Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Who/What Do You Think You Are?

The year’s end often brings up thoughts about fundamentals, and this one is no different. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this odd fact: though we have all kinds of religions and spiritual practices, and though science has brought us insight and evidence about natural processes from the inconceivably huge—the universe, said to have originated 15 billion years ago with a Big Bang—to the infinitely small—particles so puzzling they can hardly be said to have an actual existence beyond a certain probability, yet the whole existence in which we are engaged is still an almost total mystery. Who are we? What are we? We don’t know. We all have beliefs about this; and half-baked ideas from popular versions of science; but when it comes right down to it, we not only don’t know who we are or what we are, but even less about why we’re even here. How we’re even here. Why the human race is even here (sometimes, and often these days, it appears we’re here to fuck up the planet so badly that it becomes unlivable not just for us, but for all else. Even prehistorically, as Edward O. Wilson in The Future of Life says, man, far from being a “noble savage,” was and is “the planetary killer…Eden occupied was a slaughterhouse.”)

But for now, let’s just look at this simple question: Which is primary, matter or mind (sometimes referred to as spirit, soul, etc.)? Science, of course, has few doubts about this. Matter spontaneously generated life (it used to be thought that light energy, a flash of lightning perhaps, was needed to ignite basic chemicals into amino acids; now, much research is focused on life originating in the oceans near the deep vents—sites where exudations of sulfur and heat from the earth’s interior generate anaerobic bacteria, and strange life-forms that require neither light nor oxygen), and from tiny one-celled organisms continued to evolve into more and more complex organisms over billions of years until finally, there was us. In fact, for most of the previous hundreds of years, scientists did not even consider ‘mind’ a fit term to investigate. More recently, though, psychologists and neuroscientists have been looking more seriously into this thing called ‘mind.’ And though they’re still not sure what mind is, or where it’s located, it appears to be some product of matter, specifically the brain, and to have a ‘real’ existence. When it comes to priority, though, most scientists would be adamant: matter comes first. And this has meant, logically, that our era has become the age of materialism. Matter is what matters. All conclusions about origins and purpose stem from that.

Materialism, though, is precisely what many thoughtful people—philosophers, artists, spiritual seekers, religious leaders—find wanting. And so the origin stories that have come down to us from great thinkers and spiritual leaders all put matter secondary to something else: spirit, soul, mind, ideal forms, consciousness, something immaterial. And, that that something immaterial either is or gives birth to mind. In Genesis, God—the great spiritual, eternal being—creates the universe and all in it, including all the various animals and humans, in seven days. God speaks the Word (or is the word), and it is made flesh, or is clothed in flesh. Thus, the breath of some creator God instills life and order into a previously dead and chaotic mess of something, or nothing. And keeps it going. And the task of beings, especially human beings, is to seek to obey and eventually to reunite with that creator God in a more ideal place, an Afterlife. In eastern traditions, including Hinduism and Buddhism, the theoretical base suggests that some sort of Cosmic Mind has priority. From that big mind emerges the forms that are designed to survive in the material world: cells, bodies, and all that drives them from the beginning, mainly desire for increase and security. The task of the human—built as a vehicle for contemplating all of existence, sometimes imaged as the desire of the creator mind to reflect or contemplate itself—is to come to some sort of realization of what is true and real, above and prior to the material self that is secondary and, in some sense, illusory. As Karen Armstrong puts it in the Great Transformation: “The ultimate reality was an immanent presence in every single human being. It could, therefore, be discovered in the depths of the self.” It takes most humans several lifetimes to accomplish this; meantime, the imperishable part keeps recycling through life forms (rebirth or reincarnation) over and over. Plato’s image of the cave provides a concrete image for a similar idea. That is, the ideal forms that are primary and eternal for Plato, are not seen by normal beings, who see only reflections—reality reflected by firelight on the wall of a cave. Most humans, that is, see only the physical world, which is changing constantly, and which was created by a demiurge. Though the world he created was based on the eternal forms, it is really only a weak, pale reflection of the true forms. These eternal forms themselves are accessible only to philosophical reason and exalted perception.

It is clear then that two positions are available to us all. Either we consider material existence the be-all and end-all; which is to say that we are born, our brains generate an entity we call mind, we mature, and we die; one shot and that’s the end of it. OR, we are aggregates of some stuff that is really only a pale shadow of a more fundamental reality—a prior and superior mind or soul that we can unite with through the proper rational, behavioral, spiritual, or contemplative practices. Those who subscribe to the first view are sometimes called ‘realists;’ those who subscribe to the second are sometimes called ‘idealists.’ Which are you?

What has given new life to such questions is the emergence, in recent years, of formerly esoteric practices, mostly from the east, coupled with interpretations of scientific developments that appear to provide real-world support for those esoteric views. Consider this quote from a recent book, The Non-Local Universe: The New Physics and Matters of the Mind, Robert Nadeau and Menos Kafatos, Oxford U Press: 1999:
If the universe is a seamlessly interactive system that evolves to higher levels of complexity and if the lawful regularities of this universe are emergent properties of this system, we can assume that the cosmos is a single significant whole that evinces progressive order in complementary relation to its parts. Given that this whole exists in some sense within all parts, one can then argue that it operates in self-reflective fashion and is the ground for all emergent complexity. Since human consciousness evinces self-reflective awareness in the human brain and since this brain (like all physical phenomena) can be viewed as an emergent property of the whole, it is not unreasonable to conclude, in philosophical terms at least, that the universe is conscious. (p. 197)

What this interpretation leads to—starting from a wholly materialistic view based in the most materialistic of all scientific paradigms, evolution—is the rather idealistic view that the material universe is actually not dead matter at all; it is alive. It is, in some sense that we are still not clear about, conscious. More, that this universal, conscious whole—that which may have given rise to the idea called ‘God’—“exists in some sense within all [its] parts.” Which is to say, in each one of us.

So what are we? Are we truly separate selves going about our daily lives as best we can—which is to stay alive long enough to reproduce our kind in a way that helps them not just survive, but out-compete all other beings? Or are we interconnected manifestations of some incomprehensible whole, some mind that has not only generated us, but which is within each one of us and thus accessible to our self-reflection?

And how can we tell? What would serve as proof of one or the other position? Is there such a thing as proof; or is there simply belief? And what does it matter?

I would suggest that the view one settles on matters profoundly. For what we believe about who or what we are is the basis for all sorts of decisions about how to act—both towards all other humans (not just those in our tribe), and towards the world as a whole. And it is this that will increasingly, I think, become the crucial matter for all of us.

Obviously, there is more to say about this. Later.

Lawrence DiStasi

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Obama Administration is Dead

The just-announced compromise between President Obama and gloating Republicans seems to be the final nail in the coffin of the Obama Administration. This guy, to put it simply, seems to have no stomach for a fight at all. Like some modern anti-hero, when the going gets rough, he caves. So today, as he’s been hinting all along, he announced that he would extend the Bush tax cuts for all Americans, including those making over $250,000/year or even $1 million a year (as Senator Schumer proposed.) No, Obama ate the whole poisoned meal, and tried to defend it to outraged colleagues. More than that, he added a couple of new wrinkles. First, he proposed to provide a year’s drop of 2% in the FICA or Social Security taxes that all Americans pay (progressives have proposed making wealthy Americans pay more by extending the amount of income subject to SS taxes, but Obama, predictably, went the other way). While Obama claims that this will put more money in the hands of working Americans (and it will, short term), other progressives have pointed out that it makes a start in a direction favored by the most rabid reactionaries, who have been trying to get rid of Social Security for 80 years. That is, by reducing the amount going into the Social Security Trust Fund (already raided for years by mainly Republican presidents to finance their shitty wars), the President’s action will add to the pressure to bankrupt Social Security to the point where it will be abandoned as too costly. After all, Americans need their military-industrial complex. But there’s another element to the plan as well, again a major cave-in to slavering Republicans and their millionaire constituency. The hated estate tax would be lowered, on estates worth more than $5 million, to 35%. Democrats, Obama’s party, wanted to make the tax 45% on all estates over $3.5 million (still a lowering from the 55% it had been), but again, the Republican plan won.

Sort of makes you wonder if perhaps Obama isn’t a closet Republican, doesn’t it?

Whatever he is—and it certainly is not progressive—it now seems clear that he has decided that his only hope for winning in 2012 is to follow Bill Clinton’s example, and turn to the right after a mid-tern ‘shellacking’. It is a bitter pill for progressives to swallow after the euphoria that greeted his election. It is also, unless I miss my guess, the death knell for his administration. Because the one thing Americans despise more than a loser is a president so weak he can’t even muster the courage to use his bully pulpit to fight for what he believes in. Instead, at every turn, Obama has caved in to conservative forces—whether it’s on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Health Care “reform”, or taxes on the rich. Perhaps he long ago concluded that as a black man, he had to present himself as a non-threatening, non-combative intellectual. But he’s done that, and it has backfired every time. According to Republican rhetoric, he’s a socialist, a communist, a Muslim and a Nazi all rolled into one. Why he thinks he can somehow ingratiate himself with them and their constituency now is a mystery no one seems able to solve. The only thing that appears certain to me, again, is that it—plus his continuing cowardice in confronting his enemies—will condemn him to one term. Given the lack of backbone he’s displayed thus far (and sadly, he has tons of company among his Democratic comrades in Congress), perhaps that’s a good thing.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Wikileaks: An Inside Job?

The news has been alive with alarms about the catastrophe that could result from the latest Wikileaks revelations—over 250,000 cables from the U.S. State Department that could compromise U.S. diplomacy and diplomatic relations for years. Hilary Clinton expressed grave concern about the damage not only to the United States but to the world. The Justice Department announced it would be doing all in its power to prosecute those responsible—chiefly, it seems, Private Bradley Manning, now in custody as the lead, and only suspect in the investigation.

But the real hysteria has centered on those two remaining members of the ‘Axis of Evil,’ Iran and North Korea. Of course, it’s understandable that pooh bahs would be alarmed about North Korea, what with its two recent attacks on the South ratcheting up fears of a renewed all-out war (hard to believe that there has never really been an end to the 1950s Korea “conflict,” isn’t it). Still, the major alarums and trial balloons have concerned Iran. In England’s Guardian, the Nov. 28 headline read: “Saudi Arabia urges US attack on Iran to Stop Nuclear Programme.” The very first sentence adds that “other Arab allies have agitated for military action against Tehran.” These “other allies” include such democratic stalwarts as Jordan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. All see Iran as a “threat”, as “evil,” or as a “snake.” “Cut off the head of the snake,” Saudi King Abdullah is quoted as urging.

All this was, of course, real music to the Israelis. As prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu was quoted by the Washington Post on Monday Nov. 29, "More and more states, governments and leaders in the Middle East and the wider region and the world believe this is the fundamental threat." Netanyahu went on to expose what he called the “gap” between what Arab leaders say privately and publicly, their public “script” alleging that the “greatest threat is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” while “in reality, leaders understand that this narrative is bankrupt. There is a new understanding,” i.e. the malignancy of a nuclear Iran.

And of course, the American media ran with this as the major story of the Wikileaks revelations. Both the PBS News Hour, with its pundits seriously discussing how bad the Iranian situation is, how unstable its leader, how worried the Arab states are about threats to their own regimes from a rising Iran; and Charlie Rose, where other pundits reviewed the “real” threat of a nuclear Iran (still, by the way, without even a hint of a nuclear weapon, though that no longer matters to the alarmists), and the “consensus” in the Arab states about this (the consensus of the Arab monarchies, at least, most of whom quietly sided with Israel against the Palestinians in the original war in 1948; though Hosni Mubarak of Egypt only jumped on the “throw Palestine to the wolves” bandwagon much later, to maintain U.S. aid and save his dictatorial ass increasingly threatened by popular revolt); in both arenas the ‘experts’ shook their heads gravely as they observed that the time is getting short for someone—Israel or the Obama administration—to do something. And the something was clear to all: someone has to bomb Iran’s still peaceful nuclear facilities.

It was amazing really. Out of 250,000 cables released or soon to be released, the big story was Iran: bomb bomb bomb Iran. No wonder Ahmedinejad, Iran’s president, scornfully dismissed the leaks as U.S. propaganda. But even that was taken as a sign that the man is as totally divorced from reality as his unstable nation.

Until, that is, on November 30, we heard from Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, the chief of staff to George W. Bush’s first Secretary of State, Colin Powell. Speaking on KPFA’s “Letters to Washington” show, Wilkerson had some fascinating things to say about Wikileak’s latest revelations. First, he said that all the worry about the leaks threatening U.S. diplomatic relations was a “tempest in a teapot.” Diplomats, according to Wilkerson, know that harsh words often get said in private, that governments all try to spy on each other, and that everyone understands the game. What he was really concerned about, he said, was the lack of capability, not to mention supervision of the alleged leaker, Pvt. Bradley Manning. “I have serious difficulty,” the Colonel said, “accepting the fact that this private downloaded what appears to be over a million documents and then gave them to others…Where was his chain of command when he was doing this? when he was downloading thousands of documents?” And then the Colonel came to the real nub of it:

This looks increasingly like (and I’m not a conspiracy theorist) someone is either jumping on top of this, opportunistically, to take advantage of it, or perhaps they were involved in it all along. And why is the information contained in these latest leaks in particular so proof positive of so many things that the United States, or certain parts of the United States, are trying to get across to the public—not least of which is Israel’s threatened position, that an existential threat exists to Israel and Iran is that threat. ‘Look how perilous, look how dangerous this situation is.’ That comes out of these leaks. (emphasis added)

Remember: this is not some ‘expert’ who may or may not have a private agenda with regard to the leaks or the substance of the leaks; nor, as he says, a conspiracy theorist. This is an army colonel, former chief of staff to the previous Secretary of State. This is a man who knows how Washington works, how diplomacy works, how the world of statecraft works. And his chief concern is not the alleged “damage” to the nation’s diplomacy posed by the leaks; it is the twin questions: 1) how did the United States allow this to happen? and 2) was someone taking the opportunity (either by leaping on what was leaked, or actually facilitating the leaks in the first place) to plant disinformation to affirm things they want affirmed?

And what do they want to affirm? It appears that the main objective is to provide further ammunition undergirding the administration’s—driven mainly by Israel and its U.S. lobbies—position that Iran constitutes the greatest threat to world peace since the Soviets, and the increasing justification for a military mission to take that threat out. As Zeid Rifai, the president of the Jordanian senate is quoted as telling a US official: “Bomb Iran, or live with an Iranian bomb. Sanctions, carrots, incentives won’t matter.” Or, as Major General Amos Yadlin, Israel’s military intelligence chief, warned last year: “Israel is not in a position to underestimate Iran and be surprised like the US was on 11 September 2001.”

I have to admit, it never crossed my mind that the Wikileaks cables could be part of a disinformation campaign. Perhaps it takes someone with inside knowledge of how such things work, like Colonel Wilkerson, to get it. But there it is. And my guess is that increasingly, especially as Obama is further harried by Republican zealots howling for his head, the refrain is going to get louder: Bomb Iran now, or suffer another 9/11.

Will the American public go for it? Normally I’d say no. But given what they’ve swallowed recently, and given the fear in this nation, can anyone be sure?

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, November 29, 2010

Social Security Scapegoat

It’s time for the American public to blow a big hole in the proposals now being seriously considered to “solve the budget crisis.” As noted in my last blog, the onus, as always, is meant to fall on the poorest among us. We have been hearing ad nauseam the mantra that the Social Security system is driving the nation into insolvency. Therefore, recent proposals to “solve” the debt crisis—brought on, it should be remembered, by two unpaid-for and unnecessary wars, the Reagan-Bush-Bush reductions in tax income on the wealthy, and of course the outright thievery of Wall Street financiers that produced the housing bubble, and crash—always target Social Security. ‘We’ll all have to make sacrifices,’ is the song line. Which means, you, you poor gullible assholes, will have to sacrifice as usual.

Unless, that is, everyone remembers some simple facts, the first of which is: Social Security is NOT responsible in any way for the current deficits. Indeed, Social Security right now runs surpluses—that is, the money paid in, by workers themselves—outstrips the money paid out. And remember, it’s your money you’ve been paying in for a lifetime. You may recall, in fact, the campaign promises of our presidential candidates a few years ago, who promised that Social Security funds would be “put in a lock box.” What that referred to is the fact that right now, according to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (www.ncpssm.org), there is a “$2.6 trillion dollar trust fund built up by American workers over decades.” That’s $2.6 trillion folks. Except for the fact that the federal government, to disguise the deficit it runs each time we have a war, borrows from the SS trust fund, and is thereby obligated to pay it back, with interest. This raiding of the Trust Fund started in 1968 when Pres. Lyndon Johnson got legislation passed—he was building up American involvement in the Vietnam War, and of course wanted to tout “both guns and butter” (their guns, our butter)—started the game. The Trust Fund was allowed to be mixed with the General Fund, and off we went.

Bottom line: not only does Social Security run a surplus, the Federal Government owes the Social Security Trust Fund a ton of money, which it has to pay back with interest. It is in this sense only that Social Security could be said—by a blatant liar—to be contributing to the deficit. A more honest assessment would admit that, in fact, Social Security has contributed to the government’s solvency by supplying it with unused SS funds (the surplus) to disguise its deficits. Is the government grateful? Are the fiscal hawks grateful? Au contraire, mon ami. These bastards resent having to pay all that money back. It will break us! they whine. So let’s kill the goose that lays the golden eggs!

Sounds unbelievable, but that is the proposal coming out of such august bodies as the President’s Commission on Reducing the Deficit, and the Domenici/Rivlin plan referred to in a previous post. Let’s raise the retirement age, cut the COLAs (cost of living adjustments), force seniors to pay more for prescription drugs, and find other ways to cut benefits to the poorest among us. The key thing is to help business! Domenici/Rivlin, in fact, propose giving businesses a one-year Social Security tax “holiday” (we all love holidays, right?) that would reduce government income by $650 billion. It’s not enough that the money-grubbing swine who drove us into this ditch have all been bailed out—with government funds, some of which no doubt came from that SS Trust Fund. Now we have to give them another “holiday” while cutting the pathetic benefits given to the old folks. I tell you, if the American people fall for this one, they deserve to be rooting around in garbage bins to survive.

Fortunately, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare has organized a day of protest. The Committee is calling on all interested parties (and if there’s someone who plans on not getting older, I’d like to hear from him/her) to take part in a day (Tuesday, Nov. 30) of calling Congress and making two demands: 1) NO cuts to Social Security for deficit reduction, and 2) a $250 payment this year to SS beneficiaries in lieu of no cost-of-living increases (COLAs) the past two years. Here’s the number of a hot line that will connect you to your Congressperson’s office: 800-998-0180. CALL, because you can be sure the other side will be shouting their ears off.

While you’re at it, you might want to cast a vote of support for Representative Jan Schakowsky’s plan for deficit reduction. Shakowsky is the only people’s representative on the Budget Deficit Commission, and her plan amounts to getting some budget reductions by such unheard-of expedients as “$144.6 billion in tax increases, $110.7 billion in defense cuts and $17.2 billion in healthcare savings through a public option.” And definitely no cuts in Social Security. As the Huffington Post quoted Shakowsky re: the Bowles-Simpson proposal to cut SS benefits: Using Social Security to address the deficit “is like attacking Iraq to retaliate for the September 11 attacks.”

Of course there are legions of benighted souls in America who would respond: what’s wrong with that? But perhaps there are other legions who get the point. Let us hope so; because as it stands now, the greatest push seems to be coming from the yahoos, who clearly see the current series of shocks (remember the Shock Doctrine?) as their best opportunity to, once and for all, get rid of the most hated of Roosevelt’s “giveaways”: Social Security.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, November 19, 2010

Destroying the Working Classes

It has become Republican party policy to scream “class warfare” any time Democrats try to blame the rich for our current economic troubles. This is supposed to embarrass those who, according to the code of our time, are reviving socialistic or communistic dogma. The truth, though, is that the wealthy in this country—aided and abetted by the last three Republican administrations (and often enough by Democratic ones as well)—have been waging class warfare since at least the Reagan administration, have succeeded beyond anything they could have imagined, and are still not satisfied. They apparently want to reduce most of us to literal peonage. And the response? Well just think about the difference in the silence here, compared to near-riots in Europe—where Greek and French workers have had massive strikes and taken to the streets to condemn their governments’ proposals to reduce benefits won over years of struggle. Americans, by contrast, simply sit back and take it, or worse, ally themselves with the very people who have done them in.

Consider some facts assembled by Robert Freeman in a recent article (“Rich Declare War on the Middle Class,” Nov. 14, Commondreams.org). He begins with Ronald Reagan’s ‘revered’ administration, which “cut the marginal tax rate on the highest income earners from 75% to 35% while dramatically expanding spending for war.” Result: the national debt quadrupled between 1980 and 1992. But did anyone howl then? No, conservative economists kept saying, debt doesn’t matter; it’s a small percent of GDP. Both Bushes continued the trend, with W getting the prize, reducing the tax rate even more, spending trillions on war, and more than doubling the share of income to the top 1% (40% of his tax cut went to the top 1% of earners), and tripling the share to the top 1/10th of 1%. In dollars, this means that from 1973 till today, real wages for workers dropped, with adjusted income of the bottom fifth falling by about $7000/year, while yearly income for the top 1% increased by no less than $741,000. The figures for wealth held by each class are even starker: the top 1% now holds 34% of the nation’s wealth while the bottom half holds a mere 2.5%. As for the bottom two-fifths, they hold nothing, zero, zilch.

You might think, if you’re one of the working or middle classes—i.e., one of the growing numbers on food stamps (1 out of 8 Americans) or in official poverty (1 out of 5 Americans)—that perhaps this would satisfy the rich. But greed is insatiable. So now we hear from some of those alarmed individuals who have suddenly grown concerned over our national debt—particularly at the Obama adminstration providing a stimulus to create jobs for some of the 25 million unemployed, and also trying to reform the health care system to include more Americans left out of the worst system in the world—that something must be done. Our nation will go broke, they cry. We can’t sustain this kind of spending, they moan. And so we have the recommendations of the National Deficit Commission—to rip off the working classes even more. To allegedly lower the deficit by $4 billion, they propose remedies like this: eliminate the tax deduction for mortgage payments, which will decimate one of the last remaining sources of wealth for most people, their homes. They also propose to cut back the meager benefits provided by Social Security, lowering cost-of-living adjustments, raising the minimum retirement age, and while they’re at it, increasing the co-pays and deductibles for Medicare. And of course, they propose to reduce spending—which always means not cutting the military spending that’s bankrupting the country (recent govt estimates place the cost of keeping one (1) soldier in Afghanistan for a year at $1 million; that’s one soldier!), but the paltry programs that benefit the poor and the indigent.

And the monstrous benefits for the rich? Not a word about that. Or rather, those are slated to be increased! The Commission proposes to lower the maximum tax on the highest income earners from 35% to 24%, while their great buddies, the corporations, also get a drop in their nominal tax rate from 35% to 24% (those who actually pay taxes, that is.)

Amazing. But that’s not all. Into the fray, recently, has come yet another proposal from a front organization calling itself the Bipartisan Policy Center, made up of 19 prominent citizens, ex-legislators, ex-governors, and so on, chaired by retired Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico and a former budget director, Alice Rivlin. And what do they propose to “solve” our crisis? Why yet another tax holiday, this time a suspension of the Social Security payroll tax for a year or two, cutting and simplifying individual and corporate tax rates, and, get this, instituting a new 6.5% national sales tax. That’s to make up for the huge tax losses from the tax holiday. Now anyone who knows anything about taxation knows that sales taxes (and fees for things like drivers’ licenses, etc.) are regressive: that is, because the tax on purchases constitutes a much larger percentage of disposable income for the poor and working classes than it does for the rich, its impact on the poor is orders of magnitude greater. This is the whole theory behind a graduated income tax: to help make up for the disparity in wealth (and the wealthy always consume more natural resources and public services than their poorer counterparts), the tax on those who earn more should comprise a greater percentage of their earnings. But increasingly in our “everything for the wealthy” nation, progressive taxes are seen as unfairly depriving the wealthy of their just desserts. Tax has become a dirty word—as if any nation or any community could long survive without it. And increasing taxes, why that has become the equivalent of the black plague. So we have more and more proposals for sales taxes to bail out state and local governments, as well as the federal government, from the income tax-deprived holes they’ve dug for themselves.

The question is, why would elected representatives be so inclined to ignore the poor and aid the rich (the cost of the recent bailout of banks and Wall Street has been estimated at $13 trillion, and growing)? Perhaps a recent statistic about members of Congress will help clarify. In an article on Yahoo Finance (“Members of US Congress Get Richer Despite Sour Economy,” Nov. 17, 2010), a study by the Center for Responsive Politics reported this: about half of all members of Congress, 261 of them, were millionaires, one in five being worth at least $10 million, with eight in the $100 million-plus range (Rep. Darrell Issa, Republican of California, led with personal wealth of $303.5 million). Then contrast median household incomes between these mandarins and those they represent: for a House member, it was $765,010 in 2009r, an increase of more than $100,000 from 2008 (senatorial median income rose by a smaller percentage but a comparable dollar amount, ca. $100,000, to $2.38 million/yr), while for average working slobs, median household income dropped 3% at the same time (between 2008 and 2009) to about $50,000 annually. When stock holdings were examined, it should come as no surprise that these “people’s representatives” had most holdings in the “bigs,” like General Electric (which owns CNBC), Bank of America, Cisco Systems, Proctor & Gamble, and Microsoft. Also popular were Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase, and Citygroup, all of whom received TARP money. As the report put it:
The most popular investment among congressional members reads as a who's who list of the most powerful corporate political forces in Washington, D.C. -- companies that each spend millions, if not tens of millions of dollars each year lobbying federal officials.

Nice work if you can get it.

So we’re left with this. Unless you’re one of the wealthiest 1% in this country, you’re being taken to the cleaners by the most well-oiled machine ever invented to do the job. They have the money, the legislators, the lobbyists (moving in a revolving door from Congress to lobbying and back again, like the recently elected Senator Dan Coats of Indiana) the propaganda organs at every level, and the stupidity of the public to help. They also have a level of unbridled greed that would make ancient Roman plutocrats blanche with shame. It sort of makes one wonder: how long can this organized theft and thuggery continue? Where is the righteous (and I don’t mean the manipulated Tea Party variety) wrath of “the people?” Are there any “people” left?

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Wag the Dog

So many bizarre results from the Republican tsunami in last week’s mid-term elections—which to choose first?

How about this? Pick a target for the United States military to attack—urr, uh, how about Iran?—and see if it flies. Might even be able to convince Obama, now that he’s staggering from his ‘shellacking,’ to use it as a surefire way to get re-elected. You know, the old Wag the Dog scenario, where a weakened president starts a war to galvanize public opinion in his favor (Clinton allegedly did it in Bosnia; Bush clearly did it in Iraq after 9/11). Nevermind that we’re already engaged in two wars in the Middle East. Nevermind that another war would surely raise the deficit to newer more dizzying heights. War works.

Unlikely as such madness might seem to most of us, some recent trial balloons suggest that we should all think again.

For example, Senator Lindsey Graham (one of the so-called Republican “moderates” in the Senate who was flirting with voting for the Health Care Bill) just recently raised the issue of attacking Iran at a security conference in Canada (Saturday, Nov. 6). Asserting that “containment is off the table,” Graham said that war on Iran had several positive components to recommend it: “not to just neutralize their nuclear program, but to sink their navy, destroy their air force and deliver a decisive blow to the Revolutionary Guard, in other words neuter that regime.” (Matt Duss, ThinkProgress, 7 November 2010). This is astonishing, not only because countless international observers have opined that such an attack would prove counterproductive—actually leading more surely to a nuclear-armed Iran than anything else (Duss in the above-referenced article cites several of these informed opinions)—but also because it was not that long ago that the CIA’s National Intelligence Estimate stated that “not only was Iran NOT working on a nuclear weapon, but it had ended its nuclear weapons efforts in 2003” (see my blog “Iran Again,” June 9, 2008). No matter, the "reasonable" Senator Graham had no hesitation at all in calling for another war against this “great threat.”

He’s not alone. But more subtly than Graham’s, the notion of a military strike on Iran has recently been framed as a great way for President Obama to rescue his tattered reputation in time for the 2012 elections. ‘Wag the Dog.' The amazing thing here, though, is that the nation’s oldest and most respected journalist, is proposing the war option. David Broder, of the Washington Post, wrote a piece on October 31 on the eve of the election, titled, “How Obama Might Recover.” Beginning with his august opinion that conventional policy options would probably not work to revive the economy in time since no one can design surefire economic measures, Broder gets to his “inside” advice to the President on one measure that might:

What else might affect the economy? The answer is obvious, but its implications are frightening. War and peace influence the economy.
Look back at FDR and the Great Depression. What finally resolved that economic crisis? World War II.
Here is where Obama is likely to prevail. With strong Republican support in Congress for challenging Iran's ambition to become a nuclear power, he can spend much of 2011 and 2012 orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs. This will help him politically because the opposition party will be urging him on. And as tensions rise and we accelerate preparations for war, the economy will improve. (Broder, Washington Post, 10/31/10)

Now this is truly bizarre. Broder is no nutball conservative; if anything, he tends toward the liberal end of the spectrum. And yet, here he is, seriously and publicly proposing that the President of the United States start a pre-emptive war with a nation that has attacked no one, in order to rescue his failing presidency and improve the economy. After what we’ve been through in the last ten years with Bush’s pre-emptive wars and the huge hole they put in the nation’s budget (estimates for the Iraq war go as high as $3 trillion! not to mention the cost in death, the drubbing of America’s reputation in the world, and so on), for a respected journalist to seriously offer a plan like this begins to make Tea Party wackos look sane. Broder, of course, is quick to stress that he’s “not suggesting, of course, that the president incite a war to get reelected.” Oh heavens no. But he goes on to close his piece with precisely that suggestion:
But the nation will rally around Obama because Iran is the greatest threat to the world in the young century. If he can confront this threat and contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, he will have made the world safer and may be regarded as one of the most successful presidents in history.

No proof, of course, for his assertion that Iran is, in fact, “the greatest threat to the world in the young century.” Nothing but the uncontested assertion of our senior pundit—and the appetizing carrot to the young president that he will have “made the world safer” and be regarded by history (or at least by Broder) as one of our most “successful presidents.”

How is one to explain such a thing? Has the 81-year-old Broder gone senile? Or is he just listening to a few other pundits who have actually said the same thing recently. Like, for example, the rabidly pro-Israel Elliott Abrams (he of Iran-Contra fame, resuscitated as a ‘National Security Adviser for Global Democracy Strategy’ for Bush) who said recently: “The Obama who had struck Iran and destroyed its nuclear program would be a far stronger candidate, and perhaps an unbeatable one.” Or the equally rabid Daniel Pipes: “a strike on Iranian facilities would dispatch Obama’s feckless first year down the memory hole and transform the domestic political scene.” (both quoted by Eric Alterman, www.americanprogress.org, Nov. 4, 2010). Whatever the source for his loony idea, it is enough to give one pause. And though most commentators on Broder’s lunacy have discounted the fact that it might influence President Obama, we would do well to consider where the president stands with respect to Iran. When he was running for President, he spoke to AIPAC, the America Israel Political Action Committee, a front for promoting even the most right-wing Israeli policies in Washington. As I noted in the above-mentioned blog, what candidate Obama said, at that time, was that he was holding Iran responsible for the rockets launched by Hezbollah on Israel after the latter attacked Lebanon. He added,
we must preserve our total commitment to our unique defense relationship with Israel by fully funding military assistance and continuing to work on the Arrow and related missile defense programs…(to) help Israel maintain its military edge and deter and repel attacks from as far as Tehran and as close as Gaza.

The Obama administration’s rhetoric excoriating Iran for its alleged nuclear weapons program has only escalated since then.

Is it beyond the realm of possibility, then, that a severely wounded Obama would consider the Broder/Abrams/Pipes suggestion (NB: Jeffrey Goldberg’s September 2010 piece in the Atlantic Magazine, “The Point of No Return,” in which he essentially predicts and rationalizes the fact that Israel will, in the next year, attack Iran itself, may be the mother of all such Israeli-promoted trial balloons; it ends with this quote from Israeli President Shimon Peres: “We don’t want to win over the president,” he said. “We want the president to win.”)?

Given the madness now at large in this nation, it would be folly to think so.

Lawrence DiStasi

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Quantitative Easing, or, The Rich Get Richer

Here’s my favorite take on the elections.

The Federal Reserve and its head, Ben Bernanke, have recently announced their latest initiative, called “quantitative easing.” Aside from the fact that this sounds somewhat pornographic, it apparently means that a central bank creates money ex nihilo, i.e. out of nothing (sometimes called printing money, though these days it’s not so crude; the Fed just magically adds billions to its account), and then uses the funds to purchase financial assets (including government bonds, mortgage-backed securities, and corporate bonds) from regular banks and financial institutions. The Fed, this time, is apparently going to create some $600,000,000,000 (that’s billions), a sum, according to Chrystia Freeland of Reuters, “nearly as big as the TARP. It’s nearly as big as the first stimulus was.”

Now why, you might ask, would the Fed be doing this now. Well apparently, the Fed and most economists really think it’s imperative that the economy get another boost to prevent it from going into a second tailspin. And since the Fed is pretty sure, especially now that the “people” have spoken and swept out Democrats and swept in Republicans (giving the latter control of the House) that there is going to be even worse gridlock in Congress and the White House than before, they have to act. In short, there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that this Congress will pass another stimulus, so the unelected Fed has to do it.

Here's where it gets interesting. The “people,” according to pundits and pollsters, have decided that Obama and the Democrats have spent too much money keeping the country out of depression; the stimulus, in particular, has been rejected as the product of “big spending Democrats.” It’s time to cut back on spending, is the alleged popular message, to get money back to the people. And how to do that: why by putting back into power the Republicans—the very party that crashed the economy in the first place. NO MORE STIMULUS, is the message. And yet, economists agree a stimulus is needed, and so the Fed rides to the rescue. The irony of all this? Listen to Chrystia Freeland:

I think the problem is, when the Fed acts as it does, printing more money, it’s a rich-get-richer phenomenon. This is going to be great for the banks. It’s going to be great for people whose personal finances are strong enough that they can re-mortgage—refinance their mortgages. But it’s not so great for the people who are in trouble. And that’s one reason why it might not have as powerful an impact as the Fed would like.

Now isn’t that sweet? The poor working-class slobs in the Midwest and South (the Tea Partiers) who voted the Republicans into office presumably believed they were voting to help themselves. But by voting for gridlock, they are doing exactly the opposite! They are forcing the Fed to push a stimulus through the back door. And that stimulus, quantitative easing, is going to help the very people—the bankers and financial pirates—voters are supposedly pissed off at. Banks are infused with tons of money, presumably to induce them to lend to small businesses and households to increase buying. But the banks don’t really have to do that (and all indications are that they don’t want to). Rather, they’ll invest in foreign assets where they can make more profit (have people still not caught on that financial institutions and corporations couldn’t give less of a damn about the USA?). And because there’s a whole lot more money in circulation, it’s going to increase inflation. All of which will help make people like us even poorer. We’ll be poorer, too, because the Fed’s stimulus doesn’t create jobs directly, as another stimulus from Congress presumably would.

Is our democracy not a wondrous thing? It allows damned fools, like the ones who enjoyed victory on Tuesday, the freedom to vote against themselves! While the financiers laugh all the way the bank.

There are other, perhaps more serious global downsides to this latest move of the Fed. But frankly I’m not sure I understand how it all works well enough to explain it. To get some ideas, check out Professor Michael Hudson, “U.S. Quantitative Easing is Fracturing the Global Economy,” at http://globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=21716). Meantime, and remembering that “quantitative easing” didn’t work for Japan in the 1990s, enjoy the irony. It may provide the only laughs we get for a while.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Eve of Elections

Less than a week before the 2010 midterm elections for Congress, anyone with a soul feels the need to expel some of the indigestion that has been building in the gut. Recent news affords ample material, even if it seems a bit disjointed.

Let’s begin with the types of candidates that are threatening to actually win—even above and beyond the idiots like Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware. Consider the lovely candidate threatening to unseat the blue dog Democratic incumbent in North Carolina, Ilario Pantano. Republican Pantano is a 38-year-old veteran of the Iraq war, but what a veteran! He had actually fought in the first gulf war as a marine, but after 9/11 decided to leave his job at Goldman Sachs (where else?) and re-enlist. Serving as a 2d Lieutenant, he was involved in an “incident” in 2004 shortly after the highly-publicized hanging of four American private contractors in Fallujah. As reported in the Oct. 26 Guardian, on 15 April, Pantano and crew stopped two unarmed Iraqi men in a car—suspects, as all Iraqis were. After a car search, he

unloaded a magazine of his M16A4 automatic rifle into them, before reloading and blasting a second magazine over them—some 60 rounds in total. Over the corpses, he left a placard inscribed with the marine motto: ‘No better friend, No worse enemy.’

A few months later, a member of his own unit reported him and he was charged with murder. Other facts emerged: the bodies of the two men, Hamaady Kareem and Tahah Hanjil, were found in a kneeling position, and they were shot in the back. But Pantano’s defense alleged that weapons had been found in the house the Iraqis exited, and the men had “turned on Pantano unexpectedly” as he was guarding them, so he fired in self-defense. It didn’t take long for the charges against Pantano to be dropped for ‘lack of evidence,’ though the officer in charge of the hearing did recommend non-judicial punishment for “extremely poor judgment.” In his campaign, Pantano has refused to defend himself “for something that happened five years ago.” As to the placard he left (which also became the title of a book he wrote, part of the reason for his fame), Pantano has said: “I don’t need to explain anything…If folks are alarmed, well war is alarming.”

Yes. War is alarming. First and foremost for the brutality it rewards—rendering to psychopaths like Pantano hero worship, a book, and now a chance to be a U.S. Congressman endorsed by Sarah Palin (she called Pantano “another dedicated patriot running for Congress”) and Pamela Geller (of ‘mosque at ground zero’ fame, whom Pantano, returning the praise, calls “a patriot” whose endorsement “thrills him”) all in return for his brave murder of unarmed, kneeling civilians. Second, for the brutality it inevitably brings not only to those who take part in it, like Pantano, but to those at home who cannot help but be polluted by its ethos. And this includes not just those in Pantano’s district, which, not unexpectedly, sits only a few miles from the main marine training center at Camp Lejeune.

No. I would include, among others, the sweet man from Arkansas who made the news recently. His name is Clint McCance, and he’s vice-president of the Midland School District in a place called (get this) Pleasant Plains, Arkansas. Allegedly upset over a gay rights group’s “Spirit Day” recently, that urged wearing purple to raise awareness about harassment and bullying of gay youth, Mc Cance commented on his Facebook page:

The only way I’m wearin’ it (purple) for them is if they all commit suicide. I also enjoy the fact that they often give each other aids and die. (Yahoo News, 10/29)

Faced with a firestorm, including, according to McCance, death threats that prompted him to send his wife and children into hiding, the school board VP resigned. He apologized, saying he’s “sorry” for what he wrote on his Facebook page. “I would never support suicide for any kids,” McCance is quoted as saying; indicating that perhaps he’s heard about the rash of gay suicides recently. Isn’t that gratifying? I mean, given the way our politics are going, it shouldn’t be too long before the Tea Party and Sarah Palin are endorsing the very contrite McCance for political office.

As if all this weren’t enough, a recent book and article by sociologist Gar Alperovitz (Unjust Deserts: How the Rich Are Taking Our Common Inheritance and Why We Should Take it Back) puts what looks to be our late, great nation in perspective. You’ve all no doubt heard about how the financial gains of the last 30 years have gone disproportionately to the very rich, while middle class income has stagnated or dropped. Alperovitz points out that the United States now ranks with such advanced nations as Turkmenistan in inequality of income. That is, when measured for income inequality (the gulf between the rich and the rest of us), the United States ranks 77th out of 142 countries—this according to a recent estimate by the United Nations Human Development Report. It is tied not only with Turkmenistan, but also with such bastions of liberty as Tunisia and Georgia. That means that the distribution of income and wealth in the U.S. today is more unequal than at any time since the 1920s.

How did this happen? Taxes, for one. Remember the great tax reforms of the Reagan, Bush I and II eras? including a reduction to 15% on capital gains? Well over the last 25 years, “IRS data indicate that the top 1% of American taxpayers increased their share of the nation’s total pre-tax adjusted gross income from 10% in 1980 to 23.5% in 2007.” What’s more, the gain has little to do with individual efforts. Writes Alperovitz:

…not only do income shares of the kind that flow to the top 1% have little to do with what anyone has actually done to deserve them; rather the flows are largely traceable to technologies that ultimately were either paid for by the public, or more importantly, that derive from our collective inheritance of scientific and technical knowledge. (Alperovitz, Huffington Post, 10/28/10)

Now, of course, the Republican mantra is always that ‘lowering taxes frees up capital so that the rich can invest in job-creating businesses’; but what Alperovitz points out is that top marginal tax rates stood at 91% during several Republican and Democrat presidencies (Eisenhower, Truman, etc.) and those high rates “coincided with the postwar boom, the greatest period of economic growth in all of American history.” The shame is that the pusillanimous Democrats of recent years—Clinton, Obama, and the rest, including, this year in California, Jerry Brown running for governor—have echoed this crap about no new taxes. The result (helped by war, of course) has been the devastation of not just the federal economy, but also the economies of most of the states in the union. The prescribed remedy, always, is to “cut spending.” In other words, cut the benefits to the poor and working classes, who will sink even lower relative to the rich already enjoying the lowest tax rates in history.

What can one say? We seem to be wallowing in an era best described by William Butler Yeats in the early part of the twentieth century:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.

The poem, The Second Coming, continues,
Surely some revelation is at hand;/ Surely the Second Coming is at hand
But whether its dismal conclusion is apropos now is anyone’s guess:
And what rough beast, its hour come round at least,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Lawrence DiStasi

Monday, September 27, 2010

Fallout from War

Two books I’ve read recently have led to my musings on the fallout from humanity’s favorite pastime—and I don’t mean the obvious stuff like thousands of deaths, more thousands with absent limbs or battered brains, and still more with PTSD and other anti-social maladies. I’m talking about the lovely by-products of war which shape our societies for years afterwards. Jaron Lanier in his recent book, You Are Not a Gadget, for example, points out that modern computers were developed to guide missiles and break secret military codes. He lumps chess and computers as having derived from violence and competition. Even more specific, however, is Sandra Steingraber’s Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment (first published 1997; recently expanded and reissued). There she points out the often-direct relationship between war innovations and the chemicals that cause cancer. In commenting about the steep rise in lymphomas, for example, she writes that they seem to be correlated with exposure to synthetic chemicals, “especially a class of pesticides known as phenoxy herbicides.” And where did these originate? They were “born in 1942 as part of a never-implemented plan by the U.S. military to destroy rice fields in Japan” (52). Never implemented, of course, because we dropped two atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki instead. Nonetheless, the chemicals referred to are the now-infamous 2,4,5-T (2,4,5 trichlorophenoxyacetic acid) and 2,4-D (2,4, dichlorophenoxyacetic acid). In combination, they are known as Agent Orange, which the military was finally able to use in Vietnam between 1962 and 1970, and which contributed to uncounted deaths among Vietnamese, and a still rising incidence of non-Hodgkins lymphomas and lesser ailments among American veterans of Vietnam. The combination was outlawed in 1970, but one of the pair, 2,4-D is still in use, having become one of our most popular domestic weed killers for lawns, gardens, golf courses and farm fields. Its use on lawns may be one of the reasons why so many of our dogs—rolling happily in our chemicalized lawns--have been contracting lymphomas.

More generally, war provides industry, including the chemical industry, with a wonderful testing ground for all kinds of products. And when the war is over, those products find a new home in our homes. Steingraber again points out that after 1940,
…synthetic organic chemical production [doubled] every seven to eight years. By the end of the 1980s, total production had exceeded 200 billion pounds per year. In other words, production of synthetic organic chemicals increased 100-fold between the time my mother was born and the year I finished graduate school. Two human generations (90.)

These “synthetic organics” are marvelous little concoctions, perfectly designed, because of their similarity to our natural body chemicals, to react with us, but different enough to be hard to excrete. And what they do? “Some interfere with our hormones, some cripple the immune system, and some overstimulate the activity of certain enzymes.” And they are associated with what the World Health Organization concluded are the “80% of all cancers attributable to environmental influences.” Yes, you read that correctly: 80%.

Why don’t we know this? Why isn’t someone investigating this stuff? That’s the job Steingraber assumed. And her conclusions are not encouraging. First of all, cancer is not some random misfortune; it is specific in that fully “one-half of all the world’s cancers occur among people living in industrialized countries…especially North America and Northern Europe. Breast cancer rates are 30 times higher in the U.S. than in parts of Africa.” The places, in other words, where the fallout from two world wars and countless smaller ones has been greatest. Among them are those chemicals we’ve been hearing about recently, the estrogen mimickers which, “at a low level inside the human body mimic the female hormone estrogen.” Regarding this estrogenic fallout of war, Steingraber then gives us this zinger:
Many of the hypermasculine weapons of conquest and progress are, biologically speaking, emasculating (109.)

Read that again. And then consider further facts: In 1939 (i.e., pre-WWII) there were a mere 32 pesticidal active ingredients registered with the federal government, while

At present, 860 active ingredients are so registered and are formulated into 20,000 different pesticidal products. Current U.S. annual use is estimated at 2.23 billion pounds….82% of U.S. households use pesticides of some kind….Between 45,000 and 100,000 chemicals are now in common commercial use…Of these only about 1.5 to 3% (1200 to 1500 chemicals) have been tested for carcinogenicity. (95 & 97).

You get the picture. We are being bathed in a chemical soup (much of our drinking water is also contaminated; worse, the effects of bathing and showering in such water may be as bad or worse than drinking it, so don’t count on bottled water) whose effects are unknown to us because governments pass laws that sound good, but lack implementation. For example, in Illinois, Steingraber’s home state, the legislature passed a Health and Hazardous Substances Registry Act but though the State Cancer Registry compiles cancer deaths, it does nothing to try to correlate these deaths with exposure to hazardous substances: the state funded the cancer registry, but not a hazardous substances registry. In fact, from the data that Steingraber compiles, it is clear that a concerted effort has been made to keep the environmental causes of cancer out of the public’s consciousness.

This is clear from Steingraber’s rundown of the information on cancer prevention. There’s the much-heralded “war on cancer.” There are marches on behalf of funding for breast cancer and other cancer research. But with regard to causes, the onus is placed on—your guessed it—the victims. DNA, we are told, will solve the cancer puzzle because cancer is hereditary (you got it from your parents.) Or it’s your lifestyle that’s at fault: eat less fats, eat vegetables, don’t smoke, get lots of exercise. After that, if you still get cancer, it’s your own fault. But what Steingraber points out (with some suppressed fury, for she herself got bladder cancer in her teens), is that hereditary cancers are rare: “Collectively, fewer than 10% of all malignancies are thought to involve inherited mutations.” That leaves 85 to 90% unaccounted for; and thus likely due to environmental influences. It also leaves 30% to 40% of Americans due to get cancer in their lifetimes.

What are those environmental influences? Consider the class of chemicals called “triazines.” These must be some of the most diabolic substances ever conceived. Why? Because some of these emissaries from hell actually “strike directly at the process by which plants use sunlight to transform water and carbon dioxide into sugar and oxygen.” That is, they block the most fundamental process in life—photosynthesis—the process whereby earth produces plants not only to eat, but to be used as food by herbivores upon whom we depend for meat and dairy products as well. In short, the entire food chain. Imagine this! Aside from the question (which is all the pooh-bahs would like to consider) of whether such chemicals cause cancer, consider, as Steingraber puts it, “the wisdom of broadcasting over the landscape (atrazine is one of the top two most widely used pesticides in U.S. agriculture) chemicals that extinguish the miraculous fact of photosynthesis—which after all, furnishes us our sole supply of oxygen” (160). I mean, if this be not madness, what is? Soluble in water, traces of atrazine have now been found in ground water, 98% of surface waters in the Midwest, and in raindrops. Meanwhile, the EPA dithers and delays, no doubt influenced by mega-farmers and the chemical industry, to the point that 30 years from the time they were introduced, we still do not know the cancer risks of triazines coating our corn, our peaches, our plums, our apples, our cherries, peaches, cranberries, blueberries, strawberries, grapes and pears. Not to mention the long-term effects of interfering with photosynthesis (algae are also affected).

There’s more in this courageous, disturbing book, and I haven’t even looked at the updated edition. Read it if you dare. And the truth is, we all need to dare, or have our lives controlled by the conscienceless hucksters who now drive our agriculture, our household cleaning habits, our drinking water, our immune systems, our entire way of life. DuPont used to have a commercial slogan: “Better things, for better living…through chemistry.” We don’t hear that too much anymore. I wonder why.

Lawrence DiStasi

Addendum, 10/7: On KPFA's Morning Show, epidemiologist Devra Davis was talking about her new book, Disconnect: The Truth About Cell Phone Radiation. She reported that the blood-brain barrier that normally protects the brain from contaminants in the blood, has been shown to be vulnerable to cell phone radiation. Swedish researchers have reported that by exposing lab animals to cell phone radiation, they can get chemicals for chemotherapy past the barrier and into cells. For chemotherapy treating brain tumors, this is a good thing; for normal adults and especially for children, it is a breach in the body's natural defenses, and perhaps another environmental cause for alarm. Caution would seem to be warranted.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Assault on a Public Good

Since at least the Reagan administration and before, conservative zealots in this nation have been hard at work trying to dismantle government and all it stands for. Attacks on the EPA, the FDA, social security, and most regulatory agencies have become standard fare. In recent years, though, the most sustained attack has targeted public education—witness the school districts in Washington, DC, New Orleans after Katrina, and New York City under Michael Bloomberg. With Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the rallying cry of “accountability” has been codified into a mantra that Democrats, including President Obama, have slavishly echoed.

Now we have a book that tells us what all this has been about, and it is not pretty. Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System, goes behind the scenes to explain the programs, the facts, and the failure of charter schools, testing regimes, and much more. If you’re at all interested in education (and what is a democracy without an educated electorate?), it’s a must-read. Ravitch might seem an unlikely critic of these conservative dogmas, because she’s been on the conservative side for years. She supported the takeover of the NY Public Schools, NCLB, charter schools and all the rest. But to her credit, she stopped to examine the data and, horrified by what she found, has written a stinging criticism of the whole mess. Whether it will stop the train wreck that’s coming is something else, but this is a noble effort.

To begin with, let’s be clear: conservative Republican hatred for the public schools has its roots in racism (and classism). That’s what the public schools signify: mixed-race classes, busing, early childhood education to compensate for years of discrimination, and teachers’ unions encouraging black and brown people to enter the education workforce. Vouchers were an attempt to have government pay for private schools—“school choice” in their lingo—which was a thinly-disguised way to get separate-but-equal back. It was also a convenient way to get god back in the classroom, and godless evolution out. But vouchers were too transparently discriminatory. So the always-busy conservatives came up with charter schools and now NCLB, and that seems to be working. If, that is, you can call destroying public education “working.”

Ravitch slams NCLB from several angles (and isn’t it strange that anyone expected George W. Bush, one of the dumbest men ever to sit in the White House, to come up with a plan to improve public schools?) To begin with, NCLB never refers to what students should learn, i.e. there’s no curriculum in it at all. That’s left up to each state. All NCLB did was demand that schools produce higher test scores, proficiency, in basic skills—math and reading. Even so, proficiency might seem a reasonable goal until one realizes that the states are left to determine what “proficiency” means as well. All they are told is that their schools have to show regular increases in proficiency (average yearly progress or AYP), until—and this is the laughable part—in 2014 all schools in all states produce students who are fully proficient. If schools fail to show AYP, or, in 2014 fail to show full proficiency (fully mastering the grade standards) for ALL students, they will be closed, teachers will be fired, principals will lose their jobs, and “some—perhaps many—public schools will be privatized.” According to Ravitch, this is an impossible goal. But there’s more:

the most dangerous potential effect of the 2014 goal is that it is a timetable for the demolition of public education in the United States….indeed, scores of schools in New York City, Chicago, Washington DC, and other districts were closed because they were unable to meet the unreasonable demands of NCLB. Superintendents in those districts boasted of how many schools they had closed, as if it were a badge of honor rather than an admission of defeat. 204.

Now one might think, well those schools in those districts were ‘bad’ schools and deserved to be closed. But Ravitch has the facts:

…In the year 2006-2007, 25,000 schools did not make AYP. In 2007-2008, the number grew to nearly 30,000, or 35.6 percent of all public schools. That number included more than half the public schools in Massachusetts, whose students scored highest in the nation on the rigorous tests of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)….To date, there is no substantial body of evidence that demonstrates that low-performing schools can be turned around by any of the remedies prescribed in the law. Converting a “failing” school to a charter school or handing it over to private management efforts offers no certainty that the school will be transformed into a successful school. 204.

So what can we expect from public schools and states put under this kind of gun (“in 2008, a team of researchers funded by the National Science Foundation predicted that by 2014, nearly 100% of California’s elementary schools would fail to make Adequate Yearly Progress”)? You guessed it, they will cheat. States, that is, define “proficiency” themselves. So a state like Mississippi recently claimed that 89% of its fourth graders were at or above proficiency in reading, but, according to a national test given by NAEP, only 18% were proficient. How does this happen? The variety of ways to cheat is impressive. First of all, under the testing regime, teachers are incentivized to teach to the test (in some cases, this means actually giving the children practice in the actual test they will take.) Second, states change both the tests (making them easier) and the scoring required for “proficiency,” to make it easier to pass the tests. This is what New York State did. So,

Between 2006, when the state introduced a new test, and 2009, the proportion of students in grades 3 through 8 who reached proficiency on the state math test leapt from 28.6% to an incredible 63.3% in Buffalo, from 30.1% to 58.2% in Syracuse, and from 57% to 81.8% in New York City….But in reality, state officials made it easier to pass the tests. In 2006, a student in 7th grade was required to get 59.6% of the points on the test to meet state standards in math; by 2009, a student in that grade needed only 44% to be considered proficient. 157.

The same thing is documented in Chicago—where Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, took credit for huge increases in scores. You get the picture: if you can’t make the grade, cheat. One wonders how teachers in such a system can urge students to be honest when cheating reigns all up and down the line. As Ravitch concludes: “This sort of fraud (fiddling with scores, teaching to the test) ignores the students’ interests while promoting the interests of adults who take credit for nonexistent improvements.”

Perhaps the most alarming news in Ravitch’s book comes from her chapter called “The Billionaire Boys’ Club.” This refers to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation (Wal-Mart) and the Broad Foundation, among others, who are now pouring billions of dollars into the effort to change American education in the ways noted above. The basic idea of these “venture philanthropies” is to reform education to mimic the business model that made them their money: schools should be accountable (or be closed, or fired), should advance school choice (charter schools or vouchers), be competitive as in business, and move towards privatization as a final goal. In this effort, they fund charter schools (many run as private enterprises by people who know nothing about education; in that regard, the foundations have funded the hiring of “chancellors” such as Joel Klein, a lawyer, in New York and Michelle Rhee, with two years with Teach-for-America and no education training, in Washington DC) that will compete with the public schools. The irony, pointed out by Ravitch, is massive:

There is something fundamentally antidemocratic about relinquishing control of the public education policy agenda to private foundations run by society’s wealthiest people; when the wealthiest of these foundations are joined in a common purpose, they represent an unusually powerful force that is beyond the reach of democratic institutions…The foundations demand that public schools and teachers be held accountable for performance, but they themselves are accountable to no one…They are bastions of unaccountable power. 200-01.

She also quotes the Broad Foundation: “We don’t know anything about how to teach or reading curriculum or any of that. But what we do know about is management and governance.”

There is much more in this crucial book. It deserves to be read and brought to the attention of all legislators, including the President himself—who, as Ravitch points out bitterly, has “warmly endorsed” the Gates-Broad agenda by hiring Arne Duncan, one of the biggest beneficiaries of foundation money when he headed the Chicago public schools. Not surprisingly, and despite his hype, the schools there are still failing. Thousands more will be put on the chopping block in 2014 when NCLB comes due. Which will be nothing less than a tragedy, this death of American public schools, for, as Ravitch points out, going to school is not like shopping: “Schools are not businesses; they are a public good.” Privatizing them makes about as much sense as privatizing police and fire departments. What should be attended to is not testing, but what is being taught—the curriculum. One of the few states that does this is Massachusetts, and its students have the “highest academic performance in the nation on the NAEP and rank near the top when compared to their peers in other nations.” In other words, we know how it should be done, and it is not by testing, not by privatizing, not by killing public education in America. Most decidedly, it is not by letting the worst boondoggle in education history, the NCLB, to come to its bloody fruition. Look to it.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Toxic Wall Street

A couple of recent pieces on the late financial debacle have me puzzling over this stuff again—mostly because I still understand little of it (the big boys, naturally, like it that way). But here goes.

Too Big to Fail is a 2009 book by reporter Andrew Sorkin treating the agonizing days in September 2008 when the system almost collapsed. It’s a fascinating read, if for nothing else than the fact that it familiarizes us with the major mandarins of finance and government. We become chummy with then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and NY Fed chairman Tim Geithner, the latter now Obama’s Treasury Secretary. Of the two, Paulson comes off as the better man—more capable, more sensitive to the personalities he had to deal with (and therefore more respected by them), more concerned to save the system. Geithner strikes us as a bit of a tyrant, jealous of his perks, prone to order his bankers to jump through the hoops he has set for them. Paulson, by contrast, always solicits the ideas of those he tries to persuade. We also get the feeling that the entire ordeal—having to bail out the free-market system he was and is so much a part of—was one Paulson would have avoided if he could. He was perfectly happy as CEO of Goldman Sachs. As Treasury Secretary, on the other hand, he has to persuade, cajole, and take crap from Congress; at various points, we are told that he actually vomits from the political tension he is under. No wonder. If all reports are to be believed, the financial system was on the very brink of collapse. The way Sorkin tells the story also indicates that the renowned TARP bailout of major financial institutions was actually a political/psychological ploy meant to calm markets and the American people—a plan that forced nine major banks to accept an infusion of billions of dollars each, whether they needed it or not. Many did: Citibank, Morgan Stanley, and AIG. Others, especially Goldman Sachs and Wells Fargo, did not. But in order to create the illusion of equality and stability, Paulson’s plan required all banks to accept the money.

The story begins with the impending collapse of Lehman Brothers. We feel almost sorry for the CEO, Dick Fuld, who had spent his life building the firm, and who, until the very end, thinks he can work a deal to get another bank to rescue his. Such a buyout is what Geithner and Paulson spend most of their time trying to arrange. But Lehman’s problems, coming after the bailout of Bear Stearns, suffered from bad timing: the public was already alarmed by the first bailout and it was clear another would ignite a firestorm of protest. So Lehman’s failure was political as much as financial. Indeed, one of the failings of this book is that we never really get a clear explanation of why any of these financial giants was hemorrhaging so badly. We learn about the fall in their stock prices; we hear that the “short sellers” are driving their price down; but we don’t really quite understand what the root problems or mistakes are. What we get mostly are vignettes dramatizing little episodes in the long series of near-mergers and deal collapses. Some of these vignettes are telling: Bob Diamond, CEO of Barclay’s Bank, approached by Geithner to buy Lehman, wants the Federal Reserve to guarantee the deal (it is amazing to realize how alergic these financial “geniuses” are to the free market economics they’re always preaching).

“We need to be seen, to be invited by you and shepherded by you,” Diamond insisted. “You guys asked me if there was a price at which we’d be interested and you asked me, if so, ‘What do you need?’ That doesn’t mean I’m gonna call Fuld. That’s completely different.”
Giethner, growing frustrated with his equivocation, asked again, “Why can’t you just call Fuld? Why can’t you do it?”
“I’m not going to ask a guy if I can buy him, you know, at a distressed price,” Diamond said. “It only works if you guys are looking to arrange a deal. If you’re not, fine, no hard feelings, we’re okay.”

Then comes Sorkin’s comment:

However much Barclays may have wished to avoid giving the impression that they might be taking advantage of someone else’s misfortune, it was, of course, precisely what they were seeking to do. (p. 262)

This is really the key to the entire skein of deals and deal-making that Sorkin portrays. All these pooh bahs knew each other, played golf with each other, sat on boards together, had dinners together (at the finest restaurants on the planet, of course). They wanted to appear to be friends; but, in fact, they were sharks, circling each other, keen always to detect the smell of blood from a wounded competitor.

Unfortunately, during those terrible days of September, there was a lot of blood in the water. Once Lehman was allowed to fail, fear ruled Wall Street and Washington as well. No one knew who would be next because all the firms were interrelated financially. AIG had written enormous amounts of insurance—credit default swaps—for Goldman Sachs and others. If banks tried to collect on these insurance policies, which many did, AIG was going down. It was this domino of collapses that Paulson and Geithner, in Sorkin’s telling, were so desperate to prevent. At one point, before Paulson promoted his TARP program, we listen in on one of his conversations with Steve Schwarzman, chair of private-equity giant, the Blackstone Group. Schwarzman says:
“I have to tell you, the system’s going to collapse in the next few days. I doubt you’re going to be able to open the banks on Monday….People are shorting financial institutions, they’re withdrawing money from brokerage firms because they don’t want to be the last people in—like in Lehman—which is going to lead to the collapse of Goldman and Morgan Stanley. Everybody is just pursuing his self-interest,” Schwarzman told him. “You have to do something.” (emphasis mine).

What strikes me here is the language: Everybody is pursuing his self-interest. Well now, isn’t that a damn shame! These are the people who have raised the individual pursuit of self-interest to the level of holy dogma: this is what makes capitalism, free markets great. But when it happens within the club, when the dogs turn on each other, then they cry foul! You have to do something! And of course, Paulson did do something, for it was right after this that he put together, and rammed through Congress, the TARP bailout program.

This is fascinating stuff. We actually find ourselves rooting for the Treasury Department, for financial leaders like Dick Fuld, to succeed. I liken this feeling to the similar feeling one gets when watching mafia movies: no matter how heinous their behavior, we root for the characters who are portrayed from the inside as protagonists. Their cause becomes our cause. Sadly, what Too Big to Fail leaves out are the series of fraudulent, near-criminal activities that led these Wall Street powerhouses to run aground: the sub-prime mortgages, the collateralized debt obligations, the credit default swaps, all the exotic instruments whereby they and their executives enriched themselves to obscene levels, and brought the entire financial system and the economy it supports to near ruin. A recent article, “Banks Self-Dealing Super-Charged Financial Crisis,” indicates just how culpable these guys were. What the analysis by ProPublica reveals is that when these Wall Street banks saw how the market for the mortgage-backed securities they’d been packaging at great profit was faltering, they “created fake demand.” They simply bought their own products—the worst of the mortgages in their CDOs—and put them together in new CDOs, which they then proceeded to sell. They knew these new CDOs were junk, because that’s why they’d separated them out in the first place. And when the new ones proved hard to sell in full, they created yet more CDOs to buy those. ProPublica calls this a “daisy chain that solved one problem but created another.” And when the daisy chain could no longer be hidden, when, as we learn in Too Big to Fail, the banks could no longer get away with valuing these toxic assets at the inflated levels they claimed for them, the banks started to collapse.

That’s when we American taxpayers came to the rescue: TARP, Toxic Asset Relief, means that the U.S. government was forced to buy the worst of these bank “assets” to get them off their books—because with them, the big banks would fail.

I don’t know about you, but this just gives me a warm feeling all over.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, August 20, 2010

Lazio Takes the Low Road

Rick Lazio has always had boyish good looks and a charming personality. I discovered this working with him on the World War II legislation—the Wartime Violation of Italian American Civil Liberties Act—of which he was the co-sponsor, and which was signed into Public Law 106-451 on November 7, 2000. Lazio was able to work with Democrat Eliot Engel and others in the House of Representatives, and, as a Republican, seems to have had some influence with then-Judiciary Committee Chairman, Henry Hyde, in granting the Una Storia Segreta project the critical Judiciary hearings that ensured the bill’s passage. For all this I was and am grateful, as is the entire Italian American community.

Recently, however, in his attempt to become New York State’s governor, another side of Rick Lazio has come to the fore, and it is neither handsome nor charming. Though he seems to have repudiated the Tea Party in his state (partly, at least, because his primary opponent, Carl Paladino, has become their darling of the moment), Lazio has concluded that the silly flap over the building of an Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero can be a winning issue for him, and, despite vigorous criticism from all sides, is milking it for all it’s worth. Some have accused Lazio of being so desperate for campaign funds that he has sunk to this level to raise money. Whether or not this is true, his words and his position in this controversy make clear that Lazio’s moral compass can easily go missing when he senses an opportunity. In this, of course, he has ample company—including most of the Republican Party and a large number of Democrats as well.

To briefly review the controversy: plans to build a 13-story Islamic Cultural Center once known as Cordoba House, now known as Park51, two blocks from Ground Zero, were recently approved by the New York State landmark preservation board. Tea Party activists including Sarah Palin, have raised hell about this “insult” to the memory of 9/11 victims and the alleged sacrilege to what is called “hallowed ground.” Notwithstanding the fact that the structure is the brainchild of Imam Faisel Abdul Rauf—a man so associated with bridge-building among faiths that he was chosen as an ambassador without portfolio to help the Bush Administration reach out to Muslim nations and promote the American image abroad—and notwithstanding the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom, the project is being compared to planting a Nazi sign at Auschwitz, or building “a memorial to kamikaze pilots next to the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor.” (this last from Carl Paladino, Lazio’s opponent in the Republican primary.)

Incredibly, Lazio has taken the accusations several steps further. Claiming that his objection is not religious (President Obama has stated publicly that religious freedom guarantees Muslims the same rights to build a center as anyone else), but involves only a plea for “transparency,” Lazio has raised the issue of “safety and security.” He has therefore attacked his expected opponent and current Attorney General of New York, Democrat Andrew Cuomo, for failing to investigate the “books” of the project to find out who is funding it. This call for transparency is clearly shorthand for raising the issue of terrorism—a barely veiled warning that mosques should be suspected as fronts for terrorist groups bent on harming New Yorkers. Here is how he framed it in an appearance on the PBS News Hour on August 16:

“What I’ve been calling for is transparency. There’s a certain defiance about the need to put it right there…This Cordoba initiative has $18,000. right now for a $100 million mosque…Where is this money coming from? Who’s behind this?....Let’s open the books, let’s find out where it’s coming from, whether it’s a foreign government or militant organizations that are funding this. The question here is whether or not we should feel safe, this is about safety and security…This is about what’s right, what’s ethical, what’s decent, what’s fair, and from a standpoint of safety…”

Thus, where most criticism of the Islamic Center project focused on its alleged insult to the memory of the dead, Lazio, though he refers to “what’s ethical, what’s decent, what’s fair,” has abandoned ethics, decency and fairness to foreground the element of fear: is this project funded by the same terrorists who funded 9/11?

As if to amplify his verbal raising of the fear factor, Lazio has recently released a two-minute video described as “a collage of various opinions from people filmed near Ground Zero,” featuring “images taken on September 11, 2001 depicting firefighters running into the debris of the former World Trade Center Towers.” So outrageous is this ad that it has incited criticisms from the very people Lazio was trying to associate himself with. According to an August 20 NBC.com report, both the NY Fire Department and the Police Department have demanded the video’s removal:

“The Uniformed Fire Officers Association and the NYPD’s Sergeants Benevolent Association has sent Lazio letters denouncing the use of the 9/11 footage. ‘We have always been opposed to the use of images from the attack on the World Trade Center in political advertising. Virtually every candidate for public office has honored that sentiment to date. So it was with a mix of surprise and disappointment to see your new video that seeks to capture the attention of the viewer with graphic images of Ground Zero that day,’ read a letter signed by UFOA President Alexander Hagan. ‘For someone whose argument against the mosque is that it is insensitive to those who lost loved ones on that day, it is unconscionable that he would display similar insensitivity by evoking these painful memories for his own political purposes,’ wrote SBA President Edward Mullins.”

Whether Rick Lazio can summon the courage to come in from the moral desert he’s placed himself in remains to be seen. Given the national attention his stance has garnered for him, though, and given the Tea Party competition from his rival Paladino, such an attack of conscience doesn’t appear likely. Rather, in this year when the twin specters of racism and McCarthyism seem to have risen from what we hoped was their grave, we can probably expect more of the same, if not worse. And though the politics are sad, sadder still is what is likely to result from all this—the conviction among Muslims worldwide that our so-called war on terror is really a war on them.

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, August 13, 2010

Is Democracy Possible?

No one needs to be reminded that we’ve all just been through some pretty depressing times. The economy nearly collapsed and remains anemic, BP pretty much trashed the Gulf of Mexico with its oil eruption, the health care “reformers” couldn’t even squeeze a public option into their pathetic bill, and the promised legislation to begin to bring greenhouse gases under control was just abandoned because of a lack of votes in the Senate. Barack Obama, hailed into office with so much fanfare and hope (at least from progressives) seems shell-shocked at best, and ineffectual at worst. Hounded on the right by Tea Party idiots who call him both a socialist and a Nazi, and criticized on the left by his own supporters as disinclined to fight for his beliefs, his poll numbers have plummeted so rapidly since the BP spill that some of the Democrats running for Congress have warned him to stay away from their districts. As to the congressional and gubernatorial races coming this Fall, most seem headed for disaster, with Republican yahoos threatening to take over one or both houses of Congress—a result that would doom any prospects for reasonable legislation and perhaps result in repealing the few decent items already passed (like health care).

To counteract their catastrophe, the Democrats are doing their usual dance—kowtowing to conservative ideas and slogans, and courting the banks and corporations which brought the country to its knees. With their need for campaign cash as primary, such so-called “representatives of the people” make ever clearer that they represent not you and me, but the biggest, dirtiest, most ruthless elements in the nation: Wall Street operators, corporate crooks, energy barons, health care frauds, and the military-industrial complex which profits from war and terror.

In short, though we all like to think that we the people control our government because we get to vote every two or four years, the sad truth is that our control is illusory, a con game meant to pacify the masses while the same old robber barons and insiders get to set the agenda, invent the terms of debate, and offer up the candidates (in recent years, bypassing the back rooms and seeking elective office themselves—i.e. Michael Bloomberg in New York, Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina running for governor and senator in California). And in the few instances where their control fails, they hire armies of lobbyists to hamstring any legislation that might threaten their profits, their incomes, their mandarin lifestyle.

The question this raises is the one in my title: Is Democracy Possible? Or more pertinently, is democracy doomed?

I’m not sure I can answer this question (surprises are always possible), but a recent documentary raises some fascinating alternatives. That’s why I’m suggesting here that you take a look at what average people in several other parts of the world are doing. The basic idea is simple: since those who represent/rule us are captives of the moneyed interests who brought the whole system to its knees, and since our so-called leaders could think of nothing to do but to rescue these same criminals and try to restore the very system of organized thievery that failed, the people themselves are obliged to find other ways. Other ways to survive. Other ways to come together as a society of human beings. Other ways to barter and bargain and aid each other without the mediation—and rapacious profit-taking—of the banks and corporations who care nothing for people or the planet they’re daily trashing but only for their precious bottom line. Other ways; because if the bigs can’t or won’t do it—and they’ve made crystal clear that they will fight tooth and nail not to—it makes no sense to wait until they sink the whole ship; the change has to come from the bottom up.

So here’s the url for the documentary. It comes from the web site, solari.com, of Katherine Austin Fitts, a longtime economist and U.S. government official who’s talking some of the most radical economics around. Take a look. I did, and though I’m not yet sure how or if it can apply to me or my community, just the fact that ordinary people are thinking and acting in these ways—opting out of the nefarious system that has us all bound and gagged, and implementing amazing alternatives—made my day. The website:


Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Shallower and Shallower

Nicholas Carr’s 2010 book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, is must reading for anyone interested in the major transformation ignited by the rise of computers and the Internet in recent years—that is, if there are still people who can concentrate enough to read a full-length book. That’s the idea Carr is promoting, with statistics like these about reading (and “printed works” include books, newspapers, magazines, etc.):

"By 2008, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the time that the average American over the age of fourteen devoted to reading printed works had fallen to 143 minutes a week, a drop of 11% since 2004. Young adults between 25 and 34, among the most avid Net users, were reading printed works for a total of just 49 minutes a week in 2008, down 29% from 2004." (p. 87)

And therein lies Carr’s major point: where the Gutenberg revolution (which around 1439 mechanized printing and made books possible for everyone) changed human brains by making them able to focus for long periods on a single subject (a book, a long article) and plumb its meaning, computers and the Internet are changing brains in the opposite direction. They are inducing brains to jump from one item to another, to become addicted to multiple messages and hyperlinks, email alerts, moving, flashing ads, and countless other media devices in such a way that even Carr, a book writer, confesses that he finds it difficult to concentrate in the old way. In short, says Carr, Marshall McLuhan was absolutely right when he wrote nearly forty years ago about television that “the medium is the message.” That is, the way we absorb material via our computers and the Internet is not neutral; the medium changes our brains, or more precisely, our brains, due to their astonishing neural plasticity, adapt to the electronic medium, and even merge with it: “we program our computers, and thereafter they program us.”

Though some of the science of brain plasticity Carr references is complex—involving the way our eyes convert symbols into meaning or the brain areas where the various functions of perceiving and interpreting occur at split-second intervals—the basic idea is simple to grasp because we are all familiar with it: “Whenever we turn on our computer, we are plunged into an ‘ecosystem of interruption technologies.’” One of the main technologies for this interruption or distraction mode is the hyperlink—those typed portions in blue which signal that by clicking on one, you are immediately transported to an expansion (often the original article) of the point being made. Whether or not we click on the hyperlink, our brain is distracted, even if only to the extent of deciding whether or not to follow the link. Thus, as Carr notes, unlike a footnote, which can be ignored or saved for later (and only provides a reference), a hyperlink actually “propels us toward” the related material; it “encourage(s) us to dip in and out of a series of texts rather than devote sustained attention to any one of them.” Rather than the linear, calm attentiveness fostered by reading a book, that is, reading online encourages us to jump around, to pursue one after another distraction. If this makes you think of TV commercials—which every parent notices absolutely transfix children with their colorful, high-volume quick cuts and false excitement—that is no accident. The idea is essentially the same: provide the brain with the hyped-up perceptual stimulation it automatically responds to, and you get “mindless consumers” of data. Carr refers to the Net as a “high-speed system for delivering responses and rewards,” thus turning us metaphorically into “lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment.” We go to our email, we go to our facebook page, we go to our news page or favorite website for constant updates about “what’s happening.”

The problem is that the type of intellectual activity this hyped-up perception fosters is not concentration or depth, but superficiality: “when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.” Our thoughts are scattered and our attention distracted. Rather than reading deeply in a way that promotes reflection or meditation, we become pursuers of endless data. Carr explains how the brain’s structure and architecture facilitate this, explaining recent research in memory formation and the two types of memory involved—short-term and long-term—and the brain changes that are involved in both. It makes for fascinating reading. For our purposes, it is only necessary to understand that short-term or working memory (what we remember for a few moments as we perceive it) can be overloaded, and that is precisely what happens in the “cognitive overload” that can result from Net activity:

"When the load exceeds our mind’s ability to store and process the information, we’re unable to retain the information or to draw connections with the information already stored in our long-term memory. We can’t translate the new information into schemas. Our ability to learn suffers and our understanding remains shallow." (p. 125)

Carr cites several areas of research leading to the same conclusions: people who read linear text “comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links.” This is reinforced by studies showing that people on the Net spend an average of 19 to 27 seconds looking at a page before switching to a new one. That clearly does not encourage concentration or thinking, and a related study showed that, for over a hundred well-educated people, reading habits over the last 10 years for most had changed from in-depth reading to “browsing and scanning.” This is precisely what the Internet encourages. When we consider the rise of technologies like the Kindle and Apple’s I-Pad, where thousands of books are readable on a screen—with hyperlinks everywhere—and the Google Book project which has already scanned millions of books that are available for reading online, it is clear that reading from a physical book is well on its way to becoming an anachronism. Indeed, one of the more bizarre situations that Carr relates is the phenomenon of cell-phone novels that started in Japan in 2001, when young Japanese women “began composing stories on their mobile phones by texting.” They then uploaded them to a website, where others commented on them, added new ideas, and created the group novel, several of which became best sellers. One of the reasons for their popularity is their simple love plots and short sentences; one novelist named Rin explained that readers no longer like novels written by professional writers because their sentences seem “intentionally wordy” and the stories “unfamiliar.”

What this augurs for our future is anyone’s guess. Judging by the many studies Carr cites, the prospects are not good. As brain researcher Antonio Damasio notes about a study his lab performed, neural processes that relate to the “higher emotions” such as empathy and compassion are “inherently slow.” His study showed that though the brain reacts quickly to “demonstrations of physical pain,” more sophisticated processes of empathizing with suffering respond far more slowly, because of the time it takes for the brain “to transcend the immediate involvement of the body” and comprehend the “psychological and moral dimensions.” This could mean that the speed and distraction encouraged by the Internet (and everything else in our high-speed world) may well be eroding the uniquely human ability to respond deeply to others via those empathic moral responses that require “adequate time for reflection.” That would truly be a tragedy.

Lawrence DiStasi