Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Cautionary Tale

There once were two brothers
Unless this is fable
Or perhaps twin others
So like Cain and Abel
That we find them today
In business and travel
When siblings they slay
And truth starts to ravel
Beyond our best senses
For unintended consequences

There are versions of the story of Cain and Abel emanating from many cultures, but there are some constant themes among them that we could take into our learning. Foremost among them is the notion of unintended consequences. Cain just did not know what to do with the corpse once he had killed Abel. Several versions imply that God sent a raven to Cain so that he could follow the raven’s example of burying a bird. It seems odd that Cain would be so determined to kill his brother but so unaware that Abel’s body would present problems. Maybe we are slow learners. Maybe each of us needs to learn directly and we tend to ignore history whether fact or fable.

When President Obama was swept into office, there was an almost histrionic expectation that everything would be resolved by the mere fact of his election. The truth is that there is nothing that simple. Worse, the behavior of progressives who fully expected that this election empowered them like the Enjoli advertisement where a woman was able to do it all. She could “bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan” and meanwhile be sexy and smart. The ad implies that there are no priorities. We can have it all…NOW. Guess what? Progressives have great expectations and there is something very positive about that. We need great expectations. We also need patience and we need to acknowledge that perhaps the agendas of same-sex unions or removal of all troops from Iraq are less critical than the American economy or health care.
Some versions of the Cain and Abel story have God questioning Cain as to the whereabouts of Abel. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Let me ask the question in today’s context. Are you your brother’s keeper? Do you need to keep your brother from harm? Do you need to know how your brother is solving his problems so you can be more helpful? Maybe there is no raven and maybe there never was a raven to give us a clue. Maybe all this is inductive reasoning that requires us to think before we act and especially before we speak. As attractive as the Enjoli ad was, it was grossly unrealistic. We do ourselves harm and perhaps even great harm by joining in the Enjoli chorus.

Perhaps the most flagrant of the unintended consequences is that by joining the Enjoli chorus, we are on the same tune as the “just say no” right wing extremists who want to return to the last eight years of Big Government supporting Big Pharma which is how we dug the hole we are in. We are now witnessing Progressives joining with right wing nuts damning Obama as though he was the enemy. In the cascade of unintended consequences, be careful what you wish for. Conservatives are arguing that the “underwear bomber” should be treated far differently than the “shoe bomber” who was convicted in a civilian court. Senator DeMint is refusing to allow a vote on the head of TSA arguing that TSA employees should not be unionized (implying both that the new director would do so and that doing so would weaken TSA more than no leadership at all). Do you really want to be counted among the rabid right? Maybe you are not your brother’s keeper, but killing him won’t get your wishes achieved.

George Giacoppe
31 December 2009

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Health Care and Other Sorrows

President Obama and various Democratic Senators trumpeted their “victory” this weekend, when they managed to bribe Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson to pledge his vote for the Health Care Bill in exchange for concessions on abortion (how abortion became part of the health care debate is another matter). Here is how an AP report characterized the concessions: Not only would health plans not have to offer coverage for abortions, but

“In plans that do cover abortion, beneficiaries would have to pay for it separately, and those funds would have to be kept in a separate account from taxpayer money.
Moreover, individual states would be able to prohibit abortion coverage in plans offered through the exchange, but after passing specific legislation to that effect.”
Thus, one reactionary senator from one corny state has dictated the health benefits offered to women in the entire nation.

The rest of the benefits once considered firmly in the bill have been torpedoed by other reactionary senators like Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. So gutted has the final bill become that Howard Dean, once a presidential candidate and until the party election this year, chairman of the party, wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post that appeared today, condemning the compromise in no uncertain terms. His words pretty much sum up the defeat of Senate liberals on healthcare:

“If I were a senator, I would not vote for the current health care bill. Any measure that expands private insurers’ monopoly over health care and transfers millions of taxpayer dollars to private corporations is not real health care reform.
Real reform would insert competition into insurance markets, force insurers to cut unnecessary administrative expenses and spend health care dollars caring for people. Real reform would significantly lower costs, improve the delivery of health care and give all Americans a meaningful choice of coverage. The current Senate bill accomplishes none of these.
Real health care reform is supposed to eliminate discrimination based on pre-existing conditions. But the legislation allows insurance companies to charge older Americans up to three times as much as younger Americans, pricing them out of coverage. The bill was supposed to give Americans choices about what kind of system they wanted to enroll in. Instead, it fines Americans if they do not sign up with an insurance company…
If you want to read more of what Dean said, and it is powerful, check out his op-ed.

But the important thing here, as in numerous other initiatives of the Obama Administration and the craven Democrats who promised reform in this and other areas, is the continuing abandonment of long-held principles upon which they were elected. A recent article by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone Magazine (“Obama’s Big Sellout” Dec. 9, 2009) cites these concessions chapter and verse. It is not a pretty picture. Basically, according to Taibbi, the Obama Adminstration took action as soon as Nov. 5 to abandon the promises (and people—Austin Goolsbee, Karen Kornbluh) that got him elected, and steered deliberately towards the center and the moneyed interests who reign there. It was clear in the appointments Obama made to his economic team—and which we have commented on before. People like Tim Geithner as Secretary of Treasury, Lawrence Summers as Head of the Council of Economic Advisers, Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff, Michael Froman as head of the National Economic Council, and countless others, all came out of a very specific area of Wall Street, many of them aides or protégés of former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. According to Taibbi, Rubin, who came originally from Goldman Sachs, has screwed up every job he’s ever had. Nonetheless, he has been consistently demoted upward, most recently to the Chairmanship of Citigroup, which the Federal Government has bailed out with billions (upwards of $300 billion) of taxpayer dollars. His legacy in the current administration has been extensive and toxic:

The significance of all of these appointments isn't that the Wall Street types are now in a position to provide direct favors to their former employers. It's that, with one or two exceptions, they collectively offer a microcosm of what the Democratic Party has come to stand for in the 21st century. Virtually all of the Rubinites brought in to manage the economy under Obama share the same fundamental political philosophy carefully articulated for years by the Hamilton Project: Expand the safety net to protect the poor, but let Wall Street do whatever it wants. “Bob Rubin, these guys, they're classic limousine liberals,” says David Sirota, a former Democratic strategist. “These are basically people who have made shitloads of money in the speculative economy, but they want to call themselves good Democrats because they're willing to give a little more to the poor. That's the model for this Democratic Party: Let the rich do their thing, but give a fraction more to everyone else.
It is sickening to realize that this pretty much sums up the moves made by the Obama administration in virtually every arena of government: the wars in Iraq/Afghanistan, the policy on torture and Guantanamo, health care reform, and global warming. It is always a compromise with the most reactionary forces, and justified by the catch-phrase that has now become their mantra: Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. But what good is a good that makes matters worse, as Dean says about the current health care compromise? What good is a Nobel Peace Prize for a president who has just ordered 30,000 more troops to a war that never should have been started in the first place?

All one can conclude is that one’s optimism that Obama was a “necessity” ran its course on Inauguration Day when people wept to see a black man as President. Since then, it’s been downhill all the way. The real power in this nation has remained unchanged, and firmly in the hands of Wall Street bankers, corporate CEOs, health-care moguls, and the same wealthy elites who have run things since the beginning. One might have thought that the near-catastrophe that brought the financial system to its knees would change this, but, if anything, it has made conditions for most of us worse. Now the health care “reform” bill threatens to add to the stench.

In this dark season, one cannot help but veer towards that prophetic question of William Butler Yeats:

“what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Lawrence DiStasi


Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Family, a book review

The Family, by Jeff Sharlet was published in 2008 by Harper Collins.

By now, most of you have seen on TV or read in a magazine or newspaper about the clique of politicians embroiled in sex scandals while living in a C-Street mansion in Washington, DC. While Senator Ensign and a host of other notables were using this address as a hangout and refuge and ignoring the commonly accepted rules for personal responsibility, they also prayed together. Yes, the family that prays together also preys together. What a concept! Unfortunately for them, since the book was published, their tax exemption for the house as a church has been revoked.

Jeff Sharlet conducted extensive research that required years of interviewing members of the Family in wide ranging settings from Washington, where he was accepted as a sort of research intern, to Colorado Springs where he joined fundamentalists in their everyday religious activities to develop information that uncovered an extra-legal and off-government influence of worldwide events.

The group began formally in 1935 when a Norwegian immigrant (Abraham Vereide) established the International Christian Leadership that became a front for American fundamentalism that has since expanded beyond any reasonable expectation. Now who could have any objection to prayer? That is a fair question that only reading the book will begin to answer. To start with, the name “Christian” has a different meaning for most of us because the theological base of the New Testament seems paramount in the mix of things. Not so for many fundamentalists who seem to be focused on the Old Testament and especially King David whose reputation for adultery and murder might seem at odds with a religion that touts the Beatitudes.

The answers seem rooted in the concept of power that the Family espouses. The powerful do not have to live by the rules of the ordinary folk. God chose David. This act gave David power and power does not have to answer to ordinary rules. You can see where this is going on the level of individuals in power, but what you cannot easily see is that a concept like this would go nowhere unless it was enabled by people in power. Note that the National Prayer Breakfast (formerly the Presidential Prayer Breakfast) is organized by the Family, so that the group creates access to those currently in power.

Some of you will probably see in this fabric the hint of a Calvinistic pre-ordained nature of humanity. Either you are saved or not, and nothing you do will change the outcome. This surely reinforces the powerful and it also makes the rest of us a little out of the picture unless we take sides and join with the powerful to get God’s work done. This is less an illusion and more a matter of secrecy and organization. Concentric organizational circles are drawn that offers something to everyone. Those on the inside touch power and make things happen. Those nearby such as in Ivanwald in Arlington, Virginia, support the Family directly and hope to grow from being congressional aides to men with real power. And, yes, men, because women have a different role in this scheme and direct access to power is not a fundamentalist role for women. Those several circles away take pride in doing God’s work as they see it, and they pray to support the aims of the leaders.

Sharlet carefully explains the links between economic Darwinism and political power through the policies that are promoted by the Family. This allows the group to endorse strong leadership without any flinching and also promotes the image of Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, and even Mao as examples of how power gets things done. Abraham Vereide (Abram) expressed preference for Hitler over Roosevelt who dared to curtail the suffering of Americans during the Depression while Hitler took action against those who were adding nothing to the German community (as he saw it). Later, Doug Coe, taking over the Family from Abram, did likewise. Coe often told the story of how just seven men (Hitler’s closest group from the putsch) were able to do so much to change history (and that the Family should also do so by using power and secrecy).

Again, all this would mean little unless something happened to change “prayer groups” into action committees (cells) at home and abroad. The Family does that handily using Supreme Court judges, senators, representatives and ambassadors and generals in several of the concentric circles. If somebody in the Family feels that it is God’s will that the people of Uganda should have abstinence education instead of condoms to slow the ravage of AIDS, look to Senator Brownback and others to introduce legislation to do that for God and the Family. Unfortunately, the AIDS rate spiked up when he succeeded, but then, pain and suffering are part of God’s plan, so that is not a problem.

In the 40s and 50s the Family effort was to provide get-out-of-jail cards for Nazis. In the 60s and 70s, the Family took the side of Suharto against the citizens of East Timor. Over 600,000 were massacred according to Sharlet (men, women and children, if that makes a difference to the pure), while Wikipedia allows only 100,000 for those killings. What is also chilling is the language that Suharto used. He spoke of the “New Order.” That language was also used by Hitler, Abram Vereide and our own neocons. How could that be? Suharto was invited to the Family’s prayer groups and, incidentally, they never condemned his actions. The reason they supported Suharto was because he was anti-communist although communists did not control East Timor, Suharto was a strong man doing god’s will. The “New Order” calls for hegemony built on absolute acceptance of “Jesus plus nothing.” That is a concept where Jesus is stripped of everything but power and it is a tenet of the Family that separates it from most of Christianity.

This Family scenario is replicated with African and Central/South American dictators and with similar devastating results and, in each case, whether the excuse be homosexuality, communism, or even the lack of “free” markets, the results were the same and help was obtained through our own and allied elected and appointed officials who went to extraordinary efforts to support foreign murderers and thieves. The list includes Papa Doc Duvallier, Emporer Selassie, General Park of Korea and General Medici of Brazil. American resources were spent through foreign aid and other means to do what the Family could not do on its own but did through influencing power so that, in the end, the will of the Family prevailed.

Jeff Sharlet studied several religions for years and then got on the ground with hundreds of fundamentalists here and abroad to discover how this strange group with its concentric circles of faithful was able to get business done. The concentric circles have decreasing power and knowledge of the secrets of the Family as they become more distant from the small group of leaders. The common element appears to be a prayer breakfast. That is something most of us have participated in, so how could anything so innocuous become so powerful in a this-worldly and vicious manner?

Much of the present magnetism of the Family is derived from early American fundamentalists with the ingenious addition of the focus on power. This is a must-read book for anyone interested in today’s reality. I commend this book to anybody that is curious as to why things are as they are. It is a sobering look at how things get done, even when they are too horrible to contemplate.

George Giacoppe

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Thanksgiving and its Myths

One of the dubious pleasures of the internet is the opportunity it offers for finding endless variations on something one used to call “truth.” The past couple of days have offered me such a variety—“truths” about the “real Thanksgiving,” and how they contrast with the mythology we have all been taught: Pilgrims and Indians sitting down together for a feast of turkey, cranberries, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie, all in thanks for the bounty God had given them. First, there is the truth that this wasn’t a religious thanksgiving at all, but rather a harvest festival, which probably took place in September or October. Second, is the truth that there was no turkey, but rather ducks and geese, and deer supplied by the Indians—the local Wampanoags of the Patuxet area north of Cape Cod (which is where the Separatist Pilgrims actually landed, not at Plymouth Rock), who joined the Pilgrims as a way of offering peace so they could forge an alliance with powerful Europeans, whom they needed in their conflict with the more powerful Narragansett tribe nearby. Third, the truth that the Pilgrims didn’t wear those black outfits with big top hats and buckle shoes, but rather much more humble and colorful garb.

Fourth, and most damaging to the myth of peace and harmony conveyed by the usual image of a festal meal in lovely togetherness, comes the alleged truth that the first real Thanksgiving ceremony took place many years later, around 1637, this one an actual religious ceremony to thank the Christian God for helping the white settlers massacre 700 or so Pequot Indians with whom they had been at war. As William Bradford in his Of Plymouth Plantation described the massacre,

“Those that scaped the fire were slaine with the sword; some hewed to peeces, others rune throw with their rapiers, so as they were quickly dispatchte, and very few escapted. It was conceived they thus destroyed about 400 at this time. It was a fearful sight to see them thus frying in the fyer, and the streams of blood quenching the same, and horrible was the stincke and sente there of, but the victory seemed a sweete sacrifice, and they gave the prays (praise) thereof to God, who had wrought so wonderfully for them, thus to inclose their enemise in their hands, and give them so speedy a victory over so proud and insulting an enimie.”

The next day, the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared “A day of Thanksgiving, thanking God that they had eliminated over 700 men, women and children,” and establishing a law setting aside this day as “a day of celebration for subduing the Pequots.” It is claimed that this day of Thanksgiving, or another one declared more formally in 1676, at the conclusion of yet another Indian “war,” King Philip’s War, was the real precursor of our Thanksgiving Day. Here is what Almon Lauber wrote in 1913, in his Indian Slavery in Colonial Times Within the Present Limits of the United States (Columbia University, 1913):

According to the Massachusetts Records of 1676-1677 a day was set apart for public thanksgiving, because, among other things of moment, "there now scarce remains a name or family of them (the Indians) but are either slain, captivated or fled."

Lauber’s book also recites, in horrifying detail, the common and continuing practice, by all the English settlers, from Maine to Florida, of capturing those Indians they did not kill (mostly women and children), and selling them into slavery—some given to local soldiers and other gentry for their homes, some shipped to slave markets in Spain, some shipped directly to West Indian slave markets in the Caribbean. Here is but one example referring to the practice, by the United Colonies of New England, during King Philip’s War:

During King Philip’s War the various New England governments, with Massachusetts and Plymouth in the lead, again took charge of the disposal of the captive Indians. Various methods were adopted to convert their Indian captives into a source of immediate revenue. One was to sell them outright outside of the colonies, or, on occasion, within the colonies, and thus replenish the exchequer,and, so far as might be, defray the expenses of the war. At a meeting of the Plymouth Court in 1676 to consider the disposal of more than a hundred captives, the conclusion was reached, “upon serious and deliberate consideration and agitation” concerning them, “to sell the greater number into servitude.” A little later, in the same year, several more were sold. In each case the colonial treasurer was ordered to effect the sale for the benefit of the colony. A fiscal report of Plymouth for the period from June 25, 1675, to September 23, 1676, gives among the credits the following, which relates to the sale of the one hundred and eighty-eight Indians already mentioned: “By the following accounts, received in, or as silver, viz.: captives, for 188 prisoners at war sold, £397 13s.” (p. 138)

As noted above, however, there are debunkers of most of the above material, those like Jeremy Bangs, former director of the Plymouth Rock National Monument, and a scholar who has studied the Pilgrims both in Holland and in the United States (see his “The Truth About Thanksgiving is that the Debunkers are Wrong,” Bangs discredits one of the primary debunkers, William Newell, a Penobscot Indian said to be the head of the Anthropology Department at the University of Connecticut. According to Bangs, Newell was 79 years old when the department was founded in 1971, and further, elicited no memories from faculty members when they were asked about him. Newell’s claims thus seem cloaked in doubt—including the main one that the real Thanksgiving Day commemorated the 1637 massacre noted above, and the general idea that a religious holiday for Pilgrims would have included neither feasting, merriment, nor Indians. But Bangs notes that his research in the community of Scituate, MA in 1636 found records of a “religious service followed by feasting.” Others have objected that the debunking material about the 1637 and 1676 “real thanksgivings” referred not to the Pilgrims of Plymouth, but to the Puritans of the later Massachusetts Bay Colony (founded 1631). The idea here is that the Pilgrims were gentle people, ancestors of the later Quakers, and thus unlikely to be engaged in a massacre of Indians.

At this point, one wants to consult the original documents referring to the Thanksgiving event, and fortunately, two can be found rather easily. The first is from Edward Winslow’s letter in Mourt’s Relation, published in 1622, and it goes like this:

..our harvest being gotten in, our governour sent foure men on fowling, that so we might after a speciall manner rejoyce together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labours; they foure in one day killed as much fowle, as with a little helpe beside, served the Company almost a weeke, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Armes, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoyt, with some ninetie men, whom for three dayes we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deere, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governour, and upon the Captaine and others. And although it be not always so plentifull, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so farre from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plentie.

The second is found in William Bradford’s Of Plimoth Plantation, written by the governor of Plymouth in 1641, but lost shortly thereafter and not recovered and published until 1854:

They begane now to gather in ye small harvest they had, and to fitte up their houses and dwellings against winter, being all well recovered in health & strenght, and had all things in good plenty; For as some were thus imployed in affairs abroad, others were excersised in fishing, aboute codd, & bass, & other fish, of which they tooke good store, of which every family had their portion. All ye somer ther was no want. And now begane to come in store of foule, as winter approached, of which this place did abound when they came first (but afterward decreased by degrees). And besids water foule, ther was great store of wild Turkies, of which they tooke many, besids venison, &c. Besids, they had about a peck a meale a weeke to a person, or now since harvest, Indean corn to that proportion. Which made many afterwards write so largly of their plenty hear to their freinds in England, which were not fained, but true reports. (both in original 17th century spelling.)

The discovery of this last document by Bradford—who does mention turkeys, giving some support to those who insist that the eating of turkeys was original—actually prompted the first official U.S. sanctioning of Thanksgiving as a holiday. For it stimulated the interest of one Sarah Barbara Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book and said to be the 19th century’s Martha Stewart, in the historic celebration. She wrote articles about the alleged original meal, including turkeys, stuffing and pumpkin pie (leaving out waterfowl and deer), and then, in 1858, petitioned the President to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. When he became President, Abraham Lincoln responded positively to the idea (the value of uniting the divided nation via a holiday commemorating its roots was clear to him), and declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1864. It wasn’t until 1941 that Congress established the fourth Thursday in November as the official date for the holiday.

So, then, what do we have? It appears there was some sort of festivity that included eating, though the motive for it remains in question. The Wampanoag Indians, and their chief Massasoit, no doubt brought deer to the feast, and probably were motivated to join the settlers due to the drastic reduction smallpox had wrought in their numbers—the disease brought to them by prior visits of Europeans who had been trading with them for several years. These prior trading trips also aided the communication in 1621, because Squanto, a member of the Patuxet tribe who had earlier been seized and taken to England, had learned English there; it was also by means of this language ability that he was able to show the desperate Pilgrims how to plant corn and otherwise survive. So for this, and for their survival (52 of the original 102, at least), the Pilgrims celebrated. However, there is no record that the celebration was continued annually in subsequent years. For that, it is necessary to go to the “thanksgivings” of 1637 and 1676, when the English settlers thanked god for aiding them in slaughtering and enslaving the Indians, by now their arch enemies. Nor was such thanksgiving a new sentiment among the allegedly freedom-seeking, religious settlers in North America. I have had occasion before to quote from the New England Charter of 1620, in which it is noted that God’s favor towards English settlers can be discerned in the ‘wonderful plague’—smallpox—which has, even before 1620, so auspiciously dispatched so many of the aboriginal inhabitants:

We have been further given to knowe, that within these late Yeares there hath by God’s visitation reigned a wonderfull Plague, together with many horrible Slaugthers, and Murthers, committed amoungst the Sauages and brutish People there, heertofore inhabiting, in a Manner to the utter Destruction, Deuastacion, and Depopulacion of that whole Territorye…whereby We in our Judgment are persuaded and satisfied that the appointed Time is come in which Almighty God in his great Goodness and Bountie towards Us and our People, hath thought fitt and determined, that those large and goodly Territoryes, deserted as it were by their naturall Inhabitants, should be possessed and enjoyed by such of our Subjects and People as heertofore have and hereafter shall by his Mercie and Favour, and by his Powerfull Arme... (see

From the very outset, that is, and even before landing, the English were thankful that so many potential obstacles—other human beings—to their occupation of North America had been removed. This sentiment, as Lauber documents in his study of slavery, continued unabated throughout the colonies, and for hundreds of years thereafter, until the entire continent was “cleansed.” Of course, it is not exactly polite to give overt thanks for such cleansings these days, but it might be useful to bear them in mind when contemplating that first—whichever one you choose—“thanksgiving.”

Lawrence DiStasi