stresses that his country is free and democratic, although its desire to avoid domination by its neighbor is what drives it to seek membership of NATO, knowing full well the threat such membership represents to Russia. (This was acknowledged this morning on CNN by Richard Haas, who served several Republican presidents and is currently president of the Council on Foreign Relations.) It's bad enough that citizens have to rely on highly censored information from the media, but now the task of judging what constitutes desirable government behavior or outcomes is rendered near hopeless by the fact that rhetoric has been elevated to the status of policy.

The only thing we can (perhaps) be thankful for is that each government knows that its adversaries also use language more as decoration than as a means of communication.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Eagle Soars, the Bear Pounces

A lot of people are probably thinking the Georgia crisis is a tempest in a teapot.

Unfortunately, it isn't.  It goes to the heart of U.S.-Russian relations.

The lack of comments to my previous post here, as with others on foreign affairs, shows how little interested even "aware" Americans are about the rest of the world.  That's precisely the justification the corporate media uses for not providingmore foreign news.

It wasn't until this morning that CNN told its listeners about the Caspian oil pipeline, or the fact that Georgia wants to join NATO.

Imagine how Washington would have reacted if Mexico had asked to join the Warsaw Pact (the Soviet answer to NATO) during the Cold War!

On the other hand, President Bush's saintly pronouncements about Georgia's territorial integrity represent a new high in hypocrisy.  The far left is comparing what's happening in Georgia with international backing for Kosovo's independence, since that former Yugoslav republic also sits on or near an oil pipeline.  I don't see what Yugoslavia would have had to gain by remaining indefinitely outside of a European Union that includes about thirty states, but Georgia's desire to join NATO at this point in time can only be read as a threat by Russia.

But however you read it, the news from Georgia this morning was competing with pundits speculating about John Edward's' affair.  Maybe if the media had paid more attention to "foreign" news and less to Bill Clinton's peccadilloes, 911 wouldn't have happened.  And I note that the blogosphere today is about a dumb journalist's remark about Obama's trip to the "foreign" island of Hawaii!

Get with it, folks!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Moscow, Tbilisi, Teheran

Russia didn't invade Georgia to protect the lives of South Ossetians to whom it gave Russian passports.  It did so for several reasons: the first is Georgia's request to join NATO, the second is Bush's plan to install missiles in Poland, and the third is to show that the West cannot count on oil pipelines that bypass it.

The story goes back a long way, but twenty-five years is enough for now.  Before Mikhail Gorbatchev presided over the dismantling of the Soviet bloc in  Eastern Europe, he floated the idea of the Soviet Union being part of a "European House" - one of the few bad political ideas in the world that didn't fly.  As I pointed out in my book in French, "Une autre Europe, un autre Monde", besides the fact that the Soviet Union stretched all the way to the Pacific, the Russian part alone would have weighed too heavily in the balance.  Now, however, as this week's Economist explains, Russia is floating a much more credible idea: that of a Eurasian security organization.  A conference in Moscow next year would include all the NATO and EU countries (not all members of the EU belong to NATO), plus China and probably India.

Historically, Russia has feared encirclement. In the late eighties my book showed the Europeans that the Soviet Union was merely one of several giants whose power was relativized by the existence of the others. Now, in what Fareed Zakaria aptly calls "The Post American World", Russia's geographic position could allow it to be the prime mover in that vast Eurasian community.

Russia's call for a security conference is a broad, long-term response to extra-Eurasian (i.e., American) encroachments.  The invasion of Georgia is a short-term demonstration that Russia will not tolerate having a member of NATO on its southern flank and missiles on its eastern border - however much these latter are meant to intimidate Iran.

P.S.  Should the Bush administration fail to get the point, Vladimir Putin has talked of putting bombers carrying nuclear warheads in Cuba, taking us back not twenty-five years, but almost fifty.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Terrorism and Equity

Saudi Arabia may have recently arrested hundred of activists  to mollify the West over the relatively small increase in oil production granted by the royal family. But these arrests are significant for a different reason: the explanation given for the militant activity was discontent over the failure of the Saudi rulers to share the oil wealth with their citizens.

I have been saying for a long time that all social conflicts are, at bottom, about equity.  Even those of Islamic fundamentalists, and now it’s happening in a country known for the emphatically religious nature of its regime: Wahabbi fundamentalism.   Apparently, Al Qaeda differs with the clerics.  As I wrote in “A Taoist Politics: The Case for Sacredness”:  “All the territorial wars, all the movements for liberation or succession, emanate from the same basic requirement of equity, as humanity evolves from animal, to primitive human, to a scientifically aware polity.”

Why is personal behavior so important to Islam? it’s because Islam is not about miracles, but, like Judaism, it’s about how men should live. When Muhammad decided his people needed to become as civilized as the Jews and the Christians, he was not thinking in esoteric terms, but about individual behavior and a just society. These require an effort by the community - or umma - to achieve equality and solidarity among its members, because that is what God wants. If Christ was the original Marxist, than the Prophet was the original Maoist, and solidarity was meant to take the Jews' Ten Commandments and Christ's love-thy-neighbor a step further.  As Karen Armstrong writes, 8th century Arabs conquered half the known world at the time, merely to avoid plundering fellow Muslims!

In light of Islam's basic message, it's not surprising that twentieth century leaders in many Muslim countries were clients of the Soviet Union. Although most of the world's poor now suspect that Communism is not the answer to their problems, the developed world is only just beginning to realize the urgency of helping them catch up. Meanwhile, unscrupulous secular leaders such as Saddam Hussein or Muhamar Quaddafi have at one point or another professed their Islamic faith to further aims which have nothing to do with equality and solidarity. Bin Laden is merely the latest avatar.

Even if Bin Laden’s aim is to weaken the United States for reasons of faith,  experts agree that Al Qaeda has morphed into a broad movement, in which each local group does their thing.  And they are more likely to be motivated by equity than purity.  Until Americans are allowed to know that equity, whose first definition is “fairness, principles of justice supplementing law” - as opposed to equality before the law -  is a valid political principle, they will not comprehend the nature of the wars they are being asked to fight.

Saturday, August 2, 2008


Remember that recent comment by one of McCain’s campaign managers that if there were a terrorist attack on the U.S. that would be good for McCain?

Well, just so you don’t think there’s anything uniquely perfidious about our political operatives, here’s a similar quote from a Chinese Communist Party leader, who referrred to the recent earthquake that killed 70,000 people in China as “a good opportunity” to improve China’s image ahead of the Olympics.

The article in this week’s Economist that reported this quip, went on to say that one of the big changes in China is that the central government had less of a grip on local officials.  It’s no longer a “totalitarian” country, but “a mixture of jostling bureaucratic and economic interests which push official somethings toward thuggery and sometimes toward greater tolerance.”

Would that both these attitudes were visible here.

Thursday, July 31, 2008


The western press is all worked up over Beijing's limitation on website access for those who are covering the Olympics.

Maybe there's something wrong with me, but I can't see a lot of difference between Beijing's up-front censorship and western censorship, which is more subtle but just as effective.

Beijing's limitations on visiting journalists apparently do not affect savvy Chinese internet users, while the self-censorship that western, and especially American journalists have to exercise, affects what the public gets to know on a broad range of vital issues, from the war in Iraq to the amount of vacation other developed countries grant their workers.
As for spin, talking points, rewriting of experts' reports - for example on climate change - what is that if not censorship?

Most Americans don't even know there is such a thing as an alternative media, and many of those who are aware of it, believe that reading it or watching it could be a form of brain washing or lack of patriotism.

This is all part of the charade that goes on over our heads: all leaders go to the limit of what their respective publics will allow them to get away with, and on a certain basic level, even enemies understand that about each other.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Myth of Objectivity

The McCain campaign complains that the press is showing more enthusiasm for his opponent.  This brings to a head an issue that has underlain the problem of the press in the United States for decades.

The problem is this: a basic premise in journalism is that the press must be “objective”.  Dozens of books have been written that show there is no such thing as objectivity: every decision made in the mind of the journalist or editor (what stories to cover, how much space to allot, what page to run it on, what size headline it will have, etc.) is colored by his or her background, education, what he or she ate for breakfast or drank the night before. Yet the myth of objectivity continues, because it suits the owners of newspapers and magazines.  (The owner doesn’t sit in the editor’s chair, but he fires him if he does not perform as expected.)

Now there is the deliberate confounding of equal time with so-called objectivity.  Television, where most Americans get their news, bends over backwards to devote equal time to the two candidates, but they can only tangentially doctor actual coverage (such as turning down the applause for Obama and turning it up for McCain.) It is not the press’s fault that Obama is inspiring, nor can individual reporters be expected to sound like robots.

When jaded reporters cannot hide their enthusiasm, you know something big is happening.  But the emotion that cannot always be stifled even by the most experienced journalists, does not alter the fact that under the guise of objectivity, the American press has become the docile lapdog of government and business, both of which include the military.  Skeptics need only consider the latest example: last Friday’s House Judiciary hearings on the use of power by the executive.  The hearings were neither announced nor covered by the major television networks, and they were not reported by the New York Times, whose motto is “All the news that’s fit to print”. According to the on-line new source Scoop, the only mention of the hearings in the Washington Post was a derogatory quote by a republican witness.

The hearings were in response to Representative Dennis Kucinic’s long list of articles of impeachment, read on the House floor a couple of weeks ago. To get around Nancy Pelosi’s anti-impeachment stance, the articles were boiled down to one, and the day-long hearing eschewed the word impeachment in its title.  The title which dared not say its name was “Executive Power and its Constitutional Limitations”.

If hearings by the country’s elected representatives on possible reasons for impeaching a president with a 30% approval rating are not news, what is? And if the American public is not informed that far from requiring a lenghy procedure, impeachment could be voted for the executive’s failure to respond to a congressional subpoena, how would it know to urge its representatives to hold properly labeled impeachment hearings before they are confronted with a “preemptive” attack on Iran?

Monday, July 28, 2008


The right has a way of using phrases invented in one context, and having one meaning, to serve in another context, with a totally different meaning.

The term “unconditional surrender” was used at the end of the second world war to communicate that the defeated axis powers could pose no conditions to ceasing combat, by opposition to previous wars where each side could lay down conditions for ceasing hostilities.
Senator John McCain has been using the term to refer to the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, stating that it would be equivalent to “unconditional surrender”. In terms of war, we defeated Saddam’s army. Victorious, occupying armies are expected to eventually withdraw. To not withdraw from a sovereign country whose government requests it, is an act of war, which would require another “victory”. An intrepid journalist should ask Senator McCain what further “victory” he is seeking in Iraq, since Al Qaeda is holed up in the hills of Pakistan. Is he referring to the victory of one Shiite faction (Al Malaki’s) over another (Al Sadr’s)? The return to power of the Sunnis (Saudi Arabia’s allies)?
Or maybe just the signing away of Iraq’s oil wealth to Exxon?

P.S. Barack Obama met with Al Malaki before he met with General Petraeus, in what I believe is a significant inversion of U.S. diplomatic practice.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Obama in Berlin: Build New Bridges Across the World

CNN didn’t tell us how many people waited for Obama to speak in Berlin’s Tiergarten today, I’m guessing because the number would have offended McCain.

The number is important because it brings home to otherwise oblivious Americans just what a momentous event the Obama candidacy is for other peoples.  The enthusiasm of Europeans, who are the most politically sophisticated of our Others, should bring home how ignorant the American public is of attitudes toward their country.  Our media has kept most os us blissfully unaware of how our country is seen abroad, and this does not only apply to the Bush years.

Having lived abroad for most of my life, I can attest to the fact that there has never been a time, since the early fifties, when our governments have been revered.  Had our disgrace been merely the fact of one presidency, the crowd in Berlin would not have responded as it did to Obama’s apology for past misdeeds and his determination to radically change the way we behave on the world stage.  Americans hearing his speech may have found it slightly over the top when he spoke of bringing down all the walls, and declared the need for all peoples to “listen to each other, learn from each other and trust each other”, but I can say here with absolute certainty that the rest of the world will not have agreed with that assessment.

Obama said what the rest of the world has been waiting for an American president to say for sixty years.

Monday, July 14, 2008


The most significant thing about Barack Obama’s interview with Fareed Zacharia yesterday on CNN, was his serenity. Obama’s detractors have called his noble demeanor a suit. But nobility is a manifestation of inner strength, and as was plain to see yesterday, strength brings serenity. American’s yearn for an end to the shrill hype that has characterized the political stage, and Zacharia’s Sunday GPS brings discussions and interviews to a new level. Yesterday, his firmness delineated a space where Obama’s equanimity could flower.

During the first world war, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes used the phrase “clear and present danger” to designate circumstances that would justify government regulation of free speech. The expression later was given a different meaning. Courtesy of Jaideep Singh, writing on B-Net in 2004:

“The first Committee on the Present Danger was formed in 1950 by Cold War liberals who favored a policy of containment vis-a-vis the Soviet Union; the second installment came after Vietnam, launched by hawkish Democrats who felt their party had gone soft on the Reds, and who during the Reagan years had become active in Republican foreign-policy circles. The latter group, known as neo-conservatives... has relaunched the committee to ‘educate free people everywhere about the threat posed by global radical Islamist and fascist terrorist movements; to counsel against appeasement of terrorists; and build support for a strategy of victory against this menace to freedom.’"

The term clear and present danger - code for alarm - has driven American foreign policy for half a century, and the result has been a country whose infrastructures are crumbling, which is hated even by many we call our allies, and where to become president a candidate cannot back the single payer health care that exists in virtually all other advanced countries.

In February 2007 I wrote a blog entitled: “Obama’s breath of fresh air, Hillary's blast from the past and Putin’s credo”. A year and a half later, everything it said is broadly recognized. I’m saying today that if Obama reaches the White House, his serenity will power the replacement of alarm bells with cooperation.

A good place to start would be to let the just signed treaty with the Czech Republic to place missile tracking devices on its soil die quietly. The Poles have not agreed to the corresponding installation of interceptor missiles on their territory, and neither population wants to be so defended from attack by Iran. Under this guise, the plan adds up to merely moving the Oder/Neisse line that divided Europe in half for forty years slightly eastward, reviving the threat to Russia, to which Putin has responded accordingly.

As long as different levels of development and different - sometimes tortuous - roads to development are perceived as threats, there will be money in military hardware, but not in government sponsored health care.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


This morning’s news reported the month’s old arrest of hundreds of Islamic activists in Saudi Arabia. The CNN newscaster wondered aloud why news of these arrests were only being made public now. Perhaps to mollify the West over high oil prices, and the relatively small increase in production just granted by the royal family...

But the significance of these arrests goes beyond this diplomatic game: the explanation given for the activities of the militants was discontent over the failure of the Saudi rulers to share the oil wealth with their citizens.

I have been saying for a long time that all social conflicts are, at bottom, about equity. Even those of Islamic fundamentalists. Now it is a matter of public record, in the country which is known for the emphatically religious nature of its regime: Wahabbi fundamentalism. Apparently, Al Qaeda differs with the clerics. As I wrote in “A Taoist Politics: The Case for Sacredness”: “All the territorial wars, all the movements for liberation or succession, emanate from the same basic requirement of equity, as humanity evolves from animal, to primitive human, to a scientifically aware polity.”

And more to the point: “Why is personal behavior so important to Islam? it’s because Islam is not about miracles, but, like Judaism, it’s about how men should live. When Muhammad decided his people needed to become as civilized as the Jews and the Christians, he was not thinking in esoteric terms, but about individual behavior and a just society. These require an effort by the community - or umma - to achieve equality and solidarity among its members, because that is what God wants. If Christ was the original Marxist, than the Prophet was the original Maoist, and solidarity was meant to take the Jews' Ten Commandments and Christ's love-thy-neighbor a step further. As Karen Armstrong writes, 8th century Arabs conquered half the known world at the time, merely to avoid plundering fellow Muslims!
In light of Islam's basic message, it's not surprising that twentieth century leaders in many Muslim countries were clients of the Soviet Union. Although most of the world's poor now suspect that Communism is not the answer to their problems, the developed world is only just beginning to realize the urgency of helping them catch up. Meanwhile, unscrupulous secular leaders such as Saddam Hussein or Muhamar Quaddafi have at one point or another professed their Islamic faith to further aims which have nothing to do with equality and solidarity. Bin Laden is merely the latest avatar.”

Even if Bin Laden’s aim is to weaken the United States for reasons of faith, Al Qaeda has morphed into a broad movement, in which local groups are more likely to focus on the more tangible pressure for equity than on purity. Until Americans are allowed to realize that equity, whose first definition is “fairness, principles of justice supplementing law” - as opposed to equality before the law - is a valid political principle, they will not comprehend the nature of the wars they are being asked to fight.

Friday, June 13, 2008


I remember Fidel Castro saying to me in the early sixties that when the problem of equality had been solved, men would still face challenges from nature.

I haven't been back to Cuba since 1965, but I understand the government has implemented projects that show considerable awareness of the climate crisis, while the Bush administration has blocked scientific information about global warming.

I'm wondering whether any people are checking out the following: The media tell us that in a given place there hasn't been a similar incident in fifty years, but we would need to know, for each year, going back say fifty years, how MANY places each year have had weather incidents that break their previous records.

As floods and tornadoes batter the midwest and west of the United States, there is talk of preparedness, and FEMA, but when will the news media draw attention to the fact that an increasing number of Americans are going to be facing the same inescapability of nature's violence as people in Ethiopia, after six years of drought, or the inhabitants of the Irruwadi Delta in Myanmar?

Saturday, May 31, 2008


Those of us who see Obama as the only hope for real change in the way the United States conducts itself on the world stage fear he will be eliminated. Hillary's remark about assassination was not a moment of distraction but most likely reveals her hopes and perhaps even plans which she will deny having knowledge of if something happens.

Now comes a chorus (a Greek chorus?)insisting that to be credible, Obama must travel to Iraq: a gret place for an assassination whose investigation would be neigh impossible.

However this may crimp Obama's style, close-up protection should be increased and he should wear protection under his clothes, no matter where to goes.

The press has been far too lenient with the Clintons. The media, conveniently, never gets it until it's too late (see Scott McClellan.....).

ROn the Cuba front, McCain demonstated how little he knows about Cuba - specifically, that the Misssile Crisis ended in the eary sixties - warning the Americn people that CUBA poses a threat to US! Barack Obama needs to realize that the exiles, whom he sought to reassure, are the equivalent of those Americans those who think the GI education bill is too expensive. They did not want the majority of Cubans, who were poor, illiterate, without health care, to live better lives. To back any property claims on their behalf would dash any hope of improving relations with Cuba at any time in the foreseeable future.

Obama should lift the travel ban for all Americans so they can evaluate the revolution for themselves. In a tiny country facing a giant enemy, political prisoners are no worse than Guantanamo or renditions, or the more subtle losses of liberties that Americans suffer in the name of far-off enemies that we have provoked. All governments abuse their power in accordance with the cultural environment of their countries and with what they can get away with.

At a time when natural disasters are increasing, we would do well to recognize, among many other achievements, Cuba's ability to cope.

Our CEOs are starting to embrace "corporate social responsibility". Why should we expect Cuba to embrace coboy capitalism? Setting preconditions for a meeting witih Raul Castro perpetuates the image of the U.S. as wanting to dictate to other governments how they should run their countries. I believe Cuba will evolve into a social democracy like the Scandinavian countries, in which case it will be ahead of us.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


The Russian word troika means three of a kind. According to Wikipedia, It entered the vocabulary during the Stalinist era when troikas of judges replaced the normal legal system for quick persecution of dissidents. The word has also been used to describe a tight group of officials consisting of the party leader, head of government, and head of state, where the positions were held by three different people and the party leader was not viewed as sole dictator. The most famous troika was the one that ruled briefly after Stalin’s death in 1953: Malenkov, Beria and Molotov.
Now there is a new troika in Russia, consisting of the figurehead president, Dimitri Medveydev, who appointed his predecessor Vladimir Putin as Prime Minister, and the Russian people, who, through their elected representatives, acquiesced.The reasons are relatively benign: Putin brought order and prosperity, and the constitution forbids him occupying the position of president for more than two consecutive terms. He is widely expected to become president again in 2012.

Should the American election result in John McCain becoming the next president, continuing George Bush’s policies, the American electorate would, like their Russian counterparts, also be guilty of acquiescing, because they have 200 years of democratic practice behind them. It’s difficult to see what great difference there would be.

But what would the third party of the American troika be? It could be any number of entities, but for the sake of a newsworthy argument, let’s say it would be the National Security Council, to which John McCain would probably only make minor changes.

A National Security Council is a relatively recent addition to the organs of democratic government, starting in the United States in 1947. In 1999 Israel established a national security council, and the Palestinian Authority under President Abbas set up one in 2007.
Now the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. is calling for one. However, unlike the voters in the above three nations, Germans are protesting the idea. Since the horrifying behavior of the Nazi Third Reich in the second world war, Germans have massively supported the obligation put upon them when they were defeated not to have war-making capabilities. To quote this week’s Economist: ”The CDU (Merkel’s party) is saying, in essence, grow up.... New threats such as terrorism and climate change (...)have blurred the distinction between domestic and foreign security....” The CDU paper suggests the government should contribute troops to crises without waiting for parliamentary approval and that “a networked homeland security policy also demands that troops sometimes be deployed at home.” This is all but barred by the constitution, but such decisions would be part of a national security council writ.

National security councils, with their sinister connotations, are likely to soon become the norm, while our one available global institution for making military action less necessary, is as weak as are the aggregate many across the globe to control their national destinies.
The UN is only just realizing that its food organizations have to be revamped to cope with the global food crisis, which could have been foreseen; it has been unable to bring relief to the victims of the Myanmar cyclone because the military junta that has been in power since 1962 (almost as long as the Cuban regime, but with vastly different outcomes!) know that aid workers, transported in by the U.S., would becomes so many Trojan horses. Did not our President add to his offer of aid, the desire that the junta’s people also be allowed to choose their leaders?

Not to be outdone, Hillary Clinton vows that if she were president she would “break up OPEC”, instead of telling voters that the oil consortium has to be integrated into the fledgling system of world governance.

Never was ‘the fierce urgency of now” more obvious.