Friday, December 23, 2016

The Green Man......coming soon...

I am grateful to be acknowledged by the literary journal, The Glimmer Train, and receiving Honorable Mention in their Fall 2016 writer's competition for my short story, The Green Man. I hope to have the story published soon, but this acknowledgement does put wind in my sails!

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Inertia and Voodoo Featured on The Strange Recital

For better or worse, this is recorded in my own  voice.  I really enjoyed working in this format.
Listen to my short story Inertia and Voodoo at The Strange Recital web site.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

An Odyssey for Truth: Reading Djelloul Marbrook’s Brash Ice

Part of Homer’s cleverness may have been an ability to imbue his characters with key aspects of their adult personalities while retaining their childhood through time and travel in the form of stark memories. This allows us to see certain heroic figures from different perspectives. These can range from innocence to treachery. Was Odysseus’s return to Ithaca the reunion of a self-same man and boy; a boy who knew the simple virtues and innocence of pastoral life, and a man who remembered it, while carrying the graphic memory of horrific experiences?

In his latest poetry collection, Brash Ice, Djelloul Marbrook takes us on a modern Homeric journey through boreal climes as the weathered and wise protagonist carries the weight of sorrows and silence of a young boy, aboard his ship. This is a long and forthright conversation which finds a way for the young boy to confront his rapist while the wise old man navigates perilous and icy waters, struggling to bring them home together, at peace.  At times, it is not clear whether they will make it or not. In the opening chapter titled Proem, the poet is frank about the dire responsibility carried by persons of conscience and the risks we all face when being direct and honest with ourselves and others.

With startling clarity a herald starts us on our journey with a stark warning about the seriousness of the matter at hand. From handling plutonium:

so this business of being you
is about handling plutonium
and is much more dangerous
than your parents said….

The poet has inverted the struggle of the dispossessed boy and the heroically surviving man. The elder is coming back to rescue the boy, before the world, in the hope that together they can navigate their arctic ship to its final destination. It is as if the boy has been hidden away in the cargo hold and the elder must tell their story because he has the voice, while the imprisoned boy retains the unspeakable memory. The journey is approaching its end and the protagonist informs us that this is not his first attempt at deliverance. Telling the story honestly and plainly has proven to be a great burden. Perhaps artistic devices had been used to divert our eyes while telling only half of a story? Now the artist, finding himself in a frozen landscape, means to get down to business. We are given a clear statement of intention and a foreshadowing of the storytelling devices, which have been sharpened by years of practice in both artistic creation and evasion: a confessional in stunning imagery.

if i had a painterly eye

here’s what i would do to celebrate,
i’d show me atoms of something else
in the manner of seurat or tanguy,
a congress of memories,
a sufferance like frankenstein’s beast
becoming more than its parts
hankering to fulfill their longings,
i’d witness the sidelong world,
i’d lay my own ashes,
i’d make athena blink.
i’d study brash ice.
failing that i’d call failure life
& unmask myself as a firefly
nobody caught in a jar.

Each of these assertions is really conditional and dependent on the “if” and each is explored, in turn, in later chapters.  At the end of this preface we have the poem escapade where the poet reminds the reader that we can easily fool ourselves but that our self-correction is both possible and self-evident if we are honest.  But our corrections will not bury our errors, no matter what we do.

i take the task seriously,
i’m able to correct my work
and i know its pentimento
will be explored. snapshots
never interested me, nor beauty
agreed upon by voyeurs…

And attempts at beating around the bush, to circle the problem, to avoid facing an horrific truth, are all too human and seen in the light of pathology and error.

…a peripheral glance that jars
our nerve ends loose,
diseases that best define
our escapades at being well.

There is a startling freshness here as our hero’s voice is heard wrestling with the demon who might have killed the boy, but instead wounded him in the most intimate and harmful way and left him for spiritual dead. There are the bystanders too, those who could not or would not reach the stranded boy on his unwanted, forbidden ground. There is something awful afoot. When the boy faces manhood, the only choice is for the man to come into being and leave the boy, locking him away in the hold, while trying to navigate the world with whatever skills he has kept.

Sexual abuse of children is now spoken about in the open. Its uncovering has been scandalous as the indescribable pain of victims and the sociopathic indifference and survival instincts of predators are suddenly uncovered like sheets ripped from one in repose on a cold night. Few have been able to describe the journey of the victim. In Brash Ice we find the protagonist in possession of long life experience, wisdom and the unique perspective of an abused child presented through the lens of an adult master’s “painterly eye.”  But that eye is now directed with more than a glance, as if to say “no more bullshit.”  Our pathologies can be foist upon us and somehow we must carry on.

These poems identify the universal in our human struggle while staying remarkably personal, intensely tragic but also triumphant.

The author seems to carry on a subtle conversation with the protagonist, making himself known in this long and beautiful confessional as the artist who has come to terms with his past and wishes to be done with falsity so that he can get on with life on life’s terms. We are taken beyond the local story of a boyhood trauma and into nature and the heart of things as we might see them if we are present and in full possession of our attentive senses. In the later chapters there are also strong impressions of nature and our connection to it through sensation and esthetics.
Throughout this collection, the poet eschews the limits of punctuation, embracing minimalism and relying utterly on superb prosody and meter to keep the reader in the wake of his vessel. The first-person subject pronoun is cast into the picture frame in lower case with all of the related parts of the poem so that the artist can honestly assess the complete landscape. In the chapter i’d witness the sidelong world, we encounter the poem frisking the periphery, where the artist sets down his paint brush and picks up his camera, reflecting on how we can see everything around a thing before we see the thing itself. A useful talent and perhaps a form of unconscious evasion. Marbrook’s years of photography experience are evident.

being a ninety-degree camera,
all i miss is straight ahead.
i adjust for light and flash,
i zoom to sync my paranoia.
you look as if you’re being shot,
but i’m frisking the periphery.
everything behind my subject
is in focus, but the foreground
breeds misunderstanding…

…i am the green wink of chagrin
simply because i have no trash bin.

Later musings include lamentations of the artist condemned to create, unable to simply observe. But as Wallace Stevens seemed to wonder about the survival of his poems in the Planet on the Table, our author wonders how his words can both represent and be a part of his final spiritual journey if the whole truth is not there.

i don’t want to become like this again
after so much heartfelt unbecoming,
all this tedium and plot. i haven’t even got
a scent to contribute to the flowering
whose warmth i feel through the tunnel ahead.
i should have lost my soul in books.

i tried but it proved a handy figment:
what’s death but what i have to work with now?

We see that this imperative defines the journey.

The early reference to the title poem, which we don’t encounter until near the end of the journey, foreshadows much of the winter and arctic imagery ahead. Both Frankenstein and brash ice share the outward feature of fragmentation, parts formed together; one in an unnatural way and the other the result of natural thermal activity. The scars remain and it is the truth of their formation that this journey seeks to reveal so that a complete story may be told. In its frankness, this collection offers the reader the kinds of startling moments found in Homer or Beowulf. It also opens us to the beating heart of its creator, who from experience eerily places us in the arctic seas of the Cold War, the natural landscape of the Hudson Valley and the quirkiness of places like Woodstock, NY.

Brash Ice reckons with the past and leaves us with ample evidence that this poet is as fresh and vital as ever, having sought reunion with an injured but aspiring youth while offering the wisdom that only a long and examined life can bring.

i’ve said too much and said it flatly
because i thought the song pretentious
that splinters the wardrobe of the years
and shovels me out the door a naked stranger.

Surely, there will be more to come.

Brash Ice, New Poems.
Djelloul Marbrook
Leaky Boot Press
At Amazon

Monday, May 23, 2016


Betwixt ages and knowledge

You persist as a fine Scottish spirit

Whose clear impressions toward order remain

Appreciated, understood.

An Homage to uncertainty.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Be Careful What You Ask For


This announcement in the New York Times today may excite some people, but if you have any grasp of the perfidy that subsumes our banking and financial system, you will need to throw notions of meaningful, structural reform out the window with this candidate. Mr. Bloomberg, is, no doubt, a dedicated public servant and a self-made man, starting his company with $10 million received in a settlement after the acquisition of Salomon Brothers in the early 80's. He has created a large and successful, profitable, privately held company. Some would say, he made his money the old-fashioned way, played by the rules and delivered a valuable set of technologies and services to a rapidly growing financial sector in need of innovation. He has also done some very important philanthropy work domestically and internationally and is a man of serious talent and political acumen.

However, there is a school of thought which posits that our financial system is a virtuous dynamo that despite its flaws, serves mankind well. Quixotic storytelling and analogies abound to offer justification....we just need to tweak it and we'll get it right. A deeper study, in my view, reveals that this is errant rationalization for a broken and irrational system, which actually serves a few well and is unable, due to its inherent logic, to manage the problem of scarcity, one that plagues mankind more seriously every day. Historical cycles of debt bubbles with privatization of profits and socialization of debt, a trend of dropping wages and soaring profits with the finance sector enabling the export of jobs and the creation of profitable debt instruments (like the current student debt bubble on the back of the mortgage bubble) are commonplace.  This is not simply the result of poor management, rather it is an inherent characteristic of our economic system. Public Radio devotes hours of publicly paid air time to shows like Market Place, combining hipster-millenial cool-speak with news of financial markets, when in fact the large mass of the citizens who pay for public radio have no meaningful participation in it. This can be seen on public television as well, where the Koch Brothers and other billionaires have become patrons, narrowing the range of perspective that can be offered to the public. You will find no challenge or critical analysis, (save the occasional Front Line piece after a crisis), on our publicly owned airwaves.

The notion of "free markets" and the "natural" process of capital flows are anything but their namesakes, yet these disguised notions are so ingrained in our minds that we skip over the deep contradictions of our economic system; one that is largely based on corporate socialism. If socialism is to be used as a pejorative in the public square, let's first be clear about definitions and study the nature of it in its massive corporate form: guaranteed corporate subsidies, protectionist trade-renamed "free," grotesque tax loopholes, war profiteering, deregulation of the banking system with the public burden of paying down private debt falling on the backs of taxpayers during the bust end of a business cycle. All the while the profits, taxed at very low rates and sometimes not at all, go into private pockets during the booms. The European Union embraced our "magic" and the results speak for themselves. On the other hand, as long as the US commands reserve currency status around the world, the political system is unlikely to feel the pressure that should arise from the long suffering of a debt-laden population, working their asses off just to stay above water while scratching their heads at more wars and huge profits as corporate our media continues to sell fear with the defense sector that pervades almost all congressional districts doing their part to drive the juggernaut.

The choices we have in national politics are of grave concern to many, and it is easy to see a "moderate" entering the race as a breath of fresh air, but let us be careful about what the word moderate really means during these times and what more status quo in the financial sector is likely to bring, or not bring. Could Mr. Bloomberg defy conventional wisdom and bite the hand that has fed him over three decades? Anything is possible, but we need to look deeper before placing our bets.

The notion that Mr. Bloomberg is prepared to take on a program of restructuring our banking system seems a leap of fancy. We have arrived at a peculiar place in history, where history itself may offer no guide. The questions that come to mind for this writer are those posed in Plato's Republic, where we attempt to extol the virtues of the trusted philosopher king in leading a great republic. It is possible that we have reached a point where we are simply too big to govern (California alone is the 7th largest economy in the world). Having a self-financed billionaire win the presidency is certainly not a trend toward greater democratization of our idealized republic.

Friday, January 22, 2016

I Thought You Knew (for Ralph C.)

Hear I lay…on bleached, barren sheets.
Not the high thread-count Egyptian ones 
Recalled from a Las Vegas compotation,
But these from the hospital laundry, 
Worn with service, hot-cleaned of bloodstains
And bodily remnants.

Did the prior tenant think about these sheets
And find that this is what death smells like 
Before answering the door?

No hunger, no hunger at all; only great thirst subsumes me. 
I gaze at the rate-flow regulator in my IV, 
Having no idea what enters this body, 
Some nourishment from others,
A clear liquid
Like my friend Nikolai 100 
Always dependable
Never disguised of its purpose or adorned
With lavish markings
Delivered with a simple black-and-white label
And safe housed for well designed delivery
In its rounded, glass flask, flat-shaped 
And always ready to slip beneath my seat 
As the wheels roll on.

Oh, the miles we traveled….

        * * * *
An odd ending, it seems.
Where was I when life happened? 
When Love came my way?
Where was I when that curious danger that landed me here
Made visitation?
I don’t remember choosing.

And where are those soft, warm lights 
Gleaming with amber hues
Through bottles casting spirits of cordiality
Where words profound and pithy make their way, 
To and fro, across the barman's sacred chantry?

With those blissful and aimless country miles,
Just Nikolai and me, there was
No need for company, 
No more weighty words,
No more camaraderie.

Thank you doctor, 
Thank you for your care.
My liver you say is distended and diseased, 
Enzymes soaring, sky-high.
And just how, you ask, did I come
To such an abject place 
While having insight to 
The certainty of death?

How did I, knowing my sequel; 
How did I…
Do it

I gaze back at him, with my eyewear fixed in place
And look into his caring and plaintive eyes, 
Those searching and honest eyes
And I say, “I am sorry, I thought you knew?”

Kevin Swanwick

April 2016

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Can the Broken Thing Fix Itself? Terrorism in the World of Neoliberalism

Americans are given, from time to time, an inside look at what kind of thinking dominates the inner circles of our foreign policy establishment. The locus of this esteemed discourse can often be found at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank whose policy positions are often conflated by corporate media with those of the US State Department. Anyone who has followed the COFR will realize that the conflation is not necessarily inaccurate. Richard Haas, the Council's president for more than a decade; a former State Department official and advisor to Colin Powell, can be seen on Sunday TV talk shows where Washington insiders give their thoughtful views on the foreign policy crises of the day. While modest criticism of official US policy may be found in these exchanges, Haas will never deviate very far from the positions taken by the State Department. 

Haas's thinking has been consistent for years and is underpinned by the policy theory of neoliberalism as articulated by Joseph Nye, political scientist, distinguished professor and author of Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics and several other works, which articulate what Nye understands to be the necessities of American leadership in the world. Nye has also served as a board member of the COFR.  

At the heart of Nye's thinking is the notion that the expansion and liberalization of world markets will bring democratization to underdeveloped areas of the world, thereby spreading normative behaviors that comport with the rules of a colossal US-centered economic and political system, provided that such participation is seen as attractive to potential new comers. At the center of this system is the US dollar as reserve currency, with Wall Street and the City of London acting as financial recycling mechanisms and the IMF serving as the enforcer of doctrinal standards for new entrants and financially struggling mendicant countries who have entered the club but for various reasons struggle to stay in, often at the cost of their own sovereignty (Greece is a recent example).  

Part and parcel to the continued expansion of this world order is the control and regulation of oil and gas markets with both economic and military power. The necessity of this last formulation has been largely unwritten but has been clearly embedded in absolute terms within US foreign policy for decades. The Iraq war, which Haas supported, has been its magnum opus.

To his great credit, Nye in 2004 offered a clear picture of the limitations of US power with regard to abating the tide of Wahhabi terrorism through military means. In Soft Power he makes a comparison of Britain's failure to extend it's political and moral influence to US supporters of the IRA during The Troubles: funds continued to flow to the IRA from the US and Britain failed in its war against it. He offered a prescient view of this problem in the Middle East:

"This is similar to the problem the U.S. now faces with Saudi support and financing of Wahhabi clerics who preach intolerance and hatred for the West and for other Muslim sects, and who now evangelize their noxious creed throughout the Muslim world. The War on Terror is to a significant extent a war against this Wahhabi creed - although it increasingly involves many Muslims who are not of that sect. It is a war that the U.S. can powerfully influence, but it is a civil war within the Muslim world. Moderate Muslims are the only ones who can defeat this Wahhabi creed and the various other Muslim militants." (Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, 2004).

What is missing from Nye's cogent analysis is a frame of reference that allows us to look critically at US state-directed economic policy toward energy extraction that places access to oil above human rights and actual democratization. The US is not alone in managing the dangerous contradictions embedded in such an imperative: China has learned to master the art well and Russia, through state control, has helped drive the trend forward by aggressively attempting to co opt a larger portion of the supply side of the equation in emerging markets.  

One might be forgiven for failing to address the contradiction that the "free market" requires massive state interventions in order to maintain energy supplies without regard to human rights and democratic development, when ideology is based on the foundation of neoliberalism. But we must look beyond these inadequate formulations. The implementation of neoliberal economic policies as determined by the IMF has been met with resistance in many parts of the world and most recently in the United States with the leaking of chapters from the secretly negotiated Trans Pacific Partnership agreement. The TPP is emblematic of the "normative behavior" that is required to spread neoliberal policies: avoiding plebiscite while developing extralegal contracts between trade representatives (countries) and multi-national corporations without parliamentary procedure, congressional input or debate. In short, normative behavior means acting on major policy decisions that affect civil society at large, but without its involvement and without transparency. This is nowhere more clear than in US policy toward oil extraction in the middle east. 

It is not a simple matter of the US needing oil for its domestic economy: domestic oil drilling and gas extraction has changed this equation, with the US becoming significantly less reliant on Saudi oil.  Rather, it is that the continued flow of oil from the Middle East is necessary for Europe and other parts of the world, where major world economies purchase oil in petrodollars. These dollars need to be invested in secure instruments and at scale, for several reasons. Wall Street, with the City of London as surrogate, keeps its dollar funnel open to the world, creating a financial dynamo that has driven financial market expansion to dizzying heights.  

While some see the US Empire in decline, the fact is that the US maintains the reserve currency of the world and the Fed and US Treasury are adept at maintaining this financial hegemony through monetary policy.  Panitch and Gindin, in The Making of Global Capitalism, (Verso Books, 2012) have superbly documented this long and successful history. 

A problem with such purportedly liberalizing policies is that they not only disregard popular will and democratic process, but also undermine national sovereignty.  Who managed the 2008 financial crisis? It was not the president and it was not the US Congress: it was unelected officials at the Fed and the Treasury. Who manages trade policy?  TPP makes it clear: Multinational corporations and trade representatives determine national economic and trade policy that directly affects the lives of millions of unsuspecting and unrepresented people. This is quite the opposite of democracy and in practice represents the kind of soft fascism that Ralph Nader has described in his more recent work. Nye and Haas are not the creators of this extralegal superstructure, which has existed in some form since the establishment of Bretton Woods in 1944, but they are its current intellectual water boys.

It is in this context that we should understand the recent communiqués coming from the COFR, which is now publicly weighing in on the current crisis that is on most people's minds: Paris and the recent terrorist attacks carried out by members or affiliates of ISIS, the composite terror organization that was given birth by the extended and disastrous Iraq war.  

In her November 20th column in Foreign Policy, Rosa Brooks, the distinguished law professor at Georgetown University, offers her input to the prestigious journal in an article that uses the internet pop-up ad format of "10 things you didn't know about..." to give the public a dose of reality on the limits of US power with regard to ending international terrorism. To uncover the narrowness within which current policy thinking is apparently being made, it is necessary to follow and deconstruct the answer-by-number bullets that Ms. Brooks offers in Reader's Digest format: 

1. No one can keep the bad guys out. This statement has little value and seems to serve as a way to obscure questioning of the underlying causes of conflict, as if to say "get used to it, there is nothing we can do to stop it."  Tactically speaking, the US, in fact, has very strong border screening processes: but what about the massive increase in numbers of very young, uneducated "bad guys" that are swelling the ranks of ISIS?

2. The threat is already inside. True for the EU.  France has its own problematic legacy with the Maghreb and dispossession and lack of assimilation of Muslim peoples. The screening processes are also not as good as we have in the US. Ironically, in the US, the "inside" threat has come mostly from white, right-winger "Christians" and though this has been statistically born out, it is ignored by corporate media and apparently by Ms. Brooks.
3. More surveillance won't rid us of terrorism. It would be odd for this writer to defend the Surveillance State, but even the most rogue operators of it, like James Clapper, have never suggested it would end terrorism.  To the extent that it is used to support drone warfare with its insufferable collateral damage, we can even see how the Surveillance State contributes to terrorist recruitment.

4. Defeating ISIS won't make terrorism go away. This is a veritable straw man. A germane question regarding the rise of ISIS and its related variants pertains to how the ongoing catastrophe in Iraq has spread Sunni-Shia civil war to Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. That ISIS exists now and what to do about it is another topic that involves the hard work of multilateral and sustained negotiations, not simply US-led military force. If the Sunnis of Iraq were not disenfranchised, perhaps the Iraqi people could defeat the ISIS insurgency within their own borders.  Current policy gives no indication that the US is seriously trying to bring power sharing and democratization about.  
5. Terrorism still remains a minor threat, statistically speaking. Well, not if you consider the bombing and killing of civilians in Gaza, Yemen, Southern Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo, South Sudan and many other places where the thing categorized as "war" has created dispossession, suffering and death on a massive scale. Earlier this year, Boko Haram murdered 2,000 civilians in Baga, northern Nigeria, but no alarm or coloring of Facebook profiles with the Nigerian flag was forthcoming. "Terror" is seen from the eyes of the victim and its asymmetrical form is over determined by these ongoing conflicts. One version of terror is the bombing and killing of unsuspecting civilians by drone attack. "A minor threat, statistically speaking."
6.  Meanwhile poorly planned Western action could make things worse. Well, this is redundant, isn't it?

7. Terrorism is a problem to be managed. Here we see a vision proffered from within the most opaque and narrow blinders.  This also seems to be the view of the COFR at large, whose frame of reference is calibrated by the assumed necessity of promoting and extending neoliberal capitalism and IMF policy to every corner of the earth while making the assumption that its negative effects - terrorism among them - simply need to be "managed." This is statism at its most arrogant. This viewpoint precludes its advocates from stepping outside of the neoliberalismo worldview and offering a critical analysis of the whole paradigm. To wit: since changing US-centered economic and concomitant military policy is impossible, lets not even discuss alternative means for bringing an end to the causal forces that underlie terrorist movements.

9. To do this, however, we need to move beyond the political posturing that characterizes most public debates about counterterrorism, and instead speak honestly about the costs and benefits of different approaches.  And of course, this is elaborated with "we need to be hardheaded." The focus is then put on investing more in counterterrorism research, while avoiding deeper questions regarding the effects of American foreign policy in the name of "freedom." This is of course, similar to the Netanyahu world view: we are morally right and we need to manage the discontent and strife that arises from our policies by any means necessary, twisting international law to conform to those means, because our aims are just. This allows no room for deeper reflection on the underlying contradictions of state-sponsored neoliberal economic policy and its manifestation in globalization, inequality and terrorism. This kind of selective exceptionalism is exactly what needs to be challenged and reconsidered.

The law of unintended consequences has been at work as a countervailing factor in US foreign policy for decades as was seen in the US-sponsored rise of the Shah and the subsequent Iranian Revolution; in the Viet Nam War that was followed by the Khmer Rouge and in the Iraq War, which has unleashed the worst strife in the Middle East in modern times.

Do the American people really need a list of "get used to it" points from our leading foreign policy think tank?

We can do much better.

See Rosa Brooks's full column in Foreign Policy, here.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Pope Francis, Politics and the Blessed Peacemakers

While a number of strident public critics in corporate media and Washington politics have suggested that Pope Francis should stay out of politics and stop criticizing various US policies, it is rather impossible to separate the moral admonitions of the Pope from politics.  Politics determines policy and policy reflects the morality of societies.  The pontiff's harshest criticism seems reserved for capitalism, as it actually exists.  He does not favor a political party.  We often speak of capitalism as if it exists according to the romanticized and now distorted images co opted from the writings of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, men who wrote centuries ago and at a time when corporations as we know them did not exist and when British and European “trade” activity was based on mercantilism, artisanal entrepreneurs and tradesmen. When Smith referred to the coincidentally benevolent “silent hand” effecting mutual benefit amongst citizens, he was referring to these kinds of individuals and not large mega corporations, which did not exist in his time except for the likes of the East India Company of which he was harshly critical for its monopolistic power and brutal tactics in foreign lands.  Many “conservatives” like to quote Adam Smith but in a way that makes it apparent that they haven’t actually read his work, or have done so selectively.

What the Pope seems to understand at a fundamental level is that the thing we call capitalism today is anything but the world envisioned by Smith, or that the “market” is in any way free and therefore benevolent or benign, by intent or otherwise.  When trade agreements are negotiated in secret, out of public and even congressional view, how can we justly call this free trade?  Free for whom?  When the three largest arms producers in the world are US companies and virtually all of their profits are attributable to US taxpayers, how is this free market capitalism?  When these arms are sold to brutal regimes, like the one in Egypt, in power by virtue of coup d’états, or Saudi Arabia, an extremist fiefdom promoting Wahhabism and genocide against Shia’s, how can this be seen by the Pope as anything other than government sponsored brutality? 

The Catholic Church, despite the story of Galileo, has a rather decent record on the embrace of science in the modern era and this Pope recognizes the urgency that overwhelming scientific evidence has brought to bear with regard to global warming and climate change.   When fossil fuel companies dominate energy markets, are given massive taxpayer subsidies and licenses to drill on public lands, driving ever more CO2 into our only atmosphere, how is this rational public policy? How does this serve the public trust and how is it remotely based on free market economics?  

When the US surrounds Iran, a country with military technology based on the Shah era, with 14 military bases and supplies massive arms to its most bitter enemies, the Saudis (and Egypt, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain), who have promoted Wahhabi and Salafist extremism intent on wiping out Shia Islam, how is this furthering democracy, peace and brotherhood? How is it rational and peace-seeking on the part of the US when all of the non-aligned nations of the world and the P5+1 countries support the Iranian Multilateral Nuclear agreement and accept the IAEA’s assessments (and the US Intelligence Estimate) and findings, but the US Congress and influential “hawks” wish to scuttle it, raising the specter of war?

The Pope is from Latin America and knows its history well.  A question he might ask: why is it that the US Congress and leading presidential candidates propose building gargantuan border walls and the undertaking of massive deportations of illegal immigrants, many of whom were refugees fleeing from Honduras where a democratically elected government was overthrown by a military coup in 2009?  How is it that the Latin American countries, the European Union and the UN condemned the coup, but the US didn’t and went even further and embraced the new military dictatorship, which then undertook a violent campaign of oppression, driving farmers off of working land and creating a massive refugee crisis, landing thousands at our southern border? 

The Pope will know well the effects of the US War on Drugs in Latin American countries.  He sees our massive demand for drugs and our poverty-generated markets for them and the criminalization of non-violent, drug-related activities in the poorest neighborhoods of the US, which has swelled our prisons, creating a new government-driven private, (but not free) market for prison management, with taxpayers bearing the cost of building the prisons and paying the tab for private contractors.  We now jail 2.5 million people, the largest number in absolute value terms in the world.  The Pope may also question why the US, unilaterally and brutally, has imposed an embargo on Cuba for over 50 years, while the rest of the world and all of Latin America has condemned it.  On this front, even large capitalist enterprises in the US have for years called for the lifting of the embargo.

For those who wish to blame the GOP for all of these tragedies – and they deserve plenty of blame – please do not allow the plank to rest in your eye and ignore the complicity of the Democrats in all of this.  These are not new problems.  They have developed over decades and across presidential administrations and congresses and the unraveling of them will not occur on our behalf by those in power whose campaign coffers are filled by powerful special interest groups.  We are, in the literal sense, living in an empire and this Pope knows it.  Private power is feeding at the public trough and our government policies, unsurprisingly, reflect these interests.

If the Pope accomplishes one thing outside of the Catholic Church proper, it may be that he opens our eyes to the human and moral consequences of our government’s policies, its misuse of its citizens money by spending 54 cents of every tax dollar on the military (that we know of), its allowance of companies like Oracle, Microsoft, Google, Apple and GE to store billions of untaxed dollars abroad, the forcing of its citizens to underwrite the moral hazard of ridiculously large banks and their executive’s bonuses in the name of “liquidity,” increasing the already staggering wealth of those who make money on capital, but not of working people and the poor, its perpetual militarism, which has destabilized an entire region of the world, bringing death and suffering to millions of innocents and the creation of massive refugee crises, all the while having 25% of the world’s prison population jailed inside of its borders and over a half a million people living homeless on the streets if its great cities.

It is instructive that the Pope, when addressing today's joint session of Congress, offered these great Americans for thoughtful consideration: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.  Blessed are the peacemakers.

"Here we have to ask ourselves: Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who plan to inflict untold suffering on individuals and society? Sadly, the answer, as we all know, is simply for money: money that is drenched in blood, often innocent blood. In the face of this shameful and culpable silence, it is our duty to confront the problem and to stop the arms trade." - Pope Francis, Address to the joint session of Congress, September 24, 2015

Friday, August 28, 2015

Reflections of late August: 1919’s Red Summer

The Lynching of Will Brown, Omaha, Nebraska. 1919

Woodrow Wilson, five months into his presidency and after having run on an anti-war platform, plunged America into the great catastrophe of World War I. Different historical narratives exist regarding that decision. Wilson eventually mustered 4,800,000 US soldiers into service, 2,800,000 of them by draft, after a nationwide campaign undertaken with a new public propaganda tool, the Committee on Public Information, created by Wilson with the help of journalist George Creel.

One effect of the war was a shortage of labor in the industrial north of the United States. A great migration of southern blacks took place to the large cities of the north to fill jobs on the railroads and in factories. At the end of the war, amidst a mass demobilization of US troops and a reduction in armaments manufacturing, came unemployment. What had been a shortage of labor was now a surplus. Coincident with these events were the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which had taken place in 1917, and new black civil rights activism in the US in the wake of Marcus Garvey, the 10-year-old NAACP and other organizations and the new prominence of important black intellectuals, artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance.

Many politicians and newspapers treated activists as enemies of the state by conflating the emergent black civil rights movement with Bolshevism. The New York Times was amongst the worst offenders with a July 28, 1919 headline titled “REDS TRY TO STIR NEGROES TO REVOLT; Widespread Propaganda on Foot Urging Them to Join I.W.W. and 'Left Wing' Socialists.”

At the end of the war, suspicion of an ascendant Germany was being replaced by the “red scare.” While politicians, carnival barkers and reckless newspaper media promoted this hysteria, tensions were breaking out between whites and blacks as black communities were placed in a state of siege by mob attacks on the part of jobless whites, Klan members and their sympathizers. From opened archives we know that Woodrow Wilson in private conversation, stated, “the American Negro returning from abroad would be our greatest medium in conveying bolshevism to America,” a direct reference to men who had just served their country in the deadliest war of the modern era. (See Cameron McWhirter, Red Summer). 

It can also be noted that this was the era of the racist, pro-KKK film "Birth of a Nation" by Wilson's friend and cinematographer, D.W. Griffith. Wilson invited his cabinet and close friends to the White House for a private screening of the film.

In the summer of 1919 riots broke out with white mobs attacking blacks, but unlike past eras, many blacks resisted and fought back. Even in Washington DC, where President Wilson maintained racially segregated federal offices, violence erupted after repeated attacks on black homes, against individuals on streetcars, and in workplaces elsewhere in the city. The DC Police refused to intervene. The NAACP sent a telegram to President Wilson, condemning the attacks and urging intervention. As the attacks went unabated, riots broke out.

Lynching would go on for a number of years. The Red Scare would continue. Newspapers, the mass media of the day, would continue to carry water for those promoting hysteria and attacking the labor and civil rights movements, while brave souls of American history forged new paths.

"She says, You can’t repeat the past. I say, You can’t? What do you mean, you can’t? Of course you can.'” - Bob Dylan, Summer Days.