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Caution: This Drug Trial May Be Harmful to Your Health

Who What Why - Mon, 02/20/2017 - 07:00

Who could oppose something called the 21st Century Cures Act? A bipartisan Congress embraced the legislation, passing the bill late last year. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) called it “a Christmas miracle.” It had the blessing of the Obama White House.

Not so fast, said some of the bill’s few Congressional critics. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) warned that the bill had been “hijacked” by the pharmaceutical industry.

The bill authorizes Congress to invest billions of dollars in medical initiatives seeking a cure for cancer and other diseases, although it does not guarantee those funds will be appropriated. It also greatly streamlines the way new drugs get to the market, with the intent of bringing cutting-edge medical products to the public faster. But critics say the new law will fail to encourage innovation while jeopardizing the safety of patients.

Opponents are even more worried now that the power to implement the law will fall to a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner nominated by President Donald Trump. That nominee is likely to have strong industry ties.

What is at stake is the future of the FDA’s drug approval process, long considered the gold standard for the world. That could endanger all patients, particularly those taking antibiotics under FDA review. Indeed, in an op-ed last year, two Johns Hopkins physicians warned that the new law would create an FDA that would be “a shadow of its former self.”

To be allowed on the market in the US, drug companies have to demonstrate to the FDA that their drugs are safe and effective. The cornerstone of that proof always has been clinical trials. Patients who enroll in clinical trials must give their informed consent, after learning the potential risks and benefits of a new drug.

The new law will permit smaller clinical trials, and allow companies to include anecdotal evidence of benefits from individual physicians, patients, and caregivers to bolster their case for approval. It also eases the requirements for patient consent.

For example, just one provision, tucked deep into the 996-page bill, will make it easier for drug companies to be excused from informing patients about the harmful effects of a new drug if “the proposed clinical testing poses no more than minimal risk to such human beings.”

Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, Harvard School of Medicine professors Jeffrey Avorn and Aaron Kesselheim termed informed consent a “sacrosanct” practice in drug trials, dispensed with only when it is “impossible to obtain or contrary to the patient’s best interests.” To no longer require informed consent when trials don’t pose much risk, they stated, is a “major departure” from patient protections, particularly when it’s “not clear who gets to determine whether a given trial of a new drug poses ‘minimal risk’.”

John Powers, a physician and professor of clinical medicine at George Washington University School of Medicine, told WhoWhatWhy that many other aspects of the new law are equally problematic. He points to new provisions for drug trials of antibiotics and says these changes in law could encourage trials that raise serious ethical and scientific questions.

Powers is an infectious-disease specialist who spent seven years at the FDA, where, as a lead medical officer for the agency, he was involved in its efforts to address antibiotic resistance and oversee the development of new antibiotics. He has written and co-authored 60 papers for medical journals, and testified before Congress three times.

Powers understands why Congress would want to develop more antibiotics, and agrees there is a problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year two million people in the US develop infections resistant to existing antibiotics, causing 23,000 deaths. But he contends that the new law will not achieve the goal Congress intended.

To a layman, the way the 21st Century Cures Act addresses drug resistance looks prudent. The new law encourages the development of more antibiotics by speeding up and relaxing the FDA approval process.

Photo credit: FDA / Wikimedia

Specifically, the law encourages a less rigorous type of clinical trial and more expedited review for new antibiotics. In exchange for these less stringent standards, the FDA will require drug companies to carefully label their products, stating that they should be reserved for patients with “limited options” — meaning that they are essentially last resort drugs — to be used by patients with infections that can’t be treated with any other antibiotic. The new law requires the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to evaluate this approach and its impact and report back to Congress by 2021.

But there is more to the law. It also makes clear that the FDA cannot prevent drug companies from selling their products to patients who do not have a drug-resistant infection and could do just as well, if not better, on an older, cheaper antibiotic. And doctors have no restrictions on what they prescribe to patients, as long as a medical product is approved by the FDA.

The FDA and other supporters such as the Pew Charitable Trusts support this approach. Allan Coukell, Pew’s senior director for health programs, wrote in a 2016 blog that “there is an urgent need for action to spur the innovation of antibiotics to treat the most serious and life-threatening super-bugs.” Indeed, it is the specter of some global epidemic triggered by bacteria resistant to existing antibiotics that persuaded Congress and the FDA to go down this path.

Powers disagrees. The new law “really defies logic,” he says. The reason? The new drugs will not be tested on the patients who actually have infections that are resistant to all existing antibiotics. Instead, patients who have infections that already respond well to existing drugs will be the guinea pigs, in the hope that future patients may benefit.

There are two problems with this approach, Powers says. First, you’re putting patients who could do well on older, more proven drugs at risk, often without adequate informed consent. And, second, even if the newer drug works well enough in these patients, you still have not demonstrated that the new drug will work on the patients for whom it was intended, who likely are older and sicker.

In the past, when it came to drugs for infectious diseases, clinical trials generally compared new drugs to placebos or other non-antibiotic therapies. There were few antibiotics on the market in the 1930s to 1940s, Powers says. These trials were called “superiority trials” because they tried to determine whether a new drug worked better than either an older drug or other accepted treatments.

Antibiotics proved to be “remarkably effective” in saving the lives of patients, “remarkably better than available therapies at the time,” he says. “But over the past 30 years something changed.”

The clinical trial that drug companies like to use, and that the new law will encourage for antibiotic development, is different. It’s called a “noninferiority” trial. One might reasonably assume that “noninferior” means that the new drug under review is not inferior to the old drug. But that’s not what the term means in this context. In fact, it means the opposite. It means that the new drug under review is just as, if not more, likely to be less effective than the established drug.

“Most clinical trials start out with the question, ‘Does it work better?’ Because that’s what patients and clinicians want to know,” Powers says. “Noninferiority trials ask, ‘Does it work a little worse?’”

Why would anybody want to test a new drug they already think probably works less well than an older drug? Because the new drug might be just a little less effective, but have fewer side effects, or be easier to take. These trials aim to measure how much less effective a new drug is, and also identify other benefits it may offer that may still make it worth approving.

It is not difficult to understand why drug companies pushed Congress to encourage these types of clinical trials, Powers says. When drug companies have to prove their product is better than the existing product, their clinical trials have a success rate of about 50 percent. When their products are judged on how much less effective they are, the trials have a 96 percent success rate. That is because these trials assess whether a new drug falls below a measure set by investigators ahead of time. For example, many noninferiority trials aim to demonstrate that a new drug is up to ten percent less effective than an available effective drug. Of course, as more and more drugs are approved through noninferiority trials, the likelihood increases of getting drugs approved that are less and less effective.

Nevertheless, Powers agrees that noninferiority trials have their place in medicine, under three conditions: when drugs are treating ailments that are not life-threatening; when the new drug offers some other benefit to patients, like fewer side effects; and when patients are able to give informed consent before enrolling in the trial, knowing they are making tradeoffs between less effectiveness and some other benefit.

But what several research studies have found, he says, is that many clinical trials of antibiotics fail to meet these conditions. Patients are not asked in the informed consent process whether they are willing to be treated with a drug that may not work as well but may have fewer side effects or be easier to take. Some patients may be willing to accept the tradeoffs, Powers says. But others may not. They all deserve to make that choice, a cornerstone of ethical trials for nearly 50 years, he says.

Worse, patients with life-threatening illnesses also are in clinical trials where they may be receiving a less effective drug that may actually kill them, he says. That danger, he notes, is not hypothetical. The FDA has warned of increased risk of death for several new antibiotics.

Powers and his colleagues recently completed their review of the information that patients receive when they agree to participate in clinical trials comparing two drugs. Their study, which has not yet been published, reviewed consent forms for 72 clinical trials of 17 new antibiotics, with three-quarters of the trials focused on serious diseases. None of the consent forms explained to patients that the purpose of the study was to see whether the new drug might be less effective than a drug currently on the market. Indeed, four consent forms implied the new drug was safer and more effective.

This may not be a crisis when a patient has a mild infection, and takes a drug that is three percent less effective, particularly if the new drug has fewer side effects, Powers says.

But that’s not the case when patients have life-threatening infections like pneumonia, Powers says.  “Pneumonia can kill you. Why would you accept any less effective drug? If you have a life-threatening illness, you don’t want to trade away any effectiveness.”

Pneumonia, a life-threatening disease, requires the most effective antibiotic available. Photo credit: Troy Tolley / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Powers insists that drug companies ought to be testing their new antibiotics on the patients who really need them, those who are out of options because they have an infection that is resistant to existing drugs. Patients who have effective options should not be the “stand-ins” for patients without options, he says.

Not everybody agrees with Powers’s assessments. Coukell, Pew’s health advocate, responded to WhoWhatWhy by email. He wrote that Pew does not take a position on clinical trial design, and leaves that to the FDA to oversee and monitor.  But he contended that these trials compare new drugs that may either be marginally better or less effective than existing drugs.“You’d love it, if the new drug were superior, but if it is just as good, you also want it to be available.” He stated that it would “never be ethical to enroll a patient in a trial if you had reason to believe” one drug was “better than the other.” And he noted that noninferiority trials are used for many other medical conditions and types of drugs, not just antibiotics.

Coukell also observed that it would be very difficult for drug companies to do clinical trials on patients whose infections are resistant to current antibiotics.” One big difference between cancer and bacterial infections is time,” Coukell wrote. “Someone with an infection needs an antibiotic immediately, which makes it much harder to find people and get them into trials.” However, he agreed that “it would be good if we were better at enrolling patients in clinical trials.”

Coukell predicted that this type of trial — comparing an existing antibiotic to a new drug — is likely to be the way antibiotics for life-threatening infections are going to come to market. “The real challenge is how to respond to that small but growing number of patients who have an infection that can’t adequately be treated with existing antibiotics. If I have one of those infections, I may be willing to take a drug where there is less certainty, than I would if I had lots of options.”

But Powers insists that is the point. Patients with infections known to be resistant to all antibiotics may be willing to take the risk, but patients with other options have no reason to accept any increased risk, he says. The only way to address the problem is to do a straight-up superiority trial where you give the new antibiotic to patients with no other options and see whether the drug works, compared to the best current standard of care.

That likely would also mean that the drug would be given to older, sicker patients and would better reflect how the drug would actually work on the patients who need it the most. He adds that this approach also could stimulate the development of better diagnostic tools to test and use these new drugs on the people most likely to benefit, making it easier to quickly identify and enroll these patients in clinical trials.

That is how cancer drugs are usually tested, Powers says. The new drug is given to patients who are not responding to current drugs to see if it helps. It is not given to patients whose cancers are responsive to existing treatments.

The new law also permits new antibiotics to come to market through trials that are smaller. The goal is to get new, effective antibiotics into the pipeline faster. But trials for antibiotics already are faster and require fewer patients than trials for other types of drugs.

And Powers says small trials have been largely unsuccessful. For one thing, an individual trial might show promising results in a small group but not identify the drug’s problems. Powers points to the drug Tygacil, approved by the FDA to treat complicated infections.

It was only in 2010, after a meta-analysis of 13 clinical trials, that the FDA found a significantly higher risk of death among patients taking Tygacil, compared to other antibiotics used to treat similar conditions. It required a “black-box” label on the medication, warning of the increased risk of death.

Another published study examined eight new antibiotics treating life-threatening diseases approved by the FDA between 2010 and 2015. The study concluded that while these new drugs often were ten times more expensive than existing antibiotics, it was unclear whether they were any better.

The clinical trials evaluating the drugs did not report whether the drugs actually cured patients or helped them recover from their symptoms or live longer. Instead, the trials relied on subjective physician assessments of patients’ health, and lab results.

Often, Powers says, insurance companies won’t pay for far more expensive antibiotics if they have not proven to be more effective than the older, cheaper drugs.

Indeed, an evaluation of antibiotics approved by the FDA between 1980 and 2009 found that more than four in ten were withdrawn from the market over time, either because of safety problems or due to poor sales.

“The public health cost of this is enormous,” Powers says. “Over 39,000 patients enrolled in studies to allow drugs to be approved that are usually more expensive, that are not shown to be better, and can be worse than what we have already, in the hopes that one of these drugs will remain useful in the future, while the evidence shows most of them are not. This is an inefficient use of resources, as well as putting thousands of patients who have effective options at risk.”

The full impact of the new law remains unknown. Even though few new antibiotics have sold well in the recent past, will more lenient standards coax more investment from drug companies into antibiotic research and development? Will the new law embolden drug companies to more aggressively promote new antibiotics to patients who do not need them? Will a new Trump administration lean on Medicare and other health insurers to pay for costly new antibiotics, even if they are less effective?

Powers says he understands the need for new antibiotics and the problem of antibiotic resistance. But he regrets that Congress and the FDA are not focused on what makes more sense for patients and practitioners — developing better ways to find patients with superbugs that are resistant to all existing drugs, and testing new drugs on them, “so we can find out what really works in the people with the greatest need.”

Doing anything else, he says, “is not science and medical practice based on evidence. It ignores doctors’ duty to ‘first do no harm’ and replaces it with wishful thinking.”

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from pills (Images Money / Flickr – CC BY 2.0).

The post Caution: This Drug Trial May Be Harmful to Your Health appeared first on WhoWhatWhy.

Le Pen meets Lebanese leader to boost international credibility

MiddleEasteye - Mon, 02/20/2017 - 06:14
Language Undefined

Far-right French presidential hopeful says Lebanon and France have 'fruitful' relationship after meeting with Lebanese president

Turkish soldiers accused of Erdogan assassination attempt go on trial

Top Reuters News - Mon, 02/20/2017 - 05:59
MUGLA, Turkey (Reuters) - The trial of more than 40 Turkish soldiers accused of attempting to assassinate President Tayyip Erdogan during last year's failed coup started on Monday, with prosecutors seeking life sentences, according to the indictment obtained by Reuters.

Chinese news agency warns South Korea's Lotte over THAAD

Top Reuters News - Mon, 02/20/2017 - 05:55
BEIJING (Reuters) - South Korea's Lotte Group will face severe consequences if it allows the South Korean government to deploy a U.S. anti-missile system on land that now forms part of a golf course it owns, China's state-run Xinhua news agency has warned.

#IAmAMuslimToo rally in New York sees thousands protest against Trump ban

MiddleEasteye - Mon, 02/20/2017 - 05:52
Language Undefined

Linda Sarsour tells crowds: 'We won’t let horrific things happen to our brothers and sisters'

Iran bans private drones from Tehran after device shot down

MiddleEasteye - Mon, 02/20/2017 - 05:23
Language Undefined

Revolutionary Guards general says 'security problems' have led to ban after drone aircraft shot down near supreme leader's office

Trump's defense chief, in Iraq, says: We're not here for your oil

Top Reuters News - Mon, 02/20/2017 - 05:18
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The U.S. military is not in Iraq "to seize anybody's oil", Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said, distancing himself from remarks by President Donald Trump at the start of a visit to Iraq on Monday.

Hundreds storm Morocco-Spain frontier in latest bid to reach EU

MiddleEasteye - Mon, 02/20/2017 - 05:13
Language Undefined

Migrants break through border to reach Cueta in a bid to gain asylum in Europe, days after one of largest rushes in more than a decade

Should the Palestinians seek justice at the International Criminal Court?

MiddleEasteye - Mon, 02/20/2017 - 04:25

With settlement expansion and the Trump-Netanyahu love fest, it seems clear that the PA should go to The Hague - but don't hold your breath

Pence in Brussels, seeking 'deeper' ties with EU

Reuters US Politics - Mon, 02/20/2017 - 04:15
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Mike Pence told senior European Union officials in Brussels on Monday that the Trump administration was looking at ways to "deepen our relationship" with the EU.

Pence in Brussels, seeking 'deeper' ties with EU

Top Reuters News - Mon, 02/20/2017 - 04:15
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - U.S. Vice President Mike Pence told senior European Union officials in Brussels on Monday that the Trump administration was looking at ways to "deepen our relationship" with the EU.

Humiliation Porn: Trump’s Gift to His Faithful…and Now the Blowback

Counterpunch - Mon, 02/20/2017 - 04:10

“Humiliation porn” is much about transforming the shame and pain of victimization and powerlessness into some kind of sexual pleasure. If mainstream institutions ignore a large number of people who feel powerless, victimized and angry, that’s easy pickings for a demagogue, who knows that a politician’s campaign promises may not hook a distrusting crowd but that providing them with pleasure—humiliation porn—is enticing and addicting.

We can thank mainstream American institutions—including the Democratic and Republican Parties and the mainstream media—for creating conditions that gave rise to Donald Trump, now the Humiliator-in-Chief. And we can thank the Donald for pissing on all taboos around offensiveness, resulting in reciprocal nastiness and the normalization of psychologically violent discourse. Before getting to the blowback to Trump, a few examples from the Trump humiliation porn collection.

One of the Trump faithful’s favorite “cum shots” is the humiliation of Mitt Romney, who had insulted Trump in the 2016 campaign but who naively believed that he was still seriously being considered for Secretary of State. If you had talked with Trump guys or had listened to their Alex Jones show, you’d know that Trump’s post-election maneuvering with Romney got these guys excited, as they fantasized about what was coming. They were ecstatic when, immediately after Trump instead selected Rex Tillerson, Trump advisor Roger Stone gloatingly told Alex Jones about Trump’s “torturing,” “toying” and “diddling” of Romney. For the Alex Jones brigade, Trump’s humiliation of Romney was his gift to them, providing his faithful with fantasy, orgasm and ejaculation.

At Trump campaign rallies, the cry of “lock her up” drove his faithful into a frenzy, as they visualized Hillary Clinton in prison being humiliated in all kinds of ways. Trump supporters don’t seem to hold it against Trump for his post-election reneging on prosecuting Clinton; as they remain appreciative for Trump providing them with that prison-porn fantasy image.

And then there is the Trump declaration, “I’ll build a wall, and Mexico will pay for it,” which brought the house down at Trump rallies. The first part, “I’ll build a wall,” is pleasurable to this disempowered group as it conjures up an image of a strongman protecting them and jobs, but it creates tension as Trump loyalists hate government spending their money for a wall. And so when Trump completes the phrase with “. . . and Mexico will pay for it,” this is orgasmic delight—tension resolved through humiliating a brown-skinned nation. (To be historically fair to Trump, American politicians have a long history of getting mileage from not only trying to humiliate Mexico but by stealing large parts of it.)

One reason that mainstream Democrats and Republicans were blind to the magnitude of Trump’s attraction is that part of being mainstream involves a denial and repression of raw emotions, including rage and humiliation over powerlessness. Thus, the mainstream view was: It’s crazy to think that Trump, with his never-ending spewing of politically-incorrect insults, could win the Republican nomination, and certifiably insane to believe that he could win the presidential election.

Yet in 2016, most Americans—as evidenced by the rise of both Trump and Bernie Sanders—were feeling powerless, victimized, and angry. Despising Hillary Clinton and the Democratic/Republican establishment was a sentiment shared by both Trump and Sanders supporters. However, beyond the policy differences between Trump and Sanders, the glaring emotional difference was that Sanders didn’t move into humiliation porn, which would not have attracted mainstream Democrats whom Sanders needed to win the nomination. But for the lucky Trump, there were few mainstream Republican voters remaining, and that’s why he gained steam each time he humiliated a mainstream Republican politician from “Little Marco” to “Lying Ted.”

To the dismay of Trump haters, they discovered that facts, reason and fear failed to stop Trump. And so now, anti-Trump forces have fully embraced psychological violence. Some of their efforts, I suspect, will be impotent but some of their violent efforts might well be quite effective.

An example of likely impotent violence is the increasing use of psychiatric diagnosis violence—routinely used in our society to control and marginalize undesirables, and now being used by anti-Trump forces against Trump. So, we see Rep. Ted Lieu (D-California) introducing legislation that would require a White House psychiatrist; as Lieu concludes that Trump might in fact need treatment or a professional assessment regarding his danger to the republic. And recently, a psychologist affiliated with John Hopkins made news by disregarding the professional ethical injunction against diagnosing public figures without spending a couple of minutes with them, and he diagnosed Trump as a “malignant narcissist,” which is as scientific as calling him an “evil, self-centered, exploitative asshole.”

However, if one is trying to get rid of Trump, professional jargon labels are at best useless and maybe even empowering for Trump’s approximately 40 percent support, who may be more energized than deterred by Trump receiving college-level insults from PhDs. One might want to consider the needs of Trump’s supporters rather than focusing on Trump, if one wants to reduce Trump’s support.

A good chunk of Trump voters—even among the Alex Jones alt-right brigade—are not blind to Trump’s meanness and brutalism. They don’t necessarily like him, only the pleasures that he has provided for them. So for them, it is all business, and when someone else better satisfies their needs, they will move on and listen to what they have to say.

So, Trump should be worried about Saturday Night Live and their willingness to use humiliation porn (including women playing key Trump administration men) because SNL humiliations—and those who will ratchet it up even nastier—will attract some of Trump’s audience share, as it is just too irresistible.

By early February 2017, NBC reported that SNL’s ratings were the highest in 20 years, up 22 percent from the same time last year. On February 4, SNL ran a skit with Alec Baldwin/ Trump being pressed by Steve Bannon/Darth Vader to demonstrate to foreign nations who is boss, with Trump appearing as a jerk to one world leader after another; with finally, the strongman leader of Zimbabwe calling Trump, “a little white bitch.” Last I looked, the Youtube video of that skit had over 11 million views. And more famously on that same SNL episode was Melissa McCarthy’s rendition of an out-of-control press secretary Sean Spicer, which on Youtube is now at 23 million views and climbing.

These days, it doesn’t exactly take Lenny Bruce courage for entertainers to be outrageous about the Trump administration, as Trump himself has created a cultural climate by which nothing is over the line because there is no longer any line and nothing is too taboo to spew.

So, what’s next? Knowing some of these Trump guys—I admit it, I’ve been interviewed for an hour on the Alex Jones show—here’s one example of what would be an irresistible SNL skit/Youtube video for them:

It starts with Trump depressed about his growing unpopularity. Bannon (perhaps now played by Rosie O’Donnell who is vying for that role) informs Trump that U.S. presidents instantly get ratings spikes when the U.S. attacks another country, especially if it’s likely to be an easy win. And so Trump decides to attack Australia. His worried cabinet and advisors are informed by Trump’s first wife, Ivana, that the only thing that had snapped Trump out of depression was when she strapped on a dildo and anally penetrated the Donald while giving him a reach around. And so we then see a parade of notable Republican women, including Sara Palin/Tina Fey strapping one on and—doggy style—trying to save America from an insane war. (Note: For the Alex Jones brigade, the naked back of Sara Palin/Tina Fey giving it to Trump from behind would by itself be irresistible). And finally, after an exasperated Palin/Fey also fails to get the Donald erect, Ivana explains that there is one last hope: Trump is turned on by Barack Obama. . .

I’ll stop here, but that’s not where this will stop.

Think this is crazy? Ask yourself what kind of ratings SNL would get for this, and what kind of money there is to be made in increased advertising dollars? And how much pleasure would it give not only to powerless Democrats but to some mainstream Republicans and to even a good chunk of the alt-right Alex Jones brigade?

So, how does this all play out?

Already, many Americans are overwhelmed by anxiety. When the U.S. president has no line, all things seem possible—from a catastrophic trumped-up war, to mass deportations, to an attempt to silence Trump detractors. Would any American be surprised to discover that Trump is ordering his staff right now to find some way of shutting down SNL? I hope Alec Baldwin has good security.

U.S. serviceman dies in 'non-combat related incident' in Iraq, says coalition

Top Reuters News - Mon, 02/20/2017 - 04:09
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A U.S. serviceman died on Monday in a non-combat related incident outside the Iraqi city of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, the U.S.-led coalition said.

Unilever shares tumble 8 percent after Kraft ditches bid

Top Reuters News - Mon, 02/20/2017 - 04:07
LONDON (Reuters) - Shares in Anglo-Dutch consumer goods group Unilever dropped 8 percent on Monday after U.S. rival Kraft Heinz Co abruptly ditched its surprise $143 billion merger proposal.

“Wag the Dog,” Revisited

Counterpunch - Mon, 02/20/2017 - 04:00

Twenty years ago, Hollywood produced a black comedy, “Wag the Dog,” that involved a sex scandal in the White House less than two weeks before the election.  A spin doctor is brought in to distract the public from the scandal by constructing a diversionary war with Albania.  When the CIA learns of the plot, it sends an agent to confront the spin doctor, who convinces the agency that revealing the deception would be against the best interests of the United States.

One month after the movie was released, a sex scandal actually confronted the Clinton administration, the infamous Monica Lewinsky affair.  What followed was an exercise in the comparison of film and reality as the United States conducted a series of pin-prick strikes against ramshackle al Qaeda training facilities in Afghanistan and a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan that had nothing to do with the production of lethal chemicals.  This is where reality got more interesting than anything in the film.

National security adviser Sandy Berger and Richard Clarke, the chairman of the Counterterrorism and Security Group (CSG), claimed the strike was based on the best intelligence ever collected for such operations, but that was a lie.  The CIA operatives responsible for the soil sample at the pharmaceutical plant found the results inconclusive and called for another investigation.  CIA director George Tenet overruled them, bowing to White House pressure to cite intelligence to justify a military strike.

In a conversation at the National War College, Clarke told me that Tenet, who was to become better known for his “slam dunk” assurances on the intelligence regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, stood by the intelligence.  Later intelligence on the site in Khartoum made it clear that the plant had nothing to do with the production of lethal chemicals or terrorist organizations.  The Clinton administration simply wanted to be seen as doing something.

Like Tenet, Clarke is better known for a different operation, the so-called Plan Delenda, from the Latin “to destroy,” evoking the Roman vow to erase rival Carthage.  In this case, Berger and Clarke were trying to push the interagency process to fight al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.  Ironically, Sudan was one of the few countries in the late 1990s willing to help the Clinton administration arrest bin Laden.

Let’s fast forward to today’s White House, which finds the wheels coming off of the Trump administration.  In a tumultuous first month, Donald Trump has faced a reversal from a federal court; the forced resignation of his national security advisor; the withdrawal of a cabinet appointment; and an unprecedented level of protest activity from the press and the people.  The national security system is so dysfunction that the chief of the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command referred to the “unbelievable turmoil” within the government that needed to be “sorted out.”

Sadly, the “wag the dog” scenario could be part of any sorting.  There would be no faster way to change the subject than to find a way to use military power in some surgical fashion.  And there is no one closer to Trump substantively than his counselor Steve Bannon, who has been using his creative energy in recent years with nonfiction agitprop to create anxiety about the need to support apocalyptic anti-globalism.  In his documentary films and his stewardship of Breitbart News, Bannon has warned against the “nihilistic destruction of everything the American people care for.”  Bannon sees the world as a cage-match clash of civilizations and has already placed his mark on the Muslim ban and the need to withdraw from international trade agreements.

Like their current guest, Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, Trump and Bannon see the West in a war against an expansionist Islamic ideology and radical Islamic terrorism. One of the reasons that Trump and Bannon are willing to overlook substantive differences with Russia and Vladimir Putin is the misguided belief that Moscow would be a close ally in any campaign against the Islamic community.  In yesterday’s press conference with Netanyahu, Trump signed away any U.S. role in moving Israel forward in the peace process.  Meanwhile, Bannon has talked about the need for the kind of “grit and “tenacity, that we’ve seen on the battlefields…fighting for something greater than ourselves.”  On the eve of the election, Bannon stated that “Dick Cheney, Darth Vader, Satan. That’s power.”

In view of the bellicose language of Trump and Bannon, and the fact that Iran has already been put “on notice,” it would not be far fetched to assume that this administration would at least consider the use of a pin-prick military strike to change the subject and hopefully end the domestic tumult in Washington.  I’m not predicting such a maneuver but, if I were an Iranian leader, this might be a good time to recommend that Tehran should keep its head below its breast plate.

Fukushima: a Lurking Global Catastrophe?

Counterpunch - Mon, 02/20/2017 - 03:58

Year over year, ever since 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown grows worse and worse, an ugly testimonial to the inherent danger of generating electricity via nuclear fission, which produces isotopes, some of the most deadly poisonous elements on the face of the planet.

Fukushima Diiachi has been, and remains, one of the world’s largest experiments, i.e., what to do when all hell breaks lose aka The China Syndrome. “Scientists still don’t have all the information they need for a cleanup that the government estimates will take four decades and cost ¥8 trillion. It is not yet known if the fuel melted into or through the containment vessel’s concrete floor, and determining the fuel’s radioactivity and location is crucial to inventing the technology to remove the melted fuel,” (Emi Urabe, Fukushima Fuel-Removal Quest Leaves Trail of Dead Robots, The Japan Times, Feb. 17, 2017).

As it happens, “”inventing technology” is experimental stage stuff. Still, there are several knowledgeable sources that believe the corium, or melted core, will never be recovered. Then what?

According to a recent article, “Potential Global Catastrophe of the Reactor No. 2 at Fukushima Daiichi,” d/d Feb. 11, 2017 by Dr. Shuzo Takemoto, professor, Department of Geophysics, Graduate School of Science, Kyoto University: The Fukushima nuclear facility is a global threat on level of a major catastrophe.

Meanwhile, the Abe administration dresses up Fukushima Prefecture for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, necessitating a big fat question: Who in their right mind would hold Olympics in the neighborhood of three out-of-control nuclear meltdowns that could get worse, worse, and still worse? After all, that’s the pattern over the past 5 years; it gets worse and worse. Dismally, nobody can possibly know how much worse by 2020. Not knowing is the main concern about holding Olympics in the backyard of a nuclear disaster zone, especially as nobody knows what’s happening. Nevertheless and resolutely, according to PM Abe and the IOC, the games go on.

Along the way, it’s taken Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) nearly six years to finally get an official reading of radiation levels of the meltdown but in only one unit. Analysis of Unit #2 shows radiation levels off-the-charts at 530 Sieverts, or enough to kill within minutes, illustrative of why it is likely impossible to decommission units 1, 2, and 3. No human can withstand that exposure and given enough time, frizzled robots are as dead as a doornail.

“A short-term, whole-body dose of over 10 sieverts would cause immediate illness and subsequent death within a few weeks, according to the World Nuclear Association” (Emi Urabe, Fukushima Fuel-Removal Quest Leaves Trail of Dead Robots, The Japan Times, Feb. 17, 2017).

Although Fukushima’s similar to Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in some respects, where 1,000 square miles has been permanently sealed off, Fukushima’s different, as the Abe administration is already repopulating portions of Fukushima. If they don’t repopulate, how can the Olympics be held with food served from Fukushima and including events like baseball held in Fukushima Prefecture?

Without question, an old saw – what goes around comes around – rings true when it comes to radiation, and it should admonish (but it doesn’t phase ‘em) strident nuclear proponents, claiming Fukushima is an example of how safe nuclear power is “because there are so few, if any, deaths” (not true). As Chernobyl clearly demonstrates: Over time, radiation cumulates in bodily organs. For a real life example of how radiation devastates human bodies, consider this fact: 453,391 children with bodies ravaged, none born at the time of the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, today receive special healthcare because of Chernobyl radiation-related medical problems like cancer, digestive, respiratory, musculoskeletal, eye disease, blood disease, congenital malformation, and genetic abnormalities. Their parents were children in the Chernobyl zone in 1986 (Source: Chernobyl’s Legacy: Kids With Bodies Ravaged by Disaster, USA Today, April 17, 2016).

Making matters worse yet, Fukushima Diiachi sets smack dab in the middle of earthquake country, which defines the boundaries of Japan. In that regard, according to Dr. Shuzo Takemoto, professor, Department of Geophysics, Graduate School of Science, Kyoto University: “The problem of Unit 2… If it should encounter a big earth tremor, it will be destroyed and scatter the remaining nuclear fuel and its debris, making the Tokyo metropolitan area uninhabitable. The Tokyo Olympics in 2020 will then be utterly out of the question,” (Shuzo Takemoto, Potential Global Catastrophe of the Reactor No. 2 at Fukushima Daiichi, February 11, 2017).

Accordingly, the greater Tokyo metropolitan area remains threatened for as long as Fukushima Diiachi is out of control, which could be for generations, not years. Not only that, Gee-Whiz, what if the big one hits during the Olympics? After all, earthquakes come unannounced. Regrettably, Japan has had 564 earthquakes the past 365 days. It’s an earthquake-ridden country. Japan sits at the boundary of 4 tectonic plates shot through with faults in zigzag patterns, very lively and of even more concern, the Nankai Trough, the candidate for the big one, sits nearly directly below Tokyo. On a geological time scale, it may be due for action anytime within the next couple of decades. Fukushima Prefecture’s not that far away.

Furthermore, the Fukushima Diiachi nuclear complex is tenuous, at best: “All four buildings were structurally damaged by the original earthquake some five years ago and by the subsequent hydrogen explosions so should there be an earthquake greater than seven on the Richter scale, it is very possible that one or more of these structures could collapse, leading to a massive release of radiation as the building falls on the molten core beneath.” (Helen Caldicott: The Fukushima Nuclear Meltdown Continues Unabated, Independent Australia, February 13, 2017).

Complicating matters further, the nuclear site is located at the base of a mountain range. Almost daily, water flows from the mountain range beneath the nuclear plant, liquefying the ground, a sure-fire setup for cascading buildings when the next big one hits. For over five years now, radioactive water flowing out of the power plant into the Pacific carries isotopes like cesium 134 and cesium 137, strontium 90, tritium, plutonium americium and up to 100 more isotopes, none of which are healthy for marine or human life, quite the opposite in fact as those isotopes slowly cumulate, and similar to the Daleks of Doctor Who fame (BBC science fiction series, 1963-present) “Exterminate! Exterminate! Exterminate!”

Isotopes bio-concentrate up the food chain from algae to crustaceans to small fish to big fish to bigger humans. Resultant cancer cells incubate anytime from two years to old age, leading to death. That’s what cancer does; it kills.

Still, the fact remains nobody really knows for sure how directly Fukushima Diiachi radiation affects marine life, but how could it be anything other than bad? After all, it’s a recognized fact that radiation cumulates over time; it’s tasteless, colorless, and odorless as it cumulates in the body, whether in fish or further up the food chain in humans. It travels!

An example is Cesium 137 one of the most poisonous elements on the planet. One gram of Cesium 137 the size of a dime will poison one square mile of land for hundreds of years. That’s what’s at stake at the world’s most rickety nuclear plant, and nobody can do anything about it. In fact, nobody knows what to do. They really don’t.

When faced with the prospect of not knowing what to do, why not bring on the Olympics? That’s pretty good cover for a messy situation, making it appear to hundreds of thousands of attendees, as well as the world community “all is well.” But, is it? Honestly….

The Fukushima nuclear meltdown presents a special problem for the world community. Who knows what to believe after PM Abe lied to the IOC to get the Olympics; see the following headline from Reuters News: “Abe’s Fukushima ‘Under Control’ Pledge to Secure Olympics Was a Lie: Former PM,” Reuters, Sept. 7, 2016.

“Abe gave the assurances about safety at the Fukushima plant in his September 2013 speech to the International Olympic Committee to allay concerns about awarding the Games to Tokyo. The comment met with considerable criticism at the time… Mr. Abe’s ‘under control remark, that was a lie,’ Koizumi (former PM) now 74 and his unruly mane of hair turned white, told a news conference where he repeated his opposition to nuclear power,” Ibid.

As such, a very big conundrum precedes the 2020 games: How can the world community, as well as Olympians, believe anything the Abe administration says about the safety and integrity of Fukushima?

Still, the world embraces nuclear power more so than ever before as it continues to expand and grow. Sixty reactors are currently under construction in fifteen countries. In all, 160 power reactors are in the planning stage and 300 more have been proposed. Pro-Nuke-Heads claim Fukushima proves how safe nuclear power is because there are so few, if any, deaths, as to be inconsequential. That’s a boldfaced lie.

Here’s one of several independent testimonials on deaths because of Fukushima Diiachi radiation exposure (many, many, many more testimonials are highlighted in prior articles, including USS Ronald Reagan sailors on humanitarian rescue missions at the time): “It’s a real shame that the authorities hide the truth from the whole world, from the UN. We need to admit that actually many people are dying. We are not allowed to say that, but TEPCO employees also are dying. But they keep mum about it,” Katsutaka Idogawa, former mayor of Futaba (Fukushima Prefecture), Fukushima Disaster: Tokyo Hides Truth as Children Die, Become Ill from Radiation – Ex-Mayor, RT News, April 21, 2014.

Resistance and Resolve in Russia: Memorial HRC

Counterpunch - Mon, 02/20/2017 - 03:58

In late October, while traveling in Russia with a small delegation of peace activists from Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org), a young Russian lawyer and his brother took me to Dacha Na Pokrovke, a Moscow restaurant where we enjoyed some of the best food I’ve ever eaten: delicious Russian dumplings, tender kabobs, and the most exquisite, tender, and juicy beef tongue, cut in small, thin slices that I can still taste two months later. I had eaten tongue once before, in New York, and hated it, vowing subconsciously never to eat it again. But this was a revelation. Because of food sensitivities, I passed on some of the evening’s other culinary delicacies, including vodka made from horseradish root that had a strong and sharp aroma and probably would have left me stupefied. The conversation, at one point, turned to rights of free speech when one of the young Russian men at the table said “If I were to criticize the government I might have to whisper, because someone might be listening. What about in the United States,” he asked, “If I am walking on the street, can I say what I want? Can I openly criticize the government?” “Yes, sure,” I said, “You can say what you think. You can’t incite people to violence, but you can criticize governmental policies.”

Here in the U.S., we tend to believe our right to peaceable assembly and redress is founded surely on a First Amendment bedrock, and on the surface that night in the restaurant the differences between Russian and U.S. protections of free speech seemed both stark and gaping. But the reality is something more muted and narrow. The violent treatment of protesters at Standing Rock, ND by police was a clear violation of their first amendment rights, and it creates an atmosphere that forcefully discourages peaceful dissent.

It is also true that the public space available for free speech in the U.S. has been shrinking, both in size and in relevance, for years. Peace and environmental activists across the country can tell stories about organized, approved demonstrations where they are shunted off to a designated “protest area” typically far from the event and people they seek to address. Any attempt to significantly expand this area results in a swift police response. This is free speech in a cage.

One of my companions in Russia, longtime peace activist Brian Terrell, who was arrested at the Pentagon in September for demonstrating outside the ‘designated protest zone,’ had this to say during sentencing in Missouri four years ago:

The court was mistaken a month ago when it said that our group was“allowed” to assemble on the highway right of way by the Air Force and that this space provided for us met free speech requirements of reasonable time and place. This place in question is not only outside the base’s jurisdiction, it is outside the sight and hearing of anyone on the base. The court’s decision is part of a widening disintegration of civil liberties, where speech is tolerated only in designated and remote “free speech zones” where it cannot be heard by the government, and criminalized in any place where that speech might actually have a chance to be understood. Intended or not, the court’s message is a chilling one- that a citizens’ constitutional right to assemble to petition the government extends only to places outside government facilities and where the government does not have to hear it.”

An indication of the unfriendly political climate related to peaceful protest is evidenced by State lawmakers’ recent attempts to limit first amendment rights. In response to pipeline protesters marching on roadways and blocking traffic, North Dakota legislator, Keith Kempenich, introduced legislation that would protect drivers who “negligently” kill or injure a pedestrian who is blocking traffic on a public road. The first section of the bill reads, “… a driver of a motor vehicle who negligently causes injury or death to an individual obstructing vehicular traffic on a public road, street, or highway may not be held liable for any damages.” (). HB 1203 also would restrict where pedestrians can walk in relation to public roadways, and states “any pedestrian upon a roadway shall yield the right of way to all vehicles upon the roadway.” While the North Dakota bill failed on February 13 by a 50-41 vote, lawmakers in other states are proposing similar legislation.

And in Russia? Well, it’s tempting to characterize Russia as a place where the government is watching and you’d better be on good behavior or else. Perhaps this aligns solidly with popular Western myths about the country. However, Russians seem to have a somewhat more complex relationship with their history of authoritarianism. That night in the restaurant, I was told a joke. “A foreigner comes to Russia and says, ‘I want to meet with Stalin. Can you tell me where I can find him?’ ‘Sure,’ the person he addressed answers, ‘that’s easy. Just tell a joke about him, and he will find you.’”

Russian people are not simply at the mercy of their government, and a public space for dissent, though contracting, exists. On our second full day in Moscow, we visited the Memorial Human Rights Centre (HRC), a non-profit organization that emerged during the Perestroika years, when, as Boris Belenkin, Memorial HRC’s Librarian, tells us, there were “massive human rights violations.” For example, in 1989 in what is now known as the “April 9 Tragedy,” the Soviet Army killed twenty people and injured hundreds while dispersing and arresting anti-Russian demonstrators in Tbilisi, now the capital of the Republic of Georgia. In response, human rights activists organized protests, demanding release of all political prisoners, and formed a legal defense team. The Memorial Human Rights Centre was born out of its work.

As then, human rights advocacy remains at the center of its far-reaching, multifaceted work. Memorial HRC operates on the principle that “objective and complete information about human rights violations in troubled areas directly influences events surrounding a conflict.” Truth-telling, instead of increasing violence, helps reduce it by taking the often powerful weapon of false pretexts out of the hands of those who would use it to provoke violence. In a conflict zone, a vacuum of information is just as (or more) likely to be filled by lies as by truth. It might be counterintuitive, but if truth-telling draws “public and political attention to human rights violations,” it can spark a determination to redress the wrongs and prevent further abuses rather than igniting a desire for revenge, especially if civil society human rights organizations on both sides of the conflict are engaged with each other and supported.

In conflict zones – what it calls ‘hot spots’ – Memorial HRC staff work as investigative journalists, committing both to an on-the-ground presence as well as research and analysis. They develop the kind of in-depth publications that most media outlets can’t afford to produce. They also hold press conferences, write speeches, develop and display exhibits, hold seminars and discussions, and organize demonstrations. Because the express aim of this work is to prevent or de-escalate violence, they produce not only a history of the conflict and a description of the human rights violations, but publicize the names of people responsible for them and offer practical recommendations for improving the situation. And they have a sophisticated approach to getting this information into the media and the hands of other non-profit organizations.

The work, of course, is risky, both physically – for investigators in conflict zones – and politically, especially because the organization calls for accountability as one step in preventing further abuses. When political instability led to conflict in Ukraine, Memorial HRC operated five monitoring stations and worked jointly with other civil society organizations to de-escalate violence. Memorial was also heavily involved in support for political prisoners and for “activists under politically motivated pressure from the authorities.” This included support for prisoners on trial in the Bolotnaya Square court case, people arrested for protesting the 2012 re-election of Vladimir Putin on the grounds of widespread election fraud. Russian authorities had aggressively pursued activists who organized large-scale demonstrations and the people who participated in them, levying administrative charges for breaking laws related to gathering in public. In addition to creating and disseminating lists of people imprisoned or at risk of imprisonment and describing the circumstances surrounding their cases, Memorial also provided direct legal assistance to thousands of people.

In 2012, Russia passed a law requiring any NGO that receives funding from abroad and engages in political activity to formally register as a “foreign agent,” a term with negative connotations close in meaning to “spy” or “enemy.” Russian human rights organizations saw the law as a weapon to attack and injure them. On November 21, 2012, the day the law came into force, someone spray painted “Foreign Agent (Heart) USA” on the walls of Memorial’s Moscow office, and posted signs near its doors that read “Foreign Agent.”

In an official letter the following spring, the Russian Prosecutor’s Office classified Memorial HRC’s work as “political activity,” and after a subsequent visit to Memorial’s Moscow office, “aimed at conducting a check” (Memorial Human Rights Centre Annual Report, 2013-2014) on Memorial’s activities and during which 9,000 pages of documents were turned over, the Prosecutor’s Office directed Memorial to register as a “foreign agent.” Memorial has refused to do this, but amendments to the law in 2014 allow the Russian Justice Ministry to unilaterally add NGOs to the list of “foreign agents,” which it did to Memorial HRC on July 21, 2014.

In October, during our visit to Memorial, we had the good fortune to speak with its General Director, Elena Zhemkova, a small, middle-aged woman with a warm, engaging smile and bright, intelligent eyes. Her stature belied an obvious strength. Elena spoke with us about the consequences of being officially listed as a “foreign agent.”

“Presently, in Russia, the State has created a bad atmosphere. Toward NGOs and toward foreigners, especially Americans.” Because it is listed as a “foreign agent,” Elena told us, Memorial must comply with a great deal of bureaucratic requirements. They have, for example, to report on every event and activity held, not just the content, but who attended and many other details. Given the number of activities it organizes, from exhibits to seminars to demonstrations, this is a “great deal of extra work” that has forced Memorial to hire a full-time employee dedicated to reporting to the State. In his introduction to the 2013-2014 Annual Report, Alexander Cherkasov, Chairman of the Memorial Board, stated, “Regrettably, a significant part of our efforts had to go into protecting ourselves…” If we are tempted to see this as prototypically Russian, the sort of the thing that couldn’t or wouldn’t happen in a “free” society like the United States, we should resist. The Berkeley, California-based Middle East Children’s Alliance, an NGO supporting human rights in Palestine and Iraq, spent years under investigation by the IRS in what many saw as a political witch-hunt. As a result, it too suffered under the crushing bureaucratic weight of responding to “State” questions and demands for information and documents.

“The worst thing,” Elena explained, is the “blow to our reputation.” Being on the list of “foreign agents creates a negative tone. It suggests you are a spy. This raises questions in people’s minds. Who wants to be associated with a spy?” Over the last twenty-five years, Memorial has dedicated a great deal of staff time to telling accurate stories of people arrested during the Gulag era, rehabilitating the memory of people who were wrongly accused of crimes against the State. Elena paused then commented wryly, “We are trying to uncover the histories of people who were considered spies, and now we are too.”

It says a lot about Elena and her staff that this unjust “blow” to Memorial’s reputation is worse than other consequences of being on the list of “foreign agents.” There have been threats to burn down the building where Memorial has its offices and its archives. “They even created a website,” Elena told us, “to raise funds for this.”

The United States has had a very similar law on the books since 1938, the Foreign Agents Registration Act or FARA, “a disclosure statute that requires persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities” (US DOJ website). FARA has been used to investigate human rights organizations – such as the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador or CISPES – with, predictably, consequences not unlike those Memorial is experiencing.

At Voices for Creative Nonviolence, we see our own small efforts reflected in Memorial HRC’s striving to tell the truth about violence with the belief that it is a necessary step to bringing about reconciliation and preventing more violence. And just as in the U.S. peace activists are fighting in court for their first amendment rights, Memorial has been fighting in court against Russia’s Foreign Agents law since early 2013. The following year, after Memorial was placed on the list of ‘foreign agents’ Alexander Cherkasov had this to say: “We continue to defend ourselves with all the legal means at our disposal and have no intention of describing ourselves as ‘foreign agents.’” During our visit to Russia, we saw no evidence that Memorial’s resolve has weakened.

David Smith-Ferri co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org), and is the author of three books of poetry based on his experience in conflict zones. He lives in northern California where he works for a Native American Tribe. He can be reached at dsmithferri@gmail.com.

Global India?

Counterpunch - Mon, 02/20/2017 - 03:58

Full-page ad in the Times of India, February 15, 2017. Photo: Kenneth Surin.

I was last in India over 50 years ago.  In the mid-1960s I was on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to London, and Mumbai (or Bombay as it was then called) was a refuelling stop.

In the transit lounge we were informed that “all civilian flights are suspended until further notice due to military operations”.

India was having one of its periodic wars with Pakistan over Kashmir, so I spent the next 12 hours or so wandering around a very crowded airport that was stifling hot and without air-conditioning, with very little in those days to distract the delayed traveller, except to watch the seemingly endless procession of Indian Air Force giant Hercules turbo-prop cargo planes lumbering towards their take-off runway.  As one took-off another landed.

It was so hot that the planes had their cockpit windows wide-open as they were taxiing, and many were piloted by Sikhs in imposing Indian air-force turbans, but otherwise dispensing with their uniforms and wearing much more comfortable but incongruous-looking “wife-beaters” instead.

The several inconclusive wars over Kashmir have only served to entrench both sides more deeply in a status quo that persists to this day.

Today Mumbai has a spanking new international airport that is the glorified mall all contemporary international airports have become.

What hasn’t changed is the Indian fondness for labyrinthine bureaucracy.  At the immigration desk, all fingers and thumbs had to be scanned, the thumbs separately, and the fingers of the left-hand first, followed by the right-hand.  The scanning machines were refusing to cooperate, so each individual procedure had to be repeated a dozen times or more before a satisfactory result was achieved.  Other passengers seemed to be encountering the same problem.

I was tempted to suggest that simply finger-printing one hand would suffice, or India could arrange with China to import the finger-scanning machines used by its immigration service, which are the acme of bureaucratic-technological excellence, but decided my potentially helpful suggestions would not be received in the right spirit.

Moreover, the Indian love affair with bureaucracy, given the pejorative name ‘babudom” (a babu being any kind of scribe or official dealing with forms, signatures, and official stamps and seals), has an undeniable charm in a world dominated by impersonal barcodes, chip-IDs, and scanning machines.

There is of course an obverse side to this charm– a scanning machine can’t demand a bribe (at least not yet), but officialdom can, as we were reminded by a large poster in the airport’s immigration and customs area, which provided a hotline number to call in case any kind of unofficial payment is solicited from travellers.

The hotline information seemed to be there less for the traveller, and more for the “benefit” of the functionaries sitting at the booths next to the large poster.

Our friendly little hotel has an old-fashioned register that had to be filled in by hand.  Anyone who watches those American TV shows with titles like “Hotel Impossible” or “Hotel Hell” will know that anything that must be handwriting at the registration desk is recommended for the chop in the first few minutes of the show.  At our hotel, I had however several opportunities to produce my signature in the best cursive I could muster.

India, confronting the inrush of globalization but also understandably dragging its feet when it comes to abandoning its past, or even reinventing a Disneyfied and fantasized version of this pre-globalized past, is clearly at a social and cultural crossroads.

In Mumbai one is confronted by signs of Disneyfication, but it all seems to be imported because the modus operandi associated with Disneyfication in the non-west is… westernization, or “modernization” (to give it its other name).  Hence, the omnipresent western fast-food chains of deserved notoriety are much in evidence, but so too are local establishments advertising “western food” — “Belgian” waffles, “Mexican” tacos, “English” fish and chips, “French” pastries, and so on.

A litmus test of sorts to be used when visiting a non-western culture is to ask the question “what here can’t be Disneyfied?” (the assumption here being that nearly everything in the west is already Disneyfied or on the threshold of being Disneyfied, that is, commodified on a more or less massive scale).

Of course, as locals will be the first to tell you, some things can’t be Disneyfied because they are just too awful to be “-fied” in any way– a hell-hole of an eatery for instance.

But a lot else resists commodification, including many kinds of artisanal production.  The obvious danger here is that these will be wiped-out precisely because they can’t be commodified for standardized consumption, or else driven lower down the value-chain in order to survive, with detrimental outcomes for the livelihoods of producers and the quality of what they produce.

Globalization goes hand in with neoliberalism, and in India today this is synonymous with its ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which promotes an amalgam of Hindu cultural nationalism (Hindutva) and economic neoliberalism.

The cultural nationalism serves as an enticement to the Hindu majority and the neoliberalism appeals to the upper-middle class, while the neoliberalism also stiffs those who are thus enticed but not really able to benefit from economic neoliberalism.

Pretty much the same toxic formula has been adopted by Bannon-Trump in the US, and by the Little Englander Brexit Tories in the UK (with whom Theresa May, the archetypal “woman without qualities”, has cast her lot, despite having voted Remain in the referendum on EU membership).   It’s one big con, and so far, it’s been working.

The leader of the BJP and the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is praised in the mainstream media for his policies on development, but his achievement, both as Prime Minister since 2014 and the Chief Minister of Gujarat before that, has been to raise GDP with no corresponding increase in the standard indicators of human well-being.

In fact, there have been declines in some key indicators, which is hardly surprising, given that Modi has boosted the private sector by slashing social spending.  (Modi’s slogan for the upcoming elections: “A thumping victory for total development”.)

Under the BJP, big industry and agriculture, thanks to significant corporate tax reductions, privatizations, and the weakening of environmental regulations where industry and larger-scale agriculture are concerned, have flourished at the expense of small farmers, daily wage labourers, construction workers, and farm labourers.

A previous freeze on GMO crops has also been lifted, much to the delight of Monsanto and Beyer.

The less privileged have been fobbed-off with the BJP’s “Clean India” campaign, involving a raft of sanitation measures (in lieu of actual spending on healthcare), including an attempt to stamp out defecation in public by building more toilets.

The rich people get the real goodies, the dirty poor are made to clean up their act, albeit with a little help from their government.  Shades of Victorian England, with its missionary zeal for improving the hygiene of the impoverished masses (while cramming the most indigent of them into poor houses).

This skewed policy outlook was very much in evidence in the recent demonetization scandal.  A lot of the activities associated with India’s shadow economy involve transactions using 500 and 1000 rupee notes.  Many of these activities are deemed by the government to be criminal.

On 9 November 2016 Modi made a televised speech at 8.15pm, saying that at midnight the same day the 500 and 1000 rupee notes would no longer be legal tender, and would have to be exchanged for the equivalent denominations in a new currency.

Immediate chaos ensued, as banks ran out of the new notes, and liquidity bottlenecks jammed-up key economic sectors.

Especially hard hit were the rural poor, who tend to hold whatever savings they have in hard cash, and did not have enough time to make long journeys to the banks in towns and cities to exchange their cash holdings for the new currency.  Those unable to do this in time were wiped-out financially.

Demonetization was publicized as a populist gesture directed at the ill-gotten gains of the rich.  However, the well-off, unsurprisingly, had the resources and know-how to avoid the inconveniences and traps encountered by the poor when the currency change was implemented.

Employers off-loaded their old currency by paying their employees a year in advance, thereby placing the onus on the latter to make the requisite exchanges for the new currency.

Immediate purchases of jewellery, gold, and other high-value items were made in the old rupee notes, ensuring in this way that personal stocks of equivalent value remained despite demonetization.

Direct cash transfers to relatives in foreign countries also preserved these stocks of value, by placing them in the temporary custody of relatives in the form of US, Australian, or Canadian dollars, British sterling, or the currencies of the Gulf States.

If you were Indian and had a fair amount of money at the time of Modi’s speech, this was a good time to have a daughter or son in Palo Alto, Dubai, Toronto, Sydney, or Birmingham, England.

The demonetization debacle has however barely dented Modi’s consistently high ratings in the opinion polls. This is based on the perception that he is competent, and has so far avoided the more obvious kinds of venality.   In any event, the bar for this had already been set pretty low by the rival Congress party which ruled India since independence.

Gorging itself on decades in power, the Congress party, beholden to political dynasties at every level– beginning with the Nehruvian dynasty at the top (though largely going by the name of Gandhi once Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi took over) — became a byword for corruption, nepotism, and clientelism.  When discussing specific Indian politicians with people at my academic conference the term “goonda (thug) politician” was much used.

Modi, by contrast, is known to be frugal and unostentatious (except when it comes to fashionable clothes) in his personal life.  A few instances of corruption apart, the BJP is widely perceived to follow Modi’s personal example.  But the story does not end here.

Hindutva at its core is a form of authoritarian communalism, and Modi, without actually falling foul of the law, had a highly troubling record in his handling of the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat.  He has been cleared of complicity in the riots by the judicial system, but at the same time it is clear he sat on his hands in his capacity as Chief Minister while Muslim-majority areas were ethnically cleansed by gangs of Hindus.

During the 2002 riots, Modi effectively did what Brits call a “Nelson”, a reference to the famous admiral Horatio Nelson who originated the phrase “turning a blind eye”.  Nelson, having lost an eye early in his naval career, was ordered to retreat by his commander during the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801.  In those pre-radio days communication between ships was by a system of signal-flags, and Nelson ignored his commander’s order by putting his telescope to his blind eye when the flag for a retreat was hoisted on the commander’s ship.

If Nelson’s act could be considered brave (he won the Battle of Copenhagen, and his over-cautious superior who ordered the retreat got the sack and was replaced by the intrepid Nelson), Modi’s turning a blind eye to ethnic cleansing can only be viewed as an act of cowardice or much worse.

The BJP’s combination of communalism and neoliberalism is not going to work for India.

Hindutva, like white nationalism in the US, is a fabulation, albeit with real effects, some of them disastrous.  This fabulation is incapable of dealing with the problems of a vast multi-ethnic country with a complex society.

At the same time, neoliberalism– the quintessential ideology of the 1%– is not going to meet the needs of those who are much more likely to be its victims than its beneficiaries.

A striking sight at any restaurant or commercial establishment here is the ample presence of attendants, retainers, door-openers, bag carriers, sweepers, and so forth.  Some seem barely able-bodied.

The academic economists, in their “objective” social-scientific way, call this phenomenon “disguised unemployment”, while their corporate counterparts use the terms “over-staffing” or “over-manning”.  In the west, these employees are invariably viewed as a drag on profits and given the boot in the name of “efficiency”.

Call it what one may, there is something deeply humane about this way of employing people.  Every human being has the right to a decent life, and for most people in capitalist societies a job is the minimal enabling condition for having this life.

The practice of sharing work, for this is what it is, is a superior alternative to the dog-eat-dog neoliberal world of atomized “gig” jobs, “zero hours” contracts, and so on– the kind of world Narendra Modi wants for India.

What the west, and not just India, needs is in fact the massive extension of work-sharing, buttressed by a basic income.

The expansion and deepening of solidaristic networks, and practices based on mutualism and cooperation, is the only alternative to barbarism.

Striving for this is much more significant and far-reaching than fretting about whether you’ll have a Muslim or Pole (or union member!) as your new neighbour when the people next door move house.

Fox News, the Daily Mail and Daily Express, as well as the Bannon-Trumps and Theresa Mays of this world, would rather you fretted in this way and voted accordingly.  This, after all, is their best chance of remaining in power.

Fascistization Crashing Down: Driving the Cleaver into Social Welfare

Counterpunch - Mon, 02/20/2017 - 03:57

Trump is Hitler with golden locks. Skip the polite discourse, this is the real thing. We’ve already seen in one short month what the future holds in store: the going after social decency as a nation with a vengeance, a gutting of all that signifies a democratic society and its possibilities.

Here let’s focus on one segment of the record, the nitty-gritty of domestic humiliation and continued suffering of the poor. Mike Mulvaney, an obsessed, pathological cutter of social spending, was confirmed last Thursday as White House budget director (with little fight from the Democrats, a now familiar pattern, under Schumer, of compromise and complicity with the most retrograde forces seen in decades). Targeted for elimination right off the bat are the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Legal Services Corporation, AmeriCorps, and the National Endowment for the Arts and the Humanities—these for starters, and presumably symbolic to the Right of godless communism intended to brainwash America, and worse, detract from rising military budgets.

When one goes below the surface, to more gutting of social priorities, a naked Capitalist State is fast surfacing from the carnage, the rise of a narrowly based, hierarchical, billionaire-directed political order. This is not a nameless, undetected development, Stephen Miller, Paul Winfree, Peter Navarro, in addition to Mulvaney, all leading the charge in this one tight area. And that is but the tip of the iceberg—Black Shirts underneath pin-striped navy business suits. Cruelty is built-into the selection process, raw hatred of and contempt for the poor, such as the proposed scrapping of the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation.

Fix upon the construction of a massive class state, precisely at a time when the world cries out for the eradication of poverty, misery, needless death, all following from current policy, by design, malicious to the extreme. Throw Peter Navarro into the mix, with the National Trade Council, and you find the bridge to Bannon and the nationalistic power-crazies making the Trump presidency a unified expression of fascism pure and simple, no redeeming features. The ax swings wide, such as destroying—despite protestations of antidrug policies—the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Cut, cut, cut, wherever sanity once reigned. All of this, as I noted, is simultaneous with the planned enlargement of the military—military foundations of a class order with dictatorial ambitions for shaping the global system.

Scapegoats follow. China is the new Russia, where anything goes for the sake of confrontation. Restricting imports is less for its own sake, whether with respect to China or elsewhere, than the mood of subservience to be inculcated into the populace under the leadership of an army of CEOs floating their corporate banners into the NEW DAY, one where every nation will fear an omnivorous, all-mighty United States of America. All hail mighty Caesar.