Personal geography: Life and death

Russian oil tanker

Russian oil tanker

As I watch the Russian oil tankers going through the Dardanelles, I’m reminded that Turkey has little oil, but does have large coal reserves. Looking away from the straits, I see the hills towards Soma, just 100 miles away, where over 300 coal miners died in a disaster that should never have happened.

Miners at Soma coal mine

Miners at Soma coal mine

Despite the callous response from the mine owners and the government, most people I see want to say “Soma ,adencisi yalnız değil” (Soma miners are not alone). On campus, students sell pastries to raise funds for the victims’ families. In town, people march and spray graffiti to protest the government’s policies before, and the response afterwards. In the countryside, I see people whom I can imagine as not so different from the villagers whose family members worked in the mine.

Trying not to think about Soma, I walk to the Dardanos Tümülüsü (tumulus). This is a burial hill not far from our apartment, with artifacts dating from the second century BC, possibly earlier. The Çingene (also called Gypsy) people in Çanakkale say that they have been there for six centuries, possibly before the Ottoman rulers. But long before they arrived, who were the people who built the tumulus? I wonder about their walking on the same hills and coastlines, which they did when there was no choice to take the bus or car.

Dardanos Tümülüsü

Dardanos Tümülüsü

My wanderings lead to wonderings about how we as humans, or any life, will survive the growth-at-all-costs ethos, dominant around the world. Fifty years ago, in the month I graduated from high school, Lyndon Johnson asked:

whether we build a society where progress is the servant of our needs, or a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth…expansion is eroding the precious and time-honored values of community with neighbors and communion with nature.

At least, here at Dardanos, there is some respite, if only within an hour’s walk. I see children in the large playground. There’s a vineyard. In the scrub forest there is a maquis ecology, with small pines, fir, cedar, holly, cyprus, and other evergreen trees, as well as some nut and fruit trees, such as valonia oaks, almond, fig, apple, and olive. The underbrush includes flowering broom, sage, oleander, and many interesting grasses. Most striking are the wildflowers–poppy, petunia, aster, and rose, plus many I can’t name. There are butterflies everywhere, birds, frogs, and lizards, all mocking the many wild cats. The ocean seems full of life, with octopus and squid, many kinds of fish and seaweeds, in spite of the heavy ship traffic.

Poppy field

Poppy field

Alongside the Dardanos, these life forms seem in tune with the beautiful setting and oblivious to the massive commerce steaming past and the construction boom on land. Let’s hope they can continue for a long time.

I’m afraid that my generation hasn’t done much to manifest Johnson’s call for “the wisdom to use…wealth to enrich and elevate our national life, and to advance the quality of our American civilization.” We have more nuclear weapons, greater destruction of the environment, abuse of workers, and precious little understanding of neighbors at home or abroad. All too often, our “old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth.”

Petunias

Petunias

In that 1964 speech, Johnson said,

The Great Society is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and to enlarge his talents. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.

I can’t say that I’ve learned very much in the fifty years since Johnson’s speech, but one thing is that the leisure he spoke about is not lost time, but a central aspect of being. Walking becomes for me a way to ensure that it happens. Otherwise I too often feel compelled to check the computer, go to a meeting, or accomplish some task. Or, I seek escape as a spectator, rather than participant in life.

That leisure is a necessary means to build connections and become one with the plants and animals nearby, the people, the land and sea, and the history that ties them all together. It’s both an essential part of life and means to understanding it better.

The New Jim Crow

US incarceration timeline

US incarceration timeline

In his now classic analysis of the criminal justice system (The Crime of Punishment, 1966), Karl Menninger wrote, “I suspect that all the crimes committed by all the jailed criminals do not equal in total social damage that of the crimes committed against them.” That was at a time when the number of people in the US who were in jail or prison amounted to around 300,000. Today, that number is well over two million. The US has the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, well ahead of the #2 jailer, Russia, or that of many regimes considered to be dictatorships, police states, backward regimes, failed states, or otherwise democracy-challenged.

In a piece originally published in and recently updated for TomDispatch, “The New Jim Crow: How the War on Drugs Gave Birth to a Permanent American UndercasteMichelle Alexander writes,

The New Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow

If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste — not class, caste — permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era.

I just finished reading her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2010), which piles on the stunning and depressing statistics. But the book does much more than to amplify a sorry state of affairs that most of us know about, but rarely talk about. Several points came through strongly for me:

  • Through actual case stories, the book shows what these numbers mean for the felons for life, their families, their communities, and our democracy. In many cases the people so labeled are innocent, coerced into a plea bargain, or at most convicted of a minor crime.
  • Those who subsequently become subject to legalized second-class citizenship are disproportionately African American. Large numbers are convicted of drug crimes, even while their White counterparts are bigger users and sellers of drugs.
  • The mechanism by which this happens is a maze of laws and court rulings, which have severely compromised civil rights for all of us, even though their impact is primarily on people of color. One more item was added to the maze this week, when the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that correctional officials may without cause, strip-search a person arrested for the most minor offense. Albert W. Florence was strip-searched twice after being wrongly detained over a traffic fine. Florence said at the time, “It was humiliating. It made me feel less than a man. It made me feel not better than an animal.”
  • The interlocking system including bias, laws, police procedures, courts, prison industry jobs and profits, has created a shameful justice system, far worse than the one lamented by Menninger.
Michelle Alexander

Michelle Alexander

Alexander says that she had several specific audiences in mind for the book. One is “people who care deeply about racial justice, but who for any number of reasons do not yet appreciate the magnitude of the crisis faced by communities of color as a result of mass incarceration. In other words, I’m writing this book for people like me, the person I was 10 years ago.” Another was for people “lacked the facts and data to back up their claims” about how the criminal justice system was operating as a third mode of racial caste making (following first slavery, then Jim Crow). I felt I fit in both of those camps, and fortunately not in the third, that of people trapped in the system.

Following her work on an ACLU racial justice project, Alexander says “I had come to suspect that I was wrong about the criminal justice system. It was not just another institution infected with racial bias but rather a different beast entirely…Quite belatedly, I came to see that mass incarceration in the United States had, in fact, emerged as a stunningly comprehensive and well-disguised system of racialized social control that functions in a manner strikingly similar to Jim Crow.”

Coming to appreciate that system in a deeper way makes the book powerful for me. It doesn’t in any way try to excuse crime, or to lay the blame for it on lack of employment, poor education, or inadequate housing, as many liberals might do. Nor does it link the injustice of the system to individual bias per se. Furthermore, it debunks accounts of individual responsibility, moral failure, or familial inadequacy as some conservatives might propose. Instead, it shows how the system operates, how it developed and grew, and why it will be so hard to change. Yes, better Supreme Court justices matter, but they won’t dismantle the system. Affirmative action is helpful, but it’s far from a solution. All of those explanations for crime and incarceration matter, too, but they’re not the central narrative.

The book is disturbing, and depressing at times. It cannot be said to end on a happy note, but in the last section, “All of Us or None,” there is at least a vision of what could make a difference. Alexander calls for a conversation on race in which “us” means “all of us,” or as Martin Luther King said, that a shift was needed from civil rights (interpreted simply as rights for those who are dispossesed) to human rights.

This means, among other things that

Whites should demonstrate that their silence in the drug war cannot be bought by tacit assurances that their sons and daughters will not be rounded up en masse and locked away. Whites should prove their commitment to dismantling not only mass incarceration, but all of the structures of racial inequality that guarantee for whites the resilience of white privilege. (p. 244)

The book closes with an excerpt from James Baldwins’s letter to his nephew in The Fire Next Time. That entire letter is worth reading and re-reading many times, but I’ll just end here with a small excerpt from that excerpt:

this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it…It is the innocence which constitutes the crime…They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it…those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality…And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.  For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become.

Parallel universes

The Sunday Doonesbury strip nailed the problem:

The 400 richest families in America now hold as much wealth as the bottom 50% of the country combined!

So, in the midst of an economic crisis, how do our leaders (nearly every Republican and most of the Democrats, including the President) make use of this information?

They celebrate two things:

  1. Cut that “waste” in government, especially the bit going to spending on job training, education, food, housing, and healthcare for that no-good 150 million, and
  2. Absolutely, under no circumstances, allow any new taxes, especially on those 400 families, who provide so much for the rest of us.

There is an parallel universe, one with people just like us, an economic downturn, and people out of work. But there are two differences: People there believe that increased spending now is actually vital to get the economy going, put people to work, and in the long run actually reduce the deficit. (This by the way is the view of most economists, liberal or conservative in both of these universes.) So, point #1, austerity now, is considered an extremely dumb and ill-timed idea.

Second, those people think that the short-term deficit and the long-term debts are very real problems that need to be addressed intelligently and comprehensively. That means management of spending, but also fair contributions from all, including what middle class we have left and even those 400 families. They don’t believe that all of the economic sacrifice ought to fall on the bottom 50%. So, point #2, no new taxes ever, is also viewed as a wacky idea.

In that parallel universe, people would like to

  1. Get the economy going.
  2. Develop a thoughtful plan for revenues and spending, one that involves shared commitment from all.

Is that parallel universe possible?

US suppresses minimum wage in Haiti, and more

The release of 1,918 Haiti-related diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks this summer reveals details of US involvement in Haiti from 2003 to present. Unfortunately, the cables support the historical pattern, just adding in disturbing details. If there is any good news here, it’s of a rare example of responsible journalism. The Nation is collaborating with the Haitian weekly newspaper Haïti Liberté on a series of groundbreaking articles about US and UN policy toward Haiti, which are based on those cables.

Revolution in Saint Domingue

Revolution in Saint Domingue

The pattern goes back at least to the earliest days of the 19th century, when President George Washington, a slave owner, had Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson grant the first significant foreign aid of the United States to the slave owners in Haiti in a failed effort to suppress the slave revolution there. Following the success of that revolution, the US enforced a diplomatic and trade embargo against Haiti until 1862. From 1915 to 1934 the U.S. imposed a military occupation ostensibly to stabilize the country and keep out Europeans, but also to shape Haiti into a profitable neo-colony.

As popular resistance to occupation grew, the U.S. withdrew and shifted its support from 1957 to 1986 to the fascist Duvaliers, father and son, and their Tonton Macoutes paramilitaries. After suffering from years of bloody military coups and massacres of protesters, Haiti elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide by a landslide in 1990. Aristide called the mass movement that put him into power Lavalas (“torrent” in Kreyòl). His election succeeded despite the millions that the US gave to his opponent, Marc Bazin, a former World Bank Official. In 1991 a US-backed military coup deposed Aristide as president. René Préval replaced Aristide in 1996, but Aristide was re-elected later, replacing Préval in 2001.

Jean-Bertrand Aristide & Mildred Trouillot Aristide

Jean-Bertrand Aristide & Mildred Trouillot Aristide

The newly released cables pick up the details from 2003 on. Because Aristide had disbanded the army in 1995, it was difficult for the U.S. and its allies to organize a coup. On Feb. 29, 2004,  U.S. Special Forces kidnapped Aristide and his spouse, Mildred Trouillot Aristide, taking them to the Central African Republic.

The cables also show how the US, the European Union, and the United Nations supported Haiti’s recent presidential and parliamentary elections, despite the exclusion of Lavalas, Haiti’s largest political party. They agonized a bit about sponsoring an election that would exclude the majority party from participating, about “emasculating” the country, but decided to push through the sham election because so much was invested already in the neocolonial relationship with Haiti.

The US embassy noted that Haiti would save $100 million a year under the terms of  the Caribbean oil alliance with Venezula, called PetroCaribe. The savings would be earmarked for development in schools, health care, and infrastructure. US Ambassador Janet Sanderson immediately set out to sabotage the deal. She noted that the embassy started to “pressure” Haitian leader Préval from joining PetroCaribe, saying that it would “cause problems with [the US.]” As major oil companies, such as ExxonMobil and Chevron, threatened to cut off ties with Haiti, Sanderson met to assure them that she would pressure Haiti at the “highest levels of government.”

Haiti garment workers

Haiti garment workers

Meanwhile, contractors for Fruit of the Loom, Hanes and Levi’s worked closely with the US Embassy to block a minimum wage increase for Haitian garment workers. In a June 10, 2009 cable to Washington, Ambassador Sanderson argued, “A more visible and active engagement by Préval may be critical to resolving the issue of the minimum wage and its protest ‘spin-off’—or risk the political environment spiraling out of control.” After Préval negotiated a deal to create a two-tiered minimum wage—one for the textile workers at $3/day and one other industrial workers at about $5/day, the US Embassy was displeased. David E. Lindwall, deputy chief of mission, said the $5/day minimum “did not take economic reality into account.” It was just a populist measure aimed at appealing to “the unemployed and underpaid masses.”

Think about this when you buy underwear or jeans. The artificially low price you pay, which killed the North American textile industry, goes to pay for shipping, marketing, high executive salaries, and industry profits, with practically nothing for the people who slave to make the clothes. But if you live in the EU or especially in the US, you can know that your government continues to work to maintain those low prices, and resists appealing to the “unemployed and underpaid masses.”

Think about the manipulations of the democratic process in Haiti when people ask why the rest of the world fails to see the wisdom and the glory of Western democracy.

Think also about how much of this has been covered in your local newspaper, or on television and radio news.

Costs of war

As rightist ideologues push the US towards a debt crisis in order to maintain tax breaks for the rich, it’s worth reflecting on the costs of recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A sizable chunk of the $14 trillion owed by the US government comes from those wars. Costs of War, a recent report from the Eisenhower Research Project at Brown University (directed by Neta C. Crawford and Catherine Lutz), estimates the cumulative economic cost of the wars as up to $4 trillion.

What has this spending accomplished? While it was promised that the US invasions would bring democracy, both Afghanistan and Iraq continue to rank low in global rankings of political freedom and high in rankings of corruption. US-supported warlords continue to hold power in Afghanistan and Iraqi communities are more segregated by gender and ethnicity than before the war.

The project’s findings show that the $4 trillion is only one of the costs:

  • A conservative count of war dead, in uniform and out, is 225,000. The armed conflict in Pakistan, in which the U.S. funds, equips, and trains the Pakistani military, has now taken as many lives as the one in Afghanistan.
  • Almost 8 million people have been displaced indefinitely and are living in grossly inadequate conditions.
  • The wars have been accompanied by erosions in civil liberties at home and human rights violations abroad.
  • The ripple effects on the US and world economy have been significant, including job loss, interest charges on the national debt, and cuts to funding for scientific development, education, and health care.

Alternatives to war were barely considered. A Rand report on 268 groups using terror tactics (How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida, by Seth G. Jones and Martin C. Libicki) showed that several approaches have been much more effective than military responses at eliminating future attacks. 40% of the groups were eliminated through intelligence and policing methods; 43% ended their violence as a result of peaceful political accommodation; 10% ceased their violent activity because they had achieved their objectives; and only 7% were defeated militarily.

The lesson here is not that we should default on the debt because much of it was money we shouldn’t have spent. Doing so will just misery to misery. Instead, this is a time for a compromise on the budget that includes acknowledging what’s already been spent, cutting future spending, eliminating dysfunctional tax deductions, and implementing truly progressive tax rates. In a stagnant economy, there is a strong case for increased spending, not on wars, but on infrastructure and jobs that would actually reduce the debt in the long run.

But whatever other lessons we might draw about the budget, there is a lesson that resorting to violence costs everyone in the end.

Why is there such tax phobia?

I’ve never met anyone who wishes their taxes were higher. Some taxes are a nuisance, like the few cents extra on a cup of coffee, and some are burdensome, like the Social Security tax on low wage earners. But most of us recognize that national defense, health care, good schools, roads, and parks, and so on, are accomplished best when we pull together.

Taxes are a means to enable our Nation to work for a common good, for widely shared goals. So, why is there is a phobia today about any tax increase? Part of the explanation may lie in a major misunderstanding about wealth in the country.

Most people believe that Warren Buffet should pay more in taxes than his receptionist does. Even he thinks that he should pay more (in fact, he pays less). People support that position even if it effectively redistributes wealth. In fact, most of us believe that we’d all be slightly better off if poor people and middle-class people had more money, even if that meant that the very rich had a little less.

Michael Norton and Dan Ariely have done some research on these issues. They found that Americans drastically underestimate the level of wealth inequality in the US. Americans know that there’s a range of wealth, but they don’t realize just how rich the rich really are, and how poor the poor really are. So, they think that the wealth distribution is more even, or equitable, than it really is. Not only that, their ideal would be even more equitable than the current situation, imagined or real.

Norton and Ariely’s data indicate that the richest quintile of Americans own 84% of all wealth, while people in their survey estimated that the top quintile owns just 59%. Conversely, they think that the low income groups have more wealth, when in fact the wealth of the bottom two quintiles doesn’t even register on the chart.

Distribution of wealth in the US

Distribution of wealth in the US

Putting this another way, no group (Democrats, Republicans, rich, poor, men, women) wants a country as unjust as the one they think we have. But the one they think we have is at least more just than the one that we do have. Some think we should have total equity; some want a wealth distribution more like Sweden’s. Only 10% want what we actually have. And yet, we’re willing to risk a default and economic catastrophe in order to make the US even more unjust.

Modest changes in income and estate tax rates and closing of tax loopholes would go a long way toward addressing the National budget deficit and reducing the debt. We’d still have a wealth distribution more unequal than that of other first world nations and more unequal than we really want. But it would be a step towards making everyone pay their fair share.

Not doing that doesn’t mean that we all walk away to tax-free heaven. Instead, it means that the lower quintiles bear an even larger burden through reduction in social services and regressive taxes, such as local sales taxes and social security taxes on wages (which are designed to tax low wage earners the most).

It’s clear why there’s a phobia about tax increases. It’s not about any tax, but about the type of tax and who should pay. The people pulling the strings are the ones who like the fact that they control most of the wealth and are quite happy to keep the burden on those least able to pay. They’re afraid that they might have to pay their share.

The real question is why everyone else seems content to go along.

References

Norton, Michael I., & Ariely, Dan (forthcoming). Building a better America – one wealth quintile at a timePerspectives on Psychological Science.


Art scene in Sandima

We went to the (almost) abandoned village of Sandima yesterday.

The story is that it was wiped out three times: once many centuries ago by the bubonic plague, when many residents died and the village had to move; again by the citrus industry, which lured away the young people to work in the orange groves closer to Yalikavak; and a third time, by rampant development, which has covered hillsides with white block houses for people seeking the Mediterranean sun and lifestyle.

The village is just up the hill from Yalikavak. It looks like an old war zone, with abandoned homes, stone walls, watering stations, and a mosque, all now becoming overgrown with vines and scrub vegetation. There are two schools, an older, religious school, next to the mosque, and a newer one with four rooms. The latter looks as if it must have been an attractive site for learning at one time, but now is missing doors, has large holes in the floor, and is covered with graffiti.

It’s possible to follow old footpaths and to go into the buildings, which are not much more than piles of rubble, everything of value having been removed. There’s a second abandoned village just across a ravine.

There are only three residents in Sandima today. One is an 86-year-old man who refused to leave. His story is that he walks into Yalikavak every day, not for work or food, he has his garden and cows in Sandima, but to look for a mate.

There are also two artists, Ismail Erkoca and Nurten Değirmenci. Ismail gave us a tour of their house, which is the most decorated one I’ve ever seen. Every surface, including floor and ceiling, was covered with art works, or just painted, or festooned with bougainvillea, lantana, hibiscus, and other flowers. Navigating the nooks and crannies, bridges, and hidden passageways required a guide. It soon became clear that if selling artwork were not a business, then giving tours of the house could become one.

The house is called Nuris Sanat Evi, Nur from Nurten and Is from Ismail. Sanat Evi means art house. The story of the name (we heard many stories) is that Nur means holy light and Is means black soot from a fire. So, one needs light to see the darkness.

We enjoyed the adventure of talking with Ismail and getting a glimpse of his life, one far removed from İstanbul, where he was born.

I was pleased to learn more about the Köy Enstitüleri (Village Institutes) from Ismail. I wonder whether the newer school in Sandima was created following John Dewey’s report or somewhat later as a result of the institutes? I’ll save thoughts on that for a future post.