Friday, December 21, 2007

Christmas Blog

This morning I woke with a question that occurs to me with some regularity: What’s the point? What is the point of existence, not just my own, but anyone’s? We appear, we struggle mightily to perform our little dances, we die. Some of our leaps and pirouettes are remembered for a time, some not. All are forgotten sooner or later. All is vanity.

Then, quite unexpectedly, my mood shifted. First, there was the admission that yes, all of us, every single one of us no matter how valuable our contribution to humanity or progress or world peace, are replaceable. Eminently and utterly dispensable, there being no shortage of people with similar talents and energies to substitute for us should we have never appeared in the first place. And even if some once-in-a-blue-moon intellect like Einstein or Mozart were to have never been, the world would still have gone on its merry way, none the worse for their absence, perhaps better off with the geniuses who no doubt would have arisen in their place.

Then came the other hand—arising on the memory of the many figures in my life, friends, family, acquaintances, teachers, students, children, lovers—the other hand which said that each one of those figures, every last one, is indispensable to my world. Without each one of those absolutely one-of-a-kind beings, my world would be deeply impoverished, a wholly different world. I think it is the same for all of us. The people and things that constitute our world are irreplaceable. And not solely or simply for what each one does or says or accomplishes, in either the qualitative or quantitative meaning of that word. Achievement is decidedly not the issue here. The issue is being. Each person in my world, in all our worlds, is indispensable for himself or herself, totally aside from doings. Indispensable for being absolutely what he is or she is. For being totally and absolutely themselves. You are you, even aside from or in spite of what you do. Your presence loudly proclaims you as you even before you do or say anything. So does mine. We spend lifetimes trying to work on these things, developing a presence or a way of being, developing a skill or talent with which to present ourselves to the world, hoping that the world will see only it and approve of us, adopt us, become like us, perhaps. And yet, it is all vain. Presence is not amenable to change, or at least rarely. No. One’s being is there, one’s being is unique, one’s very presence proclaims one above and beyond all that one does.

The problem is that most people do not respond to this overtly. Or rather, everyone actually does respond, but most are not aware of it. And so we dwell on what she said, or how she smiled, or the way he acted when he found out, trying desperately to put such things into words. But most of us are rarely able to put our finger on the feel of such things. And even more rarely are we able to convey to those people in our lives our appreciation for their being.

I am guessing that this is what that rare person, the Dalai Lama, is able to convey. Somehow, with the intensity of his attention to each person, he is able to convey his absolute and utter joy in that person’s being. And each person so attended to feels it. Perhaps the infant feels this from his attentive parent as well. But not for long. Soon the attention gets focused on what the child does, his performance, his behavior. And he spends the rest of his life, perhaps, longing for that undivided and unbridled attention to his being. Most of us rarely get it, and rarely give it either.

I remember one sesshin (several days of intensive zen meditation) I attended. After a few days, I had drifted into a mood where nothing—no person, procedure, or thing—pleased me. All I noticed (I think I was one of the sesshin leaders and so had to notice what people were doing) were defects: this one never replaced the sugar; that one left a mess at his cushion; the other kept jerking or shifting during meditation; the schedule was ridiculous. This had my mind and my thoughts tangled in knots of annoyance. Why can’t he do this? Why can’t she do that? What is the matter with these people? Eventually, my mind quieted some. And a period ended, and we began to do kinhin, walking meditation, an apparently pointless circling of the small room we were in, passing each other in a kind of snakelike round. Annoying, it still seemed annoying, everyone deep into their quirks, annoying.

Then, without warning, it shifted. Suddenly, each person became lit up as wholly himself or herself. Each droop of clothing, each jerky step, each frowning expression took on an aspect of deep rightness, the full and unchangeable signature of that person. This one’s annoying twitch of the head became only itself, the thing without which he would be wholly other. That one’s slouch and grimace of boredom became wholly her, perfectly suited to who she was. And I, I found myself loving each quirk, each frown, each being completely and utterly himself and different from every other not just here, but anywhere. I became aware that I would not, under any circumstances, have that person or her signature changed. For each one was, each person walking or jerking or slouching along that floor in that place was, for me, the necessary stuff of my world, the absolutely indispensable beings without which it would no longer be itself.

I now think that is the way it is always. We don’t know this. We usually don’t recognize this. But that is the way it is. And the only circumstance which reminds us of it—of how indispensable the being of any person is to the isness of our world—is death. When one of our central figures dies, then we suddenly realize: it’s gone. That person’s being, which that person alone presented as a phenomenon unlike any other, is gone. And I miss it terribly. I miss not what he (and here I am thinking of my older brother, who died almost two decades ago) accomplished or made himself known for; I miss him for himself. For what he alone was. And it is gone, utterly.

In another sense, we sometimes know this at the moment of birth. I was present at the birth of my daughter. And I still remember the astonishing moment when she appeared, as if ex nihilo, in that birthing room. And it was not her face or her size or anything of the kind, at least not alone; it was the entire presence of her, a presence which one could feel as if something huge had just entered the room, huge as the trains used to seem when they entered the station when I was a boy, obliterating all else on the platform with their steaming, overwhelming presence. The appearance of a new being is like that. And the disappearance of a being is like that. We suddenly understand how unique and indispensable is that thing we call being, how bereft our world when it is gone, how enriched when it enters.

This, then, is what I think we are for, the point of our lives. We exist for each other. We are the indispensable ingredient in each other’s lives. And when I say “we”, again, I mean not only what we do or achieve, but what we are. Our beings are necessary. Who we are is necessary, not only to ourselves, but to the others who make up our world. And it matters not how “good” or “bad” we are, how steady or flighty we are, how accomplished or ordinary we are; for in this most fundamental sense, what matters is what always matters: simply being.

Perhaps in this season, we could all, at least some of the time, in whatever way we can (and it doesn’t have to be in words), convey that to our necessary others.

Lawrence DiStasi

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Putin as Man of the Year

Russian President Vladimir Putin has just been chosen Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. Now aside from any quarrel with the idea that he has been the most influential man in the world for 2007 (what about Al Gore?), the selection and the report on Putin on the Lehrer News Hour leaves me seriously concerned for the Russian people. The main concern is this: once again, Russians seem to be placing their faith in a leader who not only rose to power from the secret police, but one who makes no secret of his aspiration to be leader for life. He has selected his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, and seems a cinch to become Prime Minister under this hand-picked president. When asked to explain how the Russians feel about the possible recurrence of yet another supreme ruler, one of the pundits on the News Hour explained that most Russians seem to have been willing to give up a “little” freedom in exchange for stability.

All this seems, especially after having read Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope, a terrible case of ‘déjà vu all over again.’ Hope Against Hope is Mandelstam’s account of her years with the poet, Osip Mandelstam, as they struggled to survive the series of purges instituted by Josef Stalin after the Russian Revolution, purges which resulted in the deaths of millions. Though she survived to write her memoir, Osip Mandelstam did not: he was arrested for the second time in 1937 (presumably for a poem he wrote criticizing Stalin, but no one really knows), and perished shortly thereafter (no one really knows when). As Nadezhda Mandelstam writes, in the days of the Stalinist terror, with arrests occurring without notice or reason at any time, arrest meant not simply incarceration for a time, but a literal death sentence. Almost no one returned from the labor camps.

What is most chilling with regard to Putin are Mandelstam’s thoughts about why the Russian people put up with all this. Why did they tolerate a dictator who turned on his own people, his allies, his friends, anyone and everyone? Why did they act like such helpless sheep? Mandelstam attributes their behavior, in the first place, to fear of chaos. Here is what she writes:

"There had been a time when, terrified of chaos, we had all prayed for a strong system, for a powerful hand that would stem the angry human river overflowing its banks. This fear of chaos is perhaps the most permanent of our feelings—we have still not recovered from it, and it is passed on from one generation to another….I remember Herzen’s words about the intelligentsia which so much fears its own people that it prefers to go in chains itself, provided the people, too, remain fettered." (p. 96)

When we think of the economic and social collapse Russia suffered beginning in 1990, we see history repeating itself. Once again, with the memory of the chaos and deprivation of those years of meltdown still fresh, it appears the Russian people have opted for “a powerful hand,” the hand of ex-KGB man Vladimir Putin. For an idea of the type of massive indifference to human suffering this can lead to, consider the story Mandelstam tells of the woman she encountered in a Prosecutor’s Office. The woman was desperate to find out about her son, who had been arrested by mistake: he had the same name as the person supposed to be arrested from the same building, and was therefore hauled off to camp. Still, “though it meant moving mountains,” the woman had actually managed to convince an official of the mistake, and obtained an order for her son’s release. Unfortunately, it was too late, and the woman now heard that her son had been killed in an “accident.” She began to scream and sob, but not only was she yelled at by the Prosecutor, she was also set upon by her fellow supplicants in the office, all trying to get their own cases heard:

“‘What’s the use of crying?’ asked one long suffering woman who was trying to find out about her own son. ‘That won’t bring him back to life, and she’s only holding us up.’ The disturber of the peace was removed, and order was restored.” (p. 285)

Thus does terror involve everyone, make victims of everyone. As Mandelstam puts it, “Anybody who breathes the air of terror is doomed, even if nominally he manages to saves his life.” This is because the reign of terror, the logical consequence of absolute rule, takes its victims beyond fear to what Mandelstam describes as “a paralyzing sense of one’s own helplessness to which we were all prey, not only those who were killed, but the killers themselves as well.”

Now we have Vladimir Putin, the man whose “soul” our insightful President once claimed to have seen as benign, placing himself in position to become yet another leader for life, with all the consequences in power and terror that position implies.

There was a time when we in the United States could contemplate such developments from afar. No longer. Especially since 9/11, what Americans no less than Russians have to fear is the self-same willingness of many of us to put ourselves in the hands of a power-hungry leader, to exchange just a “little” loss of freedom for the promise of security. Given the underlying shakiness of the economy and the U.S. dollar, the fallout from global warming, and much else besides, one can only imagine what further losses we might all be willing to tolerate in exchange for stability. In that regard, we should heed what Nadezhda Mandelstam has written, especially about the need to rage against such losses, to resist.

“If nothing else is left,” she says, “one must scream. Silence is the real crime against humanity.”

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, December 14, 2007

How Could They Do It?

Increasingly, we humans are faced with acts that seem unexplainable. How, we ask, could the Nazi Holocaust, the genocides in Armenia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and elsewhere, and most recently, the torture committed by United States troops at Abu Ghraib, have happened? With this in mind, I recently read Iris Chang’s disturbing account of yet another genocidal killing spree, that of Japanese troops against the residents of the Chinese city of Nanking in 1937, all of it detailed in Chang’s The Rape of Nanking (Basic Books, 1997). And the question that Chang poses in at least two places in her book is the one haunting us all these days: How could they do it? How could otherwise rational human beings lose all sense of respect and restraint in order to torture, humiliate, dismember, and violate in every way fellow human beings, and on such a grand scale? Chang offers not one but several answers to explain the events in Nanking—where as many as 300,000 Chinese were slaughtered in a matter of weeks. Among them are the absolute deadliness of absolute power; the specific training which the Japanese military imposed on its soldiers, training them with exercises meant to instill killing instincts; the suppressed rage of those soldiers, themselves treated like dirt by their officers; the “frightening ease” with which all of us can witness and accept genocide as long as the danger is perceived to be far away. All these, and others, especially the training which portrays the enemy as “sub-human,” no doubt operate. But I think there is one more, a usually unspoken one, which relates to some recent thoughts of mine on betrayal (see the blogs, Traitors I and II).

I am referring to a sense one can get when reading about truly unspeakable acts—the vindictive manner with which Japanese soldiers cut off the heads of all Chinese, including women they had just savagely raped; the torture and brutality imposed on little children, pregnant mothers, helpless old people, none of whom could have possibly represented a threat—that more than the numbing of civilized behavior or empathy is at work, that some unspoken animus is at play here. It is as if the soldier, the perpetrator, is blaming his victims, blaming them for being what they are. There is the distinct sense in this, in all sadism perhaps, that the perpetrator is blaming the victim for being something disgusting, something humiliating. The soldier/torturer, that is, first puts the victim in a situation of complete powerlessness, and then blames him or her for being powerless. For groveling. For not standing up to defend himself, but rather begging for his life, demonstrating his willingness to submit to any humiliation in order to be spared.

And what we hear is the interior monologue of the torturer: you disgust me. You are beneath contempt, and therefore do not deserve to live. But why? we want to ask. What is so disgusting? And I think the answer is that you, as a victim, my victim, remind me of what I am, of what I am trying desperately not to be: completely vulnerable, a being who is a hair’s breadth away, always, from dying, from groveling in shit and humiliation myself. This, I think, is the deep fear that is raised by the sight of a completely helpless victim. And, at the same time, what is also raised is an exhilaration that I can, at least for the moment, rise above that horribly rejected condition by treating you as dirt. By destroying you, sending you back to that nothingness from which you came. That is to say, we, our conscious selves, always yearn to be invulnerable, always strive to position ourselves above the mess and perilous brevity of our existence, to see ourselves as somehow not the barely cobbled-together, watery beings we know we are. And the yearning runs on fear.

In a real way, I think, this fear is connected to the fear of reversion I’ve referred to in my ‘Traitor’ series. We all know we are mud and dirt and slime, disgusting from the point of view of so-called “civilization” where we do everything to mute and disguise that origin. We also all know that our determination to pretend to be substantial, permanent, solid, to make our civilized works permanent and solid, stems from our evanescence, from the paltry nature of what we are and how pitifully brief and shaky is our appearance here. Iris Chang refers to this several times in her book, when she comments again and again on the “thin veneer of civilization” that can vanish so easily and quickly in a genocide. And that is true. And we all know it. And it terrifies us, the knowledge that any of us, all of us, can so easily revert to a state of anarchy, powerlessness, shapelessness. And again, it is precisely that terror which is turned on the victim, turned into rage against the victim who reminds us of our terror. Of the imminence of our reversion to mud and slime and liquefaction.

This, then, is what I think lies at the heart of all this horror and brutality, this exultation in rape and dismemberment and torture and murder in the cruel fashion of which only humans are capable. ‘Don’t remind me of what I am. I hate you for reminding me of what I am. And therefore I will reduce you to the most abject piece of shit and trash imaginable.’ The Nazis did this constantly, routinely to the Jews in concentration camps. And, as Iris Chang demonstrates with chapter and verse, the Japanese in Nanking did this just as routinely. It wasn’t just killing soldiers or civilians who might be dangerous. It was humiliating them even after death. Most were dumped into the Yangtze River, which ran blood for weeks. But the most vivid depiction of what I am referring to occurred in the revolting story of the Japanese dumping the bodies of dead Chinese into pits—the pits which the Chinese had earlier dug in most roads in the vain hope that they could hinder the advance of Japanese tanks. The conquering Japanese responded with the genocidal cruelty which Nanking symbolizes: they filled the pits with Chinese bodies, some still alive, and took pleasure in running over these pits of piled-up bodies now functioning as dirt, with their tanks and trucks. Horror. But more than horror, this cruel inversion of decent burial turned the Chinese bodies into the deepest form of humiliation: ‘You are nothing but roadfill. Roadkill. Inanimate shapeless matter of the most worthless kind.’

Something more than the numbing of civilized behavior in war is needed to explain such horror. Something, I would submit, like what I have referred to above. Something that all of us, however well trained, ignore at our peril.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

NIE Report on Iran

Is it not astonishing to watch the smarm coming out of the White House in response to the new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which reported that Iran is NOT working on a nuclear weapon, and in fact ended its nuclear weapons efforts in 2003? Is it not mind-boggling to see the President at a new conference assuring us that far from contradicting the saber-rattling blather that he has been hyping for months—recently raising the specter of WWIII if Iran were to get the “knowledge” to build a bomb—the NIE report just confirms and reinforces his suspicions of Iran? And further to see, in response to a question about the timing of his WWIII comment, the President smirking (as he always does when he’s lying) and insisting that he didn’t know about this report when he made his remarks, because he only found out this week?

I mean, have they no shame? No discomfort to be caught lying through their teeth, to the point where their whole Iran policy is revealed as yet another fraud? Apparently not. Because in the first place, has just rerun a story dated Nov. 9, 2007 by Inter Press Service that literally doubles the fraud:

“A National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran has been held up for more than a year in an effort to force the intelligence community to remove dissenting judgments on the Iranian nuclear program, and thus make the document more supportive of U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney’s militarily aggressive policy toward Iran….”

In other words, the report that the public just read about yesterday was not only ready to be published A YEAR AGO, but the President knew it and tried to quash it entirely. Failing that, he had it sent back three times to modify it so as to conform with the administration’s attempt to create enough fear about Iran to justify a military strike on its “secret” nuclear-building operations.

And now that the intelligence experts have refused to bow to administration pressure, and have directly (though a year late) contradicted the administration’s propaganda about those “secret” operations, the President and his minions in Congress, without batting an eye, contend that the report actually substantiates their view that Iran was working on nukes before, and will be working on them again.

So, where any rational human being would interpret the NIE report as exposing Cheney and his neocon henchmen as the fools that they are, the report is tortured to resemble new evidence against the alleged nuclear devils in Tehran.

In short, evidence means nothing to the adolescent fascists in the White House. Determined to paint Iran as a rogue nation deserving of a pre-emptive strike, they will reinterpret, undermine and make up their own intelligence to do it. And of course one of the ways they do this is to keep repeating the other durable lie—that President Ahmadinejad of Iran “intends to wipe Israel off the face of the earth.” In regard to which Marjorie Cohn pointed out recently,

“According to University of Michigan professor Juan Cole and Farsi language analysts, Ahmadinejad was quoting Ayatollah Khomeini, who said the “regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time.” Cole said this “does not imply military action or killing anyone at all.” (, Nov. 25, 2007)

Rather, it means that the Iranians predict (and devoutly hope) that the Zionist regime will sooner or later disappear. Anyone familiar with the history of Israel and the Middle East would be hard pressed to disagree. But language, like truth, means nothing to the Bushies. Or rather, it represents just another tool to be tortured and twisted to create the impression of constant crisis, to instill fear in the populace, and to use that fear to justify the loss of liberty at home and “pre-emptive” aggression abroad.

So beware. Even though its own intelligence has confirmed that the so-called nuclear danger from Iran was, and is pure bullshit (as was the similar hype over Iraq’s WMD), the sociopaths in this White House have proven that they not only have no shame, they lack even the minimal conscience needed to be embarrassed, much less dissuaded from their criminal designs.

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, December 3, 2007

Iraq Again

The President is at it again. This morning he once again berated the Democrats in Congress for not giving him the money he has asked for--$200 billion in supplemental funds for the Iraq War. The Democrats have proposed a supplemental of only $50 billion, qualified by language that would start the long process of bringing the troops home, and ending the war. In turn, Republicans and their President try to cow Democrats by accusing them of abandoning American boys in battle.

In such a climate, it is necessary to bring a bit of context to this struggle. And by “context,” I mean to simply remember how this war started, and what its cost has been, both to the United States, and to Iraq.

Consider first an item by today’s Associated Press: “National Debt Grows $1 Million a Minute.” That’s one million a minute, folks, $60 million an hour, $1440 million a day. It means the United States government now owes $9.13 trillion dollars! That’s $30,000 for every American man, woman, and child. And just for comparison, it was $5.7 trillion when Bush took office in 2001, and gave tax breaks to the richest Americans, at the same time as he decided to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. This kind of debt, like yours and mine, doesn’t come free: interest on it came to $430 billion last year alone, the third highest spending item in the national budget. The second item was “Defense” spending, helped, of course, by the huge outlays for Iraq. Only that most of the cost of fighting and dying in Iraq is not even included in the Defense budget—it must be covered by supplementals such as the one Bush is now asking for: $200 billion just to get through the Spring.

Then let’s get back to that Iraqi war. This was not a war against an enemy that had attacked or even threatened the United States, Iraq having had nothing whatever to do with 9/11. This was a war of CHOICE. It was an illegal aggression against a country that not only had done nothing to us; it was a country that the United States had been, for the dozen years prior to its 2003 invasion, attacking. The U.S., that is, had imposed sanctions on Iraq that resulted in the deaths of more than 500,000 children due to the lack of medical supplies. It had virtually destroyed Iraq’s infrastructure—it’s water treatment facilities and the like. It had continuously bombed Iraqi areas it called “no-fly zones.” Such measures had reduced Iraq’s standard of living from where it had been in the 1980s—as the most advanced Arab nation, with a highly-educated, secular population—to a third-world basket case, which, even today, is threatened with a cholera epidemic, due to unclean drinking water.

Then, when UN inspectors failed to find the alleged “weapons of mass destruction” the Bush administration claimed Iraq had hidden, the United States ignored the UN and began its “shock and awe” campaign of bombing a virtually defenseless country. It then raced into that country, overwhelming the minimal resistance offered by the vaunted Republican Guard of Saddam Hussein, and took possession of the country. The President, in full military regalia, trumpeted the great victory: the United States, a nation of 300 million with the most advanced weaponry in the world, had defeated Iraq, a nation of 26 million, with no air force, no navy, virtually no artillery, and an army that had vanished before the U.S. onslaught.

What followed was the destruction of an entire nation, including its priceless heritage of libraries and archeological sites marking the very birth of civilization. In the years since, 70% of Iraqis have become unemployed, somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 million Iraqis have died, countless others have been wounded or irradiated by uranium-tipped weapons, and more than 2 million have fled the country. An additional 2 million have been displaced by the civil war that has raged between Shiite and Sunni Arabs that once lived side by side. And of course, over 4,000 Americans have been killed.

This is the “great cause” that the President now demands be continued. This is the noble fight that he ridicules Congress for refusing to fund. Americans are told that if the vaunted U.S. military cannot “finish” this job—a job they are now allegedly succeeding at—the United States reputation in the world (not to mention the reputation of Bush and his Republicans) will suffer irretrievable damage. The truth, obvious to all but the most obtuse, is that America’s reputation is already in tatters, and precisely because of its illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq. The truth is that no more Iraqi civilians need to be slaughtered. No more American boys need to sacrifice their lives. The illegality does not need to go on. What needs to happen is that Iraq must be allowed to recover free from an occupying army (for that is what American forces are: an occupying army resented by every Iraqi) making that recovery impossible. If the United States needs to invest more of its treasure in this benighted venture, it must invest millions in the business of rebuilding, of compensating a long-suffering people for the damage already done them. Any other expenditure to validate such a criminal adventure would be not only morally bankrupt and fiscally irresponsible, it would be insane.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, November 16, 2007

Traitors to their Own, II

As I pointed out at the end of the blog, “Class Traitors” (May 26, 2007), we are all, always, being trained in contempt for our own. Betrayal of our own. Those who are our masters know they must continually attend to this training. They know their survival depends on a continuous supply of underlings trained in contempt for our own, contempt for those below from whom we derive, and who have become, relative to our ascension, “other.” Americans, especially, are constantly being trained in this contempt, this scorn for all “others”—those in Europe, those in Mexico who “violate” our borders, those in Latin America who denounce our dominance, those in the Middle East who resent our attempt to “liberate” them, the entire third world which demands our aid and then steals what we have taught them including the very factories producing their, and now our, goods.
And of course the reason for training us in contempt is simple: those for whom you have contempt are those whom you can exploit and dominate, those whose exploitation and domination does not prick your conscience because they are, after all, born to that contempt, deserving of that contempt, I mean just look at how they live. Ten to a room. Thirty to a house. Dirt floors. Cardboard roofs. No running water. Filthy and diseased and shameless. Fortunate they are, damned lucky to have us Americans establishing our factories in their countries so they can have jobs, at least. Which is why they implore us to bring our factories. Only that sooner or later, they catch on and then the ingratitude begins to show, their resentment begins to erupt, and they arrogantly begin to think they can do without us. There’s gratitude for you.

It’s like the damn Japanese, the damn Europeans, both decimated by WWII, prostrate without food or water, and we spend our national treasure reviving them, saving them, only to have them what? Beat us at our own game. Out-produce us and undersell us with cars and TVs and record players and how could they not, they paid starvation wages just like the Chinese and the Indians and the Mexicans are doing now, again, once more pilfering our technology and know-how and expertise and management skills until before you know it the wogs are in charge and we’re damn near out of the game.

Except of course we can still kick ass. We can still, from above, shock ‘em and awe ‘em, shake ‘em and bake ‘em these Haggi’s, these ragheads who’ve never seen anything like the tech we bring to bear. So ignorant they can’t even get their electricity to run, their water to flow, their oil wells to work, much less a democratic government to function. What does it matter if one or two or two thousand or two hundred thousand get blown away? They care little about life in any case. Suicide bombers. Rag heads. Who you’d think would appreciate the fact we’ve brought them some civilization. But no, all they want is to blow us to hell. So be it, blow them away first, nobody’s counting….

Yes. We’re all traitors, or aspiring traitors, or traitors in training, there seems no help for it. Except perhaps this: understanding. Understanding that it works, how it works, why it works.

Consider, first, some cases. At the outset of World War II, and in fact, well before Pearl Harbor, the United States government was already planning for its “Orange War” with Japan. Part of those plans involved the anticipated need to build up its navy quickly, much of it having gone to seed in the period following the previous war for civilization, WWI. Documents show that the U.S. Navy intended to compensate for this lack, at least until production could be geared up, by seizing or buying or renting commercial boats and pleasure boats wherever it could and modifying them for war. On the West Coast, many of those boats were to come from Italian American fishermen. Crab boats in San Francisco could be used as patrol boats, while the 80-foot purse seiners in San Francisco, Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Pedro and elsewhere, nearly all owned by Sicilian fishermen, could be used as sub chasers. Around 1940, Naval officers set about making inventories of these boats, and contacting some of the more influential boat owners in the Italian community. Though the latter knew it would be a great hardship for any sardine fisherman to give up his boat, they agreed with the Navy to set the example. They would then do everything they could to convince their countrymen to be patriotic and give up their boats as well.

Thus, though there was some resistance—especially from those fishermen who saw that the United States had not only declared war on their home country of Italy, but that many of their wives and families were already under restriction and would soon be forced to remove themselves from their homes and evacuate to inland areas—the influence of these so-called “prominenti” proved invaluable in persuading other boat owners to let the Navy have their boats. The payoff came when the boats were returned. The first few boats returned—belonging to the same prominenti who led the way—were repaired and refitted as good as, or better than, new. After that, however, most boats were returned their owners in miserable shape, still sporting the scars from guns and cannons and other naval equipment that had been mounted on the fishing vessels. Though they tried to petition for monetary compensation, most of these little boat owners were dismissed out of hand. By this time, of course, the prominenti who had urged them to cooperate with the government were nowhere to be found.

It is always thus. Those who assimilate first, who have the intelligence or skill or canniness to curry favor with power by becoming “models” for their less fortunate brethren, always make off not only with their prizes, but also with a swollen sense of satisfaction at their own self-sufficiency. In managing to learn the new language or the new rules of the economic/social game, they never consider that it is precisely their demonstration of success that dooms their countrymen to opprobrium. “They did it. Why can’t you?” becomes the accusation. And always, inevitably, this turns into:
“I did it, made it big despite the obstacles; why can’t you?”

Not coincidentally, at about the same time Italian immigrants were being persuaded to give up their boats, something similar was taking place in the Japanese American community, only this time with graver results. When pressure began mounting to relocate the entire West Coast Japanese American community—including 70,000 American-born citizens—to remote camps in the desert, many community members wanted to fight this unprecedented and unconstitutional plan. Mike Masaoka, then head of the assimilationist Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), had other ideas. Considering it futile to resist the government, he testified publicly that not only would the JACL cooperate with the government’s planned internment of native-born citizens, it would welcome it on the grounds that Japanese Americans would actually be better off in camps. Thus, in answer to a question from Congressman John Sparkman of Alabama whether “as loyal Americans you are willing to prove your loyalty by cooperating?” Masaoka answered:
“Oh yes, definitely….if the military say ‘Move out,” we will be glad to move, because we recognize that even behind evacuation there is not just national security but also a thought as to our own welfare and security because we may be subject to mob violence and otherwise if we are permitted to remain.” (quoted in Peter Irons, Justice at War, p. 80.)

This capitulation to what became one of the greatest violations of American civil liberties in U.S. history, was therefore facilitated by the willing cooperation of the major Japanese American organization—one that might well have led the resistance.

World War II proved to be fertile ground for this type of betrayal. A lesser-known instance occurred among those who suffered most—the European Jews targeted by Hitler’s extermination program. This betrayal derived from the longtime Zionist policy of currying favor with the major sources of power in the world—the British Empire, the newly powerful Americans, and, as we shall see, the Nazis themselves. It was also informed by Zionist ideas about the need for “sacrifice” in order to establish a Jewish state. Here is what Prof. Ilan Pappe (an Israeli historian) had to say about this in a recent interview:

In 1943 Rabbi Dov Weissmandl of the Jewish Rescue Committee in Slovakia arranged for Nazi officials to stop transports to concentration camps in exchange for $50,000. They in fact stopped them while waiting for the money, which had to come from abroad.

Weissmandl appealed to the Zionist Jewish Agency HQ in Switzerland and was told Zionists “must turn a deaf ear to the pleas and cries emanating from Eastern Europe” in order to establish the state of Israel.

“Remember this: all the allies have suffered many losses, and if we also do not offer human sacrifices, how can we gain the right to sit at the conference table when the territorial boundaries are reshaped? [Israel] Eretz Yisroel will be ours only by paying with blood, but as far as our immediate circle is concerned, ATEM TAJLU. The messenger bearing this letter will supply you with funds for this purpose”.

Weismandl interpreted the letter as follows: “The price of Eretz Yisroel is the blood of the men and women, hoary sages, and babes in arms - but not YOUR [Zionist] blood! Let us not spoil this plan by giving the Axis [i.e. Nazis] powers to save Jewish lives. But for you, [Zionist] comrades, I have enclosed carfare for your escape. What a nightmare! The Zionist agent “diplomat” comes to Czechoslovakia and says “Shed your blood cheerfully, for your blood is cheap. But for your blood, the Land (of Israel) will be ours!” (Min Hametzar, p. 92) by Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandl, ZT L Dean of Nitra Yeshiva).

If you don't think this philosophy actuated the rise of Nazism, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, you are kidding yourself. Nazism was a fraud on the German people, just as Zionism is a fraud on Jews. Both turned good people into cold blooded killers, pawns of the “Prince of Lies”. (22 April 2007, The Canadian.)

These cases make it clear that betrayal indeed arises from within, from those one would least expect to betray their own. To understand this, we must penetrate a little deeper into the syndrome described above. When we do, we notice that we must abandon comforting ideas about betrayal. That is to say, we must notice that whenever we humans aspire to move beyond that from which we have come, and towards that to which we have been lured or pressured or instructed, we are moving on something deeper than mere self-advancement, or self-improvement—though those dynamics certainly are operative. More fundamentally, however, we are moving on an instinct, or what appears to be as deeply imbedded as instinct, to transcend ourselves, transcend our origins, transcend who we are. In his way, Malcolm X saw this fifty years ago, saw that it is not simply that we reject our own, those from whom we derive. It is not just that, because in order to do even that, we are also necessarily rejecting ourselves. We are rejecting who we are. In short, the price for rising above our origins, the unavoidable field on which the diabolical bargain occurs, is the field of identity: We dis-identify with what we are, so we can identify with those we serve, and to whose position we aspire. Here is how Malcolm X put it:
The house Negro, if the master said, “We got a good house here,” the house Negro would say, “Yeah, we got a good house here.” Whenever the master said “we,” he said “we.” That’s how you can tell a house Negro.

In short, it is more than Malcolm’s house negro saying, “Yes, the goodness of this house helps not just you, the master, but trickles down to help me, the slave.” No. More deeply, he says, “The goodness of this house derives from the fact that it is now mine, which is to say that its interests are my interests, and take precedence over, indeed obliterate the interests I once thought were my own.” So when the house negro, in Malcolm X’s rendering, hears a proposal to revolt, to go back to Africa or African ways, he responds with scorn:
“What you mean, separate? From America? This good white man? Where you going to get a better job than you get here?” I mean, this is what you say. “I ain’t left nothing in Africa…”


Now here is where it gets interesting. For we see that far from being simply a surface matter, a question of an individual who simply wants to get ahead, betrayal partakes of the deepest of human impulses. That is to say, betrayal is about betraying others in the effort to find some economic or social or physical advantage, yes, but it is also about something deeper. It is about betraying that which is deepest in us. It is about betraying our deepest, truest selves, the consequences of which cannot ever be fully calculated.

“I ain’t left nothing in Africa.” This sentence could serve as the chapter heading for the entire human race. For it is, according to population geneticists, the continent of Africa from which the human race derives. Mommy Africa. And ever since that fragment of a family or group or tribe made its way out of that continent onto one part or other of Arabia or Gibraltar or Sicily or Greece and then outwards—eastwards and northwards into Europe and Asia and Australia and finally the Americas—the human races of those areas, particularly those human races which made their way into Europe and then America, have been trying to forget, reject, transcend and obliterate those African origins. We northerns are different; we are better; we are smarter, lighter, cleverer, more intelligent, and indeed, of a different race altogether than those darker races to the south. In a word, “I ain’t left nothing in Africa.”

Nor is this the beginning or the end of the move to transcend origins. A little reading in the anthropological literature makes it plain that within Africa, the same movement has long gone on and continues to go on. Most vividly, those Africans who have made the transition from hunting and gathering to cattle raising and agriculture, display the same contempt for those who haven’t—the hunter-gatherers. The most recent account of this I have read occurs in the book, The Old Way: A Story of the First People, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas (Farrar Strauss: 2006). There, Marshall demonstrates that the way of life maintained until almost the present day by the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert is very nearly the simplest that we can imagine: living in small groups, men hunt for specific game animals, while women gather roots and plants and all the other vegetal materials that sustain life. The savannah, barren as it seems to a modern visitor, provides all that the indigenous people need. As for shelter, Bushmen make use of only the most temporary of structures—literally half dome lean-tos made of brush, each one erected in a few minutes, and built anew each time the group moves, which is often. These shelters are used mainly for sleeping, providing the minimal visual obstruction against surprise attack by predatory leopards that is needed. It is clear that until the last few thousand years, all humans, all of our ancestors without exception, lived in much the same way, with variations depending on whether the home ground was savannah or temperate woodland or rainforest. What Marshall makes plain, however, is that today, the Bushmen’s African neighbors, who have taken up the settled life of agriculture in villages and cities, regard them with open contempt. They look upon Bushmen, that is, as primitives, animals, or worse. And why is this so? Because the village dwellers know that only a few years back, they, too, lived in the same way—and might be drawn back into that same primitive life again. Carl Jung referred to this fear of reversion to the Old Way by those, especially Europeans, who have transcended it as “the fear of going native.”

The same syndrome is described by Colin Turnbull in his books about the pygmies of the Congo rainforest. The pygmies, too, live comfortably and peacefully in the forest by hunting and gathering. And they, too, are looked upon with utter contempt and loathing by their now-agricultural neighbors who live in cleared and settled villages. The reason is clearly the same: to those who now farm in settled villages, the pygmies represent the precarious life of muck and mire from which they have “liberated” themselves. No one wants to go back.

The response of the first settlers in the New World to the indigenous Americans they set about replacing partook of this same fear and loathing. Living in the forests of New England, exposed to the elements, half naked, eating whatever they could gather or hunt or scavenge, susceptible to famines if the natural supplies of food ran out due to environmental conditions, the natives were considered not only uncivilized humans but more often not human at all. Subhuman savages. A people with no constraints or restraints on their “animal-like” behavior. And hence, animals that could be displaced and exterminated without a thought, or with no more thought than would pertain to forcing forest animals to flee their one-time territories to make room for their betters.

The only challenge to this attitude arose when, on occasion, some settler child was captured and raised among these subhumans. Then, there would arise a conflict, because often, the attempted rescue of the formerly civilized child would run up against an astonishing roadblock: a pronounced preference by the captive for the life in the forest, the life of the natives. This was a catastrophe in the minds of most English settlers, comparable perhaps to the revulsion they felt when they encountered the occasional French trapper who had taken a squaw wife. Both could only be seen as some sort of pathological reversion to a fallen state, the consequences of which were too awful to contemplate or countenance.

Enough. We get the picture. We humans tend to see ourselves as we see evolution (those of us who see it, that is)—as the story of constant movement upwards: from the primitive state of forest-dwelling primates living on bushes and berries and roots, to the wandering state of pastoralists moving with their herds in a more or less constant round, to the more settled state of basic agriculturalists cultivating grains and other foods that can be stored against hard times, to the glory of cities and settled civilizations redolent of gods and rules and priestly classes who regulate consumption and behavior and war to the beneficial survival of all. (Though it should be noted that the submission of nomadic hunters to settled life in cities was anything but guaranteed or automatic, many of them putting up fierce resistance to such circumscribed [which to them meant imprisoned and dependent] existence.) Anything, therefore, that reminds us of the condition of animals—living in intimate contact with the earth, dependent for survival on the vagaries of soil and plants and weather and the successful reproduction of animals—also reminds us of our origins, and the possibility of reverting to them. It reminds us that we are of the earth, rather than on the earth. And that is the reminder most of us can least tolerate.

Here we come back to Malcolm X’s formulation. Betrayal is about identity. And the identity we are all, always, trying to transcend is the true realization of who and what we are. Because who/what we are is creatures of the earth. We derive from earth and mud and muck, no, we are earth and mud and muck. That is what we are. We are dependent on each element of earth and mud and muck, on the bacteria that make up that earth and mud and muck, that create that earth and mud and muck no less than they make up and create the earth and mud and muck that we are. Our bodies, our cells are, literally, composed of bacteria. As Lewis Thomas once put it, ‘humans are giant taxis for bacteria to get around safely in.’ But we do not, most of us, want to know this. And so, we dress ourselves up, we clean ourselves up, we develop disgust for anything that reminds us of the malodorous stuff which lies beneath our veneer of civilization, and we try desperately, whenever we get the chance, to leave it behind. To betray it.

Thus, what is at play in betrayal is not simply the yearning to procure some advantage over those we betray. What is at play is the attempt, literally, to reject them as reminders of what we always, and forever, are. To reject ourselves as reminders of what we always and forever must be—no matter how elevated our speech patterns, or our dry homes or our aspirations or our pretensions to purity and freedom—creatures of the earth. Of the mud. Of the slimy interaction of billions upon billions of other creatures, prior creatures, creatures of which we are still made, and from whom we derive. And hunters and gatherers, immigrants, Africans, are only the very tip of the iceberg.

Indeed, a recent book by Franz deWaal, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved (Princeton: 2006), takes aim at our most cherished human trait, the one that, above all, is thought to separate us from the rest of nature. That trait is morality. The idea, in brief, is that where animals can contemplate the pain or death of their fellow creatures with indifference, humans, equipped with a deep moral sense, cannot. Humans have empathy for the suffering of others, even those of different families or nationalities or species, and it is this which sets us apart from, gives us dominion over all other life. DeWaal, however, disagrees, and provides us with vivid examples of animal empathy, which is, for him, the fundamental ingredient in morality. Perhaps the most striking concerns the behavior of a female bonobo (a relative of the chimpanzee) named Kuni in a zoo in England. DeWaal (p. 30) describes the incident as follows:

“One day, Kuni captured a starling. Out of fear that she might molest the stunned bird, which appeared undamaged, the keeper urged the ape to let it go...Kuni picked up the starling with one hand and climbed to the highest point of the highest tree where she wrapped her legs around the trunk so that she had both hands free to hold the bird. She then carefully unfolded its wings and spread them wide open, one wing in each hand, before throwing the bird as hard as she could towards the barrier of the enclosure. Unfortunately, it fell short and landed onto the bank of the moat where Kuni guarded it for a long time against a curious juvenile (de Waal, 1007a, p. 156).
What Kuni did would obviously have been inappropriate towards a member of her own species. Having seen birds in flight many times, she seemed to have a notion of what would be good for a bird, thus offering an anthropoid version of the empathic capacity so enduringly described by Adam Smith as “changing places in fancy with the sufferer.”

The point deWaal is making, and which he cements with many more examples, is simple: humans are not unique. Our most precious trait, our moral sense based in empathy for others, is shared by and no doubt derives from our primate ancestors. We are not separate from all other life, from nature. We are in a continuum with nature, we are nature. Therefore, any notion that we have somehow risen above nature, transcended nature, and now stand outside it or above it, stems from simple ignorance. So, too, does any sense that we can separate from, by betrayal, that which gave us birth. We are always, everywhere, indelibly marked by and connected to that from which we derive. And though betrayal seems deeply ingrained in our aspiring natures, that connection must make it just as deeply futile.

To realize this, to realize that betrayal in many of its guises actually masks the fundamental but ultimately futile yearning to be freed from our origins, may be the best we can hope for.

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, November 4, 2007

I Slept Well?

On Thursday November 1, death claimed the pilot who guided his B-29 bomber, the Enola Gay, over Hiroshima to drop the first (and only) atomic bomb on a war-time target. The drop resulted in the instant deaths of over 100,000 human beings, non-military residents of a Japanese city that included men, women, and children. The city itself was totally flattened, indeed vaporized. Thousands more of the humans in the vicinity eventually died of radiation-caused diseases. And yet, this pilot, Paul Tibbets, who named his bomber after his mother, was quoted as testifying:

“I sleep clearly every night.”

How are we to understand this? This man performs an action that directly causes the deaths of at least 100,000 people, and he sleeps well? What of responsibility for one’s actions? What of Christian (or Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist) ethics, responsibility, morality?

The question is one that haunts all of us these days. Any American who sleeps well while his taxes are paying for a war in Iraq that has killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, displaced 4 million more, and, together with 12 years of sanctions enforced before the war, left an entire nation in ruins, has the same problem as Tibbets. Are we or are we not responsible for the effects of our actions? Even though we do not wield the gun or the knife or the bomb, are we answerable for the actions our inaction makes possible? Nor is it just Iraq. American taxpayers fork up $3 billion a year in direct military aid to Israel, and that money goes to occupy and oppress and kill and ethnically cleanse an entire people, the Palestinians, who before WWII lived in the land now called Israel. Do Israelis sleep well? Do we? Did we sleep well when our tax dollars went to destroy a country called Vietnam? How about sleeping well as the cars we drive and the energy we use fills the atmosphere with carbon dioxide that threatens global warming and the accelerated extinction, not only of masses of humans, but of animal species on a mammoth scale. Does this disturb our dreams? Are we responsible for all of this? Part of this? None of this? Can we simply go on as if nothing were the matter and keep telling ourselves, ‘Well, I recycle my newspapers so I’m doing my part. If the earth dies, it’s not my fault?’

It appears we can. Because we are. Right now, today, we are all doing this, thinking in this way. And the question then becomes: what of morality? What of rationality? What of the divine plan? Can we believe in God, any god, if those who carry his or her banner act in such a way as to destroy all life? Apparently. Because it is going on now. And the worst violators seem to be those who noisily claim to be acting in his name.

Paul Tibbets, for instance, knew exactly what he was doing. In a 1975 interview, he is quoted as saying:
“I’m not proud that I killed 80,000 people, but I’m proud that I was able to start with nothing, plan it and have it work as perfectly as it did…You’ve got to take stock and assess the situation at that time. We were at war.... You use anything at your disposal.”

So there it is. The gasoline engine is at our disposal. Plastic and chemicals and pesticides and urban sprawl are at our disposal. Electricity for all our gadgets is at our disposal. Uranium-tipped bullets to defeat the enemy are at our disposal. Useless junk in every imaginable form is at our disposal and we use it and throw it away and it fills our garbage dumps and every corner of our earth and poisons our oceans and kills countless creatures in countless ways, and yet we sleep well at night. And imagine that we will survive because, after all, God is on our side.

Which either means that God is a mindless, self-destructive consumer too, or is a figment of the fevered, guilt-ridden imagination of a very self-serving animal known as homo sapiens—a figment who equips us to commit unimaginable crimes in violation of the laws he allegedly lays down, and then to sleep well at night.

Lawrence DiStasi

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Violence Against Their Own People

The recent violent repression against the Burmese population, including the apparent arrest and jailing—and perhaps murder—of nonviolent Buddhist monks, brings to the fore a dominant paradigm of our time. I mean the increasing inclination of nation-states to employ most of their violence against their own people. And when that is not at issue, the violence of nation-states is most often used against defenseless civilian populations.

There was a time—though one can hardly imagine instances in our lifetimes—when war meant the clash of armies, all elements of whom were equipped with weapons, defensive gear, and the knowledge that they were engaging in violent activity against others like themselves. Though they were clearly insane, conflicts like World War I and the American Civil War illustrate the type. Huge groups of raging men would hurl themselves at each other until one side or the other’s leaders grew tired of dying, and ordered a retreat. Again, though many saw this as organized insanity, at least the conflict was limited, in these pitched battles, to combatants, and a kind of battlefield protocol (it was once called “honor”) pertained.

More recently, however, (and I do not mean to exclude the depradations against civilians that both WWI and the Civil War inflicted), war has become more weighted in favor of massive strikes against civilian populations. As Ken Burns’ recent documentary on WWII made clear, the firebombing of German and Japanese cities by American forces were deliberate attacks on civilians meant to inspire despair in the general population of a kind that would convince enemy leaders that the price for persisting in battle was too high. More recent American (or American-inspired and -supported) attacks on civilian populations in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and twice in Iraq, have the same purpose.

Even these attacks, however, can be rationalized as part of the horror of war, and, more locally, as attacks against a perceived “enemy.” What cannot be so easily justified are the ever more common attacks by military forces against their own populations. The victims of such attacks are not “enemies,” nor foreigners, nor outsiders. They are the citizens of the nation-state mounting the attacks. In Burma’s case, the monks are not only citizens, but the soul of the entire country. And yet, the generals in charge of the Burmese government seemed to have no compunction whatever about ordering their troops to invade the sanctity of monasteries, usually in the middle of the night, and beat and bludgeon some of the monks and spirit thousands of others off to prison for further beatings and god knows what else. The troops also seemed to have no reservations about firing into crowds to break up rallies and intimidate the population into staying off the streets. (It may have been Napoleon Bonaparte who inaugurated this tactic in 1795, when, as his first act for France’s revolutionary leaders, he ordered artillery to fire grapeshot directly into a crowd of royalists in Paris, quickly ending an uprising. He was just as quickly promoted.)

But rather than an exception to the rule, this type of violence against the state’s own population has become commonplace. The military in the aforementioned places—Guatemala and El Salvador, as well as Colombia, Chile and elsewhere—has routinely attacked villagers or dissidents and either tortured or killed them. The ranks of the “disappeared” in Latin American countries in recent years have grown exponentially, while the massive exterminations in Cambodia, China and the Soviet Union are legendary.

It would be comforting if we could point to Burma or Guatemala or Chile or China and say, ‘Well, it’s those barbaric countries where such things happen. Thank God we’re in America.’ Unfortunately, no such comfort pertains. Increasingly in our own country, we are witness to state power being employed against civilian populations. The United States Army, for example, under General Douglas MacArthur was ordered to clear Washington of impoverished soldiers who had served in WWI, and who, in 1932, were demanding that the nation give them the bonus legislated by Congress several years earlier. The government had already paid off debts and bonuses owed to corporations, and the veterans, devastated by the expanding Depression, wanted theirs too. Thousands camped out in Washington, DC to demand this payment. President Herbert Hoover, fearing revolution, ordered the Army to get rid of what became known as the Bonus Army. On July 28, Gen. MacArthur, aided by future “heroes” Dwight Eisenhower and George Patton, led 200 cavalrymen, 400 infantrymen with fixed bayonets, and five tanks against the biggest protesters’ encampments near the Anacostia River. The troops dispersed the veterans and burned the camp to the ground, in the process killing two veterans and wounding many more.

This pattern has continued right down to our time. Anyone who lived in Berkeley during the anti-Vietnam war protests of the 1960s, knows that it was a common sight to see not just policemen, but armed soldiers and barbed wire guarding the streets and controlling demonstrations during those days. Helicopters routinely attacked demonstrations by spraying tear gas at demonstrators on the UC Berkeley campus. In one incident, a soldier fired at a lone man on a rooftop observing a demonstration, killing him. This tactic was repeated at many other campuses, including, most infamously, the Kent State campus in Ohio, where national guardsmen opened fire on demonstrators and killed four students. And in Chicago during the demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, police literally rioted, clubbing peaceful demonstrators without mercy.

More recently, the cooperation between police and the military has grown ever more sophisticated, but the end result is the same. The United States government has proven, time and again, that it will employ whatever force is necessary to break up demonstrations and disperse crowds it deems disruptive or dangerous. It has also employed more covert means—including the infiltration of protest groups to incite the type of violence that will give it the excuse it requires to attack—to keep Americans from freely exercising their democratic right to peacefully assemble and protest. Thus, the current President, despite his clearly illegal actions in the so-called War on Terror, has never faced a real demonstration: all groups are kept well outside the zone where the President appears, and anyone who manages to gain entry is forcefully ejected as soon as he or she is discovered.

The Patriot Act has given the government even more power to act against groups who challenge its decisions. More threatening still, the actions and thoughts that can elicit a government response have become ever more subtle—including simply contributing to groups the government deems suspicious, or even getting an email from someone the government deems suspicious. This comes under the category of aiding and abetting the enemy, and is strictly forbidden. As the essay, “Bigger Monster, Weaker Chains: the Growth of an American Surveillance Society,” by J. Weinstein and B. Steinhart points out: “Under these changes and other authorities asserted by the Bush Administration, U.S. intelligence agents could conduct a secret search of an American citizen’s home, use evidence found there to declare him an “enemy combatant,” and imprison him without trial. The courts would have no chance to review these decisions – indeed, they might never even find out about them.” Putting all this together, the essay concludes:
“The massive defense research capabilities of the United States have always involved the search for ways of outwardly defending our nation. Programs like TIA15 [total information awareness] involve turning those capabilities inward and applying them to the American people…”

That is the real point here: the massive military capabilities of the United States, and many other nation-states, have now been turned inward to be directed against their own people.

The state is, by definition, that entity which arrogates to itself alone the use of violence. Vengeance by an individual is against the law. Only the state can kill, and it can kill sometimes deliberately, as in the death chamber, and sometimes wantonly, as in the mass slaughters in Hiroshima, or Dresden, or Vietnam, or Iraq. Increasingly, we are seeing states kill their own citizens—usually in order to maintain the power of whatever group of scoundrels happens to be in charge. If we add to this the growing power of nation states to kill their own environments as well, to kill every living thing that inhabits the space they claim as theirs, we can only conclude that the murderous nature of nation-states must soon reach the point at which the only object left to slaughter will be itself. More and more I find myself thinking of this as a “consummation devoutly to be wished.”

Lawrence DiStasi

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Great Disobedience

I have been thinking a lot lately about why people obey. More particularly about why people obey bad leaders. Think of them all: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, the Shah of Iran, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Idi Amin, Augusto Pinochet. The list is endless. And in each case it’s one insane fool somehow getting masses of people to do his insane bidding. Nor is it just politicians who manage to amass enough power—usually the power of armies they control—to enforce their decisions. It’s the CEOs of predatory corporations as well: the Waltons of Wal-Mart, the nameless CEOs of Chevron and Halliburton and General Electric and Disney and Microsoft and Boeing and Monsanto. I mean, what is it with people? The information surely gets out there—that the dear leader, as Korea’s Kim Jong Il styles himself, is a paranoid schizophrenic delusional asshole whose policies are killing millions, poisoning millions, amassing offshore fortunes for this psychopath to pass on to his equally psychopathic offspring and cronies after he’s gone. And yet. People obey. They shoulder their rifles, they salute their officers, they go off to war and likely death or maiming without a whimper. Standing tall. Proud to serve the cause. Or less grandly, we obey the traffic signals, pay our taxes that go to enrich scoundrels, support with our dollars the useless products that are destroying people and planet alike, and never stop to think why? Why do we do this? Why do we contribute to our own destruction?

I mean, no ruler rules out of absolute strength. Each one relies on the cooperation and collusion, the support and forebearance, tacit or otherwise, of millions. In China, to take the most extreme example, a few bureaucrats control the movements and lives of more than a billion people. Does it not ever occur to that billion that they could rise up and sweep away those heartless, pompous bureaucrats with one breath? Does it not ever occur to all of us in the United States that it is within our power, written in our founding documents that if those in power become too deceptive, too intoxicated with their own grandiosity, too royal or tyrannical, it is our right, our duty, to overthrow them? Or at least to disobey? To refuse to shoulder that rifle, refuse to kill that innocent family in Iraq, refuse to credit any more slick propaganda about the latest incarnation of evil allegedly threatening our homeland?

Apparently not. Partly, it must be, because disobedience, revolt can be messy. Can cost lives. As we see in Burma right now. And the mess can get even messier when disobedience triumphs, as it did in the French Revolution, when thousands of nobles lost their heads. Terror. The terror is never pretty. Never without loss. Though these days, with the monsters in power, with CEOs raking it all in without concern for starvation or murder or the destruction of the planet, the idea of such a terror begins to seem more and more appealing, for what else can be done with monsters?

But it’s not just the fear of consequences that keeps the masses obeying. It must also be training. Training beginning in childhood that inculcates obedience to those in charge. Those who are in charge must be right, the training seems to say, or they wouldn’t be in charge. And where disobedience can mean loss or injury or even death, it’s prudent to train the children in obedience to the wise and powerful Father.

Still. When the evidence becomes so overwhelming that the Father is a psychopath, that he countenances not only mass murder via Shock and Awe, and mass torture via Guantanamo, and mass exploitation and profit for his oilmen cronies, but is leading the nation to the brink of environmental and economic disaster—is there any way to understand continuing obedience? I mean only recently we have been treated to the spectacle of mothers of soldiers slain in Iraq screaming their support for their leader, screaming their rage at those who question that support, screaming that their sons have died for a noble cause. And all we can say is that surely there is nothing quite so sad as a mother who has lost her son in battle. Unless it be a mother who remains ignorant of the real truth about that loss: that her son’s death, far from being a sacrifice for the freedom we all allegedly enjoy, was really a sacrifice for megalomaniacs who never served, who are capable only of mouthing platitudes and staging photo ops while they enrich themselves and their friends—all those CEOs who are quite willing to sacrifice obedient slobs in uniform in order to protect their precious corporate investments.

And all we can hope is that the great disobedience that is the people’s right and duty is building and will arrive soon—or soon enough, at least, to cripple the current fool playing at leader long enough to prevent the next disaster he is surely, even now, drooling over.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, October 19, 2007

New Orleans: Deja Vu All Over Again

The more we hear about the attempt to "cleanse" New Orleans of its poor black population (while reconstruction and recovery from Hurricane Katrina proceeds rapidly for the white, heavily-touristed areas), the more we realize that history runs in repetitive cycles. For the truth is, Americans have always been suspicious of the exotic denizens of that most fascinating of all American cities. Were it not for its position as indispensable port city at the mouth of the Mississippi River, it probably would have been abandoned to floods and tides long ago. But it is important. And so Hurricane Katrina has been turned, in the rah rah atmosphere post-Katrina, into an "opportunity." And the opportunity, again, is not to rebuild New Orleans better, but to rebuild it cleaner, more like what Americans seem to prefer these days—a theme park without the problem of messy, unsightly poor folks.

Sadly, this is not new. From the time when New Orleans was transformed from an outpost of the French and Spanish empires to an American possession, many Americans have cast a disgusted eye on this outpost of foreignness. I am referring to the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The port of New Orleans, not all of Louisiana, was really the issue for President Thomas Jefferson. New Orleans was what he sent his envoys, James Monroe and Robert Livingston, to France to procure. Stunningly, Napoleon Bonaparte offered the Americans not just the port city, but the whole of the Louisiana Territory. And in history classes, we learn that Jefferson took the deal, paid $15 million, and doubled the size of the nation in one stroke. At 4 cents an acre, the Louisiana Purchase has gone down as one of the greatest real estate bargains in history.

What we are rarely told, however, is that there was great American resistance to the deal. Northerners worried that their influence in the new nation would be diminished by the addition of so large a western and southern territory. They also worried that slavery might be extended into the new territories. But the worry went beyond that. That was because in Article III of the treaty, Napoleon insisted that the inhabitants of New Orleans—the French, the Spanish, the free Blacks and part-Blacks and part Indians—must all become citizens of the United States. To many Americans, this was like giving the keys of their new acquisition to half-civilized people, to "savages and adventurers." New Orleans, to them, was "a place inhabited by a Mixture of Americans, English, Spanish and French, and crowded every year….with two or three thousand boatmen from the back country…" Others found the denizens of New Orleans and the whole West beneath even that. Josiah Quncy, who would become president of Harvard College, predicted that "thick skinned beasts will crowd Congress Hall, Buffaloes from the head of the Missouri and Alligators from the Red River."

In the end, Jefferson prevailed, and the Louisiana Purchase Treaty was ratified. And with it, came New Orleans and all its people. Clearly, however, what has been happening there since, and especially since Katrina, demonstrates that many Americans, in particular our conservative brethren of the heartland, have never quite accepted New Orleans as a place fit to be included in the lily-white, squeaky-clean America of their dreams. It’s too colorful, in every sense of that word, by far.

And so the bleach job goes on.

And most Americans watch it happen, maintaining all the while their dominant cover story: that America is indeed the land of the free and the home of the equally color-blind—except, of course, where property values are concerned.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A Senate Gone Mad

The Senate this week has voted positively, and bi-partisanly on two proposals which, taken together, suggest that a kind of insanity has taken over Congress.

First, it voted to uphold a resolution introduced by Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden, that would divide Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions. There would be a Shiite region, a Sunni region, and a Kurdish region. The measure passed by a whopping 75-23 vote. Thankfully, the resolution is nonbinding. This means it has no force, but the vote is such a capitulation to the ethnic/sectarian rivalry that has consumed Iraq since the United States invasion that it essentially says, ‘Fine, you guys want to fight, we’ll separate you.’ And it essentially means: ‘You are no longer a united nation. You are now three tribes who cannot be trusted to live together.’ Of course, the fact that Sunni and Shia lived side by side, intermingled and intermarried, and generally prided themselves on being simply Iraqis before the United States destroyed their country and created sectarianism, is not mentioned in the resolution.

Be that as it may, our first question should be, "Who benefits?" As far as I can see, the plan would benefit mainly Israel. For from the very beginning, the chief instigator of the American attack on Iraq, and its chief beneficiary, was Israel. This was because Israel feared Iraq more than any other neighbor as a powerful Arab nation. And Israel has made clear over many many years that the one thing it will not abide is a powerful nation, other than itself, in the Middle East. To split Iraq into three separate regions, therefore, fits Israel’s overall design perfectly. Divide and conquer is and always has been its chief strategy. And of course, dividing and conquering is also the classic strategy of every empire, including the current American one.

That Israel cannot abide a powerful neighbor is also behind the second move in this week’s Senatorial clown show—-the move on Wednesday approving the nonbinding resolution to make U.S. policy one that "combats, contains, and rolls back the violent activities and destabilizing influence inside Iraq of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, its foreign facilitators such as Lebanese Hezbollah, and its indigenous Iraqi proxies." The measure was proposed by the reigning war mongers in the Senate, Jon Kyl of Arizona and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. The Senate approved the measure by an equally large 76-22 majority.

And again we must ask, are these people mad? This is precisely the type of resolution that can be interpreted by our current Bomber-in-Chief as the authority he needs to launch the pre-emptive attack on Iran that many have been predicting.

And again, it is Israel which stands to benefit—-at least in the short run. For once again, we have a nation, Iran, which has grown powerful because of the ongoing American fiasco in Iraq, and which now can be characterized as a direct threat to Israel’s existence (an Israel, it should be noted, armed to the teeth with hundreds of nuclear weapons and no inspections because it simply refused to sign the Non-proliferation Treaty). Democrat (at least putatively) Lieberman and Republican Kyl, and increasingly the Bush Administration, not to mention the Israeli government, have been propagandizing about that "growing nuclear threat" for months now. And the accusations resemble nothing so much as the similarly dire warnings about Iraqi nuclear threats to the U.S. and its "allies" (i.e. Israel) before the bloody American invasion in 2003.

The truth of the matter is that no one has yet produced a shred of actionable evidence that Iran is building nuclear weapons, or arming Iraqis, or planning to invade Israel. If anyone had such evidence, it surely would have been produced before now. The whole thing is preposterous. Not to mention dangerous. As Senator Jim Webb of Virginia said on Wednesday in his statement opposing the resolution:

"This proposal … is Dick Cheney’s fondest pipe dream. It’s not a prescription for success. At best, it’s a deliberate attempt to divert attention from a failed diplomatic policy. At worst, it could be read as a back-door method of … gaining congressional validation for action without one hearing or without serious debate."

In other words, another invasion, to divert attention from the first one, could seem reasonable to the madmen in the White House. Now, with the Senate unable to agree on any way forward in Iraq, it apparently seems reasonable to no less than 76 Senators as well. Nevermind that an attack on Iran could ignite a regional holocaust. Nevermind that Iran is a sovereign nation, with a democratically elected president (one more legitimately elected than our own.) Nevermind that Iranian forces have invaded no one, attacked no one, whereas the United States is knee-deep in an illegal invasion and occupation that has killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and destroyed a country. The Senate, including dozens of Democrats, overwhelmingly approved the measure.

A Senate gone mad. How else can one interpret such psychotic dithering while Rome burns?

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, September 17, 2007

Monstrosity II

Though not exactly identical to what I had in mind with "Monstrosity I," the new book by Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine, also evokes the idea of the monstrous. This is especially true when one focuses on the source of the idea—-the shock treatments that were once the darling of the psychology establishment. The idea was simple: electroshocking a patient’s brain could so reconfigure the mental apparatus that whole areas of memory were wiped out. The intent was to regress the patient to a pre-verbal state where he or she might no longer control speech, or sometimes even excretory functions. The confused mental connections thought to be responsible for the mental illness were thereby wiped clean, and a new, better adaptation to the real world could take its place. This, at least, was the theory.

Even left to mental institutions, this was bad enough. The problem, as Klein points out, is that electroshock theory deeply impressed the dean of modern economics, Milton Friedman. Friedman’s economic vision, therefore, integrated the idea of shock treatment, only in this case, applied to whole economic systems. As Klein points out (see "The Shock Doctrine," London Guardian, 9/8/07, reprinted on, in one of his key essays Friedman noted that "only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change." The way to cure the economic system of its insane notions of state control and welfare, therefore, was through shocks, either natural or man-made. Hence, natural disasters like Katrina, wars, terror attacks like 9/11, and so on could so shock a population that it would regress to childlike dependency and be amenable to harsh economic manipulations it would otherwise reject. Though Friedman argued to President Nixon for the shock to be applied to the United States, the President knew that it would lose him elections. So Nixon outsourced the experimental treatment to Chile. Once the democratically-elected president, Salvador Allende, was overthrown, the coup-leader General Pinochet could administer the shock treatment. And he did. State-owned enterprises were privatized, American corporate giants were allowed to buy up the country’s assets, and Pinochet administered more persuasive shock via arrests, torture, and the wholesale murder of his opponents.

In more recent times, Klein argues, the shock treatment has formed the core of the George W. Bush presidency. The attack on the World Trade Center did the initial softening of the population. In its wake Bush was able to impose the type of draconian measures that Americans would have rejected in less terrifying times. More specifically, the unprovoked war on Iraq was to make that long-suffering nation the main demonstration project. ‘Shock and Awe’ terror bombing began the treatment. The looting of the country followed, with American troops simply standing by while a 4,000-year-old civlization was destroyed. This was quite OK for the Bushies: all that history was akin to the noxious delusions that schizophrenics carry in their brains, and which are better off being shocked away. Paul Bremer’s provisional authority then extended the process—-wiping out the entire civil service and military systems via de-Baathification, and ringing in the new free-market utopia with his announcement that Iraq was "open for business" to multinational corporations. The fact that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis would be killed in the process, that thousands of recalcitrants who objected would be subjected to even greater "shock treatment" in places like Abu Ghraib, that an entire national and cultural heritage would be burned and bombed out of existence, seemed not to matter.

Now we can see why, in their recent testimony before Congress, General Petraeus and especially Ambassador Crocker kept repeating the same mantra: this is a difficult and complex undertaking; we are bringing a new nation into being. This seemed, on the surface, just another instance of Bush Aministration hubris and propaganda, meant to blame everything wrong in Iraq on 35 years of Saddam Hussein. With Klein’s insight, however, as well as her further example of the ethnic cleansing going on in New Orleans after the "fortuitous" shock of Hurricane Katrina, we can see that it is much more. These zealots actually believe that they can wipe out an entire people’s way of life and being, and replace it with their beloved free-market (predicated, of course, on the notion that U.S. corporate insiders get special access in picking the new nation’s low-hanging economic fruit.) These boys in white coats actually believe they can remake the entire world if only the world can be sufficiently diverted with pap about democracy and freedom while the shocks are administered.

It is as monstrous an idea as any that economists and politicians have ever conceived—-and that includes the Nazis, the Soviets, the Khmer Rouge, and acknowledged monsters like Idi Amin. Moreso. Because in the past, the aim of monsters like Idi Amin was simply to intimidate those who might resist their control, or plunder. Now, with our modern monsters, the aim is to shock the world (or make use of natural shocks like Katrina) sufficiently to regress it to a drooling state of abject infantilism, and remake it as a globe full of mindless, manipulable consumers celebrating the bread and circuses that enslave them. Sadly, it seems that at least in the United States, the job is already well on its way.

Lawrence DiStasi

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Goodbye Alberto

When Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez resigned recently, he said something that may have endeared him, as usual, to his master—George W. Bush—but should go down in history as perhaps one of the cheapest shots ever taken by a disgraced public official. Trying to persuade us how proud he was to have risen so high, even in the face of his public fall, Gonzalez said something like:

"My worst day as Attorney General was better than my father’s best day."

We were to fill in the blanks. Gonzalez, a Hispanic American, had risen from the lower classes to emerge as trusted counselor and all-around gofer to George W. Bush, first in Texas when Bush was governor, and then in the White House where he served as general counsel to the President, and then as Attorney General.

It is a saga that rings with all the music of the great American success story. Anyone can rise from humble origins, and Gonzalez had been born in a town outside Houston actually called Humble, Texas. His father, whose best day, "Fredo" assured us, never even approached his son’s worst day, had been a construction worker. Somehow he managed to provide Alberto with a good enough life to send him to Harvard Law School (after a stint at the Air Force Academy, which, like his master, he left before incurring any serious service obligations.) From there, it was up up and away for the Hispanic lawyer.

But let’s go back to the comment. 'Even my worst day was better than any day my father ever had.' What are we to think of a man who says that? Does he mean that the work he did—being George W. Bush’s chief ass-kisser and enabler, the author of Bush policies legitimizing torture and the greatest curtailment of American civil liberties since the Civil War—was more noble and worthy than any construction work his father ever did or could do? Is this what he meant? Or that his work at the Department of Justice in politicizing the American system of justice to skew it towards U.S. Attorneys who could corrupt the voting system, was more noble than his father’s work with his hands?

It is actually a far more revealing comment than Alberto could have intended. For what it bares for the world to see are the smarmy morals and Snopes-like allegiances that motivate this man. Far from respecting a hard-working father, Alberto sneers at his entire life as a life without merit. A life whose best day couldn’t even approach the worst day the son ever had. And we must assume that the son meant to include the recent weeks and months of utter humiliation as he was forced to testify before Congress to his utter incompetence, his utter inability to run what is arguably the most crucial department in the entire government, his utter failure to understand that justice in America means more than fixing things so that the boss can spit upon, fart upon, trample upon justice if he so chooses. Because he is the boss. He is the kingpin. He is the President, and he can do no wrong. This is what Alberto Gonzalez means by the glory that attended to even his worst day. The glory that attends to being George W. Bush’s ass-sniffing lapdog.

And all we can say in response to his public slur upon his father’s memory is that the man is a traitor at heart. A traitor to his father. A traitor to his ethnicity. A traitor to his people. A traitor to his class. A traitor who saw, early on, the opportunity that could arise from the willingness to endure any shame, betray any relative, enact any charade to demonstrate undying loyalty to one’s betters. And to enact it right through some of the most shameful public humiliation in recent memory.

Alas, poor Alberto. The fall of a sycophant is always both delicious, and sad. And in your case and your poor father’s, it is doubly delicious, and doubly sad.

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Cosmic Crimes

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about crimes for which there is no parallel, and thereby no adequate punishment. How do you punish someone for genocide? What is the punishment to fit the crime of the Holocaust?

But in truth, the punishment was really only an afterthought. What I’m stewing over is the cosmic nature of our current crimes themselves. I’ll address only three: the crime of governments that refuse to properly address global warming; the crime of George W. Bush in invading a country, Iraq, which had done nothing to the U.S.; and the crime of U.S. agribusiness in not just poisoning the soil, but also in imposing its several other practices which assault the very basis of life.

Let’s look at agribusiness first. Since roughly the end of World War II, chemical companies have promoted industrial-scale farming with horrific consequences for the food supply, and for the topsoil upon which all life depends. Huge machinery that requires special breeds of vegetables (like tomatoes with hard skins and delayed ripening schedules) that can survive the assault of automatic picking machines is only the beginning. Allied with these monsters are the pesticides that have been piled in increasing tonnages onto crops to combat the ever-evolving bugs and molds and fungi that feed upon them (about 400 gallons of gasoline per year per citizen--17% of our national energy use—goes to agriculture, with more than 1/4 of all farming energy going into synthetic fertilizers [see Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, p. 5]) The problem is that these poisons are lethal not just to the bugs, but to us as well. And though the chemical companies and our FDA have assured us that these poisons are benign, the truth is that our rivers, our groundwater, our oceans, and our soil are all becoming more and more lethal to life. The worst part may be the latest chapter in this war. Now, seed companies like Monsanto and DuPont have produced genetically modified varieties of crops whose chief advantage inheres in a gene that makes them "Roundup-ready." Corn, soybeans and canola with the new gene implanted can withstand what would otherwise be lethal doses of the pesticide Roundup. Mostly hybrids, these plants do not reproduce from their own seed. And so dependent upon pesticides have farmers become that most cannot survive without buying new GM seed each year from Monsanto (those who try to use seed from Monsanto crops are sued).

Manipulating life in this way, making seed a patented commodity rather than the basic mechanism of life itself (six companies now control 98% of all seeds), is a cosmic crime. Alarmingly, it is matched in the farm-animal world as well. Farm animals no longer reproduce on their own. Artificial insemination does the job. As Barbara Kingsolver points out in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, the ability to reproduce has been bred out of most farm animals, particularly fowl. So, when she tried to get even her heritage-breed turkey hens to lay eggs, and then sit on them to incubate them, the hens were mystified and had no idea what to do. "Normal" turkeys, of course, never even get the chance to breed; for one thing, they’re so top-heavy from big-breast genes that they can hardly stand up. Kingsolver sums it up this way:

The longer I think about a food industry organized around an animal that cannot reproduce itself without technical assistance, the more I mistrust it. (p. 322)

To my mind, this is putting it mildly. The corporate way of breeding farm animals—the cruelty involved in raising chickens, cattle, and other animals, the arrogance involved in seizing animal reproduction and molding it to the lust for profit—amounts to a cosmic crime. In a real way, this arrogance regarding the most fundamental acts of any form of life, eating and reproducing, leads inevitably to all other cosmic crimes.

The next crime is easily stated. The nation of Iraq had nothing whatever to do with the assault on the Twin Towers on 9/11. No Iraqis were among the hijackers. No link between the hijackers and Iraq has ever been found. And yet, the Bush administration consistently tries to link Iraq with this event in order to justify its war of aggression. Attacking a defenseless nation is an international crime, but it’s not quite cosmic. What makes the fiasco in Iraq cosmic in its criminality are the catastrophic impacts upon the Iraqi people. Even before the U.S. invasion in March 2003, Iraq was a nation reeling from a dozen years of brutal sanctions that even Madelyn Albright, the U.S. Secretary of State under Clinton, admitted had resulted in the deaths of upwards of 500,000 Iraqi children. These child deaths directly followed the embargo on hospital equipment and all other materials that would allow Iraq to repair its infrastructure devastated by American bombing in 1992. Water treatment plants could not be repaired. The result, in a country that prior to 1992 had boasted of the highest standard of living and education levels in all the Middle East, was a reversion to Stone-Age conditions. Then in 2003 the U.S. invaded again. The death toll since then has been estimated at upwards of 600,000 Iraqis, with over 2 million Iraqis fleeing their country and another 2 to 3 million displaced within the country. This in a population of only 26 million. To call this anything but a war crime is pure propaganda. Add to it the devastation that will follow forever from the uranium-tipped munitions our forces have spread throughout that sorry country, not to mention the destruction of a wealth of art and artifacts testifying to the very birth of civilization, and you have a cosmic crime. It should be borne in mind, incidentally, that the United States is the only nation ever to drop a nuclear weapon on civilians, its sanctimonious hectoring of nations like Iran and Iraq for even considering the development of such weapons notwithstanding. U.S. hypocrisy is itself cosmic.

Cosmic crime number three: global warming. It has taken me a long time to view Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Even after all that has been written and said about it, however, its effect is still shattering. While the whole world and each one of us shares responsibility for the carbon released into the atmosphere, the criminality enters only when a nation not only refuses to do anything about it, but works night and day to confuse the public by ridiculing and undermining the scientific evidence. What more needs to be said? The Bush Administration chiefly, but every single member of the U.S. Congress which collectively colluded in refusing to sign the Kyoto Treaty as well, is guilty of a cosmic crime. This is not simply a crime against an individual committed by a criminal looking to feed a drug habit. This is not "mere" murder, or even the murder of 3,000 innocent civilians in the 9/11 attack. This is the murder of an entire planet, of that planet’s life-support system. The data visually attested to by Gore’s film was shocking, infuriating, conclusive. The planet’s ice is melting. The water upon which billions depend is in jeopardy. The climate upon which life itself depends is changing, has changed in clearly measurable ways. To fiddle while the planet burns is a crime. It is the ultimate cosmic crime.

And yet. We tolerate an administration which concerns itself more with the sex habits of teenagers than with the melting of the planet. We tolerate an administration which the record shows has consistently lied about this issue, has consistenly suppressed and distorted the information upon which the public depends to make a decision. We tolerate world leaders who refuse to address the greatest challenge to life humans have ever faced. The cosmic crime is theirs. But, in the end, it is also ours. For we sit in our comfortable living rooms allowing ourselves to be "entertained" by cosmic crap on our flat-screen TVs, our ever more powerful music-and-video-downloading computers, our Ipod-delivered "personal" music, rather than attend to the crisis threatening our very existence as a species.

How else to describe such crimes other than to say they are cosmic, they are terminal, and as such may be the last ones we will ever be allowed to commit.

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, August 19, 2007

What Free Market?

Don’t you just love these Wall Streeters, these high-flying hedgers?

When they’re raking in billions in mortgage skullduggery, and a booming housing market makes them look like geniuses, they praise the system to the skies. Capitalism has proved its superiority. The Free Market is the system nature intended. Which is why Americans must never let socialism in any form sneak into our way of life: neither as socialized medicine, nor as handouts to the poor. Free Market medicine must be allowed to work. Though some may suffer from a "correction" here and there, this is the only medicine that ever has, or ever will produce a cure. It must be swallowed.

But then the housing market goes bad. People start to default on payments. "Subprime" loans are suddenly in the toilet, increasingly joined there by everyone, including the banks themselves. No one, not even the big boys, can get credit.

"Help," they cry. "The government must help. The Fed must help." And of course the government does, pouring billions of new currency into the system. And the Fed goes it one better, cutting interest rates despite its recent warnings about the dangers of inflation. And Wall Street breathes a sigh of relief, singing hosannas in the highest:

"The system works,"they crow. Look how we’re rebounding.

Excuse me? The system works? By bailing out the fools who pushed credit on everything with a pulse able to sign its name? By rewarding those who committed the unpardonable crime in capitalism—taking high-stakes, stupid risks? Isn’t capitalism supposed to punish precisely this kind of failure? Isn’t that what the free market is about—correcting by ruthless pruning every venture that does not turn a profit?

Well yes, but that’s when the mistakes are made by the lower classes. By the poor. By the underprivileged. When the gaffes are made by the ruling classes, however, by the brokers and bankers and CEO’s, well that’s a different story. Then the government is obliged to step in and save the system. Save those who run the system. Save those who game the system, but whose gaming is sanctioned because after all, they are the important ones, the prominent ones, the ones who own the ones who make the laws.

It is to laugh. It is to puke. It is to make one want to blow the house down, and the entire population out of its stupor. The system is rigged, folks. And all the rosy talk about free markets and our capitalist way of life—it’s all designed to keep the rubes running on the treadmill for as long as possible, while the money boys rake in the cash and salt it away in anticipation of what they know (because they’re doing all the stealing) must be the inevitable collapse.

Free market? More like a free-for-all. As long as you’re on the inside with your fingers in the till, that is.

Lawrence DiStasi