Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Some Observations on American Exceptionalism

Quite a few months ago, I wrote two posts dealing with the topic of being American, or actually, what it was that certain contemporaries in the news considered “un-American.” [
Un-American Accusations, Part 1: Big Oil,” May 15, 2011; “Un-American Accusations, Part 2: Pols and Pundits,” June 10, 2011]

Today, I take up a corollary of this concept, the idea of American exceptionalism.   Many of us, I am sure, have seen the Chris Matthews MSNBC ad which builds on Barack Obama’s autobiography and the idea that only in America would we likely see an African American elevated to the office of President.  In Matthews words, paraphrasing Obama, “only in this country is my story possible.” The video is no longer accessible, but this reference from a Chris Matthews broadcast will suffice as a substitute.

When I first saw the actual Matthews ad, which ends with him sitting, White House behind him, and saying (almost as an aside), “American exceptionalism,” I realized that he was challenging the Republican right-wing’s decades-long embrace of American exceptionalism as exclusively theirs.

Now, Alexis de Tocqueville first applied the adjective, “exceptional” to America in 1840, noting that “the position of the Americans is...quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no other democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one.” Tocqueville was referring to America as a new nation emerging from a revolution and developing an ideology based on the principles of liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.

Unfortunately, by the beginning of this century, the ideals of American exceptionalism had been perverted into justifications to disregard international law,  to act unilaterally to invade and occupy foreign countries which might harbor terrorists hostile to America,  and to even fabricate reasons to invade a country as the Bush-Cheney White House did in March, 2003.  

Such actions could even be construed as a slap in the face to the hero of these neo-Con Republicans--Ronald Reagan: he who revived the Puritan image of the city upon a hill as a metaphor for America and American exceptionalism; he who spoke to the UN, saying that Americans “have never been aggressors....[and that] we have no territorial ambitions. We occupy no countries.”

And so, a loose, distorted, and uncritical acceptance of what American exceptionalism means has carried into the present, particularly among conservative Republicans.  For example, in a Fox News interview of 2009, Dick Cheney said this to Sean Hannity in reference to President Obama: "this guy (who) doesn't fully understand or share that view of American exceptionalism that I think most of us believe in," and because the Obama Administration was then pushing to try accused terrorists in our federal courts, Cheney followed this ridiculous statement with an even more absurd one, that Obama would give “aid and comfort to the enemy.” In this instance, it’s not international law that he is disregarding, it’s our Constitution, due process, and habeas corpus.

Were this a singular example, we could write it off as Cheney being Cheney.  However, we find almost every Republican embracing some aspect of American exceptionalism as if it were a name tag that identified them as a true Americans and separated them from Democrats.   Ann Coulter, in her new book, Demonic...) warns us that America, once an “exceptional nation...endowed by their [sic] Creator with certain inalienable Rights,” has been transformed and demeaned by “secular socialist” liberals.

Coulter takes her religious phrasing from Gingrich who, of course, takes it from our Declaration of Independence, both of them totally ignoring its context and skewing its meaning;  but then, nothing new in this.

Mike Huckabee also promotes a God-chosen American exceptionalism, not only in his public appearances, but also in his new company that makes educational cartoons, such as this video on the Reagan Revolution which also features the metaphorical “City on the Hill.”

Newt Gingrich, of course, has even written a book titled A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionaliism Matters.  And, not so long ago, he appeared at Jim DeMint’s Palmetto Freedom Forum where he told the audience that American exceptionalism is somehow “endowed by our creator” and that “power comes directly from God to each one of you” and “now the founding fathers wrote this because they said we hold these truths to be self evident....and that these rights are inalienable.” I listened to this several times. It strings together familiar phrases and clauses, but it makes no sense. It’s all gobbledygook, implying that our founding fathers said that God gave American citizens “certain truths” that were not given to the citizens of any other country in this world: American exceptionalism, indeed!

A slightly different Republican take on the concept can be found in Paul Ryan’s April 5, 2011 presentation on the House floor as he unveiled his plan for the largest cutback of government spending in our history. He invoked American exceptionalism no less than three times, saying “It is now up to all of us to keep America exceptional” by accepting his deficit plan which “affirms our cherished ideals of individual liberty, equal opportunity, entrepreneurship and self-reliance. These are the ideals that have cultivated the exceptional American character.”

At least God and religion were absent, having been trumped in Ryan’s speech by the Republican cathechism: less government, no regulations, and no interference in markets.

But exactly how, we may ask, has this trinity of Paul Ryan’s made America exceptional?  By enabling American corporate CEOs to enjoy salary scales over 450 times those of workers.  By enabling our richest 0.1% to receive nearly 8% of the country’s total income. By creating the highest health costs as a percentage of GDP of any industrialized country.  By having the highest infant mortality deaths per 1000 live births of any industrialized country.  By having the highest number of children living in poverty of any industrialized country.  And by having, by far, the lowest percentage of social spending for families of any industrialized country (see charts at end of article).

This is hardly the way that any American, Republican or Democrat, should want us to be seen as exceptional. And, in fact, there are even Republicans who reject this attitude.   For example, former Republican speechwriter, Ted Frier, complained about today’s conservatives who believe every cent they earn is theirs, who give nothing back to the more needy of our country, who forget that community and cooperation were what made America; in their embrace of the “myth of the rugged individualist,” they forget about “the community barn-raising....[and] this omission is a measure of the ingratitude you’d expect from people who think ‘American Exceptionalism’ means them.” 

But let’s return to where we began, to President Obama and a version of American exceptionalism that accommodates democrats as well as republicans.

At a news conference in Strasbourg, France on April 4, 2009, President Obama was asked this question by a reporter: “Could I ask you whether you subscribe, as many of your predecessors have, to the school of American exceptionalism that sees America as uniquely qualified to lead the world, or do you have a slightly different philosophy?

This was Obama’s answer: “ I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.  I'm enormously proud of my country and its role and history in the world....And if you think of our current situation, the United States remains the largest economy in the world.  We have unmatched military capability. And I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional....And so I see no contradiction between believing that America has a continued extraordinary role in leading the world towards peace and prosperity and recognizing that that leadership is incumbent [upon], depends on, our ability to create partnerships because we create partnerships because we can't solve these problems alone.”

Now, this is a response that Tocqueville would understand. Obama’s answer was clear, reasonable, diplomatic--precisely what a country’s leader ought to say.   But our hopeful Republican candidates were quick to take umbrage. Mitt Romney disparaged him in this way: “We have a president right now who thinks America’s just another nation. America is an exceptional nation. We have a president who thinks that the way to conduct foreign policy is through his personal effects on other people. I believe the way to conduct foreign policy is with American strength.”   Rick Perry made similar criticisms, saying “those in the White House today” do not believe in American exceptionalism and would rather emulate Europe. “The answer to our troubles lies in a positive, optimistic vision, with policies rooted in American exceptionalism. See, American exceptionalism is the product of unlimited freedom. And there is nothing troubling our nation today that cannot be solved by the rebirth of freedom — nothing.”

Clearly, in their eyes, Obama is not sufficiently jingoistic about America’s greatness.  But I suspect that our “founding fathers” would be more comfortable with Obama’s sense of American exceptionalism than that of Romney, Perry, Gingrich and the others.  Thomas Jefferson, for example, would agree wholeheartedy with President Obama’s reference to “Greek exceptionalism.” After all, not only did the Greeks give the world the idea of democracy, but Jefferson even acknowledged this gift in 1785 when he designed and built the Virginia State Capitol in the form of a Greek temple.

Virginia State Capitol, 1785, designed by Thomas Jefferson

One could argue that the Virginia State Capitol was meant as a symbol of American exceptionalism. We take its form from others, in this case the ancient Greeks, and we remold it into a new and powerful emblem of democracy--a mode of “creating partnerships” in Obama’s words.

We might consider another symbolic monument, the Statue of Liberty, again a product of international partnership--the political cooperation between France and the United States.  The statue is designed by French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, its base by American architect Richard Morris Hunt.  The tablet she holds represents our Declaration of Independence and she has taken on many meanings, all of which coalesce into a symbol of the political and social values that make America great.

Liberty Enlightening the World (orig.), 1886, Bartholdi & Eiffel

It may be that a more modest and nuanced understanding of the meaning of American exceptionalism, like that expressed by President Obama in Strasbourg, has begun to replace the jingoistic attitude of today’s conservative Republican, particularly its presidential candidates. A recent Pew research poll asked Americans if they agreed with the statement: “our people are not perfect but our culture is superior to others.” Only 49% agreed this year, compared to 60% who were in agreement in 2002.  Even more telling is the fact that, among young Americans (ages 18-29), the percentage who believed that its culture was superior was lower than it was for young Germans, Britons, and Spaniards.

Charles Blow, reporting this data in the New York Times (“The Decline of American Exceptionalism”), worries about this “national pessimism.” But instead of denigrating it or shooting the messenger, he offers Americans some very good advice. “Stop snuggling up to nostalgia....and set a course to restitution,” he writes. “And,” he continues, “that means that we must invest in our future. We must invest in our crumbling infrastructure. We must invest in the industries of the future. We must invest in a generation of foundering and forgotten children. We must invest in education. Cut-and-grow is ruinous mythology.”

His final sentence on “cut-and-grow” is a reference to the ideology espoused by today’s Congressional Republicans. So, tragically, the investment in infrastructure, industry, children and education are all programs that these Republicans have refused to support.  In their blind rage to insure that Obama becomes a one-term president, they have been methodically ruining our country and destroying that which makes America exceptional.   How ironic!  To the extent that many of them have wrapped themselves in the cloak of American exceptionalism, their garment has become nearly invisible.  Like Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes, many American Republicans are walking the streets naked.  Let us hope that the American public keeps its eyes open and sees their folly.

The Emperor's New Clothes, illus. by Thordrinn Leifsson,

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Obama on 60-Minutes: Reflections on Being Presidential

How refreshing to listen to a leader who is able to handle challenging questions, many of which attempted to point an accusatory finger at him, stay absolutely calm and on topic, constantly give thoughtful, intelligent answers, have total control of all the issues, and reveal the mental dexterity so as to remain ahead of his interviewer (Steve Kroft) and thus effortlessly catch Kroft up on his own contradictions. I am, of course, referring to Barack Obama as seen on CBS’s 60 Minutes tonight.

After being subjected to the plethora of Republican “debates” over the past several months in which candidate after candidate stumbled on the most basic of issues, whether these related to foreign policy or to our own Constitution, I am astounded that anyone can consider voting for someone other than Barack Obama for president.

Any Republican who dared to reveal an intellect, a grasp of the issues of our time and their complexity, and a temperament to lead us well--a John Huntsman, for example--has been eliminated from consideration by the circus that is this year’s Republican nominating process.

I invite you to watch, or re-watch, this full interview with President Obama on 60 Minutes. His observations can be eloquent and heart-felt: “America by definition is an innovation society; we constantly remake ourselves,” he remarks optimistically, as he makes note of the need for adjustments to today’s unusual economic challenges. He sympathizes with our social challenges and admits that the “rules are rigged against middle class families and those who aspire to get into the middle class.” He even continues to treat the opposition party with a respect that none of them have given him, so that even when referring to what we all know as the recalcitrance of the “Party of No,” he merely says “we haven’t got the sort of engagement from them that I would have liked,” or, in reference to the necessary compromises that Democrats have made in order to keep our country and government afloat, Obama simply remarks that “we haven’t seen the equivalent willingness on the other side.”

My God, how fortunate we are to have a real adult in the White House. The traits that Barack Obama has displayed are those of a true leader, something completely lacking in nearly all of the various Republican contenders: Gingrich, Romney, Perry, Paul, Bachmann, Santorum, (or Cain).

This brings to mind a conversation I had with my wife back in September of 2008 in regard to the qualities that she (and I) would want in a president. We were driving on the New Jersey Turnpike; as she was at the wheel, I scratched out some notes, and, later, she expanded them into the following draft.

“I’m a 63 year old, white woman. I have run a successful small business for 25 years. I’m a wife, a mother, a grandmother and a congenital moderate.

“Recently, I’ve been thinking about the qualities I want in the person who will be president. I don’t want to be swayed by the fear mongering that permeates electoral politics or foolish misstatements by one candidate or another, the confusion about what’s true and what’s not. Rather, I want to base my decision on a clear headed appraisal of the qualities that will be important for the next president if he is to lead this country responsibly. Here’s the list I’ve come up with.

“I’m looking for someone who is well educated—not just about our country, but also about the world.

“I’m looking for someone who thoroughly understands the Constitution, the foundation of our democratic system.

“I’m looking for someone who can listen to all sides of an issue and find the narrow path of common ground that we can all move along together.

“I’m looking for someone young enough to be operating at full capacity. I’m all too aware of the signs of age that affect all of us over 60.

I’m looking for someone who understands and relies on the Internet and new technologies in their many astonishing applications. The web has been with us for a mere 5,000+ days. The changes in the next 5,000 will be no less significant.

I’m looking for someone who is not afraid of people who are different.” We live in a country in which people of many colors are soon to be a majority. Only when we have leadership that embraces citizens of all hues will we truly harness the energy and human resources of this great country.

I’m looking for someone who angers slowly and takes time to consider the many sides of an issue before responding. In these times of proliferating nuclear weapons, I come down solidly on the side of caution and considered decision making rather than rash acts.

I’m looking for someone who knows how to build trust by charting a steady course within the rapidly changing realities of the world. This person must be able to find just the right place between consistency and flexibility, so that the decision making is clear and principled but the short-term decisions can flex as needed.

I’m looking for someone who is so smart that he can chart a course based on rigorous, clear thinking and can then articulate that thinking process so we can all understand it--someone who can use the position of President to convince and sway both the citizens of this country and people around the world with his oratorical skill.

I’m looking for someone who can articulate complex ideas simply and in a way that inspires us to our better selves.

I’m looking for someone who has traveled widely to many continents and has an appreciation for the astonishing array of cultural diversity on this shrinking globe of ours.

I’m looking for someone who understands that global resources are finite, and that if we don’t unite to be responsible about our use of these resources, we will undermine the future for our children and grandchildren.

Finally, I’m looking for someone who represents the future and who will have the courage and ability to lead us through the upcoming years of challenge with new ideas and a willingness to find ways in which this country of ours can once again be a respected leader in the world.”
This person appeared tonight with Steve Kroft on 60 Minutes.  We owe him, our country and this world a second term.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

OWS: Zuccotti in Tents + March to Brooklyn Bridge

The following photographs were taken on November 8 at Zuccotti Park and on November 17 at Foley Square.  The Zuccotti Park images record the days before the tents were removed by the police on the orders of Mayor Bloomberg.  They offer insights as to how the park was transformed once it was filled with tents.  The Foley Square images document about three-and-a-half hours, beginning ca. 4:00 pm, as people began to gather for what eventually would be a march across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Zuccotti Park, Nov. 8:

Zuccotti Park: Edwin

Zuccotti Park: Debora

Zuccotti Park: Faith

Zuccotti Park: Restaurant Chefs

Zuccotti Park: The Goddess

Zuccotti Park: Michael Cardacino (on left)
One can never predict who will be volunteering time at Zuccotti Park on any day or hour.  Among those participating around 2:00 pm on November 8 were Edwin, an expert on Chinese herbal medicines and gardens and who teaches about Chinese herbs as well as on fragrance at the NY Botanical Garden;   Debora, from Queens, holding a thesis board, almost as tall as she, that clearly lays out some basic reasons for these protests;  Faith, a Lutheran minister who volunteers several times a week and has watched the growth and organic change of the OWS movement first-hand;  two restaurant chefs with whom I did not talk but clearly are contributing their interest in organic and non-genetically modified foods to the OWS stew.

Then, someone painted and hung a large banner titled The Goddess, which appears to be inspired by certain early Renaissance images of the Virgin Mary--in particular aspects of the Maesta and the Madonna of Mercy.  Another artist, Michael Cardacino displays a wonderful piece that visually and powerfully portrays the greed of the 1%.  Creativity and commitment dominate in every corner of this tiny plot off Broadway.  Zuccotti Park has truly become an uplifting place, and, over my visits, I see more and more tourists who now consider it a must place to visit. 

For anyone curious about how this Zuccotti Park community operates, watch this 24-minute InFocus video by Danny Schechter.

Zuccotti Park: Joseph
Joseph, a Cree from Brooklyn, has occupied Zuccotti Park to represent the American Indian Nation, and brings his own agenda to the movement.  Material on display calls for a "decolonization of Wall Street," and he apparently is asking for the return of these (and other) lands to our native Indians.  However, Joseph, among all the OWS people I have met in my five visits, was unique in my experience in being the only person disinterested in engaging in a discussion of ideas.  I would have been interested, for example, how or whether he considers himself among the 99%.

Zuccotti Park: Tents

Zuccotti Park: Tents
The tents certainly changed the character of Zuccotti Park, in my estimation.  They closed it off from the public and made it more difficult to walk through and thus engage with the 24-hour occupiers.  Although tents and other structures have always been forbidden in Zuccotti Park, the authorities showed some leniency in allowing them to stay when the first few were pitched, the first being a sukkah tent erected for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

The tents were removed in the early hours of Tuesday, November 15, after which Zuccotti Park was cleared.  Once tents, tarps, the library and everything else were carted away, the park was cleaned and the occupiers were allowed to return.

Zuccotti Park: Sustainability Sector
This final photograph from Zuccotti Park shows the sustainability sector containing composting, water filtration, and stationary bicycles which were used for the generation of electricity.  The Fire Department had confiscated the OWS gasoline generators, claiming they were a fire hazard, but the onset of cold weather and snow spurred the protesters to seek an alternative way to power their cel phones, laptops, lighting and even some electric heating.  They claim that six hours of pedaling will charge the batteries of their generator for close to 100 hours.

Foley Square, Nov. 17:

Foley Square: View south on Lafayette St. ca. 4:00 pm

Foley Square: You Cannot Evict an Idea
Having arrived early, before the OWS protesters had made their way from Union Square and other venues further north, I found Foley Square quite empty.  The police were already massing and the barriers were in place to keep the roads clear and the protesters and other pedestrians in the park and on the sidewalks.  This was "the calm before the storm," and one could sense a tremor of anticipation hovering in the air.

The park in the lower photograph, with trees and the lone individual carrying a sign, is actually called Thomas Paine Park.  Foley Square can be seen in the distance, but the two are contiguous and essentially merge into one.

Foley Square:  Triumph of the Human Spirit
To the left, one can see three TV trucks parked on Centre Street, I counted at least twelve TV trucks and vans, each with a newscaster holding a microphone and making their introductory comments before the masses arrived.

Rising in the distance, and the apex of Foley Square, is an abstract sculpture of granite, seventy feet high by Lorenzo Pace titled Triumph of the Human Spirit.  Two interpretations intertwine to give meaning to its form.  One of them evokes the ships that brought African slaves (as well as other settlers) to America.  The other suggests that aspects of its form are inspired by certain Mali headdresses.  The colonnade across the street and to the left, by the way, is the base of the Thurgood Marshall US Courthouse, completed in 1936 and designed by Cass Gilbert.

Foley Square: Parade Marshalls Gathering

Foley square: Parade Marshalls, SEIU members
Just below and to the north of the Pace sculpture, the parade marshalls were gathering.  They are members of several different unions, and in the bottom photograph, we see a group from the powerful SEIU.  In the background is the pedimented NY County Supreme Court building, completed in 1927, designed by Guy Lowell with sculptures by Frederick Warren Allen; among those sculptures are personifications of Law, Equity and Truth--certainly appropriate figures to stand guard, as well as stand up for, the unspoken aims of the OWS protesters who soon will gather below them.

SEIU President, Mary Kay Henry, was arrested as she stepped onto the Brooklyn Bridge in what I have heard was part of a symbolic, prearranged agreement to arrest the first 99 people to enter onto the bridge.  She has said that “this is about our members being united in the belief that things are broken in this country, and we need to come together in numbers to help fix it. That means joining forces with students, neighbors, the unemployed, and working people in the encampments.   This is an act of solidarity with the 99% movement.”

Foley Square: Poetry Assembly
As people begin to assemble from all directions, the mood becomes more lively and the participants more diverse.  Who knew that OWS had a Poetry Assembly?  Yet, here are several of its representatives.  They meet regularly, even nightly.  They share poems, write poems as a group, and accept poems that relate to the OWS movement sent on-line from outside contributors.  They even have compiled a large and growing volume,  the Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology

Foley square: Sandra
Just as one is assessing the role of poets in the gathering demonstration, along comes Sandra playing her ribaphone, a junk percussion assemblage of cans, cymbals, washboard and other devices.  A message painted on one can reads "divest...fossil fuels." The latter certainly an appropriate topic for New Yorkers, who enjoy some of the best tap water in the world--at least as long as they can hold off the oil and gas industry from fracking operations in the Marcellus shale. [See my post, "Our Water & Fracking," February 6, 2011]

Foley Square: Jacqueline

Foley Square: Matthew

Foley Square: Gwen

Foley Square: Adrienne
The diversity of participants are evident in these several photographs, taken while there still is space to isolate individuals from the growing crowd.  Jacqueline, who lives in Manhattan and teaches in Queens, makes a wonderfully ironic plea for the topic of her Friday class, the First Amendment.   Matthew, from Brooklyn, reminds the 1% of what they would rather not believe of the 99%:  they will multiply, not die.    Gwen, from the Queens, carries a sign with a similar sentiment that this movement is not going to disappear and which also stresses the need for jobs.    Adrienne provides an elegant statement as part of this, our, 99%.

Foley Square: This Is So Not Over
If there is a common attitude shared by the varied OWS participants, it is that they have no intention of going away or fading out.  This movement, vague and ill-defined as some conservative critics gleefully point out, is not likely to disappear.

Take that one sign above that calls for taxing the rich: when I came home from this march, I turned on MSNBC only to see several of America's wealthiest citizens asking Congress to reinstate the marginal tax rate of 39.6% that they had under President Clinton.  Some 200 of our millionaires have been discussing the need to raise their taxes for several years, but clearly the national Occupy movement influenced them to come forward publicly now.  And while we have known about Warren Buffett, one of the smartest businessmen in the world, independently criticizing his low tax rate, now we also have this group, Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength, asking for higher taxes on the rich. 

As the other signs exhibited by this group in the bottom photograph read, "This is SO not over."

Foley Square: Gil & Devon

Foley Square: Pierre & Elise

Foley Square: Casey & Bill
The OWS movement continues to embrace the diversity of issues so evident when it first began [for examples of this diversity, see my post, "Wall Street, September 17: Notes & Observations," dated September 21, 2011].    Gil and his friend Devon (who came down from Boston) carry a free Mumia banner.  Mumia Abu Jamal, an activist and radio journalist, was accused of the 1981 murder of a Philadelphia police officer and is among the world's best known death-row inmates.  The glass façade in the background is the United States Court of International Trade, by the way.

Pierre & Elise remind us of the insanity of our Supreme Court decision, giving corporations the same rights as people,  while also reminding us of an event that recently occurred at the APEC world leaders meeting in Honolulu in the sign that reads, "Occupy with Aloha."   This is a reference to the musical entertainer who performed at the APEC formal dinner, Hawaiian slack guitarist Makana.  He very innocently sang subversive songs before our world leaders, including a new one with lyrics such as these:  "You enforce your monopolies with guns/ While sacrificing our daughters and sons/ But certain things belong to everyone/ Your thievery has left the people none."  He then opened his suit jacket to display a tee shirt that read, "Occupy with Aloha."  

Makana dedicated his performance to those who would speak truth to power but were not allowed the opportunity.  He clearly is part of the 99% and is contributing to nudging our country and the world to a better direction.

Casey & Bill make a plea to save our middle class, which is disappearing with the increasing disparity in the distribution of wealth in our country.  They also point out the fact that corruption has not only permeated the operations of Wall Street bankers, but also our Congress.  Of course, these two issues are related.  The income of middle class families has dropped by 21% while, as a CBO study released in October reveals, the top 1% of earners enjoyed an income growth of 275% between 1979 and 2007.  In the meantime, the 1% and their corporate lobbyists have insured that most laws are written in their favor, and they often help members of Congress by writing the laws themselves.

Foley Square: Christian
I just love this sign being displayed by Christian, who lives in Queens.  Our children represent the future of this country. If only  everyone, the 1% included, modified their actions and behavior in relationship to the world that they were leaving for the next generations, our country would certainly be a much better place.

Foley Square: Lisa

Foley Square: Musician Solidarity Council
I encountered a large group of musicians from local 802, the first of which was Lisa, a pianist from Manhattan.  Her sign, "Musicians will not be Silent," conveys the obvious fact that music is about sound and auditory experience.  But when extended into the political sphere, the issue of silence reminds us of the dangers of complacency and remaining silent.  This is one of the major tenets of holocaust teaching.  It also is a constant among the major figures of social justice, whether Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King or Elie Wiesel, who stated, "to remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all."

The blue sign in the lower photograph is taken from a speech Barack Obama gave on August 2, 2008:  "When special interests put their thumb on the scale, and distort the free market, the people who compete by the rules come in last."  The Musicians Solidarity Council has participated in order to support the goals of OWS as well as "to defend the rights and livelihoods of all."

Foley Square: Quoting Martin Luther King

As 6:00 pm approaches, Foley Square has filled up.  There were around 32,500 people according to police estimates.

The white sign visible in the center of the lower photograph quotes Martin Luther King in a speech titled "Beyond Vietnam," which he gave at the Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967.  The quotation reads, "A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death."

Ignoring the wisdom of MLK, Congressional Republicans have been attempting to cut social programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.  Now that their latest ploy, the "supercommittee," failed to come up with ways to pare $1.2 trillion in budget cuts, as they were charged, automatic spending cuts will kick in; these cuts are to be evenly divided between domestic (social) programs and defense.  Of course, now Republicans like John McCain (R, AZ), Lindsey Graham (R, SC) and Buck McKeon (R, CA) are talking of reneging on any cuts to defense spending.  No surprise here:  most reasonable and clear-minded people are painfully aware that conservative Republicans began suffering a spiritual death more than a decade ago.

Foley Square: 3 sections of a line of silent protesters sponsored by South Asia Solidarity and War Resisters
On the topic of war spending, the most powerful statement came from a line-up of over twenty people.  Standing in silence, mouths sealed by either an American flag sticker or a Chase bank sticker, they commanded attention while creating separation from the milling crowd.  Each held a sign indicating the place and date of a different deployment of US armed troops around the world.  A shocking statistic in support of their statement is that, since 9/11, the United States has spent at least $4.4 trillion on military operations abroad.

The War Resisters League has been active since 1923 and today is among the leading voices of the global anti-war movement.  It allied with the South Asia Solidarity Initiative in mid-October of this year to participate in OWS actions.  They call on the people of the world to resist empire, rebuild our world and recreate solidarity.

Foley Square: United Auto Workers Union representatives

Foley Square: Schools Not Wars

Foley Square: CUNY representatives

Foley Square: Let's Be Realists
UAW, School teachers, CUNY faculty and staff, and Verizon workers were among other groups that had gathered for the march into Brooklyn.

Foley Square: Crowd Massing in Preparation of Marching to the Bridge

Foley Square: Crowd Begins Moving South Towards the Bridge
These two photographs give a sense of the density of people.  It took me an hour to walk from the south end of Foley Square to City Hall Park, usually a two-minute walk.  As much as I would have liked to document the crossing of the Brooklyn Bridge, cold, wind, hunger and the fact that I already had been there for four hours lured me to take the subway home to the Bronx.

Foley Square: Death as Retirement Plan
Several people climbed onto the parapets and ledges of buildings to watch the procession, much as this young fellow has done.  His sign reads:  "Thanks to Wall Street the only retirement plan left is DEATH!!!"

Foley Square: Police Barrier & Mounted Police Reserves
As we approach City Hall Park and near the Bridge entrance, we can see mounted police on the side street and in the background. But they were restrained, and many of the police at the barriers were willing to engage in conversation and answer questions, which has not always been the case in NYC street demonstrations.  And this is as it ought to be.  After all, New York's finest are part of the 99%.

Foley Square: Proud to be an American

Foley Square: Vox Clamantis In Tenebris

Foley Square: Make This Nation One Again

I offer three final photographs of the day:  A man wrapping himself in the flag--it's just a wonderful photo;   a cry from the darkness that all progressives and liberals hope will happen--will the candidate they supported three years ago finally pay attention to them and their needs?;   and the hope of so many--that we can become a single, unified nation once more--that we become the 100%, not merely the 99%.

To quote Cornel West's article in the November, 2011 issue of The Occupied Wall Street Journal, "Our movement--leaderless and leaderful--is a soulful expression of a moral outrage at the ugly corporate greed that pushes our society and world to the brink of catastrophe....we intend to sustain our momentum...in order to create a better world through a deep democratic revolution."

Saturday, November 5, 2011

David Brooks and Fracking: Marketplace Trumps Environment

On November 3, 2011, David Brooks wrote an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “Shale Gas Revolution.”  Brooks begins this argument for large-scale fracking by championing George P. Mitchell, who “fought through waves of skepticism and opposition to extract natural gas from shale.”  Having softened his readers by appealing to their pride in American individualism and ingenuity with this reference to one of the inventors of the process of hydraulic fracturing, Brooks boldly claims that “the fracking innovation is game-changing.  It transforms the energy marketplace.”

However, since Brooks is not among those many Republicans who are in denial about global warming, he must take pains to assure us that natural gas “is the cleanest of the fossil fuels” and that enabling more fracking operations will provide “hundreds of thousands of new jobs.”   In other words, he views fracking as a  panacea for much of America’s present difficulties, and Brooks’ leaves no doubt about the importance of extracting natural gas from our shale deposits: “It would be a crime if we squandered this blessing,” he writes in his concluding sentence.

But, I get ahead of myself and of Brooks’ argument.  Before this conclusion, he is compelled to acknowledge today’s acrimonious political climate.   In his words, “the U.S. is polarized between ‘drill, baby, drill’ conservatives, who seem suspicious of most regulation, and some environmentalists, who seem to regard fossil fuels as morally corrupt and imagine we can switch to wind and solar overnight.”  Although this statement appears to offer a balanced assessment of the two sides, I suggest that a closer reading reveals a subtly biased skewing.

Brooks’ Republican Heart [read my post, “David Brooks and Dr. Strangelove,” July 26, 2011], through careful word choice, makes the conservatives seem more reasonable and the (liberal) environmentalists more radical.   In truth, however, those “‘drill, baby, drill’ conservatives” are hardly so accommodating as to be “suspicious of most regulation;” they reflexively rail against any and all regulation.   Meanwhile, nobody is saying that fossil fuels are “morally corrupt.”  They are saying that the continued reliance on fossil fuels for energy is endangering our world and contributing enormously to global warming, and we need to find other solutions before we pass the tipping point.

The proponents for oil and gas drilling may be greedy and complacent, but not “morally corrupt.”   This term is normally bandied about by members of the religious right, not the progressive left or, in Brooks’ words “some environmentalists.”  If the progressive left were to use the term “moral corruption,” their most likely target would be the 1% that our various Occupy Wall Street groups are bringing to the forefront of our nation’s awareness.   Interestingly, even a more conservative commentator like Jim Cramer of CNBC admitted enormous corruption among those in control of our financial system (in an August 21, 2008 video that is no longer viewable).   Another target might be Alan Greenspan, and after reading Chapter 2 of Matt Taibbi’s book, Griftopia, I can hardly see Greenspan as anything other than “morally corrupt.”   Then, of course, among the biggest targets are Bush and Cheney, who got us into a deadly war through deception and lies--the height of moral corruption.

But, again, I diverge from the topic of hydraulic fracturing. Fracking has poisoned water supplies, killed livestock where its toxic chemicals have percolated to the surface, destabilized the landscape, created more greenhouse emissions than burning coal, and undermined investment in renewable technologies.   As a concession to its recorded dangers (think of those surreal videos of flaming tap water), Brooks seems to blame a few bad apples. He bemoans the fact that “rogue companies have screwed up and there have been instances of contamination,” and that “a few sloppy companies could discredit the whole sector.”

Igniting Kitchen Tap Water Contaminated with Fracking Fluids

Haven’t we heard this argument before? “A few sloppy companies” is the corporate equivalent of “a few bad apples,” the words used to isolate the lowly soldiers at Abu Ghraib in Iraq from the larger military system.  Today we remember the privates and specialists who were sentenced, Lynndie England and Charles Graner, but forget the colonels and generals, their military superiors who remained insulated.

But when it comes to oil drilling, there are no “rogue companies,” as Brooks would have us believe, unless maybe all the drilling companies are “rogue!” After all, who were the “rogue companies,” the “few sloppy companies” responsible for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?    British Petroleum, which is the fourth largest corporation of any sort in the world today? Transocean Ltd., owner of the world’s largest fleet of offshore deepwater drilling rigs?    Halliburton, the world’s second largest oilfield services corporation?  You can’t get any bigger that this.

These are the “generals” of the oil production system, and clearly not even they can be trusted to do their job properly.   Maybe the entire oil extraction industry is “rogue.” It is very possible that they all are “sloppy companies” who cut corners in order to save money. In the case of the Deepwater Horizon spill, the report issued by the White House oil spill commission stated that "the root causes are systemic and, absent significant reform in both industry practices and government policies, might well recur." It concluded that BP, Transocean and Halliburton all were responsible, albeit in different ways.

Since the presence of major corporations such as BP and Halliburton is hardly a guarantee of safe practices, David Brooks’ implication that a very few “rogue companies” are to blame for past fracking accidents should not assuage the public’s distrust of the companies or of the fracking process and its environmental hazards.   To put it as simply as possible, a region that loses its safe water supply has lost its viability.

There are so many environmental and health hazards to fracking, and David Brooks doesn’t so much as allude to any of them. Besides the toxic mix of chemicals injected into the earth along with the water [see my post, “Our Water and Fracking,” Sunday, February 6, 2011], shale deposits are rich in radium, so the fracking fluids will also absorb and leak uranium;  they also will leak radon that is present in the shale;  then, too, carbon dioxide and methane emissions for natural gas is claimed to be at least as dangerous as that for coal (the dirtiest of the fossil fuels).  In fact, because carbon dioxide emissions from the production of shale oil and shale gas are so high, the European Union is warning against any oil shale development.

And finally, there is the water itself.   Fracking uses enormous quantities of fresh water, usually taken from nearby streams, ponds and rivers. With every well fracked, 4 to 9 million gallons of water are injected into the ground (along with a toxic mix of chemicals). Since a single well can be fracked up to 12 separate times, it could consume 100 million gallons of fresh water in its lifetime.   An average person drinks ca. 79,000 gallons of water in a lifetime. Therefore, the 100 million gallons of freshwater that a single well could consume over its operational life would supply a lifetime of water to 5,050 people.  Multiply this by the 400,000 new fracking wells that are planned in the next decade, and we could supply a lifetime of water to over 2.02 billion people.

Which, I ask, is the better use of our diminishing supply of this crucial resource? Do we continue to waste precious resources on non-renewable forms of energy, or do we work towards a renewable energy future?

As an antidote to David Brooks’ flawed examination of fracking as a way to mine natural gas from our shale deposits, watch the very brief video trailer from Gasland, the movie by Josh Fox.   Also, watch the video titled “Fracking Hell: The Untold Story,” a report on our Marcellus shale produced by Earth Focus, a British ecology group.   Only then should you make up your mind about which direction would be the wisest to embrace.

This brief appendix summarizes a random sampling of the hundreds of accidents that have occurred as a result of fracking in America. These examples came from the study by Craig Michaels, "Fractured Communities: Case Studies of the Environmental Impacts of Industrial Gas Drilling," Riverkeeper, September 2010, which one can download as a pdf document.

1). On June 3, 2010, improper well control procedures led to a gas well blowout in Clearfield County, PA, leading to the release of nearly a million gallons of toxic wastewater that polluted two high quality waters, the Alex Branch and the Little Laurel Run . The company, EOG Resources, from Midland, TX, has been on Fortune’s list of 100 best companies to work for for five consecutive years.

2). On April 1, 2010, a tank and an open pit containing fracking fluid caught fire in Hopewell Township, PA, shooting flames at least 100 feet high. For days earlier, residents complained of foul odors and a 480-acre farm suffered soil and water contamination. The company, Atlas Energy, has since become Chevron-Atlas Energy, Inc. with a merger in February, 2011.

3). On December 15, 2007, fracking in the Clinton sandstone formation caused natural gas to migrate through fractures and into a private house in Bainbridge, OH, causing a major explosion inside the house. The drilling also led to extensive water contamination in the region. The company, Ohio Valley Energy Systems, is part of Hoovers (a D&B Company)

Another Example of Polluted Water Igniting
4). In January, 2009, methane gas was migrating to the surface in Dimock, PA. One water well exploded, and at least nine other wells reported elevated levels of methane, four of these with a threat of explosion. Elsewhere, the same company was cited for spills that polluted a wetland and caused a fish kill in Stevens Creek.  The same company also trucked 44,000 barrels of wastewater to a facility in the suburbs of Philadlphia, and this water was discharged into a creek that provided drinking water to 17 municipalities serving over 300,000 residents.  The company, Cabot Oil & Gas, is based in Houston, TX. On Dimock, see also this revealing video at the bottom of the 4th page of the Vanity Fair article, "A Colossal Fracking Mess."

5). In 2010, in Louisiana, seventeen head of cattle died a painful death, bellowing, bleeding and foaming at the mouth after drinking water that had flowed from a natural gas well.  The company, Chesapeake Energy, based in Oklahoma City OK, is the second largest producer of natural gas in the United States.  Chesapeake Energy also caused this fracking fluid spill in Bradford County, PA.

6).  Between June and July, 2009, the city of Cleburne, TX suffered at least seven earthquakes; it had not registered an earthquake ever before in its 142-year history. The cause has been linked to the injection of wastewater from fracking operations. The company, again, was Chesapeake Energy.

Containers of Fracking Fluid