Friday, April 18, 2014

News for the Week

I just thought I’d share a round-up of some of the stories that have caught my attention in the last week.

A map of the new Lake Kariba from the British National Archives

For reporting on the tremendous overreach of the national security state, the Guardian and the Washington Post received the Pulitzer prize, the most prestigious journalism award in the United States and beyond.  Without the reporting of these papers and, it should be said, the whistleblowing of Edward Snowden, we would never have known of the extraordinary overreach of the NSA and other arms of the security state.  We would never have known that members of the rogue intelligence agencies have lied in Congress and broken the law.

There are some Republicans and right-wing Democrats in Congress who think that Snowden and anyone who reports on him are traitors.  If they are defending serial lawbreakers who have violated the public trust, they need to take a long, hard look in the mirror, particularly given revelations that wittingly or otherwise, the NSA’s preoccupations with spying on citizens to perpetuate U.S. terror abroad prevented them from stopping the Heartbleed bug, something which is a real threat to the public.


One of the most dramatic, harrowing, and touching stories I’ve run across in my research—well-documented by other historians—was the construction in the late-1950s of the Kariba Dam on the Zambezi River, at the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe.  Then the largest man-made lake in the world, Kariba required the displacement of tens of thousands of people, whose departure from the Valley which was to be flooded was tragic and unwilling. 

Today, studies of that dam suggest that its structure, and contingency planning around its breach by the powerful Zambezi River in the context of a partial or full collapse, need revisiting.  I’ve never visited this part of either Zambia or Zimbabwe, but hope to get to Kariba one of these days, in part because I’ve read so much about the construction of the dam and the social costs associated with it.


On a not dissimilar note, PBS is premiering A Fierce Green Fire, a film about the environmental movement.  It will be shown on Tuesday, Earth Day, and looks to be a powerful telling of the story of the emergence of this mass movement in the twentieth century.  It’s hard to imagine that not so many years ago “the environment”, “ecology”, and the health of our planet were not terms, ideas, or concerns in common currency. 

Concerns for the protection of species, the regulation of pollutants, the preservation of “natural wonders”, and the relationship between “natural” and “human” ecosystems and habitats were pushed by grassroots movements which harnessed new sciences.  Our world would be a very different place without the environmental movement, although our growth-oriented economy and inability to come to grips with the threat posed by climate change suggest that we have a long way to go.


In another environmentally-related story, San hunters in Botswana are attempting to reclaim both their dignity and hunting rights which the government is seeking to deny them.  People for whom hunting serves both a cultural and economic purpose resent the fact that wealthy foreign visitors are permitted to hunt while people with a stake in the land and its resources are not. 

Countries in Southern Africa generally have more liberal hunting laws than their East African counterparts, where the illegal ivory trade is brisker and enforcement more difficult.  But global efforts to crack down on the hunting of animals like elephants have likely had an impact on the Botswana government’s policy, demonstrating the power of international conservation groups, which often pay little attention to events on the ground, or the human presence in many of the lands they regard as “wilderness”. 


Perhaps afraid that President Obama’s embrace of the Bush administrations War of Terror will make the GOP look like a bunch of peacniks, Republican Senator Bob Corker is trying to start a war with his idiotic demand that the U.S. escalate tensions in Ukraine by shipping weapons to the region.

It was one hundred years ago this summer that the First World War exploded in Europe, driven by secretive alliance systems, the power of arms industries, mindless patriotism, and a diplomacy based on brinkmanship.  That senseless war cost the lives of millions. 

Corker is a mulish defender of the illegal war of aggression in Iraq which killed hundreds of thousands of people, so he appears to be someone who doesn’t understand or care about the consequences of his actions when they claim the lives of other people.  Hopefully his colleagues and the administration have better sense.


Princeton researchers came out with a timely study which defines the U.S. as an oligarchy rather than a democracy, a characterisation that fits well with the massive redistribution of wealth to the upper classes at the expense of the working classes, who are also being stripped of their rights to organise and defend their economic interests by the wealthy and their representatives in Congress.

Political power in the United States is increasingly associated with great wealth, meaning that the middle and working classes, defended by people like Elizabeth Warren, are being written out of the political process.


One smaller result of the monetisation of politics is the ever greater importance of hired guns.  Campaigns are increasingly about fundraising and targeting, and so “political experts” play a tremendous role in these campaigns, combining efforts to control the process with an utter lack of principles.

This week, the British Labour Party hired David Axlerod, one of President Obama’s advisors, to help them fight the 2015 election and regain power against a Conservative government which has implemented a harsh austerity regime on the country over the past several years. 

That in turn reminded me of the fact that Jim Messina, another Obama campaign officer, had last year joined the Conservative Party offering his services, and throwing any progressive principles he ever pretended to have out the window.  The fact that political campaigns are in the hands of these opportunistic thugs might explain why even in an ostensibly progressive party like the Democratic Party, there are so few conversations about the economic and social welfare of the public. 


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