Saturday, December 12, 2009

Building Wall Under Ground at Gaza

Egyptians, with US Assistance, Building Wall Under Ground at Gaza
by Michael Jansen

Egyptian officials yesterday confirmed that Cairo is covertly constructing an underground steel barrier along the border with Gaza to cut smuggling into the Strip.

They contradicted a report in the Cairo daily Al-Shorouk quoting an unidentified source who said, "Egypt is dealing with smuggling seriously and is capable of stopping it without [a] wall."

When completed in 18 months' time, the impenetrable and indestructible wall will be 10-11km in length and will extend 18-30m below the surface along the 13km-long border.

Four kilometres have, reportedly, been completed north of the town of Rafah, which is bisected by the border that also divides Palestinian families - many of whom are involved in the illegal cross-border trade.

Over the past year the number of tunnels has doubled from 750 to 1,500. They carry essential goods, household appliances, fuel, medicines, fertiliser, seeds, clothing, motorbikes, and even the occasional car.

If the flow of goods is impaired or interdicted, the 1.5 million Gazans would be reduced to reliance on the ration package con- taining flour, pulses and tea distributed by UN agencies.

Only basic supplies are permitted to enter the Strip through goods crossings controlled by Israel, which tightened its blockade of Gaza following the seizure of power there by Hamas in June 2007.

Israel routinely bombs tunnels it claims are used for explosives and weapons traffic, while Cairo tries to tackle smuggling by arresting dealers, closing down warehouses on the Egyptian side of the frontier and blowing up tunnels.

Last March, the US provided Egypt with $32 million (€21.75 million) to install electronic surveillance devices and other equipment to prevent smuggling.

Since these efforts have failed to halt or seriously limit commerce, Cairo is said to have come under pressure from the US and Israel to agree to the sinking of an underground barrier.

US army engineers have designed the wall, modelled on structures used to reinforce levees in hurricane-prone New Orleans. US firms have manufactured its sections, which fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Farmers and herdsmen have remarked on the clearing of land near the border, and local municipal official Suleiman Bair said farmers would be compensated for the loss of fruit and olive trees. Shoot-outs have erupted between Egyptian police and Bedouin tribesmen involved in smuggling and tunnel protection.

Confirmation of the construction of the underground wall coincided with an appeal issued by dozens of UN agencies, inter- national organisations and national non-governmental bodies for $664.4 million to finance humanitarian programmes in Gaza, East Jerusalem and areas of the West Bank where the Palestinian economy has been devastated by Israel's settlements, separation wall, checkpoints and restrictions on movement.

UN humanitarian co-ordinator Maxwell Gaylard asserted: "The continued erosion of livelihoods and the denial of basic human rights together are compelling Palestinians to become more and more dependent on international aid."

A wall between Egypt and Gaza is likely to deepen the distress and dependence of Palestinians trapped in the Strip.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Robert Jensen in Converstaion with Chris Hedges

First, if a radio station in your area airs Alternative Radio, you can hear a talk I gave on religion and politics.

Last month I interviewed Chris Hedges onstage in Austin. A piece drawn from that conversation is online in the Austin American-Statesman. Thanks to Statesman reporter Brad Buchholz for doing a great job of putting the piece together.

Author warns of pageantry's perils
Chris Hedges, who wrote 'Empire of Illusion,' examines America's identity crisis in an age of consumerism and spectacle.

By Brad Buchholz
Saturday, December 05, 2009

Chris Hedges sees, in America, a nation that has lost its way. He sees a country that places prosperity above principle, celebrity above substance, spectacle above nuance and introspection. He sees a "timid, cowed, confused" populace disconnected from language, governed by consumerism, ambivalent toward the common good, enamored by an American myth that has no basis in the American reality.

"We are a culture that has been denied, or has passively given up, the linguistic and intellectual tools to cope with complexity, to separate illlusion from reality," Hedges writes in his new book, "Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle." "We have traded the printed word for the gleaming image. Public rhetoric is designed to be comprehensible to a ten-year-old child or an adult with a sixth-grade reading level.

"Most of us speak at this level, are entertained and think at this level. We have transformed our culture into a vast replica of Pinocchio's Pleasure Island, where boys were lured with the promise of no school and endless fun. They were all, however, turned into donkeys — a symbol, in Italian cutlure, of ignorance and stupidity."

Hedges paints a bleak picture in this book — all the more sobering when one considers that this Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist has spent decades covering violence and war around the globe, in Africa and the Balkans, South America and the Middle East. He states, plainly, that the age of American Imminence is over. Our standard of living is going to drop. Our consumptive tendencies are going to change. Yet the biggest problem, as Hedges sees it, is American denial — an eagerness to cling to the good-times, anything-we-want illusion, "the the dark message of corporatism," at the expense of this perilous end-of-empire reality.

For all his years in journalism, Hedges has never been hesitant to step outside the lines and draw conclusions in a pointedly "progressive" point of view. He lost his job at The New York Times, in fact, for speaking out against the war in the months before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Nationalism and myth were at the heart of his breakout book, "War is the Force that Gives Us Meaning," which was a finalist of the National Book Critics Circle award for non-fiction in 2002.

The son of a Presbyterian minister, Hedges attended divinity school before embarking on a career in journalism. An avowed socialst, he claims to have voted for Dennis Kucinich in the Democratic presidential primary of 2008 and Independent candidate Ralph Nader in the election. He does not associate the word "hope" with the word "Obama." He does not own a television. As a gesture of protest, he once wrote he would not pay federal income taxes in the event of a U.S. invasion of Iran.

Last month, three days after the Fort Hood tragedy, Hedges spoke at St. Andrews Presbyterian church in a program moderated by University of Texas journalism professor and peace activist Robert Jensen. Fort Hood didn't come up in the conversation, or the question-and-answer session that followed. But these topics, from "Empire of Illusion," did:

American Illusion
"You strive toward a dream; you live within an illusion. And societies that cannot distinguish between illusion and reality die. If you look at the twilight periods of all great empires – Roman, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian — there is, in those final moments, not only a deep moral degeneration but an inability to distinguish what is real from fantasy.

"During the election between McCain and Obama, we were waging two wars, pre-emptive wars that under post Nurmberg laws are defined as criminal wars of aggression. We were running offshore penal colonies where we openly tortured individuals stripped of all rights. We had suspended habeas corpus. We had engaged in warrant-less wiretapping and eavesdropping on tens of millions of Americans . ... And yet we spoke of ourselves as the greatest democracy on Earth – and that as the embodiment of the highest values, we had a right to deliver it to others by force."

American Values
"We talk about (the importance of) American culture. (But in truth): American culture was destroyed after World War I, with the rise of Madison Avenue and the implanting of mass corporate culture which sought to instill new values into the American consciousness. Instead of the values of thrift, communitarianism, modesty (and) self-sacrifice, we developed, courtesy of the advertising industry, this cult of self — this deep narcissism and hedonism that disconnected us from others and gave us mass corporate culture.

"So it's not American culture that we embrace for the moment. It's not American culture we export. It's corporate culture. And I think that altered situations will force us back into a moral system that defies the dark ethic of corporatism. And hopefully reconnects us to those values within our past that I think were brought us closer to fostering the building of common good.

'Vocational America'
"Education in the United States has become vocational. ... Many of the state universities, community colleges and online for-profit universities — that are growing faster than any other university sentiment — have no use for the Humanities, literature, history, philosophy, classics, art. Why? Because the Humanities ask the kind of broad questions of meaning that those systems that prize above all else vocational workers do not want to ask.

"The problem with our vocational system is that it measures and rewards a very narrow kind of intelligence, a kind of analytical intelligence to create legions of systems managers — people who have a drone-like ability to work for very long hours, and (have) a kind of penchant or capacity for manipulation, but don't know how to question assumptions or structures."

'The Liberal Church'
"I come out of a liberal church. The liberal church has failed us, and they've failed us on two levels. (First), they have defined spirituality as 'How is it with me,' which is a form of narcissism. Martin Luther King preached a great sermon called, 'Jesus didn't come to bring us peace of mind.' And secondly, they have failed us because they did not stand up to the Christian right. The Christian right is a mass movement, I think the most dangerous mass movement in American history — and they are Christian heretics.

"They have acculturated the Christian Gospel with the worst aspects of American imperialism and American Capitalism. Jesus did not come to give us a Cadillac and to make us rich and to bless arm fragmentation bombs being dropped all over the Middle East. It was an utter perversion of the message of the Gospel. And because the liberal church lacked the fortitude and the spine to renounce this movement — leaving it to repugnant figures like Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris ... at a time when the culture so desperately needs a moral voice, the church sadly to me has become in many ways morally irrelevant.

"Capitalism is probably ingrained in human nature. But there are different kinds of capitalism. The kind of penny capitalism that I saw at the farmer's market in the town I grew up in is not a dangerous form of capitalism ... but corporate capitalism is something else. Corporate Capitalism is cannibalizing the nation.

"Karl Polanyi in 1944 wrote a brilliant work called 'The Great Transformation' in which he talked about the inevitable totalitarianism and wars and breakdown that was caused by a system that permitted unregulated capitalists to flourish. When everything becomes a commodity, including human labor, when the natural world becomes a commodity that is valued only by its capacity to generate profit, then you commit collective suicide, because you exhaust human beings and human resources, you deplete them, until they die. And that's precisely what's happening. Look at the oil and natural gas industry, the coal industry, our permanent war economy. ..."

Capitalism and Celebrity
"The ethic of celebrity culture ... is the ethic of unfettered capitalism. What are the values promoted on reality television programs like "Survivor"? A capacity for manipulation. Building false friendships (with) those you betray. A destruction of real community and solidarity. Basically: the traits of psychopaths. And what do you get in return? Fleeting fame and money.

"Well, that is the ethic of Wall Street. That is what allowed the titans of large corporations to fleece their shareholders, people who had put month by month small sums aside for their retirement, for their college, destroy these institutions like Lehman Brothers, and then like Richard Fuld did, walk away with a severance package of $45 million. The ethic of celebrity culture is the ethic of Wall Street. And the crisis that faces the country at its core is not so much an economic crisis or a political crisis as it is a moral crisis.

The Bankruptcy of Liberalism
"I fear more the bankruptcy of liberalism than I do the fanaticism of the right. ... I think the book for our times is probably Dostoyevsky's "Notes from the Underground," (1864) in which he writes about a defeated dreamer, who becomes a cynic at a time when liberalism is bankrupt and who descends into a state of moral nihilism ... which understood precisely where his country was going."

The Failure of Democrats
"Those of us who care about the working class in this country – and much of my own family comes from the working class — should have walked out on the Democratic party in 1994 when they passed NAFTA. That thrust a knife in the back of the working class in this country – followed by Clinton's so-called welfare reform, followed by a Democratic party that quite consciously did the bidding of corporations to receive (campaign) money. That was the intent. So by the 1990s, the Democratic party had parity with the Republicans in terms of corporate donations — and of course now they get more.

"The bankruptcy of American liberalism is that it continued to speak against war, continued to speak on behalf of the working class, continued to support constitutional rights, and yet backed the party (the Democratic party) that betrayed all of these values. This wasn't lost on the working class. The anger of the working class toward liberals in this country is not misplaced, because liberals continue with that type of hypocrisy. They continue to espouse values and yet support political parties that tear down those values. And that's very dangerous. . . .

"The progressive movements in this country rely on the working class to propel our democracy fowrward. (But) our working class has been decimated. It doesn't exist any more, because there are no jobs, no meaningful jobs. And so that rage and frustration which you're already seeing leaping up around the fringes of society — and of course America is a very violent nation, that undercurrent of violence runs very deep — is presaging, I fear, a backwash. But a right wing backwash. And that is largely because the liberal class in this country became gutless."

Health Care
"Any discussion of health care in this country should begin with the factual acknowledgment that the for-profit health care industry is a problem and must be destroyed. This is an industry that's not only responsible last year for the deaths of 20,000 Americans who could not get proper health care, medical coverage. But it (is) legally allowed (to) hold sick children hostage while parents bankrupt themselves to try to save their sons and daughters. This is a system, in theological terms, of death.

"Our for-profit health care system makes money off of death, the same way our arms merchants make money off of death. And the inability within our country to face this reality, the inability in a corporatized media to even have this discussion is, I think, evidence of the power of the corporate state, which drives debate, which permits institutions that are morally bankrupt to have a seat at the table. And that is symptomatic of a society in deep decay."

"When you push a populace to violence, you unleash a poison that infects everyone. I don't believe in the term "A Just War." ... And the longer we continue to speak to those in the Middle East through the language of violence, the more we empower those who are only capable of speaking back to us in the language of violence. When you look at 9/11: huge explosions and death above the city skyline, nihilistic violence as a message. Where did they learn that from? From (Secretary of Defense Robert) McNamara of '65, when he justified the bombing of North Vietnam, which left hundred of thousands of Vietnamese dead, (in the name of) delivering a message to Hanoi.

The perpetrators of 9/11 simply learned to speak the langue we taught them. ... You cannot promote a virtue through force. ... You cannot implant democracy through force. Because once you use force, you speak in a language in which the very concept of human rights is an absurdity."

"I'm a Christian Agnostic — which means, and I think that's probably biblically accurate, that I know nothing, and I believe I can know nothing, about God.

"God is a human concept. God has been given by various theological systems – our own and others – numerous attributes, some of which are morally repugnant. But the reality of the transcendent is something that artists and religious thinkers — who of course in early history were fused into one — have struggled to document.

"Marcel Proust wrote that the real news of our lives never appears in a newspaper. The most powerful forces of human life are non-rational – not irrational, but non-rational: Grief, love, beauty, search for meaning, struggle with our own mortality. You can't empirically measure these forces. The Buddhists say you can memorize as many sutras as you want, it will never make you wise. If you're not in touch with these forces – and Paul Woodruff wrote a great book about this, 'Reverence' – you're not a complete human being."; (512) 912-2967