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Letter From Happy Town

It's hard to know whether to be pleased each time the place I live, Charlottesville, Va., is named the happiest city in the United States. I grew up largely in Northern Virginia (suburbs of Washington, D.C.) and Charlottesville is a long ways away in Central Virginia.  I remember hearing that Fairfax County schools, which I attended at the time, were ranked best in the country.  Wow, I thought, other people's schools must be truly awful!

So, I haven't discovered that I'm happier; I've just been informed that everyone else is less happy.  Not being much of a schadenfreudist, I can't really find that anything but depressing.  I knew that the United States fell behind a lot of nations in international attempts to measure happiness, but the idea that the rest of the United States falls behind my bit of it seems pretty gloomy.

I wasn't interviewed for the latest survey, don't know who was, and have no idea how meaningful it is.  Of course I find the analysis interesting that says people in other cities are wealthier but less happy, and concludes that people are willing to be paid to be less happy.  Again, I'm sorry not to be pleased, but doesn't that suggest we're a nation of morons?  (Well, except for we enlightened few who've moved to Charlottesville.)

Of course, I don't know most people in Charlottesville or have any idea how happy they are or why.  Charlottesville, like most places, suffers from income inequality, poverty, pollution, too many cars, ugly sprawl, racial segregation, ignorance, consumerism, and lack of imagination.  It's no paradise, and my experience of it is not the same as anyone else's.  But let me offer a few ideas on how it manages to win these happiness rankings.

Charlottesville is significantly smaller than the other top-ranked cities.  That it is a city is a legal matter; many people would call it a small town.  It's even smaller when the University of Virginia is on break.  Charlottesville is close enough that people can go to the Washington, D.C., area when and if they need to or want to, by car or train or bus.  But the traffic jams and crowds are there, not here.  And, importantly, we know it.  We know that we have many things better than they have it up north: we can get anywhere in 10 minutes or less; we can walk or bicycle; we can expect to bump into people we know; random people say hello; and there are no lines to wait in when we get where we're going.  And, significantly, when we get organized our local government often listens to us -- in stark contrast to many people's experience in larger places.

Charlottesville is heavily populated by people who chose to be here, as I did.  People must be happier when they are somewhere they've chosen to be.  I suspect that many, like I, appreciate the balance between a small town and a city.  Charlottesville is culturally and intellectually rich for its size.  It has a pedestrian downtown square -- or, rather, street -- so there is a there there.  It has hills and farms and vineyards, a river, mountains, parks.  It's an athletic town, and exercise makes happiness.  And, importantly perhaps, at least some of us are aware that rural areas not far from Charlottesville can sometimes be politically and culturally akin to stepping back decades or centuries in time, and not in a good way.  One hopes we manage to be appreciative without being blindly arrogant.

Charlottesville has a university and two big hospitals and lots of other businesses, but I could never find a decent job here back in the days of real-world jobs.  Only after I'd figured out how to work online could I move back to Charlottesville.  I could do my job from anywhere and choose to do it from here, in part to be near family, in part to be somewhere that speaks my mother tongue, but in large part because I like the place. 

And yet I'm haunted by some of the darker reasons that it's possible to be so happy in Cville.  Like most places in the United States, a good chunk of Charlottesville's economy comes from the military and its contractors and subcontractors.  Only because the military does what it does very far away and out of sight, and only because we tell ourselves lies to justify those evil deeds, can we enjoy our cafes and bike lanes and farmers markets.  There are U.S. weapons companies in Charlottesville and U.S. weapons leveling houses in Gaza -- not such a happy thought. 

Like most places in the United States, Charlottesville unsustainably pollutes the earth's air and water.  That we're in the piedmont, unlike those low-lying folks in Norfolk who are going to have to get very used to wetness, gives us a false sense of security.  Weather extremes have begun reaching us here too, and there's more to come. 

Like most places in the United States, Charlottesville locks too many of its most troubled, and untroubled, people up behind bars and out-of-sight.  Like most places, Charlottesville consumes products from around the world created in severely inhumane conditions.

I'm not sure I could spend my time writing about violence and injustice if I weren't living in a place that suggests that's not all that's possible, but we all must work on making our happy places possible without hidden dependencies on violence and injustice.

Mass Murderers Brazenly Hold Conference, Discuss Tools of Trade

A unique conference is planned in Charlottesville, Va., featuring the latest technologies for the practice of large-scale killing. The Daily Progress tells us that,

"to allow participants to speak more freely about potentially sensitive topics, the conference is closed to the media and open only to registered participants."

Well I should think so! Registered participants? How does one get registered for such a thing?

"From a local perspective, this industry is really growing in Charlottesville," says one expert, speaking with great objectivity, as if this growth were a matter of complete moral indifference.

Exactly how many people will be there?

"About 225 people are expected to attend the inaugural event, which is attracting government, business and academic leaders, said conference chairwoman and organizer Joan Bienvenue, who is also the director of the UVa Applied Research Institute."

Wait, what? The University of Virginia has an "applied research institute" for applying research to the practice of mass murder?

Is there no shame left in any institution?

"Sen. Timothy M. Kaine and Rep. Randy Forbes, R-4th, are also scheduled to give key speeches at the conference."

I guess that answers my question.

And where exactly will this blood-soaked confab take place?

"Located in Albemarle County, Rivanna Station is a sub-installation of the Army's Fort Belvoir. The local base employs mostly civilians and houses operations of the National Ground Intelligence Center, Defense Intelligence Agency and National Geospatial Intelligence Agency."

The National Ground Intelligence Center, previously downtown in what became the SNL Financial building, is now north of Charlottesville, and the University of Virginia has built a "research park" next door, where this conference will be held.  The NGIC famously played an utterly shameless role in marketing the war on Iraq that took at least a half a million lives and destroyed that nation. 

When the experts at the Department of Energy refused to say that aluminum tubes in Iraq were for nuclear facilities, because they knew they could not possibly be and were almost certainly for rockets, and when the State Department's people also refused to reach the "correct" conclusion, a couple of guys at the NGIC were happy to oblige.  Their names were George Norris and Robert Campus, and they received "performance awards" (cash) for the service. 

Then Secretary of State Colin Powell used Norris' and Campus' claims in his U.N. speech despite the warning of his own staff that they weren't true.  NGIC also hired a company called MZM to assist with war lies for a good chunk of change.  MZM then gave a well-paid job to NGIC's deputy director Bill Rich Jr, and for good measure Bill Rich III too.  MZM was far and away the top "contributor" to former Congressman Virgil Goode's campaigns, and he got them a big contract in Martinsville before they went down in the Duke Cunningham scandal.  Rich then picked up a job with a company called Sparta, which, like MZM, was conveniently located in the UVA Research Park.

Local want ads in Charlottesville offer jobs "researching biological and chemical weapons" at Battelle Memorial Institute (located in the UVA Research Park).  As you may know, researching such weapons is rarely if ever done without producing or at least possessing them.  Other jobs are available producing all kinds of weaponry for all kinds of governments at Northrop Grumman. Then there's Teksystems, Pragmatics, Wiser, and many others with fat Pentagon contracts. 

From 2000 to 2010, 161 military contractors in Charlottesville pulled in $919,914,918 through 2,737 contracts from the federal government. Over $8 million of that went to Mr. Jefferson's university, and three-quarters of that to the Darden Business School. And the trend is ever upward.  The 161 contractors are found in various industries other than higher education, including nautical system and instrument manufacturing; blind and shade manufacturing; printed circuit assembly; real estate appraisers; engineering services; recreational sports centers; research and development in biotechnology; new car dealers; internet publishing; petroleum merchant wholesalers; and a 2006 contract with Pig Daddy's BBQ.

Have we at long last no sense of decency?  War has taken 200 million lives in the past 100 years, costs the world $2 trillion a year and the United States half of that.  It is the top destroyer of our natural environment and undergirds all the removal of our civil liberties and the creation of mass surveillance. Military spending produces fewer jobs that other government spending or even tax cuts.  Numerous top officials say it produces more enemies than it kills.

And who does it kill? Over 90% are civilians of all ages. Over 90% are on one side of conflicts between wealthy and poor countries.  These one-sided slaughters leave behind devastated nations: Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya.  A poll of 65 nations found the U.S. most widely viewed as the greatest threat to peace. For 3% of what the United States spends on a program of killing that endangers us, impoverishes us, and erodes our way of life, starvation could be eliminated worldwide. It wouldn't take much to become the most beloved nation rather than the most feared

And wouldn't it be nice to live in a society where our top public program didn't have to be kept hush-hush to protect "sensitive topics"?

The Emperor Has No Sustainability

When you feel the world is going to hell

Remember hell's just a story we tell

Just a fear we release into the air

And then pretend to find it there

Like Iranian nukes, Iraq's WMDs,

Or Manuel Noriega in his evil underwear.

(It's OK. You had to be there.)

 

All right, you say, not hell but disaster,

Catastrophe here on earth.

Again, I tell you, a paranoid fantasizer

Centuries ago gave birth

To the notion that stars control our fate.

Dis-Aster. Bad-Star. I suspect

In reality, it was something they ate.

 

I'm missing the point, you scream.

There's such a thing as bad results.

There's such a thing as being too late.

And that is all that you -- quite clearly and simply -- mean.

And still, I maintain, we're all living in a dream

Refusing the possibility to see

That the emperor has no sustainability

 

We're not so powerless, after all,

AFTER ALL,

Any creatures who can uninvent hell and

Put the stars back in their places

Could -- even just a few of them could --

Even just a couple of them should --

Even just your solitary voice would

Start us on a path to save this precious little ball.

 

Talk Nation Radio: Rebecca Gordon on Mainstreaming Torture

https://soundcloud.com/davidcnswanson/talk-nation-radio-rebecca-gordon-on-mainstreaming-torture

A new book called Mainstreaming Torture argues that torture has been with us for a long time and remains with us and has been mainstreamed and increased in acceptability in the years since Bush and Cheney left office.  We speak with the author, Rebecca Gordon. She teaches in the Philosophy department at the University of San Francisco. Previous publications include Letters From Nicaragua  and Cruel and Usual: How Welfare “Reform” Punishes Poor People. She is an editor of WarTimes/Tiempo de guerras, which seeks to bring a race, class, and gender perspective to issues of war and peace.

Total run time: 29:00

Host: David Swanson.
Producer: David Swanson.
Music by Duke Ellington.

Download from Archive or LetsTryDemocracy.

Pacifica stations can also download from AudioPort.

Syndicated by Pacifica Network.

Please encourage your local radio stations to carry this program every week!

Please embed the SoundCloud audio on your own website!

Past Talk Nation Radio shows are all available free and complete at
http://davidswanson.org/talknationradio

Olympic Capitalism: Bread and Circuses Without the Bread

The author of Brazil's Dance With the Devil, Dave Zirin, must love sports, as I do, as billions of us do, or he wouldn't keep writing about where sports have gone wrong.  But, wow, have they gone wrong!

Brazil is set to host the World Cup this year and the Olympics in 2016.  In preparation Brazil is evicting 200,000 people from their homes, eliminating poor neighborhoods, defunding public services, investing in a militarized police and surveillance state, using slave and prison labor to build outrageous stadiums unlikely to be filled more than once, and "improving" a famous old stadium (the world's largest for 50 years) by removing over half the capacity in favor of luxury seats.  Meanwhile, popular protests and graffiti carry the message: "We want 'FIFA standard' hospitals and schools!" not to mention this one:

(FIFA = Fédération Internationale de Football Association, aka Soccer Profiteers International)

Brazil is just the latest in a string of nations that have chosen the glory of hosting mega sports events like the Olympics and World Cup despite the drawbacks.  And Zirin makes a case that nations' governments don't see the drawbacks as drawbacks at all, that in fact they are the actual motivation.  "Countries don't want these mega-events in spite of the threats to public welfare, addled construction projects, and repression they bring, but because of them."  Just as a storm or a war can be used as an excuse to strip away rights and concentrate wealth, so can the storm of sporting events that, coincidentally or not, have their origins in the preparation of nations for warmaking.

Zirin notes that the modern Olympics were launched by a group of European aristocrats and generals who favored nationalism and war -- led by Pierre de Coubertin who believed sport was "an indirect preparation for war." "In sports," he said, "all the same qualities flourish which serve for warfare: indifference toward one's well being, courage, readiness for the unforeseen."  The trappings of the Olympic celebration as we know it, however -- the opening ceremonies, marching athletes, Olympic torch run, etc., -- were created by the Nazis' propaganda office for the 1936 games.  The World Cup, on the other hand, began in 1934 in Mussolini's Italy with a tournament rigged to guarantee an Italian win.

More worrisome than what sports prepare athletes for is what they may prepare fans for.  There are great similarities between rooting for a sports team, especially a national sports team, and rooting for a national military.  "As soon as the question of prestige arises," wrote George Orwell, whom Zirin quotes, "as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused."  And there is prestige not just in "your" team winning, but in "your" nation hosting the grand event.  Zirin spoke with people in Brazil who were of mixed minds, opposing the injustices the Olympics bring but still glad the Olympics was coming to Brazil.  Zirin also quotes Brazilian politicians who seem to share the goal of national prestige.

At some point the prestige and the profits and the corruption and the commercialism seem to take over the athletics.  "[T]he Olympics aren't about  sport any more than the Iraq war was about democracy," Zirin writes. "The Olympics are not about athletes.  And they're definitely not about bringing together the 'community of nations.' They are a neoliberal Trojan horse aimed at bringing in business and rolling back the most basic civil liberties."

And yet ... And yet ... the damn thing still is about sports, no matter what else it's about, no matter what alternative venues for sports are possible or imaginable.  The fact remains that there are great athletes engaged in great sporting activities in the Olympics and the World Cup.  The attraction of the circus is still real, even when we know it's at the expense of bread, rather than accompanying bread.  And dangerous as the circus may be for the patriotic and militarist minded -- just as a sip of beer might be dangerous to an alcoholic -- one has the darndest time trying to find anything wrong with one's own appreciation for sports; at least I do.

The Olympics are also decidedly less militaristic -- or at least overtly militaristic -- than U.S. sports like football, baseball, and basketball, with their endless glorification of the U.S. military.  "Thank you to our service men and women watching in 175 countries and keeping us safe." The Olympics is also one of the few times that people in the U.S. see people from other countries on their televisions without wars being involved. 

Zirin's portrait of Brazil leaves me with similarly mixed sentiments. His research is impressive. He describes a rich and complex history.  Despite all the corruption and cruelty, I can't help being attracted to a nation that won its independence without a war, abolished slavery without a war, reduces poverty by giving poor people money, denounces U.S. drone murders at the U.N., joins with Turkey to propose an agreement between the United States and Iran, joins with Russia, India, and China to resist U.S. imperialism; and on the same day this year that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission proposed ending the open internet, Brazil created the world's first internet bill of rights. For a deeply flawed place, there's a lot to like.

It's also hard to resist a group of people that pushes back against the outrages being imposed on it.  When a bunch of houses in a poor Brazilian neighborhood were slated for demolition, an artist took photos of the residents, blew them up, and pasted them on the walls of the houses, finally shaming the government into letting the houses stand.  That approach to injustice, much like the Pakistani artists' recent placement of an enormous photo of a drone victim in a field for U.S. drone pilots to see, has huge potential. 

Now, the question is how to display the Olympics' victims to enough Olympics fans around the world so that no new nation will be able to accept this monster on the terms it has been imposing.

Talk Nation Radio: Betsy Leondar-Wright on Cross-Class Activism

https://soundcloud.com/davidcnswanson/talk-nation-radio-betsy

Betsy Leondar-Wright is the Project Director and Senior Trainer at Class Action, a non-profit that raises consciousness about class and money.  Her new book is called Missing Class: How Seeing Class Cultures Can Strengthen Social Movement Groups. She describes how people's speech patterns and approaches to activism tend to vary with class background, how unawareness of this can result in misunderstandings, and how awareness of it can build stronger movements that draw on the strengths of all.

Total run time: 29:00

Host: David Swanson.
Producer: David Swanson.
Music by Duke Ellington.

Download from Archive or LetsTryDemocracy.

Pacifica stations can also download from AudioPort.

Syndicated by Pacifica Network.

Please encourage your local radio stations to carry this program every week!

Please embed the SoundCloud audio on your own website!

Past Talk Nation Radio shows are all available free and complete at
http://davidswanson.org/talknationradio

Here Comes Ukrainian Hemp

So the United States wants to buy hemp from the Ukraine. I suppose we should be happy. Anytime the U.S. government gives a country money that is not earmarked for weapons, we probably shouldn't too closely examine the unelected neo-liberals and neo-Nazis handling the cash.  Nobody pays attention to the Saudi government or the oil, wars, and terrorism it provides in exchange for U.S. largesse.

Of course if the hemp buy is part of a larger package deal that impoverishes the Ukraine for the benefit of Western plutocrats, gets NATO's nose under the door, threatens Russia, and encourages the NED to hire the companies that name paint colors in hopes of finding unique names for all the revolutions it's going to plan next, we may want to oppose the whole package.

But isn't the precedent of connecting U.S. foreign policy in any way to a substance that benefits, rather than destroys, the environment of potentially great value?  While buying hemp abroad might be a move against permitting the production of hemp at home, won't it just further fuel the argument that it's insane to make U.S. companies import a raw material that they could much more cheaply grow (while creating jobs, restoring soil, slowing climate change, and garnering some 478 other benefits of hemp)?

Or is insanity just not that big a concern? Jon Walker has a book out called After Legalization.  And there's a book called Hemp Bound by Doug Fine.  These guys are convinced that marijuana and hemp are both about to be legalized in the United States.  One of their arguments is that doing so has majority support  -- and support, they stress, from across the political spectrum (Fine can't quote anybody without emphasizing that the person is NOT A HIPPIE).  "Since when do 80% of Americans agree on anything, as they do that the drug war is a failure?" asks Fine.

Well, let me count the ways.  I've been referring for years to this fine collection of polls: http://YesMagazine.org/purpleagenda In fact, 80% in the U.S. believe their government is broken, and I suspect they do so in part because so often their government ignores the will of 80% of the country, be it on ceasing to threaten Iran, investing more in green energy or education, or holding bankers to the rule of law.  Eighty percent and more usually support restoring money to the minimum wage, as it continues to plummet.  Ninety percent want higher fuel efficiency standards.  Eighty percent would ban weapons in space, enforce laws against torture, strengthen the United Nations, reduce the power and influence of big corporations, restore voting rights for ex-felons, create a justice system that does rehabilitation, allow immigrants to apply for citizenship, etc., etc.  Never mind the countless sane and important policies supported by 75% or 68% or 52% -- which damn well ought to be enough once in a while but almost never is.

Walker says the difference is that pot doesn't have any enemies.  Fine writes as if he expects no enemies either.  And yet, Fine refers repeatedly to the great damage hemp will do to oil companies and even to the war machine.  Now, I don't know to what extent there's truth behind the supposition that major corporate interests favored the banning of marijuana and hemp, as they had favored the banning of alcohol (they certainly benefitted from its being banned and remaining banned), but we know the oil companies killed public transit and the electric car and the Gulf of Mexico. These are not lightweights when it comes to amoral short-term struggles.  And you can add to them the petrochemical, plastics, timber, alcohol, tobacco, and pharmaceutical drug companies, as well as the herbicide companies (hemp doesn't require any), the agribusinesses currently subsidized, and -- last but not least -- the urine testing, property seizure, police and prison industries -- including the prison guard unions.  Oh and let's not neglect the State Department that wants to buy hemp from abroad as carrots for austerity schemes, and the foreign nations from whom the hemp is bought.  Who in their right mind would put sanity up against that whole crowd? I'm not even counting people too ignorant to distinguish hemp from marijuana, or who think marijuana kills you, or whom Jesus told pot comes from the devil.

Of course, I hope we will legalize hemp immediately (I mean nationally, I'm aware of the steps many states are taking). It's just going to require a great deal of effort, I'm afraid.

Then there's another worry.  Will marijuana and hemp be legalized but monopolized, corporatized, and Wal-Martized? Walker says pot won't be because nobody would buy it.  Fine says the same of hemp, and that the U.S. should ban GMO hemp from the start, as Canada has done -- as if banning GMO anything in the U.S. were as easy as passing a billion-dollar subsidy for a space weapon that threatens Iran, weakens the U.N., makes us dumber, and damages the atmosphere.  For hemp to sell, Fine writes, it has to keep a positive image that includes "a quest for world peace" -- which I take to mean more quoting Nobel laureates on packaging than funding the peace movement.  But who's going to know it's GMO if labeling on such points is banned?

Legalization is entirely doable, and the pressures in its favor are indeed likely to grow, but it's going to require huge public pressure.  Where books like Walker's and Fine's are most helpful is informing that little snippet of the public that reads books of the incredible benefits to be gained.  Hemp is apparently the healthiest food on earth, both for feeding people and for feeding farm animals whom people eat or from which people eat the eggs or drink the milk.  The same crop of hemp can, if all goes well, produce material stronger than steel or softer than cotton.  And the same crop can, in theory, produce a third thing at the same time, from yet another part of the plant: fuel.  You can build your tractor out of hemp, fuel it with hemp, and use it to harvest hemp -- hemp that is busy restoring your soil, preventing erosion, and surviving the drought and climate change.  You can do this while eating and drinking hemp and wearing clothes made of hemp and washed with hemp in your house also made of hemp and lime -- a house that sucks carbon out of the atmosphere. (The list of products and benefits is endless.  One that Fine cites is body armor, although how that fits into the quest for world peace is not clear.)

I'm not a fan of devoting acres needed for food production to fuel production, but a crop that produces both fuel and food (and building materials) -- if it really can do all that at once -- might alter the calculation.  Biofuel aside, hemp has more than enough benefits to start investing in it right now, if sanity were on the table.  Take the U.S. troops stationed in 175 countries and reduce that total by 5 countries per year.  Instead, buy those countries' hemp AND invest billions in our own (hire the former troops to grow it).  It's win-win-win, except for whichever profiteers have their interests in the wrong place.  Watch out for them.