29 Jun 2011

Why the United States Is Destroying Its Education System

... much like in its sorry European counterpart, aka "the Bologna Process", Chris Hedges has a long hard look at the American education system, in its most urgent hour of need for a reality-check. He focuses on the wilful attack against the new generations' critical thinking abilities via the gormless acquisition of bureaucratic, vocational skills - designed to create ideologically-modified individuals, "lacking the capacity and vocabulary to challenge the assumptions and structures of the corporate state" - to the detriment of sheer academic knowledge. What Chris doesn't say is that this "bread and circus" corporate update prevents people from rising above their current underclass status, the all-pervasive infotainment and its virtual tsunami of empty signifiers to challenge the cultist, speculative notions underpinning the bankrupt neoliberal meta-narrative. Overflowing the labour markets with ill-prepared graduates, using their degrees to make burgers at McDonalds is what actually drives the learning-on-the-job ethos of the "flexible", disposable human resources' drones which is churning out rebels, artists, independent thinkers and the like. Until people will wake up from their idle American Dreaming to identify and challenge the electronic herds of financial speculators, their future will continue to be mortgaged on a bankrupt collateral concerned with cutting spending on education, health and/or the rest of the fundamentals that once underpinned the Social Contract between the citizen and the (corporate) state...
by Chris Hedges

A nation that destroys its systems of education, degrades its public information, guts its public libraries and turns its airwaves into vehicles for cheap, mindless amusement becomes deaf, dumb and blind. It prizes test scores above critical thinking and literacy. It celebrates rote vocational training and the singular, amoral skill of making money. It churns out stunted human products, lacking the capacity and vocabulary to challenge the assumptions and structures of the corporate state. It funnels them into a caste system of drones and systems managers. It transforms a democratic state into a feudal system of corporate masters and serfs.

Teachers, their unions under attack, are becoming as replaceable as minimum-wage employees at Burger King. We spurn real teachers—those with the capacity to inspire children to think, those who help the young discover their gifts and potential—and replace them with instructors who teach to narrow, standardized tests. These instructors obey. They teach children to obey. And that is the point. The No Child Left Behind program, modeled on the “Texas Miracle”, is a fraud. It worked no better than our deregulated financial system. But when you shut out debate these dead ideas are self-perpetuating.

Passing bubble tests celebrates and rewards a peculiar form of analytical intelligence. This kind of intelligence is prized by money managers and corporations. They don’t want employees to ask uncomfortable questions or examine existing structures and assumptions. They want them to serve the system. These tests produce men and women who are just literate and numerate enough to perform basic functions and service jobs. The tests elevate those with the financial means to prepare for them. They reward those who obey the rules, memorize the formulas and pay deference to authority. Rebels, artists, independent thinkers, eccentrics and iconoclasts—those who march to the beat of their own drum—are weeded out.

“Imagine,” said a public school teacher in New York City, who asked that I not use his name, “going to work each day knowing a great deal of what you are doing is fraudulent, knowing in no way are you preparing your students for life in an ever more brutal world, knowing that if you don’t continue along your scripted test prep course and indeed get better at it you will be out of a job. Up until very recently, the principal of a school was something like the conductor of an orchestra: a person who had deep experience and knowledge of the part and place of every member and every instrument. In the past 10 years we’ve had the emergence of both [Mayor] Mike Bloomberg’s Leadership Academy and Eli Broad’s Superintendents Academy, both created exclusively to produce instant principals and superintendents who model themselves after CEOs. How is this kind of thing even legal? How are such ‘academies’ accredited? What quality of leader needs a ‘leadership academy’? What kind of society would allow such people to run their children’s schools? The high-stakes tests may be worthless as pedagogy but they are a brilliant mechanism for undermining the school systems, instilling fear and creating a rationale for corporate takeover. There is something grotesque about the fact the education reform is being led not by educators but by financers and speculators and billionaires.”

Teachers, under assault from every direction, are fleeing the profession. Even before the “reform” blitzkrieg we were losing half of all teachers within five years after they started work—and these were people who spent years in school and many thousands of dollars to become teachers. How does the country expect to retain dignified, trained professionals under the hostility of current conditions? I suspect that the hedge fund managers behind our charter schools system—whose primary concern is certainly not with education—are delighted to replace real teachers with nonunionized, poorly trained instructors. To truly teach is to instill the values and knowledge which promote the common good and protect a society from the folly of historical amnesia. The utilitarian, corporate ideology embraced by the system of standardized tests and leadership academies has no time for the nuances and moral ambiguities inherent in a liberal arts education. Corporatism is about the cult of the self. It is about personal enrichment and profit as the sole aim of human existence. And those who do not conform are pushed aside.

Photo illustration by PZS based on an image by Lin Pernille Photography

“It is extremely dispiriting to realize that you are in effect lying to these kids by insinuating that this diet of corporate reading programs and standardized tests are preparing them for anything,” said this teacher, who feared he would suffer reprisals from school administrators if they knew he was speaking out. “It is even more dispiriting to know that your livelihood depends increasingly on maintaining this lie. You have to ask yourself why are hedge fund managers suddenly so interested in the education of the urban poor? The main purpose of the testing craze is not to grade the students but to grade the teacher.”
 
“I cannot say for certain—not with the certainty of a Bill Gates or a Mike Bloomberg who pontificate with utter certainty over a field in which they know absolutely nothing—but more and more I suspect that a major goal of the reform campaign is to make the work of a teacher so degrading and insulting that the dignified and the truly educated teachers will simply leave while they still retain a modicum of self-respect,” he added. “In less than a decade we been stripped of autonomy and are increasingly micromanaged. Students have been given the power to fire us by failing their tests. Teachers have been likened to pigs at a trough and blamed for the economic collapse of the United States. In New York, principals have been given every incentive, both financial and in terms of control, to replace experienced teachers with 22-year-old untenured rookies. They cost less. They know nothing. They are malleable and they are vulnerable to termination.”

The demonizing of teachers is another public relations feint, a way for corporations to deflect attention from the theft of some $17 billion in wages, savings and earnings among American workers and a landscape where one in six workers is without employment. The speculators on Wall Street looted the U.S. Treasury. They stymied any kind of regulation. They have avoided criminal charges. They are stripping basic social services. And now they are demanding to run our schools and universities.

“Not only have the reformers removed poverty as a factor, they’ve removed students’ aptitude and motivation as factors,” said this teacher, who is in a teachers union. “They seem to believe that students are something like plants where you just add water and place them in the sun of your teaching and everything blooms. This is a fantasy that insults both student and teacher. The reformers have come up with a variety of insidious schemes pushed as steps to professionalize the profession of teaching. As they are all businessmen who know nothing of the field, it goes without saying that you do not do this by giving teachers autonomy and respect. They use merit pay in which teachers whose students do well on bubble tests will receive more money and teachers whose students do not do so well on bubble tests will receive less money. Of course, the only way this could conceivably be fair is to have an identical group of students in each class—an impossibility. The real purposes of merit pay are to divide teachers against themselves as they scramble for the brighter and more motivated students and to further institutionalize the idiot notion of standardized tests. There is a certain diabolical intelligence at work in both of these.”

“If the Bloomberg administration can be said to have succeeded in anything,” he said, “they have succeeded in turning schools into stress factories where teachers are running around wondering if it’s possible to please their principals and if their school will be open a year from now, if their union will still be there to offer some kind of protection, if they will still have jobs next year. This is not how you run a school system. It’s how you destroy one. The reformers and their friends in the media have created a Manichean world of bad teachers and effective teachers. In this alternative universe there are no other factors. Or, all other factors—poverty, depraved parents, mental illness and malnutrition—are all excuses of the Bad Teacher that can be overcome by hard work and the Effective Teacher.”

The truly educated become conscious. They become self-aware. They do not lie to themselves. They do not pretend that fraud is moral or that corporate greed is good. They do not claim that the demands of the marketplace can morally justify the hunger of children or denial of medical care to the sick. They do not throw 6 million families from their homes as the cost of doing business. Thought is a dialogue with one’s inner self. Those who think ask questions, questions those in authority do not want asked. They remember who we are, where we come from and where we should go. They remain eternally skeptical and distrustful of power. And they know that this moral independence is the only protection from the radical evil that results from collective unconsciousness. The capacity to think is the only bulwark against any centralized authority that seeks to impose mindless obedience. There is a huge difference, as Socrates understood, between teaching people what to think and teaching them how to think. Those who are endowed with a moral conscience refuse to commit crimes, even those sanctioned by the corporate state, because they do not in the end want to live with criminals—themselves.

“It is better to be at odds with the whole world than, being one, to be at odds with myself,” Socrates said.
 
Those who can ask the right questions are armed with the capacity to make a moral choice, to defend the good in the face of outside pressure. And this is why the philosopher Immanuel Kant puts the duties we have to ourselves before the duties we have to others. The standard for Kant is not the biblical idea of self-love—love thy neighbor as thyself, do unto others as you would have them do unto you—but self-respect. What brings us meaning and worth as human beings is our ability to stand up and pit ourselves against injustice and the vast, moral indifference of the universe. Once justice perishes, as Kant knew, life loses all meaning. Those who meekly obey laws and rules imposed from the outside—including religious laws—are not moral human beings. The fulfillment of an imposed law is morally neutral. The truly educated make their own wills serve the higher call of justice, empathy and reason. Socrates made the same argument when he said it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong.

“The greatest evil perpetrated,” Hannah Arendt wrote, “is the evil committed by nobodies, that is, by human beings who refuse to be persons.”

As Arendt pointed out, we must trust only those who have this self-awareness. This self-awareness comes only through consciousness. It comes with the ability to look at a crime being committed and say “I can’t.” We must fear, Arendt warned, those whose moral system is built around the flimsy structure of blind obedience. We must fear those who cannot think. Unconscious civilizations become totalitarian wastelands.

“The greatest evildoers are those who don’t remember because they have never given thought to the matter, and, without remembrance, nothing can hold them back,” Arendt writes. “For human beings, thinking of past matters means moving in the dimension of depth, striking roots and thus stabilizing themselves, so as not to be swept away by whatever may occur—the Zeitgeist or History or simple temptation. The greatest evil is not radical, it has no roots, and because it has no roots it has no limitations, it can go to unthinkable extremes and sweep over the whole world.”

27 Jun 2011

The New Thirty Years’ War

Winners and Losers in the Great Global Energy Struggle to Come


By Michael T. Klare

A 30-year war for energy preeminence? You wouldn’t wish it even on a desperate planet. But that’s where we’re headed and there’s no turning back.

From 1618 to 1648, Europe was engulfed in a series of intensely brutal conflicts known collectively as the Thirty Years’ War. It was, in part, a struggle between an imperial system of governance and the emerging nation-state. Indeed, many historians believe that the modern international system of nation-states was crystallized in the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, which finally ended the fighting.
 
Think of us today as embarking on a new Thirty Years’ War. It may not result in as much bloodshed as that of the 1600s, though bloodshed there will be, but it will prove no less momentous for the future of the planet. Over the coming decades, we will be embroiled at a global level in a succeed-or-perish contest among the major forms of energy, the corporations which supply them, and the countries that run on them. The question will be: Which will dominate the world’s energy supply in the second half of the twenty-first century? The winners will determine how -- and how badly -- we live, work, and play in those not-so-distant decades, and will profit enormously as a result. The losers will be cast aside and dismembered.

Why 30 years? Because that’s how long it will take for experimental energy systems like hydrogen power, cellulosic ethanol, wave power, algae fuel, and advanced nuclear reactors to make it from the laboratory to full-scale industrial development. Some of these systems (as well, undoubtedly, as others not yet on our radar screens) will survive the winnowing process. Some will not. And there is little way to predict how it will go at this stage in the game. At the same time, the use of existing fuels like oil and coal, which spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, is likely to plummet, thanks both to diminished supplies and rising concerns over the growing dangers of carbon emissions.

This will be a war because the future profitability, or even survival, of many of the world’s most powerful and wealthy corporations will be at risk, and because every nation has a potentially life-or-death stake in the contest. For giant oil companies like BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch Shell, an eventual shift away from petroleum will have massive economic consequences. They will be forced to adopt new economic models and attempt to corner new markets, based on the production of alternative energy products, or risk collapse or absorption by more powerful competitors. In these same decades, new companies will arise, some undoubtedly coming to rival the oil giants in wealth and importance.

The fate of nations, too, will be at stake as they place their bets on competing technologies, cling to their existing energy patterns, or compete for global energy sources, markets, and reserves. Because the acquisition of adequate supplies of energy is as basic a matter of national security as can be imagined, struggles over vital resources -- oil and natural gas now, perhaps lithium or nickel (for electric-powered vehicles) in the future -- will trigger armed violence.

When these three decades are over, as with the Treaty of Westphalia, the planet is likely to have in place the foundations of a new system for organizing itself -- this time around energy needs. In the meantime, the struggle for energy resources is guaranteed to grow ever more intense for a simple reason: there is no way the existing energy system can satisfy the world’s future requirements. It must be replaced or supplemented in a major way by a renewable alternative system or, forget Westphalia, the planet will be subject to environmental disaster of a sort hard to imagine today.


The Existing Energy Lineup

To appreciate the nature of our predicament, begin with a quick look at the world’s existing energy portfolio. According to BP, the world consumed 13.2 billion tons of oil-equivalent from all sources in 2010: 33.6% from oil, 29.6% from coal, 23.8% from natural gas, 6.5% from hydroelectricity, 5.2% from nuclear energy, and a mere 1.3% percent from all renewable forms of energy. Together, fossil fuels -- oil, coal, and gas -- supplied 10.4 billion tons, or 87% of the total.

Even attempting to preserve this level of energy output in 30 years’ time, using the same proportion of fuels, would be a near-hopeless feat. Achieving a 40% increase in energy output, as most analysts believe will be needed to satisfy the existing requirements of older industrial powers and rising demand in China and other rapidly developing nations, is simply impossible.

Two barriers stand in the way of preserving the existing energy profile: eventual oil scarcity and global climate change. Most energy analysts expect conventional oil output -- that is, liquid oil derived from fields on land and in shallow coastal waters -- to reach a production peak in the next few years and then begin an irreversible decline. Some additional fuel will be provided in the form of “unconventional” oil -- that is, liquids derived from the costly, hazardous, and ecologically unsafe extraction processes involved in producing tar sands, shale oil, and deep-offshore oil -- but this will only postpone the contraction in petroleum availability, not avert it. By 2041, oil will be far less abundant than it is today and so incapable of meeting anywhere near 33.6% of the world’s (much expanded) energy needs.

Meanwhile, the accelerating pace of climate change will produce ever more damage -- intense storm activity, rising sea levels, prolonged droughts, lethal heat waves, massive forest fires, and so on -- finally forcing reluctant politicians to take remedial action. This will undoubtedly include an imposition of curbs on the release via fossil fuels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, whether in the form of carbon taxes, cap-and-trade plans, emissions limits, or other restrictive systems as yet not imagined. By 2041, these increasingly restrictive curbs will help ensure that fossil fuels will not be supplying anywhere near 87% of world energy.


The Leading Contenders

If oil and coal are destined to fall from their position as the world’s paramount source of energy, what will replace them? Here are some of the leading contenders.

Natural gas: Many energy experts and political leaders view natural gas as a “transitional” fossil fuel because it releases less carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases than oil and coal. In addition, global supplies of natural gas are far greater than previously believed, thanks to new technologies -- notably horizontal drilling and the controversial procedure of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) -- that allow for the exploitation of shale gas reserves once considered inaccessible. For example, in 2011, the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) predicted that, by 2035, gas would far outpace coal as a source of American energy, though oil would still outpace them both. Some now speak of a “natural gas revolution” that will see it overtake oil as the world’s number one fuel, at least for a time. But fracking poses a threat to the safety of drinking water and so may arouse widespread opposition, while the economics of shale gas may, in the end, prove less attractive than currently assumed. In fact, many experts now believe that the prospects for shale gas have been oversold, and that stepped-up investment will result in ever-diminishing returns.

Nuclear power: Prior to the March 11th earthquake/tsunami disaster and a series of core meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex in Japan, many analysts were speaking of a nuclear "renaissance," which would see the construction of hundreds of new nuclear reactors over the next few decades. Although some of these plants in China and elsewhere are likely to be built, plans for others -- in Italy and Switzerland, for example -- already appear to have been scrapped. Despite repeated assurances that U.S. reactors are completely safe, evidence is regularly emerging of safety risks at many of these facilities. Given rising public concern over the risk of catastrophic accident, it is unlikely that nuclear power will be one of the big winners in 2041.

However, nuclear enthusiasts (including President Obama) are championing the manufacture of small “modular” reactors that, according to their boosters, could be built for far less than current ones and would produce significantly lower levels of radioactive waste. Although the technology for, and safety of, such “assembly-line” reactors has yet to be demonstrated, advocates claim that they would provide an attractive alternative to both large conventional reactors with their piles of nuclear waste and coal-fired power plants that emit so much carbon dioxide.

Wind and solar: Make no mistake, the world will rely on wind and solar power for a greater proportion of its energy 30 years from now. According to the International Energy Agency, those energy sources will go from approximately 1% of total world energy consumption in 2008 to a projected 4% in 2035. But given the crisis at hand and the hopes that exist for wind and solar, this would prove small potatoes indeed. For these two alternative energy sources to claim a significantly larger share of the energy pie, as so many climate-change activists desire, real breakthroughs will be necessary, including major improvements in the design of wind turbines and solar collectors, improved energy storage (so that power collected during sunny or windy periods can be better used at night or in calm weather), and a far more efficient and expansive electrical grid (so that energy from areas favored by sun and wind can be effectively distributed elsewhere). China, Germany, and Spain have been making the sorts of investments in wind and solar energy that might give them an advantage in the new Thirty Years’ War -- but only if the technological breakthroughs actually come.

Biofuels and algae: Many experts see a promising future for biofuels, especially as “first generation” ethanol, based largely on the fermentation of corn and sugar cane, is replaced by second- and third-generation fuels derived from plant cellulose (“cellulosic ethanol”) and bio-engineered algae. Aside from the fact that the fermentation process requires heat (and so consumes energy even while releasing it), many policymakers object to the use of food crops to supply raw materials for a motor fuel at a time of rising food prices. However, several promising technologies to produce ethanol by chemical means from the cellulose in non-food crops are now being tested, and one or more of these techniques may well survive the transition to full-scale commercial production. At the same time, a number of companies, including ExxonMobil, are exploring the development of new breeds of algae that reproduce swiftly and can be converted into biofuels. (The U.S. Department of Defense is also investing in some of these experimental methods with an eye toward transforming the American military, a great fossil-fuel guzzler, into a far “greener” outfit.) Again, however, it is too early to know which (if any) biofuel endeavors will pan out.

Hydrogen: A decade ago, many experts were talking about hydrogen’s immense promise as a source of energy. Hydrogen is abundant in many natural substances (including water and natural gas) and produces no carbon emissions when consumed. However, it does not exist by itself in the natural world and so must be extracted from other substances -- a process that requires significant amounts of energy in its own right, and so is not, as yet, particularly efficient. Methods for transporting, storing, and consuming hydrogen on a large scale have also proved harder to develop than once imagined. Considerable research is being devoted to each of these problems, and breakthroughs certainly could occur in the decades to come. At present, however, it appears unlikely that hydrogen will prove a major source of energy in 2041.

X the Unknown: Many other sources of energy are being tested by scientists and engineers at universities and corporate laboratories worldwide. Some are even being evaluated on a larger scale in pilot projects of various sorts. Among the most promising of these are geothermal energy, wave energy, and tidal energy. Each taps into immense natural forces and so, if the necessary breakthroughs were to occur, would have the advantage of being infinitely exploitable, with little risk of producing greenhouse gases. However, with the exception of geothermal, the necessary technologies are still at an early stage of development. How long it may take to harvest them is anybody’s guess. Geothermal energy does show considerable promise, but has run into problems, given the need to tap it by drilling deep into the earth, in some cases triggering small earthquakes.

From time to time, I hear of even less familiar prospects for energy production that possess at least some hint of promise. At present, none appears likely to play a significant role in 2041, but no one should underestimate humanity’s technological and innovative powers. As with all history, surprise can play a major role in energy history, too.

Energy efficiency: Given the lack of an obvious winner among competing transitional or alternative energy sources, one crucial approach to energy consumption in 2041 will surely be efficiency at levels unimaginable today: the ability to achieve maximum economic output for minimum energy input. The lead players three decades from now may be the countries and corporations that have mastered the art of producing the most with the least. Innovations in transportation, building and product design, heating and cooling, and production techniques will all play a role in creating an energy-efficient world.


When the War Is Over

Thirty years from now, for better or worse, the world will be a far different place: hotter, stormier, and with less land (given the loss of shoreline and low-lying areas to rising sea levels). Strict limitations on carbon emissions will certainly be universally enforced and the consumption of fossil fuels, except under controlled circumstances, actively discouraged. Oil will still be available to those who can afford it, but will no longer be the world’s paramount fuel. New powers, corporate and otherwise, in new combinations will have risen with a new energy universe. No one can know, of course, what our version of the Treaty of Westphalia will look like or who will be the winners and losers on this planet. In the intervening 30 years, however, that much violence and suffering will have ensued goes without question. Nor can anyone say today which of the contending forms of energy will prove dominant in 2041 and beyond.

Were I to wager a guess, I might place my bet on energy systems that were decentralized, easy to make and install, and required relatively modest levels of up-front investment. For an analogy, think of the laptop computer of 2011 versus the giant mainframes of the 1960s and 1970s. The closer that an energy supplier gets to the laptop model (or so I suspect), the more success will follow.

From this perspective, giant nuclear reactors and coal-fired plants are, in the long run, less likely to thrive, except in places like China where authoritarian governments still call the shots. Far more promising, once the necessary breakthroughs come, will be renewable sources of energy and advanced biofuels that can be produced on a smaller scale with less up-front investment, and so possibly incorporated into daily life even at a community or neighborhood level.

Whichever countries move most swiftly to embrace these or similar energy possibilities will be the likeliest to emerge in 2041 with vibrant economies -- and given the state of the planet, if luck holds, just in the nick of time.



Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet. A documentary movie version of his previous book, Blood and Oil, is available from the Media Education Foundation.

Copyright 2011 Michael T. Klare

Tomgram: Michael Klare, The Energy Landscape of 2041

Posted by Michael Klare at 5:55pm, June 26, 2011

Let’s see: today, it’s a story about rising sea levels.  Now, close your eyes, take a few seconds and try to imagine what word or words could possibly go with such a story.

Time’s up, and if “faster,” “far faster,” “fastest,” or “unprecedented” didn’t come to mind, then the odds are that you’re not actually living on planet Earth in the year 2011.  Yes, a new study came out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that measures sea-level rise over the last 2,000 years and -- don’t be shocked -- it’s never risen faster than now.

Earlier in the week, there was that report on the state of the oceans produced by a panel of leading marine scientists.  Now, close your eyes and try again.  Really, this should be easy.  Just look at the previous paragraph and choose “unprecedented,” and this time pair it with “loss of species comparable to the great mass extinctions of prehistory,” or pick “far faster” (as in “the seas are degenerating far faster than anyone has predicted”), or for a change of pace, how about “more quickly” as in “more quickly than had been predicted” as the “world’s oceans move into ‘extinction’ phase.”

Or consider a third story: arctic melting.  This time you’re 100% correct!  It’s “faster” again (as in “than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts” of 2007).  But don’t let me bore you.  I won’t even mention the burning southwest, or Arizona’s Wallow fire, “the largest in state history,” or Texas’s “unprecedented wildfire season” (now “getting worse”), or the residents of Minot, North Dakota, abandoning their city to “unprecedented” floods, part of a deluge in the northern U.S. that is “unprecedented in modern times.”

It’s just superlatives and records all the way, and all thanks to those globally rising “record” temperatures and all those burning fossil fuels emitting “record” levels of greenhouse gases (“worst ever” in 2010) that so many governments, ours at the very top of the list, are basically ducking.  Now, multiply those fabulous adjectives and superlative events -- whether melting, dying, rising, or burning -- and you’re heading toward the world of 2041, the one that TomDispatch energy expert and author of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet Michael Klare writes about today.  It's a world where if we haven't kicked our fossil-fuel habit, we won’t have superlatives strong enough to describe it. Tom


Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, a TomDispatch regular, and the author, most recently, of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet. A documentary movie version of his previous book, Blood and Oil, is available from the Media Education Foundation.
Copyright 2011 Michael T. Klare

22 Jun 2011

Commencement Day for a Lost Generation

by Bill Blum

More than 1.7 million students graduated from four-year colleges across the country over the past two months. Along with their parents, all have a story about what they took from their commencement ceremonies, and all have a story about what they expect once they enter our sorry excuse for a job market.


My parental story unfolded as the morning fog rolled away and sunlight streamed across the blue-gray expanse of Monterey Bay. I sat down for breakfast with my wife, oldest son Max and youngest offspring Sam, who would be donning the cap and gown that afternoon at the University of California Santa Cruz.

Our waiter, a young man about Sam’s age, attentively refilled our coffee cups and carefully recorded our orders. I breached the normal customer-server barrier and asked if he, too, was connected with the University of California. “I graduated last year,” he answered. “Philosophy major. Berkeley.” He gave us a knowing smile, wished us a great day and moved on to another table. I opened my wallet and left him an oversized tip. Despite our having taking out a personal loan and having scrimped on everything from cable TV to wintertime heating to help finance Sam’s education, this was no time to get frugal.

For a moment I flashed back to my own undergraduate career and Sartre’s parable of the cafe waiter who had invested so much of his essence in being a waiter that he had lost his authenticity and the capacity to transcend the circumstances of his job. And then it hit me just how much times had changed since I was a fresh face coming out of university. There was nothing inauthentic about our earnest young server. In fact, he was fortunate to have a job, much like Sam’s friend Joe, who had left Santa Cruz last year with honors in English literature only to find himself pouring lattes for customers at the Coffee Bean back home.

According to a study conducted by Northeastern University labor economist Andrew Sum, a mere 74.4 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 had jobs from October 2010 to March 2011. Of this same demographic, only 45.9 percent held positions that required a college degree, down from 80 percent a decade ago.

The country my generation is passing on to Sam and his peers is a mean-spirited place of global warming, class warfare and diminishing expectations, where the top 1 percent of households own nearly 35 percent of all privately held wealth and the “bottom” 80 percent lays claim to less than half that. It’s a place where that same top 1 percent receives 23 percent of the nation’s income, three-quarters of which stems from thinly taxed capital gains, and giant corporations such as General Electric and Exxon receive billions in federal tax subsidies. It’s a place where unions are disappearing and the public sector is dying, where good-paying entry-level jobs with health insurance and defined-benefit pensions are being replaced by unpaid internships, which nearly all colleges advertise at their career centers and on their websites. It’s a place where Republicans, emboldened by the tea party, clamor for ever more spending cuts, and Democrats, bereft of leadership and resolve, object only to the degree of retrenchment.

It is a place where it would be easy for students to fall into cynicism, despair and anger at their elders. But, to my surprise, there was little of that on display at the commencement. Maybe it was just Santa Cruz—the home to radical academics like the late Norman O. Brown, Angela Davis and G. William Domhoff (the author of the 1967 classic “Who Rules America?” from whose updated online work some of the depressing economic statistics cited above are taken). I found there a sense of continuity, a passing of the baton of social commitment from the old to the young.

Feminist-studies professor Bettina Aptheker delivered the commencement address. Exiles from the late ’60s and the ’70s like me remember Aptheker not only as an intellectual in her own right but as the daughter of Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker, a member of the American Communist Party and, though Jewish and white, a pioneer in the study of black history. Bettina Aptheker took the assembled throng on a 15-minute tour of the world’s major ills, from famine and rape in Darfur to climate change and corporate greed. She congratulated the science majors for their choice of career paths most likely to lead to immediate financial security and reminded the philosophy and history scholars that they had received an education enabling them to think critically and creatively. But most of all she exhorted everyone to understand that while none of us alone can repair the world, together we have a chance.

By the time she had finished, the coastal clouds had returned and the wind on the grassy field where the commencement took place had picked up. In a scene replayed at colleges across the nation, graduation caps were flung into the air, backs were slapped, fists were pumped, hugs were shared, dinner plans confirmed.

Still for me it was, and remains, hard to imagine exactly how the new crop of grads could come together in a divided nation for the common good, as Aptheker had urged, especially in view of their parents’ abject failures and the obstacles posed by the destructive top 1 percent whom Domhoff monitors. As I trundled off to the rental car, I reminded myself that Sam is more fortunate than many other young people in this crumbling nation: A family of two on welfare in California is expected to survive starting this July on a monthly stipend of only $516. In any case, there will plenty of time to answer the important questions this summer when Sam, like thousands of others among this country’s best and brightest, moves back in with his parents, struggles to repay his student loans (the latest figures show a national default rate of 8.9 percent, up nearly two ticks since 2009) and begins to chart a most uncertain future.

The Problem with Your Google Search Result Feedback Loop (and What You Can Do About It)

Gobbledigoogle, Fakebook and a virtual tsunami of twittering rubbish are but some of Big Brother’s "variable interval reinforcement schedule" tentacles, turning each and every one of us into gormless consumers! In case you've been having problems dreaming (the American Dream) lately, try Ted's rather illuminating food for thought...

lifehacker


Adam Dachis — Eli Pariser, former director of MoveOn.org, noticed that he and his friends ended up with very different search results when searching for the exact same things. Google (and other sites) are filtering out the stuff you might not like, putting you inside an isolated search filter bubble. This can be a problem, but one that's easily remedied.

As Pariser explains in the video above, Google uses 57 criteria specific to you to filter your results in an effort to make them better and more applicable to you. When you're searching for entertainment this is probably a good thing, but when you're searching for news or any kind of information you might be missing out on results filtered out by things like your location, the browser you're using, and the links you click on. Google isn't alone, as Facebook and Yahoo (among others) pay attention to this kind of information as well. If you want unfiltered results, you've got a couple of options.


The Simple Option

The easiest thing you can do is use a search engine that doesn't filter results. One of our favorites is DuckDuckGo. Aside from providing you with the same results as everyone else, it has a bunch of handy shortcuts. If you want to know a little more about DuckDuckGo's commitment to unfiltered search results and learn a little more about the problem as they see it, check out their presentation.


The "I Still Want Google" Option

If you like Google and wanted to continue using it as your search engine, you just need to prevent it from using information about you. Activating private browsing (or "incognito mode" in Chrome) is a start, because it won't save any cookies, but that doesn't solve every problem as Google uses 57 criteria to choose the results it shows you. In addition to disabling cookies you'll need to disguise your browser agent, mask your IP, and a whole bunch more. Downloading and configuring Tor to browse anonymously might be your best bet since it's pretty tough to hide all this information. If you want to simply avoid this data being saved to your Google account, all you have to do is turn off search personalization (or just stay logged out of your Google account).

All in all, if you're not searching for anything important it shouldn't matter much whether or not your results are filtered, but when you're looking for political opinions or accurate research you might want to use a search engine that isn't trying to show you only what it thinks you want to see.


The Filter Bubble
TED via DuckDuckGo

21 Jun 2011

Free Speech under Siege

by Robert Skidelsky

LONDON – Recently, at a literary festival in Britain, I found myself on a panel discussing free speech. For liberals, free speech is a key index of freedom. Democracies stand for free speech; dictatorships suppress it.


When we in the West look outward, this remains our view. We condemn governments that silence, imprison, and even kill writers and journalists. Reporters Sans Frontières keeps a list: 24 journalists have been killed, and 148 imprisoned, just this year. Part of the promise we see in the “Arab Spring” is the liberation of the media from the dictator’s grasp.

Yet freedom of speech in the West is under strain. Traditionally, British law imposed two main limitations on the “right to free speech.” The first prohibited the use of words or expressions likely to disrupt public order; the second was the law against libel. There are good grounds for both – to preserve the peace, and to protect individuals’ reputations from lies. Most free societies accept such limits as reasonable.

But the law has recently become more restrictive. “Incitement to religious and racial hatred” and “incitement to hatred on the basis of sexual orientation” are now illegal in most European countries, independent of any threat to public order. The law has shifted from proscribing language likely to cause violence to prohibiting language intended to give offense.

A blatant example of this is the law against Holocaust denial. To deny or minimize the Holocaust is a crime in 15 European countries and Israel. It may be argued that the Holocaust was a crime so uniquely abhorrent as to qualify as a special case. But special cases have a habit of multiplying.

France has made it illegal to deny any “internationally recognized crimes against humanity.” Whereas in Muslim countries it is illegal to call the Armenian massacres of 1915-1917 “genocide,” in some Western countries it is illegal to say that they were not. Some East European countries specifically prohibit the denial of communist “genocides.”

The censorship of memory, which we once fondly imagined to be the mark of dictatorship, is now a major growth industry in the “free” West. Indeed, official censorship is only the tip of an iceberg of cultural censorship. A public person must be on constant guard against causing offense, whether intentionally or not.

Breaking the cultural code damages a person’s reputation, and perhaps one’s career. Britain’s Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke recently had to apologize for saying that some rapes were less serious than others, implying the need for legal discrimination. The parade of gaffes and subsequent groveling apologies has become a regular feature of public life.

In his classic essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill defended free speech on the ground that free inquiry was necessary to advance knowledge. Restrictions on certain areas of historical inquiry are based on the opposite premise: the truth is known, and it is impious to question it. This is absurd; every historian knows that there is no such thing as final historical truth.

It is not the task of history to defend public order or morals, but to establish what happened. Legally protected history ensures that historians will play safe. To be sure, living by Mill’s principle often requires protecting the rights of unsavory characters. David Irving writes mendacious history, but his prosecution and imprisonment in Austria for “Holocaust denial” would have horrified Mill.

By contrast, the pressure for “political correctness” rests on the argument that the truth is unknowable. Statements about the human condition are essentially matters of opinion. Because a statement of opinion by some individuals is almost certain to offend others, and since such statements make no contribution to the discovery of truth, their degree of offensiveness becomes the sole criterion for judging their admissibility. Hence the taboo on certain words, phrases, and arguments that imply that certain individuals, groups, or practices are superior or inferior, normal or abnormal; hence the search for ever more neutral ways to label social phenomena, thereby draining language of its vigor and interest.

A classic example is the way that “family” has replaced “marriage” in public discourse, with the implication that all “lifestyles” are equally valuable, despite the fact that most people persist in wanting to get married. It has become taboo to describe homosexuality as a “perversion,” though this was precisely the word used in the 1960’s by the radical philosopher Herbert Marcuse (who was praising homosexuality as an expression of dissent). In today’s atmosphere of what Marcuse would call “repressive tolerance,” such language would be considered “stigmatizing.”

The sociological imperative behind the spread of “political correctness” is the fact that we no longer live in patriarchal, hierarchical, mono-cultural societies, which exhibit general, if unreflective, agreement on basic values. The pathetic efforts to inculcate a common sense of “Britishness” or “Dutchness” in multi-cultural societies, however well-intentioned, attest to the breakdown of a common identity.

Public language has thus become the common currency of cultural exchange, and everyone is on notice to mind one’s manners. The result is a multiplication of weasel words that chill political and moral debate, and that create a widening gap between public language and what many ordinary people think.

The defense of free speech is made no easier by the abuses of the popular press. We need free media to expose abuses of power. But investigative journalism becomes discredited when it is suborned to “expose” the private lives of the famous when no issue of public interest is involved. Entertaining gossip has mutated into an assault on privacy, with newspapers claiming that any attempt to keep them out of people’s bedrooms is an assault on free speech.

You know that a doctrine is in trouble when not even those claiming to defend it understand what it means. By that standard, the classic doctrine of free speech is in crisis. We had better sort it out quickly – legally, morally, and culturally – if we are to retain a proper sense of what it means to live in a free society.



Robert Skidelsky, a member of the British House of Lords, is Professor Emeritus of Political Economy at Warwick University.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.
http://www.project-syndicate.org/

For a podcast of this commentary in English, please use this link:
http://media.blubrry.com/ps/media.libsyn.com/media/ps/skidelsky42.mp3

14 Jun 2011

Syria on the boil, US warship in Black Sea

By M. K. Bhadrakumar


Seldom it is that the Russian Foreign Ministry chooses a Sunday to issue a formal statement. Evidently, something of extreme gravity arose for Moscow to speak out urgently. The provocation was the appearance of a United States guided missile cruiser in the Black Sea for naval exercises with Ukraine. The USS Monterrey cruiser equipped with the AEGIS air defense system is taking part in joint Ukrainian-US exercises, Sea Breeze 2011.

There is nothing extraordinary about a US-Ukraine naval exercise. Last year, too, an exercise took place. But, as Moscow posed, "While leaving aside the unsettled issue of a possible European missile shield architecture, Russia would like to know, in compliance with the Russia-NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] Lisbon summit decisions, what 'aggravation' the US command meant by moving the basic strike unit of the regional missile defense grouping being formed by NATO in the region, from the Mediterranean to the East?"

The Foreign Ministry statement then went on to give its own explanation that the Monterrey was sent to European waters as part of the US administration's phased adaptive approach to building the European segment of the global missile shield. The program's first stage envisages the deployment of a group of US warships in the Adriatic, Aegean and Mediterranean Seas to protect South Europe from possible missile strikes. The role of the US warship's missiles in the Sea Breeze 2011 anti-piracy exercises is also unclear, the statement said.

"We have to state that our concerns continue to be ignored and under the guise of talks on European missile shield cooperation, efforts are under way to build the missile shield configuration whose consequences are dangerous and about which we have numerously informed our US and NATO partners," the Russian statement added.

The US claims that this is a routine naval exercise. On the other hand, Moscow asks: "If this is an ordinary visit, then it is unclear why a warship with this type of armament was chosen to move to this quite sensitive region."

Without doubt, the US is stepping up pressure on Russia's Black Sea fleet. The US's provocation is taking place against the backdrop of the turmoil in Syria. Russia is stubbornly blocking US attempts to drum up a case for Libya-style intervention in Syria. Moscow understands that a major reason for the US to push for regime change in Syria is to get the Russian naval base in that country wound up.

The Syrian base is the only toehold Russia has in the Mediterranean region. The Black Sea Fleet counts on the Syrian base for sustaining any effective Mediterranean presence by the Russian navy. With the establishment of US military bases in Romania and the appearance of the US warship in the Black Sea region, the arc of encirclement is tightening. It is a cat-and-mouse game, where the US is gaining the upper hand.

Ostensibly, the regime headed by Bashar al-Assad is repressive since almost everyday reports are coming out that more bloodshed has taken place. But the Western reports are completely silent as to the assistance that the Syrian opposition is getting from outside. No one is interested in probing or questioning, for instance, the circumstances in which 120 Syrian security personnel could have been shot and killed in one "incident".

The Western, Saudi, Israeli and Turkish involvement in Syria's unrest is almost crystal clear but that is beyond the zone of discussion when we speak of "Syria on the boil". In short, Russia has lost the information war over Syria. Henceforth, its dilemma will be that it will be seen as being obstructionist and illogical when a laudable democratization process is unfolding in Syria and the "Arab Spring" is straining to make an appearance.

Moscow has made it clear that it will not brook a resolution at the United Nations Security Council over Syria, no matter its wording or contents. It also voted against the Western move at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) last week to open a Syria nuclear file - similar to the Iran file - at the UN Security Council.

Moscow's dilemma is that it cannot openly explain its side of the US's geopolitical agenda toward Syria. Any such explanation will expose the hollowness of the US-Russia reset, which the Kremlin under President Dmitry Medvedev assiduously worked for. But Washington is not going to let Russia off the hook either. It is certain to tighten the noose around Assad's neck.

Put simply, the US wants Russia to leave Syria alone for the West to tackle. But Russia knows what follows will be that the Russian naval base there would get shut down by a pro-Western successor regime in Damascus that succeeds Assad.

The stakes are very high. Last year, the deputy head of Russian military intelligence was killed in mysterious circumstances while on an inspection tour of the naval base in Syria. His body was found floating on the Mediterranean off the Turkish coast. To be sure, many intelligence agencies are deeply embroiled in the Syrian broth.

First and foremost, a regime change in Syria has become absolutely critical for breaking Israel's regional isolation. The US-Israeli hope is that the back of the Hezbollah can be broken only if the regime of Assad is overthrown in Damascus and the Syrian-Iranian alliance is ended. Again, a regime change in Syria will force the Hamas leadership to vacate Damascus. Hamas chief Khalid Meshaal has been living in Damascus under Assad's protection for several years.

All in all, therefore, any movement on the Israel-Palestine peace process on Israeli terms will be possible only if the US and Israel crack the hard Syrian nut. Washington and Tel Aviv have been trying to persuade Russia to fall in line and accept "defeat" over Syria. But Moscow has stuck to its guns. And now by sending the warship to the Black Sea, US has signaled that it will make Russia pay a price for its obduracy and pretensions as a Mediterranean and Middle Eastern power.

The parliamentary election result in Turkey ensuring another term for the ruling "Islamist" party AKP (Justice and Development Party) significantly strengthens the US position on Syria. Ankara has hardened its stance on Assad and has begun openly criticizing him. A more obtrusive Turkish role in destabilizing Assad and forcing a regime change in Damascus can now be expected in the coming weeks. Ironically, Turkey also controls the Bosphorous Straits.

By improving ties with Turkey in the past decade, Moscow had been hoping that Ankara would gradually move toward an independent foreign policy. The Kremlin's expectation was that the two countries could get together and form a condominium over the Black Sea. But as events unfold, it is becoming clear that Ankara is reverting to its earlier priorities as a NATO country and US's pre-eminent partner in the region. Ankara cannot be faulted: it made a shrewd assessment and drew a balance sheet concluding that its interests are best served by identifying with the Western move to effect a regime change in Syria.

Additionally, Ankara finds it profitable that it identifies with the Saudi approach to the upheaval in the Middle East. The wealth Arabs in the oil-rich countries of the Persian Gulf are willing to send their "green money" to Turkey. Ankara also shares Saudi misgivings about Iran's rise as regional power.

In sum, the US is slowly but steadily getting the upper hand over its agenda of a regime change in Syria. Whether Moscow will buckle under this immense pressure and accept a rollback of its influence in Syria is the big question. Moscow has threatened to cooperate with Beijing and adopt a common stance over Syria. But Moscow's ability to counter the American juggernaut over Syria is weakening by the day.

The course of events over Syria will certainly impact profoundly on the US-Russia reset. The Obama administration seems to have done its homework and concluded that it is worth taking that risk for the sake of ensuring Israel's security. The warship that sailed into the Black Sea carries a blunt message to Russia to accept that it is a mere pale shadow of the former Soviet Union.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved.

The new Egypt flexes its muscles

Posted by Liam McLaughlin on the 14 June 2011

Early signs point to Egypt as a revived Arab force, albeit one divorced from the West.

The recent Egyptian-mediated rapprochement between the Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas, followed by the re-opening of the Rafah border of the Gaza Strip are historic moves. The former will unify and strengthen the Palestinian cause while the latter indicates the first major shift in Egyptian policy post-Mubarak.

Under Hosni Mubarak's US-backed dictatorship, Egypt was a primary facilitator of Western policy in the Middle East -- upholding Israel's blockade of Gaza from 2009, and violently quashing Islamist uprisings during the 1990s.

Now however, the interim military junta is clearly seeking to distance itself from such pro-West policy and towards a more expansive, independent outlook.

Back in February, Egypt began its new era 12 days after Mubarak resigned by allowing two Iranian warships to pass through the Suez Canal, reportedly the first transit of its kind since 1979. When questioned about this by the Washington Post, foreign minister Nabil el-Araby was oblique, but eventually stated that despite previous tensions "Iran is not an enemy" -- firmly putting clear blue water between the old and new Egypt.

Since then Egypt has been swift to make its position on other key issues known, especially the Palestine question. As a result, Egypt has curried the favour not only of Hamas, but also that of Hezbollah in Lebanon, who praised them for releasing two imprisoned members and for breaking the siege on Gaza.

Egypt's new political leverage with two of the Middle East's largest and most influential Islamic organisations holds the potential for further historic moments. Indeed, Egypt is moving steadily into a position where it may be able to negotiate the sorts of concessions needed to re-start the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

Further, regaining its position as an Arab leader, Egypt could eventually gain the power to steer Hezbollah and Hamas away from Iran, which could then be used to promote substantive democracy in countries like Syria and Lebanon, both of whom are currently under considerable Iranian influence.

At the moment, the Egyptian elite is remaining prudent -- being careful not to alienate any important international actors. However, a recent Pew Research poll betrayed Egyptian grassroots sentiment, showing that 54 per cent of Egyptians want the Camp David Accords with Israel annulled. Though Nabil el-Araby has since stated that this will not happen, it would not be surprising if some Egyptian political parties began campaigning for it anyway, prior to September's parliamentary election.

Such actions would strain the prospect of peace rather than nurture it, and provide Israel with yet another excuse to continue with its policy of belligerence and stubbornness with the Palestinians. The recent detention of an alleged Israeli spy in Cairo accused of trying to incite sectarian tensions and manipulate the security vacuum will only serve to make relations between Egypt and Israel more fraught, and could be the pretext for a policy of bellicosity with Israel.

The Egyptian economy remains a concern. A Gallup poll suggested that 53 per cent of Egyptians believe that economic conditions are getting worse. Barack Obama recently announced an aid package for Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, but Egyptians are cynical of this, and may not wish their new democracy to be immediately saddled with debt to the World Bank and the IMF. Nonetheless, Egypt must work on reducing poverty and inequality, which were some of the main factors leading to the revolution.

Many have speculated on the Islamisation of Egypt, with the help of the Muslim Brotherhood's party, Freedom and Justice. Recent clashes between Christians and Muslims provide a stark picture of re-emerging sectarian divides, but the values of the revolution appeared overwhelmingly secular, and it would be hard to imagine Islamic fundamentalists ruling Egypt as a result. Even if Freedom and Justice did win a majority, Egypt would not be like Iran, and would still have opposition politicians, scheduled elections, and the right to protest. It is also useful to remember that the Muslim Brotherhood is not on the US Foreign Terrorist Organizations list and has long officially renounced violence.

Egypt may find itself caught in an awkward position in the coming months as it attempts to carve out its new standpoint. It must balance the interests of various conflicting international powers with the desires of its own citizens, and also restructure its economy. Democratisation will certainly not be easy, but the early signs are pointing towards Egypt as a revived Arab force operating on its own terms with the potential to have a large say on issues like the Israel-Palestine peace process and Iran. Nevertheless Israel's cooperation is necessary on the former issue, and at the moment it looks like its reaction to the new Egypt is tepid at best.

Still, the new Egypt, divorced from the West, could actually prove a more positive actor in the long run.

13 Jun 2011

No Justice in Kafka’s America

By Chris Hedges
Mr. Fish

In Franz Kafka’s short story “Before the Law” a tireless supplicant spends his life praying for admittance into the courts of justice. He sits outside the law court for days, months and years. He makes many attempts to be admitted. He sacrifices everything he owns to sway or bribe the stern doorkeeper. He ages, grows feeble and finally childish. He is told as he nears death that the entrance was constructed solely for him and it will now be closed.

Justice has become as unattainable for Muslim activists in the United States as it was for Kafka’s frustrated petitioner. The draconian legal mechanisms that condemn Muslim Americans who speak out publicly about the outrages we commit in the Middle East have left many, including Syed Fahad Hashmi, wasting away in supermax prisons. These citizens posed no security threat. But they dared to speak a truth about the sordid conduct of our nation that the state found unpalatable. And in the bipartisan war on terror, waged by Republicans and Democrats, this ugly truth in America is branded seditious.

The best the U.S. government could offer as evidence of Fahad’s crimes was that an acquaintance who stayed in his apartment with him while he was a graduate student in London had raincoats, ponchos and waterproof socks in luggage at the apartment and that the acquaintance eventually delivered these to al-Qaida. But I doubt the government is overly concerned with a suitcase full of waterproof socks taken to Pakistan. The reason Fahad Hashmi was targeted was because, like the Palestinian activist Dr. Sami Al-Arian, he was fearless and zealous in his defense of those being bombed, shot, terrorized and killed throughout the Muslim world while he was a student at Brooklyn College. Fahad was deeply religious, and some of his views, including his praise of the Afghan resistance, were to me unpalatable, but he had a right to express these sentiments. More important, he had a right to expect freedom from persecution and imprisonment because of his opinions. Facing the possibility of a 70-year sentence in prison and having already spent four years in jail, much of it in solitary confinement, he accepted a plea bargain on one count of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorism.

It has been a year since his 15-year sentence was pronounced in a New York courtroom. He is now held in Guantanamo-like conditions in the supermax ADX [Administrative Maximum] facility in Florence, Colo. He is isolated in a small cell for 22 to 23 hours a day. He has only extremely limited contact with his mother, father and brother, often going weeks without any communication. Between his transfer to Florence last August and this March he was permitted only one phone call. The rule of law in America, especially if you are Muslim, fits Kafka’s grim parody. The tyranny we impose on those held in Guantanamo, Bagram and the secret CIA “black sites” we impose on ourselves. This is and always has been the disease of empire. Empire imports the crude and brutal tools of control and violence back to the homeland. It creates internal as well as external colonies.

We no longer have freedom; there is only the appearance of freedom. We are consumed by an endless and vague war on terror in which the perfidiousness of our enemy, whose number, location and nature are never clearly defined, justifies the shredding of constitutional rights, torture, kidnapping, detentions without charges or trials and an occult-like battle against an absolute evil. And if you think the state intends to limit itself to the persecution of Muslims, especially once there is an increase in domestic unrest and instability, you know little about human history.

I spoke Saturday night to Fahad Hashmi’s father, Syed Anwar Hashmi. The elder Hashmi came to the United States from Pakistan when Fahad was 3 and his other son, Faisal, was 4. He worked for more than two decades as an accountant for the city of New York. He came, as most immigrants have, for his children. He believed in America, in its fairness, its chances for opportunity, its freedoms. And then it all crumbled when the state proved as capricious and cruel as the Pakistani dictatorship he had left behind. On the day of his son’s arrest, he says, “my American dream became an American nightmare.”
 
Three law enforcement officials appeared at his home in Flushing, Queens, on June 6, 2006, to inform him that Fahad, who had been in London completing a master’s degree in international relations, had been arrested at Heathrow Airport on terrorism charges. Fahad, after fighting the order for 11 months, was the first American citizen extradited under the post-9/11 laws. He was taken in May 2007 to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan and placed in solitary confinement.

“I came to this country from Pakistan nearly 30 years ago, in 1982 with my wife and two young boys,” Fahad’s father said. “Coming from a Third World country, we were full of hope and looked towards America for liberty and opportunity. I had an American dream to work hard and give my sons good educations. I worked as an assistant accountant for the city of New York, six days a week, nine hours a day, including overtime, to support my family and to send both my kids through college. We all became U.S. citizens, and my sons fulfilled my dreams by completing their undergraduate and postgraduate education. I was very proud of them.”

“In high school and then as a student at Brooklyn College, Fahad became a political activist, concerned about the plight of Muslims around the world and the civil liberties of Muslims in America,” he went on. “Growing up here in America, Fahad did not fear expressing his views. But I was scared for him and urged him not to speak out. He would remind me that everything he did was under the law. But having grown up in a Third World country, I had seen that it did not always work this way, and so I worried. He was monitored by law enforcement and quoted in Time magazine. But he kept speaking out. And then, with his arrest, my fears came true.”

Judge Loretta Preska denied Fahad bail partly on the grounds that he had no ties to family and community. His family and friends, who sat crowded together in the courtroom, listened in stunned silence. And then, after five months, Hashmi, already isolated in solitary confinement, was suddenly put under “special administrative measures,” known as SAMs. SAMs are the legal weapon of choice used by the state when it seeks to isolate and break prisoners. They were bequeathed to us by the Clinton administration, which justified SAMs as a way to prevent Mafia or other gang leaders from ordering hits from inside prison. The use of SAMs expanded widely after the attacks of 2001. They are frequently used to isolate terrorism case detainees before trial. SAMs, which were renewed by Barack Obama in October, severely restrict a prisoner’s communication with the outside world. They end calls, letters and visits with anyone except attorneys and sharply limit contact with family members. Fahad, once in this legal straitjacket, was not permitted to see much of the evidence against him under a legal provision called the Classified Information Procedures Act, or CIPA. CIPA, begun under the Reagan administration, allows evidence in a trial to be classified and withheld from those being prosecuted.

The weekly visits Hashmi’s family made to the jail in Manhattan were canceled. A single family member was permitted to visit only once every two weeks, and on a number of occasions the family member was inexplicably denied admittance. During the last five months of the trial Hashmi’s family was barred from visiting him. Anyone who has contact with a prisoner under SAMs is prohibited by law from disclosing any information learned from the detainee. This requirement, in a twist Kafka would have relished, makes it illegal for those who have contact with an inmate under SAMs—including attorneys—to speak about his or her physical and psychological condition.

Once the SAMs were imposed, “He wrote us occasionally—one letter on no more than three pages at a time—but he was allowed no correspondence or contact with anyone else,” his father said of his son. “In addition, because of Fahad’s SAMs, we were not allowed to discuss anything we heard from him, including his health or any details of his detention or what he was experiencing, with anyone else. It was like being suffocated.”

In a pretrial motion, Hashmi’s lawyer presented the extensive medical and scholarly research that demonstrates the severe impact solitary confinement has on human beings, often leaving them incapable of defending themselves during their trial. It did not sway the judge. Fahad lived in a universe, before ever being sentenced, where he had no fresh air and was subjected to 23-hour lockdown and constant electronic surveillance including when he showered or relieved himself. He was barred from group prayer. He exercised alone in a solitary cage. He was denied access to television or a radio. His newspapers were cut up by censors. And this was all before trial.
 
“These years have brought deep disillusionment for my family in the American justice system,” his father said. “Fahad was restricted in reviewing much of the evidence against him, and even his attorney could not discuss much of the evidence with him. Secret evidence is something we knew from back home. The judge accepted the prosecutor’s motion to introduce Fahad’s political activities and speeches into the trial to demonstrate his mind-set. Where was the First Amendment to protect Fahad’s speech? Two days before the trial was set to begin, Judge Preska agreed to the prosecutor’s motion to keep the jury anonymous and kept under extra security—even though this could have frightened the jury and affected how they viewed Fahad.”

“On the day before trial, nearly four years since he had been arrested, I had just returned from dropping off clothes for Fahad to wear to court when I received a call from my attorney,” Fahad’s father said. “The government had offered a deal to drop three of the four charges against Fahad, if he accepted one charge which carried a 15-year sentence and Fahad had agreed to this plea bargain. I was shocked by my son’s decision on the eve of his trial, but after I thought more, I wondered how anyone could have decided differently in his situation. Fahad had been in solitary confinement, under SAMs, for nearly three years. The judge had in every instance sided with the government in pretrial motions. If convicted, Fahad faced a possible 70-year sentence. Under those circumstances, Fahad’s decision to accept one charge was no longer surprising. He has been in for five years this June.”

“The U.S. government is concerned about human rights in China and Iran,” he went on. “I wonder about Fahad’s rights, and how they have been blatantly violated in this great land. It seems like ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is only a saying. My son was treated as guilty until proven innocent.”

“The Muslim community supported my son by offering prayers, particularly in the month of Ramadan,” he said. “But they were initially afraid to raise their voices against injustice. This reminds me of the fear the Chinese have under Communist rule, or Iranians under Ahmadinejad. As a citizen, I now have developed fear of my own government.”
 
“For one charge for luggage storing socks, ponchos and raincoats in his apartment, he is serving a 15-year sentence in the harshest federal prison in the country, still in solitary confinement, still under SAMs,” his father said. “The cooperating witness in the case, the one who brought and delivered the luggage, is now free and able to enjoy his life and family.”

The state, by making us afraid, is able to justify the disease of permanent war and the silencing of those who dare to dissent. The terrible suffering we have unleashed throughout the Middle East is rendered invisible if there is no one to decry it and document it. Communities and families, not only in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan but at home, have been plunged into needless grief and suffering because of the atrocities committed in our name. The despair and bewilderment of Fahad’s father are a reflection of the wider despair and bewilderment that have gripped the lives of hundreds of thousands of Muslims who have been forced to confront the dark heart of empire. In their pain we stand condemned.

“There are many things I’d like to be able to say about the visit and my son’s continuing detention, but because of Fahad’s SAMs, I am forbidden,” his father said. “Everything has changed for my family. Our first grandchild was born 19 days after Fahad’s arrest, our second two years later. But now everything has a cloud over it—graduations, birthdays, holidays, going to the store or the park or visiting family or running errands, and particularly the Eid day. In other words, we have lost our happiness.”

3 Jun 2011

Voting on Weapons and War


By Bill Boyarsky

El Segundo Boulevard, near the Southern California beaches, represents the heart and soul of the military-industrial complex. On either side of the boulevard—its streets mostly barren of pedestrians—are the offices and plants of companies locked in permanent embrace with Washington. War and space activities fuel them. Their campaign contributions and lobbying spending fuel Congress.

AP / Reed Saxon

The Boeing Co. building in El Segundo, Calif

I drove to the boulevard, which runs through the city of El Segundo, last week for a column on the June special election in the 36th Congressional District, which extends along the coast southwest of Los Angeles. The election is to fill the seat of Democratic Rep. Jane Harman, a military-industrial complex supporter and a power in intelligence and defense policy, who resigned to take over the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. With a liberal, anti-war candidate, Marcy Winograd, in the race, this is likely to be the year’s first national electoral test of support for the Afghanistan War.

After my visit to Harman’s district, I checked on the companies located there, consulting the invaluable Open Secrets.org website of the Center for Responsive Politics.

It showed for 2010: Boeing, $17.89 million for lobbying, $2.80 million in campaign contributions; Lockheed Martin, $12.77 million for lobbying, $2.66 million in campaign contributions; Raytheon, $7.18 million for lobbying, $2.17 million in campaign contributions. Across the boulevard from Raytheon is the big Los Angeles Air Force Base, where engineers design space systems. Raytheon works hand in hand with them on projects such as a space tracking and surveillance system to detect incoming missiles. The “Star Wars” program still lives, long after President Ronald Reagan proposed his Strategic Defense Initiative.

I don’t expect Marcy Winograd to be trolling El Segundo Boulevard for contributions. The industry supported Harman, and she signaled her favorite in the campaign by inviting Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn to join her in hearing President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, an industry favorite, and a bunch of local Democrats are supporting Hahn. Another Democratic candidate is Debra Bowen, the current secretary of state.

It looks as though Winograd has a tough fight in this, her third try for the seat. “We need to bring our troops home,” she said. We met for coffee late in the afternoon after she had completed her day teaching at Crenshaw High School, a predominantly African-American and Latino school in a working-class Los Angeles neighborhood. Almost 80 percent of the students are in government-subsidized lunch programs.
 
“The larger issue is that we have to transition to a new economy. Why can’t we give out huge sums to build a mass transit system? If there were the same amount of dollars to build a rapid transit system that we spend on weapons systems, what would you prefer? How many weapons do you need?”

She discussed the war and weapons in terms of her students, who are facing post-graduation unemployment. Many of her students tell her they will join the military service. “They tell me [that by doing so] ‘I’ll get a job, I’ll get benefits,’ ” she said.

Winograd is talking about a war that has become part of the background noise of American life. The Afghanistan War has slipped off the charts in the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism survey of how much coverage is given to major events. We’re like the British of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, going about their business while volunteer soldiers were dying in a futile effort to subdue Afghanistan. It’s necessary to go to sources other than the mainstream media on most days to find out about a war that may claim the lives of some of Winograd’s Crenshaw students.

An invaluable source is the new book “The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy and the Way Out of Afghanistan” by Bing West, an ex-Marine combat officer in Vietnam and former Reagan administration defense official, now 70 years old, who slogged through patrols and firefights, up mountains and into canals with much younger men to learn on the ground about the futility of the Afghanistan War.

He had been with a battalion assigned to clear guerrillas out of a town called Barge Matal that Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai needed for support in his phony re-election campaign. Killed in the effort was a squad leader, Eric Lindstrom, who had recently helped a nearly dead West, suffering from cholera, to a rescue helicopter. Describing his time recovering in a hospital with a wounded soldier who had been with Lindstrom, West wrote: “When you lose somebody, you wonder about the mission. You need a faith or a cause to compensate for loss. Jake and I were pretty damned mad about the lack of cause. What made Barge Matal worthwhile? What were American soldiers doing in unnamed mountains, fighting tribes forgotten by time and history, while the bastards that murdered 3,000 Americans on 9/11 were protected in the country next door? What was accomplished in such a lost place? Why did Eric die where no sensible infantry should have been sent?”

These are the questions that Marcy Winograd and other peace candidates should ask. They are not being addressed in Washington and only occasionally raised in the news media. And these questions certainly won’t be asked by the corporate bosses on El Segundo Boulevard or other stops along the military-industrial trail—now extending to the East and South—where products are made for use in Afghanistan.

Geithner and Goldman, Thick as Thieves

By Robert Scheer

What was Timothy Geithner thinking back in 2008 when, as president of the New York Fed, he decided to give Goldman Sachs a $30 billion interest-free loan as part of an $80 billion secret float to favored banks? The sordid details of that program were finally made public this week in response to a court order for a Freedom of Information Act release, thanks to a Bloomberg News lawsuit. Sorry, my bad: It wasn’t an interest-free loan; make that .01 percent that Goldman paid to borrow taxpayer money when ordinary folks who missed a few credit card payments in order to finance their mortgages were being slapped with interest rates of more than 25 percent.

AP / Charles Dharapak
Treasury Secretary-designate Timothy Geithner listens as then-President-elect Barack Obama speaks at a Chicago news conference in November 2008.

One wonders if Barack Obama was fully aware of Geithner’s deceitful performance at the New York Fed when he appointed him treasury secretary in the incoming administration. The president was probably ignorant of this particular giveaway, as were key members of Congress. “I wasn’t aware of this program until now,” Barney Frank, D-Mass., who at the time chaired the House Financial Services Committee, admitted in referring to Geithner’s “single-tranche open-market operations” program. And there was no language in the Dodd-Frank law supposedly reining in the banks that compelled the Fed to reveal the existence of this program.

It was merely one small part of that reckless policy of throwing mad money at the banks while ignoring the plight of homeowners whom the banks had swindled, a plan pursued by both the Bush and the Obama administrations that set the stage for the current slide into a double-dip recession. On Tuesday it was reported that home values have continued an eight-month decline back to their lowest point since the recession began. With housing in deep trouble there can be no rebound of consumer confidence or job creation, and the first-quarter growth rate was an anemic 1.8 percent even as Wall Street profits and bonuses flourished. Wages are stagnant, unemployment claims have recently risen and, as The Wall Street Journal headlined on Tuesday, “Economists Downgrade Prospects for Growth.” That same edition of the Journal reported that 44.6 million Americans now survive on food stamps, an 11 percent increase in that misery index over the past year, while Geithner’s friends at Goldman are doing quite well.

Actually, Goldman wasn’t even a bank and was therefore ineligible for those massive government handouts until Geithner helped gain approval for the instant conversion of Goldman from an investment house to a commercial bank. Goldman was granted that status, and with it access to the Fed’s lending, soon after the privilege had been denied to the fellow investment bank Lehman Brothers (the $30 billion mentioned above was in addition to the $43.5 billion Goldman borrowed from other Fed programs). Although Lehman was allowed to go belly up, Geithner engineered the massive bailout of AIG, a move that turned out to be a cover for passing money to AIG’s clients, including the aforementioned Goldman Sachs. The man’s intentions were clear, even if all the secret details were not, when Obama picked him to be his point man in salvaging an economy that Geithner had done much to wreck.

Geithner’s priorities were all too obvious from his days in the Clinton administration’s Treasury Department when he worked first under former Goldman honcho Robert Rubin and then Lawrence Summers, who took six-figure speaking fees from Goldman and other banks while he was an adviser to candidate Obama. It was the recommendation of Rubin and Summers that landed Geithner the job as president of the New York Fed, where he faithfully followed the policy lead of Goldman-CEO-turned-Treasury-Secretary Henry Paulson.

It was back then and is now accurate to speak, as a New York Times headline once put it, of U.S. politics dominated by “The Guys From ‘Government Sachs’ ”—but on an international scale. From the crisis in Greece, where Goldman manufactured toxic tax-based derivatives with abandon, to its betting against the success of the mortgage-based derivatives that Goldman designed and sold to others, the company was nothing short of a massive wrecking ball in the international economy.
 
Oh yes, what did Goldman do with that taxpayer money it borrowed back in 2008? It needed the money to cover the lousy bets of its Fixed Income, Currencies and Commodities trading unit, which had lost $320 million. Typical of the Goldman dealings in that arena was the $1.3 billion solicited from Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya sovereign wealth fund, which according to a report in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal lost 98 percent of its value and almost cost some Goldman executives doing business in Tripoli their lives.

But they survived, as the guys from Goldman always do. With the general “no banker left behind” program pursued by Geithner under both George W. Bush and Obama, the theory was that saving the banks would save the country. The first part worked out brilliantly, but the second act never occurred.