Add to My MSN

3/29/2016

boston learning 

Thomas Frank on Boston and the failings of the blue-state economic model.

This piece has been adapted from Thomas Frank's new book, Listen, Liberal, or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (Metropolitan Books) and is reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.

When you press Democrats on their uninspiring deeds -- their lousy free trade deals, for example, or their flaccid response to Wall Street misbehavior -- when you press them on any of these things, they automatically reply that this is the best anyone could have done. After all, they had to deal with those awful Republicans, and those awful Republicans wouldn’t let the really good stuff get through. They filibustered in the Senate. They gerrymandered the congressional districts. And besides, change takes a long time. Surely you don’t think the tepid-to-lukewarm things Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have done in Washington really represent the fiery Democratic soul.

So let’s go to a place that does. Let’s choose a locale where Democratic rule is virtually unopposed, a place where Republican obstruction and sabotage can’t taint the experiment.

Let’s go to Boston, Massachusetts, the spiritual homeland of the professional class and a place where the ideology of modern liberalism has been permitted to grow and flourish without challenge or restraint. As the seat of American higher learning, it seems unsurprising that Boston should anchor one of the most Democratic of states, a place where elected Republicans (like the new governor) are highly unusual. This is the city that virtually invented the blue-state economic model, in which prosperity arises from higher education and the knowledge-based industries that surround it.

The coming of post-industrial society has treated this most ancient of American cities extremely well. Massachusetts routinely occupies the number one spot on the State New Economy Index, a measure of how “knowledge-based, globalized, entrepreneurial, IT-driven, and innovation-based” a place happens to be. Boston ranks high on many of Richard Florida’s statistical indices of approbation -- in 2003, it was number one on the “creative class index,” number three in innovation and in high tech -- and his many books marvel at the city’s concentration of venture capital, its allure to young people, or the time it enticed some firm away from some unenlightened locale in the hinterlands.

Boston’s knowledge economy is the best, and it is the oldest. Boston’s metro area encompasses some 85 private colleges and universities, the greatest concentration of higher-ed institutions in the country -- probably in the world. The region has all the ancillary advantages to show for this: a highly educated population, an unusually large number of patents, and more Nobel laureates than any other city in the country.

The city’s Route 128 corridor was the original model for a suburban tech district, lined ever since it was built with defense contractors and computer manufacturers. The suburbs situated along this golden thoroughfare are among the wealthiest municipalities in the nation, populated by engineers, lawyers, and aerospace workers. Their public schools are excellent, their downtowns are cute, and back in the seventies their socially enlightened residents were the prototype for the figure of the “suburban liberal.”

Another prototype: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, situated in Cambridge, is where our modern conception of the university as an incubator for business enterprises began. According to a report on MIT’s achievements in this category, the school’s alumni have started nearly 26,000 companies over the years, including Intel, Hewlett Packard, and Qualcomm. If you were to take those 26,000 companies as a separate nation, the report tells us, its economy would be one of the most productive in the world.

Then there are Boston’s many biotech and pharmaceutical concerns, grouped together in what is known as the “life sciences super cluster,” which, properly understood, is part of an “ecosystem” in which PhDs can “partner” with venture capitalists and in which big pharmaceutical firms can acquire small ones. While other industries shrivel, the Boston super cluster grows, with the life-sciences professionals of the world lighting out for the Athens of America and the massive new “innovation centers” shoehorning themselves one after the other into the crowded academic suburb of Cambridge.

To think about it slightly more critically, Boston is the headquarters for two industries that are steadily bankrupting middle America: big learning and big medicine, both of them imposing costs that everyone else is basically required to pay and which increase at a far more rapid pace than wages or inflation. A thousand dollars a pill, 30 grand a semester: the debts that are gradually choking the life out of people where you live are what has made this city so very rich.

Perhaps it makes sense, then, that another category in which Massachusetts ranks highly is inequality. Once the visitor leaves the brainy bustle of Boston, he discovers that this state is filled with wreckage -- with former manufacturing towns in which workers watch their way of life draining away, and with cities that are little more than warehouses for people on Medicare. According to one survey, Massachusetts has the eighth-worst rate of income inequality among the states; by another metric it ranks fourth. However you choose to measure the diverging fortunes of the country’s top 10% and the rest, Massachusetts always seems to finish among the nation’s most unequal places.

Seething City on a Cliff

You can see what I mean when you visit Fall River, an old mill town 50 miles south of Boston. Median household income in that city is $33,000, among the lowest in the state; unemployment is among the highest, 15% in March 2014, nearly five years after the recession ended. Twenty-three percent of Fall River’s inhabitants live in poverty. The city lost its many fabric-making concerns decades ago and with them it lost its reason for being. People have been deserting the place for decades.

Many of the empty factories in which their ancestors worked are still standing, however. Solid nineteenth-century structures of granite or brick, these huge boxes dominate the city visually -- there always seems to be one or two of them in the vista, contrasting painfully with whatever colorful plastic fast-food joint has been slapped up next door.

Most of the old factories are boarded up, unmistakable emblems of hopelessness right up to the roof. But the ones that have been successfully repurposed are in some ways even worse, filled as they often are with enterprises offering cheap suits or help with drug addiction. A clinic in the hulk of one abandoned mill has a sign on the window reading simply “Cancer & Blood.”

The effect of all this is to remind you with every prospect that this is a place and a way of life from which the politicians have withdrawn their blessing. Like so many other American scenes, this one is the product of decades of deindustrialization, engineered by Republicans and rationalized by Democrats. This is a place where affluence never returns -- not because affluence for Fall River is impossible or unimaginable, but because our country’s leaders have blandly accepted a social order that constantly bids down the wages of people like these while bidding up the rewards for innovators, creatives, and professionals.

Even the city’s one real hope for new employment opportunities --- an Amazon warehouse that is now in the planning stages -- will serve to lock in this relationship. If all goes according to plan, and if Amazon sticks to the practices it has pioneered elsewhere, people from Fall River will one day get to do exhausting work with few benefits while being electronically monitored for efficiency, in order to save the affluent customers of nearby Boston a few pennies when they buy books or electronics.

But that is all in the future. These days, the local newspaper publishes an endless stream of stories about drug arrests, shootings, drunk-driving crashes, the stupidity of local politicians, and the lamentable surplus of “affordable housing.” The town is up to its eyeballs in wrathful bitterness against public workers. As in: Why do they deserve a decent life when the rest of us have no chance at all? It’s every man for himself here in a “competition for crumbs,” as a Fall River friend puts it.

The Great Entrepreneurial Awakening

If Fall River is pocked with empty mills, the streets of Boston are dotted with facilities intended to make innovation and entrepreneurship easy and convenient. I was surprised to discover, during the time I spent exploring the city’s political landscape, that Boston boasts a full-blown Innovation District, a disused industrial neighborhood that has actually been zoned creative -- a projection of the post-industrial blue-state ideal onto the urban grid itself. The heart of the neighborhood is a building called “District Hall” -- “Boston’s New Home for Innovation” -- which appeared to me to be a glorified multipurpose room, enclosed in a sharply angular façade, and sharing a roof with a restaurant that offers “inventive cuisine for innovative people.” The Wi-Fi was free, the screens on the walls displayed famous quotations about creativity, and the walls themselves were covered with a high-gloss finish meant to be written on with dry-erase markers; but otherwise it was not much different from an ordinary public library. Aside from not having anything to read, that is.

This was my introduction to the innovation infrastructure of the city, much of it built up by entrepreneurs shrewdly angling to grab a piece of the entrepreneur craze. There are “co-working” spaces, shared offices for startups that can’t afford the real thing. There are startup “incubators” and startup “accelerators,” which aim to ease the innovator’s eternal struggle with an uncaring public: the Startup Institute, for example, and the famous MassChallenge, the “World’s Largest Startup Accelerator,” which runs an annual competition for new companies and hands out prizes at the end.

And then there are the innovation Democrats, led by former Governor Deval Patrick, who presided over the Massachusetts government from 2007 to 2015. He is typical of liberal-class leaders; you might even say he is their most successful exemplar. Everyone seems to like him, even his opponents. He is a witty and affable public speaker as well as a man of competence, a highly educated technocrat who is comfortable in corporate surroundings. Thanks to his upbringing in a Chicago housing project, he also understands the plight of the poor, and (perhaps best of all) he is an honest politician in a state accustomed to wide-open corruption. Patrick was also the first black governor of Massachusetts and, in some ways, an ideal Democrat for the era of Barack Obama -- who, as it happens, is one of his closest political allies.

As governor, Patrick became a kind of missionary for the innovation cult. “The Massachusetts economy is an innovation economy,” he liked to declare, and he made similar comments countless times, slightly varying the order of the optimistic keywords: “Innovation is a centerpiece of the Massachusetts economy,” et cetera. The governor opened “innovation schools,” a species of ramped-up charter school. He signed the “Social Innovation Compact,” which had something to do with meeting “the private sector’s need for skilled entry-level professional talent.” In a 2009 speech called “The Innovation Economy,” Patrick elaborated the political theory of innovation in greater detail, telling an audience of corporate types in Silicon Valley about Massachusetts’s “high concentration of brainpower” and “world-class” universities, and how “we in government are actively partnering with the private sector and the universities, to strengthen our innovation industries.”

What did all of this inno-talk mean? Much of the time, it was pure applesauce -- standard-issue platitudes to be rolled out every time some pharmaceutical company opened an office building somewhere in the state.

On some occasions, Patrick’s favorite buzzword came with a gigantic price tag, like the billion dollars in subsidies and tax breaks that the governor authorized in 2008 to encourage pharmaceutical and biotech companies to do business in Massachusetts. On still other occasions, favoring inno has meant bulldozing the people in its path -- for instance, the taxi drivers whose livelihoods are being usurped by ridesharing apps like Uber. When these workers staged a variety of protests in the Boston area, Patrick intervened decisively on the side of the distant software company. Apparently convenience for the people who ride in taxis was more important than good pay for people who drive those taxis. It probably didn’t hurt that Uber had hired a former Patrick aide as a lobbyist, but the real point was, of course, innovation: Uber was the future, the taxi drivers were the past, and the path for Massachusetts was obvious.

A short while later, Patrick became something of an innovator himself. After his time as governor came to an end last year, he won a job as a managing director of Bain Capital, the private equity firm that was founded by his predecessor Mitt Romney -- and that had been so powerfully denounced by Democrats during the 2012 election. Patrick spoke about the job like it was just another startup: “It was a happy and timely coincidence I was interested in building a business that Bain was also interested in building,” he told theWall Street Journal. Romney reportedly phoned him with congratulations.

Entrepreneurs First

At a 2014 celebration of Governor Patrick’s innovation leadership, Google’s Eric Schmidt announced that “if you want to solve the economic problems of the U.S., create more entrepreneurs.” That sort of sums up the ideology in this corporate commonwealth: Entrepreneurs first. But how has such a doctrine become holy writ in a party dedicated to the welfare of the common man? And how has all this come to pass in the liberal state of Massachusetts?

The answer is that I’ve got the wrong liberalism. The kind of liberalism that has dominated Massachusetts for the last few decades isn’t the stuff of Franklin Roosevelt or the United Auto Workers; it’s the Route 128/suburban-professionals variety. (Senator Elizabeth Warren is the great exception to this rule.) Professional-class liberals aren’t really alarmed by oversized rewards for society’s winners. On the contrary, this seems natural to them -- because they are society’s winners. The liberalism of professionals just does not extend to matters of inequality; this is the area where soft hearts abruptly turn hard.

Innovation liberalism is “a liberalism of the rich,” to use the straightforward phrase of local labor leader Harris Gruman. This doctrine has no patience with the idea that everyone should share in society’s wealth. What Massachusetts liberals pine for, by and large, is a more perfect meritocracy -- a system where the essential thing is to ensure that the truly talented get into the right schools and then get to rise through the ranks of society. Unfortunately, however, as the blue-state model makes painfully clear, there is no solidarity in a meritocracy. The ideology of educational achievement conveniently negates any esteem we might feel for the poorly graduated.

This is a curious phenomenon, is it not? A blue state where the Democrats maintain transparent connections to high finance and big pharma; where they have deliberately chosen distant software barons over working-class members of their own society; and where their chief economic proposals have to do with promoting “innovation,” a grand and promising idea that remains suspiciously vague. Nor can these innovation Democrats claim that their hands were forced by Republicans. They came up with this program all on their own.

Thomas Frank is the author of the just-published Listen, Liberal, or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? (Metropolitan Books) from which this essay is adapted. He has also written Pity the BillionaireThe Wrecking Crew, and What’s the Matter With Kansas? among other works. He is the founding editor of The Baffler.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2016 Thomas Frank

Photo above of "Learning" in Boston Common by Tony Fischer, licensed under Creative Commons



3/17/2016

Flag

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch. 

Can it happen here?

That’s the question circulating now that Donald Trump, the nativist, rabble-rousing xenophobe, and billionaire, is threatening to capture the Republican nomination for president of the United States — and it’s a question that isn’t being asked only on the left.  It’s been raised by a New York Times editorial, which claimed that Trump has brought the GOP “to the brink of fascism,” and by Republicans, ranging from neoconservative pundit Max Boot to Virginia's centrist former Governor Jim Gilmore. Conservative Times columnist Ross Douthat was reasonably typical in a piece headlined “Is Donald Trump a Fascist?” While he allowed that The Donald may not be Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini, he added, “It seems fair to say that he’s closer to the ‘proto-fascist’ zone on the political spectrum than either the average American conservative or his recent predecessors in right-wing populism.”

For figures ranging from comic Louis C.K. to right-wing commentator Glenn Beck, making direct Hitler-Trump comparisons has become the fashion of the moment.  I must admit, however, that “proto-fascist” sounds about right to me.  Certainly, the rise of Trump has caused many voters to take notice — the question being whether the real estate mogul (who further stirred the pot recently by retweeting a quote from Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini) could cobble together enough of a coalition of nationalists, Angry White Men, “poorly educated” working-class backers, the disaffected religious right, Islamophobes, immigrant-bashers, and others to wield the figurative pitchforks in a march to victory in November.

If indeed Trump is a mere “proto-fascist,” then what ingredients, if any, are still needed for the emergence of an authentic twenty-first-century American fascist movement? To think about that question, I recently read Richard J. Evans’ book, The Coming of the Third Reich. It spans the era from 1871 to 1933, describing in exquisitely painful detail the gestation and growth of the Nazi party. If you decide to read the book, try doing what I did: in two columns in your head draw up a list of similarities and differences between the United States today and Weimar Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s.

In this edgy moment in America, the similarities, of course, tend to jump out at you. As Trump repeatedly pledges to restore American greatness, so Hitler promised to avenge Germany’s humiliation in World War I. As Trump urges his followers, especially the white working class, to blame their troubles on Mexican immigrants and Muslims, so Hitler whipped up an anti-Semitic brew. As Trump — ironically, for a billionaire — attacks Wall Street and corporate lobbyists for rigging the economy and making puppets out of politicians, so Hitler railed against Wall Street and the City of London, along with their local allies in Germany, for burdening his country with a massive post-World War I, Versailles Treaty-imposed reparations debt and for backing the Weimar Republic’s feckless center-right parties. (Think: the Republican Party today.)  As with Trump’s China-bashing comments and his threats to murder the relatives of Islamist terrorists while taking over Iraq’s oil reserves, Hitler too appealed to an atavistic, reckless sort of ultra-nationalism.

The Second Amendment Society

But don’t forget the differences, which are no less obvious. The United States has a long-established tradition of democratic republicanism, which 1920s Germany did not. The economy of the planet’s last superpower, while careening into a near-depression in 2008, is incomparably too strong to be put in the same category as the hyperinflation-plagued German one of that era.

There is, however, another difference between Donald Trump of 2016 and Adolf Hitler of 1921 (when he took over the leadership of the fledgling National Socialist German Workers Party) that overshadows the rest.  From the beginning, Hitler wielded the support of a brutal, thuggish armed paramilitary wing, the notorious Sturmabteilung (SA), the Storm Detachment (or storm troopers). Also known as the Brown Shirts, the SA often used violence against its opponents in the streets of Germany’s cities, and its sheer presence intimidated Germans across the political spectrum.

And that got me thinking. Would it be possible for Donald Trump or some future Trump-like figure to build an armed following of his own? Frighteningly enough, the answer is certainly: yes. And it might not even be that hard. 

Bear with me a moment here.  Back in 2010, in Alexandria, Virginia, radical partisans of the Second Amendment right to bear arms, bolstered by Virginia’s egregiously anything-goes open-carry laws, held a Restore the Constitution Rally in Fort Hunt Park on the Potomac River — and they came armed. The event was, by the way, scheduled for April 19th, the anniversary of Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. At the time, I lived a mile or so from that park, and the combination of fear, anger, and disgust that such a weapons-displaying political demonstration could happen in the virtual shadow of the Capitol was palpable.

Admittedly, only about 50 armed people took part, though 2,000 others held an unarmed, parallel rally in Washington, D.C., where carrying weapons is forbidden. Think about how many more might turn out today in a country where there have already been a number of armed rallies and demonstrations by Second Amendment activists, and in 2016, thanks to effective lobbying by the National Rifle Association (NRA), the majority of states have enacted complete or partial open-carry laws. Meanwhile, all 50 states now have concealed-carry laws, meaning that pistol-packing is lawful in most public places other than Washington, D.C.

Gun

So imagine this scenario for a moment: Donald Trump (or a future Trump-esque demagogue) announces that he’s convening a rally in a state where open-carry is permitted — say, in Dallas, at the Cowboys' AT&T Stadium — and adds that he wants his supporters to come armed. (Trump has loudly defended the NRA’s interpretation of the Second Amendment during the primary season and on his website there’s a plank called “Protecting Our Second Amendment Will Make America Great Again.”) Under Texas law, it would be perfectly legal for his supporters in the thousands to attend such a rally armed with semi-automatic weapons. And there, at the podium, looking out over the crown of gun-wielding militants would be The Donald, smiling broadly.

It doesn’t take much to imagine the instant backlash this would engender, from near-apoplectic television talking heads to scathing editorials in the New York Times and other newspapers to sputtering denunciations from liberal and moderate politicians, especially those from urban areas. But it’s also easy to imagine Trump’s vitriolic disdain for the naysayers, while the NRA’s pet Republicans tut-tutted over Trump but defended his right to organize such an event.

Imagine then that he repeated the event in other stadiums in, say, Denver, Phoenix, Indianapolis, and Miami — and then announced that he’s establishing the Donald Trump Second Amendment Society? He might even issue specially designed baseball caps emblazoned with the name. How far might we then be from armed marches by the new organization in the streets of American cities, its name, of course, soon abbreviated to the Trump SA (for Second Amendment) Society?

To some, this may sound like an outlandish, near-doomsday scenario. (“It can’t happen here.”) But developments in this country in recent years suggest that the path is open to just such a possibility, and that the question is less “if” than “when.” The groundwork is already potentially being laid.  According to the latest report from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), 2015 saw a significant increase in hate groups in this country, with militias and anti-government “patriot” groups growing last year from 874 to 998, having fallen precipitously in the previous two. Of these, says the SPLC, at least 276 were anti-government “militias.” It adds: “Generally, such groups define themselves as opposed to the ‘New World Order,’ engage in groundless conspiracy theorizing, or advocate or adhere to extreme antigovernment doctrines.”

In early January, the nation watched in shock as a band of “dozens of white, armed American militants stormed a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon seeking to take a ‘hard stand’ against federal government ‘tyranny.’” The action thrilled militia and “patriot” groups across the country, while, oddly enough, the mainstream media was reluctant to apply the obvious word — “terrorism” — to this armed rebellion by political radicals led by the sons of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy. (Juliette Kayyem, a Harvard expert on terrorism and a former assistant secretary of homeland security, was a rare exception in writing for CNN, “The men, heavily armed, urging others to come support their cause, and claiming somehow that, while peaceful, they will ‘defend’ themselves whatever it takes, are — by any definition — domestic terrorists.”)

The occupation was eventually suppressed, but in the present overheated atmosphere expect other provocative actions by some of the 200-plus militias that the SPLC has identified. Though Trump himself expressed mild disapproval of the Oregon militia, calling for “law and order,” Gerald DeLemus, a co-chair of Veterans for Trump in New Hampshire, praised the action as a “great success,” insisting in an interview with Reuters that the militia’s cause was “peaceful” and “constitutionally just.”  He was later arrested “as a ‘mid-level leader’ and organizer of a conspiracy to recruit, organize, train, and provide support to armed men and other followers of rancher Cliven Bundy.”

Trump, of course, has repeatedly played with fire when it comes to violence, intimidation, and the role of white supremacists, the radical right, and others. His dog-whistle refusal to instantly disassociate himself from David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan on the eve of the Super Tuesday primaries in the Deep South was widely condemned even by Republican officials. But in at least one case, an actual neo-Nazi, Matthew Heimbach, the leader of the Traditionalist Workers Party, used physical force against protesters at a Trump rally in Louisville.

Uniquely American Fascism

However reprehensible Trump’s dalliance with the far right may be, however disturbing the actions of figures like Heimbach, we’re still a significant way from the birth of a true national fascist movement, even if the Times’s Roger Cohen can already write a column headlined “Trump’s Weimar America.” (“Welcome to Weimar America: It’s getting restive in the beer halls. People are sick of politics as usual. They want blunt talk. They want answers.”) As of yet, Trump has not tried to fuse his far-right allies into a genuine movement — though he has started using the term “movement” — or a party, nor has he made any real effort to rally the country’s gun-owning right-wing militants into his own version of the SA. And he may never do so.

Keep in mind as well that an American-style fascist movement would hardly be a precise copy of either the German or the Italian models, or even of the parties currently building far-right movements in FranceHungaryGreece, and elsewhere. Nor would it copy the proto-fascist coalition of ultra-nationalists and religious zealots being courted by Russia’s Vladimir Putin. It would undoubtedly be a uniquely American creation.

Ballot

Though Trump has managed to bring together disparate elements of what an American fascist movement might roughly look like, he may not, in the end, be quite the right messenger for its development, nor may this be quite the right moment for it to fully develop. Among other things, for such a movement and the armed militias that would go with it to coalesce, you might need another 2007/2008-style economic meltdown, a crisis long and profound enough for such a movement to seize the moment. In that case, of course, it’s also possible that a Bernie Sanders-like leftist or socialist — or maybe Sanders himself — would emerge to capture the ensuing political and economic unrest in a very different manner. But in The Donald’s America, don’t rule out the possible emergence of an even more formidable and threatening Trump-like figure, one unburdened by his clownish persona, Trump University, and the rest of his billionaire’s baggage.

Whether or not Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination or is elected president, for the gathering members of his grassroots coalition, he’s certainly shown what can, indeed, happen here. 


Bob Dreyfuss, an independent journalist in New York City and Cape May, New Jersey, specializes in writing about politics and national security. He’s written widely for the NationRolling Stone, the American ProspectMother Jones, the New Republic, and other magazines. He is the author of Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2016 Bob Dreyfuss

Top photo by Fotolia/jhansen2

Middle photo by Fotolia/Luevanos

Bottom photo by Fotolia/bizoo_n



2/16/2016

Norway

This is a joint TomDispatch/Nation article and appears in print in slightly shortened form in the new issue of the Nation magazine. Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch and Nation.

Some years ago, I faced up to the futility of reporting true things about America’s disastrous wars and so I left Afghanistan for another remote mountainous country far away. It was the polar opposite of Afghanistan: a peaceful, prosperous land where nearly everybody seemed to enjoy a good life, on the job and in the family.

It’s true that they didn’t work much, not by American standards anyway. In the U.S., full-time salaried workers supposedly laboring 40 hours a week actually average 49, with almost 20% clocking more than 60. These people, on the other hand, worked only about 37 hours a week, when they weren’t away on long paid vacations. At the end of the work day, about four in the afternoon (perhaps three in the summer), they had time to enjoy a hike in the forest or a swim with the kids or a beer with friends — which helps explain why, unlike so many Americans, they are pleased with their jobs.

Often I was invited to go along. I found it refreshing to hike and ski in a country with no land mines, and to hang out in cafés unlikely to be bombed. Gradually, I lost my warzone jitters and settled into the slow, calm, pleasantly uneventful stream of life there.

Four years on, thinking I should settle down, I returned to the United States. It felt quite a lot like stepping back into that other violent, impoverished world, where anxiety runs high and people are quarrelsome. I had, in fact, come back to the flip side of Afghanistan and Iraq: to what America’s wars have done to America. Where I live now, in the Homeland, there are not enough shelters for the homeless. Most people are either overworked or hurting for jobs; housing is overpriced; hospitals, crowded and understaffed; schools, largely segregated and not so good. Opioid or heroin overdose is a popular form of death; and men in the street threaten women wearing hijab. Did the American soldiers I covered in Afghanistan know they were fighting for this?

Ducking the Subject

One night I tuned in to the Democrats’ presidential debate to see if they had any plans to restore the America I used to know. To my amazement, I heard the name of my peaceful mountain hideaway: Norway. Bernie Sanders was denouncing America’s crooked version of “casino capitalism” that floats the already rich ever higher and flushes the working class. He said that we ought to “look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.”

He believes, he added, in “a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires.” That certainly sounds like Norway. For ages they’ve worked at producing things for the use of everyone — not the profit of a few — so I was all ears, waiting for Sanders to spell it out for Americans.

But Hillary Clinton quickly countered, “We are not Denmark.” Smiling, she said, “I love Denmark,” and then delivered a patriotic punch line: “We are the United States of America.” Well, there’s no denying that. She praised capitalism and “all the small businesses that were started because we have the opportunity and the freedom in our country for people to do that and to make a good living for themselves and their families.” She didn’t seem to know that Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians do that, too, and with much higher rates of success.

The truth is that almost a quarter of American startups are not founded on brilliant new ideas, but on the desperation of men or women who can’t get a decent job. The majority of all American enterprises are solo ventures having zero payrolls, employing no one but the entrepreneur, and often quickly wasting away. Sanders said that he was all for small business, too, but that meant nothing “if all of the new income and wealth is going to the top 1 percent.” (As George Carlin said, “The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.”)

In that debate, no more was heard of Denmark, Sweden, or Norway. The audience was left in the dark. Later, in a speech at Georgetown University, Sanders tried to clarify his identity as a Democratic socialist. He said he’s not the kind of Socialist (with a capital S) who favors state ownership of anything like the means of production. The Norwegian government, on the other hand, owns the means of producing lots of public assets and is the major stockholder in many a vital private enterprise.

I was dumbfounded. Norway, Denmark, and Sweden practice variations of a system that works much better than ours, yet even the Democratic presidential candidates, who say they love or want to learn from those countries, don’t seem to know how they actually work.

Why We’re Not Denmark

Proof that they do work is delivered every year in data-rich evaluations by the U.N. and other international bodies. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's annual report on international well-being, for example, measures 11 factors, ranging from material conditions like affordable housing and employment to quality of life matters like education, health, life expectancy, voter participation, and overall citizen satisfaction. Year after year, all the Nordic countries cluster at the top, while the United States lags far behind. In addition, Norway ranked first on the U.N. Development Program’s Human Development Index for 12 of the last 15 years, and it consistently tops international comparisons of such matters as democracy, civil and political rights, and freedom of expression and the press.

What is it, though, that makes the Scandinavians so different?  Since the Democrats can’t tell you and the Republicans wouldn’t want you to know, let me offer you a quick introduction. What Scandinavians call the Nordic Model is a smart and simple system that starts with a deep commitment to equality and democracy. That’s two concepts combined in a single goal because, as far as they are concerned, you can’t have one without the other.

Right there they part company with capitalist America, now the most unequal of all the developed nations, and consequently a democracy no more. Political scientists say it has become an oligarchy — a country run at the expense of its citizenry by and for the super rich. Perhaps you noticed that.

Doctors

The path to social democracy has not been simple in Nordic countries, but the results are worthwhile.

In the last century, Scandinavians, aiming for their egalitarian goal, refused to settle solely for any of the ideologies competing for power — not capitalism or fascism, not Marxist socialism or communism. Geographically stuck between powerful nations waging hot and cold wars for such doctrines, Scandinavians set out to find a path in between. That path was contested — by socialist-inspired workers on the one hand and capitalist owners and their elite cronies on the other — but it led in the end to a mixed economy. Thanks largely to the solidarity and savvy of organized labor and the political parties it backed, the long struggle produced a system that makes capitalism more or less cooperative, and then redistributes equitably the wealth it helps to produce. Struggles like this took place around the world in the twentieth century, but the Scandinavians alone managed to combine the best ideas of both camps, while chucking out the worst.

In 1936, the popular U.S. journalist Marquis Childs first described the result to Americans in the book Sweden: The Middle Way. Since then, all the Scandinavian countries and their Nordic neighbors Finland and Iceland have been improving upon that hybrid system. Today in Norway, negotiations between the Confederation of Trade Unions and the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise determine the wages and working conditions of most capitalist enterprises, public and private, that create wealth, while high but fair progressive income taxes fund the state’s universal welfare system, benefitting everyone. In addition, those confederations work together to minimize the disparity between high-wage and lower-wage jobs. As a result, Norway ranks with Sweden, Denmark, and Finland among the most income-equal countries in the world, and its standard of living tops the charts.

So here’s the big difference: in Norway, capitalism serves the people. The government, elected by the people, sees to that. All eight of the parties that won parliamentary seats in the last national election, including the conservative Høyre party now leading the government, are committed to maintaining the welfare state. In the U.S., however, neoliberal politics put the foxes in charge of the henhouse, and capitalists have used the wealth generated by their enterprises (as well as financial and political manipulations) to capture the state and pluck the chickens. They’ve done a masterful job of chewing up organized labor. Today, only 11% of American workers belong to a union. In Norway, that number is 52%; in Denmark, 67%; in Sweden, 70%.

In the U.S., oligarchs maximize their wealth and keep it, using the “democratically elected” government to shape policies and laws favorable to the interests of their foxy class. They bamboozle the people by insisting, as Hillary Clinton did at that debate, that all of us have the “freedom” to create a business in the “free” marketplace, which implies that being hard up is our own fault.

In the Nordic countries, on the other hand, democratically elected governments give their populations freedom from the market by using capitalism as a tool to benefit everyone. That liberates their people from the tyranny of the mighty profit motive that warps so many American lives, leaving them freer to follow their own dreams — to become poets or philosophers, bartenders or business owners, as they please.

Family Matters

Maybe our politicians don’t want to talk about the Nordic Model because it shows so clearly that capitalism can be put to work for the many, not just the few.

Consider the Norwegian welfare state. It’s universal. In other words, aid to the sick or the elderly is not charity, grudgingly donated by elites to those in need. It is the right of every individual citizen. That includes every woman, whether or not she is somebody’s wife, and every child, no matter its parentage. Treating every person as a citizen affirms the individuality of each and the equality of all. It frees every person from being legally possessed by another — a husband, for example, or a tyrannical father. 

Which brings us to the heart of Scandinavian democracy: the equality of women and men. In the 1970s, Norwegian feminists marched into politics and picked up the pace of democratic change. Norway needed a larger labor force, and women were the answer. Housewives moved into paid work on an equal footing with men, nearly doubling the tax base. That has, in fact, meant more to Norwegian prosperity than the coincidental discovery of North Atlantic oil reserves. The Ministry of Finance recently calculated that those additional working mothers add to Norway’s net national wealth a value equivalent to the country’s “total petroleum wealth” — currently held in the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, worth more than $873 billion. By 1981, women were sitting in parliament, in the prime minister’s chair, and in her cabinet.

American feminists also marched for such goals in the 1970s, but the Big Boys, busy with their own White House intrigues, initiated a war on women that set the country back and still rages today in brutal attacks on women’s basic civil rights, health care, and reproductive freedom. In 1971, thanks to the hard work of organized feminists, Congress passed the bipartisan Comprehensive Child Development Bill to establish a multi-billion dollar national day care system for the children of working parents. In 1972, President Richard Nixon vetoed it, and that was that. In 1972, Congress also passed a bill (first proposed in 1923) to amend the Constitution to grant equal rights of citizenship to women.  Ratified by only 35 states, three short of the required 38, that Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, was declared dead in 1982, leaving American women in legal limbo.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, obliterating six decades of federal social welfare policy “as we know it,” ending federal cash payments to the nation’s poor, and consigning millions of female heads of household and their children to poverty, where many still dwell 20 years later. Today, nearly half a century after Nixon trashed national child care, even privileged women, torn between their underpaid work and their kids, are overwhelmed.

Working

In a social democracy like Norway, many caretaking tasks are adopted by the government, freeing citizens to pursue other goals.

Things happened very differently in Norway.  There, feminists and sociologists pushed hard against the biggest obstacle still standing in the path to full democracy: the nuclear family. In the 1950s, the world-famous American sociologist Talcott Parsons had pronounced that arrangement — with hubby at work and the little wife at home — the ideal setup in which to socialize children. But in the 1970s, the Norwegian state began to deconstruct that undemocratic ideal by taking upon itself the traditional unpaid household duties of women.  Caring for the children, the elderly, the sick, and the disabled became the basic responsibilities of the universal welfare state, freeing women in the workforce to enjoy both their jobs and their families. That’s another thing American politicians — still, boringly, mostly odiously boastful men — surely don’t want you to think about: that patriarchy can be demolished and everyone be the better for it.

Paradoxically, setting women free made family life more genuine. Many in Norway say it has made both men and women more themselves and more alike: more understanding and happier. It also helped kids slip from the shadow of helicopter parents. In Norway, mother and father in turn take paid parental leave from work to see a newborn through its first year or more. At age one, however, children start attending a neighborhood barnehage (kindergarten) for schooling spent largely outdoors. By the time kids enter free primary school at age six, they are remarkably self-sufficient, confident, and good-natured. They know their way around town, and if caught in a snowstorm in the forest, how to build a fire and find the makings of a meal.  (One kindergarten teacher explained, “We teach them early to use an axe so they understand it’s a tool, not a weapon.”)

To Americans, the notion of a school “taking away” your child to make her an axe wielder is monstrous.  In fact, Norwegian kids, who are well acquainted in early childhood with many different adults and children, know how to get along with grown ups and look after one another.  More to the point, though it’s hard to measure, it’s likely that Scandinavian children spend more quality time with their work-isn’t-everything parents than does a typical middle-class American child being driven by a stressed-out mother from music lessons to karate practice.  For all these reasons and more, the international organization Save the Children cites Norway as the best country on Earth in which to raise kids, while the U.S. finishes far down the list in 33rd place.

Don’t Take My Word For It

This little summary just scratches the surface of Scandinavia, so I urge curious readers to Google away.  But be forewarned. You’ll find much criticism of all the Nordic Model countries. The structural matters I’ve described — of governance and family — are not the sort of things visible to tourists or visiting journalists, so their comments are often obtuse. Take the American tourist/blogger who complained that he hadn’t been shown the “slums” of Oslo. (There are none.) Or the British journalist who wrote that Norwegian petrol is too expensive. (Though not for Norwegians, who are, in any case, leading the world in switching to electric cars.)

Neoliberal pundits, especially the Brits, are always beating up on the Scandinavians in books, magazines, newspapers, and blogs, predicting the imminent demise of their social democracies and bullying them to forsake the best political economy on the planet. Self-styled experts still in thrall to Margaret Thatcher tell Norwegians they must liberalize their economy and privatize everything short of the royal palace. Mostly, the Norwegian government does the opposite, or nothing at all, and social democracy keeps on ticking.

It’s not perfect, of course. It has always been a carefully considered work in progress. Governance by consensus takes time and effort.  You might think of it as slow democracy.  But it’s light years ahead of us.


Ann Jones, a TomDispatch regular, went to Norway in 2011 as a Fulbright Fellow. She stayed on because it feels good to live in a social democracy where politics matter, gender doesn’t, and peacemaking is the nation’s project.  She is the author most recently of They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars – the Untold Story, a Dispatch Books original.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright Ann Jones 2016

Top photo by Fotolia/Lsantilli

Middle photo by Fotolia/Kadmy

Bottom photo by Fotolia/shock



12/3/2015

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

The U.S. is transfixed by its multibillion-dollar electoral circus. The European Union is paralyzed by austerity, fear of refugees, and now all-out jihad in the streets of Paris. So the West might be excused if it’s barely caught the echoes of a Chinese version of Roy Orbison’s “All I Have to Do Is Dream.” And that new Chinese dream even comes with a road map.

The crooner is President Xi Jinping and that road map is the ambitious, recently unveiled 13th Five-Year-Plan, or in the pop-video version, the Shisanwu. After years of explosive economic expansion, it sanctifies the country’s lower “new normal” gross domestic product growth rate of 6.5% a year through at least 2020.

It also sanctifies an updated economic formula for the country: out with a model based on low-wage manufacturing of export goods and in with the shock of the new, namely, a Chinese version of the third industrial revolution. And while China’s leadership is focused on creating a middle-class future powered by a consumer economy, its president is telling whoever is willing to listen that, despite the fears of the Obama administration and of some of the country’s neighbors, there’s no reason for war ever to be on the agenda for the U.S. and China.

Given the alarm in Washington about what is touted as a Beijing quietly pursuing expansionism in the South China Sea, Xi has been remarkably blunt on the subject of late. Neither Beijing nor Washington, he insists, should be caught in the Thucydides trap, the belief that a rising power and the ruling imperial power of the planet are condemned to go to war with each other sooner or later.

It was only two months ago in Seattle that Xi told a group of digital economy heavyweights, “There is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides trap in the world. But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves.”

A case can be made — and Xi’s ready to make it — that Washington, which, from Afghanistan to Iraq, Libya to Syria, has gained something of a reputation for “strategic miscalculation” in the twenty-first century, might be doing it again.  After all, U.S. military strategy documents and top Pentagon figures have quite publicly started to label China (like Russia) as an official “threat.”

To grasp why Washington is starting to think of China that way, however, you need to take your eyes off the South China Sea for a moment, turn off Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and the rest of the posse, and consider the real game-changer — or “threat” — that’s rattling Beltway nerves in Washington when it comes to the new Great Game in Eurasia.

Xi’s Bedside Reading

Swarms of Chinese tourists iPhoning away and buying everything in sight in major Western capitals already prefigure a Eurasian future closely tied to and anchored by a Chinese economy turbo-charging toward that third industrial revolution. If all goes according to plan, it will harness everything from total connectivity and efficient high-tech infrastructure to the expansion of green, clean energy hubs. Solar plants in the Gobi desert, anyone?

Yes, Xi is a reader of economic and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin, who first conceived of a possible third industrial revolution powered by both the Internet and renewable energy sources.

Solar plant

The possibility of a high-tech third industrial revolution drives China's push for greater infrastructure in the near future.

It turns out that the Chinese leadership has no problem with the idea of harnessing cutting-edge Western soft power for its own purposes. In fact, they seem convinced that no possible tool should be overlooked when it comes to moving the country on to the next stage in the process that China’s Little Helmsman, former leader Deng Xiaoping, decades ago designated as the era in which “to get rich is glorious."

It helps when you have $4 trillion in foreign currency reserves and massive surpluses of steel and cement.  That’s the sort of thing that allows you to go “nation-building” on a pan-Eurasian scale. Hence, Xi’s idea of creating the kind of infrastructure that could, in the end, connect China to Central Asia, the Middle East, and Western Europe.  It’s what the Chinese call “One Belt, One Road”; that is, the junction of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Twenty-First Century Maritime Silk Road.

Since Xi announced his One Belt, One Road policy in Kazakhstan in 2013, PricewaterhouseCoopers in Hong Kong estimates that the state has ploughed more than $250 billion into Silk Road-oriented projects ranging from railways to power plants. Meanwhile, every significant Chinese business player is on board, from telecom equipment giant Huawei to e-commerce monster Alibaba (fresh from its Singles Day online blockbuster). The Bank of China has already provided a $50 billion credit line for myriad Silk Road-related projects. China’s top cement-maker Anhui Conch is building at least six monster cement plants in Indonesia, Vietnam, and Laos. Work aimed at tying the Asian part of Eurasia together is proceeding at a striking pace.  For instance, the China-Laos, China-Thailand, and Jakarta-Bandung railways — contracts worth over $20 billion — are to be completed by Chinese companies before 2020.

With business booming, right now the third industrial revolution in China looks ever more like a mad scramble toward a new form of modernity.

A Eurasian “War on Terror”

The One Belt, One Road plan for Eurasia reaches far beyond the Rudyard Kipling-coined nineteenth century phrase “the Great Game,” which in its day was meant to describe the British-Russian tournament of shadows for the control of Central Asia. At the heart of the twenty-first century’s Great Game lies China’s currency, the yuan, which may, by November 30th, join the International Monetary Fund’s Special Drawing Rights reserve-currency basket. If so, this will in practice mean the total integration of the yuan, and so of Beijing, into global financial markets, as an extra basket of countries will add it to their foreign exchange holdings and subsequent currency shifts may amount to the equivalent of trillions of U.S. dollars.

Couple the One Belt, One Road project with the recently founded, China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Beijing’s Silk Road Infrastructure Fund ($40 billion committed to it so far).  Mix in an internationalized yuan and you have the groundwork for Chinese companies to turbo-charge their way into a pan-Eurasian (and even African) building spree of roads, high-speed rail lines, fiber-optic networks, ports, pipelines, and power grids.

According to the Washington-dominated Asian Development Bank (ADB), there is, at present, a monstrous gap of $800 billion in the funding of Asian infrastructure development to 2020 and it’s yearning to be filled. Beijing is now stepping right into what promises to be a paradigm-breaking binge of economic development.

And don’t forget about the bonuses that could conceivably follow such developments. After all, in China’s stunningly ambitious plans at least, its Eurasian project will end up covering no less than 65 countries on three continents, potentially affecting 4.4 billion people.  If it succeeds even in part, it could take the gloss off al-Qaeda- and ISIS-style Wahhabi-influenced jihadism not only in China’s Xinjiang Province, but also in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. Imagine it as a new kind of Eurasian war on terror whose “weapons” would be trade and development. After all, Beijing’s planners expect the country’s annual trade volume with belt-and-road partners to surpass $2.5 trillion by 2025.

Oil barrels

As China decreases its reliance on ocean shipping lanes for oil and natural gas, the U.S. has less influence on energy sources within the country.

At the same time, another kind of binding geography — what I’ve long called Pipelineistan, the vast network of energy pipelines crisscrossing the region, bringing its oil and natural gas supplies to China — is coming into being.  It’s already spreading across Pakistan and Myanmar, and China is planning to double down on this attempt to reinforce its escape-from-the-Straits-of-Malacca strategy. (That bottleneck is still a transit point for 75% of Chinese oil imports.) Beijing prefers a world in which most of those energy imports are not water-borne and so at the mercy of the U.S. Navy. More than 50% of China’s natural gas already comes overland from two Central Asian "stans" (Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) and that percentage will only increase once pipelines to bring Siberian natural gas to China come online before the end of the decade.

Of course, the concept behind all this, which might be sloganized as “to go west (and south) is glorious” could induce a tectonic shift in Eurasian relations at every level, but that depends on how it comes to be viewed by the nations involved and by Washington.

Leaving economics aside for a moment, the success of the whole enterprise will require superhuman PR skills from Beijing, something not always in evidence. And there are many other problems to face (or duck): these include Beijing’s Han superiority complex, not always exactly a hit among either minority ethnic groups or neighboring states, as well as an economic push that is often seen by China’s ethnic minorities as benefiting only the Han Chinese. Mix in a rising tide of nationalist feeling, the expansion of the Chinese military (including its navy), conflict in its southern seas, and a growing security obsession in Beijing. Add to that a foreign policy minefield, which will work against maintaining a carefully calibrated respect for the sovereignty of neighbors. Throw in the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia and its urge both to form anti-Chinese alliances of “containment” and to beef up its own naval and air power in waters close to China.  And finally don’t forget red tape and bureaucracy, a Central Asian staple. All of this adds up to a formidable package of obstacles to Xi’s Chinese dream and a new Eurasia.

All Aboard the Night Train

The Silk Road revival started out as a modest idea floated in China’s Ministry of Commerce. The initial goal was nothing more than getting extra “contracts for Chinese construction companies overseas.” How far the country has traveled since then.  Starting from zero in 2003, China has ended up building no less than 16,000 kilometers of high-speed rail tracks in these years — more than the rest of the planet combined.

And that’s just the beginning. Beijing is now negotiating with 30 countries to build another 5,000 kilometers of high-speed rail at a total investment of $157 billion. Cost is, of course, king; a made-in-China high-speed network (top speed: 350 kilometers an hour) costs around $17 million to $21 million per kilometer. Comparable European costs: $25 million to $39 million per kilometer. So no wonder the Chinese are bidding for an $18 billion project linking London with northern England, and another linking Los Angeles to Las Vegas, while outbidding German companies to lay tracks in Russia.

On another front, even though it’s not directly part of China’s new Silk Road planning, don’t forget about the Iran-India-Afghanistan Agreement on Transit and International Transportation Cooperation. This India-Iran project to develop roads, railways, and ports is particularly focused on the Iranian port of Chabahar, which is to be linked by new roads and railways to the Afghan capital Kabul and then to parts of Central Asia.

Why Chabahar? Because this is India’s preferred transit corridor to Central Asia and Russia, as the Khyber Pass in the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands, the country’s traditional linking point for this, remains too volatile. Built by Iran, the transit corridor from Chabahar to Milak on the Iran-Afghanistan border is now ready. By rail, Chabahar will then be connected to the Uzbek border at Termez, which translates into Indian products reaching Central Asia and Russia.

Think of this as the Southern Silk Road, linking South Asia with Central Asia, and in the end, if all goes according to plan, West Asia with China. It is part of a wildly ambitious plan for a North-South Transport Corridor, an India-Iran-Russia joint project launched in 2002 and focused on the development of inter-Asian trade. 

Of course, you won’t be surprised to know that, even here, China is deeply involved. Chinese companies have already built a high-speed rail line from the Iranian capital Tehran to Mashhad, near the Afghan border. China also financed a metro rail line from Imam Khomeini Airport to downtown Tehran. And it wants to use Chabahar as part of the so-called Iron Silk Road that is someday slated to cross Iran and extend all the way to Turkey. To top it off, China is already investing in the upgrading of Turkish ports.

Who Lost Eurasia?

For Chinese leaders, the One Belt, One Road plan — an “economic partnership map with multiple rings interconnected with one another” — is seen as an escape route from the Washington Consensus and the dollar-centered global financial system that goes with it. And while “guns” are being drawn, the “battlefield” of the future, as the Chinese see it, is essentially a global economic one.

On one side are the mega-economic pacts being touted by Washington — the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership — that would split Eurasia in two. On the other, there is the urge for a new pan-Eurasian integration program that would be focused on China, and feature Russia, Kazakhstan, Iran, and India as major players. Last May, Russia and China closed a deal to coordinate the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) with new Silk Road projects. As part of their developing strategic partnership, Russia is already China’s number one oil supplier.

With Ukraine’s fate still in the balance, there is, at present, little room for the sort of serious business dialogue between the European Union (EU) and the EEU that might someday fuse Europe and Russia into the Chinese vision of full-scale, continent-wide Eurasian integration. And yet German business types, in particular, remain focused on and fascinated by the limitless possibilities of the New Silk Road concept and the way it might profitably link the continent.

Bullet train

Light rail contracts for Chinese contractors are linking vast portions of Eurasia.

If you’re looking for a future first sign of détente on this score, keep an eye on any EU moves to engage economically with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.  Its membership at present: China, Russia, and four "stans" (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan). India and Pakistan are to become members in 2016, and Iran once U.N. sanctions are completely lifted. A monster second step (no time soon) would be for this dialogue to become the springboard for the building of a trans-European “one-belt” zone.  That could only happen after there was a genuine settlement in Ukraine and EU sanctions on Russia had been lifted. Think of it as the long and winding road towards what Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to sell the Germans in 2010: a Eurasian free-trade zone extending from Vladivostok to Lisbon.

Any such moves will, of course, only happen over Washington’s dead body.  At the moment, inside the Beltway, sentiment ranges from gloating over the economic “death” of the BRICS nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), most of which are facing daunting economic dislocations even as their political, diplomatic, and strategic integration proceeds apace, to fear or even downright anticipation of World War III and the Russian “threat.”

No one in Washington wants to “lose” Eurasia to China and its new Silk Roads. On what former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski calls “the grand chessboard,” Beltway elites and the punditocracy that follows them will never resign themselves to seeing the U.S. relegated to the role of “offshore balancer,” while China dominates an integrating Eurasia.  Hence, those two trade pacts and that “pivot,” the heightened U.S. naval presence in Asian waters, the new urge to “contain” China, and the demonization of both Putin’s Russia and the Chinese military threat.

Thucydides, Eat Your Heart Out

Which brings us full circle to Xi’s crush on Jeremy Rifkin. Make no mistake about it: whatever Washington may want, China is indeed the rising power in Eurasia and a larger-than-life economic magnet. From London to Berlin, there are signs in the EU that, despite so many decades of trans-Atlantic allegiance, there is also something too attractive to ignore about what China has to offer. There is already a push towards the configuration of a European-wide digital economy closely linked with China. The aim would be a Rifkin-esque digitally integrated economic space spanning Eurasia, which in turn would be an essential building block for that post-carbon third industrial revolution.

The G-20 this year was in Antalya, Turkey, and it was a fractious affair dominated by Islamic State jihadism in the streets of Paris. The G-20 in 2016 will be in Hangzhou, China, which also happens to be the hometown of Jack Ma and the headquarters for Alibaba. You can’t get more third industrial revolution than that. 

One year is an eternity in geopolitics. But what if, in 2016, Hangzhou did indeed offer a vision of the future, of silk roads galore and night trains from Central Asia to Duisburg, Germany, a future arguably dominated by Xi’s vision.  He is, at least, keen on enshrining the G-20 as a multipolar global mechanism for coordinating a common development framework. Within it, Washington and Beijing might sometimes actually work together in a world in which chess, not Battleship, would be the game of the century.

Thucydides, eat your heart out.

Pepe Escobar is an independent political analyst who writes for RT and Sputnik, and is a TomDispatch regular. His latest book is Empire of Chaos. His next book, 2030, is out this month. Follow him on Facebook.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Pepe Escobar

Top photo by Fotolia/idrive

Middle photo by Fotolia/John Borda

Bottom photo by Fotolia/photoclicks



10/28/2015

Afghan soldiers

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

First came Fallujah, then Mosul, and later Ramadi in Iraq. Now, there is Kunduz, a provincial capital in northern Afghanistan. In all four places, the same story has played out: in cities that newspaper reporters like to call “strategically important,” security forces trained and equipped by the U.S. military at great expense simply folded, abandoning their posts (and much of their U.S.-supplied weaponry) without even mounting serious resistance. Called upon to fight, they fled. In each case, the defending forces gave way before substantially outnumbered attackers, making the outcomes all the more ignominious.

Together, these setbacks have rendered a verdict on the now more-or-less nameless Global War on Terrorism (GWOT). Successive blitzkriegs by ISIS and the Taliban respectively did more than simply breach Iraqi and Afghan defenses. They also punched gaping holes in the strategy to which the United States had reverted in hopes of stemming the further erosion of its position in the Greater Middle East.

Recall that, when the United States launched its GWOT soon after 9/11, it did so pursuant to a grandiose agenda. U.S. forces were going to imprint onto others a specific and exalted set of values. During President George W. Bush’s first term, this “freedom agenda” formed the foundation, or at least the rationale, for U.S. policy.

The shooting would stop, Bush vowed, only when countries like Afghanistan had ceased to harbor anti-American terrorists and countries like Iraq had ceased to encourage them. Achieving this goal meant that the inhabitants of those countries would have to change. Afghans and Iraqis, followed in due course by Syrians, Libyans, Iranians, and sundry others would embrace democracy, respect human rights, and abide by the rule of law, or else. Through the concerted application of American power, they would become different — more like us and therefore more inclined to get along with us. A bit less Mecca and Medina, a bit more “we hold these truths” and “of the people, by the people.”

So Bush and others in his inner circle professed to believe. At least some of them, probably including Bush himself, may actually have done so.

History, at least the bits and pieces to which Americans attend, seemed to endow such expectations with a modicum of plausibility. Had not such a transfer of values occurred after World War II when the defeated Axis Powers had hastily thrown in with the winning side? Had it not recurred as the Cold War was winding down, when previously committed communists succumbed to the allure of consumer goods and quarterly profit statements?

If the appropriate mix of coaching and coercion were administered, Afghans and Iraqis, too, would surely take the path once followed by good Germans and nimble Japanese, and subsequently by Czechs tired of repression and Chinese tired of want. Once liberated, grateful Afghans and Iraqis would align themselves with a conception of modernity that the United States had pioneered and now exemplified. For this transformation to occur, however, the accumulated debris of retrograde social conventions and political arrangements that had long retarded progress would have to be cleared away. This was what the invasions of Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom!) and Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom!) were meant to accomplish in one fell swoop by a military the likes of which had (to hear Washington tell it) never been seen in history. POW!

Standing Them Up As We Stand Down

Concealed within that oft-cited “freedom” — the all-purpose justification for deploying American power — were several shades of meaning. The term, in fact, requires decoding. Yet within the upper reaches of the American national security apparatus, one definition takes precedence over all others. In Washington, freedom has become a euphemism for dominion. Spreading freedom means positioning the United States to call the shots. Seen in this context, Washington’s expected victories in both Afghanistan and Iraq were meant to affirm and broaden its preeminence by incorporating large parts of the Islamic world into the American imperium. They would benefit, of course, but to an even greater extent, so would we.

Alas, liberating Afghans and Iraqis turned out to be a tad more complicated than the architects of Bush’s freedom (or dominion) agenda anticipated. Well before Barack Obama succeeded Bush in January 2009, few observers — apart from a handful of ideologues and militarists — clung to the fairy tale of U.S. military might whipping the Greater Middle East into shape. Brutally but efficiently, war had educated the educable. As for the uneducable, they persisted in taking their cues from Fox News and the Weekly Standard.

Soldiers

Yet if the strategy of transformation via invasion and “nation building” had failed, there was a fallback position that seemed to be dictated by the logic of events. Together, Bush and Obama would lower expectations as to what the United States was going to achieve, even as they imposed new demands on the U.S. military, America’s go-to outfit in foreign policy, to get on with the job.

Rather than midwifing fundamental political and cultural change, the Pentagon was instead ordered to ramp up its already gargantuan efforts to create local militaries (and police forces) capable of maintaining order and national unity. President Bush provided a concise formulation of the new strategy: “As the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.” Under Obama, after his own stab at a “surge,” the dictum applied to Afghanistan as well. Nation-building had flopped. Building armies and police forces able to keep a lid on things now became the prevailing definition of success.

The United States had, of course, attempted this approach once before, with unhappy results. This was in Vietnam. There, efforts to destroy North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces intent on unifying their divided country had exhausted both the U.S. military and the patience of the American people. Responding to the logic of events, Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon had a tacitly agreed upon fallback position. As the prospects of American forces successfully eliminating threats to South Vietnamese security faded, the training and equipping of the South Vietnamese to defend themselves became priority number one.

Dubbed “Vietnamization,” this enterprise ended in abject failure with the fall of Saigon in 1975. Yet that failure raised important questions to which members of the national security elite might have attended: Given a weak state with dubious legitimacy, how feasible is it to expect outsiders to invest indigenous forces with genuine fighting power? How do differences in culture or history or religion affect the prospects for doing so? Can skill ever make up for a deficit of will? Can hardware replace cohesion? Above all, if tasked with giving some version of Vietnamization another go, what did U.S. forces need to do differently to ensure a different result?

At the time, with general officers and civilian officials more inclined to forget Vietnam than contemplate its implications, these questions attracted little attention. Instead, military professionals devoted themselves to gearing up for the next fight, which they resolved would be different. No more Vietnams — and therefore no more Vietnamization.

After the Gulf War of 1991, basking in the ostensible success of Operation Desert Storm, the officer corps persuaded itself that it had once and for all banished its Vietnam-induced bad memories. As Commander-in-Chief George H.W. Bush so memorably put it, “By God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.”

In short, the Pentagon now had war figured out. Victory had become a foregone conclusion. As it happened, this self-congratulatory evaluation left U.S. troops ill-prepared for the difficulties awaiting them after 9/11 when interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq departed from the expected script, which posited short wars by a force beyond compare ending in decisive victories. What the troops got were two very long wars with no decision whatsoever. It was Vietnam on a smaller scale all over again — times two.

Vietnamization 2.0

For Bush in Iraq and Obama after a brief, half-hearted flirtation with counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, opting for a variant of Vietnamization proved to be a no-brainer. Doing so offered the prospect of an escape from all complexities. True enough, Plan A — we export freedom and democracy — had fallen short. But Plan B — they (with our help) restore some semblance of stability — could enable Washington to salvage at least partial success in both places. With the bar suitably lowered, a version of “Mission Accomplished” might still be within reach.

If Plan A had looked to U.S. troops to vanquish their adversaries outright, Plan B focused on prepping besieged allies to take over the fight. Winning outright was no longer the aim — given the inability of U.S. forces to do so, this was self-evidently not in the cards — but holding the enemy at bay was.

Although allied with the United States, only in the loosest sense did either Iraq or Afghanistan qualify as a nation-state. Only nominally and intermittently did governments in Baghdad and Kabul exercise a writ of authority commanding respect from the people known as Iraqis and Afghans. Yet in the Washington of George Bush and Barack Obama, a willing suspension of disbelief became the basis for policy. In distant lands where the concept of nationhood barely existed, the Pentagon set out to create a full-fledged national security apparatus capable of defending that aspiration as if it represented reality. From day one, this was a faith-based undertaking.

As with any Pentagon project undertaken on a crash basis, this one consumed resources on a gargantuan scale — $25 billion in Iraq and an even more staggering $65 billion in Afghanistan. “Standing up” the requisite forces involved the transfer of vast quantities of equipment and the creation of elaborate U.S. training missions. Iraqi and Afghan forces acquired all the paraphernalia of modern war — attack aircraft or helicopters, artillery and armored vehicles, night vision devices and drones. Needless to say, stateside defense contractors lined up in droves to cash in.

Based on their performance, the security forces on which the Pentagon has lavished years of attention remain visibly not up to the job. Meanwhile, ISIS warriors, without the benefit of expensive third-party mentoring, appear plenty willing to fight and die for their cause. Ditto Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. The beneficiaries of U.S. assistance? Not so much. Based on partial but considerable returns, Vietnamization 2.0 seems to be following an eerily familiar trajectory that should remind anyone of Vietnamization 1.0. Meanwhile, the questions that ought to have been addressed back when our South Vietnamese ally went down to defeat have returned with a vengeance.

Conference

The most important of those questions challenges the assumption that has informed U.S. policy in the Greater Middle East since the freedom agenda went south: that Washington has a particular knack for organizing, training, equipping, and motivating foreign armies. Based on the evidence piling up before our eyes, that assumption appears largely false. On this score, retired Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, a former military commander and U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, has rendered an authoritative judgment. “Our track record at building [foreign] security forces over the past 15 years is miserable,” he recently told the New York Times. Just so.

Fighting the Wrong War

Some might argue that trying harder, investing more billions, sending yet more equipment for perhaps another 15 years will produce more favorable results. But this is akin to believing that, given sufficient time, the fruits of capitalism will ultimately trickle down to benefit the least among us or that the march of technology holds the key to maximizing human happiness. You can believe it if you want, but it’s a mug’s game.

Indeed, the United States would be better served if policymakers abandoned the pretense that the Pentagon possesses any gift whatsoever for “standing up” foreign military forces. Prudence might actually counsel that Washington assume instead, when it comes to organizing, training, equipping, and motivating foreign armies, that the United States is essentially clueless.

Exceptions may exist. For example, U.S. efforts have probably helped boost the fighting power of the Kurdish peshmerga. Yet such exceptions are rare enough to prove the rule. Keep in mind that before American trainers and equipment ever showed up, Iraq’s Kurds already possessed the essential attributes of nationhood. Unlike Afghans and Iraqis, Kurds do not require tutoring in the imperative of collective self-defense.

What are the policy implications of giving up the illusion that the Pentagon knows how to build foreign armies? The largest is this: subletting war no longer figures as a plausible alternative to waging it directly. So where U.S. interests require that fighting be done, like it or not, we’re going to have to do that fighting ourselves. By extension, in circumstances where U.S. forces are demonstrably incapable of winning or where Americans balk at any further expenditure of American blood — today in the Greater Middle East both of these conditions apply — then perhaps we shouldn’t be there. To pretend otherwise is to throw good money after bad or, as a famous American general once put it, to wage (even if indirectly) “the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy." This we have been doing now for several decades across much of the Islamic world.

In American politics, we await the officeholder or candidate willing to state the obvious and confront its implications.


Andrew J. Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is professor emeritus of history and international relations at Boston University. He is the author of Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country, among other works. His new book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East (Random House), is due out in April 2016.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Andrew Bacevich

Top photo by Fotolia/dougg

Middle photo by Fotolia/dougg

Bottom photo by Fotolia/aerogondo



6/3/2015

Sea ice

As sea ice in the Arctic vanishes, the Navy looks to begin naval training including live bombing runs and the use of active sonar in the middle of the most pristine, economically valuable and sustainable salmon fishery in the country.

Reprinted with permission by TomDispatch [This essay is a joint TomDispatch/Truthout report.]

I lived in Anchorage for 10 years and spent much of that time climbing in and on the spine of the state, the Alaska Range. Three times I stood atop the mountain the Athabaskans call Denali, "the great one." During that decade, I mountaineered for more than half a year on that magnificent state’s highest peaks. It was there that I took in my own insignificance while living amid rock and ice, sleeping atop glaciers that creaked and moaned as they slowly ground their way toward lower elevations.

Alaska contains the largest coastal mountain range in the world and the highest peak in North America. It has more coastline than the entire contiguous 48 states combined and is big enough to hold the state of Texas two and a half times over. It has the largest population of bald eagles in the country. It has 430 kinds of birds along with the brown bear, the largest carnivorous land mammal in the world, and other species ranging from the pygmy shrew that weighs less than a penny to gray whales that come in at 45 tons. Species that are classified as "endangered" in other places are often found in abundance in Alaska.

Now, a dozen years after I left my home state and landed in Baghdad to begin life as a journalist and nine years after definitively abandoning Alaska, I find myself back. I wish it was to climb another mountain, but this time, unfortunately, it’s because I seem increasingly incapable of escaping the long and destructive reach of the U.S. military.

That summer in 2003 when my life in Alaska ended was an unnerving one for me. It followed a winter and spring in which I found myself protesting the coming invasion of Iraq in the streets of Anchorage, then impotently watching the televised spectacle of the Bush administration’s "shock and awe" assault on that country as Baghdad burned and Iraqis were slaughtered. While on Denali that summer I listened to news of the beginnings of what would be an occupation from hell and, in my tent on a glacier at 17,000 feet, wondered what in the world I could do.

In this way, in a cloud of angst, I traveled to Iraq as an independent news team of one and found myself reporting on atrocities that were evident to anyone not embedded with the U.S. military, which was then laying waste to the country. My early reporting, some of it for TomDispatch, warned of body counts on a trajectory toward one million, rampant torture in the military’s detention facilities, and the toxic legacy it had left in the city of Fallujah thanks to the use of depleted uranium munitions and white phosphorous.

As I learned, the U.S. military is an industrial-scale killing machine and also the single largest consumer of fossil fuels on the planet, which makes it a major source of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. As it happens, distant lands like Iraq sitting atop vast reservoirs of oil and natural gas are by no means its only playing fields.

Take the place where I now live, the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. The U.S. Navy already has plans to conduct electromagnetic warfare training in an area close to where I moved to once again seek solace in the mountains: Olympic National Forest and nearby Olympic National Park. And this June, it's scheduling massive war games in the Gulf of Alaska, including live bombing runs that will mean the detonation of tens of thousands of pounds of toxic munitions, as well as the use of active sonar in the most pristine, economically valuable, and sustainable salmon fishery in the country (arguably in the world). And all of this is to happen right in the middle of fishing season.

This time, in other words, the bombs will be falling far closer to home. Whether it's war-torn Iraq or "peaceful" Alaska, Sunnis and Shi'ites or salmon and whales, to me the omnipresent “footprint” of the U.S. military feels inescapable.

The War Comes Home

In 2013, U.S. Navy researchers predicted ice-free summer Arctic waters by 2016 and it looks as if that prediction might come true. Recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that there was less ice in the Arctic this winter than in any other winter of the satellite era. Given that the Navy has been making plans for "ice-free" operations in the Arctic since at least 2001, their June "Northern Edge" exercises may well prove to be just the opening salvo in the future northern climate wars, with whales, seals, and salmon being the first in the line of fire.

In April 2001, a Navy symposium entitled "Naval Operations in an Ice-Free Arctic" was mounted to begin to prepare the service for a climate-change-induced future. Fast forward to June 2015. In what the military refers to as Alaska's "premier" joint training exercise, Alaskan Command aims to conduct “Northern Edge” over 8,429 nautical miles, which include critical habitat for all five wild Alaskan salmon species and 377 other species of marine life. The upcoming war games in the Gulf of Alaska will not be the first such exercises in the region — they have been conducted, on and off, for the last 30 years — but they will be the largest by far. In fact, a 360 percent rise in munitions use is expected, according to Emily Stolarcyk, the program manager for the Eyak Preservation Council (EPC).

The waters in the Gulf of Alaska are some of the most pristine in the world, rivaled only by those in the Antarctic, and among the purest and most nutrient-rich waters anywhere. Northern Edge will take place in an Alaskan “marine protected area,” as well as in a NOAA-designated “fisheries protected area.” These war games will also coincide with the key breeding and migratory periods of the marine life in the region as they make their way toward Prince William Sound, as well as further north into the Arctic.

Species affected will include blue, fin, gray, humpback, minke, sei, sperm, and killer whales, the highly endangered North Pacific right whale (of which there are only approximately 30 left), as well as dolphins and sea lions. No fewer than a dozen native tribes including the Eskimo, Eyak, Athabascan, Tlingit, Sun'aq, and Aleut rely on the area for subsistence living, not to speak of their cultural and spiritual identities.

The Navy is already permitted to use live ordnance including bombs, missiles, and torpedoes, along with active and passive sonar in "realistic" war gaming that is expected to involve the release of as much as 352,000 pounds of "expended materials" every year. (The Navy’s EIS lists numerous things as “expended materials,” including missiles, bombs, torpedoes.) At present, the Navy is well into the process of securing the necessary permits for the next five years and has even mentioned making plans for the next 20. Large numbers of warships and submarines are slated to move into the area and the potential pollution from this has worried Alaskans who live nearby.

"We are concerned about expended materials in addition to the bombs, jet noise, and sonar," the Eyak Preservation Council's Emily Stolarcyk tells me as we sit in her office in Cordova, Alaska. EPC is an environmental and social-justice-oriented nonprofit whose primary mission is to protect wild salmon habitat. "Chromium, lead, tungsten, nickel, cadmium, cyanide, ammonium perchlorate, the Navy's own environmental impact statement says there is a high risk of chemical exposure to fish."

Kodiak Harbor

Alaska's fisheries are the mainstays of many coastal town economies. The Navy's Northern Edge training plan risks decimating local fish populations, and contaminating those that remain with cyanide and other toxic chemicals.

Tiny Cordova, population 2,300, is home to the largest commercial fishing fleet in the state and consistently ranks among the top 10 busiest U.S. fishing ports. Since September, when Stolarcyk first became aware of the Navy's plans, she has been working tirelessly, calling local, state and federal officials and alerting virtually every fisherman she runs into about what she calls “the storm” looming on the horizon. "The propellants from the Navy's missiles and some of their other weapons will release benzene, toluene, xylene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and naphthalene into the waters of twenty percent of the training area, according to their own EIS [environmental impact statement]," she explains as we look down on Cordova’s harbor with salmon fishing season rapidly approaching. As it happens, most of the chemicals she mentioned were part of BP’s disastrous 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which I covered for years, so as I listened to her I had an eerie sense of futuristic déjà vu.

Here’s just one example of the kinds of damage that will occur: the cyanide discharge from a Navy torpedo is in the range of 140-150 parts per billion. The Environmental Protection Agency’s "allowable" limit on cyanide: one part per billion.

The Navy's EIS estimates that, in the five-year period in which these war games are to be conducted, there will be more than 182,000 "takes" — direct deaths of a marine mammal, or the disruption of essential behaviors like breeding, nursing, or surfacing. On the deaths of fish, it offers no estimates at all. Nevertheless, the Navy will be permitted to use at least 352,000 pounds of expended materials in these games annually. The potential negative effects could be far-reaching, given species migration and the global current system in northern waters.

In the meantime, the Navy is giving Stolarcyk’s efforts the cold shoulder, showing what she calls “total disregard toward the people making their living from these waters." She adds, “They say this is for national security. They are theoretically defending us, but if they destroy our food source and how we make our living, while polluting our air and water, what's left to defend?"

Stolarcyk has been labeled an "activist" and "environmentalist," perhaps because the main organizations she’s managed to sign on to her efforts are indeed environmental groups like the Alaska Marine Conservation Council and the Alaskans First Coalition.

"Why does wanting to protect wild salmon habitat make me an activist?" she asks. "How has that caused me to be branded as an environmentalist?" Given that the Alaska commercial fishing industry could be decimated if its iconic “wild-caught” salmon turn up with traces of cyanide or any of the myriad chemicals the Navy will be using, Stolarcyk could as easily be seen as fighting for the well-being, if not the survival, of the fishing industry in her state.

War Gaming the Community

The clock is ticking in Cordova and others in Stolarcyk’s community are beginning to share her concerns. A few like Alexis Cooper, the executive director of Cordova District Fishermen United (CDFU), a non-profit organization that represents the commercial fishermen in the area, have begun to speak out. "We're already seeing reduced numbers of halibut without the Navy having expanded their operations in the GOA [Gulf of Alaska]," she says, "and we’re already seeing other decreases in harvestable species."

CDFU represents more than 800 commercial salmon fishermen, an industry that accounts for an estimated 90 percent of Cordova’s economy. Without salmon, like many other towns along coastal southeastern Alaska, it would effectively cease to exist.

Teal Webber, a lifelong commercial fisherwoman and member of the Native Village of Eyak, gets visibly upset when the Navy's plans come up. "You wouldn't bomb a bunch of farmland," she says, "and the salmon run comes right through this area, so why are they doing this now?" She adds, "When all of the fishing community in Cordova gets the news about how much impact the Navy's war games could have, you'll see them oppose it en masse."

While I’m in town, Stolarcyk offers a public presentation of the case against Northern Edge in the elementary school auditorium. As she shows a slide from the Navy's environmental impact statement indicating that the areas affected will take decades to recover, several fishermen quietly shake their heads.

One of them, James Weiss, who also works for Alaska's Fish and Game Department, pulls me aside and quietly says, "My son is growing up here, eating everything that comes out of the sea. I know fish travel through that area they plan to bomb and pollute, so of course I'm concerned. This is too important of a fishing area to put at risk."

In the question-and-answer session that follows, Jim Kasch, the town’s mayor, assures Stolarcyk that he'll ask the city council to become involved. "What's disturbing is that there is no thought about the fish and marine life," he tells me later. "It's a sensitive area and we live off the ocean. This is just scary." A Marine veteran, Kasch acknowledges the Navy's need to train, then pauses and adds, "But dropping live ordnance in a sensitive fishery just isn't a good idea. The entire coast of Alaska lives and breathes from our resources from the ocean."

That evening, with the sun still high in the spring sky, I walk along the boat docks in the harbor and can’t help but wonder whether this small, scruffy town has a hope in hell of stopping or altering Northern Edge. There have been examples of such unlikely victories in the past. A dozen years ago, the Navy was, for example, finally forced to stop using the Puerto Rican island of Vieques as its own private bombing and test range, but only after having done so since the 1940s. In the wake of those six decades of target practice, the island’s population has the highest cancer and asthma rates in the Caribbean, a phenomenon locals attribute to the Navy's activities.

Similarly, earlier this year a federal court ruled that Navy war games off the coast of California violated the law. It deemed an estimated 9.6 million "harms" to whales and dolphins via high-intensity sonar and underwater detonations improperly assessed as "negligible" in that service’s EIS.

As a result of Stolarcyk's work, on May 6th Cordova’s city council passed a resolution formally opposing the upcoming war games. Unfortunately, the largest seafood processor in Cordova (and Alaska), Trident Seafoods, has yet to offer a comment on Northern Edge. Its representatives wouldn’t even return my phone call on the subject. Nor, for instance, has Cordova’s Prince William Sound Science Center, whose president, Katrina Hoffman, wrote me that “as an organization, we have no position statement on the matter at this time." This, despite their stated aim of supporting "the ability of communities in this region to maintain socioeconomic resilience among healthy, functioning ecosystems.” (Of course, it should be noted that at least some of their funds come from the Navy.)

Government-to-Government Consultation

At Kodiak Island, my next stop, I find a stronger sense of the threat on the horizon in both the fishing and tribal communities and palpable anger about the Navy's plans. Take J.J. Marsh, the CEO of the Sun'aq Tribe, the largest on the island. "I think it's horrible," she says the minute I sit down in her office. “I grew up here. I was raised on subsistence living. I grew up caring about the environment and the animals and fishing in a native household living off the land and seeing my grandpa being a fisherman. So obviously, the need to protect this is clear."

What, I ask, is her tribe going to do?

She responds instantly. "We are going to file for a government-to-government consultation and so are other Kodiak tribes so that hopefully we can get this stopped.”

The U.S. government has a unique relationship with Alaska’s Native tribes, like all other American Indian tribes. It treats each as if it were an autonomous government. If a tribe requests a “consultation,” Washington must respond and Marsh hopes that such an intervention might help block Northern Edge. "It's about the generations to come. We have an opportunity as a sovereign tribe to go to battle on this with the feds. If we aren't going to do it, who is?"

Melissa Borton, the tribal administrator for the Native Village of Afognak, feels similarly. Like Marsh’s tribe, hers was, until recently, remarkably unaware of the Navy's plans. That’s hardly surprising since that service has essentially made no effort to publicize what it is going to do. "We are absolutely going to be part of this [attempt to stop the Navy]," she tells me. "I'm appalled."

One reason she’s appalled: she lived through Alaska’s monster Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989. “We are still feeling its effects,” she says. “Every time they make these environmental decisions they affect us... We are already plagued with cancer and it comes from the military waste already in our ground or that our fish and deer eat and we eat those... I've lost family to cancer, as most around here have and at some point in time this has to stop."

When I meet with Natasha Hayden, an Afognak tribal council member whose husband is a commercial fisherman, she puts the matter simply and bluntly. “This is a frontal attack by the Navy on our cultural identity."

Gary Knagin, lifelong fisherman and member of the Sun'aq tribe, is busily preparing his boat and crew for the salmon season when we talk. “We aren't going to be able to eat if they do this. It's bullshit. It'll be detrimental to us and it's obvious why. In June, when we are out there, salmon are jumping [in the waters] where they want to bomb as far as you can see in any direction. That's the salmon run. So why do they have to do it in June? If our fish are contaminated, the whole state's economy is hit. The fishing industry here supports everyone and every other business here is reliant upon the fishing industry. So if you take out the fishing, you take out the town."

The Navy’s Free Ride

I requested comment from the U.S. military's Alaskan Command office, and Captain Anastasia Wasem responded after I returned home from my trip north. In our email exchange, I asked her why the Navy had chosen the Gulf of Alaska, given that it was a critical habitat for all five of the state’s wild salmon. She replied that the waters where the war games will occur, which the Navy refers to as the Temporary Maritime Activities Area, are "strategically significant" and claimed that a recent "Pacific command study" found that naval training opportunities are declining everywhere in the Pacific "except Alaska," which she referred to as "a true national asset."

"The Navy's training activities,” she added, “are conducted with an extensive set of mitigation measures designed to minimize the potential risk to marine life."

Whale tail

The Navy claims that its war game plans will not have unacceptably detrimental effects on marine wildlife, despite the official environmental impact survey prediction of over 182,000 "takes," deaths or disruptions of essential behaviors, over the five-year war game period.

In its assessment of the Navy’s plans, however, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), one of the premier federal agencies tasked with protecting national fisheries, disagreed. "Potential stressors to managed species and EFH [essential fish habitat],” its report said, “include vessel movements (disturbance and collisions), aircraft overflights (disturbance), fuel spills, ship discharge, explosive ordnance, sonar training (disturbance), weapons firing/nonexplosive ordnance use (disturbance and strikes), and expended materials (ordnance-related materials, targets, sonobuoys, and marine markers). Navy activities could have direct and indirect impacts on individual species, modify their habitat, or alter water quality." According to the NMFS, effects on habitats and communities from Northern Edge “may result in damage that could take years to decades from which to recover.”

Captain Wasem assured me that the Navy made its plans in consultation with the NMFS, but she failed to add that those consultations were found to be inadequate by the agency or to acknowledge that it expressed serious concerns about the coming war games. In fact, in 2011 it made four conservation recommendations to avoid, mitigate, or otherwise offset possible adverse effects to essential fish habitat. Although such recommendations were non-binding, the Navy was supposed to consider the public interest in its planning.

One of the recommendations, for instance, was that it develop a plan to report on fish mortality during the exercises. The Navy rejected this, claiming that such reporting would "not provide much, if any, valuable data." As Stolarcyk told me, “The Navy declined to do three of their four recommendations, and NMFS just rolled over."

I asked Captain Wasem why the Navy choose to hold the exercise in the middle of salmon fishing season.

"The Northern Edge exercise is scheduled when weather is most conducive for training," she explained vaguely, pointing out that "the Northern Edge exercise is a big investment for DoD [the Department of Defense] in terms of funding, use of equipment/fuels, strategic transportation, and personnel."

Arctic Nightmares

The bottom line on all this is simple, if brutal. The Navy is increasingly focused on possible future climate-change conflicts in the melting waters of the north and, in that context, has little or no intention of caretaking the environment when it comes to military exercises. In addition, the federal agencies tasked with overseeing any war-gaming plans have neither the legal ability nor the will to enforce environmental regulations when what’s at stake, at least according to the Pentagon, is “national security.”

Needless to say, when it comes to the safety of locals in the Navy’s expanding area of operation, there is no obvious recourse. Alaskans can’t turn to NMFS or the Environmental Protection Agency or NOAA. If you want to stop the U.S. military from dropping live munitions, or blasting electromagnetic radiation into national forests and marine sanctuaries, or poisoning your environment, you'd better figure out how to file a major lawsuit or, if you belong to a Native tribe, demand a government-to-government consultation and hope it works. And both of those are long shots, at best.

Meanwhile, as the race heats up for reserves of oil and gas in the melting Arctic that shouldn't be extracted and burned in the first place, so do the Navy's war games. From southern California to Alaska, if you live in a coastal town or city, odds are that the Navy is coming your way, if it's not already there.

Nevertheless, Emily Stolarcyk shows no signs of throwing in the towel, despite the way the deck is stacked against her efforts. "It's supposedly our constitutional right that control of the military is in the hands of the citizens," she told me in our last session together. At one point, she paused and asked, "Haven’t we learned from our past mistakes around not protecting salmon? Look at California, Oregon, and Washington's salmon. They’ve been decimated. We have the best and most pristine salmon left on the planet, and the Navy wants to do these exercises. You can't have both."

Stolarcyk and I share a bond common among people who have lived in our northernmost state, a place whose wilderness is so vast and beautiful as to make your head spin. Those of us who have experienced its rivers and mountains, have been awed by the northern lights, and are regularly reminded of our own insignificance (even as we gained a new appreciation for how precious life really is) tend to want to protect the place as well as share it with others.

"Everyone has been telling me from the start that I'm fighting a lost cause and I will not win," Stolarcyk said as our time together wound down. "No other non-profit in Alaska will touch this. But I actually believe we can fight this and we can stop them. I believe in the power of one. If I can convince someone to join me, it spreads from there. It takes a spark to start a fire, and I refuse to believe that nothing can be done."

Three decades ago, in his book Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez suggested that, when it came to exploiting the Arctic versus living sustainably in it, the ecosystems of the region were too vulnerable to absorb attempts to "accommodate both sides." In the years since, whether it’s been the Navy, Big Energy, or the increasingly catastrophic impacts of human-caused climate disruption, only one side has been accommodated and the results have been dismal.

In Iraq in wartime, I saw what the U.S. military was capable of in a distant ravaged land. In June, I’ll see what that military is capable of in what still passes for peacetime and close to home indeed. As I sit at my desk writing this story on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, the roar of Navy jets periodically rumbles in from across Puget Sound where a massive naval air station is located. I can’t help but wonder whether, years from now, I’ll still be writing pieces with titles like "Destroying What Remains," as the Navy continues its war-gaming in an ice-free summer Arctic amid a sea of off-shore oil drilling platforms.


Dahr Jamail, a TomDispatch regular, spent, all told, more than a year as an unembedded journalist in Iraq between 2003 and 2014. He is a recipient of numerous honors, including the Martha Gellhorn Award for Journalism and the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism for his work in Iraq. He is the author of two books: Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq and The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is a staff reporter forTruthout. This is a joint TomDispatch/Truthout report.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Dahr Jamail



2/26/2015

John Donvan Intelligence Squared 

Intelligence Squared U.S. is an Oxford-style debate series covering a range of relevant controversial topics, from science refuting God to “too big to fail” big banks. The series recently celebrated its 100th debate, and Utne Reader editorial intern Soli Salgado had an opportunity to talk with moderator John Donvan beforehand about how the topics develop, the challenges of moderating, and preserving the integrity of the ancient art of debate.

Utne Reader: How has previous reporting for ABC News helped you as a moderator?

John Donvan: I had 30 years of ABC and did virtually every beat there was: I was a foreign correspondent for 13 years, came back and worked as a general assignment reporter, then as the White House correspondent. In the course of all that, at some point or other I covered every printed story there ever was, sometimes three times over, and that really gave me a broad range: from economy to religion to poverty to race science to medicine to health to politics and international conflicts. We haven’t really had a debate where I haven’t covered the issue in some fashion or other. We just had a debate on genetically modified food, and I did a broadcast on that in 1999. The debate before that was on assisted suicide, and I had done a one-hour documentary on that in 1994. It’s like a perfect repurposing of my entire body of knowledge gained from my career as an ABC reporter.

What non-reportorial experience has come into play for you in this job?
I’m very interested in acting and performance. I went to the Acting Conservatory at the Studio Theater in Washington. I’ve done a lot of improv, classical, live storytelling, Shakespeare, and comedy—all gave me instincts that allow me to be live in front of people and in the moment. It really became important when I started moderating because there’s no script in the debate. It’s much closer to improv in that I have to be reacting all the time and paying attention to keep it on course. That matter of performing and being really aware of a live audience has been a perfect complement to the more intellectual side of journalism.

Describe what you expect from the 100th debate.
It’s on the notion of whether America is in decline or not. The idea of the 100th is that it’s big and sweeping and looking at both the past and present and this administration at this time. There’s an electric feeling in the room. To me it’s amazing that we get 500 people to come watch a debate in New York City when there’s so much else going on. You revive this ancient yet timeless format of an artistic style of debate and bring it to New York at a time when everything is so polarized. So at the 100th debate we’ll talk about that achievement and have a big party afterwards and a rapper come on stage rapping about our previous accomplishments.  

How are the guests chosen and invited? Are you a part of that process?
I’m in Washington, so I come up for meetings from time to time. But the process within the organization is very democratic—it’s a small organization with a few people—and everybody on the staff throws in ideas that usually begin with topics that are just interesting and relevant within themselves, but without knowing there’s actually a debate there, that there’s a dichotomy of views with legitimate arguments on both sides. So we start with a broad discussion about topics. “We should do something about ‘healthcare,’ and then it becomes, ‘What’s relevant about it? What’s being debated?’ Some are framed as verdicts on situations, others are framed as a policy choice that needs to be seen.

We’ll put out a lot of lines to people in their fields, or sometimes we go to interdisciplinaries and might call a philosopher to ask his opinion on science or religion. We try to get a sense of whether there’s a strong debate with credible arguments on both sides, and then whether there are people willing to argue both sides. We have a producer or two full-time reaching out to potential debaters, seeing what they would say and if there’s a coherence: if they can get on stage, but also being able to talk and being in a competition. Not everybody can.

We ask for ideas and get emails all the time, and we take that very seriously. But they really come from all over, from conversations. I’ve asked people at dinner parties for ideas for debates that are now in the hopper.

Is there a rehearsal, or are you surprised by what the debaters say in the moment?
I don’t know what they’re going to say in the body of the debate. They’ll come with prepared remarks, but we strongly discourage debaters to come in with a script for opening remarks. We have some sense from conversations beforehand through the booking process about their arguments, so we can know if there’s a head-to-head or not. But all of the debaters write. They’ve almost always published on these topics, and I read a lot, if not most, of those. Usually to figure out their rhythm as speakers, I’ll watch them on YouTube. But on the night of the debate, I literally don’t know what they’re going to say. And sometimes they don’t say what we expected them to argue, or their arguments come from a different angle, which is fine, so long as they’re not just talking past each other.

That’s where the improv comes into play; it’s so unscripted, we don’t know where it’s going to go. Every time I go up I’m worried there’s going to be a trainwreck, and so far we haven’t had one.

What’s the hardest part of moderating?
I figured out that the hardest part is the easiest part: the art of interruption. It is the key to moderating, and getting over the inhibition, I think any of us have, to interrupt somebody when they’re trying to say something meaningful. It seems impertinent and it seems rude. But I learned that if I didn’t interrupt people, they would just move way, way off topic quickly. They’d also spend an enormous amount of time elaborating on the same point, giving an example of why they were right and then another example, and another... It’s a combination of the art of listening closely and the art of interruption. I tell them before going on stage that I’ll do that, and most are pretty good about it.

You seem to moderate so fairly and straightforward, yet after most presidential debates, there’s controversy and criticism from the public regarding the moderator. Why do you think that is? Is it just the different style of debates?
The presidential debates are set up to be for moderator failure. The candidates come in with no true intention to debate one another, and there are so many rules set out to avoid them falling on their faces, that the moderator really has a difficult time.

The trick is getting involved without making it about yourself. It’s not about you: it’s about the debaters and the debate. But you also have to get in to keep them on course. And the presidential debates are not set up to be debates. They’re alternating press conferences. The guys come in with their talking points, and very rarely do they respond to one another’s points. They just talk past each other. And the moderator who does not interrupt quickly is sitting on two press conferences going on.

I see my mission is to protect the integrity of the debate. So if somebody dodges a question, I will jump on him—not because I’m on the other guy’s side, but because I’m on the debate’s side. If somebody ignores a really good point landed by their opponent and tries to change the subject, I will intervene because the audience wants to hear what the response is. The presidential debates are not set up to do that. That’s not what the parties want, and the parties control what the debates are about. It’s very frustrating to watch those things.

Read Donvan’s Washington Post article regarding the structure of modern presidential debates.

Oftentimes you see that audience members changed their minds on certain issues, when you compare how they voted at the beginning of the debate to how they voted at the end. Do you think that’s something special to Intelligence Squared in its format, or is any well-structured debates capable of the same thing?
I don’t think that’s just us. I think any really, really good debate can do the same thing.

The social contribution that a debate really makes is that by definition the audience is forced to listen to a point of view that may oppose their own, and they’re also forced to listen (for the first time, probably) to a well-articulated dissection of the weaknesses of the views they already hold. They may go in wanting to root for their side, and they may leave still rooting for their side, but they’ll very likely have been exposed to arguments against their side or for the other side that they never really had to sit and pay total attention to. If the debate works well, and the debaters are really engaging in an intellectual Ping-Pong match, with real intellectual integrity, really listening to each other in real intellectual combat—that sucks people in, in such a way that maybe they do end up acknowledging the flaws in the arguments they favored or strengths in the other guy’s. Doesn’t mean you have to switch sides. That’s particularly relevant today when there’s no middle space anymore. People for the most part have retreated to their chambers in terms of ideas they’re going to hear. This little show we put on—it’s a show, but it’s got value and integrity. It’s really an experience.

I always go to the lobby afterward because I love that moment of the debate when people spill out on the streets and sidewalks on 67th Street arguing with each other. They’re really alive with it. Who knew that the fusty old model of the Oxford style debate would be so relevant and alive and engaging and entertaining? It’s because they’re seeing a real debate. I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a hunger for it, for debating civilly. We’re actually pulling it off, and it’s not boring. It’s a tough conversation. I’m not saying it’s Kumbaya. But it’s not done by screaming, rather by being as smart as they can be.

Have you ever had any difficulty remaining impartial?
I came up in the tradition of ABC News, which is not so much the ruling tradition in journalism anymore. It was always in the vein of “try to keep your personal views out of it.” That’s where my training was and that part comes naturally. I’m really careful in not having the audience members feel what I’m thinking or that I’m trying to steer the debate in any way, because that would really kill the integrity of it. I’ve found it’s been easy to pretend to be impartial.

What have been the most memorable debates you’ve moderated?
I like the cultural topics that are more about the human condition and less about what the government should be doing. We’ve done whether there’s life after death, whether religion is a force of good or evil, the state of men in society. We’ve done whether college football is a good or bad thing for the university and the players. Nobody’s really debating these topics. Whereas all the policy issues, you can hear debates on them all the time. You’ll hear lots of panel discussions on life after death, for example, but to actually hear actual evidence mounting on both sides, it’s an interesting thing.

The most difficult one we’ve done was a few years ago on whether or not the U.N. should recognize Palestine. The debate was between two opponents who were both Jewish, and it became very bitter and very personal to the two of them. They began to berate each other, each calling the other a traitor. They each took the charge so personally that they began to scream at each other. For the first and only time, I left my position at the podium and I walked around to the front of the stage, and with my back to the audience I faced them and raised my hands, quite consciously hoping to invoke Moses parting the Red Sea, and asked them to please be silent. They finally stopped, and I told them that what they were doing was essentially opposite to the goal of our debate and that they need to pull it back. And they did, though that was probably the roughest moment.

What would you like our Utne readers to know about Intelligence Squared if they haven’t heard about it before? There’s a lot of overlap between the intellectual aspiration of the Utne readers and Intelligence Squared. There’s open-mindedness and curiosity, a thirst to know, and desire to be entertained. These are entertaining. When you hear the word “debate” it doesn’t sound like it’s going to be fun evening, but it is. People come on dates and romance each other at the event. It’s a lot more fun from an intellectual point of view than it sounds like.

We have an app that has everything, for iPhones and Androids. Look for IQ2US in the search. You’ll have access to all the debates we’ve ever done as podcasts, and we post a bunch of the articles and research related to the debates, most by the debaters themselves. There’s also an opinion poll and information on upcoming debates.





Pay Now Save $5!

Utne Spring 2016Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.

Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $5 and get 4 issues of Utne Reader for only $31.00 (USA only).

Or Bill Me Later and pay just $36 for 4 issues of Utne Reader!

(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here