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Cuba Is Our Family

Cuba and the Estados Unidos have been family for so long that relationships have been reversed, forgotten, turned inside out, and repeated.

In the 19th century, the Cuban community in the United States and their supporters there were the base for revolutionary democracy and the ousting of Spanish colonial rule. Americanism and Protestantism and capitalism were seen as progressive democratic challenges to colonial control -- and I mean by more than just the equivalent of Fox viewers.

Of course that's wildly different now. The United States is now willing to smack itself in the face repeatedly in hopes of occasionally landing a blow on Cuba. Here in the land of our Caribbean cousins it is commonly discussed that the United States is hurting its health, not just by eating crap food and denying people healthcare, but also by denying the U.S. people Cuban medical advances. There are 13 vaccines, the saying goes, for such things as meningitis, that Cuba has and the U.S. does not. Other medical advances are also part of this argument, including prominently a treatment of diabetes that saves people from amputations. There are also U.S. medical advances -- in particular expensive equipment -- that Cuba cannot have as long as the embargo rages on.

I remember Robin Williams telling Canada it was a nice friendly apartment over a meth lab. Unfortunately for Cuba it lives in the basement. The madness of its upstairs relatives is epitomized by the manner in which the militarism that lies at the root of the embargo directly impacts U.S. health. I mean beyond all the killing and injuries and pollution and environmental destruction, there's something more grotesque. I picture mad naked Nazis in boots -- and in the path of the hurricanes -- on Plum Island who almost certainly gave us Lyme disease and spread the West Nile virus and the Dutch duck plague and others -- all of them still spreading -- as part of the same program that weaponized Anthrax and just possibly spread Ebola.

The ongoing U.S. bio-warfare program may have caused more damage through testing and accidents than by intention, but it has intentionally brought hunger and death to Cuba as it was designed to do, introducing swine fever to the island as well as tobacco mold, and creating "an epidemic of hemorrhagic dengue fever in 1981, during which some 340,000 people were infected and 116,000 hospitalized, this in a country which had never before experienced a single case of the disease. In the end, 158 people, including 101 children, died."

Families will fight. The United States has behaved better at other times. In 1904, the U.S. signed, and in 1925 it ratified the returning of the Isle of Pine (now the Isle of Youth) to Cuba. The deep scar that deed left on the United States of America and the danger it placed all Americans in are of course ludicrous fantasies, and the same would be the case if the United States were to return Guantanamo to Cuba. Very few in the U.S. would even know about Guantanamo if it weren't being used as a human experimentation, torture, and death camp for illegal prisoners. Both Guantanamo and the Isle of Youth were stolen during what Cuba calls the Cuban-American War and the U.S. calls the Spanish-American War. If one can be given back, why not the other?

Cuba and the United States have been exchanging cultures and ideas and identities for so long that one cannot keep them straight. I'm delighted to have found Facebook and Twitter working in Cuba and to be able to get on the internet and see how handily the University of Virginia just beat N.C. State at basketball, but doing so with a live Cuban band jamming five feet away is a vast improvement. The live music and dancing at 10 in the morning, with rum drinks, that I have begun getting used to is arguably an improvement on quality of life that no quantity of home appliances or gated communities can match. I'd like to get my cell phone working but can't spare the hours to wait in the line at the Cuban phone office. But let that come later, for better or worse, along with the U.S. investors and the rising waters crashing over the wall along the Malecon.

I've seen poverty in Cuba, but not conspicuously extravagant wealth. I've seen begging for money but not hostility. I've seen genuine friendliness and what comes across as immediate intimacy. I've heard complaints of homophobia and police harassment and lack of same-sex marriage rights. I've heard complaints of racism. But these are points in common throughout our family.

I've met a woman who says she had an idyllic childhood growing up on the U.S. base at Guantanamo, which she believes should not exist. I've petted the loose dogs in the streets of Havana, which bear no resemblance to the U.S. breed known as Havanese.

Filmmaker Gloria Rolando told us at her house tonight that the 1898 war and the U.S. control of Cuba increased existing racism. In 1908, as one of her films recounts, the Independent Party of Color was founded. In 1912 a massacre killed 3,000 blacks. Similar incidents were happening in the North at the same time, incidents that the U.S. is struggling to remember.

Rolando's films tell a story of a Caribbean family, of people moving from island to island. In the 1920s and 1930s poor people in the pre-banking haven Cayman Islands came to work on the Isle of Pine. The complex history of immigrants moving to the United States and back, and to other islands and back, is a history of racial complexity as well. Cuba today has racial problems, Rolando says, but now it is possible to debate the topic, unlike 15 years ago. Some black people still favor light skin, she says, and very few blacks have family in Miami sending them money. "You have seen the ugly black dolls with cigars for sale to tourists," she says, and I have. I have also seen more mixed-race couples and groups here than ever up north.

Assata Shakur is the topic of one of Rolando's films, The Eyes of the Rainbow. In it, she remarks on Cubans' unnerving friendliness, something she grew used to after moving here.

Earlier today we traveled out of Havana to Las Terrazas, a sustainable model community in a reforested area of the mountains that used to be a French coffee plantation. This ideal model for tourists and visitors only turned to tourism recently. The 1,000 people who live there, and the gourmet vegetarian restaurant where we dined there (El Romero with chef Tito Nuñez Gudas), and the incredible beauty of the place are not representative of all of Cuba; but they are indications of what is possible.

I picked up a bottle of honey made at Las Terrazas and packaged in a re-used rum bottle. I wanted to bring it home until I realized something. Honey is a liquid. On an airplane it would be a terrorist threat or a reason to spend $50 on checking a suitcase.

We looked at the stone cells people slept in under guard when forced to work on the coffee plantation under the system of slavery. They were about the size of the slave cabins at Thomas Jefferson's house, a bit larger than the cages at Guantanamo.

Cuba and the United States have a great deal in common, but of course it all means nothing because their president is always a Castro and ours is changed every 4 or 8 years from one advocate of crazy militarism, consumption, and wealth concentration, to a nearly identical advocate of crazy militarism, consumption, and wealth concentration. When will Cuba catch up?

Cuba Is Good for Your Health

"It's behind us," Fernando Gonzales of the Cuban Five said with a smile when I told him just a few moments ago that I was sorry for the U.S. government having locked him in a cage for 15 years. It was nice of the New York Times to editorialize in favor of negotiations to release the remaining three, he said, especially since that paper had never reported on the story at all.

Gonzales said there is no ground for the United States keeping Cuba on its terrorist list. That there are Basques in Cuba is through an agreement with Spain, he said. The idea that Cuba is fighting wars in Central America is false, he added, noting that Colombian peace talks are underway here in Havana. "The President of the United States knows this," Gonzales said, "which is why he asked for the list to be reviewed."

Medea Benjamin recalled coming to Cuba back in an age when the United States was apparently trying to kill not only Cubans but also tourists who dared to come to Cuba. This, she said, is what the Cuban Five were trying to stop. So we're glad, she told Gonzales, that we can come here now without worrying about Obama putting a bomb in the lobby. A crazy worry? It wasn't always.

Earlier today we visited the Latin American School of Medicine, which is now misnamed as it educates doctors from all over the world, not just Latin America. It began in 1998 by converting a former navy school into a medical school at which to give free education to students from Central America. From 2005 to 2014, the school has seen 24,486 students graduate.

Their education is totally free and begins with a 20-week course in the Spanish language. This is a world-standard medical school surrounded by palm trees and sports fields on the very edge of the Caribbean, and students who are qualified for pre-med school -- which means two years of U.S. college -- can come here and become doctors without paying a dime, and without going hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt. The students do not then have to practice medicine in Cuba or do anything for Cuba, but rather are expected to return to their own countries and practice medicine where it is most needed.

Thus far 112 U.S. students have graduated, and 99 are currently enrolled. Some of them went with an aid "brigade" to Haiti. All of them, after graduating, have passed their U.S. exams back home. I spoke with Olive Albanese, a medical student from Madison, Wisconsin. I asked what she would do upon graduation. "We have a moral obligation," she replied, "to work where it's most needed." She said she would go to a rural or Native American area that has no doctors and work there. She said that the U.S. government should be offering this same service to anyone who wants it, and that people who graduate with student debt will not serve those most in need.

This morning we visited a still healthier place than the medical school: Alamar.

This organic farming cooperative on 25 acres east of Havana didn't choose to go organic. Back in the 1990s, during the "special period" (meaning catastrophically bad period) nobody had fertilizer or other poisons. They couldn't use them if they wanted to. Cuba lost 85% of its international trade when the Soviet Union broke up. So, Cubans learned to grow their own food, and learned to do so without chemicals, and learned to eat the things they grew. A meat-heavy diet began to incorporate a lot more vegetables.

Miguel Salcines, a founder of Alamar, gave us a tour, with camera crews from German television and the Associated Press following. The farm has been featured in a U.S. documentary called The Power of Community, and Salcines has given a TED talk. To Cuba's tradition of monocropping sugar, the USSR added chemicals and machinery, he said. The chemicals did damage. And the population was moving to cities. Big agriculture collapsed, and farming was transformed: smaller, more urban, and organic before anyone knew that name. People who resent the history of slavery and dislike the work of monocropping, he said, are now finding a better way of life working at organic farming coops. That includes 150 workers at Alamar, many of whom we observed and spoke with. Farm workers now include more women and more elderly Cubans.

There are more elderly Cubans working on organic farms because Cubans are living longer (life expectancy of 79.9 years) and they are living longer, according to Salcines, at least in part because of organic food. Eliminating beef has improved Cubans' health, he said. Biodiversity and beneficial insects and proper care for the soil replace fertilizers and pesticides, to everyone's benefit. Thousands of minerals must be replaced in farmed soil, he said, and replacing just a few of them results in illnesses, diabetes, heart problems, and much else, including a lack of libido -- not to mention more pests on the farm, which could be reduced by giving the plants proper nutrition. Even Cuba's bees are reportedly alive and well.

Salcines says Cuba produces 1,020,000 tons of organic vegetables per year, 400 tons of them at Alamar in great variety and at a rate of five crops per year. Alamar also produces 40 tons of worm compost per year, using 80 tons of organic matter to do so.

Salcines pointed to Cuba's healthy diet as something good that's come of the U.S. embargo. On top of that scandalous remark he declared his disagreement with Karl Marx. Population growth is exponential and food production linear, he said. Marx believed science would solve this problem, and he was wrong, declared Salcines. When women are in power, said Salcines, the population doesn't grow. So, put women in power, he concluded. The only way to feed the world, Salcines said, with an apology to Monsanto, is to reject the agriculture of killing in favor of an agriculture of life.

 

Cuba Uncensored

This evening, February 9, 2015, a handful of visitors from the land to the north asked an assistant (or "instructional" which I take to be a step below "assistant") professor of philosophy about his studies and his teaching experiences here in Cuba. One of our group made the mistake of asking whether this philosopher thought of Fidel as a philosopher. The result was an almost Fidel-length response that had little to do with philosophy and everything to do with criticizing the president.

Fidel Castro, according to this young man, had good intentions over a half century ago, but he grew stubborn and willing only to listen to advisers who said what he wanted to hear. Examples offered included a decision in the 1990s to solve a teacher shortage by making unqualified teenagers into professors.

When I asked about authors favored by Cuban philosophy students, and Slavoj Zizek's name came up, I asked if this was at all based on videos of him, given the lack of internet. "Oh, but they pirate and share everything," was the response.

This led to a discussion of the local internet people have set up in Cuba. According to this professor, people are relaying wireless signals on from house to house and running wires along telephone lines, and they are self-policing by cutting out anyone sharing pornography or other undesirable materials. In this man's view, the Cuban government could easily provide internet to many more people but chooses not to out of a desire to better control it. He himself, he said, has internet access through his job, but doesn't use email because if he did then he'd have no excuse for missing meetings announced by email.

This morning we had met with Ricardo Alarcon (Cuba's Permanent Representative to the United Nations for nearly 30 years and later Minister of Foreign Affairs before becoming President of the National Assembly of People's Power) and Kenia Serrano Puig (a member of Parliament and the President of the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples or ICAP, which has already published this article).

Why so little internet? someone asked. Kenia replied that the main obstacle was the U.S. blockade, explaining that Cuba has to connect to the internet through Canada and that it is very expensive. "We'd like to have internet for everyone," she said, but the priority is to provide it to social institutions.

USAID, she noted, has spent $20 million per year to propagandize for regime change in Cuba, and USAID doesn't connect everyone to the internet, but only those whom they choose.

Cubans can speak against the Cuban government, she said, but many who do are paid by USAID, including widely read bloggers -- not dissidents, in her view, but mercenaries. Alarcon added that the Helms-Burton Act banned sharing of U.S. technology, but Obama has just changed that.

The philosophy professor acknowledged some truth to these claims, but thought it was fairly slight. I suspect there's as much a variation in perspective at work here as intentional deception. The citizen sees shortcomings. The government sees foreign dangers and price tags.

Still, it is wonderful to hear about people managing to create independent communications media in any country, including one long abused by the United States, and one that gets a great many things right.

An American who's been in Cuba for many years told me that often the government announces policies and services on television and in newspapers, but people don't watch or read, and because there's no way to find things out on a website, they never find out. This strikes me as a good reason for the Cuban government to want everyone to have the internet, and for the internet to be used to show the world what the Cuban government is doing when it is doing something creative or moral.

I'm trying to keep things in perspective. I haven't heard yet of any corruption to match the tales that Bob Fitrakis, one of our group, relates of Columbus, Ohio, politics. I haven't seen any neighborhood in as terrible shape as Detroit.

As we learn about the highs and lows of Cuban life, and their possible causes, one fact becomes clear: the excuse offered by the Cuban government for any failure is the U.S. embargo. Were the embargo to end, the excuse would certainly vanish -- and to some degree the actual problem would almost certainly be improved. By continuing the embargo, the United States provides an excuse for what it claims to be opposing, in its often hypocritical way: restrictions on freedom of the press and speech -- or what the U.S. thinks of as "human rights."

Cuba, of course, sees the rights to housing, food, education, healthcare, peace, etc., as human rights as well.

Not far from the Capitol building, modeled on the U.S. Capitol building and -- like it -- undergoing repairs, I bought a copy of the Cuban Constitution. Try putting the two preambles side by side. Try comparing the content of the Cuban and U.S. Constitutions. One is radically more democratic, and it's not the one belonging to the nation that bombs in Democracy's name.

In the U.S. the Capitol dome is one of few things that anyone bothers to repair. Havana, in contrast, is packed with repair shops for everything imaginable. The walkable streets with relatively few cars display beautiful cars that have been repaired and repaired and repaired for decades. The country's laws are reworked through very public processes. Cars tend to be much older than laws, unlike the U.S. situation in which basic laws tend to predate modern machinery.

Alarcon was very positive about recent developments in U.S.-Cuban relations but warned that a new U.S. embassy cannot work for the overthrow of the Cuban government. "We may denounce the U.S. police killing unarmed African-American boys," he said, "but we have no right to organize Americans to oppose that. To do so would be an imperialist approach."

Asked about restoring property to those who had it seized during the revolution, Alarcon said that the agrarian reform law of 1959 allows for that, but the United States refused to allow it. But, he said, Cubans have their own much larger claims due to damage from the illegal embargo. So all of that will need to be worked out between the two countries.

Is Alarcon worried about U.S. investment and culture? No, he said, Canadians have long been the top visitors to Cuba, so North Americans are familiar. Cuba has always pirated U.S. films and shown them in theaters at the same times they were showing in the United States. With normal relations, copyright laws will take effect, he said.

Why has the U.S. not sought out Cuba's market before? Because, he thinks, some visitors will inevitably find things of value in Cuba's way of running a country. Now, U.S. investors can come to Cuba but will need approval of the government for any projects, just as is the case in other Latin American countries.

I asked Kenia why Cuba needs a military, and she pointed to a history of U.S. aggression, but she said that Cuba's military is defensive rather than offensive. The Cuban Constitution is also dedicated to peace. Last year in Havana, 31 nations dedicated themselves to peace.

Medea Benjamin proposes a way in which Cuba could make a huge statement for peace, namely by turning the Guantanamo prison camp into an international center for nonviolent conflict resolution and experimentation in sustainable living. Of course, first the United States has to close the prison and give the land back.

Cuba Is Hot

We arrived in Havana tonight, February 8, 2015, or year 56 of the revolution, 150 of us filling an entire airplane, a group of U.S. peace and justice activists organized by CODEPINK. The place is hot and beautiful despite the rain.

The buildings, the cars, the sidewalks look as if time stopped in 1959. The tour guide on the bus from the airport to the hotel brags that the municipality around the airport has a psychiatric hospital and a spaghetti factory. Both the billboards and the tour guide fit Fidel into most every topic.

Back home en el Norte we often note that they don't build things like they used to. My own house predates the Cuban revolution. Prioritizing human needs over "growth" and gentrification is certainly something I would retroactively choose if I could.

But did Cuba choose to stop time on purpose? Or to stop it in certain ways? Or is it something one is not supposed to say or think? We'll be meeting with many Cubans in the coming week, those the government perhaps wants us to meet and those it perhaps doesn't.

Who's to blame and credit for the bad and good in Cuba? I don't yet know and am not sure how much I care. By one argument the U.S. sanctions have been disastrous. By another they've had no effect. By no argument does there seem to be any reason to continue them. Or course those claiming they've done no harm often suggest that Cuba should not be rewarded by lifting them. But incoherent nonsense is hard to respond to.

The United States waged a long terrorist war against Cuba but keeps Cuba on its terrorist list. That has to end regardless of whether Cuba has found the way to a sustainable democratic future.

An American in a hotel elevator said to me: "Shouldn't the people whose property was seized in the revolution have it restored to them?" I happen to know that at least some of them don't want it restored, but I replied, "Sure, that's worth considering, as is the United States giving Guantanamo back to Cuba." Without missing a beat, this Good American came back at me with a line he'd clearly used before: "Will you give me your car, then?" Once I'd figure out what he was saying, I pointed out that I hadn't stolen his car at gunpoint as the United States stole Guantanamo. He walked away.

I realize that carried to an extreme I'd have to ask the United States to give back the entire United States, but I'm not carrying it to that extreme. Why can't the U.S. give back Cuba's land and Cuba reform its worst political practices? Every government in the world needs to be reformed, and urging changes on one hardly endorses every action of the other 199.  

The streets of Havana are dark at night, lit just enough to see and no more, but with no sense of danger, no sense of racial segregation, no threat of violence, no homeless people as one inevitably encounters in the land of capitalistic success. The bands play Guantanamera for what must be the gazillionth time, and play it like they mean it.

Taken all in all, and having just arrived, it's not a bad place to be cut off from the world. I have yet to find a SIM card or a phone. My hotel has no internet, at least not until mañana. The Hotel Nacional -- that of the Godfather movie -- tells me they have internet only in the day time. But the Havana Libre, formerly Havana Hilton, has live music, electric outlets with three holes, and slow but functioning internet (superior to Amtrak's) for 10 pesos an hour, not to mention mojitos.

Here's to Cuba!

The Key That Is the Saudi Kingdom

Was the United States compelled to attack Afghanistan and Iraq by the events of September 11, 2001?

A key to answering that rather enormous question may lie in the secrets that the U.S. government is keeping about Saudi Arabia.

Some have long claimed that what looked like a crime on 9/11 was actually an act of war necessitating the response that has brought violence to an entire region and to this day has U.S. troops killing and dying in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Could diplomacy and the rule of law have been used instead? Could suspects have been brought to trial? Could terrorism have been reduced rather than increased? The argument for those possibilities is strengthened by the fact that the United States has not chosen to attack Saudi Arabia, whose government is probably the region's leading beheader and leading funder of violence.

But what does Saudi Arabia have to do with 9/11? Well, every account of the hijackers has most of them as Saudi. And there are 28 pages of a 9/11 Commission report that President George W. Bush ordered classified 13 years ago.

Senate Intelligence Committee former chair Bob Graham calls Saudi Arabia "a co-conspirator in 911," and insists that the 28 pages back up that claim and should be made public.

Philip Zelikow, chair of the 9/11 Commission, has noted the "likelihood that charities with significant Saudi government sponsorship diverted funds to Al Qaeda."

Zacarias Moussaoui, a former al Qaeda member, has claimed that prominent members of Saudi Arabia's royal family were major donors to al Qaeda in the late 1990s and that he discussed a plan to shoot down Air Force One using a Stinger missile with a staff member at the Saudi Embassy in Washington.

Al Qaeda donors, according to Moussaoui, included Prince Turki al-Faisal, then the Saudi intelligence chief; Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, the longtime Saudi ambassador to the United States; Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, a prominent billionaire investor; and many of the country's leading clerics.

Bombing and invading Iraq has been a horrible policy. Supporting and arming Saudi Arabia is a horrible policy. Confirming Saudi Arabia's role in funding al Qaeda should not become an excuse to bomb Saudi Arabia (of which there's no danger) or for bigotry against Americans of Saudi origin (for which there's no justification).

Rather, confirming that the Saudi government allowed and quite possibly participated in funneling money to al Qaeda should wake everyone up to the fact that wars are optional, not necessary. It might also help us question Saudi pressure on the U.S. government to attack new places: Syria and Iran. And it might increase support for cutting off the flow of U.S. weapons to Saudi Arabia -- a government that takes no second place to ISIS in brutality.

I've often heard that if we could prove that there weren't really any hijackers on 9/11 all support for wars would vanish. One of many hurdles I'm unable to leap to arrive at that position is this one: Why would you invent hijackers to justify a war on Iraq but make the hijackers almost all be Saudi?

However, I think there's a variation that works. If you could prove that Saudi Arabia had more to do with 9/11 than Afghanistan (which had very little to do with it) or Iraq (which had nothing to do with it), then you could point out the U.S. government's incredible but very real restraint as it chooses peace with Saudi Arabia. Then a fundamental point would become obvious: War is not something the U.S. government is forced into, but something it chooses.

That's the key, because if it can choose war with Iran or Syria or Russia, it can also choose peace.

Addiction Is Not Addictive

Whether someone becomes addicted to drugs has much more to do with their childhood and their quality of life than with the drug they use or with anything in their genes. This is one of the more startling of the many revelations in the best book I've read yet this year: Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari.

We've all been handed a myth. The myth goes like this: Certain drugs are so powerful that if you use them enough they will take over. They will drive you to continue using them. It turns out this is mostly false. Only 17.7 percent of cigarette smokers can stop smoking using a nicotine patch that provides the same drug. Of people who have tried crack in their lives, only 3 percent have used it in the past month and only 20 percent were ever addicted. U.S. hospitals prescribe extremely powerful opiates for pain every day, and often for long periods of time, without producing addiction. When Vancouver blocked all heroin from entering the city so successfully that the "heroin" being sold had zero actual heroin in it, the addicts' behavior didn't change. Some 20 percent of U.S. soldiers in Vietnam were addicted to heroin, leading to terror among those anticipating their return home; but when they got home 95 percent of them within a year simply stopped. (So did the Vietnamese water buffalo population, which had started eating opium during the war.) The others soldiers had been addicts before they went and/or shared the trait most common to all addicts, including gambling addicts: an unstable or traumatic childhood.

Most people (90 percent according to the U.N.) who use drugs never get addicted, no matter what the drug, and most who do get addicted can lead normal lives if the drug is available to them; and if the drug is available to them, they will gradually stop using it.

But, wait just a minute. Scientists have proven that drugs are addictive, haven't they?

Well, a rat in a cage with absolutely nothing else in its life will choose to consume huge quantities of drugs. So if you can make your life resemble that of a rat in a cage, the scientists will be vindicated. But if you give a rat a natural place to live with other rats to do happy things with, the rat will ignore a tempting pile of "addictive" drugs.

And so will you. And so will most people. Or you'll use it in moderation. Before the War on Drugs began in 1914 (a U.S. substitute for World War I?), people bought bottles of morphine syrup, and wine and soft drinks laced with cocaine. Most never got addicted, and three-quarters of addicts held steady respectable jobs.

Is there a lesson here about not trusting scientists? Should we throw out all evidence of climate chaos? Should we dump all our vaccines into Boston Harbor? Actually, no. There's a lesson here as old as history: follow the money. Drug research is funded by a federal government that censors its own reports when they come to the same conclusions as Chasing the Scream, a government that funds only research that leaves its myths in place. Climate deniers and vaccine deniers should be listened to. We should always have open minds. But thus far they don't seem to be pushing better science that can't find funding. Rather, they're trying to replace current beliefs with beliefs that have less basis behind them. Reforming our thinking on addiction actually requires looking at the evidence being produced by dissident scientists and reformist governments, and it's pretty overwhelming.

So where does this leave our attitudes toward addicts? First we were supposed to condemn them. Then we were supposed to excuse them for having a bad gene. Now we're supposed to feel sorry for them because they have horrors they cannot face, and in most cases have had them since childhood? There's a tendency to view the "gene" explanation as the solider excuse. If 100 people drink alcohol and one of them has a gene that makes him unable to ever stop, it's hard to blame him for that. How could he have known? But what about this situation: Of 100 people, one of them has been suffering in agony for years, in part as a result of never having experienced love as a baby. That one person later becomes addicted to a drug, but that addiction is only a symptom of the real problem. Now, of course, it is utterly perverse to be inquiring into someone's brain chemistry or background before we determine whether or not to show them compassion. But I have a bit of compassion even for people who cannot resist such nonsense, and so I appeal to them now: Shouldn't we be kind to people who suffer from childhood trauma? Especially when prison makes their problem worse?

But what if we were to carry this beyond addiction to other undesirable behaviors? There are other books presenting similarly strong cases that violence, including sexual violence, and including suicide, have in very large part similar origins to those Hari finds for addiction. Of course violence must be prevented, not indulged. But it can best be reduced by improving people's lives, especially their young lives but importantly also their current lives. Bit by bit, as we have stopped discarding people of various races, gender, sexual orientation, and disabilities as worthless, as we begin to accept that addiction is a temporary and non-threatening behavior rather than the permanent state of a lesser creature known as "the addict," we may move on to discarding other theories of permanence and genetic determination, including those related to violent criminals. Someday we may even outgrow the idea that war or greed or the automobile is the inevitable outcome of our genes.

Somehow blaming everything on drugs, just like taking drugs, seems much easier.

Watch Johann Hari on Democracy Now.

He'll soon be on Talk Nation Radio, so send me questions I should ask him, but read the book first.

It's the Blind Partisanship

Why did the peace movement grow large around 2003-2006 and shrink around 2008-2010? Military spending, troop levels abroad, and number of wars engaged in can explain the growth but not the shrinkage. Those factors hardly changed between the high point and the low point of peace activism.

Was pulling troops out of Iraq and sending them in huge numbers into Afghanistan a move the public favored? There's not much evidence for the second half of that, and it was never a demand of the peace movement at its height. Did the wars become more legal, more honest, more internationally accepted? Hardly. The United States escalated in Afghanistan and remained in Iraq as other nations ended their minor roles in those wars. The U.S. president began taking drone wars into a number of other countries with no domestic or international authorization at all, as he would later do with Libya, and then back into Iraq again (which Congress is considering possibly deliberating on whether to debate retroactively "authorizing").

The earlier period saw obvious lies about weapons in Iraq. The latter saw obvious lies about "success" in Iraq and imminent "success" in Afghanistan, not to mention the precision nature of drone "strikes," followed by lies about threats to civilians in Libya, chemical attacks in Syria, Russian invasions in Ukraine, and existential danger from ISIS and Russia.

Was the difference a matter of sheer exhaustion, then? Peace activists could perhaps only keep going for so long? Actually, no, activists moved to other issues more than they dropped out, and those who dropped out disproportionately had something in common: loyalty to the Democratic Party. I don't know this because I've chatted with a few people unscientifically selected as most likely to agree with whatever I say. I know it because I've just read a new book called Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party after 9/11 by Michael T. Heaney and Fabio Rojas who have spent years studying this question using careful surveys of large numbers of activists. Their book begins with 93 pages of scholarly theoretical framework before getting to the data. You want careful examination of the influence of partisanship on activism? This is it.

"The 2006 elections and their immediate aftermath were the high point for party-movement synergy," write Heaney and Rojas. "At exactly the time when antiwar voices were most well poised to exert pressure on Congress, movement leaders stopped sponsoring lobby days. The size of antiwar protests declined. From 2007 to 2009, the largest antiwar rallies shrank from hundreds of thousands of people to thousands, and then to only hundreds."

What explains this?

"Our explanation centers on the shifting partisan alignments favoring the Democratic Party. We observe demobilization not in response to a policy victory, but in response to a party victory. The rising power of the Democratic Party may have convinced many antiwar activists that the war issue would be dealt with satisfactorily."

Is that what happened? The authors, in fact, have found strong evidence for these conclusions:

"Partisan identification tends to be stronger and longer-lasting than movement identification."

"While the Democratic Party was able to leverage antiwar sentiments effectively in promoting its own electoral success, the antiwar movement itself ultimately suffered organizationally from its ties to the Democratic Party."

"[T]he parties agree more on the substance of policy than their political rhetoric suggests."

"Overall, the findings offer strong support for the partisan identification theory as a way of understanding the mobilization of grassroots activists. Partisan identification fueled the growth of the antiwar movement during the Bush years but then trimmed the grass roots in the Obama era."

"Antiwar leaders crafted partisan frames to help get people into the streets. UFPJ's use of the slogan 'The World Says No to the Bush Agenda,' for the protest outside the 2004 Republican National Convention is a classic example of this strategy in operation."

"The bad news for the antiwar movement was that activists were more likely to favor their Democratic identities over their antiwar identities. Especially once Obama became president, there were too many good reasons to be a Democrat. The country had its first African American in the Oval Office, an important symbolic outcome after centuries of struggle for racial equality. The Democratic majority in Washington – which was nearly a supermajority – meant that comprehensive health care reform would stand a real chance for the first time in fifteen years. Thus, many former antiwar activists shifted their attention to other issues on the progressive agenda."

Heaney and Rojas and their surveys were features of antiwar events for years. Here are hypotheses they tested and found support for:

"h4.1. Partisan frames were more effective in drawing participants to the antiwar movement the greater the unity of Republican control in Washington, D.C. Partisan frames were less effective in drawing participants to the antiwar movement the greater the unity of Democratic control in Washington, D.C.

"h4.2. The participation of self-identified Democrats in the antiwar movement was more likely to be motivated by partisan frames than was participation of non-Democrats in the antiwar movement.

"h4.3. Self-identified Democrats were more likely to reduce their participation in the antiwar movement over time than were non-Democrats."

"h4.4. The more salient an individual's identification with social movements, the more likely that she or he maintained participation in the antiwar movement over time.

"h4.5. The more salient an individual's identification with the Democratic Party, the less likely she or he was to participate in the antiwar movement at all.

"h4.6 In cases of conflict, individuals participating in the antiwar movement were more likely to maintain their party loyalties than their movement loyalties.

"h4.7. Self-identified Democratic activists were more likely than non-Democrats to view wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as being managed well by the Obama administration.

"h4.8. After the election of President Obama, self-identified Democrats were more likely to shift their attention to nonwar issues than were non-Democrats."

Heaney and Rojas fend off some likely straw men:

"We do not claim that partisanship entirely explains the decline of the antiwar movement," they write. "There is no doubt that a long list of factors played a role. Activists were frustrated by a lack of policy success, meager resources, intramovement conflicts, and more. Many activists burned out from too many years of traveling to protests. Yet our analysis validates a very important role for partisanship in the decline. If partisan identities were not a contributing factor to the movement's decline, then we would not have observed differences between Democrats and non-Democrats in their behavior vis-à-vis the movement."

Now to quibbling. Heaney and Rojas, I think, fail to place the decisions that doomed the anti-Republican war movement quite early enough or to adequately distinguish the extent to which partisan organizations engaged in purely anti-Republican war activism even during the height of the movement. "[M]any of UFPJ's members no longer wanted to focus on antiwar opposition once a Democrat was in the White House," they write. In fact, I remember the big drop-off (whether driven by popular interest or funders or executive decisions) coming in 2007 as Democrats took more interest in electing a president than in opposing wars or building peace.

"While MoveOn formally continued to hold antiwar positions after Obama's election," write Heaney and Rojas, "it threw its weight behind health care organizing, rather than antiwar mobilizations." They add: "Neither MoveOn nor its members suddenly became 'prowar' in 2009. Instead, their issue priorities shifted with the rise of a new administration. With so many of its members identified with the Democratic Party, it was unlikely that MoveOn would maintain an agenda that was counter to the party's trajectory. Democratic identities outweighed antiwar identities within MoveOn, so, one of the leading players of the antiwar movement from 2003 to 2008 moved on to a different agenda."

But in fact, well before 2008, MoveOn was organizing antiwar events in the districts of prowar Republicans and not in the districts of prowar Democrats. In March 2007, shortly after the Democrats took power in Congress I wrote this analysis of MoveOn's refusal to lobby for peace as it had in years gone by:

"The Congress that was elected to end the war just voted to fund the war. Congresswoman Barbara Lee was not permitted to offer for a vote her amendment, which would have funded a withdrawal instead of the war. Groups that supported Lee's plan and opposed Pelosi's included United for Peace and Justice, Progressive Democrats of America, US Labor Against the War, After Downing Street, Democrats.com, Peace Action, Code Pink, Democracy Rising, True Majority, Gold Star Families for Peace, Military Families Speak Out, Backbone Campaign, Iraq Veterans Against the War, Voters for Peace, Veterans for Peace, the Green Party, and disgruntled former members of MoveOn.org.

"True Majority was a late addition to the list. The organization polled its members. Did they favor the Pelosi bill to fund the war but include various toothless restrictions on it, or did they favor the Lee plan to use the power of the purse to end the war by the end of the year? Needless to say, True Majority's membership favored the Lee plan.

"MoveOn polled its membership without including the Lee alternative, offering a choice of only Pelosi's plan or nothing. Amazingly, Eli Pariser of MoveOn has admitted that the reason MoveOn did this was because they knew that their members would favor the Lee amendment."

Heaney and Rojas, however, emphasize popular will as the decisive factor:

"Did the movement decline because individual antiwar activists stopped showing up at public demonstrations? Or was the absence of organizational leadership the culprit? Our evidence suggests that the declining magnitude of antiwar protests during the 2007–2008 period was in large part, if not entirely, due to decreased interest among individual activists. If anything, the major organizations and coalitions intensified their mobilization efforts in 2007–2008, reflecting their access to financial and human resources accumulated over the past few years. The institutionalized movement persisted in its opposition in 2007–2008, even in the face of declining interest among its mass constituency. Still, decisions by organizational leaders had a greater hand in the movement's decline in 2009–2010 than they had in the earlier period."

I'm not convinced. I have no doubt that public sentiment, and in particular political partisanship, was hugely important. But organizations that have been corrupted by closeness to power don't advertise their shifts in position. They "poll" their members and declare themselves "member-run." The most common comment on antiwar conference calls in 2008 was "People are too busy with the election." Were they? Some were, some weren't. The question wasn't really tested. The most common comment on antiwar conference calls in 2009 was "It's too early to be seen as protesting Obama." Was it? That wasn't tested either, but it seems easier to answer in retrospect. We're more ready to say that in fact we shouldn't have hacked our own legs off at the knees and transformed into a collective Nobel Committee handing out magical prizes. We should have demanded peace if we thought it likely, and we should have demanded peace if we thought it unlikely. In fact, Obama supporters frequently quoted him telling us to go out there and make him do it, even while advocating against going out there and making him do it. The fact that we'd already gone relatively silent in 2007-2008 tends to get forgotten.

Heaney and Rojas deal in actual views of numerous actual people. So there are no imaginary master plots of deception involved. The idea is not that everyone who turned out to march in February 2003 was actually indifferent to war but using the war as an excuse to protest Bush. Rather, protesting both war and Bush were desirable to many. Then, Heaney and Rojas, argue, protesting war became less important than demanding healthcare.

I think a couple of points are worth adding some emphasis on, however, that may darken the picture slightly. When the Democrats took Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008, it became necessary in protesting war to protest Democrats. That, in fact, was a worse fate in a lot of people's minds than accepting war. Democratic politicians do not typically try to be antiwar. They just work to be seen as less pro-war than Republicans (although many exceptions don't even do that). In addition, Democratic politicians pretend to favor things when they are out of power. In 2005 and early 2006, numerous Democrats in Congress were making commitments to end the war in Iraq. But by 2007, with the majority and the chairmanships in the House, 81 Representatives felt obliged to sign a letter committing to not fund more war just prior to, almost all of them, voting to fund more war. The activists who let them get away with that before moving onto healthcare were organized by groups that took direction from those very Democrats. They were forbidden to have signs reading "Single Payer" at their rallies or to advocate for anything not already in the legislation. It was a completely inverted relationship with public servants telling constituents what to demand of them. And now, with the Democrats back in the minority, they're starting to make noises about favoring progressive taxation and all sorts of things they stayed away from while in the majority.

Is all of this inevitable? I'm afraid the scholarly apparatus of scientistic studies tends to suggest it. Here are Heaney and Rojas: "The greater the size of the party in the street, the more likely a movement is to evolve toward using institutionally based political tactics. The smaller the size of the party in the street, the less likely a movement is to evolve toward using institutionally based political tactics." In other words, if you start to build numbers of people involved, they will move into lobbying and electioneering rather than nonviolent resistance or creative communication. Given that inevitability, the one thing that might seem unnecessary would be urging movements to make that turn voluntarily. Yet Heaney and Rojas have this advice for Occupy:

"A first step for the Occupy movement might be to recognize that many of its supporters and potential supporters identify with the Democratic Party. By taking such a strong stand against the Democratic Party, Occupy cuts itself off from a key part of its support base. Instead, the movement might look for ways to recognize and incorporate the intersectional identity of 'Occupy Democrats.' A second step might be to inaugurate some institutional structures within Occupy. These structures might help to raise funds, employ staff, and regularize communication with Occupy supporters. While this suggestion is somewhat counter to the nonhierarchical ethos of Occupy, some minimal level of organization may be necessary to make any systematic progress toward the movement's long-term policy goals. A third step might be to forge alliances with genuine allies in the progressive community. While it may be that alliances with the Democrats and MoveOn are untenable, perhaps Occupy could partner with the Green Party and other political organizations whose agendas are not incommensurate with Occupy's vision."

Weighing against that advice is evidence in this very book that a mere generation back the laws of movement politics were different:

"Public opinion was polarized according to party to a much greater degree during the 2000s than was the case during the Vietnam War era (Hetherington 2009, p. 442). Polarization was highly consequential in the formation of public opinion on the war. As Gary Jacobson (2010, p. 31) notes, 'the Iraq war has divided the American public along party lines far more than any other US military action since the advent of scientific polling back in the 1930s.' Americans often took their cues about how to make sense of developments in Iraq from their partisan identifications (Gelpi 2010). We argue that, as a result, the rhythms of the antiwar movement after 9/11 were driven by partisanship much more than was the case during the Vietnam antiwar movement."

Now, I am not proposing that we can turn back time. I have enough respect for laws of physics to discount that alternative. Heaney and Rojas cite the youth of the Vietnam-era movement as one possible factor weighing against partisanship. Clearly a draft is not the only possible way to involve youth in a movement. The contrast between war making nations with student debt and peaceful nations with free education is one possible lever. Another is education in exactly the field Heaney and Rojas have mastered. Surely if everyone in the country read this book its conclusions would be thereby rendered wildly wrong -- and in a good way. If people recognize that their partisanship is hurting the causes they support, they will surely begin to question in it. I'd like to see research similar to Party in the Street but focused on those who move away from partisanship: what enables them to do that?

Born at War

Foreword to America's Oldest Professions: Warring and Spying (available in Kindle version free this week.)

One of the ways in which we commonly handicap our own struggles to reform the bad practices of the U.S. government is by imagining those practices to be degenerative developments taking us away from a purer and nobler past. As Gary Brumback shows in this book, the United States grew out of the idea that (in Thomas Paine's phrase) it was "common sense" to launch a war to settle political differences, a war that in turn set the new nation free to launch a series of wars against the indigenous people of the continent, followed quickly by a ceaseless string of wars waged in near and far-flung corners of the globe.

This deeply moral, highly readable, and urgently necessary book, which provides a wealth of new information even to a reader like myself who writes on similar topics, takes us from the birth of the United States to the Barack Obama presidency. Brumback documents George Washington's role as first warrior in chief and first chief spy, and traces that legacy through some 13,000 to 14,000 U.S. military wars/interventions since, operations that have killed some 20 million to 30 million foreign civilians just in the years after World War II, and that have killed more than two and a half million U.S. soldiers over nearly two and a half centuries.

Brumback's argument is not for "just wars" or more competent spying but for a shift away from these practices. War destroys the natural environment, wastes trillions of dollars, and has no upside. All militarism and spying cost the U.S. government well over $1 trillion a year and rising. In exchange for this investment, which at least matches if it does not exceed the rest of the world combined, the United States leads wealthy nations in inequality, unemployment, food insecurity, life expectancy, prison population, homelessness, and other measures of what all the militarism is supposedly protecting: a way of life.

We've been trained to think of war preparations -- and the wars that result from being so incredibly prepared for wars -- as necessary if regrettable. What if, however, in the long view that this book allows us, war turns out to be counterproductive on its own terms? What if war endangers those who wage it rather than protecting them? Imagine, for a moment, how many countries Canada would have to invade and occupy before it could successfully generate anti-Canadian terrorist networks to rival the hatred and resentment currently organized against the United States.

Brumback goes further, documenting that spying is as useless and counterproductive on its own terms as war is. Most secrets sought and maintained by the U.S. government have literally no strategic value even in terms of the militarist thinking that drives the spying. The CIA straddles the space between keystone cop performances of handing nuclear plans to Iran or grounding flights because a con artist claims to see secret terrorist messages in television broadcasts, and the deadly anti-democratic destruction of overthrowing governments and murdering innocent people with drone strikes. In a "free market" competition, the CIA or the Pentagon would lose out to an agency that did literally nothing, much less to a department that worked toward peace, justice, and stability through nonviolent means.

So, what drives what has come to look like war for the sake of war and spying for the sake of spying? Brumback proposes the useful term "badvantages" to categorize features of U.S. society that are not necessarily "roots" or "causes" of war but which facilitate war when found in combination. This section of the book provides an excellent outline of the military industrial spying congressional complex and analysis of how it functions. Greed, obedience, and banal immorality play central roles. As I write these words, the U.S. Congress is missing in action, having fled Washington in order to allow a new war to begin without holding a vote on whether or not to authorize it. Weapons stocks are at record heights on Wall Street, and a financial advisor on National Public Radio was just heard recommending investing in weaponry.

Banksters come in for a healthy dose of criticism as a badvantage, as do the think tanks that just can't stop thinking about tanks. Also exposed to the light in these pages are front groups for war interests, war supporters in religion and especially in education, patriotic festivals, news media, Hollywood, war toys, the domestic U.S. gun industry, academia, and -- last but not least -- people who do nothing, or "accessories after the fact." That's a lot of badvantages to be overcome.

Often, of course, it is after the fact -- after the launching of a new war -- that people come around to opposing it. For 70 years somewhere upwards of 90 percent of Americans who argue that war can be just or necessary have gone primarily to World War II as evidence for their claim. Never mind that World War II is unimaginable without World War I which nobody thinks was necessary. Never mind the support that Wall Street and the U.S. State Department gave to the Nazis for years leading up to the crisis. For 70 years people have imagined that, like World War II, some new war might be a good one. This hope has lasted for weeks or months and then faded. For most of the duration of the 2003-2011 U.S.-led war on Iraq, a U.S. majority said it should never have been started. In this sense, it is "accessories before the fact" who are hurting us the most.

Brumback envisions another way of addressing ourselves to the world, in which we would lose the idea that War #14,001 might finally be the good one that fulfills the promises of World War I and trails peace and prosperity behind its bombs and poisons. He also recommends a comprehensive series of steps to move us in that direction. This book is worth whatever you paid for it for its concluding sections alone. The creation of a Citizens Assembly is, I think, exactly the way to go, although I'm not so sure it should be national. An assembly composed of citizens of the world has potential, I believe. In either case, building such a structure is project number one. We do not need a better Obama, a change of face in a position that corrupts absolutely. We need a better Occupy, a bigger broader bolder movement that finally resorts to the most powerful tool in our arsenal: nonviolence.

 

David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is director of WorldBeyondWar.org and campaign coordinator for RootsAction.org. Swanson's books include War Is A Lie. He blogs at DavidSwanson.org and WarIsACrime.org. He hosts Talk Nation Radio.

Talk Nation Radio: Raed Jarrar: Obama's budget spends 58% of discretionary spending on military

https://soundcloud.com/davidcnswanson/talk-nation-radio-raed-jarrar-obamas-budget-spends-58-of-discretionary-spending-on-military

Raed Jarrar is Policy Impact Coordinator at the American Friends Service Committee. He discusses President Obama's proposed budget. See http://www.afsc.org/media-kit/bios/raed-jarrar

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