Friday, March 21, 2008

Mannaggia l'America

With all the furor and rage being expended over the past comments of Barack Obama’s pastor Jeremiah Wright—especially his phrase that God Bless America really should be God Damn America—a person would think that such blasphemy had never before been heard in the history of the world. The truth is, I used to hear it almost every day. And it came from the mouth of my father, an Italian immigrant, and it came in his native language: Mannaggia l’America. And the truth is that it was rather a commonplace among Italian immigrants of that pre- and post-WWII era.

Now I can’t speak for others, but I do know what was behind my father’s use of the phrase, and it was something similar to what was behind Wright’s. That is, my father was railing at the fact that in his view as an Italian, America lacked respect for both quality and equality alike. As a hairdresser, he knew this firsthand. He invested his entire life in quality work. And what constantly drove him to distraction was the fact that peers of his were making fortunes by running strings of beauty shops devoted to quantity. “Get’ em in, get ‘em out, give ‘em dye jobs, frizzy hair, whatever they want.” My father refused to do this. Refused to ever touch hair dye because he knew, from his chemistry work, that it was poisonous. Just as he knew that the cold-wave solutions being initially marketed in those days, were even more toxic to human skin. He also considered his judgment as an‘artist of hair’ so inarguable that he refused to cater to his customers’ whims of the moment: “If they didn’t like what I wanted to do, I’d throw them out.” All this led to declining popularity and success. All of which, in his eyes, was due to a total lack of respect for quality work in mannaggia l’America.

He ran up against the same problem in every business he ever tried. After a heart attack made it impossible for him to continue as a hairdresser, he tried building houses. He went broke on his commitment to building quality dwellings rather than hastily-raised shacks that he could sell on the cheap. And in the final movement of his life—wherein he tried desperately to market his formula for a permanent wave solution that curled hair without heat and without toxicity—he was unceremoniously rebuffed by the large corporations then making millions: they told him they didn’t care about burnt scalps and lawsuits because they had lawyers sufficient to minimize the few settlements they had to pay. Mannaggia l’America.

It was his constant lament. For the America he encountered was even less interested in equality. As an Italian immigrant he was considered, when he arrived, one of the great unwashed, the detritus being vomited up by Europe to occupy the slums of American cities and pollute the American dream. And though he made Herculean strides in learning the language (in spite of being expelled from 6th grade), and the codes of the polite society he catered to in his beauty shop, he knew how white America assessed him—as a “dago,” as a “wop,” as a creature only nominally less degraded than the African Americans it had enslaved and dehumanized even in its founding document. The only equality that perhaps meant something was the equality of money. If one made enough money, then one might get to be equal. Otherwise, forget it. America—its creed, its commerce, its holidays, its fundamental attitude about life—was nothing, he insisted, but a “money-making proposition.” Those who made it in such a place were for the most part “thieves within the law.” Mannaggia l’America.

The interesting thing to me today is that though he clearly understood the fundamental larceny of American business, he probably didn’t know the whole truth of it. He didn’t know, as we now do, that the real truth behind Pastor Wright’s prediction that God will sooner or later “damn America” stems from an understanding of American history: its theft of the land from its original inhabitants starting with its ‘discovery’; its continuing theft of the West and Southwest from Mexico and any other people or entity that threatened its “manifest destiny”; the theft by those who run the government and the corporations for their profit and control; the theft that continues by corporations driving the economic conquest that now covers the entire globe, placing whole countries and their people in thrall; and of course the theft Pastor Wright was talking about—the continuing theft of the lives of the millions of Africans brought here in chains, and kept in the chains of poverty and injustice even into our own time. He didn’t know about that, my father, though he intuited it from what he knew—that those who control the money control the government and controlling the government means controlling the laws, which in turn means being free to be “thieves within the law.” This is the freedom that flag-waving Americans are really talking about: the freedom to plunder all those who have what we want. And, as John Perkins makes clear in his Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, the freedom to sanction or starve out or bring down or invade or eliminate any leader or country that refuses to accommodate that theft. As a partial list, just think Iran, Iraq, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, not to mention the places like Pakistan and Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Jordan where we prop up our dictators of choice.

So, as far as my father would have been concerned, the Reverend Wright was right. If there is any justice in this world—and that is not at all a foregone conclusion—the forces that operate the universe (call it God if you like; karma if you like; history if you like) will eventually damn America as they eventually damned Rome. For though the packing of the courts with Neanderthals guarantees that the law in its conventional sense cannot provide real justice, the higher law which says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction (some might call it “blowback”) perhaps can. We have already seen something like it working in Iraq, in Afghanistan, on 9/11, and in the money markets; and we will, I am afraid, continue to hear mannaggias upon l'america for some time to come.

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, March 17, 2008

Winter Soldier

I don’t know how many of my readers had the opportunity to listen to the Winter Soldier conference put on by Iraq Veterans Against the War this weekend, but it was a riveting, emotionally devastating primer on the cost of the Iraq War in lives, treasure, and the mental and physical health of the soldiers who have been induced to fight it. Panel after panel, presenter after presenter revealed personal stories about the damage that has been done. Nearly every panelist referred to the “war” as what it really is: an OCCUPATION, an illegal occupation of a people who were already prostrate from a dozen years of our sanctions and bombing, and who, with the arrival of American soldiers, were treated like criminals in their own country, arrested without cause, curfewed in houses that, in Iraq’s summer heat, were literally ovens.

And then there were the horror stories of what each soldier had done, the atrocities each was led to commit as part of that occupation. The brutalizing of women and children. The random arrests of every Iraqi male caught in the frequent sweeps of neighborhoods. The killing, without thought, of anyone who made or appeared to make a false move. All of it made possible by the training each had received, to wit, that Iraqis are subhuman, that they are “ragheads” or “haggis” responsible for 9/11 (it has been proven Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 or Al Quaeda) and thus undeserving of any human compassion whatever. One soldier described how the term “haggi” actually derives from the Islamic tradition of the Hagg, the pilgrimage to Mecca every Muslim is supposed to make at least once. Hence, he said sadly, the holiest tradition of an entire religious faith is trampled and reduced to a term of utter contempt.

Some of these soldiers and marines were interrogators at Abu Ghraib, and described the brutal tactics they used, and, when they were unwilling to perform as expected, those used by others. A soldier named Michael told of one detainee who was writhing strangely and acting crazily. Sensing insulin deprivation, Michael took a sugar reading and found it at 450, many times the normal range. Michael called the hospital, asking permission from the doctor to transfer the detainee, clearly in shock, to her facility. The captain refused, refused several times. The detainee was then taken to another area, and when his strange behavior continued, classified as a resister and put outside, manacled, in the hot sun as punishment. He died roasting and writhing in agony.

Another soldier related his experience with stop loss—the ploy by which the military, unable to attract new recruits, has been forcing troops who have finished their duty tours to be corralled into repeated deployments. This, and the brutality he was forced to employ in Iraq (at one point, he had his sights trained on a 6-year-old boy on a roof), eventually turned a gung-ho teenager eager, after 9/11, to kill all Middle Easterners, into a broken alcoholic who tried to commit suicide. But instead of giving him help, the United States Army discharged him with a general discharge for insubordinate behavior, leaving him with no benefits whatever, able to hold only a job as a pizza delivery boy. Among the military duties that led to his breakdown, he said, was his task of photographing dead Iraqis and sending the photos to superiors for use in “building the morale” of American troops.

A Marine, Jason Wayne Lemue, served three duty tours in Iraq. On his first, he learned the rules of engagement. “My commander told me, ‘Kill those who need to be killed, and save those who need to be saved,’ that was our mission on our first tour,” he said of his first deployment during the invasion nearly five years ago. Lemue went on to relate that, “After that the ROE changed, and carrying a shovel, or standing on a rooftop talking on a cell phone, or being out after curfew” meant that people were to be killed. “I can’t tell you how many people died because of this. By my third tour, we were told to just shoot people, and the officers would take care of us.” (Quoted in “Rules of Engagement Thrown out the Window” by Dahr Jamail, Common Dreams, 3/15/08.)

Of course, Marine corporal Jason Washburn also explained the corollary—that American troops were instructed to carry shovels and “drop weapons” on their missions in case of an 'accidental' shooting. A shovel or weapon found near a dead Iraqi was sufficient evidence to justify his death as a terrorist.

Such testimony, along with apologies by many of the panelists for the destruction they inflicted on innocent people, is enough to make anyone weep. Many in the audience did. And so, to the cost of this illegal and criminal war—now estimated at $300 billion a year by Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz in The Three Trillion Dollar War (that is nearly a billion dollars every day just for keeping the war machine going, nevermind the cost of replacing a broken military when it’s over and the broken human beings who will be needing veterans’ benefits for years to come)—there is the human cost. The cost of devastated lives and devastated psyches and devastated families, and, let us never forget, a country and an entire people that lies in ruins.
As one contemplates the horror of what the United States has done, and keeps doing, and the fact that we cannot, after Winter Soldier, claim ignorance, the words of T.S. Eliot come, almost unbidden, to mind:

“After such knowledge, what forgiveness?”

Lawrence DiStasi

Saturday, March 15, 2008

"Ciao, Geraldine"

About a month ago, I wrote a blog called “The Necessity of Obama,” in which I warned of the imminent appeals to racism sure to emerge once Barack Obama had the Democratic nomination, and the Republicans launched their slime machine. It turns out I was optimistic. The appeal to racism, somewhat covert in the Clinton’s initial slanders, has already gone overt—this time in the person of former vice-presidential candidate, Geraldine Ferraro. Last week Ferraro opined in an interview with the Torrance "Daily Breeze" that “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position..” She expanded on this a couple of times, and then in the subsequent storm, resigned from Hillary’s campaign. The damage, of course, had already been done. Whites, especially white males, especially white working class males reminded of their grievances over affirmative action, have been switching their allegiance in droves. Some have gone to Clinton. Some have already expressed a preference for Republican nominee John McCain. If there is a nightmare for Democrats in the 2008 presidential election, this is it.

For me, the nightmare is doubly troubling. Geraldine Ferraro was a watershed candidate. Not only was she the first woman to have a run at the White House, she was the first Italian American to achieve that kind of prominence. A working class gal from Queens, a former teacher who rose to the halls of Congress, and then to the national ticket for President—this was the American dream made real, the antidote to the common stereotype of Italian Americans as bozos, criminals, prototypical working-class racists. Now, with one remark, she has reactivated all the stereotypes. Sadly, she has probably garnered a lot of sympathy as well. A woman unfairly targeted. A white woman only calling attention to the unfairness of affirmative action.

Sadder still is the dispiriting spectacle of a once-admired woman sinking to gutter level in an effort to help her “sister.” And the conjoined spectacle of the Clintons, once also admirable for their brilliance, their apparent zeal for reform, consistently demonstrating that to win, they have no qualms about sinking to the very same level.

And the saddest thing of all: America running true to form. A brilliant, charismatic black man is running for president, generating enormous energy and enthusiasm unseen in several generations. But the politicians, even those in his own party, cannot seem to bear it; cannot seem to bear losing, for one, but also cannot seem to bear forgoing the opportunity to appeal to racist fears. And so the fear machine has been rolled out, the race machine has been activated, and Obama and his campaign have been forced on the defensive. All the while the pundits, sensing blood in the water, have flocked to the controversy, and magnified it.

No one knows how this will eventually play out. But given this nation’s history, given its enduring commitment to the suppression of every aspiration entertained by its former slaves, the signs are not good. We can say “Ciao” to Geraldine Ferraro. The question is, will we ever ever be able to say “Ciao” to racism?

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, March 9, 2008

"...Fear itself.." --An Open Letter to Obama

I have watched with dismay as the Clinton campaign abandoned all restraint with their sleazy TV ad featuring sleeping children at risk. My dismay increased as it appeared to work: Clinton won both the Ohio and Texas primaries, reportedly on the strength of late-deciding voters who would have been most affected by her attack ad. Now I think it is time to respond—but not by defending the Obama machismo, or by pointing out that Clinton’s claim to be “experienced” has no validity. The response should come by invalidating the entire premise of the political discussion in this country, which, since 9/11, has based itself on the politics of fear.

To put it briefly, Senator Obama should now focus his campaign on the fundamental bankruptcy of this politics of fear and fear mongering. The opening salvo should simply recall Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous line when the nation was gripped by fear of the Great Depression:

"…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself…"

This line, and the policies that stemmed from it, succeeded in a way that few could have predicted. FDR was saying—and the rest of the line reinforces this with its description of fear as "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance"—that fear itself cripples any attempt on the part of people and governments to respond to a crisis. He did not maintain that there was no crisis. He simply said, nevermind the fear, nevermind the paralysis, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work.

This principle—perhaps updated to: "the only thing we have to fear is fear mongering itself"—fits the present situation almost perfectly. To undermine fear and the fear mongers would provide a perfect antidote and alternative not only to a) the Clinton TV commercial and her contention that Obama has no credentials to protect the nation from terrorism; but also to b) the similar attacks already being mounted by Senator McCain, when he says “the Democrats want to surrender in Iraq”; c) the entire 8-year reign of the Bush Administration, which has made fear mongering its central strategy and creed; d) the fear now mounting in the general populace of economic recession, the falling dollar, and the loss of American primacy as a respected world power.

Consider that since 9/11 every level of public discourse has been shaped and whittled down to one fear-mongering principle: terrorists are coming, we must fight them abroad before they get here, every cent invested (almost all militarily) in this fight is worth it, and, in this modern fight to the death, the American people SHOULD be afraid, should be so terrified and terrorized that they will make any sacrifice in blood, treasure, and their civil liberties in order to combat the demons planning to invade and kill us all.

It is a familiar, ancient cry that has worked almost unconditionally. Any opposition to military plans by Congress has been crippled before it could even be mounted. Congress itself has been gripped by fear—the fear of seeming to be “soft on terrorism.” And it has colluded in launching an illegal war against a country that was no threat to us; continued to fund an occupation of that same country for more than five years; spent a billion dollars a day to keep that war going; and allowed the United States to become known worldwide as an empire as aggressive, acquisitive and cruel as Rome or Great Britain. Worse, beginning with the Patriot Act and continuing with secret wiretapping of American citizens, a widespread policy of torture, and even the suspension of the ancient right of habeas corpus, the very liberties Americans are supposed to be defending have been steadily eroded. And through it all, fear has been the engine driving the whole enterprise.

For Barack Obama, all this has so far been portrayed as a weak spot in his resume. It need not be. The simple expedient of turning fear and fear-mongering to his advantage has the potential of reversing the entire campaign dynamic. For he can say, in effect, this is what we mean by CHANGE. We must change the politics of fear and fear-mongering. We must leave the fear mongers behind, and simply confront without fear the challenges and problems we have. Instead of the hyper-vigilance that has for the last eight years been the coin of the realm (and recall that hyper-vigilance is precisely what afflicts and cripples returning Iraq veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome), we need to be vigilant about the threats that are real. In fact, many of these threats have been ignored because of the huge drain in both money and national energies absorbed by the occupation of Iraq. Instead of pursuing Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, we abandoned the chase and invaded Iraq. Instead of shoring up the holes in our national defense against terrorist threats—our ports, our harbors, our infrastructure—we have been diverted by hyped-up orange and red alerts that turn out to be politically motivated. Instead of confronting the real threat posed to the entire world by global warming, we have been deluded into thinking that more spending and more wastage will somehow induce that threat go away. Instead of dealing with the huge losses to our national treasury due to stupendous military spending and equally stupendous borrowing, we have indulged in myopic tax cuts for the wealthy and privatization policies that have resulted in the enrichment of a favored few and the impoverishment of the many. And all this must change. The fear mongers must go.

In short, there is no need for Senator Obama to try to establish “commander-in-chief” or “government experience” credentials in the vain attempt to counter attacks. He need simply remind people what those so-called credentials (Cheney and Rumsfeld had years of experience while Bush has strutted like a wannabe Mussolini) have brought us: an unending war and a nation on the brink of financial ruin. He need simply remind the public of what fear does and what perhaps the greatest president of the last century said in his first inaugural address to a depressed nation in its grip:

"…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself..."

Lawrence DiStasi

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Why oh Why oh Why-oh?

As several news reports and commentaries have now pointed out, the turning point in the Ohio primary, which Hillary Clinton won to revive her campaign, was the sensational “news story” now being called NAFTA-gate. An Obama aide supposedly told a Canadian official at the Chicago embassy not to worry about Obama’s comments about re-negotiating the NAFTA trade treaty, which many Ohioans blame for their economic plight. Obama was just saying that to win an election.

Immediately, Hillary jumped all over this report, lacerating Obama for hypocrisy and double dealing. John McCain jumped in as well, noting that this was anything but “straight talk.” The attacks had their intended effect: late-deciding voters seem to have taken this (along with Clinton’s TV spot evoking the nightmare scenario of little children sleeping while the White House phone rings an emergency that she, but not Obama, would presumably answer) to heart and moved to Clinton in large numbers.

Now we find out, in a way that reminds us more and more of Karl Rove’s dirty tricks, that the whole story of Obama’s campaign aide was not only a classic case of spinning, but an outright fabrication. First, the leak came initially from Ian Brodie, the chief of staff of Canada’s conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, in what appears to be a blatant attempt by conservatives to try to eliminate the contender they fear most. Worse, Brodie was actually commenting about how Hillary Clinton’s campaign, not Obama’s, had issued the statement: “someone from (Hillary) Clinton’s campaign is telling the embassy to take it with a grain of salt. . . That someone called us and told us not to worry.” (Paul Rogat Loeb, 3/6/08Common Dreams). This comment was then picked up by a Canadian TV reporter in the U.S. and attributed to Obama’s economic advisor, Austin Goolsby, who was supposed to have contacted someone in the Canadian embassy in Chicago to make this reassuring remark. After Obama denied it, the story was made worse by another leak, this time from that same Chicago embassy, supposedly confirming the original story, to wit, that Obama’s campaign statements were more like “political positioning than the clear articulation of policy plans.” Obama seemed to be caught lying.

The truth is that it was the Canadian government that contacted Goolsby, not the reverse. And although Goolsby did meet with Canada’s consul general in Chicago, George Rioux, it wasn’t to assure him about “political posturing” but rather to say that Obama wasn’t talking about eliminating NAFTA entirely, but only making clear that labor and environmental safeguards mattered greatly to him. Which is exactly what Obama claimed in defending himself. As for the memo, even Prime Minister Harper now admits it was inaccurate, and “blatantly unfair” to Senator Obama. Opposition members in the Canadian parliament are expressing even more outrage, accusing the Harper government of interfering in a U.S. election to “help their Republican allies across the border,” and demanding that the Canadian Mounties investigate the leaker of the memo.

Sadly, the damage is already done. Equally sadly, what we have is an Ohio that continues to be the site of election shenanigans. Only this time, the perpetrators are not Karl Rove and his election Kommandos, but the mild-mannered Canadians in league with the ever more crassly Machiavellian Clintons.

The song says, Why oh Why oh Why-oh, Why did I ever leave Ohio…? The real question ought to be: When oh When oh When oh, When will Ohio get it straight-oh?

Lawrence DiStasi