Category Archives: The Peace & Justice Files

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: FIFTY YEARS AFTER

In his memoir WOODSTOCK NATION, Abbie Hoffman paints a telling portrait of  himself at the festival’s end – staggering aimlessly around the deserted, trash-strewn field, stoned out of his mind, and crudely propositioning every female he encounters.

That image comes to mind when I try to figure out what happened to the optimistic peace-and-love vision of the hippies, and why 50 years later we find ourselves in a world that seems in many ways the exact opposite of what they were hoping for.

Part of the fault was our own, of course. (I am lumping myself in with the Woodstock generation here, though I was a little bit younger – still only in junior high when Woodstock happened.)   To put it succinctly, I think we were right to claim the freedoms we claimed, but we forgot… or neglected… or refused to accept the responsibilities involved. 

But there was also a backlash. The conservative establishment responded to the social unrest and cultural upheaval that marked the 1960’s with a campaign that was breathtaking in its depth, scope, and audacity. It was also, we must begrudgingly admit, largely successful. 

We can start with August 28, 1971, just 2 years after Woodstock. A corporate lawyer (and soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice) named Lewis Powell writes a memo to his friend Eugene Sydnor, Jr. – Director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Powell decries what he sees as a concerted attack on American economic institutions – indeed, on the American way of life itself. But he’s not particularly worried about Communists or leftists:

“The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians. In most of these groups the movement against the system is participated in only by minorities. Yet, these often are the most articulate, the most vocal, the most prolific in their writing and speaking.”

So he recommends that a series of  countermeasures be taken within each of those spheres: education, religion, the media, and so on. And though I can’t say that all these developments below sprang directly from Powell’s memo, we can note the creation of a vast array of new institutions and organizations, and changes in existing ones, within the next few years. (This was not a “conspiracy,” mind you; this was all done quite openly, right out in front of God and everybody.)

Some highlights:

There are many more examples I could cite, of course – from the establishment of think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, from FOX News to the Koch brothers, from ALEC to the Citizens United case. My point is this: these people worked long and hard to bring us to the present situation. Whatever happens to the Trumps and their supporters and enablers, it will take at least as much time, money, effort, and dedication to undo the damage they have caused.

Maybe by the Woodstock centennial, we’ll be able to really celebrate.

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THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: GREEN, AND RED, AND WHITE

I’m writing these words on the 17th of March, the day when Chicagoans make their river run green.

So let me ask: Does anyone out there who’s not Irish themselves feel ethnographically challenged, personally offended, or existentially threatened by St Patrick’s Day and its celebration of things Irish? Are you afraid of being overrun by O’Reillys, finding your cold Coors Light replaced by warm, dark Guinness, or being elbowed off your local dance floor by brigades of straight-armed step dancers?

No, of course not. The notion seems absurd on its face now, doesn’t it? (How you might feel about the holiday’s perpetuation of certain stereotypes is a different question entirely.)

But as you may know, it was not ever thus. Irish immigration following the Potato Famine in the mid 1800’s was seen as a scourge, a veritable plague, a calamitous threat to the existing social order. Certain folks were convinced that the waves of Catholic refugees fleeing ecological catastrophe and political mistreatment in their homeland were in fact only the advance troops for a Papal plot to overthrow the United States government, enforce Canon law, and set up a new Vatican in Cincinnati.

It’s some fascinating, if sordid, history, and well worth learning more about. (There’s a good introductory summary on the History Channel’s website. Also see this article from Common Dreams.)

But today is also the 17th of March, 2019. Two days ago, an Australian gunman made the streets of Christchurch, New Zealand, run red with blood when he attacked two mosques, killing at least 50 people and injuring dozens more.

There’s a straight line connecting these events. In fact, they’re just different manifestations of the same curious and deadly phenomenon. Nowadays we call it “white supremacy.”

White supremacist philosophy, as I understand it, seems to hinge on a paradox. On the one hand, its adherents believe in the innate genetic superiority of their “race.” In fact, in one of its more bizarre flavors, the so-called “Christian Identity” movement, this supposed superiority is actually ordained by no one less than God Himself.

But somehow, this unassailable primacy, this supernatural endowment, is incredibly fragile and vulnerable. It could all be lost at any time, or so these folks declare, and the great edifices of European civilization could come crashing down around our ears. Only through vigilance – and violence – can the dark tide of multicultural “contamination” be kept at bay.

Never mind that DNA and ethnographic studies now suggest that not only is there no such thing as “racial purity,” the entire concept of “race” as we have previously known it may be completely invalid. To these unfortunate folk, all the advances of humanity are the work of their ancestors, and under constant and pernicious assault by their savage inferiors.

It seems to me that this philosophy is in fact a philosophy of self-loathing and fear. It attempts to defend what does not exist, something that never has existed. It looks back longingly to a illusory past, rather than thinking about how we might all construct a mutually beneficial society together, one that allows us to celebrate both our commonalities and our diversity. It is self defeating – in trying to engender pride, it brings shame upon the very people it supposedly wants to exalt.

Its followers are dangerous to be sure, as the string of white supremacist terrorist attacks loudly attests, but they are relatively few. The folks who are really dangerous, who are the real threat, are the political, religious, and media leaders who cynically manipulate and encourage such beliefs for their own ends.

(PS: Here is an excellent article about the American roots of white nationalism. )

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: CIVIL WORLD WAR?

Reports of the recent death of Lyndon LaRouche prompted a flurry of responses on the Internet, most asking the same question:

“Are they sure??”

You may not have heard of LaRouche, but you might have seen some of his followers camped out in front of your local post office at one time or another over the past few years, sharing their conspiratorial views on the world with anyone who would listen. LaRouche spun an elaborate and ever-shifting narrative about politics, finance, history, and current events, one that managed to encompass everything from the British royal family to fusion reactors.

One of his biggest bugbears, of course, was something that has been a common trope among conspiracy theorists since probably the time of John of Patmos – the imminent establishment of an overarching one-world government that would eradicate religion, squash freedom, and enslave humanity. Organizations from the Catholic Church to the United Nations, and individuals from Napoleon and Nero to George Soros and Barack Obama, have at one time or another been depicted as the evil masterminds behind this dastardly scheme.

But here’s the funny thing: during all this time, and despite all these frantic warnings, a real transnational government has slowly been establishing itself – not as the result of any bizarre occult conspiracy, but “right out in front of God and everybody.”  If by “world government” you mean an entity more powerful than any nation-state – one that could tell otherwise sovereign nations what to do, enforce its will, and expect to be obeyed – then I submit that the international finance system fills the bill. This system can not only punish those who try to defy it, it has managed to make itself practically immune to outside control.

A recent article on a website run by the Transnational Institute goes into more detail. Entitled “Offshore Finance: How Capital Rules the World,” the article explains how this system evolved – one might say inevitably – from the basic imperatives of capital: to endlessly expand itself, and exploit whatever resources are available. So it does everything it can to remove “stifling” government regulations at every level. In democracies, this means controlling political discussion as much as possible, influencing elections, lobbying and pressuring elected officials, and dangling the hope of rewarding employment at the end of one’s time of “public service.”  And when these means don’t provide the desired effects, it just moves somewhere else. “Offshore finance,” say the authors, “is not solely about capital moving beyond the reach of states, but involves the rampant unbundling and commercialization of state sovereignty itself…. Capitalism only triumphs when it becomes identified with the state, when it becomes the state.”

Such a system would seem at first glance to be invulnerable. But it isn’t.

And that is because there is another “world government.”

In this case, when I say “world government” I mean a set of laws to which all humans are subject – that everyone must follow. Acting in defiance or ignorance of these laws carries severe and unavoidable penalties, without appeal or mercy. This other “world government” predates the first one, and is inherent in Creation itself. I refer, of course, to the laws of nature – of physics, chemistry, biology, geology, all the rest.

These two “governments” are now on a collision course.  The government of global capital has in effect declared war upon the natural world.  It is a war that spans the globe, but being fought for control of one entity – the planet itself. This is, in a sense, a civil world war.

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: TOWARDS AMERICAN RECOVERY

(My column for November 2018)

In the past few months, I’ve been trying to make the case that American society in the Age of Trump is very much like an addict – an addict that will soon be confronted with an existential decision: to recover or perish.

So what might that recovery look like?

The genius of the folks who developed “twelve-step” programs for alcoholics and other addicts beginning back in the 1930’s was simple. They saw that in order to recover, the addict couldn’t rely on his or her individual will alone, but needed to find something outside of themselves – they hit upon the term “higher power” – to which they could refer to help guide their decisions.

And the real genius was that they realized that it didn’t much matter exactly what that “higher power” was. It didn’t need to be a deity. In fact, it was better if the addict decided for himself or herself what it was, according to his or her own understanding. This avoided the need to reconcile oneself with someone else’s dogma or theology, and the possibility of destructive disputes or schisms. But th8s “higher power” did need to be something bigger than one’s self… something, in a sense, spiritual.

But if I were to say that the solution to America’s troubles is “spiritual” in nature, I fear that quite a few people would take me exactly the wrong way. The kind of spiritual solution of which I am thinking has absolutely nothing to do with posting monuments to the Ten Commandments, absolutely nothing to do with mandating prayer in the public schools or using the words “In God We Trust” – or, for that matter, with governments using public funds to support religious displays.

It has nothing to do with outward displays of religiosity at all.

It begins instead internally, with a strong dose of humility – a quality in short supply in the American national consciousness. It begins with an acknowledgment, an admission to ourselves that things have gotten out of control. Things are happening that seemingly exceed our ability to cope with them – from gun violence and opioid addiction to inequality and climate change.

To take even this first step would be a huge challenge for the American psyche, even in normal times. It runs completely counter to our treasured national narrative of “can-do” confidence, of “manifest destiny,” of shining cities on a hill.

That’s why this process won’t start – can’t start – until it absolutely has to.

But once it does start… then we will have to find what the term “higher power” means for us as a people. I don’t think that it’s God per se. Rather, it may be the set of values that we have always professed to believe in – things like equality, justice, fairness, freedom, responsibility – but have frequently failed to implement fully.

These qualities are not ours alone, of course. To rededicate ourselves to their service will also mean acknowledging that there is something beyond our own narrow perception of “national self-interest,” and that we are no longer some kind of final authority. Given our historical attitudes towards institutions like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, this will also be a hard pill to swallow… but swallow it we must.

That is, if we wish to recover our collective soul.

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: AMERICAN PSYCHOSIS

I don’t mind telling you: back in January, when I got back to America from my yearlong sojourn to Europe, I was a mess, in many different ways.

Fortunately, I had three things going for me: a well-knit community, a network of supportive friends, and access to decent mental health services. These things have made it possible for me to start the process of pulling myself together and getting on my own feet. I’m not out of the woods yet, by any means, and I have a lot of work ahead – but these resources have really come through for me, and I am grateful.

Not everyone is so fortunate, however. As I wrote in this space a couple of months ago, depression and suicide rates have become a increasing concern, one underscored by the recent high-profile suicides of designer Kate Spade and television personality Anthony Bourdain.

And now many people are starting not just to ask why, but to look past the simple, facile answers and search for underlying root causes – things that may not be easy to face. CNN analyst and former FOX News staffer Kirsten Powers, in a column for USA TODAY, makes a bold statement: “…most Americans are depressed, anxious or suicidal because something is wrong with our culture, not because something is wrong with them.”

There is such a thing as “endogenous” depression – depression caused by internal, physical factors, such as chemical imbalances in the brain. This can be addressed by medications. But more frequently people struggle with “exogenous” or “reactive” depression, brought about by external traumatic events or circumstances. Medications can help, along with various kinds of counseling or therapy, but only to an extent.

The “medical-industrial complex” would, of course, prefer that we only focus on the endogenous kind. They can make money, after all, off of a pharmaceutical approach to the problem.

But we know in our bones that this will not be enough… because we are all, I suspect, feeling the effects of the dysfunctions inherent in our present society. We are working harder, but with fewer tangible results and greater economic uncertainty. Even people who “succeed,” as did Bourdain and Spade, may find that mere material prosperity is not fulfilling in and of itself.

“Rather than pathologizing the despair and emotional suffering that is a rational response to a culture that values people based on ever escalating financial and personal achievements, we should acknowledge that something is very wrong,” Powers writes. “We should stop telling people who yearn for a deeper meaning in life that they have an illness or need therapy. Instead, we need to help people craft lives that are more meaningful and built on a firmer foundation than personal success.”

She also cites a recent bestseller by journalist Johann Hari, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions. Hari notes that “we exist largely disconnected from our extended families, friends and communities — except in the shallow interactions of social media — because we are too busy trying to ‘make it’ without realizing that once we reach that goal, it won’t be enough.” (Click here find some interesting videos where Mr. Hari discusses his ideas.)

Now, I don’t know if Ms. Powers is quite ready to take the next logical step and recognize the role played by modern American capitalism in creating the conditions that have led to this crisis…

But I think it might be a good place to start.

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: POWER, PAIN, AND PSYCHOPATHY

In 2011, I submitted a joke to the public radio program “Prairie Home Companion” for inclusion in their annual “Joke Show” – and it got in! (A small claim to fame, perhaps, but I’ll take it.) Here it is :

“Knock knock!”

“Who’s there?”
“Bush and Cheney tortured.”
“Bush and Cheney tortured who?”
“Sorry, that information is classified – and you’re under arrest.”

The Bush-era torture program – sorry, “enhanced interrogation” – was no laughing matter, of course. From the infamous abuses at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, to Guantanamo and who knows how many “black sites” around the world, prisoners were subjected to horrific treatment, ostensibly to extract information about possible future attacks. Convoluted legal and moral arguments were put forward to justify conduct that violated not only international law, but fundamental standards of civilized behavior, and the very values that Americans were supposedly fighting to defend. A great debate erupted about what the willingness to torture said about the character of the American spirit. (The Senate’s final investigative report remains classified, though a summary was published.)
This sordid history was resurrected with the recent nominations of Mike Pompeo to be Secretary of State, and Gina Haskel to replace him as CIA Director – but let’s go a little deeper.
Part of the debate about torture was whether or not it was even a good way of getting information. Conservative commentators and politicians, caught up in fantasies of Jack Bauer from “24,” expressed an almost religious faith in its efficacy. Academic studies, meanwhile, suggested that the practice was not only useless but counterproductive. Not only were prisoners likely to give false information just to make the torture stop, the revelations undermined America’s reputation, and gave potential enemies greater motivation to attack us. Less coercive and vicious means were shown to provide viable alternatives and produce worthwhile results.
Watching this debate unfold, I was suddenly struck by a dark and deeply disturbing possibility.
Why, I wondered, would these people be such cheerleaders for torture, even in the face of contrary evidence? Why so passionate, so insistent, in its defense?
Could it be simply… that they liked the idea?
Go back, if you have the stomach, and look at the photos from Abu Ghraib. Look at the gleeful smiles, the thumbs-up gestures. These people weren’t just doing a job…
They were having fun.
There’s a word for that. That word is sadism.
(Please note that I‘m not speaking of the sexual hobby, but the psychopathic condition – wherein one derives pleasure from witnessing or causing someone else’s pain.)
There is a certain correlation between sadism and the urge to have and exert power. Consider this quote from Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR, in which Winston is being tortured by O’Brien:

“How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?“

Winston thought. “By making him suffer,” he said.

“Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation…”

Would it be so crazy to imagine that within the halls of power there are people who seek and wield power, who devise, influence, and implement policy, motivated not by the desire to serve, but by the desire to inflict suffering? Could such gratuitous cruelty actually operate openly, undetected and unchallenged?
Try reading the headlines through such a lens, and then you tell me.
PS. For more information on studies about torture and interrogation, see this recent article from Scientific American magazine: “We’ve Known for 400 Years That Torture Doesn’t Work”

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: TO BE OR NOT TO BE

That is the question. – Shakespeare, HAMLET

On April 5, I attended a very moving event at The Cooperage in Honesdale – an “open mic” benefit for an organization called the Northeast Suicide Prevention Initiative. Besides the excellent musical performances, the evening featured heartfelt remembrances from survivors of loved ones who had lost their individual struggles, and inspiring testimonies from others who had faced the abyss but had been able to keep going.

The evening also included a skit performed by high-schoolers from the “Wallenpaupack Players,” illustrating some of the warning signs exhibited by a potential suicide, and demonstrating possible ways to intervene.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that suicide is an increasingly serious public health problem in the United States – the tenth leading cause of death, according to some studies. Nor do you need me to list for you the many external and internal factors that can contribute to a person’s decision to give up on life, from addiction to isolation, from depression to hopelessness, from economic distress to medical difficulties.

And you certainly don’t need me to draw you a picture to show you how much these factors have become more and more prevalent in the life of 21st-century America. A life devoid both of purpose and of pleasure, after all, leaves little reason to stick around to witness another sunrise.

But I want to put this problem into an even larger context.

I found myself thinking about this event a few days later, when Donald Trump issued his now-infamous “get ready” tweet, taunting the Russians regarding the escalating tensions around the Syrian civil war. Suddenly, a prospect that many of us may have thought was an unwelcome artifact from a long-gone era – the scenario of a rapidly escalating military conflict between Washington and Moscow, with potential nuclear consequences – re-emerged as a very real possibility.

The thought occurred to me: can a society… or a nation… or an entire sentient species… itself become suicidal?

And if so, who could possibly intervene?

“We’re like the dinosaurs,” wrote Percy Farrell in his song “Pets” – “only we are doing ourselves in / much faster than they ever did.” Maybe it’s just me projecting my own existential struggles – I’ve considered the lure of the abyss myself more than once – but it sure seems to me at times that we are collectively wrestling with what Albert Camus called the only “really serious philosophical question.”

After all, if we were truly sincere about keeping this thing called human existence going for the long haul, we might be taking better care of the things that make that existence possible. We wouldn’t be focusing so much on narrow-minded power games, short-term interests, and petty territorial squabbles. We might pay more attention, and devote more effort, to making sure that everyone has the chance for a meaningful and joyful existence.

There was one song I expected to hear at that suicide prevention event but didn’t – so let me close this by quoting it…

When the day is long
And the night, the night is yours alone
When you’re sure you’ve had enough
Of this life, well hang on

Don’t let yourself go
‘Cause everybody cries
And everybody hurts sometimes

(I’d like to dedicate this column to the memory of my friend and former TRR writer Tom Kane.)