What Have We Done? Executive Power, Drones, and Trump

The news is rife with President Trump’s threatened and actual military misadventures: in Syria, Yemen, and North Korea. But these military actions take on a new gravity considering the vast and secret powers Trump inherited.

Former President Obama escalated the use of drone strikes—including in non-battlefield arenas such as Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen—so it is no surprise that President Trump has continued with abandon. While Obama put some constraints on drones, Trump gave the secretive, unaccountable CIA new authority to conduct drone strikes against “suspected militants.”

Specifically, President Obama’s constraints on drones included that targets pose an “imminent threat,” that their capture is “not feasible,” and that there be “near certainty” civilians will not be injured or killed. However, Obama didn’t always hew closely to his own policy, which evolved throughout his Presidency as legitimate criticism of drone strikes increased. One of the most famous Americans targeted and killed by a drone, al Qaeda propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki, met none of the early purported criteria. Still, the Justice Department under Obama maintained that the President had the unilateral authority to target and kill American citizens like al-Awlaki. That power now rests with President Trump who has undertaken aggressive and messy military actions in the early days of his presidency.

Trump has pushed for a $54 billion increase in defense spending. Americans can expect Trump will use their money for expensive military actions like the botched raid in Yemen that killed innocent women and children and an American soldier and resulted in destruction of a $75 million military helicopter. Or, for decisions that upend years of international relations policy, such as launching 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syria. (Replacing them will probably cost at least $1 million per missile).

This does not bode well for the millions of people living under the daily buzz of U.S. military drones. The power to target and kill using drone strikes went too unchecked in the Obama administration because we “trusted” him. Although small pockets of national security, civil liberties, and peace groups complained about the Trust Doctrine, which seemed to apply to the most controversial conduct in which our country was engaged—from torture to surveillance to drone operations–people in positions of power were generally unwilling or unable to imagine what this power would look like in the hands of someone unpredictable, petty, and vengeful. The Obama administration exalted the drone program’s “surgical precision,” the internal checks and balances built in, and the careful calculations before taking strikes. Because many saw Obama as a reasonable, intelligent President and capable leader who won the Nobel Peace Prize, Americans too calmly and too quietly accepted the secret killing practices being waged halfway around the world from U.S. Air Force bases in our backyards in Nevada and California.

The drone program is plagued by secrecy and unaccountability. That was true even before Trump put strike authority with the CIA and possibly relaxed civilian kill standards. Several whistleblowers have come forward to point out abusive practices and high turnover within the program, misleading government statements on the accuracy of strikes and targeting capabilities, and an overall pressure to launch strikes while falsely presenting the propagandist narrative that drone warfare allows precision targeting with no harmful effects at home in the US. This false narrative persists because politicians want us to believe it—and so do we.

We opened Pandora’s box and unleashed drones upon humankind. But in this case, the damage was entirely foreseeable.

This article originally appeared on ExposeFact.org.

Only Rational Thinking Will Save the World

Laos Plain of Jars - village fence made of American bombs copy 2 (1)

Scenario ONE: Imagine that you are on board a ship, which is slowly sinking. There is no land in sight, and your radio transmitter is not functioning properly. There are several people on board and you care for them, deeply. You don’t want this to be the end of ‘everything’.

What do you do?

A) You fix for yourself a nice portion of fried rice with prawns

B) You turn on the TV set, which is still somehow miraculously working, and watch the news about the future Scottish referendum or on BREXIT

C) You jump into the water immediately, try to identify the damage, and then attempt to do something unthinkable with your simple tools and capabilities: to save the ship

Imagine another scenario:

SCENARIO TWO: By mistake, your wife eats two full tubes of sleeping pills, supposedly confusing them with a new line of candies. As you find her on the floor, she appears to be unconscious and her face looks rather bluish.

What would your course of action be?

A) After you realize that her high heels do not match the color of her pantyhose, you run to the closet in search of a much better pair of shoes to achieve the balance

B) You carry her without delay to the bathroom, pump out her stomach, and try to resuscitate her while calling the ambulance using the speakerphone function

C) You recall how you first met, get nostalgic, and rush to your living room library in order to find a book of love sonnets by Pablo Neruda, which you then recite to her kneeling on the carpet

Now brace yourself for a great surprise. Unless you choose C) for scenario one, and B) for scenario two, you can actually consider yourself absolutely “normal” by most North American and European standards.

However, if you opt for C) or B) respectively, you could easily pass off for an extremist, a radical and ideological left-wing fanatic.

***

The West has brought the world to the brink of total collapse, but its citizens, even its intellectuals, are stubbornly refusing to grasp the urgency. Like ostriches, many are hiding their heads in the sand. Others are behaving like a surgeon who opts for treating a small cut on a finger of his patient who is actually dying from a terrible gunshot wound.

There seems to be an acute lack of rational thinking, and especially of people’s ability to grasp the proportions of global occurrences and events. For years I have been arguing that destroying the ability to compare and to see things from the universal perspective has been one of the most successful endeavors of the Western indoctrination drive (dispersed through education, media/disinformation and ‘culture’). It has effectively influenced and pacified both, the people in the West itself, and those living in its present and former colonies (particularly the local ‘elites’ and their offspring).

There seems to be no capacity to compare and consistently analyze, for instance, those certainly unsavory but mainly defensive actions taken by the revolutionary governments and countries, with the most horrid and appalling crimes committed by the colonialist regimes of the West all over Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, which took place in approximately the same historical era.

It is not only history that is seen in the West through totally crooked and ‘out of focus’ lenses, it is also the present, which has been perceived and ‘analyzed’ in an out of context way and without applying hardly any rational comparisons. Rebellious and independent-minded countries in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Middle East (most of them have been actually forced to defend themselves against the extremely brutal attacks and subversion campaigns administered by the West) have been slammed, even in the so-called ‘progressive’ circles of the West, with much tougher standards than those that are being applied towards both Europe and North America, two parts of the world that have been continuously spreading terror, destruction and unimaginable suffering among the people inhabiting all corners of the globe.

Most crimes committed by the left-wing revolutions were in direct response to invasions, subversions, provocations and other attacks coming from the West. Almost all the most terrible crimes committed by the West were committed abroad, and were directed against enslaved, exploited, thoroughly plundered and defenseless people in almost all parts of the world.

Now, according to many, the endgame is approaching. Rising oceans are swallowing entire countries, as I witnessed in several parts of Oceania. It is a horrid, indescribable sight!

People in numerous countries governed by pro-Western regimes are shedding millions of their inhabitants, while some nations are basically ceasing to exist, like Papua or Kashmir, to give just two obvious examples.

The environment is thoroughly ruined where the ‘lungs’ of the world used to work hard, just a few decades ago, making our planet healthy.

Tens of millions of people are now on the move, their countries thoroughly ruined by Western geopolitical games. Instead of influencing and helping to guide humanity, such great cultures as those of Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria are now forced to disgorge millions of desperate refugees. They are barely surviving, humiliated and hardly relevant.

Extremist religious groups (of all faiths, and definitely not only belonging to the Muslim religion) are being groomed by the Western Machiavellian ideologues and strategists, then dispersed to all corners of the globe: South Asia, the Middle East, China, Latin America, Africa, and even Oceania.

It is a total disgrace what imperialism has managed to reduce our humanity to.

Most of the world is actually trying to function ‘normally’, ‘democratically’, following its natural instincts, which are based on simple humanism. But it is being constantly derailed, attacked and tormented by the brutal monstrous and merciless hydra – the Western expansionism and its ‘culture’ or nihilism, greed, cynicism and slavery.

It is so obvious where we are going as a human race.

We want to fly, we want freedom and optimism and beauty to govern our lives. We want to dream and to create something deep, meaningful, happy and kind. But there are those horrible weights hanging from our feet. There are chains restraining our actions. There is constant fear, which is making us betray all our ideals, as well as each other, again and again; fear that makes us, humans, act like shameless cowards and egoists. As a result we are not flying, we are only crawling, and not even forward, but in bizarre, irrational ellipses and circles.

Still, I do not believe that the endgame is inevitable!

***

For many years I have been sending warnings, I have been writing and showing and presenting thousands of terrible images of destruction, of the irreversible collapse, of barbarity.

I have generally kept nothing to myself. I have recycled my work, my films and books, into new journeys into the darkest abysses of our world. I have received hardly any support from the outside world. But I couldn’t stop: what I have been witnessing, the danger to the planet and total devastation, have forced me to never give up the struggle. If necessary and most of the time, I have done it alone. I spent too much time in Latin America; I could not give up. I learned too much from Cuba and so many other wonderful places; I felt I had no right to surrender.

Whenever the horrors from which our planet is suffering would overwhelm me, I’d ‘collapse’, as I did last year. Then I’d bury myself somewhere for a short period of time, collect myself together, get up and continue with my work and my struggle. I have never ceased to trust people. Some would come full of initial enthusiasm, offering much, then betray me, and leave. Still, I have never lost faith in human beings. This year, instead of slowing down, I ‘adopted’ one more place, which is in agony – Afghanistan.

My only request, my only demand has been, that the world listens, that it sees, that it tries to comprehend, before it is too late. This request of mine has proven to be, I realize now, too ‘demanding’, and too ‘radical’.

Sometimes I ask: have I achieved much? Have I opened many eyes? Have I managed to build many bridges between the different struggling parts of the world? As an internationalist I have to question my own actions, my effectiveness.

I have to admit, honestly: I don’t know the answers to my own questions. But I keep working and struggling.

***

The world looks different if observed and analyzed from a pub in Europe or North America, or if you are actually standing on one of those atolls in the middle of the South Pacific (Oceania) that are under the constant assault of tidal waves, dotted with dead stumps of palm trees pointing accusatively towards the sky. These islets are at the forefront of the battle for the survival of our planet, and they are obviously losing.

Everything also appears to be much more urgent but also ‘real’, when observed from the black and desolate plains of the hopelessly logged out Indonesian islands of Borneo/Kalimantan and Sumatra.

I used to recount in my essays, just for my readers to know, what the villages somewhere like Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), look and feel like, after the murderous assaults by the pro-Rwandese, and therefore pro-Western, militias. It was important for me to explain how things are ‘right in the middle of it’, on the ground. I used to write about mass rapes and mutilations, about the burning flesh, terrible torture… I stopped some time ago. You at least once witness all this or you simply didn’t. If you did then you know what it all looks like, what it feels like and smells like… or you could never imagine it, no matter how many books and reports you read, no matter how many images you consume.

I have been trying to speak about all this to the people in the West, at conferences, universities, or even through my films and books. They do listen, mostly respectfully. They do show politely how outraged and ‘horrified’ they are (it is ‘expected’ of them). Some say: ‘I want to do something’. Most of them do absolutely nothing, but even if they decide to take action, it is usually for themselves, just to feel good, to feel better, to convince their own conscience that they have actually ‘done at least something for the humanity’.

I used to blame them. I don’t, anymore. This is how the world is arranged. However, I have sharply reduced my work-visits to both North America and Europe. I don’t feel that I click with the people in those places. We don’t think the same way, we don’t feel the same, and even our logic and rationale are diametrically different.

My recent three-week stay in Europe clearly revealed to me, how little there is in common between the West’s state of mind and the reality in which the great majority of the world has been living.

***

In the past, before the Western empires and the sole “Empire” took most of determination and enthusiasm away from the people, the most talented of human beings used to make no distinction between their personal lives, their creativity and their relentless work and duty towards humanity.

In several places including Cuba, it is how many people still live.

In the West, everyone and everything is now fragmented and life itself became objectively meaningless: there is distinct time to work (satisfying one’s personal career, guaranteeing survival, advancing ‘prestige’ and ego), there is time to play, and for family life… and there is occasionally time to think about humanity or, very rarely, about the survival of our planet.

Needless to say, this selfish approach has failed in helping to advance the world. It has also squarely failed when it comes to stopping at least some of the monstrosities committed by Western imperialism.

When I go to the opera house or some great classical music concert, it is in order to get some deep inspiration, to get fired up about my work, to recycle the beauty that I’m expressing in my novels and films, theatre plays and even political reports. I never go to get simply ‘entertained’. It is never for my own needs only.

It is also essential for me to work closely with the people that I love, including my own mother who is already 82 years old.

It is because I know there is absolutely no time to waste. And also because everything is and should be intertwined in life: love, work, duty, and the struggle for the survival and progress of our world.

***

I may be labeled as a fanatic, but I am decisively choosing those C) and B) options from the ‘dilemmas’ I depicted above.

I am choosing rationality, now that the US ‘armada’ packed with the nuclear weapons is sailing towards both China and North Korea, now that the Tomahawk missiles have rained down on Syria, now that the West will be sending thousands more mercenaries to one of the most devastated countries on Earth – Afghanistan.

Survival and then the advancement of the world should be our greatest goal. I believe it and I stand by it. In time of absolute crises, which we are experiencing right now, it is irresponsible, almost grotesque, to simply ‘continue to live our daily lives’.

Imperialism has to be stopped, once and for all, by all means. At the moment when the survival of humanity is at stake, the end justifies all means. Or as the motto of Chile goes: “By Reason Or By Force”.

Of course, if those ‘who know’ do not act, if they are cowardly and opportunistically do nothing, from a universal perspective, nothing much will happen: one small planet in one of the so many galaxies will simply cease to exist. Most likely there are many inhabited planets in the universe, many civilizations.

However, I happen to love this world and this particular Planet. I know it well, from the Southernmost tip all the way to the north. I know its deserts and valleys, mountains and oceans, its marvelous and touching creatures, its great cities as well as god-forsaken villages. I know its people. They have many faults; and much that could be condemned in them, and much that should be improved. But I still believe that there is more that could be admired in them than denounced.

Now it is time to think, rationally and quickly, and then to act. No small patches will do, no ‘feel good’ actions. Only a total reset, overhaul. Call it the Revolution if you will, or simply C) and B). No matter how you define it, it would have to come rapidly, very rapidly, or there soon will be nothing to love, to defend, and to work for, anymore.

Lebanon’s Outlawing of Palestinian Civil Rights

Ein el Helweh Camp, Saida, Lebanon

It’s half a century overdue for Lebanon to grant Palestinian refugees, now the fourth post-Nakba generation, the most elementary civil rights to work and home ownership. Both fundamental rights are mandated by international law and enjoyed by every refugee on our planet. Sauf Lebanon.

As a direct and foreseeable consequence, half of Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps and several dozen refugee “gatherings” are careening toward violence while most Lebanese politicians, some of whom are clients of other countries, turn a blind eye or dither.

One example is East Saida’s Ein al Hilweh camp where nearly one hundred refugees, including approximately 7000 from Yarmouk and other Palestinian refugee camps in Syria live in squalor on just 2 Sq. Km of space. Arguably the most sardine-canned population on earth today.

April 12, 2017 marked the sixth day of clashes as Palestinian joint security force mobilized to enter the notorious Al-Tiri neighborhood of Ein al-Hilweh as schools and universities, health clinics and closed. Al-Tiri is a stronghold of extremist Bilal Badr and his supporters, who have been engaged in clashes with the Fatah Movement since last week. The fighting has so far left nine dead and more than 60 wounded over six days, including numerous civilians. On 4/13/2017 a local Palestinian security force numbering 100 fighters from several Palestinian factions, was able to deploy throughout most of the camp as Islamist militants went, for now at least, into hiding.

Without the right to work or the right to own a home in Lebanon, there are few hopeful signs from young Palestinians here about their future. But there are some. And one is similar to the Arab revolts of 2010–11, being a growing rebellion among camp Palestinians in Lebanon against paternalism and their growing demand for elementary civil rights. For Palestinians this means the right to work and the right to purchase a home. The younger generation of Palestinians here is increasingly turning away from the traditional Arab reverence for “strong man paternalism” whether in politics, culture, or religion. They seek a reorientation and erosion of autocracy by sectarianized politicians in Lebanon who many argue have been the main barrier to the having the elementary right to work. This rejection of the old order is unfolding against the backdrop of changes in the Palestinian population’s demographics and psyche.

Whatever is the veracity of the oft repeated claim that David Ben-Gurion tried to encourage militia under his control half a century ago during the 1948 Nakba when his forces ethnically cleansed 57% of Palestine’s indigenous inhabitants and his followers: “Don’t worry!. The old will die and the young will forget.” He was partly right. But he could not have been more wrong about today’s young Palestinians forgetting their history, culture and country as the 4th generation of Palestinians here increasing demand Full Return to Palestine.

Ben-Gurion’s intent was clear and his thinking is reflected in a 1937 letter to his son, wherein he wrote: “We must expel Arabs and take their place. … if we are compelled to use force – not in order to dispossess the Arabs of the Negev or Transjordan, but in order to guarantee our right to settle there – our force will enable us to do so.”

The old have indeed died among the three quarter million Palestinians who experienced the trauma of ethnic cleansing from their homeland by Zionist gangs. Only a few thousand of the original refugees are still living, half a century after the 1948 Nakba. Today’s 64 Palestinian refugee camps and scores of ‘gatherings’ bear witnesses to these massive crimes against humanity. Fifty eight camps are registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), being 19 camps in the West Bank, eight in the Gaza Strip, ten in Jordan, nine in Syria and 12 in Lebanon.

Three of the original 16 camps in Lebanon were destroyed and one transferred its population other camps. In 1974, the Israeli air force demolished the entire Nabatiyeh camp, displacing about three thousand of its inhabitants. In the summer of 1976, the al-Kataeb Party (Christian) Forces and their allies besieged the Tel al-Za‘tar, eventually destroying it after 52 days of resistance, with three thousand of its people killed, mostly civilians, and around twenty thousand displaced anew. In September 1982, the Sabra and Shatila massacre took place at the hands of the same forces, under Israeli military cover, killing about three thousand Palestinians and Lebanese; this bloodbath became one of the most prominent testimonies to the suffering of the Palestinian people in the countries of refuge.

The number of Palestinians living in camps here has doubled while the authorities have outlawed camp area expansion. So camp residents have had to add rooms skyward such that today more than one third of the houses never are touched by sunlight and in more than half of the alleys are so narrow that cars cannot pass and even the moving furniture is blocked forcing it to be lifted to roofs by rope. Camp alleys can barely accommodate one or two people walking side by side with hundreds of dangerously exposed electric cables above their heads surrounded by dilapidated infrastructure. In the past 36 months more than two dozen camp residents have been electrocuted in Burj al Barajneh camp near Beirut’s airport. The power supplying camps is cut more than 12 hours a day while three quarters of the refugees live below the poverty line. This as drug use and respiratory and other diseases rise along with unemployment, school dropout rates and Palestinian youth sense that that they have no future.

Most experts who have studied this subject argue that these problems would be resolved if Palestinians were allowed the right to work. Indeed studies by the UN International Labor Organization (ILO) and several economic studies by Universities and others have shown that if Palestinian refugees were granted the right to work Lebanon’s ailing economy would dramatically grow and Lebanon would achieve much needed infrastructure rehabilitation, including electricity, water, garbage collection and disposal, road repairs, and medical services.

A related cause of growing unrest in Palestinian camps, as they careen toward violent explosion, is the poisonous 18 sect sectarianism based Lebanese society-fueled the past decade by the growing Sunni-Shia conflict. Some who claim to be part of a “Resistance” have exhibited no willingness to act to improve camps conditions, partly because Palestinians are nearly all Sunni or Christian. A true Resistance would support the camps in their struggle and resistance, while using their power in Parliament to provide assist with infrastructure, employment opportunities and health and educational services.

These conditions attract outsiders with non-camp agendas and today they are posing great dangers. For example, more than 5 thousand fugitives wanted by the Lebanese judiciary reportedly reside inside Ein al-Hilweh camp on various charges, some expired. The Lebanese continues to pressure camp residents with erected walls, sand barriers, and checkpoints and prohibit home improvements while restricting the work and activities of UNRWA.

Another factor is the failure to achieve a unified Palestinian political, military, and security administration to enforce order and bar outsiders who enter and align with various Palestinian factions while encouraging in-fighting, especially between Fatah and Islamic groups which Fatah has failed to eradicate. This is exacerbated by the lack of Lebanese government interest, including most political factions in the living conditions of Palestinian refugees and in improving, their economic and social conditions. At the same time they ignore camp security and any camp development planning. There is also a growing radicalism in Ein al-Hilweh and some of the other 12 camps in Lebanon influenced by conflicts and divisions in the region.

Ein al-Hilweh has often experienced the entry of fugitives to the camp, such as Badi‘ Hamadah, who killed three Lebanese soldiers in 2002 and was later executed, Fadil Shaker, who entered the camp after the clashes in Saida’s suburb of ‘Abra in 2013, and Shadi al-Mawlawi, who took up residence in the camp in 2014. For years the Palestinian factions have failed to apprehend them, and today some enjoy the support of certain groups in the camp. Recently there has been an increase in the number of Islamist fugitives in the camps from various countries in the region who are targets of the global “war on Terrorism.”

To its credit, the Palestinian Authority Security Forces (PASF) in Ramallah has tried to apprehend and prosecute or kill the Islamist fugitives in Lebanon’s camps and elsewhere. But their efforts have been largely stymied by the fact that while Fatah seeks to regain its diminishing ‘zones of influence” in some of the camps they have faced opposition from many factions who oppose the political, social, and ideological orientations and who reject many of the policies and programs of the Ramallah based PLO.

Against this dismal backdrop, and the deprivation of the most elementary civil rights to work and to own a home, the situation in Lebanon is increasingly likely to explode, first in Ein al-Hilweh, next in Shatila and then perhaps Bedawi camp near Tripoli and Rasheidiyeh camp in Tyre, followed by others.

Lebanon’s largely dysfunctional government is unlikely to meet its international legal obligation to grant Palestinian refugees the most elementary civil right to work and home ownership without the immediately application of serious international pressure and sanctions including the suspension of foreign aid. To be lifted only when these mandated civil rights are written into law.

Ecuador’s  Accomplishments Under the 10 Years of  Rafael Correa’s Citizen’s Revolution

Ecuador’s transformation during the presidency of Rafael Correa (2007-2017) and the Citizens Revolution stands as great step forward for the worldwide struggle against the 1%.  President Correa, who leaves office  May 24, came to power in a country controlled by a super-rich elite, dependent on oil and commodities exports. Ecuador still suffered from the devastating effects of corrupt banker dealings, which caused the currency and peoples’ savings to lose two-thirds of their value, leading to the US dollar becoming the new national currency. Governments preceding Correa instituted neoliberal austerity and privatization programs, causing inequality, poverty and unemployment to soar. Ecuador became one of the poorest and least developed nations in the region. Poverty rates reached 56% of the population, and from 1998-2003 close to 2 million Ecuadorans out of a population of 12-13 million, over 1 in 10, had left the country for economic reasons.

William Blum, in Killing Hope, wrote that the CIA in Ecuador “infiltrated, often at the highest levels, almost all political organizations of significance, from the far left to the far right.”  “In virtually every department of the Ecuadorian government could be found men occupying positions high and low who collaborated with the CIA for money. At one point, the agency could count among this number the men who were second and third in power in the country.”[1] Ecuador was also saddled with the US’s largest air base in the region at Manta, instrumental in Plan Colombia and in enforcing international banking and corporate rule over Ecuador.

Ecuador’s economic collapse and social explosion was similar to Greece’s a few years later. But in 2006, after nine presidents in ten years, the Ecuadoran people elected Rafael Correa, who was no capitulating Greek Syriza Prime Minister Tsipras or Berrnie Sanders. Correa’s government carried out programs that peoples in progressive social movements have advocated throughout the West, if not the world. Ecuador provides an example for what Greece could have done when its crisis hit, if it had a firm anti-neoliberal, anti-imperialist leadership.

Ecuador’s Citizens Revolution, not a socialist revolution as in Cuba, arose from a popular repudiation of neoliberalism and neocolonialism, similar to Chavista Venezuela and Evo’s Bolivia. It shows what can be accomplished with social programs and infrastructure investments when national wealth is redirected to benefit the majority instead of the 1%, while still confined in a capitalist system.

What did Rafael Correa do?

Correa was fortunate to be part of a South American resurgence, exemplified by the 1998 election victory of Hugo Chavez, which stimulated anti-neoliberal anti-imperialist movements also coming to power in Bolivia and to a much lesser extent in Brazil and Argentina. As with Chavez’ Venezuela and Evo’s Bolivia, Ecuador approved a new constitution by national referendum that includes a new social contract enshrining the rights of Mother Earth, the rights of Original Peoples, and protections for  national sovereignty over natural resources.

Correa rejected IMF and World Bank policies, which had made Ecuador numerous loans to entrap the country in debt, a way for the imperial countries to dominate the rest of the world. Ecuador’s debt was $14 billion in 1980, the country paid back $7 billion, and it still owed $14 billion. The IMF demanded cuts in wages and state budgets, that 80% of the oil revenues go to debt payment, or it would use international courts to seize their ships and their contents.

Correa renounced $3.9 billion of the debt (one-third of the total) found to be illegitimate, showing, he said, government has the power to cancel debt with clear lessons for Greece, Spain and Ireland. The savings were invested in people’s needs.

His government increased taxes on the rich, and cut down on tax evasion which bled government revenues. “The government is now collecting the taxes owed by companies which Correa half-jokingly said was a radical innovation in the capitalist world.” Government funds quadrupled. He also instituted a tax on capital flight, generating $1 billion in revenue between 2012-2015.[2]

He required the Central Bank to repatriate billions in assets held abroad, and renegotiated oil contracts with multinationals on much more favorable terms. These new funds enabled the government to triple investments in infrastructure and public services, such as housing, free education and health care. The economy was diversifying, away from dependence on oil, so that now non-oil exports account for 64% of export income.

These measures enabled Ecuador to experience 4.2% annual growth from 2007-2015, even during the 2008-2009 international financial crisis brought on by Wall Street corruption. Not only has its economic growth been among the best in the region, but it has favored the poorest in the country, making Ecuador a leader in reducing inequality. Unemployment is now down to 5.2%.

Since 2014 the national income shrank as oil and commodity prices hit near record lows.  In 2016 Ecuador was hit by a major earthquake, its worst natural disaster in 70 years, killing 668 people, and causing $3.3 billion in damages, equal to 3% of the GDP, harming the economy. Ecuador has also been hurt by the rise in the dollar, making its exports more expensive. These combined to create a recession in Ecuador, after years of impressive growth.  However, by December 2016, the rate of economic growth had risen to 3.3%, with an inflation rate of only 1%

Contrary to stories that Ecuador is now crushed by debts to China (which stepped in after Western banks cut lending), the country actually reports one of the lowest debt levels in Latin America. At the end of 2016  Ecuador reported a foreign debt of 25.7% relative to the GDP and its total debt is 26.9%.  This is lower than under preceding presidents.

Education: The Key to Developing and Diversifying the Economy

Correa has said “quality, free public education is the basis of a real democracy,” and that the path away from a Third World raw material export dependent economy lies in raising the educational and skill level of the population. Consequently, over $20 billion has been invested in education over his ten year presidency. Not only is education free, including university, but to reduce barriers for low-income students the government provides free school supplies, books, uniforms, and meals. Now more than 300,000 children who used have to work go to school.

Ecuador is completing a program of building 14 schools focused on teaching and preserving the country’s various ancestral ethnic languages. So far Quechua and Shuar language schools are operating. Royalties from nearby mining and oil projects now are allocated to help fund many of the advanced and modern schools being built in the indigenous countryside.

In contrast to the U.S., where student loan debt is now $1.3 trillion, in Ecuador free education is a human right, guaranteed through university. In 2015 the country had the second highest level of public investment in higher education in the world. Over $1 billion has been invested in university construction, including in the Amazon region to specifically serve the Original Peoples of the country. These government efforts, combined with student stipends, have led to the number of poor students in university doubling, while the number of Original Peoples gaining university degrees has almost tripled. Compared to 2006, now a quarter million more Ecuadorans are in university.

Social Programs to Fight Poverty

Ecuador’s minimum wage has more than doubled, from $170 a month in 2007 to $375 today, one of the highest in Latin America. The minimum wage, unlike the case with US minimum wage earners, covers the cost of the basic basket of goods, whereas in 2006 it covered only 68%.[3]

In the US, the minimum wage has fallen by 1/3 since 1968, and here, people normally do not have free health care. Moreover, Ecuador has enforced a living wage policy, revolutionary if instituted in the US:  companies cannot pay dividends until all employees earn a living wage.

The labor of homemakers, contributing to 15% of the GDP, is now legally recognized. Consequently, 1.5 million homemakers, and so their families, now receive social security benefits, including disability compensation and pension.

The Bono de Desarollo Humano [Human Development Bonus] of $50 a month aids 1.3 million poor families with children. Now 328,000 three and four year-olds go to pre-school, compared to 27,470 in 2007.

These Citizens Revolution programs to serve the people, combined with major investments in infrastructure and economic development, have reduced the poverty rate from 37.6% in 2007 to 22% today.  Rural poverty has been reduced from 61% to 35%. Extreme poverty has been cut in half, from 13% of the population in 2006 to 5.7 % now. Poverty among Afro-descendants, 7% of the population, dropped by over 20%. In a country of 16.5 million today, in ten years two million have risen out of poverty.

In contrast, 46.7 million US people live below the poverty line, 15% of Americans, up from 12.3% in 2006 (including the undocumented poor, it is over 50 million.)  The Black population in poverty totaled 26.2% in 2014, up from 24.7% in 2007.

Ecuador slashed income inequality: before, the richest 10% of the population had 42 times as much as the poorest 10%, now  it is 22 times as much, one of the greatest reductions in inequality in Latin America.

Health Care

In contrast to the U.S. corporate for profit health system, Correa has invested over $16 billion in providing quality free health care, eight times that between 2000-2006. In the 40 years prior to the Citizens Revolution, not one new public hospital was built in any of the main cities. Since then, 13 new hospitals have been built, 18 more under construction around the country.

This health system has added 34,000 medical professionals. Thanks to free health care, still a dream in the United States, combined with increased access and services, the people’s visits to the doctor have almost tripled in ten years.

Environmental Protection

The United Nations recognizes only eight countries in the world as meeting the two minimum criteria for sustainable development. In the Americas, there are two, Cuba and Ecuador.  They enjoy “high human development”(“very high” human development in the case of Cuba) while keeping their Ecological Footprint lower than 1.7 global hectares per person, according to Global Footprint Network and United Nations data.

Ecuador made major advances in converting to renewable energy. Correa noted, “Thanks to the investment made in energy generation made in the last 10 years, with immense cooperation from China, Ecuador now counts on 85 percent [now  95%] renewable energy, one of the highest percentages on the planet.

By 2015 Ecuador had cut the rate of deforestation in half, and plans to reduce it to zero this year. Part of this includes reforestation, and the country broke the Guinness world record for the number of trees planted in a day. The country also pays communities, mostly in the Amazon, to protect forests by permitting only fishing and hunting within them.

For the third straight year, Ecuador has won the award, “World’s Leading Green Destination 2016” by the World Travel Awards, regarded as the Oscars of tourism.

Defending Original Peoples’ and LGBT Rights          

To preserve Original Peoples’ identity, besides providing a system of new schools in native languages, the government has fostered public TV and radio stations which promote programs in Quechua and other languages. These have boosted the use of different endangered native languages and strengthened Original Peoples’ identity and pride. The 2013 Media Law gave the indigenous communities even greater access to community media. By December 2014, 14 radio frequencies, combined with funding and training, have been assigned to each of the country’s indigenous groups.

It is now illegal for employers to discriminate due to sexual orientation, the government cracks down on “gay treatment centers” where LGBT people are forced to undergo “treatments” meant to change their sexual orientation. Same-sex unions are legal and a gender identity law allows citizens to state on their ID their gender identity instead of the sex given at birth.

Affirmative action laws now require companies to reserve 4% of jobs for people with disabilities, and other quotas for minority ethnic groups, such as Original Peoples and Afro-descendants, in order to combat discrimination and narrow inequality gaps.

This year a UN Department of Public Information linked NGO recognized Ecuador for its innovative public policy for people with disabilities. Correa noted, “Ecuador would have never been a world model in the past. We now set an example to the planet in many areas as in this case with programs for people with disabilities.”

The UN special rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples also highlighted the efforts of Ecuador and Bolivia to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. She declared that Ecuador and Bolivia are unique in their efforts to enact the charter into law.

Democratizing the Media

“When we came into government in 2007, there were five TV channels in Ecuador, four of them owned by the four biggest banks in the country,” noted Culture Minister Guillaume Long. The media law, passed by national referendum, prohibits banks from owning the media. It redistributes the airwaves into three parts: a third for private, for state-owned, and for community grassroots outlets. A company cannot own more than one AM station, one FM station and one television station. This is an important advance, but the oligarchy still dominates the media. Foreign minister Ricardo Patino explained on Democracy Now  “What we’re doing is promoting the broadening of freedom and access to media…. There were no public TV, no public media, no public radio, no public newspaper. Now there are. And this allows there to be a diversity of media. And now they attack us for reducing freedom of speech.”

Anti-Imperialist Foreign Policy

In 2009 Ecuador joined ALBA (Alianza Bolivariana de los Pueblos de América), the anti-imperialist alliance of Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and some Caribbean countries. The alliance has stood firm against US interference in Latin America and the Middle East, and cultivated relations with Russia, China and Iran in part to counter US power. Ecuador has also been a leader in regional cooperation and integration.

Correa shut the US military base at Manta in 2009, saying “We can negotiate with the U.S. about a base in Manta, if they let us put a military base in Miami.” These bases are used to assure US control of other nations natural resources, and kicking a base out of the country is often met with US retaliation.  A US involved coup was attempted against Correa in 2010.

Despite intense pressure from the US and the West, Correa granted political asylum to Julian Assange, Wikileaks founder, who Hillary Clinton actually inquired about how to kill. Asked about Chávez calling George Bush “the Devil” at the U.N., Correa replied that the comparison was unfair to the Devil.

Correa not only repudiated part of Ecuador external debt to Western Banks, but expelled the World Bank’s manager, the US ambassador, USAID,  and some US backed NGOs.

Ecuador vastly expanded ties with China, which now helps finance projects, including renewable energy, technology and educational institutions. These contribute to national economic growth and ensure that the profits stay in the country. Chinese investments, Correa said, are “an example for Latin America and for the rest of the world.”

Three Revolutionary Initiatives

Yasuni Initiative

Ecuador made the revolutionary proposal to leave the Amazon Yasuni oil in the ground to preserve the Yasuni’s unique biodiversity as a world treasure and carbon sink. In exchange, the country wanted compensation from the global polluting countries, a type of recognition of their ecological debt. The project was not just for Ecuador, but for the whole world – a signal about the need to control global warming, to live in harmony with nature and our fellow beings. Correa stated that no conservation will work that is not tied to people’s improved standard of living.

The Correa government offered  not to drill oil in the Yasuni in exchange for 50% of the value of the reserves, $3.6 billion. However, the six-year initiative fell on deaf ears in the West. As a result, the Correa government opened a mere 3/4 square mile area of the Yasuni to drilling, within the 3800 square mile park. (In comparison, Canada’s tar sands mining/strip-mining will destroy 1160 square miles of the Canadian Boreal Forest, 1500 times as much. Canada now leads the world in deforestation.)[4]

Establish an International Court for Environmental Justice

At the Paris COP21 2015 Climate Summit, Correa called for an International Court of Environmental Justice to punish corporate and developed countries’ environmental crimes and for reparations for their ecological debt. Rich countries have a debt to the Global South because of their plundering of resources, their carbon dioxide emissions, their continuous production of technological waste and their role in climate change. He noted, “Someone in a rich country emits 38 times more carbon dioxide than someone from a poor country,” there is a planetary emergency that demands worldwide action, an ecological debt that should be paid.

Corporations have international courts to protect their overseas investments, but developing countries do not have courts to protect their environment from these corporations. Countries can be sued for a financial debt, but there should be suits for ecological debts.

The case against Chevron would be a prime example. In 2011, Chevron was ordered to pay $9.5 billion for environmental and public health damage for having contaminated part of the Amazon home to more than 30,000 people. In contrast to BP in the Gulf of Mexico, Chevron deliberately dumped 19 billion gallons of oil waste, a quantity 140 times that by BP.  So far 1400 are proven to have died from the environmental contamination. With $266 billion in assets in 2015, Chevron refuses to pay. An International Court of Environmental Justice could end this blatant criminality.

Campaign Against International Tax Havens

Ecuador has stated that wealthy citizens and companies hide $30 billion in overseas tax havens, equivalent to one third of Ecuador’s GDP, siphoning off national wealth. Ecuador just approved a groundbreaking referendum, stating politicians and public servants be barred from holding office if they hold assets in tax havens. Those affected will have a year to repatriate their assets.

The issue of illegal capital flight and tax havens is a global problem, with $7.6 trillion – $21-$30 trillion, adding corporate funds –  lost to countries through capital flight, contributing to poverty and inequality. The developing world loses over $200 billion a year in lost tax revenue because of tax havens.

Ecuador, as the new chair of the Group of 77 (134 Global South countries) is leading a campaign both for the elimination of tax havens and the creation of a new UN judicial body to regulate tax havens and recoup lost tax revenue.

Long said “Corporations and wealthy people who avoid their obligations to pay taxes participate in denying the human rights of others, with every school that is not built, every medicine that is not bought for lack of funds, because the state doesn’t own the necessary financial resources.” “We can’t allow the practices of tax evasion and the tools used for it to continue to build an unjust economic system designed to enrich a small minority at the expense of the great majorities. It’s time to end these practices.”

US and Right Wing Campaign Against Core

As in Venezuela and also Bolivia, the US rulers, the domestic oligarchy and its rightwing supporters have sought to combat the progressive gains. Between 2012-2015, just one US agency, NED, supplied  anti-Citizens Revolution political parties, trade unions, indigenous groups, and media with $30 million to foment protests. In 2013 USAID and NED spent $24  million in Ecuador, with their combined allocations for Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia totaled over $60 million.

However, the US campaign against Correa started even before he first decided to run for president as documented in a Green Left Weekly series and Wikileaks.

The first attempted US backed coup against Correa took place in September 2010, when he was temporarily held hostage by US-infiltrated police forces. The second came in summer 2015, when the oligarchy media and the right-wing deliberately misinformed the Ecuadorean public about two bills aimed at increasing taxes on the wealthiest 2% to counter inequality in the country. These were later joined by some pro-opposition indigenous groups (CONAIE, Pachakutik, Ecuarunari – the latter two receiving USAID funding) and a few unions. Many of the protests turned violent, with attacks on police that left one hundred police injured. The lack of popular support led these protests to fizzle.

Corporate and much alternative media present the story that the indigenous are repressed by the government for opposing “extractivism.”[5] This is based on the selective focus and distorted reporting on a few indigenous groups. In reality most indigenous groups repudiate the conduct of the few anti-Correa ones.[6]

Since Correa was elected president, over $800 million from abroad have gone to foreign NGOs in Ecuador. A number of Western NGOs (e.g. Amazon Watch, Pachamama Foundation) and liberal-left media (e.g., Guardian, NACLA Reports, Jacobin) have engaged in a propaganda campaign against the Citizens Revolution, claiming it represses the Original Peoples, sold the Amazon and its oil to China, undercut  media freedom, shut down (Western financed) NGOs. Much of this is fake news, and cannot explain why the Original People vote for Correa was slightly higher than among the general population (In 2013 Correa won with 58% of the vote and over 60% of indigenous vote).

Conclusion

Ecuador, still a relatively poor Third World country, has made achievements we can still only dream of here: free health care, free university education, effective anti-poverty programs, democratizing the media, environmental protection, respect for the rights of oppressed groups such as LBGTs and Original Peoples, repudiation of debt gouging by the banks, increasing taxes on the rich, clean elections. It has taken the initiative, along with President Evo Morales of Bolivia, in demanding action by the West in combating climate change and in shutting down tax havens. The challenges facing Ecuador remain the continued power of the old neoliberal ruling elite in the country, the need to further diversify the economy, to eliminate poverty, and the need to build an organized, politically active mass structure to carry on the Citizens Revolution.

The accomplishments of the Citizens Revolution have made President Correa one of the most popular presidents in Latin America. Moreover, in a poll of 18 Latin American countries, Ecuador ranked the highest in citizens’ evaluation of their country’s government, in reduction of corruption, and distribution of wealth. Yet, “The greatest achievement of this revolution is having recovered pride and hope. We recovered our country,” said Correa speaking on the 10th anniversary of the revolution.

Notes. 

[1] p. 153, 154

[2] http://cepr.net/images/stories/reports/ecuador-2017-02.pdf, p. 4

[4]  The story propagated in the West is that the indigenous oppose the oil drilling. Yet, as previous CONAIE president, Humberto Cholango, noted “Many nationalities of the Amazonia say “look, we are the owners of the territory, and yes we want it to be exploited”  understanding that leaving valuable natural resources untouched while people go without schools, roads,  medical care, employment, hurts their own interests.

[5] The real issue hidden by behind the term “extractivism” is who controls the natural resources of oppressed nations:  the imperial powers or these nations themselves. A central issue of “extractivism” is buried: who uses natural resources for whose interests, who benefits. Ecuador have taken control of its natural resources from Western corporations, and uses the wealth produced to improve the lives of the people.

Ecuador Minister Long questions whether “it would be right to simply stop extracting oil before we have completed or even engineered the transition to a non-primary economy. Aside from the collapse of the Ecuadorian state, it would mean a sharp return to the plantation economy (and owner!), a dramatic reduction of resources to tackle poverty (one of the principal causes of environmental degradation in the first place), and no capital to invest in the diversification of our economy.

“This cannot be a serious proposal, especially if we consider that the greatest threat to our biodiversity, the utmost cause of deforestation and environmental ruin in Ecuador is poverty and the aggressive advance of the agricultural frontier. Poverty and the lack of infrastructure means many precarious towns and cities still offload their waste into ever-more-polluted Amazonian rivers.”

[6] “Everyone needs to know that CONAIE is not the only indigenous voice in the country,” declared Franklin Columba, leader of the National Confederation of Campesino, Indigenous and Black Organizations (FENOCIN).  He said that FENOCIN has rejected CONAIE’s call for a national strike because “we as a national organization are not going to lend ourselves to playing the right’s game,” referring to the wealthy right-wing opposition who have used the momentum of current protests to denounce laws to redistribute the wealth in the country.

Jose Agualsaca, president of the Indigenous Federation of Ecuador (FEI) stated, “We believe that these marches and this uprising wants to destabilize the country, and what they really want is to overthrow President Rafael Correa from power. But it would not end there, they want to take him out, then convoke a new constitutional assembly, and make a new constitution which would serve the interests of the richest sectors of society. This is the position of the FEI.”

Former CONAIE President Humberto Cholango has warned“The Right wants to hijack our country…. from Pachakutik’s side, some people are trying to call on the neoliberal right, led by Guillermo Lasso ex-banker and the gentlemen Nebot and the traitors of the indigenous movement, as Mr. Gutierrez.”

CONAIE has had a number of high-profile defections from its ranks, including historic leaders  such as Delia Caguana. Caguana said “How is possible that the leadership of CONAIE can make alliances with people from the right, given the fact that they are merely exploiting us?” “As an indigenous movement, no matter what, we are much better off (with the government) rather than joining forces with the banking oligarchy.”

One of CONAIE’s founders, Miguel Lluco, still an important name within the movement, provides an explanation:“The indigenous uprising is the highest level of protest that exists, if they going to use that [in August 2015], concurring with the right, it is because they have sold out the dignity of the nationalities and indigenous people of Ecuador to the right, and a consequence that is very grave and history will have to judge them….We believed [Herrerea, the CONAIE president] would correctly lead this historic, important organization … but instead has aligned himself with the interests of Ecuador’s right-wing.”

Olindo Nastacuaz, president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Coast, said his organization would no participate in ant-Correa protests, saying, “We are not going to act as a stepping stone for the right.”

Maria Clara Sharupi, a poet and grassroots leader from the Shuar nation, agrees there is little support on the ground for this uprising and categorically ruled out the participation of her community in the uprising. “Wherever we find ourselves, we are going to say ‘no’ to this uprising and this mobilization.” She added, the uprising has been “imposed” on communities by a group of people aligned with bankers and the old elite, frustrated with a socialist government.

“I want to tell the bankers, the right, the opposition, those who seek to destabilize this country, the Amazon and the indigenous peoples, in this case the Shuar men and women, we are not your property,” said Sharupi.

The December 2016 violent incidents in Morona Santiago, which left one police shot dead and seven wounded, was presented in the West as the Shuar people resisting a Chinese mining company. In fact the Shuar leaders have condemned these acts and have called for prosecution.

Do Not Add Water: the Politics of the Toilet

I dump my bucket at night, like a criminal. Lupita, my next-door neighbor, has started smoking again, sitting on the bench near our shared fence, just a few feet away from my “special” compost bins. She’s 81 and doesn’t see well, but of course I can’t assume that her sense of smell has also deteriorated. The two bell-shaped bins look like big Darth Vader helmets and when I dump the bucket it does stink, for a moment, like something from the dark side. So I wait till her lights go off.

There’s a good moon tonight so I don’t need a flashlight. I open the commode and lift the bucket out. It’s heavy, though lighter than the five gallons of paint it once held.  Outside, I flip the lid off the active bin, heave the bucket to the opening, and tip it so the slop of sawdust, shit and pee slides in.

t reeks. But I immediately throw fresh sawdust over the mound in the bin, and the odor is all but canceled. I rinse out the bucket and throw that liquid in the bin, too. Then I sprinkle the surface of the mound with a final layer of sawdust, sealing odor in and flies out. The lid is insurance. I snap it back on.

That’s it. A simple ten-minute task. A few seconds of natural, authentic stench. When I think of the skanky times I’ve had with flush toilets, it doesn’t seem so disagreeable. When I imagine my reward, the sweet humus at the end of the process, I’m excited. When I realize the fear and loathing of this small act stands in the way of solving some major global tragedies—water shortages, soil depletion, pollution, expensive infrastructure, and diseases that kill a couple thousand children every day—I feel heartsick. But also hopeful. Romance never lasts. Even our affair with the flush toilet could end.

I made the commode that holds my bucket by shortening an old dresser, making its top into a tightly fitting cover. In this I sawed an oval hole, and over this opening attached a toilet seat. Some people chisel the bumps off the seat bottom to close up that space, but I didn’t. Fifteen years later, I still haven’t had a fly problem.

When I lift the lid for visitors, some look and some don’t. What you see is rather pleasant: a layer of pink sawdust, maybe a few wisps of toilet tissue sticking up like snowy mountaintops through a fluff of rosy clouds.

It’s the sawdust that makes the elimination experience satisfying. I love filling the big flower pot with the sweet-smelling pith of pine, sometimes powdery, sometimes curly. The scent of “pine” cleaners doesn’t come close to fresh sawdust. It’s the Cadillac of turd coverings—though any fine organic material will work. A light dusting  of sawdust kills the odor of my deposits as quickly as a toilet flush. And without the splashback. We used to have a microbiology professor here at the U of A—Charles “Dr. Germ” Gerba—who would tell you the bathroom doorknob you worry about is practically sterile compared to the mist of droplets flung out into the room whenever a toilet is flushed.

It takes me a week or two to fill the bucket, depending on how much I’m home and how much I’ve eaten. Of course I postpone the bucket dump as long as possible. But there isn’t much room, literally, for procrastination. Discipline is imposed by necessity. That’s good, since I don’t have it otherwise.

Flush toilets are a hallmark of civilization. They’re easy to use. Push a lever and your excretions are whisked away. The water gives an impression of cleanliness. The satisfying swoosh is like the flourish at the end of a signature, lending finality to the disappearance of the unmentionable.

I can’t blame anybody for loving flush toilets. I was seduced by one myself once while renovating my bathroom. Disconnecting my old toilet with the unsightly ocher deposits and the frumpy square tank, I got the urge for a newer model. The store had a long row of toilets but I spotted mine immediately. The tank had soft corners and tapered gracefully toward the top; the base was lean, boldly showing the curve of its drainpipe. It was lily-white. Virginal. I bought it without comparison shopping.

But the honeymoon didn’t last. My new toilet collected uric acid buildup more quickly than the last. And because of its shallower shapeliness, a good dump left skid marks on the bowl. I was forever using the toilet brush, then returning it to its holder where it stood perpetually in its own foul drippings.

Soon the tank handle malfunctioned—I had to stand and wait, holding it down, till it flushed. Next the float mechanism failed and I had to replace that. I soon took on a housemate with a dog who would drink from the toilet, then kiss me. Nice dog, but—yuck. Finally, we had a major clog. Plunging sent sewage into the bathtub. I unbolted the toilet to plunge the pipe from floor level , but more debris only geysered into the tub. It was late, I was tired, I went to bed. When I woke up to pee, half-conscious, I went into the bathroom as usual, turned on the light, and saw sewer roaches everywhere—the big ones with the dark, greasy backs—waving their antennae at me as if to ask, “What are you doing here?” But it wasn’t over yet. I spent the next day waiting for the plumber, losing a day’s wages, then writing a check for an amount nearly equal to another day’s pay.

Mechanical problems I can’t fix myself drive me crazy. I hate being dependent on repair professionals. I find the simplicity of buckets and bins liberating. The humble bucket doesn’t aspire to be fine porcelain. This appeals to my inner housekeeper. Best of all, I’d cut my umbilical cord to the city. The system doesn’t need a supply of water coming in or sewer pipes going out. It works in remote, exciting places. It’s my personal declaration of independence.

But it’s more than personal. The pipes that feed and drain flush toilets are long and convoluted, connecting us to the world, natural resources, and each other. Disconnecting has consequences.

Good ones.

Toilets swallow more water than anything else in the home—30 to 40 percent of the total household draw. This is water pure enough to drink. It’s been monitored for contaminants and spiked with chlorine. Here in Tucson it comes from an underground aquifer, parts of which are fossil deposits: No refill. Sixty years ago our aquifer was healthy enough to float rivers on its back. Then the pumping started. The Santa Cruz River died before I was born. I’ve seen photographs, though, showing the green ribbons of billowing trees that used to line its banks—cottonwoods and willows. You could see deer and coyotes winding through the bosques and hear the multiplied chatter of birds. The cut of the river was narrower then because plant roots hung onto the dirt and slowed the current. Now the water-loving trees are gone and the banks have collapsed into the dusty channel, widening it and calling attention to its emptiness most of the year.

As the rivers disappeared, Arizona politicians went to great lengths to ensure Tucson’s future water supply—336 miles, to be precise, the length of the Central Arizona Project canal to Tucson. Arizona tapped into the Colorado River at Lake Havasu, spending 20 years and four billion dollars to bring the water here through a system of aqueducts, pipelines, a tunnel, and some energy-hungry pumping plants. From Havasu to Tucson, the water gets pumped uphill a total of three thousand feet. About five percent is lost to evaporation and seepage along the way. A growing percentage of Tucson’s water now comes from the wondrous but costly CAP.

The cost must include paradises lost. The Colorado River delta became an expanse of salt flats, where jaguars once prowled along rich lagoons. The Yuman river people lost their lifeblood: waters that enriched their traditional floodplain farms are held back these days for agribusiness. Fish that have populated the river for eons float toward extinction. The Cucapa of Mexico, who drank the river and ate its fish, struggle to find food and buy water in bottles. Recently, pulse flows have been released in an effort to restore the delta, but cottonwood and willow seedlings have to be planted by hand, and the re-greening of the river bed will take years at best.

The Sonoran Desert is dry to begin with, but variations on these themes of water scarcity are emerging throughout the world. Of course it’s not only home faucets, showers, hoses and toilets that suck water. It’s swimming pools, golf courses and water parks—luxury siphons—along with mines and cotton fields. But what toilets use, that third or more of household water, is no drop in the bucket.

I’d use a composting toilet for that reason alone—to save water. But there are other rewards. Consider the other end of the flushing system: output. Few people do! I had no idea where my excrement went until I came across a map of my valley inscribed with delicate, branched veins like a hand. The veins represent many miles of sewer pipeline, where organic matter from toilets and kitchens mix with more dangerous substances dumped by homes and industries. In this way, huge volumes of purified water and natural material become contaminated. Then the whole mess has to be decontaminated and dewatered for disposal. This is the job of the treatment plant (shown on my map as a nodule on the “wrist.”) Treatment is complex. It may or may not include screening, settling, flotation, flocculation, filtration, centrifugation, anaerobic digestion, evaporation and other processes I won’t mention because I can’t pronounce their names. Where do the final products of the sewage treatment plants end up? Tucson’s sludge is given to farmers as fertilizer. The effluent is used, to a small extent, to irrigate golf courses and fields, but most of it (more than 80 percent) gets released into the desolate bed of the Santa Cruz and percolates into the ground, carrying whatever pollutants remain in it. About 95 percent of the dumped effluent will eventually reach and blend with the water in the aquifer.

Theoretically, treatment renders the sludge and effluent harmless. In reality they may contain medications, heavy metals, pesticides, asbestos, petroleum products, even radioactive materials. With scientists developing hundreds of new chemicals each year, how can treatment and monitoring procedures possibly guarantee safety?

Oh, well. We’ve always got public relations. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency actually formulated guidelines for when to use “aggressive” versus “passive” PR on its taxpayers. Disposal is no longer a problem because sewage products now have “beneficial use.” To clean up the public image of sludge, the EPA enlisted the help of the sewage industry’s primary PR organization, the Water Environment Federation (they dumped their nastier-sounding name, the Federation of Sewage and Industrial Wastes Associations). The word sludge, of course, had to go. A call sent out by the WEF for alternative names brought in more than 250 suggestions. My favorites are sca-doo, nutricake, and the end product. But this was no laughing matter. The Name Change Task Force chose biosolids. And what followed wasn’t funny at all: When the EPA started using the new term in 1992 it also eased up on the rules regarding the application of sludge to farmlands. The same sludge that was once designated hazardous waste was reclassified as fertilizer. Laws written for sludge could be circumvented. “Sludge victims,” mostly in rural areas, have come forward with claims of damage to health, soils and livestock. But profits give the sludge purveyors the upper hand, so it’s hard for victims to win their cases.

No technology on earth—or river, sea, or farmer’s field—can sanitize the output of a public sewer system.. There’s nowhere to put it. Creative labeling is all we’ve got.

* * *

Natural, unadulterated shit is a different matter, though we humans (at least as adults) have an aversion to it. I suspect the evolutionary reason for this is that it harbors pathogens: bacteria, viruses, worms, protozoa and amoebae. These can cause sickness, pain, diarrhea or even death in people with weak immune systems. Fortunately, most of the microorganisms don’t survive very long outside their host. Containment, a little time, some air and the right temperatures will kill them. Composting can provide exactly these conditions. Studies show it’s a good pathogen-slayer. One researcher claims it even kills the polio virus.

The climate here provides killer temperatures every summer. Thermophilic bacteria, preferring temperatures between 113 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit, are probably at work in my heat-holding black bins. But composting is an essential part of the cycle of life, and nature can’t afford to limit the process to this 47-degree range. So mesophilic microbes are active from 68 to 112 degrees. Below this, all the way down to biological zero at -41 degrees, psychrophilic organisms—including the bacterium that gives us the antibiotic streptomycin—thrive. Composting takes longer at colder temperatures, but most inhabited places on earth have at least one season warm enough to support it.

Composting microbes prefer their home somewhat damp, like a wrung-out sponge. Too much water, however, will drown them. Anaerobic bacteria—the smelly ones—will move in. But adding lots of water to excreta, as with flushing, can create much bigger problems. It’s the opposite of containment. It increases the volume of pathogen habitat. It multiplies the danger of disease. This happens in places where there are no sewers and children play in water downstream from open latrines. It also happens where there are sewers, in the wealthiest of cities, when pipes break or storms cause sewers to overflow.

Composting kills pathogens. But it does more. It transforms feces, urine, toilet paper, and sawdust into something useful: food for starving soil. With a composting toilet I no longer have to drive to the store to get my soil amendments. And I don’t have to pay for them.

* * *

One night I dump my last bucket into the active bin. It can hold no more. It’s time to check out the other bin, which has been stewing for about ten months.

The next morning I open the little door at the bottom of the bin. What spills out looks like loose, dark soil. There’s no odor till I go in close. And then what I smell is the exact scent of the damp black dirt I used to find under leaves in the woods where I played as a kid. The transformation is miraculous. I mean, Jesus started with water when he made wine—not the rank slush my poor microorganisms had to work with.

I fill up my first wheelbarrow—it looks like there are seven or eight loads still in the bin—and dump my new soil onto a patch of the pale, dry dirt my yard is made of. I rake it flat. Suddenly, it’s no longer desert ground. It exudes fertility. I feel like a legitimate gardener. (Maybe I’ll grant an interview to that garden show on TV…)

In late September I plant snow peas, spinach, chard, onions, garlic, dill, beets, radishes, arugula, and cilantro. When I’m done I stand for a while with my chin resting on my planting stick, watching the layer of compost as though sprouts were due up any minute. I’m thinking about sewers and effluent-dumping and contaminated sludge. I’m thinking about the toilets that use drinking water and about dead rivers, disappearing birds and thirsty people who really can’t afford “mountain spring water” in bottles. I feel small and alone. My personal practice is pathetically insignificant. A few thousand people will die today because the only water they have is polluted. If I live to be ninety, the water I save will barely supply an eighteen-hole golf course for a single day.

I know five-gallon buckets won’t become popular as toilets anytime soon. But commercially made dry toilets are an option now. They look like flush toilets. No bucket dumping, just a drawer of finished garden compost, or houseplant potting soil for those without yards. You pay for the convenience—between one and two grand, plus electricity to run the fan and temperature control. I prefer the simpler technology. But the methods don’t matter. Mostly I just hope that common sense and compassion will someday triumph over fecophobia.

In the meantime, I like being part of an ancient cycle set spinning by whatever force moves the Universe. To remember it, to participate in it, restores the soul. At least I think that’s why I feel so happy, in spite of everything, as I pick my dinner from the coffee-colored earth.

Are Sex Toys the Next Battleground in the Culture Wars?

On March 21st, the mayor and City Council of Sandy Springs, GA, lifted a ban on the sale of “devices designed or marketed for the stimulation of human genital organs.”

Sharon Kraun, the city’s communications director, states, “With the repeal, our code now matches up with state law regarding adult devices by not prohibiting the sale of such devices.”

The original ban targeted what were identified as “Obscenity and Related Offenses” and enumerated the applicable “obscene material[s]” as:

(a) A person commits the offense of distributing obscene material when the following occurs:

(1) He sells, rents or leases any obscene material of any description, knowing the obscene nature thereof, or offers to do so, or possesses such material with the intent to do so, provided that the word “knowing,” as used in this section, shall be deemed to be either actual or constructive knowledge of the obscene contents of the subject matter;

(2) A person has constructive knowledge of the obscene contents if he has knowledge of facts which would put a reasonable and prudent person on notice as to the suspect

The ordinance was adopted in 2005 when Sandy Springs, a fashionable suburb north of Atlanta, was incorporated.  It basically banned the sale of sexual devices unless the customer had a bona fide medical, scientific, educational, legislative, judicial or law enforcement purpose.  Ordinary residents were barred from purchasing sex toys.  In 2014, two local residence, Melissa Davenport and Marshall Henry, challenged the ordinance.

Davenport suffers from Multiple Sclerosis (“MS”).  She and her husband, Mark, have been married for 24 years and, in 2003, the Davenports had largely ceased having sexual relations due to worsening of her condition.  Her complaint charged: “While no medical practitioner or psychiatrist has prescribed or advised Davenport to use sexual devices barred by Sandy Spring Ordinance, she and her husband have found that such devices significantly enhance their sexual intimacy. She credits the devices with saving her marriage.”

Henry’s compliant states that he “is a bisexual man and an artist” who has sought to buy sexual toys in Sandy Springs.  He was unable to purchase such devices for “private, intimate sexual activity” and to use in his art work.  Compounding this issue, he was prohibited from publicly displaying and selling his artwork containing the banned sexual devices.

Perhaps the weirdest aspect of this case involves the twists and turns faced in the courts.  In August 2016, Atlanta’s 11th Circuit Appeals Court upheld the ordinance.  As the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported, it “had to follow a precedent it set in 2004 when it upheld a similar sex-toy ban in Alabama.”  The case takes a strange turn: “But the judges said they now believe the Alabama case was wrongly decided, and they encouraged the Sandy Springs plaintiffs to ask the entire 11th Circuit court to reconsider the issue and set a new precedent.”  In March 2017, “the circuit court threw out the previous ruling on and agreed to re-hear the case.”  Shortly thereafter, the city of Sandy Springs revised the ordinance.

***

Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, replacing Antonio Scalia, will have many anticipated and unanticipated consequences.  His pro-corporate, anti-abortion and anti-gay-marriage stands was considered during his Senate confirmation hearings.  However, little attention was given to his likely stand on private sexual practice, particularly involving sex toys.

Since the 1960s, the Supreme Court significantly expanded the sphere of personal privacy concerning sexual practice.  A handful of key decisions outline this shift in the legal framework:  Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) granted married couples the right to purchase and possess contraception materials; Loving v. Virginia (1967) gave interracial couples the right to marry; Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972) extended the right to acquire and use contraceptives to unmarried people; and Roe v. Wade (1973) guaranteed a woman the right to terminate her pregnancy.

More recently, Lawrence v. Texas (2003) overturned Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) and extending constitutional privacy protections to adults who engage in private, consensual sodomy; U.S. v. Windsor (2013) ruled the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was unconstitutional; Obergefell v Hodges (2015) legalized gay marriage; and Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt (2016) overturned a Texas law restricting the delivery of abortion services.  How these, among other rulings, will stand with the addition of a strict conservative to the Court remains to be seen.

The status of sex paraphernalia is an open question.  It involves the private use and commercial sale of sex toys — or what some call “sex aids” – and has long been a subset of state and local regulation of “obscene” materials.  Traditionally, anti-obscenity statutes have involved the regulation of the sale, distribution, advertisement and private possession of sexual material.  Such regulation was justified by a government’s ostensible duty to protect the health, safety and welfare – including morality, values – of the citizens.

Two key Court decision have shaped such regulations.  In Roth v. U.S. (1957), it found that “sex and obscenity are not synonymous ….”   It found that obscene works were not entitled to constitutional protection.  The decision established the principles of (i) community standards and (ii) considering the work as a whole. It went further, noting that, “Sex, a great and mysterious motive force in human life, has indisputably been a subject of absorbing interest to mankind through the ages; it is one of the vital problems of human interest and public concern.”

In Miller v. California (1973), the meaning of obscenity was further refined.

One traditional evaluation criteria — whether a work was “utterly without redeeming social importance” — was revised.  It was now determined by three factors: (i) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work — taken as a whole – appealed to the prurient interest; (ii) whether the work depicts or describes sexual practice in a patently offensive manner and (iii) whether the work has serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

States and local jurisdictions have long claimed the power to regulate and protect a community’s moral order and, thus, restrict if not eliminate non-procreative sexual activities.  They asserted this right by classifying sex toys as a form of obscenity, thus constitutional protected.

The Virginia Code suggests how this is played out. Title 18.2-374 makes it unlawful for any person to “publish, sell, rent, lend, transport in intrastate commerce, distribute, or exhibit any obscene item items “useful primarily for the stimulation of the human sexual organs.”  A first offense carries a sentence of up to 12 months in jail and/or a fine of not more than $2,500; a subsequent conviction carries a sentence of between one and five years in prison, or up to 12 months in jail and/or a fine of $2,500.

 

States and localities claim the authority to regulate “obscene” businesses because they have “secondary effects” of the community.  Such venues include theatres showing adult movies, adult bookstores, strip clubs featuring nude dancing and/or selling alcohol, and sex toy shops.  Governments claim that such businesses increase crime, decrease property values and have a negative impact on a neighborhood.  Strick zoning ordinances of “sexually oriented business” (SOB) have been used to either block such business or set limits (e.g., 500 or 1,000 feet) to where such a business can be located vis-a-vis a residential dwelling, church, park or school.

***

Do adult Americans have a “right” to sex?  Once Americans had a right to own slaves; today they have a right to own guns.  They also have a right to vote, to drink alcoholic beverages and have consensual sex with just about any age-appropriate person they want to, no matter what gender, race, nationality or sexual proclivity.  The courts seem never to have considered whether Americans have a “right” to sexual pleasure.

The U.S. courts seem split on how to interpret Lawrence in term of individual privacy and the acquisition and use of sex aids.  Two Appellate Courts offer fundamentally different interpretations of the decision.

The 5th Circuit Court found in Reliable Consultants, Inc. v. Earle (2008), a Texas statute prohibiting the sale of sex toys violated the 14th Amendment.  In 2007, Ted Cruz, then the Texas solicitor general, supported the of state’s ban on the sale and distribution of sex toys. “There is no substantive-due-process right to stimulate one’s genitals for non-medical purposes unrelated to procreation or outside of an interpersonal relationship,” he argued.

The 11th Circuit Court found in favor Alabama’s Anti-Obscenity Enforcement Act (1998) that sought to end nude dancing in parts of Madison County; it was not originally intended to be a ban on the sale of sex toys.  Nevertheless, it prohibited “the pursuit of orgasms by artificial means for their own sake is detrimental to the health and morality of the State.” The original suit was brought over the Love Stuff store of Hoover, AL, claiming that banned the sale or “the gratuitous distribution of” sex toys, not the private “use,” was unconstitutional.

Under Lawrence, “Liberty protects the person from unwarranted government intrusions into a dwelling or other private places. . . [and] presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression, and certain intimate conduct.”  However, Justice Scalia dissented in Lawrence, arguing that expanded personal privacy would lead to the end of laws against “bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity.”

Now, with Gorsuch occupying Scalia’s old seat, one can only anticipate the worst outcome if these cases finally come before the Supreme Court.

This is What You Get

Woodrow Wilson, that high-minded academic and idealist, racked up some significant accomplishments. Besides spearheading America’s entry into the entirely unnecessary World War I, he helped to segregate Washington and—under his administration’s aegis—launched the Palmer raids, some of the most concerted attacks on civil liberties in American history. That high-minded academic and idealist was followed into office by his polar opposite personality type, Warren Harding, an avuncular Babbitt who whiled away the days playing cards while his plutocrat friends kept themselves busy by abusing the public trust.

A century later, Barack Obama, that high-minded academic and idealist, engaged in continuous warfare during his eight years in office and—under his administration’s aegis—launched a far-reaching, sophisticated surveillance network of true Orwellian proportions.  This high-minded academic and idealist was followed into office by his polar opposite personality type, although the deranged Donald Trump is certainly not the avuncular, Babbitt type. Trump plays golf and tweets while his plutocrat friends keep themselves busy by abusing the public trust. One big difference is that Warren Harding was swept into office in 1920 by a historical landslide; Donald Trump lost his election by a resounding three million votes. But considering that in 1920 millions of African-American voters were permanently disenfranchised, Harding’s “victory” was equally as invalid as Trump’s.

So this particular schema, in essence, is consistent: utter hypocrites like Wilson and Obama—posing as lofty activists–are followed by mediocre, ill-educated hacks.

It is hard, living here in the greatest nation on earth, not to think of oneself as Prometheus, hopelessly trapped and forced to endure an eternal cycle of having one’s liver painfully ripped out of your body in perpetuity. Jimmy Carter is a man of exceptional insight, but the Jimmy Carter of 1976 was a very conservative Democrat who was going to push this not-very-radical party even more rightward. And so, with an ersatz Republican in the White House, Ronald Reagan–the real thing–followed. Bill Clinton promised to tack further right, and with that ersatz Republican in the White House, the real thing followed, in the personage of Newt Gingrich and Republican control of the House of Representatives. And, in due course, more real things followed: George W. Bush, Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan. And on and on and on.

The ascendancy of Donald Trump is systemic and not a total aberration. Ultimately, he is the symptom, not the disease. What is unique in his particular case is the higher-than-usual level of mental instability. Nobody has ever made a case for the logical thought processes of Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon, or for Ronald Reagan’s power of concentration. It takes a special sort of temperament, as in the case of Barack Obama, to launch attacks on the innocent and then go off to dinner. But Trump, all in all, really is a special case of mental incompetence and dislocation: unable to form coherent sentences, erratic, in a state of perpetual frenzy, railing against overweight beauty queens. In this regard, he presents a special danger.

President Donald J. Trump: This is what you get. This is the logical denouement when American military power is spread across the far reaches of the planet, which goes basically unquestioned: It just is. Trump is the end result of a system in which the domestic poor have utterly vanished from the political landscape—there is not even any lip service about ending poverty; no pretense that anyone in power cares at all.

And this is what you get when the deficit—far, far removed from everyone’s daily existence—is deemed to be the crucial issue. Not adequate health care. Not a living wage, not mass incarceration–the deficit is the priority.  And to combat it—whatever it is–“we” must all tighten our belts.

It is understood that mass transit is simply not feasible. It is understood that any health-care policy simply must involve the massively profitable insurance companies, with their billions of dollars in assets. Although technology is hurling along at warp speed, solar energy is simply beyond our ken. Russia is the enemy, unless the enemy is ISIS or al-Qaeda or Iran or global Islam—or all of those, or some.

And so this is what you get: an unhinged, authoritarian monstrosity in the White House. The fact that Trump is not entirely a fluke and part of our systemic madness can make one feel wretched: In other words, the problem is far larger than Donald J. Trump. But in some respects it should engender a measure of hope.

Hope is—to say the least–certainly in short supply at the moment. But these systemic inequities weren’t inevitable; they followed no natural evolution. A horrible system can be made un-horrible. It has happened before. It can happen again. Couldn’t it?

Palestine Retold: Palestine’s Tragic Anniversaries are Not Only About Remembrance

For Palestinians, 2017 is a year of significant anniversaries.

While historians mark May 15th as the anniversary of the date on which Palestinians were expelled from their historic homeland in 1948, the fact is the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians began in earnest in 1947.

In strict historical terms 1947 and ‘48 were the years in which Palestine was conquered and depopulated.

The tragedy, which remains a bleeding wound until this day, started 70 years ago.

June of this year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Israeli military occupation of the 22 percent of historic Palestine that was not seized by Zionist militias in 1947-48. Among other notable dates, November 02 is starkly remembered as the 100-year anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.

While the roots of the Zionist campaign to claim Palestine as a Jewish state go back much earlier, the document signed by British Foreign Secretary, Arthur James Balfour, was the first official commitment made by a major world power to facilitate “a national home for the Jewish people.”

The British made their infamous ‘promise’ even before the Ottoman Empire, which controlled Palestine and most of the modern Middle East officially capitulated in World War I.

A few years after the declaration was made, Britain was entrusted by the League of Nations in 1922 to be the caretaker of post-Ottoman Palestine, mandated to lead the country, like other Arab regions, towards independence.

Instead, the Brits worked to achieve the opposite. Between 1922 and 1947-48, with direct British assistance, Zionists grew more powerful, forming a parallel government and a sophisticated and well-equipped militia. Britain remained decidedly pro-Israel after all these years.

When the British mandate over Palestine officially ended in November 1947, that parallel regime simply moved in to fill the vacant space, in nearly perfect tandem, claiming territories, ethnically cleansing most of Palestine’s Arab population and, as of May 14, 1948, declaring as a reality the State of Israel.

The following day, May 15, has since been recognized by Palestinians as the day of the Nakba, or the catastrophe of war and exile. Nearly 500 Palestinian villages and many cities and towns were depopulated, seized or destroyed. An estimated 800,000 Palestinians were made refugees.

These anniversaries are important not because they form convenient numbers, but because the political context surrounding them is unprecedented.

The United States government has abdicated its long-term commitment to the so-called ‘peace process’, leaving Israel alone to decide the course of its own action, while the rest of the international community stand hapless.

The ‘peace process’ was certainly not designed to create favorable outcomes for Palestinians, but was part of a larger design to formulate a ‘solution’ in which Palestinians were to be granted semi-autonomous, disconnected, mini regions to be called a state.

Now that pipedream is over – Israel is expanding its illegal settlements at will, constructing new ones and has little interest in adhering to even the US-envisaged ‘negotiated agreement’ paradigm.

In the meanwhile, the Palestinian leadership remains visionless.

Although politically defunct and practically impossible, the Palestinian Authority (PA) still insists on the two-state solution formula, wasting precious time that should be geared towards arranging a future that is predicated upon co-existence in a shared land and a joint future.

It is important that the Palestinians are freed from the stifling discourse which rendered the Nakba of 1947-48 extraneous and molded an alternative narrative in which only the Israeli occupation of 1967 seems to matter.

Indeed, the official Palestinian discourse has been quite confusing and consistent for some time.

Historically, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was forced to concede under American, and sometimes Arab pressures, and alter its demands throughout the years.

The greatest of these concessions was made in 1993 when the PLO agreed to the Oslo Accords, which redefined Palestinian rights around specific UN resolutions 242 and 338. It relegated or discarded everything else.

Not only was this a great folly, but also a strategic mistake for which Palestinians continue to bear the consequences to this day.

Existing now are several Palestinian depictions of the history of their struggle against Israel, while the truth is that there can only be one way of understanding the so-called conflict – one that starts with Zionist settlements in Palestine and British colonialism 100 years ago.

The strange thing is that PA President Mahmoud Abbas is himself sending mixed messages. While on one hand he seemed disinterested in contextualizing the struggle of his people back to the Nakba 70 years ago, his authority announced that it will be suing Britain for the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

Britain, on the other hand, had brazenly announced that it will be ‘celebrating’ the 100-year anniversary of the declaration, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being the guest of honor.

The country that facilitated the ongoing tragedy in Palestine still refuses to acknowledge the enduring harm it committed one hundred years later.

Israel is experiencing no moral awakening either.

Aside from the small school of Israel’s ‘new historians’, Israel continues to hold into its own version of history, much of which was constructed in the early 1950s under the guidance of then Israeli Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion.

Compelled by pressures, fears and lack of vision, the Palestinian leadership failed to grasp the need to hold onto and explain these anniversaries combined as a roadmap towards a solid, unified and sensible discourse.

Politics aside, the Balfour Declaration of 1917 cannot be appreciated without understanding its dreadful consequences which played out in 1947-48; and the Israeli occupation of the remaining 22 percent of Palestine is entirely out of context if read separately from the ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948.

Moreover, the Palestinian refugee crisis, which continues to manifest itself in Syria and Iraq until this day, cannot be fathomed or explained without examining the origins of the crisis, which date back to the Nakba.

True, 2017 is burdened with significant and tragic anniversaries, but these dates should not be used as opportunities to protest, registering only a fleeting movement of solidarity. They should offer the chance to re-articulate a unified Palestinian discourse that crosses ideological and political lines.

Without honest understanding of history, one cannot redeem its many sins.

 

After the Chemical Attacks, It’s Time to Lift the Muslim Ban

When I saw footage of the alleged sarin gas attack in Syria, I felt ill.

The whole episode, which killed up to 100 civilians in Syria’s Idlib province, was ghastly. But worst of all was the kids — glassy-eyed, discolored, and limp as their little bodies were carried away.

Donald Trump apparently felt the same way.

“That attack on children had a big impact on me,” he told reporters, condemning the Syrian regime’s “heinous” targeting of “innocent people” and “even beautiful little babies.” Then he fired 59 cruise missiles at the Syrian air base supposedly used to launch the chemical attack.

Even some of Trump’s critics applauded that move. But it was a huge flip-flop.

The Obama administration faced a similar crisis in 2013, following a much deadlier chemical attack on a Damascus suburb. Back then, Trump was unambiguously against intervening. “DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA,” the billionaire tweeted in all caps. “VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN!”

World Bank Photo Collection/ Flickr

An informed change of perspective is a good thing — but only if it’s informed. Though it might’ve felt good to see the Syrian regime pay a price for its crimes, there’s no way a strike like this can ease civilian suffering.

For one thing, it was a pinprick. Within days, Syrian planes were taking off from the same base and bombing the very same town. But escalating the war risks provoking a devastating conflict with Russia or Iran, Syrian allies who could step up their support in response.

Even if that war succeeded in ousting the regime, the country would only plunge deeper into chaos — just as Iraq and Libya did after we ran their similarly horrible governments out. Islamist extremists would be well positioned to fill the void in Syria, too: Al Qaeda-linked forces currently hold Idlib, while ISIS controls much of the east.

Either way, it’s innocent people who pay the price. Just ask the families of the 1,700 civilians reportedly killed by U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria last month alone. Many of those were children, too.

Airstrikes, in short, are a recipe for humanitarian catastrophe. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing the U.S. can do to help suffering Syrians. It’s just going to require another big flip-flop.

For starters, Trump should give up on his “Muslim ban.” Both versions of that order, now held up in the courts, would have indefinitely banned all migration from Syria — and suspended refugee resettlement from everywhere.

Trump’s said that’s necessary because Syrian refugees are “pouring in” and we don’t know “who they are.” But the U.S. admitted just 18,000 Syrians from 2011 to 2016, all after years of vetting. (Syria’s tiny neighbor Lebanon, with a population less than metro DC, has taken over 1 million.)

During the campaign, it never bothered Trump that children might be affected by his anti-refugee policies. “I can look at their face and say you can’t come here,” he said about Syrian kids in February 2016. “They may be ISIS.”

That’s chilling. I hope Trump now understands there’s a direct line from that policy to the “beautiful little babies” murdered in Idlib.

Another welcome about-face would be to ramp up relief for those Syrians who remain. Trump’s “skinny budget” proposal nearly zeroes out humanitarian aid, but food and medicine are much cheaper than Tomahawk missiles, which run $1.4 million apiece. And they’ll save a lot more suffering Syrian kids.

Getting more deeply involved in Syria’s war is a grievous mistake. The silver lining is that it proves Trump can change his mind. Now that he cares about the fate of Syrian children, I hope he’ll open up our country — not bomb theirs.

Distributed by OtherWords.

Smog Alert: What Trump’s EPA Cut Proposals Could Do to Air Quality

The Environmental Protection Agency has been at the center of controversy since Trump nominated Scott Pruitt, who sued the EPA 13 times, to run the agency, as Trump’s Administration has already set a stark contrast on the environment from his predecessor, Barack Obama.

On April 12, a federal appeals court delayed a hearing on a lawsuit over a smog rule enacted by the Obama Administration to give the EPA and the Trump Administration time to decide what action they want to take on the 2015 rule. The rule reduced the allowable standard of ozone concentration in the air to 70 parts per billion from a 2008 standard of 75 parts per billion, and was criticized by environmental organizations for being too lax.

Throughout Pruitt’s career, he has fought against additional EPA smog protection and air quality rules, including the Cross State Air Pollution rule in 2015, fighting EPA efforts to reduce ozone emissions, challenging oil and gas drilling standards for air quality, opposing carbon pollution standards and other clean air standards for power plants. In many of these cases, Pruitt’s legal battles against the EPA were with the industries who were being regulated as co-parties in his cases.

Before the EPA was founded in 1970 and subsequent clean air and water standards were pushed for by individuals and environmental organizations, air and water pollution was even more rampant and damaging than it is today. In the 1960’s, New York City suffered from some of the worst air pollution in the country, and in 1966 somewhere between 160 to 400 people were killed in the city by a haze of sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide. The Trump Administration and Scott Pruitt’s agenda for the EPA is embarking on a dangerous precipice to start repealing and scaling back the environmental regulations that have mitigated some of the damage caused by widespread air pollution and carbon emissions.

A 2013 study published in PNAS, led by economist at MIT, Michael Greenstone, found a direct correlation between air pollution and significant decreases in life expectancy, citing that air pollution in China shortened the lives of 500 million people in China by 2.5 billion years. The American Lung Association released a report in 2016 noting more than 50 percent of Americans live in areas with unhealthy levels of air pollution.

Rather than accept and develop strategies, policies, and regulations based on science, Trump’s EPA transition team have made claims that the EPA and scientists have lied about the dangers of air pollution. This unsubstantiated belief not just in climate change and the science behind it, but beliefs against the dangers associated with air pollutants to human health are placing in danger the environment and health of the Americans the EPA was created to protect. The 2017 State of Global air report cited air pollution as the 5th leading cause of death globally.

“Decades of research conducted in numerous cities throughout the world show that when air pollution levels increase, so do the numbers of people dying. More important, studies of long-term exposure to air pollution demonstrate that people living in more polluted locations die prematurely, compared with those living in areas with lower levels of pollution,” the report noted. “Research also provides details on how air pollution affects human health, with evidence clearly showing impacts on the rates of cardiovascular disease and stroke, in addition to the more easily appreciated effects on respiratory disease.”

The Clean Air Act was initially enacted in 1970 and amended several times since as a tool to regulate and reduce air pollution in the United States. A 2016 report on air trends conducted by the EPA detailed the success of the most recent amendment to the Clean Air Act in 1990; “nationally, concentrations of the criteria air pollutants have dropped significantly since 1990:

+ Carbon Monoxide (CO) 8-Hour,  77%

+ Lead (Pb) 3-Month Average,  99%

+ Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) Annual,  54%

+ Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) 1-Hour,  47%

+ Ozone (O3) 8-Hour,  22%

+ Particulate Matter 10 microns (PM10) 24-Hour,  39%

+ Particulate Matter 2.5 microns (PM2.5) Annual,  37%

+ Particulate Matter 2.5 microns (PM2.5) 24-Hour,  37%

+ Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) 1-Hour,  81%”

So far, Trump’s Administration has signaled they plan, with EPA Chief Scott Pruitt’s “back to basics” plan, to revoke as much of the environmental movement and Clean Air Act’s progress in pushing the EPA to take meaningful measures to protect the environment and everything that survives on it, including us.