Truthout Stories Tue, 07 Jul 2015 11:49:21 -0400 en-gb On the News With Thom Hartmann: Alaskan Wildfires Have Destroyed More Than 1 Million Acres of Land in 2015, and More

In today's On the News segment: Wildfires in Alaska have already consumed more than 1 million acres of land this year alone; the Dalai Lama publicly endorsed Pope Francis' recent encyclical on the climate; BP and Anadarko Petroleum Corporation will have to pay out billions of dollars in fines as a result of the 2010 oil disaster; and more.

See more news and opinion from Thom Hartmann at Truthout here.


Thom Hartmann here - on the best of the rest of Science and Green News ...

You need to know this. The 2015 wildfire season is off to a blazing start. And, even though you may not be in the immediate area, that doesn't mean that you're safe from the impact of the fires. According to the ThinkProgress blog, there were 45 large, active wildfires burning in Western states as of June 30, and fires in Alaska - yes, Alaska - have already consumed more than one million acres of land this year alone. The lingering drought and above-average temperatures have created the perfect environment for wildfires to start, spread and intensify. But, the flames aren't the only reason that these fires are dangerous. Even for those who live miles away from any ongoing wildfire, smoke pollution can cause serious health concerns. Fine particles within the smoke can cause an increase in asthma attacks and allergies, and can even make conditions like heart disease worse as far as 100 miles away from a large fire. In addition, as fires burn and destroy forests and surface vegetation, they expose the soil to more erosion, which leads to more drought and a recipe for more wildfires. And that soil erosion causes more soil and farm runoff into local water ways, and lowers water quality for humans and animals alike. Although wildfires are a natural occurrence, the last century of pumping carbon in to the atmosphere has made them more likely, and harder to fight. These massive blazes threaten our homes and our communities, and they pose a serious risk to human life. We'll never stop all wildfires from happening, but we can stop creating the conditions that make them more likely. To help make the next wildfire seasons less dangerous, we need to do much more in the fight against climate change.

While Republican presidential hopefuls say that religious leaders should leave the climate talk to the scientists, more religious leaders are speaking out about global warming. Last week, the Dalai Lama publicly endorsed Pope Francis' recent encyclical on the climate. The Buddhist leader spoke to a crowd at Glastonbury festival in Somerset, England, where he praised the pope and called on more religious leaders to "speak out about current affairs which affect the future of mankind." In fact, the Dalai Lama said that we need to do more than talk in order to protect our species. He said, "It is not sufficient to just express views, we must set a timetable for change in the next two to four years." Like the Catholic leader, the Dalai Lama recognizes that the future of mankind is tied to how we treat our planet, and that the basic tenants of most religions center on how we treat each other. Whether you are an atheist or a Catholic or a Buddhist, hopefully you can see the value in that philosophy.

Despite what you've seen in their commercials, BP and their partners have not made everything better in the Gulf of Mexico. But, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, BP and their partner Anadarko Petroleum Corporation will have to pay out billions more in fines as a result of the 2010 oil disaster. Those companies previously filed an appeal to block the additional $15 billion in fines that the federal government is seeking. The Supreme Court recently rejected that appeal, and left the case in the hands of U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier, who may impose those fines any day. Judge Barbier previously ruled that BP was grossly negligent and subject to more severe fines under the Clean Water Act, so it's unlikely that judge will go easy when it comes to handing out penalties. The companies involved the Deepwater Horizon blowout have done everything they could to deny responsibility and limit their costs at every turn. And during that time, BP has had the audacity to say that they've cleaned up the Gulf. You can't put a price on the marine life killed in that spill, or on the devastation felt by the families who made their living off that body of water. As far as the people impacted are concerned, there is no fine large enough to pay for that damage, and it's great news that our Supreme Court agrees.

Republicans must be terrified of broccoli. The House of Representatives recently passed not one, but two bills to make it harder for scientists to tell you to eat healthy. And, at the same time, Republicans in a Senate subcommittee passed a bill that bars the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) from considering how our diet effects the environment or vice versa. Because they're terrified that anything may come between their party and their planet-destroying corporate donors. The recent DGAC guidelines issued the common-sense statement, "a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet." But, to Republicans, that equates to government overreach. It doesn't take a Masters degree in science to understand that vegetables are good for you and that industrial animal farms are bad for our planet. Thankfully we can all recognize this, even with Republicans' pathetic attempt to avoid the science.

And finally... Next time you listen to your favorite drum solo, you may want to take a second to consider the math. That's right, according to a recent analysis from physicist Holger Henning, professional drummers bang out patterns of timing and loudness that have a mathematical form. Specifically, these patterns of time and volume deviation take the form of a fractal – a mathematical pattern that looks "self-similar" on many different scales. That pattern repeats at specific intervals of volume and time, creating the fractal form, but to most of us it just sounds like a groovy drum beat. Previous papers have documented the mathematical patten in drum beats, but this new study found a similar pattern in the volume variations that drummers use throughout a song. Henning said, "It seems that the timekeeper in the brain not only produces fractal timing, but likely also fractal intensity or, in this case, loudness." And, it seems that science just proved that there is a little bit of math geek in every one of our favorite musicians.

And that's the way it is for the week of July 6, 2015 – I'm Thom Hartmann, on Science and Green News.

News Tue, 07 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
A Socialist Surge in the US? Bernie Sanders Draws Record Crowds, Praises Greek Anti-Austerity Vote

The Greek election has also factored into the U.S. presidential race. On Monday, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders said, "I applaud the people of Greece for saying 'no' to more austerity for the poor, the children, the sick and the elderly. In a world of massive wealth and income inequality, Europe must support Greece's efforts to build an economy which creates more jobs and income, not more unemployment and suffering." Sanders' anti-austerity platform is resonating with voters. On Monday, Sanders spoke before 9,000 in Portland, Maine. Last week he drew more than 10,000 people in Madison, Wisconsin, in the largest crowd of any presidential candidate in the 2016 race. We speak to Richard Wolff about Bernie Sanders and what it means to be a socialist.

Please check back later for full transcript.

News Tue, 07 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Robert Solow in Conversation With Paul Krugman: "Inequality: What Can Be Done?"

On May 1, 2015, Robert Solow (Professor of Economics, Emeritus, MIT) and Paul Krugman (Distinguished Professor of Economics, The Graduate Center, beginning Fall 2015) discussed Anthony B. Atkinson’s new book, Inequality: What Can Be Done? (Harvard University Press, 2015) at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York City. 

Solow and Krugman's conversation was introduced and moderated by LIS Director Janet Gornick, professor of Political Science and Sociology at the Graduate Center.

The British economist and renowned inequality scholar Tony Atkinson (Oxford and London School of Economics) argues that economic inequality has reached unacceptable levels in many countries. In this ambitious book, Atkinson lays out an agenda for reducing inequality. His policy proposals span five areas: technology, employment, the sharing of capital, taxation, and social security. 

Inequality: What Can Be Done? is a vigorous and powerful call to action, rich in theory, evidence, and practical experience. Solow and Krugman examine the desirability, viability, and feasibility of Atkinson's policy recommendations - with an eye toward translating his arguments into the United States context.

News Tue, 07 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Economist Richard Wolff on Roots of Greek Crisis, Debt Relief and Rise of Anti-Capitalism in Europe

As Greek voters reject further budget cuts and tax hikes in exchange for a rescue package from European creditors, who is to blame for the debt crisis embroiling Greece? Is Germany trying to crush Greece to set an example? Will Greece leave the eurozone? What does this mean for the global economy? We speak to Richard Wolff, emeritus professor of economics at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and visiting professor at New School University. He's the author of several books, including, most recently, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism. Still with us in Athens, Greece, is Paul Mason, economics editor at Channel 4 News.

Please check back later for full transcript.

News Tue, 07 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Teachers Say 17 Firings at Urban Prep Charter Schools Were Retaliation for Unionization

On June 19, during their biannual semester-end interviews, 17 teachers were informed by school staff that they would not be returning to Chicago’s Urban Prep Academy come fall. The terminations came just weeks after 61 percent of Urban Prep’s teachers voted to form a union; activists say the firings were a blatant act of anti-union retaliation.

Last Thursday, around 100 teachers, students, parents and supporters attended Urban Prep’s board meeting to protest the firings and accuse the board of harming their community and hindering student progress. They also accused the board of resisting transparency and accountability, and creating a high teacher-turnover rate through firings and policies that push teachers out of the school.

This is only the latest case of such allegedly unjust firings, as more and more charter schools in Chicago and across the country are organizing to unionize despite the legal hurdles, backlash, and the common belief—at least among school management—that charter teachers don’t need unions.

Matthias Muschal told Catalyst Chicago he was fired after working as a lead English teacher at Urban Prep's Bronzeville campus for six years for “insubordination—specifically because he threw a pizza party for student-athletes and their families without notifying administration,” according to the administration. He says the real reason was his union activism—a huge disappointment because “I wouldn’t be able to teach my students anymore,” Muschal told In These Times.

Urban Prep CEO Evan Lewis wrote in a statement that "the suggestion that anyone was fired as a result of their organizing activity is both wrong and offensive. … “We respect and support the right of our teachers to choose a union as their exclusive representative. … Many of the teachers returning next year were active in the effort to organize, and we look forward to continuing our work with them."

At the board meeting, 26 people signed up to speak, although roughly half were allowed to address the board. Parents also delivered over 200 letters in support of the fired teachers in an effort to influence the board's decision. Not all board members, however, were present at Thursday's meeting—even though, according to Samuel Adams, a former Urban Prep English teacher, they all live in Chicago. Those who did not attend the meeting called in—a gesture seen by some union supporters as disrespectful.

Teachers, parents and students who attended the meeting praised Urban Prep’s mission and success, but said the recent firings go against the school's mission and will ultimately harm the students. Englewood Junior Lamar Strickland told the board he “would just like to ask that you guys bring back our teachers because ... they have all taught us something different that we can take in our life."

Students were especially upset about the firing of English teacher Natasha Robinson. Robert DuPont, a junior at the Englewood campus, said Ms. Robinson went above and beyond her responsibilities like calling students she knew were having trouble getting to school on time. Mr. Adams said that his former colleague had the highest freshmen test scores in the school and continued to teach even soon after her mother died.

Of the outpouring of student support over the past weeks, Robinson said, "It's nice to know I made an impact during my time at Urban Prep—to know that I was able to help these young men." (Urban Prep is an all-male school.)

At the meeting, James Thindwa of the American Federations of Teachers (who is also a member of the In These Times board of directors) also accused Urban Prep’s majority-black board of directors of harming the black community and instituting measures similar to anti-union, right-wing politicians like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

“I can't believe that this institution, this publicly funded institution, ... anchored in the black neighborhood, that is itself reeling from economic disinvestment that in part has been caused by the attack on labor unions ... is participating in a vile attack on a legitimate institution that serves as a legitimate counterweight to what we're seeing as unchecked corporate power in the United States.”

In a press release, Thindwa wrote that because black Americans hold a disproportionate share of public-sector jobs, they have been hit especially hard by the decline of public-sector jobs and the attacks on their unions.

The audience highlighted the irony in these firings, as one of the main reasons teachers wanted to unionize was to change what they say are Urban Prep’s high teacher turnover rates. They say students don’t know if their favorite teachers will return the following year, which affects their learning environment.

“It's unfortunate that they would fire veteran teachers and that there will be so much uncertainty for these students going into the new school year,” said Robinson, who had taught at the school for seven years. Teachers say high turnover rates also mean devoting important time to train new teachers rather than to develop the skills of existing ones.

According to Brian Harris, a special education teacher at CICS Northtown Academy and Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ACTS) president, “across the network, only nine teachers have been at Urban Prep more than five years. Now, only about half of them are returning.”

"Students are calling for a stable learning environment, and their teachers know that unionization is the only way to get stability for these students and their communities," says Rob Heise, an educator and activist who says he was fired from an UNO Network charter high School earlier this month for his involvement in helping unionize his school last year. Heise filed his own unfair labor practice complaint with the NLRB two weeks ago.

Chicago Teachers Union members made their way to the South Side school from their own union's contract negotiation meeting earlier that afternoon to show support for the fired Urban Prep teachers. Sarah Chambers, a special education teacher at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy, was among them. Chambers said that all the Urban Prep teachers who voted to unionize wanted was a voice for their students. Having played a major role in preparing her school for the historic 10-day CTU strike back in 2012, Chambers knows first hand the power of belonging to a union and added that teachers "know that if they don't have a union they don't have a voice."

"Urban Prep punished their staff for unionizing. They lied about what ACTS is and used teachers' professional development time to spread anti-union propaganda," said Brian Harris. "Their actions show a real disrespect for teachers and democracy and scream ‘we don't want to be accountable to anyone.’ ”

Chris Baehrend, Vice President of Chicago ACTS and English teacher at Latino Youth High School, said retaliation is the main reason why 39% of eligible voters chose not to join the Urban Prep union. "They're afraid. They're afraid of things like exactly what happened right here happening to them."

An unfair labor practice suit has been filed with the NLRB, and Chicago ACTS will be planning future demonstrations.

During the public comment period, Samuel Adams called on supporters to put pressure on Urban Prep by sending emails, and parent Shoneice Reynolds called for a local school council. Reynolds cited Urban Prep’s creed to make her point: "It states, we have a future for which we are accountable. I challenge you all to be accountable for our children's future."

News Tue, 07 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Think California's Drought Is Bad? Try Palestine's

Palestinian water tanks vandalized by Israeli settlers in Hebron.Palestinian water tanks vandalized by Israeli settlers in Hebron. (Photo: ISM Palestine/Flickr)

California is in the midst of one of the worst droughts in the state’s history, prompting Governor Jerry Brown to declare a water “state of emergency.”

Ordinary Californians are bearing the brunt of this disaster. While the governor has imposed restrictions to reduce residential water consumption, businesses in the fields of agriculture and hydraulic fracturing have been largely exempt. Brown’s unwillingness to take on these gargantuan corporate water-wasters lends a sharp political element to an otherwise natural disaster.

There’s another region in the world, however, where access to water isn’t just decided on the whims of politicians dealing with natural disasters. In fact, the very existence of water crises is official state policy for one country: Israel.

Dying of Thirst

Despite its location in a region thought to be perennially dry, the Holy Land actually has ample natural freshwater resources — namely in the form of underwater aquifers and the Jordan River. Palestinians in the West Bank and Israeli settlers live in roughly equal proximity to these resources, which theoretically would allow for equal consumption.

Israeli water policy, however, has made this prospect virtually impossible. In fact, there’s a shocking disparity.

A report from the United Nations found that the average Israeli settler consumes 300 liters of water per day — a figure surpassing even the average Californian’s 290. But thanks to Israeli military action and legal restrictions on access, the average Palestinian in the occupied West Bank only gets about 70. And for the tens of thousands of Palestinians who live off the water grid altogether, daily consumption hovers at around 30. That’s just 10 percent of the Israeli figure.

Both figures are well below the minimum 100 liters per day recommended by the World Health Organization. While Israelis are watering their lawns and swimming in Olympic-sized pools, Palestinians a few kilometers away are literally dying of thirst.

Weaponizing Water

This inequality has deep roots — and it’s no accident.

Almost immediately after the creation of Israel in 1948, the fledgling country took comprehensive action to secure control of the region’s water. These policies were ramped up again following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when Israel first assumed control of the Palestinian territories.

That year, the Israeli armed forces issued Military Order 92 — an initiative that put Palestinian water resources under Israel’s military jurisdiction. This was shortly followed by Military Order 158, which required Palestinians to obtain permits from the military in order to build new water infrastructure. If they built new wells, springs, or even rain-collecting containers without Israeli permission, soldiers would confiscate or destroy them, often without prior notification.

These orders, among others, remain on the books to this day. They form the basis for the administration of water access for nearly 4.4 million Palestinians. Although control of water resources is now officially the domain of Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, Israeli forces routinely perform operations with the explicit intent of destroying Palestinian water infrastructure.

A Veneer of Legality

Decades of peace negotiations have done little to grant Palestinians sovereign control over their resources.

Even after the Oslo Accords of the early 1990s, which were supposed to grant the Palestinians some semblance of political agency in the territories, water access remains limited. In fact, the accords simply codified the unfair distribution of water in the region, imbuing these flagrantly harmful practices with a veneer of legality.

Even in Palestinian-administered portions of the West Bank, Israeli troops regularly demolish rain cisterns, pipelines, and agricultural water structures. The Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq has meticulously documented a number of these instances, compiling them in a report examining the extent of the hardship these operations cause to West Bank residents.

One case study detailed the destruction of a farmer’s well in a village east of Jenin. His well, along with five others in the area, was destroyed by the military under the pretext that it had been built without proper authorization by Israel — despite the fact that an Israeli permit is supposedly not needed in the Palestinian-administered Area B of the West Bank, where these villages are located.

These operations showcase the coordination between civil and military channels to restrict Palestinian access to water, a system that’s been startlingly effective in its goal.

Even when Palestinians attempt to go through the “proper” Israeli channels, they’re met with innumerable obstacles. Two regulatory organizations — the Joint Water Commission (JWC) and the Israeli Civil Administration — have created a bureaucratic nightmare for West Bank residents attempting to acquire permits to either build new instillations or repair the region’s floundering infrastructure. Both organizations are capable of vetoing petitions without explanation, creating a system that prevents Palestinians from maintaining consistent and comprehensive water access.

Meanwhile, access is severely curtailed even where Palestinians have permission to pump water. The most striking inequality lies in the division of the Mountain Aquifer, the only underground aquifer that Palestinians in the West Bank are allowed to access. Despite being the sole source for the territory, Palestinian extraction is limited to 20 percent of the aquifer’s total capacity. Israel, on the other hand, has access to 80 percent of the aquifer’s water — a stunningly unequal distribution, considering it also has unfettered access to the region’s remaining aquifers and the Jordan River.

A Worsening Crisis

California’s drought has captivated U.S. audiences, sparking concern and calls to action to prevent ecological disaster in the face of natural causes. On the subject of Israel’s deliberate drought, however, media attention has been virtually nonexistent.

This crisis has become the norm for Palestinians for decades now, though its severity continues to increase as water becomes more scarce. The UN estimates that due to Israel’s siege, the Gaza Strip will be uninhabitable by the year 2020. Though the West Bank is relatively well-off in comparison, the water crisis there has resulted in severe economic hardship for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, a situation that’s not conducive to long-term stability in the region.

This water disparity is emblematic of the power disparity between Israel and Palestine — a gulf that seems wholly unrecognized during regional peace talks. In order to have a diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian question, both parties must enter negotiations on an equal playing field. This is only possible once Israel’s occupation in the West Bank is dismantled, and Palestinians are given access to the water resources they need in order to live their lives with dignity.

Opinion Tue, 07 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Pennsylvania Residents Near Fracking Sites Report Health Problems

Last month, Food & Water Watch released the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s log of health complaints from communities living near fracking sites. The logs include many of the health complaints that critiques have linked to fracking for years – and the state’s inadequate response. 

People reported respiratory problems, hair loss, and headaches, and they attributed their symptoms to foul-smelling air and water.

Food & Water Watch obtained the health log through a public records request, following a news report that Department of Health officials are forbidden to talk about fracking with concerned residents. The log includes 87 reports received between March 30, 2011 and April 6, 2015. Many reports show multiple people were affected, sometimes entire families or clusters of patients.  

Roughly 20 percent of reports came from public health professionals and doctors concerned about patients. The other 80 percent came from concerned residents and other public officials. The most reports came from regions in Pennsylvania with the highest levels of drilling activity.    

Health Complaints, by Number of Persons Affected:

2015 0707ch

The most commonly reported health symptoms were respiratory issues, skin irritation, and abdominal issues. According to a 2011 study, over 75 percent of chemicals used in fracking cause these same symptoms. It is possible that contaminated drinking water and polluted air caused these residents’ health issues, but to be sure, state officials would have to test the air and drinking water sources near fracking sites for traces of fracking chemicals, then use modeling and other tools to document the connections between the drilling methods and residents' health problems. 

Health department employees were told not to talk to residents complaining of fracking-related symptoms.

When residents call the Pennsylvania Department of Health, employees usually talk with them about their concerns and refer them to agency services. But last summer, StateImpact Pennsylvania reported that health department employees were instructed not to talk to residents who reported fracking concerns. Employees were reportedly given a list of “buzzwords,” including “gas” and “fracking,” and were instructed to record the contact information of callers using these words and forward the information to their supervisors.

A retired health department worker said that she had never seen this protocol used for any other health issue. She worried that her supervisors were not following up with these callers, especially after receiving angry calls from residents whose concerns went unanswered.

According to StateImpact, the Department of Health denied this protocol and the existence of a list of “buzzwords.”

While it’s uncertain why the health department might be avoiding these residents, it’s clear that state agencies are ill-equipped to deal with fracking concerns.

A 2012 law created an “impact fee” on Pennsylvania fracking wells that has generated hundreds of millions of dollars in just three years. The funds are given to state agencies and local governments that regulate fracking – but none is shared with the Department of Health.

The Department of Health does not have the capacity to conduct air and water quality tests, so when residents voice concerns about drilling-related contamination, they are often referred to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. However, a July 2014 audit suggests that the agency is facing its own resource constraints, as fracking is expanding faster than the agency can keep up with it.

For instance, auditors examined 15 confirmed cases of water impacts from fracking; in only one case did the agency order the drilling company to restore or replace the water supply. The audit also found that the Department of Environmental Protection lags behind in communicating with residents who have reported concerns.

State agencies need more funding to respond to fracking concerns. They also need to communicate with the public in a timely manner and respond to complaints and health concerns regarding environmental pollution, regardless of the industry involved.

Additionally, drilling companies must be required to conduct baseline testing of water supplies and air near fracking sites – and continue to monitor them throughout drilling.

Without proper environmental monitoring – along with disclosure of fracking chemicals – it is impossible to link health symptoms to fracking operations.

After many years of delay, EPA has finally confirmed that fracking contaminates our drinking water; community monitoring shows that it also pollutes the air we breathe.  But since industry influence and federal law have limited the ability of federal agencies to comprehensively regulate fracking that occurs on private land, it is up to state agencies to protect the public’s health and to clean up Pennsylvania communities that have had to deal with the toxic outputs of fracking operations.

News Tue, 07 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Dawning of the Obvious ]]> Art Tue, 07 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400 The Confederate Flag at War (but Not the Civil War)

The Pentagon just can’t let go. In the wake of the Charleston Massacre, Amazon and Walmart have announced that they will no longer sell Confederate flag merchandise. Ebay says it will stop offering Confederate items for electronic auction. The Republican governor of Mississippi calls his state flag, which includes the Stars and Bars in the top left corner, “a point of offense that needs to be removed.” Even Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, the majority leader of the U.S. Senate, agrees that a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in his state's capitol building belongs in a museum.

Yet the Department of Defense says it isn’t even “reviewing” the possibility of a ban on the flag, deciding instead to leave any such move to the various service branches, while military bases named after Confederate officers will remain so. One factor in this decision: the South provides more than 40% of all military recruits, many of them white; only 15% are from the Northeast.

Filling the ranks isn't, however, the only reason for the military’s refusal to act.

Over the last few weeks, there has been near unanimous agreement among liberal and mainstream commentators that the Confederate flag represents “hate, not heritage.” The flag’s current presence in American culture is ubiquitous. It adorns license plates, bumper stickers, mugs, bodies (via tattoos), and even baby diapers. The flag’s popularity is normally traced back to the post-World War II reaction of the Dixiecrat South to the Civil Rights Movement. South Carolina, for instance, raised the Stars and Bars over its state house in 1961 as part, columnist Eugene Robinson said on "Meet the Press," of its “massive resistance to racial desegregation."

All true. But like many discussions of American conservativism, this account misses the role endless war played in sustaining domestic racism. Starting around 1898, well before it became an icon of redneck backlash, the Confederate Battle Flag served for half a century as an important pennant in the expanding American empire and a symbol of national unification, not polarization.

It was a reconciled Army that moved out into the world after the Civil War, an unstoppable combination of Northern law (bureaucratic command and control, industrial might, and technology) and Southern spirit (an “exaltation of military ideals and virtues,” including valor, duty, and honor). Both law and spirit had their dark sides leading to horrors committed due either to the very nature of the American empire -- the genocide of Native Americans, for example, or the war in Southeast Asia -- or to the particular passions of some of its soldiers. And both law and spirit had their own flags.

Lost Cause Found

“Northerners and Southerners agreed on little” in the years after the Civil War, historians Boyd Cothran and Ari Kelman write, “except that the Army should pacify Western tribes.” Reconstruction -- Washington’s effort to set the terms for the South’s readmission to the Union and establish postwar political equality -- was being bitterly opposed by defeated white separatists. According to Cothran and Kelman, however, “Many Americans found rare common ground on the subject of Manifest Destiny.”

After the surrender at Appomattox, it was too soon to fly the Stars and Bars against Native Americans. And it was Union officers -- men like generals George Armstrong Custer and Philip Sheridan -- who committed most of the atrocities against indigenous peoples. But Confederate veterans and their sons used the pacification of the West as a readmission program into the U.S. Army. The career of Luther Hare, a Texas son of a Confederate captain, is illustrative. He barely survived Custer’s campaign against the Sioux. Cornered in a skirmish that preceded Little Big Horn, Hare “opened fire and let out a rebel yell” before escaping. He then went on to fight Native Americans in Montana, Texas, the Pacific Northwest, and Arizona, where he put down the “last of the renegade Apaches,” before being sent to the Philippines as a colonel.  There, he led a detachment of Texans against the Spanish.

With Reconstruction over and Jim Crow segregation installed in every southern State, the Spanish-American War of 1898, in which the U.S. took Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean and the Philippines and Guam in the Pacific, was a key moment in the rehabilitation of the Confederacy. Earlier, when slavery was still a going concern, southerners had yearned to separate Cuba from Spain and turn it into a slave state.  Now, conquering the island served a different purpose: a chance to prove their patriotism and reconcile with the North.

Southern ports like New Orleans, Charleston, and Tampa were used as staging areas for the invasions of Cuba and Puerto Rico. Northern soldiers passing through New Orleans were glad to see that “grizzled old Confederates” were cheering them on, saluting the Union flag, and happy to send their sons “to fight and die under it.” Newspapers throughout the South, along with Dixie's largest veterans association, the United Confederate Veterans, saw war with Spain as a vindication of the “Old Cause” and reveled in the exploits of former Confederate generals, including Robert E. Lee’s nephew, Fitzhugh Lee.

In June 1898, just weeks after U.S. troops landed in Cuba, two train-car loads of Confederate flags arrived in Atlanta for a coming reunion of southern veterans of the war. The Stars and Bars would soon festoon the city Union General William T. Sherman had burned to the ground. At the very center of the celebration’s main venue stood a 30-foot Confederate flag, flanked by a Cuban and a U.S. flag. Speech after speech extolled “sublime” war -- not just the Civil War but all the wars that made up the nineteenth century -- with Mexico, against Native Americans, and now versus Spain. “The gallantry and heroism of your sons as they teach the haughty Spaniard amid the carnage of Santiago to honor and respect the flag of our country, which shall float forever over an ‘indissoluble union of indestructible states,’” was how one southern veteran put it.

War with Spain allowed “our boys” to once more be “wrapped in the folds of the American flag,” said General John Gordon, commander of the United Confederate Veterans, in remarks opening the proceedings. Their heroism, he added, has led “to the complete and permanent obliteration of all sectional distrusts and to the establishment of the too long delayed brotherhood and unity of the American people.” In this sense, the War of 1898 was alchemic, transforming the “lost cause” of the Confederacy (that is, the preservation of slavery) into a crusade for world freedom. The South, Gordon said, was helping to bring “the light of American civilization and the boon of Republican liberty to the oppressed islands of both oceans.”

With Spain defeated, President William McKinley took a victory tour of the South, hailing the “the valor and the heroism [that] the men from the south and the men of the north have within the past three years... shown in Cuba, in Puerto Rico, in the Philippines, and in China.”

“When we are all on one side,” the president said, “we are unconquerable.” It was around this time that, after much delay, Congress finally authorized the return of Confederate flags captured by Union forces during the Civil War to the United Confederate Veterans.

To Serve Mankind

World War I brought more goodwill. In June 1916, as Woodrow Wilson began to push through Congress a remarkable set of laws militarizing the country, including the expansion of the Army and National Guard (and an authorization to place the former under federal authority), the construction of nitrate plants for munitions production, and the funding of military research and development, Confederate veterans descended on Washington, D.C., to show their support for the coming war in Europe.

“About 10,000 men wearing the gray, escorted by several thousand who wore the blue, marched along Pennsylvania Avenue and were reviewed by the President,” one observer reported. “In the line were many young soldiers now serving in the regular army, grandsons of those who fought for the Confederacy and of those who fought for the Union. The Stars and Bars of the Confederacy were proudly borne at the head of the procession... As the long line passed the reviewing stand the old men in gray offered their services in the present war. ‘We will go to France or anywhere you want to send us!’ they shouted to the president.”

Wilson won reelection in 1916, his campaign running on the slogan, “He kept us out of war.” But he could then betray his anti-war supporters knowing that a rising political coalition -- made up, in part, of men looking to redeem a lost war by finding new wars to fight -- had his back.

Decades before President Richard Nixon bet his reelection on winning the Dixiecrat vote, Wilson worked out his own Southern Strategy. Even as he was moving the nation to war, Wilson re-segregated Washington and purged African Americans from federal jobs. And it was Wilson who started the presidential tradition of laying a Memorial Day wreath at Arlington Cemetery’s Confederate War Memorial. 

In 1916, he turned that event into a war rally. “America is roused,” Wilson said to a large gathering of Confederate veterans, “roused to a self-consciousness she has not had in a generation. And this spirit is going out conquering and to conquer until, it may be, in the Providence of God, a new light is lifted up in America which shall throw the rays of liberty and justice far abroad upon every sea, and even upon the lands which now wallow in darkness and refuse to see the light.”

What alchemy it was -- with Wilson conscripting the Confederate cause into his brand of arrogant, martial universalism. The conflict in Europe, Wilson said at the same wreath-laying event a year later (less then two months after the U.S. had declared war on Germany), offered a chance “to vindicate the things which we have professed” and to “show the world” that America “was born to serve mankind.”

American history was fast turning into an endless parade of war, and the sectional reconciliation that went with it meant that throughout the first half of the twentieth century the “conquered banner” could fly pretty much anywhere with little other than positive comment. In World War II, for instance, after a two-month battle for the island of Okinawa, the first flag Marines raised upon taking the headquarters of the Japanese Imperial Army was the Confederate one.  It had been carried into battle in the helmet of a captain from South Carolina.

With the Korean War, the NAACP’s journal, The Crisis, reported a staggering jump in sales of Confederate flags from 40,000 in 1949 to 1,600,000 in 1950.  Much of the demand, it reported, was coming from soldiers overseas in Germany and Korea. The Crisis hoped for the best, writing that the banner’s growing popularity had nothing to do with rising “reactionary Dixiecratism.” It was a “fad,” the magazine claimed, “like carrying foxtails on cars.”

As it happened, it wasn’t. As the Civil Rights Movement evolved and the Black Power movement emerged, as Korea gave way to Vietnam, the Confederate flag returned to its original meaning: the bunting of resentful white supremacy. Dixie found itself in Danang.

Dixie in Danang

“We are fighting and dying in a war that is not very popular in the first place,” Lieutenant Eddie Kitchen, a 33-year-old African-American stationed in Vietnam, wrote his mother in Chicago in late February 1968, “and we still have some people who are still fighting the Civil War.” Kitchen, who had been in the military since 1955, reported a rapid proliferation of Confederate flags, mounted on jeeps and flying over some bases. “The Negroes here are afraid and cannot do anything,” Kitchen added. Two weeks later he was dead, officially listed as “killed in action.” His mother believed that he had been murdered by white soldiers in retaliation for objecting to the flag.

Kitchen’s was one of many such complaints, as the polarization tearing through domestic politics in the United States, along with the symbols of White Supremacy -- not just the Confederate flag but the burning cross, the Klan robe and hood, and racist slurs -- spilled into Vietnam. As early as Christmas Day 1965, a number of white soldiers paraded in front of the audience of conservative comedian Bob Hope’s USO show at Bien Hoa Air Base. “After they were seated,” wrote an African-American soldier protesting the display, “several officers and NCOs [non-commissioned officers] were seen posing and taking pictures under the flag. I felt like an outsider.” An African-American newspaper, the Chicago Defender, reported that southern Whites were “infecting” Vietnamese with their racism. “The Confederate flags seem more popular in Vietnam than the flags of several countries,” the paper wrote, judging by the “display of flags for sale on a Saigon street corner.”

Black soldiers who pushed back against such Dixie-ism were subject to insult and abuse. Some were thrown in the stockade. When Private First Class Danny Frazier complained of the “damn flag” flown by Alabama soldiers in his barracks to his superior officers, he was ordered to do demeaning work and then demoted.

Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in early April 1968 and American military bases throughout South Vietnam lowered their flags to half-mast. In some places, such as the Cam Ranh Naval Base, however, white soldiers celebrated by raising the Confederate flag and burning crosses. Following King’s murder, the Department of Defense tried to ban the Confederate flag. “Race is our most serious international problem,” a Pentagon representative said. But Dixiecrat politicians, who controlled the votes President Lyndon Johnson needed to fund the war, objected and the Pentagon backpedaled. Instead of enforcing the ban, it turned to sensitivity training. The Confederate flag, a black military instructor told a class of black and white soldiers at Fort Dix, does not necessarily “mean a man belongs to the Ku Klux Klan.”

The Sum of All Lost Causes

Back home, a backlash against the antiwar movement helped nationalize the Confederate flag. The banner was increasingly seen not just at gatherings of the fringe KKK and the John Birch Society, but at “patriotic” rallies in areas of the country outside the old South: in Detroit, Chicago, California, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. For instance, on June 14, 1970 -- Flag Day -- pro-war demonstrators marched up Pittsburg’s Liberty Avenue with a large Confederate flag demanding that “Washington... get in there and win.”

For many, the Confederate flag remained an emblem of racist reaction to federal efforts to advance equal rights and integration. Yet as issues of race, militarism, and class resentment merged into a broader “cultural war,” some in the rising New Right rallied around the Stars and Bars to avenge not the South, but South Vietnam.

In 1973, shortly after the U.S. officially ended combat operations in South Vietnam, for instance, Bart Bonner, a conservative activist and Vietnam veteran from Waterbury, New York, met with South Vietnam’s military attaché in Washington and offered to raise “a private, volunteer force of 75,000 American veterans to fight in South Vietnam under the Confederate flag.” For Bonner, and many like him, that flag now stood not for the “lost cause” but all lost causes conservatives cared about, an icon of resistance to the liberal Establishment.

Bonner told Soldier of Fortune magazine that he had the financial support of Texas millionaire Ross Perot and 100 men, including former Green Berets, Air Force commandos, and Navy Seals, ready to “show the people of South Vietnam... that not all Americans are cowards.” He added: “The Stars and Bars -- the Confederate flag -- is a beautiful flag.”

Nothing came of Bonner’s plan. But the scheme did anticipate many of the strategies the New Right would use to circumvent all those cumbersome restrictions the post-Vietnam Congress placed on the ability of the executive branch to wage war and conduct covert operations, including the rise of mercenary groups that continue to play a significant role in fighting America’s wars and attempts to raise money from private, often southern rightwing sources. Ross Perot, for instance, would fund some of Oliver North’s effort to run a foreign policy independent of congressional oversight, a scandal that would become known as Iran-Contra.

Moonlight, Magnolia, and My Lai

Before Watergate brought him down, President Richard Nixon fused overseas militarism and domestic racism into one noxious whole as part of his strategy to win the South in 1972 and secure his reelection. In southern Africa, where Black-led national liberation movements were contesting white rule, this meant putting in place National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger’s “Tar-Baby Tilt,” strengthening ties with the white supremacist nations of South Africa and Rhodesia. Support for Pretoria and Salisbury was popular in Biloxi.

But the foreign-policy centerpiece of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” was Vietnam. Senator George McGovern summed the situation up this way after being told by Kissinger that the U.S. couldn’t exit Vietnam because “the boss’s whole constituency would just fall apart”: “They were willing to continue killing Asians and sacrificing the lives of young Americans because of their interpretation of what would play in the United States.”

The infamous March 1968 massacre at My Lai would prove especially useful in helping Nixon win the Moonlight and Magnolia set. After it came to light that members of the 23rd Infantry Division, also known as the Americal, had slaughtered more than 500 Vietnamese civilians, including women, children, and infants, Nixon made his support for Lieutenant William Calley, the only soldier convicted for taking part in the massacre, a key element in his reelection campaign. As historian Joseph Fry points out in his new book, The American South and the Vietnam War, Calley, who was from Florida, was extremely popular in the South. George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, flew to Fort Benning, where Calley was being held under house arrest, to speak at a rally, replete with Confederate flags. Mississippi Governor John Bell Williams told Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, that his state was "about ready to secede from the union" over Calley.

The campaign to depict Calley as an honorable warrior scapegoated by elites was but one more opportunity to generalize the historical experience of southern humiliation into an ongoing national sentiment. As after 1865, the solution to such humiliation has been more war, forever war. And with endless war comes an endless tolerance for atrocities. “Most people don’t give a shit whether he killed them or not,” Nixon said of Calley’s actions at My Lai. “The villagers got what they deserved,” commented Louisiana Senator Allen Ellender. You can draw a straight line from such hard-heartedness to today’s torture coalition, to men like Dick Cheney, who defend inflicting pain on innocent people “as long as we achieve our objective.”

The Confederate flag still flies overseas. It was carried into Iraq in 2003. In Afghanistan, at the infamous Bagram Theater Internment Facility, a platoon implicated in the torture of detainees, known as the “the Testosterone Gang,” hung a Confederate flag in their tent.

It is good to see the Confederate flag coming down in some places, but I suspect that reports of its final furling are premature. Endless wars will always have their atrocities. And atrocities will always find a flag.

Opinion Tue, 07 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400
Chemicals May Alter Placenta Genes

Women exposed to widely used chemicals while pregnant are more likely to have altered gene function in their placentas. A new study shows that phenols and phthalates may alter how genes are expressed in the placenta of pregnant women and suggests that such exposures may hamper fetuses' proper development and growth.

Ultrasound imageResearchers link endocrine disrupting chemical exposure to altered gene function in pregnant women's placentas, which could hamper fetal growth. (Image: Ultrasound image via Shutterstock)

Women exposed to widely used chemicals while pregnant are more likely to have altered gene function in their placentas, according to a new study.

It is the first study to show that exposure to phenols and phthalates may alter how genes are expressed in the placenta of pregnant women and suggests that such exposures may hamper fetuses' proper development and growth.

"Altered expression of a gene is of concern because we will have more or less of a protein," said senior author of the study, Karin Michels, a professor and epidemiologist at the Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, in an emailed response. "Proteins have essential function, for example, as hormones in the body."

The researchers tested the urine of 179 women in their first trimester of pregnancy for eight phenols, including widely used bisphenol-A (BPA), and 11 phthalate metabolites, substances formed after the body processes phthalates. Then they tested how certain genes were expressed in the placenta. The women were enrolled in a study cohort at Harvard University.

They found that exposure was associated with altering certain molecules that regulate the expression of genes in the placenta. The study is concerning because the placenta is a lifeline for the fetus and properly functioning genes are crucial for the health of both the placenta and the growing fetus.

"The placenta is vital for nutrient transport to the fetus, regulation of oxygen, transport of waste out of the fetal compartment … preventing infection," said Jennifer Adibi, an assistant professor and epidemiologist at the University of Pittsburgh who studies how chemicals impact placentas and fetuses.

"In the early stages, the fetus doesn't have a functional endocrine system, it does not produce the hormones it needs to develop, and the placenta actually provides those," said Adibi, who was not involved in the study.

Phenols and phthalates are widely used. Phthalates are used in vinyl products, in cosmetic as fragrances and in other plastics to make them pliable.

Phenols have a wide variety of uses including plastic resins, pesticides, and cleaning and personal care products. One of the most common, BPA, is ubiquitous and used to make polycarbonate plastic and found in some food cans and paper receipts.

Both phthalates and phenols are found in most people and the compounds are endocrine disruptors, meaning they interfere with people's hormones. Disrupted hormones can lead to numerous defects and diseases.

During pregnancy, various hormones rise to ensure that the fetus is carried to term. "Phthalates and phenols may interfere especially with these hormones by either mimicking their effect or blocking them," Michels said.

The first trimester is a "critical window of exposure for implications in adverse health outcomes later in life," Michels and colleagues wrote in the study published this month in the Environmental Health Perspectives journal.

Adibi said the study is more evidence that human placentas respond "very uniquely" to chemicals such as phthalates. "This kind of challenges that historical view of the placenta—that chemicals pass through it in a passive way and interact with the fetus directly," she said.

The study had "numerous shortcomings," according to a statement from the American Chemistry Council (ACC), which represents chemical manufacturers.

"This study does not provide enough information about the source of potential exposures and the study participants themselves to draw conclusions about the findings," the statement said.

The ACC also pointed out that the study did not draw any conclusions about negative health effects associated with potential exposures, as the researchers did not find any associations between the expression of genes and birth weights or lengths.

However the altered gene expression may affect other aspects of long-term health such as metabolism or hormones, which may not directly impact birth weight or length but could manifest later in childhood or adult characteristics, Michels said.

News Tue, 07 Jul 2015 00:00:00 -0400