SYRIZA’s Two Months in Government: Difficulties and Challenges

Canadian Dimension - March 31, 2015 - 4:28pm

Photo by Ben Folley

The First Round of Negotiations

Almost a month after the agreement of the 20th of February between the new Greek government, the European Institutions and the IMF, we need to know where we stand. “We” in this case is not the government. It is not even Syriza’s members and voters. “We” includes all those who understand the necessity of a strong democratic reply to aggressive neoliberalism and the austerity it imposes on the people of Europe, and who perceive the victory of Syriza as a gleam of hope against a conservative and reactionary turn of Europe. It extends to all democratic and politically liberal citizens who worry about the fate of democracy and who want to continue fighting for a better future for the working people in Greece and in Europe. For that reason it is important that we understand what exactly is happening and why it is happening.

A lot has been written during the last three weeks on the content and the interpretation of February’s agreement. Many rushed to shout that Syriza had betrayed its electoral promises and moved away from the vision of social change that has inspired the Left in Greece and in Europe over these difficult years. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

First of all, one needs to be clear about the difficulties the government has been facing during this time. On the one hand, it must meet its payment obligations – internally and externally – under harsh liquidity conditions. On the other hand it must prioritize and apply its reform program, starting from the principle of comforting those most in need (the first and – so far – the only law passed by the government concerns the humanitarian crisis), and moving to the restoration of social rights and social justice, restarting the economy, and understanding the workings of the state as a necessary condition for its transformation. And it has to do so in the context of mounting political pressure constantly pointing to the fact that there is no other way Europe can go, than continuous, blind-folded consolidation.

This is how we have to look at February 20th – as a hard compromise reached from an unfavourable position.

The Second Round of Negotiations

Let us now turn to what has happened this month. The main goal of the government was to stand on its ground. Politically, this meant defending its position that all past agreements connected to failed austerity policies (including the conclusion of the 5th review of the Second Adjustment Program) should be abandoned, and that the basis for cooperation between Greece and its creditors would be the list of reforms sent by the Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, as a complement to the political agreement of the 20th. It also meant that the scope of cooperation would be a common concern about creating the conditions for Greece to grow, and that any evaluation would be in line with the spirit of this common target.

Unfortunately, this is not how some of our creditors interpreted the intentional ambiguity of the decision. What we have seen during the last week is the explicit violation of its political spirit and a concerted effort to restore the status quo ante, both in literal terms as well as in terms of process, taking advantage of the fact that neither time nor money played on the Greek side. This is how we can interpret the constant reference of [German Finance Minister] Wolfgang Schauble (and others) to the “Troika,” the “closing of the current agreement” and the “respect of the obligations of the Greek state.” Vagueness thus became a double-edge sword: on the one hand it gave the government breathing space in order to organize and push forward its own agenda, but on the other hand it left the field open for objective difficulties to work their way into the process. Resistance to this demands a great deal of decisiveness as well as hard work.

Democratic Control and Solidarity

Two things are indispensable in this process: solidarity on the one hand, and an honest, realistic and constructive perception of democratic control, on the other. The questions arising for the Left at this time are very serious and complex. And they are rightly being brought into the debate as a mechanism of maintaining our orientation regarding the strategy and the tactics of social transformation. What we have claimed is that Europe can be transformed into a fairer, more equal and more prosperous economic and political area, inextricably connected and accountable to its citizens. Whether this claim is correct, we cannot say yet. It is true that the indications don’t look very promising. But ruptures are there and coalitions are possible. What we say is that we should go to the limits of this strategy, and try to take advantage of everything that democracy and politics allows us to.

Honest and constructive criticism is one thing, but abandoning the project while it is taking its first steps is a whole other. For better or for worse, Syriza at this point is a big bet for the Left in Europe and it needs all the support it can get. For the government to stand on its feet, it has to keep its forces together. This requires constant availability of information regarding the dilemmas and the difficulties it faces, open discussion of the reasons for moving one way or the other in crucial circumstances, and closeness to its social and political allies both in Greece and abroad.

Challenges Ahead: “New Conditions, New Tasks”

The breathing space won by Syriza last month is not sufficient for its success. Syriza’s strength in its short march to power has been its effectiveness to provide a voice for the popular social alliance that was formed during the crisis, to inspire and mobilize it. As the party moves into power, given its relatively weak organizational structure, its major challenge is to sustain and even expand its presence in the social field.

The danger for Syriza is to be subsumed by its governmental duties and to abandon the major component of the strategy that led it into success. The dangers of the electoral success of the left parties are well known. Governmentalism and parliamentarism are the foremost documented causes of the deradicalization of the left in power. However, in the Greek case there are more concrete concerns that Syriza should be vigilant about: The transferring of the party cadres into the state apparatus has not only further weakened the party’s organization but it is bound to contribute to the cartelization of the party and therefore runs the danger of reproducing post-democratic trends. At the same time, since the main focus of the political debates are the negotiations with the debtors, the possibility of public discourse turning more technocratic, will move us straight to the strategic trajectory of the other side. This in turn, unless challenged, can lead to de-politicization and to the marginalization of the political and ideological coordinates of the party. As long as the base of Syriza’s rhetoric remains confined to the arguments around the country’s fiscal and economic problems, this undermines the mobilizing capacity of the party. Finally, the social crisis has created such expectations that the pressures to bypass the existing networks of solidarity and find solutions away from collective structures and relations will become acute.

Furthermore, as the short march to power and especially the forced government coalition with the Independent Greeks has inevitably resulted in the last few months in a watering down of the class rhetoric in favour of a more “national” one, the danger of undermining the radical profile of Syriza becomes visible. This, in combination with the fact that there is not enough time for the new members to get socialized within the party’s radical culture, are issues that need to be confronted before the latter get alienated. Here the educating functions of the party have to be beefed up now more than ever before.

The Party – Government Relation

As the new conditions have brought forward a number of challenges, the question of the relationship of the party to the government has become more timely than ever before. The debate within the party has heated up, as for example in the first meeting of the Central Committee (CC). The CC elected its new secretary (T. Koronakis, a very promising cadre of the younger generation) and a new sparsely populated Political Secretariat and in a sense opened the debate on the party’s “new tasks.” In addition to numerous technical arrangements, the major challenge of the party is to not abandon the strategy that brought Syriza into power: namely to continue and even advance its presence in the social field. To many, the success in this task will solidify the social alliance among the subordinate social classes (working class, unemployed, the poor) with the traditional and the new petite bourgeoisie, which are being squeezed dramatically by the new patterns of accumulation intensified by the crisis. This is the key to maintaining Syriza’s radical orientation and will guarantee not losing sight of the goal of social transformation.

In this sense, the role and the everyday practice of the party should not change. Syriza should continue to push for the democratization of public institutions, building upon the experiences and innovative advances of the social movements and keeping technocratic restraints to a minimum. In addition, the crisis has given rise to nationalist feelings which have left their imprint on the governmental coalition of Syriza with the Independent Greeks. The party should continue to maintain its internationalist perspective and fight parochialism. As the continuation of aggressive austerity in the EU is pushed by the dominant social interests under the hegemonic influence of Germany, the danger of fueling nationalism in the country is real. Syriza should be more than vigilant in this regard.

One of the key tasks of Syriza’s government is the restoration of the rule of law. Civil rights and liberties as well as legal and constitutional arrangements have suffered dramatically over the last five years from the memorandums. The party’s task is not simply to justify and support the incoming democratic reforms of the government but to find ways to connect and ground them in class issues. Finally, the discourse and the practice of Syriza’s presence in the institutions of social and political representation should continue to be socially-centered. As Syriza’s participation in various collectives and social and political institutions expands, provisions should be made for breaking away from the established pattern of statism. This is the only way to undermine the old habits and patterns of the old regime before the latter proves dominant and infiltrates Syriza’s own new radical ways.

All these, in addition to some fine tuning of the party’s constitution that is needed, are some of the major challenges Syriza faces in the current conjuncture. These are not easy tasks. However, no one ever said that social transformation and the democratization of state–society relations is a picnic. With the radical party culture of Syriza as a guarantee, it is something that can be done, so long as we are conscious that class struggle does not stop at the door step of the party.

Elena Papadopoulou is an economist and Scientific Advisor to SYRIZA.

Michalis Spourdalakis is a Professor for Political Science, University of Athens.

This article originally appeared on SocialistProject.ca.

Categories: Netted News

How One Group of Activists Disrupted a Major Fracking Event

AlterNet.org - March 31, 2015 - 4:20pm
A group of protesters try to stop Big Oil from polluting public drinking water.

We were 20 minutes into one of the most boring Power Point presentations I have ever seen. While we looked at “shaded areas of cross-sections of multiple productive zones of oil fields,” the regulator was droning on and on. You’d think I’d be nodding off. But no, my heart was beating and my palms were sweating. I was about to do one of the boldest actions I have done since becoming an activist three and a half years ago.

Professionally dressed in a sedate gray dress and heels, I was seconds away from disrupting something called an “aquifer exemption workshop” led by DOGGR, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, the very state agency that recently had been exposed for illegally allowing oil companies to inject toxic fracking wastewater into 2,500 wells near California aquifers.

Since learning about the horrific practice of hydro-fracturing, commonly known as fracking, three years ago, I have signed petitions, lobbied legislators, attended and organized rallies and spoken at conferences and on the radio. I even led a statewide petition campaign in 2013 that garnered 20,000 signatures, asking a state senator to withdraw her weak fracking regulatory bill and fight for a ban instead. The senator did not listen, and a year after the legislation was passed, as predicted, it was being ignored.

We found out about this “aquifer exemption workshop” where the regulators would outline “the data requirements and process for requesting an aquifer exemption under the Safe Drinking Water Act,” so Big Oil could continue to pollute our drinking water. Californians Against Fracking, a coalition of over 200 organizations in the state, was planning to do a demonstration outside the workshop. But some of us wanted to go one step further and actually disrupt the meeting.

I have been inspired by the work of Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers, from PopularResistance.org, who have been disrupting governmental hearings in DC since 2009. I have also long admired the work of Medea Benjamin and the fearless activists of CodePink. The boldest thing I had ever done was point my finger at an LAPD officer who stopped me from leading a net neutrality march two blocks from the site of an Obama fundraiser last year. So it didn’t take me too long to tell the group that I was on board.

We had an organizing call the night before the workshop where we determined the plan of action. After discussing several scenarios, we decided that we would scatter around the room. That way if security tried to drag us out, it would take them longer to get every one of us, and by then, we would have finished delivering the message we had scripted out. We were told that a room had been rented in the Long Beach Holiday Inn where the workshop was. We agreed to meet there the next morning to rehearse.

Arriving at the hotel two hours before the workshop, I was pleasantly surprised to see how well we activists had “cleaned up,” dressed in our best professional business attire. It was decided that Susan, a local Long Beach resident, would be the first to interrupt by asking the innocent question, “What is this workshop all about?” And then the disarming zinger: “Is it to teach them how to continue to poison our water?”

A few minutes later I would chime in. Right after that, Alicia Rivera from Communities for a Better Environment would pull out two bottles of “frack water,” bring them to the regulators and ask them if they would drink it. Then Antonietta would shout out, “This must stop.” We would all stand up and echo her. As Alex Nagy from Food and Water Watch and Elizabeth Lerer, a grassroots activist, unfurled our banner which said, “Gov. Brown, Stop Letting Big Oil Poison Our Water,” Hamid Assian from FWW would deliver a pink slip to the regulators and tell them they were all fired. We would close by reciting in unison a manifesto of how “we the people” would not allow them to continue to poison our water and then start chanting until they hauled us out of there.

Clark Davis, from thesyndicate.info, a grassroots media collective, would videotape. Lou Noble, from Peoples Media By the Peoples, would livestream. Lorraine from Occupy Venice would shoot stills. And Walker Foley from FWW would liaise with the cops. We agreed that as soon as he raised his fist, it would be time to leave. It was decided by consensus that this was not to be an arrestable action. We rehearsed it several times with Antonietta advising us where to pause, and Walker played the regulator. After a few run-throughs, we high-fived ourselves. It was tight.

But there were some uncertainties. What if we had to sign in? Would we use our real names or make up identities? Walker became Trevor Jones from Entek, a small Colorado energy company looking into the Los Angeles market. I decided to be a law student from a nearby law school.

Our worries were in vain. There was no sign-in table and no security. The few CHP officers on the premises were outside monitoring the protest on the street. We walked right in and assumed our places being very intent not to look at each other.

Everything went as planned. Susan asked her question. The regulator responded that there would be time for questions afterward. Then a couple minutes later, I stood up. “I’m sorry. I just have to say one thing. This is backwards. It was just announced in the news that industry injected 2,500 wells illegally, and DOGGR admitted they didn’t know this was going on. Shouldn't you be having a workshop on how to stop that instead of how to get around, to get exempt from these regulations?” 

The presenter responded, “Actually, we have a compliance agreement with EPA that we will discuss as part of the presentation. I really would prefer that people not interrupt the presentation. This is not about having a protest when we’re trying to get something accomplished.” 

Now it was Alicia’s turn: “I actually brought some poisoned water to show everyone what we’re going to be exposed to and forced to drink if this poisoning of our water by our regulators continues.” She approached the podium and placed the bottles in front of the regulators. “Would you feel like drinking this water?” 

“Excuse me, ma’am, we will have…” the official started to say. 

“Excuse me, said Alicia. "Try this water and tell us if you feel like drinking the water that you are polluting for our children, and for us, and that you have been allowing for so long! You are the regulators!”

Antoinetta piped in: “This needs to stop.”

Everybody stood up. “This needs to stop,” we shouted in unison.

Cue Hamid: “You are our regulators. You are have violated your mission. We hereby serve you your pink slip. Thank you.”

He placed the paper down and led us in this recitation: “We, the people of California, fire you from your post. Shame on you, for colluding with Big Oil, to poison our aquifers. In this year of record drought, in this era of a warming climate, it is reprehensible that you are teaching them how to exploit our laws to poison our water!” 

“Our aquifers are not toxic waste dumps!” shouted Mark Lipman from the back of the room.

Then we chanted over and over, “One, we are the people!/Two, you can’t ignore us!/Three, we will not let you/poison our water!” 

To our surprise, the regulators didn’t try to shut us up. Security didn’t storm the room. None of the workshop attendees booed us. So we continued to chant for three minutes. (Had we anticipated we would be allowed to go on for so long, we probably would have come up with more chants.) One woman approached Alex and told her we had to leave. But Alex just smiled and kept chanting. The woman then tried to reason with Hamid.

After the hotel officials left the conference room, presumably to call the cops, Mark started another chant: “Shame on you!” punctuated with Alicia calling out, “The regulators!” 

As two uniformed police officers entered, I decided to start a new chant, “Ban fracking now!” Then Walker raised his fist. We all raised our fists and started filing out, chanting our final message: “Water can’t be poisoned for private wealth. We will fight for our children’s health!” Once outside the room, we chanted, “Shame on you! We’ll be back!” 

After the room quieted inside, one conference attendee remarked, “They take our water seriously!” The man delivering the presentation responded, “So do we, we take your water seriously too.” 

Obviously this is not the case. DOGGR admitted to wrongly issuing about 500 permits for waste disposal wells that violate both federal and state law. However, the state has shut down just 23 of the hundreds of illegal wells that have dumped billions of gallons of hazardous oil waste into protected aquifers. More than 2,000 enhanced oil recovery wells are also operating illegally in protected aquifers.

Up to half of California wells are fracked. Oil companies’ own tests show high levels of cancer-causing benzene in flowback fluid from fracked wells in California. Those tests found benzene at levels as high as 1,500 times the federal limits for drinking water. Those documents also show that fracking flowback is typically disposed of in wastewater injection wells. 

Produced water, which comes from fracked wells and conventional wells alike, also can contain high levels of benzene and other chemicals. State oil officials’ own study detected levels thousands of times the federal limits. In California, roughly 113 billion gallons of produced water is dumped into wastewater disposal wells each month. 

After the illegal aquifer dumping was revealed earlier this year, more than 150 environmental and community groups filed a legal petition urging Gov. Brown to use his emergency powers to place a moratorium on fracking and other well stimulation techniques. And just last week, eight California legislators sent a letter to Gov. Brown asking him to immediately shut down all injection wells.

After we left the hotel, we joined up with the activists on the street who were chanting “Governor Brown, it’s not too late, protect the water of our state.” We had a de-brief of our action, talking about what worked and what we could have done better. But by and large, we were all pretty pleased with what we had accomplished. The only downside was there was no mainstream media there to share our wonderful action with the people of California. So we rushed off to edit videos, write articles and do our magic on social media. (Watch the video of our inside disruption here and the video of the outside protest here.)

Last weekend, on “Meet the Press,” Jerry Brown said despite the drought, despite the fact that a NASA scientist said there is only one year’s worth of water left in our reservoirs, and despite the fact that fracking and other extreme extraction processes use two millions of gallons of fresh water a day, he saw no reason to ban fracking.

It may be time to ramp up our tactics. Who knows? Next time we might chain ourselves to an oil derrick.

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Categories: Netted News

No One Is Free Until All Are Free

Canadian Dimension - March 31, 2015 - 4:17pm

Illustration by Denitza Tchacarova

This column is adapted from a talk Chris Hedges gave Friday night at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia—The scourge of male violence against women will not end if we dismantle the forces of global capitalism. The scourge of male violence exists independently of capitalism, empire and colonialism. It is a separate evil. The fight to end male violence against women, part of a global struggle by women, must take primacy in our own struggle. Women and girls, especially those who are poor and of color, cannot take part in a liberation movement until they are liberated. They cannot offer to us their wisdom, their leadership and their passion until they are freed from physical coercion and violent domination. This is why the fight to end male violence across the globe is not only fundamental to our movement but will define its success or failure. We cannot stand up for some of the oppressed and ignore others who are oppressed. None of us is free until all of us are free.

On Friday night at Simon Fraser University—where my stance on prostitution, expressed in a March 8 Truthdig column titled “The Whoredom of the Left,” had seen the organizers of a conference on resource extraction attempt to ban me from the gathering, an action they revoked after protests from radical feminists—I confronted the sickness of a predatory society. A meeting between me and students arranged by the university had been canceled. Protesters gathered outside the hall. Some people stormed out of the lecture room, slamming the doors after them, when I attacked the trafficking of prostituted women and girls. A male tribal leader named Toghestiy stood after the talk and called for the room to be “cleansed” of evil—this after Audrey Siegl, a Musqueam Nation woman, emotionally laid out what she and other women face at the hands of male predators—and one of the conference organizers, English professor Stephen Collis, seized the microphone at the end of the evening to denounce me as “vindictive.” It was a commercial for the moral bankruptcy of academia.

Moral collapse always accompanies civilizations in decline, from Caligula’s Rome to the decadence at the end of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. Dying cultures always become hypersexualized and depraved. The primacy of personal pleasure obtained at the expense of others is the defining characteristic of a civilization in its death throes.

Edward Said defined sexual exploitation as a fundamental feature of Orientalism, which he said was a “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” Orientalism, Said wrote, views “itself and its subject matter with sexist blinders. … [The local] women are usually the creatures of a male power-fantasy. They express unlimited sensuality, they are more or less stupid, and above all they are willing.” Moreover, he went on, “[w]hen women’s sexuality is surrendered, the nation is more or less conquered.” The sexual conquest of indigenous women, Said pointed out, correlates with the conquest of the land itself.

Sexual violence directed at Asian women by white men—and any Asian woman can tell you how unrelenting and commonplace such violence and sexualized racism are—is a direct result of Western imperialism, just as sexual violence against aboriginal women is a direct result of white colonialism. And the same behavior is found in war and on the outskirts of the massive extraction industries that often spawn wars, such as those I reported on in Congo.

This sexualized racism, however, is hardly limited to wars or extraction sites. It is the driving force behind the millions of First World male sexual tourists who go to the developing world, as well as those who seek out poor women of color who are trafficked to and thrown into sexual bondage in the industrialized world.

Extraction industries, like wars, empower a predominantly male, predatory population that is engaged in horrific destruction and violence. Wars and extraction industries are designed to extinguish all systems that give life—familial, social, cultural, economic, political and environmental. And they require the obliteration of community and the common good. How else could you get drag line operators in southern West Virginia to rip the tops off Appalachian mountains to get at coal seams as they turn the land they grew up in, and often their ancestors grew up in, into a fetid, toxic wasteland where the air, soil and water will be poisoned for generations? These vast predatory enterprises hold up the possibility of personal wealth, personal advancement and personal power at the expense of everyone and everything else. They create a huge, permanent divide between the exploiters and the exploited, one that is rarely crossed. And the more vulnerable you are, the more the jackals appear around you to prey on your afflictions. Those who suffer most are children, women and the elderly—the children and the elderly because they are vulnerable, the women because they are left to care for them.

The sexual abuse of poor girls and women expands the divide between the predators and the prey, the exploiters and the exploited. And in every war zone, as in every boomtown that rises up around extraction industries, you find widespread sexual exploitation by bands of men. This is happening in the towns rising up around fracking in North Dakota.

The only groups that wars produce in greater numbers than prostituted girls and women are killers, refugees and corpses. I was with U.S. Marine Corps units that were soon to be shipped to the Philippines, where their members would visit bars to pick up prostituted Filipina women they referred to LBFMs—Little Brown Fucking Machines, a phrase coined by the U.S. occupation troops that arrived in the Philippines in 1898.

Downtown San Salvador when I was in El Salvador during the war there was filled with streetwalkers, massage parlors, brothels and nightclubs where girls and women, driven into the urban slums because of the fighting in their rural communities, bereft of their homes and safety, often cut off from their families, were being pimped out to the gangsters and warlords. I saw the same explosion of prostitution when I reported from Syria, Sarajevo, Belgrade, Nairobi, Congo—where Congolese armed forces routinely raped and tortured girls and women near Anvil Mining’s Dikulushi copper mine—and when I was in Djibouti, where girls and women, refugees from the fighting across the border in Ethiopia, were herded by traffickers into a poor neighborhood that was an outdoor market for human flesh.

Sexual slavery—and not incidentally pornography—is always one of war’s most lucrative industries. This is not accidental. For war, like destroying the planet for plunder, is also a predatory endeavor. It is a denial of the sacred. It is a turning away from reverence. Human beings, like the Earth itself, become objects to destroy or be gratified by, or both. They become mere commodities that have no intrinsic value beyond monetary worth. The pillage of the Earth, like war, is about lust, power and domination. The violence, plunder, destruction, forced labor, torture, slavery and, yes, prostitution are all part of unfettered capitalism, a single evil. And we will stand united or divided against this evil. To ignore parts of this evil, to say that some forms of predatory behavior are acceptable and others are not, will render us powerless in its face. The goal of the imperialists and corporate oligarchs is to keep the oppressed divided. And they are doing a good job.

We must start any fight against capitalism or environmental degradation by heeding the suffering and plaintive cries of the oppressed, especially those of women and girls who are subjugated by male violence. While capitalism exploits racism and gender inequality for its own ends, while imperialism and colonialism are designed to reduce women in indigenous cultures to sexual slaves, racism and gender inequality exist independently from capitalism. And if not consciously named and fought they will exist even if capitalism is destroyed.

This struggle for the liberation of women, which goes beyond the goal of dismantling corporate capitalism, asks important and perhaps different questions about the role of government and use of law, as radical feminists such as Lee Lakeman have pointed out. Women who engage in the struggle for liberty across the globe need laws and effective policing to stop from being blackmailed, bullied and denied access to cash and to resources that sustain life, especially as they are disproportionately left with the care of the sick, the young, the old and the destitute. It is male violence against women that is the primary force used to crush the global collective revolt of women. And male violence against feminists, who seek a more peaceful, egalitarian and sustaining world, is pervasive. To challenge prostitution, to challenge objectification, to challenge hypersexualization of women is to often be threatened with rape. To challenge mining, to stand up to protect water, to assist a truth teller, if you are a woman, is often to be threatened with not only economic destitution but violence leading to prostitution. We must as activists end that objectification of women and end male violence. If we do not, we will never have access to the ideas and leadership of women, and in particular women of color, which is essential to creating an inclusive vision for a better future. So while we must decry violence and exploitation against all of the oppressed, we must also recognize that male violence against women—including prostitution and its promoter, pornography—is a specific and separate global force. It is a tool of capitalism, it is often a product of imperialism and colonialism, but it exists outside capitalism, imperialism and colonialism. And it is a force that men in general, including, sadly, most men on the left, refuse to acknowledge, much less fight. This is why the struggle for women’s liberty is absolutely crucial to our movement. Without that freedom we will fail.

Abuse and especially sexual abuse of women are commonplace in war zones. I interviewed Muslim girls and women who were forced into Serbian brothels and rape camps, usually after their fathers, husbands and brothers had been executed. And in preparing a Truthdig column headlined “Recalled to Life” I spoke with a woman who was prostituted on the streets of Camden, N.J.—according to the Census Bureau the poorest city in the United States, a city where I spent many weeks with the cartoonist Joe Sacco doing research for our book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.

“They’d suck your dick for a hit of crack,” Christine Pagano said of prostituted women on Camden’s streets, adding that the men refused to wear condoms. “Camden was like nothing I had ever seen before. The poverty is so bad. People rob you for $5, literally for $5. They would pull a gun on you for no money. I would get out of cars, I would walk five feet up the road and get held up. And they would take all my money. The first time it happened to me I cried an hour. You degrade yourself. You get out of the car. And some guy pulls a gun on you.”

“I gave up on everything at that point, I wanted to die,” she said. “I didn’t care anymore. All the guilt and the shame and leaving my son, not talking to my son, not talking to my family.”

“The last time was the most brutal,” she said. “It was on Pine Street near the Off Broadway [Lounge]. There’s weeds on the side. I never took tricks off the street. They had to be in cars. But I was sick. I was tired.”

A man on the street had offered her $20 to perform oral sex. But once they were in the weeds he pulled out a knife. He told her if she screamed he would kill her. When she offered some resistance he stabbed her.

“He was trying to stab me in my vagina,” she said. He stabbed her thigh. “It’s kind of bad because I actually never ended up doing anything about it [the wound]. It ended up turning into a big infection.”

“He made me hold his phone that had porn on it,” she said. “He never really pulled his pants all the way down. And at this point I’m bleeding pretty badly. I’m lying on glass outside of this bar. I had like little bits of glass in my back. I remember being really scared. Then it just got to the point where I was just numb. I asked him if he could stop at one point so I could smoke a cigarette. He let me. I got him to put the knife down because I was being good and listening to him. He stabbed the knife in the dirt. He said, ‘Just so you know I can pick it up at any point.’ I think in his head he thought that I was scared enough. In my head I was trying to figure out how the hell I was going to get outta there. And it occurred to me one of the things he kept asking me to do was lick his butt. And he was getting off on this. The last time he turned around and asked me to do this I pushed him. I had myself set up to get up.”

Artwork by Max Slevogt

She ran naked into the street. The commotion attracted the police. A passerby gave her his shirt to cover up. At 5 feet 5 inches tall she weighed only 86 pounds. Her skin was gray. Her feet were so swollen she was wearing size 12 men’s slippers.

The years I spent as a war correspondent did not leave me untouched. I lost to violence many of those I worked with, including LKurt Schork, with whom I covered the wars in Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo. I was captured and taken prisoner in Basra during the Shiite uprising following the Gulf War and ended up in the hands of Iraqi secret police. I know a little of what it is like to be helpless and physically abused. And after Saddam Hussein drove the Kurds out of northern Iraq, my translator, a young woman, disappeared in the chaotic flight of the Kurds. It took me weeks to find her. And when I did she was being pimped out, numb with trauma. The experience of hearing her sobs would cure anyone of the notion that selling your body for sex is like trading a commodity on the stock market.

Imagine what it would be like for your mouth, your vagina and your rectum to be penetrated every day, over and over, by strange men who called you “bitch,” “slut,” “cunt” and “whore,” who slapped and hit you, and then to be beaten by a pimp. This is not sex. And it is not sex work. It is gang rape.

Before I arrived in Vancouver, some of the conference organizers issued a public message commenting on my condemnation of prostitution, saying that prostitution was “complex and multifaceted.” The note went on to assure participants in the conference that the Institute of the Humanities at the university did not “take sides in this difficult and extremely contentious debate.”

But there is nothing complex or multifaceted about prostitution, not when you strip it down to its brutal physical act. It turns you into a piece of meat. It does not matter if it occurs in an alley or a hotel room. And the inevitable diseases, emotional trauma and physical injuries that arise for the women, along with a shortened life expectancy, are well documented in study after study.

Prostitution fits perfectly into the paradigm of global capitalism. The physical scars, diseases and short lives of the miners I lived with at the Siglo XX tin mine in Bolivia—most of whom died in middle age from silicosis—are yet another manifestation of the predatory nature of capitalism. No one chooses to die of silicosis or black lung disease. No one chooses to sell his or her body on the street. You go into the mines, just as you go into prostitution, because global capitalism does not offer you a choice.

“In Canada young women and girls of Native descent are forced into street prostitution in numbers far disproportionate to white women,” I was told by Summer Rain Bentham, a Squamish Nation woman who lived and worked on the streets of the impoverished Downtown Eastside in Vancouver and who courageously rose from her seat in the lecture hall and joined me at the podium in solidarity after the talk. “Our lives are deemed less valuable because the Western world has decided that we are worthless. These racist views create a hierarchy based on race even within prostitution itself for women. This means some women are indoors in strip clubs or ‘agencies’—sometimes she might be educated, and in some cases she might actually believe she has [an] option other than prostitution. This racist hierarchy leaves aboriginal women on the bottom in this case in survival prostitution with no choices, experiencing a level of violence that is hard to fathom or comprehend. Violence that will never leave her and that is perpetuated by men not only because we are women, but because we are Native women. It is men’s privilege, power and entitlement in the world that keeps women entrenched in prostitution. It is men who benefit from Native women continuing to be at the bottom. Prostitution is not what most women who have ever been prostituted or women who have never faced being prostituted would choose to do. Prostitution is not what we want for any women or girl.”

We are called to build a world where all people have the opportunity to choose security, safety and well-being over jobs that leave them traumatized, sick, maimed and even destroyed. I don’t see the point of this fight if that is not our goal.

Sexual violence and sexual submission cannot be set apart from unfettered capitalism and the legacy of colonialism and imperialism, however much the traffickers, pimps, brothel and massage parlor owners, johns and their apologists might like for them to be. They are integral pieces of a world where wholesale industrial slaughter has killed hundreds of innocents in Gaza and more than a million innocents in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the mentally ill are thrown onto streets, where a country like the United States warehouses 2.3 million people, mostly poor people of color, 25 percent of the world’s prison population, in cages for decades, where life for the working poor is one long emergency. It is all one world. It is all one system. And this system, in its entirety, must be overthrown and destroyed if we are to have any hope of enduring as a species.

It is not accidental that many of the Abu Ghraib images that were released resemble stills from porn films. There is a shot of a naked man kneeling in front of another man as if performing oral sex. There is a photo of a naked man on a leash held by a female American soldier. There are photos of naked men in chains. There are photos of naked men stacked one on top of the other in a pile on the floor as if in a prison gangbang. And there are hundreds more classified photos that purportedly show forced masturbation by Iraqi prisoners and the rape of prisoners, including young boys, by U.S. soldiers, many of whom were schooled in these torture techniques in our vast system of mass incarceration.

The sexualized images reflect the racism, callousness and perversion that run like a raging undercurrent through our predatory culture. It is the language of absolute control, total domination, racial hatred, slavery and humiliating submission. It is a world without pity. It is about reducing human beings to commodities, to objects. And it is part of a cultural malaise that will kill us as assuredly as the continued exploitation of the Alberta tar sands.

The object of corporate culture, neoliberal ideology, imperialism and colonialism is to strip people of their human attributes. Our identity as distinct human beings must be removed. Our history and our dignity must be obliterated. The goal is to turn every form of life into a commodity to exploit. And girls and women are high on the list. In my book “Empire of Illusion” I devote a chapter, the longest chapter in the book, to pornography, which is in essence filmed prostitution. In porn a woman is not a person but a toy, a pleasure doll. She exists to gratify whatever desire a male might have. She has no other purpose. Her real name vanishes. She adopts a cheap and vulgar stage name. She becomes a slave. She is filmed being degraded and physically abused. She is filmed being tortured—with the majority of those tortured in movies being Asian women. These movies are sold to customers. The customers are aroused by the illusion that they too can dominate and abuse women. Absolute power over another, as I saw repeatedly in wartime, almost always expresses itself through sexual sadism.

Capitalism, along with imperialism and colonialism, its natural extension, is perpetuated by racist stereotypes. This dehumanization is expressed in the film “American Sniper,” in which Iraqis, including women and children, are turned into one-dimensional, evil human bombs that deserve to be gunned down by the film’s hero. Those who set out to destroy another people and their land must dehumanize those who live on, nurture and love that land. This dehumanization is used to justify domination. Imperialism, like colonialism, depends on racial stereotypes, including sexualized racism and the forced prostitution of women of color, to annihilate the culture, dignity and finally resistance of indigenous populations. This is true in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Indigenous traditions and values are portrayed as primitive and worthless. The oppressed are turned into subhumans, people whose lives do not really matter, who stand in the way of the glories of Western civilization and progress, people who deserve to be eradicated.

And you can see this racism on display in porn. Black men are primitive animals, brawny and illiterate studs with vast sexual prowess. Black women are filled with raw, animalistic lust. Latin women are hot and racy. Asian women are meek, sexually submissive geishas. Porn, as Gail Dines writes, is a “new minstrel show.” It speaks in the racist cant that is the staple of the dominant white culture.

What is done to girls and women through prostitution is a version of what is done to all of those who do not sign on to the demented project of global capitalism. And if we have any chance of fighting back, we will have to stand up for all the oppressed, all of those who have become prey. To fail to do this will be to commit moral and finally political suicide. To turn our backs on some of the oppressed is to fracture our power. It is to obliterate our moral authority. It is to fail to see that the entire system of predatory exploitation seeks to swallow and devour us all. To be a radical is to stand with all who are turned into objects, especially girls and women whom the global community, and much of the left, has abandoned.

Andrea Dworkin understood:

Capitalism is not wicked or cruel when the commodity is the whore; profit is not wicked or cruel when the alienated worker is a female piece of meat; corporate bloodsucking is not wicked or cruel when the corporations in question, organized crime syndicates, sell cunt; racism is not wicked or cruel when the black cunt or yellow cunt or red cunt or Hispanic cunt or Jewish cunt has her legs splayed for any man’s pleasure; poverty is not wicked or cruel when it is the poverty of dispossessed women who have only themselves to sell; violence by the powerful against the powerless is not wicked or cruel when it is called sex; slavery is not wicked or cruel when it is sexual slavery; torture is not wicked or cruel when the tormented are women, whores, cunts. The new pornography is left-wing; and the new pornography is a vast graveyard where the Left has gone to die. The Left cannot have its whores and its politics too.


The Europeans and Euro-Americans who conquered, exploited and murdered indigenous communities were not only making war on a people and the Earth but on a competing ethic. The traditions of premodern indigenous societies, the communal structure of their societies, had to be destroyed in order for colonialists and global capitalists to implant the negative ethic of capitalism. In indigenous societies, hoarding at the expense of others was despised. In these societies all ate or none ate. Those who were respected were those who shared what they had with the less fortunate and who spoke in the language of the sacred. These older, indigenous cultures held fast to the concept of reverence. It is the capacity to honor the sacred, including the sacredness of all life—and as a vegan I include animals—that capitalism, colonialism and imperialism seek to eradicate. We need to listen to women, and especially indigenous women, as we seek to recover this older ethic.

“They treat Mother Earth like they treat women … ,” Lisa Brunner, the program specialist for the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, has said. “They think they can own us, buy us, sell us, trade us, rent us, poison us, rape us, destroy us, use us as entertainment and kill us. I’m happy to see that we are talking about the level of violence that is occurring against Mother Earth because it equates to us [women]. What happens to her happens to us. … We are the creators of life. We carry that water that creates life just as Mother Earth carries the water that maintains our life. So I’m happy to see our men standing here but remind you that when you stand for one, you must stand for the other.”

The Earth is littered with the physical remains of past empires and civilizations, ruins that cry out to us about human folly and hubris. We seem condemned as a species to drive ourselves into extinction, although this moment appears to be the denouement to the whole, sad show of settled, civilized life that began some 5,000 years ago. There is nothing left on the planet to seize. We are spending down the last remnants of our natural capital, including our forests, fossil fuel, air and water.

This time, collapse will be global. There are no new lands to pillage, no new peoples to exploit. Technology, which has obliterated the constraints of time and space, has turned our global village into a global death trap. The fate of Easter Island will be writ large across the broad expanse of planet Earth.

The ethic peddled by capitalist and imperialist elites, the cult of the self, the banishing of empathy, the belief that violence can be used to make the world conform, require the destruction of the communal and the destruction of the sacred. This corrupt ethic, if not broken, will mean the end of not only human society but the human species. The elites who orchestrate this pillage, like elites who pillaged parts of the globe in the past, probably believe they can outrun their own destructiveness. They think that their wealth, privilege and gated communities will save them. Or maybe they do not think about the future at all. But the death march they have begun, the relentless contamination of air, soil and water, the physical collapse of communities and the eventual exhaustion of coal and fossil fuels themselves will not spare them or their families, although they may be able to hold out a little longer in their privileged enclaves than the rest of us. They too will succumb to the poisoning of the natural elements, the climate dislocations and freakish weather caused by global warming, the spread of new deadly viruses, the food riots and huge migrations that have begun as the desperate flee from flooded or drought-stricken pockets of the Earth.

The predatory structures of capitalism, imperialism and colonialism will have to be destroyed. The Earth, and those forms of life that inhabit the Earth, will have to be revered and protected. This means inculcating a very different vision of human society. It means rebuilding a world where domination and ceaseless exploitation are sins and where empathy, especially for the weak and for the vulnerable, including our planet, is held up as the highest virtue. It means recovering the capacity for awe and reverence for the sources that sustain life. Once we stand up for this ethic of life, once we include all people, including girls and women, as an integral part of this ethic, we can build a resistance movement that can challenge the corporate forces that if left in power will extinguish us all.

This article originally appeared on Truthdig.org.

Categories: Netted News

America’s Next Top Bigot: Why GOP’s Upcoming Primary Is an Anti-Gay Freak Show

AlterNet.org - March 31, 2015 - 3:15pm
For the GOP candidates, the key to winning in 2016 is to reach out to discouraged evangelical Christians.

Thanks to Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, we’re getting an early look at a field of GOP presidential hopefuls that is supposed to include some moderates who plan on expanding the party’s appeal beyond its right-wing base.  And it’s pathetic. Before Pence’s odd press conference, where he promised to “fix” the bill but insisted there was nothing wrong with it, the top GOP contenders hustled to outdo one another in backing Pence and his divisive legislation.

Let’s remember that in 2014, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich were among the Republicans who urged Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer to veto AB 1062, Arizona’s version of Indiana’s “religious freedom” law – admittedly after they’d run for president in 2012. The 2016 candidates are showing no such courage – quite the opposite, in fact.

They are showing they all agree with Sen. Ted Cruz on one thing: the key to winning in 2016 isn’t outreach to so-called minorities, women and middle America, but to discouraged evangelical Christians (not to mention white voters) who sat out 2012.

Supposedly moderate and gay friendly Jeb Bush went all in defending Pence with radio host Hugh Hewitt Monday night. At first Bush took the route of condescension: the bill’s critics are too dumb to understand it.

“I think if [critics] actually got briefed on the law that they wouldn’t be blasting this law. I think Gov. Pence has done the right thing,” Bush told Hewitt, who agreed. “This is simply allowing people of faith space to be able to express their beliefs, to have, to be able to be people of conscience…I just think once the facts are established, people aren’t going to see this as discriminatory at all.”

Bush and Hewitt peddled the line that the Indiana law is the same as the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed by President Clinton in 1993, which is clearly not true. Amazingly, though, Bush himself explained exactly how the law is different. I’m not sure if that proves he’s stupid, or he thinks the voters are:

There are incidents of people who, for example, the florist in Washington State who had a business that, based on her conscience, she couldn’t be participating in a gay wedding, organizing it, even though the person, one of the people, was a friend of hers, and she was taken to court and still in court. Or the photographer in New Mexico. There are many cases where people, acting on their conscience, have been castigated by the government. And this law simply says the government has to have a level of burden to be able to establish that there’s been some kind of discrimination. We’re going to need this. This is really an important value for our country to, in a diverse country, where you can respect and be tolerant of people’s lifestyles but allow for people of faith to be able to exercise theirs.

In other words, this law lets the florist in Washington State and the photographer in New Mexico discriminate against gay clients. Thanks, Jeb, for spelling out why there’s been a national backlash against the bill. For his part, Pence insisted the bill would do no such thing, but it’s hard to know what the bill would have done or will do after Pence’s off the rails press conference.

Bush’s Florida rival, Sen. Marco Rubio, was equally straightforward about the bill’s intent. “Nobody is saying that it should be legal to deny someone service at a restaurant or at a hotel because of their sexual orientation. I think that’s a consensus view in America,” Rubio told Fox on Monday. “The flip side is, should a photographer be punished for refusing to do a wedding that their faith teaches them is not one that is valid in the eyes of God?”

Not surprisingly, Cruz, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and right-wing neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson quickly issued statements supporting Pence, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told CNN through a spokesperson that he supported the bill. Cruz said he was “proud to stand with Mike, and I urge Americans to do the same.” However, within 24 hours Mike no long stood with Mike.

Sen. Rand Paul has yet to weigh in on the Indiana bill, fixed or otherwise. But on Tuesday morning the nation learned that Paul doesn’t believe in the concept of gay rights, having told an interviewer in 2013, “I really don’t believe in rights based on your behavior.” The notion that “behavior” makes one gay seems rather backwards and bigoted, but the media will no doubt go on praising Paul for being an iconoclast who wants to expand his party’s reach, if not its concept of equal rights.

The Indiana bill served to out the leading GOP contenders when it comes to LGBT rights. Pence then pulled the rug out from under them by admitting the bill needed fixing. Good old McKay Coppins of Buzzfeed tried to square the circle this way on Twitter Monday night:

Positioning oneself as gay-friendly *in the context of a Republican presidential primary* does not preclude endorsing religious freedom laws

— McKay Coppins (@mckaycoppins) March 31, 2015

Coppins has been trying to depict Bush as the “gay-friendly” moderate for a while now, God bless him, even as Bush does what he can to prove otherwise. The soft bigotry of low expectations, when it comes to Republicans respecting civil rights, may ultimately vindicate Coppins. But no one should mistake that for genuine social progress.

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Infuriating Video Shows City Official Calling Vietnam Vet 'the Enemy' for His Use of Medical Marijuana

AlterNet.org - March 31, 2015 - 2:57pm
How exactly does ingesting a plant make you an enemy?

Maricopa County, AZ — A video was submitted to the Free Thought Project Sunday, which illustrates the brutal insanity of the state’s War on Drugs.

The video was taken during a heated debate on whether or not to legalize marijuana in Arizona. Maricopa County Attorney, Bill Montgomery, and Attorney Marc Victor went head to head on the topic of prohibition. Victor advocated to end prohibition and Montgomery held the position to continue locking people in cages for a plant.

At the end of the nearly 2 hour long debate, the two debaters took questions from the audience. That is when Vietnam veteran Don Ream stood up to explain to Montgomery how calling people who use marijuana for medicine, “Pot Heads,” was offensive.

Ream explained how he has been a patient for four years, and he is off all of his pharmaceutical medicine. All he uses for his symptoms is his medical marijuana. He then politely invited Mr. Montgomery to come and learn about the benefits of the substance and how safe marijuana actually is.

As Ream began to close his statement, Montgomery took to the podium ready to fire back.

“There is a difference between medical application of marijuana and recreational use of the substance,” said Montgomery, who is an attorney, not a doctor.

Ream then admitted that he uses his marijuana recreationally as well.

“Well, then you’re violating the law, and I have no respect for you,” Montgomery said. “I have no respect for someone who would try to claim that you served this country and took an oath to uphold the Constitution and protect against all enemies foreign and domestic – because you’re an enemy.”

Montgomery was then met with several “Boos” from the audience.

How exactly does ingesting a plant make you an enemy?

The person who wants to ingest a substance for medical or recreational reasons is not the criminal. However, the person that would kidnap, cage, or kill someone because they have a different lifestyle is a villain on many fronts.

The only “enemy” in the interchange below is the person who would deprive someone of their freedom by using government violence to enforce their personal preference. Shame on you Bill Montgomery.

 

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Russell Brand: 'The Reason Fox News Can’t Talk About Mental Illness Is Because Fox News Causes It'

AlterNet.org - March 31, 2015 - 2:34pm
Fox's coverage of Germanwings crash, just as ignorant as you'd expect!

On the latest episode of The Trews, British comedian and activist Russell Brand discussed the crash of a Germanwings plane and the media’s rush to blame it on the suicidal captain.

He engages in a dialogue with a Neil Cavuto monologue in which the Fox News host speculates about the pilot’s motivations.

“In a way,” Brand says, “this is the perfect Fox News story, because there’s no way of knowing for certain what were the motivations — and in that gap of ignorance, there’s room for tremendous fear and great propaganda.”

After Cavuto links the pilot’s actions to ISIS fighters and Adolf Hitler, about whom Brand says, “you know, some work’s been done on the subject of Hitler, and it turns out that at that anti-Semitism was widespread and German nationalism was on the rise because of social and economic conditions.”

“So in a way, Adolf Hitler is a good example — one lone madman cannot personally be responsible for a genocide. He requires the correct conditions, and the correct conditions were created as a result of the First World War, widespread anti-Semitism across Europe.”

After discussing at length how much Fox News benefits from having a Hitler-like figure to blame in order to avoid having to address the larger social conditions that make such a person possible, Brand addresses how convenient it is for Fox to be able to pin responsibility for atrocities on mental illness.

“If you try to think,” Brand says, “‘Why did this nutty pilot nuttily crash his plane into a mountain?’ then it’s really hard to come up with answers, let alone solutions.” He then discusses how suicide is now the biggest killer of young men in Britain, and how half of Americans have dealt with a serious bout of mental illness. 

“Why are we living in a time of a mental illness plague?” Brand asks, then answers his own question, saying “the reason Fox News can’t be honest about what causes mental illness is because Fox News is what causes mental illness.”

“Fox News is the propaganda machine of modern capitalism that tells us that the way to solve our problems is through purchasing and buying things — by identifying ourselves with our roles as consumers, and not as participants or members of society.”

Watch the entire episode of The Trews below via YouTube.

 

  

 

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CNN Host Exposes Indiana Law Backer as Gay Conversion Therapy Promoter

AlterNet.org - March 31, 2015 - 2:25pm
'Pro-family' group official refused to admit that the new law would be used to discriminate against LGBT people.

CNN host Chris Cuomo on Tuesday advised the leader of a so-called “pro-family” group to “own” his anti-gay agenda after he supported an Indiana law that would allow businesses to discriminate against LGBT people.

“More often than not, what seems to be the momentum for this Indiana law are Christians who are a majority — certainly not a minority in this county — saying that doing business with certain types of people is offensive to their religion,” Cuomo pointed out during an interview with Indiana Family Institute Policy Director Ryan McCann.

“The outcry is coming from organizations like yours that are Christian based with an animus toward the LGBT community,” the CNN host added. “Own who and what you are. There’s nothing wrong with that, you’re allowed to believe it. But you’re not about [fighting against religious discrimination of] Native Americans.”

McCann, however, refused to acknowledge Cuomo’s assertion that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act would be used to discriminate against LGBT people. But he also dodged questions about whether his group would support making sexual orientation a protected class.

“Why shouldn’t we go ahead and give our people this greater [religious] protection?” McCann asked. “It has nothing to do with the issues that I think perhaps you, I hope not, and others in the media are making this about. It has to do with protecting religious minorities. And I think as a Christian, as any Christian would want to do, we want to protect — and other faith backgrounds — we want to protect everyone’s First Amendment rights. I don’t care what faith background you are, I don’t care what your sexual orientation is. If you’re a gay business owner, I want to protect you from government just as much as a straight business owner.”

“You understand why that is a little bit of a suspicious premise coming from you, given your past and what you’ve said about the LGBT community and the animus that you have toward them,” Cuomo observed. “And then this bill comes up that expands who is a religious actor, who can act out of religion to any kind of business, which is unusual. And it starts to seem suspicious that you are targeting this group to protect yourself from another trend that’s coming, which is gay marriage and equality.”

“You act like you know me well,” McCann shot back. “This is the first time we met.”

“I only know what you’ve said,” Cuomo replied, reminding McCann that he had written that “self-described” gay and lesbian people should submit to “life changing counseling.”

“You cannot fix gay,” the CNN host explained. “Do you understand that? This is who these people are, it is not just a choice, it is not a lifestyle. These people say, ‘This is who I am, this is whom I love, this I how I think, this is how I feel, this is how I was born.’ Do you understand that?”

Watch the video below from CNN’s New Day, broadcast March 31, 2015.

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I Put on Lululemon's New 'Anti-Ball Crushing Pants' – and I Looked Like a Dork

AlterNet.org - March 31, 2015 - 2:16pm
The company is claiming to have solved a problem that doesn’t exist.

I like tight pants. “The tighter the better!” I bark in the local trouser store. I’m not happy until every contour of my lower half is cosseted by fabric, my britches foisted on to my legs with a combination of Vaseline, washing-up liquid, and the strength of two assistants.

Yes, it’s the tight pant life for me, and no mistake. This may have been the reason why my bosses ordered me to try out Lululemon’s “anti-ball crushing pants” – pants which provoked much intrigue this week when the company claimed they were responsible for a remarkable turnabout in fortunes.

The anti-ball crushing pants, or ABC pants, for short, have been all the rage since they were introduced at the end of last year, Lululemon says. The pants have been influential in a 16% increase in Lululemon’s sales during the last quarter, and in finally garnering some positive publicity for a company that infamously had to pull yoga pants from the shelves over 2013’s see-through fabric scandal.

“We designed these pants with all-day comfort and performance in mind - seriously, you’re going to want to live in them,” states the blurb on the Lululemon website. “A wide paneled gusset and four-way stretch Warpstreme™ fabric make these pants commute, travel and sweat ready. We get it, you’re going places.”

The pants boast “anti-ball crushing engineering”, Lululemon says, which “gives you and the family jewels room to breathe”, and it’s the anti-crushing aspect of the pants that has been the focus of most of the attention.

I’ve been wearing these the pants for two days – I’ve got them on now – and am happy to report that no testes have been crushed. The anti-ball crushing technology has worked. My balls are still intact. The world must know about this fantastic new contraption! This could preserve the future of the human race!

But that’s just the thing. Lululemon is claiming to have solved a problem that doesn’t exist. Balls don’t get crushed by pants. Men have been wearing trousers for 3,000 years, successfully avoiding ball-crushings all the while.

It appears, then, that Lululemon is using “anti-ball crushing” as a PR tactic, attempting to tap into an apparently fertile market of men who feel regular trousers are just too tight in the crotch.

Really, the purpose of these trousers – as Lululemon’s promise of “all-day comfort and perfomance” suggests – is versatility. They’re pants, the company says, that you can wear while cycling, hiking, but also to the office, just like in this promotional video.

In these pants you can go anywhere, do anything, and still look stylish, is the message.

But that’s the other problem with these pants. You can’t still look stylish. Hybrid, functional, comfortable things have never been cool.

Imagine the Ramones in not-that-skinny, but ooh-so-much-more-comfortable-jeans. A 50s-era Marlon Brando wearing a less tight, but hey-it’s-moisture-wicking T-shirt. An ageing rocker substituting his winklepickers for running shoes.

That’s right. It’s impossible to imagine.

In terms of the trousers being this hybrid, functional pant, they do it well. Their stretchy material made them fantastic for cycling. They also have a little reflective strip designed to give you increased visibility.

Off the bike, I could thrust my knees up high like the leader of a marching band. I could theoretically do the splits. And they fit well. I’m not blessed with the hulking muscularity of Hollywood’s Jason Statham, but these pants still felt pleasing across the thighs. Compared to my normal skinny jeans, however, they were billowy around the ankles, and I felt a little self-conscious about the tracksuit-style fabric.

In summary, then: I’m sure some men would be delighted with these pants. The customer reviews on Lululemon’s website prove as much. But I’m not ready to sacrifice style for function just yet.

 

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Barney Frank's Biggest Bombshell: His Shocking Anecdote About the Financial Crisis

AlterNet.org - March 31, 2015 - 2:10pm
Ever wonder why we waited six years to get a decent economic recovery? This new revelation will disgust you.

Barney Frank has a new autobiography out. He’s long been one of the nation’s most quotable politicians. And Washington lives in perpetual longing for intra-party conflict.

So why has a critical revelation from Frank’s book, one that implicates the most powerful Democrat in the nation, been entirely expunged from the record? The media has thus far focused on Frank’s wrestling with being a closeted gay congressman, or his comment that Joe Biden “can’t keep his mouth shut or his hands to himself.” But nobody has focused on Frank’s allegation that Barack Obama refused to extract foreclosure relief from the nation’s largest banks, as a condition for their receipt of hundreds of billions of dollars in bailout money.

The anecdote comes on page 295 of “Frank,” a title that the former chair of the House Financial Services Committee holds true to throughout the book. The TARP legislation included specific instructions to use a section of the funds to prevent foreclosures. Without that language, TARP would not have passed; Democratic lawmakers who helped defeat TARP on its first vote cited the foreclosure mitigation piece as key to their eventual reconsideration.

TARP was doled out in two tranches of $350 billion each. The Bush administration, still in charge during TARP’s passage in October 2008, used none of the first tranche on mortgage relief, nor did Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson use any leverage over firms receiving the money to persuade them to lower mortgage balances and prevent foreclosures. Frank made his anger clear over this ignoring of Congress’ intentions at a hearing with Paulson that November. Paulson argued in his defense, “the imminent threat of financial collapse required him to focus single-mindedly on the immediate survival of financial institutions, no matter how worthy other goals were.”

Whether or not you believe that sky-is-falling narrative, Frank kept pushing for action on foreclosures, which by the end of 2008 threatened one in 10 homes in America. With the first tranche of TARP funds running out by the end of the year, Frank writes, “Paulson agreed to include homeowner relief in his upcoming request for a second tranche of TARP funding. But there was one condition: He would only do it if the President-elect asked him to.”

Frank goes on to explain that Obama rejected the request, saying “we have only one president at a time.” Frank writes, “my frustrated response was that he had overstated the number of presidents currently on duty,” which equally angered both the outgoing and incoming officeholders.

Obama’s unwillingness to take responsibility before holding full authority doesn’t match other decisions made at that time. We know from David Axelrod’s book that the Obama transition did urge the Bush administration to provide TARP loans to GM and Chrysler to keep them in business. So it was OK to help auto companies prior to Inauguration Day, just not homeowners.

In the end, the Obama transition wrote a letter promising to get to the foreclosure relief later, if Congress would only pass the second tranche of TARP funds. Congress fulfilled its obligation, and the Administration didn’t. The promised foreclosure mitigation efforts failed to help, and in many cases abjectly hurt homeowners.

This is not a new charge from Frank: he first leveled it in May 2012 in an interview with New York magazine. Nobody in the Obama Administration has ever denied the anecdote, but of course hardly anybody bothered to publicize it, save for a couple financial blogs. I suppose those reviewing ”Frank” can offer an excuse about this being “old news,” but that claims suffers from the “tree falling in the forest” syndrome: if a revelation is made in public, and no journalist ever elevates it, did it make a sound?

The political media’s allergy to policy is a clear culprit here. Jamie Kirchick’s blanket statement in his review of “Frank” that “readers’ eyes will glaze over” at the recounting of the financial crisis is a typical attitude. But millions of people suffered needlessly for Wall Street’s sins; they’d perhaps be interested in understanding why.

That’s the main reason why the significance of Obama’s decision cannot be overstated. The fact that we waited six years to get some semblance of a decent economic recovery traces back directly to the failure to alleviate the foreclosure crisis. Here was a moment, right near the beginning, when both public money and leverage could have been employed to stop foreclosures. Instead of demanding homeowner help when financial institutions relied on massive government support, the Administration passed, instead prioritizing nursing banks back to health and then asking them to give homeowners a break, which the banks predictably declined.

There were no structural or legislative barriers to this proposition. One man, Barack Obama, could tell another man, Henry Paulson, to tighten the screws on banks to write down loans, and something would have happened. Would it have been successful? Would it have saved tens or hundreds of billions in damage to homeowners? Even trillions? Or would Paulson and his predecessors found a way to wriggle out of the commitment again? We know the alternative failed, so it’s tantalizing to think about this road not taken.

This still matters because, as City University of New York professor Alan White explained brilliantly over the weekend, the foreclosure crisis isn’t really over. Though 6 million homes have been lost to foreclosure since 2007, another 1 million remain in the pipeline, many of them legacy loans originated during the housing bubble. If you properly compare the situation to a time before the widespread issuance of subprime mortgages, we’re still well above normal levels of foreclosure starts.

In addition, over one in six homes remain underwater, where the mortgage is bigger than the value of the home, a dangerous situation if we hit another economic downturn. And up to 4 million homes face interest rate resets from temporary modifications, along with nontraditional mortgages where the rate is scheduled to go up. Home equity lines of credit are also nearing their 10-year limits, requiring borrowers to pay down principal balances. Some Americans have been waiting over five years in foreclosure limbo, which sounds great (no payments!) until you understand the stress and anxiety associated with not knowing if you will get thrown out on the street at any time, something highly correlated with sickness and even suicides.

In baseball terms, we’re in the seventh or eighth inning of the crisis. And Barney Frank detailed how the president-elect had the opportunity to call the game and fix the problem much earlier, which he turned down. You’d think someone would have noticed.

 

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Lower Semen Quality Linked to Pesticide Residue in Fruits and Vegetables According to New Study

AlterNet.org - March 31, 2015 - 1:48pm
The data factored in whether the items had been peeled and washed before being eaten.

Higher levels of pesticide residue in fruit and vegetables are associated with lower quality of semen, according to a study published on Tuesday.

Its authors said the research was only an early step in what should be a much wider investigation.

In a first recommendation, they urged men not to stop eating fruit and veg, and pointed to organically-grown food, or food that is low in pesticides, as options for lowering any apparent risk.

The US team analysed 338 semen samples from 155 men attending a fertility centre between 2007 and 2012.

The volunteers were aged between 18 and 55, had not had a vasectomy, and were part of a couple planning to use their own eggs and sperm for fertility treatment.

The men were asked to fill out a questionnaire about their diet, asking them how often, on average, they consumed portions of fruit and vegetables.

These portions were then placed into categories of being low, moderate or high in pesticide residues, on the basis of US Department of Agriculture data.

Peas, beans, grapefruit and onions, for instance, fell into the low category, whereas peppers, spinach, strawberries, apples and pears were in the high category.

The data factored in whether the items had been peeled and washed before being eaten.

Men who had the greatest consumption of high-category fruit and vegetables had a total sperm count of 86 million sperm per ejaculate.

This was 49 percent less than men who ate the least. They had a sperm count of 171 million per ejaculate.

In addition, men with the lowest pesticide residue intake had an average of 7.5 percent of normally-formed sperm — but this tally was nearly a third lower, at 5.1 percent, among those who had the highest intake.

There were no significant differences between the low-and moderate-residue groups.

- ‘Unnecessary worry’ -

“To our knowledge, this is the first report on the consumption of fruit and vegetables with high levels of pesticide residue in relation to semen quality,” said the study, published in the journal Human Reproduction.

“These findings suggest that exposure to pesticides used in agricultural production through diet may be sufficient to affect spermatogenesis in humans.”

The study acknowledged limitations: men attending fertility clinics are prone to having semen quality problems, and the diet in this case was assessed only once and could have changed over time.

In addition, the pesticide residues were estimated rather than actually measured in the lab, and it was not known whether the fruit and vegetables that were consumed were conventionally-grown or organic.

“These findings should not discourage the consumption of fruit and vegetables in general,” said Jorge Chavarro, assistant professor of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, who co-led the study.

“In fact, we found that total intake of fruit and vegetables was completely unrelated to semen quality.

“This suggests that implementing strategies specifically targeted at avoiding pesticide residues, such as consuming organically-grown produce or avoiding produce known to have large amounts of residues, may be the way to go.”

Outside commentators said the research was interesting but limited. Further work was needed to confirm the findings, and see if they applied beyond this small group of men.

“This paper may cause unnecessary worry,” said Jackson Kirkman-Brown of the Birmingham Women’s Fertility Centre in central England.

“Men wishing to optimise their sperm quality should still eat a healthy balanced diet until more data is available,” he told Britain’s Science Media Centre.

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Why Is Social Media Protecting Men from Periods, Breast Milk and Body Hair?

AlterNet.org - March 31, 2015 - 11:38am
Are men really that delicate?

There’s a predictable social media formula for what women’s pictures online should look like. Breasts in barely-there bikinis are good (thumbs-up emoji, even), but breasts with babies attached them are questionable. Women wearing next to nothing is commonplace, but if you’re over a size 10 youraccount may be banned. Close-up shots of women’s asses and hardly-covered vaginas are fine, so long as said body parts are hairless.

And now, in a controversy that once again brings together technology, art, feminism and sex, Instagram is under fire for removing a self-portrait from artist Rupi Kaur that showed a small amount of her menstrual blood. Apparently having a period violates the site’s Terms of Service. 

The broader message to women couldn’t be clearer: SeXXXy images are appropriate, but images of women’s bodies doing normal women body things are not. Or, to put a more crass point on it: Only pictures of women who men want to fuck, please.

As Kaur pointed out on her Tumblr account, Instagram is filled with pictures of underage girls who are “objectified” and “pornified.”

“I will not apologize for not feeding the ego and pride of misogynist society that will have my body in underwear but not be okay with a small leak,” she wrote.

Because, truly, it’s difficult to imagine women being offended by pictures of breastfeeding, unkempt bikini lines or period blood - that’s a standard Monday for a lot of us. It’s men that social media giants are “protecting” - men who have grown up on sanitized and sexualized images of female bodies. Men who have been taught to believe by pop culture, advertising and beyond that women’s bodies are there for them. And if they have to see a woman that is anything other than thin, hairless and ready for sex - well, bring out the smelling salts. 

As Kaur wrote: “Their misogyny is leaking.”

The upside, of course, is that the very nature of social media has made it easier for women to present a more diverse set of images on what the female form can look like and mean. Selfies, for example - thought by some to be the epitome of frivolity and self-conceit - are now being touted by feminist academics and artists as a way for women to “seize the gaze” and offer a new sense of control to women as subjects rather than objects.

When we have the power to create our own images en masse, we have the power to create a new narrative - one that flies in the face of what the mainstream would like us to look and act like.

To Instagram’s credit, the company restored Kaur’s picture after complaints - much as Facebook changed their standards to allow pictures of “women actively engaged in breastfeeding or showing breasts with post-mastectomy scarring.” Technology companies are starting to understand that if they want to put the power of pictures in their users’ hands, they’re going to have to be okay with women being fully human - not just mirror images of what pop culture wants us to be.

As for the people who are scandalized by women’s bodies and their natural functions: You don’t have to “like” it, but you will have to live with it. 

 

 

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Why You Shouldn’t Lease Your Next Car

AlterNet.org - March 31, 2015 - 11:27am
You're likely to pay a lot more than if you financed a purchase and held onto the vehicle.

If you’re looking for a new car, there’s a good chance you’re considering a lease.

Leasing typically gives you much lower monthly payments compared to taking out a loan to buy a vehicle, letting you drive more car than you might otherwise be able to afford. That’s one reason about a quarter of new vehicles now are being leased, the highest percentage in at least five years, according to Experian Automotive.

But there’s a good reason why you should think twice before leasing: In exchange for those low monthly payments and a new car every few years, you’d likely pay a lot more than if you financed a purchase and held onto the vehicle.

Leasing is poorly understood

Even those who lease don’t fully understand what’s going on under the hood.

Some lease customers don’t even realize that they should negotiate the price of a leased vehicle just as if they were buying. That’s why some leases end up being based on above-market vehicle prices or even the manufacturers suggested retail price. One reason leasing is so confusing is that it’s very difficult to compare the cost with that of financing a purchase, even if those lease advertisements supplied all the details you’d need to crunch the numbers, which they typically don’t.

And those advertised monthly payments can be deceptive. The fine print in one recent lease promotion revealed that the advertised $159 monthly payment didn’t factor in a lease “acquisition” fee of $650.

The secrets behind leasing

Leasing simply is another way of financing a vehicle. Instead of paying for the entire car, as you would if you purchased it, you pay only for its loss in value while you have it, the so-called depreciation. As a result, you won’t own the vehicle at the end, as you would with the loan.

Compare, for example, a 36-month lease and loan for a new Toyota Corolla with a negotiated price of $20,000.

In both cases, when you drive off in the car, you’re essentially borrowing $20,000 (assuming no down payment). The difference is that, with the loan, you’ll pay back the entire $20,000 and get to keep the vehicle, which after three years, will still be worth around $13,000.

But with the lease, you pay only the vehicle’s loss in value, about $7,000, and then return the car (unless you decide to buy it). Either way, the net amount you will have paid back is around $7,000.

But that’s not all. In both cases, you’re also charged interest on the entire $20,000 you borrowed, minus whatever you pay back along the way. And there’s the rub. Because you pay back less during the lease term, a greater amount is subject to the interest rate every month.

That’s why lease-related finance charges are higher than those for an equivalent rate and term loan.

Lower interest rates matter

Normally, the difference in finance charges alone makes leasing more expensive than buying.

But with today’s unusually low market interest rates, made even lower by carmaker incentives, the difference in finance charges may not be that great. In some current lease offers we examined, any difference in finance charges were offset by the sales tax savings that lease customers get in most states. In some cases, those tax savings even offset hundreds of dollars in lease-related fees.

Considering that leasing a Corolla for 36 months can cost less than $190 a month, compared to a $500 loan payment, leasing ends up looking really attractive.

But don’t jump in just yet. The first thing to consider is that you may not qualify for those ultra-low interest rates if you don’t have a stellar credit rating. And low interest rates won’t last forever. So when your lease ends after three years and you have no car, you may discover that rates have gone up.

The costly new-car merry-go-round

And there’s another big downside. Leasing puts you on track to get a new car every few years. That may sound like a good thing, but it’s very costly.

Vehicles lose their value much more quickly when they’re new than later on. So during a typical two- to three-year lease, the car or truck declines in value rapidly. And the lease customer is being charged for all that depreciation. If you keep leasing, that can really add up. For example, a new $21,000 Corolla driven 12,000 miles annually would depreciate more than $7,000 within the first three years, compared to about $4,000 during the next three.

So if you lease two new Corollas consecutively over six years, the combined depreciation would be more than $14,000, and you have no car at end. But if you purchased a Corolla and kept it over the same six years, the vehicle would depreciate around $11,000, leaving you with a car still worth more than $9,000.

The difference is even more dramatic if you lease three times over nine years. The combined depreciation of those three new Corollas would be more than $21,000, compared to just $14,000 for the purchased vehicle, now still worth more than $6,000.

If you add all the lease-related charges, leasing those three Corollas over nine years could cost you $10,000 more than just buying one car and keeping it.

The amount would be even if even higher if Toyota increases Corolla prices over the next six years or if interest rates climb, both of which are very likely.

Even if you consider the amount you’d pay for maintenance and repair while keeping the purchased car for nine years, you’d likely come out far ahead, especially with a reliable model like a Corolla. You could even opt for a 48-month loan instead of a three-year one and have money to spare.

Other concerns

Another leasing drawback is that you could end up with unexpected costs. For instance, you’ll face extra charges if you return the car damaged or with other so-called excess wear and tear. 

You’ll also have to monitor how much you drive. Most leases limit you to a certain number of miles. If you drive your leased Corolla more than 12,000 miles a year, you’ll be charged 15 cents for every extra mile.

Many lease customers don’t realize that using the car too little is a problem, too. If you return the vehicle having driven fewer than the allowed number of miles, you will have paid for miles you didn’t use.

You can avoid those extra fees or the under-mileage problem by purchasing the car at the end of the lease or by negotiating credit for the miles you don't use and putting that toward the cost of another vehicle. But that can be a hassle, and you have to know what you’re doing.

Finally, leasing is riskier than buying. If you discover you no longer can afford the payments, there’s no easy way out. Break a lease contract and you might be required to make all the remaining payments and fork over an early-termination penalty.

In contrast, if you buy a car and find you can’t afford the loan, you could sell the vehicle. That should bring in enough to cover the amount you still owe, especially if you made a large down payment and kept the loan reasonably short. You might even walk away with money in your pocket.

What you should do

From a financial standpoint, it makes better sense to buy than lease.

As a rule, purchase a reliable car that you can afford with a loan of no more than 48 months. Make a down payment of at least 10 percent of the purchase price in cash or trade-in.

That will keep the costs down and reduce the likelihood you’ll come up short if you have to sell the car early or if the vehicle is totaled or stolen while you’re still paying off the loan.

An alternative is to consider buying a reliable used car you’ve had checked thoroughly by a good mechanic. Once you get that new or used car or truck, maintain it as the manufacturer recommends and hold onto it until at least you complete your loan payments, preferably longer.

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What the Frack Is Happening? Hailing the Major Activist Victories in the Anti-Fracking Movement

AlterNet.org - March 31, 2015 - 11:20am
From the aggressive anti-fracking moves in Maryland to a statewide ban in New York, the anti-fracking movement is alive and well.

The nation's first federal regulations on fracking, unveiled by the Obama administration last week, sparked immediate criticism from leading anti-fracking activists.

Americans Against Fracking, a coalition of 250 environmental and liberal groups that includes Greenpeace, 350.org, MoveOn.org, CREDO, Food & Water Watch, Rainforest Action Network and Friends of the Earth, issued a statement characterizing the new rules—meant chiefly to reduce the threat of fracking-related water contamination—as "toothless."

Actor and activist Mark Ruffalo, who serves on the Americans Against Fracking advisory board, said that Obama's fracking regulations "are nothing more than a giveaway to the oil and gas industry." The group's goal is a complete fracking ban on federal land, where as many as 100,00 oil and gas wells have been drilled.

The new rules apply only to oil and gas drilling on federal lands, which represent about 25 percent of the national fossil fuel output and only some 10 percent of the nation's fracking. The rules don't apply to drilling on private or state-owned land. Currently, fracking occurs in 22 states.

Since states are responsible for regulating most of the fracking in the U.S., the anti-fracking battlefield—a patchwork of communities around the nation taking a stand to protect their air, water and soil–is understandably a bit fractured. With that in mind, here's a brief look around the country at some recent fracktivist highlights at the state and local level.

California

February 6. Over 8,000 activists gathered in Oakland for the March for Real Climate Leadership, the largest anti-fracking demonstration in U.S. history.

February 24. Bolstered by an admission by California state regulators that oil companies are disposing toxic waste into protected aquifers in violation of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, more than 150 environmental and community groups filed a legal petition urging the governor to use his emergency powers to place a moratorium on fracking.

March 20. California state Senator Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) and other lawmakers sent a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown urging him to "stop illegal injection into non-exempt aquifers" to protect the state's water from oil waste.

Colorado

February 24. Coloradans Against Fracking activists crashed a state oil and gas task force meeting, launching a campaign for a statewide fracking ban. "Our primary goal is to convince Governor Hickenlooper to ban fracking," said Karen Dike, a member of the new coalition. He can do that with an executive order."

March 18. WildEarth Guardians filed an appeal to halt plans by the Bureau of Land Management to open up 36,000 acres of public lands along the Front Range of Colorado to fracking.

"Climate denial at the Interior Department is fueling a fracking rush on our public lands and undermining our nation's efforts to rein in carbon pollution," said Jeremy Nichols of WildEarth Guardians.

Maryland

March 24. Maryland's House of Delegates passed a bill to ban fracking for three years by a veto-proof 94 to 45. However, it's unclear whether HB 449, currently under review in the state's Senate Committee on Education, Health and Environmental Affairs, has enough support in the Senate to become a law.

March 24. The Senate voted 29 to 17 in favor of a bill holding energy companies financially liable for injury, death or property laws caused by their fracking activities.

Together these measures mark the legislature's most aggressive action to curb fracking in the state.

New Mexico

December 30. The BLM announced it was deferring the issuance of five Navajo allotment parcels for fracking near Chaco Canyon, a World Heritage site, in response to a protest filed by a coalition of environmentalists and watchdog groups demanding a suspension of fracking on public lands in the northwest region of the state.

"Deferring these parcels was the right, and indeed, only legally defensible decision," said Kyle Tisdel, a program director for Western Environmental Law Center (WELC). "Necessary safeguards and analysis must be completed before any further leasing and development of the areas treasured landscapes can continue in compliance with the law."

March 11. A coalition of environmental groups including WELC, WildEarth Guardians and the Navajo organization Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment (Diné CARE) filed suit against the BLM and the U.S. Department of the Interior to prevent fracking from harming Chaco Canyon, the site of numerous ancestral Puebloan ruins and Navajo communities.

New York

December 17. About a month after his re-election, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo imposed a statewide ban on fracking, citing health risks. The announcement made New York the second state in the country after Vermont to ban fracking. The decision, which ended years of debate in the Empire State, was by most accounts the biggest environmental story in the United States in 2014, and puts pressure on other states to consider similar bans.

"I've never had anyone say to me, I believe fracking is great," said Cuomo. "Not a single person in those communities. What I get is, I have no alternative but fracking."

Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, called the move "a vindication for communities around the country that have been hit hard by unconventional natural gas production."

North Carolina

March 17. On the first day natural gas drilling permits could have been legally accepted in North Carolina, a group of anti-fracking state legislators called for a moratorium.

"We’ve been promised over the last five years that North Carolina would have the nation’s toughest fracking rules, and here we are at zero hour, and we do not have those rules," said Senator Mike Woodard (D-Durham). "The rules are simply insufficient for us to move forward with the issuing of permits."

Ohio

March 18. In a rare moment of bipartisanship, Ohio's normally polarized House of Representatives voted unanimously to ban fracking in state parks. While activists applauded the move, Ohio Sierra Club director Jen Miller said her group "will continue to work tirelessly to defend all state lands from industrial activities like fracking until they are set aside for generations to come, which starts with repealing bills like HB 133 altogether."

Oregon

March 12. The Oregon Community Rights Network (OCRN) launched a campaign to put a constitutional amendment on the November 2016 ballot that will affirm the right to local self-government in a move that would help anti-fracking activists in the state. If ratified, the amendment would grant legal rights to communities and even natural environments that can be violated.

The initiative is joins a growing local-rights movement around the country that is frustrating oil and gas companies. Mary Geddry, a representative with OCRN, noted that more than 200 communities across the U.S. have passed ordinances protecting local rights. "Only nine have been challenged in court," she said.

Pennsylvania

January 29. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf fulfilled a campaign promise and signed an executive order reinstating a moratorium on fracking in the state's public lands, protecting about a million acres that sit on the natural gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation.

Texas

December 25. Anti-fracking activist Cathy McMullen, who started the nonprofit Denton Drilling Awareness Group that launched a petition to enact a citywide fracking ban, was named a finalist for the 2014 Texan of the Year Award by Dallas Morning News. This followed an Election Day in which voters passed a ballot initiative making Denton, located near the birthplace of fracking, the first city in Texas to pass a fracking ban.

March 23. Documentary filmmaker and Denton resident Garrett Graham released a new trailer for Don't Frack with Denton, his forthcoming film that tells the story of "how one tenacious Texas town managed to upstage the oil and gas industry with the power of music and community organizing."

Utah

March 18. WildEarth Guardians filed an appeal challenging BLM's plan to auction off more than 15,000 acres of public land in southern Utah to fracking companies. A 2014 report by WildEarth Guardians found that the carbon emission cost from oil and gas produced from public lands could exceed $50 billion.

Looking Ahead

While local fracking battles continue to rage around the nation, there has been interesting activity on the federal level, beyond the recent announcement from the White House.

House bill H.R. 5844, the Protect Our Public Lands Act seeks to amend the Mineral Leasing Act to prohibit a lessee from conducting any activity under the lease for fracking purposes. It was introduced in early December by Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) during the last session of Congress and there are plans to reintroduce the bill in the current session.

On March 18, representatives Matt Cartwright (D-PA), Diana DeGette (D-CO), Chris Gibson (R-NY), Jared Polis (D-CO) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) introduced the so-called Frack Pack, a set of five bills that aim to close loopholes in environmental laws that have been used by oil and gas companies to frack without proper oversight.

While state and local anti-fracking measures and federal bills to curb fracking have been making headlines, for fracktivists the big enchilada is a national ban.

"Communities that have already suffered from fracking, like Longmont, Colorado, are rising up to pass local bans," said Miranda Carter, a spokesperson at Food & Water Watch. "But we need to protect every community in the country by calling for a national ban on fracking: to slow or stop the process where it's already happening, and elsewhere, to prevent it before it starts."

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HBO’s Scientology Expose Shows the Cult Is Much Crazier and More Ruthless Than You Might Imagine

AlterNet.org - March 31, 2015 - 11:18am
Director Alex Gibney lifts the lid on an international racket steeped in mystery.

In America, salvation is big business, and he who dies with the most souls wins. Plenty of lives are wrecked along the way, but no matter. When consumer capitalism meets religious yearning, the sky’s the limit of what can you can get away with. That’s the subtext of Alex Gibney’s latest film, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and screened on HBO on March 29.

L. Ron Hubbard, or LRH, as he liked to style himself, was an American of unprepossessing origins in search of meaning and money. Possibly he found the first, and is just now cavorting with intergalactic spirits in the sky. Most definitely he found the second, riding a rocket ship of wacked-out ambition to create what is now essentially a tax-free shell company with $3 billion in assets and real estate holdings on six continents.

Gibney doesn’t give us LRH as a madman, or even a simple huckster. The penny-a-word pulp fiction writer could have just been another loser who couldn’t manage to finish college and whose less-than-stellar naval service went awry when he inadvertently used a Mexican island for target practice and was deemed unfit for command. Going Clear traces the young man’s early perambulations through California occultism and various hare-brained moneymaking schemes to the Jersey Shore, where he washed up exhausted and plagued by anxiety. Another man might have just given up. But not LRH.

Instead, he marshaled a smattering of knowledge from various strains of psychological and philosophical esoterica to gin up a mental health self-help system he named Dianetics, which he introduced in a hugely successful book in 1950. For a while it seemed like LRH had finally found his pot of gold, but alas, the Dianetics fad faded like the hula-hoop craze, its foundations disintegrating into debt and disorder.

Then came the epiphany, shared with his second wife Sara Northrup, who appears in the film as the shell-shocked survivor of LRH’s dreams. “The only way to make any real money,” he told her, “was to have a religion.”

Shazaam! When he wasn’t terrorizing Sara (once at gunpoint, she claims), LRH set about grafting Dianetics onto a space opera of cosmic conflicts going back trillions of years, much of the details mined from his pulp novels. He added messages of freedom and progress that fit neatly with the values of late capitalism, sprinkled in a little New Age hoo-ha, and called it Scientology.

Behold, a moneymaking scheme for the ages was born.

LRH reasoned that if he could turn Dianetics into a religion, the U.S. government couldn’t take away any income from him in the form of taxes. Surely he’d soon be swimming in it. He grokked the American zeitgeist well enough to bet that a seeker of spiritual relief could be transformed into a steadfast consumer who would empty her pockets for the promise of conquering the anxiety of being human in an uncertain and often hostile world.  

“How would you describe your business model?” Gibney asks one former high-ranking Scientologist. “Rapacious,” he answers with a sly grin. The trick is to get would-be members to pay for higher and higher levels of training and “auditing” — a process for clearing the person of nasty spirits called “engrams” which were hanging around in the body causing trauma. After an auditing session, many acolytes poured out testimonies of euphoria. And plenty of money.

Lifted by the spirit capitalism, LRH saw how shockingly easy it was to exploit the labor of true believers. If salvation is the reward, people will scrub floors, sleep on soggy mattresses, or in the case of Nazanin Boniadi, a young Scientologist once groomed to be Tom Cruise’s bride, even clean toilets with a toothbrush on their hands and knees. In these revelations, LRH merely hit upon a holy formula that many a religious conman before him had discovered, but his particular genius was taking the show to Hollywood, where his Church of Scientology Celebrity Center became a magnet for actors facing constant rejection and roller-coaster careers. Scientology promised them succor and supernatural attainments; they couldn’t sign up fast enough. He grew expert in leveraging their fame for marketing and advertising, and later, when plumb prizes like John Travolta and Tom Cruise came along, they were treated as Lords of the Scientology universe, served by underlings paid 40 cents an hour to trick out their high-priced toys and flatter their egos.

LRH knew how to pick his allies. He knew how to pick his enemies, too, most especially the United States Internal Revenue Service, which he faced off with in an epic Earth-based battle lasting several decades and continuing after his departure from this life. Going Clear reveals that when the IRS stripped the Church of its tax-exempt status, LRH figured out that the best defense was a good offense. In a burst of moxy it’s hard for Gibney not to admire, LRH and his successors let loose thousands of lawsuits against the service until it was harassed into humbled compliance. In 1993, Scientology was granted the status of a religion, with all the attendant rights, protections and free money implied therein.

Many saner countries of the world have refused to recognize Scientology as a religion. In Chile, it is considered a cult. The Fins, the Danes, the Israelis, and the Czechs do not buy the religious line Scientology is selling. The Germans can’t seem to decide. In 2010 in Russia, some of the works of LRH were included on the official list of banned extremist materials, but removed in 2011.

In the U.S., however, what is clearly a commercial entity operated for the benefit of its executives, is free to continue, now under the leadership of David Miscavige, to extract huge fees from members, engage in horrendous labor practices, abuse and torture its members, and resort to bare-knuckles tactics to protect its interests, all in the name of religion.

Yet all is not exactly well within the Scientology universe. As AlterNet’s Kali Holloway has noted, the Church is alarmed by Gibney’s film, and has responded to the criticism of Going Clear with aggressive smear campaigns and a media blitz that has included a full page in the New York Times and a Super Bowl ad costing millions.

Gibney’s film is a valuable exposé of an international racket steeped in mystery. There’s no mystery, of course, in the protection of greedy, exploitive organizations in America, so long as there’s money to be made. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi found that out when Scientologists raised funds for her last re-election campaign.

But Scientology may have met its biggest threat in the form of the interconnected digital universe of the Internet. For a long time, the Church was able to seclude its members from news and information from the outside world. Now it’s not so easy, and critics spread stories of what they have witnessed behind the Cosmic Curtain. Scientologists have responded by aggressively buying up Google ads and engaging in various online campaigns to discredit critics and bury unflattering portrayals. But the details of its nefarious practices are seeping out. You can’t audit an entire population.

But even if we got rid of Scientology, somewhere, out there in America, is another young hustler searching for meaning and money. Someone with charisma, stratospheric ambition and a few screws loose. As surely as the sun rises, her religion is just now slouching toward Hollywood waiting to be born.

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Support #NoTaxOnTampons Campaign

Operation Maple YouTube - March 31, 2015 - 11:15am
Support #NoTaxOnTampons Campaign
It's a discriminatory tax. Period. PRINT/SIGN PETITION HERE: http://www.canadianmenstruators.ca/ SUBSCRIBE and check out our other videos! http://www.operationmaple.com ... From: OperationMaple Views: 26 7 ratings Time: 03:21 More in People & Blogs
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Step back from a dangerous path

New Internationalist - March 31, 2015 - 11:12am
Pakistan can’t afford to get involved in Saudi Arabia’s assault on Yemen rebels, argues Syed Hamad Ali.
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No peace with impunity for Colombia

New Internationalist - March 31, 2015 - 11:03am
Leonardo Goi looks at the country’s complicated process of justice.
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How Afghanistan Is Leaving America in the Dust

AlterNet.org - March 31, 2015 - 10:28am
The United States might end up as a footnote in the long history of Afghanistan.

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Call it an irony, if you will, but as the Obama administration struggles to slow down or halt its scheduled withdrawal from Afghanistan, newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is performing a withdrawal operation of his own. He seems to be in the process of trying to sideline the country’s major patron of the last 13 years -- and as happened in Iraq after the American invasion and occupation there, Chinese resource companies are again picking up the pieces.

In the nineteenth century, Afghanistan was the focus of “the Great Game” between the imperial powers of that era, Britain and Czarist Russia, and so it is again.  Washington, the planet’s “sole superpower,” having spent an estimated $1 trillion and sacrificed the lives of 2,150 soldiers fighting the Taliban in the longest overseas war in its history, finds itself increasingly and embarrassingly consigned to observer status in the region, even while its soldiers and contractors still occupy Afghan bases, train Afghan forces, and organize night raids against the Taliban.

In the new foreign policy that Ghani recently outlined, the United States finds itself consigned to the third of the five circles of importance.  The first circle contains neighboring countries, including China with its common border with Afghanistan, and the second is restricted to the countries of the Islamic world.

In the new politics of Afghanistan under Ghani, as the chances for peace talks between his government and the unbeaten Taliban brighten, the Obama administration finds itself gradually but unmistakably being reduced to the status of bystander. Meanwhile, credit for those potential peace talks goes to the Chinese leadership, which has received a Taliban delegation in Beijing twice in recent months, and to Ghani, who has dulled the hostility of the rabidly anti-Indian Taliban by reversing the pro-India, anti-Pakistan policies of his predecessor, Hamid Karzai.

How to Influence Afghans

Within a month of taking office in late September, Ghani flew not to Washington -- he made his obligatory trip there only last week -- but to Beijing. There he declared China “a strategic partner in the short term, medium term, long term, and very long term.” In response, Chinese President Xi Jinping called his Afghan counterpart “an old friend of the Chinese people,” whom he hailed for being prepared to work toward “a new era of cooperation” and for planning to take economic development “to a new depth.”

As an official of the World Bank for 11 years, Ghani had dealt with the Chinese government frequently. This time, he left Beijing with a pledge of 2 billion yuan ($327 million) in economic aid for Afghanistan through 2017.

The upbeat statements of the two presidents need to be seen against the backdrop of the twenty-first-century Great Game in the region in which, after 13 years of American war, Chinese corporations are the ones setting records in signing up large investment deals. In 2007, the Metallurgical Corporation of China and Jiangxi Copper Corporation, a consortium, won a $4.4 billion contract to mine copper at Aynak, 24 miles southeast of Kabul. Four years later, China National Petroleum Corporation in a joint venture with a local company, Watan Oil & Gas, secured the right to develop three oil blocks in northwestern Afghanistan with a plan to invest $400 million.

In stark contrast, 70 U.S. companies had invested a mere $75 million by 2012, according to the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency. What Washington policymakers find galling is that China has not contributed a single yuan to pacify insurgency-ridden Afghanistan or participated in the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force in that country, and yet its corporations continue to benefit from the security provided by the presence of American soldiers.

In the other equally important realm of soft power, when it came to gaining popularity among Afghans through economic aid, New Delhi outperformed Washington in every way. Though at $2 billion, its assistance to Kabul was a fraction of what Washington poured into building the country’s infrastructure of roads, schools, and health clinics, the impact of India’s assistance was much greater. This was so partly because it involved little waste and corruption.

Continuing the practice dating back to the pre-Taliban era, the Indian government channeled its development aid for the building of wells, schools, and health clinics directly into the Afghan government’s budget. This procedure was dramatically different from the one followed by the U.S. and its allies. They funneled their aid money directly to civilian contractors or to approved local and foreign nongovernmental organizations with little or no oversight. The result was massive fraud and corruption.

By funding the building of a new parliamentary complex on the outskirts of Kabul, the Afghan capital, at the cost of $140 million, India provided a highly visible example of its generosity. This gesture also served to set it off publicly from its regional rival, Pakistan. It has, after all, been a functioning multiparty democracy since independence (except for a 19-month hiatus under emergency rule in 1975-76). In contrast, the military in Pakistan has overthrown its civilian government three times, administering the country for 31 years since its founding in August 1947 following the partition of British India.

That partition took place in the midst of horrendous communal violence between Hindus and Sikhs on one side and Muslims on the other, resulting in an estimated 750,000 deaths and the migration of 12 million people across the freshly delineated borders between the two newly formed countries. Within two months of this unprecedented bloodletting, war had broken out between the new neighbors when the Hindu Maharaja of the Muslim-majority native state of Kashmir joined predominantly Hindu India.

A United Nations-brokered ceasefire came into effect in January 1950. By then, India controlled about two-fifths of Kashmir and repeated its earlier promise that, once normal conditions returned to the disturbed province, a plebiscite would be held in all of Kashmir in which its inhabitants could opt for either India or Pakistan. That plebiscite did not take place because of subsequent Indian foot-dragging. Pakistan’s attempts in 1965 and 1999 to alter the status quo in Kashmir militarily failed. Little wonder that relations between the two neighbors, which openly declared themselves nuclear powers in 1998, have remained tense to hostile, punctuated by periodic exchanges of fire across the heavily militarized border in Kashmir.

A Great Game in the Neighborhood

After the U.S. drove the Taliban regime from Kabul in 2001, a contemporary version of the great game emerged in Afghanistan, as Pakistan and India became involved in a proxy war there. Most of the Taliban’s leaders fled to Pakistan, then ruled by General Pervez Musharraf who was also the chief of army staff. In Pakistan, they were protected by the military’s intelligence service, the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence directorate. Following the almost wholesale diversion of Washington’s military and intelligence resources to invade and occupy Iraq in March 2003, the Taliban leadership, headed by Mullah Muhammad Omar, started rebuilding its movement.

The direct election of Hamid Karzai in 2004 as president of post-Taliban Afghanistan buoyed New Delhi. Karzai had spent seven years in India as a university student. During his stay, he became fluent in Urdu and Hindi, as well as an addict of Bollywood movies and North Indian cuisine. He also came to admire the country’s democratic system. Within two months of assuming the Afghan presidency, he paid a state visit to India.

As the Afghan Taliban, led by its Pakistan-based leadership, regrouped and rearmed, and its insurgency against the Kabul government gathered momentum, relations between Karzai and Musharraf turned testy. To defuse the situation, they met in Islamabad in February 2006. Karzai handed the general a list of Taliban militants, including Mullah Omar, allegedly living in Pakistan. When no action followed -- with Musharraf later claiming that most of the information was old and useless -- his government leaked the list to the media.

On his part, Musharraf started complaining about an anti-Pakistani conspiracy being hatched by the Afghan defense and intelligence ministries, each run by pro-Delhi figures. In an interview with Newsweek International in September, Musharraf claimed that Mullah Omar was actually in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, which meant that “the center of gravity of this [Taliban] movement is in Afghanistan.” Karzai retorted, “Mullah Omar is for sure in Quetta in Pakistan... We have even given [Musharraf] the GPS numbers of his house... and the telephone numbers.”  And so it went.

Last month, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Musharraf, now confined to a villa in the Pakistani port city of Karachi, pointed out that India and Pakistan were then in a proxy war on Afghan soil that fed the conflict there. The role his government and the subsequent ones played in nurturing the Taliban and allied militant groups operating in Afghanistan, he argued, was a legitimate counterweight to the acts of rival India. “There are enemies of Pakistan that have to be countered,” he said. “Certainly if there’s an enemy of mine, I will use somebody [else] to counter him.”

Given this zero-sum relationship between the two leading South Asian nations, the increasingly bitter quarrel between Karzai and Musharraf (and his successors) proved music to the ears of policymakers in New Delhi. They were also aware that their country was already far ahead in the Afghan popularity sweepstakes. According to a 2009 opinion poll done by the Afghan Centre for Socio-Economic and Opinion Research, for example, 91% of Afghans had a somewhat or very unfavorable view of Pakistan. The corresponding figure for India was 21%.

During his second term as president, Karzai capitalized on this popular sentiment. In October 2011, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and he signed an agreement for a “strategic partnership” in which India was, among other things, to “assist, as mutually determined, in the training, equipping, and capacity-building programs for Afghan National Security Forces.”

Pakistani leaders, who regard Afghanistan as their country’s backyard, were alarmed. Their apprehension increased when a news item in the Dubai-based newspaper, theNational, cited a report in Jane's Defense Weekly that up to 30,000 recruits from the Afghan security forces were to be flown to India for training over a three-year period. There, they would be equipped with assault rifles and other small arms. Later, rocket launchers, light artillery, and even retrofitted Soviet T-55 tanks might be transferred to them.

There was great anxiety in Islamabad at the prospect of future Afghan commanders being indoctrinated by its mortal rival when Karzai had rejected repeated Pakistani offers to train Afghan army cadets at its military academy. This drove Pakistan’s military strategists to firm up their plans for a worst-case scenario: a two-front assault on the country from India in the east and an Indian-Afghan military alliance in the west.

To their relief, the figure mentioned by Jane's Defense Weeklyproved to be wildly inflated. During a Karzai visit to India in December 2013, the two governments announced that the 350 army and police personnel then being trained there annually would be raised to 1,000 in the future and that the focus of their training would be on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations. Islamabad was no less relieved to learn that, facing increased security risks in Afghanistan, a consortium of Indian companies had scaled back its investment to mine iron ore there from a projected $10.3 billion to $1.5 billion.

On the China front, invited by President Xi, Karzai attended the summit conference of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Beijing in June 2012. There the two leaders issued a joint statement on a “China-Afghanistan Strategic and Cooperative Partnership.” Three months later, China’s internal security chief, Zhou Yongka, visited Kabul and signed a range of Sino-Afghan economic and security agreements that included the training of a modest 300 Afghan police officers over the following four years.

A year later, during another Karzai visit to Beijing, Xi announced a grant of 200 million yuan ($32 million) to Afghanistan for 2013 and offered to host the annual 14-nation regional conference on Afghanistan, the first of which had been held in Istanbul in November 2011.

And so the stage was set for a major twist in both the Great Game in Asia and its limited version being played in Afghanistan. 

The China Card

A telling irony is that Afghan President Ghani has been America’s favorite, especially given the spats that Washington had with Karzai, who regularly denounced U.S. air strikes, banned night raids in his country, and refused to sign a bilateral security agreement that would keep U.S. forces there for up to a decade or more.  On taking office, Ghani promptly signed the agreement, and then tried to neutralize its impact by actively courting China and Pakistan.

As a start, Ghani made sure to arrive in Beijing just before the Fourth Ministerial Conference of the Istanbul Process on Afghanistan began on October 31, 2014. In his talks with Xi, he reportedly expressed his readiness to confer with the Afghan Taliban and urged the Chinese leader to encourage the Pakistani government to pressure the Taliban’s leaders into peace talks with his administration. He evidently got a receptive response.

Unlike Washington, which has had wildly fluctuating relations with Islamabad, Beijing has a lot more leverage there. Pakistan regards China, its main supplier of arms, as an all-weather ally of the first order. In May 2011, when Pakistan protested that Washington hadn’t given the slightest hint that it would launch its clandestine operation to kill Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, there was silence in capitals across the planet -- except in Beijing. It supported Pakistan’s complaint. This led that country's ambassador to China, Masood Khan, to describe Sino-Pakistani relations in the most laudatory of terms. “We say it is higher than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, dearer than eyesight, sweeter than honey, and so on.”

China has its own security concerns. It is increasingly worried about Islamist radicalism among its Uighur population in the autonomous region of Xinjiang adjoining Pakistan. Menacingly, the Islamic State has vowed to “liberate” Xinjiang. Beijing is eager to see training camps run by Uighur Islamist terrorists along the Afghan-Pakistan border shut down, which can only be done with the active cooperation of the Afghan Taliban and its ally, the Pakistani Taliban.

In line with his foreign policy of giving first priority to neighbors, Ghani traveled to Islamabad in late November. There, after meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, he broke diplomatic protocol by calling on General Raheel Sharif, the powerful chief of army staff, who has the last word on matters of national security. His gesture alarmed the pro-India lobby in Afghanistan, but was applauded by Pakistan’s officials and media.

Later Ghani suspended an order for heavy weapons Karzai had placed with India. In a further sign that he was disengaging himself from India’s embrace, he has so far shown no interest in visiting New Delhi. “Ashraf Ghani is a balanced man,” remarked Musharraf, adding, “I think he’s a great hope” for Pakistan.

Nawaz Sharif has responded positively, altering a long-held Pakistani policy of encouraging the Taliban to stick to a hard line on peace talks. The December 16th killing of 132 Pakistani students, most of them the children of army officers, at the Army Public School in Peshawar helped this process. The leaders of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, a homegrown organization close to the Afghan Taliban, masterminded the massacre. In its wake, Sharif declared that there were no longer “good terrorists” and “bad terrorists.”

Ghani welcomed that statement. Reversing Karzai’s policy, he ordered his security forces to begin working closely with their Pakistani counterparts to pacify the badlands along the Afghan-Pakistan border. General Sharif reciprocated by visiting Kabul and holding high-level talks with Afghan officials.  Ghani then further changed his country’s policies by sending a symbolic six Afghan army cadets to Pakistan’s military academy for training.

In this way, Ghani seems to be creating an environment conducive to the holding of formal peace talks with the Taliban later this year. If so, a new chapter could unfold in war-torn Afghanistan in which the Chinese role would only grow, while the United States might end up as a footnote in the long history of that country.

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Nashville Prosecutors Have Made Sterilization of Women Part of Plea Deals

AlterNet.org - March 31, 2015 - 10:03am
Many suggest that the practice happens frequently.

Nashville’s district attorney recently banned his staff from using invasive surgery as a bargaining chip, after it became apparent that local attorneys had been using sterilization as part of plea bargains.

In the most recent case, a woman with a long history of mental illness was charged with neglect after her young baby died. Jasmine Randers, 26, suffers from paranoia and had fled from a Minnesota treatment facility where she was under state commitment. The district attorney refused to go forward with a plea unless she agreed to be sterilized. 

The cause of Randers’ baby’s death could not be determined. A cab driver who drove her to a hotel the night before she brought the baby to a hospital claims the baby was screaming, but stopped completely during the ride. Prosecutors speculated that the child could have suffocated in Randers’ coat during the cab ride, died as a result of unexplained infant death syndrome, or been accidentally crushed to death by Randers while she slept. According to an investigation by the Tennessean, the child was healthy and there were no signs of traumatic injury.

Nonetheless, Randers was hit with a neglect charge that carried a sentence of 15-25 years behind bars. The charge stemmed from the fact that no bottles of formula were found in the hotel; she took a taxi to the hospital instead of an ambulance; and the amount of time it took her to notify anyone about the baby’s death. The Tennessean report quotes Randers as saying, “I believe I was very sick and I, I guess, she was very sick, and I came here without a lot of money. And she ended up dying prior to the hospital where she was pronounced dead. Ever since then we've been trying to figure out how much I was responsible for that."

The case was picked up by the assistant district attorney Brian Holmgren and assistant public defender Mary Kathryn Harcombe. Holmgren wouldn’t accept a plea deal unless Randers had her tubes tied. Harcombe viewed the stipulation as coercive, so she went over his head to Davidson County district attorney Glenn Funk and explained the situation. Funk has now cracked down on the practice, saying, “I have let my office know that that is not an appropriate condition of a plea. It is now policy that sterilization will never be a condition of deal-making in the district attorney's office."

However, defense attorneys say the practice has been implemented at least three other times in recent years. This is not the first time Holmgren has attempted to use it. He has admitted to requesting it from a client who refused, thereby torpedoing her plea deal. According to an Associated Press story on the subject, Nashville defense attorney Carrie Searcy says Holmgren asked two of her clients to undergo the surgery.

The AP story also identifies cases from West Virginia and Virginia in which sterilization has been used to reduce prison time. The extent of the practice remains unknown.

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Robert Reich: The Rich Don't Work Anymore—Working Is for Poor People

AlterNet.org - March 31, 2015 - 9:05am
A large portion of the super-rich have never broken a sweat.

Many believe that poor people deserve to be poor because they’re lazy. As Speaker John Boehner has said, the poor have a notion that “I really don’t have to work. I don’t really want to do this. I think I’d rather just sit around.”

In reality, a large and growing share of the nation’s poor work full time — sometimes sixty or more hours a week – yet still don’t earn enough to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. 

It’s also commonly believed, especially among Republicans, that the rich deserve their wealth because they work harder than others. 

In reality, a large and growing portion of the super-rich have never broken a sweat. Their wealth has been handed to them. 

The rise of these two groups — the working poor and non-working rich – is relatively new. Both are challenging the core American assumptions that people are paid what they’re worth, and work is justly rewarded.

Why are these two groups growing?

The ranks of the working poor are growing because wages at the bottom have  dropped, adjusted for inflation. With increasing numbers of Americans taking low-paying jobs in retail sales, restaurants, hotels, hospitals, childcare, elder care, and other personal services, the pay of the bottom fifth is falling closer to the minimum wage.

At the same time, the real value of the federal minimum wage is lower today than it was a quarter century ago. 

In addition, most recipients of public assistance must now work in order to qualify. 

Bill Clinton’s welfare reform of 1996 pushed the poor off welfare and into work. Meanwhile, the Earned Income Tax Credit, a wage subsidy, has emerged as the nation’s largest anti-poverty program. Here, too, having a job is a prerequisite.

The new work requirements haven’t reduced the number or percentage of Americans in poverty. They’ve just moved poor people from being unemployed and impoverished to being employed and impoverished. 

While poverty declined in the early years of welfare reform when the economy boomed and jobs were plentiful, it began growing in 2000. By 2012 it exceeded its level in 1996, when welfare ended. 


At the same time, the ranks of the non-working rich have been swelling. America’s legendary “self-made” men and women are fast being replaced by wealthy heirs. 

Six of today’s ten wealthiest Americans are heirs to prominent fortunes. The Walmart heirs alone have more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of Americans combined.

Americans who became enormously wealthy over the last three decades are now busily transferring that wealth to their children and grand children.

The nation is on the cusp of the largest inter-generational transfer of wealth in history. A study from the Boston College Center on Wealth and Philanthropy projects a total of $59 trillion passed down to heirs between 2007 and 2061.

As the French economist Thomas Piketty reminds us, this is the kind of dynastic wealth that’s kept Europe’s aristocracy going for centuries. It’s about to become the major source of income for a new American aristocracy.

The tax code encourages all this by favoring unearned income over earned income. 

The top tax rate paid by America’s wealthy on their capital gains — the major source of income for the non-working rich – has dropped from 33 percent in the late 1980s to 20 percent today, putting it substantially below the top tax rate on ordinary income (36.9 percent).

If the owners of capital assets whose worth increases over their lifetime hold them until death, their heirs pay zero capital gainstaxes on them. Such “unrealized” gains now account for more than half the value of assets held by estates worth more than $100 million.

At the same time, the estate tax has been slashed. Before George W. Bush was president, it applied to assets in excess of $2 million per couple at a rate of 55 percent. Now it kicks in at $10,680,000 per couple, at a 40 percent rate.

Last year only 1.4 out of every 1,000 estates owed any estate tax, and the effective rate they paid was only 17 percent.

Republicans now in control of Congress want to go even further. Last Friday the Senate voted 54-46 in favor of a non-binding resolution to repeal the estate tax altogether. Earlier in the week, the House Ways and Means Committee also voted for a repeal. The House is expected to vote in coming weeks. 

Yet the specter of an entire generation doing nothing for their money other than speed-dialing their wealth management advisers is not particularly attractive.

It puts more and more responsibility for investing a substantial portion of the nation’s assets into the hands of people who have never worked. 

It also endangers our democracy, as dynastic wealth inevitably and invariably accumulates political influence and power.

Consider the rise of both the working poor and the non-working rich, and the meritocratic ideal on which America’s growing inequality is often justified doesn’t hold up.  

That widening inequality — combined with the increasing numbers of people who work full time but are still impoverished and of others who have never worked and are fabulously wealthy — is undermining the moral foundations of American capitalism.

 

 

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