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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Take Away Trump’s Legitimacy

The Daily Escape:

Wildflowers at St. Marys Lake, Glacier NP – July 2019 photo by zjpurdy

Wrongo arises from his sick bed to discuss Trump’s war on the four Democratic Congresswomen. Saying “America, love it or leave it”, or, “Go back where you came from” are almost as old as the country itself.

Love it or leave it” was a popular bumper sticker during the late 1960s. It was aimed at the anti-Vietnam War protesters who claimed that America was wrong to be fighting in Vietnam. The slogan possessed an internal logic. If you really hate where you are, why don’t you go someplace else?

The reality is that wanting policy change isn’t the equivalent of hating your country. Nixon and his supporters said that the (largely) student protesters believed that America itself was evil. That justified the slogan for the right, and we saw it everywhere.

Fighting for policy change today is perfectly acceptable. It says nothing about your love of country. Despite Trump’s shouting, dissent in no way equals hate of country.

By using “Go back where you came from”, Trump is tapping into one of the old reliable political tools, the fear and vilification of immigrants and their descendants. He’s using deeply entrenched roots in American history: Why don’t you just go back where you came from?

Or, as Trump’s North Carolina crowd said, “Send her back”. Send her back doesn’t just apply to Rep. Ilhan Omar. It means your black neighbors, the Guatemalan family at church, and the Hmong kids your son plays soccer with. It means your Indian co-workers; it means the Chinese couple in the park.

But it doesn’t include any of the roughly 580,000 illegal migrants from Europe.

From the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 to “No Irish Need Apply” signs in the 1830s, to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, America has loved to hate immigrants. They were not only seen as competing for jobs, but as threatening the social, cultural and political order. Even in the 1830s people thought that they were taking jobs that should belong to Americans, and that they clung to their native language and refused to assimilate.

Sound familiar?

And once we stopped allowing Chinese immigrants, some of the jobs denied to the Chinese were subsequently filled by Mexicans. They were also viewed as different, clannish and hard to assimilate.

It’s good to remember that the US government has rules against saying to its workers “go back where you came from”. Here’s a quote from the Equal Opportunity Commission’s regulations:

“Examples of potentially unlawful conduct include insults, taunting, or ethnic epithets, such as making fun of a person’s foreign accent or comments like, ‘Go back to where you came from,’ whether made by supervisors or by co-workers…”

Isn’t Trump a government supervisor? Sure, but these rules don’t apply in Republican administrations. Robert Kagan in the WaPo:

“Trump has given us a binary choice: Either stand with American principles, which in this case means standing in defense of the Squad, or equivocate, which means standing with Trump and white nationalism. It doesn’t matter how you feel about Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). The truth is, they have done nothing and said nothing about the United States or about an ally (in this case, Israel) that has not been done or said thousands of times.”

Now, he’s going up against the entire Democratic Party. They’re quoting him directly. And the pit bulls at Fox News are saying that calling him out is grossly unfair.

It’s time for Democrats to stop debating Trump about whether he’s a racist. They simply need to keep saying it. Every day. Until November 2020. Along the way, which ever Democrat is nominated should say they have no intention of debating the liar and racist Trump. He doesn’t deserve the dignity and respect that the debate forum implies.

Instead, the Democratic nominee should buy time on all networks including Fox, and on all social media outlets in 5, to not-longer-than 10 minute pieces. In each, they can point out what Trump said he would do, and what actually happened.

Think how it might work for domestic policy: Trump gutted Obamacare with no plan for helping the people who lost insurance. His tax cuts helped corporations and the 1%, while doing nearly nothing for the rest of us. His tax cuts also blew a hole in our budget. He’s weakened our education department, and our environmental regulations.

The candidate would then present the solutions. Clearly, without the need for any ninety second rebuttals by the liar and racist Trump. The GOP will say we’re not following the rules, but Trump never follows “rules” of presidential behavior, why should Democrats?

He’s already proven that he will say anything (and possibly do anything) to get elected.

Stop legitimizing him.

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – June 30, 2019

While most of the media was blathering about the Democratic debate dog-and-pony-shows, the story of the week was the Gerrymandering decision that the Supreme Court announced on Thursday. Its decision in Rucho v. Common Cause says that the federal courts have no business policing partisan gerrymanders. That issue is for states to handle.

Chief Justice John Roberts:

“Our conclusion does not condone excessive partisan gerrymandering. Nor does our conclusion condemn complaints about districting to echo into a void….The States, for example, are actively addressing the issue on a number of fronts.”

The Conservative justices are saying that citizens have no recourse to the federal courts to solve what has become a major weakness in our democracy.

Roberts is now three-for-three, with Citizens United opening the floodgates to unlimited corporate money funding candidates. Then, with Shelby County vs. Holder, he eviscerated part of the Fourteenth Amendment and defanged the Voting Rights Act. And now, in Rucho v. Common Cause, he delegates to state legislative majorities that were enabled by the first two rulings, the ability to perpetualize (? probably not a word) their party’s time in office by drawing unrepresentative district maps with no recourse to judicial appeal.

Justice Elena Kagan dissented:

“For the first time ever, this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks the task beyond judicial capabilities. And not just any constitutional violation. The partisan gerrymanders in these cases deprived citizens of the most fundamental of their constitutional rights….Of all times to abandon the Court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one. The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the Court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections….”

Wrongo’s shorter John Roberts:

“The federal government can’t do anything about your state stripping you of representation. You have to go back to the people who stripped you of representation and ask them.”

This has enabled a charade of a democracy to replace the one that we thought we had. Chief Justice Roberts’s legacy will be the death of democracy. All of today’s cartoons will concern gerrymandering.

The domestic violence will continue:

The Roberts decision simplified:

Elections have consequences:

 

Supremes sit idly by while America burns:

 

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Saturday Soother – War With Iran Edition, June 22, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Na Pali Coast, Kauai HI – 2019 photo by Santahickey

It’s tough to wake up on a Friday morning and find out that during the previous night, America almost started a war. On Thursday night, Trump allegedly pulled back from a military strike he had earlier authorized against Iran.

The New York Times wrote: “Trump Approves Strikes on Iran, but Then Abruptly Pulls Back”. The NYT says that Trump’s hawks, Bolton, Pompeo, and CIA Director Gina Haspel, had argued for the strike, while the Pentagon was said to have been against it. The NYT report includes this paragraph: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Asked about the plans for a strike and the decision to hold back, the White House declined to comment, as did Pentagon officials. No government officials asked The New York Times to withhold the article.”

It’s curious. If Trump was serious about attacking Iran, what purpose was served by the WH giving this story to the NYT? Not everyone bought the claim that a planned attack was called back. Jeffrey Lewis, a scholar on international conflicts, tweeted:

Jeffrey Lewis @ArmsControlWonk – 3:43 UTC – 21 Jun 2019

I don’t buy this. Trump’s team is trying to have it both ways — acting restrained but talking tough. This is pretty much what Nixon did in 1969, too. Why not just admit that sometimes restraint is smart?

He goes on to link to the 1969 NYT piece referenced above:

The @nytimes ran the same story Nixon in 1969. Nixon was not going to retaliate but he wanted people to think he almost did — and the Gray Lady obliged. —> Aides Say Nixon Weighed Swift Korea Reprisal

On May 6th 1969, the Times carried a story that Nixon decided not to escalate when the NoKo’s shot down a US Navy plane. So, this current storyline of “a strike was ordered, but Trump held back and saved the day” might also have been coordinated by the WH and the NYT.

If the threat of another Middle East war wasn’t bad enough, a new IMF study shows that US $5.2 trillion was spent globally on fossil fuel subsidies in 2017. The latest available country breakdown is for 2015. In that year, the US was the third-largest subsidizer of the fossil fuel industry, providing $649 billion in subsidies. China and Russia ranked first and second, respectively.

You should be outraged that the $649 billion we spent in 2015 is more than 10 times the 2015 federal spending for education. America has to change its priorities. The true costs to America of using fossil fuels has to include these subsidies.

These two stories about fossil fuels show our government’s fealty to the oil industry.

The average person didn’t notice that on the day the American drone was shot down in the Straits of Hormuz, the price of oil jumped 10%. Trump surely was told this, and the risk of higher oil prices caused by his risky foreign policy may have reduced his desire to strike at Iran.

For whatever reason, we’ve finally seen a prudent move by Trump. It’s a face saving gesture: he appears both tough and reasonable simultaneously. Also, it is encouraging that he used the concept of proportionality, saying that the planned strike would have been too harsh a retaliation for losing one drone.

We can expect his neo-con advisors and the FOX fringe to try to undercut his decision. Maybe then he’ll understand it’s time to clean house.

So, on this Saturday, it may be difficult to get soothed, but let’s try our best. Wrongo and Ms. Right are on Cape Cod with daughter Kelly, where rain is dominating the weather. In honor of being here, today we’ll brew up a large cup of Wellfleet’s Beanstock Coffee Roasters’s old reliable Wellfleet Blend ($11.99/12oz.).

Now, settle back and listen to “The Hebrides”, Op. 26 “Fingal’s Cave” by Felix Mendelssohn. It is played by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Orchestra, conducted by Scott Sandmeier.

Mendelssohn actually visited the west coast of Scotland in 1829. It was part of Mendelssohn’s three-year Grand Tour, a common excursion taken by young men of wealthy families as a part of gaining cultural literacy. Here is “The Hebrides”:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Saturday Soother – June 15, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Emerald Lake, Yoho NP British Columbia – photo by newenglandmtbr

The basketball season ended on Thursday night, but the DNC gave us a new made-for-TV sport, the two-day Democratic presidential primary debates. If you are thinking Wrongo shouldn’t be using sports analogies for something of consequence, consider that the NYT called them “match ups” in their announcement. A sporting contest is how the media sees the Democratic primary race.

The fact that the future of the country rides on how these “match-ups” play out in November 2020 doesn’t seem to faze the media. Here is the line-up for June 26th:

Booker Inslee
Castro Klobuchar
De Blasio O’Rourke
Delaney Ryan
Gabbard Warren

It appears that Warren is the star of Wednesday night. She’ll try to knock off Booker, and audition O’Rourke for VP. FWIW, O’Rourke has the ability to knock off Warren, but he’s nowhere near as experienced. The rest will audition for VP.

This isn’t a debate. It’s a two-hour effort by each candidate to break through into the consciousness of viewers and the media. That 120 minute time slot will be reduced by at least 20 minutes of commercials. Ten candidates will then split 100 minutes, or about 10 minutes each, unless someone is a hog. A few of these candidates have a very hard time putting complex ideas into short sentences, so the role  of the moderators will be crucial.

Here’s the Thursday, June 27th line-up:

Biden Hickenlooper
Bennet Sanders
Buttigieg Swalwell
Gillibrand Williamson
Harris Yang

On Night Two, it seems certain that Sanders and Harris will try to poke Biden, another person who has difficulty with short sentences. Buttigieg will be trying to break through. Gillibrand looks to be auditioning for VP. Who is Swalwell?

We’ll get through this June circus, and then see another at the end of July. But for the third round in September, the qualifying thresholds jump significantly:

“The DNC’s outline for its September debate — the third of at least a dozen promised matchups during the 2020 nominating fight — decrees that candidates can participate only by reaching 2% in four approved polls released between June 28 and Aug. 28 while also collecting contributions from a minimum of 130,000 unique donors before Aug. 28. That donor list must include a minimum of 400 individuals in at least 20 states.”

That could cull half or more of the herd. Given today’s polling averages at Real Clear Politics, that could leave: Biden, Bernie, Elizabeth Warren, Mayor Pete, Kamala Harris, and possibly, Beto in the top tier.

It is also possible that one or two other candidates could break through in the initial debates and get their numbers up significantly by September. But, we can count on it being a much smaller stage after Labor Day.

But you’ve had enough for this week!

Iran may have blown up a tanker or two, or it may be a false flag operation. Sarah Sanders leaving the White House confirms that it’s difficult to spend more than two years working for Trump. Trump said he’d cheat again, if a foreign country gave him another chance.

With all of this, it’s time for a Saturday Soother.

Start by brewing up a cup of Rocketeer Blend ($14.00/12 oz.) coffee from Massachusetts’s Atomic Roastery. They say you will taste chocolate, nutty tones and sweet spices.

Now settle back at listen to “Adagietto” (movement 4) from Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, conducted by Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. The Adagietto is the most frequently performed of Mahler’s works. This leads to two stories.

Mahler was in love with Alma Schindler, the woman who became his wife. She was considered the most beautiful woman in Vienna. He didn’t declare his love, but instead, composed this piece and sent it to her without a note. She played the music, and said to Mahler, “Now you should come here.”

Story two: Their marriage struggled, and she had an affair with Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus School of architecture. After Mahler died, Alma married Gropius. During her marriage to Gropius, Alma had an affair with Franz Werfel, an Austrian novelist and playwright. Alma and Werfel were eventually married after Alma separated from Gropius. They fled to the US when the Nazis took over Austria, and settled in Los Angeles. Alma died in 1964.

The Adagietto was chosen for the 1971 film “Death In Venice”. A member of the film crew was impressed with the music, and asked who wrote it. He was told “Gustav Mahler”. The guy replied “Can we hire him”? Mahler died in 1911.

Here is the beautiful Adagietto:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Remembering RFK

The Daily Escape:

Whidbey Island, WA at sunset – 2019 photo by 11mdg11

(This is the last column until Monday, June 10th. Wrongo and Ms. Right are enjoying a few beach days.)

This week shouldn’t be allowed to pass into the books without remembering Robert F. Kennedy. On June 5th, few of us were conscious of that same day 51 years ago, when he was assassinated in Los Angeles, moments after declaring victory in the California Democratic Presidential primary.

On June 5, 1968, Wrongo was running a US Army nuclear missile unit in Germany. We were in the midst of the Vietnam War, and LBJ had announced in March that he wasn’t running for reelection. Sen. Eugene McCarthy, an anti-Vietnam War candidate, had shown surprising strength in the New Hampshire primary, finishing second. Although he was initially given little chance of winning, January’s Tet Offensive had galvanized opposition to the war.

Bobby Kennedy entered the race in March, and it seemed that Democrats were poised to take the Party in a new direction. Kennedy was drawing huge crowds everywhere he went; he was on the cover of Time Magazine’s May 24th issue.

Most saw RFK as a continuation of optimism that JFK had demonstrated in his shortened presidency. From over in Europe in the days before the internet, Wrongo thought that Bobby Kennedy could win the nomination, and beat Richard Nixon in November.

That wasn’t to be. Armed Forces Radio carried the news that Robert Kennedy had been shot, and that doctors would be holding a press conference on his condition. We had all heard that earlier with the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April.

That summer, American cities burned, the police rioted at the Democratic convention in Chicago, and the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia. In fact, Wrongo’s summer days were spent checking radar images of planes landing and taking off from Prague.

Hubert Humphrey began his campaign to keep the White House in the hands of the Democrats, while trying to distance himself from both LBJ and the War. The Republicans nominated Richard Nixon. George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama launched a third-party run designed to draw conservative blue-collar Democrats. Wallace carried five southern states with ten million votes.

Nixon received 31,784,000 votes to Humphrey’s 31,272,000 million votes. It took until the next day to know the outcome. But as now, the Electoral College totals weren’t close at all: Nixon won 301 to 191 for Humphrey, with 46 votes going to Wallace.

It’s interesting to note that in 2016, Trump got 306 electoral votes in a two-way race.

In 1968, Wrongo believed we needed to end the Vietnam War, and that required Bobby Kennedy to be president. He has certainly felt since then that he needed to vote for Democrats. But only Bill Clinton’s first run, and both by Barak Obama, seemed to inspire the feeling of intensity and commitment that RFK sparked in a young Lieutenant in Germany.

There have been 13 presidential elections since the assassination of RFK. The Democrats have won five of those contests. Most of the Party’s losing candidates were by any political standard, uninspiring: Hubert Humphrey; Walter Mondale; Michael Dukakis; Al Gore; John Kerry and Hillary Clinton. All were mediocre campaigners.

Wrongo fears that our choices for 2020 are also uninspiring, and reflect a similar degree of mediocrity.

Not every candidate can be JFK or RFK. We all understand that.

But we must hope for better, for someone who can express what we are feeling. A person who sees the world as we do, who can make us want to get out of our chairs, and work to make that someone president.

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America’s Military Moves Rightward

The Daily Escape:

Bruarfoss, (Bridge Falls) Iceland – 2018 photo by ParticleEngine

There was some controversy on Memorial Day when Trump visited the USS Wasp before returning to the US from Japan. He was greeted by service members wearing unofficial uniform patches with the words “Make Aircrew Great Again”. Here is a photo of the patch:

Military personnel often wear unofficial unit patches as part of an effort to build unit cohesion and morale. Such patches are officially barred by uniform regulations, but may be approved by the service members’ chains of command, who are responsible for ensuring that the unofficial patches do not violate military regulations. Those regulations say:

“…active duty personnel may not engage in partisan political activities and all military personnel should avoid the inference that their political activities imply or appear to imply DOD sponsorship, approval, or endorsement of a political candidate, campaign, or cause.”

This means that service members are prohibited from exhibiting political messages while in uniform.

This is the second controversy involving a visit by a member of the administration to a Navy vessel in the past month. At the end of April, a TV reporter overheard the USS Harry S. Truman’s senior enlisted sailor instructing crewmen to “clap like we’re at a strip club” during a visit from Vice President Pence. He later resigned from his post.

So, to be clear: twice in four weeks Navy personnel have gotten themselves in hot water during public events in easily-avoidable ways. In sports, we call these screw-ups “unforced errors.” And in what universe does it make for our military to venerate a commander-in-chief who faked a medical condition to avoid serving?

Naturally, the Navy is reviewing whether service members on the USS Wasp violated Defense Department policy by wearing the patches.

So let’s think about a couple of things: The prohibition against political advocacy while in uniform isn’t about denying service members their 1st Amendment rights; it’s about maintaining good order and discipline. Imagine the chaos and conflict which could potentially result from men and women in uniform actively engaging in divisive political activity? Could we count on our military defending each other, or the homeland, if they’re fighting with one another?

Second, these two incidents remind us that there is a decided tilt in the military toward conservatism, and in some cases, the far-right. The US military, particularly its officer corps, leans Republican, and its younger, more recent veterans, are even more so.

There have also been plenty of problems from far-right military members: In February, a Coast Guard officer was arrested after an investigation discovered he was stockpiling weapons and preparing to attack liberal politicians in Washington, DC.

In the 1990s a white supremacist gang formed in the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Brigade, stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In 1995, two members murdered a black couple. In 2012, a member of the Missouri National Guard was arrested for providing weapons for and running a neo-Nazi paramilitary training camp in Florida.

In Georgia, two soldiers were arrested after murdering a former soldier and his girlfriend in an attempt to cover up their assassination plot against then-President Obama. A 2014 Vice News segment showed the KKK was actively seeking to recruit US military veterans, and some were answering their call.

Andrew Exum, former Army Ranger and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East policy during the Obama administration, wrote about the US military becoming a political-economic entity focused mainly on its own interests.

An apolitical military has been a bulwark of our democracy, but that is under pressure.

It’s been made more difficult by Trump actively working to weaken the apolitical nature of the military. He talks about “My generals”, but has given the military a freer hand on the rules of engagement and targeting decisions. He suggested that service-members lobby Congress for a military budget increase.

The demographics of the military has changed since we ended the draft in 1973. It skews southern, western and rural, all conservative-leaning parts of America. One study at the National Interest shows that over the last generation, the percentage of officers that identifies itself as independent (or specifies no party affiliation) has gone from a plurality (46%) to a minority (27%). The percentage that identifies itself as Republican has nearly doubled (from 33% to 64%).

This shift is dangerous for our democracy. Sadly, it is unclear what might reverse the trend.

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Another Take on Memorial Day

The Daily Escape:

Dunn’s River Falls, near Ocho Rios, Jamaica – 2019 photo by Ashleigh Reutzel

There were many excellent Memorial Day columns posted over the weekend, and Wrongo wants to draw your attention to Andrew Bacevich, who wrote about visiting Marseilles, Illinois, which curiously, has our only monument honoring those who died in our wars in the Middle East: (emphasis by Wrongo)

Marseilles retains one modest claim to fame. It’s the site of the Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial, dedicated in June 2004….The memorial, created and supported by a conglomeration of civic-minded Illinois bikers, many of them Vietnam veterans, is the only one in the nation that commemorates those who have died during the course of the various campaigns…that have involved U.S. forces in various quarters of the Greater Middle East over the past several decades.

That tells you quite a bit about how Americans value the American sacrifice in these wars. More from Bacevich: (more emphasis by Wrongo)

Any American wanting to pay personal tribute to those who fought and died for our country in World War II or Korea or Vietnam knows where to go — to the Mall in Washington D.C….Nowhere else in this vast nation of ours has anyone invested in…the effort to remember more than a generation’s worth of less-than-triumphant American war making. Marseilles has a lock on the franchise.

We’ve been at war in the Middle East since Desert Storm. It’s hard to believe that a “Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial” isn’t on the National Mall. But, the Vietnam vets had to fight to have their monument built, over resistance from Washington.

Bacevich is originally from a nearby Illinois town, and sadly, his son is among the Middle East dead listed on the monument: (emphasis by Wrongo)

…I find myself uneasy with any reference to American soldiers having died for freedom in the Greater Middle East. Our pronounced penchant for using that term in connection with virtually any American military action strikes me as a dodge. It serves as an excuse for not thinking too deeply about the commitments, policies, and decisions that led to all those names being etched in stone, with more to come next month and probably for many years thereafter.

He closes with this:

Just as there are all-but-mandatory venues in Iowa and New Hampshire where candidates are expected to appear, why not make Marseilles, Illinois, one as well. Let all of the candidates competing to oust Donald Trump from the White House…schedule at least one campaign stop at the Middle East Conflicts Wall, press entourage suitably in tow.

One of the catch phrases of our cheap American patriotism is: “Thank you for your service,” which many (well-meaning) people say when they meet an active duty or veteran military person. As a former Army officer, Wrongo has always tempered his appreciation on hearing that with the idea that the unspoken part of that phrase is: “better you than me.”

We are reverent, but disengaged from our military. We love the troops, but we’d rather not think about them, is our norm. That wasn’t always the case. WWII and Korea were in the forefront of people’s minds while the fighting was underway. Americans were drafted into the military as late as Vietnam, and Nixon learned how difficult it was to keep Vietnam off the minds of the people.

Since we ended the draft in 1973, America hasn’t won a war. Now, less than one percent of the nation is in uniform. What is more alarming, military service has increasingly become a family affair. Coupled with troop-basing in the West and Southeast, we are quickly evolving into a Praetorian military culture, precisely as American culture fragments. Hero worship of our military has created a separate caste of military professionals. Unchecked, this will ultimately fracture our society.

Even well-meaning people don’t want to know what our policies have created, both at home and abroad. The cost of our wars is ruinous, partly because the human dimension is nearly absent from the discussion.

War is bankrupting us during a time of relative peace. We have no discernible threat comparable to our certain costs. And our media doesn’t always help us see the threats clearly.

These wars are all post-Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) wars. There have been no victory parades since the first Gulf War.

And all of these wars contribute to our fractured politics. We continue to use debt to cover the costs of our ever-expanding military, at the sacrifice of domestic needs like infrastructure, education and healthcare. We gotta wake up.

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Monday Wake Up Call – 2019 Memorial Day Edition

The Daily Escape:

Memorial Day, Arlington National Cemetery – 2013 photo by William Coyle

 “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” Mark Twain

Today we celebrate the sacrifice of those who died fighting in America’s wars. We mourn those we knew, and we remember those we never knew.

We can’t seem to get our fill of war. In fact, since 1943, the year of Wrongo’s birth, the US has been at peace for just five years: 1976, and 1977, 1978, 1997 and 2000 are America’s only years with no major war.

So today, we celebrate those who have died in service of our global ambitions. Maybe we watch a parade, shop at the mall, and attend the first cookout of the year. Perhaps we should be required to spend more time thinking about how America can increase the number of years when we are not at war.

But today also brings us something else to think about. The Yale School of Forestry published an article about the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, Fifty Years After, A Daunting Cleanup of Vietnam’s Toxic Legacy. Here is a snippet:

“From 1962 to 1971, the American military sprayed vast areas of Vietnam with Agent Orange, leaving dioxin contamination that has severely affected the health of three generations of Vietnamese. Now, the US and Vietnamese governments have joined together in a massive cleanup project.”

During the US Air Force campaign known as Operation Ranch Hand, Agent Orange was used to strip bare the coastal mangroves of the Mekong Delta and the dense triple-canopy forests that concealed enemy fighters and supply lines. One-sixth of South Vietnam was blanketed with 20 million gallons of herbicides, and as many as 4.8 million Vietnamese civilians were exposed to the spraying.

The three remaining hot spots of dioxin contamination were the US airbases at Da Nang, Bien Hoa, and the smaller air base at Phu Cat. These were the sites from where the spraying was launched. The residual levels of dioxin on those sites posed a serious ongoing threat to public health. Of the three, Bien Hoa was by far the worst. During our war in Vietnam, it was said to be the busiest airport in the world.

Phu Cat was cleaned up by the Vietnamese without US assistance. Next came Da Nang, a six-year project that was completed last October. It cost $110 million, of which $100 million came from the US State Department, channeled through USAID.

The sheer volume of soils and sediments that must be remediated is staggering. In Da Nang, it was 90,000 cubic meters; in Bien Hoa it is 495,300. The US has agreed to commit $300 million to the Bien Hoa cleanup over 10 years, but USAID couldn’t bear the entire cost. So, after much debate, the Department of Defense agreed to contribute half of the total.

This has to be done, since dioxin is a deadly chemical. It is both hydrophobic and lipophilic: it hates water and loves fat. It sinks into the sediment at the bottom of bodies of water, it attaches to organic matter and moves up the food chain, from plankton to small aquatic animals and finally to fish. In soil, it ends up in free-range chickens and ducks and their eggs.

It becomes more concentrated at each stage, a process known as bioaccumulation. Eighty-seven percent of dioxin enters the body through ingestion, before migrating into fatty tissue, the liver, and breast milk. And fish and poultry are staples of the Vietnamese diet.

The WHO stipulates a tolerable maximum of 1 to 4 picograms (one trillionth of a gram) per kilogram of body weight per day. The mean amount they found in breastfed infants in the Bien Hoa area was 80 picograms.

And we shouldn’t forget how haphazardly the VA has dealt with the medical issues of Vietnam Vets who were exposed to Agent Orange. For many years veterans with Agent Orange-related diseases were denied disability compensation by the VA. This only changed with the passage of the Agent Orange Act of 1991. Now, the VA acknowledges certain cancers and other diseases are caused by Agent Orange.

The Vietnam War ended in 1975. The Vietnam vets that survived the war only to suffer from Agent Orange-related diseases had to wait at least 16 years before our government began helping the majority of them. Vietnam waited 50 years before our government acknowledged our culpability in destroying much of their environment.

This is a sad reminder about today’s Memorial Day, all of our past Memorial Days, and the ones to come.

It is good to be reminded again about our dead soldiers, and also to be reminded of what our government ordered them to do.

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Afghanistan: Too Corrupt To Save?

The Daily Escape:

London street art by Bambi  – 2017 photo by Wrongo. Since then, she has done another version, where the bag says: “I love Meghan”.

On October 7, 2001 The US military with British support, began a bombing campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan. That mission was called Operation Enduring Freedom. So, what has endured in the 18 years since we started bombing the Taliban? Mostly corruption. The Economist has a damning report: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Last year was the deadliest on record for civilians, according to the United Nations. America’s air force dropped more bombs in 2018 than at any other point in the war. Despite that support, the government is slowly losing ground. It now controls barely half the country’s territory, albeit two-thirds of its people.”

US forces have shifted their strategy to trying to inflict maximum casualties on the Taliban, who now control more territory than at any time since its ouster from power in 2001. This is the same as the “body count” strategy that we tried in Vietnam. But the Taliban are winning, despite America’s best efforts. We’ve backed a corrupt government that the Afghan people do not trust. The Economist illustrates that point:

“A group of middle-aged drivers explain the difference between the Taliban and the government. Both groups take money from drivers on the road, says Muhammad Akram…both are violent. But when the Taliban stop him at a checkpoint, they write him a receipt. Waving a fistful of green papers, he explains how they ensure he won’t be charged twice: after he pays one group of Talibs, his receipt gets him through subsequent stops. Government soldiers, in contrast, rob him over and over.”

We started down a path of nation-building in Afghanistan 18 years ago, but the government in Kabul doesn’t provide basic services. It has a huge security apparatus, and a big bureaucracy, but where it matters, the State, in the words of the US DOJ, is “largely lawless, weak and dysfunctional”.

No place in the country is completely safe. At boozy parties in Kabul, rich Afghans share gallows humor about the impending arrival of the jihadists at their gates.

The Taliban are no prize. Their brutal attacks make them deeply unpopular, especially in Afghan cities. But The Economist says that in rural areas, they are seen as efficient and willing to challenge arbitrary government power. According to a UN study, Afghan land disputes account for 70% of violent crimes. In government-controlled areas, well-connected figures often grab land for themselves. The Taliban, in contrast, have judges who deal with such cases brutally, but with less corruption.

The Taliban expects poppy-farmers to pay taxes on their crop, but they also provide seed capital and other support. In many areas, they help to police water use, managing disputes and limiting the over-exploitation of groundwater. Over the past few years the size of the opium crop has grown remarkably—especially in Taliban-controlled areas.

Another Economist article shows that solar panels are transforming the landscape of southern Afghanistan. Farmers used to run their pumps with diesel generators, but fuel was very expensive. Now they can pump water all day using solar.

Only 12% of the country is suitable for growing permanent crops, but since 2018, 3,600 square kilometers in south-western Afghanistan were reclaimed for cultivation from the desert by using solar power to pump water to the fields. From the Economist:

“As many as 2.5 million people…now live in what used to be desert. The price of desert land has soared, from as little as $35 for a jereb (about 2,000 square meters) to over $1,000 now. That has made landowners rich, not to mention politicians and senior police officers.”

The reclaimed territory is mostly beyond government control: Many of the settlers are hostile to the State.

This has also brought a big cost for the environment. Drinking wells are increasingly contaminated with nitrates from fertilizers, which farmers have spread near the water pumps. Shallow wells have gone completely dry. If the groundwater is exhausted, millions of Afghans will have to move.

The US and the Taliban have been negotiating directly since October over a possible American withdrawal in exchange for a commitment from the Taliban not to harbor terrorists. The Afghan government has been excluded from these talks, and they are concerned that they may be forced into a coalition government with the Taliban.

The Trump administration wants out of Afghanistan, and may not care much about who in the current government survives. The latest round of talks concluded on May 9th, with what the Taliban described as “some progress”, but the pace is glacial, and may not lead to anything.

Wrongo has been saying for years that we need to leave Afghanistan. Why are we still there? Vietnam proved we could win all the battles, get higher body counts, and still lose the war.

Will we “win” in Afghanistan? No, it’s unwinnable. You can’t win when you’re on the side that’s even more hated and corrupt than our “enemy.”

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Monday Wake Up Call – May 20, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Steps leading to Franciscan Sanctuary, La Verna, Tuscany, Italy – photo by Guiseppe Pepperoni

Over the weekend, Wrongo and Ms. Right, along with a few friends, saw “Hadestown” on Broadway. It is a theatrical home run that has received 14 Tony nominations. Describing the plot is difficult. Most reviews focus on the mythology at the heart of the play. The story is a re-imagination of Orpheus and Eurydice set in contemporary time.

The mythological story is that Orpheus is the world’s greatest poet, and Eurydice is his bride. It is intertwined with the love story of King Hades and his wife Persephone. During the play, we take an epic journey to the underworld and back.

In the myth, Eurydice is killed by a snake bite, and the mourning Orpheus travels to the underworld to beg Hades to return his wife to life. To make his case, Orpheus sings a song so beautiful that Persephone begs Hades to let Eurydice go.

That is loosely followed in the play, where these mythic characters are pawns in a central metaphor of capitalism as death. That seems so current in today’s predatory capitalism, and yet, the play is not a polemic. In the play, Eurydice isn’t bitten by a snake. Instead, she’s lured into Hadestown by Hades’s promise of work and food.

Hadestown is a factory town, and Hades is both the god of death and a merciless taskmaster, forcing his subjects to build an endless wall around Hadestown. In his April 15thMonday Wake Up Call”, Wrongo used Hades’s call and response song, “Why We Build the Wall”. The song seems right for 2019 because of our Orange Overlord, but in reality it was written in 2010.

Wrongo posts a sample lyric for you:

Who do we call the enemy? The enemy is poverty, And the wall keeps out the enemy, And we build the wall to keep us free. That’s why we build the wall;

We build the wall to keep us free.

The Wall makes us free. Arbiet macht frei. The few Trumpets in the audience demonstratively did not applaud the song, while the vast majority cheered. Partisanship is an always-on emotion.

Some call-outs to cast members: Patrick Page and Amber Gray are standouts, he as Hades, and she as Persephone. The legendary André De Shields, plays Hermes. He’s the show’s narrator. His cool swagger pulls the audience into the play from the opening curtain.

See it if you can.

During our pre-theater meal, we talked about the Democratic presidential candidates, a list that seems destined to continue growing. Our friends at dinner follow politics quite closely, and none are fully happy with any of the Democrats on offer.

Most defaulted to “electability”, espousing the view that it is “Do-or-Die” time in America, that we can’t take four more years of what we are experiencing now. That leads them to accept Joe Biden’s candidacy. Wrongo has a different view, as captured in this Vanity Fair article: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Since Vietnam, every time a Democrat has won the presidency, it’s because Democrats voted with their hearts in a primary and closed ranks around the candidate who inspired them, promising an obvious break from the past and an inspiring vision that blossomed in the general election. Jimmy Carter. Bill Clinton. Barack Obama. All were young outsiders who tethered their message to the culture of the time. When Democrats have picked nominees cautiously and strategically—falling in line—the results have been devastating, as Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton made plain.”

So, what will happen this time? Those who believe in Biden’s electability should remember that there are 45 million Americans with student loans: 22% of those loans are in default, and 99% of them fail to qualify for loan forgiveness.

It was Biden’s decision to make student loans not dischargeable in bankruptcy. That’s going to be one large group of people who, when they learn who is behind their plight, probably will vote against him.

Biden has been on the job in Washington for around 50 years. Suddenly, according to Bloomberg, he wants to “Fix Things”?

Wake up Democrats! Find a candidate who inspires YOU. Work for that candidate in the primaries. Don’t buy the argument “but he/she isn’t electable” until that is proven by the results of the primaries.

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