28 June 2012

Philip L. Russell : The PRI and the Mexican Spring

Frontrunner Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico's PRI on the campaign trail. Image from The Washington Post.

The Return of the PRI
and the Mexican Spring
The big surprise of the first debate was how well Peña Nieto was able to respond to attacks, thus destroying a widespread notion that he couldn’t speak coherently without a teleprompter.
By Philip L. Russell / The Rag Blog / June 28, 2012

In Mexico’s 2000 and 2006 presidential elections, the early frontrunner fell by the wayside as illegal funding and effective campaigning propelled challengers into the presidency. Unless the pollsters are very, very wrong, this year Enrique Peña Nieto, the early frontrunner, will coast to an easy victory.

Peña Nieto, the candidate of the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) which ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000, is a made-for-TV candidate -- handsome and married to a beautiful soap opera star. Comparisons have already been made with JFK and Jackie. Appearances can’t be overestimated in a nation where the vast majority of voters rely on television for their news. Powerful business and media interests strive to keep Peña Nieto’s image favorable and before voters.

He draws the support of those dissatisfied with 12 years of slow economic growth and failed security policy under the incumbent National Action Party (PAN) party. Since they have no memory of PRI authoritarianism and the 20th century’s repeated economic crises, young people are the strongest supporters of Peña Nieto.

The formidable PRI political machine is solidly behind Peña Nieto. This machine, built up during the party’s 71 years in power, currently draws support from 20 PRI state governors who funnel human and financial recourses to the campaign. A Peña Nieto rally in Campeche illustrated the machine’s ability to mobilize people. There the pro-PRI oil workers union packed members into 21 busses sent to the rally, thus maintaining the image of broad support for their candidate. More than 1,600 buses brought supporters to the PRI candidate’s closing rally in Mexico City.

Josefina Vázquez Mota won a primary election to become the candidate of the incumbent PAN, which ousted the PRI from the presidency in 2000. Vázquez Mota chose a single word as her campaign slogan, “different.” Except for her being the first female major-party nominee for president, her campaign has never successfully explained just how she is different.

Unlike the solid support the PRI has generated for Peña Nieto, the PAN is rife with splits which undermine her candidacy. Vicente Fox, the first PAN president, endorsed Peña Nieto. Manuel Clouthier, son of a charismatic PAN presidential nominee with the same name, left the party declaring it had been “totally corrupted by power.”

Not only has her campaign lacked dramatic new proposals, but Vázquez Mota is saddled with the slow growth and the out-of-control drug war which have plagued the presidency of term-limited PAN incumbent Felipe Calderón (2006-2012). Poet and human rights activist Javier Sicilia told her, “For many you represent the continuation of policies which have plunged us into horror, misery, and plunder.”

In 2006, the supreme electoral court declared that Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) had lost the presidential election by less than a percentage point. His refusal to accept the loss and the massive protests he organized enhanced his confrontational reputation.

This year AMLO, once again candidate of the center-left Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD), has spent the campaign season trying to shed his confrontational reputation. He no longer refers to the business community as a “mafia” and stresses that he is the only candidate who will introduce “true change.” He seeks to replace the current neoliberal economic model, which he has labeled “broken.” 

AMLO has promised to make public investment the motor of growth. This would include five new oil refineries and a high-speed rail network. He claims that without increasing the deficit or raising taxes, he can finance such spending by ending corruption, effective collection of existing taxes, and imposing government austerity (including lowering exorbitant salaries of top officials).

As a final boost to the economy, AMLO proposes reducing the prices of gasoline and electricity, both of which are supplied by government monopolies. Critics note that such a policy would subsidize wealthy auto owners and increase both the government deficit and the production of greenhouse gases.

Mexican musician Julieta Venegas performs in support of the student movement #YoSoy132, or "I am 132" in Mexico City, Saturday, June 16, 2012. Photo by Marco Ugarte / AP.

The campaign, which officially began on March 30, has been a blur of rallies and meetings with various consistencies, the main purpose of which is to get print, TV, and increasingly, social media to spread the day’s message throughout the country. A mind-numbing avalanche of 30-second TV and radio spots touting the candidates forms the background to these daily events. The federal government provides parties with free airtime for the spots. Few viewers however feel these spots improve the quality of Mexican democracy.

The steady stream of campaign events was twice punctuated by government-organized TV debates. The big surprise of the first debate was how well Peña Nieto was able to respond to attacks by both Vázquez Mota and AMLO, thus destroying a widespread notion that he couldn’t speak coherently without a teleprompter.

In the first debate Vázquez Mota attacked Peña Nieto’s record as governor of the state of Mexico. In the second debate AMLO laid out his development plans, which others declared financially unworkable. Neither debate introduced anything startlingly new or markedly shifted polling numbers.

As the graph below indicates, Peña Nieto has retained his commanding lead, and AMLO has slowly risen as negative perceptions of him have faded. Finally, Vázquez Mota’s lackluster campaign slipped her into third place.

Graph from Reforma, June 22, 2012, p. 4.

During the campaign there was substantial discussion of the economy, which all the candidates agreed was not growing fast enough. Peña Nieto and Vázquez Mota advocated bringing private capital into Pemex, the national oil company. AMLO opposed that, declaring it to be “privatization.”

All three advocated increased funding for rural development, thus lowering poverty and increasing agricultural production. Peña Nieto called for fiscal, energy and labor reform. AMLO in effect called for rolling economic policy back half a century by once again using the state as an engine of economic development.

Another major issue, public security, has produced virtually identical responses. Rather than claiming that the current strategy, which has produced 60,000 deaths under Calderón, was a failure, the candidates vowed to continue waging the drug war. AMLO represented the consensus in promising a “federal police force, trained and honest, which will guarantee security and which will slowly replace military forces in the streets.”

The campaigning has been notable for what it has not considered. None of the candidates has proposed anything as radical as the new tax on the rich proposed by victorious French presidential candidate François Hollande. Nor was their substantial debate on global climate change even as shorelines move inland along the Gulf Coast and northern Mexico withers as the result of a devastating drought.

The issue of NAFTA has been laid to rest. The treaty has been accepted as reality, and none of the candidates dwelt on changing or abolishing it. Finally, none of the candidates has followed Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina’s proposal to decriminalize drugs.

The one major surprise of the campaign came, not from the candidates, but from the students at Mexico City’s elite private Universidad Iberoamericana. On May 11, Peña Nieto appeared at a campus rally, assuming it would be the usual photo op with a chance for Q and A.

Much to his surprise, students had organized and vociferously confronted him on a variety of issues, such as how as governor he had directed police to break up protests in the town of Atenco. Police there not only abused residents, but sexually assaulted women they had arrested.

Rather than face down protesters, Peña Nieto retreated out the back door of the auditorium. He later declared the students had been manipulated by outside interests opposed to his candidacy.

In response 131 Iberoamericana students produced a video in which each held up a university ID and declared they had not been manipulated. This video was posted on line and soon went viral. Within days this posting gave birth to a national student movement known as #yosoy132 (I am 132), referring to additional students who joined the initial 131 protestors.

Members lambasted Peña Nieto’s candidacy and attacked the two dominant TV networks for dominating political discourse. Activists even organized their own candidate forum which both Vázquez Mota and AMLO attended. Peña Nieto declined to appear, declaring the forum would be stacked against him. The movement staged various protests, including one at the studios of the dominant Televisa network. Some of the signs carried by protesters declared:
  • Peña: television is yours, the streets are ours.
  • If your daughter had been raped in Atenco you wouldn’t think he was so cute.
  • Neither right nor left, we are the 99% and we’re going after the 1% (in Spanish: Ni de la izquierda ni de la derecha, somos los de abajo y vamos por los de arriba).
Despite generating widespread publicity, #yosoy132 did little to change poling numbers. Those involved in the movement were urban students with internet connections. By the movement’s own estimate, only 112,000, or 0.1% of the population, viewed the #yosoy132-organized debate. Also, the movement failed to explicitly endorse either Vázquez Mota or AMLO.

As the July 1 one-round, winner-take-all election approaches, the question has become, not will Peña Nieto win, but who will be in second place. Late in June Vázquez Mota gained some ground emphasizing that, thanks to sound economic policy, the last 12 years of PAN administration have avoided the economic crises of the past. The roughly even split between Vázquez Mota and AMLO works to Peña Nieto’s advantage, since it prevents either of his challengers from rallying the “anybody-but-Peña Nieto” vote.

[Austin-based writer Philip L. Russell has written six books on Latin America. His latest is The History of Mexico: From Pre-Conquest to Present (Routledge). Frequently updated information on the Mexican presidential campaign can be found in chapter 30 of www.mexicofrompreconquesttopresent.com.]

Also read Philip Russell's April 19, 2012, Rag Blog report: "Mexican Elections: A Veteran, a Smile, and an Image."

The Rag Blog

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Don Swift : Cultural Cognition and Today's Politics

Cartoon by Bennett / Chattanooga Times Free Press. Image from Picasa.

Fact and fiction:
Cultural cognition and today's politics
The scholars have noted a tendency for people to 'conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact... to values that define their cultural identities.'
By Don Swift / The Rag Blog / June 28, 2012

Most of us have lists of recent misstatements of fact by people in the political arena. The words of the Birthers and those who rant about Barack Obama being a Muslim and a socialist are on all of our lists.

Mitt Romney has added many outright falsehoods to my list. Three of them are (1) that Obama made things much worse, (2) that Obama follows economic policies he knows cannot work, and (3) that Obama has accelerated the rate of federal spending.

There are many more, and they usually go unchallenged -- in part because reason and facts are playing a much smaller role in our politics.

Scholars connected with the Cultural Cognition Project centered at Yale study "how cultural values shape public risk perceptions and related policy beliefs.” Their work builds on Mary Douglas' and Aaron Wildavsky's studies of how cultural factors influence people's perceptions of societal risks.

The Cultural Cognition Project scholars have noted a tendency for people to “conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact... to values that define their cultural identities.” In a sense, people tend to shop for information and misinformation that is consistent with their values and identities.

Perhaps the most alarming illustration of this tendency is the growing body of Americans who let their cultural values dictate opinions about matters of scientific fact, particularly in the growing denial of human involvement in global warming.

It was found that people with egalitarian and communitarian values were more receptive to troubling information about climate change than those who esteemed individualism and hierarchy. The latter were very receptive to information that denied the dangers of climate change. People, especially those with strong group identities, have a strong desire for culturally congenial beliefs. This is why those who supply misinformation are so successful.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote that “our minds contain a variety of mental mechanisms that make us adept at promoting our group's interests in competition with other groups." The earliest humans survived not so much by reasoning as by clinging to the group, tending to be good team players.

Psychologists talk about “motivated reasoning,” which Dan Kahan at Yale describes as “when a person is conforming their assessments of information to some interest or goal that is independent of accuracy.”

At Stanford an experiment was performed where conservative subjects were told about a generous welfare proposal and were told it was a Republican plan. The opposite was done with liberal subjects. Both test groups tended to identify with plans that were ascribed to their reference groups. Increasing polarization probably magnifies this tendency to assess proposals on this basis rather than on a purely policy basis, separate from considerations of partisan identity.

Recent years have also seen a growing inclination to treat misinformation as being as respectable as facts. One reason the United States has entered a period of non-factual politics is that so many people let their identities get entangled with clearly false information. People have a way of reinforcing their cultural identities in this manner.

People have always let their normative biases be shaped by their political and moral identities. But what is occurring now represents an extreme case, and the moral and political identities for many have now merged. It is noted that people seem to be given to “misfearing” -- exaggerating threats and seeing some that may not exist. In a highly fragmented society besieged by multiple crises, many are more likely to cling to their cultural identities and feel hostile to those who do not share their views.

David Hoffman has noted data from a recent Pew poll that shows that party affiliation is increasingly a reliable and strong predictor of cultural values. He sees in progress a partisan-realignment developing along value dimensions that has been in progress since 1987. Increasing political polarization has produced an “illiberal form of expressive politics” in which reason is devalued and in which it becomes more difficult for people to reason together.

These writers are conducting careful studies to see how the concept of cultural cognition relates to the broader realm of cultural theory. They are also considering ways to manage cultural cognition for the good of society. That is to say, they are interested in finding ways where people with different cultural perceptions on matters such as global warming, gun control, and handling nuclear waste can converge on shared beliefs and work toward policies that benefit all.

The concept of cultural cognition seems particularly valuable for understanding the super-heated politics of 2012, a time when government is gridlocked and fact and reasoned argument seem to have a very small place in the national political arena.

There have been somewhat similar times in the past. High emotion and willingness to believe some pretty tall tales marked the Know Nothings of the 19th century. The abolitionists and southern Fire Eaters and Secessionists showed little disposition to reasoned discourse and were not inclined to sit down and reason together. The politics of the late 19th century were often marked by considerable ethnocultural conflict and cultural cognition and high degrees of emotionalism were sometimes present.

Since the rise of the New Right, American politics has been marked by extraordinary levels of vitriol and emotion. These undesirable characteristics have been accompanied by a much greater tendency to make unsupported assertions and even outright falsehoods. With the appearance of the Tea Party movement in 2009, these tendencies have almost become the defining characteristics of American politics.

The levels of paranoia, rage, and vitriol have been greatly ramped up. Hyperbole, falsehoods, and  unsupportable claims have become so commonplace that few in the media bother to correct them or note that they are in any way unusual. They are treated as being just as legitimate as positions grounded in reason and fact. The level of irrationality seems high, large numbers of people believe really absurd things, such as that Barack Obama was born in Kenya.

The kind of political emotionalism we observe today has been ascribed to past “creedal passion periods.” George F. Will, a leading conservative pundit, explained that, with the appearance of the Tea Party, the nation had come into another “creedal passion period.”

He noted that the late Samuel P. Huntington who developed that term had identified four other creedal passion periods in American history, and Will pronounced the present period the fifth. In Wills' interpretation, the creedal passion is all about returning to first principles, and he noted that Huntington believed that “the distinctive aspect of the American creed is its anti-government character.”The concept of cultural cognition is certainly consistent with that of the “creedal passion period.”

The premier social scientist Samuel P. Huntington attempted to explain why American politics have sometimes been marked by periods of intense emotions which have taken precedence over the usual interest group politics. They interrupt the normal “pattern of political continuity and equilibrium.”

Huntington saw periodic intrusions of “passion, moralism, intensified conflict, reform, and realignment.” These have occurred in roughly 60-year cycles. Hunnington thought there were four of these “creedal passion moments": the American revolution, the Age of Jackson, the Progressive Era, and the 1960s.

These outbursts of emotional and moralistic energy have occurred because Americans periodically want to narrow the distance between American ideals and realities. They are outraged by what they perceive as outright corruption and also serious failures to live up to American ideals. Writing for The Guardian in 2011, Michael Weiss also saw the Tea Party as a creedal passion movement and added that it was already in decline. This was written before that Republican faction tied the House of Representatives up in knots over the budget and extending the national debt ceiling.

These moral energies have their roots in the English Revolution of 1688 and America's strong Protestant heritage, which Huntington thought shaped what America is all about. He granted that the Anglo-Protestant heritage positively interacted with the 18th-century Enlightenment ideas that the founders came to revere. The first two American Great Awakenings also generated moral forces that were to underpin American political life.

Hunnington believed that the United States can contain the energies unleashed by creedal passion periods and come through them improved and stronger because there is such widespread agreement on American ideals. By contrast, Huntington did not think these moralistic creedal passion periods could occur in Europe, where there was class conflict and powerful ideological divisions.

Huntington noted that creedal passion moments were marked by unrealistic expectation of moral perfection and that this outlook got in the way of practical solutions. Nevertheless, he saw results that could be labeled as democratic and reformist. For the most part, he saw people on the Left as being passionate and often harboring unrealistic expectations and demanding too much.

Huntington did not live long enough to see the Tea Party movement. In his last days, he expressed concern that the United States was experiencing an identity crisis, and he was very concerned that the nation's culture and creed must remain firmly rooted in Anglo-Protestantism.

His creedal passion moments were about reaffirming first principles, and those, he thought, were the Protestant values of the nation's founders. The Harvard scholar saw three forces threatening the nation's traditional values and identity: (1) multiculturalism, which he thought could undermine civic education, (2) “transnationalism,” the tendency of leftists and corporate executives to see themselves as citizens of the world, and (3) the “Hispanization of America.”

He feared that the United States “could evolve into a loose confederation of ethnic, racial, cultural, and political groups.” Huntington was correct that many Americans shared his concerns about growing cultural pluralism. He was no nativist, but many who did worry about the nation's changing character and identity probably were not on his lofty level.

When the Tea Party erupted in 2009, its members were often strongly anti-immigrant and also hostile to African Americans. Clearly, concerns about a changing American identity contributed to the coming of the Tea Party.

Whether it is just the latest creedal passion movement is another matter. Huntington wrote that the previous creedal passion periods produced reformist, liberal, and democratic results. They brought the nation more in line with its historical ideals.

Perhaps the answer to this question depends upon the definitions one employs. It is difficult to find democratic and liberal elements in the Tea Party movement. There is a far greater unwillingness to compromise than found in participants in previous creedal passion periods. Nativism, xenophobia, and anti-black attitudes have deep roots in American history; but they are not the nation's first principles. The presence of so much violent rhetoric might suggest a parallel to our revolutionary ancestors or the most extreme Locofocos in the 1830s.

A troubling part of the effort at comparison is that the Tea Party's notion of traditional Americanism is so remote from reality and the nation's past. Its constitutional theory is far removed from modern constitutional history and resembles the extreme claims of southern secessionists in the mid-nineteenth century. Their economic and social views -- unrestrained, raw capitalism and Social Darwinism -- seem to be a throwback to a disgraceful period in American history, the Age of the Robber Barons.

Many writers have classified the Tea Party movement as a right-wing populist movement. This is the same classification accorded the Religious Right, and broader New Right. Both are given to conspiracy theories and emotional rhetoric. Both claim to speak for the true majority and maintain that they are battling an established “elite.”

A problem with this classification of the Tea Party as populist is that populism is related to status theory and it usually applies to an aggrieved class or cultural group. If it is economic or left-wing populism, it describes a class or classes.

The Tea Party movement has to do with national identity and the perception that the nation is in decline or facing severe crisis. It is not about identifiable classes or a particular cultural group. However, careful classification is difficult because it energizes many resentments and romanticist impulses around its core of anti-tax, anti-government, and anti-modern goals.

Historical comparisons are useful, but it could be that the extremism that has overtaken the Republicans exceeds that found in past situations. Michael Stafford, a syndicated columnist, wrote that a form of  "political rabies” has infected the Republican Party, and he has decided to leave it.

At the time he wrote that column, the Montana Republicans were holding their state convention. Outside the building was an outhouse called “Obama's Presidential Library.” Inside was the alleged birth certificate of “Barack Hussein Obama,” which was stamped with words that mean cow or bull droppings. On the wall under “For A Good Time” were the names and fake phone numbers of Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Nancy Pelosi.”

The Democrats have become more partisan than they were, but they have not moved dramatically to the left, nor have they adopted a bevy of strange arguments that defy rational explanation. The cultural cognition argument partly explains what seems to be Republican group think, but it does not fully explain the drift to extremism and the political rabies Stafford describes.

The answer probably lies in the fact that so many Republicans feel deeply threatened by cultural change and the emergence of a pluralistic, multicultural America. Of course, the threats of terrorism and economic decline effect all Americans.

In future articles Don Swift will discuss how scholars have dealt with high levels of emotionalism and irrationality in American politics.

[Don Swift, a retired history professor, also writes under the name Sherman DeBrosse. Read more articles by Don Swift on The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

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RAG RADIO / Thorne Dreyer : Gay Marriage and Social Justice with Gail and Betsy Leondar-Wright

Betsy, left, and Gail Leondar-Wright, were Thorne Dreyer's guests on Rag Radio, Friday, June 22, 2012.

Rag Radio:
Gail and Betsy Leondar-Wright
on gay marriage and social justice

By Rag Radio / The Rag Blog / June 28, 2012

Gail and Betsy Leondar-Wright, who have been together since 1991, were among the first same-sex couples to be legally married in the United States -- on May 23, 2004, in Arlington, Massachusetts, the week the state made same-sex marriage legal.

Gail and Betsy were our guests on Rag Radio, initially broadcast Friday, June 22, 2012, on KOOP-FM, Austin's cooperatively-run all-volunteer community radio station.

You can listen to the show here:

On the show, we discuss their marriage, the gay marriage and LGBT movements in America, and the larger issues of class and progressive social change to which they are both committed.

Gail Leondar-Wright is the founder of gail leondar public relations, which promotes progressive books. She has publicized over 600 titles on sustainability, peace, economic justice, and human rights.

Betsy Leondar-Wright, an economic justice activist, is the Project Director for the nonprofit organization, Class Action. She is the author of Class Matters: Cross-Class Alliance Building for Middle-Class Activists and the co-author of The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the U.S. Racial Wealth Divide. She holds a PhD in sociology from Boston College.

Rag Radio, which has aired since September 2009 on KOOP 91.7-FM in Austin, features hour-long in-depth interviews and discussion about issues of progressive politics, culture, and history.

Hosted and produced by Rag Blog editor and long-time alternative journalist Thorne Dreyer, a pioneer of the Sixties underground press movement, Rag Radio is broadcast every Friday from 2-3 p.m. (CST) on KOOP, 91.7-fM in Austin, and is rebroadcast on Sundays at 10 a.m. (EST) on WFTE, 90.3-FM in Mt. Cobb, PA, and 105.7-FM in Scranton, PA.

The show is streamed live on the web by both stations and, after broadcast, all Rag Radio shows are posted as podcasts at the Internet Archive.

Rag Radio is produced in the KOOP studios, in association with The Rag Blog, a progressive internet newsmagazine, and the New Journalism Project, a Texas 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation. Tracey Schulz is the show's engineer and co-producer.

Rag Radio can be contacted at ragradio@koop.org.

Coming up on Rag Radio:

FRIDAY, June 29, 2012: Peruvian Social Psychologist Cristina Herencia on the impact of globalization on the world's indigenous peoples.

The Rag Blog

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27 June 2012

Marc Estrin : Worstward Ho!

Fail worse
What is absolutely clear is that the performance of the United States at the recent Rio+20 conference was intended as an energetic worsening thrust.
By Marc Estrin / The Rag Blog / June 27, 2012

In his penultimate novella, Worstward Ho (1983), Samuel Beckett writes
All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
It’s Beckett-ambiguous whether “Fail better” suggests an improvement or a worsening of conditions. What is absolutely clear, though is that the performance of the United States at the recent Rio+20 conference was intended as an energetic worsening thrust.

There has been general agreement that the final ratified agreement was a weak-kneed, weak tea failure, dashing the shrinking hopes of the last 20 years of conferences, and doing little to avert the multiple ecocatastrophes upon us.

The process started with a draft declaration, self-censored, of course, so as to be “realistic." Then the U.S. delegation took out its red pencil.

The word “equitable” was deleted from the initial text, as was any mention of the “right” to food, water, health, the rule of law, gender equality, or women’s empowerment. Any clear, enforcable target of preventing two degrees of global warming had to go, any commitment to change “unsustainable consumption and production patterns” along with it, any notion of “decoupling” economic growth from the use of natural resources.

Beyond that, many of the foundations of the original 1992 Rio document had to be erased, including all mentiion of the core principle of that Earth summit -- common, but differentiated responsibilities for repair. The original implication was that those who had done the most damage, should take on the greatest burden. Out. No rich country payment without poor country payments too. Liberty for us, our version of equality, and certainly no fraternity.

Could we fail worse than that? Sure. By articulating a positive “green” rationale for corporate greed. We now hear that commodification, putting a “fair value," a price on nature -- clean air, clean water -- is not only a way of making money, but also a way of saving it. In capitalism, if something has no price, it has no value. Grabbing, owning and selling natural resources will help preserve biodiversity, slow climate change, and reduce the pressure for extraction. Capitalism can “save nature."

A most excellent plan for Fail worse.

[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, The Lamentations of Julius Marantz, and The Good Doctor Guillotin 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. Read more articles by Marc Estrin on The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

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Richard Raznikov : Keep the 'Change,' Barack

Label this! Image from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

Label this!
Keep the 'change,' Barack
I wonder whether the writer knew that Obama has appointed Monsanto’s chief lobbyist and a corporate vice president to serve as the 'food safety czar' of the Food and Drug Administration.
By Richard Raznikov / The Rag Blog / June 27, 2012

Seemed reasonable enough. Senator Bernie Sanders authored an amendment to the farm bill which would give states the power to require that genetically modified foods be labeled.

Seventy-three Senators voted against it, including 28 Democrats.

On the websites there was shock at the news, with one writer wondering whether Obama knew about the most recent scientific evidence of the poisoning of cattle that had sucked up GMO feed.

I wonder whether the writer knew that Obama has appointed Monsanto’s chief lobbyist and a corporate vice president to serve as the "food safety czar" of the Food and Drug Administration.

You can keep the change this time, Barack.

Sanders introduced his amendment after his own state’s legislature backed down from requiring GMO labeling after a threat of a lawsuit by Monsanto.

Surveys repeatedly show overwhelming public support for GMO labeling. Maybe people really want to know what they’re eating. Monsanto (and Dow Chemical and a few others) don't want you to know. You might get confused.

The threat of lawsuits is very real. Huge corporations use these threats to force local governments to back down anytime they try to enact policies the criminals oppose. Vermont didn’t want to incur the enormous expense of defending itself against a company with Monsanto’s spectacular financial resources.

I once served on a county commission whose job included reducing or ending county contracts with nuclear weapons contractors. The Nuclear Free Zone in Marin was one of several which explored the idea that grassroots work for peace could counter the arms industry’s ownership of national policy.

We recommended that Marin County cease doing business with Motorola for that reason. Lawyers for Motorola made it clear they’d sue us if we upheld the law. Against the 4-1 vote of the Commission, the county’s Board of Supervisors cracked. That’s how it works.

I’ve written about Monsanto before. Probably will write about it again. If you’re looking for corporate evil in its most malevolent form, it’s hard to beat Monsanto. The Senate vote is really no surprise. The surprise, I guess, is that more than 20 Senators had the stones to stand against it. Probably gonna cost ‘em.

America is no longer a democratic country. This is not really news to most people. There are some who would say that’s been true for nearly 50 years and I won’t argue. But lately it’s in our faces every day and that’s hard to ignore.

Saw a video on fracking called "The Sky Is Pink," which featured former Democratic Governor Ed Rendell (D-PA) who is now pimping for an oil and gas company, paid a lot of money to lie about the dangers of this stupid practice.

Meanwhile, the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, whose dad was an honorable man, is apparently backing the fracking of his state, despite the demonstrable fact that this will poison the water and probably kill a lot of people -- there are statistical spikes in breast cancer wherever fracking is concentrated.

These guys are Democrats. They’re the guys we’re supposed to support with our time and money and votes because they’re the last line of defense against the swinish Republicans who would do terrible things if we let them.

My own state has a GMO labeling initiative on the November ballot. It will pass because despite the big money propaganda campaign -- including the wholesale purchasing of mass media and television "commentators" --  most people know liars when it’s this bloody obvious.

The real question is, will California cave in to Monsanto when the lawyers come around with their threats? Because somebody sure as hell had better refuse to.

[Rag Blog contributor Richard Raznikov is an attorney practicing in San Rafael, California. He blogs at News from a Parallel World. Find more articles by Richard Raznikov on The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

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Danny Schechter : South Africa's Political Wars

South African President Jacob Zuma was caught up in a personal corruption scandal that he "narrowly slithered out of." Photo by Reuters.

South Africa’s political wars
begin to resemble our own
The African National Congress is riven by factions, ambitious politicians, and an environment of jostling for power and position. Corruption is embarrassingly all too blatant while basic needs go unmet.
By Danny Schechter / The Rag Blog / June 27, 2012

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- When I came to South Africa, I thought I was escaping the way our news programs are totally dominated by political coverage even though the election is months away and everyone knows none of this polling and hyped-up speculation matters until October.

The fight between the Democrats and Republicans is an obscenely costly affair which none of our political pundits care to investigate in terms of why so much is being invested and what the likely payoffs will be, and to whom.

Business Day, The Wall Street Journal of South Africa, featured an essay recently with a headline that offers insight into the motivation of politicians in both countries: “PUBLIC OFFICE JUST A WAY TO PILLAGE THE STATE.”

In the U.S., of course, we have two principal parties, almost like two wings on a plane. The Republicans, now the captive of the hard right, and the Democrats, firmly ensconced in the center, partial to corporations but with some issues and positions that appeal to liberals and even parts of the left.

Obama is posturing at being a progressive on domestic social issues while refusing to crack down on Wall Street fraud, and promoting Bush-style war on terror military interventions. Romney is running on a one-point program: blame Obama for everything wrong in the world.

Both parties are beholden to money and the people who supply it. We are talking billions! Of course, this immense money power corrupts the whole system. The Supreme Court has just ratified the decision that allows it.

In South Africa, corruption doesn’t grow out of the competition between two parties with more in common that you’d think. Here, there’s only one party that really matters -- the African National Congress (ANC) that is riven by factions, ambitious politicians, and an environment of jostling for power and position. Corruption is embarrassingly all too blatant while basic needs go unmet.

No one quite expected this when the world cheered as Nelson Mandela was swept into office in 1994. He had an ambitious program for ending poverty and transforming the country. People spoke of the changes in South Africa as a “miracle,” branding the country a “rainbow nation.”

Reality quickly set in. Racial division was only one of many economic and social problems, all impervious to quick fixes. The government soon found that it had to overcome many forms of resistance to change including the vested interests of the business sector, the status quo orientation of international agencies like the IMF and World Bank, as well as the go-slow counsel of Britain and the U.S.

A long suppressed black middle class wanted what it thought was its due and wanted it now! Inexperienced politicians luxuriated with new perks and fancy cars, quickly putting their needs ahead of demands from their constituencies. Corruption soon surfaced and was largely ignored. The unity of the liberation struggle gave way to power games of every kind.

The Mail &Guardian reports political scientist Achille Mbembe saying in a debate in Johannesburg, “after 18 years of relative complacency and self-congratulatory gestures” the ANC was realizing South Africa was an ordinary country and not a miracle.

South Africa’s miracle of the 90s “can now be better categorized as a stalemate," he said. “One of the main tensions in South African politics is that its constitutional democracy did not erase the apartheid landscape.”

But then AIDs emerged as a fatal health problem, catching the country off guard. Its health infrastructure had been crippled by years of apartheid underfunding. Early projections suggested that virtually the entire State treasury would have to be diverted to stop millions from dying. There was denial and stigma.

That was one of the realities confronting Mandela’s deputy and successor, Thabo Mbeki. That may help explain his attempts to downplay the AIDS threat and find others to blame for it. Mbeki had ambitious notions of an “African renaissance,” and turned South Africa into a force on the Continent while also alienating members of the ANC at home who resented what they saw as arrogance and elitism.

Although reelected, he became a divisive force in the party and was toppled before he could finish his second term. This was all evidence of democracy within the ANC, but also the emergence of other splits and splinters, as well as chaotic factions with the ANC’s own youth League demanding nationalization of the mines. (This demand was treated as an example of “radical populism” by some, and as a tactic to shake down industrialists for bribes by others, even though it did point to a certain laxness in the government’s unwillingness to crack down on business. Sound familiar?)

Former ANC exile and military chief Jacob Zuma toppled Mbeki with populist rhetoric -- he sang a Zulu song, “Bring Me My Machine Gun” during his campaign even though he was caught up in a personal corruption scandal that he narrowly slithered out of.

Now, some of the same pressures facing Mbeki are facing Zuma, as supporters rally to his Deputy President Kglalema Mothlane or Zuma’s Minister of Settlements, the charismatic former guerrilla turned billionaire, Tokyo Sexwale. Both seem poised to want to replace him.

Meanwhile, the ANC is running a key policy conference to debate a document calling for a “Second Transition.” Mothlane recently sneered at the idea in a speech saying, “Second Transition! Second Transition! From where to where? What constituted the first transition?”

In response, President Zuma has, according to the Mail & Guardian, “launched a veiled attack” on Kgalema for questioning the “Second Transition.” The crusading newspaper also reports:
Supporters of ANC president Jacob Zuma will stop any attempts to discuss leadership issues at the ruling party’s policy conference this week.

This is the unyielding view of sources within the ruling party, who told the Mail & Guardian they will “suppress” any attempts to discuss succession within the ruling party.
So much for the state of internal debate, yet clearly Zuma knows he’s a facing a serious internal fight.

Even as the politicians scramble for positions, there is mounting criticism of how South Africa is being governed. Law Professor Koos Malan challenges the way public office here is misused, writing, “public office somehow entitles public office-bearers to exploit the power and authority of public office to achieve maximum private gain... and to receive public accolades for these successes.”

As the country prepares to mark Nelson Mandela’s 94th birthday in July, South Africa is also facing a dangerous downturn in its economy thanks to the world financial crisis and soaring crime and unemployment.

The spirit of many here remains infectious but there’s trouble on the horizon.

[News Dissector Danny Schechter blogs at Newsdissector.net. He is in South Africa making a film about the making and meaning of a major movie underway on Mandela’s life. His recent books are Occupy: Dissecting Occupy Wall Street and Blogothon (Cosimo Books). He hosts News Dissector Radio on PRN.fm Fridays at 1 p.m.  Email Danny at dissector@mediachannel.org. Read more articles by Danny Schechter on The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

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IDEAS / Bill Meacham : Ways of Knowing

Cartoon by Piraro. Image from Sandwalk.

Ways of Knowing
The whole thing is about life perpetuating itself, about what we will do, how we will act, in different situations.
By Bill Meacham / The Rag Blog / June 27, 2012

Each age has a metaphor for how humans work. In the 17th century it was mechanical: the heart was a pump, the lungs were bellows, the muscles and bones were like pulleys and levers. In the 21st century the metaphor is electronic computing: the brain is a computer, and our minds are composed of mental modules, much like software modules, each of which does a job and interacts with others to get things done.

There is some truth to these metaphors. The heart really does pump liquid, and the lungs really do draw in and expel air. Similarly, brain research has discovered portions of the brain that are active when we discriminate colors and shapes or think about a mathematical problem or respond to moral problems.

The convergence of brain research, information theory, cognitive science, and behavioral psychology provides insights into how our minds work. In particular, cognitive science explains how thought and emotion work in terms of information and computation, and evolutionary biology explains the complex design of living things as the product of evolutionary selection. Evolutionary psychology combines the two.

Evolutionary Psychology

Evolutionary psychology takes the mind to be an organ, a bit like the kidney or the stomach, and provides a theory of how our minds evolved to have the functions that they do.(1) It does not so much discover facts about human nature as provide a framework within which to understand facts found experimentally by other branches of psychology. It also suggests experimentally-verifiable hypotheses about how the mind works. Many such hypotheses have been corroborated, thus lending credence to the concepts.(2)

Evolutionary psychology explains how the various mental modules evolved in response to challenges humans encountered in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA), the environment in which our ancestors lived for hundreds of thousands of years.(3) Between the invention of writing, agriculture, and cities to the present (early twenty-first century A.D.) humans lived about 500 generations.

The time before that, the Pleistocene epoch, when proto-humans evolved into the humans we know today, was about 80,000 generations, 160 times as long. Although human culture has advanced significantly in the past 500 generations, it is built on mental capacities that are evolutionarily designed for a much different environment.

This ancestral environment varied physically, but much of it was probably open savannah, with rolling hills and occasional forest. People all over the world are drawn to images of that type of landscape regardless of the environment they actually live in.(4)

More important was the social environment: small bands of humans numbering from 20 up to a maximum of about 150 in which each person had to cooperate with the others to provide sustenance and survival, but also had to compete with others to acquire food, status and sexual mates. These early bands of humans were probably much like the hunter-gatherers found today in the remote forests of the Amazon or the jungles of Africa or Indonesia.

Today such bands have been pushed to the margins of habitable lands by the advance of industrial society, but in the past our ancestors lived, no doubt, in much richer and more lush surroundings. Their lifestyle has been called “a camping trip that lasts a lifetime.”(5)

The mental abilities we find today in humans all over the world evolved to solve adaptive problems faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Those mental abilities, oriented toward action in the world, are both cognitive and emotional.


The central premise of evolutionary psychology is that the human mind is a system of mental modules -- “organs of computation”(6) -- that enabled our ancestors to survive and reproduce in the EEA. Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, pioneers in the field, point out that the single resource most limiting to reproduction is not food or safety or access to mates, but information, the information required for making behavioral choices that lead to survival and reproduction.(7) The mind as we know it today is the result of a long series of cognitive successes, successes in acquiring and processing information.

The mind, embodied in the circuitry of the brain and nervous system, is not a single organ but is composed of many faculties that solve different adaptive problems. An adaptive problem is a cluster of conditions that recurred over evolutionary time and that constituted either an opportunity for or an obstacle to reproduction.(8)

For example, the arrival of a potential mate -- which happened countless times over 80,000 generations -- is an opportunity for reproduction. How the mind recognizes and responds to a person of the opposite sex is a function of algorithms embedded in the mind as a result of how successfully our ancestors responded to similar situations.

In order to recognize a person of the opposite sex, of course, you must first perceive that person. On a level closer to physical as opposed to social reality, how human visual perception works is in part a function of mental algorithms evolved to respond to the properties of reflected light. (Another part is the structure of the eye itself.)

Examples of obstacles to reproduction are such things as the speed of a prey animal and the actions of a sexual rival. In these cases and many others the way the human mind processes information is a result of how our ancestors solved such adaptive problems and survived to pass on their abilities to their offspring.

We can view the current state of the mind as the result of a very long process of testing randomly-generated alternative designs for coping with the physical and social environment -- each of which embodied different assumptions about the nature of the world -- and retaining those that succeeded most effectively; that is, those that reflected most closely the actual structure of the ancestral world.

Cognition in this sense is not necessarily or even primarily a conscious process, one available to introspective attention. Conscious, voluntary and deliberative thinking -- called “cold cognition” by Cosmides and Tooby,(9) the kind of thinking we do when we work out a math problem, for instance -- is only one kind. Much more prevalent is the information processing that takes place unreflectively in everyday life, in perceptual judgments, in forming immediate responses to situations, and guiding our activities.

When a child gauges the intensity of his or her parents’ annoyance or approval, the child is not going through a conscious thought process. Instead the child is using an algorithm or computer-like program that is built in to the mind, a capability or faculty that is already available for use.

The mind is not a blank slate, written upon by experience. It is a collection of modules capable of solving specific problems. When a problem for which it is suited arises, the relevant modules are activated and guide our responses, immediately and intuitively.

On this model, the mind is a set of capabilities for problem-solving and for guiding behavior. The capabilities are a result of the evolution of the human race, but the specific content of how the problems are solved or how the behavior is manifested depends on the circumstances of your life.

For instance, all humans have the capacity for language, but which language or languages you speak depends on the culture and community in which you are raised. Similarly, all humans have the capacity for moral intuition regarding how one should behave in a social context, but the specific set of moral rules you find compelling depends on the society in which you live.


Cosmides and Tooby call the mind “multimodular,” composed of “domain-specific expert systems.” The human mind is “a diverse collection of inference systems, including specializations for reasoning about objects, physical causality, number, language, the biological world, the beliefs and motivations of other individuals, and social interactions...”(10) These inference systems get coordinated through emotion.

Domain-specific expert systems such as those for regulation of sleep or detection of predators need a context in which to operate. If it is dark and you are tired, you should sleep; but if a predator is nearby you should stay alert in case you need to flee or fight. (By “should” I mean merely that these are the typical activating conditions for the expert systems.)

What causes an individual organism to activate alertness when danger might be nearby at night? The answer is emotion, in this example the emotion of fear. Cosmides and Tooby assert that emotions are actually a type of cognition, cognitions writ large as it were. They are high-level programs that orchestrate the activation of many subordinate programs:
Each emotion entrains various other adaptive programs -- deactivating some, activating others, and adjusting the modifiable parameters of still others -- so that the whole system operates in a particularly harmonious and efficacious way when the individual is confronting certain kinds of triggering conditions or situations.(11)
Psychologist Steven Pinker says it more succinctly:
The emotions are mechanisms that set the brain’s highest-level goals. Once triggered by a propitious moment, an emotion triggers the cascade of subgoals and sub-subgoals that we call thinking and acting.(12)
That’s not what we usually think of when we think of emotion. We usually think of a felt quality such as fear or anger or elation. Evolutionary psychology says these are indeed aspects of emotion, but not their defining characteristic. What defines an emotion -- in fact, what defines any evolved capacity -- is its function. And the function of emotion is to coordinate multiple subsystems such that an organism reacts appropriately to a stimulus, where “appropriately” means in a way that caused its ancestors to survive in the presence of similar stimuli. It is instructive to look at Cosmides and Tooby’s specific examples of emotion:
cooperation, sexual attraction, jealousy, aggression, parental love, friendship, romantic love, the aesthetics of landscape preferences, coalitional aggression, incest avoidance, disgust, predator avoidance, kinship and family relations, grief, playfulness, fascination, guilt, depression, feeling triumphant, disgust, sexual jealousy, fear of predators, rage, grief, happiness, joy, sadness, excitement, anxiety, playfulness, homesickness, anger, hunger, being worried, loneliness, predatoriness (an emotion pertaining to hunting), gratitude, fear, boredom, approval, disapproval, shame(13)
Not all of these are what common usage calls emotion. Some of them -- fear, anger, joy, guilt and the like -- certainly are, in the sense of being felt qualities or states. Others, such as coalitional aggression and predator avoidance, seem like strategies rather than emotions.

Many, such as fear of predators, being worried about something, and sexual attraction, are primarily ways of being oriented to an external object or person, to something or someone other than oneself. Others, such as guilt, shame, and pride, are oriented to ourselves as we imagine others feel about us. All of them have in common that they coordinate a large number of separate cognitive subsystems. Cosmides and Tooby provide an extensive list:
perception; attention; inference; learning; memory; goal choice; motivational priorities; categorization and conceptual frameworks; physiological reactions (such as heart rate, endocrine function, immune function, gamete release); reflexes; behavioral decision rules; motor systems; communication processes; energy level and effort allocation; affective coloration of events and stimuli; recalibration of probability estimates, situation assessments, values, and regulatory variables (e.g., self-esteem, estimations of relative formidability, relative value of alternative goal states, efficacy discount rate); and so on.(14)
Every emotion has four aspects:(15)
  • Physiology -- what happens in our bodies when we are feeling or are under the influence of the emotion.
  • Behavioral inclination -- what the emotion disposes us to do.
  • Cognitive appraisal -- what the emotion tells us about what it is directed towards.
  • Feeling state -- how the emotion feels to us.
An emotion is not reducible to any one of these four; it includes them all. Pinker says “[N]o sharp line divides thinking from feeling, nor does thinking inevitably precede feeling or vice versa...”(16)

Of these four, the most fundamental is behavioral inclination. The whole thing is about life perpetuating itself, about what we will do, how we will act, in different situations.


Several things are interesting philosophically about this view of cognition and emotions:
  • Despite a long history of thinking of ourselves as the “rational animal,” much of our cognition is not rational, in the sense of being thought through as we might think through a proof in geometry. Only a small part of our thinking is cold cognition. Most of it is hot cognition: quick, intuitive flashes of judgment.
  • These intuitive flashes of judgment are also emotional. The emotional component impels us to action.
  • We can feel or be under the influence of an emotion without knowing it.
  • Emotions (in the sense of feeling state) have a cognitive component. All emotion has some element of judgment or interpretation. Emotions are ways we know ourselves and our world.
  • All emotions have an intentional structure.(17) They are oriented toward something; they have an object. The broader emotions, which we call moods, are oriented toward the world in general; specific emotions such as fear are focused on specific real or imagined things or events. Some of the specific emotions -- fear and disgust, for example -- are about the physical world. Others, such as trust, sympathy, gratitude, guilt, anger, and humor, pertain to the social and moral worlds.(18)
  • Every emotion has implications for action and has an effect on our readiness for or actual undertaking of an activity or a course of action.
These assertions about emotion can be verified by phenomenological analysis. Existential philosopher Robert Solomon, coming at the issue from an entirely different perspective, says that “emotions [are] our own judgments” and “the very source of our interests and our purposes.”(19) You can, if you like, corroborate this by examination of your own experience.

In sum: There is a lot going on in our lives to which we mostly don’t pay attention, and we are far less rational than we like to think.

(To be continued...)

[Bill Meacham is an independent scholar in philosophy. A former staffer at Austin's 60s underground paper, The Rag, Bill received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin. Meacham spent many years working as a computer programmer, systems analyst, and project manager. He posts at Philosophy for Real Life, where this article also appears. Read more articles by Bill Meacham on The Rag Blog.]


(1) Pinker, How the Mind Works, p. 23.
(2) There are numerous examples of experimental verification. See, for example, Griskevicius et. al., “Blatant Benevolence and Conspicuous Consumption: When Romantic Motives Elicit Costly Signals.” Trivers, in “The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism,” cites many instances of experimental evidence for hypotheses arising from evolutionary psychological theory. See Pinker, How the Mind Works, p. 505, for elegant anthropological verification of hypotheses regarding reciprocal altruism.
(3) The EEA is not a single place but a statistical composite of the properties of the ancestral environment that exerted selective effects on human ancestors. Tooby and Cosmides, “The Past Explains the Present”, p. 386.
(4) Dutton, The Art Instinct, pp. 14, 19 – 22.
(5) Orians and Heerwagen, “Evolved Responses to Landscapes,” p 556.
(6) Pinker, How the Mind Works, p. 21. See also Cosmides and Tooby, “Evolutionary Psychology and the Emotions”, p. 98.
(7) Cosmides and Tooby, “Evolutionary Psychology and the Emotions”, p. 99.
(8) Ibid., p. 96.
(9) Ibid., p. 98.
(10) Ibid., p. 99.
(11) Ibid., p. 92.
(12) Pinker, How the Mind Works, p. 373.
(13) Cosmides and Tooby, “Evolutionary Psychology and the Emotions”, throughout. (14) Ibid., p. 93.
(15) Idem.
(16) Pinker, How the Mind Works, p. 373.
(17) By “intentional” I do not mean the ordinary usage of planning to make something happen. “Intentionality” is a technical term meaning the “ofness” or “aboutness” inherent in experience. Being conscious always entails being conscious of something; you are never just conscious without an object. The term comes from a Latin phrase, intendere arcum in, which means to aim a bow and arrow at (something). This image of aiming or directedness is central in most philosophical discussions of consciousness.
(18) Pinker, “So How Does the Mind Work?”, p. 4.
(19) Solomon, The Passions, p. xvii.


Cosmides, Leda, and Tooby, John. “Evolutionary Psychology and the Emotions” in Handbook of Emotions, 2nd Edition, pp. 91-115, ed. Lewis, Michael and Haviland-Jones, Jeannette M. New York: Guilford Press, 2000. Available as an on-line publication, URL = http://www.psych.ucsb.edu/research/cep/publist.htm as of 26 May 2009.
Dutton, Denis. The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009.
Griskevicius, Vladas, et. al. “Blatant Benevolence and Conspicuous Consumption: When Romantic Motives Elicit Costly Signals.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007, Vol. 93, No. 1, pp. 85-102.
Orians, Gordon H., and Heerwagen, Judith H. “Evolved Responses to Landscapes.” In Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby, The Adapted Mind, pp. 555 – 579.
Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.
Pinker, Steven. “So How Does the Mind Work?” Mind and Language, 20(1), 1-24. Available as an on-line publication, URL = http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/articles/ as of 23 June 2009.
Solomon, Robert. The Passions: Emotions and the Meaning of Life. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993.
Tooby, John, and Cosmides, Leda. “The Past Explains the Present: Emotional Adaptations and the Structure of Ancestral Environments.” In Ethology and Sociobiology, 11, 375-424. New York: Elsevier Science Publishing Co., 1990. Available as an on-line publication, URL = http://www.psych.ucsb.edu/research/cep/publist.htm as of 26 May 2009.
Trivers, Robert L. “The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism.” The Quarterly Review of Biology, Vol 46, No. 1 (March 1971), pp. 35-57. Available as an on-line publication, http://education.ucsb.edu/janeconoley/ed197/documents/triversTheevolutionofreciprocalaltruism.pdf URL = as of 3 November 2009.

The Rag Blog

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Travis Waldron : Texas Republican Platform: Whoa Doggies!

Texas Republicans. Image from Republican Liberty Caucus.

The five craziest policies in
Texas Republicans’ 2012 platform
The Texas GOP supports 'repeal of the Sixteenth Amendment,' which instituted a national income tax, and instead favors a wildly regressive national sales tax that would hit low- and middle-income Americans hardest.
By Travis Waldron / ThinkProgress / June 27, 2012

The Republican Party of Texas released its 2012 platform this month, outlining its policies on taxation, education, and a host of other issues related to the economy.

Texas Republicans, according to the platform, support eliminating the minimum wage and the prevailing wage, doing away with the Department of Education and Department of Energy, and “reducing taxpayer funding to all levels of education” -- but those aren’t even the most damaging positions.

Here’s a look at the five most outrageous beliefs Texas Republicans hold:
  1. The party opposes almost all forms of taxation: The Texas GOP supports “repeal of the Sixteenth Amendment,” which instituted a national income tax, and instead favors a wildly regressive national sales tax that would hit low- and middle-income Americans hardest. It also favors making the Bush tax cuts permanent and repealing the capital gains tax and the estate tax, the latter of which it claims is “immoral and should be abolished forever.” On the state level, it supports abolishing property and business taxes, and property taxes on inventory, and opposes efforts to institute a state income tax, an Internet sales tax, professional licensing fees, and taxes on real estate transactions. Instead, it supports “shifting the tax burden to a consumption-based tax.”

  2. It supports returning to the gold standard: “We support the return to the time tested precious metal standard for the U.S. dollar,” the platform states, echoing Rep. Ron Paul (R), the state’s eccentric congressman and presidential candidate. While returning to “sound money,” as the platform calls it, is popular among far right-wing conservatives, it is “not feasible for practical and policy reasons,” according to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Most economists agree that the gold standard never worked and that returning to it now would have disastrous consequences for the American economy.

  3. It supports privatizing Social Security: Given that Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme” during his ill-fated presidential campaign, it may be no surprise that the Texas GOP opposes one of the nation’s most successful federal programs. “We support an immediate and orderly transition to a system of private pensions based on the concept of individual retirement accounts, and gradually phasing out the Social Security tax,” the platform says, ignoring that had such a plan been enacted prior to the Great Recession, it would have cost an October 2008 retiree tens of thousands of dollars (and that was before the market bottomed out in 2009). Millions of Americans lost everything in private accounts during the recession, and Social Security was all they had left.

  4. It opposes multicultural education and “critical thinking”: “We believe the current teaching of a multicultural curriculum is divisive,” the platform says, adding that it supports teaching “common American identity and loyalty instead of political correctness that nurtures alienation among racial and ethnic groups.” In Arizona, where Republicans banned multicultural programs, students in those programs actually out-performed their peers. Texas Republicans also believe “controversial theories” such as evolution and climate change -- which aren’t controversial at all -- “should be taught as challengeable scientific theories subject to change as new data is produced.” There’s more: the GOP also opposes the teaching of “critical thinking skills” because they “focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”

  5. It supports corporal punishment in schools: “Corporal punishment is effective and legal in Texas,” the platform states, adding that teachers and school boards should be given “more authority to deal with disciplinary problems.” Actual research, however, shows that corporal punishment is bad for children and their education. Research shows that corporal punishment is “associated with an increase in delinquency, antisocial behavior, and aggression in children,” according to the American Psychoanalytic Association, which “strongly condemns” the use of such punishment. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents and schools use other forms of punishment because “corporal punishment is of limited effectiveness and has potentially deleterious side effects.”
Texas Republicans also have radical policies on LGBT issues, voting rights, and health issues like sex education, and Jessica Luther has a  run-down (in T weets) of the entire platform’s extreme positions. Misty Clifton, at Shakesville, did an epic breakdown of the Texas GOP's 2012 Platform

[Travis Waldron is a reporter/blogger for ThinkProgress.org at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Travis grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and holds a BA in journalism and political science from the University of Kentucky. This article was first published at ThinkProgress.]

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26 June 2012

BOOKS / Ron Jacobs : 'The People's Pension' and the War Against Social Security

'The People's Pension':
The war against social security
The opponents of this program are not interested in saving money, a fairer distribution of benefits, or helping the elderly. They are serving an ideological agenda of social Darwinism.
By Ron Jacobs / The Rag Blog / June 26, 2012

[The People's Pension: The Struggle to Defend Social Security Since Reagan by Eric Laursen (2012: AK Press); Paperback; 750 pp.; $27.]

It seems like every few months alarms are sounded warning U.S. workers that Social Security is going bankrupt. Oftentimes, the follow-up to these alarms includes a warning that the only way to save the system is to turn all or part of the funds involved over to Wall Street investment houses like Goldman Sachs.

Usually the alarms are sounded by right-wing politicians from the Republican Party. In recent years however, this cacophony of lies has been assisted by more and more Democrats.

According to Eric Laursen, in his new book titled The People's Pension: The Struggle to Defend Social Security Since Reagan, the desire to end what is Washington’s most successful government program has been underway since Social Security’s inception. It has only intensified in recent decades. As the title suggests, that intensification sharpened in 1981, the year Ronald Reagan became president.

As anyone with an understanding of neoliberal capitalism and the role played by investment houses in this stage of capitalism knows, that year coincides more or less with an increased interest in Social Security funds by those houses. Why? Because their required growth requires more funds to invest and there are billions of dollars in funds sitting in the Social Security reserves.

Laursen provides the reader with a brief history of the philosophy behind Social Security. Harkening to the writings of 19th century anarchists and leftists, he describes part of the impetus behind Social Security as coming from the ideas of mutual aid; where every citizen is cared for. More specifically, he traces the institution of the social security system to the Townsend clubs begun in the 1930s by Dr. Francis Townsend of California.

It was Townsend’s idea that old people should be guaranteed an income based on their work and funded by taxes. His reasoning was simple, if senior citizens had an income, they could remain consumers, thereby helping stimulate the economy. Millions joined these clubs, exerting political pressure that led to the Social Security Act of 1937. Naturally, this act was fervently opposed by many corporate executives and the wealthy as being socialist and un-American.

Most of today’s opponents are not so blunt in their assessment. However, their proposals to privatize the system suggests that they too oppose a government program that does not benefit their corporate benefactors. Instead, they would rather turn it over to the Goldman Sachs of the world. This desire is certainly related to the substantial campaign donations they receive from Goldman Sachs and their cohorts.

One expects right wing politicians opposed to any government expenditures not related to benefiting private industry and the Pentagon to oppose Social Security. It is the Democratic opponents who deserve our real attention. Laursen’s history is also a history of the gradual shrinking of support among Democrats and other so-called liberals.

The People’s Pension puts the beginning of the current assault on Social Security in the lap of the Reagan administration. Laursen makes it very clear that the opponents of this program are not interested in saving money, a fairer distribution of benefits, or helping the elderly. They are serving an ideological agenda of social Darwinism.

Furthermore, every attack on Social Security is nothing more or less than an attempt by the corporate world and its right-wing supporters to end it once and for all. Laursen further points out that the arguments used by Social Security’s opponents never address the economic consequences of ending the program; they only draw up flimsy prognostications of disaster should the program continue.

Privatization would  be nothing more than one more method for corporate America to take public monies and privatize the profits while insuring the continued socialization of the risks and loss. As Laursen points out, this is exactly what is done by the defense industry and any scheme to privatize Social Security would do the same thing.

A fact that is not very well known outside of certain circles is that the model for privatization promoted by the so-called supply side economists was developed in the fascist Chile of Augusto Pinochet. Championed by many Republicans and their banker/corporate sponsors, this model is ultimately more expensive than keeping things as they are and its greatest benefits would be to the banking industry.

Furthermore, this and other privatization schemes assume an ever-growing capitalist economy -- a phenomenon less certain than it was before the crash of 2008. Despite this, politicians continue to include Social Security in their gunsights. Whether it's Alan Simpson calling Social Security a "Milk Cow with 310 Million Tits,” or so-called Blue Dog Democrats suggesting that benefits be changed, the assault on the program never goes away.

Eric Laursen has written a comprehensive and exhaustive history of the Social Security program in the United States. The People’s Pension is an honest, detailed, and even eye-opening discussion of the program’s origins and continuing efforts to provide elderly and disabled Americans with a livable income.

Equally important, it is a discussion of the attempts to alter and ultimately destroy the program by forces whose only interest seems to be profit and the elimination of any government institution that guarantees every citizen worker an income in their old age.

[Rag Blog contributor Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. He recently released a collection of essays and musings titled Tripping Through the American Night. His latest novel, The Co-Conspirator's Tale, is published by Fomite. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. Ron Jacobs can be reached at ronj1955@gmail.com. Find more articles by Ron Jacobs on The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

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Harry Targ : Mitch Daniels, Educator!

All decked out: Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels models his new Purdue leather jacket after being named the school's next president in West Lafayette, Indiana., Thursday, June 21, 2012. Photo by Michael Conroy / AP.

Purdue names Mitch Daniels president:
The crisis in higher education continues
Daniels has no administrative experience in higher education except appointing the Trustees who in secret carried out a presidential search that led to his appointment.
By Harry Targ / The Rag Blog / June 26, 2012

Big banks, multinational corporations, political parties, and upcoming elections dominate our public discourse as they should. But there is a danger that the fabric of social institutions is being transformed before our eyes but yet beyond our consciousness. Such is the case of the radical changes occurring in education, from kindergarten through college.

Calls for free, open, accessible, and transparent education have been a tradition almost as long as the rhetorical commitment to democracy itself. In fact most people believe that education, democracy, and the economy are inextricably connected. However, the education/democracy connection has been weakening ever since the 1960s.

After World War II, the GI Bill began providing educational opportunities for returning veterans. They were to become the trained work force and expanding consumers for a booming economy. However, the expansion of higher education was coupled with a campaign to purge dangerous and subversive professors and curricula from the university. Access to higher education spread while the range of ideas studied narrowed.

In the 1960s, student activists, now enrolled in thousands of small and large colleges and universities, rebelled against the narrowing focus of knowledge. The university as the site for training to advance capitalism and technical skills, what Clark Kerr, former president of the University of California, called “the multiversity,” was challenged; for a time successfully. Academic programs that did not fit traditional classical studies or new scientific/technical fields were allowed to flower and grow.

The so-called Reagan revolution brought a shift in economic policy downsizing the growth in the welfare state, government spending for social safety nets, and support for public institutions such as education. In addition, the new ideology preached privatization, shifting public sector spending for the provision of services to the marketplace.

By the 1990s, both political parties endorsed public policies that decreased support for the many to further economic rewards for the few. Tax breaks for the rich, cuts in welfare protections, declining support for public education, public libraries, transportation, and housing continued the shift in wealth from the working class to the economic ruling class.

Right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh once remarked that the economic and political transformation of U.S. society was near complete. The only institution which the right-wing did not control was the university. By the 1990s powerful groups began to remake the university too.

Since the dawn of the new century higher education budgets have been slashed. College tuitions are skyrocketing, class size is increasing, and many of the programs designed to develop new ways of thinking about the world (particularly in the social sciences and humanities) are being cut.

State universities originally created to educate small farmers and workers in order to advance their economic status have become low-cost research arms of huge corporations such as Eli Lilly in pharmaceuticals and Monsanto in the agricultural sector (both are huge worldwide corporations). In the 21st century universities have not shrunk. More and more top heavy administrations and human relations departments control the main activities that used to be determined by faculty.

The process of selecting university presidents reflects the qualitative changes occurring in higher education. At the University of Virginia, President Teresa Sullivan was ousted recently in a secret coup engineered by the “Board of Visitors,” a 17-person body that controls major policy decisions at that university.

Of the 17, only four members had any higher education experience, but the body in total contributed over $800,000 to candidates for state office; $680,000 to Republicans and $150,000 to Democrats. The governor appoints this body. And in the case of ousted President Sullivan, it objected to her consultation with deans and faculty before making decisions about shifting budgets. Unusual in this day and age, 2,000 students and faculty recently rallied on campus to demand her reinstatement.

In Indiana the Purdue University Board of Trustees (10 of 12 selected by sitting Governor Mitch Daniels) announced that it was appointing Daniels to be Purdue University’s twelfth president. Daniels will be completing his second term as governor and will take office as Purdue’s president in January, 2013.

Daniels has been a visible politician over the last decade in several arenas. These include a stint as President Bush’s Budget Director from 2001 to 2004 when taxes were lowered, two wars were launched, and the seeds were planted for the current economic crisis. Daniels was elected Indiana’s governor in 2004. In his first day in office he eliminated the prior governor’s order that allowed public sector workers to unionize.

Subsequently, he led Hoosier right-wing politicians in supporting charter schools with public money, cutting education spending at all levels by $150 million (including a $30 million cut in higher education), sold off some of Indiana’s highway system to European investors, shifted family services to an ill-equipped private corporation, and cut funding for reproductive health services. He worked to pass a so-called Right-to-Work bill after telling union supporters that he would never do that.

In addition, Daniels served as an executive at Eli Lilly, and CEO at the conservative think tank, the Hudson Institute, and was affiliated with an online university, Western Governors University, that could potentially compete with state colleges and universities. Most important Daniels has no administrative experience in higher education except appointing the Board of Trustees members who in secret carried out a presidential search that led to his appointment.

The political corruption and dubious merit of the selection of Daniels as Purdue president are obvious. What is less obvious is that this appointment like the appointment of many other university presidents and the firing of Virginia President Theresa Sullivan, is part of the shift in higher education from a model of the university as a site for research and teaching about ideas and as an institution that serves the needs of the society at large to a corporate model.

The GI Bill educated a whole generation of veterans to lift themselves and society. The expansion of the meaning of the university as a result of student protest and the civil rights movements of the 1960s brought new ideas to a larger number of young people.

Educator Henry Giroux put it well: “Knowledge has become capital to invest in the market but has little to do with the power of self-definition, civic commitments, or ethical responsibilities... and with questions of justice.”

In the end, this is the most troubling aspect of the transformation of the modern university which the appointment of presidents like Governor Daniels signifies.

[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 -- and that's also the name of his new book which can be found at Lulu.com. Read more of Harry Targ's articles on The Rag Blog.]

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21 June 2012

David Hamilton : In France, Socialists Rule!

Supporters of French Socialist Party react after the announcement of the results of the first round of the French parliamentary elections. Photo by Fred Dufour / AFP / Getty Images.

French election wrap:
Socialists rule!
Internationally, the main significance of the Socialist victory is that it changed the terms of the debate about the EU debt crisis.
By David P. Hamilton / The Rag Blog / June 21, 2012

The Socialist Party of France is on a roll. It has reached a historic pinnacle of unprecedented strength. In May, their candidate, Francois Hollande, won the presidency against the right-wing incumbent, the first victory by a leftist in recent European presidential elections and the first presidential victory by a Socialist in France since Francois Mitterrand in 1988.

Last year, the Socialists achieved a majority in the traditionally conservative French Senate for the first time ever. They also dominate a majority of the 27 French regional councils. And now they have won a resounding victory in the National Assembly as well.

The Socialist Party now dominates French politics at every level without compromising coalition partners. Past Socialist-led governments have always been part of coalitions that included either a strong Communist Party or center-right elements. Now they rule alone and they have also largely overcome their own internal divisions. They stand united and independent, able to put their program in place without serious interference.

Their victory in the 577-seat National Assembly was particularly sweet for the Socialists. In the last Parliament, they were heavily outnumbered by Nicolas Sarkozy’s center-right UMP (Union pour un Mouvement Populaire), 317-204. In the election just concluded those totals virtually reversed. In the new National Assembly, the Socialists and two small affiliated parties will have nearly 320 seats and the UMP will have 218. Roughly 20% of the seats changed hands and the Socialists won a large majority of those.

The Socialist victory was largely expected, but press reports have failed to adequately emphasize its sweeping nature. A shift in party composition on this scale in the U.S. Congress is inconceivable. U.S. congressional districts have been designed so that they are almost all safe-Democrat or safe-Republican. Only 20-30 seats in the U.S. Congress are regularly competitive. That a change on this scale was possible demonstrates the more dynamic nature of French democracy compared with the stagnant and highly corrupted remnant extant in the U.S.

Like the French presidential election, the legislative elections are conducted in two rounds, but the runoffs are conducted differently. It is relatively easy for parties to run candidates in the first round. There were over 6,000 candidates running for those 577 seats. Any candidate that received more than 12.5% of the vote in the first round got to run in the second round. This often means three or more candidates make the runoff. The one with the most votes wins the second round.

There has been a long-standing agreement between the Socialist Party and the UMP to keep the National Front (FN) out of the National Assembly. This was originally based on the overt anti-Semitism of the FN’s founder and leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Growing out of its World War II occupation experience including the loss of one-third of their Jewish population, anti-Semitism is illegal in France.

So in cases where the Socialists and UMP were in a three-way runoff with a candidate from the FN, the one with less support would drop out, effectively denying the FN the possibility of a plurality victory. Although the FN regularly gets 14-18% in presidential elections, they have been shut out of the National Assembly by this means since the mid-1980’s.

This time, the FN won two seats in localities where the UMP candidates dropped out in favor of the FN in defiance of their party’s long- standing dictum. However, the FN leader and presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, Jean-Marie’s more presentable daughter, winner of almost 19% of the national vote in the first round of the presidential election in late April, lost her race for a National Assembly seat to a Socialist in what was considered a relative FN stronghold.

This division on the right between the UMP and the FN is hard for Americans to understand. In the recent presidential election, the UMP’s Sarkozy and the FN’s Le Pen sounded much alike in their anti-immigrant stands. The original issue of anti-Semitism dividing the French right has diminished as Marine Le Pen has slipped into the racist closet by softening her father’s rhetoric and the UMP under Sarkozy has rivaled the FN in anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The division on the right is now sustained on issues Americans know little about, particularly membership in the EU, where the FN is ardently nationalist and opposes France’s participation. The FN wants to dump the euro and go back to the franc, opposing any EU imposition on French sovereignty. In contrast, the UMP strongly supports the EU and the euro.

There were election deals on the left too. The Socialists agreed to not run in certain constituencies in order to allow the Green Party to run unobstructed against the right. In return, they expect to have Green Party support on many issues. As a result of this agreement, the Green Party representation in the National Assembly went from 4 seats to 17, although the Green presidential candidate only received 2.3% of the vote in April.

Where they agree, which comprises a large spectrum of issues, Green support bumps the Socialist majority well above 330. In addition, there are the 10 seats held by Left-Unity. Add them up and the combined Left will have roughly 60% of the seats in the French National Assembly.

Diversity made strong gains. 37% of the winning Socialist candidates were women, leading to a record 155 women holding seats in the Assembly, up from 107 in the last Assembly elected in 2007. Nine members of “ethnic minority” groups were also elected, up from one, still a significant under-representation.

Joining the ranks of Socialist lawmakers are Razzy Hammadi, born of an Algerian father and a Tunisian mother and former president of the Socialists’ youth movement, as well as Malek Boutih, of Algerian origin and former director of the SOS Racisme rights group.

There were some very notable defeats in the National Assembly election. The 2007 Socialist Party candidate for president, Segolene Royal, was defeated by a “dissident” Socialist. The victor was a dissident because he was an established local Socialist leader in a district where the national party tried to “parachute” a favored candidate, Royal, into a safe seat. The locals rallied round him by 63%.

The leader of Left-Unity, Jean-Luc Melenchon tried to run in the same district as FN leader Marine Le Pen. They both lost to the Socialist candidate, he in the first round, she in the second. Centrist presidential candidate Francois Bayrou lost a seat he had held since 1988, again to a Socialist.

What does this Socialist dominance mean? Primarily, it means there is very little obstacle to the enactment of Hollande’s “60 pledges." These revolve around reviving the economy with government spending, higher taxes on the wealthy, and the growth of public employment. The tax measures include higher marginal tax rates at the top, financial transaction taxes, ending tax havens for the rich, taxing investment income at the same rate as wages, and capping executive compensation. It also includes setting up a publicly controlled credit rating agency and making banks separate their retail banking from their investment banking, a law in line with the now defunct Glass-Steagall Act in the U.S.

Other measures on the Socialist agenda include approval of gay marriage and adoption, recognition of the Palestinian state, reduction of French reliance on nuclear energy, and bringing home all French troops in Afghanistan two years early. Given the Socialist hegemony, it is hard to see how Hollande can escape enacting all of these measures expeditiously.

Internationally, the main significance of the Socialist victory is that it changed the terms of the debate about the EU debt crisis. Prior to Hollande’s election, austerity was the unrivaled approach of EU leaders in confronting the debt crisis. In the wake of the Socialist victory in France, aided by support from Obama and the growth of the Greek Left, stimulus has reentered the discussion. This is analogous to the change OWS made by introducing inequality into the U.S. political discussion.

Signals seen so far concerning the direction of the Socialist government are inconclusive. On the one hand, Hollande named 17 women to his 34-member cabinet, but with few exceptions they don’t lead the most important ministries. Overall, the cabinet is labeled as moderate within the Socialist Party spectrum.

An encouraging signal was Hollande’s insistence at the G-8 summit on pulling French troops out of Afghanistan this year. On the other hand, he has joined the chorus for greater intervention in Syria, albeit preferably somebody else’s. To his credit, he presented the argument for growth to the “austerians” and has changed the nature of the debate, but so far it’s largely just talk.

Most important, the French Socialists have a unique opportunity to reestablish the socialist brand in Europe. They doubtless hope to do as well as their Latin American counterparts in Argentina and Brazil. If France is able to create a successful new development model under Socialist leadership, Merkel, Cameron and other right wing EU leaders will face reinvigorated challenges from their left as a result.

[David P. Hamilton, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin in history and government was an activist in Sixties Austin and a contributor to the original Rag. David writes about France and politics (and French politics) for The Rag Blog. Read more articles by David P. Hamilton on The Rag Blog The Rag Blog

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