Thursday, June 13, 2019

War Over Fugitive Slaves

No person held to Service or Labor in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due

The above quote comprises a part (Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3) of the United States Constitution—that ringing call for freedom, unity and Republican government we have all been taught to revere—that contains several things worth noting. First, though it is known as the Fugitive Slave Clause, neither the word “slave” nor “slavery” is ever mentioned. We see the word “person” and we see the words “Service of Labour” but we don’t see “slavery” either here or elsewhere in our founding document. This indicates, as Andrew Delbanco in his new book, The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul Before the Civil War(Penguin: 2018), emphasizes, that there was a certain delicacy or reticence (shame?) on the part of the Founding Fathers where slavery was concerned. That’s probably because of the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention, no less than 25 of them were slave owners, including those great fathers of freedom, Washington and Jefferson. So, as Washington himself knew (during the revolution, he had asked for help tracking down his own wayward slaves, worried that Tories would take his escaped slaves with them to the British side), the problem for southern states especially, in their decision to join the Union, was whether or not they could recover that mobile “property” that made up so much of their wealth. In fact, more than ½ million of the new nation’s 3 million people were slaves, and in the five southern colonies, “slaves accounted for two in every five persons” (45). Moreover, Delbanco quotes historian Eric Foner to the effect that by the 1850s, the economic value of “enslaved men, women and children when considered as property exceeded the combined worth of all the banks, factories and railroads in the United States” (26-7). So when the Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution, there wasn’t much argument or even discussion about the Fugitive Slave clause, nor about notprohibiting “the Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit” (Art. 1, Sect. 9, Clause 1), i.e. importing more slaves, nor about the now-infamous three-fifths compromise—which provided that representation for those slave states could be padded by adding to the number of “free” persons “three-fifths of all other persons.” Because even though the “persons” in question were considered to be equivalent to cattle where their rights and well-being were concerned, they were still numerous enough for the slave states to want to use them to achieve “fair” representation. And this gets to a wonderful distinction (or contradiction) discussed by James Madison: that though slaves may be “classed with those irrational animals which fall under the legal denomination of property,” at the same time “in being punishable himself for all violence committed against others, the slave is no less evidently regarded by the law as a member of the society…as a moral person, not as a mere article of property” (87). Which meant not only that slaves were held accountable to the law for their actions, but that slave owners were exemptfrom responsibility for what their “property” did, since that “property” was considered fully capable of exercising free will—which was human. 
            Of course, the problem with these “properties who were human” was that they also had the disturbing inclination to want to be free. And so, many escaped from their bondage in the southern states to the north (though it should be emphasized that northern states were nearly as racist and discriminatory towards Africans as their southern neighbors; hence (128) “Connecticut restricted the franchise to white males in 1818, a year earlier than Alabama”). And this was the problem that southern states fretted and fumed over, insisting on the passage of several additions to the Fugitive Slave Clause to make it easier to reclaim their “property.” The first was the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, signed by Washington himself.  It authorized a slave owner’s agent to “seek rendition of his property in federal or state court” and fined anyone who obstructed with this return of a runaway (20). But this didn’t stem the tide, especially when several northern states enacted “personal liberty laws” to help protect the fugitives who increasingly sought safety there. These laws—in states from Vermont to Pennsylvania, from Michigan to Wisconsin—allowed escaped slaves to contest their capture not just physically, but in jury trials, a process that slave owners ringingly denounced as “unconstitutional.”  And so, the issue ultimately came to the Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Joseph Story in March 1842, ruled in the case of Margaret Morgan, a slave who had fled in 1832 to Pennsylvania to join her free black husband. This induced, in 1837, a white woman from Maryland who had inherited both Margaret and her children, to hire Edward Prigg to arrest Margaret as her property and take her back to Maryland with her children. But since Pennsylvania’s personal liberty law allowed the state to charge Prigg with kidnapping, he was arrested, tried and convicted, and it was this case that made it to Justice Story’s court. Faithfully following the Constitution, Story ruled that Pennsylvania’s (and therefore all) personal liberty laws were unconstitutional, and affirmed the right of slave masters to recover their escaped slaves from free states. But he left a little loophole: those northern states could make laws forbidding their authorities to assist slave catchers, thus making the recovery of fugitive slaves much more difficult, if not impossible. 
            This is how the situation stood just before the Civil War, though several more fugitive slave cases, and several books—notably Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of his life, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin—added fuel to the fire. So did the continual addition of new states in the West, particularly that of Texas, which in late 1845 was approved for entry as a slave state, the 16thslave state out of 28 states overall. So, too, did the waiting states “acquired” by the U.S. after the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ended the Mexican War in February of 1848—which added to the United States “an area almost twice as large as the Northwest Territory” in an expansion that comes to no less than 30% of the present-day United States. Whether those states entered as slave or free mattered critically to the expansion of the South’s “peculiar institution” because raising cotton so depletes the soil that new lands for cultivation, and thus slavery, were constantly required. Seeing the writing on the wall, the great abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, called for the immediate dissolution of the American Union, a union he said was based “on the prostrate bodies of three millions of the people, and cemented with their blood” (218). On the other side, of course, was John C. Calhoun, South Carolina’s senator and a former vice-president, and he had a theory which he claimed justified slavery—the “mud-sill” theory. Here’s how Calhoun put it: 

In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life. That is, a class requiring but a low order of intellect and but little skill. Its requisites are vigor, docility, fidelity. Such a class you must have, or you would not have that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement. It constitutes the very mud-sill of society and of political government;and you might as well attempt to build a house in the air, as to build either the one or the other, except on this mud-sill. Fortunately for the South, she found a race adapted to that purpose to her hand(240; emphasis added).

I think that’s very cute. So, obviously, did many southern gentlemen, who continued to press for slave states to be admitted, and continued to press for laws making it easier to return their fleeing slaves. They managed to get yet another Fugitive Slave Act passed, this one in September of 1850, which denied whatever was left of the Bill of Rights to escaped slaves: denied habeas corpus; denied them the right to testify in their own defense; denied them trial by jury; denied them presenting exonerating evidence such as having been raped by their masters; criminalized sheltering a fugitive; required local authorities to help in their capture and return; and gave the power to extradite them to Federally-appointed commissioners. 
            Still, slaves kept escaping and abolitionists and freed slaves in the north kept increasing their commitment to defending them, and even attacking those who tried to apprehend them. Cases like that of Margaret Garner only added to their commitment, for the pregnant Garner, having escaped from Kentucky over the Ohio River in 1856 with her husband and four children, was so desperate when slave catchers and U.S. Marshals tracked them all down that she “took a kitchen knife and cut the throat of her two-year-old daughter, then slashed at her 3 surviving children, trying to kill them too rather than leave them to the life of degradation she had known” (319). No matter: the judge ordered her rendition back to Kentucky, whereupon she was sold, and died in Mississippi two years later. She was later immortalized in Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved.What her case and other cases made clear was that the values of emancipation of slaves held by much of the north, and the continuation of chattel slavery held by the south could never be reconciled peacefully. They could only be settled by war. 
            Yet thought the pre-war years brought a kind of de facto emancipation, President Lincoln still clung to the hope that “border states would join the Union, and therefore, no emancipation would be needed” (363). Indeed, Lincoln in March of 1862, with the war imminent, even sent a message to Congress “recommending a program of compensatedemancipation,” intending to compensate slave owners for their financial losses of slaves, to resolve the situation. Delbanco quotes the reaction to this recommendation by the abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, who derided it as “the most diluted, milk and water gruel proposition…ever given to the American nation” (366). Which indeed it was. No matter. Within days, Lincoln signed on to the article of war introduced into Congress, and added the penalty of court-martial for any officer who sent fugitive slaves back to their owners. Then, once Lincoln had the cover of a major victory for the Union troops (which came at Antietam Creek), he issued his formal Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. By the end of the war, more than 400,000 former slaves were being protected by Union troops, and on June 28, 1864, the Fugitive Slave Law was finally repealed by Congress. 
            Still, Delbanco is passionate about what slavery meant and still means to this nation. In one of his most moving passages, he writes:

There is no calculating the unsettled debts of slavery. Since the Civil War, black Americans have been subjected to more than a century and a half of ingenious variations—if not quite replications—of the lethal assault to which they had been subjected by slavery itself. There is no enumerating them (385).

‘No enumerating them,’ Delbanco says, but he tries, and they include “the forced labor system that took hold after Reconstruction in the South…chain gangs, uncompensated workers into mines, lumber camps, quarries, farms, and factories.” They also include the “millions excluded from social welfare programs after the Great Depression…de jure and de facto segregation…the gross disproportion of young black men languishing in prisons…and daily insults to self-respect delivered to black Americans for no other reason than the fact of their blackness” (ibid). We might add the not-so-hidden evidence in our current political climate of an enduring and pervasive racism that has animated the Right and even average Americans desperate to revive their precious world of white privilege. But perhaps it is not necessary to add anything more. The War Before the War makes the sickening case quite well. So well that every American should be required to read and absorb what it says.  

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, May 13, 2019

The Delayed Fruits of War

Though the book by Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America,Harvard U Press: 2018, focuses mostly on the time period from the late 1970s to the 1990s, and ends with the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, its relevance to today is quite clear both from her last chapter and her Epilogue. So let’s take that last chapter first. It recounts the horrifying events of April 19, 1995 when a Ryder rental truck “filled with fertilizer exploded in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City” (211). The blast killed 168 people, including 19 children in the day care center, and wounded more than 500. Timothy McVeigh, a Gulf War veteran, was quickly found, tried and convicted, and sentenced to death. McVeigh took pains to claim that he did it on his own, though a few others were found who had helped him. But the press took him at his word, characterizing McVeigh as a “lone madman,” who therefore could be dismissed, along with his action, as outside any organized plot or movement. He fit the profile of those, like Lee Harvey Oswald, whose fevered, wounded brain led him, on his own, to a crazy, violent act. 
            Here is where Kathleen Belew’s whole book and thesis comes into play. She immediately counters the accepted version as follows:
However, in no sense was the bombing of Oklahoma City carried out by one man. The hell McVeigh described represented the culmination of decades of white power organizing. McVeigh, trained as a combatant by the state, belonged to the white power movement. He acted without orders from movement leaders, but in concert with movement objectives and supported by resistance cell organizing. The plan for the bomb came directly from The Turner Diaries, the book that had structured the activity of the white power movement since the late 1970s (210). 

Belew goes on to point out that, in fact, the Murrah Building had previously been cased by members of CSA (the Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord), who then attempted and failed to blow it up with rocket launchers in 1983. But wouldn’t the FBI have known this? In fact, they did, but given the horrible publicity they had garnered for the killing of Vicki Weaver at Ruby Ridge (more on this later), and the deaths of 76 people at Waco, TX in the fire that concluded the long siege against Branch Davidians there, government agents were “reluctant to portray the Oklahoma City bombing as the work of a movement,” so the FBI decided not to pursue movements of white power violence, but only “individual actors” (211). The result, as seen in Belew’s Epilogue: the white power movement was allowed to grow explosively and fester while the federal government kept its distance and focused almost exclusively on “crazy” individuals—leading, almost inexorably, to the movement’s encouragement by the election of Donald Trump in 2016, and its prodigious growth under his leadership. Indeed, to read the entire book by Belew is to begin to better understand how a fraud like Donald Trump could be elected and supported by his “base,” many of whom no doubt support white power’s aims. 
            But to get back to some of the stunning particulars amassed by Belew—let us go back to the Vietnam War and its aftermath, for in Belew’s telling, the alleged failure of the U.S. in that war, coupled with racist remnants of the Ku Klux Klan, led directly to the white power movement—most of whose members were, in one way or another, veterans of that war. One such character was Louis Beam. A Viet war veteran and member of the Klan, Beam was a gifted speaker and writer (Essays of a Klansman), who saw the Vietnam War as “emblematic of all that had gone wrong” with the country: shortage of jobs, no welcome for vets when they came home, stagflation, and a host of other ills that marginalized them. Beam openly called for violence to cure these ills. In 1982, he wrote: “You’re damn right I’m mad. I’ve had enough! I want these same traitors to face their enemy now, the American fighting man they betrayed, all three million of us” (31). He mentioned the tools available to such vets to fight their war in the homeland: “ an M-16, three sticks of dynamite taped together, a can of gas,” adding “Over here, if you kill the enemy you go to jail. Over there in Vietnam, if you killed the enemy, they gave you a medal. I couldn’t see the difference” (35). Beam began by forming his own Texas chapter of David Duke’s Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (KKKK), training recruits in paramilitary violence. One of their first targets were Vietnamese refugees who had settled in Galveston Bay as shrimp fishermen, often outcompeting locals. Along with neo-Nazis, Beam’s group began to intimidate the Vietnamese outsiders, firebombing homes, beating shrimpers, and firing guns at boats in the Bay. White power publications characterized the refugee influx as a “flood” and tried to characterize the alleged invasion of Galveston Bay as a kind of rape: “Galveston Bay is just like a fine woman…If you rape her, she’s never good anymore” (44). White activists also alleged that Vietcong spies had infiltrated the fishermen, thus justifying them to fight against ‘communist infiltration into the U.S.’ Eventually, a lawsuit in Texas led to an injunction against such Klan militarism, and the forced disbanding at Beam’s Camp Puller and elsewhere in Texas.  But Beam was by no means finished:  claiming that he was going to Idaho on vacation, he linked up with Aryan Nations members there, and focused much of his efforts with several white power groups, setting up his “cell-style” strategy of “leaderless resistance.” He became a leading member of The Order, seeking to make the Pacific Northwest their center of white power, and eventually a separate nation. 
            Meantime, neo-Nazis and Klansmen elsewhere were proving that, to some extent, they could be immune to the law because much of America supported their racist aims. An action in Greensboro, North Carolina illustrates this dramatically. A group called the Communist Workers Party (CWP) in November 1979 decided to stage a “Death to the Klan” rally at a black housing project. Having heard about this, neo-Nazis and Klansmen formed a caravan and headed to Greensboro to confront the rally. These confrontations had been increasing in the years leading up to Greensboro, with both sides making clear their intention to fight, with arms if necessary. In Greensboro, the Klan’s car caravan arrived loaded with armed men, and after some initial screaming and racial slurs, Mark Sherer, hanging out the window of a pickup truck, fired the first pistol shot into the air. More shots were fired, fighting broke out at an intersection, and then shotguns, rifles, and semiautomatic weapons were distributed to the fourteen Klansmen, one of whom, Jerry Paul Smith, dropped to one knee and fired into a now panicked crowd. Others followed suit, one bragging “I got three of ‘em,” another with a 12-gauge shotgun claiming “I hit four of the five that were killed and wounded six more” (63). Within minutes the Klansmen and neo-Nazis drove off, and well after that, the police arrived to find five protestors dead, and many more wounded. The local DA pressed charges against fourteen of the Klansmen and neo-Nazis who had been arrested. In the trial, begun on Aug. 4, 1980, the defense alleged that the attackers were “fighting communism,” and only fired in “self-defense.” And with peremptory challenges allowed in North Carolina, all black jurors were dismissed, so the jurors were white and Christian and sympathetic to any fight against commies and/or blacks. 
Perhaps predictably, on Nov. 17, 1980, the Greensboro jury unanimously delivered a not-guilty verdict. As Belew summarizes it, “a court had effectively condoned the intentional killing of communists” (71). And because of the Iran hostage crisis, news coverage was spotty enough that few, including this writer, ever heard of the Greensboro Fourteen (as they were christened by the white power movement, which took the acquittal as a green light for more violence) until reading about it here. Two more Greensboro trials followed, one in 1984 under civil rights laws in federal court, the other by widows of those slain seeking monetary damages. In the first, though FBI informants proved that “self-defense” was nonsense due to foreknowledge of the caravan’s intent, the defendants were again exonerated, this time of the charge that their action was racially motivated. The court ruled their action not racial but political, and they were freed. In the second case, several gunmen were found jointly liable for one of the five deaths, but the City of Greensboro paid the settlement, covering costs for both Klansmen and neo-Nazis. 
Up until this point, Belew makes clear that the rationale for white power activists was defending their country against outsiders, radicals, communists. Many even joined mercenary armies and fought against alleged ‘commies’ in Rhodesia, Central America, and the Caribbean, partly to redeem the American defeat in Vietnam. But in 1983, all that changed. In what Belew calls a “tectonic shift” for the movement, the white power movement declared war on the state. They would now fight for a “white homeland,” trying to destabilize the federal government which seemed to protect outsiders, and waging revolutionary race war (104). Three major figures led this new anti-government movement: the aforementioned Louis Beam, Richard Butler and Robert Miles (both of whom claimed to have fought in WWII). All three were talented speakers and writers and in their publications outlined the white power movement’s new strategy of “cell-based organization” with no leaders. This, first, made it more difficult for provocateurs to infiltrate, and second, would protect leaders like Beam, Butler, and Miles who could no longer be charged with giving orders for actions. Henceforth, as Beam wrote, “all members of phantom cells or individuals will need to react to objective events…No one need issue an order to anyone” (108). Why? Because all individuals would hold common ideas and values, most of them laid out in the aforementioned Turner Diaries. First published serially, this novel literally worked as a “how-to manual for the movement, outlining a detailed plan for race war”. It actually presents 
“the use of nuclear weapons to clear first the United States and then the world of nonwhite populations…At various moments, the novel describes the forced migration of all people of color out of California (the all-white home after the revolution), the genocide of Jews, the nuclear bombing of high-density black populations in the South, and the public lynching of all people in interracial relationships (110). 

In real life, Beam and his associates hoped that a campaign of violence could “sway a white public in their favor,” allow them to implement movement objectives from a “white homeland in the Pacific Northwest…to a white world secured by the annihilation of all people of color” (113). Shortly thereafter, in November 1984, another major step was taken when The Order was founded at Hayden Lake, Idaho by Robert J. Mathews. Steeped in paramilitary training, and funded by robberies and counterfeiting, the Order’s ultimate goal was the familiar one: create a white separatist nation in the Northwest, and later the entire north American continent excepting Mexico. Order members “pledged themselves to race war until victory or death” (116). At about the same time, the Order’s Declaration of War against the government named “congressional betrayal of soldiers in the Vietnam War as a key justification of their violent campaign” (117). Needless to say, one of their major efforts involved amassing arsenals of all kinds of weapons. Another was amassing money with which to buy weapons (those they didn’t steal), land, and publicity. Their main effort was armed robbery. The first caper was a porn shop that netted them only $369, but they soon aimed at banks, one in Seattle netting them $25,000, and then the big hit, also in Seattle, of an armored car from which they stole more than $500,000. Assassination was also on their agenda, the most famous of which was the killing of Alan Berg, a Denver talk-show host for KOA-AM radio. Berg was a Jewish liberal who spoke out against white power. On June 18, 1984, an order member named Bruce Pierce fired a machine gun at Berg standing in his driveway, cutting him to pieces (123). 
            The FBI tracked several members of the hit squad. First they raided the house of Gary Yarbrough in Sandpoint, Idaho, finding the MAC-10 machine gun that had killed Berg, plus assorted weapons, 100 sticks of dynamite, and a shrine to Adolf Hitler. They then tracked him and Mathews to Portland, and took Yarbrough, though Mathews escaped to a safe house on Whidbey Island in Washington. Agents finally found him there, he chose to fight, and died when the house caught fire after illumination flares from a helicopter ignited the house, with him in it. Yarbrough was tried and convicted in 1985, and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. The following year, he and other members of the Order were convicted of racketeering charges due to armored truck robberies, and Yarbrough got another 60 years added to his sentence. He died in a hospice center in Pueblo, CO in 2018. 
            Finally, another trial, this one in Fort Smith, Arkansas in 1987, fits the paradigm outlined earlier. After failing to produce a case that could net the leaders of the white power movement, the government finally initiated Operation Clean Sweep that culminated in the April 21, 1987 Fort Smith trial alleging that “the white power movement had attempted to overthrow the government through outright revolution” (171). This was the only real try at prosecuting white power as a movement. Fourteen men were indicted on charges that ranged from conspiracy to manufacture of illegal weapons to conspiracy to murder federal officers. Among them were Louis Beam, Richard Butler, Robert Miles, plus Richard Snell (who blew up a natural gas pipeline and killed a state trooper), and Order members Pierce, Lane, Barnhill, Lane and Scutari. Two apprehended members of CSA testified forthe government under plea bargains. In the face of the indictments, Louis Beam decided to flee the country, though, before fleeing, he married a 19-year-old, Sheila Toohey, his fourth wife. Together, they took up residence in Chapala, Mexico, until agents apprehended Beam, while his wife looked on from their house. Claiming that she thought her husband was being robbed, she used her husband’s rifle to shoot a Mexican officer three times. While her husband was extradited to the U.S., Sheila Beam was tried, but a Mexican judge found her not guilty by reason of self-defense, and deported her to the U.S. Her story, as a frail white woman needing a white male to defend her, but willing to kill for him and their child, greatly affected the trial’s outcome. In the trial, Beam defended his actions and ideas as a vet having come home from war believing it was his duty to kill enemies. He also made it clear that he would continue his fight, including killing “if so directed.” Then, after three days of deliberation, the jury delivered “not guilty” verdicts for all fourteen defendants accused of trying to overthrow the government. All the men were not only free, but the judge ordered “the firearms in question returned to the person who turned them over to the government” (183). 
The entire white power movement celebrated yet another court victory. The FBI agent in charge, Jack Knox, by contrast, resigned from the FBI in frustration. This, and the negative publicity about the FBI’s handling of both the deaths at Ruby Ridge, Idaho and the Waco, Texas assault, led directly to Timothy McVeigh and his deadly bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. 
            The conclusions of Kathleen Belew’s riveting book are clear. First, the fallout from the Vietnam War has proven to be far more lethal than even those who protested it thought. That is, to the carnage in Vietnam itself must now be added the roots of a lethal movement of returning vets bringing the war home that still operates in the white power movement. Second, though evidence has piled up for decades that this movement is highly organized and deadly serious, the courts and American juries seem generally unable to take it seriously and instead have consistently demonstrated sympathy for white defendants and their rationalizations for murder and plans for mass murder. Third, due to the parallel militarization of government forces in combating white power, the public’s sympathy, especially after the deaths at Ruby Ridge and Waco, has remained with the perpetrators rather than with law enforcement. And finally, the successful characterization of violent perpetrators like Timothy McVeigh as “nut cases acting alone” has meant that no organized government response has been able to put a halt to what can only be seen as organized white terrorism. In short, there is no doubt about the aims of this movement: the writings and testimony and actions of its leaders are crystal clear. What is in doubt is how long it will take the U.S. government to take organized and serious action against it. This is especially so since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, and his comments about the organized mayhem and murder that took place in Charlottesville in August of 2017. Any look at the hyper-drive that organizing and a huge internet presence for white supremacy received from such comments should persuade anyone of that. What is needed is for Americans to become more aware of the threats that still remain—and a reading of Bring the War Homeis almost a must here—and make it clear to their elected representatives that racism, Nazism, and white supremacy may once have been acceptable in some regions of this country, but can have no place at all in a genuine democracy. Period. 

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, April 29, 2019

Plants Are All Chemists

The title of this blog comes from the title of Chapter 7 in Stephen Harrod Buhner’s fascinating book, The Lost Language of Plants (Chelsea Green: 2002). It is a book that decries modern science as a bankrupt epistemology, but also gets most of its facts precisely from the information botanical science has accumulated, so any reading of this book has to keep that paradox in mind. Nonetheless, the assemblage of astonishing facts about plants and what they do to protect themselves as well as other organisms (including humans) is truly mind-changing. This alone should give us pause in our modern tendency to consider all organisms aside from ourselves as simple unconscious mechanisms that we can exploit, without regard for the intelligence they display or the ecology in which they are embedded. This is Buhner’s plea in this book: the universe is nota machine, as much science makes it out to be. It is a vast, interconnected whole that is alive with intelligence and meaning. As he puts it, “We are, by species history and genetic tendency, encoded for recognition of the aliveness of the world and an emotional bonding with it” (p. 70). That is to say, we have a natural emotional affiliation with other life, and that emotional connection, for most of us moderns, is the “lost language” Buhner refers to in his title. It is a language that was routinely recognized by earlier “primitive” cultures, but which we, attuned only to the scientific paradigm that focuses primarily on mechanical bits of the dead “ball of rock in space” we inhabit, no longer respond to.
            Whether or not one agrees with the older epistemology that Buhner tries to revivify—that a) “there is a central underlying unifying force in the universe that is sacred;” that b) “all matter is made from this substance;” that c) “therefore all things possess a soul, a sacred intelligence;” and that d) “because human beings are generated out of this same substance, it is possible for human beings to communicate with the soul or intelligence in plants and all other matter and for those intelligences to communicate with human beings” (37-8)—one can still marvel at the evidence of plant intelligences that he assembles, and worry about the negative effects of our na├»ve production of pharmaceutical weapons (e.g. antibiotics) that seem to be threatening the gains we thought to have won in our battle against disease. With regard to the latter, it has become common these days to recognize that overuse of antibiotics (especially in feed for the farm animals and farmed fish we consume) has increased genetic resistance in the bacteria we thought to have conquered. What’s remarkable in Buhner’s telling of it, is the intelligence that bacteria display in how they produce resistance. First, they “encode several different kinds of plasmids, each with resistance information” and which are easily exchanged with other bacteria. Then they also have transposons, movable segments of DNA that can rearrange the genetic structure of organisms, and that can be released in free form into the environment for other bacteria to use. Moreover, it even seems, according to Stuart Levy (The Antibiotic Paradox, 1992), that “bacteria strategically anticipate confrontation of other drugs when they resist one” by preparing themselves to become more virulent by sharing their information among “a vast array of interacting constituents of an integrated microbial world” (123). In short, these microscopic, fundamental life-forms are ubiquitous, clever, cooperative, and vastly more intelligent and responsive than we ever gave them credit for. And the result is increasingly-resistant strains of tuberculosis and other diseases that can no longer be controlled with our war-based approach. That’s also because vast residues of antibiotics have been poured into our water and soil from hospital waste and factory and fish farms, and these residues last for years to kill the valuable soil bacteria our lives depend on. For Buhner, humans need to recognize a basic and irreducible fact: 

“Bacteria are not germs, but the germinators—and fabric—of all life on Earth. In declaring war on them, we declared war on the underlying living structure of the planet…on ourselves.” (134).  

Like bacteria, plants—our literal progenitors on this planet—possess an astonishing array
of chemical strategies to protect themselves and promote their species. Everyone knows that plants produce the oxygen without which we could not breathe, and consume the CO2that we need to dispose of. But their root systems also transport water from deep underground and make it available to surrounding plants, and literally create life-giving rain. In fact, at one point, Buhner claims that though, scientifically, plants have no “brain” or nervous system (hence, we assume, cannot be our equals), their root systems function virtually as well as our ‘more advanced’ brains. Thus, when plant seeds begin to germinate, they create a kind of sterile womb outside them in which their offspring can thrive: 
“As soon as germination begins, the new plant starts releasing compounds through its tiny root system to essentially make a sterile zone around the emerging rootlet. This action protects the seed from harmful organisms and makes space in the soil for its growth. Solidago altissima(a species of goldenrod) and Erigeron annus(white-top fleabane), for example, release combinations of six to ten different matricaria and lachnophyllum esters (ME and LE) to reduce the growth of plants nearby and so make room for themselves in the soil” (148). 

But perhaps more impressive is the fact that plants, far from being passive ‘food’ for anything that wants to eat them, are astonishingly active in protecting themselves on this level as well. No, they can’t run away as an animal can, but they can “generate hundreds of compounds that they use to protect themselves from being overconsumed by insects and animals” (157). Nor do they just kill off anything that eats them; they seem to be wise enough to tolerate some foraging by animals (about 18%) before they let fly with their big guns. That’s because plants are constantly getting and testing information from their surroundings to determine what protective measures to employ and in what quantities. For example, when “being overeaten by aphids or caterpillars, some plants quickly combine and release a mixture of imino acids and sulfur amino acids” that, when combined, powerfully deter the feeding—this at concentrations of as low as one part per million (159). Nor is this just an automatic response: in Russia, clover is normally not threatened by snails, and so does notproduce “cyanogenic compounds”; but in Britain, where snails thrive in the warm wet climate, the same clover doesproduce such deterrents. 
            Another example is the use by plants of chemicals that affect animal reproduction. The most dramatic instance of this is another clover, Trifolium subterraneum, that is grazed on by sheep in Australia. If the sheep are foraging too heavily, this clover “produces estrogenic compounds that affect sheep reproductive cycles and cause up to a 70% reduction in ewe fertility” (161). It would seem to be very effective: fewer lambs, less foraging. Even more impressive, lima beans are often infested with spider mites. When this happens, the lima bean plant can release “a blend of volatile oils (terpenoids) that attracts a predatory mite that feeds on spider mites!” Nor is this an automatic response either, because there are different species of spider mites, so the plant must analyze, from the mite saliva, exactly which mite species is feeding on it, and then produce a blend that will attract onlythe right predator for that mite! And more, “the plants also tell other, uninfested lima beans what is happening. Those receiving the communication also begin to release the chemical that calls the predatory mites” (162).  
            Nor is it just themselves that plants help with their chemistry. The chemicals they produce also help much of what surrounds them, including animals and humans. The action occurs in complex natural systems—not domestic vegetable fields devoted to only cultivated plants—and “limits the emergence of disease and insect epidemics” and the resistance of predators. This means, according to Buhner, that 

“Out-of-control infestations are alwaysthe result of reducing what appears to be wild chaos in natural systems, of engaging in farming of monocultures, genetic uniformity in plant communities, heavy pesticide or pharmaceutical use, or environmental stress from things such as suburban building or logging” (183). 

In short, since wildness in any plant ecosystem equates to variety and health, it is in places where humans introduce the monolithic control of human agriculture that we find big outbreaks of disease. What’s more, whereas human control means the use of all-out chemical warfare against what it defines as “pests,” natural systems take a more holistic approach. Budworm infestations among spruce forests are an example. It might be surprising that a few spruce trees do notdefend themselves against budworms with terpene chemistry. But this is not because they can’t; these few trees are intentionally refraining from defense because, in the long run, this restraint makes sure that the larger community, the forest, sustains itself because resistance in budworms does not develop as it would if all-out war were instituted. As Buhner puts it, “Plant communities literally set aside plants for the insects to consume so as to not force genetic rearrangement and the development of resistance” (189). 
            And then there are the uses other organisms make of the chemistries developed by plants. Honeybees, for example, collect a resinous substance from aspen, willow, birch and poplar trees to make propolis—a substance they create from 50% tree resins, 10 % pollen, 30% wax, and 10% terpenoid essential oils. They then spread this remarkable substance on the interior of their hives to protect it from infection. Why? Because it is strongly antibacterial, antiviral, antibiotic and antiseptic, among other qualities. Oshais another plant ‘medicine,’ this one used by bears. A plains Indian name for Ligusticum porterii, osha means ‘Bear Medicine,’ and is antibiotic, antiviral, antiparasitical, and antihelminthic (active against intestinal worms).  The bears use it in early spring, after their hibernation: they dig the osha root, eat some, and chew some to mix it with saliva into a paste. They then spray and rub this paste on their fur, and thus cleanse the body of winter parasites that may have gathered. The part they eat helps clean their intestines of parasites there. I heard Buhner on the radio recently saying that he has used osha on himself as well and considers it one of his plant ‘helpers’. This figures, because humans have been using this and other plants as medicine for thousands of years: “written records over the past 6,000 years have recorded the regular use of more than 80,000 different plants as medicines” (202). 
            To Buhner, this means that “plant chemistries, unlike pharmaceuticals, are released into the world for a reason” (225) and that reason is the health of the natural system. The mass use of pharmaceuticals, by contrast, is usually designed for profit, and often leads to such things as antibiotic resistance and even to increased occurrence of diseases like cancer. In one of his half-page notes, Buhner cites an interview with Dr. James Duke (“Herbal Voices Interview”, 207), formerly a botanist with the Department of Agriculture, and a pioneer in phytochemicals, to the effect that scientists have changed our foods for the worse:

Take the USDA, for example, they have bred out most of the cancer-preventing compounds in soy. So an average primitive soybean will prevent more cancer than a USDA soybean. This is because we Americans tend to go for bland foods and the primitive soybean has a more bitter taste, so the USDA bred out five different chemicals in soy, and bragged about it. They bragged about lowering the phytate content, the bowman-burk inhibitor content, and the protease inhibitors, the very things that prevent cancer (207).

This is definitely food for thought. The United States Department of Agriculture is charged with keeping our foods safe, and enhancing, not reducing their health-giving properties. And yet, in this case (and Duke worked at USDA and knows whereof he speaks), they seem to have sided with popular taste and industrial agriculture to make soybeans lesseffective against cancer, and then bragged about it. Something is rotten here. 
            That is really the burden of Buhner’s book. Native peoples have been using plant medicines for millennia because, Buhner implies, they knew how to listen to what the plants were saying (often via dreams). We moderns have been seduced by the successes (and they may well be short-term) of universe-as-machine science to both dismiss ancient remedies as rank superstition, and in many cases to outlaw them as dangerous. If Stephen Buhner and many of the people he cites, like James Duke, are right, we may have acted way too soon—dismissing the reasoning of our elders, the plants, without having sufficiently plumbed their meaning. Whether we can recover that ability to listen to plants before most of them—our natural forests and wild ecosystems—are plowed up and paved under, is yet to be determined. But the prognosis does not look good. 

Lawrence DiStasi

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Boeing's Malfeasance


I saw a segment about the Ethiopian Airlines crash on the PBS Newshourlast night that leaves me spitting—convinced, yet again, that the behavior inevitably fostered by the demands of capitalism lead directly to malfeasance and, in this case, murder. Jeff Wise is a science writer specializing in aviation and psychology, one who’s written a book about the Malaysia airlines flight that vanished in 2014. When asked about the problems of automation on airliners as they related to the recent crash, he said that generally automation has been a good thing, saving the pilot from having to deal with “mundane stuff” and allowing him or her to concentrate on more important factors—something that has led to increased airline safety in recent years. Serious problems, however, may arise when the pilot is inexperienced and system overload dumps all the decisions back onto the pilot. Some have speculated that this is what happened in the recent crashes. 
            But then Wise got to the real nitty-gritty, Boeing’s 737. Turns out it’s the most profitable and most popular airplane Boeing builds, having been started in 1967. The problem, Wise pointed out, is that the plane is now a creature of a bygone era: it’s built of aluminum, and uses hydraulics instead of the “fly-by-wire” systems of modern airliners. But Boeing makes so much money from these planes, said Wise, that they’ve been trying to “stretch out its lifespan,” mainly by adding new fuel-efficient engines onto an aging airframe that wasn’t designed for this type of engine. And note well: “they had to sacrifice some flight characteristics in order to get it to work.” 
            Now we come to the problem: the 737s with those new engines, “had sort of a disturbing tendency to pitch up in certain circumstances.” In short, the plane’s nose tended to head upward, as in a steep climb that could lead to a stall. So what did Boeing do to salvage its big money-maker? “They kind of kludged it with this patch, this automation software that would kick in.” This is the now-infamous computerized system that tips the plane downward, towards the earth—to compensate for the upward pitch it tended towards with its new engine. And then Boeing added insult to injury: its sales pitch assured customers that things were now fine, the 737 MAX8 was part of the rest of their 737 fleet and would fly the same way. Best of all, “You don’t have to buy a whole bunch of new parts, like you would if we built a whole new plane.” Classic selling point: this jerry-built model is not only as good as the old one, it’s better! You don’t even have to retrain pilots, as you would with a whole new design, but keep them on as if they were flying the old 737s. 
            So—pilots, especially those in foreign countries, were nottold about the computer system that had “fixed” the 737s they were now flying. The selling point was specifically that pilots did not need retraining. And so they got none. And so unexpected situations occurred, and the 737s flown by Indonesia’s Lion Air in October 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines just last week started to pitch upwards, presumably, and that wonderful computerized “patch” no doubt kicked in to correct it, and the pilots had no idea what the hell was going on, and suddenly the airplane with hundreds of innocents aboard was racing nose first into the unforgiving earth or ocean. All passengers dead. 
            Now consider the fact that though, after the Lion Air crash was analyzed and the FAA “issued warnings and training advisories to all operators of the 737 MAX” so as to avoid any similar problems, “these advisories were not fully implemented” (quotes from Wikipedia article, “Lion Air Flight 610”). In other words, that warning should have prompted Boeing, at the very least, to make sure pilots were made aware of what the plane’s tendencies were, and what the computer “fix” was supposed to do. Apparently, this did not happen, or not fully. Boeing, after all, didn’t want to raise alarms about its most profitable airplane. So Ethiopian Airlines was allowed to keep flying its 737s in the dark, until March 10, when the plane dove directly into the earth shortly after takeoff. 
            The CEO of Boeing is Dennis Muilenberg. His compensation for 2017 was $15 million. On March 13, three days after the Ethiopian Airlines crash of his plane, Newsweekreported that Muilenberg phoned his friend President Trump (Democracy Nowreported that Trump has not only praised Boeing hundreds of times, but actually assisted it in selling its airplanes to foreign countries) to “assure him of the aircraft’s safety.” While dozens of other countries grounded the 737s in their fleets, acting FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell refused to do that in the U.S. until more was known, adding that “our review shows no systemic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding the aircraft.” Newsweekalso reported on the “cozy relationship between the aviation giant and U.S. politicians and agencies,” as well as between Boeing and the government regulators. Said Jim Hall, former head of the NTSB, “The manufacturer essentially becomes the manufacturer andthe regulator.” Finally, the Center for Responsive Politics noted that in 2018, Boeing spent “a total of $15 million” on lobbying the U.S Government, with whom it has extensive military contracts (acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan spent 31 years as a Boeing executive). 
            So there it is. In our system, the incentive to make a profit leads a major airplane manufacturer to push the life of its big money-maker, the 737, so far that it turns the plane into a flying death trap. More than 180 people lost their lives in the Lion Air crash, and nearly 160 more in the Ethiopian Airlines disaster. Both crashes might have been averted if a) Boeing concerned itself as much with the safety of passengers as with its bottom line, b) the government and its regulators were not so “cozy” with the company. But in the United States, particularly these days, coziness and the bottom line rule; plain old people come in a distant second. After all, the price of gross malfeasance isn’t so bad—only a few hundred deaths in parts of the world that don’t really count, and maybe even a bonus severance package for the CEO. 

Lawrence DiStasi 

Monday, February 18, 2019

Impeachment: the History

Having just finished reading the little book, Impeachment: An American History, by Jeffrey Engel, Jon Meacham, Peter Baker and Timothy Naftali, I am more convinced than ever that the several moves to impeach Donald Trump have merit and will proceed. The book’s authors do not take that stand, not even in the Conclusion written by Jeffrey Engel. But it’s clear that in writing about the three previous impeachments in American history—the one in 1868 of Andrew Johnson, the one in 1974 of Richard Nixon, and the one in 1999 of Bill Clinton—Meacham, Naftali and Baker definitely had today’s impeachment possibility in mind. Even so, the meat of the book, to my mind, is really contained in the three sections authored by Engel: the Introduction, the history of the Constitution’s writers concerning impeachment, and the Conclusion. 
            Take the history first. Engel makes clear that the 1787 Constitutional Convention was called primarily because the Articles of Confederation that purported to govern the thirteen colonies until that time weren’t working. The main problem: no central authority. The colonies, that is, each governed themselves, coined their own money, and imposed tariffs on each other as they saw fit. The result was chaos, or as most referred to it, anarchy. It was to solve this problem of ‘anarchy’ that the framers decided to institute the office of President. Like a monarch, he would be able to think and act for the country as a whole, rather than parochially for each state. He would embody the central authority of the government and act as a check on the more partisan tendencies of the representatives of individual states. But there were problems raised. The nation had formed itself in opposition to the unchecked power of England’s king. Monarchies concentrated power in one person and this led to the abuses the colonies had suffered firsthand. Everyone in the United States feared monarchical power. So the two dangers were, in effect, played off against each other: mass chaos and anarchy on the one hand, and unchecked concentration of power on the other. 
            Once a president was decided upon, therefore, some way to check that power was needed. And here is where impeachment was proposed as a remedy. Of course, if George Washington could have remained president, few people would have feared unchecked power. And the key to Washington’s near-deification in this regard was the quality that he seemed to display: his concern always for the whole country, even at the expense of his own interests. As Pennsylvania’s Governor Morris, who opposed impeachment, put it: the president was to be “A firm guardian of the people and of the public interest…their great protector” who put their welfare above his own(p. 29). So, for the framers, the defects that might deserve a president’s impeachment could be summarized as: “What would George Washington nothave done?” (9). The framers had to be more specific, of course, and so, after much debate and word substitutions, they came up with these words: 

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Most of this is clear. But the key words have always been “high crimes and misdemeanors.” What, precisely, did the framers mean by “high” crimes? Jeffrey Engel is very edifying about this. “High” crimes were crimes “committed against the sovereign state, or against the people in republics” (37). That is to say, as opposed to crimes that one citizen might commit to injure another, “high” crimes were “those committed against the crown in a monarchy, or the people in a democracy” (ibid). And it is important to note that a “high” crime in this sense need not be indictable under criminal laws or statutes. Engel cites Hugh Williamson of the Constitutional Convention, in defining impeachable offenses as “offenses against the public interest.”An early Supreme Court justice further defined them as “offenses which are committed by public men in violation of their public trust and duties” (39).  Engel concludes by summarizing thus:

This is why the absence of virtue—evidenced by a president’s concern for his own welfare above and beyond the public’s, whose fate he is entrusted to preserve—is the best sign we have that the founders would have wanted him impeached (45). 

“Virtue” is not a word we use much these days, especially regarding public figures, but it is the visible lackof that quality by a president who looks out for himself rather than the public he is sworn to serve, that is key here. And it takes very little reflection to see that precisely this concern, over and above concern for the public good, best characterizes Donald Trump. He has been called everything from selfish to self-obsessed to pathologically “narcissistic” (concerned for himself to the exclusion of all others), all of which point to the absence of the very “virtue” that we expect presidents to have. 
            But of course, characterizations by journalists or opponents or even psychological experts (see The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President, 2017) are not sufficient to impeach a president. There must be some kind of evidence assembled by the House of Representatives and presented to the Senate for a trial. It is for this reason that Richard Nixon was able to last almost two years under intense scrutiny and vilification: there was no real evidence that, despite being a dirty trickster and loathsome human being, Nixon had actually directed the break-in at the Watergate and the subsequent coverup. Until, that is, the White House tapes were discovered—and I remember what a banner day that was. But even then, Nixon himself took charge of editing the tape transcripts, wiped out certain passages that proved his involvement in the crimes, and almost got away with these edited tape transcripts. Except that he forgot something big: a copy of the tapes had already been given to Judge John Sirica overseeing the special prosecutor; which meant that Nixon’s edits of April 1974 could be compared to the originals from 1973, and constituted proof of obstruction of justice. Equally damning was the transcript of a June 23, 1972 White House conversation in which the President is heard clearly directing the CIA to obstruct the FBI’s Watergate investigation. When Rep. Wiggins of CA, up to this point a staunch Nixon defender, saw this transcript, he said “Holy smoke! It’s all over.” The tapes proved that Nixon was a liar and a criminal. Rather than go through the humiliation of public impeachment, he resigned from office within days.  
            Nixon was, one might say, hoist by his own petard—his paranoid insistence that everyone who came to the White House be secretly recorded. The tapes provided indisputable evidence of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Needless to say, that taping system was quickly removed from the White House, no other president wanting to be caught in the same system. But there are other public records that might be used, such as emails and tweets and recorded public statements. These are what will be needed to impeach someone like Donald Trump. Whether they can be assembled and marshaled against the 45thpresident of the United States is still an open question. But what is clear to this observer—and, in a soft-pedaled way, to Jeffrey Engel in his Conclusion—is that what Trump is accused of in the Russia investigation and elsewhere, if proven, would definitely constitute impeachable offenses. Here are Engel’s words:

Time has already told us what the Constitution’s framers would have made of someone in power who committed the type of crime of which Trump stands accused. They feared these very things…a president “might pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation or oppression” James Madison warned his fellow delegates when explaining impeachment’s necessity, or “might betray his trust to foreign powers” (209).

If we think of just the most visible schemes Trump has been accused of—continuing to work for a Trump Tower in Moscow even after his inauguration; using his hotel in Washington DC as a kind of cash cow from foreign dignitaries seeking to curry favor; paying off women with whom he had sexual relations with money designated for his campaign; publicly defending Vladimir Putin after their secret meeting in Helsinki; appearing beholden to Putin in almost everything he does, inciting speculation that he is somehow compromised; presiding over an administration with an alarming number of aides and appointees already convicted or making plea deals with the Special Prosecutor investigating Russiagate; and much much more—we know that what Engels concludes hangs over this president like the proverbial sword of Damocles. That is:

The founders believed any president corrupted by foreign influence should be impeached. Period (210). 

Amen to that, I say (and so, I believe, will anyone reading Impeachment). And may it be soon. 

Lawrence DiStasi

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Fascist Politics in Our Time

I became active in political protest in the 1960s, and from that time to this, there have been countless accusations that some politician or political system was “fascist.” Usually, this was taken to be but an exaggerated form of criticism, the term “fascist” not literal but a kind of shorthand. Now, however, with the advent of Donald Trump and other ‘populist’ leaders worldwide, the term has begun to sound more and more literal. It takes only a little remembrance of the tactics of the Trump campaign to realize that this would-be dictator has employed strategies that appear dangerously close to those of fascist leaders in the pre-World War II era. Now comes a book by Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them(Random House: 2018), that outlines the basic characteristics of fascism, including how the politics of our current president adheres more closely to them than many have dared to think. 
What Stanley does is write a chapter about each of ten different political strategies that define fascist politics: The Mythic Past, Propaganda, Anti-Intellectual, Unreality, Hierarchy, Victimhood, Law and Order, Sexual Anxiety, Sodom and Gomorrah, and Arbeit Macht Frei. He proceeds to show how each of these, both singly and collectively, serves to exacerbate the divide between “us” (the favored population) and “them” (the outsiders who are targeted in the fascist state). He also shows how the most notable fascist leaders, like Hitler and Mussolini and also Viktor Orban of today’s Hungary, use these strategies to seize and hold power in their respective fascist states. Throughout, Stanley makes plain that he is not studying fascism per se (though he does comment that by fascism, he means a kind of ultra-nationialism where the nation is represented by an authoritarian leader who claims to literally “be” the nation). Rather, he is outlining how his ten categories work in combination to implement “fascist politics,” or, as he puts it: “my interest is in fascist tactics as a mechanism to achieve power.” Whether those tactics result in a state one could actually label “fascist” is implied, but by no means guaranteed. The real danger they represent lies in how they “dehumanize” certain segments of the population—in short, whatever “them” is targeted. 
            First—and Benito Mussolini with his recalling for Italians the “glorious” past of the Roman Empire (and his use of a Roman term, fasces,to characterize his regime as “fascism”) is the prototype—the evocation of a mythic past is almost a given. Importantly, the past recalled is an invention, not a true remembrance of history. Hitler and his Nazis, in turn, sought to fetishize the volkisch movement, a mythic, medieval Germanic past evoking close-knit ethnic and racial ties. The idea was to get back to an imagined past where Germanic peoples, the volk, were united by blood. It can easily be seen how more modern movements use the same inventions keyed to their local histories. In India, the current leader, Narendra Modi, is a member of RSS, a far-right Hindu nationalist party calling for the suppression of non-Hindu minorities. Similar movements in Hungary, Poland and even France are characterized by similar appeals to an ethnically-united, mythic past. In the same way, the past is regularly mythologized in the American South to whitewash slavery and to justify the monuments that still glorify the Confederacy and its ‘noble’ fight against the Union. It has been noted elsewhere (see Greg Grandin, The Nation, June 2016, “It’s the Empire, Stupid’) that nations with waning empires are particularly susceptible to fascist appeals to this mythic past. We only have to think of Donald Trump’s “Make American Great Again” campaign slogan to realize how this might appeal especially to white men whose jobs have disappeared and who, fearing that they are being replaced by dark “outsiders,” would want to imagine a past when their good jobs seemed secure and their right to rule was unquestioned. 
            The value of Propaganda for fascist politics hardly needs demonstrating. The basic idea is to united people by disguising, with acceptable ideals, the actual nefarious goals that are sought. Donald Trump’s campaign slogan about “draining the swamp” in Washington is a perfect example of calling “corrupt” the state that he wanted to run in his own corrupt way. And that is exactly what has happened. How do fascist politicians get away with this? By the implication, as Stanley makes clear, that the corruption they seek to eliminate is really “the corruption of purity rather than of law…corruption in the sense of the usurpation of traditional order” (26). In this sense, the fact that Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, even lived in the White House, was a kind of corruption of tradition (white men only in the White House), and Trump supporters could see the former President and everything he did as corrupt. In thus undermining reasonable public discourse, which is a necessary part of democracy, fascist propaganda segues neatly into what Stanley calls “Anti-Intellectualism.” Here, the value of education, of expertise, of complex language are all devalued in the effort to leave only one thing in their place: the power of those in the tribe, especially the ‘leader’. This power is typically expressed in simple language such as that used by Trump with his slogans. Stanley cites a February 2018 interview with Steve Bannon, who said: “We got elected on Drain the Swamp, Lock Her Up, Build a Wall” (55). The complex ideas promoted in university faculties and in education in general, by contrast, undermine the effectiveness of such simple-minded slogans and must be attacked. Universities thus become the lair of Marxists and Communists seeking to invalidate the national myths. Both of these tactics, in turn, lead to the next one: Unreality. With “liberal elites” and rational thought condemned as biased, the ability to agree on truth itself becomes fraught with anger and argument. Anything that contradicts the Dear Leader’s pronouncements or desires gets labeled “fake news.” As Stanley puts it, 
Fascist politics exchanges reality for the pronouncements of a single individual…Regular, repeated obvious lying is part of the process by which fascist politics destroys the information space (57). 

Though reputable newspapers like the Washington Post have consistently totaled up the numbers of false statements Trump has uttered (well over 4,000), the president seems untouched by such accounting. He needs only cry “fake news,” seconded by his propaganda channel, Fox News, to be believed by his adoring, and misinformed supporters. What is even more astonishing is that these supporters treat such obvious lies as more truthful than the more accurate words of conventional politicians. Trump, according to his followers, is “telling it like it is.” 
            In accord with the myths of a glorious past that fascist politics exalts, it also exalts the myth of Hierarchy (racial or economic or gender) in society—where leadership, honor and money go disproportionately to the powerful. The myth inheres in the fact that this allegedly accords with nature or the divine plan. Stanley puts it succinctly: “For the fascist, the principle of equality is a denial of natural law…The natural law allegedly places men over women, and members of the chosen nation of the fascist over other groupings” (80). One of the most memorable examples cited by Stanley is a March 21, 1861 speech by Alexander H. Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy. Known as the Cornerstone Speech, it specifically identifies constitutional principles of equality as violations of nature:
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea [of equality]; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition (80). 

The very same principle of racial inequality or hierarchy formed the cornerstone of Hitler’s Third Reich. And the concomitant to this alleged ‘natural’ principle is the fascist politician’s disdain for the “undeserving,” those who receive government help or healthcare. Donald Trump made this point recurrently in his campaign and it was meant to evoke, in his rabid followers, their complaint that whereas we are hardworking, upstanding citizens, they, the others—of whom there are many, mostly people of color or immigrants—are lazy and unwilling to work. When a nation is in the condition of apparently losing its favored or wealthy status—as many pre-fascist states typically are—this sense of loss becomes aggravated to the point at which the appeal of fascist leaders becomes particularly strong. We’re losing and we don’t deserve to lose, becomes the cry of those who follow such a leader.  
            This paves the way for one of the most important chapters in Stanley’s book: Victimhood. In the United States, at least since the Civil War, this has always taken the form of whites feeling like victims to government-imposed equality. While the Civil Rights Act of 1866 finally made black Americans U.S. citizens with protected civil rights, it took not even a month for new President Andrew Johnson to veto the act because it gave the ‘colored race’ more safeguards than the white race ever had. Johnson saw this as “discrimination against the white race.” Today’s whites, especially in the solidly Trumpian states of the South and Midwest, see the same thing. As Stanley points out, 

Forty-five percent of President Donald Trump’s supporters believe that whites are the most discriminated-against racial group in America; 54 percent of Trump’s supporters believe that Christians are the most persecuted religious group in America (94). 

Stanley cites several studies showing that the prediction of the U.S. becoming a “majority-minority” country around 2050 is seen as highly threatening by white groups, to the point where many feel like victims. This makes them far more likely to oppose policies like affirmative action and immigration and to support right-wing policies. Nor is this unique to the United States but is, rather, a “universal element” of contemporary fascist politics. Because nationalism (not nationalism in pursuit of equality but nationalism in pursuit of domination) is at the core of fascism, the fascist leader uses a sense of “collective victimhood to create a sense of group identity” (106). Whether based on skin color, religion, or ethnic origin, it always situates itself as guarding against an invasive “them” in order to restore the safety and dignity of the dominant group, “us,’ whose sense of loss it always exaggerates. As he did in an October 2017 speech at the International Consultation on Christian Persecution, Viktor Orban of Hungary railed against the “danger” to Europe’s Christian roots represented by soft immigration policies: 
“A group of Europe’s intellectual and political leaders wishes to create a mixed society in Europe which, within just a few generations, will utterly transform the cultural and ethnic composition of our continent—and consequently its Christian identity” (107). 

As victims of such unfair persecution, Orban urges Hungarians to join him in thwarting this “invasion” fostered by liberal elites, and revive Hungary’s traditional (mythic) role as the defender of Christian Europe against barbarian hordes. 
            Perhaps Law and Order is the most familiar tactic used by fascist politics. But what is interesting about Stanley’s take is that members of the target group are not only characterized as “criminals,” though that is bad enough; it also represents them as threats to the nation’s purity. This was particularly poisonous in Nazi Germany, but it reigned supreme in the American South as well. The underlying threat, of course, is the threat of rape, which threatens not only women themselves, but the actual “manhood” of the nation. This is why this tactic plays directly into the next one, Sexual Anxiety. With the “leader” depicted as the “father of the nation,” any threat to male control and family traditions also threatens the fascist view of male dominance and strength. According to Hitler, “Jews were behind a conspiracy to rape pure Aryan woman as a means of destroying the ‘white race’” (129). The Ku Klux Klan apparently shared this theory, referring to the Negro goal of “destroying by the bastardization which would necessarily set in, the white race which they hate” (129). It goes without saying that the danger posed by black rapists was also at the heart of the rampage of lynching that marked the Jim Crow era. 
            Finally, fascist politics takes on both the corruption of cities—Sodom and Gomorrah where outsiders usually concentrate and, like parasites, depend on the largesse of the state—and the contrast between the “hard work” ethic of the countryside and the laziness marked by immigrants and urban dwellers. What’s most damaging about this mythology, according to Stanley, is that fascist movements actually attempt to make their mythic constructions about “them” into actuality by using social policies to do it. By driving Jews out of Germany, the Nazis believed that turning Jews into refugee beggars would prove their fascist contention that Jews were naturally shiftless and lazy. In the same way, American policies in Latin American countries like Honduras and Guatemala turn large populations into migrants, who then, as immigrants, can confirm the fascist contention that they are lazy and dependent on state aid. And for the native population, destroying labor unions, instituting ‘tough on crime’ policies, and fostering the economic inequality that grows more threatening in the U.S. each year also acts as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy—that “those people” are simply lazy and deserve their lot. 
In his epilogue, Stanley sums up what he has pointed out in this short but powerful, thought-provoking book:
The mechanisms of fascist politics all build on and support one another. They weave a myth of a distinction between “us” and “them,” based on a romanticized fictional past featuring “us” and not “them,” and supported by a resentment for a corrupt liberal elite, who take our hard-earned money and threaten our traditions. “They” are lazy criminals on whom freedom would be wasted (and who don’t deserve it, in any case). “They” mask their destructive goals with the language of liberalism, or “social justice,” and are out to destroy our culture and traditions and make “us” weak (187). 

That’s it in a nutshell. And for those who think that “it can’t happen here,” this little book should be an eye-opener and a wakeup call because, as they say, we’re already half-way there.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, January 18, 2019

The Last Syllable of Recorded Time

What time is it? Most of us ask this question unthinkingly, several times a day. Time to eat. Time to sleep. Time to work, to watch the news, and so on. But we are reminded recurrently—as on New Year’s Eve, for example—that clock time differs depending on where you live on the planet. Revelers in Australia are already celebrating the New Year while we in America still have hours to go before the Times Square ball drops (and if you’re in California, the ball has already dropped at nine o’clock, but our TV channels kindly re-run the tape for us at midnight Pacific Time.) So even the dullest of us knows that time is different—but regularlydifferent—in different time zones; and that the “now” I am experiencing at this moment is the same as everyone’s “now” no matter what the clock says in different parts of the globe. 
            Now comes Carlo Rovelli, a physicist whose specialty is ‘loop quantum gravity,’ to disabuse us of even this simple notion. Time is not at all simple, Rovelli tells us in his new book The Order of Time, (Penguin: 2018), and in fact may not even exist. And there is no “now” that prevails throughout the universe. At one point he even says it plainly: “The time of physics is, ultimately, the expression of our ignorance of the world. Time is ignorance” (140). 
            To summarize what Rovelli means is not easy, and I’m not sure I understand many of his arguments, beautifully phrased as they are. But here is what I can more or less comprehend. First, he gives us a brief lesson in the history of speculations about time. Aristotle was the first to ask himself ‘what is time?’ and he concluded that “time is the measurement of change.” Pretty good. We can all see the logic in that. But Newton disagreed, and reached the opposite conclusion. Regardless of objects and the changes in them and in our world, there is something called “true time,” said Newton. This is the time, perceived and measured by physicists with their instruments, that goes steadily on regardless of whether things are changing or not. All of Newton’s principles and theories (and our clocks) depend on this notion of time. But, of course, along came Einstein, and he upset Newton’s sensible notions once again when he introduced his notion of space and time as “fields.” As “fields,” space and time become space/time, “the fabric on which the rest of the world is drawn” (74) as Rovelli puts it. And what this means for time is that it is no longer independent, as Newton thought, but relativeand thus, together with space, interacting with the rest of the world. We all know of the example of a twin in space aging more slowly than his sibling on earth because of the differing speeds at which they travel. But very large objects also have a noticeable effect on this fabric of spacetime, which is why clocks run more slowly near large objects: their gravitational fields distort the very fabric of time. Rovelli points out, in this regard, that clocks (very accurate ones) even show time passing more rapidly high on mountaintops than at sea level, due to this effect.  
            Rovelli then takes us into the strange world he studies, quantum mechanics, and tells us how it has, in turn, essentially demolished even the relativity of time Einstein discovered. In quantum mechanics, things get very strange indeed, and, according to Rovelli, so does time. The scale, of course, is beyond our imagining: it is called the Planck scale. For grains of time, Rovelli gives us the figure of 10-44 seconds, or “a hundred millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second” (82). With such infinitesimal units, Rovelli speculates that “the notion of time is no longer valid” and “values of time t do not exist.” Thus, time at this level is not a continuous flow, and our notion of time loses its meaning. When added to the indeterminacy of everything at quantum levels (physicists call this “superposition”), spacetime gets so vague as to be cloudy, fluctuating. And here “even the distinction between present, past, and future becomes fluctuating, indeterminate,” just as with elementary particles. This means, according to Rovelli, that “an event may be both before and after another one” (88). If this doesn’t boggle your mind, you haven’t read that correctly. 
            What I like most about Rovelli is his writing ability and his sense of humor. Consider this little zinger, for example, where he is trying to emphasize his point that the ‘physical substratum’ that determines duration “is a quantum entity that does not have determined values until it interacts with something else” and then onlyfor that specific interaction; “they remain indeterminate for the rest of the universe” (90). It’s like many ‘things’ in the quantum universe: they do not take form as substances until they interact with an observer, until we look at them. In fact, they are better understood as “events” rather than “things.” And these “events” happen in what appears to be not the orderly, past-to-present fashion theorized by Newton or even Einstein, but in a kind of random order that is at best local. Hard to understand, but here is Rovelli’s metaphor to make this more humanly relevant: 
The events of the world do not form an orderly queue, like the English. They crowd around chaotically, like Italians (96). 

You gotta love a physicist, Italian himself, who writes like that. 
            One of Rovelli’s main ideas concerns what he calls “blurring:” this refers to the fact that we cannot see deep into matter, into what is going on at the quantum level, so our vision of the world is ‘blurred.’ Rovelli writes it this way: “the quantum indeterminacy of things produces a blurring,” even when we think we can measure everything. He goes on, 

Both the sources of blurring—quantum indeterminacy, and the fact that physical systems are composed of zillions of molecules—are at the heart of time. Temporality is profoundly linked to blurring. The blurring is due to the fact that we are ignorant of the microscopic details of the world (140).

So while we “see” a universe which “began” with the Big Bang and its low entropy state (which in turn produces our sense that greater order [low entropy] leads to greater disorder [higher entropy], to past preceding present preceding future—hence our sense of the ineluctable order of time), Rovelli maintains that all of this may be “more down to us than to the universe itself.” In other words, the universe in time appears as it does because of who we are, not how the world is. Here is how he concludes this line of thought:

The low initial entropy of the universe might be due to the particular way in which we—the physical system that we are part of—interact with it. We are attuned to a very particular subset of aspects of the universe, and it is thisthat is oriented to time (147). 

This is significant because everything that we know of proceeds from the growth of entropy; from, that is, sources of low entropy like our sun which is constantly breaking down due to its nuclear burning, but whose breaking down, or entropy, gives us the light on which we and all organisms depend. And of course, the low entropy of the sun comes from “an entropic configuration that was even lower: the primordial cloud from which the solar system was formed” (160), and that low entropy comes from other sources back to the low initial entropy of the universe at the Big Bang. This is the “great story of the cosmos” says Rovelli, the story of time powered by the growth of entropy. And it is the particular story which we, as humans, have become sensitive to, and aware of. A great story, no doubt about it, a story of causality, memory, the history of the happenings of the world, in short, the world in time, but a very limited story, only one story out of many. In short, Rovelli says, our sense of time is peculiar to us and necessarily ignores the vast, timeless goings-on at microscopic levels of which we are mostly unaware. Citing St. Augustine, Rovelli summarizes it thus: “this is what time is: it is entirely in the present, in our minds, as memory and as anticipation” (182). 
            There is more in this fascinating and often beautiful book, but to do it justice requires a leisurely reading, and reflection, and probably re-reading. Reading it like this will change your view of time, at least in part, and perhaps make you reflect on how little we truly know about time and its last syllables and what exactly it is that we are recording. 

Lawrence DiStasi