Monday, November 29, 2010

Social Security Scapegoat

It’s time for the American public to blow a big hole in the proposals now being seriously considered to “solve the budget crisis.” As noted in my last blog, the onus, as always, is meant to fall on the poorest among us. We have been hearing ad nauseam the mantra that the Social Security system is driving the nation into insolvency. Therefore, recent proposals to “solve” the debt crisis—brought on, it should be remembered, by two unpaid-for and unnecessary wars, the Reagan-Bush-Bush reductions in tax income on the wealthy, and of course the outright thievery of Wall Street financiers that produced the housing bubble, and crash—always target Social Security. ‘We’ll all have to make sacrifices,’ is the song line. Which means, you, you poor gullible assholes, will have to sacrifice as usual.

Unless, that is, everyone remembers some simple facts, the first of which is: Social Security is NOT responsible in any way for the current deficits. Indeed, Social Security right now runs surpluses—that is, the money paid in, by workers themselves—outstrips the money paid out. And remember, it’s your money you’ve been paying in for a lifetime. You may recall, in fact, the campaign promises of our presidential candidates a few years ago, who promised that Social Security funds would be “put in a lock box.” What that referred to is the fact that right now, according to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare ( ), there is a “$2.6 trillion dollar trust fund built up by American workers over decades.” That’s $2.6 trillion folks. Except for the fact that the federal government, to disguise the deficits it runs each time we have a war, borrows from the SS trust fund, and is thereby obligated to pay it back, with interest. This raiding of the Trust Fund started in 1968 when Pres. Lyndon Johnson got legislation passed—he was building up American involvement in the Vietnam War, and of course wanted to tout “both guns and butter” (their guns, our butter)—started the game. The Trust Fund was allowed to be mixed with the General Fund, and off we went.

Bottom line: not only does Social Security run a surplus, the Federal Government owes the Social Security Trust Fund a ton of money, which it has to pay back with interest. It is in this sense only that Social Security could be said—by a blatant liar—to be contributing to the deficit. A more honest assessment would admit that, in fact, Social Security has contributed to the government’s solvency by supplying it with unused SS funds (the surplus) to disguise its deficits. Is the government grateful? Are the fiscal hawks grateful? Au contraire, mon ami. These bastards resent having to pay all that money back. It will break us! they whine. So let’s kill the goose that lays the golden eggs!

Sounds unbelievable, but that is the proposal coming out of such august bodies as the President’s Commission on Reducing the Deficit, and the Domenici/Rivlin plan referred to in a previous post. Let’s raise the retirement age, cut the COLAs (cost of living adjustments), force seniors to pay more for prescription drugs, and find other ways to cut benefits to the poorest among us. The key thing is to help business! Domenici/Rivlin, in fact, propose giving businesses a one-year Social Security tax “holiday” (we all love holidays, right?) that would reduce government income by $650 billion. It’s not enough that the money-grubbing swine who drove us into this ditch have all been bailed out—with government funds, some of which no doubt came from that SS Trust Fund. Now we have to give them another “holiday” while cutting the pathetic benefits given to the old folks. I tell you, if the American people fall for this one, they deserve to be rooting around in garbage bins to survive.

Fortunately, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare has organized a day of protest. The Committee is calling on all interested parties (and if there’s someone who plans on not getting older, I’d like to hear from him/her) to take part in a day (Tuesday, Nov. 30) of calling Congress and making two demands: 1) NO cuts to Social Security for deficit reduction, and 2) a $250 payment this year to SS beneficiaries in lieu of no cost-of-living increases (COLAs) the past two years. Here’s the number of a hot line that will connect you to your Congressperson’s office: 800-998-0180. CALL, because you can be sure the other side will be shouting their ears off.

While you’re at it, you might want to cast a vote of support for Representative Jan Schakowsky’s plan for deficit reduction. Shakowsky is the only people’s representative on the Deficit Commission, and her plan amounts to getting some budget reductions by such unheard-of expedients as “$144.6 billion in tax increases, $110.7 billion in defense cuts and $17.2 billion in healthcare savings through a public option.” And definitely no cuts in Social Security. As the Huffington Post quoted Shakowsky re: the Bowles-Simpson proposal to cut SS benefits: Using Social Security to address the deficit “is like attacking Iraq to retaliate for the September 11 attacks.”

Of course there are legions of benighted souls in America who would respond: what’s wrong with that? But perhaps there are other legions who get the point. Let us hope so; because as it stands now, the greatest push seems to be coming from the yahoos, who clearly see the current series of shocks (remember the Shock Doctrine?) as their best opportunity to, once and for all, get rid of the most hated of Roosevelt’s “giveaways”: Social Security.

Lawrence DiStasi

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Quantitative Easing, or, The Rich Get Richer

Here’s my favorite take on the elections.
The Federal Reserve and its head, Ben Bernanke, have recently announced their latest initiative, called “quantitative easing.” Aside from the fact that this sounds somewhat pornographic, it apparently means that a central bank creates money ex nihilo, i.e. out of nothing (sometimes called printing money, though these days it’s not so crude; the Fed just magically adds billions to its account), and then uses the funds to purchase financial assets (including government bonds, mortgage-backed securities, and corporate bonds) from regular banks and financial institutions. The Fed, this time, is apparently going to create some $600,000,000,000 (that’s billions), a sum, according to Chrystia Freeland of Reuters, “nearly as big as the TARP. It’s nearly as big as the first stimulus was.”

Now why, you might ask, would the Fed be doing this now. Well apparently, the Fed and most economists really think it’s imperative that the economy get another boost to prevent it from going into a second tailspin. And since the Fed is pretty sure, especially now that the “people” have spoken and swept out Democrats and swept in Republicans (giving the latter control of the House) that there is going to be even worse gridlock in Congress and the White House than before, they have to act. In short, there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that this Congress will pass another stimulus, so the unelected Fed has to do it.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The “people,” according to pundits and pollsters, have decided that Obama and the Democrats have spent too much money keeping the country out of depression; the stimulus, in particular, has been rejected as the product of “big spending Democrats.” It’s time to cut back on spending, is the alleged popular message, to get money back to the people. And how to do that: why by putting back into power the Republicans—the very party that crashed the economy in the first place. NO MORE STIMULUS, is the message. And yet, economists agree a stimulus is needed, and so the Fed rides to the rescue. The irony of all this? Listen to Chrystia Freeland:

I think the problem is, when the Fed acts as it does, printing more money, it’s a rich-get-richer phenomenon. This is going to be great for the banks. It’s going to be great for people whose personal finances are strong enough that they can re-mortgage—refinance their mortgages. But it’s not so great for the people who are in trouble. And that’s one reason why it might not have as powerful an impact as the Fed would like.
Now isn’t that sweet? The poor working-class slobs in the Midwest and South (the Tea Partiers) who voted the Republicans into office presumably believed they were voting to help themselves. But by voting for gridlock, they are doing exactly the opposite! They are forcing the Fed to push a stimulus through the back door. And that stimulus, quantitative easing, is going to help the very people—the bankers and financial pirates—voters are supposedly pissed off at. Banks will be infused with tons of money, presumably to induce them to lend to small businesses and households to increase buying. But the banks don’t really have to do that (and all indications are that they don’t want to). Rather, they’ll invest in foreign assets where they can make more profit (have people still not caught on that financial institutions and corporations couldn’t give less of a damn about the USA?). And because there’s a whole lot more money in circulation, it’s going to increase inflation. All of which will help make people like us even poorer. We’ll be poorer, too, because the Fed’s stimulus doesn’t create jobs directly, as another stimulus from Congress presumably would.

Is our democracy not a wondrous thing? It allows damned fools, like the ones who enjoyed victory on Tuesday, the freedom to vote against themselves! While the financiers laugh all the way the bank.

There are other, perhaps more serious global downsides to this latest move of the Fed. But frankly I’m not sure I understand how it all works well enough to explain it. To get some ideas, check out Professor Michael Hudson, “U.S. Quantitative Easing is Fracturing the Global Economy,” at ). Meantime, and remembering that “quantitative easing” didn’t work for Japan in the 1990s, enjoy the irony. It may provide the only laughs we get for a while.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wag the Dog

So many bizarre results from the Republican tsunami in last week’s mid-term elections—which to choose first?

How about this? Pick a target for the United States military to attack—urr, uh, how about Iran?—and see if it flies. Might even be able to convince Obama, now that he’s staggering from his ‘shellacking,’ to use it as a surefire way to get re-elected. You know, the old Wag the Dog scenario, where a weakened president starts a war to galvanize public opinion in his favor (Clinton allegedly did it in Bosnia; Bush clearly did it in Iraq after 9/11). Nevermind that we’re already engaged in two wars in the Middle East. Nevermind that another war would surely raise the deficit to newer more dizzying heights. War works.

Unlikely as such madness might seem to most of us, some recent trial balloons suggest that we should all think again.

For example, Senator Lindsey Graham (one of the so-called Republican “moderates” in the Senate who was flirting with voting for the Health Care Bill) just recently raised the issue of attacking Iran at a security conference in Canada (Saturday, Nov. 6). Asserting that “containment is off the table,” Graham said that war on Iran had several positive components to recommend it: “not to just neutralize their nuclear program, but to sink their navy, destroy their air force and deliver a decisive blow to the Revolutionary Guard, in other words neuter that regime.” (Matt Duss, ThinkProgress, 7 November 2010). This is astonishing, not only because countless international observers have opined that such an attack would prove counterproductive—actually leading more surely to a nuclear-armed Iran than anything else (Duss in the above-referenced article cites several of these informed opinions)—but also because it was not that long ago that the CIA’s National Intelligence Estimate stated that “not only was Iran NOT working on a nuclear weapon, but it had ended its nuclear weapons efforts in 2003” (see my blog “Iran Again,” June 9, 2008). No matter, the “reasonable” Senator Graham had no hesitation at all in calling for another war against this “great threat.”

He’s not alone. But more subtly than Graham’s, the notion of a military strike on Iran has recently been framed as a great way for President Obama to rescue his tattered reputation in time for the 2012 elections. The ‘Wag the Dog’ scenario. The amazing thing here, though, is that the nation’s oldest and most respected journalist, is proposing the war option. David Broder, of the Washington Post, wrote a piece on October 31 on the eve of the election, titled, “How Obama Might Recover.” Beginning with his august opinion that conventional policy options would probably not work to revive the economy in time since no one can design surefire economic measures, Broder gets to his “inside” advice to the President on one measure that might:

What else might affect the economy? The answer is obvious, but its implications are frightening. War and peace influence the economy.
Look back at FDR and the Great Depression. What finally resolved that economic crisis? World War II.
Here is where Obama is likely to prevail. With strong Republican support in Congress for challenging Iran's ambition to become a nuclear power, he can spend much of 2011 and 2012 orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs. This will help him politically because the opposition party will be urging him on. And as tensions rise and we accelerate preparations for war, the economy will improve. (Broder, Washington Post, 10/31/10)
Now this is truly bizarre. Broder is no nutball conservative; if anything, he tends toward the liberal end of the spectrum. And yet, here he is, seriously and publicly proposing that the President of the United States start a pre-emptive war with a nation that has attacked no one, in order to rescue his failing presidency and improve the economy. After what we’ve been through in the last ten years with Bush’s pre-emptive wars and the huge hole they put in the nation’s budget (estimates for the Iraq war go as high as $3 trillion! not to mention the cost in death, the drubbing of America’s reputation in the world, and so on), for a respected journalist to seriously offer a plan like this begins to make Tea Party wackos look sane. Broder, of course, is quick to stress that he’s “not suggesting, of course, that the president incite a war to get reelected.” Oh heavens no. But he goes on to close his piece with precisely that suggestion:

But the nation will rally around Obama because Iran is the greatest threat to the world in the young century. If he can confront this threat and contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, he will have made the world safer and may be regarded as one of the most successful presidents in history.
No proof, of course, for his assertion that Iran is, in fact, “the greatest threat to the world in the young century.” Nothing but the uncontested assertion of our senior pundit—and the appetizing carrot to the young president that he will have “made the world safer” and be regarded by history (or at least by Broder) as one of our most “successful presidents.”

How is one to explain such a thing? Has the 81-year-old Broder gone senile? Or is he just listening to a few other pundits who have actually said the same thing recently. Like, for example, the rabidly pro-Israel Elliott Abrams (he of Iran-Contra fame, resuscitated as a ‘National Security Adviser for Global Democracy Strategy’ for Bush) who said recently: “The Obama who had struck Iran and destroyed its nuclear program would be a far stronger candidate, and perhaps an unbeatable one.” Or the equally rabid Daniel Pipes: “a strike on Iranian facilities would dispatch Obama’s feckless first year down the memory hole and transform the domestic political scene.” (both quoted by Eric Alterman, , Nov. 4, 2010). Whatever the source for his loony idea, it is enough to give one pause. And though most commentators on Broder’s lunacy have discounted the fact that it might influence President Obama, we would do well to consider where the president stands with respect to Iran. When he was running for President, he spoke to AIPAC, the America Israel Political Action Committee, a front for promoting even the most right-wing Israeli policies in Washington. As I noted in the above-mentioned blog, what candidate Obama said, at that time, was that he was holding Iran responsible for the rockets launched by Hezbollah on Israel after the latter attacked Lebanon. He added,

we must preserve our total commitment to our unique defense relationship with Israel by fully funding military assistance and continuing to work on the Arrow and related missile defense programs…(to) help Israel maintain its military edge and deter and repel attacks from as far as Tehran and as close as Gaza.

The Obama administration’s rhetoric excoriating Iran for its alleged nuclear weapons program has only escalated since then.

Is it beyond the realm of possibility, then, that a severely wounded Obama would consider the Broder/Abrams/Pipes suggestion (NB: Jeffrey Goldberg’s September 2010 piece in the Atlantic Magazine, “The Point of No Return,” in which he essentially predicts and rationalizes the fact that Israel will, in the next year, attack Iran itself, may be the mother of all such Israeli-promoted trial balloons; it ends with this quote from Israeli President Shimon Peres: “We don’t want to win over the president,” he said. “We want the president to win.”)?

Given the madness now at large in this nation, it would be folly to think so.

Lawrence DiStasi

Undoing the New Deal

The depression was not so Great
And almost nobody ate
Millions had no shoes
Only lawbreakers had the booze
The poverty was grinding
While the nation was finding
A way from the third level of hell
And yet the wealthy did well

In reading the recent biography of FDR A Traitor to his Class by H. W. Brands, lots of interesting facts glared out at me from the pages of the book. Some were related to the personal life of Franklin Roosevelt, but many more were related to the disturbing parallel of the roaring twenties and the depressing thirties to recent times. Foremost among these is that the record corporate profits of today were also the center of the economy of the twenties. In the US, especially, corporations saw record profits as well as reckless speculation in the stock market. Of course, there were differences as well. Only perhaps 15% of the nation was invested in stocks. We now boast of at least 70% participation. Today, we have derivatives that schemers in the 20s did not. Instead of today’s Tea Party extremists and neo-Nazi militia, we had militant Ku Klux Klan and Communist agitators as well as real Nazi sympathizers stirring up hate, discontent and isolationism. Famous people including aviator Charles Lindbergh supported Germany directly and he received a Nazi Medal of Honor presented by Hermann Goering.

Perhaps it is more difficult for folks to peacefully share poverty than it is for them to share the good times. We tend to define differences more sharply in recessions and depressions. During the thirties, blacks were still being lynched, European and Asian immigrants were attacked and humiliated, while today, Hispanic immigrants and Islamic citizens seem to be hated and under attack. Agitation was actually a bit more common then than now with government in the 1920s often supporting ruthless suppression of crowds whether they were unions seeking fair wages or WW I veterans seeking their bonuses promised for service in WW I. In Anacostia, part of the District of Columbia, President Hoover ordered General MacArthur to disperse the 20,000 veterans. He did, brutally using cavalry with swords drawn. The injuries to veterans and the death of an infant in the assault stunned even Hoover who had ordered the action. Child labor in the US was not stopped until 1938 when FDR signed the Fair Labor Standards Act. That was successful largely because adults were competing with children for the same low wages during the depression. A regressive Supreme Court had earlier ruled that children must be given the right to contract for their labor, although they were prohibited from most other contracts. Earlier legislative attempts to force the Supreme Court to respect children in the workplace were fruitless. Our current Supreme Court is not alone in being right wing in makeup. The late 19th and early 20th centuries fostered highly conservative Supreme Courts, similar to today. There was no economic or social safety net except the generosity of neighbors. The American ideal of self-sufficiency was the basis for government policy. The Poor House was the alternative.

Wealth was concentrated in the upper echelons of society to a point not to be seen again until today. Worker productivity until the crash of 1929 was high, however there were problems of sharing productivity gains with workers. That has again occurred with executive salaries and bonuses exceeding a level of 400 times that of the average worker despite record employee productivity. Strangely, the main argument defending harsh treatment of millions of hungry citizens was nearly a verbatim prediction of today’s conservative response to hungry and frightened people of today. “The promise of America is opportunity, not a handout.” Hoover expressed the thought that if citizens were given a handout, it might create a dependence on continued handouts and that people would lose any motivation to work. Today, we have heard almost identical words being echoed by leaders of the conservative elements of the Republican Party as a reason to not extend jobless benefits. Then, as now, politicians resisted unemployment assistance. When a priest in Pittsburgh marched with 12,000 workers to help get unemployment consideration, four were killed in the process. We now know that the conservatives will fight any extension of the unemployment payments to millions of out-of-work men and women. This lack of empathy is cloaked in a “rugged individualism” rhetoric now as it was then and yet they see no connection between their support from government and support of the less fortunate. Coal miners at Matewan, West Virginia were attacked by a detective agency hired by the owners and 12 people were killed. Violence by owners to avoid unions was common and union retaliation became a fact of life. The conservative distrust and even hatred of unions had its beginnings in the New Deal when FDR attempted to level the playing field by encouraging management negotiation with unions. Management did so only under duress and not really until early war production to sell to the British.

The history books are filled with the examples of failed conservative policies that protected the wealthy business owners while government policy was essentially laissez faire with the idea that prosperity was cyclical and that it was all right if some people were hurt or starved in the process of waiting for the cycle to right itself. That was the natural way. The thirties saw the insertion of the Glass-Steagal Act (FDIC, etc.) and Social Security that conservatives even today are trying to eliminate or emasculate by replacing it with defined contributions into privatized stock plans. Can you imagine our individual and family pain and chaos in this current recession if GW Bush had succeeded in replacing Social Security with privatized investment? Maybe you should listen closely to the conservatives, read back to the Great Depression and think hard, because that is our current direction despite the fact that we have the lowest tax rate since 1950 at less than 10% on average. The cry to reduce our deficit caused mainly by two wars of choice may sound appealing, but it is only crying wolf unless the wealthy are willing to give a little to let the real spenders of the middle class help save the republic, its economy and its self respect.

Conservatives are trying to undo the New Deal. To them, regulation is un-American and real freedom is the freedom to hurt everybody except the bankers and large corporations who must be bailed out. The little guy is just that. Little. Big is just that…and too big to fail. What an American concept! Freedom fries the little guy. Freedom gets Big a free lunch.

George Giacoppe
10 November 2010

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Eve of Elections

Less than a week before the 2010 midterm elections for Congress, anyone with a soul feels the need to expel some of the indigestion that has been building in the gut. Recent news affords ample material, even if it seems a bit disjointed.

Let’s begin with the types of candidates that are threatening to actually win—even above and beyond the idiots like Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware. Consider the lovely candidate threatening to unseat the blue dog Democratic incumbent in North Carolina, Ilario Pantano. Republican Pantano is a 38-year-old veteran of the Iraq war, but what a veteran! He had actually fought in the first gulf war as a marine, but after 9/11 decided to leave his job at Goldman Sachs (where else?) and re-enlist. Serving as a 2d Lieutenant, he was involved in an “incident” in 2004 shortly after the highly-publicized hanging of four American private contractors in Fallujah. As reported in the Oct. 26 Guardian, on 15 April 2004, Pantano and crew stopped two unarmed Iraqi men in a car—suspects, as all Iraqis were. After a car search, he
unloaded a magazine of his M16A4 automatic rifle into them, before reloading and blasting a second magazine over them—some 60 rounds in total. Over the corpses, he left a placard inscribed with the marine motto: ‘No better friend, No worse enemy.’

A few months later, a member of his own unit reported him and he was charged with murder. Other facts emerged: the bodies of the two men, Hamaady Kareem and Tahah Hanjil, were found in a kneeling position, and they were shot in the back. But Pantano’s defense alleged that weapons had been found in the house the Iraqis exited, and the men had “turned on Pantano unexpectedly” as he was guarding them, so he fired in self-defense. It didn’t take long for the charges against Pantano to be dropped for ‘lack of evidence,’ though the officer in charge of the hearing did recommend non-judicial punishment for “extremely poor judgment.” In his campaign, Pantano has refused to defend himself “for something that happened five years ago.” As to the placard he left (which also became the title of a book he wrote, part of the reason for his fame), Pantano has said: “I don’t need to explain anything…If folks are alarmed, well war is alarming.”

Yes. War is alarming. First and foremost for the brutality it rewards—rendering to psychopaths like Pantano hero worship, a book, and now a chance to be a U.S. Congressman endorsed by Sarah Palin (she called Pantano “another dedicated patriot running for Congress”) and Pamela Geller (of ‘mosque at ground zero’ fame, whom Pantano, returning the praise, calls “a patriot” whose endorsement “thrills him”) all in return for his brave murder of unarmed, kneeling civilians. Second, for the brutality it inevitably brings not only to those who take part in it, like Pantano, but to those at home who cannot help but be polluted by its ethos. And this includes not just those in Pantano’s district, which, not unexpectedly, sits only a few miles from the main marine training center at Camp Lejeune.

No. I would include, among others, the sweet man from Arkansas who made the news recently. His name is Clint McCance, and he’s vice-president of the Midland School District in a place called (get this) Pleasant Plains, Arkansas. Allegedly upset over a gay rights group’s “Spirit Day” recently, that urged wearing purple to raise awareness about harassment and bullying of gay youth, Mc Cance commented on his Facebook page:

The only way I’m wearin’ it (purple) for them is if they all commit suicide. I also enjoy the fact that they often give each other aids and die. (Yahoo News, 10/29)
Faced with a firestorm, including, according to McCance, death threats that prompted him to send his wife and children into hiding, the school board VP resigned. He apologized, saying he’s “sorry” for what he wrote on his Facebook page. “I would never support suicide for any kids,” McCance is quoted as saying; indicating that perhaps he’s heard about the rash of gay suicides recently. Isn’t that gratifying? I mean, given the way our politics are going, it shouldn’t be too long before the Tea Party and Sarah Palin are endorsing the very contrite McCance for political office.

As if all this weren’t enough, a recent book and article by sociologist Gar Alperovitz (Unjust Deserts: How the Rich Are Taking Our Common Inheritance and Why We Should Take it Back) puts what looks to be our late, great nation in perspective. You’ve all no doubt heard about how the financial gains of the last 30 years have gone disproportionately to the very rich, while middle class income has stagnated or dropped. Alperovitz points out that the United States now ranks with such advanced nations as Turkmenistan in inequality of income. That is, when measured for income inequality (the gulf between the rich and the rest of us), the United States ranks 77th out of 142 countries—this according to a recent estimate by the United Nations Human Development Report. It is tied not only with Turkmenistan, but also with such bastions of liberty as Tunisia and Georgia. That means that the distribution of income and wealth in the U.S. today is more unequal than at any time since the 1920s.

How did this happen? Taxes, for one. Remember the great tax reforms of the Reagan, Bush I and II eras? including a reduction to 15% on capital gains? Well over the last 25 years, “IRS data indicate that the top 1% of American taxpayers increased their share of the nation’s total pre-tax adjusted gross income from 10% in 1980 to 23.5% in 2007.” What’s more, the gain has little to do with individual efforts. Writes Alperovitz:

…not only do income shares of the kind that flow to the top 1% have little to do with what anyone has actually done to deserve them; rather the flows are largely traceable to technologies that ultimately were either paid for by the public, or more importantly, that derive from our collective inheritance of scientific and technical knowledge. (Alperovitz, Huffington Post, 10/28/10)
Now, of course, the Republican mantra is always that ‘lowering taxes frees up capital so that the rich can invest in job-creating businesses’; but what Alperovitz points out is that top marginal tax rates stood at 91% during several Republican and Democrat presidencies (Eisenhower, Truman, etc.) and those high rates “coincided with the postwar boom, the greatest period of economic growth in all of American history.” The shame is that the pusillanimous Democrats of recent years—Clinton, Obama, and the rest, including, this year in California, Jerry Brown running for governor—have echoed this crap about no new taxes. The result (helped by war, of course) has been the devastation of not just the federal economy, but also the economies of most of the states in the union. The prescribed remedy, always, is to “cut spending.” In other words, cut the benefits to the poor and working classes, who will sink even lower relative to the rich already enjoying the lowest tax rates in history.

What can one say? We seem to be wallowing in an era best described by William Butler Yeats in the early part of the twentieth century:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.

The poem, The Second Coming, continues,

Surely some revelation is at hand;/ Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

But whether its dismal conclusion is apropos now is anyone’s guess:

And what rough beast, its hour come round at least,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Lawrence DiStasi

God and Country

For god and country sing
So loud that rafters ring
And people loudly pray
For victory in the fray
And to humble enemies
In politics and life
So we may so please
Ourselves with ungodly strife

As we center on the mid-term elections and live through the endless billions of dollars in political advertising, I am reminded of a time when my Uncle Steve returned from WW II and presented our family with a captured Wehrmacht issue leather belt with a silver colored buckle emblazoned “Gott Mit Uns.” “God is with us.” Most of us now see that slogan as presumptive, at best, and yet the attempts to bring God into war and politics never cease. My major objection to the sloganeering is that God does not fight wars or run for office and those who invoke God in their partisan endeavors do not speak either for God or me (or you). This alone may be the leading cause supporting atheism, but it does nothing to advance the cause for humanity. It does seem to assist in the pursuit of ignorance in that we can inject God into the trivial or the bizarre to immunize our lies from inspection or to attack the opposition. In recent weeks, we have witnessed the commingling of images of the Constitution, a deliberately non-sectarian document, with religion to immunize the Constitution itself from analysis and to tie “original language” to some undefined fundamentalist concept that was omitted by the writers.

This political season has resounded with cries of returning to the basics, but with images of violence, political and media programs of intolerance and deliberate violation of the Ten Commandments in other ways such as bearing false witness. Why pretend that God is on our side? If he/she were, then the basics are really twisted and God is more capricious than constant. That is probably not as good a bet as the possibility that some people scam the God thing and pretend that anybody who disagrees is sinful and worthy of condemnation, or stoning or maybe a bombing as a teachable moment.

In the bad old days of yore, the Soviet Union (then officially atheist) claimed freedom of religion. You could have any religion you liked. Unfortunately, you could not simultaneously do so and have a job. Jobs were controlled by the State and only professed atheists could hold jobs. Back in the mid sixties, I was on an assignment in eastern Turkey and visited with the pastor of a church in Diyarbakir that dated back to the early third century. The priest was exasperated because, through social pressure, Christians could not practice their religion and simultaneously hold jobs in a way that reminded me of Russia, but without any official sanction. His parish was down to about a dozen families and failing rapidly despite the many bones and relics in dusty shrines. The Baptist church in town was simply blowing in the wind with a few pigeons roosting on the ledge of a broken window inscribed “Gift of the American Bible Society.” More recently, Christians were murdered in their churches by fundamentalists in Iraq despite “Freedom of Religion” being enshrined in their interim constitution.

Here in these United States, we also profess freedom of religion and yet there are a couple of unique twists here that do not exist in most other modern nations. We seem to mix the religious with the profane in unique ways. It is not unusual in some parts of our country to have a common prayer before a football game or a civic meeting although it is sometimes a silent prayer to avoid embarrassing anyone. I vividly recall praying the Lord’s Prayer in junior high and being extremely conscious of the prayer being the Protestant version and not the one I learned as a young Roman Catholic. It was uncomfortable. I also recall living in the American South and traveling in the rural areas in the early sixties. Billboards and local fliers actually depicted John F. Kennedy as the devil incarnate or as a minion of the Pope who was also of the devil. This was true in Georgia and Alabama and it reminded me that the First Amendment right of free speech was never coupled with the responsibility to be either civil or truthful. In some ways, this was a fear of the unknown for them because Catholics were rare in staunchly fundamentalist rural areas. It was simultaneously frightening and comic. Anti-Catholic/anti-Kennedy billboards were interspersed with the more ubiquitous “Impeach Earl Warren” billboards.

Another twist that makes our nation curiously unique in this blending of religion and life is that politics and power may directly join into an explosive mixture resulting in groups such as the Ku Klux Klan that have shown tremendous negative power in our nation. It is a militancy that is reminiscent of the current Taliban. It is also reminiscent of the strident mixing of patriotism with religion. The result is that unless you personally subscribe to a particular brand of fundamental religion, you may be called unpatriotic, or worse, a traitor, but at least a “Socialist” or perhaps “Nazi.” Once this happens, then the degeneration is complete. We see the ends-means inversion where extremists screaming for liberty have lately physically attacked those who do not agree with either the means or the ends. Fundamentalism then also justifies vile lies in order to reach some ultimate truth. Election season only highlights the phenomenon. It is always with us. Sometimes it is under the surface as when we see hyper-patriots wave the flag a bit too much and sometimes it becomes a full blown assault where God is the club used to beat the crap out of logic and imagined enemies. It is ironic that Jesus is quoted as reminding the Pharisees to separate God and country when he asked “Whose image is on the coin?”

The ugly truth is that when we use God as the point of our spear to impale our enemies, we defile ourselves, our neighbors, and that very God that we pretend to love. It is also ironic that the very same First Amendment to the Constitution that permits all speech, including hateful speech, also prohibits the union of church and state. Reactionaries will demand the union of their fundamentalist beliefs with the state in the same breath. We must join to deny it. In this election, we have seen Tea Party violence against adversaries in isolated cases and we have seen the media glorify the activity. Don’t be fooled. As long as we merge God and Country, there will always be a fundamentalist fringe. Tea Party signs are only recycled hate from other groups and earlier times. It is an old idea with a new name. As for a “return to the basics,” women could not vote and married women could not enter into contracts. Slaves were worth 3/5 of a person for representation. Search and seizure was physical and not electronic. The new burden on our society is to actually read the Constitution and the amendments to embrace them with a discussion of how they apply instead of forging them into weapons to bludgeon our neighbors.

George Giacoppe
01 November 2010