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Rebecca Solnit: What to Do When You’re Running Out of Time

6:43 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

Just when no one needed more lousy news, the U.N.’s weather outfit, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), issued its annual Greenhouse Gas Bulletin. It offered a shocking climate-change update: the concentrations of long-lasting greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere (carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide) rose at a “record-shattering pace” from 2012 to 2013, including the largest increase in CO2 in 30 years — and there was a nasty twist to this news that made it even grimmer. While such increases reflected the fact that we continue to extract and burn fossil fuels at staggering rates, something else seems to be happening as well.  Both the oceans and terrestrial plant life act as carbon sinks; that is, they absorb significant amounts of the carbon dioxide we release and store it away.  Unfortunately, both may be reaching limits of some sort and seem to be absorbing less. This is genuinely bad news if you’re thinking about the future warming of the planet. (As it happens, in the same period, according to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, parts of the American public stopped absorbing information in no less striking fashion: the number of those who believe that global warming isn’t happening rose 7% to 23%.)

So consider this a propitious moment for a major climate-change demonstration, possibly the largest in history, in New York City this Sunday. As the WMO’s Secretary-General Michel Jarraud pointed out, there is still time to make a difference. “We have the knowledge and we have the tools,” he said, “for action to try to keep temperature increases within 2°C to give our planet a chance and to give our children and grandchildren a future. Pleading ignorance can no longer be an excuse for not acting.” As TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit, author of the indie bestseller Men Explain Things to Me, points out, the pressure of mass movements can sometimes turn history upside down. Of course, the only way to find out if climate change is a candidate for this treatment is to get out in the streets. So, for those of you anywhere near New York, see you this Sunday! Tom

The Wheel Turns, the Boat Rocks, the Sea Rises 
Change in a Time of Climate Change 
By Rebecca Solnit

There have undoubtedly been stable periods in human history, but you and your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents never lived through one, and neither will any children or grandchildren you may have or come to have. Everything has been changing continuously, profoundly — from the role of women to the nature of agriculture. For the past couple of hundred years, change has been accelerating in both magnificent and nightmarish ways.

Yet when we argue for change, notably changing our ways in response to climate change, we’re arguing against people who claim we’re disrupting a stable system.  They insist that we’re rocking the boat unnecessarily.

I say: rock that boat. It’s a lifeboat; maybe the people in it will wake up and start rowing. Those who think they’re hanging onto a stable order are actually clinging to the wreckage of the old order, a ship already sinking, that we need to leave behind.

As you probably know, the actual oceans are rising — almost eight inches since 1880, and that’s only going to accelerate. They’re also acidifying, because they’re absorbing significant amounts of the carbon we continue to pump into the atmosphere at record levels.  The ice that covers the polar seas is shrinking, while the ice shields that cover Antarctica and Greenland are melting. The water locked up in all the polar ice, as it’s unlocked by heat, is going to raise sea levels staggeringly, possibly by as much as 200 feet at some point in the future, how distant we do not know.  In the temperate latitudes, warming seas breed fiercer hurricanes.

The oceans are changing fast, and for the worse. Fish stocks are dying off, as are shellfish. In many acidified oceanic regions, their shells are actually dissolving or failing to form, which is one of the scariest, most nightmarish things I’ve ever heard. So don’t tell me that we’re rocking a stable boat on calm seas. The glorious 10,000-year period of stable climate in which humanity flourished and then exploded to overrun the Earth and all its ecosystems is over.

But responding to these current cataclysmic changes means taking on people who believe, or at least assert, that those of us who want to react and act are gratuitously disrupting a stable system that’s working fine. It isn’t stable. It is working fine — in the short term and the most limited sense — for oil companies and the people who profit from them and for some of us in the particularly cushy parts of the world who haven’t been impacted yet by weather events like, say, the recent torrential floods in Japan or southern Nevada and Arizona, or the monsoon versions of the same that have devastated parts of India and Pakistan, or the drought that has mummified my beloved California, or the wildfires of Australia.

The problem, of course, is that the people who most benefit from the current arrangements have effectively purchased a lot of politicians, and that a great many of the rest of them are either hopelessly dim or amazingly timid. Most of the Democrats recognize the reality of climate change but not the urgency of doing something about it. Many of the Republicans used to — John McCain has done an amazing about-face from being a sane voice on climate to a shrill denier — and they present a horrific obstacle to any international treaties.

Put it this way: in one country, one party holding 45 out of 100 seats in one legislative house, while serving a minority of the very rich, can basically block what quite a lot of the other seven billion people on Earth want and need, because a two-thirds majority in the Senate must consent to any international treaty the U.S. signs. Which is not to say much for the president, whose drill-baby-drill administration only looks good compared to the petroleum servants he faces, when he bothers to face them and isn’t just one of them. History will despise them all and much of the world does now, but as my mother would have said, they know which side their bread is buttered on.

As it happens, the butter is melting and the bread is getting more expensive. Global grain production is already down several percent thanks to climate change, says a terrifying new United Nations report. Declining crops cause food shortages and rising food prices, creating hunger and even famine for the poorest on Earth, and also sometimes cause massive unrest.  Rising bread prices were one factor that helped spark the Arab Spring in 2011. Anyone who argues that doing something about global warming will be too expensive is dodging just how expensive unmitigated climate change is already proving to be.

It’s only a question of whether the very wealthy or the very poor will pay.  Putting it that way, however, devalues all the nonmonetary things at stake, from the survival of myriad species to our confidence in the future. And yeah, climate change is here, now. We’ve already lost a lot and we’re going to lose more, but there’s a difference between terrible and apocalyptic.  We still have some control over how extreme it gets. That’s not a great choice, but it’s the choice we have. There’s still a window open for action, but it’s closing. As the Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Society, Michel Jarraud, bluntly put it recently, “We are running out of time.” 

New and Renewable Energies

The future is not yet written. Look at the world we’re in at this very moment. The Keystone XL tar sands pipeline was supposed to be built years ago, but activists catalyzed by the rural and indigenous communities across whose land it would go have stopped it so far, and made what was supposed to be a done deal a contentious issue. Activists changed the outcome.

Fracking has been challenged on the state level, and banned in townships and counties from upstate New York to central California. (It has also been banned in two Canadian provinces, France, and Bulgaria.) The fossil-fuel divestment movement has achieved a number of remarkable victories in its few bare years of existence and more are on the way. The actual divestments and commitments to divest fossil fuel stocks by various institutions ranging from the city of Seattle to the British Medical Association are striking. But the real power of the movement lies in the way it has called into question the wisdom of investing in fossil fuel corporations.  Even mainstream voices like the British Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee and publications like Forbes are now beginning to question whether they are safe places to put money. That’s a sea change.

Renewable energy has become more efficient, technologically sophisticated, and cheaper — the price of solar power in relation to the energy it generates has plummeted astonishingly over the past three decades and wind technology keeps getting better. While Americans overall are not yet curtailing their fossil-fuel habits, many individuals and communities are choosing other options, and those options are becoming increasingly viable. A Stanford University scientist has proposed a plan to allow each of the 50 states to run on 100% renewable energy by 2050.

Since, according to the latest report of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, fossil fuel reserves still in the ground are “at least four times larger than could safely be burned if global warming is to be kept to a tolerable level,” it couldn’t be more important to reach global agreements to do things differently on a planetary scale.  Notably, most of those carbon reserves must be left untapped and the modest steps already taken locally and ad hoc show that such changes are indeed possible and that an encouraging number of us want to pursue them.

We can do it. And we is the key word here. The world is not going to be saved by individual acts of virtue; it’s going to be saved, if it is to be saved, by collective acts of social and political change. That’s why I’m marching this Sunday with tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of others in New York City — to pressure the United Nations as it meets to address climate change. That’s why people who care about the future state of our planet will also be marching and demonstrating in New Delhi, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Berlin, Melbourne, Kathmandu, Dublin, Manila, Seoul, Mumbai, Istanbul, and so many smaller places.

Mass movements work. Unarmed citizens have changed the course of history countless times in the modern era. When we come together as civil society, we have the capacity to transform policies, change old ways of doing things, and sometimes even topple regimes. And it is about governments. Like it or not, the global treaties, compacts, and agreements we need can only be made by governments, and governments will make those agreements when the pressure to do so is greater than the pressure not to.  We can and must be that pressure.

The Long View from One Window

I lived in the same apartment for 25 years, moving into a poor but thriving black community in 1981 and out of the far more affluent, paler, and less neighborly place it had become in 2006. A lot of people moved in and out in that period, many of them staying only a year or two. Those transients always seemed to believe that the neighborhood they were passing through was a stable one. You had to be slower than change and stick around to see it. I saw it and it helped me learn how to take a historical view of things.

It’s crazy that anyone speaks as if our world is not undergoing rapid change, when the view from the window called history shows nothing but transformation, both incremental and dramatic. Exactly 25 years ago this month, Eastern Europe was astir.  Remember that back then there was still a Soviet bloc, and a Soviet Union, and an Iron Curtain, and a Berlin Wall, and a Cold War. Most people thought those were permanent fixtures, but in the summer of 1989, Hungary decided to let East Germans (who were permitted to travel freely to that communist country) stream over to the West.

Thousands of people, tired of life in the totalitarian east, fled. Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, as well as East Germany, were already electrified by a resurgent civil society and activist communities that had dared to organize in the face of repression. At the time, politicians and pundits in the West were making careers out of explaining, among so many other things, why German reunification wasn’t going to happen in anyone’s lifetime. And they probably would have been proven right if people had stayed home and done nothing, if they hadn’t begun to hope and acted on that hope.

The bureaucrats on both sides of the Berlin Wall were still talking about the possibility of demilitarizing it when citizens showed up en masse and the guards began abandoning their posts. On that epochal night of November 9, 1989, the people made whole what had been broken. The lesson: showing up is half the battle.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had been so unnerved by developments in the Soviet Union’s Eastern European holdings that she went to Moscow, two months before the fall of the wall, to implore Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to prevent any such thing. That was early September 1989. “No dramatic change in the situation in Czechoslovakia can be expected,” predicted a Czech official two months before a glorious popular uprising, remembered as the Velvet Revolution, erupted and abolished the government in which he was an official.

There are three things to note about those changes in 1989. First, most people in power dismissed the possibility that such extraordinary change could happen or deplored what it might bring. They were comfortable enough with things as they were, even though the status quo was several kinds of scary and awful. In other words, the status quo likes the status quo and dislikes change. Second, everything changed despite them, thanks to grassroots organizing and civil society, forces that — we are now regularly assured — are pointless and irrelevant. Third, the world that existed then has been largely swept away: the Soviet Union, the global alignments of that time, the idea of a binary world of communism and capitalism, and the policies that had kept us on the brink of nuclear annihilation for decades. We live in a very different world now (though nuclear weapons are still a terrible problem). Things do change.

Maybe, in fact, there’s a fourth point to note as well. That, important as they were, the front-page stories about the liberation of Eastern Europe weren’t what mattered most all those years ago. After all, hidden away deep inside the New York Times that autumn, you can find a dozen or so articles about global warming, as the newly recognized phenomenon was then called. And small as they were, anyone reading them now can see that so long ago the essential problem and peril to our world was already clear.

The thought of what might have been accomplished, had a people’s movement arisen then to face global warming, could break your heart.  That, after all, was still a time when the Earth’s atmosphere held just above 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide, the maximum safe level for a sustainable survivable planet, not the 400 parts per million of the present moment (“142% of the pre-industrial era” level of carbon, the World Meteorological Organization notes). In other words, we’ve been steadily filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gases and so imperiling the planet and humanity since we knew what we were doing.

The Great Smog and the Big Wind

In that fall a quarter of a century ago, the world changed profoundly right before our eyes. Then we settled back into the short-term, ahistorical view that things are really pretty stable, that ordinary people have no power, and that the world can’t be changed. With that in mind, it’s worth looking at Germany today. Maybe because Germans know better than us that things can change for the worse or the better fast, that the world is not a stable and settled place, and that we do shape it, they have been willing to change.

At one point last spring, cold, cloudy Germany managed to get almost 75% of its electricity from renewable sources. Scotland — cold, gray, oil-rich Scotland! — is on track to achieve 100% renewable electrical generation by 2020 and has already hit the 40% mark. Spain now generates about half its electricity through clean and renewable sources. Other European countries have similar accomplishments. In fact, many of the changes that we in the United States will be marching for this Sunday have already begun happening, sometimes on a significant scale, elsewhere.

To remember how radical this new Europe is, recall that most of these places were burning coal not just in power plants or factories but in homes, too, not so many decades ago. Everyone deplores the horrific air of Beijing and other Chinese cities now, but few remember that many European cities were similarly foul with smoke and smog from the industrial revolution into the postwar era. In December 1952, for instance, the “Great Smog” of London reduced daytime visibility to a few yards and killed about 4,000 people in three days.

A decade before that, in response to the war Germany started, North Americans radically reduced their use of private vehicles and gasoline and planted more than 20 million victory gardens, producing vast quantities of food by non-industrial means. We have done that; we could (and must) do it again.

At least, we don’t burn coal in our homes any more, and in the U.S. we’ve retired 178 coal-fired power plants, phasing out many more, and prevented many new ones from being built. The renewable energy sources that were, people insisted, too minor or unreliable or expensive or new are now beginning to work well, and the price to produce energy in such a fashion is dropping rapidly.  UBS, the European investment giant, recently counseled that power plants and centralized power generation are no longer good investments, since decentralized renewables are likely to replace them.

Of course, Germany and Britain are still burning coal, and Poland remains a giant coal mine.  Europe is not a perfect renewable energy paradise, just a part of the world that demonstrates the viability of changing how we produce and consume energy. We are already changing, even if not fast enough, not by a long shot, at least not yet. The same goes for divesting from fossil-fuel investments, even though dozens of universities, cities, religious institutions, and foundations have already committed to doing so, and some have by now actually purged their portfolios.  The excuse that change is impossible is no longer available, because many places and entities have already changed.

Last Glimmers

If you want to know how potentially powerful you are, ask your enemies. The misogynists who attack feminism and try to intimidate feminists into silence only demonstrate in a roundabout way that feminism really is changing the world; they are the furious backlash and so the proof that something meaningful is at stake. The climate movement is similarly upsetting a lot of powerful people and institutions; to grasp that, you just have to look at the tsunamis of money spent opposing specific measures and misinforming the public. The carbon barons are demonstrating that we could change the world and that they don’t want us to.

We are powerful and need to become more so in the next year as a major conference in Paris approaches in December 2015 where the climate agreements we need could be hammered out. Or not. This is, after all, a sequel to the Copenhagen conference of 2009, where representatives of many smaller and more vulnerable nations, as well as citizens’ groups, were eager for a treaty that took on climate change in significant ways, only to have their hopes crushed by the recalcitrant governments of the United States and China.

Right now, we are in a churning sea of change, of climate change, of subtle changes in everyday life, of powerful efforts by elites to serve themselves and damn the rest of us, and of increasingly powerful activist and social-movement campaigns to make a world that benefits more beings, human and otherwise, in the longer term. Every choice you make aligns you with one set of these forces or another. That includes doing nothing, which means aligning yourself with the worst of the status quo dragging us down in that ocean of carbon and consumption.

To make personal changes is to do too little. Only great movements, only collective action can save us now. Only is a scary word, but when the ship is sinking, it can be an encouraging one as well. It can hold out hope. The world has changed again and again in ways that, until they happened, would have been considered improbable by just about everyone on the planet. It is changing now and the direction is up to us.

There will be another story to be told about what we did a quarter century after civil society toppled the East Bloc regimes, what we did in the pivotal years of 2014 and 2015. All we know now is that it is not yet written, and that we who live at this very moment have the power to write it with our lives and acts.

A TomDispatch regular, Rebecca Solnit has 16 books out, the latest of which is the indie bestseller Men Explain Things to Me.   

Copyright 2014 Rebecca Solnit

Engelhardt: The Great Concentration or the Great Fragmentation

8:56 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Power Drain 
Mysteries of the Twenty-First Century in a Helter-Skelter World 
By Tom Engelhardt

It’s possible I’ve lived most of my life on the wrong planet — and if that sounds like the first sentence of a sci-fi novel maybe, in its own way, it is. I thought I knew where I was, of course, but looking back from our helter-skelter world of 2014, I wonder.

For most of the last several hundred years, the story in view might be called the Great Concentration and it focused on an imperial struggle for power on planet Earth. That rivalry took place among a kaleidoscopic succession of European “great powers,” one global empire (Great Britain), Russia, a single Asian state (Japan), and the United States. After two world wars that devastated the Eurasian continent, there emerged only two “superpowers,” the U.S. and the Soviet Union. They were so stunningly mighty and over-armed — great inland empires — that, unlike previous powers, they could not even imagine how to wage war directly upon each other, not without obliterating much of civilization. The full planet nonetheless became their battlefield in what was known as the Cold War only because hot ones were banished to “the peripheries” and the conflict took place, in part, in “the shadows” (a situation novelist John Le Carré caught with particular incisiveness).

Those two superpowers divided much of the planet into mighty blocs, as the “free world” faced off against the “communist” one. What was left, often called the Third World, became a game board and sometimes battlefield for influence and dominance. From Havana to Saigon, Berlin to Jakarta, whatever happened, however local, always seemed to have a superpower tinge to it.

This was the world as it was presented to me in the years of my youth and for decades thereafter.  And then, unexpectedly, there was only one superpower. In 1991, something like the ultimate step in the concentration of power seemed to occur. The weaker and less wealthy of the two rivals, its economy grown sclerotic even as its nuclear arsenal bulged, its vaunted military bogged down in an unwinnable war with Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan (backed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan), suddenly vanished from the planet.  It left behind a dismantled wall in Berlin, a unified Germany, a liberated Eastern Europe, a series of former SSRs in Central Asia fending for themselves, and its bloc partner (and sometimes-rival-cum-enemy) China, still run by a “communist” party, gunning the automobile of state onto the capitalist highway under slogans like “to get rich is glorious.”

Full Spectrum Dominance on a Unipolar Planet

As with the famous cheese of children’s rhyme, the United States now stood alone.  Never before had a single power of such stature, wealth, and military clout been left so triumphantly solitary, without the hint of a serious challenger anywhere. Economically, the only other system imaginable for a century had been banished to the history books. There was just one power and one economic system left in a moment of triumph the likes of which even the leaders of that winning state had neither imagined nor predicted.

Initially, Washington was stunned. It took the powers-that-be almost a decade to fully absorb and react to what had happened. After all, as one observer then so famously put it, “the end of history” had been reached – and there, amid the rubble of other systems and powers, lay an imperial version of liberal democracy and a capitalist system freed of even the thought of global competitors and constraints. Or so it seemed.

For almost a decade, we were told in no uncertain terms that we were, no bones about it, in the era of “the Washington consensus” and “globalization.”  The Earth was flat and we were all One, swimming in a sea of giant swooshes, golden arches, action movies, and Disney princesses.  What a moment to dream — and though it took a decade, you’ll remember the dreamers well.  Having prepared the way as a kind of shadow government, in 2000 they took over the White House (with a helping hand from the Supreme Court). After a single devastating terrorist attack (the “Pearl Harbor” of the twenty-first century), they were soon dreaming on a global scale as befit their new vision of power.  They imagined a “wartime” that would last for generations — some of them even called it World War IV — during which they would establish a full-scale military protectorate, including monster bases, in the oil heartlands of the Middle East and a Pax Americana globally aimed at preventing any other great nation or bloc of nations from arising to challenge the United States — ever.

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Bautista, Crisp-Sauray, and McKibben: A Future to March For

8:09 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

 

It was June 12, 1982. My daughter was still in her stroller, my son as yet unborn, when my wife and I, six friends, and another child in a stroller joined an estimated million people in New York City at the largest antinuclear protest in history. All of the adults in our party had grown up in a world unsettled in a unique way: Armageddon had, for the first time, potentially become a secular event. End times were no longer God’s choice for us, but ours for ourselves. It seemed no mistake that, three decades into the Cold War, the nuclear readiness of the two superpowers was referred to as “mutual assured destruction,” about as graphic a phrase as you could find for the end of civilization; and, of course, it had its own acronym which, to us at least, seemed less like an abbreviation than sardonic commentary: MAD.

In 1979, a near-catastrophe at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania helped launch a new iteration of the antinuclear movement. Initially, it was focused on “peaceful” nuclear power, and then, amid a renewed superpower arms race, on the potential destruction of the planet in a MAD conflagration; in the atmosphere of that moment, that is, we found ourselves living with a renewed sense that the world might not be ours or anyone else’s for long.

The first nuclear weapon had been detonated at the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, just four days before I turned one, which meant world-ending fears and dreams would be woven into my life. So, with a child of my own, it felt right to be in that giant crowd of protestors, marching near a contingent of hibakusha, or survivors, from the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic blasts that had, thanks to America’s “victory weapon,” ushered in the nuclear age.

In 1991, only nine years later, the Soviet Union, that other superpower, would disappear. If you had told me then, with the Berlin Wall down and not an enemy in sight, that almost a quarter of a century later — with two of our 1982 marchers dead — most of the rest of us would be planning to meet and march again, lest our children’s children have no world worth living in, I would have been surprised indeed. And I would have been no less surprised to learn that the U.S. and Russia still preserve, update, and upgrade monstrous nuclear arsenals that contain enough weapons to destroy a number of Earth-sized planets, or that those weapons continue to proliferate globally, or that, as we now know (given the “nuclear winter” phenomenon), even a “modest” regional nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan could result in an event of unimaginable horror for humanity. Told all this, I would undoubtedly have wondered where the then-much-talked-about post-Cold War “peace dividend” had gone.

Had you also told me that, on September 21, 2014, I would be planning to be out with my wife, my old friends, my son, my daughter, my son-in-law, and my grandson marching in New York City, but this time against a second human-produced potential apocalypse, and that it was already happening in something like slow motion, I would have been stunned.

And yet so it is, and there I will be at the People’s Climate March, and I wouldn’t be anywhere else that day. At some future moment, wouldn’t it be sad to say that humanity’s greatest achievement was to exploit to the fullest two energy sources — the atom and fossil fuels — capable of destroying the basis for our lives on this planet, and potentially much other life as well? What a strange possible epitaph for humanity: what we burned burned us.

At 70, this world won’t be mine for that much longer, so it’s not a matter of my life or my planet, but I only have to look at my grandson to know what’s at stake, to know that this is not the world he or his peers deserve. To make global warming his inheritance could represent the greatest crime in history, which means that those who run the giant energy companies (and the oil states that go with them) and who know better will be the ultimate criminals.

No single march, of course, will alter the tide — or perhaps I mean the greenhouse gases — of history, but you have to begin somewhere (and then not stop). And to do so, you have to believe that the human ability to destroy isn’t the best we have to offer and to remind yourself of our ability to protest, to hope, to dream, to act, and to say no to the criminals of history and yes to the children to come. Tom

Why We March
Stepping Forth for a Planet in Peril
By Eddie Bautista, La Tonya Crisp-Sauray, and Bill McKibben

On Sunday, September 21st, a huge crowd will march through the middle of Manhattan. It will almost certainly be the largest rally about climate change in human history, and one of the largest political protests in many years in New York. More than 1,000 groups are coordinating the march — environmental justice groups, faith groups, labor groups — which means there’s no one policy ask. Instead, it’s designed to serve as a loud and pointed reminder to our leaders, gathering that week at the United Nations to discuss global warming, that the next great movement of the planet’s citizens centers on our survival and their pathetic inaction.

As a few of the march’s organizers, though, we can give some sense of why we, at least, are marching, words we think represent many of those who will gather at Columbus Circle for the walk through midtown Manhattan.

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Steve Fraser: The Return of the Titans

9:38 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Gambling billionaire Sheldon Adelson

Think of this as the year that democracy of, by, and for the billionaires shall not perish from the Earth — not when we’re on a new electoral playing field in a political world in which distinctions are no longer made between unlimited money and unlimited speech.  In other words, these days, if you have billions of dollars, you can shout from the skies and the rest of us have to listen.  If, as Steve Fraser points out today, we’ve been witnessing the return of “family capitalism on steroids,” nowhere has it been bigger than in American politics, aided and abettedby that ultimate family institution, the Supremes (and I’m not, of course, talking about the classic Motown group).

We’re still almost two months from the midterm elections in which the Republicans already have the House of Representatives essentially wrapped up and ads for Senate races are zipping onto TV screens in “battleground states” at a dizzying pace.  To fund those ads and other campaign initiatives, dollars by the millions are pouring into the coffers of “dark money” outfits in a way guaranteed to leave the record for spending on midterm elections in a ditch at the side of the road.  We now have our first estimates of what election 2014 is going to look like as a billionaire’s playground; and count on it, you’re going to hear the words “record,” “billionaire,” and “ads” a lot more until November.

“Outside groups” have already spent $120 million on TV ads alone, more than half that sum coming from those dark-money groups that don’t have to let anyone know who their contributors are.  At the top of that shadowy list are six outfits linked to David and Charles Koch, the billionaire brothers from Wichita. Together, those groups have already sent a mind-spinning 44,000 ads into the politico-sphere in those battleground states, and the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity (AFP) leads the pack with 27,000 of them. In the end, AFP alone is expected to put $125 million into this year’s midterm elections, a figure that should take your breath away and yet that’s only a start.

Sheldon Adelson, of casino fame, may, for example, put $100 million of his $31.6 billion fortune into this campaign season, shuttling much of it through dark-money outfits, including AFP. On the liberal side of the spectrum, environmentalist and billionaire Tom Steyer has pledged to sink $50 million into campaigns to promote candidates ready to act on global warming (though there is little question that, in the billionaire sweepstakes, the right-wing ones are going to outspend the liberal ones, and Republicans outspend Democrats).

In all of this, you can see the urge of America’s new crop of billionaires to “play god” at our expense and with our lives — to decide for us, ad by ad, dark-money outfit by dark-money outfit, how we should organize ourselves politically. Historian Steve Fraser, TomDispatch regular, author of Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace, and co-founder (with me) of the American Empire Project, has rubbed elbows with many a billionaire — on the page, if not in life. From this country’s earliest tycoons to the latest batch of family capitalists, he finds one overwhelming, unifying trait: a deep-seated belief, in a country that worships self- or family-made money, that the more billions you have, the more you should be listened to. In his upcoming book, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, he explores how, in our second (even more) gilded age, others with little money also came to believe that, rather than resist it. Tom

Playing God
The Rebirth of Family Capitalism or How the Koch Brothers, Sheldon Adelson, Sam Walton, Bill Gates, and Other Billionaires Are Undermining America
By Steve Fraser

George Baer was a railroad and coal mining magnate at the turn of the twentieth century.  Amid a violent and protracted strike that shut down much of the country’s anthracite coal industry, Baer defied President Teddy Roosevelt’s appeal to arbitrate the issues at stake, saying, “The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for… not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men of property to whom God has given control of the property rights of the country.”  To the Anthracite Coal Commission investigating the uproar, Baer insisted, “These men don’t suffer. Why hell, half of them don’t even speak English.”den

We might call that adopting the imperial position.  Titans of industry and finance back then often assumed that they had the right to supersede the law and tutor the rest of America on how best to order its affairs.  They liked to play God.  It’s a habit that’s returned with a vengeance in our own time. Read the rest of this entry →

Noam Chomsky: The Fate of the Gaza Ceasefire

1:14 pm in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

A Palestinian flag banner leads off a march for Gaza.

Will the ceasefire help in Gaza?

Is there nowhere on the face of the Earth where opinion polls aren’t taken? In the wake of the 50-day Israeli assault on Gaza, parts of that tiny strip of land now look, according to photographs, like a moonscape of destruction. At least 10,000 homes were obliterated and thousands more damaged; at least 175 major factories were pummeled into the dust. Its only power plant was destroyed, damaging electricity, water, and sewage systems. Large apartment houses, as well as the ministry of education, schools, and other sites, were hit and sometimes reduced to so much rubble. It was all part of a massive Israeli assault on Hamas, several of whose senior leaders were assassinated, but also on the Palestinian population, involving what looked like collective punishment for its support of that organization or simply living in proximity to it. And indeed, with almost no hope of rebuilding much of their world any time soon, you might think that Palestinians would hold the Hamas leadership at least somewhat responsible for the destruction that has rained down, as assumedly the Israelis wanted them to. But a recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR), begun in the last day before the ceasefire took hold, and carried out, in part, amid the rubble that is now Gaza, suggests otherwise.

It finds that Palestinian opinion couldn’t be clearer.  Support hasn’t been this high for Hamas since 2006, when it won a fair and square democratic election. If a presidential vote were held today, the pollsters of PSR discovered, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh would beat Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas hands down. Here are just a few of the findings: “79% [of Palestinians] believe that Hamas has won the Gaza War; 3% believe Israel came out the winner; and 17% believe the two sides were losers… If new presidential elections are held today and only two [candidates] were nominated, Haniyeh, for the first time since we have started asking about his popularity about eight years ago, would receive a majority of 61% and Abbas would receive 32%. [The] vote for Haniyeh stands at 53% in the Gaza Strip and 66% in the West Bank. Abbas receives 43% in the Gaza Strip and 25% in the West Bank… A majority of 53% believe that armed confrontation is the most effective means to establish a Palestinian state next to the state of Israel. Only 22% believe negotiation is the best means to establish a Palestinian state and 20% believe that popular non-violent resistance is the most effective route to statehood.”

As historically has often been the case, massive bombings and other assaults do not destroy the support of populations for movements or governments, but tend to solidify it. In other words, Israeli policy is reducing civilized life for Palestinians in a major way and yet increasing the urge both to fight on and the desire for revenge. It’s an ugly pattern and, as TomDispatch regular Noam Chomsky (whose latest book, Masters of Mankind, is due out this week) indicates today, it’s been going on in this same fashion for a remarkably long time, as Israel continues to gobble up Palestinian lands on the West Bank, while working to hem Palestinians in yet further in the Gaza Strip. Tom

Ceasefires in Which Violations Never Cease
What’s Next for Israel, Hamas, and Gaza?
By Noam Chomsky

On August 26th, Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) both accepted a ceasefire agreement after a 50-day Israeli assault on Gaza that left 2,100 Palestinians dead and vast landscapes of destruction behind. The agreement calls for an end to military action by both Israel and Hamas, as well as an easing of the Israeli siege that has strangled Gaza for many years.

This is, however, just the most recent of a series of ceasefire agreements reached after each of Israel’s periodic escalations of its unremitting assault on Gaza. Throughout this period, the terms of these agreements remain essentially the same.  The regular pattern is for Israel, then, to disregard whatever agreement is in place, while Hamas observes it — as Israel has officially recognized — until a sharp increase in Israeli violence elicits a Hamas response, followed by even fiercer brutality. These escalations, which amount to shooting fish in a pond, are called “mowing the lawn” in Israeli parlance. The most recent was more accurately described as “removing the topsoil” by a senior U.S. military officer, appalled by the practices of the self-described “most moral army in the world.”

The first of this series was the Agreement on Movement and Access Between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in November 2005.  It called for “a crossing between Gaza and Egypt at Rafah for the export of goods and the transit of people, continuous operation of crossings between Israel and Gaza for the import/export of goods, and the transit of people, reduction of obstacles to movement within the West Bank, bus and truck convoys between the West Bank and Gaza, the building of a seaport in Gaza, [and the] re-opening of the airport in Gaza” that Israeli bombing had demolished.

That agreement was reached shortly after Israel withdrew its settlers and military forces from Gaza.  The motive for the disengagement was explained by Dov Weissglass, a confidant of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who was in charge of negotiating and implementing it. “The significance of the disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process,” Weissglass informed the Israeli press. “And when you freeze that process, you prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state, and you prevent a discussion on the refugees, the borders, and Jerusalem. Effectively, this whole package called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed indefinitely from our agenda. And all this with authority and permission. All with a [U.S.] presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress.” True enough.

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Nick Turse: American Monuments to Failure in Africa?

10:36 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

An Africom soldier

“In Africa, a war zone about which Americans are unaware, the writing is on the wall.”

In light of recent history, perhaps it’s time to update that classic U.S. Army recruitment campaign slogan from “be all that you can be” to “build all that you can build.”  Consider it an irony that, in an era when Congress struggles to raise enough money to give America’s potholed, overcrowded highways a helping hand, building new roads in Afghanistan proved no problem at all (even when they led nowhere).  In fact, the U.S. military spent billions of taxpayer dollars in both Afghanistan and Iraq on nation-building infrastructural efforts of all sorts, and the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction repeatedly reported on the failures, disasters, and boondoggles that resulted.  In 2012, for instance, that auditor found that, of the $10.6 billion in Afghan funding it examined, $7 billion was “potentially wasted.”  And this has never ended.  In 2014, it typically reported that “some 285 buildings, including barracks, medical clinics, and even fire stations built by the Army [in Afghanistan] are lined with substandard spray insulation so prone to ignition that they don’t meet international building codes.”

As of this year, more U.S. and NATO money had been “squandered” on the “reconstruction” of Afghanistan than was spent on the full post-World War-II Marshall Plan to put a devastated Europe back on its feet.  And how has all that spending turned out?  One thing is certain: those torrents of money helped create a devastating economy of corruption.  As for reconstruction, the Inspector General found mainly “poor planning, shoddy construction, mechanical failures, and inadequate oversight.”

As TomDispatch’s Nick Turse, author of the award-winning book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, reminds us today, thanks to the counterinsurgency strategy that the U.S. military has pursued in these years, most of this spending came under the heading of “winning hearts and minds” in the countries the U.S. invaded.  Any American batallion-level commander in an Afghan village could essentially reach into his pocket and pull out the funds to build a schoolhouse.  And yet, in the United States, much of our educational infrastructure, built after World War II for the Baby Boomer generation, is in need of reconstruction funds that are no longer in any pockets.  The same holds true for American airports (none having been built in almost 20 years), bridges (almost half of them needing “major structural investments” in the next 15 years and 11% now considered “structurally deficient”), highways, dams, levees, sewage and water systems, and the like.  In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country’s infrastructure a grade of D+ and estimated that, to keep the U.S. a fully functioning first-world country, some $3.6 trillion dollars would have to be invested in infrastructural work by 2020.

Fat chance.  Though no one ever comments on it, the constant spending of money to win hearts and minds in distant lands should be considered passing strange when hearts and minds are at stake in Rhode Island, Arkansas, and Oregon.  Stranger yet, the group designated to do that hearts-and-minds construction is also dedicated to destroying infrastructure in times of conflict.  It shouldn’t be surprising that nation-building, school by school, road by road, might not be its strong point.

Worse yet, as Nick Turse reports, continuing his remarkable ongoing investigation into the U.S. military’s “pivot” to Africa, even after the disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq, it seems that there are hearts and minds still to win out there and all of Africa to build in. Tom

How Not to Win Hearts and Minds in Africa
Hushed Pentagon Investigation Slaps U.S. Africa Command’s Humanitarian Activities  
By Nick Turse

[This story was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. Additional funding was provided through the generosity of Adelaide Gomer.]

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — Movie night in Mouloud, Djibouti.  Skype lessons in Ethiopia.  Veterinary training assistance in Garissa, Kenya.  And in this country on the east coast of Africa, work on both primary and secondary schools and a cistern to provide clean water.  These are all-American good works, but who is doing them — and why?

As I sit in a room filled with scores of high-ranking military officers resplendent in their dress uniforms — Kenyans in their khakis, Burundians and Ugandans clad in olive, Tanzanians in deep forest green sporting like-colored berets and red epaulets with crossed rifles on their shoulders — chances are that the U.S. military is carrying out some mission somewhere on this vast continent.  It might be a kidnapping raid or a training exercise.  It could be an airstrike or the construction of a drone base.  Or, as I wait for the next speaker to approach the lectern at the “Land Forces East Africa” conference in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, it could be a humanitarian operation run not by civilians in the aid business, but by military troops with ulterior motives — part of a near-continent-wide campaign utilizing the core tenets of counterinsurgency strategy.

The U.S. is trying to win a war for the hearts and minds of Africa.  But a Pentagon investigation suggests that those mystery projects somewhere out there in Djibouti or Ethiopia or Kenya or here in Tanzania may well be orphaned, ill-planned, and undocumented failures-in-the-making.  According to the Department of Defense’s watchdog agency, U.S. military officials in Africa “did not adequately plan or execute” missions designed to win over Africans deemed vulnerable to the lures of violent extremism.

This evidence of failure in the earliest stages of the U.S. military’s hearts-and-minds campaign should have an eerie resonance for anyone who has followed its previous efforts to use humanitarian aid and infrastructure projects to sway local populations in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan.  In each case, the operations failed in spectacular ways, but were only fully acknowledged after years of futility and billions of dollars in waste.  In Africa, a war zone about which most Americans are completely unaware, the writing is already on the wall.  Or at least it should be.  While Pentagon investigators identified a plethora of problems, their report has, in fact, been kept under wraps for almost a year, while the command responsible for the failures has ignored all questions about it from TomDispatch.

Doing a Bad Job at Good Works

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Michael Klare: Oil Rush in America

8:20 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Oil rigs criss-cross a barren landscape

Drill, baby, drill!

Whatever you may imagine, “peak oil” has not been discredited as a concept, a statement no less true for “peak fossil fuels.”  Think of them instead as postponed.  We are, after all, on a finite planet that, by definition, holds a finite amount of oil, natural gas, and coal.  Sooner or later, as such deposits get used up (no matter the new techniques that might be invented to extract more of the ever tougher stuff from the earth), we will reach a “peak” of production from which it will be all downhill.

That’s a simple fact to which, as it happens, there’s a catch.  Here, according to the New York Times, is the key finding from the latest leaked 127-page draft report of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which manages to use the word “risk” 351 times, “vulnerable” or “vulnerability” 61 times, and “irreversible” 48 times: “The report found that companies and governments had identified reserves of these [fossil] fuels at least four times larger than could safely be burned if global warming is to be kept to a tolerable level.”

In other words, while “peak oil” may be a perfectly on-target concept, “peak existence” turns out to precede it by decades and from that far more consequential “peak” we are, unlike “peak oil,” already on the downhill slide.  The scientists who produced the IPCC’s draft report expect the average global temperature to increase by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by mid-century and at least 6.7 degrees by its end, which will leave humanity on a staggeringly less habitable planet.

The damage, including the melting of the Greenland ice shield, which alone could raise global sea levels by an average of 23 feet, will be irreversible (at least on a historical — that is, human — timescale).  Faced with this relatively straightforward reality, as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, the author of The Race for What’s Left, reports today, oil companies are using remarkable ingenuity and spending billions of dollars to reach ever deeper, ever more difficult to extract, and ever more environmentally treacherous deposits of fossil fuels.  No less strikingly, the Obama administration has been working energetically to pave the way for them to do so — to, that is, make real headway in removing those deposits four times larger than will be even faintly comfortable for our future.  Not only is it doing so in a thoroughly drill-baby-drill spirit of cooperation with the globe’s largest and most avaricious energy outfits, but it’s bragging about it, too.

In my childhood, I remember ads that fascinated me.  I’m not sure what they were selling or promoting, but they showed scenes of multiple error, including, if I remember rightly, five-legged cows floating through clouds.  They were always tagged with some question like: What’s wrong with this picture?  Today, as in those ads, Klare offers us a picture filled with the energy exploitation and global-warming equivalent of those five-legged cows in the clouds and asks the same question. Tom

Oil Is Back!
A Global Warming President Presides Over a Drill-Baby-Drill America
By Michael T. Klare

Considering all the talk about global warming, peak oil, carbon divestment, and renewable energy, you’d think that oil consumption in the United States would be on a downward path.  By now, we should certainly be witnessing real progress toward a post-petroleum economy.  As it happens, the opposite is occurring.  U.S. oil consumption is on an upward trajectory, climbing by 400,000 barrels per day in 2013 alone — and, if current trends persist, it should rise again both this year and next.

In other words, oil is back.  Big time.  Signs of its resurgence abound.  Despite what you may think, Americans, on average, are driving more miles every day, not fewer, filling ever more fuel tanks with ever more gasoline, and evidently feeling ever less bad about it.  The stigma of buying new gas-guzzling SUVs, for instance, seems to have vanished; according to CNN Money, nearly one out of three vehicles sold today is an SUV.  As a result of all this, America’s demand for oil grew more than China’s in 2013, the first time that’s happened since 1999.

Accompanying all this is a little noticed but crucial shift in White House rhetoric.  While President Obama once spoke of the necessity of eliminating our reliance on petroleum as a major source of energy, he now brags about rising U.S. oil output and touts his efforts to further boost production.

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The Escalation Follies

6:12 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

How America Made ISIS
Their Videos and Ours, Their “Caliphate” and Ours
By Tom Engelhardt

A graphic of the Islamic State flag

The Islamic State is just what the US needs to distract from domestic issues.

Whatever your politics, you’re not likely to feel great about America right now.  After all, there’s Ferguson (the whole world was watching!), an increasingly unpopular president, a Congress whose approval ratings make the president look like a rock star, rising poverty, weakening wages, and a growing inequality gap just to start what could be a long list.  Abroad, from Libya and Ukraine to Iraq and the South China Sea, nothing has been coming up roses for the U.S.  Polls reflect a general American gloom, with 71%of the public claiming the country is “on the wrong track.”  We have the look of a superpower down on our luck.

What Americans have needed is a little pick-me-up to make us feel better, to make us, in fact, feel distinctly good.  Certainly, what official Washington has needed in tough times is a bona fide enemy so darn evil, so brutal, so barbaric, so inhuman that, by contrast, we might know just how exceptional, how truly necessary to this planet we really are.

In the nick of time, riding to the rescue comes something new under the sun: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), recently renamed Islamic State (IS).  It’s a group so extreme that even al-Qaeda rejected it, so brutal that it’s brought back crucifixion, beheading, waterboarding, and amputation, so fanatical that it’s ready to persecute any religious group within range of its weapons, so grimly beyond morality that it’s made the beheading of an innocent American a global propaganda phenomenon.  If you’ve got a label that’s really, really bad like genocide or ethnic cleansing, you can probably apply it to ISIS’s actions.

It has also proven so effective that its relatively modest band of warrior jihadis has routed the Syrian and Iraqi armies, as well as the Kurdish pesh merga militia, taking control of a territory larger than Great Britain in the heart of the Middle East.  Today, it rules over at least four million people, controls its own functioning oil fields and refineries (and so their revenues as well as infusions of money from looted banks, kidnapping ransoms, and Gulf state patrons).  Despite opposition, it still seems to be expanding and claims it has established a caliphate.

A Force So Evil You’ve Got to Do Something

Facing such pure evil, you may feel a chill of fear, even if you’re a top military or national security official, but in a way you’ve gotta feel good, too.  It’s not everyday that you have an enemy your president can term a “cancer”; that your secretary of state can call the “face” of “ugly, savage, inexplicable, nihilistic, and valueless evil” which “must be destroyed”; that your secretary of defense can denounce as “barbaric” and lacking a “standard of decency, of responsible human behavior… an imminent threat to every interest we have, whether it’s in Iraq or anywhere else”; that your chairman of the joint chiefs of staff can describe as “an organization that has an apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated”; and that a retired general and former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan can brand a “scourge… beyond the pale of humanity [that]… must be eradicated.”

Talk about a feel-good feel-bad situation for the leadership of a superpower that’s seen better days!  Such threatening evil calls for only one thing, of course: for the United States to step in.  It calls for the Obama administration to dispatch the bombers and drones in a slowly expanding air war in Iraq and, sooner or later, possibly Syria.  It falls on Washington’s shoulders to organize a new “coalition of the willing” from among various backers and opponents of the Assad regime in Syria, from among those who have armed and funded the extremist rebels in that country, from the ethnic/religious factions in the former Iraq, and from various NATO countries.  It calls for Washington to transform Iraq’s leadership (a process no longer termed “regime change”) and elevate a new man capable of reuniting the Shiites, the Sunnis, and the Kurds, now at each other’s throats, into one nation capable of turning back the extremist tide.  If not American “boots on the ground,” it calls for proxy ones of various sorts that the U.S. military will naturally have a hand in training, arming, funding, and advising.  Facing such evil, what other options could there be?

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Anya Schiffrin: Who Knew We Were Living in the Golden Age of Investigative Journalism?

5:51 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

A cartoon news boy delivering papers on a laptop computer screen

Maybe journalism isn’t dying after all.

Almost a decade ago, I spent more than a year freelancing for a major metropolitan newspaper — one of the biggest in the country. I would, on an intermittent basis, work out of a newsroom that appeared to be in a state of constant churn. Whoever wasn’t being downsized seemed to be jumping ship or madly searching for a life raft. It looked as if bean counters were beating reporters and editors into submission or sending them out of the business and into journalism schools where they would train a new generation of young reporters. For just what wasn’t clear. Jobs that would no longer exist?

Before the special series I was working on was complete, my co-writer — the paper’s Washington investigative editor — had left for the friendlier confines of academia and the editor who greenlit the series had resigned in the face of management’s demands for steep cuts to newsroom staff. It seemed as if the only remaining person associated with the series was a gifted photographer (who left for greener pastures within a year).

I thought I was witnessing the end of an era, the death of an institution.

At the same time, I was also working for a small but growing online publication that managed to produce three original articles each week — a mix of commentary, news analysis, and original investigative reporting.  More than a decade into that gig, the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com is still going strong, still publishing three original articles per week, and syndicating that content out to dozens and dozens of online publications, reaching hundreds of thousands of potential readers.

Over that time, online outlets have come and gone, venerable newspapers have closed up shop, predictions of doom — of the death of print publications, the demise of investigative reporting (maybe even of journalism itself) — have been aired repeatedly. And it’s true that in this new era it hasn’t been easy to make a living as a journalist or keep a media outlet afloat.  Yet, as a reader, I notice something else: I can’t even hope to read every eye-catching article that flashes by on my Twitter feed or piles up in my inbox from one listserve or another. I end up with 25 open windows in my taskbar — top-quality journalism from legacy media outlets and new digital magazines that I hope I might be able to skim later that day or the next or sometime before my laptop slows to a crawl under the weight of so much groundbreaking reporting.

It turned out that, 10 years ago, I actually was witnessing the end of an era while living through the formative stages of another.  It’s been a moment in which stories published on a relatively tiny website like TomDispatch circle the globe in a flash and a writer like me, who never went to journalism school, can see his articles almost instantly translated into Spanish, Japanese, Italian, and languages I don’t even recognize, and then reposted on websites from South America to Africa to Asia. In other words, they sometimes reach the sort of global audience that once might have been a stretch even for a reporter at a prestigious mainstream media outlet.

Over these years, I’ve also watched others who have passed through the Nation Institute wade into a scary media market and find great success. TomDispatch’s own former intern Andy Kroll, for example, has gone on to break one important story after another at Mother Jones, a print publication that now thrives online, while former Nation Institute program associate Liliana Segura has taken a top post at First Look Media, one of the most dynamic and talked-about new media ventures in years. And they are hardly anomalies.

In her new book, Global Muckraking: 100 Years of Investigative Journalism from Around the World, Anya Schiffrin, the director of the media and communications program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, chronicles the brave new world of global journalism in the age of the Internet (and how the stage was set for the new golden age of the reader we’re living in). In her inaugural article for TomDispatch, the longtime foreign correspondent reveals the investigative exposés by today’s top global muckrakers that you missed and explains why investigative journalism is on the rise, not the decline, worldwide.

From Asia to Central America, a new generation of Nellie Blys and Ida Tarbells, Seymour Hershes and Rachel Carsons, is breaking one big story after another with equal parts old-fashioned shoe leather and twenty-first-century knowhow. “The fact that journalists have been calling attention to some of the same problems for more than a hundred years might make one despondent, but it shouldn’t…” Schiffrin writes in her book. “That the battles are still going on should remind us that new abuses, new forms of corruption, are always emerging, providing new opportunities and new responsibilities for the media.” Luckily, there is a new generation of reporters around the world, she points out, rising to the challenge. Nick Turse

The Fall and Rise of Investigative Journalism
From Asia to Africa to Latin America, Muckrakers Have Corrupt Officials and Corporate Cronies on the Run
By Anya Schiffrin

In our world, the news about the news is often grim. Newspapers are shrinking, folding up, or being cut loose by their parent companies. Layoffs are up and staffs are down. That investigative reporter who covered the state capitol — she’s not there anymore. Newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune have suffered from multiple rounds of layoffs over the years. You know the story and it would be easy enough to imagine that it was the world’s story as well. But despite a long run of journalistic tough times, the loss of advertising dollars, and the challenge of the Internet, there’s been a blossoming of investigative journalism across the globe from Honduras to Myanmar, New Zealand to Indonesia.

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Aviva Chomsky: What’s at Stake in the Border Debate

6:25 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

Two children on a pier with water & mountains in the distance

Why are thousands of children from Guatemala and other Central American countries arriving on our borders?

The militarization of the police has been underway since 9/11, but only in the aftermath of the six-shot killing of an unarmed teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, with photos of streets in a St. Louis suburb that looked like occupied Iraq or Afghanistan, has the fact of it, the shock of it, seemed to hit home widely.  Congressional representatives are now proposing bills to stop the Pentagon from giving the latest in war equipment to local police forces.  The president even interrupted his golfing vacation on Martha’s Vineyard to returnto Washington, in part for “briefings” on the ongoing crisis in Ferguson.  So militarization is finally a major story.

And that’s no small thing.  On the other hand, the news from Ferguson can’t begin to catch the full process of militarization this society has been undergoing or the way America’s distant wars are coming home. We have, at least, a fine book by Radley Balko on how the police have been militarized.  Unfortunately, on the subject of the militarization of the country, there is none.  And yet from armed soldiers in railway stations to the mass surveillance of Americans, from the endless celebration of our “warriors” to the domestic use of drones, this country has been undergoing a significant process of militarization (and, if there were such a word, national securitization).

Perhaps nowhere has this been truer than on America’s borders and on the subject of immigration.  It’s no longer “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  The U.S. is in the process of becoming a citadel nation with up-armored, locked-down borders and a Border Patrol operating in a “Constitution-free zone” deep into the country.  The news is regularly filled with discussions of the need to “bolster border security” in ways that would have been unimaginable to previous generations.  In the meantime, the Border Patrol is producing its own set of Ferguson-style killings as, like SWAT teams around the U.S., it adopts an ever more militarized mindset and the weaponry to go with it.  As James Tomsheck, the former head of internal affairs for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, put it recently, “It has been suggested by Border Patrol leadership that they are the Marine Corps of the U.S. law enforcement community.  The Border Patrol has a self-identity of a paramilitary border security force and not that of a law enforcement organization.”

It’s in this context that the emotional flare-up over undocumented Central American children crossing the southern border by the thousands took place.  In fact, without the process of militarization, that “debate” — with its discussion of “invasions,” “surges,” “terrorists,” and “tip of the spear” solutions — makes no sense.  Its language was far more appropriate to the invasion and occupation of Iraq than the arrival in this country of desperate kids, fleeing hellish conditions, and often looking for their parents.

Aviva Chomsky is the author of a new history of just how the words “immigration” and “illegal” became wedded — it wasn’t talked about that way not so many decades ago — and how immigrants became demonized in ways that are familiar in American history.  The Los Angeles Times has hailed Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal for adding “smart, new, and provocative scholarship to the immigration debate.” As in her book, so today at TomDispatch, Chomsky puts the most recent version of the immigration “debate” into a larger context, revealing just what we prefer not to see in our increasingly up-armored nation. Tom

America’s Continuing Border Crisis
The Real Story Behind the “Invasion” of the Children
By Aviva Chomsky

Call it irony or call it a nightmare, but the “crisis” of Central American children crossing the U.S.-Mexican border, which lasted for months amid fervent and angry debate, is now fading from the news.  The media stories have been legion, the words expended many.  And yet, as the “crisis” leaves town, as the sound and fury die down and attention shifts elsewhere (even though the children continue to arrive), the real factors that would have made sense of what’s been happening remain essentially untouched and largely unmentioned.  It couldn’t be stranger — or sadder.

Since late June 2014, the “surge” of those thousands of desperate children entering this country has been in the news.  Sensational stories were followed by fervent demonstrations and counter-demonstrations with emotions running high.  And it’s not a debate that stayed near the southern border either.  In my home state, Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick tearfully offered to detain some of the children — and that was somehow turned into a humanitarian gesture that liberals applauded and anti-immigrant activists decried.  Meanwhile the mayor of Lynn, a city north of Boston, echoed nativists on the border, announcing that her town didn’t want any more immigrants.  The months of this sort of emotion, partisanship, and one-upmanship have, however, diverted attention from the real issues.  As so often is the case, there is so much more to the story than what we’ve been hearing in the news.

As labor journalist David Bacon has shown, the children-at-the-border story was first brought to the attention of the media by anti-immigrant organizations, beginning with the radical right-wing Breitbart News Network in Texas.  Their narrative focused on President Obama’s supposed failure to control the border, his timid gestures aimed at granting temporary legal status to some undocumented youth through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the attempts of Congressional liberals to promote what they called “comprehensive immigration reform,” and of course those children “invading” the U.S.

In fact, there was nothing new about the so-called surge.  Rather, the Breitbart Network turned a long-term issue into a “crisis” for political reasons, and the media, politicians, and organizations on both sides of the political spectrum took the bait.

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