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.