“The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;”
— excerpt from Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution of the United States.
Southerners called the 1828 tariff which had the effect of raising prices on imported manufactured goods while decreasing income from exported agricultural products the “Tariff of Abominations” because it hit hardest in the South. When President John Quincy Adams signed the bill into law, he assured his defeat by Andrew Jackson in the 1828 election. The 1828 tariff prompted South Carolina to propose the principle of nullification of federal law by the states, and the friction it set up between North and South was instrumental in leading to the Civil War more than 30 years later.
This color version of a John Tenniel illustration is from The Nursery “Alice” (1890), with text adapted for nursery readers by Lewis Carroll from his Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. From the collection of the British Library. Carroll created in the Queen of Hearts, pictured at left, a model of imperious, irrational behavior.
The current president’s tariffs have exacerbated economic tensions within the country as well, this time not between North and South, but between rural, agricultural areas and urban, technological and industrial areas. They are his tariffs because over the past century Congress has ceded more and more authority to impose them to the executive branch as a matter of pursuing foreign policy, an authority which the current president, with his autocratic nature, is happy to exercise. He likes nothing better than to pronounce decrees, particularly ones that appear to punish Others, particularly foreign Others, and most especially darker skinned foreign Others.
He and his followersmay not fully understand the possible ramifications and unwelcome reverberations of tariffs throughout the United States and world economy. It doesn’t matter to him or to them. What matters is the feeling of appearing to punish the Other for sins real and imagined against Our Kind, and of feeding off negative energy generated by acting on impulse rather than putting in the grinding, hard work necessary to build positively toward equitable trade agreements. It’s a lot of stick, and very little carrot.
Tariffs have always been used to further domestic political aims and foreign policy objectives as much as they have been used to generate revenue, which makes them somewhat more loaded than other taxes. The latest tariffs are no different, and their implementation echoes the 1828 tariff, an irony no doubt lost on the current president despite his exaltation of Andrew Jackson over all other American presidents. Jackson and his supporters opposed the 1828 tariff. Jackson nonetheless drew the line at allowing South Carolina to flout federal authority by proposing nullification. Jackson contemplated sending federal troops into South Carolina to uphold the law. Free trade advocates and protectionists reached a compromise with an 1833 tariff soon after the South Carolina legislature enacted nullification, averting a crisis and imposing an uneasy peace for the next 28 years.
From the 1951 film Quo Vadis, directed by Mervyn LeRoy and starring in this scene Peter Ustinov as Nero and Leo Genn as Petronius. Nero probably thought of himself as a stable genius, and had Twitter existed in his time, he no doubt would have used it as a political tool to share his addled observations with the world.
The political calculations behind the current president’s tariffs go beyond punishment of the Other which enthuse his base of followers to improving his prospects for the 2020 election in key Rust Belt states he narrowly won in 2016. Tariffs on steel, aluminum, and other industrial products appeal to manufacturing centers in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, the states that tipped the Electoral College vote balance for him in 2016. Since the United States is a big exporter of agricultural products, it is no surprise that retaliatory tariffs imposed by other countries in the trade war have hit farmers hardest. Many of those farmers live in Great Plains states with relatively few electoral votes, and at any rate the current president has a cushion of support there to absorb losses of the disaffected. To make sure disaffection doesn’t become widespread, the current president has bought off farmers with subsidies so that he can continue to pursue his trade wars as personal vendettas, rather than as maturely considered policies leading to equitable prosperity for all. To borrow a phrase from the late novelist Kurt Vonnegut, “And so it goes.”
Spring is around the corner, and with it comes the urge in some people to sow seeds or buy plants. Arbor Day follows in April, on the 26th, and some folks may be tempted then to plant a tree. Or many trees. In the last 20 years the Chinese and Indians have planted millions of trees in their countries, and NASA has noted from space the greening of those places on Earth. China and India also happen to be contributing greatly to air pollution as they industrialize and their inhabitants adopt a First World lifestyle, and their planting of trees does not entirely offset that, but still the result is better than if they had done nothing.
Rosa ‘Jean Giono’, a hybrid tea rose introduced by the French hybridizer Alain Meilland in 1996. Photo by T.Kiya. The Meilland firm created the renowned ‘Peace’ hybrid tea rose in 1935. Hybrid tea roses are undeniably beautiful, but that beauty often comes at a cost in deficiencies in other areas such as disease resistance. It is tempting to resort to various nasty concoctions in order to keep them looking their best. Either find a better way, or don’t grow them at all and seek out hardier heirloom roses grown on their own roots instead.
Live in an apartment with no outside space at all? You can’t plant a full size tree, though there are palms and ornamental figs that fit the bill on a small scale. Growing plants indoors helps clean the air every bit as much as outdoor plants, leaf for leaf. Have a small space outside, perhaps on a sunny balcony? Consider planting one rose bush in a pot to itself that you can pamper like the Little Prince with his single rose, and then cut down to a few short canes in preparation for bringing inside for the winter. Have some outdoor space left over? Plant one or two patio variety tomato plants and add some herbs at their feet.
The point is to do something, and not to allow the scale of global problems overwhelm you into paralysis. People have similar fears about political action, even something as basic as voting. What use is my tiny contribution, they ask. Well, it’s something; it’s better than nothing. Earth Day is also coming up, on April 22, and instead of dwelling on the impossibility of one person saving the entire Earth, it would be more practical to grow at least one plant. Sow a seed, even one as insignificant as a mustard seed. You might discover after a while that in taking one small action to nurture life close to home you have saved more than you imagined possible, starting with yourself.
This is the entire 30 minute Canadian animated film by Frédéric Back that was released in 1987 and won the Academy Award in 1988 for Best Animated Short Film. It is based on a 1953 allegorical tale by the French author, Jean Giono, about a shepherd who sowed tens of thousands of tree seeds in a barren area in the foothills of the French Alps during the first half of the twentieth century.
In 1947, as Jews leaving Europe were working toward establishing their independent state of Israel in Palestine, an anti-communist scare was gaining momentum in the United States, leading President Harry Truman to sign an executive order requiring loyalty oaths from federal workers suspected of communist sympathies and possibly conflicted allegiance. Over 70 years later, the state of Israel is well established with economic and military help from the United States, and the idea of a loyalty oath as an assurance that a government employee owes allegiance to America only, and not to any foreign power, has been turned on its head by state and federal laws assuring loyalty to Israel as well, or at least not to engage in criticism of that nation’s increasingly aggressive policies toward Palestinians within and without its disputed borders.
2015 release of the 100 dollar bill, showing the design measures taken to foil counterfeiting. The portrait of Benjamin Franklin remains. Presentation by Sar Maroof.
These laws, which require a state employee or government contractor to sign a pledge not to engage in Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) actions against Israel, are so blatantly unconstitutional that it beggars belief they have not been challenged and struck down in the courts already. They are a return to the old days of anti-communist loyalty oaths, but with a bizarre twist. And it’s that twist which complicates matters, because any criticism of the pledges or of Israel bypasses reason and plain reading of the Constitution and goes straight to emotional howls of anti-Semitism. Most people know that’s coming, and since they don’t want to withstand it, they don’t speak up in the first place. The lobbyists for Israel then have their own way.
What has also complicated the relationship between the United States and Israel since the late 1940s is how support for Israel has taken on a polyglot nature in the intervening years, particularly with the rise of white evangelical Christians in American politics since the 1980s. In the 1940s, American support for Israel came largely from American Jews and from the large numbers of people who sympathized with the plight of European Jews after the tragedy of the Holocaust. There are other reasons having to do with the labyrinth of Middle Eastern politics and, of course, oil, but those are beyond the scope of this post.
Since the 1980s, as support for Israel’s increasingly hard line toward Palestinians and relations with its Arab neighbors dwindled among some American Jews, the slack was taken up by white evangelical Christians who looked at the modern state of Israel and saw the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. They cared little about the multitude of practical complications, and they had an interested ear in the White House with Ronald Reagan. By the 1990s, a litmus test for election to political office in some parts of the country was support for Israel, right or wrong, and the test was administered not by American Jews, but by white evangelical Christians and, increasingly, by lobbying groups supported by the right wing in Israeli politics.
Lobbying in Congress by foreign powers is supposedly regulated by law, though in practice it goes on mostly unimpeded. In the 1980s, when Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid regime gained steam in this country and around the world, the South African government did not have anywhere near the lobbying clout in American politics of the Israeli lobby then, and certainly not as powerful as it has become since. South Africa did not have millions of Christian soldiers in this country who were willing to go onward for it no matter what. About all South Africa had were diamonds, and it turned out they were not enough to resist pressure from the rest of the world to reform its immoral system.
A scene early in the 1960 film Exodus, directed by Otto Preminger, with Sal Mineo and Jill Haworth arguing their different world views in 1947 aboard a refugee ship from Europe bound for Palestine. Paul Newman looks on. Indeed, those were the days.
Now times have changed for Israel, and it’s no longer the plucky underdog deserving sympathy; its policies of the last 40 to 50 years have tainted that image, turning it into a kind of South African apartheid regime, and if people in this country want to criticize it for that, or for anything else, then it’s none of this government’s business, no matter how many “Benjamins” change hands in the halls of Congress, or how many white evangelical Christians with fever dreams of a picturesque Holy Land as they imagine it from their family Bibles, a place for fulfillment of the Gospel that they probably suppose would be nicer if it weren’t inhabited by all those dusky modern Jews, no matter how many of those people angrily pull away their support from any politician who dares criticize Israel, and with it their fantasy.
The Keynesian economic model which held sway in Western capitalist societies in the middle of the twentieth century has long since given way to neoliberalism, a policy and a philosophy which is a reworking of the laissez faire economies of the early industrial revolution. No wonder that we live in a new Gilded Age, the culmination of increasing economic inequality and degradation of publicly subsidized social services for everyone but the rich. Neoliberalism, a term which has meant many things in theory over the last one hundred years, has come to mean in fact laissez faire economics for the poor and middle class, and corporate welfare for the wealthy.
The result has been the takeover of the economy by short-sighted financial interests among the largest banks, and the takeover of politics and public policy making by those same banks and international corporations which owe allegiance to their executives and their shareholders instead of to any one national or local community. Consumers bear a great deal of the responsibility for this state of affairs, while citizens can change it.
A protester at the second presidential inauguration of George W. Bush in Washington, D.C., in January 2005 holds up Adbusters’ Corporate American Flag. Photo by Jonathan McIntosh.
Consumers are passive; citizens are active. Consumers are inattentive to politics; citizens pay attention to what’s going on in government. Consumers struggle to get by and blame themselves when they cannot; citizens understand larger forces are arrayed against their interests and demand an equal place at the table. Consumers look at the wealthy and see people who helped themselves; citizens know how wealth creates wealth and privilege looks out for its own. Consumers feel helpless to change the course of society; citizens band together because they realize their power is in their numbers.
A sign at the January 2018 Women’s March in Missoula, Montana. Photo by Montanasuffragettes.
The neoliberal philosophy of the past forty years has stripped people of their view of themselves as citizens with rights, duties, and responsibilities in society and replaced it with the lumpish, passive recognition of themselves as consumers, replaceable parts in the economic machine. Meanwhile, neoliberals have sold the consuming masses on the idea that unions and publicly funded healthcare and education are bad policies, but tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations are good because of some nebulous trickling down that’s supposed to happen. Mission accomplished!
Taking action to change neoliberal policies on the environment, on economic inequality, and on the accountability of corporations, banks, and politicians is going to have start with a change in attitude among the populace from consumers to citizens. It starts with getting the money out of politics, and that starts with overturning the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which equated money with speech. What greater symbol for the neoliberal outlook can there be than “money talks”? The second most important step toward change would diminish the power of the big banks by reinstating the Depression era Glass-Steagall Act, separating commercial and investment banking. The third step would end government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry and divest from it entirely. All easier said than done, of course, and only the first few of many steps to curtail the undue influence of the rich and powerful over society, but once consumers get up off their couches and walk down as citizens to their voting places they will be taking the steps necessary to change a system that works only for a privileged few, and not for them.
Battery storage has long presented a conundrum to renewable energy enthusiasts who tout the relatively benign environmental footprints of wind and solar power. The batteries can contain toxic metals and chemicals which cause environmental damage in mining and formulation, and then again when they have exhausted their usefulness and users need to somehow safely recycle or dispose of them.
Partial eclipse of the sun – Montericco, Albinea, Reggio Emilia, Italy – May 1994. Photo by Giorgio Galeotti.
For a time, it seemed the answer for homeowners using a solar array was to sell excess power produced during the day to the power company and then draw on grid power at night and on cloudy days. These grid-tied systems effectively used the power company as storage, mostly dispensing with the need for a bank of batteries at home. Unfortunately for homeowners with grid-tied systems, it appears power companies are backing away from those setups in order to protect their equipment and to maintain tighter control over power generation.
Power companies have been investing in their own renewable energy production as costs go down. Since there is no external backup for the electricity generated by the power company, the power companies need to employ huge amounts of batteries. Batteries have improved in the past generation both in toxicity and length of usable life from the days of lead acid batteries. Improvement does not mean they are exactly environmentally friendly. The problem comes down to relative harm, such as whether it is less harmful to the environment to drive an electric car when the source for its electricity is a coal burning power plant.
An illustration of the relationship of renewable energy to energy storage from the German cartoonist Gerhard Mester (1956-). Panel 1: “More solar energy!!” Panel 2: “More wind energy!” And in the last panel: “More energy storage!” Incidentally, Germany is a world leader in solar energy production despite receiving less sunlight than many other industrialized nations.
Nothing people do technologically has zero impact on the environment, and arguments from the extremes of both sides of the tug of war between those in favor of continued use of fossil fuels and those who want greater reliance on renewable energy are neither accurate nor helpful. Continuing the status quo of burning fossil fuels for most energy production is clearly a path to environmental catastrophe, while renewable energy production does not have quite as low an impact on the environment as some enthusiasts suggest. It is in the batteries especially that renewable energy has an unfavorable impact.
Nevertheless, in countries with higher renewable energy production than the global average the air is cleaner and greenhouse gas emissions are lower. Because the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, the key to minimizing reliance on batteries, the most toxic element in renewable energy use, is diversification of power sources supplying the grid, from geothermal to hydroelectric. None of these methods of supplying the power necessary for humanity’s modern lifestyle are perfect, but they are all better than the alternative of continuing down the path of polluting the air and warming the planet. The two biggest obstacles to switching the United States to 100 percent renewable energy are the fossil fuel industry interests entrenched in national politics, and battery technology. Of the two, the latter will be more easily overcome by a concerted effort, and with time the new technology will push out the former technology and its moneyed adherents as obsolete and destructive. But will it be soon enough?
“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
— President Lyndon Johnson to staff member Bill Moyers, on observing racial epithets on signs during a visit to Tennessee.
The terms “white trash” and “rednecks” are probably the only remaining instances where derogatory epithets are more or less acceptable in general society. Privately, of course, people of all stripes can and do use epithets of all kinds to describe others they don’t like, and it often matters little how different are the beliefs they express in public. The reason the labels “white trash” and “rednecks” may still be acceptable has to do with how, now more than ever before, they designate a voluntary lifestyle choice rather than an inborn condition. 100 years ago there was speculation among scientists and others that the condition had a genetic dimension, but since then the argument has been discredited along with the practical applications of eugenics, such as forced sterilization.
The white working class has attracted renewed scrutiny from politicians, the media, and academics after the perception of the 2016 election results as a resounding announcement from those ignored voters that they wanted their concerns addressed. By no means are white trash or rednecks any more than a minority of the white working class, and their votes comprise an even smaller percentage than that, since most of them do not habitually vote, or even register to vote. It is also untrue that white working class voters were the primary constituency of the Republican candidate elected to the presidency. There were not enough of them to install the Republican in office, any more than ethnic and racial minority voters alone made up enough of Barack Obama’s constituency to install him in office in 2008 and 2012. Nonetheless, politicians, the media, and academics unhappy with the 2016 election results have seen fit to blame the white working class, and by extension white trash and rednecks, for inflicting the current presidential administration of Supreme Leader on the country.
A 1937 photo by Dorothea Lange of two men walking toward Los Angeles, California. Ms. Lange took many photographs in her work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), a New Deal agency.
There is no backlash to denigrating white working class people. Across the culture at the moment, it is a safe bet for people like academics who must otherwise be extremely careful in navigating the identity politics cultural minefield, lest they destroy the career in the bureaucracy. Certainly there are some people who deserve criticism, and perhaps as suggested earlier that would include people who have made a lifestyle choice to be vulgar and offensive. Making such a lifestyle choice now, when people have greater access to information than ever before, can be considered more than ever a conscious decision rather than a cultural or genetic backwater that a person cannot escape. But the information they seem to prefer is fake news over real news, and bolsters their apparent preference for ignorance over knowledge, bigotry over acceptance, and reality television over reality.
Near the end ofA Face in the Crowd, a 1957 film directed by Elia Kazan, and starring Andy Griffith and Patricia Neal, the public gets a peek behind the mask of the demagogue, “Lonesome” Rhodes. There are many similarities between this film and today’s political and cultural environment, but there is one major difference in the ability of the public to register shock and disapproval for abysmal character flaws in its leaders. Some of the baser elements in today’s society would not only not be shocked by Rhodes’s revealing of his true character, but would approve of his remarks as a middle finger thrust upward on their behalf in defiance of elites.
Just about everyone seems to look down on someone else, to the point that it can be considered a universal human need. Elites are certainly not free from the need to look down on some other group, but in practice they have learned it is in their own interest to be circumspect about expressing their disdain, at least in public. Sneering at the white working class generally without first splitting off the subset of white trash and rednecks is a bad idea that serves to highlight the disconnected and arrogant nature of elites, and it is behavior that will serve to push white working class voters, once the foundation of the Democratic Party along with black working class voters, farther away from Democrats and more securely into the arms of Republicans, where they are given rhetoric they want to hear, but nothing of substance. Listening to people is the first step toward working with them, while loudly condemning them all as racist, misogynist white trash might demonstrate to everyone your purity for the satisfaction of your own smug self-righteousness, but it is hardly the way to win friends and influence people, a vocation otherwise known as politics.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
― Luke 2:10-11, from the King James Version of the New Testament.
Just in time for Christmas, the Congress passed its giveaway to the rich known as the Republican tax reform package, and the Thief-in-Chief signed it into the law of the land. Afterward much merriment was enjoyed by them and their kind on the South Lawn of the White House, where boot licking was the order of the day. The corruption and depravity oozing from the swamp of Washington, D.C. is too disheartening to dwell upon at this festive season of the year.
Moving on from the fairy tale that the Republican tax plan does anything at all for anyone but the wealthy, there is the fairy tale that has taken hold in some quarters that the Nativity of Jesus Christ was devoid of political ramifications at the time or in today’s world, and that therefore Christmas should be devoid of politics. A straightforward reading of the Gospels should dispel those ideas. Herod the Great apparently had no illusions about the threat posed by the birth of Jesus to the political future of himself and his progeny. Even taking the Gospels at face value, the Nativity story is loaded with politics.
Saddled Donkey, a painting of the Nativity by Finnish artist Aleksander Lauréus (1783-1823). Donkeys were the mount of the lower classes when they could afford them, while the upper classes rode horses. In addition to providing transportation for the Holy Family to Bethlehem and then to a temporary exile in Egypt, a donkey would be the mount of choice for Jesus when he entered Jerusalem to complete His mission.
The dramatic tension of the story derives from the methods that the adult Jesus would teach to change people’s lives, with eventual political change as a by product, as opposed to the immediate political change some of His followers hoped for and most of His opponents feared. And it starts in the Nativity when individuals on both sides refer to Him as a King, though they mean different things by that term. Herod the Great was correct to see the birth of Jesus as a threat to his world, however he may have perceived that threat.
The relation of the Nativity as an innocuous story about a baby and some shepherds is alright for small children who cannot grasp the larger political and humanitarian dimensions of the birth of Jesus, but for adults to ignore the story’s radical aspects and still profess an understanding of it borders on cognitive dissonance. The events set in motion by the birth of Jesus and the principles he taught in His later ministry were a radical departure from the politics of His time. Blessed are the meek? The rich have no chance at salvation until they give away all they have? Those were not standard beliefs then, nor are they now, despite what many people profess.
There is no “War on Christmas”, at least not in the way some conservatives formulate it. That is nonsense made up by people who, if they were confronted by the real Jesus today, rather than their Jesus of fable, would be horrified and demand that He be hauled away to prison. Based on what He is quoted as saying in the Gospels, He certainly would not have been there last week on the South Lawn of the White House ghoulishly celebrating the passage of a tax bill that steals from the poor to give to the rich. He would not have sided with evangelical voters who deem the election of any Republican, no matter how cretinous, better than the election of a Democrat. Who are these people to make war on Christmas by celebrating the birth of a baby who preaches war, hate, and intolerance rather than peace, love, and understanding? That story feeds the needs of empire and is on the side of the Romans. That’s not the true Christmas story, and there’s nothing funny about it.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC)net neutrality rulings of 2015 are under attack from – surprise, surprise! – Ajit Pai, the former attorney for Verizon and new FCC chairman. Mr. Pai calls the rollback of Title II regulations “Restoring Internet Freedom”. It’s clear Mr. Pai has read and understood his Orwell. Part of the niceties involved in rolling back the Internet Service Provider (ISP) common carrier regulations of Title II that Mr. Pai and his Republican allies in Congress and the White House want to have happen are invitations for public comment on the FCC website. It turns out, however, that when the FCC isn’t complaining about John Oliver inciting his viewers to inundate the FCC website with comments in support of Title II, they are ignoring the questionable origin of comments against Title II from citizens whose identity may have been hijacked by the very companies they pay for monthly internet service, companies like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T.
Astroturfing is nothing new in politics, but to ignore the obvious signs of astroturfing in a letter writing or email campaign to government regulators or congresspeople signifies a set agenda that is not to be swayed by emails or letters of varying opinions. The fix is in, in other words. It’s clear from FCC Chairman Pai’s previous public comments what his opinion is on Title II and net neutrality, and now that the FCC board has a Republican majority, his opinion is likely to become policy. It is hypocrisy then for the FCC to invite public comment and ignore for whatever reason the comments it’s board doesn’t want to hear, even though they are genuine, while accepting the clearly astroturfed comments originating from industry insiders.
Ajit V. Pai, new Chairman of the FCC.
Lewis Black in a concert in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, after the 2008 financial meltdown, comments on capitalism, greed, and how the United States government handled the crisis. In the end, there were no repercussions to the wealthy for the damage they inflicted on the working and middle class people who pay their way year after year. Warning: foul language.
Chairman Pai has remarked that in the 90 day public comment process, the FCC will not ” rely on hyberbolic statements about the end of the internet as we know it, and 140-character argle-bargle, but rather on the data.” Presumably the FCC chairman will then be ignoring the considerable amount of 140 character argle-bargle generated by his boss, the Argle-Bargler-in-Chief. Would that it were so. The reality is that the new FCC Chairman and the new President and the new Republican Congress appear to be in perfect agreement on rolling back Title II common carrier regulations for ISPs, and there’s little that ordinary citizens can do to stop them. Try John Oliver’s solution or the one from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and good luck to you, but in the future pay attention at the ballot box once every two to four years, and every day remember not to buy into the “fruit from your tree” delusion.