All posts by Kenneth Surin

Still Smearing Jeremy Corbyn

Photo by Garry Knight | CC BY 2.0

My previous piece in CounterPunch indicated how Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of UK’s opposition Labour Party, has in recent weeks endured several media-driven accusations about being a Czech spy in Cold War days; that he is a “Putin stooge” for wanting detailed evidence when a Russian double agent, exiled in the UK, and his daughter visiting from Russia, were attacked by toxic nerve agent;  and that Corbyn is somehow “a figurehead for antisemitism” or has a “blindspot for antisemitism” where his party is concerned.

The Czech spy charge resulted in Corbyn’s main accuser, a Conservative MP, settling out of court for damages.

The “Putin stooge” accusations have subsided for now.  In a pointed editorial in Le Monde Diplomatique (now republished in CounterPunch), titled “License to Kill”, Serge Halimi mentioned that Russia is only one among several countries using “extraterritorial assassination” as a way to liquidate supposed traitors or opponents.

Few of these countries, apart from Russia, have incurred international condemnation.

Foremost among the deployers of “extraterritorial assassination” are Israel and the US (Obama, the winner of the Nobel Peace (sic) Prize, alone authorized more than 2,300 such killings during his presidency).

Other countries resorting to state-sponsored assassinations include France (at least one a month during the presidency of the “socialist” Hollande), Germany, and Chile.

Orlando Letelier, a minister under the assassinated Chilean president Salvador Allende who subsequently took up exile in the US, was murdered in Washington DC by a car bomb placed by agents of Allende’s killer Augusto Pinochet.

It was later revealed that the CIA had advance knowledge of the attempt to be made on Letelier’s life but did nothing to stop Pinochet’s henchmen.

The murder of Letelier, and an American co-worker who was a passenger in the bombed car, did not stop Margaret Thatcher from visiting Pinochet for afternoon tea and presenting him with a silver platter when the dictator was under house arrest in London, while he was being charged in a Spanish court with responsibility for the murders of Spanish-Chilean dual citizens during his brutal dictatorship (the UK’s Labour government was respecting the terms of an extradition agreement with Spain).

No one today seems to be reminding the current prime minister, Theresa May, of her Tory predecessor’s sordid admiration for the assassin Pinochet.

Putin, if he was responsible for poisoning the Russian exile and his daughter, was only emulating the example of someone enshrined in the pantheon of rightwing dictators long admired by UK Conservatives.

However, there still remains no conclusive evidence that responsibility for the attack on the two Russians in the UK lies with Putin and his associates.

The UK government’s chemical and biological weapons establishment at Porton Down has just said there is no decisive evidence that the toxic agent originated in Russia.

Meanwhile, Corbyn and his associates continue to be accused of “antisemitism” by the media and the Blairite cobras in his own party.

While it is impossible to deny that there are some antisemites in the Labour Party, and that every effort must therefore be made by the party to sever links with them, it is equally clear that Corbyn is being smeared by his accusers.

Hardly a month goes by without some member of the UK elite being discovered to have a fondness for Nazi uniforms (or hanging-out with those who wear them) or being caught enjoying the company of proven antisemites.

The latest in this line of antisemitic infamy is Jacob Rees-Mogg, an antediluvian Tory MP widely referred to in the media as “the Hon Member for the 18th Century”, but somehow viewed as a leading contender to replace the hapless May the Maybot as the next Tory leader.

Rees-Mogg, whose self-caricature is that of an upper-class twit in a Monty Python skit (somehow we Brits just love these types in real life!), has a deep personal enthusiasm for off-shore tax dodging schemes, wants abortions to be outlawed even for those who are victims of rape and incest, and has said that health and safety standards which are “good enough” for India would be just fine for molly-coddled British workers.

If only a Bhopal-standard chemical plant could be built right next to Wentworth House, the twit’s palatial country mansion!

Rees-Mogg was reported in The Mirror newspaper in January this year as “deeply regretting” attending a dinner five years ago at which he was photographed sitting next to Gregory Lauder-Frost, vice-president of the Traditional Britain Group.  Rees-Mogg had been warned beforehand of Lauder-Frost’s open racism and antisemitism, but still chose to sup with him.

According to The Mirror, Lauder-Frost had been caught on tape referring to the anti-racist campaigner Baroness Doreen Lawrence (whose son Stephen was murdered by a white racist gang in 1993) as “a n*****”, and saying of the broadcaster Vanessa Feltz: “She’s a fat Jewish s**g, she’s revolting, revolting. She lives with a negro. She’s horrible”.

Such disclosures about Rees-Mogg have not been taken-up en masse by the UK’s mainstream media, and the Hon Member for the 18thCentury continues to be a frontrunner to replace the Maybot.

Rees-Mogg, who consorts with known antisemites, is of course a prominent member of the Conservative Friends of Israel– as I mentioned last week, pro-Zionism and antisemitism are not mutually exclusive, and can and do accompany each other in American and European rightwing politics.

Also not publicized by the mainstream media are the links rightwing UK Conservative politicians have with their equally rightwing antisemitic counterparts in Poland and Hungary.

UK Conservative politicians who are members of the European parliament bloc-vote there with openly antisemitic rightwing parties from Hungary and Poland in the European Conservatives and Reformists Group.

The above was pointed out by the more than forty senior UK-based academics, including CounterPuncherNeve Gordon, who wrote to condemn what they view as an anti-Corbyn bias in media coverage of the “antisemitism” debate.

Further indication that the charge of “anti-semitism” is a cloak used to stigmatize Corbyn for his longtime anti-Zionism came from the criticism he incurred this week for spending the Passover Seder with the radical-left and anti-Zionist Jewish group Jewdas.

Corbyn’s attendance at the Jewdas event was portrayed in most of the media as the equivalent of a finger-flip to “mainstream Jews” — as if to imply that principled opposition to Israel’s illegalities vis-à-vis the Palestinians, which lies at the heart of the anti-Zionism of a Jewish group like Jewdas, is somehow incompatible with being a “mainstream Jew”.

Moreover, if Corbyn is an “antisemite”, why would he attend an important event in the Jewish religious calendar?

Rees-Mogg, endlessly fawned over by the media, would probably not be seen dead at a Passover Seder!  Dining with white English xenophobes and racists is clearly more his sort of thing.

The controversy over Jewdas lets the proverbial cat out of the bag.  Many of us know that accusations of “antisemitism”, and worse, are used by Zionists to let Israel off the hook for its grievous breaches of international law.  It is impossible to state the matter in a more obvious way.

Meanwhile, The Huffington Post reports that membership of the Labour Party, already the largest in Europe, has grown by nearly 1,000 since the antisemitism protest in Parliament Square on March 26 (though 470 actively quit in that time).

Also noteworthy is the silence of the Labour politicians who accuse Corbyn of being “soft” on antisemitism, regarding last week’s Land Day demonstration in Gaza, where the Israeli army killed 18 Palestinian civilians and wounded 773 more, many reportedly shot in the back.

A second demonstration in Gaza this week resulted in the deaths of another 8 unarmed Gazans (including a journalist covering the protests) with scores injured.

Shooting unarmed protesters resisting the illegal occupation of their land is a clear violation of international law, and yet the Labour politicians accusing Corbyn of “antisemitism” have not spoken out about this deadly breach of international law, which of course is only one of many tens of thousands since Israel declared its illegal independence in 1948.

This silence speaks volumes about the priorities of these de facto pro-Zionist Labour politicians.

Smearing Jeremy Corbyn

Photo by Garry Knight | CC BY 2.0

Jeremy Corbyn has for decades been a resolute opponent of the Zionist project in Palestine-Israel, and a steadfast supporter of the rights of the Palestinian people.  There are many in the Labour party who support Corbyn in this view.

Corbyn’s Labour has a clear lead in the opinion polls, and the arrival of a Corbyn-led Labour government after the next election would probably herald a sea-change in the UK’s relationship with Palestine-Israel.

This prospect has sent a shiver or two down the spines of Israel’s Zionist supporters in the UK.

The most recent controversy with regard to this issue stems from Corbyn’s opposition, via a Facebook post, to the removal in 2012 of an antisemitic mural in the East End of London, on the grounds that this was censorship of an artist.  Corbyn has since apologized for not taking into consideration the content of the mural, and said he would have supported its removal given what he found out subsequently.

In April 2016, it was revealed that the Labour MP Naz Shah had called for Israel to be “relocated” to the US and posted a message saying “the Jews are rallying”. Shah apologized, saying her comments had been “ignorant” and “antisemitic”, and was suspended by Labour, though the suspension was subsequently lifted.

Also irking these critics of Corbyn has been his refusal to support the expulsion from the Labour party of his longtime ally “Red Ken” Livingstone, the former mayor of London, for the latter’s highly garbled interpretation of the 1933 Haavara (transfer) Agreement between Germany and German Zionists, to facilitate the emigration of German Jews to British Mandate Palestine in return for the purchase of German goods for the Jewish settlement in that territory.

Livingstone’s absurd claim that “Hitler was a Zionist supporter”, though appealing to a kernel of truth he then twisted, overlooked two issues: (1) the dire situation facing German Jews at that time; and (2) that the Haavara agreement, which was designed to foster the migration of German Jews in line with Nazi policy, made no reference to the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, a vital precept of Zionism.  Hitler was a proponent of ethnic cleaning, and the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, which only occurred in 1948, was certainly not something he had in mind in 1933, or indeed any time before or after.

Livingstone, an ardent supporter of the Palestinian people, continues to be suspended from the Labour party for making his claim, but has so far not been expelled.

The party leadership is deeply divided over Livingstone.

Expelling “Red Ken” would probably seem to some like a good idea, except that there are others high-up in Blighty’s establishment who have displayed a manifest fondness for things Nazi, without facing any real consequences.

The soon-to-be wed Prince Harry was photographed some years ago at a fancy-dress party in an SS uniform (for which he apologized afterwards).  He was allowed to go his merry way, though hovering uneasily behind images of the SS-uniformed Harry is archival film of his grandmother, the current queen, being taught as a young girl to give a Nazi salute by her mother, who is on historical record as wanting a policy of appeasement towards the Führer, until Hitler decided it was time Blighty was bombed to smithereens.

In 2011 the Oxford-educated Tory MP Aidan Burley organized a Nazi-themed stag party for a friend at a French ski resort.  The Guardian reports this event thus:

Burley was filmed raising his glass in a toast before… another guest beside him made a speech, in which he [the other guest] said: “Let’s raise a toast to Tom for organising the stag do, and if we’re perfectly honest, to the ideology and thought process of the Third Reich.”

The party was said to have moved on to a British-themed pub, where partygoers adopted thick German accents and chanted: “Mein Fuhrer! Mein Fuhrer! Mein Fuhrer!”, “Himmler! Himmler! Himmler!” and “Eichmann! Eichmann! Eichmann!”.

Burley duly apologized, and a report commissioned by his party concluded that while he had acted in a “stupid and offensive way, Mr Burley is not a bad man, still less a racist or anti-Semite”.  Burley lost his post as a ministerial aide as a result, but was not disciplined in any other way.  He is a member of the Conservative Friends of Israel, and criticism of his “senseless prank”, “high jinks”, and “tasteless antics” from UK Jewish organizations was relatively mild and formulaic when compared to what Corbyn has had to endure.

People such as Burley and his chums in all likelihood typify a rightwing phenomenon known on both sides of the Atlantic, namely, the seemingly incongruous convergence between pro-Zionism and antisemitism.  History shows the two are however not mutually exclusive.

A well-known current example of this convergence is Steve Bannon, who during his tenure as the editor at Breitbart News published several articles making derogatory and antisemitic comments about Jews, including one which referred to Bill Kristol as a “renegade Jew”, another which said with regard to the Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum and “cosmopolitan elitists” like her and George Soros, that “hell hath no fury like a Polish, Jewish, American elitist scorned”.  Applebaum, who is married to a former Polish foreign minister, is accused of having the “dream of being Poland’s first Jewish-American first lady”.

People who are disposed to wanting Jews to be in “one place, over there” (such as the American Christian right), can be virulently pro-Zionist, while using their Zionism as a way to shield themselves from their displays of antisemitism.  Breitbart uses the same ploy to defend Bannon from the charge of antisemitism.

The irony here is that Red Ken would not in his wildest dreams deck himself out in a Nazi uniform, nor attend a party where a toast was drunk “to the ideology and thought process of the Third Reich”.

Likewise, there has not been a Labour leader with Corbyn’s consistent 40-year record of antiracist struggle.

The UK Board of Jewish Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council organized a protest against antisemitism in Labour outside parliament last week, and claimed Corbyn “personifies” the “problems and dangers” of “left-wing antisemitism”.

Corbyn has since acknowledged that “there are pockets of antisemitism” in the Labour party.

And indeed there is antisemitism on the left—undeniably, there are some leftists still wedded to the pernicious trope of “the Jews controlling the capitalist system”, sometimes accompanied by absurd conspiracy theories about what Rothschild bankers “get up to in secret”, and so forth.

There is no room for abhorrent sentiments of this kind on the left, as Corbyn himself has said.

But how are vile assertions about “the Jews controlling the capitalist system”, or Ken Livingstone’s perverse and uninformed assessment of Nazi history, really different from today’s routine alt-right pronouncements about the malign influence and power of “liberal cosmopolitan Jews” (this of course being an absolute staple of Nazi propaganda)?

So Bannon, whose Breitbart News peddles guff about “liberal cosmopolitan Jews”, gets invited into the White House’s Oval Office to be the Orange Swindler’s senior adviser until he was ousted in a power struggle with “Jarvanka”, while Red Ken is suspended from the Labour Party.

Oh wait, the alt-right in both the US and UK are pro-Zionist, despite oftentimes being visibly antisemitic.

There is nothing more palpably antisemitic than espousing the purportedly pro-Zionist “theology” of the American evangelical right, which enjoins that Israel has to exist in order for the apocalypse or Day of Judgment to occur, at which time G_d will decree that Jews have to convert to Christianity or be consigned to eternal damnation.

Israel condones American evangelical antisemitism because the latter’s pro-Zionism helps ensure that US politicians, afraid of the powerful evangelical voting bloc, approve virtually unlimited military aid for Israel.

The UK is not similarly beholden to a significant voting bloc with this crackpot pro-Zionist antisemitic theology, but Zionism still exerts its pressures on British politics.

The elephant in the room in all of this farrago is Corbyn’s and Livingstone’s enduring support for the liberation of the Palestinian people, and of course the fact that “liberal cosmopolitan Jews” tend to be amongst the strongest critics of Israel’s extensively criminal treatment of the Palestinians.

The Zionist strategy here has been evident for a long time:  when dealing with anti-Zionists such as Corbyn, do everything to blur the line between anti-Zionism (which has become increasingly acceptable in the mainstream as a result of Zionist Israel’s systematically brutal treatment of the Palestinians), and antisemitism (which, given what Jews have had to suffer in their long history, is categorically unacceptable).

The rote and reflex conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism will probably make it harder for actual antisemitism to be responded to with the seriousness it always merits.

Many are maligned routinely as antisemites because they oppose Israel’s repellent treatment of the Palestinians– if time after time, principled pro-Palestinians such as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, let alone Corbyn, are deemed antisemitic by virtue of their insistence on Palestinian legal rights vis-à-vis Israel, then there will be more than a few, some of whom may in truth alas be antisemites, who will be inclined to laugh-off this imputation of antisemitism.

Nelson Mandela an “antisemite”?  Give me a break, as the Americans say!  Most of the legal team which helped Mandela avoid the death penalty at his treason trial were Jews.  In fact, Mandela made Arthur Chaskalson, a Jewish member of his legal team at this trial, the first Chief Justice of post-apartheid South Africa.  When the ANC decided to engage in armed resistance, the head of its military wing and its chief of military intelligence were both Jews–  Joe Slovo (born Yossel Mashel Slovo) and Ronnie Kasrils respectively.

Mandela showed it is absolutely possible to be a lifelong comrades-in-arms with Jews and not be a “friend” of Zionist Israel.

Mandela thus had many closer personal associations with Jews than many of the phony philosemites who populate the American Christian right, who would be absolutely appalled at the prospect of (say) a secular Jew becoming the US Chief Justice.

Can one somehow anticipate here the response of Trump’s for-now Attorney-General, Jeff Beauregard (“Beauracist”) Sessions, at such a dreadful possibility?

Corbyn in recent weeks has had to endure the media-driven charge that he was a Czech spy.  Corbyn sued the Tory MP who propagated this accusation, the latter settled out of court, and paid undisclosed damages to a charity of Corbyn’s choice.

Corbyn then had to face rightwing tabloid accusations that he was a “Putin stooge” when a Russian double agent, exiled in the UK, and his daughter visiting from Russia, succumbed in a quiet English town to almost lethal doses of a toxic nerve agent.  Putin was blamed, immediately, by the poll-faltering Tories for the attack.

Corbyn, mindful of how his then party leader Blair had joined Dubya Bush in faking so-called military intelligence justifying the overthrow of Saddam Hussain, called for detailed and conclusive evidence before responsibility for this attack was placed on Putin.

Corbyn had been an opponent of the Iraq war, unlike the feckless Blairites in his own party and the Tory parliamentary chorus which, without exception, also sang to Blair’s twisted and bellicose tune.

Corbyn’s caution regarding the ascription of blame for the nerve-agent attack could perhaps be justified by taking a look at recent history, not just the fakery used to justify the Iraq war, but also the precipitate and disorderly collapse of the Soviet Union, which left its biological and chemical warfare facilities unguarded and available for plunder by a range of state- and non-state agents until a semblance of order was restored.

The “Corbyn is a figurehead for antisemitism” campaign is the latest in such recurring attempts to discredit the most radical party leader in Labour’s history.

There are likely to be many more such attempts to tarnish Corbyn and his supporters made by the UK’s rightwing tabloids, joined by the Blairite vipers in the Labour party (some of whom joined last week’s protest against antisemitism in their party, having been notably silent when the Tories ran a viciously Islamophobic election campaign against the Muslim Sadiq Khan, who was Labour’s candidate for London mayor (Khan won)—as well as the more genteel but equally cobra-like hacks in the supposedly “liberal” Guardian newspaper who support these Blairites tooth and nail.

The thirst of the Zionists, and their convenient abettors in Blairite Labour and the latter’s supporters in the UK media, in wanting Corbyn’s “apologies” in order to undermine him and his allies, is unslakable.

As exemplified by the cases of Prince Harry and the Tory MP, a swift apology, however insincere, can work wonders with those predisposed to permit wearers of Nazi uniforms off the hook.

Corbyn though is not in the position of the elite’s insouciant antisemites.

Such perfunctory apologies– along the lines of Prince Harry’s blithe “OK, I got caught, let’s do damage control” — will be rejected when tendered by staunch anti-Zionists.

As Corbyn is discovering, every apology or promise of an inquiry he makes now is disdained as “insufficient”, “too weak”, and “too late”.

The strategy of Corbyn and his supporters has therefore to be simple: be unyielding in battling the antisemitism in some sections of the left, and be equally intransigent in challenging those who have a deeply vested interest in conflating anti-Zionism with antisemitism.

For Zionists and their allies, the pro-Palestinian Corbyn and his supporters will always be irremediable “antisemites”.  Zionists allow us no alternative to this travesty.

Meanwhile, one suspects that Corbyn and his team, like the Zionists wanting to undermine him, know that politics is war conducted by other means.

Lucrative Dealing in the Age of Austerity

Photo by Funk Dooby | CC BY 2.0


CounterPunchers
such as Michael Hudson and Rob Urie have long informed its readers about what goes on in the financial sectors of the US economy in particular and the global economy more generally.

Their writings are usefully complemented for me by valuable accounts of how banking insiders do their work, ranging from the more journalistic (Michael Lewis and Matt Taibbi come to mind) to the more scholarly.  Among the latter, Doug Henwood’s Wall Street: How It Works and for Whom (Verso Press, 1987), although published over two decades ago is still pertinent, especially in view of the Senate’s recent vote, with Trump’s support, to roll back some of the Dodd-Frank legal provisions regulating “too big to fail” banks– thereby of course increasing the likelihood taxpayers will be stiffed yet again in the event of another major banking collapse (deemed to be “inevitable” by Bill Gates).

I have just finished Tony Norfield’s The City: London and the Global Power of Finance (Verso Press, 2016).  Norfield was a banker for 20 years, so a lot of what this book conveys is first-hand knowledge.

If Henwood showed, among other things, why the 2008 crash was virtually inevitable, Norwood’s book indicates, likewise among other things, why another such financial disaster will be just as unavoidable, unless significant changes are made, not just to the financial sector, but to the prevailing system of capitalist accumulation in its entirety.

The City makes four principal claims:

+ “A small group of powerful countries has a privileged position in production, commerce, investment and financial relationships compared to all the others”.

+ “The financial system does not sit on top of, or alongside what almost all economic commentators call the ‘real economy’; it pervades all economic activity”.

+ “The concept of finance is not tied to a particular type of institution, or to a separate ‘financial sector’. All kinds of capitalist companies conduct important financial operations”. Norwood provides the examples of the Ford Motor Company and General Electric, which have units engaging in financial-sector activity.

+ “It is a mistake to treat the UK financial markets as simply being satellites of the US markets. To use a more accurate astronomical metaphor, the relationship is better described as a ‘double planet’ system: rather than the UK simply orbiting the US, each country’s financial market exerts a significant ‘gravitational’ pull on the other, even though the pull of the US is obviously larger. More than that, the centre of gravity for the global system is determined the balance of power among all the major capitalist countries, a balance that will shift over time as their relative power changes” (Norfield’s emphasis).

These claims are substantiated via Norfield’s informative overview of day-to-day operations of the UK’s financial sector in relation to its US counterpart, and the part it plays in global capitalism.

While these financial sectors provide mechanisms which oil the levers and cogs of the real economy, they nonetheless require an important fiction for many of their operations.

Organizations (and the individuals who run them) in the financial sector extract revenues from assets which have not yet created value, and which may never in fact create the anticipated value (because the assets in question “tanked”).  The revenues extracted in this fashion are from asset-prices which move up and down in the market, with a more or less appropriately employed broker then placing a bet on a price, while of course not getting caught out by the market when prices fluctuate.

These are bets, says Norfield, but we should resist the temptation to view the market as a mere casino– the market operates, ultimately, in order to take control of the world’s resources.  The betting element ensues from the fact that no value is created by prices simply going up or down, even if there is a “return” to be reaped by the broker/investor who happened to make a good bet on a particular price movement.

Marx used the notion of “fictitious capital” to describe money gained in this way, and Norfield shows us how fictitious capital works today, rightly characterizing it as a form of “constructive parasitism”.

Norfield’s argument in this book shows why we need to disregard the conventional wisdom that the much-publicized malfeasance and corruption prevalent in the financial sector can only be addressed by draconian punishments for those running banks and investment houses who stray from the “narrow” path of probity and rectitude.

An example of this wisdom is provided by a US congressional aide who, during the 2008 financial crisis, said to Matt Taibbi with reference to Lloyd Blankfein, the egregious CEO of Goldman Sachs: “You put Lloyd Blankfein in a pound-me-in-the-ass prison for one six-month term, and all this bullshit would stop, all over Wall Street.  That’s all it would take. Just once”.

Punishing individual parasites will not overcome the conditions, intrinsic to capitalism, which conduce to “constructive parasitism”.  With the ready connivance of the political order, ways will be found to maintain this systemic parasitism, while perchance this or that financier, deemed dispensable by the ruling elites, gets pounded in the ass behind bars.

Financialization per se may not generate value, but instead enables its operators and beneficiaries to harvest “earnings” which can then be used to acquire and control resources in the real economy.

For those who know a little religious history (and this is my extrapolation from Norfield), the deployment of these fictions in the creation of fictitious capital is somewhat analogous to the medieval sale of papal indulgences.  Riches accrued to the papacy from their sale, but the indulgences themselves were fictions, despite the pretense they were otherwise.

No pope worth his salt in our somewhat more cynical times would get away with trying to enhance the “earnings” of the Vatican Bank by flogging off these conjured-up indulgences to believers.

If insider accounts are to be believed, the Vatican Bank today espouses realistic banking practices and makes its money from deals with the mafia.  O tempora, o mores!

Norfield’s book shows, in principle, that any effective arrival of this cynicism with regard to capitalism will have to be coterminous with its demise, just as its post-medieval equivalent in Christianity led to the expiry of the sale of papal indulgences, and the breaking-up of the church.

Until this happens to capitalism, those who benefit from these fictions of capital—the Trumps, Waltons, Murdochs, and Kochs of this world– will exert a ruinous command over our lives.

Anyone convinced that our lives are bettered by Trump, Murdoch, and the Waltons and Kochs, in all likelihood had an ancestor or two who believed they secured their salvation by purchasing indulgences from a medieval pope.

Today’s financial capitalism is a systemic racket akin to the one run by medieval Christianity, since each like the other is an occultation, albeit with terribly real effects.

History shows that medieval Christendom bit the dust, so the solution with regard to capitalism’s fictions is thus really so damn simple; and yet its implementation so damn difficult.

HMS Blighty Shipping Water, Badly

Photo by Matt Brown | CC BY 2.0

As I’ve said before on CounterPunch, Blighty is the slang term (at once affectionate and a tad irreverent) Brits use when talking about their country.

The Blighty ship of state has in the last couple of weeks looked even more like a listing vessel heading slowly towards the nearest port with a broken rudder after striking a rocky shoal.

The Brexit shambles continues to get worse (if that is possible).  The prime minister, Theresa “the Maybot” May is seriously delusional when it comes to Brexit.  Month after month she announces, in her cyborgese English, another “step” the UK will take in its negotiations with the UK, but her “steps” are always ones the eurocrats had deemed absolute non-starters at least a year before.

May has yet to receive the memo informing her that the EU’s position on Brexit has always been an unwavering “take what we offer, or get nothing”, so she persists in believing she is somehow in a position to negotiate with the unbending eurocrats who slammed the door in her face a long time ago.

The Little Englander troglodytes in her party are of course prepared to leave without getting anything, but this puts them mightily at odds with Tory-supporting corporate fat cats– big donors to the Conservatives—who can’t bring themselves to step-off the EU’s amply-stocked gravy train.

Belt-tightening and austerity are not for fat cats!

The Tories simply can’t tell the truth about Brexit.  The EU countries are the UK’s biggest trading partners.  Relinquishing EU membership will greatly increase trading costs with these countries, with no compensatory economic outcomes in sight.  Of course, these economic consequences may be offset by political advantages stemming from Brexit, but the Tories have not identified, concretely, any of the latter.

The Tories have moreover engaged in a massive con since coming to power in 2010: giving Brits vague undertakings that European standards vis-a-vis their welfare state and public education will be somehow be maintained, while moving inexorably towards US taxation levels.

Brits are being infantilized by not being told there is simply no way to square this circle.  European welfare states and standards of public education require European levels of taxation, US taxation levels will ensue in American standards of (non) welfare and sub-standard public education.  On this, the choice is stark–  if you have one, you can’t have the other.

The next Labour government must be absolutely explicit about the need to abandon this con, and treat the UK electorate as adults when it comes to taxation levels and spending on the welfare state and public education.

For now, the Maybot clings to power because all sides in her party despise and mistrust her equally, since no one these days can get to lead the Tories if that person is perceived to be esteemed and trusted just a little bit more by another of the party’s warring factions.

Beholding today’s Conservative party, Hobbes must be nodding his head in that celestial zone reserved for philosophical sages.

The Tories will probably have to wait till next year, when Brexit becomes a fait accompli, to get rid of the Maybot.  Even so, she could linger until the general election scheduled for 2022, though that is highly unlikely.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party is biding its time for now, doing what first needs to be done, that is, solidifying its popular base outside the party structure, and purging the Labour leadership of its remaining Blairites (who are in effect closet Thatcherites).

This week an ex-KGB colonel who had spied for Britain and was given asylum there after a spy swap with Russia, was found unconscious, along with his daughter, on a park bench in the pleasant town of Salisbury.  They had been incapacitated by a nerve toxin, and are now critically ill in hospital.  Suspicion regarding the possible perpetrators has fallen on Putin and his associates.

Following this suspected poisoning, the bumbling foreign secretary, Boris “BoJo” Johnson, was summoned to parliament to answer questions on Blighty’s relations with Russia après the events in Salisbury.

BoJo managed stick to his foreign-ministerial brief (“be diplomatic and judicious until the police investigation is concluded”) for a couple of minutes, but being the inveterate show-off he is, BoJo had to cut loose and find a way to put his big foot in his equally big mouth, by declaring to the startled parliamentary committee that Blighty was now at war with Russia.

Warming to his theme, BoJo then said that “Britain” would be boycotting this summer’s soccer World Cup finals to be held in Russia.

BoJo is clearly clueless about soccer, or else he would have known that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland compete as separate nations in the World Cup, and that in any event Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland won’t be going to Russia this summer because they were eliminated in the preliminary rounds of the competition.

Neither a declaration of war nor the World Cup boycott were BoJo’s decisions to make, but such scruples have never slowed-down the UK’s oafish chief diplomat.

People wonder why the Maybot keeps someone so obviously ill-qualified as BoJo in his job– the treacherous BoJo has after all made it known publicly that he wants to replace her.  But she is too weak to do anything about the several ministerial colleagues who have made it clear they want to supplant her as prime minister.

So, perhaps, here it’s a case of better having them piss out of her tent than pissing into it, as they say.

Suspected toxic substances also featured elsewhere in Ukania.

Police had to investigate a package containing white powder, purporting to be anthrax, that was sent to Prince Harry and his fiancée, the mixed-race American actor Meghan Markle.  The package, which turned out to be harmless, was intercepted before it got to the couple, and contained a letter with a racist message.

The incident is being treated as a hate crime, and clearly some white chauvinist Brits are not so enchanted with the upcoming royal nuptials, despite having the ghastly tabloids do their slavish best to convince readers that Meghan Markle could be the next Princess Diana.

Another continuing Blighty fiasco has to do with the government’s inability or unwillingness to deal with the upshot of the Grenfell Tower fire last June, which killed 79 people and left hundreds homeless.

The Tory government had known beforehand about the fire risk posed by the combustible cladding used on the tower, and the lack of a fire-alarm system, but did nothing.  The Tories have always been opposed to social housing, since it does not accord with the Thatcherite myth of a “property-owning democracy”, so this inaction is hardly surprising.

According to The Guardian, the UN special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing concluded recently that the Tower’s residents have not been responded to “in a meaningful way” by the authorities in the fire’s aftermath.

Again, this is hardly surprising.  Not only is social housing not a Tory priority, but Grenfell Tower is in a part of London that has voted Labour since time immemorial, so addressing housing needs there is hardly likely to recruit voters en masse to the Tory cause.

Tory priorities lie elsewhere.  A clear indication of this comes in the recent disclosure that £817m/$1130m allocated for urgently needed affordable housing in cash-strapped local authorities, reeling from decades of cuts to their housing and other budgets, has been returned to the Treasury unspent.

Responsibility for this lies primarily with the housing and local government minister, Sajid Javid, a former director of Deutsche Bank before he entered politics, and the owner of two residences in London worth several million pounds each.  When reporters ask him about his tenure at the much-penalized and heavily-fined Deutsche Bank, Javid does a Usain Bolt imitation in the alacrity with which he speeds away from the inquisitive journalists.

London, with its massively over-priced real estate, is a property developer’s wet dream, and these rapacious individuals regard any form of “socialism’ when it comes to housing, even its milquetoast manifestations, as a personal affront.

Developers support the Tories to a man and woman, and their personal utopia is to have social housing razed in order to make way for their lucrative gentrification projects.  “To hell with Jack and Jill Normal, in (heaven) with Algernon and Henrietta Forrester-Ponsonby” is their creed.

The developers of course donate handsomely to the Tories.  And maybe the Forrester-Ponsonbys do as well .

Meanwhile Jack and Jill Normal, and other middling Brits, continue to be mired in the Conservative’s vicious austerity agenda.

There you have HMS Blighty in a nutshell.

Brief Impressions of the Sri Lankan Conjuncture

Colombo’s International Financial City land reclamation project. Photo: Kenneth Surin.

After spending nearly a week in India, Chennai to be precise, I came to Sri Lanka for the first time.  Before coming, we asked a friend of ours who is a historian of South Asia, a frequent visitor to India and Sri Lanka over the course of decades, what we should expect when coming to Sri Lanka.

He replied laconically: “Somewhat like India, but more organized”.  Sri Lanka is a diverse country ethnically and culturally, but even so it lacks India’s sheer mass and heterogeneity.  The contrast in population size may also account for this (perceived) difference in organizational levels:  Sri Lanka’s 21 million people against India’s 1,324 million.

Sri Lanka’s post-independence history has been marked by periodic communal strife between its Sinhalese majority (70% of the population) and its Tamil minority (13% of the population).  This communalism, sponsored by the post-independence state until recently, has ensued in intermittent anti-Tamil pogroms, with ethnic riots taking place in 1956, 1958, 1977, 1981 and 1983.

Some of the Tamils I spoke with describe these pogroms, especially the most recent one which amounted to a civil war, as “genocidal”.

Ethnic-communal-religious divisions, as was the case nearly everywhere in its empire, are an enduring legacy of British rule.  The colonial master premised whatever limited local political representation it permitted on such demarcations, from Ireland to India.  The almost inevitable outcomes were disastrous partitions and separations—for instance, between the north and south of Ireland, and between Pakistan and India.  And let’s not forget Palestine-Israel.

Other former British colonies still dealing with the legacy of communalisms and separatisms include Malaya (as it then was), Sarawak and North Borneo (now part of Malaysia), Fiji, South Africa, Nigeria, Myanmar, Cyprus, the Maldives, and the islands of the British Caribbean.  In addition to these, there are divisions between peoples of the first nations and their obtrusive colonial settlers (in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand).

This point was brought home to me on a visit last year to one of Canada’s first nations, where I was told the US-Canadian border, imposed of course by the colonial power, divided the Iroquois nation, so that “Canadian” Iroquois now need a passport to visit family members in the part of their nation that is now “US” territory.  This arbitrary border was seen as deeply symptomatic by the “Canadian” Iroquois I encountered in the three days I spent on their reservation.  Their counterparts in the “US” would in all probability have said the same.

“Canada”, for the first-nation people I met, was thus a cruel foreign invention.

The 1983 ethnic riots in Sri Lanka heralded the start of a 26-year civil war, which ended in May 2009 when Sri Lankan military forces finally defeated the Tamil Tigers armed militia (which had been demanding a separate Tamil state).

The brutal civil war was a massive burden on the civilian population, and greatly damaged Sri Lanka’s environment and economy.   An initial estimate put the number of civilians killed during the war at 80,000–100,000.

In 2013, the UN raised this figure by taking into account additional civilian deaths occurring in the closing stages of the war: “Around 40,000 died while other independent reports estimated the number of civilians dead to exceed 100,000”.  The final stages of the war also displaced 294,000 people.

Both sides in the war have been accused of serious human rights abuses, arbitrary and illegal detentions, attacks on non-combatant civilians, and summary executions.  The Sri Lankan army has also been accused of “disappearing” both civilians and captured combatants, while the Tamil Tigers have been charged with suicide bombings and the recruitment of child soldiers.  The war zones are riddled with landmines.

Sri Lanka has set up a domestic commission to review these charges, but many Tamils have little faith in such a commission, and would prefer a UN investigative commission instead.  The Sri Lankan government has refused to cooperate with a UN investigation, and has banned foreigners from entering the former war zones.

Shortly after I left, communal conflict returned to Sri Lanka, this time between Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist groups and Muslims.  So far, this conflict has been confined to the Kandy district, even though a national emergency has been declared, and social media banned (a curfew has also been imposed in Kandy).

It does not take much to instigate such communal violence.  According to The Guardian: “Last week groups of people set fire to Muslim-owned businesses and attacked a mosque in the east of the country after rumours that a Muslim chef was adding contraceptives to food served to Sinhala customers”.

It is an enduring myth in the west that Buddhists are inherently peaceable, even though much evidence to the contrary exists in the ethnocidal way Myanmar’s Buddhists have treated the Rohingya Muslim minority, the similar violence enacted by Thai Buddhists against the Muslim minority in the southern part of their country, as well as the conduct of Sri Lanka’s Buddhist sectarians towards its Hindu and Muslim minorities.

In addition to the civil war, further devastation was inflicted by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed over 35,000 people and destroyed 90,000 buildings in Sri Lanka.

Economic prosperity has returned to Sri Lanka after the tsunami and civil war.  GDP growth in 2017 was an impressive 4.72%, with per capita income doubling since 2005, while poverty dropped from 15.2% to 7.6%, and the unemployment rate dropped from 7.2% to 4.9%, in the same period.

According to the 2017 World Population Review, Sri Lankan life expectancy at birth is 75.4 years and increasing (the figure for the US is 78.6 years, and falling).  Healthcare is universal and free at point of delivery.

Sri Lanka’s Constitution recognizes free education from the elementary to the tertiary levels as a fundamental right.  According to UNICEF its adult literacy rate (2008-2012) is 91.2%, whereas a study by the US Department of Education showed that 1 in 7 adults in the US are not able to read, indicating an adult literacy rate of slightly under 86%.

This increased prosperity was evident in the capital, Colombo.  Near our seaside hotel 660 acres are being reclaimed from the sea– such reclamation projects allow Sri Lanka to add to its land mass in the way that islands such as Dubai and Singapore have done.

The reclaimed land will be the location of the Colombo International Financial City (CIFC), a joint project with China, designed to be a special financial zone that ostensibly will fill the vacuum for such a zone existing between Dubai and Singapore.

The CIFC project has had its setbacks.  Mooted by Sri Lanka’s previous president Mahinda Rajapaksa, it was halted when the current president took power, on the grounds that the original agreement with China lacked adequate environmental safeguards, and did not take Sri Lanka’s sovereignty sufficiently into account.

A new agreement has now been signed with China, incorporating more stringent environmental safeguards, and with protocols for land ownership and use that better secure Sri Lankan sovereignty over the reclaimed land.

For the sake of ordinary Sri Lankans, one hopes the CIFC project will help the country in general, as opposed to being a boondoggle existing solely for the benefit of an all-too-familiar alliance between multinational capital and local elites.

Moreover, the world is littered with mega-development projects that have bit the dust– from bridges and highways “to nowhere” (Americans are familiar with these pork barrel projects in their own country), to the unflyable airport on St Helena in the middle of the Atlantic, where year-round blustery winds mean that planes can only land there once in a blue moon, and a number of dam-building projects that have not been a success (the Teton Dam in Idaho; Brazil’s 1970s Itaipu dam, built at a 240% cost overrun which makes it unlikely Itaipu will ever pay back the costs incurred to build it; Nigeria’s Kainji Dam has fallen short of its electricity production targets by as much as 70% due to vastly incorrect estimates of the available water flow;  and the Three Gorges Dam in China is now admitted by its government to be causing “problems”).

In addition, there is the MOSE mobile flood-barrier project in Venice which has not stopped that city from flooding and sinking; the unfinished and abandoned superconducting Super Collider in a tunnel under Waxahachie, Texas, in the 1980s; the Montreal-Mirabel airport in Quebec which opened in 1975 and closed in 2004, before being earmarked for demolition in 2014; the numerous financial scandals and building failures associated with Homex, once Mexico’s biggest housing developer (the LA Times has done a fine report on this housing fiasco); and so forth.

As for Colombo’s International Financial City, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Emulating Singapore and Dubai is certainly possible, while remaining something of a tall order.  Singapore has been a commercial hub for centuries, and Dubai has a vast reservoir of Gulf oil money as its backstop.  Also, Mumbai will no doubt present itself as a significant financial-sector competitor in the region.

Sri Lanka is however taking steps to diversify its economy.  With a remarkable ecological diversity in a relatively limited space, beautiful beaches and areas of great natural beauty, it has long been a destination for visitors– Marco Polo came in the 12th century– though the civil war caused a lull in tourism.

Between the end of the war in 2009 and 2015, tourist arrivals grew by over 300%.  The government is placing an emphasis on eco-friendly tourism.

Investment in infrastructure is aiding not just tourism, but is also enabling the creation of a network of bonded areas and free ports.  The aim here is for Sri Lanka to become an international hub for the reprocessing and export of its agricultural products—its famous tea is of course a major export earner and Sri Lanka is the world’s largest producer of cinnamon.

A certain French Marxist philosopher said the future lasts a long time, but it was hard not to discern a certain optimism on the part of most of the people I met– from taxi-drivers and waiters to the archivists at the Sri Lanka National Archive.

Impressions of India, Via Chenai

I was last in India (Mumbai) exactly this time last year.  I am now in Chennai, attending a conference at the University of Madras.

India, to say the least, is a vast and diverse country, sometimes in ways hardly imaginable to those not familiar with a subcontinental nation that has 2 official national languages (Hindi and English, though Urdu is spoken by many Indian Muslims), and 22 official regional languages.

In Chennai I became reacquainted with a little bit of Tamil, the language spoken by the indentured Tamil labourers on the British rubber plantations in Malaya where I spent time growing up.

India since 2014 has been governed by the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) headed by the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  Modi combines Hindutva (a form of authoritarian Hindu communalism) with neoliberalism.

Modi and Trump, from the beginning, formed a mutual admiration society, based on a shared enthusiasm for a combination of neoliberalism and their respective ethno-nationalisms (though there are reports of Trump mocking Modi’s Indian-accented English, which is hardly surprising, given the ample documentation of Trump’s racism).

These ethno-nationalisms are fantasy-based, overwhelmingly, and thus incapable of dealing with the challenges faced by vast multi-ethnic countries with complex societies.

Hence, Trump’s projected Mexican Wall (laughably, to be paid for by Mexico according to him) is a Potemkin attempt to deal with, or rather sidestep, the complexities of US immigration, just as the BJP’s monumentalizing of Hindu shrines (which has as its corollary the incendiary calls made by more radical BJP politicians to destroy mosques because unlike Hindu temples they don’t count for these sectarians as sacred buildings) has nothing concretely to do with ensuring that ordinary Indians, Hindus even, have the right to a decent life.

Neoliberalism– the quintessential ideology of the 1%– is not going to meet the needs of those, both in the US and India, who are much more likely to be its victims than its beneficiaries.

As if to confirm the symbiosis between Trump and Modi, Don Jnr showed up while I was in India, ostensibly on a tour of Trump properties in that country, but also to take part in a “business summit” alongside Modi and other cabinet ministers, and to do some huckstering on behalf of Trump-family business ventures.

Individuals who bought a luxury apartment in a Trump Tower were invited to dinner with the remorseless killer of prized wild animals.  According to The Guardian: “Full-page advertisements reading “Trump is here. Are you invited?” featured on the front page of three Indian national newspapers at the weekend ahead of a visit by the US president’s son to India this week”.

India’s One Percenters are besotted with the Trumps.  The ability of the Orange Swindler to get the American political system to do pirouettes for him with a click of his stubby fingers, and his ability to cash in on those pirouettes, is viewed with envy by these One Percenters, who long for something similar to be available to them in India.

Another visitor to arrive as we were about to leave was Canada’s neoliberal prime minister Justin Trudeau.  Trudeau decked himself out in over the top Bollywood-style outfits, and became an instant object of ridicule on Indian social media.  My Indian friends told me Trudeau’s attire was more outlandish than most of the stuff Bollywood has created.

Fidel Castro, Trudeau’s reputed father, must be turning over in his grave.  As we know, Fidel gave up his simple green combat fatigues for equally simple Adidas tracksuits when he retired– his supposed son would probably have been “corrected” in the appropriate way had he lived in Cuba.

Incidentally, the UK’s Brexiteers, many of them white “nativists”, are using their version of ethno-nationalism for neoliberal ends akin to Trump and Modi.

Brit ethno-nationalists, obsessed with fantasies of “pure” Aryan origins, had their timbers shivered last week by an archaeological finding, and subsequent DNA analysis, which revealed that their earliest known British ancestor, discovered on British soil no less, the so-called “Cheddar Man”, was dark-skinned or even black (albeit with blue eyes).  It is of course not uncommon in the US for white supremacists to be discomfited in somewhat similar ways when discovering hitherto “unknown” facts about their ancestry from, say, long-lost papers in the proverbial box in the attic concerning a horny and licentious slave-owning great-great-great-great grandfather.

Such revelatory occurrences are however rare for Brits, whose ancestors of owned their slaves abroad, which made the Cheddar Man discovery all the more delicious.

Some white Brits, uninformed about human migration patterns in prehistoric times, and of course by now deeply anxious about their supposedly “pure” lineages, even went on the internet to suggest that Cheddar Man may really have been a foreign “visitor” to their island.  So, perhaps– 10,000 years ago– he could have flown there from Asia or Africa on a jumbo jet?

Dying in their country in his 20s (according to the DNA analysis), Cheddar Man’s fantasized journey on foot to the British Isles from Asia or Africa, without maps or GPS, must have begun when he was an infant or in the womb, or even in a previous incarnation.   And how would this bold adventurer even know that Britain existed, in order for him to “visit” it?

The desire to maintain one’s “purity” of ancestry exists in India as well.  A few weeks before I arrived in Chennai, a minister of another state insisted that evolution had been discredited by the fact that there is no record of anyone seeing an ape turn into a human.  He drew the conclusion that it should not therefore be a part of the school curriculum.  Americans are of course just as well-acquainted with such claptrap from their backwoods.

Talking to taxi drivers, shopkeepers, academics, students, and strangers who would strike up a conversation, was highly edifying in a few respects.

The first is that the Gandhian project, continued by the Congress Party which governed India for decades after its independence, of a single and unified India, with “unity in diversity” as its governing slogan, is under great stress.  Faced with a choice or emphasizing unity or diversity, Indians are opting for the latter– an impression that was confirmed by many of my interlocutors.  This is evident in a number of ways.

Modi and his supporters, by opting for Hindutva, have put Gandhi’s ideology of coexistence under strain.  For upholders of Hindutva there is no basis for thinking that other religions can exist alongside Hinduism on equal terms.  Quite simply:  they can’t.

Emboldened by their government’s underwriting of Hindutva, Hindu mobs have lynched those suspected of eating beef, the cow being a sacred animal for Hindus.   Muslims are the main targets of these Hindu vigilantes, and in one case reported by the BBC, the meat involved was not even beef but mutton (which in India is goat-meat).

Several states have imposed bans on beef and its associated products, prompting many outraged Indians to go on social media to say that dealing with India’s notoriously lax attitude to rape and sexual assault should be a higher priority.

Adding pressure to “unity in diversity” are the regional nationalisms.  Perhaps the best known is the desire of many Sikhs, in India and in the Sikh diaspora, to have the state in which they reside, Punjab, become the independent nation of Khalistan.  But Sikhs aren’t the only ones.

Chennai is the capital of Tamil Nadu, and what was evident is that the linguistic demarcation between Tamil (which belongs to the Dravidian family of languages), and India’s Sanskritic languages has taken on political overtones.  It is, after all, a relatively easy step to move from “the people who speak X” to “the X or Xish people”, and from that identification of “a people” to the political basis, always unifying and homogenizing, for the life of that “people”.

When the conference I attended in Chennai was opened with the Tamil Nadu anthem (and not the national anthem of India), I asked some conference attendees if I was to understand this as the manifestation of a separatist impulse, and a couple of them who were Tamils said they had nothing linguistically in common with speakers of India’s Sanskritic languages, and thus saw no reason to be yoked to a polity in which non-Tamil Indians were hegemonic–  the Indian national anthem was thus “inauthentic” for them.  As they saw it, “India”, historically, has pretty much been bad news for the Tamil language and culture.

In any event, they went on to say, India “the nation” was a British concoction dreamt up for its own administrative convenience as India’s colonial ruler.

All this comes with a caveat.  I’ve lived, for decades each, on three continents, and am well aware that what someone tells you about their place is invariably conditioned by how they want you to perceive that place.  I do the same as well.

So, was I having my impressions here shaped by my interlocuters, albeit with no malice intended, or indeed any intent, on their part?  I can only truly find out by living here for a few years, which is not on the cards.  So “impressions of …” it can only be, in this way falling short of certifiably “warranted opinion”.

Another strong impression, apart from the Tamil/Dravidian nationalism noted above, is the intense interest people here have in politics.

Nearly every discussion of length that I had (and less so with academics, who wanted, understandably, to talk about our respective fields and intellectual interests), gravitated to politics.  Conversations usually started in two ways.  “Where are you from?” elicited my answer “I’m a Brit living and working in America”, and that quickly led to a discussion of Trump and American politics.

Another question “What do you think of India/Chennai?”, was met with my diplomatic answer (“On the one hand, but then on the other….”) that ended with my request for more information from them about India/Chennai.  This in turn led to a discussion of Indian politics.

Tamil Nadu is not a BJP stronghold.  The ruling party here is the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), a Dravidian party, which is also the third largest party in the national parliament (Lok Sabha).  Tamil Nadu politics is faction-ridden, and both the AIDMK and the opposition DMK (the two had once been a single party), are riven by factions.

Patronage is an important part of Indian politics, and this is conducive to factionalism, as ambitious politicians seeking access to patronage networks believe they have a better chance of success if they can establish their own base of support in order to take on those already feasting at the patronage table.

For now, Modi, ever the wily operator, and knowing it will not be easy for the BJP to make electoral inroads in Tamil Nadu, is courting both the ruling AIADMK and the DMK, each with a record of corruption, by dangling the prospect of favours in front of them.  He does this by purporting to be a leader “above parties” who is merely “making friends” in Tamil Nadu.

Modi’s blend of neoliberalism (the euphemism he uses is “development”) and Hindu nationalism is regarded with suspicion in many quarters.  Many people in Tamil Nadu believe that their chances of achieving social justice, denied them for so long, will be enhanced the more their Tamil identity is respected and taken into account in policy-making.

Modi though can only pay lip service to this demand for Tamil identity to be valued– his real motive is ulterior, namely, to get the top corporations driving neoliberalism to see that only he can run the governance system which promotes their interests, that only he is in a position to guarantee the underlying state-organizational “space” (involving already enacted corporate tax reductions, privatizations, and the weakening of environmental regulations) enabling them to amass their obscene wealth.

Modi is perceived to be relatively free of corruption, and being a flashy dresser is his only publicly visible form of ostentation.  But that has not stopped him from giving a virtual free pass to India’s lootocracy (to use a term of CounterPuncher Rob Urie).

In addition to the above, Modi is developing a cult of personality.  His face is on billboards everywhere, and on posters in government buildings.  These tout the leader’s “achievements”.

One my last day in Chennai I needed to mail a few items back to the States.  Sure enough, there was a poster of Modi at the post office stamp counter.  Someone, clearly not a member of his fan club, had decided to get creative with their felt-tip pen and turned the official poster-image of Modi into a cartoon-image of the devil.  I took  the photograph below:

Poverty American Style

Photo by Thomas Galvez | CC BY 2.0

“The American Dream is rapidly becoming the American illusion.”

In December last year, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, issued a statement on his 15-day fact-finding mission of some of the US’s poorest neighbourhoods.   Alston, author of the quoted phrase in the subtitle above, is an Australian who is professor of law at New York University.  During his mission he visited Alabama, California, West Virginia, Texas, Washington DC, and Puerto Rico.

Alston’s statement on American poverty and inequality has been overlooked by most of the mainstream media.

Alston has a record of consistent impartiality, which makes his statement on American poverty all the more credible.

He was critical of China in his report on that country (the Chinese government later accused him of “meddling” in its judicial system).  He wants Sri Lanka to be investigated for war crimes against its Tamil minority population.  According to The Guardian, Alston also “tore a strip off the Saudi Arabian regime for its treatment of women months before the kingdom legalized their right to drive, denounced the Brazilian government for attacking the poor through austerity, and even excoriated the UN itself for importing cholera to Haiti”.  Alston also reprimanded the World Bank for “playing a double-game” that is “leading a ‘race to the bottom’ on human rights”.

Alston began his statement on the US by saying that “in practice, the United States is alone among developed countries in insisting that while human rights are of fundamental importance, they do not include rights that guard against dying of hunger, dying from a lack of access to affordable healthcare, or growing up in a context of total deprivation. . . at the end of the day, particularly in a rich country like the USA, the persistence of extreme poverty is a political choice made by those in power. With political will, it could readily be eliminated”.

He then said of his visit:

“I met with many people barely surviving on Skid Row in Los Angeles, I witnessed a San Francisco police officer telling a group of homeless people to move on but having no answer when asked where they could move to, I heard how thousands of poor people get minor infraction notices which seem to be intentionally designed to quickly explode into unpayable debt, incarceration, and the replenishment of municipal coffers, I saw sewage filled yards in states where governments don’t consider sanitation facilities to be their responsibility, I saw people who had lost all of their teeth because adult dental care is not covered by the vast majority of programs available to the very poor, I heard about soaring death rates and family and community destruction wrought by prescription and other drug addiction, and I met with people in the South of Puerto Rico living next to a mountain of completely unprotected coal ash which rains down upon them bringing illness, disability and death”.

Asked to compare the US with other countries, Alston provided a cross-section of statistical comparisons worth noting.  (In several cases, I have supplemented Alston’s comparisons with data from other sources.)

Numerous indicators confirm that the US is one of the world’s wealthiest countries.  It spends more on national defense than China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, United Kingdom, India, France, and Japan combined.

US health care expenditures per capita are double the OECD average and much higher than in all other countries. But there are many fewer doctors and hospital beds per person than the OECD average.

US infant mortality rates in 2013 were the highest in the developed world.

On average, Americans can expect to live shorter and sicker lives, compared to people living in any other wealthy democracies, and the “health gap” between the US and its peer countries continues to grow.

U.S. inequality levels are far higher than those in most European countries.

Neglected tropical diseases, including Zika, are increasingly common in the USA.  It has been estimated that 12 million Americans live with a neglected parasitic infection. A 2017 report documents the prevalence of hookworm in Lowndes County, Alabama.

The US has the highest prevalence of obesity in the developed world.

In terms of access to water and sanitation the US ranks 36th in the world.

America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, ahead of Turkmenistan, El Salvador, Cuba, Thailand and the Russian Federation. Its rate is nearly 5 times the OECD average.

The youth poverty rate in the United States is the highest across the OECD with one quarter of youth living in poverty compared to less than 14% across the OECD.

The Stanford Center on Inequality and Poverty ranks the most well-off countries in terms of labour markets, poverty, safety net, wealth inequality, and economic mobility. The US comes in last of the top 10 most well-off countries.

In the OECD, the US ranks 35th out of 37 in terms of poverty and inequality.  According to Alston, 19 million people lived in deep poverty (a total family income that is below one-half of the poverty threshold) in the US as of 2017.

According to the World Income Inequality Database, the US has the highest Gini coefficient (measuring inequality) of all Western countries.

The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality characterizes the US as “a clear and constant outlier in the child poverty league”.  According to UNICEF (see above chart), the US has higher child poverty rates than 15 other high-income countries. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that more than half of American babies are at risk for malnourishment.

The US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service says that in 2016, 38.3% of households with incomes below the Federal poverty line were food insecure.

Around 55.7% of the U.S. voting-age population voted in the 2016 presidential election. In the OECD, the U.S. placed 28th in voter turnout, compared with an OECD average of 75%.  Registered voters represent a much smaller share of potential voters in the U.S. than just about any other OECD country. Only about 64% of the U.S. voting-age population (and 70% of voting-age citizens) was registered in 2016, compared with 91% in Canada (2015) and the UK (2016), 96% in Sweden (2014), and nearly 99% in Japan (2014).

In a nutshell: most developed countries do much better than the US on internationally recognized human well-being indicators, such as life expectancy, infant mortality, pregnant mother mortality, obesity rates, rates of incarceration, homicide rates, standards of educational attainment, income disparities, levels of childhood poverty, nutrition standards, homelessness, etc.

In fact, on some of these indicators show the US is going backwards (in contrast to other wealthy countries).  According to The Washington Post:

“American life expectancy at birth declined for the second consecutive year in 2016, fueled by a staggering 21 percent rise in the death rate from drug overdoses, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday.

The United States has not seen two years of declining life expectancy since 1962 and 1963, when influenza caused an inordinate number of deaths”.

Alston attributed much of the above to US policy choices, more specifically, the US’s “illusory emphasis on employment”.

Proposals to slash the already precarious social safety net are touted primarily on the premise that the poor need to get off welfare and back to work (the motivation behind “welfare to workfare”, a process started by Bill Clinton).

The almost laughable premise here is that there are many jobs waiting to be filled by individuals with substandard educations, those with disabilities (many already failed by an inadequate healthcare system), sometimes burdened with a criminal record (perhaps for the crime of homelessness or being unable to pay a traffic ticket), and, moreover, with little or no training or adequate assistance to succeed in a job search.

Attempts to raise the minimum wage, already low by the standards of other developed countries, are regularly forestalled by Republican legislatures.

Alston noted another fallacy underlying this premise, namely, that it assumes that the jobs the poor could get will make them independent of the welfare system.  He says: “I spoke to workers from Walmart and other large stores who could not survive on a full-time wage without also relying on food stamps. It has been estimated that as much as $6 billion dollars go from the SNAP program to support such workers, thus providing a huge virtual subsidy to the relevant corporations”.

The abolition of food stamps is on the Republican agenda.  It is noteworthy that the location with residents most reliant on food stamps is Owsley County, Kentucky, which is 99.22% white, according to the US Census, and 95% Republican, and where at least at least 52% of its residents received food stamps in 2011.

Anyone would think that Americans accept, somewhat stoically, the above situation because as a trade-off it somehow boosts the US economy by delivering sound economic “fundamentals”.

Alas most of these “fundamentals” — trade balance, government debt (soon to be deepened by Trump’s reckless tax cuts for the rich), household debt, budget deficit, a negative savings rate, a relatively weak dollar, poor investment and productivity since 2008, etc.– are hardly reassuring where the US is concerned.

It doesn’t take an economic genius to know that what rescues the US is the dollar’s role as the primary global reserve currency, and the vast size of its economy.  A huge and rampant stock market helps, but since that contributes significantly to cycles of boom and bust (87, 97, 2007, ??), its contribution to the overall economy should not be overestimated.  In objective economic terms, therefore, with a smaller overall economy and without a global reserve currency, the US would in all probability be more like Brazil.

After making his statement on the US, Alston gave an interview on the Amy Goodman radio show, at the time when the Republicans published their tax-cut bill which is now law.  To quote him:

“[T]he issue with elimination of poverty always is around resources: ‘We don’t have the money.’ The United States, again, uniquely, has the money. It could eliminate poverty overnight, if it wanted to. What we’re seeing now is the classic — it’s a political choice. Where do you want to put your money? Into the very rich or into creating a decent society, which will actually be economically more productive than just giving the money to those who already have a lot?”.

It is impossible to disagree with Philip Alston when he says that this state of affairs has resulted from political choice and not economic necessity.

Apart from his plutocratic supporters (the Kochs, Papa John the pizza man, Sheldon Adelson, Art Pope, Robert Mercer, Robert Kraft, the DeVos wife and husband, and of course the army of their hangers-on and wannabes in Republican country clubs), Trump’s base consists of moderately or less well-off whites who’ve had the show all to themselves for many decades–  this making their own systemic exploitation somewhat bearable– but who now have to share this show with blacks and Latinos, Muslim Americans, “the gays” (as the near-senile televangelist Pat Robertson refers to this community), as well as a small quota of refugees from America’s unceasing wars and bombing campaigns, and so forth.

As other CounterPunchers have noted, “Make America Great Again” is code aimed at this group of white self-professed “victims”— thanks to Trump’s declamations the latter somehow believe they are more likely to have the show to themselves once again.

Supporting the very affluent wearer of a baseball cap (made in the US but from imported fabrics) sporting this slogan, is always a political choice, as is the preference of the plutocracy to line its already ample pockets by donating massively to the cap-wearing con artist:  “con artist” being the appellation used by his fellow Republican plutocrats Michael Bloomberg and Mitt Romney, who have political ambitions of their own not entirely congruent with Trump’s white-nationalist agenda, however incoherent the latter may be.

Trump, Romney, or Bloomberg?  Whichever one gets ahead politically; the plutocracy will prevail.  As it did with Bill Clinton and Obama.

Also a political choice in this context is the preference of mainstream Schumer and Pelosi Democrats to make congressional shadow-boxing a pitiful facsimile of real opposition.

And so, a great many Americans have before them an option expressed by a well-known philosopher, if only they opened their eyes: “You have nothing to lose but your chains”.

Illusions aside, the liberation of poorer Americans, ostensibly an immense distance away, is therefore still close enough to touch.

A Margaret Thatcher Statue in Parliament Square?

Photo by R Barraez D´Lucca | CC BY 2.0

This week it was announced that London’s Westminster council, which has jurisdiction over the statues placed in Parliament Square, decided against having a statue of Margaret Thatcher in the square.

The reason given by the council was that her statue would almost certainly be vandalized, and that it was too soon after her death for this to be done.

Both the reasons given by the council are probative, but the council tactfully omitted mention of the elephant in the room when they made their decision– Thatcher does not merit having such a monument to her name (unless one believes parliament needs to be fronted by an array of statues of undeserving individuals, which of course is already the case).

As the years of her time in office move increasingly into the past, the release of public records and the publication of memoirs by her colleagues and advisers, confirm the view that Thatcher was probably the most destructive prime minister in British history.

The roster of British prime ministers shows the overwhelming majority to be undistinguished, a great many to be inept (some beyond belief), and even when deemed to be “distinguished”, to have so many failings that few merit having their statue in front of parliament.

Perhaps not even the vaunted Churchill, who was an unmitigated scoundrel in many ways not connected with the war that gave him his reputation.  Where the war is concerned, Churchill’s merciless carpet bombing of Dresden, a target of no military significance, should have brought him before an international tribunal for war crimes, just as Kissinger’s similar carpet bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam war warrants the same.

The case against Thatcher builds year by year.

She was of course a pal of Chile’s murderous dictator Pinochet, who embarked on Chicago School neoliberal experiments, which Thatcher was later to emulate, as soon as he seized power.

In her memoirs Thatcher said Pinochet had shown that “liberal economics works”.  It worked, but only for Chile’s economic elite, as was to be the case with the UK’s elite when Thatcher repeated the dictator’s experiments.  (The connection between Pinochet and Thatcher is described in detail in Andy Beckett’s excellent Pinochet in Piccadilly).

Thatcher’s experiments destroyed British industry, beginning with coal.  Resolved to defeat the miners’ union during its lengthy strike in 1984-85, Thatcher turned parts of the UK into a police state.  The miners’ leader Arthur Scargill was a poor strategist and played into Thatcher’s hands, though his intuition that her ultimate intention was to destroy the entire coal industry and not just defeat the strike proved to be correct– even those coalfields which opposed Scargill and broke the strike were closed down by Thatcher in post-strike “reforms”.  The UK now imports coal from Poland.

Thatcher, believing the UK could succeed economically on tourism and the financial sector with hardly any industry, implemented policies which wound-down British industries as if checking off a list (steel, car manufacturing, ship building, and electrical goods all bit the dust).

There is no denying that these industries were facing serious problems.  Robert Brenner and others have argued that the US and UK, with older capital-assets, were losing ground to Germany and Japan, flush with brand new more productive capital-assets generated by extensive postwar rebuilding.

The UK’s industries tried to keep up, unsuccessfully in the longer term, by upgrading what were basically prewar industrial resources and technologies.  The UK was exhausted economically after the war, but what it needed was massive industrial renovation, and this was not forthcoming.  The immediate postwar Labour government rightly focused on establishing the welfare state, but subsequent governments of both parties basked complacently in the improved living standards that followed the creation of the welfare state and the renewal of housing stock and infrastructure severely depleted and damaged by the war.  Thatcher, when it came to her turn, decided that the union-dominated industrial sector was not going to be a priority, and from then on an extensive industrial overhaul ceased to be on the UK’s economic agenda.  The collapse of this sector resulted inevitably.

Another outcome of Thatcher’s neoliberal experiments was a doubling of the unemployment rate.  Thatcher had campaigned on the slogan “Labour is not working” in the 1979 election, when unemployment stood at 5.9% (1 million) in 1978 under Labour.  Thatcher’s campaign effectively rebranded the Conservatives as the party of employment, and she won the election.

Once in office, Thatcher imposed her monetarist dogma, and unemployment jumped predictably to 3 million in 1982, despite constant massaging of the employment figures by her employment secretary Norman Tebbit.  Inflation, in double figures for most of the 1970s, did fall to 4% in 1983, but rose again to nearly 8% in 1985.

Thatcher had no interest in reducing unemployment, apart from the purpose of rebranding her party in order to win the election.   Her economic adviser Sir Alan Budd let the cat out of the bag in a future article:

The Thatcher government never believed for a moment that [monetarism] was the correct way to bring down inflation. They did however see that this would be a very good way to raise unemployment. And raising unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes. […] What was engineered – in Marxist terms – was a crisis of capitalism which re-created the reserve army of labour, and has allowed the capitalists to make high profits ever since.

(An article by Carl Shapiro and Joseph Stiglitz, ‘Equilibrium Unemployment as a Worker Discipline Device’, The American Economic Review 74(1984), 433-44, provides the theoretical underpinning of the re-creation of the reserve army of labour, albeit without mentioning Marx.)

The Thatcherite Alan Budd is right– British capitalists have made high profits ever since, not so much by reviving British industry, but by focusing their efforts on the financial sector.  Here again Thatcher was instrumental.

In a sudden deregulation of financial markets on 27 October 1986 (dubbed the “Big Bang”), Thatcher abolished the distinction between commercial or high-street banks and investment houses, and made electronic trading possible.  This deregulation also made it possible for banks to “invest” their depositors’ savings, thereby putting these at risk.  Even Nigel Lawson, Thatcher’s longtime finance minister (Chancellor of the Exchequer), conceded that the “Big Bang” helped pave the way for the 2007-2008 financial crisis.  Overnight, the City of London (London’s financial district akin to Wall Street) started to become Rip Off City.

Along with deregulation of the financial sector came privatizations of public utilities and the railways (the latter was Thatcher’s aim, though the implementation was left to her successor John Major).

The available evidence shows that the privatization of state enterprises in the UK has brought few if any economic benefits.  Excessively high commissions and fees were paid to private banks to oversee the privatizations in what many describe as a boondoggle.

State monopolies became private oligopolies or cartels after privatization, now mostly owned by overseas firms.  The civil servants who ran the state monopolies on relatively modest fixed salaries gave way to CEOs and managers who lavished upon themselves exorbitant bonuses typical of the private sector, regardless of the performance of their enterprises.  Underperforming enterprises still required taxpayer subsidies, and with no price controls, consumers now got stiffed as well as taxpayers, as prices are raised above the prevailing rate of inflation.

Massimo Florio, in The Great Divestiture: Evaluating the Welfare Impact of the British Privatizations 1979-1999 (MIT Press), concludes that “the changeover to private ownership per se had little effect on long-term trends in prices and productivity in Britain and contributed to regressive redistribution”.

A 2015 poll by Survation showed that only 17% of respondents wanted to keep privatized railways, as against 40% who want renationalization and 23% who want to some franchises brought back into the public sector.

Polls for the other Tory privatizations yield consistently similar results to the Survation poll on the railways, and renationalization of the railways, postal service, and utilities is now a central feature of Labour’s manifesto for the next election.

Another disastrous step take by Thatcher was her sale of council or social housing to private buyers.  Much taken by the notion of a “property-owning democracy”, Thatcher allowed social housing to be bought by tenants at rock-bottom prices.  Tenants who did not buy their rented dwellings were forced out by steep rent increases.

What followed in the course of time was anticipated by critics of Thatcher’s policy.  These properties would reappear on the market when their owners died, or moved into assisted living, or simply traded-up in the housing market.  Once on the market, first-time buyers seeking to buy these properties would be outbid by well-heeled private landlords, who would then rent out the “investments” they purchased at “market values”.  Rents skyrocketed, as did property prices.  Diminishing housing-market affordability and housing supply shortfalls meant the Generation Buy of the baby boomer generation was supplanted inexorably by the Generation Rent of recent decades.

Thatcher’s housing legacy is not a “property-owning democracy”, quite the opposite, but a series of house-price inflation bubbles.

Her own personal housing was not a problem for Thatcher– on her retirement she ensconced herself in posh multi-million-pound Central London mansion.  When the terms of her will were disclosed after her death, it turned out that the mansion was registered in an offshore tax haven.  The Mirror newspaper, which reported this, carried the story under the caption “This lady’s not for taxing” (a riff on the Iron Lady’s own self-regarding “This lady’s not for turning”).

Thatcher’s dolt of a son Mark was always a problem for her and her husband Denis.  Mark acquired sudden and conspicuous wealth while she was in office, largely by being “an intermediary” in trade and arm’s deals she made with foreign countries.  In ways analogous to Ivanka Trump and her father, Mark would accompany his mother on official trips, to undertake his responsibilities as an “intermediary”.

It was reported this week that government records relating to Mark Thatcher will be withheld from the public until 2053—despite the fact that under the 30-year-rule the National Archives are now releasing records of cabinet meetings from 1986-88, when Thatcher was at the peak of her influence as prime minister.

One news outlet reporting the delay in releasing these records, thelondoneconomic.com, said:

Charles Moore’s biography of Mrs Thatcher quotes Robin Butler, her private secretary at the time, [who] commented Mrs Thatcher’s involvement ‘conveyed a whiff of corruption’. Coming from her own private secretary that raises even more questions as to why her son’s files are not accessible to the nation.

Cynics will doubtless have ready answers to these questions about the withholding of the Mark Thatcher files until 2053.

The afore-mentioned Lord Robin Butler was not the only Whitehall mandarin in the news this week.    The former head of the Diplomatic Service, Sir Patrick Wright, is about to publish his diaries, and made a number of newsworthy claims about Thatcher’s time in office in extracts published in a national newspaper.   According to the Independent:

Sir Patrick also said that Ms Thatcher “loathed” Germans and wanted to “push” Vietnamese boat people into the sea.

In the diary entry, Sir Patrick writes the conversation [on South African apartheid] took place over a lunch he was invited to with Ms Thatcher. “She opened the conversation by thrusting a newspaper cutting about Oliver Tambo [ANC president] in front of us, saying that it proved that we should not be talking to him… She continued to express her views about a return to pre-1910 South Africa, with a white mini-state partitioned from their neighbouring black states.”

When Sir Patrick questioned the desire and said it would be an extension of apartheid, he said “she barked: ‘Do you have no concern for our strategic interests?’”

Thatcher’s support for a “whites only” mini-state was entirely consistent with her other positions on South Africa:  she had always opposed sanctions against the apartheid state, and described Nelson Mandela in public as a “terrorist”.

A statue of Mandela already stands in Parliament Square.  If the British Establishment erected a statue of Thatcher in the same location, it would be a supreme testimony to its cynicism or “value free” relativism.  It would be akin to the US putting up statues of Robert E Lee and Frederick Douglass in the same square.

Thatcher’s children, Mark and Carol, could perhaps have a subliminal sense of this possible incongruity (Mark Thatcher has been living in South Africa, and Carol in Australia, for a while) — when asked by Westminster council if they wanted a statue of their mother in front of parliament, they failed to reply.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Bigger in Texas

I am now in Texas, the culmination of our current 1000-mile/1600 km trip, having made overnight stops in Knoxville, Nashville, and Memphis on the way.

Americans, and foreigners who have lived here for a long time, know of the great pride Texans have in their state.  My first experience of this was back in the UK in the early 1980s.

The late John Clayton was an American teaching theology at the University of Lancaster.  I’d met John several times, and we drank beer as part of a small group at academic gatherings.

At an academic conference in the UK which took place on the Fourth of July, I asked John, casually, if he was going to do anything to celebrate America’s Day of Independence that evening.  John, the most amiable of men, growled back at me: “I’m Texan, our independence was from Mexico, not you Brits, so I celebrate that day (March 2nd, 1836, John informed me), not this shit on the Fourth of July”.  Umm.

Texan exceptionalism is of course embedded within a wider American exceptionalism, though tensions exist between the two– there are Texans who wish to secede from the US because they regard most of the rest of the US as “too liberal”!

So, what do Texan secessionists– who are overwhelmingly conservative, white, and overtly racist in some quarters– need to know in order to make a considered judgment about secession?

The ideological base of the secessionist movement also dominates the Texas State Board of Education, which has attracted recent controversy for its patently anti-intellectual stance on school textbooks.

In 2014 the board adopted new history textbooks (mis)informing students that Moses and biblical law are the inspiration for the American Constitution.

The “World Geography” textbook called African slaves “workers” and “immigrants”, until a public outcry forced the publisher, McGraw-Hill, to edit this part of the textbook.

A Mexican American studies (part of the state’s curriculum) textbook describes Chicanos as people who “adopted a revolutionary narrative that opposed Western civilization and wanted to destroy this society”.  Donald Trump would purr approvingly at another part of this textbook, in which Mexican Americans are linked to undocumented immigration. The textbook alleges that illegal immigration has “caused a number of economic and security problems in the United States”, and that “poverty, drugs, crime, non-assimilation, and exploitation are among some of these problems. Studies have shown that the Mexican American community suffers from a significant gap in education levels, employment, wages, housing, and other issues relating to poverty that persist through the second, third, and fourth generations”.

Not surprisingly, the textbook fails to mention that of the estimated 189 men who died at the Alamo, only six were native Texans, and their last names were Abamillo, Badillo, Espalier, Esparza, Fuentes, and Navatwo.  Likewise, only two of the signatories of the Texas Declaration of Independence were native Texans, and their last names were Navarro and Ruiz.

The textbook fails to say that until the 1954 US Supreme Court decision in Hernandez vs Texas, Hispanics who were put on trial were denied a jury that had any other Hispanics, or other persons of colour or women.

A study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in 2016 placed Texas in the top 10 states with the highest rates of obesity.

A report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation showed that in 2013 Texas had the second-highest percentage of uninsured children in the US (13%).  Only Mississippi did worse. In 2013 a quarter of the state’s children lived below the poverty line. The same report found that more than a quarter of the state’s children (1.9 million) are “food-insecure”, that is, living in families which had to “choose between food and other necessities”.

According to the Texas Medical Association, in 2016 Texas had the highest rate of uninsured citizens in the US, with 32% of its inhabitants having no health insurance.

The same TMA report also said that according to “2015 estimates from the America Community Survey, Texas had a lower percentage of high school (82.4 percent vs. 87.1 percent) and college graduates (28.4 percent vs. 30.6 percent) in the 25-and-older-population compared to the national average”.

 U.S. News & World Report placed Texas in the bottom 10 in its 2017 Best States in education ranking.

The USNWR also placed Texas next to the bottom in its ranking on infrastructure quality (only Mississippi did worse).

Texas is also among the top 10 most gerrymandered American states, says RanttNews, using data provided by the Washington Post.

Texas has highest maternal mortality rate in developed world.  This does not imply that the rest of the US does significantly better in this regard– the US is the only developed country in the world where maternal deaths increased between 1993 and 2013, according to the World Health Organization.

California has 12% of the US population and produces 6.9% of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Texas, by contrast, has 8.5% of the population and produces 12.8% of US greenhouse gas emissions.

The secession of Texas is almost certain to entrench the states of affairs mentioned above, not ameliorate or remove them.

In fact, it would be inadvisable to bet against a secessionist Texas school textbook claiming that the pregnant mother of Jesus rode into Bethlehem on a dinosaur.

Interestingly, at a hotel in Texas, belonging to a nationwide chain, the United States Army flag flies below the Stars and Stripes instead of the customary state flag.  Out of curiosity, we asked why this was so at the reception desk, and the clerk said it had been like this ever since she worked there.  There was no military base nearby, and no military convention was taking place at the hotel.

 

En Route From Virginia to Texas

I am en route from Appalachian Virginia to Texas, that uniquely surreal American state, which is not to imply that Appalachian Virginia is without its own forms of surreality.

There was a time, a couple of decades ago, when we did the 1000-mile/1600 km trip in a day, but the toll of increased age (I’ll be 70 in 5 months) has necessitated a more leisurely progression to the Lone Star state, this involving overnight stops in Knoxville, Nashville, and Memphis.

Driving on Interstates 81, 40, and 30, provided many reminders of why the US, despite having a better road system than the poorer European countries, sees many more people die on its roads than in Europe or other wealthy countries.  According to Newsweek (3-27-2014):

Americans die on the roads at twice the rate of Europeans. Against all rich countries the U.S. doesn’t fare much better. The World Health Organization calculates an average of 8.7 fatalities per 100,000 people in high income countries compared with 11.4 in the U.S. and only 5.5 in the European Union. Subpar road safety in the U.S. shows up in other measures too, such as deaths per car or deaths per mile driven.

Sweden for instance, has a zero-tolerance policy on traffic-related deaths and injuries, and it has been building roads for safety rather than speed or convenience. Last year, 264 Swedes died on the roads, the lowest level ever, around three fatalities per 100,000 people.

Australia had significant success in lowering road deaths… and its death rate is now around five fatalities per 100,000 people.

On a day with constant heavy rain between Knoxville and Nashville, cars were driving insanely close to each other at high speeds in poor visibility, some without their headlights on.  Other impatient drivers weaved and darted between the rain-slowed vehicles without using signals.

From time to time we’d see small wooden crosses on the side of the road with a bunch of flowers at their base, serving as obvious memento mori, but the hurtling kamikazes around me seemed oblivious to these reminders of traffic-related mortality.

Many of the drivers I saw would not be on the road if they had to take a reasonably stringent driving test.

The typical US driving test is ludicrously undemanding– a simple multiple-choice test, followed by a leisurely drive round the block around the testing office.  You pass if you don’t crash or drive into a ditch.

By contrast when I got my UK driving license I had to take a lengthy theory test with written answers required, an eye examination, a vehicle safety test, and a 40-minute driving test with an eagle-eyed examiner who noted my mistakes on a check list each time I was at fault.  Very few examinees pass the test at the first attempt.

When I took my driving test in North Carolina in the 1980s I was astonished when the examiner, with no checklist on his lap, told me I had passed after 5 minutes and asked me to drive him back to the test office.

Apart from the wretchedly sub-standard driving, also to be seen on this trip were towering metal crosses next to churches that more often than not resembled nondescript shops in a strip mall (we were in the bible belt after all), and vast Confederate flags flapping from lofty poles on farm land adjoining the interstate (reminding me I was in the former Confederacy).  Talk about nailing your cloth to the mast of a lost cause!

Memphis is now for me the most interesting American city.   Twenty years ago, I would have said it was San Francisco, but SF has become an over-priced yuppie paradise/dystopia, this choice depending in the main on one’s income level.

New Orleans, sadly, has not recovered from Hurricane Katrina, and will probably never again be the gloriously, and at times riotously, seedy place it once was.  So Memphis it is, where yours truly is concerned.

Memphis and Nashville vie with each other to be Music City USA, but in my view Memphis wins the title hands down.  Nashville is above all the headquarters of country music, most of it pap, say, about a lonesome man and his dog in a truck, after the former had been dumped by his lover.

Memphis is associated with the blues and gospel (B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Lillie May Glover, Lucie Campbell, Booker T and the MGs), early rockabilly (Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash), soul music (Tina Turner, Al Green, and Percy Sledge), and Stax Records (Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, Dionne Warwick, several of the afore-mentioned pioneering musicians, plus a host of lesser luminaries).  This is indeed an incomparable local musical history, in terms of its sheer variety and depth.

As is the case with several southern cities, Memphis, while located in the former Confederacy, is primarily or significantly African-American (64% in this case).  Also in common with many places in the former Confederacy, it has sought to deal recently with the affront constituted by statues and memorials commemorating Confederate stalwarts.

Ostensibly, the statues commemorate Civil War “history” and its key southern protagonists, but since 80-90% of such allegedly commemorative items were erected in the 1900s-1930s when Jim Crow became entrenched, their real purpose was not so much historical commemoration of that war, as a symbolic affirmation and confirmation that segregationist Jim Crow now prevailed remorselessly in the American South.

It is easy to see how the machinations by which this happens operate.

Today’s white supremacists who wear Nazi regalia are not “commemorating” Hitler and his associates (come on!), instead they are using this as a brute assertion of their own aspirational white supremacy in the present conjuncture.

Such machinations always about the present, unless we are talking of the delusional individual who dresses as Jesus or Napoleon because they really believe they are the living embodiment of Jesus or Napoleon.

Just before we arrived, Memphis got rid of its Confederate statues by the simple expedient of selling the statues, which were city property, to a private foundation created specifically for the purpose of removing them.

Selling city property to a private entity is entirely legal as long as proper procedure is followed, and the frothing of local Republican politicians threatening legal action notwithstanding, the restoration of the statues to their original locations is seen to be unlikely.

This surely provides a legal template for cities such as Charlottesville to follow as they seek to remove Confederate excrescences from public locations.

Memphis is also one of the great homes of barbecue, along with Kansas City and Dallas-Fort Worth, and Owensboro, Kentucky (the latter for its grilled lamb and mutton).  However, mindful of the sensitivities of my many vegetarian friends, I won’t provide rationales for this assessment.

Suffice to say that eating barbecue at Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous in Memphis is an utterly memorable experience.

Next week:  Texas itself.

The Parthenon, not in Athens, but Nashville, Tennessee.  Built in the late 19th century by a former Confederate soldier, it was intended to signify Nashville’s aspiration to be the “Athens of the South”.  Perchance, was Walt Disney aware of these earlier attempts at replication when he embarked on his theme-park replicas decades later?