Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Drifting Toward Catastrophe: A Seven-Headed Beast

Drifting Toward Catastrophe: A Seven-Headed Beast

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Sometimes when I'm on a photo shoot, I change my camera focus to close-up, which puts me just inches, say, from the inside of a flower. I can spend much time in-tight like that, marveling at the complexities of a leaf, pistil, stamen, occasionally even a bumblebee inside, stuffing its pollen sacs.

Sometimes, when reading the news, I find myself caught up in close-up mode: deep into the details, the news-of-the-day stories, the gossip, the momentary winners and the losers, the minutiae of daily political life.

In both instances, while one learns much in close-up mode, it's also important to pull back, to see not just the trees and flowers, but the forest and the contextual landscape. To see what it is we citizens are really talking about, and fighting about - the deeper content. Pundits and politicians are more comfortable in close-up mode. The large issues are much more difficult, complex, even scary to deal with.

But it's those grand issues that will determine our future, America's future, the planet's future. Who's up and who's down in the polls are, in that sense, distractions from the more meaningful realities.

That's what I find so discouraging these days. This country, humanity, the globe are rushing pell-mell to disaster, mostly by neglecting what needs to be done while we're diddling with the political minutiae. This tendency to avoid the obvious larger questions reminds one of the thrust of Albert Einstein's famous quote: "The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe."

Consider the following seven areas of concern. No doubt, you could add many more to the list.

Fixing a Broken System

1. Every so often, unfettered capitalism nearly collapses into itself. President FDR realized that truth in the Great Depression and saved the capitalist system by introducing major reforms into the mix. Now 70-plus years later, after the unbridled capitalism of the Reagan-Cheney-Bush era, where greed and rapaciousness were encouraged to run amuck, it's clear that once again the system requires major reforms to save it. Obama, who put into power noted deregulators, who helped lead the economy into near-collapse (Summers, Geithner, Bernanke et al.), doesn't appear to have the will or desire to fight this battle other than with rhetoric. And, thus, the economy continues to "drift toward unparalleled catastrophe." Americans' anger directed at corporatist greed and abuse of power and at the politicians who benefit from that system, but do precious little to help the hurting middle-class and the poor, is diluting the power of the American Dream. As we slide further into a second Great Depression this year and next, that anger is going to spill out in more and more ugly and, likely, more violent ways.

The US, which should be leading the world in innovation and marketing in fields such as nonfossil fuel energy, stem-cell research and other scientific advances, is lagging way behind and may not be able to catch up. China, India and Brazil, among others, benefit big time, as the US slips further down the list of vibrant, economically secure and growing societies. Part of the reason America can't move quickly in these areas is that a third of the country is caught up in fundamentalist-derived fear and suspicion of science, egged on by political conservatives, who benefit by this know-nothing foundation of their base voters.

Why is this system continuing as is? At least one major reason is that the short-term (often quarterly) bottom line rules. Profit is all and it must be immediate so that shareholders continue to buy into the corporation and the capitalist system. There is no room for consideration of long-range consequences of short-term actions. And there is precious little concern for something known in most Western societies as "the public good."

Usually, the often xenophobic and racist elite philosophy behind this selfish attitude is disguised and hidden. But every so often, we get to see what really is going on. Just the other day, the Republican candidate for governor in South Carolina, Lieutenant-Gov. Andre Bauer, explained why he didn't want the state providing benefits to those less fortunate, such as free or reduced-price meals in school cafeterias:

"My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed," Bauer said, according to the Greenville News. "You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better."

This philosophy of justified selfishness and racism helps explain why the many thousands of poor, mostly black Americans were ignored and left to their own devices post-Katrina in New Orleans under the "compassionate conservatism" of George W. Bush. At least 1300 citizens died from such neglect.

Imperialism Is So 20th Century

2. Imperialism no longer works. Nationalist and religious guerrilla forces can force high-tech imperialist armies into prolonged and massively expensive stalemates. Since the US can't move fast enough in developing energy alternatives, it remains locked into the battle around the globe in other countries for the remaining traditional fuels: coal, oil, gas. Even the negative environmental ramifications of bio-mass energy haven't been thought through. This way of operating is a self-destructive loop, one that winds up involving the US in senseless, outrageously expensive wars around the globe, associated with obtaining and protecting natural resources, where all the high-tech hardware is no real match for native anger and determination (read: Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somali, Yemen, Pakistan etc.). But President Obama continues on with many of the same reckless imperialist policies as his predecessors. And "thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe."

Getting All Hot and Bothered

3. While the world fiddles, the planet burns. The developing world, anxious to achieve first-world superpower status, repeats the worst aspects of industrialization, which pollution helps to more quickly heat up the planet. Perhaps the best worst example: millions of newly better-off Chinese are buying cars and, like many in the US, China's rulers refuse to deal with the reality and ramifications of global warming and climate change. Conferences after world conferences are held to deal with these topics and sometimes they even issue high-sounding goals (as in the recent Copenhagen confab), but nothing really happens. The fundamentalists and the hard rightists are overjoyed at the lack of action on global warming, a reality they continue to deny. And we can't even get cap and trade, which really is little more than the selling and trading of pollution permits, a license fee (passed on to consumers) for destroying the planet. And, thus, we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.

The Big Flush

4. The economy is in the toilet, even though establishment economists keep telling us how we're just about to turn the corner. Try telling that to the 15 million to 20 million workers who have lost their jobs these past two years and can't find others. And we're not even at the bottom of this recession/depression yet, as the next wave of mortgage foreclosures (in private residences and commercial property) and owner walk-aways are cresting. And the ripple effects from such widespread joblessness and homelessness have devastating long-term consequences socially, culturally, economically as federal, state and local tax revenues continue to decline, and in terms of rising crime rates. The infrastructure in cities and towns can't be properly maintained and improved since there's no money to fix roads, bridges, schools etc.

So, what does Obama do? He plays politics with deficit fears at a time when the economy needs more stimulus, not less, certainly not a spending freeze on everything except "national security" and the military.

But what am I saying? Of course, there's always a spare trillion lying around to pay for another extension of another war. And, thus, we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.

Military Stalemates

5. Military experts have told the president and the public that the two wars America is fighting right now cannot be won. The most one can hope for is a stalemate while US forces try to build up local armies to battle anti-Western extremists. President Obama himself, for example, has said there is little chance of victory in Afghanistan (a lesson already learned by the Brits and Russians, who were forced to withdraw over the past century and more), but he's sending more American young men and women to fight and die there anyway, in order to withdraw them later on a US timetable. The presence of US forces in massive numbers, and the use of drone missile attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, with their inevitable "collateral damage" of innocent civilians, probably does more to prolong the wars and aids in the recruitment by extremists of more anti-Western volunteers and suicide bombers. But Obama will not turn back from this "hard imperialism" momentum. And, thus, we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.

Change Policies? Why?

6. Because his favorable numbers are slipping, and he got his Massachusetts wake-up call, Obama is reconstituting his old campaign staff to prepare for the midterm elections in November. He proclaimed his policies and priorities, all good ones, during the 2008 campaign, but hardly fought for most of them. It's mostly public relations and spin doctoring now. It would seem to make sense to examine, and perhaps alter, the administration's ongoing policies - but instead, we will hear new campaign buzzwords, slogans and marching orders for the upcoming election cycle. Of course, Obama could take another course: He could just get in there with the wide range of campaign promises he ran on in 2008, and fight like hell to get them implemented. But that would require a willingness to slug it out with his political enemies, and Obama seems content to try to work with those who wish him no good.

Which translates to: Nothing will really get done. Partisan sniping and mud throwing have become the new permanent political norms. And, now, with the Republicans in possession of 41 votes in the Senate, much of the more progressive agenda is endangered, as the GOP can just filibuster any and all bills, if it so chooses. And the Democrats, per usual, will roll over on their backs in a submissive posture. No wonder Congress ranks so low in the estimation of the electorate - Republicans more than Democrats, but they, too.

Check out this observation by Kos (Markos Mulitsas Zuniga, founder/editor of DailyKos.com), talking about the thoroughgoing ineffectiveness of the Democrats:

"THAT's why the base is sitting things out. They don't need blogs or MSNBC to tell them that Democrats can't govern. They already knew that Republicans don't WANT to govern, but the Democrats were supposed to be different. And they are, they WANT to govern, but they can't. And the voters that worked their asses off to give Democrats the White House and super majorities in Congress are now realizing that it was all for nothing. That all that talk about hope and change was cynical bullshit designed to motivate them. It worked once, but that crowd is learning the art of political cynicism, and it ain't pretty."

In our electoral system, every action is calculated by the politicians, not for the public good, but for how it will affect their re-election chances. And, thus, we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.

The Corporate Lock

7. Corporations, which already control most of the institutions that affect our lives - including making sure there will be no truly effective national health care reforms - now have been given carte blanche by the US Supreme Court to spend us much as they wish, however they wish, to influence more aspects of American life, specifically the electoral process. They can, for example, openly move to buy politicians now, as they have been given the same status as actual persons. One perhaps unforeseen consequences of this new activist-court opinion is that foreigners and multinational corporations, and even other governments through corporations, can buy their way directly into influencing American elections. If China or France, or even al-Qaeda, doesn't like certain US policies, they can just pour billions into corporations designated to electing friendly politicians in the US Congress.

The Pandora's box has been opened through this unwise court decision, and we all are going to pay a penalty for years to come - at least until the composition of the Supreme Court changes with fewer conservative ideologues on the bench.

One possible partial solution would be for public financing of all federal elections, but it's difficult to imagine incumbents, who now will have all the corporate funds coming their way, turning down those huge amounts of money for the relatively paltry sums offered by public financing. But the US citizenry still should push for this solution as the most logical way around this corrupt system of buying influence and votes.

Without some major electoral-financing reform, elections will mean little, if anything. And, thus, we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.

As I said, I'm just listing seven off-the-top-of-my-head larger issues here that go beyond the daily political minutiae. I'll be interested to see what you come up with on your own list.

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