30 November 2011

Bill Meacham : What is Truth? (In 400 Words)

The Chinese character for truth.

(In 400 words)
What Is Truth?

By Bill Meacham /The Rag Blog/ November 30, 2011

Philosophy Now magazine runs an occasional contest: Write an answer to a philosophical question in 400 words or fewer. The winning essays are printed in the magazine. My essay in answer to the question “What is Truth” was selected[1], and I am pleased to present it here, followed by another winning essay by my colleague Robert “Little Bobby” Tables.

Several factors determine the truthfulness of a theory or an explanation of events: congruence, consistency, coherence, and usefulness.
  • A true theory is congruent with our experience. It fits the facts. No fact is left unexplained. It is falsifiable, and nothing falsifying has been found. People think truth is correspondence to reality, understood as something independent of us. But we don’t have direct contact with reality, only with our experience of it.

  • When what we experience is predictable then we can infer that our theory corresponds with reality. Our theory is congruent with the facts, as we experience them. When we discover new facts, we can change our theory. Truth is always provisional, not an end state.

  • A true theory is internally consistent. It has no contradictions within itself, and it all fits together elegantly. Consistency allows us to infer things from what we already know. An inconsistent theory, one that contains contradictions, does not allow us to do this.

  • A true theory is coherent with everything else we consider true. It confirms, or at least fails to contradict, the rest of our knowledge, where “knowledge” means beliefs for which we can give rigorous reasons. The physical sciences, for example, hold together quite well. Physics, chemistry, geology, biology and astronomy all reinforce each other.

  • A true theory is useful. It has predictive power, allowing us to gain control of the world by making good choices concerning what is likely to happen, choices that pan out. It gives us mastery. When we act on the basis of a true theory or explanation, our actions are successful.
Truth enables us to exert our power, in the sense of our ability to get things done, successfully. We master both the world of physical things and the world of ideas, of theory. What is true is what works to organize our practice and our thought, so that we are able both to handle reality effectively and to reason with logical rigor to true conclusions.

Truth is useful. Does that mean that what is useful is true? That is not a useful question. Let’s not ask what truth is; let’s ask instead how we can recognize it reliably when it appears. If a theory is congruent with our experience, internally consistent, coherent with everything else we know, and useful for organizing our thinking and practice, then we can confidently consider it true.

The following is Robert Tables' essay on Truth:

Truth is interpersonal. We tell each other things, and when they work out we call them truths. When they don’t, we call them errors or, if we are not charitable, lies.

What we take as truth depends on what others around us espouse. For many centuries European Christians believed that men had one fewer rib than women because the Bible says that Eve was created from Adam’s rib. Nobody bothered to count because everyone assumed it was true. And when they finally counted, it was because everyone agreed on the count that the real truth became known.

Even when we are alone, truth is interpersonal. We express these truths or errors or lies to others and to ourselves in language; and, as Wittgenstein pointed out, there can be no private language.

But the most essential truth, the truth by which we all live our lives, is intensely personal, private. We might call this “Truth,” with a capital T. Even though each of us lives our life by it, it can be different for each person. Shall I believe and obey the Torah, the New Testament, the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Zend Avesta, the Dhammapada? Or none of the above: shall I find my own Truth in my own way? Am I more authentic if I do so? What if I find my Truth and it sets me apart from others? Am I then authentically lonely?

We need a community of seekers with a commitment to meta-Truth, recognizing that everyone’s personal Truth is to be respected, even though it might differ from someone else’s.

But even in such a community, some beliefs would be acceptable and others not. My belief that I am exceptional and deserve preferential treatment, perhaps because I alone have received a special revelation, is not likely to be shared by others. Whether that changes my mind or not depends on how compelling are my reasons for believing it and how deeply I feel the need for acceptance.

From within the in-group we look with fear and revulsion on those who deny the accepted beliefs. From outside, we admire those who hold aloft the light of truth amidst the darkness of human ignorance.

And in every case it is we who judge, not I alone. Even the most personal Truth is adjudicated within a community and depends on the esteem of others.
[1]Philosophy Now magazine, “What Is Truth?” Issue 86 Sept/Oct 2011, pp. 34-37. London: Anya Publications, 2011. Also online publication, URL = http://www.philosophynow.org/issue86/What_Is_Truth as of 22 November 2011.

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

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Allen Young : Is 'Mic Check' Just 'Political Shouting?'

Image from Pragmatic Witness.

An email string:
Analyzing 'mic check'
Polarizing behavior, besides being wrong, simply creates more polarization...
By Allen Young / The Rag Blog / November 30, 2011

“Mic check,” as it is known, is short for “microphone check,” a name that was chosen with irony because in fact the speech amplification technique known as “mic check” was introduced by Occupy Wall Street activists in places where electronic sound systems and even bullhorns were not allowed.

So, a speaker calls out “mic check” and speaks sentence after sentence, with the people in the crowd repeating each sentence so everyone can hear it.

It seems that for participants this is quite exhilarating, aside from serving a practical purpose of getting words heard.

Eventually, this “mic check” technique was brought to bear in confrontational situations. A group of Occupy protesters, for example, organized the disruption of speeches by Karl Rove and others, using this now familiar technique -- followed by YouTube videos bringing the scene to many thousands more.

Now, I must be clear that I am enthusiastic about Occupy Wall Street, and the entire Occupy movement, and want to see this movement grow and succeed. I would like to see the movement be more successful than the New Left I was a part of in the 1960s.

This movement has done a much better job than the Democratic Party (and I am a registered Democrat) at bringing to the American public a message of urgent concern about corporate corruption of our democracy, the immoral lack of economic justice and equality, and the criminal or near-criminal activity of bank and corporate executives in recent times.

I am not so enthusiastic, however, about “mic check,” even in its benign form where only used for amplification. It seems to me – especially when observed in a YouTube video – that “mic check” creates a rather cult-like scene. To the general public, I think it looks and sounds ridiculous, and I have experience with some political shouting of my own, circa 1969, that certainly looked and sounded ridiculous to most people. (Remember “Ho Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF. is Gonna Win?” Yeah, that won over lots of hard-working American citizens to the anti-war cause.)

Recently, a friend in San Francisco who I’ll call Fred suggested that I view a YouTube video of “mic check” used at a Karl Rove speech [see below]. He was very animated about this, and said, “It gives me chills.” I looked at the video, and then emailed a response to him, which I shared with a handful of friends, commenting to them that I wondered if I’d become a “softie.”

Fred has not responded to me yet, but the following email exchange resulted. The names of my friends have also been changed. Some Rag Blog readers who don’t agree with me may find the entry by “Bradley” to be a point of view they like best.

I also passed the entire string by fellow Rag Blog contributor Bill Freeland, and his comments close the piece.

Mic check at Occupy Wall Street event. Image from New Clear Vision.

Allen Young: These are tentative thoughts on "mic check." I could change my mind, but here's my honest reaction at the moment after viewing a YouTube video of the Rove “mic check" incident you told me about.

I think people like Rove, Cheney, Bush (and from an earlier era, Kissinger and others), and so on, are war criminals and "very bad people." I think their evil-doings should be remembered and people should be educated about them.

However, disrupting their speech in an auditorium where they are the invited speaker does not seem to me to be correct or productive. I say it's not productive because in the end, those people who disrupt will probably be legally expelled from the auditorium by authorities, with or without scuffles or violence of some sort, and then the people who have come to hear the speaker will most likely have increased sympathy for the speaker and will, with perhaps a few exceptions, not even have heard the points being made by the protesters.

There might even be arrests for "disorderly conduct" and bad publicity and the expense involved in legal defense, a waste of resources, in my view. That's the practical point.

The theoretical point has to do with the right of free speech. You and others may argue that such villains do not deserve rights of any kind. However, as a card-carrying member of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) for decades, I do not agree with this. I and others supported the ACLU when it went to court to protect the rights of the KKK to march in Skokie, Ill. (where many Jews reside) some years ago. (Some people were upset and quit the ACLU, on the other hand.)

I have a personal reason for reacting negatively to "mic check." I have done a fair amount of public speaking, including on gay issues. So I hope you will try to put yourself in my place.

Imagine if I (or you) were in a college auditorium at the microphone, invited by a gay student organization. Imagine that a large group of anti-gay students infiltrated the auditorium and did a "mic check" style of interruption. Certainly, I would be flustered and upset and uncertain how to respond. I could shout out "bigots go home," but I would be unable to make the comments I planned to make, the comments that the gay student group which invited me wanted to hear.

My right to express my views would have been suppressed by a handful of vigilante haters. Maybe friendly supportive people in the audience would give me a big hand, and the homophobes would get bad publicity, but my purpose as a speaker would be lost.

There needs to be justice for Rove and his ilk, but not vigilante justice, as I do not believe in that, and I think it is very dangerous to use vigilante justice concepts as we move forward to try to correct the bad things happening in the nation and the world. The cop who sprayed pepper at UC Davis probably saw himself as dishing out vigilante justice to people he despised.

As for moments when Rove, etc., have speaking engagements, I think picketing outside the auditorium and handing out educational leaflet to those attending as well as passers-by is a more appropriate political action, one that I would be proud to participate in. I would not be proud to participate in "mic check." It would not give me chills (as you said) in any positive sense; it would give me chills in a very frightening negative sense.

Chet: Well-stated and I agree entirely. Polarizing behavior, besides being wrong, simply creates more polarization and a spectacle that people can watch from the sidelines, taking sides and pretending they are acting as citizens rooting for their ideological team, instead of being real citizens doing the unglamorous, slow, and steady work of building broad-based consensus for change.

Kathy: You're absolutely right, it's ghastly. And that doesn't make you a softie, but a man of principle who can speak up when his friends are wrong. A "softie" is someone who would keep quiet about it so as not to offend anyone. People who think that politics is simply a matter of "expressing yourself" by shouting louder than the other guy are ignorant narcissists.

This is the same damn tactic that the original Tea Party people used on the speakers who were trying to present Obama's healthcare plan, and in my eyes it discredited the movement from the get-go. We're desperately in need of reasoned discussion these days, and shouting down the "bad people" makes that impossible, because when you do that you validate everyone's worst image of your own side.

The Right is working hard enough to misrepresent and discredit OWS already; the idiots don't have to help them. This is what happens with a movement with no leaders, no goals, no philosophy and no discipline -- the paranoids, the immature and the violent -- all feel empowered, and they hijack the movement, and then it's all over. Didn't we already go through that in the Sixties?

I could go on ranting but I have family coming and cooking to do. Happy Thanksgiving!

Bradley: I have heard it said that freedom of the press belongs to anyone who owns the press. So it is with the powers of speech. Our society has evolved into one that is completely dominated by mega-wealthy, mega-powerful men and corporations.

They are so powerful that they own and control entire blocks of media outlets and blanket the population with their slanted world view. Their message is delivered in such a manner as to bamboozle the unwary population lulled by their soma as the telescreen emits powerful, suggestive messages designed to mold their opinion of people and events.

Now the inequity in our society grows to proportions not seen since the days of the "robber barons" of the early industrial age. Monopolies grow unabated by impotent laws and a justice system that has been corrupted by money and power.

There is no justice. Just us.

We, the people, struggle to get our message heard. Suddenly, a clever new tool emerges. Mic Check.

The rich and powerful HAVE freedom of speech, and the power (money) to use it. Mic Check has emerged as a way of delivering powerful messages by temporarily hijacking the speech avenue paved by the powerful.

A typical Mic Check only lasts a few minutes, and delivers a couple of carefully worded paragraphs, but the delivery is compelling. The ubiquitous presence of video recording, and the viral nature of YouTube, has combined with traditional commercial media to deliver these messages well beyond the limitations imposed by the lack of power or influence of the messengers.

Does Mic Check have the potential for misuse? Absolutely. It means that any group can potentially take control of a venue to which they have no actual right.

Will Mic Check become an out-of-control phenomenon used frequently for harassment purposes? Maybe. It also may be something that is with us and effective for only a few months, or even weeks.

No one knows how Mic Check may evolve, but as it stands now, it is a powerful tool for the powerless. Our society is on the verge of collapse and maybe, just maybe, the Occupy Movement, and Mic Check can make a difference. There is no denying that Occupy has changed the dialog, and Mic Check has given that dialog voice.

Three cheers for Mic Check.

Stanley: I tend to agree with you, Allen, if for no other reason than -- as you point out -- it would likely be counterproductive and bring sympathy to the one interrupted -- especially as it is communicated through the media. And it would then subordinate the primary issue to that of the free speech of the speaker.

One idea that might be pursued is the use of the Mic Check approach in a situation where it isn't actually being used to interrupt the speaker, but to make a political point in a dramatic fashion.

And finally, from Bill Freeland:

In general, repeated chants of the same phrase ’60-style is different than an ongoing statement under “mic check” with specific content to communicate. The first example seems to be just rhetoric for its own sake, while the second example seems to have a useful purpose designed to communicate specific information.

On the specific example of the use of mic check at Rove’s address:
  • Those who have come (and probably paid) to hear Rove in person feel about as sympathetic to him as it is possible to feel. The protesters, I doubt, are not likely to increase the affection those at the event already have for him due to their disruptive behavior. Nor are they likely to view the protesters in a worse light than they already do.
  • Meanwhile, when the action goes viral on social media, the protesters have a tool to reach a much larger and presumably less sympathetic audience than those in the room, which can serve to remind people of who Rove is and what he has done in a way that can’t be ignored (as pickets easily can).
  • Also, mic check in the Rove setting, unlike the continuous “Ho, Ho, Ho” chanting, is of very limited duration. They make their point and then leave -- or are removed. So they don’t intend to deny Rove of his right to free speech. They hope merely to briefly interrupt him. So I think it becomes as a result a much less urgent free speech issue when weighed against the potential benefit of holding him to some account.
As for the utility of mic check in the practical (and friendly) setting of a large audience where there is no amplification or free speech implications, I’ve found it to be (much to my surprise) a very useful and creative tool.

So in summary:
  • Mic check is not the equivalent of a repeated chant.
  • It has limited impact on free speech rights when the purpose is to interrupt, but not prohibit, what others are saying
  • In a friendly setting with no other alternative methods available it seems useful for the purpose it was designed to address.
[Allen Young left the Washington Post to work with Liberation News Service in the late Sixties and later became an important voice in the gay liberation movement. Allen now lives in rural Massachusetts where he is involved with environmental issues and writes a column for the Athol Daily News.]
Check out for yourself the 'mic check' at Karl Rove's speech:

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Paul Rosenberg : American Deceptionalism

Photo by Gallo / Getty Images / Al Jazeera.

American Deceptionalism
Under the growing influence of the 1 per cent, American exceptionalism has become American deceptionalism.
By Paul Rosenberg / Progressive America Rising / November 30, 2011

From the dawn of the colonial era, long before they even had a national identity, Americans have always felt they had a special role in the world, though the exact nature of American exceptionalism has always been a matter of some dispute.

Many have taken it to be a special religious destiny, but Alexis de Tocqueville, the first to consider it systematically, affirmed the exact opposite: "a thousand special causes... have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects." Ironically enough, the exact term "American exceptionalism" was first used by Joseph Stalin, in order to reject it.

And yet, for 70 years American exceptionalism has been most prominently and consistently associated with imperialism ("benevolent," of course!), via the phrase "the American Century." It was coined by Time-Life publisher Henry Luce in February 1941, 10 months before Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack drew the U.S. into World War II. The history of Luce’s coinage provides a depth of resonance for a recent twist: a not uncommon, but particularly telling juxtaposition of four Time magazine covers from around the world this week.

In three editions -- Europe, Asia, and South Pacific -- Time magazine’s visually hot, tumultuous cover featured a gas mask-protected Egyptian protester, upraised fist overhead with a chaotic street background behind. The headline: "Revolution Redux." Not so in the exceptional American edition. There, the visually cool, wanna-be New Yorker-ish cover was a text-dominated cartoon against a light gray background: "Why Anxiety is Good For You."

Clearly, Time is whistling past the graveyard. As mostly Democratic mayors clamp down hard on Occupy Wall Street outposts across the land, it’s obvious that the U.S.’ political class is having none of it. They do not believe that anxiety is good for them and they are doing their darnedest to keep a lid on things. Agitated citizens out in the streets are bad enough. Pictures of agitated citizens are simply too much.

Once upon a time, those pictures coming from a Third World dictatorship in a (hopefully) democratic transition would have been comfortably distant, even reassuring -- exotic, other, subsumed in history, striving to become more like us, the transcendent ones at the "end of history."

That, after all, was part of the message of Luce’s "American Century." But nowadays, everyone knows that the differences between Zuccotti Park and Tahrir Square are increasingly less significant than their similarities. They are matters of degree more than kind. There is no such place as "outside of history" anymore. Those making history know it, and those fighting history know it just as well.

Democratic mayors to the 99 per cent

In the U.S., the message from the mayors is simple: You’ve made your point. Now go to your room and shut up. We’ve got a lawn to keep up, and you’ve spoiled it. America’s "grown-ups," as the political class likes to think of itself, have never had much patience when it comes to the "children," as its mere citizens are known. And yet, America’s democratic revolutionary origins are at the very center of a radically different vision of what American exceptionalism is all about.

The situation in Los Angeles is particularly exemplary. Although city officials welcomed Occupy LA at first, for weeks on end Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and others have been saying it’s time to leave. Villaraigosa -- like Obama -- is a former progressive organizer turned neoliberal politician. He was a teacher’s union organizer when I first met him in the 1980s, as part of a progressive precinct network aimed at getting disaffected progressive voters to the pols.

Also within the coalition’s core was the LA National Lawyers Guild’s executive director. When Villaraigosa first took office in 2006, his first big battle was against the teachers' union he used to work for. He took them on with the backing of billionaire real estate developer and education "reformer" Eli Broad. Five years later, as he faces off against Occupy LA, the current NLG executive director, James Lafferty, is one of his major opponents.

With no sense of irony, Villaraigosa thought Thanksgiving weekend was the perfect time for an eviction. "It’s clear that this mayor cares more about dead grass than a dead economy," Lafferty responded at an Occupy LA press conference. "The 99 per cent that have been thrown out of their homes, jobless, without proper healthcare and all the rest seem to be less important to him than that lawn."

America’s exceptional democracy

As indicated above, the idea of American exceptionalism was always a contested one. But it’s hard to deny that the New World in general was seen as a land of opportunity, and the American colonies were the place where the most opportunity was seen for people to actually settle in significant numbers.

Yet, the way most people managed to get to this new land of opportunity and freedom was through indentured servitude, and when that failed to provide enough labor, the African slave trade was "Plan B."

The land itself came courtesy of the earliest stages of America’s centuries-long series of genocidal wars. And when the American Revolution came, it was lead in large part by slaveholder advocates of freedom – men like Washington, Jefferson and Patrick Henry, whose influence only expanded as the new nation was established.

Although their primary arguments were grounded in universalist appeals, the actual rights-holding subjects of their political system were a relatively tiny minority of well-to-do white males. The promise of rights-based liberal democracy was intoxicating to all, but forbidden to most. Equality was for gentlemen only. And yet, those excluded would not be denied. Scattered state and local battles coalesced into a national abolitionist movement by the 1830s, which in turn spawned a women’s rights movement in the 1840s.

In Europe, the U.S. example spawned the French and Polish revolutions, followed by more than a century of struggles in which the example of the U.S.’ existence powerfully transformed the Old World in combination with Europe’s own internal modernizing forces.

And even though the United States itself embarked on an imperialist course sparked by the Spanish-American War in 1898, its example as the first anti-colonial revolutionary regime inspired colonial revolutionaries as well. It was no accident that Ho Chi Minh approached Woodrow Wilson for his support at Versailles after World War I, before turning to communism as his second choice in seeking to rid his country of French colonialism.

From exceptionalism to deceptionalism

But the U.S. had a hard time keeping up with itself, or with the world that it helped create. The European welfare state was a direct response to popular demands for a better, more just, less arbitrary life, demands that were sparked in part by the very existence of the U.S. as an alternative.

As the U.S. itself became more like Europe -- more industrialized, more urbanized, less composed of small farmers and more composed of urban workers -- the resistance to learning from European advances became increasingly irrational, and at odds with American pragmatism. Our political system lagged behind as well, lacking the fluidity and inventiveness that made parliamentary systems the dominant form of democracy elsewhere around the world.

This perverse refusal to learn from others who have been inspired by us in the political realm is strikingly at odds with Americans’ grassroots improvisatory traditions. From food to music to everything in between, Americans have always adopted diverse influences, mixed them together and made them their own, based on the sole criteria of what works.

Yet, with far too few exceptions, we Americans have spectacularly failed to do this in the realms of economics and politics, where powerful elites have emerged to repeatedly stifle the U.S.’ spirit of ingenuity. Not only that, they have successfully blinded us as well. Under the growing influence of the 1 per cent, American exceptionalism has become American deceptionalism: a perverse refusal to see what others have done -- often inspired by our own earlier examples -- and use that knowledge to continue advancing ourselves.

The U.S.’ patchwork welfare state is the prime example of this dysfunction. But our lack of industrial policy is even more bizarre, given that we used to believe in it so. Indeed, the same could be said about the welfare state as well. Universal public education was an American idea -- outside the South, of course -- before catching on elsewhere around the globe. What’s more, most of the U.S. was homesteaded through a subsidized process of free or cheap land, supported by public infrastructure -- or, in the case of railroads, publicly-subsidized infrastructure.

But when it came to an industrial welfare state, suddenly, everything changed. It’s not so hard to understand why: the original industrial workforce was largely immigrant and culturally "other" -- Irish at first, then central and southern European, predominantly Catholic or Jewish. It was not until the Great Depression pushed the U.S. economy to the wall that we began to even partially catch up with Germany, which had created its welfare state half a century earlier.

Even then, it took another 30 years for us to add universal health care, but only for senior citizens. The results of creating Medicare were dramatic: Within a decade, American seniors went from being the age group with the highest poverty rate to the lowest.

But that was nearly 50 years ago, 130 years after Germany established its universal healthcare system. Since then, conservative resistance to America’s welfare state has stiffened dramatically. Cultural differences between whites of European descent are nothing compared to differences with people of color -- which moved dramatic to the fore as legal segregation was finally being dismantled.

Welfare in the U.S.

A 2001 paper from the Brookings Institute, "Why Doesn’t the United States Have a European-Style Welfare State?," found a direct correlation between welfare state spending and the size of minority populations -- the more minorities, the lower the levels of spending. This held true both internationally (comparing more than 60 different countries) and nationally (comparing all 50 states).

The paper did not argue that racial animosity was the sole reason for the U.S.’ fragmented and under-sized welfare state. It also cited the U.S.’ backwards political institutions -- such as our lack of proportional representation -- which in turn have roots in our history and geography.

The report stated, "Racial animosity in the U.S. makes redistribution to the poor, who are disproportionately black, unappealing to many voters. American political institutions limited the growth of a socialist party, and more generally limited the political power of the poor."

Among other things, the report offered comparisons across time, which showed the U.S. lagging decades behind Europe throughout the 20th century. The size of subsidies and transfers in the U.S. in 1970 was roughly the same as that in the European Union in 1937. U.S. figures in 1998 roughly matched the EU in 1960.

While American conservatives have long been hysterical about the welfare state in the U.S., two major points need to be stressed. First: German conservatives established the first comprehensive welfare state, under Chancellor Bismarck in the 1880s. Second, the American welfare state is the smallest and least comprehensive in the Western world.

While American conservatives denounce the welfare state for supposedly strangling capitalism, Germany’s welfare state has been crucial to its long-term prosperity, even as the U.S.’ incomplete welfare state has harmed us considerably. For example, without a national system, healthcare costs built into American cars were a crucial factor leading up to the bankruptcy crisis of 2009.

Nearly a half-century after Medicare, the U.S. was finally ready to take a modest half-step forward toward expanding healthcare coverage. But President Obama’s approach was so compromised, and so poorly argued, that it’s now opened the doorway for a massive reversal that could actually eliminate Medicare -- a major decimation of the U.S.’ welfare state that would plunge millions of seniors into abject poverty, deprive them of healthcare and subject them to premature death.

Grand bargains

Obama is obsessed with trying to strike a series of "grand bargains" with conservatives, even though they keep rejecting him. As a consequence, he repeatedly begins his negotiations with positions that conservatives have supported in the past, hoping they will support those positions again. At the same time, he refrains from making energetic arguments for the liberal position.

As a result, his stimulus program was roughly 40 per cent tax cuts (even though they’re less effective in creating jobs than direct spending is) in a vain attempt to get Republican support. And when it came to healthcare, his approach was based on Republican proposals from the 1990s, developed by the conservative Heritage Foundation. It was the same foundation used by Mitt Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts.

Obama never used the popularity, efficiency, and overall success of Medicare to argue for a government-centered approach, either an immediate full-fledged socialization, aka "Medicare for all," or a gradualist approach -- a public option for those currently without private insurance. Indeed, Obama collaborated with conservative Democrats in the Senate -- most notably Max Baucus -- to silence those who advocated for these approaches.

Medicare-for-all advocates were reduced to shouting from the audience and getting arrested, despite representing a substantial body of public opinion. Support for the more gradual public-option approach hovered around 60 per cent or more throughout the year-long legislative process. And yet, these proposals -- tried and true in the rest of the industrialized world -- could not even get a serious hearing.

Such is the power of American deceptionalism: No one else’s experience in the world matters to the American political system.

Less than two years after Obama’s Republican healthcare plan passed, its very modesty is being used against it. Although it did involve considerable long-term cost reductions, it was nothing remotely close to reducing costs to full-fledged welfare state levels.

For example, calculations by the Center for Economic and Policy Research show that, if we Americans could get our per-capita health-care costs down to the level of most central European nations, we would have a budget surplus of around 10 per cent in 2080, rather than the current projected deficit of over 40 per cent.

By ignoring the example of other countries, the American political class has spun itself off into an alternate reality in which nothing short of catastrophically bad choices remain. (The situation of global warming denialism is an instructive parallel, in which facts have become entirely irrelevant.) And so, fueled by an obsession with long-term deficits decades in the future, and ignoring the sky-high level of the unemployed, the U.S. congress may well be about to drift toward abolishing Medicare as its so-called "solution."

Of course, Republicans like Congressman Paul Ryan, who originated the plan, won’t come right out and say that. And neither will Democrats, now rumored to be thinking of joining them in search of yet another "grand bargain." Ryan and company say they want to "save" Medicare by replacing it with a voucher system. As one wag put it, it’s like killing my dog named Spot, and giving me a cat named Spot instead, then telling me you haven’t killed Spot. But a variety of studies have stripped all the pretense away.

Most significantly, the vouchers ("premium support" in Orwellian Newspeak) would come nowhere near to paying the cost of health insurance for seniors, and the shortfall would only grow more severe over time. So instead of the government going broke, the people would. That’s the anti-government Republican plan! But at least the plan would keep the private insurance companies making money hand over fist as they deny you coverage.

And since they’re private companies, that counts as a win, according to the rules of American deceptionalism. Even if there is no real competition involved, and Adam Smith would have a heart attack if he saw what was being done in his name.

I’ve concentrated here on healthcare as a key welfare state component. But the same pattern of delusionary grand bargaining can be seen wherever you care to look. Consider "education reform." "America’s schools are failing!" we’re told. We have to privatize, voucherize, give parents more choice -- that alone can save us.

But none of this is supported by evidence, certainly not the evidence of other countries, whose systems are more centralized and less privatized than those of the United States. The U.S. accounts for nearly half of military spending worldwide. The only folks whose overspending ever came close to us was the Soviet Union, and we sure didn’t learn anything from them. On the drug war? Don’t even think of thinking about it!

The list could be extended indefinitely. There is not a single area in which Republicans won’t condemn anything foreign just for being foreign (unless, for some reason they like it, the way Michele Bachmann likes Chinese slave labor). And there’s not a single area where Democrats won’t be defensive about thinking outside the box that Republicans have put them in.

If all this leaves you feeling anxious, relax. After all, as Time will tell you, "Anxiety is good for you!"

[Paul Rosenberg is the Senior Editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper. This article was first published by Al Jazeera and was distributed by Progressive America Rising.]

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Robert Jensen : Occupy Congress

Norman Solomon. Image from Nation of Change.

Occupy Congress:
Norman Solomon sees a
role for progressive legislators

By Robert Jensen / The Rag Blog / November 30, 2011

Conventional politics in the United States focuses on elections, while left activists typically argue that political change comes not from electing better politicians but building movements strong enough to force politicians to accept progressive change.

Norman Solomon has concluded it isn’t either/or. A prominent writer and leader in left movements for decades, Solomon is running for Congress in the hopes of being practical and remaining principled.

“Since I first went to a protest at age 14 in 1966 -- a picket line to desegregate an apartment complex -- my outlook on electoral politics has gone through a lot of changes,” Solomon said. “First I thought politics was largely about elections, later I thought politics had very little to do with elections, and now I believe that elections are an important part of the mix.

Solomon argues that when the left has treated elections as irrelevant, the result has been self-marginalization that helps empower the military-industrial complex.

“The view that genuine progressives should leave the electoral field to corporate Democrats and right-wing Republicans no longer makes sense to me. I used to say that having a strong progressive movement was much more important than who was in office, but now I’d say that what we really need is a strong progressive movement AND much better people in office,” he said.

“Having John Conyers, Barbara Lee, Dennis Kucinich, Jim McGovern, Raul Grijalva, Lynn Woolsey in Congress is important. We need more of those sorts of legislators as part of the political landscape.”

The 60-year-old Solomon had been considering such a strategy, and when Woolsey announced she was not running for re-election in her northern California district, he entered the race with the goal of staying true to his left political views, and winning.

“I’m skeptical about election campaigns that abandon principles, but I’m also skeptical about campaigns that have no hope of winning and that are only for protest or public education,” he said. “There are more effective ways to protest and to educate.”

Solomon said that if elected he would strive to change the relationship between social movements and members of Congress.

“Progressive movements and leaders in Congress should be working in tandem,” he said. “I want to strengthen the Congressional Progressive Caucus and help make it more of a force to be reckoned with.”

Solomon said that a reinvigorated Progressive Caucus could be more effective in fighting for the human right of quality healthcare for all; ending the perpetual war of the warfare state, what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the madness of militarism”; pushing back against the power of Wall Street; replacing corporate power with people power

Solomon is most widely known for his media criticism and activism, through his “Media Beat” weekly column that was nationally syndicated and his work with Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. In 1997 he founded the Institute for Public Accuracy, a national consortium of policy researchers and analysts for which he served as executive director for 13 years.

Solomon became more visible in mainstream media through his trip to Iraq with actor Sean Penn on the eve of the U.S. invasion, part of anti-war efforts to prevent that coming catastrophe. Solomon’s 2005 book, War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death, and a companion film drew on his media and political expertise to analyze the war machine. (Full disclosure: I found the book and film so compelling that I brought Solomon to my campus to speak.

Polls indicate that Solomon is competitive in a Democratic primary that includes a state assemblyman, a county supervisor, and two businesspeople. Penn is supporting Solomon’s campaign, which has also received endorsement from U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers. Fundraising is always a struggle, especially since he committed to “corporate-free fundraising.”

“By raising more than $250,000 from more than 2,000 different people, we’ve shown that we can raise the needed funds without a single dollar from corporate PACs,” Solomon said. “But we need to raise a lot more, and the month of December will be crucial -- end-of-year totals will be seen by many as a self-fulfilling gauge of our capacity to gain enough support to win.”

Solomon believes that citizen frustration with concentrated wealth, and the political dominance that big money buys, is opening up new possibilities for progressive candidates.

“Our campaign is very much in sync with Occupy Wall Street,” he said. “Issues that I’ve been talking about from the outset of this campaign last January, and for many years before that, are part of the OWS focus -- Wall Street’s undemocratic power, the widening disparities between the rich and the rest of us, the need to eject corporate money from politics.”

Solomon has described his politics as “green New Deal,” arguing for a vigorous government role in providing quality education, adequate health care, consumer protection, civil liberties, and environmental safeguards.

For leftists, two questions hover: Can a candidate go beyond liberal positions and articulate anti-capitalist and anti-empire politics during a campaign? If elected, can a member of Congress stay true to those principles? Movement activists are wary of left/liberal politicians who push their rhetoric toward the center to get elected and then end up advocating centrist policies.

Solomon said he identifies with a phrase Penn used at a campaign rally: “principle as strategy.”

“I intend to stick with principles, what I believe and what I’m willing to fight for,” Solomon said. “The quest is not for heightened rhetoric, it’s for deeper meaning, with insistence on policies to match -- economic populism, human rights, civil liberties, ending wars, and working for social equity.”

Though that agenda suggests radical change, Solomon said he doesn’t use the term “radical,” opting instead for terms such as “genuine progressive,” “progressive populism,” and “independent progressive” to describe himself and his campaign.

“The term radical can be understood as ‘to the root,’ but what it conveys to most of the public is that we are extreme and the status quo isn’t,” he said. “But look at the huge disparities between rich and poor, catastrophic climate change and destruction of ecology, inflicting massive suffering, extreme violence of war, and on and on. I would say the status quo is extreme.”

[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.]

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29 November 2011

Marc Estrin : Who Needs Tear Gas?

"Port-A-Potty." Art by Ali Spagnola / alispagnola.com.

Who needs tear gas?
The switch from blameworthy military attack to invisible counterinsurgency is a smart one for cities and towns strapped for budget.
By Marc Estrin / The Rag Blog / November 29, 2011

BURLINGTON, Vermont -- Nonchalantly pepper-spraying sitting students, or charging with batons swinging into nonviolent crowds, or middle-of-the-night attacks with gas canisters flying in the streetlights' glare don’t seem to be increasing the popularity of protectors and servers throughout the land.

Some mayors and police chiefs, like our own in Burlington, understand that they can expect to clear Occupy sites with three much more subtle, non-YouTube-able, plausibly deniable techniques, one transient, two permanent.

The first is simply to wait for winter, a time when most outdoor beasts, warm-blooded and cold-, migrate or hibernate, or somehow dig in, and abandon their normal playing fields. Landscapes of all kinds thin out naturally until the burgeoning of spring. In Vermont, that’s at least four months with very unlikely encampment. Things may be different in Florida.

But the second and third tactics are not so iffy, so geographically determined. They are easy, and cheap:

2. Provide no porta-potties. This has been a longstanding tactic. Permits have long been granted for potentially large, one-day demonstrations, extra police are hired, traffic plans are made, barriers and watchtowers are imported, Free Speech Zones demarcated (!), etc. And in spite of all this planning and expense, guess what is absent?

And then consider the decision-making process of potential demonstrators with prostate problems, menstrual issues, nervous bladders, bowel disorders, of any who may not be able to hold it -- whatever "it" is -- for more than a few hours. Discourages going to the demo, doesn't it? Cuts down on the numbers. And with no propaganda, no expense. It also puts pressure on local businesses to guard their facilities, and detest the 99%. A twofer. Here, there are possible technical solutions used by pillheads and astronauts.

3. But the best, and most effective approach of all, potentially lethal to every Occupy site, and for the authorities, killing three big birds with one stone, is simply to rely on the openness, kindness, and communitarian ideologies common to the Occupiers. In Burlington, it was the suicide of a homeless man at the encampment which was the game-changer, and brought down all the tents.

In larger cities, with far larger homeless populations, the situation is far more difficult, and is counted on as such by authorities. The homeless rightfully seek out non-judgmental soup kitchens, and communities in which they are not likely to be awakened in the middle of the night by nightsticks or racist gangs. And if they pay attention at all to the rhetoric of those around them, they know that they are not only part of the 99%, but perhaps the poster children of same.

They belong there. They recognize communities that strive to make them welcome without proselytizing or judgment, that try to cross socio-economic boundaries and learn from their hard experience of life ever more common in America. The homeless wind up in Occupy sites, and they should, and they always will -- for good reason.

Not to mention that Occupy often moves into places and parks that belonged to the homeless in the first place, until they became "contested public spaces." The street people who spent their days in Burlington's City Hall Park during the hours homeless shelters are closed were quite literally overrun by the marchers that "claimed" the park.

The occupation began more like the occupation of Palestine than of Burlington. But with much work, caring, and growth of tolerance, the problems were largely overcome, and the occupiers cohabited with the homeless behind our City Hall. They allowed us to occupy their space. Then came the suicide.

The fact is, and for obvious reasons, the homeless bring many problems with them that become a great burden to any intentional participatory community. There have been a lot of words about everyone being able to have their say during the remarkable people's mic, about rules being formed democratically, etc.

But the fact is that some people are just not into announcing a mic check, and laying out their ideas in short, repeatable phrases. Some people are not into obeying rules at all, whatever they are, whoever made them. Some people are habitually drunk, or drugged, and wildly disinhibited around sexual behavior.

These are the people, and this the sociology, that sophisticated police departments count on to do their work for them, invisibly creating stressors in Occupy situations, and picking up the tab for feeding, housing, and caring for the city's poorest.

A three-fer this time, a win-win for law 'n order: break up the encampments, save money on tear-gas and overtime, and until that is achieved, relieve the strain on food shelves and homeless shelters. There were reports of police picking up drunks in other parts of the city, and chauffering them down to Zucotti Park in the days before Kristallnacht.

The switch from blameworthy military attack to invisible counterinsurgency is a smart one for cities and towns strapped for budget. "Let the buggers eat each other up" has always been the rationale for divide and conquer. Oh, and don't give them any place to pee.

[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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Bob Feldman : Reconstruction in Texas, 1865-1876

The Freedman's Bureau in Texas. Image from Afrotexan.com.

The hidden history of Texas
Part VII: Reconstruction in Texas, 1865-1876/1
By Bob Feldman / The Rag Blog / October 26, 2011

[This is the first section of Part 7 of Bob Feldman's Rag Blog series on the hidden history of Texas.]

Just before the end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865, “the Confederate troops in Texas got out of hand and began rebelling and looting [in] towns like Houston [which] were burned,” according to W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction.

But by mid-June 1865, General Gordon Granger entered Texas and on June 19, 1865, an Emancipation Proclamation was announced by General Granger that freed most of the 250,000 African-Americans who then lived in Texas from being legally defined as the property and slaves of their mostly white Anglo masters.

Yet despite the presence of Union troops in Texas, “between 1865 and 1868, 468 freedmen met violent deaths -- 90 percent at the hands of white men” in Texas (while “only about 1 percent of the 509 whites killed” during the same period in Texas were killed by black men), according to Alwyn Barr’s Black Texans.

According to Randolph Campbell’s Gone To Texas, “from 1865 to 1867 Presidential Reconstruction in Texas created state and local governments [in Texas] controlled by a conservative combination of prewar Unionists and former secessionists, with the latter holding the upper hand.”

So, not surprisingly, a black code was enacted during this period which “forbade inter-marriage, voting, holding public office, serving on juries, or testifying in cases where Negroes were not concerned” by Texas’s African-American residents, according to Black Reconstruction.

Federal troops entered Austin on July 25, 1865, and between 100 and 200 U.S. government troops remained stationed in Austin until President Grant ordered their withdrawal in March 1870.

But following the February 1868 election of 90 delegates to the reconstructed State Constitutional Convention (which included nine progressive African-American delegates and a white progressive majority of delegates -- as well as a white reactionary minority of 12 delegates) Texas’s new 1869 state constitution officially abolished slavery, established free public schools, and “decreed that the receipts from public lands should go to the school fund, besides other revenues,” according to Black Reconstruction.

The same book also noted that after another election in 1869 (in which local eligible Anglo, Mexican-American, and African-American male voters participated) to choose representatives to Texas’s new state legislature, “E.J. Davis... marshaled the Negro vote [and] was elected Governor by a small plurality,” and “in the ensuing legislature, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments [of the U.S. Constitution, which legally prohibited the abridgement of African-American citizenship rights and voting rights in former Confederate states like Texas] were adopted almost without opposition, and [on] Mar. 30, 1870, the representatives of Texas were admitted to Congress.”

In addition, between the late 1860s and the fraudulent election of 1873 (in which African-American supporters of Texas Governor E.J. Davis were “in many communities ordered to keep away from the polling places” by the white supremacist Democrats who had previously supported the Confederacy, “while white men under age... voted”), many African-Americans in Texas held public office and “there were Negroes in the state militias and the various police forces” in Texas, according to Black Reconstruction.

After Texas Governor Davis was defeated in the fraudulent 1873 election, however, the same type of rich white Anglo landowning Democrats who controlled the Texas state legislature in Austin before the Civil War regained control of the state government, and a new state constitution was drawn up by an 1875 Texas Constitutional Convention, which went into effect on April 18, 1876, that allowed institutionalized racism to develop in Texas again.

In addition, factually incorrect versions of what actually happened politically inside Texas between 1865 and 1874 were promoted by some U.S. academic historians until the second half of the 20th century. As Gone To Texas, recalled:
The traditional interpretation of Reconstruction is replete with factual errors. For example, claims that Carpetbaggers ran Reconstruction in Texas and that the era ruined the fortunes of a great many whites are completely unfounded. Carpetbaggers held fewer than one-quarter of the...major offices in state and county government between 1867 and 1874.

Instead, a majority of the men who led Texas during Congressional Reconstruction were...natives of the South who supported the Republican Party... It is clear that most of the wealthy did not have to relinquish their position in society between 1865 and 1876. They lost their slaves…but they did not lose their lands or other forms of property.
[Bob Feldman is an East Coast-based writer-activist and a former member of the Columbia SDS Steering Committee of the late 1960s. Read more articles by Bob Feldman on The Rag Blog.]

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Jack A. Smith : The U.S. and Irreversible Climate Change

Cartoon from Saida Online.

With U.S. leading the way:
Irreversible climate change looms

By Jack A. Smith / The Rag Blog / November 29, 2011

The Obama Administration has largely remained passive about the critical imperative to reduce greenhouse gases to limit catastrophic global warming.

Washington continues to insist upon exercising world leadership in all key global endeavors, including the environment, but has failed dramatically in terms of climate change.

In fact, the White House is greatly expanding U.S. access to fossil fuel energy sources even as scientific and environmental organizations are intensifying their warnings about the need to immediately reduce greenhouse gas carbon emissions that are warming the planet.

Although the U.S. recently has ranked second to China in fossil fuel burning, it is by far the greatest polluter of the atmosphere in the last century and a half. Given the differences in population, America still uses three times more per capita than China.

White House policy is fixated on reducing dependence upon Middle Eastern oil and gas by greatly increasing the extraction of fossil fuels closer to home -- mainly a vast increase in natural gas production from hydraulic fracturing (fracking) throughout the United States, expanded drilling for offshore oil, and importing dirty tar sands oil from Canada.

While increasing the development and use of global warming fuels, President Obama is advancing no significant program to replace high carbon emitting fossil fuels with renewable non-carbon solar and wind power.

The U.S. government is subsidizing some major "green" corporations, providing them with nearly no-risk guarantees for developing solar and wind, but this remains a relatively minor enterprise. Progress made so far is being stalled by the unexpected abundance (and thus cheaper price) of domestic natural gas secreted in shale, more secure oil reserves than anticipated, and the probability of reduced federal and state subsidies.

In a major statement from London November 9, the International Energy Agency (IEA) called for a "bold change of policy direction toward the use of low-carbon fuels within the next five years. If the major industrial states do not do so quickly, the world will lock itself into an insecure, inefficient and high-carbon energy system," which is precisely what the Obama Administration is doing.

This recommendation seeks to prevent the rise in global temperatures in this century from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius, which is based upon keeping carbon emissions in the atmosphere below 450 parts per million (ppm). Anything above the target standards will cause irreparable damage to life on Earth.

According to many scientists and environmental groups these standards are inadequate, and that 350 ppm is the maximum amount that can be accommodated without causing a disaster. Atmospheric carbon, which occurs naturally, has reached dangerous levels due to industrialization. It has increased from 280 ppm at the beginning of the industrial era to approximately 392 ppm today, which is why it is said warming is well underway and its effects are being felt throughout the world.

Introducing the new report, IEA executive director Maria van der Hoeven declared, "Growth, prosperity and rising population will inevitably push up energy needs over the coming decades... Governments need to introduce stronger measures to drive investment in efficient and low-carbon technologies."

The Environment News Service reports that the "agency's warning comes at a critical time in international climate change negotiations, as governments prepare for the annual UN climate summit in Durban, South Africa, November 28-December 9. 'If we do not have an international agreement whose effect is put in place by 2017, then the door will be closed forever,' IEA chief economist Fatih Birol warned.'" (The main goal of the 17th climate summit is to agree on a resolution to replace the Kyoto Protocols, which will expire next year.)

The IEA describes itself as "an autonomous organization which works to ensure reliable, affordable and clean energy for its 28 member countries and beyond." Its members represent the world's leading capitalist countries. Greenpeace and some other environmental groups are critical of the group's approval of tar sands oil, lower carbon fuels and nuclear energy. The BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) are not IEA members.

Reporting October 26 on America's hunt for more carbon-emitting fuels, The New York Times quoted Daniel Lashof, director of the climate program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, as declaring:
Giving new life to fossil fuels is a devil’s bargain, probably making solutions to climate change, and the development of renewable energy, even more difficult. Not only are you extending the fossil fuels era, but you are moving into fossil fuels that are dirtier and release more carbon pollution in the process of extracting and using them.
The Obama Administration has been leaning toward approving a $7 billion investment in a pipeline to transport Canadian tar sands oil to Texas but encountered a fusillade of activist opposition from the environmental movement in recent months. Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, has declared that "Tar sands oil is the dirtiest oil on Earth." Dr. James Hansen, NASA’s top climate scientist, says that fully developing the tar sands in Canada would mean “essentially game over” for the climate.

Environmental movement criticisms have been compounded by objections from residents of Nebraska with concerns that pipeline spills might pollute the irreplaceable Ogallala aquifer, which occupies 10,000 square miles north to south from South Dakota to Texas and is a major source of water for the High Plains.

In August and September, 1,200 anti-tar sands activists were arrested for offering civil disobedience in front of the White House. On November 6, 12,000 people surrounded the presidential mansion demanding an end to construction of the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas.

Four days later, President Obama announced that his final decision would now be postponed until months after next year's elections, implying that the pipeline route might have to circumnavigate the immense aquifer.

Some environmental groups have interpreted Obama's delay as a victory, suggesting that the project is being abandoned, but this view is too optimistic. The White House seeks abundant and stable supplies of oil for the next several decades from sources other than (or in addition to) the volatile Middle East, and tar sands oil from nearby friendly Canada is a most attractive alternative. Canadian oil has been entering the U.S. for many years in existing pipelines, and this is continuing. In all probability, some version of Keystone will greatly increase the supply.

Does fracking affect the water supply? Graphic from Desmogblog.

Environmentally-concerned Americans have also launched campaigns against fracking, mainly because of the danger to water supplies inherent in an extraction method that requires the high pressure injection of deadly chemicals deep underground.

The Obama Administration is so intent upon vastly increasing natural gas production that it has been brushing objections aside, as have state governors -- such as New York State's Andrew Cuomo -- who argue that what really matters are the additional jobs and tax revenue from massive fracking operations.

Advocates of natural gas argue that burning gas for electricity emits 30% less carbon dioxide than oil, and about 45% less than coal. But recent studies have shown that the process of fracking releases sufficient stores of methane into the atmosphere to compensate for any reduction in carbon from natural gas. Methane creates a greenhouse heat trap about 20 times greater than carbon dioxide. The gas industry maintains that the reduction in emissions from natural gas "outweighs" the detrimental effects of methane.

The New York Times article points out that
"Temporary or permanent fracking bans have been put in place in New York, New Jersey and Maryland. Other states are toughening drilling regulations, and the industry is responding with tighter wastewater management, while the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to complete a study on fracking next year. Nevertheless, gas shale drilling appears likely to continue at a fast pace in the most important gas-producing states.

The rest of the world is watching. Moratoriums have been put in place in parts of France, Germany, South Africa and the Canadian province of Quebec; Britain, Ukraine and other countries are moving cautiously forward. Still, the Energy Department projects that gas from shale could account for 14% of global supplies by 2030, with as many as 32 countries having production potential.
If world countries, led by the U.S., continue to disregard environmental objections to fracking, enhanced natural gas production combined with a major increase in oil production by the U.S. will further subvert incentives toward ending use of fossil fuels. So far, shale gas extraction in the U.S. has increased 500% in the last five years, and that's just the beginning.

Quoting Ivan Sandrea, president of the Energy Intelligence Group, the Times concluded its article with these words: "The fossil fuel age will be extended for decades. Unconventional oil and gas are at the beginning of a technological cycle that can last 60 years. They are really in their infancy."

It has been five months since Democratic former Vice President Al Gore stuck his neck out in an article he wrote for Rolling Stone by publicly criticizing Democrat Obama for inaction on reducing America's addiction to fossil fuels. So far, Obama has done nothing but live up to Gore's critique:

"President Obama," he declared,
has thus far failed to use the bully pulpit to make the case for bold action on climate change... The president made concessions to oil and coal companies without asking for anything in return. He has also called for a massive expansion of oil drilling in the United States, apparently in an effort to defuse criticism from those who argue speciously that "drill, baby, drill" [a conservative slogan] is the answer to our growing dependence on foreign oil.
Washington's refusal to take more than token steps to alleviate global warming would be relatively inconsequential were the U.S. a much smaller player on the world stage. But American governments have insisted for decades -- based on economic strength and unparalleled military power -- on being recognized as the world's dominant and irreplaceable hegemonic state.

Uncle Sam's leadership is enormously influential, especially in the industrialized world, and America's sluggish response toward global warming is a global disincentive toward taking speedy, responsible and united action.

U.S. financial institutions, corporations, and the wealthiest proportion of its population are "deeply invested in an energy sector dominated by fossil fuels, and actively hostile to alternatives," economist Paul Krugman noted recently. These powerful elements are not prepared to accept the economic and political rearrangements required to transform America into an environmentally sound society of minimal carbon usage and many other ecological safeguards.

Such a transformation involves greater government investments, potentially smaller profits for many years, strategic alterations in the country's disproportionate consumption of resources and products, and substantial changes beyond today's gridlocked and essentially conservative political process.

In effect -- given its disinclination to interfere in the workings of America's neoliberal capitalist economy, even to protect all life on Earth -- Washington's continuing unipolar leadership is guiding the world toward irreversible climate change.

The U.S. may change its ways, but economic and political realities suggest an alteration of this magnitude is hardly on the foreseeable agenda. Climate change, however, is taking place now. At issue are two necessities: (1) strengthening of the environmental and social change movements in the U.S., and (2) a dramatic initiative by other powerful countries and regional blocs to take significant concerted global action to save the Earth regardless of Washington's dithering.

[Jack A. Smith was editor of the Guardian -- for decades the nation's preeminent leftist newsweekly -- that closed shop in 1992. Smith now edits the Hudson Valley Activist Newsletter, where this article also appears. Read more articles by Jack A. Smith on The Rag Blog.

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Lamar W. Hankins : Ayn Rand and the Sophistry of the Libertarians

Art from Salon.

The sophistry of Ayn Rand libertarians
The profiteers, using libertarian justifications, help corporations dominate American life to satisfy their quest for greater profits.
By Lamar W. Hankins / The Rag Blog / November 29, 2011

In 1964, I roomed with Wally. Wally had discovered Ayn Rand and talked frequently about rugged individualism -- his desire to be left alone by the state, by institutions, and by others to follow his own path. Wally thought no one should tell him what to do.

That entire semester, Wally probably missed 90% of his college classes. After all, he wanted his liberty. Needless to say, his grades suffered, but we had some fascinating discussions about philosophy and the socioeconomic condition of the U.S., a subject about which Wally took no responsibility. After all, each person is responsible for his or her own condition, created by his or her own choices.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it is echoed in the callousness of the current Republican presidential campaign, where Herman Cain states that if a person doesn’t have a job, it is that person’s fault; where Ron Paul suggests that if a person needs health care but has chosen not to purchase health insurance, then it is perfectly acceptable to let that person die.

Where all undocumented immigrants should be immediately shipped back to their country of origin, and electrified, military-guarded fences should be erected to assure that they cannot return; where the crowd applauds all of Gov. Perry’s executions, even if some of those executed were innocent; where waterboarding is torture that makes Republicans feel good (they like to call it “enhanced interrogation”); where gay servicemen are booed; and where “no work, no food” is an honored value.

It’s chilling: even George W. Bush claimed to have compassion, but Tea-party-leaning, Ayn Rand-spouting Libertarians have none.

Rooming with Wally was my introduction to libertarianism. If that had been the end of my study of libertarianism, I would have a more jaundiced view than I now have of the philosophical underpinnings of that philosophy.

Now, over 45 years later, libertarianism is widely discussed and mentioned in conversation. We have some politicians who claim to be Libertarians. Many freethinkers call themselves libertarians -- comedian Bill Maher, illusionist Penn Jillet, biologist P. Z. Myers, and others. I often agree with some libertarian ideas, but I’ve come to realize that there is a fatal flaw in Ayn Rand libertarian philosophy.

To say that someone is a libertarian is about as useful as saying that a person is religious. There may be as many varieties of libertarianism as there are religions in the U.S. Lately, though, many in the political class identify themselves as Any Rand libertarians, so I will focus on their brand of libertarianism.

After all, it is the kind extolled by Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Ron Paul, Clarence Thomas, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and most of this year’s crop of Republican presidential hopefuls, though I don’t claim that any of them follow Ayn Rand’s philosophy (Objectivism) in any systematic way.

Ayn Rand extolled the virtues of individualism, sometimes called rugged individualism, as a lynchpin of her beliefs. Individualists are glorified as ambitious, fiercely independent people who succeed spectacularly in life solely because of their own actions, resources, intellects, and willpower.

In Ayn Rand’s world, the masses of people don’t fit this description. They are largely miserable souls who occasionally overcome their misery thanks to the exceptional abilities of a few individualists, who do great things because of their creativity and intellectual acumen.

If this is your view, your reality is not the same as mine. When I look at society in the U.S., I see opportunities for many people made possible by the collective actions of us all -- a system based on an implicit social contract that has created public education, infrastructure, modern utilities, water resources on which all life depends, organized social and economic systems that, however flawed, make possible success for the great masses of our people.

Rand’s idea that those who succeed do so because of their individualist qualities that make them some sort of supermen is a dishonest analysis of how our society works. One has to have blinders not to see the importance of the cooperative spirit that pervades America.

Most of our politicians don’t believe in the American government because they don’t believe in the basic tenets of our democracy; they don’t believe in the Constitution, and they don’t believe in the Declaration of Independence, both of which are imbued with a collective, cooperative spirit.

Based on their actions in the last 30 years, nearly all Republicans (as well as many, sometimes most, Democrats and some independents) don’t believe that government should have the purposes envisioned by our founders. The Declaration, for instance, provides as follows:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
For the most part, libertarians don’t like the fact that governments are created by people to secure for everyone the basic rights of equality and a multitude of other rights -- life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -- which were further explained and expanded in the Bill of Rights.

All of these ideas from the Declaration and Constitution create an implicit bargain -- a social contract -- among the American people. The essence of that social contract is that we will help one another by joining together to form a government that will serve the interests of us all.

But Ayn Rand and her current libertarian followers nowhere acknowledge the truth written by W. E. B DuBois 55 years ago: "We let men take wealth which is not theirs; if the seizure is ‘legal’ we call it high profits and the profiteers help decide what is legal." And that has been the failure of our republic for at least the last 30 years. The profiteers have been allowed to write or re-write the rules under which our political and economic system operates.

Governance, as the Occupy movement is arguing, is all about balancing the interests inherent in the social contract and the rights we have so that one group (the “profiteers”) cannot dominate another, a view anathema to the 1% and their defenders, who spend millions to make sure the rules favor them and not the 99%.

The profiteers, using libertarian justifications, help corporations dominate American life to satisfy their quest for greater profits; to enrich the wealthy further, insisting that people pull themselves up by their bootstraps (ignoring the fact that to do so literally means that you land on your backside when you try); to deny the basic need of all people for adequate food, housing, education, and medical care if they are unable to afford those things because they can’t find a job, are unable because of infirmity to hold a job, or are a child in need of nurture and care.

To pass laws like Medicare Part D in a way that enriches the pharmaceutical and insurance industries at the expense of the people and creates greater deficits; to let half the people and many corporations get away with contributing nothing to fund the federal government; to refuse to stabilize Social Security through two simple methods -- expand the payroll tax to all earned income, and recover through the tax system most Social Security benefits paid to the wealthy; and to fight wars that do little if anything to protect America, but everything to enrich defense contractors, funding these wars with borrowed money.

The signers of the Declaration believed that laws should be adopted that are “most wholesome and necessary for the public good.” This belief is virtual heresy to most Ayn Rand libertarians, who do not want laws that are for the public good. They want laws that benefit the corporations and the wealthy. They ignore the Constitution, which provides that one of the purposes of our form of government is to “promote the general Welfare.”

One of the most succinct statements in opposition to Ayn Rand’s philosophy came recently from Senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren at a house party in Massachusetts:
There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there -- good for you! But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.

Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea -- God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
Warren’s message is one well-understood by the Occupy movement, whose members are driven by a profound commitment to democratic principles and to an economic system that will assure a decent life for all, rather than just the 1%.

Ayn Rand viewed the misery of many of the world’s people as a failure of their will. She would not acknowledge that our government, through opportunism, the taking of natural resources, militarism, and exploitation of the labor of third world people, made possible much of our prosperity.

Rand’s philosophy is grounded in selfishness and greed disguised as virtue. The needs of others, including those starving and homeless, are not worth her consideration. As far as Rand was concerned, these weak, defective people could just die.

I value individualism, but within certain boundaries. When I look at the world, I recognize that I have whatever success I have had not as some willful lone ranger operating on my own. I had friends, family, teachers, mentors, opponents, leaders, public servants, and countless others long forgotten who helped me become whatever I have become.

I have never seen anyone else whose life has been otherwise. It takes extreme myopia or mendacity not to see that rugged individualism is a figment of Ayn Rand’s imagination. Not only are her novels fictional, but her entire philosophy is based on a fiction, as well.

[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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28 November 2011

Danny Schechter : The Media and Occupy Wall Street

Jon Stewart covers Wall Street coverage.

But for how long?
Occupy Wall Street is all over the media

By Danny Schechter / The Rag Blog / November 28, 2011

One of the oldest patterns of media coverage can be summed up this way:

First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. Then they realize you are a story and fall in love. So they build you up but then, all at once, tear you down.

You may not have changed, but they have, addicted as they are to keep coming up with shifting story lines, more to fight their own boredom and fear of tune-out than the validity or importance of the topic.

In the same way that political sound-bites went from nearly 30 seconds to five, or that MTV style editing soon invaded the newsrooms with quick cutting and razzle-dazzle effects -- “covering" news while making it difficult to concentrate on it, much less to comprehend the fast-paced presentation techniques.

When asked by researchers, audiences could barely tell you what they had just seen, much less what it meant.

We saw this in Iraq when, during the invasion, it was war all the time, literally around the clock -- but when you looked closely, it wasn’t about Iraq or Iraqis, it was about a narrative of U.S. slaying the bad guys, cowboys versus Indians, good guys versus bad guys. There was no other news, but what there was AAU -- All About US.

Now, with Occupy Wall Street, the pattern is similar. The issues largely don’t exist -- if they require any explanation or analysis. Knowledge about Wall Street and the economy is assumed.

Conflict drives the news.

There was little reporting on the occupation when it started. It was only after it became massive -- and the cops began pepper-spraying -- that the media arrived en masse. They had adversaries. That they could understand.

Soon, they flocked to Zuccotti Park like bluebirds. When one landed, they all landed. The TV trucks were everywhere, especially at 6 and 11 p.m., so that local reporters could do silly live stand-ups and show off colorful characters to reinforce the narrative that the protesters were just having fun, and had no serious ideas.

Many of these frontline reporters couldn’t tell you the difference between a derivative and a donut, but that didn’t matter because what does matter is face time, airtime, visibility.

First the international press recognized that this movement was important. The park became a mini-United Nations with crews from BBC, Al Jazeera, Xinhua News Agency, Russia Today, Press TV.

When they took it seriously, our press began to do the same, and then American TV got into the act once they realized that this was a national, even a global story

Occupy Wall Street soon had a press desk trying to help reporters who often showed up with preconceived story lines demanded by their editors. Soon the stories about sex, drugs, and drumming -- no rock and roll yet -- were everywhere as reporters turned over rocks and looked for the homeless and the harassers.

When one station did a "The Park is a Walmart for Rats,” story, City Hall saw an opening and began harping on cleanliness (which has always been next to godliness).

Most activists were happy to be interviewed but few ever watched how the stories were edited: what was covered and what was not.

That’s also because many of the occupiers hate television and what it has become. They don’t read ponderous editorials or inflammatory headlines.

They do read and create social media -- Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.

The advantage is that they are then exposed to their truths and the news they believe they need to make a difference.

Its news for the community, not the country. The disadvantage is they often are not reaching out to the millions of Americans who won’t join the movement simply because it’s cool. The 99% need to be educated and inspired -- but, alas, they rely on the papers and cable news that is least sympathetic to the movement,

You have to use media if you want to occupy the mainstream -- and build a larger movement -- as opposed to being depicted as a tribal subculture of misfits and the angry,

I would suspect that members of the movement have not met with or tried to persuade editorial boards or newsroom execs. They tend to react more to what the media is saying than to be proactive -- with their own media campaigns to shape a message that gets disseminated widely.

As the movement moves on, messages have to change and target specific communities. That may be coming, but not quickly enough.

Already some big media outlets like The Washington Post, the paper still living off its Watergate reputation even as it finds few wars it won’t support, is saying Occupy Wall Street is “over.”

You can bet they want it to be over because their focus on politics starts with the top -- the White House -- and specializes in inside-the-beltway stories. For years, black people in Washington -- the majority -- have complained that they are largely ignored by their own hometown newspaper.

Post editors are proud-and-cloistered 1-percenters who love to cover social movements of the past, not the present.

I once looked at how the Post covered the March on Washington back in 1963. The story line was how violence was averted. MLK’s “I Have A Dream” speech was barely news. The march’s focus on the need for jobs was downplayed then just as Occupy Wall Street's economic critique is downplayed today.

The movement is being challenged by mayors -- armed with the latest “non-lethal” toys -- and coordinated by the Feds (a story few media outlets have investigated) who want to shut down the encampments.

Yes, it’s wrong and unconstitutional and unfair, but is this a battle they can win? Yes, many can go to jail but what message does that send?

Occupy Wall Street is not about camping, its about crusading for justice.

Even Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal (not the "Occupied" version) is praising the protests.
This Thanksgiving weekend, Wall Street should say a prayer of gratitude for Occupy Wall Street.

While some bankers and brokers have sympathized with or supported this ragtag protest movement, others grouse that they are being demonized.

But compared with financiers of the past, who faced nasty rhetoric, political hostility and physical danger, today's bankers and brokers seem like a bunch of babies when they whine about being targeted by these dissidents.The "Occupy" rhetoric might sound overheated, but it is golden praise alongside what bankers used to hear.
At least some of the l% is hearing the message.

It’s the 99% that the movement should aim at with actions and media designed to show that they're on their side -- and find more creative forms of outreach and organizing to turn a community of activists into a mass movement with demands that the people can resonate with and find ways of supporting.

Media hype can help but its no substitute for less glamorous organizing. In the end, that will be the test of whether the movement is “over” or over the top.

[News Dissector Danny Schechter is covering Occupy Wall Street in his Newsdissector.com blog and will soon have a book out collecting his many reports since September. Go here for Schechter's TV report on Occupy Wall Street Comments to dissector@mediachannel.org. Read more by Danny Schechter on The Rag Blog.]

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