30 May 2013

Lamar W. Hankins : We Must Heal Our Wounded Vets

Wounded Army vet waiting for a prescription for anti-seizure medication at a Colorado Springs doctor's office. Photo by Michael Ciaglo / Colorado Springs Gazette.
We must 'heal the wounded':
The military’s abuse of enlistees
At this point, almost a decade since his last combat, it is unclear whether Jim will ever recover from his injuries. His treatment by the military has been callous and devastating for his family as well as for him.
By Lamar W. Hankins / The Rag Blog / May 30, 2013

This Memorial Day my thoughts went back to about 10 years ago, when I learned as close to first-hand as one can get, short of being in the Army, just how abusive and uncaring the military establishment can be. A close family member was deployed to Iraq to fight in “Shock and Awe,” George W. Bush’s destabilizing effort to free Iraqis from the rule of Saddam Hussein. I’ll call him Jim.

Jim had been in Special Forces for most of his 18 years in the military. He had fought in the first Iraq War and had participated in many classified operations. His missions and training had caused him chronic pain and other long-term problems -- skin cancers, unexplained neurological symptoms, and a back injury that required surgery.

When Jim was deployed to Iraq for George W. Bush’s war, he had not fully recovered from his back surgery and had not been released for full active duty. He required regular pain medicine to cope with his recovery from the surgery. Nevertheless, he was sent to fight with his unit in Iraq.

During the worst of Jim’s pain, he sought a private doctor to prescribe pain medication so that he could avoid letting his command know how bad his back was. He did not want to appear weak. He was strongly motivated to continue to be a part of his unit. He knew that if he let his next-in-command know of his condition, he would no longer be allowed to continue in his Special Forces unit. His “band of brothers” feelings were strong.

About six weeks into his deployment to Iraq, Jim’s dependency on drugs for pain control became so apparent that he was sent home from Iraq before his unit returned. As I learned eventually, in addition to physical pain, Jim suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He had trouble sleeping, exhibited startle responses frequently both when asleep and when awake, had nightmares and flashbacks, was uncomfortable in crowds, had an uneven temperament, was often agitated, and had trouble concentrating.

Soon after Jim returned home, military doctors sent him to Walter Reed Army Hospital (now phased out of service) for another back surgery. I accompanied him for the surgery and stayed with him for several days afterward, including driving him home after he was released from Walter Reed. On this trip, I observed most of the symptoms mentioned above.

But these were the least of Jim’s troubles. Soon after returning to his base at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, his command started court martial proceedings, intent on washing him out of the Army because of his dependence on pain medication. They wanted to give him a bad conduct discharge. After he hired (at great expense) a civilian attorney with extensive military law experience, his punishment became a general discharge. He was not allowed to retire, though he had 19 years in the service.

After he was discharged, he filed for VA benefits and another struggle ensued, during which he had to prove that his disability was service connected. His attorney proved his high fees were worth the cost. With much support also from his family, eventually, Jim prevailed and received VA benefits and continues his recovery from his 19 years in the military.

At this point, almost a decade since his last combat, it is unclear whether he will ever recover from his injuries. His treatment by the military has been callous and devastating for his family as well as for him.

Unfortunately, Jim’s story is not unique or even a worst-case example of what the military does to men and women who join up. Those in the armed servies suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and PTSD are commonly dumped into the civilian sector without benefits -- no pension, no health insurance, no support.

According to the Department of Defense, these conditions together likely affect more than half a million veterans of the last 11 years of American wars in the Middle East. They represent about one-quarter of all those who have served during this period.

As reported by Dave Phillips in the Colorado Springs Gazette, what happened to Jim seems to be standard operating practice for today’s volunteer military:
After the longest period of war in American history, more soldiers are being discharged for misconduct than at any time in recent history, and soldiers with the most combat exposure are the hardest hit. A Gazette investigation based on data obtained through the Freedom of Information Act shows the annual number of misconduct discharges is up more than 25 percent Army-wide since 2009, mirroring the rise in wounded.

At the eight Army posts that house most of the service's combat units, including Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, misconduct discharges have surged 67 percent. All told, more than 76,000 soldiers have been kicked out of the Army since 2006. They end up in cities large and small across the country, in hospitals and homeless shelters, abandoned trailers and ratty apartments, working in gas fields and at the McDonald's counter. The Army does not track how many, like Alvaro, were kicked out with combat wounds.
Figures supplied by the Army Human Resources Command indicate that soldiers discharged for alleged misconduct rose by about 63% during the six-year span between 2006 and 1012. Mark Waple, a civilian attorney who handles military cases and a retired Army officer told The Gazette: "I've been working on this since the '70s, and I have never seen anything like this. There seems to be a propensity to use minor misconduct for separation, even for service members who are decorated in combat and injured."

Politicians are quick to declare our duty to provide support for our troops, including when they return. Last October, President Barack Obama called it "the single most sacred obligation this country has." More recently, Colorado Sen. Mark Udall said, "The American people have an unbreakable covenant with our veterans and we must provide them the very best health care."

But the military and the VA seem unable to provide that support and recognize that what we require volunteer service men and women to do leads directly to PTSD and often causes them to be wounded in ways that are not immediately apparent.

Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men, Colonel Nathan R. Jessup, told the attorney prosecuting two Marines for the murder of another Marine, “You can’t handle the truth.”

At least in part, what Col. Jessup refers to is the perceived need to do horrible things in the service of this country, as well as actually taking actions that would be perceived by most people as despicable -- killing children, bombing families going peacefully about their daily lives, destroying homes. Sometimes such deeds are purposeful, other times accidental. But all take a toll on the human psyche.

Our fighting men and women are not super humans, unfazed by what they do as members of the military. They are not playing video games for the highest score. They are placed in life-and-death situations in the service of their country.

What they do sometimes makes them lose their moorings. Sometimes it makes them sick. Sometimes it leads them to make wrong choices. No matter what some military leaders may claim, they are not weaklings or cowards if their mental and physical health deteriorates. They are human.

Twenty-two veterans of our wars commit suicide each day. That should be sufficient for anyone to understand how wrong it is to compel our military men and women to do what we have made them do, and then discard them.

It is long past time to start treating our service men and women as the sentient human beings they are. We should not expect more from them than the human mind and body can be reasonably expected to endure. When we do ask them to commit horrible deeds, we need to expect that some of them will not respond to their experiences well.

For these, and all the rest, we need a system that is compassionate, not one that is operated by the self-righteous and arrogant. We need to stop punishing people for the logical consequences of what we require them to do.

If our politicians really care about the service and sacrifice of our military members, they will change a system that is unfair, degrading, and inhumane into one based on what we know about human psychology, neurology, and physiology. We will stop treating these service men and women as automatons and recognize that what they have become is partly, if not largely, a result of what we had them do.

We will take some responsibility for their circumstances and do our best to make up for our own transgressions manifest in the tasks we gave them. It is the very least that should be expected of a great country.

As many veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan said one year ago at a rally in Chicago, it is long past the time that we should “Honor the Dead, Heal the Wounded, Stop the Wars.”

[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.]

The Rag Blog

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Jean Trounstine : Italian Prison Inmates Perform Theatre Behind Bars

Italian prison inmate performing in Romeo and Juliet: Mercutio Does Not Want to Die. Photo by Clara Vannucci for The New York Times.
Compagnia della Fortezza:
Theatre in an Italian prison
Punzo says that it is not therapy that drives him but creating good theatre.
By Jean Trounstine / The Rag Blog / May 30, 2013

I've been interested for years in the Italian prison theatre company recently featured in a The New York Times report. Since 1988, Compagnia della Fortezza, the company named after the Medici-era fortress that houses the Volterra jail where the men are imprisoned, has performed a variety of Italian spectacles and tragedies.

From Alice in Wonderland, a Theatrical Essay on the End of a Civilization to Romeo and Juliet: Mercutio Does Not Want to Die, director Amando Punzo has dedicated himself to art behind bars.

The photo above is one of many in the photo essay by Clara Vannuci, an Italian photographer who has documented in amazing pictures the essence of Punzo's vision.

For 21 years, working five hours a day, six days a week, Punzo has embarked on a challenging repertoire for the company, including, per the Times, in an article from 2009, "plays based on works by Brecht, Peter Handke, and even the tale of Pinocchio." He says that it is not therapy that drives him but creating good theatre.

I too felt that way during the run of eight plays I directed behind bars. The idea was not to go after building self-esteem -- although that happened -- but to go after revealing the truth of the play and getting the women to be the best they could be at portraying their roles.

We did plays at Framingham Women’s Prison in Massachusetts that expanded the women’s horizons and gave them access to literature -- ranging from Shakespeare to Aristophanes.

Here is Dolly dressed as a Suffragette in Lysistrata, the famous play where women refuse to have sex with their spouses until they end war:

Scene from Lysistrata, performed at Framingham Women's Prison in Massachusetts.

Punzo says, “It’s not about giving the inmates an outlet or a recreational break. It’s work.” The side effects of theatre programs behind bars are self-respect, community building, and a love for the stage.

In the United States, it is a struggle to get plays inside, in fact to create anything worthwhile. The goal of prison is repression. The goal of education is expansion and opening one’s mind to the world. The goal of art is freedom and beauty.

But the Italians love art so much, the rumor goes, that prisons would rather risk an arrest than not show their performances to other Italians. Many plays tour and many prisoners work outside during the day. And believe it or not, over half the 205 prisons in Italy have acting companies.

Compagnia della Fortezza has won some of Italy’s most prestigious theatre awards and houses a gourmet restaurant where prisoners work and serve food to the public.

The 2009 production of Alice in Wonderland, a Theatrical Essay on the End of a Civilization (photo below) was loosely based on Lewis Carroll’s masterwork, but the text wove in soliloquies from other authors, in this case Shakespeare (predominantly Hamlet) but also Genet, Pinter, Chekhov, and Heiner Müller.

Inmates perform in Alice in Wonderland, a Theatrical Essay on the End of a Civilization. Photo by Sondro Michalles for The International Herald Tribune.

While Punzo, who has an acting background, creates a new play every July, his dream is to create a stable repertory company, with a winter season and a permanent theater, which would allow him to pay the actors. Ah Italy!

Photographer Vannuci relayed in the Times article how she asked a prisoner why no one tried to escape. The response reflected how much theatre has the potential to change lives: “Why should I run? Where would I go? Twenty years I’ve lived in prison. Now I have something to live for. Life has meaning.”

[Jean Trounstine is an author/editor of five published books and many articles, professor at Middlesex Community College in Massachusetts, and a prison activist. For 10 years, she worked at Framingham Women's Prison and directed eight plays, publishing Shakespeare Behind Bars: The Power of Drama in a Women's Prison about that work. She blogs for Boston Magazine and takes apart the criminal justice system brick by brick at jeantrounstine.com where she blogs weekly at "Justice with Jean." Find her other contributions to The Rag Blog here.]

The Rag Blog

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RAG RADIO / Thorne Dreyer : Economist Gar Alperovitz Asks, 'What Then Must We Do?'

Rag Radio podcast: 
Political economist Gar Alperovitz,
author of 'What Then Must We Do?'
“Like a picture slowly developing in a photographer's darkroom, the potential elements of a new system, of something meaningful and very American, are beginning to emerge." -- Gar Alperovitz
By Rag Radio / The Rag Blog / May 30, 2013

Political economist Gar Alperovitz, whose new book is What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution, was our guest on Rag Radio, Friday, May 10, 2013. Rag Radio is a syndicated radio program produced at the studios of KOOP 91.7-FM, a cooperatively-run all-volunteer community radio station in Austin, Texas.

Listen to or download our interview with Gar Alperovitz here:

On the show, Alperovtitz talks with host Thorne Dreyer and The Rag Blog's Roger Baker about issues raised in his new book, What Then Must We Do?.

In the book, Alperovitz speaks about “why the time is right to democratize the ownership of wealth to strengthen our communities and our nation, through local cooperatives, worker-owned companies, and independent business, as well as larger publicly-owned enterprises and reinvigorated institutions.”

Alperovitz told the Rag Radio audience that "we are living in a systemic crisis, not simply a political crisis... You see that the long, long trends -- for 30 years or more -- simply don’t much change if you elect this politician or that politician."

"Over the last 30 years," he said, "real wages for most people have simply not moved up or down more than a few pennies. The top one percent has increased its income share over that 30-year span, from 10 percent to more than 20 percent. Over 30 years the top 1 percent has taken just about all of the gains of the economic system."

And, he added, "That’s extraordinary."

The new book, he says, documents "trend after trend after trend where the big picture keeps getting worse -- or nothing gets better. Poverty increases, the incarceration rate has gone up dramatically... CO2 production has gone up 30 percent... On many many fronts, the trends don’t much change, and things get worse, and that tells you that something deeper in the system is at work."

"And," Alperovitz said, "I don’t think its going to change until we actually begin slowly but steadily evolving... and moving towards what can only be called a different system in the United States, something different from corporate capitalism. And certainly different from state socialism or communism. Something that has an American flavor and development."

"And," he added, "the book suggests that, partly because of the pain levels, and because things aren’t working for people, if you look closely there’s a lot of developments that are going in a new direction. And a lot that the press certainly doesn’t report on."

Alperovitz believes that many encouraging things are happening largely under the radar in this country, including the burgeoning workers' cooperative movement and other public experiments that are addressing democratization of the economy.

"Like a picture slowly developing in a photographer's darkroom, the potential elements of a new system, of something meaningful and very American, are beginning to emerge," he writes.

According to Daniel Ellsberg, "For decades, Gar Alperovitz has been at the forefront of attempts to understand what could lie beyond our increasingly broken system of corporate capitalism," and his new book "offers by far the most serious, intellectually grounded strategy for system-changing yet to appear."

University of Texas economist James Galbraith calls Alperovitz's book a "cooperative and democratic manifesto," and says, "May his ideas and ideals flourish."

And Bill Fletcher Jr. wrote in a review of What Then Must We Do?, published on The Rag Blog, that Alperovitz "proceeds to identify actual examples of different struggles and projects that have been undertaken by progressives that show that a different way of organizing life and the economy is not only a great idea, but living reality."

Fletcher writes that, "The reforms proposed are both clear and compelling and, in many cases, achievable."

But he also suggests that Alperovitz's strategy as incomplete: "The struggle for structural reforms and survival presented by Alperovitz is essential in cornering the political Right and changing the 'common sense' of the U.S. political arena. But it is not enough to wound the rabid beast; one must ultimately bring it down."

According to Fletcher, "Alperovitz’s platform is at best one component in a much more long-term socialist strategy."

Gar Alperovitz has had a distinguished career as a historian, political economist, activist, writer, and government official. He is currently the Lionel R. Bauman Professor of Political Economy at the University of Maryland; was co-founder of the Democracy Collaborative; and is a former Fellow of Kings College, Cambridge University, Harvard’s Institute of Politics, and the Institute for Policy Studies; and a Guest Scholar at the Brookings Institution.

He is the author of critically acclaimed books including America Beyond Capitalism and The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, and his articles have appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, the New Republic, The Nation, and the Atlantic, among other popular and academic publications.

Also see Roger Baker's review of Alperovitz's earlier book, America Beyond Capitalism, at The Rag Blog, and listen to the podcast of our February 3, 2012, Rag Radio interview with Gar Alperovitz.

Rag Radio is hosted and produced by Rag Blog editor and long-time alternative journalist Thorne Dreyer, a pioneer of the Sixties underground press movement.

The show has aired since September 2009 on KOOP 91.7-FM, an all-volunteer cooperatively-run community radio station in Austin, Texas. Rag Radio is broadcast live every Friday from 2-3 p.m. (CDT) on KOOP 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:
May 31, 2013: Philosophy scholar Bill Meacham, author of How to Be an Excellent Human.
Friday, June 7, 2013: Mother Jones correspondent Tom Philpott on agricultural sustainability and the "Politics of Food."

The Rag Blog

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29 May 2013

Harry Targ : Benghazi is the Perfect 'Scandal'

Political cartoon by Daryl Cagle / Cagle Cartoons.
The perfect 'scandal'
The real 'scandal' is the cover-up of what the U.S. was doing in Libya.
By Harry Targ / The Rag Blog / May 30, 2013

On the night of September 11, 2012, an armed group attacked a diplomatic post in the city of Benghazi in eastern Libya. The next morning a CIA annex was attacked. Out of these two attacks four United States citizens were killed including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

According to a November 2012 Wall Street Journal article (quoted by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic, May 13, 2013):
The U.S. effort in Benghazi was at its heart a CIA operation, according to officials briefed on the intelligence. Of the more than 30 American officials evacuated from Benghazi following the deadly assault, only seven worked for the State Department. Nearly all the rest worked for the CIA, under diplomatic cover, which was a principal purpose of the consulate, these officials said.
On March 17, 2011, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 1973 authorizing humanitarian intervention in Libya. It endorsed “Member States, acting nationally or through regional organizations or arrangements, to take all necessary measures to protect civilians under threat of attack in the country, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory...” Five Security Council members abstained from support of this resolution: Brazil, China, Germany, India, and Russia.

Passage of the resolution was followed by a NATO-led air war on targets in that country. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was established in 1949 as a military alliance to defend Europe from any possible aggression initiated by the Soviet Union. If words mattered, NATO should have dissolved when the Soviet Union collapsed.

The United States, so concerned for the human rights of people in the Persian Gulf and Middle East, including in Libya, was virtually silent as nonviolent revolutions overthrew dictatorial regimes in Tunisia and Egypt earlier in 2011.

The United States continued to support regimes in Bahrain and Yemen in the face of popular protest and violent response and remained the primary rock-solid supporter of the state of Israel as it continued to expand settlements in the West Bank and blockaded the transfer of goods to Palestinians in Gaza.

And, of course, in the face of growing ferment in the Middle East and Persian Gulf for democratization not a word was said by way of criticism of the monarchical system in Saudi Arabia.

So as the Gaddafi regime in Libya fought its last battles, leading ultimately to the capture and assassination of the Libyan dictator, the NATO alliance and the United States praised themselves for their support of movements for democratization in Libya.

What seemed obvious to observers except most journalists was the fact that the overthrow of the Libyan regime, for better or worse, could not have occurred without the massive bombing campaign against military and civilian targets throughout Libya carried out by NATO forces.

From the vantage point of the Benghazi crisis of September 11, 2012, humanitarian intervention, which in Benghazi included 23 (of some 30) U.S. representatives who were CIA operatives, suggests that the attacks on U.S. targets might have had something to do with the history of U.S interventionism in the country. Great powers, such as the United States, continue to interfere in the political life of small and poor countries. And, the mainstream media continues to provide a humanitarian narrative of imperialism at work.

The post-9/11 Benghazi story is one of Republicans irresponsibly focusing on inter-agency squabbles and so-called contradictory Obama “talking points” after the killings of the four U.S. representatives in Benghazi. They chose not to address the real issue of the United States pattern of interference in the internal affairs of Libya.

And the Obama Administration defends itself by denying its incompetence in the matter, desperately trying to avoid disclosing the real facts in the Benghazi story which might show that the CIA and the Ambassador’s staff were embedded in Benghazi to interfere in the political struggles going on between factions among the Libyan people.

As Alexander Cockburn put it well in reference to the war on Libya in The Nation in June 2011:
America’s clients in Bahrain and Riyadh can watch the undignified pantomime with a tranquil heart, welcoming this splendid demonstration that they have nothing to fear from Obama’s fine speeches or Clinton’s references to democratic aspirations, well aware that NATO’s warplanes and helicopters are operating under the usual double standard -- with the Western press furnishing all appropriate services.
If Cockburn were alive today he would have added that the Libyan operation was about U.S. covert interventionism, anger on the part of sectors of the Benghazi citizenship, and not about the United States encouraging “democratic aspirations” of the Libyan people.

Neither Republicans nor Democrats want to have a conversation about U.S. interventionism but prefer to debate about a “scandal.” The real “scandal” is the cover-up of what the U.S. was doing in Libya.

[Harry Targ is a professor of political science at Purdue University and is a member of the National Executive Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. He lives in West Lafayette, Indiana, and blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical. Read more of Harry Targ's articles on The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

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IDEAS / Bill Meacham : Imagine There's No Morality

Art from Duck Soup.
Imagine there’s no morality
The philosophical question becomes an empirical one: what enables us to flourish?
By Bill Meacham / The Rag Blog / May 30, 2013
Bill Meacham will discuss issues raised in his new book, How to Be An Excellent Human, with Rag Blog editor Thorne Dreyer on Rag Radio, Friday, May 31, 2013, from 2-3 p.m. (CDT) on KOOP 91.7-FM in Austin, and streamed live to the world. The show will be rebroadcast by WFTE-FM in Mt. Cobb and Scranton, PA, Sunday morning, June 2, at 10 a.m. (EDT), and the podcast will be posted at the Internet Archive.
Here is a thought experiment for you: What if there aren’t really any moral rules? What if moral rules, unlike physical objects and events, do not actually exist independently of us?

What if God (however you conceive that entity) does not exist and hence can give us no commands? (This is the view of the atheists.) Or, if God does exist, what if God does not command us to do (or not do) anything? (This is the view of many deists.) Or what if there is in principle no way of knowing whether God exists and hence no way of knowing what the divine commands might be? (This is the view of the agnostics.)

Furthermore, what if there is no unseen realm of moral rules, obligations, rights, and responsibilities existing independently of us? (This is the view called “moral anti-realism.”) What if morality is only constructed socially; and, being socially constructed, can be socially deconstructed if we like?

How then should we figure out how to live our lives? Or, since “should” often refers to a moral rule or obligation, what would be the best way or even a pretty good way to figure out how to live our lives?

In the absence of moral rules we would have to use a form of reasoning I call ethical inference to argue from factual premises to recommendations. For example:
  • People who eat a balanced, nutritious diet are healthier than people who don’t.
  • Sarah wants to be healthy.
  • Therefore, Sarah should eat a balanced, nutritious diet.
That “should” is a recommendation of prudence, not a moral command. It is in what I call the “goodness paradigm” of language instead of the “rightness paradigm.”(1) The goodness paradigm makes recommendations instead of giving commmands; and it does so on the basis of the observable effects of our actions, rather than an appeal to moral rules.

Such recommendations do not follow with deductive certainty, but are the result of practical reasoning. If the premises are true, reasonable and appropriate, then the conclusion follows with enough practical credence to warrant acting on it.

The first premise of the ethical inference is factual. We can assess its truth by making observations, administering surveys, performing scientific experiments and so forth. That is one of the advantages of the goodness paradigm, that its claims can be objectively verified.

The second premise is also factual, but it pertains to a person’s desires or intentions. If Sarah has no desire to be healthy, then she has no reason to follow the advice.

So the philosophical question becomes, what should we desire? Or, if we don’t like the term “should,” what is the best thing (or even a pretty good thing) to desire with sufficient intensity that we are moved actually to strive to achieve it?

The ancient Greeks had an answer: eudaimonia, often translated as “flourishing,” “happiness,” or “fulfillment.” What we all by nature want and try to achieve is to survive, thrive, and feel happy and fulfilled. Thinkers as diverse as Kant and Socrates agree that this desire is fundamental and essential to all humans as rational beings that have needs.(2)

And if you disagree and think something else is more to be desired, then consider that in order to fulfill that desire, you would have to survive and thrive at least enough to be able to attain it. (And once you attained it, you would, I presume, feel happy and fulfilled.) So functioning well enough to survive and thrive is the fundamental aim of all of us.

Given that premise, the philosophical question becomes an empirical one: what enables us to flourish? How are we constituted, how do we function, what is good for us and what are we good for and good at? In short: What is human nature?

We can answer the question about human nature in two ways, idiosyncratically and generically.

By “idiosyncratically” I mean that each of us has certain talents and abilities, and it makes sense for us to pursue and nurture the talents we have, and not the ones we don’t. If someone has a talent for music but not much athletic ability, that person will be more successful in life and happier by practicing music than by practicing basketball. The opposite would be true for a musically inept athlete.

By “generically” I mean that there are certain functions and abilities we all have by virtue of being human. Hence, it makes sense for us to nurture and expand those functions and abilities. And what are they? Well, I have written a whole book about the subject; it’s a bit much to summarize here. But one thing is common to both the idiosyncratic and generic approaches: self-knowledge.

Inscribed on the temple to Apollo at Delphi were the words “Know Thyself.”(3) That’s not a moral command; it’s just good advice. And it is probably the best advice any of us will ever receive.

[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) Meacham, “The Good and the Right.”
(2) Versenyi, “Is Ethical Egoism Really Inconsistent?”
(3) Wikipedia, “Delphi.”

Meacham, Bill. “The Good and the Right.” Online publication http://www.bmeacham.com/whatswhat/GoodAndRight.html.
Versenyi, Laszlo. “Is Ethical Egoism Really Inconsistent?” Ethics, Vol. 80, No. 3 (April, 1970), pp. 240-242. Online publication http://www.jstor.org/stable/2380274 as of 12 October 2010.
Wikipedia. “Delphi.” Online publication http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delphi as of 10 May 2013.

The Rag Blog

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Tom Hayden : Is President Taking New Tack on Counterterrorism?

President Obama speaks about his administration's counter-terrorism policy at the National Defense University in Washington, May 23, 2013. Photo by Larry Downing / Reuters.
Obama responding to critics:  
Tide turning on counterterrorism secrecy
While defending his military policies as constitutional, the president was promising to wind down the 'forever war,' sharply reduce drone attacks, repatriate detainees to Yemen, and move again to close Guantanamo.
By Tom Hayden / The Rag Blog / May 29, 2013

President Barack Obama’s speech at the National Defense University on counterterrorism revealed a commander-in-chief increasingly worried about political criticism of his Guantanamo detentions, his penchant for secrecy, and his drone warfare policies. Where Obama has shielded his policies on the basis of external terrorist threats, he now is responding to critics who threaten to upset domestic support for those policies abroad.

In past years, Obama has defended himself against attacks from neoconservative hawks and senators like John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsay Graham, who charged him with being “soft” on terrorism. But on May 23, while defending his military policies as constitutional, the president was promising to wind down the “forever war,” sharply reduce drone attacks, repatriate detainees to Yemen, and move again to close Guantanamo.

When disrupted by CodePink’s Medea Benjamin, Obama spontaneously said that Benjamin was “worth paying attention to,” and that he was “willing to cut the young lady who interrupted [him] some slack because it’s worth being passionate about.”

Such a gesture will hardly pacify CodePink or the president’s antiwar critics. But their criticisms have become a factor in the national debate. To criticize the president’s speech as “nothing new” is to miss the primary reason for which the speech was given: to explain a careful withdrawal from the Global War on Terrorism paradigm, the heinous impasse at Guantanamo, and the massive secrecy around drones.

The President was cautious in explaining his pivot toward deescalation, mindful that incidents like Benghazi or the Boston Marathon bombings can block his deescalation path, or at least complicate it severely.

The speech, along with Attorney General Eric Holder's letter and background briefings, for the first time revealed the following:
  • Obama let it be known that the CIA will cede its control of the drone war to the Pentagon in six months, opening the way to greater public transparency and overdue congressional debate -- Pentagon budgets can be amended while CIA items are unmentionable secrets in Washington;
  • Obama called the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force “near obsolete” and proposed its eventual repeal;
  • Clarified that drones will not be used after American ground forces leave Afghanistan, a signal the Taliban and Pakistan will hear;
  • Vowed to “limit the use of lethal force” to only those targets considered to be ”continuing, imminent threat(s) to Americans,” which could “signal an end” (according to The New York Times) of so-called "signature strikes" or where the threats are to partner-states but not American personnel;
  • Acknowledged for the first time that U.S. drone attacks have killed civilians;
  • Declassified the official information that the U.S. killed Anwar al-Awlaki and three other Americans;
  • Dropped its judicial effort to block a California lawsuit seeking materials related to al-Awlaki’s killing;
  • Announced consultations with the media and a report on new whistleblower guidelines by July 12;
  • Appointed a new State Department official “to achieve the transfer” of Yemeni detainees from Guantanamo.
The ramifications of the Obama speech and Holder letter will be felt in the weeks ahead. Asked if there will be effects on existing human rights cases, Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) said, “It does, because they never admitted to killing Abdul Rahman, the teenager, in the court papers, nor did they acknowledge that they killed people that they were not targeting. I have a sense that their legal justifications are going to shift, but not sure to what. [It] may be clearer in the coming weeks.”

In a related development, federal judge Rosemary Collyer required the Justice Department to report in two weeks on how the admissions affected the legal issues in the case. While defining al-Awlaki as a justifiable security threat, the administration now says the other three deaths, including aw-Awlaki’s 16-year old son, were not specifically targeted, raising the question of whether the administration will be held accountable in the federal court.

This article was also published at TomHayden.com.

[Tom Hayden is a former California state senator and leader of Sixties peace, justice, and environmental movements. He currently teaches at Pitzer College in Los Angeles. His latest book is The Long Sixties. Hayden is director of the Peace and Justice Resource center and editor of The Peace Exchange Bulletin. Read more of Tom Hayden's writing on The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

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Michael James : Late Summer Sundown on the Karma Farm

Late summer sundown on the Karma Farm, New Lisbon, Wisconsin 1981. Photo by Michael James from his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James' Pictures from the Long Haul.
Pictures from the Long Haul:
Late summer sundown on the Karma Farm
To other people who talked of 'moving to the country' I would say 'stay in the city but spend some time in the country: think, nourish yourself, and come back to the city to fight the imperialist ogre from within the belly of the beast.'
By Michael James / The Rag Blog / May 29, 2013

[In this series, Michael James is sharing images from his rich past, accompanied by reflections about -- and inspired by -- those images. This photo will be included in his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James' Pictures from the Long Haul.]

Old man Burtchie had been a Seabee during World War II, a member of the U.S. Navy's construction battalion. When I knew him he was a plumber and small farmer.

His son Vic went off to Korea and when he returned in 1951 I was a nine-your-old living up the Red Coat Road in my Connecticut hometown. The name of the road is derived from the British Red Coats who marched nearby on their way to burning the hat factories in Danbury during the Revolutionary War. We played "fight the British"! Victor had a Harley and I had the pleasure of getting to ride with him around hilly and curvy Berkshire foothills, on Connecticut back roads. I was the kid on the back, the third rider on occasion.

Victor give me a winged-wheel Harley hat and also instructed me not to let on to the current woman on the machine between him and me that there had been another woman in that very position cruising with the group of riders earlier in the day.

Besides motorcycles, my close proximity to the farm gave me an early hit of agricultural life. I hung around the barn and did what I was told. I remember a lot of commotion when a Ford pickup truck showed up with a bull with a ring in his nose that was released into a pasture of about six cows. And I helped out when the old man butchered chickens, pigs, and heifers.

Back up the road I helped my dad plant our first garden. The corn grew high as an elephant's eye, or at least twice as high as I stood back in 1949. My younger brother Beau and I both had the farm vibe and became members of the Green Farmers, a 4H club in the Greensfarms part of Westport.

I loved the 4H club and still spout its "head, heart, hand and health." We went to the Grange fair in Easton and took in the livestock exhibits at the Danbury State Fair and the Eastern States Exposition. We took it all in -- the food, the rides, the carnie strip and all its sideshows. Mostly we loved the animals,

In 1952 we moved a half-­mile away to a pre-­revolutionary war onion farm on the Wilton Road. Over the years our stock included Harvey the rabbit, King pigeons, Muscovy ducks, African Tumbler pigeons, and Bantam chickens. In 1962 Beau upped the ante and brought in a couple of sheep. Years later my step dad Shookie planted a sizable garden. When visiting I picked the oh-­so-­fresh tomatoes and ate them with a dose of salt.

Beau was a tractor freak with a collection of John Deer toy tractors. He got our mom to drive him to a tractor dealer and lot where he could look over and learn about these groundbreaking machines. He married and moved to Vermont for a time, starting a sod farm and raising kids and some animals. I visited once and went to the Bondville Fair where I recall watching drunk rural dudes climbing out of an old Plymouth -- deer antlers mounted on the hood, with beer cans in hand.

After moving to and taking various stands in Chicago, I cherish my short-­term escapes to the Karma Farm up in New Lisbon, Wisconsin. To other people who talked of "moving to the country" I would say "stay in the city but spend some time in the country: think, nourish yourself, and come back to the city to fight the imperialist ogre from within the belly of the beast." I am glad I knew the hippie families that tried to make a go of rural life there.

I would haul myself up north, visit and make plans with my friend Lester Doré. Lester, the agriculturally knowledgeable son of an oil field worker family, came out of New Iberia, Louisiana (think Tabasco) and grew up in Tulsa. He ended up in Chicago where he did artwork for The Seed, designed Rising Up Angry's logo, did the original artwork for the Heartland Café, and was the art director of the Heartland Journal.

He also did an artwork stint on the old San Francisco Oracle, designed rolling paper logos, and did a famed piece of design work picturing a marijuana leaf and a peace symbol. He did a series of great jazz t-shirts under the label Bird Lives that were printed at the Farm's little t-shirt factory.

My sojourns to the Karma Farm in beater trucks and cars were peaceful, enlightening, comforting, educational, and fun. These small adventures to the Karma Farm and beyond often found me returning to Chicago with "the goods" for the Heartland Cafe -- t-shirts, firewood, an old wood burning stove, food and maple syrup. I am grateful for those times.

Thank you oh great Mother Earth for the good things you give and the good times you bring.

[Michael James is a former SDS national officer, the founder of Rising Up Angry, co-founder of Chicago's Heartland Café (1976 and still going), and co-host of the Saturday morning (9-10 a.m. CDT) Live from the Heartland radio show, here and on YouTube. He is reachable by one and all at michael@heartlandcafe.com. Find more articles by Michael James on The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

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Alan Waldman : Clive Owen is Excellent in Four ‘Second Sight’ TV Movies

Waldman's film and TV
treasures you may have missed:
Owen plays a police chief detective who strives to solve murders while covering up the fact that he’s going blind.
By Alan Waldman / The Rag Blog / May 29, 2013

[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, Ireland, and Scotland. Most are available on DVD and/or Netflix, and some episodes are on YouTube.]

Clive Owen (who was outstanding in the 1998 film Croupier, which I previously reviewed for The Rag Blog) is once again terrific in the four Second Sight TV movies that are available on DVD and Netflix.

The shows aired on PBS’s Mystery! from 1999 to 2001 and were some North Americans’ initial introduction to the handsome, rugged Englishman Clive Owen. Three of the Second Sight films were penned by talented Paula Milne, who earned two major awards for The Politician’s Wife and seven nominations for other works. Her father was blind.

In the first film, Second Sight, Detective Chief Inspector Ross Tanner (Owen) and his deputy Catherine Tully (Claire Skinner) investigate the brutal murder of a 19-year-old boy. Tanner's skills are tested to the maximum, because he is experiencing hallucinations and a frightening loss of sight and is hiding the fact from his superiors. Tully helps him cover up his handicap.

In the second movie, Second Sight: Hide and Seek, Tanner is put in charge of The Special Murder Unit, dealing with high-profile crimes. He and his team investigate the death of a prominent violinist, and the key to solving it is getting her traumatized, non-communicative 9-year-old son, who watched the death, to open up. Prime suspects are the ex-husband and the ex-lover (Art Malik). During the case, Tully is transferred out of the unit, so Tanner needs to mislead another team member into keeping his secret.

The third film, Second Sight: Parasomnia, deals with a female sleepwalker. Her fiancée has been murdered and she is found with her nightgown covered in blood. Her father is played by the fine Brit actor Michael Kitchen.

In the final film of the series, Second Sight: In the Land of the Blind, Tanner, who continues to lose his eyesight, investigates the murder of a black youth leader. Peter Vaughn is very good as a racist gangster who has also gone blind.

In 2013, an American version of these films, set in New Orleans and starring Jason Lee and Kim Dickens, is being shot.

[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.]

The Rag Blog

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Bob Feldman : Regressive Taxation and Limited Unionization in Texas, 1996-2011

Staff and supporters of Texas' Workers' Defense Project perform at Texas state Capitor inside Capitol at event commemorating Texas workers who have died on the job. Photo by  Jason Cato / Workers Defense Project. Image from the Texas Observer.
The hidden history of Texas
Conclusion: 1996-2011/2 -- Regressive taxation and limited unionization mark era in Texas
By Bob Feldman / The Rag Blog / May 29, 2013

[This is the second section of the conclusion to Bob Feldman's Rag Blog series on the hidden history of Texas.]

Between 1990 and 2000, the number of people living in Texas increased from 16,986,510 to 20,851,820; and by 2010 the total was 25,145,661 -- an increase of 20.6 percent over the population in 2000. Austin’s population jumped from 656,562 to 790,390 between 2000 and 2010 -- an increase of 20.4 percent. And although there were still 228,300 farmers in Texas in 2000, by 2007 about 86 percent of all residents of Texas now lived in urban areas.

During the first decade of the 21st century, the number of Latinos living in Texas increased by 42 percent, the number of African-Americans living in Texas increased by 22 percent and the number of white Anglos living in Texas increased by just 4 percent. In Austin, for example, the Latino population grew by 45 percent between 2000 and 2007.

An estimated 215,000 Native Americans or people of partial Native American descent still lived in Texas in 2000; and between 120,000 and 131,000 people of Jewish background currently live in Texas in the 21st century. And according to 2010 census figures, 11.8 percent of Texans are now African-American, 37.6 percent are Latino, 3.8 percent are Asian-American, and 45.3 percent are white Anglo.

One apparent reason a few ultra-rich residents of Texas are able to accumulate surplus wealth decade after decade is that wealthy people in Texas (unlike wealthy people in states like New York) still don’t have to  pay any state tax on their personal income, to help finance a state government that still generally serves their special class and corporate interests.

Since the ultra-rich folks in Texas, who have dominated the state's politics for most of Texas’s history, still  don’t want to pay a fair share of taxes to the state government, Texas has the nation’s fifth most regressive tax structure among the 50 states, according to United For A Fair Economy analyst Karen Kraut.

So, not surprisingly, in February 2011 the Texas Forward coalition of politically dissatisfied Texas residents and activist groups called for the creation of new sources of revenue that are more equitable than Texas’s current tax structure and for the elimination of unwarranted tax exemptions, in order to help finance those state government programs that actually benefit people in Texas.

Other reasons a few ultra-rich Texans are able to accumulate so much surplus wealth might be that: (1) many workers in Texas are still not unionized; (2) the hourly median wage rate of Texas workers has continued to be lower than the national average; and (3) the special  needs of economically-impoverished people in Texas are still  being ignored and neglected in the 21st century by the state's white corporate power structure and its right-wing political establishment.

According to the Texas AFL-CIO website:
Texas has more than 1,300 local unions. The largest Texas AFL-CIO affiliates in the state (membership above 5,000) are the Texas AFT, Communication Workers of America, American Federation of Government Employees, United Steel Workers, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Fire Fighters, UAW, Transport Workers Union, International Association of Machinists and United Transportation Union.
The same website also notes that in Texas, “some medical professionals, including podiatrists, doctors and nurses have joined unions;” and the Central Labor Councils in Austin, Coastal Bend, Dallas, El Paso, Galveston, Harris County, San Antonio, and Smith County each protect the economic interests of 5,000 or more labor union members.

Yet in 2011 less than 20 percent of Texas public sector workers are covered by union contracts. In addition, of the 10,526,000 people who work in Texas only 220,000 are members of Texas AFL-CIO-affiliated unions, although “Texas has substantial union membership that does not affiliate or pay dues to the Texas AFL-CIO” and “if you add non-affiliates about 500,000 union members work in Texas,” according to the Texas AFL-CIO.

The hourly median wage for Texas workers in 2003 of $12.01 was also still just 88 percent of the national average in 2003, according to an Economic Policy Institute study. And the median income in Texas in 2005 of $42,131 was less than the national median income at that time of $46,242, according to the Texas Politics website. In addition, according to a May 5, 2011, study of the Economic Policy Institute :
Texas is tied with Mississippi in having the largest share (9.5 percent) of hourly workers earning at or below the federal minimum wage. This compares with just 6 percent nationally...12.6 percent of U.S. workers earning the minimum wage or less work in Texas... Between 2009 and 2010, the number of people working at or below the minimum wage in Texas grew to 76,000.
A 2009 study by the Austin-based Workers Defense Project, titled "Building Austin, Building Injustice: Working Conditions in Austin's Construction Industry," found that in Austin (where the proportion of Latino/a construction workers grew by 13 percent between 2000 to 2007), “50 percent of surveyed construction workers reported not being paid overtime,” and “45 percent earned poverty level wages,” according to an article by Carlos Perez de Alejo that appeared in Dollars & Sense magazine.

As this same study revealed:
...50,000 Austin residents work in the construction industry... Texas construction workers earn 2 to 3 dollars less than their counterparts in other states who performed the same skilled work... One in five workers reported being denied payment for their construction work in Austin...The large majority of construction workers lacked health insurance (76%), pensions (81%), sick days (87%) or vacation days (73%)... In 2007, 142 construction workers died in Texas, more than any other state in the country... In 2008...construction laborers...earned a median wage of only $10.68 per hour.
[Bob Feldman is an East Coast-based writer-activist and a former member of the Columbia SDS Steering Committee of the late 1960s. Read more articles by Bob Feldman on The Rag Blog.]

The Rag Blog

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27 May 2013

Medea Benjamin : Why I spoke Out at Obama's Foreign Policy Speech

Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the political activist group CodePink, is removed by security after speaking out against President Barack Obama during his foreign policy speech Thursday. Photo by Kevin Dietsch  / UPI. Image from Common Dreams.
Why I spoke out at 
Obama's foreign policy speech
Or, Why Obama's policies themselves, not those who speak out against them, are rude.
By Medea Benjamin / Common Dreams / May 27, 2013

Having worked for years on the issues of drones and Guantanamo, I was delighted to get a pass (the source will remain anonymous) to attend President Obama’s speech at the National Defense University.

I had read many press reports anticipating what the President might say. There was much talk about major policy shifts that would include transparency with the public, new guidelines for the use of drones, taking lethal drones out of the purview of the CIA, and in the case of Guantanamo, invoking the “waiver system” to begin the transfer of prisoners already cleared for release.

Sitting at the back of the auditorium, I hung on every word the President said. I kept waiting to hear an announcement about changes that would represent a significant shift in policy. Unfortunately, I heard nice words, not the resetting of failed policies.

Instead of announcing the transfer of drone strikes from the CIA to the exclusive domain of the military, Obama never even mentioned the CIA -- much less acknowledge the killing spree that the CIA has been carrying out in Pakistan during his administration. While there were predictions that he would declare an end to signature strikes, strikes based merely on suspicious behavior that have been responsible for so many civilian casualties, no such announcement was made.

The bulk of the president’s speech was devoted to justifying drone strikes. I was shocked when the President claimed that his administration did everything it could to capture suspects instead of killing them. That is just not true. Obama’s reliance on drones is precisely because he did not want to be bothered with capturing suspects and bringing them to trial.

Take the case of 16-year-old Pakistani Tariz Aziz, who could have been picked up while attending a conference at a major hotel in the capital, Islamabad, but was instead killed by a drone strike, with his 12-year-old cousin, two days later. Or the drone strike that 23-year-old Yemini Farea al-Muslimi talked about when he testified in Congress. He said the man targeted in his village of Wessab was a man who everyone knew, who met regularly with government officials, and who could have easily been brought in for questioning.

When the President was coming to the end of this speech, he started talking about Guantanamo. As he has done in the past, he stated his desire to close the prison, but blamed Congress. That’s when I felt compelled to speak out. With the men in Guantanamo on hunger strike, being brutally forced fed and bereft of all hope, I couldn’t let the President continue to act as if he were some helpless official at the mercy of Congress.

“Excuse me, Mr. President,” I said, “but you’re the Commander-in-Chief. You could close Guantanamo tomorrow and release the 86 prisoners who have been cleared for release.” We went on to have quite an exchange.

While I have received a deluge of support, there are others, including journalists, who have called me “rude.” But terrorizing villages with Hellfire missiles that vaporize innocent people is rude. Violating the sovereignty of nations like Pakistan is rude. Keeping 86 prisoners in Guantanamo long after they have been cleared for release is rude. Shoving feeding tubes down prisoners' throats instead of giving them justice is certainly rude.

At one point during his speech, President Obama said that the deaths of innocent people from the drone attacks will haunt him as long as he lives. But he is still unwilling to acknowledge those deaths, apologize to the families, or compensate them.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. military has a policy of compensating the families of victims who they killed or wounded by mistake. It is not always done, and many families refuse to take the money, but at least it represents some accounting for taking the lives of innocent people. Why can’t the President set up a similar policy when drone strikes are used in countries with which we are not at war?

There are many things the President could and should have said, but he didn’t. So it is up to us to speak out.

This article was first published at and was distributed by Common Dreams. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

[Medea Benjamin (medea@globalexchange.org), cofounder of Global Exchange and CODE PINK: Women for Peace, is the author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control. Her previous books include Don’t Be Afraid Gringo: A Honduran Woman Speaks from the Heart, and (with Jodie Evans) Stop the Next War Now: Effective Responses to Violence and Terrorism.]

Medea Benjamin interviewed by Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!

The Rag Blog

[+/-]

23 May 2013

RAG RADIO / Thorne Dreyer : Journalism Prof Robert Jensen is 'Arguing for Our Lives'

Robert Jensen in the studios of KOOP in Austin, Texas, Friday, May 10, 2013. Photos by William Michael Hanks / The Rag Blog.
Rag Radio podcast: 
Journalism professor and activist
Robert Jensen is 'Arguing for Our Lives'
"I feel what I’m often doing is kind of a remedial course in how to see the world." -- Robert Jensen on Rag Radio
By Thorne Dreyer / The Rag Blog / May 23, 2013

Author, activist, journalism professor, and cutting-edge radical thinker Robert Jensen was our guest on Rag Radio, Friday, May 10, 2013. Rag Radio is a syndicated radio program produced at the studios of KOOP 91.7-FM, a cooperatively-run all-volunteer community radio station in Austin, Texas.

Listen to or download our interview with Robert Jensen here:

On the show, we discuss issues raised in Jensen's latest book, Arguing for Our Lives: A User's Guide to Constructive Dialog. The book has been described as a "lively primer on critical thinking... that explains how we can work collectively to enrich our intellectual lives." Author Raj Patel says that Jensen, in the book, "reacquaints us with the political and social skills we'll need if we're to reclaim politics for the 21st century."

Robert Jensen is a widely-published writer and author, a political activist, and a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches courses in media law, ethics, and politics. Prior to his academic career, Jensen worked for a decade as a professional journalist.

In Arguing for Our Lves, and in our Rag Radio interview, Jensen addresses issues related to how we comprehend the world, how we organize the information we learn, and how we communicate what we have come to understand. It's about analysis and rhetoric and critical thinking.
Jensen believes that people in our increasingly complex society are struggling  "to make sense of and organize this incredible flood of information that’s available to us now. And so a book on some basics about critical thinking struck me as useful both for a student audience and an adult audience."

"So I try to do critical thinking about difficult and controversial subjects," Jensen told us.

In his teaching at UT-Austin, Jensen told the Rag Radio audience, "I feel what I’m often doing is kind of a remedial course in how to see the world."

"The public education system doesn’t really function," he says, "especially in the way it buries so much of our history."

"In the classroom it seems clear to me that every year students come in a little less able to deal with some of the basic concepts like democracy," he said. "Not just a textbook definition, but what does it really mean? They’re often very technically competent but unimaginative."

"I’ve noticed a trend in the last few years where I have very good students in traditional terms. They test well, they score highly on exams and standardized tests. But they have no conception of the larger world."

Jensen says he has students, "usually from smaller towns," who tell him that their parents, people in their church, and others in their community "will take them aside and say, 'Now remember, you’re going to UT-Austin and they’re going to try to destroy everything you believe, and you have to stay strong.'"

Tracey Schulz, left, Robert Jensen,
and Thorne Dreyer.
"Critical thinking is threatening," he says "It’s certainly threatening to certain kinds of traditions. It’s certainly threatening to concentrated wealth and power."

Many in our increasingly complex world, Jensen believes, are feeling what he characterizes as "authentic anxiety."  They're "looking at the world, realizing that we face these complex problems that have no easy answers, maybe don’t have answers at all, and that that is a source of anxiety," he says.

We all feel "anxiety about things like the multiple ecological crises, the fact that no one really thinks that democracy is working in any meaningful way, the fact that our pop culture is increasingly corrosive, especially around issues of gender and sexuality."

"And I think, especially at this moment in history, especially on the ecological front where the data is pretty clear, that we are facing down problems that are not going to be solved easily and that may not be solvable at all in the confines of our normal everyday lives."

"Well," Jensen says, "when I look at that, I feel a sense of anguish."

But he thinks that anguish, "and a certain kind of grief," is an understandable and appropriate response. Just as "anxiety does not lead to paralysis," he says, "neither does anguish and grief. It can lead to action, it can be a great motivator."

"And," Jensen adds, "that sense of overload that people feel is perfectly understandable. I feel it myself. We’re all talking about how marvelous it is to live in the information age, but a lot of people experience it as a kind of burden."

Jensen believes that in order to comprehend and deal with the world around us, we need to overcome the pervasive anti-intellectualism in our society. "A lot of people kind of sneer at the idea of being an intellectual, because it’s been so associated with elitism," He says. But, "you can’t act in the world if you don’t understand the world."

"If you are going to be meaningful in organizing and acting to make a more just and sustainable world," that action must be "based on some idea, some theory, some analysis." "We all have an ideology," Jensen told the Rag Radio audience. "Everybody’s got a worldview, a framework through which we understand things. Nobody comes into the world 'fresh.' There’s no such thing as a 'blank slate.'

"Ideology," he says, is also "a very useful word to use to describe the way people in power can sometimes impose their point of view, through the educational system and mass media... and make their ideology appear to be the common sense of the culture."

Dreyer and Jensen at KOOP.
According to Jensen, "Modern science has done a very good job of helping us understand this universe by what scientists call reductionism. When you take a little part of the world and you try to figure it out, and then you hope that by putting all those parts together you can figure things out."

"And on the surface," he says, "it appears that that’s been a huge success. We’ve figured out an enormous amount in a couple of centuries about how the world really works as a physical system." And, Jensen says, "the knowledge is quite stunning."

"But we are also learning every day more and more about what we don’t know," he points out. "It’s just kind of a reminder of the importance of intellectual humility." "What we don’t know," Jensen says, "will always outstrip what we do know."

"We continue to intervene in this larger universe in ways that we can’t predict and the consequences of which are often potentially -- and now, with climate change, literally -- life-threatening."

"And when we intervene on the basis of incomplete knowledge, what we’re really doing, not to get too theological here, is playing God. And the Bible itself is full of a lot of reminders about what happens when human beings think they’re God."

"It usually doesn’t end so well."

Robert Jensen's writing is published in mainstream and alternative media and appears regularly on The Rag Blog. He is a board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center and is active with the 5604 Manor Community Center in Austin, the Workers Defense Project, and Cooperation Texas, an organization committed to developing and supporting worker-owned cooperatives.

Jensen's other books include We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out; All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice; Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity; The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege; Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity; and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream.

Robert Jensen was previously Thorne Dreyer's guest on Rag Radio on July 8, 2011.

Rag Radio is hosted and produced by Rag Blog editor and long-time alternative journalist Thorne Dreyer, a pioneer of the Sixties underground press movement.

The show has aired since September 2009 on KOOP 91.7-FM, an all-volunteer cooperatively-run community radio station in Austin, Texas. Rag Radio is broadcast live every Friday from 2-3 p.m. (CDT) on KOOP 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:
May 24, 2013 (RESCHEDULED): Amsterdam-based poet John Sinclair, legendary founder of the White Panther Party and former manager of the MC5.
Friday, May 31, 2013: Philosophy scholar Bill Meacham, author of How to Be an Excellent Human.
Listen to our May 17, 2013 Rag Radio interview with political economist Gar Alperovitz, author of What Then Must We Do?

The Rag Blog

[+/-]

22 May 2013

Jack A. Smith : Afghanistan's Karzai Lets Cat Out of the Bag

Afghan president Hamid Karzai. Photo by Massoud Hossaini / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.
But then, again...
Afghan War may end by 2024
Washington evidently was taken aback by Karzai’s unexpected public revelations that made it clear President Obama is anxious, not hesitant, to keep American troops in Afghanistan.
By Jack A. Smith / The Rag Blog / May 23, 2013

Hamid Karzai has let the Pentagon’s cat out of the bag -- to the displeasure of the Obama Administration. The Afghan president revealed inside information about President Obama’s war plans after all U.S. “combat troops” completely withdraw in 17 months at the end of 2014.

As was known in recent years, the Obama Administration actually plans to keep troops in Afghanistan after the “withdrawal,” at least to 2024. They won’t be “combat troops,” so Obama didn’t actually mislead the American people. Instead they are to be Special Forces troops, who certainly engage in combat but are identified by a different military designation, as well as U.S. Army trainers for the Afghan military, CIA contingents, drone operators, and various other personnel.

The White House has kept other details secret, such as troop numbers and basing arrangements, until it is certain a final Strategic Partnership Declaration is worked out with the Kabul government. When that occurs, the White House expects to make the announcement itself at a time of its choosing, sculpting the information to convey the impression that another 10 years of fighting is not actually war but an act of compassion for a besieged ally who begs for help.

On May 9, however, during a speech at Kabul University, President Karzai decided to update the world on the progress he was making in his secret talks with the U.S., evidently without Washington’s knowledge.

“We are in very serious and delicate negotiations with America," Karzai said. "America has got its demands, Afghanistan too has its own demands, and its own interests... They want nine bases across Afghanistan. We agree to give them the bases.

"Our conditions are that the U.S. intensify efforts in the peace process [i.e., talks with the Taliban], strengthen Afghanistan's security forces, provide concrete support to the economy -- power, roads and dams -- and provide assistance in governance. If these are met, we are ready to sign the security pact."

Washington evidently was taken aback by Karzai’s unexpected public revelations that made it clear President Obama is anxious, not hesitant, to keep American troops in Afghanistan. Few analysts thought there would be as many as nine bases. Neither the White House nor State Department confirmed requesting them but both emphasized that any bases in question were not intended to be permanent, as though that’s the principal factor.

If American engagement lasts until 2024 it will mean the U.S. has been involved in Afghan wars for most of the previous 46 years. It began in 1978 when Washington (and Saudi Arabia) started to finance the right wing Islamist mujahedeen uprising against a left wing pro-Soviet government in Kabul. The left regime was finally defeated in 1992 and the Taliban emerged as the dominant force among several other fighting groups in the mid-90s.

The CIA remained active in Afghanistan and was joined by the rest of the U.S. war machine weeks after the September 11, 2000, terror attacks in Washington and New York. The objective was to overthrow the Taliban and destroy al-Qaeda, which also emerged from the Washington-financed wars. The U.S. swiftly took control of Kabul and al-Qaeda fled to Pakistan. Since then, the American foreign legion has been fought to a stalemate by a much smaller poorly equipped guerrilla force, which is where the situation remains today.

Negotiations with the Taliban

The U.S. has engaged in secret talks with the Taliban off and on for a couple of years. The hope is that the Taliban will agree to stop fighting and subordinate itself to the Kabul government in return for money, and a certain amount of administrative and political power within the national and certain provincial governments.

The Taliban will agree to nothing at this stage but an immediate and total withdrawal of U.S. military forces and the closure of bases. The White House evidently thinks that a combination of U.S.-trained Afghan forces plus the remaining Americans might bring their opponents to the bargaining table. The nine bases also provide the U.S. with a strong bargaining chip to relinquish at the right time.

Washington has additional reasons for remaining in Afghanistan, as we wrote in the May 31, 2011, issue of the Activist Newsletter -- and little has changed:
The U.S. has no desire to completely withdraw from its only foothold in Central Asia, militarily positioned close to what are perceived to be its two main enemies with nuclear weapons (China, Russia), and two volatile nuclear powers backed by the U.S. but not completely under its control by any means (Pakistan, India). Also, this fortuitous geography is flanking the extraordinary oil and natural gas wealth of the Caspian Basin and energy-endowed former Soviet Muslim republics such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Lastly, Iran -- a possible future imperial prize -- is situated directly across Afghanistan’s western border.

The U.S. wants to keep troops nearby for any contingency. Washington’s foothold in Central Asia is a potential geopolitical treasure, particularly as Obama, like Bush before him, seeks to prevent Beijing and Moscow from extending their influence in what is actually their own back yard, not America’s.
Soon after this was written the Obama Administration revealed its “pivot” to Asia. Remaining in Central Asia is now part of what we have called America’s “ring of fire” around China, singeing North Korea as well.

Karzai occasionally makes strong public statements that criticize the U.S. They seem mainly intended to bolster his position by showing the Afghan people he is not Uncle Sam’s total puppet, but he’s to be praised for these statements.

For example, he often complains openly when the U.S. commits war crimes in his country, which have been numerous. He has demanded the U.S. discontinue night raids on homes. In late February, according to the Guardian, he ordered “U.S. Special Forces to leave one of Afghanistan’s most restive provinces, Maidan Wardak, after receiving reports from local officials claiming that the elite units had been involved in the torture and disappearance of Afghan civilians.”

He recently charged that Washington was allowing the Taliban to increase its violence to make it necessary for him to approve the U.S. demand to remain until 2024.

The issue of Karzai

The issue of Karzai.
Washington named Karzai acting president soon after the Bush Administration’s aggressive invasion 12 years ago. His job was to serve the interests of the United States while governing Afghanistan.

Karzai was elected president with decisive U.S. backing two years later. The Obama Administration maneuvered to oust him in the 2009 election, charging him with gross corruption, but its candidate withdrew just before the voting. Karzai legally cannot run for another term, but intends to continue playing a powerful role if he can pull it off.

Karzai is shrewd and realizes America’s intentions are far more corrupt than his own because he only wants money, power, and a somewhat better deal for Afghanistan, while the hypocritical U.S. wants everything there is to grab for its own geopolitical interests.

He has long been on the CIA’s generous payroll and also distributes payoffs to various warlords, some of whom are closer to the CIA than to the government. A week before the 2001 invasion the CIA was inside the country smuggling money to the warlords to join the impending war on the Taliban.

The White House dislikes the Afghan leader but he’s all they have at the moment. They desperately need him now, particularly until signing a final agreement on having U.S. troops remain until 2024. President Obama well remembers his humiliation when Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki rejected demands to keep troops in Iraq after the “withdrawal” date, December 30, 2011.

Obama pressured Maliki for years to permit up to 30,000 U.S. troops in Iraq after the “combat troops” pulled out. In mid-October 2011 the Iraqi leader finally accepted 3,000 to 5,000 troops in a training-only capacity. The Iraqis then insisted that they remain largely confined to their bases, and refused Washington’s demand to grant legal immunity to the soldiers when they entered the larger society.

That was the deal-breaker. Washington routinely demands legal exemption for its foreign legions as a matter of imperial hubris, and would not compromise. The day after the deal collapsed, Obama issued a public statement intended to completely conceal his failure. "Today,” he said, “I can report that, as promised, the rest of our troops in Iraq will come home by the end of the year."

The deal with Kabul

Several important issues in the Washington-Kabul post-2014 negotiations seem to have been decided, including a U.S. payment of at least $10 billion a year to train and pay for some 400,000 Afghan soldiers and police officers. Among the remaining issues are two of considerable importance -- troop strength and legal immunity for American personal (both for soldiers and tens of thousands of U.S. “contractors” who will remain in the country).

Reports circulated in the last few months that between 3,000 and 20,000 U.S. troops, mainly Special Forces, CIA contingents, drone operators and contractors of various kinds, will remain after 2014. The main air cover is expected to come from Navy aircraft carriers probably stationed in the Arabian Sea or Indian Ocean. Drones are expected to play a major role in battle as well as surveillance. Last year there were some 400 drone attacks in Afghanistan and that number is expected to continue increasing.

The New York Times reported January 3 that
Gen. John R. Allen, the senior American commander in Afghanistan, has submitted military options to the Pentagon that would keep 6,000 to 20,000 American troops in Afghanistan after 2014... With 6,000 troops, defense officials said, the American mission would largely be a counterterrorism fight of Special Operations commandos who would hunt down insurgents. There would be limited logistical support and training for Afghan security forces. With 10,000 troops, the United States would expand training of Afghan security forces. With 20,000 troops, the Obama administration would add some conventional Army forces to patrol in limited areas.
The May 11 New York Times reported that
The Obama administration has yet to decide how large a force it would like to keep in Afghanistan, but administration officials have signaled that it is unlikely to total more than 10,000 service members. They said it was more important now to hash out a range of issues, like whether American troops would continue to have legal immunity in Afghanistan after next year, than to talk about the specifics of where troops would be based.
The big remaining issue is immunity for U.S. personnel. Our guess is that, unlike in Iraq -- where conditions are far different -- Washington will find a way around the issue. It is difficult to see how the Kabul government of Karzai or his successor in next year’s elections can survive for long without substantial American financial support for a prolonged period.

The world as battleground

American forces are engaged in Obama’s drone wars in western Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and soon Africa. Regime change in Libya would not have occurred had the Obama Administration refused to participate. President Obama has been fanning the flames of regime change in Syria for nearly two years, and now he’s about to up the ante.

He’s strangling Iran with unjust sanctions and keeps warning that war is possible. He calls Hezbollah, the Shia self-defense organization in Lebanon, a terrorist organization, as he does Hamas in Gaza, the victim of overwhelming Israeli hatred and violence. And now Obama in moving more military power to East Asia to confront China.

If George W. Bush was in the White House today, a huge American peace movement would be out on the streets demanding an end to America’s endless immoral wars. But now a Democrat officiates in the Oval Office, his Nobel Peace Prize wisely hidden in a dark closet lest his militarist propensities provoke an unseemly contrast.

Obama’s many wars are but extensions of Bush’s wars plus killer drones, but the great majority of Americans either seem to have forgotten or simply don’t care about the wars, even though their tax money will amount to $80 billion for Afghanistan in fiscal 2014. Meanwhile, Pentagon generals anticipate various new wars of one kind or another well into the future. The battle against al-Qaeda is expected to last 20 more years. The world has become America’s battlefield.

Afghanistan? Didn’t we have a war there once? Oh, that’s right, it ended when we got rid of Bush, didn’t it?

[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.]

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