31 May 2010

Marc Estrin : Night Dreams of Another Life

Photo by Eric Pouhier / Wikimedia.

Listening to our local Leiermann:
Night dreams of another life

By Marc Estrin / The Rag Blog / May 31, 2010

Every now and then -- and again last night -- I am awakened at 3 a.m. by the sound of a shopping cart rattling past my house. No voices. Just a lonely, ghostly, shopping cart. It has that eerie sad-ness Woody Guthrie used to sing about -- like “that long lonesome train a-whistlin’ down.” Ex-cept it rattles.

The sky is dark, the street lights bright outside my window. All other noise has ceased. Squad cars prowl silently, if at all. Donna is sleeping, and the cats breath quietly at our heads and feet. Wordsworth said it: “The holy time is quiet as a nun/breathless with adoration.” Except there is a shopping cart. Rattling.

Who is out there, pushing? Who is searching the recycle bins and garbage for nickel bottles and cast-off clothing? Who must be up this early in the morning to ensure his meager catch?

In daylight hours I would probably revert to my social/political thought chain: the ghastly state of current American capitalist politics, the ripping away of the safety net from under the free-fall of the poor. But in the middle of the night, my thoughts often go to the amazing end of Schu-bert’s song cycle, Die Winterreise, the Winter Journey.

In the standard frame of nineteenth century romantic poetry, a lover, spurned by his beloved, must “get away” from his memories of her, must avoid the possibility of seeing her with her new husband. He wanders out into the winter, his tears freezing in the icy landscape. He has dreams and nightmares. He longs for mail, though he has no address. He communes with birds and beasts; he hallucinates.

There are many amazing and moving images in these 24 connected songs, but none is more mysterious and compelling than that of the last song, “Der Leiermann," the Hurdy-Gurdy man. Of all the songs, it is the quietest and simplest, a bare vocal line alternat-ing with a little organ-grinding refrain in the piano.

After all the wildness of nature and passion -- this last strange encounter: with an old man out-side a village, playing his music as best he can, his fingers numb, standing near his empty cup, barefoot, on the ice. Nobody listens to the organ-grinder, nobody pays any attention to him -- except the dogs, who come -- to bark and growl. But the old man just lets it all happen without complaint, grinding out his simple tune, never stopping. Coming upon him, our heart-weary traveler is dumb struck.

We think it is a simple little story, a narration about some striking character met along the path. The first surprise comes in the last verse. Is our sad young man repulsed by the organ grinder, frightened by his situation, thinking “there, but for the grace of God, go I”? No. “Strange old man,” he says to himself, “shall I go with you? Will you grind out music if I sing?” And the sec-ond surprise is -- that’s it. That’s the end. The hurdy-gurdy phrase runs it’s course and this in-comparable masterpiece just stops -- quietly, with a question, a question leading out into infinity.

As I lie in bed listening to our local Leiermann, his shopping cart singing its sad, repetitive song, I -- this person snuggling next to his sleeping wife, nuzzled by his trusting kitties -- I want to go out there and join him. I want to experience the emptiness and beauty of the street late at night, the sense of the world stopped around me, the non-hustle and non-bustle and time of my own creation.

I want to give up my deadlines and assignments, my enslavement to the little property I own. I want to simplify my life, and have the basic tasks of my cro-magnon ancestors, to live from day to day, to hunt and gather, to relate to the turning of the sky.

Not to romanticize the brutal life forced on the poor by devil-don’t-care capitalism. My late-night dream does not contain having to figure out where I can poop, or where to get a shower after two weeks without. I don’t have to scrounge for quarters for the laundromat, or worry about my things being stolen while I sleep on someone’s porch to stay dry.

I don’t even have to hang on to my empty bottles and cans -- but can give them, a pathetic, inadequate gesture, to those who build their lives around them.

Still, there is freedom out there, late at night. Dream-freedom. We humans have always paid a lot for freedom. At this very moment, somewhere on earth, there is blood being spilled -- for free-dom.

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

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30 May 2010

TCEQ Blowing Smoke? : Protecting the Texas Environment

Image from Pegasus News / Dallas/Ft.Worth

Texas' lack of compliance:
EPA challenges TCEQ over air quality

By Ted McLaughlin / The Rag Blog / May 30, 2010

The state agency that is supposed to assure that pollution does not endanger the citizens of Texas is the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). But they have not been doing an adequate job of protecting Texans for many years now.

Instead of protecting the air quality (and water quality), these Republican appointees seem instead to exist solely to allow the giant oil, gas, and chemical industries to operate without having to obey federal and state pollution laws.

Just look at how they covered up the existence of dangerous toxic substances released from recent gas drilling in the Fort Worth and surrounding areas. Because of charges by environmental groups, the TCEQ recently conducted tests of the air quality in Fort Worth. In January of this year, they gave the city a report showing the air quality in that area was completely safe. The problem was that report was wrong, and the TCEQ knew that very soon after releasing the report.

After releasing the report, the TCEQ realized that the measuring equipment they used was not nearly sensitive enough to detect low levels of poisons generated by the drilling. Worse yet, these low-level toxic emissions were very dangerous if persons were exposed to them over an extended period of time. So while the Forth Worth air quality was probably safe for short-term visitors, the citizens living there were slowly being poisoned by the toxic emissions.

Now one might think that this important fact would immediately be made known to the people of the Fort Worth area by the TCEQ, since they are mandated to protect the air quality for citizen safety. Wrong! The city was not told for several months, and then only because a congressman had asked for the information (and even an agency dedicated to protecting corporate interests can get in serious trouble for lying to a congressman).

The fact is that the state Republican leadership (including those on the TCEQ) were long ago bought and paid for by corporate interests, especially the oil, gas, and chemical industries. The TCEQ knew that a ton of money was being made by gas drilling in the Fort Worth area. They also knew that publicizing the dangers imposed by that drilling could could impede that drilling and hurt the corporate profits. The TCEQ chose to endanger citizens and protect corporate profits.

But that is only a small part of the criminal actions of the TCEQ. The fact is that their negligence has allowed Texas to become, and continue to be, a major polluter. Texas is by far the largest air polluter in the United States -- producing far more pollution than other large states like California, New York, Florida, New Jersey, Ohio, and Illinois. In fact if Texas were a country, it would be the seventh largest air polluter in the entire world.

And the TCEQ doesn't seem to be interested in controlling this pollution. They claim that stricter pollution controls would endanger thousands of Texas jobs. Obviously, they seem to be ignorant of the fact that their mandate is to control pollution -- not create or protect jobs.

The truth is that while stopping corporate pollution might slightly reduce the corporation's massive profits, it would not cost any jobs. The corporations will continue to produce their products and will still need the workers to produce those products, and moving to another state will not reduce the need to obey pollution laws. The clean-up effort will probably actually create new jobs.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is finally getting tired of Texas' refusal to come into compliance with the standards of the Clean Air Act, as other states have done. The regional Director of the EPA, Al Armendariz, is now threatening that the EPA may take over the duties of the TCEQ and force Texas to comply with federal environmental law.

The impetus for this threatened action is the practice by the TCEQ of giving corporations flexible permits instead of permits with hard rules on how much pollution they can produce, as other states do. According to the EPA, the flexible permits issued by Texas allow corporations to produce double the amount of pollution allowed by the Clean Air Act.

The EPA is under a court order to make a decision about the flexible permits by June 30th, and it is expected they will outlaw them. Then if the TCEQ doesn't cooperate, the EPA will take over the duties of the TCEQ. The EPA is already hiring extra workers to do that job.

Of course this has thrown Texas Governor Rick Perry into a tizzy. He is claiming this is a states' rights issue. He sees nothing wrong with Texas polluting the atmosphere of the state, the other states, and indeed the world, as long as massive corporate profits are maintained. With hat in hand, Perry is now begging President Obama to stop the EPA from making Texas comply with federal law like every other state.

Personally, I think it is about time that the EPA takes over insuring pollution standards in Texas. It has become more than obvious that the state Republican leadership and the TCEQ will not rein in the corporate misbehavior. Someone must do this, and since the TCEQ won't then the EPA must.

Texas simply does not have the right to endanger the people of Texas, of the United States, and of the rest of the world.

[Rag Blog contributor Ted McLaughlin also posts at jobsanger.]

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FILM / 'Harry Brown' : Shallow Pastiche Mirrors the News

Michael Caine in Harry Brown.

What is Harry Brown trying to tell us?
It thrills and titillates without any socially redeeming value. It blames the kids on the streets for the drug war and ignores the manufacturing of violence happening in the suites.
By Ed Felien / The Rag Blog / May 30, 2010

It was 95 degrees and I thought I'd take the afternoon off and slip into an air-conditioned theater and watch Michael Caine romp through Harry Brown. It was a ghastly mistake.

It's a horror, a pastiche. It has all the sophistication of Reefer Madness in its treatment of drugs. The heroes and villains have the character depth of Batman and Robin. And the "Death Wish" plot is a recycled revenge tragedy that went out of date with the death of Queen Elizabeth I.

That's not to say the movie isn't scary. It is. There's painful tension as we witness scene after scene of escalating violence. There's horror as we watch gruesome murders and beatings. By the time Harry Brown starts to take on the evildoers you feel you have enough adrenalin pumped to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

But the story is based on an incredible distortion of reality.

The trailer that begins the movie is a grainy black and white phone film of a young man being forced to smoke something (probably crack). In the next scene the young man is on the back of a motor scooter shooting a pistol. A woman pushing a baby carriage sees him and is horrified. She gets out her cell phone and, presumably, starts to call the police. The motor scooter circles her, fires at her. She is shot and drops dead.

What is the film trying to say? That if you smoke one hit of crack you're going to go out and shoot a mother pushing a baby carriage?

That's insane. There's no scientific evidence for that.

But that's the set-up for the film. That's the moral lens through which all the action that follows has to be viewed.

Toward the end of the film a gung-ho police chief decides he's going to make a name for himself by bringing a massive show of force to the projects where the drug dealing and violence is taking place and arrest some of the bad kids.

There is no basis for a warrant. There are no grounds for a massive arrest. There is no probable cause of anything. And, yet, we're supposed to believe the police action is justified. We're supposed to cheer for them. And, then, when the young people in the projects resist the violence of the police, start to fight back and actually push the police out of their neighborhood, we're supposed to believe that society has gotten out of control.

This final lesson of the film seems to say that it's impossible to deal with young people and drugs. They're out of control and there's nothing we can do about it. It's a hopeless and depressing ending, and by the time it winds down the film has justified violence, torture, and murder as legitimate ways of getting even.

Is that really the way it is?

Recent events in the Tivoli Gardens section of Kingston, Jamaica, seem to echo the ending of Harry Brown. The Kingston police are trying to arrest and extradite Christopher "Dudus" Coke to the U.S. to face drugs and weapons charges. The people of Tivoli have set up barricades blocking access to their community. Some have run through the community firing weapons killing several officers. Eighteen police stations were under attack and one was set on fire. At least 70 people have died.

Is this just young people on a rampage, like college students in spring? Or is it more serious than that?

It is probably true that Coke heads up the largest criminal enterprise in Jamaica. He is probably guilty of drug dealing and murder in Jamaica and in the U.S. But it is also true that he has given large amounts of money to his community for food, children's schools, school uniforms, and community centers.

It may be true that much of the armed defense of Coke is probably from his gang, and it may also be true that many in Tivoli might be terrorized by him, but there is also no question that he enjoys wide popular support. For poor people, people without jobs, people without hope, Coke represents their only lifeline of support. That's why many call him "President," and some say they'd die for him.

The Prime Minister represents Tivoli in the Jamaican Parliament. He depends on Coke to turn out the vote for him and his Labour Party. He didn't want to go after him, but he was pressured by the U.S.

The solution to the problem in Tivoli is simple and obvious and almost impossible to bring about. As long as there is poverty and illegal drugs, poor people are going to sell those drugs. The most ruthless and vicious of these poor will quickly organize a syndicate that they will control.

The obvious solution is end poverty (or at least provide an adequate social welfare system) and legalize drugs. By legalizing drugs society would take the profit out of the transaction. It would no longer be profitable to stand on a street corner and sell marijuana when anyone could grow it in their backyard and share it with their neighbors. Heroin and cocaine could be available with a doctor's prescription in safe and measured doses.

Perhaps the best analysis of the situation in Jamaica is by Betty Ann Blaine in her column "Heart to Heart" in the Jamaican Observer on May 25. It is titled "Corruption, criminality, chaos."
The end of Michael Manley's experiment with democratic socialism in the '70s simultaneously signaled the end of the chapter of national sacrifice and the closure of the book on collective responsibility. The period of the '80s ushered in a new era of individual aggrandizement and vulgar self-interest that was distinctly different from what existed before. It became common talk that the days of politicians being poor under the Michael Manley regime were over and that it was "black man time to make money."

What transpired from that time until now has been a story of unfettered greed with the attendant characteristics of political corruption and widespread complicity throughout all sectors and branches of the society. As the tentacles of corruption spread, they formed natural attachments to public officials, the police and private citizens, and a governmental and institutional structure already porous and fraught with weaknesses and loopholes fell victim to deep and widespread skullduggery.
It could be easily argued that Dudus Coke himself is a victim of a vicious political system. When the legitimate government divested itself of its role and responsibilities to the citizens of the country, it opened the door for illegitimate rule, and area leaders and dons walked in. The country could not have had a Dudus Coke without a corrupt political system, and while Coke must take personal responsibility, the truth is that the system encouraged and facilitated his ascendancy to power.

At one point in the movie, Harry Brown assassinates a drug lord, and the police response is, "He's doing us a favor." That seems to be the primary mission of Harry Brown. It's also the mission of Jamaican Prime Minister Bruce Golding, after prodding by the Obama Administration (and in spite of the evidence of extended telephone conversations between Coke and the Golding Administration).

But who are the drug lords here? The wholesaler in Harry Brown who is delivering product for street gangs to retail and Dudus Coke are small fry compared to the international cartels that make it all happen.

And who's the biggest drug dealer in the world? Why, we are! The United States by sending troops to Afghanistan to protect the poppy crop is responsible for the distribution of 90% of the world's heroin. By supporting the narco-state of Albania we're making sure the heroin gets safe passage into Europe.

On his way out of office, George W. Bush pinned a medal on Alvaro Uribe Vélez to recognize his outstanding work as head of the government of Colombia. This is the same Uribe whose campaign manager (while Uribe was Mayor of Medellin and friends with Pablo Escobar) was caught smuggling more than 100,000 pounds of a chemical agent used to make cocaine out of cocoa leaves. It is accepted by most observers that Uribe is the principal force behind the export of cocaine into this country and the world.

What is the connection of the CIA and the Bush family to the international drug trade? Before it was the CIA, the OSS made a deal with Lucky Luciano during World War II. They agreed to get him out of federal prison and help him with the distribution of heroin in the U.S. if he would get the Mafia to assist U. S. troops in the invasion of Sicily. The Allies successfully invaded Sicily and got a toehold on Europe, and the Mafia has been a partner with the government in international relations ever since.

George H. W. Bush was appointed head of the CIA in 1976. With the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, the role of the CIA in arranging for transport of heroin from Southeast Asia had been severely impaired. During the Vietnam War, Colonel Ollie North was the principal contact with the Meo or Hmong Tribesmen who supplied opium from the Golden Triangle of Burma, Laos and Thailand. He took over the distribution system developed by the French and continued the shipments of opium to Marseilles for chemical conversion into heroin.

Bush had earlier probably played an important role in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. The invasion left from an island he had rented on two boats named Houston and Barbara. So Bush was probably a longtime CIA operative.

Bush and Ollie North got together again in the basement of the White House when Bush was Vice President under Reagan, and Bush was Director of Special Operations with North as his Chief of Staff. That's when Ollie cooked up the cocaine for cash for guns trade that supplied arms to the Contras trying to overthrow the government of Nicaragua.

They smuggled cocaine into the U.S. on CIA planes to a secret air base in Florida, sold the drugs (probably to a Mafia contact), used the cash to buy Russian made guns in Iran, brought the guns to an air base in Honduras and traded the guns for cocaine with the Contras.

When he was asked about his role in this operation, Bush said, "I was out of the loop." That's crazy. He was holding the loop, like Will Rogers holding a lariat and jumping in and out of it while telling jokes.

But the son outdid the father. Just like with the Mafia in Sicily, Bush Junior got the CIA to line up support from the opium warlords who had been put out of business by the Taliban. The opium warlords and Karzai from Unocal (Karzai's brother is allegedly the head of opium production and distribution in Afghanistan) now run Afghanistan as a narco-terrorist state. Along with Albania and Colombia, they represent Bush's actual axis of evil.

Harry Brown is pornography. It thrills and titillates without any socially redeeming value. It blames the kids on the streets for the drug war and ignores the manufacturing of violence happening in the suites. It'll be nice when the movies grow up and get real.

[Ed Felien is publisher and editor of Southside Pride, a South Minneapolis monthly.]

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VERSE / Larry Piltz : New Atlantis and Banglateche

"Earth could not answer; nor the Seas that mourn..."
Illustration by Adelaide Hanscom and Blanche Cumming (1905) for “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” tr. Edward Fitzgerald / Wikimedia Commons.

New Atlantis and Banglateche

By Houma Cayenne

Here beside my breathing Bayou Teche
true lifeblood of our Acadian creche
my second sight so easily stretches
oer the realm of the fishermen's catch
and the damage caused by greed and its wretches
I mourn for the view that's meant us
for the floating early grave that's sent us
the oncoming waters of New Atlantis

I see your sea birds' desperate flailing
overwhelmed, hopes frail and lean
and our skimmers' regretful sailing
while retching toxins oer the railing
dreading more each year's new gale e'en
as I ponder night and daily
the meaning of the mighty pirates failing
as mon amis must keep on bailing

To the inland coast of Banglateche
come the lapping waves of New Atlantis
through the heaving booms of helpless mesh
by the isles of decaying detritus
carrying bodies of beings you'd have to guess
a tide of mayhem, murder, and mindless mess
witnessed by your humble Cajun Cervantes
tilting seaward like a mantis
raging with a sacred wailing
for a time of great white whaling
a catch of mighty pirates failing
their lies and sad excuses trailing
all the way to their righteous jailing
as mon amis must keep on bailing

New Atlantis and Banglateche
our refuge now becomes the depths
our solid ground eternally wet
yet wonder where to throw our nets
and how we'll throw each jour de fete
Oh Evangeline you sweet coquette
we thought we'd somehow save you yet
your marshes and heron, chenier and egret
the sheltering cypress, the saltgrass carpet
the oyster and crab and shrimp we've met
Oh all of life, we are in your debt
as heart to heart and tete to tete
we grieve for the diet of poison you'll get
for your suffering we've more than our share of regret
as the years roll by a la morte de roulette
le bon temps au revoir et allons Banglateche
we pray that somehow we can all start afresh
as out in New Atlantis the pirates keep failing
and mon amis still keep on bailing

Houma Cayenne
As told to Larry Piltz / The Rag Blog
May 30, 2010

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29 May 2010

Worse or Worser? : Barrier Grief in Louisiana

An oil soaked brown pelican attempts to takes flight on Louisiana coast. Photo by Gerald Herbert / AP.

Worse or worser?
Gulf grief, contractors, and media mania

By Greg Moses / The Rag Blog / May 29, 2010

Shock and awe, misdirection, the whole truth turned upside down? Could it be that the obscenity-driven confrontation between Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal was a more exact replica of oil war shock tactics than I thought?

Kirk James Murphy, MD, argues in the firedoglake blog that the sand-barrier plan to block the oil slick on the Louisiana coast is being pushed to completion by interests who would rather be rid of the marshlands than save them.

Is our grief over the deathwatch at the Gulf Coast being crassly manipulated for the purposes of real estate development? Dr. Murphy’s blog-post quotes at length a May 8 report by Josh Wingrove of the News and Mail, pointing out that the barrier-island plan has been three years in the making.

What wrenched our hearts out this week was the CNN presentation of Anderson Cooper’s visit to a dead marshland, recently killed off by a gooey assault of crude oil. Not even the bugs had survived, we were shown. Nungesser pleaded for immediate action. James Carville bore witness to the fact that nothing was being done anywhere in sight.

Jindal and Nungesser have been arguing that barrier berms would stop oil from reaching more marshland. And their arguments make obvious sense under the circumstances.

The danger in the dredging plan, argues Dr. Murphy, is that the dredged material would be drawn from polluted shipping channels and washed ashore during the volatile hurricane season coming soon. The oil will not be stopped, yet the toxic damage will be multiplied.

There is money involved, of course. And already by Thursday evening Nungesser was on CNN demanding more.

The CNN media campaign this week has the shocking effects that we remember from oil wars past. And the effects are especially felt among those of us who like Louisiana Congressman Charlie Melancon find it difficult not to cry at the sight of our dying Gulf. And there is no doubt that our shock is being played like a football on its way to one goal line or the other.

But why does Dr. Murphy opine that the berms probably won’t survive the hurricane season, while he argues that they would dry out the marshes? And what good are wetlands anyway once they have been covered by bubbling crude?

Dr. Murphy’s argument would place our shocked grief in alliance with the Corps of Engineers, who apparently resisted the berm idea until CNN tossed Nungesser a lateral pass this week. Given the velocities of these shock tactics, there is never very much time to decide things. And maybe the velocity alone is enough to raise suspicion. Except.

Except in this case there actually is an enemy attacking the marshlands, and Nungesser appeared to be making his arguments in the company of lots of people. The image of Nungesser in a crowded room makes it more difficult to believe that his plan runs counter to the interests of people who live along the marshlands and who are working up a campaign of self-defense. But this is the way shock psychology would work with the power of images.

It’s also curious that the Corps of Engineers is not more forthcoming for the cameras. Nungesser does make a point when he asks: where’s the plan? And compared with the images of oily death in the marshes, it would seem that the risk of drying wetlands is less inhumane to the doomed creatures of the Gulf. Once upon a time I walked to work through those coastal marshlands on my way to an offshore drilling job. On the Gulf Coast, from Corpus Christi to New Orleans, there is no such thing as a non-toxic option.

Marshland protection is one of at least three scientific issues that are being fought on the fly during this oil spill. Thursday evening brings news of an “oil plume” that is about 1,000 yards deep and six miles wide drifting in the direction of Mobile Bay, Alabama. Reports say the plume is a toxic cocktail of dispersants and oil. Is it better or worse than an oil slick? Oil slicks either repel life or kill it. Plumes, apparently, allow life but at the cost of a living toxicity that will work its way up the food chain. Cancer clinics for everyone.

When CNN flashes pictures of the oil operation, there is a ship spraying cascades of fluids onto the water. Is this the dispersant? Here and there we see comments from scientists saying that nobody knows if the dispersant is such a good idea. Is it better or worse than a slick of thick crude? LIke Nungesser’s berms, dispersants also raise questions of money trails.

The third scientific issue of course is how to plug the hole. Speaking on Larry King Live, the legendary oilman T. Boone Pickens says either you get lucky or you drill a relief well. August is the frequently cited expectation for when the relief well will be completed.

“We’ve been here 38 days,” said Pickens, “and we’ll probably be here 38 days more.” If Pickens is right, will it be possible to stop the oil from washing ashore?

They say the first stage of grief is denial, and I don’t want to believe that any of this is happening. What Congressman Melancon did in public yesterday, we have been doing in our homes this week all along the Gulf Coast. You cannot love the Gulf Coast, witness this shocking trauma, and control your tears at the same time.

But now on top of it all we have to watch out for the ways that our tears are being maneuvered into contracting strategies that may have no other uses beyond profiteering. I’m not convinced that there are worse things than a raw oil slick, not even if they are barrier berms or 6-mile plumes of noxious crap. But if it is the best thing for all God’s creatures on the Gulf Coast to just stand aside and accept the sacrifice that oil slicks bring once they are imminent, then it’s time we started moving from Denial to Acceptance at some improbable speed.

[Greg Moses is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. He can be reached at gmosesx@gmail.com]

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28 May 2010

Medea Benjamin : Getting Naked in Houston to Expose BP

CodePink demonstrators at BP headquarters in Houston, May 24, 2010. Photo from CodePink / Flickr.

Naked truth:
Exposing BP's criminal behavior

By Medea Benjamin / May 28, 2010
See gallery of photos, Below.
HOUSTON -- Diane Wilson, a fourth generation shrimper from the Texas Gulf and a founder of CODEPINK, has been watching the BP spill and the botched clean-up with a mixture of dread and anger. After all, it’s her livelihood and that of her community that’s at stake.

“I’ve lived all my life in the Gulf Coast, in the oil, chemical, and gas hellhole we call an energy corridor,” said Diane Wilson with her Texas twang. “I’ve been fightin’ these polluters for 21 years. But this BP spill is the nail in the coffin of the people who make their living along the Gulf Coast. This is our 9/11 in slow motion.”

Diane has been incensed by the cavalier attitude of BP CEO Tony Hayward, who said that the largest oil spill in U.S. history is a tiny speck in the vast ocean. “He had the nerve to say that those miles upon miles of underwater oil plumes that stretch to who knows where and do who knows what to the fisheries, the ecosystem, and Gulf of Mexico for possibly generations, is really going to have a ‘very, very modest impact.’ Sittin’ there listening to BP’s lies made my blood boil,” Diane fumed. “I realized I better get off my butt and do somethin’ about it.”

This 61-year-old grandmother of five is all about action. To protest chemical companies polluting her bay, in 2002 Diane climbed a chemical tower, chained herself to it and then did a 30-day water-only hunger strike. As a CODEPINK co-founder who tried to stop the invasion of Iraq in 2003, an invasion she knew was all about oil, Diane got arrested confronting Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at a Congressional hearing. Then she scaled and tied herself to the White House fence (and almost got shot by a sniper). She even traveled to Iraq when the U.S. military was about to attack, putting herself forward as a human shield.

So Diane put out a call for people to join her in Houston on Monday, May 24, to protest at the BP headquarters. Looking for a creative way to expose the company’s criminal behavior (and entice the media, who rarely cover protests in Texas), Diane was inspired by the example of a group of women from Nigeria who took over a Chevron oil rig and threatened to strip naked if the company didn’t hire more local workers and invest in the community. Faced with just the threat of nudity, Chevron gave in.

“If the Nigerian women could use their bodies on the Niger Delta, why can’t we do it in downtown Houston?” Diane reasoned.

Diane doesn’t take nudity lightly. She didn’t grow up in a hippie commune, but in a fundamentalist Pentecostal family in rural Texas.
I was taught that flesh is sinful, it’s the devil. I was so modest that if my sister said the word ‘bra’, I would climb under the table. I was horrified by anything intimate. So for me, using nudity to expose the truth about BP was WAY outside my comfort zone. But I realized that it’s the destruction of our ecosystem by corporate greed that’s obscene, not a woman’s body.
To prepare for the action, Diane got 100 pounds of fish from her fishing buddies, old fishing nets to drag the dead fish and fake oil to dump on them. She and one of her daughters made beautiful signs saying “Expose BP” and “The Naked Truth about Drill, Baby, Drill” and put them on big sandwich boards. “You could say we was cheatin’ because we decided to use sandwich boards to cover our private parts, but that’s about as nude as those of us from Texas can get,” laughed Diane. “We’ll leave the full-on nudity to the women from California.”

The action was superb. About 100 people showed up from all over Texas and six other states -- including California. Some people wore pasties that said “No BP," some dressed as fishermen, oily birds, and fish. Diane put on her white rubber fishing boots, smeared herself with oil and wore a sandwich board that read “Expose BP’s Obscene Side.”

Two imposter oil workers in BP uniforms doused the group with fake oil, causing the birds and fish to recoil and die on the sidewalk. The police and BP security stood by watching, as nice as could be. It was obvious that BP higher ups had the good sense to tell them that arresting protesters would not help their image.

The group was having fun mocking BP, but when Diane took the megaphone to speak, the tone changed. “I am here because I’m outraged,” she said, her voice shaking. “My family has lived on this gulf for 100 years, we’ve been fishing these waters for generations and now we’re seeing it decimated. All we’re getting from BP is lies. We’re not getting any answers from the government. That’s why people have to hit the streets to demand solutions.”

After the action, I sat down with Diane to hear her solutions and ideas for future actions. “BP should be shaken down like a rotten fig tree,” she said.
The government should seize their profits and use them for the clean up and then to invest in clean energy. We should shame those senators who want to stop the Big Oil Bailout Prevention Act legislation that would raise oil companies’ liability from a pitiful $75 million to $10 billion. And we should demand that our government stop offshore drilling. No new permits, period. We have to seize this moment to move our country away from fossil fuels that are responsible for environmental devastation and wars.
CODEPINK has asked supporters to email letters to Senator Murkowski, asking her to stop blocking the Big Bailout Prevention Act. It’s time to protect the fishermen, the coastal residents and the wildlife, not the corporation at fault for the disaster.

But for Diane, sending emails is not enough. She is calling on people throughout the country to boycott BP -- not just passively, but by getting out to BP gas stations to protest and educate their communities on the company and the catastrophe. CODEPINK supports her call to action and is providing resources for action on our website. We’ll also be bringing Diane to Washington, DC, to confront Congress, the White House Administration, and BP executives with the crude awakening about Big Oil.

“Pass out fliers to drivers. Ride your bikes around the stations. Get creative. Hey, maybe you even want to do your own nude protest,” she grins. “Expose BP. Expose that Drill, Baby, Drill means Spill, Baby, Spill. After all, what’s at stake is nothing less than our planet. And that’s the naked truth.”

[International peace activist Medea Benjamin was a founder of CODEPINK.]

Source / Pink Tank

CodePink demonstrators at BP headquarters in Houston, May 24, 2010. Photos from CodePink / Flickr.

Thanks to Fran Hanlon / The Rag Blog

[+/-]

The 'Nation-Building' Mirage : A Trillion Dollars and Counting

U.S. Marine in Afghanistan. Photo by Goran Tomasevic / Reuters.

From anti-terrorism to 'nation building':
Paying dearly for Bush's wars

By Ted McLaughlin / The Rag Blog / May 28, 2010

In October of 2001, President Bush invaded Afghanistan. About a year and a half later (March 2003), he did the same in Iraq. Now it is nearly nine years later, and the occupation of both countries continues. Sadly, nothing has been accomplished.

Both wars were entered into on the promise that they would provide more security for America, but they have not done that. The same terrorist dangers that existed in 2001, continue to exist today. In fact, it may be worse because with each killing of innocent civilians we create more enemies.

Both wars quickly morphed from an attack on terrorists to an attempt at nation-building. We should have learned from Vietnam that democracy cannot be imposed by military power (especially when it involves installing and protecting corrupt regimes), but that evidently is a lesson we still have not learned. Our leaders still seem to think that we can force other countries not only to be like us, but also to be our friends.

In the 2008 election, the American people voted for change, and one of the changes they wanted was to extract America from these unnecessary and failed nation-building attempts. During the campaign, President Obama promised to end these wars and bring our troops home (which is what a majority of the population wants to see). But upon taking the oath of office, he seems to have forgotten his promises. All he has done is continue the tragically-failed Bush/Cheney policies in both countries.

According to the president, at the minimum we must continue both wars for at least another year and a half (until the end of 2011). And both wars could go much longer than that unless certain amorphous goals are met. In other words, we could be looking at a perpetual war presence in both countries, and that seems to be OK with both of our political parties.

On May 30th (just a few days away), the United States will have wasted over a trillion dollars on these two wars. While the Republicans (and far too many Democrats) whine over not having the money to help our own citizens in this terrible economy, there seems to be no end to the spending of money to continue the nation-building and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Congress is currently considering another emergency Defense Appropriation Bill to spend tens of billions more on these two unending wars. Will this new expenditure of tens of billions of dollars (which will be followed by spending even more billions) actually accomplish anything? Probably not, especially since I'm not at all sure the government (or anyone else) knows what we are trying to accomplish or whether these shifting goals are possible to accomplish.

Senator Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) tried to inject some sanity into this continuing tragicomedy. He offered an amendment to the new war appropriations bill which would have required President Obama to provide a flexible timetable for the withdrawal of troops -- a more than reasonable request.

Feingold said,
In light of our deficit and domestic needs and in light of rising casualty rates in Afghanistan and in light of the growing al-Queda threat around the world, an expensive troop-intensive nation-building campaign just doesn't add up for me... Frankly I am disappointed that we are about to pass a bill providing tens of billions of dollars to keep this war going with so little public debate about whether this approach makes any sense.
But the Feingold amendment failed on an 18 to 80 vote. The majority of both Republicans and Democrats seem happy to continue throwing huge amounts of money down the bottomless well of unending war, without knowing what we are trying to accomplish or whether anything at all can even be accomplished. And they don't seem to care how much longer they will have to do this.

One of the saddest things is that while Bush was president there was an active anti-war element in this country, but since the election of President Obama the anti-war element has virtually disappeared (even though he is continuing the same failed policy in both countries). Americans have turned their attention from the wars to the economy, the recession, and the need for millions of new jobs. They don't seem to realize that if it were not for these wars, billions of dollars would be available to tackle these economic problems.

Even if these two wars were necessary and morally justifiable (which they are not), we simply cannot afford them any longer -- not in terms of the enormous amounts of money, the lost American lives, or the slaughter of innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is long past the time when these tragic wars should have been stopped.

We must re-ignite the anti-war fervor and get these two wars stopped. It is not just morally right -- it's the only course of action that makes sense.

[Rag Blog contributor Ted McLaughlin also posts at jobsanger.]

The Rag Blog

[+/-]

27 May 2010

Vietnam and Afghanistan : Still Waist Deep in the Big Muddy

American soldiers carry a wounded comrade through a Vietnam Swamp. Photo by Paul Halverson, 1969. Image from The Veterans Hour.

Afghanistan, and the specter of Vietnam:
Waist deep in the big muddy

By Harry Targ / The Rag Blog / May 27, 2010
But every time I read the papers
That old feeling comes on;
We're waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the big fool says to push on.
-- Pete Seeger
As has been expressed in a variety of ways over the years, the specter of Vietnam weighs as an albatross on the American body politic.

President Truman began supporting French colonialism in Indochina in 1950, funding 80 percent of the French war effort as part of the globalization of Cold War policy. After the French were defeated, the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s created a dictatorial, unpopular, and corrupt South Vietnamese government which was aided by military advisers and massive U.S. financial support.

President Kennedy pursued a policy of building a “non-communist road to economic development,” with the addition of thousands more troops. Lyndon Johnson launched a massive air war and counterinsurgency campaign leading to 540,000 troops in the country by 1968. And the Nixon administration engaged in a brutal bombing campaign hitting targets throughout North and South Vietnam.

Each strategy was to be the last. Victory was near. In the end, millions of Vietnamese people died and thousands of Americans.

And all indicators are that the United States is doing it again in Afghanistan. In the 1980s the U.S. committed more than a billion dollars to support religious fundamentalists fighting to overthrow secular Kabul governments it opposed. In the 1990s, the U.S. briefly negotiated with a Taliban government it found abhorrent, but which it felt might become a potential economic ally in the production of oil pipelines running through Afghanistan.

Finally the George W. Bush administration made war on dubious grounds on the Taliban government in the 21st century. The immediate enemy, Al Qaeda, the alleged perpetrator of the crimes of 9/11, was not delivered to the U.S. by the Afghanistan government as “ordered” by the Bush administration.

Since 9/11 we have been engaged in a nine year quagmire in Afghanistan fighting what is left of a dwindling Al Qaeda and a vast population of people who resent being bombed and occupied by a foreign power.

The White House recently hosted Afghan president Hamid Karzai, by numerous accounts corrupt and unpopular. The most troubling information about the encounter between Obama and Karzai was reported by Helene Cooper in The New York Times. According to her, President Obama promised to Karzai that “...the United States would remain in Afghanistan for the long haul, even as he vowed to stick to his timetable to begin withdrawing troops by July 2011.”

Cooper surmised that the week-long visit constituted an effort “...to reassure Mr. Karzai and his government that the United States will not abandon Afghanistan...”

In another New York Times story by Alissa Rubin, the author warns that the hardest fighting is still ahead even though “the biggest challenge lies not on the battlefield but in the governing of Afghanistan itself.” A near future expansion of the counter-insurgency campaign will confront, the “corrosive distrust” of the Karzai government. In areas such as Marja, the population resents influential power brokers such as Karzai’s brother, local police, and other government officials.

Rubin quotes an aid to General Stanley McChrystal, architect of the new counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan: “People are tired of the Taliban, but they also don’t want cops to shake them down, they don’t want power brokers who are so corrupt they impact their lives and livelihood.”

Gareth Porter in an Inter Press Service article points out that the Obama administration has balked at the Karzai effort to dialogue with sectors of the Taliban despite the obvious possibility that negotiations could lead to the withdrawal of U.S. troops which would advantage the United States and at the same time bring peace to the Pashtun population of Southern Afghanistan.

Porter quotes an administrative official:
Obama’s forceful opposition to any political approach to any Taliban leadership until after the counter-insurgency strategy has been tried appears to represent a policy that has been hammered out within the administration at the insistence of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and General McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Middle East expert Juan Cole writes that Obama’s master plan for Afghanistan has involved a “massive counter-insurgency effort,” involving tens of thousands of troops and massive combat. Cole estimates that the strategy has about a 10 percent possibility of success.

Forty-six years ago Lyndon Johnson won an enormous presidential electoral victory against conservative Republican Barry Goldwater. LBJ ran as the anti-war candidate. He embarked on a campaign to get Congress to support civil rights legislation that would at last end Jim Crow in the South. He constructed a variety of programs to address poverty in America, activate community participation in the political process, and launched a program to expand access to health care for the elderly. He promised the American people “A Great Society.”

Much of the Great Society agenda was destroyed as the Vietnam War escalated from 120,000 troops in 1965, to over 400,000 by 1967, and 540,000 in January 1968. By 1967 the United States had dropped more bombs on Vietnamese targets than were dropped on enemy targets during World War II. And President Johnson was forced to withdraw from the 1968 campaign for the presidency.

The Obama/McChrystal counter-insurgency strategy may not yield the magnitude of escalation reached in Vietnam. However, the combination of support for a corrupt regime, placing foreign troops among a hostile population, indiscriminate killing of local civilians, and refusal to negotiate with adversaries, as Juan Cole suggests, surely will yield a Vietnam-style failure in Afghanistan.

Along with the pain and suffering of the Afghan people, the counter-insurgency strategy of this administration will dash the hopes and dreams of all the young people who worked so hard in 2008 to get the candidate committed to progressive social change, Barack Obama, elected president. The parallels with the young who worked to elect the “peace candidate” in 1964 are stark.

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

The Rag Blog

[+/-]

26 May 2010

Ray Mungo : The Pope is Toast

Pope Benedict on Palm Sunday. Photo from AP / examiner.com.

Pope is Toast, Boy Diddley, and Me

By Ray Mungo / The Rag Blog / May 26, 2010

The ongoing circus of revelations pinning responsibility for covering up boy-diddling by priests on the Holy Father in Rome himself is pure entertainment to me. Every morning brings fresh developments in the crumbling pontiff’s decline, reminiscent of Nixon’s gradual disintegration under the roaring waves of Watergate. Now, as then, I spring out of bed each day eager and expectant for the latest twist and turn that will lead, one can surely hope, to the vicar of Christ departing the Vatican in a helicopter bound for Bavaria.

Wonder of the ages, could it be? The Pope is toast. Oh joy, oh rapture.
Admittedly, I’m not an objective, neutral observer. I was one of the diddlees, a long 50 years ago when a priest in Massachusetts made a habit of pulling down my pants and using my 12, and then 13, year old body for his own shuddering pleasure.

Father didn’t ask permission. He took me in the rectory, in the projection booth of the parish auditorium, in the car, anywhere he could and as often as he liked. He liked my soft pubic hair and compared it to other boys’, because Father had lots of boys, but I was special, he said.

Stop right there. This isn’t what you might expect. It’s not, for example, the child sex abuse victim railing against his monster, not a polemic against the Catholic church, although its ultimate destruction has long been my favorite fantasy.

My molester escaped any punishment, as was the norm in the church then and throughout Benedict’s career at the controls. My guy was simply transferred to another parish, where he continued to “work with” budding youths. Eventually he died, still a holy pastor to his newly hormonal flock.

I’m not accusing him of having made me into the homosexual / atheist / alcoholic / drug addict / lacking any normal employment history, treated for depression and retired on a dime fellow that I am. Hell, no! I was probably cut out to be a freelance writer from the start and by college age was already committed to the life of the anarchic stoner. Father Fondle didn’t seem to have this effect on other boys. The ones I knew all grew up to be heterosexual breeders and genuflecting believers.

This history comes back to me in the light of all the thrilling new revelations of church cover-ups leading directly to the seat of Saint Pete, and in view of a contemporary friend of mine now serving six years in a California state prison for the felonious offense of stroking a 12 year old boy in the wrong places. My friend is not a priest. Times have changed.

Most gay men are not child molesters, of course. That ancient myth has been thoroughly discredited. Exhaustive research shows that gay and lesbian folks are not any more likely to be sexually abusive to children than straights are. There’s simply no evidence of it. Yet every time a same-sex child molestation case makes the news, the old prejudice flares up, and the Vatican is not shy about using this hateful lie as a ploy to absolve its own culpability. “It’s those terrible homosexuals who cause the problem, not the church,” is their shameful song. It won’t play in Peoria or even Palermo any more. It’s the same kind of voodoo non-science as all the other church doctrines.

The church may be the ironic victim of its own smear campaign. By laying all the blame on homosexuality, it reminds us that homosexuals are disproportionately attracted to the priesthood. If gay is bad, so is the history of the Vatican, a gay ghetto to rival any other. As a 12 year old altar boy I really loved running around in those frocks, and if Father caressed my member in the altar boys’ locker room in the church, maybe that was some kind of secret initiation rite, for all I knew. Priests live in a perpetual little boy’s clubhouse with “No Grils Allowded” scrawled on the door.

It was not for me, though. At age 13 I stopped believing in God or the church. Some might call that a “tragic robbery of faith,” I think of it as the birth of reason.

My friend in state prison is now in an isolated hospital cell after another inmate, who had discovered the nature of his crime, assaulted him in his sleep, breaking his jaw, nose, and both cheekbones before the guards intervened. The attacker meant to kill. My friend may not survive some future assault when he is transferred back into the general population. Convicted killers, rapists, and robbers consider themselves morally superior to boy-diddlers.

It wasn’t always so. Boy-diddling has been going on since recorded history began. Think of the ancient Greeks, or the Japanese Samurai warriors who groomed their pages. A small minority of adults attracted to children has always existed in every society, often taken for granted. But in our own society, it’s a curse, a crime more reviled than any other.

Somehow, though, I can’t summon any genuine hatred toward the guy who did the diddling on me. He couldn’t help himself. That’s just the way he was. He didn’t turn me into a pedophile, I’ve never been sexually attracted to kids, and he didn’t make me gay, that’s something I was born with. Where I can assign blame, however, is on the church that protected and shielded this man for years, allowing him access to children despite certain knowledge of his past.

And where I can issue praise is on the New York Times for its singular role in relentless documentation of scandals the church, and Benedict himself, spent decades trying to hide. The paper’s researchers and reporters have unearthed one horror story after another, all faultlessly documented, creating a ripple effect in all other media. A Pulitzer is surely due. Hell, a Nobel.

Let the fun continue! Every day’s a holiday when the Pope is toast. I’ll toast to that!

[Ray Mungo, a founder of Liberation News Service in 1967, is the author of Famous Long Ago and Total Loss Farm. He is a social worker, tending principally to AIDS patients and the severely mentally ill.]

The Rag Blog

[+/-]

David P. Hamilton : Our Corporate Rulers and their Bankrupt Drug War

Image from Democratic Underground.

Why our leaders wage war on drugs
And why this war is doomed

By David P. Hamilton / The Rag Blog / May 26, 2010

Ted McLaughlin recently wrote an article for The Rag Blog ("Prohibition II: A Trillion Dollars Down the Drain") that cataloged the failures of the "war on drugs.” Basically, it hasn't met its stated objectives to reduce the use of illicit drugs, it has cost a lot of the taxpayer's money, and it has fueled the development of organized criminal elements.

All true and I have no quarrel with his conclusion that the government needs to admit that the whole effort has been a misguided failure. However, this failure has been glaringly apparent for many years and yet the policy continues. The National Research Council studied the efficacy of the war on drugs and concluded that existing studies were inconclusive, inadequate, and provided no basis on which to carry out a public policy of this magnitude.

This study was ignored by policy makers, leading one observer to conclude "the drug war has no interest in its own results." There must be other benefits that our rulers derive from the war on drugs that we are not taking into account.

In addition to its inefficacy, the war on marijuana in particular has suffered from mounting evidence of pot's benign nature and its beneficial effects. Despite considerable effort to do so, the anti-drug forces haven't been able to link it with lung cancer. Some studies even suggest that pot may have a prophylactic effect against it. A pulmonary specialist who I've seen, a member of a large group of doctors in the same field, told me that in 17 years of practice, he had never seen a patient with lung cancer who had just smoked pot.

We need to grasp the real reasons the war on drugs is maintained in the face of its obvious failures. What is the corporate ruling class gaining from this policy despite the fact it isn't accomplishing the objectives that are fed to the general public as justifications? There are several answers.

The war on drugs is an important means of social control. It gives the state a reason to employ many more agents of social control -- police, border patrol, prison guards, and the related bureaucrats. It gives these agents a justification for interfering in people's lives. It allows the state to incarcerate and disenfranchise millions of those who have, by violating drug laws, shown disrespect for the state's authority.

This is especially useful in controlling potentially dissident non-white male populations. It is no historical coincidence that the racist Nixon kicked off the war on drugs in 1970, in the wake of years of major rioting in African-American communities. The racist character of making marijuana illegal was quite overt when we look at the justifications originally put forth in the 1930's.

Image from cannabis culture.

The war on drugs has always had racist elements like the continuing gross inequities in penalties for crack and powder cocaine. African-Americans comprise nearly three fourths of those jailed for drug offenses although they are no more likely to use drugs than anyone else.

The money generated by the illicit drug trade eventually gets laundered and spent. It filters into the regular economy and ends up in legitimate financial institutions. This has the normal multiplier effect within the overall economy as the money ultimately becomes available to these financial institutions for their own investments. They make billions from their investment of drug money without ever touching the illicit drug trade.

Hence, the drug trade is an important pillar of the economy. Were drug money to magically disappear overnight, the shock would send the economy into a depression. In relation to the economy its illegitimate origins are largely irrelevant.

Like the "defense" industry, the war on drugs establishes a system of transfer payments from the general population to the corporate ruling class. We are all taxed to support this policy. If the government has spent a trillion tax dollars to support the policy, where did it all go?

Outside of salaries paid to the state's social control agents required by the program, the money is sent to the corporate entities that supply the hardware for it -- private prisons, guns, electronics, cars, airplanes, uniforms, fences, etc. And like "defense" spending, drug war spending provides government guaranteed profits to the capitalist class who own the enterprises that support it.

This government spending generates a constituency from among those to whom it provides jobs. They naturally support the prohibition's continuation. California's powerful prison guard association is doing all it can to defeat the marijuana legalization initiative on the ballot there this November.

Marijuana is the primary drug at issue with exponentially more users than any other illicit drug. The money involved in the marijuana trade comprises probably half of all the money in the illicit drug business, although this is hard to measure given its widespread domestic production, amorphous distribution, and ubiquitous consumption.

The problem for the capitalist class is that marijuana makes for a uniquely poor legitimate commodity. It's a weed that is easily grown anywhere and you don't need a green thumb to grow powerful pot. Were it legal, too many people would just grow their own. The state has no means to tax what is growing in a person's back yard. The capitalist class can't package and sell a significantly better product than you can grow at home. Its production cannot be monopolized and, therefore, the capitalist class can only make money from marijuana if it's illegal.

Finally, we cannot forget the principal reason marijuana was made illegal in the first place back in the 1930's, through the combined efforts of timber, petrochemical, pharmaceutical, alcohol, and other industrial and agricultural interests. The first drug czar, Harry Anslinger, an anti-marijuana zealot, was married to the niece of major industrialist Andrew W. Mellon. As Secretary of the Treasury under Hoover, Mellon appointed Anslinger -- whose qualifications, besides his marital status, were a two year business degree and working as a cop for the Pennsylvania Railroad -- to head the anti-drug agency he led for the next 32 years.

Industrial interests Mellon represented didn't want to compete with products made from hemp, marijuana's non-psychoactive form, possibly the world's most useful and valuable plant resource. Hemp oil could replace most uses of petroleum including medicines and gasoline. (Diesel, which can be produced from biomass and is now used by over half the cars in Europe and gets 30% better fuel economy than gasoline.)

Hemp's fiber can be used for paper, textiles, building materials, cordage, and biodegradable plastics. Its seed and the oil produced from it are highly nutritious. It grows like crazy (up to 25 tons of dry matter per hectare) almost anywhere without fertilizers or pesticides, and can be grown by small farmers just as well as by large agribusinesses.

Hence, in its multitude of industrial applications as in its more familiar psychoactive uses, it is poorly suited to being controlled and monopolized by large corporations. All these reasons to prohibit hemp production are more relevant today to capitalists involved in the exploitation of difficult to extract non-renewable resources than they were in the 1930's.

Sign from Zen Healing Collective, West Hollywood, CA. Photo by Caveman 92223 / Flickr / Creative Commons.

So the war on drugs continues, but there are major fissures in the system. One is the medical marijuana movement, obviously a foot in the door for legalization. After several years of proliferating medical marijuana efforts that now include nine states, there is a very good possibility that legalization will tale place in California in November as a result of a popular initiative.

It easily achieved ballot status and most polls indicate it will pass, although narrowly. Every opponent of the war on drugs ought to be sending money or volunteering to help this legalization effort. Once it is legal in California, the dam breaks and the rest of the country will be compelled to react.

Another major problem for the capitalist class is how the enrichment of the criminal organizations supplying drugs has destabilized whole countries, particularly Mexico and Afghanistan. Having a virtual civil war taking place just across our southern border is extremely problematic.

They don't so much mind the piles of corpses, because those are mostly expendable young men who have found employment with the "drug cartels" or easily replaceable police. But they like stability above all and this situation is progressively destabilizing and corrupting of normal political processes. Additionally, as in Afghanistan, it provides a means of support for elements which are the sworn enemies of continued Western cultural proliferation -- and that includes Coca-Cola and its ilk.

These negative byproducts of the system require changes, especially since a popular domestic movement for reform is growing stronger and the prohibition forces weaker, making perpetuation of the current system impossible.

What is the capitalist class to do? They will be split, with many capitalists in resource exploitive industries still worried about competing with hemp products. But the compromise position they are being forced into will require them to give way on marijuana. The popular movement for its legalization and the growing evidence that it is largely harmless or even beneficial makes the marijuana situation uncontrollable.

But there may be some value for them in its legalization, even if they can't make much money from its use as a recreational drug. Perhaps, marijuana can provide them with an alternative and more subtle means of social control, the "soma" factor, as in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

Since one can learn to drive well enough while stoned, maybe the working class will become more complacent and be just as productive if allowed to have marijuana. Thereby, the system is modernized and they can devote themselves to controlling the smaller and more isolated problems associated with cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines.

In any event, with the burgeoning medical marijuana movement spreading across the country, they need to develop a new policy that protects their most basic interests. The long-standing status quo of war on drugs is coming to an end and our rulers are now faced with the obligation to devise a new fall back position.

Mariann G. Wizard contributed to this article.

[David P. Hamilton is an Austin-based activist and writer.]

The Rag Blog

[+/-]

Dick J. Reavis : Texas Monthly's 'Where I'm From'

Erykah Badu (right) at nine years, with her sister Nayrok, six, in Dallas in 1980. Badu contributed to Texas Monthly's special edition. Photo from Texas Monthly.

Signs of a new inclusiveness?
Texas Monthly's special edition

By Dick J. Reavis / The Rag Blog / May 25, 2010

The current issue of Texas Monthly, a “special edition” whose theme is “Where I’m From” is worth some reading, some scrutiny, and some thought.

Though the funerary photo of Laura [Eva von Braun] Bush on its cover is an eyesore, its teaser lines carry an eye-raising message. Nineteen contributors and interviewees -- mostly notables and novelists -- are named there: four of them are Mexican-American, two of them black.

With luck, the issue’s inclusiveness forecasts a new and better day at the magazine. It’s as if Texans, and all Texans, could produce a national-class magazine without heavy supervision from the non-Texans who dominate the state’s industry of words.

A few weeks ago, Mexican-American writers chastised the editors of both the Texas Observer and the Monthly for accepting slots on a panel of 11 other whites at an Observer-sponsored “Texas Writer’s Festival.” From the sidelines I assailed them for billing non-Texan whites as homefolk.

But the Monthly’s special edition would have already been at its printer -- outside of Texas -- when the controversy arose, and that might indicate that the magazine, or at least its editor, Jake Silverstein, had already turned a corner, if only for a single issue.

The significance of “Where I’m From,” however, goes beyond questions of color and regional origin. As a commercial product, this artifact is an oddity. Mass-market magazines are generally aimed at prosperous and prospering readers 25 to 40 because that’s the demographic advertisers seek.

The Monthly’s “From” issue mainly carries accounts of life in Texas before 1970, certainly before 1985. In the annals of the industry’s prized readership, anything before 1985 is history, and anything before 1970 is ancient history -- and as Henry Ford long ago told us, for Americans “history is bunk.”

If not many young people will turn the pages of this edition, their parents will, and that probably explains either its origin -- or merely its commercial convenience. The magazine’s paid pages include a 42-page advertorial from institutions of higher learning: private and public colleges alike are seeking students who pay full tuition. The issue is so fat with ad pages -- including eight advertorials, running a total of 78 pages -- that getting to its content is like fighting one’s way through the canebrakes along the lower Rio Grande.

The issue describes Texas through memories of childhood and adolescence, and that’s a relief from the usual definitions: Texas as a cluster of Metropolitan Statistical Areas, or markets, and Texas as a collection of electoral districts, a la Texas Tribune. Sadly, of the 10 shorter pieces in the front of the magazine, in sections entitled “Growing Up,” and “Leaving,” six come from people in the environs of New York City. Those contributors are mainly writers who, because the project of Texas publishing was betrayed, have made their careers in the American industry’s hometown. But even expatriate accounts tell us what Texas is like.

The traditional answer to the question, “What Is Texas?,” as founding writers at the Monthly often noted, was to be found in the pages of Texas Highways: nice people doing nice things, especially in county seats. Though some of the same Pollyanna approach is evident in the “Where I’m From” issue, a few of its accounts get closer to the truth, as I see it, anyway.

My observation has been that, when they are sincere, all thoughtful Texans voice a love-hate relationship with their setting, just as people in Northern Mexico do. The state’s turbulent history and even its terrains, like those of Northern Mexico, don’t offer us much choice: Texas is not Maine or Costa Rica or California North.

By that standard, the prize contribution in the “From” issue is an as-told-to piece from Rick Perry, his recollection of his upbringing on a dry-land North Texas cotton farm. Perry told interviewer Silverstein things like:
[The area around Haskell] could be one of the most beautiful places or it could be one of the most desolate, brutal, uninviting and uninspiring places … I spent a lot of time just alone with my dog. A lot.
Perry talks about daylight darkness created by dust storms, about bathing in No. 2 tubs, and, as John Kelso has noted in an Austin American-Statesman send-up, mother-made underwear. His tale is truly worth telling as fiction -- in a novel by the likes of Cormack McCarthy.

On the other hand, in an interview with Monthly long-timer Mimi Swartz, Democrat Bill White talks in middle-class truisms, Texas Highways style.

The view of Texas as a locale not merely of nostalgia, but also as a problem or project leaps out, too, with contributions of El Paso historian David Dorado Romo, who finds commonalities in the Texas-Mexico and Israeli-Palestinian borders, and of Erykah Badu, who reports that “…in the late eighties crack cocaine came and everything went to hell” in the South Dallas neighborhood of her childhood.

For Perry, the question “what was Texas” does not draw an idyllic answer, and for both Romo and Badu, what’s relevant is not only “what was Texas?” but “what is it becoming?” That worry should torment both the Monthly and the 25-to-40 demographic in the issues to follow “Where I’m From.”

[A native Texan, Dick J. Reavis is an award-winning journalist, educator, and author who teaches journalism at North Carolina State University. He is a former staffer at the Moore County News, The Texas Observer, Texas Monthly, the San Antonio Light, the Dallas Observer, Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the San Antonio Express-News. He also wrote for The Rag in Austin in the Sixties. His latest book is Catching Out: The Secret World of Day Laborers.]

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25 May 2010

Charlie Loving : Ciudad Acuña on Life Support?

Ciudad Acuña in 2001. Image from michaelbluejay.

Ma Crosby's and Ciudad Acuña:
A slow death on the border?
Today we were the second customers all day at Crosby's. A Freddy Fender song in the background trailed into Shawn Sahm doing his version of his dad's 'Hey Baby Que Pasó?'
By Charlie Loving / The Rag Blog / May 25, 2010

I was in Ciudad Acuña the other day. Drove down after the rainstorm. Rae and I had lunch at our favorite eatery, Ma Crosby's, an institution that I have gone to for 30 years, maybe more. I was an off and on customer. Crosby's was one of those places that you could count on being there for you to enjoy.

In the spring of 1997 I took Rae there for the first time. The place was packed and we had to wait for a table. Mariachi bands were strolling and lots of people were having a ball. The back room which I always presumed was for banquets was even open. They were doing a land office business. People waiting for a table could entertain themselves viewing the large collection of famous and not so famous photographic prints of the 1910 Mexican Revolution.

The Crosby place was at least as famous as the Cadillac Bar in Nuevo Laredo. The menu was ponderous, they served stuffed quail, lovely fresh water fish caught locally from Lake Amistad, there were great frog legs as well as normal fair. The steaks were outstanding, especially the steak Tampiquena -- a meal not for the faint of heart.

The bartenders prepared superior margaritas in huge tumblers; the drinks were made from scratch, not a mix. One of the bar helpers was always busy squeezing a zillion limes into a cauldron and then moving the juice to pitchers.

Then 9-11 happened. We were on Mt. Arenal in Costa Rica. The Costa Ricans weren't all that excited by the disaster. Little did we know how that event would have a dilatory effect on Ciudad Acuña. It would be a slow painful death to a flourishing economy.

Ciudad Acuña on a recent Friday evening. Photo by Charlie Loving / The Rag Blog.

We moved to West Texas (Deer Corn) in 2005, to the house we built on the headwaters of the Nueches. Part of our ritual was to drive to Del Rio and Acuña at least once a month. We shopped and went to the liquor stores and the commissary at Laughlin Air Force Base. We found our brand of tequila at only one upscale restaurant and liquor store.

Things seemed to be OK but there was an underlying tension. The clientele seemed smaller, with fewer tourists milling around.

I spent a few months on a radio talk show there, appearing once a week with the out-of-town view. My friend Jay's B&B was struggling but hanging in there. I talked to the Mexican tourismo guy who was upbeat and had great plans. Coahuila was a great state with lots to do. They had a cockamamie idea of “running the cows.” A fun thing to attract people, which sort of worked.

Then came the passport thing. A derivative of 9-11. And of course all the narco violence. By my gauge, Crosby's was beginning to show a steep drop in attendance.

The other place, Manuel’s, started to collapse too.

The old man died and the daughter closed the best liquor store in Acuña.

A slow death was beginning. The shoe shine guys disappeared. The chicle kids disappeared. There were fewer taxi cabs and the vendors of trinkets evaporated. Famous bars closed. Bars that had been on the main street for half a century shut their doors. “Se vende” signs sprouted. Small and large businesses were boarded up or put up for sale. The streets which had teemed and been vibrant were now deserted. I heard the nefarious red light district was in decline. Mexico was "OFF LIMITS" to the thousand airmen at Laughlin. The music had stopped.

Then the passport thing really kicked in and that may well have been the final nail in the coffin.

Today we were the second customers all day at Crosby's. A Freddy Fender song in the background trailed into Shawn Sahm doing his version of his dad's "Hey Baby Que Pasó?" Francisco the old waiter sat with us and said he thinks it is over. Yesterday there were no customers he said, and the night shift is worse. Francisco gets off at four and the other guys work from then to midnight. The place has 60 tables. The napkins are now paper instead of cloth. The bar is open but there are no drinkers. A sadness permeates the place.

The mole was still good, amazing. Francisco has one year until retirement. His wife has fled the country to Indiana. His kids are all in Eagle Pass, all graduated from American colleges, one is a doctor. His grandkids are all in the states. He says he will keep his house. Mexico is his home but the "gringos" with their love of drugs and their paranoia have killed the border and perhaps the country.

Do we care? I doubt it. Do I care? Yes, but what can I do? I can go and buy a taco but the fear plague has set in and may never be cured.

[Charlie Loving is a cartoonist who lives in Deer Corn, Texas.]

Ciudad Acuña on life support? Photos by Charlie Loving / The Rag Blog.

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