IPS Blog

On Not Scaring Ourselves to Death: Moving Beyond the Adrenaline Rush of a Good Storm to an Energy Revolution

noaa.gov

There’s nothing quite like the adrenaline high of a good storm. It’s like a good horror film: And this “Frankenstorm,” coming right on Halloween, is giving us the best of the worst of storms. As the waters rise, the weathercasters feed our high, red circles and arrows signaling danger. We are glued to the set, knowing exactly what comes next: They wade into thigh-deep water; they stand at the ocean’s edge, buffeted by high winds; they shout into the microphone; they take risks we secretly wish we could take. It is as if the whole thing is choreographed, like some archetypal play being enacted before our eyes for the one-thousandth time.

Just as we have come to expect this adrenaline rush from our weathermen and women, so too, it seems, we have come to expect the testosterone surge from the endless parade of men (and they are largely men): mayors, governors, presidents, military leaders, all looking manly, in control, surrounded by more men, looking on, somberly, from behind. What they say is less important (we already know the advice, but, like children, must be told again and again: “Things are bad;” “Don’t take any risks;” “Stay off the roads;”) than how they say it, and what the optics are: Does he look presidential? Is he a man in charge? How calm does he sound in the face of catastrophe? We need that “father figure,” it seems, when times are tough. And our media and our politicians willingly oblige.

We are so good at this, in America, so good at responding to the crisis. We cheer on our National Guard, our Coast Guard, our everyday heroes, and then, when the danger has passed, when the tide recedes, we congratulate ourselves and them by digging deep into our pockets and sending money to the Red Cross and the homeless shelters, saluting our men and women in uniform, as though this, and this alone, were the price of admission.

And yet…we are fooling ourselves, again and again, just as our children do every Halloween, high on fear. This Frankenstorm, can we stop fooling ourselves? Our planet desperately needs us to get beyond the adrenaline rush of responding to one storm after another, as though each one were a unique shock, and not related to an overall climate crisis of enormous proportions. We need our political leaders and weather-casters to end the silence on climate change. And we need to start to think long-term, to start claiming responsibility for the growing intensity of our storms. Climate change is upon us, folks, and if this is what a 1-degree Celsius rise looks like, imagine what a 2, 3, or 4-degree rise looks like.

For leadership, we may have to look beyond our borders, to the Danes or the Germans: They have taken their blinders off. They have looked around, taken stock of who owns most of the oil and gas in the world, carefully reviewed what Japan is suffering in the wake of Fukushima’s multiple nuclear meltdowns, and both countries have said: We are committed to going both fossil-fuel-free and nuclear-free. These countries are committed to true energy independence — not the short-lived kind that results from trading one poisonous addiction for another. It is a long slog. It does not involve instant gratification the way storm heroics do. It involves tinkering with different policies — such as Germany’s feed-in tariff and Denmark’s multi-decadal experimentation with wind. It involves committing hundreds of billions of dollars to solving a problem that will ultimately save these countries hundreds of billions of dollars, along with millions of lives. There are few heroes in these national dramas. There are plenty of ordinary people, including women, thinking intergenerationally, thinking of their children, their grandchildren, and of children on the other side of the planet, understanding that the energy commitments we make today affect the Frankenstorms our children will suffer tomorrow.

Can we grow up and out of scaring ourselves to death? Can we move into a long-term push toward the kind of energy future that will not bring real terror to millions around the world? Or will we just put on the costume of Superman and pretend we have saved Gotham City, yet again, while Frankenstorm 2.0 waits around the corner?

Why Elections Matter, and Why We’re Still Arguing About It

It’s practically the eve of the election—and I’m still kind of stunned to hear from people who don’t plan to vote, who think voting doesn’t matter. A young writer, 21 years old, wrote to me the other day, after seeing an interview I did on what elections are and aren’t, and on how the candidates do and don’t differ on foreign policy. (Spoiler alert: mostly they don’t.)

Among other things, he said “We young people understand that the political theater of electoral politics will not bring about the radical transformations required to avert environmental and economic catastrophe.”

And of course he’s absolutely right. Anyone who thinks that choosing a “better” leader for the US empire will somehow bring about “radical transformations” has been watching too many campaign infomercials. Only powerful social movements can do that. We have to fight for democracy and we have to build our movements—choosing a presidential candidate doesn’t accomplish either one.

Because national elections—at least those for president—in this country are not democratic. As I said in the interview he was critiquing, presidential elections are not our turf, they’re not our people, they’re not our choices. And anyone who thinks that voting for one candidate over the other is going to solve our problems—especially global problems including wars, occupations, climate change and global inequality—is way wrong.

So our work has to focus on building our movements. But who gets elected president is dangerously relevant. My own work focuses on stopping the drone war, getting US troops out of Afghanistan now instead of two years from now, ending US support for Israeli occupation and related issues—and on those issues there’s hardly any difference between the candidates.

There is one war-and-peace issue where they do differ, and that one matters a lot. Both set “red lines” and say they would use military force against Iran—that’s disastrous under any circumstance. Romney’s red line, which is Israel’s red line, would use force to prevent Iran from reaching “nuclear weapons capability.” While it’s not defined anywhere in international law, “capability” is generally assumed to include the ability to enrich uranium and scientific knowledge. And arguably, Iran actually has that capability already. In the real world of potential new wars, there’s a huge difference between that, and Obama’s red line, which he would invoke to prevent Iran from “having” a nuclear weapon, an event which the entire combination of US military and intelligence agencies agree could not happen before at least a couple of years out. The difference matters—because over years it is possible to build and strengthen movements that will make any such new wars impossible.

And while foreign policy shows the closest parallels between the two parties, that isn’t the only issue. Who gets appointed to the Supreme Court—whether a mainstream moderate centrist or a young right-wing extremist ideologue who will work for decades to move the court even further to the right—matters a huge amount. And that’s exactly who the current Republican party will appoint. Top Republican candidates view rape—“legitimate” or otherwise—as God’s plan for bringing babies into the world. Women, especially poor women, living in much of this country already have few or no options for full reproductive healthcare, especially in how to deal with unwanted pregnancy. One party is pledged to appoint judges who will overturnRoe v. Wade and make abortion illegal across the board. That matters.

Some undocumented young people have just won the opportunity to gain legal status in this country; that’sway not enough, but it matters when the alternative is a new regime pledged to deport all undocumented or to force them to “self-deport.” Obama’s commitment to Medicare and Social Security remains mostly intact, largely because his political base demands it; Romney’s commitment to both is non-existent, except as a means towards increasing privatization. As usual it’s the poor who would suffer the most. Obama has not made good on most of his earlier commitments on climate—but Romney would take those failures further, opening up the Keystone pipeline on his first day in office.

My on-line critic went on to say, “Perhaps a Romney administration would speed up a response by a dislocated working class in overthrowing this doomsday machine? Obama is an extremely effective tool of the corporate enterprise.” Somehow I never accepted the view that the worse things get, the more likely we’ll have a revolution. I just don’t think it works that way. Revolutionary processes—look at the Arab spring—don’t emerge where people are the most beaten down, the most impoverished (which is why we haven’t seen a Sierra Leone uprising or a Niger spring). They happen when people have some renewed hope and then those hopes get dashed. I’m pretty sure we’re not anywhere close to a revolutionary moment in this country. And I certainly don’t think that making things worse for the poorest, oldest, sickest and most vulnerable among us is a viable strategy for building movements—or for making revolution.

This election is not about supporting or withdrawing support from Obama; it’s about keeping the worst from gaining even more power than they already have, so we can get on with the real work of building movements. If you want to call that the “lesser-evil” theory, fine. There’s an old saying that when you’re drowning, and the water is rising up over your mouth, that last half-inch before it reaches your nose is a half-inch of life and death. Especially if you’re short—or in this case, especially if you’re poor.

This election, regardless of who wins, will not solve the problems of this country and the world. We have to build movements powerful enough to take on the challenges of climate change, war, poverty, inequality. But we should be clear, there are significant differences between the two parties and the two candidates; while neither are our allies, one will make our work of building movements even more difficult, will threaten even more of our shredded civil liberties, and will put even more people around the world at much greater risk. Around the world many people are terrified of an electoral result that will return us—and them—to the legacy of George W. Bush.

Elections don’t change the world—only people’s movements do. But elections can make our work of building movements impossible—and that’s not a risk I’m willing to take.

This blog post originally appeared on TheNation.com.

The Idea of Europe

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

HANKYOREH Back in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the countries of East-Central Europe all had a common vision. They wanted to join the Europe Community. Some wanted to join immediately; others wanted to join eventually. After half a century yoked to the Soviet Union, the people of this region saw membership in the common European home as a guarantee of democratic governance, economic prosperity, and social stability.

Twenty years later, membership in the European Union comes with no guarantees. The economic crisis that convulses the continent shows no signs of abating. The region of East-Central Europe struggles with corruption and a new brand of authoritarianism. And extremist intolerance continues to plague Europe east and west.

It‘s not just the European economy that is in crisis. The very idea of Europe has lost its shine. “Europe” once meant a more egalitarian and more tolerant model than the free market orthodoxy reigning in the United States. In this age of globalization, however, Europe has become more and more like everywhere else.

This leaves the countries of East-Central Europe in a difficult position. They are finally joining an exclusive club. But the perks of membership are no longer quite so exciting. It’s not surprising that Euroskepticism has crept into the hearts of eastern Europeans. After all, even the inhabitants of the original core group of member countries are having second thoughts.

Of course, Europe still means something. On the positive side, new members of the European Union have access to funds to modernize their infrastructure. I recently drove back and forth across Bulgaria, and next to construction sites I saw many signs with the European Union logo. Repairing the major east-west highways in Bulgaria is not just important for tourists eager to race from Sofia to the Black Sea coast. Good roads – and good rail lines – are essential for getting Bulgarian goods to markets and also to take advantage of Bulgaria‘s geographic location for transshipment.

Also, on the positive side, membership in the European Union has served as a means of leverage to bring the political standards of candidate countries up to European levels. Whether it’s securing the rights of minorities (ethnic, religious, sexual) or ensuring a properly functioning judiciary, the European Union requires potential members to meet a long list of criteria. Since powerful domestic lobbies oppose many of these requirements, reformers can use this external pressure – the European form of gaiatsu* — to push through changes that might otherwise take decades or might not happen at all.

There are certainly other benefits to EU membership, from visa-free travel to lower barriers to trade. But there are now some considerable downsides as well.

The most important challenge that faces EU members and potential candidates is the austerity package that virtually all governments are expected to implement. It was once the case that new members saw a tremendous expansion of their social welfare systems to meet European standards. They also had access to much more generous adjustment funds so that they could close the gap between themselves and the richer members of the community. In this way, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland rather quickly became equal partners in the grand European economic experiment.

Today, new members like Slovenia have to find ways to cut government spending to meet the EU‘s fiscal demands. Candidate countries like Croatia have to do the same. They are not alone, of course. The governments in Greece and Spain and Italy are all expected to push through unpopular austerity packages.

The European Union, in other words, has turned out to be not that different from the American neoliberal economic model after all. Eastern Europe is in fact facing a second round of government downsizing after the initial dismantlement of communism in the early 1990s.

Twenty years ago, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, countries embarked on a new era of democratic governance. Membership in the EU was to make this process irreversible.

It turns out, however, that the process is not entirely irreversible. In Hungary, the right-wing party FIDESZ has cracked down on the media, centralized authority, and focused on the rights of ethnic Hungarians to the exclusion of all others. European authorities have lodged their protests. But Hungary remains an EU member in good standing. Other political parties in the region with similar political programs are watching Hungary’s experience very carefully.

And then there‘s the resurgence of intolerance throughout Europe. Racist and Islamophobic political parties have gained ground in virtually every country, including areas once known for their tolerance such as the Netherlands and Sweden. In East-Central Europe, anti-Roma sentiment remains high despite more than two decades of concerted effort by NGOs to integrate this often marginalized population. This month, the Serbian government again cancelled a planned Gay Pride march. Domestic groups pointed out that the cancellation was unconstitutional; EU authorities warned that Serbia would have to meet European standards for human rights to have any chance of future membership.

The current trends are not inescapable. Europe could weather the current economic crisis and return to its emphasis on the social component of their social-market economies. A new wave of civic activism could drastically reduce the support for authoritarian parties. And an invigorated civil rights movement by and for minorities, supported by strongly enforced European regulations, could push racists and Islamophobes to the fringes where they belong.

Much depends on the Europe’s newest members and countries like Croatia that are on the verge of accession. Beginning in 1989, the people of these countries unshackled themselves from tyranny. They are now realizing their earlier dream of becoming part of the European Union. But this is not the final step. They can help make the European idea mean something other than austerity and intolerance. They can make “Europe” once again translate into justice, equality, and prosperity.

*gaiatsu n. Foreign pressure; pressure applied by one country onto another.

Though Bin Laden Was Hiding in Plain Sight, His Extreme Caution Tripped Him Up

Mark Bowden of Black Hawk Down fame has just weighed in on the mission to kill bin Laden with a book titled The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden (Atlantic Monthly Press). Much of the excerpt that Vanity Fair published chronicles how President Obama et al chose between a drone strike, precision bombing, and an assault by Navy SEALs, as well as how the attack was carried out. The first priority, of course, was determining if bin Laden and his people actually resided at the Abbottabad compound.

Here, in part, was what attracted the CIA to the site.

Panetta brought two of the agency’s bin Laden team leaders to the Oval Office. They handed Obama classified pictures and maps and walked him through the material. What had first intrigued them was the compound itself. Unlike most homes in that affluent neighborhood, it did not have Internet or phone connections. The walls were unusually high, topped by two feet of barbed wire. There was no way to see inside the house itself, from the ground or from above. The agency had learned that the compound was home not only to [bin Laden courier] Ibrahim Ahmed’s family but to his brother Abrar’s family as well. They went by assumed names: Ahmed called himself Arshad Khan, and the brother went by Tariq Khan. They had never been wealthy, but their accommodations were expensive. The brothers were also wary. They burned their trash on-site. None of their children attended school. In telephone calls to distant family members, always made from locations away from the compound itself, they lied about where they were living. The C.I.A. has been known to misinterpret many things, but one thing it recognizes is high operational security.

At first glance, it seems as if bin Laden and Ahmed had thrown caution to the winds by hiding in plain sight in Abbottabad. However, when it came to behaving like normal citizens, they apparently lost their nerve. In other words, they failed to take their security to the next level and realize that their very cautiousness was a red flag. It’s true that bin Laden couldn’t walk the streets. But they could have taken their garbage out!

More to the point, use of phones and the Internet — innocuously, of course — would have provided the perfect cover.

Paul Wellstone, We Miss You

Ten years ago today, the two of us were an hour into the first big coalition meeting to oppose the impending U.S. war against Iraq, surrounded by dozens of leaders of a wide array of movements: peace, civil rights, women’s rights, environmentalists, labor, social justice, and many others. Then, we noticed some people walking to the back of the room and returning with tears streaking down their faces.

Pinback button created in memory of U.S. senator Paul Wellstone, killed in a plane crash on October 25, 2002. Photo by Minnesota Historical Society.

Pinback button created in memory of U.S. senator Paul Wellstone, killed in a plane crash on October 25, 2002. Photo by Minnesota Historical Society.

Someone interrupted the meeting with the tragic news. One of the great progressive leaders of our time, Senator Paul Wellstone, had just died in a plane crash campaigning in his home state of Minnesota. The room, just seconds before buzzing with ideas, fell silent. In shock, we took a few minutes to get into small groups and remember Paul, the people’s Senator, the anti-war Senator.

We knew that Paul would have wanted us to get back to work quickly in this historic task, so after 15 minutes, we went back to creating what would become the broad, overarching coalition to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: United for Peace and Justice. UFPJ quickly grew to over 1,000 organizations, and we always thought of Paul as we walked into its meetings.

As we think back to that day, we are flooded with Paul memories. Paul proved that progressives without much money could win statewide elections. He visited every corner of Minnesota in a Volkswagen bus during his successful Senate campaigns. He was a stalwart internationalist and he had a poster of our IPS colleague Orlando Letelier, who was assassinated by the Chilean dictatorship, on the wall of his office.

Paul cared deeply about poverty. When he was contemplating a presidential bid in the late 1990s, he retraced the route of Bobby Kennedy’s southern tour to highlight poverty and racism in this country. When IPS co-hosted Paul’s report back from that tour at Howard University, he spoke with great passion about the human face of poverty and inequality in this nation. In the end, powerful back pain from his days as a wrestler precluded him from running for president in 2000.

Today, Paul would be protesting against the inhumanity and illegality of drone strikes. He would be demanding the end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan now, and he’d be explaining to people the wisdom of making major cuts to the U.S. military budget. He would be leading the charge for inequality-busting measures like the Robin Hood tax. He would be joining the protests against unjust budget-cutting deals by his colleagues. And, he would be standing with people fighting expulsion from their homes by predator banks.

Our great challenge today is to shift this nation’s course from our current casino and militarized Wall Street economy to a democratic, peaceful, and green Main Street economy. Paul would be leading the charge.

George McGovern’s Shining Moment

It is eerily fitting that George McGoverns passing occurred in the final heat of a furious election campaign, precariously balanced between Republocrats and Democlicans, two corporately owned political parties.

The corporate media can try to fan the public pulse with staged debates and meaningless news of polls and money raised. But it’s apparent that on issues from corporate welfare to labor rights, from the vast military-industry complex, to the rape of the Earth, there’s merely, at best, a dime’s worth of difference between the two parties.

George McGovern’s failed 1972 presidential bid was significant because it was born on the wings of a vast grassroots conspiracy of campaigners. Long before the Internet emerged, these assiduous organizers phoned, canvassed, went door to door, and ran slates of delegates to the Democratic convention. It was the last gasp of an attempt to reclaim the Democratic Party for women, youth, gays, blacks, liberals, and other progressive Americans.

dddaag/Flickr

dddaag/Flickr

This push for real democracy started in 1968 with Eugene McCarthy’s candidacy to end the war in Vietnam. It suffered severe blows at Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Chicago Democratic convention in the form of ugly police brutality against students and youth protesting the war in Vietnam and the fixing of convention rules to favor the party bosses.

With renewed determination, the New Democratic Coalition was formed across America in 1968. It aimed to change the rules of the party and capture the 1972 nomination for a peace candidate who would finally end the war in Vietnam and address civil rights, poverty, human rights, and true national security — the liberal progressive agenda.

When George McGovern announced his candidacy, he promised to address our issues. He also pledged to reform the rules of the nominating process, which had utterly failed to reflect the support that Eugene McCarthy had garnered in the primaries leading up to the 1968 Chicago convention.

I went up and down my block in Massapequa, Long Island, as part of an army of canvassers to ensure that those who supported us voted in the Democratic primary. The establishment media rarely reported on our work. They predicted that Edmund Muskie would be the nominee. What a great surprise when our elected delegates showed up at the Miami Convention in 1972 with youth, women, blacks, Latinos, gays — a broad swath of progressive America — to nominate George McGovern!

The energy was electric as movie stars mingled with peace activists, civil rights workers, women’s libbers, the gay community, and activists of every other shade and stripe. By capturing the nomination we thought we’d proved that the political process worked.

What an awful letdown, then, to see how the establishment fought back. The mainstream media never wrote about McGovern’s forward looking platform for peace and prosperity and hounded him for choosing Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri to run as his running mate who was later discovered to have been hospitalized for a bipolar episode many years earlier. Although McGovern replaced Eagleton with Sargent Shriver, the press was relentlessly opposed to his platform and never reported on his WWII fighter pilot record, his outstanding values, or his creative ideas for ending poverty in America and ending the Vietnam War. They tarred him as a “hippie”, tainted by his supporters. He won only Massachusetts and Washington, DC.

The establishment has guarded against a true people’s choice like this ever since. We’ve never had another nominating process conducted as openly and democratically as the one that nominated George McGovern. Today, events are carefully staged-managed, designed not to upset corporate sponsors, and filtered through the corporate media, with Americans left in the dark.

McGovern’s nomination was a shining moment for a democratic political process and also, sadly, a signal to the enemies of democracy to close ranks and do everything in their power to never allow it to happen again.

Alice Slater is a founder of Abolition 2000, working for a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. www.abolition2000.org

Citizen Participation in Presidential Debates Kicked to the Curb This Election

Cross-posted from the United to End Genocide blog.

On October 22, The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald summed up the dismal state of the foreign policy debate perfectly:

That was just a wretched debate, with almost no redeeming qualities. It was substance-free, boring, and suffuse with empty platitudes. The vast majority of the most consequential foreign policy matters (along with the world’s nations) were completely ignored in lieu of their same repetitive slogans on the economy.

In previous years, the debates welcomed questions from citizens. In 2008, more than 7 million Democrats and Republicans engaged with the YouTube debates. These debates allowed for citizens to not only send in video questions, but to also post written responses for discussion and for use on the CNN program. This year, citizen input was kicked to the curb, though not for a lack of trying. Greenwald notes:

Numerous foreign policy analysts, commentators and journalists published lists of foreign policy questions they wanted to hear asked and answered at this debate. Almost none was raised. In sum, it was a perfect microcosm of America’s political culture.

One such group, our student-led division, STAND, hand delivered 777 letters to debate moderator Bob Schieffer requesting that he ask the candidates “How will you strengthen the United States’ atrocity prevention efforts as president?”

And Act for Sudan ran a strong campaign to “ask the candidates how they propose to revamp U.S. policy on Sudan to ensure that the slaughter of innocent civilians does not continue on our watch and with tacit U.S. support?”

Instead, the candidates sparred over anticipated questions about our relationship with Israel and the Middle East, Iran’s nuclear capabilities, our military capabilities, and our relationship with China. The larger question facing our nation about the U.S. role in the world and how the candidates themselves would define what is in the national security interest of the United States was almost completely ignored.

Writing for OpenDemocracy, Ruth Rosen called out Schieffer and the candidates for this failure:

What would a real national security look like? This debate never really took place. For starters, we would protect human rights and civil liberties, here and abroad. National security should be about strengthening our democracy and creating an example that billions of people around the world would like to emulate.

These are core components of what our foreign policy should look like. However we need more of an outward look – a debate about real national security should extend beyond our own borders and ask what impact our polices are having across the globe.

What we heard from both candidates was a narrow view of what is in the direct interest of the United States. That view excludes the voices of marginalized people under attack in places like Darfur, Blue Nile, and Abeyei in Sudan and South Sudan or those in places in the DR Congo or Burma. The list unfortunately goes on.

Ultimately, the fallout from this narrower vision lands on us – the citizens standing with those at greatest risk around the world. After hearing the debate, those of us who have stood for people in Darfur, in Syria, in DR Congo, and anywhere atrocities are happening know our voice is still needed. Those of us calling for greater prevention efforts, like the Atrocities Prevention Board, must redouble our efforts. And as we see a narrowing interest in the world from the candidates, we know we have a lot of work ahead of us.

Erik Leaver is the Director of Digital Strategy for United to End Genocide. He previously served as Communications Manager at the Institute for Policy Studies.

What’s Not at the Museum of Broken Relationships: The Yugoslavian Six-way Marriage

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

From the Museum of Broken Relationships.

From the Museum of Broken Relationships.

You can find a Newsweek cover depicting President Barack Obama with the caption, “I really wanted it to work out.” There is also a portrait of Ivo Sanader, the former Croatian prime minister. The accompanying note from Kasum Cana, the president of the Croatian Roma Forum, explains that his “emotional relationship” with Sanader failed because of the latter’s broken promises.

The Museum of Broken Relationships, located in Zagreb’s Old Town, showcases the artifacts of failed romances, from discarded teddy bears to unsent love letters. Most of these items are personal, and the “relationship” refers to a tie between two people that has been sundered. Several, like the Obama and Sanader contributions, are overtly political.

But one obvious broken relationship is missing. Perhaps I somehow neglected to visit one of the rooms of the museum, or this item is traveling to some other museum in the world.

A picture of Obama, a portrait of Sanader: but no picture of Yugoslavia? This six-way marriage (of Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia) lasted for more than four decades before it fell apart in the least amicable way possible. But the Museum of Broken Relationships has no bumper stickers proclaiming “After Tito, Tito!,” no little model sculptures dedicated to brotherhood and unity, not even a missive from an abused spouse saying “I never loved you and good riddance!”

Maybe the end of Yugoslavia was just too obvious a broken relationship to memorialize. Maybe it was too controversial. Or maybe it would have generated enough items to necessitate another entire museum space. After all, “Yugonostalgia” has been all the rage among a certain class of cognoscenti over the last few years.

In Dubravka Ugresic’s novel The Ministry of Pain, the main character teaches Serbo-Croatian literature in Amsterdam to a group of mostly former Yugoslav students. At a loss for how to engage the class, she decides to ditch the curriculum and just reminisce with her students. This Yugonostalgia enables them to focus on the “good old days,” which weren’t necessarily all that good, but at least they can avoid talk of war and hatred. Instead, they go on about cartoons and favorite foods and how they reacted to the death of Tito in 1980. And they meditate on what they have lost.

“The list of things we had been deprived of was long and gruesome,” she writes. “We had been deprived of the country we had been born in and the right to a normal life; we had been deprived of our language; we had experienced humiliation, fear, and helplessness; we had learned what it means to be reduced to a number, a blood group, a pack.”

I haven’t encountered much Yugonostalgia during my travels across the northern tier of former Yugoslavia. Some people have spoken wistfully of the days when everyone seemed to have enough money for a trip to the coast during the summer, when Yugoslavia was the freest of a set of un-free Eastern European countries, when the music scene was the envy of even many Western Europeans. These virtues aside, the phenomenon of Yugonostalgia comes across as nothing more than Balkan kitsch.

“Slovenia, in fact, is the main producer and main consumer of Yugonostalgia, much more than in Croatia or in other parts,” anthropologist and writer Svetlana Slapsak told me in her apartment in Ljubljana. “Slovenians are the most prominent Yugonostalgia suckers. I really hate it. Because it’s commercialized, and it buries all the criticism in a deep concrete grave, never to be revealed again. All the former dissident culture is lost in nostalgia. Here in Slovenia it becomes a very simplified version of the reds against the blacks.”

She continued, “This Yugonostalgia serves as a placebo for desperate people. It destroys not only criticism but also freedom of mind, and it makes people non-active, just consumers of silly things. The Internet is full of Yugonostalgia objects. You can buy the old comic books, periodicals, pictures, paraphernalia, all kinds of rubbish: good for research, bad for the spirit. It’s also about being sentimental for no good reason. We could publish the memoirs of people, which would be as a rule different, diverse and rich in information. But no, we have this uniforming of the past. I’m terribly against this nostalgia, and also the Tito-nostalgia – except for satirical purposes.”

Even without an entry on former Yugoslavia – or perhaps because of it – the Museum of Broken Relationships is a very popular place.

Not so the other museums I visited in Zagreb, and that’s a shame. Because the city is a mecca for contemporary art and artists.

I had an in-depth conversation with the artist Andreja Kuluncic, who has done some wonderfully provocative work, including a set of “Bosnians Out!” posters that the Ljubljana City Council removed (and then restored after museum protests). I also talked with curator Branko Franceschi, who recently presented a show in New York on the psychedelic films, visual arts, and music of socialist Yugoslavia (a critical and zany antidote to Yugonostalgia) and currently has a show up on the surveillance-inflected work of Croatian artist Zeljko Kipke at the extraordinary fin-de-siècle Art Pavilion in Zagreb. Both interviews are forthcoming.

The enormous Museum of Contemporary Art in Novi Zagreb opened just a couple years ago, and its permanent collection contains many essential works from around the region. But other than some skateboarders zooming around outside, the place was quite empty on a Sunday afternoon, and I was practically alone to wander through the first-class exhibits. Particularly powerful, Ivan Grubic’s East Side Story juxtaposes shocking footage from the anti-LGBT protests in Zagreb and Belgrade with two couples enacting their own tormented drama in public spaces before bewildered onlookers. Mladen Stilinovic’s pink banner proclaims “An Artist Who Cannot Speak English is No Artist.” And Selja Kameric’s Bosnian Girl – ugly graffiti from an unknown UN peacekeeper superimposed on the self-portrait of the artist — remains as shiver-producing as when I first saw it four years ago.

But perhaps the most remarkable piece I saw in my Zagreb museum-hopping, at the monumental circular pavilion designed by the famous sculptor Ivan Meštrović, was not from this region at all. The work by Dutch artist Jonas Staal began with a proposal in Rotterdam by a politician of ethnic Turkish heritage to erect a monument to the guest workers who devoted so much of their lives to building the city. This politician proposed the sculpture for Afrikaanderwijk, a section of the city where immigrants are now the majority and where there were terrible race riots in the 1970s.

Not everyone was enthusiastic about the idea, however. The far-right party ridiculed the proposal. There should be a monument to all the hard-working native Rotterdammers, the party representatives argued, particularly the ones “chased out” of Afrikaanderwijk.

Jonas Staal set to work. The result was a mock-up of a Monument for the Chased-off Citizen of Rotterdam, a 3-D computer animation that he showed to the right-wing politicians. One of them remarked, “Well, this isn’t what we expected. I don’t know if this was done on purpose, but it isn’t really out to provoke us. It’s simply being objective. I think it is beautiful!” Beautiful it may be, but the overall project definitely challenges the assumptions of the nativists.

The work is also an important reminder that racism and xenophobia is deeply entrenched throughout Europe, not just on the eastern periphery. And nostalgia for a “simpler” and “less contentious” time is not just sentimental, but potentially dangerous as well.

This Week in OtherWords: Halloween Fare

This week in OtherWords, you’ll find several commentaries about the scary stuff we eat.

Guest columnist Jill Richardson talks about how food companies scoop too much sugar into our bread and salad dressing. Former dairy farmer Donna Hall introduces readers to an under-regulated ingredient that’s in everything from candy to pizza — her op-ed will make you spend way more time reading food labels. Andrew Korfhage’s commentary about how Big Chocolate hasn’t yet kept a longstanding pledge to fight its suppliers’ reliance on child labor in West Africa is accompanied by Khalil Bendib’s weekly cartoon.

I’ve been getting a few questions about our schedule. So here’s a quick reminder: OtherWords is now distributing our newsroom-ready commentaries and cartoons on Wednesdays. We made this change earlier this month and hope that it hasn’t proven too disruptive to your own schedules. As always, everything we run is free of charge for editors to use in newspapers and new media outlets under a Creative Commons license.

I also encourage you to visit our blog, subscribe to our weekly newsletter, and send me any feedback you may have. If you haven’t signed up yet, please do.

  1. Remembering George McGovern and Old-School Campaign Tools / Steve Cobble
    Being decent, humane, smart, caring, and brave was not enough.
  2. The Spooky Side of Chocolate / Andrew Korfhage
    There’s nothing sweet about child labor.
  3. The Ingredient Haunting our Candy / Donna Hall
    Milk protein concentrate is in thousands of the things we eat, but there’s no government oversight ensuring that this ingredient is safe for consumers.
  4. Supremely High Stakes in This Election / Marge Baker
    When it comes to workers’ rights, some of the most influential government officials we’ll be voting for are ones whose names don’t actually appear on the ballot.
  5. Where’s Joe the Plumber When You Need Him? / Sam Pizzigati
    Without someone at least ranting about sharing the wealth, no one’s talking about sharing the wealth.
  6. Tricky Treats / Jill Richardson
    Sugar haunts too much of what we eat these days.
  7. GOP Looks in Mirror, Spots Voter Fraud / Jim Hightower
    Records show that a Republican running for county commissioner in Texas has been casting ballots there and in Pennsylvania.
  8. Middle Class Fantasy / William A. Collins
    Median family income is sliding, the social safety net is tattered, and only the top 5 percent are making any real monetary headway.
  9. Trick or Mistreat / Khalil Bendib (Cartoon)
Trick or Mistreat, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Trick or Mistreat, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Attacking the Nuclear Weapons-Industrial Complex on Both the Macro and Micro Levels

It’s sometimes lost on the arms control community that halting the spread of nuclear weapons begins at home. The disarmament community, on the other hand, has long understood the importance of going local. These days, no one embodies that more than the Los Alamos Study Group. For instance, it was instrumental in letting the air out of the CMRR-NF balloon. The CMRR-NF (Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility) is a building that the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico seeks to construct. It’s intended to carry out design work on plutonium pits — the living, breathing heart of nuclear weapons.

Among the LASG’s efforts to halt the CMRR-NF have been sustained lobbying on Capitol Hill and two separate lawsuits that it filed against the Department of Energy on the grounds that the planned facility was environmentally and seismically un-safe. Thanks to the LASG and a sputtering economy, it’s now unlikely that the CMRR-NF will ever see the light of day.

Greg Mello, LASG‘s executive director, also frequently points out of how little benefit the nuclear-weapons labs based in New Mexico (Los Alamos and Sandia) have been to the state. In his latest newsletter he writes:

Here in New Mexico we see what appear to be desperate attempts to promote nuclear weapons, in editorials in our largest newspaper and from Senate candidates. Oddly and wrongly, weapons projects are usually linked to the state’s economic health. The reality is otherwise.

Leaving aside most of the errors on which the myth of our nuclear dependence rests, these writers and politicians fail to explain how nuclear weapons will be an engine of growth, an assumed good in their world.

… Our congressional delegation, without fail, serves the labs first. Every hour so spent, every meeting, every committee assignment so oriented, is a loss to our state. Cumulatively, in our competitive world, these losses have been very damaging to the state’s economic and social development, to our civic institutions, and to the protection of our environment.

After all, Mello asks:

How in the world will static, Soviet-style, pure federal employment, comprising two or three percent of the state’s total workers, become an engine for economic growth?

Meanwhile, at the federal level, U.S. nuclear policymakers have suffered a setback since Russia decided to opt out of the Cooperative Threat Initiative. Nunn-Lugar, as it was referred to out of deference to its creators, Senators Sam and Richard respectively, was a model federal program. Engineered in 1992, it enabled the security and dismantlement of an extraordinary number of nuclear weapons in the states of the former Soviet Union. Why then is Russia allowing it to lapse?

Russia claims that it can now afford to ride herd of its own loose nukes. Meanwhile, a New York Times editorial calls “Cutting off this successful program now is perverse and reckless — and all too typical of President Vladimir Putin’s sour, xenophobic and self-isolating worldview.” But, at Foreign Policy, Jeffrey Lewis provides more broad-based insights into Russian suspiciousness. Among them:

In recent years, American officials have been driven bonkers by Russia’s refusal to accept their assurances that missile defense interceptors deployed in Europe won’t threaten Russia’s deterrent. The United States shows PowerPoint slide after PowerPoint slide to demonstrate the physical impossibility that these interceptors could hit a Russian ICBM. The Russians remain unmollified. Frustrated U.S. officials claim the Russians either don’t understand or don’t want to.

In fact, he writes, “We may be wrong about what frightens the Russians.”

In September 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted that the Russians had expressed concern that U.S. missile defense interceptors in Europe “could be fitted with nuclear weapons and become an offensive weapon.” … (The United States and Soviet Union prohibited such missiles under the 1987 INF Treaty.) … It is a funny sort of paranoid fantasy, the notion that the United States might place nuclear weapons on missile defense interceptors and use them to decapitate the Russian leadership in Moscow.

But, writes Lewis, there may be method to their madness. In fact, they may be living in “sheer terror at the persistent technological advantage held by the United States.”

The simplest explanation for Russia’s overwhelming concern with missile defense is that the General Staff fears that Russia is much, much more vulnerable to an attack against the country’s command-and-control infrastructure — what used to be called decapitation — than we realize. … And, as a result, they make strange, dangerous, and seemingly irrational decisions.

In a follow-up post to the Foreign Policy piece at Arms Control Wonk, the leading arms-control blog that he administers, Lewis offers solutions.

How do we start talking about command and control with Russia, especially if the Russians won’t address the matter directly? I would propose that the US and Russian agree to a joint statement prohibiting the placing of nuclear weapons on missile defense interceptors. … of a ten-year duration signed by both Presidents.

This should be a relatively easy proposal for the United States to accept. [But the] Russians might be less interested. As best I can tell, the Moscow ABM defense system still relies on nuclear warheads.

But

… An agreement to prohibit nuclear-armed ABM interceptors would provide at least two benefits. First, a prohibition on nuclear-armed missile defense interceptors would provide a mechanism to address the least difficult portion of Russia’s stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons.

… Second, a prohibition on nuclear-armed missile defense interceptors would enhance strategic stability by reinforcing the prohibition on intermediate-range nuclear forces. … A ban on nuclear-armed ABM interceptors, combined with some confidence-building measures, might make the difference in preserving INF.

The LASG’s work in New Mexico (and on its behalf in Washington) and Jeffrey Lewis’s policy proscriptions are arguably the most cutting-edge approaches on, respectively, the local and the policy levels. Let’s hope that, working in secret synergy, they create anti-nuclear fusion.

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