Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Demagogues Rising

This past Sunday, Heather Cox Richardson wrote a piece for titled:
“It is time to get very afraid: Extremists, authoritarians now run the GOP—and no one can stop them.” Her piece, well worth reading, runs through some of the history of the rise of conservatives in the United States, beginning with William F. Buckley and continuing through the Goldwater run for the presidency in 1964, the Nixon ‘southern strategy’ to take advantage of white outrage over the Johnson-era civil rights bills, and into Ronald Reagan and the consolidation of radical-conservative thinking into what almost seems a majoritarian hold on American life. She also takes us through the Bush W. years and today’s rise of the clown car of Republican presidential hopefuls, all of whom would have been considered absolutely beyond the pale in Republican primaries of the Eisenhower era and before. Not any more. Republican presidential aspirants now try to outdo each other in the rabid radicalism of their utterings. They deny climate change, they deny that taxes are necessary, they deny that Obamacare is legal, they insist that Obama is a Muslim and a foreigner, they indulge in outright lies—Carly Fiorina insisted that she ‘saw’ a video of Planned Parenthood  people dealing in foetal body parts, and when confronted with the truth, tried to produce a fake video to compound the lie—and never even blanche when caught. They “double down” as the media loves to call it, rather than, the media I mean, holding aspirants for the highest and most powerful office in the world to account, to even a bare minimum of truth-telling. And above all, Republicans have, since the aforementioned Buckley, maintained that government is the enemy, government is unnecessary, government is what deprives red-blooded Americans of their freedom and must be “drowned in the bathtub.” This leads to idiocies such as Tea Party activists chanting “get your hands off my Medicare,” all the while directing their wrath at the very government that in fact gives them Medicare.
            Isaac Asimov is reported to have once written:
“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

In the situation that now faces us, it would be tempting to join Asimov in attributing the ravings now convulsing the Republican Party to sheer stupidity. Americans are stupid, they are proud of knowing nothing about politics or science or world affairs, and this is why the Republicans can make a virtual cult of ignorance, spouting the most outrageous and dangerous falsehoods, stupidities, and pretend-cures like no taxes, and get away with it.
            But that would be too easy. Americans in general are ignorant and poorly educated, yes. But even a stupid population would see through the flim-flams of someone like Donald Trump. They seem not to. Ever since he entered the Republican primary race, with his nasty, narcissistic, authoritarian insults of his rivals and everyone else, Trump has not only led the field, he has overwhelmed it. He seems to appeal to some atavistic impulse of Tea Party arch-conservatives to bring on the most hateful, boorish leader available and have him “clean house.” Get rid of government ‘insiders’ and intellectuals. Trump’s recent “tax plan,” announced this weekend, will have delighted them: it promises reduced or much-lowered tax rates for poor and lower-middle classes as a cover to disguise the fact that the upper echelons (the real ‘insiders’) are actually the ones who will make out like bandits, including massive corporations and those richest of the rich who have big estates that benefit from reduced estate taxes. Not to mention the fact that the vastly reduced revenues that will result will be taken out of critical social programs like Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, and every other public program that will be starved in the way that rich Republicans have always wanted them to be starved. And of course Trump scapegoats the most disadvantaged, the immigrants coming over our borders, with his promise to build a border wall to rival the Israelis’ wall of shame keeping out Palestinians (to Republican ‘minds’, there is always enough federal money to finance walls, aircraft carriers, nuclear weapons, drones and every other form of welfare-for-the-rich-and-powerful their devious brains can imagine).
            All of this might be just mildly annoying or even funny if it weren’t for the fact that events seem to be playing into Trump’s (or fate’s) hands. The 2007-8 financial collapse drove the country into an economic downturn from which it has still not fully recovered. Though the stock market has been cratering of late, it rose to unprecedented heights to make billions for the very Wall Street scam artists and banksters who brought the whole economy down in the first place. This powerfully exacerbated the wealth gap between the richest and the poorest Americans, a gap not seen since before the Great Depression. While salaries for the poor and middle classes have remained stagnant since the Reagan years, the income for those who do not work for their money but earn it through financial investments has skyrocketed. A permanent underclass has emerged with even less hope than most for carving out a decent life. And for the white male portion of the population, easily persuaded that the benefits they should have are being given to the ‘underserving’ poor and colored classes, the gravity of the labor situation is compounded by resentments against their ‘vanishing rights.’ These kinds of hopeless conditions and resentments are what prepared Germany to accept the lunacies of Adolf Hitler and his gang in 1930s Germany. That is the real danger here. When whole populations get desperate, they become ever more susceptible to the ravings of demagogues.
            One other condition seems to me to be adding to the danger. Hillary Clinton, the once-inevitable nominee for the Democratic Party, has been faltering badly. Her campaign seems unable to put any distance between the candidate and the manufactured scandal of her private email servers. Months have gone by and she is still peppered with questions at every turn about whether she violated the law. This has meant that the unlikely Bernie Sanders has been able to catch and surpass her in the latest polls: he leads in both Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two primary states. Now Bernie Sanders is the candidate I prefer. But he has made no secret of his attraction to socialist principles. He believes in big government, he believes in New Deal type policies to re-distribute income to benefit those who need economic help, he believes in social programs to help the poor and disadvantaged, he believes in taxing the rich so that they pay what he believes is their fair share to support the government programs he believes in. And his message seems to be resonating, at least with primary voters and a sizable portion of Democrats polled so far.
            If Sanders were to become the nominee of the Democratic Party, and Trump were to grab the Republican nomination—as he now seems likely to do—we would then have a Trump v. Sanders presidential race. Two outsiders (more or less; though Sanders has been a politician his whole adult life, he has always been an Independent). And two men who tend to say, largely unedited, what they think. But I fear that the campaign would be a disaster for the truth-teller, for the rational man, for the man who believes that everyone deserves a fair chance to thrive. Because history shows us that in the conditions that pertain in the world today, and will pertain even more in the future, the demagogue usually triumphs. The big liar triumphs. The man who pretends to know the answers—simple answers that everyone can understand—wins. Most people, especially in a crisis, want someone to tell them what to do. People want someone to tell them that their country is, and has always been, the best the world has ever known. That their country is prompted by good and noble aims. That their country always works for the good guys for the good solution on the side of the angels. And that it is only the outsiders, the marginalized Others, who are causing trouble. Hitler played this song in the 1930s in Germany and succeeded beyond what anyone might have imagined. Mussolini did the same in Italy. We are great. We come from noble Roman stock. Our nation must take its destined place at the head of Europe. We deserve our own empire. And all those who say otherwise are defeatists, losers, cowards, and pathetic intellectuals who never do anything. If not communists or terrorists.
            This is how the campaign—if it does turn out to be Sanders v. Trump—could well go. The authoritarian, the man who brags about his wealth and dismisses everyone else as stupid and incompetent because they haven’t made the money he has, will garner the headlines, will continue to fascinate the media with his sound-bite style, and make mincemeat of the more sober, rational, serious man of the people. And what I fear more is that this will be only the beginning. As Naomi Oreskes imagines it in her recent novel, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, the fate of nations under global warming conditions will favor the authoritarian governments most able to handle the crises that will result. Migrants, millions of them, will be on the move due to the ravages of floods and storms and drought and sea-level rise displacing whole populations. They will be swamping borders wherever they can, just as migrants from Syria and Afghanistan and Africa are now over-running the borders of Greece and Italy and Hungary and everywhere else in Europe. In such a situation, suggests Oreskes, democracies will be more or less paralyzed. They will need to fashion consensus, pass laws, take precious time to determine whom to accept and whom not to accept, and where to put them, and how to enforce what they decide. A nation with an authoritarian government, by contrast, will be able to act much more swiftly and decisively. A dictator will simply be able to say: ‘no more; build the fence, build the wall; allow no one to enter except the few we can use.’ And will have no qualms about using force to maintain those closed, inviolate borders.
            Hateful as it is to think it, in such a situation, it is the Donald Trumps of the world, the bloviating, narcissistic, ruthless assholes who can lie without blinking an eye and condemn whole populations as worthless, who will manage to captivate the loyalty and approval of the masses. The masses will want protection. They will want simple solutions. They will choose security over liberty every day of the week.
            That is what I fear. And that is what we should all be worried about, as Heather Richardson writes, right now. Before it is too late. The time is very very short, but there is still time. There is time to agitate, and demonstrate, and educate, and work for candidates who are driven by more than ego and money and power and the ignorance of contempt.
            Within a very few years, there may not be.  

Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, September 25, 2015


Yogi’s gone, alas. He departed this world on Wednesday September 23 at the ripe old age of 90. That means, for those who can’t do the math, that he was born in 1925.
            I actually remember when he came up, or more precisely, I don’t ever remember a Yankee game without him. That’s because I think it was in the mid-Forties when I started following the Yankees, which is when Yogi finally entered the lineup as the regular catcher—replacing Bill Dickey, the greatest catcher (before Yogi) ever to play the game. It was Dickey who coached Berra in the finer points of catching, one reason Berra became so great. 
            But in truth, I don’t remember much about his expertise as a catcher. What I remember was his ability to hit in the clutch. If there were men on base and the Yankees needed a run, Yogi almost always delivered. How he did it wasn’t apparent either. His swing didn’t have the fluid grace of a DiMaggio, or the obvious power of a Mantle. But he was strong, especially in the arms and wrists, and could muscle a ball into the outfield no matter how far out of the ‘sweet spot’ it was. And it often was: Berra was always known as a “bad ball” hitter, swinging away at anything that took his fancy, and managing to connect more often than not. Usually his hits were screaming line drives, he almost never struck out, and often enough he hit for the distance, usually when a home run was needed to win.
            The stats back this up: MVP in 1951, 1954, 1955; the most RBIs, 1430, of any catcher; fifteen consecutive All Star selections (1948-1962); 10 World Series championships with Series records for most games (75), at-bats (259), hits (71), doubles (10) and catcher putouts (457). As to his most famous game as a catcher, he was behind the plate calling Don Larsen’s pitches when Larsen pitched the only perfect game in World Series history. The photo of him leaping into Larsen’s arms has become an icon of the sport.
            After this glittering career, he became a manager and excelled at that too, being one of a very few to lead both American (Yankees) and National (Mets) League teams to the World Series. His managing career added to his World Series records, extending his reign to no less than 21 World Series—as player, coach or manager—the most in history. After all that, he was a shoo-in to the Hall of Fame in 1972.       
            But stats only begin to tell the story of Lawrence Peter Berra. The son of Italian immigrants to St. Louis where he grew up in the same neighborhood (known as ‘the Hill’) as fellow catcher Joe Garagiola, Berra became one of the most recognized figures in the world—with even a cartoon character, Yogi Bear, named after him. The name Yogi is supposed to have come from a baseball friend, Bobby Hofman, who said Berra resembled a Hindu holy man when he sat around with arms and legs folded waiting to bat. It fit so well it stuck. Yogi’s way with language made the name seem prophetic. Everyone on the planet now seems to know “It ain’t over till it’s over;” or “”It’s déjà vu all over again.” But what’s more remarkable is that these apparent malapropisms (Yogi quit school after 8th grade) turn out to be deeply perceptive: the “ain’t over” comment was prophetic for the NY Mets who, virtually out of the pennant race when Yogi said it in July 1973, sprinted to win on the last day of the season. It really wasn’t over.
            Perhaps it is this, besides the greatness of his hitting, that should stick in our minds: the sharpness of Yogi’s baseball mind. Craig Biggio, a catcher for the Houston Astros says: “He’s the smartest baseball man I’ve ever been around.” Phil Garner, another Astro (Yogi worked as a coach for the Astros to end his career) added: “When it comes to baseball, he has a computer-like mind.” Not bad for a jug-eared kid from a poor immigrant family in a working-class neighborhood of St. Louis—for whom, sadly, it’s finally over.
            Except, of course, for those Yogi-isms.  Here are some of my favorites:
            When you come to a fork in the road, take it.
            Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t go to yours.
            I can’t concentrate when I’m thinking.
On why he no longer went to Ruggeri’s, a St. Louis restaurant:
            Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.
And my favorite, describing a fancy house he’d just purchased:
            What a house; nothin’ but rooms.

Lawrence DiStasi

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Dying Before their Deaths

When commenting on the change in practices from farmers of a half-century ago to the contract growers of today, Sonia Faruqi in her book Project Animal Farm (Pegasus Books: 2015), concludes this way:
            “Animal use has become synonymous with animal abuse.”
That is really the thesis of her book in a nutshell, and something that all of us need to be reminded of again and again. Our industrial agriculture, specifically the ‘production’ of animals we use for meat and to produce our eggs and milk, has become a mass torture chamber in which animals are abused in the name of efficiency, biosecurity, feeding a hungry world, and the essential consideration of profit. To be sure, we have heard this often before. There have been countless books and documentaries and exposès of the horrors that go on at factory farms. So why this book? Because Faruqi, a one-time Wall Streeter who lost her job in the recession of 2008, has done what few have done before: she has actually visited animal farms, has stayed with and befriended the owners and contract growers, and has endured outfitting herself in the bio-hazard suits that are now necessary for anyone to slow walk through chicken facilities, egg-laying facilities, pig facilities, dairy facilities and slaughter houses. They are that toxic. Further, Faruqi has visited animal farms not only in the United States and Canada, but also in Malaysia, Indonesia, Mexico, and Dubai to inform us that even as Europeans and some Americans are revolting against the most disgusting practices recently revealed, large European- and American-based agribusinesses are rapidly expanding their brutal operations abroad, especially to Asia and Latin America. And everything is being exported: not just the machinery and methods and breeds to manufacture meat for McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Walmart, but also the industrial world’s appetite for meat. Here is how she puts it:
Fast food succeeds only on the basis of factory farms….Fast food chains alter not just meat production but also meat consumption. People start eating more meat, and this greater amount of meat is produced more deplorably. The low prices at fast food cash registers are a direct result of callous indifference toward farm animals. (247).

Thus, in a small country like Malaysia, Faruqi reports, there are now more than 500 KFCs, 300 Pizza Huts, and 300 McDonald’s. Furthermore, a global survey in 2004 found that Malaysians eat even more fast food than Americans do: where only 1 of every 3 Americans eats fast food once a week, 3 of every 5 Malaysians do.
            To produce all that Kentucky Fried Chicken at low prices, KFC has become the biggest “integrator” in Malaysia, setting up the machinery for chicken warehouses with always more rows of cages to keep chickens imprisoned, delivering their own fast-growing DOCs (day-old chicks) to the factory farmers, and ‘harvesting’ them within 6 weeks to be slaughtered in their own processing plants for delivery to their outlets. These are modern, genetically developed ‘super chickens.’ As Faruqi explains, computer-aided genetic selection has created breeds, like Tyson’s Cobb chicken or Aviagen’s Ross 308, that accelerate growth and the amount of breast meat to astounding levels:

In 1925, chickens reached a weight of 2-1/2 pounds in 16 weeks; today, they reach a weight of almost 6 pounds in 6 weeks (while consuming less than half the feed per pound of weight gained). It’s miraculous but torturous (100).

The torture arises because this creates chickens (and turkeys, which have the same problem: too much breast meat growing too fast: the weight of modern turkeys multiplies 300 times between birth and slaughter—now a period of only 16 weeks!) that are literally frankenfoods. Their breasts grow so big their legs can’t support them, so most spend their lives sprawled on floors covered with excrement. Worse, their internal organs can’t keep up with their explosive growth, and so they collapse of heart and lung ailments. In order to control these problems, desperate measures are required. Here’s how one of Faruqi’s informants, Terry at a factory farm in Canada, puts it:

“The lights have to be very controlled, so the chickens gain weight but don’t get heart attacks. When the lights are on, the chickens are awake and eating and gaining weight. When it’s dark, they stop eating. We don’t want them to eat too much, because their genes are weird. They grow too fast, and their heart and legs get fucked up. They get heart attacks. So, we need to control how much they eat, and we control it with the lighting levels.” ((95).

A similar problem afflicts egg-laying chickens, nearly all now kept in cages (4 to 6 chickens are crammed into a metal cage no larger than a microwave). Even at an “organic” farm in Canada, these caged egg-laying hens must be de-beaked, a cruel practice that has been banned in Europe. And why must hens be de-beaked? First, because of the torturous cage-crowding they are raised in. But also because the genetic selection used to get hens that lay more eggs works inversely with “broodiness,” i.e. the instinct to mother their chicks. It also works directly with aggressiveness. So, the more eggs they can lay, the more aggressive the hens become, and they literally become cannibals: pecking each other to death and eating the remains. Thus, de-beaking is justified by the industry as a ‘cure’ for cannibalism; as is low lighting and walling the cages so hens can’t see and imitate each other. The place where egg-laying hens (and soon all meat-producing hens as well) live has thus become a dark, filthy, toxic and dangerous dungeon that most chicken growers themselves hardly enter, preferring to control lighting, feeding and all else via computers. And all this to do that which is the only metric used in corporate farming: increasing the unit of production.
            To her credit, Sonia Faruqi doesn’t leave things there. She also visits more or less ideal animal farms and demonstrates that the animals we use for food need not be raised in medieval torture chambers. Harley Farms in Canada, for example, is reminiscent of the farms of old, though it is quite a bit larger. Run by an Englishman who had to leave his English farm during the mad cow scare, Harley Farms is a kind of animal heaven: its 400-500 beef cattle live outside almost the entire year, while its 100 sows and pigs are housed in specially-built wooden sheds. The baby piglets are kept in a barn bedded with hay and straw rather than excrement, and rather than looking zombified, the animals are lively and playful. Faruqi describes it:

I breathed deeply; the barn smelled…good. Pastoral farms smell good, I realized then, because soil and straw absorb manure and odor. The piglets are happy….Unhappy pigs, such as Charlie’s, bite each other’s tails until they bleed. Happy pigs, such as Roger’s, are calm and contented, mischievous and adventurous (127).

Of course, such farms are seen as a threat by the big industrial producers, who, in fact, tried to buy Roger Harley out, offering him a quarter of a million dollars yearly to stop him from “expressing my views” about humane farming. Fortunately, he turned them down, but most other small farmers eventually succumb. In Vermont, the emblematic small dairy farms where cows actually live to see and eat grass, are almost gone—bought out by huge operations with which they cannot compete. And around the world, the dominant trend is more epitomized by one of the KFC chicken farms in Malaysia run by a Mr. Hubib, whose operation produces some 160,000 broiler chickens every month in four giant warehouses. Not content with this, Mr. Hubib proudly explained to Faruqi that he was eagerly awaiting a new system involving cages for his broiler chickens (heretofore, cages have been used mainly for egg-laying chickens because of the fear that broilers would bruise their flesh on the wire floors of cages and reduce their value; but now, plastic flooring has solved that problem). Hubib’s numbers revealed all: where in the closed chicken houses he had currently, he could allot 0.75 square feet per chicken (in an open house, the allotment would be 1.2 sq ft.), in the new broiler cages he’ll soon have, “I give chicken only .44 square foot, and I have a lot of chicken. I have 54,000 in one barn! I make a lot of money”  (233).  
            There is much more to this eye-opening book, but you get the idea. What we have is an animal-producing system of corporate agriculture that gives the world the increased quantity of meat it has been taught to want, at the cheap prices it can afford, all going on “behind a giant subterfuge… so removed from the day-to-day lives of most people that they might as well be occurring in a separate universe” (196). And it is a huge universe. Tyson, the largest meat producer in the world, “slaughters more than 2 billion chickens a year, along with 20 million pigs and 7 million cattle” (230), while, worldwide, upwards of 70 billion farm animals are raised for food each year. Increasingly, the dreadful conditions in which they are raised is a world of animal abuse, cannibalism (“Chickens excrete the cow parts that they eat, and these parts are fed back to cows in the form of chicken feces; this strange cannibalism chain creates an alarming danger of disease, including mad cow disease” 264), and diseases like cow ringworm, whose cure is simple sunlight. But in the brave new world of industrial animal production, sunlight, like grass, is the rarest of commodities. Here is how Faruqi puts it near her conclusion:

Most farm animals today live and die without ever feeling a ray of sunshine on their backs or a blade of grass under their feet. Every hour builds upon the next in a perpetual hell, and the misery continues onward without reprieve. Existing in conditions of disease and decay, animals die before their deaths (328).

Among the many problems we face in our world, this one ranks high. For if we persist in treating animals as if they were unfeeling “things” completely unrelated to us, then it cannot be long before we also treat humans in similar ways. Indeed, we already do. For it cannot be a coincidence that the system that is now polluting the world of modern agriculture (and ourselves) was conceived in the same nation, the United States of America, that leads the world in locking up human beings, caging them in solitary confinement, depriving them of human contact, and sunlight, and all the natural sights and sounds and interactions that alone keep sentient beings human.
            Can it be long before our corporate overlords decide that these same constrained environments are economically and socially adequate for all of us—or at least the vast majority of us who cannot afford to buy our own private islands?

Lawrence DiStasi