29 September 2011

BOOKS / Mariann G. Wizard : Jonah Raskin's 'Marijuanaland'

The Rag Blog
and Rag Radio present Jonah Raskin in Austin

Jonah Raskin will be our special guest at a Rag Blog Happy Hour, Friday, Oct. 7, 5-7 p.m., at Maria's Taco Xpress, 2529 S. Lamar Blvd. All are welcome. And on Saturday, Oct. 8, Jonah will do book signings at Oat Willie's Campaign Headquarters, 617 W. 29th, from 2-4 p.m., and at Brave New Books, 1904 Guadalupe, from 5-7 p.m.

Jonah Raskin will also be Thorne Dreyer's guest on Rag Radio, 2-3 p.m., Friday, Oct. 7, on KOOP 91.7-FM in Austin and streamed live on the World Wide Web.

Dispatches From an American War

By Mariann G. Wizard / The Rag Blog / September 29, 2011

[Marijuanaland: Dispatches From an American War by Jonah Raskin (High Times Books, 2011); Paperback, 154 pp. $12.95.]

Jonah Raskin has written about marijuana (cannabis) politics and culture since the 1970s. A professor at Sonoma State University in northern California, he teaches communication law and American literature and coordinates an undergraduate internship program. Jonah has authored 12 books, including biographies of Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman, and Jack London, and Field Days, about farm workers, organic farms, and farmers' markets.

Outside academia, he created the story and characters for the stoner movie Homegrown, starring Billy Bob Thornton, Kelly Lynch, Hank Azaria, Ted Danson, and Jamie Lee Curtis. He’s a regular contributor to The Rag Blog and has written for the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Reader, Village Voice, and the International Herald Tribune. Jonah also was active in the Sixties with the Youth International Party (YIPPIE).

I knew much of this before reading Raskin's latest, Marijuanaland, but didn't know he'd spent some growing-up years in the "Emerald Triangle," the three California counties -- Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity -- that together produce some of the most legendary smoke grown, in great quantities and with the openness and civic pride of public harvest events much like Texas' annual watermelon, peach, and other agricultural fests.

Jonah's dad, a retired attorney who'd been a youthful rum runner in the waning days of alcohol prohibition, grew a personal pot patch after retiring to northern Cali, where young Jonah shared the sacred herb with his parents and others over the years.

In some ways, then, Marijuanaland is a personal memoir, a coming-home story by the smart young fellow who went to the city and became a hot-shot college professor, returning to his roots. As with most everyone who tries to go home again, there is some bitter with the sweet as he sees the effects of long-time-passing on parts of the once-immortal wilderness of youth.

Raskin connects the nickname "Emerald Triangle" with the equally-famed "Golden Triangle" of southeast Asia, where much of the world's heroin originated before globalization really got rolling. He doesn't mention the maybe-mythical "Bermuda Triangle," where Atlantic and Caribbean meet Outer Space.

My own limited northern Cali exposure, however, made the connection clear to me. In Mendocino County, I visited the House of Hathor (chapel of the Egyptian cow-headed goddess); saw endless acres of blooming pink azalea forest, like a far planet in an old Star Trek episode; and lounged around quaint, politically-correct Mendocino-by-the-Sea, where there are no cell phone towers, the main grocery store is an organic co-op, and human carnivores are rare. Off-shore drilling is a constant threat to the spectacular coastline.

In Humboldt, mountainous roads wind through log-cabined communities where everyone knows everyone else, or give glimpses of hand-hewn estates clinging to impossible slopes. Forested hills go straight up and down, crossing coldwater creeks, and up and down again to rocky strands where the tide comes in fast through narrow inlets. Whalers and rum runners used these coves and foundered on these cliffs; crabbers and kelp-collectors use them still.

Vast Trinity County, northernmost of the three, remains virtually untouched by development. Mining, lumber, and ranching interests dominate the economy but leave most of Trinity unpopulated.

Since the 1970s or so the whole tri-county area has been the Hippie Heaven of the Western World, far as I know; where straight people try to act hip so as not to feel gawky. It's a place where community runs deep. It's a place where an outlaw can just about disappear.

Passage of California's medical cannabis law, Proposition 215, in 1996, wrought many changes in the Triangle. Enormous profits in sales to cannabis dispensaries -- themselves springing up on every corner, spurring zoning and licensing battles statewide -- attracted a new class of growers, without local or even counterculture roots and devoid of ethics, wreaking environmental chaos in the primeval forest.

At the same time, increasing heat along the U.S.-Mexican border and completion of the infamous "border fence" south of San Diego pushed some enterprising Mexican pot growers to move to el Norte, cutting shipping and distribution costs and bringing their product closer to the consumer, growing in the national forests and other parkland in slash-and-burn fashion.

That both of these unpleasant results of partial cannabis legalization are due to its partiality is evident to serious observers. Demand for cannabis far exceeds its therapeutic or strictly medical use. The one inexorable law of capitalism is that demand produces supply; a law not subject to legislative or even popular repeal. California activists succeeded in 2010 in placing Proposition 19 on the November ballot, to legalize, tax, and regulate cultivation and sale of recreational cannabis in California despite continuing federal prohibition.

Marijuanaland, subtitled Dispatches from an American War, begins just as the campaign for Prop. 19 began in earnest and meanders through a year in the cannabis growing cycle, looking at marijuana-influenced culture, politics, economics, medicine, and law in the Emerald Triangle. Raskin visited with pot growers young and old, activists for and against legalization, newspaper editors, sheriffs, medical patients, healthcare providers, and friends-of-friends along the way. His quest ended as Prop. 19 went down to defeat and plants that had survived arbitrary annual raids on sun-drenched hillsides were harvested.

I've long known that the so-called "drug war" is a war of violence waged against certain drugs and people, but at first saw the subtitle as a kind of subculture marketing tool, like the full-color center section photos of spectacular plants, cured buds, and proud-but-headless growers in classic High Times magazine style.

But in the Triangle, the drug war is more than feds vs. heads. It's long-time growers torn between a comfortable, rather smug "outlaw culture"; the prospect of lower profits and more competition balanced against legal status (a potentially enormous cost savings; many growers keep a lawyer on retainer). It's sheriffs carefully timing raids to fall after most ganja has been harvested; who clearly know the folly of prohibition but love the shiny toys -- helicopters, spy equipment, and such -- the drug war offers its troops. It's small town newspaper editors who think marijuana is evil and oppose legalization but pay the printer with half-page ads from pot defense lawyers.

As debate over Prop. 19 rose, some elected officials proposed copywriting trade names like "Emerald Triangle" much as wineries protect the names of their cultivars. In others, officials called for repeal of Prop. 215 and stronger enforcement.

Activists hedged their bets, favoring legalization for some growers but not others, especially not the newcomers from south of the border. There was deep division as well on specifics of Prop. 19, with some seeing it as a step forward, away from the current chaos, and others seeing the tax-and-regulate provisions as a cop-out, unworthy of support.

Some were suspicious because the initiative was first launched and supported not by a "traditional" marijuana advocacy group but by cannabis dispensary innovator Richard Lee of "Oaksterdam" (Oakland); others, sick and tired of "traditional" advocacy careerism, wanted change in their lifetimes.

Throughout the Prop. 19 campaign, public and private meetings throughout the Triangle revealed sharp divisions between those who felt themselves inundated with profit-seeking outsiders, local growers with or without vision and confidence, patients afraid of losing access to their medicine, and other interest groups.

Prop. 19 lost in the counties of the Emerald Triangle by as much as 3-1. A record cannabis harvest was hanging in the drying barns as votes were counted. Prices fell despite the defeat. Today, while marijuana is sold and smoked rather openly almost everywhere in California, the Drug Enforcement Administration continues to raid California's legal medical cannabis providers and sheriffs continue selective enforcement against growers in rural areas.

If "the Garden of Eden is within you," so is the Garden of Evil. The drug war, Raskin shows, is being fought in the hearts and minds of straights and stoners alike, where activists elsewhere like to envision a liberated zone.

Marijuanaland makes the pitfalls of partial legalization, profit-based politics, and widespread misinformation painfully clear. In the latter category is the book's perpetuation of the myth that "Cannabis indica" is a separate botanical species from "Cannabis sativa," the latter somehow inferior as a smoking herb.

From a botanical standpoint, this is hogwash; there is no agreement on whether indica is even a legitimate variety of C. sativa, but there is total agreement that C. sativa is one species much as Homo sapiens is; that is, any pot plant can (theoretically) breed with any other; since the plant is polymorphous, it has every evolutionary reason to remain one species, indivisible. Those who think otherwise contribute to outrageous retail prices for cannabis consumers; "indica" is but a marketing tool.

Raskin writes humorously of Triangle parents who work hard in the trade, make good money, and provide their kids every advantage in an area where non-marijuana-related income is limited. Whether the kids flee rural isolation for the city, "never to return," or become low-achieving slackers content to smoke Dad's weed and rodeo their ATVs through the forest, they're bound to disappoint, at least for a while. Some things never change.

But the real crux of generational conflict on legalization is that some older users still think they're part of a minority and fear change. Crying, "What about the children?" gains no traction against certain facts: the harm to children of having a parent jailed cannot be overstated.

Wherever cannabis use is decriminalized, use by teenagers drops substantially. And with 40+ years worth of kids like Raskin nurtured by pot-smoking parents in hundreds of communities all over the USA, demonstrably no more are bad apples than other youths of similar age and economic circumstance. The kids are, pretty much, alright.

The question America faces today is whether to cling to a world of scarcity and individual competition or find a new model of plenty and social cooperation. A huge majority of second- and third-generation "hippies" and perhaps of 20- and 30-somethings are creative, self-assured, resilient, tolerant, and determined to build the sustainable future we have utterly failed to leave them. The cannabis plant, in its entirety, offers a strong material basis for that future.

To move beyond even the present tug-of-war between state and federal authorities on voter-approved medical legalization, activists must launch more rigorous educational efforts and more successfully urge people out of the "emerald closet" of silent complicity. We must re-vision a world in which human beings love one another, respect the earth, and strive to relieve suffering in all living beings. Marijuanaland will offer many clues to the thoughtful on what is needed.

Cannabis is more than just a mildly naughty weed that makes flirting more fun, or a powerful medicine for pain and alienation. It isn't just an endlessly renewable source of nontoxic fuels and fibers. Or the most nutritious food known to man. It is also a plant teacher, and until human beings recognize that there is other intelligent life on earth and heed its wisdom, we will bar ourselves from the Garden.

[Mariann G. Wizard (www.WordsWorth.biz ) is a Contributing Editor to The Rag Blog and longtime advocate of cannabis legalization (www.CannabisResource.com ). She regularly reviews and writes about medical cannabis and regulatory issues, among other topics, for the American Botanical Council. She volunteers and consults with the Texas Hemp Campaign and other legalization advocates. Read poetry and articles by Mariann G. Wizard on The Rag Blog.]

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Rag Radio : Suspense Novelist David Lindsey on the Private Intelligence Industry

Suspense novelist David Lindsey during broadcast of Rag Radio, Friday, Sept. 23, 2011, at the studios of KOOP 91.7-FM in Austin. Photo by Tracey Schulz / Rag Radio / The Rag Blog.

Suspense novelist David Lindsey on Rag Radio
with Thorne Dreyer. Listen to it here:

Novelist David Lindsey discussed his writing -- and the booming private intelligence industry, which is the subject of his latest work -- with Thorne Dreyer on Rag Radio, Friday, September 23, 2011.

Lindsey is an Austin-based author who has written 14 novels in the mystery, thriller, and suspense genres. He is a native Texan who was born in Starr County, near the Mexican border, and grew up in West Texas, in the oil fields and ranches of the Colorado River valley, north of San Angelo.

His first book, A Cold Mind, published in 1982, was the first of five novels featuring Houston homicide detective Stuart Haydon. Lindsey, who was active in a human rights organization that monitored political assassinations in Guatemala, set his fifth Haydon novel, Body of Truth (1992), in that Central American country. Body of Truth won Germany's Bochumer Krimi Archiv award for the best suspense novel of the year.

Mercy, released in 1990, was also set in Houston and featured a female Hispanic detective, Carmen Palma. The book was a New York Times bestseller, and was made into a motion picture starring Ellen Barkin. Mercy was a pioneer in the suspense sub-genre featuring serial killers, and Lindsey is one of the first to have dealt with the issue of criminal profiling in his work. Lindsey has also set his fiction in the international world of criminal intelligence and assassinations, and some of his more recent work has been set in Austin and Central Texas.

In 2007, David Lindsey, started researching the astonishing rise of government outsourcing of national intelligence. Privatized spying has become a multi-billion dollar industry and private contractors now command 70 percent of the national intelligence budget. According to Lindsey:
By outsourcing our national intelligence responsibilities to private, for-profit enterprises, the government has fundamentally altered the structure and behavior of the business of spying.
A two-year investigation on this subject by The Washington Post resulted in a blockbuster series called "Top Secret America." The Post said:
The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it, or exactly how many agencies do the same work.
The private intelligence industry is the setting for David Lindsey’s latest novel, Pacific Heights. Written under the pseudonym Paul Harper, it is the first novel in the Marten Fane story cycle, a serial novel set in the hidden world of private sector intelligence contractors.

Rag Radio -- hosted and produced by Rag Blog editor Thorne Dreyer -- is broadcast every Friday from 2-3 p.m. (CDT) on KOOP 91.7-FM in Austin, and streamed live on the web. KOOP is a cooperatively-run community radio station in Austin.

Rag Radio, which has been aired since September 2009, features hour-long in-depth interviews and discussion about issues of progressive politics, culture, and history. After broadcast, all episodes are posted as podcasts and can be downloaded at the Internet Archive. Tracey Schulz is the show's engineer and co-producer.

Rag Radio is also rebroadcast on Sundays at 10 a.m. (Eastern) on WFTE, 90.3-FM in Mt. Cobb, PA, and 105.7-FM in Scranton, PA. Rag Radio is produced in the KOOP studios, in association with The Rag Blog, a progressive internet newsmagazine, and the New Journalism Project, a Texas 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation.

The running time for this interview, with music and underwriting announcements removed, is 53:56.

Pacific Heights, written by David Lindsey under the pseudonym Paul Harper, is the first novel in the Marten Fane story cycle, a serial novel set in the hidden world of private sector intelligence contractors.

The Rag Blog

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28 September 2011

Harry Targ : Remembering the Great Society

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the White House Cabinet Room. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Remembering the Great Society:
Addressing poverty and hunger in America

By Harry Targ / The Rag Blog / September 28, 2011

On Monday, September 26, the Reverend Jesse Jackson visited Ohio University, located at the northern edge of Appalachia. President Lyndon Johnson had introduced his vision of a “Great Society” in 1964 at this site and Jackson was returning 47 years later to call for the establishment of a White House commission to address poverty and hunger in America.

Jackson pointed out that Athens County, Ohio, where he spoke, represented “ground zero” as to poverty in America today. Thirty-two percent of county residents live in poverty.

The fact that increased poverty is a national problem was underscored in a September 13 press release from the United States Census Bureau. The Census Bureau reported that 46.2 million people lived below the poverty line in 2010, the highest number in 52 years. In 2010, 15.1 percent of Americans lived in poverty, the highest percent since 1993. The poverty line for a family of four was $22,314.

The New York Times
(September 14, 2011) quoted Professor Lawrence Katz, economist, who said that “this is truly a lost decade. We think of America as a place where every generation is doing better, but we’re looking at a period when the median family is in worse shape than it was in the late 1990s.”

In a press release, the Census Bureau identified some additional data which reflects the economic status of large numbers of Americans:
  • The number of Americans below the poverty line in 2010 increased by 900,000 over 2009.
  • Proportions of Black and Hispanic citizens living in poverty increased from 2009 to 2010. Black poverty rose to 27 percent from 25 percent; Hispanic poverty 26 percent from 25 percent.
  • 48 million Americans, 18 to 64 years of age, did not work at all in 2010, up from 45 million in 2009.
  • Median income declines were greatest among the young, ages 15 to 24, who experienced a 9 percent decline between 2009 and 2010.
  • Childhood poverty rates rose from 20.7 percent in 2009 to 22 percent in 2010.
Timothy Smeeding, Director, Institute for Research and Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, was quoted in the New York Times article: “We’re risking a new underclass. Young, less-educated adults, mainly men, can’t support their children and form stable families because they are jobless.”

Arloc Sherman, from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, reminded readers that the level of poverty was higher and median income was lower in 2007 than 2001.

In this economic context, it was surprising that the calls by Reverend Jackson for a new Great Society largely were ignored by the liberal blogosphere as well as most of the mainstream media.

One impressive exception was an interview on Up with Chris Hayes, MSNBC, on Sunday, September 25. On this program, Jackson pointed out that if it had not been for President Johnson’s disastrous Vietnam War policy he would have been recognized as one of the transformational presidents in American history.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has pointed out in an interesting essay entitled “Race, Class and Economic Justice” that the Johnson programs, the “Great Society,” and its “War on Poverty,” were grounded in the civil rights struggle for jobs and justice. When LBJ’s program got mired in the escalating war in Vietnam, Dr. Martin Luther King launched the “Poor People’s Campaign.”

Both the Great Society and the Poor People’s Campaign need to be revisited as young people, workers, men and women of all races and classes, mobilize along Wall Street and in virtually every city and town in America to demand economic and social justice. And as the Reverend Jackson reminded students and citizens of Athens County on September 13, LBJ’s program was a comprehensive one linking government and community groups. Among its major achievements the following need to be celebrated:
  • The Food Stamp Act (1964) provided low income families with access to adequate food.
  • The Economic Opportunity Act (1964) created the Job Corps, VISTA, and other community-based programs.
  • The Tax Reduction Act (1964) cut income tax rates for low-income families.
  • The Civil Rights Act (1964) outlawed discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations.
  • The Wilderness Preservation Act (1964) protected over 9 million acres of national forests from developers.
  • The Elementary and Secondary School Act (1965) provided federal aid to schools with low-income students, including the establishment of the Head Start program.
  • Amendments to the Social Security Act (1965) established Medicare for retirees and Medicaid for low-income health care recipients.
  • The Voting Rights Act (1965) ended racial discrimination in voting.
  • The Water Quality Act (1965) required states to clean up polluted rivers and lakes.
  • The Omnibus Housing Act (1965) provided for low income housing.
  • The Higher Education Act (1965) created scholarships for college students.
  • The School Lunch and Child Nutrition Act (1968) was expanded to provide food to low-income children in schools and day care facilities.
Between 1964 and 1968 the United States Congress passed 226 of 252 bills into law. Federal funds transferred to the poor increased from $9.9 billion in 1960 to $30 billion in 1968. One million workers received job training from these programs and 2 million children experienced pre-school Head Start programs by 1968.

Progressives should revisit this history and tell the story of the successes and failures of the 1960s vision and programs and work for the fulfillment of the dream articulated by Dr. King and LBJ. Both visions presupposed the connection between government, communities, and activists.

And, it should be made clear that the Great Society floundered, not because of errors in the vision or programs, or because of “government bureaucrats,” or because the “free market” could serve human needs better, but because of a disastrous imperial war that sapped the support for vibrant and needed domestic programs.

Slogans about Money for Jobs and Justice, Not for War, constitute the lessons for today. The Reverend Jesse Jackson should be supported in his efforts to revive the vision of the Great Society.

[Harry Targ is a professor of political science at Purdue University who lives in West Lafayette, Indiana. He blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical -- and that's also the name of his new book which can be found at Lulu.com. Read more of Harry Targ's articles on The Rag Blog.]

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Robert Jensen : Revolutionizing the Way We Grow Food

Wes Jackson. Image from Biohabitats.

As the earth turns:
Revolutionizing the way we grow food
Instead of a brittle industrial agriculture dependent on fossil fuels, Wes Jackson’s research team is working to build a resilient agriculture modeled on natural ecosystems.
By Robert Jensen / The Rag Blog / September 28, 2011

Wes Jackson spent the weekend at The Land Institute’s annual Prairie Festival talking up -- with his usual precision and passion -- the science and strategy behind plans to revolutionize the way we grow food using perennial polyculture grains.

A leading figure in the sustainable agriculture movement, Jackson has been pursuing the science and tweaking the strategy for more than three decades, building an impressive body of knowledge with his colleagues at “The Land,” as it’s known to everyone there. (The group also has produced an impressive full-bodied bread that was on the dinner table during the festival, made from an intermediate wheatgrass grain they’ve developed and dubbed “Kernza.”)

But, perhaps ironically, my faith in Jackson’s vision deepens not when he speaks from the depth of his knowledge (or when people happily bite into the bread) but when he emphasizes the uncertainty of what he knows. More on that, after some background.

Jackson, who co-founded the research center in 1976 after leaving his job as an environmental studies professor at California State University-Sacramento, believes that shifting from fragile annual monocultures to more hearty perennial grains grown in a mixture of plants (polycultures) is the key to a truly sustainable agriculture. Instead of a brittle industrial agriculture dependent on fossil fuels, Jackson’s research team is working to build a resilient agriculture modeled on natural ecosystems.

A plant geneticist who grew up farming, Jackson’s experiences in the fields and the laboratory give him the credentials to talk authoritatively about how to develop agricultural practices capable of producing healthful food without the soil erosion and contamination that comes with today’s highly toxic conventional agriculture.

Delivering that message with a style that hybridizes the prairie pulpit and the graduate seminar, Jackson inspired the Prairie Festival audience in Salina, KS, with his sketch of the next step -- taking The Land’s work international in the coming decades.

When he gets revved up in front of an audience, Jackson is eager to share all that he knows, but one of the things he knows is the danger that comes with being sure you have the answers.

After the festival ended, Jackson made the rounds of the lunch tables to chat up folks informally. Leaning into one group, the topic turned to the problem of arrogance and certainty, and Jackson suggested an important first step to solving big problems such as agriculture is recognizing that sometimes “we’ve got to give up on what we know.”

If there was one sign he could hang above everyone’s desk, Jackson said, it would be this daily affirmation: “This day I will do everything I can to fight the problem of reassertion.” Reasserting, over and over again, what we think we know is trouble, especially in the sciences, he said.

Don’t mistake Jackson’s warning for the anti-science, know-nothing rhetoric that is popular in some conservative circles. He’s trying to bolster, not undermine, faith in science by encouraging scientists not to get stuck in comfortable approaches. In agriculture, such inertia has led researchers to assume that the so-called “Green Revolution” emphasis on chemicals is the only way to maintain high yields. Research in initiatives such as perennial polyculture grains, Jackson argues, may well reveal the conventional wisdom to be conventional foolhardiness.

With the health of our soils and our own bodies at stake, Jackson says, we can’t afford to assume old approaches can cope with coming crises. Because humans like to resolve ambiguity, we reward researchers who appear to do that within existing systems -- such research may be right but irrelevant, if the real problem is at the level of the whole system. Solving individual problems within a system that can’t be sustained actually creates problems.

Jackson believes that’s the trap of much of contemporary research into agriculture, and that’s why he’s hoping to find support for an ambitious program to fund new research into The Land Institute’s approach to sustainability in partnership with other researchers and institutions around the world. He’s confident in the basics but recognizes how much work in the lab and the research plots remains.

He also recognizes that science alone won’t solve the problem; serious changes are necessary in economic, political, and social systems. He diagnoses a large part of the problem of those systems to be their love of abstraction. In contemporary financial capitalism, for example, countless decisions about money are based on abstraction, not on the reality of economics rooted in ecosystems.

“Milton and Blake both acknowledged that the demonic is the abstraction without the particular,” said Jackson, who’s as likely to quote poets and philosophers as scientists.

The particular is the reality, and science helps us understand it only when it remains rooted in that particularity. Farmers work the land in a specific place within a specific ecosystem, where they must attend to the uniqueness of place, Jackson said. That means an idea such as perennial polycultures is valuable not as a monolithic answer in the abstract, but as an idea tested out in specific places, whether that be wheat fields in Kansas or rice paddies in the Philippines.

Jackson is not out to make The Land Institute the center of sustainable agriculture, but instead wants to see the ideas developed in as many places as it is sensible.

Jackson also cautions that our specific places must be understood as part of larger systems. To experience our place in that larger living world, sometimes we have to step outside of science.

Jackson offered an example. We know the earth revolves around the sun, but our daily experience is of standing on ground that doesn’t move. To correct that, he said we should take the time to feel the earth move. Jackson was off and running:

“I have actually felt the earth turn. I can tell you how to do that. I’ve gone out there and laid down on the hill when the moon is full, and if you will look when the moon is coming up in the east and the sun is setting in the west -- you’ve got to live in Kansas to do that, or Nebraska, someplace flat -- and you can actually feel the earth turn. Do that sometime. It’s a great moment. You’ve got to do that extra exercise to experience reality. Otherwise we live with the illusion,” Jackson said, pausing before adding, “which is fun enough.”

Jackson took a moment to delight both in his memory of the experience and the smiles on the faces of the people at the table. Then he smiled and, before moving on to the next table, said, “I suppose that in order to experience reality, you have to be a mystic.”

[Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches courses in media law, ethics, and politics -- and a board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His books include All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, and Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity. His writing is published extensively in mainstream and alternative media. Robert Jensen can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu. Read more articles by Robert Jensen on The Rag Blog.]

Listen to Thorne Dreyer's
interview with Robert Jensen
on Rag Radio:

The Rag Blog

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Tom Hayden : An Expanding War in Pakistan

Creeping deeper into war: image of U.S. aerial drone from AP.

Droning on...
An expanding war in Pakistan

By Tom Hayden / The Rag Blog / September 28, 2011

Slowly but surely, the United States is creeping deeper and deeper into a disastrous war in Pakistan. The peace movement and its political and media allies need to be ready. There is a growing community of activists and journalists already protesting and documenting the aerial drone wars over Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya.[1]

But the debate about drones cannot be isolated from the context of their use in the Long War as a substitute for American ground troops and in response to peace pressure from the American public.

Important as these perspectives may be, the peace movement may lose the debate if drones are seen in purely moral or economic terms or as a loss of democratic transparency. The fact is, however, that the use of drones will endanger American lives and security as they inevitably provoke violent counterattacks, such as those of December 25, 2009 (Detroit Metro Airport), February 2010 (guilty pleas in New York subway bombing plot), and May 1, 2010 (Times Square).

The U.S. already has a secret contingency plan to strike at 150 sites, nearly all in Pakistan, if another incident occurs that is traceable to any Pakistani source.[2]

The drones do not make America safer. They inevitably provoke blowback. They are not a way of waging war cheaply. They require massive investments in client states and “nation-building” on the ground. They kill people, but no victories are won from the air.

Obama has been warned about the drone strategy many times, even by his Afghanistan adviser Bruce Riedel, who privately told him in 2009:
Predator drone strikes only work because CIA paramilitary teams have an ultra-secret presence on the ground in Pakistan. Without the local informants these teams develop, there would not be good signals intelligence so that the drones know where to target. This was a risky enterprise that might collapse overnight. So don’t rely on drones... They look like a cheap way out, but they’re not.[3]
Pakistan is on fire, writes Imtiaz Gul.[4] Between 2002-2009, suicide strikes in Pakistan rose from one to 90 per year, along with 500 bombings and ambushes in that single year.

Critics of the drone strategy include David Kilcullen, the top counterinsurgency adviser to General David Petraeus in Iraq, the Long War Journal, and the New America Foundation. These are not peaceniks, but skeptics of counterterrorism from the air. According to the Long War Journal:
  • 256 of 266 drone strikes against Taliban and al Qaeda targets, which began in 2004, have been, since January 2008, showing the increased reliance on the secret air war;
  • Since 2006, there have been 2,090 “leaders," “operatives” from the Taliban, AQ and “allied extremist groups” killed, and 138 “civilians.” The CIA insists that no civilians have been killed by drones since 2008, a claim that no independent observers, including those in the mainstream media, believe. (New York Times)
  • The vast majority of the drone strikes have been in North and South Waziristan, with 89 percent inflicted on North Waziristan in 2010, the period when peace talks with the Taliban were embraced by most of the international community;
  • In 2010, there was a massive shift in strikes against tribal areas administered by Taliban leader Hafiz Gul Bahadar. Nearly all the attacks since 2008 have been against areas represented by four Taliban leaders/factions: in addition to Bahadar, the Haqqanis, the Mehsuds, and Mullah Nazir. Bahadar and the Haqqanis are based in North Waziristan.
  • The number of Taliban/al Qaeda leaders killed in these areas in 2004-2011 has been insignificant militarily: 10 in the Haqqani network, seven in the Bahadar network, seven in the Mehsud network, one in the Hekmatyar network, etc.
The Long War Journal account concludes:
The Pakistani government considers Nazir, the Haqqanis, Bahadar, and Hekmatyar to be "good Taliban" as they do not carry out attacks against the Pakistani state. All of these Taliban factions shelter al Qaeda and various other terror groups.
The inescapable conclusion is that Bahadar, Nazir, the Haqqanis, and Hekmatyar -- warlords all -- are fighting against U.S. forces in their traditional regions of influence in Afghanistan, and would lessen or cease fighting if the United States followed a timetable for withdrawal from those areas.

Supporters of a Pakistani religious party, Jamaat-e- Islami, join a rally against the U.S. drone strikes in Pakistani tribal areas in Peshawar, Pakistan, April 23, 2011. Photo by Mohammad Sajjad / AP.

Does that mean the Taliban or its multiple factions and warlord allies will take over Kabul if the U.S. withdraws? Not necessarily, unless the fragile, corrupt, and dysfunctional Karzai regime simply implodes. But according to an insightful analysis in the Asian Times by Brian Downing, it is more likely that Afghanistan will be “carved up” by regional powers with vested interests.

In his scenario, “the regional powers, especially Pakistan, will use their influence with the Taliban to convince them to limit their ambitions to the south and east and accept a settlement with President Hamid Karzai at the helm in Kabul.” This is the opposite of the current U.S. military agenda. (April 27, 2011)

Second, Iran and Turkey are likely to weigh in to “press reluctant Afghan [allies] to accept the settlement.”

Third, the regional powers -- Pakistan, China, Iran and Turkey -- “will help to form a rentier state to govern the country,” as has happened often in Afghanistan’s history. A rentier state generally is defined as one supported by external funding and inputs far more than internally-generated revenues. Afghanistan currently has little economy beyond its illegal heroin production -- resulting in 90,000 European overdose deaths per year -- and the military investments of the U.S. and NATO.

Fourth, the same regional powers will cooperate and sometimes compete in developing Afghanistan resources, which include mineral resources and pipelines from Central Asia to the Arabian Sea.

Geopolitically, Pakistan and China share a common interest in limiting the presence of India in Afghanistan. A majority-Hindu India is America’s chief ally in Afghanistan, having backed the Northern Alliance interests during the past decade. Pakistan is in a state of “cold peace” with India, while China already operates a copper mine, and is building railroads along with a naval base on the Arabian Sea.

Iran, which has a long and porous border with Afghanistan, has close ties with the Northern Alliance forces (Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, etc.) and “loathes the Taliban, which massacred thousands of Shiites, killed several Iranian diplomats in Mazar-I-Sharif in 1998, and contributes mightily to [Iran’s] drug problem.” Iran, which originally helped the U.S. oust the Taliban, now would agree to “a settlement that restrained the Taliban, opened economic opportunities, and expelled the U.S.”

Like China, Iran’s Persian past casts a cultural legacy across Central Asia.

Where does all this leave the United States and NATO? Quite simply, in the dilemma of both spreading and fighting a contagion of Islamic resistance at the same time. Facing military stalemates -- at best -- in Iraq and Afghanistan, while teetering towards escalation in Pakistan and beyond. A budget crisis which includes no spending for another war. And a White House worried about who will be blamed for the likely quagmires.

Deescalation, an exit strategy, is the only way out of the rabbit hole.

[1] The first American drone strike against Libya was April 23, as reported by Reuters and ABC News.
[2] Woodward, Bob. Obama’s Wars, p. 46.
[3] Woodward, Bob. Obama’s Wars, pp. 206-207.
[4] Gul, Imtiaz, The Most Dangerous Place, 2009.

[Tom Hayden is a former California state senator and leader of Sixties peace, justice, and environmental movements. He currently teaches at Pitzer College in Los Angeles. His latest book is The Long Sixties. This article was also published at Tom Hayden's Peace and Justice Resource Center. Read more of Tom Hayden's writing on The Rag Blog.]

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SPORT / Dave Zirin : John Carlos and the Moment That Still Matters

Tommie Smith (center) and John Carlos raise their fists at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Peter Norman (left) wore an OPHR (Olympic Project for Human Rights) badge to show his support.

Troy Davis, John Carlos, and
the moment that still matters

By Dave Zirin / The Rag Blog / September 28, 2011

On September 21st, the day that Troy Davis was executed in Georgia, 200 very angry Howard University students pumped their fists in front of Barack Obama’s White House and chanted “No Justice, No Vote.” At that moment, I understood why an image from 1968 still resonates today.

It was 43 years ago this week when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black-gloved fists on the Olympic Medal Stand and, along with supportive silver-medalist Peter Norman, created a moment seared for all-time in the American consciousness.

This week also marks the release of John Carlos’s autobiography, The John Carlos Story, which I co-wrote. When John asked me to write the book, I felt compelled to do it because I’ve long wondered, “why?” Not why did Smith and Carlos sacrifice fame, fortune, and glory in one medal-stand moment, but why that moment has stood the test of time.

Of course, much of the book details why John Carlos took his stand. It was 1968. Dr. King had been assassinated. The Black freedom struggle had become a fixture of American life. In the world of Olympic sports, apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia were regulars at the games. There were scant black coaches. Avery Brundage, an avowed white supremacist, ran the International Olympic Committee.

John Carlos in particular, in the 1960s, went from being a Harlem high school track star -- walking down the street talking both smack and politics with neighborhood regulars like Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell -- to being a scholarship athlete at segregated East Texas State. The gap between his sense of himself as a man and going to the South and being treated like a boy drove him politically toward his medal stand moment.

The answer to “why do so many of us still care” was tougher to decipher. In 2010, I appeared on a panel on the history of sports and resistance with Carlos, after which a long line of young people born years -- even decades -- after 1968 patiently waited for his signature on everything from posters and t-shirts to hastily procured pieces of notebook paper. Why? And why have I seen street-corner merchants from Harlem to Johannesburg sell t-shirts emblazoned with that image?

The most obvious is that people love a good redemption song. Smith and Carlos have been proven correct by history. They were reviled for taking a stand and using the Olympic podium to do it. A young sportswriter named Brent Musberger called them “Black-skinned storm troopers.” But their “radical” demands have since proved to be prescient.

Today, the idea of standing up to apartheid South Africa, racism, and Avery Brundage seems a matter of common decency rather than radical rabble-rousing. After years of death threats, poverty, and being treated as pariahs in the world of athletics, Smith and Carlos attend ceremonial unveilings of statues erected in their honor. America, like no other country on earth, loves remarking on its own progress.

But it was the Howard students, chanting, “No Justice, No Vote” to an African American President on the night of a Georgia execution, who truly unveiled for me why the image of black-gloved fists thrust in the air has retained its power. Smith and Carlos sacrificed privilege and glory, fame and fortune, for a larger cause.

As Carlos says,
A lot of the [black] athletes thought that winning [Olympic] medals would protect them from racism. But even if you won a medal, it ain’t going to save your momma. It ain’t going to save your sister or children. It might give you 15 minutes of fame, but what about the rest of your life?
Carlos’ attitude resonates because for all the blather about us living in a “post-racial society," there are reservoirs of anger about the realities of racism in the United States. The latest poverty statistics show that the black poverty rate of 27.4% is nearly double the overall U.S. rate. Black children living in poverty has reached 39.1 percent. Then there’s the criminal justice system, where 33% of African American men are either in jail or on parole.

The image of Carlos and Smith evokes a degree of principle, fearlessness, and freedom that I believe many people find sorely lacking today. They stood at the Olympics unencumbered by doubt, as brazenly Free Men. We are still grappling with the fact that they had to do it and the fact that it still needs to be done.

[Dave Zirin is the author of The John Carlos Story (Haymarket) and just made the new documentary Not Just a Game. Receive his column every week by emailing dave@edgeofsports.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com This article was also posted at The Nation blogs. Read more articles by Dave Zirin on The Rag Blog.]

John Carlos. Image from Commemorating a Legacy / sjsu.edu.

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Don Swift : Rick Perry and the New Apostolic Reformation

Rev. Tom Schlueter, a New Apostolic Reformation pastor, shown laying his hands on Rick Perry in front of a painting of the Battle at the Alamo. Image from Right Speak.

A threat to American liberties:
Rick Perry and the New Apostolic Reformation
Two years ago, two NAR ministers explained to Perry that Texas had been anointed by God to bring America to Godly rule.
By Don Swift / The Rag Blog / September 28, 2011

[This is the third in a series on Dominionism by Don Swift.]

The most vigorous branch of Dominionism is the New Apostolic Reformation. Rev. Dr. C. Peter Wagner of Global Harvest Ministries in Colorado Springs, is the “convening Apostle” or leading light in New Apostolic Reformation, and he says the reformation or New Apostolic Age began in 2001.

A former professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, Wagner is famous for helping develop the “growth model” that was to produce the huge megachurches that now dot the land. He and his followers aim for a post-denominational Christianity shaped by them. Their leaders are God’s new apostles and prophets who have greater power than the original apostles and prophets.

Spiritual warriors must convert adherents of other churches and seek political power. They think the end times will see the perfection of Christianity and they will have a perfected religion to turn over to Christ, when he returns. They will be given great power and crush evil with a “rod of iron.”

These NAR Dominionists look to the day when they and, above all, their clergy take over society. Dr. Wagner advocates a pragmatic theology which justifies acting in a way whereby the ends justify the means. His followers tend to be Charismatics and Pentecostals, and they are post-millennialists rather than pre-millennialists. That is, they believe that Christ must return to earth before they can complete the work of establishing his Kingdom. Of course, not all Charismatics or Pentecostals are Dominionists.

The New Apostolics are busy in worldly affairs because they believe they are destined to rule. In addition they want to expel demons, witches, and sorcerers, and they claim the power to physically heal others and raise people from the dead.

They believe they have the world’s only valid religious belief system. They want a post-denominational church, but it will not be warm and fuzzy as some think. People can be forced to join the new non-denominational Christianity for their own good, and other churches can be forced to stop teaching false doctrines. One official of Morningstar Ministries admits that life under their theocratic rule “may seem totalitarian at first.”

They target youth to be members of Joel’s Army (a distortion of an illusion in Book Joel 2) to seize political power and force non-believers to accept their version of Christianity. In addition to Joel's Army, they have used other names like Shepherding, Latter Rain, and Manifest Sons of God.

These churches engage in “spiritual warfare” as was depicted in the movie Jesus Camp. In the film, young people were trained to “take dominion” over the world. They will also purge the Christian church of elements that strongly disagree with them.

These sincere Christians believe that the world is inhabited by all sorts of demons and that the powers of demons even get passed down in families, just as curses are passed down. Some demons run territories; others inhabit some of their enemies, and still other very powerful demons run churches they dislike. The reverse side of believing in evil demons is the teaching that the New Apostolics have the power to heal, raise the dead, and successfully combat the forces of darkness.

NAR Dominionists seriously think some people are sorcerers or demons and must be fought. They think sorcery runs in families. They see themselves as being involved in continual spiritual warfare. NAR people see themselves as spiritual warriors and “prayer warriors” who constitute the “Army of God.” It seems we heard that name in some other context of late.

They are out to destroy the demons and evil spirits that cause problems in a territory so that the truly saved can take over and rule. Congress has helped the movement by giving it millions in grants for abstinence sex education and anti-AIDS projects.

They see secularists as members of satanic armies and demonic enemies of religion and freedom. Bill Bright, founder of the Campus Crusade for Christ, believed that demons were active agents that could take over institutions and political entities. Many Dominionists share this belief. Lou Engle, of the Family Research Council, who has also prayed with Michele Bachmann, frequently said that the people supporting health care reform were guided by demons.

Rick Perry, a Pentecostal, also has strong ties to Dominionism, but he does not seem to go as far as Rep. Bachmann. He is particularly attractive to a group of Pentecostal Dominionists who are members of the New Apostolic Reformation movement. Rev. Tom Schlueter, a New Apostolic Reformation pastor, is close to Perry. Schlueter has said that God called the NAR to infiltrate government: “We’re going to infiltrate [the government], not run from it. I know why God’s doing what he’s doing ... He’s just simply saying, ‘Tom I’ve given you authority in a governmental authority, and I need you to infiltrate the governmental mountain.”

NAR pastors call the Lone Star State the "Prophet State,” meaning it was foretold that it was to be a template for the rest of America. Two years ago, two NAR ministers explained to Perry that Texas had been anointed by God to bring America to Godly rule. They had been instructed to visit Perry by one of their prophets, Chuck Pierce of Denton, Texas.

Eight NAR leaders were deeply involved in Perry's recent prayer rally, called “The Response.” Not everyone who attended that event was a Dominionist or even knew what that term meant.

Few note that Governor Perry sent invitations on official stationery and promoted it on a state government web site. Dominionist Mike Bickle of the International House of Prayer also played an important role at the event. He claims that demons have repeatedly attacked him and is known for his address “Authority of the Believer, Exercising Our Dominion in Christ.”

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

Also see: And:The Rag Blog

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Alice Embree : War is Trauma but GIs Have the Right to Heal

"Stop the Deployment of Traumatized Troops." Members of IVAW demonstrate in Washington, D.C., October 2010. Photo by Rose Marie Berger / rosemarieberger.com.

Operation Recovery and Hoodstock III

By Alice Embree / The Rag Blog / September 28, 2011
The Austin Lounge Lizards headline Hoodstock III, benefitting Under the Hood Café and Outreach Center and IVAW's Operation Recovery, Sunday, Oct. 2, 2011, 6-9 p.m., at Jovita's, 1619 South First St., Austin, Texas. For more details, see the poster below.
For more than a decade, two declared wars have raged in Iraq and Afghanistan. War has traumatized civilian populations there and sent thousands of service members home suffering from trauma. With no end in sight to the wars, these servicemen and women face redeployment despite diagnoses of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and Military Sexual Trauma (MST).

Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and their civilian allies have embarked on a campaign that has a simple message: the right to heal. IVAW’s Operation Recovery advocates that service members who experience PTSD, TBI, MST, and combat stress have the right to exit the traumatic situation and receive immediate support and compensation. IVAW organizers talk to soldiers about their right to receive medical care and advice from medical professionals, advice that should trump a commander’s orders.

In Killeen, the G.I. coffeehouse Under the Hood, is the forward operating base for Operation Recovery. Aaron Hughes, an IVAW organizer, was pulled out of the University of Illinois in 2003 and sent into active duty in Iraq with his Illinois Army National Guard unit. Tall and serious, Aaron and other IVAW members have spent many weeks in the brutal summer heat of Killeen, Texas, talking to soldiers at Fort Hood, the largest Army base in the world.

Here, they can find plenty of soldiers who have returned from deployment, been diagnosed with trauma, have not been treated, and have simply been readied for deployment again. There are also many soldiers who have never been appropriately diagnosed. Unfortunately, at Fort Hood, these situations often translate into the worst possible result -- suicide.

In January 2011, the Army reported that 22 soldiers had killed themselves or were suspected of doing so, twice the number in 2009. That is a rate of 47 deaths per 100,000, compared with a 20 per 100,000 rate among civilians and a 22 per 100,000 rate Army-wide. “We are at a loss to explain the high numbers,” acting commander Major General William Grimsley told USA Today.

Aaron Hughes and other IVAW organizers have an easier time explaining Fort Hood’s record-breaking stat. The Army is first and foremost committed to keeping troops available for wars that are far from over. They direct inadequate resources to the diagnosis and treatment of traumatized soldiers. Service members often struggle in isolation with the invisible wounds of trauma -- wounds that fester in secrecy, wounds that affect spouses and children, families and friends.

Service members return to a country where the wars are invisible to a majority of their fellow citizens -- where media attention is lavished on the stupidity of stars and the cacophony of what passes for political debate. War coverage just doesn’t attract advertisers like “Dancing With the Stars.”

In the midst of this, IVAW has a powerful message: “You are not alone.” “You have the right to heal.” If there is one lifeline that can work for soldiers in trauma, it is to tell their story to peers who have walked in their boots.

Since it opened in February 2009, Under the Hood Café and Outreach Center has offered a space for active duty soldiers, military families, veterans, and concerned citizens to socialize, organize, and heal. You can support this space by coming to a benefit from 6-9 p.m., Sunday, October 2, at Jovita’s in Austin. Hear the Austin Lounge Lizards and other musicians and support a great cause

For more on Operation Recovery,
listen to the Rag Radio interview with IVAW soldiers:

[Alice Embree is a long-time Austin activist, organizer, and member of the Texas State Employees Union. A former staff member of The Rag in Austin and RAT in New York, and a veteran of SDS and the women's liberation movement, she is now active with CodePink Austin and Under the Hood Café. Embree is a contributing editor to The Rag Blog and is treasurer of the New Journalism Project. Read more articles by Alice Embree on The Rag Blog.]

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27 September 2011

FICTION / Marc Estrin : The Machine


By Marc Estrin / The Rag Blog / September 27, 2011

The government murder of Troy Davis this week -- under odd evidential circumstances -- has once again thrust capital punishment up for public discussion.

As my contribution to death penalty abolition, I recently wrote The Good Doctor Guillotin, a novel about the first use of the guillotine during the French Revolution -- an occasion sufficiently removed from current politics as to allow the issues to be seen more clearly.

Tobias Schmidt was the machine's builder, a piano maker. And Charles-Henri Sanson was the executioner of Paris.

The novel itself is intricately woven, but here's a stand-alone short chapter describing the testing of the machine before use. It may provide some food for reflection:

29. The Machine

It was 14 feet high, its beams and posts painted blood-red -- a nice touch, that. It would be called “End of the Soup,” “Old Growler,” “Sky Mother,” “the Last Mouthful.” It would be called by the feminine form of someone’s name, someone who had repudiated it. As if it were his daughter. Assemblymen called it the "Timbers of Justice.”

The victim, once attached to the plank, his head in the fatal window, would become a part of it, a cog in the machine of egalitarian justice. His blood would be shed not by the unsteady hand of his fellow man but by this lifeless, insensible, infallible instrument, a doctor’s idea become oak and iron.

The materials gathered, over the course of a week Tobias Schmidt and two hired workers constructed the frame. Two four-sided posts were grooved and chiseled as guides for the falling blade. When the 70-pound holder and 15-pound blade came back from the blacksmith, they were fitted loosely between the posts and the posts joined by an upper crossbar with a hole for the rope. A lower crossbar was angle-braced to its stand for stability. Rope guides were placed.

On the back side of the device, the executioner’s side, another crossbar was attached to hold the lunette -- two wooden pieces, each with a half-circular hole to contain the client’s, the patient’s, the package’s neck. The diameter was that of Pelletier’s. A smaller one for women could be substituted as needed. When fitted together, the pieces formed a lovely “little moon” whose upper half could be lifted on a hinge to permit a head to enter.

That was it. Simple. A weighted blade and its frame. Though it required two strong men to carry it, it could be loaded onto a heavy cart and transported wherever it was needed, along with its separate bench, long and strong enough to hold a giant—or an ox—and fitted with thick leather straps.

Before dawn on Tuesday, April 15, 1792, a sound of clattering wheels was heard on southern streets two miles from the center of Paris. It was a four-wheeled wagon, drawn by two horses, carrying a long object covered with heavy black cloth and tightly bound with chains. Four guardsmen with bare swords on horseback rode silently in front of the wagon, and four behind. Bringing up the rear was a smaller wagon with several sheep. If going to market, they were being taken in the wrong direction. They advanced slowly, gray and black in the pale early morning.

The procession was heading for the suburb of Bicêtre, just outside the city gate, home to the great hospital for venereal disease, its hospice for the needy poor, and its maison de correction, locked wards for hardened criminals, some awaiting execution.

When seen from a distance, Louis XIII’s building looks quite imposing. Set on the brow of a hill, from afar it retained something of its former splendor and the look of a royal residence. But now, three Louises later, the palace had in fact become a hovel. Its dilapidated eaves were shameful and its walls diseased. Not a window was glazed but only fitted with crisscrossed iron bars through which, here and there, pressed the harrowed face of a patient or a prisoner.

Already waiting in a small inner courtyard were Charles-Henri Sanson, with two assistants, Tobias Schmidt, and the doctors Antoine Louis and Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, the latter most reluctantly.

Early-morning eyes gawked from behind bars as the first sheep’s head was placed in the lunette, its neck the size of Pelletier’s. The upper half moon was locked in place. One of the assistants let loose the rope from its tie-off so Sanson could better observe.

Disaster: The heavy blade jerked stickily into motion, jolted downward between the grooves, and sliced into the animal without killing it. All mental ears were stopped against its terrifying cry. Sanson was dismayed. He had the blade wound back up and released again. It bit into the neck again but did not sever it. The victim howled. Once again the blade was raised and dropped, but the third stroke only caused a stream of blood to spurt from the sheep’s neck, without the head falling.

Five times the blade rose and fell; five times it cut into the sheep, which cried five times for mercy. It remained standing on the platform, an appalling, terrifying sight. Sanson straddled it and hacked away with a butcher knife at what remained of its neck. Twenty pounds of lead shot were added to the blade-carrier, and three more sheep were neatly dispatched thereby. The march of science.

After nightfall Schmidt took the machine back to his workshop in the Cour du Commerce, Rue St.-André-des-Arts, just opposite the printing shop in Number 8 where Marat’s paper was printed. He lined the grooves with brass for a smoother drop and bolted more weight to the blade assembly.

Two days later, on April 17, assisted by his son and his two brothers, Sanson repeated his experiments on the improved machine, this time with three human cadavers from a military morgue, three well-built men who had died in short illnesses that had not caused them to grow thin.

Among the spectators were the two doctors concerned, along with Michel Cullerier, the chief surgeon of Bicêtre; Philippe Pinel, the resident alienist; several physician members of the National Assembly; and delegates from the Council of Hospitals of Paris. Strapped to the bench, the three corpses, good soldiers all, were successfully beheaded without protesting, to the applause of most of the onlookers.

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

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Lamar W. Hankins : The Death Penalty and the Question of 'Actual Innocence'

Demonstrators carry pictures of Troy Davis, who was executed Sept. 21, 2011, in Jackson, GA. Image from Politics and Fashion.

When government decides to kill:
The death penalty and the
question of actual innocence
[The Supreme] Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is 'actually' innocent. -- Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas
By Lamar W. Hankins / The Rag Blog / September 27, 2011

Almost every high school student and college graduate has thought about capital punishment. It is one of the most common topics to write about in political science, social science, English, and speech classes.

Everyone has an opinion and reasons to be for or against it. In this, I am not different from most other people. But my perspective about capital punishment has come to me over the 45-plus years I have been a participant in the functioning of the criminal justice system. I have learned that it does not function well at any level.

I have concluded that the criminal justice system is so imperfect and unreliable that it is irresponsible to assign it the authority to decide who should live and who should die. I didn’t always think this way. I used to respect the criminal justice system. When I was 20 years old, I spent the summer after my junior year in college working for the Texas prison system.

That summer, the Texas Department of Corrections (now the Texas Department of Criminal Justice) hired about 30 college students to introduce them to the prison system and to provide inexpensive employees to fill in while regular employees took vacations.

I learned that summer, from first-hand experiences, about wide-spread abuse of inmates. Four inmates that I was supervising were taken by prison officials -- my immediate supervisor and the head of the prison shops -- and beaten with ax handles for working too slowly. When I questioned the beatings, the assistant warden and then the warden told me that they had all fallen down the steps when they were taken away from their work area for about 30 minutes for a discussion about their slow work habits.

Even a naive 20-year old couldn’t accept that explanation after counting the dozens of individual knots that had suddenly appeared on their freshly shorn heads after that 30-minute discussion. The warden threatened me if I persisted in my complaint, and he moved me to other jobs that diminished my contact with inmates. But for the rest of the summer, after word of my complaint got around, I was told stories by inmates and guards about many abuses, including the drowning of inmates by prison officials.

That summer job was the beginning of the end for my unquestioning acceptance of official explanations for government misconduct. A few years later, when my younger brother was led into a marijuana buy by a snitch working off his own arrest for selling drugs by getting others to commit drug crimes so they could be arrested, I learned another lesson about how the criminal justice system functions. It was not enough to arrest people selling drugs; the government had to create the crimes so it could make more arrests.

When I became an attorney, I refused to represent defendants who had become snitches. Partly it was for self-preservation. How could I trust that a client setting up drug cases for law enforcement would not try to set me up? It would be a coup to get a criminal defense attorney arrested. It would not matter that I neither used nor sold illegal drugs. At the very least, I would be tainted for life just for having such an allegation made against me, and I could have lost my license to practice law.

Shortly before I became an attorney -- and just after the Supreme Court in 1976 allowed the resumption of capital murder cases after a four-year moratorium while it sorted out some death penalty issues -- I was a legal assistant for one of the premier criminal defense attorneys in Houston. He had been appointed to represent a notorious defendant accused of capital murder and other crimes.

The capital murder trial lasted two months. The jury could not reach a decision on punishment. At that time, the law in Texas required that if the jury could not reach a decision on punishment, the entire trial had to be done over. A few months later, we appeared back in the same courtroom for the re-trial. The prosecutor offered a deal on nine charges against the defendant. He received three life sentences and six 99-year sentences, thus avoiding a death sentence.

In 1979, while practicing in Bryan, I was appointed to represent a defendant in another capital murder case. While my client had not actually done the killing, he had participated in actions that led to the death of an innocent man whose truck my client and his cohorts wanted to steal. In Texas, a concept known as “the law of parties” made him equally culpable.

The trial lasted for three months. My client was convicted and sentenced to death, but the case was overturned on appeal because the judge had not allowed me to fully cross-examine a key witness against him. That decision came several years after the first trial. By then, I had moved to San Marcos and other attorneys were appointed to represent the defendant when his case was set for re-trial.

During the first trial, we were allowed to introduce what was termed “mitigating evidence” -- evidence that might show why the defendant should not receive the death penalty -- but the judge did not explain to the jurors how they should consider and apply that mitigating evidence. That evidence included information that the defendant had voluntarily surrendered to the sheriff by turning himself in at the jail, that he was borderline mentally retarded, that he had grown up in dismal poverty, that he had not before committed a violent crime, and that he was subjected to extreme brutality by his father during his formative years.

I had access to all of that mitigating evidence and was a witness to his surrender to the sheriff. I had located the defendant (I was previously appointed to represent him on a misdemeanor charge) and drove him to the jail the night he turned himself in. I contacted the new defense attorneys and offered to help in any way I could, including being available to testify about his voluntary surrender to the sheriff.

The new attorneys presented no evidence of these mitigating circumstances at the re-trial, even though a newer court opinion had given judges specific instructions about how to explain such mitigating evidence to jurors so that it could be applied fairly by them in their deliberations about whether the defendant should be given a death sentence or a life sentence.

He was again sentenced to death. That punishment was carried out 22 years after the crime had been committed. His death did yield one positive benefit -- he donated his body to the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston to further the education of those studying to become doctors.

After contacting some of the jurors from the original trial, I had learned that if they had been instructed how to consider and apply the mitigating evidence, they would have voted to give my client a life sentence. In the second trial, no mitigating evidence was presented, even though jurors would have been instructed how to consider and apply it.

As a result, the second set of jurors had no evidence to consider in deciding my former client’s fate. At the time of his death, a habeas corpus petition was pending before the court charging that the attorneys in his second trial had provided less than effective representation by failing to present the mitigating evidence that might have saved his life.

The recent execution of Troy Davis in Georgia after seven of nine witnesses recanted their testimony or admitted that they had lied at his trial brings up other issues of manifest unfairness in the criminal justice system. Troy Davis was convicted of murdering an off-duty police officer and sentenced to death.

In addition to the witness recantations, new evidence suggests that Davis had been inside a nearby pool hall and was part of a crowd that left the pool hall in response to a commotion in the adjacent parking lot where a homeless man was being beaten by a man named Coles, who is believed by many to be the killer of the off-duty officer who came to the homeless man’s aid.

The recanting of false testimony or mistaken eyewitness identification is not unusual, especially when the testimony is stimulated by over-zealous investigators intent on a conviction based largely on their gut instincts or dislike of a defendant. Psychologists have known for at least 50 years that eyewitness testimony is the most unreliable evidence presented in most criminal cases. But the courts in most jurisdictions have not allowed scientific evidence about the unreliability of eyewitness identification to be presented to jurors. That has begun to change.

A primary reason for the change has come from the work of the Innocence Project, which started in 1992 at the Benjamin Cardoza School of Law. When DNA testing became available to analyze blood from a crime scene, it became possible to determine whether a particular accused person could have been the culprit.

Before the early 1990s, many defendants were convicted on eyewitness identification and circumstantial evidence, such as a match between the blood type of an assailant and blood found on the victim, which did not rule out the possible guilt of millions of others with the same blood type as the defendant. The Innocence Project started looking back at some of these old cases where there was blood evidence that had never been subjected to DNA analysis.

Resulting from the use of DNA analysis, 70% of the cases that the Innocence Project has taken back to court have resulted in wrongful convictions because of faulty eyewitness identification of the assailant, usually in cases of murder or sexual assault.

In other cases, faulty scientific analysis of forensic evidence by government laboratories and investigators has resulted in wrongful convictions. The Willingham arson case is one example. The arson investigators misunderstood the forensic evidence and implicated Willingham in the deaths of his three children. He was executed in 2004.

In the early 1990s, a pathologist in west Texas, Ralph Erdmann, is believed to have faked about 100 autopsies and falsified an unknown number of toxicology reports, many of which resulted in wrongful convictions. Erdmann was convicted on several counts of evidence tampering and perjury after defense attorneys and others sparked an investigation into his forensic practices, but it took the appointment of a special prosecutor to uncover most of his misdeeds.

Prosecutors have enormous discretion about whether to charge a defendant with capital murder. The same year that my client in Bryan was charged with capital murder, at least five other cases in the same county could have been prosecuted as capital cases, but were not.

They were murders committed during the commission of kidnapping, burglary, robbery, aggravated sexual assault, or arson. The prosecutor decided, for his own reasons, that the capital murders committed by these defendants did not need to be prosecuted as capital cases. What made my client’s case special was that four black defendants killed a white man. In the other five cases that year, the victims were all black.

The race of the victim and the race of the defendant was the only salient difference in the six cases. (Occasionally, however, a white person does receive the death penalty for killing a black person, as in the horrendous dragging death and decapitation of James Byrd in East Texas a few years ago.)

For many defendants wrongfully convicted, there are no adequate remedies at law. Many federal judges and some Supreme Court Justices believe the Constitution does not require reconsideration of cases that have been fully litigated even when there is evidence that the defendant is actually innocent of the crime charged.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas wrote in 2009:
This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is "actually" innocent. Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged "actual innocence" is constitutionally cognizable.
As journalist Ed Brayton explained this point further in 2010:
[T]he 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has decided that the fact that a convicted criminal can now be proven to be innocent does not matter if he filed an appeal in 16 months rather than the 12 months allowed by the statute of limitations. Actual innocence simply does not matter, only technicalities do.
Criminal and appellate procedures, such as deadlines for filing appeals and the rules for how and when to file writs of habeas corpus challenging wrongful incarcerations, are more important in our criminal justice system than proof of the actual innocence of people in our prisons and on our death rows.

These and many similar reasons, including my own experiences as an attorney with faulty eyewitness testimony, have led me to conclude that the criminal justice system is too riven with mistakes to be allowed to put anyone to death. At least a million Texas property owners each year don’t trust the government to decide accurately the value of their property. With so little confidence in government, why would we give that same government the power of life and death over a human being?

Law professor Paul Campos of the University of Colorado at Boulder summed up the Scalia and Thomas position, which is basically the position of the criminal justice system as a whole, in reference to the Troy Davis case:
The defense in this case is claiming that there’s something unusual about Troy Davis’ situation, requiring extraordinary action on the part of the Supreme Court. But there’s nothing unusual about his situation. The American legal system routinely sentences people to long prison terms and even to death on the basis of dubious evidence, in trials featuring overburdened, underfunded, and marginally competent defense lawyers. Obviously under such conditions mistakes are going to be made. If such mistakes make verdicts unconstitutional, then the whole system is unconstitutional.
And that’s a difficult proposition to accept for most people in the land of the free and the home of the brave. But it leads to an inevitable question of morality: “Is this justice?”

[Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, city attorney, is also a columnist for the San Marcos Mercury. This article © Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins. Read more articles by Lamar W. Hankins on The Rag Blog.]

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