Sunday, November 30, 2008

Tangled roots

There were a couple of op-eds in today’s Charleston Gazette that discussed the proposed consolidation of the city of Charleston WV with the surrounding county, Kanawha. This “metro consolidation,” as it’s known, is peripherally related to what we’ve been trying to do here in Hampshire County, in that it’s an effort by local citizens to change the form of their local government. But they’re using a different legal mechanism than we are.

The first op-ed I read was a straightforward look at the process of consolidation itself by a local state senator. The second piece was written by a Baptist minister, and primarily discussed a specific issue that metro consolidation should address—substance abuse—because, according to the author, it’s an issue that’s at the root of virtually all of the Charleston metro region’s social problems, from crime to domestic violence.

I don’t think there’s any doubt that alcohol or drug abuse is a major component in many of American society’s problems. But as I read the column, with its typically punitive tone, I was increasingly bothered by the fact that it was only talking about treating a symptom of America’s social disease, without acknowledging that symptom’s underlying causes.

There was no questioning of why, after thirty-plus years of a “war on drugs” and ubiquitous anti-alcohol government propaganda, America continues to lead the world in substance abuse problems. There was no mention of underlying economic or cultural phenomena that may explain why Americans would want to take the national flight from reality a distinctly individual step further. On the unending question of which came first, chicken or egg, the preacher/author (no doubt a creationist) had, with fundamentalist certitude, chosen the chicken. Another drug warrior raises the flag.

What is so disturbing about this well-conditioned knee-jerk response to the problem of substance abuse, apart from its intellectual laziness, is that, in the end, it only contributes to extending the life of the problem.

A few days ago, the Los Angeles Times published an article about a recent Brookings Institution report, which says unequivocally, “The US war on drugs has failed.” From the article:

“The report, which is the work of Brookings' Partnership for the Americas Commission, offers especially pointed criticism of the way the drug war has been waged.Contrary to government claims, the use of heroin and cocaine in the U.S. has not declined significantly, the report says, and the use of methamphetamine is spreading. Falling street prices suggest that the supply of narcotics has not declined noticeably, and U.S. prevention and treatment programs are woefully underfunded, the study says."Current U.S. counter- narcotics policies are failing by most objective standards," the report says. "The only long-run solution to the problem of illegal narcotics is to reduce the demand for drugs in the major consuming countries, including the United States."

Following the establishment practice of continuing to keep the drug problem in the criminal justice domain, however, the Brookings Institution’s recommendations step only gingerly in the direction of decriminalization. The LAT article continues, “The report urges the U.S. to take responsibility for stemming the transport of an estimated 2,000 guns a day across the border; to expand drug prevention programs in schools and redirect anti-drug messages to younger people by emphasizing cosmetic damage as well as health risks; and to greatly enhance drug courts, a system that incorporates treatment into prosecution.”

I love that last phrase, “a system that incorporates treatment into prosecution.” Obviously, there won’t be any mainstream discussion of treatment outside the context of prosecution. And this is the very discussion that is so lacking in our public dialogue about drugs. It is precisely this missing element that holds the key to what our current policy is all about.

For as long as the American drug war has been waged, drug policy reformers have been offering alternative approaches that emphasize treating the problem of substance abuse as primarily a public health issue. There are all kinds of reasons why this approach makes infinitely more sense than the current policy, which I won’t go into at this time.

The only point I want to make now is that we cannot analyze the failures of the war on drugs without looking at who benefits from the current policy. And we cannot see who benefits if we willfully close our eyes to the same intelligence/underworld connections that lie under every rock we overturn once we start searching for the truth of what happened in virtually every one of the last half-century’s most disturbing events, from the JFK assassination to 9/11.

Oh, it’s a tangled, drug-soaked web.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Strategy of tension

There’s been a steady uptick in media reports about terrorism over the past week—not only about the horrific events in Mumbai, India (which naturally got the most attention), but about serious bombings in Iraq, and the announcement of an Al Qaeda plot to attack the New York subway system.

It makes me nervous.

The head of Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, has been asked to meet with the Indian Prime Minister. Pakistan’s government has hastened to reassure India that it didn’t have anything to do with the Mumbai attacks, which India has, at this point, identified as the work of Kashmiri separatists. Presumably, a few choice questions to the ISI chief from India’s own intelligence agencies (who, in 2001, were the ones to let the FBI know that $100,000 in funding for the 9/11 attacks came from the ISI—a fact the 9/11 Commission thought too unimportant to include in their report) should clear up whether Pakistan was officially involved or not.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of living in the 21st century Wonderland the world has become is the fact that we may never know who did anything in the clandestine underworld of terrorism. The eternal question of “Cui bono?” (“Who benefits?”), from a particular terrorist act, can yield a whole variety of beneficiaries—governments, gangsters, gun smugglers, drug dealers, private armies, or multinational corporations—who may be interrelated in any variety of ways. And most of the people involved may not even have any idea of what’s really going on.

It’s a looking glass world.

I’m far from the only one to wonder if there’s a New World Order dimension to what, as of this writing, is still going on in Mumbai. It could turn out to be very “convenient” for certain interests.

There’s been much concern recently among the power elite about the stability and even viability of the Pakistani government, the only Islamic state with nuclear weapons (but whose chief nuclear scientist, A.Q. Khan, has had a mysterious long term relationship with the CIA). But the circumstances of a potential nuclear war between India and Pakistan, instigated by the murkiness of ISI’s historic involvement with “terrorists,” could certainly be used to justify greater NWO involvement in Pakistan’s domestic affairs—already under Predator drone assault in the northwestern tribal areas of the country.

One of our more prophetic commentators, Chris Floyd (, published a column on Monday, “Security Blanket: Western Democracy and the Strategy of Tension,” about the postwar history of the use of “false flag” terrorism by the US government to advance American foreign policy—by staging terrorist attacks that are then blamed on enemies of the US, thereby justifying American counter-reaction.

The most famous example of this tactic was Operation Gladio, which terrorized Europe for decades, and which we know about because it was exposed by high-level operatives. The philosophy behind this operation (whose most infamous act was the 1980 bombing of the Bologna, Italy, train station, which killed 85 people) was described in 1991 by Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti: “You had to attack civilians, the people, women, children, innocent people far removed from any political game. The reason was quite simple: to force…the public to turn to the state to ask for greater security.” This policy, fascist to its core, was known as “the strategy of tension.”

If, like me, you’ve been feeling a little tense lately, it may be deliberate.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Same old

To continue a theme for this week…

Those who expected Barack Obama to be the anti-war candidate he (kind of) ran as, have to be disappointed with the news leak that Bush’s Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, will continue in that position for at least a year. When you add that info to the news that his National Security Adviser will be a Marine general, and his National Intelligence Director will be another Navy admiral, it’s difficult to conclude anything other than that the military industrial complex remains in charge.

The permanent government doesn’t change.

Of course, it’s always possible that, as some progressive observers have postulated, Obama is just smarter than the rest of us, and that what he’s pulling here is some kind of political aikido, using his opponents’ strength against them and working for change from the inside (he is, after all, the first African American to get himself elected president—possibly an impossible task for an unabashed progressive). But I doubt it. It’s the system that rules. Politics is the art of the possible, and what is possible in this system of corporate democracy is very narrow indeed.

Maybe a shift of a few yards across the fifty-yard line is the only “change” we can really believe in—nothing else is possible.

Along these lines, my recommendation for today’s reading is Frida Berrigan’s article at, “Who rules the Pentagon?” Unfortunately, I think the headline is misleading, because she doesn’t really answer the question directly. But she does provide a sickening overview of how much control the military industrial complex actually exercises over our nominal “democracy,” not to mention our national budget priorities (an important element, under the present economic circumstances).

She also confirms that, under an Obama presidency, it’s very unlikely that there will be any kind of a “peace dividend.”

Meet the new boss.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


One of the running jokes in the cult film classic, “The Princess Bride,” is the repetition of the word “inconceivable” by one of the villains of the piece, as he is constantly surprised by the hero’s resourcefulness.

The word came to me as I read a short piece at the website Information Clearinghouse this morning, discussing the $7.4 trillion that Bloomberg News reports the Bush administration has committed in the past 15 months to clean up the financial mess it’s created. The author notes that if you piled up 7.4 trillion pennies, the stack would be high enough to equal the distance of ten round trips between Earth and the moon.

Is it any wonder that no one really grasps what’s going on here, or that our financial problems seem insurmountable?


Another interesting website I stumbled on today, via 911blogger, is I met Sheila earlier this year at a DC 9/11 Truth meeting. Her website has a lot of information about the global financial elites who finance virtually every national political system, keeping their own interests at the forefront.

This is the kind of information that gets you labeled a “conspiracy theorist,” but it’s information critical to any real understanding of how the world really works.

Particularly interesting to me was her article about Carroll Quigley, who was Bill Clinton’s mentor at Georgetown University. She has a number of quotes from Quigley’s book about the genuine conspiracy among elites to dominate the world’s financial system, based on his access to documents of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Under the present circumstances of global economic collapse and Hillary Clinton’s reported ascension to the position of Obama’s Secretary of State, it’s worth taking a look.


Speaking of stumbling, I’d like to thank the website Stumblers ( for reprinting my article “Paranoid Shift” on Sunday, to mark the anniversary of the JFK assassination. I’m honored.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Off the farm

The big news today is the economy, because Obama will be announcing the appointment of his economic team, and yesterday, the Bush administration announced that taxpaying Americans are rescuing yet another financial giant “too big to fail,” Citibank.

In his fireside Internet video chat on Saturday, Obama noted that the economic situation is getting worse, so he put a little more flesh on his campaign promise to bolster the economy with 2.5 million infrastructure jobs. Prominent economists are saying that we may be reaching just “the end of the beginning” of a downturn that could be worse than the Great Depression.

There’s a huge difference, however, between the situation in America today and America in the 1930s. When FDR became president, one in three Americans lived on a farm, and so they were at least able to feed themselves. Today, barely more than one in a hundred Americans lives on a farm. If the system breaks down to the degree it did during the Depression, what are all those people going to eat?


Speaking of being off the farm, there’s a rather intense debate going on in cyberspace among progressives, about the choices Obama is making on his foreign policy team, which has a decidedly hawkish stance.

The STFU crowd of Obama supporters is saying give him a chance, he’s not even in office yet. The radicals are echoing Ralph Nader’s “I told you so.”

Cindy Sheehan weighs in on the radical side in the comments at Common Dreams, which supported Obama strongly during the campaign. Their top headline today, from the conservative British paper, the Sunday Telegraph, is “Barack Obama accused of selling out on Iraq.” Sheehan closes her comment with the slogan, “Don’t blame me, I voted for Cynthia McKinney.”

I wonder if anybody’s selling bumper stickers yet.


Finally, as regular readers of this blog know, I supported Obama (with strong reservations, but simply bowing to political reality) during the campaign, in articles that included what is still my most widely reprinted post, “Barack Obunny and Elmer McFudd.”

The latest Rolling Stone magazine has an article, “How Obama won.” I haven’t read it yet, but the illustration is a cartoon of Obama as Bugs Bunny, with both McCain and Palin dressed like Elmer Fudd.

Naturally, I’d like to think the cartoonist read my piece. But even if not, and it’s just one of those “hundredth monkey” moments, it’s personally satisfying to see my observations confirmed in illustrated form. It’s going in my scrapbook.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Horse sense

This will be a short post today. We’re marking the 45th anniversary of the JFK assassination with a visit from the farrier, who’s coming this morning to trim the horses’ hooves.

If you want to get a real sense of the awesome power of nature, stand next to a two-thousand pound animal while she rears up on her hind legs, as I did once when Daisy had a bad reaction to an earlier farrier. I had hold of the rope on her halter, but all I could do was stand there and look up at her. I’ll never forget that moment, which happened not long after we first got the horses, because I was so filled with awe at the sight of her that I felt not the slightest hint of fear, even though one of her flailing front hooves could have easily caved my skull in. I was a little giddy afterwards.

I was fourteen when JFK was killed, and it’s another moment that, like everyone else in my generation, I’ll never forget. I can’t forget the priest who interrupted our math class to lead us in prayer at the news he’d been shot, or how all the people on the DC city bus I took when we got off early were talking about it, or my mother turning to me from the television, tears in her eyes, when I walked in, and her voice quaking with grief, saying simply, “They killed him.”

Last year I read David Talbot’s “Brothers,” his book about the relationship between Jack and Bobby Kennedy. It’s a book that got remarkably little attention in the media, but jaded as I am now, I’m not surprised. Much of the book dealt with Bobby’s efforts to find out who really killed his brother. Both he and the widowed Jackie suspected it was the CIA.

I suspect they’re right.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Two months

It was two months ago today that I started writing this blog. Like most things in life, I suppose, it’s been an education.

For one thing, I’m surprised at some of the unexpected turns it’s taken. My original intention had been to write at least six posts a week, of at least five hundred words each. I wanted this blog to be a writing discipline in itself, as well as a way to express my opinions about subjects that I don’t think get enough attention.

Of course, real life intruded immediately, in the form of some unexpected new responsibilities that made that kind of schedule impossible. Also, I’ve come to realize that once I’ve gotten five hundred words into a topic, it usually takes at least five hundred more words to get out of it. So soon after I started, I figured I could produce the same output as I originally intended by writing every other day.

But it’s even been hard to keep that schedule. And I don’t think it works for a blog, in terms of retaining readership. It’s working for me as a writer, in that I’m writing essays in a free form mode that I never allowed myself before. But I think I’ll need to do more “marketing,” both with emails (which I haven’t done yet) and posting at other sites besides my old haunt, Online Journal, to get the audience I would like, to make it all seem worthwhile, or at least more than a personal diary.

I’ve been very appreciative of the readers who have come by, and especially of the comments, which have been invariably thoughtful. So just for you and I, for now, I’ll keep the blog going. But I think I’ll make some changes.

I still haven’t got the newer computer I was hoping for weeks ago, and I’m still having memory problems, so no pictures and videos yet. But I’m going to resolve to post something every day, even just a few comments like this, so you’ll have a reason to check in more often. And I’ll just do the major essays a few times a week, like I’ve been doing.

If the post is less than five hundred words, I’ll try to keep them pithy.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

First snow

Yesterday we woke to winter’s first snow. It was a nice one, deep enough to cover everything, and fluffy enough to brush off the car easily, and most of it was gone by day’s end. There’s still some left today, because it turned cold.

It’s beautiful to look out over the hills in any season, but with the leaves down, you see views you don’t see in other seasons, and sometimes that makes the vista more grand.

I can see about thirty miles down the valley from my office window. The Shenandoah Mountains (the Allegany subrange that runs along the Virginia/West Virginia border) are long ridges stretching miles to the northeast. Our weather tends to come either directly from the west/northwest, or up from the south along the Appalachians, when we can watch it come up the valley—a majestic sight.

It’s amazing to me how living in the country has gradually broadened my connection to the Earth. I notice things, and know things, that never entered my consciousness as a city dweller. It’s awakened me to just how much modern humans are out of touch with the very ground we stand on.

I think any true grassroots revolution has to re-make that connection.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Equal human rights

One of the few areas where conservatives could take any comfort on election night 2008 was in the passage, in three states, of ballot initiatives opposing same-sex marriage—most notably, in California, where thousands of gay and lesbian couples had already made their relationships legally binding, in the months between the California Supreme Court decision upholding the right of homosexuals to marry and November 4th.

Over this past weekend, there were large demonstrations all over the country against the passage of California’s Proposition 8, demanding equal rights for homosexuals. By coincidence, I spent the weekend celebrating the birthday of an old friend of mine, who is in a long-term lesbian relationship. She is a college friend of my partner’s, and we stayed at her home in Pennsylvania, along with her visiting children and grandchildren, and of course her partner, who organized the party. It was a wonderful time.

It has been one of the great blessings of my life that I’ve had close, longtime gay and lesbian friends. Since I come from a very large family, it’s unsurprising to me that I also have homosexual relatives. It’s estimated that about five percent of the human population is attracted to the same sex, and that seems about right, in my experience.

Surveys have found, logically enough, that people who have gay and lesbian friends and relatives are more apt to support equal rights for homosexuals, including the right to marry. To me, the idea that these rights are even in question is a tragic absurdity. What right do so-called “Christians” have, to deny people I love one of our most fundamental human rights as specifically stated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to “the pursuit of happiness.” How can people who claim to find their own happiness in “the sanctity of marriage,” presume to deny anyone else their right to that same happiness? It doesn’t make any sense. It is, at best, hypocrisy.

At worst, it is bigotry and hatred—the very opposite of the God of love and tolerance that fundamentalist Christians claim to worship. In their own scriptures, Jesus tells them that they can find him in the “outcast.” But they continually refuse to believe him. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, they obsess about the letter of their scripture, but are blind to its spirit—the spirit of love, compassion, justice and tolerance that Jesus preached.

Every so often, I listen to Christian radio broadcast out of Winchester, to hear what talking points are being circulated and assimilated among the Republican base. The spin on gay marriage is that this represents “special rights,” rather than equal rights, because gay marriage has never been part of our Judeo-Christian tradition. The Christian right sees same-sex marriage as an attack on “the family,” which is based on “the union of one man and one woman;” and the family being society’s own basic building block, gay marriage is therefore an attack on American society itself, and ipso facto, anti-American.

Fundamentalist Christians like to think of themselves as being persecuted. Gay marriage is also seen as an attack on the Bible and religious faith, and on the right of “Christians” to practice their faith freely. In their eyes, “secular humanists” control the media, the judiciary, and the federal bureaucracy, and are trying to destroy America and Christianity by advancing the causes of both “Gnosticism” (cultural relativism) and “pagan nature worship,” which includes both environmentalism and the animal coupling of men with men and women with women. The Christian right sees the official sanction of gay marriage as the government requiring them to reject their own faith, because their tax dollars would then support a system that celebrates, at the county courthouse, a sacrament—same-sex marriage—of a false religion. Hence, the Christian right is being persecuted (in a country where a substantial majority of citizens identify themselves as “Christian”) for taking a stand in support of “biblical principles.”

The Hebrew scriptures were written partly as political documents. They were meant to encourage the separation of the Hebrew tribe from other Canaanites, and to create a sense of tribal nationalism through religious difference, by rejecting both Canaanite polytheism and its feminine aspects—female goddesses, greater equality between the sexes, and tolerance for homosexuality. The scriptures are just as effective today in conveying religious sanction to a system of male domination and other power imbalances, nourished by our “Judeo-Christian tradition.”

The Christian right’s opinion of same-sex marriage is, as would probably be expected, rich with irony.

In the first place, every premise on which they base their argument is wrong. As always, the scriptures are full of ambiguities, rather than the certainties they preach, and the same Old Testament book that is supposed to outlaw homosexuality also outlaws cheeseburgers—it’s meant to be read in context. The Bible outlaws adultery, too, but Jesus himself is descended from one of scripture’s most infamous adulteresses. In addition, the Irish Times, several years ago, published a well-documented account of ancient Christian ritual used in the matrimonial ceremonies of same-sex couples. Early Christianity endorsed gay marriage.

Perhaps the biggest irony in this debate is that the people who are most worried about attacks on the institution of marriage are the ones with the highest divorce rate. Most of the ten states with the highest divorce rates vote Republican; the majority of states with the lowest divorce rates are blue states. Evangelical Christians get more divorces than other demographic groups; evangelical teens have higher pregnancy rates. This is why Bristol Palin’s pregnancy was no big deal to the Republican base. They all know kids like that.

The small comfort that conservatives took from the initiatives banning gay marriage this past election day will be seen, in the end, as just whistling in the dark. The culture has already shifted, and not just among the young, who are our future. If the front line of the culture war today is gay marriage, when just short years ago, it was civil unions, cultural conservatives have lost tremendous ground.

Ultimately, it’s because they are defending a groundless position. People are homosexual because God created them that way; homosexuality is found throughout nature. If we truly believe in the principle that we are all created equal—with equal rights—and we want to govern ourselves by that principle, then we will not be bound by the tyranny of a temporary majority, but only by our national responsibility to uphold the most fundamental human rights—including the right to marry the person of your own choosing.

If it’s a new era, let’s begin with those.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Spare change?

Can Barack Obama be a black Clinton and an American Mandela simultaneously? Can he be an agent of change and a corporate tool at the same time?

Physicists have discovered that we all live in many alternative universes simultaneously. A universe in eternal fluctuation between wave and particle contains infinite possibilities. We are all kaleidoscopes of the many personalities living within us—or, as the Greek philosopher put it in a more general context, you never step in the same river twice. So, like the rest of us, Obama too can have many interpretations.

There can be no doubt, even this early, that Obama will govern like Clinton, with the same foreign policy and economic team that enforce the ruling elite consensus from the “left” side of America’s permanent binary government—the “humanitarian” interventionists, the “velvet glove” wing (alternating with the “iron fist” Republican wing). Anyone who expected “change we can believe in” to extend beyond the elite consensus of what is “politically possible” in the Age of Terror was letting their hope run away with them. It’s nice to live in a dream world, but this isn’t it.

Obama’s Clintonesque nature has been apparent from the beginning, from his contributions from Wall Street, to his “centrist” betrayals of core progressive principles—for example, his FISA vote, where he lost many progressives who might have supported him otherwise. It is very likely that Obama, at some probably early point in his effort to “govern from the center,” will face opposition from a united progressive left. For the reality-based community, corporations still rule. Let there be no doubt about that.

It is, in fact, disturbing how little change we are seeing from the prospective Obama administration. His first appointments were Clinton veterans: Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff, and Clinton chief of staff John Podesta to lead the Obama transition team. This brings the Israel lobby and establishment liberals on board. Clinton’s first secretary of state, Warren Christopher, will oversee the Obama transition at the State Department; Clinton’s second secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, is an Obama adviser. The military industrial complex will continue to guide the nation’s foreign policy. We won’t be leaving Afghanistan anytime soon.

It is also increasingly likely that, like the Clinton administration, an Obama Justice Department will quietly retire investigations of illegal activity by yet another criminal Bush administration. There may be congressional hearings, like there were into Iran-Contra, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, and the sale of WMDs to Saddam Hussein—all of which would have implicated George Bush Sr., had they been followed to their logical end—but just like those hearings, there will be no real accountability for the wrongdoers. There’s a reason Bill Clinton and Bush 41 are the best of friends.

The psyops activity setting up the exoneration of George W. Bush and company has already started. There are articles this week in both the Washington Post and the New York Times, talking about the need to move on and not waste time prosecuting political decisions, in the Post article; and exploring the history of executive privilege as claimed by former presidents in the past, and how “unclear” the precedents are for requiring testimony from an ex-president, in the Times. The power elite takes care of its own.

But can Obama also be an “American Mandela,” as I have suggested before is his potential?

Among the many universes in which we live is the archetypal, or mythic universe. In that universe, real human beings come to represent ideals that have universal meaning. In the archetypal universe, Obama is a “hero” figure, representing “hope” and “change.” The major significance of Obama’s election is at this symbolic level. Obama is the “hero” who broke through the American color barrier, a central component in the national character, enshrined in our Constitution. Having slain both the vast rightwing and Clinton dragons, he is a genuine hero. All the babies being named Barack are a testament to Obama as a heroic symbol. Obama’s election resonates most strongly at our subconscious levels, where archetypes live.

But even in the “real” world, Obama’s election has special qualities, that signal the potential for an enormous shift at conscious levels, too.

For one thing, his description as “The One,” the term in the Matrix trilogy for the messianic hero, comes at least partly from Obama’s own otherworldly nature. One of his foreign policy advisers described his impressions of Obama to a reporter from the New Yorker, of his “degree of self-reflection, self-awareness, and psychological wholeness…Having worked for two Presidents and with many Presidential candidates during the last thirty years, I have not seen one as psychologically well balanced, and as good about not injecting his ego into a problem.” The biggest change will be not having a president who’s a psychopath, but Obama is a unique political figure.

A second possibility for shifting the national dynamic is the unprecedented “army of volunteers” waiting for instructions from a President Obama. The choices he asks that army to support by pressuring Congress to act, can move the nation in directions even out of control of the power elite. Although that is, however, unlikely to happen, it is possible that large progressive steps can be taken in health care and education, among other traditional Democratic interests. America is ready for a new New Deal.

Historian Michael Lind published an article at Salon recently, “Obama and the Fourth Republic.” Lind is among those historians who divide American history into three 72-year “republics,” which share common characteristics. Obama would be the first president of the Fourth Republic.

These republican ages begin with a strong president, and a three decade period of federalizing the government under the principles of Alexander Hamilton: a strong central government, central banking, infrastructure spending, and enlarging the bureaucracy. In the latter half of these republican ages, Jeffersonian principles of states rights and individualism, and a weak central government return to prominence. The ages all come to a close with a failed presidency.

It’s remarkable how closely the actual history tracks to this model. The first presidents of the republics were Washington, Lincoln, and FDR—three of our greatest presidents, whose administrations all consolidated power in an activist federal government. The final, failed presidents were Buchanan, Hoover and our own George W. Bush, considered by many historians already to be the worst president in American history. Obama has nowhere to go but up.

But perhaps the most important reason Obama could become an American Mandela is that, whatever happens, enormous change is already upon us, and he is going to be forced to react. The world economy is collapsing; it could be worse than the Great Depression, serious people say. Climate change is happening faster than anyone expected. Ecosystems are altering dramatically. An overabundant humanity is running out of food, water and oil—the foundation stone of the postindustrial economy.

If Obama can keep his cool through all that, and prevent the nation from either sliding deeper into fascism or crumbling into violent anarchy along the way, he’ll deserve some credit, at least.

Let’s just hope it’s not really the end of history.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The problem of mass

The late great media critic Marshall McLuhan described the planetary media system as the extension of humanity’s collective nervous system into space, creating a “one world” consciousness.

It is indisputable that 21st-century humans have a more global consciousness than our predecessors. The extension of media all over the world, with satellites providing instantaneous information through a variety of receiving devices, from televisions to cellphones, has united human consciousness in an unprecedented way. Mass culture has become a global phenomenon; billions of people “know” Angelina Jolie.

The worldwide unanimity of opinion about Barack Obama’s election to the presidency is the latest example of the positive benefit that planetary culture brings. Already, all over the world, American travelers are reporting a much more positive reception to their national identity from the native people they encounter in foreign lands. The Obama election really did bring about a paradigm shift in world opinion about America. We confounded the racist stereotype, to everyone’s surprise, including our own.

But mass culture also brings many problems, from celebrity worship to corporate domination of national politics, that inhibit the healthy functioning of democracy. Many of these problems can be addressed by returning our national cultural emphasis to local participation in politics and the economy.

Of course, it is against the interests of the ruling power structure to decentralize either political or economic power. So naturally, this subject doesn’t get much discussion in the national media. Nor does it even get much discussion in the academic world of political science. I saw an analysis of an annual conference of political science professors a few years ago, which showed that not a single paper submitted to the conference discussed corporate influence on American political life.

As McLuhan would have explained, they don’t see corporate involvement in democracy because it’s like the water in which fish swim: it’s everywhere. It hasn’t been possible to separate business from government since the very beginning of the American republic.

When the republic began, however, business was much more decentralized than it is today, and there was a healthy distrust of corporations. Thomas Jefferson wanted an anti-corporate 11th amendment in the Bill of Rights. Corporations were far more restricted in their lifespans, and in what activities they could engage. Some historians think that the American Revolution was principally waged against the monopoly power of the British East India Company.

It’s a different story today, when multinational corporations provide just about everything we buy, from food to entertainment. We’ve lost the economic independence that comes from local self-sufficiency, and as a result, we’ve lost our real political independence. When every jurisdiction is begging for jobs, because there’s no more real work, and most people spend their lives sitting in boxes, looking at changing light forms emitted from ever smaller boxes, a county commissioner is as likely to favor a global giant in his decisions as anyone else up the political food chain. We are all prisoners of a corporate economy.

With the corporate economy comes the corporate mass media, from which most Americans still get most of their information. (This is what I generally refer to as “the Matrix,” from the film trilogy, which, whatever its flaws, presented a devastatingly accurate picture of how the virtual world in which most Americans live operates.)

The corporate media is as multinational as the other corporations which dominate the global economy, and because of its unique function, integral to the continuation of the current global economic structure, which primarily benefits the elites who control it. So mass culture, in the present context, will always reflect the long-term needs of the global power elite, whose corporations fund the advertising, which produces the media under this system. No advertising, no media. And anyone who doesn’t think advertisers affect media content is living in a fantasy.

The biggest problem with corporate mass culture is that it frames the political context. An Obama aide speaking to McClatchy reporter Margaret Talev compared the media to a group of kindergartners playing soccer, and all the campaign had to do was to nudge the ball to get reporters to follow it. But the herd mentality also spills over into the blogosphere, and too often the internet conversation centers around what the corporate media wants us to talk about. Unfortunately, it’s the subjects omitted from the conversation which often speak most directly to stark reality. (I’d like to see more discussion, for example, of what evidence Bolivian President Morales will present to Obama, about US Drug Enforcement Administration involvement in drug trafficking in his country.)

The most harmful effect that corporate mass culture has on our political brains is to close off possibilities, and to separate us from our own local geography. Whenever single-payer health care is discussed, for instance, it’s routinely dismissed as politically impossible. Why it’s politically impossible—namely, the political power of insurance companies to override the public interest—is rarely discussed, if ever. In another important omission, the unhealthy emphasis on presidential politics in our political culture (what populist David Sirota calls “presidentialism”) leaves out necessary discussion of local offices and issues.

Late one night, many years ago, I stood at the base of the Citibank skyscraper in Manhattan. I couldn’t help but marvel at the engineering that produced it, as well as the amount of work involved, having spent much of my life building things. But I was struck, at the same time, by the fact that the building’s dimensions were so far beyond human scale, and that that physical fact also expressed the underlying reality of the corporate/human relationship. The mass scale of global institutions has grown beyond human control. It’s a major reason we all feel so helpless.

If we really want to return control of our economy and government to the American people, we’re going to have to find a way to bring our institutions, especially our media, back to human scale.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The mandate

The day after the election, I had to unexpectedly leave my computer to go help my sister for a few days. I’m glad I’ve had the time to process the Obama victory.

Like the vast majority of the world’s population, I had a strongly emotional response to the election night results, and to Obama’s unprecedented speech before his largest crowd ever. In historical fact, now, he is the rightful heir to the legacy of Lincoln (whom he quoted twice in his speech) and a culmination of the abolitionist movement (with a long way to go). The significance of this event in the national soul, and the step toward healing our relations with the rest of the planet, were even greater than I thought they would be. It was one of those times I regretted not living in a big city, with dancing in the streets.

I marked the victory by announcing the results, when the west coast polls closed and Obama went over 270, to the handful of volunteers who had braved the rain to come down to the local Democratic headquarters. I just happened to be the one sitting in front of the laptop at that moment. There probably would have been more people there, if the vote-counting machine in the courthouse just down the block hadn’t broken down (we didn’t get the county results until the next morning). But we celebrated in our own quiet way; it was nice to be with like-minded friends.

In our county, Obama got 36 percent of the vote, about midway between the best and worst-case scenarios. (Mine was one of 28 votes for Cynthia McKinney. This will come as a disappointment to some of my friends. But as I predicted, Obama didn’t need my vote in this state, where he only got 43 percent—still seven points better than in Hampshire County.) I think he did as well as a white Democrat would have done in this increasingly Republican county. The black candidate for sheriff got 41 percent against a popular incumbent white Republican. This would seem to indicate that Obama was voted against more because of abortion than race—relatively, a step forward.

My sister has satellite television. Since I only get one station at home with my rabbit ears, the visit with my sister turned out to be a rare opportunity for me to survey the vast wasteland, at a time of momentous change.

I didn’t watch Fox News, but spent most of my available time watching MSNBC and CNN. I was amazed at how many times I saw Barney biting that White House reporter, and how much airtime the prospective First Puppy got. But what I found most surprising (since I wasn’t watching Fox) was the unanimity of opinion about what a smart choice the American people had finally made in their election of Obama. (You could see why Republicans accuse the media of being in the Obama tank, but that’s actually one of the concerns I have about him. If corporate media is supporting him, that raises red flags.)

In my last post before the election, I talked about the sense of unity that Americans would feel with the knowledge that it would have been a united effort of black, white and Hispanic votes that put Obama in office. I think, post-election, there was a general feeling of being awestruck by the enormity of a historically racist country like the United States choosing a man the color of a slave as president. I think this sense of awe surprised everyone, including those who talked about it on the cable networks. I heard several people say that they never really expected to see an African American president in their lifetime. I’ve thought the same thing myself. It’s an amazing moment in our history.

But the unique combination of elements in Obama’s character—from his preternatural coolness under pressure to his mixed race heritage to a rare synthesis of thinking and rhetorical skills perhaps not seen since Lincoln—combined with the familiarity that has grown between the races in two generations of civil rights legislation and blacks holding office, have perhaps made this day happen sooner than might have been expected.

In an excellent analysis of the Obama victory by McClatchy reporter Margaret Talev (“Obama saw an opportunity—and positioned himself to take it”), Obama adviser David Axelrod says that a presidential candidate can’t really influence when it is the right time to run. “The times pick you,” he says. “He [Obama] seemed to match the times.”

Obama, in his own personal history, symbolizes the globalized multiracial world in which we presently live. Among the many advantages he brought to the presidential race is his ability to adapt to virtually any situation, having grown up as a second-generation African in both white and mixed-race communities, in middle American Kansas and in exotic Hawaii and Indonesia. It’s been my experience that the native Africans I’ve met have seemed to have more self-assurance than African Americans, not having internalized the centuries of oppression that black Americans grow up with. Obama also escaped that internalized oppression, which is why he comes across so confidently.

Obama will be the first American president who came of age in the era of civil rights. The remarkable strength of his victory, in itself, marks a shift in our national paradigm. If we are lucky, this shift will inaugurate a new era of human rights—all human rights. That’s the mandate I think we should take from this election.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Report from the front

The reception to the waving Obama signs at the stoplight in Romney WV yesterday afternoon was better than I expected.

There were a significant number of honks for Obama, and many people were enthusiastic, flashing big smiles and both thumbs up. They were still a distinct minority. Most people drove by with stern looks on their faces, and the negative reactions were more numerous and expressive than we’ve usually had at our anti-war demonstrations at that corner, out in front of the courthouse.

I didn’t personally hear any racial epithets, and neither did anyone else I talked to (there were about thirty people in attendance, enough to put signs at all four corners). That sort of surprised me. The worst I heard was “communist.” But there were a number of thumbs down, and a few middle fingers, as well as a few shouts of “McCain!”

Based on the percentage of positive responses we got, I think it’s possible for Obama to get close to forty percent of the vote in this county, which I would count as a victory. That’s about what Gore and Kerry got, and if Obama does that well, it means he’ll have overcome the votes that he lost to racism, which will be a significant factor in this county. We also have a black Democratic candidate for sheriff, whose vote can provide a reality check, or at least add a variable in the calculation of what effect race will have on the election here.

There is a sense of hopeful anticipation palpable in the Obama supporters. Some of the people at the demo were surprised to see me there, having read my blog and knowing the reservations I have about him. But I want Obama to win as much as anyone, in the hope that, at the very least, he’ll bring incremental improvement to people’s lives. Even incremental improvement is movement in the right direction. My most outlandish hope is that he really is the secret radical the Republicans fear—the “most liberal” Democrat in the Senate. But I doubt it. He’s too cautious—which may be exactly what the world needs (or is only capable of handling) right now.

At any rate, the feeling here, on election eve, is that we are on the verge of a historic moment. That’s certainly the way I feel, and what I felt from my fellow sign-wavers yesterday.

The spirit of the Obama people reminded me of the first post-apartheid election in South Africa. Because, at the time, I was a board member of the DC chapter of the United Nations Association, I was asked to be an election observer at the South African embassy, off Connecticut Avenue. I’ll never forget the happiness I saw in the faces of the people coming to vote, both black and white, but especially in the black faces. There was also genuine pride in the faces of the white embassy employees, as they supervised the vote. It was a portrait of a people coming together, for the sake of the future.

I think the most dramatic immediate effect of an Obama victory will be the sense of unity that will come from blacks and whites having voted together to put the first African American in the White House. It will not mark the end of systemic racism, which will remain with us for years—although it may be easier to correct, with the scale tipped by the symbolic weight of historic injustice that should become more apparent with a man the color of a slave serving as president. The question should naturally arise: why are other people of color so economically, and systemically, disadvantaged?

But Obama, with his grace of thought and character, has the potential to be an American Mandela, incorporating in his persona a national desire to truly move beyond race in our politics. Our problems will inevitably remain, but with an Obama presidency, America will have taken a giant step forward toward embodying our most precious founding principle: that we are indeed all created equal.

If Obama is elected (I say with fingers crossed, and profound contempt for electronic voting), it will truly be a righteous cause for celebration around the world.

We’ll get back to reality soon enough.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The change we need

Whichever way this presidential election goes, it will be momentous.

If Obama wins, America will have its first black president, a highly symbolic step toward a truly multicultural nation, and potentially a progressive renaissance (if Obama can escape his handlers). If McCain wins, who knows what chaos will unfold? Even after the riots die down, we’ll have to worry about Alzheimer’s, flashbacks, and the final McCain/Strangelove incarnation. And then there’s always the potential of Ms. End Times inheriting the office and rewarding her apocalyptic cronies with important posts in the Defense Department.

Either way, there won’t be much real change from the existing power arrangements, with corporations calling the shots. “In the Almighty Dollar we trust” will continue to be our national motto, even in an Obama administration. His economic and foreign policy brain trusts are a who’s who of establishment regulars, determined to keep the spirit of Bretton Woods and an imperial America astride the globe alive. Obama will be a step in the right direction, but I don’t think we should have any illusions that he’s really the change we need.

The change we need is to completely revolutionize the way we organize ourselves politically. America’s problem is that we have, over two-plus centuries, created a system that, like its ruling corporations, has become too big to fail. But fail it must, if we are to have any hope of a peaceful transformation of the planet.

The biggest change we have to make is to localize power. We are prisoners of mass culture and the illusions of nationalism. Today, local economies are dependent on multinational corporations (as well as federal and state government spending) to provide jobs. Municipalities offer tremendous tax breaks purely to keep from dying in a globalized world, localities no longer able to provide work. Globalization has created an unnatural dependence.

To the Founders, the political freedom established in the US Constitution was dependent on the economic freedom of the white male enfranchised voters, 90 percent of whom were economically independent farmers, artisans and merchants. We will not regain our political freedom in this country until we restore our economic freedom, and return the center of our economy to local government.

To do that effectively, we need to re-establish the sense of community within local government—make it small enough that people will want to participate, because they have a sense of their own power. This is not possible when you are dependent on a global food distribution system, which can always be tightened in the event of an outbreak of democracy, and render localities powerless to prevent starvation. The centralization of food production into less than 2 percent of the population ensures that government and corporate power (the same in our neofascist system) will also be centralized.

We also need to establish a “new federalism,” where there is a more direct connection between federal and local government entities, and states are left to govern common regional concerns, like watersheds. Local governments will also need intermediate judiciary oversight, human nature being what it is. Local officials can easily be the most corrupt, as we’ve discovered recently in our own county. Local communities have a tendency to let people cut some slack for their friends, which has both a positive and negative effect. Sometimes, people will try to take advantage of others’ good nature. So you need whistleblower protection, and auditing of local decisions (some should be done by federal government and some by the state).

Under a new federalism, the federal bureaucracy would be moved to the local, even the neighborhood, level. So every neighborhood would have a health clinic, where providers would be familiar with their patients’ medical histories, and which would essentially serve as a triage unit, filtering out emergencies from the general community health needs, and as a primary care unit, referring patients to specialists organized at a higher-poulation level. And every neighborhood would have a magistrate, and a sheriff, to sort out local judicial affairs, and keep kids out of serious trouble with the law. Appeals courts and law enforcement coordination could be established at the county level.

Under a new federalism, county governments would have much more voice in how local affairs are administered (including the production of food, to make the necessary change from a global distribution system to food independence; this doesn’t mean the end of trade, which will inevitably continue, but hopefully at a more humane level). Localizing government power can enhance the local economy, by allowing local governments more control over corporate practices in the community. Protecting local businesses from multinationals will allow a community-based economy to flourish. We need to decentralize government power.

In Hampshire County, where I live, we’ve been trying for five years to make our county more democratic, by increasing the size of the county’s ruling body, and giving people representation at the district/neighborhood level. We have been fought at every step by the ruling status quo. It will not be easy to devolve power from the federal and state governments back to local hands.

I believe that the way to effect this change that we so desperately need, if we are going to rescue Earth from the ravages of corporate destruction and undemocratic capitalism, and return true democratic power to the hands of individual American citizens, is through the state legislatures. State legislatures are granted enormous power in the US Constitution, including the power, under Article V, to call a Constitutional Convention, and rewrite the contract under which we are governed. My local delegate has a constituency of about 20,000. That’s a level where progressives can organize at a truly grassroots level.

We can have a new federalism sooner than we might think, with real control over our own lives, along with our many connections to the very land on which we live, restored to the community level, if we resurrect the community organizing skills that Barack Obama seems to have so deftly mastered in this election.

Restoring democracy to the community—and thus resurrecting our true sense of community, inseparably attached to the land—is the change that we really need.