Monday, September 05, 2011


By William Fisher

This is apparently the season when the American commentariat trots out its love of America. They express this deep emotion in many ways.

Rick Perry tells us it’s exceptional to link the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s to the struggle of the Republic Party to absolve the wealthiest Americans from paying a fair share of their debt to their country. He also thinks it’s exceptional to secede from the USA. Sarah Palen finds us exceptional because she can have her guns, Michelle Bachmann seems to define American exceptionalism as our ability to achieve just about anything we set our sights on, no matter how unlikely, if our oversized, over-regulating government would only get out of the way.

For Mr. Romney, American execptionalism seems to turn on the ability of entrepreneurs to innovate and make a ton of money, even if we’re selling
off bits and pieces of once-healthy companies. For TV Host Chris Matthews, (I’m paraphrasing) it’s his riff about Obama being born of mixed race and yet making it to the presidency. Chris then goes on to say this couldn’t happen in any other country in the world. “You can’t go to China or Japan and become Chinese or Japanese. Obama came to the US and became an American and is now in the White House (Chris leaves out the minor truth that Obama didn’t have to become American -- he already was, having been born in Hawaii).

Virtually since the beginning of our Republic we have been spinning a variety of narratives to reassure ourselves that we are the greatest nation ever invented and that no other comes even close. That, presumably is one of the reasons we seem to have this irresistible urge to teach the rest of the world how to be exceptional too.

But one of the wisest men I know is injecting a dose of reality into the patriotic mishmash being cooked up by those seeking to get themselves elected to something.

That man is Doug Speth or more formally, James Gustave Speth. A Rhodes Scholar, he graduated from Yale Law School, after which he became a co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Then on the White House, as a Member and then for two years as Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality in the Executive Office of the President. Later, he was Professor of Law at Georgetown, teaching environmental and constitutional law.

In 1982 he founded the World Resources Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental think tank; served as its president until January 1993. He was a senior adviser to President-elect Bill Clinton's transition team, heading the group that examined the U.S.'s role in natural resources, energy and the environment.

Still later, he served as Administrator of the United Nations Development Program; dean of the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He retired from Yale in 2009 to assume a professorship at Vermont Law School.

Now, why I am going to such lengths to introduce you to some of the details of this outstanding career? Because those folks who believe in American exceptionalism – or think they’re simply good for the political aspirations – are wont to blame the messenger who brings actual proof that Americans may once have been exceptional but today that achievement is crumbling and our favorites narratives with it.

Prof. Speth has produced an index that should embarrass the exceptionalists by shining a bit of light on those areas where we’re not so exceptional.

For example, among the 20 major advanced countries America now has:

the highest poverty rate, both generally and for children;
the greatest inequality of incomes;
the lowest government spending as a percentage of GDP on social programs for the disadvantaged;
the lowest number of paid holiday, annual, and maternity leaves;
the lowest score on the United Nations’ index of “material well-being of
the worst score on the United Nations’ gender inequality index;
the lowest social mobility;
the highest public and private expenditure on health care as a portion
of GDP, the highest infant mortality rate; prevalence of mental health problems; obesity rate; portion of people going without health care due to cost; low-birth-weight children per capita (except for Japan); consumption of antidepressants per capita;
the shortest life expectancy at birth (except for Denmark and Portugal);
the highest carbon dioxide emissions and water consumption per capita;
the lowest score on the World Economic Forum’s environmental performance index (except for Belgium), and the largest ecological footprint per capita (except for Belgium and Denmark);
the highest rate of failing to ratify international agreements;
the lowest spending on international development and humanitarian assistance as a percentage of GDP;
the highest military spending as a portion of GDP;
the largest international arms sales;
the most negative balance of payments (except New Zealand, Spain, and
the lowest scores for student performance in math (except for Portugal
and Italy) (and far from the top in both science and reading);
the highest high school dropout rate (except for Spain);
the highest homicide rate;
and the largest prison population per capita.

Now this is a pretty sorry scoresheet for our country – which used to excel in many of these categories.

The reasons for our fall from exceptionalism are far too lengthy to explore here, but some of the major factors, in no particular order, are substandard education; globalization; the voracious greed and dishonesty of banks, mortgage brokers, government institutions and rating agencies, whose actions created a bubble which they knew was unsustainable and issued insurance guarantees which they knew to be bogus.

There there’s the US Tax Code, which encourages foreign investment and demands local, not American, labor; a health care system that provides first-rate health to the very wealthy or the very old – but not to the poor, who have no health insurance; unemployment and under employment, partly because of the Great Recession, but starting long before that catastrophe as a result of the increase in worker productivity caused by substituting machines for humans in the workplace; and the consequent widening income disparity between the very rich and the very poor.

But the picture is not all hopeless. Gus Speth says, “It took a generation or more for most of these challenges to mature, and it will take a generation or more to climb out of the depths into which we have let things slide. More realistically, given that the U.S. government today is nowhere near ready to launch such efforts, it will take longer.”

He says, “If this analysis is correct, the devastating conclusion is that most of America’s problems will get worse or, at best, will continue to fester more or less as they currently are for the foreseeable future. That is a difficult
conclusion to have to face. But face it we must. Of course, we have to fight to correct these problems with all the strength progressive communities can muster, but we must also prepare and pursue another path forward.”

In short, he says, “America must complement ongoing efforts at reform and working within the system with at least equal efforts aimed at transformative change leading to a new political economy—a new operating system that routinely delivers good results for people and planet at home and around the world. The current system is simply not delivering economically, socially, environmentally, or politically. We need a new one. This type of systemic change will require a great struggle, and it will not come quickly. The truth is we are still in the design stage of building a new operating system.”

He adds: “That system won’t be socialism, by the way, and it won’t be today’s American capitalism either.”

“The possibility of system change suggests there can be a very bright light at
the end of this gloomy tunnel. America is in the midst of a period of decline,
and it hasn’t hit bottom yet. The imperatives its citizens face are therefore

(1) to slow and then halt the descent, minimizing human suffering and planetary damage along the way;

(2) to prevent a collapse, the emergence of a fortress world, or any of the dark scenarios that have been plotted for us in science fiction and increasingly in serious analysis;

(3) to minimize the time at the bottom and to start the climb upward, building a new operating system; and

(4) to complete, inhabit, and flourish in the diversity of alternative social arrangements, each far superior to what we will have left behind.

“There is hope especially in three things. The decline now occurring will
progressively delegitimize the current order. Who wants an operating system that is capable of generating and perpetuating such suffering and destruction? The one good thing about the decline of today’s political economy is that it opens the door to something much better. Second, people will eventually rise up, raise a loud shout, and demand major changes. That is already happening with some people in some places. Eventually, the chorus will grow to become a national and global movement for transformation. And third, Americans are already busy with numerous, mostly local initiatives that point the way to the future.”

“AMID ongoing decline, Americans must now summon the hope and courage to dream up something new and better and to fight for it. It has been said that the genius of America is to turn crisis into opportunity. Let us now dream a new America, the country we want for our grandchildren.”

That’s a Herculean order. And the question is: Will our political leaders find the smarts and the courage and the humility to become truly exceptional Americans?

On the basis of what we’ve seen so far, what do you think?

Abandoned by the Arabs. Forsaken by the West. Forgotten by the world.

By William Fisher

As we listen to the nightly news, we hear about Arab uprisings in Libya and Syria (a lot because these stories are current and they hold the promise of showing some really gruesome images); post-revolutionary events in Tunisia and Egypt (much less exposure because there aren't many bloody images to show; and a group of other countries (where practically nothing of a breaking-news nature is happening, so the MMM can safely ignore them).

But what about Bahrain? Bahrain has all the blood, death, torture, injustice, conflict, international involvement, and cruelty of a current-day Syria or Libya.

So why is there "radio silence" about this Shia majority country? After all, it would seem to have meet all the basic requirements for exposure in mainstream media. The self-appointed Sunni King has ordered his security goons to fire live ammo at peaceful protesters. He has killed scores of them. He has arrested more than 50 doctors, nurses and other health workers for caring for those wounded in the demonstrations. He has effectively closed the main hospital where they were being treated. He has demolished the monument in Pearl Square, where protesters had gathered.

He has gone after the press, the teachers, the students, and the lawyers as well, to say nothing of Bahrain's incredibly courageous human rights volunteers. Hundreds of faculty and students have been fired from the University of Bahrain. The head of the teachers' and nurses' unions were arrested in the middle of the night, jailed, and staged a 12-day hunger strike before their jailers were forced to free them on bail.

While all this was going on, the King was making noises about a "dialogue", and the Crown Prince was dispatched to Washington and European capitals to persuade these governments that all the King's men were doing all they could to bring the conflict to a peaceful and productive end.

The Crown Prince told them he was worried about Bahrain's image among tourists.

And Washington, London, Paris, Berlin, and others, bought this flagrant bit of PR BS.

From among this panoply of powerful Western nations, there were none -- NONE -- who spoke out in favor of the people's right to peacefully protest.

President Obama and various State Department folk met with the Crown Prince, and Washington remained silent. After all, Bahrain has great strategic importance to America, since it is home to the US Fifth Fleet.

Guess who didn't remain silent? Right! Saudi Arabia.

And that should give you a pretty accurate clue about why America remained silent. Oil!

Bahrain is SA's neighbor. SA’s Eastern oilfields are a mere hour-and-a-half from Bahrain -- and the largely Shia communities located there. For the Saudis, too close for comfort.

The Saudis also made a big deal about the influence of Shia Iran in the affairs of Shia Bahrain. The King alternately described the demonstrators as Iran-inspired operatives or as criminal street gangs.

And to show it was deadly serious, the Saudis mobilized several thousand
troops and, along with soldiers from the United Arab Emirates, rumbled across the causeway that separates the two nations and into the thick of the conflict. These two countries were operating under the Gulf Cooperation Council, a group of Persian Gulf countries organized to protect from hostile attack.

One of those countries is Qatar. Which is also the owner of Al Jazeera television.

Throughout the Arab Awakening, I have been getting my news through a combination of BBC television, Al Jazeera, and The Real News Network. There is no question in my mind that Al Jazeera's coverage of the Middle East and North Africa was more comprehensive, more insightful and more accessible -- and arguably more courageous -- than any of the other networks.

Its coverage of the fight in Bahrain was exceptional -- until. Until the channel's Qatari owners figured out that Qatar was very close to Bahrain, and very much a country with many similarities to Bahrain.

Thereafter, Al Jazeera’s visual coverage of Bahrain was virtually gone. Verbal coverage was down to a few words here and there. It was over, much to the consternation of Al Jazeera staff members who put out so much effort, energy and talent to tell this compelling story.

Luckily for us, before the lights went out, these staffers put together a documentary film on their work in Bahrain. It is entitled, "Shooting in the Dark," and it is one of the most compelling pieces of film I have ever seen.

I'm including a link to the full-length film below, and I hope you will find the time to watch it.

I promise, Bahrain will never ever have the same meaning for you.

Syrian Jails = Syrian Graves

By William Fisher

At least 88 people are believed to have died in Syria prisons – with evidence that at least 52 of them were tortured or subjected to other ill-treatment -- during five months of pro-reform protests, according to a new report from Amnesty International. The dead included 10 children, some as young as 13.

The report, “Deadly detention: Deaths in custody amid popular protest in Syria,” documents reported deaths in custody between April and mid-August in the wake of sweeping arrests.

The report says the 88 deaths represent a significant escalation in the number of deaths following arrest in Syria. In recent years Amnesty International has typically recorded around five deaths in custody per year in Syria.

“These deaths behind bars are reaching massive proportions, and appear to be an extension of the same brutal disdain for life that we are seeing daily on the streets of Syria,” said Neil Sammonds, Amnesty International’s researcher on Syria.

“The accounts of torture we have received are horrific. We believe the Syrian government to be systematically persecuting its own people on a vast scale,” he said.

The victims recorded in the report were all swept up in arrests after Syrians
took to the streets en masse from March this year. All the victims are believed to have been detained because they were involved, or suspected of being involved, in the pro-reform protests, Amnesty said.

Amnesty clams it has seen video clips of 45 of the cases – taken by
relatives, activists or other individuals – and has asked independent forensic
pathologists to review a number of these.

Injuries on many of the victims’ corpses indicate that they may have suffered horrendous beatings and other abuses. Signs indicating torture include burns, blunt force injuries, whipping marks and slashes.

Most of the cases in the report occurred in Homs and Dera’a governorates, which have seen major protests. Deaths in detention have also been reported in five other governorates, namely Damascus and Rif Damashq, Idlib, Hama and Aleppo.

Thirteen-year-old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb disappeared on 29 April during protests against the siege of Dera’a, and was later found dead with apparent blunt force injuries and a severed penis.

One video clip seen by Amnesty International shows the body of Tariq Ziad Abd al-Qadr from Homs, which was returned to his family on 16 June. His injuries included pulled-out hair, marks to the neck and penis possibly caused by electric shocks, an apparent cigarette burn, whipping marks, stab wounds and burns.

The body of Dr. Sakher Hallak, who ran an eating disorders clinic in Aleppo, was discovered by the side of a road a few days after his arrest on 25 May. Sources told Amnesty International that his injuries included broken ribs, arms and fingers, gouged eyes and mutilated genitals.

Amnesty International is not aware of any independent investigation having been carried out into the causes of death in any of the cases in the report.

The organization has compiled the names of more than 1,800 people reported to have died in Syria since pro-reform protests began. Thousands of others have been arrested, with many held incommunicado at unknown locations at risk of torture or death.

Amnesty International has called on the UN Security Council to refer the
situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, to impose an arms
embargo on Syria and to implement an asset freeze against President Bashar
al-Assad and his senior associates.

“Taken in the context of the widespread and systematic violations taking place in Syria, we believe that these deaths in custody may include crimes against humanity,” said Amnesty’s Sammonds.

“The response from the Security Council has been utterly inadequate so far, but it is not too late for them to take firm and legally binding action,” he added.
Peaceful demonstrations have been growing in Syria since March. The regime of Basher el Assad has taken an unforgiving hard line, deploying snipers from his security forces on rooftops to kill protesters in the streets. He has moved heavy weapons into a number of cities and towns, attacked the people there, and left many of these communities ghost-towns. Thousands have been arrested. Thousands more have fled over the border to refuges camps in Turkey.

Basher al-Assad is a son of Syria’s long-time strongman, Hafez al-Assad, who is responsible for the deaths of approximately 10-40,000 Syrians who attempted a peaceful uprising in 1982.

The Assad family are Alowites, a branch of Shia Islam. The majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims. Since the start of the demonstrations, there have been credible reports that Shia Iran is providing assistance to the Assad regime. Iran has blamed the current problems in Syria on the Americans and pro-Israel Zionists.