Sunday, August 1, 2010

Record temperatures and global heating

I've been looking at media reports of record summer temperatures in various parts of the world. For example, this July has been the warmest in Moscow since records began to be kept 130 years ago, with the thermometer reaching 100 degrees F. for the first time in that city. People in northern India has been suffering badly, especially from the accompanying water shortage.

But much more frightening than what these reports say is what they are careful NOT to say -- about the connection between these record temperatures and the planetary process that they reflect, that is, global heating (a more expressive term than the gentler "global warming"). Reports either fail to mention the broader planetary situation at all, or else they quote some scientist remarking that temperatures in any particular year are not direct evidence of global warming. Quite likely, the scientist goes on to say something more definite about the trend over a run of years, but that part is omitted. So it is still the policy of the media owners to conceal the planetary situation from their audiences, despite the assurances from some of them that their policy has changed.

Eventually more and more people will manage to work out what is happening. Then complacency will give way to hysteria. Quite unwarranted hysteria, of course. Our marvelous civilization will surely survive for a few more years in the Arctic region, where the plutocrats can continue extracting their favorite beverage, OIL, until the temporary survivors, including the plutocrats themselves, finally croak in the methane-saturated atmosphere.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Request for clarification

From: Planetary Residents Liaison Department, Galactic Central
To: Resident on Planet Sol 849615-3

We are somewhat perturbed by the emotional tenor of your latest communication and concerned for your mental stability. If you feel the need to return temporarily or permanently to your home world, this can be arranged at short notice. A competent successor for your position is available.

We do not question your assessment of the ironically self-styled simian species Homo sapiens as a potential threat to galactic security in view of its rapidly expanding technological capacity in conjunction with chronic social atavism. However, as you know, a quarantine is already in place and we remain unconvinced that further action is required at this time.

The type of "messianic" intervention that you urge is extremely difficult under the planetary conditions that you describe so forcefully. It is also quite demanding in terms of scarce specialized resources. And, of course, success is by no means assured, as earlier attempts demonstrate all too clearly. You are welcome to submit a more specific and thoroughly substantiated proposal.

Under the circumstances, a sanitary operation would seem more expedient and cost-effective. A proposal along these lines will certainly receive favorable consideration.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Reflections on giving blood

The gift of blood

I lived the early part of my life in Britain, emigrating to the U.S. when I was about 40. While in Britain I regularly donated blood. When I came to the U.S. I continued giving blood, but after two or three donations decided to stop. The experience was no longer a source of satisfaction to me. I’d like to explain why.

In The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy (1970, reissued 1997), Richard Titmuss described the voluntary donation of blood as “institutionalized altruism”: “[It] represents the relationship of giving between human beings in its purest form, because people give without the expectation that they will necessarily be given to in return.”

However, the concept of “altruism” does not quite capture the appeal of giving blood – at least, not for me. The altruist, unlike the egoist, gains satisfaction from giving to others. But the altruist still perceives those “others” as separate from his or her self, and consequently experiences giving as a loss. In these respects, the altruist and the egoist are alike. The only difference between them is that the altruist gains sufficient moral satisfaction from the giving to outweigh the loss, so that on balance the experience is a rewarding one.

For me, the essence of giving blood in the context of the British National Health Service was not altruism but the sense of participating in a community. Members of a community give not to “others” -- perceived as separate from the self – but to the community, perceived as an overarching entity that encompasses both self and others. In that sense, they give to another, broader aspect of the self, and do not experience the giving as a loss. Nor, for that matter, do they experience it as a gain, but rather as a transfer from one aspect of the self to another. Giving to the community is experienced more as egoism (of a special kind) than as altruism.

Whenever I gave blood in Britain, I was brought to sit and rest afterward with other donors in a special area where nurses gave us all biscuits and tea, to replace the lost fluid, and made sure that each of us felt well before leaving. When I gave blood in the U.S. there was none of this. True, we were free to continue lying down for a while after the blood was extracted, but no one asked how we felt or offered us anything to eat and drink. And this was why I stopped giving blood.

Of course, I could easily have solved the practical problem by taking a beverage with me and finding a spot nearby to drink it. However, it was not the practical problem that prompted my decision. Rather, the indifference shown to our welfare as donors brought home to me the fact that here in the U.S., where there is no health service for everyone, I was no longer participating in a community by giving blood. In Britain, I had given my blood without payment in the knowledge that a patient who needed it would likewise receive it without payment. Here, although I was giving my blood for free, the patient would still have to pay for it. That made of me a sucker, seduced into contributing to the profits of some medical business.

From a very informative article by Joel Schwartz [see reference], I learn that it is in fact common practice in the U.S. to offer blood donors fruit juice and cookies. I suppose I was just unlucky in that respect. The author also suggests that the fruit juice and cookies might be regarded as a sort of “payment” given in exchange for the blood.

For blood given in the context of a community, this is an absurd interpretation. Giving blood to the community weakens you, so you then receive sustenance from the community until your strength is restored. In the first instance you give, in the second you receive, but there is no exchange involved whatsoever. You are helping to look after others, but at the same time you are being looked after – as a matter of course, because you are part of the community. After all, if you need sustenance for a reason that has nothing to do with an act of giving on your part, you will still receive it. Giving and receiving arise not in response to one another, but out of participation in the community.

Reference. “Blood and altruism – Richard M. Titmuss’ criticism on the commercialization of blood,” Public Interest, Summer 1999

Saturday, July 17, 2010

In defense of assimilation

Assimilation has a bad press. Those who worship at the shrine of ethnic "identity" insult the honor of assimilators, calling them Mankurts, self-haters, rootless individuals, etc. -- and no one rises in their defense. And yet millions of people are always in process of assimilating. But they just get on with it, they rarely philosophize about it, at least in public.

The ethnicists claim that they are authentic, their "real selves" while assimilators lie to themselves and others and deny who they "really" are. But why give such great weight to descent in determining identity? And how authentic is it to dig into and try to reanimate a long-buried past? The objective circumstances of our world make us all complex and contradictory; authenticity requires recognition of that complexity, not an exclusive focus on one factor to the neglect of all others.

Akiva Orr (see argues that religion is the essential core of Jewish identity. If a person of Jewish background has lost faith in God and Torah, he or she will never succeed in reconstructing a coherent "Jewish" identity on a purely secular "ethnic" basis. Such efforts have led to endless confusion and hypocrisy, to the ongoing tragedy of Zionism. Better by far to accept that "the sacred hoop is broken" and take the path of assimilation.

I don't think this applies only to the Jews. For many centuries religion (a slightly different one, to be sure) was the essential core of Russian identity. Now Russians attempt to return to Orthodox Christianity, but not in most cases out of sincere faith in God and Christ, rather as a self-conscious search for ethnic identity. Or they speculate fruitlessly about some "Russian idea" that turns out to be something universal or panhuman, not specifically Russian at all.

The idea of assimilation raises a crucial question that is rarely recognized. Assimilation into what? In the past, the obvious answer was: into the dominant nation of the country where you live. Of course, if they were willing to receive you -- often they were not. To the extent that the dominant nation defined itself by descent, assimilation into it was very difficult and did inevitably entail an element of inauthenticity, because the assimilator was after all of a different descent.

Nowadays there is a better alternative -- assimilation into mankind. Members not only of ethnic minorities but also of ethnic majorities whose traditional identities have been lost, like the Russians, can aspire to such assimilation. It is, of course, assimilation into something that is still in the process of becoming, not something that is already firmly established. As such, the assimilator need not completely renounce his or her former identity but can fuse it into the wider synthesis of the species. That is more authentic as well as more dignified and can be experienced as a gain rather than a loss. (Gershenzon wrote about this.)

Assimilation into mankind, unlike assimilation into a dominant nation, need not rule out taking a special interest in the culture and history of the group from which you are descended. They are also part of mankind, after all. A special interest, not a total mental and emotional immersion that defines our identity. Our identity must center not on being a Jew or Circassian, Russian or Turk or Korean, but on our common human species being. The Mother-Planet, threatened by ecological apocalypse, demands it!

I was asked by someone to write about Circassians in this blog. Now I have done so!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Why doesn't big business support a national health service?

It is often argued that a "single payer" health insurance system run by the federal government or a national health service would be in the interests of American big business apart from the health insurance companies. The growing burden of healthcare costs on the economy would be brought under control, and companies would no longer have to pay insurance premiums for their employees. Companies in Britain and Canada are quite happy with the national health service in those countries.

So why does big business not promote a real healthcare reform? This is the question asked by Doug Henwood is Issue 120 of his Left Business Observer (a publication that I highly recommend for its astute analysis of American economic and political developments; see

Apparently some people offer a "web of influence" explanation that focuses on interlocks (overlapping membership) between insurance companies and other companies and on the role of insurance companies as a source of finance for other companies. Henwood presents detailed evidence to show that these are not very significant phenomena.

Basing himself on testimony from researchers who have interviewed top executives on the issue, Henwood states that some (perhaps even many) executives support "single payer" in private but are reluctant to make their views public for two reasons.

First, they worry about the possible reaction of other firms with which they do business. Small companies especially are considered hostile to "single payer." They do not stand to gain in terms of costs because they do not provide health insurance to their employees, while they would have to bear part of the additional tax burden. So they would see such a reform as an attempt to shift costs from big business to small business.

Second, they are afraid of "encouraging would-be expropriators." One informant formulates this fear as follows: "If you can take away someone else's business -- the insurance companies' business -- then you can take away mine." In other words, the politics of capitalist class solidarity trumps the economics of cost reduction.

Henwood adds another consideration: "Employers like workers to feel insecure. Fear of losing health coverage makes workers less willing to strike or resist pay cuts or speedups."

At least in this case, it is misleading to view reform politics solely as an arena of conflict among diverse business interests. It is also an arena of class struggle.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Memory Lane: I discover white racism

Some time in my early twenties, while I was working in the (British) Government Statistical Service, I went on a bus tour of Italy. At our first meal I happened to sit with a young couple who had immigrated to England from Trinidad. The man's name was Louis; the name of his wife I no longer recall. They were the only nonwhites in the tour group.

At the second meal I happened to sit with some of the other tourists. When I next ran into Louis and his wife, I saw that they were quite upset. "Stephen, why did you abandon us?" they asked. It became clear that they wanted me to stay with them all the time. At first I thought it was ridiculous. Then I realized that if I did not keep them company no one else would and they would feel miserable right through the tour. What sort of a vacation would it be for them? So I did as they asked.

Reflecting on the situation, I concluded that when black people say that the great majority of white people are racist they are not exaggerating. Of course, the really virulent racists may now be in the minority, but I had gained an inkling of the amount of suffering caused even by the passive racism of those who do no more than ignore and keep their distance from black people.

Later, when Louis and I were walking down a lane in Florence, I was astonished to see Mr. X approach us, a beautiful young woman by his side. Mr. X had been a colleague of mine in the statistical service. He was originally from Martinique. I did not know him well; we had met two or perhaps three times. I recall another (white) colleague remarking that he "had a chip on his shoulder," meaning that he had the irritating habit of complaining about racial discrimination -- which as we all know does not exist, or if it does exist is insignificant, or if it is significant is fast declining. Anyway, Mr. X recognized me too and the four of us stopped to talk.

I introduced Louis. "This is my friend Louis," I told them. Mr. X looked surprised. "This is your friend?!" he asked, as though he couldn't believe that he had heard correctly. Louis and I nodded. Then it was as though a wave of joy suddenly swept over Mr. X. He invited us to a nearby cafe. As we sat there I noticed that he kept gazing at Louis and myself, like a man in the desert who finally reaches an oasis and drinks and drinks and drinks to quench an enormous thirst. And I thought: what a world that such an ordinary thing (or something that SHOULD be a very ordinary thing) should evoke such a disproportionate reaction.

While we were still in Florence, Louis and I went at my suggestion to visit the synagogue there. I showed him round and explained what things were. He had never been in a synagogue before; it was a wondrous experience for him. Then later, when Louis and his wife and I were sitting together as usual at the hotel, his wife started to say something bad about "the Jews." Louis sprung to his feet in agitation and began yelling at her, over and over: "You stupid woman! You stupid woman!" She did not respond but just sat there frozen. After a bit things calmed down (I can't remember exactly how) and we were dancing and joking.

Memory Lane: How I got to kick the ball

This will be the first in a series of posts in which I recall experiences that helped to shape my outlook.

I think it was at the age of 12 that I developed a hostility to the principle of competition. The context was not economics or politics but sport -- to be precise, football (as I grew up in England, this means soccer). I very much wanted to play football -- or rather, not so much to play football as simply to run around after the ball with the other boys and kick it now and then. Unfortunately I couldn't run fast -- I had a tendency to asthma -- so I hardly ever got the chance to kick the ball, and I felt it was very unfair of the faster boys not to give me more of a chance to kick it.

In the formal games, we all lined up and the team leaders picked those they wanted. I was always one of the last to be selected. True, I wasn't the only one in this position. There were a number of others who were not wanted, but unlike me these others did not seem to mind not being wanted. They didn't even try to run after the ball, but chatted among themselves by the side of the field. They put on superior airs and regarded (or pretended to regard) football as a stupid waste of time.

There were also informal football games during break (recess), but the players did not allow me to take part. One day I defied their prohibition, ran after the ball, and managed to kick it two or three times. This annoyed them, especially as I did not attach myself to either team but just kicked the ball in any direction. Their patience quickly ran out and I was forcibly pushed out of the game. In the course of the struggle my glasses fell off and got broken. I started to cry.

The teacher on duty noticed me crying and came over. He was a decent sort and seemed very concerned. He did not quite understand what had happened and asked me to explain. Instead, I tried to explain, quite truthfully, that there was no need for him to be so concerned. The fact that I was crying did not mean that I was as upset as all that; sometimes you can be much more upset when you are not crying. I was a bit disoriented, but mainly I felt happy that I had kicked the ball.

Movements for democracy and the movement for socialism

Ideally there should be no conflict between movements to establish, defend and strengthen democratic rights and the movement for socialism. Socialism, understood as common ownership and democratic control of the means of production in the interests of the community, is a natural extension of democracy from the narrow sphere of politics to the whole of social life (and in particular, of course, to the economy). That is why an alternative term for "socialism" is (or used to be) "social democracy." Political democracy is also a prerequisite for the effective spread of socialist ideas and for a peaceful transition to socialism.
In practice, movements for democratic rights often get mixed up with causes that are antithetical not only to socialism but also to democracy itself. This happens in two different ways, depending on the type of regime that is suppressing democracy in a given country.

In countries where the anti-democratic forces rely on the backing of the US and other Western powers -- above all, in Latin America, e.g. Honduras -- the democratic movement is prone to fall hostage to the "struggle against US imperialism" waged by other dictatorial regimes that are at loggerheads with the US and its allies. Hence the warm relations between Chavez' government in Venezuela, which is still basically democratic, and the anti-democratic regimes in Cuba and Iran. Conversely, democratic dissidents under anti-Western regimes (Cuba, Iran, Vietnam, China, etc.) are easily fooled by the hypocritical Western propaganda in favor of democracy and human rights. Thereby people struggling for the same ideals in different places are set against one another and manipulated as pawns in the power game of world politics.

Democratic movements have weak defenses against such manipulation for two reasons. First, people suffering under intense repression understandably feel vulnerable or even helpless and look for help wherever they can find it. They may not be sufficiently suspicious of the motives of those who are so generous -- and selective -- in offering their "support" to struggling democrats. Why look a gift horse in the mouth? And second, they may be poorly equipped intellectually to analyze the motives of foreign "benefactors." The same people who understand the politics of their own country very well and exhibit a healthy cynicism in the domestic context may be terribly naive when it comes to the politics of a foreign country with a system rather different from that with which they are familiar. Or they may simply not care: all they care about is the situation at home and they view the rest of the world solely from that angle.

As a result, even if -- with assistance from foreign anti-democratic forces -- democratic activists succeed in overthrowing one form of oppression, all they will end up with is oppression in a slightly different form. The only way out of the trap is for them to broaden their horizons beyond national and bloc confines and reach out to those "on the other side" who work in a different context and use a different political language but nonetheless share their deepest aspirations.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Haiti "aid": follow-up

Yesterday I remarked that I didn't know what the effect of the current food aid to Haiti might be. I am now slightly better informed as a result of watching the Al Jazeera Fault Lines documentary "Haiti: The Politics of Rebuilding" on The Real News network at (a source that I highly recommend).

First, it appears that food is being distributed not only in Port-au-Prince but also in other towns that were NOT affected by the earthquake, and as in the past this must be harming local farmers and therefore increasing malnutrition.

Second, many of the people who earlier left the countryside to swell the shanty towns of the capital (now destroyed) have returned to their home villages. The big question is whether reconstruction efforts will be directed at agriculture so they can stay there or whether they will be forced to return to work in rebuilt factories in Port-au-Prince and once again make apparel and other trash for the US market. The popular organizations are pressing for the first option, while the official reconstruction plan backed by the US, World Bank etc. is geared to the second option, with the number employed in offshore industry envisioned to rise from 25,000 to 150,000.

We also learn that many workers were crushed to death in the earthquake because they were locked inside factories and unable to escape.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

An expose of "aid" to Haiti

I don't know what effect foreign "aid" has had in Haiti in the wake of the recent earthquake, but we are entitled to be highly skeptical in light of the revelations contained in a book that appeared not long before the disaster (on January 22, 2010 to be precise) -- Timothy T. Schwartz, Travesty in Haiti. The subtitle reads: "A true account of Christian missions, orphanages, fraud, food aid and drug trafficking." And on the back cover we find this summary description: "An anthropologist's personal story of working with foreign aid agencies and discovering that fraud, greed, corruption, apathy, and political agendas permeate the industry." The book is published by the author: no publishing house would touch it.

Timothy Schwartz went to live in a poor fishing hamlet in Haiti to gather material for his Ph.D. thesis, which he hoped would land him a good job with an aid agency. He was also hired to conduct a survey for CARE International. But when he applied for a position with this agency he just couldn't keep his mouth shut about the unwelcome realities he had discovered (though he had resolved to do so). He didn't get the job. Apparently he now works in tourism.

The most important single fact that the author proves beyond a shadow of reasonable doubt is that increases in the flow of food aid have led to INCREASES in malnutrition. This is because most of the food is stolen and enters the market, thereby depressing prices and ruining local farmers. Moreover, the aid agencies know very well that this is the result of their "humanitarian" efforts. Their real function is to dump American and EU food surpluses and expand export markets for American and EU agriculture.

Another striking revelation is an "orphanage" for children who are not only not orphans but whose parents are quite capable of providing for them -- basically an elite boarding school masquerading as an institution for poor orphans in order to defraud naive American donors who are actually poorer than these children's parents!

By turns horrifying and entertaining, this book is a very good read and will even teach you something about Haiti.

The novels of Duong Thu Huong

I am currently immersed in the novels of the Vietnamese writer Duong Thu Huong that have appeared in English (Beyond Illusions, Memories of a Pure Spring, Paradise of the Blind, Novel Without a Name). Born in 1947, she was one of three survivors of a group of forty Communist Youth League volunteers who sang and danced for the troops at the front in the American war. She was published and honored in Vietnam during the period of liberalization in the late 1980s, but then she was suddenly banned, expelled from the party in 1990, and imprisoned without charge for seven months in 1991.

In 1997 she was interviewed (through a translator) by the writer Robert Stone at the PEN Center in New York. You can find videos of the interview on YouTube. She confirms that she cast the deciding vote for her own expulsion at the meeting of her party organization. She also says that her neighbors are propagandized to regard her as an enemy of the state. Nevertheless, she is left at liberty and has evidently been allowed to make at least one trip abroad -- an ambiguous position that suggests she has protectors as well as opponents in high places.

In her novels as well as in the interview, Duong Thu Huong promotes an ethic of uncompromising integrity that seems inhumanly fanatical as well as unrealistic. Linh, the heroine of Beyond Illusions, recoils in disgust from her devoted journalist husband who has abandoned the revolutionary ideals they once shared in order to gain promotion at work and provide well for her and their child, so that she should eat well during pregnancy, so that the little girl should not "long in vain for a pair of new shoes." Any "normal" person who has made such "compromises" -- no less "necessary" in the West than in the East -- will sympathize with the husband and with the child devastated by her parents' divorce. That at least was my initial reaction. Then I thought: what kind of world would we be living in now if everyone for the last hundred years or so had indulged in such ruthless integrity? We would surely have achieved genuine worldwide democracy and communism long ago and our species would not be facing self-induced extinction. So much for our love for our children! New shoes, yes, but a horrifying future.

Duong Thu Huong is sincere and courageous, but like most dissidents in the "communist" countries she seems naive about the West -- although this is a natural reaction to the simplistic propaganda she has been force-fed throughout her life. She recounts how after "liberation" she went to Saigon and found cafes, bookstores, laughing people. Why did they need "liberating" at such a horrendous price? True, the price paid was excessive, especially considering what they were "liberated" into, but there was plenty of misery under the glittering surface, in the villages and sweatshops. Otherwise why did so many people join the Vietcong?

Apart from their value as literature (no doubt partly lost in translation), Duong Thu Huong's books are a mine of insights into Vietnamese "communist" society, which has never received the academic attention devoted to its Soviet, East European, and Chinese counterparts. To some extent her work compensates for the apparent absence of serious middle-level books on the society and economy. At least I have not yet located such books, but only superficial journalistic accounts and highly specialized (and extremely expensive) studies.