Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Netanyahu defeat only a breather

Eric Foner’s third course on the American Civil War is airing now on EdX, the MOOC channel. He tells this anecdote in one of the recent lectures on long-standing American attitudes toward post-war Reconstruction, molded by popular culture such as the films Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind and reinforced by racist historians headquartered at Foner’s own (and mine) Columbia University:

Allen Dulles, later the head of the CIA after World War II, was a diplomat in Germany when Hitler came to power. What does this have to do with Reconstruction? Well, he went to see Hitler in 1933. And Hitler started complaining about Germany’s plight under the Treaty of Versailles that ended the First World War and imposed all these penalties and financial burdens on Germany. And Hitler said to Allen Dulles, “How would Americans have felt after the Civil War if the North had made the southern states sign a treaty keeping them in subjugation?”

Well, without fear of exaggeration, Dulles replied, “In fact, the way the North treated the South after the Civil War was far worse than anything France had done to Germany. The North even installed former slaves as judges.” Hitler was astonished. Black judges? He admitted the South was treated worse than Germany.

If Netanyahu loses today’s Israeli elections, we’ll hear from a lot of well-meaning, naïve commentators who will hail a new day in the intractable situation there. They will spill much ink to tell us that the reasonable people now have come into office in Israel who will promptly prepare a cozy solution for all.

Foner’s tale is a sobering rebuttal to that fantasy. He reminds us that racist attitudes, once installed, are far deeper and more resistant to change than anyone can imagine. We are amazed in retrospect at how white Southerners went nuts over desegregation during the 1950s and ‘60s, but we forget the corollary: that without federal intervention the civil rights movement didn’t stand a chance. We read about the beatings of freedom riders in the Hattiesburg, Mississippi, bus station, but without phone calls to Wallace from Kennedy and later pressure from LBJ the white vigilantes would have slaughtered them outright.

Entire generations of Israelis have been raised to dismiss the concerns of the Palestinian minority, and a vast bloc of outright racists has been empowered by the legal apartheid of the last 60 years. So a temporary rejection of the worst extremes of rhetoric and behavior that embarrass Israel internationally doesn’t mean much. Israeli liberals will continue to blink at the relentless abuse of stateless Palestinians by zionist klansmen in the occupied territories until external forces call a halt.

Today’s election may bring a temporary respite from the region’s march to catastrophe and retire a particularly heinous representative of Middle Eastern racism. But only the U.S. and its European allies can reverse the trend, and without greater pressure domestically they won’t rock the boat.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Loyalty and betrayal

I was rereading Greg Palast’s “Bailout Bonanza” this week to recall the details of how Mitt and Ann Romney made millions on the General Motors “bailout” engineered during the first Obama Administration. Palast relates how the Romneys partnered with the notorious Paul “Vulture Fund” Singer and other financier sharpies to strip and deunionize the auto company’s parts supplier, Delphi, such that it now employs 100,000 Chinese (no doubt miserably) but only 5,000 Americans. One of their hedge fund squillionaire buddies, Daniel Loeb, crowed after the deal that his newly acquired stake in the company was a great coup because it now had ”virtually no North American unionized labor” and “significantly smaller pension liabilities,” as the hedges had jettisoned those responsibilities as part of the bailout arrangements.

This story provides important perspective on the accusations of “treason” that have enlivened our current political season, most recently those aimed at Republicans for trying to become penpals with the Iranian ayatollahs. Meanwhile, to call Obama a “traitor” has been a staple of GOP and Tea Party rhetoric since he took office—a Google search of the word pops up Obama’s photo more than Kim Philby’s.

But although the GOP love-note to Khameini is an Onion-worthy moment, to be sure, betrayal of the nation isn’t really out of character for the bulk of our rulers, despite their nonstop rhetoric of patriotism. That is, if we understand love of one’s country as a refusal to turn one’s back on it for personal gain.

We presume a basic loyalty to our immediate relatives, our society and the polity that governs it as a fundamental human virtue, an expression of gratitude and loyalty to what gave us life. The Latin root for “nation” is nascere, “to be born”; we are a nation because we share a “motherland.” In short, we feel affinity with and owe something to others who were born in the same place.

So do we? Should we? Perhaps like religion, how we understand these concepts is best left to the private sphere. In any case, the desire to contribute to the wellbeing of our place of birth and citizenship is certainly a laudable sentiment, but our governing class cannot be said to harbor much of it. As Palast describes in gruesome detail in the GM/Delphi case, Republicans and Democrats both have eagerly dismantled the country’s industrial base and shipped our citizens’ jobs to the four corners of the earth. The beneficiaries, along with themselves, have been regimes that crush their own workers to generate succulent profits for the deracinated, international owning class.

So Obama, Biden and Hillary C can rend their garments all they want about the GOP’s attempted seduction of a turbaned cleric. Republicans and their indignant bubba supporters can wail and stamp their feet over Obama’s daring to occupy the White House as a resident instead of a bartender. But they all have long betrayed the interests of the people who actually inhabit the country that bore and bred them. Despite the talk about patriotism and the fetish of American flag pins, these squabbling elitists are not true nationalists. They have no loyalty to the human polity that gave them birth as they continue to sell out working people of all nationalities for their own gain.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Bizarro-world

In all the torrents of ink being spilled over the amazing campaign visit of Israeli PM Netanyahu as he attempts to formalize foreign control of U.S. foreign policy, has there been a single reference anywhere to the irony of our being lectured about arms control by the very state that nuclearized the Middle East?

You’d never think, given the ringing denunciations of Iranian perfidy in daring to even think about having nuclear capability for any purpose, that the accusers themselves assembled warhead technology, defied the world to develop bombs, maintains them and puts them to use regularly. By “use” I mean exactly what we mean when we say that an armed robber “uses” a weapon in assaulting a bank—it need not be fired to fulfill that condition. Being the only person in the room with a firearm gives the bank robber an important advantage, albeit a temporary one.

You’d never think that the same entity that rends its collective garment over the nuclear threat—to it—once assisted apartheid South Africa in its fledging nuclear weapon capacity. It wouldn’t occur to you because that sordid tale was suppressed as it occurred (reaching its height under the Carter Administration) and stamped out of the historical record when it became an embarrassment. No wonder Israelis are so sensitive to being called an “apartheid” state.


Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Hustling then and now

Oscar season, now past but still fresh in memory, reminds me of non-winner American Hustle from last year because that tawdry tale has just replayed itself in British politics. Hustle was based on the notorious 1970s ABSCAM FBI sting operation that netted several politicians and the Jersey mayor played by Jeremy Renner, en bouffant. It was based on an elaborate and quite incredible scheme cooked up by the FBI to entrap dirty politicians with suitcases of cash.

The difference is that the ABSCAM defendants of yesteryear faced indictments and charges and even jail and certainly public opprobrium whereas the British pols snared—one foreign minister each from the two main UK parties, Straw (Labour) and Rifkind (Tory)—proudly assert that they did nothing wrong and have “a clear conscience.” On the latter point, I do not doubt their word for one minute. Politicians for Hire, the documentary produced by the Daily Telegraph reporters on their escapades as deep-pocketed businessmen from Honk Kong shopping for influence, will be aired later today on British TV. Yum yum.

In the 50 years that have elapsed between the US version of mock-political bribery and the recent one staged by the British reporters, profound shifts in our beliefs about governance have evolved in both countries. Whereas once it would be shameful to accept payoffs and peddle influence for one’s corporate contacts, it is now considered not only normal but almost virtuous. We have stopped believing in public goods or public well-being and now see only clan- and network-based interests, to which one mans up and hitches one’s wagon or gets left in the dust, i.e., is a loser and a nobody.

In short, we have developed the mentality of a mafia state. As there are many stages in this process of gradual rot, we can still compare our situation favorably with that of, say, Mexico or Nigeria. But the momentum and the direction of the decline are clear enough.

In a non-mafia state there are rules and standards of fairness that, while never fully honored, exercise a certain degree of social control over the natural biped tendency to cash in for self and friends. Thus the congressman who was taped stuffing his pockets with cash from the FBI agents pretending to be Mideast sheiks—and whom I personally questioned about his belief system during a Capitol Hill news conference—was the object of scorn. Today, he would be criticized for crudity and sloppiness, but not ostracized. Similarly, Straw and Rifkind can rebut the charge that they and their influence are for sale by saying, So what? A guy’s gotta earn his living somehow, and who can get by on a lousy hundred thou a year? They will neither go to jail nor be dropped from party invitation lists.

I recognize this growing trend toward mafiosism having lived in South America for two decades. There, no one really believes or even pretends to believe that merit is the standard for advancement though it may be taken into account (or not). Instead, one has to have connections (cuña in Chilean slang, or “wedge”) and mobilize them; the relevant skills and competence may or may not also be required, but cuña is essential. This process will include all sorts of cajoling, ass-kissing, gift-giving, stroking, relative-schmoozing, and relentless buttering up until the goal is achieved. Sexual favors, of course, are often welcome.

The ideal form of this system is the political party, which is why the anti-Pinochet coalition that replaced the military regime in Chile in 1990 quickly degraded itself into a corrupt network of hustlers amassing and passing out favors. While there were people in the coalition trying to represent the interests of the entire population in the new government, they never constituted its core. Parallels with the Democratic Party, USA, are so obvious they barely need mentioning. (The GOP, now a whorehouse without even a beaded curtain to hide behind, even less.)

How much of this is inevitable? After all, government officials will always be biased toward their favorites, and economics inevitably drives decision-making. Democracy cannot pretend to operate at a remove from the overwhelming influence of profit. But when a society no longer believes in the nation, the collective polity as the repository of an ideal of fairness and equity and not just a jumble of jockeying clans blindly intent solely on their own exclusive advancements, the seeds of collapse are sown. No wonder we keep hearing so much about how Obama or some other enemy “doesn’t love America.” In psychology, it’s called projection.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Ukraine v/s Greece, the double standard in EU romance

Ukraine just sealed a deal with the IMF for a cool $17.5 billion, which probably will help it limp forward in the war our bosses are so eager to pursue against Russia. It’s been clear from the beginning that our war-hungry leaders favor hostilities in Eastern Europe as they systematically explode avenues for resolution and act with maximum belligerence. If they were inclined toward peace-making, you wouldn’t have heard careful pols like Hillary make inflammatory comparisons of Putin with Hitler when the situation first started to spin out of control, which she carefully repeated to make everyone sure that they hadn’t just made a slip of the tongue.

Last week there was a new ceasefire agreement, which the EU promptly tried to sabotage by announcing a new sanctions regime against Russia. Huh? You make peace and then immediately punish the adversary for doing so? For reasons beyond my modest ken, Washington and its Euro-allies are determined to keep this dangerous outbreak stoked—no doubt the war-profiteer class pululating around the Beltway is delighted that it won’t face austerity any time soon.

Contrast the easy money made available to enable front-line Ukraine to continue bleeding itself with the Stern Daddy attitudes copped in negotiations with Greece, trying to get back on its feet despite the six-year kneecapping performed by its EU overlords. (“Fiscal waterboarding,” in Greek finmin Yanis Varoufakis’s phrase.) There, we hear about nothing but the sanctity of “agreements” that the prior Greek governments signed while Angela Merkel and her chief gringch, Wolfgang Schäuble, held a glock to their heads. Greece has no particular strategic importance, and the previous “bailouts” enabled German and French banks to get paid off in full for their foolish loans to the insolvent (an exact duplicate of the joint Bush/Paulson and Obama/Geithner strategy in saving the U.S. banks from their own folly). So Greece gets bupkis, and the Ukrainians a mountain of cash.

Not that the Ukrainians are so lucky—the pay-back terms are so onerous it is hard to predict whether Putin or the IMF will be more successful in bringing what was once a miserable and corrupt country to a state of dystopian collapse. But it’s amazing how quickly the IMF’s own rules about not lending to countries at war or to insolvent ones go out the window when geopolitics take priority.

Europe is courting disaster of a magnitude we can only imagine when reading historical fiction from the past century. The Greeks are offering reasonable terms to get the continent out of its demented marriage to a failed program of Freedom through Work, a.k.a., prosperity through penury. Instead, the banker class now running things throughout the western world insists that it should get all the goods, all the money and all the fixed wealth (they’re insisting that Greece sell off its infrastructure like ports and airports, even the Acropolis, to pay the impossible debts), that they and their children must rule like pharaohs while the little people toil in silence and survive on crusts. It’s happened before in human history, and if they get their way, it will return in due course. And they won’t hesitate to bring us World War III into the bargain.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Sad, sad days

I helped my friend Billy say goodbye to his partner, who died after a brief illness at the obscenely young age of 38. The funeral took place in his Mohawk Valley hometown of Herkimer near Utica in upstate New York. He came from a big Italian-American clan with innumerable kids, grandkids, nephews, food and drink everywhere, and a massive turnout at the six-hour visitation: 1000 people, which had to be a sizable percentage of the local population. The lost brother was a dancer and had performed as late as October, so there was a strong atmosphere of disbelief. I could only imagine how keenly the deceased yearned to get back to his joyful life, with his artistic pursuits in the city, his boyfriend of six years, and his adoring sisters and gregarious brothers waiting for him back in the familiar village where he knew every street and every backwoods hideaway where he’d gone drinking as a teenager. He had wanted to avoid the hospital and get home for the holidays this year. But for the usual unfathomable reasons, he didn’t get his wish.

Times certainly have changed around the presence of the same-sex partner, even in a conservative zone like our upstate. On the train heading north, I was party to a long conversation among other riders about how much they hate Governor Cuomo (for his gun safety law), their disdain for poor people (though many are skating on the edge themselves) and the usual litany of Fox News-inspired complaints. And yet no one would dream of disrespecting Billy, the bereaved boyfriend. The preacher caught himself in time on the verge of leaving out Billy’s place among the listing of heartbroken relatives and preached a sweet, thoughtful eulogy citing Psalms about dance as a celebration of God's bounty.

There was a slide show of highlights of his life, which was wonderful and touching and terribly painful to watch. At the wake at the local Elks Lodge, I circulated among the relatives and a few New York dancer friends who had come up, a couple of whom will now have to rethink their careers and find new collaborators. My job was unobtrusively to be around and available, listen when needed, and resist the temptation to say anything “helpful.”

I’m familiar with small-town America and come from it. It has a warm, welcoming aspect and an ignorant, bloody-minded side, too. At the train station in Utica, I expected to get a taxi to take me the 12 miles to Herkimer, but none were around, and the barbershop gave me a phone number to call for one. Turned out they were all booked, but then the guy who took the call was curt, rude and hung up on me in mid-sentence. The funeral would be over in 90 minutes, and I was stuck.

So I said, Piss on this town, I’m getting there on my own, found my way down to the highway intersection and stuck out my thumb just like in the old days. Granted it was about 12 degrees and windy, so this might have looked imprudent to some, but in less than 10 minutes a guy pulled over to pick me up who not only was from Herkimer himself, but was headed there and knew the family. He dropped me off at the door to the funeral home. I was confident people wouldn’t leave an unthreatening, 60-plus-year-old white guy standing by the road in that weather for long. And I was right.

It’s curious how often in my past deaths have intersected with shifts I am undergoing in my personal life to the point where some profound sadness emerges during the departing one’s final illness or at the funeral, and I feel almost embarrassed to be piggybacking on others’ grief when, as in this case, I have just the most glancing acquaintance with the deceased. But one reacts as one reacts, and it doesn’t have to make sense. Perhaps that’s another reason why it didn’t feel at all like a chore for me to make this trip—on the contrary, I was delighted to be of some small service for a grieving friend, and in addition, odd as it sounds, I felt I was saying goodbye—to something—for myself as well.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Virtuous Germany v/s naughty Greece

We’ll be hearing a lot about the need for countries to pay all their debts and not shirk them, coming from German government officials full of piety about sacred contracts, prudent budgeting and all sorts of similar family values. They’ll insist those naughty Greeks that they mustn’t think of getting out from under their duly acquired obligations, whatever the new Syriza-led government has to say.

They ought to be reminded that a certain European country had its debts forgiven by half in 1953 when creditors recognized that the war-ravaged country was never going to pay in full. That country was Germany, the beneficiary of sensible policy by the victors of World War 2 who did not want to repeat the debacle of the 1919 Versailles settlement. They saw that the decision to impose impossibly harsh conditions led to the instability of Weimar and eventually the rise of Naziism (despite multiple, too-little-too-late rounds of debt forgiveness in 1924, 1929 and even to Hitler in 1934).

Greece is never going to pay off its accumulated debt, which anyone with a grasp of seventh-grade arithmatic can see. Greece’s Depression-level conditions, imposed by the German-led bankers, make it impossible to accumulate enough income even to pay off the interest. Facile talk about structural “reforms” and fiscal prudence are cruel jokes, like telling a child to get an education by chasing after a speeding schoolbus.

Greece will default or being given new loans to roll over the old ones because it cannot pay. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. The only debate is whether the country is to be crushed under north Europe’s thumb permanently or be allowed to come back to life. The default should have happened years ago, but that would have harmed the German and French banks that were on the hook due to their foolish lending to the Greek kleptocracy, the existence of which the whole country now has to atone for. The EU cleverly paid those banks off with new loans and saddled Greek citizens with repaying them, who are now expected to do so by starving and living on the streets. If they have nothing left to hock, well then, sell off the Parthenon—I’m not making this up.

So why is Germany the only country in modern times to be granted debt relief but refuses to do the same when it is holding the credit chits? Perhaps because it can exercise moral authority over the rest of Europe due to its sterling record as a good neighbor?

Syriza has an almost impossible task, and the EU banker mafia, convinced it holds all the cards, thinks it can dictate terms to whomever the Greeks happen to elect. That may be true for now, but the continent has given us ample lessons in unintended consequences. The financier class seems determined to sow the wind, and the ultra-right is standing by ready to offer its peculiar alternative. Europe should pray for Syriza’s success.