Monday, 30 April 2012

A Journey of Painful Discovery

by Joan Chittister
From Where I Stand National Catholic Reporter [U.S.] Mar. 21, 2012

"There is meaning in every journey," Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "that is unknown to the traveler." I travel a great deal. Trust me: Bonhoeffer knew of which he spoke. That statement is not only true, it is life-changing. When we learn what we are not looking for, that kind of education reshapes the soul. I know that's true because it just happened again a little while ago.

In what we once called "mission territory," in an African land only sparsely Christian where the presence of the church is built on the works staffed and subsidized for years by religious congregations that were basically white, basically European, I got a whole new look at life. These are people whose congregations have been in an area for decades before the place was even on a map. They know its customs and taboos. They know its internal history. It was a place where people had no experience of any other way to live until white business interests came promising them wealth and development.

"How are things going here?" I asked the two sisters. The school was twice as large as it had been when I was here last, they said. The novitiate had grown. People came to the clinic by the hundreds. They were opening another clinic, they smiled, further out in the valley with a surgeon and a resident anesthesiologist. "What kinds of cases do you see most?" I asked.

There was a pause, a lowering of the voices. "We get so many cases of AIDS," they said sadly. "Most of the cases are women now. More women than men. And the children, of course, who are born with it."

"But why the women?" I pressed them. "Well," the older sister went on, "the men are taken to work sites for long periods and so the companies bring in women to ... to 'service' them, you know," she said, looking at me again to be sure I understood what they meant. "Then they come back and infect the wife. Condoms -- are not allowed.'

I groaned inwardly. There had been a flurry in November 2010, when the pope was understood to have mused about the use of condoms to avoid infection. Many theologians, some very prominent bishops and an international body of health care personnel had applauded the move. But by the next day, of course, Vatican spokesmen had "clarified" the statement to mean that it had simply reasserted a continuing ban on the use of condoms in any situation, all serious dissent from every level of the church across the world notwithstanding.

"Why?" I said, thinking out loud and looking out over their heads to the throngs outside. "Explain to me why my church allows these women and their children to die rather than insist that these men use condoms. Are women's lives expendable? Is the morality of contraception greater than the morality of life? How can they call that kind of theology holiness and the people who have doubts about it heretics for having the effrontery to ask an obvious question?"
The conversation had gone dumb, gone mute. The nuns said nothing. Nothing at all. But when I looked up, to my eternal wonderment, I saw that they both had tears in their eyes.

"They know," I thought. "They know." From where I stand, that was the new insight discovered in this journey that changed the way I see life.


Stupid and Mean and Brutal

Uri Avnery            (Gush Shalom)
 Pub. by Haaretz   21 April 2012

‘In blood and sweat / A race will arise to us / Proud and generous and brutal…’ Thus wrote Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, the founder of extreme right-wing Zionism, who was also a writer and a poet.
Paradoxically, brutality is the only one of the three traits that is prominent in our life today, especially in the occupied Palestinian territories. It happened on Route 90, a highway that is the main road of the Jordan valley, which our government aims to annex. It is reserved solely for Israeli traffic and closed to Palestinians.
A group of young international pro-Palestinian activists decided to demonstrate against the closure of the road. They invited their Palestinian friends to a jolly bicycle ride along it. They were stopped by a unit of the Israeli army. What happened then was shown on a video clip taken by one of the protesters. It is clear, unambiguous and unequivocal. The officer, a lieutenant-colonel, is standing opposite a fair-haired young man, a Dane, who was just looking on. Nearby, protesters and soldiers are standing around.  No sign of violence anywhere.
Suddenly the officer raises his rifle and drives the squared-off end of the magazine hard into the young Dane's face. The victim falls backward on the ground. In the evening, Israeli TV showed the clip. By now, almost every Israeli has seen it a hundred times. What was unusual in this case was that it was caught on camera.  The officer must have been aware of this. He just did not give a damn. The hero of the affair is Lieutenant Colonel Shalom Eisner. Far from being exceptional, he seems to be the quintessential Israeli army officer. 
The army Chief of Staff condemned the officer and promptly suspended him. All senior officers followed suit, the Prime Minister himself spoke out. As is well known, our army is “the most moral in the world”, so what had happened was the unpardonable act of a single rogue officer. There will be a thorough investigation, etc
He did not take the rebukes lying down. He fervently insists that he did the right thing. After all, he did break up the demonstration, right? But he was not entirely without remorse. He publicly admitted that it “may have been a mistake to act this way in the presence of cameras”. With this the army and many commentators wholeheartedly agreed: they did not criticize his brutality, but his stupidity.
Eisner typifies many officers who come out of the military melting pot. And not only in the army. To paraphrase Jabotinsky: our educational system now produces “a race / stupid and mean and brutal”. How could it be otherwise after 60 years of relentless indoctrination and 45 years of occupation? Every occupation, every oppression of another people, corrupts the occupier and makes the oppressor stupid.
While still a teenager I worked as a clerk for an Oxford-educated, Jewish-British lawyer, many of whose clients were members of the British colonial administration. I found them mostly nice, intelligent and courteous with an engaging sense of humor. Yet the British administration acted with an astonishing lack of intelligence. At the time I was a member of the Irgun, whose aim was to drive them out of the country. At my home there was an arsenal of guns, which were used to kill them. Living between the two worlds, I constantly asked myself: how can these nice English people behave so stupidly? My conclusion was that no colonial masters can behave intelligently. The colonial situation itself compels them to act against their better nature.
As a matter of fact, during the first years of the Israeli occupation, it was widely praised as “enlightened” and “liberal”. The then Minister of Defense, Moshe Dayan, gave orders to treat the Palestinians as generously as possible. He let them trade with the enemy and listen to enemy broadcasts to their heart’s content. Behind this policy there was no benevolence – just a belief that if the Arabs were allowed to live their daily lives in peace, they would not rise up, but put up with an eternal occupation. Indeed this worked more or less for some 20 years. Until a new generation started the first intifada and the occupation became – well, stupid, mean and brutal. Along with the officers in charge.
Two days ago, Israel observed the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day. In this connection, I would like to quote Albert Einstein, a Jew and a Zionist: “Should we be unable to find a way to honest cooperation and honest pacts with the Arabs, then we have learned absolutely nothing during our two thousand years of suffering and deserve all that will come to us.”


Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Parihaka - Cecily McNeill

Advent 2008           The Common Good, No 47

The story of Parihaka in Taranaki engenders a sense of pride in the founders of our nation and horror at the way Māori landowners were treated as British interests used all means to tighten their grip on the country. At the head of the movement begun in the 1860s was Te Whiti o Rongomai who, with Tohu Kakahi, led the people of Taranaki in a peaceful land occupation that challenged the government’s punitive confiscation of lands. Te Whiti was a charismatic figure and he prepared the people well for the moment when soldiers would come to crush resistance. A movement to commemorate the peaceful resistance to colonisation at Parihaka on 5 November instead of Guy Fawkes is gaining momentum.
Te Whiti and Tohu offered both spiritual and political leadership drawing on ancestral as well as Christian tradition. Both were committed to non-violence in resisting the invasion of their estates and protecting Māori independence. Both men advocated good relationships and interaction between all races as long as Māori ownership of lands and independence from Pākehā (European) domination was respected. Throughout the wars of the 1860s the Parihaka leaders forbade the use of arms and condemned violence and greed. They challenged the colonial government over the illegality of the wars, the confiscation of the land and the policies the settler government enacted against Māori.
Resistance through nonviolent action    The first war began on 18 March 1860. By 1879 European encroachment on Māori land threatened all Māori settlements. Te Whiti sent his people to plough on confiscated land. When arrested the ploughmen offered no resistance. In 1880 the Parihaka people erected barricades across roads, pulled survey pegs and escorted road builders and surveyors out of the district. Parliament passed legislation enabling the government to hold the protesters indefinitely without trial. By September 1880 hundreds of men and youths had been exiled to South Island prisons where they were forced to build the infrastructure of cities like Dunedin. Death took, on average, one every two weeks. Meanwhile Taranaki settlers continued to survey and take possession of land. The resistance continued, as did the imprisonments.
The invasion and plundering of Parihaka   On 5th November 1881 the invasion force led by two cabinet ministers entered Parihaka. More than 2000 Parihaka people sat quietly on the marae while children greeted the army. Te Whiti and Tohu were led away to a mock trial and incarceration in the South Island. The destruction of Parihaka began immediately. It took the army two weeks to pull down the houses and two months to destroy the crops. Women and girls were raped leading to an outbreak of syphilis in the community. Fort Rolleston was built on a tall hill in the village; four officers and 70 soldiers garrisoned it. The five-year military occupation of Parihaka had begun.
Throughout the wars of the 1860s the Parihaka leaders forbade the use of arms and condemned violence and greed. They challenged the colonial government over the illegality of the wars, the confiscation of the land and the punitive policies the settler government enacted against Māori. When asked what he thought of the great European technology Te Whiti replied that ‘Indeed the Pākehā did have useful technology but not the kindness of heart to see that Māori also possessed much great technology which, if Pākehā were prepared to adopt, would lead to stability and peace and the building of a great new society’. In 1883 the Parihaka leaders were escorted back to Parihaka but hundreds of their men and youths remained incarcerated in the South Island, their families living in extreme poverty.
On his return Te Whiti resurrected the practice of discussions each month but used these meetings to mount further protest action on confiscated lands. In 1886 he was imprisoned again along with Titokowaru his protest companion. Days before Te Whiti was released in 1888 his wife and the mother of his children, Hikurangi, died. He was not allowed to return for her tangihanga (funeral).
Te Whiti returned to Parihaka in 1888. The modernisation of Parihaka continued at a great pace. Elaborate guesthouses were built complete with hot and cold running water. Streets, lighting and drainage were installed along with a bakery, an abattoir, shops and a bank. Parihaka people ran agricultural contracts throughout Taranaki, sowing seed, cropping and labouring.
On 12 July 1898 the last of the Parihaka prisoners returned to a hero’s welcome. Parihaka was described in the 1890s and again in 1902 as being ahead of or in line with the most advanced municipal developments in the country. The leaders Te Whiti and Tohu died during the year 1907. It is to this momentous set of events in this country’s history that groups around the country are looking for a principled and courageous example of peaceful protest, a stand that Mahatma Gandhi acknowledged as preceding his own.        


The Shame of Nations - A New Record is Set for Spending on War

by Lawrence Wittner                             Common Dreams                                                     April 23, 2012

On April 17, 2012, the highly-respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) released its latest study of world military spending. (This) reached a record $1,738 billion in 2011 -- an increase of $138 billion over the previous year. The United States accounted for 41 percent of that, or $711 billion.

Some news reports have emphasized that, from the standpoint of reducing reliance on armed might, this actually represents progress. After all, the increase in “real” global military spending -- that is, expenditures after corrections for inflation and exchange rates -- was only 0.3 percent. But why are military expenditures continuing to increase -- indeed, why aren’t they substantially decreasing -- given the governmental austerity measures of recent years? Amid the economic crisis that began in late 2008 most governments have been cutting back their spending dramatically on education, health care, housing, parks, and other vital social services. However, there have not been corresponding cuts in their military budgets.

Americans, particularly, might seek to understand why in this context U.S. military spending has not been significantly decreased, instead of being raised by $13 billion -- admittedly a “real dollar” decrease of 1.2 percent, but hardly one commensurate with Washington’s wholesale slashing of social spending. Yes, military expenditures by China and Russia increased in 2011. And in “real” terms, too. But, even so, their military strength hardly rivals that of the United States. Indeed, the United States spent about five times as much as China (the world’s #2 military power) and ten times as much as Russia (the world’s #3 military power) on its military forces during 2011. Furthermore, when U.S. allies like Britain, France, Germany, and Japan are factored in, it is clear that the vast bulk of world military expenditures are made by the United States and its military allies. This might account for the fact that the government of China, which accounts for only 8.2 percent of world military spending, believes that increasing its outlay on armaments is reasonable and desirable. Apparently, officials of many nations share that competitive feeling.

Unfortunately, the military rivalry among nations -- one that has endured for centuries -- results in a great squandering of national resources. Many nations, in fact, devote most of their available income to funding their armed forces and their weaponry. In the United States, an estimated 58 percent of the U.S. government’s discretionary tax dollars go to war and preparations for war. “Almost every country with a military is on an insane path, spending more and more on missiles, aircraft, and guns,” remarked John Feffer, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus. “These countries should be confronting the real threats of climate change, hunger, disease, and oppression, not wasting taxpayers’ money on their military.”

Of course, defenders of military expenditures reply that military force actually protects people from war. But does it? If so, how does one explain the fact that the United States -- today’s military giant -- is currently engaged in at least two wars (in Iraq and Afghanistan) and appears to be on the verge of a third (with Iran)? Perhaps the maintenance of a vast military machine does not prevent war but, instead, encourages it.

In short, huge military establishments can be quite counterproductive. Little wonder that they have been condemned repeatedly by great religious and ethical leaders. Even many government officials have decried war and preparations for war -- although usually by nations other than their own.

Thus, the release of the new study by SIPRI should not be a cause for celebration. Rather, it provides an appropriate occasion to contemplate the fact that, this past year, nations spent more money on the military than at any time in human history. Although this situation might still inspire joy in the hearts of government officials, top military officers, and defense contractors, people farther from the levers of military power might well conclude that it’s a hell of a way to run a world.

Lawrence S. Wittner is professor of history emeritus at SUNY/Albany. His latest book is "Working for Peace and Justice: Memoirs of an Activist Intellectual” (University of Tennessee Press).

[Slightly abbrev.]

Friday, 20 April 2012

Final Questions from Kyla

(...just maybe)

What was Winston Churchill’s quote that you felt to be particularly insightful and prophetic?  
This was from one of his books, “My Early Life”.  It went like this: ”The Government that can win a war can seldom make a good peace; and the Government that could make a good peace would never have won the war.” 
Churchill was arguing that winning the war was what was important above everything else. But he did recognise that to win a war requires that the creative virtues which are the glory of a society at peace are all under threat. Empathy is restricted to home soil.  Victory is the supreme goal and all else, he believed, must be subservient to that, even truth and certainly compassion towards those on the other side.  Every war produces evidence that horrific deeds have been rife, and always excused by the need for victory, the supreme goal for every contender. War demands a different mindset to peace.  When the fighting stops, the chance of a lasting peace is small, unless the mindset that ground down the enemy is replaced by a new willingness to share our planet and work together to restore the damage everywhere. If the men who won the war are still in charge they usually demand continued power and dominance, which leads to an uneasy and fragile peace at best. 

What elements or situations make war most likely in your view?
So many factors could be cited on this.  Racial prejudice has usually been a major one.  Anything that enables one cultural group to view another group as unworthy of concern or a threat can lead to action which is anti-social and favours conflict, even violent conflict, even war.  Empathy between such groups is often hard to come by, especially when there is a religious component that can be employed for political gain.  There are often powerful sections of society which have an interest in denying equal rights to those who are seen as different - racially, culturally or ideologically.  Once there is a large trained military force in waiting, ready to resist unwanted change or to meet challenge by another such force, we are on a slippery slope.  When we hear the ominous words “All options are on the table” we have cause to be alarmed. War is an option that is increasingly too destructive of society’s best values to be considered. Even serious preparation to wage war means that young men are schooled in violence, and the consequences are sure to be cruel for any society, particularly for women.
What, in your view, are some of the fundamentals a society needs to have in place in terms of governance to ward against the possibility of war?
It has been said that a society can be judged by how it cares for those at the bottom and on the margins.  When the skills that give effect to caring and compassion are valued and encouraged we have the main ingredients of a creative and peaceful society, able to extend its influence beyond its borders to other struggling groups of humanity.  There is already a growing awareness of need out there, and a willingness to be engaged in ameliorating the conditions that keep so many in poverty and ignorance.  But at the same time, among national decision-makers, other forces are resisting the needed changes in national priorities.  Self-interest and hunger for power and privilege are causing a widening gap between the richest and poorest. Keeping the lid on the resulting unrest is not the way to build a peaceful world. We should plan for a society where all gladly contribute and there is no one who has reason to feel left out.
What would you like to see governments do to ensure and maintain peace?
I recall a NZ Government slogan at a time when compulsory military training was being advocated: “Preserve the peace”.  There is a sense in which peace cannot be “preserved”. It must be built.  Guns and bombing planes build nothing; they are made to inflict death and destruction. {And very profitable that is too, for the military-industrial people, and this is a major part of the problem.)  Schools, hospitals, kindergartens, Universities and organised skills-training schemes – these are the architects and builders of a peaceful world.  Both within our own society and beyond we must aim at giving all members a feeling of belonging to a world with huge potential, in which they are called to have a part, and where we will help them participate.  When we give people hope and a vision we are building peace.  Churches, schools, Governments and laws, all these have an important part to play in this demanding process.  Fear, prejudice, ignorance and greed, these are the enemies, not flesh and blood.

This was Part Four of Kyla's Questions.

Click here for Part One of Kyla's Questions
Click here for Part Two of Kyla's Questions
Click here for Part Three of Kyla's Questions

The Rise of the Killer Drones: How America Goes to War in Secret

An inside look at how killing by remote control has changed the way we fight.

by Michael Hastings                                                                     Published on April 17, 2012 by Rolling Stone

One day in late November, an unmanned aerial vehicle lifted off from Shindand Air Base in western Afghanistan, heading 75 miles toward the border with Iran. The drone's mission: to spy on Tehran's nuclear program, as well as any insurgent activities the Iranians might be supporting in Afghanistan. Not long after takeoff the RQ-170 switched into a semiautonomous mode, following a preprogrammed route under the guidance of drone pilots sitting at computer screens some 7,500 miles away, at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. But before the mission could be completed, something went wrong, the signal vanished, and Creech lost all contact with the drone.

It's unclear exactly what happened. What we do know is that the government lied about who was responsible for the drone. Shortly after the crash on November 29th, the U.S.-led military command in Kabul put out a press release saying it had lost an "unarmed reconnaissance aircraft”. But the drone wasn't under the command of the military – it was operated by the CIA, as the spy agency itself was later forced to admit.

During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the military conducted only a handful of drone missions. Today, the Pentagon deploys a fleet of 19,000 drones, relying on them for classified missions that once belonged exclusively to Special Forces units or covert operatives on the ground. American drones have been sent to spy on or kill targets in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Libya. Drones routinely patrol the Mexican border, and they provided aerial surveillance over Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In his first three years, Obama has unleashed 268 covert drone strikes, five times the total George W. Bush ordered during his eight years in office. All told, drones have been used to kill more than 3,000 people designated as terrorists, including at least four U.S. citizens. In the process, according to human rights groups, they have also claimed the lives of more than 800 civilians.

The use of drones is rapidly transforming the way we go to war. On the battlefield, a squad leader can receive real-time data from a drone that enables him to view the landscape for miles in every direction, dramatically expanding the capabilities of what would normally have been a small and isolated unit. "It's democratized information on the battlefield," says Daniel Goure, a national security expert who served in the Defense Department during both Bush administrations. "It's like a reconnaissance version of Twitter." Drones have also radically altered the CIA, turning a civilian intelligence-gathering agency into a full-fledged paramilitary operation – one that routinely racks up nearly as many scalps as any branch of the military.

But the implications of drones go far beyond a single combat unit or civilian agency. On a broader scale, the remote-control nature of unmanned missions enables politicians to wage war while claiming we're not at war – as the United States is currently doing in Pakistan. What's more, the Pentagon and the CIA can now launch military strikes or order assassinations without putting a single boot on the ground – and without worrying about a public backlash over U.S. soldiers coming home in body bags. The immediacy and secrecy of drones make it easier than ever for leaders to unleash America's military might – and harder than ever to evaluate the consequences of such clandestine attacks.
"Drones have really become the counterterrorism weapon of choice for the Obama administration," says Rosa Brooks, a Georgetown law professor who helped establish a new Pentagon office devoted to legal and humanitarian policy. "What I don't think has happened enough is taking a big step back and asking, 'Are we creating more terrorists than we're killing? Are we fostering militarism and extremism in the very places we're trying to attack it?' A great deal about the drone strikes is still shrouded in secrecy. It's very difficult to evaluate from the outside how serious a threat the targeted people pose." 

[Excerpts only]

The Republicans Who Want Ignorance to Get Equal Time in Schools

 No more free thinking and empirical evidence, just the Bible, rumour and Fox News

by Diane Roberts            Guardian/UK              April 17, 2012

Not content with merely waging war on women, Republicans are targeting another enemy of conservatism: education. New Hampshire state Republican Jerry Bergevin recently railed against science and the atheist eggheads who call themselves teachers: "I want the full portrait of evolution and the people who came up with the ideas to be presented. It's a world view and it's godless.”  What do these no 'count heathen elitist PhD Darwinites know? While New Hampshire didn't end up passing Bergevin's anti-evolution law, Tennessee did. The government of Tennessee wants you to know they ain't kin to no monkey.
Tennessee, you will recall, is the proud home of the famous "Monkey trial" of 1925 in which John Scopes, a high school science instructor, was prosecuted for teaching evolution. These days the forces of anti-thinking don't simply deny the science, they demand that ignorance be given equal time. David Fowler, a former state senator and head of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, who helped craft the bill aided and abetted by a creationist front group called (with no discernable irony) "The Discovery Institute", complains that Tennessee textbooks call the Genesis story a "creation myth" – as opposed to revealed truth. Moreover, teachers don't present a "balanced" view of evolution. They don't present a "balanced" view of the laws of gravity, the speed of light and the fact that the earth revolves around the sun, either.
And speaking of heliocentrism, James Inhofe of Oklahoma likes to compare himself to Galileo. He's persecuted for proclaiming that "global warming is a hoax". While 97% of climate scientists accept anthropogenic climate change, that "doesn't mean anything". His journal of choice is the Bible: "Genesis 8:22: 'as long as the earth remains there will be springtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night. My point is, God's still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous."
God better get a move on with Florida. It's the state most vulnerable to the effects of melting ice caps and rising sea levels, what with it being a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. More than 2.5 million people live on the coasts and might soon find themselves sharing digs with dolphins.
In other parts of America, the enforcers of know-nothingness have decided they want doctors to lie to their patients. Lawmakers in Kansas and New Hampshire have mandated that physicians tell women seeking abortions that the procedure causes breast cancer. Never mind that it's not true, at least according to the American Cancer Society, the World Health Organisation, the National Cancer Institute, and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
But the state has not confined itself to the endorsement of medical stupidity, it embraces censorship and historical misinformation as well. Republicans in state government, worried that children "of a particular ethnic group" (they mean Latinos) were being taught that the gringos stole their land, outlawed "ethnic studies" in 2011. Of course, the fact is gringos did steal their land – Arizona was part of Mexican-ruled Alta California until the expansionist Americans invaded in 1846. According to the 2010 census, Latino kids now make up the majority in Arizona's state schools, but teaching them about their heritage is apparently tantamount to advocating the overthrow of the US government.
And there you have it. No reading, no exploration, no empirical evidence, no learning, no free play of ideas. Just rumour, Fox News and the Bible. Why think? It'll just make you unhappy.

America's deadly devotion to guns

There are around 90 guns for every 100 Americans yet, despite 85 fatal shootings a day, the mighty US gun lobby is as powerful as ever.
Gary Younge               Guardian/UK                16 April 2012
America's relationship with guns is as deep and complex at home as it is perplexing abroad. One of the most powerful lobbying organisations in the country and deeply embedded in the Republican party, the National Rifle Association (NRA) still calls itself the country's oldest civil rights organisation. The fact that most British police are not armed confounds even the most liberal here. And even though the nation is evenly split on whether there should be more gun control, every time there is a gun-related tragedy the issue has been effectively removed from the electoral conversation. And at the centre of these apparent contradictions stands the NRA.
Guns in America are no trifling matter. There are approximately 90 guns for every 100 people in the US (a rate almost 15 times higher than England and Wales). More than 85 people a day are killed with guns and more than twice that number are injured with them. Gun murders are the leading cause of death among African Americans under the age of 44. And the NRA is no joke. Claiming gun ownership as a civil liberty protected by the second amendment, it opposes virtually all gun control legislation. It claims more than 4 million members, has a budget of more than $300m and spent almost $3m last year on lobbying.
The second amendment to the US constitution reads: "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." "It's about independence and freedom," explains David Britt. "When you have a democratic system and an honourable people then you trust the citizens." Britt, an affable man in his 60s, does not lend himself easily to caricature. Elsewhere in the room, one T-shirt quotes Thessalonians 3:10 ("If any would not work neither should he eat") on the back and "I hate welfare" on the front. Another one announces: "Christian, American, Heterosexual, Pro-Gun, Conservative. Any Questions?"
Britt believes individual gun ownership is a guarantor of democracy. "In Europe they cede their rights and freedoms to their governments. But we think the government should be subservient to us." For all the rightwing demagoguery associated with the NRA, this is quite a radical notion. The trouble is that, left in the hands of individuals, each gets to define their own version of tyranny and potentially undermine democracy with their firearms. Some believe the healthcare law enacted by a democratically elected Congress is tyrannical.
Elizabeth Watkins lost two of her sons to gun violence. Timothy, 28, was shot after a fight in Miami in 1990. The second, Mark, also 28, was caught in crossfire while visiting a friend in St Louis. Watkins used to attend funerals of those who fell to gun violence in the city. “I had to stop after a while,” she says. “I couldn’t take it any more.”
Given the scale of the problem, one is struck by how modest many of these demands are (for gun control laws). Yet the mantra from NRA enthusiasts and others is that guns don't kill people, people kill people. This ignores the fact that people can kill people far easier with guns than almost anything else and that, in a country with high levels of inequality, poverty and segregation, such as America, they are more likely to do so.
The NRA is not entirely certain what to do with its partial success. Partly it keeps pushing for laws that would expand the places where guns might be carried, including churches, bars and college campuses. Partly, it opposes even the most basic controls, such as legislation to ban gun sales to people on the government's terrorist watchlist, meaning a suspected terrorist can be denied the right to board a plane but not to buy a gun. Time and again people paint scenarios in which I or my family might be attacked, threatened or in some way violated, as a rationale for arming myself. In this atmosphere, Richardson's evocation of Rwanda, while extreme, is not entirely ludicrous.
"Ultimately it comes down to whether you trust other people or not," says one gun control activist. "We do, they don't." The ideas that the government might protect you, that the police might come, that if nobody had guns then nobody would need to worry about being shot, are laughed away. "By the time you call the police it could be too late," says Britt, who has never had to pull a gun on anyone but has had to make it clear he might a few times. "All they can do is write the report." When the breakfast is over I tell Britt that I am heading into town to see some people. "Be careful," he says. "St Louis is a very dangerous place."

Faith Without Theology

Ian Harris                         Otago Daily Times-Faith and Reason                            April 13, 2012

Fancy the sizzle of a sausage, but not the sausage itself? Or a soak in warm bath-water, but not if you have to get into the tub?  If so, you’ll be attracted to the latest book by English author Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists. He thinks he has found a way to offer his fellow atheists the sizzle and the soak – all the savoury and restorative benefits of religion – while rejecting the substance and context of religion itself.

 He is spurred to do so because he diagnoses an emptiness at the heart of modern living, an emptiness that religion once filled. His remedy: atheists should identify where religions have succeeded in meeting human needs and aspirations over the centuries, then reproduce these features in ways they can approve of, without recourse to God or the supernatural. After all, he says, Christianity was able to take the pagan festivals of spring and mid-winter and transform them into Easter and Christmas. Why shouldn’t atheists reverse the process and turn them back into non-religious festivals? All the sizzle, no sausage! 

The idea is not new, but full marks to de Botton for venturing far enough beyond the orthodoxy of fundamentalist atheism to discern that religions also have their good points. The militant atheist wing has responded with outrage, swooping on him with all the derision they usually reserve for religion. Atheism is apparently too sacred a cause to tolerate infidels who betray the creed that religion is by its very nature beyond redemption. 

But de Botton holds his ground. Life-long atheist though he is, he cannot blind himself to the  many positive contributions he sees religions as making to human existence. “The wisdom of the faiths,” he says, “belongs to all mankind, even the most rational among us, and deserves to be selectively reabsorbed by the supernatural’s greatest enemies. Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.” 

To illustrate his theme, de Botton draws on Christianity, Judaism and Zen Buddhism to commend the way in which, for example, they foster a sense of community. Within their religious spaces they uphold a different set of values from those that permeate the go-getting secularist world. In their worship, differences of age, status, income, race, class, nationality, education and, increasingly, sex and sexual orientation, fall away as the worshippers focus together on God and mystery, and on their shared humanity before God.

 The communal rituals of religion purge, celebrate and renew the common life. Festivals heighten these experiences. The Day of Atonement, he says, gives Jews a recurring opportunity to review their actions over the preceding year, identify people they have offended or behaved unjustly towards, and say sorry.  The religions extol virtues such as kindness and tenderness as elements of a moral framework guiding all human behaviour. They provide role models in their scriptures and their histories: the heroes, saints and martyrs.
“A well-functioning secular society would think with care about its role models,” says de Botton. “It would not only provide us with film stars and singers.” Or, closer to home, rugby players. The religions also do well in educating their adherents in a systematic and recurring way. Readings, rituals, calendars, music, spiritual exercises and retreats keep people focused on their faith’s perspective on life. Religions have evolved to meet the needs of the human psyche, with all its hopes, anxieties and vulnerability. They are not blind to the darker side of human existence. They offer a perspective beyond the limitations of the daily grind. They nurture wisdom. 

De Botton challenges atheists to imitate them purposefully: “So opposed have many atheists been to the content of religious belief that they have omitted to appreciate the inspiring and still valid overall object: to provide us with well-structured advice on how to lead our lives.”  The arts and culture have a role to play, he says – but not in a moral no-man’s-land. Curators might learn from Christianity by insisting that galleries and museums, for example, “use beautiful objects in order to try to make us good and wise.” 

Church architecture has been used to express Christian views of life and faith, and de Botton speculates wistfully on possible atheist equivalents: temples to spring, and to kindness, reflection, forgiveness, perspective, self-knowledge, whatever. After all those compliments to the positive potential of religion in ordinary life, distilling it down to a list of abstract nouns is disappointing. They don’t do justice even to the sizzle, let alone the sausage. On that, more next time.

Sanctions helped give Burma a new start

Withholding trade does work on intransigent regimes. Now it could force President Assad to back down in Syria
Paul Vallely                                             Independent/UK                                         15 April 2012
It was a smart move of David Cameron's to stand next to the woman who was until recently the world's most famous political prisoner, the heroic Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and call for international sanctions on her country to be suspended. Not lifted, but suspended – now that the military junta which had kept her under house arrest for 15 of the past 21 years has finally allowed her to stand for parliament. Sanctions work only if you are prepared to suspend as well as impose them. And there can be little doubt that, despite everything the cynics say about sanctions, this is a situation in which they have undoubtedly worked.

The conventional wisdom among sceptics is that sanctions are the desperate resort of the "something-must-be done" brigade when it is too afraid to send in an army. If sanctions worked, they say, Fidel Castro would have been toppled in Cuba five decades ago. And Saddam Hussein wouldn't have still been in power 13 years after he invaded Kuwait, though there sanctions did appear to have starved the Iraqi dictator of the wherewithal to replenish his weapons of mass destruction.
It is, of course, unarguable that sanctions against Iraq were a moral disaster. Despite the imports allowed under the oil-for-food programme, sanctions killed between 670,000 and 880,000 children under the age of five who would have otherwise survived, according to figures from Yale University's Global Justice Programme. General sanctions hit the most vulnerable hardest, with business failures, unemployment, power cuts and uncontrolled inflation.

But sanctions, when they do work, are never the singular factor in producing the desired outcome. They worked, most famously, to bring down the apartheid system in South Africa not simply through their economic effect but by creating a sense of isolation, and a crisis of legitimacy, among the sports-mad ruling white minority. [But] two decades of sanctions on Burma have regularly been derided as ineffective. US and Europe banned new investment in the country's natural gas, timber, jade and rubies. China, India, Thailand and Singapore were ready to do lucrative deals with its military. Yet the sanctions were sufficient for the generals gradually to realise that the World Bank had been right in 1999 when it said that Burma's poverty and development problems could never be tackled without reform to the regime's political and economic policies. Without change, prosperity would elude Burma.

The military came to see, in David Cameron's words, that "when you look at Burma's neighbours you can see economies that are growing more quickly, poverty that is being tackled more effectively" where democracy goes "hand in hand with greater economic success and growth." Indonesia offers a clear example of how the military can hand over power without sacrificing its economic interests. Smart sanctions, targeted on the ruling elite rather than the country as a whole, have played their part in that. Far from stiffening the resolve of Burma's generals, sanctions finally forced the regime to release many political prisoners, request international observers for parliamentary elections and allow Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters to stand, and win, almost all the seats being contested.

There are lessons for the West in all this. They are that tougher sanctions aimed at getting Iran to halt its uranium enrichment programme will probably not work – for they are not targeted against the elite but against a programme which many Iranians see as a symbol of national pride. Sanctions there could provoke a nationalist backlash. But Syria is a different matter. The regime there exports about 150,000 barrels a day of a sour crude oil which contains high amounts of sulphur that only European refineries have the capability to handle. China could not refine it. Tighter EU sanctions on that would choke off the $7m a day with which President Assad buys the bullets to kill his own citizens. Of that a "mystery 5 per cent" is routinely siphoned off by cronies of the regime.

The Syrian business class continues to be vocal in its backing of Assad. Yet banks in Lebanon report a large increase in dollar deposits. The Assad-supporting Syrian elite is voting with its assets. In apartheid South Africa, sanctions worked because they hurt the strong Afrikaner business community. It, in turn, put pressure on its white leader F W de Klerk to negotiate with the imprisoned Nelson Mandela.

Something similar could happen in Syria. Tightening EU oil sanctions could accelerate this loss of business confidence in Assad, cause a run on the Syrian pound and leave him without the funds to pay his forces. Stronger sanctions, combined with the scale of the insurrection, could here again prove decisive. Sanctions can work, for those leaders who know when they should be tightened and also when they must best be loosened. 


Monday, 9 April 2012

Yet More of Kyla's Questions

You’ve often said that your true education began there – some was from all the reading you did but how illuminating was it rubbing shoulders with men from all walks of life? What age were you?

I was 23 in March 1942 when detention began for me, though the earlier men had been arrested and later sentenced from about July 1941 onwards. So there were about 300 men at Strathmore Detention Camp when I arrived there after my month in Mt Eden Prison. It was a lottery as to when you faced the music and I was lucky. But I was not a typical C.O. Most were older than their years, and more confident in stating why they were there, while my preference was to search for the appropriate words and write them down to reflect on rather than expound. I was a listener, not a talker, in most groups, and constantly surprised by what I heard and had not encountered before.

So I was hungry for books that could explain and give insightful analysis in so many problem areas, in religious and church matters and also in political and life questions. I signed up to take Education stage 1 by correspondence, but this form of study was denied to all C.O.s. So it was all hit and miss, according to what books I could borrow. Here again I was fortunate. My cobbers Roy and Jack were both determined to extend their thinking, so we read and studied and argued incessantly. It certainly extended my horizons.

Mt Eden prison library was hopeless – most of the books were 30 or 40 years old. Mt Crawford was a bit better with a very few decent books left behind – one was a study of the poet Robert Browning, perhaps left by a conscientious objector. There were only about 6 or 8 books worth reading, if that. Kind visitors loaned me good books – these were people who were involved in the peace movement, Methodists and Quakers. It was quite a demanding thing to be a prison visitor. People couldn’t obtain the petrol coupons to drive up that hill. Mostly they came on bikes…

To what extent did this experience shape you? What year did you leave detention?

I left Mt Crawford on 2nd April, 1946. The previous four years had probably not changed me as much as it might have done. My revulsion at the losses and demands and consequences of war was stronger than ever, and I still clung to my Christian commitment despite some doubts about the traditional institution of the Church which still saw war as justifiable. I felt that I understood the world a little better, but there were still a good many unanswered questions. I put them aside and was anxious to get back to meaningful work where I was a key player.

I became far less naïve, largely through reading and meditating on matters. After Strathmore I spent hardly any of the time with people who had a similar way of thinking to me. People there were in fairly close knit groups. The Fundamentalists believed the bible was literally the word of God - Thou Shalt Not Kill. It was a dutiful thing with the backing of their leaders… They probably regarded the Methodist group as very doubtful Christians. We didn’t believe the bible was without contradictions. They saw it much simpler terms. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were also very solid and dutiful; they wouldn’t salute the doctor or the superintendent in prison. They would be given three days bread and water again and again.

Can you describe the political and economic climate of NZ when you emerged?

There was a common feeling among most folk then. The war is over, let’s get rid of all those wartime restrictions and concentrate on personal success and build a new life that has meaning. So the wartime coalition Government was soon replaced by a conservative one, with little desire to think in terms of community and sharing for the sake of a common goal. The Baby Boomer generation was about to show up. I too was caught up in the general surge towards a new life.

Rosemary, my grandmother, met you then. What was her response to the choices you had made and your pacifism? Was she immediately sympathetic to your philosophy and beliefs?

Yes, very much so. After all, she had spent quite some time with her Uncle Gordon and Aunt Edith, both ardent pacifists whom she admired. But she did tell me, soon after we were engaged, that she would be a very angry and probably violent mother if her children were ever threatened. Abstract arguments failed to move her. Even so, I couldn’t ever imagine Rosemary with a revolver.

KM: You both seemed so politically and spiritually in tune. Did Grandma ever disagree strongly with any of your arguments about the issues of war, peace and the nature of Christianity?

No, there was never anything like that. At the same time Rosemary was my best critic, who checked my sermons and bits of writing for The Christian Pacifist in the 1950s and told me how to improve them. She was always honest. It was a good feeling when she praised what I wrote. Regular church attendance for Rosemary became an issue later, when energy was low and demands great. I should have listened more to her plea for more quality family time at home. There were small differences of emphasis on our faith but so much more that we agreed on. Regular times of meditation were important for Rosemary. Spoken prayer she was much less keen on and I also found that difficult. We were both sure however, that compassion and caring were the important things to concentrate on.

You’ve commented on the standard wisdom that suggests WW1 was a waste of lives and a mistake, whereas fighting in WW2 was a necessity. How do you think WW2 could have or should have been avoided peaceably…?

WW1 was simply a clash of competing Empires using traditional means to establish dominance; it was a horror. When it ended there was a strong desire for a world that would never allow this to happen again. But the seeds were there for another conflict, with no nation willing to give up significant power in the interests of peace. So it seemed that there was no other way to remedy gross injustice and humiliation except to trust to the traditional means once again. A successful war teaches all the wrong answers to many desperate people who have suffered. On both sides. The victors sought to maintain their dominance. Those who hoped to challenge that soon became convinced that only military power would decide the matter. The religious institutions and churches were too identified with their national allegiance and culture to press for a rejection of war and a commitment to justice. Only a more just world could dampen the fires that would result in war. Demagogic political leaders gained power by exploiting old prejudices and present hardship, and once again the military option was the only one that was ready to counter the challenge. Another horror followed. Consider some figures of deaths, military and civilian:
                            Military            Military & Civilian
UK                     383,000                      450,000
US                     416,000                      418,000
Japan             2,120,000                   2,600,000
Germany        5,530,000                   6,630,000
France              217,600                      567,600
Soviets           8,800,000                 23,400,000

These figures for civilian losses are taken from the lower of the two estimates given by Wikipedia. They were certainly greater. So we have a total of about 34 million dead, of whom about 1,500,000 are from the victors of WW1 - US, UK and France. Was this the only way to deal with a crisis that was labelled Nazi aggression, but was actually the result of long avoidance of facing up to the demons of nationalism and racial prejudice that were present to some degree everywhere? These needed another form of attack that would have been costly, but not as costly and counter-productive as war. These demons are still with us and threatening more carnage.

You ask, what was the peaceful alternative to WW2. To be effective politically there needs to be a reordering of priorities. If this does not happen, the next crisis in international affairs is likely to find the world’s political leaders relying on the default setting of most Governments, which is to settle the argument by another contest in killing power. But recent wars suggest that though this may reinforce military dominance of the First World Powers at horrendous cost it does not bring a just peace. Many of the world’s poorest have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it will only be after a long healing process that we will have a peace that can endure.

This was Part Three of Kyla's Questions.
Click here for Part One of Kyla's Questions
Click here for Part Two of Kyla's Questions
Click here for Part Four of Kyla's Questions

Making the Connections

by Adrienne Rich                                         Common Dreams                                        March 29, 2012

Editor's note: Poet, essayist, and political activist Adrienne Rich died this week at the age of 82. The following is an essay of hers Common Dreams ran in December of 2002. It reads as well now as ever. Thank you, Adrienne.

A sense of the larger picture is growing among US citizens, notably, though not only, among a young generation, along with a revulsion against official and corporate contempt for the will and welfare of ordinary citizens, for the value of human life itself. The antiwar movement of this century is a movement to reclaim democracy and to push it further. It has no token national leaders; it is various in its formations and organizing principles, often originating and working locally, yet in touch with other groups. It is connected through free giveaway papers like the San Francisco-based, nationally distributed War Times, through Internet sites and e-mail correspondence, through teach-ins, vigils, strikes, newsletters, cell phones, radio, cartoon strips, art and bumper stickers, benefits and much else.

Links between militarization, racism, economic and gender inequity, perversion of the criminal justice system and the electoral system are made not because of laundry-list sectarian opportunism but because, more and more, the actual connections are being laid bare by the activities of the current Administration and its corporate family. The origins of this antiwar movement and all it implies lie in the extremism of a long-unresponsive government, a stumbling and incoherent empire, most of whose citizens don't want an empire at such cost, if they want one at all.

To be "antiwar" is not a simple position. It means disentangling the strands that connect the weapons industry with the lack of will for diplomacy and coherent foreign policy. It means understanding what the militarization of a society costs, economically and socially and in terms of civil liberties, the propaganda of violence as both heroism and efficient solution. It means probing the official versions to reveal how and why we are being driven toward aggression. To be "antiwar" is to be for public debate and knowledge, the foundations of democratic polity.

A new growth in public consciousness and political intelligence challenges an autocratic government from within and is seen as dangerous to vested interests. Like every past movement for humanization, for the amelioration of suffering, this antiwar movement will be attacked not only by the right but by onetime liberals who fear the costs of real peace and justice more than they dislike the costs of empire. Regime Change Begins at Home: Vote, said one bumper sticker during the last election. Regime change is a very large order indeed, and will involve a long process of public education and self-education, of demanding and rewarding courage in elected officials and of political work beyond the ballot. Demonstrations are the tip of the iceberg in this process.

Making clear how issues are connected has been the great work of the progressive movements of the past forty years. Keeping issues separate, silencing those who try to connect them, has been the great strategy of media and of presidential power. The fear of socialism, even of the word itself, suggests how our social imaginations have been abridged and hampered. For the question of the future is, ineluctably, After regime change, what? What are we for? What do we want to see happen? And how do we want to make it happen?

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012) was a poet, author, feminist and activist.

Jobs in a high-growth field

Nick Turse                        Pub. by                                                        March 22, 2012.

Graduating from high school soon? Looking for a job in a high-growth field? Like working outdoors and traveling to exotic locales? How does $103,269 a year strike you?

At, high-schoolers are encouraged “to explore all possibilities and gain insight into possible futures through “unbiased, detailed information,” including data from the Departments of Commerce, Education, and Labor. “In addition to college admissions details, average salaries, and employment trends,” reads an explanation in that website’s fine print, “ provides advice on everything from taking the SAT to interviewing for a first job to preparing for boot camp.” Did you catch that last part? Boot camp. Which brings us back to that $103,269 a year job. just happens to be run by the Department of Defense and that high-demand job is as a “Special Forces officer.” In 2006, the website notes, there were only 1,493 slots in that field; by 2010, 2,320. That it’s an American job-growth area shouldn’t surprise any of us. After all, in the last year, Special Forces officers starred in a box-office topping motion picture, gunned down pirates, carried out assassinations, and expanded their global war from 75 to 120 countries. No wonder it’s been boom times for special ops officers. is, however, far from the only Defense Department website making a play for a young audience. There’s, with its “high school dropout prevention campaign,” sponsored by the Army. (Which makes sense because, as TomDispatch reported in 2005, the military has studied what makes college students drop out and how the armed services can capitalize on that urge.) At the other end of the educational spectrum, the Army sponsors eCYBERMISSION, “a free, web-based Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics competition for students in grades six through nine where teams can compete for state, regional and national awards while working to solve problems in their community.” And then there’s“Young people need support as they consider their life path,” reads its pitch. “This site aims to help them and their families understand service options and benefits so they can make informed choices.”

“Military service is not for everyone,” confides. “It requires self-discipline, intense physical work, and time away from family and friends while protecting America and its citizens at home and abroad. For some, these commitments impose too great a burden.” But here’s a surprise for those presumably too lazy, weak, or emotionally needy to do anything but go to college (what snobs!): they’ll find a complete line-up of government agencies and national security types waiting to teach them (or beat them) on the quad, as Michael Gould-Wartofsky explains in his latest report on the state of state repression on American college campuses.

It turns out may really be onto something. These days, given that you may have to brave batons, CS gas, and Tasers just to get to English 101 -- and since officers in the Special Operations Forces need a degree anyway (what snobs!) -- some military training might come in handy before you head for college.

Nick Turse

[This report is followed by the Michael Gould-Wartofsky report referred to above. Read on website]