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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Point Pleasant, West Virginia, Home of Mothman

I made my way back from Washington, D.C., where I'd just covered the September 15th Protest March via West Virginia. The mountains were rugged and beautiful; I exited the interstate in Western Maryland and encountered a string of former coal small towns nestled in a long valley.

By chance, I took West Virginia 35 to the west. I followed it well into the next day, heading directly west. The road, it should be noted, is known as Senator Byrd Highway, is four-laned from Elkins to I-79, the main north-south interstate cutting through West Virginia. Beyond, S.R. 35 follows a small stream through small hamlets and pleasant valleys, meandering towards Ohio.

Senator Byrd's highway might be an example of government waste, but it did make for easy driving, particularly at night. I guess in the all-about-me America of today, government largesse is only a bad thing if you aren't a beneficiary.

Plus, the mountains of West Virginia are now being physically dismantled (see the End Mountaintop Removal tag on this page), so it's only fair that the state receives something in return. While a road may not be adequate recompense for the loss of what is arguably West Virginia's greatest attraction--its natural scenery--, at least people will be able to get around more easily, as transiting through the mountainous terrain has long been an impediment to economic development.

Hopefully an enhanced road network will entice more environmentally friendly forms of economic development, in lieu of mountaintop removal. Mountaintop removal is an excellent example of unsustainable economics: coal-fired plants are the number one contributor to greenhouse gases. Also, as Google Earth's Monument to the Mountains attests, West Virginia will one day run out of mountains to remove. At least better roads will allow people to more easily transit through the scenery of denuded mountains to federal parks and nearby states that protect their natural heritage.

Drawn to Point Pleasant

As I made my way east, and closed in on the Ohio River, I found myself heading towards Point Pleasant. Was it just by chance I'd arrived? After all I had not been planning any particular route at the time, and 35 had peetered out, so had something else been pulling me there?

Point Pleasant is alongside the banks of the Ohio, and well protected from it by a thick and heavy flood gates. The Kanahwa River meets the Ohio there.

Point Pleasant has gone to great lengths to create a people-friendly river landing with wide walking paths. The riverside boardwalk had been a considerable effort and presented the town favorably from the river and Ohio beyond. I think riverboat cruises dock at the town, which puts the extensive landing to good use rather than having it just serve as some ornamental testimony to its past.

A giant mural covered the flood wall, on the river side. The mural took in all the details of a major battle fought there in 1774. (I have a video pan of the mural; hope to get it online.)

I later learned that the mural had been begun but gone unfinished by a German artist using a specially designed paint engineered to withstand 100-years of weathering. The painting was being completed by local painter, shown here.

A plaque labelled the Battle of Point Pleasant "the first battle of the Revolution" as it had occurred at the end of the French and Indian Wars, and was one of the last battles with native tribes fought under English leadership.

On the other side of the levy doors, next to the mural, stood two statues in stainless steel. One statue was Cornstalk's, the other that of General Andrew Lewis.

I would later talk to their sculptor, Robert Rauch, who lamented not being able to do Cornstalk at his full height--ostensibly 7 foot 6 inches!--but that would have overshadowed the accompanying General, who'd been victorious over the natives. Apparently political sensitivities had entered into the picture--or never left. These impulses had a historical context, considering one inscription beneath a 1909 monument describes the battle as "the most important battle ever waged between the forces of civilization and of barbarism in America."

Cornstalk died under suspicious circumstances--well, ok, he was murdered by settlers well after the wars had ended--and he had reputedly put a curse on the town with his dying lips.

This takes me to the phenomena of mothman for which the town of Mount Pleasant is most widely known. Mothman is a creature thought to have a wings and the torso of a man. Mothman's eyes are red and bloodshot, and were said to glow brilliantly in the dark. Hands and feet are clawed, insect-like. Mothman could fly, reports claim, without flapping his wings. A demon? Alien? Who's to say.

The first witness to mothman (as he would later be known) said he saw a pair of bright red orbs hovering in the dark fields by his house in 1966. His dog, a stalwart hunting breed, chased after the unknown source of the lights. Petrified, the witness stayed inside the remainder of the night, arming himself. In the morning, the dog couldn't be found nor would he ever be.

The hills around Point Pleasant were heavily excavated and TNT was made and stored there during World War II. The area, now a nature preserve, is apparently contaminated with numerous toxins left over from the production of explosives. In 1966, a pair of necking couples near the now-dismantled factory had seen mothman, who chased their car as it fled the scene, easily matching speeds of over 100 miles per hour!

Chance Encounters

My timing was good, pulled as I may have been by some mysterious source beyond my capacity to understand. While I'd been in DC there'd been a weekend of festivites in Point Pleasant dedicated to mothman. Then in one of Point Pleasant's downtown squares I encountered sculptor Bob Rauch as he was being filmed and interviewed by some people from peterhaasfilms.

{Editor's Note: Peter Haas is a movie publicist and documentary producer. I was unable to raise their website at peterhaasfilms.com. Their documentary on Mothman is scheduled for 2009. I want to thank them for letting me watch their interview.}

Rauch (picture) is pure West Virginia, colorful and creative but well versed on mothman memorabilia. He had seen mothman in 1966 and used the experience to model the impressive statue he'd later cast in stainless steel the same color as his cute truck.

The monument (picture) is impressive, a full-size replica. (See Mothman Museum below for more pictures.) Rauch was proud of mothman's eyes, made of rare red glass that had been shattered to re-create a bloodshot look the creature had.

Rauch and his daughter, who was also there, had invested considerable funds in the statue and other mothman paraphenalia as part of a multi-generational effort. A talented sculptor, Rauch dismissed the time commitment he'd made, content to craft statues in his garage as a simple man happy to practice his craft. Rauch claimed he had received no direct financial benefit for the statue, and I believed him to the point that I recommended that he sell miniature models of his statue as a means to recoup his investment.

Rauch had been concerned for inadequate security of his mothman statue, and grimaced as he explained how youths and uncaring tourists had manhandled and nearly bent his work of art by hanging on the wings. Rauch asserted that he'd been promised additional protection from the town but been denied. Sympathetic to the dangers, I suggested a good location for a surveillance camera.

Mothman had appeared just months before the collapse of the Silver Bridge which occurred in December of the following year.

The Silver Bridge had collapsed with tragic results, killing 46 people in an abrupt 100 foot fall to the Ohio. It had connected the town to the state of Ohio across the bridge and fallen during what a grey-haired local called "rush hour." The Silver Bridge had stood just to the left of the railroad bridge in my picture here. Nothing remains of the bridge today.

Reminded of the recent Minnesota bridge collapse, back by the landing I'd asked a gray-haried local if there'd been a maintenance problem contributing to the collapse. I was told that the collapse had been related to a structural flaw and stress on its bearings or some very rational reason.

The bridge collapse brought national media attention to Point Pleasant. Retroactively people connected previous appearances of mothman to signify a bad omen. Other unusual and unfortunate events had occured subsequent to other mothman sightings as well. (See Other Sources below for more links to more detailed resources.) It's not clear whether reports of mothman sightings rise after the occurance of the event. It may be that mothman sighting are infinitely more likely after an tragedy, and thus rationalize the theory that mothman appeared to warn townsfolk of an upcoming calamity.

I'm not one to judge what other people see. Rather I see it as my responsibility to report on the facts, at least when I'm writing articles of this nature. I can't tell you that mothman was real, not because he might not exist or have existed, but because I haven't seen him myself. Thus I can only take what I discovered about mothman on faith, and direct you to others who tell his story far better than I could.

Mothman Resources

The movie The Mothman Prophecies starring Richard Gere is the most famous recent work on the mothman phenomena. It is based on John Keel's 1975 book. Keel is often cited as the journalist who did the most to make mothman's legend grow.

Explanations and reports of sightings of mothman abound. One is here.

Point Pleasant has a museum dedicated to mothman. Nestled among other webpages is this accumulation of firsthand reports.

Loren Coleman assembled "The Mothman Death List," an ominously-titled assemblage of deaths of people connected in some way to the sightings of mothman. It should be noted that the bulk of what might seem like suspicious deaths are connected to the bridge collapse. There does seem to be a broader trend towards mortality among mothman witnesses, though...

The minutae explaining the apparently interconnected web of deaths makes for interesting reading. Coleman has a section of a book devoted to mothman.


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SoCal Fires: Product of Federal Neglect?

I'd been wandering the blogosphere and just commented on Naomi Klein's "Outsourcing Government" on Alternet (I am "PeaceWarrior" there) when I discovered a perfect example of Klein's hollowing out of government services in the recent Southern California fires.

Klein's article, published in the Los Angeles Times, echoes arguments made in her new book, Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

Klein's argument is persuasive. Like predators, private corporations seize on the opportunity presented by a disaster, natural or man-made. Functions formally assigned to the federal government are privatized, or have been abdicated to the point the federal response is anemic and uncoordinated.

In the disaster's aftermath, contractors are enriched at the public expense. The beneficiaries of federal spending are not the victims of the disaster but cronies of the administration who receive massive no-bid contracts supposedly supplanting the responsibilities of the federal government. Victims are then hopelessly left to depend on State and local governments or mega-charities for what the Feds--through their corporate proxies--are unwilling or unable to provide.

While not the best case of disaster capitalism, the fires in California, it appears, have been made worse by the inadequate funding of fire prevention efforts. Funding cuts to key federal agencies appear to have worsened the situation. And the aftermath of the fires might bring increased privatization of functions previously performed by government.

Commentary by Michael Rivero at whatreallyhappened.com (10/23/07 8:53 PST) brought to my attention this article from the San Diego Union-Tribune by Mike Lee (the link was down and technically challenged earlier this afternoon) with the subtitle "Proposal to reduce funding alarms backcounty residents." The article explains:

"Across San Diego County's fire country, an alliance of agencies has spent about $50 million to clear dead trees and overgrown brush after blazes charred much of the region in 2003.

But now, the federal fire-prevention money for their work is drying up. Priorities in Washington, D.C., have shifted to paying for national defense, cleanups after Hurricane Katrina and other needs, forestry experts say."

Bush apparently supported a 14% cut, according to the article. Lee quotes local leaders in San Diego County as saying "without enough fire-prevention money...it is only a matter of time before the county faces another massive wildfire."

The article says that US Forest Service funds fire prevention in the San Diego area along with other sources. The Forest Service operates within the Department of Agriculture.

The article highlights the $10 million in grants offered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service to San Diego area landowners for removing dead and dying trees and vegetation in the year 2004. Riverside County received $20 million, San Bernardino $70 million and San Diego County $30m, according to a NRCS release from May, 2004. Dead and dying trees are a major source of fuel for wildfires, and contribute to their intensity alonside other factors like humidity, wind speed, and wind direction.

In 2004, the NRCS--a Department of Agriculture entity--declared a emergency situation in Southern California and paid 100% of the costs for the what was then called the Tree Mortality program, foregoing the 25% cost-share match usually required from a local government sponsor. The payout showed the scale of the problem recognized by local fire officials and the federal government at the time. In October 2004 the project was renamed the Watershed Recovery Project.

Yet according to the NRCS release all funds were expected to be spent over the next two or three years. If the projection were accurate, it would appear that the funding dried up within the last year or so.

One year of delinquent funding might not sound like much. Yet there appeared to be an exceptionally large amount of diseased and dying trees in 2004. To assume the problem had been resolved since then underestimates the dire state of peril which existed in 2004, and denies the very obvious reality of an overabundance of natural fuels for the fires that are raging now in the region.

Like the levees of Lousiana prior to Katrina, fire prevention suffered a calamitous drop in funding. The Army Corps of Engineers, responsible for maintaining the system of canals and levees around New Orleans, saw their funding drop as the result of budget priorities in Iraq. While reduced funding for the levees might not sound like too big a deal, actually the levees are constantly sinking, which meant that ongoing levee construction is required to keep the levees at their previous heights (or more accurately, their depth.)

Constantly sinking, levees need funds for constant building and strengthening at their base. With the Army Corps of Engineers budget depleted by its responsibilities in Iraq, the levees in New Orleans saw less federal funding and maintenance. The consequence was massive flooding and a disaster-struck city which has yet to recover.

FAST: Partnership worked to minimize fire danger

In his article, Mike Lee describes a Forest Area Safety Taskforce that wons awards for coordinating the removal of naturally abundant fuel for wildfires. The group coordinated removal efforts of dead and dying trees and vegetation within San Diego County for a number of local entities alongside county, state, and federal agencies.

The FAST's fact sheet states that the object of a US Forest Service grant is "to remove dead, dying and diseased trees located within 200 feet of an evacuation corridor." The purpose of the NRCS's grant is "to remove dead dying and diseased trees located within 200 feet of a structure or a roadway."

The fire situation confronting Southern California came with ample warning. California's trees have been dying in huge numbers, with up to 70% of all trees in some areas already dead, which means the fires were widely anticipated. FAST offers an excellent white paper on the scope of the threat here (.pdf).

According to FAST's newsletter (.pdf), the USFS and NRCS combined to remove some 34,000 trees as of April, 2007 (starting date uncertain). The County of San Diego did the large majority of brush removal in the county.

The San Diego Union-Tribune article from April '07 by Lee announced that "task force officials have trimmed their meeting schedule to once every other month because they are essentially out of funds." This would indicate funding had been drying up.

FAST's last newsletter is dated April, 2007. Not knowing the group's operating budget or resources, I can't deduce whether wide staggering of FAST's newsletter is evidence of a funding decrease.

There's no denying the progress made by FAST. Federal funding undoubtedly played a huge part. With more federal funding, much of the fire's spread may have been better contained.

Funds decrease (or not?)

Diving into the federal budget numbers, so far I've been unable to ascertain the amounts spent on fire prevention. Funds devoted to fire prevention are hard to distinguish from those spent to fight fires, and a patchwork of grants makes the researching the source of funding a challenge.

FAST is dependent on federal funding. The Forest Area Safety Taskforce's websitelists both the County of San Diego and California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection as "Interested Stakeholders" alongside the Bureau of Land Management and the National Resources Conservation Service. Grants from those two federal agencies, alongside the Forest Service, support FAST and the efforts of groups like it nationwide.

The success of fire prevention efforts depends on federal benefactors so it follows that those federal agencies are stressed for funding, the fire prevention effort will suffer.

Much of the fire prevention effort is paid through grants, which are a notoriously unpredictable source of funding, especially for something as critical as fire prevention. One report from the Democratic Policy Committee in the Senate explains that an increase in the budget for the Bureau of Land Management's wildland fire management is forthcoming, but adds a caveat:

"The Bush budget eliminates funding for the rural fire assistance program in the Department of the Interior, which helps reduce the risk of damage resulting from catastrophic wildfires and supports rural fire departments. President Bush would also eliminate the state and local fire assistance program, which supports cost-shared grants to local and rural fire protection districts that protect small communities."

I'm still researching the role that Bureau of Land Management plays in preventative efforts; suffice to say they are an official partner in FAST. Another Federal Agency plays a direct role in supervising the large federal forests in Southern California. Cuts for the Forest Service are on the way for fiscal year 2008, which we are now in. According to the Democratic Policy Committee report, "within the Forest Service budget, the fire management program would decrease by $155 million, from $1.715 billion to $1.56 billion; state and private forestry programs would be cut by $89 million..."

In Washington, and on matter of budget, perspective is a matter of politics. Commentary on the Department of Agriculture budget for 2007 by the White House explains that the President's Budget..."continues Forest Service reforms that will result in a savings of more than $115 million over three years."

White House budget estimates for 2006 and 2007 do in fact show higher federal spending for the National Forest Service and the NRCS, both key sources of funding for fire prevention. Forest service spending was estimated to be $868 million in 2006 and $806 million in 2007, up from actual spending of $689m in 2005.

An estimate for National Resources Conservation Service spending was 1.6 billion in 2006 and 1.78 billion in 2007, both up from 2005 actual spending of 1.2 billion. The NRCS is a partner in the FAST program, so funding restraints might make a direct impact on fire prevention efforts.

Fires are getting more expensive to fight and this reflects the rising costs of fire fighting associated with bigger fires and drier conditions (alongside more rural housing to protect). Democrats in the Senate would accuse the White House of insufficiently funding fire prevention efforts, and blame Bush, although it remains unclear how much of the funding is devoted to fire fighting versus how much is spent to prevent fires.

Whatever the year-to-year budget outlays, fire fighting is consuming a rapidly growing portion of the NFS budget. A 2007 article by Perry Backus of the Missoulian (Montana) explains:

"In 1991, the Forest Service spent 13 percent of its total budget on wildland fire management. Last year, 45 percent of the agency's budget went to fighting fire."

The article spotlights the increased expense of fighting fires for a variety of reasons, including the spread of "homes being built in the wildland-urban interface" and longer and stronger fires.

It's now more than possible that even modest increases in budgets for the fire prevention programs led by the Forest Service and National Resources Conservation Services would be insufficient. The rise in firefighting costs is dramatic:

"The 10-year average firefighting cost for fiscal year 2008 was $911 million - a 23 percent increase from just last year. The Forest Service projects the costs could exceed $1 billion by 2009."

Higher costs to fight fires mean less money may be available for fire mitigation and prevention. Over the years, inadequate funds for protecting places like San Diego County from wildfires meant that the fires were that more destructive when they came. Being more destructive, fires cost more to fight and--in a worsening spiral--drain funds available for prevention.

Like treating drug addicts, it may be that fighting the source of problems--in San Diego's case, the dead and dying trees and vegetation--preventively will reduce the costs of firefighting.

The underfunding of groups like FAST signifies neglect of our nation's public lands, or at least the unwillingness or inability of Washington to make money available. Like the treatment of drug addicts, which might save $10 in costs to society for every rehab dollar spent, removing undergrowth and dead trees might drastically reduce the economic costs of fires by reducing their intensity, through reducing the amount of dead and dry plant matter that is available to fuel wildfires. Other tactics like the building of fire retention lines ("fuel breaks") produce benefits that may greatly exceed their cost over the longer term.

Looking at the astronomical economic costs of the fires raging now, surely funds spent on preventative efforts look wiser in hindsight. Perhaps damage reports will show the effectiveness of dead and dying brush/tree removal in places where those fire prevention efforts were made. Once the costs to Southern California's economy are totaled, the money spent on mitigating the intensity of future fires will be seen as a prudent investment. Administration of fire prevention programs should be seen as a vital responsibility of government at all levels.

Prophetic words

Surely the mammoth fires that raged in Southern California in October 2003 raised the awareness of the relationship between fire mitigation and impact. The fires then were the worst in California history according to San Diego County supervisor Dianne Jacob.

In a 2004 Address, Jacob explains the predicament as she sees it:

"We need to view fire as a natural force of nature. It gets rid of old growth and replenishes nutrients so that land can renew itself. State and Federal environmental rules ignore this lifecycle. Over-zealous regulations have cultivated a Back Country full of overgrown brush. Getting rid of this dangerous kindling takes years of bureaucratic paperwork... just to get started. The result is the kind of unmanaged tinderbox that exploded during the October Fires." [link]

Jacob blames the Feds for overprotective constraints on brush and dead tree removal, results of "onerous regulations" like the California Environmental Quality Act and the Federal Endangered Species Act which she says "are not up to date with the science of forestry." [link]

One issue Jacob doesn't seem to address is the sprawling growth of San Diego and the residential charge into previously undeveloped regions, where fire is both natural and regenerative by her admission. The proximity of rural houses to heavily forested areas clearly magnifies the dangers of fire and ultimately justifies paying for fire prevention efforts at the local level. From a social justice perspective, those choosing to live in these areas should perhaps bear the costs of firefighting and prevention.

Surely funding for FAST would have happened if Jacob had done a better job of selling her position on fire prevention to her fellow supervisors; she'd been undeniably right in her commitment to clear brush and trees and even predicted the next one should nothing be done.

The failure to fund FAST out of County coffers suggests that the County of San Diego relied on the federal government grants from the Forest Service and NRCS for at least a portion of the fire prevention costs.

Unlike budgets at the state or Federal level, the San Diego County budget--over which I presume Jacob and her fellow Supervisors had influence--was in good condition. Jacob indicates in her State of the County address in 2004 that "San Diego County's budget looks nothing like the State's. We are as solid as they are weak. Where they are flat broke, we are financially sound."

By this admission we know that from a funding perspective San Diego County could have spent more to prevent fires, and not be dependent on federal funds. Also, unfortunately for Jacob's noble cause, the shortage of money in Sacramento meant that less was available for fire prevention and that the state's financial responsibilities in preventing fires would go underfunded. This should have made the need to fund firefighting through local channels more apparent, and excuse state and federal financial indiscretions as a source of blame being that more financial resources could have been committed by the County.

Jacob might argue that failure of the state and federal agencies to clear brush and dead trees worsened the situation. This accusation might lay some of the blame for the fires with the state or Feds. If that's the case, then federal funding is insufficient, which would be a failure of those in control of the federal budget. At this point we can't ascertain where the fires began or how the fires spread, so we can't blame the Federal or State governments, even if they do own a large chunk of the lands there.

The warning cry she let loose in 2004 apparently could not carry to Washington, DC., where fellow Republicans--then in control--could have done more to fund the Forestry Service and other federal bodies responsible for fire prevention on federal lands, or expedite the grant-process in order to benefit groups like FAST.

The problem may lie not so much in the size of funding but how efficiently funds are allocated. Apparently, fire management budgets have been pressured for years. Backus' article in the Missoulian repeats a statement made by five former Forest Service chiefs:

“As Chiefs of the U.S. Forest Service from 1979 to 2007, we wish to express in the strongest way that the Forest Service has been put into an untenable financial situation due to the way fire suppression funding is being handled in the federal budget.”

The willingness of the federal government to underfund vital elements of disaster prevention is a very visible soft spot in the safety and security blanket we Americans typically ascribe to our government. If there's a threat, especially one of this magnitude, surely our government would know about it. Surely something would be done to protect us, right?

Look no farther than the under-funding of levee maintenance pre-Katrina to see how the dangers of depending on continued federal funding in disaster prevention or mitigation. In California, politicians at the county level could blame Washington for failing to fund. But the failure to take adequate efforts to prevent fire damage can't belong to the federal or state governments alone.

In the aftermath of a disaster, particularly a natural one, blame can always be easily cast. Yet the costs and damage of the fires almost certainly would have been reduced by fully funding FAST and other groups trying to prevent fires or reduce the size of the fuel base.

Whatever political games are being played, funding directed towards fire prevention has been constricted by the intensity of fires, which is a function of how much dead and dry vegetation is available, alongside the strength of seasonal winds, intensity of drought, and other aggravating circumstances. Judging by the magnitude of the fires now raging, the consequences of inadequate fire prevention are obvious to see. The fires were sure to occur, and their spread and intensity remained the only possible "control factors" in the overall equation. As Southern Californians wander among the smoldering embers of their former homes, what remains unclear is whether enough was being done, and spent, on prevention.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Ex-cop, Vietnam veteran focuses his fury on the war

I met D. in Maryland by chance, stopping to refresh myself after a day of wandering the attractive community where D. lives.

I'm choosing to keep D. anonymous because I don't want to misquote him, or expose his views without his permission.

D's obviously quite fit for a man his age--I'd guess late 50's. He wears jeans and a short pony tail; he's got a tanned, rugged look. His blue eyes are crystal sharp; he drinks a beer but his talk is clear and focused.

D. bears a grudge with Bush and Cheney and all their crew--like others, D. is bursting with brutal honesty, as if revealing his true feelings towards the President will release some of the hate he's been carrying around.

Our talk turns to Vietnam. D is a Vietnam veteran. We talked about body bags, and what is done with dog tags to corpses returning from abroad.

Gory stuff; D. isn't the first Vietnam veteran I've heard open up. I'd met an Amtrak cook who'd talked over a late night drinking session in New Orleans. {I'd lost it--literally--and I'm not sure it was all the whiskey I'd drunk that night or what chef had told me. No matter--I simply hope telling me what had gone on helped him heal.}

My experience with Vietnam vets tells me that these are resilient people, proud of their service but reluctant to reveal their wartime experiences. D. was hardly the kind of man to expose his feelings to a stranger, which is what made his willingness to openly voice hatred of the Commander-in-chief and the nefarious crew that started the war all the more powerful. I had unleashed a fury dormant in a man of strong opinions, someone not prone to idle chatter.

Media coverage of Dover AFB is blacked out, D. tells me. Why, D. asks me.

I tell him that's where corpses from Iraq are brought home. He and I both know the media war--him being a vet and me knowing what I do about this war.

Compared to the Tet offensive in Vietnam in 1968, where hundred of GIs would come home in body bags every week, now we see scarcely a dozen from Iraq. D. didn't say that the casualty count was too low--with a son at risk, he was certainly in no mood to see casualties rise. Still, the comparison left me with the idea that the antiwar movement would be far more active if the casualties mounted as they had during Vietnam.

D. has a son in the Marine Corps in Iraq.

D. says the Corps had changed his boy greatly, where his personality has changed radically, into a killing machine utterly unrecognizable from his former self--the man that had been their son before the transformation. Marines pray to God for hostilities to come along, D. tells me.

Turns out D. is a retired cop. 35 years on the job and in DC no less. Since I'm on my way to the protest there, he's got my attention--what will the police reception be like? I'd searched the DC police's website, but being that this was my first major protest I needed to know just what really went on.

D. told me about protests in 1971, I believe the year was. He'd become a DC cop straight out of Vietnam.

There'd been huge protests then, and some 10,000 had been arrested during one particularly wild period, D. explained.

"Washington is a city that depends on its traffic circles," D. tells me.

D. then explains how Abbie Hoffman had instructed his followers to accumulate every old junker they could and drive them into the city, on a weekday just before rush hour. Then he said how Hoffman and his nefarious pranksters parked the junkers in traffic circles, crawled under the cars and proceeded to hammer holes in the gas tanks.

Lit afire, flaming gasoline streaming from their tanks, the old behemoths burned and DC traffic was shut down. For days.

I asked D. if that's what it would take to end this war-radical confrontation.

Catching on to the possibility his recollections of Vietnam era protest mights be radicalizing me, D. then gave me very pointed instructions. When asked to leave by police, obey their instructions, he told me.

D. explained that when cops start telling people what to do, the danger increases dramatically. The risk of what happening wasn't exactly clear, which in itself added some real meaning to the warning, as D. was talking about dire bodily harm more than simple arrest.

I certainly had no intention of confronting anyone in DC, but D.'s warning would stick in my mind. It had been his city. He knew what had happened there in the last war, from the other side.

I'd been impacted by this chance encounter, and the conversation served as an more important insight into another person world, someone who had to live with the extreme stress of having a child in Iraq.

The conversation I had with D. gave me a great perspective on what he felt about the war. It was as if my first story about the protest had been told before it had even begun.

The style with which D. talked about war could really only come from a veteran of war, someone who'd seen men die up close and personal. Being a retired cop, D. also lent a tremendous amount of credibility to what he said. And the emotional hook was his own son being in Iraq. How D. balanced his emotions I could not begin to fathom.

Like grunts in Vietnam, he put up with a lot, too much really for any one person to deal with. But I'd say D. could cope far better than most, but the burden is truly heavy. And like a grunt, D. is expected to put up with a lot. But that wasn't were the story ended; D. refused to remain silent, and would offer his very personal brand of hatred for those who got us into this war. These emotions were running close to the surface, just waiting for a passing listener then,,,wham,,,out they come, like furious djinnis out of the bottle.

D.'s personal goal was clearly to get his children back from the war. Serving in Vietnam must have given hime a close look into the horrors and madness of war.

A rare breed, people like D. impress me with the strength of their convictions, their belief that the war is wrong and that Americans had been and were continuing to be misled. In this sense, D. is like a hippie but with none of the counter-cultural tendencies, which makes his grudge that much more significant.

But D. wasn't a hippie: he'd been on the other side of the law back then. I guess his utter despise for Bush was as radical a protest as he could muster, in his own way.

D. may not be lining up to protest the war, but his opinion counts with the people who matter, in a way that transcend politics. Honestly, I'd be scared if I were one of those who'd authorized this war and supported its continuation. I wouldn't fear the usual critics on the other side, but rather animosity that comes from within--from veterans like D., loyal unassuming patriots who hate what they've done to our country.

If the war is for the heart and soul of America's bluebloods, it's already been lost. The cause and even the war itself is lost if these people hate the war for they are our nation's backbone. And they are angry.

Mainstream Media Whiplash

There are countless stories like D.'s waiting to be told. Yet the mainstream media hasn't been telling them.

I began this blog to respond to inadequate media coverage. My motivation was the sin of omission practiced by media corporations in the run-up to Iraq, as well as their coverage of the Plame scandal.

I see it as my duty to tell the stories that the media does not tell. People like D. are eager to have their voices heard. I don't need fancy equipment or editing machines to tell their stories, I simply need the patience to listen, the compassion to care, and the means to tell them.

I made my protest video with a Sony camcorder hand-me-down and a three-year-old Minolta. Sure I got some scoffs from the pros, but hey I was there at Lafayette Square capturing the real story which wasn't up on the stage but out in the sea of faces out in the crowd. While my Interviews video wasn't so great, I was also doing a service to the antiwar movement by letting people speak.

One person in particular that struck me was at the end of the tape, a woman sitting by herself, addressing Ahmadinejad, in Farsi no less. Taking the time to sit down and talk with her showed me how kind and delicate this person was, and how she really did love and care for Iranians and the victims of US military aggression. These are the people that made the protest real, not the high falutin' figures we see celebrated in the mainstream. Their remarkableness lies in just how much they resemble us, in just how much like us they are. The only difference is that they are willing to participate personally and force the establishment to count them among their detractors.

Only a physical presence can make that discontent known.

With no advertizers, I have no ulterior motives for protecting anyone. So I am as free and independent as I possibly could be. But my limited audience attests to important of reach. And with a larger audience comes responsibility. Americans are as busy as ever: they are owed clear and unbiased news information.

I don't intend to gain great popularity. What is praised most by the mainstream is what I shun; the stories I feel I should tell are those which they don't.


The domination of the mainstream media by massive conglomerates has made the status quo completely acceptable. I went to a conference at the University of Illinois run by Robert Chesney and his freepress.net in 2005 that showed just how five companies had come to own over 85%+ of the media outlets in this country. The ramifications were staggering; the takeover meant independent outlets had been eliminated from the broadcast spectrum.

The leadership composition of the FCC under Bush meant that traditional federal regulatory standards were subverted. Throughout his govenrment, former lobbyists became Department heads, in a wholesale abandonment of conflict-of-interest concerns that has since resulted in a massive drop-off in mine safety and mountaintop removal, among many other consequences.

Ownership of the media by a few conglomerates meant powerful business interests and overachieving businessmen control the coverage. Jack Welch, CEO of GE, was an ardent Bush supporter alongside Murdoch of FOX, whose network is arguably the most partisan in modern American history. GE is the nation's largest military contractor.

Rather than shape the news by choosing favorable stories, most mainstream media opts for a game of news suppression and dumbing down. Products that sister divisions sell naturally take up a large portion of the "news". With entertainment divisions, media conglomerates have a vested interest in showcasing music celebrities in their camp, and writers from print media sold by publishing houses owned by the same conglomerate.

A culture of consumerism is cultivated, as media is meant to be a product that serves related brands as a push to market. News that has no marketing value is seen as valueless. As a matter of fact, one of the first step of media consolidation is to eliminate jobs that produce hard content. News divisions are treated as independent profit centers; naturally this makes them vulnerable to funding cuts. And as the content dumbs down, and hard news increasingly makes way for infotainment and celebrity marketing, the quality suffers.

Discerning news consumers turn to other sources, which may have further depressed the value of news entities subject to corporate subterfuge. Alternative media may attract a good portion of MSM "news" viewers completely turned off by Natalie Holloway, OJ Simpson, and the blonde who died in the Bahamas.

If the marketplace for news is truly free, then the market will turn away from watered-down crap in favor of real news. Yet the media conglomerates prey on ignorance, and channel unwitting news consumers into brand purchasers as if the news were a giant marketing funnel.

Eventually people will begin to wake up. Already they have. Every month more people flock to the Web. As the dilemna we now face in Iraq becomes clear, the lies that launched the Iraq war have come under additional scrutiny. And as many in the blogosphere have been saying for years now, the mainstream media has largely been responsible for letting the administration's fallacies go unchecked. Look no further than the Judith Miller stories in the New York Times on how editorial discretion, traditionally a source of moderation and temperance in news coverage, became an accelerant for prowar propaganda.

The motivations of omitting accurate coverage and criticizing government position were largely political. Newspaper owners are largely Republican--the larger the conglomerate, the more likely the owners are to be either ardent Zionists or avid greed-is-good Republicans. So when the media consolidation train began rolling, a pro-Republican bias was almost certain to spread to the editorial ranks and into the content of the various media. No big surprise, therefore, that criticism of the war was suppressed, figures like Donahue fired, and the unverified assertions of Scooter Libby's friend Miller about Iraqi WMD made into front page material.

The first step in addressing this problem is getting the American people to understand there is a problem. Unfortunately, the price of our slumber is perhaps the most expensive war in American history. Like some war supporters say, we may find ourselves now in an inextractible position.

In a Spiegel Online interview, Seymour Hersh called Iraq a strategic failure of epic proportions. Hersh goes on, saying that Bush is:

"...secretive and he doesn't tell Congress anything and he's inured to what we write. In such a case, we (journalists) become more important. The First Amendment failed and the American press failed the Constitution. We were jingoistic. And that was a terrible failing. I'm asked the question all the time: What happened to my old paper, the New York Times? And I now say, they stink. They missed it. They missed the biggest story of the time and they're going to have to live with it." [Link above]

I'm guessing "the biggest story of the time" is the flagrant abuse of the public trust in the lead-up to Iraq--outright lying to start a war. Hersh is telling those in the know what we've known for years: that the US media failed to tell the story they had to and as a result the US is in a dreadful predicament which will likely culminate in more terrorism, a bankrupt Treasury, a run-down military, untold suffering, and more than a million deaths and counting.

Covering the "little" story is a responsibility that has been rightfully transferred from major media companies to blogs and the alternative media. As the corporate media has failed to be objective, it has subsequently lost viewership. This is the yin and yang of any truly free market; eventually viewership will transfer to the most deserving outlets, assuming people have choices and know the difference between fake news and the real thing.

The public's inability to discern between the two is viewed as an advantage by corporate media directors, who believe that dumbing down makes news more commerically viable. We can only hope the American people can see what's being done to shape their media environment behind their backs, arranged in the corridors of government in a quid pro quo aligning corporate takeovers with inadequate oversight.

Unfortunately, as bad as it is, Iraq may be far from the worst thing that can come from media omission and the uncontested insertion of government propaganda in the media stream. More wars may be on the platter, carried alongside the manipulation of fear for political purposes, which is a hallmark of the War on Terror.

These Orwellian techniques may not end with the Bush presidency; media manipulation could lead to the creation of a full-blown Orwellian state. For a nightmare scenario, see my review and commentary on Children of Men.

Other Sources

McChesney and the freepress people--there are other similar groups as well--have been very active from the earliest days of the Bush junta. They've participated in the fight against selling off public airwaves as well as telecom plans to put toll booths on the information superhighway. And in the recent FISA law-breaking, with retroactive immunity for telecoms, freepress.net fully anticipated a violation of our privacy rights.

For grins, freepress has a Whack-A-Murdoch game showing just how broadly Fox and its sister companies have spread. Their Stopbigmedia.com has organized information on the reality of media consolidation and the need to oppose the corporate takeover of our media.


Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Triumph of the National Security State

AT&T allegedly devoted a windowless room, 641-A, for US government spying on its customers, according to this Harper's piece by John Horton. The whistleblower, Mark Klein, has set off lawsuits directed at AT&T, alongside other telecoms, for their failure to protect the confidentiality of customer data, which includes e-mails and voice and data communications. Wired's article is here.

Government agents were reputedly given access to any information they sought on any of AT&T's customers. Additionally, any e-mails from other providers like Verizon sent into AT&T's network were vulnerable to spying. Open and unfettered access allowed the US government to peer into the private lives of millions.

Telecommunications firms have been a top political contributor and are now using their influence to gain a blanket immunity, retroactive to the dates in which the spying occured.

This defensiveness doesn't bode well for the telecomms. If they are worried about the consequences of giving government access, they must understand the true scope of the liability. Admitting that they'd given the government unconditional access may uncover their complicity in appeasing the information-hungry needs of the National Security State.

Into the risky legal waters the government intends to charge to protect their corporate benefactors, using the ubiquitous security argument: we need spying to keep you safe. Challenged for details, the government can claim that our national security is threatened should they reveal their methods. Clearly the firms would love to avoid their responsibility by claiming the need for secrecy. The Administration has gone to great lengths to cover its trail, classify vast volumes of information top secret and slamming shut lines of inquiries into its misdeeds.

The Adminstration's Unitary Executive approach to its responsibilities under the Constitution neuters the need for transparency or Congressional approval, dismissing those traditional restraints on its powers as a "pre-9/11 mindset."

If John Woo's interpretation of the Constitution is accurate, Bush is entitled to break any law he chooses in the name of protecting the American people. Naturally the primacy of security concerns shortchanges accountability and secrecy is used to mask government conduct, no matter how egregious, up to and including torture and warrantless spying.

Once again the threat posed by terrorism fosters corporate interdependency with our government--a progression not unseen by many who compare the rise of fascism to the present political environment. Fascism is defined as the perfect blend of co-dependent corporate sector and public. Needs of the National Security State offer a easily excused rationale for expanding the size of government.

Playing politics with our security

Corporations position as the benefactors of politicians reminds us of the days of Venice--Rove's now-popular style of winner-take-all politicking has been compared to the Macchiavellian period in which might made right and deception ruled.

The government intrusions on privacy are justified by the omnipresent boogeyman, who in the present case happens to come in the form of an radical Islamic fundamentalist. The terrorist has become the perfect enemy.

Alongside the War on Drugs, the War on Terror has landed squat on the Constitution and taken one there as well. Both expand the State; both appear unwinnable in the present age. In both "wars" we disintermediate due process believing terrorists dangerous enough, and drug dealers evil enough, to impose draconian punishments, preemptively, to ward off the societal malady associated with these foes that never seem to go away.

Scarily, opposing the War on ____ is equated with weakness, in a direct quote of Goering which advocated the creation of a phantasmal enemy through which Right-wingers could expose the softness of more pacifistic elements who'd been lax in opposing the threat.

The neo-conservatives know Nazi propaganda and the stream of lies told to the German people well; Strauss, the school's ideological head, was a survivor of the Nazi death machine. Having suffered alongside so many other European Jews, Strauss was committed to the concept of a good government--a democracy--doing all it can to stop the rise of a dictator like Hitler.

Rhetorically, making Saddam Hussein the boogeyman made for good theatre in its day. The timing was significant: the US had easily toppled the Taliban. An election was approaching and a war seemed to be an attractive method of sustaining Bush's popularity. Anchored always in the short-term, Rove and other political advisors far ont he right opted to spark the war based on fabricated intelligence, presented by the White House Iraq Group--under the control of the Vice Presidency.

The cherry-picked fictions put out by the Office of Special Plans formed the background of prowar propaganda dispensed by the White House. The OSP was a a murky group of shadow private consultants led by Douglas Feith who been brought in to make a case for war, as the Downing Street Memo would attest, in which intelligence was fixed around the policy which was, in this case to go to war.

Awake all ye from your endless slumber!

Perception is reality in politics and like our choices or not, we must make a choice (and as the Rush song goes not deciding is still a choice.) As long as the American people slumber, the grave damage already done its Consitutional heritage will worsen, more abuses of power and the concorrant misery will surely be on the way.

Already we have a middle class that's paid an enormous economic price for the unrestrained exercise of free market capitalism. Enron chaperoned in an era of corporate irresponsibility. The company was the number one contributor to George Bush's 2000 Presidential campaign; with its donations it bought off regulatory oversight, giving its Executives time to get out before the bulk of investors and employees got hammered.

Employees are sacrificed in the name of offshoring. Some 3 million manufacturing jobs have disappeared.

Theoretically, this free trade is good for us--us being apparently being the lucky few who've seen huge income gains under the low-tax policies on the rich enacted under Bush. Meanwhile home values are starting a slow motion chain reaction for the credit industry. Will the rich be affected by an economic downswing? Yes, but as a ratio of their total wealth housing is far less important than someone making say $40,000. Home values, typically the largest asset in middle income families--are depreciating. The inability to borrow on rising values has also constricted economic growth or at least moderated it.

Property taxes seem to keep rising. Surely the maxed out housing values mean local and state governments have to stop spending more and more, a tough habit to break considering how easily they've been able to tax rising propety values.

Still, in the height of the crisis, the Fed saw fit to dump some $200 billion in cheap money to major banks. So doing it managed to stabilize the short-run effect of a credit crunch, which could--and some would argue should--have led to a correction. By bailing out the superwealthy class, a larger downturn may have indeed been avoided...or delayed.

If excess is inevitability the precursor of economic downturns--the economic cycle--then we are most surely due. Some have said though that the US has entered into a post-industrial economy and the ups and downs of a manufacturing -based economy have left us behind.

Yet the October 9th's Republican candidates forum in Michigan gave some insights into GOP candidates' positions in the heart of the Rust Belt. It appears that the new economic realities are doing little to build confidence in politicians. Mismanagement of the economy is a major concern to many Americans, despite the rising Dow.

People ultimately shape their future political environment by agreeing to accept just so much from their government before they rise up. Acceptance of any action by government is a reflection of the tolerance thresholds of the population.

Where is the outrage? If Americans are willing to let their government and politicians do as they please, it's inevitable that our system of government will degrade until such time as things become unacceptable and the people make it know they will not take any more.

When will the American people know that things have gone too far, and that their government and purported representatives have exploited the public trust, emptied our treasury, all in the name of enriching their cronies and themselves, whatever the cost in human blood and misery?

Unrestrained greed is after all colonialistic, abusive, and racist. The rich have the wealth they need to survive, so they want more and more in order to appease their ever-inflating egos. The world is not really the plaything of the upper classes, though I'm sure many of the Gilded Class imagine themselves the rulers of all they survey, just as the kings of the past looked out above the fields of their serfs.

If Americans accept anything in the name of the War on Terror, War on Drugs, or whatever other foe the politicians of the day dream up, we will see our nation suffer. If however Americans find some behaviors by our government--like its treatment of the Katrina victims--completely unacceptable then--surprise--those who control our nation and its laws will bend to the will of the people.

What's so truly devious about our government's most recent scheming is that the people must be complicit in the loss of their liberties through inaction. If government is self-aware (like the computers in Terminator 3), it would see the will of the people as the chief threat to its control over the broader system.

Polls have consistenly shown that the American people want out of Iraq. A political party took control based on the desire for change in Iraq policy. Why then haven't we left? The answer is clearly that there is a hardcore Right wing constituency that has successfully coopted the political process to the point that opposing the exercise of arbitrary and unilateral military force is seen as unacceptable by politicians.

It's just easier for these politicians to go along than it is to raise their profiles and collectively shout: "We're mad as hell and we aren't going to take it anymore!" Re-election is their primary aim, and what happens to our country, our budget, or our national prestige are all secondary to the immediacy of re-election.

One consequence of inaction or an uninterrupted status quo is federal spending spiralling out of control. Ultimately monetary limitations will shape the direction of future spending. Wars are expensive and add up. Military spending has long been the province of the Right, but Democrats are undermining the security edge which has often been associated with Republicans.

A bigger State does need to rationalize itself. With traditional Republicans, the increased role for government is justified by the fear of terrorism in the public. Democrats will likely push some fear buttons of their own. Paying for health care and retirement are undoubtedly huge concerns for the elderly, who do vote. [Now if the younger people who didn't vote had awoken from their slumber and chosen to take action, the results of the past four years would have almost certainly been entirely different.]

If self-interest motivates like nothing else, the middle and lower classes will participate if they can to protect their future financial security. Increasingly, the damage to our nation's Treasury can't be ignored as the cost of entitlements rise. If outsiders stop lending the $2 billion a day+ (trade deficit ) or $1 billion + (fiscal deficit) that we need, we will be left to print dollars to keep the train running. Our currency will then devalue and most employees suffer higher prices and diminished standard of living.

Harsh new economic realities might force the less wealthy into political action. Then again, popular political opinions are shaped around corporate-driven agendas. We saw the Iraq War inflame nationalist sentiment and give Bush a big kick up.

Inflation won't be kind to the rich, but they have sufficient assets to achieve a rate of return higher than the increasing costs associated with inflation. (I've mentioned Catherine Austin Fitts' lecture in which she explains how easily high net worth individuals can achieve above market rates of return.)

Before inflation causes prices to rise, the rich invest and enjoy higher yields ahead of the inflation curve and get to enjoy the short-term pop in sales and prices. Meanwhile the little guy tries to keep pace with rising prices by seeking higher wages, as the tightening job environment shifts towards the lower paying and -benefit service sector.

Inflation is not the responsibility of one party, but bringing it under control is the responsibility of the incumbents. So if inflation hits, it will damage the party in control. If Democrats win the White House and Congress, inflation brought on by overspending on war might be the perfect Trojan Horse.

The stress on our budgets in the near future may be a means of eroding the Democrats' ability to use spending on "social programs" to attract voters. The Third Rail of American politics--Social Security--has established a Welfare State and raised expectations among the retired and soon-to-retire, the most active political block. Treasury drained, or dollar devalued, Democrats might have to confront a dormant political movement newly woken from its slumber, a slumber brought on at least in part from year after year of Congressional lethargy and ineptitude, and the perception that voting makes no difference and reflects nothing more than a choice of lesser evils.

As we saw under Carter, a Democratic-controlled White House and Congress might be contending with an economic crisis of continuing job losses, high inflation, and decreasing economic output in real terms. Sounds like the Perfect Storm, or the perfect gift to leave one's political enemies.

Recent Developments

This article from HuffPo, "House Approves Foreign Wiretap Bill" I'd meant to link to. The original FISA bill remained in effect for only 6 months, so renewal is now under consideration.

A lot of spin is still being churned out in order to justify a continuation of the changes in FISA, which just happens to come with a ride-along clause granting immunity for telecoms. I'm hearing that Americans won't be directly targetted, and that people "reasonable expected" to be outside the US will be spied on instead. Still, many Americans will be vulnerable to a dragnet or "basket" of warrantless searches conducted arbitrarily at the whim of our nation's unelected national security commissars.

The National Security state depends on a coopting of the law in order to grant extralegal power on the President. The semblance of appearing to conform with the law is so important probably because without a minimal veneer of lip service, Congress will be shown to have no more power than a debating society and the President can do as he wishes by imperial fiat.

The war on terror has already granted Bush unrestrained powers in direct violation of the Constitution. Selective enforcement of the law is not the right of the Executive; Congress can and should pass laws and use the power of the purse to protect its relevancy in the Age of Terror.

The Administration has been loaded with lawyers skilled in overcoming the law. When posed a theoretical example, John Woo recently said that the use of torture of children is acceptable if it provides actionable intelligence. Woo's comments come from an interview cited here of this former White House counsel who poses as a "Constitutional rights" scholar.

Another neoconservative figure, one who's been instrumental in implementing Israel-first foreign policy, has also been in the news. David Wurmser is interviewed in "US 'must break Iran and Syria regimes'" by Toby Harnden.

Wurmser is the author of Clean Break which advocated regime change in Iraq and the destabilization of Iran and Syria, Israel's main enemies. I've cited the policy document from 1996 here often. He recently quit as Vice President Cheney's adviser on the Middle East.

And if you aren't scared enough by those two here is an interview titled "You Have No Rights" posted on Aug 14, 2007 available throughtruthdig.

Truthdig explains:
"Matthew Rothschild, editor of The Progressive and author of “You Have No Rights,” explains how our president became a 'medieval king,' and why your civil liberties are in greater danger than ever."

Between the FISA changes, the blanket immunity for telecoms, and willingness of what poses as political opposition to cave in, the National Security State seems well entrenched.

Website Development: More Content Needs A Home

I've hosted my Sept 15th Protest March video alongside my interviews in a list of link on the right of this page. Both are amateurish but worth seeing. They require Windows Media Viewer.

I still have video clips and photos from march. These will be best seen in QuickTime and a .jpg photo viewer. I'm inclined to host them under my own site, alongside more of my content. I'm also in need of links to my articles on the Web, as well as links to specific topics I've discussed here.

I've been hesitant to act because of copyright concerns for my photographs. Also, I have hosted some photos on flickr.com and am in the process of assessing that site's suitability for hosting photos.

I want a web host that uses sustainable energy and am mulling my options.