Wealth Vs. Money

Wealth Vs. Money

By Robert C. Koehler, Tribune Content Agency

“There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

The words are those of Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine, speaking to Edward R. Murrow in 1955, as quoted recently in an essay by Paul Buchheit. What was he thinking? Six decades later, the words have such a counter-resonance with prevailing thought. They exude an old-fashioned humility and innocence, like . . . striking it rich isn’t necessarily the ultimate point of life?

I read these words and sense so much spilled wisdom in them, so much wasted hope. The world we’ve created is governed these days by two unquestioned principles: commodify and dominate. And it’s chewing up the resources that used to belong to every occupant of the planet.

“Eighty people hold the same amount of wealth as the world’s 3.6 billion poorest people, according to an analysis just released from Oxfam,” Mona Chalabi wrote in January at FiveThirtyEight.com. “The report from the global anti-poverty organization finds that since 2009, the wealth of those 80 richest has doubled in nominal terms — while the wealth of the poorest 50 percent of the world’s population has fallen.”

The winners keep winning and everyone loses.

Thus there is an “urgent need to tackle the vested interests of the 1 percent,” writes Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International. Wealth is a wedge to maintain wealth and widen the gap between those who have and those who don’t. Wealth seeks to privatize the world and shut most people out.

“Wealth is used to entrench inequality, not to trickle down and solve it. . . .” she writes. “Across the world, we see that great money doesn’t only buy a nice car or a better education or health care. It can buy power: impunity from justice; an election; a pliant media; favourable laws. With the privatisation of our universities it can even buy the world of ideas.”

It’s the opposite of the philosophy implicit in Salk’s comment: that what we do as individuals we do for the good of the whole, and, indeed, there is no separation between the individual and the whole. As Lewis Mumford once wrote, as quoted by Charles Eisenstein in his book “Sacred Economics,” “A patent is a device that enables one man to claim special financial rewards for being the last link in the complicated social process that produced the invention.”

The point I’m reaching for is not about being nice or charitable but about how we need to notch up our sense of what it means to be realistic. We are not alone in this world. We are intricately and complexly connected to it, and we need a system of being — political, social, cultural and economic — fully and enthusiastically cognizant of this fact. We need to reorganize humanity around this awareness, especially economically, because the current system blinds us to this crucial reality.

“I believe we can build a human economy where people are the bottom line,” Byanyima writes, to which I would add: not just people but the whole planet. And it begins with a change in awareness: that wealth and money are not interchangeable concepts and, indeed, that wealth can be experienced but not, in fact, “held.” And the 80 billionaires who control the same amount of capital as the world’s 3.6 billion most impoverished residents may have corralled an astonishing amount of power over others but have wealth equal only to their level of spiritual awareness, which is an awareness that begins, perhaps, with a surrender of the self to the larger context in which we are alive.

You might call this context evolution. When we live our lives to the fullest, we contribute to the greater whole and this is the basis of spiritual fulfillment. It can’t be hoarded; it can’t be gamed; it’s not a zero-sum process, in which more spiritual fulfillment for me means less for you.

“What was once sacred to us . . . is becoming no longer sacred,” Eisenstein said in an interview with Jonathan Talat Phillips. “For example, just a couple generations ago, we revered growth: the expansion of the human realm, the conquest of nature, etc. Today our values are changing, and we want to protect and heal nature. But money is still rooted in the old values. So, what I mean by ‘sacred economics’ is the realigning of money with those things that are becoming sacred to us today, those things that we deeply value.”

So this is our dilemma: Money is still rooted in the old values. Civilization had a 6,000-year growth spurt propelled by domination and conquest of the planet and one another. We’re at the end of this spurt; we’re running out of what we can conquer, but we’re still enthralled to an economic system that insists that the conquests continue. We have to keep exploiting and privatizing the planet — “the commons,” as Eisenstein calls it — chopping it up and selling it back to one another. This is an economic system that insists on proclaiming winners (very few) and losers (the many). It’s an economic system that will sacrifice the public good when it’s time to do so, and that time has come.

In the spirit of resistance to this force, I celebrate Jonas Salk and his refusal to patent the polio vaccine. In doing so, I feel flooded with a sense of wealth.

(Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, “Courage Grows Strong at the Wound” (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com, visit his website at commonwonders.com or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.)


Photo by StacyA/Flickr

Racism: It’s The Law

Racism: It’s The Law

Smoke and fire, sirens blaring, horns honking, a sudden hail of bullets. This is what passes for the American dialogue on race and justice.

It’s hidden until it explodes.

“By 10 p.m.,” the Wall Street Journal informed us, “a St. Louis County Police squad car burned just down the street from the Ferguson Police Department, with spare ammunition ‘cooking off’ or exploding in the car.”

Those who want to shake their heads in disgust can do so. American institutional racism conceals itself so neatly from those who prefer not to see it and, of course, aren’t victimized by it. And then every so often something sets off the public trigger — an 18-year-old young man is shot and killed by a police officer, for instance — and the reality TV that is our mainstream news brings us the angry, “violent” response, live. And it’s always one side against another; us vs. them. It’s always war.

“But what is justice in a nation built on white supremacy and the destruction of black bodies?” Mychal Denzel Smith wrote in The Nation the day after the grand jury announced that police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted. “That’s the question we have yet to answer. It’s the question that shakes us up and makes our insides uncomfortable. It’s the question that causes great unrest.”

What is justice, indeed? And beyond that question are the real questions, perhaps unanswerable. What is healing? What is peace?

If an officer had been indicted in Michael Brown’s killing, and then convicted on one charge or another, maybe that would have been justice, in a “case closed” sort of way. In our limited legal bureaucracy, justice means nothing more than punishment. Even when such justice is done, it changes nothing. The state’s “interest” has been satisfied and that’s all that matters. The terrible loss suffered by parents, friends and community would remain a gaping wound. And beyond that, the social brokenness and racism that caused the tragedy in the first place would remain unaddressed, unhealed.

But not even that minimal justice was in the cards for the loved ones of Michael Brown, or the occupied community in which he lived — because that’s not how it works. Officer Wilson, whatever he did inside or outside the state’s rules on the use of lethal force when he confronted Brown on the afternoon of Aug. 9, was just doing his job, which was controlling and intimidating the black population of Ferguson. He was on the front line of a racist and exploitative system — an occupying bureaucracy.

The New York Times, in its story about the grand jury verdict, began thus: “Michael Brown became so angry when he was stopped by Officer Darren Wilson on Canfield Drive here on Aug. 9, his face looked ‘like a demon,’ the officer would later tell a grand jury.”

This sort of detail is, of course, of immense value to those who sympathize with the police shooting and accuse the black community of endemic lawlessness. See! Michael Brown wasn’t just a nice, innocent boy minding his own business. He and his companion were trouble incarnate, walking down the middle of the street spoiling for a fight. He was Hulk Hogan. The cop had no choice but to shoot, and shoot again. This was a demonic confrontation. Politeness wouldn’t have worked.

If nothing else, such testimony shows the stark limits of our “who’s at fault?” legal system, which addresses every incident in pristine, absurd isolation and has no interest beyond establishing blame — that is to say, officially stamping the participants as either villains, heroes or victims. Certainly it has no interest in holistic understanding of social problems.

Taking Wilson’s testimony at face value, one could choose to ask: Why was Michael Brown so angry?

Many commentators have talked about the “anger” of Ferguson’s black community in the wake of the shooting, but there hasn’t been much examination of the anger that was simmering beforehand, which may have seized hold of Brown the instant the police officer stopped him.

However, an excellent piece of investigative journalism by Radley Balko of the Washington Post, which ran in September — “How municipalities in St. Louis County, MO, profit from poverty” — addresses the issue head on. He makes the point that local municipal governments, through an endless array of penny-ante citations and fines — “poverty violations” — torment the locals for the primary, or perhaps sole, purpose of keeping their bureaucracies funded.

“Some of the towns in St. Louis County can derive 40 percent or more of their annual revenue from the petty fines and fees collected by their municipal courts,” Balko writes. The fines are mostly for traffic offenses, but they also include fines for loud music, unmown lawns, “wearing saggy pants” and “vague infractions such as ‘disturbing the peace,'” among many others, and if the person fined, because he or she is poor, can’t pay up, a further fine is added to the original, and on and on it goes.

“There’s also a widely held sentiment that the police spend far more time looking for petty offenses that produce fines than they do keeping these communities safe,” Balko writes. “If you were tasked with designing a regional system of government guaranteed to produce racial conflict, anger, and resentment, you’d be hard pressed to do better than St. Louis County.”

Regarding the anger and resentment in communities like Ferguson, he quotes a longtime racial justice activist, Jack Kirkland, who says: “I liken it to a flow of hot magma just below the surface. It’s always there, building, pushing up against the earth. It’s just a matter of time. When it finds a weak point, it’s going to blow.”

And when it blows, we get to watch it on TV: the flames, the smoke, the rage, the ammo “cooking off.” This is what institutional racism looks like when we finally notice it.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com, visit his website at commonwonders.com or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.

AFP Photo/Mladen Antonov

Nuclear Disarmament: Beyond Iran

Nuclear Disarmament: Beyond Iran

Iran! So long our enemy-in-waiting, it’s just asking for it, y’know?

No wonder Americans are confused about the idea of maybe not going to war with that country one of these days, at least according to USA Today, which reported: “The White House and Iran face an uphill selling job to convince Americans to embrace the interim nuclear pact negotiated with Tehran last month.”

Two out of three Americans who have actually heard something about the accord don’t trust it, the paper explains, because, in essence, Iran took American hostages that one time (for no reason) and have been uncooperative toward our interests ever since. Thus, however hopeful or problematic the Geneva agreement between Iran and the P5 plus one nations (the U.S., Russia, China, France, U.K. and Germany) may be, here in the land of all-that-is-exceptional, pop culture and superficial opinion polls rule and cynical ignorance counts as news.

Not only did the story fail to address or even hint at the history of U.S.-Iranian relations back to, let us say, 1953, and the CIA’s involvement in the overthrow of democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, followed by the installation of the hated (but West-compliant) shah, it overlooked — this seems to be a requirement of mainstream journalism — the glaringly obvious fact that the P5 powers, adamant in their determination to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal, actually possess thousands upon thousands of nuclear weapons themselves.

Even without Iran’s joining the nuclear club, the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is set at five minutes to midnight. We’re as much in danger of destroying ourselves as we’ve ever been. Why isn’t this relevant?

As Ira Helfand, co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, wrote in an op-ed published by CNN: “The world is focused on forging a durable agreement to prevent Iran from developing a single nuclear weapon. While critically important, these efforts ignore a far greater danger: the thousands of weapons that already exist.”

There are 17,000 of them out there, Helfand notes — in a world that still careens with hatred and irresponsibility. Their use, even as a first-strike option, comes up time and again in geopolitical discussions. And even a “limited” nuclear war — a suicidal showdown between India and Pakistan, say — would, he writes, directly kill 20 million or so people and, beyond that, likely bring on a nuclear winter by clogging the atmosphere with soot, thus putting 2 billion more people’s lives at risk through famine.

In its interim agreement with the world’s major powers, Iran would, among other things, stop producing weapons-grade uranium in its pursuit of nuclear power and allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect its facilities, in exchange for some relief from economic sanctions. The deal, which Congress could undermine by demanding tougher sanctions on Iran at this point, would be a step toward the permanent curtailment of Iranian nuclear ambitions. This is no doubt in the best interests of global peace.

But what heartbreaking irony that such news is not routinely reported in the larger context of complete global nuclear disarmament. A silent decree has gone out: This ain’t gonna happen, so let’s just stop talking about it.

Kate Hudson, the general secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, wrote recently in the Guardian that the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which all the major powers signed, did more than deny non-nuclear nations the right to acquire them. “In exchange,” she wrote, “the countries that do have them will disarm. That too is a nuclear deal. But it is one that the nuclear weapons states have ignored for more than 40 years. They are eager to police aspirational states — and rightly so — but are completely at odds with international law themselves.”

Indeed, nuclear proliferation in the form of modernization is alive and well. You might even say that nuclear weapons exist independently of anyone’s rational control.

“Due to the aging of the current (U.S.) force and plans to replace each leg of the nuclear triad — land and submarine-based missiles and bomber delivered nuclear weapons — costs for the nuclear mission are expected to grow substantially to approximately $500 billion over the next 20 years,” according to the Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

“In 2005,” the center notes, “the Government Accountability Office reported that even the Department of Defense itself did not know precisely how much the nuclear mission costs. At present, there is no congressional requirement that a stand-alone nuclear budget be developed . . . and no single budget account contains all known or expected nuclear-related costs.”

So we’re sort of still fighting a Cold War that ended decades ago and maintaining and modernizing our stockpiles without accountability or oversight. Helfand, for instance, writing about the devastating consequences of limited nuclear war, adds: “By way of comparison, each U.S. Trident submarine commonly carries 96 warheads, each of which is 10 to 30 times more powerful than the weapons used in the South Asia scenario. That means a single submarine can cause the devastation of a nuclear famine many times over.”

Iran and its nuclear-weapons potential are no more than a distracting blip in our mega-armed world. And the nations that do possess nuclear weapons have far more history of international recklessness than the ones that don’t.

The question of the moment may be: What force is large enough to get the attention of the Nuclear Club and cause its members — the United States, Russia, China, France, United Kingdom, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel — to move resolutely toward disarmament? Does such a force exist, even in the collective imagination?

(Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com, visit his website at commonwonders.com or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.)

AFP Photo/Atta Kenare

Good Violence, Bad Violence

Good Violence, Bad Violence


“In the end, after he has felt the full force of our justice system, what will be remembered are the good people who were impacted by this tragedy,” President Obama said this week in Aurora, Colo., after the shootings.

That’s probably not true.

From Charles Whitman up to the present day, the collective American memory preserves the name of the killer . . . the lone psycho, the shadow hero. We’re far too fascinated with violence not to mythologize its perpetrators. And just as we all know (because the media tell us) that there will be a “next war,” we know, oh God, in the deep churnings of the heart, that there will be more murder victims — schoolchildren, college students, shoppers, churchgoers, theatergoers, bystanders. We know because we live in a culture that tolerates and perpetuates violence.

James Holmes may have been a “loner,” but, like his predecessors, he acted in a complex American context. He wasn’t alone at all.

The U.S. is far more violent than other developed countries, for reasons seldom addressed or even looked at in anything like a holistic way. The root of the matter, as I see it, is our false distinction between “good violence” and “bad violence.” We don’t address the issue systemically because of our social investment in “good violence” and the enormous payoff it delivers to some. But good violence — the authorized, glorified, “necessary” kind — inevitably morphs into bad violence from time to time, and thus we are delivered jolts of headline-grabbing horror on a regular basis.

Image by chuybenitez via Flickr.

The factors that make up our culture of violence include, but are hardly limited to, the following:

A. The easy availability of guns, including semiautomatic weapons, ammunition and other paraphernalia. Holmes, for instance, not only purchased some 6,000 rounds of ammo on the Internet but “a high-capacity ‘drum magazine’ large enough to hold 100 rounds and capable of firing 50 or 60 rounds per minute — a purchase that would have been restricted under proposed legislation that has been stalled in Washington for more than a year,” according to the New York Times.

A culture of fear and the popular association of guns with personal empowerment guarantee that simply stanching the availability of high-capacity killing equipment to angry loners slipping into mental illness isn’t likely anytime soon. Indeed, we’re going the wrong direction. The AR-15 semiautomatic rifle Holmes used had been illegal under the federal ban on assault weapons that Congress allowed to expire in 2004. One unaddressed question: To what extent does easy access to military weaponry inspire lost souls even to consider mass murder as their ticket to glory and public attention?

B. The media — entertainment and news — feed the popularity of “good violence.” Violence is the driving plot device for thousands of forgettable, special-effects-permeated flicks. Its opposite is wimpiness. Movie and TV violence is abstract and consequence-free: the quickest way to solve a problem, find love, attain manhood, do good. America’s Army, the violent but bloodless videogame maintained by the U.S. Army, sucks in 13-year-olds. Violence occupies the American consciousness. “Why are we violent but not illiterate?” asked journalist Colman McCarthy. The answer: We’re taught to read.

As our newspapers collapse and TV culture permeates American households, the distinction between news and entertainment continues to blur. Peace and nonviolence are far too complex to grab readers’ and viewers’ attention. Violence sells. Violence advertises. Give us a war, any war, and the media will line up behind it, at least until it starts to go bad. “I guess I was part of the groupthink,” Bob Woodward lamented several years into the Iraq war, when the Washington Post examined its failure to be the least bit critical of the disaster initially. A serious part of the defense budget is public relations; it’s always money well spent.

C. Violence drives government policy. We’re now engaged in an endless, Orwellian war against dark-skinned, foreign evil. The “Washington consensus” is the same thing as the military-industrial complex. We torture, we carpet-bomb. We’ve wrecked two countries, killed civilians by the thousands or hundreds of thousands. We assassinate by drone and keep our civilian kill-count low by regarding all military-age males as combatants (by which measure, seven of Holmes’ victims shouldn’t count). We’re continuing to develop the “next generation” of nuclear weapons.

Violence also drives domestic policy. Our prison-industrial complex is the largest in the world — and becoming privatized. We have no mercy on the poor. Social spending bears the brunt of “austerity.” The police are becoming increasingly militarized. We control through punishment, which seems to be the same thing as revenge (“. . . after he has felt the full force of our justice system . . .”).

D. We worship winning and create unity around common enemies. Racism is endemic. We live in a domination culture; competition rules, even in education settings. The default American truism is “survival of the fittest.” Everything we do is based on the military model. We go to war against all our problems rather than try to heal them. We think love means weakness. Sonia Sotomayor was mocked as the “empathy nominee” for Supreme Court justice.

Good violence is the original bait-and-switch. As we mourn the latest to die so unnecessarily, let us vow not to let our grief turn to revenge.

(Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is a nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.)

Realists Play Video Games

St. Augustine blesses the kill list. And liberalism is just a nicer, slicker, more PR-savvy way of carrying on the brutal work of empire.

Behold President Obama, on the second day of his presidency, flanked by retired generals and admirals, signing an executive order to ban torture and declaring that the prison at Guantanamo Bay would soon be closed — fulfilling, in other words, some serious campaign promises.

“What the new president did not say,” a recent New York Times story explains, in gleeful servitude to the ironies of military-industrialism, “was that the orders contained a few subtle loopholes.” Those loopholes left, it turns out, plenty of room for the new administration to continue Bush-era, war-on-terror business as usual, preserving such controversial practices as extraordinary rendition, military commissions and indefinite detention.

“They reflected a still unfamiliar Barack Obama,” Times reporters Jo Becker and Scott Shane proceed to tell us, “a realist who, unlike some of his fervent supporters, was never carried away by his own rhetoric.”

And Obama’s base of support is dismissed in an instant as fervent fools who actually believed all that nonsense about . . . what was that word again? Oh yeah, hope. If you are stressed about human rights abuses, torture, indefinite detention, pre-emptive invasion, the slaughter of civilians, the occupation of sovereign nations, drone warfare, government-sanctioned assassination, the shredding of constitutional rights, depleted uranium, toxic military waste, the counterproductivity of war and such like, my friend, you are not a realist.

Realists recognize that certain human beings are expendable.

The buzz-generating article, published at the end of May, is “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” a 6,000-word opus taking us on a tour of the Obama war room. It’s a remarkable piece of work, based on interviews with three dozen of the president’s current and former advisers. The story’s primary revelation is that Obama and his security team meet every week to discuss the “baseball card” bios of suspected al-Qaida members in such places as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and “nominate” the ones to kill in drone attacks. The president insists on having the final, life-and-death say.

The story is a mostly uncritical celebration of the process and of Obama’s “pragmatism” — which is to say, his abdication of do-gooder principles whenever they become inconvenient and get in the way of America’s safety.

Indeed, Obama comes off as a heck of a commander-in-chief, decisive and tough yet adept at spouting liberal rhetoric and conversant with the just war theory of St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Thus, unlike George Bush, he is able to certify his war as morally acceptable to intellectuals, no matter how cynically he may compromise the principle that “thou shalt not kill civilians.”

One of the most blatant bits of cynicism the story reveals, which has deservedly received much critical comment, concerns the way the Obama team was able to reduce, or at least contain, the number of civilian casualties its drone strikes created:

Obama simply “embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants . . . unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

But hey, that’s realism. My concern about this is not only with the Obama administration’s cynical pursuit and expansion of Bush’s brutal, destabilizing war, but with the subtle banishment by the Times of all substantive criticism of it into the margins of fanaticism. Alternatives to the violent pursuit of “safety” and self-interest do not appear in the story; there’s no acknowledgement they even exist. The only counter-ideas given voice emanate from Dick Cheney and the rabid neocons, which serve mainly to reinforce the moderate reasonableness of Obama’s war.

Yet there’s nothing moderate or reasonable about it at all, or even, as far as I can tell, “pragmatic” or “realistic.” The message I take from the Times story is that terrorism is simply less frustrating to deal with if it’s reduced to a logical, utterly abstract, win-lose problem, rather than dealt with in terms of long-range principles or seen in a context that includes a re-examination of American policy and self-interest. What primarily matters is that those in power be able to reassure themselves continually that they’re “doing something” by taking out bad guys. (Realists play video games!)

The Times story looks no deeper than this, but at one point the writers describe Obama as following “the metastasizing enemy into new and dangerous lands.” Why is the enemy metastasizing? Well, they later note, in what Tom Engelhardt calls the “single outside-the-Beltway sentence” in the entire article, that both Pakistan and Yemen “are arguably less stable and more hostile to the United States than when Mr. Obama became president.”

Obama the realist is pursuing a policy that isn’t working, even in its own terms, but the powers that be, including the media, don’t seem to notice. Meanwhile, the secret kill list protects us — from those who claim safety requires creating a just and humane world.

(Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, “Courage Grows Strong at the Wound” (Xenos Press) is now available. You can respond to this column at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.)

Project Bugsplat

“The Lakotah had no language for insulting other orders of existence: pest, waste, weed . . .”

But what about “bugsplat”?

That’s the word for the cop at UC Davis, walking up and down the line of students sitting with their arms locked, zapping them in the eyes with pepper spray. It’s the word for the Tunisian police and bureaucrats who humiliated Mohamed Bouazizi and destroyed his livelihood as a street vendor. It’s the word for anyone whose power exceeds his humanity.

And, according to a 2003 Washington Post story, it’s the name of a Defense Department computer program for calculating collateral damage, as well as, apparently, casual terminology among Pentagon operation planners and the like to refer to the collateral damage itself . . . you know, the dead civilians. CIA drone operators talk about bugsplat. The British organization Reprieve calls its effort to track the number of people killed by U.S. drone strikes — in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen — Project Bugsplat.

It’s a term I’ve only recently come across, but I can’t get it out of my head. The only way I know how to begin thinking about it is to quote that passage from Rupert Ross’ extraordinary book about Native American wisdom, “Returning to the Teachings,” and contemplate the idea of a people who have “no language for insulting other orders of existence.” Such a thought, it seems to me, is worth sitting with for a while, especially as we read or listen to the news and behold the daily unfolding of our casual disrespect for every order of existence, including our own.

Ross goes on to talk about “the core teaching that all aspects of Creation were essential, none were superior and each must be respected if all are to survive.”

What if this is actually true? What if this is the depth at which we need to transform ourselves, not merely personally but at every level of our interaction with the world, including geopolitically?

“But even when they’re not targeting civilians, which is probably most of the time, they end up killing massive numbers of civilians,” journalist Allan Nairn told Amy Goodman in a “Democracy Now!” interview last year.

“The Pentagon has a word for that, too,” he went on. “They call it ‘bugsplat.’ In the opening days of the invasion of Iraq, they ran computer programs, and they called the program the Bugsplat program, estimating how many civilians they would kill with a given bombing raid. On the opening day, the printouts presented to General Tommy Franks indicated that 22 of the projected bombing attacks on Iraq would produce what they defined as heavy bugsplat — that is, more than 30 civilian deaths per raid. Franks said, ‘Go ahead. We’re doing all 22.'”

And this is the foundation of our national security.

I go back to the now-infamous video of the policeman at UC Davis, acting not so much in personal disdain toward the students he was pepper-spraying as in a context of institutional disdain for them. The police defined their role as restoring order, but what they were doing was re-establishing turf. To that end, they were simply doing their jobs: removing impediments.

The extended video of the incident, showing the chaotic aftermath of the spraying, with the crowd screaming “Shame on you!” as the injured students clutch their faces and roll on the ground in pain, as some are cuffed while they lie face-down in the grass, is almost as harrowing to watch as battle footage. At one point someone shouts in outrage, “These are children!”

While the balance of power seems remarkably uneven in this incident, in reality that’s not the case. As the demonstrators focus their anger and cries of shame, the perplexed police are the ones who stumble backward, at least momentarily.

This doesn’t happen where we wage our wars. This, for instance, is from a New York Times article on Thanksgiving Day, about a NATO airstrike in southern Afghanistan that killed seven civilians (including six children):

“Abdul Samad, an uncle of four of the children who were killed, disputed the government’s version of the attack. He said his relatives were working in fields near their village when they were attacked without warning by an aircraft.

“His brother-in-law, Mohammad Rahim, 50, had his two sons and three daughters with him. They were between 4 and 12 years old and all were killed, except an 8-year-old daughter who was badly wounded, Mr. Samad said.”

Project Bugsplat is the name of every war, at least from the planners’ point of view. A winnable war is waged from above, invisibly, with godlike impunity. Such wars, especially in today’s political order, cannot be effectively opposed with acts of equally brutal counterforce; they can only be prolonged.

“Bugsplat” is a term of ultimate disrespect and indifference, and it begins with a state of mind. The global Occupy movement, with its humane and nonviolent core certainty, is tipping the balance. Finally it comes down to this: Occupy consciousness.

(Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is a nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.)

(c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Sanity In Exile

Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran . . .

Or as Mitt Romney put it, playing the irresponsible-lunatic game convincingly enough to become the leading Republican presidential candidate: “If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon.”

The consensus congeals: Our next war must be with Iran. A report issued by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, which the New York Times called “chillingly comprehensive” (though this is debatable), stoked this long-simmering agenda. It charges that Iran has conducted secret experiments on nuclear triggers and created computer models of nuclear explosions, among other things, which proves that the nation, despite its leaders’ protestations to the contrary, is pursuing . . . oh God, oh God . . . a nuclear weapons program.

War hysteria springs eternal. It certainly makes great fodder for a presidential campaign, as virtually all the GOP commander-in-chief wannabes are playing tough as nails on the issue, yanking the debate screamingly to the right. This is the way the game works. The Obama administration thus has to defend itself for eschewing, so far, a military response to the threat and pursuing only economic sanctions.

No matter the current sanctions have “applied so much pressure that the Iranian economy has ground to a halt,” according to an administration spokesman. Iran’s alleged hideous crime, of pursuing weapons only the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea are allowed to possess, requires a military pummeling of the first order. And this, then, is the national “debate”: war or war by other means. No other perspective is allowed or acknowledged.

Defending sanctions, for instance, U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, said: “Critics also argued that these measures will hurt the Iranian people. Quite frankly, we need to do just that.”

This closed, airtight national discussion fails to acknowledge a few things: most glaringly, that a stance of brutal toughness is horrific national policy and always creates unintended consequences that overwhelm the initial objectives.

Furthermore, there is significant counter-evidence, such as Seymour Hersh’s lengthy investigation that ran last June in the New Yorker, that Iran does not, in fact, have a nuclear weapons program; and that, like Iraq’s phantom nuclear program before it, it’s a bogeyman conjured up by the war establishment, both at home and abroad, to rev the engines of our next big military fiasco.

But even if the IAEA allegations are accurate and Iran is indeed developing a nuclear weapons program — well, why shouldn’t it? As Eric Margolis wrote recently at Huffington Post, “Iran has some pretty strong reasons for wanting nuclear weapons for defensive purposes — the same reason used by existing nuclear powers.”

After all, Margolis notes, Iran was invaded by the British and Soviets in 1941, with its oil fields seized to support the war effort; and in 1953, its democratically elected prime minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, was overthrown in a coup orchestrated by U.S. and British intelligence, thus preventing him from nationalizing Iranian oil production. The U.S. also supported Iraq in its bloody war against Iran in the 1980s. And nuclear-armed Israel is, of course, a serious threat from Iran’s point of view.

I say this not in support of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, but simply to point out the obvious holes and hypocrisies in the conventional logic, which isn’t logic at all, just propaganda surrounding a given: Iran is our enemy. No matter what.

It is in this context that I bring up a surprisingly ambivalent New York Times editorial on the IAEA report, which ran last week. The editorial, while adding its bit to the excoriation of Iran and calling on the U.N. Security Council “to quickly impose a new round of even tougher sanctions on Iran,” also made a feint, albeit confused and apologetic, in the direction of sane foreign policy and the larger picture.

“We’re not sure any mix of sanctions and inducements can wean Tehran of its nuclear ambitions,” the editorial lamented, neatly razor-slicing its own argument. It went on: “We are sure that a military attack would be a disaster — and the current saber-rattling from Israel should make everyone nervous.”

What refreshing confusion! Might the Times actually oppose a war with Iran? My guess is that it wouldn’t. Once the bandwagon began to roll, the Gray Lady would, I fear, clamber aboard. But here it is, acknowledging uncertainty that force and coercion would do any good at all, bringing what amounts to an antiwar consciousness to bear on the situation. Praise the Lord — sanity returns from exile, at least tentatively.

The next logical step is to acknowledge global nuclear disarmament as the key to our safety, and everyone’s safety. As Howard W. Hallman, chair of Methodists United for Peace with Justice, puts it at Strategic Peacemaking: “. . . for deterrence of other nations’ nuclear arsenals, a wiser and safer alternative is mutual elimination of all nuclear weapons.”

Such wisdom may not yet be part of the official debate, as it is monitored by the military-industrial establishment, but much of the world is massing with locked arms at its edges, shouting: No war with Iran. No war anywhere.

(Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is a nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.)

(c) 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Public Enemy No. 1

“Play faster!” he cried, wildly, over and over. “Play faster!”

The dame who was tickling the ivories complied, out of control herself. The music revved to a dangerous velocity — oh, too fast for decent, sober, well-behaved Americans to bear — and . . . well, you just knew, violence, madness, laughter were just around the corner. The year was 1936 and, oh my God, they were high on marijuana, public enemy number one.

The scene is from “Reefer Madness,” arguably the dumbest movie ever made — but smugly at the emotional and ideological core of American drug policy for the last three-quarters of a century. The policy, which morphed in 1970 into an all-out “war” on drugs, has filled our prisons to bursting, created powerful criminal enterprises, launched a real war in Mexico and presided over the skyrocketing of recreational drug use in the United States. The war on drugs just may be a bigger disaster than the war on terror.

“The war on drugs, as it has been waged, has not only failed to curtail drug use; it has become a major public health liability in its own right,” writes Christopher Glenn Fichtner in his comprehensive new book on our disastrous war on a plant, “Cannabanomics: The Marijuana Policy Tipping Point” (Well Mind Books).

Fichtner, a psychiatrist — he served as Illinois director of Mental Health for several years — takes a long, hard look at the politics of irrationality and lays out a compelling diagnosis: “essentially, social or mass psychosis.” You can also throw in racism. The war on drugs is simply a race war by another name, fueled by fear of Mexican and African-American culture, with the weight of law brought down on African Americans with wildly disproportionate severity:

“. . . during a period when the number of prison sentences for drug-related convictions increased dramatically for all drug offenders,” Fichtner writes, citing Illinois statistics between 1983 and 2002, “it increased for African Americans at roughly eight times the rate of increase seen for Caucasians.”

But reading “Cannabanomics” kept leaving me with the sense that there was a deeper irrationality to our anti-marijuana crusade than even the racism. For instance, “Examples abound,” he writes, “in which the application of mandatory minimum sentences has led to harsher penalties for marijuana offenses than for violent crimes ranging from battery through sexual assault and even to murder.”

And the violent enforcement of zero tolerance hasn’t been limited to the pursuit of recreational potheads. Those using cannabis medicinally have also been harassed, arrested and sometimes treated with such shocking violence you have to wonder whether the official paranoia about marijuana use — that it leads to mental derangement and violent behavior — is sheer projection.

For instance, early in the book Fichtner relates the story of Garry, a California man who used marijuana to relieve arthritic pain. Despite the fact that this was legal under state law, his house was raided by federal agents: “As he opened his front door, he was greeted by a battering ram and a physical takedown maneuver that left him with a dislocated left shoulder, right hand fractures, blunt head trauma, and a back injury that aggravated the arthritis for which he grew cannabis in his garage in the first place.”

Much of “Cannabanomics” is devoted to the extraordinary medicinal uses of marijuana, which has been called one of the safest therapeutically-active substances known to the human race. It has been used, usually with little if any side effect, to alleviate chronic pain and chemo-induced nausea and relieve the symptoms of a stunning array of illnesses and conditions, including epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, cerebral palsy, diabetes, hepatitis C, AIDS, cancer, Tourette’s syndrome and Alzheimer’s. The list goes on.

The herb has been “part of humanity’s medicine chest for almost as long as history has been recorded,” according to Dr. Gregory T. Carter, writing on the NORML website.

In light of this, our war against it — at extraordinary human and economic cost — illuminates a crying need for us to change the way we govern and look after ourselves. Another story Fichtner tells is about an Illinois man named Seth, who had suffered from epileptic seizures most of his life. He reluctantly tried using marijuana — one inhalation a day — because his prescribed medications weren’t helping much, and soon reduced the incidence of grand mal seizures from several per week to one or two per month.

The amazing part of this story, Fichtner notes, is that none of his doctors were willing even to discuss the therapeutic use of marijuana, though they were quick to recommend invasive procedures, including temporal lobe surgery. “. . .we Americans,” he writes, “live in a society in which it is acceptable practice for surgeons to destroy a piece of someone’s brain in order to prevent seizures but where use of marijuana for the same purpose . . . is a criminal offense.”

To my mind, it all smacks of the military-industrial metaphor that rules the American roost. We’re quick to seize on something as the enemy and organize ourselves blindly around its destruction, never stopping to notice that what we’re destroying is ourselves. In the case of the war on drugs, our “enemy” is our greatest ally.

(Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is a nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.)

(c) 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

The News Of Empire

“Mr. Obama and his senior national security advisers have sought to reassure allies and answer critics, including many Republicans, that the United States will not abandon its commitments in the Persian Gulf even as it winds down the war in Iraq and looks ahead to doing the same in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.”

I pluck a paragraph from The New York Times and for an instant I’m possessed by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, aquiver with puzzlement down to my deepest sensibilities. I hold you here, root and all, little paragraph. But if I could understand what you are, root and all, and all in all, I should know what empire is, and hubris . . . and maybe even, by its striking absence, democracy.

The paragraph contains the careful verbiage of exclusion, which is the only language in which the geopolitical powers that be are able to communicate.

The paragraph, one of many that could have been plucked for study and put under the microscope of outrage, is from a story just before Halloween, by Thom Shanker and Steven Lee Myers, informing us that, while the United States will be pulling troops out of Iraq at the end of the year, the regional war is anything but over: The U.S. military will be massing troops in Kuwait, sending more warships to the region and tightening its military alliance with the six nations that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain), in order to develop “a new security architecture” in the Gulf and establish its “post-Iraq footprint.”

Or in the words of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “We will have a robust continuing presence throughout the region.” And this, she explains, “is proof of our ongoing commitment to Iraq and to the future of that region,” which we care about because it “holds such promise” — oh God, the compassion is killing me — “and should be freed from outside interference to continue on a pathway to democracy.”

What’s striking, first of all, is that the “news” is presented to us, under the guise of objective reporting, as a fait accompli: Our supreme leaders have the following plans, the cursory details of which they are nice enough to let us in on.

There is no countertide present in reporting that emanates from the national defense beat — no acknowledgement of a rising national disgust at war or our enormous military failures of the past decade, which the plans the Times story outlines merely continue. There’s no acknowledgment even of obvious contradictions or hypocrisies, such as the fact that our presence in the Gulf arguably constitutes the very “outside interference” from which, according to Clinton, the region should be freed.

And certainly there isn’t the least irreverence: no suggestion, for instance, that we have an interest in this oil-rich region beyond a deep love for the people and their democratic aspirations; or that our partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council are autocrats who brutally repress dissent and, ahem, democracy.

The story reads, instead, like interlocking blocks of propaganda dropped into place, not so much disseminating information as protecting the security state planners from questions and challenges. This is the news of empire.

Note that when the story does acknowledge critics, those critics are Republicans, that is to say, empire fanatics as opposed to empire moderates, thus implying that the only reasonable question our post-Iraq footprint raises is whether we should be “post-Iraq” at all. “. . . American military officers and diplomats, as well as officials of several countries in the region, worry that the withdrawal could leave instability or worse in its wake.”

This much should be clear: War is a given. Got it?

And war could follow more than one trajectory. If there’s a “security collapse” in Iraq, our troops in Kuwait could quickly redeploy to the country we’ve already destroyed. But those same troops could also respond to “a military confrontation with Iran.”

Perhaps the most telling quote in the Times story was from Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa. With the United States out of Iraq, a regional alliance is necessary because, he said, “Now the game is different.”

Yeah, well . . .

The only thing wrong with this comment is that this isn’t a game: not our eight and a half years in Iraq, our decade in Afghanistan or our possible invasion of Iran. Innocent people have died and will continue to die in horrific numbers, toxins will spread, lives will be destroyed. The consequences cannot be contained. They are bleeding now and will continue to bleed into the future. But the Times story affects no awareness of this; it has the depth of a gamer review.

Is there a democracy at either end of the missiles, warships or troop deployments? Suddenly I’m back on the sidewalk with the Occupy movement, which has arisen at last in this era of passive citizenship to confront the embedded helplessness and hopelessness that come with the corporatocracy and its subservient media.

Citizens are standing up to the assumptions of empire. Their numbers are small — for the moment — but their spirit could prove to be irresistible.

(Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is a nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.)

(c) 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Iraq Syndrome

This won’t be Vietnam, exactly. No helicopter whisking the last remaining Americans off the roof of the embassy. A contingent of 16,000 State Department contract employees — more than 5,000 of them armed mercenaries — will be staying on, running what’s left of the American operation in Iraq.

But there’s little doubt we lost this war — by every rational measure. Everyone lost, except those who profited from (and continue to profit from) the trillions we bled into the invasion and occupation; and those who planned it, most of whom remain in positions to plan or at least promote the wars we’re still fighting and the wars to come.

But in a certain profound sense, the war in Iraq, as we have come to know it over the last almost nine years, is shutting down. The Obama team couldn’t get “Iraq’s inspiring but fragile democracy” (in the immortal words of Joe Lieberman, waxing absurd in a USA Today opinion piece) to approve immunity from local prosecution for American troops. Our noble cause trembled, collapsed, and for a moment we became a democracy. The will of the sick-of-war public prevailed.

I find myself reflecting on this the way I might reflect on a berserk car alarm that finally shuts off — with the ringing still in my ears, with anger and frustration still wracking my body. Something that shouldn’t be happening has finally ceased happening, or soon will, but I hardly feel like celebrating.

“If any good comes of the Iraq war,” Michael Lind wrote recently in Salon, “it will come in the form of an Iraq syndrome, like the Vietnam syndrome that made Americans wary of large-scale military intervention abroad from the fall of Saigon in 1975 until the Gulf War of 1990-91. The mantra then was ‘No more Vietnams.’ That needs to be updated: ‘No more Iraqs.'”

I agree, but I don’t think this goes far enough. “No more Vietnams” is still operative: The public still hates war; even neocons acknowledge that Nam was a disaster. Because of it, the war interests spent a generation retooling their agenda, and ultimately American society, to work around this fact. Elimination of the draft, for instance, while seemingly a progressive step, took self-interest out of the antiwar movement.

And war propaganda became savvy and benign. Our post-Vietnam military adventures, while still fear-driven, also had “humanitarian” components, like spreading democracy or defending women’s rights. We developed “smart bombs,” which only destroyed, you know, infrastructure. And as Colin Powell famously proclaimed, as the Iraq adventure was starting to get ugly, “We don’t do body counts.” No daily kill reports this go-around; that would just turn the American stomach. With the help of an embedded media, war became largely invisible. The public went shopping.

Whatever “syndrome” does coalesce around this disastrous mistake must develop an intelligence that transcends the machinations that brought it on. For this to happen, we must stare deeply into the heart of the war’s consequences.

Most commentary has focused on the two most glaring failures from the point of view of national interest: strategic and economic. Strategically, we “lost” in that the war failed to turn Iraq into a stable, subservient ally. Instead, as Jonathan Steele put it recently in the UK Sunday Observer, “thanks to Bush’s toppling of Saddam Hussein, Iran’s greatest enemy, Tehran’s influence in Iraq is much stronger today than is America’s.”

Economically, the Iraq adventure cost more than World War II, as David R. Francis pointed out recently in The Christian Science Monitor. It wasted more than $800 billion in direct appropriations. And when other costs such as ongoing medical treatment for injured vets are figured in, the money bleed grows staggering beyond all imagination — as much as $6 trillion, according to the well-publicized calculations of economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes. To realize that such money could have gone into education, health care and the rebuilding of our crumbling, bankrupt nation is to start to feel the weight and scope of Iraq Syndrome.

Then there’s the death toll. Officially, almost 5,000 U.S. troops have died, with another 32,000 wounded. These numbers hardly begin to measure the extent to which vets’ lives have been shattered; most of them return from extended duty with some form of PTSD.

But the numbers go wild, and Iraq Syndrome swells into a raging antiwar movement, when we consider the war’s consequences from the Iraqi point of view. We don’t do body counts, but some years ago the British medical journal Lancet calculated the civilian death toll at more than 650,000. Other estimates go beyond a million dead. In addition, 4.7 million Iraqis were displaced from their homes. And what about the “inspiring democracy” we’ve created? According to Transparency International, Iraq is virtually a failed state, ranking 175th globally in corruption, ahead of only Somalia, Myanmar and (ahem) Afghanistan, as Medea Benjamin and Charles Davis noted on Common Dreams.

Finally, Iraq Syndrome must include awareness of our toxic legacy, in particular the radioactive fallout resulting from exploding several thousand tons of depleted uranium munitions. Last year, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health published a study of the devastated city of Fallujah, pointing out that, among much else, it is experiencing higher rates of cancer, leukemia and infant mortality than Hiroshima and Nagasaki did in 1945. And birth defects abound: “Young women in Fallujah are terrified of having children,” a group of British and Iraqi doctors reported.

The failure of the Iraq war is the failure of all wars, past and future: national policy grounded the dehumanization of a people. A military-industrial economy requires such policy to continue, and so it does. Iraq Syndrome may be our best hope in thwarting the power of the war consensus, especially if it includes the awareness that what we do to others we eventually do to ourselves.

(Robert Koehler, an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, is a nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.)

(c) 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.