Category Archives: Foreign Policy

Victory

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When I was 21, and a cub reporter for a local college rag, I interviewed a ninety-year-old man who had witnessed first hand the German attacks at the Battle of Cantigny back in 1918. Actually, he bore witness to something that happened just prior to the battle of Cantigny, and what is not widely reported. The Germans dropped about 15,000 gas shells on the newbie American troops, the ‘dough boys’, cutting off all communication with the forward positions. These gas shells contained the infamous mustard gas; which is sometimes referred to as sulfur mustard, a gas that produces blisters on the skin and lungs if inhaled. When a soldier was caught without a mask and was hit with a heavy dose, death would result—it amounted to suffocation by drowning in your own bodily fluids.

Since then of course, the American military has been adept at preparing for  chemical warfare. The US Army and USMC Boot Camps train troops for potential nerve gas attacks and they equip everyone with gas masks and hypodermic syringes filled with sarin’s antidote, atropin. The hypodermic needle is jabbed into your thigh should a nerve gas attack occur. No one questions the efficacy of these measures even though a general ban on chemical and biological weapons was reached by the world community and signed into law as early as 1925 with the Geneva Protocols. US troops and most military organizations across the globe continue some type of training for potential chemical or biological weapons attack because there are still a lot in circulation among allies and enemies alike. We famously have one of the larger stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons on Earth. Our allies and one-time allies do, too. We used Agent Orange and Agent Blue in eradicating whole swaths of crops and the Vietnamese countryside in our failed effort to destroy North Vietnam’s ability to seek cover in the jungle and to feed their own people. Ironically, Secretary of State John Kerry apparently has forgotten that our government’s chemical warfare in Vietnam killed 400,000 people and caused birth defects in 500,000 children. Many died from starvation since crops were targeted.

Israel used white phosphorous, a chemical weapon that burns uncontrollably when used against personnel, against Palestinians in Gaza in 2008 and 2009. Amnesty International said a fact-finding team found “indisputable evidence of the widespread use of white phosphorus” in crowded civilian residential areas of Gaza City and elsewhere in the territory.” In 2004 we used white phosphorous in Fallujah in Iraq–which at first we denied– but later, on November 15, 2005, the U.S. Department of Defense confirmed to the BBC that white phosphorus had been used as an incendiary anti personnel weapon in Fallujah.

Speaking of Iraq, when Saddam Hussein was our friend and erstwhile ally, he used the same deadly nerve gas in the Iran and Iraqi war that we are accusing the Assad regime of using. In 1987 we wanted to prevent an Iranian sweep of the city of Basrah and a potential victory for the Iranian army. So we provided crucial reconnaissance information to Iraq indicating Basrah was going to be hit. Should Basrah fall, the foreign policy thinking was that Iraq would fall and Iran would be victorious in their decades long war. President Reagan read the report and wrote a note in the margin addressed to Secretary of Defense Frank C. Carlucci: “An Iranian victory is unacceptable.” Subsequently, a decision was made at the top-level of the U.S. government (almost certainly requiring the approval of the National Security Council and the CIA) to allow Saddam to do whatever he needed to do in order to prevent the fall of Basrah.

According to Foreign Policy magazine, the sarin attacks then followed.

“CIA analysts gauged the number of dead as somewhere between “hundreds” and “thousands” in each of the four cases where chemical weapons were used prior to a military offensive. …That March, Iraq launched a nerve gas attack on the Kurdish village of Halabja in northern Iraq. A month later, the Iraqis used aerial bombs and artillery shells filled with sarin against Iranian troop concentrations on the Fao Peninsula southeast of Basrah, helping the Iraqi forces win a major victory and recapture the entire peninsula. The success of the Fao Peninsula offensive also prevented the Iranians from launching their much-anticipated offensive to capture Basrah.”

According to the magazine, “Washington was very pleased with the result because the Iranians never got a chance to launch their offensive.”

We seem quite hardened to chemical weapons as a matter of national policy. I wonder what has changed so dramatically? A bare two decades ago we enabled sarin gas to be used successfully against Iran and we were apparently, “very pleased with the result.”

Nearly three decades ago when I interviewed the 90-year-old World War I veteran, I was heartless and ambitious in equal measure as only a true cub reporter can be. I asked him to describe the effects of the events around the battle of Cantigny in detail. I was thinking it would be a great interview, filled with graphic information about a distant war that few living Americans actually remembered, much less lived through.

He did not give me the story I wanted. Not one graphic detail.

Instead, he wept.

When I asked him to remember Cantigny, he shook his head, said it was awful and wept. His wife came in and ushered me away. That’s about all I know about the battle from his perspective.

If you read accounts of The Battle of Cantigny from standard histories to Wikipedia, you will find that it was considered a victory for the Allies and that it proved the ‘strength’ of the new American fighting units. General Pershing made his reputation there. He proved his mettle, as they say. Today we might use the more common euphemism ‘credibility.’ Only a single sentence in the Wikipedia entry describes the use of 15,000 canisters of mustard gas against the American soldiers, hardly a footnote.

In the news today, Russia has volunteered to isolate and monitor Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons while Syria’s foreign minister says his country welcomes Russia’s proposal. Syria’s chemical weapons would be under international control and then dismantled to avert the 60 to 90 days of U.S. strikes that congress is contemplating. That seems like a reasonable idea. Especially when I consider that 30 some years ago, an old man broke down remembering a moment that transformed his life forever; a moment that no one had even bothered to record, because, after all, The Battle of Cantigny was a victory.

I didn’t get the details or the interview I wanted that day, but I think his actions explained well enough just how careful we ought to be when weighing what new strikes might entail. His eyes said better than any words what war is, what it can cost. There was no mention of who won or who lost the Battle of Cantigny, or the war. For him, it didn’t matter.

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That In Aleppo Once

Bashar al-Assad

Bashar al-Assad

For readers who’ve enjoyed Nabokov’s “That In Aleppo Once”, the similarities between the narrator’s situation and the current morass in Syria are striking. To quickly summarize, newlyweds are separated before the German’s storm France during World War II. They are rejoined in Aleppo where the wife tells a series of fantastic stories each either a lie or a dismal truth. During the separation she tells her husband she has taken a lover, or no, not just one lover, but two, or no, she has lost count, or then again, she has not taken a lover at all. Finally, she abandons the husband spreading even worse accounts about him—he’s a brute, she claims, who has chained her to his side, and furthermore has hung her favorite dog, which – if the narrator is to be believed—has never existed!

The ending does nothing to resolve the issue and the reader is left with the ultimate coin toss as to who should be believed. It’s a testament to Nabokov’s skill that the reader is not disgusted by the seemingly pointless excursions, but rather intrigued. Alas, it’s at this point where the similarity with Syria and our own feckless politics breaks down. In following the turns of the current Syrian ‘war’ story, there are multiple accounts of events and it’s nigh on impossible to determine which are ‘real’ and which are fantastic, or, more to the point, deliberately fictionalized.

There are reports that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons (sarin, a nerve agent) against its own population. There are also contradictory reports that suggest the rebels used said chemical weapons in an effort at garnering international support. There’s also the possibility that a ‘loose cannon’ in Syria’s regime used chemical weapons against the rebels. Or possibly an outside agent used chemical weapons in the hopes of dragging the international community into the war. Any one of these with slight variations may be true. Our signals intelligence leans toward an assessment that suggests the Assad regime is the culprit. But this rather muddies the water because our signals intelligence relies on our allies in the region. Our main ally in the region happens to be Israel who, frankly, does not have a good reputation for being an honest broker in matters of war and peace—especially in the Middle East. It’s very much in Israel’s interest to depose the Assad regime. Looked at in the long view, Israel’s main enemy in the region is Hezbollah. They drove the Israeli army out of Lebanon and have been instrumental in keeping them out of Lebanon since 2006. Hezbollah receives support from both Iran and Syria. In fact, Syria offers the main conduit for weapons to flow from Iran to Hezbollah which makes striking Syria an especially attractive option. In the United States, the neocons are well-known advocates of striking Syria, and they are also, incidentally, huge fans of Israel’s bellicose foreign policy. One might say they have never met a war they didn’t like. These are the same belligerents who lolled us into the Iraq debacle on assurances that Saddam Hussein had ‘weapons of mass destruction’. At the time, they were lying, of course. They may be lying now.

When lawyers prosecute a case they look for actual evidence tying the perp to the crime, but they also look at other factors: namely, motive and opportunity. When motivation and opportunity are rolled into the analysis, the picture in Syria becomes murkier. Who would benefit by a chemical weapon strike in Syria at this particular moment? Surely not the Syrian regime, well aware of the so-called ‘red line’ the US declared not two months ago. What would possess them to unleash a chemical weapons attack, especially when they are currently holding, if not gaining ground against the rebels? With the entire international community watching?

Besides, our intelligence ‘reports’ have been misused so egregiously in the past that even if motivation and opportunity weren’t a factor, relying on them alone would be ridiculous. It’s not just the most recent Iraqi invasion where multiple lies were told by multiple administration officials multiple times. We should remember the fabrications around the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in Vietnam (released NSA documents indicate that the August 4th, 1964 attack – the pretext for our ‘police action’ in Vietnam–did not happen ), and more recently the stories that led up to the first Gulf War of babies tossed out of Kuwaiti incubators by the Iraqi military. This was also a lie, perpetuated by Nayirah al-Sabah, the daughter of Saud bin Nasir Al-Sabah, the Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States. Turns out, her testimony was organized as part of the Citizens for a Free Kuwait public relations campaign which was run by Hill & Knowlton for the Kuwaiti government (Hill & Knowlton, incidentally, is currently helping out the fracking industry with their PR needs. Small world). Nevertheless, at the time her testimony garnered the necessary national outrage stateside to let George H. Bush carry out the first Gulf war. Given this history, no one should put much credence in another ‘slam dunk’ speech; and until we have an independently verified analysis from a relatively objective source (like, say, UN inspectors) the cries for a strike against Syria should be met with the deepest skepticism.

True, lives are in the balance. Hundreds of innocents have died horrible deaths, but it’s hard to reconcile a missile strike killing more Syrians as a suitable solution to those that are already dead. Who benefits? The question is especially compelling when we consider that Israel, which had provided much of our signals intelligence in the region, has both the motivation and opportunity to lie us into war. Certainly, if we’re interested in ‘justice’ or ‘deterrence’ or for that matter the humanitarian fallout, the least awful option is to bring the case before an international tribunal as a war crime, and let the cards fall where they may. If the case against the Assad regime is legitimate, then the evidence should be able to stand on its own.

Unfortunately, the basis for our actions in foreign affairs, our intelligence ‘street cred’ has been deeply corrupted by those who claim to be most concerned about our ‘credibility’ on the world stage. “Won’t get fooled, again” said Bush nearly a decade ago. At the time, he and the neocons were busy fooling us into war, and mutilating a Who song in the bargain.

The old adage about crying wolf still holds. In the end of Nabokov’s story, the wife in Aleppo is abandoned— not because of the lovers or non-lovers– but because the narrator can no longer believe a word she says.

Debuting at #1

This Alternet article, Rachel Maddow: How America’s Security-Industrial Complex Went Insane is an excerpt from Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, Maddow’s new book that will debut at #1 on the New York Times best seller list.

Here’s a little taste of it:

It’s not just the small-potatoes post-9/11 Homeland spending that feels a little off mission. It’s the big-ticket stuff too. Nobody ever made an argument to the American people, for instance, that the thing we ought to do in Afghanistan, the way we ought to stick it to Osama bin Laden, the way to dispense American tax dollars to maximize American aims in that faraway country, would be to build a brand-new neighborhood in that country’s capital city full of rococo narco-chic McMansions and apartment/office buildings with giant sculptures of eagles on their roofs and stoned guards lounging on the sidewalks, wearing bandoliers and plastic boots. No one ever made the case that this is what America ought to build in response to 9/11. But that is what we built. An average outlay of almost $5 billion a month over ten years (and counting) has created a twisted war economy in Kabul. Afghanistan is still one of the four poorest countries on earth; but now it’s one of the four poorest countries on earth with a neighborhood in its capital city that looks like New Jersey in the 1930s and ’40s, when Newark mobsters built garish mansions and dotted the grounds with lawn jockeys and hand-painted neo-neoclassic marble statues.

The New York Times, Janet Maslin, published one of many good reviews, How War Came Home to Stay:

A book by the host of a political talk show is often an ancillary product or marketing tool. But “Drift,” by Rachel Maddow, whose show is on MSNBC, is much more. It is an argument — a sustained, lucid case in which points are made logically and backed by evidence and reason. What’s more, it follows one main idea through nearly a half-century. The subtitle, “The Unmooring of American Military Power,” explains exactly what “Drift” is about.

Sounds like a good read. 275 pages, Crown Publishers, $25.
DCKennedy

American Pie

If you don’t want apple pie, quit giving apples to the baker.

Sixteen of Americas intelligence agencies have reaffirmed that Iran has no nuclear weapons program, and yet the chest-beating war mongers in the media and congress are all but counting their money from betting against efforts to work toward peace and diplomacy with a nation full of innocent people who are probably as baffled by some of their state policies as I am with ours.

The American people pay dearly so our leaders can afford to have a smart, effective, representative State Department, foreign policy and military equipped to make friends with the people of other nations, promote peace and defend the American people against … whatever, and somewhere in that mix, somebody is responsible for strategy. So, what’s going on with our policy toward Iran and why aren’t we being consistent in our war against terrorism?

Stipulating for the point, say the Iranian government, not the people, but the state – is doing something that could result in killing people and that’s what we don’t want them to do – kill people. That’s the bottom line, right? Say we also know that there are terrorists in Iran, non-state actors, angry and itching to kill Americans and Israelis. Now say somebody, not America, starts murdering scientists in Iran and the Iranians think we’re involved in that terrorism. What’s the best strategy for our war on terror to protect and defend Americans, and prevent another war … or … terrorist attack involving the people of the Middle East?

Posing here with his young son is Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan, a scientist, an Iranian university professor and chemical engineer who worked on procurement for the uranium enrichment plant at Natanz. He was 32 years old and buried recently after having been murdered by a terrorist.

Although the United States claims to be looking for terrorists, all we’ve done about this is to deny our involvement in these concerted attacks – several in the last years killing Iranian scientists. We didn’t so much as send a flower arrangement for the funeral service, let alone a diplomat to convey our condolences and assure the Iranian people that we are striving to end this sort of terrorism around the world. That is what we’re doing, right?

The Iranian people, who obviously need international cooperation to find these terrorists, just as we would if it were happening here, have had no help from the U.S. nor have we used our influence to garner support for them among other nations. When their Human Rights Secretary-General wrote to the U.N. asking for help, he was told that these illegal “extrajudicial executions” must be investigated by Iran. And here’s what U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said: “We have some ideas as to who might be involved. But we don’t know exactly who was involved.”

That’s the level of interest and concern we’re showing for terrorism while leading a global war on terrorism. Rather than seizing an opportunity to help, win friends, or influence the Iranian people in our fight against these murderers, here’s what happened instead:
[“Death to America! Death to Israel!” roared the crowd streaming away from weekly prayers at Tehran University, where the dead man was hailed as a martyr in the tradition of Imam Hussein, a revered figure for Iran’s Shi’ite branch of Islam.

“Nuclear energy is our absolute right!” young men chanted.]

If the people in Iran held anti-American sentiments before this funeral, how do you think they’re feeling now?

But furthermore, what danger to the people in America and around the world has been exacerbated by our apparent strategy to exclude the people of Iran from our otherwise hell-bent war on terror? The answer to the first question is easy: Not illogically under the circumstances, we’ve been branded as the terrorist.

Whatever our strategy in the war on terror, it would seem we need to stand against terrorism. Wherever it happens, we should treat the people of nations the way we were treated after 9/11, with compassion and support.

If we’re not standing against the senselessness of reacting to state policy by murdering innocent people who live in the country, what are we doing?

Knowing everything our government knows about terrorism (and I’m sure it’s a boatload whether the intelligence is right or wrong), they seem to be unmindful of the danger of further enraging an already enraged populace that supposedly includes elements of non-state acting crazy people who want to kill us – and who now, if not before, probably have the ear of some very capable scientists.

That serious consideration has been analyzed by CSIS, a Foreign Policy think tank that informs Washington with strategic analyses on security issues. While we often think of 9/11 as the type of attack we could face again, these assessments involve attacks that require less organization and expense, and focus on the broad spectrum of our population. Our media never calls attention to the very real possibility of our being the recipients of a weapons grade “hazard” that spreads uncontrollably across America, but I think the possibility increases with time and strategy that creates enemies of state and non-state players rather than allies.

Click pictures to enlarge. (CBR = Chemical, Biological and Radiological Hazards, N = Nuclear)

Personally, I don’t think we’re headed for war with Iran, but that wouldn’t mean the coast is clear. There are people in Iran who believe, and with good reason, that their nation is under attack, that their people are in danger, and that either we are part of it, or protecting the culprits. And while we may have some control over the actions of the Iranian government and their military, we will never have control over all their people, or other people around the world who think our “war on terror” is evil.

Any good strategy to provide for the safety of Americans would not include the callous indifference we’ve shown to the people who live in Iran while they have been under attack. Looking the other way while our “allies” are murdering innocent citizens of another nation is clearly a breach in our stated objective. It shows our intentions are without integrity and attracts the ire of would-be terrorists world-wide.

Knowing the whereabouts and intentions of all non-state actors is impossible. All our surveillance, black ops and intelligence gathering is of little use against even one really enraged scientist who would unleash a chemical, biological or other uncontrollable weapon to spread across our country. George W. Bush said it: They only have to be right once. Ironically, and regardless of why he said it, that’s the best reason I know of for the sort of diplomacy and foreign policy that he was not recommending – one that embraces and helps the people of other nations.

9/11 should have taught us that, and how to treat our global neighbors. Instead, we continue to push our luck in every conceivable way. Our reputation around the world gets worse with every drone that drops a bomb in a neighborhood killing innocent bystanders. Our military does that with impunity, including in nations we’re not even at war with. Under those circumstances, we should all be able to understand anti-American sentiment.

War is political failure, not success. And it’s always the people, not the state, who pay the price for that failure whether it’s here, there, or somewhere else. When I look out my front door and think about my neighbors and my community, especially when I think about the stealth involved with chemical and biological weapons, I know that any foreign policy that attracts terrorism is dangerous and not a strategy designed to defend or protect the people. Americans are as divided on this as they are about everything else, which stands to inhibit the public outrage necessary to change it. But one thing’s for sure, if we keep giving apples to the baker, we’re just begging for apple pie, and it’ll find its way over here sooner or later.
DCKennedy

(all photos in Iran – Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Image)
(all graphics – CSIS, http://csis.org/files/publication/110916_Iran-US-IsraeliPerspII.pdf)

If We See It, and When

Trying to figure out what our leaders are attempting to accomplish from one week to the next is a daunting task that should, it seems to me, be much easier. Truthful accounts for the people to consider are not too much to ask. It is, after all, our country. But finding out the truth (even for our lawmakers) – about the Internet, Wikileaks, drone use and cluster bombs, or plans for regime changes, has become a harried dash through a maze of conflicting reports, where the “best guess” approach is all we have.

At some point, like this picture, it just boils down to if we can see it, and when.

The current presidential debates have been no comforting indication that our leaders will have a grip on reality any time soon. I find myself watching them anyway, and sometimes they’re the only good comedy on.

The thing is, as long as our government is permitted to have secret laws, secret distribution of our money, and secret plans for global expansion that are so covert our Generals are shocked to learn about them, the “best guess” approach will probably include reports that seem incredible.
I know that one year ago I didn’t believe some of what is today’s common knowledge, including 26 TRILLION dollars in bank bailouts!

And by the way, with everything else that’s going on, just the thought of equipping our police forces with domestic drones gives me the creeps.

Anyway, these DemocracyNow! War and Peace Reports from yesterday cover several concerning issues of domestic and foreign policy, and the guest is Glenn Greenwald, constitutional law attorney and political and legal blogger for Salon Magazine. Deciding who is “in the know” and who isn’t, is getting ridiculous, but I like these two sources because they report on pretty much everything and have a good track record. So, see what you think.

WikiLeaks Wins Major Australian Journalism Prize

And this one: Glenn Greenwald: Is Obama Fulfilling the Neocon Dream of Mass Regime Change in the Muslim World?

One more thing … and this is really important. Congress is set to change the internet from what we have now to something very different. SOPA and PIPA are acts that threaten the structure of the web with the use of DNS filtering. Please do what you can to stop them from going through. Here’s a video about it and an urgent message from DailyKos with a link to where you can help.

And for the daunted, a little pep talk from Howard Zinn. We can do this!

Thanks from APV. We hope you get involved, and have a great week!
DCKennedy

Wait! Here’s an update from APV member, Katherine Walker. I love this one. It’s short and it’s a great share!

Iran – Stardate: 3192.1

Eminiar VII

In 1967, I saw the Star Trek episode, Taste of Armageddon. Kirk and Spock beamed onto Eminiar VII, were informed that the Enterprise had been annihilated in a computer simulation, and that the crew were obliged to be executed.

Trying to avoid the destruction of their planets, the inhabitants had decided to have a computer war instead of a real one. When a “hit” by the computer was scored, those living within the strike’s radius went willingly into “antimatter chambers” to be vaporized, making the casualties legitimate. That gives new meaning to save the planet, right? You gotta love Star Trek.

It was a good thought experiment, though. Even today, efforts to desensitize the reality of war leave me cold. I want to see the ugly. Anything else seems condescending or manipulative, neither of which serves the people on this planet. Reality has all its glory and shame in full view.

A seemingly innocent example is Steve Mumford’s work in Iraq as an embedded artist. But Robert Shetterly called him out saying, objectivity is “to present many sides of an issue, and let the viewer try to make sense of the complexity and live with the uncertainty.”

Uncertainty gives rise to choices.

There’s a lot of extra news lately about Iran’s nuclear energy program, so it’s time to ratchet up the fear level and make sure our military has enough money to protect us from the people who live in Iran.

If the supper committee doesn’t do its job of further slashing and dashing the hopes of Americans, the agreement laid out by a “previous congress” was for deep and automatic cuts that included the military. But of course, military spending cuts are frowned upon by some lawmakers just like tax sharing for the wealthy. Therefore, at [a recent meeting of the deficit reduction panel, Representative Dave Camp, Republican of Michigan, sought assurances that nothing would prevent Congress from changing the mechanism for automatic cuts in military spending. Douglas W. Elmendorf, director of the Congressional Budget Office, replied, “Any Congress can reverse the actions of a previous Congress.”] And there we have it. The built-in “out” has been revealed.

As for Iran, word has it today out of Tel Aviv, Washington and London that the IAEA will deliver breaking news soon – an already well leaked report that is reminiscent of the pre-Iraq war claims with an ISIS satellite photo of a bus sized metal bomb testing room (think mobile biological weapons labs). France and Russia have both warned Israel against a military strike, warning of irreparable damage to the region – the understatement of a decade.

Looking for an Intelligence Estimate, I found a report from three weeks ago by CSIS, a foreign policy think tank with heavy influence in Washington. It goes through September, but does not end two or three weeks ago. It takes its blazing strategy and analysis into the future. With diagrams, charts and possible scenarios, it describes what might happen if ….

It’s another thought experiment. I looked through the pages and saw what THEY think could happen. It’s ugly. And I think if we stay on this course, if we don’t force our governments to settle their differences without sizing up the people for annihilation, our planet stands to be assessed one country at a time, one city at a time, just like Tehran:

This is a PDF and it’s not for sissies:
Iran’s Strategic Competition with the US and Arab States – Chemical, Biological, and Nuclear Capabilities

Update: Here’s the IAEA Iran Nuclear Report. I see too much hype and stale information, and not enough critical thinking or factual explanation for assumptions. I remain concerned about our political persuasion and our recent tendency to rush to judgement in matters of war against the people of other nations. What I consider reasonable breakdown of it can be found here and here.

Find a better way. Save the planet. Peace.
DCKennedy

New Video: Wasting Billions of Taxpayer Dollars on Government Contractors

“So how about those overpaid government workers? We should probably just can the whole unionized lot of them and contract out their jobs to the lean-n-mean private sector. That’d save the taxpayers some serious dough, wouldn’t it? Maybe not. There’s a reason that private contractors are called Beltway Bandits, after all.”

Kevin Drum, Mother Jones.

via New Video: Wasting Billions of Taxpayer Dollars on Government Contractors.

Education kills fear – Fear kills education

Illustration by Otto

The liability of truth

Reading between the lines in David Sirota’s article Ten Years Later, It’s Time to ‘Broaden the Context’, there’s an inherent human weakness being exploited today and limiting the flow of information to our students. When teachers and administrators fear harassment or job loss without the protection of collective action, coupled with the need to survive the long-run of a depressed economy, it compromises our American educational values. When they fear teaching “taboo truths” – whether they involve foreign policy, fossil fuels, or the benefits of marijuana – the result is biased information and ignorance. Who profits from that?

In the public school system, where our government still has a hand in enforcing the breadth of knowledge and the open mind of truthfulness, there is no place for the willful omission of critical information just because it’s unpopular, uncomfortable or inconvenient. Teachers should be willing and able to present all sorts of valuable information without fear.

Allowing the fear of parental ire in this case to influence the information covered in a public school is nothing less than cowardly political and religious pandering that feeds into a trend we should mistrust, even abhor. If we don’t offer comprehensive education about a tragedy like 9/11, how can we even consider that our children are being adequately prepared to participate in the discussions, decisions and creative solutions that will help shape their futures, our nation and the world.

This sort of information filtering is a symptom of a larger problem facing education. “School choice” is being hawked by neoliberals and the religious right as a way to improve our school system through privatizing. I think it’s a corporate profit driven plan that has less to do with improving schools than personalizing curriculum to appease parents. That’s the hook. But in the long run, choosing to have corporations market education to our children will result in nothing less than losing control over what our “young consumers” are being taught. As corporations tap into the trillion dollars of taxpayer money spent annually on primary education, we will see it destroyed.

The real school choice

Home schooling and a variety of private schools provide legal options for parents who wish to personalize or expand the knowledge base, self-teach, or handicap their children with a censored, more narrow view of our world and its people’s experiences. Opting out of the public school system is their right, but it includes opting out of the financial support provided to those who choose public education. We all pay into public education for a good reason: we all benefit by an educated public.

Neoliberalism

It is the same “saber-rattling ideologues who want 9/11 to serve only as a no-questions-asked rationale for more war and bigotry,” who are striving to privatize and alter the basic structure and regulation of America’s public schools. It’s a dangerous and insidious trend already clearly dominating in other areas where corporatist neoliberals have influenced the destruction of traditional American values. The monopolization and control of our mass media sources, the privatization of our prison system, our lack of environmental, energy, pharmaceutical and food safety regulations are all examples. Most recently, their efforts have been to suppress our right to vote, an absolutely sinister attack on the heart of democracy.

Our public school system, in all its stages of imperfection, is integral to the health of our society. Under the control of federal, state and local governments, the people’s laws and standards for education, including a healthy separation of church and state, will be enforced.

Neoliberal ideology, which pushes for less government intervention and more deregulation and privatization, is a challenge to democracy and the ethics and values of the American people like none we have known.

In a neoliberal world, for example, … It may be the case that run-off from my factory kills the fish in your stream; but rather than asking the government to stop my polluting activity (which would involve the loss of jobs and the diminishing of the number of market transactions), why don’t you and I sit down and figure out if more wealth is created by my factory’s operations than is lost as a consequence of their effects? … “The question to be decided is: is the value of the fish lost greater or less than the value of the product which the contamination of the stream makes possible?” If the answer is more value would be lost if my factory were closed, then the principle of the maximization of wealth and efficiency directs us to a negotiated solution: you allow my factory to continue to pollute your stream and I will compensate you or underwrite the costs of your moving the stream elsewhere on your property, provided of course that the price I pay for the right to pollute is not greater than the value produced by my being permitted to continue.

Notice that “value” in this example (which is an extremely simplified stand-in for infinitely more complex transactions) is an economic, not an ethical word, or, rather, that in the neoliberal universe, ethics reduces to calculations of wealth and productivity. ~ New York Times, Neoliberalism and Higher Education

A scenario for privatized education

We don’t need a crystal ball to realize that the control of information provided to our children in a privatized, voucher, “parental choice” system could result in – not better education, but pockets or bubbles of ideology among the citizenry, factions of bias, neighborhoods of closed minds battling each other in the all too familiar fashion of ineffectual gridlock – with no faction quite strong enough to match the power of those in control, those who are promoting this sort of “school choice” and its opportunity to divide the people. Splitting into “balkanised communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible” is already a big part of our problem.

At some point, I think we should foresee that mergers would take place to drive out competition and innovation, and to drive up the cost for consumers.

Schools of thought – privatized thought, with a corporate profit-oriented, need-to-know based curriculum without science, language and fine arts, for example, could eventually replace what we consider common knowledge taught to all students. Privately standardized information might prepare children for a desired end, but not necessarily one of their parents’ choice. When “ethics reduces to calculations of wealth and productivity,” an unreckonable entity with “personhood” corporate rights could be guiding their lives instead.

And the freedom to learn the truth would be long gone, along with those of us who knew it as the foundation for all freedom.

If that sounds like just so much drama, don’t forget (1) that corporate personhood is not new to education – its earliest judicial precedent, set in 1790 by the Supreme Court of Virginia in favor of the College of William and Mary, was (ironically) for Thomas Jefferson to change the school’s theology curriculum to one rooted in science, language and fine arts; (2) or that in corporate affairs, government interference has always been controversial at best; (3) and that today, since the Citizens United decision, we are contending with neoliberalism and corporate personhood as an uncontrolled force clearly set on undermining the will of the people for corporate profits.

People power

Corporate profit-based solutions of the neoliberal persuasion are not the creative solutions we need in order to solve our problems. But if no one else can be heard over their shouting, that’s what we’ll get. The media are not much help with sharing better ideas, and internet news and searches are now filtered, bubbled and based on previous searches. But the ideas are out there and the people should be the ones who vet them. We can improve the school system without turning it over to private corporate control.

The old Cedar Falls post office now houses the Cedar Falls high school. (photo Matthew Putney)

This idea, for example, was recently noted and disseminated online with positive results. Why not consider converting more of the “New Deal” Post Office buildings that we already own all over the country into neighborhood schools. (“The USPS has announced that it will be closing as many as 2,000 of its 32,000 post offices and auctioning off the buildings.”) That could reduce class sizes, employ more teachers and serve as a temporary jobs program for a variety of professionals. It would also serve to help save historic buildings and possibly help subsidize the Post Office workers’ pensions which are due to default at the end of this month. It’s more complicated than that, but why not take a closer look at it?

Political pressure to diminish the power of the people and enrich corporations is suffocating America. It stifles innovation and removes our collective voice from the processes of government. Destroying the foundations of a nation only to rebuild it in “one’s” own image, is a noticeable neoliberal pattern and a strategy clearly employed by our military and its corporate contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, curses, like young chicken, always come home to roost.

What our children learn will determine the future of America, and in that respect, there’s just nothing more important. They should have access to schools and teachers unhindered by political ideology and religious indoctrination, and who are proud to teach the truth even as it challenges power. They should be enriched and empowered with a full understanding of government procedure and taught to realize their responsibility as citizens for its success or failure.

Again: “… in the neoliberal universe, ethics reduces to calculations of wealth and productivity.”

(Post updated here.)

DCKennedy

Thought Experiment 2007

Here’s a short but thoughtful piece that’s nice for today by the late David Wallace.

The Future of the American Idea
November 2007
Atlantic Monthly
by David Foster Wallace
Just Asking

Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea* one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”?* In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price? Is monstrousness why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned about more than 200 years ago? What exactly has changed between Franklin’s time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice—either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?

In the absence of such a conversation, can we trust our elected leaders to value and protect the American idea as they act to secure the homeland? What are the effects on the American idea of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Patriot Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.? Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer—are they worth it? Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?

FOOTNOTES:
1. Given the strict Gramm-Rudmanewque space limit here, let’s just please all agree that we generally know what this term connotes—an open society, consent of the governed, enumerated powers, Federalist 10, pluralism, due process, transparency … the whole democratic roil.

2. (This phrase is Lincoln’s, more or less)

And here’s an answering piece you may have seen, but one that follows with grace, the essence of universal connection.

DCKennedy

Unsinkable Ship

. . . a money class fleeces the banking system, while the very trunk of the national tree is permitted to rot and crash.
~Christopher Hitchens

A long time ago, someone handed me a fire extinguisher, doused and lit my English saddle, and suggested I aim at the base of the fire if I wanted to save it. Details aside, that’s what I thought of this morning when I re-read Vanity Fair‘s article by Christopher Hitchens, America the Banana Republic.

When it was reprinted all over the world in 2008, this article was not just a wake-up call … it was an alarm: a dire warning for the people of America, and its undeniable truth smacks even harder today. Nearly three years later, what have we done to reverse the course of a trend that was threatening “to put the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave on a par with Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Equatorial Guinea”?

Corporations still own the media and are now taking over the Internet. Free access to information, ideas and opinions is essential to Democracy, and the Internet was our alternate source.

The rule of law, a hallmark of Democracy, still doesn’t apply to persons of wealth and power or our government officials.

The Citizens United decision has corrupted the democratic process with corporate personhood.

We are still using electronic election equipment without verifiable results.

As I see it, the media, the rule of law and election integrity are so fundamental to democracy that without them, we are no longer a Democratic American Republic – and if we can’t maintain our own foundation of principles, it’s beyond arrogance to be forcing our system on other nations. It’s not enough anymore to say “our system isn’t perfect, but it’s the best there is to offer”. We’re dangerous. The world’s grandest banana republic also has the most powerful military in the history of the world and the people of America have lost all control over its expansive use.

Some simple truths need to be stated in every venue left for the people to see, and we need to heed the warnings and act now to change the course of history and the future of America.

Where do we go from here? If it were up to me, I would aim at the base of the fire and try to hit some of the above failures. One of the surest ways is to align ourselves with a grass-roots organization willing to work for American values.
DCKennedy