Bill Totten's Weblog

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Threat to the Planet

by Jim Hansen

The New York Review of Books (July 13 2006)

The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth
by Tim Flannery (Atlantic Monthly Press, 357 pages, $24.00)

Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change
by Elizabeth Kolbert (Bloomsbury, 210 pages, $22.95)

An Inconvenient Truth: The Planetary Emergency of Global Warming and What We Can Do About It
by Al Gore (Melcher Media/Rodale, 325 pages, $21.95)

An Inconvenient Truth
a film directed by Davis Guggenheim

Jim Hansen is Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Adjunct Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University's Earth Institute. His opinions are expressed here, he writes, "as personal views under the protection of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution".


Animals are on the run. Plants are migrating too. The Earth's creatures, save for one species, do not have thermostats in their living rooms that they can adjust for an optimum environment. Animals and plants are adapted to specific climate zones, and they can survive only when they are in those zones. Indeed, scientists often define climate zones by the vegetation and animal life that they support. Gardeners and bird watchers are well aware of this, and their handbooks contain maps of the zones in which a tree or flower can survive and the range of each bird species.

Those maps will have to be redrawn. Most people, mainly aware of larger day-to-day fluctuations in the weather, barely notice that climate, the average weather, is changing. In the 1980s I started to use colored dice that I hoped would help people understand global warming at an early stage. Of the six sides of the dice only two sides were red, or hot, representing the probability of having an unusually warm season during the years between 1951 and 1980. By the first decade of the twenty-first century, four sides were red. Just such an increase in the frequency of unusually warm seasons, in fact, has occurred. But most people - who have other things on their minds and can use thermostats - have taken little notice.

Animals have no choice, since their survival is at stake. Recently after appearing on television to discuss climate change, I received an e-mail from a man in northeast Arkansas: "I enjoyed your report on Sixty Minutes and commend your strength. I would like to tell you of an observation I have made. It is the armadillo. I had not seen one of these animals my entire life, until the last ten years. I drive the same forty-mile trip on the same road every day and have slowly watched these critters advance further north every year and they are not stopping. Every year they move several miles."

Armadillos appear to be pretty tough. Their mobility suggests that they have a good chance to keep up with the movement of their climate zone, and to be one of the surviving species. Of course, as they reach the city limits of Saint Louis and Chicago, they may not be welcome. And their ingenuity may be taxed as they seek ways to ford rivers and multiple-lane highways.

Problems are greater for other species, as Tim Flannery, a well-known Australian mammalogist and conservationist, makes clear in The Weather Makers. Ecosystems are based on interdependencies - between, for example, flower and pollinator, hunter and hunted, grazers and plant life - so the less mobile species have an impact on the survival of others. Of course climate fluctuated in the past, yet species adapted and flourished. But now the rate of climate change driven by human activity is reaching a level that dwarfs natural rates of change. And barriers created by human beings, such as urban sprawl and homogeneous agricultural fields, block many migration routes. If climate change is too great, natural barriers, such as coastlines, spell doom for some species.

Studies of more than one thousand species of plants, animals, and insects, including butterfly ranges charted by members of the public, found an average migration rate toward the North and South Poles of about four miles per decade in the second half of the twentieth century. That is not fast enough. During the past thirty years the lines marking the regions in which a given average temperature prevails ("isotherms") have been moving poleward at a rate of about thirty-five miles per decade. That is the size of a county in Iowa. Each decade the range of a given species is moving one row of counties northward.

As long as the total movement of isotherms toward the poles is much smaller than the size of the habitat, or the ranges in which the animals live, the effect on species is limited. But now the movement is inexorably toward the poles and totals more than a hundred miles over the past several decades. If emissions of greenhouse gases continue to increase at the current rate - "business as usual" - then the rate of isotherm movement will double in this century to at least seventy miles per decade. If we continue on this path, a large fraction of the species on Earth, as many as fifty percent or more, may become extinct.

The species most at risk are those in polar climates and the biologically diverse slopes of alpine regions. Polar animals, in effect, will be pushed off the planet. Alpine species will be pushed toward higher altitudes, and toward smaller, rockier areas with thinner air; thus, in effect, they will also be pushed off the planet. A few such species, such as polar bears, no doubt will be "rescued" by human beings, but survival in zoos or managed animal reserves will be small consolation to bears or nature lovers.

In the Earth's history, during periods when average global temperatures increased by as much as ten degrees Fahrenheit, there have been several "mass extinctions", when between fifty and ninety percent of the species on Earth disappeared forever. In each case, life survived and new species developed over hundreds of thousands of years. The most recent of these mass extinctions defines the boundary, 55 million years ago, between the Paleocene and Eocene epochs. The evolutionary turmoil associated with that climate change gave rise to a host of modern mammals, from rodents to primates, which appear in fossil records for the first time in the early Eocene.

If human beings follow a business-as-usual course, continuing to exploit fossil fuel resources without reducing carbon emissions or capturing and sequestering them before they warm the atmosphere, the eventual effects on climate and life may be comparable to those at the time of mass extinctions. Life will survive, but it will do so on a transformed planet. For all foreseeable human generations, it will be a far more desolate world than the one in which civilization developed and flourished during the past several thousand years.


The greatest threat of climate change for human beings, I believe, lies in the potential destabilization of the massive ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. As with the extinction of species, the disintegration of ice sheets is irreversible for practical purposes. Our children, grandchildren, and many more generations will bear the consequences of choices that we make in the next few years.

The level of the sea throughout the globe is a reflection primarily of changes in the volume of ice sheets and thus of changes of global temperature. When the planet cools, ice sheets grow on continents and the sea level falls. Conversely, when the Earth warms, ice melts and the sea level rises. In Field Notes from a Catastrophe, Elizabeth Kolbert reports on the work of researchers trying to understand the acceleration of melting, and in his new book and film An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore graphically illustrates possible effects of a rising sea level on Florida and other locations.

Ice sheets waxed and waned as the Earth cooled and warmed over the past 500,000 years. During the coldest ice ages, the Earth's average temperature was about ten degrees Fahrenheit colder than today. So much water was locked in the largest ice sheet, more than a mile thick and covering most of Canada and northern parts of the United States, that the sea level was 400 feet lower than today. The warmest interglacial periods were about two degrees Fahrenheit warmer than today and the sea level was as much as sixteen feet higher.

Future rise in the sea level will depend, dramatically, on the increase in greenhouse gases, which will largely determine the amount of global warming. As described in the books under review, sunlight enters the atmosphere and warms the Earth, and then is sent back into space as heat radiation. Greenhouse gases trap this heat in the atmosphere and thereby warm the Earth's surface as we are warmed when blankets are piled on our bed. Carbon dioxide (CO2), produced mainly by burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and gas), is the most important greenhouse gas made by human beings. Methane (CH4), which is "natural gas" that escapes to the atmosphere from coal mines, oil wells, rice paddies, landfills, and animal feedlots, is also an important greenhouse gas. Other significant warming agents are ground-level ozone and black soot, which arise mainly from incomplete combustion of fossil fuels and biofuels.

In order to arrive at an effective policy we can project two different scenarios concerning climate change. In the business-as-usual scenario, annual emissions of carbon dioxide continue to increase at the current rate for at least fifty years, as do other warming agents including methane, ozone, and black soot. In the alternative scenario, carbon dioxide emissions level off this decade, slowly decline for a few decades, and by mid-century decrease rapidly, aided by new technologies.

The business-as-usual scenario yields an increase of about five degrees Fahrenheit of global warming during this century, while the alternative scenario yields an increase of less than two degrees Fahrenheit during the same period. Warming can be predicted accurately based on knowledge of how Earth responded to similar levels of greenhouse gases in the past. (By drilling into glaciers to analyze air bubbles trapped under layers of snow, scientists can measure the levels of each gas in the atmosphere hundreds of thousands of years ago. By comparing the concentrations of different isotopes of oxygen in these air bubbles, they can measure the average temperature of past centuries.) Climate models by themselves yield similar answers. However, the evidence from the Earth's history provides a more precise and sensitive measure, and we know that the real world accurately included the effects of all feedback processes, such as changes of clouds and water vapor, that have an effect on temperature.

How much will sea level rise with five degrees of global warming? Here too, our best information comes from the Earth's history. The last time that the Earth was five degrees warmer was three million years ago, when sea level was about eighty feet higher.

Eighty feet! In that case, the United States would lose most East Coast cities: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Miami; indeed, practically the entire state of Florida would be under water. Fifty million people in the US live below that sea level. Other places would fare worse. China would have 250 million displaced persons. Bangladesh would produce 120 million refugees, practically the entire nation. India would lose the land of 150 million people.

A rise in sea level, necessarily, begins slowly. Massive ice sheets must be softened and weakened before rapid disintegration and melting occurs and the sea level rises. It may require as much as a few centuries to produce most of the long-term response. But the inertia of ice sheets is not our ally against the effects of global warming. The Earth's history reveals cases in which sea level, once ice sheets began to collapse, rose one meter (1.1 yards) every twenty years for centuries. That would be a calamity for hundreds of cities around the world, most of them far larger than New Orleans. Devastation from a rising sea occurs as the result of local storms which can be expected to cause repeated retreats from transitory shorelines and rebuilding away from them.

Satellite images and other data have revealed the initial response of ice sheets to global warming. The area on Greenland in which summer melting of ice took place increased more than fifty percent during the last twenty-five years. Meltwater descends through crevasses to the ice sheet base, where it provides lubrication that increases the movement of the ice sheet and the discharge of giant icebergs into the ocean. The volume of icebergs from Greenland has doubled in the last ten years. Seismic stations reveal a shocking increase in "icequakes" on Greenland, caused by a portion of an ice sheet lurching forward and grinding to a halt. The annual number of these icequakes registering 4.6 or greater on the Richter scale doubled from seven in 1993 to fourteen in the late 1990s; it doubled again by 2005. A satellite that measures minute changes in Earth's gravitational field found the mass of Greenland to have decreased by fifty cubic miles of ice in 2005. West Antarctica's mass decreased by a similar amount.

The effect of this loss of ice on the global sea level is small, so far, but it is accelerating. The likelihood of the sudden collapse of ice sheets increases as global warming continues. For example, wet ice is darker, absorbing more sunlight, which increases the melting rate of the ice. Also, the warming ocean melts the offshore accumulations of ice - "ice shelves" - that form a barrier between the ice sheets and the ocean. As the ice shelves melt, more icebergs are discharged from the ice sheets into the ocean. And as the ice sheet discharges more icebergs into the ocean and loses mass, its surface sinks to a lower level where the temperature is warmer, causing it to melt faster.

The business-as-usual scenario, with five degrees Fahrenheit global warming and ten degrees Fahrenheit at the ice sheets, certainly would cause the disintegration of ice sheets. The only question is when the collapse of these sheets would begin. The business-as-usual scenario, which could lead to an eventual sea level rise of eighty feet, with twenty feet or more per century, could produce global chaos, leaving fewer resources with which to mitigate the change in climate. The alternative scenario, with global warming under two degrees Fahrenheit, still produces a significant rise in the sea level, but its slower rate, probably less than a few feet per century, would allow time to develop strategies that would adapt to, and mitigate, the rise in the sea level.


Both the Department of Energy and some fossil fuel companies insist that continued growth of fossil fuel use and of carbon dioxide emissions are facts that cannot be altered to any great extent. Their prophecies become self-fulfilling, with the help of government subsidies and intensive efforts by special interest groups to prevent the public from becoming well-informed.

In reality, an alternative scenario is possible and makes sense for other reasons, especially in the US, which has become an importer of energy, hemorrhaging wealth to foreign nations in order to pay for it. In response to oil shortages and price rises in the 1970s, the US slowed its growth in energy use mainly by requiring an increase from thirteen to twenty-four miles per gallon in the standard of auto efficiency. Economic growth was decoupled from growth in the use of fossil fuels and the gains in efficiency were felt worldwide. Global growth of carbon dioxide emissions slowed from more than four percent each year to between one and two percent growth each year.

This slower growth rate in fossil fuel use was maintained despite lower energy prices. The US is still only half as efficient in its use of energy as Western Europe, that is, the US emits twice as much carbon dioxide to produce a unit of GNP, partly because Europe encourages efficiency by fossil fuel taxes. China and India, using older technologies, are less energy-efficient than the US and have a higher rate of carbon dioxide emissions.

Available technologies would allow great improvement of energy efficiency, even in Europe. Economists agree that the potential could be achieved most effectively by a tax on carbon emissions, although strong political leadership would be needed to persuasively explain the case for such a tax to the public. The tax could be revenue-neutral, that is, it could also provide for tax credits or tax decreases for the public generally, leaving government revenue unchanged; and it should be introduced gradually. The consumer who makes a special effort to save energy could gain, benefiting from the tax credit or decrease while buying less fuel; the well-to-do consumer who insisted on having three Hummers would pay for his own excesses.

Achieving a decline in carbon dioxide emissions faces two major obstacles: the huge number of vehicles that are inefficient in their use of fuel and the continuing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Auto makers oppose efficiency standards and prominently advertise their heaviest and most powerful vehicles, which yield the greatest short-term profits. Coal companies want new coal-fired power plants to be built soon, thus assuring long-term profits.

The California legislature has passed a regulation requiring a thirty percent reduction in automobile greenhouse gas emissions by 2016. If adopted nationwide, this regulation would save more than $150 billion annually in oil imports. In thirty-five years it would save seven times the amount of oil estimated by the US Geological Services to exist in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. By fighting it in court, automakers and the Bush administration have stymied the California law, which many other states stand ready to adopt. Further reductions of emissions would be possible by means of technologies now being developed. For example, new hybrid cars with larger batteries and the ability to plug into wall outlets will soon be available; and cars whose bodies are made of a lightweight carbon composite would get better mileage.

If power plants are to achieve the goals of the alternative scenario, construction of new coal-fired power plants should be delayed until the technology needed to capture and sequester their carbon dioxide emissions is available. In the interim, new electricity requirements should be met by the use of renewable energies such as wind power as well as by nuclear power and other sources that do not produce carbon dioxide. Much could be done to limit emissions by improving the standards of fuel efficiency in buildings, lighting, and appliances. Such improvements are entirely possible, but strong leadership would be required to bring them about. The most effective action, as I have indicated, would be a slowly increasing carbon tax, which could be revenue-neutral or would cover a portion of the costs of mitigating climate change.

The alternative scenario I have been referring to has been designed to be consistent with the Kyoto Protocol, that is, with a world in which emissions from developed countries would decrease slowly early in this century and the developing countries would get help to adopt "clean" energy technologies that would limit the growth of their emissions. Delays in that approach - especially US refusal both to participate in Kyoto and to improve vehicle and power plant efficiencies - and the rapid growth in the use of dirty technologies have resulted in an increase of two percent per year in global carbon dioxide emissions during the past ten years. If such growth continues for another decade, emissions in 2015 will be 35 percent greater than they were in 2000, making it impractical to achieve results close to the alternative scenario.

The situation is critical, because of the clear difference between the two scenarios I have projected. Further global warming can be kept within limits (under two degrees Fahrenheit) only by means of simultaneous slowdown of carbon dioxide emissions and absolute reduction of the principal non-CO2 agents of global warming, particularly emissions of methane gas. Such methane emissions are not only the second-largest human contribution to climate change but also the main cause of an increase in ozone - the third-largest human-produced greenhouse gas - in the troposphere, the lowest part of the Earth's atmosphere. Practical methods can be used to reduce human sources of methane emission, for example, at coal mines, landfills, and waste management facilities. However, the question is whether these reductions will be overwhelmed by the release of frozen methane hydrates - the ice-like crystals in which large deposits of methane are trapped - if permafrost melts.

If both the slowdown in carbon dioxide emissions and reductions in non-CO2 emissions called for by the alternative scenario are achieved, release of "frozen methane" should be moderate, judging from prior interglacial periods that were warmer than today by one or two degrees Fahrenheit. But if carbon dioxide emissions are not limited and further warming reaches three or four degrees Fahrenheit, all bets are off. Indeed, there is evidence that greater warming could release substantial amounts of methane in the Arctic. Much of the ten-degree Fahrenheit global warming that caused mass extinctions, such as the one at the Paleocene-Eocene boundary, appears to have been caused by release of "frozen methane". Those releases of methane may have taken place over centuries or millennia, but release of even a significant fraction of the methane during this century could accelerate global warming, preventing achievement of the alternative scenario and possibly causing ice sheet disintegration and further long-term methane release that are out of our control.

Any responsible assessment of environmental impact must conclude that further global warming exceeding two degrees Fahrenheit will be dangerous. Yet because of the global warming already bound to take place as a result of the continuing long-term effects of greenhouse gases and the energy systems now in use, the two-degree Fahrenheit limit will be exceeded unless a change in direction can begin during the current decade. Unless this fact is widely communicated, and decision-makers are responsive, it will soon be impossible to avoid climate change with far-ranging undesirable consequences. We have reached a critical tipping point.


The public can act as our planet's keeper, as has been shown in the past. The first human-made atmospheric crisis emerged in 1974, when the chemists Sherry Rowland and Mario Molina reported that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) might destroy the stratospheric ozone layer that protects animal and plant life from the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays. How narrowly we escaped disaster was not realized until years later.

CFC appeared to be a marvelous inert chemical, one so useful as an aerosol propellant, fire suppressor, and refrigerant fluid that CFC production increased ten percent per year for decades. If this business-as-usual growth of CFCs had continued just one more decade, the stratospheric ozone layer would have been severely depleted over the entire planet and CFCs themselves would have caused a larger greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide.

Instead, the press and television reported Rowland and Molina's warning widely. The public, responding to the warnings of environmental groups, boycotted frivolous use of CFCs as propellants for hair spray and deodorant, and chose non-CFC products instead. The annual growth of CFC usage plummeted immediately from ten percent to zero. Thus no new facilities to produce CFCs were built. The principal CFC manufacturer, after first questioning the scientific evidence, developed alternative chemicals. When the use of CFCs for refrigeration began to increase and a voluntary phaseout of CFCs for that purpose proved ineffective, the US and European governments took the lead in negotiating the Montreal Protocol to control the production of CFCs. Developing countries were allowed to increase the use of CFCs for a decade and they were given financial assistance to construct alternative chemical plants. The result is that the use of CFCs is now decreasing, the ozone layer was damaged but not destroyed, and it will soon be recovering.

Why are the same scientists and political forces that succeeded in controlling the threat to the ozone layer now failing miserably to deal with the global warming crisis? Though we depend on fossil fuels far more than we ever did on CFCs, there is plenty of blame to go around. Scientists present the facts about climate change clinically, failing to stress that business-as-usual will transform the planet. The press and television, despite an overwhelming scientific consensus concerning global warming, give equal time to fringe "contrarians" supported by the fossil fuel industry. Special interest groups mount effective disinformation campaigns to sow doubt about the reality of global warming. The government appears to be strongly influenced by special interests, or otherwise confused and distracted, and it has failed to provide leadership. The public is understandably confused or uninterested.

I used to spread the blame uniformly until, when I was about to appear on public television, the producer informed me that the program "must" also include a "contrarian" who would take issue with claims of global warming. Presenting such a view, he told me, was a common practice in commercial television as well as radio and newspapers. Supporters of public TV or advertisers, with their own special interests, require "balance" as a price for their continued financial support. Gore's book reveals that while more than half of the recent newspaper articles on climate change have given equal weight to such contrarian views, virtually none of the scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals have questioned the consensus that emissions from human activities cause global warming. As a result, even when the scientific evidence is clear, technical nit-picking by contrarians leaves the public with the false impression that there is still great scientific uncertainty about the reality and causes of climate change.

The executive and legislative branches of the US government seek excuses to justify their inaction. The President, despite conclusive reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Academy of Sciences, welcomes contrary advice from Michael Crichton, a science fiction writer. Senator James Inhofe, chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, describes global warming as "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people" and has used aggressive tactics, including a lawsuit to suppress a federally funded report on climate change, to threaten and intimidate scientists.

Policies favoring the short-term profits of energy companies and other special interests are cast by many politicians as being in the best economic interests of the country. They take no account of the mounting costs of environmental damage and of the future costs of maintaining the supply of fossil fuels. Leaders with a long-term vision would place greater value on developing more efficient energy technology and sources of clean energy. Rather than subsidizing fossil fuels, the government should provide incentives for fossil-fuel companies to develop other kinds of energy.

Who will pay for the tragic effects of a warming climate? Not the political leaders and business executives I have mentioned. If we pass the crucial point and tragedies caused by climate change begin to unfold, history will judge harshly the scientists, reporters, special interests, and politicians who failed to protect the planet. But our children will pay the consequences.

The US has heavy legal and moral responsibilities for what is now happening. Of all the carbon dioxide emissions produced from fossil fuels so far, we are responsible for almost thirty percent, an amount much larger than that of the next-closest countries, China and Russia, each less than eight percent. Yet our responsibility and liability may run higher than those numbers suggest. The US cannot validly claim to be ignorant of the consequences. When nations must abandon large parts of their land because of rising seas, what will our liability be? And will our children, as adults in the world, carry a burden of guilt, as Germans carried after World War II, however unfair inherited blame may be?

The responsibility of the US goes beyond its disproportionate share of the world's emissions. By refusing to participate in the Kyoto Protocol, we delayed its implementation and weakened its effectiveness, thus undermining the attempt of the international community to slow down the emissions of developed countries in a way consistent with the alternative scenario. If the US had accepted the Kyoto Protocol, it would have been possible to reduce the growing emissions of China and India through the Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism, by which the developed countries could offset their own continuing emissions by investing in projects to reduce emissions in the developing countries. This would have eased the way to later full participation by China and India, as occurred with the Montreal Protocol. The US was right to object to quotas in the Kyoto Protocol that were unfair to the US; but an appropriate response would have been to negotiate revised quotas, since US political and technology leadership are essential for dealing with climate change.

It is not too late. The US hesitated to enter other conflicts in which the future was at stake. But enter we did, earning gratitude in the end, not condemnation. Such an outcome is still feasible in the case of global warming, but just barely.

As explained above, we have at most ten years - not ten years to decide upon action, but ten years to alter fundamentally the trajectory of global greenhouse emissions. Our previous decade of inaction has made the task more difficult, since emissions in the developing world are accelerating. To achieve the alternative scenario will require prompt gains in energy efficiencies so that the supply of conventional fossil fuels can be sustained until advanced technologies can be developed. If instead we follow an energy-intensive path of squeezing liquid fuels from tar sands, shale oil, and heavy oil, and do so without capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide emissions, climate disasters will become unavoidable.


When I recently met Larry King, he said, "Nobody cares about fifty years from now". Maybe so. But climate change is already evident. And if we stay on the business-as-usual course, disastrous effects are no further from us than we are from the Elvis era. Is it possible for a single book on global warming to convince the public, as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1962), did for the dangers of DDT? Bill McKibben's excellent book The End of Nature (Anchor Books, 1997) is usually acknowledged as having been the most effective so far, but perhaps what is needed is a range of books dealing with different aspects of the global warming story.

Elizabeth Kolbert's Field Notes, based on a series of articles she wrote for The New Yorker, is illuminating and sobering, a good book to start with. The reader is introduced to some of the world's leading climate researchers who explain the dangers in reasonably nontechnical language but without sacrificing scientific accuracy. The book includes fascinating accounts of how climate changes affected the planet in the past, and how such changes are occurring in different parts of the world right now. If Field Notes leaves the reader yearning for more experience in the field, I suggest Thin Ice by Mark Bowen, which captures the heroic work of Lonnie Thompson in extracting unique information on climate change from some of the most forbidding and spectacular places on the planet. {1}

Tim Flannery's The Weather Makers puts needed emphasis on the effects of human-made climate change on other life on the planet. Flannery is a remarkable scientist, having discovered and described dozens of mammals in New Guinea, yet he writes for a general audience with passion and clarity. He considers changes in climate that correspond to what I have defined as the business-as-usual and alternative scenarios. Flannery estimates that when we take account of other stresses on species imposed by human beings, the alternative scenario will lead to the eventual extinction of twenty percent of today's species, while continuing with business-as-usual will cause sixty percent to become extinct. Some colleagues will object that he extrapolates from meager data, but estimates are needed and Flannery is as qualified as anyone to make them. Fossil records of mass extinctions support Flannery's shocking estimate of the potential for climate change to extinguish life.

Flannery concludes, as I have, that we have only a short time to address global warming before it runs out of control. However, his call for people to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions, while appropriate, oversimplifies and diverts attention from the essential requirement: government leadership. Without such leadership and comprehensive economic policies, conservation of energy by individuals merely reduces demands for fuel, thus lowering prices and ultimately promoting the wasteful use of energy. I was glad to see that in a recent article in these pages, he wrote that an effective fossil energy policy should include a tax on carbon emissions. {2}

A good energy policy, economists agree, is not difficult to define. Fuel taxes should encourage conservation, but with rebates to taxpayers so that the government revenue from the tax does not increase. The taxpayer can use his rebate to fill his gas-guzzler if he likes, but most people will eventually reduce their use of fuel in order to save money, and will spend the rebate on something else. With slow and continual increases of fuel cost, energy consumption will decline. The economy will not be harmed. Indeed, it will be improved since the trade deficit will be reduced; so will the need to protect US access to energy abroad by means of diplomatic and military action. US manufacturers would be forced to emphasize energy efficiency in order to make their products competitive internationally. Our automakers need not go bankrupt.

Would this approach result in fewer ultraheavy SUVs on the road? Probably. Would it slow the trend toward bigger houses with higher ceilings? Possibly. But experts say that because technology has sufficient potential to become more efficient, our quality of life need not decline. In order for this to happen, the price of energy should reflect its true cost to society.

Do we have politicians with the courage to explain to the public what is needed? Or may it be that such people are not electable, in view of the obstacles presented by television, campaign financing, and the opposition of energy companies and other special interests? That brings me to Al Gore's book and movie of the same name: An Inconvenient Truth. Both are unconventional, based on a "slide show" that Gore has given more than one thousand times. They are filled with pictures - stunning illustrations, maps, graphs, brief explanations, and stories about people who have important parts in the global warming story or in Al Gore's life. The movie seems to me powerful and the book complements it, adding useful explanations. It is hard to predict how this unusual presentation will be received by the public; but Gore has put together a coherent account of a complex topic that Americans desperately need to understand. The story is scientifically accurate and yet should be understandable to the public, a public that is less and less drawn to science.

The reader might assume that I have long been close to Gore, since I testified before his Senate committee in 1989 and participated in scientific "roundtable" discussions in his Senate office. In fact, Gore was displeased when I declined to provide him with images of increasing drought generated by a computer model of climate change. (I didn't trust the model's estimates of precipitation.) After Clinton and Gore were elected, I declined a suggestion from the White House to write a rebuttal to a New York Times Op-Ed article that played down global warming and criticized the Vice President. I did not hear from Gore for more than a decade, until January of this year, when he asked me to critically assess his slide show. When we met, he said that he "wanted to apologize", but, without letting him explain what he was apologizing for, I said, "Your insight was better than mine".

Indeed, Gore was prescient. For decades he has maintained that the Earth was teetering in the balance, even when doing so subjected him to ridicule from other politicians and cost him votes. By telling the story of climate change with striking clarity in both his book and movie, Al Gore may have done for global warming what Silent Spring did for pesticides. He will be attacked, but the public will have the information needed to distinguish our long-term well-being from short-term special interests.

An Inconvenient Truth is about Gore himself as well as global warming. It shows the man that I met in the 1980s at scientific roundtable discussions, passionate and knowledgeable, true to the message he has delivered for years. It makes one wonder whether the American public has not been deceived by the distorted images of him that have been presented by the press and television. Perhaps the country came close to having the leadership it needed to deal with a grave threat to the planet, but did not realize it.


{1} Henry Holt, 2005. See the review by Bill McKibben, "The Coming Meltdown", The New York Review (January 12 2006).

{2} See "The Ominous New Pact", The New York Review (February 23 2006).

Copyright (c) 1963-2007 NYREV, Inc. All rights reserved.

Bill Totten

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The US psychological torture system is finally on trial

America has deliberately driven hundreds, perhaps thousands, of prisoners insane. Now it is being held to account in a Miami court

by Naomi Klein

Guardian (February 23 2007)

Something remarkable is going on in a Miami courtroom. The cruel methods US interrogators have used since September 11 to "break" prisoners are finally being put on trial. This was not supposed to happen. The Bush administration's plan was to put Jose' Padilla on trial for allegedly being part of a network linked to international terrorists. But Padilla's lawyers are arguing that he is not fit to stand trial because he has been driven insane by the government.

Arrested in May 2002 at Chicago's O'Hare airport, Padilla, a Brooklyn-born former gang member, was classified as an "enemy combatant" and taken to a navy prison in Charleston, South Carolina. He was kept in a cell 9 feet by 7 feet, with no natural light, no clock and no calendar. Whenever Padilla left the cell, he was shackled and suited in heavy goggles and headphones. Padilla was kept under these conditions for 1,307 days. He was forbidden contact with anyone but his interrogators, who punctured the extreme sensory deprivation with sensory overload, blasting him with harsh lights and pounding sounds. Padilla also says he was injected with a "truth serum", a substance his lawyers believe was LSD or PCP.

According to his lawyers and two mental health specialists who examined him, Padilla has been so shattered that he lacks the ability to assist in his own defence. He is convinced that his lawyers are "part of a continuing interrogation program" and sees his captors as protectors. In order to prove that "the extended torture visited upon Mr Padilla has left him damaged", his lawyers want to tell the court what happened during those years in the navy brig. The prosecution strenuously objects, maintaining that "Padilla is competent" and that his treatment is irrelevant.

The US district judge Marcia Cooke disagrees. "It's not like Mr Padilla was living in a box. He was at a place. Things happened to him at that place." The judge has ordered several prison employees to testify on Padilla's mental state at the hearings, which began yesterday. They will be asked how a man who is alleged to have engaged in elaborate anti-government plots now acts, in the words of brig staff, "like a piece of furniture".

It's difficult to overstate the significance of these hearings. The techniques used to break Padilla have been standard operating procedure at Guanta'namo Bay since the first prisoners arrived five years ago. They wore blackout goggles and sound-blocking headphones and were placed in extended isolation, interrupted by strobe lights and heavy metal music. These same practices have been documented in dozens of cases of "extraordinary rendition" carried out by the CIA, as well as in prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many have suffered the same symptoms as Padilla. According to James Yee, a former army Muslim chaplain at Guanta'namo, there is an entire section of the prison called Delta Block for detainees who have been reduced to a delusional state. "They would respond to me in a childlike voice, talking complete nonsense. Many of them would loudly sing childish songs, repeating the song over and over." All the inmates of Delta Block were on 24-hour suicide watch.

Human Rights Watch has exposed a US-run detention facility near Kabul known as the "prison of darkness" - tiny pitch-black cells, strange blaring sounds. "Plenty lost their minds," one former inmate recalled. "I could hear people knocking their heads against the walls and the doors."

These standard mind-breaking techniques have never faced scrutiny in an American court because the prisoners in the jails are foreigners and have been stripped of the right of habeas corpus - a denial that, scandalously, was just upheld by a federal appeals court in Washington DC. There is only one reason Padilla's case is different - he is a US citizen. The administration did not originally intend to bring Padilla to trial, but when his status as an enemy combatant faced a supreme court challenge, the administration abruptly changed course, charging Padilla and transferring him to civilian custody. That makes Padilla's case unique - he is the only victim of the post-9/11 legal netherworld to face an ordinary US trial.

Now that Padilla's mental state is the central issue in the case, the government prosecutors are presented with a problem. The CIA and the military have known since the early 1960s that extreme sensory deprivation and sensory overload cause personality disintegration - that's the whole point. "The deprivation of stimuli induces regression by depriving the subject's mind of contact with an outer world and thus forcing it in upon itself. At the same time, the calculated provision of stimuli during interrogation tends to make the regressed subject view the interrogator as a father-figure." That comes from Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation, a declassified 1963 CIA manual for interrogating "resistant sources".

The manual was based on the findings of the agency's notorious MK-ULTRA programme, which in the 1950s funnelled about $25 million to scientists to carry out research into "unusual techniques of interrogation". One of the psychiatrists who received CIA funding was the infamous Ewen Cameron, of Montreal's McGill University. Cameron subjected hundreds of psychiatric patients to large doses of electroshock and total sensory isolation, and drugged them with LSD and PCP. In 1960 Cameron gave a lecture at the Brooks air force base in Texas, in which he stated that sensory deprivation "produces the primary symptoms of schizophrenia".

There is no need to go so far back to prove that the US military knew full well that it was driving Padilla mad. The army's field manual, reissued just last year, states: "Sensory deprivation may result in extreme anxiety, hallucinations, bizarre thoughts, depression, and antisocial behaviour" - as well as "significant psychological distress".

If these techniques drove Padilla insane, that means the US government has been deliberately driving hundreds, possibly thousands, of prisoners insane around the world. What is on trial in Florida is not one man's mental state. It is the whole system of US psychological torture.

Naomi Klein's book on disaster capitalism will be published this spring; a version of this article appears in the Nation

Guardian Unlimited (c) Guardian News and Media Limited 2007,,2019630,00.html

Bill Totten

Monday, February 26, 2007

Army Acts to Curb Abuses of Injured Recruits

by Ralph Blumenthal

The New York Times (May 12 2006)

The Army has shaken up a program to heal recruits injured in basic training after soldiers and their parents said troops hurt at Fort Sill were punished with physical abuse and medical neglect.

The program, which treated more than 1,100 injured soldiers last year at five posts, normally returns three-fourths of its patients to active duty, according to Army statistics. But at Fort Sill, recruits said, injuries were often subject to derision, ignored or improperly treated.

Two soldiers in the program have died since 2004, one or possibly both of accidental overdoses of prescription drugs. The latest death, in March, remains under investigation, the Army said.

"I am an inmate", one soldier, Private First Class Mathew Scarano of Eureka, California, wrote in a letter home in January two months before he died. "I sometimes ask those friends of mine with jailhouse tattoos if they'd rather be back in jail, or here. So far, they are unanimous - jail."

Commanders acknowledge problems with the Physical Training and Rehabilitation Program, and they have ordered changes here at the Field Artillery Center and at the other training centers. For the first time, as a result of the Fort Sill problems, a medical professional is to head each program.

A civilian spokesman at the fort, Jon Long, said an investigation had substantiated "misbehavior" by a drill sergeant who, soldiers say, kicked a trainee with stitches in his knee. Mr Long said the sergeant had been suspended and reassigned, along with another drill sergeant who, soldiers complained, had repeatedly awakened injured trainees throughout the night for uniform changes and formations.

The events, after a drill sergeant's bribery scandal last year and a drug sting that ensnared twelve soldiers, have thrown a cloud over Fort Sill, one of the centers for nine weeks of basic training where volunteers first report on the way to Iraq or elsewhere. GIs who fall prey to sprains and fractures and cannot complete the often grueling passage to "warrior" are sent to the Physical Training and Rehabilitation Program, where a motto reads "Heal and Ship".

Soldiers' blogs reflect dissatisfaction at some of the other programs, too, but Lieutenant Colonel Michael Russell, command psychologist at the Training and Doctrine Command in Fort Missourinroe, Virginia, who was involved in the new therapy, said just Fort Sill had had a fatality or major complaints. The other sites are Fort Benning, Georgia; Fort Jackson, South Carolina; Fort Knox, Kentucky; and Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

"Of course, we take anything like that very seriously", Colonel Russell said. "We're going to put medical people in charge". At Fort Sill, an artillery captain has been in charge.

The Army now limits treatments to six months, with evaluations after three months and then monthly.

In interviews, soldiers and parents said injured troops regularly suffered punitive treatment as malingerers, although many had joined specifically to serve in Iraq.

A trainee with a broken finger who was described by fellow soldiers as frustrated by indifferent treatment, slashed himself with a razor, smeared himself with feces and walked around naked, the Army confirmed. Regarded as faking illness, he was returned to his unit to finish training.

Soldiers in the forty-member unit said their injuries often went unattended in stays that exceeded six months and worsened while they waited to see specialists in short supply because of medical needs in Iraq.

"I don't want to say cruel and unusual punishment, but that's what it was", said Tom Nugent of Candor, New York., near Ithaca. His son Private Justin Nugent has had two operations since a shoulder "popped out" after push-ups in July.

Another parent, Steven Howell, an aide to Representative Mark Souder, Republican of Indiana, said he and his wife had complained about the treatment of their son Clayton, who has spent a year in the "limbo" of the program after a gallbladder attack. "My main concern as a parent is that medical issues are not being addressed properly", Mr Howell said.

One mother critical of the war who had an injured son in the unit and another son serving in Iraq, appealed to Amnesty International and members of Congress for help. The mother, Patricia deVarennes, from outside Sarasota, Florida, brought to light the complaints about her son Private First Class Richard Thurman by posting them on her blog, along with Private Scarano's final e-mail messages.

They were then reported in a March issue of a biweekly left-wing newsletter, CounterPunch.

"The supreme irony", said Ms deVarennes, a writer and computer specialist, "is that I was more worried about my son at Fort Sill than the one in Iraq".

Colonel Russell credited Ms deVarennes with bringing the problems to his attention.

In e-mail responses to questions, Mr Long, the Fort Sill spokesman, confirmed that an investigation focused on accusations of physical and verbal abuse. He declined to discuss details because no one had been charged with a crime. But Mr Long said the initial findings did substantiate the reports of misbehavior by the drill sergeant, who was said to have kicked the soldier and who along with another drill sergeant received "administrative disciplinary action".

The findings, Mr Long said, also pointed to "command climate issues" that allowed cursing at injured soldiers. He said none of the physical or verbal abuse had been directed at Private Scarano or was involved with his death. Mr Long said it might be weeks before a toxicology report provided an official cause of death.

He said that in July 2004 a private in the program was found to have died from "acute methadone intoxication" after an accidental overdose.

Fort Sill, where up to 15,000 troops a year are trained and sent to active duty, had already been brushed by problems. In January 2005, a longtime drill sergeant was convicted of taking bribes to guarantee that recruits would pass basic training.

In October, the first of twelve present and former soldiers at the post were caught in an FBI sting and charged with conspiring to guard cocaine shipments while in uniform.

The fort commander, Major General David C Ralston, said he was confident that the leadership of the healing program took the correct actions after a thorough investigation. General Ralston said he was pleased with the improvements at Fort Sill, where the success rate was 75 percent, one of the highest for the training centers.

"Although this is a very good track record", the general added, "there will always be challenges to taking so many young adults and giving them the rigorous training they need to serve successfully in our nation's Army and to win on the battlefield".

In letters home, Private Scarano, who severely injured his shoulder in a fall in training, said he was wearing a patch with the painkiller fentanyl, which he called "eighty times stronger than heroin", and also wrote: "The Army has me on Ambien, seroquel, tylox and oxycontins. I also get trazadone to take the edge off".

At that time, Mr Long said, soldiers were not monitored while taking medication. Now, they are closely supervised. In another change, he said, a patient advocate has been assigned to monitor lengths of stay.

Interviewed on visiting weekend in April, Private Thurman, Ms deVarennes's son, said he had passed an alternative physical fitness test that replaced running with walking. But after graduating basic training in November with his family at the ceremony, he said, he and two other soldiers were "ungraduated" and put into the Physical Training and Rehabilitation Program. He was belatedly found to have suffered stress fractures in his feet.

Mr Long confirmed the confusion over the acceptability of the alternative test.

Private Thurman, who has completed more than four months in the program and has been sent to his first duty station as a computer artilleryman, and other soldiers said morale plummeted around mid-January with the arrival of a new drill sergeant, Robert Langford.

On the Martin Luther King's Birthday holiday weekend, with the rest of the post off duty, Sergeant Langford ordered the therapy unit to move out the bunk beds and lockers and hand scrape the wax off the floor tiles. When the results were not to his liking, the soldiers said, the sergeant had them redo it. While scraping, Private Scarano cracked his injured shoulder, he wrote home.

The kicking episode occurred about that time, soldiers said, when Sergeant Langford ordered an injured private, Damien McMahon, 21, of Emporia, Kansas, "to take a knee", or bow, after losing his temper in a formation. Private McMahon, who had had knee surgery for a staph infection and was also in disciplinary trouble for sneaking to the PX on a tobacco run, said the investigators had asked him not to discuss the case. But he confirmed accounts by fellow soldiers that he had protested that kneeling was painful and that the sergeant had kicked him in his bad knee, loosening one of nine stitches.

Sergeant Langford, reached by telephone at home at Fort Sill, refused to discuss the accusations and denied that he had been suspended before hanging up.

Also around January, soldiers said, another drill sergeant, Troy Bullock, suspected that a soldier in the unit had sneaked a cigarette and ordered the entire injury unit woken up every hour from ten pm to two am for uniform changes and formations, even though some patients were on heavy sleep medications, the soldiers said. Mr Long said he could not comment, and no telephone listing for Sergeant Bullock could be found.

On March 7, in an e-mail note to Ms deVarennes later put on her blog, Private Scarano said, "I am a casualty of a broken system; I fell through the cracks of the bureaucracy".

If he could get out at least temporarily, Private Scarano said, he wanted to explore a more promising civilian procedure to repair his shoulder "instead of being a guinea pig to a medical system I have no faith in, whatever".

Bill Totten

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Anti-Empire Report

Some things you need to know before the world ends

by William Blum (January 12 2007)

Johnny got his gun

In the past year Iran has issued several warnings to the United States about the consequences of an American or Israeli attack. One statement, issued in November by a high Iranian military official, declared: "If America attacks Iran, its 200,000 troops and 33 bases in the region will be extremely vulnerable, and both American politicians and military commanders are aware of it". {1} Iran apparently believes that American leaders would be so deeply distressed by the prospect of their young men and women being endangered and possibly killed that they would forswear any reckless attacks on Iran. As if American leaders have been deeply stabbed by pain about throwing youthful American bodies into the bottomless snakepit called Iraq, or were restrained by fear of retaliation or by moral qualms while feeding 58,000 young lives to the Vietnam beast. As if American leaders, like all world leaders, have ever had such concerns.

Let's have a short look at some modern American history, which may be instructive in this regard. A report of the US Congress in 1994 informed us that:

Approximately 60,000 military personnel were used as human subjects in the 1940s to test two chemical agents, mustard gas and lewisite [blister gas]. Most of these subjects were not informed of the nature of the experiments and never received medical followup after their participation in the research. Additionally, some of these human subjects were threatened with imprisonment at Fort Leavenworth if they discussed these experiments with anyone, including their wives, parents, and family doctors. For decades, the Pentagon denied that the research had taken place, resulting in decades of suffering for many veterans who became ill after the secret testing. {2}

In the decades between the 1940s and 1990s, we find a remarkable variety of government programs, either formally, or in effect, using soldiers as guinea pigs - marched to nuclear explosion sites, with pilots sent through the mushroom clouds; subjected to chemical and biological weapons experiments; radiation experiments; behavior modification experiments that washed their brains with LSD; widespread exposure to the highly toxic dioxin of Agent Orange in Korea and Vietnam ... the list goes on ... literally millions of experimental subjects, seldom given a choice or adequate information, often with disastrous effects to their physical and/or mental health, rarely with proper medical care or even monitoring. {3}

In the 1990s, many thousands of American soldiers came home from the Gulf War with unusual, debilitating ailments. Exposure to harmful chemical or biological agents was suspected, but the Pentagon denied that this had occurred. Years went by while the veterans suffered terribly: neurological problems, chronic fatigue, skin problems, scarred lungs, memory loss, muscle and joint pain, severe headaches, personality changes, passing out, and much more. Eventually, the Pentagon, inch by inch, was forced to move away from its denials and admit that, yes, chemical weapon depots had been bombed; then, yes, there probably were releases of deadly poisons; then, yes, American soldiers were indeed in the vicinity of these poisonous releases, 400 soldiers; then, it might have been 5,000; then, "a very large number", probably more than 15,000; then, finally, a precise number - 20,867; then, "The Pentagon announced that a long-awaited computer model estimates that nearly 100,000 US soldiers could have been exposed to trace amounts of sarin gas". {4}

If the Pentagon had been much more forthcoming from the outset about what it knew all along about these various substances and weapons, the soldiers might have had a proper diagnosis early on and received appropriate care sooner. The cost in terms of human suffering has been incalculable.

Soldiers have also been forced to take vaccines against anthrax and nerve gas not approved by the FDA as safe and effective; and punished, sometimes treated like criminals, if they refused. (During World War II, soldiers were forced to take a yellow fever vaccine, with the result that some 330,000 of them were infected with the hepatitis B virus. {5})

And through all the recent wars, countless American soldiers have been put in close proximity to the radioactive dust of exploded depleted uranium-tipped shells and missiles on the battlefield; depleted uranium has been associated with a long list of rare and terrible illnesses and birth defects. It poisons the air, the soil, the water, the lungs, the blood, and the genes. (The widespread dissemination of depleted uranium by American warfare - from Serbia to Afghanistan to Iraq - should be an international scandal and crisis, like AIDS, and would be in a world not so intimidated by the United States.)

The catalogue of Pentagon abuses of American soldiers goes on ... Troops serving in Iraq or their families have reported purchasing with their own funds bullet-proof vests, better armor for their vehicles, medical supplies, and global positioning devices, all for their own safety, which were not provided to them by the army ... Continuous complaints by servicewomen of sexual assault and rape at the hands of their male counterparts are routinely played down or ignored by the military brass ... Numerous injured and disabled vets from all wars have to engage in an ongoing struggle to get the medical care they were promised ... One should read "Army Acts to Curb Abuses of Injured Recruits" (New York Times, May 12 2006) for accounts of the callous, bordering on sadistic, treatment of soldiers in bases in the United States ... Repeated tours of duty, which fracture family life and increase the chance not only of death or injury but of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). {6}

National Public Radio's All Things Considered, on December 4 and other days, ran a series on Army mistreatment of soldiers home from Iraq and suffering serious PTSD. At Colorado's Fort Carson these afflicted soldiers are receiving a variety of abuse and punishment much more than the help they need, as officers harass and punish them for being emotionally "weak".

Keep the above in mind the next time you hear a president or a general speaking on Memorial Day about "honor" and "duty" and about how much we "owe to the brave young men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the cause of freedom and democracy".

And read Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo (1939; Bantam Reissue edition, 1984) for the ultimate abuse of soldiers by leaders of nations.

The conscience of our leaders

After he ordered the bombing of Panama in December 1989, which killed anywhere from 500 to a few thousand totally innocent people, guilty of no harm to any American, the first President George Bush declared that his "heart goes out to the families of those who have died in Panama". {7}

When asked by a reporter: "Was it really worth it to send people to their death for this? To get Noriega?", Bush replied: "Every human life is precious, and yet I have to answer, yes, it has been worth it". {8}

Speaking in November 1990 of his imminent invasion of Iraq, Bush Senior said: "People say to me: 'How many lives? How many lives can you expend?' Each one is precious". {9}

While his killing of thousands of Iraqis was proceeding merrily along in 2003, the second President George Bush was moved to say: "We believe in the value and dignity of every human life". {10}

In December 2006, the White House spokesman for Bush Junior, commenting about American deaths reaching 3,000 in Iraq, said President Bush "believes that every life is precious and grieves for each one that is lost". {11}

Both father and son are on record expressing their deep concern for God and prayer both before and during their mass slaughters. "I trust God speaks through me", said Bush the younger in 2004. "Without that, I couldn't do my job". {12}

After his devastation of Iraq and its people, Bush the elder said: "I think that, like a lot of others who had positions of responsibility in sending someone else's kids to war, we realize that in prayer what mattered is how it might have seemed to God". {13}

God, one surmises, might have asked George Bush, father and son, about the kids of Iraq. And the adults. And, in a testy, rather ungodlike manner, might have snapped: "So stop wasting all the precious lives already!"

In the now-famous exchange on TV in 1996 between Madeleine Albright and reporter Lesley Stahl, the latter was speaking of US sanctions against Iraq, and asked the then-US ambassador to the UN, and Secretary of State-to-be: "We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And - and you know, is the price worth it?" Replied Albright: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price - we think the price is worth it". {14}

Ten years later, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, continuing the fine tradition of female Secretaries of State and the equally noble heritage of the Bush family, declared that the current horror in Iraq is "worth the investment" in American lives and dollars. {15}

And don't forget that we can't pull out of Iraq now because it would dishonor the troops who haven't died yet.

The American media as the Berlin Wall

In December 1975, while East Timor, which lies at the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago, was undergoing a process of decolonization from Portugal, a struggle for power took place. A movement of the left, Fretilin, prevailed and then declared East Timor's independence from Portugal. Nine days later, Indonesia invaded East Timor. The invasion was launched the day after US President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had left Indonesia after giving President Suharto permission to use American arms, which, under US law, could not be used for aggression. But Indonesia was Washington's most valuable ally in Southeast Asia and, in any event, the United States was not inclined to look kindly on any government of the left.

Indonesia soon achieved complete control over East Timor, with the help of the American arms and other military aid, as well as diplomatic support at the UN. Amnesty International estimated that by 1989, Indonesian troops had killed 200,000 people out of a population of between 600,000 and 700,000, a death rate which is probably one of the highest in the entire history of wars. {16}

Is it not remarkable that in the numerous articles in the American daily press following President Ford's death last month, there was not a single mention of his role in the East Timor massacre? A search of the extensive Lexis-Nexis and other media databases finds mention of this only in a few letters to the editor from readers; not a word even in the reports of any of the news agencies, like the Associated Press, which generally shy away from controversy less than the newspapers they serve; nor a single mention in the mainstream broadcast news programs.

Imagine if following the recent death of Augusto Pinochet the media made no mention of his overthrow of the Allende government in Chile, or the mass murder and torture which followed. Ironically, the recent articles about Ford also failed to mention his remark a year after Pinochet's coup. President Ford declared that what the United States had done in Chile was "in the best interest of the people in Chile and certainly in our own best interest". {17}

During the Cold War, the American government and media never missed an opportunity to point out the news events embarrassing to the Soviet Union which became non-events in the communist media.

Man shall never fly

The Cold War is still with us. Because the ideological conflict that was the basis for it has not gone away. Because it can't go away. As long as capitalism exists, as long as it puts profit before people, as it must, as long as it puts profit before the environment, as it must, those on the receiving end of its sharp pointed stick must look for a better way.

Thus it is that when Venezuelan President Hugo Cha'vez announced a few days ago that he plans to nationalize telephone and electric utility companies to accelerate his "socialist revolution", the spokesperson for Capitalism Central, White House press secretary Tony Snow, was quick to the attack: "Nationalization has a long and inglorious history of failure around the world", Snow declared. "We support the Venezuelan people and think this is an unhappy day for them". {18}

Snow presumably buys into the belief that capitalism defeated socialism in the Cold War. A victory for a superior idea. The boys of Capital chortle in their martinis about the death of socialism. The word has been banned from polite conversation. And they hope that no one will notice that every socialist experiment of any significance in the past century has either been corrupted, subverted, perverted, or destabilized ... or crushed, overthrown, bombed, or invaded ... or otherwise had life made impossible for it, by the United States. Not one socialist government or movement - from the Russian Revolution to Cuba, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the FMLN in Salvador, from Communist China to Grenada, Chile and Vietnam - not one was permitted to rise or fall solely on its own merits; not one was left secure enough to drop its guard against the all-powerful enemy abroad and freely and fully relax control at home. Even many plain old social democracies - such as in Guatemala, Iran, British Guiana, Serbia and Haiti, which were not in love with capitalism and were looking for another path - even these too were made to bite the dust by Uncle Sam.

It's as if the Wright brothers' first experiments with flying machines all failed because the automobile interests sabotaged each test flight. And then the good and god-fearing folk of America looked upon this, took notice of the consequences, nodded their collective heads wisely, and intoned solemnly: Man shall never fly.

Tony Snow would have us believe that the government is no match for the private sector in efficiently getting large and important things done. But is that really true? Let's clear our minds for a moment, push our upbringing to one side, and remember that the American government has landed men on the moon, created great dams, marvelous national parks, an interstate highway system, the peace corps, built up an incredible military machine (ignoring for the moment what it's used for), student loans, social security, Medicare, insurance for bank deposits, protection of pension funds against corporate misuse, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Institutes of Health, the Smithsonian, the GI Bill, and much, much more. In short, the government has been quite good at doing what it wanted to do, or what labor and other movements have made it do, like establishing worker health and safety standards and requiring food manufacturers to list detailed information about ingredients.

When George W took office one of his chief goals was to examine whether jobs done by federal employees could be performed more efficiently by private contractors. Bush called it his top management priority. By the end of 2005, 50,000 government jobs had been studied. And federal workers had won the job competitions more than eighty percent of the time. {19}

We have to remind the American people of what they've instinctively learned but tend to forget when faced with statements like that of Tony Snow - that they don't want more government, or less government; they don't want big government, or small government; they want government on their side.

And by the way, Tony, the great majority of the population in the last years of the Soviet Union had a much better quality of life, including a longer life, under their "failed nationalized" economy, than they have had under unbridled capitalism.

None of the above, of course, will deter The World's Only Superpower from continuing its jihad to impose capitalist fundamentalism upon the world.

Unwelcome guests at the table of the respectable folk

Senator Joseph Biden, Democrat from Delaware, the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has announced four weeks of hearings focused on every aspect of US policy in Iraq. He really wants to get to the bottom of things, find out how and why things went so wrong, who are the ones responsible, hold them accountable, and what can be done now. The committee will hear the testimony of top political, economic and intelligence experts, foreign diplomats, and former and current senior US officials, like Condoleezza Rice, Brent Scowcroft, Samuel Berger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright and George Shultz. {20} All the usual suspects.

But why not call upon some unusual suspects? Why do congressional committees and committees appointed by the White House typically not call experts who dissent from the official explanations? Why not hear from people who had the wisdom to protest the invasion of Iraq and condemn it in writing before it even began? People who called the war illegal and immoral, said we should never start it, and predicted much of the horrible outcome. Surely they may have some insights and analyses that will not be heard from the mouths of the usual suspects.

Likewise, why didn't the September 11 Committee, or any of the congressional committees dealing with the terrorist attack, call upon any of the numerous 9-11 experts who have done extensive research and who question various aspects of the official story?

Traditionally, of course, such committees have been formed to put a damper on dissident questioning of official stories, to ridicule them as "conspiracy theorists", not to give the dissidents a larger audience.


{1} Fars News Agency (November 21 2006)

{2} Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs, "Is Military Research Hazardous to Veterans' Health? Lessons Spanning Half a Century" (December 08 1994), page 5

{3} Ibid, passim

{4} Washington Post (October 2 and 23 1996) and (July 31 1997) for the estimated numbers of affected soldiers.

{5} Journal of the American Medical Association (September 01 1999), page 822

{6} Washington Post (December 20 2006), page 19

{7} New York Times (December 22 1989), page 17

{8} New York Times (December 22 1989), page 16

{9} Los Angeles Times (December 01 1990), page 1

{10} Washington Post (May 28 2003)

{11} Washington Post (January 01 2007), page 1

{12} Washington Post (July 20 2004), page 15, statement attributed to President Bush in the Lancaster (Pennsylvania) New Era newspaper from a private meeting with Amish families on July 9. The White House later said Bush said no such thing. Yes, we know how the Amish lie.

{13} Los Angeles Times (June 07 1991), page 1

{14} CBS 60 Minutes (May 12 1996)

{15} Associated Press (December 22 2006)

{16} Search National Security Archive - - for "Ford" and "Timor"; see also William Blum, Rogue State, pages 188-9

{17} New York Times, September 17, 1974, page 22

{18} Washington Post (January 10 2007), page 7

{19} Washington Post (March 23 2006), page 21

{20} Washington Post (January 05 2007)

William Blum's speaking engagements

January 25 - Flagstaff, Arizona
March 9 - Venice, California
March 10 - Irvine, California
March 17 or 18 - Columbus, Ohio

See for the details

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William Blum is the author of:-

Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War 2
(Common Courage Press, 1995)

Rogue State: A Guide to the World's Only Superpower (Zed Books, 2002)

West-Bloc Dissident: A Cold War Memoir (Soft Skull Press, 2002)

Freeing the World to Death: Essays on the American Empire
(Common Courage Press, 2004)

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Bill Totten

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Army of Altruists

On the alienated right to do good

by David Graeber

Harper's Magazine (January 2007)

You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq. -- Senator John Kerry (Democrat, Massachusetts)

Kerry owes an apology to the many thousands of Americans serving in Iraq, who answered their country's call because they are patriots and not because of any deficiencies in their education. -- Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona)

In the lead-up to the midterm elections, the Republicans' single fleeting ray of hope was a botched joke by Senator John Kerry. The joke was obviously aimed at George W Bush, but they took it to suggest that Kerry thought only those who flunked out of school end up in the military. It was all very disingenuous. Most knew perfectly well that Kerry's real point was to suggest that the president wasn't very bright. But the right smelled blood. The problem with "aristoslackers" like Kerry, wrote one blogger on the website of National Review, is that they assume "the troops are in Iraq not because they are deeply committed to the mission (they need to deny that) but rather because of a system that takes advantage of their lack of social and economic opportunities ... We should clobber them with that ruthlessly until the day of the election - just like we did in 2004 - because it is the most basic reason they deserve to lose".

In the end, it didn't make a lot of difference, because most Americans decided they were not deeply committed to the mission either - insofar as they were even sure what the mission was. But it seems to me the question we should really be asking is: why did it take a military catastrophe (not to mention a strategy of trying to avoid any association with the sort of northeastern elites Kerry typifies for so many Americans) to allow the Democrats to finally emerge from the political wilderness? Or, in other words: why has this Republican line proved so effective?

It strikes me that to get at the answer, one has to probe far more deeply into the nature of American society than most commentators are willing to go. We're used to reducing all such issues to an either/or: patriotism versus opportunity, "values" versus bread-and-butter issues like jobs and education. But I would argue that to frame things this way plays into the hands of the right.
Certainly, many people do join the army because they are deprived of opportunities. But the real question to be asking is: opportunities to do what?

Let me offer an anthropological perspective on the question. It first came home to me a year or two ago when I was attending a lecture by Catherine Lutz, a fellow anthropologist from Brown University who has been studying US military bases overseas. Many of these bases organize outreach programs, in which soldiers venture out to repair schoolrooms or to perform free dental checkups for the locals. These programs were created to improve local relations, but they were apparently at least as effective in their psychological impact on the soldiers, many of whom would wax euphoric when describing them: for example, "This is why I joined the army", "This is what military service is really all about - not just defending your country, but helping people". The military's own statistics point in the same direction: although the surveys do not list "helping people" among the motives far enlistment, the most high-minded option available - "to do something to be proud of" - is the favorite.

Is it possible that America is actually a nation of frustrated altruists? Certainly this is not the way that we normally think about ourselves. Our normal habits of thought, actually, tend toward a rough and ready cynicism. The world is a giant marketplace; everyone is in it for a buck; if you want to understand why something happened, first ask who stands to gain by it. The same attitudes expressed in the back rooms of bars are echoed in the highest reaches of social science. America's great contribution to the world in the latter respect has been the development of "rational choice" theories, which proceed from the assumption that all human behavior can be understood as a matter of economic calculation, of rational actors trying to get as much as possible out of any given situation with the least cost to themselves. As a result, in most fields, the very existence of altruistic behavior is considered a kind of puzzle, and everyone from economists to evolutionary biologists has become famous through attempts to "solve" it - that is, to explain the mystery of why bees sacrifice themselves for hives or human beings hold open doors and give correct street directions to total strangers. At the same time, the case of the military bases suggests the possibility that in fact Americans, particularly the less affluent ones, are haunted by frustrated desires to do good in the world.

It would not be difficult to assemble evidence that this is the case. Studies of charitable giving, for example, have shown the poor to be the most generous: the lower one's income, the higher the proportion of it that one is likely to give away to strangers. The same pattern holds true, incidentally, when comparing the middle classes and the rich: one study of tax returns in 2003 concluded that if the most affluent families had given away as much of their assets as even the average middle-class family, overall charitable donations that year would have increased by $25 billion. (All this despite the fact that the wealthy have far more time and opportunity.) Moreover, charity represents only a tiny part of the picture. lf one were to break down what typical American wage earners do with their disposable income, one would find that they give much of it away, either through spending in one way or another on their children or through sharing with others: presents, trips, parties, the six-pack of beer for the local softball game. One might object that such sharing is more a reflection of the real nature of pleasure than anything else (who would want to eat a delicious meal at an expensive restaurant all by himself?), but this is actually half the point. Even our self-indulgences tend to be dominated by the logic of the gift. Similarly, some might object that shelling out a small fortune to send one's children to an exclusive kindergarten is more about status than altruism. Perhaps: but if you look at what happens over the course of people's actual lives, it soon becomes apparent that this kind of behavior fulfills an identical psychological need. How many youthful idealists throughout history have managed to finally come to terms with a world based on selfishness and greed the moment they start a family? If one were to assume altruism were the primary human motivation, this would make perfect sense: The only way they can convince themselves to abandon their desire to do right by the world as a whole is to substitute an even more powerful desire to do right by their children.

What all this suggests to me is that American society might well work completely differently than we tend to assume. Imagine, for a moment, that the United States as it exists today were the creation of some ingenious social engineer. What assumptions about human nature could we say this engineer must have been working with? Certainly nothing like rational choice theory. For clearly our social engineer understands that the only way to convince human beings to enter into the world of work and the marketplace (that is, of mind-numbing labor and cutthroat competition) is to dangle the prospect of thereby being able to lavish money on one's children, buy drinks for one's friends, and, if one hits the jackpot, spend the rest of one's life endowing museums and providing AIDS medications to impoverished countries in Africa. Our theorists are constantly trying to strip away the veil of appearances and show how all such apparently selfless gestures really mask some kind of self-interested strategy, but in reality American society is better conceived as a battle over access to the right to behave altruistically. Selflessness - or, at least, the right to engage in high-minded activity - is not the strategy. It is the prize.

If nothing else, I think this helps us understand why the right has been so much better, in recent years, at playing to populist sentiments than the left. Essentially, they do it by accusing liberals of cutting ordinary Americans off from the right to do good in the world. Let me explain what I mean here by throwing out a series of propositions.

Proposition 1: Neither egoism nor altruism is a natural urge; they in fact arise in relation to each other and neither would be conceivable without the market.

First of all, I should make clear that I do not believe that either egoism or altruism is somehow inherent in human nature. Human motives are rarely that simple. Rather, egoism and altruism are ideas we have about human nature.

Historically, one has tended to arise in response to the other. In the ancient world, for example, it is generally in the times and places that one sees the emergence of money and markets that one also sees the rise of world religions - Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. If one sets aside a space and says, "Here you shall think only about acquiring material things hr yourself", then it is hardly surprising that before long someone else will set aside a countervailing space and declare, in effect: "Yes, but here we must contemplate the fact that the self, and material things, are ultimately unimportant". It was these latter institutions, of course, that first developed our modem notions of charity.

Even today, when we operate outside the domain of the market or of religion, very few of our actions could be said to be motivated by anything so simple as untrammeled greed or utterly selfless generosity. When we are dealing not with strangers but with friends, relatives, or enemies, a much more complicated set of motivations will generally come into play: envy, solidarity, pride, self-destructive grief, loyalty, romantic obsession, resentment, spite, shame, conviviality, the anticipation of shared enjoyment, the desire to show up a rival, and so on. These are the motivations impelling the major dramas of our lives that great novelists like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky immortalize but that social theorists, for some reason, tend to ignore. If one travels to parts of the world where money and markets do not exist - say, to certain parts of New Guinea or Amazonia - such complicated webs of motivation are precisely what one still finds. In societies based around small communities, where almost everyone is either a friend, a relative, or an enemy of everyone else, the languages spoken tend even to lack words that correspond to "self-interest" or "altruism" but include very subtle vocabularies for describing envy, solidarity, pride, and the like. Their economic dealings with one another likewise tend to be based on much more subtle principles. Anthropologists have created a vast literature to try to fathom the dynamics of these apparently exotic "gift economies", but if it seems odd to us to see, for instance, important men conniving with their cousins to finagle vast wealth, which they then present as gifts to bitter enemies in order to publicly humiliate them, it is because we are so used to operating inside impersonal markets that it never occurs to us to think how we would act if we had an economic system in which we treated people based on how we actually felt about them.

Nowadays, the work of destroying such ways of life is still often done by missionaries - representatives of those very world religions that originally sprang up in reaction to the market long ago. Missionaries, of course, are out to save souls; but they rarely interpret this to mean their role is simply to teach people to accept God and be more altruistic. Almost invariably, they end up trying to convince people to be more selfish and more altruistic at the same time. On the one hand, they set out to teach the "natives" proper work discipline, and try to get them involved with buying and selling products on the market, so as to better their material lot. At the same time, they explain to them that ultimately, material things are unimportant, and lecture on the value of the higher things, such as selfless devotion to others.

Proposition 2: The political right has always tried to enhance this division and thus claims to be the champion of both egoism and altruism simultaneously. The left has tried to efface it.

Might this not help to explain why the United States, the most market driven, industrialized society on earth, is also among the most religious? Or, even more strikingly, why the country that produced Tolstoy and Dostoevsky spent much of the twentieth century trying to eradicate both the market and religion entirely?

Whereas the political left has always tried to efface this distinction - whether by trying to create economic systems that are not driven by the profit motive or by replacing private charity with one or another form of community support - the political right has always thrived on it. In the United States, for example, the Republican Party is dominated by two ideological wings: the libertarians and the "Christian right". At one extreme, Republicans are free-market fundamentalists and advocates of individual liberties (even if they see those liberties largely as a matter of consumer choice); on the other, they are fundamentalists of a more literal variety, suspicious of most individual liberties but enthusiastic about biblical injunctions, "family values", and charitable good works. At first glance it might seem remarkable that such an alliance manages to hold together at all (and certainly they have ongoing tensions, most famously over abortion). But, in fact, right-wing coalitions almost always take some variation of this form. One might say that the right's approach is to release the dogs of the market, throwing all traditional verities into disarray; and then, in this tumult of insecurity, offer themselves up as the last bastion of order and hierarchy, the stalwart defenders of the authority of churches and fathers against the barbarians they have themselves unleashed. A scam it may be, but it is a remarkably effective one; and one result is that the right ends up seeming to have a monopoly on value. It manages, we might say, to occupy both positions, on either side of the divide: extreme egoism and extreme altruism.

Consider, for a moment, the word "value". When economists talk about value they are really talking about money - or, more precisely, about whatever it is that money is measuring; also, whatever it is that economic actors are assumed to be pursuing. When we are working for a living, or buying and selling things, we are rewarded with money. But whenever we are not working or buying or selling, when we are motivated by pretty much anything other than the desire to get money, we suddenly find ourselves in the domain of "values". The most commonly invoked of these are, of course, "family values" (which is unsurprising, since by far the most common form of unpaid labor in most industrial societies is child-rearing and housework), but we also talk about religious values, political values, the values that attach themselves to art or patriotism - one could even, perhaps, count loyalty to one's favorite basketball team. All are seen as commitments that are, or ought to be, uncorrupted by the market. At the same time, they are also seen as utterly unique; whereas money makes all things comparable, "values" such as beauty, devotion, or integrity cannot, by definition, be compared. There is no mathematical formula that could possibly allow one to calculate just how much personal integrity it is right to sacrifice in the pursuit of art or how to balance responsibilities to your family with responsibilities to your God. (Obviously, people do make these kinds of compromises all the time. But they cannot be calculated.) One might put it this way: if value is simply what one considers important, then money allows importance to take a liquid form, by enabling us to compare precise quantities of importance and trade one off for the other. If someone does accumulate a very large amount of money, the first thing he or she is likely to do is to try to convert it into something unique, whether it be Monet's water lilies, a prize-winning racehorse, or an endowed chair at a university.

What is really at stake here in any market economy is precisely the ability to make these trades, to convert "value" into "values". All of us are striving to put ourselves in a position in which we can dedicate ourselves to something larger than ourselves. When liberals do well in America, it's because they can embody that possibility: the Kennedys, for example, are the ultimate Democratic icons not just because they started as poor Irish immigrants who made enormous amounts of money but because they are seen as having managed, ultimately, to turn all that money into nobility.

Proposition 3: The real problem of the American left is that although it does try in certain ways to efface the division between egoism and altruism, value and values, it largely does so for its own children. This has allowed the right, paradoxically, to represent itself as the champion of the working class.

This proposition might help explain why the left in America is in such a mess. Far from promoting new visions of effacing the difference between egoism and altruism, value and values, or providing a model for passing from one to the other, progressives cannot even seem to understand the problem. After the last presidential election, the big debate in progressive circles was the relative importance of economic issues versus what was called "the culture wars". Did the Democrats lose because they were not able to spell out any plausible economic alternatives, or did the Republicans win because they successfully mobilized evangelical Christians around the issue of gay marriage? The very fact that progressives frame the question this way not only shows they are trapped in the right's terms of analysis; it demonstrates that they do not understand how America really works.

Let me illustrate what I mean by considering the strange popular appeal, at least until recently, of George W Bush. In 2004 most of the American liberal intelligentsia did not seem to be able to get their minds around it. After the election, what left so many of them reeling was their suspicion that the things they most hated about Bush were exactly what so many Bush voters liked about him. Consider the debates, for example. If statistics are to be believed, millions of Americans watched George Bush and John Kerry lock horns, concluded that Kerry won, and then went off and voted for Bush anyway. It was hard to escape the suspicion that, in the end, Kerry's articulate presentation, his skill with words and arguments, had actually counted against him.

This sent liberals into spirals of despair. They could not understand why decisive leadership was equated with acting like an idiot. Neither could they understand how a man who comes from one of the most elite families in the country, who attended Andover, Yale, and Harvard, and whose signature facial expression is a self-satisfied smirk, ever convinced anyone he was a "man of the people". I must admit I have struggled with this as well. As a child of working-class parents who won a scholarship to Andover in the 1970s and, eventually, a job at Yale, I have spent much of my life in the presence of men like Bush, every inch of them oozing self-satisfied privilege. But, in fact, stories like mine - stories of dramatic class mobility through academic accomplishment - are increasingly unusual in America.

America, of course, continues to see itself as a land of opportunity, and certainly from the perspective of an immigrant from Haiti or Bangladesh it is. But America has always been a country built on the promise of unlimited upward mobility. The working-class condition has been traditionally seen as a way station, as something one's family passes through on the road to something else. Abraham Lincoln used to stress that what made American democracy possible was the absence of a class of permanent wage laborers. In Lincoln's day, the ideal was that wage laborers would eventually save up enough money to build a better life: if nothing else, to buy some land and become a homesteader on the frontier.

The point is not how accurate this ideal was; the point is that most Americans have found the image plausible. Every time the road is perceived to be clogged, profound unrest ensues. The closing of the frontier led to bitter labor struggles, and over the course of the twentieth century, the steady and rapid expansion of the American university system could be seen as a kind of substitute. Particularly after World War II, huge resources were poured into expanding the higher education system, which grew extremely rapidly, and all this growth was promoted quite explicitly as a means of social mobility. This served during the Cold War as almost an implied social contract, not just offering a comfortable life to the working classes but holding out the chance that their children would not be working class themselves. The problem, of course, is that a higher education system cannot be expanded forever. At a certain point one ends up with a significant portion of the population unable to find work even remotely in line with their qualifications, who have every reason to be angry about their situation, and who also have access to the entire history of radical thought. By the late Sixties and early Seventies, the very point when the expansion of the university system hit a dead end, campuses were, predictably, exploding.

What followed could be seen as a kind of settlement. Campus radicals were reabsorbed into the university but set to work largely at training children of the elite. As the cost of education has skyrocketed, financial aid has been cut back, and the prospect of social mobility through education - above all liberal arts education - has been rapidly diminished. The number of working-class students in major universities, which steadily grew until the Seventies, has now been declining for decades. The matter was further complicated by the fact that this overall decline of accessibility happened at almost exactly the same time that many who had previously been excluded (the GI Bill of Rights, after all, had applied basically to white males) were finally being welcomed. These were the identities celebrated in the campus "identity politics" of the Eighties and Nineties - an inclusiveness that notably did not extend to, say, Baptists or "rednecks". Unsurprisingly, many focused their rage not on government or on university administrations but on minorities, queers, and feminists.

Why do working-class Bush voters tend to resent intellectuals more than they do the rich? It seems to me that the answer is simple. They can imagine a scenario in which they might become rich but cannot possibly imagine one in which they, or any of their children, would become members of the intelligentsia. If you think about it, this is not an unreasonable assessment. A mechanic from Nebraska knows it is highly unlikely that his son or daughter will ever become an Enron executive. But it is possible. There is virtually no chance, however, that his child, no matter how talented, will ever become an international human-rights lawyer or a drama critic for the New York Times. Here we need to remember not just the changes in higher education but also the role of unpaid, or effectively unpaid, internships. It has become a fact of life in the United States that if one chooses a career for any reason other than the salary, for the first year or two one will not be paid. This is certainly true if one wishes to be involved in altruistic pursuits: say, to join the world of charities, or NGOs, or to become a political activist. But it is equally true if one wants to pursue values like Beauty or Truth: to become part of the world of books, or the art world, or an investigative reporter. The custom effectively seals off such a career for any poor student who actually does attain a liberal arts education. Such structures of exclusion had always existed, of course, especially at the top, but in recent decades fences have become fortresses.

If that mechanic's daughter wishes to pursue something higher, more noble, for a career, what options does she really have? Likely just two: She can seek employment at her local church, which is hard to get. Or she can join the army.

This is, of course, the secret of nobility. To be noble is to be generous, high-minded, altruistic, to pursue higher forms of value. But it is also to be able to do so because one does not really have to think too much about money. This is precisely what our soldiers are doing when they give free dental examinations to villagers: they are being paid (modestly, but adequately) to do good in the world. Seen in this light, it is also easier to see what really happened at universities in the wake of the 1960s - the "settlement" I mentioned above. Campus radicals set out to create a new society that destroyed the distinction between egoism and altruism, value and values. It did not work out, but they were, effectively, offered a kind of compensation: the privilege to use the university system to create lives that did so, in their own little way, to be supported in one's material needs while pursuing virtue, truth, and beauty, and, above all, to pass that privilege on to their own children. One cannot blame them for accepting the offer. But neither can one blame the rest of the country for hating them for it. Not because they reject the project: as I say, this is what America is all about. As I always tell activists engaged in the peace movement and counter recruitment campaigns: why do working-class kids join the army anyway? Because, like any teenager, they want to escape the world of tedious work and meaningless consumerism, to live a life of adventure and camaraderie in which they believe they are doing something genuinely noble. They join the army because they want to be like you.


David Graeber is an anthropologist and activist currently living in New York City. An associate professor at Yale he is the author of Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value (Palgrave Macmillan, 2001) and Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004)

Bill Totten