30 November 2009

Rebecca Solnit : Reflections on Fanaticism

John Brown depicted in detail from a mural by John Steuart Curray titled "Tragic Prelude," in the Kansas State Capitol in Topeka.

Today's fanatic, tomorrow's saint
It's popular to think that the world gets changed by nice people, but the lives of activists past and present tell us otherwise
By Rebecca Solnit / November 30, 2009

The question: Is fanaticism always wrong?
John Brown, who was hanged 150 years ago this week, was a religious terrorist. Driven by his unshakable belief in God and his own righteousness, he killed civilians, went on suicide missions, and fomented one of the most terrible and destructive wars in history. Yet his cause was undoubtedly good. Everything he did, he did to abolish slavery; and in the end, he triumphed. The Union armies, singing "John Brown's body lies a mouldering in his grave," marched on, together with his soul, through the confederacy until it was crushed and the slaves freed. Looking back at his life and death we are left with an awful question: is fanaticism always wrong?
By fanaticism we usually mean two things. One is that someone is dedicated in the extreme to their cause, belief, or agenda, willing to live and die and maybe kill for it, as John Brown was. The other is that the cause, belief or agenda is not ours, and in 1859 John Brown's beliefs were not those of most Americans.

No one calls himself or herself a fanatic. It's what you call people who are weird or threatening, extremists in the defence of something other than your own worldview. I've been around activists all my adult life, and though it's popular to think the world gets changed by delightful people, a lot of the saints and agents of change are obsessive, intransigent, unreasonable, and demanding, of themselves and of us. That's what it generally takes to change the world.

Gandhi knew this when he said, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win." Conventional people give up when they laugh at you. Timid people back off when they fight you. They don't win, and neither do those who prize ease and security. The prize is for those who risk and persevere.

That slavery was an intolerable evil is something slaves have tended to believe all along; a few free men caught up with them in England in the 1770s, as Adam Hochschild's wonderful history Bury the Chains relates, and that handful of Quakers and dissenters persevered until they won, half a century later. I am not so sure about John Brown's means, or that his actions were necessary to start a war that was already brewing, but I am sure that slavery needed to be abolished, and that his general ends were good.

The really interesting thing is that in 1839 to be against slavery in the U.S. was a disruptive, extreme position, often seen as an attack on property rights rather than a defence of human rights. Half a century later we held those truths to be self-evident that no one should own anyone else. (Except husbands owning wives, but that's another story that got revised in the 1970s and 1980s when things like domestic violence came to be taken seriously by the legal system of many countries. Sort of.)

Lincoln called John Brown a "misguided fanatic." Thoreau wrote a defence of him in which he remarked, "The only government that I recognise -- and it matters not how few are at the head of it, or how small its army -- is that power that establishes justice in the land." Some 13 years before Brown's bloody raid on Harper's Ferry, Thoreau went to jail, in a quiet, half-comic way, to protest slavery and the U.S.'s territorial war on Mexico.

I'm writing this the evening before the global day of climate action, on the 10th anniversary of the Seattle WTO uprisings. I was in Seattle when the mainstream considered us nuts to think corporate globalisation was a bad idea; that perspective is mainstream now; and I can see the world waking up and shifting its sense of what we need to do about climate change. A quick online search reveals quite a lot of people have been called "climate-change fanatics," mostly for believing the change is real and it requires some fairly profound responses. But the baseline of belief is shifting, thanks to the dedicated and unreasonable among us.

Fanatic is a troublesome word. I've written a book about disasters in which I propose throwing out the words panic and looting, because they're incendiary terms more often used to misrepresent and justify authoritarian response than to describe reality on the ground. Maybe fanaticism is another such term, since my hero is your fanatic, and yesterday's fanatic is so often tomorrow's saint. Maybe we should all be a little more -- not fanatical, but unreasonable and intransigent in our commitment to truth, to justice, to a better world.

[Rebecca Solnit's book about disaster and civil society, A Paradise Built in Hell, will be out in time for Katrina's fourth anniversary. She is a contributing editor to Harper's Magazine and a Tomdispatch.com regular.]

© 2009 Guardian News and Media Limited

Source / Guardian, U.K.

Thanks to Common Dreams / The Rag Blog

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Rabbi Arthur Waskow : 10 Best Reasons to Send Troops to Afghanistan

Ten best reasons to send more U.S. troops

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow / The Rag Blog / November 30, 2009

10. If you want to breed and train more would-be terrorists who hate the USA, the best way to do so is attacking Afghan villages where key Al Qaeda cells have left to regroup elsewhere.

9. If you want to keep Afghan women powerless, ignore the advice of their own leaders that grass-roots economic development is crucial -- and send the Marines instead, to boost the power of macho warlords who gather loyalty by fighting foreign invaders.

8. If you want to make sure that no one is learning that government could do good things like building schools and community health clinics in America, hiring teachers and writers and railroad construction workers, feeding hungry children, or renewing our rotting sewer system -- then sink hundred of billions of dollars into this war so as to bankrupt domestic-needs programs.

7. If you want to make even higher profits from burning oil and coal instead of letting America invest in creating a wind/solar renewable energy network that will heal the climate crisis, free us from coal and oil, and make America competitive again -- a multi-billion-dollar war is terrific.

6. If you want to stymie all investigations into past use of torture and "extraordinary rendition" by past U.S. governments and utterly negate the closing of Guantanamo, multiplying prisoners in Bagram (Afghanistan) will help a great deal.

5. If you like to knit blankets for legless veterans while making sure the Veterans Administration is so swamped with the wounded that they have to wait months in rat-infested wards for treatment, more maimed soldiers are by far the best result of a war.

4. If you are trying to do research on the suicide rate, homeless rate, and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome in returning soldiers, there will never be a better milieu for producing experimental subjects.

3. If you want to create a surge of right-wing populist rage that will shatter the Democratic Party and elect Sarah Palin president in 2012, then combine thousands of dead and maimed American soldiers with millions of unemployed American workers.

If you can think of two more, please add them by clicking to this article on our website at The Shalom Center and commenting at the bottom of the page. Also add your own reasons as comments to this article on The Rag Blog. AND -- if you think all these are terrible reasons and would like to tell your Senators to oppose sending more troops, please click here to, and fax them. We have provided a usable letter; we welcome your adding your own thoughts.

Shalom, salaam, shantih... peace,


[Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center and is co-author of The Tent of Abraham; author of Godwrestling, Round 2, Down-to-Earth Judaism and a dozen other books on Jewish thought and practice, as well as books on U.S. public policy.]

The Rag Blog

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Health Care Reform : The Final Act

Photo by Benjamin Simpson / Hodomania.

Final curtain:
The health care tragedy

By Dr. Stephen R. Keister / The Rag Blog / November 30, 2009

I was recently privileged to have the opportunity to discuss world affairs, and health care in particular, with an affluent Swiss businessman visiting in this area. He, as are most Europeans, was dumbfounded that in the United States 45,000 folks die each year without the benefit of health care. Why? Why can such a thing happen?

I quoted to him an observation passed along by one of my more cynical acquaintances: "You will understand why we don’t have a government single-payer health care system in this country... once you understand that the corporations ARE the government.”

I learned much about the Swiss system. Swiss health care is under the jurisdiction of private insurance companies which offer, by mandate, health insurance policies to all citizens. The policies differ in content, benefits, and price, and those who cannot afford to purchase the insurance have their fees subsidized by the government. Unlike the health insurance cartel in the United States the Swiss companies are subject to government regulation of prices and benefits. The physicians make the decisions about patient care, not the insurance companies.

The gentleman to whom I was talking was covered by the best policy available, and when he had a heart attack several years ago the policy paid for two weeks in the hospital and four weeks in a cardiac rehabilitation center, in each instance in a private room. The cost of such a policy, converted from Swiss francs to dollars, is $1000 a month. Any policy approaching that in the United States would cost approximately $2400 a month, and would still give the insurance company veto power over the physician’s judgment.

My new friend did not have coronary artery surgery and has done quite well on conservative treatment. And he’s a skier, hiker, and golfer. According to the medical literature, the average European has a longer life span than the average American. That may be partly because they don't have to worry about limited medical care leading to a life threatening situation, but also because there is no rush in Europe to do invasive cardiac procedures, or to perform hysterectomies and do surgery for prostatic cancer.

Well, now the Senate is opening debate on health care reform -- provided there are not too many other legislative distractions. We have previously discussed the corruption, the bribery in the Senate, and to a lesser extent in the House We have also pointed out the free access granted by the White House to the lobbyists and executives of the health insurance cartel, PhARMA, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the manufacturers of medical supplies, the AMA, and members of other special interests.

We have noted, sadly, President Obama's half-hearted support of medical care for all, and his apparent willingness to accept a bill, any bill, so he can say he passed health care reform. My fear is that we will end up with a taxpayer subsidy of the insurance industry, accompanied by an edict that all Americans must buy insurance.

What is the least we should expect at this point from comprehensive health care reform legislation?
  1. A public option totally covering all Americans with no restrictions such as "opt out" or "trigger" provisions.
  2. A public option to be instituted as quickly as possible, not in 2014 as proposed in current legislation. Americans continue to die every day from lack of health care.
  3. The health insurance industry must be subjected to antitrust legislation.
  4. There must be unencumbered coverage of preexisting conditions, at a price consistent with the standard insurance policy. Dr. Howard Dean has noted that the present plan being pushed by the insurance companies is to cover pre-existing conditions, but at THREE TIMES the premium of the basic rate.
  5. Price controls must be placed on the insurance industry as is done in other nations where private insurance is incorporated into the national health plans. The American citizen must be protected against price gouging.
  6. Medicare Plan D prescription drug legislation must be revised, doing away with the government handover of money from the Medicare Trust Fund to the health insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry. Medicare must be permitted to negotiate pharmaceutical prices for Medicare recipients as is currently done in the V.A.
  7. The bleeding of the Medicare Trust Fund by the private health insurance companies that have co-opted Medicare Advantage programs must be stopped.
  8. The need to greatly increase the number of primary care physicians, as advocated by the American College of Physicians, must be addressed with tuition support, medical school placement availability, and decent payment for those in the primary care fields through Medicare or other pending government programs.
The Senate leadership must show courage and institute rule changes eliminating the filibuster and, if necessary, they should make use of the “nuclear option" to pass comprehensive legislation. The House must not be distracted by the abortion issue.

This distraction was a late comer, and I suspect it was a quid pro quo influenced by the health insurance cartel along with the Council of Catholic Bishops, The Family (i.e. The C Street Group), and the various corporation subsidized tea bag groups, (We the People, Tea Party Patriots, Americans for Prosperity, American Majority, Americans for Limited Government, Dick Armey's FreedomWorks, and that group with a respectable sounding name, the 4000 member Association of American Physicians and Surgeons.

This group goes back to the John Birchers, has a political philosophy steeped in Ayn Rand, is headed by Andrew Schlafly, son of conservative activist Phyllis, and promotes an alternative universe of medical misinformation such as the following: abortion causes breast cancer, immigration causes leprosy, a tobacco tax would lead to a deterioration in public health, vaccines produce autism, and cutting carbon emissions would represent a grave threat to global health.

Sadly, I fear that we who have worked for years for decent health care in this country are facing our final stand. I am not optimistic at all about what our politicians will fashion over the coming weeks. However, we must give sincere thanks to the 16,000 dedicated members of Physicians for a National Health Program who began to speak up for the people of America shortly after the health insurance industry takeover of health care. PNHP has fought mightily and with dedication for what is honest and ethical. I thank the more recent Health Care for All and their workers, the California Nurses Association, the various labor unions, and the Alliance for Retired Americans, all of whom have fought for what is morally correct.

I fear that there is an aberration of the cultural psyche in the Unitied States. We have thrived on the myths created by John Locke and Ayn Rand, and perpetuated by the Horatio Alger stories -- that creation of wealth in and of itself is the epitome of success. We have become a nation that respects self-gratification over community. We are thrilled by military conquest. We have developed a distaste for intellectual attainment, a distrust for the educated individual, and a lack of respect for those less fortunate than us. And we have turned away from basic Christian and Judaic tenets in favor a pseudo religiosity fomented by the mega-churches and the dominionist movement.

In short, we as a nation do not share a commitment to do good for the community; and, I fear that the coming debate over health care will resolve nothing, and that in the end we will be the only nation in the industrialized world without a health care program for all the people.

I hope that I am wrong.

[Dr. Stephen R. Keister lives in Erie, Pennsylvania. He is a retired physician who is active in health care reform. His writing appears regularly on The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

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Afghanistan Escalation : Footprint We Can't Afford

Ecological footprint. Image from Sprayblog.

Escalation in Afghanistan:
What's the carbon/health footprint of another senseless war?

By Harvey Wasserman / The Rag Blog / November 30, 2009

The Afghan War may now doom our ability both to cope with the global climate crisis and to fairly deliver health care in this country.

If Barack Obama announces an escalation, Copenhagen and the Climate Bill will become meaningless. And the prospects for a single-payer health care system or even a token public option will disappear.

At 11 p.m. Tuesday, December 1 -- after Obama's speech -- we in central Ohio will gather at the Federal Building to either celebrate Obama’s courageous decision against escalation, or to inaugurate what will certainly be hard years of bitter civil struggle against yet another senseless war. Texans for Peace, Freepress.org, Solartopia.org, and other peace, green and social justice organizations ask others around the world to consider joining us in your own home towns.

If there is no escalation, we can celebrate a small step forward in Copenhagen, where Obama has said he will join with Chinese leadership in a 17% reduction in carbon emissions. Joining with the Chinese in setting ANY target is good global politics.

But this is nowhere near enough. Nor is it anywhere near what’s possible.

The rapid advance of renewable and efficient technologies is forcing nuclear power and fossil fuels out of the marketplace. In one of humankind’s great technological revolutions, a future that is carbon/nuclear free has become tangible and doable.

Such a Solartopian conversion is the surest route to economic security and a full employment economy... and to peace.

But if Obama escalates, in a nation with at least one foot already deep in bankruptcy, the resources for that conversion will disappear. In a toxic, polarized wartime atmosphere, the Climate Bill could well degenerate into a cynical faux green smokescreen for a relapse to the failed experiment with atomic reactors.

The war would also come with a carbon burst. How will the massive emissions created by 100,000-plus soldiers in wartime be counted in the 17% reduction rubric? Will the HumVees be converted to hybrids? What is the carbon impact of Predator bombs that destroy Afghan families and villages?

Likewise the war will create yet another wave of human casualties to strain a health care system already at the breaking point. The $1 million a year estimate for every solider sent to Afghanistan does not begin to cover the additional fortunes spent to try -- so often unsuccessfully -- to make these good people whole again when they return.

The $2 or $3 trillion an escalated war is likely to cost could more than fund a single-payer system to cover every American citizen. Escalation turns that money into bombs and bullets that kill rather than heal.

It is the business of war, however it’s packaged, to destroy land and people.

We saw what the Vietnam War did to the dream of a Great Society. The poisons spread by an escalated Afghan war would take decades to heal. It would signal a nation firmly in the death grip of corporations and the military.

The certainties are few but staggering:

As with every foreign conqueror since Alexander the Great, the American presence in the Graveyard of Great Powers will fail.

Sending more troops is an escalation, whether packaged with an "exit strategy" or not; intentions to leave nearly always fail to materialize and entrenched troops rarely leave.

U.S. escalation there will make us more, not less, vulnerable to terrorism.

The money to pay for this war could otherwise fund the transition to a carbon/nuke free economy, and to a truly workable national health care system.

But the United States does not have the human, political or financial resources to wage this war while also solving the climate and health crisis.

We cannot lose track of our goals -- peace, a planet to live on, social justice, freedom and the promise of what’s beyond. We will not surrender that vision to hard times.

So we’ll gather Tuesday night. Let’s hope we have something to celebrate. We already know what we have to fight for.

[Harvey Wasserman's History of the U.S. is at www.harveywasserman.com, along with Solartopia! Our Green-Powered Earth. Harvey is senior editor of Freepress.org, where this article also appears.]

Go to Texans for Peace for the latest information about Texas actions protesting the Afghanistan escalation.

The Rag Blog

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Turk Pipkin : A Simple Truth... or Two

Turk Pipkin with students at Mahiga Primary School in Kenya.

One Peace at a Time:
A simple truth… or two

By Turk Pipkin / The Rag Blog / November 30, 2009

With the problems of the world appearing more challenging with each passing year, there has never been a greater need for simple truths that can guide us to a better way. Shooting my new film One Peace at a Time in 20 countries gave me the opportunity to interview brilliant people who share a common trait -- the ability to cut to the heart of the matter.

“We are not the last generation on this planet,” Nobel Peace laureate Muhammad Yunus told me from his Grameen Bank office in Dhaka, Bangladesh. “We have to think about Generation Number Two after us, and about Generation One Hundred after us.”

Having dedicated his life to bringing millions of people out of extreme poverty, Yunus has benefitted both from his long-term view, and by making his work easy to understand. Imagine that you’re a village woman who wants a microloan to start a small business to support your children. In addition to repaying the loan, you have to agree to grow fresh vegetables year-round, to feed your children fresh vegetables every day, and to keep them in school. In the past 30 years, that simple deal has brought millions of Bangladeshi families out of extreme poverty (while dramatically reducing malnutrition and Night Blindness caused by Vitamin A deficiency).

Here’s a simple truth that’s considerably less inspiring. There are a billion people on earth who don’t have access to clean water.

One Peace at a Time opens at Austin’s Arbor Cinema this Friday, December 4, continuing through the 10th, and will be bouncing around the country between now and its DVD release in April. You can watch the trailer, which is loaded with simple truths from Yunus, Willie Nelson and many others, at www.nobelity.org.
My film looks at the possibility of providing basic rights to every child. I spent three years shooting this film in a lot of places where children have very limited access to clean water, adequate nutrition, healthcare, education or opportunity. That may sound like a wall-to-wall bummer, but I’m willing to wager that One Peace at a Time is one of the most inspiring films you’ll ever see. Like the Ben Harper song that carries the trailer, there is A Better Way.

From halfway around the world, it’s not easy to imagine any way to provide basic rights for every child. But if you look closely at communities where simple solutions are already working, the possibilities are astounding. Consider the Austin-based nonprofit, A Glimmer of Hope, which works to bring Ethiopians out of poverty by partnering on integrated development -- water, education, healthcare and opportunity.

Water is the foundation on which the others are built. For eight dollars a person, Glimmer has provided a clean and reliable source of water for well over a million Ethiopians, reducing infant mortality rates and water-borne illnesses, and enabling women to trade a life of lugging water for a life of education and productivity. Nearly 3000 of these water projects have been hand-dug wells.

“We buy the pump; they dig the wells,” Glimmer’s founder Philip Berber told me at a new well celebration in Northern Ethiopia. My daughter’s photo of a group of Ethiopian boys welcoming us shows one of the boys holding a hand-painted sign that says, “Water is life.”

Photo by Katie Rose Pipkin / The Rag Blog.

“It’s about people,” Philip Berber told me as he examined the school report card of a boy who hadn’t missed a single day of school. “You think it’s about projects, but it’s not, it’s about people.”

Having watched wells go dry in much of Texas, I was skeptical of the long-term success of Glimmer’s large-scale well digging. But Ethiopians, as it turns out, are smarter with their water resources than Texans. The same people who benefit from those wells also participate in the Food for Work programs that pay one meal a day for workers who build mountainside terraces and other simple structures that catch the rain water, prevent soil erosion and increase the amount of water going into the aquifers. More wells doesn’t have to mean depleted aquifers.

Water is life. That’s why Ethiopia has educated vast numbers of hydrologists to coordinate this work. With America facing dire water shortages in the coming decades -- particularly in the American West where climate change is greatly reducing the snowpack and threatens to destroy the world’s most productive agriculture economy -- perhaps we should take a Generation 2-to-100 view of our education priorities and our response to climate change. Do we need more investment bankers or do we need more scientists?

Everywhere I show the new film, young people tell me that instead of working on Wall Street, they’d like to engage with the world through a non-profit or NGO. Can our nation harness their talent and energy in a partnership that restores America’s reputation as the world’s greatest beacon of hope while bringing meaningful change to people in need?

I have another photo of a simple truth -- this one from the Shia Festival of Muharram in Calcutta. I was told that hanging with 200,000 Muslims in the wake of America’s fiascos in Afghanistan and Iraq was too dangerous for an American. But here I am with a group of smiling teens, one of them wearing a t-shirt that reads, “If you are looking for a big opportunity, seek out a big problem!”

Photo by Vance Holmes / The Rag Blog.

Replicating A Glimmer of Hope’s work with communities in need across the planet is a tremendous opportunity. At the Glimmer rate, we’d need $8 billion dollars to tackle the water challenge alone. That’s a big sum, but only half of what America spends on bottled water each year. The enormous negative impacts of bottled water include massive amounts of energy, and millions of tons of carbon emissions for transporting the water. All this when almost all Americans already have a clean source of water. (Don’t like the chlorine in municipal water? Build a rainwater system and you’ll be drinking the purest water possible.)

With a plastic recycling rate of 23%, Americans toss 38 billion polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles into landfills each year. Those bottles are made from oil, and making them creates even more carbon emissions. Glass bottles are much heavier and require even more energy to make and transport them. And where do we obtain the raw materials for the glass?

I was visiting The Nobelity Project’s tree-planting partnership in Southern Kenya, and had my first look at Tata India’s soda ash factory operating on the shore of Lake Magadi. Magadi is one of the prime breeding grounds of East Africa’s 4 million pink flamingos, and I was expecting to see perhaps a million flamingos. Instead I found a train track laid across the dry lake bottom and heavy industrial equipment mining the soda ash that comes up with the hot mineral waters that used to sustain the flamingos. Lake Magadi is already imperiled by reduced rainfall resulting from climate change and from deforestation due to illegal logging for producing charcoal. Add long man-made dikes that split the lake in half to enable a massive level of mineral extraction and the result is a potential for disaster. Instead of a million flamingos at Magadi, after two days of searching, we finally found a hundred.

By now you’ve probably concluded that the soda ash being mined from the lake is used to make glass bottles. A ton of new glass requires 400 pounds of soda ash. And the world blasts through a lot of glass, primarily because the great majority of us are too lazy to recycle. So how’s this simple truth for an advertising slogan? Tap water – the source that doesn’t kill pink flamingos when you drink it.

The world is not likely to ban bottled water. We’ve seen over and over that jobs for Generation 1 trump sustainability for Generation 2-100. But maybe it’s time for some Lasik surgery on our short-term vision. For the sustainability of the world, the price of all products -- including bottled water, glass and plastic -- must include their real costs to every generation, from Gen 1 to Gen 100.

To make that a reality, America needs a nationwide deposit law on glass and plastic bottles. You want to throw it away anyway? Fine, but you’ll have to pay for the privilege. In an ideal world, a small portion of that deposit money would go to provide clean drinking water for children in the developing world.

The new wells in their communities could each have a sign with a small American flag on it. That would create more friends and greater security in the world than the trillions we spend on weapons and war.

I’ve lately been hearing that our response to climate change should be adaptation to the new conditions. That may sound innovative but what about the Masai people whose way of life is being destroyed by diminishing rainfall? Or the tens of millions of Bangladeshis who will be displaced from their low-lying homes by rising sea levels. How do they adapt?

“For us it is a life and death issue,” Muhammad Yunus told me as the Muezzin sang the call to prayer outside his office window in Dhaka.

“It’s not only my life,” he concluded. “I have to think about my children’s life, and my grandchildren’s life and their grandchildren’s life. From that I have to decide what I have to do.”

[Turk Pipkin is an Austin-based writer, actor, and filmmaker, and the director of the new feature documentary, One Peace at a Time, which looks at the possibility of providing basic rights to every child. He is the author of 10 books including the New York Times bestseller, The Tao of Willie, which Turk coauthored with American music legend, Willie Nelson. Turk's acting work includes the feature films Friday Night Lights and A Scanner Darkly, and a recurring role in HBO's The Sopranos. Turk also directed the feature documentary, Nobelity, and is the co-founder of the education and action nonprofit, The Nobelity Project, online at www.nobelity.org.]
  • Turk Pipkin will be Thorne Dreyer's guest on Rag Radio Tuesday, December 1, from 2-3 p.m. on KOOP 91.7 FM in Austin. To stream the show online, go here.

  • From December 4-9, Turk Pipkin will have an audience Q&A following the evening screenings of One Peace at a Time at Austin’s Arbor Cinema. Learn more about the film and about The Nobelity Project’s work to build Mahiga Hope High School in Kenya, at www.nobelity.org
Also see:The Rag Blog

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Cannabis Commerce : Wasted Potential

Graphic from sloshspot.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it

Love it or hate it, people smoke marijuana -- lots of it. In some states marijuana consumption and possession have been decriminalized, and even legalized for medicinal purposes. But, have you ever wondered how large the economics of Marijuana were? Us too. As a result, we decided to put together this graphic, which illustrates the popularity of marijuana consumption, the federal tax dollars spent to keep marijuana illegal, and the possible tax revenues that could be generated if marijuana production were legalized and taxed like any other agricultural product. -- sloshspot

No matter what sort of spin you put on the issue, ignoring the revenue-creating potential of taxing cannabis sales -- which will continue, legally or otherwise -- hardly seems prudent when we live in an era in which local governments can't afford to fix potholes or hire schoolteachers. -- Brand X

Thanks to Janet Gilles / The Rag Blog / Posted November 30, 2009

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29 November 2009

Jonah Raskin : 40 Years Later: The Assassination of Fred Hampton

Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969. Photo by Paul Sequeira.

I will never forget...
The assassination of Fred Hampton
I protested in New York with hundreds of other people, all of us outraged... I was arrested and beaten on 51st Street opposite St. Patrick’s Cathedral by plainclothes police officers, and, along with dozens of other demonstrators, locked up in jail.
By Jonah Raskin / The Rag Blog / November 29, 2009
See photos from the murder scene, Below.
I have a special relationship to Fred Hampton, the charismatic leader of the Black Panther Party who electrified crowds in Chicago in the late 1960s with fiery comments such as “You can jail the revolutionary but you can’t jail the revolution.”

I first heard about Hampton -- “Chairman Fred” as he was affectionately called -- in the summer of 1969 when I was working in the national office of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in Chicago, where Hampton was born in 1948, and where he joined the Black Panther Party at the age of 20 in 1968.

That summer I wrote a pamphlet about him and about the attacks on the Panthers that were mounted by state and federal law enforcement. Six months later -- on December 4, 1969 -- Hampton and fellow Black Panther Mark Clark were murdered by the Chicago police in an apartment at 2337 West Monroe. Five days after those murders, on December 9, I protested in New York with hundreds of other people, all of us outraged.

At about 7 p.m., I was arrested and beaten on 51st Street opposite St. Patrick’s Cathedral by plainclothes police officers, and, along with dozens of other demonstrators, locked up in jail. All that night and into the wee hours of the next morning I was beaten by at least a dozen police officers in several precincts in Manhattan. My hands were handcuffed behind my back. I was punched, pushed, kicked, clobbered, and struck with a variety of blunt and sharp instruments, including truncheons. At the time it felt like torture.

My lawyer, Paul Chevigny of the American Civil Liberties Union, who specialized in cases of police brutality, said then that the beating that I received was the worst beating he had ever seen at the hands of the New York police. To document the case that he hoped to bring against the police on charges of brutality he took dozens of color photos of me that showed every cut, laceration and bruise -- I was black and blue and swollen from head to toe -- but someone broke into his law office and stole the photos.

When I appeared before a judge that December I was charged with attempted murder of a police officer, though I thought the police had been trying to murder me, or at least to make me feel that my life was in danger. “If you want war, we’ll give you war,” one of the New York City police officers who beat me said. He was a veteran of the War in Vietnam who believed in the war, and he carried out his own personal war against anyone and everyone who was opposed to that war.

In fact, it was a time of war and not only in Vietnam. America itself seemed to be on the brink of civil war in those violent days at the very end of the 1960s and on the cusp of the 1970s, and as President Nixon, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell launched a program to combat the tide of rebellion in every possible way.

The murders of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, and the attacks on the Black Panther Party all around the country, added up to a war with real guns and real bullets. It was accompanied by a public relations campaign that the forces of law and order in the Nixon administration aimed at black militants and at their white supporters: a rag-tail army of rebels, resisters, rioters, anarchists and saboteurs who did everything in their power to disrupt the orderly, day in and day out operations of the American Empire.
The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther, by Jeffrey Haas. Lawrence Hill Books; $26.95.
Recently, I had the opportunity to revisit those turbulent times, and to rethink the murder of Hampton. Forty years is a long time, but my memories of that era are crystal clear. I was also aided and abetted by The Assassination of Fred Hampton, a new and engaging book by long-time radical lawyer Jeff Haas who spent more than a decade aiming to uncover the government conspiracy against the Panthers and to see justice done.

Haas brought a civil suit against the real criminals in the case such as Edward Hanrahan, the Illinois State Attorney and a Harvard Law School graduate, who dispatched 14 heavily armed Chicago police officers to 2337 West Monroe on December 4, 1969, at 4 a.m.. “Heavily armed” is no exaggeration. In addition to shotguns and handguns, the officers had a Thompson machine gun, wielded by officer Joe Gorman.

One can only imagine what Gorman and his fellow police officers thought they were doing, but it seems possible that they saw themselves as actors in a movie about a Chicago gangland massacre in which they played the part of gangsters with police badges.

The seven Panthers who survived the raid on West Monroe were indicted by an Illinois grand jury on charges of attempted murder and aggravated battery, but the indictments were dismissed. And that was only the beginning of a series of legal battles that went on and on and on, into the 1980s.

In The Assassination of Fred Hampton Haas shows that an undercover police agent infiltrated the Illinois Panthers, that he became Hampton’s bodyguard, and furnished to law enforcement officials vital information about Hampton, Clark and their comrades. The Chicago police had a floor plan of Hampton’s apartment, and knew exactly where he would be sleeping. Someone, perhaps the undercover agent, drugged Hampton so that he would be asleep and unable to fire a shot.

Haas also shows that the police had a green light from FBI Director Hoover who created the FBI Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO), and who sent a directive to Marlin Johnson, the head of the Chicago FBI office, in which he ordered operatives to “disrupt, expose, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize” the Panthers, and “prevent the rise of a messiah who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement.”

It didn’t matter that Hampton wasn’t a black nationalist. He was messiah-like and he was young. He was a Panther, and the Panthers, who carried guns, used the rhetoric of urban guerrillas, urged members to “Off the Pig” in the parlance of that era. In fact, on November 13, 1969, two Chicago police officers were ambushed and murdered. The FBI pointed an accusing finger at the Panthers, and the local police carried out their directive. One Panther would testify that on December 4, while inside the apartment at 2337 West Monroe, he heard a police officer say, “If Black Panthers kill police, police will kill Black Panthers.”

The Assassination of Fred Hampton has plenty of drama both in and out of the courtroom, and at times it reads like a suspenseful Perry Mason case, though it was, of course, far more political than any case Perry Mason ever handled and with more far-reaching implications. Hanrahan was never able to run successfully for public office in Chicago after Hampton’s murder, and Panthers as well as the African American community at large found solace in his failure. But there was no real justice, and no happy ending of the sort Mason always enjoyed at the end of a case.

The surviving occupants of the Panther apartment filed for damages against 28 state and federal law enforcement officials. Haas was their lawyer. The complaints alleged violations of constitutional rights. The jury trial lasted 18 months, generating a 37,000-page transcript. At the close of the case, a District Court granted verdicts in favor of the federal and most of the state defendants. Neither the judge nor the jury wanted to believe that the government had actually conspired to murder two men.

After I was beaten by New York City police officers some of my friends assumed that I was to blame, and that I deserved the harsh treatment I received. After all, they said, I had rioted in the streets. I had damaged property and I was violent. That the police who beat me were no less violent many friends could not and did not see or understand. The police had cracked my skull -- I required dozens of stitches -- and had beaten me to a bloody pulp, but in the eyes of many citizens the police were simply doing their job and enforcing law and order.

Forty years later, I am not sorry that I rioted in the streets of New York. I am, of course, happy to be able to say that the charges of attempted murder against me were dropped when I agreed to drop the case against the police for brutality.

When police officers murder men in their sleep one can’t simply go on living as though nothing has happened. Indeed, something very terrible happened in America when Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were assassinated. I have not forgotten them, and I have not forgotten what happened to me on December 9, 1969. The stain is still there on the national conscience. That is how I feel now, 40 years later.

Perhaps if you read Haas’s relentlessly honest book, and also see reproduced here the photos of the Panther apartment with bullet holes in the walls, and the bloody mattress of the bed in which Hampton lay asleep, you will not forget either.

[Jonah Raskin is the author of The Mythology of Imperialism: Revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age (Monthly Review Press), and American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the Making of the Beat Generation (University of California Press.]

Fred Hampton murder scene. Photos, from top, by Paul Segueira, from the Chicago Police Department, and from AP / World Wide Photos.
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Legacy of the Neocons : Understanding our Economic Fix

Understanding our economic fix:
The role of neocon economics in damaging the economy and creating unemployment

By Sherman DeBrosse / The Rag Blog / November 29, 2009

If Republicans can blame economic problems on Democratic spending, they will have a leg up in their efforts to launch another attack on entitlements. By next year, our debt will be larger and could be a major political issue. Democrats need to explain how it got so large and to tie some of it to recent military adventures.

There are signs that the Obama administration is “open to reform” as a means of reigning in debt. That term has the same meaning as the IMF’s favorite term, “structural adjustment,” which means making the little guy pay for the mistakes of others farther up the food chain. We may have to swallow some entitlement reduction, but it should not take place without an end to the Bush tax cuts and the institution of excess profits taxes on the energy industry and on any firm’s transactions in hedge funds and derivatives.

Last week, Texas Representative Kevin Brady released the latest Republican trial balloon -- a clever attempt to capitalize on growing middle class rage that government is helping irresponsible bankers while unemployment continues to rise. He blamed it all on Timothy Geithner and demanded that the Secretary of the Treasury resign. Geithner correctly reminded Brady that the economy was bad due to Republican policies.

If the GOP can combine economic populism with their patented right-wing populism, they could turn 2010 from a good Republican election year into a fantastic one. Democrats had better start educating the public by explaining how neoconservative economic policies landed us in this mess. Yes, they need to don some sack cloth and ashes because some of them followed the Republican lead.

Dimensions of the problem

Neoconservative economic policies did so much harm to our economy and financial system, that it would be foolish to expect a healthy recovery anytime soon. New York University economist Nouriel Roubini, who predicted the collapse of our economy, is now saying the worst is yet to come. There will be still more unemployment, and many of the lost jobs will not return.

Randy Zisler, a leading real estate expert, warns that there will be “a crisis of unprecedented proportions” in commercial real estate next year. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke took the unusual step of saying that economic recovery is bound to be slow and unspectacular because the banks are doing very little lending and there are serious ongoing problems in the real estate sector. Unemployment would persist.

All of this was to be expected. In 2008, we came very close to a depression, and the financial system was very close to an Armageddon. In the last 12 months, the FDIC has taken over 150 banks, and the Treasury loaned TARP money to 690 financial institutions, 27 of which then had to be seized or faced seizure by federal regulators.

Given these facts, the Obama administration deserves high marks in dealing with the economy. The situation it inherited was so grim that there was widespread speculation that the United States might still face a decade long slump similar to what happened in Japan. But even the conservative Economist is now saying we have dodged that bullet. But it adds that “recovery will be a longer slog than many expect.”

The Great Recession turned out to be the kind of downturn that is marked by extraordinarily high unemployment. Employment is a lagging indicator of recovery, but in this sort of recession it lags a very long time. Of course, the delay in reclaiming jobs means that what recovery there will be is not likely to be strong. Larry Summers covered this sort of recession in his Ph.D. dissertation. Obama knows this, and has not gone to great pains to explain why recovery will be slow and, for a time, relatively jobless.

The stimulus program and the stress tests did help to restore confidence and preserved many jobs. It pulled us back from the precipice of a depression, but it is unlikely Obama will be given credit for this. In the short term, the Republicans will probably be successful in blaming Obama for a jobless recovery.

Obama’s “holy shit” moment

As soon as Obama took office, he had what a close advisor called his “holy shit” moment. His advisors told him the economy was on the verge of sliding far lower and that the financial system was badly damaged. Larry Summers, his senior economic advisor, had long ago proven that the old idea that unemployment usually lasts only three or four months for an individual was dead wrong.

Obama is being very cautions in claiming that the recession is over. The recent upward movement on Wall Street does not reflect a return to health. The averages are going up because low U.S. interest rates and a weak dollar have encouraged people to borrow dollars to speculate in assets and commodities. The current speculative bubble cannot last, and it is not a good development for the world economy.

It is more likely that last quarter’s GDP growth was a fluke and that we may have a few more bad quarters. There was very little increase in industrial production. More than 90% of the growth came from stimulus, much of it from the one-shot cash for clunkers. Some of the increased consumer spending came from a sharp dip in the savings rate. However sales are still slow. Some of the recently reported improvements in earnings came from one-time economies and laying people off.

The economy is a bit like a car battery that has seen better days. In this case, two cells are badly damaged: housing and manufacturing are weak. It will take years for housing values to reach former levels, and continual foreclosures and resales at lower prices will have a negative impact on new home starts. More people are facing foreclosure now than last year. There is about $3 trillion in outstanding mortgages, and $1.4 trillion will come due for maturation in the next four years. Zisler thinks that up to $750 million of that will be in defaults.

We also know that a healthy housing market requires a sound financial system, and our financial system is very fragile, having barely escaped destruction. Recently, an economic observer noted that the fact that so many people are not paying on mortgages might, in the short term, be good because they are spending the money on goods and services. We do not need that kind of optimism. There is some good news. Randy Zisler thinks some improvement in housing values might begin in 2011.

Premature optimism

Recently, the manufacturing sector showed a 9% gain in productivity. That was because industries were doing more with fewer workers. Gains at that level cannot be sustained. The GDP rose by 3.5%, but most of that did not have to do with manufacturing. There are few signs that the manufacturing sector will revive soon, and we note that General Motors, using federal funds, is exporting more jobs. Chrysler, also using federal funds, is bringing in more foreign made engines.

We probably cannot expect to get the manufacturing sector to improve beyond where it was two years ago. The long-term prospect is for exporting more jobs.

A top expert’s view

Robert Shiller of Yale noted that we spent far too little on the stimulus package. Gross national production was projected to have fallen two trillion short, and it was thought necessary to fill the gap with about $1.2 trillion. Given the velocity of money when invested in infrastructure and some other stimuli, the gap could be filled. Unfortunately, politics forced the Obama Administration to settle for less than $800 billion, and much of that was in tax cuts whose multiplier effect is far short of one. The drop in production and the decreased spending rates together added well above six million to the unemployment roles.

Republicans had played the politics of “No!” so well, that Obama could not go back to the well for a second stimulus. It was needed when it became clear that consumption would fall off by one trillion. That is a hole the administration could not fill.

Shiller identified a serious structural problem. Our economic system increases the wealth share of those at the top and diminishes that of almost everyone else. The root problem is that most American workers have not seen an increase in real wages in 20 years, and the ownership share of the vast majority has been declining. The problem is not moral, it is economic. With no increase in real wages, the middle class cannot increase its consumption so a consumer-driven revival is not possible.

Shiller has suggested that if the gap between rich and the rest of us is not narrowed in the next 30 years, there will be such great frustration, resentment, and disillusionment that the viability of our political system could be threatened. His Yale colleague Bruce Judson warns that our current economic problems could lead to the "penny auctions" and other leftist populist outbreaks that occurred in the Great Depression.

He enumerated the problems.

  1. High unemployment. It stands at 10.2 %, which amounts to an actual 17.5. Next year, at this time, it is likely to be 8.5 or 9%, somewhere around an actual 15%.
  2. A shrinking middle class. Good paying manufacturing jobs seem to be disappearing. This results in "status anxiety," which brings about sharp political change.
  3. The average man has not seen an increase in real income since 1980.
  4. The top 1% controls 23% of income -- and far more of property. This is the same as in 1929. The lowest reported income, according to flawed census data, in this 1% is 400,000 a year. It is probably much higher.
  5. One fourth of mortgages are in danger of being foreclosed on. As long as people saw the value of their homes rising, they had hope for improving their situation and even having enough to help their children. With the collapse of the housing market, Judson thinks, people were forced to come to terms with all the other economic and social threats.
Leaving aside the social and moral implications of these facts, all of this indicates that the vast majority of Americans are not in a position to revive the economy through a new surge in spending. They lack the money, are maxed out on credit, and are worried about their long-term prospects. Economists tell us that the Great Depression was created by under-consumption. Even in terms of the ability to consume food, the data is shocking. The number of households facing food insecurity rose 31% from 2007 to 3008. That comes to 17 million families that are having trouble putting food on the table.

The credit squeeze

Businesses of most sorts have been having problems getting access to capital. One reason why bank money was and is not available to manufacturing firms is that banks expected to consistently enjoy 20% returns on credit cards and large returns on investments in exotic instruments. Caps should be placed on credit card rates, and excess profits taxes gradually phased in on profits from extraordinary returns earned through investments in hedge funds and the derivatives markets. This would apply to big manufacturers and oil companies that are now trading in derivatives and hedge funds. This problem underscores the fact that the problems of the economy and those of the financial system are intertwined.

A mini-stimulus?

Another stimulus package is needed, but President Obama cannot push for one because the Republicans, abetted by the mainstream media, have the voters so worried about the deficit and big government; they have also convinced many that the stimulus is not working. When the last of the stimulus money is spent in 2011, we can expect a 2% drop in the GDP because the stimulus is no longer present. The Democrats might consider a mini-stimulus comprised of elements the Republicans will find difficult to denounce. It would include:
  1. Incentivize firms to hire new workers by waiving payroll taxes on new hires by giving a 10% tax credit on new payroll. This should be done in terms of total payroll rather than new hires so that employers will not fire some people so they can hire others. New firms might get a 50% payroll tax credit, following the 1977 pattern. It has been estimated that these steps could add 4% to the active work force.

  2. Passage of something approaching universal health care would be a major boost for the industrial sector. But if Congress and the administration continue to avoid serious cost cutting it will turn out that they were practicing bad politics and bad economics.

  3. Pass HR 2568, the fairness and Transparency in Contracting Act, which will redirect back to small businesses about $100 billion in stimulus money intended for them but somehow awarded to big firms.

  4. We should play to our strengths by providing generous tax breaks for research that will lead to higher end goods. By 2015, China will replace us as the world’s largest manufacturer. We will remain a major manufacturer, specializing in high end-goods.

  5. More tax incentives should be created for self-employed business owners.

  6. There are at least two impediments to capitalizing new small businesses. Banks charge a 7% commission fee for Initial Public Offerings, while the IPO fee in Europe is 4%. There is less interest in these IPOs because of the surge of on-line brokerage and the tendency of high frequency traders to rely on computer driven strategies and not research new firms. For those reasons new firms should receive tax credits for the IPO fees they pay banks. People who invest in IPOs should receive tax credits for 10% of their investments up to a total of $50,000 invested in IPOs. There should be incentives to carry out the SEC’s suggestion that a new market segment be established for IPOs that would not have automated trading and would have fixed commissions. That might encourage research into new firms.

  7. For a 12-month period, reduce federal taxes on profits earned abroad that are repatriated and invested creating jobs in the United States.

  8. Some of the breaks for business should be balanced with tax breaks for firms that go to a shorter work week and the enactment of some parts of the Employee Free Choice Act, at least to substitute substantial penalties for existing minor fines for illegal anti-union certification tactics. Speed up elections and mandate card check certification in cases where companies violate worker rights, particularly when a worker is fired for union organizing activities.

  9. Create a bipartisan commission to weigh ways of introducing the Value Added Tax. The commission should recommend ways to lower other taxes gradually as the VAT is phased in. This would do much to establish a level playing field with many GAAT countries. This is the method other countries use to indirectly subsidize exports. Unfortunately, it is a regressive tax. Perhaps the commission would reduce taxes on ordinary savings such as bank accounts, CDs, and retirement instruments. The same Commission should look into the repeal of legislation that gives American firms tax advantages for exporting capital or creating jobs abroad. The last effort to do this was the Hartke Bill that was vetoed by Gerald Ford.

  10. Careful plans should be drawn up now to create public service jobs if the Bush Great Recession turns out to be like Japan’s long ordeal with a sluggish economy and high unemployment.
In my next column I will examine the near destruction of the financial system.

[Sherman DeBrosse is a retired history teacher. Sherm spent seven years writing an analytical chronicle of what the Republicans have been up to since the 1970s. The New Republican Coalition : Its Rise and Impact, The Seventies to Present (Publish America) can be acquired by calling 301-695-1707. On line, go here.]

The Rag Blog

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27 November 2009

A Dog's Life : America's Financial Mess

A walk in the park: Scout and Missy take a breather. Photo by Larry Ray / The Rag Blog.

A walk in the park:
A Felliniesque view of our financial mess

By Larry Ray / The Rag Blog / November 27, 2009

Walking my dogs under a crisp, cool, bright blue sky a few days ago in a nearby wooded park, I had an unusual, Felliniesque daydream. It all started when the peace and tranquility of the walk was broken by someone talking loudly on his cell phone, for all to hear, which is all too common today. A young fellow was totally absorbed in a verbal replay of his loss, recent physical pain and a love affair gone badly. He urgently shouted the details into his cellphone.

We picked up our pace to get away from the intrusion, but it seemed that he had decided to take the same trail behind us. He was detailing how he had cracked his ribs in some sort of a fall and how that had not hurt nearly as much as breaking up with the woman he still loved. He finally branched off on another trail leading away from us, the cell phone drama slowly fading out.

A relaxed free-form daydream began as we walked the familiar path. It turned into a Woody Guthrie moment for me. In a surprising flash, I had the title for a new country song: "That fall broke my ribs, but she broke my heart!" I hummed part of a stock three chord country western melody and tried out a couple of lines. It slowly became the sound track for the open-ended Fellini movie getting underway in my head.
It's getting tough out in this old world/
my back's against the wall/
The bank just took my house away/
now them credit cards ain't no good at all/
When I fell off that stock room ladder/
and landed hard on the concrete floor,/
They laid me off that afternoon.../
and I don't work at Walmart any more/
Then my wife took off and left me/
everything is falling apart/
That fall broke my ribs.../
but she broke my heart.
Hell, I've heard worse, and Woody might even have liked it. I bet the guy on the cell phone probably would have liked it too. I pictured this young man, working class, maybe in his late-twenties, probably a high school graduate, with maybe even a year or so of community college, as a metaphor for greedy banks, self-serving spineless politicians and millions of average folks just like him.

The daydream was also being fed with scenes from "The Card Game" a Frontline-New York Times co-production on PBS I had watched the night before. It laid bare the whole sorry, wild west story of the evolution of the American credit card and the half-hearted attempt to finally rein it in after almost a half century of unregulated abuse.

Frontline showed how banks have gotten away with predatory credit card practices and how a proposed Credit Card Control Act of 2009 was written with gaping loop holes that banks can use to continue exploitation of credit card holders... and still generously fund political campaigns.

I bet if I had actually talked to the fellow in the park and learned more about him other than what I was forced to overhear, he would have been a perfect example of what credit card issuers call the "unbanked market." People living from paycheck to paycheck who use credit cards as though they were money... money that people refuse to realize they don't have.

The whole credit card industry is designed to trap and exploit those people who don't read the fine print in their contracts and who run up huge balances, making only minimum payments from one card to another. They rack up ever-changing penalty fees with huge loan interest rates in a scheme better than Machiavelli could have ever imagined. According to the Federal Reserve Bank, 40% of American families spent more than they earned in 2008.

Certainly no bank has forced anyone to use a credit card. But a "free" credit card seems so innocent, so easy, and "we can always just pay off the balance" is a reassuring rationalization. Credit cards quickly became as American as imitation apple pie with two-thirds of the population owning one or more in 2008. Too many folks were living high on the hog with bank credit card loans that weren't legally considered "bank loans," thereby allowing them to remain unregulated with nary a peep from Capitol Hill. Most all existing governmental financial regulation put in place after the Great Depression of the 1930's had already been peeled away by the 1990's.

Even though there were no Flappers or speakeasies, the giddiness of our recent boom times was just like the 1920's, and just as imprudent. Americans with only modest incomes had learned to spend like they were making six figure salaries. Wallets are even designed to hold a dozen or so credit cards that slip in and out of an accordion fold of pockets for the mag-striped mañana money.

At the same time, home values were increasing at a record rate with no end in sight... but who was looking? Things seemed so good that second mortgage home loans were used to pay off huge credit card balances. Then in a blink, before the Republicans could get out of office in time, the inflated silver-dollar-studded Potemkin village blew over like a long line of doomed dominoes.

In no time folks were shouting their own Woody Guthrie lyrics over cell phones across the country. Homes now were valued at half of what they were mortgaged for. Americans again were jobless, out on the streets and forced to face harsh realities. Eighty-eight million accounts and credit lines, representing $751 billion in credit, have been closed since September of 2008.

My daydream in the park shifted to a classic Fellini scene with two huge cauldrons of smelly political broth bubbling and stewing up on Capitol Hill. They were both made from the same old soup stock. Senators in stained, flowing robes warned that the health care insurance gumbo may ultimately be indigestible. On an adjoining burner the low fat, credit card control consommé seemed way too thin but the Senators weren't in the least concerned. A parade of morbidly obese, angry people brandishing illegible placards passed by the cauldrons and Senators, demanding that they be left alone to just govern themselves. "No big cauldrons. No big cauldrons," they chanted.

The daydream is then jarred by a ticker tape crawl across my field of vision with endless data in large scrolling letters, "In September 2009 Americans currently owed $917 billion on revolving credit lines and $69 billion of it was past due, according to Federal Reserve statistics." In the daydream I then realized that was just a couple of months ago, and I was jarred back to reality briefly. Soon the dream slowly returned as a classic Fellini black and white wide shot of a totally empty beach with waves slowly rolling in and I expected to see "Fine" or "The End" in Italian dissolve in over the meaningless empty beach.

Instead, the Border Collies were tugging insistently on the leash, literally yanking me out of my free-running reverie. The guy that had been shouting into his cell phone was now walking toward us, looking down at the edges of the path. He nodded to me and asked, "You haven't seen a ring of keys have you?" I said I really hadn't been paying much attention but that I would keep an eye out for them. For a moment I wondered it there was yet maybe another song in that somewhere? How about, "I was looking for my keys while they towed away my truck." Woody, America could use you about now.

[Retired journalist Larry Ray is a Texas native and former Austin television news anchor. He also posts at The iHandbill.]

The Rag Blog

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26 November 2009

John Ross : A Mexican Revolution Every 100 Years?

"Revolución." Woodcut by José Guadalupe Posada / Biografías y Vidas.

1810! 1910! 2010?

A Mexican Revolution timeline

By John Ross / The Rag Blog / November 26, 2009

MEXICO CITY -- Fact: Every 100 years on the tenth year of the century, Mexico explodes in extravagant social upheaval. In 1810, this distant neighbor nation declared its independence from the Spanish Crown, signaling monumental bloodletting -- hundreds of thousands died, mostly people the color of the earth, fully 10% of the census.

In 1910, the Mexican revolution, the first massive uprising of the landless in the Americas, detonated in a geyser of blood and before it was done, a million were dead and a million more had been driven into permanent exile north of the border.

The 100-year timeline has triggered intense speculation about what's ahead for Mexico in 2010.

Whether the 100-year cycle is a measure of Mexico's political metabolism or merely an accident of numbers has scholars scurrying back to their history books. Certainly objective conditions for insurrection are rife. Mexico is wracked by the deepest economic contraction since the Great Depression, millions are out of work (one estimate calculates real unemployment as 40%), 72,000,000 out of 107,000,000 Mexicans live in and around the poverty line (three daily minimum wages), and income disparity is comparable to Africa. The parties of the left, right, and center are universally mistrusted and elections are tainted with fraud, canceling out a political solution to the ongoing crisis.

President Felipe Calderon who won high office in the fraud-tarred 2006 election is as unpopular as dictator Porfirio Diaz was a hundred years ago (Diaz himself repeatedly stole elections) and, like Diaz, he is spending billions to stage next year's Bicentennial celebration of the War of Liberation and the 100th birthday of the Mexican Revolution. The Dictator's allocation of the nation's social budget to mark the first hundred years of Independence in 1910 trip-wired his downfall.

Yet memories of the enormous human tragedies that accompanied 1810 and 1910 passed on from one generation to the next tend to make Mexicans cautious about the "R" word and revolution in 2010 is dismissed by many radicals as mere wishful thinking.

The notion that 2010 would usher in a new revolutionary chapter in Mexico's complicated history was first advanced by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation's (EZLN) charismatic mouthpiece Subcomandante Marcos in the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle issued in June 2005. The "Sexta" called for the writing of a new revolutionary Mexican constitution in 2010, a process to be accompanied by prolonged social struggle.

To keep the pot boiling, the Zapatistas insisted upon the unity of all revolutionary forces and the creation of a mechanism -- the Other Campaign or "La Otra" -- that would develop and implement a plan of action. Although "La Otra" was marginated by its own sectarianism and brusque polemics with the electoral left, the Zapatistas' Other Campaign continues to look towards 2010 as a revolutionary watershed.

At a meeting of "Otras" from eight states and the federal district this past March in Tampico, Tamaulipas, activists considered the prospects for renewed revolution in the coming year. There was general consensus that 2010 constituted an historical opportunity that could not be passed up but some participants stepped back from proclaiming a new revolution.

Carlos Montemayor, the nation's top scholar of guerrilla movements, even declared the 2010 timeline to be a "trap" that the "mal gobierno" ("bad government") will capitalize on to infiltrate provocateurs into social movements and militarize the country. Montemayor reminded the Otras and Otros that the War of Liberation and the Mexican Revolution only broke out in 1810 and 1910 and it was another decade before the killing had run its course with very mixed results for the "pueblo" ("people.")

By design or divine coincidence, Tampico is thought to be the birthplace of Zapatista spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos, born Rafael Sebastian Guillen Vicente, the son of a president of a local furniture store association. Marcos himself did not put in an appearance at the Other Campaign conference and in fact has been missing in action throughout all of 2009 after showing his ski-masked face briefly last New Year's at the rebels' Festival of "Digna Rabia" ("Rage with Dignity") in Chiapas. His elongated absence has led to suggestions that the pipe-chomping Zapatista Comandante is up to significant mischief.

In no other region of the country has the phantom of 2010 provoked more speculation than in Chiapas where the Zapatistas rose 16 years ago on January 1, 1994, in the very first hour of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Governor Juan Sabines and his Secretary of Government Noe Castanon never weary of warning of "a social explosion" in the coming year. Many like La Jornada's veteran Chiapas correspondent Hermann Bellinghausen see their dire pronouncements as paving the path for the increased criminalization of social protest that has marked the Calderon years and a pretext for further militarizing an already militarized state.

Following a wave of scare stories in the Chiapas press, this past November 20 -- the 99th anniversary of the declaration of the Mexican revolution and a national holiday -- 5000 Chiapas state police backed up by Mexican army troops patrolled roads throughout the Zapatista zone of influence in anticipation of renewed uprising. None occurred.

Several recent hyper-publicized incidents provide a glimpse of the psychosis that grips Chiapas on the eve of 2010:

This September 30, in the highland Tzotzil Indian hamlet of Yebchalum hard by Acteal where in December 1997 49 members of Las Abejas ("The Bees"), a group aligned with the EZLN, were massacred by paramilitaries trained and financed by the Mexican Army, federal agents arrested local gun seller Mariano Jimenez and recovered a small arsenal that included three AK-47s ("Cuernos de Chivo"), 17 handguns, and 47 fragmentation grenades.

The recent release of 20 paramilitaries convicted of the 1997 killings has ratcheted up tensions in the highlands -- Mexico's Supreme Court is preparing to release 30 more of the convicted killers, including four who confessed to perpetrating the massacre, due to judicial irregularities in their trials. Jimenez purportedly confessed to investigators that he was stockpiling weapons for the Abejas to defend themselves from the just-released killers.

The highly publicized "confession" was immediately denounced by the Bees, devout liberationist Catholics commited to nonviolence who were created and fomented by San Cristobal de las Casas Bishop emeritus Don Samuel Ruiz. Indeed, Jimenez's "confession" invoked a touch of déjà vu - back in 1994, Bishop Ruiz was the government's favorite villain, condemned as "Comandante Sammy", the real face behind the Zapatistas' ski-masks.

A second incident reflecting a reinvigorated media assault on the San Cristobal diocese which is now under new management (Don Samuel's successor Felipe Arizmendi is much more of a moderate) unfolded October 13 when federal troops raided a ranch near Frontera Comalapa on the Guatemalan border and confiscated 40 long guns, 300 grenades, and what the Federal Prosecutor's Office (PGR) described as a "tank."

Three men taken into custody were pictured as "guerrilleros" and claimed that they had been trained by one "Comandante Uerto" of the "Kaibiles", a dread unit of the Guatemalan Army that functions as a death squad -- "Comandante Uerto", the suspected "guerilleros" revealed, had been recommended to them by "a catechist in the San Cristobal diocese" (sic.)

Reports in the Chiapas press, one of the most venal and for-sale in the country, suggested that the three were members of either the OCEZ (Emiliano Zapata Campesinos Organization) or the OPEZ (Emiliano Zapata Proletarian Organization) depending on which mendacious journalistic vision the reader swallows.

Chiapas daily newspapers like "Cuarto Poder" and other scandal sheets finger Diocesan priest Juan Hurtado Lopez in Altamirano in the Zapatista zone of influence, for calling for armed revolt in 2010 from his pulpit, an unfounded allegation that has been taken up by Governor Sabines. Other priests and catechists have allegedly encouraged takeovers of public buildings and attacks on banks. Cuarto Poder accuses the priest of Nueva Galicia of preaching revolution and reports that local merchants "are scared" that their stores will be sacked. Ricardo Lagunes, a lawyer for the Diocesan Fray Bartolome de las Casas Human Rights Center founded by Bishop Ruiz was beaten by thugs in Jotola down in the hot lands, September 18th.

Graffiti in Coyoacan in southern Mexico City. Photo Deborah Bonello / Los Angeles Times.

Adding fuel to this combustible ambiance was the September 29 arrest of veteran social activist Juan Manuel Hernandez, universally known as "Chema," a founder of the OCEZ and the House of the People ("Casa del Pueblo") in the central valleys around Venustiano Carranza. Chema, a longtime lightning rod for that community's recovery of 14,000 hectares from local ranchers, is a fiery indigenous leader whose political leanings are said to tilt more to the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR) than to the EZLN. Cuarto Poder insinuates that Hernandez was plotting revolution in 2010 but subsequent Chiapas state police arrests of OCEZ militants on guns and drugs charges failed to turn up any guns or drugs.

Nonetheless, officials accuse Chema and his associates of running a criminal enterprise behind the smoke screen of the OCEZ. Repeatedly imprisoned during land struggles in Chiapas, Hernandez was flown out of state to a maximum security federal prison in the north of Mexico "for his own protection" (sic). After months behind bars, the charges were dismissed and Chema was finally released November 20th.

Despite the hullabaloo in the local "prensa vendida," the EZLN has remained notoriously closemouthed about what it has up its sleeve in 2010. No communiqués have been forthcoming from the missing Marcos and the Zapatista leadership group, the Clandestine Indigenous Revolutionary Committee (CCRI) has been silent. So are the Juntas de Buen Gobierno or Good Government Commissions that have become civil Zapatismo's voice in recent seasons. Even when the beleaguered Mexican Electricity Workers Union (SME) that once installed turbines and brought light to EZLN villages in the Lacandon jungle appealed for solidarity in its life and death struggle with the Calderon government, the Zapatistas remained mum.

Enmeshed in bitter conflicts with other campesino groups over corn land the rebels recovered from ranchers after their January 1, 1994, uprising, the EZLN is under pressure on several fronts. Governor Sabines's plans to build a super highway that will divide up Zapatista autonomous villages has also increased their vulnerability and the rebels may well consider that a second edition of 1994 in 2010 would be political suicide. Still, Subcomandante Marcos has often characterized the Indians' impossible rebellion 16 years ago as "an act of suicide."

Given the odds, it is highly improbable that Chiapas will be the stage set for insurrection in 2010. A more likely theater for revolution would be Oaxaca and Guerrero, two contiguous, desperately poor and highly indigenous states with rich histories of guerrilla uprisings. The War of Liberation, whose bicentennial will be commemorated in 2010, blossomed in this hothouse geography and as recently as this spring, confrontations between the military and unidentified guerrilleros were reported in the Guerrero sierra where 40 years ago Lucio Cabanas and his Party of the Poor rose against the mal gobierno.

The most prominent guerrilla formations in the region are the Popular Revolutionary Army which made its debut in 1996 with a series of murderous attacks on the military along Guerrero's Costa Grande and whose cadre are thought to be drawn from Cabanas's descendents (the EPR is now based in Oaxaca) and the ERPI or the Revolutionary Army of the Insurgent People, active in the Sierra and Costa Chica regions of Guerrero. Long incarcerated (ten years) ERPI founders Jacobo Silva and Gloria Arenas were recently released from prison and pledged allegiance to non-violent social struggle, aligning themselves with the Zapatistas' Other Campaign.

The most active public face of the ERPI, "Comandante Ramiro" (Omar Guerrero Solis), was reportedly slain November 4 in the sierra of Guerrero during a dispute between ERPI factions and buried in a clandestine grave.

Other actors in the mix include the Armed Forces of Popular Revolution (FARP), the Villista Army of the Revolutionary People (EVRP), the December 2nd Revolutionary Organization (OR-2nd), The Viva Villa Collective (CVV), the Justice Commando-June 28th (CJ-28), the Democratic Revolutionary Tendency (TDR), and the Triple Guerrilla National Indigenous Alliance (TAGIN.)

All of these groups have claimed at least one armed attack and their range extends to Veracruz, Puebla, Morelos, Mexico state, and the Federal District. While most of these "focos" express a Marxist-Leninist orientation, a handful of anarchist cells take credit for at least 10 bombings at Mexico City banks and auto showrooms in September -- one of the cells celebrated the name of Praxides G. Guerrero, the first anarchist to fall in the Mexican Revolution.

Another geography where uprising could be on the agenda in 2010 is the north of Mexico. The 1910 revolution, in fact, germinated in this mineral rich region of deserts and rugged mountains. The "barbarians of the north" -- Pancho Villa, Pascual Orozco, Venustiano Carranza, and Alvaro Obregon among others -- advanced on the center of the country squaring off against each other as much as they waged war against Diaz and his successor Huerta, and taking turns seizing power.

In the 1960s and '70s, urban guerrilla bands thrived in northern cities like Monterrey and Torreon, heisting banks and kidnapping industrialists. Indeed, the roots of the EZLN are firmly planted in those two northern cities -- the Zapatista Army of National Liberation grew out of the Monterrey-based Forces of National Liberation (FLN) whose original strategy contemplated the formation of the Zapatista Army in the south and the Villista Army of National Liberation in Chihuahua but the northern branch was not yet consolidated in 1994 when Chiapas grew ripe for rebellion.

The seven northern border states are the bloodiest battlefields in Felipe Calderon's ill-conceived war on Mexican-Colombian drug cartels and narco-commando attacks often resemble guerrilla actions. The coalescence of radical forces and the drug gangs could create a climate propitious for revolutionary violence in 2010.

Mexico's 1910 revolution was not confined to any one region. Simultaneous rebellions sprouted up all over the landscape, the most celebrated of which was Emiliano Zapata's Liberating Army of the Southern Revolution based in tiny Morelos state just outside of Mexico City. Similarly, one scenario for 2010 proposes coordinated risings in the cities and countryside throughout Mexico. Does the Mexican left have the numbers and organization to pull off simultaneous insurrection?

Although Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the most popular left politician in the land, is wedded to the electoral option, his millions of followers all over the country are less so inclined and massive civil disobedience and even armed struggle against the "mal gobierno" could be on the horizon given economic conditions and the level of social frustration.

One subplot for 2010 projects indigenous rebels seizing sacred sites like Palenque and Teotihuacan this January 1, the 16th anniversary of the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas.

Revolutionaries in 2010 will have weapons their forbearers in 1810 and 1910 who fought hand to hand on central Mexican battlefields like Celaya and Las Cruces never dreamed of. The Internet is a great facilitator of logistics that revolutionizes revolution in the new millennium. Obeying this logic, the Zapatistas have become computer savvy both as a tool for internal communication and for broadcasting their word to the outside world.

Mastery of the cybernetic arts could unlock a Pandora's box of sabotage, allowing hackers to access strategic infrastructure, shutting down electro-magnetic communications, paralyzing airports, and threatening the petroleum flow, Mexico's economic lifeblood.

So is a new revolution on Mexico's plate in 2010? The Calderon government seems to be considering the possibility, beefing up its intelligence and armed response capabilities while distributing billions of pesos in "assistencial" aid like the Opportunities program to 26,000,000 Mexicans living in extreme poverty in a ploy to tamp down outbursts of revolutionary violence from "los de abajo" ("those at the bottom.")

The September-October issue of El Insurgente, the EPR's theoretical journal, reminds readers that revolutions are a "coyuntura" (coming-together) of objective conditions such as economic collapse, repression, natural disaster, and the hunger of the people, and subjective forces -- i.e. the revolutionaries themselves. Revolutions only happen when revolutionary forces are ready to carry them out, El Insurgente posits. The EPR's conclusion: although objective conditions in 2010 are overripe for revolutionary upheaval, the objective forces lack cohesion and consolidation. In other words, don’t count on a new Mexican Revolution in 2010.

[John Ross's monstrous cult classic El Monstruo: Dread and Redemption In Mexico City ("a lusty corrido to the most betrayed city in the Americas." -- Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz) is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 -- readers should direct possible venues to johnross@igc.org. John will present El Monstruo this Monday, November 30, at the University of California's Center for Latino Studies Research at 2547 Channing Way in Berkeley at 12 noon.]

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