29 November 2012

Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte : Supreme Court Case Raises Larger Diversity Issues at UT-Austin

Though the UT-Austin student body is among the most diverse in the country, other related issues plague the school and its history. Photo by Eric Gay / AP / Christian Science Monitor.

Supreme Court focus on UT
student DNA masks pressing issues
The matter being debated by the Supreme Court is not apt to really address the long uneven evolution of the University of Texas toward integration.
By Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte / The Rag Blog / November 29, 2012

AUSTIN -- Several weeks ago the U.S. Supreme Court once again heard a lawsuit (Fisher v. the University of Texas) challenging the admission policies of the University of Texas that take race and ethnicity into account as one of the various factors considered. At the heart of the recurring conflict over admission policy is the struggle over whether UT must become integrated -- an achievement long resisted.

In fact, like many southern universities, the institution has layers of diversity, the most evident of which are the maintenance and service staff. The transient student population is now integrated by population based on DNA count. Over half -- 26,090, 51% --of the campus student body is white. This fall there are 8,973 Latinos, 2,140 African Americans, 7,939 Asian Americans and 151 American Indians. Of these, 80% are Texas residents. UT clearly meets its mandate as a land grant institution to educate future decision-makers largely the result of admission policies.

The battle to retain a bit of intellectual diversity rages on. This month Asian-American faculty and junior administrators met to discuss the implications of what the current suit might mean to their studies center. Just last year Mexican-American students demonstrated against curriculum cutbacks in their studies center made necessary by budget shortfalls. African and African-American Studies also felt the sting of cuts.

But even more visible are a series of racist actions, the most recent and most nasty three occurring since the start of the fall semester three months ago. A UT sorority threw a “Mexican theme” party where invited guests came as gardeners, maids, or criminals -- or wore T-shirts identifying themselves as “ILLEGAL.” Others dressed as border guards mingled.

In another stunt, fraternity members threw balloons of bleach at minority students. One fraternity party, also planned around race themes, was cancelled. The press covered all of these incidents. The October 22 issue of the student Daily Texan, reported that someone carved swastikas in an off-campus dormitory door where three Jewish students live. These sorts of hate messages have a long history at UT where the statue of Martin Luther King has often been vandalized.

July 16, 2004, cover of UT student newspaper, The Daily Texan, featuring story about campus dormitory named after former law prof who was also a Ku Klux Klan leader. Creative Commons image from fretna.org.

Even the buildings reflect a racist past. In 2010, after publication of a history book by Tom Russell, a former UT Law School professor, the University, after some deliberation, changed the name of a dorm memorializing William Stuart Simkins, a Klan leader and Law School professor in the early 1900s. UT administrators named the residence hall just after the 1954 Supreme Court decision outlawed segregated schools.

The least integrated of the UT human component is the faculty.

Demographics of teaching faculty (which excludes those who are deans, directors, or administrative officials) testifiy to slow integration across rank, gender, and diversity. At first glance, this does not seem to be the case: Of 3,018 of this faculty 1874 are male, 1144 are female. Within this group 80% are white.

But the ratio of full professors indicates significant skewed reality -- in 2010 (the latest posted data) just short of 800 were male, only 210 were female. Because race and ethnicity narrows the general professorial group, the ratio of minority professors to full professor whites is minute.

Some departments, including my own, have never promoted a woman or a minority to full -- although one minority woman (no longer at UT) was appointed to full,  a move that avoids the usual review and promotion committee approval -- and recently hired a woman who had earned the rank of full at another university.

Some of UT’s DNA profile records earlier years of blatant discrimination, but more recent evidence indicates a fairly tenacious hold on troubling patterns of the past. For example, three years ago UT authorized a study of the treatment of its faculty women drawing on its own statistics, pay records, and promotion experiences. That produced 170 pages that charted inequity.

The experience of minority females was not made specific because, as one equity researcher explained: “The small number of minority women faculty is not statistically significant.”

So the matter being debated by the Supreme Court is not apt to really address the long uneven evolution of the University of Texas toward integration. The suit, of course, does not consider intellectual diversity -- a component critical to the success of social integration. A legal mandate would raise both first amendment protections and academic freedom guarantees.

But the push in some quarters to do away with studies that focus on minority literature, history, sociology, and other content is short-sighted as well as anti-intellectual. And narrowing access to education contributes to these problems.

[Mercedes Lynn de Uriarte, a PhD, is an Associate Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas. She currently directs a funded study -- Austin Displaced -- which explores the impact of gentrification on affected residents. Mercedes is also president of the board of the New Journalism Project, the nonprofit that publishes The Rag Blog.]

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Paul Krassner : Behind the 'Twinkie Defense'

The smoking Twinkie? Image from candidaabrahamson.

Guilty pleasure:
Behind the 'Twinkie Defense'
The psychiatrist testified that, on the night before the murders, White 'just sat there in front of the TV set, binging on Twinkies.'
By Paul Krassner / The Rag Blog / November 29, 2012

The apparent demise of the Twinkie brings back memories for me...

A dozen police cars had been set on fire, which in turn set off their alarms, underscoring the angry shouts from five thousand understandably angry gays. This was in 1979. I had been covering the trial of Dan White for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. The ex-cop had confessed to killing Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.

Dale Metcalf, a former Merry Prankster who had become a lawyer, told me how he happened to be playing chess with a friend, Steven Scherr, one of White’s attorneys. Metcalf had just read Orthomolecular Nutrition by Abram Hoffer. He questioned Scherr about White’s diet and learned that, while under stress, White would consume candy bars and soft drinks.

Metcalf recommended the book to Scherr, suggesting the author as an expert witness. After all, in his book, Hoffer revealed a personal vendetta against doughnuts, and White had once eaten five doughnuts in a row.

Hoffer didn’t testify, but his influence permeated the courtroom. White’s defense team presented that bio-chemical explanation of his behavior, blaming it on compulsive gobbling down of sugar-filled junk-food snacks.

Psychiatrist Martin Blinder testified that, on the night before the murders, White “just sat there in front of the TV set, binging on Twinkies.” Another psychiatrist stated, “If not for the aggravating fact of junk food, the homicides might not have taken place.”

In my notebook, I scribbled “Twinkie defense,” and wrote about it in my next report. On the 25th anniversary of that double execution, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that, “During the trial, no one but well-known satirist Paul Krassner -- who may have coined the phrase ‘Twinkie defense’ -- played up that angle.” And so it came to pass that a pair of political assassinations was transmuted into voluntary manslaughter.

And I got caught in the post-verdict riot. The police were running amuck in an orgy of indiscriminate sadism, swinging their clubs wildly and screaming, “Get the fuck outta here, you fuckin' faggots, you motherfuckin' cocksuckers!”

I was struck with a nightstick on the outside of my right knee and I fell to the ground. Another cop came charging at me and made a threatening gesture with his billy club. When I tried to protect my head, he jabbed me viciously on the exposed right side of my ribs. Oh, God, the pain! The dwarf in the clown costume had finally caught up with me, and his electric cattle prod was stuck between my ribs.

At the hospital, X-rays indicated that I had a fractured rib and pneumothorax, a punctured lung. The injuries affected my posture and my gait, and I gradually began to develop an increasingly unbalanced walk, so that my right foot would come down hard on the ground with each step. My whole body felt twisted, and my right heel was in constant pain.

I limped the gamut of therapists -- from an orthodox orthopedic surgeon who gave me a shot of cortisone in my heel to ease the pain, to a specialist in neuromuscular massage who wondered if the cop had gone to medical school because he knew exactly where to hit me with his billy club, to a New Age healer who put one hand on my stomach, held the receptionist's hand with the other, and then asked her whether I should wear a brace. The answer was yes. I decided to get a second opinion -- perhaps from another receptionist.

In court, White just sat there in a state of complete control bordering on catatonia, as he listened to an assembly line of psychiatrists tell the jury how out of control he had been. One even testified that, “If not for the aggravating fact of junk food, the homicides might not have taken place.”

The Twinkie was invented in 1930 by James Dewar, who described it as “the best darn-tootin’ idea I ever had.” He got the idea of injecting little cakes with sugary cream-like filling and came up with the name while on a business trip, where he saw a billboard for Twinkle Toe Shoes. “I shortened it to make it a little zippier for the kids,” he said.

In the wake of the Twinkie defense, a representative of the ITT-owned Continental Baking Company asserted that the notion that overdosing on the cream-filled goodies could lead to murderous behavior was “poppycock” and “crap” -- apparently two of the artificial ingredients in Twinkies, along with sodium pyrophosphate and yellow dye -- while another spokesperson for ITT couldn’t believe “that a rational jury paid serious attention to that issue.”

Nevertheless, some jurors did. One remarked after the trial that “It sounded like Dan White had hypoglycemia.” Doug Schmidt’s closing argument became almost an apologetic parody of his own defense. He told the jury that White did not have to be “slobbering at the mouth” to be subject to diminished capacity. Nor, he said, was this simply a case of “Eat a Twinkie and go crazy.”

When Superior Court Judge Walter Calcagno presented the jury with his instructions, he assured them access to the evidence, except that they would not be allowed to have possession of White’s gun and his ammunition at the same time. After all, these deliberations can get pretty heated. The judge was acting like a concerned schoolteacher offering Twinkies to students but withholding the cream-filling to avoid any possible mess.

Each juror originally had to swear devotion to the criminal justice system. It was that very system which had allowed for a shrewd defense attorney’s transmutation of a double political execution into the White Sugar Murders. On the walls of the city, graffiti cautioned, “Eat a Twinkie -- Kill a Cop!”

In 1983, the San Francisco Chronicle published a correction: “In an article about Dan White’s prison life, Chronicle writer Warren Hinckle reported that a friend of White expressed the former supervisor’s displeasure with an article in the San Francisco Bay Guardian which made reference to the size of White’s sexual organ. The Chronicle has since learned that the Bay Guardian did not publish any such article and we apologize for the error.”

It was 10 feet long, 3 feet 6 inches high, 3 feet 8 inches wide, and weighed more than a ton -- no, not Dan White’s penis -- the world’s largest Twinkie, which was unveiled in Boston. And on the 50th anniversary of the Twinkie, inventor Dewar said, “Some people say Twinkies are the quintessential junk food, but I believe in the things. I fed them to my four kids, and they feed them to my 15 grandchildren. Twinkies never hurt them.”

Author Krassner was seriously injured in the massive post-verdict police riot, May 21, 1979. Image from Post Apocalyptic Bohemian.

When the jurors walked into court to deliver the verdict, they appeared somber, except for a former cop, who smiled and triumphantly tapped the defense table twice with two fingers as he passed by, telegraphing the decision of voluntary manslaughter. White would be sentenced to seven years in prison.

In January 1984, he was paroled after serving a little more than five years. The estimated shelf life of a Twinkie was seven years. That’s two years longer than White spent behind bars. When he was released, that Twinkie in his cupboard was still edible. But perhaps, instead of eating it, he would have it bronzed.

He called his old friend, Frank Falzon -- the detective who had originally taken his confession -- and they met.

“I hit him with the hard questions,” Falzon recalled. “I asked him, ‘What were those extra bullets for? What did happen?’”

“I really lost it that day,” White replied.

“You can say that again,” Falzon said.

“No. I really lost it. I was on a mission. I wanted four of them.”

“Four?” Falzon asked.

“Carol Ruth Silver -- she was the biggest snake of the bunch.” (Silver realized that she might have been his third victim had she not stayed downstairs for a second cup of coffee that morning.) “And Willie Brown. He was masterminding the whole thing.”

While White had been waiting to see Moscone in the anteroom of his office, the mayor was drinking coffee with Brown, chatting and laughing. Moscone told Brown that he had to see White, and Brown slipped out the back door just as Moscone was letting White in the front way. Thirty seconds later, White killed Moscone. The Marlboro cigarette in Moscone’s hand would still be burning when the paramedics arrived.

White hurriedly walked across a long corridor to the area where the supervisors’ offices were. His name had already been removed from the door of his office, but he still had a key. He went inside and reloaded his gun. Then he walked out, past Supervisor Dianne Feinstein’s office. She called to him, but he didn’t stop. “I have to do something first,” he told her, as he headed for Milk’s office.

George Moscone’s body was buried, and Harvey Milk’s body was cremated. His ashes were placed in a box, which was wrapped in Doonesbury comic strips, then scattered at sea. The ashes had been mixed with bubble bath and two packets of grape Kool-Aid, forming a purple patch on the Pacific Ocean. Harvey would’ve liked that touch.

On the 25th anniversary of the twin assassination, the San Francisco Chronicle stated that I reported: “’I don’t think Twinkies were ever mentioned in testimony,’ said chief defense attorney Douglas Schmidt, who recalls ‘HoHos and Ding Dongs,’ but no Twinkies.’” Apparently, he forgot that one of his own psychiatric witnesses, Martin Blinder, had used the T-word.

Blinder now complains, “If I found a cure for cancer, they’d still say I was the guy who invented ‘the Twinkie defense.’”

The Chronicle also quoted Steven Scherr about the Twinkie defense: “’It drives me crazy,’ said co-counsel Scherr, who suspects the simplistic explanation provides cover for those who want to minimize and trivialize what happened. If he ever strangles one of the people who says ‘Twinkie defense’ to him, Scherr said, it won’t be because he’s just eaten a Twinkie.”

Scherr was sitting in the audience at the campus theater where a panel discussion of the case was taking place. I was one of the panelists. When Scherr was introduced from the stage, I couldn’t resist saying to him on my microphone, “Care for a Twinkie?”

In October 1985, Dan White committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage. He taped a note to the windshield of his car, reading, “I’m sorry for all the pain and trouble I’ve caused."

I accept his apology. The injuries I received in the post-verdict riot affected my posture and twisted my gait. I gradually developed an increasingly strange limp and I now walk with the aid of a cane. At the airport, I’m told by security to put my cane on the conveyor belt along with my overnight bag and my shoes, but then I’m handed an orange-colored wooden cane to enable me to walk through the metal detector. You just never know what could be hidden inside a cane.

[Paul Krassner edited The Realist, America's premier satirical rag and was an original Yippie. Krassner’s latest book is an expanded and updated edition of his autobiography, Confessions of a Raving, Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counterculture, available at paulkrassner.com. Read more articles by Paul Krassner on The Rag Blog.]

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28 November 2012

Fran Clark : Keeping Watch on the 'School of Assassins'

One at a time, marchers place their crosses in the chain link fence outside Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia. Photos by Heidi Turpin / The Rag Blog.

By any other name:
Protesters keep watch at
the 'School of Assassins'

Each cross has the name of one of the thousands murdered or disappeared throughout Latin America during decades of violence and oppression.
By Fran Clark / The Rag Blog / November 29, 2012

FORT BENNING -- In the chilly morning air of Columbus, Georgia, on Sunday, November 18, outside the gates of Fort Benning, people gather early. Most hold crosses, either made before arriving or picked up from the pile made for years past.

Each cross has the name (or other identification, such as "infant girl") of one of the thousands murdered or disappeared throughout Latin America during decades of violence and oppression, sometimes referred to as “the dirty wars.”

From Bolivia to Panama to Guatemala and El Salvador, religious workers, labor organizers, student groups, or anyone working in sympathy with the poor, were targets of assassination, mass killings, and torture.

Many of those responsible for these acts received training at the School of the Americas, located behind the gates outside which we are gathered. Originally established in Panama in 1946, the SOA moved to Fort Benning in 1984. It has trained over 60,000 members of Latin American militaries, and has been widely criticized for the human rights abuses of its graduates.

Documented atrocities include the murders of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the rape and murders of four U.S. church women in El Salvador. Priests, nuns, labor leaders, women, children, and entire communities have been massacred at the hands of SOA-trained military forces.

Among the most notorious graduates are Manuel Noriega of Panama, Rios Montt of Guatemala, and Hugo Banzer Suarez of Bolivia. SOA trained soldiers in Mexico have been implicated in the murders and disappearances of over 50,000 people since 2006. In Honduras, SOA graduates carried out the 2009 coup and continue a campaign of violence and murder against the resistance.

In 1996 the Pentagon admitted that the school’s training manuals advocated torture, execution, and blackmail. But, despite these admissions, not a single U.S. official has been held accountable. In 2000, after another close vote in the U.S. House on whether to close the school failed, the school’s name was changed to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). But, the atrocities continue, as does the work of the SOA Watch to close the "School of  Assassins.”

SOA Watch has held vigils at Fort Benning each year since its founding in 1990 by Father Roy Bourgeois. The weekend-long series of events include outstanding music, workshops, auctions, and profound testimonies from those directly affected by the violence carried out in their home countries.

The crowds have varied in size, but, there is always an eclectic mix of young and old, nuns and college students. (One college group sleeps on the stage each night to watch over it!)

The spirit is always the same. Mourners with white painted faces and red tears carry coffins. The names of the dead are read in liturgical style; marchers in the procession raise their crosses and sing “presente” as each name is read. Each marcher approaches the fence which denies access to the fort, stabs her cross through the chain links, and leaves it as a memorial, along with hundreds of others.

Some leave flowers, photos, and banners. Some sit down to cry, some meditate, and each year at least one is called to commit an act of civil disobedience by "crossing the line." In years past, this meant simply stepping onto military property. Now, it means scaling a tall fence topped with barbed wire and dropping down on the other side to face an almost certain six-month sentence in federal prison.

As the procession ends and all marchers have placed their crosses, the mourners are called to “return to life” as the uplifting music begins, and the Puppetistas perform their pageant. Many dance joyously as they prepare to return to their communities and rededicate themselves to the work for justice in the Americas and beyond.

[Fran Clark is a community health nurse who is active with CodePink Austin and the Texas Jail Project. She has also been involved with the GI Rights Hotline, Under the Hood Cafe, and the Hutto Visitation Program.]

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Howard Wooldridge : Rocky Mountain High / 1

Howard "Cowboy" Wooldridge and Misty fight marijuana prohibition in Colorado.

Misty and me:
Fighting pot prohibition in Colorado
Governor Hickenlooper moaned that tourism would decline or, if more tourists came, they would be the 'wrong sort of people.' What a muffin-head he was!
By Howard Wooldridge / The Rag Blog / November 28, 2012
Former police detective Howard Wooldridge will discuss his work to reform marijuana laws on Rag Radio with Thorne Dreyer, Friday, November 30, from 2-3 p.m. (CST) on KOOP 91.7-FM in Austin and streamed live on the web. Rag Radio is rebroadcast on WFTE-FM in Scranton and Mt. Cobb, PA, Sundays at 10 a.m. (EST). After broadcast, all Rag Radio interviews are posted as podcasts at the Internet Archive.
Howard "Cowboy" Wooldridge, the founder and director of Citizens Opposing Prohibition (COP), is a Texan since 1994 and a former Michigan police officer and detective. Like many men and women in law enforcement, he learned early that arresting people for drugs is a faulty proposition and a waste of time, pulling resources away from fighting real crime. Unlike most, however, Howard embarked on a committed crusade to change the drug laws.

With his horse, Misty, Longrider Wooldridge has twice ridden solo from coast to coast, wearing his big Western hat and a white T-shirt that reads, front and back, "Ask Me Why Cops Say Legalize Marijuana." Traveling on city streets and rural byways, camping out wherever night falls, Howard may have talked with more people one-on-one than any other single drug war opponent with the exception of the late Jack Herer. He has become one of the most effective advocates in Washington, D.C., for ending marijuana prohibition and the "war on drugs" in general.

Most recently, Howard and Misty took part in the successful Colorado campaign to legalize cannabis for recreational and industrial purposes there. (The state of Washington also passed a similar law.) Colorado began allowing medical marijuana use in 2000. In this first of a two-part special report to
The Rag Blog, Howard writes about his and Misty's experience promoting Amendment 64 from a personal (and equine) point of view; next week, he'll write about the significance and likely fallout of the Colorado electorate's choice. -- Mariann Wizard / The Rag Blog

This is the first in a three-part series.

DENVER -- My pickup’s bed was full: two bales of hay, bag of shavings (horse bedding), saddle, bridle, horse blankets, plus all the gear needed to sustain a month on the road with my partner in politics -- Misty. Three long travel days later and the Rocky Mountains of Colorado came into view.

We had come to Colorado to promote their ballot initiative on marijuana: Amendment 64. This proposal would essentially (for those 21 and older) legalize, regulate, and tax the use and sale of marijuana. Its major features included: 1) allowing adults to grow enough for private, non-medicinal use; 2) permitting the legal cultivation of industrial hemp; 3) establishing a system in which marijuana could be taxed and sold through state-regulated retail outlets; 4) allowing employers to maintain their existing policies; 5)and it would not impact in any way the laws surrounding the medical use of cannabis.

"64," as it was known to all, was much simpler to explain and defend than the long, complicated and too detailed Prop. 19 that Misty and I had promoted for two months in California two years ago. Indeed, the prohibition forces in Colorado could only repeat the "fact" that the green plant would be easier for our kids to obtain, as their main reason to oppose. Governor Hickenlooper moaned that tourism would decline or, if more tourists came, they would be the "wrong sort of people." What a muffin-head he was!

At 64 headquarters on a side street in Denver, I met with the generals of the campaign: Misters Mason Tvert and Brian Vicente. The communications director Joe Megyesy joined us to plot where Misty and I could best serve 64. We decided to focus on population areas in the Front Range (eastern Colorado) and not go to the western side. We grabbed four of their well-designed yard signs plus some brochures before hitting the road to Fort Collins in the north center of the state.

After checking into the Motel 6, I pulled Misty out of her little trailer for a walk around the parking lot.

Misty, who had just spent the last three nights cooped up in her trailer, probably understood by then that this was another California-type adventure: the days spent on noisy, crowded street corners and nights spent in her little trailer staring at the walls. She knew from experience that I would be giving her extra carrots and other treats. Still, it would just be a tough month for her.

The first day went well. The most traveled road in the city yielded a solid three photos taken per minute by motorists and foot traffic. That meant by nightfall, we would be all over Facebook in northern Colorado. I was interviewed by two local daily papers and by the local TV station.

Afterwards I exercised Misty near the motel for nearly an hour. She loves to run and I indulged her. However, I was tired and careless, leaving my bridle and reins near the trailer. When I returned a few hours later, they were gone. As our Texas governor would say, “Oops.”

On Day Two we traveled to Greeley for a rally featuring Vice President Biden. We arrived early that windy, cold morning to greet the Democrats. We parked ourselves where all cars had to pass in order to park. About 10, a guy shouted from a window, "Don’t go anywhere." A few minutes later the reporter for NPR interviewed me while in the saddle. A week later he opened a nationally broadcast report with my statement on 64. Such things sure help me stay in the saddle. The Greeley paper also published our photo along with their report on the Biden rally. Misty again demonstrated her ability to attract great, free press coverage!

After another day on a street corner near the mall in Greeley, we traveled an hour down the road to Fort Morgan. The next day’s "street theater" yielded yet another newspaper article and photo. We were on a roll!

To be continued...

[Harold Wooldridge, who was a Michigan police officer and detective for 18 years, co-founded Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and is executive director of Citizens Opposing Prohibition (COP).]

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David McReynolds : After the Truce in Gaza

Political cartoon by Paul Jamiol / Jamiol's World / Informed Comment.

After the truce in Gaza
This was not only a victory for Hamas, but also for Israel, which achieved at one stroke a deep division between the two sides of the Palestinians.
By David McReynolds / The Rag Blog / November 28, 2012

Let me start this commentary with a note about an Israeli film which has opened in New York -- The Gatekeepers. It features six retired heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency. These men can hardly be considered voices from the Israeli left -- but they are unanimous in their sense that the political scene in Israel is not good, and getting worse. I hope the film finds a wide audience.

We should be reminded, in looking at anything involving Netanyahu, that we are not dealing with an "ordinary" head of state, but with a man of the far right. His late father was an open racist whose comments about the Palestinians are fully the equal of the Nazi views of the Jews, and was a follower of the Jabotinsky movement -- the extreme right of the Zionist movement (Jabotinsky worked with Mussolini before WW II). The Israeli Prime Minister is truly his father's son.

It is ironic that the recent violence in Gaza comes just after the U.S. election, in which Netanyahu all but openly enlisted as a supporter of Romney, so that Obama owes the Israeli Prime Minister no favors. (To rebut the charge that Jewish money buys American elections, Sheldon Adelson, the Las Vegas billionaire -- with an estimated fortune of over $20 billion -- gave at least $30 million to the Republican Party in an effort to defeat Obama!)

From the Israeli point of view, the Israeli air strikes on Gaza, which not only resulted in a number of civilian deaths but also involved a deliberate Israeli attack on a clearly marked media car (see "Using War As Cover to Target Journalists," The New York Times, November 25) which killed Palestinian reporters, was no more than a response to "terrorist" attacks by Hamas in Gaza.

In fact, this was a military exchange which suited both Hamas and Israel. There was no special occasion for the Israeli air strikes except to provoke Hamas into sending vast numbers of rockets into Israel. Thus Israel was able to test its new "Iron Dome" defense against rockets -- something that will come in handy in the event of war with Iran or a conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon. A kind of test run, at little cost to Israel.

And Hamas scored a clear win from its risky gamble. In a situation where the Palestinians are divided between Prime Minister Abbas in the West Bank, the man who is nominally head of the Palestinian Authority, and the more militant Hamas, which had won elections in Gaza, it was Abbas who was sidelined, while Hamas won its gamble by forcing the Egyptians to deal with Hamas directly.

As others have observed, this was not only a victory for Hamas, but also for Israel, which achieved at one stroke a deep division between the two sides of the Palestinians. Abbas, who had accepted the right of Israel to exist, who had curbed any attacks on Israel from the West Bank, who had shown his willingness to pursue a peaceful path to a two-state solution, is suddenly marginalized, and Israel can point to Hamas in Gaza as proof that there is no one with whom Israel can make peace.

The U.S., having ignored the Palestinian issue for the last four years, came to the negotiations with Hamas, via Egypt. (And in the process they strengthened the hand of Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader of Egypt, who, as this is written, is trying to establish himself as a man with unlimited powers in Egypt; we will have to wait to see how that plays out.)

Israel has no interest whatever in a peaceful settlement. By provoking the attacks from Gaza, it is able once more to claim that Israeli civilians are threatened by the terrorism of the Palestinians. A word on "terrorism," which Israel and her American defenders use so lightly. If the Palestinians who fire rockets are terrorists, then so are the pilots of the Israeli jets which carry out targeted assassinations of Palestinian leaders. One cannot justify the violence of one side while terming the violence of those who resist as being "terrorism."

On both moral and pragmatic grounds I believe the best hope for the Palestinians lies in the nonviolent movements that have emerged in the West Bank (and to which the American media have paid almost no attention). But the Israeli actions are so cynical, and so illegal under international law, that violent resistance is justified and Netanyahu can expect no sympathy from those of us outside of Israel.

If this recent bloody exchange, in which both Israel and Hamas were willing to lose some innocent civilians in order to score political points, proves anything it is that Americans need to focus attention on the only thing which might move Israel to negotiate, and that is to cut off all economic and military aid to Israel.

Those who ask me why I focus on Israel more than on, for example, China over the issue of Tibet, or Russia on the issue of Chechnya, it is because the U.S. is not sending military and economic aid to China or Russia. It is because our tax money buys the military hardware for Israel, and because our political leadership, in fear of AIPAC, will not speak out for justice for the Palestinians.

We must speak out for the Palestinians, and we can do so knowing that American Jews no longer see Israel in the same way it was seen 10 and 20 years ago.

The issue of the Palestinian people can no longer be left to the Israelis and the Palestinians, nor can we assume that non-Jews have no moral obligation to speak out. All Americans share in the responsibility for the criminal actions of the State of Israel. The hope of Israel will not come from those who support it, but from those who demand that Israel be held to the standards of international law.

[David McReynolds was for nearly 40 years a member of the staff of the War Resisters League, and was twice the Socialist Party's candidate for President. He and the late Barbara Deming are the subjects of a dual biography, A Saving Remnant, by Martin Duberman, published by the New Press, and available in paperback. David retired in 1999, and lives on the Lower East Side of Manhattan with his two cats. He posts at Edge Left.org and can be reached at davidmcreynolds7@gmail.com. Read more articles by David McReynolds on The Rag Blog.]

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27 November 2012

Bryan Farrell : The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You, Keystone XL

Four activists are locked down to construction equipment on a recently clearcut easement leased by Keystone XL pipeline builders TransCanada. Inset photos below show local residents supporting the demonstrators and treesitters in the 50-foot pines at the rural East Texas site. Photos by Bryan Farrell / Waging Nonviolence.

Hey, Keystone XL:
The eyes of Texas are upon you
As the sheriff’s deputies finally moved in on the tree-sitters, you could hear them referring to their targets -- as opposed to the Canadian corporation on whose behalf they were interceding -- as 'the foreigners.'
By Bryan Farrell / Waging Nonviolence / November 27, 2012

NACOGDOCHES, Texas -- “CLOSED. Happy Thanksgiving,” read a handwritten plywood sign propped against a makeshift tire barrier outside a work site for the Keystone XL pipeline in rural East Texas. For those who had come to protest and engage in civil disobedience against the pipeline’s construction, the message made clear that their visit was expected.

It was still just the Monday before Thanksgiving, making for a surprisingly early break for a project that has been fast-tracked at practically every level of government. Such enthusiasm for a U.S. holiday hardly seemed right for TransCanada, the Calgary-based energy corporation building the pipeline.

Not that the activists’ presence was any kind of secret. Tar Sands Blockade, the campaign seeking to stop the pipeline connecting Alberta’s tar sands to Texas’s oil refineries and shipping ports, had announced the day’s mass action a week earlier.

The only real surprises were the two locations that the campaign would be targeting, which the organizers kept hidden -- even to fellow participants -- right up until the last minute.

Their goal was to shut down construction for a day. The real imperative, however, was directing media attention to a pipeline that poses a significant danger to the health of the local community, as well as to the global climate.

Four activists came prepared to lock themselves to construction equipment, and despite the closure of the site by TransCanada, they went ahead as planned. Another dozen or so supporters -- including photographers, videographers, live-bloggers, medics, and spokespeople -- waited nearby for the police. Having arrived shortly after 5 a.m. in order to preempt the workers who never came, they ended up waiting for a long time.

Among these supporters was an elderly couple from Iowa. Two days earlier, in time to take part in Sunday’s direct action training, they had driven nearly 16 hours to Nacogdoches -- a small town in the Texas Forest Country that advertises itself as “the oldest town in Texas.” Having already been arrested outside the White House at last year’s Tar Sands Action, they were ready to do it again. But five hours of waiting wore their patience thin.

“We want some action!” said 76-year-old Ann Christenson as she leaned on a cane, which she admitted was more for show than for balance.

Although she and her husband did not end up getting arrested, plenty of action followed. The local police just needed time to come up with a plan of attack. First, they pepper-sprayed the four people locked to the construction equipment, hoping the discomfort would force them to disconnect themselves. When that didn’t work, they set about dismantling the lockboxes made of PVC pipes and a bolt in the middle by which the protesters were linked to one another in pairs.

I cringed as I saw them do this to the one I’d gotten to know the night before, a 23-year-old named Gill. Before arriving at the Tar Sands Blockade, he had been backpacking around the country, hitching rides on freight trains.

Once broken apart, the four protesters were immediately cuffed and dragged into a police van. Onlookers pleaded with the police to give the arrestees water, as they were not only nearing dehydration from being out in the hot Texas sun, but the pepper spray had also left their faces a mucousy mess. The police, however, remained indifferent, which only further angered the onlookers, who began shouting and cursing.

Meanwhile, a few Texans belted out the University of Texas alma mater: “The eyes of Texas are upon you,” they sang.

More reporters and TV news cameras started arriving. Local preachers came to watch. For them it was an opportunity to save souls -- although they seemed far more worried about those of the activists than those of the police.

At a different work site several miles away, three other Tar Sands Blockade activists had deployed into the trees. This was the result of a long night’s work that involved rigging platforms in the tall pines with support lines connecting them to the heavy equipment below. The contraptions forced workers to choose between halting construction or risking the activists’ lives.

Seattle-based filmmaker Rebecca Rodriguez, who is working on a project that involves walking the entire 1,700-mile length of the pipeline, spent the night in the woods documenting their efforts. “They were so organized, so disciplined,” she said. “I have such a newfound respect for tree-sitting.”

Rodriguez described how they spent hours in the cold, dark woods getting everything set up. The tree-sitters would slowly make their way up, securing their positions with rope, and sometimes slipping down along the way.

By daybreak they were all in place, and in this case TransCanada was taken by surprise. A worker showed up and quickly called the county sheriff, whose officers arrived and threatened to cut the activists’ life-lines before retreating to plan their response.

When I asked Alex Lundberg, a longtime Earth First! activist and trainer who helped set up the tree-sit, how much planning went into it, a smile showed out from under his bushy beard. “None,” he said. His answer, however, spoke not to a lack of preparation but to just how well they knew what they were doing. For two months already, Tar Sands Blockade had been conducting an extended tree-sit against the pipeline in another part of the state.

Tar Sands Blockade, Lundberg explained to me two days earlier, was initially conceived of as just a one-off day of action in August to show solidarity with the pipeline’s local opponents and the broader climate justice movement. But then organizers reached out to direct action trainers like him for advice. “We don’t just do things for one day” was how he more or less put it.

With their invitation, the organizers opened their fight to a whole network of environmental activists, who came and didn’t leave. Lundberg, for instance, had been camping out for three months before spending his first night indoors a week earlier.
The Texans, in particular, who choose to resist the pipeline do it at great risk.
For locals like Vicki Baggett, who was among the founders of Nacogdoches STOP Tar Sands Oil Pipeline, the prospect of working with these activists from outside was not appealing at first, even as someone who had devoted years to environmental issues.

“I wasn’t really sure that I could support them,” she said. “They seemed a little far out for me, but the more I spoke with them and got to understand what they were doing and understand how it fits into what we’ve done, it is the logical next step. Now I’m like their biggest supporter.”

The main core of blockaders have done their best to reach out to locals by attending church services and speaking in classrooms. But many still dismiss them, according to Baggett, as “just those crazy kids who don’t have anything else to do.” She blames the media for preventing her neighbors from seeing what she sees, that “they’re the most passionate, committed people I’ve ever met.”

As the sheriff’s deputies finally moved in on the tree-sitters, you could hear them referring to their targets -- as opposed to the Canadian corporation on whose behalf they were interceding -- as “the foreigners.” But one of the tree-sitters was 21-year-old Austin-native Lizzy Alvarado, who attends the state university in Nacogdoches.

As protesters tried to block a truck carrying a cherry picker that would eventually remove the sitters from their perch, the deputies pepper-sprayed two local residents: 75-year-old great grandmother Jeanette Singleton and 22-year-old Jordan Johnson, whose family has been raising chickens in East Texas for generations.

The Texans, in particular, who choose to resist the pipeline do it at great risk. Many landowners who were forced into leasing parts of their property to TransCanada through eminent domain have been threatened with lawsuits and effectively silenced as a result. Others fear being ostracized by their communities. They have to choose their moments of dissension carefully, and they’re thankful for the outside support to help them do so.

Over the last week, also, there have been more than 40 solidarity actions worldwide, with the largest being led by 350.org in Washington, D.C. Several thousand people rallied outside the White House and called on President Obama to reject the permit for the Keystone XL’s northern segment, which would run from Alberta to Nebraska. Even this show of support, however, feels to some in Texas like abandonment.

“The North gets all the press,” said Vicki Baggett. “This is where the fight is, and 350 has left us. They should be here, not in D.C.”

Baggett was particularly stung by 350.org founder Bill McKibben’s recent cancellation of a speaking event that would have taken place in Nacogdoches this week. “He could have been here. This could have been the convergence. It was meant to be and it was just very disappointing. I think we just get written off because this is a very rural, poor area, and it’s real conservative.”

Rally against the Keystone XL pipeline in Washington, D.C., on November 18, 2012. Photo by Anna Robinson / Waging Nonviolence.

McKibben cancelled the event in order to launch a national tour called Do the Math, designed to foster a fossil fuel divestment campaign on college campuses. While there is little question that McKibben and 350.org mean to support the Tar Sands Blockade, it upsets critics further that there are only two Southern cities on the entire 21-date tour. Atlanta is the closest they get to the southern segment of the pipeline that runs from from Cushing, Oklahoma., to the Gulf Coast of Texas.

While the rest of the national climate movement may have written off the South, the 100 or so locals and visitors who took a stand in East Texas this past weekend -- including the 11 who were arrested -- plan to continue.

“I know it’s not looking good,” Vicki Bagget said. “But it’s not done, and I think what is happening here will continue to resonate for years.”

Also see:
[Bryan Farrell is an editor at Waging Nonviolence , where he writes about environment, climate change, and people power. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Mother Jones, Slate, Grist, and Earth Island Journal.]

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VERSE / Margery Parsons : Surfing in Gaza

Surfer in Gaza. Image from Common Dreams.

Surfing in Gaza

The children of Gaza
packed in camps
like anchovies in tin
go down to the beach
to swim, and to surf.
There is nothing timid about the way they take the waves
on their boards
home-made with scraps and stuff
and candlewax
because surfboard wax
like a million other dangerous things
can’t get in
to Gaza.
They struggle to stand up
fierce and brave
tasting a bit of freedom
with the salt spray.
Their faces turned towards the sun
and their proud bodies jeweled with water say
despite the guns, the bombs, the shelling
every night and day,
we are human
we are unbeaten.

Margery Parsons
The Rag Blog
November 2012

[Margery Parsons has been writing poetry since she was nine years old and has been a revolutionary since the 60s. She is a proud mom and a serious music lover who works in the arts.]

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Harry Targ : Class, Gender, and Division in Capitalism

Art from race class and gender.

Similarities and differences:
The political economy of capitalism
Creating divisions among male and female workers and workers of different races and ethnic backgrounds has often weakened workers’ struggles to achieve economic justice.
By Harry Targ / The Rag Blog / November 27, 2012
"The War on Women has many dimensions -- social, cultural, psychological -- but in many ways women’s issues are class issues. That makes the war on women a class war, among other things." -- Richard Eskow, Campaign for America’s Future Blog, November 16, 2012
I was planning my latest blog entry when I saw an essay by Richard Eskow entitled “The War on Women is a Class War.” Coincidentally the subject of the political consequences of class, race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual preference was precisely the subject I wished to address.

Eskow presented compelling data to show that as income levels rise the percentage of women in the higher categories declines, cuts in anti-poverty programs disproportionately affect women, on a worldwide basis austerity measures disproportionately hurt women, cuts in Social Security and Medicare in the U.S. would punish women more than men, and finally reductions in taxes and growing inequality in wealth and income over the last decade have disproportionately benefited men over women.

As I was planning my essay I was thinking about the central features of the capitalist mode of production that has dominated most of the world since the sixteenth century and how, politically, it has made maximum use of differences to protect its fundamental features.

First, capitalism is a system based on the private ownership of the means of production. Workers are paid to come to work to produce goods that are sold by capitalists in the marketplace. The workers are paid a wage that is less than the value of the products that are sold in the market. The difference between the market price of the products and workers’ wages is where profits come from.

Marx used the term “exploitation” to refer to that system of production in which the workers produced value based upon their time and energy and the capitalists sold the products of their labor above the cost of labor.

Second, capitalism is a system that exists in history. Over the years and centuries capitalist enterprises grew and grew. Small enterprises consolidated. Huge ones emerged. When demand for one kind of product declined, others were produced. When markets in one geographic area declined, capitalists moved elsewhere. When the demand for goods declined, capitalists invested in services.

There has always been conflict over how much workers were to be paid and ultimately who would control the work process, the technology, and the profit. Marx called this “class struggle.”

Because of unequal political power there was a tendency for wages to decline except when workers joined together and fought for the improvement of their lives. Creating divisions among male and female workers and workers of different races and ethnic backgrounds often weakened workers’ struggles to achieve economic justice.

Capitalism regularly endured crises as demand for products and places to invest profits declined and profits became so large that capitalists could not figure out how to invest them to gain more profit. In our own day, capitalists shifted dramatically from producing goods and services to financial speculation and promoted political institutions to serve the needs of financialization. And politics entered the picture when the largest capitalists more or less successfully shaped political institutions to maximize their interests.

Libraries of books describe the historical development of capitalism and debate about how the system works and who benefits from it. However, what remains basic to understanding capitalism as an economic system is that it creates workers who dig the coal, harvest the crops, clean the hotel rooms, teach the kids, and do everything else to keep the system going.

In a capitalist system almost everybody is a worker and, as the system requires ever-expanding profits, the system strives to reduce the differences among the kinds of work that people do to basic units of physical and mental labor. Marx called this “proletarianization.”

A central feature of the “political” economy of capitalism is the drive to divide workers and to use the political process to reduce workers’ realization that they have fundamentally shared experiences; that they all are in one way or another “exploited.”

A signature feature of capitalist political systems is their effort to create and exacerbate differences; differences by race, gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, and spiritual identities. The old slogan puts this best: “divide and conquer.”

So today as progressives reflect on the recent election and the future, it is important to get beyond narratives that in the main emphasize difference. Eskow’s essay concerning the class war on women serves as a useful reminder that what divides us could also unite us in a common struggle.

In the months ahead we should rediscover the ways in which we share experiences as workers in a capitalist system, at the same time as we recognize different experiences based on race, gender, sexual preference, and ethnicity.

One of the intriguing ideas embedded in the notion of  “21st century socialism,” is that in a capitalist system workers are exploited in different ways and suffer different degrees of pain, but the process of exploitation has a common structure and purpose. And after long years of reflection and political practice, and many false starts, we can now integrate our awareness and respect for difference into our conceptualization of what in human experience unites us.

[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 book from Changemaker Press which can be found at Lulu.com. Read more of Harry Targ's articles on The Rag Blog.]

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26 November 2012

Alan Waldman : Saskatchewan Sitcom ‘Corner Gas’ is Highly Original and Really Funny

Waldman's film and TV
treasures you may have missed:
Canadian comic, writer, and actor Brent Butt (his real name) has created a brilliant tiny-town sitcom named Corner Gas that’s justifiably a massive hit north of the border.
By Alan Waldman / The Rag Blog / November 26, 2012

[In his weekly column, Alan Waldman reviews some of his favorite films and TV series that readers may have missed, including TV dramas, mysteries and comedies from Canada, England, Scotland and Ireland. Most are available on DVD and/or Netflix, and some episodes are on YouTube.]

For many years American shows (and hockey) have dominated the Canadian Top 20 TV charts, but Brent Butt’s wildly clever 2004-2009 sitcom Corner Gas  shattered that, also grabbing most of the major Canadian comedy awards over that span.

When the first of its 107 side-splitting episodes aired on June 19, 2004, it drew 1.5 million viewers (in a country of 33 million) and attracted 3.1 million for its final episode on April 13, 2009. It ranks as the fifth-most popular Canadian TV show ever.

It is set in a very small fictional town, Dog River, in the middle of nowhere on the flat Saskatchewan prairie. Writer-creator Brent Butt plays Brent Leroy, the sarcastic, comic book-reading owner of the only gas station for 37 miles. Janet Wright is very funny as his quick-tempered mom, as is Eric Peterson as his crotchety dad. Tiny Nancy Robertson, who plays his quirky, self-declared genius cashier (and who married Butt after the third season), is adorable in the role.

The rest of the excellent regular cast (each of whom has been nominated for at least three major Canadian awards) are Fred Ewanuick as Brent’s dim-witted best friend, Gabrielle Miller as the insecure owner of the coffee shop next door and Lorne Cardinal and Tara Spenser-Nairn as local cops with nothing to do.

The first four seasons are on Netflix, and all complete episodes of the six seasons are on YouTube. My wife and I love watching Corner Gas and also enjoy Hiccups, the sitcom Mr. and Mrs. Butt have done since it ended.

Corner Gas has been nominated for 82 top Canadian awards, winning 29. Brent was nominated for 35 as producer, writer, or actor (winning 15). Robertson, Miller, and Wright each snagged eight noms, with Ewanuick getting six and Peterson four.

The show has aired in 26 countries (on WGN in the U.S.). More than 88.4% of the 2,441 viewers who evaluated it at the Internet Movie Database gave it thumbs-up, and 42.6% rated it a perfect 10.

After the legendary sketch series SCTV (which gave us John Candy, Rick Moranis, Andrea Martin, and Eugene Levy), Corner Gas is the best Canadian comedy I have ever seen, and I think you will really enjoy it. Here is the first episode, so you can judge for yourself.

[Oregon writer and Houston native Alan Waldman holds a B.A. in theater arts from Brandeis University and has worked as an editor at The Hollywood Reporter and Honolulu magazine. Read more of Alan Waldman's articles on The Rag Blog.]

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23 November 2012

BOOKS / Jonah Raskin : Daniel Coshnear's 'Occupy' Stories Are as Contemporary as the Latest Tweet

Daniel Coshnear's
'Occupy and Other Love Stories'
As contemporary as the latest tweet, Coshnear’s men, women, and children cry out for the lost soul of America itself.
By Jonah Raskin / The Rag Blog / November 23, 2012

[Occupy and Other Love Stories by Daniel Coshnear; art by Squeak Carnwath (October 2012: Kelly’s Cove Press); Paperback; 135 pp; $20.]

The characters in Daniel Coshnear’s political short stories read Stephen King and Raymond Carver. They smoke Camels and marijuana, drive Sentras, work at Safeways, and as school janitors. Preoccupied and in denial, they’ve survived trauma and now they’re suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and a host of social and psychological ills.

As contemporary as the latest tweet, Coshnear’s men, women, and children cry out for the lost soul of America itself.

The 12 stories in Occupy and Other Love Stories take place in Santa Rosa, California, and along the Russian River in Sonoma County, though one is set in New York, and the very last conjures up Berkeley during the Occupy Wall Street Movement last spring. It’s an overtly polemical tale and might well be called revolutionary romanticism.

Coshnear’s heart is with the rebels and the in-your-face citizens who refuse to be silenced or sit still. For the most part, however, his characters don’t give speeches or march in the streets. They’re part of the 99% and too busy dealing with death, divorce, depression, and suicide to be distracted by leaflets, posters, and slogans.

Years from now a Ph.D. student writing about the culture of the Occupy Movement will surely point to Occupy and Other Love Stories as an example of the fiction that emerged from the protests against Wall Street immorality and criminality. It’s also fiction that stands on its own merits without ties to Occupy or any social movement.

Coshnear’s stories are compact with vivid descriptions of people and places, and with crisp dialogue that’s practically audible. Reading them is like watching a series of video clips that depict domestic life with images of Iraq on TV, and real cops lurking on the sidewalk outside the front door.

Parents and children inhabit “Early Onset” and “Custodian” in which a father and his son disconnect and then reconnect. Love, sex, and relationships animate “Avulsion,” “Borscht on the Ceiling,” which takes place in New York, and “Occupy” -- the title story -- in which a professor finds romance with a student.

The characters play their own roles, and speak their minds independently of the author, though sometimes he analyzes them and even describes the medications they take, as in “You Can Put Your Name on It, If You Want to.”

Pills help the characters, though they long for more than legal and illegal drugs. They want to know the answers to all the big questions, such as “if bad things happen to bad people,” and if their own children might one day inhabit “a better world.”

[Jonah Raskin, professor emeritus at Sonoma State University, is an author and a frequent contributor to The Rag Blog. Read more articles by Jonah Raskin on The Rag Blog.]

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20 November 2012

Lamar W. Hankins : 'Death with Dignity' Defeated

Image from WNYT.com.

'Death with Dignity' defeated:
Freedom denied by Massachusetts voters
If I decide that it is time for my life to come to an end for reasons important to me, that should be my decision.
By Lamar W. Hankins / The Rag Blog / November 21, 2012
"The greatest human freedom is to live, and die, according to one's own desires and beliefs. From advance directives to physician-assisted dying, death with dignity is a movement to provide options for the dying to control their own end-of-life care." -- Statement from the Death with Dignity National Center
Since the founding of this country, the ideal of individualism has always been balanced with the ideal of community. Conflicts between the two concepts usually involve taking one person’s property or altering property rights for the betterment of the whole community, or preventing individual behaviors that might be harmful to the community as a whole (such as shooting a gun in the city, or failing to report communicable diseases to health authorities, to enable treatment or quarantine of an individual).

But individualism went down to defeat in a vote on November 6 in Massachusetts for reasons unrelated to the best interests of the community. That state was voting on a so-called Death with Dignity initiative that would have made Massachusetts the third state to officially adopt a law that recognizes the right of terminally-ill persons to end their own lives with self-administered lethal drugs prescribed by their physicians to end their suffering.

The prescription would be made available only after many safeguards are implemented. Oregon and Washington have similar laws and Montana’s Supreme Court has recognized such a right in that state’s constitution.

The Massachusetts proposal was modeled after the 1997 Oregon law that was the first Death with Dignity Act (DWDA) adopted in the nation. This choice of death with dignity appears not to have been abused according to the reports made each year by the Oregon Public Health Division. Since the law took effect in 1998 and through 2011, 596 Oregonians have ended their lives using the law. During this same time, 339 others obtained the prescription drugs, but did not use them.

The 2011 Public Health report noted that the three most frequently mentioned reasons for using the law were “decreasing ability to participate in activities that made life enjoyable (90.1%), loss of autonomy (88.7%), and loss of dignity (74.6%).” These appear to be the same concerns expressed by others since the law took effect. Over 82% of patients who used the DWDA in 2011 had some form of terminal cancer, a figure that has been consistent over the years since the law took effect.

The Public Health report reveals that 94.1% of patients who used the DWDA last year died at home; 96.7% were enrolled in hospice care either at the time the DWDA prescription was written or at the time of death; and 96.7% had some form of health care insurance. These data have been fairly consistent throughout the years since the DWDA was enacted in Oregon.

Undoubtedly, Oregon’s health care system, especially its hospice care, has been a primary reason that the law has not been used by more people. A notable benefit of the law has been an improvement in Oregon’s end-of-life care, especially pain control.

But a similar law proposed for Massachusetts was narrowly defeated -- 51% to 49%. Opposition came mainly from the Catholic church and a group of disability activists associated with Not Dead Yet. My personal involvement with promoting the rights of the disabled as an attorney for the last 35 years and my experience with caring for disabled parents for several years has created a great deal of dissonance for me as I have listened to the arguments made by disability rights activists against Death with Dignity proposals.

In the mid-90s, I became involved personally with the Death with Dignity movement, first by helping to organize a chapter of Hemlock in the Austin area, then in support of Compassion & Choices (the successor to Hemlock through a merger), and now with the Final Exit Network.

I have favored death with dignity laws because of my support for the personal autonomy and the individual rights I believe all people should have to make decisions about their lives. I have not seen this issue as creating conflict between the ideals of individualism and community. For me, the decision to end one’s life to end one's suffering is purely an individual decision. But that’s not how other disability rights advocates see it.

Many of the arguments made by Not Dead Yet and others in Massachusetts focused on how Oregon carries out its DWDA, according to Melissa Barber, an Electronics Commination Specialist with the Death with Dignity National Center. They argued that doctors can't accurately predict when a patient will die, that there isn't a requirement for people to tell their families they've requested the medication, that there's no required psychological evaluation, and that patients who request the medication might not talk to hospice and palliative care professionals.

But all of these arguments are false or misleading. For example, in Oregon two doctors must find that the person requesting a lethal prescription has six months or less to live. It should be obvious that no one can accurately predict exactly when a person with a terminal illness will die, but physicians apply their clinical experience and their knowledge of the course of an illness to determine whether a person has six months or less to live.

It matters little whether I have six days or six years to live. If I decide that it is time for my life to come to an end for reasons important to me, that should be my decision. The accuracy of a doctor’s informed opinion about my life expectancy is beside the point.

Although patients in Oregon are encouraged to talk with their families and loved ones about their decision to request lethal medication, it is the patient’s choice whom to talk to about this decision. If I need a “feeding tube” to get adequate nutrition, whether I get it is my choice. I may or may not talk with family members about the decision, though I am sure I will be encouraged to talk with family members about the matter.

This is true of all medical decisions made by mentally competent adults. A decision about asking for lethal medication should be no different.

The argument about “no required psychological evaluation” is likewise specious. In Oregon, two independent physicians evaluate the patient for signs of depression. If they detect signs, they refer the patient to a mental health specialist.

Although many people believe that anyone who chooses to stop their suffering before what we call a natural death is mentally ill, there are no data to support such a position. Having my life controlled by another person’s fear or belief takes away my autonomy to decide what is best for me.

Lack of access to adequate health services is unlikely to be a reason for choosing to end one’s life shortly before it would end as a result of some terminal illness. The overwhelming number of Oregonians who choose to use the DWDA are in hospice care and have health insurance -- almost 97% of them. And about 40% of Oregonians who obtain lethal medications do not use them, which indicates that the system is not pushing people to hurry up and die, another argument frequently used to oppose death with dignity laws.

Perhaps the Not Dead Yet activists are concerned about a variation of the slippery slope argument, applied to those with permanent disabilities. Their position is that some people fear disability more than death. They assert that all people with a terminal illness will become disabled at some point during their illness. Because some people can’t accept this disability, they want to die rather than live through the disability to a “natural” end.

Such a desire is an indirect threat to people who choose to make the best of their disability and live with it. They fear that disability will come to be seen as a condition that should not be tolerated, leading to the killing of disabled people against their will.

In effect, they are saying that if I have a terminal illness, I can’t decide to end my life at a time of my choosing because it is not the decision they would make, and it might lead to euthanasia of the disabled.

This position is astounding to me. I would never want to decide for others a course of medical treatment or assistance when they are capable of making that decision for themselves. These activists have no right to make that decision for me. But they choose to deny me the rights they hold precious for themselves -- to decide how to live and die on my own terms.

 I’m Not Dead Yet, either, but I’ll not try to control how others live or die.

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

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Robert Jensen : What Starts at UT... Accelerates Destruction?

Image from Latinitas.

UT motto modification:
What starts here...
accelerates destruction?
While UT administrators may be heartfelt in their belief that 'we are driven to solve society’s issues,' most of the so-called solutions that are generated ignore or intensify the fundamental problems of the systems.
By Robert Jensen / The Rag Blog / November 21, 2012

AUSTIN -- I want to suggest a slight modification of the University of Texas’ motto, “What starts here changes the world.”

A more accurate slogan -- while not quite as pithy and probably less effective for public-relations purposes -- would be, “What starts here accelerates the destruction of the world.”

I am not suggesting that the administrators or faculty of UT, where I have been a professor for two decades, want to destroy the world. Rather, I’m arguing that like almost every other institution of higher education in the United States, UT is complicit in the ongoing destruction of the world by offering a curriculum that celebrates the existing economic/political/social systems, which undermine the life-sustaining capacity of the world.

While that claim may sound crazy, I think my reasoning is calm and careful. The destructive features of contemporary America’s systems -- an extractive economy that demands endless growth, with a mystical faith in high-energy/high-technology systems and gadgets, dependent on continued mass consumption of goods of questionable value -- are all woven into the fabric of UT’s teaching and research.

Entire departments on campus are staffed with faculty who seem incapable of imagining a challenge to those features and appear dedicated to maintaining the systems. The goal of most courses is to train students to play by the existing rules, not question the systems that produce the rules.

The obvious problem: We face multiple, cascading ecological crises that should spur us to rethink our economy, politics, and society, but the existing rules rule out such thinking. If we can’t transcend these intellectual limits, it is not clear that an ongoing large-scale human presence on the earth will be possible.

What is clear is that affluent societies such as the United States cannot continue to live indefinitely in the style to which so many have become accustomed. In the short term such affluence can be maintained only by intensifying already unconscionable levels of inequality, and in the long term even that soulless strategy can’t stop the inevitable decline and eventual collapse.

First, the difficult realities. Look at any crucial measure of the health of the ecosphere in which we live -- groundwater depletion, topsoil loss, desertification, chemical contamination, increased toxicity in our own bodies, the number and size of “dead zones” in the oceans, extinction of species and reduction of bio-diversity -- and ask a simple question: Are we heading in the right direction?

Don’t forget that we also live in an oil-based world and are rapidly depleting the cheap and easily accessible oil, which means we face a huge reconfiguration of the infrastructure that undergirds our lives. The desperation to avoid that reconfiguration has brought us into the era of “extreme energy,” marked by the use of more dangerous and destructive technologies (hydrofracturing, deep-water drilling, mountain-top removal, tar sands extraction).

And, of course, there is the undeniable trajectory of global warming and climate disruption.

Where does that leave us? Instead of thinking in terms of manageable “environmental problems,” scientists these days are talking about tipping points and the breach of planetary boundaries, about how human activity is pushing the planet beyond its limits.

Second, the deficient response. Universities, which have the resources to chart the new paths that are necessary, too often push students onto the same old dead-end roads. On occasion, cautionary notes from the academy are sounded. For example, one group of scientists recently warned that humans are forcing a planetary-scale critical transition “with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience,” which means that “the biological resources we take for granted at present may be subject to rapid and unpredictable transformations within a few human generations.”

Unfortunately, most of the modern university pays no heed. The most obvious place where realities are avoided and illusions maintained is the business school, ground zero on campus for the indoctrination into capitalist ideology.

What’s the problem with that? After all, hasn’t capitalism unleashed incredible productivity and created unparalleled wealth? Yes, but putting aside the important questions about what the unequal distribution of that wealth says about our alleged commitment to moral principles (in case it’s not clear, it says we don’t take our moral principles very seriously), we now face the grim reality that capitalism is ecocidal. Industrial capitalism treats the world as a mine from which to extract resources and a dump for wastes.

Largely unregulated markets obscure that destruction, as financial “instruments” are traded with no regard for what is necessary for a real economy to continue -- the capacity of nature to sustain life.

But in business school, future corporate leaders are taught to maximize profit, marketing experts develop evermore ways to sell us things we don’t need, and financial wizards slice and dice the numbers to make it all work -- at least on paper.

How much critique of the destructive capacity of contemporary corporate capitalism will students encounter in the UT business school? I regularly ask my students about their experience in business classes, and they report that there is virtually no such discussion beyond occasional mentions of “corporate social responsibility,” a concept designed to assuage consciences rather than deal with core problems. Real critique in business classes is so rare that when I ask that question, students either look confused or chuckle at the absurdity.

Move over to the economics department, which at UT (and most other universities) is dominated by the conventional wisdom of neoclassical and/or mildly reformist Keynesian economic thought. These models acknowledge “market failures” and “negative externalities,” and then proceed to downplay the dramatic consequences. Failures and externalities such as climate disruption and other human-generated forms of ecological destruction aren’t mere footnotes to otherwise well-functioning models.

Yet while these looming disasters reveal the models to be irrational, market fundamentalism demands we ignore the obvious.

These difficult realities do not seem to slow down the economics department or the business school, as they offer instruction in the theory and practice of a system that is killing the planet at a quickening pace.

In other parts of the university, the story is slightly more complicated. In the government department and law school, for example, a wider range of views are acceptable, but the overall thrust of each is toward the conventional. The study of law and politics typically takes corporate capitalism as non-negotiable, and so other aspects of our lives must adapt to the rules of that economic game. A few critics are allowed in these departments but are largely treated as cranky misfits who need not be taken seriously.

In the sciences and engineering, there is less attention paid to economic/political/social systems. There, administrators and faculty see their disciplines as focused on answering different kinds of questions. Here it is not market fundamentalism but technological fundamentalism that is most troubling.

Technological fundamentalists assume that the increasing use of evermore sophisticated high-energy advanced technology is always a good thing and that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology. This kind of magical thinking offers a reassuring way out of the problems that the extractive/industrial economy has created -- if we ignore the history of those unintended consequences.

The story of air-conditioning is a great example. The chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) widely used in cooling systems were depleting the ozone layer, and so they were replaced with “safer” hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), which we now know are contributing significantly to global warming. Rather than rethink our demand for constant cooling, we stumble forward looking for the next technological fix.

But if we look only for “solutions” that don’t disturb existing systems, and those existing systems are unsustainable, then our solutions are at best irrelevant and at worst will exacerbate the fundamental problems and make it harder for people to imagine new systems. That’s not an argument to abandon all attempts to improve technology, but rather a reminder of technology’s limits and dangers.

The university departments where one is most likely to find the culture of sustained critical inquiry we need are in the humanities and the social sciences. These departments -- philosophy, history, literature, sociology, anthropology, as well as ethnic and women’s studies -- will vary ideologically depending on time and place, but they offer space from which one can think about challenges to existing systems of power and privilege.

While much excellent and exciting thinking goes on in such settings, too often the way in which that knowledge is framed and communicated guarantees that any insights will not go beyond a narrow scholarly community. The university’s system of rewards and punishments encourages professors to stay stuck in the academic trenches, which have become increasingly self-indulgent spaces.

As long as critically minded academics stay safely within academic life and speak an unnecessarily jargon-laden specialized language, they are free to pursue whatever topics they like, but at the cost of social irrelevance.

Let me be clear about what I am NOT arguing: I am not suggesting there is no good intellectual work done at UT; I am not suggesting that the system has cowed every administrator or professor; and I most certainly am not saying that anyone who disagrees with me is corrupt or incompetent.

Reasonable people can disagree, and I do not think I have an exclusive claim on wisdom. I consider myself a hard-working second-tier intellectual and make no claim to being a terribly deep or original thinker. This essay reflects the analyses and arguments made by an increasingly large group of critics urging us to step back and think more deeply about the world we have built.

And let me be clear about one more thing: I love my job and am grateful for the resources that UT provides for my work. But when I try to understand the system in which I work, I observe patterns that keep certain points of view dominant and other approaches marginal.

I see younger faculty who want to challenge that system but get beaten down, or who toe the line out of fear, or who are quickly seduced by the promise of privilege. I see students who want to push their professors to consider more critical views but often give up when they meet resistance.

Most important to understanding all this, I see a system of higher education that is structured hierarchically like a corporation and largely dependent on corporations for support. The primary reason that UT rarely challenges the conventional wisdom is that it is dependent on other institutions and people who build, maintain, and profit from the conventional wisdom.

The University of Texas should be a place where teaching and research challenge the culture to face what it prefers to ignore. Such confrontation isn’t going to come from corporations in a capitalist economy, which are dedicated to the status quo. Such confrontation isn’t going to come from conventional political parties and politicians, who are largely captured by the wealth concentrated in the corporate sector.

Such confrontation usually emerges on the margins of society, from relatively small grassroots groups that generate new ideas but lack the resources to put the relevant issues on the public agenda.

Universities could serve an important role in helping amplify those challenges to power. They have not only the resources, but the responsibility of pursuing knowledge even when the consequences are uncomfortable. UT claims that “we are a catalyst for change,” but the institution implicitly defines that as “change within existing systems.”

While UT administrators may be heartfelt in their belief that “we are driven to solve society’s issues,” most of the so-called solutions that are generated ignore or intensify the fundamental problems of the systems.

In a culture that is short on long-term vision, universities are vital spaces for critical thought. Instead of remaining trapped within the logic of existing systems, that critical thinking has to be more creative. If there is to be a decent future, we have to give up on the imperial fantasy of endless power, the capitalist fantasy of endless growth, the technological fantasy of endless comfort.

There’s a lot of intellectual work to do if we are to create such a future. What starts at UT and other universities can change the world, but only if we give up on those seductive fantasies and start facing the difficult realities.

[Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of Arguing for Our Lives: Critical Thinking in Crisis Times (City Lights, coming in 2013) His writing is published extensively in mainstream and alternative media. Robert Jensen can be reached at rjensen@uts.cc.utexas.edu. Read more articles by Robert Jensen on The Rag Blog.]

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