'/> Uncommon Hours: December 2009
Blogging on culture, politics, and the environment since 2008.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss?

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss
Bob Sommer
Uncommon Hours

“Democracies have fallen, they have always fallen, because humanity craves the outstanding personality.”
―Ezra Pound

In the weeks and months leading up to the 2008 election, I hit the streets and the phones – along with about 1.5 million other believers. At Obama HQ here in Kansas City I was given a cell phone and I made calls to get voters to the polls. I traipsed up and down neighborhood streets along with other volunteers and knocked on doors, and on more than a few occasions faced snarling dogs or snarly Republicans.

This was it! If we did this, the nightmare would end. Sanity would return. We’d get out of Iraq; Gitmo would close; rendition would end, as would secret prisons and the neglect of habeas corpus. Universal health care would finally arrive – fifty years after Harry S. Truman first dreamed of it. The lobbyists would get the boot. Corporate money would no longer make laws and policy. Science and reason would determine our energy policy so that rapid and dramatic action could be brought to bear on the looming catastrophe of climate change.

But here we are a little over a year later and none of this happened. Permanent war, now reinforced by a tripling of forces in Afghanistan and the outsourcing of some of our military commitments to Mercenaries Incorporated, is the official policy of the Obama administration. The president’s speech to declare this policy – whose live audience, notably, was the current and future military leadership at West Point – could well have been delivered verbatim by his predecessor.

Health insurance and pharmacy industry lobbyists have nearly worn out the front hall rugs at the White House as the debate raged nationally – and futilely, it appears – over whether America would finally have a health care system commensurate with its presumed status as a prosperous and civilized nation. Not so much. Remember the nitpicky debates among Obama and Edwards and Clinton during the 2008 Democratic primaries about whose plan was most effective and offered the best coverage? Healthcare industrialists and lobbyists must have snickered through it all – the wasted efforts of staffs to develop those plans and prep their candidates and then post all the fine points on the Web, the wasted breath of pundits and editorialists, and the empty hopes of people who thought that one of those plans might actually become the law of the land. But money wins and we lose in a country where citizenship requires an Inc. after your name to have a voice – and for your vote to matter.

And while healthcare lobbyists put on their galoshes and overcoats the White House front hall, banking and brokerage lobbyists and CEOs were taking theirs off. The question of whether bailouts were needed to save us all from financial Armageddon need not even be raised to ask why accountability was never part of the program when hundreds of billions of our dollars were handed out. To be clear, life is good (remember that catch phrase of the booming 90s?), if you’re employed in the upper strata of the companies that led us to the brink of disaster. As one of the best years of the entire decade comes to a close on Wall Street – just one year after Armageddon! ― here are a few recent headlines from the website of that oracle of free market optimism, CNBC:

Stocks Will Soar in Q1: 'Very Optimistic' Asset Strategist
Earnings Will Rise 16% Next Year: Citi’s Levkovich
Stay 'Fully Invested': Stock Picker
S&P Charts Full of Bull (Market)
Art Cashin: Class Warfare a Threat to US Recovery
Citi: The Can't Lose Trade of 2010?
Cramer: 10 Stocks to Buy Your Kids in 2010
Market to Rise 10% in First Half of 2010: Strategist
Market Tips: No Big Correction in 2010

“What, me worry?” seems as apt a slogan as “Life is good.” But why should they worry? An economy pumped up by money that still smells of printer’s ink from the Treasury Department is surely a more resilient economy than one in which people make things and then sell them to each other, isn’t it, at least, if your business is using money to make money? Who needs the middle man? Just keep printing and borrowing, just as we did for the past fifteen years or so since deregulation and the jettisoning of Glass-Steagall. It’s different this time. Tulip bulbs anyone? You only need to spend ten minutes listening to CNBC to recognize that the main theme of their economic outlook is consumption. The almighty consumer is the engine of the economy, and all they’re waiting for is all of us to get back to Wal-Mart and the mall with our credit cards.

Well, we can’t lay all this at Obama’s feet, can we? In fact, that’s the point, isn’t it? We expected too much and were too naïve. The systemic damage of a generation of consumption and squander and corruption in both government and business is no doubt irreparable. The change we need is more than a new face in the White House – and even in Congress. It’s a change in expectation, a change in the way we lead our lives, a change in the kind of country America has become.

Have I become too cynical to vote this year, as pundits like Ed Schultz fear many Obama supporters may be? No, I’ll vote – and I’ll work to elect candidates who don’t take corporate money and who don’t rely on superstition or incendiary tactics to rally their supporters. And I’ll work to expose those who do. I’ll volunteer for candidates who have proven records of environmental foresight and who vote against funding war and redundant and unnecessary weapons systems. I’ll support candidates who made the tough votes – candidates who don’t see more coal-burning utility plants, mountain-top removal, dirty rivers, and corporate farms & healthcare & warfare in our future. I don’t care if there’s a D or an I or even an R after their names. I don’t care if they’re electable. Maybe if enough of us began voting for the unelectable ones with spines and consciences they would get elected.

Time is short. The economic system is a thin veneer lacquered over an unthinkably massive amount of debt. The tipping point of global warming is perhaps only a decade away. Buying a Prius won’t matter much once the permafrost of the arctic regions thaws and massive quantities of methane gas are released into the atmosphere, or once the dead zones of our oceans have expanded to the point at which dozens of generations will have to pass before undersea life returns, or once our glaciers have melted and drought brings suffering on a scale such as we have never seen.

But I’ll need better reasons than I’ve had for the past year to face down a snarling dog in a potential voter’s front yard .

Monday, December 28, 2009

David Swanson: An Avatar Awakening

By David Swanson

Let's face it, if James Cameron had made a movie with the Iraqi resistance as the heroes and the U.S. military as the enemies, and had set it in Iraq or anywhere else on planet earth, the packed theaters viewing "Avatar" would have been replaced by a screening in a living room for eight people and a dog.

Nineteen years ago, Americans packed theaters for "Dances with Wolves" in which Native Americans became the heroes, but the story was set in a previous century and the message understated.

The Na'vi people of "Avatar" are very explicitly Iraqis facing "shock and awe," as well as Native Americans with bows and arrows on horseback. The "bad guys" in the battle scenes are U.S. mercenaries, essentially the U.S. military, and the movie allows us to see them, very much as they are right now in 177 real nations around the world, through the eyes of their victims.

People know this going into the movie, and do not care. For better, and certainly for worse, they do not care. Millions of people stand in lines, shell out big bucks, wear stupid-looking 3-D glasses, sit in the dark for three hours, identify with twelve-foot-high pointy-eared blue people, cheer as the credits roll, and simply do not care that actual human beings suffer the same fate as the computer-generated creations, albeit without miraculous happy endings.

Imagine if a tenth of the people who now sympathize with these bony blue beings were to take three hours to read a book or watch a movie about the people of Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan or Yemen or Iran. Our real planet would then be a different world.

When I saw "Avatar" in a packed 3-D theater in Virginia, and the crowd cheered the closing shot, I shouted: "And get out of Iraq too!" No one cheered for that. But no one called me a traitor either.

But will anyone in that crowd lift a finger to pressure their representatives in Congress to stop funding the evil they'd just seen sanitized, animated, relocated, and ever so slightly disguised?

Rob Kall at OpEd News suggested that we make flyers to hand out at theaters following screenings of "Avatar." Having now seen the film, I think he's right. Here's the text: http://www.afterdowningstreet.org/sites/afterdowningstreet.org/files/avatar.pdfHere's


Did you know that the Na'vi people are real, their troubles are real, and you can be a hero who saves them? It's true!

The story of "Avatar" is the story of Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other countries attacked and occupied by U.S. mercenaries and U.S. troops.

It's harder to think about that, than it is to sympathize with giant blue computer-animated creatures. But it's extremely important that you take the step to explicitly admit to yourself what you've just watched in this movie, and that you take the additional step of doing something about it.

You don't have to ride a dragon or shoot an arrow, but you do have to call this number 202-224-3121 and ask to speak with your representative in the U.S. House of Representatives and tell them that their career will be over if they vote another dime to pay for the evil depicted in "Avatar."

Tell them that investing your money in education, transportation, energy, or infrastructure produces many more jobs than investing it in killing. Tell them that diplomacy and aid work better than bombs, and that we do not need unobtainium, which is called that for a reason, although we know it as "oil".

Call every day until you get the right answer, and report your daily progress at http://www.afterdowningstreet.org/whipwars

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Sierra Club Reacts to Clinton Climate Finance Bombshell in Copenhagen

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: December 17, 2009
CONTACT: Josh Dorner, +1 202.679.7570, +45 52 71 98 87

Sierra Club Reacts to Clinton Climate Finance Bombshell in Copenhagen

Copenhagen, Denmark--Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this morning made a major announcement on international climate finance here at the 15th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, ongoing in Copenhagen. Secretary Clinton announced a proposal for $100 billion in climate financing by 2020, should a global climate deal be reached.

Statement of Carl Pope, Sierra Club Executive Director

"Secretary of State Clinton's announcement of $100 billion in international climate financing by 2020 is truly a bombshell. It mirrors the scale of the proposal by Ethiopia and France and is a very important step toward resolving both the impasse on the finance issue, as well as concluding a final political agreement here in Copenhagen. This funding will help the least developed and most vulnerable countries move toward a clean energy future and adapt to the effects of global warming that are already occurring. This money will help also protect tropical rain forests as well as deal with natural disasters produced by unstable climate.

"While it is a major initiative, Secretary Clinton made clear that it can be funded from a wide variety of public and private sources. As one example, just by eliminating subsidies to the oil and coal companies in the industrial world we can pay for more than half of what is needed to help the poorest and most vulnerable nations cope, and minimize, climate disruption. The world wastes some $300 billion a year in fossil fuel subsidies--$60 billion of which is spent in OECD countries. Between today's important announcement and the earlier G20 commitment to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, the U.S. is helping to lead the world in the right direction on these crucial issues.

"The US has also made clear that all nations must honestly and transparently do their part to solve the problem of global warming and reduce their greenhouse pollution -- this funding only flows as part of a global plan agreed to by all to solve this problem."

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Kabuki Dancing in Oslo

Kabuki Dancing in Oslo
Bob Sommer
Uncommon Hours

President Obama’s discomfort with the Nobel Peace Prize was evident from the moment he stepped to the podium. He appeared somber, even hesitant, as he began speaking. The Nobel Committee had put him in a tough spot. Decline, and you publicly insult them. Accept, and you … what?

Well, maybe not use the speech to justify escalating a war.

Not to pick on too easy a target, but W would have shown up convinced that he deserved the award. Both the text and delivery of his acceptance speech would have been filled with smugness. He’d have punctuated his sentences with quick flips of the page without looking down. Calling him out for hypocrisy would have been a lay-up.

Obama, however, was uncomfortable. Citing Gandhi and King to justify not only the escalation of the war in Afghanistan but American exceptionalism in general requires distilling and serving a murky brew of revisionist history and muddled language. We’re in Orwellian territory now. Peace is War. Or something like that. For someone with an excellent mind and superior language skills this can’t have come easily – and the speech and its delivery betrayed that discomfort.

Oslo is only 300 miles from Copenhagen, but the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference might as well have been taking place on one of the melting polar ice caps. Civilization itself is threatened by the emission of 28 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually into the atmosphere, but Obama only found room in his speech for a quick nod at the issue, when he might have used the occasion of this unearned – and undeserved - award to rally the world’s polluters to sanity. But the free market won. War is Peace.

Obama skipped out on the awards dinners, perhaps a gesture of humility. Or maybe the possible slight to King Harald and the Nobel Committee was outweighed by the potential PR gain of appearing humble. Or maybe he genuinely believes he did the right thing by accepting the award and using the occasion to justify war – but the parties were just too unseemly. What a kabuki dance.

If he’s stuck with some ambivalence about how he should have managed the occasion, maybe he should take the hint: Trying to be all things to all people means you’ll end up being nothing to anyone, and the greatest opportunity in history will have been squandered – literally the chance to lead mankind back from the eve of destruction.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Merry Recessionary Christmas!

One resourceful Overland Park, Kansas citizen's answer
to both the energy crisis and the recession.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009


by Bob Sommer
Uncommon Hours

You couldn’t miss the déjà-Bush-all-over-again elements of Obama’s speech last night – the military setting, the audience of uniformed cadets all sitting stiffly and attentively as their Commander-in-Chief addressed them on a matter of war. Officers, generals, the Secretary of Defense, the Military Academy at West Point: Who was the real audience?

Unlike Bush, who turned soldiers into props and military bases into stage settings, Obama seemed to have a different purpose in going to West Point, one that may be even more troubling than Bush’s play-soldiering.

“As cadets,” Obama told his live audience, “you volunteered for service during this time of danger. Some of you have fought in Afghanistan. Many will deploy there. As your Commander-in-Chief, I owe you a mission that is clearly defined, and worthy of your service.” [my emphasis]

If the right wing was worried about Obama bowing to a foreign leader (which didn’t trouble me at all), I worry about him bowing to the military. Ever since McCrystal returned from Afghanistan and demanded 40,000 troops, it seemed that the military was the decision-maker in this process. What was McCrystal doing on TV a few weeks back stoking up the public? Michael Moore was right: he should have been fired then.

Maybe eight years of Bush incessantly declaring that “the generals on the ground” would tell him what to do has finally evolved into a kind of unwritten law – a paradigm for military decision-making in the state of endless war that Bush & Co. bequeathed us. And precisely what the Founders wanted to avoid when they made a civilian leader the commander-in-chief of the military.

The JFK analogies that seemed so apt (and hopeful) last year during the campaign dissolved last evening. During the Cuban missile crisis, Kennedy not only stared down Khrushchev, but also his own generals, who were more than eager to punch the nuke button. And he had to distance himself from the military mystique which the Cold War had inherited from the living memory of World War II, in which he’d also played a significant role. Like then, the military has gained an extraordinary mystique in the post-9/11 period. How do you stare these generals down after eight years of war?

MacArthur may have succeeded in getting Truman to cross the Pacific to meet him – and even in making Truman wait for him once he arrived – but Truman had his own mind about what should happen next, and he wasn’t about to let MacArthur decide for him.

What a shame it was, then, not only to see Obama cave on escalating this war, but believe he needed to go to West Point because he owed them a mission.