Friday, November 14, 2014

Home is where the....

Empathy Test

The United Nations has determined that as of today, there are approximately 45-million refugees wandering our planet. About a third of these people were set adrift by US-led military actions throughout the Levant.  Approximately 7-million once called Syria home; a percentage of those once called Palestine home.  Oddly, the plight of these folks seems to gain little traction, much less empathy here in the US, and that is actually rather shocking considering that we are a nation founded by...yeah, refugees -- human refuge discarded or driven from our own traditional homelands.  

Even more puzzling?  How we evolved into one of the most racist, bigoted nations on the planet; only South Africa running a close second -- that distinction made because they, unlike us, never denied it.  Now, before you shit your pants in moral outrage, consider a few minor notions.  We embraced slavery longer and fought its demise more bitterly than any so-called civilized country on Earth.  We made ourselves into the White-Protestant mecca of the west...desperately resisting the incursion of any and all groups who would attempt to land on our shores later -- seeking the very same freedom and opportunity we sacrificed life and limb for when we first trespassed on this land -- a land long claimed by others.  The truth here is that history is rarely kind in its relentless push forward and all dynasties will fall -- some more tragically than others; yet no lesson was learned, no forgiveness sought and apparently no remorse found -- for our actions today both reveal and reinforce our insatiable arrogance toward the greater world, in that it continues to be "our way or the highway."   In effect, we demand and try to export a system of democracy and fair-play that we have chronically failed to practice ourselves.

I remember this grand statue that the French presented us in 1886 and that we decided to plant in New York harbor; somewhat ironically, pointing it out to sea and the lands beyond. The French thought they knew us pretty well, that we shared some great egalitarian principles, that just maybe this new America could and would create a Camelot in the vastness of the new west -- a dream that the world desperately needed.  And in brief moments over the next century and a half, we did occasionally shine that light.  Yet all too often we turned our backs to the fundamentals of our heritage and sat in clear-eyed apathy as the dark side of our collective soul killed the messengers.  Yeah, we hold those names in reverence today, yet fail to fully reconcile why they had to die.  If a great conspiracy did exist, we all own it equally.

 I recently read an extremely well-written piece about a young Palestinian refugee couple living in Syria. Palestinian? Yes. Already refugees from one home and now faced with losing their second chance. For all intents, they seemed like any young couple you would meet on the streets of America. Educated, ambitious...ready to embrace what life might be able to offer them.  Living was difficult in their town south of Damascus, but they had found  a sense of community there and a degree of optimism about their always uncertain future.  Then ISIS came into their neighborhood and once again they were forced to flee...but this time, there was nowhere left to go.

The State of Jefferson

Now, bear with me for a minute.  In this tale, you, the reader gets a rare opportunity to become a refugee in your own town.  And it all starts when a faction in northern California and southern Oregon decides to secede from the Union. By all standards, these folks are fairly liberated in their thinking. Small farmers, entrepreneurs, survivalists...folks married to the land. Many of them are boomers, ex-hippies -- those that once fought for this illusive palace known as Camelot. Mostly they want to be left alone, to pursue what their version of the Constitution guaranteed: that 'pursuit of happiness' thing.  Yet more and more the country that they loved was becoming a plutocracy -- ruled by an oligarchy completely disconnected from the people, whose toil and blood had made freedom and by extension, all that wealth possible. And to the north and south, xenophobic bands of Christian extremists were re-defining the new moral boundaries in the very land born through the fires of religious persecution elsewhere, and almost three centuries in the past.  So the Jeffersonian's closed the borders, burned all the Wal-Marts and Home Depots and declared their independence.  Oh...uh, the Wal-Mart and home Depot were abandoned anyway. The local residents had boycotted  these places from the beginning, choosing to support community businesses.

The year?  2017. America had a new President; a fundamentalist Christian who firmly believed that Moses got it right the first time and no government legislation could possibly say it any better.  But now, in what was referred to in the media as the "Oregon Spring," the new President was being challenged -- no, openly defied.  And his followers were demanding immediate, decisive action against these socialistic, un-American pinko's and ouliers. Well, actually farmers, retirees and fisherpeople mostly.            

So he called in the National Guard to open the blockade and restore order. Which given the realty of the situation could have been carried out by 4 or 5 journalists with baseball bats.  The blockade was symbolic, and the new Oregon Militia's weapons of choice were little more than potato guns, pitchforks and squirt guns loaded with green paint. But to his surprise, the commander in Salem refused.  He simply said, "There is no disorder and I will not demand that my people go up against their neighbors.  Hell, half of them are sympathizers anyway."  Rebuffed, the President fired the Oregon commander and called in the Idaho Guard, a state he had carried in the election by an overwhelming majority. They in turn seized the military assets held at the Oregon depots and joined forces with the fundamentalists that had already gathered in force at the newly established borders of Jefferson, claiming that they had a mandate from God, though they didn't really say how they acquired it.  It was a short, one-sided fight and the dire news spread rapidly down the coast, spreading alarm among the residents of this small fishing town...many of whom were elderly and unable or unwilling to defend themselves from the government they once cherished. Then suddenly, the internet went dead. 

In the next few days, rumors sparked of a vast force heading up Highway 101 from the south.  By now, most of the village had armed itself with what weapons could be found, as nobody seemed to know if it was serious.  The rumors were running rampant -- real information scarce. The fishing fleet had put their boats in the water, offering a ride for anybody with the $500 or a case of liquor to join them. Helicopters were over-flying the town regularly.  Some folks had tried to escape north, only to be rebuffed in the hills near Coos Bay.  Many were arrested. Those that made it back related stories of incredible violence and savagery by the 'liberating' forces (as they were called in the media), but few believed these tales -- after all, this was still America, wasn't it?  But then, the free press, that beacon of democracy had been sold to the highest bidder more than a decade earlier.  So now the Jeffersonian's were labeled a sect and painted on Fox News as the new Branch-Davidians of the north.  The next day, the power was cut off, causing the one sewage treatment plant to fail. All land lines had ceased working and sometime during the night, the remaining cell tower was blown up. People were suddenly alone, in the dark...wondering. 

Food was beginning to get scarce.  The one market in town had been pretty much sacked by the third day of the siege. Fuel was gone the next day.  Some people had wandered into the hills, others huddled in groups, while at the south end of town, a determined group had built a barricade across 101...directly adjacent to the Battle Rock monument, the worst form of irony being played out by the most unlikely of combatants.  During the night, both the Lutheran and Catholic churches mysteriously burned to the ground. A growing distrust was enveloping this community -- a place where people prided themselves on stepping up, not away from trouble.  The enemy seemed to be nowhere and everywhere.       

Then on a Friday, the smell.  Diesel fumes and the distant clatter of track-treads on asphalt. At noon, a sole artillery shot flew over the town, landing in what was the school playground. Then the loudspeaker with the ultimatum -- the blunt words of most ultimatums: surrender or...blah, blah.  Conform, find God in your heart, accept the new order of things.  Death was in the message somewhere, but that was the least ambiguous part of the message.  Mostly nobody said anything in response, just eyes meeting eyes in a kind of tragic disbelief.

Many people wandered off, choosing to collect what few belongings they could carry, and in small bands melted into the hills.  A few of these folks were walking backwards at first, taking a last look at what was home,  All seemingly gone in the blink of an eye...a few wondering loudly how this could happen in a free country, or why so many people chose not to vote.  Others stayed in their homes, too frail to make the trek; too resigned to fight the inevitable.  A few turned their guns on themselves. Those that got away wandered northeast, some thinking that Montana might be safe or maybe Canada.  Most longed for news, any news that might explain how such a thing could happen in America.  But all they could hear in the failing light was a cacophony of gun fire; at first rapid and intense; just as suddenly random, then silent.  They walked on through the night, following the stars to a destination they did not know, a welcome they might not receive. This night, they became refugees in their own land. Just another number among those 45-million other numbers who no longer have anywhere to call home. 

    I require no lesson on empathy in this matter.  You see, my own mother was a refugee.  In the vernacular of the day, she was a war bride. She also went from girlhood to womanhood in the vortex of a world war.  Did she love my father?  Maybe.  Did she need to escape the aftermath? Absolutely.  Was she welcome here?  No. Yet the hatred for this child of war here was somehow easier for her to endure than the suffocating depravity that marked her entire childhood.  

I don't have an answer here. It took me most of my life to understand her refugee among millions.  And now we have millions upon those millions.  It has to stop. Somehow.            


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Lessons from the Grave.

Patton Got Quite a Bit Right...Sort of.

General George S. Patton had an insatiable appetite for history. He knew quite well that the 'present' could never be comprehended, nor addressed, without a very humble and necessary nod to the past.  In many ways, for this man anyway -- cause and effect had deep and ancient roots.  But like most warriors, he abhorred politics, all the while being forced to acquiesce to the crooked trail they often traveled.

So not surprisingly, he was eventually fired, a fate shared by other generals who question the intents; maybe the intelligence of those who dictate foreign policy.  Among his sins: proposing to re-arm the Germans and push the Soviets out of eastern Europe. Perhaps a militarily sound idea, given the incredible view some find in our kind of myopic hindsight, but difficult to sell to a country exhausted by 5 years of war.  And of course, that thorny issue of the Soviet Union being a somewhat unpredictable and highly tenuous ally.  A marriage that was doomed at the altar -- if not for the greater evil emanating out of Berlin.  


Now just for the fun of it, or really, so that maybe you have the slightest idea what I'm babbling on about, I'd like you to do a simple word juxtaposition. Every time I say 'Germany,' I want you to instead imagine, 'Iraq.'   

VE Day (Victory in Europe) was just possibly the greatest mass exhalation of the century.  But when the champagne went dry and the hangover showed up, so did the truth.  Europe was in ruins, the population devastated by years of all-out war -- national economies non-existent.  And there was that little matter of The Holocaust, an atrocity that spread far beyond the Jewish community -- albeit, they bore the brunt of this genocidal storm. But there was more. Call it 'collective shock' if you like.  The real grinding issue behind these 10-million deaths was that this 'final solution' was perpetrated by a Christian, educated, acculturated state right smack in the heart of Europe.  State-sanctioned murder on a scale never before seen.  Difficult to swallow, harder still to comprehend. Yet it also spawned the concept of a World Court; accountability broadened to include this rather ambiguous term: "crimes against humanity" -- gross violations by...well, humanity.  And we're still struggling with that distinction today. The courts also established the precedent that "following orders" would no longer constitute a defense for the actions of an individual in uniform.  Perhaps an unreasonable demand for when the shit really hits the fan.

So at the time, given the emotion of the day, it seemed like a good idea to round up all these Nazi's and hang the bunch.  Hence, the formation of the Nuremberg Tribunals, named after the city of their birth. Vengeance first, housekeeping later. Except that there were a few issues lurking in the background -- particularly the opening salvos of what would become the new Cold War; not to mention the lingering issue of how all these Nazis got to be Nazis in the first place. So let's flashback to 1918.  

First order of business when Baghdad fell:  Round up all of Saddam's lackeys, have a quick trial and a quicker hanging.  Only instead, let's have the Iraqis administer the justice. You know, kind of loyalty test. 

But back to Berlin. Germany loses the first 'big one' -- WW I. Only they didn't really lose. They were still occupying territory in France and elsewhere.  Strange predicament for a 'loser' to find themselves in and certainly not lost within the German psyche.  Next came the Treaty cobbled together by the allies in Versailles -- one of many aimed at preventing Germany from ever militarizing itself again.  Massive financial reparations, the loss of territory in Germany's industrial sector...sanctions on a scale never before seen. Which meant that rebuilding even the basic elements of state function were nearly impossible. The result? Massive unemployment, runaway inflation, two revolutions and the rise of communist and nationalistic sentiment.  And of course, credibility for that little Austrian corporal who really knew how to work an audience.

American policy in Iraq: Capture and hang the bad guys, dissolve the Iraqi army, the police, the security forces and pretty much anybody else. Remove all Baathist party members from government and administrative posts. Create 50-70% unemployment, massive public suspicions by arresting thousands, re-fuel sectarian differences and fail to even get the electricity turned on. Everybody's a terrorist, so turn the Army into judge, jury and prosecutor.  As Patton observed, as military governor of Bavaria...the army is NOT qualified (or trusted) to police a civilian population. 

[Note: As I have talked about before, my own grandfather was in the German Luftwaffe -- by default a member of the Nazi Party. What does that mean to me?  Very little actually as the ideology was only useful to those with the political power to wield it.  And as all soldiers know, once the bullets start flying, politics no longer have a meaning.] 

The result of post-World War I decisions?  World War II.

Berlin or Baghdad?

Joseph Goebbels--
Hitler's social architect.
Now Patton wasn't alone in having an eye to history, or put another way, having the vision to understand that Europe's century of wars was rooted far more in economics than mere power politics.  At the end of the day, the ordinary man sees the meager food on his children's plates, not the grand ideals of the would-be demigod. But he will hear the message. And therein lies the vast power of the greatest   propaganda machine ever                                                   seen...until maybe today.  Hitler was the sword of action, but Goebbels painted the canvas.  Both men opened the door a crack on what could be a better world for the average German. This after 20-years of turmoil and hopelessness. Who could resist such a moment?     

Plans. What plans?  The US went back to Iraq and later, Afghanistan on with wings of vengeance.  Blood for blood. Hell, Americans were demanding it. Never mind that Bush Sr. created this monster called Al Queda, Bush Jr. was going to set 'these' people right. Saddam Hussein may have been a bad ass in many, many ways, but his forced removal was destined to create a political vacuum that would only be filled by incredible chaos.  The lesson of Tito's Yugoslavia evidently not on that weeks homework assignment. Not only was there no coherent plan on going in, none existed to get out.     

Enter General George C. Marshall, chief architect of the plan for post-war Europe that bears his name.  And in many ways, the last shining example of American foreign policy since.

"The reconstruction plan, developed at a meeting of the participating European states, was drafted on June 5, 1947. It offered the same aid to the Soviet Union and its allies, but they did not accept it, as to do so would be to allow a degree of US control over the Communist economies.  Secretary Marshall became convinced that Stalin had absolutely no interest in helping restore economic health in Western Europe. President Harry Truman signed the Marshall Plan on April 3, 1948, granting $5 billion in aid to 16 European nations. During the four years that the plan was operational, US donated $13 billion in economic and technical assistance to help the recovery of the European countries that had joined in the Organization for European Economic Co-operation.

In 2013, the equivalent sum reflecting currency inflation since 1948 totalled roughly $148 billion. The $13 billion was in the context of a US GDP of $258 billion in 1948, and was on top of $13 billion in American aid to Europe between the end of the war and the start of the Plan that is counted separately from the Marshall Plan. The Marshall Plan was replaced by the Mutual Security Plan at the end of 1951.

The ERP addressed each of the obstacles to postwar recovery. The plan looked to the future, and did not focus on the destruction caused by the war. Much more important were efforts to modernize European industrial and business practices using high-efficiency American models, reducing artificial trade barriers, and instilling a sense of hope and self-reliance." 

The Plan was costly and brilliant, but not as altruistic as one might assume.  If you peeked under the sheets, a second motivation existed:  containing the Soviet Union by strengthening the economies of western Europe, and by extension, hopefully preventing a World War III.  Which given the escalating antagonism between the two new 'superpowers,' seemed almost inevitable -- except for one minor matter:  the A-bomb. And by a necessary default: NATO. 

Back to Patton for a moment.  VE Day also marked the transition of Germany from a military problem to an administrative one; a task not normally found in an army's playbook. This situation was also frustrated by the sudden and overbearing encroachment of US and allied political will -- ambition if you like that term better, including those chartered to open the Nuremberg Tribunals -- amid the extreme media buzz surrounding this open-court spectacle.  

Note: The first round of trials focused on party members themselves, military commanders (questionable) and somewhat surprising perhaps: members of Nazi Germany's judiciary -- the very judges responsible for sanctioning a widespread genocide against civilian, non-combatants. And awaiting trial were German industrialists the likes of Krupp and Bayer who were to be tried for supplying the German war machine. Notable steel, munitions and the very gas used to exterminate millions. But hold on...Patton and others said, "I don't think so."

Politicians in Washington and elsewhere were also convinced that the German people needed "denazification," as if the citizenry as a whole were infested with an incurable political virus.  Something that sounds almost laughable...until you consider that the very same thinking permeated the think-tanks that sprouted up around Langley shortly after Baghdad threw in the towel.

Yes. Second order of business was to de-Baathisize Iraqi politics. Just as in Germany, every German was a fanatical Nazi and every Iraqi was automatically a terrorist. So, they were rounded up, tortured...locked away in numerous Gulags until they either confessed or ratted out some other poor slob. How's the saying go: "Win the hearts and minds..." Bunch of that going on in Guantanamo these days. 

Prior to Patton's dismissal and eventual death in Europe -- before even the implementation of the first economic tenets under the Marshall Plan, the buzz-word of administrative policy in Iraq Germany surrounded this rather vague, yet powerful notion of denazification. Patton, among others, refused to play along, citing the impossibility, in his opinion, of making any constructive progress in returning some state of normalcy to the country without the direct involvement of the German people.  This included everything from traffic control to garbage, food distribution, utility reconstruction...even answering the phones. And the German citizenry needed the work, not only to survive, but to gain confidence that life could indeed return to normal. And the US and its allies had an obligation (and certainly a political motivation), to convince the populace that the occupation was NOT about punishing the German people, but to create a more constructive world for all of Europe. You could say, the political antithesis of what would soon become life for those trapped behind the Soviet Union's new and ominous Iron Curtain.  A wall that proved impervious for the next 40 years.

*Addendum:  While Patton didn't live to see his philosophy bear fruit; meaning quite frankly that the Germans needed to be empowered to dictate the course of their nation, it quickly became obvious that repeating the spoiled lessons of retribution was not going to have positive results.  This lesson completely ignored by US policy-makers toward a defeated Iraq -- defeated not even an accurate term for it. Iraqi's army was mostly composed of internal mercenaries -- soldiers whose loyalty rarely exceeded their weekly paycheck.  For the leadership clique, it was merely a conflict perpetrated by the need for a domestic deflection from the real issue:  a leader who led through brutality and fear, and would eventually lead the country to ruin.

Back in Berlin, industry leaders, like the Krupps, didn't spend long in prison -- the nature of German loyalty was such that workers would not work under foreign supervision. And too, unlike Iraq, the Germans held no real resentment toward the Allied Forces -- a clear distinction being drawn between the acts of government and the guy on the street.  It was a necessary 'stretch' if a new Germany was to be allowed to rejoin the club of nations. how you  can build trust out of the ashes of conflict.     

Oh...those WMD's. Turned out to be diaper factory disguised as a...diaper factory.


Saturday, June 14, 2014

Decoding India's Caste System...And Maybe Our Own.

Just Another Word for Structured Inequality?

"The caste system in India is a system of social stratification, which is now also used as a basis for affirmative action Historically, it separated communities into thousands of endogamous hereditary groups called Jātis which is synonymous with caste in contemporary usage. The Jātis were grouped by the Brahminical texts into four categories or varnas: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. Certain groups, now known as "Dalits", were excluded from the varna system altogether, ostracized by all other castes and treated as untouchables. Strongly identified with Hinduism, the caste system has been carried over to other religions on the Indian subcontinent, including Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Sikhism."

Endogamy:  Marrying within your group, clan, caste.
Exogamy:  Marrying outside your group, clan, caste.

"Almost every statement of a general nature made by anyone about Indian castes may be contradicted."  D.D. Kosambi, 1944.  Yep. That about covers it.  Indian scholars themselves cannot agree, much less the greater population.  And outsiders tend to view the caste system as some kind of static phenomenon, taking the viewpoint of India as "stereotypical [and] tradition-bound."  Yet it appears to operate more radically...more fluidly if you like, according to the greater or lesser fortunes of the state and society in general.  Meaning really, that Indians themselves frequently alter the definition to fit the situation at hand. Gosh....imagine if that happened here? 

This caste system goes back a long ways (maybe 5000 years), and is remarkably similar to early Roman social/class/spiritual belief structures of that time, only in India's case, wrapped tightly to the scriptures of Hinduism.  Yet even here, vast disagreement exists on origin and purpose, further complicated by our friends the British, who remodeled India's caste system (colonial period) as an aid to both administering the British Raj and as a tool for social control. But...and a big 'but' here; these systems were highly practical where basic survival was a daily challenge to establishing static, permanent communities.  A little like the goals of the 'socialist state,' whereby each person had a purpose (caste), in the greater community.  However, once money (gold, whatever), replaced value as the currency of the realm -- versus individual contribution, the system became abusive and cooperation for the common good went obsolete.  Ha...maybe Lenin should have spent a little quality time in Bombay.     

Basically, the castes are split 3 ways -- ranked accordingly from the old Brahman texts:

1st.  Judicial and priestly.

2nd.  Military and war.

3rd. Production, agriculture, crafts and commerce.   However, others argue that the origins as defined in Krishna add one more:

4th. The 'untouchables.'  ('Untouchables dealt with sewage and dead animals...including people.)

Course, as usual, Britain's meddling had backfired by the 1920's, actually forcing the Raj to introduce many 'affirmative-action' type programs, most aimed at elevating the social/economic status of the more oppressed groups; especially the Dalits.  (We're hearing a lot about this group lately.)  But it was also a tool of division, used frequently in American foreign policy-making, particularly during the Cold War years.  By putting minority populations in a position of power, the resulting group-to-group antagonism deflected attention from the real enemy:  the colonialist and imperialistic powers. Course, eventually the locals caught on anyway. However, below is one interpretation of how this system was/is structured: 

  • Strict segmentation of society, with the various groups being rigidly defined and membership of them determined by birth.
  • A hierarchical system that defines a ranking place for all of the castes
  • Limited choice of occupation, which is enforced within a caste as well as by other castes. A caste might follow more than one traditional occupation but its members would nonetheless be constrained to that range
  • The general practice of endogamy, although in some situations hypergamy is acceptable. Endogamy applies to the various sub-groups within a caste itself, preventing marriage between the sub-groups and sometimes imposing an additional geographical constraint, that one can only marry a person from the same gotra and the same place
  • Restrictions on dietary and social interactions that defines who could consume what and accept from whom. As with marriage arrangements, these restrictions apply at sub-caste level, not merely at the caste level
  • Physical segregation in, for example, villages. This is accompanied by limitations on movement and access, including to religious and educational areas and to basic facilities such as supplies of water. Again, this segregation applies at sub-caste level as well as at the higher level

The Big Picture

Safe to say that the British really mucked up Indian culture and traditions.  Aside from manipulating the caste system, they also socially re-engineered the entire region via population transfers; i.e., separating Hindu from Muslim in one of history's largest forced migrations, which resulted in the formation of two new nations in the process: Pakistan and East Pakistan, later re-named Bangladesh.  And following independence, all three were subjected to Soviet and US imperialism, all in the name of the new Cold War politics.  And yes, this plays heavily into the vacillating geo-political tensions and perceived loyalties throughout this region:  India and Pakistan, both nuclear-armed, both mutually suspicious, both facing immense internal pressures; Pakistan, as close to a failed state as a country can get and still claim marginal functionality.  And yes, this plays into the equation, particularly with US foreign policy, the case for human rights usurped in favor of...well, it's getting tough to tell anymore.  Billions in American corporate interests re-arranging Indian society, Pakistan holding the keys to Afghanistan's back door, the current Indian prime minister on the State Department's 'dislike' list. Nothing as simple as it might seem.  Yet the macro picture must be considered along with the micro, because in the case of these two countries, the stakes are higher than most.

Closer to Calcutta

However, to be fair, the British did conduct an extensive and thorough ethnographic analysis of the entire region; material still in extensive use today.  Sure, it also served equally as a tool of manipulation, but for an area as large and diverse as the Indian sub-continent, the demographic research has proved invaluable over time. [Side-note: One of Britain's contributions to the developing world was rail systems. In India, this transportation network was extensive.  Yet here, on the trains, Indian's ignored the caste system completely, choosing transportation over cultural prejudices.  A lesson learned much later in the US.]    

So how does religion/spirituality play into the caste system?  Good question and to be frank, one I can't really answer logically, at least not in a western-trained mind.  However, a clue or two might be found in the words of two pivotal characters in India's fight for independence.  First, Dr. B.R. Ambedker, India's first Prime Minister following independence.  He was also an 'untouchable.'  

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

"Ambedkar, was born in a caste that was classified as untouchable, became a leader of human rights in India, a prolific writer, and a key person in drafting modern India's constitution in the 1940's . Ambedkar wrote extensively on discrimination, trauma and tragic effects of the caste system in India."

"Ambedkar described the Untouchables as belonging to the same religion and culture, yet shunned and ostracised by the community they lived in. The Untouchables, observed Ambedkar, recognised the sacred as well as the secular laws of India, but they derived no benefit from this. They lived on the outskirts of a village. Segregated from the rest, bound down to a code of behaviour, they lived a life appropriate to a servile state. According to this code, an Untouchable could not do anything that raised him or her above his or her appointed station in life. The caste system stamped an individual as untouchable from birth. Thereafter, observed Ambedkar, his social status was fixed, and his economic condition was permanently set. The tragic part was that the Mahomedans, Parsis and Christians shunned and avoided the Untouchables, as well as the Hindus. Ambedkar acknowledged that the caste system wasn't universally absolute in his time; it was true, he wrote, that some Untouchables had risen in Indian society above their usually low status, but the majority had limited mobility, or none, during Britain's colonial rule. According to Ambedkar, the caste system was irrational. Ambedkar listed these evils of the caste system: it isolated people, infused a sense of inferiority into lower-caste individuals, and divided humanity. The caste system was not merely a social problem, he argued: it traumatised India's people, its economy, and the discourse between its people, preventing India from developing and sharing knowledge, and wrecking its ability to create and enjoy the fruits of freedom. The philosophy supporting the social stratification system in India had discouraged critical thinking and cooperative effort, encouraging instead treatises that were full of absurd conceits, quaint fancies, and chaotic speculations. The lack of social mobility, notes Ambedkar, had prevented India from developing technology which can aid man in his effort to make a bare living, and a life better than that of the brute. Ambedkar stated that the resultant absence of scientific and technical progress, combined with all the transcendentalism and submission to one's fate, perpetrated famines, desolated the land, and degraded the consciousness from respecting the civic rights of every fellow human being.  According to Ambedkar, castes divided people, only to disintegrate and cause myriad divisions which isolated people and caused confusion. Even the upper caste, the Brahmin, divided itself and disintegrated. The curse of caste, according to Ambedkar, split the Brahmin priest class into well over 1400 sub-castes. This is supported by census data collected by colonial ethnographers in British India."

Worth noting here that Ambedkar took his beliefs so seriously that he converted to Buddhism -- bringing many Dalit followers into the Buddhist faith.

And of course, the words of Mahatma Gandhi:

Mahatma Gandhi
In his younger years, Gandhi, disagreed with some of Ambedkar's observations, rationale and interpretations about the caste system in India. "Caste," he claimed, has "saved Hinduism from disintegration. But like every other institution it has suffered from excrescences." He considered the four divisions of Varnas to be fundamental, natural and essential. The innumerable subcastes or Jātis he considered to be a hindrance. He advocated to fuse all the Jātis into a more global division of Varnas. In the 1930s, Gandhi began to advocate for the idea of heredity in caste to be rejected, arguing that "Assumption of superiority by any person over any other is a sin against God and man. Thus caste, in so far as it connotes distinctions in status, is an evil."

Many scholars argue that the caste system is inherently embedded in Hindu religious practices, particularly the teachings of samsara, dharma and karma, yet as mirrored by the British colonial use of caste as a social engineering tool, is it not too far afield to assume that the Indians themselves are not just as culpable?  After all, according to ancient texts, no untouchable could possibly gain a leadership position in India, yet three have become Prime Minister.  Further, what are the current conflicts, including this pogrom against the Dalits -- particularly the women -- really about?  To this author, as limited as my knowledge is...doesn't smell of religious or sectarian fault lines, but rather another glaring example of a rising social inequality throughout the world -- the same blame-game we play in America whenever and wherever immigration enters the conversation.  Those with the least power, the limited voice always make the best targets in tough times.  And the times promise to get tougher.

Literacy and Economics:

Here it gets a little sticky.  When British rule ended in the 1940's, the literacy rate throughout India stood at 12%. Today is stands at 74% (2011); excellent progress considering the obstacles, but still 10 points below world averages.  There is also a gender-gap disparity of about 20% -- men over women. And too, a geographic void between rural and urban populations, aggravated by this caste system.  A system that finds greater credence in rural areas, where folklore, superstition and the role of subsidence agriculture have traditionally played a greater role in societies. [More on the ag. issue later.]* 

[Dark green indicates highest growth]
Movement on educational improvements in these rural areas is frequently hamstrung by these discriminatory beliefs, causing both low enrollment and an extremely high (52%), drop-out rate. (2005 figures)  India too, is a land of strong stereotypes, particularly surrounding gender, contributing greatly to the wider gap between educational opportunities afforded men over women.**  And if that's not enough, the old traditions of family-based agriculture in India tend to value brawn over brains -- a common theme in much of the developing world.  Flawed?  Perhaps not.  But the alternative has proven to be even more disruptive to Indian society.

[Orange indicates lowest literacy rates]

Anyone else notice a disturbing parallel?  Yes, as one of our past president's once exclaimed, "It's the economy, stupid!"  

Two things are at play here. The first deals with the massive schism between rural and urban life in India.  In urban areas, the PhD has all but replaced the caste system.  Much can be said on this matter, but technology-export from the US and Europe has played a huge role in the upward mobility of those in the south of India. Certainly not the case elsewhere, and as I said earlier, literacy rates weigh-in heavily in this social system, for they use the old tenets of ancient Hinduism as a doctrine against the upward mobility of those 'sanctioned' as inferior.  But then, nothing new or remarkable here really.  Take away the tools of education, the access to knowledge and the drones will labor on.  We sort of invented the concept clear back in the 1920's. Only today, we call it the corporation.


*Talked about this issue in some previous blog postings.  Stole the term from Christian Parenti's book, [Tropic of Chaos].  It is basically when multiple issues 'converge' in one spot and metastasize from many small and seemingly unrelated diseases, into one very large and potentially fatal tumor.  Again, note the two maps above -- then the drought map shown here:  On a macro level, much of the tension between India, Pakistan AND Afghanistan is rooted in water issues; aka, Khashmir. Glacial run-off feeds the rivers of all three. As Parenti says, "Without the river (Indus), Pakistan's stock of groundwater and impounded reserves would only last a month. No river, no country.  And atop the river sits the enemy, India: Huge, economically dynamic, politically democratic, internationally respected and atomically armed."  Add one more element: the monsoons have been disrupted for a decade or more and the glacial fields are retreating -- drastically in most cases.  And as I noted in previous blogs, the impact of neoliberalism on agricultural production in the Global South has virtually destroyed traditional farming in these regions, along with arable land. [See Convergence, Parts I-III]

What does that have to with caste?  Simple. Caste is no longer a religious/cultural issue in India, but instead an economic one wrapped in the arms of marginal literacy, a rising urban opulence (fueled by the tech-servicing industry), dwindling basic resources and now, climate -- which in turn fuels migration from the land to the cities, where these ancient and obsolete traditions find new credence as the 'have-nots' rub hard against those that 'have.'  And the government is reluctant to address the problem:

[Parenti]: "As India's weather patterns have become more disjointed, so too have its economic policies shifted rightward to effectively abandon the peasant farming class and create greater inequality."  The result?  "The Maoist fire burns not only due to drought but also because of free-market government policy."  Yes, in northern India and Nepal, drought has caused a re-awakening of both the far-left and the fundamentalist right. (Hold that thought for a moment or two.) And yes, the statistics bear out the correlation between drought/privation and the rise of insurgency activities throughout the world, such reactions about as basic and primal as they come.   
Maslow's Hierarchy

I bring up Maslow's little pyramid because throughout the developing world, the top three take some pretty heavy trudging to even come close to fruition.  That same trend is occurring in this country, though for the most part, we remain well-insulated. Well, some of us anyway.  However, in this current convergence of multiple issues, the foundation -- the most basic premises of life are under almost relentless siege. And that brings me to a rather startling conclusion:

Religious Fundamentalism 

What happens when civilization, however we choose to define it, begins to unravel? Regression.  Without a tangible or definable future, we always look back to the past -- the times of security, safety...the bountiful harvest of nostalgia.  We yearn for it, as the questions were so much more basic, the answers seemingly so simple.  God, family, dinner.  Not chaos, deprivation and violence.

Fundamentalist ideas grow out of fear and uncertainty and serve to fuel radical, yet simplistic solutions.  And because we created a world that chooses money over value, today's societies fracture along the fault-lines of economic mobility.  Take that to the most basic levels: sustenance over starvation; the earth itself collapses under the strain. And it is an equal opportunity plague.  It honors no borders, claims no favorites.  India or America...little difference in this ongoing struggle.   

Caste?  It is no longer just a tradition of the Hindu is a global fact of life.            
**Gender stereotyping is NOT confined to women's roles within India society. Men too, find their identity wrapped around outside expectations in the community, duly noted in the burgeoning number of suicides among male Indian farmers over the last decade or more. 

Mere thoughts here...on a very, very complicated world. 



Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Convergence....Part III


An inevitable fact of history. War, famine, drought, persecution, jobs...all put people on the move.  And when populations migrate, they rub against other populations, such friction creating the seeds of resentment, fear and very often violence.  Yet these great herds of humans will not accede to the artificial barriers of states, nations or tribes, because survival itself demands otherwise. Yes, the zebra will go to water knowing full well that the lion haunts the shoreline.  It is inevitable; it is the core nature of life itself.

Who made this thing we call the Global South?  Better yet, why was this new geography created out of what had managed to marginally co-exist for centuries?  One could say that it was a resource hunt, an imperial land grab, the first of many prolonged proxy wars, the arrogance brought forth by the crown of authority -- a doctrine sanctified by some benevolent god?  Monotheism as a sword of salvation for a pagan world?  Or, simply greed, ideology, power.  The sustenance of the empire.       

The countries of Africa, South America, much of Asia and by extension, even the rancorous states of America, are little more than the jagged lines of a surveyors map.  Most are not nations by strict definition, but a cobbled-together conglomerate of tribes whose only common denominator is the misfortune of being conquered by this or that European power.  And of course, once colonialism ended, imperialism and hegemony showed up on the block, under the new banner of Cold War dogmatism. New promises wrapped up in the same shallow assurances; ultimately, the same sorry trail of deceits and lies.   And as always in the underdeveloped south...the real force of the natural world at work; too often ignored as somebody else's problem.  Until now.  

[Parenti}:  "Britain's 2006 Stern Review estimated that between 200 and 250 million people would be uprooted by climate change.  That is 10 times the current number of refugees in the world.  Let that sink in for a moment. Bangladeshi academic Atiq Rahman had it correct when he warned, "Millions of people will be moving.  No amount of nuclear submarines will be able to stop that."  Another report estimated there are 214 million international migrants in the world today.  "If this number continues to grow at the same pace as during the last 20 years, international migrants could number 405 million by 2050."" 

Some scholars put the figure at over 1 billion.  Don't believe it?  While climate change denial remains a popular political ploy in the north, particularly in the US, military planners in Europe, the US -- even Australia, have been developing strategic-level contingency plans since the late 1980's.  They see the future as little more than insurgency versus counterinsurgency -- at the core: food, water and climate change.  Already, in places like Brazil, northern India and the Staans, even northern Mexico, continued droughts and flash floods have people migrating to urban centers.  In Brazil's largest city, Rio,these wanderers literally creating a state within a state.  And Mexico?  Estimates indicate that 2/3 of those attempting to enter the US illegally (legally apparently not an option), are farmers and pastoralists from the northeastern region -- victims of the same continuing weather cycle plaguing Texas, Oklahoma and much of the lower midwest.  The north's solution to a problem they basically created?   

     The Armed Lifeboat:

[Parenti]:  "However, another type of political adaptation is already underway, one that might be called the politics of the armed lifeboat: responding to climate change by arming, excluding, forgetting, repressing, policing and killing.  One can imagine a green authoritarianism emerging in rich countries, while the climate crisis pushes the Third World into chaos...."    "This sort of "climate fascism," is politics based on exclusion, segregation, and repression, is horrific and bound to fail.  There must be another path.  The struggling states of the Global South cannot collapse without eventually taking wealthy economies down with them.  If climate change is allowed to destroy whole economies and nations, no amount of walls, guns, barbed wire, armed aerial drones, or permanently deployed mercenaries will be able to save one half of the plant from the other."  

A little hysterical?  Actually it isn't.  Check the US/Mexican border. It is NOT about cartels and random terror merchants.  Then ask yourself why we have private gulags in operation in the American southwest -- mostly filled with poor farmers.  And why does a country founded on migration fill the talk-show airways with xenophobic hate:  all aimed at the migrant?

Alexis  de Tocqueville
[Parenti]:  "A central trope in this embittered carnival is the specter of immigration.  Xenophobia and smug nationalism are old American traditions.  Tocqueville found it back in 1835: "Nothing is more annoying in the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans.  A foreigner will gladly agree to praise much in their country, but he would like to be allowed to criticize something, and [in] that he is absolutely refused.""

And as this author has often said, "Patriotism is the last vestige of the scoundrel."  Why?  Simple. For a country founded on the notion of rejecting oppression in all its shapes and forms -- who then spent ten-years composing flowering prose and grand ideals; further, called that document law, and then abruptly became the new English Lord to the rest of the world.  And if one criticizes this grand hypocrisy, as either domestic or foreigner, they are quickly condemned as an unAmerican heretic of the first order.  

[Parenti]: "Border militarization, the paramilitary immigrant roundups, the largely privatized ICE detention network -- it is all human rights abomination.  But it is also politics as ideological spectacle.  When the government treats innocent brown people as criminals, it lends respectability to racism.  Native-born people, particularly white people, get the message and feel invited to catharsis via tribal solidarity, especially during hard times."  

Please read that paragraph twice.  


Much is written, debated and speculated about Third World violence, this notion of terrorism (invented by us);* gangsterism, narcoism...religious fundamentalism, sectarianism and on and on. Yet oddly perhaps, a paradox exists in defining the root cause(s) for it.  Very often, shared calamity is confronted by a broader cooperation found in a shared experience -- a rallying of the troops to confront a common enemy, be it man or nature.  But in this new arena of mass migration,what is more often occurring is the 'have nots' being pressed hard against the 'haves.'  The slums of Rio, in Brazil, overlook the great hotels and white-sand beaches of luxury.  Hispanics longingly stare across the vast fences of the US/Mexican border; opportunity almost palpable on the breeze. Indians from the northeast wander south in search of a new life only to be confronted by the new palaces built in the shadow of technology-servicing's new oasis.  The inequality is the grinding truth of this current age.  And as the migration accelerates, the state withdraws -- by choice, by frustration, by a simple lack of resources to cope with an overwhelming tide of people on the move.  And social cohesion breaks down on both sides...leading all down the path of blame.  Ordinary people now little more than the enemy within.

(*Believe Cornwallis used the term to describe the behavior of colonial militias during the American Rebellion.) 

[Parenti}:  "Civilization is in crisis, though the effects are not yet fully felt.  The metabolism of the world economy is fundamentally out of synch with that of nature. And that is a mortal threat to both."   

And the author's sentiment is neither new, nor radical. Karl Marx noticed this 'metabolic rift' with nature as well:  "Capitalistic production collects the population together in great centres, and causes the urban population to achieve an ever-growing preponderance.  This has two results.  On one hand it concentrates the historical motive force of society; on the other hand, it disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e., it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing."  But of course Marxism too failed, for almost simultaneously, it clashed with both industrialization and the inherent ambitions of man.

So once again, we face a test of wills over the future direction we choose to take on an issue that is shared by all.  Does that will exist?  Probably not. 

Agree or disagree...the book deserves a read.  More than that, it deserves some careful thought by those of us with nowhere left to go.

AFTER the torchlight red on sweaty faces
After the frosty silence in the gardens
After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and palace and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
With a little patience.
                                                                                    ---T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland  330

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Convergence...The Green Revolution, Part II

The Green Revolution:

Notes on Christian Parenti's, "Tropic of Chaos."  First though, a few thoughts on definitions.  Parenti refers frequently to what is known as economic neoliberalism. What is it?  Well, try this:

Neoliberalism is an extreme form of economic liberalism whose advocates support for economic liberalizations, free trade, open markets, privatization, deregulation, and shrinking the size of the public sector to allow the private sector to take on a more active role in the economy. 

Okay, two things here. First off is the unsavory habit in this country of hijacking certain words as all-encompassing descriptors.  Liberal, or for that matter, conservative are prime examples. Bad news. They are not always nouns. Both words act as quantifier or relevator [sic] to some other 'thing.'  As in: "I enjoy a liberal amount of Whiskey in my Irish Coffee, yet I am conservative about how many I consume."  Or, "In America, we live in a liberal democracy."  

The second issue is how neoliberalist policy is executed in the agricultural sector, particularly in the developing world where existing systems are often based on sustenance farming, NOT as an extension of the corporate sector.  And it is here, in this arena, that The Green Revolution was born.  And no, in this case, Green was NOT about sustainability, though it did have roots in the the philosophy of a kind of nationalized self-sufficiency in food stocks.  But it quickly morphed into an entirely different sort of animal. 

The theory has most often been attributed to Walt W. Rostow's 1960 theorem: "The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto."  Aha! What a title indeed. Still, it was in line with American foreign policy of the day, in 'containing' communism, rather than going to war over it, though that took a turn for the worse in October of 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  But of course, that was a different sort of 'global warming' altogether.

Theory turned to action when William Gand, head of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) first embraced the 'industrialization' of agriculture through the use of high-yield variety seeds, synthetic fertilizers, chemical pesticides and extensive groundwater-dependent irrigation systems. And of course the World Bank jumped on board since this was seen as another avenue of debt-mitigation for borrower countries, as well as a cash crop to accelerate growth in the industrial sector.  Feeding locals wasn't really the idea, but creating an export market certainly was. Which is how in many areas of the Global South, King Cotton replaced indigenous food crops. However, this high-intensity approach to agriculture created one more nasty little bug:  increased output yielded increased debt. And do remember, global climate change was just an amusing thought in 1970.  

And too, as in Part I, increased yields were immediately followed by rather drastic downturns in production, requiring more scarce capital to even approach status quo production levels. And as liberalization approached neoliberalization -- and climate issues showed up in real time -- these new economic policies were shifting capital resources (investment in logistics and infrastructure like irrigation) away from public-sector venues to private, for-profit corporate structures.  Added to this was deregulation throughout these agrarian systems as agriculture evolved into agri-bizz.   American farmers have had plenty of experience with this phenomena, but have also managed to stay afloat, in many cases by generous government subsidies, increased demand by overseas markets and plain old political clout. All three missing in the Global South. [Parenti}:  "This shift....removed from agriculture many legal protections and government subsidies -- including public credit and public investment in irrigation.  In response to the relative withdrawal of the state, farmer's took on more expenses themselves and, in turn, had to raise capital wherever they could -- that meant from moneylenders.  The more farmers turned to private moneylenders, the more they were under pressure to grow more cotton.  And the more cotton they grew, the lower the prices sank."  And as Parenti alluded to earlier in his book, cotton wasn't edible and the moneylenders controlled the seed crop in order to insure collateral.

But let's back up a minute.  Enter Rachel Carson, circa 1960.    

Rachel Carson
"Silent Spring."

In the late 1950s, Carson turned her attention to conservation, especially environmental problems that she believed were caused by synthetic pesticides. The result was Silent Spring (1962), which brought environmental concerns to the American public. Silent Spring was met with fierce opposition by chemical companies, but it spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy, led to a nationwide ban on DDT for agricultural uses, and inspired an environmental movement that led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Course, DDT didn't disappear. It just moved out of sight -- into the developing world. Carson's book was the opening salvo in the environmental wars that have been waged over the ensuing decades  -- some battles won, many others lost.  Perhaps overlooked in this assessment is that most victories took place in the developed world: the US and western Europe up until the 1991 dissolution of the USSR, which among other things, showcased the horrific environmental damage wrought by unregulated state-driven industry.  In fact, East Germany was so degraded and polluted that Bonn didn't want it back.  They rightly assumed that detoxifying East Germany would likely bankrupt the West German government.

But of course, Carson's premonitions found no voice in the Global South, which quickly became a dumping ground for anything outlawed, banned or considered dangerous to human health or water resources here. And now, some fifty years later...many of these issues have simply escalated in their level of urgency, to the point where water itself is on the endangered list.    

One theme resounds throughout this book: what Parenti refers to as "mitigation and adaptation."  Which means first cutting carbon-dioxide emissions, then adapting agriculture to the new realities.  And while I remain pessimistic about the first, I readily embrace the second, for the Earth itself is subject to the strict rules of evolution -- meaning the wheel always rolls forward   -- action and reaction. Mitigating now will not return us to any previous level.  That is wishful thinking at its most ludicrous extreme. However, serious action now (mitigation) will reduce the level of adaptation needed later.  A bad compromise perhaps, but the only one available.

There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding beside you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
                        ___T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

Part III:

Migration, Violence and the Armed Lifeboat

Didn't work for the Han Chinese, so why do we think it will work here....?