Passionate Nonbelief

Printed in Washington Post Magazine, Sept 30, 2001

Since I am an atheist, I would certainly rather have people in general be indifferent to atheists than hostile, but I would prefer a more engaged approach from journalists. Stephen Bates’s “The Unfaithful” [July 29] does not touch on why some theists consider it a matter of utmost importance that the world acquire more theism, or why some atheists believe the opposite with equal passion.

I see theism as offering a weak comfort to some in need, a shallow justification for some good work that people would be doing anyway, and a destructive force of great power crippling a wide variety of hopes and potentials. The ideas that everything happens according to someone’s plan and that death isn’t really death discourage people from working to improve their lives and those of their descendants.

Without religious thinking, we would not have such a hard time wiping out faith in the market and in Marxism, belief in the “unnaturalness” of homosexuality, defense of various destructive “rights,” adherence to principles and authorities even when harmful, acceptance of the status quo as divinely decreed, sexism, racism, glorification of revenge, and political apathy.

David Swanson

Why They Hate Us

To the Editor:

Oct. 11, 2001

Why they hate us was the right question, but your answers leave me unsatisfied. You blame their religion, but most religions claim that death isn’t really death, that it’s a door to paradise. Most believers do not believe strongly enough to put their lives at risk for a cause, but the strength of the belief does not explain why the cause involved hatred of Americans.

Your explanation seems to be that arabs have long failed to appreciate the glories of American culture. They hate us, in other words, because they’ve failed to love us.

Allow me to suggest that there are several obvious answers to the question that are very unflattering to the United States, and which you — presumably for that reason — overlooked or downplayed. If we are going to prevent further acts of terrorism against Americans, we need to prosecute suspected terrorists for their inexcusable violence. And we need to search for any way in which we could change our foreign policy in order to stop encouraging hatred.

You are right to point out that our arab allies, just like our arab enemies, are undemocratic and oppressive regimes. But you fail to point out that we support Israel in treating Palestinians as less than human, destroying their homes, assassinating their leaders. You fail to stress that we have killed a huge portion of the population of Iraq with our bombs, our sanctions, and our deliberate efforts to deprive those people of drinkable water. You fail to note that we blew up a medicine factory and pretended to believe it was a chemical weapons factory. You fail to recognize that we have large numbers of troops in the Middle East for no good reason. You do not point out that many of the weapons employed in Islamic countries are produced by American companies and that many of our current enemies have been trained or supported by us, including Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. You attribute no importance to our abandoning the Afghanis or the Iraquis or the Kurds as soon a! ! s we had no use for them.

Quite admirably, you do suggest that we work to encourage democracies in the Middle East. And you do note in passing the need for a solution for Palestine as well as an end to the sanctions against Iraq.

These observations, and more like them, are not “unAmerican.” They have the potential to improve America and make us, as well as others, safer.

Many who would like to see improvements in US foreign policy would also like to see suspected terrorists tried in an international court, and would like to see an end to the bombing of Afghanistan. These people are denounced in Jonathan Alter’s column.

But they get a word in, by means of placards in a photograph, and the inaccuracy of the caption is revealing. The demonstrators in the photo carry signs reading “Arabs are not the enemy,” “Resist the racist war,” and “Promote Peace, Oppose Bigotry.” The caption, entirely inappropriately, reads, “Some blur the line between understanding the Arab world’s rage – and rationalizing it.” Please tell us which poster in the photo is evidence of this absurd conclusion?


David Swanson

On September 11, 2001

Dec. 27, 2001

My initial reaction to the disaster of September 11, 2001, (See below), included the assumption that out of all that horror at least one good thing was bound to come, that it couldn’t possibly be avoided.

Namely, I was sure that our federal government would have to recognize that what killed all those people could not have been stopped by a bigger military or a military in outer space. I honestly had no doubt that, since American buildings had been destroyed with pocketknives, the futility of spending more and more money on the military and encouraging other countries to do the same would now be clear to all. If we already had a military triple the size of all our supposed enemies combined, why make it four times or five times as big? Why put weapons that didn’t even work in outer space? Why maintain nuclear weaponry? If enough hatred or jealousy or lunacy and a handful of pocketknives could defeat all that machinery, then why build it? I hardly thought this needed to be said. It seemed so obvious.

It also did not occur to me that a widely disapproved of, pathetic, ridiculous pair of politicians, the Mayor of New York and the unelected President of the United States, would suddenly be revered and treated almost as deities. I think my failure to expect this desperate need for authority and father figures (and who can deny that the choice of these two clowns displays desperation?) is a large part of the reason for my faulty expectations regarding the viability of continued arguments for military build-up.

We don’t call it military build-up anymore, of course. We don’t even call it defense. Now it’s “security.” Who can oppose security? It calls to mind a warm room with a supply of blankets more than bombs ripping walls apart and shattering human limbs and skulls.

I do not think I underestimated the cynicism or greed of weapons manufacturers. I think I underestimated the infantilism of many Americans and the ability of a cynical media to encourage childish dependency the likes of which had not been seen since the Reagan era. The media has a lot to answer for. In general it presented people with two choices: bombing Afghanistan or doing nothing. Most people wanted to do something, many of them wanted someone to tell them what that something was, and the media (along with George and Rudolph) told them that the something had to be bombing Afghanistan.

How many of us bought that absurd idea, despite the fact that in most situations we recognize and debate numerous options! When a building was blown up in Oklahoma, the two choices were to prosecute suspects or do nothing. Bombing the suspects’ nation wasn’t even considered – at least not after the FBI figured out which nation that was. (Of course, it would never bomb Bin Laden’s home nation of Saudi Arabia either.)

So, I am humbled, but somehow I have not been completely cured of optimism. I am counting on the media’s thirst for blood to backfire. When India reacts to its “terrorists” by attacking the people of an entire nation, our media will not universally praise that behavior. As other nations declare their enemies “the terrorists” and attack, citing the U.S. as a moral example, we will be forced to witness the same destructive behavior that our government is engaged in, but this time we will see it from afar and be able to recognize it as misguided. Or does the media have another trick up its sleeve that I haven’t thought of?

October 8, 2001

We don’t always have trouble thinking of multiple mutually complementary solutions to a problem. The Washington Redskins could use a better offense, a better defense, and better coaches. When someone comments on the need for a better offense, rarely does anyone scream in anger “What the hell do you mean, ‘The defense is flawless!’?” And why would they? No comment had been made about the defense one way or another.

But the instant someone suggests ways that the United States’s foreign policy could do better at not encouraging mass hatred of the United States, a chorus screams “What do you mean ‘The terrorists were justified!’?” Of course, nothing had been said about terrorists being justified, but that is not often deemed relevant.

The same thing happens when someone points out that reducing poverty tends to reduce crime: “What do you mean ‘Murderers aren’t to blame!’?”

The trouble is not one simply of intellect. Americans are not incapable of recognizing that you can address a problem in two or three or fifteen ways. In fact, most Americans can see that it might make sense to both prosecute a suspected murderer AND reduce poverty AND limit the availability of handguns AND improve community policing AND expand educational and employment opportunities.

Certain Americans are even capable of recognizing that it could possibly make sense to prosecute suspected terrorists AND pay airport security guards a living wage AND stop the sanctions and bombings in Iraq AND recognize the Palestinian nation AND not bomb medicine factories and lie about it AND stop ripping up international treaties AND stop selling weapons to the world and training the world’s terrorists AND work to create healthy democracies.

But these intellectual feats are usually stymied when a crime is involved. A football team’s failure is allowed to have more than one cause. A crime must absolutely have a single agent to blame, quite regardless of what the facts might be.

The desire for vengeance shapes the understanding of the crime. We want someone to attack, therefore we must find someone to blame. And we want our attack to address the entire issue, therefore no systemic problems can be blamed, and no one on “our side” can be blamed. We blame the terrorists for flying planes into buildings (and how could we not?), but we go on to decree that those terrorists existed and functioned outside the realm of causes and effects, so that nothing else can be faulted.

This prosecutorial thinking cripples our public policy, but it may be having a positive effect on it as well. While our military claims to be attacking only terrorists in training, it also claims to be dropping food on the rest of Afghanistan. We are not, as we would have done as recently as the Gulf War, blaming a national population. Our drive for vengeance itself, in its intense precision, (together with a growing awareness of racism and xenophobia, not to mention refusal to risk American military lives), may be saving a people from great suffering.

It is too early to draw conclusions, but it seems possible that domestic and international demands for human rights, decency, and due process have moved us halfway from dropping bombs to dropping bread, viz. to dropping both. Halfway from horror to humaneness is not nearly far enough, but it is progress.

September 30, 2001

A Peace Movement was born yesterday. Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. was filled from Freedom Plaza to the Capitol with people marching for peace. As we marched, we waved our banners, held up our peace signs, and chanted. The energy was tremendous, and the solidarity complete. So was the diversity: this is a movement unlimited by race, sex, region, age, religion, or sexual orientation. Its potential to expand is unfettered by anything other than war fever, arrogance, and xenophobia.

The estimates of the number of people participating have ranged from 4,000 to 25,000. I’d guess it was close to 10,000, but not more, just based on what I could see from ground level.

There was supposed to be a demonstration of 100,000 against the IMF and the World Bank. This event had been planned for months. The meetings had been moved from a residential area to downtown and had been shortened in length. A plan had been devised to erect a 9-foot wall around several blocks to keep the demonstrators away, and a lawsuit over that plan was making its way through the courts.

When the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, one of the organizations planning the demonstration decided quite quickly that Americans are too stupid to distinguish between demonstrations against corporate greed and undemocratic decision-making, on the one hand, and planes crashing into buildings, on the other. So, that group cancelled. But another group wisely switched the focus of the demonstration to peace and opposition to racism. The IMF and WB cancelled their meetings. But a group of anarchists went ahead with plans to march to those buildings.

Meanwhile, war fever swept the country, propelled by media warmongers. There were cries for revenge, columns by conservatives explicitly urging us to temporarily abandon all concern for “what Jesus would do,” and speeches by the President equating disagreement with support for terrorists. That the peace movement leapt onto the stage with such strength yesterday (in the face of this burning rage to murder in response to murder, deny freedoms in the name of freedom, and encourage hatred of America in response to hatred of America), is testimony to a collective wisdom that has learned to retain lessons from the past while ignoring the media’s framing of our options.

Thousands gathered in Freedom Plaza to hear speeches before marching toward the Capitol. Most of the speeches were excellent. I hardly disagreed with a single one of them, despite their diversity of viewpoints. Refocusing the issue on America’s misguided foreign policy and selective support for terrorism necessarily requires concern for a number of places in the Middle East, Colombia, Puerto Rico, etc., etc. (and implies absolutely nothing about failing to also blame the terrorists for the recent terrorism in New York and D.C.). But three hours of speeches was a bit much.

Someone organized this event by allowing representatives of dozens of groups to speak. None spoke more than a few minutes. I would have liked there to be one or two key speakers who tied this array of concerns together. I want to hear about why Midwesterners support this cause and why lesbians should be in the front of the march, but I also want some unity and a clear instruction of what to do after this weekend, how to organize others to join the movement.

In addition, I was disappointed by the fact that none of the speakers seemed very peaceful. Many in the crowd did. And many held banners with inspiring quotes from Gandhi and MLK. But no one spoke like Gandhi would have spoken. No one spoke without heated anger. Martin Luther King Jr. used to spend half of his speech on the need for love and nonviolence. This may have annoyed some of the already converted, but it also converted countless from that public that we now deem too stupid to distinguish a demonstration from an airplane. Not one speech that I heard yesterday mentioned nonviolence, though many attacked violence. This movement will not acquire the strength to actually accomplish something other than a feeling of solidarity in a storm unless it actively promotes nonviolence.

A man in rags and a beard brought a two-sided picket sign to the rally that read “Nazi SS, Foreskin Holocaust, Zionist Racism, IMF World Bank.” Many were confused by this, because they found it of the highest possible offense, but thought they agreed with half of it. That’s the trouble with slogans, but also the trouble with demonization. Many at the rally came close to demonizing Israelis, not to mention George W. Bush. But when this guy came along demonizing Israelis with the word Nazi, it made quite a few people uncomfortable.

In fact, several organizers of the demonstration started trying to move this man away from the stage and toward the side of the square. They ought to have let him hold his banner wherever he wanted, in the name of freedom of speech. But if they were going to move him away, they ought to have done so effectively. Instead, they spent the better part of an hour pushing him around. Someone ripped half of his sign off (and it was curious to see that the back of his poster said “Republican National Committee”), but in the end he remained with his tattered half a sign. Every TV camera and journalist focused on this major news event and ignored the speeches taking place on stage.

I expected to see more about that in the news last night and today. Instead, news coverage focused on the group of 1,500 or so anarchists marching to the IMF and getting into scraps with the police. And the special focus was on a small group that burned an American flag.

These anarchists have recognized what is wrong with the world, but they are quite mistaken about how to change it. If our goal is to actually improve people’s lives, we must be willing to shape our message to be the most effective possible. That means not denouncing anyone’s religion or anyone’s nation, and that means not demonizing anyone, not even George W. Bush. What we dislike about him is that he demonizes and disdains others. We cannot show the world a better way if we do the same.

Like John Lennon when he wrote “Imagine” – the singing of which by so many religious patriots may never cease to bewilder me – I believe we would be much better off without religions or nations. But spitting on someone’s religion or nation is not going to persuade them to join in a common cause, however noble. My advice for the ubiquitous American flag is, by all means, do not fly it. But do not burn it or spit on it or even fly a modified version with corporate logos for stars or a peace sign overlaid on it. Fly a world flag. Fly a UN flag. Fly a peace flag. Dream of One World Indivisible. But do not debate whether America has done more harm or good to the world (that can’t be measured or answered) and do not piss people off when there is work to be done.

The goal of the warmongers is to paint pacifists as allies of terrorists. Do not assist in this portrait. The warmongers want to honor the dead by creating more dead. We have to promote honoring the dead by working for peace. Working for peace must be presented as honoring the dead. This means that we need to build a BIG movement, and we need to demand concrete actions. We need to demand a new general outlook, but we also need to insist on very specific demands, beyond “Don’t bomb Afghanistan,” more precise than “Get out of the Middle East,” and more long-lasting than “Give the poor world food.”

We need a positive long-term political proposal that can be supported in the streets. And we will have one. We will have one soon.

The first thing anyone can do is link to and join the ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). The second thing everyone should do is call and write and Email your Congress Members and tell them what you think. The media is not going to tell them for you.

Sept. 20, 2001:

Walk outside and ask a few random people. Chances are you’ll find one who thinks the patriotic warmongering rattling around this country is the height of stupidity. You’re almost certain to find at least one who thinks it’s all “understandable” but wishes there were some alternative, although none has occurred to them. In either case, these people will all say they believe they are part of a tiny minority.

I’ve had people ask me how they can get in touch with a group of people who think like they do about war and peace, whether in fact any such group exists. When I suggest one, they sometimes reply “Oh, but I don’t want to be involved with people who start riots at IMF meetings.”

The corporate mass media has controlled Americans’ thinking to the extent that people who hold quite popular opinions believe they are utterly alone, and supporters of nonviolence and promoters of social improvements are viewed as destructive and violent.

But, with the possible exception of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, is there a greater crime in recent memory than the routine actions of the IMF, World Bank, and WTO? Are secret, undemocratic determinations of debt and demands that damage entire countries while boosting profits for multinational corporations an insignificant news item when compared with the actions of the small group of protesters who use violence? Does that small minority’s inexcusable and imbecilic behavior carry such weight that the entire idea of protest is now illegitimate?

One of the organizations planning a protest against the IMF and World Bank for Washington D.C. at the end of this month cancelled it after the disasters of Sept. 11. Another, admirably, switched to planning a protest of racism and war. The IMF and World Bank have now cancelled their meetings. What is needed is a demonstration for peace and for international democracy. Anyone who has been planning to be in DC on Sept. 29 should be here and bring some friends.

Screaming about wanting a criminal suspect dead or alive, and starting a war over it, is hardly constructive behavior to be respected and placed beyond criticism. We are used to watching the media convict domestic criminal suspects, and we are used to watching our state and federal governments kill them. But pursuing this course on the global level could have bigger fallout, to put it mildly.

I confess that I thought our television stations and newspapers were campaigning for a war because it would boost their profits. Now they claim that they have been losing money by doing too much work and not running any advertisements. (I guess all those callous expressions of concern for victims on the part of various fast-food restaurants and banks have been treated as public services announcements?)

Let’s calm down a minute and ask ourselves how we can best prevent further death and destruction. We can even limit our concern to Americans. I think the course of action that presents itself is the same as it would be if we considered others.

Sept. 17, 2001:

Every American should sign this:

Do not kill for me. If I am murdered, do not murder for me in response. If I could be the last one to die and end the cycle of violence, I would consider that an honor. I disown and condemn the actions of anyone who would dare to do violence on my behalf. Such actions are short-sighted, destructive, and infantile, where not cynical. Do not do them for me.

Sept. 11, 2001:

If we want a safer country, there are a whole lot of ways not to get it: a missile defense shield, a new network of spies, a bigger military, attacks on other countries.

There are a whole lot of ways to make this country less safe: training terrorists; selling weapons; perpetrating bombings, sanctions, and criminal exploitations abroad; enlarging the wealth gap and increasing the system of election by corporate funding at home; making our government the enemy of the world by disregarding treaties, encouraging arms races, leading environmental destruction, pushing a destructive form of globalization that obliterates local concerns, while fighting every effort at representative international governance; and making our government the enemy of its own citizens by working against them and in favor of corporate bribe payers.

The horrendous acts of destruction we have just seen are not surprising. We know that the world hates our government, and our government goes out of its way to encourage that hatred. We cannot maintain such behavior in the face of this clear message that massive long-term hatred combined with a few razor blades or knives can destroy our cities and make us all live with the terror that other peoples live with. Missiles are no answer to this. Tanks and ships are no answer. Spies and terrorists on our side (at least until they switch sides) are no answer.

After we destroyed European cities 60 years ago, we rebuilt them. After we destroyed Baghdad, we worked to cut off that country’s supply of safe water, deprive its people of medicine, and reign unpredictable terror on all of those people’s lives. We bomb cities, medicine factories, and embassies, and then announce on our news shows the number of American deaths involved. We view Israel’s destruction of Palestinian homes and assassination of Palestinians with jealousy (Why can’t we do that to people we don’t like?). We support Israel to the exclusion of any concern for its neighbors.

When CNN and Fox announced that the United States military had bombed Afghanistan, those outlets’ wishful thinking had not reached beyond the plausible. Viewers found it entirely believable that “we” had done such a thing, even without knowledge of who was responsible for the attacks on New York and D.C.

The mood on Fox shifted from one of somber body-count-guessing to cheerful surmising that U.S. “intelligence” must have known almost enough to stop the terrorism, put the pieces together a moment too late, and followed through by bombing Afghanistan. And why not? The “president” was vowing retribution against whoever did it and whoever “harbored” them.

Is retribution the way to make people like the United States, or a way to make people further despise it? Which would our weapons manufacturers and patriotic demagogues prefer?

In recent years we have begun to approach an international level of civilization in our attitude toward executing criminals in the United States. Some of us even recognize that when you impose great poverty and hardship on people, educate them in violence, provide them with weapons, and plan for their future by building extra prisons for profit, murdering them does not “correct” anything or “serve justice.” When will we come to a similar understanding on the scale of war? When will we turn to the underlying problems?

We are the richest country by far. Much of that wealth is based on the exploitation of others, including many of our own. We advertise our wealth through our television, radio, print, and internet productions. We are the most powerful country in terms of capacity for destruction by far. We are the most arrogant and uncooperative country by far. In fact, we are arrogant enough to imagine that our “power” is enough to allow us to treat billions of human beings with contempt and not suffer for it. If we are going to “lose innocence” as the TV keeps advising us to do, let’s lose any belief in untouchable power and let’s gain a recognition of our own guilt.

The FDIC just put out a press release to assure us that American money is safe. Really?

Imagine ther’re no countries;

It isn’t hard to do.

Nothing to kill or die for,

and no religion, too.

A Vision for 2050

Drafted in 2002

Completely publicly funded political campaigns.

No private contributions to political candidates, office holders, or parties.

Reasonable access to funding and debates for more than two political parties.

Decreased corporate welfare.

A moratorium on corporate monopolies or mergers that do not benefit competition.

Increased taxation of corporations and the super wealthy.

Decreased military spending.

Decreased spy spending.

Creation of a peace department.

A ban on discrimination due to sex, sexual preference, or perceived cultural background.

A ban on union busting and on “right-to-work” laws.

Investment in small businesses, small farms, small media outlets.

Serious regulation of the lending and insurance industries.

Investment in central cities.

Decreased prison spending.

Provision of competent legal services to all criminal defendants.

Automatic prosecution of police or prosecutors who have violated the rights of the innocent.

Videotaping of all police interrogations.

Decriminalization of drugs.

A ban on all government subsidy and support for unreasonable environmental destruction, including zoning, transportation, transport, military, packaging, and trash and waste disposal policies that do not minimize impact on land, air, and water.

Investment in enviromental preservation, including mass transit and local economies.

A minimum wage that can support a family of four at a reasonable standard of living, and a wage set to automatically increase with the cost of living.

A 40-hour week and a 48-week year.

Investment in affordable housing.

Universal public health care.

Universal public child care.

Universal transportation provision.

Guaranteed Basic Income. [thanks to Karl Widerquist for proposing this item]

Equal and increased funding of all public, and only public, schools.

Institution of a separation of church and state.

Investment in renewable energy.

Investment in democracy abroad.

Increased aid abroad.

A ban on any trade agreements that harm the environment, workers, or public health.

Increased freedom of information.

Increased democratic participation.

Support for open and democratic international government.

A ban on the death penalty.

A ban on torture.

A ban on detention without a charge.

Amnesty for immigrants.

A ban on private ownership of guns.

A ban on nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

A ban on hunting and fishing.

Free public college and university tuition to all students of ability.[thanks to David Kearney for proposing this item]

Establishment and enforcement of the right to decide whether to prolong or terminate one’s own life. [thanks to Jan Riemersma for proposing this item]

Poverty in America

If poverty means the inability to obtain a decent level of food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and independence, there has always been poverty in America. There need not continue to be.

Anything can be changed, regardless of whether such a change or anything like it has occurred before. There was a time when we could say that there had always been slavery in (at least post-Columbian) America, that there had always been legal racial segregation in America, that a woman’s right to self-determination had never been accepted in America, that homosexuality had never been accepted in America – that in fact acceptance was not a reasonable response to a disease.

Poverty in America is also thought of as a disease. A disease and a battle ground. We’ve had wars on cancer and a war on drugs. We’ve also had a war on poverty. But these are the wrong metaphors if we actually want to end poverty. They lead to treating those living in poverty as enemies. We develop policies to punish the poor rather than helping them, and this of course leads to more poverty, not less.

Many Americans like to believe that whoever is poor is to blame for being poor. It is common to cite the example of some few remarkable people who have grown up in poverty and gotten rich as proof that anyone could do the same if they wanted to. But this makes no sense. Not all people are the same. Many who have done well financially coming out of a privileged background could not have done the same coming out of poverty; a few could have. And if anyone can escape poverty who wants to, why in the world do so many not want to? Can any of them be gotten to admit to this alleged preference?

Many Americans like to deny that poverty exists in America. They imagine that the poor in America are the people who have to make do with a car that’s a few years old because they can’t afford the latest model, whereas the poor in other countries are actually in trouble. And yet, we all know this isn’t true. Our cities are full of homeless people, some of them begging on the street corners, some of them serving us fries in McDonald’s, all of them suffering from inadequate nutrition, medicine, shelter, and educational opportunities.

Many Americans like to think of the poor as lazy. And yet many of the poor work much harder than many of the rich. When you can only earn $5.15 per hour and work 60 hours at three jobs, relying on unreliable public transportation to maneuver between jobs, and you have children to somehow try to care for, you do not have time to be lazy. Neither, however, do you have opportunities for training or education that might allow you to earn more per hour.

The federal minimum wage is $5.15 per hour. This is 30 percent less than it was 30 years ago, and its value decreases every year. At least 10 percent of the workforce would benefit by boosting it by only $1.50. Raising it to the level that would allow a fulltime worker to support a family of four only at the absurdly low official federal poverty line would directly benefit enough voters to make the difference in most of the presidential or congressional elections that have ever occurred. Raising it to an actual living wage would transform this country beyond recognition.

Many fulltime workers have to ask the government for handouts in order to survive. Some of these workers actually work for the government. In fact, some are employed distributing the ever-diminishing quantity of government handouts.

Housing costs have skyrocketed, and an increasing number of working poor are homeless. Utility costs have shot up, and an increasing number of the working poor lack heat or electricity. Sprawl has further sprawled, and more and more people cannot find the transportation needed to obtain better jobs. Childcare is so expensive that many parents save money by not working. Overwhelmingly it is the poor who are charged with crimes, including drug crimes, despite the fact that the rich use just as many drugs — and increasingly these people are locked away in prison and erased from official unemployment figures. The strange thing is that we are spending more on these prisons than it would take to eliminate poverty.

We give poor neighborhoods worse schools, rather than better ones. We charge poor people more for loans, not less. Supermarkets mark up the prices of food in poor neighborhoods, rather than marking them down. Car insurance costs more in poor neighborhoods, not less, and paying for it by the month costs more than paying by the year. Preventive medicine would be cheaper, if people could afford it, than dealing with emergencies when they hit. It’s expensive being poor.

We need to recognize this situation and refuse to any longer tolerate it. We can begin by raising the federal minimum wage in steps until it arrives at the level of a living wage. At that point, it should be set to automatically increase with the cost of living.

With that first and most important step accomplished, we can go on to provide equal and increased funding to every public, and only public, schools. We can then save public money and maybe even this abused planet by ceasing to build highways, charging tolls for their use, and investing the money in free public transportation.

Next, we will need to regulate the lending and insurance industries so that they stop ripping off the poor.

And we should create universal public health care, and universal public child care.

Then, with poverty gone, it will be easier to answer the next absurd assertion that something can’t be done because it’s never been done before.

Who Cares About Privacy Protections?

Privacy concerns have long been a mystery to me, and I have written about this many times. I will probably never fathom why I should give a damn if some bureaucrat knows how many bathrooms I have. The idea that “by the time the creditor has finished talking to the credit bureau, he is likely to know more about your personal life than your mother-in-law does,” strikes me as insane. Is my life reducible to a few facts and figures, even with some bits of irrelevant gossip thrown in? My mother-in-law knows what I am passionate about, how I talk, how I listen, what I like to eat, and why I love her daughter.

The quote above is from a 1971 essay by Ralph Nader, and it was in reading some of his 1970s writings recently that I was really struck by one of the several ways that the privacy mongers (privacy being basically a form of anxiety) have things backwards. Let me cite an example Nader gives of the problem, and then his analysis.

“A vivid illustration of the problems in insurance reporting is the case of two successful young businesswomen who applied for a life insurance policy required for a particular business transaction. On completion of a routine report, Retail Credit Company advised the insurance company not to issue the policy. It reported ‘severe criticism of the morals of both women, particularly regarding habits, and Lesbian activities.'”

Four pages later:
“The individual’s right to privacy of self is crucial to the functioning of our society. Suppose you walked into a courtroom and picked up a pamphlet relating everything the judge had ever done in his personal life. What would that information do to your interaction with that court? To some extent it is absolutely necessary to preserve barriers of privacy and protection about people’s lives in order to permit ordinary interaction between people, an interaction that is to a significant degree based on trust.”

Nader seems to be suggesting that everyone has a “personal life,” knowledge of which would make it impossible for us to trust them or interact with them in an ordinary way. (And we are supposed to know this universal fact and yet pretend not to know it, so that we can go on trusting.) One might be uncharitable and presume that Nader knows this because he has deep dark secrets that render him untrustworthy and that he has learned such secrets about several other people.

But the sort of secrets he cites in his examples are not at all things that make someone untrustworthy. Rather they’re things like sexual preference that seem to have in common two elements: (1) they’re secret, and (2) they’re irrelevant to the matter at hand.

If we define the personal or private life as anything that is secret, I sure as hell do not want to protect it. I want to know relevant information that people do not want me to know. I want to know that the person I’m negotiating with has lied and deceived on previous occasions.

If we define the personal or private life as anything that is irrelevant to the matter at hand, then I suggest that the ideal solution is not to protect our rights to keep it secret, thus reinforcing the idea that it is shameful and somehow relevant, but rather to fully recognize its irrelevance.

If credit bureaus engage in less discrimination against gays and lesbians today than 30 years ago, this is not because a bunch of lawyers have fought for the right to keep one’s sexual preferences secret, but because our society has started to recognize that what sort of sex you have doesn’t have anything to do with how you pay back loans.

Bill Clinton became more and more popular as the Republicans dragged the Monica Lewinsky story on and on, but he could have saved us a year of waste and nonsense by telling his secrets right away and pointing out something most of us already recognized: their irrelevance to the job of being president.

There are things I can say about myself that I often avoid saying and resent being forced to reveal. For example, I have been convicted of a serious crime. This has kept me from gaining several jobs and prejudiced many people against me. The fact that I didn’t commit the crime I was convicted of is not enough to undo the damage. So, I insist on my right to privacy. But, obviously, I don’t insist too strongly. A growing percentage of Americans have been convicted of crimes. A growing percentage of those have been exonerated. The public needs to know what is wrong with our criminal justice system, and needs to know that those who are trapped in it – often unjustly – are human. That is far more important than my privacy.

For every secret that needs to be kept, there is a bigger truth that needs to be told. Who the hell cares about privacy?

Guaranteeing Income

To Steven Shafarman
From David Swanson
Re “We the People”
Jan. 27, 2002:
I have read “We the People,” and have started reading “Healing Politics.” I think you’ve done a great job of imagining a different society. You book is packed with concise and important insights into the ways we habitually view our political problems. I’ve benefited from many of your ideas. I enthusiastically support many of your proposals.

I have some doubts, however, both about the society you envision and about how we can get there. I’m going to focus on what I disagree with.

As you know, you have not proposed one simple change, but a huge package of changes in federal law. It would take an extraordinary movement to get them all passed in a single bill or even a single year or decade. And even some of the ideas that I favor, I only favor if they should be enacted in combination with some of the others. Many I think would make sense if you were talking about a higher amount of money, but are extremely undesirable if you are talking about $400 to $800.

Your first proposal is that people get $400 to $800 per month. You describe this as providing people with security, but it would do no such thing. No one can live on $800 per month. As an addition to current programs, such an amount might be very helpful, but your justification for it presupposes the elimination of other programs. If you were talking about $1,200 or $1,500 I would think your entire theory was beautiful and extremely well put together. Since you are talking about such low numbers, it seems to me like there is a giant gap in the base of the edifice you construct.

I could enthusiastically support your idea for “citizen policies” and many of your other ideas if you were talking about $1,500 and you were insisting that that amount automatically keep pace with the cost of living. Giving people $800, eliminating their other means of support, and then allowing that $800 to decline in real value every year is a recipe for enormous suffering.

You suggest that the amount be adjusted after elections, that states and cities could provide supplements, and that it would be “quite simple” to increase the amount during recessions. But I have no reason to believe that the amount would be adjusted to keep pace with the cost of living unless such an increase were written into the law from the start, and I have no reason to believe that localities would supplement the amount provided or that Congress would increase it. Congress’s record on the minimum wage law is pathetic. You seem unconcerned, and suggest (page 5) that we eliminate “most government programs,” and rely only on this one. Then you recommend (page 10) that someone’s $400 to $800 be redirected if they owe “child support, fines, penalties, victim restitution, and could be withheld from anyone who is incarcerated.” This sounds to me like a way to leave many people with no means of support at all and to provide the government with yet another financial motive for locking people up.

Why did you pick such a low number ($400 to $800)? As support for someone lacking any other income, it makes no sense at all. As assistance for people with moderate income struggling to achieve some degree of security and comfort, it makes more sense. On page 13 you suggest that only a tiny percentage of people, such as Bill Gates, do not need this money. To me this seems to imply that you have in mind assistance for middle class people more than subsistance for the poor.

I recognize the problem in cutting back dividends for wealthier Americans, but you do not seem to recognize the problem the poorest Americans face in trying to survive. They cannot do it on $400-$800. Nor will that amount allow them to perform community services for free, promote union organizing without fear of retaliation, strike without fear of hunger, or in any way better their situations.

Many of your other ideas seem only remotely connected to “Citizen Policies.” Most of them I support. Others I do not. One that I do not is a flat tax. You offer no argument for a flat tax, but assert falsely that we all agree that the current taxation system is unfair and needlessly complex. I don’t care in the least how complex it is as long as there are good reasons for the complexity that outweigh administrative costs, and I think it is unfair because it is too flat, not because it is too progressive. I am interested not only in eliminating poverty, but also in equalizing wealth and the power that goes with wealth. (Of course, publicly funded campaigns would somewhat reduce this power inequity.)

I don’t think supporting your idea for citizen policies (modified to a higher dollar amount) requires abandoning my concern for restraining the widening of the wealth gap.

So, I will encourage people to read your book, because it stimulates a lot of thinking, and I would support your main proposal if you upped the dollar amount. (Of course, free public health care, free and reliable transportation and child care, fair lending practices and affordable housing construction could all reduce the amount of money needed, but I have no way of calculating what the necessary amount would be.)

If your idea is going to appeal to conservatives and liberals, as you hope, and as I think possible, it should appeal to them honestly on its merits. Conservatives should accept a decent citizen dividend for all the right reasons and in light of all the right tradeoffs. They cannot do that if you do not propose a decent amount. What they can do is accept the low amount in full knowledge that it won’t support anyone or result in many of the societal changes you envision. But how are you going to get the liberals on board?

Feb. 19, 2002 Response from Steve Shafarman:

Thanks for your thoughtful response to my books and your offer to “enthusiastically support” many of my proposals. Especially, thanks for being so clear about your concerns and disagreements — that’s really helpful, and too rare.

The Superbowl and the Minimum Wage

Also published on Alternet at

The City of New Orleans raised its minimum wage by public referendum the day before the Superbowl. The City Council, the state legislature, and New Orleans’s monopoly newspaper (or, rather, infotainmentpaper) all fought against the increase. Front groups for hotel and restaurant owners vowed to continue the fight in court after the vote. Any public respect for democracy or even analysis of why the people had voted for a higher minimum wage was absent from the mainstream media.

So, when I watched the long advertisement for Fox, with the breaks for football plays, that they called the Superbowl, I had to wonder what, if anything, Paul McCartney meant by wailing about “freedom, freedom, freedom,” what the point was in Bono’s American flag jacket, what all the patriotism was about, and what all the military imagery was justified by. What were we free to do in the United States or in New Orleans? What were the people working for $5.15 an hour in the Superdome and the hotels and restaurants serving the football fans free to do?

The federal minimum wage has been dropping in real value for decades. It would have to be about $8 now to be worth what it was 30 years ago. A bill that would have raised it to $6.65 vanished from Congress’s radar screen on Sept. 11. Since Sept. 11, we have more people in low-wage jobs and more need for consumer spending, but there seems to be a ban on doing anything worthwhile in Washington, regardless of whether it’s needed now more than ever.

As a result, the living-wage movement has picked up speed. States have been raising their minimum wages, and cities and counties have been passing living-wage laws at a faster pace than ever before. Most living-wage laws (there are 80 of them now) apply to public employees and employees of companies with government contracts or receiving corporate welfare. Santa Monica and Berkeley passed living-wage laws that apply to private companies in certain sections of the cities that have benefited from public investment.

New Orleans’ new law goes a step further by raising the minimum wage to $1 above the federal for all private employers in the entire city. This is the same law that Washington, D.C., has long had. No other cities have minimum wage laws.

New Orleans is a city that runs on the tourism industry, and its tourism industry runs on the labor of African Americans paid poverty wages for their work. Of those living in poverty in New Orleans, 86 percent are African-American.

The fight to change things began in 1996 when the community group ACORN, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 100, and their allies in the New Orleans Living Wage Campaign collected 50,000 valid signatures in order to force a referendum to raise the minimum wage. The City Council refused to act. The Campaign collected the required number of signatures again. Still no action.

Then, in 1997, the state passed a law prohibiting localities from enacting wage standards. It was clear what the City had been stalling for. But the Louisiana Constitution grants enormous powers of self-governing and regulating to home-rule cities like New Orleans. The campaign challenged the state law in court and, after a lengthy series of decisions and appeals, won the right to hold the referendum. The ruling left open the question of the state law’s constitutionality until after a referendum passed. So, now it’s back to the courts.

The Times-Picayune ran a couple of fair and fairly well-written articles about the referendum nearly a month before it took place. On the day of the vote, it printed a grotesquely slanted story that did not even pretend to consider the position of those supporting the wage increase. It quoted the opponents explaining that they had chosen not to invest much in turning out ‘no’ votes, because they might have just wasted millions of dollars; instead they would fight in court for less money.

These opponents are people with tens of millions of dollars to spend and economists on call who habitually claim that the truth of their position is remarkably simple and obvious. Why did they believe they could not convince the public to vote with them? What are the readers of the Times-Picayune supposed to assume prevents such communication and education? Could it be that the great unwashed are hopelessly beyond the reach of argument and must be controlled for their own good?

Some readers may fall for that, but it is getting to be difficult to keep secret the fact that a growing majority of mainstream economists reject the anti-wage-standard arguments predicting job loss and (in a recent twist) the replacement of low-skill workers with those of higher skills (picture college educated would-be janitors waiting for the wages to hit $6.15). The Times-Picayune’s articles in January cited these arguments about job loss and “displacement” and then quoted a number of New Orleans business owners who sang a very different tune. They weren’t planning to move or fire their staffs. They even volunteered that they saw a benefit to the local economy of giving people more money to spend. They sounded, in short, like residents of the dozens of cities that have had living-wage laws for years now without any of the dire predictions coming true.

When I knocked on doors and phoned homes in recent weeks, and when I talked to people outside a polling place, I saw overwhelming support for the wage increase. Some people could not vote because of felony records, because they couldn’t understand the ballot, or because they had to work on the day before the Superbowl due to every single hotel room being full. But those who could vote either shouted their support or mumbled about their privacy. On the streets the point of view dominating the discussions is, not coincidentally, just about the opposite of the point of view dominating Fox.

I Love Grover Norquist

Also published on BuzzFlash at and on Democratic Underground at and on BartCop Reader at on March 26, 2002, and on

This past week, I sat in the audience and watched two performances in Washington, D.C. The first, a debate at the National Press Club, got me laughing and cheered me up. The second, a comedy show at the Improv, depressed me deeply.

The debate, sponsored by the American Prospect magazine, was on the proposition “The Enron scandal is the logical consequence of deregulation.” Arguing the affirmative were Bob Kuttner and Bob Borosage. Arguing the negative were Grover Norquist and Bruce Bartlett.

The crowd largely supported the affirmative position, and while the debate did include a little interesting discussion of when and where deregulation can work, for the most part no one’s mind was changed about anything – at least none of the debaters’ or anyone’s I talked to.

What was funny was simply the absurd lengths Norquist and his sidekick would go to. Bartlett made half his opponents’ arguments for them, but then refused to draw sensible conclusions. Norquist tried to avoid the topic by talking about how awful Social Security, Medicare, and the IRS are. When it was his turn to question the other side, he rambled off on a tangent and forgot to ask a question. Several times he suggested that he thought the debate was over the question of whether the Soviet Union still existed. And both he and Bartlett repeatedly made what they took to be the important point that it’s hard to prevent every single crime that might be committed. The lesson Bartlett drew from this insight was that you should make crimes unattractive, not through penalties, but in some mysterious way analogous to the way cheating on taxes is allegedly made unattractive by keeping taxes low – although he also seemed to suggest that we should legalize bank robbing.

The contradictions were amazing: they said investors could police the market and that investors were to blame for the Enron disaster. They said the problem with government was that it could be bribed, although the problem in this case was that Arthur Andersen had been bribed. Investors needed accurate accounting information and would naturally demand it, although they had mysteriously been unable to do so. Enron was actually a primary supporter of increased regulation, because it backed the Kyoto treaty – never mind that it also supported the creation of the largely deregulated system in California that led to its downfall and noisily promoted deregulation or years.

As Kuttner said in his opening remarks, the right-wingers have more money, but in a fair fight the liberal arguments win. What was encouraging was to hear the crowd agree as the debate went on. But a different crowd would have reacted differently, would not have seen the conservative team’s comments as humorous at all. While Norquist seemed to me to be making tired old predictions about the glories of anarchistic capitalism in the face of mounting empirical evidence against these “predictions,” to the market faithful he would have seemed to be drawing out the logical ramifications of certain philosophical truths, such as the importance of greed as a tool for restraining greed. (This notion of logical truth even made it into the proposition being debated.) And some members of the audience did have that reaction.

While the predictability of Norquist’s comments was funny to me, it must have been reassuring to the sort of person who uses the term “dittohead” as a compliment. While leftists resist agreement to the point of being unable to cooperate with their allies, Norquist has organized a powerful political force in Washington based on the idea of agreeing with boring eternal truths that a 10-year-old can understand but that liberals stubbornly refuse to. Well, his power is based on that idea and a hell of a lot of money.

One of the debate’s organizers told me they would have liked to have more conservatives in the audience. I suggest they go recruit them from the audiences at the Improv comedy club on Connecticut Avenue. I went there two nights after the Enron debate.

A comedy act by people who are TRYING to be funny is not easy. Humorous stories aren’t too hard to come up with, but if they don’t have punch lines every few sentences, the act becomes story-telling rather than comedy. And how many kinds of punch lines are there? I watched a video of George Carlin recently that was taped just after the Persian Gulf War and is even more relevant now. Half the act was him making fun of pretentious phrases used by advertisers and flight attendants. The other half was him blurting out political truths that you don’t hear very often. The linguistic stuff was somewhat funny, while being very clever and entertaining. The political stuff was good to hear, and good to hear an audience appreciate, but not really funny.

At the Improv, the three middle-aged white men who performed, one after the other, didn’t touch on the topic of language, but they did blurt out political opinions. They thought starving children in Africa should starve, Mexicans were stealing American jobs and coming here to live off welfare forever. “This isn’t a country anymore. It’s a giant theme park with free admission. Try this ride, it’s called welfare; you can stay on that forever! Try healthcare while you’re here, too!”

I’ve been to about five comedy shows in my life, and yet I had heard most of these “jokes” before. I’d heard the one about Sally Struthers eating all the donations for the starving children, as well as most of the other fat jokes. I’d heard the homophobic and racist jokes too, but I was surprised they were still being told. (In the case of welfare support for immigrants, I would have thought its nonexistence would have some relevance.) I’d even heard the phony self-critiques by which these cruel topics were introduced as ways to supposedly shatter politically correct taboos without meaning any harm.

The worst of the three comedians said he used to tell gay jokes but stopped when two gay men beat him up after a show. “Of course, they were gay, so it didn’t hurt.” He then launched into a string of gay jokes.

He said a group wanted to rename a racistly named sports team “the Whities.” That wouldn’t bother him, he said. “If you want to offend a white guy, call him a nigger.” This launched him into a discussion of how one woman in the audience looked disgusted with him and was apparently unsure whether it was OK to laugh, given her silly hang-ups. He pointed out the one black man in the club, who – like most of the crowd – was laughing along amicably.

He accused women of being horrible drivers and generally unintelligent, and then said he’d just proved men were pigs. He proceeded to prove that at least he was a pig by telling some more sexist jokes.

As with Carlin, or any comedian, but more so with the less talented, a large part of the act involved cursing, talking about sex, and otherwise trying to shock people. I probably shouldn’t be surprised that racist and sexist jokes are “still told.” They are only breaking taboos now that there are taboos against them. When it was perfectly acceptable for white people to call black people niggers, it wasn’t considered the least bit humorous. As long as racism continues to be largely unacceptable and yet still prevalent, there will continue to be racist jokes.

I read a column recently in which Christopher Hitchens suggested that the best way to defuse the word and the hatred behind it would be to find ways to use it, but I doubt he had in mind the sort of isn’t-it-funny-that-I’m-a-pig-and-know-it-and-still-like-being-a-pig-because-aren’t-we-all performances they put on at the Improv.

Grover Norquist has better manners and does that sort of performance much more effectively by intending it not to be funny.

Can Brock See Yet?

Also published on Democratic Underground at

David Brock’s “Blinded By the Right” is an apolitical book, and while it denounces and apologizes for the “conservative movement” that replaced politics with sex scandals, it does not make a political apology.

Brock does not say he is sorry that people died and suffered in the richest country on the planet because they had no health insurance. He does not say he regrets seeing families booted off welfare and offered no assistance toward becoming self-supporting. He doesn’t apologize for the dwindling of labor rights, massive layoffs, loss of protections in hazardous workplaces, environmental destruction, or the radical increase in the inequality of wealth. He’s not sorry for the divestment of resources from positive efforts and the explosive growth of the prison industry. He doesn’t comment on the devastation of inner cities, the demolition of rights for criminal defendants, the routine bombing of civilians in foreign countries, the abandonment of public education and efforts to privatize schools for profit. He doesn’t seem concerned that corporations pay no taxes or that loan sharks pay no penalties. None of this sort of ungossipy, less-than-warlike stuff is of interest to him, at least not in this book. But then, neither was it of interest to Congress for over a year of all-Monica-all-the-time or during the past 7 months since September 11, 2001.

Brock is writing about an all-out struggle between two “teams.” He could have been a supporter of the pro-Israel rally held in DC yesterday (April 15, 2002) or of the pro-Palestinian one scheduled for Saturday (which I hope becomes, rather, pro-peace). He could be routing for the Catholics or the Protestants in Ireland. He chose a team, but his choice had nothing to do with any merits of that team. If you had nothing but Brock’s book to go by, you might believe that all conservatives found their positions as a result of some childhood trauma or Freudian drama plus a big dose of opportunism. And you might also believe that an honest and polite conservatism, in contrast to that described by Brock, would be a possibly good course to follow.

In reality, conservatism in all of its forms, and encompassing most of the Democrats’ team as well as the Republicans’, is largely motivated by greed, religion, timidity, antidemocratic abuse of power, and a big dose of opportunism. The New Republic doesn’t check its facts any more than the American Spectator did. The conservatism of George Bush the First condemned more Americans and Iraqis to death than the lunatic ravings of Grover Norquist, at least as the count stands now. There is no honest conservatism, and that should be the lesson of this book. Right wing arguments only win if they are massively funded.

It takes a vast conspiracy and millions of dollars to promote ideas that seek to harm the many for the profit of the few. Spinners and statisticians and muckrakers don’t come cheap, and those who can afford them are able to give life to ideas that deserve to die and in many cases will soon die anyway. On the “social issues” the conservative foot draggers denounced in this book already look out of date. On the “economic issues” the arguments of the conservatives have been proved disastrous once again