IPS Blog

Romney Backs Israel in the Battle of the Iran Red Lines

Okay, so it takes a certain panache to invoke an old-fashioned anti-Semitic trope that insults Jews AND an anti-Arab racist slur against Palestinians – simultaneously. But there you have it – in one brief “your culture” remark to Jewish donors, Romney managed to piss off pretty much everyone in the Middle East.

Mitt Romney gaffe-prone campaign supports a dangerous foreign policy approach. Photo by Dave Lawrence / Flickr.

Mitt Romney gaffe-prone campaign supports a dangerous foreign policy approach. Photo by Dave Lawrence / Flickr.

It’s all about Jewish culture, apparently – you know, Jews are so good with money? Where have we heard that before? That was his explanation of why Israel is so much wealthier than its Palestinian neighbors in the occupied territory. More specifically, it was Romney’s explanation of why Israel’s GDP “is about $21,000″ and on the Palestinian Authority it’s more like $10,000 per capita.” It’s just culture – occupation, Israeli control of economy, land, movement of people and goods, borders, water, airspace….that has nothing to do with Palestinian poverty.

(And oh, by the way, in fact Israel’s GDP is not twice as much as the Palestinians’ as Romney claims; it’s actually about TWENTY TIMES bigger because of occupation. In 2011, Israel’s GDP was more than $31,000; in 2010, the Occupied Territories’ was $1,500.)

In terms of his election, none of this mattered very much, of course, because as the New York Times lead editorial recognized, “the real audience for Mr. Romney’s tough talk was American Jews and evangelical Christians.” This was supposed to be the easy itinerary – Candidate Romney would visit three U.S. allies, all governed by right-wing leaders much closer to his brand of Republicanism than to Obama’s centrist style. He started with London – how hard could that be? Well, there was the criticism of the Olympics. There was the public trumpeting of a supposedly secret meeting with the head of MI6. There was the anonymous campaign staffer talking about Romney understanding the special “anglo-saxon relationship” with the UK better than the [OMG he’s black!] president. The Sun’s “Mitt the Twit” headline probably summed up the British reaction pretty well.

Israel was next, and with the British fiasco still simmering, some of the goals changed. The pressure was on to not only impress his pro-Israel donors, but to prove his clearly-wanting gravitas and diplomatic chops. In one sense, that was the more dangerous part – because it was in real policy issues, especially the possibility of war with Iran, that Romney’s Great International Journey showed his true colors.

But before he got to Iran, of course, there were more you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up moments. Before Team Romney even arrived in Israel, they had gaffed already – scheduling a festive $50,000/plate fundraising dinner during the solemn Jewish holiday of Tisha Ba’av, requiring believers to fast for an entire day spent in sorrow, remembrance and prayer. They hastily moved the money event from Sunday night to a Monday morning breakfast, but still it rankled.

Then he made the mandatory visit to the Western Wall, one of the holiest Jewish sites in Jerusalem. That was for the photo op – and sure enough, the next morning’s Washington Post and New York Times dutifully featured large full-color renditions of Romney at the wall, wearing the traditional Jewish skullcap. But he had gone to the Wall surrounded by a scrum of photographers and a huge security entourage – disrupting the prayers of the ultra-orthodox Jews already there. Even one of the settler leaders, Romney’s most stalwart Israeli supporters, said the settlers were “disappointed.” Then he canceled a long-scheduled meeting with the opposition Labor Party leader – an act the Israeli press speculated was pushed by Netanyahu himself.

And he essentially ignored the Palestinians (and the fact that his visit was in the middle of Ramadan). The only Palestinian he met with was the U.S. favorite, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad who, according to the Globe and Mail, “was summoned to meet the candidate under Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem.” The Wall Street Journal reported their talk “mainly stuck to the Olympics.”

It goes on. The pre-Israel London gaffes were matched by those that followed in Poland. Romney’s foot-in-mouth disease shows no signs of healing.

Iran: who would go to war when

But there’s danger as well. Beyond the snarky fodder for late-night television, there were some serious indications of just how extreme candidate Romney’s policies really are. The Times editorial was correct that “On Iran’s nuclear weapons program, both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney support trying to halt it with sanctions and negotiations but say military action is an option.” That’s horrific, but technically accurate.

Because as bad as both the candidates are, as willing to threaten the use of force as they are, there is a huge difference between them. Candidate Obama reflects the official U.S. position that a “nuclear-armed Iran” is a red line which could justify the use of force. That’s a dangerous, sure-to-fail recipe for foreign policy. But it refers to Iran having a nuclear weapon – something all analysts agree is years away.

Candidate Romney, on the other hand, accepted the official position of his host country – Israel – which is that a nuclear capable Iran is the red line. As Romney advisor Dan Senor put it, as president Romney would respect any Israeli decision to use unilateral force “to stop Iran from developing the capability” to build a nuclear weapon.

And that is a WAY more dangerous proposition.

There is no accepted international definition of “nuclear capability.” Usually it refers to some combination of access to enriched uranium or the ability to enrich uranium, and the scientific know-how to follow the how-to-build-a-nuke instructions that are pretty much all over the internet. Like every country that produces nuclear power, Iran has all that. Years ago, when Israel first started referring to this concept, the running joke was “what are they gonna do, kill all the scientists?” That isn’t a joke any longer; at least five Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated in the last several years, Israeli responsibility is so widely accepted internationally they have all but acknowledged their role.

Dangerous as they both are, there’s a huge difference between threatening to use force if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, and threatening war to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear capacity – since by Israel’s definition they already have that. When a potential U.S. president accepts the Israeli terms for when military force is acceptable, rejecting the position of his own government, we are way beyond the problem of a candidate criticizing a sitting president when he promised he wouldn’t.

No surprise that even some Israelis accused Romney of harboring “an extremist, dangerous, war-mongering agenda.” Romney’s Israel trip shows us the threat of war in a whole new way.

The Term “Nuclear Security” Is a Modern-Day Koan to the Japanese

Japanese kanji for karma.

Japanese kanji for karma.

From the long-prevailing Japanese perspective, it’s foolhardy for the state to consider developing nuclear weapons.

Twice victimized by their use, Japan is uniquely positioned to know how engaging in nuclear war inevitably results in attacks like the ones it experienced in World War II. It’s also able to empathize with the prospect of another state struck by nuclear weapons and envision the negative karma (or gou in Japanese) their use generates.

Alas, many Japanese have focused on their victimization and, especially with North Korea nearby, bow down to the gods of deterrence in hopes of preventing another nuclear attack on Japan. In fact, as Yuri Kageyama reports for the Associated Press, arming Japan with nuclear weapons has long been part of the national and internal debate.

Historical documents released in the past two years show that the idea of a nuclear-armed Japan was long talked about behind-the-scenes, despite repeated denials by the government. …

In a once-classified 1966 document, the government outlined how the threat of China going nuclear made it necessary for Japan to consider it too, though it concluded that the U.S. nuclear umbrella made doing so unnecessary at the time.

In meeting minutes from 1964, 1966 and 1967, Japanese officials weigh the pros and cons of signing the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which would mean foregoing the nuclear option. Japan signed the treaty in 1970.

The government denials continued, even after former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone wrote in his 2004 memoirs that, as defense chief, he had ordered a secret study of Japan’s nuclear arms capability in 1970. The study concluded it would take five years to develop nuclear weapons, but Nakasone said he decided they weren’t needed, again because of U.S. protection.

Lately confusion arose when

… parliament amended the 1955 Atomic Energy Basic Law in June, adding “national security” to people’s health and wealth as reasons for Japan’s use of [nuclear-energy] technology. Given the secretive past, former diplomat Tetsuya Endo and others are suspicious about the June amendment adding “national security” to the atomic energy law. Backers of the amendment say it refers to protecting nuclear plants from terrorists. Opponents ask why the words aren’t then “nuclear security,” instead of “national security.”

As you can see, much more than semantics, the term “nuclear security” may be obfuscation intended to throw up a smokescreen behind which to advance the development of nuclear weapons. In any event, the phrase is a riddle. But, unlike a koan,* which can lead to enlightenment, this phrase has the potential to help usher Japan into a post-apocalyptic world of darkness.

*koan A paradoxical anecdote or riddle, used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment.

Exchange Rates and Debt Bondage

The increasingly sordid LIBOR scandal has pulled back the curtain shielding the international financial system, revealing decaying regulatory bodies and rampant corruption. People around the world are indignant that a key financial benchmark could be distorted with such ease and that this tampering could go unnoticed for so long. This should be a wakeup call around the globe to take stock of other financial tools that are also vulnerable to manipulation and under-regulated.

Argentina's Peso devaluation in 2001 reflected another case of investor speculation. Photo by Alex Proimos / Flickr.

Argentina’s Peso devaluation in 2001 reflected another case of investor speculation. Photo by Alex Proimos / Flickr.

The means by which exchange rates are determined is one such example. Often, exchange rates changes are discussed as if they are part of a quasi-mystical realm that is completely disconnected from the real world. But currencies don’t rise and fall in accordance with some divine will. They’re set by investors and speculators in financial capitals around the world. Basic international monetary economic text books explain that the exchange rate between two countries is determined by the interest rates in each country and the expected future exchange rate between the countries. The formula is: E= Expected future exchange rate [(1+interest rate of the foreign country)/(1+interest rate of the home country)].

The term “expected future exchange rate” is nothing more than a way of making what investors in London, New York, and Tokyo think might happen seem legitimate. When developing countries announce any major policy shifts, new expenditures, or forecasts for their export-driven crops, investors around the globe take note. They change their expectations about the future exchange rate, which in turn shapes the current exchange rate.

The recent debacle demonstrates that financial actors neither impartial nor ethical. The LIBOR scandal should raise concerns about the validity of any financial indicator or benchmark that hinges on the whims of financiers.

The volatility of exchange rates wouldn’t be nearly as damning were developing nations able to borrow in their own currency. Investors and financial institutions that loan money to developing countries prefer to be repaid in stable currencies such as U.S. dollars, yen, or euros. Investors contend that the currencies of developing nations are risky because of the likelihood that they will depreciate.

This laughably ignores the role that the investors themselves play in that depreciation. Though countries have the option of pegging their currency to another country’s to maintain a consistent exchange rate, such as Argentina did in the 1990s, international investors can speculate against the peg and break it. This can contribute to a currency’s sharp devaluation, such as the one Argentina suffered in 2001.

Many poor countries owing dollar-denominated debts that must be serviced with revenue raised in part in their own depreciating currencies are thus forced to make payments on increasingly expensive, and often untenable, loans.

This constant threat of devaluation, in addition to mounting debt, has shackled developing countries for decades. Impoverished, debt-ridden countries have modeled their policies in accordance with the whims of financial institutions to no avail. The events surrounding the LIBOR debacle shouldn’t be considered an anomaly within the financial world. It’s simply a new, and rather reliable, red flag signaling the urgent need to repair our corrupt and broken financial system.

Bankers, investors, and financiers wield too much leverage over key financial indicators and benchmarks and regulatory systems are too anemic. The LIBOR scandal isn’t an anomaly in an otherwise efficient system. It’s a natural outgrowth of an untethered and corrupt sector. Deep reforms that protect against the financial industry’s abuses are long overdue.

Hilary Matfess is an Institute for Policy Studies intern and a Johns Hopkins University student.

There May Be a Method to the Madness of Apathy and Ignorance

Note: This post suffers from a case of style drift. That is, it’s only tangentially related to foreign policy.

At AlterNet, Chris Hedges recently made a strong case for individuals taking responsibility for how their actions (or lack thereof) affect society at large.

The greatest crimes of human history are made possible by the most colorless human beings. They are the careerists. The bureaucrats. The cynics. They do the little chores that make vast, complicated systems of exploitation and death a reality. … Good. Evil. These words do not mean anything to them. They are beyond morality. They are there to make corporate systems function. If insurance companies abandon tens of millions of sick to suffer and die, so be it. If banks and sheriff departments toss families out of their homes, so be it.

I used to characterize apathy and lack of conscience as the enduring enigma of the American public. In fact, though, as I wrote in a post titled for Scholars & Rogues in 2010, apathy may be socially redeeming.

Apathy, of course, aids and abets corrupt leaders. But it wasn’t until the publication of a book in 1996 that I realized apathy might be socially redeeming. Titled Who Are You, Really? (Carroll & Graf), it was written by Gary Null, the noted (and controversial) nutritionist who is also that rarity in this day and age — a Renaissance man.

You may have heard of a personality assessment questionnaire used by prospective employers, among others, called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. If it was an acknowledged product of Carl Jung’s book Personality Types, Myers-Briggs, in turn, seems to have been the inspiration for the categories into which Null divides us humans. You can find the heading under which most of us fall in his chapter “Most of the People You’ll Ever Meet: Adaptive Supportive.”

What, you ask, is an Adaptive Supportive? Null explains:

Adaptive Supportives generally do functional work. They may be clerical-level employees or blue-collar workers in government agencies or factories. They may work at the checkout counters in retail establishments or at construction sites. … sticking with a job year after year sometimes constitute an unrecognized act of heroism on the part of members of this group.

In fact. . .

Adaptive Supportives play an absolutely essential role in our culture, as in any. Without them, the inner workings of society would simply cease to function. … Because there are so many of them, their values and way of life pervade our culture.

Summing up. . .

Adaptive Supportives are the followers in life — the vast majority of the people who adapt their lives to prevailing belief systems. … Their whole lifestyle is supportive of the status quo and they thrive on the sense of belonging that comes from “fitting in.”

In other words, it’s time to stop libeling them as apathetic. It’s just how they’re wired: Their passivity is in the service of fulfilling their role as the bedrock of society. But, as with all personality types, you take the good with the bad. Of course, the liberal left is more familiar with how harmful they can be to society, as well as themselves. Gary Null again:

The real danger with Adaptive Supportives is that they will cling to faulty belief systems. They have a strong sense of trust in one authority, and they feel vulnerable and threatened if an idea or person challenges that authority. … They relinquish control over their own lives, giving more power to authority figures than they do themselves. That gives them a myopic view of life and closes off many avenues of growth and transformation.

Can They Transcend Their Limitations?

Here’s Null’s answer:

When Adaptive Supportives do change, it’s usually because an authority figure has given them “permission” to do so. When the authority in their lives changes, they’ll shift course and go along with whatever the leader expects of them. If the pope were to allow women to become priests, the masses would adapt to the change and support it. … The irony is that Adaptive Supportives could be a tremendous force in society, simply by virtue of their numbers.

Resolving to act against injustice tends to result from personal growth, about which Null writes:

. . . Adaptive Supportives must recognize that there is nothing intrinsic about them that prevents personal growth. … But they have to take charge of their own development. They can’t wait for some big boss figure to give them permission to change, to say it’s okay. The few Adaptive Supportives who do break through the “big-boss barrier” become very excited about their own untapped potential. … The catch is that they may need someone to work with them — generally a more dynamic personality — to keep them motivated and to supply structure and direction.

Just because Adaptive Supportives embody the turning-ship cliché doesn’t mean we should be discouraged. In fact, Null’s analysis should encourage us to cease lecturing them and throwing up our hands in exasperation. Instead, engaging them individually, we can draw out their needs and fears, and address them without the harshness — toward themselves as well as others — to which Adaptive Supportives are accustomed.

Still, it can’t be denied that engaging them on subjects such as politics, culture, and the future of the planet can be a thankless task. The most hidebound are best left to stew in their own juices. But, in the long run, most Adaptive Supportives would probably be glad to be weaned off those who prey upon their insecurities.

Supreme Court, Inc.

The media spectacle surrounding the Supreme Court’s upholding of the Affordable Care Act eclipsed another important judgment the Court made that week. In American Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. Bullock, the Court voted 5-4 to reaffirm its Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, the controversial campaign finance case in 2010. In Citizens United, the court’s majority argued that political spending is a form of speech and that restrictions upon that speech would violate corporations’ first amendment rights. The Bullock ruling overturned a Montana Supreme Court decision that affirmed a century-old voter-approved ban on corporate spending in the state’s elections. This reinforcement of the Citizens United decision has grave implications for the legitimacy of our democracy and our constitutional rights. It should serve as a rallying point for grassroots movements.

The Supreme Court (DonkeyHotey / Flickr)

The Supreme Court (DonkeyHotey / Flickr)

The Citizens United decision and the Bullock affirmation are both ushering in a stampede of corporate contributions to candidates and parties. The dismantling of regulations on corporate expenditure on elections has no clear stopping point, particularly when the nation’s highest court seems intent upon granting them legal status as citizens. These precedents make it easier for corporations to exercise the rights of American citizens without corresponding civic responsibilities.

The Roberts Court apparently believes that corporate rights are more important than those of U.S. citizens. It’s also making it harder to prosecute corporations. The Alliance for Justice, an advocacy group that compiles annual reports detailing the Supreme Court cases concerning corporate rights, has found that “under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court has radically rewritten laws in order to shield big business from liability, insulate corporate interests from environmental and antitrust regulation, make it easier for companies to discriminate against women and the elderly, and enable powerful interests to flood our election process with special interest dollars.”

The Constitutional Accountability Center found that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a prominent business lobby, enjoys a 68 percent success rate when filing briefs with the Roberts Court, a significant improvement over the 43 percent success rate it experienced under Chief Justice Warren Burger and the 56 percent rate under Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

The Supreme Court is, ideally, divorced from ideology and committed to the notion of justice when considering the constitutionality of laws and events brought before it. The Roberts Court, however, has an ideologically motivated agenda that influences its decisions. The judicial activism this Court engages in doesn’t benefit the people of the United States. One has to look no further than its Exxon Shipping Company v. Baker ruling, in which the majority ruled that the punitive damages that the oil behemoth owed the victims of the Valdez oil spill be slashed from $2.5 billion to $500 million, to see where the Roberts Court’s sympathies lie.

In light of the elevated legal status the Roberts court has bestowed upon corporations, a grassroots movement towards community-centered businesses and banks is essential. It’s up to us to maintain the integrity of our rights. There are many ways for us to roll back the power the Roberts Court has handed corporations. Simply buying your peaches at a farmers market or moving your money to a community-based credit union are great first steps.

This fight, however, requires more than just an informed citizenry wielding the power of their purse strings. In addition to making community-conscious decisions, combating a Supreme Court at odds with the interests of the American public requires voting for legislators who will pass laws restricting the rights and powers of corporations and a president who will enforce these laws. The 2012 elections offer all Americans an opportunity to demonstrate our opposition to the Roberts Court’s agenda.

Everyday decisions, such as where to buy our coffee, where to invest our money, and whom to elect, empower us to reshape our economy to value people over profits. Every community-conscious choice that we make pushes back against the agenda of the Court; just imagine the power of 300 million Americans mindfully choosing local businesses and progressive politicians over corporations.

Hilary Matfess is an Institute for Policy Studies intern and a Johns Hopkins University student.

Exactly Which “Terror Plots” Are Relevant to the Bulgarian Bombing?

Following U.S news media coverage of the Burgas, Bulgaria bombing, one would conclude that the Hezbollah provenance of the attack can be determined from recent alleged Hezbollah terrorist plotting against Israelis in Cyprus and elsewhere. The New York Times quotes anonymous U.S. officials as saying the Burgas attack bears “all the hallmarks” of “the Hezbollah plots, including the arrest in Cyprus earlier this month of a suspected operative on the suspicion of scheming to kill Israeli tourists.”

So an arrest of a “suspected” Hezbollah operative who is “suspected” of a plan to kill Israeli tourists is the equivalent of an actual terrorist attack that has killed Israeli tourists? Bibi Netanyahu talked about the case on Fox News Sunday as though the Lebanese man arrested in Cyprus had done everything that was done in Burgas except actually detonate the bomb. So has the Israeli press.

But as I reported earlier this week, the Cyprus case is far murkier than Netanyahu and those U.S. officials have been suggesting. A senior Cypriot official told Reuters, “It is not clear what, or whether, there was a target in Cyprus.” Furthermore, the Cypriot investigators believe the Lebanese they suspected of planning to harm Israeli tourists was acting alone, which doesn’t make it sound like a Hezbollah operation at all. And perhaps most significant of all, there has no sign of a bomb or even of materials with which to make a bomb in conjunction with the Lebanese detainee. The Cypriot government has not yet decided whether there is enough evidence to prosecute the man on any violation of Cypriot laws.

The need for skepticism surrounding the Cyprus arrest applies even more strongly to the arrest in Bangkok in mid-January of another Lebanese with a Swedish passport who was suspected of being a Hezbollah operative. The arrest came after what was described by the Thai Deputy Prime Minister as “weeks of coordination with Israel.” The Israelis convinced the Thai police chief of their speculative allegation that the man was planning a massive terrorist attack along the lines of the 2008 Mumbai massacre that would include the Israeli Embassy, synagogues, tour companies and kosher restaurants.

The Lebanese who was arrested was charged with possession of ammonium nitrate and urea fertilizer, which are potential bomb-making materials, but none of the other necessary components for bomb-making, such as fuses and timing devices were ever found. And the former police chief, who is now the Secretary General of the Thai National Security Council, expressed doubt that the man was actually a terrorist.

Given the fact that the Israelis were then planning the assassination of an Iranian scientist Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan in early to mid-January, the Israeli tale of a massive terrorist threat coming in mid-January, which first passed on to Thai authorities on December 22, was extremely convenient in terms of distracting attention from the inevitable negative press accompanying the Israeli terrorist action.

While the Obama administration has pointed to these murky allegations in Cyprus and Bangkok as relevant to Burgas, it has exhibited no apparent interest in the historical record of actual suicide bombings against Israeli tourists. The reason, apparently, is that, all of the terrorist attacks that fit that description have been claimed by al Qaeda or an affiliate.

The first suicide bombing against Israeli tourists was an al Qaeda attack in Mombasa, Kenya in November 2002. That operation involved an effort to shoot down an Israeli passenger jet as it took off from Mombasa’s airport, using shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, and then the triple suicide car bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa. The missile missed the aircraft, but the suicide bombing killed three Israeli tourists and 10 Kenyans.

The small number of Israeli deaths did accurately reflect al Qaeda’s intentions. In claiming responsibility for the Mombasa attacks, Al Qaeda proclaimed that it was targeting “The Christian-Jewish alliance” and promised future and more lethal attacks on Jews around the world.

In October 2004 three suicide bombers detonated a truck bomb and car bombs at the Hilton Hotel in Taba and two other Red Sea resorts which were favorites of Israeli tourists in Egypt, and most of the 34 dead were Israeli tourists. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an affiliate of Al Qaeda, took responsibility for the attack. The organization said the attacks were intended to “purify the land of Taba from the dirt and corruption of the grandchildren of monkeys and pigs.”

In July 2005, three more terrorist attacks by suicide bombs killed at least 88 people at a shopping area and hotel packed with tourists, including Israelis, in the Egyptian Red Sea resort city of Sharm el Sheik. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades again claimed responsibility for what it called an attack “on the Crusaders, Zionists and the renegade Egyptian regime.”

The Abdullah Azzam Brigades organization was designated by the State Department as a Foreign Terrorist Organization on May 24. Strangely, the designation ignored the history of the organization in suicide attacks on Israeli tourists in Egypt and said it was established only in 2009. But it did point out that the organization has bases in Lebanon which have launched rocket attacks on population centers in northern Israel.

Even if the U.S. national security state does not wish to acknowledge that the Burgas bombing fits the profile of an al Qaeda terrorist operation rather than Hezbollah, there is no excuse for the U.S. news media failure to report that inconvenient truth.

Gareth Porter, an independent investigative journalist and historian covering US foreign and military policy has been awarded the Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 by the UK-based Martha Gellhorn Trust.

The Lineup: Week of July 30-August 5, 2012

This week’s OtherWords editorial package features Sam Pizzigati‘s first column, in which he explains why wealth inequality is officially holding steady while income inequality is growing increasingly skewed. Jim Hightower skewers Mitt Romney’s financial shenanigans, and William A. Collins puts the nation’s penchant for guns in perspective.

As Donald Kaul and I explained last week, he’s either taking a break from writing or recently retired, depending on how things go with his recuperation from a recent heart attack. Thanks for all your kind, and sometimes funny, words of support, many of which are highlighted in my recent letters-to-the-editor blog posts. At least 110 emails and a dozen snail-mailed cards and letters have arrived so far, and Don tells me that he’s feeling much better already.

This uptick in correspondence revealed an unfortunate and longstanding glitch in the otherwords@ips-dc.org email account. If you sent anything to that account before Tuesday, July 25th, it probably vanished. I didn’t receive it, and since it didn’t bounce, there was no way for the sender to know.

I can’t begin to describe how sorry I am about this snafu. I know it will be hard for anyone who tried to reach out to me and got no response — possibly on multiple occasions — to believe that this was going on for more than two years. But it was. I deeply apologize for all the misunderstandings this may have caused. So, if you emailed a note for or about Donald Kaul before 4:30 p.m. on July 25, please send it again. And if you emailed me an inquiry that never got answered, please do try again.

As always, I encourage you to subscribe to our weekly newsletter and visit our blog. If you haven’t signed up yet, please do.

  1. Smoldering Planet / Saul Landau
    Colorado’s wildfires and the record heat waves should sober up some climate change doubters.
  2. Plain Old Murder / Chris Toensing
    The Pakistani government loudly protests that many of the casualties of drone strikes are civilian.
  3. Your Labor Rights or Your Life / Jessye Weinstein
    A hostile labor environment in a country like Colombia, connected through a trade agreement to the U.S., has repercussions for workers at home as well.
  4. Cleaning Up Campaign Finance / Michael B. Keegan
    Citizens United is here to stay unless we show it the door.
  5. Marching Toward Greater Inequality / Sam Pizzigati
    The world’s super rich, according to a new report, are squirreling away phenomenal quantities of their cash in secret tax havens.
  6. How Mitt Got His / Jim Hightower
    Romney keeps playing hide-and-seek with his booty.
  7. One Nation, Under the Gun / William A. Collins
    Why do so many Americans believe that to properly protect ourselves today, we need guns?
  8. Unmanly Drones / Khalil Bendib (cartoon)
Unmanly Drones, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Unmanly Drones, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Tunisia Culture Wars: Ruling Ennahda Party Refuses to Rein in Salafists

Cross-posted from Open Democracy and the Colorado Progressive Jewish News. This series, of which Part Two is below, is dedicated to the memory and contributions of Alexander Cockburn. See part 1 — Tunisia’s Culture War: Salafists Run Amok.

Until late last November, when a Salafist storm broke out at the University of Tunis’s Manouba Campus, Habib Kazdaghli, the dean of the Faculty of Lettres, Arts and Sciences, was living a generally quiet life. But since late last November, much has changed both for Kazdaghli and the University at Manouba.

Kazdaghli is currently the defendant in a law suit, forced to face charges stemming from an incident earlier this year in which he manhandled two female students, both wearing full veils (niqab in Arabic) who had barged uninvited into his office and were destroying his papers. Originally charged with assault and facing 15 days in prison, on July 5, Kazdaghli’s case was postponed until October 25, but the charge was changed to ‘violence committed by an official while carrying out his duties’, which could result in a five-year prison sentence.

Among his academic interests, Kazdaghli was known as one of the few Tunisian non-Jews with genuine interest and expertise concerning the long and rich history of Tunisian Jewry. He has been an active member of the Société d’Histoire des Juifs de Tunisie, a secular historical society bringing together historians of different religions and backgrounds to study Tunisian Jewish history. While this affiliation is perhaps not the central reason for the Salafist campaign against Kazdaghli, it undoubtedly added fuel to their bigoted fire.

Manouba’s calm was shattered in late November of 2011 when angry Salafist demonstrators began what would become more than six months of protests at the Manouba campus. There are some 13,000 students at the Manouba campus; left-wing and secular influences are strong there. It is likely that this explains why the Salafists have targeted the place and why Ennahda, the ruling party, has done so little to interfere with the disruptions and put an end to them. I happened to be in Tunisia at the time that this incident erupted and kept waiting, to no avail, for the authorities to step in and defuse the situation. They never did for the three weeks I was in the country. Instead, for its own reasons, the government simply let the crisis fester.

Reshaping Tunisia’s political class

Breaking the influence of the country’s student movement, an integral part of the coalition that overthrew the corrupt Ben Ali regime, is a key strategy of the current Tunisian ruling elite in its attempt to form a new political consensus, stripped of the more left-oriented and secular elements involved in the uprising. While the coalition that overthrew Ben Ali did not have a coherent programme – the themes that emerged from their demonstrations were clear enough: end to corruption, an economic programme that could raise wages and shrink unemployment, freedom of speech and expression, including for previously repressed religious institutions and an independent (independent of foreign powers – France and the USA in particular) foreign policy.

Why might global powers like the United States, Great Britain and France be so blasé about the rise of the Islamic fundamentalism in Tunisia (and elsewhere in the Middle East) they so criticize to home audiences? The unspoken, but unambiguous goal of Tunisia’s Salafists is to help the country’s new ruling elite split the revolutionary movement that toppled Ben Ali in the first place. That alliance which came together with such speed included a goodly portion of the country’s youth, its student movement, its trade union, human rights fighters, its intelligentsia as well as many from the country’s professional and entrepreneurial class.

Rather than integrating the students, the labour movement and the like into the new order, the ruling Ennahda Party has gone a long way to integrating many elements of the Ben Ali regime along with the country’s hitherto marginalized extremist radical fundamentalist elements – the Salafists – into its new coalition, leaving many of those who actually brought down the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clans out of the mix, in the dust.

Key to isolating the more democratic and militant elements of the revolutionary coalition was to dampen and then in large measure to silence the national narrative that had exploded with the revolutionary upsurge: it was about jobs, higher wages, some reshaping of the economic model, ending corruption and extending democracy, neutralizing the role of the country’s secret police and ensuring greater freedom of expression.

What stood out about this national dialogue at the time Ben Ali was forced to flee (January 14, 2011 – now a national holiday), is how little religious considerations entered into the discussions. The atmosphere was not anti-religious, religious elements were involved in many levels of the revolt. But they were just a part of the mix, and by no means the dominant part; nor were their more radical Islamic fundamentalist elements a part of the revolutionary upsurge at all.

Tunisia: the socio-economic crisis discussions turn to religion

Shortly prior to the October, 2011 national elections for a constituent assembly, the national narrative shifted sharply from the socio-economic crisis which fuelled the revolt in the first place to matters of religion. (I’ve written extensively about this elsewhere.) The issue shifted from being a good citizen, regardless of religion or ethnic background, to one of being a good Muslim. More and more, the essence of ‘good Islam’ was shaped by the more radical, medieval elements within the Muslim community, elements essentially foreign to Tunisian Islam, Salafism.

The political consequence of this shift was to tear at the fabric of the left-centre coalition that had given their blood, sweat and tears, and their lives to kick out Ben Ali. Unable to stand the religious pressure, that coalition has lost a good deal of its energy and finds itself more and more isolated. A key element in undermining the revolutionary energy which could have propelled Tunisia to new political and economic vistas has been the sustained and completely cynical attack on the country’s university system in an attempt to tame it, bringing it under the control of more conservative (and not just religiously, but politically conservative) elements now in power.


Salafists are radical Islamic fundamentals whose stated goal is to turn Tunisia (and other places) into Islamic states ruled by Shari’a law. The Salafist movement is essentially foreign to Tunisian Islam, but has gained something of a foothold in the country since the overthrow of the Ben Ali government. Salafists had no role whatsoever in overthrowing the former regime. Their ranks continue to grow, especially among Tunisia’s rural and increasingly unemployed youth whose anger and frustration the Salafists are effectively manipulating.

Salafists thrive in increasingly dysfunctional societies; theirs is a toxic effect. They are beneficiaries of the chaos they have done much to create and enhance. In the end, they help the powers that be ‘divide and conquer’, pitting potential strategic allies against one another: religious against secular, men against women, etc. In Tunisia they are being used in an effort to change the political and social map of the country through what are in essence brownshirt tactics.

What is the end game? Where is all this cultural turmoil headed? The goal is nothing less than to re-shape the Tunisian national project away from its more secular origins as far as possible. To accomplish this, the Ennahda-led coalition needs to deconstruct, if not destroy, the great social movement that brought down Zine Ben Ali, while at the same time claiming to be the inheritors of that revolution.

One hypothesis put forth is that the Salafists are heavily infiltrated by elements of the former Ben Ali secret police, a 250,000 member spook and intimidation force. There is probably some justification to this allegation, although its main argument falls flat as it lets the current government off the hook for its collusion/cooperation with the Salafists. It also ignores the deals that have been cut between the Ministry of Interior, where most of these spooks were employed, the cadre of the former ruling Rassemblement Constitutionel Democratique (RCD) Party of Ben Ali, and the post Ben Ali ruling elite in which Ennahdha has a decisive role.

The growing Salafist influence in Tunisia can be explained both by the refusal of the ruling Ennahda Party to prosecute Salafist excesses – on the contrary it has in many cases encouraged them – and as a result of considerable financial and political support of the movement by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Add to this that the United States and its European allies have turned a blind eye to Tunisian Salafist excesses and an explanation to their rapid growth in influence emerges.

Habib Kazdaghli (APF)

While a few of those demonstrating for the niqab at Manouba are university students, many were outsiders, shipped in from one Salafist demonstration to another. The demonstrators had three demands, cutting edge of what is surely a more encompassing agenda: to turn the University of Tunis into an Islamic University based upon Salafist values. Among the specific demands: the ‘right’ of women to wear the niqab to class – including exams; separate spaces within the university for prayer; and a curriculum that reflects ‘Islamic values’ to a greater degree than at present. The niqab is something virtually never seen in Tunisia in the past 60 years until now. It was illegal to wear it until a year ago.

The Salafist demonstrations provoked counter demonstrations from university students wanting to protect their hard-won academic space. The confrontations between the groups turned increasingly angry and violent and eventually had to be broken up by the police. As has been the case with many other Salafist intimidations, the police, held back by the authorities – the latter now controlled by Ennahda – reacted with glacial slowness, letting the crisis fester far beyond reasonable bounds.

As dean of the Faculty of Lettres, Arts and Sciences, Kazdaghli stood right in the Salafist line of fire. His integrity, openness to serious academic inquiry and dialogue, his refusal to give an inch to Islamic fundamentalist thuggery and more than likely his interest in Tunisian Jewish history, together made him – and the faculty he leads – a target. The Salafist protests continued into the new year with the tactics becoming more and more aggressive.

What is a bit curious is how few pro-Salafist people participated in ‘defending the right’ for women to wear the veil. There were no more than a handful of them – maybe 50 in all – trying to intimidate a campus of 11,000 students. The Salafists could have been easily countered by the authorities if the will had been there. But aware that they could function with impunity with the weight of the currently constructed Tunisian state on their side, the Salafists compensated for their paltry numbers with increasingly aggressive tactics.

University entrances were blocked preventing normal access; students were harassed and prevented from studying, disruptions caused class cancellations; 2011 end-of-year exams had to be cancelled and the university temporarily closed; female students were intimidated for their dress and bullied; they occupied a part of the faculty permanently.

Salafists target Tunisia’s Jews and women

These Salafist protests also contained extreme expressions of anti-semitism and overt hostility to women’s rights. Understanding well that the women of Tunisia are in a harsh battle to defend hard-won human and social rights, there was a marked female presence among those students protesting against the Salafist presence and demanding that the authorities act.

In response to this religious offensive, Habib Kazdaghli attempted to maintain the dignity of the University of Tunis as an academic institution based upon Tunisian law and university policies. On November 2, 2011, about three weeks before the Salafist disruptions began, the faculty board had voted to ban the niqab on campus. According to a Human Rights Watch report, “in practice though, niqab-wearers were allowed on campus and in the library but barred from classes and exams.” It was probably this faculty vote, initiated in response to the growing Salafist influence nationally that provoked the Islamic fundamentalists to act.

At about the same time, similar provocations took place throughout the country, suggesting an orchestrated campaign. There were Salafist disruptions at the business school of the University of Manouba (same campus as the Faculty of Lettres, Arts and Sciences), at the School of Arts and Humanities of Sousse, the Higher Institute of Arts and Crafts in Kairouan and the Higher Institute of Theology of Tunis. Demands varied with the institutions. At Manouba they focused on the niqab; at the Institute of Theology in Tunis Salafists were demanding that moderate Islamic scholars be replaced by those more closely in tune with Salafist thinking and values.

His continued refusal to be cowed by this Salafist offensive made Kazdaghli a target of the demonstrators, but apparently also of the Tunisian authorities. The latter are probing – using the Salafists as their battering ram – just how far they can go to undo the achievements of the country’s founder and first president, Habib Bourguiba, in terms of secular education and women’s rights.

Kazdaghli’s initial response to the Salafist disruption was to deny outsiders permission to enter the campus in order to maintain order and the continued smooth functioning of the university. Upping the ante, two niqab-ed female students forced their way into Kazdaghli’s office and started to disrupt his papers. His response was to bodily toss them out of his office and in the aftermath, to press formal charges against them. These charges were never processed by the Tunisian police. But when the two women responded by pressing charges against Kazdaghli, the authorities acted swiftly, indicting the dean on charges of assault.

Kazdaghli rejects the charges and describes the lawsuit as having no merit. Defending himself, he commented, “This case was brought up by people who want to reshape our society, but I trust Tunisian justice.” One of his lawyers, Ahmed Brahim added to this, “The dean who represents the university, is being sued, while those who have disrupted classes and attacked Manouba University are free. This is not the message this country has been waiting for… Protecting our universities from aggression should be the primary concern.”

Letters to the Editor: Readers Respond to Kaul’s Departure, Part II

Here’s another sample of the poignant letters Donald Kaul received following his farewell column and my tribute to him. We’ve gotten more than 100 emails and at least a dozen snail-mailed letters and cards so far. Keep them coming and continue posting to the comment sections below Don’s column and my commentary. As I explained in an earlier post, please re-send any emails you thought were delivered to OtherWords@ips-dc.org prior to Tuesday July 24. Due to a snafu, they were lost.

—Emily Schwartz Greco, the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies. Send (or re-send) your letters to Donald Kaul via email to otherwords@ips-dc.org. You may also snail-mail them to OtherWords, 1112 16th Street, NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20036.

Your insight, wit, commentary, analysis, story-telling, embellishment, etc. have delighted me since elementary school. You are one hell of a story teller, and always with a twist that makes your readers think. For better or worse, your writing made a big impact on my life. I learned to think and to question and to not be a dumb sheep in life. I became a Democrat partly because of you. Thank you for opening my eyes and inspiring my ability to feel for the less fortunate and to call bullshit on the indifferent. Thanks for making me laugh and making me cry. Thanks for making me mad and indignant enough to get involved in good causes…I would wave my good health wand all around you if it would help. Good luck and God Bless You, Donald Kaul.
—Cara Murphy, West Des Moines, Iowa

Donald Kaul (right) at the annual bike tour of Iowa he helped found in 1973 (Des Moines Register).

Donald Kaul (right) at the annual bike tour of Iowa he helped found in 1973 (Des Moines Register).

Please — after you recuperate from your heart glitch — continue to occasionally entertain us with your wit and humor. I have been amused for years with your columns and enjoyed the humor of Mike Royko, Rob Borsellino, and Clay Thompson from the Arizona Republic. It is nice to be able to pick up the newspaper and smile about SOMETHING that I’ve read! Columns such as these are a good antidote to all the reality around us. I hope your recovery goes well, and hope we haven’t heard the end of you yet!
—Deanna Rhiner, Fort Dodge, Iowa

I’ve enjoyed your writing for many years. Don’t quit now. We need your insights and opinions.
—Connie Goeb

Take care of your health first. Then, please, please, please come back to doing what the public forum needs most – and, generally lacks – a voice yelling “the emperor isn’t wearing any clothing!” and then explaining in measured tones the reason for the outcry.
—Cynthia Boyer Blakeslee

Thank you for all the insight you’ve contributed to the Des Moines Register. I suppose there are a lot of other things to do at age 77 but your wisdom and insight is greatly appreciated. First, I wish you and your family the best as you recover from your health issues. Next, you are the reason I read the newspaper even in the Internet age. God bless you for questioning things and wondering where our nation is headed. I am scared to death, too…I wish you could write forever and perhaps, some way, some how, you can. Keep the faith. God bless.
— Chip Giles, Des Moines IA

I have read and enjoyed your political columns for many years. You have a special ability to find and analyze kernels of truth that many others miss. Your humor and well-placed sarcasm are also effectively used to help make your point. I share your frustration with the current sad state of our hyper-polarized political discourse. Here in southwest Missouri, we are “blessed” with an abundance of “Bible-thumping know-nothings fueled by money from modern robber barons,” as you so aptly put it. I certainly understand your decision to suspend writing your column indefinitely. Selfishly, however, I hope the day will come when you decide to resume writing, at least on an occasional basis. You have much to say, and you say it so well. Thanks again and best of luck.
—Roger W. Leonard, Republic, Missouri

I have a few email “friends” who occasionally send me right-wing garbage. I sometimes respond by sending them a link to one of your columns…Thank you for all these years of interesting, informative and good humored reading.
—Judy Guy, Springfield, Missouri

Just read your latest column and I’m so sorry you had the cardiac event, however, happy that you survived it and haven’t lost your feistyness. I always look forward to your column and frequently give you a big “yes” — almost always, really. I’m 79 years of age and certainly understand your desire to retire but, trust me, you will be sorely missed. What with all the idiotic Republican rhetoric, you are our one bright, intelligent read. I live in Salida, Colorado, a mountain town of about 5,000 souls — many who don’t agree with my beliefs — translated that would be Republicans. Anyway, we just co-exist in relative peace. I wish you all the best and especially good health and peace.
—Norma Smith, Salida, Colorado

No question about it Donald, all Iowans are “heartbroken” regarding the news of your recent bout with your heart…With your way with words and the scores of folks like me who have enjoyed your columns over the years, get back too it ASAP!
—John Langin, Johnson, IA

Darn oxygen. You’d think a molecule like that (O2), which makes up 21 percent of the atmosphere, would cooperate a little when it comes to nourishing your heart muscle. But, alas, there are lots of reasons that little molecule couldn’t get to those nice heart muscle cells. I imagine you’ve become a bit of an expert in that process by now. Most people react after the fact and, you’re probably like the rest of us, researching that process. I would urge you to go one step further with the oxygen molecule. Now that it’s nourishing your heart muscle, which is dutifully pumping your blood, follow the next oxygen molecule as it exits your aorta and hangs a left up those nice carotid arteries leading to your brain. Now it’s time for those great neurons of the brain to receive their gift of life. The neuron lives and your thoughts flow with the reading of these words. Isn’t oxygen great? Keep your words flowing so my neurons keep requiring that oxygen molecule, and I keep thinking. Because, when it comes right down to it, no words: no thinking. And, then, what’s the point? Happy oxygen pumping and neuron firing! Continue to heal quickly!
—Clark Harris, Branson, Missouri, Clark Harris [cdaharris2@gmail.com]

Since Molly Ivins left us, you have been the only link to reason in this crazy world.
—Dr. Larry L. Shaw

Please do not desert us in this wasteland, Mr. Kaul. I’ve been reading your column since I was fifteen years old (yes, I was a girls basketball player) and I hold you responsible for my deep-rooted cynicism. You’re the light shining in the darkness. Do not unscrew your lightbulb now. Take some time for R&R&R (rest, recovery, etc.) and give us some more of what you’ve got. Love and best wishes.
—Eileen Nelson, a faithful Iowa reader

I am a long time reader/admirer of your columns and am so sorry you’ve hit a bump in the road that brings the columns to an end. As a fellow heart attack survivor (talk about denial…I drove myself to the hospital!) I know there’s a lot of life left after the attack. My cardiac rehab involved riding a stationary bike….you can handle that. It’s my hope you will soon feel well enough you’ll want to resume writing. You have had the gift over the years to express what I was thinking and feeling but was unable to express nearly as coherently or cleverly. I own your books, have a collection of yellowing clippings of your columns and really still hope for more.
—Nancy Ross

Your words in today’s Winston-Salem Journal made me declare aloud, “Yes, he has earned his freedom from our frightening national political scene.” You have been a “friend” for most of my life; I began reading your column in the Des Moines Register when I was a freshman at Simpson College in Indianola. Fortunately, you have appeared in newspapers wherever I have lived. I will miss both your wisecracks and your wisdom. But, you know, when I recently retired, walking away from my role as Human Resources Director of an organization of over 2,000 employees, I compared it to what I imagine experiencing weightlessness feels like. You deserve that also! Let your burden down!
—Carol Gearhart, Pfafftown North Carolina

I’m 76 and have retired three times. Likewise, I’ve returned to the newsroom thrice. For my story, just patch in your brilliant column. My attack came on gradually but ended up with a December 12, 2011 open heart surgery to replace my aortic valve with bovine skin and a double bypass in the bargain. The recovery was brutal. Long story short: I’m back in the newsroom, which includes banging out a weekly column (for 46 years), upon which western civilization depends. Now I’ve never lied to you before, right? My fervent advice is: Go back to work, forthwith! Your kind of writing and blunt truth is needed now more than ever. I believe the Republic is hurting. Finally, what in the world could you do that would be more profound. Just existing in good health is not a viable option. Thank you for your great piece on the attack and warning to other poor wretches such as we.
—Bob “Hawk” Ellis

I read your column regularly (in the Springfield, Missouri News-Leader). I don’t always agree with you…in fact, you and I are often on opposite sides of political issues…but I find your column interesting and provocative, and at times very helpful to me as I try to think through just where I stand on various matters; it “makes me think,” in other words.

I guess I qualify as one of those “…Bible-thumping know-nothings” (Republicans!) you write about, in some ways, but I also agree with you 100 percent that this is not the America I grew up in, nor is it the America I long to pass on to my children… Please know that I value your work as a columnist who speaks his mind, and, being in my 70s also, I understand somewhat what you are dealing with. I hope and pray that your good health can be restored, and if you do decide to begin writing your column again, I’ll be here (Lord willing) to again benefit from reading it. God bless you, and hang in there!
—Mabe Davidson, Branson area of Southwest Missouri

I was saddened to read of your recent heart attack. I hope this finds you in good spirits, recovering on schedule and preparing your next column. I’m happy to continue to read you in the Des Moines Register, a tradition reaching back to the 1960s, when my family would discuss your writings around our dinner table. Nowadays, if you see a family gathered around a meal table with their heads down, you can be assured that — rather than sharing a moment of silent reflection — they’re checking their mobile devices for whatever form of electronic ephemera is the current rage. Your work is a beacon of sanity in a crazy world — I’m reminded of what Jonathan Swift said about how a man of genius never failing to rally a confederacy of dunces. Best wishes for a speedy and complete recovery!
—Michael K. Bryant

I have been reading your columns since I was a kid growing up in Iowa. Maturing from being a follower in a super conservative family to becoming a sound and active liberal adult, I have evolved while enjoying your take on life. Your ability to zero in on the issues of the day, cutting through all the accompanying BS, has been a joy to read. While saddened at the turn of events with your health, I know from personal experience that modern cardiac medicine really can put you back together until you are about 100 percent. So, from this corner of beautiful northeast Iowa, know that a fan is thinking and praying for your excellent recovery and (hopefully) a return to doing some writing.
—Jane Kemp, Decorah, IA

We hope you can rest, recuperate, stick to your vegan diet (!), and come back with pencil sharpened! We do need your voice in these fearful times. And thank you for alerting us to The China Study. It is changing our lives.
—Winifred and Ellis Standing Earlham, Iowa

We will miss him so much. My husband and I live in northeast Missouri and drive 12 miles every Sunday to buy the Des Moines Sunday Register, mainly because of the Donald Kaul articles. I sometimes can get it online from the website of the Burlington, Iowa Hawkeye newspaper. We hope Donald is able to resume writing his columns in the near future.
—Ann Barker

I have so enjoyed the return of your columns to the Des Moines Register. I’m a big fan from your original time in that paper. Please, please consider continuing your column when you feel up to it. You know you’re going to keep up on current affairs anyway so you might as well tell us what you’re thinking. We need you! Best wishes either way,
—Art Horgen, Knoxville, Iowa

The political atmosphere in the USA is enough to give a thinking, caring person, like you, a heart attack. Your health now is primary. Take care, and thanks for all your thought-provoking columns.
—Barb Sorlie, Ankeny, Iowa

If you decide for sure not to write any more columns, I will sorely miss reading them. Politically, we are usually on the same page, me being a liberal Democrat without much patience for Republicans —although some of them are friends of mine, I have to say. You can’t avoid Republicans when you live in Lewisville, North Carolina…Democrats have few voices willing to speak out with as much conviction as you do, but you’ve done your share and then some. If you want to smell the roses until you’re a hundred, you’ve certainly earned the right! I just want to tell you that I’m sorry for your health troubles, and that I’ll miss your columns more than I can say. Thank you for writing them.
—Terri Kirby Erickson, Lewisville, North Carolina

Indeed Donald Kaul’s column in the Des Moines Register has been a wonderful blend of biting humor and penetrating insights into our life and times pushing us all to look more carefully at the distressing tenor of our political and social life today. He has indeed been a breath of fresh air as our political climate has become more combative on the state and national levels. His insights on his own life and our life together have been entertaining, insightful and challenging and we hope that he will contribute more writing as he is interested and able. Thanks, Donald, for sharing from all of your heart.
—Nancy and Dale Hanaman, Rippey, Iowa

It has been 16 years since I had my triple bypass and I am doing great at 85, cussin’ Republicans and eating juicy tomatoes from my own garden. I was saddened, as I am sure you were, by the death of William Raspberry. I know you must have appreciated his work as I did, but I recommend that you do not join him, at least right away. If you crank up the sharp pencil again I promise I will find a way to get hold of your work. Best wishes! Pax et bonum.
—Curt Welborne

I am, I think, a Christian in the arena waiting for the sound of thundering lions paws here…Don, You have no idea how important you are to all of us, We can only pray that reasonable people like you will be able to derail what I think is sure to come, that our country will, if it hasn’t already, become a country of lords and serfs. What a beautiful country and what a great shame. I for one am fighting to my last breath to try to in my own small way save what I love so dearly, and I know that there are lots of us out there!
—Chuck Maloney, Springfield, Missouri

Sorry to hear that problems with your bleeding heart may deprive us of the laughs provided from your left-wing nut perspective. Along with the laughs provided from the right-wing nut perspective of Ann Coulter, sometimes the opinion section is funnier than the comic section. If you ever need to take a quick nap, I suggest you try reading a column from the boring George Will…Enjoy your retirement.
—John Ross, Gulfport, Mississippi

Say it ain’t so! You absolutely MUST continue writing (aka truth-telling). Your columns have always said exactly what’s been on my mind; however, you always said it better and with more flair than I could have…Please, I beg of you to reconsider and share your valuable insights as part of the largely silent majority. Yes, I agree that educated thought and civility is in decline in this country. But if your voice is silenced, the ignorant, small-minded and mean-spirited bigots WIN (even if they are in the radical right minority). If you stop writing, yours won’t be the only heart that is broken.
—VaLinda Parsons, Ames, Iowa

I am extremely saddened to read that you are considering not returning at all. While I can completely understand after reading today’s column, I can still regret the loss of one more voice of reason in this era of scary people like Rush Limbaugh. With so many moderate, reasonable politicians getting out because of what you described, I keep wondering who is going to be left to speak for those of us who have no forum. My memory is not as good as it used to be but I’m sure you recognize the poem I’m referring to: Who will be left to speak for me? My husband and I live in southwest Missouri — not exactly a hotbed of liberal thinking! Sometimes, we feel as if we’re the sole liberals left in this county!…Good luck in your “last years” and remember that you gave many of us a great deal of enjoyment with your learned, enlightening words.
—Lana Roach, avdrdrs@sbcglobal.net, Missouri

This is a moan of anguish! As a Richmond, Virginia native, I (and my wife, Lake), had to rely on the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Richmond News Leader for all political philosophy for almost 50 years before moving away. Your reasonable approach to the D.C. situation has been a breath of spring. It has been available to us through the Biloxi Sun Herald. We look forward to your views and would be greatly disappointed to see you retire.
—Tom Andrews, Mississippi

While I have no clear idea how I plan to spend the waning years of my life, as you seem to be deciding how to spend yours, one thing is certain. In my view, the world is a less colorful, informed, and intelligent place without your public voice in it. Thank you for letting me listen.
—Patrick Lord

Trump is nobody. YOU are THE DONALD. Please don’t stop writing columns. I am 77 and I was retired for 10 years. It was awful. Don’t lose the momentum.
—Dan Felshin, Springfield, Missouri

I live in a small remote one-newspaper town. Our editor writes that President Obama couldn’t possibly do anything right. Guest opinions are usually from The Heritage Foundation, Rush Limbaugh, or Sean Hannity. Your columns are a breath of fresh air and you gave a sense of humor which “conservatives” do not seem to have. Your column published in The Mountain Mail on July 25th was right on. I do hope you will continue to write and appear in our local paper. Also, for your information I am not a radical left winger, but a 92-year-old long-time registered (but disgusted) Republican.
—George Blake, Salida, Colorado

Your wit and humor have been a welcome diversion from the dreary and overly dramatic dribble which too often passes for commentary these days…Our readers — at least those who were open-minded enough to read your columns to their conclusion — have benefitted from your writings, whether they know it or not. I know I have.
—J Swygart, Opinion Page Editor, Decatur Daily Democrat, Decatur, Indiana

I hope you will find the means to continue writing; your weekly editorial columns have always been a bright spot in this part of the Bible Belt.
—David B., Aurora, Missouri

Even though I am a Republican — yet one disgusted at my party — I will miss your insightful words should you decide to permanently discontinue your column. Yet I could not blame you. I hope you fully recover from your recent heart attack. And I thank you for the much-needed reminder to many to not ignore the warning signs.
—Dan Engler, Springfield, Missouri

Thanks for summing up the state of the nation so succinctly. I agree totally — and thanks for citing Yeats, that’s it exactly. Best wishes for a speedy recovery and many happy years doing whatever you most like to do.
—Virginia Graziani, Redway, California

I want to thank you for almost 40 years of columns I enjoyed reading most of the time…I was sorry to read of your recent heart attack (and surprised — you’re a biker and a vegan, after all!) in this morning’s paper, and wish you a speedy recovery. Go ahead and have a great retirement, if that’s what you decide to do. There’s always Cal Thomas! Aacckkkkk.
—Lori Carroll, Muscatine, Iowa

Well, Donald, I’m sure gonna miss you. Sorry to hear of your heart problems. Hey, at 77, that’s not so bad…could have been worse. I don’t blame you for wanting to retire. I’m retired, and I strongly recommend it. It’s a wonderful life…everyday is Saturday! I was always excited to see your column in the Lake Charles (Louisiana) American Press. I will miss your humor and your spin on the ridiculousness of the political landscape. Enjoy your freedom and take care of yourself.
—Patty Cope, a fan from Cajun Country

I don’t blame you for retiring, but I will miss your voice of reason. In these times we really need people like you to illuminate the darkness. I hope there is someone who can take your place.
—Roger Clark

I have always enjoyed your columns, even though I disagree with you most of the time. I am an Independent leaning toward Republican, while you are definitely a Democrat. I do try to vote for a person rather than a party although sometimes I feel like marking “none of the above.” But I have always enjoyed your take on things (although you and I will always have to disagree on Obama). You have made me laugh, made me mad, and made me think, which is what great columnists do, and there are all too few of you. I will miss your columns.
—Sharon Gates, Nixa, Missouri

You are hands down my favorite columnist. The combination of insight, humor, and sometimes even compassion are unmatched by any other columnist. If you decide to quit, no one will be able to replace you.
—Bob Michielutte

Shell-shocked Again, this Time because of Aurora

The night of Friday, July 20 was destined to make headlines — but never for this.

After three years of spiraling anticipation, the premier of The Dark Knight Rises was supposed to be the pinnacle of the American movie-going experience. But, in the aftermath of the midnight mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, the nation wasn’t enthralled by the big screen. Instead, we were collectively shell-shocked by this latest murderous rampage, which killed 12 dead and wounded 58 others.

As we mourn these senseless deaths, the media is sensationalizing the life and disappointments of James Holmes, the 24-year-old sole suspect behind the tragedy. Was he an obsessive fan with a blurred vision of reality? A lonely boy looking to be heard? Or an ambitious student weighed down by pressures to succeed? An entire narrative is spinning around him. It’s a mythology that looks to craft as much fascination with the shooter as there was for the Batman movie itself.

M Glasgow/Flickr

M Glasgow/Flickr

But the particulars of Holmes’ biography, riveting as they may be, should not become our take-away from what happened in Colorado. The heart of this story is not the state of James Holmes but the state of our country.

We’ve become a nation of jumbled values. While parents, politicians and everyone in between declare community safety a sacred right, movies glorify violence. And as we all mourn Colorado’s needless deaths, gun-rights groups rail against the thought of stricter gun control.

But beneath the NRA’s narrative of freedom and self-defense, “good, traditional American values,” lies a simple truth: The gun industry is exactly that — an industry. And theirs is a profit motive so brutal that, according to one study, the gun industry is “working to recruit future customers among America’s children…through advertising campaigns and even video games.”

They’re also working to keep guns ready at hand, pouring over $5,500,000 last year to lobby politicians.

How easy was it for Holmes to buy his weapons? Very. Colorado has some of the flimsiest gun laws in the United States: The assault rifle, shotgun, and handgun Holmes bought in the span of only a few months were all perfectly legal and raised zero flags. And where local distributors failed, there was always the unregulated online market, which outfitted Holmes with thousands of bullets and ballistic gear.

Each gun or bullet sold is profit in someone’s eyes, so it’s no wonder that every time we talk about gun control, a deafening uproar emerges. And there’s little incentive for politicians to take a stand, either. Industry is industry, after all, and any production will raise GDP. Perversely, the more guns we churn out, the better off we call ourselves. Politicians get swelling statistics to market off to voters, the gun industry gets tenuous regulation, and we get ever more gun fatalities.

There’s a defect in our priorities. We look at price tags and call it “value.” But what of those dozens of victims in Colorado? Or the other estimated 100,000 people killed or injured by guns each year?

If we really must attach a dollar sign to understand, the University of Chicago Crime Lab pegs the annual cost of gun violence at $100 billion. But for all the media attention the Aurora shooting has gotten, most gun crimes flit silently under our radar — out of sight, out of mind. The societal damages they inflict are buried under headlines and forgotten.

For these unheard victims, it’s time we get our values straight. We can’t simply take gun sales at face-value. We must consider the staggering costs they carry along. The Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) is one possible step in that direction. The GPI, an alternate measurement to GDP, broadens our concept of wellbeing by integrating social, economic, and environmental indicators in its calculations of progress. One of these indicators, sure enough, is crime.

The Maryland GPI, for example, factors in not only direct out-of-pocket expenses, but also the more profound damages of crime, like trauma and fear, when determining its state-wide wellbeing. That way, when Maryland’s legislators evaluate gun policy and regulation, they will realize the deeper, more substantial impacts that will work their way throughout the state.

The Colorado shootings have made one thing certain: We need to reorient our values. We need progress to be defined not by gun sales, but by the safety of our communities. And so we need a yardstick that will show both politicians and the public the true costs of our gun-wielding culture and the dangerous, short-sighted policies they have spawned. Only then will we have taken to heart the true message of Friday’s tragedy. Only then will it not have been in vain.

Vicky Plestis is an intern at the Institute for Policy Studies, where she helps research alternative models of measuring economic progress. www.ips-dc.org