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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Democracy and Self-Determination

Imagine the world in 1776. Rather than the history we have come to know, a foreign country imposes arbitrary boundaries around a fledgling conception of the United States of America to serve its own purposes. The European white settlers, imported African slaves and indigenous local native American Indian population are not consulted. They are thrown together in a haphazard arrangement of mercantile expediency, told they are a nation and admonished to get along as equals.

Democracy is self-rule, freedom in its purest collective sense. Self-determination is a process by which a country determines its own statehood and forms its own allegiances and government. Individually, it is a process by which a person controls their own life.

If only democracy were to be so simple.  Perhaps once upon a time it was simple.  But, today, when one nation’s economic “foreign policy” interests clash with a people’s right to self-determination in some other place, near or far, it gets complicated.

A New York Times editorial flashes across the screen with the nebulous title, Iraq’s Cycles of Revenge. Laying out the peoples and interests which comprise present day Iraq, the piece paints a worrisome picture of chronic behavior which is difficult to modify. Unfortunately, the piece merely scratches the surface of what may really be going on there.

For a better view, one need go back at least a hundred years. If it were only to be about democracy and self-determination, as President Wilson had envisioned at the Palace of Versailles peace table, to settle the differences which remained (among Western powers) at the end of World War I.

Long planned by Great Britain and France from the early days of World War I, the balance of the former Ottoman Empire was “partitioned.” Though not completed at Versailles, the partitioning facilitated the creation of the modern Arab World. The League of Nations then-governing world body granted the United Kingdom mandates over Mesopotamia and Palestine and Jordan. Out of the former, the nation of Iraq was conceived.

The British navy’s conversion to oil during World War I had provided the critical military advantage over its German rival, which was still using coal.  Consequently, absent its own domestic source of oil, Great Britain’s “Mandate for Iraq” was, purely and simply, a plan to implement a foreign policy initiative whose goal was to secure a safe, abundant domestic oil supply.  First and foremost, the oil would be used to power the royal navy in continued military domination of world shipping lanes.

The administration of the plan facilitated a secure supply of Arabian oil over land to Western EuropeBritain identified the lines of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers as the most favorable supply routes from the cities of Mosul and BasraBritain then struck upon a set of arbitrary lines around the physical arrangement, through which it could administer both efficiently and productively, and called it “Iraq.”

Suffice to say the local inhabitants were not consulted.  Consequently, it mattered little to Britain that the new nation would have a Shiite Muslim population in the south and east, Sunni Muslims in the west, and the nomadic Kurds in the north.  The latter group also had a significant population north of the arbitrary border, in southern Turkey.  As between the Shiites and the Sunnis, the Sunnis (Saddam Hussein’s people) were the decided minority, so Britain decided to arm and provide them with the local ruling authority under the mandate.  Some called it “nation building 101.”

These three disparate groups had little in common otherwise, with claims of Holy War made as early as 1920, when Muslim leaders began to organize an insurgent effort.  A fatwa (religious ruling) was then issued, which pointed out that it was against Islamic law for Muslims to countenance being ruled by non-Muslims.  Muslim leaders thereafter called for a jihad (holy war) against the British.  Following World War II, with the torch of leadership of Western Civilization effectively passing from the British to the Americans, the phenomenon of Iraq officially became “our” problem.

In the aftermath following the toppling of its former dictator in 2003, the idea of an “Iraqi revolution” seems absurd, given the arbitrary nature of Iraq.  Let’s face reality: The indigenous population is no more “Iraqi” than we Americans are from Mars.

If it is about American core values of democracy and promoting human rights, what part do national energy security and our economic dependence on the commodity of oil play?  Are stewardship of the environment and the common duty to pay forward for future generations primary considerations?  How vital are American core values of equal protection of the laws coupled with freedom of worship as against thorny moral issues of race, color, creed and gender distinctions?  What is the relative importance of countering extremism, regardless of cause?

Above all, what part is to be played by ordinary citizens?  Who is to serve as our guide?

-Michael D’Angelo

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Union as a Positive Force

Unions are a positive force for good in American society.  They have been largely responsible for important initiatives that perhaps the ordinary citizen sometimes takes for granted.

Progressive reforms which unions have consistently advocated include safe working conditions, increasing the minimum wage (known also as the “living wage”), a limitation on hours, the elimination of sweatshops, employer paid health care in case of accident or injury, paid time off for maternity and profit sharing.  They also exist as a necessary reminder to an increasingly hostile management structure which otherwise would have little problem keeping for itself all the profits of labor’s sweat.

One of our national political parties (i.e. - Democrats) in our two-party system remains decidedly pro-union.  Those who seek reminder need merely reference the recent bailout of the Detroit auto industry in the midst of the Great Recession of 2008.  Roots trace to passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), one of the twin pillars of FDR’s New Deal social safety net, which delivered the right of every worker to join a union of his or her own choosing and the corresponding obligation of employers to bargain collectively with that union in good faith.

Through the idea of bargaining collectively, a union is able to obtain benefits for its workers which an individual worker would simply be unable to obtain for himself.  It’s what unions do.  It’s why they exist.  An ordinary citizen need look back no further than to see that life was not very pretty for the individual worker prior to collective bargaining.  And it’s why a majority of ordinary citizens seem to prefer a world which contains unions as opposed to one which does not.  With collective bargaining removed under the equation, also removed presumably under the new law is the state’s corresponding obligation to act and bargain reasonably and in good faith.

The other of our national political parties (i.e. - Republicans) seeks to do away with a union’s right to collective bargaining, the friend of the middle class for more than 75 years, especially in the public employee sector.  It does this under the facade of a smaller, “cuts only” government approach which exposes an underlying agenda to dismantle the social safety net.  Ironically, as one new component of the social safety net (the popular Obamacare) begins to take hold and gain traction, another (collective bargaining) stands to be eviscerated.  Most recently, Wisconsin became the 25th state to pass so called “right-to-work” legislation, achieving a half way point among the 50 states on rolling over once powerful union foes.

Of ominous note, while popular “individual” rights may have asserted themselves on the federal union shop floor, statistics show that wealth disparity between rich and poor has increased to a record level --- as union membership has decreased.  And so it may come as little surprise to some that income inequality has worsened at a time when union membership has fallen to levels not seen since the 1920s --- immediately preceding the Great Depression.

Bill Kraus, a moderate who worked on his first Wisconsin Republican U.S. Senate campaign in 1952 and later ran the campaign and office of GOP Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus, called the right-to-work shift the deepest change in state politics since Progressive leader “Fighting Bob” La Follette rose to prominence during the Progressive Era nearly a century ago.

Kraus describes himself now as a politically “homeless” man without the shelter of his former partisan affiliation. “A lot of settled things have become unsettled,” he said.  “It's very radical and the question we don't know is whether it's a reflection of a changed Wisconsin or a group in power that have misread their mandate and are more lucky and blessed than right.”

Blessed by whom?  The dark image is of the purchased politician, a Theodore Roosevelt hot button, whose advocacy reflects neither morality nor ethics but rather a symmetry with money flow and the oligarchs who empower him.  The blessing of a benign creator is merely self-serving --- but necessary --- propaganda.  “Blessed is he,” it is said by so called Republican Jesus, “who lets the market decide for him what is moral.”

Human welfare --- the constitutional delegation of federal power to the general welfare to promote sustainable capitalism and environmental stewardship in the pursuit of happiness --- be damned.

-Michael D’Angelo