Friday, September 30, 2011

A Drone for a Bomb?

It's just been reported that it was a drone that took down al Qaeda's number two operative, and U.S. citizen, Anwar al Awlaki in what smells like the old eye for an eye operation.

Apart from the obvious problem with this, the fact that more than three-quarters of Americans describe themselves as practicing Christians, there are a few others:

First, if one is not an agent, that is to say if one does not actually commit a crime but instead appears to have been involved in the planning of a crime, is that grounds for suspending his constitutional right to be arrested, read his Miranda rights, and be tried in a civilian court? After all, isn't the plotting of a terror attack considered first and foremost a crime, and not an act of war?

And, in times of peace, would not that offense be known as "conspiracy to commit an act of terror?" Does the state of war, particularly the state of undeclared, and indefinite war, give a government the license to circumvent, and subrogate established legal tradition?

Secondly, if those who bomb, make bombs, or publish instructions on how to make bombs are called "terrorists," what do you call someone who kills by remote control, and from unmanned aircraft hundreds, arguably thousands of miles away?

Does the remoteness of the trigger provide some kind of moral immunity? Clearly, there has been an attempt by the previous administration, and this one, too, to legitimize acts that have been traditionally viewed as illegal, and outside the parameters of international law.

Next, as McClatchy reports, international law mandates that "Targeted killing is banned except to protect against "concrete, specific and imminent" danger." Does the execution of Awlaki meet these criteria?

President Obama isn't the first occupant of the Oval Office to turn to his legal counsel for a green light to dispense the kind of justice he finds most expedient. Remember, it was thanks to the efforts of John Yoo, and other legal counsel to George W. Bush who redefined torture such that any technique that doesn't involve loss of life or limb is immune to that designation.

With the right legal advice, it might be possible, too, to rewrite the Old Testament so that "an eye for an eye" reads instead
"a drone for a bomb." But, I guess the larger question, especially for a nation that fancies itself Christian, is when is it not murder?

Surely, Italy wishes they had drones back in the days they were dealing with the Cosa Nostra family in Sicily, and the NYPD wouldn't bristle at the notion of a targeted kill when dealing with crime bosses back in the 1920's, but that would make the NYPD effectively hit men, would it not? What does it make the U.S. government when it signs off on a targeted assassination, especially when there is no clear evidence of imminent danger.

Moreover, acts that al Qaeda and the Taliban have engaged in that we call "terrorist acts" are, in fact, criminal acts, and acts of mayhem. The place to deal with criminal acts is in a courtroom not on a battlefield, that is unless one wants to make the whole world a battlefield which is what the U.S. has effectively been doing.

Clearly, it's cheaper merely to kill a cleric, and spiritual leader whose charisma, and worldview are seen as a threat to national security than it would be to hunt down, arrest, indict, and prosecute him, all of which adds up to beaucoup bucks. But, the paradigm for treating those who commit crimes against humanity, even the most egregious kinds as we've seen from the Nuremberg Trials, is to do precisely that, try the suspect. By overriding the rule of law, we ourselves become criminals.

No one is questioning if Mr. Awlaki posed a threat, but where do we draw the line? Does someone need to be directly tied to a specific terror attack before they be sent off to meet their maker, and does it matter if he is an American citizen or not? Should it matter? International law is clear about the need for a "concrete, specific, and imminent danger." Does it matter that targeting anyone for assassination is a violation of international law, and/or does it matter that it is also unconstitutional?

Not to mention that Awlaki was, after all, someone's son, a fact not lost on
his father. While the court threw out Awlaki's father's attempt to stop the U.S. government from killing his son, the act of targeting another human being for rapid fire execution, and in too many cases rapid fire random execution, is one that will be talked about for generations to come. You can bank on that.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Don't push your luck

Talk about strange dreams. Last night, I dreamt I had a job interview in a five star hotel of all places, and there was no place to fill out the application but on the roof.

I had to go through the restaurant to get to the staircase that led to the roof. It seems to take no time at all to get there. The ledge was so thin, I didn't know how anyone could sit on it and not fall off, but they did because a couple next to me talked away while eating Sloppy Joe's, and a
young girl spoke heatedly on her cell phone.

The pen I was writing with ran out of ink, no one had another pen, so I couldn't complete the application unless I went back downstairs to find something to write with. Thought of taking the stairs, but I would have
been late for my interview, so I had to jump from the roof which I did.

I landed fine, brushed myself off, then I left my coat on the roof.
Thought I had time to go back up and get it. When I looked up from the courtyard, I realized that I had jumped something like 20 feet. Happily,
I couldn't find the stairs that led back up to the roof, so I didn't get another shot at jumping. Moral of the dream: don't push your luck.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Michael Winship on "The Terrible Post-9/11 Truth"

Democracy has been commandeered by a self-interested gang

By Michael Winship

About a year after the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building, I visited Oklahoma City and went to the bombsite with a friend who had covered the attack as a television news cameraman. No memorial or museum had yet been built; fencing covered with teddy bears, flags and scrawled messages surrounded an empty, grass-covered lot.

There was a simplicity to that empty lot that appealed, an understated eloquence that, to me at least, said all that needed to be said. Now, despite all the hubbub and handwringing surrounding its design and construction, in many ways, the new 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero in Manhattan captures some of that same, straightforward plainness -- the names of the dead punched into bronze, the waterfalls gracing two great voids where the towers used to be, muting the noise of visitors’ voices and quieting the surrounding city. No filigree or statues.

We went to the new memorial for the first time last week. It was a perfect, end-of-summer day. Sunlight sparkled in the two pools, and you could see in one of them the wavy reflection of an American flag hanging from across the street. When the breeze was just right, a light mist from the waterfalls caressed your face.

I was pleased, too, by the vast plaza, so reminiscent of the one that used to separate the original towers, the wind corkscrewing around their height and sending hats into orbit. In the next few years, when all the construction around the site has ceased and the landscaped trees and other greenery have more fully grown, this will be the place for contemplation that was intended. And perhaps those who come here will reflect not only on the events of 9/11 but their unexpected consequences and whether we as a nation are ever prepared for what comes next.

On the afternoon we visited the memorial, I was already downtown, attending a daylong conference on post 9/11 worker protection and community health, sponsored by the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), a coalition of labor, civil rights, medical, faith-based and environmental organizations.

"Are we ready for another 9/11?" Dr. Linda Rae Murray, president of the American Public Health Association, asked us. "Hell, no! Were we ready for Katrina? Or the tornadoes? Or the H1N1 flu? We don’t have the resources; we’ve let our infrastructure disappear. No, we’re not ready."

The World Trade Center collapse created the largest number of workplace fatalities in the history of the United States. Government bumbling and dissembling about air quality downtown and conditions at the site, the rush back to business as usual, may have irreparably killed and injured countless others. In the words of Bruce Lippy, formerly with the International Union of Engineers, who spent weeks working on the pile, "They didn’t want to turn Manhattan into a Superfund site." Chip Hughes of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (part of the NIH) added, "There should be an apology."

Many of the health consequences for those who survived and continued as rescue and recovery workers have been summed up in a recent study of 27,449 participants in the World Trade Center Screening, Monitoring, and Treatment Program. The stark statistics were published in the September 3 issue of the British medical journal The Lancet:

"Findings: 9-year cumulative incidence of asthma was 27.6% (number at risk: 7027), sinusitis 42.3% (5870), and gastro-esophageal reflux disease 39.3% (5650). In police officers, cumulative incidence of depression was 7.0% (number at risk: 3648), PTSD 9.3% (3761), and panic disorder 8.4% (3780). In other rescue and recovery workers, cumulative incidence of depression was 27.5% (number at risk: 4200), PTSD 31.9% (4342), and panic disorder 21.2% (4953). 9-year cumulative incidence for spirometric [lung capacity] abnormalities was 41.8% (number at risk: 5769); three-quarters of these abnormalities were low forced vital capacity."

This doesn’t include all the others who lived, worked or studied at or near Ground Zero, inhaling smoke, ash and dust -- air some have described as more caustic than Drano. Nor does it include the cases of neurological disorders, mesothelioma, and other cancers appearing more and more among 9/11 survivors -- illnesses that legislators and activists are now battling to add to the list of conditions covered by the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.

It was hard enough passing the Zadroga Act in the first place, beating back years of resistance and wrangling in Congress, a GOP filibuster and so-called "compassion fatigue" around the rest of the country (at the NYCOSH conference, Jon Stewart was applauded as a local hero for his role shaming opponents of Zadroga into approval). Seeking new coverage for 9/11 cancer patients is another uphill fight against indifference and overt hostility.

So for those who will come to Manhattan from everywhere else to pause and reflect at the new 9/11 Memorial, better perhaps to consider some other implications and side effects of the terrorist attacks that impact not just the greater New York area but the entire country and beyond. In fact, many of the issues being battled over in Washington and across the Dr. Seuss-like landscape of the 2012 election campaign have a direct bearing on future 9/11’s in America, no matter where and when they may happen. (And why do all the Republican presidential debates remind me of those cheesy paintings of dogs playing poker?)

Infrastructure? Think of all those decaying roads, bridges and tunnels, and the chaos if they fail during an evacuation. Deregulation? If anything, 9/11 demonstrates that certain OSHA and EPA rules on safety, clean air and water need expansion and better enforcement. Conservative attacks on public employees and organized labor? The first at the scene on 9/11 were the firemen, police, emergency medical technicians and union construction workers who stayed on the pile until the last scrap of steel was gone, not to mention the Communication Workers of America members who risked their lives restoring phones, microwave links and IT; the electricians, plumbers, and engineers.

Budget cuts adversely affect training and response times. Politics interfere with scientific research. State labs are underfunded or closing. Universal health care, if it existed, already would have taken care of many of the doctor’s appointments, tests, treatments and medications being funded, but still only in part, by Zadroga and other programs.

Another article in that September 3 issue of The Lancet chronicles "Adverse health consequences of US Government responses to the 2001 terrorist attacks." According to its authors, Dr. Barry S. Levy and Dr. Victor W. Sidel, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq "caused many deaths of non-combatant civilians, further damaged the health-supporting infrastructure and the environment (already adversely affected by previous wars), forced many people to migrate, led to violations of human rights, and diverted resources away from important health needs."

In Iraq, "Oil spillages, contaminated ash, unexploded ordinance, and depleted uranium at and around US military bases have all caused environmental damage." The health status of Afghans is "lower than almost any other country," life expectancy at birth is 48 years, only 27 percent of the population has access to clean water

According to the report, "The initial $204 billion spent on the Iraq War could have reduced hunger throughout the world by 50% and provided enough funds to cover the needs for HIV/AIDS medicine, clean water and sanitation, and immunization for all children in developing countries for almost 3 years. Within the USA, the federal budget for the 2011 fiscal year for the war in Afghanistan -- $107 billion -- could have provided medical care for 14 million US military veterans for 1 year."

Domestically, "After 9/11 and the anthrax outbreak shortly afterwards, the USA and other countries have improved emergency preparedness and response capabilities, but these actions have often diverted attention and resources from more urgent health issues."

The coalitions and alliances that have formed in the decade since 9/11 -- the professionals and ordinary citizens who from day one have stepped up when official bureaucracy has not -- are the one bright light shining through tragedy. But it’s not enough. "Do we understand that we’ve been hijacked by a small group of people using government for their own benefit? This is our government," the Public Health Association’s Linda Rae Murray declared. "It doesn’t work well but it’s ours and we have to seize control of it and put in place what we need to keep ourselves and our neighbors healthy."

When you visit the 9/11 Memorial, think about that simple, fundamental truth as you remember the fallen, the heroes -- and everyone else struggling to survive.


Michael Winship is senior writing fellow at Demos, president of the Writers Guild of America, East, and former senior writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Execution of Troy Davis

Last night, the state of Georgia put to death a 42 year old man, Troy Davis, who was sentenced to die for the 1989 murder of an off-duty police officer. Troy Davis was 20 years old in 1989.

The forensic evidence directly linking Davis to the murder was conspicuously absent. Innocence Project attorney, Barry Sheck, has called into question the results of testing on the gun alleged to have been the murder weapon. Indeed, there was no more incontrovertible forensic evidence directly linking Mr. Davis to his alleged crime than there was linking Casey Anthony to the murder of her two year old daughter, but Ms. Anthony was exonerated.

Oh, of course, yes, Casey Anthony is white, and Troy Davis is a man of color who stood trial for first degree murder when he when he was younger than Anthony. Remember, too, that a man of color was accused of having killed a white officer, Mr. McPhail, in 1989 and in the south no less. And, yes, of course race must be considered a factor when considering the disproportionate number of minorities on death row.

Before insertion of the needle, and within minutes of his death, Davis not only continued to proclaim his innocence, and that he was not personally involved in the officer's death, but that he didn't even have a gun.

For months now, many prominent people have called upon the courts to stop Davis's execution in the face of exculpatory evidence. The governor of Davis's home state of Georgia was unable to grant clemency, so Mr. Davis's counsel called upon the Supreme Court to order a stay of execution so that new evidence could be introduced. The Supreme Court ruled against the stay; the lethal injection process began at 10:53 p.m., and at 11:08 p.m., Mr. Davis was declared dead.

In the months and years before the execution, and in hours since, there has been much speculation about whether or not Troy Davis killed the police officer. Many cite the recanting of testimony by seven of the nine witnesses who fingered Davis as the murderer. And, up until his final breath, Troy Davis continued to proclaim his innocence, calling upon friends to continue to search for the truth about who is really guilty of killing that officer back in 1989.

But, in the end, this is not about innocence or guilt. This is about right and wrong. Is it ever right to put a man to death in what a former Jackson warden, Allen Alt, called a premeditated, and scripted way? Does not the executioner also become a cold-blooded murderer? For those who advocate austerity, would it not be a good idea to downsize federal employees whose vocation is taking the life of another?

At a time when another Southern governor, and one who is running for president of the United States, brags about having executed 235 men on his watch, including one who may well be innocent, and then turns around and calls himself a "pro-life" candidate reminds us of just how much hypocrisy, and duplicity we saw during the Olly North, Dan Quayle, "family values" 1990's.

There is another constitutional amendment other than the Second Amendment that tea partiers like Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Sarah Palin need to be remember---the Eighth Amendment, an amendment that forbids "cruel and unusual punishment."

What is it if not cruel and unusual punishment to bring a man to within hours of his execution on three separate occasions, and then send him back to death row? What is it if not cruel and unusual punishment to keep someone sedated in the death chamber on a gurney for four hours while waiting to hear back from the Supreme Court about whether there is a stay on his execution? Was Mr. Davis shackled, and gagged? Were his hands and feet bound? Did the sedation manage to arrest his thoughts, or was he still able to dream? Do we really want to know? How perverse is the after-execution account of eyewitness expressions? How devalued is
human life that it must suffer this fate?

What is it if not cruel and unusual punishment to administer a three drug cocktail that, while it may sedate and paralyze a man, may not render him
incapable of pain? What is this if not torture?

In a recent poll, 60% of the American people approve of the death penalty. Even the president is said to approve of the death penalty.

So, it must be asked, who are we now, and what have we become that we can kill from thousands of feet away, and by remote control? Who are we that we own the horror that is Abu Graib, and so-called enhanced alternative interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay?

What have we become as a nation that a former vice president, Dick Cheney, can admit publicly, and in his memoir, that he personally approved of the use of waterboarding, a practice long considered torture and abjured internationally, and do so with impunity? What manner of hubris is that? What kind of statement is it that the government awards liability insurance to interrogators to protect them from litigation that may result from their actions? Who are we, and how did we get this way?

In the end, it is not about innocence or guilt, but right and wrong. Have we become such full-throated sociopaths as to applaud the state-sanctioned murder of 235 Texans by its governor?

Nothing good will ever come of the scripted, court-sanctioned murder of a human being, but something must happen. The Supreme Court ruled against lethal injection as cruel and unusual punishment, but it is now time for the Supreme Court to rule on whether capital punishment is itself a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

The Supreme Court must also be asked to consider if holding someone on death row for 22 years, then granting him three stays, and forcing him to lay bound and infused with sedatives for four hours only to be put down with the same chemical used to put down a dog, is this how a government gets to treat one of its citizens? If the Supreme Court can permit this, then we need to create another court to oversee them.

There is not much left to say except to repeat along with Troy Davis "God have mercy on us all." We are all a little smaller in the eyes of the world today.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Why Solyndra and Not Boeing?

President Obama faces increased scrutiny over a solar energy company, Solyndra, that received half a billion dollars from the administration, only to go belly up months later. As Democracy Now suggests, Solyndra might find itself "a household name" in the 2012 election cycle, as well as an excuse to scrap the notion of an economy fueled by green jobs.

But, where is the scrutiny of Boeing, one of whose subsidiaries
has long been linked to extraordinary rendition flights that received many billions of dollars since 2000? Where is the political fallout over the Pentagon's recent awarding of a $35 billion contract to the aerospace giant? The half a billion the Obama administration approved for Solyndra pales in comparison with the $35 billion Boeing received in 2010.

And, where are those who, with religious zeal, call for spending cuts when the Pentagon gifts more than $30 billion to one company? Moreover, is there no is congressional oversight into how that money is being spent by the Pentagon?

Since George W. Bush's first term in 2001 through 2010, according to Public, campaign contributions to Boeing came to $10 million; lobbying expenditures were $115 million. And, from 2000-2008, government contracts awarded to Boeing were a whopping $169 billion.

In one year alone, 2008, as a going away present, Mr. Bush gave Boeing $24 billion in government contracts. Not to be outdone, the Obama administration pitched in another $35 billion last year.

So, why all the fuss about Solyndra and not a peep about Boeing? Where is the public outrage over the complicity between the world's largest aerospace company and the Central Intelligence Agency's transportation of detainees to countries that allow for torture? Given the level of global warfare now, what better time to make Jeppesen a household name instead of Solyndra? What better time to call attention to taxpayer funds going to finance a company that ships detainees to black sites around the world where it is permissible to do things that have long been abjured, and criminalized both here in the United States and abroad?

Okay, but where does the idea that Boeing is involved in detainee rendition come from? It was Jane Mayer who first wrote in The New Yorker, back in 2006 about Jeppesen International Trip Planning. As Mayer reports, Jeppesen, a subsidiary of Boeing, lists the CIA as one of its clients. Keep in mind that, fully two years before Mr. Obama was took office, Ms. Mayer brought to light Boeing's involvement in planning for clandestine CIA renditions.

In her article, Mayer asserts that, while a tiny charter airline actually flies the planes, a division of Boeing handles "many of the logistical and navigational details" for the trips including "clearance to fly to other countries."
Jeppesen is, in her words, the "C.I.A.'s travel agent."

And, the following year, 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in which they formally charged Jeppessen Dataplan of "providing flight services" that enabled for the rendition, and ultimate torture of detainees.

ACLU lawyer, Ben Wizner, noted then that "This is the first time we are accusing a blue chip American company of profiting from torture." According to the suit, four years ago, Jeppesen made 70 rendition flights. Oh, by the way, the suit was dismissed in February, 2008, and then dismissed again by an appeals court in 2010. The Supreme Court reportedly declined to review the case.

The Pentagon's awarding last year of $11 billion more than was awarded in 2008 should make the hair on the back of everyone's neck stand up at the thought of how many more rendition flights Jeppesen must be making now, not only with impunity, but with the full backing of the Pentagon, and government. This practice, and the fact that we're paying for it, should be a wake-up call for all concerned about overriding international proscriptions against torture by covertly rendering what amounts to high value suspects to countries that have no legal obligation to adhere to international law, which amounts to outsourcing enhanced alternative interrogation techniques.

Notably, Boeing purchased Jeppesen in 2000 and government contracts expanded by 170 billions in the eight years of George W. Bush's presidency. The war on terror for some became a war of terror. There was nothing controversial in the mainstream media about the Boeing contracts. Not like there has been over the past week or so with the Obama administration's connections to Solyndra.

Why no fuss about the $115 million spent in lobbying for Boeing during the Bush years? And, where is the Solyndra affair really going? Is it to be compared with where the vast majority of Pentagon funding to Boeing has gone?

Moreover, why the failure on the part of Republicans and Democrats both to mention that it was back in 2007, under the presidency of George W. Bush, that a conditional loan guarantee was issued to Solyndra by the Department of Energy?

There are some who might say that the controversy over Solyndra is not so much about the failure of solar energy, or green jobs, but failure in the marketplace, and that had Boeing met the same fate, they'd be in the news, too. But, those who profess that are making such a cynical statement about our values, and saying, in effect, it doesn't matter what you do as long as you make money at it. The silence on the subject of Boeing's connection to extraordinary rendition by the mainstream media is deafening.

There are some in the Obama administration, including many in Congress, according to the New York Times,who would like now to try all terror suspects in military courts, even those arrested on U.S. soil, but the president and his top counter-terrorism advisors are not about to allow that to happen, or so they say. Mr. Obama must also stand up to those congressional factions that want to cut Medicaid and not take a dime of taxpayer money away from military contractors like Boeing.

After all, there is nothing radical about civilian command of the military. Isn't that what the struggle has been from the McChrystal debacle going forward? Wasn't that Mr. Obama's core argument, and the reason Gen. McChrystal was asked to step down? The president can best assert himself now by taking the reins again, investigating, and defunding any military contract that is, even subliminally, inimical to international law. It's one thing to say the U.S. doesn't torture, but to allow for the awarding of billions of dollars by the Pentagon to a company that facilitates the outsourcing of torture is a cynical misuse of the public trust.

Make no mistake, this is by means intended to be a condemnation of Mr. Obama. There is a huge difference between the rendition program under Obama and that of George W. Bush. For openers, it was George W. Bush's administration that first stated the practice of illegally rendering suspects to countries that allow torture to circumvent international law. Remember, Boeing's connection to secret CIA flights began in 2000, and the actual flights began in 2001.

Today's White House was gifted with a whole lot of baggage from the Bush years. The president has tried to focus his energies on keeping the economy from total collapse which he's done, and history will be kinder to him than his contemporaries in that yes, Obama's stimulus did prevent an economic catastrophe the likes of which we've yet to see.

Having said that, the president has chosen to surround himself with hawks---deficit hawks and military hawks, and he turned the CIA over to a former high octane general, Petraeus, Stanley McChrystal's mentor, which means even more military political influence on government decisions.

Every president has to delegate. Mr. Obama must start to pay attention to what slips between the cracks on his watch, and cut off Boeing's $35 billion a year contract until, and unless, they demonstrate that they're no longer involved in secret terror flights.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Myth of Identity

Over the past thirty years or so, western civilization, and especially the U.S., has evolved from what Guy Debord called the "society of the spectacle" to what may instead be called society of the sociopath.

These days, one often finds paraded around the network news celebrities and those who have attained instant celebrity solely by virtue of having committed acts that are so removed from societal norms, and truly antisocial, as to be considered sociopathic. The attention given not merely to the crime, victims of the crime, but to the criminal often renders the psychological carnage, and damage to the rest of society invisible.

From O.J. Simpson to Scott Peterson to Casey Anthony, the culture of narcissism is now deeply enmeshed in the collective psyche. Scott Peterson, husband of a lovely young woman in Northern California and father-to-be is heard on his cell phone lying to his girlfriend about his whereabouts during his wife's funeral. The complete irrationality of his behavior, and his aloofness stimulates curiosity as much as contempt as does the horrific shooting of Gabriel Giffords, and murder of her colleagues in Arizona, yet another example of sociopathic behavior.

Again, TV cameras capture a clearly crazed individual, Jared Loughner, the alleged shooter, whose paranoia is part and parcel of a major disconnect with reality. His delusional acting out is part of a cultural identity crisis, one suffered, though less egregiously, even by former presidents who profess to take marching orders from the Almighty, and who go so far as to claim to be "born again." Identity delusions are not restricted to criminals. There are many high functioning sociopaths, and more than a few to be found in boardrooms of all Fortune 500 companies.

But, whether it manifests in crime or not, most psychopathology stems from a twisted sense of identity that has as its foundation in the underlying notion that "I," the objectivized self, is a fixed entity, and not fluid, or something subject to change. Identity isn't the core issue; attachment to identity is.

Arguably, many of the world's problems today are caused by disputes that involve one identity clashing with another. For instance, in the Middle East, Arabs fight Jews, Christians fight Muslims; during the Civil War, the North fought the South. Each side must be invested in their individual identity in order to be an effective warrior. The recognition that underneath we are all human beings, thus we share humanity is antithetical to the state of mind necessary for effective combat. One must be invested in being a confederate to wave the confederate flag. Essentially, the universal sense of self is always at war with the public sense of self, or identity. But, while all conflict may be said to begin within the self, it seldom ends there.

In many instances, as Dr. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and author of Man's Search for Meaning has implied, suicidal ideation arises from hopelessness, and hopelessness from the idea that one is trapped in a situation, or a self from which one can never escape.

It is often the societal compulsion to see oneself as a named entity, "Joe," "Mary," "Mike," "Mary," and one with a fixed identity, "architect," "nurse," "attorney," "doctor" that obstructs self-development. A more fluid notion of oneself as a work in progress, something perpetually growing, might not coexist with an accomplishment, goal-directed, free market mentality. We see where the free market mentality has gotten us.

People who are driven to succeed are often identity-driven, and at war with death. For them, finding one's identity, thus, becomes like taking out an insurance policy for mortality, but the more one clings to "who" one is, the closer one is to one's mortality.

As soon as you say "I," you're talking about someone else. Poet Walt Whitman understood this. In his "Song of Myself," he was using the pronoun "I" as narrational, objective. Whitman was instead speaking of the universal self, the self that is, in fact, everyman.

Of course, the critics of his day didn't quite agree with Whitman, and accused him of being an egotist. To the contrary, Whitman was wisely acknowledging that when one uses the pronoun "I," one is objectivizing oneself.

Another nineteenth century poet, Arthur Rimbaud, wrote: "Je est un autre," ("I is another") which essentially means that "I" is a narrational device.

Why is this important? In modern, and post-modern times, we've become more obsessed with who we are, and the more we try to confine who we are, or the larger self, into a thing that can be named, the more antisocial this culture becomes.

Identity is a mask; Nietzsche saw that. When, in Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche argued that we're never really alone, not even when we're by ourselves, he meant that we wear masks even when there is no one else around. A deeper understanding of the self can be best hidden from the self by the mask of identity, or effectively becoming what one is in the eyes of others. As George Orwell observes in Shooting an Elephant, "He wears a mask and his face grows to fit it."

What happens to those whose face doesn't grow to fit their mask? Or, when the mask is somehow defaced by life choices? What happens when the truth of who one really is shows through?

This objectivization of the self under the facade of fixed identity doesn't allow for any options, but to play the same role over and over endlessly, or for as long as one possibly can. Sociopathology comes about when the agent is no longer identifiable by the mask, or assignation given him by society. O.J. Simpson is no longer identifiable as the star athlete, role model, but is instead some monster who is not only dissociated from the world around him, but his own actions. The same is true of the young mother in Florida, Casey Anthony, whose identity is shattered by the death of her child, and a bloodlessness, lack of emotion, manifests showing a deep disconnect, or dissociation, from her daughter's death.

A young violinist, in New England, videotaped by his roommate in a same sex act of intimacy, takes his own life. His identity as a young violinist is compromised by someone else's sick attempt to forcibly expose the young man him when, in fact, loving another man is not his identity any more than playing the violin is. They are both acts. The acts are not the agent. What one does, or with whom, is not who one is.

Until we encourage exploration of identity, and recognize that who we are, what we believe, what we do, where we live, and everything else that gets factored into what others see us, is something ultimately much larger than any category we could ever invent, we will undergo one global identity crisis after another. War is a global identity crisis. Nationalism is the logical extension of a pathological need to be identified with something that is, more often than not, an accident of birth.

Identity that is not subject to change is an illusion, and a dangerous one. It will destroy the planet much faster than climate change as there is nothing more corrosive than a shared illusion.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


A Decade of Memorials Squandered
By Michael Winship

A long time ago, I helped produce for public television an annual year's end interview with New York City Mayor Ed Koch. We always shot it in a private room at Windows on the World, the restaurant on top of the north tower of the World Trade Center, with a spectacular view toward the Empire State Building. From that height, at the end of a sunny winter's day you could see the lengthened shadows of the two towers stretch diagonally all the way across lower Manhattan, up and east to Stuyvesant Town.

One time, we were taken up to the roof, where the big transmitting antenna was. Around the perimeter was a gutter, some two to three feet wide and three feet deep or so -- for the window cleaning apparatus that went up and down the sides of the building, I think. Some of our production crew got into that well, knelt down, held onto the inner lip of the gutter and had their pictures taken. From a still camera's perspective, you could make it appear as if you were hanging from the edge of the tower. It seemed funny at the time.

Two decades later, on that awful morning in 2001, I threw on a pair of shorts and a tee shirt and ran to the corner after my then-wife buzzed from downstairs that the World Trade Center was on fire. We stood on the corner looking down Greenwich Street. She left for her newsroom, I watched for a few more minutes, and as I turned to return home, the second plane hit.

The flames, the blizzard of paper, the sounds of sirens and church bells, the flyers taped to every wall looking for missing loved ones, and finally, of course, the overpowering smells that lingered in our air for weeks -- I have so many memories and stories, many of which I've recounted before, all of them so puny in comparison to the accounts of heroism, bravery and tragedy that over the last week or two once again have filled the media.

But I remember a week later, when television microwave trucks from around the world still stretched down the West Side Highway as far as you could see. At one corner was a French anchorman, who I gathered was something of a superstar back home. Excited French tourists were bunched around, thrusting their cameras, waiting their turns for a Kodak moment with him. Three and four at a time, he spread his arms around the visitors, grinning broadly and carefully posing everyone to make sure billows of smoke from the wreckage would be prominent in the background. With apologies to France, and thank you for the Statue of Liberty, but I really felt like giving him a punch.

For so long after 9/11, we gazed southward and the sky was empty where the original Trade Center once stood. I used to think there should be some vast chalk outline in the sky, showing where the twin towers had been, like the silhouette TV detectives draw of the spot where the murder victim fell.

These days, when I walk across my Manhattan intersection and look down Seventh Avenue, I can see One World Trade Center going up. As you've seen during the coverage of this week's tenth anniversary, they've reached 80 plus stories; its glass sheathing rises part of the way to the top, construction lights twinkle at night on the unfinished floors above.

Eventually, the structure will be 108 stories with an illuminated mast that will lift it to a height of, yes, 1776 feet, but along the way they've abandoned the title Freedom Tower for fear of scaring away renters and provoking terrorists. I think of the ten years that have passed, remember other 9/11 anniversaries and wonder what else has been abandoned as well.

On the first anniversary, I made the rounds: the tributes at Ground Zero, then a memorial service at the Episcopalian Church of St. Luke in the Fields on Hudson Street, where the weeping of victims' families and friends pierced the heart. I attended a ceremony in Washington Square for the flight crews; doves were released for each of their lost lives.

The second year I was working and didn't plan a visit, but as a friend from out of town and I sat on my roof that night, staring downtown at the twin shafts of light that shine each year in tribute, he asked if we could go. We strolled around the banks of searchlights that created the two bright columns pointing into the sky and as we walked, a woman ran by, smudging the site with burning sage, trying to cleanse it of the evil that had happened there.

The next three years, I went to Ground Zero or attended other memorials, but on the fifth anniversary, when I arrived downtown the scene seemed, sadly, more circus-like. The families of the victims were largely protected from it but those of us just outside were subjected to pitchmen and hangers-on, a man dressed in a bird suit urging passersby to "Have a Kind Day," and everywhere, the "truthers" in their black tee-shirts, thrusting in your face brochures and DVD's pitching every sinister conspiracy they believe caused the towers to fall, except, of course, the one that actually brought them down.

Last year, on a train home from Boston, where the two flights that hit the towers originated, I watched the Tribute in Light from a distance, its shafts of illumination piercing the dark above the faraway Manhattan skyline. And this year I stayed at home and watched on television as the official memorial was opened, songs were sung and the 2750 names were read aloud once again.

I did go down to Ground Zero on Wednesday, walking through the rain and mist to Church and Vesey Streets, the intersection at which One World Trade Center is rising. The majority of the sidewalk traffic seemed equally divided among groups of business people, construction workers and tourists. I stopped by St. Paul's Chapel, where ten years ago first responders and other emergency personnel slept, exhausted, in the church's pews between hours of recovery work on the smoldering mountain of death and debris. The wooden pews are gone now, stored -- just temporarily, I hope -- and replaced with folding chairs where visitors come to view mementos of 9/11 and listen to choirs and chamber music.

Instead of the tributes of flowers and stuffed animals that once crowded St. Paul's iron fence, now white ribbons were tied, each marked "Remember to Love." Anyone could add a message to them -- in black ink, slightly running from the damp, people had written "RIP to All," "Peace," "Keep on rocking in the free world," or just their names.

I had come downtown for a discussion at the New York County Lawyer's Association, sponsored with the New York Neighbors for American Values. Its subject was "9/11: Refuting Stereotypes and Challenging the Common Wisdom." Eight panelists and moderator Tom Robbins discussed whether the public had been sufficiently involved in the plans for rebuilding lower Manhattan post-9/11 (no), if officials had recklessly downplayed the health hazards around the site (yes), if the mainstream media adequately reported those dangers (no) and whether post-attack security concerns had escalated intolerance and violated civil liberties (oh yes, indeed).

In fact, a new Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board originally called for by the 9/11 commission report in 2004, its powers even strengthened by Congress in 2007, has yet to meet.

We seem to have squandered the solidarity and goodwill amongst ourselves that briefly blossomed after the tragic events of 9/11 -- not to mention global support -- just as unthinkingly as we've spent $1.2 trillion dollars, according to the National Priorities Project (a nonpartisan, progressive think tank), on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq -- money that could have generated thousands of college scholarships; hired fire fighters, police officers and teachers; provided low cost health care for millions.

The renewed patriotism and commitment we felt a decade ago has decayed, sullied by jingoism, xenophobia and paranoid fantasies about race and religion. At the panel, Linda Sarsour of the Arab American Association of New York observed, "What stops another 9/11 is not profiling, but all New Yorkers becoming partners and friends." We actually had that for a while in those first days and weeks of smoke and ash, those days when the smell of vaporized metal and electrical cable and God knows what else filled our air; so pungent you could taste it.

We lived through those days, and in a decade of memorials we still see flashes of the unity, strength and dedication so necessary for democracy to survive. But how horrible if the ultimate memorial to 9/11 is not waterfalls and names engraved on bronze or marble but the financial, moral and societal bankruptcy Osama bin Laden and 19 followers armed with box cutters hoped would be our fate.


Michael Winship is senior writing fellow at Demos, president of the Writers Guild of America, East, and former senior writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.

Tea Party -- Pall Bearers for the Economy

Something troubled me during last night's tea party debate, and every time I hear Republican presidential candidate, Michele Bachmann, speak about what she plans to do after her summer vacation. She repeats the same refrain: "I'm running for the presidency of the United States."

The first few times I heard Bachmann say that, I didn't give it a second thought, but today after hearing her yet again say that she's running "for the presidency" and not "for president," I wondered what, if any, difference there is, between the two phrases. Well, for openers, the president is the person who occupies the office, but the presidency is the office itself.

Now think about Mrs. Bachmann's use of this phrase exclusively, especially given another term she's so adamant about repeating "Obamacare." Is there a correlation between the two? Of course, Obama happens to be the president.

There are many ways to refer to this administration's health reform legislation. One can refer to it just as I did above, i.e. as this administration's health reform measure. But, I don't recall ever hearing Bachmann refer respectfully to the health care plan passed by the president of the United States nor has any Republican contender for president. What is implicit behind any reference to this White House is an underlying attitude of contempt.

The mantra "Obamacare" has become like a shibboleth, and something that must be repeated as often as possible to gain entry to this not-very-secret society of president-haters. It's the password into the account of these time travelers who, if elected, will take us back to the days of Jim Crow, or earlier still, to the antebellum southern sensibility.

Yes, repetition of the phrase "running for presidency of the United States" as distinct from "running for president of the United States" may also be an effective way for Ms. Bachmann to distinguish herself from the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But, what is it, in particular, that would distinguish her from the current resident and, for that matter, distinguishes this president from all those who came before him. Is this, after all, what Ms. Bachmann has in mind?

And, something else to think about, Speaker of the House John Boehner's egregious declining of the president's request to speak before a joint session of Congress recently was Boehner's way of scoring points with the Bachmann wing of his own party. Not only were Mr. Boehner's actions precedent-setting, but they forever diminished the Speaker's role.

When the president of the United States requests to speak before a joint session of Congress that is equivalent to your boss coming out, and asking "Do you have a minute?" Would you respond "No, I'm filing my nails" which is, in effect, what Boehner did.

Oh, and you remember what was really behind why President Obama had to ask General Stanley McChrystal to step down. It was felt that the general was undermining civilian command of the military.

The actions of those Republicans in Congress, as well as those who are currently running, or who may run for the top seat in government who pander to the tea party base equally undermine not merely this president, but the presidency.

Not to mention, too, that for all their talk of job growth and supporting so-called job creators, both Governors Perry and Romney would make perfect pall bearers for the U.S. economy as should either gentleman or their deregulator counterparts find their way to the White House, we may expect to have a very long wake instead of inauguration as we watch the U.S. and global economies fail yet again.

Monday, September 12, 2011

My 9/11 Story

Everyone has a story about where they were, what they were doing, and how they first learned about the collapse of the Twin Towers in Manhattan, and the subsequent attack on the Pentagon, but my story really began a few months before that horrific day.

In July, 2001, I had been working as director of new business for a prominent Beverly Hills staffing service. Business was good, but discernibly shaky starting in spring of that year, so there was no "new business" to be had.

My employer promised that we would "grow old and rich together" and, when it became quickly apparent that I was going to grow old, and he was going to grow rich, I promptly packed my bags, and headed for points north.

I ended up moving to a little country town that was nestled in the mountains, Ojai, where upon my arrival I finally got to do something I had wanted to do for about 20 years: find out more about a woman named Sylvia Beach, an American, daughter of a Presbyterian minister from Camden, New Jersey, who moved to Paris to fulfill her dream of opening a bookstore, Shakespeare & Company, and wound up becoming the first to publish the complete version of James Joyce's Ulysses.

The plan was to find out as much as I could about Beach and, of course, about James Joyce whose work I loved, and to write a stage play about it.

Before even unpacking, I decided to check out the town, and stopped into the local library to look for a book about Sylvia Beach.

On the wall of the library was a big poster of Shakespeare & Company, Sylvia Beach's bookstore, that was donated by a local artist. It was only supposed to be hanging there for a few weeks. How serendipitous, I thought, and asked the librarian if she had any books by Sylvia Beach, and she said, oh yes, there's one: Shakespeare & Company, her autobiography.

Well, I took a few deep breaths as this was the title I had intended for my play, and asked if she had a copy of the book. She told me there was only one copy, and it was over in Santa Barbara, about 30 miles away. I asked her to please call over there, ask them to hold it for me, and got into the car right away. It was my first time ever going to the library in Santa Barbara. I can't recall ever wanting to get my hands on a book that bad before, or since.

A few days later, walking down the street, I saw Malcolm McDowell sitting at a cafe having lunch with some friends. I felt like a character out of one of Cocteau's movies, "Le Testament d'Orphee," running into mythical figures on a busy boulevard in Paris.

When I gawked at him it produced such a memorable smirk that I immediately thought, I found my James Joyce! And, without his encouragement, it's likely the idea would never have seen the light of day. I needed an impetus to write the bloody thing, and there it was.

So, from late July through early September, I immersed myself completely in Beach's memoir, and read every biography of James Joyce I could get my hands on. What happened next was magical. Despite my own personal desire to write a stage play, Joyce came through for me as a character visually even more than verbally, and I felt compelled to commit the piece to the screen.

During the period we now know as 9/11, I was completely engrossed with writing the first draft of my screenplay that was intended to be as much an anti-war statement as a statement against censorship.

After all, Ulysses, a book widely considered the greatest novel in the English language, was banned throughout most of Europe when it was published on James Joyce's 40th birthday, February 2, 1922. The novel was banned under the U.S. Tariff Act, and copies confiscated by US Customs Officials, until December, 1933 when, thanks to Judge Woolsey's verdict, the book was allowed to enter the U.S. Notably, Ulysses was banned in Australia until 1953.

Ironically, the months leading up to 9/11 were spent working on a piece that reminded us of what it was like to live in a repressive climate, an intellectual environment that forced books like Lady Chatterley's lover from the shelves, and one that enabled an organization like PEN to form to defend freedom of expression. It was soon clear that, in the weeks, and months after 9/11, this country would regress to the state of faux patriotism, and egregious censorship that characterized the 1920's.

After those airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center, something first witnessed on my computer screen, everything changed. The narcissistic, nationalistic, collective narcolepsy from which the planet suffered during the first and second world wars returned with a vengence.

In Ojai, American flags lined the main street. Ford Explorers brandished flag decals. We were back in the days of white picket fences, and apple pie. We had returned to the mindset that banned Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," and one that found the Joyce's imagination execrable. Make no mistake, were it not for the Woolsey verdict precedent-setting ruling on pornography, Ginsberg's "Howl" would have been pulled from the shelves.

As a result of 9/11, America had suddenly returned to a worldview that would stop our better angels at the gate and demand to see a passport.

Curiously, much of what appears in my screenplay, the 1920's and 1930's following World War I, and the lead-up to World War II, the faux moralism, and faux patriotism, the wholehearted and full embrace of warfare. It's enough to convince anyone that Sylvia Beach would have found it as hard today as she did in the 1920's to have Mr. Joyce's novel distributed in the U.S.

What a sad statement, and what a sadder statement still that her story has yet to be told, and told as only I can.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Collective Responsibility and the President's Speech

Many elements of the president's speech Thursday night were laudable, especially his support for collective bargaining.

Moreover, President Obama's proposals to extend unemployment benefits, and continue payroll tax cuts for workers, as well as provide tax incentives to employers to bolster hiring are certainly practical steps toward acknowledging the fiscal emergency this country is in. But, there were a few things the president left out.

First, Mr. Obama didn't say how much money he intended to target specifically for his Jobs For America bill, his public works program that would also hire back laid-off teachers, firefighters, and police officers.

While the figure the White House released prior to the speech is $450 billion, that figure wasn't confirmed during the speech, which was a politically savvy move as, were he to put forth a specific amount, Mr. Obama would have had to elaborate on how he intended to disperse that sum as part of his speech. This would have been hard to do in a thirty minute time spot. The Republican side of the aisle looked restless enough as they were already in danger of missing the NFL playoffs, so instead, as White House Press Secretary Jay Carney later intimated, the details will be announced early next week.

Secondly, and more importantly, President Obama didn't mention where he intends to get the funds from which is another astute move as venturing into the specifics of who benefited the most financially, over the past decade and in the post-9/11 era, would only roil and further inflame his congressional opponents.

And, yes, something else that went unmentioned was the upcoming tenth anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center, a rather stunning omission.

Some might say, this was a speech about the economy, so why go off on a tangent about the so-called war on terror? What does the war have to do with the estimated $14 million, or 9,1% of Americans who are presently out of work, not to mention the many millions more who have exhausted their unemployment benefits and have given up looking altogether?

The reference to ending federal subsidies to oil companies that have made out like bandits over the past ten years was an adroit way to address that issue, surely, but there was no mention of what can only be called institutionalized tax evasion that allows U.S. corporations to establish headquarters overseas in order to avoid paying taxes.

The Republicans have made reducing the corporate tax rate for corporations from 35% to 25% or less a core campaign issue. The Democrats must now show that the real issue is collecting corporate income tax, and changing the tax code so that it becomes a criminal offense for a firm to open a subsidiary overseas as a way to legally evade paying income tax.

Republicans are right about one thing. We don't need another stimulus package. We need perestroika. We need the kind of restructuring that speaks to a 21st Century need for economic justice and empowerment, and that legislatively opposes profiteering by the few at the expense of the many.

While the president ably, and admirably talks about the need for everyone to pay their fair share, and alludes to rolling back the Bush tax cuts to the upper 1% that should have been allowed to lapse in the first place, the underlying need is not for less government, but for a government that works for the people instead of the other way around, was nowhere in sight. While we are inching towards a plan, there is no sense of an overarching vision, and more than a plan now, we need a vision.

By avoiding mention of 9/11, the president also avoids taking a closer look at the infrastructure of terror set in motion ten years ago which, in and of itself, has cost the American taxpayer more than the $450 billion Mr. Obama has now put on the table. It might be politically dangerous to do so, but nothing substantive can happen when one sticks one's head in the sand. Until this president works to dismantle the terror industry, any steps he takes will largely amount to moving the furniture around on the Titanic.

It was Richard M. Nixon who said, back in October, 1969, "I'm not going to be the first American president to lose a war," a position that has been shared by Republican and Democratic presidents alike.

There's another major milestone coming up next month. October 3rd will mark the tenth anniversary of the war in Afghanistan which has since cost the U.S. taxpayer $452 billion, a figure that is daily growing. As the AFP reports, one day in Afghanistan costs the U.S. taxpayer about $300 million. The war in Iraq, over the past decade, has cost us nearly twice that, $794 billion, and also growing.

It's true, of course, that under this president the defense budget has been reduced. Still, the combined costs of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, for 2012 alone, will be $118 billion.
Remember, too, this figure does not include the cost of operations in Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and everywhere else there is a U.S. military presence.

Despite requests by the Iraqi government for all U.S. forces to leave Iraq and for there to be no U.S. bases and, despite the president's assurances that he intends to comply with those wishes, some of his advisors are intent on keeping some 3,000 American troops in Iraq. According to the Congressional Research Service, it costs a whopping $390,000 a year to keep just one soldier in Iraq.
Now, multiply $390,000 by 3,000, and you'll see how Mr. Obama may come up with the funds necessary to rehire all laid-off teachers, as well as rebuild roads and schools.

Oh, and as long as we're on the subject of 9/11, consider, too, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, that top line Department of Defense contract spending nearly doubled over the past decade, increasing from $173 billion in 2001 to $390 billion in 2008, only to drop, marginally, to $368 billion in 2010. Surely, there's some room for austerity measures when it comes to defense contracts.

And, while many Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail object vocerifously to big government spending, and insist on austerity measures for you and me, they wouldn't even blink upon learning that, in the post-9/11 era, defense contract spending grew by nearly 10% annually, roughly twice that of non-contract spending. When he gives his next speech to the nation on September 19th, surely this is one "entitlement program" President Obama would like to address.

Any federal budget that provides for ten times as much spending on defense than education is one that reeks of moral bankruptcy.

For those who are upset about the president's willingness to make concessions on Medicare and are concerned about any future concessions on social security, and for those who are upset that Mr. Obama has agreed to review regulations that the business community think are less than profit-friendly, remember that his speech tonight, at its core, emphasized economic justice in a way that we have yet to see since Dr. Martin Luther King. For this, Mr. Obama is to be congratulated. Still, there are those, like myself, who would like him to address the obvious which is that war is not only our number one export, but it is our number one entitlement program.

President Obama's reference to John F. Kennedy was moving. It is important to remember, as JFK suggested, that all of man's problems are manmade. It is equally important to remember Mr. Kennedy's vision of "complete, and total disarmament" at a time when the world has faced a greater nuclear reactor disaster than Chernobyl, Fukushima, and at a time when we are, yet again, faced with another threat of terrorism.

Sadly, we are further away from John F. Kennedy's vision of disarmament now than ever before. We are also further away from collective responsibility for the economic mess this country is in now. Both parties must own their share of contributing to this downturn. The "free marketeer" deregulators have only shown that, without government oversight, the market will be free for them, and costly for the rest of us.

In the end, it is not merely the machinery of war that will have to be dramatically reduced, or dismantled, but the attitude of obstructionism, especially from the most radical elements of the Republican Party that will defeat anything this president proposes even when it doesn't come close to approaching the kind of restructuring needed to restore normalcy, let alone prosperity.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

"Mean, Ornery, and Just Plain Wrong"

Eric Cantor's ideological purity overrules common sense and heart

By Michael Winship

For Manhattan at least, last week was the weather week that wasn't. But the minor earthquake and weakened Hurricane Irene served as reminders of the caprice of nature and -- only a couple of weeks before the tenth anniversary of 9/11 -- the knowledge that at any given moment calamity literally is just around the corner.

Both also should serve as wake-up calls to those know-nothings and kleptocrats who reject the value of government and would like it rendered down to nothingness -- the helpless infant that Eric Cantor, Grover Norquist and their pals wish to see drowned in the bathtub.

I've never been through a major earthquake, although I've experienced some minor tremors, the first early on a New Year's Day in upstate New York while I was still a teenager. Just as you read about in animal behavior books, the dog, lying at the foot of my bed, apparently sensed something was up, jumped off and scurried out of the room mere seconds before the shaking began. Not a word of warning from her. So much for man's best friend.

The 5.8 we had on the afternoon of August 23 was like an aftershock I experienced out in Burbank a number of years ago, while working in post-production on a documentary. It felt like a truck had hit the building. This time, there was a thump and I looked out the window to see if something heavy-duty was rolling down Seventh Avenue. Nothing -- but the apartment kept wobbling up and down. Then another hard thump and more wobbling.

Hours later, just off the phone with my brother and sister in Washington, DC, who had been in a taxi and felt nothing, I noticed that several of the pictures on the walls were now hanging at peculiar angles. That was the extent of damage at my house.

As for Irene, I live in what the city has designated Evacuation Zone C, meaning we would be sent out of the neighborhood if a direct hit by a Category 3 or 4 storm -- or maybe an asteroid -- seemed imminent. That didn't happen, but my girlfriend Pat was moved to a hotel in midtown because the television newsroom at which she works needed her close at hand. Graciously, she invited me along.

(Coincidentally, the hotel was the first at which I ever stayed in New York City alone, also during my teenage years. The student rate back then was $12 a night.)

Fearing high winds, in parts of the hotel they weren't placing guests above the tenth floor. We had a small room, on the third floor away from the street, so little chance of windows blowing in, which was good, facing the airshaft, which was bad. One look out the window and we quickly drew the shades; it looked like the place where pigeons go to die -- or at least throw their trash. Maybe the storm would give it a good wash.

It didn't. Irene weakened as it reached Coney Island and we slept right through the main action, finally returning to my place early Sunday afternoon. Branches and leaves littered the streets and trees were down by a nearby playground. Plenty of rain and wind but nothing like the loss of life, power outages and billions worth of wind and flood damage inflicted outside the city. Beyond the media centers of New York and Washington, where reporters were quick to judge the storm “not so bad,” there was more than enough disaster to go around, bringing misery to millions.

I remembered Hurricane/Tropical Storm Agnes in June 1972. It roared through central Virginia and Pennsylvania up into the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, creating more damage than any hurricane in the United States before it. (That time, Agnes hit DC with a vengeance -- more than a foot of rain in parts of the area and 16 deaths as people were swept away in the floodwaters. I was there, and will never forget the usually placid Rock Creek roiling like Colorado River rapids. The Potomac overflowed into the C & O Canal, and a crowd of us stood in Georgetown watching the water slowly creep up lower Wisconsin Avenue.)

Fresh water from Agnes' floods flushed into the saltwater of Chesapeake Bay, damaging the seafood industry there for years, and the damage inflicted on the tracks of already financially crippled railways in the Northeast helped lead to the creation of the federally funded Conrail freight system (later divided into CSX and the Norfolk Southern Railway).

Storms like Agnes and Irene are insidious, often striking slowly over time in ways that can be unpredictable and far more damaging than anticipated. Government preparedness and response are critical. There was no Federal Emergency Management Agency in 1972; in fact, like Conrail, its origins can be traced, in part, to the Agnes disaster. Jimmy Carter signed it into creation seven years later. Since then, FEMA has had noteworthy ups and downs, performing reasonably well when those who believe in the value of government are in power, suffering lamely when they're not.

By all accounts, and at this writing, the White House, FEMA and other government agencies, including state and local, have acquitted themselves ably during the lead-up to Irene, the actual hurricane and its aftermath, although many remain in need. Eighteen FEMA teams were positioned along Irene's path from Florida to Maine, spreading north as the storm proceeded toward New England, providing support, supplies and experienced advice all along the way.

As even The Washington Post's resident smartass Dana Milbank had to admit, “Don't expect anybody to throw a tea party, but Big Government finally got one right... a rare reminder that the federal government can still do great things, after all other possibilities have been exhausted."

However, he continued, "Americans won't have long to savor this new competence in government. NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] has already been hit with budget cuts that will diminish its ability to track storms, and FEMA, like much of the federal government, will lose about a third of its funding over the next decade if Tea Party Republicans have their way...

"Tea Partyers who denounce Big Government seem to have an abstract notion that government spending means welfare programs and bloated bureaucracies. Almost certainly they aren't thinking about hurricane tracking and pre-positioning of FEMA supplies. But if they succeed in paring the government, some of these Tea Partyers (particularly those on the coasts or on the tornadic plains) may be surprised to discover that they have turned a Hurricane Irene government back into a Katrina government."

Cuts have been approved by the House Appropriations Committee to the program that sends "hurricane hunter" aircraft into storms to measure data crucial for hurricane forecasts. Weather satellites are on the chopping block, too. At a May press conference, NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco warned, "The future funding for our satellite program is very much in limbo right now... We are likely looking at a period of time a few years down the road where we will not be able to do severe storm warnings and long-term weather forecasts that people have come to expect today."

She noted that cutbacks had forced the agency to delay the launch of a much-needed satellite. As per NPR's Jon Hamilton, "It would have traveled in a polar orbit, beaming down information for weather and climate forecasts. As a result, when the current satellite doing that job stops working, there will be no replacement." It's these polar orbiting satellites that also warn of deadly tornadoes and other severe weather conditions.

In the short term, the cost of Irene means diverting monies from the government's Disaster Relief Fund, cash intended for tornado clean up in Joplin, Missouri, and other towns. Congress will need to vote for more, probably billions more. And hurricane season isn't even over yet. (As I write, New Orleans faces Tropical Storm Lee and Hurricane Katia lurks in the Atlantic.)

But even though his own Seventh Congressional District was damaged by Irene, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, our national scold, says no, not unless spending cuts are made elsewhere to offset the cost, dollar for dollar. (That includes earthquake damage, too, by the way, despite the fact that the epicenter of the August 23rd quake was in his Virginia district.)

"Just like any family would operate when it's struck by disaster," Cantor told Fox News, "it finds the money to take care of a sick loved one or what have you, and then goes without trying to buy a car or put an addition onto the house." It's more like "selling the family station wagon for spare parts," the website Media Matters said, and a far cry from 2004 when Cantor came running to fellow Republicans George Bush and Tom Ridge for no-strings-attached federal disaster assistance after Tropical Storm Gaston hit home. Nor when Bush was president did Rep. Cantor ever scream for offsets when it came to tax breaks for the wealthy, waging war, or -- surprise -- raising the debt ceiling.

What he's doing now is ornery, mean and just plain wrong -- ideological purity overruling common sense. Even New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, fresh off his pre-Irene "Get the hell off the beach" performance and no stranger himself to pigheadedness, declared, "We don't have time to wait for folks in Congress to figure out how they want to offset this stuff with other budget cuts... I don't want to hear about the fact that offsetting budget cuts have to come first before New Jersey citizens are taken care of."

Approving emergency aid in a national crisis is not to be held over our heads like some vindictive ransom note. It's neither penny wise nor pound foolish; it's immoral and, yes, un-American. This is not the way we were raised, not the way we were taught to treat one another. We lend a hand and figure out the costs later.

Yet in a time of national crisis, whether in or out of hurricane season, Cantor continues to spout pettifoggery and right wing Republicans go along with him, mindlessly nodding in obeisant agreement like so many bobble head dolls, even as the economy burns, infrastructure crumbles, funds are slashed and untold millions suffer.

Heckuva job, Eric.


Michael Winship is senior writing fellow at Demos, president of the Writers Guild of America, East and former senior writer at Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Remember this during Wednesday's Republican presidential debate

Savor the irony of the second Republican 2012 presidential debate not only because it takes place in the Ronald Reagan Library, but because Reagan's economic policies are the best argument against the Republican Party platform today.

What, for the past few decades, has been loosely lumped under the
heading "Reaganomics," "supply side economics," or "trickle down," actually
manifested in ways strikingly familiar to what has been happening to public workers today in Wisconsin, and other states.

It was thirty years ago almost to the day, back on August 3, 1981, that a first term president, Ronald Reagan, ended the air traffic controller strike by firing striking air traffic controllers. As ABC reported that day, Mr. Reagan seemed convinced that "being tough is what the public wants." Oddly enough, it seems to be what the public wants today, too, only from a Democratic president, Barack Obama.

A closer look at what it means to be tough also comes through, as Jonathan Kozol reported in Illiterate America, when at a time 60% of America's population, roughly one-third, were functionally illiterate President Reagan requested that federal funding for literacy programs be cut by 50%. Nor did it escape Kozol's notice that the intent for doing so was to create a permanent welfare class consisting mostly of people of color.

So, while conservatives are so fond of blaming Democrats for what they call a "welfare state," don't forget that Reagan's agenda of cutting funding for literacy programs in half is largely responsible for creating what can only be called a welfare class.

Mr. Reagan departed drastically from the policies of his predecessor, Jimmy Carter, who not only identified the problem of illiteracy in this country but, as Kozol said, "defined it as an obligation he would not shirk."

Funding for literacy programs in the U.S., in the mid-1980's, was $100 million, and the president wanted to reduce its size to $50 million. What did he want to do with the rest? In 1983, he proposed the establishment of strategic defense missiles, "Star Wars," as a way to shield against nuclear ballistics attacks, and in 1984, the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization was launched.

Arguably, government, or the public sector, thanks to Star Wars, quickly became the biggest growth industry under Ronald Reagan. Any attempt to make Reagan the guru of "smaller government" by any of the Republican candidates this Wednesday is simply laughable. Any arguments to the contrary by Eric Cantor, Rand Paul, or Paul Ryan merely show the extent of their disconnect with history.

Remember, during Wednesday's Republican debate, when any of the aspiring Republican presidents are asked about how they feel about cutting the defense budget, the failure to drastically cut defense can only be offset by reductions in so-called "entitlements" like literacy, and support for public education. In his 1984 federal budget, Reagan authorized nearly ten times more for Defense than Education, $269 billion for Defense, $29 billion for Education.

Oh, when you hear Romney, Perry, Paul, Bachmann et. al talk about the need to reduce the federal deficit, and cut spending, don't forget that the total spending for 1984 was more than seven times the federal defict, or $852 billion for spending to $185 billion deficit. It's fair to say Ronald Reagan spent his way out of recession.

President George W. Bush shouldn't feel bad. He wasn't the only one who came into office with a surplus, and left office with a deficit. Reagan did, too.

And, when you hear his Republican progeny like Perry, Romney, and Bachmann extol his virtues, and call him a job creator, keep in mind that it was a rise in unemployment in his first term that nearly kept Mr. Reagan from a second term, and yes, it was only by increasing the federal deficit that Mr. Reagan was able to not only stabilize employment, but grow it.

The fluctuations in the stock market pale by comparison to the ups and downs of unemployment under Reagan. At the start of 1981, and at the beginning of his first term, the unemployment rate in the U.S. was 7.5% and it grew to nearly 8.6% by January, 1982. By the end of 1982 and during his first term, official unemployment stood at nearly 11%, and increase of nearly 3%.

As the unemployment began to decrease, arguably as a result of federal spending, Mr. Reagan's chances for a second term grew proportionately. His popularity began to plummet not because he increased federal spending on military programs, and the federal deficit, but because of the Iran-Contra debacle.

So, where were all the deficit hawks when Ronald Reagan was in office? Where were all the obstructionists when Ronald Reagan raised the debt ceiling some eighteen times?

And, where were the folks who want to privatize everything from Social Security to Medicaid to public education, folks like Scott Walker, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, the folks who call for "smaller government" and, who like Sarah Palin, speak worshipfully of Reagan when, back in August, 1981, Ronald Reagan said "Government has to provide, without interruption, the protective services that are its reason for being."

Of course, that statement was made in the context of breaking the backs of air traffic controllers, but a former union organizer himself, Ronald Reagan was alarmingly prescient given the efforts of those like Scott Walker, and yes even Arnold Schwarzenegger, who chose to furlough state workers instead of government bureaucrats.

It was under Ronald Reagan that the concepts of deregulation and free markets became inextricably intertwined setting the stage for the massive
mortgage and housing fraud, and failure that resulted in the crash of 1987, and that has brought this country closer to total economic collapse than we have been in more than eighty years.

Maybe, in the end, Republicans running for the White House in 2012, might be wise to avoid skipping in the shadow of Ronald Reagan as those who walk with ghosts must learn to live with them. And, while some may hunger for another Ronald Reagan, we really can't afford one.

Friday, September 02, 2011

So it is...

so it is
you come to
me in
a dream and
promise to
take me on
a flight
time only
nothing ever
except for
cloud that
as it absconds
with a
piece of
the sun.

by jayne lyn stahl