28 February 2010

Saying Coal Can Be Clean Doesn't Make It So

The dirty truth behind clean coal

By Joshua Frank / February 28, 2010

If you've tuned in to the Winter Olympics this past week, you likely sat through repeated showings of a multimillion-dollar public relations campaign paid for by Big Coal regarding the potential laurels of "clean-coal" technology. The premise of the 30-second spot is simple: Coal can be clean and America needs to wean itself off of foreign crude and create jobs back home by tapping our nation's vast coal reserves.

Indeed, the effort to paint coal as environmentally friendly is not an easy endeavor, especially when the climate movement has picked up speed and lambasted the industry for contributing more than its fair share to the global warming dilemma.

Activists around the world have targeted coal for a number of reasons. First, coal is still plentiful (compared to gas and oil) so stopping its use will largely curtail carbon output down the road. Second, it is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels. Lastly, in the U.S. the fleet of coal-fired power plants is almost old enough to file for Medicare, so these aging plants are sitting ducks for closure efforts.

"NASA climate scientist James Hansen... has demonstrated two things in recent papers," writes environmental author and activist Bill McKibben about the need to axe coal. "One, that any concentration of carbon dioxide greater than 350 parts per million in the atmosphere is not compatible with the 'planet on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.' And two, that the world as a whole must stop burning coal by 2030 -- and the developed world well before that -- if we are to have any hope of ever getting the planet back down below that 350 number."

If this were a prize fight, Big Coal would be the battered boxer in the corner of the ring, shuffling away in an attempt to avoid the repeated jabs anti-coal warriors and scientists have been tossing its way. In 2009, not one new coal plant broke ground in the United States. Over 100 new plants were canceled or abandoned, largely due to the public's awareness that coal isn't the fuel of the future but a scourge of the past.

Clearly there is a reason for the coal industry's recent PR stunts. Big Coal is losing, and its best attempts to persuade the public about coal's green potential are failing miserably.

At the heart of "clean-coal" logic is the idea that carbon dioxide produced from burning coal can be captured and buried underground before it is ever released into the atmosphere where it will contribute to the earth's warming for centuries to come. Despite the fact that this technology, dubbed Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), doesn't actually exist in any real capacity in the United States, it has not stopped the coal lobby from spreading the filthy myths.

Given the reality of climate change, Big Coal is banking on CCS to help it navigate its tenuous future, so much so that they are already touting the virtues of CCS to the public. Not surprisingly, the industry's pals in Washington, including virtually all the senators (Republican and Democrat alike) from coal-producing states, are going to bat for the beleaguered industry.

Certainly the effort to greenwash one of the most prolific and dirtiest energy sources on the planet does not come without a hefty price tag. The proposed Waxman-Markey climate bill, for example, is set to provide a whopping $60 billion in subsidies for "clean-coal" technologies. President Obama is on board and nary a word of opposition has peeped out of the Beltway. To put this amount of money in perspective, the coal industry itself, measured by its falling Wall Street stock, is only worth about $50 billion. The subsidies are a bailout by a different name.

Photo from London Permaculture.

In theory, in order for CCS to work, large underground geological formations would have to house this carbon dioxide. But according to a recent peer-reviewed article in the Society of Petroleum Engineers' publication, the CCS jig is up and the technology just doesn't seem feasible.

"Earlier published reports on the potential for sequestration fail to address the necessity of storing CO2 in a closed system," writes report author Professor Michael Economides in an editorial for the Casper, Wyoming, Star-Tribune. "Our calculations suggest that the volume of liquid or supercritical CO2 to be disposed cannot exceed more than about 1 percent of pore space. This will require from 5 to 20 times more underground reservoir volume than has been envisioned by many, including federal government laboratories, and it renders geologic sequestration of CO2 a profoundly non-feasible option for the management of CO2 emissions."

To put this in laymen's terms, the areas that would house carbon produced from coal plants will have to be much larger than originally predicted. So much so, in fact, that it makes CCS absolutely improbable. By Professor Economides' projections, a small 500 MW plant's underground CO2 reservoir would need to be the size of a small state like Vermont to even work.

"There is no need to research this subject any longer," adds Economides. "Let's try something else."

Let's take that a step further and add that we ought to bag the idea that coal can be clean altogether. The public investment in clean-coal technology is a fraud and will only serve as a life-support system for an industry that must be phased out completely over the course of the next two decades.

Putting billions of dollars behind a dead-end theory will not bring about the energy changes our country and climate so drastically need.

Source / TruthOut

The Rag Blog

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Utah : Challenging Women's Rights Again

Critics fear the new law could affect women who drink and miscarry.
Photo: UPPA / Photoshot.

Utah women may face murder charges after miscarriages

By David Usborne / February 28, 2010
Outrage at bill that could jail women who 'recklessly' endanger unborn children
A proposed Utah law that would open women who suffer a miscarriage to possible criminal prosecution and life imprisonment has enraged feminists and civil rights activists across the United States.

Adopted overwhelmingly by both sides of the state legislature in Salt Lake City earlier this month, the draft bill is now awaiting the signature of the state's Republican Governor, Gary Herbert. It is not clear if the growing national controversy surrounding the proposed law will slow or even stay his pen.

While the main thrust of the law is to enable prosecutors in the majority-Mormon state to pursue women who seek illegal, unsupervised forms of abortion, it includes a provision that could trigger murder charges against women found guilty of an "intentional, knowing or reckless act" that leads to a miscarriage. Some say this could include drinking one glass of wine too many, walking on an icy pavement or skiing.

Lawmakers were responding to the case of a 17-year-old pregnant Utah woman who paid a man $150 to assault her physically in the hope that the beating would cause her to miscarry. The child was born anyway and put up for adoption. And while the man involved is currently behind bars, prosecutors found they had no basis in state law to prosecute the young woman. She was in her seventh month when she tried to terminate her pregnancy.

Last-minute efforts to remove reference in the bill to "reckless" acts failed, feeding the uproar about a law that some people say would be impossible to implement and threatens basic freedoms of women. Statistics suggest that 15 to 20 per cent of recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage.

"This creates a law that makes any pregnant woman who has a miscarriage potentially criminally liable for murder," said Missy Bird, director of Planned Parenthood Action Fund of Utah, part of the national organisation that champions abortion rights.

Critics also note that the bill has no exemptions for women who suffer domestic abuse or who have addiction problems. They wonder, for example, about the putative case of a woman remaining with an abusive partner and suffering a miscarriage after an episode of violence. Would remaining in that relationship constitute "reckless" behavior, they ask?

Abortion remains deeply contentious in the United States, where, with some restrictions, it has been legal under the terms of the landmark Roe v Wade ruling by the Supreme Court of 1973. The issue returned to the front pages last month when Scott Roeder was tried and convicted for the murder in Kansas last August of one of the few doctors legally providing late-term abortions in the country.

The reaction to Utah's new initiative has verged in most quarters on disbelief, however. "For all these years the anti-choice movement has said 'we want to outlaw abortion, not put women in jail', but what this law says is 'no, we really want to put women in jail'," Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, wrote in a blog.

Similarly astonished is the syndicated columnist Dan Savage. "Where will this insanity end?" he wrote. "If every miscarriage is a potential homicide, how does Utah avoid launching a criminal investigation every time a woman has a miscarriage? And how is Utah supposed to know when a pregnant woman has had a miscarriage? You're going to have to create some sort of pregnancy registry to keep track of all those fetuses. Perhaps you could start issuing 'conception certificates' to women who get pregnant. And then, if there isn't a baby within nine months of the issuance of a conception certificate, the woman could be hauled in for questioning."

Utah is used to criticism from some of its more liberal neighbors for its socially conservative ways that range from allowing concealed guns on its state university campus to strict limits on alcohol sales. It has not gone unnoticed that consideration of the bill, with the potentially high costs it would entail, has coincided with a debate on canceling the last year of school for Utah children to help to save the state money.

Source / The Independent, U.K.

The Rag Blog

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Cole on the "Swift-Boating" of Climate Change Science

Advice to climate scientists on how to avoid being Swift-boated and how to become public intellectuals

By Juan Cole / February 28, 2010

Climate Scientists continue to see persuasive evidence of global warming and climate change when they speak at academic conferences, even though, as Andrew Sullivan rightly put it, the science is being 'swift-boated before our eyes.' (See also Bill McKibben at Tomdispatch.com on Climate Change's OJ Simpson moment.)

This article at mongabay.com includes some hand-wringing from scientists who say that they should have responded to the attacks earlier and more forcefully in public last fall, or who worry that scientists are not charismatic TV personalities who can be persuasive on that medium.

Let me just give my scientific colleagues some advice, since as a Middle East expert I've seen all sorts of falsehoods about the region successfully purveyed by the U.S. mass media and print press, in such a way as to shape public opinion and to affect policy-making in Washington:

  1. Every single serious climate scientist should be running a blog. There is enormous thirst among the public for this information, and publishing only in technical refereed journals is guaranteed to quarantine the information away from the general public. A blog allows scientists to summarize new findings in clear language for a wide audience. It makes the scientist and the scientific research "legible" to the wider society. Educated lay persons will run with interesting new findings and cause them to go viral. You will also find that you give courage to other colleagues who are specialists to speak out in public. You cannot depend on journalists to do this work. You have to do it yourselves.

  2. It is not your fault. The falsehoods in the media are not there because you haven't spoken out forcefully or are not good on t.v. They are there for the following reasons:

    • Very, very wealthy and powerful interests are lobbying the big media companies behind the scenes to push climate change skepticism, or in some cases (as with Rupert Murdoch's Newscorp/Fox Cable News) the powerful and wealthy interests actually own the media.

    • Powerful politicians linked to those wealthy interests are shilling for them, and elected politicians clearly backed by economic elites are given respect in the U.S. corporate media. Big Oil executives e.g. have an excellent Rolodex for CEOs, producers, the bookers for the talk shows, etc., in the corporate media. They also behind the scenes fund "think tanks" such as the American Enterprise Institute to produce phony science. Since the AEI generates talking points that aim at helping Republicans get elected and pass right wing legislation, it is paid attention to by the corporate media.

    • Media thrives on controversy, which produces ratings and advertising revenue. As a result, it is structured into an "on the one hand, on the other hand" binary argument. Any broadcast that pits a climate change skeptic against a serious climate scientist is automatically a win for the skeptic, since a false position is being given equal time and legitimacy. It was the same in the old days when the cigarette manufacturers would pay a "scientist" to go deny that smoking causes lung cancer. And of course we saw all the instant Middle East experts who knew no Arabic and had never lived in the Arab world or sometimes even been there who were paraded as knowledgeable sources of what would happen if the United States invaded Iraq and occupied it.

    • Journalists for the most part have to do as they are told. Their editors and the owners of the corporate media decide which stories get air time and how they are pitched. Most journalists privately admit that they hate their often venal and ignorant bosses. But what alternative do most of them have?

    • Journalists for the most part do not know how to find academic experts. An enterprising one might call a university and be directed to a particular faculty member, which is way too random a way to proceed. If I were looking for an academic expert, I'd check a citation index of refereed articles, but most people don't even know how to find the relevant database. Moreover, it is not all the journalists' fault. Journalism works on short deadlines and academics are often teaching or in committee and away from email. Many academics refuse (shame on them) to make time for media interviews.

    • Many journalists are generalists and do not themselves have the specialized training or background for deciding what the truth is in technical controversies. Some of them are therefore fairly easily fooled on issues that require technical or specialist knowledge. Even a veteran journalist like Judy Miller fell for an allegation that Iraq's importation of thin aluminum tubes in 2002 was for nuclear enrichment centrifuges, even though the tubes were not substantial enough for that purpose.

      Many journalists (and even Colin Powell) reported with a straight face the Neocon lie that Iraq had "mobile biological weapons labs," as though they were something you could put in a Winnebago and bounce around on Iraq's pitted roads. No biological weapons lab could possibly be set up without a clean room, which can hardly be mobile.

      Back in the Iran-Iraq War, I can remember an American wire service story that took seriously Iraq's claim that large numbers of Iranian troops were killed trying to cross a large body of water by fallen electrical wires; that could happen in a puddle but not in a river. They were killed by Iraqi poison gas, of course.

      The good journalists are aware of their limitations and develop proxies for figuring out who is credible. But the social climbers and time servers are happy just to host a shouting match that maybe produces 'compelling' television, which is how they get ahead in life.

  3. If you just keep plugging away at it, with blogging and print, radio and television interviews, you can have an impact on public discourse over time. I could not quantify it, but I am sure that I have. It is a lifetime commitment and a lot of work and it interferes with academic life to some extent. Going public also makes it likely that you will be personally smeared and horrible lies purveyed about you in public (they don't play fair -- they make up quotes and falsely attribute them to you; it isn't a debate, it is a hatchet job).

    I certainly have been calumniated, e.g. by powerful voices such as John Fund at the Wall Street Journal or Michael Rubin at the American Enterprise Institute. But if an issue is important to you and the fate of your children and grandchildren, surely having an impact is well worth any price you pay.
Source / Informed Comment

The Rag Blog

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27 February 2010

The Pentagon and All Its Suckers (That Would Be Us)

Gargantua's mouth:
The Pentagon and the suckers

By Saul Landau and Nelson P. Valdes / February 27, 2010

The perpetual menacings of danger oblige the government to be always prepared to repel it; its armies must be numerous enough for instant defense. The continual necessity for their services enhances the importance of the soldier, and proportionally degrades the condition of the citizen. The military state becomes elevated above the civil. The inhabitants of territories, often the theatre of war, are unavoidably subjected to frequent infringements on their rights, which serve to weaken their sense of those rights; and by degrees the people are brought to consider the soldiery not only as their protectors, but as their superiors. The transition from this disposition to that of considering them masters, is neither remote nor difficult; but it is very difficult to prevail upon a people under such impressions, to make a bold or effectual resistance to usurpations supported by the military power." -- Alexander Hamilton

"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist." - Dwight Eisenhower, January 17, 1961, Farewell Address.
During pre-game Super Bowl ceremonies Queen Latifah sang America the Beautiful. Following her, American Idol winner Carrie Underwood began warbling the Star Spangled Banner. Four jet fighters swished over the stadium. Did any of the cheering crowd or the tens of millions watching on TV ask how much it cost to have the thrill of two screaming jets offer the public supersonic foreplay before extra large men smashed and bashed through the thin membrane (the line) to reach the tantalizing quarterback?

In his farewell address, Eisenhower would not have dreamed of adding military sports/entertainment complex to his now fabled military industrial, military scientific and academic complexes. Rather, he called for "statesmanship" by which he meant molding, balancing, and integrating "these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system -- ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society."

Empty rhetoric? Now, 44 cents of every taxpayer's dollar feeds the military budget at a time when no nation has a military capable of challenging us. Maybe Obama should call for a national holiday just to appreciate the failure of Presidents and Congresses to take Ike's warning seriously.

The Orwellian name change from War Department to Defense Department should have sparked national skepticism. Since 1947, DoD holds the world record for spending, but has yet to defend the United States. Under the pretext of defense, Truman sent troops to Korea (Eisenhower stopped U.S. involvement in that war). Subsequently, U.S. troops have attacked and occupied more than a dozen countries, none of which threatened U.S. territory (Korea, Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Grenada, Panama, Libya, Somalia, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Afghanistan).

The DoD, however, cannot claim victory in its four major wars: Korea (1950-3), Vietnam (1964-75), Afghanistan (2001-?), and Iraq (2003-?). Before each invasion, war advocates shook the impending "domino" effect. Now it's the spread of terrorism. During the Cold War, all Asia would somehow fall under red rule if the Chinese or Vietnamese Communists won in Korea or Vietnam. The Communist Party still rules in China and Vietnam, both major U.S. trade partners. U.S. forces triumphed in Grenada and Panama where they met no major and ongoing resistance, and during Gulf War I, when Iraqi troops retreated and got "turkey shot.")

Last December, despite the DoD's no-win record when the enemy fights back and without any sign that a rival nation plans an attack against us or any of our vulnerable allies, Congress passed without debate the highest "defense" budget in human history.

Since 1988, as the Soviet Union neared collapse and no major power threatened, the military has ingested some $5.1 trillion. From 1999 to 2010, the DoD budget increased 153%. After 2001, when 19 suicidal men armed with box cutters hijacked and crashed planes into buildings, the Pentagon spent more than it did in Cold War years.

Every two years since 2001, the military budget has grown approximately $100 billion. Did this reasoning presume more military prowess would defeat civilian suicide bombers? Add to the Pentagon budget, $17 billion in military-related items from the Department of Energy, plus $70 billion for Homeland Security (isn't that redundant with Defense Department?), $38 billion from the Military Retirement Funds found within the Department of the Treasury, and military-related aid within the Department of State: the present budget exceeds $1 trillion.

By 2008, total weapons acquisition "cost growth" had reached nearly $300 billion over initial estimates. In other words, cost overruns of weapons alone surpassed the total 2000 defense budget! Why did the United States government invest more, and at an increased rate, than when it faced all the Soviet divisions and 20,000 nuclear weapons?

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, "the USA is responsible for 41.5 per cent of the world's total defense spending, distantly followed by China (5.8% of world share), France (4.5%), the UK (4.5%), and Russia (4%)."

In 2005, the total value of DoD assets was estimated at $1.3 trillion, with $1.9 trillion in liabilities. The Department has a workforce of over 2.9 million of military and civilian personnel, much larger than any other organization worldwide.

Wal-Mart, the largest corporate employer, has 1.8 million on payroll. The Pentagon's workforce is twice as large. The net income of the top 10 global Fortune 500s (including Exxon, Wal-Mart, BP, and Chevron) does not reach even 50% of DoD's budget.

Last year, the Pentagon had 539,000 facilities (buildings, structures, and linear structures), and 5,570 military sites; it also occupies 29 million acres of land, almost half the size of the United Kingdom.

The United States also has 837 overseas military bases, not including undisclosed secret bases. The Pentagon has 716 bases in 150 of the 192 countries in the world; others in U.S. territories abroad. The DoD does not count facilities with value of less than $10 million or those occupying less than 10 acres. The Pentagon itself claims the record for biggest building in human history (6.5 million square feet), 37 times larger than the Capitol.

Business scams promise high rates of return at little risk to investors. The Pentagon, however, pledges only to keep the nation well defended from all outside threats. Since no military threats have existed for almost two decades, DoD officials and their neo-con cousins invent them. And the suckers -- U.S. taxpayers -- invest.

[Saul Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow whose A Bush and a Botox World was published by Counterpunch. Nelson P. Valdés is Professor Emeritus at the University of New Mexico.]

Source / CounterPunch

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26 February 2010

A History of Relations with Iran

Mohammad Mosaddeq (1882-1967), Iranian Prime Minister and a major political figure in the modern history of Iran. This photograph was taken ca 1965 in Ahmadabad, Iran.

Accusing Iran; Ignoring history

By Ted Snider / February 26, 2010

Did Hillary Clinton seriously just accuse Iran of heading toward becoming a dictatorship? This accusation is one of two made in the past couple of weeks against Iran that totally defy history.

The U.S. has never minded Iran being a dictatorship. On the contrary, given the choice between an uncooperative democracy and a cooperative dictatorship in Iran, the U.S. chose dictatorship.

This story of intrigue and spies begins not in America, but in Britain. Through its Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC), Britain totally controlled Iranian oil in the first half of the twentieth century. The AIOC held exclusive rights to extract, refine, ship and sell Iranian oil. And though they did pay Iran a small amount for these rights, the AIOC made ten times what it paid Iran. Hardly fair. At least, it hardly seemed fair to the impoverished Iranians.

So in 1951, Mohammad Mosaddeq surged to power in Iran propelled by a wave of Iranian nationalism determined to recapture their oil so that the profits could be used for the benefit, not of the British people and the British navy, but of the Iranian people. Mosaddeq was enormously popular, a genuine democrat and nationalist and the first democratically elected leader of Iran. Here was a chance to foster democracy in Iran.

But democracy meant losing control of Iran’s oil. Mosaddeq immediately started trying to nationalize Iran’s oil. In April 1951, the Iranian parliament nationalized the oil industry. In May, Mosaddeq was elected Prime Minister and signed the bill into law. Britain responded by clamping a crushing embargo on Iran. The AIOC led an international boycott of the new Iranian oil industry. Then Britain began diplomatic and covert actions against Mosaddeq. But Mosaddeq was wildly popular and the people supported his moves. According to the U.S. State Department, he had the support of a full 95-98% of Iranians. He easily won a huge referendum victory.

So Britain tried to overthrow him. They failed. Miserably. Mosaddeq responded by shutting down the British embassy in Iran, and when all the diplomats were purged, all the spies were flushed out with them. England had no one in Iran to overthrow the Prime Minister.

Enter America. But not yet. Britain turned to America. But though Truman had been willing to drop a nuclear bomb on Japanese citizens, he was not willing to use the CIA to overthrow a foreign government. The CIA was brand new, and for Truman, it was for intelligence gathering and not for government overthrowing. But in 1952, when the Republican Eisenhower came to power, everything changed. Eisenhower was willing, and he agreed to do Britain’s dirty work. And in an incredible story of intrigue, Kermit Roosevelt, the grandson of Theodore Roosevelt, would take the helm of Operation Ajax, and in August of 1953, in the very first CIA coup, the American advised Iranian military, completed the CIA and M16 inspired and organized coup and overthrew Mohammad Mosaddeq.

With that America ended a flowering and promising period of Iranian democracy because it threatened their interests and reinstalled the Shah of Iran who would carry out his many years of savage and repressive dictatorship. The Shah would repress opposition media, political parties, unions and other groups. He would bring in SAVAK, that most notorious and murderous secret police and their hellish torture chambers. With the Shah now in power, for their share of the dirty work, the U.S. acquired 40% of Iran’s oil industry. AIOC, now renamed British Petroleum, got back 40% of Iran’s oil.

And this dance with dictatorship was no short term blip. After Eisenhower, Nixon would ally America with the Shah, Ford received him in the White House, and even Jimmy Carter said Iran “blossomed” under his “enlightened leadership”.

So when Iran began a promising experiment in democracy, the U.S. took it out because it threatened U.S. interests and put in a brutal dictatorship, for which Iran has never forgiven America, showing that it is cooperating with U.S. interests and not being democratic that wins U.S. support. So when Clinton accuses Iran of becoming a dictatorship, Iranians, and anyone who agrees not to ignore history, laugh. Iranians wanted democracy; America gave them a dictator.

But Iran is not only rushing headlong into dictatorship, it is also hurtling inexorably towards becoming a nuclear state with weapons of mass destruction. Iran recently announced that it would begin enriching uranium not only to 3.5%, as it has up to now, but up to 19.5%. The western world screams hysterically and points to the proof that Iran is rejecting proposals for trading their low-enriched uranium for 19.5% uranium processed abroad and that it is placing itself dangerously and inevitably within striking distance of being able to enrich weapons grade uranium.

Like the claim about Iranian dictatorship, this claim utterly ignores history: albeit much more recent history.

First of all, let’s get the numbers straight. Uranium enriched to 3.5% is what Iran needs to run its power reactors to produce energy. 19.5% enriched uranium is what it needs to produce medical isotopes for treating and imaging cancer in its hospitals. Uranium for nuclear weapons has to be enriched to 90%: hardly placing Iran within striking distance or proving that it has a weapons program.

In fact, Iran is running out of uranium enriched to 19.5% for cancer treatment in its hospitals and soon will have to shut its medical reactors down. Why is it running out? In 1988, Iran signed an agreement with Argentina to receive 23 kilograms of fuel enriched to 20% so that it could produce medical isotopes in its, ironically, U.S. built medical research reactor. That 23 kilograms is nearly used up. Iran requested that the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) help it purchase more under IAEA supervision, which it has every right to do, like every other country who is signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But the U.S. and Europe stepped in and prevented the purchase, leaving Iran without the ability the rest of the modern world has to use nuclear fuel to treat cancer.

So if Iran is enriching uranium to 19.5% instead of 3.5%, it is only because we forced her to: ironic, since we are supposedly trying to prevent just that. And far from being evidence of a massive weapons program, Iran is only hoping to enrich 40 kilograms for medical use. Could it continue to enrich that 19.5% uranium to 90% weapons grade uranium? Is that the concern? Forget about it. Scott Ritter, who was a top U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, one of the only loud public voices to contradict the Bush White House and warn that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the author of a book on Iranian nuclear showdown, says that the IAEA can account for all of Iran’s nuclear material and would be able to detect any diversion of nuclear material.

And there have been other opportunities to prevent Iran from further enriching uranium for medical purposes. Though prevent is perhaps too strong a word, since they only seem reluctantly to be enriching after their preferred choice of legally purchasing was prevented. In 2009, the U.S. proposed a nuclear swap in which Iran would send its 3.5% enriched uranium out of the country where it would be enriched into fuel rods for the medical reactor and sent back to Iran. Iran agreed in principal, again showing their lack of desire to further enrich uranium, but did not agree on the details. Why did Iran reject the details, but not the point of the plan? Because the U.S. was being disingenuous: it was a trick.

According to both Scott Ritter and Gareth Porter, whose reports on Iran’s nuclear program have been invaluable, the real objective of the American swap plan was to get every bit of the 3.5% enriched uranium out of Iran to buy the U.S. several months, or even a year. And there was another problem from Iran’s perspective. The American plan called for Iran to send away all its 3.5% uranium immediately even though it would take a year, or even several years, to receive the 19.5% enriched uranium needed for its medical reactor. That would not only leave Iran without its 3.5% enriched uranium needed to force the Americans to take Iran seriously in negotiations, but it would defy the point of the whole plan: leaving Iran without medical isotopes and forcing its medical facility to shut down. So Iran made a counterproposal. They would send out their 3.5% uranium in batches, and when the enriched uranium for medical isotopes was returned, they would send out the next batch: a so-called “simultaneous exchange”. America ignored Iran’s counterproposal. It was only then that Iran declared that it would try to enrich its own uranium.

So the claim that Iran’s intention to further enrich uranium to 19.5% is proof of its intention to pursue a nuclear weapons program ignores two important pieces of recent history: that Iran first tried to purchase it and then agreed in principal to a fair swap for it. It was not Iran’s intent to further enrich uranium: it was the last resort.

And there is a third piece of recent history that the nuclear accusation ignores: the lack, as in Iraq, of any evidence that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. Not only the U.N.’s nuclear inspectors say that there is no evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, all of the several American intelligence organizations have unanimously agreed, not once, but twice, in uncommon public declarations that there is no evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Each sensational story of proof to the contrary that keeps glittering in the headlines of the western media has been clearly and consistently refuted, as shown by the reports of people like Porter and Ritter. It is the reports and not the refutations, though, that make the headlines. And that’s an old and effective trick for misshaping public opinion: report the error in large letters, but not the correction that follows.

The media and the political powers provide the erroneous accusations; history, if you listen to it, provides the corrections.

Source / Z-Net

The Rag Blog

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Health Care Reform : A Bad Proposal or a Worse One?

Senator Alexander, sitting next to Senator McCain, provided the Republicans' opening statement at the Health Care Forum at Blair House, and he challenged President Obama and the Democrats "to renounce jamming it through in a partisan way." Photo: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times.

Corporate Restructuring of Healthcare
Fails the American People

By Billy Wharton / The Rag Blog / February 26, 2010

At the President’s Healthcare Summit today, the American people witnessed a debate between the bad proposal for healthcare reform and the even worse one. The Democrats' House and Senate bills fail to address the growing problems of for-profit healthcare. Instead, by mandating the purchase of healthcare, their plan will create a profitable market for private health insurance companies to exploit.

The Republicans' counter-proposal, which seeks to allow consumers to buy insurance plans across state lines, would reverse decades of necessary reforms carried out at the state level. This would give mega-healthcare corporations a free-hand to expand their already abusive practices.

While the two parties squabble about how to carry out the corporate restructuring of healthcare, the American people continue to suffer under a for-profit healthcare system. 50 million people are uninsured, another 20 million underinsured and nearly 50,000 people die each year from preventable illnesses. In response, millions of Americans have begun to avoid healthcare -- a recent survey indicates that six out of 10 have either deferred or delayed necessary care in the last year.

A fundamental political shift in the healthcare debate is necessary. Instead of a discussion of how markets should operate or how to build the proper risk pool to insure profits, we should be examining how to recognize healthcare as a basic human right.

Simply put, healthcare should not be treated as a commodity. Private health insurers provide no medical benefit to the people they cover. They merely extract profits from the doctor-patient relationship. Instead, we should create a comprehensive medical system that guarantees no-charge access and the provision of all medically necessary care.

Near the end of today’s summit, President Barack Obama asked “Can America, the wealthiest nation on earth, do what every industrialized country in the world does?” As a socialist, my answer is yes, but it will not come from the Democratic or Republican proposals. Instead, a single-payer National Healthcare Program would provide universal access for all people in America. Such a program would pave the way for the creation of a fully-socialized medical system that would ensure healthcare as a human right.

The time for high-level summits and backroom wrangling among politicians who have received large-scale contributions from private insurers and pharmaceutical companies has ended. It is now time for the creation of a mass social movement that expresses the desires of everyday Americans for a medical system organized around the values of solidarity, compassion, and justice. Rejecting both the Democratic and Republican proposals will be a key part of this process.

[Billy Wharton is the co-chair of the Socialist Party USA and the editor of The Socialist and the Socialist WebZine.]

The Rag Blog

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25 February 2010

Juan Cole on the U.S. Defense Budget

Gates Wants Europe to Beggar Itself on War Expenditures the Way the U.S. Has

By Juan Cole / February 25, 2010

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates decries Europe for general anti-war sentiment, unwillingness to beggar itself with expenditures on war.

But as far as I can tell, Europe is the world's largest economy and got there without any recent substantial wars except those the U.S. dragged it into. Moreover, the fastest-growing economy for the past nearly 30 years has been China, which spends a fraction on their military of what the US spends on its, and, aside from a skirmish with Vietnam in the early 1980s, has been at peace. Apparently massive war expenditures are unrelated to economic growth or prosperity.

In contrast, the U.S. has been at war for 19 of the last 47 years (not counting U.S.-backed insurgencies such as 1980s Afghanistan, on which we spent billions) but has not grown faster than the other two economically.

Moreover, the increasingly unwieldy U.S. national debt, deriving from the U.S. government spending more than it took in in recent decades, would not exist if the U.S. military budget had been the same as that of the European Union since 1980. The U.S. overspent on its military because Washington mistakenly thought the Soviet economy was twice as big as it actually was, and vastly over-estimated Soviet military capabilities.

The bloated military budgets continue now, apparently because of a couple thousand al-Qaeda operatives hiding out in caves in the Hadhramawt and Waziristan.

Some statistics to ponder:

U.S. Military Budget 2009: $711 billion
European Union Military Budget 2009: $289 billion
China Military Budget 2009: $122 billion.

U.S. GDP 2009: $14.4 trillion
European Union GDP 2009: $16.5 trillion (PPP)
China GDP 2009: $8.8 trillion (PPP)

U.S. economic growth 2009: 0.2%
European Union economic growth 2009: -4%
China economic growth 2009: 8.7 %

The real military-related expenditures of the U.S. are closer to $1 trillion. If the US cut those back to the level of the European Union and spent the money on promoting solar energy and making it inexpensive, America would have a chance of remaining a great power in the 21st century. If it goes on rampaging around the world bankrupting itself by invading and occupying other countries, the Chinese will laugh at us all the way to world dominance.

Source / Informed Comment

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24 February 2010

Harvey Wasserman : Putting Lipstick on a Radioactive Pig

Image from Texas Vox / Public Citizen.

High dollar nuclear makeover:
$645 million in lipstick for a radioactive pig

By Harvey Wasserman / The Rag Blog / February 24, 2010

The mystery has been solved.

Where is this "new reactor renaissance" coming from?

There has been no deep, thoughtful re-making or re-evaluation of atomic technology. No solution to the nuke waste problem. No making reactors economically sound. No private insurance against radioactive disasters by terror or error. No grassroots citizens now desperate to live near fragile containment domes and outtake pipes spewing radioactive tritium at 27 U.S. reactors.

No, nothing about atomic energy has really changed.

Except this: $645 MILLION for lobbying Congress and the White House over the past 10 years.

As reported by Judy Pasternak and a team of reporters at American University's Investigative Reporting Workshop, filings with the Senate Office of Public Records show that members of the Nuclear Energy Institute and other reactor owner/operators admit spending that money on issues that "include legislation to promote construction of new nuclear power plants."

Money has also gone to "other nuclear-related priorities" including "energy policy, Yucca Mountain and nuclear waste disposal, plant decommissioning costs, uranium issues such as tariffs, re-enrichment and mining, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission funding." But even that may not fully account for money spent on coal and other energy sources, or on media campaigning.

In short: think $64.5 million, EVERY YEAR since the coming of George W. Bush.

That's $1 million per every U.S. Senator and Representative, plus another, say, $100 million for the White House, courts, and media.

"I think that's understated," says Journalism Professor Karl Grossman of the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury. The "torrent of lies" from General Electric and Westinghouse, the "Coke and Pepsi" of the nuclear industry, "has made the tobacco industry look like a piker.

Their past, present and/or future media mouthpieces, says Grossman, span CBS, NBC, and a global phalanx of interlocking radio-TV-print directorates.

All are geared, adds MediaChannel.org's Rory O'Connor, to flood the globe with "Nukespeak," the Orwellian lingo that sells atomic power while rhetorically airbrushing its costs and dangers.

Thus Noam Chomsky's "manufacturing consent" has become an "outright purchase."

Thus National Public Radio is now the Nuclear Proliferation Redux. Disgraced ex-Greenpeacer Patrick Moore (who also sells clear-cut forests and genetically modified food) is portrayed as an "environmentalist" rather than an industry employee.

That's not to say all reactor advocates do it for the money. Certainly some have grown on their own to like nuke power.

But $645 million -- SIX HUNDRED FORTY-FIVE MILLION -- can buy a lot of opinion going one way, and suppresses a lot going the other. Op eds, air time, "independent" reports, phony claims that "green" nukes can solve global warming... not to mention campaign "donations," fact-finding junkets, political fundraisers, K-Street dinners... all can be had for a trifling drip from the mega-slush fund.

The latest payback is Barack Obama's $8.33 billion in promised loan guarantees for two new nukes proposed in Georgia. Two old ones came in at 3000% over budget at a site where the Nuclear Regulatory Commission warns the proposed new ones might crumble in an earthquake or hurricane.

As Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now! points out, Team Obama has taken VERY goodly chunks of that $645 million from Chicago's nuke-loving Exelon. Despite his campaign hype for a green revolution, Obama's first two named advisors, David Axelrod and Rahm Emmanuel, were proud Exelon "associates."

Now Obama wants taxpayers to pony up $36 billion MORE in loan guarantees. (John McCain wants a mere trillion.)

All this BEFORE the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations are "persons" who can spend without limit to buy Congress and the media. The cash pouring into the pockets of politicians voting for still more taxpayer money to build still more reactors will parallel the gusher of radiation that poured from Chernobyl.

But does this mean the flood of new reactors is inevitable?


Despite that cash tsunami, grassroots activists stopped $50 billion in loan guarantees three times since 2007. No new U.S. reactor construction has started since the 1970s, when public opinion was over 70% in favor of atomic power, and Richard Nixon promised 1,000 U.S. reactors by the year 2000.

With green jobs advocate Van Jones ditched and Obama now openly in the nuclear camp, atomic energy is still a loser.

It can't solve its waste problems, can't operate without leaking radiation, can't pay for itself, and can't get private insurance against terror or error.

Once hyped as "too cheap to meter," Warren Buffett, the National Taxpayers Union, the Heritage Foundation, and the CATO Institute are among those joining the Congressional Budget Office in warning that atomic energy is really "too expensive to matter."

With all those hundreds of millions to spend, the reactor backers are still selling a technological corpse. With licensing and construction and the inevitable unforeseen, not one new U.S. reactor can come on line in less than seven years.

Meanwhile, renewable/efficiency prices will continue to plummet. And grassroots opposition will not stop, as in Vermont and wherever else reactors operate or are proposed.

As Abe Lincoln reminds us: you can't buy all the people all the time. And the ones that can't be bought CAN be damn powerful.

Those loan guarantees, all that hype about a new nuclear age... they are NOT a done deal. They still must withstand a Solartopian revolution in green technology that's left atomic power in its economic dust... and a human species whose core instincts DEMAND economic and ecological survival.

So when you hear some hired gun selling nukes, remember: even $645 million can buy only so much green lipstick for a dead radioactive pig.

And when Nature bats last, the final score is not about cash.

[Harvey Wasserman's Solartopia! Our Green-Powered Earth is at www.harveywasserman.com, along with Harvey Wasserman's History of the United States. He is Senior Advisor to Greenpeace USA and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. This article was also published at http://freepress.org.]

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23 February 2010

Harry Targ : How the Ruling Class Rules

Image from La Revue Gauche.

The new class society:
How does the ruling class rule?

By Harry Targ / The Rag Blog / February 23, 2010

The substructure

In an effort to teach and reflect more systematically about class rule in the United States, I have used an interesting book by Robert Perrucci and Earl Wysong, The New Class Society. It describes the transformation of the class system over the last 30 years from one in which there was a small ruling class, a significantly-sized “middle class,” and a lesser population of the poor and working classes.

According to these sociologists the diamond-shaped distribution of wealth, income, and power that existed during the “golden years” of U.S. capitalist hegemony after World War II began to change in the 1970s. Today, in the “new class society” the top one percent of income, wealth, and power holders, in conjunction with the remainder of the top 20 percent of managers, professionals and support staff of the super class, dominate at the expense of the bottom 80 percent of the population.

Using older language, ownership and control of the means of production and the relationships that exist between the owners and those who work constitute the “substructure” of the capitalist system. But what remains a puzzle is “how does the ruling class rule?”

The superstructure

Perrucci and Wysong suggest some answers that can serve as a basis for others to analyze and refine. They suggest four critical institutions, what I might call the “superstructure,” which ensure the maintenance of class rule. These are the political system, the education industry, the information industry, and the culture industry. Each in its own way is designed to shape the consciousness the new working class, the bottom 80 percent, has of itself and its place in the world of economics, politics, and society.

The political system constitutes the public arena where choices get made about public policy. It remains relevant to all actors in the society, from those who are at the top of the class system to the vast majority of the population constituting the new working class. However, since wealth most often can be translated into power, political institutions in usual times are used to serve the interests of the ruling class. Wealth is used to maintain power through financing elections, lobbying decision-makers, and funding so-called “think tanks” to give “expert” advice to the rulers.

Sometimes combined efforts of trade associations and corporations martial national campaigns to pressure government to shift the direction of public policy away from the popular classes to the rulers.

In an enlightening book by Elizabeth Fones-Wolff, Selling Free Enterprise, the author describes a continuing struggle in the 1940s and 1950s by the National Association of Manufacturers, the Chamber of Commerce, and like minded groups to convince the American people that individualism, private enterprise, and union-busting were more in their interests than expanding government programs, communities assuming more responsibility for social well-being, and building workers associations as sources of strength and protection from corporate elites.

In sum, political institutions are portrayed as the venue through which “the people decide,” when in fact usually their interests are not adequately represented.

The education industry, that is K through 12, college and university, and professional school education, provides the tools for credentialing some young people and not others. Usually the highest educational achievement is earned by those who come from privileged class families.

Systems of “tracking,” which are supposed to shape education to the talents and needs of individual students are used to promote and encourage those who come from the wealthy and to channel in other directions the children of the working class. “Streaming” policies are designed to encourage the creativity and interests of the children of wealth.

In sum, the education system, which does enlighten, inform, and train, also serves as a gatekeeper to reward and encourage those from the privileged classes and sustain and reproduce the new working class.

Perhaps the most vital function the education system serves is to “socialize” the young into their proper political roles in adulthood. Curricula promote the idea among children of the wealthy that they are creative, they can and should serve the public, and that their obligation is to be engaged citizens. Children of the new working class are taught to be obedient, respect authority and expertise, and participate in politics only as a voter.

The information industry provides our lens on the world. As communications theorists have long suggested, most of people’s information and experience of the world is indirect and mediated by electronic and print media.

The information we consume is packaged in “media frames.” Since most of the information we receive comes from fewer than 10 mega-media corporations, they are shaping the understanding of the world of the new working class. Why making war is necessary, how the United States must continue to support Wall Street during this economic crisis, and the diabolical reasons why some countries, such as Cuba or Venezuela, criticize the United States are examples of most people’s experience of these issues.

Media framing includes what stories are left out as well as how the ones communicated are covered.

Finally, the culture industry provides entertainment or activity for the non-working hours of most people. Television, movies, music, sporting activities are presented to people by the same handful of mega-corporations that dominate the information industry. Increasingly the products of these two industries merge so that “news” and “entertainment” become one. This is true for sex, violence, and mayhem reported as news and the fake news as reported by the comedians.

Perhaps most important to the culture industry is its portrait of presumed human experience. This experience highlights the super-natural, the futuristic, or the “reality” of swallowing insects and brutally competing with others for prize money or attractive sexual objects.

When the culture industry addresses contemporary experience, for example in situation comedies and crime shows, there are no workers present, African-Americans are hoodlums or victims, women are helpless, and authority figures such as the police are the friends of the people rather than employees of the state. Perrucci and Wysong refer to the primary role of the culture industry as “pacification.”

The points raised in this essay do not break any new theoretical ground. But, in my view, clearly identifying critical elements of the “substructure” and the “superstructure” can provide a road map for progressives to plan their future political agendas. Of course, a fundamental change in the mode of production, capitalism, is basic. But in the interim, organizing around the political system, and the education, information, and culture industries makes sense.

[Harry Tarq is a professor in American Studies who lives in West Lafayette, Indiana. He blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical.]

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Susie Q and Oh Susanna : Riffing on Music About Women

Rick Nelson and James Burton. Image from theexpress-band.com.

From Susanna to Suzie Q:
Don't you cry for me...

By Carl R. Hultberg / The Rag Blog / February 23, 2010

You can gauge the status of women from the music we like to listen to. The fascination with the manner in which Black people have traditionally regarded women has been an obsession for hundreds of years in the USA. Starting with the notoriously racist Minstrel Shows in the early 1800s, mean spirited blackface lampooning of black mannerisms, but also earnest attempts to mimic black music.

"Oh Susanna," "Camptown Races," "Bluetail Fly," Stephen Foster Minstrel Show songs from almost 200 years ago still infuse what’s left of our folk music heritage. “Oh Susanna, don’t you cry for me, for I come from Alabama, with a banjo on my knee.” Or alternately: “I’m going to Louisiana for to see my Suzyanna sing Polly wolly doodle all the day!” Anyway you cut it, our best music comes from those most decidedly un-PC days of cotton picking plantation nostalgia.

One guy who really does come from Louisiana is James Burton. For those of you who don’t know James Burton, he was the white kid who played electric guitar behind Ricky Nelson’s little rock and roll bit at the end of the Ozzie and Harriet Show in the late 1950s.

So? So, it just happened that, before the Beatles, just about the only Rock and Roll you were ever going to see (outside of the super fake American Bandstand) was the weekly Ricky Nelson number. And there it was, in living black and white, a teenage kid (like you and me) playing the hell out of a Fender Telecaster in a domestic comedy show.

Ozzie Nelson, Ricky’s dad, a former Big Band leader, saw the benefit of a (controlled) Rock and Roll display. He even consented to let James Burton live with the (actual) Nelson family as Ricky’s roommate in 1958. Many of Ricky’s best songs were cooked up at home in LA with the teenage Louisiana swamp Rock connection.

Another artist, also from Louisiana, who benefited from his association with James Burton was Dale Hawkins. Dale was jamming with the young Mr. Burton in 1957. The improvised lyrics he set to Burton’s twisting, modal guitar lick were partially lifted from a Howlin’ Wolf vocal line which may have been derived from a 1920s dance craze. In other words, the folk tradition.

"Susie Q" was just about the snarlingist thing anyone had ever heard at that time, with a hypnotic downward bass riff that fought with the overdriven guitar. Definitely the swampiest Rockabilly ever and perhaps James Burton’s finest moment, not withstanding his later long association with Elvis Presley.

At the moment when the folk tradition meets the commercial realities, strange things happen. Of course the actual “author” of "Susie Q," James Burton, was never credited. The kid who pulled the words out of the air at the time of the recording, Dale Hawkins, got a one third writer’s credit, shared with a record distributor and the wife of a local disc jockey, people none of the actual artists had ever heard of. This of course is all part of the way the music industry protects our hallowed intellectual property rights.

Dale Hawkins. Checker Records publicity photo of singer Dale Hawkins, late 1950s, from the Encyclopedia of Arkansas.

Dale Hawkins toured as a Rockabilly star and prospered for a while. The Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival did versions of "Susie Q." Dale’s cousin Ronnie Hawkins also became a Rockabilly artist and when the genre went cold in the USA, fled to Canada where his late 1950s backing band eventually became The Band.

So from "Oh Susanna" to "Susie Q" we continue to see the fascination with the Black/hipster female role model. She is liberated and sexual, but still inspires respect, reverence and awe.
She is now young and white, but somehow still related to the Black Goddess Mother.

Dial forward past the death of the Beatles and the pure blues of Jimi and the Cream to the post punk days of the dreary new wave and we get to meet Dale Hawkins’ duet partner this month in the waiting room of Heaven/whatever, Doug Fieger. Who? "My Sharona"? Oh.. The end product of the "Oh Susanna"-"Susie Q" continuum, one of the many milestones along the road to institutionalized female disrespect and the general disavowal of our Black musical heritage.

Fieger’s group The Knack harkened back to a cynical Brit movie ...and How to Get It. The Knack’s leering looks and mock Beatles pose matched the superficiality of the jerky riff that fuelled the underaged girl-as-sex-object hit. After only six minutes of fame (actually months in the top 10) the song and the group disappeared. Now if we could only get the damn thing out of our heads...

One way to do that is to recall "Susie Q," and of course "Oh Susannah" and perhaps take a moment to ponder where our love affair with the songs that honor Black woman has taken us over the years.

[Carl R. Hultberg's grandfather, Rudi Blesh, was a noted jazz critic and music historian, and Carl was raised in that tradition. After spending many years as a music archivist and social activist in New York's Greenwich Village, he now lives in an old abandoned foundry in Danbury, New Hampshire, where he runs the Ragtime Society.]

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22 February 2010

Perfect Storm Coming? : GOP Winning With Message Control

Image from The Situationist.

Democrats facing perfect political storm?
GOP raises misinformation to an art form

By Sherman DeBrosse / The Rag Blog / February 22, 2010

As E.J. Dionne writes, Barack Obama, Democrats, and liberals are losing now. Big time! The Democrats are in a terrible fix because there is no prospect that joblessness will be ended anytime soon and people are frustrated because government appears to have accomplished little for months on end.

The G.O.P.’s strategy of across- the-board obstruction and disinformation has worked so well that they have a shot at picking up eight Senate seats and perhaps 25 to 30 House seats. For a year, they have framed the political debate and there is no evidence that the hapless Democrats are capable of reversing this tendency.

The Republicans’ wall-to-wall obstructionism is not very patriotic, but it is paying big political dividends. People blame Obama and the governing Democrats for government’s paralysis. Most voters do not follow politics very carefully and do not grasp that the GOP, with its 41 lockstep Senate votes has an absolute veto on policy.

No amount of explaining will make a difference; it requires too much thought. Nor do most voters have good memories. They have heard the Republican talking points so often that they now blame unemployment on the Democratic stimulus package and even accept the idea that the Wall Street bailout was a Democratic idea.

Behind what appear to be conventional political tactics, the Republicans are
  1. Drawing upon expertise in linguistics and cognitive psychology,
  2. Creating a low grade authority crisis that is bound to hurt those in power,
  3. Continuing to perfectly arouse and exploit right-wing populism,
  4. Moving beyond generic populism to something more powerful and dangerous,
  5. Reaping the benefits of the Tea Bag nation movement as it evolves a collective memory.
There is no question that the Republicans have been coached by communications experts, but it is anyone’s guess as to whether they have had expert help with the rest.

Pin distributed at GOP convention in Texas.

Expertise in framing political discussions

For decades the GOP adeptly practiced message control, but without almost everyone reading from the same script at the same time. Few remember when the GOP pundits got together to coordinate their anti-Clinton messages. Republican strategists understand cognitive science and linguistics and are expert at destroying the public image of the Democratic brand and at portraying their essentially unpopular conservative policies in the best possible light.

Somehow they have learned how the emotions are tied to cognitive processes and they have mastered ways of rewiring people’s memories that guarantee that they will reach desired convulsions. They understand “post rational” and “post factual" political debate while Democrats are stuck with the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment notion of dispassionate reason as the duty of citizenship.

Anyone who doubts Republican expertise in framing messages and shaping opinion needs only to look at these recent Daily Kos poll results. One quarter of Republicans think their states should leave the federal union to escape President Barack Obama’s socialist policies! Thirty-six percent are sure Obama was born outside the United States. Thirty-one percent think Obama is a racist who hates whites. Twenty-four percent are sure he wants the terrorists to win, and a third were not sure.

There has been no need to directly address race. A recent Stanford study found that “People’s implicit racial prejudices corresponded with a reluctance to vote for Obama and with opposition to his health care reform plan.” Faced, with a looming depression and collapse of the financial system, some people -- probably so-called independents -- briefly put aside racial hang-ups to vote for Obama. As soon as he averted both depression and financial crack up, their long established thought patterns reasserted themselves.

Among Republicans, the old mental programming came back in full force with people believing with John Boehner that all was fine until Obama came along with socialist designs and big spending.

Collecting the benefits of an authority crisis

Since the days when Newt Gingrich was minority leader, the GOP has deployed obstructionist tactics and shunned civility. Bob Dole and older leaders briefly criticized these tactics and then fell in line. By the mid-1990s, Dole was using regular threats of filibusters to blackmail the Democrats. They have practiced obstructionism so long now it seems to have become an acceptable political tactic.

Now it is gridlock across the board as cynical Mitch McConnell holds an absolute veto in the Senate, and not one of his followers is willing to buck him for long. Most recent judicial nominees have been blocked, and the Bush U.S. attorneys are clinging to power, refusing to resign. Two top Treasury Undersecretary nominations are blocked.

Obama even took a big hit for the Transportation Safety Administration’s screw ups in the Christmas underwear bomber case even though the GOP refused to let him have a chief for that agency. Jim DeMint, who refused to vote for funding for the agency and was blocking the nominee, drew praise for leading the criticism.

The people who operate the 24 hour a day cable news cycle dare not explain how the obstruction works; to do so would be perceived as unfair to the Republicans.

Recently, McConnell and six other Republicans who had favored a Congressional deficit reduction commission reversed their position to embarrass President Obama. Few in the mainstream media noted the betrayal. Likewise, the few columnists in the political middle pass over all of this in silence. The size of their syndication lists might shrink.

Creating governmental paralysis generates anti-Washington and anti-governing party sentiment. It is being done so well now that we are on the edge of a low grade crisis of authority. Crises of authority generally damage the party in power no matter who is responsible for gridlock.

Our strong habits of political stability will guarantee that the crisis does not go beyond ugly words, occasional incidents, and an electoral nightmare for the Democrats. Since Obama’s election, there have been nine political deaths, including that of abortionist Dr. George Tiller. Professors, political organizers, and progressive activists are reporting more death threats than before.

The authority crisis has generated a new, powerful conservative movement that is demanding, as the price of alliance with the GOP, that Republicans continue to refuse to compromise with Democrats.

If the authority crisis gets out of hand, it is possible that the nation will have to attack Iran or enlarge our wars in some other way. Ernest Becker once wrote, “war is a sociological safety valve that cleverly diverts popular hatred for the ruling classes into a happy occasion to mutilate or kill foreign enemies.”

Going beyond generic right-wing populism

Republican success has been built on manipulating right-wing populism, with its fear of imaginary “elites” and profound trust in the gut instincts of provincial America. George Will just wrote a column arguing that Sarah Palin is a populist and thus need not be feared. Populists do not win presidential elections and populism’s impact is supposedly short- lived.

What he did not note is that the GOP has found ways to fan the flames of right-wing populism for decades and to harvest populist votes without giving them the presidency. So long as “otherization” works well against liberals, right-wing populists will focus on their fears and anger and not notice they receive very little for their votes.

From time to time, Republicans, use people like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter to activate people who inhabit the right-wing fringes of American politics -- the Constitutionalists, the survivalists, the militias, the “patriots,” white supremacists, Christian Identity types, the many Christian Dominionists, Alaska Independence Party folks, and just plain libertarians. These folks were bizarrely silent when George W. Bush was rolling up big deficits; now they are up in arms and blaming all our woes on liberals, Democrats, and that “socialist” Obama.

In 2008, there was a concerted effort to activate these people, and some Republican rallies, especially those of Governor Sarah Palin, took on the aspect of Klan meetings. The effort to keep those people excited and at a fever pitch continued in the “birthers” movement. The Tea Baggers emerged out of the efforts to disrupt town hall meetings.

We have watched numerous town meetings at which raging rightists shouted down Congressmen and Senators. The noisy ones rarely had coherent comments. They came to disrupt and were fueled by their hatred of progressives.

Tea Bagger William Kostric packed heat to greet the President in Arizona. Photo from London Daily Mail / History Commons.

When President Barack Obama appeared in Arizona, people showed up wearing guns. One man showed newsmen his semiautomatic rifle. Others had guns strapped on their hips. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a man named William Kostric showed up with a gun at President Obama’s August 11, 2009, meeting and recited Thomas Jefferson’s words about occasionally sprinkling the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants.

This man did not understand that most Americans believe that violence may have been sanctioned before we became a republic, but that violence thereafter is an attack on the republic and people of the United States.

Lately people have been appearing at meetings with posters of Obama as Hitler. Some of these posters came from the followers of Lyndon LaRouche. One can only wonder who gave the cash-strapped LaRouche movement money for the vile signs. The inclusion of the LaRouchists in the rightist anti-Obama coalition underscores a decision to draw more upon the growing far-right fringe groups.

Now there are more Tea Baggers than anyone could have thought possible because so many independents have joined their ranks. By some accounts, they are, in the words of The Economist “the most potent force in American politics. In 21 states, they are now organizing at the precinct level. Recently they elected Republican Scott Brown to Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat and, in New York, they forced a moderate Republican to abandon a Congressional race.

There are some cranks and racists among the Tea Baggers, but most of these people are as intelligent as other Americans. A recent survey showed that almost 48% of them hold college degrees. Most of them are not prone to violence or racism, they are white working people who are simply very worried about mounting debt and threats to their economic security.

They see jobs disappearing or going overseas and want to lash out in some way. If progressives call them names, they make it impossible to communicate with them and explain why they are in trouble. .

The Tea Baggers or Tea Party Nation might throw a few stones at the Republicans and criticize some GOP leaders, but they will vote with them in November and clearly are being manipulated by Republican operations such as those directed by Dick Armey and Grover Norquist.

Rick Perlstein has noted that the Republicans, at each outbreak of rightist extremism, have been able to “adroitly hive off the embarrassing fringe while laying claim to some of the grassroots anger that inspired it.” This time they cannot do this. In the House, spokespersons for the Tea Party wing are demanding a larger role in setting policy, and the GOP will eventually have to accommodate them.

Independents join the Tea Baggers or Tea Party Nation

The important thing to note is that the Tea Baggers are attracting large numbers of Independents, many of whom had voted for Obama. They were brought over to the far right by deep economic insecurity and the crisis of authority created by the Republican strategy of wall to wall filibusters, obstructionism, and perfectly delivered disinformation

The danger is that the longer these independents are allied with the Tea Baggers, the more likely it is that they will start thinking like them and get recruited into some of their other organizations. Right now, these people, who have been more or less politically inactive, are getting political educations from the Tea Party Nation. In this way, the Tea Baggers are moving from the margins into the political mainstream, and in the process the Republican Party will have to move in their direction.

Too many people think that Independents stand somewhere between the two parties, weigh matters carefully, and are moderates. The truth is that they are all over the place in their views, are too impatient to follow politics with any care, demand instant gratification, and are easily swayed by what they think is the conventional wisdom. They were set in motion by economic uncertainty and attracted by anti-government rhetoric and simplistic solutions offered by the Tea Baggers and Republicans.

Not all or even a majority of the independents are genuine racists. But race is an issue here, and there has been some racist buyers remorse. Independents who were terrified that a depression was in the offing shelved concerns about race and backed Barack Obama. Now that he has not worked miracles, they have jumped to the right.

The strength of the “birther” sentiment -- the belief that Obama was not born in the United States -- is one indication that Obama’s race is a problem for them. The crowd at the recent Tea Party Nation convention went wild when a speaker demanded to see Obama’s birth certificate. Another thing is the surprising number of people who think Obama favors the terrorists and hates white America.

Would so many people be screaming about socialism if he were white? Obama’s policy support ratings have fallen more rapidly than those of any president in the history of polling. He is not getting the benefit of the doubt or even credit for averting a depression and financial system meltdown.

This Republican gambit of going far beyond generic right wing populism carries with it dangers to our political process. It polarizes the electorate, drives civility from the public marketplace, and it crosses over into playing with fire -- what Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, a student of German history calls “eliminationism.”

The rhetoric used leads people to want to exclude others from full participation in our culture and politics. It is a very dangerous tactic, but fortunately, our fundamental built-in stability would prevent it from ever morphing into the extreme forms of eliminationism Goldhagen studied in Germany.

We see where this can go in the ranting of Tom Tancredo about wanting to return to the Jim Crow literacy tests as a means of preventing blacks and browns from voting. Tancredo addressed the recent Tea Party Nation Convention at Nashville and was rewarded with thunderous applause. He denounced the “cult of multiculturalism” and said that the election of Barack Hussein [his emphasis] Obama was a good thing because it alerted patriots to the fact that they were losing their county to socialism.

Image from Say Something Funny.

It is this kind of rhetoric that has increased gun sales. The Tea Bagger rhetoric level is white hot sometimes. Guns and ammo, are literally flying off the shelves. The presence of the first African American president has convinced the extremists that he will soon confiscate all guns.

Much of the paranoia about ACORN was really about preventing poor people from voting. After all, ACORN itself came to the authorities when some of its employees were submitting false registration data. There was no evidence ACORN ever set out to submit one fraudulent voter application. Rightists consistently overlooked this basic fact because the real target of their wrath was black people voting. ACORN’s serious management deficiencies and embezzlement cover-up did not help the situation.

The successful and growing effort to require people to present all sorts of identification materials at the polls is also about this.

Organizers in the immigrant community see many signs that conservative strategists, pundits, and think tanks are interested in bringing about clashes between immigrants and law enforcement. Fox News, conservative talk radio, and right wing politicians are trying to generate anger in the white community against immigrants.

The historic pattern is for exclusionists to draw heavily upon Social Darwinism, the complex of ideas that suggests that those at the top deserve to be there and those at the bottom deserve their fates. South Carolina Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer provided an example when he said: “My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed… so what you’ve got to do is you’ve got to curtail that type of behavior.”

George Will assures us there is no danger that the Republicans will nominate Sarah Palin or someone like her for the presidency. Many who are attracted to the Tea Bagger movement and eliminationism have a predisposition for authoritarianism, and part of that is they need leadership from glorified tribunes of some sort, such as Father Charles Caughlin or Senator Joseph McCarthy. They have their media tribunes in Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, and Lou Dobbs is considering transitioning from a media spokesman to a politician.

At the moment, Sarah Palin, master of low soapbox oratory, has not convinced enough people that she has the smarts to be president. But if unemployment remains high and government gridlock continues, her references to shadowy “elites” and tendency to appeal to “real “ Americans could change her favorability numbers.

Now she is aligning Ronald Reagan with the Tea Baggers, noting his interest in states rights and opposition to big government. However, he did not play to the politics of grievance, though he repeatedly invoked Social Darwinism against the dispossessed.

Image from News Today.

Creating a collective memory of victimization

Now what is needed by the right is a method of keeping the fringe elements activated and tying down the allegiance of the wandering independents. The European social scientists have been studying something they call collective memory. The beauty of collective memory is that it creates memories that can have nothing to do with reality. They can be passionately believed because they become inextricable from identity. Sometimes all of this happens by historical accident, but some scholars think it can be helped along.

Creating a Tea Bagger collective memory is simply an extension of several decades of Republican mastery of linguistic and cognitive theory. The Tea Baggers are in the process of assuming the identity of American history’s victims -- good, patriotic, productive folks who are victimized by big government that spends too much and does not respect their rights.

To be sure, this collective memory will include versions of historical events and processes that are far from the truth. Yet, they will be fervently believed and will become nearly impossible for outsiders to challenge with facts, logic, and analysis. The most powerful collective identities have clear enemies. Of course, liberals are at the top of the list. Others who will have this status are black and brown people.

What to do: A few modest proposals

The Democrats only have eight months to move to limit their losses. They need to start learning how to communicate. Beyond that, they must reach out to frightened, working America with specific proposals that will create jobs and enable the Democrats to explain what has gone wrong. Obama needs to stop wasting time seeking impossible bipartisanship and frame the national discussion around specific jobs measures, financial reregulation, and fees for the banks..

Big legislative packages give the GOP all kinds of room for obstruction and spreading disinformation. Bring a series of job creating, worker friendly measures up for votes.

Don’t follow Harry Reid in scuttling the bipartisan Pension Protection Act. If the Republicans vote it down, explain why.

Dust off the decades-old Hartke Bill, which strips away almost all incentives to export jobs.

Judson Phillips, who organized the recent Tea Bagger convention, claims the Tea Baggers are angry that Congress does so much for Wall Street. By backing Obama’s fee on Wall Street banks that accepted the stimulus, the Democrats can distance themselves from the banks. They must also tie this issue to reregulation. So far, not one Republican in the House has been willing to support it. There should be separate votes on these matters, and Democrats need to start the long campaign to strip corporations of their status as persons in the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

If the Democrats want to avoid a repeat of 1994, they must salvage something from all their efforts on health care reform. They should put together a limited measure containing only items that have broad popular support and pass it quickly.

If all else fails, borrow a stratagem from Harry Truman. He once called Congress back into session and promised to sign Republican legislation. They produced nothing, and it was an object lesson for many independent voters.

Obama could announce that he got the message from the voters and offer the GOP a month and Democratic procedural help in enacting their jobs and health care plans. He should exclude reenactment of the Bush tax cuts and estate tax legislation, both of which should be subject to negotiations at another time. Odds are, they would produce nothing. Even if they did enact legislation, the Democrats would get some credit for cooperating and reduce their losses in November.

[Sherman DeBrosse is a regular contributor to The Rag Blog. A retired history professor, he also blogs at Sherm Says and on DailyKos.]

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