31 December 2010

Ralph Solonitz : Year of the Rabbit!

Cartoon by Ralph Solonitz / The Rag Blog / December 31, 2010.

The Rag Blog

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Danny Schechter : The Media Hit Job on Helen Thomas

Former White House correspondent Helen Thomas. Image from Mediate.com.

Media hit job of 2010:
The vitriolic treatment of White House
correspondent Helen Thomas
She may be a critic of Israel but never a hater of Jews, a distinction the world recognizes, but that right-wing backers of the Israel lobby refuse to accept.
By Danny Schechter / The Rag Blog / December 31, 2010

In 1960, I co-founded a student magazine at Cornell University called Dialogue. I was a wannabe journalist, fixated on emulating the courageous media personalities of the times from Edward R. Murrow to a distinctive figure I came to admire at Presidential press conferences, a wire service reporter named Helen Thomas.

In recent years, my faith in the power of dialogue in politics has been severely tested -- as, no doubt has hers -- in an age where diatribes and calculated demonization chill debate and exchanges of opposing views.

Once you are labeled and stereotyped, especially if you are denounced as an anti-Semite, you are relegated to the fringes, pronounced a hater beyond redemption, even beyond explanation.

You have been assigned a scarlet letter as visible as the Star of David the Nazis made Jews wear.

My career path took me from covering civil rights activism in the streets to later working in the suites of network power. I went from the underground press to rock and roll radio to TV reporting and producing at CNN and ABC.

As a member in good standing of an activist generation, I saw myself more as an outsider in contrast to Helen’s distinctive credentials as an insider, as a White House bureau chief, and later as the dean of the White House Correspondents Association.

Yet, beneath her establishment credentials and status, she was always an outsider too -- one of nine children born to a family of Lebanese immigrants in Winchester, Kentucky, who despite their Middle East origins, were Christians in the Greek Orthodox Church.

She became a pioneering woman, a modern day Helen of Troy, who broke the glass ceiling, infiltrating the clubby, mostly male, inside-the-beltway world of big egos and self-important media prima donnas, most supplicants to power, not challengers of it.

Her origins were more modest. She grew up in an ethnic neighborhood in Detroit, a city I later worked in as an intern in the Mayor’s office (I was in a Ford Foundation education in politics program in the Sixties that also boasted a fellow fellow in another city, Richard B. Cheney. Yes, the one and the same.)

Helen received her bachelor’s degree from Wayne State University in 1942, the year I was born. Earlier this year, her alma mater, which had taken so much pride in her achievements, withdrew an award in her name in a striking gesture of cowardice and submission to an incident blown out of all proportions that instantly turned Helen from a shero to a zero in a quick media second.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center -- not, by the way, linked to the legendary Nazi Hunter (who was unhappy with its work), put her on their top-10 list of anti-Semites after angry remarks she made about Israel went viral and blew up into one of the major media stories of 2010.

President Obama saluted Thomas on her birthday. Photo by Smialowski / Getty Images.

President Barack Obama, who cheerfully brought her a birthday cake, hailing her long years of service to the American people, later labeled her remarks “reprehensible.” You would think that given all the vicious slurs, Hitler comparisons, and put-downs directed at him, he would be more cautious tossing slurs at others.

But no, all politicians pander to deflect criticism whenever they fear the winds of enmity will blow their way.

But now it was Helen who was being compared to Hitler in a new furor over the Fuhrer even though she says she grew up in a home that despised him, and from which her two brothers joined the army in World War ll. She says now, “We didn’t do enough to expose Hitler early on. He was not just anti-Jewish. He was anti-American!”

I might add that I grew up in a Jewish family and am proud of that identity, our culture and traditions. But that was no big thing to Helen who worked alongside Jews all of her life in the media world, many as close friends. Her main concern as a child was with non-Jews who baited her in school as a “garlic eater,” a foreigner.

She may be a critic of Israel but never a hater of Jews, a distinction the world recognizes, but that right-wing backers of the Israel lobby (and the media that backs it) refuse to accept in the name of a black/white “you are with us or ag’in us” ideological agenda which has no tolerance for critics, differences of opinion, or the anger of the dispossessed.

They only see themselves as victims, never the people they victimize. Prejudice often infects those who live in glass houses and who are quick to condemn others.

For many years, I admired Helen from afar, and later gave her an award for Truth In Media voted by my colleagues on Mediachannel.org. She was an institution, an icon of honor. We were impressed by her history of asking tough questions even when they embarrassed Presidents.

Then, suddenly last June I, like everyone in the world of media, was stunned to witness her public fall from grace, partly self-inflicted, perhaps because of inelegant language used in response to an ambush interview by provocateur father-son Israeli advocates posing as journalists

They were following in the footsteps of the vicious comments by Ann ("You will find liberals always rooting for savages against civilization”) Coulter who earlier denounced her as an “old Arab” sitting yards from the President, as if she was threatening him. She refused to dignify that smear with a response.

I didn’t know until she told me that she had also been hounded for years by Abe Foxman, a leader of the Anti-Defamation League, who demanded she explain 25 questions she asked Presidents over the decades, “I didn’t answer,” “she told me, “because I don’t respond to junk mail.”

Foxman then sent the questions to her employer trying to get her fired, she says. Later, he recruited former Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleisher in his crusade against her. Ari and his boss disliked her “hostile” questions about Iraq on official claims that have since been unmasked as lies.

Reporter Helen Thomas asks President Obama a question at a May 27, 2010, news conference. Photo by Roger L. Wollenberg / UPI.

Helen always stuck to her guns. She was considered the grand dame of White House journalists. Presidents respected her. She went to China with Nixon. You don’t survive in that highly visible pit of presidential polemics for as long as she did by backing down. Many correspondents assigned there turn into bulldogs for the camera. Maybe that’s why Helen can appear abrupt at times.

She has, however, always been polite enough to try to answer questions from strangers without always realizing who she was dealing with in a new world of media hit jobs, where “GOTCHA” YouTube videos thrive on recording embarrassing moments, what we used to call “bloopers."

In her senior years, she was brought down by a kid looking for a marketable soundbyte like the one he extracted -- as if he was a big game hunter in Africa who bagged a lioness. She had been baited and took the bait. Unaware of how the video could be used, she ventilated and then regretted doing so. It was too late. That one media hit job triggered millions of online video hits.

Helen later apologized for how she said what she did without retracting the essence of her convictions. But by then, it was too late. Her long career was instantly terminated. The perception became everything; the context nothing.

She tried to be conciliatory, saying, “I deeply regret my comments I made last week regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. They do not reflect my heart-felt belief that peace will come to the Middle East only when all parties recognize the need for mutual respect and tolerance. May that day come soon.”

Those remarks were derided and dismissed, with the pundits and papers demanding her scalp. She had no choice but to resign after her company, her agent, her co-author, and many “friends” started treating her like a pariah.

“You cannot criticize Israel in this country and survive,” she says now. She believes the Israel lobby controls the discourse on Israel. She cited, as an example, CNN firing a veteran editor in Lebanon for praising a popular cleric for his support for woman after he died. (CNN had no problems hiring Wolf Blitzer, a former executive director of AIPAC.)

I didn’t ask her but I am sure she is sympathetic to President Carter for speaking out on the issue the way he has, despite the way he was later dumped on. Once the predictable vitriolic attack began, even he was forced to back away from some of his positions.

Helen Thomas was forced into retirement and thrown to the wolves in a media culture that relishes stories of missteps personal destruction. It’s the old “the Media builds you up before they tear you down” routine.

As blogger Jamie Frieze wrote, “I don't think she should have been forced to resign. After all, the freedom of speech doesn't come with the right to be comfortable. In other words, the fact that you're uncomfortable doesn't trump my free speech. Thomas made people uncomfortable, but that doesn't mean her speech should be punished.”

But punished she was.

As a veteran of one kind of real journalism, she may have been inexperienced in dealing with our volatile media culture that now thrives on hostile “drive-by” attacks and putdowns.

When I called Helen Thomas to ask if she might be willing to share some of her thoughts on what happened, I found her as eloquent as ever, supportive of Wikileaks, critical of Grand Jury harassment in the Midwest against Palestinian supporters, and angry with President Obama for his many right turns and spineless positions.

This clearly was not a mea culpa moment for her, but what has she learned from this ordeal?

While she hasn’t written about the incident she did speak to me about it for publication.

I first asked her for her view about what happened?

She was, she said, on a path outside the White House on a day in which Jewish leaders were being honored inside, at American Jewish Heritage Celebration Day, an event she said she was unaware of. A rabbi, David Nesenoff, asked to speak to her, and introduced his two sons who he said wanted to become journalists. (One was actually a friend of his son Adam, also his webmaster.)

“People seeking advice come to me a lot,” she explained, “and I told them about my love of journalism and that they should pursue their goals. I was gracious, and told them to go for it.”

Then the subject abruptly changed. “What do you think of Israel?" they asked next. It was all very pleasant and I don’t blame them for asking,” she told me. But, then, she admitted, she didn’t know the people who then “shoved a microphone in my face like a jack knife.”

A young Helen Thomas with President Jack Kennedy.

It wasn’t just any rabbi making conversation. Nessensoff is an ardent pro-Israel supporter who runs a website called Rabbi Live and can be a flamboyant self-promoter. He says, “even though I was born in Glen Cove and grew up in Syosset Long Island, Israel is my Jewish homeland. It is the homeland for all Jewish people.”

The Jewish Forward newspaper would later report,
Nesenoff came under scrutiny for appearing in a video depicting a man of Mexican descent pretending to give a weather forecast while a bearded rabbi in a black hat and coat stands nearby.

The four-and-a-half-minute video, titled “Holy Weather,” features Nesenoff dressed as “Father Julio Ramirez,” an outsize caricature of a Mexican priest. The rabbi makes statements that fuel stereotypes, painting Mexican laborers as dishwashers.

He speaks in an exaggerated rasp of a Mexican accent, saying, among other things: “The last time I saw a map like that I was in an immigration office with three gringos down on the Mexican border, you know, right near New Mexico.”

Fractured Spanish pops up from time to time, as when Nesenoff says the rabbi’s tendency to get better assignments is “no mucho bueno picnic.”

Though some critics used the skit as ammunition to portray him as a hypocrite and a racist, Nesenoff said he was dressed up because it was Purim.”
God, he said, likes humor.

Israeli officials were not in a laughing mood during this period for other reasons. Fox News reported:
A senior Israeli politician tells Fox News that Israel is currently in the midst of its worst international crisis since the creation of the Jewish state. The politician, who asked not to be named in order to speak more candidly, added that for the first time Israel's legitimacy is being questioned by many in the international community.

The official believes the lack of a viable peace process, combined with last week's Gaza-bound flotilla incident, which killed nine, has brought Israel to this situation. The Israeli public doesn't understand the severity of the situation, according to the politician. The official believes that Israelis should not react in a nationalistic way to recent events, because it is only weakening the Jewish state in this process.
I don’t know If any of this was weighing on Helen’s mind but I do know that criticism of Israel was soon at an all time fever pitch because of the Gaza Aid Flotilla which left Turkey on the day of the “interview.”

Supporters of the humanitarian project feared Israel would attack the ships as they soon did. For media spin, Tel Aviv righteously and loudly defended its violent interception of the non-violent convoy as an act of legitimate self-defense but, later, quietly, paid compensation to the victims when the world media turned against them.

Soon, there would be protests worldwide and furious exchanges in the media. Much of it was very emotional. There was also anger at President Obama for not denouncing Israel’s intervention on the high seas. But, by that time, Helen Thomas was silenced and silent.

(In some outlets, the incident “outing” Helen was used, bizarrely, as pro-Israel “balance” to show why Israel must act tough.)

Back at the North Lawn that day at the White House, Helen, who must have been following these evolving events, blew a fuse, or at least lost her usually professional demeanor. Here’s the now infamous exchange videotaped by an amateur cameraman, offering a deliberately unflattering and extreme tight close up of an 89 year-old woman.
Nesenoff: Any comments on Israel? We're asking everybody today, any comments on Israel?

Thomas: Tell them to get the hell out of Palestine.

Nesenoff: Oooh. Any better comments on Israel?

Thomas: Remember, these people are occupied and it's their land. It's not German, it's not Poland...

Nesenoff: So where should they go, what should they do?

Thomas: They go home.

Nesenoff: Where's the home?

Thomas: Poland, Germany, and America and everywhere else.

Nesenoff: So you're saying the Jews go back to Poland and Germany?

Thomas: And America and everywhere else. Why push people out of there who have lived there for centuries? See?
Nesenoff does not repeat her use of America, but only of Poland and German. He has nothing to say about her reference to occupation,

Clearly, the question triggered something deeper in Helen, feelings that she had perhaps bottled up for many years in the White House where every reporter has a built in radar that teaches them to be careful about what they say and how they say it, especially on a subject like Israel that Helen considers a “third rail,” almost an “untouchable issue.”

She earlier told one college audience, “I censored myself for 50 years when I was a reporter.” (She was then an opinion columnist and perhaps freer to speak her mind.)

Israel was not a new subject for her to comment on either. Anyone from the Arab world tends to have a very different understanding of the history there, a perspective that we rarely hear or see. It’s a narrative driven by anger at unending Palestinian victimization.

She told me she had been in Israel in 1954 and visited the Palestinian village of Kibia that was invaded by Israel -- in which local residents were driven out and many killed. She told me she personally met many Palestinians forced from their homes. She is not the only one angry about this often hidden legacy, especially because many Israelis justify expelling Palestinians in biblical terms and are supported by Christian evangelicals in doing so.

That’s ironic, isn’t it, because in our media, fanatical fundamentalists are only pictured as Muslims, rarely as Jews.

Her historic memory was clearly triggered although her views are hardly extreme. She says Israel has a right to exist, and so do Jews, “like all people. But not the right to seize other's lands.” She says Israel has defied 65 UN resolutions on these issues. She was frustrated when so many presidents danced around the issues and -- in her view -- “caved” on human rights.

To Nesenoff and many viewers oriented to see the world only through an unflinching pro-Israel narrative, Helen had crossed the line from being anti-Israel to being anti-Semitic. The reason: the inclusion of Poland and Germany into the mix were considered “obviously anti-Semitic.”

She agrees that by citing Germany, she opened the door to accusations of insensitivity, lumping her in with holocaust deniers, but denies being one, or hating Jews. She says she was startled by that charge because she is, she says, a Semite -- so how can she be ant-Semitic?

(Another irony: Jewish emigration to today’s Germany has increased 10-fold since the fall of the Berlin Wall to 200,000 with many leaving Israel. This “reverse exodus” troubles Israeli officials.)

Helen Thomas with Ronald Reagan. Photo from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.

Helen told me her thinking on this subject goes back to being moved by a rabbi who spoke alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., at the March on Washington in 1963. I was there also, and heard him speak too, and so I looked him up,

It was Joachim Prinz of the American Jewish Congress who made a speech that influenced a younger Helen Thomas. He said,
When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful, and the most tragic problem is silence.
Helen says her whole career has been about combating the sin of silence. She says she has now been liberated to speak out. And “all I would like is for people to know what I was trying to say, that Palestinians are living under tyranny and that their rights are being violated. All I want is some sympathy for Palestinians.”

Had she said it like that, if she had perhaps made a distinction between Israel as a state and its settlers on occupied lands, she might still have her job. Unfortunately, what she did say, and how she said it, brought all the attention on her, not the issues she was trying to expose.

Now it’s the holiday season, allegedly a time of peace and forgiveness when presidents issue pardons to convicted criminals and reflection is theoretically permitted, a time when its been suggested that even a State Department hawk like Richard Holbrooke could, on his deathbed, call for an end to the Afghan war that he had dogmatically supported.

Over recent years, we have watched the rehabilitation of so many politicians who have stumbled, taken money, or disgraced themselves in sex scandals -- including senators, even presidents.

Helen Thomas is not in that category.

Yet, many of those “fallen” are back in action, tarnished perhaps, but allowed to recant, to work, and then appear in the media.

But, to this day, there has been almost no compassion, empathy, or respect shown for one of our great journalists, Helen Thomas, who has been presumed guilty and sentenced to oblivion with barely a word spoken in her defense. She admittedly misspoke and is now officially “missing” like some disappeared priest in Argentina

A whole world may be critical of Israel. Millions may believe that the occupiers should withdraw or that that Israeli rejectionism of the peace process must end. But when a “mainstream” American reporter of great stature touches these sentiments, she is consigned to Dante’s inferno, and turned into a non-person.

How can we expect Israelis and Palestinians to reconcile if our media won’t set an example by reconciling with Helen Thomas?

["News Dissector" Danny Schechter is a journalist, author, Emmy award winning television producer, and independent filmmaker. Schechter directed Plunder: The Crime of Our Time, and a companion book, The Crime of Our Time: Why Wall Street Is Not Too Big to Jail. Contact him at dissector@mediachannel.org.]

The Rag Blog

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30 December 2010

Marc Estrin : Mob 'n Maul

Buddy Christ statue from the movie Dogma.


By Marc Estrin / The Rag Blog / December 30, 2010

We seem to be bombarded lately by “random acts of culture” both in the real world (if such a place exists) and on YouTube. Handel's Hallelujah Chorus seems to be popping up all over -- almost expected at shopping malls and food courts.

I love Messiah. I've made it a point to sing, play, or conduct it almost every year since I've been 20. The Hallelujah Chorus is an astoundingly effective work of its time -- and ours -- and one can well imagine King George rising in ecstasy when hearing it. I've written about Messiah in several of my books, and it is a major altar in my church of worship.

But does it belong in a shopping mall? In the midst of ongoing orgies of consumerism, here we have enthusiastic artists, most often volunteers, singing “for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.”

In the context of the shopping mall, who is the Lord God omnipotent that reigneth? Surely more Mammon than Jehovah. The Lord God of Capitalism here reigns, “and he shall reign for ever and ever!”

While this may in fact be true, at least for the moment, is it worth putting so much energy into celebrating it? The Hallelujah Chorus is not Muzak, especially in live performance. People hear it, understand it, and receive it positively. What is it they are joyfully hearing in the context of the mall? The delight of Christmas shopping. The triumphant assertion of their own culture. The craving for that culture to reign forever and ever.

But is this the function of art? Should great music be an accomplice to great crimes? Should it enable and abet destructive capitalist madness?

In One Dimensional Man, Marcuse speaks of the Great Refusal -- the protest against that which is. That is great art's function in society -- to refute, break and recreate "the modes in which man and things are made to appear.”

I have been invited several times to participate in a Hallelujah flash mob. I know the bass part well, and could easily do it. But the idea of singing such praise in a shopping mall -- to a shopping mall -- to the activities of a shopping mall -- makes my gorge rise.

When I got my most recent invite, I suggested, as an alternative, a flash mob which would sing a neighboring chorus from Messiah -- “Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs And Carried Our Sorrows.” The music is truly harrowing, filled with dotted rhythms of the lash and dissonances of pain. The words go on to say, “He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruisèd for our iniquities.” And was he not? What would Jesus buy at the mall? The text of “Surely” concludes, "The chastisement of our peace was upon him.”

Singing "Surely" at the mall? Now that would be a surprise event, an invasion of culture by Culture.

Of course whenever I hear the word Culture, I think of Goering and his remarkable assertion, “Whenever I hear the word Culture I reach for my gun.” I understand what he was talking about. Because real Culture is always and immensely subversive of great schemes human and inhuman.

Brecht nailed the oppositional function of art in the closing speech of his teaching play, The Exception and the Rule. Concerning the actions of the characters in the one-act, the narrator instructs the audience:
Observe the conduct of these people closely:
Find it estranging even if not very strange
Hard to explain even if it is the custom
Hard to understand even if it is the rule
Observe the smallest action, seeming simple
With mistrust
Inquire if a thing be necessary
Especially if it is common
We particularly ask you -
When a thing continually occurs -
Not on that account to find it natural
Let nothing be called natural
In an age of bloody confusion
Ordered disorder, planned caprice
And dehumanized humanity
Lest all things
Be held unalterable!
That, I think, is what random acts of Culture should be doing.

My next week's essay will discuss the healing potential of infiltrative art.

[Marc Estrin is a writer, activist, and cellist, living in Burlington, Vermont. His novels, Insect Dreams, The Half Life of Gregor Samsa, The Education of Arnold Hitler, Golem Song, and The Lamentations of Julius Marantz have won critical acclaim. His memoir, Rehearsing With Gods: Photographs and Essays on the Bread & Puppet Theater (with Ron Simon, photographer) won a 2004 theater book of the year award. He is currently working on a novel about the dead Tchaikovsky.]

The Rag Blog

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29 December 2010

Keith Joseph : Surplus Labor and the Mystery of Capitalism

"Socially Acceptable Portrait of Karl Marx." Hand-pulled print by Aimee Dingman. Image from EBSQ.

Basics of Marxism:
Surplus labor and the mystery of capitalism
Exploitation occurs when the people who do the work and produce the surplus are different from the people who get the product of that work and the surplus.
By Keith Joseph / The Rag Blog / December 29, 2010

Three concepts are necessary to understand the basics of Marxism: Class, Surplus, and Exploitation. Before proceeding to these three concepts a caveat is necessary. Marx and Engels' collected works fill 50 volumes and many texts remain unpublished. The secondary literature on Marx's theory is elephantine, not to mention the original contributions to revolutionary thought from practicing Marxists as well as revolutionaries from other theoretical traditions.

So, it would be a remarkable lie if I were to say that the introductory remarks below represent the essence of Marxism or socialism -- it is a big topic. And there are very many Marxisms. But the three concepts I chose are crucial to understand Marx’s magnum opus Das Kapital. In future essays we can investigate additional concepts necessary for an understanding of capitalism (the market, fetishism, money, capital).

The most important concept in my view is surplus labor and its related opposite, necessary labor. Surplus just means "more" or "extra" -- as in more than is necessary. All societies produce a surplus of goods and services -- a surplus of wealth beyond what is necessary for the people doing the work.

Take, for example, a communal egalitarian society like the Iroquois or Cherokee before the European invasion; all members of the tribe work except the very young, the very old, the sick, and disabled. In order to care for those that cannot work (the young, the old, etc.) those who can work must produce a surplus, extra -- they must produce more than is necessary for their own sustenance. This extra is the difference between what the people who do work need to live and what they produce for others.

These societies are egalitarian or non-exploitative because the people who produce the surplus control it collectively and decide how to use it -- the decision to take care of the old, the young, and the sick is made by the people who do the work.

Now let's look at surplus in very different social relations. Take slave-based societies: the slaves do the work and the master gets the product of their work and decides what to do with it. The difference between what the slaves get back as food, clothing, and shelter and what the master keeps is the surplus.

This form of social organization is very different from the arrangements of the Iroquois or Cherokee. In those societies the people who do the work decide on what to do with the surplus. In slave society the people who do the work have no say over the surplus -- that is exploitation by definition.

Exploitation occurs when the people who do the work and produce the surplus are different from the people who get the product of that work and the surplus. The difference between the people doing the work and the people getting the surplus produced is a class difference. Exploitation is at the heart of class difference. In a society where the people who create the surplus are different from the people who get the surplus and decide what to do with it, there are class differences, and class struggle.

Marxism defines class by the relationship between groups of people (classes) and the production, appropriation, and distribution of surplus. I should qualify that assertion by saying different Marxists have different ways of thinking about classes -- some identify classes by consciousness (class consciousness, or identity), others by property (ownership of means of production) or power (theories of the elite). Mainstream discourses usually think in terms of income or status: i.e., "blue collar or "white collar," or "middle class."

Sometimes these alternative ways of thinking about class yield insights, but often they obscure the question of exploitation. Thinking about class in these different ways will lead to very different politics and social practices. I will say more about this later, but first we should look at a couple more class structures.

In European feudalism somewhat different arrangements for exploitation occurred. In the corvée system a peasant family might work on a piece of land for three days and keep the fruit of their labor for themselves. Then they were required to work an additional three days on a different piece of land -- the fruit from this labor was delivered to the feudal lord. The first three days are necessary labor (necessary to re-produce the peasant by providing food, clothing, shelter and so forth) and the second three days are surplus -- taken by the lord (and the seventh day, of course, is devoted to the lord above).

Exploitation and class difference are obvious under slavery and feudalism. The slave and the peasant know that they do the work and their lords and masters don't work. The systems are justified in two ways: violence and ideology. Slavery and feudalism require the extensive use of force, but force can be a blunt and limited tool. In addition to force ideologies are developed to win the consent of the exploited.

Some religious ideologies, for example, propose that social hierarchies are ordained by god and reflect the spiritual world, or ideologies like paternalism, or white supremacy which racialize class differences making them seem natural, biological, or divinely sanctioned. The obviousness of exploitation in a slave or feudal society disappears under capitalism.

What is clear under slavery and feudalism becomes mysterious under capitalism. The hidden nature of capitalist exploitation accounts for the rise of economics as a science. Economics emerged with the rise of capitalism because it was unclear, for instance, how market prices were determined, or where profit comes from.

Marx's most important works, the four volumes of his magnum opus Capital (totaling over 4,000 pages) is a study of how surplus is produced, appropriated, and distributed in capitalist societies, or as he called it, "the capitalist mode of production." Marx built on the work of his predecessors, especially Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, and David Ricardo, another important classical political economist.

The short story of work under capitalism goes something like this: When you go to work, part of the day you spend producing the goods and/or services that you will get back in the form of wages or as a salary. This is the necessary part of the working day because you are making the value that you need in order to buy the things you need to live. But once you have produced this value you will keep working, and during this time you will be producing surplus that the capitalist will take.

Part of the surplus produced by workers becomes the capitalist profit and the rest is distributed by that appropriating capitalist to others (some goes to other capitalists like bankers as interest, landlords as rent, some goes to the state as taxes, and so forth). This surplus will take different forms -- capitalist profits, bankers' interest, landlord rents, stock holder dividends -- and can be used by the capitalist (or in a modern corporation, the board of directors) in a large variety of ways.

Marx wants us to see that labor produces surplus and the exploitation of workers is the origin of these different forms of capitalist income.

The story is simple when we look at an egalitarian society, or a slave society. In these societies everyone knows that labor produces the goods and services that we need to live on. It is no mystery. But under capitalism it is a great mystery.

The mystery emerges basically for two reasons. The first is what Marx calls commodity fetishism and capital fetishism. Fetishism is expressed in an idea like "money makes money." Under capitalist social forms it appears that money magically produces itself. What is hidden then is the exploitation of labor; money only makes money if it exploits labor somewhere along the way.

The second reason for the mystery of exploitation under capitalism is ideology. Workers are daily bombarded by an ideological assault (paid for out of the surplus we produce) telling us that the system is just, that "capitalists take risks" and so they deserve a "reward," or investors "contribute" their capital and "deserve a return" and other such nonsense designed to legitimize exploitation

[Keith Joseph is an independent scholar, community organizer, and member of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.]

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28 December 2010

Nina Lakhani : Cuban Medics in Haiti Put World to Shame

Cuban medic treats cholera victims in Haiti. Photo from AFP / Getty Images.

Cuban medics in Haiti:
Castro's doctors and nurses are
the backbone of the fight against cholera

By Nina Lakhani / The Independent / December 28, 2010

They are the real heroes of the Haitian earthquake disaster, the human catastrophe on America's doorstep which Barack Obama pledged a monumental U.S. humanitarian mission to alleviate. Except these heroes are from America's arch-enemy Cuba, whose doctors and nurses have put U.S. efforts to shame.

A medical brigade of 1,200 Cubans is operating all over earthquake-torn and cholera-infected Haiti, as part of Fidel Castro's international medical mission which has won the socialist state many friends, but little international recognition.

Observers of the Haiti earthquake could be forgiven for thinking international aid agencies were alone in tackling the devastation that killed 250,000 people and left nearly 1.5 million homeless.

In fact, Cuban healthcare workers have been in Haiti since 1998, so when the earthquake struck the 350-strong team jumped into action. And amid the fanfare and publicity surrounding the arrival of help from the U.S. and the UK, hundreds more Cuban doctors, nurses and therapists arrived with barely a mention.

Most countries were gone within two months, again leaving the Cubans and Médecins Sans Frontières as the principal healthcare providers for the impoverished Caribbean island.

Figures released last week show that Cuban medical personnel, working in 40 centers across Haiti, have treated more than 30,000 cholera patients since October. They are the largest foreign contingent, treating around 40 per cent of all cholera patients. Another batch of medics from the Cuban Henry Reeve Brigade, a disaster and emergency specialist team, arrived recently as it became clear that Haiti was struggling to cope with the epidemic that has already killed hundreds.

Since 1998, Cuba has trained 550 Haitian doctors for free at the Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina en Cuba (Elam), one of the country's most radical medical ventures. Another 400 are currently being trained at the school, which offers free education -- including free books and a little spending money -- to anyone sufficiently qualified who cannot afford to study medicine in their own country.

John Kirk is a professor of Latin American studies at Dalhousie University in Canada who researches Cuba's international medical teams. He said: "Cuba's contribution in Haiti is like the world's greatest secret. They are barely mentioned, even though they are doing much of the heavy lifting."

This tradition can be traced back to 1960, when Cuba sent a handful of doctors to Chile, hit by a powerful earthquake, followed by a team of 50 to Algeria in 1963. This was four years after the revolution, which saw nearly half the country's 7,000 doctors voting with their feet and leaving for the U.S.

Jacklin Anore, 24, a cholera patient at the Cuban-run Nicolas Armand hospital in Arcahaie, north of Port-au-Prince. Photo from APF / Getty Images.

The traveling doctors have served as an extremely useful arm of the government's foreign and economic policy, winning them friends and favors across the globe. The best-known program is Operation Miracle, which began with ophthalmologists treating cataract sufferers in impoverished Venezuelan villages in exchange for oil. This initiative has restored the eyesight of 1.8 million people in 35 countries, including that of Mario Teran, the Bolivian sergeant who killed Che Guevara in 1967.

The Henry Reeve Brigade, rebuffed by the Americans after Hurricane Katrina, was the first team to arrive in Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake, and the last to leave six months later.

Cuba's constitution lays out an obligation to help the worst-off countries when possible, but international solidarity isn't the only reason, according to Professor Kirk. "It allows Cuban doctors, who are frightfully underpaid, to earn extra money abroad and learn about diseases and conditions they have only read about. It is also an obsession of Fidel's and it wins him votes in the UN."

A third of Cuba's 75,000 doctors, along with 10,000 other health workers, are currently working in 77 poor countries, including El Salvador, Mali and East Timor. This still leaves one doctor for every 220 people at home, one of the highest ratios in the world, compared with one for every 370 in England.

Wherever they are invited, Cubans implement their prevention-focused holistic model, visiting families at home, proactively monitoring maternal and child health. This has produced "stunning results" in parts of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, lowering infant and maternal mortality rates, reducing infectious diseases and leaving behind better trained local health workers, according to Professor Kirk's research.

Medical training in Cuba lasts six years -- a year longer than in the UK -- after which every graduate works as a family doctor for three years minimum. Working alongside a nurse, the family doctor looks after 150 to 200 families in the community in which they live.

This model has helped Cuba to achieve some of the world's most enviable health improvements, despite spending only $400 per person last year compared with $3,000 in the UK and $7,500 in the U.S., according to Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development figures.

Infant mortality rates, one of the most reliable measures of a nation's healthcare, are 4.8 per 1,000 live births -- comparable with Britain and lower than the US. Only 5 per cent of babies are born with a low birth weight, a crucial factor in long-term health, and maternal mortality is the lowest in Latin America, World Health Organization figures show.

Cuba's polyclinics, open 24 hours a day for emergencies and specialist care, are a step up from the family doctors. Each provides for 15,000 to 35,000 patients via a group of full-time consultants as well as visiting doctors, ensuring that most medical care is provided in the community.

Imti Choonara, a pediatrician from Derby, leads a delegation of international health professionals at annual workshops in Cuba's third city, Camaguey. "Healthcare in Cuba is phenomenal, and the key is the family doctor, who is much more proactive, and whose focus is on prevention... The irony is that Cubans came to the UK after the revolution to see how the NHS worked. They took back what they saw, refined it and developed it further; meanwhile we are moving towards the U.S. model," Professor Choonara said.

Politics, inevitably, penetrates many aspects of Cuban healthcare. Every year hospitals produce a list of drugs and equipment they have been unable to access because of the American embargo which prevents many U.S. companies from trading with Cuba, and persuades other countries to follow suit.

The 2009/10 report includes drugs for childhood cancers, HIV, and arthritis, some anaesthetics, as well as chemicals needed to diagnose infections and store organs. Pharmacies in Cuba are characterized by long queues and sparsely stacked shelves, though in part this is because they stock only generic brands.

A member of Cuba's medical brigade working in Haiti. Photo from Getty Images.

Antonio Fernandez, from the Ministry of Public Health, said: "We make 80 per cent of the drugs we use. The rest we import from China, former Soviet countries, Europe -- anyone who will sell to us -- but this makes it very expensive because of the distances."

On the whole, Cubans are immensely proud and supportive of their contribution in Haiti and other poor countries, delighted to be punching above their weight on the international scene. However, some people complain of longer waits to see their doctor because so many are working abroad. And, like all commodities in Cuba, medicines are available on the black market for those willing to risk large fines if caught buying or selling.

International travel is beyond the reach of most Cubans, but qualified nurses and doctors are among those forbidden from leaving the country for five years after graduation, unless as part of an official medical team.

Like everyone else, health professionals earn paltry salaries of around $20 a month. So, contrary to official accounts, bribery exists in the hospital system, which means some doctors, and even hospitals, are off-limits unless patients can offer a little something, maybe lunch or a few pesos, for preferential treatment.

Cuba's international ventures in healthcare are becoming increasingly strategic. Last month, officials held talks with Brazil about developing Haiti's public health system, which Brazil and Venezuela have both agreed to help finance.

Medical training is another example. There are currently 8,281 students from more than 30 countries enrolled at Elam, which last month celebrated its 11th anniversary. The government hopes to inculcate a sense of social responsibly into the students in the hope that they will work within their own poor communities for at least five years.

Damien Joel Suarez, 27, a second year student from New Jersey, is one of 171 American students; 47 have already graduated. He dismisses allegations that Elam is part of the Cuban propaganda machine. "Of course, Che is a hero here but he isn't forced down your neck."

Another 49,000 students are enrolled in El Nuevo Programa de Formacion de Medicos Latinoamericanos, the brainchild of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, who pledged in 2005 to train 100,000 doctors for the continent. The course is much more hands-on, and critics question the quality of the training.

Professor Kirk disagrees: "The hi-tech approach to health needed in London and Toronto is irrelevant for millions of people in the Third World who are living in poverty. It is easy to stand on the sidelines and criticize the quality, but if you were living somewhere with no doctors, then you'd be happy to get anyone."

There are nine million Haitians who would probably agree.

[This article was first published in the British daily, The Independent.]

Thanks to Jeffrey Segal / The Rag Blog

[+/-]

Don Swift : Narcissism and the 'Weeper of the House'

René Magritte's "The False Mirror" (1928).

A crying matter:
Reflecting on the 'Weeper of the House'
Narcissism speaks to problems of the heart or soul.
By Don Swift / The Rag Blog / December 28, 2010

Speaker-designate John Boehner's inclination to cry has been the object of considerable comment. When I first noticed it, it was in connection with the fact that as a boy and young man he had to work a lot of skut jobs to get started in life and graduate from Xavier University in Cincinnati.

At first I thought the crying meant he resented that and was a real narcissist. I got through high school doing many things, including setting pins, and worked many jobs to get through my university. I count all that experience as a great blessing and education in the school of ordinary life and resented what I thought was his egotism.

Barbara Walters and some others thought Boehner's weeping indicated he had emotional problems.

Reflecting more on the matter, I realized that this was a man who was the exact opposite of a policy wonk. He has a way of uttering bromides and thinking in terms of bumper stickers. My impression was that he was mentally lazy, but this could not be true. After all he became a multimillionaire.

The one common feature to his crying incidents is his deep belief that the American Way of Life should lead to the American Dream -- becoming a millionaire like him. He no longer visits schools in his shoestring-like district because he fears that the children no longer have that opportunity.

Clearly, in his mind, the Democrats stripped these kids of that possibility by levying "job-killing" taxes, regulating business, and creating big government to sap the next generations of initiative.

When it comes to essential beliefs, Konrad Lorenz noted that many people cannot deal with ambiguity or disconcerting facts. Maybe it is because they fear death. They must have a comforting conventional wisdom to cling to.

Moreover, they need the comfort of an intellectual bubble. Hence, Boehner says the health care bill provides for death panels, abortions, and an abortion "fee" for women who receive them.

Boehner is a Country Club Republican who pals around with lobbyists; he is not a Tea Bagger. Yet his mindset gives us some insight into the Tea Baggers, whose need for the emotional comfort of the verities of the conventional wisdom is so much greater. Fearing that their country is in decline and that the decline of the middle class cannot be reversed, many Americans succumbed to political fundamentalism -- embracing an extreme version of political orthodoxy.

In every form of political fundamentalism history has known, concern for ethnic purity eventually becomes central. Hence, hatred of Muslims became greater right after 9/11. And of course there was all the nonsense about Obama being a Muslim socialist. Unfortunately, he was in the right place at the wrong time.

Boehner seems to be more reality-oriented than the Tea Baggers. But he and they went through a great shock as our financial system almost fell apart and we almost slid into depression. We know that people who cannot handle the stress of their fundamental views being challenged must double their devotion to them.

Soon Boehner and Mary Matalin were saying that the financial and economic problems were entirely due to efforts to regulate the economy. For Boehner, making these claims came naturally. He has to believe them. Matalin, a sharp political operative who lives with someone with access to a lot of solid data, may not have believed a word of all this.

She may know that a time of deep crisis is the best time to sell conventional wisdom, even "wisdom" that has proven to be largely false.

Our founding fathers thought democracy depended upon rational, informed voters. Enough history has passed to show that voters sometimes have a terrible time with reality.

As E.J. Dionne has written, most Democratic politicians are more interested in policy and the mechanics of legislation. They are light years behind the Repugs in understanding cognitive theory and political psychology.

As for Boehner's narcissism, it seems there is some guilt on that count. He admitted that a couple of his many siblings were out of work, but he did not seem to know which ones or how deep their problems were.

It speaks volumes when a political party threatens to stop legislative activity if the rich do not get a two-year extension of a tax break at the same time that the party only grudgingly agrees to extend unemployment for 13 months.

Narcissism speaks to problems of the heart or soul. When there is not national revulsion over these antics or the Republicans' attempts to block assistance to the 9/11 first-responders, we are speaking about problems with a nation's soul.

[Don Swift is a retired history professor.]

The Rag Blog

[+/-]

27 December 2010

Tony Platt : My Friend Betita Martinez

Betita Martinez. Photo from SF Gate.

'The heart just insists':
My friend Betita Martinez
As the daughter of a dark-skinned immigrant from Mexico City and a blue-eyed North American, she felt racism in the air, 'but I did not have words for it then.'
By Tony Platt / The Rag Blog / December 27, 2010

I’m visiting my old friend Betita Martínez a few days before her 85th birthday. I bring chocolate chip cookies, and my laptop to show her photographs of a recent trip to Europe and Morocco. Our conversation is not the grand political discourse it used to be. It’s more of an ode to the everyday.

We’ve known each other for 35 years, from the time we worked together on a radical pamphlet about the police, through our years as comrades in a Marxist organization, and during the last two decades as leftists struggling to find our way through the dystopian gloom.

While most of us licked our wounds and picked up our interrupted lives, she protested with anybody who would march in the 1990s and was never without a sheaf of leaflets in the 2000s. She kept the faith, while mine wavered. “The heart just insists on it,” she once explained.

Betita looms large in my memory as a professional revolutionary who managed on a few hours of sleep and an occasional steak, with little time for small talk. This wasn’t always the case. At one time she was on the fast track to professional success.

Elizabeth Martínez grew up in the white section of Washington, D.C.’s segregated suburbs in the 1920s and 1930s. As the daughter of a dark-skinned immigrant from Mexico City and a blue-eyed North American, she felt racism in the air, “but I did not have words for it then.”

Her father, Manuel Guillermo Martínez, who had witnessed the Mexican revolution as a young man, worked his way up from a clerk in the Mexican Embassy to professor of Spanish literature at Georgetown; and her mother, Ruth Sutherland Phillips, got a master’s degree from George Washington and taught advanced high school Spanish.

Soon Betita was emulating her parents’ hard work ethic, joining the bridge club in high school and prepping for college and a career. She was the first Latina at Swarthmore, graduating with honors in history and literature in 1946. Here she began a lifelong friendship with fellow student (and later renowned economist) Andre Gunder Frank, a Jewish scholarship boy from Europe who, like Betita, knew what it felt like to be in exile, never feeling quite settled anywhere.

After college, using her mother’s vaguely British middle name, Liz Sutherland plunged into the post-war ferment of New York’s cultural scene. With her contacts from Swarthmore opening doors to institutions typically closed to women and Latinos, jobs came quickly and easily: as a translator and researcher at the United Nations (1947-1953), an administrative assistant in the Photography Department at the Museum of Modern Art (1957-1958), an editor at Simon and Schuster (1958-1963), and Books and Arts Editor at The Nation (1963-1964).

Betita Martinez. Photo by Margaret Randall.

For some 15 years Liz hobnobbed with cutting edge artists and literati, and married one, the writer-activist Hans Koning. She moved easily between the beat milieu of the Village -- hanging out with Diane Di Prima, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and other demimonde intellectuals -- and chic patrons at Fifth Avenue soirées. This ability to function in very different worlds would serve her well later in life when she had to fundraise for grassroots causes and translate radical rhetoric into palatable liberalism for middle-class audiences.

Among her friends were photographers Edward Steichen (her boss at MoMA) and Robert Frank, and the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. She could more than hold her own reviewing French new wave and English kitchen sink movies in the la-di-da Film Quarterly.

“If the film speaks its piece well, it lacks the magic of the unsaid,” she wrote in 1961 about Karel Reiz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. “There is nothing here to make you shiver, no awareness of ‘the million-eyed Spyder that hath no name.’ The characters are all there, but they are more recognizable than illuminating.”

Unusually for somebody still in her 30s, she had honed literary skills as an editor, designer, and writer. Most of us hope to be good at one of these things in a lifetime. She did them all really well.

In 1960, just two years into her job with a prestigious publishing firm, Simon and Schuster -- and already an editor -- she was assigned to work with the filmmaker Ingmar Bergman on the publication of Four Screenplays (including “Wild Strawberries” and “Seventh Seal”). She saw the landmark book “through from start to finish,” she told a reporter for Saturday Review. During a visit to Sweden to meet Bergman, they had lunch together on a set. “What was it like to talk with him, what’s he like?” I once asked her, wide-eyed. “He said I had nice legs,” she replied.

The following year she was off to Cuba, meeting with writers and filmmakers creating a “cinema of revolution.” That was her first turning point: “When Cuba declared itself socialist, so did I.”

In 1964, Liz served as go-between and editor for the militant black-led organization SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) and Simon and Schuster, resulting in an extraordinary book of photographs, The Movement: Documentary of a Struggle for Equality. It opens with three tranquil, rural images of the Deep South, followed by a carnival scene of a lynching in graphic detail.

Lorraine Hansberry gets credited for the introduction, as do Danny Lyon, Roy de Carava, and others for their photographs, but Betita’s name is nowhere to be seen. (She was similarly unacknowledged for her editing role in Stokely Carmichael’s Black Power, another iconic publication.)

She finally gets her due years later for helping Jim Forman write one of the most significant memoirs of the civil rights movement, The Making of Black Revolutionaries. Holed up in a house in Puerto Rico, she helped him not only get his writing in shape, but also broaden his “understanding of the vast and deplorable role of the United States government in suppressing the rights of all nonwhite people.”

In the mid-1960s, now in the prime of her life, Liz Sutherland made the shift from publishing to joining the Movement, giving up a sure-thing life of privilege for long hours and low pay for the next 45 years.

She became director of SNCC’s New York office, getting the word out and raising funds from Jewish sympathizers when she wasn’t on the road in Mississippi and Alabama, or making overtures on behalf of black nationalists to the Chicano-led UFW organizing migrant workers in California.

“I did not grapple with my particular identity then, with being half Mexican and half white,” she recalls. “The work said who I was.” And the work was grueling, especially for a single parent. Her pre-teen daughter Tessa “endured many lonely hours and TV dinners” when her mother was interviewing civil rights workers in the South. “She understands about Mississippi.”

A few years later, three pivotal events propelled her political development in a new direction. First, SNCC had, as she put it, “an identity crisis” and decided it “should be an all-black organization.” Stokely Carmichael made clear in a speech given in Berkeley in 1966 that “we cannot have white people working in the black community.” No one “white-baited me to my face,” says Betita recently, but to most of the SNCC staff she was “classified as white.”

Secondly, Elizabeth Sutherland and several other refugees from SNCC contributed to “an energized convergence of women in New York City,” as one observer has noted, and were in on the ground floor of the women’s liberation movement. Elizabeth was a member of the New York Radical Women’s collective -- a group that included Joan Brown and Shulamith Firestone -- and contributed an article (with Carol Hanisch, instigator of the celebrated protest of the Miss America pageant in 1968) to the first issue of Notes From The First Year, a theoretical journal of radical feminism, priced 50 cents to women and one dollar to men.

The Hanisch-Sutherland essay, which follows right after Anne Koedt’s “The Myth of the Vaginal Organism,” is organized as a series of answers to typically asked questions about feminism. For example, don’t some women “naturally want to be housewives?” To which the authors of “Women of the World Unite -- We Have Nothing To Lose But Our Men!” reply: “Anyone who thinks she feels good as she surveys her kitchen after washing the 146,789th batch of sparkling dishes isn’t being ‘natural’; she’s literally lost her mind.”

As Elizabeth Sutherland became Betita Martínez, she made sure that issues of gender were not put on the back burner. In 1970, she contributed “Colonized Women: The Chicana” to Robin Morgan’s Sisterhood is Powerful, an anthology that became required reading for a generation of feminists. Today, Morgan quickly recalls Betita’s “intensely feminist intelligence and commitment. Her stubborn insistence on freedom and power for all members of communities of color -- including, surprise! women -- got her into a lot of hot water. But that never stopped her.”

Thirdly, a trip to Cuba in 1967 connected her with an inspirational gathering of Latin American revolutionaries that triggered her own identity crisis: “the ground of my life was shifting, stretching.” She took off for New Mexico in 1968, where she founded a Chicano movement newspaper, El Grito del Norte, and organized the Chicano Communications Center. “A voice inside of me said, ‘You can be Betita Martínez here. It feels like home’.”

It felt like home until the mid-1970s, when Betita left New Mexico and joined a leftist organization in San Francisco, hoping to be part of a movement that would transcend identity politics. Ten years later, after the Marxist left imploded, she returned to grassroots work, searching for ways to bring communities of color together, speaking out fiercely against racism, sexism, and war -- saying “NO to any definition of social justice that does not affirm our human oneness.”

While illness limited Betita’s mobility when she reached her 80s, she kept on writing, as she’d done all her life. Without a university base or philanthropic support, she has accomplished what most academics never do in a lifetime: written several books that have left a deep impact on readers searching for socially relevant, well researched, and thoughtful history and commentary.

Among her lasting contributions are Letters From Mississippi (1964), The Youngest Revolution: A Personal Report on Cuba (1969), 500 Years of Chicano History (1976), and 500 Years of Chicana Women’s History (2008), not to mention hundreds of journalistic essays. In 2000, she received an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, but not the private pension, home ownership, and other perks that typically crown an academic career.

Betita Martinez. Photo by Tony Platt / The Rag Blog.

Recently, Betita looked more deeply and honestly into the self-inflicted wounds that can’t simply be blamed on the Man, “the human toll of righting wrong.” It troubles her that for too long the Chicano movement was seen as a subsidiary of the African American movement; that women in SNCC and Chicano organizations were too often considered subordinate to “male warriors” and assigned housewifely duties; that in the name of fighting for a “humanist society,” Marxist organizations could treat its cadre so brutally.

And while she gave all to her extended political family, Betita “deeply regrets neglecting another identity: being the mother of a young daughter who needed much more attention than she received in those years.”

Now it’s the mother who needs and gets much more attention from her daughter. A stroke makes it hard for Betita to see, hear, and remember yesterday’s visitors, yet she insists on living by herself with her dog Honey in a small, rented apartment in San Francisco’s Mission district, surrounded by books, posters, mementos, and rows of filing cabinets. "I love all dogs and some people," she says. But she’s always delighted to see visitors, and disappointed when we leave.

Today, the talk is about a trip Cecilia and I took recently. Her eyesight is not good, so she sits almost on top of the screen of my laptop as I scroll through hundreds of photographs that for me are already in the twilight between just now and the past.

As she imagines the photos through a blur, I tell her stories to go with the images: riding a lurching camel through pillowy sand dunes in the Sahara, shopping in an outdoor market in Provence for just-picked fruits and vegetables, circling Jeff Koons' gigantic flowering puppy that sits calmly outside the Guggenheim in Bilbao, watching kids splashing through a swimming pool installation on the roof of the Hayward Gallery in London, and stumbling over memory plaques in Berlin.

She happily munches cookies, and lights up when I come to photos of our new dog. "You must bring Buster here,” she says. We must all go to Morocco to see the camels." She laughs at the absurdity and attractiveness of the possibility.

She’s thirsty and I look for a glass near her sink. "This one?" I ask. "Yes," she replies, "that one. It's a mere bagatelle." I do a double take and she laughs. "I haven't heard that in a long time," I say. "Me neither," says Betita. "How come I can remember that, but can't remember the name of the person who helps me every day?"

We stop for a moment, pondering the marvelous trickiness of the brain. Then, just as we have often done together, we muse about the meaning and origins of this trifle of a word. As I search her well-used English and French dictionaries, and read out aloud all the detailed information I can find, I am reminded of the many times that we have done this together, sharing our pleasure in words and language, and for this moment all is as it was.

Happy birthday to Elizabeth (Betita) Martínez, born 12 December 1925.

[Tony Platt is the author of 10 books and 150 essays and articles dealing with issues of race, inequality, and social justice in American history. He has written for the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Truthdig.com, History News Network, Z Magazine, Monthly Review, and the Guardian. Platt, now an emeritus professor living in Berkeley, California, taught at the University of Chicago, University of California (Berkeley), and California State University (Sacramento). This article was also posted to his blog, GoodToGo.]

Thanks to Bernardine Dohrn /The Rag Blog

[+/-]

Harry Targ : Good Obama, Bad Obama: The Changing Frame

Photo from The Guardian, U.K.

The story so far:
Achievements and disappointments
during the Obama years

By Harry Targ / The Rag Blog / December 27, 2010

Changing media frames of political reality

I am an inveterate watcher of MSNBC, the “liberal” end of the “mainstream” media spectrum. Reflecting on the last two years of American political life, often through their eyes but also through other mainstream media outlets, I have been fascinated by the swings in interpretation of the performance of the Obama administration and Congress.

During the campaign, Obama was doomed several times, according to the media, by such crises as the remarks by Reverend Wright and Obama’s alleged snobbish rendition of the flaws of working class consciousness. On the other hand, the media presented Obama as the savior of the United States reputation overseas, the committed anti-war activist, the environmentalist, union supporter, and the African American candidate who could bring the country together in a post-racial era. We cried as the President-elect celebrated victory with the slogan “Yes We Can.”

Within a month of Obama’s entering office riding a massive swing to the Democratic Party in the House and Senate, media pundits were speculating about an historic shift in national politics and whether it would equal the transformation of political life that occurred in the 1930s.

But then, the Obama administration and its allies in Congress began to experience roadblocks in efforts to provide an adequate economic recovery stimulus package and to radically reform health care. Climate change legislation and pro-union legislation went off the table. Congress and the White House launched a two-year discussion about ending discrimination against gays in the military.

And most important, economic recovery, jobs, and growth stalled. To top it off, after an extensive in-house review of United States foreign policy toward Afghanistan, the Obama administration chose to escalate U.S. military involvement in that country.

Media frames shifted dramatically (in all but the right wing Fox empire which was hostile all along) from the new political alignment in American politics to discussions of incompetence in Congress, Obama’s inability to lead, Obama’s reluctance to go back out to the people to mobilize support for his policies, to critiques of Obama’s strategy of compromising with the right wing in Congress even before negotiations begin.

Then the Tea Party emerged. The American politics in crisis frame dominated stories, at least on television. Names like Sarah Palin, Sharon Angle, Christine O’Donnell, Jim DeMint, dominated the news. While anger and frustration were real, particularly with the enormous economic suffering, the media exaggerated the strength of the Tea Party movement. And on November 2, the elections showed a dramatic shift to the Republican Party at the national and state levels. The savior of our economic and political life of 2008 had become, as the media told us, the pariah of 2010.

Lame ducks and triumphal returns

After the elections, right wingers licked their chops eagerly waiting for 2012 and the prospects of electing representatives of the ruling class who would return America to the Gilded Age. Many progressives saw in the Obama presidency and the Democratic Party majority future adversaries, not potential allies for change. And many, particularly youth, were seen as losing their enthusiasm for any and all politics.

Finally, liberals, including Obama, claimed that the answer to the “shellacking” of 2010 was more compromise with Republican foes in the future. No one thought the “Lame Duck” session of Congress, November and December 2010, would create anything other than stalemate and acrimony among the two parties and a further sense of despondency among the progressive majority.

But to everyone’s surprise, Congress, led by Obama, secured passage of the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy that discriminated against gays in the military. The Senate passed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and Congress passed legislation giving some financial support to 9/11 responders who are suffering from health infirmities resulting from their rescue efforts.

And, in addition, Obama, almost despite his Democratic colleagues in the Congress, secured a piece of mega-legislation that extended Bush tax cuts to the super-rich but also the vast majority of Americans, continued unemployment insurance for those out of work between 26 and 99 weeks, saved Pell grants for needy college students, and added additional tax breaks for worthy and unworthy purposes.

However, Congress resisted passing the DREAM Act which would have provided a path to citizenship to young people who came to the United States without papers, attended college, and/or enlisted in the military.

The Lame Duck session since mid-December has been touted as an enormous victory for progressive forces. MSNBC commentators have begun to say that maybe they had been too harsh on Obama all along. Reviewing the list of legislative accomplishments and executive orders since 2009, they have concluded that this has been the most activist (and progressive) period in American political history since the days of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

For some, the most recent victory, DADT repeal, symbolizes the slow but dogged determination of an administration that must struggle against dysfunctional legislative hurdles to achieve any success at all.

So now the media frame, everywhere but FOX, Limbaugh, and the rest of the neo-fascist crowd, is back to Obama the crusader, and Democrats the progressives.

What to make of all this?

Well from the standpoint of building a progressive majority, the incumbent administration has made some significant advances. Several policy changes, such as reauthorizing U.S. aid to international agencies that provide family planning advice, remain below the public radar.

Repeal of DADT is worthy of celebration. Support for 9/11 responders is basic to a humane society. Some health care reform is better than none. Pell Grants need to be extended if we do not want our colleges and universities to be populated only by sons and daughters of the wealthy. And the inadequate economic stimulus package saved jobs and whole industries, such as auto.

But the other side of the story is instructive. This administration has participated in tax reduction for the super wealthy, froze wages for federal employees, did not struggle to save unemployment for the 99ers, has signed off on a U.S./South Korean trade agreement that Lori Wallach of Global Trade Watch claims will be of the magnitude of NAFTA. In essence, U.S. and South Korean workers will be the victims of an agreement that reduces barriers to capital flight and financial speculation.

While this list can be expanded, I only add that the foreign policy agenda of this administration has been one of extending, not retracting empire, in South Asia, in the Gulf, in Africa, and in Latin America.

In sum, lame duck aside, the Obama administration has continued to support the interests of finance capital at home and abroad at the expense of workers everywhere. What the world calls “neo-liberalism,” that is policies to cut government programs, extend privatization and deregulation of economies, and reduce wages and living conditions is the operant vision at home and abroad. The issue in the end comes down to “class,” and “class struggle.”

We can and should applaud the progressive victories (many of which are part of the social agenda) at the same time that we build a political movement that demands jobs and income now and an end to empire. By assessing the policies, the issues, and their impacts, progressives can determine where to go from here. And at this stage the class and anti-imperial issues must remain central to our work.

[Harry Targ is a professor of political science at Purdue University who lives in West Lafayette, Indiana. He blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical.]

The Rag Blog

[+/-]

VERSE / Larry Ray : John Boehner: A Crocodilian Crock?

Sir John of Orange: A portrait in courage?

This, my last post of the year, dear readers, is a short few quatrains; prickly poetry that would probe the mind of the incoming GOP Speaker of the House, the emotionally delicate John Andrew Boehner.

A Crocodilian Crock?

Does Boehner's orange face denote a great tan
or is it dermatologically the mark of a man
with dour countenance and low self esteem
who weeps and sobs as if reliving a dream?

A sad dream invoked so he may wear his past
as a badge of passage he fears cannot last
while his political career has arrived at a peak
emotionally odd weeping will not let him speak.

Fabled crocodile tears are not truly felt
but perhaps John's weeping is darkly indwelt
from tormented pangs of past poverty, looming
his lachrymal breakdowns are now all consuming.

As Congress convenes, with new Speaker and gavel
will the negative spotlight make Boehner unravel
as his overblown ego casts a dull orange glow
will his bawling and weeping continue to grow?

Will Speaker John Boehner now tread that thin border
between sanity and madness, a narcissistic disorder?
Indeed, Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem
I fear Boehner's tears are just there to bamboozle 'em!

Happy New Year,

Larry Ray
Texas poet lariat

Posted December 27, 2010

[Retired journalist Larry Ray is a Texas native and former Austin television news anchor who now lives in Gulfport, Mississippi. He also posts at The iHandbill.]

The Rag Blog

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23 December 2010

Bruce Melton : I Want a Sequestration Machine for Christmas!

Photo by Bruce Melton / The Rag Blog.

Climate intrigue and a change in prosperity:
I want a sequestration machine for Christmas

By Bruce Melton / The Rag Blog / December 23, 2010

Climate change is not just another dangerous dead-end road for humanity. There is really no doom and gloom just around the corner. The situation is not as dire as the catastrophists would have you believe. Yet, the news from climate science land has gone from bad to worse.

The impacts are happening faster with greater strength. The feedbacks appear stronger. The thresholds are proving to be nearer and threaten greater consequences. Ecosystems are rapidly deteriorating right now, or in some cases like caribou and coral reefs, they are simply collapsing.

So how can I be convinced that the solutions to the climate change challenge are things that can easily be accomplished? That the cost will at first seem burdensome, but will quickly be realized to be the intelligent investment that it is?

In the thousands of scientific papers on climate change that I have reviewed, most of the results talk about how lab tests sequestered far more carbon than imagined; about how the new techniques have been “scaled up” to mass production capacity and shown to be valid. The cost analyses show what at first would seem like ghastly expensive expenditures, but upon deeper thought, are revealed to be no different than other challenges we as society have already conquered.

Lord Nicholas Stern was former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s head of economic services in the United Kingdom. In 2006, Stern authored a definitive review of the economic impacts of climate change. His work was 700 pages of evaluation that included most of the current knowledge on climate science.

What Lord Stern found was that it would take approximately 1 percent of world gross domestic product to address climate change every year. But in 2008 Stern came forward with a revision to his report. He said that in the two years since his book was completed, new discoveries about climate change and about how we as a society were reacting would raise the cost of mitigating climate change to about 2 percent of gross domestic product.

So, one or two percent of world gross domestic product (GDP) is what it will take to avert a climate catastrophe; is that a lot of money? How much money is this exactly, compared to something that we can relate to? The Moon shot maybe

To see the value of anything, first we must understand how that value is important to our society. Preventing “dangerous climate change," or as the scientists call it “dangerous anthropogenic interference," is what the scholarly climate change literature tells us is our goal. The climate scientists say that just 2 degrees C of change (about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) will result in dangerous climate change.

Or at least this is what they said five or six years ago. Today the answer is more like 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) and this is additional warming above pre-industrial levels. We have already warmed 0.7 degrees C (1.3 degrees C). So just 1.3 to 2.3 degrees F of warming is what remains between dangerous anthropogenic interference and us.

Considering that most of the warming that has already occurred has happened since 1970, It appears as if we cannot help but pass this dangerous threshold. But, you may ask, what is so dangerous about a couple of degrees of warming?

Most folks think climate change is no big deal. The polls these days show that nearly one-half to two-thirds of Americans think that climate change is either not real, not going to impact them in their lifetimes or is exaggerated.

All of this while the latest mega review of climate science literature shows that 97 to 98 percent of climate scientists agree on the tenents of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In the climate scientists’ world, the one where I interpret the peer reviewed literature so you don’t have to, the beginnings of dangerous climate change are here now.

Right now, primary productivity in our oceans has declined 40 percent from levels in the 1950s because of warming. Billions of trees are dead in the North American Rockies in a sixty-one million acre attack. A native pine bark beetle is responsible and this event is 10 to 20 times bigger than anything ever recorded. It is still growing and is expected to impact virtually every pine forest in North America. Only extreme cold can kill the pine beetle, cold like we have not seen in nearly two decades.

Eighty percent of complex reefs in the Caribbean Sea have collapsed because of warming between 1969 and 2008 and the worst coral bleaching year ever recorded is likely to have just occurred in 2010. Greenland’s ice melt and discharge have quadrupled in 20 years. Antarctica is discharging now as much ice as Greenland, but Antarctica, in the 2001 IPCC report, was not supposed to start losing any ice for another 100 years or more.

These things are happening now, but as of yet they do not really rate as extreme enough to be called dangerous climate change. To get the idea across, I like to use an analogy comparing the weather to climate. We have all heard time and again that we cannot compare the weather to climate. We know that the weather is what happens tomorrow, or last spring, or even for the last decade and that climate is measured in decades, generations, and even centuries of average weather.

Climate happens on such a large scale though that it is difficult to grasp, even for me. So I have developed analogies to aid my own comprehension. My current favorite analogy compares the Dust Bowl to something that climate scientists call a mega drought.

We have these mega droughts in North America once every millennia or so, or at least we have had two or three of them in the last 1,500 to 2,000 years. These things are completely natural, they last for 100 to 300 years (the Dust Bowl lasted nine to 11 years) and they have only half of the rainfall annually when compared to the Dust Bowl.

As big as the Dust Bowl was, it was a simple weather aberration. Mega droughts however, at 10 to 30 times longer and twice as dry, are classified as something that would rate as a dangerous climate change. This is the scale of things that we have to contend with if we warm the planet just another 1.3 to 2.3 degrees F.

A mega drought would obliterate a continental agricultural region. There is only so much water underground that could be used for irrigation. Once groundwater is gone, all that would remain is shifting sand; for generations or centuries.

Another dangerous climate change would be 10 feet of sea level rise in a hundred years or maybe even as little as 500 years. It has already happened on a planet as warm as Earth is today, or within about one degree C of as warm as we are today.

The event occurred 121,000 years ago, in the interglacial warm period between the last 100,000 year-long ice age and the previous 100,000 year-long ice age (there have been about 10 100,000 year-long ice ages in the last million years.)

This globally catastrophic sea level jump happened naturally because of a collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet due to natural warming between ice ages. It is just this kind of collapse that the ice scientists have seen signs of starting in the last several years.

Ten feet of sea level rise would displace 700 to 800 million people. Once the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapsed, it would likely unleash a rush of dammed up ice from the Antarctic Continent into the ocean. This ice would continue to raise sea level at rates up to 10 feet per century or more for centuries on end.

Today we are changing the CO2 concentration of our atmosphere 14,000 times faster than normal for any time in the last 55 to 65 million years. If we as a society continue ignoring climate science as we have been for the last couple of decades, we will see 3 to 5 degrees C of warming (5.4 to 9 degrees F). This means by mid-century, maybe even just another 20 years, we will cross the 1.3 to 2.3 degree F threshold to dangerous climate change.

Our future lives may never be the same, but they may never be better either. We can prevent globally crippling mega drought that would starve hundreds of millions. We can keep the West Antarctic ice sheet from collapsing, or any number of other calamities that could basically end life as we know it.

All we have to do is bring CO2 levels in the atmosphere down to 350 ppm or less. Considering that the Kyoto Protocol would have had our society reducing our emissions to somewhere slightly below 1990 levels by 2012, and that emissions levels have only continued to climb since 1990, it is no wonder that doom and gloom is closely associated with climate change.

But the technologies are out there. The research has been done, the technologies proven in the lab, and some scale models have been built that prove successful. We could even use current CO2 extraction technology, commonly used in industry, to do the job. All it takes is a will to do so, money, and manpower.

For example, Klaus Lackner, at Columbia University, has shown how a polyester-like plastic sheet can absorb CO2 and the CO2 can be rinsed out with water. They built a full scale model and the technology worked well. The cost of the model was also in the feasible range.

Lackner’s full-scale test model was about the size of a train car. Thousands of these rail car-sized sequestration machines could easily be built. We could build enough to remove half of mankind’s CO2 emissions every year. The completed machine would be about the size of the Great Wall of China.

Lackner added up how much his machine cost and made some generalizations about full-scale implementation. When the numbers are looked at in more detail, a full scale model of their sequestration machine costed out so that it would take as much money as the U.S. spent on World War II, about $5 trillion adjusted for inflation, to pay for the machine.

That’s a lot of money of course. But Lackner was careful to explain that his cost was calculated on their own “actual costs” to build the one railcar-sized machine. Reduction in costs due to scale would likely be trillions of dollars.

This would still make the ultimate cost of the machine be trillions of dollars, but we just spent 3 trillion dollars on the economic conundrum bailout stimulus mess. And remember, this is just spending by the United States. Around the world, spending on World War II as well as spending this latest economic brain donation, was significantly more than just that spent by the U.S. alone.

Now comes the good part. These technologies are literally littered across the scientific landscape. We have all heard about how impossible clean coal is. But clean coal is only impossible on Earth as we know it. If our society finds the courage to address the true risks of climate change, clean coal suddenly becomes entirely feasible.

We are at the same point in our new clean energy economy today as we were just before the Interstate Highway system was built, or just before the Manhattan project ended World War II, or before John Kennedy said that we would go to the moon in 10 years because “it was hard.”

Wind energy is taking off like a bird. From 1996, wind energy installations doubled in capacity every three years. Installed solar capacity has increased 40 percent per year since 1990. Some parts of the U.S., Europe, and Japan have already reached parity -- where solar costs the same as coal-fired power. Worldwide, solar should reach parity with coal in two to five years. In a decade or less, we will see “naked parity” where solar costs the same as coal without subsidies.

All of this clean energy will change our lives for the better. A new economic engine will take over our planet. We will no longer be slaves to fossil carbon. Our skies will clear, our health will improve, our lives will be better, and economies will prosper. It happened when we changed our base energy unit from wood to coal and again when we changed from coal to oil. It will do the same when we change from oil to wind and solar.

Our society has an innate capacity to accomplish vast challenges. The Great Wall of China and the pyramids are two low-tech accomplishments, built by hand, that can be seen from space. The Apollo project put a man on the moon. The winning of World War II saved our society from global dictatorship (or worse.)

Like the pyramids, the Great Wall, the Moon Shot, and World War II, fixing our climate will not be easy. And like those other things, it will not be cheap. It will take one to two percent of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is $70 trillion today.

Remember Lackner’s sequestration machine the size of the Great Wall of China that you can see from the moon? One to two percent of GDP is a couple of trillion dollars.

So how much money is a trillion dollars? Let’s compare it to World War II and GDP. The $5 trillion that the U.S. spent on World War II was 25 times the U.S. GDP at the time, which was about $200 billion. Today’s U.S. GDP is $14 trillion. So 25 times today’s GDP would be about the same as what we spent on WW II, scaled for GDP. That’s $125 trillion dollars.

Scaled up to the actual size of the U.S. economy then (this is what GDP is), we spent $125 trillion dollars on World War II! So why is the measly $3 trillion that we spent on the economic conundrum perceived to be so much money? It’s all relative to perceived risk.

When the bailouts happened, Wall Street was being attacked by bad economic policy, not bad imperialists or Nazi’s bent on world domination. The perceived risk that the public has about climate change is just not comparable to world domination. It does not matter that the real risks of climate change are frightening beyond imagining; it is the perceived risk that counts.

Without public opinion, without the votes, without a global catastrophe threatening our very way of life, our leaders will not act. If the climate change threat were recognized for what it is, something worse than world domination, we would easily spend 25 times current GDP on prevention.

And the money is really there. Our capacity to create deficit spending 40 times greater than what we just spent on this little recession is real. It has happened before. We spent all that money during WW II because we saw the need. We understood the risks. We had the courage.

Please, in this time of thought about things bigger than ourselves, about the past and the future, and about our children, have courage. Go to meetings. Write your Senator. Tell your councilperson. Write a letter to the editor. Start a group. Attend a rally.

World War II was won by a revolution. The climate crisis is no less profound. It will need a revolution too. This new economic alternative energy revolution, this great societal challenge that we face, is not really without parallels. Repairing our deteriorating climate is a task that is within our grasp. There is no need for despair. We did not despair when we were attacked at Pearl Harbor. We rose to the challenge.

[Bruce Melton is a registered professional engineer, environmental researcher, trained outreach specialist, and environmental filmmaker. He has been translating and interpreting scholarly science publications for two decades. His main mission is filming and reporting on the impacts of climate changes happening now, unknown to the greater portion of society. Austin, Texas is his home. His writing and films are on his website.] The Rag Blog

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