Nader v. Dodd

Posted in Political Economy on November 20, 2009 by CjH

A Dream Match

“In the beginning of a change the Patriot is a scarce man, and brave, and hated, and scorned. When his cause succeeds, the timid join him, for then it costs nothing to be a Patriot.”

–Mark Twain

There is a word; a name actually. The very pronunciation of which sends a deathlike chill down the gelatinous spinal column of the self-styled “progressive” Democrat. Democrat media talking heads have even a more violent reaction. A reaction that is similar to that of the mythical, bloodsucking, soul-destroying vampire when confronted with the light of day.

There is a very good chance that Ralph Nader may run for US Senate in Connecticut in 2010. Ralph told Politico reporter Glenn Thrush “You can’t believe the number of people asking me [to run]… Right now I’d say I’m agnostic”.

The long whispered rumor began to take on greater credibility as far back as April when an article by Keith Burris first appeared in “The Norwich Bulletin” — Norwich, Connecticut. Back then the driving force was the anger that Connecticut voters felt towards Senator Chris Dodd.

Connecticut voters finally realized Dodd is a do-nothing corporate Democrat for whom they have been voting pretty much out of mindless habit. However, now that most cognizant voters realize that it was the repeal of The Glass-Steagall Act (which separated commercial and investment banking firms) that was the root cause of our current economic crisis, voters everywhere, Connecticut being no exception, are taking a hard look at corporate Democrats from Barry The Bomber on down.

Chris Dodd represented Wall Street and the banks when he should have been representing the people of Connecticut and protecting them from the predatory practices of the financial world. As it turns out, it was Chris Dodd himself who engineered the Glass-Steagall repeal. Senator Dodd’s only comment on this incredibly heinous deed was that he really didn’t mean to destroy the banking system! He blames the regulators but of course the regulators did not repeal the 1933 legislation; that was done by Chris Dodd and cheerfully signed by Bill the Stain Clinton.

The Big Five

Adding insult to injury, Senator Dodd is also one of the top 5 recipients of Wall Street bucks. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, “The finance, insurance and real estate sector has given $2.3 billion to candidates, leadership PACs and party committees since 1989, which eclipses every other sector. Nineteen percent of total contributions from the employees and political action committees across all sectors came from the financial sector.” Dodd has been the happy recipient of $752,698. He is the fourth largest leech being eclipsed only by Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) at $2,167,300; Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) at $1,173,400 (yes, she’s the one who replaced Hillary Clinton in more ways than one) and coming in at number three is Harry Reid (D-NV) at $1,038,210.

Democrats all! Yes, the lesser evil party which has done so much to oppose the right-wing in the last 30 years it would take a volume at least the size of an entire postage stamp to enumerate.

Dodd is hardly the paradigm for the Democrat Party’s acquiescence to corporatism. The Democrats have been slopping out the corporate trough ever since the early 1980s when Tony Coelho convinced them that they should be dialing for the same corporate dollars as the Republicans. If there was little difference between the Democrats and Republicans prior to the 80s it was completely gone by the time William the Stain was elected in 1992.

Democrats follow the Republican lead in more than just corporate money. Advertising has replaced substance and when “Brand Obama” was put on the market the Democrats never bothered to ask “where’s the beef”. Now even Democrat strategists like David Swanson are saying that the Obama administration is no better than a third Bush administration. So much for the myth that “Anybody is Better than Bush”.

Lemons for Clunkers

Imagine the experience someone has after having dumped their old clunker for a new car only to discover they bought a lemon! Suddenly even the old clunker begins to look good! Pardon the Biblical excursion but Jesus really captures the Obama-following-Bush experience quite prophetically: “When a demon goes out of a man, it travels through the desert, seeking rest, and finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ Then it goes and takes with it seven other demons more wicked than itself, and they enter and dwell therein; and the last state of that man is worse than the first. So shall it also be with this wicked generation.” In other words, for those who thought Bush was bad, Obama will make him look like a schoolyard bully. Obama has already dropped three times as many bombs on innocent Pakistani men, women and children in one year than George Bush did in his last three years! And it took a Democrat to attack women’s rights in the recent health care spectacle – not even Bush did that!

Nevertheless the so-called progressive Democrats are beginning to raise a troubled eyebrow. No, they will never vote for anyone other than a Democrat for President; that would be asking way too much. But they may just have lost enough enthusiasm to stay home next November in some states or in Connecticut they may actually realize that choosing “the lesser of two evils” is morally correct only when there is no “good” choice. The overwhelming majority of Democrats have never been able to rise to that moral level in the past but Connecticut may give them the opportunity to obtain absolution for the sins of their entire party in 2000, 2004 and 2008. Whether they can ever be absolved for the lies they told about “Nader taking votes from Gore” is questionable. They may have to serve years in political hell to cleanse their political souls of that obscenity.

Caution: The Green Party

The Connecticut Green Party has already announced that it would welcome Ralph Nader into the 2010 race for U. S. Senate and thinks he would have a good chance to win against current Senator Dodd.

A Connecticut Green Party spokesperson said, “Since the media reports began in local and national web sites last week, we have seen hundreds of responses urging him to run. With Dodd losing in many polls to the Republicans who have announced, we think Nader could be a clear choice to many who have lost faith in Dodd and his scandals with the banking and financial industries. To win, Nader would have to raise $3-5 million, which he has done easily in past campaigns and build an army of hundreds of volunteers for the race.”

In meeting with Green Party officers, nevertheless, Ralph should wear a large chain of garlic and carry the largest cross available since the Green Party sees itself as nothing more than a special interest group within the Democrat Party. Instead of backing Nader in 2004 and 2008 it gave indirect support to the Democrat candidate even rigging its own convention so that Nader could not possibly win the nomination. Nevertheless, the Greens are in perhaps greater need of absolution than the Democrats. Absolution is, after all, part of the last rites. Even with a Nader candidacy it is doubtful that the Green Party will see Resurrection Day.

The Corporate Parties

At least three Republicans have announced their intension to run against Dodd! They think he can be defeated too. Connecticut, despite Lieberman and Dodd, is nevertheless a liberal stronghold and it would be difficult for a Republican to win unless the Democrats (as may very well happen) stay home in droves.

The Democrat Party of Connecticut seems unable to come up with a viable primary challenge to Dodd, leaving the door open for Ralph Nader to run as an independent. Of course, Ralph could run as a Democrat. Sure he could, and the Pope could become an Anglican!

The Nader Virus

When I ran for House of Representatives as an independent, a newspaper reporter asked me, “given that the Congress is dominated by two parties what could I, as an independent hope to achieve since I was critical of both parties”. I responded that the human body has trillions of cells yet one simple virus can bring the entire organism to a halt. Imagine what someone like Ralph Nader could do in the United States Senate! Sure, the mainstream media will do everything possible to ignore him and minimize his achievements but even the corporate media cannot completely ignore a United States senator especially when he holds the corporate feet of both parties to the fire.

Nader as a senator could not only put the lie to Obama’s mindless rambling about why single payer will not work in the United States, he would be the only member of Congress telling the truth about why we are in Iraq and why we are murdering innocent men, women and children in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He could speak out against the genocide being committed by Israel on the Palestinians and the Zionist’s plans to create a new Holocaust for Islam and how the whole operation is being financed by American taxpayers. He could beat the Corporate Democrats over the head with “Cap and Trade” and point out why we need a carbon tax instead. He would be the only member of Congress talking about The Basic Income Guarantee (BIG), taxing stock transactions, eliminating the federal income tax for anyone making under $100,000, restoring the progressive income tax and repealing Taft-Hartley. To be trite: a bull in a china shop.

You may say that I’m a dreamer

If Ralph Nader were to be elected to the Senate from Connecticut it would not be long before we saw a newspaper article looking something like this:

WASHINGTON – Senator Ralph Nader issued subpoenas today for the CEO’s of Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase, Timothy Geithner, Henry Paulson…

Imagine!

John Murphy, CounterPunch

Empire Exposed

Posted in Global Order, Private Plunder, Welcome to The Machine on November 15, 2009 by CjH

Maniacal Deregulation

Posted in Political Economy on November 12, 2009 by CjH

10 Years After Glass-Steagall

By Robert Weissman, President of Public Citizen; CounterPunch

Today marks the 10-year anniversary of the passage of the repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act and related legislation. It is an anniversary worth noting for what it teaches us about forestalling financial crises, the consequences of maniacal deregulation, and the out-of-control political power of the megafinancial institutions.

The repeal of Glass-Steagall removed the legal prohibition on combinations between commercial banks on the one hand, and investment banks and other financial services companies on the other. Glass-Steagall’s strict rules originated in the U.S. government’s response to the Depression and reflected the learned experience of the severe dangers to consumers and the overall financial system of permitting giant financial institutions to combine commercial banking with other financial operations.

Glass-Steagall protected depositors and prevented the banking system from taking on too much risk by defining industry structure: Commercial banks could not maintain investment banking or insurance affiliates (nor affiliates in non-financial commercial activity).

As banks eyed the higher profits in higher risk activity, however, they began in the 1970s to breach the regulatory walls between commercial banking and other financial services. Starting in the 1980s, responding to a steady drumbeat of requests, regulators began to weaken the strict prohibition on cross-ownership.

Despite herculean efforts by Wall Street throughout the 1990s, Glass-Steagall remained law because of intra-industry and intra-regulatory agency disagreements.

Then, in 1998, in an act of corporate civil disobedience, Citicorp and Travelers Group announced they were merging. Such a combination of banking and insurance companies was illegal under the Bank Holding Company Act, but was excused due to a loophole that provided a two-year review period of proposed mergers. The merger was premised on the expectation that Glass-Steagall would be repealed.

Citigroup’s co-chairs Sandy Weill and John Reed led a swarm of industry executives and lobbyists who trammeled the halls of Congress to make sure a deal was cut. But as the deal-making on the bill moved into its final phase in Fall 1999, fears ran high that the entire exercise would collapse. (Reed now says repeal of Glass-Steagall was a mistake.)

Robert Rubin stepped into the breach. Having recently stepped aside as Treasury Secretary, Rubin was at the time negotiating the terms of his next job as an executive without portfolio at Citigroup. But this was not public knowledge at the time. Deploying the credibility built up as part of what the media had labeled “The Committee to Save the World” (Rubin, Fed Chair Alan Greenspan and then-Deputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, so named for their interventions in addressing the Asian financial crisis in 1997), Rubin helped broker the final deal.

The Financial Services Modernization Act, also known as the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, formally repealed Glass-Steagall. Among a long list of deregulatory moves large and small over the last two decades, Gramm-Leach-Bliley was the signal piece of financial deregulation.

Repeal of Glass-Steagall had many important direct effects but the most important was to change the culture of commercial banking to emulate Wall Street’s high-risk speculative betting approach.

“Commercial banks are not supposed to be high-risk ventures; they are supposed to manage other people’s money very conservatively,” writes Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. “It is with this understanding that the government agrees to pick up the tab should they fail. Investment banks, on the other hand, have traditionally managed rich people’s money — people who can take bigger risks in order to get bigger returns. When repeal of Glass-Steagall brought investment and commercial banks together, the investment-bank culture came out on top. There was a demand for the kind of high returns that could be obtained only through high leverage and big risk-taking.”

This is a very important part of the story of what created the financial crisis.

What lessons should be learned from the 10-year debacle?

First, Glass-Steagall’s key insight was in the need to treat regulation from an industry structure point of view. Glass-Steagall’s authors did not set out to establish a regulatory system to oversee companies that combined commercial banking and investment banking. They simply banned the combination of these enterprises. Cleaning up the current mess, we need strategies that focus on industry structure — meaning, especially, that we must break up the big banks — as well as more traditional regulation.

Second, we need to return to Glass-Steagall’s more particular understanding: depository institutions backed by federal insurance protection cannot be involved in the risky, speculative betting of the investment banking world. (Notably, the Glass-Steagall problem is now worse than it was before the financial crisis, following JP Morgan’s acquisition of Bear Stearns, and Bank of America’s takeover of Merrill Lynch.) Moreover, we need not just to reinstate Glass-Steagall, but infuse its underlying principles throughout the financial regulatory scheme. Commercial banks should not be in the business of speculation. They have a job to do in providing credit to the real economy. They should do that. Their job is not to engage in betting on derivatives and other exotic financial instruments.

Third, giant financial institutions exercise too much political power, and for that reason alone must be broken up.

Fourth, we need broad reform in the area of money and politics. We need public financing of Congressional regulations, even stronger lobbyist reforms, and tight restrictions to close the revolving door through which individuals spin as they travel between positions in government and industry.

A year ago, as the financial crisis was unfolding, it seemed very plausible that these reforms would be seriously debated in Congress. Three months ago, it appeared that Wall Street had successfully maneuvered to keep them off the table. But in Congress a recognition is now settling in that regulatory reforms on the table are failing to deal with the problems of size and industry structure — and that there may be a severe political price to be paid for such failure. Suddenly, it seems that common sense may again be politically viable.


The Evil Empire

Posted in Global Order, Private Plunder, Welcome to The Machine on November 8, 2009 by CjH

Republic of Fools

By Paul Craig Roberts, CounterPunch

The US government is now so totally under the thumbs of organized interest groups that “our” government can no longer respond to the concerns of the American people who elect the president and the members of the House and Senate. Voters will vent their frustrations over their impotence on the president, which implies a future of one-term presidents. Soon our presidents will be as ineffective as Roman emperors in the final days of that empire.

Obama is already set on the course to a one-term presidency. He promised change, but has delivered none. His health care bill is held hostage by the private insurance companies seeking greater profits. The most likely outcome will be cuts in Medicare and Medicaid in order to help fund wars that enrich the military/security complex and the many companies created by privatizing services that the military once provided for itself at far lower costs. It would be interesting to know the percentage of the $700+ billion “defense” spending that goes to private companies. In American “capitalism,” an amazing amount of taxpayers’ earnings go to private firms via the government. Yet, Republicans scream about “socializing” health care.

Republicans and Democrats saw opportunities to create new sources of campaign contributions by privatizing as many military functions as possible. There are now a large number of private companies that have never made a dollar in the market, feeding instead at the public trough that drains taxpayers of dollars while loading Americans with debt service obligations.

Obama inherited an excellent opportunity to bring US soldiers home from the Bush regime’s illegal wars of aggression. In its final days, the Bush regime realized that it could “win” in Iraq by putting the Sunni insurgents on the US military payroll. Once Bush had 80,000 insurgents collecting US military pay, violence, although still high, dropped in half. All Obama had to do was to declare victory and bring our boys home, thanking Bush for winning the war. It would have shut up the Republicans.

But this sensible course would have impaired the profits and share prices of those firms that comprise the military/security complex. So instead of doing what Obama said he would do and what the voters elected him to do, Obama restarted the war in Afghanistan and launched a new one in Pakistan. Soon Obama was echoing Bush and Cheney’s threats to attack Iran.

In place of health care for Americans, there will be more profits for private insurance companies.

In place of peace there will be more war.

Voters are already recognizing the writing on the wall and are falling away from Obama and the Democrats. Independents who gave Obama his comfortable victory have now swung against him, recently electing Republican governors in New Jersey and Virginia to succeed Democrats. This is a protest vote, not a confidence vote in Republicans.

Obama’s credibility is shot. And so is Congress’s, assuming it ever had any. The US House of Representatives has just voted to show the entire world that the US House of Representatives is nothing but the servile, venal, puppet of the Israel Lobby. The House of Representatives of the American “superpower” did the bidding of its master, AIPAC, and voted 344 to 36 to condemn the Goldstone Report.

In case you don’t know, the Goldstone Report is the Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict. The “Gaza Conflict” is the Israeli military attack on the Gaza ghetto, where 1.5 million dispossessed Palestinians, whose lands, villages, and homes were stolen by Israel, are housed. The attack was on civilians and civilian infrastructure. It was without any doubt a war crime under the Nuremberg standard that the US established in order to execute Nazis.

Goldstone is not only a very distinguished Jewish jurist who has given his life to bringing people to accountability for their crimes against humanity, but also a Zionist. However, the Israelis have demonized him as a “self-hating Jew” because he wrote the truth instead of Israeli propaganda.

US Representative Dennis Kucinich, who is now without a doubt a marked man on AIPAC’s political extermination list, asked the House if the members had any realization of the shame that the vote condemning Goldstone would bring on the House and the US government. The entire rest of the world accepts the Goldstone report.

The House answered with its lopsided vote that the rest of the world doesn’t count as it doesn’t give campaign contributions to members of Congress.

This shameful, servile act of “the world’s greatest democracy” occurred the very week that a court in Italy convicted 23 US CIA officers for kidnapping a person in Italy. The CIA agents are now considered “fugitives from justice” in Italy, and indeed they are.

The kidnapped person was renditioned to the American puppet state of Egypt, where the victim was held for years and repeatedly tortured. The case against him was so absurd that even an Egyptian judge ordered his release.

One of the convicted CIA operatives, Sabrina deSousa, an attractive young woman, says that the US broke the law by kidnapping a person and sending him to another country to be tortured in order to manufacture another “terrorist” in order to keep the terrorist hoax going at home. Without the terrorist hoax, America’s wars for special interest reasons would become transparent even to Fox “News” junkies.

Ms. deSousa says that “everything I did was approved back in Washington,” yet the government, which continually berates us to “support the troops,” did nothing to protect her when she carried out the Bush regime’s illegal orders.

Clearly, this means that the crime that Bush, Cheney, the Pentagon, and the CIA ordered is too heinous and beyond the pale to be justified, even by memos from the despicable John Yoo and the Republican Federalist Society.

Ms. deSousa is clearly worried about herself. But where is her concern for the innocent person that she sent into an Egyptian hell to be tortured until death or admission of being a terrorist? The remorse deSousa expresses is only for herself. She did her evil government’s bidding and her evil government that she so faithfully served turned its back on her. She has no remorse for the evil she committed against an innocent person.

Perhaps deSousa and her 22 colleagues grew up on video games. It was great fun to plot to kidnap a real person and fly him on a CIA plane to Egypt. Was it like a fisherman catching a fish or a deer hunter killing a beautiful 8-point buck? Clearly, they got their jollies at the expense of their renditioned victim.

The finding of the Italian court, and keep in mind that Italy is a bought-and-paid-for US puppet state, indicates that even our bought puppets are finding the US too much to stomach.

Moving from the tip of the iceberg down, we have Ambassador Craig Murray, rector of the University of Dundee and until 2004 the UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan, which he describes as a Stalinist totalitarian state courted and supported by the Americans.

As ambassador, Murray saw the MI5 intelligence reports from the CIA that described the most horrible torture procedures. “People were raped with broken bottles, children were tortured in front of their parents until they [the parents] signed a confession, people were boiled alive.”

“Intelligence” from these torture sessions was passed on by the CIA to MI5 and to Washington as proof of the vast al Qaeda conspiracy.

Amb. Murray reports that the people delivered by CIA flights to Uzbekistan’s torture prisons “were told to confess to membership in Al Qaeda. They were told to confess they’d been in training camps in Afghanistan. They were told to confess they had met Osama bin Laden in person. And the CIA intelligence constantly echoed these themes.”

“I was absolutely stunned,” says the British ambassador, who thought that he served a moral country that, along with its American ally, had moral integrity. The great Anglo-American bastion of democracy and human rights, the homes of the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights, the great moral democracies that defeated Nazism and stood up to Stalin’s gulags, were prepared to commit any crime in order to maximize profits.

Amb. Murray learned too much and was fired when he vomited it all up. He saw the documents that proved that the motivation for US and UK military aggression in Afghanistan had to do with the natural gas deposits in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. The Americans wanted a pipeline that bypassed Russia and Iran and went through Afghanistan. To insure this, an invasion was necessary. The idiot American public could be told that the invasion was necessary because of 9/11 and to save them from “terrorism,” and the utter fools would believe the lie.

“If you look at the deployment of US forces in Afghanistan, as against other NATO country forces in Afghanistan, you’ll see that undoubtedly the US forces are positioned to guard the pipeline route. It’s what it’s about. It’s about money, its about energy, it’s not about democracy.”

Guess who the consultant was who arranged with then Texas governor George W. Bush the agreements that would give to Enron the rights to Uzbekistan’s and Turkmenistan’s natural gas deposits and to Unocal to develop the trans-Afghanistan pipeline. It was Karzai, the US-imposed “president” of Afghanistan, who has no support in the country except for American bayonets.

Amb. Murray was dismissed from the UK Foreign Service for his revelations. No doubt on orders from Washington to our British puppet.

Agaisnt Prometheus

Posted in Music, Arts, Culture, Subversion, Welcome to The Machine on October 29, 2009 by CjH

An Interview with Derrick Jensen on Science and Technology

Derrick Jensen is the prize-winning author of A Language Older Than Words, The Culture of Make Believe, Listening to the Land, Strangely Like War, Welcome to the Machine, and Walking on Water. He was one of two finalists for the 2003 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize, which cited The Culture of Make Believe as “a passionate and provocative meditation on the nexus of racism, genocide, environmental destruction and corporate malfeasance, where civilization meets its discontents.” He is an environmental activist and lives on the coast of northern California.

Frank Joseph Smecker: You write that this culture is murdering the planet – species extinction, entire continents of clear-cuts, the removal of 90 percent of the large fish from the oceans, global warming – all are but a handful of the dire effects of industrial civilization; how has philosophy shaped and influenced the behavior that has led to these despairing conditions?

Derrick Jensen: The stories we are told shape the way we see the world, which shapes the way we experience the world. R.D. Laing once wrote that how we experience the world shapes how we behave in the world. If the world is presented as resources to be exploited, then more than likely, you’re going to exploit the world. For example, if one sees trees as dollar bills, then one will look at trees and treat trees one way; if one sees trees as trees, for what they are – as other beings to be in communion with – then one will see them and treat them another way. Philosophy is the telling of the world a certain way.

FJS: Would you say that the stories and ideas passed on by Western philosophers and other ideologues, which have influenced the modern behavior of the dominant culture, are perpetuated through other mediums today?

DJ: Absolutely. Even today our media and entertainment present stories that affect our behavior. Take for example Ugly Betty – that new show on television. This is just cruel, and ultimately influences the way this culture sees and treats women. Personally, I think she’s fairly cute, and if I’m going to do the objectifying rating of women thing, scores easily a six or more on a scale of one to ten– but they throw some glasses and braces on her and suddenly the culture is telling us that she is ugly. My point is that in Hollywood, even someone who is explicitly labeled as “Ugly Betty” is still reasonably good looking. What does that, along with all the other images of women that are put out there, do to both women’s and men’s perception of women? Newspapers, too, are just as responsible. For example, I recently read an article in some newspaper about the decline of certain frog populations, and the header of the article read something along the lines as: “Another Frog Croaks…” What that does is trivializes… it makes a joke out of species extinction! Or how about the salmon that are going extinct? In this culture, if salmon are of no economic utility then what good are they? This seems to come from a place of hatred and narcissism. I write in Endgame how the narratives we are told shape the way we live. If you are told your entire life that only the most successful at dominating survive; that nonhumans have no desires of their own and are here for us to use; that the U.S. has your best interests at heart; that those in power hold some inherent moral and ethical value; that trees and mountains are resources to be extracted, then you will come to believe all of that and behave in the world one way. If the stories that are told are different, then you will come to believe and act much differently. If your culture told you stories since childhood that eating dog shit tasted good, that’s going to affect your behavior. What I mean by this is that if someone told you story after story extolling the virtues of eating dog shit since you were a child, you’ll grow to believe them. Sooner or later, if you are exposed to other foods, you might discover that eating dog shit doesn’t taste too great. Or if you cling too tightly to these stories of eating dog shit – that is if your enculturation is so strong that it actually does taste good to you, the diet might make you sick or kill you. To make this example less silly, substitute pesticides for dog shit, or for that matter, substitute Big Mac™, Whopper™, or Coke™. Eventually physical reality trumps narrative. It can just take a long time.

FJS: You often write that the dominant culture has robbed the world of its subjectivity; how does this influence our behavior? And if the stories we are told inculcate an objective perception of the world and those around us, then how do we shatter those lenses in order to begin perceiving the world for what it is – a matrix of subjective relations to be in communion with?

DJ: If you do not perceive the fundamental beingness of others (i.e. nonhuman animals, trees, mountains, rivers, rocks, etc), or in some senses do not even perceive their existence, then nothing I say or write can convince you. Nor will evidence be likely to convince you, since, as already mentioned, you won’t perceive it, or more accurately, won’t allow yourself to perceive it. No matter how well I write, if you have never made love, I cannot adequately describe to you what it feels like to do so. Even moreso, if you insist that no such thing as making love even exists, then I will certainly never be able to adequately explain to you what it feels like. For that matter, I cannot describe the color green to someone who is blind, and who even moreso insists that green does not exist, could never exist; as well as to someone who knows that philosophers from Aristotle to Descartes to Dawkins have conclusively shown that green does not exist, could not exist, has never existed, and will never exist; or to someone who is under the thrall of economic and legal systems (insofar as there is a meaningful difference, since the primary function of this culture’s legal systems is to protect—through laws, police, courts, and prisons—the exploitative activities of the already-wealthy) based so profoundly on green not existing; who cannot acknowledge that this culture would collapse if its members individually and/or collectively perceived this green that cannot be allowed to exist. If I could describe the color green to you, I would do it. I would drive you, as R.D. Laing put it, out of your wretched mind. And you might be able to see the color green.  Or someone else could drive you out of your wretched mind. It certainly needn’t be me. I’m not the point. You’re not the point. Your perceived experience isn’t even the point. The point is your wretched mind, and getting out of it. And beyond that, the point then is your experience.

FJS: So to “see green,” figuratively speaking, is to experience the world personally, emotionally, convivially and reciprocally with other beings, rather than to experience it as a set of objective truths for personal material gain or information, or as protocol to maintain the status quo?

DJ: Exactly. This culture is based on the assumption that all of the world is without volition, is mechanistic, and is therefore predictable. The existence of the willfully unpredictable destroys a foundational assumption of this culture. The existence of the willfully unpredictable also invalidates this culture’s ontology, epistemology, and philosophies, and reveals them for what they are: lies upon which to base this omnicidal system of exploitation, theft, and murder; it’s much easier to exploit, steal from, or murder someone you pretend has no meaningful existence (especially if you have an entire culture’s ontology, epistemology, and philosophy to back you up), indeed, it becomes your right, even your duty (e.g. war, genocide, death squads, mercenaries, etc). The existence of the willfully unpredictable reveals this culture’s governmental and economic systems for what they are as well: means to not only rationalize but enforce systems of exploitation, theft, and murder (e.g., effectively stop Monsanto’s exploitation, theft, and murder, and see how you are treated by governments across the world).

FJS: So it’s really about personal experience over narrative, over inculcation?

DJ: In many ways it is. R.D. Laing began his extraordinary The Politics of Experience with: “Few books today, are forgivable.” He wrote this, I believe, because we have become very alienated from our own experience, from whom we are, and this alienation is so destructive to others and to ourselves, that if a book does not take this alienation as its starting point and work toward rectifying it, we’d all be better off looking at blank pieces of paper. I of course agree with Laing that few books today are forgivable (and the same is true for films, paintings, songs, relationships, lives, and so on), and I agree for the reasons I believe he was giving. This culture is murdering the planet. Any book (film, painting, song, relationship, life, and so on) that doesn’t begin with this basic understanding—that the culture is murdering the planet—is not forgivable, for an infinitude of reasons, one of which is that without a living planet there can be no books. There can be no paintings, songs, relationships, lives, and so on. There can be no dreams. There can be nothing.

FJS: It’s about experiencing a symbiotic world that is in dynamic equilibrium, not a world that is at our disposal. It’s about recognizing the pervading relationships between all of us: trees and fresh water, birds and wall-eyed pike, mountains and the sky, you and I; not about hours and wages, markets and policy, resources and industrial modes of production.

DJ: Correct.

FJS: The indigenous were and are in kinship with nonhumans, and in fact indigenous peoples never once held a utilitarian worldview over their landbase insofar as they perceived the natural landscape as a matrix of reciprocal relationships to enter into. Why do you think it is that the dominant culture cannot engage with the land in the same way?

DJ: In all of my books I’ve emphasized that the fundamental difference between civilized and indigenous ways of being is that for even the most open-minded of the civilized, listening to the natural world is a metaphor. For traditional indigenous peoples it is not a metaphor. It is how you relate with the real world. This culture’s way of life is based on exploitation, domination, theft, and murder. And why? Because it is based on the perceived right of the powerful to take whatever resources they want. If you see yourself as entitled to a resource, and if you’re not willing or incapable of seeing this other as a being with whom you can and should be in relation with, then you’re going to take the resource.

FJS: Do you believe that scientific philosophy galvanizes the exploitative utilitarian worldview?

DJ: Richard Dawkins, the popular scientific philosopher—he’s got almost as many Google hits as Mick fuckin’ Jagger—states that we exist in “a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication.” Implying that humans are the only meaningful intelligence on earth, and possibly in the universe, the world then consists of objects to be exploited, not other beings to enter into relationship with. Dawkins also writes: “You won’t find any rhyme or reason in it [the universe], nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” Because the latter scientific assumption posits that nonhumans have no meaningful intelligence, they have nothing to say, to each other or to us. Thus interspecies communication is bunk, no matter who the nonhumans are: animals, plants, rivers, rocks, stars, muses, and so on. Anyone who thinks otherwise, and this is key, is superstitious, that is, delusional, maybe primitive, maybe crazy, maybe childish, maybe just plain stupid. Suddenly science has a stronger hold on one’s belief moreso than any religion. Scientific philosophy is much better at controlling people because if you don’t buy into it, you’re stupid. The fundamental religion of this culture is that of human dominion, and it does not matter so much whether one self-identifies as a Christian, a Capitalist, a Scientist, or just a regular member of this culture, one’s actions will be to promulgate this fundamentalist religion of unbridled entitlement and exploitation. This religion permeates every aspect of this culture.

FJS: In the book you wrote with George Draffan, Welcome to the Machine: Science, Surveillance, and the Culture of Control, you elaborated on the conflation of science and control; can you talk a bit about what you wrote? And would you agree that there’s also something to be said of this culture’s conflation of the power of command and truth?

DJ: Absolutely. First, if the scientific materialist instrumentalist perspective is right and every other culture is wrong, the universe is a gigantic clockwork – a machine: a very predictable and therefore controllable machine. Power in this case, then, is like meaning in that there is no inherent power in the world (or out of it)—just as no power inheres in a toaster or automobile until you put it to use—and the only power that exists is that which you project onto and over others (or that others project onto and over you). Power exists only in how you use raw materials – the more raw materials you use more effectively than anyone else, the more power to you. And science is a potent tool for that. That’s the point of science. This means, of course, that might then makes right, or rather, right, too, is like meaning and doesn’t inhere anyway—if nonhumans are not in any real sense beings and are here for us to use (and not here for their own sakes, with lives as meaningful to them as yours is to you or mine is to me) then using (or destroying) them raises no significant moral questions, any more than whether you or I do or don’t use or destroy any other tool—which means right is what you decide it is, or more accurately, it’s irrelevant, right is whatever you want it to be, which means it’s really nothing at all. But this malleable notion of right means that you can fairly easily talk yourself into feeling good about exploiting the shit out of everyone and everything else. If all of this sounds sociopathological, that’s because it is. Western philosophy and scientific philosophy is sociopathological, it finds logic through the power of command. It makes us all insane. Richard Dawkins wrote, “Science boosts its claim to truth by its spectacular ability to make matter and energy jump through hoops on command, and to predict what will happen and when.” Do you see the fundamental flaw in logic here? I’m guessing that if we lived in a culture that wasn’t sociopathological we would all see through this in a heartbeat. Let’s ask a simple question: How does science boost its claim to truth? Here is Dawkins’s (and the culture’s) answer: by making matter and energy jump through hoops on command, and by predicting what will happen and when. Do you see the problem yet? Okay, let’s try it a different way: Let’s say Dawkins has a gun. Let’s say he points this gun at your head. Let’s say he commands you to jump through hoops. Let’s say you do it. He does, after all, have a gun pointed at your head. Now, with this gun pointed at your head, he tells you to jump through those hoops again. And then he predicts that this is precisely what you will do. You do it. Whaddya know, he’s a fucking genius: He commanded you to jump through hoops, and he predicted right when you’d do it. Dawkins was with this sentence incredibly intellectually dishonest—and sneaky as hell—and the only reason he hasn’t been called out on it – and someone seriously needs to call this fucking guy out – is that he has a whole culture of sociopaths for company. He has conflated the power to command with truth. He has conflated domination with truth. But neither the power to command nor domination is the same as truth. The power to command is the power to command, domination is domination, and truth is truth.

Richard Dawkins could put a gun to my head. He could even kill me. But that wouldn’t mean that he is telling the truth. This culture is dominating the planet. This culture’s domination of the planet is killing it. That does not mean this culture is telling the truth, or is even capable of understanding it. At the same time, the power to dominate is a sort of truth. But there are other truths as well, that can be masked, obscured, or destroyed by this truth. An example should make this clear. Let’s say I force you to jump through hoops. Let’s say I enslave you. Are there not other truths that have been closed off because I forced you to jump through hoops, because I enslaved you? Any path forecloses others. Some paths foreclose more than do other paths. The same is true with truths: some paths to certain forms of knowledge, and some paths to certain forms of truth, irrevocably foreclose other paths to knowledge, and other paths to other truths.

I recently read an essay by Sam Harris, an ally of Dawkins and a full-blown nature-hater in his own right. The essay is entitled “Mother Nature is Not our Friend.” It begins, “Like many people, I once trusted in the wisdom of Nature. I imagined that there were real boundaries between the natural and the artificial, between one species and another, and thought that, with the advent of genetic engineering, we would be tinkering with life at our peril. I now believe that this romantic view of Nature is a stultifying and dangerous mythology. Every 100 million years or so, an asteroid or comet the size of a mountain smashes into the earth, killing nearly everything [sic] that [sic] lives. If ever we needed proof of Nature’s indifference to the welfare of complex organisms such as ourselves, there it is. The history of life on this planet has been one of merciless destruction and blind, lurching renewal.”
The whole essay is as shoddy as it is full of nature-hating. I’m not sure why he couldn’t be bothered to spend a whole thirty seconds doing a Google™ search to learn that only one of the major mass extinctions was probably caused by an asteroid. I’m also not sure why he didn’t just say that nature is red in tooth and claw, and be done with it. The exploration of mass extinctions is based on data gathered by scientists using the premises, methods, and tools of science, then turned into stories by these or other scientists using the framework of scientific stories to assign meaning to these data points.

Big deal, you might say. Well, it is a big deal. The premises and other preconditions of any story nearly always overdetermine the direction of that story. They especially overdetermine a story’s morality, and even moreso they overdetermine the moral of the story (which is not the same as the story’s morality). And of course the story about multiple mass extinctions has a moral that is obvious at least to Sam Harris. This moral is precisely that of the larger scientific materialist instrumentalist mechanistic perspective, that, “Nature” is, as Harris says, “indifferent.” Or actually “Nature” is—as Harris would say were he a clear enough thinker to have even the slightest bit of internal consistency—even less than indifferent: “Nature” is insensate: indifference implies a capacity to feel. I can reasonably be described as indifferent as to whether the Knicks or the Spurs win tomorrow night. That may also be true for you. But one does not normally describe one’s clothes hamper as “indifferent” as to the outcome of tomorrow night’s game. I want to focus just a bit more on Harris’s sloppy word usage here, because I think it’s indicative of something far deeper than unclear thinking. Part of my clue for this is that his use of the word indifferent wasn’t the only interesting choice of words. Another was his title: “Mother Nature is Not our Friend.” I am fascinated by the fact that although people like Harris and Dawkins claim to believe that the universe is mechanistic, they so often use emotion-packed words like mother and friend and trust and merciless, and their language is quite often hostile, as though they’re describing not a machine as they pretend, but rather an enemy, or someone who has betrayed them. Think about this in your own life: how often have you said that your clothes hamper is not your friend? How often have you said your toaster is merciless? If you truly believe that something—something—is utterly insensate, you would hardly be likely to describe this thing as either a friend or an enemy or as anything other than a thing. These supposedly clear thinkers are, I believe, very confused in their thinking and most especially in what they feel about all of this, by which I mean what they feel about life. I can’t prove this, of course, but it seems very clear to me that the emotions they express toward life and toward the natural world are not the sort of neutral feelings one would normally experience and express toward an inanimate object, but rather a hatred toward, and fear of, life and the natural. I believe, and once again I can’t prove this, but it feels right, and has felt right since I first read Dawkins twenty years ago, that they really fear life, and fear death, and feel betrayed by life in part because they, too, like everyone else, must suffer, and they, too, like everyone else must die. The fact that they, too, must pay this price of suffering and death as a cost of participating in the joyous web of experience and relationship that is the ongoing and eternally creative process of living, somehow seems to them an affront. To which I have a two-word response: grow up. Clearly in their descriptions of life, they focus more on inherent suffering than they do on inherent joy and delight. Were they not so influential their perspective would merely be pathological and pathetic. As it is, their popularity is of course what one would expect it to be in a culture that hates and fears wild nature, that attempts to control and destroy wild nature, and that is in fact killing life on earth. The perspective of people like Harris and Dawkins (and indeed most people in this culture)—that of believing that the universe is “merciless” or is otherwise insufficient and needs to be significantly manipulated and/or improved in order to make it bearable—is a central perspective and driving motivator of the murder of the planet, and is in utter contrast to the perspectives and motivations of most of the indigenous, who generally perceive the natural world as sufficient, as bountiful, as beautiful, as generous, as provider, as mother, as father, as family. The perspective of people like Harris and Dawkins—the perspective that underlies civilization—is not only murderous, but it is also extraordinarily ungrateful.

Whether or not you believe the universe is mechanical, it gave you your life, your extraordinary, unique, awe-filled life. Unless your life truly is miserable, to not show gratitude for this gift is to show yourself a spoiled, immature wretch.

FJS: Has science provided the world with anything good?

DJ: That’s a very common question that is asked: Hasn’t science done a lot of good for the world? For the world? No. Show me how the world—the real, physical world, once filled with passenger pigeons, great auks, cod, tuna, salmon, sea mink, lions, great apes, migratory songbirds, forests—is a better place because of science. Science has done far more than facilitate the destruction of the natural world: it has increased this culture’s ability to destroy by many orders of magnitude. We can talk all we want about conservation biology and about the use of science to measure biodiversity, but in the real, physical world the real, physical effects of science on real, living nonhumans has been nothing short of atrocious. Science has been given three hundred years or so to prove itself. And of course three hundred years ago great auks (and fish, and whales) filled the seas, and passenger pigeons and Eskimo curlews filled the skies, and soil was deeper, and native forests still stood. If three hundred years of chainsaws, CFCs, depleted uranium, automobiles, genetic engineering, airplanes, routine international trade, computers, plastics, endocrine disrupters, pesticides, vivisection, internal combustion engines, fellerbunchers, dragline excavators, televisions, cellphones, and nuclear (and conventional) bombs are not enough to convey the picture, then that picture will never be conveyed.

Without science, there would not be ten times more plastic than phytoplankton in the oceans. The Nazi Holocaust was, as I made clear in The Culture of Make Believe, and as Zygmunt Bauman made clear in Modernity and the Holocaust, a triumph of the modern industrial rationalistic scientific instrumentalist perspective. Global warming, which may end in planetary murder, would not be running rampant without the assistance of science and scientists. Without science there would be no hole in the ozone. Without science and scientists, we would not face the threat of nuclear annihilation. Without science, there would be no industrial civilization, which even without global warming would still be leading to planetary murder. Sure, science brought us television, modern medicine (and modern diseases), and cardboard-tasting strawberries in January, but anyone who would rather have those than a living planet is, well, a typical member of this culture. If it’s the case that evolution happened so that we would come to exist, then it’s pretty damn obvious we’re fucking up whatever we were brought into being to do. How much sense would it make to have all of this evolution take place simply so that the point, the apex, the pinnacle of this evolution can end life on the planet? Talk about the world’s longest and stupidest shaggy dog story.

FJS: Is there any personal philosophy you do uphold? And is there any hope for the future survival of life on the planet?

DJ: Everything is circumstantial. We can definitely rely on tenets to guide our behavior, but ultimately, care about what happens in the world supersedes philosophy. We need to recognize that physical reality trumps our philosophy. Life is far more complex than philosophy can state. I can’t even figure out romantic relationships, or the relationship between what I eat and my Crohn’s disease. As for philosophy, it is like a map. The map is not the territory – the territory is far more complex than the map, and the constituents of the territory are even far more complex. Ourselves, trees, mountains, nonhuman animals – everyone alive in this world is far more complex than the philosophy or science that seeks understanding (viz. control). In all honesty, we can’t talk a philosophy. Philosophy teaches us how to live, so a philosophy must be land-based. Therefore, the philosophy of Vermont has to be different in Vermont than the philosophy of northern California. As for hope, hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency. That’s how we use it in everyday language: we don’t say, “I hope I eat something today.” We just do it. But the next time I get on a plane I hope it doesn’t crash, because once I’m in the air I have no agency. So I don’t hope this culture doesn’t kill the planet: I’ll do whatever it takes to stop it. I have agency. So do you. We must actively protect as much of the natural as possible. When we realize the degree of agency we actually do have, we no longer have to hope at all. Think about it: what is the real source of our life? Of our food, our air, our water? Is it the economic system? No. It’s the landbase. And those in the future will only care about whether or not we left them with clean air, clean water, and healthy intact landbases. The world is being killed and we have to stop this.

Thousands of years of inculcation and ideology all aimed at driving us out of our minds and bodies, away from any realistic sense of self-defense, real land stewarding, have gotten us to identify not with our bodies and our landbases, but with our abusers, governments, and civilization. Break this identification, and one’s course of action becomes much clearer. Love yourself and love the land, and each other, and you will act in the best interest of, and defend, your beloved. The material world is primary. This doesn’t mean that the spirit does not exist, nor that the material world is all there is. It means that spirit mixes with flesh. It also means that real world actions have real world consequences. It means this mess really is a mess, and we have to face this mess ourselves; that for the time we are here on Earth – whether or not we end up somewhere else after we die, and whether we are condemned or privileged to live here – the Earth is the point. It is primary. It is our home and it is everything. It’s silly to think or act or be as though this world is not real and primary. It is very silly to not live our lives as though our lives are real.

America’s Drug Crisis

Posted in Global Order, Welcome to The Machine on October 29, 2009 by CjH

Brought to You by the CIA

By David Lindorff, CounterPunch

Next time you see a junkie sprawled at the curb in the downtown of your nearest city, or read about someone who died of a heroin overdose, just imagine a big yellow sign posted next to him or her saying: “Your Federal Tax Dollars at Work.”

Kudos to the New York Times, and to reporters Dexter Filkins, Mark Mazzetti and James Risen, for their lead article today reporting that Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of Afghanistan’s stunningly corrupt President Hamid Karzai, a leading drug lord in the world’s major opium-producing nation, has for eight years been on the CIA payroll.

Okay, the article was lacking much historical perspective (more on that later), and the dead hand of top editors was evident in the overly cautious tone (I loved the third paragraph, which stated that “The financial ties and close working relationship between the intelligence agency and Mr. Karzai raises significant questions about America’s war strategy, which is currently under review at the White House.”  Well, duh! It should be raising questions about why we are even in Afghanistan, about who should be going to jail at the CIA, and about how can the government explain this to the over 1000 soldiers and Marines who have died supposedly helping to build a new Afghanistan).  But that said, the newspaper that helped cheerlead us into the pointless and criminal Iraq invasion in 2003, and that prevented journalist Risen from running his exposé of the Bush/Cheney administration’s massive warrantless National Security Agency electronic spying operation until after the 2004 presidential election, this time gave a critically important story full play, and even, appropriately, included a teaser in the same front-page story about October being the most deadly month yet for the US in Afghanistan.

What the article didn’t mention at all is that there is a clear historical pattern here. During the Vietnam War, the CIA, and its Air America airline front-company, were neck deep in the Southeast Asian heroin trade. At the time, it was Southeast Asia, not Afghanistan, that was the leading producer and exporter of opium, mostly to the US, where there was a heroin epidemic.

A decade later, in the 1980s, during the Reagan administration, as the late investigative journalist Gary Webb so brilliantly documented first in a series titled “Dark Alliance” in the San Jose Mercury newspaper, and later in a book by that same name, the CIA was deeply involved in the development of and smuggling of cocaine into the US, which was soon engulfed in a crack cocaine epidemic—one that continues to destroy African American and other poor communities across the country. (The Times role here was sordid—it and other leading papers, including the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times—did despicable hit pieces on Webb shamelessly trashing his work and his career, and ultimately driving him to suicide, though his facts have held up. For the whole sordid tale, read Alex Cockburn’s and Jeffrey St. Clair’s Whiteout: the CIA, Drugs and the Press) In this case, Webb showed that the Agency was actually using the drugs as a way to fund arms, which it could use its own planes to ferry down to the Contra forces it was backing to subvert the Sandinista government in Nicaragua at a time Congress had barred the US from supporting the Contras.

And now we have Afghanistan, once a sleepy backwater of the world with little connection to drugs (the Taliban, before their overthrow by US forces in 20001, had, according to the UN, virtually eliminated opium production there), but now responsible for as much as 80 percent of the world’s opium production—this at a time that the US effectively finances and runs the place, with an occupying army that, together with Afghan government forces that it controls, outnumbers the Taliban 12-1 according to a recent AP story. (http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5jWM24PqWpJg-935bFXbYANhGJ_lQD9BJLDVO0).

The real story here is that where the US goes, the drug trade soon follows, and the leading role in developing and nurturing that trade appears to be played by the Central Intelligence Agency.

Your tax dollars at work.

The issue at this point should not be how many troops the US should add to its total in Afghanistan. It shouldn’t even be over whether the US should up the ante or scale back to a more limited goal of hunting terrorists. It should be about how quickly the US can extricate its forces from Afghanistan, how soon the Congress can start hearings into corruption and drug pushing by the CIA, and how soon the Attorney General’s office will impanel a grand jury to probe CIA drug dealing.

Americans, who for years have supported a stupid, blundering and ineffective “War on Drugs” in this country, and who mindlessly back “zero-tolerance” policies towards drugs in schools and on the job, should demand a “zero-tolerance” policy toward drugs and dealing with drug pushers in government and foreign policy, including the CIA.

For years we have been fed the story that the Taliban are being financed by their taxes on opium farmers. That may be partly true, but recently we’ve been learning that it’s not the real story. Taliban forces in Afghanistan, it turns out, have been heavily subsidized by protection money paid to them by civilian aid organizations, including even American government-funded aid programs, and even, reportedly, by the military forces of some of America’s NATO allies (there is currently a scandal in Italy concerning such payments by Italian forces).  But beyond that, the opium industry, far from being controlled by the Taliban, has been, to a great extent, controlled by the very warlords with which the US has allied itself, and, as the Times now reports, by Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s own brother.

Karzai, we are also told by Filkins, Mazzetti and Risen, was a key player in producing hundreds of thousands of fraudulent ballots for his brother’s election theft earlier this year. Left unsaid is whether the CIA might have played a role in that scam too. In a country where finding printing presses is sure to be difficult, and where transporting bales of counterfeit ballots is risky, you have to wonder whether an agency like the CIA, which has ready access to printers and to helicopters, might have had a hand in keeping its assets in control in Kabul.

Sure that’s idle speculation on my part, but when you learn that America’s spook agency has been keeping not just Karzai, but lots of other unsavory Afghani warlords, on its payroll, such speculation is only logical.

The real attitude of the CIA here was best illustrated by an anonymous quote in the Filkins, Mazzetti and Risen piece, where a “former CIA officer with experience in Afghanistan,” explaining the agency’s backing of Karzai, said, “Virtually every significant Afghan figure has had brushes with the drug trade. If you are looking for Mother Teresa, she doesn’t live in Afghanistan.”

“The end justifies the means” is America’s foreign policy and military motto, clearly.

The Times article exposing the CIA link to Afghanistan’s drug-kingpin presidential brother should be the last straw for Americans.  President Obama’s “necessary” war in Afghanistan is nothing but a sick joke.

The opium, and resulting heroin, that is flooding into Europe and America thanks to the CIA’s active support of the industry and its owners in Afghanistan are doing far more grave damage to our societies than any turbaned terrorists armed with suicide bomb vests could hope to inflict.

The Afghanistan War has to be ended now.

Let the prosecution of America’s government drug pushers begin.

A note about Sen. John Kerry: Kerry (D-MA), who went to Afghanistan to press, for the Obama administration, to get his “good friend” President Karzai to agree to a run-off election after Karzai’s earlier theft of the first round, has played a shameful role here. Once, back when he still had an ounce of the principle that he had back when he was a Vietnam vet speaking out against the Indochina War, Kerry held hearings on the CIA’s cocaine-for-arms operation in Central America. Now he’s hugging the CIA’s drug connections.

Will California become America’s first failed state?

Posted in Political Economy, Welcome to The Machine on October 4, 2009 by CjH

Paul Harris, The Observer

Los Angeles, 2009: California may be the eighth largest economy in the world, but its state staff are being paid in IOUs, unemployment is at its highest in 70 years, and teachers are on hunger strike. So what has gone so catastrophically wrong?

California has a special place in the American psyche. It is the Golden State: a playground of the rich and famous with perfect weather. It symbolises a lifestyle of sunshine, swimming pools and the Hollywood dream factory.

But the state that was once held up as the epitome of the boundless opportunities of America has collapsed. From its politics to its economy to its environment and way of life, California is like a patient on life support. At the start of summer the state government was so deeply in debt that it began to issue IOUs instead of wages. Its unemployment rate has soared to more than 12%, the highest figure in 70 years. Desperate to pay off a crippling budget deficit, California is slashing spending in education and healthcare, laying off vast numbers of workers and forcing others to take unpaid leave. In a state made up of sprawling suburbs the collapse of the housing bubble has impoverished millions and kicked tens of thousands of families out of their homes. Its political system is locked in paralysis and the two-term rule of former movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger is seen as a disaster – his approval ratings having sunk to levels that would make George W Bush blush. The crisis is so deep that Professor Kenneth Starr, who has written an acclaimed history of the state, recently declared: “California is on the verge of becoming the first failed state in America.”

Outside the Forum in Inglewood, near downtown Los Angeles, California has already failed. The scene is reminiscent of the fallout from Hurricane Katrina, as crowds of impoverished citizens stand or lie aimlessly on the hot tarmac of the centre’s car park. It is 10am, and most have already been here for hours. They have come for free healthcare: a travelling medical and dental clinic has set up shop in the Forum (which usually hosts rock concerts) and thousands of the poor, the uninsured and the down-on-their-luck have driven for miles to be here.

The queue began forming at 1am. By 4am, the 1,500 spaces were already full and people were being turned away. On the floor of the Forum, root-canal surgeries are taking place. People are ferried in on cushions, hauled out of decrepit cars. Sitting propped up against a lamp post, waiting for her number to be called, is Debbie Tuua, 33. It is her birthday, but she has taken a day off work to bring her elderly parents to the Forum, and they have driven through the night to get here. They wait in a car as the heat of the day begins to rise. “It is awful for them, but what choice do we have?” Tuua says. “I have no other way to get care to them.”

Yet California is currently cutting healthcare, slashing the “Healthy Families” programme that helped an estimated one million of its poorest children. Los Angeles now has a poverty rate of 20%. Other cities across the state, such as Fresno and Modesto, have jobless rates that rival Detroit’s. In order to pass its state budget, California’s government has had to agree to a deal that cuts billions of dollars from education and sacks 60,000 state employees. Some teachers have launched a hunger strike in protest. California’s education system has become so poor so quickly that it is now effectively failing its future workforce. The percentage of 19-year-olds at college in the state dropped from 43% to 30% between 1996 and 2004, one of the highest falls ever recorded for any developed world economy. California’s schools are ranked 47th out of 50 in the nation. Its government-issued bonds have been ranked just above “junk”.

Some of the state’s leading intellectuals believe this collapse is a disaster that will harm Californians for years to come. “It will take a while for this self-destructive behaviour to do its worst damage,” says Robert Hass, a professor at Berkeley and a former US poet laureate, whose work has often been suffused with the imagery of the Californian way of life.

Now, incredibly, California, which has been a natural target for immigration throughout its history, is losing people. Between 2004 and 2008, half a million residents upped sticks and headed elsewhere. By 2010, California could lose a congressman because its population will have fallen so much – an astonishing prospect for a state that is currently the biggest single political entity in America. Neighbouring Nevada has launched a mocking campaign to entice businesses away, portraying Californian politicians as monkeys, and with a tag-line jingle that runs: “Kiss your assets goodbye!” You know you have a problem when Nevada – famed for nothing more than Las Vegas, casinos and desert – is laughing at you.

This matters, too. Much has been made globally of the problems of Ireland and Iceland. Yet California dwarfs both. It is the eighth largest economy in the world, with a population of 37 million. If it was an independent country it would be in the G8. And if it were a company, it would likely be declared bankrupt. That prospect might surprise many, but it does not come as news to Tuua, as she glances nervously into the warming sky, hoping her parents will not have to wait in the car through the heat of the day just to see a doctor. “It is so depressing. They both worked hard all their lives in this state and this is where they have ended up. It should not have to be this way,” she says.

It is impossible not to be impressed by the physical presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger when he walks into a room. He may appear slightly smaller than you imagine, but he’s just as powerful. This is, after all, the man who, before he was California’s governor, was the Terminator and Conan the Barbarian.

But even Schwarzenegger is humbled by the scale of the crisis. At a press conference in Sacramento to announce the final passing of a state budget, which would include billions of dollars of cuts, the governor speaks in uncharacteristically pensive terms. “It is clear that we do not know yet what the future holds. We are still in troubled waters,” he says quietly. He looks subdued, despite his sharp grey suit and bright pink tie.

Later, during a grilling by reporters, Schwarzenegger is asked an unusual question. As a gaggle of journalists begins to shout, one man’s voice quickly silences the others. “Do you ever feel like you’re watching the end of the California dream?” asks the reporter. It is clearly a personal matter for Schwarzenegger. After all, his life story has embodied it. He arrived virtually penniless from Austria, barely speaking English. He ended up a movie star, rich beyond his dreams, and finally governor, hanging Conan’s prop sword in his office. Schwarzenegger answers thoughtfully and at length. He hails his own experience and ends with a passionate rallying call in his still thickly accented voice.

“There is people that sometimes suggest that the American dream, or the Californian dream, is evaporating. I think it’s absolutely wrong. I think the Californian dream is as strong as ever,” he says, mangling the grammar but not the sentiment.

Looking back, it is easy to see where Schwarzenegger’s optimism sprung from. California has always been a special place, with its own idea of what could be achieved in life. There is no such thing as a British dream. Even within America, there is no Kansas dream or New Jersey dream. But for California the concept is natural. It has always been a place apart. It is of the American West, the destination point in a nation whose history has been marked by restless pioneers. It is the home of Hollywood, the nation’s very own fantasy land. Getting on a bus or a train or a plane and heading out for California has been a regular trope in hundreds of books, movies, plays, and in the popular imagination. It has been writ large in the national psyche as free from the racial divisions of the American South and the traditions and reserve of New England. It was America’s own America.

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and now an adopted Californian, remembers arriving here from his native New England. “In New England you would have to know people for 10 years before they let you in their home,” he says. “Here, when I took my son to his first play date, the mother invited me to a hot tub.”

Michael Levine is a Hollywood mover and shaker, shaping PR for a stable of A-list clients that once included Michael Jackson. Levine arrived in California 32 years ago. “The concept of the Californian dream was a certain quality of life,” he says. “It was experimentalism and creativity. California was a utopia.”

Levine arrived at the end of the state’s golden age, at a time when the dream seemed to have been transformed into reality. The 1950s and 60s had been boom-time in the American economy; jobs had been plentiful and development rapid. Unburdened by environmental concerns, Californian developers built vast suburbs beneath perpetually blue skies. Entire cities sprang from the desert, and orchards were paved over into playgrounds and shopping malls.

“They came here, they educated their kids, they had a pool and a house. That was the opportunity for a pretty broad section of society,” says Joel Kotkin, an urbanist at Chapman University, in Orange County. This was what attracted immigrants in their millions, flocking to industries – especially defence and aviation – that seemed to promise jobs for life. But the newcomers were mistaken. Levine, among millions of others, does not think California is a utopia now. “California is going to take decades to fix,” he says.

So where did it all wrong?

Few places embody the collapse of California as graphically as the city of Riverside. Dubbed “The Inland Empire”, it is an area in the southern part of the state where the desert has been conquered by mile upon mile of housing developments, strip malls and four-lane freeways. The tidal wave of foreclosures and repossessions that burst the state’s vastly inflated property bubble first washed ashore here. “We’ve been hit hard by foreclosures. You can see it everywhere,” says political scientist Shaun Bowler, who has lived in California for 20 years after moving here from his native England. The impact of the crisis ranges from boarded-up homes to abandoned swimming pools that have become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Bowler’s sister, visiting from England, was recently taken to hospital suffering from an infected insect bite from such a pool. “You could say she was a victim of the foreclosure crisis, too,” he jokes.

But it is no laughing matter. One in four American mortgages that are “under water”, meaning they are worth more than the home itself, are in California. In the Central Valley town of Merced, house prices have crashed by 70%. Two Democrat politicians have asked for their districts to be declared disaster zones, because of the poor economic conditions caused by foreclosures. In one city near Riverside, a squatter’s camp of newly homeless labourers sleeping in their vehicles has grown up in a supermarket car park – the local government has provided toilets and a mobile shower. In the Los Angeles suburb of Pacoima, one in nine homeowners are now in default on their mortgage, and the local priest, the Rev John Lasseigne, has garnered national headlines – swapping saving souls to saving houses, by negotiating directly with banks on behalf of his parishioners.

For some campaigners and advocates against suburban sprawl and car culture, it has been a bitter triumph. “Let the gloating begin!” says James Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency, a warning about the high cost of the suburban lifestyle. Others see the end of the housing boom as a man-made disaster akin to a mass hysteria, but with no redemption in sight. “If California was an experiment then it was an experiment of mass irresponsibility – and that has failed,” says Michael Levine.

Nowhere is the economic cost of California’s crisis writ larger than in the Central Valley town of Mendota, smack in the heart of a dusty landscape of flat, endless fields of fruit and vegetables. The town, which boldly terms itself “the cantaloup capital of the world”, now has an unemployment rate of 38%. That is expected to rise above 50% as the harvest ends and labourers are laid off. City officials hold food giveaways every two weeks. More than 40% of the town’s people live below the poverty level. Shops have shut, restaurants have closed, drugs and alcohol abuse have become a problem.

Standing behind the counter of his DVD and grocery store, former Mendota mayor Joseph Riofrio tells me it breaks his heart to watch the town sink into the mire. His father had built the store in the 1950s and constructed a solid middle-class life around it, to raise his family. Now Riofrio has stopped selling booze in a one-man bid to curb the social problems breaking out all around him.

“It is so bad, but it has now got to the point where we are getting used to it being like this,” he says. Riofrio knows his father’s achievements could not be replicated today. The state that once promised opportunities for working men and their families now promises only desperation. “He could not do what he did again. That chance does not exist now,” Riofrio says.

Outside, in a shop that Riofrio’s grandfather built, groups of unemployed men play pool for 25 cents a game. Near every one of the town’s liquor stores others lie slumped on the pavements, drinking their sorrows away. Mendota is fighting for survival against heavy odds. The town of 7,000 souls has seen 2,000 people leave in the past two years. But amid the crisis there are a few sparks of hope for the future. California has long been an incubator of fresh ideas, many of which spread across the country. If America emerges from its crisis a greener, more economically and politically responsible nation, it is likely that renewal will have begun here. The clues to California’s salvation – and perhaps even the country as a whole – are starting to emerge.

Take Anthony “Van” Jones, a man now in the vanguard of the movement to build a future green economy, creating millions of jobs, solving environmental problems and reducing climate change at a stroke. It is a beguiling vision and one that Jones conceived in the northern Californian city of Oakland. He began political life as an anti-poverty campaigner, but gradually combined that with environmentalism, believing that greening the economy could also revitalise it and lift up the poor. He founded Green for All as an advocacy group and published a best-selling book, The Green Collar Economy. Then Obama came to power and Jones got the call from the White House. In just a few years, his ideas had spread from the streets of Oakland to White House policy papers. Jones was later ousted from his role, but his ideas remain. Green jobs are at the forefront of Obama’s ideas on both the economy and the environment.

Jones believes California will once more change itself, and then change the nation. “California remains a beacon of hope… This is a new time for a new direction to grow a new society and a new economy,” Jones has said.

It is already happening. California may have sprawling development and awful smog, but it leads the way in environmental issues. Arnold Schwarzenegger was seen as a leading light, taking the state far ahead of the federal government on eco-issues. The number of solar panels in the state has risen from 500 a decade ago to more than 50,000 now. California generates twice as much energy from solar power as all the other US states combined. Its own government is starting to turn on the reckless sprawl that has marked the state’s development.

California’s attorney-general, Jerry Brown, recently sued one county government for not paying enough attention to global warming when it came to urban planning. Even those, like Kotkin, who are sceptical about the end of suburbia, think California will develop a new model for modern living: comfortable, yes, but more modest and eco-friendly. Kotkin, who is writing an eagerly anticipated book about what America will look like in 2050, thinks much of it will still resemble the bedrock of the Californian dream: sturdy, wholesome suburbs for all – just done more responsibly. “We will still live in suburbs. You work with the society you have got. The question is how we make them more sustainable,” he says.

Even the way America eats is being changed in California. Every freeway may be lined with fast-food outlets, but California is also the state of Alice Waters, the guru of the slow-food movement, who inspired Michelle Obama to plant a vegetable garden in the White House. She thinks the state is changing its values. “The crisis is bringing us back to our senses. We had adopted a fast and easy way of living, but we are moving away from that now,” she says.

There is hope in politics, too. There is a growing movement to call for a constitutional convention that could redraw the way the state is governed. It could change how the state passes budgets and make the political system more open, recreating the lost middle ground. Recently, the powerful mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, signed on to the idea. Gerrymandering, too, is set to take a hit. Next year Schwarzenegger will take steps to redraw some districts to make them more competitive, breaking the stranglehold of party politics. He wants district boundaries to be drawn up by impartial judges, not politicians. In previous times that would have been the equivalent of a turkey voting for Christmas. But now the bold move is seen for what it is: a necessary step to change things. And there is no denying that innovation is something that California does well.

Even in the most deprived corners of the state there is a sense that things can still turn around. California has always been able to reinvent itself, and some of its most hardcore critics still like the idea of it having a “dream”.

“I believe in California. It pains me at the moment to see it where it is, but I still believe in it,” said Michael Levine.

Perhaps more surprisingly, a fellow believer is to be found in Mendota in the shape of Joseph Riofrio. His shop operates as a sort of informal meeting place for the town. People drop in to chat, to get advice, or to buy a cold soft drink to relieve the unrelenting heat outside. The people are poor, many of them out of work, often hiring a bunch of DVDs as a cheap way of passing the time. But Riofrio sees them as a community, one that he grew up in. He is proud of his town and determined to stick it out. “This is a good place to live,” he says. “I want to be here when it turns around.” He is talking of the stricken town outside. But he could be describing the whole state.