26 July 2012

Jay D. Jurie : Gotham and the Real World

Aurora, Colorado:
Gotham and the real world
Particularly when the economy is in decline and the political environment is in disarray, these suburbs lend themselves to what Thoreau called 'lives of quiet desperation.'
By Jay D. Jurie / The Rag Blog / July 26, 2012
"Violence is as American as Cherry Pie" -- Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin (H. Rap Brown)
Violence has come to be understood by many, implicitly or explicitly, as the answer to a number of other individual and social problems. To say that violence is celebrated in the United States is no exaggeration.

From the Battle of Bunker Hill onwards, this nation was forged by violence. Manifest Destiny and westward expansion were integral to the purposes of national elites from the inception. Not only were natural resources to be exploited and investments to be made, but population increase and settlement pressure could be relieved by continual advancement of the frontier. Territory that couldn't be taken by treaty was often taken by force of arms.

Even today, Daniel Boone, an early participant in the suppression of Native Americans, remains a celebrated figure in U.S. history. Though he was zealously involved with efforts to eliminate and remove the Seminoles and the Cherokees, President Andrew Jackson's visage adorns the $20 bill. Dying in a blaze of gunfire to wrest control of Texas from Mexico and preserve slavery, Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, and the other defenders of the Alamo are regarded as heroic martyrs.

This tradition receives favorable treatment in popular culture, with Western movies and leading actors such as the widely-venerated John Wayne pounding home the message again and again that the fist and the gun are ultimately the solution for most problems. Contemporary action movies have replaced the slower-paced Wayne with ultra-cool figures such as Batman, and his six-shooters with high-tech gadgetry, but the message remains the same.

Glorified depictions of violence can be seen in the military recruitment advertising frequently shown in theaters before the start of action movies, pitched to young males as the primary audience of both. Such images play an important role in recruiting the forces necessary to carry forward the same resource exploitation, investment, and subjugation and control of indigenous population goals that were inherent to the founding of the United States.

Ultimately, reliance upon violence results from a unique for-profit version of Social Darwinism and the pecking order it has created. Those at the top of the hierarchy rely upon violence to feed their insatiable appetites for money and power. In order to serve these purposes, violence must not only be threatened or used, when deemed necessary, but must be widely viewed as an acceptable means of resolving conflicts, as an acceptable part of daily life.

From this outlook, "might makes right," and that boils down to who has the most firepower. Violence becomes not only a means to an end, but the necessary counterpart to the famous Calvinist doctrine of those who are predestined through material success. For those on the lower rungs of the ladder, a "warm gun" becomes not just the poor man's equalizer, but a means of social advancement: "winners" and "losers" are not defined by moral virtue, but by force. Note that I say "man" deliberately, as this rarely involves women.

Bullying and hazing are expressions of this "love affair" with violence, and its ingrained nature in the core values of society explains why these practices are virtually impossible to root out. While certain figures in the social order, such as school principals and police chiefs, are charged with maintaining "domestic tranquility," at best, their role is analogous to the Dutch kid with his finger in the dike. Their admonitions are not only overshadowed by the overarching cultural dog-eat-dog backdrop of violence, they are often schizophrenic.

Lecturing on the need for peaceful conflict resolution, these same authority figures not only overlook, but often encourage pecking orders and other forms of competition that create "winners" and "losers" and forms of behavior that lend themselves to violence. Some years ago, when shootings began to occur at U.S. Mail facilities around the country, this phenomenon even gained a name: "going postal."

As always, there are those eager to make a profit from every opportunity, and as Michael Moore and others have pointed out, fear-mongering has long been understood as such an opportunity. Trayvon Martin's unfortunate death showed how industry can prey on fear to turn a profit. At the behest of the American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC) and the National Rifle Association (NRA), a number of states loosened their firearms laws. This happened through a combination of manipulating compliant legislators and instilling the belief that guns are the answer to personal protection.

For those near the bottom of the pecking order, or for socially isolated or marginalized individuals, it's only a short step from translating fear, frustration, or resentment into a perception that guns are a means to enhance one's status. Travis Bickle in the movie Taxi Driver becomes George Zimmerman in real life.

For all intents and purposes, Zimmerman was a nobody who lived in a nondescript suburban neighborhood in Sanford, Florida, itself a suburb of Orlando. According to Sanford Police Detective Chris Serino, Zimmerman exhibited a "little hero complex." Similarly, in Littleton, Colorado, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were outcasts at Columbine High, snubbed by their peers and ignored by authority figures and their own parents, who decided "to go out with a bang."

James Holmes, the accused killer at The Dark Knight Rises movie in Aurora, fits a similar profile. Holmes was a neuroscience graduate student at the University of Colorado in Denver who lived in nearby Aurora. Apparently he was failing in his graduate program, and like Jared Lee Loughner, who shot U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and others in Tucson, he may have mental issues but ready access to firearms and ammunition.

According to movie critic Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune, the movie The Dark Knight Arises is grim, dark, and apparently apocalyptic. Not that this or any similar movie "causes" any real world violence to occur, but in this instance it may have provided the right sort of mood, or lent itself to the sort of climate Holmes was seeking. When apprehended, Holmes reportedly compared himself to the "Joker" in an earlier Batman movie.

It's also curious that both Columbine and this present shooting in Aurora occurred in Denver suburbs. Littleton at one time had some unique identity, before it was swallowed up as a Denver satellite. Aurora grew as an adjunct to military and aviation facilities, including Stapleton International Airport, later succeeded by Denver International Airport, that served the Denver metropolitan area. These two suburbs are representative of many that tend to foster a sense of atomized individualism, anonymity, and that lack identity or independent character.

As metropolitan locations grew, facilitated by the expansion of the interstate highway system and "white flight," populations became dispersed in ever-expanding concentric rings around urban cores. No real sense of community ever came to characterize these developments; residents often commuted elsewhere to work, or school, drove to supermarkets and shopping centers, and, isolated from one another, lived atomized lifestyles. Social observers ranging from William Whyte and Paul and Percival Goodman to Andres Duany and James Howard Kunstler have aptly described these circumstances.

Particularly when the economy is in decline and the political environment is in disarray, these suburbs lend themselves to what Thoreau called "lives of quiet desperation." They are perfect breeding grounds for those individuals left behind or harboring a grudge, unable to meaningfully connect their personal crises with others, inoculated with the belief that violence is a solution to their problems, and thanks to the weapons and ammunition makers and dealers, armed to the teeth.

[Jay D. Jurie, who attended the University of Colorado at Denver, is a resident of Sanford, Florida. He researches, writes, and teaches in the areas of public policy, public administration, and urban planning. Read articles by Jay D. Jurie on The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

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Jack A. Smith : What's Really Happening in Syria?

Free Syrian Army fighter near Idlib, Syria. Photo by Khalil Hamra / AP.

What's really happening in Syria?
The principal Obama Administration target in this complex affair is Iran, not Syria. The Syrian government must fall because it is Iran's main Arab ally.
By Jack A. Smith / The Rag Blog / July 26, 2012

After several months of talking diplomacy while simultaneously strengthening rebel forces in Syria and demonizing the Damascus government, the Obama Administration has openly decided to go for the kill. Violent regime change will not happen immediately, but it is obviously President Obama's goal.

The White House is now "redoubling efforts to rally a coalition of like-minded countries to forcibly bring down the government of President Assad al-Assad," The New York Times reported July 21. "Administration officials have been in talks with officials in Turkey and Israel over how to manage a Syrian government collapse."

McClatchy Newspapers stated July 23 that,
Despite reports last week that suggested rebel forces were on the verge of major triumphs in Syria, the last few days of fighting there show that a long battle still looms. Forces loyal to Assad in recent days have tightened their grip on the Lebanese border, re-established control over at least one neighborhood in Damascus and perhaps reached an accommodation with the country’s Kurds that will free up more troops for battle.
According to the U.S. and its NATO allies, the Damascus regime is engaging in a one-sided, murderous war against its own people, who simply seek democracy. At the same time, the Tehran government is characterized as a "terrorist" regime intent upon building and using nuclear weapons in order to destroy Israel and rule the Middle East. The U.S. news media, as expected, propagates without question Washington's campaign against Syria and Iran.

The United States suggests that its principal reason for seeking regime change in Syria is to promote "democracy" -- a tarnished rationale often employed in recent decades to undermine or destroy governments that displease the U.S. superpower, such as in Iran in the 1950s, the Dominican Republic in the 1960s, Chile in the 1970s, Nicaragua in the 1980s, Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Iraq in the 2000s, and Libya in the 2010s, among other instances.

Democracy has nothing to do with Washington's objectives in Syria. America's closest regional ally in the anti-Assad endeavor is the repressive anti-democratic monarchy of Saudi Arabia, which finances and arms the rebel opposition in Syria along with resource-rich Qatar. Both Arab countries played a similar role last year in the U.S./NATO overthrow of the Gaddafi government in Libya.

Having learned a bitter lesson after agreeing to support a no-fly zone in Libya -- and seeing that mandate illegally expanded by U.S.-NATO forces in order to wage a vicious war for regime change -- both Russia and China have three times exercised their right to veto U.S. measures in the UN to escalate the conflict in Syria. The Security Council approved a 30-day extension of the UN monitor mission July 20, but Susan Rice, Washington's ambassador to the world body, implied it may be the last continuation.

Both Moscow and Beijing seek to bring about a negotiated solution to the crisis based on a cease-fire, talks and reforms. According to Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, "the only way to put an end to this tragic conflict is to get to the negotiating table." The Syrian government agrees, but the opposition forces -- aware that Washington and its allies seek a swift regime change -- reject negotiations.

Churkin warns:
Don’t be duped by humanitarian rhetoric. There is much more geopolitics in their [U.S.] policy in Syria than humanism... Our concern is that the Syrian people have to suffer the consequences of this geopolitical struggle.
There are two principal and interlocking reasons the U.S. and its NATO and Mideast coalition allies are conspiring to oust the Assad government.

The first is to secure Washington's geopolitical position in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), particularly as President Obama prepares to focus additional military and economic resources on East Asia to contain the rise of China, and on Eurasia reduce Russian influence.

British news analyst Patrick Seale, whom we consider an objective source, wrote July 19:
The keys to the Syrian crisis lie outside Syria. Indeed, the Syrian crisis cannot be separated from the massive pressures being put on Iran. President Obama is now fully mobilized against both regimes. He seems to have given up trying to secure a win-win deal with Iran over its nuclear program, and he is sabotaging Kofi Annan’s Syrian peace plan by conniving in the arming of the rebels. He seems to want to bring down the regimes in both Tehran and Damascus -- either because he sees Iran as a rival in the Gulf region or to win the favors of Israel’s American supporters in an election year.
According to a July 10 report from Stratfor, the non-government commercial intelligence organization close to certain U.S. spy sources:
Human rights interests alone do not come close to explaining why this particular uprising has received a substantial amount of attention and foreign backing over the past year. The past decade enabled Iran to wrest Baghdad out of Sunni hands and bring Mesopotamia under Shi'ite control. There is little question now that Iraq, as fractured as it is, sits in the Iranian sphere of influence while Iraqi Sunnis have been pushed to the margins. Iran's gains in Baghdad shifted the regional balance of power.
The second reason is to enhance the power of Sunni Islam in MENA and limit the possibility of a larger regional role by the Shia Muslim minority.

There are about 2 billion Muslims in the world today. Statistics vary somewhat, but about 87% are said to be Sunnis, and the remainder are Shia -- a minority that has suffered discrimination from the majority. Iran has the largest Shia population in the world -- up to 95% of its 75 million people. Iraq has the second largest Shia population -- over 60% of its 30 million people.

About 87% of the 26 million Syrians are Muslims -- 74% of these Sunni and 13% Shia -- but members of the Shi'ite Alawite sect, led by the Assad family that dominates Syria's Ba'athist regime, have essentially controlled the country for over 40 years.

The principal Obama Administration target in this complex affair is Iran, not Syria. The Syrian government must fall because it is Iran's main Arab ally (as it also is Russia's, a not insignificant factor). Washington has been intent upon gravely wounding Iran after the Iraq war blew up in its face, resulting in the Shia assumption of power in Baghdad.

Until the 2003 U.S. overthrow of the secular Ba'athist regime in Baghdad led by President Saddam Hussein, Iraq's 30% Sunni minority historically dominated the state. Sunni Iraq was in fact Iran's biggest enemy. President Hussein launched a mutually devastating, unnecessary eight-year war against Iran in 1990 with tacit U.S. support. Now, while not yet an official ally, Baghdad is friendly to Tehran.

President Obama labored long to compel Shia President Nouri al-Maliki to allow tens of thousands of U.S. troops and government "advisers" to remain in Iraq after the bulk of forces were to withdraw at the end of 2011. One purpose was to monitor and reduce future Iranian influence. But the Iraqi leader ultimately refused at the last moment -- a huge setback for the administration, though Washington no doubt is continuing its efforts to manipulate Baghdad covertly while crushing Iran's ally in Damascus.

The U.S. now views Iraq as positioned within neighboring Iran's sphere of influence, a significant shift in the regional balance of power. This can only be perceived as a serious danger to American hegemony throughout the region and particularly the Persian Gulf/Arabian Peninsula, from whence much of the world's petroleum issues. Washington's greatest fear is that Iran and Iraq -- two of the world's principal oil producers -- might develop a genuine alliance.

This is a chief reason why the Obama government has contrived pretexts to impose heavy sanctions and threaten military action against the Tehran government. This also explains why ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia so enthusiastically backs sanctions and threats against Iran and is investing heavily in overthrowing Assad. The Saudi royal family, devotees of a fundamentalist brand of Sunni religion, wants to expunge Shia influence throughout the region, as well as keep its own discriminated-against 15% Shi'ite minority under tight control.

One payback for the Saudis is Washington's indifference to the cruelty toward the Shi'ite majority demanding a modicum of democracy in Bahrain, which is ruled by a dictatorial Sunni monarchy under the protection of Saudi Arabia.

Obama's immediate goal is to break up the developing relationship between three contiguous Shia-led countries -- Persian Iran and Arab Iraq and Syria -- covering some 1,600 miles from the Afghan border to the Mediterranean.

All other states in MENA circulate well within Washington's hegemonic orbit. The Arab Spring has not diminished U.S. hegemony in the region where regimes were overthrown -- Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen. Indeed, U.S./NATO control of Libya and now the Syrian situation appear to have enhanced Washington's regional power. Last week the Arab League, representing all the Arab states, proposed Assad should resign and that the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which leads the armed struggle, should form a transitional regime. Iraq dissented, declaring that it was for the Syrian people alone to decide his fate.

Most Arab countries, and non-Arab NATO member Turkey as well -- which flaunts the opportunity to flex its Sunni credentials as it strains to reassert its influence and even leadership in the Middle East -- are part of the regime change coalition. Turkey is playing a key role, providing a reliable rear area for the FSA and as a transmission point for arms bound for the opposition.

Even Israel shows public signs of getting directly involved in Assad's downfall. Last week right-wing Prime Minister Netanyahu told Fox News Israel "was ready to act" in Syria. Over the years, Tel-Aviv had been more than willing to tolerate the Assad government rather than a Sunni regime until the recent period when Tehran and Damascus began developing much closer ties.

Interestingly, Hamas -- the Islamic organization elected to govern the Palestinian territory of Gaza -- has recently announced its support for the Sunni rebels in Syria, after receiving decades of solidarity and support from the Assad government. Hamas is connected to the Muslim Brotherhood now leading Egypt which recently guaranteed it would maintain peace and commerce with Israel. Another branch of the Brotherhood is expected to acquire greater political power in Syria if regime change succeeds.

Syria is a strongly nationalist capitalist country which promoted pan-Arabism when it was in vogue in the 1960s. It has been ruled by the Ba'ath Party for over four decades. There are a number of other parties but they are subordinate to the Ba'athists. It is not a Western-type democracy and the government is repressive toward dissent. Further, Syria dealt harshly with peaceful demonstrators before the armed opposition was a major factor.

The Damascus government also has positive aspects. The Assad regime is secular in nature, is opposed to colonialism and imperialism, and does not bend the knee -- as so do many Arab governments these days -- to the U.S. The Assad government strongly opposed America's war in Iraq. It materially and politically backs the rights of the Palestinian people and the Shia Lebanese political party Hezbollah, which is supported by Iran.

In addition, the government appears to have the allegiance of a substantial proportion of the population, including the several minority sects -- Christians (10% of the population), Druze, Turkmen, Jews, Yazidis, and others. All seem to prefer a secular government to the possibility of a more religious Sunni state, perhaps led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The oppositional forces include various often contending civil and exile organizations and individuals associated with the Syrian National Council (SNC), the main opposition group, and the approximately 100 different armed urban guerrilla groups broadly identified with the Syrian Free Army.

Disunity characterizes the relations between many of these groups, virtually all of which are Sunni. Major rivalries have been reported between a number of military commanders, and sharp splits have taken place within the SNC and between leaders within Syria and influential exiles largely based in Turkey and Egypt. The U.S. has been working for months to identify and promote the leaders it wishes to put into power.

According to Middle East correspondent Pepe Escobar, writing July 24 in Asia Times,
There's no way to understand the Syrian dynamics without learning that most FSA commanders are not Syrians, but Iraqi Sunnis. The FSA could only capture the Abu Kamal border crossing between Syria and Iraq because the whole area is controlled by Sunni tribes viscerally antagonistic towards the al-Maliki government in Baghdad. The free flow of mujahedeen, hardcore jihadis and weapons between Iraq and Syria is now more than established... As it stands, the romanticized Syrian "rebels" plus the insurgents formerly known as terrorists cannot win against the Syria military -- not even with the Saudis and Qataris showering them with loads of cash and weapons.
Repeated reports from many sources indicate that contingents of fundamentalist jihadists have joined the anti-Assad campaign. Stratfor comments that "The Syrian rebellion contains a growing assortment of Sunni Islamists, Salafist jihadists, and transnational al Qaeda-style jihadists. Foreign fighters belonging to the latter two categories are believed to be making their way into Syria from Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq."

According to a report this week in the German daily Die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, German intelligence estimates that "around 90" terror attacks that "can be attributed to organizations that are close to al-Qaeda or jihadist groups" were carried out in Syria between the end of December and the beginning of July.

Despite such attacks, the Damascus government announced this week that it would not use its chemical weapons "against the Syrian people or civilians during this crisis, under any circumstances.” It did, however, suggest it might deploy such weapons against foreign military intervention.

In the U.S. most liberals and Democrats support Obama's Syrian adventure as well as Republicans, just as they approved of what little they knew of the White House involvement in the Libyan regime change. GOP candidate Mitt Romney and some Republican politicians demand "tougher action," but that's just for show.

Sectors of the U.S. left are split over America's role in Syria. Some groups support the uprising in the name of democracy, ignoring that Washington and the royal family in Riyadh will be the biggest winners. Those who identify with the anti-imperialist perspective strongly oppose U.S/Saudi involvement.

Our view is that it is the responsibility of the people of a country, such as Syria -- and not outside forces -- to determine the political character of their government, up to and including armed revolution.

And the anti-Assad international coalition is not just any "outside force." It takes orders from the United States -- the most powerful military state in the world responsible for violent aggression and millions of deaths in recent decades -- and is also backed by a couple of anti-democratic monarchies and NATO, including two of the region's former colonial overlords, France and Great Britain.

The extent of American involvement with the opposition was partially exposed by The New York Times July 21:
American diplomats are also meeting regularly with representatives of various Syrian opposition groups outside the country to help map out a possible post-Assad government. "Our focus with the opposition is on working with them so that they have a political transition in place to stand up a new Syria," Patrick Ventrell, a State Department spokesman, said last week.
As such, in our understanding, the principal aspect of the struggle for power in Syria is not popular forces fighting for democracy but an international coalition led by imperialism seeking to overthrow a government allied to Iran in order to serve Washington's geopolitical objectives and Saudi Arabia's sectarian goal of diminishing Shia influence in the region.

[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. Read more articles by Jack A. Smith on The Rag Blog.

The Rag Blog

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25 July 2012

RAG RADIO / Thorne Dreyer : Jim Turpin on the Myth of 'American Exceptionalism'

Jim Turpin, center, with Rag Radio's Tracey Schulz, left, and Thorne Dreyer in the KOOP studios, Austin, Texas, July 13, 2012.

Rag Radio interview:
Peace activist Jim Turpin
on the myth of 'American exceptionalism'

By Rag Radio / The Rag Blog / July 25, 2012

Peace Activist and writer Jim Turpin was Thorne Dreyer's guest on Rag Radio, Friday, July 13, 2012, on KOOP 91.7-FM in Austin, Texas. Turpin discussed issues raised in his article, "The Myth of American Exceptionalism," published at The Rag Blog on July 6, 2012.

Listen to Thorne Dreyer's Rag Radio interview with Jim Turpin, here:

Rag Radio features hour-long in-depth interviews and discussion about issues of progressive politics, culture, and history. The syndicated show is produced in the studios of KOOP-FM, Austin's cooperatively-run all-volunteer community radio station. It is broadcast live on KOOP and streamed live on the Internet, and is rebroadcast on WFTE-FM in Mt. Cobb and Scranton, PA.

Jim Turpin, a native of Austin, Texas, who works in the field of public health, has a Bachelor of Science in Speech Communications from the University of Texas at Austin. He is a member of Code Pink/Austin and an associate member of Veterans for Peace. He also volunteers at Under the Hood Café & Outreach Center, the GI coffeehouse at Ft. Hood, Texas, and is a contributor to The Rag Blog.

In his Rag Blog article, Jim Turpin pointed out that the United States is number one in the world in military spending with troop presence in over 150 countries; has record levels of hunger, poverty and unemployment; has seen the rise of an Orwellian national security state; and has experienced "obscene accumulation of wealth by a corporate plutocracy" -- with record corporate profits while middle-class American families have "lost a staggering 39% of their net worth."

Turpin wrote that "America is indeed exceptional on many levels. We remain a country envied around the globe for our ability to create, think, and believe we can be a better place for all people. Maybe we only now are beginning to see that war, nationalism, wealth, and power are not the tools to make this happen."

Watch Jeff Zavala's video of Thorne Dreyer's Rag Radio interview with Jim Turpin:

Jim Turpin discussed the myth of "American exceptionalism" on Rag Radio, Friday, July 13, 2012. Video by Jeff Zavala of ZGraphics, who filmed the show live in the KOOP studios in Austin.

Rag Radio has aired since September 2009 on KOOP 91.7-FM in Austin. Hosted and produced by Rag Blog editor and long-time alternative journalist Thorne Dreyer, a pioneer of the Sixties underground press movement, Rag Radio is broadcast every Friday from 2-3 p.m. (CDT) on KOOP, 91.7-fM in Austin, and is rebroadcast on Sundays at 10 a.m. (EDT) on WFTE, 90.3-FM in Mt. Cobb, PA, and 105.7-FM in Scranton, PA.

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

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

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

Coming up on Rag Radio: THIS FRIDAY, July 27, 2012, Actor, Musician & former Movement Lawyer Brady Coleman, with live performance by The Melancholy Ramblers. Brady will also be joined by Jim Simons in remembering the late Cam Cunningham of Austin's movement law commune.

The Rag Blog

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John Perkins : Occupy the Dam

Three hundred indigenous people, small farmers, fisherfolk, and local residents occupied the Belo Monte Dam project at the Xingu River, Brazil, on June 15, 2012 Photo by Atossa Soltani / Amazon Watch / Spectral Q. Go here for photo essay. Photos courtesy of International Rivers

Occupy the dam:
Brazil's indigenous uprising
In the Amazonian backcountry, tribes are challenging construction of the world's third-largest dam -- by dismantling it. Here's what they can teach us about standing up to power.
By John Perkins / YES! Magazine / July 25, 2012

Last month, hundreds of indigenous demonstrators began dismantling a dam in the heart of Brazil’s rainforest to protest the destruction it will bring to lands they have loved and honored for centuries. The Brazilian government is determined to promote construction of the massive, $14 billion Belo Monte Dam, which will be the world’s third largest when it is completed in 2019.

It is being developed by Norte Energia, a consortium of 10 of the world’s largest construction, engineering, and mining firms set up specifically for the project.

The Belo Monte Dam is the most controversial of dozens of dams planned in the Amazon region and threatens the lives and livelihoods of thousands of Amazonian people, plants, and animals. Situated on the Xingu River, the dam is set to flood roughly 150 square miles of already-stressed rainforest and deprive an estimated 20,000 people of their homes, their incomes, and -- for those who succumb to malaria, bilharzia, and other diseases carried by insects and snails that are predicted to breed in the new reservoir -- their lives.

Moreover, the influx of immigrants will bring massive disruption to the socioeconomic balance of the region. People whose livelihoods have primarily depended on hunting and gathering or farming may suddenly find themselves forced to take jobs as manual laborers, servants, and prostitutes.

History has shown again and again that dams in general wreak havoc in areas where they are built, despite promises to the contrary by developers and governments. Hydroelectric energy is anything but “clean” when measured in terms of the excruciating pain it causes individuals, social institutions, and local ecology.

The costs -- often hidden -- include those associated with the privatization of water; the extinction of plants that might provide cures for cancer, HIV, and other diseases; the silting up of rivers and lakes; and the disruption of migratory patterns for many species of birds.

The indigenous cultures threatened by the Belo Monte Dam, including those of the Xikrin, Juruna, Arara, Parakanã, Kuruaya, and Kayapó tribes, are tied to the land: generations have hunted and gathered and cultivated the same areas for centuries. They -- as well as local flora and fauna -- have suffered disproportionately from the effects of other hydroelectric dams, while rarely gaining any of the potential benefits. Now they are fighting back.

Indigenous leaders from these groups have asked the Brazilian government to immediately withdraw the installation license for Belo Monte. They demand a halt to work until the government puts into place "effective programs and measures to address the impacts of the dam on local people." They point out that a promised monetary program to compensate for the negative impacts of the mega-dam has not yet been presented in local villages; also, that a system to ensure small boat navigation in the vicinity of the cofferdams, temporary enclosures built to facilitate the construction process, has not been implemented.

Without such a system, many will be isolated from markets, health care facilities, and other services. The cofferdams have already rendered much of the region’s water undrinkable and unsuitable for bathing. Wells promised by the government and Norte Energia have not yet been drilled. The list of grievances goes on and on and is only the latest in a very old story of exploitation of nature and people in the name of “progress.” Far too often, this has meant benefiting only the wealthiest in society and business.

Yet here in the backcountry of Brazil, there is a difference: the makings of a new story. The indigenous people’s occupation of the dam garnered international attention, connecting their situation to other events across the globe -- the Arab Spring, democratic revolutions in Latin America, the Occupy Movement, and austerity strikes in Spain and other European nations. Brazil’s indigenous protesters have essentially joined protesters on every continent who are demanding that rights be restored to the people.

Stories take time to evolve. This one -- the story of people awakening on a global level to the need to oppose and replace exploitative dreams -- is still in its beginning phase. And the first chapter has been powerful, elegant, and bold.

A few years ago I was invited, with a group, to Ladakh, a protectorate of India, to meet with the Dalai Lama. Among a great deal of sage advice he offered was the following: “It is important to pray and meditate for peace, for a more compassionate and better world. But if that is all you do, it is a waste of time. You also must take actions to make that happen. Every single day.”

It is time for each and every one us to follow that advice.

Opposing the Belo Monte Dam project provides an opportunity for you and me to honor those words, and those leading resistance to it can help us understand the importance of looking around -- in our neighborhoods as well as globally -- to determine what else we can do to change the story.

[John Perkins is the author of New York Times bestseller Confessions of an Economic Hitman and, most recently, Hoodwinked: An Economic Hitman Reveals Why the World Financial Markets Imploded -- and What We Need to Do to Remake Them. This article was originally published at YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions.]

The Rag Blog

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Don Swift : Paranoid Politics and the Legitimacy Crisis

Graphic from Framing the Dialogue. Inset images below from NeoRepublica and Pushed to the Left.

Paranoid politics:
How the legitimacy crisis helps the Republicans
The growing lack of confidence in government and democracy occurred most with white, blue-collar people. The extent to which this was directly connected to racial antipathy is difficult to sort out.
By Don Swift / The Rag Blog / July 25, 2012

[See earlier articles in this series.]

The Paranoid Style

Throughout American history, there have been numerous highly emotional and somewhat irrational movements that were marked by paranoia, rage, and acceptance of conspiracy theories. They include the McCarthyites of the 1950s, the anti-Catholic “Know-Nothings” of the 1850s, the White Citizens Councils, the anti-Masonic and anti-Illuminati movements, and the populists of the 1890s. The angry farmers in the latter were not right-wingers.

The late Richard Hofstadter, an expert on status politics and the populists, lumped them together under the heading of the “paranoid style in American politics.” They all have in common the fear that they are about to lose or have lost something important, including social status.

He found that these people have a way of projecting their own undesirable traits onto the people they hate. Frequently, there is a hang-up with illicit sex. They are given to paranoid theories and fantasies, and there are “heroic strivings for evidence to prove… the unbelievable.”

Movements that exhibit the paranoid style generate a great deal of emotional energy and commitment among followers, and the Republicans have been the beneficiaries of this sort of zeal and commitment since Richard Milhouse Nixon unveiled his “Southern Strategy.”

To a degree, that strategy was anticipated by Barry Goldwater's 1961 Atlanta speech in which he said, “We're not going to get the Negro vote as a block in 1964 or 1968; [we ought] to go hunting where the ducks are.” Both strategies were designed to mine Southern racial antipathies for votes.

Populism -- with an emphasis on right-wing populism

Right-wing populism was an even more successful ploy for using hot button issues and cultural differences to recruit voters. Of course, this strategy sometimes overlapped with the Southern Strategy.

The New Right, which includes the Religious Right, is an example of right-wing populism, and it too clearly is an example of the paranoid style. It has added a great deal of heat to the political environment and could well have paved the way for more extreme manifestations of the paranoid style.

The Religious Right draws upon evangelical and conservative Protestants and traditionalist Roman Catholics, and the religious element has allowed them to claim for themselves a special legitimacy that their opponents supposedly lack. The religious dimension has also helped push the Republican Party toward fanaticism.

Retiring Democratic Congressman Gary Ackerman learned from a Republican friend that Republicans in their caucus pray, hold hands, and call upon God to work against measures proposed by their opponents. There is nothing wrong with praying, but it might be more helpful if they preyed for wisdom and open hearts.

Modern day right-wing populism appeals to people who feel dispossessed; they think some sinister elite looks down upon them and has betrayed them. Contemporary right-wing populism appeals to social groups who believe they are losing status and control of the national culture.

Hofstadter's basic definition of populism still holds, but today's scholars have rehabilitated the Populist Party of old, choosing to overlook their xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and weakness for conspiracy theories.

His probing of what he called the “reactionary” far right of Joseph McCarthy has been faulted because it could distort people's understanding of conservatism. His point was that the reactionary far right is not conservative by definition or tradition.

For him, the McCarthyites and John Birch Society were pseudo-conservatives. He noted that the McCarthyites called themselves “conservatives” and usually employed the rhetoric of conservatism. The problem was that they evinced “signs of a serious and restless dissatisfaction with American life, traditions, and institutions." He called them “pseudo-conservatives.”

Hofstadter, Daniel Bell, and Seymour Martin Lipset clearly indicated that McCarthy, who used some populist rhetoric, was something other than a populist, and this is also true of today'a Tea Party movement.

McCarthyism and the Tea Party are distorted manifestations of extreme nationalism. The identity crisis noted by Huntington helped fuel the movement. It points in the direction of a nationalistic movement rather than populism.

The second development that points to something other than populism is a growing legitimacy, wherein people question the value of our government. It too laid the groundwork for the Tea Party and is known for the kind of anti-government sentiment that marks the Tea Party.

Legitimacy crisis

Political scientist Stanley B. Greenberg relates today's strong anti-government sentiment to a legitimacy crisis in which more and more people question whether democratic government can work. Scholars have been tracking a legitimacy crisis for decades, and it has recently grown to very substantial proportions as only a quarter of citizens have a positive view of government.

The growing legitimacy crisis made it possible for political fundamentalism in the form of the Tea Party to become a great political force almost overnight. The legitimacy crisis reflects high levels of disenchantment and feelings of betrayal. The term “legitimacy crisis” strictly can mean that a major breaking point has arrived and or that many perceive that the future existence of a healthy state is threatened.

The crisis should be acute rather than chronic, and one would expect it to come in response to dramatic adverse changes. However, scholars have decided not to use the term in its strictest sense because a legitimacy crisis can be relative and exist for some people and not others. If people perceive that a legitimacy crisis exists, then it exists for them.

Pollsters like Daniel Yankovich have been tracking ebbing confidence in our institutions since the last half of the 1960s, and it has only recently gathered critical mass. Declining confidence led to dissatisfaction and alienation. President Jimmy Carter's pollster, Pat Caudell, thought the problem was so great that he persuaded the president to give an ill-advised television speech on the subject in 1979.

Carter was careful in the way he broached his topic, and he never used the word “malaise” but an effective opposition information strategy made that word the keep to the speech and Carter's tone was even switched from cheerleading and optimism to that of gloom and doom. The problem after that was unaddressed by public officials.

By 1980, there were many scholarly references to a legitimacy problem. President Ronald Reagan, whose job should have been to help our political system work, perhaps unwittingly contributed to greater skepticism about its value. Today, some of these anti-government themes are standard Republican talking points, and some people who were once in the extremist fringe groups are now recognized Republican leaders.

Reagan taught people to believe that government helped folks conservatives thought irresponsible, not hard-working dutiful people like themselves. In 2011, only 25% of the American people expressed confidence in the future of the American system of government.

Anti-government rhetoric

Much of the anti-government rhetoric now spouted by the Tea Party members can be traced to the various fringe movements of the recent past -- the militias, the Constitutionalists, the Alaska Independence Party, the Christian Identity movement, the West Virginia Mountaineer Militia, and others.

All these communities of resistance and defiance of change have authoritarian and nativist characteristics. The two go hand in hand. Above all, they react against change. They see the government as an agent of unwanted change and they set out to disrupt and replace it. 

They are serious about destroying government as it is and are attracted by the anti-government tactics of Republican politicians who claim to hate government but really want to control it.

Retired Republican Congressional aide Mike Lofgren wrote that several years ago a superior explained to him that it was Republican strategy to obstruct and disrupt government. By damaging the reputation of government, the Republican Party will benefit at the polls because it is programmatically against government.

A few months ago, he was told that the party would create an artificial debt limit crisis for the same reason, to win votes by making government look bad.

Though academicians and pollsters have been tracking declining confidence in our system for a long time, it was only in 1974 that ABC began asking about confidence in the future of democracy and liberalism. People identified the Democrats and liberalism with government, so distrust of government hurt the Democrats and made it easier for Republicans to make liberalism a dirty word.

Most Democrats had little idea that any of this was going on, and they suffered electoral disasters in 1972 and 1984 in part because many voters thought they were more concerned about helping those not working than those who were.

Compared to today, the situation in 1980 now does not appear very serious and the scholars who addressed it look like alarmists. British and European social scientists seem to think legitimacy problems grow out of the conditions of late capitalism that produce status stress and challenging economic conditions for middle class people.

That explanation is a bit difficult to apply to the United States where most people are impatient with talk about growing economic inequality. Some tie the growing lack of confidence to increasing social and cultural fragmentation. There is less cohesiveness, which in the past generated civility and sympathy across various cultural and social boundaries.

An essential characteristic of this growing sentiment was the idea that our political system was becoming increasingly illegitimate because it did not respond to what voters wanted. It appeared that government had become a powerful entity that was somehow removed from the voters who were supposed to control it.

Blaming the Democrats

This building sentiment doubtless helped pave the way for the Tea Party movement. The Greenberg study found that people who doubted the legitimacy of government associated the Democrats with big government and blamed the Democrats for the nation's problems. A majority of people interviewed, who reflected a deep legitimacy crisis, agreed with Democratic positions on the issues but believed the party simply could not deliver on its promises.

They saw the venality of many progressive leaders, who valued contributions, perks, and reelection over serving the middle class. They came to think that representative government no longer worked and they gave up on the Democrats.

After the bailout of Wall Street, many of them moved to the right and into the Tea Party. This is probably when a full-blown legitimacy crisis arrived, because so many people had suspected for so long that government was some sort of evil, alien force.

Dismay with Wall Street over the financial collapse was brief. A retired University of North Carolina history professor accompanied Tea Party people on a bus trip to the Capitol and had a chance to explore their thought. He found that Tea Party folks blamed everything wrong, including the financial crisis, on government. They saw Washington in the same way many viewed Moscow in the Cold War era. Perhaps the Cold War conditioned many to see all problems coming from a single evil source.

Somehow, they had been persuaded not to blame the bankers. It was government regulations. Distrust of government had been growing for so long among these people that they readily accepted the view that government caused the financial crash.8

Greenberg did not think they would take a favorable view of the Democrats until that party moved to get big money out of politics and prove they put the middle class over Wall Street and big business. So long as national politics remains dysfunctional and the economy is weak, these people will not back Democrats, and their distrust of government will continue to help the Republicans.

They see Democrats as wanting to grow a government that does not work. These people are weary and impatient and not likely to see through the Republican tactic of using across the board obstructionism to prevent passage of economic stimulus legislation. They are still likely to blame the Democrats for not rescuing the economy overnight.

Blaming the poor

Focus group research shows that many of the most disaffected citizens lump together the poor, Wall Street, and big business among the irresponsible elements that Ronald Reagan warned about.

As these people on the Right focused more on what they thought was wrong, they exaggerated how dire the situation was. They equated programs to assist the poor with government's illegitimacy. When William Jefferson Clinton became president, a legitimacy crisis occurred for them in an ideological and cultural sense, and they set out to remove Clinton from office.

It is not difficult to see how the crisis mentality mounted for people on the Right. What was occurring was that the Republican Party was becoming the home for people deeply affected by the legitimacy crisis and also for people on the Religious Right who were disturbed that they had lost control of American culture.

In time, beginning in the Reagan years, many came to see the Republican party as their primary identity group. Increasingly they would come to assess what was fact and “true” according to this primary identity and what the admired leaders of their political identity group said and thought. It was quite different from the 19th century, when ethnic and religious identities usually came first.

An interesting phenomenon appeared among gay Republicans who were members of the Abraham Lincoln Society. With time, the party became more and more anti-gay and homophobic, but the Abraham Lincoln people continued to be active Republicans, placing their primary identity over that of being gay.

Thinking about poverty seems to have shifted over 50 years and has contributed to the mounting legitimacy crisis. When Michael Harrington published The Other America: Poverty in the United States, many shared his desire to deal with the problem. He wrote about a “culture of poverty,” which was the product of poverty and included emphasis on short-term gratification, low expectations, and a variety of social pathologies.

Lyndon Johnson made headway in addressing the problem, but too many Americans bought Charles Murray's claim that Johnson's War on Poverty had been a failure. Even worse, Murray successfully sold the idea that the poor are trapped by an unhealthy culture, which then produces poverty. Murray said welfare programs only make things worse, abetting more dependency.

In other words, Murray managed to turn Harrington's careful findings upside down. As a result, many saw the poor as responsible for their own problems. Murray's research was not all that strong or convincing but people were increasingly receptive to it in a harsher America where people were less inclined to respond positively to their better instincts.

Republicans and victimhood

For people who increasingly saw government as illegitimate, Barack Obama's Affordable Health Care Act set off two major alarms. They saw government getting larger and more powerful, and they saw billions being spent to help poor people and the likelihood that taxes would eventually be increased to cover the costs. People who distrusted government and doubted its legitimacy simply went into orbit.

Republicans came to see themselves as the honest taxpayers who were victims of a State that did too much for the poor. By 2012, this concept of victimhood was expanded to seeing taxpayers as victims of greedy public employee unions.

Beginning in 2010, some states like Minnesota and Wisconsin stripped public employees of the right of collective bargaining. Other states followed, and some states slashed pension benefits for new public employees. This was followed by the beginning of efforts to slash pensions of public employees who were already retired.

Increasingly Republicans, who had long defended the contract clause rights of corporations, were saying that retired public employees had no contractual rights because their pensions seemed overly-generous.

The growing lack of confidence in government and democracy occurred most with white, blue-collar people. The extent to which this was directly connected to racial antipathy is difficult to sort out.

When Barack Obama led the Democratic ticket in 2008, it lost among white working class voters by 18 points. Two years later, when the Great Recession had not yet abated, the Democrats lost among these people by 30%. 

The Gallup organization found that the number of Americans who called themselves conservative grew from 37% in 2007 to 41% in 2011, suggesting that the Great Recession has helped theRepublicans.12

Ours is not a direct democracy; it is a representative democracy. Most voters pay little attention to the details of politics. When things are not going well, the "throw the bums out" mechanism kicks in. This mechanism can be gamed and can be used in combination with a legitimacy crisis.

Newt Gingrich took a decade to end Democratic rule in the House by creating havoc in the chamber and convincing voters that the institution had lost legitimacy, and in 1994 the voters pitched the bums out. After the death of Ted Kennedy, Barack Obama lost the ability to pass recovery measures in the Congress. Republicans stonewalled him and slowed recovery.

Frustrated that he had not worked an economic miracle, the voters punished the Democrats in 2010, and the voters gave the Republicans a huge victory in the House and six more seats in the Senate. The same strategy is at work in 2012, and the Republicans are banking on the voters not being very attentive to detail.

Romney, like Tom Dewey in 1948, is being vague and misleading. Things were very unsettled in 1948, and people blamed Truman. This time, we have lingering unemployment, due largely to Republican policies and obstruction.

Truman in 1948, had a badly divided party and was not well-funded, but he managed to educate the voters and carry the battle to the GOP. In 2012, the question is whether the voters are as educable as those in 1948. Can Obama catch Truman's fire and persuasiveness?

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

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Larry Ray : The Duchess of Romney and 'You People'

The Duchess of Romney. Graphic by Larry Ray, with apologies to Quentin Matsys.

Dispatch from the 'uncanny valley':
The Duchess of Romney and 'you people'
Phony and snobby aloofness doesn't play well with Americans.
By Larry Ray / The Rag Blog / July 25, 2012

Mitt Romney really, really wants to win the presidency this November. And his loyal wife Ann, already a potential First Lady, really wants him to win it too. But neither one of them wants to deal with average working Americans who have a few questions for them.

Reasonable questions for a potential White House occupant like, "How much money have you made, and how much tax have you paid on it over the years?" President Obama started the call for that basic information and was immediately assailed by Mr. Romney who huffily asked for a "public apology" for his even suggesting such a thing.

But Mr. Obama not only didn't apologize, he turned up the heat and has been joined by a growing chorus of demands to see those tax returns, coming from both sides of the aisle. Several have suggested that Romney simply show us the same 20-plus years of IRS returns he showed when he was being vetted for Vice President by the McCain campaign in 2008.

Wife Ann really threw down the gauntlet recently on ABC news when Robin Roberts asked her about releasing the tax returns. Ms. Romney sidestepped answering the question; instead she glowingly reported on how fair her husband is. Robin followed up, asking "Why not show that, then?" -- suggesting that we could all "move on" if her husband would simply make his returns public.

Sweet Ann lost her cool, shooting back, "Because there are so many things that will be open again for more attack... and that's really, that's just the answer! And we've given all you people [our emphasis] need to know and understand about our financial situation and about how we live our life."

The Duchess, in Chapter 9 of Alice in Wonderland, speaking to Alice, could be explaining how Romney and his lovely wife want to be seen by ordinary wage earning commoners in America:
"I quite agree with you," said the Duchess; "and the moral of that is -- 'Be what you would seem to be' -- or if you'd like it put more simply -- 'Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been, would have appeared to them to be otherwise.'"
The Romneys' labyrinthian verbal escape chute is not going to lose many Americans in the twists and turns of his misdirection and obfuscation. The average working American may not be able to quote Hamlet, but he or she sure as shootin' can tell you what "The lady doth protest too much, methinks" means, even if they occasionally misquote it!

Phony and snobby aloofness doesn't play well with Americans. And political affiliations aside, few find Mitt Romney to be a relaxed down-to-earth kind of person. His almost manic smile and disingenuous interaction with people at his campaign stops have been dubbed "the uncanny valley," a hypothesis from robotic studies holding that when human replicas look amazingly real, but not exactly like actual human beings, it causes a response of unease and revulsion among human observers.

This was addressed by Andrew Sullivan in The Daily Beast:
I was chatting with a Mormon friend the other day and asking him what Mormons make of Mitt on this "uncanny valley" question. The phrase he came up with is “the Mormon mask.” It's the kind of public presentation that a Mormon with real church authority deploys when dealing with less elevated believers, talking to them, and advising them. The cheery aw-shucks fake niceness in person is a function in part, some believe, of the role he has long played in the church: always a leader.
Mitt is not only counting on the "Mormon Mask" as a shield to take with him to election day, he also has the broad donor base of big-buck Mormon families who share his "common values." Bloomberg Businessweek just reported on the Mormon Church's recent opening of a $2 billion megamall right across the street from their vaulting temple in Salt Lake City. Its 100 stores include a Tiffany's.

But it seems that ordinary tithing members of the church, who give 10% of their earnings, cannot find out how much money the church has, or what it spends on what. Only its appointed president, Thomas S. Monson, whom Mormons believe to be a living prophet, really knows the bottom line figure.

But Romney, a former Mormon Bishop, knows much more than common church members, whom he greets with his "Mormon Mask." That may explain the cavalier air of superiority he and his wife exhibit publicly.

Combine that divine secrecy with Mitt Romney's wooden personality and try to picture him and his feisty elitist wife in the White House facing international press scrutiny. This would not be a brief titular undertaking like his work "saving" the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.

And today he is frantically distancing himself from his signature achievement as a state governor in Massachusetts: the implementing of his universal health care reform plan. He is shamefully attempting to escape the "Romneycare" tag.

Perhaps more appropriately, the tag of "political prostitute" -- from his long history of flip-flopping on his earlier support for major issues like abortion rights -- might stick. Consider his quote from his 1994 campaigning against Ted Kennedy regarding the Kennedy fortune: "The blind trust is an age-old ruse."

Recent reports of Romney's money sheltered in the Cayman Islands, his Swiss bank account, and who knows what else, makes many wonder if Romney's supposed blind trust is, indeed, the age-old ruse he seems to know so much about.

Folks must realize Romney would be the new face of America in these globally uncertain times. Last time the GOP won they put a genial dolt at the helm of our ship of state for eight long years, and he ran America up on the rocks with his two unfunded wars and his embarrassingly profound lack of leadership ability.

With a clearer picture of the "real Romney" emerging every day, we can only hope that America sees through his thick fog of untruth and misrepresentation when they vote in November.

Mark Twain is credited with the quote, "It is easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled." In that regard, Mitt Romney becomes more convincing every day.

[Retired journalist Larry Ray is a Texas native and former Austin television news anchor who now lives in Gulfport, Mississippi. He also posts at The iHandbill. Read more articles by Larry Ray on The Rag Blog.]

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24 July 2012

Kate Braun : Lammas is the First Harvest

Lammas: the First Harvest. Image from Cambridge Community Television.

You can burn your regrets on
Lammas, the First Harvest

By Kate Braun / The Rag Blog / July 24, 2012
"The corn is as high as a elephant’s eye..."
Tuesday, July 31 or Wednesday, August 1, 2012, is a good time to celebrate Lammas, First Harvest. Lord Sun is in Leo and Lady Moon is in her second quarter in Aquarius. As both Leo (Fire) and Aquarius (Air) are masculine signs, I encourage you to incorporate the feminine elements Water and Earth into your celebrations. This will create a better balance.

Use the colors red, gold, orange, yellow, bronze, citrine, green, and grey in your dress and decor. Lammas means “Loaf Mass” and refers to the first loaf of bread (or cornbread) made from the first-harvested grain of the season, so serving your guests foods that use corn, rye, and/or wheat in their composition is appropriate. Some possibilities are: gingerbread, cornbread, and popcorn.

In addition, include any locally grown produce that is in season, berries and berry pies, roast lamb, ale, and fruit wine, according to your budget and preference.

Begin your feast by giving thanks for the positive things in your life. Encourage your guests to do the same. Honor grain goddesses such as Ceres and Tonantzin. Tonantzin was an Aztec goddess of corn and the earth. Lore says that after the conquistadores destroyed Tonantzin’s temple, the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego and told him to build a shrine where the destroyed temple had stood.

The story of Juan Diego’s efforts to do so, the appearance of the Virgin on his cape, and the eventual building of the shrine, is well-known; what is not so well-known is that many Indians took the Virgin Mary to be another aspect of Tonantzin. Their allegiance to this representation of a familiar goddess is, therefore, not surprising.

If you bake a loaf of bread for this occasion, do not slice it but let each guest tear off a bit of bread from the loaf and feed it to the person sitting to their right while saying “May food be always on your table," “May you never go hungry," and other phrases to that effect. Be sure to reserve part of the loaf to be thrown in the ceremonial fire. Bless the tools of your trade in the smoke of the fire (you may add some herbs or incense if you like). This is said to ensure prosperity and positive action in the coming year.

Encourage your guests to tell and retell tales of and myths of Grain Goddesses. The story of Demeter, Hades, and Persephone is but one. You and your guests may also write down words or symbols of things you regret on a piece of paper, wrap the paper in corn husks, and toss into the fire. As these regrets burn to ashes they are released into the air and drift away, leaving you and your guests with the opportunity to begin anew.

[Kate Braun's website is www.tarotbykatebraun.com. She can be reached at kate_braun2000@yahoo.com. Read more of Kate Braun's writing on The Rag Blog.]

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Harry Targ : Fairness in Hypocrisy Valley

Image from Occasional Links and Commentary.

Fairness in Hypocrisy Valley
Since elections, the public expression of political power, are significantly determined by millionaires, trustees at Hypocrisy Valley usually are the wealthy and powerful.
By Harry Targ / The Rag Blog / July 24, 2012

I have spent much of my adult life in Hypocrisy Valley, a small community which is the regional center of commerce, agriculture, and modest industrialization. It also is the home of a major university, Hypocrisy Valley State University, which has a reputation, we are told, in agriculture, engineering, and science. As a state supported institution it is obliged to serve the research and educational needs of the citizens of the state.

The faculty size of the university and the student population has grown by 25 percent in 40 years. The university is the largest employer in the county, and many workers say that while they receive low wages, are not treated with particular respect (except for the annual spring fling distribution of free hot dogs), they work at the university because of the health and retirement benefits, which exceed benefits from other employers in the area. Of course, state law prohibits Hypocrisy Valley employees from organizing staff or faculty unions.

Hypocrisy Valley historically has had mediocre sports teams but from time to time they defeat the other major state universities. Masses of alumni do descend on the university during the football season to drink, eat, and watch Hypocrisy Valley players suffer defeat. Unrelated to performance levels, football and basketball coaches make huge salaries, as is common in collegiate sports, and the Director of Athletic Programs makes hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary and perks and participates in several academic decisions at the university.

Over the last 25 years, the number and cost of higher administrative personnel have grown enormously. In addition, selected “star” faculty have enjoyed huge raises. Gaps between the salaries of high-tech, big business, drug company researchers and professors of liberal arts, education, and the pure sciences have grown as well. But all celebrate the fact that Hypocrisy Valley has developed a world reputation, even ranked highly by U.S. News and World Report, the arbiter of quality in higher education.

Presidents at Hypocrisy Valley have served one or more five-year terms before retiring and being replaced. Ordinarily, these presidents are celebrated for their historic contributions to the evolution of the university, only to be all but erased from the University’s history upon retirement. Often the Board of Trustees, the big business elites appointed by Governors to rule the university, name buildings or roads after retired university presidents.

This gets to the heart of academic rule at Hypocrisy Valley. The Board of Trustees makes major decisions about the character and future of the university, including faculty and staff employment. Generally, high-paid administrators accept decisions as they are announced. And since the Board is appointed by sitting Governors, higher education policy is directly related to the distribution of political power in the state.

In addition, since elections, the public expression of political power, are significantly determined by millionaires, trustees at Hypocrisy Valley usually are the wealthy and powerful. Often Trustees come from multinational corporations, banks, and real estate interests in the state and the country. And this influence “trickles down” from the selection of higher levels of administration at Hypocrisy Valley, to curricula, to admissions policy, staff and faculty salaries, and student tuitions.

Recently, decisions at Hypocrisy Valley generated more commentary than usual. The outgoing president, who served one five-year term was encouraged to retire. She was granted a $500,000 severance payment, a continuation of her tenured position in an academic department related to her expertise, and a full-paid sabbatical leave, while she serves on boards of distinguished national scholarly institutions.

Information about the severance payment was reported, in the usually pliant local newspaper, the Hypocrisy Journal. The Journal reported also that the Board is reconfiguring faculty and staff health care costs, including increasing recipient co-payments. The severance package of $500,000 will be paid out of university discretionary funds. Increased health care costs for Hypocrisy Valley employees will be paid for by them.

In addition, with the impending retirement of the University president, a nationwide search for a successor was carried out. A search firm, a faculty staff committee, and the Board of Trustees, after extensive work decided that the best candidate to be the next president of Hypocrisy Valley was the outgoing governor of the state, who in fact appointed the Board of Trustees which now decided that he, the governor with no academic experience, was the best candidate to be the next president.

In addition to the appearance of political skullduggery, the governor had already cut higher education budgets, helped establish an online university as an alternative to traditional higher education, supported the privatization of public education from K to grade 12, opposed women’s access to reproductive health, and signed anti-labor legislation. Some of his strongest defenders argue that having a new president with no higher education administrative experience might make him best equipped to run this world-class institution.

Meanwhile, the Hypocrisy Journal, while publishing a few opinion pieces criticizing the appointment of the outgoing governor as the new president, shifted most of its editorializing to strong support for the appointment, despite a few well-researched stories about the less transparent aspects of the appointment.

I am sure that Hypocrisy University will survive the moral and political corruption of the presidential appointment. Major changes in university policy will not occur. Big corporations and banks will continue to be served by the bulk of ongoing research and teaching. The Board of Trustees will continue to rule in relative secrecy.

Faculty, in the main, will complain in the corridors but will not think of organizing. Students will endure higher tuition to pay for administrative salaries. Growing numbers of young people from around the state, often minorities and working class kids, will search for alternatives to the prohibitively expensive education costs at Hypocrisy Valley.

As Hoosier novelist, Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: “So it goes.”

[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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19 July 2012

Philip L. Russell : Who Won the Mexican Election?

Protesters from Yosoy132 hold a mock funeral for "domocracia" during march in Mexico City, Saturday, July 14. Photo by Bernardo Montoya / Reuters.

An observers' manual:
Who won the Mexican election?
Charges of vote-buying and exceeding campaign spending limits notwithstanding, there are positive signs for Mexico’s nascent democracy.
By Philip L. Russell / The Rag Blog / July 19, 2012

Anyone who hasn’t been deliberately ignoring the news knows by now that PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto “won” the July 1 Mexican presidential election with 19.2 million votes compared to 15.8 million for the runner-up.

That however isn’t the case, since legally speaking there is a victor in Mexican elections only when a special electoral court issues an unappealable ruling that a candidate a) received more votes than any other and b) the complaints filed against the apparent winner are without merit. The court is legally required to issue its ruling by September 6.

Just as occurred in the 2006 presidential election, the candidate who was declared to have received the second highest number of votes has challenged the victory of the candidate with the most votes. In both 2006 and 2012, the candidate with the second highest vote total was Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), of the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

On July 12 AMLO challenged Peña Nieto’s electoral victory, filing a 638-page document alleging that the election failed to meet the standards set by the Mexican constitution. Article 41 stipulates that elections be “free and fair (libres y auténticas).” López Obrador based his challenge on the following:

Charge #1: The Peña Nieto campaign spent far in excess of the established legal limit. Financial accounting for the sprawling, decentralized PRI campaign isn’t even due until after the electoral court issues its final unappealable ruling. The charge is very likely true, given the massive spending which was evident during the campaign.

The only PRI campaign for which accurate spending figures are available is the 1994 gubernatorial campaign in Tabasco. In that case, the PRI spent $72 million to get its candidate elected, more than 60 times the legal limit. The exact spending total is known, not due to close auditing, but because someone leaked detailed accounts of PRI expenses. Photos of the 1,600 buses parked at a soccer stadium for Peña Nieto’s closing rally have become a symbol of the PRI’s extralegal extravagance.

Charge #2: The PRI won by buying votes. This is clearly illegal and if shown to have swung the election, would be grounds for annullment. At a press conference, AMLO exhibited 3,500 pre-paid gift cards redeemable at a big box retail store in a slum on the east edge of Mexico City. He charged the cards had been supplied by PRI operatives in exchange for PRI votes.

In other areas AMLO charged that the PRI bought votes by passing out debit cards, food baskets, construction materials, and fertilizer. Vote buying is a firmly entrenched practice in Mexico. However, providing legal proof that sufficient votes were bought to swing the election is a daunting challenge.

Charge #3: Peña Nieto’s campaign received money through illegal channels. By law, all campaign spending must be channeled through recognized political parties. AMLO charged the Peña Nieto campaign used funds outside the party structure to make massive buys of pre-paid gift cards and debit cards which were distributed to sway votes. Other funds illegally used by the campaign came from PRI-controlled state governments and from abroad.

Charge #4: Polls indicating that Peña Nieto had an overwhelming lead over AMLO served to create the impression that a Peña Nieto victory was inevitable. While the polls were portrayed as impartial, they were paid for by the PRI to bolster Peña Nieto's candidacy.

Charge #5: The broadcast media -- radio and television -- illegally provided de facto support for Peña Nieto by casting as news stories programming produced to further the Peña Nieto campaign.

Charge #6: During the course of the campaign the PRD pointed out the violations of election law noted above. Both the government agency charged with organizing the election and the agency charged with prosecuting electoral crime ignored PRD complaints during the election when action could have been taken to ensure electoral fairness.

The Mexican electoral court has two possible courses of action. After examining complaints it can rule that regardless of what irregularities were proven, the election still met the “free and fair” standard. It can also rule, based on Article 41, that the election should be nullified.

The court is not legally empowered to disqualify an individual candidate, as Tour de France officials can when an individual rider is found to have used illegal drugs.

Peña Nieto will almost certainly be declared the winner. If the election were overturned it would be a much greater decision than Bush v. Gore. In the U.S. case, there were two candidates, each ready and willing to move into the White House. In the Mexican case, overturning the election would mean starting the whole complex election process over again.

Since this process cannot be completed before the end of incumbent President Calderón’s term on November 30, the incoming congress would have to select an interim president until the new election selected someone to serve as president until 2018.

Even though it appears AMLO won’t gain the presidency, he did surprisingly well. He shook off the negative image created by his massive 2006 post-electoral protests and received more votes in 2012 than he did in 2006. Also, he was the only major candidate who gained ground during the course of the campaign, at the expense of both Peña Nieto and Josefina Vázquez Mota, the candidate of the incumbent PAN.

The left in general also made important gains. The PRD candidate for Mexico City mayor, a position generally regarded as the second most important in the country, received a whopping 44% more votes than the PRI candidate. The left also emerged as the second largest force in the Chamber of Deputies.

Charges of vote-buying and exceeding campaign spending limits notwithstanding, there are positive signs for Mexico’s nascent democracy. For the third presidential election in a row, citizen-volunteers manned polling places and counted votes with minimal controversy. Voters frequently voted for one presidential candidate and for a congressional candidate from a different party. Finally the election gave birth to the #yosoy132 student movement.

Just as the Occupy Movement in the U.S. highlighted wealth inequality and the recent Chilean student movement highlighted the inequality in educational opportunity, Mexican students focused unprecedented public scrutiny on the de facto political power of Mexico’s television duopoly.

[Austin-based writer Philip L. Russell has written six books on Latin America. His latest is The History of Mexico: From Pre-Conquest to Present (Routledge). ]

Also read Philip Russell's earlier Rag Blog reports on the Mexican elections.

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IDEAS / Bill Meacham : Intelligence

Image from A Blog for English Lovers.

Cognition is how we acquire knowledge. Intelligence is what we do with it.
By Bill Meacham / The Rag Blog / July 19, 2012

Cognition, which I talked about last time, is how we acquire knowledge. Intelligence is what we do with it. Human intelligence -- and, I assume, the intelligence of some other species such as apes, dolphins and whales -- consists in the ability to entertain in thought something that is not happening at the moment and consequently to tailor behavior to the specific features and nuances of a particular situation. Less intelligent animals have far less flexibility.

A gazelle on the plains of Africa has, we can imagine, quite a vivid appreciation of its surroundings. What looks to us like uniform grasslands is to it a rich tapestry of differentiated food patches. In this sense its visual cognition is rich. But it has only a limited repertoire of what to do with that richness, a repertoire evolved to be universal to the species and applicable uniformly across the environment in which it lives.

By contrast a bushman hunting the gazelle uses arrows that are tipped with a poison found only on the larvae of a certain beetle. Cosmides and Tooby say, “Whatever the neural adaptations that underlie this behavior, they were not designed specifically for beetles and arrows, but exploit these local, contingent facts as part of a computational structure that treats them as instances of a more general class.”(1)

In contrast to non-human animals, we have the ability to improvise our behavior in response to local, contingent facts, facts most likely not true for all humans and in all the environments in which humans find themselves. Eskimos hunting seals have no knowledge of poisonous beetles.

The capacity of other animals to process information is limited. It has evolved to handle features of the world that were true across the species’ range and throughout many generations, enough that they selected for the adaptations we find in such animals today. “These constraints narrowly limit the kinds of information that such adaptations can be designed to use: the set of properties that had a predictable relationship to features of the species’ world that held widely in space and time is a very restricted one.”(2)

We humans, in contrast, can recognize and respond to a far greater set of environmental cues. We can envision far more possibilities and are far more flexible in our behavior. In short, humans can plan. Humans, say Tooby and Cosmides, are “intelligent, cultural, conscious, planning animals.”(3)
By planning, we mean creating cognitive representations of past, present and future states of the world, evaluating alternative courses of action by representing consequences and matching these against goals...(4)
More succinctly, psychologist Steven Pinker gives this definition of intelligence:
...the ability to attain goals in the face of obstacles by means of decisions based on rational (truth-obeying) rules.(5)
Intelligence requires three things:
  • A goal or goals to be obtained.
  • Knowledge about how the world works, beliefs that turn out to be true and workable in practice. These provide rules of inference that guide thinking.
  • The ability to apply the knowledge in flexible ways, depending on circumstances, to reach the goals.
Planning -- the application of intelligence -- is an evolved adaptation for improvising novel sequences of behavior to reach targeted goals. Human intelligence widens the range of environments in which we can survive and reproduce.

The scope problem

Planning involves imagining different scenarios and, importantly, the ability to distinguish imagined, remembered, and anticipated scenarios from what is actually happening in the present situation. Cosmides and Tooby call this the “scope problem,” how to distinguish facts and valid inferences that are true within a certain imagined scenario from those that are true in other scenarios or in the actual world.(6) In the language of computation, this means
the capacity to carry out inferential operations on... suppositions or propositions of conditionally unevaluated truth value, while keeping their computational products isolated from other knowledge stores until the truth or utility of the suppositions is decided, and the outputs are either integrated or discarded.(7)
Our ability to keep things separate in this way enables all sorts of advanced behavior:
This capacity is essential to planning, interpreting communication, employing the information communication brings, evaluating others’ claims, mind-reading [the ability to understand others’ beliefs, intentions and desires], pretence, detecting or perpetrating deception, using inference to triangulate information about past or hidden causal relations, and much else that makes the human mind so distinctive.(8)
Cosmides and Tooby postulate a capacity they call “scope representation,” the ability to identify under what conditions information can be treated as accurate and inferences as valid.(9) Because we can represent their scope independently, we do not confuse our considerations of possible strategies, memories of past situations, anticipations of the future, imaginings of possible scenarios and the actual conditions we find ourselves in.

Those who do confuse these things we readily identify as aberrant. Schizophrenia can be interpreted as a failure of mental boundaries in which, for example, a person experiences their desire to do something as a command to do it.(10)

The capacity to represent the scope of our plans, perceptions and imaginations separately is at the foundation of literature, and story-telling generally. Humans in all cultures love stories. In stories we can mentally rehearse or represent various social situations without having to actually encounter them. We can find out how others -- the characters in the stories -- handle these situations and hence learn successful and unsuccessful strategies for ourselves.

As Cosmides and Tooby put it, “individuals are no longer limited by the slow and erratic flow of actual experience compared to the rapid rate of vicarious, contrived, or imagined experience.”(11)

This ability to decouple various scope representations enables quite a number of human faculties, including the following:
  • Theory of mind [see below] and prediction of behavior, the ability to guess with some accuracy what another person is thinking or feeling and to anticipate correctly what they will do. Motives, feelings, beliefs and perceptions imputed to the other are decoupled from our own.(12)
  • Representation of goals. The goal state is decoupled from the present state of affairs.(13)
  • Making plans to accomplish goals. Plans for the future are decoupled from the present.(14)
  • Simulating the physical world. Simulations are decoupled from the actual world.(15)
  • Creating and enjoying fiction. The fictional world is decoupled from the real world.(16)
  • Remembering episodes of our own past and maintaining a sense of our identity through time. Memories are decoupled from our present experience of the actual world, and personal memories are decoupled from general knowledge gained through other means.(17)

Theory of Mind

Of these, theory of mind is one of the most interesting, because it entails much that is strikingly human. Humans have been called “ultrasocial”(18) and “obligatorily gregarious.”(19) We live in large cooperative societies in which hundreds or thousands of people enjoy the benefits of division of labor. We must have ongoing and extensive contact with our fellows in order to survive and thrive.

To succeed at this we must understand our fellow humans as having subjectivity like our own. The term “Theory of Mind” refers to the ability to attribute mental states -- beliefs, intentions, desires, pretense, knowledge, etc. -- to ourselves and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions that are different from our own.(20)

We do this all the time. We see someone striding purposefully and assume they are going somewhere to do something they consider important. We see a smile and assume the person is pleased, or a scowl and assume they are displeased. We see someone cross the street to avoid a barking dog, and we understand that they do so precisely in order to avoid the dog.

We assume that the salesperson in the store will sell us the goods we want, and that other people walking on the sidewalk with us will generally stay on the sidewalk. Depending on context, we view the offer of candy as friendly or a threat.

Philosophers may ponder how we can have knowledge of other people’s mental states, to which we have no direct access, but in fact we assume such knowledge all the time and life together would be impossible without it. Of course we can be mistaken or deceived, but mistakes and deception would not be possible without familiar assumptions that most often turn out to be correct.

Researchers have found several stages in the development of theory of mind in infants and young children as well as animals.(21)
  • If something appears to move on its own, our minds interpret it as an agent.
  • If it appears to move toward something, we take that thing to be its goal.
  • If it changes direction flexibly in response to what is happening in its environment, we take it to have some degree of rationality or intention (in the sense of intending to accomplish something).
  • If its action is followed closely in time by another object’s action, we take the second action to be a socially-contingent response to the first.
  • And if something is a goal-directed agent that shows some degree of flexible response, then we know that it can cause harm or comfort to other agents and possibly to ourselves.
These judgments are automatic, a form of hot cognition, not something we stop to think about. They form the basis of our well-developed ability to get along in groups of others like us. We, like all social animals, have the skills to detect who cooperates and who cheats, who is kind and who is dangerous, who is dominant and who is submissive. Humans have these skills to a greater degree and have the ability to fine-tune them with greater precision than other animals.

Where chimps and bonobos can understand that individual A knows where some food is hidden and individual B doesn’t and consequently expect different behavior from the two,(22) humans can easily grasp much more complicated scenarios. We quite understand that when Hermia loves Lysander but has been commanded to wed Demetrius; and Demetrius wants Hermia; and Helena, Hermia’s friend, wants Demetrius; but a magic potion causes Lysander to fall in love with Helena rather than Hermia, then much hilarious confusion can ensue.(23) No ape could possibly keep up.

(To be continued …)

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

1) Cosmides and Tooby, “Consider the source,” pp. 53-54.
(2) Ibid., p. 54
(3) Tooby and Cosmides, “The Past Explains the Present”, p. 420.
(4) Ibid. p. 406.
(5) Pinker, How the Mind Works, p. 62.
(6) Cosmides and Tooby, “Consider the source,” pp. 57-58.
(7) Ibid., pp. 59-60.
(8) Idem.
(9) Ibid., p. 64.
(10) Ibid., p. 80.
(11) Ibid., p. 74.
(12) Ibid., pp. 74 ff.
(13) Ibid., pp. 79 ff.
(14) Ibid., pp. 82 ff.
(15) Ibid., pp. 85 ff.
(16) Ibid., pp. 89 ff.
(17) Ibid., pp. 93 ff.
(18) Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, pp. 47 ff.
(19) de Waal, Primates and Philosophers, p. 4.
(20) Wikipedia, “Theory of Mind.”
(21) Hauser, Moral Minds, pp. 313-322. Also Steen, “Theory of Mind."
(22) Hauser, Moral Minds, pp. 337-341.
(23) Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Plot summary at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Midsummer_Night’s_Dream as of 30 Nov. 2010.

Cosmides, Leda, and Tooby, John. “Consider the source: The evolution of adaptations for decoupling and metarepresentation” in Metarepresentations: A Multidisciplinary Perspective, pp. 53-115, ed. Sperber, Dan. New York: Oxford Press, 2000. Also available as an on-line publication, URL = http://www.psych.ucsb.edu/research/cep/metarep.html as of 25 May 2009.
de Waal, Frans. Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.
Haidt, Jonathan. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books, 2006.
Hauser, Marc D. Moral Minds: The Nature of Right and Wrong. New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.
Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.
Steen, Francis F. “Theory of Mind: A Model of Mental-state Attribution”. On-line publication, URL = http://cogweb.ucla.edu/CogSci/ToMM.html as of 25 August 2009.
Tooby, John, and Cosmides, Leda. “The Past Explains the Present: Emotional Adaptations and the Structure of Ancestral Environments.” In Ethology and Sociobiology, 11, 375-424. New York: Elsevier Science Publishing Co., 1990. Available as an on-line publication, URL = http://www.psych.ucsb.edu/research/cep/publist.htm as of 26 May 2009.
Wikipedia. “Theory of Mind.” On-line publication, URL = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_mind as of 25 August 2009.

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