Friday, September 29, 2006

Democrats? Hello?

So the horrific torture bill has passed, with some last-minute changes that make it more horrific still. Bush claims a victory, and McCain and Specter get to tout their willingness to stand up the chief executive, yet still give him basically all he asked for. That's how the legislation played out on the coverage I heard and read, anyway. Democrats were absent from the whole debate. I am not the first person, I'm sure, to howl at the continued cowardice of the Dems, as exemplified in this most recent episode. And I'm aware that the Democrats may have held press conferences and issued critical papers that the press I read didn't cover. Out of power in all branches of government, Democrats have few means at their disposal to substantially affect legislation favored by Republicans. So the press may have just ignored their bleatings. But it's more likely that Dems made a conscious choice to lay low, content to let the Republicans fire on one another before eventually arriving at the current bill. How clever, some may have thought--we've avoided taking a position on a bill that could be used to portray us as soft on terrorism. But if that was the thinking, it's completely, disasterously wrong. Democrats won't be taken seriously on national security issues by aping Republican positions in an attempt to appear 'tough.' They will be taken seriously when they start trying to play an active role in shaping national security policy. They may not have the ability to push through their own legislation, but the American people should damn well know that the Democrats *have* legislation they'd like to pass. (They do, don't they?) Holy flurking schnit! This whole torture bill affair was a completely Republican show. Anyone paying attention, whether they favored the bill, didn't favor it, or had no real opinion one way or the other, gained the correct impression that Republicans are running things down in Washington. Fine; it's their mess, let them have it. But media consumers also got the impression that the Democrats simply aren't interested in running things, at least things related to national security. I know that's not a correct impression, but I can't blame anyone for thinking it right. And to those tounge-cluckers who say things like, 'just a few weeks before an important election might not be a good time be perpetuating the idea that Democrats aren't serious about national security,' I would say that now, just a few weeks before an important election, is not a good time to run and hide from debates about critical issues of the moment! For God's sake, stand up in front of some cameras and microphones and at least act LIKE YOU ACTUALLY WANT TO DO SOMETHING FOR THIS COUNTRY!

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Scary News

Since I'm based in Berlin, I like to pay special attention to news about Germany. In this case, I was alarmed, but not completely surprised, to read the latest political news out of Mecklenburg-Lower Pomerania, which is the German province north of Berlin (formerly part of East Germany). The scary news is the continuing resurgence of the neo-Nazi party, officially called the "National Party of Germany" (abbreviated NPD in German). This is one of several German regions experiencing massive out-migration and lack of employment in the wake of deindustrialization (the region called Saxony-Anhalt, southwest of Berlin, is another, and in my own observation looked even bleaker on a trip through...As another scary point to add, these were the same regions labelled by some on both sides as containing "no-go zones" for people-of-color coming to the World Cup.) Of course, there are many complex reasons behind why people join these neo-fascist, xenophobic, and ultra-nationalist movements. But my own general theory--shared by many others, including some historians and social scientists--is that economically depressed areas tend to lose faith and confidence in moderate political parties. In such times, they turn to further Right or Left politics that more vigorously critique the existing system. (This happened on a large scale across the industrialized world during the 1930s.) I fervently hope that the Leftist parties in Germany can grow strong enough to provide a visible way of critiquing the system that depends on the quite valid (in my view, as a Leftist, of course) basis of the concentration of power in the hands of wealthy people and corporations, instead of ceding the ground of theorizing economic disaffection to the intellectually and morally toxic far-right fascists who stir up hatred of whole groups of people. Unfortunately, the German Left is divided at the moment. The center-left party (SDP, the traditional party of labor), who enacted a moderately pro-business, Clinton-style regime under Gerhard Schroeder, now have joined with the leading center-right party in a "grand coalition" government under Angela Merkel. The new "Left" party (PDS), formed from an alliance of dissident SDP members disgruntled with its pro-business turn and the former East German socialist party, espouses many worthwhile ideas but is distrusted by much of mainstream Germany because of its unsavory associations with the East German regime. (In any event, SDP and Left party leaders seem to hate each other's guts.) The Greens are perhaps the best alternative, but their commendable positions on working-class issues were often subordinated to environmental priorities when they negotiated their part in the previous coalition government with the SDP. Now it would be folly to think that support for neo-Nazis would suddenly evaporate if a viable left-wing alternative came to the fore, but I do think it is essential to offer a credible and vigorous critique that focuses on the injustices of the system itself and not particular groups of people, such as non-whites, immigrants, Jews, or Muslims. Extreme nationalism and fascism are scary things, and in the world today they are experiencing a very worrisome revitalization.

One final comment on a completely different scary subject: spinach contaminated with E. coli in the USA. Here's the latest: "Federal health officials last night linked a deadly E. coli outbreak in bagged spinach products to a California farm company that sells organic produce in 74 percent of the country's grocery stores." If this is true, I wonder if this means that the industrialization of organic agriculture is finally coming home to roost. Observers of the organic-food scene (and I'm a strong supporter) have been noticing the trend of the increasingly popularity of organic food leading to much larger scale operations. As Julie Guthman points out in her sharp sociological study of California organic agriculture, Agrarian Dreams, organic agriculture is coming more and more to resemble conventional agriculture in its bigness, capital intensivity, labor exploitation, etc. The big agribusiness producers and supermarket chains have gotten in on the game. The organic ideal of the small family farmer using sustainable practices that are good for both people and the land seems to be fading, unfortunately. Maybe this is a wake-up call for the organic sector and those of us who support it?

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Focusing on the Big Picture: Wallerstein's Commentaries

As the 5th anniversary of 11 September 2001 approaches, lots of bloggers and other commentators are writing either in proper commemoration of the sacrifices made by so many on that fateful day or, alternatively, criticizing the disgusting way that the Bush-Cheney Administration has tried to gain political benefit from the September 11th attacks. I agree wholeheartedly with both of these approaches, but I feel that I have little to add that isn't being said elsewhere.

Therefore, I wonder if I can offer something a little different, something to draw our attention to the bigger picture. One of my favorite intellectuals of the late 20th century is Immanuel Wallerstein, whose multi-volume series on "The Modern World-System" begun in the 1970s has been enormously influential in the halls of Academia. Wallerstein has challenged us to think about major developments in world history--especially concerning the rise and spread of capitalism--not as events happening within national boundaries but as part of a larger, interconnected world-system that links together people from very different places and in very different economic circumstances.

It must be said that Wallerstein's scholarship--a kind of hybrid historical social science that attempts to erase boundaries between sociology, economics, and politics--initially appealed mainly to university scholars who (at least in part) could follow his dense, probing, and sophisticated analysis. Over the years, however, Wallerstein has written increasingly for a wider audience. Hallmarks have included his recent, slim introduction to world-systems analysis for the novice, and especially his biweekly series of "Commentaries" on current events, often placing them in historical perspective, which appear on the website of the research institute he founded and directed (until very recently) at Binghamton University in New York, the Fernand Braudel Center (FBC).

For this blog, it is these Commentaries that I wish to commend to readers, since they are easily available on-line (click here for a direct link) at the FBC website. Every two weeks, he offers a new brief but thoughtful Commentary, roughly the length of an op-ed piece. He writes with a kind of knowing, detached omniscience that may at first seem strange. They have a certain "realpolitik" quality to them, which seems to say "this is what is really happening whether you like it or not." His ideas are often against the mainstream grain, but they are almost always well informed about the big picture.

Many of Wallerstein's recent Commentaries have focused on the role of the U.S. in world affairs, which seems a fitting big-picture theme for thinking about the larger context of 9/11. His latest one, "The Tiger at Bay: Scary Times Ahead," considers the declining influence of the U.S., which he has long seen as predictable but now accelerated by Bush-Cheney policies and actions. He then ruminates on the likely reaction of the "Cheney cabal" to the increasingly likely Democratic electoral success in 2006, ending with the following provocation: "Everyone worries about civil war in Iraq. How about in the United States? Scary times ahead!"