BroadSnark

Thoughts on politics, religion, violence, inequality, social control, change, and random other things from an autonomous, analytical, adopted, abolitionist, anarchist who likes the letter A
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Victims, Villains, and Heroes

September 14, 2012 By: Mel Category: Inequality, Violence

Clint EastwoodWhen I first started delving into the drug war and criminal injustice system, I saw it as a process of dehumanization that I couldn’t ignore. While I had friends who were caught up in the system, as one of the least targeted people, the only connection I saw to my personal life was what I had learned as the grandkid of holocaust refugees.

People ask how atrocities could happen and a whole society be blind to them. While I don’t want to make comparisons between concentration camps and prisons, it isn’t hard for me to see how a whole country could have shut their eyes. People are tortured, raped, and murdered behind bars in this country now and most of us don’t even notice.

But the more I learned about how this particular dehumanization works, the more I realized the special role that I play in it. I’m the victim that excuses the violence.

If you have never read Ida B. Wells on lynchings, you need to. Despite the fact that the majority of black men who were lynched were not even accused of rape, the defenders of lynchings always used the rape of white women as their cover for murder – or as one Southern newspaper put it “the barbarism which preys upon weak and defenseless women.”

How ironic that white men used the rape of white women as their excuse. How many of us in the colonized world are a product of the rape of black and indigenous women by white men – what the Mexicans like to refer to as La Gran Chingada (the great rape)? But women of color are not generally the victims of our national narrative. They are mostly invisible.

As a white woman it is my job to be a victim to excuse the bloodthirst. The boxes people have tried to cram  me into my whole life – weakness, dependency, purity – are really just about playing that role. If you refuse to be defenseless. If you refuse to be appropriately dependent. If you refuse to be fallen. Then there is hell to pay. It isn’t just about control of women and their sexuality. It is that our role as victims is key in a narrative that holds up the authoritarian system.

If there are no victims and no villains then what need do we have for heroes? Our heroes are, of course, violent. Usually, they wear a uniform. Sometimes they might take it off for a night to do their lynchings undercover. But whether it is a cop or a soldier or a vigilante, we accept the armed and violent hero only because we believe in the helpless victim.

The racialized and genderized victim/villain/hero narrative undergirds everything. It is part of the lynchings of 100 years ago. It was there when we were accusing Chinese men of defiling white women to get opium laws passed. It is built into the criminal injustice system that targets men of color. It is part of every war that we fight, the way we use women as an excuse to bomb countries.

And what does it do to the people who are trying to live up to their role as hero by picking up those guns? In order to fit into that hero/man box you have to become a killer. You have to be broken down until whatever it is in you that recognizes another person’s humanity is gone. There is no coming back from that, certainly not for the thousands of soldiers who come back and kill themselves. Not likely for the prison guards either.

I’m not trying to infer equivalency between the experiences of someone sitting in solitary confinement and what is going through the head of the person who put them there. I’m not saying that a white woman’s fight to get out of the victim box can be compared to being lynched. The full weight of the system does not hit us all evenly.

Nor am I saying that people are never victimized, that some of the people in prison have not done horrible things. But most of those people have also been victims. We can all be victimized, villainous, or heroic. The system needs to wedge us into narrow categories in order to feed itself. It needs to provide a narrative that makes it seem like the armed thug’s job is something besides protecting the power and privilege of a handful of people.

We need to understand the connections. If we don’t, we will inevitably end up fighting against one part of the narrative while upholding another.

White women who fight the violence against them in a way that supports, rather than challenges, the racist criminal injustice system will never make life better for women. Black men who fight the criminal injustice system but hold a view that tries to put black women on the same purity pedestal that white women are chained to will never make life better for black people. Anti-authoritarians who don’t understand the role that racism and sexism play in upholding the state will never see it smashed.

For me, understanding the connections means being a really terrible victim. It means refusing the accept the villainization of men – especially men of color. It means refusing to accept the heroization of people with guns – even the ones I may have some sympathy for. It means focusing on the criminal injustice system and the war machine and any other victim/villain/hero narrative that keeps this state alive.

Because if we break those narratives we all get out of our boxes, real and metaphorical. We break the fear. We stop so much of the torture and violence and suffering.

No more victims. No more villains. No more heroes.

Shoot the Messenger

January 09, 2012 By: Mel Category: Change, Politics, Violence

First commandment is not to shoot the messengerTa-Nehisi Coates wrote a post about Ron Paul the other day. He featured a clip of Paul talking about the civil war. In the clip, Tim Russert asks Paul about his statement that “Abe Lincoln should never have gone to war. There were better ways; there were better ways of getting rid of slavery.” Paul stood by his previous statement,

600,000 Americans died in a senseless civil war. No, he shouldn’t have gone to war. He did this just to enhance and to get rid of the original intent of the republic…Slavery was phased out in every other country of the world. The way I’m advising that it should have been done is do like the British empire did. You buy the slaves and release them. How much would that cost compared to killing 600,000 Americans and where it lingered for 100 years. Hatred and all that existed. Every other major country in the world got rid of slavery without a civil war. That doesn’t sound to radical to me. That sounds like a pretty reasonable approach.

Coates put up the video to demonstrate Paul’s ignorance about the civil war, one of the reasons he could never vote for him. (Ever hear of a little place called Haiti, Ron?) The post inspired a lot of comments about war and pacifism. Being Coates’s blog, they were mostly intelligent and thoughtful.

Not so intelligent or thoughtful was this screed on Mondoweiss. Jerome Slater refers to Ron Paul as simpleminded and then goes on to make that tired argument about what Howard Zinn referred to as the “good wars.” I mean what kind of evil, naive, stupid person couldn’t see that we needed to fight the nazis in WWII? Right?

Howard Zinn never claimed to be a pacifist. But he did challenge conventional beliefs about the American Revolution, the Civil War, and WWII. You can see one of his presentations here. Here is what he had to say about the civil war.

You can’t deny that the civil war is fought and slavery is ended. But even while not forgetting that – that is very, very important – it is worthwhile at least looking at the other side of the balance sheet. 600,000 dead in the civil war…in a population of 30 million…600,000 today would mean we fought a civil war in which 5 million people died.

What if we want to end racial segregation, or maybe even slavery? Should we fight a war in which 5 million people died in order to end slavery? Of course, we want slavery to end. But is this the only way it could have been done, with a war that takes 600,000 lives? There are countries in other parts of the world and in the Western hemisphere that did away with slavery and without a bloody war, all over Latin America and the West Indies. It is worth thinking about.

It is not that we want to retain slavery. No. We do want to end slavery. But again, we have to let our imaginations go. Is it possible that slavery might have been ended some other way? Maybe it would have taken longer. This is a very important factor. If you want to avoid horrendous violence and accomplish something, you may have to wait longer. The nice thing about violence, it is fast. You want to accomplish something fast, violence will do it. But very often you can accomplish the same thing without violence if you have a more orchestrated plan of – not submission, not appeasement, not giving in, not allowing the status quo to go on, but – gradually eroding the status quo…

We did not really end slavery. It is not simply they were slaves and now they are free. No they weren’t free. They were put back into serfdom, not slavery, but serfdom after the civil war. They were left without resources. They had to go back and work now for the same plantation owners that they were enslaved by with the same kind of restrictions on them because they had no resources. So to say slavery was ended, not quite true. And as you know, black people then went through 100 years after the supposed end of slavery and after the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments are passed to the constitution promising racial equality. For 100 years after the supposed end of slavery black people are segregated and live as second class human beings.

I think the similarities between what Ron Paul said and what Howard Zinn said are striking. The thing is, I don’t ascribe the same intentions to Ron Paul as I do to Howard Zinn. Paul is a politician who has been associated with all kinds of nasty racism. Zinn was a teacher and civil rights activist who was beloved by former students like Alice Walker.

Kevin Drum says that “Ron Paul is such a profoundly toxic messenger that his support for a non-interventionist foreign policy probably does the cause more harm than good.” He may be right about that. But I think the bigger problem is that we are all to often only capable of hearing ideas when they come from sources we like.

Let’s take another quote.

Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?

That quote almost sounds anarchist. I might think that the person who said it had some interesting ideas. Unfortunately, the quote came from Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address.

One of the truly unfortunate things about politics is that politicians adopt the language of ideas that people respond to, but they only adopt them in order to gain power. Then we associate that language and those ideas with the actions of dishonest, smarmy politicians and close our minds to the ideas themselves.

I’m not trying to defend Ron Paul here. I sure as hell won’t be voting for him (or anyone else). I also think that there are quite a few more things to factor in when thinking about whether or not there was another way to end slavery. Slavery was violence. Slaves were beaten, raped, and killed every day. But it upsets me that people can’t keep an open mind, even when the idea is delivered by a hideous messenger.

Nobody is right all the time. Nobody is wrong all the time. Important ideas can come from unexpected sources. And we need to be able to question everything, to weigh everything, particularly where lives are at stake. It is only by keeping ourselves open to all information, no matter where it comes from, that we have any chance of not repeating the mistakes of the past.

Unlike Paul, Howard Zinn did not make a definitive statement about whether or not the civil war should have been fought. He only asks us to contemplate if there could have been another way.

You have to imagine something that didn’t happen as opposed to accepting something that did happen…Otherwise we are going to be stuck with history. Otherwise we are going to be stuck with doing the same thing over and over again, because this is the only way it can be done.

How is that simpleminded?

Neruda on Memorials

May 31, 2010 By: Mel Category: Misc

Orozco MuralNothing I could say today that Neruda didn’t say better. (My crap English translation is below.)

Sangrienta fue toda tierra del hombre.
Tiempo, edificaciones, rutas, lluvia,
borran las constelaciones del crimen,
lo cierto es que un planeta tan pequeño
fue mil veces cubierto por la sangre,
guerra o venganza, asechanza o batalla,
cayeron hombres, fueron devorados,
luego el olvido fue limpiando
cada metro cuadrado: alguna vez
un vago monumento mentiroso,
a veces una cláusula de bronce,
luego conversaciones, nacimientos,
municipalidades, y el olvido.
Qué artes tenemos para el exterminio
y qué ciencia para extirpar recuerdos!
Está florido lo que fue sangriento.
Prepararse, muchachos,
Para otra vez matar, morir de nuevo,
Y cubrir con flores la sangre.

Bloodied was all of man’s earth
Time, buildings, roads, rain
erase the constellations of the crime,
what is certain is that a planet so small
was a thousand times covered in blood,
war or vengeance, trap or battle,
men fell, they were devoured,
later the oblivion cleaned
every square meter: sometimes
a vague deceitful monument,
sometimes a bronze clause
later conversations, births,
municipalities, and the forgetfulness.
What arts we have for extermination
and what science for eradicating memories!
It is covered with flowers what was bloody.
Prepare yourselves, boys,
To once again kill, to die again,
And cover with flowers the blood.

Monstrous

April 05, 2010 By: Mel Category: Violence

I had a post all ready to put up tonight, but I just watched the video of U.S. soldiers mowing down people on an Iraq street and I can’t think about anything else.    It is so cold, so monstrous.

If you haven’t seen the video yet, it is below.  And remember, as you watch it, that about 32% of your tax dollars go to pay for war.  Remember that at least half of those killed in war are civilians.  Remember that this is still happening in Iraq.  It is happening in Afghanistan.  It happened every place that we have ever sent our soldiers or weapons.  And it will keep happening so long as people continue to be deluded into thinking war can ever be just or moral or righteous or even tolerable.

“In war, the means–indiscriminate killing–are immediate and certain; the ends, however desirable, are distant and uncertain.” Howard Zinn, A Just Cause, Not a Just War.

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Preparing for Peace

January 18, 2010 By: Mel Category: Change, Violence

Many people believe that some injustices are so heinous that violence is not only necessary, it is obligatory.  But they rarely take the next step.  They rarely imagine what would happen after the violence stops, assuming it can be stopped.  Who among them is going to create a better, more just world?  A soldier?

A soldier is not trained to create.  He is trained to destroy.  Military training is about smashing a person’s ego until they are willing to obey without question.  It is about instilling hierarchy.  It is about learning to dehumanize the “enemy.”  It is about suppressing pangs of conscience.  It is about becoming a killer.

When the soldier returns from whatever horrors he has to see and participate in, he brings the horrors back with him.  Returning soldiers have mental health problems.  They are more likely to have drug and alcohol problems.  Many are suicidal.  Some are homicidal.  Is that soldier, with all his problems, the person who will be able to create a better way of life?

Contrast the training of a soldier with the training of a non-violent resister.

Imagine the inner strength, patience, and command over your own emotions it takes to face down dogs without responding with violence?  Imagine the vision that comes from that kind of discipline and self awareness.  How could that not be better preparation for building a more just world?

When James Baldwin and Malcolm X debated each other (recordings below), Malcolm X asserted his right to defend himself.  He claimed that the black man’s freedom rested on his willingness to do “the same thing that Patrick Henry did to make this country what it was for white people.”  And in doing so, he called out the hypocrisy of idolizing the actions of one person and vilifying those same actions when another claims the right to them.

That hypocrisy is indisputable.  So is the fact that Americans idolize violence and violent heroes.  But while Baldwin did not dispute Malcolm X’s facts, he did dispute his conclusions.

“Patrick Henry is not one of my heroes…I don’t see any reason for me, at this late date, to begin modeling myself on an image which I’ve always found frankly to be mediocre and not a standard to which I myself could repair…the only thing that really arms anybody when the chips are down is how closely, how thoroughly, he can relate to himself and deal with the world…I don’t think that a warrior is necessarily a man…It is very difficult to be a man…What it involves, for me anyway, is an ability to look at the world, to look at whatever it is and to say what it is and to deal with it and to face it.

A soldier will have a very hard time looking at the world and seeing it for what it is.  A soldier has to lie to himself.  How could a soldier stand not to?  You can’t make a better world by creating people who can’t look into their own hearts, who have to live in denial of their actions.

We all have the right to defend ourselves, but we also have the obligation to examine what we will become by exercising that right.  If, in the process of becoming the victor, you have to also become a monster, what have you really won?

Terrorists are Criminals, Not Soldiers

December 28, 2008 By: Mel Category: Violence

Terrorism is not new. It did not begin with the twin towers falling. It did not begin with the Oklahoma City bombing. It did not begin with car bombs in Israel. It did not begin with hangings and church fires in the south. But all of these things were terrible, violent, and reprehensible acts of terror.

Wouldn’t it make sense, given humanity’s long history of dealing with terror, to study the cases where terror, if not ended, at least subsided?

In 1963, members of the klu klux klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church and killed four little girls. This was not the first time the kkk had perpetrated acts of terror. They have over the years been responsible for many bombings, hangings, kidnappings and deaths.

If we are to use the logic provided to us by President Bush when he wanted to invade Afghanistan or by Israel when they respond to terrorist attacks by bombing, then we would have expected the United States to fly a bombing mission over Birmingham in 1963. We would have expected that, after they bombed the innocent civilians of Birmingham, they would have blamed the kkk for hiding amongst civilians

But we did not do that. We did not do that, because terrorists are not soldiers. We did not do that because it is the soldiers responsibility to protect civilians, not harm them. We did not do that because many people live in Birmingham who are not terrorists and the idea that they harbored terrorists by having the pure dumb luck of being a Birmingham resident is ridiculous.

What the United States did do, far too slowly and painfully, is investigate the crimes of the kkk. We sent undercover operatives to infiltrate their organizations. We paid off inside informants. We treated terrorists like the criminals they are. (I know many of them walked free for many years and I don’t make light of that travesty, but my point is that the terror began to ease without a war against the entire town.)

Violence is always tragic. War is always tragic. But it is so much more tragic when it is painfully clear that it can never bring the security and peace that most people want. Even if you are not a pacifist, the cold hard fact remains that responding to terrorists with war is irrational and effective only in creating more enemies.

Who is to Blame for Rising Gas Prices? Part 2 of Response to "In Just One Year"

July 25, 2008 By: Mel Category: Politics

There is an email circulating around the internet titled “In Just One Year.” In it the author states that, when democrats took office in 2006, the price of gasoline was $2.19 a gallon. The implication is that the democrats caused the price of gas to go up.

Anyone who has to fill up a gas tank knows that the price of gasoline has gone up, but it has been going up since long before the democrats took control of congress. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has a handy chart showing the rise in gas prices since 1998. (You may have to scroll down a bit on the page.) Note that the average price of gasoline in 1996 was actually around $2.80, not $2.19 as the author of the email claims.

Demand for Oil is Growing, But Supply is Limited and Precarious

The U.S. uses more than 20 million barrels of oil per day, the majority of which is imported (see this handy CIA factbook chart). The next highest consumer is the European union. While we have 40% less population than the EU we use 30% more oil. China and India use only a fraction of what we do (7 million and 2.5 million barrels respectively), but their use has been increasing steadily. China’s oil needs are growing by 4% a year, fueling oil speculation and even Chinese bids for U.S. oil companies (see this article from NPR).

No one knows for sure how much oil there is left or how long our supply can meet the growing demand. According to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), there were 1,204,182 million barrels of oil reserves as of the end of 2007. But OPEC figures are not audited and, although oil is being taken out of the ground, the reserve estimates remain the same year after year. Moreover, estimates don’t necessarily differentiate between oil that can be extracted using present technology, at a reasonable cost, and oil which may be too expensive or difficult to extract.

Whether or not the OPEC figure is correct, we have always known that the supply of oil is finite. This shouldn’t come as a great shock to anyone. The Federal Trade Commission started warning us in 1923 that the supply of U.S. oil was being rapidly depleted. In 1943, former Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes published an article titled “We’re running out of Oil!” And in 1956, a geoscientist by the name of Marion King Hubbert calculated that the United States would reach peak oil sometime between the late 1960s or early 1970s. His prediction proved true. U.S. oil production did peak in the 1970s and has been declining steadily (see this chart from The Heritage Foundation). Scientists have been using Hubbert’s Curve to predict peak oil worldwide. According to the curve, we are reaching worldwide peak oil right about now.

While no one can yet say with certainty whether or not we have hit peak oil, there are a few things we do know for certain. Oil discoveries have been decreasing steadily since the 1960s. See this handy graph published on The Oil Drum for a visual. We also know that oil production has been stagnant since 2005. Many blame the stagnation on the fact that several of the largest oil fields seem to be in decline. Another reason is lack of refinery capacity. We haven’t built a new oil refinery in the United States since 1976. And while refiners have been able to squeeze more and more production out of current facilities, they are running near maximum capacity. (See this article from MSNBC)

Then there are the problems of extraction. Much of the oil that is left is more difficult to extract and produce. It may surprise some of you to know that Canada is our top supplier of crude (see figures on crude imports from the Energy Information Administration). Unfortunately, the biggest reservoir of oil in Canada is in the form of “heavy crude” which is a sandy, sludgy mess that is costlier to extract than lighter versions. (Wired Magazine has an interesting article about it here.) While companies have been able to improve extraction techniques, higher costs to produce will undoubtedly mean higher costs to use.

Transportation shortages and shutdowns have been a problem as well. In 2004, the New York Times ran an article about the shortage of oil tankers and the higher fees companies are having to pay to move their oil around the world. There have also been pipeline problems. In 2006, congress held hearings about a major shutdown of the Alaska Pipeline (a shutdown which led to a spike in gas prices). While the Alaskan shutdown seems to have been human error, other shutdowns have been deliberate. The blowing up of an Iraqi pipeline sent prices upward in March, see article here. Another pipeline attack in Nigeria just occurred this month. On top of which, acts of nature can cause shutdowns and send prices soaring. Gas prices shot up after Katrina, which damaged several refineries. Even less severe storms, like the recent Dolly, will cause production to drop.

Oil is Big Business and Highly Speculative

Profits in the oil business are enormous. Three of the top five Fortune 500 companies of 2008 are oil companies

1. Wal-Mart
2. Exxon Mobil
3. Chevron
4. General Motors
5. ConocoPhillips

In 2007, Exxon made $40.61 billion net profit. To put that in perspective for you, that is double the 2007 budget for the U.S. Department of Energy and about 60% of the U.S. Department of Education budget for the year (sans loans). And lest you think all that profit is going right back into exploration and infrastructure, let me assure you that the employees of these companies are doing just fine. Lee Raymond received $48.5 million the year before he retired from Exxon. And while pensions for most of us shlubs are becoming a quaint thing of ancient history, Raymond was eligible for a pension valued at $98.4 million.

Incredibly, that’s not even where the real money is. If you want the fattest CEO salary, it is all about working for a global investment firm like Goldman Sachs. Four of the 25 most highly paid male executives work for Goldman Sachs Group, each bringing in $40 to $50 million in 2006. Goldman Sachs just so happens to be heavily invested in energy markets. Many believe that the kind of speculative investing that Goldman Sachs does is actually what is causing the bulk of the rise in energy costs. F. William Engdahl blames as much as 60% of the rise in oil prices to speculators. You can read his article, which has a detailed explanation of the oil market here.

Oil was always a crap shoot investment. If you drilled and came up with nothing, you were out a huge chunk of change. The speculation centered on whether or not you would find oil. In 1983, a futures market for oil opened up. Now speculators were guessing, not on whether or not oil would be found, but on how much the price of a barrel of oil was going to be. A firm like Goldman Sachs can buy a future guaranteeing them a set price and, if the price of oil goes up, they get to buy it at the promised cheaper price and resell the paper at a huge profit.

Not surprisingly, Goldman Sachs keeps on predicting higher crude prices. Of course, the higher prices they predict, the more investors run to buy. The more investors run to buy, the higher our gas prices go. While there has been some (barely discernible) talk in congress about ending this speculative frenzy, so far they have done nothing.

The Effect of War on Oil and of Oil on War

Oil prices and availability have always been effected by war. In 1899, they shot up during the Boer War in South Africa and in 1905 because of the Russo Japanese war. German destruction of U.S. oil tankers during World War I led to the complete banning of any pleasure driving in England and to the appointment of the first energy czar in the U.S. World War II saw strict oil rationing, even in the then oil rich United States. Quite simply, war uses a lot of oil. In fact, the U.S. military is the largest oil consumer in the world.

In the case of our current war, the oil factor is even more acute. Our war is being fought on top of the fourth largest oil reserve in the world. The war shut down oil production in Iraq and it still has not recovered. Of course, there are many people who believe oil was a factor (if not the factor) driving the war to begin with. I won’t go into the arguments here, as the case has been laid out in many places. I’ll just point you towards a few articles.

Regardless of whether or not you think the Iraq war is about oil, what is indisputable is that military superiority depends on oil. In World War I, it was oil powered tanks and trucks that defeated the Germans (who still relied on the railroads to transport their troops). In World War II, Rommel’s defeat in North Africa was due in large part to lack of oil, as was Germany’s defeat in Russia. And it was the successful bombing campaigns against Germany’s synthetic fuel industry that helped ensure their defeat at the Battle of the Bulge.

In short, the nation with the largest and most secure oil supply has the advantage. Given that fact, not to mention our dependence on oil for everything from food production to home heating, wouldn’t it be absurd for a U.S. leader not to take oil into consideration when making decisions about war?

So Why is the Price of Gas so High and Who is to Blame?

The essential problem is basic supply and demand. The supply is only getting smaller and the demand is only getting bigger. The volatile political situation in the areas where much of the oil is located doesn’t help. Neither does the greedfest fueled by Wall Street speculators. The fact that the value of the U.S. dollar has been steadily declining isn’t making things any easier. Our insatiable appetite for energy wasting McMansions and gas guzzling SUVs isn’t helping much either. And factoring in the environmental costs of burning fossil fuels isn’t likely to make things any cheaper.

Ultimately, we all have to take some of the blame. In 1973, Nixon delivered the first presidential address on energy and called for an Apollo type program for energy independence. James Schlesinger, who worked in the Carter administration, tried to come up with a plan to wean us off oil and promote conservation, but we didn’t listen. Instead of learning lessons from the gas crises of the 1970s, we continued to operate for 35 years as though oil would last forever. Even as recently as 2006, our government was cutting funding for research into renewable energy. We could blame the various administrations (democrat and republican) for this fiasco, but most of us weren’t exactly clamoring for more responsible policies.

Reference

Yergin, Daniel. 1991. The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power. New York: Free Press.