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Opting Out of Testing! No Way!

I am absolutely elated with the Lee County School Board decision to opt out of “all state mandated tests effective immediately.” After all, I live and teach here. Lee County is the first district in Florida to opt out of state mandated testing. It is also the 38th largest school district in the country. As Lee County goes, so goes the country…
…well, let’s not get too carried away.
The consequent political turnoil is not lost in the euphoria. We should have no delusions that this battle is over. Indeed, it has just begun. This decision has left Lee County vulnerable to significant state level consequences, as graduation requirements, bonus pay, school and teacher evaluations and the distribution of state funds is all tied in with test scores. So I’m seeing quite a few parents and district administrators running around like chickens with their heads cut off. What do we do without tests? The Lee County School Superintendant Nancy Graham, a very capable administrator in my opinion, sent us a video message in which she told us that we should “breathe.” Everything will be all right. We’ll get through this. It’s funny and a little sad that our leadership is treating this as some kind of crisis. It is the opposite of a crisis.
That being said, decisions will have to be made at the state level, and we will require a great deal of support and activism to ensure that these decisions support and reinforce this opt out rather than over-ride it. We need to call our representatives in Tallahassee, as well as the bureaucrats at DOE to protect this important first step.
This is not a crisis no matter what the chicken littles say. The sky is not falling. In fact the clouds are finally lifting. There’s a great deal of hand wringing. Some people are saying “there was no plan.” “No backup.” “What about our funding?” “What about students retaking tests in October?” “What about seniors who are supposed to be graduating this year.” Those of us in support of the opt out have to provide some answers, however speculative, for these very real worries.
First, who cares if there was a plan. If we waited until there was plan we would be waiting forever. Lee County’s opt out forces the state and the district to come up with a plan. That’s activism. Reversing stupid policies is never convenient. But it is always necessary.
Here’s a few suggestions. Students taking retakes, no longer have to take the retakes. Problem solved.
Seniors who are supposed to graduate? If they pass their classes, they graduate. Problem solved.
What about funding? What about funding. Our politicians have demonstrated that they will play politics with our funding anyway. So what else is new. We’ll deal with it like we always do? Problem solved?
How will teachers be evaluated if not with tests? Admininstrators can walk into their rooms and watch them teach. Problem solved.
How will we assess student progress? Teachers can do that. Imagine that. Leaving assessment in the hands of professionals trained to assess. What a concept. There are hundreds of instruments teachers can use to establish baseline and progress. This is something that our standardized testing regimen didn’t really do in any meaningful way? Problem solved.
How do we know if our schools are working? The NAEP already assesses the reading and math trends using reliable random sampling that is much less painful, as well as cheaper than the publisher boondoggles that are standardized tests. We’ve had this instrument since the seventies. In fact, NAEP research reveals that the testing regimen that has been in place since No Child Left Behind has had almost no positive impact on learning at all. Problem solved?
In sociology I always tell my students to be wary of simple solutions. But in this case, the solutions are not all that complicated. However, they will require legislation. That’s where it becomes complicated. Has there ever been a simple issue that the politicians could screw up. I can almost feel the publishing lobbyists on their phones right now. This battle isn’t over, and we are on the state’s field. We better be ready to fight.
One thing we have going for us is that it is an election year. And Governor Skellitor Scott is trying to make nice with teachers because…well…he suspects that we are aware of his deep seeded hatred for us. So there is room to movement on this.
It seems there are those who are trying to build this great decision as a crisis. Perhaps, for them, it is. But for teachers, parents and students, it’s not. At least it doesn’t have to be. Any crisis that happens as a result of this decision will, like the idiotic policy itself, be wholly created by politicians and bureaucrats.

A Final Solution for Palestinians? Really?

You can’t advocate for genocide and then hope we will all forget about it!

When I read Juan Cole’s essay in Truthdig titled, Are Israelis and Zionists Really Talking About a Final Solution of the Palestinian Problem I was expecting to see the predictable rhetoric accompanying both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian debate. Right in the title of the piece is the broad generalizations that are typical of a piece of propaganda, “Are Israelis and Zionists…” as if what Cole was about to reveal were true for all Israelis and Zionists. This is always a stretch, one we all make when writing on these issues, but one we should all be wary of when reading on the topic.

The column cited by Cole was ran in the Times of Israel yesterday, but was removed for obvious reasons. I was floored by what I read. The author, Yochanan Gordon, clearly advocates genocide. His title is not a question; it is a statement of fact. In this current conflict with Hamas led Gaza, “What other way then is there to deal with an enemy of this nature other than obliterate them completely?” He’s clearly not just referring to Hamas, but rather Gaza’s population in its entirely. According to Gordon “…anyone who lives with rocket launchers installed or terror tunnels burrowed in or around the vicinity of their home cannot be considered an innocent civilian.” In case there is room for doubt, Gordon goes on to say that the normal rules of warfare, by inference those that require protection for civilians, should be suspended. He summarizes his case in the final sentence, “If political leaders and military experts determine that the only way to achieve its goal of sustaining quiet is through genocide is it then permissible to achieve those responsible goals?”

Of course, the reasonable answer to this interrogatory concluding sentence is…um…no. Of course political and military experts, such as those who orchestrated the Final Solution in Germany (and I don’t make references to Nazis recklessly) have absolutely no expertise that legitimizes genocide under any circumstances. As Cole points out, though Hamas may have chartered the destruction of Israel, it is unlikely that all Palestinians feel this way. To be fair, it remains a stretch to suggest that all “Israelis and Zionists” are “talking about a Final Solution.” But this one, Yochanan Gordan, certainly is, and he needs to be called out on it.

Kudos to Juan Cole for preserving this little snippet of human ugliness for public debate. So here is the genesis of this post. When I read Gordon’s column and discovered that it had been taken down I felt that this despicable piece should not be hidden from public scrutiny. Credit should be given to the Times of Israel for taking the offending piece down. According to their explanation, it is their policy to provide an open forum for their bloggers, but in this case, the work was so “damnable and ignorant” that the editorial staff removed it. Laudable, but I believe that such damnable and ignorant work should not simply be flushed down the memory hole regardless of the editorial decisions of the publication. Let’s, in fairness, separate Gordon’s ugly opinions from the editorial mission of the Times of Israel, but let’s not allow his work to disappear. It’s only in the open marketplace of ideas that we can adequately contend with ignorance such as that displayed by Yuchanan Gordon. Toward that end, I accessed the cached link provided and attempted to share the post on my personal Facebook and on my Journal of a Mad Sociologist Facebook group. The link would not post. To be fair, I’m not computer savvy enough to know if this is due to a glitch in my system, though I’ve never had a problem posting links before, an inconsistency between my system and the cached link, or a conscious decision on the part of the host to keep this column from being shared. Regardless, because I fear the loss of this document to public scrutiny, I cut and pasted the article in its entirety below. I’ve added the bold face, italics and underline.

When Genocide is Permissible

By Yochanan Gordon

Published in The Times of Israel, Friday, August 1, 2014

Judging by the numbers of casualties on both sides in this almost one-month old war one would be led to the conclusion that Israel has resorted to disproportionate means in fighting a far less- capable enemy. That is as far as what meets the eye. But, it’s now obvious that the US and the UN are completely out of touch with the nature of this foe and are therefore not qualified to dictate or enforce the rules of this war – because when it comes to terror there is much more than meets the eye.

I wasn’t aware of this, but it seems that the nature of warfare has undergone a major shift over the years. Where wars were usually waged to defeat the opposing side, today it seems – and judging by the number of foul calls it would indicate – that today’s wars are fought to a draw. I mean, whoever heard of a timeout in war? An NBA Basketball game allows six timeouts for each team during the course of a game, but last I checked this is a war! We are at war with an enemy whose charter calls for the annihilation of our people. Nothing, then, can be considered disproportionate when we are fighting for our very right to live.

The sad reality is that Israel gets it, but its hands are being tied by world leaders who over the past six years have insisted they are such good friends with the Jewish state, that they know more regarding its interests than even they do. But there’s going to have to come a time where Israel feels threatened enough where it has no other choice but to defy international warnings – because this is life or death.

Most of the reports coming from Gazan officials and leaders since the start of this operation have been either largely exaggerated or patently false. The truth is, it’s not their fault, falsehood and deceit is part of the very fabric of who they are and that will never change. Still however, despite their propensity to lie, when your enemy tells you that they are bent on your destruction you believe them. Similarly, when Khaled Meshal declares that no physical damage to Gaza will dampen their morale or weaken their resolve – they have to be believed. Our sage Gedalia the son of Achikam was given intelligence that Yishmael Ben Nesanyah was plotting to kill him. However, in his piety or rather naiveté Gedalia dismissed the report as a random act of gossip and paid no attention to it. To this day, the day following Rosh Hashana is commemorated as a fast day in the memory of Gedalia who was killed in cold blood on the second day of Rosh Hashana during the meal. They say the definition of insanity is repeating the same mistakes over and over. History is there to teach us lessons and the lesson here is that when your enemy swears to destroy you – you take him seriously.

Hamas has stated forthrightly that it idealizes death as much as Israel celebrates life. What other way then is there to deal with an enemy of this nature other than obliterate them completely?

News anchors such as those from CNN, BBC and Al-Jazeera have not missed an opportunity to point out the majority of innocent civilians who have lost their lives as a result of this war. But anyone who lives with rocket launchers installed or terror tunnels burrowed in or around the vicinity of their home cannot be considered an innocent civilian. If you’ll counter, that Hamas has been seen abusing civilians who have attempted to leave their homes in response to Israeli warnings to leave – well then, your beginning to come to terms with the nature of this enemy which should automatically cause the rules of standard warfare to be suspended.

Everyone agrees that Israel has the right to defend itself as well as the right to exercise that right. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has declared it, Obama and Kerry have clearly stated that no one could be expected to sit idle as thousands of rockets rain down on the heads of its citizens, placing them in clear and present danger. It seems then that the only point of contention is regarding the measure of punishment meted out in this situation.

I will conclude with a question for all the humanitarians out there. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clearly stated at the outset of this incursion that his objective is to restore a sustainable quiet for the citizens of Israel. We have already established that it is the responsibility of every government to ensure the safety and security of its people. If political leaders and military experts determine that the only way to achieve its goal of sustaining quiet is through genocide
is it then permissible to achieve those responsible goals?


To be fair, I also wanted to include the Times of Israel’s explanation for removing the post:

Times of Israel Takes Down the Post

The Times of Israel on Friday removed an unacceptable blog post, entitled “When genocide is permissible.”

This blog post, which was described by our Ops & Blogs editor as both damnable and ignorant, blatantly breached The Times of Israel’s editorial guidelines.

We have discontinued the writer’s blog.

The Times of Israel maintains an open blog platform: Once we have accepted bloggers, we allow them to post their own items. This trust has rarely been abused. We are angry and appalled that it was in this case, and will take steps to prevent a recurrence.

We will not countenance blog posts that incite to violence or criminal acts.

Indeed. Whereas I understand and agree with the editorial decision of the Times, removing Gordon’s content does not adequately allow us to contend with his ideas. Gordon is motivated by hate. He is certainly not alone. Hate cannot be covered up by closing our eyes to it. This was true in 1930’s Germany, and it is true now.

It is also fair to include Gordon’s later apology for his piece.

Gordon’s Apology

Well stated final sentence, and thanks for the apology, but Mr. Gordon, you will have to own your words. You cannot claim that you “never intended to call to harm any people” when you clearly defined those people as being by their very nature liars and deceivers and thus justifying their obliteration. This is as much a contradiction as distinguishing Israelis as “celebrating life” while calling for the deaths of 1.4 million people. You cannot advocate for genocide and then step back and say, “my bad.”

Hamas is Bad, But…

We shouldn’t have to make a disclaimer every time we want to criticize Israel

In the United States, it is incumbent upon us to make sure to specify that we do not support Hamas somewhere in any essay in which we might be even a little bit critical of Israel. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Eugene Robinson satisfied this requirement in the third paragraph of his piece, Losing the High Ground. He said, “I support Israel. I abhor Hamas. But unleashing such devastating firepower on a tiny, densely crowded enclave in which civilians are trapped—and thus destined to become casualties—is wrong by any reasonable moral standard.” If targeting civilians is wrong by any reasonable more standard, why did it have to be qualified by saying “I support Israel…?” And if that which is wrong by any reasonable moral standard is not enough to get you to at least question your support, why should Israel give a damn about what you think of its targeting practices?

This, however, is the norm for American discourse on Israel and Palestine. Any statement that does not include a veritable loyalty oath to this foreign government and a retort to its enemies is marked as being anti-Israel (god forbid) or even worse, anti-Semitic. Consequently, nothing of substance can be elaborated about this ongoing conflict. We are condemned to issue our support for Israel despite their criminal behavior. We consigned to show our disdain for Hamas despite it being the democratically elected body in Gaza. In the crosshairs are Palestinians who are suffering at the hands of Israeli policies, and Israeli citizens who become targets of Palestinian retaliation. The interesting thing is that even the Israeli press does not have this standard!

Look, the Israel-Palestine Conflict can only be resolved in two ways. The first way is for one side to wipe out the other. That seems to be the goal for the power establishment on both sides. There’s really nothing anyone can do so long as this is the latent goal of politics in region.

The civilized, rational way to resolve the crisis is for both sides to decide on peace. Before that can happen, they both need to accept some truths that neither side has demonstrated a willingness to embrace. Without apologies to either side, those truths are as follows:

Palestinians (Hamas, Palestinian Authority): You Can’t Right the Wrongs of the Past: You got a shitty deal. Your lands were mandated to Britain, who used them toward their own ends without regard to your sovereignty. Ultimately, you were violently displaced. It sucks. It’s not fair. It’s even a travesty. But it’s done, and there’s really no going back. No amount of martyrdom or rocket attacks is going to make up for the loss, and you are certainly not going to get your traditional lands back any more than will the Sioux, or the Cherokee or the Tatars or any of a myriad of cultures that have been unjustly displaced by more powerful forces. You will most likely have to settle for sovereignty over what lands you have, or some form of cultural pluralism. Regardless, the wrongs of the past must remain in the past. Your indignation might be righteous, but Israel has existed since 1948 and will likely continue to exist. It’s done. Using violence, especially violence against civilians will not right the wrongs of the past and makes it more difficult for those in the international community who would otherwise be sympathetic to embrace your movement. Peaceful resistance and democratic movements are the way you need to go.

Israelis (Israeli political establishment, especially the conservatives): You are the Beneficiaries of Injustice: It sucks, but it’s true. Your nation was founded on the displacement of the indigenous people. Perhaps you have a two thousand year old claim, but who gives a shit. There were people already living on this land before your grandparents arrived. Now most Israelis had nothing to do with this, but as the beneficiaries of this injustice it is incumbent upon you to right it. If there’s going to be a two state solution, then the sovereignty of both states must be sacrosanct. You can’t blockade a region just because you don’t like the election results. You cannot bring settlers into lands that don’t belong to you just because you need elbow room. You can’t build a wall between people and their farms, fields, jobs and water sources and call it “security.” Most importantly, when there is a conflict between your nation and the other, you can’t respond by crushing them with tanks and missiles, especially when you target, and you did target, civilian centers. When three Israeli boys were killed outside of Gaza you responded by firing missiles into the territory. What are the chances that those missiles hit the boys’ actual killers? That’s what diplomacy is for.

Look, I know that when it comes to being a beneficiary of injustice, as an American, I have no room to point my finger. But someone has to say it without apologizing for saying it. My own country I have to say, stay the hell out of it. You can’t arrange peace when you are funding the military establishment of Israel. Your diplomatic efforts would be better served in more fruitful endeavors. Peace cannot be secured in the Israel-Palestine through US diplomatic efforts. The political establishment there is dedicated to destruction, not diplomacy. That does not mean we should profit from this. Our undying alliance with Israel is likely a key reason why its government feels free to pursue such harsh, disproportionate policies. Stop feeding the beast. No more military assistance for either side. Align the international community behind letting these groups figure out their own problems.

Most importantly, the political establishment of both sides rests on its hatred for the other. This has to end. The people of Israel and Palestine will have to choose their representatives based on their willingness to accept the truths elaborated above. Until that time, there is nothing anyone can do but shake our heads and the generations long stupidity of your conflict. Many more will die. Many more will suffer. This death and suffering will instigate further retaliation, which will only lead to more death and suffering, leading to more retaliation. Only you can end this senseless cycle.

As a writer, however, I’m not obliged to support either side of this macabre idiocy. Not being obliged to swear my fealty to Israel or my disdain for Hamas, or vice versa. Not getting caught in the rhetorical traditions requisite to legitimate commentary on this issue I’m free to say, a pox on both of your houses.

The Push and Pull Factors of an American Refugee Crisis

The United States has to be willing to take responsibility for the harm that it has done to these children!

The appalling behavior of many Americans in the face of our current refugee crisis betrays a profound ignorance of our role in creating the very conditions from which children are desperate to escape, as well as a shameful and disgusting lack of empathy and humanity. Perhaps ignorance is the progenitor of this lack of empathy. Hopefully the inhuman, hateful rapture that so many of our American neighbors have revealed to the world is not an innate failing on our part. If so, then we must address this ignorance. It’s important to develop a sense of social and historical perspective, because apparently, the fact that so many of these refugees are children simply does not matter to the heartless and camera ready elements of our society.

As is true for any problem, the first order of business is to correctly define its nature. First and foremost we must refer to these children for what they are—refugees. This is not a bureaucratic bungle of illegal immigrants for which we are not prepared. These are people trying to escape political and economic tyranny. They are running for their lives. According to Human Rights Watch, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the point of origin for many of these children, are failed states. Citizens in these countries face inhuman levels of violence, exploitation, poverty and desperation. Between the gangs and drug cartels and the oppressive, corrupt governments, and crushing poverty these three nations are among the world’s most violent, most impoverished and least viable.

So what does this have to do with us? As many of my friends on the right say, “it is not our responsibility to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves. If they want a decent country to live in, they should make one for themselves.” Of course, implicit in these statements is, “we don’t want their kind in our country messing things up for us.” Regardless, the history of these societies is clear to anyone willing to look. Most of the problems facing Central Americans are our doing. The United States has a long history of interfering with the development of our weaker neighbors. Yet, for the most part, Americans are oblivious to the historical context.

The mid-nineteenth century is identified by American History textbooks as a period of “Westward Expansion.” For Americans living during this time, however, the goal was not so specific. Americans weren’t interested in merely going west. They wanted to expand…everywhere! Canada? Got to have it! Mexico? Take it all! Cuba? You know it! Even Central America? Oh yeah! Around the time that the US acquisition of half of Mexico infused adrenalin into American notions of Manifest Destiny, the United States was competing with Britain for access to the valuable crossing zones in Nicaragua and the Isthmus of Panama. California Gold made these transit routes from the Atlantic to the Pacific even more valuable, prompting Cornelius Vanderbilt to contract with the Nicaraguan government what became known as the Accessory Transit Company carrying hopeful gold prospectors on their way to being busted in California across a treacherous stretch of winding river and jungle trails. Once on the Pacific Coast, passenger ships would carry them the rest of the way. That’s where the real money was during the gold rush.

The fertile lands closer to the equator were also a temptation to southern plantation owners desperate to expand from their increasingly less productive fields. The famous filibuster William Walker met his tragic fate when he and a mercenary army of American southerners briefly seized control of Nicaragua and legalized slavery. To protect his valuable transit routes, Vanderbilt funded a counter strike resulting in Walker’s execution. Though this epic drama was the last for the Accessory Transit Company, it was not the last corporate sponsored tragedy for Nicaragua. Vanderbilt soon abandoned his routes in exchange for hefty stipends from competing transit companies in Panama, but American companies never lost their lustful eye for Central American resources.

Vanderbilt’s wasn’t the only American footprint in the region. American businesses remained interested in the vast possibilities of Central America. The door to the region was thrust open after the Spanish American War made it clear that the United States was an empire, an empire founded on the principles of global business. In 1899 United Fruit Company started to organize in Guatemala. In 1903, President Roosevelt used a shaky interpretation of the United States’ neutrality agreement on the Isthmus of Panama to acquire the Canal Zone. In 1909 the United States sent troops into Nicaragua, where they remained for most of the next twenty-four years. In 1924, the United States sent troops into Honduras. This period of US military and financial interventions in Central America were part of what is known as the Banana Wars and were initiated solely to protect US business interests. US corporations thrived on weak, corrupt governments installed by the US military. In 1935, General Smedley Butler, the most decorated soldier in US history up to that time, described his real mission in the invaluable book War is a Racket:

I spent 33 years and four months in active military service and during that period I spent most of my time as a high class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the International Banking House of Brown Brothers in 1902-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for the American fruit companies in 1903.

US interventions in Central American affairs stepped up to a new level during the Cold War. Anything that smacked of socialism, by which was meant attempts to empower the poor, would not be allowed in the Western Hemisphere. In 1954, when Guatemalan President Jacabo Arbenz Guzman dared attempt to redistribute unused, foreign owned lands to Guatemalans he raised the ire of those foreign owners. Namely, his rather reasonable policies infuriated the United Fruit Company. Turns out that one of United Fruit’s board members, Allan Dulles, was also the director of the CIA. His brother, John Foster, was the US Secretary of State. Bad news for Arbenz. He was overthrown by a CIA sponsored coup. Imagine that!

When the US military pulled out of Nicaragua in 1933 as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s so-called “Good Neighbor” Policy, this Central American country came under the rule Anastasio Somoza Garcia. Like a good neighbor, the United States supported Somoza as he executed the popular Augusto Sandino and consolidated his brutal power while allowing US corporations to strip Nicaragua’s resources. When the left wing Sandinista movement overthrew the Somoza Dynasty over forty years later the United States continued to support the right wing Contras. The Contras were the remnants of Somoza’s criminal National Guard and had taken refuge in Honduras. The Reagan Administration illegally funneled millions of dollars in military aid to the Contras, feeding a lengthy, blood and unnecessary civil war. Because this funding was illegal under the Boland Amendment, the Reagan Administration had to find innovative ways to find and launder the money. Their most famous scheme was selling arms to Iran, a known terrorist state, and then funneling the money to the Contras. Another money making strategy was selling drugs. Colonel Oliver North was not only a leading architect of the Iran-Contra Scandal in the late eighties, but was also one of the world’s foremost drug dealers. His network stretched from Colombia, through Panamanian General Noriega into the back-alleys of Crip and Blood turf in Los Angeles and other American cities. This CIA run drug cartel played a significant role in the crack epidemic that ravaged urban communities in the eighties.

In fact, there wasn’t a right wing, despotic dictator in Central America whom the United States did not like so long as he was dedicated to exterminating left leaning political movements. When it became clear that the Sandinista movement was spreading into El Salvador, President’s Carter and Reagan stepped up military support for the brutal, right wing military Junta. This support included training death squads. Many of the officers in these deaths squads received their training the notorious School of the Americas. The School of the Americas, now the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in Fort Benning, trained counter-insurgents in the most heinous tactics and sent them off to conduct war crimes against civilians in the interests of the United States and its corporations. In El Salvador, graduates of this house of horrors were responsible for the massacre of over 900 people in El Mozote, the assassination of the heroic Archbishop Óscar Romero and four nuns among others, all for the sake of preventing another Sandinista movement such as had come to power in Nicaragua. Among the School of Americas alumni is Otto Pérez Molina, the current president of Guatemala.

A full description of US atrocities in the Central America would much too extensive and macabre for the purposes of this post. There’s a great deal of in depth historical research for those who want to know more. Such does not have to be reproduced here. The point is that Central America does not exist in isolation from US influence, and hasn’t for a very long time. For about a century, American “diplomacy” in that region has been traumatic and socially destabilizing. In fact, it has been criminal; again, that case can be effectively made elsewhere. This history is an effective retort to conservative whining about taking responsible for refugees when their condition is not our fault. Indeed, by any measure of fairness, the plight of these children is our fault.

Nor is it a valid claim that we are not responsible for the trespasses of our forebears. Unfortunately, the military and economic exploitation continues. Corporate dominance remains the underlying factor in US bullying and butchery. This time, instead of the communist scapegoat, we justify massive corporate militarization under the premise of a war on drugs. Scratch the surface just a little bit and the corporate influence is clear. As with the influence of Cornelius Vanderbilt in the nineteenth century and United Fruit in the mid twentieth, corporate theft of the region’s resources continues.

In the early eighties, President Reagan announced a program called the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI). The CBI was set up to provide financial aid and favorable trade status to those nations on the Caribbean that initiated free market reforms and resisted “communist” elements within their borders. Communist elements were, by definition, social programs and movements to benefit the poor including, but not limited to, labor unions.

The success of CBI, which means the increase of corporate access and profits, and the example of NAFTA as a boon to multinationals, has inspired an expansion of so-called “free market” reforms in Central America called CAFTA. Again, attention must be paid to the discourse. Free markets are those in which corporations are free, but not people. For one example, subsidized US agricultural products are dumped freely into Central American, which is not allowed to subsidize its own agriculture because that would be a violation of free market principles. Small farmers in Central America are thus driven from their land, forced to sell, often at gun point, to US agro-businesses. These lands are then dedicated to mono-cultural crops that fetch high profits on the global market without regard to the needs of starving people right next door. The fastest growing agricultural market in most Central American countries is Palm Oil. Meanwhile, the cost of food rises.

Displaced farmers must then migrate into the open arms of other corporate actors, most notably in the garment industry. The consequent glut of poor, desperate labor, in the face of state sanctioned violence against labor unions, means corporations have access to a virtual slave market. “According to an AFL-CIO report in 2008 that investigated maquiladoras in Guatemala, there is widespread sexual violence against women workers, common use of child labor, various forms of anti-union intimidation and violence, blacklists and mass firings, and a general failure to comply with basic labor codes established by the International Labor Organization. Other organizations have pointed to similar trends in maquildoras in other participating Central American nations.”

According to Global Exchange a garment worker, usually a young woman enduring unsafe conditions and every form of exploitation, earns about sixty cents an hour making NBA jerseys. That amounts to about twenty-five cents per jersey. Sixty cents an hour places her income at about thirty percent of the poverty line. NBA jerseys can sell in the US for as much as $140. In the meantime, any effort to alleviate poverty through social means is a violation of global banking and trade agreements. The argument that this is about market forces is bogus. A wage that would lift these workers out of poverty would add no more than $1.50 to the cost of each shirt. Would someone be less inclined to purchase a $140 jersey if the price went up to $141.50? This is about power and exploitation.

The global corporate structure existing in Central America can only be described as economic warfare. That in itself should constitute a valid push factor justifying refugee status for the thousands of children crossing the border. However, this economic warfare exists in conjunction with very real warfare. In the US, we call this the War on Drugs. Central Americans, understand it for what it is—an extension of the economic warfare and corporate imperialism that it is.

Americans are simply unwilling to “say no to drugs” and constitute almost two thirds of the global drug trade. Regardless, American policy, ostensibly to curb the availability of drugs, is military interdiction. Military solutions are the policy of choice in the United States largely because of the size and influence of our military industrial complex. Death and destruction is good business. For instance, the $1.3 billion spent by the Pentagon to provide only electronic equipment to US soldiers in Honduras was more than seven times the Honduran military budget. Now this might prove an economic benefit to Central America if over three quarters of that money wasn’t actually going to American owned firms.

It also helps that the war on drugs is an effective pretext for attacking those who were previously defined as “communist.” In other words, the war on drugs is the excuse for assassinating advocates for labor, land and social reform. In 2010, President Obama created the Central America Regional Security Initiative, perpetuating the war on drugs with money, equipment and training. Unfortunately, most of the police being trained and supplied actually work for the cartels. Indeed, one is left to wonder just how many of those involved in the Central American drug cartels are erstwhile buddies of Oliver North. Meanwhile, corporations often hire their own private armies to defend and serve their interests and investments. Ultimately, the combined forces of corrupt police, US trained military and private security forces are directed at activists and farmers and often collude with the drug cartels for the sake of multi-national business interests.

“Corporations employ large private-security forces that work in close collaboration with the military and the police. In Guatemala’s Polochic Valley, Mayan communities report that the Chabil Utzaj sugarcane corporation—owned by the Pellas Development Group of Nicaragua—enlists armed gangs linked to drug trafficking to attack them. These are the same armed groups that threatened and assaulted communities in the 1980s, also over land rights disputes; this represents the resurgence of the business- and government-backed death squads of the 1980s, which killed and disappeared thousands.”

The “free market” imposed on Central America for the last hundred years has crippled farmers and workers. Citizens destroyed by the legitimate market are understandably and ironically drawn to the illicit market, working for the cartels as the only chance for an economic stake. What difference does it make to the displaced farmer or the victim of the maquila? He was already the target of a corrupt state. Perhaps the growing power of the cartels can provide some security.

This perfect storm of variables, a militarized interdiction against drugs for which demand remains constant, results in increased value for this illicit commodity. As any economist will point out, increased value justifies increased investment and increased risk, bringing greater profits and encouraging more aggressive, violent practices among the competing cartels. It also brings many and varied opportunities to the corporate class. After all, where there’s money, there’s an investment opportunity. The war on drugs has created in Central America a very real war zone. What’s worse is that this is a war zone in which the civilian population isn’t just collateral damage, but often the target in a US/corporate agenda. Every war creates refugees. This multifaceted, multi-layered, impossibly complex economic war is no exception.

When desperate children risk their lives to cross a ridiculously militarized border, they should be embraced by any civilized people on the other side of that line. When those on the other side of that line are in fact the cause and benefactors of their desperation the responsibility to do right by them is nothing short of a moral imperative. Ignorance of the US role in Central American instability is a normal aspect of US culture. This ignorance, however, does not justify the moral failings of willfully turning our backs on children, let alone heaping abuse and insult upon them as they are transported through town. We should be ashamed of our ignorance, yes. We should be ashamed of the crimes being perpetrated in our name, of course. However, the shame that is our historical legacy should we deny universally understood empathy and charity toward children in pain is a disgrace beyond humanity. Such a sour legacy should consign our culture to historical ignominy.

One Political Endorsement I Will Make

Gil Fulbright (or Phillip Mamouf-Wifarts) is running the only honest campaign I’ve ever seen!

This is actually pretty brilliant satire. The campaign finance advocacy group, is running a fake candidate in the obnoxiously expensive Kentucky senate election. The goal is to educate the people on just how corrupted our political system is and to call attention to the need to get money out of politics. Check out the Fulbright campaign website and participate by creating your own Fulbright memes. Most importantly, share the videos and lend your support to Fulbright’s “totally honest campaign.”

Good luck to

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Because They’re Children!

Americans Should be Ashamed of Our Response to Refugee Children!

My position on this issue could never be clearer or simpler to explain, so this blog post will be among my shortest:

Any nation or culture that feels threatened by, or turns its back on, children does not deserve to exist!

The hate-filled bigotry of these flag waving xenophobes are an embarrassment to our nation and a fecal smear on every value that we stand for!

For some actual information and direction on this very important issue, I recommend the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

The Rejection of Science in the Age of Science

Americans are rejecting science, and putting themselves…and everyone else…in peril


Every semester I lead my Introduction to Sociology students through the following scenario:

Uncle Phil is sitting at home watching television, a wonder of technological advancement, and eating a microwave meal. Suddenly, he feels a sharp pain in his chest that travels down his left arm. Uncle Phil remembers watching a medical show one time that taught him how to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack. He quickly formulates the hypothesis that he is, in fact, having a heart attack, and runs over to his computer so he can Google the symptoms. Sure enough, the most likely cause of his symptoms is a heart attack. If nothing else, it’s better safe than sorry. Phil remembers reading an article in the science section of his newspaper that taking aspirin might help him. He takes an aspirin while he dials 911 on his cell phone. The technological marvel transmits his signal to the nearest tower and almost immediately puts him in touch with responders, who use similar computer technology to alert the EMS. Trained paramedics, using GPS services, arrive at Phil’s house shortly after he falls unconscious. They rush into the house and use the most sophisticated technologies and scientifically proven techniques to stabilize Uncle Phil’s condition and get him to the hospital. At the hospital, Uncle Phil is subjected to even more sophisticated scientific gadgets and scientifically trained professionals. They rush him into the ER.

Uncle Phil’s family is contacted and they rush to the hospital. When the scientifically trained doctor enters into the waiting room and assures them that Uncle Phil survived and is going to be just fine. As long as he takes his scientifically designed medication and follows a scientifically proven diet and exercise regimen he should make a full recovery.

What’s the first thing Phil’s family says?

The answer is, of course, “Thank God!”

Even if one is not inclined to rule out the role of divine intervention, shouldn’t science at least get second billing or an honorable mention?

Here in the United States we face a unique relationship with science and technology. In one sense, we take for granted and, to a certain extent consider mundane, the incredible technological advances of the last thirty years. At the same time, we are enthralled and awed by the changes that may take place in the next thirty. Culturally, however, Americans have a peculiar love/hate relationship with science. We love the idea of a scientifically sophisticated society, but when that science bangs up against our cherished beliefs, then too often science is rejected.

Part of this phenomenon, I think, has to do with the nature of belief in the United States, and the misapplication of “theory” as a synonym. Often in discussions with Global Warming deniers the argument breaks into a diatribe of how my own “belief” in Global Warming does not supersede beliefs in denial. The same holds true with the hundred and fifty year old debate on evolution. Many people in the United States equate the concepts of “belief” and “theory.” They are lacking a basic understanding of what a theory is, and thus, they are unqualified to make judgments about scientific matters. And people are dying as a result. Nothing less than the future of civilization hangs in the balance of educating Americans about the nature of science.

When confronted with a claim about my “belief” in Global Warming or Evolution or what have you, I try to clarify a distinction. I do not belief in Global Warming, or in Evolution, or in Gravity or Germ Theory for that matter. I accept the validity of these theories because they have been tested and have demonstrated utility and reliability. In other words, they satisfy the requirements of a valid theory. In the event that another theory comes along that demonstrates greater validity and reliability, I will not hesitate to embrace it. That is a key difference between belief and theory.

I teach my college students that a theory must possess two key characteristics. First, it must explain the phenomenon to which it is attributed. Evolution through sexual selection, for instance, effectively explains the process of speciation. In this matter, it is important to understand that a theory can only explain the phenomenon to which it is attributed and should not be held to account for failing to explain other related phenomena. Darwinian Evolution, for instance, does not explain the origin of life itself. That is the domain of other theories. Nor should the useful debate of the nuances inherent in theory necessarily constitute a weakness. A good example of this is the debate between steadu state and punctuated equilibrium schools of evolutionary thought. That there is a debate on the nuances of evolution does not mean that there is a debate about the validity of Darwinian Evolution itself.

Secondly, theories must be useful in formulating testable hypotheses and consistently predicting the outcomes of research or experimentation based on these hypotheses. A counter-example that I offer is Intelligent Design “Theory.” What hypotheses can be formed? What outcomes can be predicted based on Intelligent Design? Without knowing the whims of the Intelligent Designer the concept has no scientific utility. It is not a theory and should not be given equal time as a theory in science classrooms.

Therein is the central misunderstanding. Americans have an almost postmodern understanding that belief in religion, or belief in capitalism, or belief in patriotism is of the equivalent quality as a “belief” in science. That science is a discipline of proof is irrelevant. Acknowledging the validity of Global Warming is qualitatively the same as the belief of Denialism. Accepting the truth of the evolution of species is just as much a matter of faith as is the belief in the Biblical account of Genesis. This false equivalence is embraced and fed by the equal time movement claiming that students should have equal exposure to theory and faith in the classroom.

One of the things we know about the contest between belief and evidence is that when one’s belief is contradicted by a preponderance of the evidence, our human tendency is to deny the evidence. We will find or invent reasons that reinforce our pre-conceived notions. It’s almost as if our beliefs are addictive. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the first coordinated attacks against science, unrelated to religion, was the PR strategy to defend the tobacco industry. Perhaps there is a reason why Marx’s claim that religion is the opiate of the people is among his most famous quotes.

With what I call the Tobacco PR Wars as precedent, companies hire firms that specialize in seeding enough doubt and enough false evidence to allow those steeped in their beliefs to enhance their confirmation bias. Yes, I smoke two packs a day, but the lady down the road used to smoke three packs a day and she lived to be ninety-two years old. These professional cons use the nuances of science and play against the probabilities and uncertainties of all research models and experiments to make their case. They hold up the natural limitations of all theoretical explanations as proof that the target theory is clearly false. Hey, the northeast has experienced some cold springs, so Global Warming is a lie. Scientists used computer generated numbers in their models. They are clearly fudging the data to make themselves look right. Those who want to continue smoking, or refuse to invest tax money into alternative energy, or love their SUVs, or feel that their religious beliefs are under attack, grasp this “evidence” to confirm that they are right after all. Those stuck up scientists don’t know what they are talking about—until Uncle Phil has a heart attack.

This is despite scientists’ track record. In the seventies scientists warned that the rain falling from the sky was contaminated with sulfuric acid. They recommended restrictions on sulfur emissions. Such policies were put into place and the acid rain problem went away. In the eighties scientists theorized that CFCs were causing life threatening ozone depletion at the poles. CFCs were restricted and the ozone holes have started to close. But they simply must be wrong about global warming because it snowed somewhere in April.

The consequences of this ignorance aren’t just inconvenient. They are deadly. The anti-vaccine movement is case in point. Most parents take want to protect their children. When they hear horror stories about children experiencing all kinds of problems and are told that vaccines are the cause, parents must choose between the scientist and the natural repugnance of watching a needle enter their child’s arm with a toxin that may hurt them. Parents who are convinced that those scientists don’t know what they are talking about, that it’s a conspiracy to make money on the vaccines feel justified in denying their children vaccines shots. This is especially true of parents who are part of social movements that emphasize so called “natural” healing as a central belief. Consequently, preventable diseases like Whooping Cough (Pertussis) are making a comeback. But why not? After all, my belief in the dangers of vaccines is no less valid than your belief in science.

When it comes to global warming, the consequences of ignorance is nothing short of catastrophic. The bottom line is that civilization itself hangs in the balance. That’s a little much to handle. Most of us would love to believe that our world is perpetual and that our grandchildren will inherit the same opportunities that have always existed. This is a central belief system in the United States. It plays into our faith in the American dream, our belief in capitalism as the best means of economic and cultural advancement, and our belief that God is watching over us and will take care of us so long as we are faithful. Human Caused Global Warming is a challenge to all of these belief systems. Not to mention, the means by which we must deal with this problem are far more daunting and invasive than putting up with CFC free hair spray. It’s much easier and more comforting to believe that the scientists are wrong. They must be!

And let’s not let the scientists themselves off the hook. There are examples of scientists selling their souls to profit. We look at examples of over-medication, genetically modifying food for the patent protections or to withstand greater quantities of pesticide. The science system, in the US especially, is one in which even well intentioned scientists have to play to the market to get their research funded. Many scientists will draw huge salaries to work for pharmaceutical and oil companies. It was scientists who designed cigarettes that allow for greater absorption, and consequently, increased addictiveness, of the product. Famed nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi referred to the development of the atomic bomb as “superb physics.”

In the case of vaccines, scientists haven’t been very clear in communicating that there is risk associated with this product. Just as some people are allergic to penicillin, others will react poorly to vaccines. To my knowledge, there isn’t a significant “anti-penicillin” movement. Perhaps for good reasons, scientists have downplayed the few risks of vaccines because they are far outweighed by the benefits. But then the papers report on a child who became sick after getting his vaccination. Why are the scientists being so secretive? Doubt is sowed, and that becomes the fuel for ridiculous movements such as the Anti-Vaxxers. That’s all it takes.

Science simply must find ways to educate the public on scientific process, not just science trivia. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos is incredible, but how have scientists made these fascinating discoveries? Why should we trust that what Professor Tyson says is true? What are the checks that exist in the scientific enterprise that ensures the best possible explanations? What happens when scientists like Einstein are wrong, or when new theories are developed to explain the cosmos? Why should we care about evolutionary theory? What is the truth about vaccines? What is the role of probability in scientific understanding, and why is this not a weakness that challenges the validity of theory? The discoveries of science are fascinating. Most Americans are aware of these discoveries…they just don’t necessarily trust them. We need to know why we should. We also need to be educated in the fine balance between healthy skepticism and destructive cynicism.

After all, scientists cannot afford, nor should they be expected to pay for, their own PR movement. There’s only so much that Bill Nye the Science Guy can do. Those of us who love science and believe in the value of science for the endeavor of human progress must provide, for free, that education and PR. We are against the greatest systematized effort of public doubt in human history. Billions of dollars have been invested into keeping us ignorant. There is no counter other than knowledge.

The Die is Cast in Iraq

US Military Assistance Will Not Work


Just a quick word on Iraq.

The situation in Iraq may be ugly, but it’s a fairly easy mess to understand sociologically.

Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire shortly after World War I, the cards have always been stacked against Iraqi stability. Iraq could be understood as a national boundary drawn around very disparate cultural elements, most notably Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurd, but also smaller elements. The power imbalance between this big three, however, is the most pressing. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Iraq was a monarchy under the imperialist thumb of Britain and American oil companies. When the monarchy was overthrown by Abdel-Karim Qasim (Kassem), a Nasser inspired Iraqi nationalist, the United States and Britain became nervous of his soviet style leanings. The CIA supported the Ba’athists, an Arab version of the fascists of Europe. True, they may have been brutal authoritarians, but they were anti-communist brutal authoritarians, and in the Cold War west, that’s all that mattered. From the Ba’athist Party rose one Saddam Hussein.

Hussein, a Baathist CIA “asset” took power in 1979, the same year as the Iranian Revolution. The next year, fearing Iranian influence among the Shi’ite majority in Iraq, Hussein invaded Iran and suppressed Iraqi Shi’ites. When it appeared he would lose the war, the United States, under the still classified NSDD 114 (National Security Decision Directive) vouched any “necessary and legal” support for Iraq’s war effort. The Reagan Administration emphasized the “necessary” more than the “legal.” The US provided intelligence, money and weapons, including weapons grade anthrax, to Hussein. With US help, Saddam held the disparate groups in Iraq together with an iron fist.

In 1991, having been told by US Ambassador April Glaspie that the US had “no opinion on your Arab – Arab conflicts,” Hussein over-reached and invaded Kuwait. Clearly, Glaspie was mistaken. The United States responded with its full military potential, quickly and brutally driving the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. Yet American officials remained unwilling to unseat their wayward dictator. When Kurds and Shi’ites responded to the 1991 Persian Gulf War by rising up against a humiliated and defeated Saddam, the first Bush Administration did nothing while Hussein slaughtered his opposition.

Similarly, ten years of inhuman sanctions imposed by the West after the war only served to reinforce Hussein’s position and spread misery throughout the country. Saddam Hussein consolidated resources for himself and his allies while perpetuating his power by shaking his fist, albeit in futility, at the United States.

Consequently, the violent Hussein dictatorship was the only source of stability in Iraq for over a generation by the time the United States invaded the country on false pretenses in 2003. When Hussein was overthrown and ultimately hanged, this left a huge power vacuum in a nation with three armed and organized power factions. The ensuing civil war was easy to predict. The only people to express surprise were the very architects of the war. Whether these officials were delusional or cynical is subject to debate. Perhaps a combination of both.

Regardless, the United States tried to fill this vacuum by installing a friendly “republican” government. Most Iraqi’s, however, disapproved of this new government, seeing it as nothing more than a puppet for the US government. They believed this because the Maliki government was, in fact, a US puppet. The status of the Maliki government cannot be improved by the US sending “military advisors” to Iraq. This can only reinforce the certainty that the US continues to pull the strings in Baghdad. Of course, the Iraqi people will not be wrong in this assumption; the advisors are there to secure the strings on this oil rich marionette—with or without Maliki.

So an assessment of Iraq’s problems is pretty clear. First, the biggest factor responsible for instability in Iraq is the recent history of US involvement. Iraq is our fault. Period. That’s something for which all Americans must accept a deep sense of shame. Secondly, had it not been for western interference in their historical development, the Iraqi people would have resolved this conflict almost a hundred years ago. Perhaps they would have created a coalition or federation government that offered proportionate representation. Perhaps they would have formed a secular, constitutional monarchy. Perhaps they would have decided that splitting the nation into three independent, cultural entities was the best course of action. Perhaps there would have been instability and violence the likes of which we are seeing now. Regardless, had Iraq been left to its own designs, its national identity would be secured by now.

The real problem is that for a hundred years, if not longer, the people living in Iraq have had little say in how they are governed or in the very structure of their nation. The existing power elements in the Fertile Crescent have never been allowed to hammer out their differences and decide upon the direction that best suited them. Iraq has always been a pawn for larger powers, from the Ottomans to the Americans, without reprieve.

Now they are taking on the challenge of building a national identity, or identities as the case may be. This they must be allowed to do without further interference. The international community should be prepared to help Iraq find a peaceful settlement to these volatile conflicts, but US interference in support of a favored government and the use of “military advisors” to help crush an undesirable uprising is not the answer. Only an environment that cultivates diplomacy and negotiation can bring stability to Iraq. Ultimately, only the Iraqi people can build a functional society.


Solar Freakin’ Roadways!

All That’s Needed is the Political Will to Make it Happen!

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