Monday, September 28, 2009

Borrowings and Synchronicities

Today Democracy Now showed images of men in military uniform bundling a G20 protester into a car. Officially, they were not military.  Then why were they wearing unmistakably military camouflage-type uniforms?  Last week I saw a man in military uniform talking at length to two civilians, in plain view on a busy street.  I thought the military were not supposed to walk around in uniform.  I guess relaxing the rule is a way of getting us used to the sight.  Can’t help being reminded of the early days of Castro’s Cuba, where so many civilians were militiamen, toting rifles, that it was part of the decor: the people’s decor.

I almost forgot to mention the loud noise-making truck used against protesters in Pittsburgh.  Does that remind you of one of torture’s latest tools?

Last night I watched a late forties film on TCM.  It was instructive.  The yarn turned on the efforts of a bright, honest Agricultural Extension Officer to save a motherless family from disaster when the know-it-all father insists on cutting down trees that are all that stand between him and a gigantic mudslide.  The instructive part was the backstory: the widowed father called his children to regular “democratic meetings” where decisions were - at times heavy-handedly - made.  Inspired by the government sponsoed 4H Club (Head, Heart, Hand, Health), the ten year old daughter wants desperately to raise two lambs on her own, but the father says having her own lambs would mean she doesn’t want to share with the family.  In the end he confesses that those “democratic” meetings were his way of hiding the fact that he was afraid to compete.

Get that?

That was before McCarthy, Watergate, and hopelessly rigid dancer Tom Delay.

In one of those almost daily synchronicities the cry out for recognition. Arundati Roy, that wonderful Indian writer/activist, told Amy Goodman and Anjali Kamat that in the biggest democracy in the world, democracy has become fused to market fundamentalism.  Roy’s latest book is entitled: “Field Notes on Democracy” and is about creeping fascism in the land of Gandhi.  The government’s latest  inspiration is to encourage as many people as possible to leave the countryside for the cities.  Could the dream of lowering the percentage of those required to feed the country present the added incentive that people are easier to control in cities?  According to Roy, certain Indian states are seeing massive starvation and protests, and hence a growing Maoist influence.

If you have a local TV channel like Philadelphia’s Drexel, you can watch Grit TV with Laura Flanders and videos of events like Bioneers, Trade Union meetings, Latino organizing events and other documentary proof that the frozen American tundra may be melting.  As the Siberian tundra melts, methane, more harmful than CO2, is being released into the atmosphere.  We’re in a race between greed’s destruction of the planet, and the awakening of its inhabitants to the power of the many through the melting of meticulously crafted inhibitions.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Otherjones' Index 1

Taking a cue from the brilliant Harpers’ Index, I’m starting a slightly different one.  It will be something like a game score card, tallying the “strikes” that left and right make in a game that would be funny if it were not deadly serious.

One for the left: Ralph Nader comes out with a book entitled:  “Only the superrich can save us”.  (This is not meant as a joke.  It is a novel based on the fact that all revolutions are led by the upper class.)

One for the right: The National Endowment for the Arts is called out for contacting artists to suggest that they illustrate some of the President’s important themes, such as global warming and health care.  The NEA is a government agency and therefore must remain “non-political”!

One for the left: Michael Moore’s film “Capitalism: A Love Story” may do more to alert Americans of the idiocy of their political system than all the intelligent, well-documented, well-written books on the subject.

One for the right: ACORN, a national community organizing collective that helped Obama get elected, is accused of skullduggery on a par with Lehman Brothers.

Readers may wonder why I bother with these carryings-on.  It’s because little by little, the right is inching its way toward something that would be worse than a come-back: the closing of a trap around a people that led the world for half a century.  Like a great ship that cannot turn on a dime, the “force” that Chris Hedges referred to when, a few years ago, he wrote “War is a Force that Give us Meaning”, is now a force that is taking us, not “down a slippery slope” but on a descent into hell.

As I write in “A Taoist Politics: The Case for Sacredness”, one has to be on the right side of the issues, all the while knowing that we can only tend toward our goals, which can never be irreversible. For many of us, this is getting more and more difficult.

The trap that the right, via a constant barrage of “revelations”, is closing around the American people, would outlaw political activity in so many ways, to so many categories of people and circumstances, that we could scarcely call ourselves a polity.

Theoretically, the President has a “bully pulpit” to make his views known, but a federal agency cannot invite artists to illustrate his goals. And unlike countries with parliamentary systems with multiple - often many -  political parties, we do not have “party” newspapers, hence the bully  pulpit is a fiction, because the president has no media outlet to get his case across to the population at large.  The press is supposed to be a watchdog, but it has turned into a sinister voice for every indiscriminate negativism.  The so-called ‘objectivity’ of the most powerful news channel, CNN is but a veil over the insidious tones of its presenters - as opposed to its “analysts” who have an official ax to grind: Democrat or Republican.

President Obama is not only a prisoner of the forces that allowed him to become president, stacking his cabinet with the star players of our economic disaster, his cool and his intelligence are shackled by chains forged over two hundred plus years of constitutional, legislative and other devices intended to keep the few on top.

It is unlikely, under these circumstances, that the superrich will save us, because by and large they are as ignorant as the masses.  Our only hope is that the rest of the world will save us by forcing global reforms, and asserting the power of the many.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Are We Headed for a Race War?

When Republican Representative Joe WIlson broke with 200 year of congressional tradition to heckle President Obama during a crucial speech to a joint session, condemnation was widespread.  But to most it came merely as an afterthought that this might not have happened to a white president,

I had been noticing how little we see of the other players in the administration and how much we see of the President.  I thought that was a good idea until recently.  In the health care debate and more generally the public’s attitude concerning the role of government, it’s beginning to look like this set-up, which encourages the public to associate the issue to a black individual, is counter-productive.  For all the joy among the majority of Americans at seeing a black person become president, the opposite seems increasingly true of more fundamentalist republican  voters. They are systematically being organized into tea parties by their cynical leaders, whose goal is to get rid of the Obama administration by any means possible.

Had Obama not walked into a hornet’s nest of major problems he might have been able to secure health care for all.  But everything the legacy left to him by the Bush administration forces him to do, stirs up public anger against big government, now represented by a black man.

One could compare this social crisis to the attitude of troops in war: those who are defending their homeland usually fight better than invaders.  The participants in the tea party are troops defending a homeland of rugged individualism, resentment of government and fear of the outside world.  The availability and talents of former Bush executives harnesses this great energy with ruthless determination to preserve an America that can no longer exist in today’s world, and that is excoriated by it.

Ironically, Joe Wilson was censured by the House of Representatives on the day that the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush during his last visit to Baghdad, was released after spending nine months in jail, claiming he was tortured.

Tranquil Americans used to fear the left. Now, if they are at all aware of what is going on, they should fear the right.  Fascism as an organized form of government would not be able to exist without storm troupers, brown shirts, “know-nothings’....or tea partyers.  As various observers testify to the fact that college students do not see education as enrichment, but merely as a meal ticket, we should not be surprised that so many adults are susceptible to propaganda about race and socialism - nor even that they are capable of putting socialism as synonymous with fascism.

Ignorance, rather than foreign enemies or even the stock market, should be our biggest worry.

Health Care Reformers: Beware of Words

At the excellent Philadelphia meeting featuring Wendell Potter, the former Cigna spokesman who now campaigns for health care reform and against health care for profit, I noticed the use of the words “services” and “benefits” when describing what insurance companies do. Think how misleading those ubiquitous terms are. It’s similar to the use of the term “service” when referring to a person’s choice to become a politician. Our representatives and senators “serve”. “Service” runs in the bloodlines of famous families. The term would only be used correctly if becoming a representative or a senator were purely voluntary. Similarly, people “serve” in the military. We used to have “selective service”, then we had “the draft”, more accurate. Now we have a volunteer army whose personnel “serves” - and sacrifices for - the country. Let’s be clear: recruits don’t “serve” the country, they serve special interests.
Getting back to health care, what insurance companies provide are not “benefits”: we don’t “benefit” from paying through our noses to insurance companies so that doctors (supposedly following ‘government guidelines - did you know that? ) can overcharge tenfold. Similarly, we should not use the term “benefit” to describe social security checks: it’s our money, allocated back to us at a shockingly low rate of return.
Now for the most damaging use of language in the fight for health care. Some activists remember to mention in passing that we are the only developed nation in the world that doesn’t have some form of “single payer” health care. Then they go on to say that, actually, France doesn’t really have a single payer plan. When I ask these activists where they get their information, they can’t remember. One of them assured me he had to be right because he had a Ph.d in political a science from an Ivy League university. That same activist rightly goes around reminding people not to believe what they read in the corporate press, yet he has apparently swallowed information dispensed by a university professor without question.
I have lived abroad for most of my life, and the only country I lived in that didn’t have government-run health care - and this was forty-five years ago - was Italy, which got a government-run system in 1978 that covers everyone. In France everybody pays a health care tax, you pay a small co-pay for freely chosen doctor’s visits and medications, every aspect of health care is covered. The fact that this is done through various professional entities does not mean that France doesn’t have single-payer. These entities merely administer the governmental system for their employees. Also, doctors can get permission to charge rates above what is covered by the government, for those who wish to pay the additional cost. You don’t get better care, or quicker care, by paying extra. I thirty years I never heard of a waiting list for care. France spends half what we do and if the French live longer it’s not just because they drink wine.
The left wrings its hands and wonders why it can’t get Americans out on the street to demand health care. Perhaps not surprisingly, in this morning’s event someone asked how other countries managed to get single payer health care. Neither Wendell Potter nor the journalist Rob Kall had a ready answer. No wonder: the people of Europe didn’t have to DO anything to get universal health care. It’s part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which all the countries signed, and, thanks to the legality of every conceivable type of left-wing party and an uninterrupted working-class tradition, no government could question this basic principle. That’s what is meant when someone says: “The Europeans can’t understand why we don’t have universal health care.”
So please, activists, don’t contradict yourselves when you say this, by adding the caveat that this or that European country doesn’t really have single-payer. You’re shooting us all in the foot.
P.S. Government run health care was mandated in the Kaiser’s Germany by the Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismark in 1870. Most of the other European countries got it either just before or just after the Second World War.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

TIme to Call in the Lafayette Brigade!

It’s time for the Lafayette brigade, Mr President.

During our revolutionary war, only the French came to our aid – but it was decisive.  Now, if you were to ask them, the heads of all the European countries would testify before Congress how they deliver quality health care to all their citizens.

Of course, they don’t have our defense budget, but they do contribute to the wars we initiate. They also don’t spend as much money on health care as we do, and their health outcomes are superior to ours.

How is it that the OMB doesn’t factor in money spent by lobbyists when they calculate the cost of health care?

During the eighteen years I spent in France from 1981 to 1999, French unemployment was as high as ours is now.  Yet the French economy didn’t tank, and everyone had the same health coverage as when unemployment was lower.  Whether I lived in Paris or in the provinces, I chose my own doctors and hospitals, paying a small copay for visits and medications. With a chronic back problem, I got physical-therapy several times a week for years, as part of my coverage.

You don’t say it loud enough, or often enough, Mr President: the rest of the developed world looks down on us because haven’t progressed morally to the point where we believe health care is a right.

And finally, why should it be such a big deal to move health care from the workplace to the government?  You know health care is a burden for companies.  And why should you not be interested in putting the health care insurers out of business if you believe profits are not warranted when it comes to health care?  There are plenty of other things for them to ensure, and the employees would simply transfer from a private employer to a government employer.

The crucial thing you never say, Mr. President, is that Americans have go to stop seeing government as a necessary evil: why do we send our soldiers to fight in foreign countries to bring them a functioning government if we think government is so bad?

Saturday, September 5, 2009

What Needs to be Said

My last blog about love and war didn’t seem to resonate.  It was probably too telegraphic.  But an image on this morning’s CNN impels me to try again.  It showed the American civilian employees who were guarding our embassy in Iraq or Afghanistan and were caught half naked partying.

I don’t have the slightest doubt that this picture elicited disgust in anyone who saw it, whether or not they had a religious conviction or background.  Recognition of that fact should make it easier for secularists to understand where Muslim extremists are coming from.  Unlike the pictures from Abu Ghraib, this one illustrates potently what the Egyptian writer Qut’b was carrying on about in the fifties and sixties, and begs for a redefinition of the word “lewd”.  In my Heritage dictionary I find: “licentious, lustful,  obscene,” and “obsolete: wicked,” from Middle English, originally, ignorant, vulgar”.

I think we need to resuscitate the Middle English meanings: ignorant, vulgar.

Ignorant because a person who behaves in a lewd manner denies that he/she is part of the Whole.  A flower is never lewd, a tree is never vulgar, even a pig has its dignity.  The Whole of which we are a part, Gaia, consisting of the earth and its biosphere, is what we are.  As Gary Zukav playfully but seriously said:

“That which is is that which is.   There is nothing which is not that which is. There is nothing other than that which is. We are part of that which is. In fact,we are that which is.”

So we are not being puritanical when we condemn this behavior: we are saying that its practitioners are violating our own “is-ness”.  Similarly, when Muslims say “God is Great”, they are referring to that which is.  As Alastair Crooke tells us in “Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution, quoting an anonymous Shi’a cleric:

The reflexive introspection on ‘being’ that is the route to a comprehension of the oneness of man with man, man with nature and man with the universe, implies the curbing of the personal. The understanding of connectedness with other humans and with the surrounds diminishes the sense of individual ‘self’.

An individual’s relationship with God does not emerge instantaneously out of a single act of faith as St Paul suggests to Christians.  It emerges slowly from the experience of the living God’s demand that humans behave towards one another with justice, equity and compassion.

Echoing Buddhism, Crooke’s interlocutor notes that:

“The knowledge or ‘relationship with God’ is only to be achieved through restraining the ego or ‘nafs’, rather than privileging it as in the West, which has elevated individualism to become the basis around which politics, economics and society is organized.”

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Is There a Difference Between One War and Another, One Love and Another?

Distractedly watching Free Speech TV as I prepared lunch, see, hearing, victims of the attack on Falluja in all their gory detail, I suddenly wondered whether there is a qualitative difference in the way human beings suffer atrocities over historical time.

We are focused on the increasing lethality of weapons, the horrors of gas chambers, tanks bulldozing
houses, IEDs, the whole panoply of 'weapons of mass destruction'. And in the course of the same day we will be offered relief in the form of movies, sitcoms or even reality shows that feature the trials and ecstasy of love.

No wonder Buddhists talk of an eternal wheel of life, having invented "Stop the world, let me off!" millennia before Jerry Lewis (or whoever is famous for that quote).  For Buddhists, you are only let off the wheel
of samsara when through a series of rebirths, you perfect your soul.  Then you are entitled to return no more, you are released from the wheel.

Does such a belief foster resignation?  It's not supposed to.  It's supposed to inspire humans to love and help their fellows.  Enlightened self -interest.

What about us?  What could we be doing/not doing when we realize that what we are witnessing is ever more of the same, not only in our time, but throughout history - and pre-history.

Yesterday Poland marked the 70th anniversary of the German invasion that started World War II. But it was not a straight-forward remembrance. Vladimir Putin was there to acknowledge wrong-doing by the Soviet Union, which having conspired with Germany to carve up Poland, invaded from the east two weeks later.

People who read ancient history instead of the newspaper may have a point: war is war is war, as in a rose is a rose is a rose.

By extension, the same applies to love, which is why Romeo and Juliet has been playing for centuries.

But until we figure out how to reincarnate ourselves, say, 10 or 50 years hence, to see the outcomes of today's passions, an inner voice, sometimes known a conscience, but which I call our internal authority, tells us we must participate, trying to be on the right side of the issues, all the while knowing that the opposite of what we try to encourage, will eventually win out, and the struggle will start again.