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Toward a bright future for both nature and civilization

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Benjamin Sibelman
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November 11th, 2012

Islands of sanity

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At the 2010 State of the World Forum, Paul H. Ray described the state of the world as “getting better and better, and worse and worse, faster and faster.”  As I’ve mentioned before, the annual Bioneers conference in San Rafael, California is mainly focused on the “better and better” aspect, showcasing projects that appear to be in the process of solving some of the world’s biggest problems.  But at the Whidbey Island Bioneers satellite conference three weeks ago, the keynote speaker, Meg Wheatley, offered a contrarian viewpoint.  She believes that activists have no real chance of making headway against the entrenched power structure whose policies are making things worse on a global scale, and that we should focus instead on building “islands of sanity” within our current local spheres of influence.

I’ll return to that argument at the end of this post, but my main goal here is to repurpose Ms. Wheatley’s phrase in order to talk about ideological “islands of sanity,” each of whose inhabitants generally believe that only their island is sane and everyone on the other islands is crazy.  Most of them would also be surprised to learn just how vast the ocean is, and how many islands exist beyond the foggy borders of the Mainstream Archipelago (reachable only by navigators with a good political compass).  Most of those radical islands, of course, are very thinly populated, and many radicals find it difficult to even imagine banding together with other nearby islands to form a significant political force.

As an activist, I meet a lot of radicals, and one rhetorical strategy that some of them use to defend their “islands” is the claim that people in the mainstream are the “real radicals.”  For example, Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, gave what I can only refer to as a vociferously moderate speech as part of the Bioneers plenary session (live-streamed to Whidbey and other satellite locations from San Rafael).  He described the DPA as a big tent, embracing “people who love drugs and people who hate drugs,” and explained its mission to “reduce the harms of both drug use and drug prohibition” – that is to say, both preventing severe addiction, overdoses, and the spread of disease via needle sharing, and winding down the trillion-dollar War on Drugs that puts hundreds of thousands in jail and targets minorities far more aggressively than whites.  The DPA’s website doesn’t seem to have any specific policy recommendations other than legalizing marijuana*, but still manages to make the currently accepted zero-tolerance drug policy in the U.S. look like the extreme one.

Leading climate activist Bill McKibben of 350.org is much more explicit about it.  In his Rolling Stone article and the nationwide Do the Math tour based on it, for which I attended the kickoff event in Seattle this past Wednesday, McKibben depicts oil and coal companies as a “rogue industry” whose radical agenda essentially involves wrecking the planet for profit.  By contrast, he defines 350.org’s mission, to reduce the CO2 content of the atmosphere back to 350 parts per million, as the fundamentally conservative goal of maintaining a planet somewhat resembling the one we were born on.  Climate scientist David Battisti of the University of Washington was in the audience at the kickoff event, and McKibben thanked him for his contributions, but in fact Dr. Battisti considers the 350 ppm goal to be hopelessly extreme.  Then again, that’s mainly due to political feasibility concerns; 350 may not be a goal we can achieve, but it’s a goal that almost anyone who believes in mainstream climate science would want.

Speaking of super-ambitious goals that sound attractive to lots of people (intended to make bigger islands and pull in more of the scattered radical population, along with some moderate progressives), one of the things I learned about at Bioneers was a four-hour Awakening the Dreamer, Changing the Dream Symposium that I ended up attending last weekend. The new dream described in the Symposium is defined broadly as “an environmentally sustainable, socially just, and spiritually fulfilling human presence on this planet.” However, in the four-hour version at least, the contrast with the current “dream of the modern world” isn’t made very clear; for example, one animated video clip defined that dream as mindless consumerism and blind worship of futuristic technology, but the presenters and some later live-action clips endorsed technological solutions such as wind and solar power, and one clip even celebrated Walmart’s green initiatives!  Are they claiming that consumerism is still okay as long as you do it right?  And how can social justice advocates support Walmart when its business model depends on keeping workers in poverty?

Still, I can fairly easily imagine the argument for why the Mainstream Conservative and Libertarian islands, at least, are extreme compared to the Awakening the Dreamer vision: “People on those islands think that ‘sustainability’ is code for burdensome EPA regulations that should be abolished, because they assume the cost to business is greater than the impacts of pollution, species extinctions, and climate change; they think that ‘social justice’ really means taking taxpayers’ hard-earned money and handing it out to lazy poor people; and they see no contradiction in seeking ‘spiritual fulfillment’ while living a self-centered consumerist lifestyle.”  But that sentence is a caricature, drawn by someone with a deliberately underpowered radio that can just barely pick up the fuzzy transmissions of the conservative half of the archipelago from a great distance.  The closer, more moderate regions of those islands make little to no sound, while from the far side comes the endless ultra-amplified noise of the right-wing propaganda machine.  So our left-leaning observer just assumes that the latter represents all conservatives, and writes them all off as crazy, which is what s/he wanted to believe in the first place.

I’m even worse than that observer in some respects.  I almost never even listen to right-wing media directly; I only see the carefully chosen excerpts quoted in The Daily Show and in outraged emails from progressive advocacy groups.  But at least I’m not so sure of myself as to choose a single radical island and claim it’s the only one where people are sane.  Let’s add a third dimension to my metaphor: People on the ground have no self-doubt whatsoever, which is easy given that even nearby islands are hard to see through the ocean haze.  Meanwhile, people like me hover in balloons above the cloud layer, able to see many islands but unable to make out enough detail to choose between them.  In fact, we believe that uncertainty is the only rational response to the immense complexity of the world we live in, although we acknowledge that we have to at least pretend to some degree of certainty about some things in order to live at all.  A state of complete uncertainty is equivalent to suffocating in the vacuum of space.

I’ll close with a quote I used at Bioneers the day after Meg Wheatley’s keynote, along with that initial quote from Paul Ray, to explain why I don’t think we should be so sure that global problems will only get worse:

“. . . so much was happening at any one time that any description of the situation had some truth in it, from ‘desperate crisis, extinction event totally ignored’ to ‘minor problems robustly dealt with.’  It was therefore necessary to forge on in ignorance of the whole situation.”

- Fifty Degrees Below by Kim Stanley Robinson

*In his Bioneers talk, Nadelmann expressed support for the marijuana legalization initiative that just passed in Washington State.  My dad, who has a law degree and works at a courthouse, is pretty sure the initiative will just result in federal drug enforcers arresting a bunch more people.  I’ll probably do a post about the election soon.

October 13th, 2012

"The real unforgivable acts are committed by calm men in beautiful green silk rooms, who deal death wholesale, by the shipload, without lust, without anger, or desire, or any redeeming emotion to excuse them but cold fear of some pretended future."

- Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

This blog entry is not for the faint of heart. I was seriously worried that I wouldn't have the heart to finish writing it, given how much there is to say and how most of it is intensely depressing. But If I don't put it on a (web)page, it will just stay stuck in my head. So:

From the perspective of a radical anti-war activist, every American citizen is drenched in the blood of the countless multitudes of innocent foreigners who have been tortured, mutilated, and/or slaughtered in the name of "keeping us safe." From the perspective of the U.S. military, including its Commander in Chief, those victims are just "collateral damage" and should be left out of our considerations entirely, because they are an inevitable consequence of necessary defense projects. This ideological stalemate has held for decades without either side giving an inch; in fact, the government's militancy has increased quite substantially since 9/11, and this trend shows no real sign of slowing down under President Obama.

Needless to say, my sympathies lie mainly with the anti-war activists, but it took the killing of two American citizens in Yemen with no due process to force me to start considering the real horrors of the current war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If it weren't for that precedent, which potentially puts anyone who opposes our government's military policies in the crosshairs, I probably never would have read all the way through the Atlantic articles "'Every Person Is Afraid of the Drones': The Strikes' Effect on Life in Pakistan" and "Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama," both by Conor Friedersdorf, who asks the basic question of how can anyone support, in good conscience, any leader who perpetrates and perpetuates this kind of madness.

For a while before I read those articles, I'd had a ready answer gleaned from a humor piece about the Occupy movement by Colin McEnroe: "Obama doesn't have my support. Just my vote." Part of my argument for that answer came from the above observation about the decades-long period of national-security dogmatism we currently live in, which prevents any American leader from changing course and therefore, in theory, makes the question of who wins the presidential election totally irrelevant to the Pakistani victims. Whether I vote or not won't change anything for them, so why not leave them out of my voting decision entirely?

The answer, according to Dennis Loo, a columnist even more radical than Mr. Friedersdorf, is that if we want to be moral, we should withdraw our support entirely from a system this evil, thus beginning the path to delegitimizing and dismantling it. Mr. Friedersdorf and Mr. Loo agree that a vote for either major presidential candidate is a statement of support for that candidate's actions, even those the other major party's candidate would agree with. The only way to save the values of our democracy that are being trampled by our increasing obsession with security, Mr. Loo argues, is not to participate in our democracy.

My first reaction to this claim is to cry "Sacrilege!" I've always believed that voting is a sacred duty, upholding the ideal of self-government. But when we're given so few choices, and such bad ones, it does begin to look like that form of faith is a little too naïve. So I would probably decide to skip over the presidential section on my ballot when it arrives in the mail next week -- if the wars were the only major issue in this election. On some of the other issues, particularly women's rights and of course the environment, I view Obama as by far the lesser evil.

Mr. Loo has anticipated this objection, and in fact his article's subtitle is "An Examination of Obama's Domestic Policies." Using extremely harsh rhetoric, he lists several cases where President Obama's actions have been at odds with progressive values on issues including abortion and the climate crisis, frequently connecting back to the issue of war crimes which is the main focus of his organization, World Can't Wait. For example, in the section "The Oppression of Women and Gay Rights," he focuses on Obama's censorship of photos showing rape and sexual abuse at Abu Ghraib. On climate, he quotes another radical columnist, Rob Urie, who claims that Obama is clearly planning to complete the Keystone XL pipeline next year; if so, well-known climate scientists James Hansen claims, it would be "game over for the climate."

Mr. Urie's theory may be undermined by the massive grassroots mobilization against Keystone XL, in which Dr. Hansen participated (see link above), and which has already had some impact on President Obama's decision-making. And Dr. Hansen's extreme statement, if taken in isolation, makes little sense given that Keystone XL would merely add one more pipe to an already existing network of tar-sands oil pipelines. The real argument behind that claim is that committing to buy more tar-sands oil means declaring ourselves "hopeless fossil-fuel addicts," but President Obama's other actions on climate don't match the hopeless-addict profile. They include the $90 billion for clean energy in his 2009 stimulus package, his recently-finalized major increase in fuel efficiency requirements for cars, and, less impressively, the still-in-process EPA carbon dioxide regulations that would apply to the few new coal-fired power plants still being built in America. Discouragingly, the EPA "has no plans to pursue regulations for existing power plants," but that doesn't mean it won't ever happen.

Republicans, on the other hand, have been attacking new and existing EPA regulations vociferously since they took control of the House of Representatives. It's no secret that they'd defund the whole agency if they had the chance, and Romney seems highly likely to give them that chance. I'm a volunteer with the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, which has used Clean Air Act lawsuits (focused on pollutants other than carbon dioxide) as an important tool in scheduling over a hundred coal-fired power plants for early retirement, and they're doing it again with the huge plant in Colstrip, Montana that supplies over 30% of my electricity. If Romney is elected President, those lawsuits could have the law they're based on ripped right out from under them.

So here's my answer to Conor Friedersdorf's question: I may be able to support President Obama despite his war crimes, because he's currently our best hope for making progress as a nation toward solving a vastly more serious humanitarian crisis. By one well-researched estimate, the climate crisis already causes five million deaths per year, a number projected to grow to six million (a.k.a. "one Nazi Holocaust per year") by 2030. For comparison, the maximum estimate for all deaths from U.S. drone strikes is just over three thousand, and almost all known drone strikes occurred in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas region of Pakistan, whose population is 3 million, which I'd call a reasonable upper limit on the number of people being traumatized due to constantly circling drones.

Except that reasonable is, of course, the wrong word to describe any of these horrors. Among the three thousand reported dead are one hundred seventy-six children, and a national-security policy that murders children and calls it "collateral damage" is obviously morally untenable (regardless of whether the U.S. military makes good on commitments to massively reduce its fossil-fuel use). So the question is, do I vote to continue to legitimize that policy for the sake of preventing even greater harm, or will that make it impossible to live with myself?

(If it weren't for my pledge to ignore all political ads, my decision would already be made, thanks to a recent pro-coal ad approved by President Obama that cynically tries to out-Romney Romney, while asking viewers to forget about Obama's climate rhetoric and the significant progress toward phasing out fossil fuels that I noted above.)

August 19th, 2012

The fossil-fuel Third Way

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When I first heard about "Third Way" economics, consisting of communistically worker-owned companies competing in a capitalist marketplace, I was highly dubious: "What do you mean, 'everyone can be capitalists?' That's ridiculous!" But now I'm a big supporter of the concept.

When it comes to fossil fuels, there's a similar middle ground between the future described in the 2009 article "Bound to Burn" (which I first mentioned here), in which we burn all of Earth's fossil fuel reserves over the next century or two, and the future favored by environmentalists, in which we leave all the remaining coal, oil, and natural gas in the ground. Oddly, the conservative author of "Bound to Burn" was largely arguing from the demand side, roughly summarized as "the developing world is demanding cheap electricity and transportation fuel, and clean alternatives can't compete." Last month, in his Rolling Stone article "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math," climate activist leader Bill McKibben made a similar argument from the supply side: "Yes, this coal and gas and oil is still technically in the soil. But it's already economically aboveground – it's figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, nations are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from their patrimony. . . . If you told Exxon or Lukoil that, in order to avoid wrecking the climate, they couldn't pump out their reserves, the value of their companies would plummet."

So where's the middle ground? In the gap between the verbs "pump" and "burn." Everyone knows there are plenty of non-fuel-related uses for oil, particularly in making plastics, lubricants, and asphalt. Likewise, natural gas is used as raw material for a number of solid and liquid products, including plastics, fabric, paint, fertilizer, etc. Finding uses for coal that don't involve burning it is trickier, but perhaps American ingenuity would be up to the task if motivated by a high tax on releasing greenhouse gases. If we could find a combination of policies that leads to a substantial increase in demand for those non-fuel products to match the decrease in demand for fossil fuels to near zero, we could potentially solve the climate crisis without destroying the fossil-fuel companies or the economies of nations that rely on them.

Of course, the extraction processes for those "non-fuel fossil resources" would continue to do plenty of environmental damage, and environmentalists won’t be too happy about incentivizing more production of plastic, asphalt, and fertilizer (which tends to promote topsoil-destroying industrial agriculture).  But maybe that's the price we have to pay for a politically feasible means of nearly halting greenhouse emissions. Needless to say, this is not my favorite idea, but I think it should at least be on the table.  Speaking of agriculture, the current mega-drought and the trend it represents is a clear warning sign that we don't have much time left to find climate solutions that work.

July 4th, 2012

Independence Day links

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The United States Declaration of Independence from the British monarchy

The Occupy Wall Street Declaration of independence from what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt referred to as the “economic royalists”

A speech calling for a return to American greatness (from Aaron Sorkin’s new TV show The Newsroom, for which my cousin Daniel is on the production crew)

Each of these links contains some very dubious statements.  The last item in the list of grievances against the king of England refers to “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions,” an all too typical attempt to reframe Native Americans’ natural tendency to defend themselves and their land against invaders.  Several of the grievances in the Occupy declaration, particularly “They have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press,” are disingenuous because they’re actually directed against governments supposedly acting in the interests of corporations.  Roosevelt makes the odd claim that the U.S. Constitution stands “against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike,” even though it was the founding document of a nation to be ruled by its people, and its words were originally interpreted to support rule by white male landowners only.  And in eulogizing America’s former greatness, the main character of The Newsroom makes the unlikely claims that “we never beat our chest” and “we didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for;” excessive national pride and partisanship may have become more serious problems in recent years, but they’ve always been part of American life.  But hey, nobody’s perfect.

May 13th, 2012

Back to my roots

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I haven’t written about the threat of global resource depletion in far too long.  Luckily, I just saw a movie that provides a great excuse to discuss the issue at length.

“It’s easy now to see kind of a giant social brain, or planetary brain, because it’s in, it’s in the physical form of the Internet, it, it looks so much like a nervous system, you almost can’t miss the analogy.”

- Robert Wright, author/journalist (this and all other quotes are taken from this transcript)

“My first job [at Chase Manhattan Bank] was to calculate how much debt could Third World countries pay. And the answer was, 'Well, how much do they earn?' . . . our objective was to take the entire earnings of a Third World country and say, ideally, that would be all paid as interest to us.”

- Michael Hudson, economist

The movie Surviving Progress is very much a child of its time. Chock-full of a dizzying array of ideas, it mirrors the headlong speed of the Internet era while focusing squarely on the subject of how little time we have before that reckless speed slams our civilization into a brick wall (or perhaps it's more of a ceiling). I learned about it at the last possible minute too, just before going to bed on the night before the film's last showing in Seattle. Also appropriately, the source of the information was the Facebook group for the Occupy Seattle Get Money Out of Politics workgroup, which advertised this movie because it explicitly blames Wall Street's powerful moneyed elites (as well as their IMF and World Bank henchmen) for the accelerating resource depletion that threatens to bring our civilization to the same fate that supposedly met the Romans, the Mayans, and others.

Okay, that's not entirely fair. The movie doesn't exactly blame anyone in particular. Its thesis, in five chilling words, is “Human nature is the problem.”

“The Ice Age hunter is still us, it's still in us. Those ancient hunters who thought that there would always be another herd of mammoth over the next hill shared the optimism of the stock trader, that there's always going to be another big killing on the stock market in the next week or two.”

- Ronald Wright, author of the book A Short History of Progress on which the film is based

Our brains, with their fifty-thousand-year-old “hardware,” don't allow us to act consistently in the interest of the long-term future. According to this movie, that's the reason why we have predatory financial oligarchs who drive the rest of the world into ever-growing debt to fuel supposedly endless economic growth. The idea is that these people can't help themselves; their brains simply aren't built to resist the allure of massive short-term gains. Like Julian Simon, they assume that human inventiveness can find some way to keep the game going despite the depletion of various resources. They rationalize away all the damage done by “austerity measures” in debtor nations by convincing themselves that the “development projects,” most of them aimed at extracting wealth in the form of natural resources and shipping it back to the wealthy nations, create enough benefit to the poor nations to outweigh the harm.

This thesis creates a bit of a disjunct between means and ends. How can we reconcile the need to deny and consciously transform our primitive natures with the project of living within our ecological means, as a member of the global community of species? It's as if, to live in harmony with nature, we must first pull ourselves further outside it.

“Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain inward looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.”

- Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist

Of course, one answer to the problem of the ultimate “debt ceiling” imposed by Earth's limited resources is to hurry up and start mining the rest of the solar system, a project that recently made headlines when a group of well-known investors endorsed it. I suspect this continuation of the harsh logic of exponential growth driven by short-term thinking is not exactly the destiny Hawking would support, but I can't say for sure, because none of the dialogue elaborates any further on his statement above – despite the fact that images of astronauts, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station are sprinkled liberally throughout the film's visuals.

If you're interested in the arguments for and against the “mine the sky to save the economy” plan, I highly recommend Stephen Baxter's short story “On the Orion Line,” which extrapolates that plan millennia into the future.  In any case, access to space is currently extremely expensive, and many resources (such as food) are much harder to produce in space than on Earth, so this means of escape from our current "progress trap" doesn't seem particularly feasible to me unless coupled with other strategies. So in addition to the moral questions posed by people like Baxter and Kathryn Denning, I think necessity will also compel us to reject the radical growth-at-all-cost agenda and find some other way forward.

“If we don't develop what you might call the moral perspective of God, then we'll screw up the engineering part of playing God, because the actual engineering solutions depend on seeing things from the point of view of other people, ensuring that their lives don't get too bad, because if they do it'll come back to haunt us.”

- Robert Wright

“Admittedly, we’ve used our brain[s] in ways that are detrimental to the environment and society, but brains are beginning to get together around the planet to find solutions to some of the harm that we’ve inflicted. And, you know, we humans are a problem-solving species, and we always do pretty well when our back is to the wall.”

- Jane Goodall, primatologist

One way to describe the other set of possible solutions is “enlightenment.” Several speakers in the movie observe that our progress in the fields of morality and wisdom lags far behind our progress in knowledge and technology, but they don't offer much in the way of suggestions for how to change this. Professor Vaclav Smil even comments on his own deliberate incoherence on the subject of solutions, saying that having lived under a Communist regime, he's fed up with overconfident, doctrinaire answers to the problems of society.

While it would be lovely to imagine a near future in which the “global social brain” of the Internet compels the world's wealthier citizens to radically lower their resource consumption, I'm not convinced that there is any way to make that happen. For one thing, the Internet, as the ultimate incarnation of accelerating change, scarcely seems likely to be the source of a solution that lets us flatten our trajectory. California has found other ways, successfully keeping their per-capita energy use from growing since the 70’s -- but then again it hasn't decreased either.

“We need to begin by saying we're at the end of a failed experiment and it's time to say goodbye to it. It's an economic experiment, it's a technological experiment. It's been going on for a couple of hundred years and it's not worked; it's brought us to this point of crisis. Then we can start to sanely and intelligently say: How can we live within the real limits that our planet gives us and create a safe operating space for humanity?”

- Jim Thomas, activist, ETC Group

So if I buy all the logic above and assume that we can't hit the brakes or duck out from under the resource ceiling fast enough (and that we can’t expect a deus ex machina like aliens arriving in the nick of time to save us from ourselves), I’ll have to join my new friend Hank in accepting the strong likelihood of a global crash. The only questions seem to be “How soon?” and “How violent?” On this spectrum, we have the Transition movement at one end, advocating preparations for gradual “energy descent,” and a strange group of radicals called “collapsitarians” on the other. I once read an article about collapsitarianism, which didn't give me any real sense of why anyone would be crazy enough to want to crash now, but thinking about the specter of that resource ceiling suggests a possible answer: if we enter a dark age sooner rather than later, there will be more resources left with which to stage a recovery from it. I find it very hard to imagine using that reasoning to justify all the near-term suffering involved in a hard crash – but maybe that’s just because I’m not good enough at thinking long-term.

For more of my thoughts about the various kinds of progress (just in case this blog entry wasn’t long enough for you), check out this page on the SolSeed wiki.

February 7th, 2012

Reform vs. revolution.  Alliance with like-minded politicians vs. independence from all politics.  Kingian/Gandhian principles of nonviolent resistance vs. "diversity of tactics."  All these dialectics and more are currently drawing fault lines across the active membership of Occupy Seattle, and probably the broader national and global movement as well.

An excellent example of how these ideas play out in practice was provided by the debate at the January 11th General Assembly (GA) over whether to endorse the two events planned by the Get Money Out of Politics workgroup (GMOP) to commemorate the anniversary of Citizens United.  Almost no one disagreed that the events as a whole were a good idea; the sticking point was the fact that U.S. Representative Jim McDermott would be speaking for a few minutes in the middle of the January 21st event.  By narrowing their focus to this single speech and its implied endorsement of an elected official, the debaters were actually broadening the discussion to encompass the fundamental principles and strategies of the Occupy movement as a whole.

Here is a rough list of paired arguments for and against, although it misrepresents the free-flowing debate by implying that it was organized around well-defined series of points and counterpoints:

Argument against: The General Assembly has passed a resolution stating that we're a movement where everyone is a leader equally, and therefore politicians will not be allowed to speak at Occupy Seattle-endorsed events.

Argument for: If we want the general public to support us and come to our events, we should invite the kinds of speakers who draw crowds.  McDermott supporters are part of the 99% too, and we need them as allies.

Argument for: McDermott himself is on our side.  He supports our goal of overturning Citizens United and establishing publicly funded elections, as well as having opposed the war in Iraq, supported women's rights, etc.

Argument against: McDermott has voted for military spending, free trade agreements, etc, and his staff has mistreated people who came to his office.

Argument against: The media will see this as Occupy Seattle endorsing a Democrat and moving toward becoming "the Democrats' Tea Party," when we really need to maintain independence from the two big political parties because they're both corrupted by money in politics.

Argument for: We can get McDermott to talk only as a citizen with experience in Constitutional law, rather than as a politician.  Also, Occupy is too strong to have to worry about being co-opted by the Democrats.

Argument for: Ultimately, if we want to have any major impact in this country, we're going to have to get involved in electoral politics at some point.

Argument against: On the contrary, the goal of the Occupy movement is not to change government policy, but to delegitimize the entire U.S. government and trigger a mass upheaval to create a truly better world.

As the debate wore on, people who supported endorsement tended to stay in their seats, which were arranged in a circle.  Opponents stood up and gradually gravitated toward a raised area off to the side, as far away from Karrsen, the GMOP member who had brought the resolution forward, as possible.  Yet everyone remained respectful of the process, and although a few people were clearly getting tired of the hours-long discussion by the end, we ended up finishing the whole "stack" of people wanting to speak before the final vote.

Karrsen ultimately decided the debate was too divisive, and accepted an amendment stating that the General Assembly would only endorse the event if McDermott agreed to participate in a march of torch-carrying protesters demanding the resignation of the current Seattle Chief of Police.  But this was not enough to mollify the radicals (partly because it was stated in a confusing way), so the vote count was ultimately declared to be a tie, 30-30, and the proposal didn't pass.

I later heard that the GA had endorsed the Friday event by itself, although it didn't matter much since that event was cancelled due to snow (but about 20 people showed up anyway).  Then on Saturday, in the midst of a series of speeches, musical performances, and street-theater-style skits on the stage at Westlake Park, GMOP member Craig Salins gave a glowing introduction for Jim McDermott, whose first words on taking the microphone were "Mic check!"  Clearly, he hadn't been informed that this wasn't officially an Occupy Seattle event.  You can watch most of his talk here.  One of the radicals from the GA, who showed up at Westlake after the end of the event, was extremely disappointed that no one had stood up and challenged McDermott on his politicking, particularly his brief comment about re-electing Obama.

The debate goes on.  Somehow, the regular meeting of the GMOP workgroup the day before yesterday was refocused into a planning session for a discussion about reform vs. revolution and nonviolence vs. "diversity of tactics" (this was partly because Kazu Haga, a well-known teacher of nonviolent tactics from Oakland, happened to be in the building).  Meanwhile, the media continue to assume that because the Occupy movement is so fractious, it must be doomed to fade away.  But this is a movement that was founded on the principles of both diversity and unity--perhaps the most fundamental dialectic of all.

That said, rant about why advocating violence is stupidCollapse )

January 15th, 2012

This past Wednesday, I went to a vigil and march commemorating the tenth anniversary of the opening of Guantanamo Bay Prison.  As part of the event, people told stories through a megaphone about several probably-innocent long-term detainees at both Guantanamo and Bagram Prison in Afghanistan—dark tales of senseless brutality and torture.  An Iraq veteran told the story of how his unit shot up a school full of children after getting hit by a roadside bomb.

I decided to try something different.  In dark times, it seems to me, we need humor more than ever, to keep our spirits up as we fight on in a seemingly hopeless campaign to halt these atrocities.  So here’s the facetious little speech I gave through that megaphone, while we were standing in front of the building housing Obama’s Seattle campaign headquarters:

“I finally figured out why Congress decided that the military needs to be able to lock up a bunch of American citizens indefinitely without trial.  Consider: an insidious foreign company has created a video game in which the player directs a team of aerial suicide bombers to knock down a series of buildings, killing everyone inside.  It’s an obvious ploy to create a new generation of al Qaeda terrorists—and yet young middle-class Americans of all political stripes are falling for it in droves!  Can you say ‘brainwashing?’  That’s why the government needs the power to lock you up and throw away the key, even if you are completely innocent of any connection to terrorist activity, except for being addicted to Angry Birds.”

For some better (and even darker) humor on this subject, I highly recommend the usual suspects, Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert.  “You can take away our lives, but only we can take away our freedoooooom!


P.S. Immediately after the march, I headed over to the Washington State Convention Center for a decision-making General Assembly of Occupy Seattle, where we had a discussion and vote on whether the two Get Money Out of Politics events happening this week would be officially endorsed by Occupy Seattle as a whole.  The fascinating story of how this proposal was discussed and ultimately rejected will be the subject of my next post.

January 1st, 2012

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.

- Benjamin Franklin

Central to civilized law is the notion that a person cannot be held without a charge and cannot be detained indefinitely without a trial. These principles date back to Greco-Roman times, were developed by English common law beginning in 1215 with the Magna Carta, and were universalized by the Enlightenment in the century before the American Constitution and Bill of Rights were fought for and adopted as the supreme law of the land.

For more than two centuries of constitutional development since then, the United States has been heralded as the light to the world precisely because of the liberties it enshrined in its Declaration of Independence and Constitution as inalienable. It now seems as if the events of 9/11 have been determined to be of such a threatening magnitude that our national leaders feel justified to abrogate in their entirety the very inalienable principles upon which our Republic was founded.

- Jim Garrison, "Obama's most fateful decision," The Huffington Post December 12, 2011

“The fact that I support this bill as a whole does not mean I agree with everything in it,” Mr. Obama said in a statement issued in Hawaii, where he is on vacation. “I have signed this bill despite having serious reservations with certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation and prosecution of suspected terrorists.” . . .

The president, for example, said that he would never authorize the indefinite military detention of American citizens, because “doing so would break with our most important traditions and values as a nation.”

- Mark Landler, "After Struggle on Detainees, Obama Signs Defense Bill," The New York Times December 31, 2011

What are the natural limits to freedom?Collapse )

Now, what if the U.S. government believes that an American citizen is planning a deadly terrorist attack? If the evidence of this was lawfully obtained and is reasonably solid, the police have every right to arrest him, charge him with a crime, and put him on trial. This allows the man to go free if the government made a mistake; his freedom will only be limited for a short period, unless he's found guilty of a plot to commit mass murder, using public evidence and arguments. But let's say the government doesn't think it can build its case before a jury, maybe because the evidence was obtained using an unconstitutional warrantless search, or because it involves classified information and revealing that information would somehow compromise national security. So it decides to classify the man as an "enemy combatant" and have the military lock him up indefinitely.

On the one hand, if the man is guilty, limiting his freedom seems better than letting him go free, allowing the attack to go forward, and eliminating the freedom of the people who end up dead as a result. But on the other hand, from the perspective of the public at large, it looks like the government may have made an unfounded accusation against an innocent man, and imprisoned him for life for no good reason. Maybe he was a prominent critic of the government whose criticism was becoming inconvenient, or maybe some government official just had had some private grievance against him.

So unless the government can stomach having a public trial, or find some other option that prevents the attack without violating anyone's civil liberties, we will be faced with an apparent failure of the central principles that make this a "free country." The fact is that indefinite detention without trial means we have no way to know whether the government is saving us from terrorism or turning into a fascist regime--or both. That's why we must fight hard to restore our basic rights--because otherwise, we'll never again be able to trust the people who are supposedly "defending our freedom."

December 16th, 2011

Quick summary if you're in a hurry: Americans may be able to reverse the destruction of our civil liberties and ensure that the U.S. military can't lock us up and throw away the key, but unfortunately it involves getting Congress to act on our behalf, after they just did the reverse.  I think it's worth a try.  Please call your Senators and ask them to co-sponsor the Due Process Guarantee Act of 2011.
 
It's possible that the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) isn't actually about to destroy the foundations of American freedom.  According to several sources including Time Magazine, the version of the NDAA now on its way to President Obama's desk "includes a Senate-passed compromise that says nothing in the legislation may be 'construed to affect existing law or authorities relating to the detention of United States citizens, lawful resident aliens of the United States, or any other persons who are captured or arrested in the United States.'"  And while most blogs and online news sources* say otherwise, Mother Jones, usually a reliable source for progressive pessimism, claims that that language is enough to ensure that "if a future president does try to assert the authority to detain an American citizen without charge or trial, it won't be based on the authority in this bill."  A blogger on Daily Kos agrees, which makes two unlikely messengers telling us not to panic about the NDAA in particular.
 
But maybe this battle was already lost anyway.  The same Time article cited above also includes a quote from Senator Carl Levin claiming that "a June 2004 Supreme Court decision, in a case called Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, said U.S. citizens can be detained indefinitely."  (Levin is a Democrat, in case you were wondering.)  The same claim has been made about the 2006 Military Commissions Act (MCA), the bill that motivated me to invent the American Fascism Clock.  And Obama himself claims that the critical Section 1031 of the NDAA merely "attempts to expressly codify the detention authority that exists under the Authorization for Use of Military Force" (AUMF), which was passed on September 18, 2001.  (This argument has been used before to justify indefinite military detention of an actual U.S. citizen.)  If he's right, then the terrorists had already won their supposed "war on American freedom" only a week after it began.
 
And now is the time to reverse that victory, while we have at least some significant amount of media attention.  Senator Dianne Feinstein, who introduced the amendment mentioned above trying to limit the NDAA's impact on Americans, decided it was a good idea to make sure that the "existing law or authorities relating to the detention" of said Americans was clearly in keeping with the Bill of Rights (rather than being muddled by the AUMF, the Hamdi case, and/or the MCA), which is why she introduced the Due Process Guarantee Act of 2011 yesterday.  It contains one loophole: if our military arrests Americans vacationing in some other country, this bill won't ensure they get a trial or Habeas rights.  But it's still worth fighting very hard indeed to get the bill passed ASAP.  Please call your Senators!
 
Unlike the climate crisis, we actually have a lot of room to turn this one around.  As Time Magazine points out in the cover story defining "The Protester" as their 2011 Person of the Year: "In North America and most of Europe, there are no dictators, and dissidents don't get tortured. . .  The protesters in the Middle East and North Africa are literally dying to get political systems that roughly resemble the ones that seem intolerably undemocratic to protesters in Madrid, Athens, London and New York City."  However pessimistic I may be about the current state of affairs in America, it's crystal clear that things could be a whole lot worse.
 
* Okay, that last link is to an opinion piece, but I included it because of the important point it makes: the NDAA includes a "ban on spending any money for civilian trials for any accused terrorist," meaning that even if the government wants to grant you due process after making some terrorism-related accusation against you, it effectively can't.

December 10th, 2011

Falling into history

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As of today, the American Fascism Clock stands at one second from midnight.  Both houses of Congress have passed versions of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) allowing indefinite military detention of American citizens without charge or trial, in blatant violation of the Bill of Rights.  The bills are in conference committee now to create a single version that will be voted on again and then sent to President Obama.  (Technically it might not pass, but that seems vanishingly unlikely given events up to this point.)  Obama has threatened a veto, but not because of the provision involving American citizens.  According to OpenCongress's analysis of his statements on the bill, if the committee removed a related provision that only applies to non-citizens, he might well sign the result into law--particularly since, if a Defense authorization bill isn't passed "by the end of the year, almost all of the U.S. military’s activities around the world would be jeopardized" (quote is from the article linked above).
 
If this bill becomes law, America will no longer be anything resembling a free country.  The military will be able to patrol our streets and lock up anyone who opposes government policy, on the grounds that "we think they might be planning a terrorist attack."  It will take a while for this nightmare to fully materialize, and in that time we might be able to get the Supreme Court to strike down the unconstitutional provisions of this law.  But given the Supremes' recent record on restricting our rights (which I learned about from the usually apolitical Phi Beta Kappa Key Reporter), I'm not inclined to be hopeful.
 
Meanwhile, it's quite possible that the COP 17 climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa are about to fail, due in large part to the intransigence of the U.S. negotiating team.  This would probably mean that the goal of a meaningful international climate treaty before 2020 is a lost cause, which basically means game over for the climate, unless we can somehow rebuild the world's energy infrastructure quickly enough without the motivation such a binding agreement would provide.
 
Amid these apocalyptic portents, there was one bit of hopeful news this week: on Tuesday, the LA City Council unanimously declared its support for a Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, restore legal limits on campaign financing, and declare once and for all that corporations are not people.  (Nine days earlier, Occupy Los Angeles had passed a resolution to the same effect, and their influence on the Council's decision is plain.)  But of course, if the NDAA becomes law, the last vestiges of American democracy may well disappear long before the actual amendment could pass.
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