Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day Atrocities and Ironies

What a way for Israel to celebrate America’s Memorial Day! Did Lieberman take advantage of Bibi’s absence to commit murder? Did Bibi cancel his trip to Washington to avoid having his knuckles rapped?

President Obama is caught between multiples rocks and hard places: he can control neither the oil barons operating off our shores, nor the new crusaders who want to take over the Holy Land, and who, having killed thousands of Gaza civilians, thinks nothing of killing members of an international group committed to a humanitarian mission.

Yesterday, interviewing the BP operations manager on CNN, Candy Crowley appeared not to know that the American congress caved to the oil industry’s demand to free it from the obligation it has in the rest of the world to install an off-switch that would have prevented the Gulf disaster, while at the same time, perhaps, trying to get the oilman to confess.

Today the question is will President Obama will buy the unbelievably weak excuse announced by the Israeli ambassador according to which the Israeli attackers found weapons ready to use against them on the ship carrying relief to Gaza. (In other words, if you carry a defensive weapon, I will attack you!) The ambassador made no mention of arms being carried as cargo, and in fact the AP story on The Huffington Post mentions knives and clubs as the arms prepared by the convoy - a reverse David and Goliath situation.

The attack happened in international waters, another serious issue. And by the way, before ousting Fatah from Gaza militarily, Hamas won the June 2007 parliamentary election there. Hamas must have had in mind what happened in the Algerian election of 1992: when the Islamic party won a first round, the government in power, with the backing of France, cancelled the second round to prevent it from taking power, sparking years of violence.

The commander of the Israeli troops who rappelled to the Turkish lead ship from a helicopter stated that he was surprised to hear Arabic spoken on board, the implication being that only Arabs support the Gazans. This is willful ignorance on the part of supposedly sophisticated Israelis, similar to the assumption on the part of many Americans that Cuba, which receives thousands of foreign visitors, is isolated from the rest of the world.

Last but not least, while Turkey has been Israel’s most steadfast ally in the MIddle East, a Turkish charity played a lead role in organizing the humani-tarian flotilla, and Turkey’s Islamic government could do no less than recall its ambassador to Tel Aviv after its ship was attacked.

But the irony goes further: together with Brazil, Turkey recently finalized a deal with Iran to reprocess its nuclear waste. The diplomatic breakthrough by these two “second tier” countries annoyed Secretary Clinton, even though President Obama had previous stated that such a deal was desirable. During the recent financial meltdown Brazil’s highly popular president Lula da Silva stated bluntly that it had been caused by “people with blue eyes”; and Turkey, located between Europe and Asia, recently indicated it would reorient its diplomacy away from the EU and toward the Arab world.

By continuing to support “the only democratic country in the Middle East”, the one supposedly founded on Enlightenment principles, rather than recognizing “facts on the ground”, Washington, like Israel, continues its blind march to oblivion.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Gaza Flotilla Drives Israel into a Sea of Stupidity

Today I'm hosting Israeli journalist Gideon Levy's piece in the Isareli paper Haaretz:
Published 02:37 30.05.10

The Israeli propaganda machine has reached new highs its hopeless frenzy. It has distributed menus from Gaza restaurants, along with false information. It embarrassed itself by entering a futile public relations battle, which it might have been better off never starting. They want to maintain the ineffective, illegal and unethical siege on Gaza and not let the "peace flotilla" dock off the Gaza coast? There is nothing to explain, certainly not to a world that will never buy the web of explanations, lies and tactics.

Only in Israel do people still accept these tainted goods. Reminiscent of a pre-battle ritual from ancient times, the chorus cheered without asking questions. White uniformed soldiers got ready in our name. Spokesmen delivered their deceptive explanations in our name. The grotesque scene is at our expense. And virtually none of us have disturbed the performance.

The chorus has been singing songs of falsehood and lies. We are all in the chorus saying there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. We are all part of the chorus claiming the occupation of Gaza has ended, and that the flotilla is a violent attack on Israeli sovereignty - the cement is for building bunkers and the convoy is being funded by the Turkish Muslim Brotherhood. The Israeli siege of Gaza will topple Hamas and free Gilad Shalit. Foreign Ministry spokesman Yossi Levy, one of the most ridiculous of the propagandists, outdid himself when he unblinkingly proclaimed that the aid convoy headed toward Gaza was a violation of international law.

Right. Exactly.

It's not the siege that is illegal, but rather the flotilla. It wasn't enough to distribute menus from Gaza restaurants through the Prime Minister's Office, (including the highly recommended beef Stroganoff and cream of spinach soup ) and flaunt the quantities of fuel that the Israeli army spokesman says Israel is shipping in. The propaganda operation has tried to sell us and the world the idea that the occupation of Gaza is over, but in any case, Israel has legal authority to bar humanitarian aid. All one pack of lies.

Only one voice spoiled the illusory celebration a little: an Amnesty International report on the situation in Gaza. Four out of five Gaza residents need humanitarian assistance. Hundreds are waiting to the point of embarrassment to be allowed out for medical treatment, and 28 already have died. This is despite all the Israeli army spokesman's briefings on the absence of a siege and the presence of assistance, but who cares?

And the preparations for the operation are also reminiscent of a particularly amusing farce: the feverish debate among the septet of ministers; the deployment of the Masada unit, the prison service's commando unit that specializes in penetrating prison cells; naval commando fighters with backup from the special police anti-terror unit and the army's Oketz canine unit; a special detention facility set up at the Ashdod port; and the electronic shield that was supposed to block broadcast of the ship's capture and the detention of those on board.

And all of this in the face of what? A few hundred international activists, mostly people of conscience whose reputation Israeli propaganda has sought to besmirch. They are really mostly people who care, which is their right and obligation, even if the siege doesn't concern us at all. Yes, this flotilla is indeed a political provocation, and what is protest action if not political provocation?
And facing them on the seas has been the Israeli ship of fools, floating but not knowing where or why. Why detain people? That's how it is. Why a siege? That's how it is. It's like the Noam Chomsky affair all over again, but big time this time. Of course the peace flotilla will not bring peace, and it won't even manage to reach the Gaza shore. The action plan has included dragging the ships to Ashdod port, but it has again dragged us to the shores of stupidity and wrongdoing. Again we will be portrayed not only as the ones that have blocked assistance, but also as fools who do everything to even further undermine our own standing. If that was one of the goals of the peace flotilla's organizers, they won big yesterday.

Five years ago, the noted Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, who is a Jerusalem Prize laureate, after concluding his visit to Israel, said the Israeli occupation was approaching its grotesque phase. Over the weekend Vargas Llosa, who considers himself a friend of Israel, was present to see that that phase has since reached new heights of absurdity.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Call for a Progressive Story

Last week’s Nation carried an important article by Amitai Etzioni. Leaving communautarian theory aside, Etzioni calls on progressives to adopt what he calls a common narrative. To agree on what brought us to this point, what or who will save us, and what is the end state we want to bring about: “What is our shining city?”

Etzioni believes that it is the fact that each group has its own priorities that prevents progressives from uniting. I am not sure that is true, be-cause the emails I get from a variety of “causes” seem to reflect the same concerns, even if the primary focus is on different aspects of our civili-zational crisis: war, poverty, health care, women’s or minority rights. However, I think Etzioni’s focus on communautarianism has given him a valuable insight into the left’s failing: we need to agree on the main lines, or what could be called a big picture.

His examples of what might have brought us to this crisis are enlighten-ing: “Is it the military-industrial complex”, he asks. “Wall Street? Capi-talism? The Christian right? Or...?”

I would suggest: Selfishness, greed, over-consumption, due to lack of education and information. Greed and selfishness result from a lack of education about others, which leads to over-consumption by one part of the population and underconsumption by the other.

In the end, it’s always about equity. We cannot escape that reality. And perhaps the overriding problem of the American left, is its belief that it can more safely talk about discrete aspects of that problem without organizing behind it.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Mickey Mouse and Little Piggies

Alas, it’s not a fairy tale, but an overwhelming reality that day by day is dismantling the American Fairy Tale of shining progress.

Like the hero of the musical “Sorcerer’s Apprentice”, BP’s greed has not kept up with its capabilities, and now it can only run to and fro trying to stop the damage from the forces it has unleashed.

But that’s not all: the mouse BP calls its human employees “little piggies”, applying a cost/benefit analysis to the provision of safe as opposed to hazardous buildings for them to work in, oblivious to the fact that if the pigs decide to get together, they would be able to whip the mice into line.

Smarmy Democratic congressmen are starting to compare the president’s response to the Gulf Oil catastrophe to President Bush’s handling of Katrina. This is so unfair that it’s hard to believe: maybe they’re trying to take the wind out of any sails the Republicans might still have.

Senators who believe the congressional dome imbues them with special wisdom call for “the government” to take over the rescue of the Louisiana and Florida coasts: but as the Coast Guard talking head admitted yesterday, the government is not in possession of the necessary technology. In the words of the lady White House environmental advisor stuck with responding, it can only provide “the best brains”.

Meanwhile, no pundit can afford to state the obvious: we’ve gone from being the slaves of technology to being its victims.

After five decades of assuming that President Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial complex was mainly about the military, we now awaken to the fact that the industrial complex is perfectly capable of wrecking havoc on the world all on its own.

The Gulf oil disaster gives President Obama yet another sterling (sic) occasion to break with his handlers and chart a new course before it’s too late. Worse than the facts on the ground is the knowledge that this cannot happen. It calls for a wide-ranging discussion on the role of government in our times.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Shared Prophecies

At various times since I began this blog, more than three years ago, I’ve suggested that America’s days as the dominating world power are numbered. Though I may have been one of the first to perceive this, the notion is spreading.

A recent blog on the site , by two Washington insiders, is entitled “Iran, the Post-American World and the Security Council’s Looming Legitimacy Crisis”. Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett note that by offering to refuel Iran’s research reactor, Turkey and Brazil, “two rising economic powers from what we used to call the ‘Third World’ have now asserted decisive political influence on a high-profile international security issue.” Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is even questioning the Security Council’s credentials for dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue.

This turn of events is a far cry from the post-war days referred to in my October 2, 2009 blog, when America ran the world.

I’ve just returned from a ten-day trip to Paris and Turin, Italy, where I presented the Italian version of my historical document on the Cuban Revolution.

In this gem of a city, most of which was built for a seventeenth century kingdom, but which later became the home of Fiat, Italy’s most important car manufacturer, history in general, and the fight against fascism in particular, is ever present in the minds of politically aware people.

Surprisingly, my Italian hosts and colleagues, who fit that description and then some, knew very little about Sarah Palin. More worringly, between the fact that information is distilled by Berlusconi, and that the climate crisis is not amenable to ideological solutions as such, they are not concerned about it. Yet eleven people died over the weekend from floods in Poland.

And so it goes: Americans carry on as though their government was still running things worldwide, and Europeans, worried about the solidity of their common currency, fail to see the writing from the sky.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Of RINOS and Dinos

Sir Brian Urquhart is probably one of the few surviving persons who has been intimately involved in framing and constructing the U.N. since 1945, and he has just given me a great gift.

In the current issue of the New York Review he traces the history of the world body, whose problems have formed the basis of a generalized distrust. But he dares to say what no critics have done, as far as I am aware: the U.N. must become the matrix of a world government.

Giving a boost to the work of Professor Thomas G. Weiss, who has been associated with the UN Intellectual History Project Series, Urquhart traces the history of national sovereignty, whose dotage is at the root of opposition to world government, to the oft-cited Treaty of Westphalia which, in 1648, put an end to the Thirty Years’ War in Europe. Quoting Weiss: “This venerable institution remains a hearty enough virus. It is a chronic ailment for the United Nations, and perhaps a lethal one for the planet,” Urquhart adds: “One can only wonder which of the great global problems will provide the cosmic disaster that will prove beyond doubt, and probably too late, that our present situation demands a post-Westphalian international order.”

Echoing what I have written in A Taoist Politics: The Case for Sacredness, Urquhart notes that although there are 100,000 peacekeeping soldiers in many parts of the world, “no progress has been made toward a standing UN rapid deployment force, which, in an ideal or even rational world, would be the obvious way to provide for the speedy deployment of well-trained troops and civilians in an emergency.”

Noting the weakness of the concept of governance ‘a word used in the absence of any overarching political authority’ Weiss, Urquhart tells us, 
‘makes a stirring argument for dropping the current coyness about steps that might lead, in the distant future, to world government and for start-ing to discuss seriously what is needed to establish a stable, peaceful, and unthreatened international society in an age of potentially terminal global problems”.

According to Urquhart, who is ninety-one years young, “what is needed is not to abolish national sovereignty but to reconcile it with the demands of human survival and decency in the astonishingly dangerous world we have absentmindedly created.”

While Obama’s best and brightest struggle to keep all the plates in the air, including those represented by the Tea Partiers’ RINOS, it seems that dinosaurs are not necessarily to be found where we think they are.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Greece: The 'Cradle' of our Civilization

This pun is too good to resist: from cradle to grave. But it’s more than a pun: like most other European countries, Greece has a strong left wing and consequently it is what we would call a welfare state. It has a national health service, and the average retirement age is 61, although some workers in the public sector retire in their fifties.

I happened to hear this latter figure yesterday, when in the gym I frequent, I was subjected to an afternoon Fox News program. The anchor mentioned, in one breath, that Greeks retire at fifty, and are less evolved than Americans because when they have a problem with the government, they take to the streets.

I’ve never been good at math, but doesn’t early retirement make jobs available to more people? (As does the thirty-five hour work week in France?) Most European countries have chronically high unemploy- ment, compared to what used to be ours, yet they have free schools, free health care, five weeks vacation and, in the case of Greece, two extra months of salary, as used to be, and perhaps still is, the case in Italy.

It’s difficult not to see a connection between the fact that Europeans are more likely to take to the streets than Americans, and the fact that European workers manage to get and keep a much better deal than American workers.

An outgrowth, no doubt, of the ancient Greek agora, where direct democracy was practiced for a while. As populations increased, direct democracy became impractical, Kings and feudal lords arose, and ‘the demos’ were mightily used and abused.

All that is long since past: direct democracy is making a comeback, thanks to texting, and in Europe, at least, cradle to grave security is the norm. Meanwhile the United States prepares to follow the lead of its biggest state, Texas, in expunging from textbooks the likes of Thomas Jefferson, replacing the phrase ‘democratic societies’, with ‘societies with representative government’, and ‘capitalism’ with ‘free enterprise’, dropping all references to the Enlightenment.

Thus, while Americans wring their hands in despair at the ruination of the Gulf wetlands and lost income for our fishing industry at the hands of oil company-led cowboy capitalism, they’re being warned against what must, in the end, prevail: the cradle to grave democratic socialism the Greeks are currently defending, that puts people ahead of profits.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Give us Each Day our Daily Catastrophe(s)

Is the news media more alert to what’s going on in the four corners of the world than it used to be? Or is there a steady increase in natural and manmade catastrophic events?

The rain in Spain is no longer in the plains, as Eliza Doolittle had to repeat in the play Pygmalion. The rains are everywhere, bringing floods and devastation here in the United States, but also, on any given day, to half a dozen other places around the globe.

This week so far, aside from a car packed with explosives left smoking in Times Square, there is serious flooding in Tennessee, following on tornados in other parts of the southeast.

Then there is the mother of all oil spills, courtesy of British Petroleum, which has shut down the huge fishing industry in the waters of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi Alabama and Florida, and threatens an area that is a major wildlife area.

Today, a fire broke out in a refinery in San Antonio, Texas, and Ireland and Scotland had to again suspend flights because of new ash from the Iceland volcano. Meanwhile desperate efforts are under way in Haiti to move refugees from the recent earthquake zone to higher, drier areas as the rainy season gets under way. China and Mexico too are coping with earthquake devastation, as is the southern part of Chile.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten as many catastrophes as I’ve listed. The question is, if we’ve been unable to prevent natural disasters from occurring when there are ‘only’ say, ten a week, will we be more likely to be able to prevent a hundred a week? And what will these events do to the world economy and the ability of governments to govern?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

State "Nationalism"

When I moved back to the United States after living in a series of other places, I was struck by the fact that when I crossed the Delaware River from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, into New Jersey, it was like going to a foreign country. A few miles beyond the river, people seem as unfamiliar with the only big city in the vicinity as if they had lived in Kansas.

Reading Gordon S. Wood’s Empire of Liberty, a detailed account of the years 1789 to 1815, which could be called this country’s axial years, one is struck by how very independent-minded the different states were. Woods’ mentions several threats of disintegration that occured long before the conflict that almost cut the country in two. He shows that the civil war we were taught to see as a previously unthinkable event, was really the one instance in which secessionist sentiment was so strong and pervasive that war could not be avoided.

With Arizona’s passage of a draconian emigration law, it’s clear not much has changed in two centuries. The Arizona immigration bill takes its place in a long line of crises that saw this state or that threatening to go its own way. And according to an article by Amy Goodman in Truthdig, Arizona, which in the twentieth century fought recognition of the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday, was also the only territory west of Texas to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy during the Civil War. The fact that the governor of that state is backed by the nation-wide Tea Party movement is a sign of historical continuity. Disgust with “big govern-ment” is widespread, but in Arizona it has led to a law that permits the “smaller” state government to usurp federal authority.

But is state government really less threatening than Washington? Tea-partiers believe that only a national government can ensure our security, yet they believe that states can police the border, a nation’s first line of defense. Yet when an oil slick threatens livelihoods and ecosystems in southern maritime states, federal troops are welcome to help meet the challenge too big for states to handle alone.

It is ironic that just as the European Union, with its common currency, the Euro, is testing the solidarity of its individual national members over Greek’s debt crisis, the country that inspired that union could be heading for an eventual break-up.

If that sounds like utter fantasy, consider the fact that a growing number of elected officials are leaving their respective parties to run as indepen-dents or cross over to the other party. If you think this has nothing to do with the push for states’ rights and smaller government, think again: everything is related, and the failure of the two party system that has prevailed since 19th century Americans realized they needed political parties not originally planned for or desired, is another crack in the sys-tem.

President Obama appeared on the national stage at a time when Red and Blue no longer suffice to describe the often contradictory aspirations held by Americans. His deep-seated partiality to compromise, though noble, prevented him from using his electoral mandate to insist on single payer health care, which would require a smaller bureaucracy than the hotchpotch that offered a handle for Tea Partiers to seize and loudly exploit.

The pattern is set to continue with immigration and climate change. The reforms desperately needed by this country require uncensored education and information about the world, its governing systems, ideologies and needs. A return to the quasi independent states of revolutionary times, each with its own view of the world and of what constitutes a good life, will hamstring efforts to cope with the major challenges the world faces.

And in a world which is increasingly moving toward regional entities, American state nationalism is more threatening than the rise of China.