by Gilles d'Aymery
"Les pieds dans le ruisseau . . . . Je vois mon image...Moi je vois l'idiot."
—Jacques Brel, 1955
(Swans - October 22, 2007) CHE REMAINS ALIVE AND WELL: Richard Harris, the professor of Global Studies and World Languages and Cultures at California State University, Monterey Bay, California, and the author of the much acclaimed Death of a Revolutionary: Che Guevara's Last Mission reminded me by e-mail that October 9 was the 40th anniversary of Che's death. He did not have to, but still, his request to let people know was most welcome. Che Guevara is greater dead than alive. His assassin's bullet killed a man. It did not kill the ideals the man professed all along his tumultuous life. You can kill Gandhi, but there he is in our hearts and souls, ever present. Same goes for the Rev. Martin Luther King...and so many other justice advocates. For Christians, Jesus lives on. For those of us who passionately defend the ideals of social justice, human conciliation and cooperation, dignity, and acceptation of The Other, which includes nature, the struggle will never end until success prevails. It remains the most solemn obligation to which one must dedicate one's own life. Ask yourself this simple question: Can Peace ever be attained without Justice and Dignity?
WHAT'S THE MEANING OF JUSTICE, ANYWAY? It's first and foremost about the little people not being trampled by the few that enrich themselves on their back, and proceed to do so in the most vicious and violent means imaginable. It's as basic as that! You might expand on the concept of Justice. Even relatively moderate, corrupt, and bourgeois politicians know what Justice is all about. Take Jacques Chirac, the former president of France, who was vilified by Anne Applebaum, a grotesque gatekeeper of the Washington Consensus ("Farewell, Jacques Chirac: A Leader With a Deep Scorn for Fostering Democracy," Washington Post, May 8, 2007). Applebaum related that during a visit to Tunisia, Chirac once said that, "the most important human rights are the rights to be fed, to have health, to be educated, and to be housed"; and she sneered at him for that eminently obvious statement, adding, "Tunisia's human rights record is 'very advanced' -- never mind the police who beat up dissidents." (Evidently, Ms. Applebaum is little cognizant about police brutality against political dissidents in the U.S.)
BUT CHIRAC WAS QUITE RIGHT. That is exactly what those of us, deemed radicals and extremists, want. That's what Che was about: the right to a decent, dignified life -- food, health, education, and housing. What's wrong with that picture? Has the currently prevailing ideological system brought these four fundamental needs to the masses? Hell, no! Even the dinosaurian mastodon, the USA, has never brought those four basic freedoms to its own people. Remember FDR's famous January 6, 1941, Annual Message to Congress, the so-called Four Freedoms speech? Here is what he pompously and cynically declaimed:
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression -- everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way -- everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want -- which, translated into universal terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants-everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear -- which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor -- anywhere in the world.
That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.
I SAY CYNICALLY because at the very time he was calling for worldwide reductions in armaments, he was asking Congress to fund the biggest increase in military spending, which turned into the military-industrial-congressional complex whose "unwarranted influence" Dwight Eisenhower cautioned the country and its policy makers against in his Farewell Address to the Nation twenty-one years later, on January 17, 1961. Far from having abated, far from "a world-wide reduction of armaments," the Iron Triangle has led the U.S. to a permanent war economy, laying destruction and death all over the world, financially ruining the country, and making America feared and hatred by ever wider members of the human commons over the world, all the while -- oh supreme irony! -- having a US populace frozen with paranoid fears.
AS TO FREEDOM FROM WANT, "attainable in our own time and generation . . . . the antithesis of the so-called new order [that some] seek to create with the crash of a bomb" (what an extraordinary metaphor for those willing to glance at their own mirror!) take a look around the globe. What you'll see is a raging spread of poverty and hunger. Or, simply, once again look into your homey mirror: Close to twelve percent of the US population, between 35 and 38 million people, are officially considered to have "very low food security," which is a euphemism to mean that they go hungry. These poor people used to be called "food insecure with hunger," but the word "hunger" has been removed from the bureaucratic lingua franca. In the seemingly wealthiest country in the world (a proposition that should at long, long, long last be challenged) hunger does not "really" exist. This Hidden Crisis, in a land that bears the highest rate of obesity per capita in the world (hunger and obesity are, strangely enough, related), is seldom broached by the chattering classes, of which Anne Applebaum is a card-carrying member. As George McGovern said during his presidential campaign in 1972, "To admit the existence of widespread hunger is to cast doubt on the efficacy of our whole system."
IT'S AN INDICATOR, or metric, that certainly casts doubt on War Corporatism, aka, unfettered capitalism, but it's far from being the only one. Socially-supported education, health care, and housing all fall short from a humane attention in the U.S. Even The Other, the natural realm, is belatedly being destroyed in the name of what Noam Chomsky once called the "Fifth Freedom." In The Culture of Terrorism (1998), he wrote:
The central -- and not very surprising -- conclusion that emerges from the documentary and historical record is that the U.S. international and security policy, rooted in the structure of power in the domestic society, has as its primary goal the preservation of what we might call the "Fifth Freedom," understood crudely but with a fair degree of accuracy as the freedom to rob, to exploit and dominate, to undertake any course of action to ensure that existing privilege is protected and advanced.
BUT IF WE ARE TO STAY within the realm of the "Four Freedoms," those stated by Jacques Chirac vs. those stated by FDR, which alliteration do you think Che Guevara would have espoused? Freedom of speech, which all Swans contributors vehemently defend, is a great, fundamental human concept, but what good does it do when you are hungry and silenced, or simply ignored? I recall my economics teacher in high school eons ago. He would repeatedly remind his pupils that "when one has an empty stomach one has little time and freedom to think." Whatever Anne Applebaum and her ilk may think -- correction, believe -- double-correction, neither think nor believe, but claim out of whole cloth -- and in all due respect, the [Chirac] freedoms "to be fed, to have health, to be educated, and to be housed" will always beat FDR's four freedoms for the masses and masses of people who have an inner sense of what real justice and common welfare mean. There, in a nutshell, lies the swelling support for that sempiternal troubadour, a mix of Don Quixote and Robin Hood. Che remains an inspiration to millions of people around the world, even for those who consider that his politics were right, yet his actions misconstrued. In this context, Richard Harris's Death of a Revolutionary: Che Guevara's Last Mission should be on the bookshelf of all decent human beings that have a stomach filled enough to allow them to think...and, hopefully, act accordingly to counter Chomsky's "Fifth Freedom."
WHEN ARE PEOPLE going to at long last get sick and tired, as I am, of the swelling wreck that a tiny clique of very powerful people and profiteers whacked all over the world (and in America, our own country) in our name? When will people rise up and simply say "NO"? Numbers count. Apathy numbs. Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!
SO, HOW MUCH IS THE IRAQ WAR about the four freedoms and how much is it about oil? Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan wrote in his recently published memoir that, "the Iraq War is largely about oil." General John Abizaid (ret.) -- a Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and former CENTCOM big brass in Iraq -- said in a round table, "Courting Disaster: The Fight for Oil, Water and a Healthy Planet," at the Freeman Spogli Institute, Stanford University, on October 13, 2007, "Of course it's about oil, we can't really deny that." Jim Holt, a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker, submits a coherent explanation in "It's the Oil" (London Review of Books, October 18, 2007). Writes Holt:
Iraq has 115 billion barrels of known oil reserves. That is more than five times the total in the United States. And, because of its long isolation, it is the least explored of the world's oil-rich nations. A mere two thousand wells have been drilled across the entire country; in Texas alone there are a million. It has been estimated, by the Council on Foreign Relations, that Iraq may have a further 220 billion barrels of undiscovered oil; another study puts the figure at 300 billion. If these estimates are anywhere close to the mark, US forces are now sitting on one quarter of the world's oil resources. The value of Iraqi oil, largely light crude with low production costs, would be of the order of $30 trillion at today's prices. For purposes of comparison, the projected total cost of the US invasion/occupation is around $1 trillion.
THIS IS THE STRATEGIC PRIZE that has been heralded by Dick Cheney. Holt, who I suppose could not have had his piece published in the American media, asserts that from the perspective of this formidable wealth to be conquered, "The costs -- a few billion dollars a month plus a few dozen American fatalities (a figure which will probably diminish, and which is in any case comparable to the number of US motorcyclists killed because of repealed helmet laws) -- are negligible compared to $30 trillion in oil wealth, assured American geopolitical supremacy and cheap gas for voters. In terms of realpolitik, the invasion of Iraq is not a fiasco; it is a resounding success."
"NEGLIGIBLE COSTS" COMPARED to the potential wealth the war will create. Americans are known, and often envied, for their pragmatic optimism and for their ways to devise solutions based on careful cost analysis. The war has already been a "resounding success" for the military-industrial-congressional complex whose profits and stocks have soared in the past six years (e.g., GE's shares have more than doubled; Halliburton went from $5 to $40; Top executives are paid in the tens of millions -- our taxes at work, folks). Profits remain the central nervous system of the American experiment, and for the few who indeed profit immensely from the policies they put in place and fully control in total disregard of the well-being of the vast majority, the second Gilded Age has finally dawned upon them. Ben Stein, who writes the "Everybody's Business" column in the business section of The New York Times most Sundays, lamented recently that "socially responsible investors shun companies that do military contracting." (NYT, September 30, 2007: "Is It Responsible to Shun Military Contractors?"). Says Stein: "We are currently in a war that is about creating a better, more dignified planet and we are fighting enemies who openly say they want to kill everyone who is not their slavish follower." Apparently, Stein has been drinking the Kool-Aid that is so prevalent and liberally dispensed in the corridors of power. He goes on to flatly contradict the assessment of Alan Greenspan and John Abizaid. It's not about oil. We only import 20 percent of our needs from the Middle East. We should be thankful for the great prosperity oil has brought us thanks to the oil companies. His column stirred me enough to trigger a letter of mine:
Dear Mr. Stein,
I am an avid reader of your regular column in the business section of the Sunday NYT. I find them often pertinent and quite instructive. They seem to come from a conservative background, but one that has never forgotten its human soul, sense of fairness, and compassion.
In your last column, "Is it Responsible to Shun Military Contractors?" (NYT, 09/30/2007), you asked whether someone could explain why socially responsible investors refrain from investing in military contractors, and you went on to brush aside one portent reason behind the current conflict(s) in the Middle East -- namely oil -- by positing that only about 20% of the oil we import comes from that region. The vast majority of our imports, you asserted, is delivered to our shores thanks to the diligent work of the oil companies, without the intervention of the US military.
I've worked for many years in the oil industry (France -- my country of origin -- Bermuda, and the U.S.) and see no reason to bash it, except for the obscene compensation of its executives (but this latter point is not limited to that industry). Indeed, as you stated, "The staggering prosperity of this country, of the whole developed world, floats on oil."
However, I respectfully submit to you that your facts are slightly twisted and your premises incorrect. You ignore the "staggering" amount of waste associated with our material prosperity. You appear to disregard the projections of the DOE that show how much more dependent our economy will become on Mideastern hydrocarbon resources (oil and natural gas) in the next two or three decades -- the "strategic prize," according to Mr. Cheney. Furthermore, you appear to miss the significance of this mere 20% and its substantial growth in the future (again, please refer to the DOE's projections). Imagine that amount diverted to Japan, India, and China and you will quickly measure the negative consequences on our economy. Finally, you do not even broach the currency issue. What happens to the value of the dollar if Mideastern producers switch to the Euro or the Yen, as Saddam Hussein was planning, and Iran is implementing, is another reason for our military intervention in that region. Black gold and greenbacks!
Which brings me to your premise regarding the quagmire we have willfully created: We are not at war with people who want to destroy us and kill us all. That's an ideological battle that cannot be solved through military means. A few thousands crazies (if they are) won't defeat the West. Like all crazies (if they are) they will dissolve in times. Waging war on flimsy and mostly fabricated evidence can only bring more despair and devastation. Your analogy with WWII, which mirrors the rhetoric advanced by the media and government officials, confuses the actualities that rational and reasonable people must face. There was no Mesopotamian Hitler and there is no Iranian Hitler. Remember FDR's saying about fear?
Socially responsible investors refuse to support the purveyors of the industrial-military-congressional complex because we have long reached the conclusion that war was not the answer to the many challenges humanity confronts. You sold your tobacco shares long ago, and you note that they have done very well ever since. I never invested in them, as I have not invested in the shares of military contractors, which have done extremely well too in the past six years.
And I am a smoker!
NOW, I CAN UNDERSTAND the profit motive and the alluring $30 trillion prize, but that someone of Ben Stein's caliber can posit that the Iraq War is about a "better, more dignified planet" truly boggles the mind. Perhaps Stein should go and read Bill Safire's "On Language" column in the NYT Magazine of October 7, 2007, to grasp the meaning of a "willing suspension of disbelief." What kind of a dignified planet has Mr. Stein in mind? One that has seen one million Iraqis, half children, killed during a dozen years of ignoble economic sanctions? One that has seen over one million Iraqis killed and over 4 million internally or externally displaced since March 2003? One that cannot even feed its own poor and the wretched masses -- according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, over 854 million people worldwide? Or is it a planet in which the dominant player cannot provide universal health care to its citizenry and whose president just vetoed a bill (S-CHIP) that would have insured an additional 5 out of 9 million uninsured American kids -- for whom insurance means a trip to the Emergency Room, in the thinking of the Decider?
OR COULD IT BE that a "better, more dignified planet" is reserved for the few who can satiate themselves at the $30 trillion trough, sip a martini as they refresh themselves in their swimming pool (Mr. Stein lives in a very nice house in Palm Springs, adorned with a beautiful swimming pool), or can afford a Hublot $1 million Big Band watch, "the brand's signature tourbillon with the 44.5mm case and bezel, completely covered in diamonds"?
GILDED AGE, INDEED! As the rest of the world is drowning into penury, I had a brief conversation with a friendly local contractor. He is a good, honest, hard-working man who won't hesitate to give you a hand (he neighborly replaced a leaking faucet on the side of our house, which -- don't laugh -- I was afraid to replace myself). He is a man of his word, which I can strongly vouch for, and I suspect that his politics are a mix of conservatism and libertarianism, a blend that's prevalent in California's rural areas. We usually talk about the job at hand, and, after inquiring about the health of the family, we sometimes broach the economy of the Valley. How's business? is a rather quaint question buried in the normalcy of one's repetitive daily life. Business is good, generally speaking, but prices keep going up from gas and diesel (he uses heavy equipment that requires lots of diesel fuel) to food, etc. I quipped that for some people life was VERY GOOD. Had he heard, I asked, about this manager of a hedge fund that had taken home over 1 billion dollars last year. I'm not sure he knew what a hedge fund was (I'm not sure I know either!) and whether he believed me (I think he did). I asked him whether he could visualize that amount of money, and he sure could not (neither can I). I went on with my usual rant against the obscene wealth of the very few and how it should be redistributed -- and we left it there.
LATER ON, THAT EVENING, we talked over the phone. He brought up our earlier conversation. He understood where I was coming from and what I was advocating, but he was concerned by my approach. In his opinion, and I paraphrase, wealth redistribution runs the risks of stifling business and innovation; that people who take risks and "make it" should be rewarded for their hard work. He did not want, in other words, to straightjacket risk takers, who should be entitled to reaping the profits of their hard work -- a familiar argument that's heard in most segments of society, here and abroad. A correlation to that argument is the old Reagan trickle-down economy whereby when a few boats lift real high, all boats lift, albeit moderately. It does not work, of course; and it has never worked. The stranger part of this argument is that these people by and large negatively suffer from the consequences of the very argument they make -- which is nothing more than a belief, since all the facts contradict it. For those of us who endeavor to reason on a basis of specifics, to recurringly deal with beliefs that are consistently contradicted by facts can be a frustrating experience, to say the least. And, to add insult to injury, we are deemed radicals or, worse, commies. However, that argument did not always prevail. Once upon a time, the views I propound were actually embraced, even if reluctantly and in order to save the elites, by the very elites themselves.
TO MAKE THE CASE, let me turn to Sam Pizzigati, the editor of Too Much, who's long been a bard for income equality in the U.S. Referring to the recent GM auto workers' short strike, whereby the United Auto Workers Union was desperately trying to safeguard job security as the work force was being screwed -- there is no better word -- on its pension and health plans. Pizzigati had this to say:
In 1942, for instance, UAW urgings helped convince President Franklin D. Roosevelt to call for a 100 percent tax -- the equivalent of a "maximum wage" -- on individual income over $25,000, about $330,000 in today's dollars.
Congress didn't buy FDR's 100 percent plan, but lawmakers did set the nation's top marginal tax rate at 94 percent, and that rate would hover around 90 percent for the next two decades, years that would see the emergence of the first mass middle class the world had ever seen.
In those mid twentieth century years, high taxes on high incomes kept wealth -- and political power -- from concentrating at America's economic summit. Charles E. Wilson, GM's powerful president a half-century ago, took home $586,100 in 1950, the equivalent of about $4.5 million today. He paid $430,350 of that, or 73.4 percent, in tax.
Last year, by contrast, GM CEO Rick Wagoner took home $10.2 million in total pay. We don't know exactly how much in taxes Wagoner paid on that income. But we do know that in 2005, the most recent year with data available, Americans who reported over $10 million in income paid, on average, just 20.9 percent of that income in federal income tax.
In short, GM's current top executive is now enjoying, after taking taxes and inflation into account, about seven times more personal income than GM's top executive back in 1950. (Source: "The Fault Line: Behind the GM Walkout," Too Much, October 1, 2007.)
EVEN EISENHOWER, certainly not a radical or a commie, kept the marginal rate at some 84 percent.
IMMEDIATE QUESTION THAT COMES TO MIND: Does my friendly contractor and conversationalist enjoy, "after taking taxes and inflation into account, about seven times more personal income than" his 1950s predecessors? I'll be glad to bet a good dinner at any one of the fine local restaurants that bless the Anderson Valley. What's baffling is that so many decent people have been taken to the Laundromat by the martini-sipping swimming poolers time and again and have bought the all-boat-lifting Reaganomics and neo-liberalism PR hook, line, and sinker (how many Brooklyn Bridges can be sold?) when the facts are indisputable. Income disparities and concentration of wealth are back to 1924 levels -- Robber Barons, anyone? According to the latest data from the IRS, and in the words of Judith Warner:
America's most wealthy earn an even greater share of the nation's income than they did in 2000, at the peak of the tech boom. The wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, the Wall Street Journal reported, earned 21.2 percent of all income in 2005 (the latest date at which this data are available), up from the high of 20.8 percent they'd reached in the bull market of 2000. The bottom 50 percent of people earned 12.8 percent of all income, compared with 13 percent in 2000. And the median tax filer's income fell 2 percent when adjusted for inflation (to about $31,000) between 2000 and 2005. (Source: "The Clinton Surprise," New York Times, Web site blog "Domestic Disturbances," October 18, 2007)
NOT SURPRISINGLY, as Warner notes, "More and more people are being priced out of a middle class existence. Because of housing prices, because of health care costs, because of tax policy, because of the cost of child care..." THIS IS FACTUAL!
SO, WHAT GIVES? Our elders, like Philip Greenspan and Martin Murie who grew up in the Great Depression, or in its immediate aftermath, and vividly saw and experienced the power of the many, would put it in plain words, seconding Sam Pizzigati: Unions work. People's power works. Cutting the wings of the greedy works. The Four Freedoms that advance real human dignity are achievable. The [Chomsky's] "Fifth Freedom" destroys the fabric of civil societies all over the world and impoverishes the many. They keep repeating that facts and knowledge will trump beliefs and ignorance even if it takes so-called radicals to, in the favorite word of Phil Greenspan, agitate, agitate, agitate.
TALKING ABOUT RADICALISM reminds me of the little comment Rene Stark made in the early goings of Swans. "Oh sure, he's radical as heck!" bursting out in one of her laughs for which she was famous. (More about her in "Remembering Rene Stark.") She knew that I was everything but a "rad," only some idiot who very early on in life felt that peace could not exist without justice, and justice could never happen without a sense of equity. Too bad humanity must spend so much blood and tears, and steps back, to make it happen.
AND SINCE I AM AN IDIOT, I'll conclude these blips with Jacques Brel, and in French:
Les pieds dans le ruisseau
Moi je regarde couler la vie
Les pieds dans le ruisseau
Moi je regarde sans dire un mot
Penchant mon visage
Au dessus de l'eau
Je vois mon image
Moi je vois l'idiot
(Jacques Brel's song, Les pieds dans le ruisseau, 1955.)
. . . . .
Ç'est la vie...
And so it goes...
La vie, friends, is a cheap commodity, but worth maintaining when one can.the life line won't hurt you much, but it'll make a heck of a difference for Swans.