Monday, September 25, 2017

National Anthem

Aside from the stupidity and indignity involved in the President of the United States playing “the dozens” with professional athletes over their taking a “knee” during the playing of the National Anthem at professional sports contests, there is something real at stake here. That is, despite the President’s recent “tweet” that “race has nothing to do with it,” race has everything to do with it. If you look at the history—both of the playing of the Anthem at professional games, and the few occasions when athletes have refused to salute during its playing—you can see that the overwhelming majority of those who have used this form of protest have been black. Muhammad Ali said he wasn’t going to Vietnam because “no Viet Cong ever called me nigger,” and his career was essentially terminated. Tommi Smith and Juan Carlos raised their fists in the Black Power salute during their victory stance at the 1968 Olympics, and they were similarly vilified; as was Chris Jackson (now Mahmoud Abdel Rauf) who, playing basketball for the Denver Nuggets in 1995 sat down during the playing of the National Anthem (he said the flag was a “symbol of oppression, of tyranny”), and was subsequently forced to stand by the NBA commissioner, and shortly thereafter lost his basketball career. Now we have Colin Kaepernick, the Super Bowl-winning quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, first taking a knee during a pre-season game on August 26, 2016, and who is this season still undrafted by any professional football team. His career may well be over as a result. But what he said to justify his refusal was simple and eloquent:

            “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder” (quoted in “A Brief History of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ being played at games and getting no respect,” by Fred Barbash and Travis M. Andrews, Washington Post, Aug. 30, 2016).

            Kaepernick’s refusal to stand, and its being taken up by a few other football players, and then the similar but not identical refusal of Steph Curry of the championship Golden State Warriors to go to the White House to be ‘honored’ by President Trump, has now morphed into open warfare between the President and professional (mostly black) athletes. And yes, it is about race. Because the (asterisk) President chose, after an obvious race-baiting campaign, to use a campaign stop in Alabama to say that NFL team owners should fire players for taking a knee during the national anthem. He also said owners should respond to players taking such action by saying “Get that son of a bitch off the field now, he’s fired. He’s fired!”
            There was no mystery who the “son of a bitch” was. Trump clearly meant the black Colin Kaepernick (though Kaepernick was actually adopted and raised by white parents, so his ‘bitch’ mother is white); the also-black Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks, who also has been taking a knee; and after these comments, the scores of athletes, both black and white, who knelt or sat during the National Anthem on September 24 to show their solidarity with Kaepernick and his reasons for refusing to honor the national anthem: e.g., to draw attention to the police murder of black men that has incited the “Black Lives Matter” movement. There is no mystery that Trump, and those who support him, hate the Black Lives Matter movement. There is no mystery that candidate Trump used this and other alleged ‘outrages’ to appeal to his white supremacist audience, his white supremacist base. For that has been the Republican Party’s clear strategy since Richard Nixon inaugurated his ‘Southern strategy’ during the 1968 presidential campaign. But Nixon and most others tried to disguise their appeal to racist Southern states by claiming to be addressing the “silent Majority.” Trump has abandoned that cover story. As a result, his has been a more or less open and overt appeal to racists, xenophobes, anti-semites, and anti-elitists—all those Muslims and Mexicans and Blacks and coastal elites whom he blames for the demise of the Great America he promises to restore. And his recent war with African-American athletes was carefully calculated to occur in one of the most racist states of the deep South, using the kind of language that would be sure to appeal to southern resentments and white anger. For how many public figures, never mind a President, would dare to call a black athlete a “son of a bitch”?
            The question that arose for me this morning, though, was whence comes this jingoism at professional athletic contests? Why should a kid’s game become the occasion for mawkish displays of national pride? One can understand why this might happen at the Olympics—which are, after all, thinly-veiled displays of national prowess, where athletes compete for their home countries. But why should the same pride be displayed at domestic ball games? The above-referenced article in the Washington Post explains why. It turns out that the first known playing of the Star-Spangled Banner occurred during the 1918 World Series, at the first game between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. The key is the date: the United States was then at war in Europe, having just joined the First World War effort in 1917, after immense campaigns to get Americans behind the war effort (which most were reluctant to do). In the traditional seventh-inning stretch at the World Series, the crowd suddenly heard a band playing the Star-Spangled Banner (not yet the official national anthem, which it became officially only in 1931). Some in the crowd began to sing along with the music, and then most of the fans did likewise, cheering at the end. As explained in the Post article: “The event had a public relations bonus for ballplayers in 1918, as there were people wondering why they were on the ballfield rather than the battlefield.” In other words, why the hell are you perfect physical specimens playing a kid’s game rather than doing your grownup duty in battle? Almost immediately, baseball’s owners caught on, with the Red Sox the first team to open every game with the national anthem, and other teams quickly following suit.
So there you have it. The reason the national anthem is played at sports contests has less to do with “respect for flag and country” and more to do with public relations. Professional sports owners have to provide a cover story to explain why grown men are paid enormous salaries to play a kid’s game rather than joining their peers in defending their country. We who opposed the war in Vietnam could see this most clearly in the late 1960s, when Sunday football games became obvious metaphors for (hoped-for) American might on the battlefield—or in the corporate sector. The whole spectacle became so nauseating that for years I could not watch football or any other professional sport. It still nauseates some to this day, augmented these days by the knowledge of the dreadful brain damage that is being incurred by football players at every age. Now, though, we have some of the black athletes who make up huge percentages of major sports teams taking advantage of their prominence by trying to draw attention to the plight of their less fortunate brothers. And that sticks in the craw of all those who think these athletes should be grateful for their success. They should be good workers on the sports plantation and give thanks rather than complain. They should not insult the national pride in the flag and the anthem that celebrate American might and military prowess (or bullying). They should simply shut up and play their kid’s game with childish abandon, leaving the big issues to the grownups.
But many of them are finally, and forcefully saying no. And the President, as is his wont, takes the “no” personally: it’s all directed at him. At his constituency. At his people. At his great America. But the truth is, it isn’t. It’s directed at all of America, America since the beginning, and at last it is saying: if you give us this platform because of our skills and bodies and hard work, then we have the right to use that platform to the benefit of those who have no voice. And we will continue to do it, and draw attention not just to the current outrages, but to the 400-year history of those outrages, until they stop. And all of us with any sense of justice or history or compassion should applaud them—not the National Anthem they are using to make their point.
Lawrence DiStasi

Friday, September 8, 2017

Inequality's Not Only Unfair; It's Unhealthy

I’ve just been reading in a fascinating book, Behave, by neurologist Robert Sapolsky, and some of the conclusions he cites about how inequality negatively affects health struck me as critical to publicize right now, in our increasingly unequal society.
            Begin with this: It’s not so much being poor that predicts poor health. It’s feeling poor. That is, how you feel, financially, when you compare yourself with other people, is the key.
            Now here are some explanations for how this works. First, a psychosocial explanation: lower social capital (the collective quantity of resources such as trust, reciprocity, and cooperation available; in brief, being able to count on your society and other people for support) means higher psychological stress. That is, the less you can count on your society and other people, the more you’ll be stressed. And upping the stress response negatively affects health in a wide variety of ways. Briefly, stress causes the adrenal glands to release glucocorticoids (the ‘fight or flight’ response), which in turn quickly mobilize energy from throughout your body, increase heart rate and blood pressure to deliver energy to muscles needed for a physical challenge. The problem is that we humans often activate a mental component—an anticipatory stress response, ahead of a real challenge; which is fine if a real challenge comes. But if one is constantly convinced a challenge is coming when it isn’t, then one can become anxious, neurotic, paranoid or hostile: e.g. psychologically stressed. And such chronic psychological stress leads to serious metabolic problems: high blood pressure, diabetes, and suppression of the immune system leading to vulnerability to all kinds of ailments.
            Second, what’s called a neomaterialist explanation comes from Robert Evans of the University of British Columbia and George Kaplan of the University of Michigan. This is the one that intrigues me. The idea is that “if you want to improve health and quality of life for the average person, you spend money on public goods—better public transit, safer streets, cleaner water, better public schools, universal health care”; in short, on social capital, such as they have in Denmark, say. But the more unequal a society is (which is to say, the greater the income gap between wealthy and average citizens), the less benefit the wealthy feel from policies that improve public goods. ‘What good does public transit, or childcare, or clean water, or public parks do me?’ is the idea. So then, what do the wealthy benefit from? Why from dodging or lowering taxes to keep more for themselves, and then spending their money on goods and services that benefit old number one—luxury cars with a chauffeur, private golf courses, gated communities that keep out the riffraff, bottled water that evades the public system, private schools for their kids, private luxury health plans. Evans puts it this way:
            “The more unequal are incomes in a society, the more pronounced will be the disadvantages to its better-off members from public expenditure, and the more resources will those members have to mount effective political opposition” (e.g., lobbying by corporations and the wealthy to reduce public spending on social capital).
Evans actually calls this the “secession of the wealthy” (comparisons to the secession of the South to bring on the Civil War are clear), and shows how it promotes “private affluence and public squalor.” Luxury for the haves, squalor for the have-nots, in short.
But this isn’t all. Increased inequality also tends to increase crime and violence. Why? It’s related to that initial notion: it’s not how poor you are, but how poor you feel. That is, poverty amid a culture of conspicuous consumption is a big predictor of crime—as studies show all across America, and indeed throughout industrialized nations. But why? Both because of the psychosocial element: inequality means less social capital, less trust, cooperation, and people watching out for each other. And also because of the neomaterialist element: with inequality comes more secession of the wealthy from contributing to the public good (states with more income inequality spend proportionately less money on that key tool against crime, education). Both together lead to more crime.
And finally, another kicker. As has been shown with experimental animals, if you shock a rat electrically, his stress response shoots up. But if that rat can quickly bite another rat (i.e. taking his stress out on a lower-ranking rat), his stress response is far less. It’s the kick-the-dog syndrome. And it has been shown experimentally with baboons as well: one of the best ways to reduce glucocorticoid secretion is for a high-ranking baboon to displace his aggression onto a lower-ranking baboon: a male loses a fight and then chases a lower-ranking male, who promptly bites a female, who then lunges at an infant. In human societies, displaced aggression is as common as dirt: one study measuring effects with football showed that if the local football team unexpectedly lost, violence by men against their wives or partners increased by 10%, and even more (13%) when the losing team was in a playoff. This operates in poor areas even more graphically: instead of the poor rising up to attack the wealthy who cause their problems, most often they prey on their poor neighbors nearby. And crime in poor neighborhoods is one of the pervasive problems leading to anxiety, poor health, and more.
Starting to sound familiar? Starting to sound like a society you’re familiar with? It’s as if the current U.S. government, especially the Republican sector now controlling whole chunks of it, has taken this whole section and memorized it, and set out to engineer as much of the “secession” of the wealthy as they possibly can. This is why their mantra is always, cut government spending (i.e. cut those social capital programs that help the majority—good schools, healthcare, safe neighborhoods, clean water) and privatize everything from schools to roads to water to power. This is exactly what the Trump Administration is trying to do, mainly through the cabinet heads they’ve appointed to reduce and dismantle government programs and regulations. And by their upcoming push to take an axe to taxes on corporations and the wealthy. And by crippling Obamacare. And by starving schools of necessary funds so they can be privatized. And on and on.
And until the rest of us finally wake up and start to reverse the deadly slide of the United States of America into banana-republic status, we’re all (those of us who aren’t wealthy, that is) going to keep getting unhealthier by the minute.

Lawrence DiStasi

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Who's 'Begging for War?'

As North Korea ups the ante once again, this time with a massive nuclear blast that some observers (and the North Koreans themselves) are calling a hydrogen bomb, the rhetoric coming out of the Trump administration gets more belligerent by the minute. As I noted in a previous blog, the two adolescent leaders—Kim Jong Un of North Korea and Donald Trump of the U.S. (how it hurts to write that)—are engaged in a pissing contest. ‘My dick is bigger than yours; look how far my piss goes.’ Only it’s not piss that’s being compared; it’s weapons of such massive destructive power that most rational humans shudder to even contemplate their use. But not the Donald. “What’s a nuke for, if we can’t use it?” he once said. Most recently, Nikki Haley (who, before becoming our UN Ambassador, seemed semi-rational) has been uttering nutter phrases like “We have kicked the can down the road enough. There is no more road left…” No more road for diplomacy, is what she seems to mean, especially considering that she also said Kim Jong Un is “begging for war.” The President himself tweeted much the same thing, berating the South Koreans for their “talk of appeasement with North Korea,” which will “not work, they only understand one thing.” That is, violence of the nuclear variety.
            And as we all look on in horror as nuclear armageddon looms ever closer, we have to ask: Just who is it that’s begging for war? Can the world really believe that North Korea, a nation of 24 million people whose economy seems permanently hobbled, and whose military, while large, would be no match for that of the United States and South Korea combined (the South itself may have nukes in its huge military arsenal supplied by the United States), actually wants a war? Or is it rather Donald Trump—he whose administration has lurched from one failure to another without a single legislative victory, with an approval rating that’s the lowest of any president in modern history—who is really searching for a ‘wag-the-dog’ solution to distract us all from his mounting problems?
            To really probe this question, especially the one concerning what exactly Kim Jong Un thinks he’s doing with his rockets and nukes, we need to know a bit about history (which most Americans, especially their idiot president, do not). My source is an article that appeared on last week: “How History Explains the Korean Crisis,” by distinguished historian William R. Polk. In it, Polk makes sense of North Korean belligerence by detailing the long history of invasions Koreans have suffered, starting in 1592 when Japan invaded and controlled the country for a decade or so. The Japanese invaded again in 1894, and this time set up a ‘friendly government,’ thereby ruling Korea for the next thirty-five years. It was in this period that many Koreans fled the country, including Syngman Rhee (the first president of the South) who fled to America, and Kim Il Sung (the first leader of the North) who fled to Russia-influenced Manchuria, where he joined the Communist party. By WWII Japan had reduced many Koreans to virtual slaves (thousands of Korean women became “comfort women” or concubines for the Japanese Army). But what’s fascinating to me is what happened to some of those Koreans who became rulers in the post-WWII period. Syngman Rhee, long resident in the United States and ‘Americanized’ (not to say ‘Christianized’), was set up as the first president of the new South Korea (North and South were vaguely established by the UN in 1945, but Rhee officially became the South’s ‘president’ with American help in August of 1948). He ruled basically as a U.S. puppet, with the United States military assuring his continuance by sending thousands of U.S. troops to support him, and American industry assuring the economic rise of his part of the country. According to William Polk, “Syngman Rhee’s government imposed martial law, altered the constitution, rigged elections, opened fire on demonstrators and even executed leaders of the opposing party.” His successor (via a military coup in 1961), Park Chung Hee, spent the war in Korea, but by collaborating with the Japanese occupiers (he apparently even changed his name to a Japanese one). His rule as President was so vicious that he, too, was overthrown (assassinated by his intelligence chief, 1979) and replaced first by Choi Kuy-hah, who was then deposed in a military coup by Gen. Chun Doo-hwan, who himself immediately imposed martial law that closed universities, banned political activities and throttled the press. A book I’ve read recently, Human Acts by renowned Korean novelist Han Kang, dramatizes the university and high school protests of 1980 in Gwangju that were savagely put down by Chun Doo-hwan, who ordered soldiers to coldly shoot over 600 young protesters and bury them in mass graves.
            By contrast, Kim Il Sung, who was to become the leader of North Korea after WWII for no less than fifty years, spent the war years as a guerilla fighter influenced by the Russians, where he led the resistance to the Japanese occupiers. His status as a hero was established there, and he soon became the first Prime Minister of the North, which he declared as a state in 1948, with ambitions to reunite North and South (Syngman Rhee had announced the same intention, as ‘reunification’). But when Rhee declared that the South was a fully independent state, Kim Il Sung saw it as an act of war, and (once China had agreed to take responsibility for the outcome) ordered his army to invade the South. Far better equipped and motivated than the southerners, Sung’s army took possession of Seoul, the South’s capital city, within three days, on June 28, 1950. By this time, the U.S. had persuaded the UN Security Council to protect the South, and organized 21 countries to send troops (though Americans made up the bulk of the forces). Still, Sung’s military drove the southern army all the way south to the city of Pusan, where, by August, the southern army “held only a tenth of what had been the Republic of Korea.”
Here the situation was saved for the South only by the brilliant counterattack led by General Douglas MacArthur, who made a storied landing at Inchon, where, behind enemy lines, the Americans were able to cut off the Northern army from its bases. That led to a further attack by the South, which retook Seoul, and then moved across the 38th parallel (the dividing line between North and South) and drove nearly to the Chinese frontier. This brought China into the conflict, and, with what it called a 300,000 man “Volunteer Army,” overwhelmed the South Koreans and drove the Americans out of the North. At this point, General MacArthur urged President Truman to use fifty nuclear weapons to stop the Chinese, but Truman instead replaced MacArthur and continued the more or less conventional war. Except that it was not at all conventional for the North. U.S. carpet-bombing devastated the North with more tonnage (including chemical weapons) than had been used against the Japanese in all of WWII. Analysts today estimate that the North lost 33% of its population through this bombing—one of every three North Koreans perished. As Polk puts it, Korea proportionally suffered roughly 30 times as many people killed in 37 months of American carpet-bombing as these other countries (Britain, France, China and the U.S.) lost in all the years of the Second World War.” This may help explain why North Koreans generally favor their government’s stance to repel invaders at all costs: most have experienced the utter devastation of war firsthand.
            Finally, the North agreed to negotiate a cease-fire to end the stalemate (the state of war between North and South still exists), with the country divided at its 38th parallel by a demilitarized zone to keep the armies separate and to keep ‘new’ (i.e. nuclear) weapons out of the peninsula. Unfortunately, the United States, in 1957, violated article 13(d) of the agreement:

In June 1957, the U.S. informed the North Koreans that it would no longer abide by Paragraph 13(d) of the armistice agreement that forbade the introduction of new weapons. A few months later, in January 1958, it set up nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching Moscow and Peking. The U.S. kept them there until 1991. It wanted to reintroduce them in 2013 but the then South Korean Prime Minister Chung Hong-won refused (Polk op. cit.).

Thus we see that it was the United States that decided to introduce nuclear weapons to the Korean conflict. But what about the North Koreans and their nukes? Even here, Polk points out, both the South and North had agreed to abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation agreement (1975 and 1985 respectively), but both violated the agreement (South Korea covertly from 1982 to 2000; North Korea in 1993, withdrawing totally in 2003.) Polk also adds that the precipitating event for the North’s withdrawal and its underground testing begun in 2006, was George W. Bush’s January 2002

Axis of Evil speech, in which he demonized North Korea. Thereafter, North Korea withdrew from the 1992 agreement with the South to ban nuclear weapons and announced that it had enough weapons-grade plutonium to make about 5 or 6 nuclear weapons (Polk op. cit.).

            This brings us to today. As noted in a recent article (Mel Gurtov, “Echoes of Reagan: Another Nuclear Buildup,” 9.3.2017), the United States currently has about 6,800 nuclear weapons (roughly 1,400 strategic weapons deployed, the rest stockpiled or retired). Among these, the 920 missile-launched nuclear warheads deployed on 230 invulnerable submarines, are alone “enough to destroy an entire country and bring on nuclear winter.” By comparison, North Korea may have about a dozen nuclear weapons (some analysts say they could have as many as 60), most of them about the size of the ‘paltry’ nukes that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It also has the still fairly rudimentary missiles it has been launching with frequency this year, very few with the ability to strike the United States or anywhere near it. So what is this business about the North “begging for war?” It is an absurdity. What the North is really after is simple: survival; a resolution of the South-North war, which has been ongoing since the armistice in July 1953; and, related to that, an end to the huge and provocative war games that have been carried on for the last three weeks. These ‘games’ go on twice a year, and are clearly designed to threaten the North by simulating an invasion of North Korea and a “decapitation” operation to remove Kim Jong Un. What would the United States do if Russia were to carry on war games from Cuba or Mexico? We already know the answer to that. Yet despite the continuing pleas of the North to the U.S. and South Korea to cease these provocative military exercises, the U.S. and its protégé have persisted and even expanded them ever since the end of active fighting. In addition to these regular war games, recently the United States has sent groups of F-35B fighters, F-15 fighters and B-1B bombers on military operations over a training range near Seoul, where they dropped their dummy bombs to simulate a nuclear strike. According to Mike Whitney (, 9.4.2017, “What the Media isn’t telling you about North Korea’s Missile Tests”),
The show of force was intended to send a message to Pyongyang that Washington is unhappy with the North’s ballistic missile testing project and is prepared to use nuclear weapons against the North if it fails to heed Washington’s diktats.

That’s it exactly. For this is the way the world according to American empire works: we can hold threatening war games, we can surround you with nukes from submarines and bombers and missile launchers, we can insult you and threaten you and starve you and humiliate you and refuse to end our war against you, but if you dare to stand up to our bullying, we will destroy you. And it’s your own fault for defying our ‘rule of law.’
            But of course, the North sees through this. Kim Jong Un may be a clown in a funny haircut who’s trying to prove he’s a big boy now, but he’s no dummy. His nuclear response to the threats from the United States, when considering his people’s history, and his knowledge of recent history, is perfectly rational. As Mike Whitney points out, “Kim has no choice but to stand firm. If he shows any sign of weakness, he knows he’s going to end up like Saddam and Gaddafi.” To remind you, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya finally decided to take the West at its word, and give up his nuclear plans. He was thereafter the victim of an invasion by western powers and ended up publicly violated in a gruesome death, mocked by American leaders like Hillary Clinton: “We came, we saw, he died.” Ditto Saddam Hussein of Iraq, whose country is in ruins. Kim Jong Un would clearly like to avoid that fate. He and his people would like to avoid being bombed back into the Stone Age, again. And so they are gambling that the blustering primate in Washington will either run true to his cowardly form, or be persuaded by calmer and more rational minds to see if there might not be an opening for negotiations. In fact, we all have to hope that this is the case. China and Russia also hope that this is the case, proposing once again (as they did in March and often before that) that in exchange for a halt to the military exercises by American and South Korean forces, North Korea could be persuaded to freeze its nuclear and missile programs. Surely, there is the germ for a diplomatic agreement here. Even South Korea’s new president, Moon Jae-in has just reiterated his offer to hold peace talks with North Korea (, 9.5.17) in what he has called his “Sunshine Policy.”
The only real question is whether the United States, and especially its wacky president, will ever agree to stop the war games. Because, after all, we are the Americans, the big dogs, who don’t back down, who don’t negotiate unless it’s totally on our terms. Which in this case, means: do what we say not what we do, give up your nukes, and we can discuss the terms of your unconditional surrender. Anything short of that is “begging for war.”

Lawrence DiStasi