Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Feeling Insecure About the National Security Agency

Kevin burst in the door.  “Dad!  Mom!” he shouted.  “Mrs. Eleutheria has been arrested!  We had a substitute for Civics this morning, and they don’t know when she’ll be back.”

“Arrested!?” said Patty.  “Mrs. Eleutheria?  What in the world is that about?”

“Her daughter Janis is in our class.  She said four FBI agents came to their house at 6:30 this morning and made her mom go off with them.  Mrs. Eleutheria hadn’t even had her cup of coffee yet.  They told her she had been under surveillance and was being ‘detained on suspicion of terrorist activities’.”

“We’re all under surveillance,” I said.  “But terrorism?  Mrs. Eleutheria?  I never would have suspected her.  She actually seemed like a nice lady.”

“She is a nice lady,” said Kevin, “and she’s a great teacher.  She makes her class exciting.  She doesn’t just make you read the book and then answer the questions at the end of the chapter, like some of the other teachers do.  She gets you working together on understanding issues, so you end of doing all kinds of research on your own and really dig into them.”

“Did she have a secret life?” I wondered.  “Is she an Arab involved in some plot to blow up the Statue of Liberty or something?”

Patsy gave me that look--the one that causes the hair on the back of your neck to curl as if it has just been singed by a flame.  “Don’t be ridiculous, Ace,” she said, “We’ve known Helena Eleutheria since Janis and Kevin were in kindergarten together.  She’s more patriotic than either one of us.  Furthermore, she’s Greek, not Arab.  Also, there’s nothing wrong with being an Arab.  Stereotyping Arabs as terrorists is as dumb as stereotyping Americans as ill-mannered, ignorant, overweight tourists.  And I shouldn’t have to remind you that Mrs. Eleutheria is presumed innocent.  By our legal system and by you and me.  Are we together on all that?”

“Oh, absolutely,” I said hastily.  “I just, uh ....”

“Good,” she said.  Then she turned to Kevin.  “Did Janis have any more information?”

“She told us the FBI agents weren’t saying much.  But her dad thinks it may have to do with our class.”

“Your class?  What do you mean?”

“Well, there’s this video that all the kids have been looking at on the Internet, where Russell Brand tells a BBC guy that the current political system is corrupt, lopsided, and serves the interests of the ruling class.  He says voting is a waste of time because it’s rigged to present lousy choices.  People keep voting for the lesser of two evils, and things just keep getting more evil.  He says there’s going to be a revolution, that he doesn’t have ‘a flicker of doubt’.”  [The video Kevin refers to can be seen at http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2013/10/24-6.]

“I don’t know who Russell Brand is,” I said, “but what did that have to do with your Civics class?”

“You sort of have to understand how Mrs. Eleutheria teaches, Dad.  She listened to what kids had to say about the video, and then she asked us whether the criticisms Russell Brand made were valid.  She asked how we could determine whether they were valid--what resources we could use.  She asked us whether we should pay any attention to what someone says when he admits he’s never voted in his life.  She asked if there were other options instead of revolution.  She asked us whether people had a right to revolt, and if so, under what conditions.  She asked about violent revolutions versus nonviolent revolutions.  She had us read the Declaration of Independence in the back of our books, and asked us why the revolution that established this country took place, and whether the reasoning given then still applies.  She asked people in the class to form groups and each pick a revolution that has taken place since the American Revolution, and see why it occurred, how it was justified, what its tactics were, and how successful it was in correcting the things that caused it in the first place.”

“That’s pretty impressive,” said Patty.  “She took something kids were already fired up about, linked it to our own history and world history, led you to wrestle with a fundamental document, had you think about source materials, caused you to do some serious thinking and analysis, and asked you to arrive at a justifiable conclusion.  That’s just great teaching!”

“We were learning a lot,” agreed Kevin.  “Some of the connections kids were making were really neat.  For instance, one girl in class pointed out that Pope Francis is saying some of the same things that Russell Brand was saying.  Francis called the current economy ‘a betrayal of the common good.’  And he’s talked about the need for ecological commitment, saying that ‘Work must be connected to the custody of creation.’  When Russell Brand shares some key ideas with the Pope, it makes you think he’s not just ‘a trivial man,’ which is what the interviewer called him at one point.”

“I must be missing something,” said Patty.  “What’s the harm?  We’re talking about a Civics class, and all of this discussion sounds like a wonderful way to get kids really thinking about our government and our current political situation.” 

“Yeah,” said Kevin, “but there was all this talk about revolution, and people were posting on Facebook about it and tweeting on Twitter about it and conducting searches on the Internet about it and having live chats about it.  And all of those things are being spied on by the National Security Agency.  Maybe the people running the government start getting antsy when they hear ordinary people talking about revolution.”

“Let’s not get paranoid, Kevin,” I laughed.  “Once the FBI actually sits down and talks with Mrs. Eleutheria, she’ll be back in the classroom by tomorrow.”

He looked a little doubtful.  “I’m not so sure,” he said.  “According to Janis, her father said that believing our government is some kind of benign force promoting freedom and democracy at home and abroad can be a dangerous delusion.”

“He what?!”

“He told her to look up what we did to democracy in Iran,  Guatemala, the Congo, and Chile.”

“Surely you don’t think...,” I began.

“I don’t know, Dad,” said Kevin.  “The kids in my class are really worried about her mother.  We feel pretty insecure about the National Security Agency.”

“Um, you weren’t posting anything about a revolution on Facebook were you, Kevin?” I asked nervously.  “Or tweeting about it?  Or researching revolutions on the Internet?”

“Just a minute, Dad, I think there’s somebody at the door,” he said.


“Ha!” he said.  “Made you jump, didn’t I?”

“Kevin,” I said angrily, “this is no laughing matter.”

© Tony Russell, 2013

Thursday, October 24, 2013

They're Only Scientists

Russian president Vladimir Putin made two closely linked announcements yesterday in his weekly television broadcast.  

The first was that Russia’s crude oil producer Rosneft has signed a blockbuster $85 billion deal to send an extra 100 million tons of crude oil to China over the next ten years.  The second was the launching of a vast development project to build a series of year-round luxury resorts on the White Sea, most of which lies just below the Arctic Circle.

“We are confident,” said Putin, “that this huge energy deal with China, coupled with Canada’s exploitation of its tar sands, massive industrialization in China and India, and successful efforts by Saudi Arabia and the United States to block international agreements to cut carbon emissions, will easily suffice to warm the planet twelve to fifteen degrees within the next thirty years.  That should make the White Sea region an attractive getaway spot for global tourism.”

  “Although the White Sea currently freezes from October or November until May or June,” he continued, “its four large bays and many islands offer hundreds and hundreds of miles of coastline waiting to be developed.  In thirty years it will be not too cold, not too hot, but just right.”  

“Billionaires and major corporate entities will have the opportunity to buy and name their own White Sea islands.  The general public can enjoy year-round swimming, sunbathing, sailing, surfboarding, snorkeling, and sport fishing all along the coast once the planet heats up,” Putin said.  “When that happens, we plan to have our docks, shops, and other facilities and infrastructure in place to take full advantage of it.”

“Your development proposals show drawings of palm trees swaying in sea breezes, with shimmering turquoise waters lapping at beautiful white sand beaches as the sun begins to set.  Is that really the scenario you’re envisioning?” asked a reporter.

“That may be a bit fanciful,” Putin admitted.  “It won’t quite be Bermuda in February.  But then Bermuda will no longer be Bermuda in February either.  After being roasted, boiled, and baked for eleven months, people from south of the Arctic will flock to our mild climate to get stewed and fried,”  he joked.

Putin added that a series of canal boats have been commissioned to serve as floating casinos, with weekend trips to the Baltic along the scenic White Sea Canal.

Not to be outdone, Finland, Norway, and Sweden immediately announced their intention to form a regional development commission to plan getaways in their own frigid northern parts.

Climate scientists were skeptical about the development plans.  

“He’s on the money with his warming projections,” said one leading expert, “but he doesn’t seem to be taking into account the rise in ocean waters that will result once the polar ice caps and Greenland ice sheet melt.  Those islands in the White Sea are likely to be submerged.  And the present-day coastline will vanish as the sea rises and moves inland.  How far back from today’s shoreline is he planning to build these resorts?”

Putin scoffed at such criticisms.  “What do they know about real estate ventures?” he asked rhetorically.  “They’re only scientists.”

Top financial analysts, however, seemed to have no doubt which way the wind was blowing.  “I’d put my money into gas and oil stocks,” said leading investor Warren Smorgasbord, “and pull the plug on seaside developments.”

© Tony Russell, 2013

Monday, October 14, 2013

Everyone Else Gets Priced Out of the Game

“I’m sorry to bother you, Congressman, but I thought you might like to know that Theresa has been in the waiting room for almost two hours now, hoping to see you.”


“She’s the new staffer in our Scottsville office.”

“Oh yes, I remember now.  But I thought she was, uh ....”

“Yes sir, she’s on furlough while the government is shut down.  But she’s here.  She wouldn’t say what she wants, but she’s been sitting there since the office opened this morning.”

“Probably needs to borrow some money.  Oh well, send her in, Sally.  But interrupt us after fifteen minutes.  [Glances at his watch]  I still have half a dozen more donors to call before lunchtime.”

“Yes, sir.”  [Exits and sends Theresa in]

[Congressman rising]  “Theresa, it’s good to see you!  Sorry to have kept you waiting.  What can I do for you.”

“Well, sir, since I’ve been on furlough....”

“Yes, well, I’m sorry about that, but, you know, that’s how the shutdown works, and my hands were tied.  Listen, if you need a little something to tide you over....”  [Starts to reach for his billfold]

[Flushed with excitement]  “Oh, no sir!  I didn’t come to borrow money!  I had all this time while I’ve been out of work, and I thought, well, no sense feeling sorry for yourself, Theresa, you might as well make good use of these days that’ve been freed up.  So I’ve just been trying to understand this debt problem that’s been bothering you and your friends in Congress.  And I was surprised.  It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.  I think I’ve figured out how to do the right thing, put all of us back to work, and solve the debt crisis!  Isn’t that great!  I had to run up here and share it with you!” 

[Wary of her fervor]  “Uh, that sounds ... interesting, Theresa.  I’d be happy to take a look at it.  Just leave a copy with Sally.”

“Super.  I know you’re extra busy, and the paper’s a little long, so I put together this summary page here.  Let me give you a quick breakdown of how it would work.  It’ll only take a few minutes.”

[Congressman glances at his watch again, decides to humor her]  “Okay, five minutes.  Then I have a lot of calls to make.”

[She hands him a printed page.  He sits at his desk to look at it, and she goes around behind him and bends over his shoulder to point out various items as she explains them.]

“This first item here, offshore tax havens.  See this.  (Points]  A quarter of a trillion dollars, maybe more, that rich Americans have tucked away offshore to avoid taxes!  I mean, that’s not fair, you know?  Why should elderly people who have worked hard all their lives have to give up some of their Medicare and Social Security benefits while extremely wealthy people avoid paying their fair share of taxes? 

[Points to second item]  “And here.  Underpayment of taxes.  That’s another $450 billion--almost half a trillion dollars--where people--again, mostly those in the higher brackets--avoid paying their fair share, and stick people who are less able to pay with the bills.

[Moves down to next point]  “And look at this!  Tax credits, capital gains, exclusions, and other tax loopholes that almost look as if they’re designed to benefit those who need help the least!  Together they add up to another $1.25 trillion of tax income drained out of the system!

[Turns and looks at him directly, her face flushed with enthusiasm]  “Do you see it, sir?  We don’t have to inflict more pain on people who are already hurting, or cut into programs that benefit everyone!  With some relatively simple corrections that actually make the system more just, we can solve this fiscal crisis!”

[They both appear dazed for a moment by a vision of what-could-be.  Then the Congressman gives a shake, like a dog emerging from water.  Now he is embarrassed, remembering when he was once this excited about public service]  

“Uh, that’s all very interesting, Theresa, and in theory it looks as if it might work, but there are some, uh, practical considerations that make the kind of ‘simple corrections’ you refer to extremely difficult to implement.”

[She looks at him, more than a little hurt]  “What kind of ‘practical considerations,’ sir?”

[Even more embarrassed]  “Theresa, the average winner for a seat in the House spent $1,567,379 in his or her last campaign.  I know that to the last digit because that’s the minimum amount I have to raise to stay competitive and keep my seat.  The cost keeps going up, and I have to raise that money every two-year cycle.  Together, I and my colleagues in the House spent close to $700 million to win our races in 2012.”

[Puzzled]  “I’m afraid I’m not following you, sir.”

[Holding up his own sheet, of donors and potential donors]  “While you’ve been working on your list, I’ve been working on mine.   I get the money to stay competitive by continually calling people and asking them to contribute to my campaign.  Wealthy people.  My colleagues in the House and Senate all have their own lists.  They’re making their own calls.  To wealthy people.  Asking for their support.  All of the items you listed that need ‘simple corrections’  benefit wealthy people.  You see the problem.” 

[Stunned]  “I’m not sure, sir.  [Hesitantly]  I hope I’m mistaken, but you seem to be implying that you and your colleagues won’t deal with the debt crisis by doing something that’s obvious and fair because keeping your job is dependent on keeping the system unfair.  You’re implying that your primary obligation is to protect and serve the interests of the wealthiest people in the country.  But that can’t be right, can it?”

[Not responding directly to her question]  “Theresa, have you heard of Citizens United?”

“It sounds familiar, sir.”

“Well, it needs to be very familiar.  It’s no coincidence that most of these wealthy people we political candidates call happen to be major shareholders in, or direct, or manage large corporations.  Citizens United was a ruling by the Supreme Court that any limitation on corporate contributions to political action groups is now unconstitutional.  You think the campaign costs I just talked about are huge?  You haven’t seen anything yet.  They’re going to become monstrous!  Obscene!  And the more expensive campaigns become, the more it works to the advantage of the people and corporations who have the lion’s share of the money.  Everyone else gets priced out of the game.  

[Worked up now, forgetting himself]  “I’m sure the $700 million House members spent to win their seats seems like a lot of money to you.  It does to me.  Add in the $337 million the winners in the Senate spent.  But to major corporations, that kind of money is nothing!  Chicken feed!  They can buy Congress with their spare change!  ExxonMobil alone had a profit of $45 billion last year!  They could buy the entire Congress and still be almost $44 billion to the good.  Apple made almost $42 billion!  And the Supreme Court says let them spend whatever they want to buy election influence?  It’s insane!”  

[To his own amazement, the congressman begins to weep, overwhelmed by an unexpected surge of emotions that includes anger, sadness, frustration, and woundedness.  Theresa begins to weep as well, and reaches over to comfort him, just as Sally opens the door.]  “Excuse me, Congressman, but you have a... well, excuse me!   [Misreads situation, turns quickly and leaves, closing door behind her]

© Tony Russell, 2013

Monday, October 07, 2013

On the Side of Terror

“Congressman, you have a noon meeting with a group of peace activists who want to talk with you about your position on Syria.  And I should warn you that there are some TV vans down in the parking lot.”

“Ouch!  I’m meeting with some big donors at 11, another group of donors at 1, I didn’t have breakfast, and it’s already 10:30.  That doesn’t leave much time to prepare, Sally, but I think I’ve got this Syrian thing down pat.  I’ll just run through some talking points with you right now to make sure I’ve got them straight.  I can ask the peace group for their input, listen to them for a while, make my statement, and fake the rest of it.”

“Okay.  Shoot.”

[Congressman, adopting a solemn tone]  “Syria is the newest battleground in the War on Terror.  Al-Qaeda organized the bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, as well as the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  Like a cancer, it has spread its evil influence throughout Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and now Syria.  It is number one on our list of terrorist organizations around the world. We cannot permit this menace to go unchecked.  We have fought terrorism in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and now we will not rest until we have eliminated the al-Qaeda movement in Syria.   [Pauses]  How’s that sound?”

“Uh, it sounds great, Congressman, just great.  One small correction, though, right at the end.”

“What’s that?”

“Well... in Syria, we’re supporting the al-Qaeda faction, not fighting against them.”

“What!  Are you sure about that?”

“Positive, sir.  The opposition to President Assad is now largely dominated by violent jihadist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda.”

“So this isn’t part of the War on Terror?”

“Apparently not, sir.  If it is, we’re now on the side of Terror.”

“Okay.  Scratch that.  How the devil could a thing like that happen?  It makes no sense!  What is the reason we’re so hellbent on attacking Syrian government forces, then?”

“The administration claims that Assad’s use of chemical weapons crossed a red line, sir.”

“What red line was that?  Who drew a red line?”

“President Obama says the world drew a red line when countries signed a treaty banning chemical weapons.  But ‘the world‘ didn’t decide to launch an attack on Syria for using them--just the U.S.  Which would make this a first.  So far there has never been a country that simply took it upon itself to attack another country for using chemical weapons. ”

“Well, regardless of who drew the red line, we should have the President’s back on this one.  The use of chemical weapons is horrible, inhumane, and a clear violation of international law.  That’s my position.”

“I think everyone agrees that chemical weapons are abominable, sir.  But there’s a complication with that approach that you might want to consider--well, several of them, actually.”

[Glancing at his watch, getting a little tense as he feels time slipping away]  “Can you give me a simple version of the complications?”

“I’ll try, sir. You mentioned that the use of chemical weapons is a clear violation of international law.  But if we were to attack Syria, that would also be a violation of international law, because Syria hasn’t attacked the U.S., and the UN Security Council hasn’t authorized the U.S. to carry out an attack.”

“So you’re saying it would be hypocritical of us to claim Syria violated international law, and then go ahead and violate it ourselves?”

“I did my best to avoid using that word, sir.”

“What are the other complications?”

“Well, we knowingly supplied Saddam Hussein with materials to make chemical weapons during their war with Iraq, back during the Reagan  administration.  So our hands aren’t exactly clean on the chemical weapons issue.  And our own forces used white phosphorus and depleted-uranium munitions when we attacked Iraq.”

“Sounds to me as if you’re saying we’re being hypocritical again.”

“I don’t know what to say, sir.  You asked me to lay out the facts.  That’s what I’ve been trying to do.”

“Okay, okay.  But the facts certainly aren’t very helpful.  Any more complications?”

“A rather large one, I’m afraid.  The opposition forces in Syria also have chemical weapons, and may have used them.  Reports are also emerging that they have carried out bloody massacres, executed prisoners in cold blood, raped women, beheaded babies, and buried villagers with their throats cut in mass graves.”

“They what!?  And these are the people we’re supplying and supporting?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you’re sure of these things?”

“The facts seem to be well established, I’m afraid.”

“Damn it!  I listen to our intelligence briefings, I read the White House press releases, I saw John Kerry praise the opposition in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I pay attention to what Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner have to say.  So why is it that all of this stuff you’re telling me is news to me?”

“Uh, I really can’t say, sir.”

“Do you suppose it’s classified for national security purposes?”

“All of this has been widely reported in the world press, Congressman. There are even videos of some of these things on YouTube.”

“Listen, the White House and our congressional leaders need to get this information right away.  Type it up with footnotes and references, and draw up a cover letter over my signature.”

“Um, begging your pardon, but I’m pretty sure they already have this information.”

“What makes you think that?  Maybe they don’t read the world press or watch YouTube.”

“Maybe not, sir, but with the hundreds of billions of dollars we spend on gathering intelligence, and with the NSA’s monitoring of e-mails, phone calls, computer searches, and the like for foreign embassies, the UN, governments around the globe, and everyone else you can think of, surely they’re aware of these things.”

“But there must be some mistake!  How can you explain these... discrepancies between the values we’re claiming and the actions we’re taking?”

“I’m afraid I can’t, Congressman.  I don’t make policy or speeches.  I just work here.”

“Well I’ll tell you one thing, Sally.  I don’t care what the leadership says, I’m meeting with the peace group in a little over an hour, with TV cameras running, and there’s no way in hell I’m going out there to come down on the side of a bunch of extremist, undemocratic al-Qaeda war criminals.”

“At this point, Congressman, I’m probably supposed to encourage you to do the cautious, politic thing.  But the truth is, sometimes you make me remember why I actually voted for you myself.”

© Tony Russell, 2013