Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Antagonistic Pleiotropy

I’ve been thinking about this rather forbidding term ever since I ran across it in a book called Buddha’s Way Through Darwin’s World, by Charles Fisher (2007). Now, in light of the Israeli attack on Gaza for the usual reasons of “security,” the term comes to mean even more.

Antagonistic pleiotropy, or negative pleiotropy, refers to the phenomenon that occurs when a gene which confers an evolutionary advantage in one situation turns out to have negative effects in another. Fisher uses sickle cell anemia as his type case. In Africa, the gene that codes for sickle-shaped blood cells survives because it confers resistance to malaria, which is endemic. In the United States, however, where malaria no longer threatens survival, the gene’s negative quality emerges: it leads to sickle cell anemia among African Americans. Thus we have antagonistc pleiotropy, where a condition that promotes human survival in one circumstance becomes a malignancy in another.

Fisher points to an even more vivid example of this phenomenon in the human taste for sugar. In the hunter-gatherer world where humans evolved, sugars were scarce, so our genetic attraction to them did not constitute a problem, but rather led us to needed carbohydrates and higher rates of survival. This situation pertained throughout most of human history. But when refined sugar became widely available, the human taste for sugar became problematic and even life-threatening. With no natural limit to our desire for sugar, suddenly the massive addition of sugars to all kinds of corporate-produced foods and beverages has in our time contributed to an epidemic of sugar diabetes, overweight children and all the ills attendant upon such conditions. Again, the genetic craving for sugar aids survival, but when it becomes an addiction to soft drinks and artificially enhanced “carbs,” it can turn deadly.

Now we come to the human desire for “security.” We all have it, so one might say it is more or less innate or genetic. We all want to be secure from want, from attack, from untimely or painful or humiliating death, and that desire helps us survive. To be sure, this craving for security surely differs, not just between humans, but among human societies themselves. Some people seem to be natural risk-takers, willing to risk even death to live at a high pitch. Others seem more determined to construct their lives in a way that minimizes risk, minimizes any situation that could prove dangerous. Experience surely has something to do with it, especially where whole cultures are concerned, as does the era in which one lives. As someone who lived through both World War II and the Cold War, it seems to me that today’s Americans—with their exaggerated fear of aging and penchant for life insurance and a “nest egg”—worry more about personal security than ever.

What really sets the concern for security into high gear, however, are external events. Living through the Depression was one such event that never left those who went through its worst days. Saving every item that might one day be useful, and never wasting anything of value, are some of the results. In our time, the attacks of 9/11 have had a similar effect on today’s Americans. The retaliatory attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq (however mistaken), the huge industry that arose with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the willingness of many Americans to forfeit their constitutional rights to allow the government to spy on them and others, can all be attributed to this transformative event.

In the same vein, the experience of the holocaust in Nazi Germany can be seen to have had a similar effect for most Jews. To the extent that they are able, most vowed that “never again” would they be reduced to such depths of vulnerability and humiliation and near-extermination. The flight to the newly-founded state of Israel was one manifestation of that “never again” thinking. The determination to make that state safe from all threats, whether real or imagined, became concretized in a state apparatus that built itself upon a military capability so fearsome that it could never be challenged.

It takes little thought to see that here is where the natural human urge to be secure can take a negative turn, can manifest in antagonistic pleiotropy. That is, circumstances have changed, the human population has changed, human technology has drastically changed. This means that where once the urge to be secure could mean “saving for the rainy day,” today it means being determined to earn so much money that one must be prepared to wipe out all competition, ethics be damned. Where once one simply saw the need to cooperate with one’s neighbors to be secure, today it can easily morph into rejecting all associations with the herd and colluding only with like-minded fellows hiding behind armed guards and gated communities. It also means that where once one prepared to fight off an attacker by arming oneself with a club or a sword or even a gun, today that urge very quickly escalates to devastating weapons and plans for their use that involve not merely defense but mass destruction and even annihilation.

Both Israel and the United States of America have done precisely this. Not content with having the most advanced conventional weapons and the most bellicose policies aimed at their presumptive adversaries, both have amassed nuclear arsenals that can be unleashed, and that are meant to be unleashed on any enemy foolish enough to even consider a confrontation. During the Cold War, this meant that on more than one occasion, the nuclear warheads mounted on intercontinental ballistic missiles in both the United States and its perceived adversary, the Soviet Union, were placed on high alert. Thousands of such missiles could have been launched in minutes if given the proper signal. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, when Russian ICBMs were placed on the island of Cuba, that signal very nearly arrived, and the world came closer to an all-out nuclear conflagration than ever before. And the root of the crisis was the same human desire or demand for security raised to the level of mutually assured destruction.

Perhaps the clearest modern instance of this condition pertains in today’s Middle East. Israel has, with American aid, made itself the 5th most powerful military in the world—this for a nation of about 5 million people. It has threatened war with virtually every Arab nation and fought and won wars with most of its neighbors, maintaining its occupation over the Palestinians it displaced with ever more brutal methods. It has refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), instead using its scientific prowess to amass a nuclear arsenal that insiders have estimated to exceed 200 weapons, mounted on missiles capable of reaching anywhere in its part of the world. It has attacked the installations of neighboring nations such as Iraq and Syria, when it thought they were nearing the ability to build their own nuclear weapons. And most recently, it has several times threatened to attack Iran (a signatory to the NPT), not for having nuclear weapons, but for possibly nearing the point where it might be able to build one. Most ominously of all, its leaders have more than once publicly reiterated their determination to unleash those nuclear weapons if they felt sufficiently threatened.

In short, we are now, all of us, in the realm of antagonistic pleiotropy where security is concerned. What begins as a biological condition that enhances survival—the inborn desire to be secure from want, from danger—has, in the nuclear age, transformed into a mania that threatens not only other persons or nations that appear dangerous to us, but huge swaths of the earth, and perhaps life itself. That is because though no one knows what would happen if thousands of thermonuclear explosions were to go off in a short period of time, the terms “chain reaction” and “nuclear winter” express the grim possibilities.

In the end, whether humans can get control of this fundamental urge depends on belief. If you believe that humans can control their sugar craving, perhaps you will feel confident that the urge to be secure can also be brought within reasonable bounds. If you see nothing but disaster in the proliferation of not just sugars but many other technologies like plastic surgery and genetic enhancement and carbon-based energy, any or all of which threaten to swamp the human ability to control them, then you may not be so sanguine.

In either case, it is time for us all to realize the larger truth, i.e. that the biological equipment nature has given us does not always and forever contribute to our survival. Indeed, what antagonistic pleiotropy tells us is something fundamental: the demand for perfect security is a chimera, an ultimately self-defeating illusion. That is because life is NOT perfection but incessant change; thus perfection would mean stopping the process of change, and that would mean stopping life itself. Though we may yearn for perfection, for perfect security, even coming close to it would be a monstrosity—as the examples we have, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Dresden, and now Gaza, should agonizingly demonstrate.

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, December 29, 2008

Israel's Massacre in Gaza

As I write this, the latest reports from Gaza by the AP say that over 350 Gazans, many of them women and children, have now been killed and over 1400 wounded in the latest Israeli assault on the Palestinians trapped in the tiny strip of land named Gaza. More accurate descriptions label Gaza the largest open-air prison in the world, home to 1.5 million Palestinian refugees, all of whom have become civilian targets in Israel’s relentless war again the Palestinian people and its democratically-elected leaders in Hamas.

Israel, of course, contends that it is only acting in “self-defense,” seeking to end the rocket attacks launched by Hamas militants in Gazan territory. It contends that the people it has killed have been the very terrorists who have been launching the rockets, by implication, soldiers in what has now become an all-out, if one-sided war. But aside from the innocent Gazan civilians who have been slaughtered by bombs and rockets and drones that do not distinguish between active terrorists and unfortunate bystanders, even the so-called “security forces” Israel claims to be killing are in many cases police officers and civil servants who have had the misfortune to be housed or working in government buildings. Even more outrageously, Israel’s Tzipi Livni blames Hamas for not conforming to “the requirements of the international community.” But if there is a consistent, repeat violator of international rules and regulations, it is Israel. It has thumbed its nose at countless UN resolutions, including 242. It has built an illegal apartheid wall in Palestinian territory. More generally, as an occupying power, Israel is required by international law to care for the people under its 60-year occupation. Instead, it has increasingly tightened its stranglehold on the Palestinians trapped in their shrinking territory, destroying every vestige of livelihood that could allow Palestinians to survive, including food and fuel and even basic medicines like insulin. In this sense, as Ali Abunimah of the Electronic Intifada points out, Israel’s latest assault, said to have been launched in response to the “collapse” of the truce that had been in place for 6 months, is different only in degree from the prior “truce,” a word the media never questions:

“It is very simple. Under an Israeli-style truce, Palestinians have the right to remain silent while Israel starves them, kills them and continues to violently colonize their land. Israel has not only banned food and medicine to sustain Palestinian bodies in Gaza but it is also intent on starving minds: due to the blockade, there is not even ink, paper and glue to print textbooks for schoolchildren.
As John Ging, the head of operations of the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA), told The Electronic Intifada in November: ‘there was five months of a ceasefire in the last couple of months, where the people of Gaza did not benefit; they did not have any restoration of a dignified existence. We in fact at the UN, our supplies were also restricted during the period of the ceasefire, to the point where we were left in a very vulnerable and precarious position and with a few days of closure we ran out of food.’”

In other words, Israel has been silently killing Gazans for two years by denying its people the most fundamental necessities of life. Its siege has prevented these people from escaping either by land, by sea, or by air. It has prevailed on a quisling Egyptian government to keep the only crossing enabling the transport of precious supplies into Gaza, the Rafah crossing, mostly closed. Its bombs have now destroyed the underground tunnels which Gazans have dug to allow at least some of these supplies to enter. And now it is bombing a terrorized civilian population, including a five-story women’s dormitory at Islamic University, to send them a message: ‘We are your masters here. You have no recourse, no safety, no life to live unless you willingly place yourselves under our heel.’ And it, seconded by the likes of President Bush, expects Gazans to comply. Complying, of course, ultimately means that sooner rather than later, all Palestinians will agree to leave their own lands so that Zionist Israel can finally complete its long-range plan, an Eretz Israel cleansed of its original inhabitants completely.

What Americans, including the new Obama administration, must decide is whether, and for how long, they can keep sending American treasure, American airplanes, American rockets, American ‘moral’ support to implement such a policy—a policy that is like nothing so much as the one that the Nazis once enforced against their own subject population, the European Jews; a policy which, absent that American aid and support, could not continue for even a single day.

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Defining Moment

Our now legacy-conscious president made what should be his final surprise visit to Iraq this weekend, and lo and behold, left us with what I predict will be the defining moment of his presidency. As he was giving a talk side by side with Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, an Iraqi journalist named Muntazer al-Zaidi threw first one shoe, and then the other at the “leader of the free world.” As he did so, he shouted,

“It is the farewell kiss, you dog.”

Though both shoes missed the U.S. president—he ducked the first, and Maliki deflected the second—the report of the double insult rocketed around the world. For the reporter had not only called Iraq’s self-proclaimed liberator a “dog,” itself an insult, but threw his shoes in a culture where such an act is considered the ultimate insult. Or rather, the soles of shoes are the ultimate insult; after Saddam Hussein’s statue was torn down in Baghdad, some Iraqis slapped its severed head with the soles of their shoes.

President Bush, of course, was quick to dismiss the incident as bizarre and limited, saying “I don’t think you can take one guy throwing shoes and say, this represents a broad movement in Iraq.” But the damage has been done. Bush has taken the reputation of the United States to such abysmal depths that even a common reporter, one from a country we are told should be grateful for the sacrifice of U.S. lives and U.S. treasure, dares to hurl public insults at its most exalted figure.

In short, though one must worry about what is even now being hurled at this amazingly courageous reporter, it is clear that his act stands as THE defining moment of the Bush presidency. It is more emblematic of what this President has wrought than the Mission Accomplished fiasco, where Bush, in full flight regalia, strutted across the deck of an aircraft carrier after landing in a jet, to assure the assembled sailors and the world that the United States had prevailed in Iraq when, in truth, the most vicious part of the battle was just beginning; more memorable than the “heckuva job Brownie” moment, when Bush praised his head of FEMA for performing so well in the New Orleans drowning, even as New Orleans residents by the thousands were begging for help.

Yes, this moment tops them all. It is more delicious than an assassination attempt, for a Bush attacker could be characterized as a fanatic or a madman. It is more satisfying than an impeachment, for right wing zealots could easily attribute that to “partisan politics.” This attack, by contrast, came from an Iraqi, a journalist who could be expected to know the score. An Iraqi who should have been bowing down in gratitude to his, and the world’s ‘savior,’ the world’s ‘liberator,’ the world’s ‘messenger of freedom and democracy.’ And instead, the man threw his shoe, both shoes. Called the President a “dog.” In full view of the entire world. And while the President may have been right when he said al-Zaidi doesn’t represent a movement, what he did not say, and would be determined not to recognize, is the overarching truth of this moment. For here, for all time, is the historical judgment on Bush’s doomed Iraqi venture, the burial ceremony of his entire Middle Eastern policy, indeed of his entire presidency: Iraqi shoes thrown as a farewell kiss for a “dog;” a dog who has attacked a country without cause, on false pretenses, imposing on its millions of people the kind of suffering that not even a dog should have to endure.

Could it be any richer? Any more ironic? Remembering that the torture (called enhanced interrogation) that the Bush Administration sanctioned for its prisoners, featured snarling dogs to exploit the Arab fear they incite. Remembering all the metaphors of America’s imperial footprint, and boots on the ground, and the famous shoes of America’s first Iraqi Proconsul, L. Paul Bremer. Remembering also that instead of being welcomed by the garlands and kisses promised to American “liberators” in the runup to the war, the leader of the world’s most powerful nation can now count on being greeted with a pelting of shoes, or rotten fruit, or god knows what else. All of which poses the humiliating question: can the United States still consider itself the world’s sole superpower, the most admired empire in history? It hardly seems so. Its economy is in a shambles. Its public figures have become clowns. Its foreign policy a disaster. Its reputation a joke.

And it is all symbolized, perfectly, by this defining moment: Two shoes hurled at the most powerful man in the world, the “farewell kiss to a dog.” How strange is the eruption of truth. How satisfying and unpredictable the eruption of poetic justice. And how accurate was the prediction of Gore Vidal, eight years ago upon Bush’s ascension to, or rather theft of, the presidency. “He will leave in disgrace,” said Vidal. Who could have imagined how thorough, how vivid, how global that disgrace would be?

Lawrence DiStasi

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Moral Collapse

The recent news about the attempt of Illinois Governor Blagojevic to sell Barack Obama’s Senate seat inevitably brings to mind other moral failings by public figures in recent years, from Bill Clinton’s Oval Office blowjobs, to the corruption of Republican leaders like Tom DeLay and K-Street cronies of his like Jack Abramoff, to the rampant criminality of dominant members of the Bush Administration in “legalizing” torture, pre-emptively invading Iraq, and trashing the most basic legal constraints such as habeas corpus. These memories in turn immediately invite others: Robert Mugabe clinging to power in Zimbabwe while his people are ravaged by cholera; the generals in Burma jailing monks while floods kill thousands of their subjects; the U.S. president flying over flooded New Orleans while residents call for help from rooftops and receive only displacement and exile; and, of course, Middle East fanatics in commercial airplanes flying them into the Twin Towers to kill as many Americans as they can.

What is happening here? Whatever happened to moral restraint? to adherence to the moral codes that at one time seemed to control not only political figures, but most human beings and their actions? Are we witnessing, that is, not only the collapse of our economy and economies worldwide, but also a general collapse of morals and morality itself?

It often seems that way. Consider the actions of those we traditionally expect to follow basic moral precepts—the preachers and teachers who are supposed to guide us. What we find, instead, are fundamentalist zealots at every level. The events of 9/11 were perpetrated, we are told, by members of Al Qaeda, who apparently invoked the god of Muslims, Allah, as they were crashing their planes into buildings. Three thousand people died as a result of their, and their alleged leader’s perverted religiosity. The same holds for those who perpetrated the recent killings in Mumbai, India; all were allegedly goaded on by yet another Islamic fundamentalist organization out of Pakistan. Then there are the pronouncements of Christian fundamentalists in America. Fundamentalist preacher Pat Robertson not long ago openly called for the assassination of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela; General Jerry Boykin, a born-again Christian who led a mission into Colombia some say was intended to assassinate drug lord Pablo Escobar (who was in fact assassinated), asserted in a 2006 speech that he was confident of victory in the War on Terror because his God, the Christian God, was real, while the god of his Muslim adversary was an “idol.” And when it comes to the main focus of Christian fundamentalism in America—the campaign against a woman’s right to abortion—the rabid nature of the argument leads, and has led, inevitably to zealots who have tried to kill, and in some cases succeeded in killing doctors suspected of performing abortions, all in the name of the “right to life.” The fundamental law of all religions—the prohibition on killing other humans—seems not only not to count, but is actually turned on its head, reversed, in the name of religion.

Nor is it just Christians and Muslims who have violated this basic precept in the name of their faiths. Israelis have been doing the same thing for nearly 70 years in Palestine. And the situation here seems, if anything, even more bizarre. For the moral calculus that seems to pertain in Israel is this: we Jews were subjected to a holocaust in Germany, by a leader who used Christianity to justify our extermination; therefore, that gives us the moral right to do the same to our enemies, the Palestinians. We can subjugate them, wall them into ghettos like the ones we were forced to endure, and slowly strangle them to the point where they will leave, whereupon we will have, finally, Eretz Israel, that greater Israel pledged to us by God in our holy book. And if this means that we must consider Palestinians “roaches” in order to justify our theft of their land, to rationalize our exile or murder of millions of that land’s original inhabitants, so be it. God and the holocaust we have suffered combine to justify and bless our cause.

It takes very little reflection to see that this ethic—or lack of an ethic—is reinforced everywhere in our world. Wall Street bankers serve themselves billions in bonuses as they scheme to create ever more complex and illegal ways to multiply their profits, leaving in their wake the greatest financial collapse since the Great Depression. CEOs of major U.S. corporations do the same, insisting that their obscene compensation plans come before all other considerations. In the process, they think nothing of firing thousands, moving their operations to foreign countries where laborers get a pittance, and devastating communities in the country they profess to love and serve. Major magazines then lionize these “geniuses of industry and finance,” as they have lionized Hollywood stars, who have for years been paid just as obscenely for their celluloid posturing, and star athletes who now follow suit with multi-million dollar contracts for their skill with balls. All the while, society in general rarely questions the right of high-status individuals to be compensated in such outlandish and disproportionate, not to say immoral ways.

The media almost uniformly reinforces all this immorality and amorality with the dramas they present in film and television. We are treated nightly to psychopathic killers who delight in torturing and tormenting women or children, the more helpless the better. TV shows like “Law and Order, Special Victims Unit” and “Criminal Minds” and the spate of Crime Scene Investigation spinoffs vie with each other to portray the most brutal, the most gruesome scenes of violence, taking delight in depicting the dismemberment and violation of human bodies in every way imaginable. Sitcoms take the opposite tack, proudly portraying puerile men and women whose announced intention is to get “laid” as often as possible, and/or to get even when they cannot get laid. Commercials reinforce the general selfishness by featuring lovers contriving ways to cheat their loved ones of an “invaluable” taste treat like chicken mcnuggets or an overstuffed hamburger. The general idea, both in fact and in fiction, seems to be: this is it, folks, the one life we’re all going to have, so get yours while you can, as often as you can; there is no other measure of success. As to morality, it usually enters the equation late, with a contrived triumph of “justice,” but with the true emotional impact having long since been delivered via the gratuitous violence, sexuality or greed.

What we are shown, daily, hourly, in sum, is the triumph of the most narrow conception of self and selfishness. Self-centered pricks rule the world, morality is for chumps, and we would all do well to satisfy ourselves and only, if we have riches to burn, those close to us or those who share our views. All else is hopeless, outdated romanticism. Waiting for a Godot who will never come.

Does this then mean that the traditional morality that is honored more in the breach than in the observance, and that apparently formed the bulwark against barbaric behavior for so long, is in its death throes? Perhaps. Perhaps traditional morality has been so discredited—by psychology and biology, by economics and history and physics and anthropology, by global overpopulation—that paying attention to the ten commandments or any other moral code seems not only passé but foolish. Aside from a few saints, the people with power, the people in the real world, have never adhered to such constraints. Morality has always applied, if it applied at all, only in families, to a lesser degree in neighborhoods, to a lesser degree among our co-religionists, to a still lesser degree within nations, and not at all beyond those bounds. The behavior we so much deplore, in short, actually describes what has been the rule, not the exception, for years, and will, must increasingly dominate human relations in the global, overpopulated, resource-depleted world we are facing.

Unless. Unless there’s an alternative view—one that sees the death throes of traditional morality as an indication of something more. What if the moral collapse we see around us were signaling not a complete curling inwards toward ever greater selfishness and cruelty, but rather a groping outwards, an attempt to find some greater morality more fitting to a global community? In other words, what if we are being prepared, haltingly, against our wills in most cases, for a morality that includes not just those who are our kin, one way or another, but those we have traditionally seen as NOT our kin, or even our kind? What if we are being asked to join not just the greater human family once described in a famous book as “the Family of Man,” the global family of all homo sapiens (and we are being asked to join that family by everything that has happened in recent years, by the floods, the famines, the wars, delivered so graphically to us on television that it is nearly impossible to ignore the suffering all around us) but the family of all beings--the family that includes the animals and even the plants that we now must realize are not foreign to us, not OTHER, but truly us, truly constructed not only of the same basic genetic code but the same star stuff the same chemicals and proteins and elements and electrons and quarks and strings and life-templates that shape and form each and every one of us? That we, in fact, are.

It could be. It could be that our growing revulsion over torture and war and starvation in the remotest corners of the earth is serving to force us in this direction. It could be that our growing realization about global warming is meant to drag us kicking and screaming into the understanding that we cannot survive on our own, we cannot survive in our little families or our little neighborhoods or our little countries or big countries no matter how big or powerful or armed with nuclear weapons. We cannot. Because the catastrophe our narrow, myopic morality has prepared for us will overwhelm all such small aggregations. Will demand that our concern grow ever larger, our compassion extend ever farther, because if it does not, we are all doomed. Our planet is doomed. The lungs of our planet which we have been so busy cutting down—the rain forests—are doomed. As is the air we have been so busy besmirching. As is the soil we have been so busy poisoning. As is the home we have been so busy befouling. As is life itself, the myriad beings we have been so busy distinguishing ourselves from in our ignorance and thereby destroying—doomed.

Moral collapse thus can be seen in at least two ways. We can choose to see it as the necessary precursor to something larger, something greater, some more universal morality which will have for its concern the care for all life, for life itself. Or it can be seen as the precursor to an even more catastrophic collapse, the collapse of functioning human groups, functioning societies, functioning governments, a functioning planet.

The choice is ours.

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, November 17, 2008

On Erasing Culture

I have been thinking about the relationship between war and the elimination of “difference” for a number of years now, especially in light of what happened to Italian American culture when home-front restrictions and internments were imposed on 600,000 Italian immigrants during World War II. I have written elsewhere about how this “shaming” of an entire culture affects cultural retention. A recent reading of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine (2007) has given new breadth and power to these thoughts. In particular, Klein’s description of the plans and machinations of Paul Bremer on behalf of the Bush Administration and its corporate cronies in Iraq makes plain that, far from being random, the attempt to debase the culture of an invaded country, and replace it with an entirely new culture is part of an overall scheme with clear methods in mind, and well-articulated and profitable end states envisioned.

First, it is necessary to understand what Klein posits as the conceptual notions underlying such plans. Briefly, they are the notions advanced by one of the most strangelovian psychologists ever to don a doctorate, Dr. Ewen Cameron of Canada. Cameron, supported for years by a CIA which found great promise in his ideas for their growing programs of torture, was the one who initiated the program he called “de-patterning” as a method of “curing” his mental patients. His idea was that by using electroshock therapy and isolation boxes, he could interrupt a patient’s “time and space image” by upsetting both sensory input (isolation) and memory (electroshock). This was meant to break down an individual so that he could be regressed to an infantile state, and then remade on a better mental model. To accomplish this “rejuvenation,” Cameron would often administer shock treatments as often as twice a day for thirty days—sometimes administering as many as 360 electric shocks to a single patient’s brain. As to the success of such “therapy,” a study by his own institute, the Allen Institute in Canada, found that 75% of his former patients were worse off after treatment than before.

Despite this dismal record, neither the CIA—in designing its own torture program—nor the Bush Administration—in applying it to whole countries—seems to have been discouraged. Rather, they found the idea of de-patterning and re-patterning on a newer and brighter template quite captivating. This is revealed by what Klein describes of the American plan for Iraq. The plan was first to shock the Iraqi people with, naturally, “schock and awe” aerial bombing, follow it with subsequent culture shocks, and then remake the whole country’s economy on a fresh “free-market” model. (This plan, not incidentally, was also used in countries such as Chile, the former Soviet Union, and many others, but nowhere as purely and savagely as in Iraq.) As Klein puts it, “the initial bombardment was designed to erase the canvas on which the model (corporatist) nation could be built.” Indeed, the comparisons to shock therapy and sensory deprivation are explicit: “the bombing was designed to take out the eyes (electricity) and ears (phone system) of Baghdad...the entire city was (thus) shackled and hooded. Next it was stripped” (pp 333-35). The stripping, of course, took the form of allowing 80% of Iraq’s National Museum to be ransacked. This theft of Iraq’s soul (and since Baghdad is considered the mother of Arab culture, of soul of the entire Arab world) was as much a part of the plan as the subsequent pillaging of state property. In this way, not only was Baghdad’s cultural heritage (the oldest in the civilized world) raped, but its public sector, once the finest in the entire Middle East, was also dismantled. Incredibly, Bremer and the Bush administration actually believed that they were bringing something superior to these deprived desert rats. For as Klein points out, in Afghanistan, as well as in Iraq, interrogators used “Pringles” as a way to soothe prisoners, thinking that this American high-tech junk food would amply compensate them for the torture they endured. This was the plan for Iraq as well: “terrorize the entire country, deliberately ruin its infrastructure, do nothing while its culture and history are ransacked, and then make it all ok with an unlimited supply of cheap household appliances and imported junk food” (p. 339). And so, almost immediately after he arrived, Bremer declared that Iraq was “open for business,” and proceeded to institute a series of proclamations to totally privatize Iraq’s 200 state companies, invite American corporate cronies in to share in the bonanza, lower taxes for them to 15%, and of course, put millions of Iraqis out of work. And best of all, foreign investors could take 100% of their Iraqi profits out of the country. In return, Iraqis would get a Pringle-rich economy and culture: Burger Kings, cheap consumer products, American entertainment and values.

We all know by now how well this worked. It led directly to what American officials called the “insurgency.” In truth, the insurgents were the Iraqi people saying “no” to the theft of their country. But here, the lesson is not in the results, but rather in the paradigm. The paradigm, I believe, is the wiping out or erasure of cultures—be it the culture of a nation conquered in war, the culture of a nation with whom the United States wishes to “trade,” or the culture of groups of people the United States wishes to assimilate—in order to soften them for the remodeling that is desired. Examples from U.S. history abound.

The first one that springs to mind is Native American culture. Just last night, a KQED program about the Navajo, “The Long Walk: Tears of the Navajo,” featured unforgettable photos of Indians at the boarding schools they were forced to attend, their hair cut short, their faces grim and chiseled, their bodies clothed not in traditional attire but in tight-fitting military uniforms. Administrators were quoted as saying they had to erase all sign of the Indians’ previous culture, including the languages they were forbidden to utter, in order to remake them as good Americans.

The same was done to African slaves brought to the pre-Civil War South. Families were separated, all signs of their previous culture were extirpated, and all forms of cultural grouping or cultural retention were suppressed in order to avoid any possibility of organized resistance to the gruesome existence the southern economy required of its slaves.

What is not so well accepted is the extent to which this same process applies to ordinary immigrants. This is probably due to the fact that most immigrants, in order to improve their economic or political lot, voluntarily make the wrenching decision to leave their homelands and settle in the United States. But the truth lurks beneath the surface. Those who expect to thrive in the United States quickly learn that retention of the old culture carries with it certain disadvantages—disabilities associated with foreign ways of speaking, foreign ways of viewing the world, foreign customs concerning the debts owed to families or friends or co-villagers. In other words, they learn about culture shock.

It is war, however, and the culture shock it brings, which paints the dynamics of culture abandonment into high relief. In this, the Italian immigrants during WWII are a good type case. On Dec. 8, 1941, those who had not yet obtained full American citizenship were classified by Executive Order 2527 as “enemy aliens.” This meant that their rights were forfeited: they could be rounded up, searched, arrested, and deported with no further authority. They could be restricted as to travel and possessions, as well as excluded from certain areas. In California, this exclusion took place when the Department of Justice set up “prohibited zones” from which all enemy aliens had to evacuate: along the coast, inside San Francisco Bay, and near sensitive installations. And of course, the enclaves called “Little Italies” (the Italian immigrants, up to that point, called them “colonies”), where Italian was spoken, and where Italian culture and mores more or less thrived, were investigated and raided and searched and kept under suspicion. “Don’t Speak the Enemy’s Language” warned a poster, and thousands of families and commercial establishments suppressed their native tongue in response, many of them forever.

The most vivid expression of this cultural suppression came in May of 1942 during the Assembly hearings on UnAmerican Activities in California held in San Francisco by what came to be known as the Tenney Committee. There, an exchange made quite clear what many in government had in mind for these Italian colonies: the erasure of their traditional culture. It came in an exchange between committee-member Kellems and a witness from the Italian community itself, Gilbert Tuoni:

TUONI: As I was saying to you before, gentlemen of this committee, the best thing is to close the papers, close the Italian broadcasting, reorganize or close the Italian organizations, they are poison—this is the time that the Italians should come into the American family…
KELLEMS: It is your opinion—or rather, I should say conviction—that there are a special group of people whose culture and background is so different from ours, and I think we do admit it is radically different—
TUONI: (Interrupting) Yes.
KELLEMS: (Continuing)—and it will only be possible for them to forget that only if they will enter the American way of life—
TUONI: (Interrupting) They will.
KELLEMS: (Continuing)—and I believe they will. Is it not your feeling that instead of persisting generation after generation teaching these things, creating a Little Italy here, that they will only find their own happiness and strength by forgetting…?

Thus did the Tenney Committee put into words what the federal government had already put into action: Italian Americans had to prove their loyalty. The way to do that was to FORGET—forget what they knew, forget who they were. In short, the wartime provided a shock to the Italian community powerful enough to induce them to regress—to forget the culture they had grown up with once and for all—and then replace it with American culture and values. And though for Italian and German and Japanese immigrants, the war with their mother countries provided an exceptionally dramatic occasion for cultural erasure, the same is true, to a lesser and slower degree perhaps, for all immigrants to the United States. Forget what you were; become all you can be, i.e., American.

The question that has always haunted this paradigm is: why? Other than bigots, who benefits, and how, from a cultural makeover? Naomi Klein’s description of the shock doctrine provides the answer: Pringles. Pringles, as used by the U.S. military, symbolizes and essentializes the program. First, when someone retains and remembers and clings to the values of his own culture, he maintains a structure for resistance. Knowing who he is and what he stands for, can strenghten the courage to resist. If he can remain in a group of like-minded people, that resistance will be even more powerful. If, on the other hand, he can be de-patterned, and re-patterned on a new model, and then isolated from comrades, he will be merely an individual, on his own in opposing overpowering force. He will become malleable. He can then be re-educated in the ways and mores and values of the new culture. Pringles. He can be induced, in short, to believe that being a consumer is the key to the highest human values. To be able to buy an endless array of consumer goods and services—TV sets bigger and better than all others, cars that symbolize status, homes and clothes and foods that mimic the highest social strata—is to approach the summit of human happiness, the reason for which humans are born. And those who produce these “goods,” those who reckon the health of a culture by the always accelerating Gross Domestic Product that measures how many more useless needs are created, smile in the background, their profits intact, their share of the GDP growing ever larger.

In sum, as long as the populace has been stripped of all resistance to such a hijacking of the human drive for ultimate good, as long as it can be diverted from any notion of sensory or cultural or mental recovery, as long as it can be convinced that its well-being depends on its continually hyped-up desire for newer and glitzier toys, the profitable game can go on. For those in on the game, the erasure of culture is a negligible price to pay.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Governator Goes Regressive

California’s “grade-B” Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has just announced his solution to the state’s fiscal crisis: a steep increase in the Sales Tax. The Governator, who swept into office in a recall election on the basis of his allegedly superior skill at balancing the state budget, has never been able to balance it at all. In the past, he has resorted to borrowing via huge bond issues whose billions will need to be paid off for decades. Now he has proposed a 1.5% increase in the state sales tax, as well as upwards of $2 billion in cuts to the education budget. This hews to his conservative bias: when the state needs a bailout, go regressive, making the poor and middle classes pay.

Here is how that works. In 1913, the United States finally agreed that the Gilded Age had to come to an end. The conspicuous wealth of titans like Rockefeller, Morgan, and Carnegie, living in their munificent palaces, contrasted too visibly with the lives of the poor barely able to eke out a living in city slums. It also made a mockery of the nation’s creed about “equality.” The 16th Amendment, therefore, legalized a tax on individual income. The tax rate was modest, with the top bracket paying a rate of only 7% of their income. Then, in 1917 during WWI, the rate for the top earners rose to 67%. Income tax had thus become notably “progressive,” the idea being that those who earned the most, and therefore derived the most from government services, should also contribute the most. This was seen as the only fair way to tax. Of course, the wealthy never fully accepted this, and by 1929 they had lobbied successfully enough with Republican administrations to get the top tax rate down to 24%. Then the economic roof caved in. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to mitigate the vast inequality that had set in before the Depression, then raised the top tax rate to 63% in 1933. With the coming of the Second World War, the need for government expenditures for arms and men led to an even higher top rate of 94% by 1944. The top rate remained high throughout the next decades, lowering some to 70% in the 60s.

Then came the Reagan revolution, with its free-market ideology and its theory of “trickle-down” economics, which said that when the rich do well, the benefits trickle down to the rest of us. Accordingly, Reagan lowered the top rate to 50% and then to 38.5%, and George H.W. Bush lowered that to 31% in 1992. His son, George W. kept it at about the same level, 35% today. The result has been the greatest transfer of wealth from the poor and middle classes to the rich in our history.

The point of all this, here, is that even with the radically unequal policies of the most die-hard neoconservatives in the Reagan-Bush administrations, the policy, if not the willingness, has remained firm that the wealthiest Americans should pay a progressively higher portion of their incomes in taxes than the poor and middle classes. The point is also that while income taxes, since their inception, have been graduated, or progressive—i.e. those with the highest income pay higher rates—sales taxes are REGRESSIVE. That is, every single person who buys a pencil or a book or a car or a TV set or shoes must pay the same percentage as a tax. The same tax rate. This, of course, means that when a wealthy person like the CEO of Google, with a personal fortune in the billions, pays a sales tax, its effect on his income is negligible. Like an elephant bitten by a mosquito, he hardly feels it. A middle class or poor person, however, feels the sting of the sales tax bite far more keenly. If he must pay an extra $8 for each hundred dollars he spends, and now an extra $1.50 on top of that, that $1.50 is a much higher percentage of his disposable income than it is for the wealthy person, who may barely notice an outlay under $100 or $1000 or even $100,000. In other words, for the rich, sales tax is barely an issue, while for the poor, it can make the difference between purchasing a needed item and going without.

It is for this reason that the sales tax is always the refuge of scoundrels like Governor Schwarzenegger. He knows he can get the rich to agree to it. He also knows that they would balk at any suggestion of an increase in their income tax, or, god forbid, in their property taxes. For in those areas, they would pay noticeably more than the poor. So where at one time, a popular mantra said “soak the rich,” in our time it has become “soak the poor.” And that is exactly what the Governator is proposing. For not only is he proposing an increase of 1.5% in the regressive sales tax (many areas will now have to pay over 10% in sales tax!), he is simultaneously proposing a reduction in expenditures for the public schools. And this is also regressive, and a key indicator of what conservative and Republican party policies have come to rely on. For the wealthy, who are the core constituency of Republicans, the public schools are already a matter of indifference, indeed, a bothersome drain on their finances. Most send their children to private schools in any case. Therefore, to let the public schools and those who rely on them wither and die suits them just fine. But there’s more. As Naomi Klein points out in her Shock Doctrine, the wealthy have now decided that they can privatize just about everything, including security services for their gated communities and, indeed, whole townships where they can live walled off from the nasty realities of the riff-raff who inhabit cities. With everything privatized, including companies to help them get away in case of natural disasters like hurricanes (which do not respect the gates that keep out the poor), they can live truly virtual, sanitized lives.

This withering away or privatizing of government services has been a key element in the conservative program of the last forty years. The latest proposal by California’s Governor fits right in with this program. It only remains to be seen if the Democrats, who control the majority in the California legislature, cave in once again to this latest heist, this blatant attempt to make the poor bear the burden once again, or if they wake up and say No. No way. No how. There is either going to be fairness, or there is going to be resistance, non-cooperation, and whatever else it takes to right the balance of power.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Coming of Obama

What a night. The pundits have all said it ad nauseam, but it’s worth repeating: this was an historic election victory, one putting, against all odds, a Black man for the first time into our Whitest of Houses. What follows are simply some observations and feelings garnered from watching the returns starting at 4 PM Pacific Time and on to the late news after Obama’s victory speech to a crowd of more than 500,000 in Chicago’s Grant Park.

Images: Jesse Jackson at Grant Park, tears rolling down his face, his hand to his mouth trying to control his emotions—no doubt a mix of absolute joy and disbelief and perhaps regret that this Black man had done it, done what he himself could not do in his try for the presidency in the 80s. Not far from him, Oprah Winfrey, also in tears at the sight of a man she had championed in his moment of triumph. And throughout the crowd there, and at dozens of other places throughout the country—Times Square and Harlem in New York, Oakland in California, and outside the White House itself—people of all colors shouting and jumping and pumping and weeping at the breadth and depth and sheer exhilaration of the victory of this man and this movement which had inspired so many to do so much to bring home the prize. And the relief: of being at last, free at last, from second-class citizenship to be sure, but also free from the frustration and criminality of a President who had, for this election season, become a pariah, a Bush animal skulking in back rooms and back alleys and literally afraid to show his face to an electorate and members of his own party that now found him so toxic it must have told him, bellowed at him, “Stay away. The shoe is now on the other foot. Where you have slandered and ostracized millions who disagreed with your wars, now you are the leper no one can even bear to be seen with.”

Maya Angelou. Interviewed on one of the major channels, the poet and Nobelist, after expressing her real emotion at the pride for her people in this, said something like: ‘At last, the American people have shown their willingness to elect someone with intelligence.’

Donna Brazile, not long ago Al Gore’s chief strategist and acting as a commentator for one of the networks. And she, more than once, mentioned this wonderful irony: It had been African Americans who built the steps to the White House; and now, an African American was going to actually reside in the White House.

John Lewis, the representative from Georgia, describing the scene inside the Ebenezer Baptist Church where Martin Luther King had begun his civil rights movement—a movement that Lewis himself had played a major part in—now filled with laughing, cheering, joyous, weeping people unable to believe that after all that had happened to them and their leaders, one was now the President-elect of the United States. And at about the same time, Andrew Young, another of King’s lieutenants in the civil rights struggle, near tears describing all that he and King and millions of others had been through to get the Voting Rights Act passed under Lyndon Johnson, and now, less than 50 years later, seeing all that work and struggle coming to fruition in this amazing election.

And all these references came rushing to the fore at the moment the President-elect took the stage in Chicago’s Grant Park, and one realized that here he was, out in the open, with bullet-proof panels of glass to each side, but with the stage open to the front where he spoke; and a knifeblade of fear raced through with the thought that this was still America, and that it was still possible that some crazy racist might try to take a shot at yet another Black man. Because after all, it had only been less than 50 years since the first of those horror scenarios erupted in Dallas, ending the presidency of another reviled young president, John F. Kennedy. And it had been even fewer years since Martin Luther King, on the cusp of becoming the real leader of the anti-war movement against the war in Vietnam, had been shot on a balcony in Memphis. And fewer than that when yet another Kennedy, Robert, had been poised to take the Democratic nomination for president to succeed Lyndon Johnson, and he, too, was shot and killed in the kitchen of a hotel in Los Angeles. And at about the same time, Malcolm X, yet another brilliant black leader beginning to stir masses of people with an even stronger message than King’s, also assassinated on the stage of a ballroom in New York’s Harlem. All these killings. All these wasted lives, radical progressive lives, cut short before they could come to fruition. And here, in Chicago’s Grant Park, was another life, a mythic Black life on an almost miraculous rise to power from near-obscurity, a political life coming to fruition on this near-miraculous election evening in the 21st Century, and the blood pumped fear that the mad, reactionary forces that seem endemic to America could do it again.

Perhaps that was why Obama’s speech seemed subdued. There were no pumping of fists in victory, no shouts of joy that “we did it” or “I did it when no one thought I could,” no hint even of gloating that many who thought it improbable that he could not only beat the Clinton machine, but also the residual resistance in this land to a black man getting too uppity, were wrong. Nothing of the sort. It was somber, that speech. As if mindful not only of the terrible road ahead, of the dangerous rocks and shoals in the way of any president being able to rescue the broken economy, the broken image of America in the world, of a military broken and bogged down by two wars, of a system that has grown rich and fat on cruelty and chicanery and outright theft and massive indifference to the suffering of “others,” not only that: but mindful as well of the risks that he, a Black man, took exposing himself here and continuously on like stages for the next four or eight years to the still festering resentment of those who would like nothing so much as to see him get his “comeuppance.” And he must have been mindful of it, for the networks told us all that though the Obama victory was sweeping, it had hardly dented the solid South. It was there that McCain racked up his only string of victories of the night. In Alabama and Mississippi and Arkansas and Tennessee and Louisiana and South Carolina and Texas and Kentucky and Oklahoma and once-bleeding Kansas, the polls showed conclusively that the white vote went for the Republican candidate by margins of 8 and 9 and 10 to 1. This was the core of the “southern strategy” evolved by Richard Nixon in 1972. Take advantage of that white resentment, the resentment of still unreconstructed southerners outraged at the rights being “given” to blacks, outraged at the northerners who came south to help get them those rights in the 60s, outraged at the “liberals” from New York who had presumed to enter their land and instruct them about rights and equality and about who had the right to sit where and eat and drink what. And vote. And that resentment, harnessed by Nixon and his followers in the Republican Party ever since, gave the minority party just the edge they needed to win four of the last six elections. And Obama knew it. And must have been mindful of it as he gave that subdued speech, emphasizing not victory but unity, not a new deal or any deal at all, but mostly coming together. It was, on some level perhaps, a plea, the same he has been making all along. We intend no major upheaval, no revolution, no attack on values. We mean only to implement a fair way to get the change America needs to get back on track. Whether it worked or not, whether it impressed that still-solid South, remains to be seen. But in Chicago, on this night of transcendent victory over the forces of unreason, that was the tone the winner struck.

And it capped what can only be called a remarkable night; a night and a campaign in which race came to the fore, but in such a way, and in such circumstances, that a huge majority of the country decided that perhaps it was time. Perhaps the time had come to put this most contentious of American conflicts behind us, at least for the moment, and let the more qualified candidate, the clearly more intelligent and compassionate and informed and humane candidate take the helm of a ship of state which eight years of greed and ignorance and criminal hubris have put on the rocks. And though it is clear that the coming of Obama is not the second coming that many hope it is, not by a long shot, it surely is a cause for relief and even joy that at long last, one long national nightmare is over, and a time of renewal, of renewed faith in community and service and the fine art of governance in its best sense may be at hand.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, October 17, 2008

Shock Doc

I’ve been reading Naomi Klein’s truly shocking book, THE SHOCK DOCTRINE. Everyone should read it without delay. For not only does it tell a riveting tale about an overarching plan hatched by the right wing in this country for the last 40 years or so, but it helps make sense of the economic turmoil now facing this nation and the world. It also points out that while the Left has focused its attention on the peril it has seen in political violence and war, the Right has focused on “free market” economics and the real control and profits it provides to those in power. Lastly, it tells us how the 9/11 attacks have been used by the Right to “shock” us all into compliance (see for engineering analyses of the tower collapses), and indeed, what that compliance was really about.

To put it briefly, the right wing objective for more than 40 years has been to foist a fundamentalist version of capitalism—Milton Friedman’s purist version of “free market” capitalism—on the world. This is the system espoused by Friedman and his “Chicago boys” at the University of Chicago. It is a system that argues that all government interference in the economy is evil, especially the social programs (social security, public housing, government regulations on banks, government-run building programs) that Franklin Roosevelt instituted to end the Great Depression, and that many third world governments instituted to ameliorate the misery of their impoverished masses. Rather, the Chicago plan urges the privatization of all nationalized industries (especially oil, but also water, power, and so on), the elimination of all social programs designed to help the poor, and the opening of every country to “free trade.” Of course, when such purifying “surgery” is administered to a country rapidly, the pain and misery of the population increases dramatically. Therefore, Friedman argued, a shock is needed to instill fear in the people, and force them and the government to accept the harsh medicine, often called “structural adjustment” when implemented by the IMF and the World Bank. Klein quotes Milton Friedman’s statement in 1982 about the necessity of crisis or shock to implement such ideas:

“Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

Klein’s book then leads us through the countries to whom this “free market” medicine has been applied in recent years: Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Bolivia, as well as China, Russia, South Africa, and more recently the United States itself. In almost every case, the medicine is initially rejected as too harsh—rejected, that is, until a shock either occurs from the outside, or is initiated by the government. In every case, as well, the necessity for either a dictator or some form of police state is required to force people to accept the pain. The preferred method, and according to Klein, the virtual twin of such programs, is torture. In Chile, for example, the coup which killed the democratically-elected president, Salvador Allende, and installed as dictator Augusto Pinochet, was the necessary precursor to the transition to free market capitalism. The road to this coup, however, was paved in prior years by a crew of Chileans studying with Friedman at the University of Chicago (the Chicago Boys), a crew which returned to await the chance to implement their policies. The road was also paved by the CIA in helping to overturn the elected government, as well as in the training it supplied in the best methods of counter-insurgency and torture. Once Pinochet seized power, he immediately began to “disappear” people—either dropping them from planes into the ocean or depositing them in torture chambers. In either case, most were never heard from again. And the targets were not only political leaders on the left, but also union leaders of every kind (destroying unions has been a key element of the “free market” program: think Reagan and the firing of 14,000 air traffic controllers). Such killings were not kept secret: the public demonstrations of repression were necessary to send the message that anyone who opposed the new regime did so under threat of death. Thousands left the country, while thousands more—including some of the most prominent figures in the nation like the composer/singer Victor Jara—were eliminated. In sum, Chile endured three complementary forms of shock: the shock of the military coup; the capitalist shock treatment to the economy; and the shock of the CIA-codified torture chamber meant to destroy the left-leaning culture itself. The result was then referred to, especially in the United States, as the Chilean Economic Miracle.

Of course, what the promoters of this “miracle” never mention is that in fact, the Chicago-inspired shock therapy actually resulted in economic disaster: Chile’s economy crashed in 1982, its debt exploded, it faced hyperinflation, and its unemployment reached 30%, ten times higher than under Allende. Neither do they note that in response, Pinochet was forced to emulate the leader he had killed, and nationalize many of the companies in trouble (he never had to re-nationalize Chile’s biggest industry, copper, because he had never de-nationalized it in the first place.) And even with the economic growth that followed, more than 45% of the population fell below the poverty line, while the richest 10% of Chileans saw their incomes rise by almost 100%. In other words, the free-market “miracle” did what it has done elsewhere, including the United States: it transferred enormous wealth from the poor and middle classes to the very rich (Joseph Giannone of Reuters wrote on Sept. 4, 2008, that “the top 1 percent of all households owned 35% of the world’s wealth last year. Meanwhile, the top 0.001 percent, ultra-rich households holding at least $5 million in assets, commanded $21 trillion—1/5 of the world’s wealth.”)

This really gets to an underlying thesis of Klein’s book. In each country, the violence against the populace becomes the focus of those opposing the dictator or the dictatorial government. However, the violence is never the goal, but only the means. Klein quotes Claudia Acuna, an Argentine journalist, on the government that “disappeared” so many thousands: “Their human rights violations were so outrageous, so incredible, that stopping them of course became the priority. But while we were able to destroy the secret torture centers, what we couldn’t destroy was the economic program…” The truth pointed out by Klein is that far more lives were stolen by “planned misery” than by bullets:

“…what happened in the Southern Cone of Latin America in the seventies is that it was treated as a murder scene when it was, in fact, the site of an extraordinarily violent armed robbery.”

In other words, torture is not meant to extract information, as is commonly stated, but rather is a “means of terrorizing and controlling populations.” It is a means to seize from millions of people what they absolutely require to live with minimal dignity, and would never give up willingly. That this is so can be seen in South Africa. There, the apartheid government “gave” political freedom to Nelson Mandela and the black majority. But while Mandela’s government, the ANC, was focusing on political matters so it could redistribute land and wealth, the white power structure was ensuring that economic power remained with them: the ANC was saddled with the enormous debt of the rulers who had oppressed it, and with paying the pensions of the very officials that had maintained the apartheid system. Further, it became crystal clear that any attempt to renege on those debts or nationalize industries such as mining would cause international investors to withdraw from South Africa and plunge the country into depression. The ANC was, and is trapped, and the majority of South Africans are worse off than ever.

Many readers would find all this information about “them” interesting, if not compelling. What Klein points out, however, is that the “them” is now “us.” With underdeveloped nations increasingly closing their doors to U.S. privatization schemes, U.S. conservatives saw that the profits of privatization in the new century would have to come from within. Consider the announced plans of our recently- departed Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. This corporate CEO, with a reputed fortune of $250 million, cared little about how best to protect the nation; rather, his primary interest was in reforming the Pentagon bureaucracy—but NOT to save money or increase efficiency. It was to privatize the biggest agency of the United States government. The military, said Rumsfeld, should reduce its focus to warfighting alone…whereas “in all other cases, we should seek (private) suppliers who can provide these non-core activities…” Such suppliers could do everything from cutting DOD checks to running its warehouses to picking up its garbage to providing housing for soldiers to providing computer systems. And as Jeremy Scahill points out in Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, the drive to privatize the military and outsource its traditional functions did not stop with providing clean laundry and Burger Kings at army bases; it was extended to include protection for military leaders and visiting dignitaries, and even to implementing torture (always termed ‘information gathering’) in places like Abu Ghraib.

Thus, Rumsfeld and his protégé Cheney became the point men not so much in downsizing the United States government that they largely ran for the first 6 years of the Bush administration, but rather in creating a corporate bonanza for their corporate friends and cronies such as Cheney’s Halliburton and Rumsfeld’s Gilead Sciences (maker of Tamiflu, the preferred drug for avian flu, which Rummie expected, when the next flu epidemic hit, to turn into a cash cow of unprecedented proportions). Privatizing and outsourcing were the key policies, and the Gold Dust Twins were already masters of these policies by the time they got to the Bush administration. Under Cheney’s 5-year reign in the 1990s, for example, Halliburton’s take from the U.S. Treasury ballooned by almost 100%---from $1.2 billion to $2.3 billion—while its federal loans and guarantees “increased fifteenfold.” God only knows what Halliburton, now super-enriched by its contracts in Iraq, has been raking in since then.

There is far more detail in Klein’s book, but the essence is this: The real agenda of the Right since at least the Reagan administration has been not repression and war so much, but an increasing economic stranglehold over the world and its resources. War, violence, spying, torture are only the necessary means to this end. And the corollary truth—which stems from the guru, Milton Friedman himself—is that only a crisis, only deeply disorienting shocks to a national body, can make a population accept the kind of economic pain that goes along with such theft. Everyone now knows what those shocks have been in the last 8 years: the attacks of 9/11, the so-called war on terror, the drowning of New Orleans, and now, the financial meltdown. And it is sobering if not frightening to realize that the most recent shock—the financial one—has done its job perfectly. The United States Congress, even in the face of massive outrage from its constituents, finally succumbed to the shock therapy, and agreed to the massive bailouts for the very banks and CEOs whose policies and thefts were responsible for the collapse in the first place.

Read Naomi Klein’s book. You may not be glad you did, but you’ll certainly be better equipped to comprehend the public fleecing you’ve been enduring for years.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Bipartisanship: How Do You Spell It, With a P or a T?

I have just watched the most blatant piece of political fraud I have ever seen: the September 24 speech to the nation of George W. Bush explaining the current financial crisis. First the President pretended to explain the origins of the crisis, making sure, of course, to characterize everything as having descended from the outside, that the crisis just somehow “happened.” There was all this money that came into the system from abroad (it must have been them “furriners” again), he explained. Then somehow with all this money, there was more money for loans, and the loans were given to irresponsible people who shouldn’t have been given them. And with no real oversight being employed to keep risks within bounds, somehow the nasty housing market somehow began to fall, and all these securities somehow lost value.

And that, boys and girls, is how we got into this terrible crisis.

Notice. No one was responsible. Certainly not the Bush administration, nor Alan Greenspan, nor the Republican Party, with their historic ties to Wall Street (the Bush family fortune, not incidentally, derived mostly from Wall Street bankers who engaged in some pretty sordid deals with Nazi Germany); and most decidedly not former Goldman Sachs CEO Henry Paulson, our current Secretary of the Treasury, who is authoring all these bailouts for his cronies. And of course, as my son recently pointed out to me, it certainly could not have been John McCain’s crony and chief economic adviser, Phil Gramm, who as head of the Senate Banking Committee, led the enactment of the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act to disable the depression-era Glass Steigal Act (passed to curb just the kind of excesses that we have today and which essentially had compartmentalized financial institutions, separating banking, insurance and brokerage activities, so that the kind of chicanery that led to the current meltdown could not have taken place). Nor could it have been Senator McCain himself, who has been the chief Congressional voice of the last 20 years arguing for more and more deregulation—deregulation which, like Gramm-Leach-Bliley, bears heavy responsibility for the Wall St. excesses that caused the crisis.

No. The President simply made it sound as if it all just happened. It was a kind of 9/11 folks, a bolt out of the blue. Or more appropriately, a kind of Katrina: A natural disaster of finance. And we all know how irresponsible Mother Nature can be.

In response to this wicked disaster, the great bipartisan Republican party and its leaders—Bush and now McCain—call for the political establishment to put aside its traditional antagonisms, get together and hammer out a solution “for the good of the country.” And John McCain, to indicate his TOTAL lack of political self-interest and partisanship, announces on major networks that he is suspending his campaigning and heading to Washington to lead the bipartisan effort to pass the administration’s plan. Indeed, so great was the crisis, he intoned earlier in the day, that he wanted to call off the first, and highly anticipated debate with Barack Obama, about, guess what? domestic affairs.

Now isn’t this interesting. Suddenly, with his campaign in deep doo doo because of the financial crisis, to solve which the American people rightly judge he hasn’t a clue, McCain asks for suspension of that campaign, suspension of the debate wherein he would be totally outclassed by his opponent, and for a joining of forces to “save the country.” Nevermind that many economists and many members of his own party have raised serious doubts about whether the Bush-Paulson $700 billion bailout plan a) is even necessary or b) would even solve the underlying problem.

Ah no. This is a crisis. The sky is falling, and the American people, if they want to avoid an even greater shock (read Naomi Klein on the “Shock Doctrine”) must come together. Bipartisanship must save the day. We must all do whatever it takes to save the economy.

But wait. These are Republicans preaching this sermon; Republicans who fight like the rabid, absolutely uncompromising dogs they are when they have the upper hand in an issue—such as the crisis over 9/11 and defending the country—but who now, seeing themselves about to be buried by the greatest crisis since the Depression, are suddenly all about bipartisanship? Have you noticed that? Where is their vaunted bipartisanship when it comes to Global Warming? Where is their precious bipartisanship when it comes to child welfare, or people losing their homes, or healthcare?

It is to laugh. It is to realize that this is not real bipartisanshiP, with a “p”. This is bipartisanshiT, with a “t”. And what that means is that, in reality, bipartisanshit is the essence of this kind of bipartisanship, a public ploy meant to demonstrate, in spite of all the evidence, that McCain’s passion is for country first, and politics second.

In short, this is a classic Karl Rovian bait and switch. Make the most blatantly political move possible, and convince the public that it’s not political but selfless service, loyalty, bipartisanship. Put your opponent in an impossible position, and call it bipartisanship.

What it needs to be called, however, is what it really is: bipartisanshiT. With a very big “T”. And I can only hope that the American people maintain their outrage, and their assessment of where the blame truly lies—with the party and the administration that, for the past eight years, indeed for the past twenty-five years starting with Ronald Reagan, has succeeded in driving this nation into the biggest economic and moral shit pile in its history.

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The "Inexperience" Code

You’ve all heard it endlessly by now, the Republican attack on Barack Obama which maintains that he has no experience in running a government or a business, and thus is too inexperienced to be President. Now aside from the inanity of this argument, especially when considering the opposite argument employed for Sarah Palin—CEO of Alaska, with a population (around 600,000) smaller than most cities, and Mayor of Wasilla, with a population (6,000) smaller than most colleges—there is a coded message here that is necessary for Americans to understand.

“Inexperience,” when applied to Barack Obama, is code for “race.”

Let me explain with an example. Prior to World War II, the United States Navy was desperately searching for boats to supplement its vastly under-equipped Navy. It began to inspect fishing boats, among them the large purse seiners used by hundreds of Sicilian fishermen along the west coast. The Navy would eventually requisition hundreds of such boats and outfit them as mine sweepers, but before it did, it considered whether it would, like England, induct not just the boats but their crews as well. A February 1939 memo from Admiral Hepburn, commandant of the 12th Naval District, summarizes the Navy’s findings, including its assessment of the Sicilian fishermen it might wish to induct. Here is part of what it said:

“The majority of Italians are not good seamen, good fishermen, nor good navigators. They are not over-intelligent, do not know the Rules of the Road, and, in general, appear to have the characteristics of big, overgrown children….” (see my “Fish Story,” in Lawrence DiStasi, UNA STORIA SEGRETA [2001], for more details.)

Based on such assessments, the Navy decided that it would requisition the boats alright, but not these “child-like” Sicilians, a group that was, at that very time, presiding over the most efficient and opulent sardine fishing industry the world has ever seen.

This type of more subtle racism has been thoroughly analyzed by David A.J. Richards in his 1999 book, “Italian American: The Racializing of an Ethnic Group.” In that book, Richards argued that phrases like “big, overgrown children” really represent a judgment that a group is developmentally inferior, even genetically incomplete. This means that its members never quite reach the full mental and moral development that would make them truly adult, i.e. truly human. African Americans, Native Americans, and, in their turn, many immigrant groups like Italians and Latin Americans have been judged in exactly this way.

Now we come back to the code for Obama. The term “inexperienced,” I would maintain, when applied to Obama, means not just that he has never been a CEO. It cuts deeper, cuts to a place that most Americans understand, if not consciously, then subliminally. And what it is meant to signify is that this man, Harvard-educated or not, U.S. Senator or not, lacks the full development that one finds most ideally in white people—Sarah Palin, for instance. No matter what he does, no matter how eloquently he can speak, therefore, he can never quite rise to the level of full humanity signified by whiteness. That’s because as a black man, by (America’s) definition, he is lacking in those adult qualities of mind and morality that America must have in its president.

Of course, not John McCain nor Sarah Palin nor even the vicious conservative shock jocks could say this outright. That would be racism, and so toxic is this label that even Obama’s comment about not being the right “type” elicited a “reverse racism” accusation from the outraged McCain. No, the Republican slime machine is too canny for that. So it uses code. This year the code word is “inexperienced.” During the Reagan campaign, it was “welfare queens.” George H.W. Bush employed the now-infamous Willie Horton commercial, suggesting that his opponent, Michael Dukakis, would free black rapists. And our dear George, G.W., not only spread racial slurs in the Carolinas to sink McCain’s surging campaign for the nomination (McCain was said to have a black child), but then employed several techniques to disenfranchise mostly black urban voters in Florida, Ohio, and elsewhere in order to steal one, and probably two elections. These slimy tactics are still going on, the latest being the Republican ploy of requiring all voters to display photo IDs allegedly to “ensure against election fraud” (though hardly a single case of election fraud has ever been demonstrated in states with these requirements, like Indiana.) But in reality the tactic is meant to discourage as many inner-city black voters (who almost universally vote Democratic) as possible from attempting to vote. More generally, it is no secret that the Republican Party’s southern strategy—to incite the racial animosity and fear still prevalent in southern and Midwestern states—has been the key to its ability to win elections since Nixon first employed it in 1968.

So count on it. You will hear the “inexperienced” slur against Obama repeatedly, daily, without letup. And to the increasingly fearful white populace of the heartland it will signify what it has always signified: in the United States of America, a black man simply does not have the mental, moral, or emotional heft to be fully human, much less to be the highest official in the land.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Bailouts and Killing Debt

The economic news of late has not been good. First we had the collapse of Bear Stearns, with a government bailout to keep it vaguely afloat. Then mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which together hold a majority of home mortgage loans, were about to go under until the Fed promised to take them over, at the risk of perhaps $200 billion to the taxpayer. This week another huge investment bank, Lehman Brothers, declared bankruptcy, and though the Feds refused to bail it out, or Merrill Lynch (the world’s largest brokerage teetered on the brink until the Bank of America bought it at a firesale) either, when it came to AIG, the largest insurance company in the world, the Feds blinked. AIG said it needed $40 billion, then $70 billion to keep from bankruptcy, alarm bells went off worldwide, and yesterday, the Fed finally announced that it would bail out this giant as well—to the tune of $85 billion dollars.

As the understatement of the year, Andrew Laperriere, managing director in Washington for International Strategy & Investment Group, took the cake:

“This is starting to get expensive,” said Laperriere.

Indeed. It’s also starting to get sickening. Because we are now seeing the full extent of the mismanagement, sheer chicanery and theft at the highest levels of the economy promoted and abetted by the Bush Administration and its cronies. In brief, while recent legislation has made it almost impossible for average Americans to find relief from economic ruin in bankruptcy, the largest banks and corporations not only can take refuge in bankruptcy proceedings, but many of the biggest crooks get bailed out by the federal government—i.e. U.S. taxpayers. Our money, in short, is being used to bail out the snake-oil salesmen who gave us subprime lending, and securitizing of mortgages in order to walk off with billions in profits, while the housing bubble they promoted disintegrates before our very eyes.

Here’s how Paul Craig Roberts, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan Administration, described the mess recently (Counterpunch, Sept. 16, 2008):

"In the 21st century, the US economy has been kept going by debt expansion, not by real income growth. Economists have hyped US productivity growth, but there is no sign that increased productivity has raised family incomes, an indication that there is a problem with the productivity statistics. With consumers overloaded with debt and the value of their most important asset—housing--falling, the American consumer will not be leading a recovery.
A country that had intelligent leaders would recognize its dire straits, stop its gratuitous wars, and slash its massive military budget, which exceeds that of the rest of the world combined. But a country whose foreign policy goal is world hegemony will continue on the path to destruction until the rest of the world ceases to finance its existence.
Most Americans, including the presidential candidates and the media, are unaware that the US government today, now at this minute, is unable to finance its day-to-day operations and must rely on foreigners to purchase its bonds. The government pays the interest to foreigners by selling more bonds, and when the bonds come due, the government redeems the bonds by selling new bonds. The day the foreigners do not buy is the day the American people and their government are brought to reality."

Now we have a report by Bloomberg (Sept. 17) illustrating just what that reality might mean, not just in the near term, but into the next presidency. The report opens with this statement:

“The casualties of continuing tumult on Wall Street will include campaign promises of the next U.S. president, whether it's John McCain or Barack Obama. The federal government has committed hundreds of billions of dollars this year to stimulate the economy, rescue failing Bear Stearns and American International Group Inc., and take over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. It may extend hundreds of billions more to buy distressed mortgage debt, prop up Detroit automakers and stave off recession. Those expenses, on top of a 2009 budget deficit projected to approach $500 billion, will make it hard for Obama to find money for universal health care, clean energy and early education, or for McCain to enact $3.3 trillion in promised tax cuts over eight years."

In other words, not only has George W. Bush ruined the nation with unnecessary wars, a monstrous military budget, deregulation to the point of national bankruptcy, and tax cuts for the wealthy that transformed a $10 trillion surplus left from the Clinton administration into a mammoth national debt that will extend into the lives of our grandchildren, he has also made certain that the next president will not be able to repair the damage or offer help to millions of average Americans because the U.S. government’s debts will be so huge that nothing but debt service will be possible. Though he and the Republican zealots who run his administration may not have consciously planned all this, they will thus have fulfilled one of the aims of conservatives–-i.e., Grover Norquist’s vow “to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” The government referred to, of course, is the government which cares for the mass of Americans, not the one which provides corporate welfare to its cash-rich, bonanza-seeking cronies.

The astonishing part of all this is that in the presidential race now entering its final phase, there are still millions of Americans, and perhaps even a majority, who plan to vote another deregulating, tax-cutting, debt-raising Republican fraud into office. It is at this point that part of me wishes to emulate the Roman emperor Claudius, at least as portrayed in “I Claudius,” who, early in the reign of one of the truly bestial emperors like Caligula, utters his agreement to ‘let all the evil hatch out.’ Before things can get better, he implies, all the evil and stupidity of which Romans are capable must be allowed to run its course. At this stage of the corruption of our Republic into Empire, of the degradation of informed citizens into a ship of fools, something similar may be necessary here—assuming, of course, that some shell of a nation will be left to survive.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, September 12, 2008


Though I couldn’t bring myself to watch the entire interview, I did see a tiny segment of Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin’s interview with Charles Gibson last night. And it finally struck me: all those grins, all those talking points glibly delivered, all that salesman-like addressing of the interviewer by his first name, “Charlie,” all raise one question.

Is this a real flesh-and-blood woman, or a robot?

Think about it. She has this piled up hair, all in place. She dresses in perfectly fitted suits (not Hillary-type feminist pantsuits either) that fit her perfectly. She has this perfect smile and this near-perfect delivery of her perfectly crafted lines. I mean if the Republicans had designed a candidate to their exacting specifications—hockey mom with five kids, small town mayor, governor of the most Republican state in the Union, rabid supporter of the NRA, Christian Fundamentalist in the most extreme segment of the most extreme end-times sect in the nation, pro-lifer who not only talks the talk but walked the walk to bear a child she knew would emerge with Down’s Syndrome—they couldn’t have come up with a better model. She even talks about the Iraq war as divinely inspired. And while she was at it, last night, suggested that in order to assure Georgia’s entry into NATO, it would be worth risking a war with Russia.

I mean, is there no doubt in the woman? Not a tic or a pause to reflect on what her blithely optimistic words might mean? It seems not. Robots have no doubts. Robots do not reflect. Robots simply move straight ahead to their programmed ends. God wants war—we go straight ahead. God wants my firstborn to serve in that war (apparently with a little help from a drug bust to be fixed by enlisting)—praise be. God gifts me a child with Down’s Syndrome—have it and be thankful. No doubts. Not a worry line in sight.

It’s something that has kept gnawing at me since that convention night when she gave her speech. All I could think of was that Down’s baby. The dominant impression was that he, like the rest of the family, only moreso, was on display. He kept being handed back and forth, first to Cindy McCain, then to the 8-year-old daughter, then another daughter, then the father, then on stage to Mom for a few seconds, then back and forth and to and fro. An exhibit—a human exhibit to prove his pro-life Mother’s humanity. Only that humanity was nowhere on display, then, or since. I mean having a child with Down’s cannot be a picnic. One knows the difficulties that are coming. The heartache. The constant questioning of the decision. But none of that ever seems at issue with Sarah Palin. Her smooth brow remains smooth, her smile fixed, her cheeks rosy, her upbeat aggressive confidence ever undimmed. Is there a heart there to ache at all?

This is why the robot answer comes to mind. A robot doesn’t have heartache. A robot doesn’t fret about the future. A robot simply rolls straight to the target. All systems go, like a drone swooping to launch its rockets into a suspected enemy hideout. And if there happen to be a few collaterals damaged, no problem. We’ll just tinker with the targeting system and do better next time.

What is most alarming about all this is that, increasingly, it appears that our politicians are all becoming more robotic. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the prototype—the original robot who gloried in his past role as the Terminator. A killing machine. Perfect candidate to be governor, where he became known as the Governator. McCain too; since the Convention repeating without letup the same lines, the same expressions, the same fake emotions. A robot. It almost seems to come with the political territory these days: you want to win public office, you become a robot.

The trouble is, these robots get into office and make decisions that affect our lives. Reading about Bush and his robotic response to 9/11 makes the blood run cold. He wanted blood. The man had to prove how tough he was, and his programmers, Cheney et al, knew just which buttons to push to get him to “man up” and agree to the most cruel and inhuman measures. Kill the bastards. That was really the program the CIA initially came up with: we’re going to go into Afghanistan and kill ‘em all; there’ll be flies walking across their eyeballs. Nevermind trials; nevermind habeas corpus; never mind Geneva; nevermind the law; just kill ‘em. And the cold eyes of the robot president sparkled with anticipation, his robotic response being the one all robots employ: “do whatever it takes.”

Robots. The entire nation, more often than not, seems robotized. Seems to WANT to be robotized. Robots that don’t feel. Robots that don’t worry or have fears. Robots who live their lives out on computer screens or TV screens where robots like Sarah Palin look perfectly cool for the perfectly scripted parts they play. And if there are some malcontents who yearn for the days when real humans displayed real concerns about real human problems, why never fear. The luddites you will have always with you—until, of course, the robotic End Times sort out the us’s from the them’s, once and for all.

Lawrence DiStasi

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Pit Bull

I am meditating on violence this morning, the violence endemic to the United States--especially after enduring the acceptance speech of Sarah Palin, the VP choice of John McCain at last night’s Republican Convention. What a white devil she is turning out to be; a mocking devil cloaking herself in her wonderful, Christian, family-based American values. All of which might have worked save for a few lapses, the main one being the quote whereby she characterizes herself as a “hockey mom,” and how she defines that update of the once-influential “soccer mom.” Here’s how she did it:

“What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?” She asked, pausing with her white-devil, mocking grin, and then giving the punchline: “Lipstick.” And she smiled again. Ho ho.

Naturally, that hall full of desperate Republicans eager to cheer every line, went wild over this one. We’ve got a winner, they were cheering, we’ve got a tough one. No foreigners or journalists or liberals are going to push our Sarah around!

But let’s look carefully at this self-characterization, one of the most alarming things I’ve ever heard from a political figure. This aspirant for the Vice Presidency, this person who could be one stroke by an aging McCain away from the Presidency, compares herself to a PIT BULL. That is, this allegedly Brady Bunch mom compares herself to the most aggressive, vicious, killing machine ever bred by dog fanciers. No, not dog fanciers, fanciers of illegal dog-fights. You know, those lovely little matches where two dogs are dumped into a ring and urged to tear each other apart to satisfy the blood lust of adoring dog-fight fans. And pit bulls have been bred specifically for this, for their “gameness,” which is to say, for their insane aggressiveness and refusal to quit even when mortally wounded and bleeding to death. All of which Americans nominally condemn, for it wasn’t all that long ago that football star Michael Vick was arrested and jailed for raising just these fighting dogs on his estate. Pilloried for his association with such cruelty. Forced to forfeit a brilliant career.

Of course, Michael Vick is a black man. Sarah Palin, by contrast, is a lily-white, “pro-life” super-woman. So from her, the comparison to a pit bull is funny. Haha. But is it? Consider. This Republican convention has already made clear that, with its adoption of the McCain demand for “victory in Iraq” (nevermind that an occupation, by its very nature, cannot end in “victory”), and its criticism of Democrats for “not once mentioning the word “victory,” these people have portrayed themselves as the quintessential, jingoistic American killers D.H. Lawrence long ago wrote about (see his "Studies in Classic American Literature"). They have made clear that they embody that long tradition in America, which has made not baseball but killing the national pastime. Thus, when, at their convention, they have chanted after every red meat line, “USA! USA!” like some hysterical crowd of American supporters at the Olympics, they are not just being embarrassing, jingoistic yahoos. They are harking back to the entire history of this country, conceived in liberty, perhaps, but steeped in violence and killing even earlier—first, against its original inhabitants, hunted down and exterminated and penned into reservations; second against its imported slaves, where the mere act of keeping and trading in slaves requires the constant threat of violence and death, as does keeping the “freed” slaves powerless, exploited, and trapped in ghettos until this very day; and third and throughout, against the environment itself, the land itself, which from the first has been denuded of its forests, plundered for its riches, plowed, leveled, and flattened in every corner of this continent, and now, in Alaska. And the position of Palin to drill for oil in one of the last wildlife preserves in Anwr is just the latest manifestation of this environmental violence, of which we were constantly reminded by that other bloodlust chant of the Republicans last night, “Drill, baby, Drill.”

So just think about what we have here: a woman—casting herself as this compassionate nurturing mother, so compassionate for life that she opted to bear her Down’s Syndrome fifth child—whose chief metaphor to characterize herself is the pit bull. So that she seems not only to be saying that she’s vicious and relentless and willing to fight to the death; she’s also saying she LIKES blood, enjoys blood sport, thrives on the vicious tearing to pieces of her adversaries—and by extension everyone in the world who might think to oppose the US of A. Because she has compared herself to an animal that loves to kill. And her hunting background—hunting from the safety of an airplane where no life form has a chance—perhaps confirms this.

Is this what we want in the White House? Yet another vice president who’s an avowed killer, (our current one having shot his best friend in the face), another Cheney to turn the White House into the center and source of unbridled horror, including the torturing and killing of anyone who MIGHT be an adversary? Nevermind the law? Nevermind sparing the innocent? Nevermind sissy negotiations?

It seems. Because Palin mocked Obama last night as someone who would “want to read terrorists their rights;” omitting, of course, the important point, that it is detainees whose innocence or guilt has never been even considered, much less proven, who deserve the rights of habeas corpus. Because that’s what the Republican chant about “victory,” McCain’s victory, really means: Full spectrum dominance over the entire world, law and/or innocence be damned. Anyone who resists such U.S. dominance, any nation that refuses to bow down to United States demands for its resources or its fealty, that nation will be threatened and attacked and nothing will do but victory. And victory means precisely that: giving up, bowing down, agreeing that the United States, the victor, and its victorious corporations (especially those run by the likes of Cheney and company) is dominant over that nation and calls the shots.

All of which comes to this: if you like pit bulls—and Sarah Palin seems to—if you’re proud of the American history that honors enslavement and violence and extermination and exploitation, then the McCain-Palin team are your guys.

And that brings to mind what the Republicans might do this season: instead of the elephant as their symbol, perhaps they ought to be honest and change it to a snarling, slavering, blood-spattered pit bull, rampant. That would be ‘straight talk’ indeed.

Lawrence DiStasi