Jul 28

Olympics and Democratic Accountability

A reader asked me to comment on the implications of Boston being taken out of consideration for the 2024 Olympics.  There are two key issues that this situation raises: 1) What would the costs and benefits of the Olympics be? and 2) What is the right catalyst for economic development?

Regarding benefits and costs, the benefits to the people of Massachusetts were economic growth due to increased government spending, new sports facilities, and potentially improved infrastructure (the MBTA especially).  The costs were potential budget overruns, putting Boston taxpayers on the hook and possible mismatch between what citizens of Boston want and what the Olympics would provide (Would the new sports facilities be useful afterwards?).  Economic growth is the best potential benefit, but it is not obvious why economic growth should be geared towards meeting the standards of the International Olympic Committee as opposed to what the citizens of Boston want.  The opportunity costs of prioritizing the Olympics requirements could be rather large.  Sports stadiums are nice, but what about schools, roads, the MBTA, etc.?  Economic growth would provide more money to spend on these, but why not spend money to improve the MBTA that meets the long term needs of Bostonians, rather than the IOC?  Sovereignty over the city’s budget is not something to forsake too quickly.

There is the fact, though, that the Olympics would be a catalyst for government spending to help the economy.  For example, perhaps without an external incentive, the MBTA will not be fixed (ignoring that the plan thus far guaranteed nothing regarding this).  After all, The Great Depression dragged on through the 1930’s and did not end until  World War II forced the government to spend enormous sums of money on World War II.  There is a further lesson here, since the economy started to go into recession once the war ended.  If the citizens of Boston want the MBTA to be fixed, they should advocate for the MBTA to be fixed.  Likewise, with roads or, for that matter, a sports stadium.  When the democratic process leads to changes, they will be ones that suit our needs, not an external body who has no long term interest in our city.

Jul 27

Why socialism isn’t a dirty word…

 

After a two year hiatus, I’m starting my return to political blogging with a bang by a discussion of…socialism.  What?  Why would I discuss “socialism” when there are so many other things going on like the dropping of Boston from the Olympic bid. Greece, ISIS, etc.?  And didn’t socialism end except in places like Cuba and China?  I am addressing the topic, because it is actually severely misunderstood and when myths about it are expunged, it is actually quite logical.  Lest you think this is an irrelevant topic, I should hasten to point out that Bernie Sanders, who is polling at equal with just about every Republican candidate, calls himself a “democratic socialist.”  So let me explain what socialism is, what myths about it exist, and why it is worth discussing today.

In the 1800’s the Industrial Revolution brought mass production to Europe and the United States.  Although it took place in different times in different places, the process was roughly similar: a large portion of the population worked in industrial factories for low pay and was deprived of control over the production process.  In other words, for a small amount of money a worker went to a job, worked with some tools that he or she did not own and had to turn everything produced to the factory owner.  Over time, members of these working classes developed the idea that rather than having a small portion of the population control all this wealth, while the workers made so little, why not have society as a whole control the wealth and distribute it fairly?  And rather than the wealthy making all the decisions about the production process, why not allow the workers to decide how it will operate?

This leads to a definition of socialism: democratic control of society’s wealth and the production process by the people.

With this definition in mind, some myths about socialism become apparent:

Myth #1: Socialism means that the government must run the economy.

This has certainly been the interpretation by some socialists, especially Lenin and everyone after in the Soviet Union, and is still used in Cuba to some extent today.  But neither in the former USSR or Cuba has wealth and the production process been controlled democratically.  A Russian worker still went to a factory, had no say in the production process, turned over his product to someone else at the end of the day, and had no say in how society’s wealth would be managed.  The common refrain that socialism is nice in theory, but terrible in practice is nonsensical because it has rarely been a reality.

Myth #2: Socialism means everyone must give up some individual freedom for the greater good.

In a socialist system that meets the above definition, the vast majority of the population would gain greater freedom by having a democratic say in core matters of one’s society.  To the degree that one sacrifices freedom and rights, the society is less socialist.

Socialism is not pie in the sky utopian dreaming, but a real, principled answer to so many of our pressing problems today.  A majority of the people in the US (and the world in fact) believe wealth inequality is a major problem.  The drive for profit is leading to potentially catastrophic climate change.  Democratic control of society’s wealth and the production process would provide much more fair outcomes on such issues.  On a more basic level, though, why do we accept democracy in the political sphere, but not in the economic sphere?

A fair question is to ask how do we actually have a socialist system if it’s not through government ownership?  The best attempt to address the issue is the creation of worker owned cooperatives.  Economist Richard Wolff has been a strong proponent of these enterprises and has written a great deal on the topic.  Especially good is the organization he helped found, Democracy at Work.  There are a great deal more in the US than one would expect.  Did you know there’s actually a US Federation of Worker Cooperatives?  Spain has an enormous conglomerate, Mondragon, that is a worker owned cooperative.  These provide an excellent model for others to follow.

 

Jul 23

Remarks on the #Boston4Gaza Rally

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What matters is the predictable consequences of our actions that are undertaken, not the intent, not even the abstract validity of slogans.  That’s not what matters to the victims.”  –Noam Chomsky

This evening I attended a protest in Boston against the current Israeli onslaught in Gaza. The protest in many ways was very heartening, but also presented some significant problems if we are going to hold our government accountable for Israeli violence and occupation.  I wish to make clear that my criticisms are not meant to be merely academic or tactical footnotes, especially in this time of great crisis when moral outrage is more than justified.  Instead, I believe that the pro-Palestinian movement in the US needs to make some major adjustments if it is to have maximal effect in saving the people of Gaza now and ending the occupation of Palestine in the long-term.

First, I should note that this protest clearly had a very positive effect overall.  Local news covered it quite fairly and the “die-in” that happened at the end was portrayed very sympathetically, at least in the news I saw.  To read the names of Palestinian victims in Gaza was a powerful statement that, from local news coverage, seems to have reached its goal of humanizing what is a far-too-often vilified population.

The anger and moral outrage demonstrated tonight was clearly appropriate given that one can only conclude that Israel is purposely punishing the civilian population of Gaza in what can only be seen as a sadistic act.  I felt this outrage as I have listened to the courageous reporting of Sharif Abdel Kouddous on Democracy Now: one day Israel is shelling a hospital, then killing children on a beach, and then attacking another hospital, and all throughout bombing homes, all part of “terrorist infrastructure.”  I frankly dislike protests, because they tend to oversimplify and sloganize complex issues.  But in this case I felt the only decent thing to do was to bear witness to the suffering that our government labels as tragic, but proceeds to excuse and enable.  And so I joined the march.

 

While I definitely have no regrets about doing so, I was very concerned about some of the chants that were used, because they reflect a way of thinking about the Israel-Palestine conflict that has the potential to alienate the public.  Whether we in the social justice movement recognize it or not, the way we are perceived has a direct impact on how effective we will be in protecting the victims of Gaza, and Palestine more broadly.

One particular chant that was worrisome was “Palestine will be free, from the Jordan to the Sea.” The first thing a supporter of Israel’s actions in Gaza will say is “These people want to wipe Israel off the map!”  At the end of the march, one of the rabbis from an odd, rather orthodox sect had a bullhorn and talked about how the State of Israel needed to be peacefully abolished, for which he gained cheers.  Only the pro-Palestinian protesters heard what was being said, but this movement will erase any public sympathy it has if this is the message it puts forth.

The second problematic chant was the repeated call for “Intifada!”  While this is a general term for an uprising, put on the hat of a supporter of Israel’s actions.  They will think “What Intifada are they talking about?  The second one that included suicide bombings of Israeli civilians?”  Anti-Arab racism is so permeated in our culture that Arab and suicide bomber are considered close to synonymous.  However justified our moral indignation is, we need to be wise and not feed into a stereotype.

I think we could gain some lessons from our own civil rights movement.  The heroes of sit-ins at white lunch counters and the Freedom Riders sought to achieve victory by bringing the injustice of their oppressors out into the open.  Not only was it a courageous act of moral strength, but a brilliant tactic as it made it very clear to the public who was the victim and who the oppressor.  If the movement for Palestinian rights is to make maximal progress, it must provide the public with the same clarity.

For example, tonight there was a small, but vocal contingent of counter-demonstrators with signs like “Boston Strong Against Hamas Terror” and “Hamas Tunnel Rats.”  On Boston Common police formed a line between them and the pro-Palestinian protesters.  When most of the pro-Palestinian contingent was still listening to people speak, I decided to sit down facing the pro-Israel group with my sign, which read: “Bombing homes and hospitals and killing children does not give anyone security.  Tell our government to truly support a two-state settlement.” One of them kept saying to me, quite sincerely, that I should join them because I was just misguided. I assume he was referring to the part of my poster that referred to supporting a two-state solution. Not that I expect right-wing supporters of Israeli militarism to be overly rational, but I could not help but think that if this person could think I was reasonable (even if “misguided”), an average person on the street would probably agree with me.  What if the Pro-Palestinians all had signs supporting the two-state solution? (Unfortunately, mine was the only one I saw.)  “Hamas Tunnel Rats” and “Free Gaza from Hamas” would look even more ridiculous.  As it was, I imagine the average person saw both sides as extremes in a shouting match.

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Far more important than my personal experience, tomorrow, Wednesday at 5:30 at Park Street in Boston there is a vigil adopting the following statement of principles:

  • End the violence on both sides. Negotiated ceasefire now!
  • All lives are equally precious and worthy of respect, Palestinian and Israeli.
  • It’s not possible to understand the current violence in a vacuum and without considering the complex narratives of both Palestinians and Israelis.
  • There is no military solution.
  • More than ever we need a comprehensive diplomatic solution; ending the Occupation is part of that solution.
  • Palestinians and Israelis both have a right to security and to a viable homeland.

If the same right wing Israelis show up with their signs, it should be very clear to the public who is being reasonable and who is not.

When international law and opinion are so clearly on the side of both Palestinians and Israelis having their own states, the movement for justice in Palestine is not doing any service to the occupied if it cannot join this consensus.  If it chooses to focus only on ending the occupation without accepting the reality of Israel, its ability to sway public opinion will be limited and easily play into the hands of right-wing militarists.

This is all very easy for me to say from far away while Gaza’s civilian population is a shooting gallery.  However, as we continue to protest, we must remember that it is not only incumbent upon us to express moral outrage, but to also communicate to the American public that we have a clear way out.  This fight for Gaza in the court of public opinion is one we can win.  When this latest round of carnage ends, our work will continue and more than ever we will need to show that we are on the side of justice for all.

Sep 03

Norman Finkelstein, Egypt, and the West’s View of Muslims

I think the following brief clip from Norman Finkelstein is an excellent statement of the principles of democracy related to the situation in Egypt.  His description of the way Muslims are viewed in the West connects with a recent thought I had: if you look at a map of the world you will see that most of the regions with a majority Muslim population are ones that were most severely dominated by European colonialism.  Those are specifically Africa, the Middle East, and Indonesia.  While proving it would require far more rigorous analysis than I can provide here, it seems straightforward to observe that the sense of cultural superiority that came with imperialism still influences how the West views the inhabitants of these lands.  Go here for an interactive map of the Muslim world.

 

Jul 28

US Showing More Lack of Neutrality on Israel/Palestine

Now that talks are resuming between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority, there is more evidence of the US’ lack of neutrality.  Reuters reports:

“In another sign of possible momentum, Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who directs the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, is expected to be named as the new U.S. envoy for Middle East peace, possibly as early as Monday, a source familiar with the matter said.”

First, if the US wanted to be an impartial mediator it would not name the former ambassador to Israel.

A more specific example of Indyk’s lack of neutrality is his description of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran as the “rejectionist bloc,” which although is considered conventional wisdom, indicates an unwillingness to empathize with the Palestinians or see any reason why, for example, a guerrilla militia that developed to push out an occupying army would still harbor animosity towards the country that occupied it.  This is not to excuse the violations of the laws of war by either Hezbollah or Hamas.  But to refer to the elected government of the Palestinian people as a “terrorist government” as Indyk did, is not becoming of a mediating diplomat.

 

 

Jul 19

Tsanarev Photo Forces Us to See a Human Being

It is an odd feeling to say I am weighing in on the Rolling Stone controversy about having Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover, since I find it hard to see how it is controversial.  One friend of someone who lost both legs wrote on Facebook:

“Your use of a provocative, borderline sympathetic image and headline of someone who has caused so much pain to our country is appalling, insensitive, and disgusting,”

It is interesting that it is labelled “borderline sympathetic,” because it implies that any image of a person who has committed an evil act that doesn’t depict them as a monster is patently offensive.  I think what is really going on is that 1) people don’t want to be reminded of what happened and 2) if we see Tsarnaev as a normal kid who did something horrible, then we have to face our own ambivalence and see that while he did something horrible, like any human being he has positive aspects too.  It is much easier to label Tsarnaev as an evil monster with no redeeming qualities.  He certainly should face punishment for what he did, but that doesn’t mean we cannot see him as a complete human being.

Rolling Stone has likely helped reduce the risk of terrorism if people actually try to discover what caused this kid to become so radicalized and do something so evil.  We would do well to remember Hannah Arendt’s idea about the “banality of evil.  On another level, one simply wonders if people have forgotten about the idea of a free press.

Read the Rolling Stone article here.

Jul 15

Balanced Perspective on Iran Needed

One lesson in reading the news is that interpretation is always key.  The US Air Force put out a report assessing the threat of ballistic missiles from other countries.  Some Israeli news outlets have put out stories that refer to the part of the report that says “Iran could develop and test an ICBM capable of reaching the United States by 2015. ”  Interestingly, YNet interprets this with the headline “Pentagon: Iran will soon have nuclear missiles capable of striking US.”  The report says nothing about Iran possessing nuclear warheads, but only about missile delivery systems.  There is also the fact that capability does not justify military action or its threat, at least according to international law. (See Article 2.4)  Nonetheless, the Israeli government is very sure that Iran is about to gain nuclear weapons and is threatening to attack Iran.  This is not to say that Iran should have nuclear weapons and is somehow an innocent victim, but balance seems fair.  For example, the report states

“Iran has ambitious ballistic missile and space launch development programs and continues to attempt to increase the range, lethality, and accuracy of its ballistic missile force”

To get a sense of how the US may appear to other countries, one need only look at the mission statement of the US Space Command, under the control of the US Air Force:

“Air Force Space Command, activated Sept. 1, 1982, is a major command with headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. AFSPC provides military focused space and cyberspace capabilities with a global perspective to the joint warfighting team.”

Or to go into the history books, there was the 1997 report US Space Command put out that stated its “Vision for 2020″ to be

“dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect US interests and investment.  Integrating Space Forces into warfighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict.”

As always, I would refer readers back to my post on Arab public opinion polls on who they see as threats.

Jul 13

South American Unity

It’s an amazing thing to see South American nations so united.  It would be naive to think they are models of virtue just because they have have left governments, but they certainly are models of self respect, as seen recently in their solidarity around Evo Morales’ plane being forced down.

 

May 31

If Only US Candidates Had Lines as Good As This…

Iran just had a debate among candidates for president.  Apparently the candidates hated the format and refused to answer a lot of questions.  One candidate especially had a line we could all learn from:

 “With these repetitive, discontinuous, short, one-to-three minute answers, the people are being harmed and the eight people up here are being insulted.”

May 28

German Conservatives Go Left of U.S. Again

To add to what I said about a week and a half ago on how German conservatives say things that you would rarely hear an American Democrat say, Reuters had an excellent piece that highlights how different Europe really is.  I recommend reading the whole article, but it is quite telling that the German Finance Minister warned that if Europe adopted US welfare standards “we would have a revolution, not tomorrow, but on the very same day.”

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