IPS Blog

Balkan Blues

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

The Bulgarian rock band Tangra.

The Bulgarian rock band Tangra.

In my last road trip in the Balkans several years ago, I drove from Bosnia to Albania because the other methods of transportation either took too long or cost too much. I didn’t relish the idea of driving in Albania. Still, I managed to survive the reckless traffic of Tirana — only to have someone in a small town in Montenegro take a sharp right from the far left lane directly in front of my car. A Kafkaesque ordeal followed – which involved an unwanted weekend layover, a bout of food poisoning, a lengthy interview with a judge, a long argument in Russian about traffic rules in Montenegro, a late-arriving interpreter who was the son of the person who ran into me, and finally a minor fine that I would have been happy to pay at the point of impact just so that I could have avoided this two-day Montenegrin interlude. As it was, to catch my flight home from Sarajevo, I had to drive at near-reckless speed through the mountains straddling Montenegro and Bosnia, during a major storm and with my stomach still roiling from my run-in with, I think, a bad squid the night before.

Despite this experience, I decided to take another Balkan road trip this last weekend. The editor of a Bulgarian opposition newspaper from 1990 was now living in Varna, a Bulgarian city on the Black Sea. I rented a car in Sofia and set off across Bulgaria. I planned to stop over in Veliko Tarnovo, to see where the first Bulgarian parliament met in 1878 (and again in 1990 to celebrate the return of democracy). After a day in Varna, I would make my way back to Plovdiv, the country’s second largest city, and then on to Sofia for a final meeting on Sunday evening.

It’s not a road trip without music. I didn’t have any CDs, so I went back and forth across the radio spectrum in search of something palatable. It was not initially auspicious. The stations were full of bad U.S. rock and the Bulgarian version of turbofolk called chalga. Finally, I happened on a station playing choir music. A Roma choir from Plovdiv was particularly good, with the characteristic yipping sounds that anyone familiar with Le Mystere de Voix Bulgares would instantly recognize.

I arrived in Veliko Tarnovo on a musical high. The city too was a revelation – a gorgeous medieval hillside town that would have made a more picturesque and centrally located capital than Sofia. I was told that the 19th-century Bulgarian leadership revealed their nationalist aspirations with the choice of Sofia. Although not as historically interesting as Veliko Tarnovo, Sofia was located closer to the lands to the west and south that the leaders coveted as part of their dreams of a Greater Bulgaria.

The next day, outside of Varna, I stopped for gas and bought a few CDs – a three-CD set of the music of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens, some more Bulgarian choir music, and a compilation of Bulgarian rock music. It was on this last CD that I finally listened to a cut by Tangra, the legendary group that started out as a heavy metal band in the late 1970s and became a New Wave group in the 1980s.

A friend of a high school friend ended up marrying the lead singer of Tangra and moving to Bulgaria in 1990. So I was very fortunate to have a chance to interview Konstantin Markov. Rock and roll in the 1980s in Bulgaria meant freedom, he told me. So Tangra was constantly at risk of arrest – for transmitting Western influences to Bulgarian youth. Informers attended the concerts to make sure that the band didn’t depart from their officially approved lyrics. Still, they were able to write ambiguous lyrics that promoted freedom of thought in allegorical ways. Eventually frustrated by the worsening repression of the mid-1980s, the band left the country for Scandinavia. Once I’ve transcribed the interview – and I will go over all the transcripts with the interviewees to correct any errors – I’ll post the whole conversation.

In Varna, I was the guest of Vihar Krastev and Yassena Yurekchieva, who were the souls of hospitality. In 1990, I interviewed Vihar when he was the editor of an opposition newspaper called Vek 21. For two hours, with classical music playing in the background, he recounted his remarkable career. Kicked out of journalism in the 1980s because of his political views, he could only find a job as a bus driver. After the changes of 1989, he made his way back into journalism only. After a stint with Radio Free Europe, he did what many Bulgarians did in the 1980s: emigrate. A million people – out of a population of roughly 9 million – left the country. Many experienced what Vihar did. In Canada, the barriers to access to journalism were simply too high. So, he ended up doing something he’d learned how to do under communism: drive a bus. He eventually rose through the ranks to manage the Toronto transportation system, but it was a stressful job. He has now retired to Varna.

I left Varna in the early evening, with fruit and delicious homemade muffins courtesy of Yassena and Vihar. The drive from Varna to Yambol – about halfway to Plovdiv – was a harrowing experience that brought back memories of my Montenegrin odyssey. Navigating the mountains near the Black Sea coast at night was quite a challenge. There are few streetlights on the two-lane highway, of course. If you’re stuck behind a truck, you either creep along or muster the courage to pass. Meanwhile, drivers going up to the 140 km-per-hour speed limit are whizzing by you, sometimes around blind curves. At one point, an otherwise straight stretch suddenly banked to the left, and my headlights picked up the arrows only at the last minute. I simultaneously turned the wheel and braked, nearly spinning out of control and overturning the car. If there had been a car coming in the other direction, I would have had a head-on collision. Even without a collision, stuck with an upside-down car and a non-functioning cell phone would have made my Montenegrin experience seem like a holiday on the sea.

Once I turned away from the coastal highway and toward the interior, the road became much straighter, and the traffic thinned considerably. But one peculiar feature of the first section of this highway, before it became a brand-new expressway outside of Yambol, was the speed bumps. These are located in the small towns that the highway passes through. Perhaps during the day, these are easily anticipated. But at night, I’d be cruising along at 60 km per hour, having slowed down to pass through the town, and suddenly I’d be practically airborne as I flew over the hump in the road. It’s hard not to think of these speed bumps as a metaphor for Bulgaria’s development.

I had hoped to turn south from this road and venture into the Rhodope Mountains to track down an elusive Bulgarian poet and activist. Boris Hristev’s political career began in 1968 when he called up a Bulgarian radio station and asked why there were no reports about the invasion of Czechoslovakia. The producers at the station asked who he was: he gave his name. The next day the police came to his house and thus began twenty years of arrests and harassment.

While we were talking, Boris suddenly interrupted himself and asked me if I knew about the Balkan blues. I asked him what he meant. The color blue, he said, could be glimpsed in the architecture of Hungary, but as you travelled further south into the lands of the former Ottoman Empire, the blues became more and more significant. And it wasn’t just architecture, he said. It was also the music. He insisted that I couldn’t understand Bulgaria until I’d listened to the Balkan blues.

Later, I ran into Boris on the street. He pushed a cassette tape into my hands. “The Balkan blues,” he whispered into my ear.

“Whether or not listening to the music truly provides me with additional insights into Bulgarian culture, the music is certainly excellent,” I wrote at the time. There was panpipe music from Romania’s Gheorghe Zamfir, the flute playing of Bulgaria’s Theodosii Spassov, blues music from Albania and Greece, and much more crammed onto the cassette. I made copies for all my friends as a holiday present. It was one of my favorite stories from my travels in 1990.

Then, shortly before leaving for Bulgaria this time around, I was reading the Croatian writer Dubravka Ugresic’s collection of essays, The Culture of Lies. In one section, she writes of meeting a Bulgarian poet, Boris H. In the middle of their conversation, he suddenly mentions the Balkan blues and then…

Oh no, I thought. My wonderful story, which I always thought of as uniquely my own, was not unique at all. Boris Hristev was promiscuous with his musical affections! The mix tape, immortalized in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity as a supreme expression of idiosyncrasy and affection, turned out in this case to be a more general means of communication. Next year, I will try to interview Dubravka Ugresic to dig out more details about her own Balkan blues experience.

The mysterious Boris H., meanwhile, is holed up like a hermit in a mountain village and isn’t scheduling interviews at the moment. I’ll continue my entreaties. I’ll continue to listen to the Balkan blues. And I’ll keep hoping for another road trip, this time to the Rhodope Mountains to discover what the Bulgarian poet is listening to these days. Next time, though, maybe I’ll take the bus…

Human Rights and Humanitarian Imperialism In Syria

As the corporate media beat the drums of war with Syria, led this time by CNN and the New York Times with support from the rear coming from the confused white left/liberal likes of Democracy Now, a now familiar line is conjured up to rationalize intervention – humanitarian intervention as a basis to exercise the ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P). David Gergen, the ‘soft neocon’ advisor to both republican and democratic presidents, made the claim on CNN recently that human rights groups would love to see the US intervene in Syria. A claim that is probably accurate for the US-based white, middle-class human rights mainstream.

But this position certainly does not represent the positions of the growing, but largely ignored, ‘new human rights movement’ of grassroots organizations of people of color, informed by an African American radical human rights tradition, who are reclaiming and redefining human rights as an anti-oppression, anti-imperialist ‘people-centered’ movement.

Read the rest of Ajamu Baraka‘s Pambazuka straight-no-chaser analysis by clicking here.

Cuban Five: 14 Years of Injustice

Five Cubans fighting terrorism in South Florida have served 14 years of prison, more than enough time for the U.S. public to learn from its media about the horrific injustice done by the U.S. government to these Cuban men. But the media has barely touched the grotesque frame-up of Gerardo Hernandez, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando Gonzalez, Ramon Labanino and Rene Gonzalez, the Cuban Five as they are called.

These Cuban intelligence agents volunteered in the 1990s to infiltrate violent groups of Miami-based Cuban exiles who had orchestrated bombings in Cuba of tourist spots – hotels, restaurants, clubs and bars, and even the Havana airport where vacationers from Canada and Europe arrive. By scaring foreigners with violence they hoped to intimidate tourists from visiting Cuba, and thus hurt the island’s economy.

Cuban intelligence chiefs sent agents into South Florida because the FBI had done nothing to stop the bombing plots or indeed discourage the exile plotters from continuing their terrorist war against Cuba. The agents’ job was to discover the plots, and alert Havana so the local police could thwart the violence.

Havana then recycled the agents’ information to the FBI. On some occasions, thanks to these men’s information, the Bureau did intercept caches of explosives and weapons destined to do harm inside Cuba. But the Bureau did not bother the terrorists. Instead in September 1998, FBI agents busted the Cuban agents, and the Justice Department charged them with conspiracy to commit espionage and one of them with murder. The last charge referred to a prosecution-concocted story that Gerardo Hernandez, the controller of the web of agents, had advised Havana of the date and time of Brothers to the Rescue’s planned flight time on February 24, 1996, and that he might possibly drop weapons into Cuba. Cuban aviation authorities warned the three small planes not to enter Cuban air space, but the pilots ignored the warning, and Cuban MIGs shot down two of the planes, killing both pilots and co-pilots. The craft carrying the Brothers’ leader, Jose Basulto, returned unscathed to Miami.

Read the rest of the story of the Cuban Five at Progreso Weekly

Romney’s Debate Zinger About China Provides Opening for Constructive Policy Debate

Cross-posted from the Peace Action Peace Blog.

So I have to admit that when I heard it last night during the presidential debate, I thought this was a clever zinger by Mitt Romney (or his speech writers more likely):

“What things will I cut from spending? Well, first of all, I will eliminate all programs by this test, if they don’t pass it: Is the program so critical that it’s worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? And if not, I’ll get rid of it.”

This needs a bit of unpacking (and my few points about this quote are far from comprehensive; I’m sure others have very different takes in it).

First, Romney’s “test” is somewhat appealing, purposely so I’m sure, to folks who are concerned about the U.S. debt, much of which is owned by China. However, one could have made the point in a generic way, leaving out the fact that China is our largest banker (“Is the program worth continuing to borrow money to pay for it?”). That would still be a good test, yes? In addition to judging government programs by that standard, people make that judgement in their personal lives all the time, determining whether to borrow money to buy a car or a house or to go to college is a smart move.

So was Romney’s mention of China just an off-hand remark? I don’t think so. “China” to many Americans can mean very different things, but many of them are, in my observation, unfortunately pejorative. So my guess is this was intentional, meant to raise unhelpful and maybe even racist stereotypes about China, and concerns about the U.S.-China economic relationship.

However, Romney gave us an opening, unwittingly I presume, for deeper analysis and conversation about the U.S.-China relationship, especially in the “security” realm (others could certainly go much deeper than I into the economic interdependency, not always healthy, between the world’s two largest economies).

Josh Rogin, blogging for Foreign Policy, captured this very nicely: “Is Romney saying it’s worth borrowing from China to build more ships to contain China?” This is so brilliant and succinct because this is exactly what the U.S. is doing now, and planning to increase in the future, under the military’s much-ballyhooed but little understood “Asia-Pacific pivot.” (For example, and speaking directly to Rogin’s point, the U.S. Navy has announced it plans to station 60% of the overall fleet in the Pacific.)

While Romney won’t publicly say this (and neither will Obama), the U.S. war machine needs an enemy to continue to justify its raison d’etre and its stranglehold on the lion’s share of our federal tax dollars. “International terrorism” just doesn’t cut the mustard. China is the only plausible “enemy” that might fit the bill.

Except China, which certainly has many economic, environmental, energy, human rights and democracy challenges, has no real interest in an arms race or global competition for military hegemony with the U.S. China certainly has regional interests that are of serious concerns to its neighbors, but it is simply not an expansionist power to anything like the degree the U.S. is. A few factoids on this are instructive:

• The U.S. has somewhere between 800 and 1,000 foreign military bases (there is no agreement on the number or even the definition of a “base,” which is why the number is so imprecise). China has one, a relatively new one at that, in Seychelles (which is telling, representing as it does a key Chinese concern, keeping open shipping lanes).

• At $711 billion per year, the U.S. spends about as much on the military as the rest of the world combined (and the full “national security” budget is over $1 trillion per year). China, with the number two military budget, spends about one-fifth of what the U.S. does, at $143 billion (figures from SIPRI, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute).

• The U.S. has a dozen aircraft carrier battle groups, able to project fearsome military might worldwide (to say nothing of our nuclear arsenal). China just recently inaugurated its first aircraft carrier, which experts say is at least several years away from minimal combat readiness, according to a recent Wall St. Journal article. At present it is fit only for training purposes, and China doesn’t have any jets that can land on it. So by U.S. standards, the number of Chinese aircraft carriers would be “none.”

• The U.S. military divides the entire planet into regional “commands,” with forces and power projection plans covering basically the whole planet. Neither China nor any other country has any such structure or capability.

So the wisdom and advisability of “pivoting” in order to economically, militarily and politically isolate your main banker is a head scratcher. Why would China want to underwrite that? Especially when its biggest economic interest will soon probably be to stimulate domestic consumer demand.

And why would this pivot, offering only a pointless, counter-productive military competition with China, be in the interests of the people of this country? It would certainly fail this test – should we spend our tax dollars on an idiotic, open-ended military buildup to “contain” China (when the best policy would be to rely on non-coercive diplomacy to balance the interests of all the peoples of the region), instead of on schools, sustainable energy and jobs, affordable housing, infrastructure and addressing climate change?

Kevin Martin is the Executive Director of Peace Action.

For Real Change, Conversations Not Debates

No matter who wins a debate or ultimately the election, we know our nation and our communities will continue to face complex economic, ecological, political, and social challenges.Talking over the fence

Our challenges are compounded by a culture of isolation and disconnection. The skills we need to build connection and empathy may not come as naturally as they once did. Mainstream culture encourages us to separate from each other—to be “independent” and “self-made”—despite a growing body of evidence that our brains are actually hard-wired for connection.

Community organizers in the field report that Americans revolve around an axis of “overwhelm” these days, as they struggle to access the services that they need, educate their children, maintain a middle class lifestyle, or merely survive. Why are volunteer hours for community service or membership organizations plummeting? Why do so many of us refuse to let their children play outside? Precinct walkers at election time rarely find anyone at home, and many who are refuse to answer the door. Why is it increasingly difficult to get a response from a voicemail, email, or even text message?

Given our challenges, we just can’t afford this level of disconnection. Isolated individuals cannot create real social change. It’s up to networked communities to do that.

That’s part of why people have been forming small groups like Resilience Circles and social action affinity groups around the country. These groups are a way to relearn skills of mutuality, consensus-building, story-sharing, and real listening. They form an essential piece of the architecture of social movements built on solidarity and relatedness.

But pulling together a small group can be a real challenge. People are likely to be puzzled at first if you invite them to join one. That’s where the art of conversation comes in.

Labor and community organizers have been using a practice called the “one-to-one” conversation for generations as a way to build networks, enhance relationships, and enlist people in their work. A one-to-one can be defined as a structured conversation where you authentically share your story with another person and listen to theirs. Based on your commonalities, you invite the person to work together. It’s a great way to invite someone to join your small group, or if you’re not trying to form a small group, it’s a great way to build relationships and learn more about your neighbors’ concerns.

“Small consciousness-raising groups… were the lynchpins of the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and the women’s movement.”

We have found that if you begin a regular practice of inviting others to have deliberate, one-to-one conversations, you’ll find it rewarding. You’ll enhance your story-sharing and listening skills, and you’ll learn to focus more on your relationships than on specific outcomes. One-to-ones teach you a whole lot about how other people see the world, which can deepen our commitment to social change and make us wiser organizers.

The down side is that they can feel risky. No one likes to experience rejection, and unfortunately you aren’t likely to hear an enthusiastic “Yes, I’ll join you!” at the end of every conversation. It’s best to prepare for a range of responses. No matter how skilled you are as an organizer and conversationalist, some people will say “No” to your invitation. Some will say “Maybe” (which generally means “No”). Some will say “Yes,” but won’t show up. Some will say “Yes,” show up, and then drop out. Some will say “No” today, and “Yes” later. And luckily, some will say “Yes” and become valuable contributors.

We can’t get around doing this. We can’t build a strong movement without actually talking to people in person. This isn’t an ‘extra’ when it comes to organizing or social change. As Cesar Chavez reportedly said when asked by a student how he organizes, “He said, ‘First, I talk to one person. Then I talk to another person.’ ‘No,’ said the student, ‘How do you organize?’ Chavez answered, ‘First I talk to one person. Then I talk to another person…’”

You get the point. Talking is organizing. So let’s get the conversation started.

How to Initiate a Conversation

You may be able to use this form of conversation spontaneously. Perhaps someone will off-handedly mention their frustration with potholes in the roads or their fears about their kids’ student debt load. You can take the opportunity to ask more questions and make your call to action (“I’m forming a neighborhood group, you should join me” or “I’m forming a group to talk about our economic concerns”).

If you’re serious about forming a small group, however, you will probably need to be more deliberate. An easy way to get started is to invite someone you already know to meet with you for about a half hour at a neutral public site, like a coffee shop or a park.

Our culture can be suspicious of open-ended agendas, and you don’t want people to think you’re starting an Amway business. So go ahead and be clear about what you want. For example, you could say, “I’m forming a small group for mutual support, and I’d like to have your input,” or “I’m concerned about [our schools] and want to hear your concerns too,” or “I think that a lot of people are struggling with economic stress alone, and I want to ask you what we might do to support each other and do fun stuff together.” If they want to talk then and there, be sure to set aside enough time for a focused conversation.

The important thing is to make a friendly, honest invitation that fits your own interests and values. Not everyone will say yes, but some will—and each new invitation builds your skills and confidence.

Small is Beautiful

Each time you build a new relationship, you are creating social change. As the PICO Principle says, “Small is beautiful.” The single biggest missing component of today’s social change movement is the small consciousness-raising group. Gatherings of this type were the lynchpins of the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and the women’s movement. They empowered people to learn new ways of speaking about their pain and doing something about it.

We can only hope that we haven’t yet created such a powerful culture of “overwhelm” that it’s too late to sit together and take support from one another’s counsel. No one makes social change alone.

For more information and resources to start a small group, visit www.localcircles.org

What Not to Do on Camera

I think the Republicans set themselves up for a tough challenge when they cast Barack Obama as the outsider, Kenyan usurper while Mitt Romney was supposed to represent the traditional white establishment. Henry Kissinger even recognized it during the Vietnam War: “The guerrilla army wins by not losing; the conventional army loses by not winning.” I’m pretty sure he stole that from Mao, who was a horrible ruler, but a smart guerrilla strategist.

Romney and Obama debateRomney needed to decisively rout Obama, while Obama simply needed to not fall flat on his face. In the end, I don’t think many minds were changed. If Big Bird stood out as the most memorable phrase of the first presidential debate of 2012, then Romney’s much-lauded performance failed to land an attack that will stick in voters’ minds. It was a soft victory, elevated by low expectations going into the debate. Obama should have pushed back on those outrageous lies, but his weakness is that he always tries to stay “above it all,” which comes across as aloof.

I watched it on CBS, which used a split screen for almost the entire debate. Romney’s privileged smirk and mannerisms probably hurt him more than his own words. I’m curious to see if CBS viewers thought less of Romney because of his “off-camera” behavior compared to other network viewers.

Obama learned in 2008 that what you do when not speaking is matters. It’s a lesson I’ve learned the hard way. I’ve probably done a hundred on-camera interviews over the years and it took me a long time to learn that I should never look around the room or move my head when I’m not speaking.

The camera can cut to you at any moment. If I’m distracted by the activity in the studio or other shiny things, my eyes dart back and forth. If the camera catches me in that moment, I look as shifty as a cartoon villain. Always look forward at the camera, at the person speaking, or downward while appearing to take thoughtful notes. Otherwise, the viewer doesn’t see the distractions you’re looking at and — at best — it makes you look disinterested.

Looking at anything the home viewer can’t see is dangerous. Perception matters on TV. On the other hand, it’s possible to take too many notes and come across as disengaged — as Obama learned last night.

Sanho Tree is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow. IPS-dc.org

Off-Topic: The Presidential Debate — Does Aggressiveness Play With Swing Voters?

(Two notes: 1. Though the debate isn’t about foreign policy, Focal Points couldn’t help but weigh in. 2. The author is not a supporter of President Obama.)

Acquiescing to the conventional wisdom that Mitt Romney won the debate last night is surrendering to the notion that appearances are all that matters while content counts for nothing.

Romney labors under the handicap of trying to make policies that are unpalatable to the public palatable, which requires him to contort himself or outright lie. Also, his organization seems to have viewed the debate as an opportunity to solidify his drift from the far right in hopes of winning swing voters. But, assuming they were listening and not just watching, that segment of the population, as well as his supporters — not to mention his opponents — can’t help but be confused by the state of flux in which they found the candidate’s message last night.

Let’s, though, reduce ourselves to reducing the debate to appearances — to wit, Romney’s aggressiveness. First, seldom remarked upon is how, even in his most buoyant moments, tightly wound Romney seems. His presentation last night only made him look that much more excitable, a character trait that obviously doesn’t befit a presidential candidate.

Second, both conservatives and progressives urge their candidates to go on the offensive and puncture what they perceive as the other’s lies. But, arguably, much of the American public prefers that conflict and aggression be confined to reality TV shows.

One of my key electoral handbooks is Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs About How Government Should Work (Cambridge University Press, 2002) by political scientists Elizabeth Theiss-Morse and John Hibbing. Using focus groups and polls, the authors, as you may know, determined that more of the American public doesn’t participate in democracy because of an aversion to conflict in, say, town meetings and between candidates. The message that Americans are too soft for democracy aside, incivility in politics seems to make them as uneasy as corruption.

Like a spurned lover who doesn’t get the message, President Obama may have clung to his dream of bipartisanship with Republicans too long. But, outside of Washington, civility and cooperation in politics are alive and well. Most Americans believe those are principles to which politicians should adhere. Viewed through that prospective, Romney may have seemed less like an attack dog than a mad dog.

The Inequality Report Card Action Map

I’ve long thought that it would be handy to have a tool that makes it easy to contact our members of Congress though social media networks, rather than email or phone calls.

We’ve seen the Stop Beck Twitter campaign successfully make advertising on Glenn Beck’s TV show toxic to corporate brands. But what about harnessing that kind of power to highlight what’s wrong with so many members of Congress?

When I heard that my colleagues at the Institute for Policy Studies were putting together an Inequality Report Card, grading congress members on how well they do on the issue of economic inequality, I jumped at the chance to turn such a tool into reality.

Inequality Report Card Action Map

The action map I created lets you not only see your own lawmaker’s grade, it invites you to take action. Clicking on a congressional district will pop up a bubble that includes the member’s Twitter account, Facebook account, online feedback from, and phone number. It has never been easier contact your representative online and make your voice heard.

Let me know what you think. And, of course, take action.

Brian Cruikshank is the Institute for Policy Studies‘ web developer.

The Biggest Losers: Big Bird and the American People

Who won the first 2012 presidential debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama? If you ask the Twitterverse, Big Bird nailed an easy victory.

Debate memeHuh? In case you missed it, the sole quasi-joke either candidate cracked came when Mitt Romney vowed to choke off the government funding that pays some of Sesame Street’s bills. But really, there were no winners tonight.

Moderator Jim Lehrer blew it too, although he seemed to be off to a decent start when he opened the debate with the night’s most pressing question of the night: What are you gonna do about jobs?

Obama answered that he loved his sweetie. Romney tried to sound populist but just sounded weird. Things just got worse from there. More lies and insincere etch-a-sketch moments from Romney. More strangely absent and disconnected reactions from Obama.

Lehrer proceeded to let the candidates run roughshod over him, then lost us all when he said “we’ve lost a pod” as he reprimanded the candidates for taking too long. In an evening devoted to domestic issues, none of the three men ever mentioned women’s rights, civil rights, immigration, poverty, climate change, or any other environmental issue.

Most importantly, nobody dared to breathe the truth, lest it actually get out — America Is Not Broke.

That’s right, the debate was an exercise in ridiculousness that produced no insight, no plan, no inspiration, no leadership, no truth. We are rich. We have enough money to put nutritious food on the tables of the one in five U.S. kids who are hungry and undernourished. We have enough money to help the laid-off moms and dads make ends meet until they get another job.

We have enough money to keep grandma, sister, and even every child (“future people,” as I believe Romney put it) taken care of through their hard-earned benefits of Social Security and Medicare. We have enough money to help the down-and-out in times of sickness and emergency through Medicaid and help low-income families through refundable tax credits and the last shreds of welfare available to some.

We do. We’re a rich country. We’re not broke. Not only are we not in an economic position, recovering from the Wall Street-induced Great Recession to be able to tolerate the austerity trumpeted by Romney and half-conceded to by Obama, but we don’t need to resort to it.

Here’s what someone should have said tonight. Here is the truth denied to the American People…and to Big Bird:

1. We can bring in over $325 billion per year if we simply put a tiny tax on risky stock and derivative transactions; tax corporations and stop tax have abuse; and, tax the wealthy fairly, such as Warren Buffet suggested by taxing CEOs at the same rate as their secretaries

2. We can bring in almost $90 billion per year by actually making our environment more green and sustainable through: taxing the polluting carbon content of fossil fuels; and, ending fossil fuel subsidies.

3. We can save about $130 billion by making our country and globe safer through: closing out our war operations completely in Iraq, closing a third of our global military bases and ending drone attacks; and by ending military waste

AH Neill/Flickr

AH Neill/Flickr

These commonsense approaches would garner savings of over half a trillion a year — far more than either candidate or any Bowles-Simpson scheme would save and would allow us to preserve our earned benefits, safeguard our safety net, keep our nation secure and create millions of good-paying green jobs.

America Is Not Broke. That is the missing story. Until we admit this, we all lose…and, you can definitely kiss Jim Lehrer and that big ol’ yellow bird goodbye.

Karen Dolan is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow. For more details, please see the IPS report, America Is Not Broke.

Belgrade: Gritty City

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

The Turkish bath of Milos Obrenovic, now a bathroom and storage space for the Monument restaurant.

The Turkish bath of Milos Obrenovic, now a bathroom and storage space for the Monument restaurant.

Sometimes that person you immediate dislike becomes, over time, a close friend. In fact, the very things you disliked about that person can end up becoming his or her chief virtues in your eyes.

That’s been my experience with Serbia. The first encounter was certainly not auspicious. I first visited Belgrade in 1989, on my way south from Poland to the beaches of the Croatian coast. Or, at least, that’s where I thought I was heading. I arrived in Belgrade that July only to discover that all the bus and train tickets to Dubrovnik were sold out. During that summer, even with the Yugoslav economy in difficult straits, Dubrovnik remained a popular destination. Air tickets were available, but I didn’t have that kind of money. So, I ended up staying in Belgrade, disgruntled.

Belgrade seemed to me quite ugly, and I couldn’t wait to leave. I rescheduled my flight but still had to pass three days there. I could never get the hang of the city’s geography. Even with a map I was always getting lost. And everywhere I went I ran into the same two guys. Next to all the pictures of Tito hanging on the walls of restaurants and newsstands was this other fellow, Slobodan Milosevic, who looked like an apparatchik from central casting. I couldn’t wrap my head around all the signs that proclaimed “I [heart] Serbia.” I naively thought the creation of Yugoslavia had meant the death of nationalism. I obviously hadn’t been following recent events in the country.

My next visit to Belgrade was a 1990 flight with Yugoslav Air that passed through the country on the way to Poland. In those days, JAT was the cheapest way to get to Eastern Europe, but many of the flights with connections to points north required an overnight stay in Belgrade. On that particular night, we arrived late at night, near 10 pm, and were driven from the airport into the city to a reasonably nice three-star hotel. Sixty or seventy very hungry people crowded into the hotel lobby, waiting for the distribution of room keys. We waited. And waited. After an hour, it turned out that the hotel didn’t have rooms for us.

“Not to worry,” said our JAL representative. He packed us back into our bus, and we drove in the direction of the airport again. Near midnight, the bus stopped at a no-star hotel. Again we waited for an hour for our room keys to be distributed. The hotel had rooms for us, just not enough. I spent a restless night in a small room in a double bed with another guy, sleeping head to foot. Dinner that night was a huge platter of grilled meat that, because we were all ravenous, we tore into with abandon. There was plenty of alcohol to make us forget our ordeal and then, the next morning, to remember it in painful detail.

They woke us early enough to get to the airport three hours before our flights left. The airport wasn’t even open. I sat on a hard plastic seat and tried to sleep. Finally, it was time to check in.

“Ah,” said the young woman behind the counter, “you have to pay the airport tax.”

“Airport tax? No one had said anything about an airport tax.” I didn’t have any Yugoslav dinars, so I offered dollars.

“Oh no,” she said, “it has to be in dinars.”

“But the exchange booths aren’t open,” I pointed out.

She shrugged.

It turned out that I had a 15-minute window to exchange money, pay the tax, and, running with several other unhappy travelers, get onto the plane before it left. Goodbye and good riddance, I thought as Belgrade retreated into the distance.

An acquaintance later told me that she’d been in a similar situation at the Belgrade airport with one important difference: her early-morning flight left before the exchange booths opened. She waited until the last moment, walked up to the ticket-taking official, and threw a crumpled bill in his direction in lieu of the airport tax receipt. Then she ran through the turn style, down the ramp, and onto her plane just before they closed the doors. She became breathless all over again in the retelling, which made the improbable story believable.

Later that same year, I finally made it to Belgrade as part of my multi-country tour of the region. As soon as I arrived in the city, all of these bad memories flooded back. I had only one contact in the city. I called her up, interviewed her, and left for Zagreb the next day. There were even more pictures of Milosevic around, and the news of confrontations between Serbs and Croats in the Krajina region of Croatia were filtering in. Foreboding was thick in the air. The woman who owned the private flat where I was staying told me in a mix of Serbian and Russian that the Croatians were all fascists and the Albanians produced too many children. Civil society activist Sonja Licht, my one interviewee, provided me with an incisive critique of Milosevic and suggested that civil war had become increasingly likely. I couldn’t wait to leave.

Now, on my return to the region to retrace my steps, I’ve decided to start with Serbia. This might seem strange, since it’s the place where I talked to the fewest people. But I felt that I had been unfair to Belgrade. On a trip to the city a few years ago, I discovered that it wasn’t such a bad place after all. In fact, the pedestrian area in the downtown was charming and festive. I talked with artists and activists who were doing difficult and important work. But this visit in 2008 had also been brief, and I still felt that I hadn’t really seen Belgrade or Serbia.

I’ve already had several interesting encounters on this latest trip. I interviewed Sonja Beserko, once a member of the Yugoslav foreign ministry and long a sharp critic of authoritarian and nationalist politics. I ventured by bus to Pancevo, a suburb of Belgrade that NATO bombed repeatedly in 1999, to meet Sasa Rakevic, who writes comic strips under the name Alexander Zograf and published the wonderful book, Regards from Serbia. Later I’ll write more about these fascinating conversations along with a return visit with Sonja Licht.

But this Sunday I had a chance to wander around Belgrade and appreciate its intriguing tangle of streets. The city has been repeatedly destroyed over the years, by the Ottomans, the Austrians, and most devastatingly during World War II. Some buildings damaged during the 1999 bombing have been left standing as a reminder. Despite all this destruction, you can still find some lovely architecture – an art nouveau building, an old palace, an stately Orthodox church.

I had dinner at a restaurant called Monument, located in an addition to an old haram, or Turkish bath, that once was part of the extensive quarters of Milos Obrenovic. The placards hanging near the restaurant describe Obrenovic’s key role in Serbian history as a participant in the first uprising against Ottoman rule, a leader of the second uprising, and then a ruler who established the country as an autonomous dukedom.

Coincidentally, I was reading over dinner Helen Leah Reed’s 1916 book, Serbia: A Sketch. Just as I started in on my trout, I came upon the passage about Obrenovic. Reed adds something that the placards leave out: that Obrenovic had likely betrayed Serbian resistance leader Karadgordge to the Ottomans. So, it is fitting perhaps that all that remains of Obrenovic’s once vast estate – he was reputed to be one of the richest men of the Balkans – is this modest stone bathhouse, which now serves as a bathroom and storage facility for the restaurant.

Belgrade is not Prague. It’s not a beautiful city set up to accommodate tens of thousands of tourists. You have to work a little harder to appreciate the charms of the city. You have to dig a little to uncover its quirky history. But in the end, this struggle becomes perhaps this gritty city’s chief selling point.

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