25. PROTESTS

It seems paradoxical to me that in the age of the web popular protest has become ever more difficult. This blog is an effort to enhance the effectiveness of mass demonstrations in a time of overwhelming technological advances in communication. We have seen serious demonstration in Turkey, Brazil and Indonesia this past summer resulting in minor positive changes and a major one in Egypt resulting in the full return of military dictatorship. Minor improvements are indeed occurring through the efforts of groups like www.change.org. However, wider themed protests like those on immigration, debt ceilings, youth unemployment, poverty, banking reform, and growing inequality seem impotent. The resulting  mass frustration is evident at all levels – particularly in the under twenty-fives.

Truly aroused by the launch of the Occupy movement in New York in 2011, I was thrilled by the openness, scope and perspective of those launching the protests: banking, money, capitalism, third world poverty, corruption, unemployment  and more were all being questioned and attacked.  As this wide-ranging protest paralleled my thinking in Dollars or Democracy (2004), I briefly participated in the Occupy movement at St.Paul’s Cathedral, London. I was immediately struck by the good-will of the participants and their loquaciousness. I admired their commitment to nonviolence. These demonstrating neophytes were seething with a desire for change.

Aside from such fundamental challenges as the ever increasing gap in attention spans and all-around diminished retentiveness, the good protesters of 2011 failed to have effective  organization, lacked experienced leaders, had far too wide and divergent goals, and had no tactical program beyond occupying very tiny open spaces adjacent to large institutions or buildings. (Wall Street, St. Paul’s etc.)  Simply staying in one location could not encompass such a real issue as student debt! The result was that by the spring of 2012 the media had just about forgotten their encampments.

Only rarely have the contributions of contemporary protest movements equaled the impact of past marches for trade unionism, women’s suffrage, civil rights, or the vast anti-war gatherings. The Arab spring has been the first and major 21st century exception. Thanks to the internet there has been increasing resort to protests by relatively powerless groups. “Spontaneity gives the protests an intoxicating sense of possibility,” wrote The Economist.1 Although the protesters have the ability to quickly change tack and pick up other winds to increase their numbers, their lack of solid agenda or well structured organization means that encirclement by the police or the military and the opposition of entrenched and well-funded economic and political forces swiftly put an end to their efforts.

Commentators in the press often criticize protesters for failing to have clearly defined demands, but the protesters contend that issuing rigid demands could prove counter-productive. Many protest groups have an “overriding commitment” to participatory democracy in which decisions are made by consensus. Meetings increasingly use hand signals to augment participation and “discussion facilitators” tend to replace the usual role of leaders  whom “security forces” could swiftly arrest.

In the past unaddressed protests have led to insurgency, civil resistance, riots, as well as social and/or political revolutions such as the American Revolution of the 1770’s and the French Revolution of 1789. More recently the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, the Palestinian intifada, and the revolution in Egypt have not led to greater freedom. Indeed, the political demonstrations in Paris in May 1968 and that of the “indignados” in Spain in 2011-12 saw the return of rightists.

Many protests in the 21st Century seem to have become political substitutes for opposition.  Protester rallies are in many ways shaped by the social media on the internet. In Brazil, for example, the protesters have come to regard traditional organization and political parties as redundant in the age of Twitter and Facebook.“They don’t even use loudspeakers to get their message across with thousands of people on the streets,” wrote one observer.2

New forms of social and political organization are essential so that the discontented  and despairing can express their anger  or channel their resentment without violence. Protest leaders, who could effectively control demonstrations, are usually sought out by police or intelligence forces and sequestered. As a consequence the leaderless crowds don’t know which way to turn and often get side-tracked by infiltrated provocateurs.

Globalization and the internet thus call for the invention of new forms of protest so that the voice of the people on this planet can become more effective. Joining a march can create a special feeling which signing a petition on the internet does not. A substitute for marches and rallies which gives protesters a sense of power has yet to be imagined or designed. Live, camera-produced social rallies might be a possibility, but are not likely to be as effective as the real thing: elected officials or dictators would not be seriously challenged. The threats and uncertainties posed by huge numbers on the streets, all demanding change, exert a power which a petition signed by 100,000 electronic signers does not! Until a new way is found much of the global electorate, unwilling to face tear gas and water-canon, will continue to feel voiceless, frustrated, isolated, impotent and desperate for change.

1“The march of protest,” The Economist, June 29, 2013.
2Simon Romeo, “Mass protests take on a life of their own in Brazil”, International Herald Tribune, June 22, 2013.

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24. Off-Key Plus and Minus

Minor things that truly bug me

loud music which kills all conversation in a restaurant

bicyclists when I’m driving in a car

cars when I’m a pedestrian crossing a street

nuisance telephone calls

the endless possible symptoms on prescription medicines

the illegibly small listings of additives on food labels

thickly sliced bread

the endlessly long advertising on American television

processed orange juice passed of as “fresh” in bars and restaurants

women who will not look at me nor smile in the metro, subway or tube

the new energy saving light bulbs which make reading difficult

having to take off my shoes, belt, and watch strap at airports

endless full page ads in magazines and newspapers for Swiss watches

the over-abundant use of anal expletives by Germans

and of the f-word by Americans and Britons

the passing off of dirty beds as modern art

incredibly polluted beaches strewn with plastics and rubbish

the cacophony of 20th Century “classical” music

the stale daily repetition of “have a good day”

What gives me delight

a ladybird landing on my hand

eating luscious mulberries from my tree

the brilliant full Moon on a clear night

frogs mating in my pool in March

J S Bach cantatas sung in all their glory

eating fresh Dutch herring

seeing the Northern Lights

swimming in warm and clean Mediterranean waters

observing the initial snowfall of the season

meteors flashing through the sky in August

attending the photographic openings of Henryk and Erwin

the first tiny violets in the spring

breathing truly fresh air

a little robin eating my crumbs

a flaming cedar log burning in my fireplace

walking my dog in the meadows

picking ripe apples and quinces in the fall

watching a hedgehog drink milk in the morning

wandering in the medieval streets of the Marais in Paris

seeing Helaine’s marble sculptures in Salisbury Cathedral

23. Dire Straights for the Oceans

Water, air and soil are all basic to our survival on this planet and yet, to my bewilderment, we are dramatically failing to protect them. Commercial exploitation, pollution and greed are all major factors, but I find it embarrassing how persistently we don’t get our priorities right even when the warning signals from our bees, trees, fish as well as our own health are so clear. Indeed the whole system of planet earth is being undermined irrespective of the mounting evidence. We don’t like the scientific facts or the necessary conclusions, coldly observes ecologist Thomas Lovejoy.1

Our oceans are now more acidic than they have been for 300 million years — affecting the vast number of species in them. This is in part due to the emissions of carbon dioxide produced by burning coal and oil for electricity, heating, manufacturing and transportation. Several decades pass between the carbon dioxide being emitted and the effects being recordable in the oceans. This implies that further acidification and warming of the seas is inevitable as the greenhouse gas emissions continue.

More than a third of the carbon dioxide that we have been producing are absorbed by and dissolved in the oceans. Prof. Alex Rogers of Oxford University says “The health of the ocean is spiraling downwards far more rapidly than we had thought. We are seeing greater change, happening faster, and the effects are more imminent than previously anticipated.”2

Overfishing is also contributing to the crisis in the combination of destructing forces imperiling marine life on which a large proportion of the world’s population depends for its nutrition. But not a single nation is really tackling the problem of overfishing according to the latest reports. Are we going to end up with:

“Water, water everywhere but no longer any fish to eat.”

Three-quarters of the world’s edible fish populations are being over-exploited. Controlling the use of mile-long fish nets, huge inboard freezers, and other destructive fishing equipment on the subsidized, large commercial vessels are all seen as critical. This also would give the large number of small scale operators a better chance of survival.

The “Critical State” of the Oceans is the headline of a scientific report out this month. The bad news extends from the cumulative impact on the entire spectrum of marine life, starting at the base of the food chain, marine phytoplankton.3

Most phytoplankton are invisible to the naked eye. This extraordinary species, of which there are 5,000 known varieties, sustain the aquatic food web, and they are responsible for 50% of the Earth’s oxygen. Half of each breath you take comes from these micro-organism!

Marine phytoplankton can be sensitive to the rising CO2 level and lowered pH. Only of late, however, have oceanographers begun to examine how these trends affect the phytoplankton species. A 2010 study by Dalhousie University in Canada published in Nature found a 40 per cent decline since 1950 in phytoplankton. More recently, and in concert with the continual warming up of the open seas, studies analyzing 1.5 million plankton DNA sequences show temperature plays a critical role in the chemical cycles of these organisms altering them by changing the natural cycles of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and phosphorous. This negatively affects their reproduction, making them scarce, and thus impacting life all the way up the food chain.4

The list of growing problems begins with ocean acidification, a direct result of burning fossil fuels. This acidification is occurring at a rate 10-to-100 times faster (depending upon the area) than ever recorded, with some estimates that by the end of the 21st century, the surface waters in some areas of the ocean may not be able to support shell-bearing plankton.5

The IPSO report claims coral is especially at risk because acidity dissolves calcium carbonate skeletons, which create reef structure. As well, increasing warmth leads to bleaching, causing corals to lose symbiotic algae. The report claims current governmental plans to cut emissions do not go far enough, nor fast enough, to save the world’s reefs. Corals are vital to the health of fisheries because they serve as the nurseries for the young fish and provide nourishment for the larger varieties.

The IPSO report also states that the carbon dioxide absorbed by the seas is higher than previously anticipated, The world’s oceans, by absorbing carbon dioxide and heat from the atmosphere, have shielded or slowed the rate of climate change on land. Accordingly, to a large extent, the potential harm associated with climate change has been hidden underwater.

Acidification diminishes development, i.e., growth and reproduction, of coral reefs, shellfish and plankton. According to Jane Luchenco, former director of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the effects of acidification are already present in some oyster fisheries, like those of the West Coast of the U.S. According to Luchenco, “You can actually see this happening … It’s not something a long way into the future. It is a very big problem.”6

Ninety percent (90%) of all life on the planet is in the ocean, a body of water so vast that scientists are only beginning to grasp the full extent of anthropogenic-caused degradation as a result of burning fossil fuels. I must add here that pollution has added to the disaster scenario: Our seas have become a dumping ground for a wide variety of pollutants, including pesticides and nutrients from aquaculture, sewage, industrial discharges, urban and industrial run-off, accidents, spillage, sea dumping by ships, mining, waste heat sources, and radioactive discharges like the Fukushima disaster.

Plastic marine debris pose a particularly severe threat: an estimated 90% of floating debris is plastic which can take centuries to break down. A section of the Pacific (the North Pacific Gyre) is home to the world’s largest floating “island” of trash, known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. The polluted area covers millions of square miles in an area larger than the entire United States. Ideas for dealing with this abound but little is actually being done as this is in international waters.

Mankind finds it hard to accept the scientific evidence that the upper 150 feet of the oceans have warmed by a full degree centigrade over the past 50 years and that there are no indications that the speed of such increase is changing. As the water temperature rise, so do the water levels because not only does ice around the poles melt but the water itself expands.7

Trevor Manuel, co-chair of the Global Ocean Commission, pronounced that its latest report this month was a “deafening alarm bell on humanity’s wider impacts on the global oceans.” He contends that governments “must respond as urgently as they do to national security threats.”  Will our short-term politicians now take heed of the longer term disaster threatening our oceans and in turn our very survival?

1Thomas Lovejoy, “Let Science set the facts,” International Herald Tribune, October 3, 2013.
2Fiona Harvey, “Mass Extinction feared over acidic oceans,” The Guardian, October 3, 2013.
3The International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) State of the Ocean Report. October 3, 2013.
4A. Toseland, et al, “The Impact of Temperature on Marine Phytoplankton Resource Allocation and Metabolism,” Nature, 2013.
5See: C.L.Dybas, “On a Collision Course: Oceans Plankton and Climate Change,” BioScience, 2006.
6Fiona Harvey, “Ocean Acidification due to Carbon Emissions is at Highest for 300M Years,” The Guardian, October 2, 2013.
7“Climate Science,” The Economist, October 5, 2013, p.12.

22. Extremism

I have never been an admirer of political or religious extremism.  Adolph Hitler was my introduction to extremism and initially I mistook him for a clown and laughed. That was in the days of Charlie Chaplin’s great impersonations. Perhaps laughter is the strongest weapon we possess against political extremists but it is very hard to laugh at someone so inept as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas filibustering the Senate floor for 21 hours, I now understand that extremism spells: Danger!

Some friends have argued that it takes two to tango in a democracy: the right and the left, the Tories and Labour, the capitalists and the socialists, those for downsizing government and those opposed. I have felt that unless the contenders in these divisions had some degree of civility, displayed a readiness for dialogue and were ultimately willing to compromise, the only solution was to vote the extremists out of office or expel them from whatever group or party they belonged and to replace them with “tolerants.”1

The complexity of the problem is illustrated by President Obama strongly denouncing Congressional extremists while he himself is viewed as an extremist by his Tea-Party opponents. For these radicalized members of the Republican Party bringing down the entire governmental process would be a triumph — even when they have no idea of what might follow. As President Theodore Roosevelt declared over a century ago: “Every reform movement has a lunatic fringe.”

It is significant that no political party ever calls itself “extremist,” or that its most radical members ever call each other, to the right or left, extremists. Tea-Party members see themselves as “true” conservatives and ardent patriots. They do not even accept being called “radical” because in America that word is regarded as pejorative. Earlier on in this series I wrote about “obstructionism”.2

The two terms are not exclusive. Obstructionists can be extremists and vice-versa. Obstructionists are frustrated and want to block change; extremists are protesters and want reform. The economist Ronald Wintrobe has noted that many extremist movements, even though they might have opposing ideologies, share a common set of characteristics: They are against any compromise, are entirely sure of their position, are intolerant of dissent within their group, and demonize the “other side.”

Robert F. Kennedy noted: ”What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists is not that they are extreme but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents.” In Kennedy’s unfortunate case the extremist who shot him was not only intolerant but murderous.

I find it difficult to acknowledge that politics are rarely rational: race, religions, class are all factors in determining political allegiance in a democracy. Many southern and right-wing Republicans have not been able to come to terms with the election and re-election of the first African-American president. They also have emotional problems with any form of gun control legislation, environmental protection, and science — all of which could undermine their basic beliefs. Part of their growing extremism is furthered by the provocation of the host of right-wing think tanks funded by such extreme billionaires as the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch.

The Heritage Foundation and its spin-off, Heritage Action for America, aided by lobbyists, teams of organizers and social media specialists are sponsors of most of the current extremist efforts. Heritage Action has taken to ranking members publicly according to how they vote and exposing them when these members of Congress do not follow the ‘conservative’ party line. Ultimately they threaten rebels with challengers in the party primaries. “When you are spending $550,000 attacking Republicans and not the Democrats who voted for Obamacare, it is entirely fair to question what your motives are,” said Brian Walsh.”3

Heritage Action has been effective in advancing its own power in Washington and has focused for several years on ways to defund the Obamacare health program which they view as more toxic than any government shut-down. Its place as the leader of America’s think tank extremists was confirmed in 2012 by its selection of the former senator and southern bigot, Jim DeMinto, to oversee its subversive operations in Washington.

But extremism in the United States has spread far beyond the corridors of power in the Congress. Media coverage has encouraged the polarization of extremes. Fox News, for example, presents the news as seen by the right — any other perspective is ignored. The so-called rebuttals are phony. The impact of broadcasters of venom, like Rush Limbaugh, is pronounced. It reinforces the prejudice and emotions of those on the right and succeeds in producing extreme views in an audience which no longer tolerates dissent. But then common forms of communication, such as debate, discussion, and disagreement, are no longer tolerated by most Americans.

I ask myself, where are the left-wing extremists of yesteryear? There are no effective ones that stand out! I have been surprised by the lack of focused anti-extremists for the very soul of the United States of America. I deem it high time for a national revulsion to be expressed against the distinctly narrow, anti-democratic, nihilistic practices of the Tea-Party extremists. If such revulsion ultimately takes hold, perhaps the voters can obliterate this highly destructive and dangerous grouping  of obstructionists in November 2014.

1Don’t bother to look for it in the dictionary — it is not there.
2See Blog #16 Oust the Obstructionists!
3Former communications director the National Republican Senatorial Committee.