IPS Blog

Mr. President, the Elephant in the Room Is Not a Republican

Illustration by DonkeyHotey/Flickr

Illustration by DonkeyHotey/Flickr

The recession has been hard on everyone. Tens of millions of people lost their jobs. Many of those who didn’t lose their jobs suffered salary cuts. Retirement savings and home values have plummeted.

Even people who have kept their jobs and homes have had to worry about the possibility of losing them.

But the recession is officially over. In fact, it has officially been over since June 2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. Last month, we entered the fourth year of recovery.

The reality, though, is that in America there are two of everything. There are white and black schools. There are white and black stores. There are even white and black rappers.

And of course there have been two recessions: a White Recession and a Black Recession.

The White Recession was sharp and painful, but soon over. White America is slowly returning to normal. It’s a shade poorer normal to be sure, but normal all the same.

For white men, October 2009 brought the highest unemployment rate of the past sixty years. White male unemployment maxed out at 9.7 percent. It’s now stable at 6.9 percent.

This rate is still too high, but it’s not catastrophic – unless you’re one of the 6.9 percent.

The white female unemployment rate is now even lower: just 6.8 percent. Throughout the recession, it never rose above 7.3 percent.

The White Economy is weak, but it’s been weak for a long time. It’s been dragged down by long-term wage stagnation, cuts in government professional employment and declining union membership.

The Black Economy, on the other hand, is still in full-blown recession.

The Black Recession has now dragged on for four years, if not forty. Black male unemployment is 14.8 percent, and the current trend is up.

The unemployment rate for black men maxed out at 18.0 percent in August 2011, but even that wasn’t a record. In the early 1980s recession, the black male unemployment rate went over 20 percent.

The black male unemployment rate has now been over 10 percent for 49 consecutive months. But that’s normal. It’s been over 10 percent in more than half of all months on record since measurement began in 1972.

That 10 percent figure is for men who are in the labor market and actively seeking work. It doesn’t include, for example, the 5 percent of black men who are currently in jail.

Black women also face serious challenges in the job market. The black female unemployment rate is 11.5 percent, down from a recession high of 13.9 percent in December 2011.

The unemployment rate for black women has now been over 10 percent for 42 consecutive months. Like the black male unemployment rate, it’s been over 10.5 percent for over half of all months on record since 1972.

The Black Recession is the proverbial elephant in the room. No one talks about it, but it’s there. It’s been there for four years, or forty years, if it’s been there a day.

In America’s cultural and racial climate, it’s understandable that President Obama prefers to avoid the subject of the Black Recession. But as he is fond of pointing out, he is the president of all Americans, and that includes black Americans.

Mr. President, the elephant in the room is not a Republican. It’s long past time to put an end to the Black Recession. Above all, that means jobs. If the private sector won’t provide them, the government should. That means you.

We can’t have a jobs program that’s just for blacks. But we can have a jobs programs that provides work with dignity to all Americans and that includes black Americans. Roosevelt did it. Johnson did it. Obama can do it.

Mr. President, put America back to work.

Check Out the Green Party on Israel-Palestine Before Calling It a “Wasted” Vote

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein arrested while protesting against Fannie Mae.

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein arrested while protesting against Fannie Mae.

Voting for a third-party candidate in a presidential election is considered by many to be a waste of their vote. At its worse, as when Ralph Nader supposedly siphoned off votes for Al Gore in 2000, it’s blamed for aiding and abetting the victory of a nightmare candidate such as George W. Bush.

On the other hand, justifications exist for voting third party in the 2012 presidential election. At the Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky alludes to one.

Liberals are too nervous to think it, reporters too intent on a “down to the wire” narrative, and conservatives too furious and disbelieving, but it’s shaping up to be true: An extremely close election that on election night itself stands a surprisingly good chance of being not that close at all.

In other words, if Candidate X, who we dread, seems unlikely to win, we can afford to vote for a Candidate Z, about whom we’re enthusiastic, rather than Candidate Y, who has the best chance of blocking him or her. The more salient justification, however, presents itself when the extent to which Candidate Y (President Obama, in this case) reflects the interests of the rich and favors an expansionist foreign policy to only a marginally less degree than Candidate X (Romney). When the difference in the threat that the two candidates pose to the republic is negligible we need to find an alternative to both.

After the Green Party convention, where Jill Stein was nominated for president and Cheri Honkala for vice president, Nora Caplan-Bricker of the New Republic reported on yet another reason for voting third party.

By far the most common answer to my question—“Why vote for a candidate who won’t win?”—is that it’s important to “vote your values.” Greens talk about voting as a form of self-expression, as if it’s irrelevant whether you put someone in office by doing it. … Stein says her campaign is like “political therapy” for people who have had “self-destructive relationships to politics, like being stuck in an abusive relationship.” And her supporters think it will eventually work: Greens between the ages of 27 and 92 told me they think it’s possible they’ll see a president from the party in their lifetimes—that if they keep offering “political therapy,” mainstream voters who are frustrated by politics will start to want it: maybe in four years, maybe in eight, maybe in 50 or more.

At the New York Times, Susan Saulny reported:

A general internist who grew impatient with the social and environmental roots of disease, Ms. Stein said, ‘I’m now practicing political medicine because politics is the mother of all illnesses.'”

In other words, shifting the electorate to where it will stop voting out of fear is a long process, but one that needs to begin at some point.

Ms. Stein and Ms. Honkala’s key platform, reports Yana Kunichoff at Truthout, “is the Green New Deal, a jobs program which she says will both build on the success of the New Deal in the 1930s and also help move the United States toward a sustainable, green economy.” As an example of their foreign policy platform, which fundamentally revolves around drastically cutting military spending, let’s examine excerpts from their stance towards Israel and Palestine.

We recognize that Jewish insecurity and fear of non-Jews is understandable in light of Jewish history of horrific oppression in Europe. However, we oppose as both discriminatory and ultimately self-defeating the position that Jews would be fundamentally threatened by the implementation of full rights to Palestinian-Israelis and Palestinian refugees who wish to return to their homes. …. We reaffirm the right and feasibility of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in Israel. … We reject U.S. unbalanced financial and military support of Israel while Israel occupies Palestinian lands and maintains an apartheid-like system in both the Occupied Palestinian Territories and in Israel toward its non-Jewish citizens. Therefore, we call on the U.S. President and Congress to suspend all military and foreign aid, including loans and grants, to Israel until Israel withdraws from the Occupied Territories, dismantles the separation wall in the Occupied West Bank including East Jerusalem, ends its siege of Gaza and its apart­heid-like system both within the Occupied Palestinian Territories and in Israel toward its non-Jewish citizens.

For those of us who refuse to be guilt-tripped with charges of vote-wasting … for those of us who are tired of dragging ourselves into the polling both with heavy hearts and with only a sense of obligation — a vote for the Green Party’s presidential ticket is not just a vote against two parties that reflect the interests of a small minority of citizens, but a vote against the act of holding your nose while voting.

In other words, a vote for the Green Party is a vote for voting. And a vote for voting is also a vote for democracy.

Encounters With Gore Vidal (1925-2012)

In 2005, I interviewed Gore Vidal for my weekly TV-radio show Hot Talk. We had first met years before at a dinner party at Marc Raskin’s house in Washington, D.C., where I had watched him monopolize the conversation by verbally destroying the head of a major museum. “He’s a phony, you can smell it,” explained Vidal later as the reason for his ferocity.

Gore Vidal (1925-2012). Photo by David Shankbone.

Gore Vidal (1925-2012). Photo by David Shankbone.

“And he does so little for the public’s benefit. He thinks only of each exhibit in his museum as another notch on his career gun – a typical Washington bureaucrat. I despise them.”

In the TV interview he showed his loathing again, this time for the people who ran the country, not a museum. “The Founding Fathers feared kings and tyrants, so they made it clear in the Constitution that no one man can declare war; only Congress. We’ve had many wars after World War II: Congress has not declared one of them.”

The man who wrote Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace and Dreaming War: The Bush-Cheney Junta excelled at essay writing, but became better known as America’s historical novelist and play and screen writer. His script for The Best Man, a fine movie, is currently re-running on Broadway.

In 2006 I escorted Gore through Cuba. He was 80 and could not walk well, but used a wheel chair. The Cubans interviewed him on TV, arranged for him to give a literary address at their aula magna at the University of Havana and answer questions. The audience was replete with scholars and literary mavens who had read his books and asked him interesting questions. “The Cubans have treated me more kindly and reverently than my own countrymen,” he remarked.

At an informal dinner at the U.S. Interest Section mansion (there is no formal embassy because we have no formal relations with Cuba), a U.S. diplomat began boring his guests, all members of Gore Vidal’s expedition. Not tolerating the diplomat’s tedious small talk, former California Senate President John Burton interrupted the diplomat: “So, what did Cuba do to us again to merit so much punishment?”

The diplomat began a litany about human rights abuse. Burton interrupted. “The Chinese killed thousands of Americans in Korea, the Vietnamese killed tens of thousands in the Vietnam War. Both countries are run by single party Communist governments and neither has a good human rights record. So what did Cuba do to us?”

The diplomat began again on Cuba’s human rights record. Burton cursed and stormed out of the mansion. Vidal clapped. “My kind of politician,” he exclaimed, “unfortunately termed out of office.”

Later, Vidal opined about the curse of “national security.” Those two magic words make the Bill of Rights disappear at the President’s will. Lincoln used them to suspend habeas corpus, shut down newspapers and to preside over the bloodiest war in history because he took an oath registered in Heaven to wage war to preserve the union. Look what Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, et. al. have done in the name of those two magical words. Reagan took them to new depths in Iran-Contra. He turned the preamble of the Constitution into Swiss cheese: “put lots of holes in it.”

“Oh well,” he finished his discourse, “here I am in the springtime of my senility.”

The Cubans showed him Old Havana, its architectural wonders and its ancient streets and brought him to the Latin American Medical School to meet the students, including a group from the United States who received a free medical school education.

His entourage included two government ministers, the President of Cuba’s Parliament and various regular Cubans he had met and liked.

On the ride to the airport going home, Vidal talked about his pessimism for America’s future. “The stupidity of our Cuba policy is matched elsewhere as in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re at war with the people and the earth and we’re losing control of the economy. The tide has turned against us.”

Back in the United States, at a restaurant, a waiter told Gore “Have a nice day,” to which the great writer replied. “Sorry, but I have other plans.”

In his life he wrote twenty three novels, countless essays, screen and theater plays. He ran for office, acted in films and served as the witty TV commentator for politics and culture. He lived for decades with his partner Howard who died in 2003. When asked how he sustained such a long relationship, he quipped: “no sex.”

The Lineup: Week of August 6-12, 2012

This week’s OtherWords editorial package features an op-ed about the privatization of public schools by Jeff Bale and Sarah Knopp and a column by Jim Hightower regarding Wall Street’s new efforts to extract the earnings of college grads.

Thanks for the many kind letters for Donald Kaul. My latest snapshot of these letters is on the OtherWords blog.

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. Crashing the GDP / Vicky Plestis
    A harrowing road trip on the first day of my summer internship helped me get the point of my work on the Genuine Progress Indicator.
  2. The Separate-but-Equal Sale / Jeff Bale and Sarah Knopp
    While charter proponents claim that their schools are less bureaucratic, more efficient, and more effective, the evidence doesn’t really back that up.
  3. Shortcut to Nowhere / Gabriel Thompson
    For desperate workers that turn to temp agencies for a step up, too often they find only quicksand.
  4. A Rotten Cop on the Beat / Roger Peace
    When one country polices the world, who polices the police?
  5. Grabbing Bigger Slices of Pie / Sam Pizzigati
    New research shows that we shouldn’t swallow conservative claims about taxes.
  6. Turning College Students into a Commodity / Jim Hightower
    After graduation, students’ incomes would be “attached” by financiers.
  7. Washington’s Democratic Double-Standard / William A. Collins and Emily Schwartz Greco
    Uncle Sam isn’t making much fuss over Latin America’s law-breaking lawmakers.
  8. Privatizing Public Schools / Khalil Bendib (cartoon)
Privatizing Public Schools, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.

Privatizing Public Schools, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.

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

This is the third installment of a series of posts showcasing the poignant letters Donald Kaul received following his farewell column and my tribute to him. We’ve gotten more than 150 emails and at least two dozen snail-mailed letters and cards so far. Please keep them coming. If you’re a devoted fan, you’ll want to read the first and second of these posts too. As I explained in the first one, 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.You may also snail-mail them to OtherWords, 1112 16th Street, NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20036.
—Emily Schwartz Greco, the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit editorial service run by the Institute for Policy Studies.

Oh, no, say it isn’t so, Mr. Kaul! So sorry to hear of your heart attack and wish you continued improved health. My best friend sends us your newspaper columns (from Branson, Missouri to Hulbert, Oklahoma) and they are always spot on! We will really miss your voice! We would be delighted if your health and well being would allow you to reconsider retirement!
Carol and Kelly Fagan, Hulbert, Oklahoma

My wife and I just moved to Arcata, California, so I’m not familiar with your column. I was struck by your “sign off” that was printed in the local paper (The Humboldt County, California Times-Standard) last Friday, enough to send you a message wishing you the best in your retirement. Thank you for sharing your insight about signs of a “heart attack” and how most men react. I hope you have many more years, and only write if it’s something you wish to do. Retirement should be another fun chapter in our lives, something everyone can look forward to, I hope (though who knows what’s in store for the younger generation).
—Mike Slavin, Arcata, California

I was so sorry to read in Liberal Opinion that you have been so ill and would be discontinuing your column for now. I will really miss reading you in LO as yours is the column that I always turn to first thing. This is the second time I have written you as I used to read your column in the Arizona Republic (the only column worth reading). You had retired from writing your column in 2000 and I wished you well but let you know that I would miss your writing, all of which I agreed with – every word. Well, once again I regret that I will not be able to read my favorite columnist, but I care more that you recover your health and enjoy whatever else you do from now on. Please take good care of yourself.
—Barbara R. Iverson, Sedona, Arizona

I’ve never written to you before, but after your “Broken Heart, severed will” article, I just wanted you to know that I for one appreciate you and hope the best for you. I live in one of the most depressing areas of the nation (Louisiana) and am surrounded by right-wing fanatics whose only source of disinformation is Fox news. The local newspapers regularly run Michelle Malkin, Cal Thomas, Ann Coulter, etc. Once in a while they print one of your articles to show how “fair and balanced” they are. You have been a voice of reason and sanity. I have always enjoyed and appreciated your point of view.

I hope you recover quickly from your heart troubles. I also am saddened that you might hang up your pen. If encouragement from your readers is what you want, please accept this as my request that you keep writing until your head hits the table. You are appreciated. If you print this, please do not print my name since I do not want to have my home or car egged.
—A reader in Sulphur, Louisiana

So sorry to hear you are among the persons forced to take a “rest.” But that’s life I guess. I do wish you a speedy and complete recovery from this serious problem but I’m so glad you are a survivor! We do need your type of column! It is cut from a newspaper in Watertown, S.D. and forwarded to me by a very dear friend, after she has enjoyed reading it. So you see it travels far. My best to you…..do have a speedy and complete recovery.
—Joyce Serquinia, Auburn, Washington

I hope you have a good recovery from your heart attack and I wish you all the best in your retirement. I want to thank you for all the years of great writing with great wisdom and perspective on our society. As a lifelong Iowan I looked forward to your column for years. It gave me faith that I was not alone in a sea of morons and religious zealots hell bent on making a profit and imparting their morals on me no matter the cost.

Growing up in the 50s serving in the military and raising my family as a working man gave me a very different perspective that of the ME generation of the past 20 years. Now retired for the past eight years and once again living under Governor-for-Life Terry Branstad. I will miss your work. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!
—James (Jay) Jebe

Note: the Des Moines Register recently published a version of this letter too.
Dear Donald: You announced the suspension of your column. You lay the reason at the foot of a heart attack and the general decline of civilization.

My plea to you – suck it up. Yes you’re 77 and yes you’ve had a heart attack and yes the world seems to be hopping into Thelma and Louise’s back seat as they happily drive off the cliff.

You may not fully grasp it, but some of us really need to hear your thoughts now and then. You make us think and smile and chuckle. We don’t have to agree with you to enjoy you.

You survived the demise of 6-on-6 girls’ basketball (some will say you helped move the demise along.) You survived not having Nixon to kick around any longer. You survived a nice little bike ride becoming a production befitting Cecil B. DeMille. You survived the pendulum swing of politics and politicians, and issues and conflicts and day-to-day challenges — like how to light a water heater.

You survived the Register liking you and not liking you.

Through it all, you’ve had a loyal following. The five of us often meet to talk about you.

Just kidding. You touch many; many of whom would not dare to admit it.

Keep writing. For those of us who like you, and maybe particularly for those who don’t.

And one other thing, please update the photo that runs with your column. It looks like a police line-up shot. If you can’t come up with a better picture, use someone else’s.

Thanks and hope to continue reading you over the coffee.
—John Hale, Ankeny, Iowa

Best wishes for a quick recovery from your heart attack. Thank you for RAGBRAI, from a 61-year-old who lost his RAGBRAI virginity last week. The ride, instigated by my riding companion, our 33-year-old son, was to celebrate the first anniversary of MY heart attack.

I have two stents, 20 less pounds (not counting the ones I gained during the ride) and feel terrific. We did the Karras Loop, and I did another century today as part of an annual ride with friends.

You have obviously touched countless thousands of people through your columns and your ride.

May you be able to ride again, soon, as well!
—Mark Hertzberg, Racine, Wisconsin
Recently retired journalist (Director of Photography at Lee’s Journal Times in Racine)

Dearest Columnist Who I Cannot Do Without:
Does the earth stop producing after a volcano?
Does the ground stop renewing after a fire?
Do any of us stop our minds just because our bodies are being contrary?
Obviously the answer is a WHOPPING NO.

We all get challenges in our 70s. Get your recorder going — or Dragon — or whatever and dictate those delicious, brilliant thoughts that no medicine or heart will stop your mind from thinking. Your blood pressure may be better with venting! Just don’t make yourself follow deadlines. Who needs ’em? We’ll read whatever /whenever you send a salvo.

Yours is the ONLY column I have cut, copied & sent through slow mail over the years. I especially loved your column a few months back that was a repeat of a column from years ago re God & Congress. Maybe you can cull former columns for current reading. Sounds fun! Blessings to your recovery and to your family.
—Sandy Percy

I was very sorry to hear about your myocardial infarction for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that word on the street is that heart attacks are no fun, But I’m also disappointed I won’t be reading your thoughts on the state of America for awhile, because they generally provide insight and a perspective that is all too uncommon these days.

I agree with what you opine about 98 percent of the time, and even when I don’t I respect the way you articulate your ideas in writing. Yours is an eloquent, thoughtful voice amidst a sea of shouters; in my only slightly biased opinion that aren’t nearly enough of you and far too many of them!

For right now I’m going to put all of my positive vibes into helping you back to good health. And once that’s accomplished, I look forward to reading your helpful bits of common sense that have been showing up in the Journal Tribune (of Biddeford, Maine) each week for at least as long as I’ve been reading the paper with the masthead that proudly proclaims it is York County’s ONLY daily.

We’ll miss you while you’re on hiatus, but given that its cause is that you’re healing, we can deal with it. Here’s to a quick and speedy recovery!
—Andy Young, Cumberland, Maine

From Margaret E. (“Peggy”) Roney, Avondale Estates, Georgia, p309@bellsouth.net
Please don’t quit us. Even though this is the first time I’ve written, I have ALWAYS looked forward to your column, your wisdom, your comfort that your column gave me. Please tell me how we can continue to read you whenever you do write. We NEED you! THANKS! Your loyal reader.
—Margaret E. (“Peggy”) Roney, Avondale Estates, Georgia, Peggy [p309@bellsouth.net]

Select Tributes Posted as Comments on the OtherWords website

Donald Kaul is a prophet in the classical sense of that word; God’s spokesperson. I trust that Donald will continue writing only when God is done with him.
—W. Michael Biklen

Add my name to the legions who have followed Don Kaul for decades and who will miss his “dark wit” if the worst is true and this is truly good-bye. When I moved to Iowa in 1976, Kaul’s columns entertained and educated me. I had the good fortune to meet the man during RAGBRAI in 1983, when I was riding across the state as a young mother escapee of three boys under the age of 3. Something I said made it into his column that day. I’ve enjoyed his columns and was delighted to find him on OtherWords after he left the Des Moines Register.

Life takes funny turns. I am now the editor of a weekly community paper in Florida and through OtherWords have enjoyed sharing some of Kaul’s insights and musings with our readers.

I too hope that he once again finds himself willing to share his gifts with us all, but if he’s really and truly retired for good, we all have decades of insightful columns to be thankful for.
—Missy Layfield, editor of the Island Sand Paper, Fort Myers Beach, Florida

Donald: We keep saying hello and goodbye. When you tried to retire 12 or so years ago, I wrote you that I hoped you would change your mind and return. I ranked you then with Molly Ivins and Mike Royko as one of my three favorite op-ed page columnists in the Kansas City Star. When you relented and returned, I wrote you again, suggesting, as I recall, that we would need you badly in the battle to stop George Dubya. You wrote back promising to try. It wasn’t your fault that he won. Now you say a heart attack has prompted you to retire again — maybe. I’m saddened by your heart attack, thrilled that you survived it and hope you’ll be back soon. Another Republican in the White House we don’t need. Your wit and wisdom is needed again for the fight. Don’t rush it, but as soon as it seems physically advisable, please resume your column. With Mike and Molly long gone, you have no rivals for my affection. My Mondays on the Internet won’t be as rich until you do.
—Harry Jones, Evanston, Illinois

If you do stop, I’ll understand but here in Traverse City, I’ll miss your column greatly. Frankly, I’ve had to cut back on following politics as intensely as I used to for the sake of my mental health and I’m only 50.
—Sally Sheldon, Traverse City, Michigan

I’m glad to hear you had good medical care, and I’m glad that you’ve written about how this is the only one of the 30 wealthiest nations that considers health care a commodity rather than a human right. Now get well, and if you want to stop writing the column, so be it. I’ve been following you since I was an Iowa high schooler (and a page in the Iowa House of Rep., class of 1965, when Chuck Grassley was a squeaky-voiced freshman). I have yellowed clippings of Over The Coffee columns that still are zingers. You, sir, belong in the Journalism Hall of Fame. If there isn’t one, let’s start one and put you in it.
—ExIowan on Left Coast

Back in the late 70s, the Mason (Iowa) City Globe Gazette provided a list of about 2 dozen columnists and asked readers to rate them. Donald took first place. I always looked forward to his columns. He reminded me a little of Mike Royko although he had a style all his own. Even if he never got a Pulitzer, he deserves some kind of recognition. I’m grateful for all his wonderful columns and wish him all the best. Get well Donald. I hope we hear from you again even if it’s only as a guest columnist every now and then.
—Wayne Stout

I grew up listening to my father chuckle at the breakfast table, and then read “Over The Coffee” aloud to my mother as we ate. Once I figured out that the newspaper consisted of more than just the funnies, Mr. Kaul’s column was always the first thing I read. I’m just having a difficult time imagining life without being able to read Mr. Kaul’s witty — and often caustic — comments on current events. Politics has become so depressing, and I always looked forward to being able to laugh about it…even just once in a while.
—Jaylah

I am 80 years old, a Korean vet, a college grad, a father of four, a grandfather, and, a great-grandfather. As I read your article I could not help but agree and strongly endorse these sentiments. I feel as if I have fallen into the rabbit hole and want to wake up. Is America done in less than 300 years, when Rome lasted 1,000? Thanks for sharing your insight.
—Harry Clayman

Damaged Historical Sites and Stolen Antiquities Fray Syria’s Links to the Origins of Civilization

At the Independent, Robert Fisk writes:

“The destruction of Iraq’s heritage in the anarchic aftermath of the Anglo-American invasion of 2003 – the looting of the national museum, the burning of the Koranic library and the wiping out of ancient Sumerian cities – may now be repeated in Syria.

“… The priceless treasures of Syria’s history – of Crusader castles, ancient mosques and churches, Roman mosaics, the renowned “Dead Cities” of the north and museums stuffed with antiquities – have fallen prey to looters and destruction by armed rebels and government militias as fighting envelops the country. While the monuments and museums of the two great cities of Damascus and Aleppo have so far largely been spared, reports from across Syria tell of irreparable damage to heritage sites that have no equal in the Middle East.”

Three things are going on at once: concern for historical sites is trampled by the hostilities; looting; and even ethnic cleansing. Fisk again.

In Croatia and Bosnia in the early 1990s, I saw the same thing. The pulverisation of mosques and Catholic and Orthodox churches, the smashing of gravestones – even the bulldozing of graveyards – were a form of cultural cleansing that reached its apogee in the burning of the old Sarajevo library.

The souls of Iraq and Syria are irreparably damaged when their link to their heritage as the cradle of civilization is frayed. Indeed, the world is much the worse for it. “This is why it is so important,” writes Fisk, “to have an inventory of the treasures of national museums and ancient cities. Emma Cunliffe, a PhD researcher at Durham University, published the first detailed account of the state of Syrian archeological sites in her Damage to the Soul of Syria: Syria’s Cultural Heritage in Conflict, listing the causes of destruction, the use of sites as military positions and what can only be called merciless looting.”

Ms. Cunliffe’s report, issued in May of this year, can be viewed or downloaded free at the Global Heritage Network in May of this year.

Violence Defines American Culture

As a child I played war games (cowboys killing Indians). My friends and I routinely shot each other – with toy guns, of course. In my south Bronx neighborhood, older gang members had real guns and sometimes shot each other. Like in the movies! The cartoons I adored as a kid were loaded with violence as were the war movies Hollywood churned out to make propaganda for the actual war against Germany and Japan.

Cowboys and IndiansWhen James Holmes mowed down twelve people and wounded almost sixty at a movie theater in Colorado, I felt fresh violence enter my body as if a masseuse had greased me with liquid hostility before beginning the massage. Aggression penetrated my pores, inundated my brain and covered the cells of my heart. While the media reported the number of rounds fired, the kinds of weapons possessed by the assassin, and the anatomy of Holmes’ booby-trapped apartment, President Obama and aspirant Romney uttered bland statements about the need for prayer, and consolation to the victims’ families. Neither mentioned control of guns or the culture of violence that defines America. Freedom seems to equal gun possession for the National Rifle Association and many of its members.

Violence, more American than apple pie and baseball, has become a major social issue and a serious public health problem. Almost daily someone shoots another dead in countless metropolitan areas. Families suffer, cops say they are investigating and newspapers and TV stations get lead stories. I, like tens of millions, see the TV blood stories and easily fall into the fascination pit of the aftermaths and consequences of violence. But the media does not analyze or look for underlying themes in Aurora or similar horrifying acts. Instead, they use them to sell news shows, newspapers, and get advertisers.

Indeed, the media soak us with the culture of violence. In Hollywood and TV films, violent death has become the only formula for adequate retribution. Movie villains suffer hideous ends – movie justice. Violence as the cultural metaphor well suits a country that for decades has lived with perpetual war, backed by the owners of the war economy.

Continue reading Saul’s colum at Progreso Weekly.

Ploughshares Makes Life Hell for Oak Ridge Nuke Plant

Y12Before dawn on Saturday, July 29, reports Frank Munger at his Knoxville News column Atomic City Underground,

“…three peace activists — including an 82-year-old nun — were able to sneak into the [Y12] nuclear defense installation [in Oak Ridge, Tennessee] and maneuver their way into the plant’s highest-security area, where work on nuclear warheads takes place and where the nation’s primary supply of bomb-grade uranium is housed. The trio, who labeled themselves the “Transform Now Plowshares,” reportedly used bolt-cutters to slip through high-security fences.

“Once inside the so-called Protected Area, they attached protest banners to the uranium storage site, splashed it with human blood and spray-painted slogans and messages on the walls.”

Of course, the groups intention wasn’t to show terrorists how it’s done or to, per se, shame the facility’s security — and 82-year-old nun! But (Munger again)

In an extraordinary effort to address growing security concerns following Saturday’s break-in by protesters at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, the government’s contractor shut down all plant nuclear operations, placed the stocks of enriched uranium in secure vaults, and set up a schedule for thousands of Y-12 workers to take refresher courses on security do’s and don’ts. …The shutdown of operations is expected to last about a week, but officials said that’s not been fully determined.

Some background on Ploughshares:

On September 9, 1980, the “Plowshares Eight” carried out the first of what have come to be known as plowshares actions. Eight peacemakers entered the General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, where the nose cones from the Mark 12-A nuclear warheads were manufactured. With hammers and blood they enacted the biblical prophecies of Isaiah (2:4) and Micah (4:3) to “beat swords into plowshares” by hammering on two of the nose cones and pouring blood on documents. Thus, the name “plowshares” has been used to identify this action. The eight were subsequently arrested and tried by a jury, convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 1 ½ to 10 years. After a series of appeals that lasted 10 years, they were resentenced to time served—from several days to 17 ½ months.

As a disarmament advocate, I’ve long been in awe of the work Plowshares does. They not only dive headfirst into the legal system with significant risk of jail time, but what many don’t know is that they risk their lives. On Thursday, Munger wrote:

A federal spokesman at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant said it was fortunate that nobody was hurt or killed …. Steven Wyatt of the National Nuclear Security Administration said deadly force is authorized against those who enter the area without permission. “The protesters put themselves at a high risk of losing their life in performing this act,” Wyatt said.

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.

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