Truthout Stories Sun, 25 Jan 2015 11:15:38 -0500 en-gb Why Campaign Finance Reform Is the First Issue That We Must Address

Capitol Building - SOLD(Photo: takomabibelot/Flickr)

President Obama punctuated his State of the Union with a repeated refrain: “Surely we can agree.” With that mantra, he reminded us of our basic, universally shared values, foremost among them the inherent worth of every American life and the importance of giving all citizens a chance to succeed.

When the president enumerated what these values mean in practice - calling for child care, sick leave, equal pay, lower mortgage premiums and a higher minimum wage - it was safe to assume the American public was nodding along. Indeed, a new poll released today by the Make It Work campaign, an advocacy group, finds that the vast majority of likely 2016 voters strongly support reforms like the ones Obama outlined.

“These ideas will make a meaningful difference in the lives of millions of families,” Obama said. “That is a fact. And that’s what all of us - Republicans and Democrats alike - were sent here to do.”

To see more stories like this, visit Moyers & Company at Truthout.

But while ordinary citizens overwhelmingly want tax breaks for the middle class, better wages and mandatory sick leave, many politicians are not interested in passing these reforms - because the super-wealthy individuals and powerful special interests funding our elections do not. This explains why Senate Republicans blocked the Fair Minimum Wage Act last year and have defeated the Paycheck Fairness Act four times since 2013.

The sad truth is this: Politicians of all stripes are beholden to their donors, not the American public. And as long as special interest groups and extremely wealthy individuals continue to bankroll campaigns, they’ll be the only ones getting what they want.

Nonetheless, some continue to fight for change. Today, exactly five years after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision gave outside interest groups unlimited ability to fund-raise and influence elections, legislators reintroduced a “Defending Democracy” package of campaign finance reforms.

These bills and amendments are “about restoring confidence in our democracy and ending this unfettered spending by anonymous donors that overwhelms the rights of individual Americans to be heard,” said Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) in a press release.

The package, which has the support of at least 29 reform groups, includes the following proposed bills:

The Empowering Citizens Act reforms the presidential public financing system, creates a congressional public financing system, shuts down individual-candidate super PACs and prohibits coordination between candidates and outside spending groups. Sponsors: Reps. David Price (D-NC) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD).

The DISCLOSE Act closes dark-money loopholes by requiring groups that spend $10,000 or more on campaign-related expenditures to file disclosure reports with the Federal Election Commission. Sponsors: Rep. Van Hollen (D-MD) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI).

The Democracy for All Amendment provides Congress and individual states with the authority to regulate campaign finance and distinguish between people and artificial entities. Key sponsors: Sens. Tom Udall (D-NM), Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Reps. Ted Deutch (D-FL), Donna Edwards (D-MD) and Jim McGovern (D-MA).

The Real-Time Transparency Act requires all political committees to disclose contributions of $1,000 or more. Sponsors: Sen. Angus King (I-ME) and Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX).

The Sunlight for Unaccountable Nonprofits Act requires nonprofit organizations making campaign expenditures to disclose donors of $5,000 or more. Sponsor: Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT).

The Shareholder Protection Act requires corporations to disclose election-related spending to shareholders and the public, even if the money goes indirectly through a third party. Sponsors: Sen. Menendez (D-NJ) and Rep. Capuano (D-MA).

Five years after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision we’ve witnessed the most expensive elections ever, the rise of dark money and more than $1 billion in unlimited contributions into federal elections through super PACs.

To be sure, this reintroduced package of legislative remedies stands an infinitesimal chance of passage in the new GOP-led Congress. But there is value in keeping these common-sense reforms on the front burner, to reinforce where both parties stand on the most vital issue of our time for our democracy. Surely we can agree that our country should no longer be bought and sold by America’s moneyed interests at the expense of everyone else.

Opinion Sun, 25 Jan 2015 10:15:30 -0500
Humanity's Future: Below Replacement Fertility?

United Nations, January 15, 2015 - Is below replacement level fertility the future for humanity? The answer to this seemingly simple question regarding human reproduction is not only of considerable demographic concern, but also has enormous social, economic and environmental consequences for the planet.

Aside from a global mortality catastrophe, the future size of the world’s population is determined basically by the number of children women bear. If the average number of births per woman remains more than about two, world population continues to increase.

However, if women on average have less than two births, then world population eventually decreases. A fertility rate of 2.1 births per woman under low mortality conditions is the replacement level, which over time results in population stabilisation.

Throughout most of human history women bore many children. In addition to offsetting high rates of infant and child mortality, a large number of children provided valuable assistance, needed labour and personal meaning to rural households as well as old-age support to parents.

At the beginning of the 20th century average global fertility was still about six births per woman. By 1950 world fertility had declined slightly to five births per woman, with less than a handful of countries having rates below the replacement level (Figure 1).

2015 0125fert (Source: United Nations Population Division)

At that time, most of the largest countries, such as Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Turkey, had rates of six or more births per woman. In addition, 29 countries, including Afghanistan, Algeria, Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Iran, Iraq, Kenya, Libya, Rwanda, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, had average fertility rates of seven or more births per woman.

As a result of the high fertility rates and comparatively low death rates, world population grew very rapidly during the 20th century, especially in the second half. World population nearly quadrupled during the past century, an unprecedented demographic phenomenon, increasing from 1.6 to 6.1 billion.

Also during the past 50 years, historic declines in fertility rates occurred, resulting in a halving of the world’s average rate to 2.5 births per woman. Those remarkable fertility declines are unequivocal and widespread, with lower rates in virtually every country.

In 1950, 101 countries, or 44 percent of world population, had a fertility rate of six or more births per woman. Today 12 countries – with all but two in sub-Saharan Africa, representing five percent of world population – have a fertility rate of six or more births per woman.

In addition, the transition from high fertility to below replacement levels took place in all European countries as well as in Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand and the United States. The transition to below replacement fertility also occurred across a broad and diverse range of developing countries, including Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Iran, Lebanon, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Tunisia and Vietnam. In sum, 75 countries, or close to half of the world’s population, are experiencing fertility rates below the replacement level (Figure 1).

With regard to future fertility levels, two key questions stand out. First, will countries with below replacement fertility remain at those levels? And second, in the coming decades will the remaining 126 countries also end up with below replacement fertility?

While future fertility rebounds cannot be ruled out, the general pattern over the last five decades has been unmistakable: once fertility falls below the replacement level, it tends to stay there. That trend has especially been the case for the many countries where fertility has fallen below 1.6 births per woman, such as Canada, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, South Korea and Russia.

Some countries consider sustained below replacement fertility as a threat to their economies and societies and have attempted to return to at least the replacement level through various pro-natalist policies, programmes and incentives, including reduced taxes, subsidised care for children and bonuses. However, such government attempts have by and large not achieved their objectives.

The forces that brought about declines in fertility to historic lows are widely recognised and include lower mortality rates, increased urbanisation, widespread education, improvements in the status of women, availability of modern contraceptives and delayed marriage and childbearing.

Other important factors include the costs of childrearing, employment and economic independence of women, divorce and separation, the decline of marriage, co-habitation, childless lifestyles and the need to save for longer years of retirement and elder care. Those forces and factors are likely to continue and become increasingly widespread globally.

According to United Nations medium-variant population projections, by mid-century the number of countries with below replacement fertility is expected to nearly double, reaching 139 countries (Figure 1). Together those countries will account for 75 percent of the world’s population at that time.

Some of the populous countries expected to fall below the replacement fertility level by 2050 include Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa and Turkey. Looking further into the future, below replacement fertility is expected in 184 countries by the end of the century, with the global fertility rate falling below two births per woman (Figure 1).

It is certainly difficult to imagine rapid transitions to low fertility in today’s high-fertility countries, such as Chad, Mali, Niger and Nigeria, where average rates are more than six births per woman. However, rapid transitions from high to low fertility levels have happened in diverse social, economic and political settings.

With social and economic development, including those forces favouring low fertility, and the changing lifestyles of women and men, the transition to below replacement fertility in nearly all the remaining countries with high birth rates may well occur in the coming decades of the 21st century.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

News Sun, 25 Jan 2015 09:42:32 -0500
The Next Big Progressive Battle: A Living Wage

Part of a global protest held on May 15, 2014 against exploitative labor practices.Part of a global protest held on May 15, 2014 against exploitative labor practices. (Photo: Bob Simpson/Flickr)

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On New Year’s Day, 20 states raised their minimum wages. That leaves a lot of states that aren’t increasing the minimum wage - along with the federal government.

Even some of those employees who are getting increases don’t have much to celebrate. Workers in Florida might barely notice their 12-cents-an-hour raise. And the extra 15 cents an hour in Montana, Arizona, and Missouri will be wiped out with inflation and climbing costs before the first paycheck is deposited.

U.S. legislators have refused since 2009 to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour - not even close to enough for full-time workers to make ends meet.

To put it bluntly, minimum wage is a poverty wage. Yet only 29 states have minimum wage rates higher than the federal rate - and some just barely.

In last year’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called on Congress to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

Although Congress turned a deaf ear, activists took up the challenge. “Fight for $15” movements across the country won among the most powerful progressive victories of 2014.

Cheers to cities like Seattle and San Francisco with minimum wage plans that will increase rates to $15 an hour in the next few years. Huge congratulations to voters in Oakland, California, as well in Arkansas, South Dakota, Nebraska, and others who voted for significant minimum wage increases.

But the truth is, while it’s a great start, none of these increases goes far enough, or lifts workers out of poverty fast enough. What’s needed is a living wage that allows full-time workers to cover their basic needs and have a little savings left over in case of an emergency.

The Job Gap Economic Prosperity series - a collection of research reports by the Alliance for a Just Society - shows that a living wage comes to over $15 an hour for a single adult in most states studied. A parent supporting a child needs to earn closer to $22 or $23 an hour.

Women and people of color are least likely to earn a living wage, with half or more working full-time and not making enough to make ends meet.

Poverty-level pay is taken for granted at restaurant chains like McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts, and major retailers like Wal-Mart, that would rather invest in government lobbyists to keep wages low than in their employees.

“If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it,” Obama implored Congress in his latest State of the Union address. “If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.”

The sub-minimum wage for tipped workers has been stuck at $2.13 an hour for 24 long years. Imagine going to work every day, hoping beyond hope that the tips will make up for the tiny hourly wage. No worker should be a second-class employee.

Refusing to pay employees a wage they can live on isn’t a business plan. Paying employees enough so they can shop or dine at your business or neighboring businesses and grow the local economy - now that’s smart.

A full-time job should lead to financial stability, not poverty. We must continue to push Congress to raise the federal minimum wage and abolish the separate tipped minimum wage.

In the meantime, keep up the “Fight for $15.” We know that we can motivate our mayors, city councils, and state legislators by speaking out, sharing our stories, and presenting the facts. Most importantly, we have to vote.

Let’s make 2015 the year for $15 - and really have something to celebrate next New Year.

Opinion Sun, 25 Jan 2015 09:31:47 -0500
Eighty People Control Half of the World's Wealth and All of the Elected Officials

Today, the bulk of the wealth is in the hands of just 80 people. Global poverty has continued to rise and it’s only going to get worse. Oxfam has predicted that if we do nothing, the wealthiest one percent of the world will control the same amount of wealth as the other 99 percent do combined.

World Economic Forum(Photo: World Economic Forum/Benedikt von Loebell; Edited: JR / TO)

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The World Economic Forum Annual Meeting began in Davos, Switzerland.  The meeting convenes “global leaders from across business, government, international organizations, academia and civil society for strategic dialogues which map the key transformations reshaping the world.”  The hope is that the dialogue will lead to action on the part of the participating nations to improve conditions in their own communities, with an understanding that we are all globally connected.  The idea is that the actions in one community can affect another anywhere in the world.

The current state of global economic inequality shows just how tenuous that connection is.

In what has now become tradition, Oxfam International, a confederation of organizations dedicated to fighting poverty, issued a report on the current state of economic inequality. Last year’s report sent shockwaves through the world by announcing that just 85 people controlled the same amount of wealth as the bottom 3 billion people combined.  That was even more dramatic than 2010 when it took 388 people to control that much wealth.

Today, the bulk of the wealth is in the hands of just 80 people.

The reasons for the dramatic change are much as they have always been. The global recession had disproportionate negative effects on those in the middle and bottom of the economic scale. As most of the population slid down the scale, the recovery went quickly upwards. While the majority of the population relied on income, which decreased or disappeared, the rich had assets. Those assets grew in value just as the returns on investments began to bounce back. The rich got richer simply because with assets, it’s difficult to not remain wealthy.

Oxfam releases the report every year just as global leaders gather in Davos because the key to reversing the trend lies in the hands of government. The problem requires a coordinated global effort to tackle inequality, such as punishing tax dodging by corporations and wealthy individuals. Other initiatives include: Universal public services (i.e. health and education), shifting the burden of taxation from labor and consumption to capital and wealth, living wages, equal pay, and adequate safety nets that include a minimum income.

Interestingly, many of these policies have been promoted – and rejected – here in America.

Thirty-five of the 80 individuals controlling wealth hold American passports. Many of the names are familiar, such as Bill Gates, the Waltons of Wal-Mart fame, George Soros, Warren Buffett, both Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. It is also no surprise that many of these names are often seen on the same donor lists of politicians across the nation, Congress and our recent presidents. The Oxfam report notes than nearly 12 percent of political contributions come from the list of 80 billionaires.

In the first few weeks of the 114th Congress, legislation was introduced to roll back regulations on Wall Street, as well as consumer protection laws that have been in place. While voters have repeatedly said they want improved education, universal healthcare and a real chance at the American dream, our elected officials seem to not hear the public’s demands. These same elected officials are dependent on the money from the wealthiest, but are also responsible for creating policies that would reverse the flow of that wealth towards a more equitable distribution.

What we have here is not a failure to communicate but a clear and dangerous conflict of interest.

The inability to invest in assets, such as houses, savings, or highly expensive art has left the majority of the world with little to show for their hard work.  Global poverty has continued to rise and it’s only going to get worse. Oxfam has predicted that if we do nothing, the wealthiest one percent of the world will control the same amount of wealth as the other 99 percent do combined.

The estimated time of arrival for this global wealth distribution is next year.

News Sun, 25 Jan 2015 09:24:03 -0500
US Army Special Forces Officially Recruit for "Mission for God"

(Image Copyright 2015, Military Religious Freedom Foundation.)(Image Copyright 2015, Military Religious Freedom Foundation.) "That the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time."

(2nd paragraph, Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, composed by Thomas Jefferson in 1777, enacted into Virginia law on January 16, 1786)

"Get this U.S. Army and get it well: The United States armed forces may surely fight and kill "for Country" and our legitimate national security interests. But our troops do NOT fight and kill for ANYONE'S "God" or related supernatural deity. In the preparation of this Op Ed, I exposed a number of senior active duty U.S. military leaders to the photo of this poster, including several active duty chaplains. To a man and woman, they were collectively ALL aghast that it was actually real and being used to lure young Americans into the Army's special forces."

C'mon, seriously? That freaking picture just says it ALL.

What an abysmal affront to "National Religious Freedom Day" which is to be celebrated tomorrow, January 16, 2015.

Having headed the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) for nearly a decade, we've been exposed to all sorts of unholy, unconstitutional cocktails inextricably mixing the intoxicating aroma of fundamentalist religion (almost always a wretched thing called "Dominion Christianity") with the dense and deep-pocketed foundations of the State. However, even WE at MRFF were hardly prepared for the stunning, unconstitutional disgrace we confirmed from client reports as recently as yesterday.

There it was; an in-your-face, proselytizing, U.S. Army officially-approved ( recruiting poster on prominent display at an Armed Forces Career Center in Phoenix, Arizona. That outrageously ghastly graphic encapsulates precisely that which we've been ceaselessly calling the attention of the American people to for all this time. The poster astoundingly displays the shoulder tabs of the U.S. Special Forces (i.e. Green Berets), Rangers and Airborne troopers accompanied by the seethingly sectarian slogan "ON A MISSION FOR BOTH GOD AND COUNTRY."

(Wait a damn minute. Phoenix? Arizona? Army Special Forces? "Mission For......God"? My first thoughts were of Pat Tillman.)

Excuse me? "GOD and country?" Ahem, well, just WHOSE "god" might that be, U.S. Army?

Let me fairly go out on a limb here and gamble that it is neither the god of Islam nor the god(s) of Hinduism? No way it's Buddhist, Sikh, Shinto, Native American Spiritualist or The Flying Spaghetti Monster. I believe it's a very safe bet to presume that the Army is pretending to refer to the "Judeo-Christian" god, and by THAT worn out and duplicitously deceptive label, of course, I really mean what the Army REALLY means; only the "Christian" god, Jesus. Unfortunately, as the experts will tell you, there are literally multiple tens of thousands of distinctly separate denominations of Christianity in existence. So, once again, the question is begged as to exactly WHICH "God" the U.S. Army Special Forces are boldly, publicly and eagerly recruiting for?

The military chaplaincy's motto is "Pro Deo et Patria" (Latin, meaning "For God and Country") but, hey, that's for noncombatant chaplains. THIS revolting Army recruiting poster is VERY specifically designed for the elite Special Forces universe of Green Berets, Rangers, Delta Force, Airborne etc. These recruiting targets populate the far, far end of the Army universe, indeed light years away, from the recruitment of non-weapons carrying chaplains.

It has consistently been MRFF's experience through the many years that there is always a greater population of Constitution-breaching, fundamentalist/Dominionist Christians in the special forces of the DoD; Navy SEALs, Air Force PJs, USMC Force Recon and the Army's designated recruiting targets of this very poster. (Remember the international controversy about those VERY same words being spoken by the Navy SEAL who shot Bin Laden in conjunction with "Geronimo, Geronimo"?)

Even the Pope himself has decried on multiple occasions the reprehensible, medieval idea that one can kill in God's name – even going so far as to say that the concept, "simply, is blasphemy". Yet here we have the most lethal killing machine devised in the history of humankind proudly extolling the virtue of what can only be described as "Holy Wars."

This unconstitutional catastrophe comes at a time, no less, when world leaders as diverse as Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu are marching together, arm in arm, in Paris and uniting behind the values of secular respect, religious tolerance, freedom of the press and all related basic civil rights. However, this incomprehensibly STUPID, and brazenly sectarian poster of American religious dominance at Marine Corps Recruiting Substation Paradise Valley universally destroys any credibility that the United States government is wholly devoted to these very basic democratic and human values.

Get this U.S. Army and get it well: The United States armed forces may surely fight and kill "for Country" and our legitimate national security interests. But our troops do NOT fight and kill for ANYONE'S "God" or related supernatural deity. In the preparation of this Op Ed, I exposed a number of senior active duty U.S. military leaders to the photo of this poster, including several active duty chaplains. To a man and woman, they were collectively ALL aghast that it was actually real and being used to lure young Americans into the Army's special forces.

In fact, this Poster of Shame lends incredible and irrefutable credence to what MRFF has been insisting from our very inception, which is that there exists a brutal, sectarian, Christian fundamentalist reign exercised within the United States Armed Forces, constituting a de facto Dominionist fifth column. In fact, it's often so brazen that it's not even very "fifth columny" anymore. Facts have borne out this assertion, in absolute spades. For example, we've seen the distribution of millenarian Left Behind video games to active-duty troops serving in Iraq. We've heard the anguished cries of servicemembers forced to attend hokey "Christian Rock" concerts on pain of "lockdown" and other forms of military retribution. We've seen the so-called "Jesus Rifles" which MRFF blew the whistle on, where Trijicon riflescopes were inscribed with specific New Testament Bible references engraved into the metal casings on nearly a million high-powered rifle sights. Oh, and if "Jesus Rifles" isn't enough of a bafflingly bizarre and contemptible example, there was the "Jesus Loves Nukes" mandatory indoctrination course that was used to train USAF nuclear missile launch officers at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Time and time again, we've been forced to go toe-to-toe with the United States Air Force Academy administration over its practically countless, savage offenses against the United States Constitution. Likewise, a recurring battle of ours has been one waged against the persistent usage of "Crusader" symbolism, evoking the brutal Western Christian colonization and merciless subjugation of Muslim nations during the Middle Ages. Our foundation submitted a very comprehensive accompanying document when I testified before the House Armed Services Committee in the United States Congress this past November. Our MRFF testimony unequivocally shows that all of the unconstitutional wickedness above is just a mere taste, indeed only the nuanced tip of a very large and exceedingly precarious iceberg of colossal, national security dangers.

Does our aggressive fight against fundamentalist Christian extremism, triumphalism and supremacy in our nation's armed forces, as so vividly displayed in this official Army recruiting poster, infuriate those who promote such bloody rancor and discord? Always and of course. Comes with the territory. You can decide whether it's worth it because we at MRFF already have decided that it most assuredly IS.

Yet here we find ourselves, ignominiously once again, faced with a disgracefully sectarian message of religious exceptionalism bearing the official U.S. Army stamp of approval. This painfully pathetic poster will no doubt serve, generally, as a red flag of limitless propaganda and, more specifically, as a recruiting bonanza of unbridled proportions for precisely those villains whom the world has united against in Paris, i.e. the Salafi-Jihadists such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Islamic State, and myriad other backwards fundamentalists. As if immeasurably emboldening our Islamic enemies wasn't bad enough, this deplorable poster will enrage our Islamic allies and eviscerate our own service members' unit cohesion, good order, morale, discipline and military readiness.

Long story short, the poster at the Phoenix armed forces recruitment hub is an absolutely abominable slap in the face of everyone who's ever taken the time to digest, understand, and swear the servicemembers' sacred oath to protect and defend the United States Constitution, let alone those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the values, rights, and protections contained therein.

And speaking of "ultimate sacrifice," I wonder what Pat Tillman would have said about that stinking poster of unconstitutional malfeasance in his beloved city and state of Phoenix, Arizona? Somehow, I don't think he'd agree that he was on a "Mission For God" when he courageously gave his life for his country in combat as a proud member of the U.S. Army's Special Forces.

Unfortunately, on the other hand, what might another Arizonan do about this; Senator John McCain, the brand new Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee? Don't hold your breath for him to lift a finger of even tepid protest against this recruiting poster. If anything, he'd likely applaud.

The world trembles in shock over the horrific crimes of murderous, fundamentalist, Islamic religiosity in one part of the globe. What of our own House here in America? Here in the States, we should spare no effort to aggressively investigate and ferociously uproot the vast legions of fundamentalist (Dominionist), Christian extremists who seek to smother our OWN secular, constitutional, American republic in the blood-drenched, theocratic "Crusader" memes of a once dark and distant era.

Sadly today, given our enormous arsenal of WMDs, even darker. And not so "distant" anymore.

Opinion Sat, 24 Jan 2015 13:44:12 -0500
Fighting Extremism With Schools, Not Guns

Karachi - As a wave of outrage, crossing Pakistan's national borders, continues a month after the Dec. 16 attack on a school in the northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, some citizens are turning away from collective expressions of anger, and beginning the hard work of building grassroots alternatives to terrorism and militancy.

While many millions of people are lashing out at the Taliban for going on a bloody rampage in a school in the province's capital, Peshawar, killing 141 people including 132 uniformed children in what is being billed as the group's single deadliest attack to date, The Citizens Foundation (TFC), a local non-profit, has reacted quite differently.

Rather than join the chorus calling for stiff penalties for the attackers, it busied itself with a pledge to build 141 Schools for Peace, one in the name of each person who lost their life on that terrible day.

"We dedicate this effort to the children of Pakistan, their right to education and their dreams of a peaceful future," Syed Asaad Ayub Ahmad, CEO of TCF, said in an email launching the campaign.

"With the formidable challenges facing the nation, we passionately believe that only education has the power to enlighten minds, instil citizenship and unleash the potential of every Pakistani," he added.

In their war against western, secular education, which the group has denounced as "un-Islamic", the Pakistan Taliban have destroyed over 838 schools between 2009 and 2012, claimed responsibility for the near-fatal shooting of teenaged education advocate Malala Yousafzai and issued numerous edicts against the right of women and girls to receive proper schooling.

In their latest assault on education, nine militants went on an eight-hour-long killing spree, throwing hand grenades into the teeming school premises and firing indiscriminately at any moving target. They claim the attack was a response to the military operation aimed at rooting out the Taliban currently underway in North Waziristan, a tribal region bordering Afghanistan.

While armed groups and government forces answer violence with more of the same, the active citizens who comprise TCF want to shift focus away from bloodshed and onto longer-term solutions for the future of this deeply troubled country.

The charity, which began in 1995, has completed 1,000 school 'units', typically a primary or secondary institution capable of accommodating up to 180 pupils, all built from scratch in the most impoverished areas of some 100 towns and cities across Pakistan.

The 7,700 teachers employed by the NGO go through a rigorous training programme before placement, and the organisation maintains a strict 50:50 male-female ratio for the 145,000 students who are now benefitting from a free education, according to TCF Vice President Zia Akhter Abbas.

In a country where 25.02 million school-aged children – of which 13.7 million (55 percent) are girls – do not receive any form of education, experts say TCF's initiative may well act as a game changer in the years to come, especially given that the government spends just 2.1 percent of its GDP on education.

"Our job is to ensure that wherever we have our schools, there are no out-of-school children, especially girls," Abbas told IPS. "We believe the change in society will come automatically once these educated and enlightened children grow up into responsible adults."

He added that the schools are designed to "serve as a beacon of light restricting the advance of extremism in our society."

The project has received widespread support from a broad spectrum of Pakistani society. Twenty-four-year-old Usman Riaz, a student at the Berklee College of Music in Boston who recently donated the proceeds of his jam-packed concerts in Karachi to TCF's efforts, says the Schools for Peace are a "wonderful way to honor the innocent victims".

But it will take more than one-off charitable donations to make the scheme a reality. It costs about 15 million rupees (148,000 dollars) to build and equip each new school, so the total bill for all 141 institutions stands at some 21 million dollars.

With a track record of building 40-50 schools a year, however, the NGO is confident that it will honor its pledge within three years.

Combating extremism

Besides immortalizing the victims of the Taliban's attack, experts here say that shifting the focus away from terrorism and onto education will help combat a growing pulse of religious extremism.

The prominent Pakistani educationist and rights activist A.H. Nayyar told IPS that it is crucial for the country to begin educating children who would otherwise be turned into "fodder for extremists".

In fact, part of the government's 20-point National Action Plan – agreed upon by all political parties dedicated to completely eradicating terrorism – includes plans to register and regulate all seminaries, known here as madrassas, in a bid to combat extremism at its root.

With thousands of such religious institutions springing up across the country to fill a void in the school systems, policy-makers are concerned about the indoctrination of children at a young age, with distorted interpretations of religious texts and the teaching of intolerance playing a major role in these schools.

Some sources say that between two and three million students are enrolled at the nearly 20,000 madrassas spread across Pakistan; others say this is a conservative estimate.

While there is some talk about bringing these institutions under the umbrella of the public school system, experts like Nayyar believe this will do little to combat the "forcible teaching of [...] false and distorted history, excessive emphasis on Islamic teachings to the extent of including them in textbooks of all the subjects, explicit teaching of jihad and militancy, hate material against other nations, peoples of other faiths, etc, [and] excessive glorification of the military and wars."

Nayyar and other independent scholars have been at the forefront of calling for an overhaul of the public school curriculum, which they believe is at odds with the goals of a modern, progressive nation.

But until policy-makers and politicians jump on the bandwagon, independent efforts like the work of TCF will lead the way.

News Sat, 24 Jan 2015 13:22:16 -0500
Global Blackness

The following remarks were read at the Black Life Matters conference in Tucson, Arizona, on January 15, 2015.

Good morning, everyone. I'm sorry I couldn't be with you in person but am very glad to be part of this conversation.

My message here today is a message to the Black grassroots. I know there was some discussion about why this conference is taking place in the halls of a university or in Arizona. It may not be the best place to deliver a message to the Black grassroots but circumstances created this space and I know the organizers are committed to the conversations going beyond the halls of academia, so I share these comments in the hope that they reach Black people on a move.

Plainly, what I want to say is that we, Black people everywhere, see you and we are with you in the struggle.

It has been, for Africans outside of the U.S, significant and joyful to see the movement for Black life and dignity take hold, grow and capture the imagination in this moment there. The most recent uprisings and mass actions across the U.S have been the culmination, as I see it, of mobilizations and organizing that has been ongoing for decades and that were visible in response to the lack of government action to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, to the case of the Jena 6, of Troy Davis, of Trayvon Martin, and now of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, as well as in the attempts to build viable alternatives as in Cooperation Jackson. This moment in the movement has been triggered by the revolts in Ferguson but the movement is a movement for Black lives, Black life[i], Black dignity and Black self-determination in the tradition of Black liberation struggles. Understood in this continuum, it has been wonderful to hear Assata Shakur present in the chants in Ferguson "it is our duty to fight for our freedom, it is our duty to win," and indeed in this movement we must call out the names and organize to secure the freedom of the political prisoners that remain captive in U.S prisons for also demanding and defending Black life and dignity: Sundiata Acoli, Mutulu Shakur, Robert Seth Hayes, Albert Woodfox, Mumia Abu Jamal, Herman Bell, among too many others.

There has been an outpouring of global solidarity for the Black movement in the U.S by Black people in, to name but a few, South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Colombia, Brazil, the UK, France and from non-Black people who are also fighting against imperialism the world over, including in Palestine, where the historic solidarity between African and Palestinian peoples continues. Black people globally are claiming 'we are Ferguson' as an understanding of our linked fate and common oppression and in many cases because the manifestations of global anti-Black violence are so similar. In South Africa, for example, a booming prison industrial complex and accompanying State and non-State so-called 'security' apparatus is being established to protect capital from economically oppressed Black people (rather than protecting the masses of Black people from the violence of capitalism). In the U.S., a Black person is killed every 28 hours, and in Brazil approximately 118 Black people are murdered every day in what Afro-Brazilians are calling a silent genocide. One hundred and eighteen Black people are murdered every day!

The outpouring has highlighted not only the linked fate between us but also the asymmetry of how far the cries of indignation of les damnés carry. We have heard the cries of Ferguson echo across the globe. And yet, wherever we are we must listen hard to hear the resistance in Burkina Faso, in Guinea, in Colombia, in Sudan, in the DRC. To remix CLR James, the only place where Black people do not revolt is in the pages of the capitalist media. Just as anti-Black oppression is global and takes many forms that are embedded in systems of white supremacist, hetero-patriarchal, ableist, capitalism, resistance by Black people is also global and it is all of our duties to ensure that we are seeing, listening, being inspired by one another and living our solidarity with one another.

In Colombia, Black women have been in permanent assembly in the offices of the Ministry of Interior of Giralda since November 27 as part of their fight to protect their lands and territories from mining, to end the war on their bodies and to resist displacement. In Madagascar, peasants and farmers resisted massive land grabs, their uprisings leading to an overturn of government. However, their gains are being reversed in the name of liberal democracy. More broadly, the fight against land grab in Africa is a fight for Black life and survival, for self-determined development and is a global fight for the future that we all need to be paying attention to. With the collaboration of African governments and elites, about 20 million hectares of farmland has been grabbed since 2008, using the all too familiar justification that the land is unoccupied or unused. The land claims of pastoralists, women, peasants and small-scale farmers are marginalized from formal land rights processes and access to law and institutions by the colonial framework of land ownership that favors markets and businesses. Land use that is non-commercial, including medicinal, spiritual or grazing for pasture, is ignored to make way for large-scale, high-yield 'production.' Biodiversity is being patented, flora and fauna commodified, and water grabbed – this is no longer the prediction of great writers like Octavia Butler but the terrifying reality. Significant public relations efforts, by, amongst others, Bill Gates in partnership with Monsanto, to persuade governments and farmers that GMOs offer the solution to food insecurity are obscuring the market-dependency that this and mono-cropping would create for already market-marginalized small scale farmers on the continent. The sustainable future that global capitalism is envisioning and aggressively creating is one in which technology beats nature to maintain the luxury of a few. Black lives and lands remain commodities and disposable. Despite the threat, communities across Africa have been resisting land grab, and women have been organizing beyond borders to claim 'we are the solution' to sustainable food production.

Globally, women and queer folk are resisting and building alternatives at the intersections of patriarchy and capitalism. In the U.S, I have been dismayed by the erasure of Black cis and trans women's lives even within the Black Lives Matter movement. Where was the mass mobilization when Tanisha Anderson was murdered by the police? Where was the mass mobilization when Deshawnda Bradley was killed? Where is the movement for the sixty four thousand Black women that are missing in the U.S? On the continent of Africa, we witness the attempt to disappear Black women and queer lives and life from the very narrative of African identity. Armed with imported religious fundamentalisms, the promise of capitalist prosperity and the necessity for diversion and division, an alliance has formed to enshrine patriarchy, heteropatriarchy and transphobia into the fabric of Africa. It's important that we not fall into the trap of asserting that oppression and oppressive practices are a manifestation of African culture or tradition. As Amilcar Cabral reminds us, culture is dynamic and perpetually being made. Culture can be used as a tool for liberation or for the purposes of domination: the choice sits with us. Patriarchy is not my culture even if the system of patriarchy dominates the practices of those around me. I choose the traditions of freedom, respect, love and self-determination that are just as much embedded in the history and practices of my people. Women and Queer Africans are choosing and creating an Africa outside of the bounds of patriarchy by mobilizing in Soweto for Pride, through hundreds of people taking to the streets of Nairobi in miniskirts when a woman was stripped naked for being indecently dressed and by demanding an end to violence against sex workers under the banner of Black lives matter.

Black people came out globally to 'Bring Back our Girls' after over three hundred children were abducted from school in Chibok, Nigeria in May. The response of the Chibok community and the Nigerian women's movement sounded the alarm and spurred global solidarity from Philadelphia to London, Cairo to Dakar and Johannesburg. But our girls are still missing eight months later and many more Black lives have since been lost to the proxy battlegrounds of a global war that has been raging in a barrage of silence. When the demand rang out that our three hundred abducted Black girls be brought back, the outcome was more U.S troops with 'boots on the ground' in Africa. Militarized responses from the U.S are not new, but the humanitarian justification for U.S military infiltration into Africa is nonetheless duplicitous, be it in the response to 'Bring Back our Girls' or to the Ebola epidemic that has taken nearly eight thousand lives in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Ebola became an epidemic in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia and not in Spain, the United States or the UK, where there were also cases, because of systemic and entrenched impoverishment and inequalities: in other words, the differential effects of Ebola are directly tied to capitalist systems of exploitation. And it is capitalist interests that have maintained the attention of pharmaceutical corporations backed by the U.S military in the Ebola crisis, not human solidarity. Because Black lives matter we must build ways of being that disrupt imperialism, patriarchy, militarism, disrupt the entire system and sustain Black life.

Despite the unprecedented Black presence in the U.S administration, the murder, mass incarceration and impoverishment of Black people continues. Similarly, for the last fifty years, African states have had African administrations that do not serve the interests of African peoples. When there is no justice, there is just us. In this moment when the attention of so many is on the Black liberation movement in the U.S., there is significant political mileage in claiming ally-ship with the movement – the woodworks will be full. But genuine solidarity requires 'fighting on different terrains toward the same objectives'[ii], co-conspiracy rather than empty declarations of ally-ship. Co-conspiracy will require long-term commitment, introspection, and practice. It might start with a hashtag or wearing a t-shirt, it certainly can't end there.

I have seen, admittedly with some glee, consternation amongst sections of the Black community in the U.S around the organizing tactics and methods of the mobilizations for Black life and lives. During the uprisings in Tunisia, a communist comrade recounted that every evening he wrote an analysis of what was happening and how it was happening. Every morning he tore up his analysis. In only a few hours, what he understood felt no longer applicable, relevant or even enough to understand what was happening. The people were creating revolution. Not from a text book, the red book or any other book, but from their own experience and knowledge. Learning in action was the order of the day and a leaderfull[iii] not leaderless, movement was being created in the image of the aspirations of the people involved. It was definitely not a perfect uprising, there have been significant losses over the last four years but revolution is a process and without a doubt the uprisings changed Tunisia, Africa and the rest of the world in significant ways. The uprisings in the U.S feel similar in that they are grounded on years of organizing and part of a transformative process, they are leaderfull not leaderless and they have swept the old guard to the side to make room for the articulation of the peoples' aspirations. In Tunisia, the call was for 'bread and dignity,' in the U.S it is for Black lives. Both have clear affirmations and both affirmations challenge the economic, social, and political global order in their demand.

The systems of oppression that we challenge locally are global and we have a global Black village. We have a duty not only to indict the system, to shut it down, but to build new ways of being, doing and sustaining. We must become, in the words of Assata, weapons of mass construction. Indeed, we have nothing to lose but our chains.


[i] Fred Moten makes an important distinction here on Black lives and Black life: "We need to understand what the state is defending itself from and I think that in this respect, the particular instances of Michael Brown's murder and Eric Garner's murder are worth paying some attention to. Because what the drone, Darren Wilson, shot into that day was insurgent Black life walking down the street. I don't think he meant to violate the individual personhood of Michael Brown, he was shooting at mobile Black sociality walking down the street in a way that he understood implicitly constituted a threat to the order he represents and that he is sworn to protect. Eric Garner on the every day basis initiated a new alternative kind of market place, another mode of social life. That's what they killed, ok? So when we say that Black lives matter I think what we do sometimes is obscure the fact that it's in fact Black life that matters. That insurgent Black social life still constitutes a profound threat to the already existing order of things." See more:

[ii] Samora Machel

[iii] "The only leadership I can respect is one that enables every man and woman to be his and her own leader" June Jordan, Civil Wars

Opinion Sat, 24 Jan 2015 12:25:56 -0500
Obama Tips His Hat to FDR

Whatever happens over the next two years, you can bet that 22nd century school children will know more about President Barack Obama than kids learn today about, say, Calvin Coolidge. He made history just by being the first non-white man to occupy the White House.

What else will tomorrow's kids learn about Obama?

Sure, the Affordable Care Act has delivered health coverage to millions of Americans who needed it, shrinking the uninsured rate to less than 13 percent. Yet that law didn't heal enough of what ails the nation's health care system. Compared with Social Security, one of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's greatest achievements, it's no big deal.

The ACA's shortcomings are symptomatic of the first six years of Obama's presidency. He doled out one concession after another to ungrateful Republican lawmakers.

Then the drubbing Democrats took in November's midterm elections knocked some sense into him. Or he realized that he had nothing to lose. Or maybe he traveled in a time machine.

For now, Obama is channeling his inner FDR. What would FDR say about today's growing inequality and stagnant wages? Something like this:

"The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much," Roosevelt declared during his second inaugural address. "It is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

Sound familiar? Obama echoed that sentiment in his State of the Union address when he asked:

"Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well, or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?"

As FDR declared in 1937: "Government is competent when all who compose it work as trustees for the whole people."

Obama's says this more conversationally: "This country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules."

With his bundle of proposed tax tweaks slated to raise an estimated $320 billion in revenue and bring relief to millions of exhausted American families, Obama's "middle class economics" is forcing GOP lawmakers into an awkward corner.

Take Mitt Romney. He derided the public's growing concern about inequality as "envy" and "class warfare" during his losing 2012 presidential campaign.

Now that he's mulling another White House bid, Romney sounds different.

"Under President Obama, the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse, and there are more people in poverty in American than ever before," the once and future candidate declared at a recent Republican gathering in San Diego.

It will take more than mouthing the word "inequality" to rebrand Mr. 47 percent.

Meanwhile, ponder FDR's words: "In our personal ambitions we are individualists. But in our seeking for economic and political progress as a nation, we all go up, or else we all go down, as one people."

And another thing Obama just said:

"Will we allow ourselves to be sorted into factions and turned against one another  —  or will we recapture the sense of common purpose that has always propelled America forward?"

As a progressive, I'm still disappointed. I can't stomach Obama's addiction to drones, domestic snooping, and crummy trade deals. I wish he'd spoken more directly about enacting stronger gun laws and locking up fewer Americans  —  and uttered the word "racism."

As an environmentalist, I appreciate his tough climate talk. But I wish he'd fall out of love with fracking and start opposing the construction of new nuclear reactors.

Yet most modern progressives revere Roosevelt despite the creation of nuclear bombs and the internment of Japanese Americans on his watch.

And instead of being remembered for being the first president in a wheelchair, FDR is that guy who left the Depression in the dust.

That's why it's good to see that after years of riling his base instead of rallying it, Obama is rising above Washington's gridlock.

He has nothing to fear except...well, you know.

Opinion Sat, 24 Jan 2015 12:05:26 -0500
The Spectacle of Illiteracy and the Crisis of Democracy

C. Wright Mills argued 50 years ago that one important measure of the demise of vibrant democracy and the corresponding impoverishment of political life can be found in the increasing inability of a society to translate private troubles to broader public issues.

The collapse of journalistic standards finds its counterpart in the rise of civic illiteracy. (Photo: Steve Rhodes)The collapse of journalistic standards finds its counterpart in the rise of civic illiteracy. (Photo: Steve Rhodes)

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This is an excerpt from Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism, by Henry Giroux.

C. Wright Mills argued 50 years ago that one important measure of the demise of vibrant democracy and the corresponding impoverishment of political life can be found in the increasing inability of a society to translate private troubles to broader public issues. [1] This is an issue that both characterizes and threatens any viable notion of democracy in the United States in the current historical moment. In an alleged post-racist democracy, the image of the public sphere with its appeal to dialogue and shared responsibility has given way to the spectacle of unbridled intolerance, ignorance, seething private fears, unchecked anger and the decoupling of reason from freedom. Increasingly, as witnessed in the utter disrespect and not-so-latent racism expressed by Joe Wilson, the Republican congressman from South Carolina, who shouted "you lie!" during President Obama's address on health care, the obligation to listen, respect the views of others and engage in a literate exchange is increasingly reduced to the highly spectacular wed embrace of an infantile emotionalism. This is an emotionalism that is made for television. It is perfectly suited for emptying the language of public life of all substantive content, reduced in the end to a playground for hawking commodities, promoting celebrity culture and enacting the spectacle of right-wing fantasies fueled by the fear that the public sphere as an exclusive club for white male Christians is in danger of collapsing. For some critics, those who carry guns to rallies or claim Obama is a Muslim and not a bona fide citizen of the United States are simply representative of an extremist fringe, that gets far more publicity from the mainstream media than they deserve. Of course this is understandable, given that the media's desire for balance and objective news is not just disingenuous but relinquishes any sense of ethical responsibility by failing to make a distinction between an informed argument and an unsubstantiated opinion. Witness the racist hysteria unleashed by so many Americans and the media over the building of an Islamic cultural center near ground zero.

The collapse of journalistic standards finds its counterpart in the rise of civic illiteracy. An African-American president certainly makes the Rush Limbaughs of the world even more irrational than they already are, just as the lunatic fringe seems to be able to define itself only through a mode of thought whose first principle is to disclaim logic itself. But I think this dismissal is too easy. What this decline in civility, the emergence of mob behavior and the utter blurring in the media between a truth and a lie suggest is that we have become one of the most illiterate nations on the planet. I don't mean illiterate in the sense of not being able to read, though we have far too many people who are functionally illiterate in a so-called advanced democracy, a point that writers such as Chris Hedges, Susan Jacoby and the late Richard Hofstadter made clear in their informative books on the rise of anti-intellectualism in American life. [2] I am talking about a different species of ignorance and anti-intellectualism. Illiterate in this instance refers to the inability on the part of much of the American public to grasp private troubles and the meaning of the self in relation to larger public problems and social relations. It is a form of illiteracy that points less to the lack of technical skills and the absence of certain competencies than to a deficit in the realms of politics — one that subverts both critical thinking and the notion of literacy as both critical interpretation and the possibility of intervention in the world. This type of illiteracy is not only incapable of dealing with complex and contested questions, it is also an excuse for glorifying the principle of self-interest as a paradigm for understanding politics. This is a form of illiteracy marked by the inability to see outside of the realm of the privatized self, an illiteracy in which the act of translation withers, reduced to a relic of another age. The United States is a country that is increasingly defined by a civic deficit, a chronic and deadly form of civic illiteracy that points to the failure of both its educational system and the growing ability of anti-democratic forces to use the educational force of the culture to promote the new illiteracy. As this widespread illiteracy has come to dominate American culture, we have moved from a culture of questioning to a culture of shouting and in doing so have restaged politics and power in both unproductive and anti-democratic ways.

Think of the forces at work in the larger culture that work overtime to situate us within a privatized world of fantasy, spectacle and resentment that is entirely removed from larger social problems and public concerns. For instance, corporate culture, with its unrelenting commercials, carpet-bombs our audio and visual fields with the message that the only viable way to define ourselves is to shop and consume in an orgy of private pursuits. Popular culture traps us in the privatized universe of celebrity culture, urging us to define ourselves through the often empty and trivialized and highly individualized interests of celebrities. Pharmaceutical companies urge us to deal with our problems, largely produced by economic and political forces out of our control, by taking a drug, one that will both chill us out and increase their profit margins. (This has now become an educational measure applied increasingly and indiscriminately to children in our schools.) Pop psychologists urge us to simply think positively, give each other hugs and pull ourselves up by the bootstraps while also insisting that those who confront reality and its mix of complex social issues are, as Chris Hedges points out, defeatists, a negative force that inhibits "our inner essence and power." [3] There is also the culture of militarization, which permeates all aspects of our lives — from our classrooms and the screen culture of reality television to the barrage of violent video games and the blood letting in sports such as popular wrestling — endlessly at work in developing modes of masculinity that celebrate toughness, violence, cruelty, moral indifference and misogyny.

All of these forces, whose educational influence should never be underestimated, constitute a new type of illiteracy, a kind of civic illiteracy in which it becomes increasingly impossible to connect the everyday problems that people face with larger social forces — thus depoliticizing their own sense of agency and making politics itself an empty gesture. Is it any wonder that politics is now mediated through a spectacle of anger, violence, humiliation and rage that mimics the likes of The Jerry Springer Show? It is not that we have become a society of the spectacle — though that is partly true — but that we have fallen prey to a new kind of illiteracy in which the distinction between illusion and reality is lost, just as the ability to experience our feelings of discontent and our fears of uncertainty are reduced to private troubles, paralyzing us in a sea of resentment waiting to be manipulated by extremists extending from religious fanatics to right-wing radio hosts. This is a prescription for a kind of rage that looks for easy answers, demands a heightened emotional release and resents any attempts to think through the connection between our individual woes and any number of larger social forces. A short list of such forces would include an unchecked system of finance, the anti-democratic power of the corporate state, the rise of multinationals and the destruction of the manufacturing base and the privatization of public schooling along with its devaluing of education as a public good. As the public collapses into the personal, the personal becomes "the only politics there is, the only politics with a tangible referent or emotional valence," [4] the formative educational and political conditions that make a democracy possible begin to disappear. Under such circumstances, the language of the social is either devalued, pathologized or ignored and all dreams of the future are now modeled around the narcissistic, privatized and self-indulgent needs of consumer and celebrity culture and the dictates of the allegedly free market. How else to explain the rage against big government but barely a peep against the rule of big corporations who increasingly control not only the government but almost every vital aspect of our lives from health care to the quality of our environment?
Stripped of its ethical and political importance, the public has been largely reduced to a space where private interests are displayed and the social order increasingly mimics a giant Dr. Phil show where notions of the public register as simply a conglomeration of private woes, tasks, conversations and problems. Most importantly, as the very idea of the social collapses into an utterly privatized discourse, everyday politics is decoupled from its democratic moorings and it becomes more difficult for people to develop a vocabulary for understanding how private problems and public issues constitute the very lifeblood of a vibrant politics and democracy itself. This is worth repeating. Emptied of any substantial content, democracy appears imperiled as individuals are unable to translate their privately suffered misery into genuine public debate, social concerns and collective action. This is a form of illiteracy that is no longer marginal to American society but is increasingly becoming one of its defining and more frightening features.

The raging narcissism that seems to shape every ad, film, television program and appeal now mediated through the power of the corporate state and consumer society is not merely a clinical and individual problem. It is the basis for a new kind of mass illiteracy that is endlessly reproduced through the venues of a number of anti-democratic institutions and forces that eschew critical debate, self-reflection, critical analysis and certainly modes of dissent that call the totality of a society into question. As American society becomes incapable of questioning itself, the new illiteracy parades as just its opposite. We are told that education is about learning how to take tests rather than learning how to think critically. We are told that anything that does not make us feel good is not worth bothering with. We are told that character is the only measure of how to judge people who are the victims of larger social forces that are mostly out of their control. When millions of people are unemployed, tossed out of their homes, homeless or living in poverty, the language of character, pop psychology, consumerism and celebrity culture are more than a diversion: they are fundamental to the misdirected anger, mob rule and illiteracy that frames the screaming, racism, lack of civility and often sheer and legitimate desperation.

Authoritarianism is often abetted by an inability of the public to grasp how questions of power, politics, history and public consciousness are mediated at the interface of private issues and public concerns. The ability to translate private problems into social considerations is fundamental to what it means to reactivate political sensibilities and conceive of ourselves as critical citizens, engaged public intellectuals and social agents. Just as an obsession with the private is at odds with a politics informed by public consciousness, it also burdens politics by stripping it of the kind of political imagination and collective hope necessary for a viable notion of meaning, hope and political agency.

Civic literacy is about more than enlarging the realm of critique and affirming the social. It is also about public responsibility, the struggle over democratic public life and the importance of critical education in a democratic society. The US government is more than willing to invest billions in wars, lead the world in arms sales and give trillions in tax cuts to the ultra-rich but barely acknowledges the need to invest in those educational and civic institutions from schools to the arts to a massive jobs creation program — that enable individuals to be border crossers, capable of connecting the private and the public as part of a more vibrant understanding of politics, identity, agency and governance. The new illiteracy is not the cause of our problems, which are deeply rooted in larger social, economic and political forces that have marked the emergence of the corporate state, a deadly form of racism parading as color blindness and a ruthless market fundamentalism since the 1970s, but it is a precondition for locking individuals into a system in which they are complicitous in their own exploitation, disposability and potential death.

The new illiteracy is about more than not knowing how to read the book or the word; it is about not knowing how to read the world. The challenge it poses in a democracy is one of both learning how to reclaim literacy so as to be able to narrate oneself and the world from a position of agency. But it is also about unlearning those modes of learning that internalize modes of ignorance based on the concerted refusal to know, be self-reflective and act with principled dignity. It is a problem as serious as any we have ever faced in the United States. At the core of any viable democratic politics is the ability to question the assumptions central to an imagined democracy. This is not merely a political issue but an educational issue, one that points to the need for modes of civic education that provide the knowledge and competencies for young and old alike to raise important questions about what education and literacy itself should accomplish in a democracy. [5] This is not an issue we can ignore too much longer.


1. C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959). See also the brilliant Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (New York; W.W. Norton, 1992).

2. Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (New York: Vintage, 1966); Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason (New York: Vintage, 2009); Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion (Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2009).

3. Chris Hedges, "Celebrity Culture and the Obama Brand," Tikkun (January/February 2010).

4. Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff, "Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming," Public Culture 12:2 (2000), pp. 305-306.

5. Zygmunt Bauman, "Introduction," Society under Siege (Maiden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), p. 170.

Opinion Sat, 24 Jan 2015 11:48:22 -0500
EPA Sued Over Disclosure Rules for Toxic Pollution From Drilling and Fracking

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been sued over toxic chemicals released into the air, water and land by the oil and gas industry, a coalition of nine environmental and open government groups announced recently.

The extraction of oil and gas releases more toxic pollution than any other industry except for power plants, according to the EPA's own estimates, the coalition, which filed the lawsuit this morning in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, noted.

But the industry has thus far escaped federal rules that, for over the past two decades, have required other major polluters to disclose the type and amount of toxic chemicals they release or dispose. The Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) is a federal pollution database, established under the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act, and can be used by first-responders in the event of a crisis as well as members of the general public.

"People deserve to know what toxic chemicals are being used near their homes, schools and hospitals," said Matthew McFeeley, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"For too long, the oil and gas industry has been exempt from rules that require other industries to disclose the chemicals they are using, so communities and workers can better understand the risks. It's high time for EPA to stop giving the oil and gas industry special treatment."

Roughly one in four Americans live within a mile of an oil or gas well, making the air emissions from the industry a matter of local concern to a fast-growing number of families.

Adam Kron, lead attorney in the lawsuit, told DeSmog that, given emerging evidence linking proximity to gas wells to health issues like respiratory disorders or skin conditions, residents in shale fields could find TRI data useful. "For those people, they might not know what's causing it, they might not know what's being released," he said. "You can bring the print-out to your doctor," he added.

"The information is just vital to people who live near those sites," Mr. Kron added.

The lawsuit follows a petition that the coalition of groups filed in October 2012, requesting that EPA require the oil and gas industry to participate in the TRI.

"In 2012," the groups, noted, "EPA estimated that the oil and gas extraction industry emits at least 127,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants every year, all of which are TRI-listed toxic chemicals. These include benzene (a carcinogen), xylenes (which can cause headaches, fatigue, and cardiovascular problems), and hydrogen sulfide (which can cause nausea, coughing, and in high concentrations, rapid death)."

There are signs that the true levels of toxic releases are higher than EPA's official estimates. Air emission data, gathered by the Environmental Integrity Project from six major drilling states (Colorado, Louisiana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wyoming) showed a combined 8.5 million tons of TRI-listed toxic chemicals released annually, a report by the group released in January 2014 concluded.

That review focused on 395 oil and gas extraction facilities, which each released over 10,000 pounds of at least one toxic chemical. Roughly half of those sites had emitted over 10,000 pounds, the normal threshold for TRI reporting, for two or more years in a row, and over half were in Texas. These high-polluting sites included compressor stations for natural gas pipelines, processing plants, wastewater processing facilities, and emissions also spew from drilling and fracking operations, the groups found.

"Our research shows that many of these oil and gas plants emit tens of thousands of pounds of toxic pollutants every year, but that data was hard to get and incomplete," said Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project when research results were announced last year. "We need this industry to report that pollution to the Toxics Release Inventory where everyone can see it –– just like chemical plants and other facilities have done for more than 20 years."

Even using the EPA's more conservative estimates, the amount of toxic pollution emitted by the oil and gas industry is enormous. "EPA estimates that the industry emits at least 127,000 tons of hazardous air pollutants every year, including benzene, xylenes, and hydrogen sulfide," noted a 2012 EPA fact sheet. "This is more than any TRI-reporting industry except electric utilities, and equivalent to thirty percent of the total release of hazardous air pollutants reported to the TRI for 2010."

The organizations the Environmental Integrity Project is representing in the lawsuit include the Center for Effective Government (formerly known as OMB Watch), the Natural Resources Defense Council, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future (PennFuture), the Clean Air Council, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, the Responsible Drilling Alliance, and Texas Campaign for the Environment.

Congress established the TRI in 1986 to inform the public about the release of sometimes carcinogenic chemicals from industries in the wake of the deadly 1984 Bhopal disaster in India, in which toxic gases killed thousands of local residents.

The lawsuit, if sucessful, would not directly limit pollution from oil and gas extraction facilities, but it would require information to be made public.

"If knowledge is power, as the proverb goes, then the EPA's Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) is a powerful tool indeed," science writer Nancy Bazilchuk noted in a 2006 Environmental Health Perspectives paper. "Firefighters and first responders used this nearly 20-year-old public database of toxic chemical emissions to identify potential contamination hot spots after the floods of Hurricane Katrina. Residents have used it to find out what kinds of pollutants are being emitted by nearby industries. Investment companies use it to evaluate whether or not to purchase a company's stocks. Even the Internal Revenue Service uses it to collect a pollution tax from companies that release ozone-damaging chlorofluorocarbons."

In 1996, the EPA decided to "defer" any decision about including oil and gas extraction in the TRI, in part because of a dispute about whether the emissions from each individual well and piece of equipment should be considered separately, or whether all of the fumes from a single well pad should be tallied together. "This was kind of a different industry back then, you didn't have these major industrialized sites," Mr. Kron explained.

A similar legal distinction has kept the oil and gas industry exempt from hazardous air pollution regulations under the Clean Air Act, drawing the ire of environmentalists and many who live near well pads who suspect the fumes from fracking and drilling have caused health problems.

As the shale drilling boom has spread across the U.S., those concerns have grown.

"Those living or working closest to wells are at the highest risk," the NRDC concluded last month after reviewing scientific research. "In addition to the aforementioned health threats, they can also be exposed to diesel particulate matter and other toxics, including carcinogens. As a result, they are also at risk for eye, nose and throat irritation, brain and nervous system problems including headaches, lightheadedness and disorientation, blood and bone marrow damage leading to anemia and immunological problems, reproductive system effects, birth defects and harm to the developing fetus, and cancer."

Advocates now hope to prod the EPA to require drillers to make basic information about chemical releases available.

"The public disclosures in the Toxic Release Inventory have spurred companies across an array of industries to significantly reduce the toxic wastes they produce," said Sean Moulton, a director at the Center for Effective Government. "There is no reasonable rationale for exempting the oil and gas industry from these reporting requirements. Citizens have a right to know what wastes are being released in their communities."

News Sat, 24 Jan 2015 11:24:22 -0500