Dawn of the Dead: Why American Politics Can’t be Reformed

Soon after he entered office Donald Trump abandoned the populist rhetoric that got him elected and began pushing programs that benefit connected plutocrats. Soon after he entered office Barack Obama abandoned the populist rhetoric that got him elected and began pushing programs that benefit connected plutocrats. Soon after he entered office Bill Clinton abandoned the populist rhetoric that got him elected and began pushing programs that benefit connected plutocrats. Astute readers may detect a pattern here.

Populism in each of these cases was the purposeful mischaracterization of class struggle as resentment of the hands that nature and the faux opposition party have dealt working people. The unanimity of the ‘solutions’— more deregulation, bailouts, tax cuts and special privileges for the already wealthy, points to interests at work outside of those publically spoken of. Were accidents and human folly sufficient explanations, this unitary direction would be wholly implausible. The half or more of eligible voters who regularly decline to do so suggests electoral populism without a populace.

Graph: while some of the underlying characteristics were made less immediately onerous following the debacle of 2008, debt servitude is alive and well in the U.S. in 2017. Low interest rates, now in the process of being raised, temporarily made high household debt levels manageable. With debt inversely related to household wealth, the poor and near poor, now encompassing a plurality of the citizenry, are well aware of the economic fragility of their circumstances. The term ‘populism’ applied to this class is to render class struggle emotive, to be (implausibly) resolved through changing minds rather than material circumstances. Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve.

The term ‘populism’ carries with it barely concealed contempt for those who defy the periodic fraud that is American electoral politics to act outside of sanctioned responses. The voluminous ‘the hicks got what they deserve’ articles that flowed from Manhattan based web addresses following Donald Trump’s election proceeded from a premise the election called into question— that the lived experiences of the technocrat and newly displaced working classes were similar enough to warrant similar political responses. That maybe, just maybe, these lived experiences weren’t that similar points to the self-referential myopia of the technocrat class.

Militant (except where it matters) disapprobation of Donald Trump illuminates reciprocal contempt between the technocratic and working classes. The difference, inasmuch as members of both classes work, lies in perceived / received alliance with the engineers and beneficiaries of systemic, systematic economic taking. Coerced adherence to neoliberal social mechanics, e.g. the weeks and months of each year spent navigating bureaucratic mazes to visit a doctor and / or to have a fraudulent charge removed from one’s bill, are the world in which technocrats thrive and the dividing line between partially and wholly untenable lives for the marginally attached plurality.

Graph: for those old enough to have known the fathers, older brothers and friends who returned from Vietnam addicted to heroin, this story is familiar. Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 opium production, the base for heroin production, soared. In current circumstance pharmaceutical companies most likely joined with CIA connected heroin distributors to create the ‘opioid epidemic’ now sweeping the West. Profiting from layer upon layer of manufactured human misery has been the American way since the nation was conceived. Sources: KFF and UNODC.

The Reaganite hoax that a rising tide lifts all boats (graph below) was replaced by the Democrats in the 1990s with the reduction that only the richest 15% or so even matter. 15% approximates the ‘professional’ technocrats who labor in political economy that concentrates wealth ‘upward’ (and who reliably vote). This arrangement allows Democrats, following from apologists for entrenched power going back centuries, to (tautologically) claim that nature, in this case ‘merit,’ explains income distribution. Ironically, Wall Street bailouts appear to have sealed this belief amongst those on their receiving end and amazingly enough, amongst those who doled them out.

Class tension over the intermediary role of this technocrat class as the rule-makers of systemic taking finds employed takers by-and-large despising those they are taking from and vice versa. This observation partially explains institutional racism in employment where Blacks are perpetually the last hired and first fired in the aggregate. Fees, fines, special charges and assessments are levied by private and nominally public institutions alike. Their regressive nature never occurs to those doing the levying because they rarely have to make the choice between eating, living indoors and maintaining the licenses and permissions required to remain marginally attached to ever less gainful employment.

Graph: what might have changed to motivate the migration from Ronald Reagan’s hoax that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ to the Democrat’s focus on Wall Street and the technocrats who serve it and Silicon Valley? Money, the ether which holds the American system of legalized graft afloat, is the fungible form of concentrated wealth. ‘Nature’ was no more prevalent a factor in wealth distribution in 1963 than it is today, suggesting that specific political arrangements explain this concentration of wealth. In this context populism is an emotive, and therefore materially ineffective, way to assuage growing class antagonism. Source: Emmanuel Saez.

Cynical posturing, the stock-in-trade of national Democrats, currently finds the Senator from Wall Street, Chuck Schumer, fresh from crafting Orwellian tactics to crush BDS, putting forward the Democrats’ ‘Better Deal’  as if the poorer 85% of the populace doesn’t know who is gauging them on their rent / mortgage, their car loan, their grocery bill and at the doctor’s office. As the (very) top graph illustrates, the crazed crack-head holding a loaded gun to their heads (Wall Street) was given time and a few trillion dollars to right itself but the debts owed it never went away. Around 60% of the country is but one lost paycheck or a ¼ % rise in the Federal Funds rate away from complete economic ruin. In 2017.

The 15% (yes, the same 15%) of the country that finds the ‘Russia stole the election’ story relevant is undoubtedly the target audience for Mr. Schumer’s ‘Better Deal’ talking points. Reminder: when Democrats last held the White House and both houses of Congress they passed a Republican health insurance sales scheme while bailing out Wall Street. To wit, Hillary Clinton earned $21 million giving speeches to Wall Street after Wall Street killed the global economy. Unless national Democrats are suggesting that Russian operatives wrote Mrs. Clinton’s speeches to Wall Street, the ‘lesser’ classes appear to understand this corruption and who does, and doesn’t, benefit from it just fine.

The West is deep into a political crisis that has been fifty years in the making. To state the cliché du jour, Donald Trump is a symptom, not the cause. Before there was Donald Trump, Bill and Hillary Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill differentiated institutional outcomes by race linking it in ignominy to Nazi law. This virulently anti-immigrant speech given by Bill Clinton in 1995 presaged Donald Trump’s petulant xenophobia by more than two decades. Millions of Americans live in extreme poverty today because the Clintons ‘ended welfare as we know it.’ And by reviving Wall Street Barack Obama empowered the forces crushing the working classes of the West.

Charges to ‘get the money out of politics’ run up against the myriad institutional changes made to give the wealthy more control over political outcomes. The TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), pushed by Barack Obama even after the Democrat’s loss to Donald Trump, had covenants intended to increase the power of corporations to resist environmental, public health and labor regulations imposed under civil law. Bernie Sander’s funding model for his faux-presidential run funded a campaign he left Democrats holding the power to crush— and crush it they did.

The dominant political parties in the U.S. have assumed absolute control over electoral processes at a time when the power of concentrated wealth has been solidified. The result is an all or nothing political process where who it is that perpetuates this system of upward distribution is the only open question. For those who forgot, Bill and Hillary Clinton attended Donald Trump’s wedding and they consider each other ‘friends.’ The food-fight over ‘Russian interference’ is political theater for gullible loyalists, I mean an outrageous assault on our sacred democratic institutions.

A central challenge for reformers is that ‘the world,’ including the dispossessed plurality within the U.S., doesn’t have another fifty years to work current political dysfunction out. A political system that can only support the upward distribution of social resources at ever-rising social costs will fail more people at an increasing rate. As fact and metaphor, Barack Obama’s program to combat global warming was insufficient on its face and a cynical dodge when combined with his program (TPP) to give corporations the ability to override environmental regulations aimed at resolving it.

When global warming is tied to dead and dying oceans, misery-inducing and toxic industrial agriculture, poisoned air and seemingly unstoppable militarism through the profit motive a systemic driver comes into focus. Add in that only a small sliver of humanity takes the wealth produced by this system while all of the rest of us partake in its toxic excrescences and the outline of a class war becomes visible. The political choice is to leave this system in place or to not leave it in place. Everything else is to rearrange the proverbial deck chairs.

Finally, on the ‘historical communism’ front, I haven’t seen one of these pieces since I was in high school. Here’s a brief recap of the glories of capitalist imperialism. The link provides further links to smallpox blankets, the trail of tears, slavery, convict leasing, various coups and interventions to prevent democratic revolutions from succeeding and more details regarding three centuries of industrial-scale slaughter to promote ‘de-centralized’ economic interests. The internal / external distinction loses relevance when domestic economic interests drive militarized foreign policy.

Trump is Guilty, of Something

Photo by Kristoffer Trolle | CC BY 2.0<.a>

Donald Trump is guilty of something, guilty as sin.  Nobody outside his innermost circle knows yet what he is guilty of, and all the evidence is circumstantial.  But guilty he surely is.

Is it that the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians to defeat Hillary Clinton?  That is the story line that corporate media take for gospel truth.  It is not out of the question that some Russians, some of whom had some connection with the Russian government, hacked into something.  Even if they did, however, the Russian meddling story is ridiculously overblown – for reasons that are politically self-serving and irresponsibly, if not criminally, dangerous.

If catastrophic outcomes can somehow be avoided, that story will eventually go the way of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.  Before that happens, however, count on Vladimir Putin’s affront to the “integrity” of American democracy being used to justify devastating, potentially catastrophic, diplomatic and military adventures — in much the way that Saddam Hussein’s WMDs once were.

By the time the dust settles, it will likely become clear that either there never was any reason to accept the party line on Russian meddling or that, even if there was something to it, there was never any reason to get all worked up about it.

This is not to say that “Russiagate” investigations should be opposed; quite to the contrary, there is every reason to support them fully.

If nothing else, investigations like Robert Mueller’s and the ones underway in the House and Senate help keep Trump and the people he has brought into his administration from executing their nefarious agendas.   Better yet, they are likely, before long, to bring Trump himself down – in ways that would make it harder for Trump’s appointees and, when the times comes, for Mike Pence to turn many of the progressive gains of the past hundred or so years around.

But the fact remains: the election meddling furor is, at best, a red herring – about which all one can honestly say, for now, is: Who knows? Who cares?

Who knows – because the only reason to think that there was Russian meddling is that “the intelligence community” says there was.  But, as everybody knows or ought to know, they are inveterate liars.  Lying is in their genes and in their job descriptions.

Moreover, if history is a guide, they are just as likely to be wrong as to be right, even when they aren’t deliberately telling lies.

Everybody also knows that the CIA in particular is not above politicizing intelligence when it serves some institutional purpose.

Who knows too – because liberal and not-so-liberal media have been pressing the case for Russian election meddling so vigorously for such a long time that the idea has become almost second nature to all but the most circumspect consumers of news.  In cases like this, the wisest course of action usually is to become more, not less, skeptical.

It is hard to say which media outlet is the most at fault; the competition is so intense.  The Washington Post and The New York Times are serious contenders, though it must be said, in fairness, that the Trump menace seems to have reignited a taste for real investigative reporting – about Trump — in both of them. For that, one could forgive a great deal.

But they are still, on the whole, a servile lot.  My vote for the worst of them all is MSNBC, with Joy Reid leading the way and Rachel (take twenty minutes to make a twenty second point) Maddow close behind.

A character in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” advised believing only half of what one sees and nothing that one hears.  Inasmuch as most of what one sees and hears about Russian meddling in the 2016 election are breathless repetitions of claims originating in the intelligence services, this is good advice in the case at hand.

The problem is not “fake news,” news reports that are deliberately deceptive.  Trump blathers on endlessly about that – in his usual, self-serving, bullying way – using the term so loosely as to void it of meaning.  On this as on so much else, what comes out of Trump’s mouth and what one reads in his tweets is sheer nonsense.

It is true, of course, that, under his aegis and inspiration, there has been an up-tick in deliberately false news stories, mainly in “alt-right” media outlets.   But there is little, if any, genuinely fake (deliberately false) news in mainstream media.  This side of Fox News, and sometimes even there, most journalists do try to maintain journalistic standards. They are not pathological liars, little Donald Trumps.

What they are, wittingly or not, are propagandists – in the sense discussed long ago by Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman in Manufacturing Consent (reprint edition, Pantheon, 2002).  Ï

Through the workings of the several mechanisms described in that book, they fashion and reinforce narratives, story lines, that accord with the interests of the owners of the corporations they work for and, when the need arises, with the interests of the entirety of what C. Wright Mills called the “power structure.”  At the same time, they derogate and marginalize counter-narratives that have, or could have, effects detrimental to the interests of the people and institutions they serve.

Their express intention, of course, is to report the news, not to maintain the status quo; they don’t set out to deceive.  More often than not, they believe the stories they tell.  Why would they not?  The system they are part of incentivizes compliance with the power structure’s interests; and, when tensions arise, it is generally easier to go along than to be a stickler for plausibility.

***

For getting mainstream media to sign on to the election meddling narrative, it would be difficult to underestimate the importance of the role played by a key component of the power structure in the United States today, the Democratic Party.

That is how desperate Democrats are to make sure that Clinton’s stunning, self-inflicted defeat last November will not be Clintonism’s  (neoliberalism’s, liberal imperialism’s) last hurrah.  To that end, they have been willing, even eager, to revive Cold War demons that had lain dormant for decades — bringing the world to the brink of a nuclear apocalypse.

Ostensibly the less noxious of the two neoliberal parties that dominate our politics, Democrats today have sunk so low that were Republicans still no worse than they were, say, when they fell into line behind George W. Bush and Dick Cheney’s Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, or even before Obama’s 2008 electoral victory made many rank-and-file Republicans bat shit crazy, it would now be an open question which party actually is the greater evil of the two.

The consensus view in mainstream media lately, in the Democratic Party, and increasingly in the Republican Party as well, is that Trump is doing grave harm to the office of the Presidency and to many of the institutions, both domestic and international, through which the United States has dominated the world since 1945.

This is certainly the case.  But, contrary to what is assumed throughout the power structure, it is at least debatable whether Trump’s effect on these institutions – and the negative effect his presidency is having on the GOP itself – is, on balance, a good or bad thing.

Instead of rallying around the Democratic Party, a genuine Left would itself be taking aim at the bastions of empire and class rule that Trump is mindlessly but inexorably undoing.  Trump’s way is nihilistic and thuggish; and the only alternatives he or his cabinet secretaries and agency heads have in mind are odious even by Republican standards.

This is why the Trump presidency is, and will continue to be, an unmitigated disaster – no matter how much damage Trump does to the old world order or to some of the more disabling institutional arrangements afflicting the political scene.

Democrats can be and, for the most part, actually are, monumentally awful, but Republicans who support Trump are worse.  This would not be so plainly the case, if the comparison was with pre-9/11 Republicans or even with the Republican Party before the 2008 election.

After all, if the appropriate metric is damage to world peace, geopolitical stability, and the wellbeing of humankind, Bush is still the worst President ever.  Of course, if Trump mentally decomposes more than he already has, or if he starts acting out in exceptionally lethal ways, he could surpass even the standard Bush has set.  For now, though, six months into the Trump era, W remains Number One   How revealing, therefore, that the very media that, to their credit, have nothing good to say about the billionaire buffoon, are now welcoming Bush, and his underlings, back into the fold.

In polite society nowadays, Obamaphiles, including Obama himself and his First Lady, even seem to regard Bush the Younger as one of the good guys; and miscreants from his administration are featured in all the leading media outlets.  How pathetic is that!

To his credit, however, Bush, unlike Trump, was not blatantly racist or nativist in his public pronouncements; and notwithstanding the fact that he and Cheney waged war on the Muslim world, he wasn’t overtly Islamophobic either.  The party he led generally followed suit.

However, once he was gone, Tea Partiers and Tea Party fellow travelers didn’t have anything holding them back.  With Obama at the helm of the empire, it didn’t take long for them to make the Party over in their image.

For appearance sake, the Republican Party became the Party of No, but what they really were was the anti-Obama-for-all-the wrong-reasons Party.  Republicans had no principled reason to turn Obama into Public Enemy Number One; his political views, which he did little to advance in any case, were more or less in line with those of pre-2001, or even pre-2008, Republicans.

Obama’s rival in the 2012 election, Mitt Romney, was essentially a pre-2008 Republican; politically, he and Obama were cut from the same cloth.  Tea Partiers didn’t like that one bit, but even the most “deplorable” of them never hated Romney the way they hated Obama.  What set their hatred off was the color of Obama’s skin.

How else to account for eight years of “repeal and replace Obamacare” sloganeering?  In substance and genealogy (its origins in the Heritage Foundation, the implementation of something very like it in Massachusetts under Governor Mitt Romney) Obamacare is essentially a Republican program.  Had it not come with Obama’s name attached, doctrinaire free-market theologians of the Rand Paul or Ted Cruz variety would still not like it, but neither would they or any of their co-thinkers get especially worked up on its account.

Nevertheless, it was opposition to Obamacare, more than anything else, that kept the GOP’s several factions together during the Obama years.  How ironic that all those “repeal and replace” Republicans are now floundering because when they finally got their chance to do what they said they wanted to do, they were unable to do anything at all.  It is tempting to say that they outsmarted themselves, but the word “smart” grates when applied to them.

Democrats are generally nicer than Republicans, and many times more civilized.  Were their self-exonerating anti-Russian, anti-Putin campaigning not so dangerous, they would plainly be the good guys still, comparatively speaking.

Even with their hysterical Russophobia, they probably still are.  But being comparatively less awful than the GOP is no reason to buy into the election meddling story that Democrats are so assiduously promoting.

It is possible, of course, that despite all the reasons to be skeptical of their narrative, there is some truth in what they say.  Even if there is, however, why make such a big deal or it?  Who cares?

Evidently, pundits with venting privileges on ostensibly liberal cable networks do and Democratic Party sore losers, but their concerns are misdirected.  No one, not even the worst of the worst on MSNBC, claims that those dastardly Russian meddlers affected the outcome of the election in any significant way.  Russians didn’t defeat Hillary Clinton; she defeated herself.

It is not for want of trying that no one has been able to make a plausible case for the claim that, but for Russian meddling, Clinton would have beaten Trump.  But, alas, no one has been able to maintain that Russians had anything to do with collecting or counting votes, or that they interfered with the workings of the electoral process in any other way.

The idea instead is that they depressed Democratic turnout by diminishing enthusiasm for Clinton.  They did this, supposedly, by providing evidence of the Democratic National Committee’s efforts to rig the election for Hillary and against Bernie Sanders, and by demeaning Clinton in ways that Democrats and their friends in the mainstream press don’t even bother to try to spell out.

If only the Democrats and their media flacks would evince half as much self-righteous indignation over past and on-going Republican efforts at voter suppression!   There is no doubt that they were real and that their consequences were significant.  Neither is the case with alleged Russian voter suppression efforts last year.

Moreover, even if the Russians did do all that our propagandists claimed they did, they did nothing worse than what countless homegrown political operatives do when they sell candidates to voters in more or less the way that commercial advertisers sell the wares they peddle to targeted audiences.

The difference is morally significant.  If the Russians actually did suppress voter turnout in 2016, it was through one or another form of persuasion.  Republicans suppress votes by making it difficult, or impossible, for likely Democratic voters — African Americans and other “persons of color” mainly, but also students, and many elderly citizens — to exercise their right to vote.

***

The consensus view notwithstanding, the Russian election meddling narrative is short on compelling evidence, and is grounded in a patently defective rationale.  Even so, it could still have merit.

But even if there was meddling as charged, nothing much came of it.  This has always been obvious, and it too is significant.

Sanders supporters didn’t need Russians to tell them that the Democratic Party wanted Bernie to lose and Hillary to win.  Everyone paying attention knew that already.   Clinton’s shortcomings were also evident for all to see.

Therefore, if the story line being pushed by our “manufacturers of consent” is on track, it would only show that those Russians are not nearly as clever as the propagandists vilifying them would like people to think.  By documenting the obvious, what they did made about as much sense as throwing buckets of water into the ocean.

Why then is Trump putting the extent of his ineptitude on display by acting as if he is about to block the Mueller investigation into Russian meddling?   Trump may not be the magisterial dealmaker his remaining fans believe him to be, but he is surely not as self-destructively stupid as his actions suggest.

The answer must be that he really does have something to hide; something more damaging than anything the mainstream media narrative suggests.

Trump doesn’t know much, but he surely does know that Congressional investigations and Justice Department investigations involving special prosecutors take on lives of their own, even when, in the first instance, they are much ado about nothing.  Watergate was only “a third-rate burglary,” after all.

He is also shrewd enough to realize that his business machinations give Congress and the Justice Department plenty to investigate.  There is sleaze galore out there, waiting to be uncovered.

Therefore, in the weeks and months ahead, if Trump is still around – or even if he returns to the gilded monstrosity on Fifth Avenue that he had built to glorify himself, leaving arch-reactionary Mike Pence in charge — we will have loads of well-corroborated reports of shady (artful?) deals with Russian oligarchs and, insofar as there is a difference, Russian mobsters, making the news interesting again.

This is sheer speculation, of course; and the evidence, what there is of it so far, is circumstantial.  Much of it consists of idiotic tweets that suggest nothing more damning than an acute consciousness of guilt.   Ì

Nevertheless, I would bet the ranch, if I had one to bet, that honest and determined investigators with subpoena power scratching beneath the surface, will find incontrovertible proof of legal, moral, or political infractions so egregious that even the fools who still refuse to admit that Trump conned them into thinking that, as President, he would somehow make their lives better, will find it impossible to keep on standing by their man.

Trump is guilty, a hundred times over; and it is plain as day too that whatever it turns out to be that he is guilty of, that his over-arching cupidity and vanity made him do it.

Finding out what he is guilty of should be at the top of every competent authority’s to do list.  It should also become a consuming passion of journalists who, for their own good and the good of the public they serve, no longer want to propagandize for the beneficiaries of the status quo.

Because the power structure is so thoroughly and uniformly intent on dumping Trump –  not for wholly creditable reasons, but, for a matter of such urgency, that hardly matters –  opportunities for doing authentic journalism, even in the face of the propaganda mechanisms Herman and Chomsky identified, now exist to a degree that would have seemed unimaginable before November 2016.

It is a complicated business, however because the same anti-Trump animosities that make it possible to mobilize the press against the government also enable the Democratic Party to enlist support, in media circles and more generally, for the demonization of Putin and his government, with all the dangers that ensue.

So, by all means, investigate, investigate, and investigate some more – taking care, however, not to be sidetracked onto false paths where perils of Clintonite design threaten to spin out of control in ways that even competent statesmen, like Putin and Sergey Lavrov, would have a hard time diffusing, if they still had reasonable interlocutors in Washington to work with.

Those are, to put it mildly, in short supply.  With Trump in the White House and a bipartisan (but Clinton inspired) neocon consensus in Congress, reasonable interlocutors in Washington are about as numerous as genuine progressives in the Democratic fold.

Appetite for War: the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia v. Iran

Photo by The U.S. Army | CC BY 2.0

On June 14, when United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went before the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, Republican Congressman Ted Poe of Texas asked him about the government’s policy towards Iran. “Well,” Tillerson paused, “our Iranian policy is under development.” Poe asked Tillerson directly whether the U.S. government supported “a philosophy of regime change, peaceful regime change?” Tillerson responded: “Our policy towards Iran is to work toward support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government. Those elements are there, certainly.”

In other words, Tillerson said, the U.S. government was committed to overthrowing the current government in Iran by peaceful means. What they mean by “peaceful” should not be taken lightly. No regime-change operation is ever peaceful. The Trump administration, meanwhile, is conducting an inter-agency review of the sanctions on Iran and of the various options available to the U.S. for action against Iran. These options include military force. There is belligerence in the air.

On July 17, a month later, President Donald Trump certified to Congress that Iran was in compliance with the international nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The President has to conduct this certification exercise every 90 days. If the President does not certify the deal, then the U.S. Congress has 60 additional days to abandon the deal. The White House spokesperson said: “The President has made very clear that he thought this was a bad deal—bad deal for the United States.” Trump had wanted to refuse to certify the deal this time, and in the previous round. His national security team convinced him that this deal was valuable. One staff member said that Trump only signed on after he made it clear that the next time things would be different.

The American Right remains fundamentally opposed to the deal. John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, wrote recently that the nuclear deal “remains palpably harmful to American national interests”. Trump shares this view. They believe—against all evidence—that the deal allows Iran to retain its nuclear programme because international verification on the ground in Iran is “fatally inadequate”. Bolton urged Trump to make withdrawal from the nuclear deal the administration’s “highest priority”.

There is widespread enthusiasm in the White House to walk away from the deal and to use the full vitality of U.S. power to suffocate Iran. But elements in the U.S. intelligence services and in the diplomatic community are not keen on further confrontation with Iran. It would, they argue, confound U.S. policy in Iraq and against the Islamic State.

Iran complains that the U.S. has already violated the spirit of the JCPOA. In May, at the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) Brussels headquarters, and in July, at the G20 meeting in Hamburg, Trump asked his European allies to stop doing business with Iran. This was done privately. When she was asked about it, Trump’s White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders affirmed that Trump had told European leaders “to stop doing business with nations that sponsor terrorism, especially Iran”. The JCPOA, however, clearly prohibits “any policy specifically intended to directly and adversely affect the normalisation of trade and economic relations with Iran”. These are “sanctions” of a new kind.

The American Right recognises that the nuclear deal cannot be easily undone. European states do not have the appetite to return to a confrontation with Iran. The Europeans are eager to bring Iranian energy into their countries and they see the utility of engaging Iran on the multiple crises in West Asia. This is why U.S. Senator Bob Corker said that since Trump was “fully committed” to the American Right’s anti-Iran policy, new sanctions were needed to punish Iran for its “non-nuclear behaviour”. In other words, since Iran tested ballistic missiles, the U.S. has now placed new sanctions on 18 individuals, groups and networks.

The theory here is that the pressure on firms to stop doing business with Iran and new “non-nuclear” sanctions on Iran would encage the country once more. It would harden the positions of the Iranian leadership, Washington hopes, and drive it to do something provocative that would allow Trump to refuse to recertify the JCPOA in October. It would set the stage for a much more dangerous confrontation with Iran.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said that Iran would “respond” to these sanctions, but he did not say how. What he did say was that Iran was grateful to the Europeans, China and Russia for “steadfastly employing perseverance to safeguard the JCPOA”. Do the Europeans, the Chinese and the Russians have the means to prevent a U.S. war? Will the Russians intervene militarily in Iran—as they did in Syria—to provide the country with a nuclear umbrella?

Message to Iran

The U.S. already has military bases on the doorstep of Iran—in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Turkey, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and elsewhere. There are at least 125,000 U.S. troops on the edge of Iran and thousands of warships and aircraft at the ready.

Iran has long seen its ballistic missile programme as being a deterrent, however feeble, against this massive military encirclement. That the U.S. has decided to place new sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile tests has sent a clear message to Iran: the U.S. will put as much pressure on Iran as possible to prevent it from developing anything like a deterrent capability.

Iran’s head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, said that the U.S. should move its bases out of a 1,000-kilometre range from the Iranian borders. This would mean that the U.S. base at Shindand (Herat, Afghanistan), which is merely 200 km from the Iranian border, and the U.S. base in Bahrain, less than 100 km from Iran, would have to be removed. If the U.S. did not withdraw, Jafari intimated, then Iran would maintain its missile programme. The programme, he said, “is defensive and never would be subject to bargaining and negotiation at any level”.

Pressure on Iran from the U.S. is not only from the bases that ring the country but also on the ground in West Asia, from Iraq to Lebanon. Tillerson told Congress that the Trump administration was aware of “Iran’s continued destabilising presence in the region, their payment of foreign fighters, their export of militia forces in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, their support of Hizbollah”. The U.S., he said, was “taking action to respond to Iran’s hegemony”. There is a fantasy narrative in Washington, D.C., that Iran is the one that is aggressive in West Asia and that the U.S.—with its history of regime change and the presence of its military bases—is merely there to block Iranian ambitions.

Syria-Iraq border

Iran has indeed been eager to open up the land route from its border through Iraq to Syria. It would prefer to resupply the government of Bashar al-Assad through the much cheaper road that runs across the region than fly in military and civilian supplies. The road is open from Damascus to Syria’s border with Iraq and it is open from Iran’s border across Iraq. A U.S. base and U.S. proxies along the Iraq-Syria border are keen to create a buffer state to block Iran’s access to the road. This border post in south-eastern Syria is crucial and the two sides now face each other in a dangerous standoff.

The White House press secretary said that the U.S. had a “shared interest with Israel to make sure that Iran does not gain a foothold, military base-wise, in southern Syria”. Armed action by U.S. proxies, trained in a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-run camp in Jordan, against Syrian government troops backed by Iranian-led militias has been a flashpoint along the edge of southern Syria.

Meanwhile, along Lebanon’s border, tensions have risen over a potential Israeli strike against Hizbollah’s highly fortified positions. Israel has already been collaborating with various Syrian rebel groups, including Al Qaeda-backed groups, in the region near the occupied Golan Heights. Israeli aircraft have regularly been striking Syrian military targets to prevent any advance by the Syrian Army towards the de facto border with Israel. Israel would also like to expand its Golan Heights holdings and create a large buffer zone with Syria. These manoeuvres have been fully backed by the Trump White House.

Dangerous signals come from the new sanctions and from the hot wars between U.S. proxies, including Israel, and the Iranian-backed forces. When Trump was in Saudi Arabia in May, he suggested that the conflict between the U.S. and Iran was a “battle between good and evil”. Religious language such as this evokes the words of former President George W. Bush before he launched the illegal war on Iraq in 2003. It is Iran, Trump suggested, that “spreads destruction and chaos” in the region. This came the day after Iran re-elected its moderate President, and along the same time as the U.S. pledged to sell Saudi Arabia, a country spreading destruction and chaos in Yemen, arms worth $110 billion.

There is an appetite for war in the Trump White House and amongst its Israeli and Saudi partners. The war this time will be against Iran. If West Asia is in chaos now, there is no adequate word to describe its fate if that full-scale war actually begins.

Dark Mesas Under an Ancient Light: Southwest Under Siege

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands. Photo: Phil Armitage.

I am lost in a labyrinth of stone. I only know I must go down. I must follow the striated pink slickrock. Down and down this narrow side canyon, disoriented by an elegant confusion of landforms: arches and hoodoos; dry falls and rock shelters; graben and needles; rimrock, chimneys and swells.

Each step down the canyon takes you back in time. The place seems ageless. But the terrain changes day by day, shedding pieces of itself. It is a paradox of the landscape: the river plays the role of both geological architect and archaeologist: unearthing and altering the shape of the Colorado Plateau on a scale both massive and intricate.

Any attempt to understand the desert Southwest forces you to confront stark complexities, both ecological and personal: the meaning of its openness and silence; the green course of swift rivers in an arid, red land; the genocide and enforced poverty still pressed on its native peoples; the violent rush of rage that overcame me one night walking in the wild desert of the Santa Catalina Mountains at the sight of the lights of Tucson, burning a like a perpetual explosion on the dark horizon.

My goal today is the confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers. I don’t give a damn that I might be off track. The solution is obvious: go down slowly until you meet the river. I walk in a tumbleweed manner, stumbling over rocks. The heat is oppressive, weighing heavily on my stamina, pampered for years by the cool, maritime climate of western Oregon.

Here the air is thin and flat. The humidity hovers at an impossible two percent, sucking the moisture out of you. My lips chap, crack, bleed. They say the unrelenting glare of the sun reflecting off the red bones of rock can flip your consciousness as slyly and absolutely as any hit of mescaline. I open myself to it.

In a state of near delusion, it strikes me that the Southwest is writhing, sexual landscape. Here the landscape exposes itself in mesas, pinnacles and sinuous slot canyons; in the flesh and blood tones of the sandstone; in the cool, lime-colored light of the ponderosa forests (what’s left of them); and the unrepressed exuberance of the desert suddenly in bloom. Here the land seduces the senses.

I am far from the first Anglo to make this obvious connection, naturally. One of my favorite writers, D. H. Lawrence, spent many years in Taos and several more traveling through Mexico. He was enthralled and repelled by the “blood nature” of the desert. Terry Tempest Williams writes arrestingly about the “erotics of place.” The paintings of Georgia O’Keefe-her stunning landscapes of canyons and mesas near Abiquiu, not the overtly sexualized flowers-vibrate with a consuming passion. Elliot Porter’s photographs, especially those of the lost Glen Canyon and the rugged crenellations of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near his home in Tesuque, evoke similar sensualities.

The fact that we come to this realization as a kind of epiphany is a sad measure of how far we’ve removed ourselves from the rhythms of the land. The native people of the Southwest never knew such distance from the living landscape. Black Mesa and the strangely blue Chuska Mountains are not merely metaphors of the female and male deities for the Navajo, but tangible places of creative powers-as Mount Graham is to the San Carlos Apache, despite the gross indignity of a deep space telescope on the crown of the holy mountain. Similarly, the sipapu (the hole in the ground from which “the people” emerged) entrenched near the center of every kiva built by the Anasazi and their descendents in the Pueblo tribes is quite literally understood as a vaginal passageway of the sensate Earth.

The ragged sound of thunder shudders across the sky. That a slot canyon is a dangerous place to find oneself in during a sudden rainstorm is apparent even to an alien forest dweller like me. I scramble up the sun-warmed Cedar Mesa sandstone to a ledge about 50 feet above the creek bed.

Lightning fissures down out of a single, bruise-colored stormcloud embedded in a sky of absolute clarity. There is a small rock shelter a few hundred feet up the canyon, a perfect cover to ride out this tempest in the desert.

As a cool rain begins to fall, I notice that the slanting wall of the cliff is covered with petroglyphs. Dozens of pictures and symbols, ghost stories carved into rock. Some are clearly recognizable, others ancient and mysterious: bighorn sheep, coyote, lizards, the initials CJ ’91 deeply chiseled with sophomoric bravado on top of a strange spiral 500 years old, men on horses in conquistador-style hats, circles within circles, tiny red handprints, floating armless, near-human figures.

A familiar image haunts the lower portion of the panel, the proud sign of an archaic fertility symbol etched into the dark desert varnish that coats the sandstone walls like a swipe of dried blood. Yes, it is Kokopeli, the hunchbacked flute-player, his wild hair standing up straight like the antennae of an insect, his engorged phallus cocked at an assertive and defiant 45 degree angle. He is the ubiquitous kachina of the pueblo people, who, in their wide migrations, have left his image on rock walls from Tierra del Fuego to northern Alberta.

This petroglyph panel is a historical tapestry of the Southwest woven onto stone-a silent meeting place for the rich diversity of people who have lived upon this land, a place where cultures speak across centuries.

* * *

I finally reach the Colorado. But bad memories flood back. The last time I touched its waters was on a rented houseboat, rendered nearly senseless by a dozen bottles of Negro Modelo, floating above the blue void of Lake Powell.

Lake Powell: a place people come to inebriate themselves against the violence that has been done to the land. It is even a Mecca, of sorts, for radical environmentalists, a place we gather to vent our sour nihilism. Glen Canyon Dam: the objective correlative for every foul damn thing we’ve been doing to this country all these many years.

Yet, there is an undeniable, if repulsive, beauty to the dam itself: its cool sweep of blonde stone, its arrogant assertion of blind power over the forces of nature, the old, inescapable themes of dominance and submission. A fascist architecture that would humble Albert Speer himself.

Glen Canyon Dam is there for a reason, a reason that exposes the tragic flaw in environmental politics. David Brower’s admonition that environmentalists “never trade a place you know for one you don’t” came through bitter experience. Brower himself crafted the deal that doomed Glen Canyon as a way of saving the stunning canyons of Dinosaur National Monument.

And the compulsive pattern of dealmaking persists. The trade-off for a free-flowing Colorado through Marble Canyon was more nuclear power plants and uranium mining. And the construction of the foul power plants at Page and Four Corners that burn coal gouged from the heart of Black Mesa and spew out the fly-ash in black stains visible from the international space station. Go to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon where, even on a good day, the view has been drained of color, smudged. It’s like look at the great chasm through a funeral veil. What the hell have we done?

Power follows property, said John Adams. And so it does. But in the desert Southwest, property follows water. Here water is power. Geronimo knew that well, recall his dazzling defenses of places like Apache Springs. The sexual predator and water-vampire Floyd Dominy (the J. Edgar Hoover-like head of the Bureau of Reclamation during the glory days of dam building in the arid west) grasped the political power of water. So did Mo Udall and Bruce Babbitt, whose reputations as “conservationists” will be forever darkened by their obdurate support of opulent water ­stealing schemes such as the Central Arizona Project. Impound the water and tame the electorate is the numbing mantra of Southwestern politics.

Follow the money, Deep Throat advised. In the Southwest, if you want to divine the truth, follow the water. Sooner or later you’ll end up at a cow. More than 80 percent of the water diverted from the Colorado River goes for agricultural irrigation. And that means cattle. The water goes largely to multi-millionaire ranchers and ranches owned by transnational corporations and banks. The water no longer goes to the rural Hispanics, Apache, Hopi and Navajo, who had developed a truly sustainable grazing and small agriculture based on the ancient system of acequias other indigenous irrigation systems.

The ancient Hohokam village known as Los Muertos was served forcenturies by a six-mile long canal diverting water from the Salt River to corn and squash fields. Eventually, a 30 year drought struck the Southwest. The Salt River dried up and even the gentle agriculture of the Hohokam overtapped the dwindling resource. The city was abandoned.

Marc Reisner observes in his indispensable book Cadillac Desert that that same problem afflicts the entire Southwest today. But it is a problem that has been engineered in less than 50 years, not a millennium. The technological uses of the Colorado River are killing the land at both ends: through the submersion of places such as Glen Canyon and Flaming Gorge and the salinization of millions of acres of irrigated farmland in an arid climate. Watering the desert didn’t transform Arizona into Iowa, but rendered it into a kind of post-modern Carthage. Technology wounds, says New Mexico writer Chellis Glendenning. In an arid climate, the wounded land heals slowly, bearing deep scars that defy concealment.

In the end, the transfer of water is a transfer of power, property and wealth. The infuriating entanglement of western water laws is a deliberate confusion, a well-designed impediment to the to the appropriate and equitable allocation of resources, to real land reform and to the preservation of the desert rivers themselves. While the obstacles to such an ecological revolution may be profound, the way back is simple: Make the water stay with the land.

* * *

It tells you something about the politics of the Southwest that one of the wildest places in the region is the White Sands Missile Range. But it tells more about the macerating nature of cows. Patriot missiles don’t pack near the wallop on the ecology of the desert as a bovine herd grazing on full-automatic.

One of the main problems with domestic livestock grazing is its omnipresence on the landscape. More than 96 percent of the publicly-owned lands in the Southwest (excluding the national parks and military lands) are under grazing permits. No place is immune. Note even the world’s first wilderness reserve, the Gila Wilderness Area, can escape the scourge of cows, stock tanks and ranching roads. These days real cowboys ride Chevy trucks, not palominos.

The impacts of grazing on desert wildlife are staggering. According Grazing to Extinction, a report written by ecologist John Horning, grazing the primary cause of decline in the populations of 76 species of fish and wildlife that are either listed or candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act. And cows and sheep are a contributing factor in the slide toward extinction of at least another 270 species. This is not to mention the bloody toll exacted on fragile populations of desert predators by hired killers from Animal Damage Control for the psychic benefit of western ranchers.

The cherished myths of the west are engraved so deeply on our consciousness that our perspective of how the land should look is distorted in unexpected ways. For example, many of us raised on the films of Howard Hawks and John Ford assume as a matter of course that the rock-strewn, barren banks are the natural aesthetic conditions of rivers such as the Rio Grande and San Juan. In fact, the rivers of the Southwest should flow through verdant sleeves of willow and cottonwoods trees. The fact that these riverine forests were largely eliminated from the landscape by the 1930s without, for the most part, ever suffering the bite of a chainsaw, illustrates the devastating consequences of livestock grazing on ecological fragile riparian areas.

Some of what has been lost is nearly unseen, but may be critical to the functioning of the desert system itself. Take cryptogamic crust, a kind of blue-green algae that weaves through the desert floor in thin black webs. The cryptogamic crust is the connective tissue that holds the desert together, similar to the mychorrizal fungi that underlies and nourishes the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest. But this “living soil” is destroyed by intensive livestock grazing, permanently impairing the ecological capacity of the land. Now extensive patches of cryptogamic crust can only be found only isolated mesa tops or in ungrazed parklands, such as Arches or the Maze district of Canyonlands.

Sooner or later the deconstructionist of western myths must take on the rancher and the folklore of the rugged individualist. There is a particular subspecies of the western rancher who remains blithely ignorant of the fact that his “lifestyle” is maintained by the generosity of the same federal government he despises. The average ranching family in the Southwest receives more than $25,000 a year in federal subsidies, yet squeals at even the most modest attempt to reform grazing practices on federal lands as an attack on inviolate property rights. The historian Bernard DeVoto best captured the attitude of the welfare rancher toward the federal government: “Get out, and send us money.”

What has changed since DeVoto’s time is the increasingly hostile demeanor of the ranchers and the object of their aggression: environmentalists have replaced the feds as the new target for cowboy angst. One of the most violent epicenters in the backlash against environmentalism is Catron County, New Mexico, which my friend Karl Hess Jr., the libertarian environmentalist and author of Visions Upon the Land, calls “Cartoon County.” And indeed it would be funny, if the reality were not so vicious. Here a brutal paranoia has spread like strange virus from 1950s science fiction film. The ranchers of southern New Mexico and Arizona have become bitter allies in a violent campaign against local environmentalists, who have become the scapegoats for all of their financial, social and sexual problems.

The ranchers have adopted the litany of victimology. And some of them may indeed be victims. But not of environmentalists. The real agents of their misery, such as it is, are the banks squeezing their mortgages and a government that promised them more than the land could ever deliver.

“The war on the West may be a media event,” says my friend Pat Wolff, a longtime veteran of the environmental wars in the Southwest. “But the climate of violence in New Mexico and Arizona is real. And it is intense. The scary thing is the level of tolerance given to the violent outbursts of ranchers, loggers and miners.” Like many environmentalists in the region, Wolff was regularly threatened-often in public. Rarely are the threats investigated and often the most virulent ranchers are portrayed as iconic figures in the local media. In 1993, my friend, the Navajo environmentalist Leroy Jackson, was found dead in his car on the Brazos Cliffs in northern New Mexico. He was on his way to Washington, DC to testify about the logging of sacred lands in the Chuska Mountains. His death was almost certainly the result of foul play. The cops didn’t even launch an investigation, ruling his death a suicide. The dangers are real.

* * *

The conquest of the Southwest began with the search for gold and rapidly expanded to baser minerals: silver, copper, uranium, molybdenum, coal. Shafts were dug and blasted into nearly every mountain range in the region. Some mines ran for decades, others ran out in months.

What the mining companies left behind were not the ruins of a vanished culture, but a toxic legacy of greed-a gored and disemboweled landscape heaped with tailings piles and mining wastes, the foul detritus of the private engorgement of the public’s lands, left to leach for decades into the Southwest’s precious waters.

The violence wrought upon the land accompanied a similar violence inflicted on the native people of the region. It began, of course, with Francisco Vazquez de Coronado’s storming of Zuni Pueblo in 1540, mistaking the sun-burnished adobe walls for the golden city of Cibola. His marauders were vigorously repelled by the Bow Priests of the Zuni. Pueblos 1; Entrada 0.

But the Spanish didn’t relent. One by one the pueblos fell to Spanish control. By 1598 each had been conquered, all, that is, except for Acoma, perched on its high mesa in western New Mexico. The following year the power-maddened Juan de Oñate ordered his troops out with instructions to subdue Acoma Pueblo. The Acoma people greeted the conquistadors with corn-pollen and turkey feathers. But the Castillans demanded tribute; they demanded gold. When the Acoma refused, the Spanish killers corralled the men, chopped off a foot from each (500 in all) and pitched the tribal leaders over the steep cliffs to their deaths.

It didn’t end there, of course. In 1863, when the gold and silver miners demanded free access to the mountains of southern New Mexico and Arizona, federal troops were sent out to annihilate the Apache, who had refused to settle on reservations. Smithsonian “collectors” accompanied the troops. They photographed the mutilated bodies of dead Indians, decapitated the heads, marked the skulls and sent them packed in boxes back to Washington. The great Apache leader Magnus Colorados was finally captured, publicly bull-whipped and murdered. General Nelson Miles led 5,000 soldiers in the final pursuit of Geronimo and his 37 warriors. The rest of the Apache were forcibly relocated to reservations, managed for decades as concentration camps.

The oppression continues, but in more insidious ways. Tribal councils are infiltrated by government snitches and corporate stooges. Budgets are bankrupted, resources exhausted. Thousands of Navajo are forcibly evicted from Big Mountain, while Black Mesa, their sacred mountain, is strip-mined by Peabody Coal. The tribal forests are logged at a voracious pace under the lash of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Mescalero Apaches are offered a nuclear waste dump as a way to enhance their “quality of life,” as the San Carlos Apaches have their sacred Mt. Graham desecrated by the construction of deep space telescopes. Religious concerns about the sacred nature of Mt. Graham are dismissed as “primitive” emotions and opponents are smeared as part of a “Jewish conspiracy.”

The rural Hispanics of New Mexico have been victimized by a second conquest as brutal and oppressive as that conducted against the Pueblos, Navajo and Apache. Land claims have been abrogated; water rights stolen. Since its earliest days in the Southwest, the Forest Service has used the rubric of “conservation” as a pretext for the acculturation of Hispanics and the dispossession of their property and their basic rights to use commonly-held lands. A modern day enclosure movement. Urban environmentalists share some of the culpability for these past wrongs.

In fact, all of the federal land management agencies have placed a template of homogeneity over the Hispanic people of the region-the cultural equivalent of even-aged management. To date, there have been few efforts to redress these abuses. No reparations have been paid. Little land has been returned.

This wretched history of conquest is ameliorated only by the enduring beauty of the landscape and by a persistent culture of resistance, a spirited defense of the land that dates back to the first stream of arrows launched at Coronado by the Zuni warriors in 1540 and continued through Reies Tijerina’s 1968 raid on the Tierra Amarilla courthouse in an attempt to assert land and water rights granted but never honored in the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo to the Apache Survival Coalition’s vigorous defense of Mt. Graham from the rampages of the University of Arizona and the Vatican. Radical environmentalism was born in the deserts and rivers of the Southwest: Aldo Leopold, Black Mesa Defense, Ed Abbey, Doug Peacock, Earth First!, and El Partido Verde, a political movement linking progressive environmentalists with other social justice movements.

* * *

The town is Nuevo Casa Grande in the Chihuahua province of northern Mexico, 100 miles or so southwest of El Paso. It is an old place with a new name. We are sitting outside a dusty cantina made of mud the color of salmon flesh. The finger traces of its builders streak the walls. The window and door frames are turquoise, the paint peeling off in blue scales.

The waitress has left us dark bottles of home-brewed beer and basket of chile peppers, poblanos and serranos, little green sticks of dynamite. We eat them until our mouths are enflamed with an exquisite pain.

Some ethnopharmacologists swear that you can hallucinate this way. But being novices, and wanting later to amble in a nearly erect manner across ancient ruins outside town, my friend Fremont and I decide to linger on the bright edges of consciousness, here in this beautiful and tragic place, where macaws in wicker cages hang above us like cackling white blooms. These birds of the jungle were sacred to the Anasazi, Hohokam and other people of the northern desert. I have seen petroglyphs of macaws carved into pink sandstone cliffs high above the San Juan River in Colorado, a thousand miles away from the nearest rainforest.

The complexities of these ancient trading networks are astounding to me, but they shouldn’t be. The indigenous culture of Mexico was ever bit as advanced as the Egyptians or the Athenians. More advanced in many ways, particularly in its relatively benign relationship to the land.

We are waiting on a man to lead us through Paquimé, the large complex of ruins of one of the most sophisticated cities of pre-Columbian America, located a few miles outside town. For nearly 1,000 years, Paquimé was the ruling cultural and political center of northern Mexico. It was the nexus in a vast web of trade and commerce that extended in a 500-mile radius. Its architecture and agronomy practices were exported north to the Mimbres and Pueblos of New Mexico and Arizona. So were its macaws. In fact, the breeding and trading of birds may have been the main source of wealth for this city of 20,000.

A wind blows from the east. The fumes from a Pemex plant invade the air. It is a suffocating sensation, with each breath a black clotting of the lungs. Finally, an archaic truck rattles to a halt in front of our table. A small, wiry man climbs out of the driver’s side window. His dark face is fissured with wrinkles. He has a beautiful smile. He has no teeth.

His name is José Lopez. He is a mestizo from Oputo, a small village on the Rio de Bavispe, 70 miles to the west. He has worked many jobs. He says he has logged timber in the Sierra Madre for Champion, International. He has stitched soles on running shoes, getting $2 for a 14-hour day. He worked in the Pemex refinery, until he fell and broke his back. It has almost healed, he says. Now he does odds and ends. He leads tourists to Paquimé. He speaks English. He is 78 years old.

We climb in the back, careful not to put too much weight on the truck bed’s thin crust of rust, and rumble down a narrow dirt road, casting behind us a billowing plume of smoke and dust. We watch the chilling disparities between life in rural Mexico and rural New Mexico, one of the poorest regions in the US, unscroll before us: children huddled on the roadside under red, woven blankets; women carrying wooden buckets of water taken from the hideously polluted Casa Grandes River for miles to tin shacks in barrios beside open sewers; men working the dry beanfields under a blistering sun.

The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa called Mexico “the land of the perfect dictatorship.” It is a dictatorship that has been created, propped up, anointed and rewarded by the US government for nearly a century, ever since Black Jack Pershing busted across the border in 1917, vowing to bring back Pancho Villa “in an iron cage.”

We have logged their forests, drained their oil fields, fixed their elections, threatened to seize their treasury, send them our sweatshops, our drug financiers and maquiladoras. For the last decade or so NAFTA has been at work, grinding away at the Mexico’s poor and indigenous people. In return, we have sealed our border against the “scourge of brown immigrants.”

José brings the truck to a halt on the crest of a small hill overlooking a sprawling labyrinth of stone structures. The hill itself, José says with a slightly creepy edge to his voice, is a ceremonial mound. The ruins of Paquimé are thirty times the size of the celebrated Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon, the largest Anasazi site in the American Southwest. Paquimé once featured condominium-like structures six stories tall, dozens of Mayan-like ball fields, temples, warehouses, marketplaces and plazas. Now it is empty and crumbling, a city of ghosts.

We descend into the ruin, passing down narrow corridors and steep staircases to a subterranean layer, more than 10 feet below the surface. Around 1350, Paquimé was hit by a series of catastrophes: an earthquake, a meteor strike, and finally, a vicious attack by a well-armed enemy, perhaps the Aztecs. The city was abandoned by 1400 and never reinhabited.

José is telling the story of Paquimé in a vault that once stored beans, squash, chiles, peyote, and maize, when we are startled by a hollow buzzing, an insect sound, like the drone of a cicada. José motions us to stay still, while he performs a strange ballet across the floor into a dark corner of the room. Moments later he emerges into the filtered light holding a pure white rattlesnake, its tail twisting around his thin forearms. (Did he keep it here to impress the tourists? A conjuror’s pet? If so, it worked.)

José rubs the flesh of the rattlesnake against our cheeks. This is not a ritualistic act, but an offering of experience. The snake is warm and smooth. I can feel the beating of its heart. Then José places the snake on the cold stone floor. It coils, then uncoils and vanishes into the fractured wall. José lights a cigarette and coughs. “It’s all going to go as it did before,” he says. “First the Indians, then the forest.” Then he leaves us, alone in the deep silence of the sandstone ruins.

* * *

The libertarian economist John Baden used to quip that “even God wouldn’t try to grow trees in Utah.” The same maxim can be applied to the rest of the Southwest. You can cut down the primary forest, but you’ll have a helluva time getting it to ever come back. There are 500-acre clearcuts on the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico (one of the moister parts of the region) logged in the early 1960s where the replanted trees remain shorter than your shoulders. It’s a dry land and it’s getting drier.

Desert forests, the green embroidery of the Southwestern landscape, are intimately tied to two features: water and elevation. The abstract concept of biological corridors is vividly expressed here on the face of the land itself, as the riparian forests (what’s left of them) form thin veins through the vast deserts, linking the denser forests of distant mountain ranges. In the Pacific Northwest, the lower you go, the bigger the trees. That trend is reversed in the Southwest, where the deep forests of Mt. Graham float on a sky island a mile above the Arizona desert.

These factors create complex forest ecosystems that are extremely vulnerable to external influences, partially accounting for the paucity of old-growth in New Mexico and Arizona. In fact, the only region of the country with less old-growth forest than the Southwest is the southern coastal plain, now on its fourth generation of monocultural plantations.

Of course, the main reason the Southwest lacks old growth is the mission of the Forest Service, which has waged a vicious attack on the region’s forests for the past 40 years. On the surface, the agency’s timber sale program appears to be an exercise in economic irrationality, since it loses nearly $10 million every year. In reality, of course, this largesse translated into corporate entitlements for companies like Duke City Lumber, Kaibab Forest Products and Stone Forest Industries, whose mills served as the charnel houses for the forests of the Southwest, annually grinding up about 500 million board feet of public timber.

The presence of any significant chunks of old-growth in the Southwest today is largely due to the determined efforts of two tireless environmentalists: Robin Silver and Sam Hitt. Using the declining populations of Mexican spotted owls and northern goshawks as a legal wedge, Hitt and Silver teamed up with a pair of courageous scientists, Cole Crocker-Bedford and Peter Stacey, to craft a barrage of appeals, lawsuits and Endangered Species Act petitions that eventually paralyzed the agency into something like submission.

Meanwhile, the “managed” forests of the region are sprucing up. And I don’t mean they are getting cleaner. Less than a century ago, the forests of the Mogollon Rim, for example, were among the most exquisite on the continent: cool and open stands of big yellow-bellied ponderosa pines. Today these forests have been transformed into a cluttered thickets of spruce and piss-fir. It is the old story of mismanagement played out on a bioregional scale: grazing, high-grading and fire suppression.

The ecosystem has been terraformed, inverted almost. But the forest is aiming to right itself of its own volition. The fuel is building up. The fires will come. There will be no stopping them. And the once and future forest will rise up out of the ashes like a true phoenix. Burn, baby, burn.

* * *

Once again I am drawn back, almost as if down the pathways of a dream, to the image of Old Oraibi at dusk, a dark mesa in an ancient light. Oraibi, sacred city of the Hopi, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in North America. Here a complex society and agriculture co-evolved with a parched landscape of sand and stone. Here is a community that has sustained itself under the harshest conditions of nature, internal strife and cultural aggression. The survival of Oraibi derives from a cultivated wisdom about the desert, an intimate knowledge of its limitations and capabilities.

“Together we realize the dangers of losing our land and our culture,” the late Hopi elder Thomas Banyacya told me years ago. “We must come together will all people to protect this land or it will die.”

There are answers here to question I have not yet learned to ask. They involve the nature of paradox: pacifism and resistance; despair and hope; poverty and wealth; change and tradition; freedom and responsibility; wilderness and community.

Standing at the base of Oraibi as the orange sun eases below Third Mesa, I am overwhelmed by the irresistible power of this place, by a fierce love for the land, by an unyielding desire for justice for its people.

This essay is adapted from a chapter in Born Under a Bad Sky

Booked Up

What I’m reading this week…

The Other Slavery: the Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andrés Reséndez

A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell by Donald Worster

The Rock Art of Utah by Polly Schaafsma

Sound Grammar

What I’m listening to this week…

Way Out West by Sonny Rollins

A Little Bit is Better Than Nada by Texas Tornados

Acoustic En Vivo by Los Lobos

Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger by Bo Diddley

Perdóname Mi Amor by Los Tucanes de Tijuana

 

Venezuela Crisis: the US Wants “Its” Country Back

Photo by Diariocritico de Venezuela | CC BY 2.0

What is taking place in Venezuela is an attempt at counterrevolution. Washington wants ‘its’ country back, which is why it is providing both overt and covert support to an opposition determined to return the country to its previous status as a wholly owned subsidiary of the United States.

What needs to be emphasized in all this is that in establishing a Constituent Assembly in Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro is acting in full accordance with the country’s constitution. To wit:

Article 348: The initiative for calling a National Constituent Assembly may emanate from the President of the Republic sitting with the Cabinet of Ministers; from the National Assembly, by a two thirds vote of its members; from the Municipal Councils in open session, by a two-thirds vote of their members; and from 15% of the voters registered with the Civil and Electoral Registry.

As to the opposition’s attempts to derail the establishment of the Constituent Assembly with street protests, rioting and a call for a nationwide boycott of the election of delegates to the new assembly, these have been undertaken in contravention of the Constitution, of which Article 349 stipulates: ‘The President of the Republic shall not have the power to object to the new Constitution. The existing constituted authorities shall not be permitted to obstruct the Constituent Assembly in any way (my emphasis)’.

It goes without saying, of course, that people cannot eat a constitution. With food shortages, a shortage of medicines, and rampant inflation the norm, only the most foolish would attempt to suggest that Mr Maduro and his government have no questions to answer over a crisis that has turned Venezuelan society upside down.

But those questions are not the same as the ones being asked amid the welter of anti-government media coverage in the West. In what has been tantamount to a frog’s chorus of condemnation, Maduro and his government have been calumniated with the kind of vituperation reserved only for those who dare embark on a program of wealth redistribution in favor of the poor and working class. For such people socialism is anathema, a mortal threat to their conception of freedom as a mechanism by which, per Thucydides, ‘the strong (rich) do what they can, and the weak (poor) suffer as they must’.

Here is CNN’s treatment of the election, held on 30 July, to mandate the establishment of the Constituent Assembly. ‘Critics in Venezuela and abroad argue a Maduro mandate would erode any last signs of democracy in the country. “It would give the government the opportunity to turn Venezuela into a one-party state without any of the trappings of democracy,” says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, a business association’.

Two things stand out in this passage. The first is the claim that the Constituent Assembly is undemocratic. Given the aforementioned articles of the country’s constitution this is entirely false. The second is Mr Farnsworth’s position as ‘vice president of the Council of the Americas, a business association’.

The Council of the Americas is an organization based in the United States with offices in Washington DC, New York, and Miami. In its mission statement it describes itself as ‘the premier international business organization whose members share a common commitment to economic and social development, open markets, the rule of law, and democracy throughout the Western Hemisphere’.

Reading this passage, you will struggle to find a more concise, if cryptic, support for free market capitalism and the rights it confers on the rich to exploit the poor in the name of democracy. As author George Ciccariello-Maher points out, “the opposition’s undemocratic aspirations come draped in the language of democracy.” Moreover, when we learn that US Vice President, Mike Pence, has been in direct contact with Venezuelan opposition leaders, our collective memory should immediately transport us back in time to Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954, Indonesia in 1965, Chile in 1973, and of course Ukraine in 2014 – previous examples where the US has actively supported coups that have unseated leaders with the temerity to refuse to obey their imperial overlord.

It really isn’t rocket science, especially in the case of a country where a Washington-backed coup was previously attempted and failed in 2002.

Venezuela’s economic problems are predominately down to the collapse in global oil prices that has ensued in recent years. Between 2014 and 2018 the price of crude plummetedfrom $96.29 to $40.68 a barrel, a mammoth drop of over 40 per cent. And though the price has recovered in 2017, at $50.31 a barrel it remains a long way off its peak 2012 price of $108.45 a barrel.

For a country whose economy is dependent on the price of oil, such a seismic drop can only produce an equally seismic economic shock. Crucially, with oil being Venezuela’s only export commodity of note, the crisis has exposed structural weaknesses in the economy that long predate the arrival on the scene of Hugo Chavez never mind his successor, Nicolas Maduro.

As mentioned, though, the Maduro government is not without blame for the ongoing crisis. Returning to George Ciccariello-Maher, we learn that a “failing system of currency controls governing the distribution of oil income was never fully dismantled. The result was a destructive feedback loop of black-market currency speculation, the hoarding and smuggling of gasoline and food, and an explosion of already rampant corruption at the intersection of the private and public sectors. Confronted with street protests and food shortages, Maduro responded erratically, supporting grassroots production by communes while simultaneously courting private corporations in a bid to keep food on the shelves.”

What is crucial to understand is that events in Venezuela are not taking place in a vacuum. This oil rich country, once a beacon of hope for the continent’s poor, indigenous, and oppressed with the coming of Hugo Chavez to power in 1999, is experiencing the particular challenges involved in trying to create an island of socialism surrounded by a sea of US-dominated capitalism.

Its vulnerability to the volatility of oil prices merely confirms the presence of large reserves of oil can distort rather than enhance a nation’s economic development, particularly in the Global South where economic diversification bumps up against the reality of the domination of global markets by Western financial institutions and corporations.

In the last analysis, it is capitalism not socialism that has failed the people of Venezuela. However socialism is being made to carry the can.

Forget Principles, Impose Sanctions!

Photo by Seattleye | CC BY 2.0

“Failure comes only when we forget our ideals and objectives and principles.”

— Jawaharlal Nehru

“Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them . . .  well, I have others.”

— Groucho Marx

There is generally a degree of hypocrisy about the infliction of sanctions on a country by another country or group of countries. Those who impose sanctions assert that their target has done something terribly wrong which will be corrected following its recognition that superior beings are setting an international example of flawless moral rectitude, but it is doubtful that such perfection exists.

If the sanctioning countries were in reality superior in moral behavior to every other nation on the planet, this might possibly excuse such action in some cases;  but at times the unwelcome fact emerges that imposing sanctions is usually an act of sanctimonious humbug.

Take India and Pakistan, for example.  India conducted nuclear tests in May 1998 and Pakistan followed suit “to even the score” in an ill-advised counterstroke. There was outrage in Washington.  President Clinton, notable for his high moral standards, declared that India’s tests “clearly create a dangerous new instability in their region and . . .  I have decided to impose sanctions against India.” Then he took the same action against Pakistan.

Both countries were subjected to severe economic penalties at the instigation of Washington.  The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund were forbidden to help them, and there were many other punishments.  The western world, and especially Israel, which had been producing nuclear weapons for years, expected sanctions to have the effect of halting the nuclear weapons programs of both countries.

The US Assistant Secretary for South Asian Affairs echoed the President’s righteous indignation and told the Senate that “this action by India not only threatens the stability of the region, it directly challenges the firm international consensus to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”

But today India and Pakistan each have about 130 nuclear warheads in bombs and ballistic missiles and their nuclear weapons programs are at full throttle.  There has been massive nuclear proliferation.  So what could have happened?  Why didn’t sanctions work?

What happened was that another paragon of moral integrity, George W Bush, decided to remove sanctions on India and Pakistan because “We intend to support those who support us. We intend to work with those governments that work with us in this fight [against terrorism].”

As Groucho Marx once said, with a cynical eye on the world around him, “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them . . .  well, I have others.”

The latest sanctions on Russia are a prime example of malevolent spite, and are intended to make life as difficult as possible for its citizens in the hope that they will revolt and overthrow President Putin, just as sanctions on Cuba were intended to have Cubans topple President Castro, if the CIA couldn’t murder him first. (They tried many times.) The US has been punishing Cuba for almost sixty years, but, as observed by the Cato Institute, “the embargo has been a failure by every measure. It has not changed the course or nature of the Cuban government. It has not liberated a single Cuban citizen . . .”

Obama tried to end the petty, spiteful anti-Cuba campaign, but the psychotic Trump got things back to normal by announcing introduction of even harsher restrictions, including a ban on tourism.  That is intended to stop Cubans supporting their government. But workers in ports and airfields and hotels and night clubs and restaurants — and the vast majority of other Cubans — will condemn Washington, and not their government for their hardship.

Then there were the years of punishment of Iraq which penalized its citizens to a criminal degree.  The US attitude was summed up by Ambassador Madeleine Albright, who was asked on television if she considered the deaths of half a million Iraqi children a reasonable result of US sanctions. She replied “This is a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it.”  This callous, pitiless, utterly heartless statement was indicative of US official policy — which continues, world-wide.

But that’s what sanctions are all about.  And the latest bout of jubilant vindictiveness centers on Russia. To the joy of the warmongers, and especially of NATO, so desperately seeking a reason for its continued existence, the Cold War has begun again.

But there’s a little problem for Washington’s saber–rattling psychos.

Unfortunately for US national pride, there are some things for which it has to rely on Russia. An embarrassing fact is that US astronauts are ferried to and from the International Space Station in Russian rockets, and that some most important American rockets rely on Russian engines.

So among its vicious measures to try to punish Russia the US Congress didn’t include sanctions that might be awkward for US space programs. There were no mainstream media reports about this humiliating tap-dancing, but one observation was that “Officials at Orbital ATK [an American aerospace and military equipment manufacturer] and ULA [a Lockheed-Boeing space venture] breathed sighs of relief as the US Senate voted overwhelmingly to exempt rocket engines from a sanctions bill targeting Iran and Russia. The amendment to the sanctions measure exempted RD-180 engines used by ULA in the first stage of its Atlas V booster and the RD-181 engines Orbital ATK uses in the first stage of its Antares launch vehicle. Both engines are produced by NPO Energomash of Russia.”

And the really funny thing is that the Russian-engined Atlas V rocket launches US spy satellites for the National Reconnaissance Office, the NRO.  On 1 March NASA reported the seventieth mission by an Atlas V, when “a final launch verification took place at T-16 seconds, leading to the start sequence of the RD-180 engine at the base of the Atlas V core at T-2.7 seconds.”  They couldn’t possibly mention that the RD-180 is made in Russia.

As observed by Britain’s Royal Aeronautical Society, “The information hoovered up by these satellites is radioed to ground stations around the world and then sent across secure networks to the US. The satellites are developed and launched by the NRO but once in orbit they are used by the NSA to intercept radio traffic.”

In 2014 there was a mega-patriotic principled move in Washington to ban Russian rocket engines from US rockets, and “the Senate voted 89-11 to approve a bill Friday that would ban the Pentagon from awarding future rocket launch contracts to firms using Russian engines.”  The Senators were obviously determined to stand firm on their principles and punish Russia.  You had to admire their virtuously moral decision.

But then things changed, and Space Flight Now reported that the ban had been lifted, so that “the Air Force could award launch contracts to any company certified to fly the Pentagon’s satellites, regardless of the country of origin of the rocket’s engines. The lifting of the engine restriction was backed by Senator Richard Shelby, a Republican of Alabama, where ULA’s rocket factory is located.”  His amendment received full Senate support. (He received $40,000 from Boeing during the 2016 election cycle.)

How very principled.

The US Senate and House of Representatives support imposition of sanctions all round the world on the most principled grounds — except when their actions would interfere with the profits of the US aerospace industry and Washington’s ability to spy on us all from space.

To the despair and fury of the war fanatics in Washington and Brussels who are determined to increase the already dangerous level of US-NATO confrontation with Moscow, there are examples of  US-Russia cooperation which they cannot destroy.

The International Space Station is a heart-warming example of US-Russia teamwork which is anathema to every Senator and member of the House of Representatives and the Washington Post. Not one of them has ever mentioned the gratitude the US owes Russia for its many years of willing cooperation.  As recorded by NASA on 28 July — at the height of the Senate’s war-crazed anti-Russia hysteria — “This morning, a trio of astronauts will make their way to the International Space Station, launching on top of a Russian Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan. They will join the three astronauts already living on board the ISS.”

Groucho Marx put it well by saying “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them . . . well, I have others.”  He was joking, but the US Congress is deadly serious. What a bunch of humbugs.

No Country on Earth Fully Safeguards Labor Rights

Photo by Rob Oo | CC BY 2.0

There is no country on Earth in which violations of labor rights do not occur. The best rating is for those which are merely “irregular violators of rights,” and only 12 countries managed that.

The International Trade Union Confederation, in its annual Global Rights Index report on the state of labor around the world, has once again provided sobering news. Sixty percent of countries exclude whole categories of workers from labor law, the ITUC report says, indicative that “corporate interests are being put ahead of the interests of working people in the global economy.” The ITUC’s general secretary, Sharan Burrow, said:

“Denying workers protection under labour laws creates a hidden workforce, where governments and companies refuse to take responsibility, especially for migrant workers, domestic workers and those on short term contracts. In too many countries, fundamental democratic rights are being undermined by corporate interests.”

Among the key findings of the report:

* More than three-quarters of countries deny some or all workers their right to strike.

* More than three-quarters of countries deny some or all workers collective bargaining,

* Eighty-four countries exclude groups of workers from labor law.

* The number of countries in which workers are exposed to physical violence and threats increased to 59 countries from 52 a year earlier.

* Unionists were murdered in 11 countries, including Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Mauritania, Mexico, Peru, the Philippines and Venezuela.

International labor standards

To assess the state of global labor, the International Trade Union Confederation, “a confederation” of national trade unions, sends questionnaires to its affiliates in 161 countries and territories representing 176 million workers, with the intention of covering as many aspects of the right to freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike as possible. The information collected is then used to assess whether a given country meets standards set by the International Labour Organization.

These standards are examined by answering “yes” or “no” to 97 indicators arranged in five categories: Fundamental civil liberties; the right to establish or join unions; trade union activities; the right to collective bargaining; and the right to strike. The reason for a binary “yes” or “no” rather than a gradated scale is because “this method reduces the normative subjectivity of the analyst who carries out the coding,” the ITUC said. Further, because each of the 97 indicators is based on “universally binding obligations,” companies and government are required to meet them in full.

When the ITUC first carried out this survey, in 2014, the highest score attained was 43, meaning that no country had even half of its questions answered with a “yes.” In other words, every country in the world flunked.

For the 2017 report, the ITUC did not indicate the range of country scores, but followed its previous format of grouping countries into five tiers. The top tier, in which countries merely “irregular violate” labor rights, consists of 12 countries, which are marked in green on the map below. Eleven are found in Europe, and one in Latin America, Uruguay. (Yellow represents the second tier, followed by progressively darker shades of orange and red, the worst violators.)

The rankings are as follows:

* 1. Irregular violations of rights: 12 countries including France, Germany and Sweden.

* 2. Repeated violations of rights: 21 countries including Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.

* 3. Regular violations of rights: 26 countries including Australia and Chile.

* 4. Systematic violations of rights: 34 countries including Brazil, Britain and the United States.

* 5. No guarantee of rights: 35 countries including India, Mexico and the Philippines.

* 5+ No guarantee of rights due to breakdown of the rule of law: 11 countries including Burundi, Palestine and Syria.

U.S., Britain systematic violators of labor rights

The United States was also rated a “four” in 2014, while Britain has slipped from being ranked a “three” then. Once again, that means the U.S. and U.K. commit “systematic violations” of labor rights — so much for those governments’ endless attempts to assert moral authority over the rest of the world. The Trump and May governments are not likely to improve upon these rankings. In regards to U.S. deficiencies, the ITUC report says:

“Far from consulting with unions regarding labour law and policy, some states and U.S. politicians have taken deliberate steps to roll back workers’ collective bargaining rights. … The National Labour Relations Act (NLRA) and judicial decisions interpreting the law prohibit workers from engaging in sitdown strikes, partial strikes and secondary boycotts, and impose other restrictions on organisational or recognitional strikes.”

Embarrassingly for a country governed by a party calling itself a “Coalition of the Radical Left,” Greece is among the countries with a ranking of “five.” This ranking is due to harsh restrictions on collective bargaining that were implemented beginning in 2010 through several laws on orders of the “troika” — the European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund — which led to “a significant erosion” of labor rights.

Ironically, the Eurogroup president, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, says that collective bargaining is a “best practice” of the European Union, but the EU continues to block any attempt by the Syriza government to restore labor protections. A proposed law to re-establish collective bargaining was not submitted to the Greek parliament because of troika disapproval.

A sobering reminder of what capitalism offers working people: A race to the bottom and more exploitation. Surely, the world can do better.

The Inconvenient Truth About Al Gore

Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel | CC BY 2.0

Al Gore is again making headlines with the release of his latest documentary An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.  While Gore may be delivering an important message about climate change and the fate of our fragile ecosystems, one must be weary of the messenger’s past, for Gore’s own environmental record leaves much to be desired. And I’m not talking about his soaring electricity bills.

Gore’s reputation as the liberal standard bearer of environmentalism dates back to the early 1990’s when his book Earth in Balance outlined the perilous threats to the natural world. Not long after the book’s release he infamously showboated his green credentials at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, which garnered respect for Gore among Beltway greens, who praised the young senator for his willingness to take sides on controversial issues. But his tough talk was full of bluff and bluster. Gore’s rebel streak had limits. While serving as Vice President under Bill Clinton, Gore was put in charge of the administration’s environmental portfolio but had little to show for it.

Other than his alleged environmental convictions, Gore was politically timid when push came to shove in Washington. During Clinton’s barnstorming campaign for president in 1992, Gore promised a group of supporters that Clinton’s EPA would never approve a hazardous waste incinerator located near an elementary school in Liverpool, Ohio, which was operated by WTI. Only three months into Clinton’s tenure the EPA issued an operating permit for the toxic burner. Gore raised no qualms. Unsurprisingly, most of the money behind WTI came from the bulging wallet of Jackson Stephens, who also happened to be one of the Clinton/Gore’s top campaign contributors.

Perhaps Gore’s greatest strategic blunder during his years as VP was his allegiance to the conservative Democratic Leadership Council and their erroneous approach to environmental policy. Gore, like Clinton who quipped that “the invisible hand has a green thumb,” extolled a free-market attitude toward environmental issues. “Since the mid-1980s Gore has argued with increasing stridency that the bracing forces of market capitalism are potent curatives for the ecological entropy now bearing down on the global environment,” wrote my co-editor Jeffrey St. Clair in Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: The Politics of Nature. “He is a passionate disciple of the gospel of efficiency, suffused with an inchoate technopilia.”

Then came the first of the Clinton administration’s neoliberal wet dreams: NAFTA. After the passage of NAFTA, pollution along the US/Mexico border dramatically increased. Gore knew better; NAFTA allowed existing environmental laws in the United States to be undermined. Corporations looking to turn a quick profit by skating enviro statutes at home moved to Mexico where environmental standards and regulatory enforcement were scarce.

These follies were followed by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt’s destructive deal with the sugar barons of South Florida, which doomed vast acreages of the Everglades. Gore and his office were silent. Then Gore and Clinton capitulated to the demands of Western Democrats and yanked from its initial budget proposals a call to reform grazing, mining, and timber practices on federal lands. When Clinton convened a timber summit in Portland, Oregon, in April 1994, the conference was, as one might expect, dominated by logging interests. Predictably, the summit gave way to a plan to restart clear-cutting in the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest for the first time in three years, giving the timber industry exactly what it desired. Gore, again, said nothing.

Forests, one of our last defences against climate change, didn’t fare well under Clinton/Gore. The Clinton administration’s Salvage Rider, known to radical environmentalists as the “Logging without Laws” rider, was perhaps the most gruesome legislation ever enacted under the pretext of preserving ecosystem health. Like Bush’s “Healthy Forests” plan, Clinton’s act, which Gore supported, was choc full of deception and special interest pandering.

“When [the Salvage Rider] bill was given to me, I was told that the timber industry was circulating this language among the Northwest Congressional delegation and others to try to get it attached as a rider to the fiscal year Interior Spending Bill,” environmental lawyer Kevin Kirchner says. “There is no question that representatives of the timber industry had a role in promoting this rider. That is no secret.”

In fact, Mark Rey, a former lobbyist for the timber industry and former head of the United States Forest Service under Bush, authored Bush’s forest plan and Clinton’s salvage bill while working as an aide for Republican Senator Larry Craig of Idaho. “Like Bush’s so-called ‘Healthy Forest Initiative,’ the Salvage Rider temporarily exempted salvage timber sales on federal forest lands from environmental and wildlife laws, administrative appeals, and judicial review,” contended the Wilderness Society.

“The Salvage Rider directed the Forest Service to cut old-growth timber in the Pacific Northwest that the agency had proposed for sale but subsequently withdrew due to environmental concerns, endangered species listings, and court rulings. Bush’s initiative also aims to increase logging of old-growth trees in the Pacific Northwest.”

Clinton and Gore during the time could have exercised presidential authority to force the relevant agencies to abandon all timber contracts that stemmed from the Salvage Rider. But they never flexed their regulatory muscle and instead sat by as the forests were subjected to gruesome annihilation.

An example of the ruin: Thousands of acres of healthy forestland across the West were rampaged. Washington’s Colville National Forest saw the clear cutting of over 4,000 acres. Thousands more in Montana’s Yaak River Basin, hundreds of acres of pristine forest land in Idaho, while the endangered Mexican Spotted Owl habitat in Arizona fell victim to corporate interests. Old growth trees in Washington’s majestic Olympic Peninsula — home to wild Steelhead, endangered Sockeye salmon, and threatened Marbled Murrelet — were chopped with unremitting provocation.

The assault on our forests continued with Gore’s blessing.

Around the same time Clinton and Gore, after arm-twisting from the food industry, signed away the Delaney Clause, which prohibited cancer-causing pesticides and ingredients to be placed in our food products. And after pressure from big corporations like chemical giant DuPont, the Clinton administration, with guidance from Gore’s office, cut numerous deals over the pesticide Methyl Bromide, despite its reported effects of contributing to Ozone depletion.

As for Gore’s pet project, global warming, he did little to help curb its dramatic effects while handling Clinton’s environmental policies. In fact, Gore and Clinton made it easy for Bush and Cheney to back out of the Kyoto Protocol by undermining the agreement in the late 1990s, not unlike Trump’s Paris Accord capitulation. “Signing the Protocol, while an important step forward, imposes no obligations on the United States. The Protocol becomes binding only with the advice and consent of the US Senate,” Gore said at the time. “As we have said before, we will not submit the Protocol for ratification without the meaningful participation of key developing countries in efforts to address climate change.” Sadly, Gore stood by his promise.

Although the Kyoto Accord was a gigantic step forward in addressing global warming, Gore opposed the watered down version despite its numerous loopholes that would have allowed US corporations to continue their pollution as usual business practices. But Gore backed off in hopes of not alienating the Democrats’ labor base who worried that new environmental standards would shift jobs to developing nations with weaker regulations. Hence Kyoto’s derailment and the Democrats set-up for Bush’s misdeeds, which are still with us to this day.

The toxic list goes on.

So while Al Gore flies around the world to preach to the masses about the dangerous effects of global warming and its inherent threat to life on Earth — you may want to ask yourself whether the hypocritical Gores of the world are more a part of the problem than a solution to the dire climate that surrounds us all.

Big Oil’s Bi-Partisan Helpers: a Refiner’s Fire 5 Years Later

Photo by Matt Jiggins | CC BY 2.0

Five years ago, my wife and I moved to Richmond, CA and soon learned about the local emergency response protocol known as “shelter in place.”

When large fires break out in Bay Area refineries, like the century old Chevron facility near our house, first a siren sounds. Then public officials direct everyone nearby to take cover inside. Doors must be closed, windows taped shut, if possible, and air conditioning turned off.

August 6th is the fifth anniversary of such self-help efforts in Richmond. On that day in 2012, we looked up and saw an eruption worthy of Mount Vesuvius. Due to pipe corrosion and lax maintenance practices, a Chevron processing unit sprang a leak. The escaping petroleum vapor reached an ignition source. This led to a raging fire that Contra Costa County (home to four refineries) classified as a “Level 3 incident,” posing the highest level of danger.

Nineteen oil workers narrowly escaped death at the scene of the accident. It sent a towering plume of toxic smoke over much of the East Bay and fifteen thousand refinery neighbors in search of medical attention for respiratory complaints, While local property values took a hit, Chevron stayed on track to make $25 billion in profits that year.

Hunkering Down or Fighting Back?

Hunkering down at home and hoping for the best–or going to see the doctor–is no substitute for addressing a problem of this scale at its source. The Chevron fire became a wake up call for citizen action to make California refineries safer for their own workers and less harmful to air quality, community health, and the environment in general.

Since August, 2012, labor and community organizers have used lobbying, litigation, regulatory intervention, electoral politics, and strike activity to pursue these goals. There has been some safety enforcement progress, modest financial concessions by Big Oil, and related promises to behave better in the future.  Yet, thanks to Big Oil’s legal and political clout in our nation’s second largest oil refining state, the wheels of environmental justice turn much too slowly.

On the plus side, after the 2012 fire, Chevron quickly pleaded “no contest” to six criminal charges filed by state and local prosecutors, agreeing to pay $2 million in fines and restitution. It was also placed on probation; while in that status, the company pledged to improve its pipe leak and emergency response training, inspection of pipes for corrosion, and overall safety conditions.

After protracted negotiations with municipal leaders in Richmond, the company began a $1 billion modernization project, which management contends will make its refinery safer and cleaner. (Skeptics fear the overhaul will lead to  dirtier forms of crude oil being processed in Richmond.) City officials—elected to be stronger environmental watchdogs–secured a $90 million, post-fire community benefits agreement, which includes funding for expanded solar energy use in the city.

Suing Chevron

In 2013, Richmond also filed suit against Chevron seeking monetary damages for “years of neglect, lax oversight, and corporate indifference to necessary safety inspection and repairs.” Our current mayor, Tom Butt, predicts the case will be “settled on the courthouse steps” but the parties haven’t gotten that far yet, after four years of litigation. (Litigation against the company, filed by Ecuadoran famers for damage to their country’s rain forest is now in its fifteenth year.) Meanwhile, two other public entities in California—the counties of Marin and San Mateo—are suing Chevron, a major source of carbon emissions, over its damaging contribution to global warming.

On July 24, Chevron did finally agree to do more Richmond refinery pipe replacement, safety training, and equipment monitoring, plus pay  $1 million in fines assessed by Cal-OSHA for now five-year old violations. In May, after persistent lobbying by labor and environmental groups in the Blue-Green Alliance, the Brown Administration issued what the Alliance calls “the nation’s strongest refinery safety regulations.”  Echoing strike demands by the United Steel Workers during its national oil industry contract campaign three years ago, these new rules give refinery workers an expanded role in hazard reduction.

Unfortunately, our Democrat-dominated legislature has just blocked the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (and others like it around the state) from adopting stronger refinery emission curbs under consideration since the Chevron fire. This “pre-emption” of Air Quality Board authority is the price Californians will pay for legislative approval of Governor Jerry Brown’s controversial “cap and trade” program (which lets Chevron and other firms pay to pollute).

Meanwhile, in Congress, President Trump is trying to de-fund the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. This tiny $11 million a year agency probed the Richmond fire, produced an informative report on its causes, and helped shape Cal-OSHA’s resulting rule-making process. California’s new refinery safety standards reflect Chemical Safety Board recommendations that are never mandatory because the CSB lacks such legal authority. (For details, see here.)

Bi-partisan undermining or elimination of state and federal oversight bodies is a big step in the wrong direction.

At their best, Cal-OSHA, the CSB, and California’s Air Quality Districts operate at a snail’s pace, while giving corporate law-breakers an overdose of due process. In the end, they impose weaker penalties than needed or, in the CSB’s case, can’t fine anybody for anything. (That defect notwithstanding, the Trump Administration still wants to abolish the Board as part of its broader de-regulation drive.)

On the fifth anniversary of the Chevron fire in Richmond, oil industry safety investigations, limits on refinery emissions, and financial compensation for people or a planet badly scarred by Big Oil will require citizen action on a far scale larger than ever before.

Los Angeles (and the Nation) Needs a New Deal to Solve Its Lack of Affordable Housing

In 2017 Los Angeles like many other cities in the United States has a huge lack of affordable housing similar to the terrible housing shortage the city had in World War II. Gentrification in Los Angeles has meant evictions of thousands and house destruction in a huge swath of Central Los Angeles from Venice beach through Hollywood to Boyle Heights east of downtown. In 2014 NPR reported that “the U.S. is in the midst of what Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan calls the ‘worst rental affordability crisis’ ever.” Nation wide huge numbers of people pay ½ or more of their income for housing or live in substandard housing or are the homeless. .

In March 17, 2015, the Wall Street Journal reporter Alejandro Lazo cites a California report shows that the state’s high housing costs is “crimping economic productivity, increasing poverty, lowering home ownership, increasing crowding, and increasing commute times. What has caused Los Angeles’, California’s and the nation’s terrible shortage of affordable housing of 2017? Urban planner Dick Platkin said, “Since the days of LA Mayor Tom Bradley in the 1980s to date, from Washington, DC, to LA’s City Hall, the Democratic Party’s approach has been a three-legged stool: jettison zoning and environmental laws, abolish government housing programs, and bend over backwards for glad-handing real estate speculators.”

FDR’s New Deal had a large number of programs that successfully increased affordable urban housing so there was no housing shortage by the late 1950s. The New Deal recognized that living in substandard slum housing had for decades harmed its inhabitants’ health and that the private sector refused to build enough lost-cost apartments and homes. The Public Works Administration of 1933 among its many building projects built 29,000 units of public housing in 4 12 years. Also in 1933 the Home Owners Loan Corporation was passed to prevent the huge numbers of foreclosures then occurring by giving homeowners longer term loans with lower interest rates allowing many people to keep their homes

The National Housing Act of 1934 created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) that set national standards for building and underwriting of homes as well insuring banks’ home loans for home building. The FHA over the decades insured over 34 million home mortgages and 47,250 multi-unit projects.  The National Housing Act also insured loans starting in 1935 for large-scale, rental housing projects and workers’ housing projects during World War II.  Lastly the Housing Act of 1937 was passed that provided for the U.S. government to pay subsidies to local public housing agencies to clear slums and build multi-unit public housing projects for low-income families. In Los Angeles the city built 14 public apartment houses.:  Avalon Gardens was built in 1941; William Mead Homes (1941-2); Estrada Courts, 1942-3; Gonzaque Village (formerly Hacienda Village), 1942; Imperial Courts, 1944; Jordan Downs (mid-1940s); and eight other public housing projects.

The final New Deal program was the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 which included veterans’ home loans to help them adjust back to living during peacetime. The VA home loan program has made loans to veterans who had no other way to get loans. The VA has guaranteed over 18 million home loans to veterans to purchase, construct, or refinance a home. In doing so the VA has impacted non-VA home loans making more competition of and liberalization of conventional mortgages. The building of public housing along with the many other New Deal housing programs  solved Los Angeles’ housing shortage by the mid-1950s. Nationwide in the 1950s there were very few homeless and a good stock of affordable housing including public housing projects.

Unfortunately by the 1980s Mayor Bradley announced Los Angeles again had a shortage of affordable housing. City planner Dick Platkin argues that “Mayor Bradley eventually made it clear that the [1980s] crisis resulted from the extensive cutbacks in [government] urban programs” in Nixon-Ford years, Carter years, Reagan years, and Bush 1 years. By 1990 all New Deal housing programs had been eliminated and nationwide housing was dominated by neo-liberalism which Platkin defines as “the myth that the private market could solve persistent urban problem if showered with enough deregulation and financial incentives. “ For decades private developers have been given lots of deregulation and financial incentives, but in the last four decades private developers have refused to build low-cost affordable housing resulting in a nationwide shortage of affordable housing. The recent Ghost Ship fire in Oakland and Grenfall apartment fire in London validates New Dealers belief that unsafe housing causes deaths.

In 1990s the national housing shortage worsened. Edward G. Goetz in his book New Deal Ruins:  Race, Economic Justice, and Public Housing Policy chronicles how national housing policy since the 1990s has demolished public housing and instead has subsidized units in mixed-income communities or uses tenant-based vouchers. Clinton started in 1992 the HOPE VI program which was supposed to help urban residents have good housing by destroying public housing apartments.  For example, in Los Angeles the public housing apartment buildings Aliso Village was destroyed through HOPE VI and replaced by Pueblo del Sol, which consisted of largely semi-detached single family apartments. While Aliso Village had 685 apartments, Pueblo del Sol only has 377 homes. Goetz shows that hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and more than 250,000 affordable housing units have been lost.

Further, Goetz shows how this transformation is related to pressures of gentrification and racism in American cities:  “African Americans have been disproportionately affected by this policy shift; it is the cities in which public housing is most closely identified with minorities that have been the most aggressive in removing units.” Goetz shows myths about failure of public housing are wrong and offers a brilliant argument that renewed investment in public housing is needed.

The federal, state, and city government can help with loan insurance so private developers can build affordable housing as well as have government fund public housing directly. The destruction of current public housing should be stopped and the Hope VI program that destroys apartments stopped. Of course, other programs are needed. In Los Angeles, rent control deals with only a fraction of the apartments and houses available in the city Los Angeles, so it should extended to all apartments and homes in the city of Los Angeles. Also Los Angeles County should have rent control including in unincorporated areas.

Los Angeles refuses to protect historical R-2 neighborhoods with duplexes and apartment so tenants are evicted and duplexes and homes destroyed to build McMansions, some of which become B&B hotels. After a 10-year struggle to protect R-1, neighborhoods with single family dwellings on, city council passed a law protection about 25 small historical neighborhoods from being torn down for McMansions. Historical R-2 neighborhoods should also be protected from tearing down duplexes, apartment houses, and single family dwellings. Los Angeles planning department could refuse to allow big developers to get exceptions to planning and zoning law for their huge high-priced buildings.

California’s legislature should repeal the Ellis Act, a statewide bill that allows landlords who say they are tearing down the building or converting to condos to evict tenants and has resulted in over 22,000 affordable apartments destroyed. A new New Deal is needed to house people safely and decently.