Monday, June 16, 2014

A Better Way is Possible

My wife Alma and I traveled up to Calabasas over the weekend to take a guided walking tour of the King Gillette Ranch. The ranch, situated on some 400 acres of mountainous desert chaparral, was one of the tribal areas of the Chumash peoples before Spanish colonizers arrived in the16th century.

Our guide for the tour explained how the Chumash lived intensely integrated lives with Nature. The Chumash did not have domesticated agriculture but did rely heavily on the products of the wild, among them acorns from the desert oak (used to make a kind of flour), the various varieties of sage, wild berries, and the Yucca plant (used for its sharply pointed stalks which made a type of needle).

During the walk, the guide produced from his knapsack a string of beads that he said were replicas of beads used by the Chumash. These beads, as it happens, were used as a form of currency. Most of the Chumash economy was transacted as 'barter.' For those items for which barter trade could not be arranged, beads were used to exchange value. When 'wealthy' Chumash died, the guide noted, their beads were buried with them.

When the guide said this, it came as a shock to me. Because with beads buried, the productive assets the beads as currency represented remained available for all to use.

Such a foreign way of thinking, to bury one's 'wealth' with one at death. Most Americans are unaware that the principal source of wealth in this country is not 'hard work,' or even 'chicanery.' Instead, the principal source of wealth is 'inheritance,' the passing along of accumulated assets from one generation to the next. What if, instead of that wealth being passed along, it were 'buried with its owner'? The assets that produced the wealth would still be here, still producing the stuff we want and need. But the accumulation and concentration of that wealth would last only for a single generation.

Chumash were not real big on 'owning' land, either, as I understand it. Although their tribes had an economic and social structure, organized around guilds and clans respectively, with a priesthood handling interactions with the spirit world and a tribal Chief providing executive direction, they were not a capitalist culture in any sense of the term. They were, in fact, a form of primitive communalism where the means of production were publicly controlled and where the produce of the society were shared according to tribal members' needs. (The guide related how tribal members each had their individual stores of acorns but the Chief's hut retained a larger granary from which tribal members could make withdrawals on an as-needed basis.)

I do not wish to romanticize the Chumash. No doubt they lived lives of hard work and privation. But I do think their example shows us that other ways are possible. Better ways perhaps. Einstein once famously remarked that he doubted whether modern man is any happier than his predecessors of 400 years earlier. Sure, we have more technology. We have more control. But with that technology and control comes alienation and spiritual decadence. I'd wager the average modern man or woman is no happier and indeed probably a lot more unhappy than his Chumash predecessors.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Trading with the Enemy: Imperialism, Desertion and Duty

I had the paper but I did not read it because I did not want to read about the war. I was going to forget the war. I had made a separate peace.

Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

Wow, is this American POW story gathering steam or what? It now turns out that the American soldier who was recently exchanged for five Afghan resistance fighters in a deal brokered by the Gulf state of Qatar may have gone AWOL or even deserted prior to being taken captive by the Afghan resistance.

According to the New York Times, Bergdahl left behind a note "saying he had become disillusioned with the Army, did not support the American mission in Afghanistan and was leaving to start a new life." In the ensuing manhunt for Bergdahl, perhaps as many as six U.S. soldiers died in ambushes and firefights linked to the search for him.

New York Times story

Reading this story today prompted some memories of the last time America was involved in a prolonged imperial boondoggle of invasion and occupation: Vietnam. Then as now a few American GIs became disillusioned with the moral bankruptcy of the American cause and chose to express their resistance by deserting to the NLF or NVA forces. (I do not know how many, no doubt no more than a handful.)

The ensuing years have vindicated those GIs who deserted the U.S. military in Vietnam and I have little doubt that the years to come will vindicate Bergdahl's act of resistance as well. For now, though, the military and right-wing busily fan the flames of 'stab in the back' resentment directed at Bergdahl, his father (who grew a beard in support of his son and is now excoriated by Fox News for 'looking like the Taliban') and, most importantly, Obama and his top aides. The Praetorian Guard that our military has become since the waning days of Vietnam with its poverty draft enlistees and ticket-punching business executive officer corps, is all puffed up with outrage that Bergdahl is getting treated as a quasi-hero. He's a deserter, these mercenary soldiers of fortune claim, and should be prosecuted under the UCMJ for desertion in a time of war.

Watching the ruling class tear each other to shreds over L'Affaire Bergdahl in paroxysms of rage brings forth a delicious sort of schadenfreude. After all, Obama made the fateful choice to escalate, to 'surge,' in Afghanistan shortly after his inauguration, at the urging of NeoCons and NeoLibs in his vaunted 'team of rivals.' Bergdahl was captured in late June of 2009 . . . after Obama's inauguration. So it is fitting that the chief architect of the Afghan escalation now face the music when its chickens come home to roost.

However enjoyable the spectacle of seeing Obama and his war mongering cadre brought to account, the Bergdahl matter brings forth a more pressing question. When one finds oneself trapped in and supporting a war crime like the U.S. invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, what is one's duty? Does one try to work within the system to ameliorate the effects of that crime? Or does one borrow a page from Ernest Hemingway's stoic hero Frederic Henry and resolve to quit the affair entirely or even to go over to the other side? What is our duty to resist imperialism when we ourselves are trapped inside an imperialist venture?

I do not have an answer to that question but it is one that must be asked even if no answers readily come to hand. Perhaps each of us must strive to make 'a separate peace'.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Trading with the Enemy: A Chance for Peace?

The news today is full of stories about a prisoner exchange between the U.S. and Afghan resistance. In return for the U.S. freeing 5 Afghan resistance fighters held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the Afghan resistance (aka "Taliban") agreed to release one U.S. captive, Bowe Bergdahl, held since his capture in 2009.

Reuters' Condensed Timeline of Events

The prisoner swap -- akin to those we hear about frequently between Israelis and Palestinians -- was mediated by the Gulf state of Qatar (home to the Al Jazeera network). Terms of the deal are that the 5 Afghan resistance fighters must stay in Qatar for a year, with Qatar making suitable assurances to that effect to the U.S. government.

The news today is also full of the predictable expressions of outrage from Republicans at this exchange. Republicans forget that one of their saints, Ronald Reagan, negotiated with Iranians to provide them with arms in return for their assistance in convincing Hezbollah in Lebanon to free American captives (the so-called 'Arms for Hostages' component of Iran-Contra). Republicans' outrage is buttressed by a law that was passed and signed into law last year requiring the Executive to give Congress 30 days' advance notice of any prisoner exchanges involving Gitmo detainees. Schadenfreude is a wonderful feeling, as President Obama signed the law with an accompanying 'Signing Statement' that he would not obey the 30 days' notice requirement necessarily, as doing so would impose a violation on his powers as Commander in Chief. When Dems protested Bush's use of 'signing statements' back in 2001-08, Republicans pooh-poohed the outrage. Now the shoe's on the other foot and it makes me happy to see the Republicans hoist with their own petard.

However, and this is a big however, we were constantly told that the Taliban were 'terrorists' and that, furthermore, the U.S. government never negotiated with 'terrorists.' Thus, we could never 'win' our war on terrorism, short of killing every terrorist on the planet. Even if one accepts that nomenclature, one must surely recognize that we negotiated with our enemies on this prisoner swap. So either the Taliban were not terrorists OR we do negotiate with terrorists when it suits us. The point is that the whole charade is revealed as the empty rhetorical gesture it always was, is and will be.

Absent the total annihilation of one's enemies, the only way to end an armed conflict is through negotiated terms. We have shown that we can negotiate with the Afghan resistance to bring about mutually beneficial prisoner swaps; now we should try to negotiate for a lasting armistice.