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Update from Madaya

Counterpunch - Fri, 03/24/2017 - 04:46

The United Nations has recently reported that nearly one million Syrians now live under siege, a figure that is up from 393,000 Syrians at the same time last year. “Horror is now usual,” UN Emergency Relief coordinator Stephen O’Brien said in a November statement before the UN Security Council in New York. “It is a level of violence and destruction that the world appears to consider normal for Syria and normal for the Syrian people.”

Four year old Manal and three year old Mohamand-Kamal shown above in better days. Since July 2015 with an airtight encirclement reinforced by thousands of landmines. The result continues to be widespread starvation, with residents surviving on foliage and scraps. Like literally hundreds among the thousands of children still trapped in Madaya, the children are fading and weakening from malnutrition and related illnesses without much to eat for many months. More about Manal and Kamal at: Will proxy politics bring death for Madaya siblings Manal and Mohammed-Kamal? (Above photo of Manal and Kamal courtesy of Sahar, mother of the babies. She has not seen them for nearly one year)

A total of 56 Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) trucks, in coordination with the United Nations (UN) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) finally entered nearly two years long besieged Madaya last week.

After five months with very little to eat, almost no medicines or medical care, the 40,000 residents of Madaya, a former holiday destination for many in Syria, Lebanon and the Gulf, located 26km northwest of Damascus received some international aid. On 3/15.2017 7,800 food packages that included canned beans and hummus, lunch meat, peas, cooking oil, olive oil, thyme, beans, sugar, rice lentils, bulgur and flour arrived. No fuel or cooking gas was included in the aid delivery, although Madaya residents regularly request these much needed items. Some basic medicines were allowed in and children’s medicines, mineral salts, vitamins, anti-inflammation medication and limited surgical supplies.

Unfortunately, for the dozens of Madaya residents in active kidney failure due to malnutrition, dialysis supplies, which have long been urgently requested of the UN to treat scores of Madaya residents like Manal and Kamal shown above, did not arrive.

According to ICRC spokeswoman Ingy Sedky, last week: “The people of Madaya have been suffering for years and there must be a regularity to bring them aid that can save their lives,” “Waiting four or five months is not a solution.” The ICRC is “keeping a dialogue” open with the Syrian regime in order to regulate access Sedky said adding that “an aid delivery every now and then will never solve the problem.”

Madaya Local Council Representative Firas al-Hussein, among others has reported that Shia militia fighters from a few countries still surrounding Madaya are shooting residents who approach food distribution points set up recently by the UN, ICRC and SARCS. Mr. al-Hussein advised this observer a few days ago that “sectarian snipers from four countries shoot at anyone who tries to reach the distribution centers.”

As a result, the local council has been forced to stop distributing food parcels to nearly half of the 40,000 residents in the besieged town, which received its first UN-sponsored aid delivery in nearly six months on March 14, 2017. Of the six residents who were shot trying to approach and collect a family box of aid, two are dead, and one is comatose, claims Mr. al-Hussein.

He added that “The snipers, who ring the town along with thousands of landmines, shoot at anyone who attempts to flee from their blockade.”

Even since fighters surrounded the former resort town in July 2015, more than 20 Madaya residents have been killed by snipers and landmines, according to a July 2016 report by Physicians for Human Rights.

The above warehouse in north Madaya, was reportedly hit by artillery shells on March 15. An increasingly common “surrender of starve” vaporization of food and medicines. Photo courtesy of Firas al-Hussein.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which helped deliver the aid on 3/14/2017, has not commented on the shootings. They claim that if they do they may be expelled from Syria, so reports al-Hussein.

If the sniping continues, local council members plan to begin distributing the remaining food packages in the middle of the night. So far, as noted above, six residents have been shot by snipers. Two have died and one is lying in the hospital, comatose. One man, from neighboring Baqin, was shot when the UN convoy entered. The next day, while the aid trucks were unloading the supplies, several young men were shot.

Local media has reported that residents are being targeted not just by snipers but also by artillery fire. When asked by this observer how has this affected the local council’s ability to distribute aid packages to residents, one resident replied: “We have not distributed any food packages to the northern section of the town because snipers are shooting at anyone who tries to reach the distribution centers. Residents are targeted by artillery fire, too.”

The local council did distribute aid to the southern part of the city since that area cannot be seen by the snipers.

A major problem getting “safe aid” into Madaya is the much criticized violation of international humanity law tip for tat arrangement known as the “Four Towns Agreement.”
During September 2015, residents of Madaya and Zabadani, two regime-encircled towns in Outer Damascus, and al-Fuaa and Kafariya, two rebel-encircled towns in Idlib province, signed on to the

“Four Towns Agreement,” which stipulates that all aid deliveries and medical evacuations occur simultaneously across the four towns. Medical evacuations, whether due to injuries from sniper fire or life-threatening illness, would not take place unless a similar evacuation occurred on the other side. Because the towns are linked, any attacks on al-Fuaa and Kafariya by rebels can lead to increased shelling and sniper fire in Madaya, and vice versa. This is currently the norm.

Local Madaya council employees are planning to deliver the food packages in the middle of the night under cover of darkness but it’s a risky plan, and they may lose their lives since snipers are posted in the surrounding hills many with night telescopic sights and with a range of 1,500+ yards.

But as of 3/24/2017 this is the only way to distribute aid to Madaya residents, who have run out of most food months ago.

The 18,000 Madaya residents who have still not received food packages will suffer because of the delays in distribution. According to the ICRC, about 95 percent of them don’t have bread, sugar, salt, ghee or vegetables. Some might risk their lives in order to feed their children. One imagines that if a child is starving and crying, and food is only a handful of meters away, of course his father will try to go to the warehouse. He’ll risk getting shot by a militia sniper just to get a case of flour to feed his children.

Moreover, the aid that does enter Madaya and gets distributed to families will only last for about one month, two at most according to the UN. Residents will suffer even more once the food runs out, not knowing when another aid delivery while be allowed in or whether snipers will shoot the civilians trying to receive some from the distribution point.

In a statement last week, Dr. Darwish reported: “Living in Madaya, I feel like I’m in a black hole trapped outside time and space. We’re so far removed from the rest of the world. No one can feel what we’ve felt. No one can suffer like we’ve suffered. Maybe those who are outside Madaya don’t believe us when we say that people are regularly dying of hunger here. Every single day, you’ll see people—young and old—sifting through the garbage just to find nylon bags, cardboard or trash that they can burn to stay warm.”

Syrian hero Dr. Mohammad Darwish, above shown looking across the Qalamoun Mountain town of Madaya is a dental student. He is one of three remaining medical professionals, working by themselves the past nearly three years. The two others are a dental student and a veterinarian.

Yet again, largely staying on the sidelines for political and security reasons, while hundreds of civilians are cowering under life threatening sieges and blockings of food, water and medicines, each of us and the UN and “International Community” have yet again failed the people Syria.

Federal Scientists Find Delta Tunnels Plan Will Devastate Salmon

Counterpunch - Fri, 03/24/2017 - 04:45

Governor Jerry Brown and administration officials claim that the California WaterFix, a controversial plan to build two 35-mile long tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, is based on “science.”
“The best scientific thinking says California needs the project,” Governor Brown told Dan Morain, Sacramento Bee editorial page editor in an interview in December of 2016. (www.sacbee.com/…)

However, federal scientists strongly disagree with Brown’s claim that “best scientific thinking” supports the construction of the tunnels. In fact, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has released a draft biological opinion documenting the harm the tunnels would cause to salmon, steelhead, Delta and longfin smelt, other fish and wildlife species, and water quality.

An independent peer review panel found the NMFS findings are backed by “comprehensive analyses, new data, and modeling,” according to a statement from the Golden Gate Salmon Association (GGSA). The panel further found NMFS used the “best available science” and produced evidence of “significant adverse impacts” to species and critical habitat, including unacceptable harm to salmon.

The draft biological opinion is available here.

Based on new scientific data documenting that the California WaterFix project would worsen water and habitat conditions for migrating Central Valley salmon, GGSA said it opposes the tunnels plan as “currently envisioned.”

“The NMFS science and the peer review both make clear the current twin tunnels proposal will likely drive the salmon to extinction and will harm other wildlife. GGSA has no option but to oppose this project,” said John McManus, GGSA executive director.

Some of the many problems highlighted in the NMFS report are the following:

• The heavy flow through the fish screens at the giant water intakes in the Sacramento River, located just downstream of Sacramento, could impinge the juvenile salmon to the screens where they will perish.

• Those that survive impingement and are stressed or injured will be subject to heavy predation.

• The Sacramento River below the screens will be reduced to a relative trickle. The tiny salmon need strong flows to push them downstream. Without that, more predation and heavy losses will result.

• Lower flows downstream of the intakes will cause more juvenile salmon lost to the interior Delta through the Delta Cross Channel and Georgiana Slough.

• A major decrease of freshwater downstream of the intakes will also highly degrade water quality, resulting in increased contaminants and decreased food sources.

“The models used to gauge the damage to salmon showed a zero percent chance the tunnels would help winter-run Chinook salmon,” noted McManus. “Instead the modeling showed a slow steady decline towards extinction for these salmon if the tunnels are built and operated as currently envisioned.”

NMFS scientists forecast increases in winter run Chinook redd (nest) dewatering (page 78) and spring run Chinook redd (nest) dewatering (page 86) on the Sacramento River if the tunnels are built.

The NMFS report also highlights two upstream issues of concern to anglers and public trust advocates:

• Salmon egg and alevin mortality on the American River under the tunnels project “clearly” results in adverse effects on fall run salmon, the mainstay of the sport and commercial fishing industries.

• Increased loss of federally protected winter and spring run salmon will occur from dewatering of their incubating eggs in upstream river gravels.

“This project will not only destroy the salmon, but it also threatens the jobs of the thousands of people who depend on healthy salmon runs, including fishermen, tackle shops, boat shops, launch ramp operators, marinas, and many others,” said GGSA director Mike Aughney. “It’s time to admit this version of the tunnel idea won’t work. There’s no doubt the status quo is very bad for salmon, but this giant twin tunnels proposal obviously isn’t the answer.”

GGSA secretary Dick Pool added, “The State Water Board’s update of the water quality control plan, including new flow standards to protect salmon, water quality, and the health of the delta, also needs to be completed before any tunnel project can be properly considered and designed.”

The Governor continues to promote his tunnels as recreational, commercial and Tribal fishermen face reduced ocean and inland salmon seasons this year. Pre-season numbers unveiled by Dr. Michael O’Farrell of the National Marine Fisheries Service at a meeting in Santa Rosa on March 1 estimate only 230,700 Sacramento River fall run Chinook adults and 54,200 Klamath River fall run adults will be in the ocean this year.

Both forecasts are lower than those of recent years, with the forecast for Klamath fall run being among the lowest on record. Ocean regulatory management for salmon fisheries on the ocean from Cape Falcon in Oregon to the Mexico-US Border is heavily based on these runs.

The Delta Tunnels will also have a huge detrimental impact on Delta smelt, a state and federally listed endangered species, including reducing the available habit for smelt, migration, spawning and rearing.

“The PA will result in substantial adverse effects by the constriction/reduction in available habitat to delta smelt that support the migration, spawning, transport, and rearing processes that are necessary for reproduction and therefore survival of the species,” the report states. (page 251)

The document also states, “The delta smelt population will be most affected by the constriction and reduction in the quantity and quality of available suitable habitat to rearing juveniles and adult spawners. Their habitat size will be greatly reduced from restricted access in the north, altered flows in the south Delta, and interior Delta movements of the LSZ. The quality of habitat will be further degraded by small changes in salinity, water temperature, water clarity, food supply, Microcystis, and selenium under the PA.” (Page 260)

Delta smelt, longfin smelt and other fish species continue to remain at the edge of extinction. The Delta smelt has not yet become extinct, but the numbers of fish collected in the fall 2016 midwater trawl survey conducted by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) remained alarmingly low.

This is in spite of improved precipitation last winter and spring, followed by a very wet fall that should have resulted in much higher numbers of smelt surviving.

The Delta smelt index, a relative measure of abundance, survey was 8, the second lowest in history. Seven Delta smelt were collected in November – and none were collected in September, October, or December, according to a memo from James White, environmental scientist for the CDFW’s Bay Delta Region, to Scott Wilson, Regional Manager of the Bay Delta Region.

From 1967 through 2015, populations of striped bass, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, American shad, splittail and threadfin shad declined by 99.7, 98.3, 99.9, 97.7, 98.5 and 93.7 percent, respectively, according to Bill Jennings, Executive Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA).

While Governor Jerry Brown and other state officials proclaim that the Delta Tunnels project will “restore” the Delta ecosystem, they revealed their real plans when the administration applied for a permit to kill winter-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, Delta and longfin smelt and other endangered species with the project.

On October 7, 2016, California Department of Water Resources (DWR) submitted an “incidental take” application for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) in “compliance” with the California Endangered Species Act (CESA) in order to build the Delta Tunnels.

The NMFS draft biological opinion confirms and expands upon what previous scientific reviews of the Delta Tunnels project, including a scathing 43-page report by the U.S. EPA in August 2014, have already documented – that the project, rather than restore the ecosystem, is likely to harm water quality and further imperil struggling populations of salmon, steelhead and other fish species in Central Valley rivers, the San Francisco Bay-Delta and the ocean.

The EPA diagnosis revealed that operating the proposed conveyance facilities “would contribute to increased and persistent violations of water quality standards in the Delta, set under the Clean Water Act,” and that the tunnels “would not protect beneficial uses for aquatic life, thereby violating the Clean Water Act.”

The Delta Tunnels project is based on the absurd assumption that diverting more water out of a river and estuary will somehow “restore” that river and estuary. In addition to hastening the extinction of Sacramento River Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, Delta and longfin smelt and green sturgeon, the California WaterFix also threatens already imperiled salmon and steelhead on the Trinity and Klamath rivers.

The Gig Economy: Which Side Are You On?

Counterpunch - Fri, 03/24/2017 - 04:44

The tall good looking New Yorker, about 25, stands out in the crowd around me. His black curly hair shines, his head raised expectantly, his smile so unlike the people around us peering anxiously into their handheld devices.

I’ll learn before my trip ends that this warm faced lad’s name is Dijon.

Our fleeting association begins there on the platform waiting for the uptown #6 train. Initially his smile attracts me; then my gaze rises beyond his face to a shimmering red and silver flag; it’s actually a balloon waving above us, and I know this belongs to Dijon. Seeing “Happy Anniversary” scrolled clearly on the shimmering surface, I think ‘He’s returning from an office party celebrating his marriage’. That would explain his smile too.

I’m distracted by a growl from the mouth of the tunnel, a welcome noise to commuters at the end of their workday. Here comes the #6 train. The platform, dense with thick-coated bodies, begins to stir, prepared to press into the cars. Forget about a seat; I may not even find standing room. At 4:30 p.m., the rush of workers heading uptown to their homes—one room, maybe two, three at the most, somewhere in the Upper East Side, Spanish Harlem or the Bronx– has begun.

I am unconcerned how Dijon, with his unwieldy balloon and the large carton cradled in his arms, manages to maneuver himself into the train as thirty other commuters lurch through that single door. Then, doors safely closed behind us, I see that same balloon. And, there beside me, our backs similarly pressed against the door, stands its bearer with the same quiet smile.

As this isn’t my regular route, I must check on where I should disembark and, of course, I look up towards the anniversary flag: “Does the #6 stop at 84th street?” His voice is soft and reassuring: “We stop at 86th— good for you. But you know you could have taken the #5 express across the platform; you’d reach in just two strops by the five.”

Never mind; with this friendly opener I proceed with my inevitable interview, probing my travel companion’s agenda and introducing me to another New York lifestyle experience. “Your anniversary?” I inquire. “How many years?” “Oh no”, Dijon quickly rejoins, glancing at the balloon above us: “I’m delivering this: Edible Arrangements. We’re a party service (I’ll Google it later.) Nodding to the package in his arms now, he explains this service for family celebrations; “They get the balloon and our fruit package — chunks of fresh pineapple, melon, apple, stuff like that– arranged on sticks all poking out of a big orange. It’s really pretty, done up like a bouquet.”

And do you sing as you present this gift? “No, no”, and pausing, adds  “But I could sing”.

It occurs to me that Dijon may in fact be a talented vocalist– a singer, an actor, a performer of some kind. He’s probably one of the tens of thousands of gifted young people drawn to the city in search of gigs on stage, hunting for an agent, waiting to be discovered. Yes, that explains his bearing. I miss that cue, and instead ask about his ‘edible’ services; it’s a lifestyle service, the pampering of well-to-dos and trend-obsessed young people who socialize with indulgences, like hand delivered balloons and fruit baskets. “For say $50?”, I guess. “Hmm”, replies Dijon; “$50 and up.”

I think: what could he earn for one delivery (remembering he has to travel by subway)? Maybe $10. I can’t ask him directly, but I manage “And tips? Do your happy anniversaries tip well?” Another “Hmmm” from Dijon. “No tips: not usually.”

(No point inquiring about health insurance or workman’s compensation.)

These delivery gigs today employ battalions of young and energetic do-anything-to-live-in-New Yorkers. Would-be actors, comedians and musicians traditionally wait tables and serve drinks in the city’s many bars. But those jobs are now augmented by these delivery services which employ jobless graduates and anyone else willing to serve those who can pay, however indulging and frivolous the service. What’s offered are sometimes routine and tedious (house-cleaning, dog walking), at other times exotic and terribly fashionable (you can’t imagine).

Subway advertisements abound with invitations to do something special for yourself, or a loved one—all by phone apps, and like Uber– delivered personally by a young man or woman at your door. Handy.com, delivery.com, taskrabbit, upwork.com blueapron.com, redbucket.com, deliveroo.com are just a few examples of what’s available.

It’s the gig economy; on one hand it’s emerging from excessive  joblessness, a serious condition finally receiving attention from workers rights advocates t5= On the other hand it’s created by people with abundant disposable incomes. It’s based on both desperation and trendyness. Servitude is a growth industry in American cities. Ediblearrangements.com and bueapron.com are New York chic.

The fashion crowd—i.e. those with monthly salaries, health insurance, social security savings and a company pension fund— chat in the bar or at office break about these trendy services, similar, one imagines, to how white ladies chatted about their domestic ‘help’.

The Sunday Lifestyle section of your newspaper features the merits of blueapron.com fashion. Meanwhile less noticed reviews expose the inbuilt exploitation and the hardships lived by these young workers.

Doubtless some of the tens of thousands of wishful, handsome jobless graduates, come away from their glimpses inside those wealthy apartments to whom they delivered massages and fruit bouquets, gather after hours to invent their own startup service. Maybe they themselves can launch the next trend.

No one is thinking about workers rights. In fact a new adjunct trend is umbrella recruitment companies. They locate, vet and sign up individuals who they then farm out for hour and day jobs. In the UK this service extends to school teachers—all to save someone else money.   END

Marines to Kill Desert Tortoises

Counterpunch - Fri, 03/24/2017 - 04:43

Desert Tortoise. Photo by the author.

This spring, if all goes as planned, the Marines will kill hundreds of de,,,,,sert tortoises in southern California. This is not the first such tortoise kill, but it could very well set a new record-high number.

This assault was originally scheduled for last spring, in 2016 (with the full approval of the Obama administration), and was put off for a year only because of a lawsuit filed by an environmentalist organization. Now, with all chances for legal appeal passed, it is set to commence in late March or April in the Mojave Desert.

So what’s the story?

In 2013, Congress voted to expand the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, California—which was already the largest Marine base in the world—by annexing 88,000 acres (about 136 square miles) from the Bureau of Land Management’s Johnson Valley Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Area, to the west of the base in the Mojave Desert.

This area is part of the ancestral home of the Desert Tortoise (Gopherus agassizii), a species that has lived there for many thousands of years, since the days when it was wetter. As the climate gradually dried out, the tortoise adapted by spending more time underground. In our contemporary age, they are in their burrows over 90% of the time! In the spring, when wildflowers brought by winter rains are flourishing, the tortoises emerge to eat and mate. They generally live 35-50 years, with reports of particular specimens reaching 80.

Though Desert Tortoises thrived at populations of up to 1000 individuals per square mile at the beginning of the 20th Century, their numbers have fallen drastically since then. Human activities are to blame including ranching, roads, agriculture, industry, military operations, off-highway recreation (“wreckreation”), urban encroachment, and in recent years, solar and wind projects. Also, with Global Warming, the climate is changing faster than the tortoise can adapt. In the last decade, the tortoise population has fallen by 50% in the western Mojave Desert, where the Twentynine Palms Marine base is located.

Desert Tortoises are listed as “threatened with extinction” by the federal government. Because of this status, it is illegal for anyone—even the military—to “harm” or “harass” them. The Marines plan to use the annex for training with tanks and live ammunition, which would certainly result in both harm and harassment, so they sought to move the tortoises somewhere else, although this too would cause harm and harassment. After a legal delay of one year forced upon them by the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group based in Tucson, Arizona, the Marines now have the go-ahead to start “translocating” the animals, as soon as late March.

This is where the killing starts.

There is enough data from attempted tortoise translocations in the past to make estimates about how this latest effort will go. Though the rates of survival have varied from project to project, they are often no better than 50%. (See Desert Tortoise Recovery: Science and Politics Clash.) This particular translocation at the Twentynine Palms base will be the largest so far attempted, of over 1100 animals. So it would not be surprising if at least 500 deaths resulted, and perhaps far more.

This number includes about 900 adult animals (of 180mm in size or larger) who were tagged with radio-transmitters as they were found over the last three years. An additional 235 were too small for transmitters and were moved to the base where the Marines have been raising them. (So some tortoises have already been disturbed.)

How are the tortoises found in the first place and what’s it look like to round them up? For an answer to this question, I contacted Laura Cunningham, a biologist who works with Basin & Range Watch and who has participated in tortoise translocation projects herself. She also detailed how other animals are affected when tortoises are removed. It is worth quoting her at length:

“Here is the basic mechanics of tortoise translocation: after placing tortoise exclusion fencing around a project, biologists do a ‘Clearance Survey’ which entails dozens of biologists walking in straight lines criss-crossing the project area, all carefully walking a certain length apart and following GPS coordinates. Any tortoise found above ground is radio-transmittered [if it hasn’t been already] and carefully moved into transport boxes and readied for translocation (which is going to be partly by helicopter for 29 Palms Marine Base). Each biologist carries a shovel. All burrows encountered are dug out to locate any tortoise underground. These tortoises are also carefully removed. Two or three sweeps are needed usually to find all the adults. Even then sometimes a few are missed and found later. Many of the tiny juvenile tortoises are missed, those the size of a silver dollar—they are crushed in machinery later or buried alive or impacted later during tank maneuvers.

“Digging out burrows of this keystone species, the tortoise, is difficult because it ripples across the desert ecosystem: so many other species depend on the digging abilities of the tortoise with its long front claws. Burrowing owls, rattlesnakes, lizards, tarantulas, and other species utilize the burrows. They must be dealt with as well. Rattlesnakes are left in the desert to fend for themselves. Burrowing owls are being given increasingly careful attention, if their sign is found at a burrow, the owls are watched to see when they fly out and the burrow is closed up so they cannot return. The idea is to try to get the owls to move away to another location outside the area. But I am not sure anyone has a good idea how many burrowing owls die when they are flushed from their burrow and become homeless. There are new agency guidelines to try to limit impacts to this species, which also may need federal listing under the ESA [Endangered Species Act] as it too is declining.

“Desert kit foxes dig their own burrows, but biologists must dig out those burrows to in case a tortoise is living there. So kit foxes are also displaced, and guidelines are followed to try to make this enforced homelessness have the least impacts as possible. But again, little studied. A canine distemper outbreak happened on the Genesis Solar Energy Project in the Chuckwalla Valley, killing some. Coyotes and badgers are also displaced. In parts of southern Nevada and eastern California deserts, rare Gila monsters are displaced from burrows as well.”

Additionally, the areas into which the tortoises are to be moved seem less than ideal as they already host tortoise populations that are in decline. According to Ileene Anderson, a biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity whom I contacted for this story, the reasons for this decline are not entirely known but include elements that can be controlled such as grazing, off-road recreation and predation and others that are more difficult to control such as drought and disease. “Until the controllable ones are controlled,” Anderson said, “it does not bode well for the translocated or resident tortoises since they will now be competing for resources.”

Two animals that are commonly predators of tortoises are coyotes and ravens, who are both native to the Mojave Desert too. According to the Press Enterprise, the Marines have already announced that if coyotes are a problem, they will shoot them. According to the LA Times, some have already been “removed” by state wildlife authorities.

As I was finishing this story, I got word through Basin & Range Watch that the Marines at the Twentynine Palms base are hosting Coyote hunts on March 25th and 26th. The Marines’ announcement stated: “The purpose of the depredation program is to reduce the numbers of coyotes that are unnaturally inflated in the local area due to human subsidies. Elevated coyote numbers prove a safety risk to residents, and are a significant factor in the mortality of the desert tortoise.” The response to this news by Basin & Range Watch reads, in part: “The so-called mitigation of killing coyotes is a false action that will not help recover the tortoise, and will only disrupt desert ecosystems more. Coyotes are a native, natural species that belong to the Mojave Desert. Tanks, Humvees, bombing, live-fire exercises, and military maneuvers do not belong to the desert. The military has enough land to carry out tests and training, they do not need to keep expanding.”

The ravens might be luckier as they are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, though some have already been killed by “wildlife authorities.” The LA Times ran a story about how the Marines plan to use non-harmful lasers to scare the ravens away. The article also said that “the anti-raven arsenal” “includes ‘techno-tortoises’: highly realistic replicas of baby tortoises that, when pecked or bitten, emit irritants derived from grape juice concentrate, a chemical compound already used to keep birds from congregating on agricultural fields and commercial centers.” However, as John Marzluff, a wildlife biologist at the University of Washington and expert on raven behavior who was quoted in the same Times article said: “My concerns are that we don’t really know how long these forms of aversion therapy will last among raven populations, which are very clever at responding to challenges.” And then what? More killing?

Not all of the tortoises will be subject to translocation. Some will be subject to staying, to face the tanks and live ammunition. Any tortoises that show signs of communicable disease will be left behind, so as not to infect healthy tortoises in the new area. Anderson estimates these would number 100 or less. She thinks that the Marines “might” monitor these animals to see if they survive.

Summing up the desert tortoise’s plight, Ileene Anderson said that “this species is continuing to decline throughout its range, and continually decreasing its habitat—whether that be through military expansions or other types of development—will only be detrimental to recovery efforts, because the tortoise needs habitat in order to survive, just like every other species on the planet.”

* * *

Militarism is problematic, to say the very very least, for many many reasons. We might first mourn the human casualties, of course; those killed, maimed or made homeless or stateless. We might also think of the cities turned to rubble, with their art and history buried or burned. We might consider, too, the immense monetary cost of all of it, and how every bomb is, in a very real way, stealing food out of someone’s mouth or a roof from over their heads. But rarely do we consider the affected ecosystems and their inhabitants. (One exception is this excellent article by Joshua Frank: Afghanistan: Bombing the Land of the Snow Leopard.)

Unfortunately, the military is seeking to expand into other desert areas (such as in Nevada). In protesting or attempting to curtail these expansions, I would hope to see some collaboration between activists who oppose war and those who support animal rights.

* * *

How the Media Whitewashes Stories Like This

An AP story about the planned translocation from Twentynine Palms ends with the sentence, “Critics say the move will devastate the threatened species.” Considering the facts, this way of putting it is pretty flip and really only just short of dismissive. Which is why I titled this piece, “Headlines should read, ‘Marines to Kill Tortoises’.” Because it’s a fact that they will and somebody ought to just say it.

When we speak of the bias of the corporate media, we are referring to multiple aspects. In general, there is bias in favor of the wealthy, the conventional and the institutional and against the poor, unconventional and the individual. For example, anyone who has ever attended a boisterous protest and then watched the TV coverage of it afterwards will have noticed the corporate media bias against protesters and in favor of the police. If the police attacked the protesters, this will almost assuredly be described as, “protesters clashed with police.”

There is also a bias in the media in favor of stressing stated intent and brushing aside likely consequences when the consequences will be negative. This one is subtle but universal. As far as the media’s point of view is concerned, it’s not that tortoises are sure to die, it’s only that the Marines plan to move them, and, it is implied, move them safely. But it is sure that tortoises will die. Just as it is sure that civilians will be killed when cities are bombed, even if the intent is “humanitarian” and the targets “terrorists.”

“Collateral” is the word typically used by the media to describe the deaths of civilians in warfare, and it would be their style to apply it to tortoises killed by translocation. Wiktionary defines this sense of that adjective as “being aside from the main subject, target, or goal; tangential, subordinate, ancillary.” But if such death is inevitable, how can it be separated from the “main subject”? How can it be considered “tangential”?

There is a fundamental dishonesty in every news story that presents stories in this fashion. It’s called “white-washing.” Because all our information is spoon-fed to us in this same sanitized way, we first of all never think about it and secondly, have little collective knowledge (and hence concern) about what’s going on in the world, and how the US and its policies affect other people, living things, and the planet at large.

It is a measure of our misbegotten privilege that we can live in such a state of denial at all, in a bubble. And it is violence that empowers that privilege in the first place. It is upon the graves of Indians and the whipped backs of slaves that the US gained its power and it is through the military and economic subjugation of much of the world at large that it is now sustained. There’s nothing “collateral” about any of the suffering and damage that results from this system.

What do the poor tortoises have to do with any of it? Nothing, obviously, but this is the way of empire, that they must suffer too.

What Caused the Holodomor?

Counterpunch - Fri, 03/24/2017 - 04:40

Three weeks ago, Grover Furr charged me with spreading fascist propaganda on CounterPunch because my film review of “Bitter Harvest” held Josef Stalin accountable for the famine in Ukraine in 1932-1933. Like the Australian theology professor Roland Boer who blogs at “Stalin’s Moustache”, Furr’s political life revolves around celebrating Stalin’s greatest achievements—such as they were. I advise my readers, especially younger ones, to visit “Stalin’s Moustache” and Furr’s website to get a handle on a school of thought that has largely died a natural death.

Instead of answering Furr’s attack, I will turn my attention to the historiography of Mark Tauger who he describes in a prefatory note as being a “world authority” on the famine. Since Tauger blames a severe drought for the deaths of between 2.5 to 7 million Ukrainians, it is understandable why he would be hoisted on the shoulders of both Grover Furr and Roger Annis, a Canadian leftist and occasional CounterPunch contributor who endorsed Tauger on his “New Cold War: Ukraine and Beyond” website as “One of the world’s leading scholars on the development of agriculture in the Soviet Union”. So, you get the picture. If you are in the business of representing Ukraine as a victim of Stalinist or Putinist colonial brutality, Tauger is essential for turning that victim into a criminal.

Around the time Furr wrote his article, I had already begun reading scholarly literature on the Holodomor including everything that Tauger had written on the topic. Despite his reputation as a leading authority on the famine, he has never written a book about it. At one time, he had an archive of his articles on the U. of West Virginia but they seemed to have mysteriously disappeared. One hopes that a Pravy Sektor hacker was not responsible.

Fortunately, my privileges as a Columbia University retiree has enabled me to read Tauger’s articles, including one titled “Natural Disaster and Human Actions in the Soviet Famine of 1931-1933” that can be accessed at the University of Pittsburgh Carl Beck Papers in Russian and Eastern European Studies.

I was surprised, but not overly so, to discover Tauger applying the same methodology to other famines in that article. If you are one of those leftists who blames British colonialism for the Potato Famine in Ireland, he will disabuse you of such foolish notions:

Consequently an understanding of the Soviet famine, and of the intense conflict between regime and peasants over grain procurements emphasized in most studies, requires an examination of the causes of those small harvests. Two examples from the vast historiography of famines demonstrates the legitimacy and importance of such an investigation. In the case of the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1851, a nationalist literature, similar to the Ukrainian nationalist literature on the Soviet famine, holds the British government responsible.

The British government responsible? No, we can’t have that. Nor was the British government responsible for the 1943 famine in Bengal, according to Tauger’s “The Indian Famine Crises of WWII”:

This “man-made” famine argument, however, rests on uncritical acceptance of one set of unreliable statistical data that Sen and others have incorrectly described as “production data.” As will be shown below, scholars who presented this view of the famine had clear evidence that discredited these data, but they did not acknowledge this conflicting evidence, let alone address its implications. As a result their discussions of the rice harvests in Bengal before the famine have misrepresented both the data and the causes of the famine. These scholars also claim that Bengal had no shortage of rice during the famine, yet they minimize or ignore environmental conditions that did in fact cause serious shortages. Much more reliable harvest data from rice research centers in Bengal during the famine show that Bengal had a major harvest failure in 1942 and a significant shortage of rice.

Of course, it is easy for some on the left to recoil at the idea that it was natural causes such as drought or blight rather than British colonialism that was responsible for the deaths of millions of Irish and Indians. Yet, when it comes to Ukraine, we are used to thinking the worst. If Victoria Nuland was on the phone with nationalist politicians prior to Euromaidan, it seems reasonable that Stalin was forced to unleash a brutal repression in the early 30s to prevent Hitler from invading Russia—or something like that.

Lenin had no problems making the connection between the colonial status of Ireland and Ukraine as indicated in a 1918 Open Letter to Boris Souvarine, a French Communist who had trouble distinguishing between oppressor and oppressed nations:

Socialists always side with the oppressed and, consequently, cannot be opposed to wars whose purpose is democratic or socialist struggle against oppression. It would therefore be absurd to deny the legitimacy of the wars of 1793, of France’s wars against the reactionary European monarchies, or of the Garibaldi wars, etc…. And it would be just as absurd not to recognise the legitimacy of wars of oppressed nations against their oppressors, wars that might break out today—rebellion of the Irish against England, for instance, rebellion of Morocco against France, or the Ukraine against Russia, etc….

Just about a year after Lenin wrote this letter, the Bolsheviks seized power and created the USSR. For the Ukrainians, this held out great promise since they carried out measures that could finally bring an end to the colonial oppression that had existed since the time of Catherine the Great. To start with, Ukraine—like all the other socialist republics—would have the right to secede. Just as importantly, the landed gentry would be expropriated and the land turned over to the peasants. Keeping in mind that that the demand for “Peace, Bread and Land” sparked the Bolshevik revolution, the third plank meant more to the Ukrainian than most Russians since national oppression and serfdom were intertwined under Czarism. The native Ukrainian tended to be a peasant whose language rights and culture were routinely violated. Communism marked a new day.

In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, Russia was plunged into a bloody civil war and forced to adopt “War Communism” that weighed more heavily on the peasant than other sectors of the population. Grain was impounded to feed the Red Army and the workers in the armaments industry who were needed to keep the counter-revolutionary invasion at bay. No matter how painful the Spartan regime, the peasant at least had title to his land.

After the war ended, Lenin persuaded the Communists to adopt the New Economic Policy that would allow private enterprise under strict controls to help revive the economy. In some ways, it was a forerunner to the model now adopted by the Cubans. Neither the Cuban nor the Russian revolutionary leaders were happy about tourist hotels and wealthy farmers (kulaks) gaining a foothold but their choices were limited.

Written 7 months before his death, Lenin’s article “On Cooperation” promoted the idea that peasant cooperatives were the most important way to carry the revolution forward. An alliance between the working class and small peasants organized in cooperatives was “all that is necessary to build a complete socialist society”. Especially because from the standpoint of transition to the new system, they were “the simplest, easiest and most acceptable to the peasant” (emphasis in the original). If anything, I would have had acceptable to the peasant in both italics and bold, had I been Lenin at the time.

When Lenin wrote this article, the Communist Party was dividing into two factions. The majority was co-led by Bukharin and Stalin who thought that the peasants should be given free rein. Bukharin, who was the architect of their program, wrote: “Overall, we need to say to the entire peasantry, to all its different strata: enrich yourselves, accumulate, develop your farms. Only idiots can say that the poor must always be with us. We must now implement a policy which will result in the disappearance of poverty.”

Trotsky formed a opposition on the basis that the Soviet Union needed to industrialize as rapidly as possible, which meant strengthening the hand of wage labor on the farms and the encouragement of collective farming. The 1927 Platform of the Joint Opposition urged that “The growth of land-renting must be offset by a more rapid development of collective farming.” Furthermore, despite the use of the term collective farming, it was clear that Trotsky and his comrades were simply endorsing the measures found in Lenin’s “On Cooperation”:

The task of socialist construction in the country is to reform agriculture on the basis of large-scale, mechanized, collective agriculture. For the bulk of the peasants the simplest road to this end is co-operation, as Lenin described it in his work On Co-operation. This is the enormous advantage which the proletarian dictatorship and the Soviet system as a whole gives to the peasant.

In other words, despite the slander directed against Trotsky as someone who “underestimated the peasantry”, there is little doubt that he was simply arguing in favor of policies proposed by Lenin, who Stalin tended to regard as the final word on everything (no matter that Lenin called for his removal from party leadership from his death-bed.)

Largely because of his bureaucratic control and the rapid influx of self-seeking elements into the party, Stalin could crush the opposition and allow the growth of an agrarian bourgeoisie that towards the end of the 20s began to assert its class power. Lurching leftward, Stalin moved against the peasantry in a manner that confused some of Trotsky’s supporters. Wasn’t Stalin adopting the program of the Left Opposition?

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Stalin’s forced march did not discriminate between rich and poor peasants. In the name of “liquidating the kulaks”, every peasant in the USSR was herded into state farms or collective farms, called sovkhozes and kolkhozes respectively. The state farms were conceived strictly as agrarian factories based on wage labor while the collective farms were collective in name only. The peasants forced to work on them were not even entitled to sell crops from their own private gardens in the marketplaces and were paid a wage tied to their output and, even more against the spirit of Lenin’s “acceptable to the peasant”, were chained to the kolkhoz that became a virtual concentration camp.

For the most exhaustive treatment of why they failed, you can read R.W. Davies and Stephen G. Wheatcroft’s 582-page “The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture 1931-1933” that considers Stalin’s policy throughout Russia. Despite not being focused on the Ukraine, it is the most authoritative account of why the famine took place there. Rejecting Tauger’s “the drought did it” argument specifically, they blame Stalin’s feckless and brutal forced collectivization for the death of millions, both Ukrainians and elsewhere.

Much of Davies and Wheatcroft is highly technical and overloaded with statistics but is worth consulting for the weight of the evidence. All of it leads to a conclusion that could not be further from Tauger’s monocausal explanation:

Collectivisation, coupled with dekulakisation, brought agriculture under state control. But its introduction brought with it enormous difficulties. These were partly inherent in the huge operation of moving 25 million individual peasant economies into a quarter of a million socialised collective farms. The difficulties were made worse by the inability of most communists, from Stalin to the party members sent into the countryside, to understand agriculture and the peasants, and offer sensible means of coping with the transformation of the countryside. In 1930, collectivisation proceeded at a breakneck pace, and impracticable schemes were enforced for the wholesale socialisation of livestock as well as grain. Even with a good harvest, the collective farmers were not guaranteed a minimum return for their work. Although some of the Utopian policies of 1930 were soon abandoned, in both 1931 and 1932 Stalin and the Politburo overestimated the harvest and imposed collection plans based on their misjudgment. Most agricultural difficulties were not attributed to mistakes in policy, or even treated as a necessary cost of industrialisation. Instead, the machinations of kulaks and other enemies of the regime were blamed for the troubles, and the solution was sought in a firmer organisation of agriculture by the state and its agencies.

Wheatcroft and Davies also dispense with Tauger in their work. It seems that one Sigizmund Mironin, who they describe as a “doughty supporter of the Stalinist regime” wrote a book on the famine inspired by Tauger. Mironin wrote: “Using the articles of M. Tauger … I seek to prove: that Stalin and the Politburo, as a result of the drought in 1931, did not have grain stocks, but did everything they could to reduce human losses from the famine, and took every measure to prevent famine from recurring.” Wheatcroft and Davies sum up Mironin’s work and implicitly what Furr and Annis have written in Stalin’s defense:

This view of the famine is emphatically and justifiably rejected by most Russian historians. We show in the following pages that there were two bad harvests in 1931 and 1932, largely but not wholly a result of natural conditions. But the 1932 harvest was not as bad as Mark Tauger has concluded. Stalin was certainly fully informed about the scale of the famine. Moreover, Mironin’s account neglects the obvious fact that the famine was also to a considerable extent a result of the previous actions of Stalin and the Soviet leadership. Mironin’s book is Stalinist apologetics, not history. Unfortunately this approach to the Stalin era is increasingly publicised in contemporary Russia.

Now at this point inquiring minds might ask who Wheatcroft and Davies are. Couldn’t they be in cahoots with Victorian Nuland and the Pravy Sektor? Even if they blame Stalin for policies that constitute manslaughter in the first degree rather than premeditated murder, doesn’t that align them with Nazi propaganda and Louis Proyect’s film reviews?

As it happens, R.W. Davies, who is now 92 years old, was an occasional contributor to New Left Review when CounterPunch editor Alexander Cockburn was on the prestigious journal’s editorial board alongside Tariq Ali.

Among the more notable contributions Davies made to the journal was a debate with Robert Conquest, whose book on the Holodomor is considered the purest expression of anti-Soviet hatred by people like Furr. In 1995, Davies wrote an article titled “Forced Labour Under Stalin: The Archive Revelations” that Conquest took exception to because it accepted “figures given to the Khrushchevite leadership by a KGB which was still falsifying—for example—death rates and causes in rehabilitation cases.” Davies defended his findings in a subsequent article that still did not mollify Conquest who complained to NLR in one more article.

This article is a bit longer than I hoped it would be but it is difficult to cover such a complex topic in less than five pages. I strongly recommend that CounterPunch readers read Tauger’s article referred to above, as well as have a look at the Wheatcroft/Davies book that is online.

Finally, to reiterate the point I made in my film review. I do not think that Stalin carried out a systematic genocide that had any similarities to what one-time CounterPunch contributor Arno Mayer called “the Judeocide”. Stalin’s policies were not that much different than those carried out in the primitive accumulation phase of capitalism that Marx, quoting British historian William Howitt, described as “one of the most extraordinary relations of treachery, bribery, massacre, and meanness”. That all this was carried out in the name of communism makes little difference, especially since the alienation it created led in part to its downfall—whatever it was.

Seeking Left Unity Through a Definition of Progressivism

Counterpunch - Fri, 03/24/2017 - 04:35

In common usage, the distinguishing lines between what identifies a person as a liberal, progressive, “leftist” or socialist are indistinct. Some of one persuasion believe they are of another. Critics of anyone along the left of center spectrum may make good use of the imprecision to “discredit” even the mildest liberal by labeling them a socialist or communist. Here, we should include critics who nominally inhabit a left location, as well as those on the right.

Clearly, there was no ideological purity among the millions who mobilized behind the Bernie Sanders primary campaign, nevertheless, since Clinton became the nominee the DNC and the rest of the Democratic Party establishment lumped them all together as a group to be marginalized and prevented from playing any significant role in the party’s future direction.  Many Bernie supporters however, are ignoring the Party’s broad brush approach and are working at the local level trying to establish an inside, “insurgent” beachhead.

Sen. Bernie Sanders is a Democratic Socialist. That places him on the right end of a socialist continuum. He shares the general socialist political analysis that points to capitalism as the root of all societal problems—broadly subsumed under economic, social, racial and environmental injustice. Sanders’ solution, however, differs from the revolutionary socialists at the left end of the continuum. He seeks to reform the current system into a hybrid socialism/capitalism modeled after those systems extant in Western and Northern Europe, while the revolutionary socialists seek to replace capitalism entirely with an economic system run by and for the people through State or cooperative ownership of industry.

Some clarification of the labels is possible and necessary. If the labels are to have any meaning at all we should at least assert that liberals are not socialists of any sort. If we place liberals at one end of the Left spectrum, revolutionary socialists anchor the other end. Remember, as the Right has become more extreme, they have pulled the Center over with them, such that former moderates are more conservative and former liberals are more moderate, while still labeling themselves as before. Socialists are still socialists and continue to inhabit the left pole. One might visualize it as a contraction of the right political spectrum and a stretching of the left spectrum.

I moderate the Facebook page of a local progressive organization and I interact with the pages of other progressive groups. The range of positions that I observe among people who identify as “progressives” suggests there is a real constituency out there that conflates liberalism with progressivism. Without some key defining characteristics, this ultimately makes for conflict between people who believe, but do not actually share, the same points of view. Unity on the Left is imperative if we are to achieve our goals. It is not served by such avoidable discord.

In the spirit of helping people align themselves more accurately with others who share their political views, I offer the following. Some will call this a litmus test. So be it. This business is so serious and the stakes are so high that the value of knowing who our friends are from the beginning cannot be overstated. Bottom line, to be considered a progressive you must subscribe to the belief that the US political and economic systems are largely or wholly controlled by unelected wealthy and corporate interests. And that the solution to this de facto coup is, at the very least, the one proffered by Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Socialists. One that requires a new and expanded New Deal, where corporate and individual power and influence is defanged. One where the needs of the people are put first through a mandatory living wage or guaranteed income, universal, single payer health care, true social and racial justice and permanent protection of the environment.

If the reform agenda is pursued, it must avoid the mistakes of FDR’s New Deal. It must build in mechanisms, and I assume these must be in the form of one or more constitutional amendments, to permanently prevent the re-emergence of the corporate state, the re-capturing of power by the wealthy elite. In the history of this nation capitalists have been in the driver’s seat except for a few brief periods, measurable in decades. Whenever the people, through amenable Administrations, managed to unseat the control of money, the wealthy elite bought and cheated their way back to the top. Unchecked, this natural cycle of capitalism will continue. Laws will not suffice to end this process. They can and will be changed to suit the rich. Only through constitutional amendments will any such reforms be durable.

Revolutionary socialists today in the US are far from being able to take on the 1 percent. The reform approach has legs and is our only realistic option when it comes to bringing the capitalists under popular control. Trying to reform the Democratic Party is a dead end and will only delay the inevitable, the establishment of an independent progressive/workers party. Genuine progressives should find each other and band together to build the party that will return our government to popular control.

Poll finds unprecedented uncertainty among French voters before presidential election

Top Reuters News - Fri, 03/24/2017 - 04:32
PARIS (Reuters) - A month before the first round of France's presidential election, 43 percent of voters are hesitant about who to vote for, a poll said on Friday, underlining the uncertainty surrounding the volatile election campaign.

Review: David Bellos’s “Novel of the Century: the Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables”

Counterpunch - Fri, 03/24/2017 - 03:10

There’s no question about it: David Bellos makes the case for the fame of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (1862). It’s the novel of the century and possibly then some. But let’s begin much later than the year of the novel’s publication. When he died at eighty-three in 1885 (surviving “his sons, his wife, his lover and almost every man of his own generation,”) nearly two million people “took part in the procession accompanying his mortal remains to the Panthéon.” Not as many people who attended Donald Trump’s swearing in but still a significant number. Bellos’ concludes, “Never before and never since has such a large crowd been seen in Paris. The entire city turned out to honour the playwright, the poet, the reformer and campaigner, but the vast mass of people following the hearse were paying homage to the beloved author of Les Misérables.

That will never happen again. No writer will ever reach such fame and admiration. Surprising, Hugo achieved this respect even though he lived much of his professional life in exile in the Channel Islands, first Jersey and subsequently Guernsey, refusing to set foot in France as long as Louis-Napoléon remained in power. Almost his entire great novel was written in exile. The publication of the massive manuscript became extremely complicated because the book was typeset in Paris and Brussels, which necessitated an elaborate scheme involving trains and boats to get the page proofs back to the author for correction. And the lengthy novel, itself, was published over many months.

Hugo was already a national treasure by the time he published Les Misérables, because of his enormous output as a revered poet but also his earlier novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1832). Yet, book publishing was a complicated, if not risky, business during his lifetime. Books were expensive items, not something most people could afford. The paper was made from pulped rags, not wood. Typesetting had to be done by hand, and the printing presses at the time were terribly inefficient, prone to breaking down. As late as “the 1860s one volume of a new work still cost two or three times a labourer’s daily wage.” And Les Misérables ran to ten volumes. Many readers had access to the novel because of lending libraries—for a fee. Since there were no good copyright laws or treaties, pirated editions of popular books popped up almost immediately and undercut the original publisher’s investment.

Hugo had spent years writing the novel and wanted remuneration equal to his effort, i.e., “more than had ever been paid for any book.” He worked out an agreement with a new publishing firm. The payment “was much more than Hugo’s own weight in gold—turned into twenty-franc gold pieces, it would have weighed more than 97kh. It represented twenty years of a bishop’s stipend, enough money to endow a chair at the Sorbonne or to build a small railway. Taken at today’s price of gold, it would come to around £3 million, but since it entitled the publisher to sell the book for only eight years, it remains the highest figure ever paid for a work of literature.” Even so, the publisher, Lacroix, made a fortune (which he later lost). And for Hugo, his money did not decrease because there was no inflation.

Surprisingly, while negotiations for publication were still going on, no one knew precisely how long the novel would be in printed form. Hugo had written with a goose quill. A huge trunk was required for the manuscript. Because of endless corrections and additions, Hugo had worked out a detailed numbering sequence for the pages, but still the book’s length was not clear until the process of setting the type had begun. Before that began, it was Hugo’s mistress, Juliette Drouet, who lived next door, and did most of the editing, but everyone in the household (including his two sons and his wife) and other hired assistants were involved in the lengthy process of publication.

The somewhat mixed reviews of the novel did not curtail its sales. It was an enormous commercial success. There were 22 pirated editions during the first year, and, soon, nine authorized translations. There were numerous unauthorized dramatic versions also, and much later a short film rendering a scene from the novel, made by the Lumière brothers in 1895. Ever since then, no novel has been so widely filmed, in so many counties. A four-hour silent version appeared in French in 1912 followed by a six-hour silent version in 1925. “Overall, there are now at least sixty-five screen versions of Les Misérables in languages as varied as Russian, Farsi, Turkish, Tamul and Arabic as well as in French, English, and Japanese.” Then the innumerable stage versions, plus Cameron Mackintosh’s musical in 1985.

To what can we attribute this enormous success? Bellos refers to Jean Valjean’s “moral self-awareness,” no easy accomplishment for many people. This is largely outside of a religious context, rooted instead in conscience. Numerous times Valjean has to make agonizing decisions about honesty and duty. “What he models is the potential that the poorest and most wretched have to become worthy citizens. His repeated victories over physical, moral and emotional obstacles make him a hero…but they also assert, against the attitudes prevalent at the time, that moral progress is possible for all, in every social sphere.” It helps, of course, that he is also enormously successful in business (after his years in prison) and that he uses his profits to help others. Jean Valjean’s decency reflects back upon Victor Hugo, who—in this superb biography of a novel rather than a man—stands tall, and often alone, engaging with the raw material of squalor and inhumanity, and then shaping it into one of the most riveting stories of all times.

NOTE: If you are like me, someone who has never read the entire novel, but, instead, one of the innumerable abridged versions, or someone who has never read the Les Misérables, Bellos suggests a plan of action. The complete text runs to 365 chapters, arguing for a one-a-day approach for a year of reading. Bellos recommends the Penguin edition of 2013, translated by Christopher Donougher.

David Bellos: The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 289 pp., $27

Ear of Darkness: the Soundtracks of Steve Bannon’s Films

Counterpunch - Fri, 03/24/2017 - 03:05

Not since last year, amidst the lightless heat of the presidential election, has your asbestos-suited Musical Patriot launched a sonic raid of such peril and urgency as this week’s special mission: Bannon the Beast’s Earbuds.

Back in January of 2016, as a vital service to the nation, I strapped myself to the Spottify mast for Hillary’s Playlist. Confronting that highly toxic focus-grouped hit parade made Odysseus’s bout with the Sirens’ song seem about as daring as grappling with a Muzak version of Hey Jude in the Gluten-Free aisle of the local supermarket.

After barely surviving the Hillary Playlist strike—codenamed Operation Dumbstruck—the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna awarded me its highest honor: the Eroica Medal for Musical Bravery, plus a sweet pair of top-of-the-line noise-cancelling headphones.

Yet the intelligence your Musical Patriot gathered was worth the immense risk. My findings confirmed the banality and opportunism of Clinton’s bid for the White House.  With each track, from The Authors’ “Believer” to Katy Perry’s “Roar,” HRC dug her political grave ever deeper. Both individually and in their lethal totality, her “favorites” revealed that she would not just do anything to get elected, but be anyone. These were the musical hopes and joys not of a real person but of an algorithmic hologram generated by programmers at the DNC.

As Plato long ago asserted, the ear is the portal to the soul. Through this conduit music works directly on the individual’s inner equilibrium and, more generally, on the wellbeing of the body politic.  The contours of melody and the timbre of instruments can either sap or strengthen moral character. The philosopher believed that the flute was a seductress and must be silenced. The Dorian mode was for him warlike and character-building. Plato argued that the guardians of his ideal state should be fed a diet of virile music, and that lascivious and corrupting songs he branded as effeminate should be banished for the good of all.

If music molds the soul, then it can also illuminate a person’s inner workings.  Thus Trump’s lack of interest in music reveals his soullessness. Trump’s yawns during America the Beautiful when done by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at the Capitol on Inauguration Day followed later by his leaden on-stage shuffling to Sinatra’s “My Way” at the ball—these were acts of a hollow man. Indeed, it would seem that no administration is as musically vacant as the present one.

But there is one figure in the White House whose dark soul thrums with musical vibrations. The threat represented by this apocalyptic temperament can only be measured by someone of tremendous valor. Enter the very same Musical Patriot in full combat gear! His report of what he has heard will be quick and clinical. Duck (see below) and cover: friendly favor can be lethal.

Over the last few weeks, I have watched White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s grim oeuvre of nine documentaries. I hesitate to call them films since in their visual style they would more accurately be classified as extended political commercials, some running to nearly two deadly hours.  That these affairs are better viewed as advertisements is confirmed by the name of the production company: Citizens United.

Numb and convince : this is Bannon’s watchword. His typical shot lasts little more than a second, with long stretches of vertiginous cuts and dissolves between stock footage of marching armies, radical protestors, the demolition of glass-fronted bank buildings, the collapse of the World Trade Centers, atomic bomb tests, bearded terrorists, graphs showing plunging markets, and—his favorite image—automated bill counters. The incessant flutter of cash is meant to bring home the corruption of the Clintons (Clinton Cash, 2015), and other, lesser political elites, as in the paean to that great Alaskan reformer, Sarah Palin (The Undefeated, 2010). Greenbacks also whizz by to fan the discontent of conservative women in Fire in the Heartland (2010), as lucre for paid malcontents in Occupy Unmasked (2012), and to convey the skyrocketing national debt that led to the financial crisis of 2008 (Generation Zero, 2010). Perched in front of black backgrounds, arch-conservative talking heads appear from the miasma of found footage to hammer away at moral degeneration, the coming conservative revolution, and to identify the many guises of the same evil—the face of Hitler blending into bin Laden’s.

These images bludgeon the viewer, but even more dizzingly relentless is the assault of the music. It never stops: it grabs the audience by its earl lobes and funnels fear and anger into its soul.

In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed (2004) marks Bannon’s most unsettling exploitation of music as propaganda. Armies goose step; dictators bellow; radicals foment and fulminate; genocidal acts are committed. This sea of terrifying images is parted by Reagan’s clarion calls for freedom and resolve. Against the forces of godlessness he is a holy prophet wrapped in the raiment of the soundtrack. The glowering strings of the Evil Empire, lashing snare drums and explosions, heroic horns of destiny—all give way when Reagan takes to his pulpit accompanied by a massed choral Kyries that leave no doubt as to whose side God is on.

Underpinning these cut-and-paste jobs is an alarming theory in which eighty-year-cycles of history inevitably culminate in catastrophe: the American Civil War followed after a span of four-score years by World War Two, and soon by the next global conflagration, surely to be screened in a multiplex near you. Or maybe not, given that Bannon’s movies rarely get theatrical release, and if they do, of a very limited nature.  The ode to Sarah Palin, The Undefeated, played in all of a dozen theatres across the country.

In contrast to the shredded symphonic grandeur and lurching menace of the soundtrack of In the Face of Evil, Bannon’s subsequent efforts have favored electronic scores still more flagrantly pieced together from off-the-shelf cues. It is unclear exactly why a shadowy figure named David Cebert is given credit for “original score” in a couple of these concoctions. Nothing could be less original.

Across this deranged corpus the intent of Bannon’s musical choices remains unchanged: frighten and dismay. Thus we hear ominous, creeping strings above ponderous, portentous bass notes when Bannon’s latest prophet, Duck Commander Phil Robertson (The Torchbearer, 2016) appears resplendent in full biblical beard and priestly camo-headband, journeying across the globe to reveal God’s truths from his own Louisiana swamp to the Acropolis and Auschwitz.

What Bannon appears constantly to hear is the music to his own horror flick now in progress, and in which he and his men are the heroes. Only after the coming cataclysm can the next phase of renewal begin. In Bannon’s world the laws of physics do not apply: light and sound travel at the same speed. The mushroom cloud rises simultaneously with the final chord.

Chicago police officer charged with 16 new counts in shooting case: media

Top Reuters News - Fri, 03/24/2017 - 02:45
(Reuters) - A white Chicago police officer accused of murder in the shooting death of a black teenager was charged on Thursday with 16 new counts of aggravated battery, in a case that sparked national debate over police use of force against minorities.

All drill, no frack: U.S. shale leaves thousands of wells unfinished

Top Reuters News - Fri, 03/24/2017 - 01:22
NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. shale producers are drilling at the highest rate in 18 months but have left a record number of wells unfinished in the largest oilfield in the country – a sign that output may not rise as swiftly as drilling activity would indicate.

How a border tax could divide Boeing and its suppliers

Top Reuters News - Fri, 03/24/2017 - 01:14
SEATTLE (Reuters) - A U.S. tax overhaul proposed by Republican leaders in Congress would deepen divisions between big manufacturers like Boeing Co and the thousands of smaller companies that supply them, according to suppliers and tax and trade experts.

How a border tax could divide Boeing and its suppliers

Reuters US Politics - Fri, 03/24/2017 - 01:14
SEATTLE (Reuters) - A U.S. tax overhaul proposed by Republican leaders in Congress would deepen divisions between big manufacturers like Boeing Co and the thousands of smaller companies that supply them, according to suppliers and tax and trade experts.

The Deep State's Dominant Narratives and Authority Are Crumbling

Charles Hugh Smith - Fri, 03/24/2017 - 01:02
This is why the Deep State is fracturing: its narratives no longer align with the evidence.As this chart from Google Trends illustrates, interest in the Deep State has increased dramatically in 2017. The term/topic has clearly moved from the specialist realm to the mainstream. I've been writing about the Deep State, and specifically, the fractures in the Deep State, for years. Amusingly, now that "Progressives" have prostituted themselves to the Security Agencies and the Neocons/Neoliberals, they are busy denying the Deep State exists. For example, There is No Deep State (The New Yorker).In this risible view, there is no Deep State "conspiracy" (the media's favorite term of dismissal/ridicule), just a bunch of "good German" bureaucrats industriously doing the Empire's essential work of undermining democracies that happen not to prostrate themselves at the feet of the Empire, murdering various civilians via drone strikes, surveilling the U.S. populace, planting bugs in new iPhones, issuing fake news while denouncing anything that questions the dominant narratives as "fake news," arranging sweetheart deals with dictators and corporations, and so on.The New Yorker is right about one thing--the Deep State is not a "conspiracy:" it is a vast machine of control that is largely impervious to the views or demands of elected representatives or the American people. The key to understanding this social-political-economic control is to grasp that control of the narratives, expertise and authority is control of everything. Allow me to illustrate how this works.The typical politician has a busy daily schedule of speaking at the National Motherhood and Apple Pie Day celebration, listening to the "concerns" of important corporate constituents, attending a lunch campaign fundraiser, meeting with lobbyists and party committees, being briefed by senior staff, and so on.Senior administrators share similarly crowded schedules, minus the fundraising but adding budget meetings, reviewing employee complaints and multiple meetings with senior managers and working groups.Both senior elected officials and senior state administrators must rely on narratives, expertise and authority because they have insufficient time and experience to do original research and assessment.Narratives create an instant context that "makes sense" of various data points and events. Narratives distill causal factors into an explanatory story with an implicit teleology--because of this and that, the future will be thus and so.For example: because Iraq has weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the future promises the terrible likelihood (more than a possibility, given Iraqi deployment of poison gas in the Iraq-Iran War) that America or its allies will be devastated by Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. This teleology leads to the inescapable need to eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction by any means necessary, and remove the political will to use them by removing Iraq's leader from power.Politicos and senior administrators rely on expertise and authority as the basis of deciding whether something is accurate and actionable. Professional specialists are assumed to have the highest available levels of expertise, and their position in institutions that embody the highest authority give their conclusions the additional weight of being authoritative. The experts' conclusion doesn't just carry the weight of expertise, it has been reviewed by senior officials of the institution, and so it also carries the weight of institutional authority.So when the C.I.A. briefing by its experts claims Iraq has WMD, and the briefing includes various threads of evidence that the institution declares definitive, who is a non-expert to challenge this conclusion and teleology? On what technical basis does the skeptic reject the expertise and authority of the institution?We can now define the Deep State with some precision. The Deep State is fundamentally the public-private centralized nodes that collect, archive and curate dominant narratives and their supporting evidence, and disseminate these narratives (and their implicit teleologies) to the public via the media and to the state agencies via formal and informal inter-departmental communication channels.By gaining control of the narratives, evidence, curation and teleology, each node concentrates power. the power to edit out whatever bits contradict the dominant narrative is the source of power, for once the contradictory evidence is buried or expunged, it ceases to exist.For example, the contradictory evidence in the Pentagon Papers was buried by being declared Top Secret. The bureaucratic means to bury skeptical (i.e. heretical) views or evidence are many. Sending the authors to figurative Siberia is remarkably effective, as is burying the heretical claims in a veritable mountain of data that few if any will ever survey.Curation is a critical factor in maintaining control of the narrative and thus of control; the evidence is constantly curated to best support the chosen narrative which in turn supports the desired teleology, which then sets the agenda and the end-game.The senior apparatchiks of the old Soviet Union were masters of curation; when a Soviet leader fell from favor, he was literally excised from the picture--his image was erased from photos.This is how narratives are adjusted to better fit the evidence. Thus the accusation that "the Russians hacked our election" has been tabled because it simply doesn't align with any plausible evidence. That narrative has been replaced with variants, such as "the Russians hacked the Democratic National Committee." Now that this claim has also been shown to be false, new variants are popping up weekly, with equally poor alignment with evidence.The primary claim of each Deep State node is that its expertise and authority cannot be questioned. In other words, while the dominant narrative can be questioned (but only cursorily, of course), the expertise and authority of the institutional node cannot be questioned.This is why the Deep State is fracturing: the expertise and authority of its nodes are delaminating because its narratives no longer align with the evidence. If various Security Agencies sign off on the narrative that "Russia hacked our election" (a nonsense claim from the start, given the absurd imprecision of the "hacking"--hacking into what? Voting machines? Electoral tallies?), and that narrative is evidence-free and fact-free, i.e. false, then the expertise and authority of those agencies comes into legitimate question.Once the legitimacy of the expertise and authority is questioned, control of the narrative is imperiled. The control of the narrative is control of the teleology, the agenda and the end-game--in other words, everything. If the institution loses control of the dominant narrative, it loses its hold on power.This is why the Deep State is in turmoil--its narratives no longer make sense, or are in direct conflict with other nodes' narratives or have been delegitimized by widening gaps between "definitive" claims and actual evidence.There is indeed a Deep State, but its control of dominant narratives, and thus its source of control and power, is crumbling. The gap between the narratives and the evidence that supports them has widened to the point of collapse.

If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com.Check out both of my new books, Inequality and the Collapse of Privilege ($3.95 Kindle, $8.95 print) and Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reform ($3.95 Kindle, $8.95 print). For more, please visit the OTM essentials website.NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.Thank you, David K. ($250), for your beyond outrageously generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.Thank you, Brendan M. ($50), for your wondrously generous subscription to this site -- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.Go to my main site at www.oftwominds.com/blog.html for the full posts and archives.

BOJ's Kuroda says won't raise bond yield targets now

Top Reuters News - Fri, 03/24/2017 - 00:27
TOKYO (Reuters) - Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda said on Friday he does not expect the central bank to raise its bond yield targets now, and will look at underlying trend inflation in guiding monetary policy.

The Urgency of Addressing the Rise of Racist Hate Speech in K-12 Schools

Truth-Out - Fri, 03/24/2017 - 00:00

For months, Micah Speed, a 15-year-old African-American student at Wake Forest High School in Wake County, North Carolina, turned the other cheek as a white classmate hurled racist insults at him.

As the classmate repeatedly called him the N-word, told him he looked like he bathed in coffee beans and dirt, and said he should name his future children "Convict" and "Crackhead," Speed did not lash out. But on March 2, after the student showed Speed a video of him firing a shotgun and told him to imagine he was shooting at Speed and his family, months of degradation culminated in a physical altercation when Speed confronted his tormentor in the school hallway.

As was documented in a video that went viral, Speed approached his bully from behind, dragged him to the ground by his book bag, then walked away. "You fucking Black piece of shit," the bully responded -- prompting Speed to drag him to the ground again more forcefully.

Speed was initially given a 10-day suspension while his tormentor was not reprimanded at all. But after students at the school launched a protest and walkout in Speed's defense and an online petition supporting him garnered nearly 40,000 signatures, the school cut his suspension in half.

Speed's case stands out because he confronted his bully. But many other students also face racist torment. When the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) following the 2016 election in their report "The Trump Effect",  they found that the largest portion of such incidents -- over 300 -- occurred on university campuses or in K-12 schools.

They include someone etching "kill the [N-words]" on the wall of a high school bathroom in Tennessee, and a middle school student in Virginia telling a classmate of Middle Eastern descent that he hated Muslims.

SPLC's post-election survey, which garnered responses from over 10,000 teachers, counselors, administrators, and other school officials, found that four in 10 educators heard derogatory language directed at minority students.

In Georgia, one teacher reported that students were making jokes about Hispanic classmates going back to Mexico. An elementary school teacher in the same state said that in her 21 years of teaching it was the first time she's heard a student call a classmate the N-word.

Then last week, another video of racist cruelty by students in Wake County, North Carolina, went viral. This time it was of three Leesville Middle School students at an off-campus location chanting "KKK" and making racist remarks about Blacks, Jews, Arabs and Latinos. "Go back to the fields of Alabama," they said. "Go back to the factories in Mississippi. You don't deserve freedom." The eighth-grade students were each given a three-day suspension.

At North Cobb High School in Atlanta, a student was also suspended for three days last week  for comments on social media that referenced "exterminating all [N-words]." Last Friday, more than 10 percent of the school's students skipped class out of fear that the suspended student would return and carry out the threats.

The Long-Term Effects of Racist Bullying

Students of color are not only at risk from physical violence by racist bullies: Studies have found that struggling to adapt to racist environments can also be harmful to students' health -- and even deadly.

In a 2015 study examining Black students and mental health, Ebony McGhee and David Stovall described what they call "weathering" -- the phenomenon characterized by long-term "physical, mental, emotional, and physiological effects of racism and living in a society characterized by white dominance and privilege."

Weathering can lead to a host of psychological and physical ailments, including heart disease, diabetes, and accelerated aging, they observed. Further, they discussed how the concept of "racial battle fatigue" and how exposure to racism and discrimination on campuses and the time and energy African-American students expend to battle stereotypes can lead to harmful psychological and physiological stress.

Having to constantly deal with toxic stress and micro aggressions can also be a risk factor for suicide, research has found. There are concerns that this could be behind the rising suicide rates among Black teens.

The 2016 election and the racist harassment it has unleashed is only adding to Black students' stress. For example, the SPLC report on post-election bullying documented a spike in suicidal thoughts among affected students.

"In a 24-hour period, I completed two suicide assessments and two threat of violence assessments for middle school students," reported one middle school counselor in Florida, who said that in the week after the election students were threatening violence against their African-American classmates. "Students were suicidal and without hope."

SPLC's report included recommendations to help educators deal with the problem, including doubling down on anti-bullying strategies. "Not everyone has to be a superhero," the report said, "but everyone can be an ally and an upstander."

Meanwhile, a local NAACP chapter in Wake County is calling for a meeting with schools Superintendent Jim Merrill to address the altercation between Speed and his bullying classmate and the racially-charged video made by the Leesville students.

"We must send a strong message that this behavior is unacceptable" said Gerald Givens Jr. of the Raleigh-Apex NAACP.

Attorney for "Frozen Trucker": Neil Gorsuch May Have Been Most Hostile Judge I've Ever Encountered

Truth-Out - Fri, 03/24/2017 - 00:00

As confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch wrap up and Senate Democrats vow to filibuster his nomination, we look at Gorsuch's ruling in a case known as the "frozen trucker." Truck driver Alphonse Maddin was fired after he disobeyed a supervisor and abandoned the trailer that he was driving, because he was on the verge of freezing to death. We speak with Robert Fetter, the attorney who represented Maddin in his wrongful termination lawsuit.

Please check back later for full transcript.

Trump's Austerity Budget Increases Military Recruiters' Power to Prey on Youth

Truth-Out - Fri, 03/24/2017 - 00:00

As the government pulls funds from social programs to beef up the military, youth in neighborhoods devastated by the cuts become even more vulnerable to military recruiters who feed on desperation. Peace activist and former solider Rory Fanning talks about the important role veterans can play in disrupting this cycle.

Rory Fanning speaks in Japan on a Veterans for Peace trip in 2016. (Photo: Yoshiaki Kawakami)

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Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing "Interviews for Resistance" series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn't, what has changed and what is still the same. Today's interview is the 23rd in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Donald Trump's budget slashes social programs while inflating an already massive military budget, meaning that for many people in already underserved and underemployed communities, the military will be the closest thing to a welfare state they have.

Today we bring you a conversation with Rory Fanning, a veteran and conscientious objector, and author of the book Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger's Journey Out of the Military and Across America. His work centers on opposing US militarism at home. He is also the coauthor, with Craig Hodges, of the new book Long Shot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter. He lives in Chicago, which has become ground zero for military recruiting in the country, and often speaks at high schools there. "There are more kids signed up in Chicago JROTC and NJROTC than any other school district in the country; ten thousand kids: 50 percent Latino and 45 percent Black," he told me. We spoke about opposing Trump's military buildup, the roles that veterans and athletes can play in movements for change, and the long tradition of imperialism in the US.

Sarah Jaffe: We will circle back, certainly, to talk about military recruiting, but because we are in the wake of Donald Trump's first quasi-budget (and it has a lot of cuts to social programs in order to put all of this money into the military), I wanted to talk to you about the role the military plays in this right-wing nationalist political buildup and how people can resist that.

Rory Fanning: I think it is important first to note that this request by this budget, particularly through defense, is not unprecedented. It really only takes us back to 2011 numbers when they kind of set a cap on military spending. But Obama asked for $700 billion for defense in 2012. I think Trump is asking for $600 billion, which is an increase of $56 billion over the previous year. It is still more military spending than the next thirteen countries combined. One of the most alarming things about this budget is the number of active-duty Army troops that are going to be increased. It is going to go from 475,000 to about 540,000 at a time when there is really no existential threat to the United States. It is kind of ridiculous. I think that is just going to mean more intense recruiting in the most vulnerable communities in the US.

Obviously, when we are talking about the proposal to Make America Great Again, the military is seen as a key component of it. Talk about the role of this recruiting in communities of color and what kind of flawed promises are being made to people if they join.

You don't see this kind of recruiting out in the suburbs. I have spoken at high schools out in the suburbs and I have spoken at high schools in the inner city, and these recruiters ... know kids in poverty-stricken areas have less options after graduation. They know that paying for college is more difficult in poverty-stricken areas. So, they go there and promise kids education. They promise them leadership skills. They promise them discipline and structure. These programs are seen largely as positive in [many] school districts because of the lack of jobs and opportunities.

So there really is [minimal] pushback against these recruiters. There are ten thousand recruiters stalking the hallways, working with a $700 million advertising budget each year, to say nothing of the movies and the video games. It is next to impossible to offer a counternarrative....

In terms of when you are talking to high school students, what are some of the arguments that you make to counter this narrative?

I go in there first and foremost knowing that they are going to do what they are going to do regardless of what I tell them. I just try to plant a few seeds. I don't go in there and finger wag and say, "Don't join the military." I emphasize the importance of critical thinking -- right now, in the present, in high school and also if they do decide to go ahead and join the military....

The politics are completely detached from the mission in the military by design. It is about the person to your right and left. It is not about unending trillion-dollar wars. It is really brought down into the very micro levels of the day-to-day. I just ask them to think broader if they do decide to join up for the military. I communicate the fact that there is nothing worse than killing somebody for a cause that you don't understand.... It is almost maybe even better to lose your own life or get injured yourself as opposed to taking somebody's life who is innocent.

Their experience with the military [often] doesn't go further than movies and video games. [Many] say, "How much is the military like 'Call of Duty?'" (a popular first-person shooter game). I'll say, "Do you hear babies and moms crying when they watch people die in front of them, innocent people die in front of them?" "No, not really" is their answer. "Are the majority of the people you kill in 'Call of Duty' innocent?" "No, not really." "Is there torture in 'Call of Duty'?" "No, not really." "Can you turn off 'Call of Duty'?" "Yes." "Well, you can't really turn off war after you have been there."

I cite some statistics. There are 40,000 homeless US veterans, people who just can't get their minds straight after seeing what they saw overseas, can't get reintegrated into society because they have lost parts of themselves that can never be recovered. It is important to highlight some of that stuff.

And Trump's budget does not -- as far as I know -- increase programs to take care of people when they get back from war, right?

Well, once you sign up for the military, you are kind of a piece of equipment. You are not good to anybody after. You are just a drag on the system after you have left the military. There are hundreds of millions of dollars every year ... dedicated to veteran services. It is a huge drain on the system, the medical care of returning veterans. It is far from adequate. But, yes, as far as specifically -- I think he talks and pretends like he is going to, but as we know, what he says and what he does are completely different things.

Rory Fanning sits in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick at a Chicago Cubs baseball game in 2016. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Fanning) We are talking about a budget that pulls funds from social programs to beef up the military and then recruits its new soldiers from communities that are being devastated by those cuts. Then, when people come home from serving, they are facing further cuts and a lack of a social safety net. The military ... sort of steps in and replaces an actual universal welfare state. What does it look like to actually make these connections and say, "What we are doing here is building this up at the expense of taking care of people?"

Recognize that people do the best with the information they have access to, and most people think that the US is fighting for freedom and democracy around the world and they sign up with very good intentions. I think a lot of people are disillusioned by what they actually see when they are overseas.... There is very little space for veterans to come back and tell their stories. There is a lot of patting on the back at sporting events and concerts and whatnot, but as far as actual space to hear the realities of war, there are next to none. Unless you have a very positive take on the last 15 years, people don't ask you to talk.

I think [there are] upwards of 50,000 war resisters who signed up for the military since 2001. So, there is a huge number of people that have had negative experiences that we could draw from.... I think the potential for veterans who come back to become positive influences in the fight against exploitation and oppression is really high. Reaching out to veterans to organize and to call out injustices that they see is high. Communicating with veterans is really important.

Yes, we have seen that several times in the last year. In particular I am thinking about the veterans going to Standing Rock and the way that, in particular, they used at least the lip service reverence that this country gives to veterans to really make a powerful political point.

Yes, absolutely. There is a lot of leverage in conversations when you are a veteran as to what is and isn't necessarily good for society, right or wrong. I think that is overblown on a lot of levels, but the whole Veterans for Kaepernick response, you saw that trending on Twitter. I think veterans are very sensitive to the fact that this largely is not a free country. There are more people in prison than any other country in the world per capita. The majority of [them are] Black and Latino.

When you sign up, allegedly, to fight for freedom and democracy and you see nothing of that kind being practiced here in the US, with the mass surveillance and the reach of agencies like the National Security Agency, etc., this is not what you put your life on the line for. When I see someone like Colin Kaepernick refusing to put his hand over his heart and stand for the national anthem, I think people who have actually sacrificed for freedom and democracy really respond well to that in a lot of ways.

There is a lot of history around that, particularly around returning Black veterans getting involved in the Civil Rights Movement. A lot of leaders from that movement had been people who served overseas and were told they were fighting for freedom and equality against a racist regime only to come back to Jim Crow America.

Absolutely. You are seeing veterans getting deported here in the US under Trump's new policies. It doesn't matter if they went overseas and fought two or three times. There is a case here in Chicago of a veteran who had been to Afghanistan twice, had a drug conviction 10 years ago and now is basically suing not to be deported and is requiring intervention from a Senator. Yes, there is a lot of hypocrisy in the system.

That reminds me, the DREAM Act, which never ended up getting passed, was partly for college students, but it was also for people who joined the military -- which in itself is an incentive for people to join.

Right. So many of these kids who came here when they were like eight years old or whatever, they sign up for the military thinking they are set. "OK, I don't have anything to worry about as far as my residency in the United States is concerned." Trump is showing that certainly is not the case and it is certainly not supporting the troops or supporting the veterans.

You were one of the people, the veterans sitting with Kaepernick at the Cubs game, right? For people who are reading this or listening who are veterans, do you have advice for them on how to use that moral authority? I think you have done it in a few moments. Also, I am thinking about the big Chicago protest against Trump on the campaign trail where he ultimately never ended up speaking.

Yes, I think the best advice is to find a group or an organization. Even if you are a veteran, it is way easier to stand up against something if you have a lot of people with you. I am a member of Veterans for Peace. Iraq Veterans Against the War exists. But, all of these groups need to be strengthened. We're at a lull in the anti-war movement, despite the fact that we are engaged in wars in seven countries right now. I think gathering together with other like-minded veterans is really important to recognizing your leverage as a veteran to be heard....

We were talking about Colin Kaepernick. You have a new book out with a fairly well-known athlete. I wanted to ask you about that book and about the role that professional athletes can play in social movements.

Yes, that is one of the reasons I was sensitive to what was happening to Colin Kaepernick, because people were saying that Colin Kaepernick was spoiled and he didn't appreciate what he was given and he was a coward for not respecting the flag. I found his case to be the complete opposite of that because I realized by working with Craig Hodges, who was black-balled by the NBA for demanding the league do more to fight racism, economic inequality. Not just the NBA, but also the president of the United States when he visited George Bush, Sr., after his second championship. He called on power, essentially, to do more to fight these problems in our society and he lost everything as a result.

I saw Colin Kaepernick subject himself to the same fate, potentially. We are seeing NFL owners turn their back on Kaepernick now as he is out in the market trying to get acquired by a team. A lot of what is happening to Kaepernick now happened to Craig Hodges. He lost, potentially, millions of dollars standing up for justice. But, he also recognized that he had a platform that could be heard. He realized that the people in his community weren't going to have the opportunity to have a microphone, or the New York Times interview you, or visit the White House, so he wanted to make the most out of it because he felt like he owed, not just his community, but his ancestors who came to this country as slaves and were subject to exploitation and oppression for the last couple hundred years. For him to just acquire all of these things and not acknowledge that, it just didn't sit well with him.

One thing that Craig and Colin Kaepernick have the same is they both understand history very well and they are connected to history. People like Michael Jordan are often criticized for not speaking up when they had the platform. Craig is actually pretty sympathetic to people like Jordan saying, "He just was very disconnected from his history. Of course, he experienced racism as a kid, but he didn't know how to really articulate his situation in this country that is all about personal responsibility and everybody is a clean slate." But, Craig, because he was so interested in people's history, the history of his people, recognized injustice when he saw it. I think Colin Kaepernick does the same thing, is similar.

Anything else that you are paying attention to right now that we should talk about?

The issues with crumbling infrastructure and the fact that it is going to take about $4.5 trillion to repair all the bridges, all the pipes, all the roads, all the failing infrastructure in this country. We spend about $1 trillion a year on our military; if we took just a percentage of that, we would have completely new infrastructure in this country. This failing infrastructure is a far greater threat than any terrorism here in the US. I think the odds of you dying in a terrorist attack are one in twenty-five million, but the odds of dying in a car crash in Mississippi are one in two thousand. I am writing an article on it now.

If a terrorist attack happened in this country or if we provoked Iran into some kind of war, I think the justification for further crackdowns on minorities in this country would be absolutely suffocating. I think it is important that people stay vigilant, pushing back against militarism as much as they can. We just don't want to; ideally not respond to, the next war that this administration seems hell-bent on pursuing. We already came extremely close to a war with Iran when Secretary of Defense Matthis was about to board an Iranian ship looking for weapons headed toward Yemen. I just think it is important to be as vigilant as possible right now against how this administration would respond to a terrorist attack or they could lead us into another war. If we were to go to war against Iran, I think there would be devastating consequences.

I know the anti-war movement is kind of still at a lull, but if we can connect the huge movements around the Women's March, the Day Without Immigrants, and all that kind of stuff to anti-imperialist/antimilitarist actions, I think we would be better for it.

A lot of people say, "Having 800 military bases around the world is a deterrent. Having 7,700 nuclear weapons is a deterrent." But, it can also be seen as provocation. Another country is only going to feel the need to amp up its own military as a result of the US amping up its [own]. If there was a collective disarmament, there is a retraction of these bases that are just draining our budgets ... I just think all of that stuff has to be connected. Then, if you are going to spend another $56 billion a year on the military each year, there is going to be overflow into police departments because the military doesn't need any more of these weapons. So, "Well, they already exist. Just give them to the police." And in such a pro-police administration, you can only assume that they are going to become even more militarized and target the most vulnerable.

It was interesting, because the NYPD is currently angry because Trump's budget cuts their personal antiterrorism funding in order to put more money into military.

If all you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail.

How can people keep up with you then?

I am usually on Facebook more than I am on Twitter. If they would like to invite me to their school, they can just reach out to me on either of those two things. I am constantly looking to talk to more high schools and colleges, wanting to give these kids the full story, because if [military recruiting] is already predatory, it is just going to be on steroids with this administration, the pressures of sending kids overseas to fight wars for billionaires.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and concision. Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Empire Files: The Sikh Experience in the US

Truth-Out - Fri, 03/24/2017 - 00:00

People of the Sikh faith, commonly mistaken for both Muslims and Hindus, are frequent targets of bigoted hate crimes -- in fact, the first victim of post-9/11 hate crimes was a Sikh man. In 2016, attacks against Muslims -- and people perceived to be Muslims, in particular Sikhs -- has reached an all-time high. 

With 70 percent of Americans not able to properly identify the Sikh community, Abby Martin visits a place of worship to learn about their experience in the United States and who they are as a people. 

Promoting respect and understanding of this religious and cultural tradition, The Empire Files profiles this minority community with a long and rich history in America, and explores the roots of anti-Sikh racism with Georgetown Professor and civil rights attorney Arjun Singh Sethi (@arjunsethi81) .

Paul Ryan as Punchline: The Impending Failure of the AHCA

Truth-Out - Fri, 03/24/2017 - 00:00

House Speaker Paul Ryan discusses the proposed American Health Care Act at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 9, 2017. (Photo: Gabriella Demczuk / The New York Times)

Guy walks into a bar. Second guy ducks.

This is, far and away, the worst "Guy walks into a bar" joke in the history of the franchise. Makes "A million ducks…" and "The twelve-inch pianist…" seem Shakespearean by comparison. Somehow, though, it still manages to amuse on a gutter slapstick level; a dude getting racked in the noodle is never not funny, and his friend avoiding the same fate just makes it complete.

It's even funnier when you see it in real life.

The story in brief: House Speaker Paul Ryan chose yesterday, the seventh anniversary of the signing of the Affordable Care Act into law, to be the day when congressional Republicans, along with President Trump, finally fulfilled their long-running promise to repeal Obamacare. The American Health Care Act, brainchild of Speaker Ryan, was ready to take the stage and rescue us all.

There were some flies in the ointment, to be sure. The bill as it stood, according to CBO scoring, would immediately strip millions of their health insurance. It was a massive tax cut for rich people. It would obliterate Medicaid as we've known it. It would deliver a deep and profound injustice to children and old people of every stripe, and would further do a big number on the same rural poor people who elected Donald Trump in the first place. The latest Quinnipiac poll shows a galloping 17 percent approval for the AHCA, a number that is sure to dwindle once more people find out just how much rat meat is in the stew.

Speaker Ryan's prescription for the pain? Speed. Get the thing passed and punted out of the House, let the Senate finish painting the corners, drop it on Donald's desk for a signature, and they can all lean back and say, "Look, see? We keep our promises." He spent Wednesday and the first part of Thursday delivering a one-man pep rally -- "this will pass, this will pass, it is the best thing ever …" -- until DONK, he walked into a bar called the House Freedom Caucus, and everything fell apart. Just before 4pm on Thursday, Ryan was forced to make the humiliating announcement: No vote today.

You gotta love those Freedom Caucus dudes. It's not often one gets to see actual ultra-conservative caricatures come to life, wear ties and say things to cameras in the Capitol Rotunda. What they were saying, more than anything else, was "No" to the AHCA, but not for any normal human reasons. It did not bother them that the bill was cruel; what bothered them was that it wasn't cruel enough.

In order to meet the approval of the Freedom Caucus, the drafters of the AHCA needed to agree to remove, among other things, what are called "essential benefits" which would be available to everyone. Among these are maternity and newborn care, emergency room services, laboratory services and pediatric services. Babies, mothers, seriously injured people and finding out what's wrong … no big deal, right? One Freedom Caucus member allegedly wanted to hold out for a provision that would allow him to stab you in the knee once a week, but this was deemed a bridge too far.

So now there's a Ryan-shaped dent in the wall at Freedom Caucus headquarters. Ryan's friend, the president, had the wherewithal to duck: "President Trump delivered an ultimatum to House Republicans on Thursday night: Vote to approve the measure to overhaul the nation’s health-care system on the House floor Friday, or reject it and the president will move on to his other legislative priorities." Trump is pissed at his own staffers, pissed at the Speaker's office, pissed at the Freedom Caucus, and just basically pissed … but he's not holding the bag on this one. This is Ryan's fudge, and he gets to cook it all by his lonesome.

Word has it the arm-twisting on the AHCA continues unabated, and a new vote will be called this afternoon. This space will be updated as circumstances warrant, but I wouldn't expect any surprises. People tend to jump off sinking ships, not jump on, and the longer this thing lingers more than a dozen votes short of passage, the more likely it is the defections will increase.

The fact is, it doesn't much matter. The bill could pass; introduce enough arms to enough torque and you can pass practically anything. But the truth of the matter is Ryan could offer up a recipe for bean dip and get it passed, and it would still be dead on arrival in the Senate. However you choose to slice it, the anti-Obamacare "revolution" has proven to be a truly spectacular failure.

Speaking of the Senate, it should be noted that Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer has signaled his party's intent to filibuster the Gorsuch nomination. Such an action would require Senate Republicans to find 60 votes to pass him -- they currently have 52 -- or radically rewrite the filibuster rules to do away with that 60-vote threshold. It's been a long time since Congress was this wild, and I don't mean that in a good way. Millions of lives are in the balance here. That being said, take a moment and consider where we stand. It takes a magical amount of failure to turn the threat of a filibustered Supreme Court nominee into back-page news, but Paul Ryan and the Freedom Caucus have managed to do exactly that.

Heard any good jokes lately?

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