Why China is Rising and the US is Declining
by Lester R. Brown
|I know Santa Claus is Chinese because each Christmas morning after all the gifts are unwrapped and things settle down I systematically go through the presents to see where they are made. The results are almost always the same: roughly 70 percent are from China. After some research, it seems that my one-family survey is representative of the country as a whole.|
Let’s start with toys. Some 80 percent of the toys sold in the United States—from Barbie dolls to video games—are made in China. Talking toys that speak English learned the language from Chinese workers. Electronic goods—from Apple’s iPod to Microsoft’s Xbox—are made in China. Clothing—from the latest cashmere sweaters to gym suits—is also likely to have a “Made in China” label.
The Christmas tree itself may come from China. While real Christmas trees are grown in every state in the United States and are marketed locally, many families now gather around artificial Christmas trees. Eight out of every 10 artificial Christmas trees sold in the United States are made in China. Last year Americans spent over $130 million on plastic Christmas trees from China.
This year Americans will spend over $1 billion on Christmas ornaments from China. And in perhaps the greatest irony of all, even nativity scenes are made in China. Last year Americans spent more than $39 million buying nativity scenes shipped in from the East. China’s success in attracting foreign investment capital and mobilizing this huge workforce has made it the workshop of the world.
That the U.S. Christmas is made in China is a metaphor for a far deeper set of economic issues affecting the United States. Today Christmas is celebrated in both the United States and China—but for different reasons and with far different economic consequences. For the Chinese, the manufacturing bonanza means record profits, rising incomes, and, in a society where people save some 40 percent of their income, a sharp jump in savings. In the United States, Christmas shopping expenditures, headed for another record high this year, contribute to rising credit card debt and a soaring trade deficit.
Underneath the American Christmas spirit and good cheer is a debt-laden society that appears to have lost its way, marred in the quicksand of consumerism. As a society, we seem to have forgotten how to save so we can invest in a better future. Instead of leaving our children a promising economic future, we are bequeathing them the largest debt burden of any generation in history.
At the personal level, credit card debt just keeps climbing, and at the government level, we have the largest deficit in history. At the international level, we have a trade deficit that moves to a new high month after month.
It’s not the fact that our Christmas is made in China, but rather the mindset that has led to it that is most disturbing. We want to consume no matter what. We want to spend now and let our children pay. It is this same mindset that introduces tax cuts while waging a costly war. Economic sacrifice is no longer part of our vocabulary. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt banned the sale of private cars in order to mobilize the manufacturing capacity and engineering skills of the U.S. automobile industry to build tanks and planes. In contrast, after 9/11, President Bush urged us to go shopping.
In the United States we are so intent on consuming that personal savings have virtually disappeared. We have an average of five credit cards for every man, woman, and child. Of the 145 million cardholders, only 55 million clear their accounts each month. The other 90 million cannot seem to catch up and are paying steep interest rates on their remaining balance. Millions of people are so deeply in debt that they may remain indebted for life.
The official national debt, the product of years of fiscal deficits, now totals $8.5 trillion—some $64,000 per taxpayer. (See data at www.earthpolicy.org/Updates/2006/Update62_data.htm.) By the end of the Bush administration in 2008, this figure is projected to reach a staggering $9.4 trillion. We are digging a fiscal black hole and sinking deeper and deeper into it.
Each month the Treasury covers the fiscal deficit by auctioning off securities. The two leading international buyers of U.S. Treasury securities are Japan and China. In this role, China is now also becoming our banker. This developing country, where income levels are one sixth those of the United States, is financing the excesses of an affluent industrial society. What’s wrong with this picture?
In times past, when our fiscal deficits were covered largely by U.S. lenders, interest payments on the debt were reinvested in the United States. Now they are flowing abroad to Japan, China, and other foreign holders of U.S. debt.
While the U.S. fiscal deficit, driven partly by the war in Iraq, soars to stratospheric levels, the country is facing an unprecedented fiscal challenge as the baby boomer generation retires, pushing up the costs of social security, Medicaid, and Medicare. This, combined with the growing interest payments on our debt to China and other countries, will put a nearly impossible tax burden on the next generation—something for which they may never forgive us.
The U.S. trade deficit is growing by leaps and bounds, nearly doubling from $452 billion in 2000 to an estimated $850 billion in 2006. Rising oil imports and the trade deficit with China account for over half of it.
National policy failures such as not adequately supporting the use of renewable energy technologies have contributed to the growing U.S. trade deficit. For example, the United States should be a leading manufacturer and exporter of solar cells and wind turbines, but it has fallen behind both Europe and Japan. The solar cell, invented at Bell Labs in 1954, is an American technology. But the U.S. effort to develop solar energy was so weak and sporadic that both Germany and Japan forged ahead and developed robust solar cell manufacturing and export industries.
The situation is similar with wind. Although the modern wind industry was born in California at the beginning of the 1980s, the U.S. failure to sustain support for wind resource development allowed European countries to largely take over this industry.
Even though rising oil imports are widening our trade deficit, we consume oil with abandon, weakening the economy and undermining our political independence.
We have lost influence in world financial markets simply because of our mounting debt, much of it held by other countries. If China’s leaders ever become convinced that the dollar is headed continuously downward and they decide to dump their dollar holdings, the dollar could collapse.
Beholden to other countries for oil and to finance our debt, the United States is fast losing its leadership role in the world. The question we are facing is not simply whether our Christmas is made in China, but more fundamentally whether we can restore the discipline and values that made us a great nation—a nation the world admired, respected, and emulated. This is not something that Santa Claus can deliver, not even a Chinese Santa Claus. This is something only we can do.
Copyright © 2006 Earth Policy Institute
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Where's the Accountability for the Dead and Wounded?
By SEAN PENN
Sean Penn received the 2006 Christopher Reeve First Amendment Award from the Creative Coalition on December 18, 2006, in New York City, where he delivered the following speech.
The Christopher Reeve First Amendment Award. For the purposes of tonight and my own personal enjoyment, I'm going to yield to the notion that I deserve this.
And in the spirit of that, tell you that I am very honored to receive it. And for this I thank the Creative Coalition and my friend Charlie Rose. It does seem appropriate to take this opportunity to exercise the right that honors us all--freedom of speech.
Note for later:
The original title for the Louis XVI comedy called "Start The Revolution Without Me" was one of my favorites. That original title was "Louis, There's a Crowd Downstairs." But I'll come back to that...
Words may be our most civil weapons of change, when they connect to actions of sacrifice, or good will, but they have no grace or power without bold clarity. So, if you'll bear with me, borrowing a line from Bob Dylan, "Let us not talk falsely now--the hour is getting late."
Non-stop U.S. war in Iraq
Attacks on civil liberties under the banner of war on terror
You and I, U.S. taxpayers, spend 1 1/2 billion dollars on an Iraq-war-'focused' military everyday, while social needs cry out.
And, levy building.
We depend largely for information on these issues from media industries, driven by the bottom line to such an extent that the public interest becomes uninteresting.
And should we speak truth, we stand against government efforts to intimidate or legislate in the service of censorship. Whether under the guise of a Patriot Act or any other benevolent-sounding rationale for the age-old game of shutting down dissent by discouraging independent thinking and preventing progressive social change.
The most effective forms of de facto censorship are pre-emptive. Systemically, we are encouraged to keep our heads down, out of the line of fire--to avoid the danger, god forbid, that someone in the White House, on Capitol Hill, or a media blow-hard might take a shot at us.
But, as a practical matter, most of the limits on creative expression and other forms of free speech come from self-censorship, where the mechanism of corporate clout offers carrots and brandishes sticks. We avoid a conflict before the conflict materializes. We reach for the carrots and stay out of range of sticks.
Decades ago, Fred Friendly called it a "positive veto"--corporations putting big money behind shows that they want to establish and perpetuate. Whether in journalism or drama, creative efforts that don't gain a financial "positive veto" are dismissible, then dismissed. We may not call that "censorship." But whatever we call it, the effects of a "positive veto" system are severe. They impose practical limits on efforts to bring the most important realities to public attention sooner rather than later...
We're beginning to see more revealing images of this war. But it's later now, isn't it? What we have to pay attention to are the results of these "practical limits." One, is that wars become much easier to launch than to halt.
I've got a feeling about how we can begin to change this process and I want to pass it by you. Children grow up in our country -- many by the way, under conditions of extreme poverty -- and are told from a very early age "You will be accountable!" "With freedom, comes responsibility!" And so the lecture goes...Democratic and Republican alike. Lie-cheat-steal, and there will be consequences! Theft will be punished. Actions that cause the deaths of others will be severely punished. The message, from leaders in Washington, news media, mom, dad, and church is clear. Criminals MUST be held accountable.
Now, there's been a lot of talk lately on Capitol Hill about how impeachment should be "off the table." We're told that it's time to look ahead--not back...
Can you imagine how far that argument would go for the defense at an arraignment on charges of grand larceny, or large-scale distribution of methamphetamines? How about the arranging of a contract killing on a pregnant mother? "Indictment should be off the table." Or "Let's look forward, not backward." Or "We can't afford another failed defendant."
Our country has a legal system, not of men and women, but of laws. Why then are we so willing to put inconvenient provisions of the U.S. constitution and federal law "off the table?" Our greatest concern right now should be what to put ON the table. Unless we're going to have one set of laws for the powerful and another set for those who can't afford fancy lawyers, then truth matters to everyone. And accountability is a matter of human and legal principle. If we're going to continue wagging our fingers at the disadvantaged transgressors, then I suggest we be consistent. If truth and accountability can be stretched into sham concepts, we may as well open the gates of all our jails and prisons, where, by the way, there are more people behind bars than any other country in the world. One in every 32 American adults is behind bars, on probation, or on parole as we stand here tonight.
Which is to say that, globally, the United States is number one at demanding accountability and backing up that demand with imprisonment. But, when it comes to our president, vice president, secretary of state, former secretary of defense...this insistence on accountability vanishes. All of a sudden, what's past is prologue. And we're just "forward-looking." But some people can't just look forward. Men and women stationed in Iraq at this moment, under orders of a Commander-in-Chief so sufficiently practiced in the art of deception, that he got vast numbers of American journalists and the most esteemed media outlets of this country, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, and PBS to eagerly serve his agenda-building for war. And the process also induced vast numbers of artists and performers (probably even some in this room tonight) to keep quiet and facilitate the push for an invasion in Iraq.
I'm sure many people who I met in Baghdad, both in my trips prior to and during the occupation, now similarly cannot just look forward. With lives so entirely shattered by a violence of occupation--an ongoing U.S. war effort and the civil war that it has catalyzed. All on the back of a crumbled infrastructure, following eleven years of devastating U.N. sanctions.
And, where is the accountability on behalf of the American dead and wounded, their families, their friends, and the people of the United States who have seen their country become a world pariah. These events have been enabled by people named Bush, Cheney, Powell, Rumsfeld, and Rice, as they continue to perpetuate a massive fraud on American democracy and decency.
On January 11, 2003, I made an appearance on Larry King's show following my first trip to Iraq. I suggested that every American mother and father sit down with a scrap of paper and pencil and scribble the following words: Dear Mr. and Mrs. So-and-so -- We regret to inform you that your son or daughter so-and-so, was killed in action in Iraq. I then asked that those mothers and fathers complete that letter in whatever way might comfort them should they receive it. When one considers what a bewildered continuation of those words a parent might attempt to write today, it seems inconceivable that this country could've ever bought into this war. Who were those mothers and fathers believing in?! We know it's not the administration alone, but a culture at large, cloaking itself in self-righteousness, religion, and adolescent hero-dreaming machismo. Would they have believed Rush Limbaugh if they'd known he was high as a kite on OxyContin? Would they have believed the factually impaired Bill O'Reilly if they knew he was massaging his rectum with a loofah while telephonically harassing a staffer? Hannity, had they known he was simply a whore to the cause of his pimps--Murdoch and Ailes? Or the little bow-tie putz, if they knew all he was seeking was a good laugh from Jon Stewart? Maybe our countrymen and women were listening to Ted Haggert while he was whiffing meth and boning a muscle-headed gigolo? Or Mark Foley seeking junior weenis? Joe Lieberman, sitting Shiva? And Toby Keith, singing about how big his boots are?
"Oh, there goes Sean...he had to go and name-call. They say he can't help himself." Or, did I name-call? Maybe I just quickly summed up 7 or 8 little truths. Oh, no, you're right--I name-called. I said, "putz". I take it back. Or, do I? Did I say "whore?" Pimp? These are questions. But, the real and great questions of conscience and accountability would not loom so ominously -- unanswered or evaded at such tremendous cost -- without our day-to-day failure to insist on genuine accountability. Of course we'd prefer some easy ways to get there. But no easy ways exist. Not a new Congress. Not Barack Obama. And, not John McCain. His courage in North Vietnamese prison makes him a heroic man. His voting record in Congress makes him a damaging public servant. We have gotta stand the fuck up and show the world how powerful are the people in a democracy. That's how we regain our position of example, rather than pariah, to the world at large. And that is how we can begin to put up our chins and allow pride and unification to raise our own quality of life and security.
They tell us we lost 3,000 Americans on 9/11. Is that enough? We're about to match it. We're within weeks, if not less, of killing 3,000 Americans in Iraq. I ask Speaker Pelosi, can we put impeachment on the table then? Without former FEMA chief Mike Brown being held accountable, post Katrina (scapegoat though he may have been) we'd have had the same chaos and neglect when Rita hit Houston. Think about it. And, the same people who trumpet deterrence as a justification for punishment when we speak of "crime and punishment," will boast their positive thinking when dismissing the deterrent qualities of an impeachment proceeding.
What is impeachment? It's not a Democratic versus Republican event. Not if used responsibly. If the House of Representatives votes to impeach this president, is he thrown out of office? No, he is not thrown out of office. That is not what impeachment is. Impeachment is the opportunity to proceed with accountability and give our elected senators, democratic and republican, the power to pursue a thorough investigation. The power to put the truth on the table. Mothers and fathers are losing their kids to horrifying deaths in this war every single day. Horrible deaths. Horrible maimings. Were crimes committed in enlisting the support of our country in this decision to go to war? For the moment we're living the most spineless of scenarios; where the hawks abused impeachment eight years ago, now, the rest of us politely refuse to use it today. Let's give the whistle-blowers cover, let's get the subpoenas out there, and then, one by one, put this administration under oath. And then, if the crimes of "Treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors" are proven, do as Article 2, Section 4 of the United States Constitution provides, and remove "the President, Vice President and...civil officers of the United States" from office. If the Justice Department then sees fit to bunk them up with Jeff Skilling, so be it.
So...look, if we attempt to impeach for lying about a blowjob, yet accept these almost certain abuses without challenge, we become a cum-stain on the flag we wave. You know, I was listening to Frank Rich this morning, speaking on a book tour. He said he thought impeachment proceedings would amount to a "decadent" sidetrack, while our soldiers were still being killed. I admire Frank Rich. And of course he would be right if impeachment is all we do. But we're Americans. We can do two things at the same time. Yes, let's move forward and swiftly get out of this war in Iraq AND impeach these bastards.
Christopher Reeve promised to get out of that chair. Well, I don't know about you, but it feels like he's up now and I wouldn't be standing here if it weren't on his shoulders. Let it be for something.
Georgie, there's a crowd downstairs.
Thank you and good night.
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Some Voting Machines Chop Off Candidates' Names
Computer Glitch Affects Voters in 3 Jurisdictions; Error Cannot Be Fixed by Nov. 7
By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 24, 2006; B04
U.S. Senate candidate James Webb's last name has been cut off on part of the electronic ballot used by voters in Alexandria, Falls Church and Charlottesville because of a computer glitch that also affects other candidates with long names, city officials said yesterday.
Thus, Democratic candidate Webb will appear with his first name and nickname only -- or "James H. 'Jim' " -- on summary pages in Alexandria, Falls Church and Charlottesville...
There, but for the grace of God... was my first thought as I read the report. If the machine deemed "James H. 'Jim' Webb" too long, I could only thank my luck that I had firmly turned down all requests to run for the Senate from Virginia this year.
I scanned the Post quickly to see if a similar fate had attended George Allen, Webb's incumbent opponent in the race. A quick tally revealed that George Allen had more letters in his name than James Webb -- and even more, if you added recently-acquired middle names like 'Macaca' and 'Stock Option'.
Actually, Allen did pretty well in what might be termed Great Ballot Massacre of 2006. The report goes on to say George Allen is one of the few whose names appear in full, although his party affiliation has been cut off. Fortune finally appears to be shining on Allen. What a godsend, in a time when according to every poll, the presence of the letter 'R' after the candidate's name is tantamount to electoral cyanide!
Diebold has really outdone itself this time, I said to myself as I read the story. Except the company in charge of messing up elections in Virginia is, it turns out, not Diebold but another called Hart InterCivic, whose name appears in full in the WP report. Was it Tolstoy who wrote that happy families are all alike, while each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way? One type of mess in Florida, another in Ohio, yet another in Virginia... Who says originality is dead in America?
Hart InterCivic and Virginia's Secretary of Elections were both assuring the public, (per the Post report on Page B4) in rather chirpy terms, that Hart InterCivic intends to install the newer system version before the next election in 2007.
In an brilliant article (The Evening of Empire) in Counterpunch recently, the analyst Werther set out a grim view of our situation, drawing parallels between the mendacity, authoritarianism and unrelieved bungling that will forever mark America in the Bush years, with identical trends which characterized the last years of the Roman Empire.
Ah, but was Rome ever this funny?
Monday, October 23, 2006
October 23, 2006
Hubris, Bravado and Hypocrisy
The Evening of Empire
When the admirable Tiberius upon becoming emperor, received a message from the Senate in which the conscript fathers assured him that whatever legislation he wanted would be automatically passed by them, he sent back word that this was outrageous. "Suppose the emperor is ill or mad or incompetent?" He returned their message. They sent it again. His response: "How eager you are to be slaves."
-- Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Amid the onrush of Caligulan sex scandals, suspension of the Constitution, depressing bulletins from the Babylonian front, and all manner of bogus "events," a recent news item has passed with remarkably little public stir, despite being featured above the fold on the front page of The Washington Post, a bulletin board as eagerly read by the capital city's strivers as Pravda in its day by the fellow-traveler, or Osservatore Romano by the untramontanist Catholic.
The article  informs us that the President has signed off on a "National Space Policy." The cornerstone of this new policy is the administration's intention to "oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space. Proposed arms control agreements or restrictions must not impair the rights of the United States to conduct research, development, testing and operations or other activities in space for U.S. national interest."
The document adds elsewhere that the new policy must "enable unhindered U.S. operations in and through space to defend our interest there." Note the unctuous use of the modifier "our"--as if the interests of parasitic contractors, government placemen, and neoconservative scribblers constituted the res publica.
If the English language means anything, the plain intent of the policy is to assert that the United States (or rather its governing clique) can do anything it likes, and treaties be damned, including the Outer Space Treaty currently in force. This conclusion would be consistent with the administration's treatment of other judicial impedimenta, such as the Geneva Convention or the late Constitution. Similar to the Senate's craven grant of plenary power to the Roman Emperor, a supine legislative branch has encouraged the administration to believe its own whim is law--to make war, to torture, to "unsign" treaties.
Yet the Post journalist, in the idiot-savant manner made famous by Bob Woodward, stenographically quotes a "senior government official who was not authorized to speak on the record" as saying "This policy is not about developing or deploying weapons in space. Period."
Ah, just as the Military Commissions Act was not about torture! How like the administration to assign one of its "senior" functionaries to pretend to speak without authorization in order to add verisimilitude to an assertion that it plainly wanted to disseminate--an assertion at odds with the plain text of its policy. And the Post's reporter fell for it like a yokel at the Barnum circus. Thus the rest of the article becomes a fraudulent "debate" between the administration's allegations and those of its critics; thereby lending weight to the presumption that there are legitimately "two sides" to any issue involving the administration.
While the Establishment press (other than the Post) gave little attention to the space policy story, the blogosphere (to the extent it paid any attention) behaved in a predictable fashion: the usual hand-wringing about the militarization of space, the unilateralism of the Bush administration, and forecasts of dark tidings generally. There is some truth to these assertions, but they are subsidiary to a more significant point.
The space policy document is not so much a blueprint as a symptom. But of what?--of fiendish Machiavells, plotting to storm the very heavens? Perhaps that is the intent of these laptop Flash Gordons, but between the desire and the fulfillment falls the shadow: the shadow of utter incompetence.
What is to be said about an administration which dreams of policing outer space, when for three and a half years its legions have been stalemated in their occupation of a broken-down country with a pre-war GDP less than that of Fairfax County, Virginia? The Iraq war has been such a riot of fecklessness as to take one's breath away.
One is hard put to find a more badly fought war in our history. The United States, remember, entered the war with its defense expenditure already nearly equal to that of the rest of the world combined. Vastly increasing the regular military budget since then, as well as piling on the $100+ billion annually for Iraq supplemental spending that "doesn't count" against fictitious Congressional spending limits, has not improved matters.
Since the imperial court, and particularly its War Minister, Donald Rumsfeld, is so fond of World War II analogies, perhaps it is fitting to point out that the tone for the Iraq debacle was set by the establishment in the spring of 2003 of the Coalition Provisional Authority, a repository of more political hacks, shrieking poseurs, and ideological zealots than at any time since Hitler and Goering "cut up the giant cake" of the Ukraine by offering it to the administration of Nazi Party lay-abouts known derisively as "golden pheasants."
The soldiers are now paying the price. Scanning the casualty lists, one is struck by the number of enlisted reservists over the age of 50. In a past war such hexagenarians would, for example, be cannon fodder for the Volkssturm's last-ditch defense of Berlin. One also hears of a veteran of one Iraq deployment, who had been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and placed on suicide watch, being ordered back to Iraq. 
If this is an imperial army, it smacks of late imperial Rome, plugging the gaps in its vast, ramshackle conquests with too few troops to stem the barbarian hordes. As if on queue, the Post's op-ed page saw fit to air a solution to the troop dilemma on the day after its space policy story: neocon fanatic Max Boot and Establishment weathervane Michael O'Hanlon teamed up to advocate recruiting foreigners (including undocumented aliens) into the military as a step to citizenship.  Shades of the Germanic volunteers in the Legions of Rome!
It is sufficiently ironic that a coterie which dreams of Zeus-like control of the heavens comes a cropper in a minor imperial project on terra firma. But what are we to say about the pretensions of a class that asserts such omnipotence, when the very borders of the country in whose name it rules are as permeable as cheese cloth?
One almost feels sympathy for the dilemma of our rulers. The mob that helped put this clique on the imperial throne is demanding that this southern invasion across the imperial limes be halted forthwith. And the proles know whereof they speak: their living standards are at risk, and while they can be mollified with television entertainment and sports spectacles, they, like the mob at the Circus Maximus, can be fickle in its loyalty to the imperial purple.
At the same time, the money barons who sustain the emperor and his retinue profit handsomely from the chaos on America's southern border. The hordes who swarm across it work the latifundia of the great, E Coli-ridden corporate farms, pluck the chickens, and construct the houses of the luxuriating class. If one were a betting man one would lay odds the money barons will win and the borders will remain porous, the nascent totalitarianism of Homeland Security and the fury of the mob notwithstanding.
If the geographic situation of the United States, in the sense of the contrast between its far-flung (if futile) imperial ventures and its utter breakdown as a sovereign nation-state, is reminiscent of late Rome, then the economic basis of the empire completes the picture. The United States is no longer a producer, it is a ravenous consumer, now with an annual trade deficit of three-quarters of a trillion dollars (an unimaginable figure even ten years ago).
China, the favorite nation-state "national security threat" of the imperial gang, is a prime beneficiary of our governing class's addiction to arbitraging labor. A war with China, while not an impossibility, is far-fetched. War would instantly empty the shelves of Wal-Mart; where would the people who earn Wal-Mart wages shop, other than Wal-Mart? One could foresee serious social instability (read: riots) as a result. Even if our rulers were competent enough to construct a space denial program to discomfit the Chinese, they could finance it only if the Chinese Central Bank remained strangely passive, and did not dump U.S. Treasury bills.
Thus it was with Rome:
"Rome lived on its principal till ruin stared it in the face. Industry is the only true source of wealth, and there was no industry in Rome. By day the Ostia road was crowded with carts and muleteers, carrying to the great city the silks and spices of the East, the marble of Asia Minor, the timber of the Atlas, the grain of Africa and Egypt; and the carts brought out nothing but loads of dung. That was their return cargo." 
Seen in the historical perspective of an Edward Gibbon or a Winwood Reade, the Bush administration's National Space Policy bears out neither the vain hopes of its authors nor the nagging fears of its critics. Rather, it is a gesture of bravado characteristic of empires in the evening of their existence. Logic might suggest that such empires would hive to the status quo, and avoid adventures that could drain their power. Logic, however, can be deceiving.
Just as the Emperor Valens embarked on a disastrous campaign against the Goths in 376, the Austro-Hungarian Empire rolled the dice in 1914, and the British embarked on the feckless Suez campaign of 1956 (significantly, when their finances were in terrible shape), so the American Empire doubles its bets at the casino of history. It would vault the firmament to bring its purported enemies to heel, when the very basis of its power is ebbing away.
It is the expression of late imperial hubris, not just of a mad emperor, but of a whole governing system.
Werther is the pen name of a Northern Virginia-based defense analyst.
 "Bush Sets Defense as Space Priority," The Washington Post, 18 October 2006, p.A1.
 "Troops With Stress Disorders Fit For Duty?" CBS News, 19 October 2006
 "A Military Path to Citizenship," The Washington Post, 19 October 2006, p. A29
 The Martyrdom of Man by Winwood Reade (1871)
Saturday, October 21, 2006
by Kevin Tillman
It is Pat’s birthday on November 6, and elections are the day after. It gets me thinking about a conversation I had with Pat before we joined the military. He spoke about the risks with signing the papers. How once we committed, we were at the mercy of the American leadership and the American people. How we could be thrown in a direction not of our volition. How fighting as a soldier would leave us without a voice… until we get out.
Much has happened since we handed over our voice:
Somehow we were sent to invade a nation because it was a direct threat to the American people, or to the world, or harbored terrorists, or was involved in the September 11 attacks, or received weapons-grade uranium from Niger, or had mobile weapons labs, or WMD, or had a need to be liberated, or we needed to establish a democracy, or stop an insurgency, or stop a civil war we created that can’t be called a civil war even though it is. Something like that.
Somehow America has become a country that projects everything that it is not and condemns everything that it is.
Somehow our elected leaders were subverting international law and humanity by setting up secret prisons around the world, secretly kidnapping people, secretly holding them indefinitely, secretly not charging them with anything, secretly torturing them. Somehow that overt policy of torture became the fault of a few “bad apples” in the military.
Somehow back at home, support for the soldiers meant having a five-year-old kindergartener scribble a picture with crayons and send it overseas, or slapping stickers on cars, or lobbying Congress for an extra pad in a helmet. It’s interesting that a soldier on his third or fourth tour should care about a drawing from a five-year-old; or a faded sticker on a car as his friends die around him; or an extra pad in a helmet, as if it will protect him when an IED throws his vehicle 50 feet into the air as his body comes apart and his skin melts to the seat.
Somehow the more soldiers that die, the more legitimate the illegal invasion becomes.
Somehow American leadership, whose only credit is lying to its people and illegally invading a nation, has been allowed to steal the courage, virtue and honor of its soldiers on the ground.
Somehow those afraid to fight an illegal invasion decades ago are allowed to send soldiers to die for an illegal invasion they started.
Somehow faking character, virtue and strength is tolerated.
Somehow profiting from tragedy and horror is tolerated.
Somehow the death of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people is tolerated.
Somehow subversion of the Bill of Rights and The Constitution is tolerated.
Somehow suspension of Habeas Corpus is supposed to keep this country safe.
Somehow torture is tolerated.
Somehow lying is tolerated.
Somehow reason is being discarded for faith, dogma, and nonsense.
Somehow American leadership managed to create a more dangerous world.
Somehow a narrative is more important than reality.
Somehow America has become a country that projects everything that it is not and condemns everything that it is.
Somehow the most reasonable, trusted and respected country in the world has become one of the most irrational, belligerent, feared, and distrusted countries in the world.
Somehow being politically informed, diligent, and skeptical has been replaced by apathy through active ignorance.
Somehow the same incompetent, narcissistic, virtueless, vacuous, malicious criminals are still in charge of this country.
Somehow this is tolerated.
Somehow nobody is accountable for this.
In a democracy, the policy of the leaders is the policy of the people. So don’t be shocked when our grandkids bury much of this generation as traitors to the nation, to the world and to humanity. Most likely, they will come to know that “somehow” was nurtured by fear, insecurity and indifference, leaving the country vulnerable to unchecked, unchallenged parasites.
Luckily this country is still a democracy. People still have a voice. People still can take action. It can start after Pat’s birthday.
Kevin Tillman joined the Army with his brother Pat in 2002, and they served together in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pat was killed in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004. Kevin was discharged in 2005.
Copyright 2006 TruthDig.
Wednesday, October 04, 2006
October 3, 2006
How Empires Die
By NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN
"When Government undertakes a repressive policy, the innocent are not safe. Men like me would not be considered innocent. The innocent then is he who forswears politics, who takes no part in the public movements of the times, who retires into his house, mumbles his prayers, pays his taxes, and salaams all the government officials all round. The man who interferes in politics, the man who goes about collecting money for any public purpose, the man who addresses a public meeting, then becomes a suspect. I am always on the borderland and I, therefore, for personal reasons, if for nothing else, undertake to say that the possession, in the hands of the Executive, of powers of this drastic nature will not hurt only the wicked. It will hurt the good as well as the bad, and there will be such a lowering of public spirit, there will be such a lowering of the political tone in the country, that all your talk of responsible government will be mere mockery ...
"Much better that a few rascals should walk abroad than that the honest man should be obliged for fear of the law of the land to remain shut up in his house, to refrain from the activities which it is in his nature to indulge in, to abstain from all political and public work merely because there is a dreadful law in the land."
--Rt. Hon. Srinivasa Sastri, speaking in the Imperial Legislative Council, at the introduction of the Rowlatt Bill, Feb 7, 1919
It was bad enough, when the bill doing away with habeas corpus and adherence to the Geneva Conventions was being discussed this week, that its supporters actually said that only those who had done wrong need worry. It is further testament to our standard of political discourse that the rebuttal was often equally pathetic -- we can't trust this president to exercise good judgement! Few statesman in today's debate can capture the issue as succinctly as did Rt. Hon. Sastri nearly a century ago.
All of this is moot, in another sense. This is just one more slide, albeit a huge one, in a long list of slippages our people and politicians have allowed over the last decade, always with the exhortation to 'put it behind us'.
We set out to make Iraq in America's image. We have succeeded splendidly in achieving a certain mutual resemblance. Today there is no difference between disappearing in Iraq and disappearing in America. In one place you might be held incognito by a militia, in the other by the government. Until yesterday, the difference was that in America, the governent was obliged to produce you before a magistrate, to let you have a lawyer, to allow your family to know.
The mobs in the middle east may raise a million cries of, "Death to America", but it is George W. Bush and his pocket Congress that are carrying out their wishes.
'Na Vakeel, Na Daleel, Na Appeal', was the slogan raised by Indians against the imposition of the Rowlatt Act in 1919. Translation "No lawyer, No Trial, No Appeal".
"The Rowlatt Act was passed in 1919, indefinitely extending wartime "emergency meaures" in order to control public unrest and root out conspiracy. This act effectively authorised the government to imprison without trial, any person suspected of terrorism living in the Raj." (From Wikipedia)
There was anger in India -- and shock. Whatever one's dislike of British rule, it had the perceived merit of standing fast by notions such as open trials, prisoner's rights, appeals, due process, impressive in a country which had mainly known princely whim for justice in earlier times. The Rowlatt Act tore the veil of moral superiority from the public face of British rule.
Indian opposition to the Act, voiced by many well-meaning and eloquent legislators such as Sastri, was ignored. Public outrage was widespread, but unfocused. Gandhi was then a relatively fresh face in India, having returned from South Africa less than four years before. His exploits in South Africa and more recently in Bihar had won him fair renown, but he was by no means yet pre-eminent.
Though on unfamilar political terrain and younger than many other leaders in a country where age equated to deference, Gandhi had two attributes that set him apart from most other leaders --daring and faith. Only he could have had the nerve to call for a general strike throughout India, as he did. Only he could have grasped that a draconian law was an insult to the country, and that to not counter it in the fullest measure was to betray an article of faith. He was in Madras, at the home of his host Rajagopalachari (later to be the first Indian Governor General), when, as he writes in his autobiography, "The idea came last night in a dream that we should call upon the country to observe a general hartal (strike)". On April 6, without any formal organization, in an era without phones, photocopiers, or computers, word spread, and the entire country came to a standstill!
If Gandhi found a law permitting detention without trail by a foreign government abhorrent enough to launch a nationwide general strike, what is America doing when similar laws are being passed by its own government?
Answer: Not even a filibuster. Are there political leaders holding town hall meetings (electronic and otherwise) telling the people what this draconian legislation means? They are far too busy trying to dodge the accusation of being 'soft on terror'. As in 2002, this will not save them. Tony Snow warned today that their statements of doubt during the debate can and will be used against them in the campaign (proof that Miranda at least still lives, after a fashion). They are, in Sastri's words, "Toadies, Timid Men".
Following the hartal, in Punjab (where the Lt. Governor would shortly impose indignities such as a crawling lane where Indians could not walk, but only crawl), people assembled in a park in Amritsar on Baisakhi Day (the Punjabi New Year) on April 13, 1919, to protest the arrest of two activists. Known to history as Jallianwalla Bagh, the garden was enclosed all around by a wall. Gen. Reginald Dyer, head of the army in Punjab, said he wanted to provide Indians a "moral lesson", and had his troops fire into the enclosed space, resulting in the death of 379 people (by official count).
The rest (no pun intended) is history. After the Rowlatt Act and Jallianwala Bagh, the English lost any moral hold they had over the minds of Indians. The Great Hartal also signified the beginning of the Gandhi Era. Within thirty years, the Empire was finished. As a booklet on Jallianwalla Bagh says, "If at Plassey the foundations of the British Empire were laid, at Amritsar they were broken".
In our times, having already disdained the law and being caught out by the Supreme Court, our Emperors are trying to rewrite the statute retroactively, assisted by a conscience-free Congress. That a reportedly sick man hiding in a cave in Waziristan has brought about the abolition of habeas corpus in America is the clearest verdict on who is winning the War on Terror.
In India, in 1976, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi passed a similar law, abolishing habeas corpus and setting herself unpunishable for any crimes committed before or during her office (it was repealed, lock stock and barrel, when a new government came to power). But before she could do so, the entire opposition had been arrested, the press had censorship clamped on it, and the jails filled with a hundred thousand dissenters picked up in midnight sweeps. India's parliament does not have a filibuster. The Democrats and Republicans who sold the country down the river have no similar defense, other than to say it has become a habit.
Where is the Martin Luther King today to call for civil disobedience? Where are the crowds outside the White House and Congress? The fight is no longer against the Bush administration or its minions in the other estates. Their Empire is headed for the abyss. The question, is, will it take the Republic along?
Gandhi wrote in his Satyagraha in South Africa (whose 100th Anniverary fell on 9-11-2006!), that people came to him saying, "We are ready to follow you to the gallows". He replied, "Jail is enough for me." If the Republic is to be saved, those who love it must ask themselves what they are ready to give up in return. As for the rest, Samuel Adams (yes, the beer guy) had this answer:
Niranjan Ramakrishnan can be reached at email@example.com. His blog is at http://njn-blogogram.blogspot.com.
"If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquillity of servitude than the animating contest of freedom, " go from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains sit lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen!"
IN the autumn of 68 B.C. the world’s only military superpower was dealt a profound psychological blow by a daring terrorist attack on its very heart. Rome’s port at Ostia was set on fire, the consular war fleet destroyed, and two prominent senators, together with their bodyguards and staff, kidnapped.
The incident, dramatic though it was, has not attracted much attention from modern historians. But history is mutable. An event that was merely a footnote five years ago has now, in our post-9/11 world, assumed a fresh and ominous significance. For in the panicky aftermath of the attack, the Roman people made decisions that set them on the path to the destruction of their Constitution, their democracy and their liberty. One cannot help wondering if history is repeating itself.
Consider the parallels. The perpetrators of this spectacular assault were not in the pay of any foreign power: no nation would have dared to attack Rome so provocatively. They were, rather, the disaffected of the earth: “The ruined men of all nations,” in the words of the great 19th-century German historian Theodor Mommsen, “a piratical state with a peculiar esprit de corps.”
Like Al Qaeda, these pirates were loosely organized, but able to spread a disproportionate amount of fear among citizens who had believed themselves immune from attack. To quote Mommsen again: “The Latin husbandman, the traveler on the Appian highway, the genteel bathing visitor at the terrestrial paradise of Baiae were no longer secure of their property or their life for a single moment.”
What was to be done? Over the preceding centuries, the Constitution of ancient Rome had developed an intricate series of checks and balances intended to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a single individual. The consulship, elected annually, was jointly held by two men. Military commands were of limited duration and subject to regular renewal. Ordinary citizens were accustomed to a remarkable degree of liberty: the cry of “Civis Romanus sum” — “I am a Roman citizen” — was a guarantee of safety throughout the world.
But such was the panic that ensued after Ostia that the people were willing to compromise these rights. The greatest soldier in Rome, the 38-year-old Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (better known to posterity as Pompey the Great) arranged for a lieutenant of his, the tribune Aulus Gabinius, to rise in the Roman Forum and propose an astonishing new law.
“Pompey was to be given not only the supreme naval command but what amounted in fact to an absolute authority and uncontrolled power over everyone,” the Greek historian Plutarch wrote. “There were not many places in the Roman world that were not included within these limits.”
Pompey eventually received almost the entire contents of the Roman Treasury — 144 million sesterces — to pay for his “war on terror,” which included building a fleet of 500 ships and raising an army of 120,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry. Such an accumulation of power was unprecedented, and there was literally a riot in the Senate when the bill was debated.
Nevertheless, at a tumultuous mass meeting in the center of Rome, Pompey’s opponents were cowed into submission, the Lex Gabinia passed (illegally), and he was given his power. In the end, once he put to sea, it took less than three months to sweep the pirates from the entire Mediterranean. Even allowing for Pompey’s genius as a military strategist, the suspicion arises that if the pirates could be defeated so swiftly, they could hardly have been such a grievous threat in the first place.
But it was too late to raise such questions. By the oldest trick in the political book — the whipping up of a panic, in which any dissenting voice could be dismissed as “soft” or even “traitorous” — powers had been ceded by the people that would never be returned. Pompey stayed in the Middle East for six years, establishing puppet regimes throughout the region, and turning himself into the richest man in the empire.
Those of us who are not Americans can only look on in wonder at the similar ease with which the ancient rights and liberties of the individual are being surrendered in the United States in the wake of 9/11. The vote by the Senate on Thursday to suspend the right of habeas corpus for terrorism detainees, denying them their right to challenge their detention in court; the careful wording about torture, which forbids only the inducement of “serious” physical and mental suffering to obtain information; the admissibility of evidence obtained in the United States without a search warrant; the licensing of the president to declare a legal resident of the United States an enemy combatant — all this represents an historic shift in the balance of power between the citizen and the executive.
An intelligent, skeptical American would no doubt scoff at the thought that what has happened since 9/11 could presage the destruction of a centuries-old constitution; but then, I suppose, an intelligent, skeptical Roman in 68 B.C. might well have done the same.
In truth, however, the Lex Gabinia was the beginning of the end of the Roman republic. It set a precedent. Less than a decade later, Julius Caesar — the only man, according to Plutarch, who spoke out in favor of Pompey’s special command during the Senate debate — was awarded similar, extended military sovereignty in Gaul. Previously, the state, through the Senate, largely had direction of its armed forces; now the armed forces began to assume direction of the state.
It also brought a flood of money into an electoral system that had been designed for a simpler, non-imperial era. Caesar, like Pompey, with all the resources of Gaul at his disposal, became immensely wealthy, and used his treasure to fund his own political faction. Henceforth, the result of elections was determined largely by which candidate had the most money to bribe the electorate. In 49 B.C., the system collapsed completely, Caesar crossed the Rubicon — and the rest, as they say, is ancient history.
It may be that the Roman republic was doomed in any case. But the disproportionate reaction to the raid on Ostia unquestionably hastened the process, weakening the restraints on military adventurism and corrupting the political process. It was to be more than 1,800 years before anything remotely comparable to Rome’s democracy — imperfect though it was — rose again.
The Lex Gabinia was a classic illustration of the law of unintended consequences: it fatally subverted the institution it was supposed to protect. Let us hope that vote in the United States Senate does not have the same result.
Robert Harris is the author, most recently, of “Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome.”
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
A mini- Ed Murrow for our times. Keith Olbermann of MSNBC broke the silence finally, in the mainstream media, and made this brilliant peroration. View it here.
Torturing the Obvious
Why this too shall pass
You don't say! Americans are shocked, shocked that our bombing, devastating and occupying a country that did us no harm would inflame its inhabitants and swell the ranks of those arrayed against America.
- The proposition that budget deficits and lowered taxes would together usher in the millenium, an obvious crock, gives the Gipper a 49 state reelection win,
- The notion that shutting down American factories and getting things manufactured abroad, touted and accepted as the way to enduring prosperity,
- NAFTA, whose obvious consequence was described best by Ross Perot's "Giant Sucking Sound" (a prediction realized in greater measure than even Perot might have imagined)
- The Environment, an American ideal dating back to Teddy Roosevelt, steadily under attack begining with James Watt, with state after state voting for the notion that land conservation was inimical to individual prosperity,
- The obvious advantage of having a common language for the country, undermined by a tawdry appeal to multiculturalism and multilingualism (signs in every language, so long as we can sell in one of 'em!),
- The country actually entertains a serious debate on whether illegal immigration is wrong,
- President ignores warnings of 'bin Laden determined to strike inside the US', vacations, reads My Pet Goat, and refuses to order an inquiry into 9-11 until over a year later, when forced,
- Responding to 15 hijackers coming from a country which financed madraasas and recognized Osama's hosts, by going to war against a country which had no connection to 9-11,
- Responding to the attack by training our guns on the American Constitution, a la the Patriot Act, illegal wiretapping, detentions without trial...,
- Reelecting a President who had not only flubbed 9-11, but was so obviously clueless three years later that he had to declare in the first presidential debate, "Of course I know Osama Bin Laden Attacked Us. I know that!".
The obvious solution? Go after those who leaked the story, of course. And thank God for that brand new torture agreement. Now at least the President is bound (unless he decides otherwise) to permit the Times and the leakers to see the evidence.
Sunday, September 24, 2006
Three 9/11s choose your own
| There were three 9/11s in history. The New York one of 2001. The neo-liberal one of Chile 1973, and the non-violent one of 1906 Gandhiji's satyagraha in South Africa. The authors of all three tried to change the world. Two brought bloodshed, destruction, misery, and chaos. But the Mahatma's WMD Weapon of Mass Disobedience helped change the world for the better.|
FIVE YEARS on, the world is a more dangerous place than it was prior to September 11, 2001. Acts of terror, real and presumed, cause panic each month across the globe. Hundreds of people have been killed in terror attacks in many countries. Tens of thousands have been slaughtered in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone. Both nations have been ravaged and devastated. Millions of lives have been disrupted forever. Lebanon lies shattered. And more and more flashpoints even nuclear ones emerge. In a divided planet, there is one zone of agreement: the worst is yet to come.
Get your own web address for just $1.99/1st yr. We'll help. Yahoo! Small Business.
Friday, September 22, 2006
Tolerance: A Two-Way Street
Religious fanatics, regardless of what name they give their jealous god, invariably have one thing in common: no sense of humor. Particularly about themselves. It's hard to imagine Torquemada taking a joke well.
Today's Islamists seem to have not even a sense of irony. They fail to see the richness of the following sequence. The pope makes a reference to a 14th-century Byzantine emperor's remark about Islam imposing itself by the sword, and to protest this linking of Islam and violence:
In the West Bank and Gaza, Muslims attack seven churches.
· In London, the ever-dependable radical Anjem Choudary tells demonstrators at Westminster Cathedral that the pope is now condemned to death.
· In Mogadishu, Somali religious leader Abubukar Hassan Malin calls on Muslims to "hunt down" the pope. The pope not being quite at hand, they do the next best thing: shoot dead, execution-style, an Italian nun who worked in a children's hospital.
"How dare you say Islam is a violent religion? I'll kill you for it" is not exactly the best way to go about refuting the charge. But of course, refuting is not the point here. The point is intimidation.
First Salman Rushdie. Then the false Newsweek report about Koran-flushing at Guantanamo Bay. Then the Danish cartoons. And now a line from a scholarly disquisition on rationalism and faith given in German at a German university by the pope.
And the intimidation succeeds: politicians bowing and scraping to the mob over the cartoons; Saturday's craven New York Times editorial telling the pope to apologize; the plague of self-censorship about anything remotely controversial about Islam -- this in a culture in which a half-naked pop star blithely stages a mock crucifixion as the highlight of her latest concert tour.
In today's world, religious sensitivity is a one-way street. The rules of the road are enforced by Islamic mobs and abjectly followed by Western media, politicians and religious leaders.
The fact is that all three monotheistic religions have in their long histories wielded the sword. The Book of Joshua is knee-deep in blood. The real Hanukkah story, so absurdly twinned (by calendric accident) with the Christian festival of peace, is about a savage insurgency and civil war.
Christianity more than matched that lurid history with the Crusades, an ecumenical blood bath that began with the slaughter of Jews in the Rhineland, a kind of preseason warm-up to the featured massacres to come against the Muslims, with the sacking of the capital of Byzantium (the Fourth Crusade) thrown in for good measure.
And Islam, of course, spread with great speed from Arabia across the Mediterranean and into Europe. It was not all benign persuasion. After all, what were Islamic armies doing at Poitiers in 732 and the gates of Vienna in 1683? Tourism?
However, the inconvenient truth is that after centuries of religious wars, Christendom long ago gave it up. It is a simple and undeniable fact that the violent purveyors of monotheistic religion today are self-proclaimed warriors for Islam who shout "God is great" as they slit the throats of infidels -- such as those of the flight crews on Sept. 11, 2001 -- and are then celebrated as heroes and martyrs.
Just one month ago, two journalists were kidnapped in Gaza and were released only after their forced conversion to Islam. Where were the protests in the Islamic world at that act -- rather than the charge -- of forced conversion?
Where is the protest over the constant stream of vilification of Christianity and Judaism issuing from the official newspapers, mosques and religious authorities of Arab nations? When Sheik 'Atiyyah Saqr issues a fatwa declaring Jews "apes and pigs"? When Sheik Abd al-Aziz Fawzan al-Fawzan, professor of Islamic law, says on Saudi TV that "someone who denies Allah, worships Christ, son of Mary, and claims that God is one-third of a trinity. . . . Don't you hate the faith of such a polytheist?"
Where are the demonstrations, where are the parliamentary resolutions, where are the demands for retraction when the Mufti Sheik Ali Gum'a incites readers of al-Ahram, the Egyptian government daily, against "the true and hideous face of the blood-suckers . . . who prepare [Passover] matzos from human blood"?
The pope gives offense and the Mujaheddin al-Shura Council in Iraq declares that it "will break up the cross, spill the liquor and impose the 'jizya' [head] tax; then the only thing acceptable is conversion or the sword." This to protest the accusation that Islam might be spread by the sword.
As I said. No sense of irony.
Monday, September 11, 2006
Niranjan Ramakrishnan can be reached at njn_2003@#yahoo.com. His blog is at http://njn-blogogram.blogspot.com.