Archive for May, 2014

The Poisoning of the American Mind

May 31, 2014

Exene Cervenka

Exene Cervenka, a member of the 1980’s punk band X, has made the claim that the recent killings in Santa Barbara were a hoax. She also claims that the Newtown shootings were a hoax. She says these things are part of a conspiracy by the government to take away our guns. (If the government really wanted to take away our guns, it would go ahead and do it.) There are other people besides Cervenka who believe these things. Some of them have harassed the family members of the Newtown victims.

Think back to the Columbine shootings in 1999. No one ever claimed the shootings were a hoax. The only controversy was over whether stricter gun control laws might have prevented the shootings. The term “false flag event” didn’t even exist in people’s vocabularies at the time. What happened between then and now were the September 11th attacks and the conspiracy industry that grew up in their wake. This industry claimed that the government, the media, and the military had conspired in the attacks and in a subsequent cover-up. If someone is willing to believe that hundreds, if not thousands, of people willingly committed treason just to give George W. Bush a political advantage, it’s not much of a stretch for that person to believe that almost anything in the news is a hoax.

9/11 conspiracy theories were mostly associated with the Left, but there were some on the Right who took them up, most notably Alex Jones. Jones’s Facebook page has 799,491 likes. (Consider that the largest far left group in the US, the ISO, has fewer than a thousand members.) Jones’s followers and like-minded people make up a small percentage of the population, but they are becoming increasingly vocal and militant. It’s worth remembering here that it only took one person to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City.

I don’t pretend to know what to do about this problem. What I do know is that we shouldn’t simply dismiss these people as funny kooks. We need to think seriously about what to do about this problem before somebody gets hurt.

There is No War on Islam

May 28, 2014

C.J. Werleman

Alternet has an article by CJ Werleman, entitled “The American Disdain for Self-Reflection: What We Still Haven’t Learned After 9/11 and the Boston Marathon Attacks”, which I highly recommend reading. I have to take issue, though, with one argument in it. Discussing the recently released note by Dhokhar Tsarneyev, one of the Boston Marathon bombers, Werleman writes:

    Like every terrorist who attacked America on 9/11 and since, Tsarnaev made his grievance clear – that his attacks against Americans were motivated politically (wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), rather than religiously, but we continue to wage a war on Islam that is dressed up as a war on terror.

There is no war on Islam. True, the US’s drone attacks kill Muslims, but that is not a war on Islam. Among other things, the US supports the government of Saudi Arabia, which is an Islamic theocracy. Some will say that I am quibbling here, but this is actually an important point. We are dealing with complicated issues here – issues that are emotionally charged for some people – so we need to choose our words carefully.

Tossing around a term like “war on Islam” merely obscures the complexities of the current situation. In particular, it ignores the class dimension of the conflict. Here in the US, middle class and working class Muslims are monitored and sometimes harassed by the police. Yet our government and business elites flatter and cajole the leaders of Muslim countries, seeking to do business with them. This has resulted in some interesting contradictions. For example, the Sultan of Brunei – who recently announced that the citizens of his country will now be subjected to “full shariah“, including stonings, floggings, and amputations – owns the Beverly Hills Hotel, a Southern California landmark.

So we need to be more precise in our terminology, to express the full awfulness of what our government is doing.

Veterans Affairs

May 27, 2014


On no other topic does our society ooze so much hypocrisy as it does on the topic of veterans. We are told over and over that we “honor our vets”. We have TV commercials in which the theme of the veteran returning home to his family is used to sell products such as beer. Yet when the government cuts unemployment benefits and food stamps for veterans, no one protests. No one protested when George W. Bush cut veterans’ benefits. No one protested when the Republicans recently defeated a bill that would have increased veterans’ benefits. We honor our veterans in words only.

The VA has a long history of scandals. (You can find a time line here.) VA hospitals are chronically underfunded. These hospitals are mostly used by low income veterans. My father, a World War II veteran, never went to a VA hospital when he was ill. He had good insurance through his employer. He didn’t need the VA.

Both the government and the military view veterans as people who are no longer useful, who are now merely a burden. That is why the VA will always be underfunded and prone to corruption.

Trigger Warnings

May 21, 2014


Trigger warning: this article is about trigger warnings, which may be upsetting to some people if they have ever had a traumatic experience related to trigger warnings. If this is true of you, you had better stop reading this RIGHT NOW.

Okay, now we can proceed. The student senate at the University of California in Santa Barbara recently passed a resolution urging the school to “begin the process of instituting mandatory ‘trigger warnings’ on class syllabi”. These trigger warnings are meant to alert people who have had traumatic experiences that a text may contain something they will find upsetting. Similar demands have been made at other schools. One of the texts often cited as potentially upsetting is The Great Gatsby. (No, I’m not making this up.) According to a student at Rutgers University, a trigger warning for this novel might be: “suicide,” “domestic abuse” and “graphic violence”. According to an opinion piece in the Rutgers student newspaper, Gatsby “…possesses a variety of scenes that reference gory, abusive and misogynistic violence.” It’s been a while since I’ve read Fitzgerald’s novel, but all I recall with regards to violent content is that a woman is struck and killed by a car, and later her father shoots and kills a man who he mistakenly believes was the one who killed her. If that’s enough to trigger somebody, that person’s head would probably explode if he were to read Treasure Island, or, for that matter, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Oberlin College has taken this idea further. In a recent teachers guide, they advised professors that “anything could be a trigger”, and they should “remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals.” Triggering materials may relate to “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression.” So, to be safe, one should try to avoid almost the whole of world literature. In response to widespread criticism, Oberlin has tabled this policy.

This push for trigger warnings is really a form of feel good liberalism. Students who demand such policies can feel that they are “protecting” people who have been traumatized in some way. The real effect in the long run will to stymie free speech and academic inquiry. We live in a world full of disturbing ideas and events. It is not the job of the university to shield students from these things. It is, rather, to broaden their sense of the world, in all its good and bad aspects.

The Origins of Putinophilia

May 19, 2014


There is a growing divide in the U.S. Left, between those who simply oppose U.S. intervention in Ukraine, and those who defend, or even praise, Russia’s strongman, Vladimir Putin. Things haven’t always been like this. If I remember correctly, during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, only the Workers World Party and its front groups defended Saddam Hussein. The rest of the left had no illusions about the dictator. I think a change began in the Left after the anti-war movement failed to prevent the invasion. There began to be talk about a “red-brown” strategy, that is, forming alliances with right-wing, or even fascist, groups that claim to be opposed to U.S. imperialism. The thinking was that the Left by itself was not strong enough, or maybe not committed enough, to successfully struggle against imperialism. And if it is permissible to work with groups with terrible politics, then it is permissible to support governments with terrible politics. Thus, it became possible to see any dictator who ran afoul of the US as an ally against imperialism. Gadaffi and Assad were now on our side, according to this view.

Putin has acquired a special place in these people’s eyes. During Russia’s 2008 border war with Georgia, Bush was unable to do anything. Many on the Left saw this as a humiliation for the hated Bush. (Although I suspect that Bush really didn’t care.) So now Putin can do no wrong in their eyes. He can imprison his critics and persecute gays and ethnic minorities, and they will simply explain it away or ignore it. And as Putin has grown a halo, Obama has become the embodiment of pure evil in these people’s eyes. John Pilger, for example, has claimed, on the basis of no evidence, that Obama was plotting to seize Russia’s naval base in Crimea and start a war. How can anyone take this seriously?

If the Left is to avoid becoming completely irrelevant, it needs to return to the principled anti-imperialism of the past.

Chicken Little Comes to CounterPunch

May 15, 2014

John Pilger

The May 14th edition of CounterPunch has an article by John Pilger with the ominous title of A World War is Beckoning. Pilger begins by asking a couple of rhetorical questions:

    Why do we ­tolerate the threat of ­another world war in our name? Why do we allow lies that justify this risk?

Uh, maybe because there is no threat of another world war in our name? I suspect that isn’t the answer that Pilger wants to hear. Later on, he writes:

    For the first time since the Reagan years, the US is ­threatening to take the world to war. With eastern Europe and the Balkans now military outposts of Nato, the last “buffer state” bordering Russia is being torn apart. We in the west are backing neo-Nazis in a country where Ukrainian Nazis backed Hitler.

Pilger needs to get a grip. Placing mild economic sanctions on Russia is not “threatening to take the world to war”.

    Having masterminded the coup in February against the democratically elected government in Kiev, Washington’s planned seizure of Russia’s ­historic, legitimate warm-water naval base in Crimea failed.

There is evidence that the US has meddled in Ukraine’s internal affairs, but it doesn’t necessarily follow from this that the US “masterminded the coup in February”. And he offers no evidence for his amazing claim that US planned to seize Russia’s naval base in Crimea. This would have been an act of war, not to mention an incredibly stupid thing to do.

This is an example of the Chicken Little argument that has become popular among the Left in recent years. For the past three years some on the Left have been screaming that Obama wants to go to war with Syria, yet said war has failed to materialize. We need to try to understand what the people in power are actually trying to do, rather than just assume that they have the most evil intentions imaginable.

There is a good deal that the Obama administration can be criticized for in this situation. And too many people in the media have given Obama a pass on this. (Even worse, some of them have urged the president to “get tough” with Putin.) There needs to be a congressional investigation of the role that the State Department and the CIA have played in the recent events in Ukraine. I’m afraid, however, that this will probably never happen. (Because, you know, Benghazi is far more important.)

The Cecily McMillan Trial

May 6, 2014


The guilty verdict in the Cecily McMillan trial is a reminder that we do not live in a democracy but in a police state. It is meant to remind us that the police can do anything they want to us, and there is nothing we can do about it.

What I find significant about this trial is that of all the people in OWS that they could have targeted, the police and the prosecutors chose McMillan. She is not an anarchist, and she is not a Marxist. She has fairly mainstream political views. The point they seem to be making is that they are willing to go after anyone.

George Washington’s Dentures and the Reliability of Sources

May 5, 2014


Like millions of Americans, I was taught as a child that George Washington had wooden teeth. Like so much of American folklore, this story conceals a sadder truth.

Over the past several days, several of my Facebook friends have linked to an article titled “George Washington Had Teeth That Actually Were Yanked From The Heads Of His Slaves And Fitted Into His Dentures” on a website called Reunion Black Family. The article starts out in a plausible vein, but then I came to this sentence:

    Consider, for example, his December 19, 1786 vow to never again purchase another slave from Zionist corporations that invaded Africa villages with guns and kidnapped people.

Zionist corporations? This has the stench of crankery about it. I decided to find out more about this website. From what I have been able to gather, it is owned by a man named Kola Afolabi, who apparently lives in Nigeria. He is a pan-African nationalist. He likes Gadaffi and Mugabe. He dislikes Christianity and Islam. Last year he got into a dispute with Gallery Ezakwantu, a website devoted to African art. They accused him of using copyrighted images from their website without their permission. One of the articles on Afolabi’s site is titled “On 9/11 about 4000 Jews who work in WTC were on leave. So where were they all gone just on that Day? Think about it” Yeah, think about it. I will spare you any quotes from this article. The title says it all.

So, Reunion Black Family is not a reliable source. This leaves the question: did Washington use teeth from his slaves in his dentures? I consulted several sources on this topic. They all said that Washington’s dentures were made from human teeth, animal teeth, and teeth carved from ivory. (The ivory teeth tended to turn brown over time. This may be the origin of the story about Washington having wooden teeth.) They did not say where the human teeth came from. Then I came across an article titled “The Private Life of George Washington’s Slaves” on PBS’s website. In it I found this:

    The following year, in May of 1784, Washington paid several unnamed “Negroes,” presumably Mount Vernon slaves, 122 shillings for nine teeth, slightly less than one-third the going rate advertised in the papers, “on acct. of the French Dentis [sic} Doctr. Lemay [sic],” almost certainly Le Moyer. Over the next four years, the dentist was a frequent and apparently favorite guest on the plantation. Whether the Mount Vernon slaves sold their teeth to the dentist for any patient who needed them or specifically for George Washington is unknown, although Washington’s payment suggests that they were for his own use. Washington probably underwent the transplant procedure–“I confess I have been staggered in my belief in the efficacy of transplantion,” he told Richard Varick, his friend and wartime clerk, in 1784–and thus it may well be that some of the human teeth implanted to improve his appearance, or used to manufacture his dentures, came from his own slaves.

“The going rate advertised in the papers” refers to the fact that in those days dentists sometimes advertised in the newspapers for people willing to sell their teeth, which were then used to make dentures. (It appears that the idea of professional ethics in dentistry was still in its infancy.) One can only speculate as to whether Washington’s slaves who sold their teeth did so “voluntarily”. It should also be borne in mind that this was before the invention of anaesthesia.

So, George Washington did use teeth from his slaves in his dentures. I just wish people wouldn’t use a crank website to make this point.