Saturday, March 29, 2008

Obama in Steelertown

Barack Obama with "The Bus" and the Immaculate
Receptor (and Sen. Bob Casey in the background)
with the new blue version of the Terrible Towel
in Pittsburgh yesterday. Posted by Picasa

An American Dream

" The reason I got into politics was not to get my name in the papers, it was because I remembered that somebody, somewhere stood up for me. I know that people fought to make sure that I have the same rights in this country that anybody else does. That is the essence of the American story. Each of us, we're not just looking out for ourselves. When we're at our best, we're working to make everybody's lives better. We're thinking about future generations. That's what we've lost, and that's what I want to restore. If you help me, we can bring about the kind of change that makes Americans proud."

Barack Obama on Friday, March 28, at a Town Hall Meeting near Greensburg, PA, at Hempfield High School, which is about a mile from where I grew up. My sisters went there, I took a summer course there. I saw my first real football game there. This is the soil where my American dreams grew. In these important ways, the same dreams.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

niente senza gioia

I am not a foodie. Conversations which fixate on food and restaurants inspire a mood that swings back and forth from murderous to suicidal. But I do eat. I buy food, prepare it, and I have strong memories of food, and strong preferences. I'm just not that interested in talking or obsessing about it. Partly because my preferences generally are for the simple, and strongly for the "Mediterranean" diet of my childhood, especially at my Italian grandmother's table.

But I see what bad food is doing, and I fear it. As Michael Pollan writes in his new book: "The human animal is adapted to, and apparently can thrive on, an extraordinary range of different diets, but the Western diet, however you define it, does not seem to be one of them." He means the contemporary western diet of corporate food, that is artificial and unhealthy. In fact, it's deadly.
I also fear the trend of food coming from so far away, and being dependent on that. But there are other, newer trends that are heartening. A few were highlighted in just the past few days--in a local article about a woman in my town who grows and prepares almost all her own food. From our local university, HSU, where students are trying to commit to a sustainable healthy diet--even if the best they can do so far is breakfast. And a trio of articles (here and here and here) in the San Francisco Chronicle about using disused land to grow vegetables for food "in the shadow of buildings" in the city.

These are all great. I'm also a fan--from a distance, at least--of the Slow Food movement that began in Italy (where else?) Not only because it supports all these good things--good, healthy, real food, sustainably and locally produced. But because it's also about having a good time. Someone somewhere said it's the first leftish movement--and one could add the first ecological movement--that emphasizes joy. (That's the founder there on the left: Carlo Petrini.) That reminds me of a slogan of an arts program for Italian schoolchildren I've prized for years, even if as only an aspiration: niente senza gioia: Nothing without joy.
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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Nancy's Journey

An extraordinary event took place Saturday, to very little notice here, after a week or so of tragedy in Tibet: the U.S. Speaker of the House, third in line to the presidency, traveled to India to meet with the Dalai Lama, to speak out on behalf of human rights, the political rights of the Tibetan people, and against oppression and violence perpetrated by the world's most successful totalitarian capitalist regime, in China.

At a time when the Chinese government is recklessly accusing the Dalai Lama of fomenting violence, Nancy Pelosi and a small congressional delegation traveled a great distance, to a fairly isolated part of India, to show their support.
At a time when the U.S. administration is selling high tech weapons to India and urging military and nuclear expansion, Nancy Pelosi visited the memorial of Mahatma Gandhi, performing the traditional tribute of throwing rose petals.

At a time when U.S. politicians and corporate leaders are afraid to criticize China for anything (including collusion in the Darfur genocide) because they essentially own our government and make everything we buy, Pelosi called for the world to condemn China for killing demonstrators as only the most recent acts of its murderous brutality in Tibet. She said this crisis is a challenge to "the conscience of the world."

At a time when the U.S. is feared and hated around the world, Tibetan exiles and others wrapped themselves in American flags because of her journey and her committment.

I get occasional emails from an organization trying to run a more radical candidate against Pelosi because she doesn't support impeachment, or hasn't done enough to end the Iraq war. They get no support from me. She's an imperfect politician, but Nancy Pelosi did more for this country this past weekend than anybody in government I know of has for a long time.

Those who share her concern for the Tibetan people can help through organizations such as the International Campaign for Tibet and the Tibet Fund.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

New Hope, PA

Monday is the last day PA citizens can register
to vote for Obama in the primary.
Here's the
form, instructions and places where you can drop
it off TODAY.
The Obama campaign has already
registered thousands of new voters in Pennsylvania,
through the efforts of volunteers including Caroline
Kennedy, who was calling folks in New Hope, PA. Posted by Picasa

4,000 Killed--and the Euphemisms of American Violence

On Easter Sunday in the U.S., a series of mortar attacks, suicide bombs, roadside bombs and other acts in Iraq meant to kill and maim, reportedly killed at least 50 people, including the 4,000th American soldier to be killed since the invasion of Iraq five years ago.

War cannot be looked in the face for long. That's one reason that we turn our eyes away, and allow or encourage our media to stop reporting the reality of this ongoing war. Why few paid any attention to the Winter Soldiers testimony last week, and some got angry about broadcasting these soldiers telling their stories.

It is also one reason that we lie about war. Unfortunately, the ways our leaders lie about it means that needless wars, criminal wars, can be started and continued. As long as we accept the lies, and let them continue lying.

There are lots of ways to lie, and the least obvious way (the most lying way) is with euphemism. In an essay entitled "Euphemisms and American Violence" in the current New York Review of Books, David Bromwich writes that this term--euphemism--dates back to imperial Rome. He quotes Tacitus accusing certain Romans of deception and self-deception: "they create a desolation and call it peace." Bromwich explains:

The frightening thing about such acts of renaming or euphemism, Tacitus implies, is their power to efface the memory of actual cruelties. Behind the fa├žade of a history falsified by language, the painful particulars of war are lost. Maybe the most disturbing implication of the famous sentence "They create a desolation and call it peace" is that apologists for violence, by means of euphemism, come to believe what they hear themselves say.

Whether our leaders believe it on some level is immaterial. I'm not sure that cruelties matter to them when ideology is served, and massive profits and wealth are the products of war. The point is they use it to makes sure we believe what they say--even when we think we don't.

Bromwich quotes a passage from George Orwell's famous essay, "Politics and the English language," which can't be quoted too much:

" Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them."

Bromwich then comments:

Orwell's insight was that the italicized phrases are colorless by design and not by accident. He saw a deliberate method in the imprecision of texture. The inventors of this idiom meant to suppress one kind of imagination, the kind that yields an image of things actually done or suffered; and they wanted to put in its place an imagination that trusts to the influence of larger powers behind the scenes. Totalitarianism depends on the creation of people who take satisfaction in such trust; and totalitarian minds are in part created (Orwell believed) by the ease and invisibility of euphemism."

And that's it exactly. Words that sound professional--the jargon of the military or "statesmen"--are adopted in the media. They sound precise but they are really fuzzy, and above all bloodless.

Bromwich discusses some of the Bush era's successes: the "global war on terror" which makes no literal sense, names no actual enemy, and excuses absolutely everything. He writes of their success in getting the media to adopt expressions like "contractors" for mercenary soldiers, and "abuses" for torture.

They have been very successful, and not only with the corporate media. Even the progressive blogsites have bought into calling a particular form of torture "waterboarding," as if it were a form of surfing. As Bromwich points out, "Yet 'waterboarding' itself is a euphemism for a torture that the Jap-anese in World War II, the French in Indochina, and the Khmer Rouge, who learned it from the French, knew simply as the drowning torture. Our American explanations have been as misleading as the word. The process is not "simulated drowning" but actual drowning that is interrupted.

There is another form of euphemism routinely used in discussing warfare and torture these days: the application of cliches that merge a certain unearned bravado with the latest fad expressions. Bromwich quotes California Member of Congress Jane Harman stringing two of them together when talking about the legalities of ordering torture: "I'm OK with it not being pretty."

This is corporate-speak, TV-speak, the lazy stringing together of buzzwords and cliches into what passes for sentences and thoughts, especially for those who hear consultants and pundits talk that way constantly, and whose idea of a complete thought is something that can be text messaged while driving.

To make decisions that mean other people are going to torture and be tortured, kill and maim and be killed and mained, by saying "I'm OK with it not being pretty" is a particularly deadly form of arrogance, even if it is steeped in ignorance or self-deception. But when we let our leaders and our media get away with the euphemisms of violence, we become part of that arrogance.

If we penetrate to the truth of it all, we can make decisions based on realities. We can fight for our lives when we must, but not throw away the lives of so many in order to profit the few whose wealth is already obscene.

We have fallen for one lie after another, cushioned by one set of euphemisms after another, until this nation's economy depends on making war, and on fomenting war, so that we can supply the means of making modern war: the means of killing, maiming and destroying on a massive scale.

Last month the Guardian in England reported that the American Secretary of Defense visited New Delhi to promote a $10 billion deal for the U.S. to supply jet fighters to India. With the encouragement of the U.S. (and other arms dealing nations), India has increased its military spending to nearly 19% of its budget, while it spends 1% on public health in a vast country where public health is a severe problem, and 5% on education in a vast country with widespread and severe poverty.

This is the American Way in the world. There are those who defend it according to their views of international situations and human nature. But there are many more who are willfully blind to it, partly because they feel helpless. And part of the reason for that helplessness is there is no way to talk about it, not when we have no clear language in common. When complicated and emotional subjects are further clouded and distorted by the lies enabled by euphemism. Euphemism is the curtain, behind which the imperial wizards pull their levers, and so many lives are distorted and destroyed.