Monday, December 24, 2012

How The West Was Done

Note to readers: This article is intended partly as an antidote to the plethora of inane, space-filling, end-of-year news summaries found throughout the media at this time. The list below is not exhaustive, failing to touch, for example, on evils like the global arms trade, big-money lobbying and vulture funds, due to prohibitive length. These topics will be covered in the coming months in detail.

"The self is only that which it's in the process of becoming" - Søren Kierkegaard

We are often reminded by democratically elected leaders that we live in free societies. This is just another in a long line of lies. People are free only to a certain extent: do anything that seriously threatens the status quo maintained by the political, corporate and financial elites - only then does one discover how truly free one is.

If you inform the public of the CIA's secret and illegal torture rendition program, as Jack Kiriakou did, you go to prison, but if you run or authorize the program, you are left in peace. If you tell the world, in an act of conscience and not profit, about the obscene and secret lawlessness of the US government, you are kept for years in conditions described as torture by Amnesty International and the UN's own top torture official even before being given a trial. Carry out or authorize those very same acts and you will be made immune to any investigation or prosecution. The Obama administration has in fact waged what can only be described as a war against whistleblowers, courageous heroes of democracy willing to risk their livelihoods, even their lives, in order to expose corruption, illegality or wrongdoing that is in the public interest.

Billions of people falsely believe that they have a choice at the ballot box about who they choose to lead them. The reality could not be further from the truth. These electoral systems serve only to legitimize and mandate public officials who are almost all in thrall to their financial benefactors, upon whom they completely depend for success in their political careers.

Put simply, if politicians and officials toe the line and give their donors what they want, they will be greatly rewarded with wealth and future success, but if they deny or oppose them on principle, they can easily be finished or made an example of. There are plenty who are happy to follow orders waiting in line to replace them.

Ordinary citizens living in these 'democracies' will, in the main, defend their electoral systems as not perfect but the best we can hope for. Again, this is an erroneous perception. We can in fact do far better, but it is instructive first to examine what our vaunted, supposedly democratic systems have achieved for the world.

From my book:

Even the most basic human rights violations occur every day. The practice of slavery, for instance, has existed for thousands of years, and although it is now universally illegal - the last country to abolish it was Mauritania in 1981 - according to varying estimates, between 12 and 27 million people (equivalent to the population of Malaysia) are currently held in slavery. Most are bonded laborers in Asia - notably Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Nepal – people whose bodies are collateral for debts which, in many cases, will never diminish or be paid off. Many modern slaves are children, who are particularly susceptible to sexual abuse, while those aged younger than ten are often trained to commit crimes in order to take advantage of the fact that they fall below the age of criminal responsibility.

Human trafficking is also alive and well. Although there is debate about the numbers, the United Nations estimated in 2008 that 2.5 million people from 127 countries are being trafficked into 137 countries at any time, pressed into the sex industry or being used as forced laborers. It is extremely profitable, making it a priority for international criminal gangs – an estimated 32 billion dollars a year is brought in, only slightly less than that made from arms trading or drug smuggling. This industry is growing and is expected to overtake drug trafficking as the most profitable criminal industry in the future.


As can be seen here, near slavery occurs even in rich democracies. If our vaunted and celebrated democracies can not eliminate something which is so basically evil and against basic human rights, is it not time to try something new?

War

From an earlier article:

The United Nations defines 'major wars' as military conflicts inflicting 1,000 battlefield deaths per year. In 1965, there were 10 major wars under way. The new millennium began with much of the world consumed in armed conflict or cultivating an uncertain peace. As of mid-2005, there were eight major wars [down from 15 at the end of 2003], with as many as two dozen "lesser" conflicts ongoing with varying degrees of intensity.

We also learn that civilian deaths now greatly outweigh military ones:

Most of these are civil or 'intrastate' wars, fueled as much by racial, ethnic, or religious animosities as by ideological fervor. Most victims are civilians, a feature that distinguishes modern conflicts. During World War I, civilians made up fewer than 5 percent of all casualties. Today, 75 percent or more of those killed or wounded in wars are non-combatants.

In addition the US alone has covert operations in at least seventy nations and the number of countries blighted by Obama's drone bombing campaign is now seven and counting.


So it seems that sixty-seven years after the horror and carnage of World War II, humanity (or at least those who have gained power over it) has reverted to its default mode of death and destruction, proving yet again that we never ever learn. Our 'democratic' systems of government have allowed entrenched commercial interests and political/financial corruption once again to control our destinies.

Drone Warfare

This topic has been covered extensively on this blog but the article which received easily the most attention was the one which detailed some of the personal testimonies of victims and their families. Reading the words of real people whose lives have been shattered by drones provides a perspective scandalously missing from mainstream corporate media outlets, where ordinary people blown to pieces are tacked on to the end of perfunctory drone strike reports, referred to euphemistically as 'militants' or 'others'.

The outpouring of emotion from around the world that followed the recent mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut was possible because all media outlets reported round the clock on the tragedy. How are the deaths of these poor kids any different to the hundreds of little children killed as 'collateral damage' in drone strikes ordered personally by Obama? Yet the amount of media attention they receive is negligible to zero, and the man who directly orders the strikes that kill them does not intone their names on live television, wiping away a tear as he does so.

From a recent article by Naomi Wolf:

The New America Foundation's report on drone use in Pakistan noted that the Guardian had confirmed 193 children's deaths from drone attacks in seven years. It noted that for the deaths of ten militants, 1,400 civilians with no involvement in terrorism also died. Not surprisingly, everyone in that region is traumatized: children scream when they hear drones. An NYU and Stanford Law School report notes that drones "terrorize citizens 24 hours a day".

The US in true Orwellian fashion calls itself a democracy and a force for peace in the world. If this were true, this illegal drone bombing campaign that has murdered thousands of completely innocent people, many of them young children, would never have been permitted.

So what is the justification for this campaign? The 'War on Terror', now officially known as 'Overseas Contingency Operation', has cost trillions of dollars and countless civilian lives. The damage to affected societies and infrastructures is incalculable, as is the psychological trauma it has caused on all sides of the conflict.

Can we infer, therefore, that terrorism is the single most serious threat to mankind?

This is predominantly a US war - necessary, officials say, to protect the homeland. So just what are the chances of being killed in a terrorist attack in the US. According to this article, which uses data from the Global Terrorism Database and National Counterterrorism Center, the chance is one in twenty million.

Bearing in mind that the chances of drowning in a bathtub are 1 in 800,000, perhaps Obama should declare a War on Bathtubs. It would make a lot more sense, given the level of the threat.

So this means the War on Terror must therefore be working? From the same article:

Of course, the police and politicians will cite the lack of deaths from terrorism as evidence that their protective measures are working. Earlier this year, the conservative Heritage Foundation compiled a list of 39 terror plots that had been foiled since September 2001. Going through the list, about 23 of the plots might plausibly have resulted in terror attacks of one sort or another. Several were aimed at subways, military bases, and shopping malls. To get a feel for the number of people that might be killed in typical terrorist attacks, consider that four subway bombs killed 52 people in London in 2005; the deadliest attack on a military base killed 13; and blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, killed 187 people in 1995.

Making the huge assumption that all 23 plausible plots would have succeeded in killing an average of 100 Americans each, that means that 2,300 would have died in the last 10 years, or about 230 per year. (This implies a rate that is 10 times higher than the rate between 1970 and 2010, excluding the 9/11 attacks, by the way.) Even at this higher rate, your chances of dying in a terrorist attack would be about 1 in 1.7 million.


Recall also that some of those plots are fake, manufactured by the FBI to help justify the obscene spending on this tragic campaign.

The War on Terror is in fact a pretext to bring about a savage curtailing of civil liberties, a ploy designed to ensure that it is far more difficult to organize resistance to the status quo desired by those entrenched in power, as the Occupy movement recently discovered.

Civil Liberties

From an earlier article dealing with this topic:

The 2001 September 11th attacks were the catalyst for the Patriot Act, passed opportunistically a month later when the nation was still reeling with panic and fear, and barely even read by members of Congress and the Senate. It has massively curtailed civil liberties in the United States under the pretext of fighting the War on Terror. Restrictions on law enforcement have been drastically cut and police or government agencies are authorized to indefinitely detain immigrants. Searches of a person's home or office are permitted even without the owner's knowledge and law enforcement agents are further enabled to search email, telephone and financial records without a court order. This savage attack on individual freedoms has led to widespread abuse and disruption of society and the lives of ordinary civilians.

And...

On New Year's Eve 2011, when most Americans were drinking in the new year, Barack Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), making history as the first American president to officially make the US an authoritarian state. This law contains a provision which gives the US military the power to pick up any US citizen anywhere in the world and detain them indefinitely without trial.

In addition to this, a massive database which, according to NSA whistleblower William Binney, can record every single communication on social media, telephones and in emails of every single American is already operational.

Even more alarmingly, the market for domestic spy drones is exploding. As Naomi Wolf explains, it will not be long before drones the size of hummingbirds will be peeking in the windows of private houses where activists may be meeting, and indeed it is only a matter of time before domestic drones are weaponized.

Add to this CCTV cameras all over the place that have advanced facial recognition technology, meaning you can be tracked by the authorities wherever you go. Literally, the only place to hide would be a private house.

But if you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to worry about, right?

Wrong.

These are steps far down the road toward the dystopian nightmare imagined by authors, philosophers and thinkers alike for generations. It is clear that the systems we have in place, designed to protect our rights, security, privacy and dignity have utterly failed.

Police Corruption, Brutality and Militarization

The police are a constituted body empowered by the state to enforce laws, protect property and limit civil disorder. It is clear that power has gone to the head at all levels of police forces around the world with corruption and brutality commonplace. Andrew Gilligan explains the corruption destroying what little remains of the public trust in the UK police and as many members of the Occupy movement will tell you, police in US cities take a dim view of the democratic right to protest. Peaceful protests themselves are becoming more and more hazardous as the police receive weapons and other equipment more at home in an army unit.

Banks and Other Major Financial Institutions

Even the Wall Street criminals and their ilk in the financial industries responsible for the 2008 world economic crisis might have been expected to show a little humility and started to behave themselves, especially after being bailed out with enormous sums of taxpayers' money. This, we now know, was never going to happen.

The recent LIBOR and HSBC scandals are truly horrific. In the former case, traders worked together to rig the LIBOR rate simply to make money in the full knowledge that this rate could fraudulently deprive ordinary people of large sums of money. HSBC went even lower, laundering billions of dollars of drug money for the huge drug cartels that have killed tens of thousands of civilians in Mexico and other places, cartels which are now deeply embedded in government, police forces and the judiciary.

The US is the world's largest prison state, most of the prisoners being poor or from racial minorities. The vast majority of prisoners are serving sentences for drug violations.

As an aside, all this is good news if you are a capitalist: this mass incarceration has led to a huge windfall for the large number of for-profit prisons throughout the US. Congratulations to the stockholders.

The point here is that a person, almost always from a racial minority, can be incarcerated for a significant time, suffering all the horrors of prison life that go with it, but if a high-level executive in a bank directly enables drug cartels in their trade of murder and violence, even admits to it, he will be shielded from prosecution, the only punishment being a fine against the bank, a fine that can easily be paid - around a month or so worth of business. It is like asking an ordinary member of the public to pay a fine equivalent to a month's wages for a rape and murder spree.

The arrogance and criminality of some of these people in finance cannot be overstated, and yet almost none have been punished in any meaningful way. Once again, and the point cannot be stated often enough, the democratic systems we support have enabled these disgusting injustices that destroy millions of lives to come about. They must be rebuilt from the ground up.

Poverty and Inequality

The world's rich hoard up to $31 trillion in offshore accounts. Just a tiny proportion of this wealth, which the rich surely do not need for any meaningful purpose, could solve almost every single human rights issue on this planet.

In many nations around the world, even in rich 'democracies', poverty is increasing and the gap between the rich and the poor is widening at alarming rates. In the UK, the harmless, responsible-sounding euphemism 'austerity' is being used to justify the 'tightening of our belts' to curb irresponsible state spending.

The reality, of course, is that the poor and vulnerable are being forced overwhelmingly to shoulder these cuts, while the rich along with large corporations continue to get away with massive tax avoidance and evasion on scales that dwarf regular tabloid targets like benefits fraud. Two articles here and here cover this issue in detail and I strongly recommend them to the reader in the hope that the magnitude of this injustice sinks in.

Commercialism

People in Western societies and those modeled on them (like Japan) are immersed in a flood of commercialism, a constant urging from all angles to spend and consume, regardless of the effect on poor countries, the poor themselves, and the environment. Many go into debt, forced by peer pressures and 'tradition' to spend beyond their means, especially during Christmas or around Thanksgiving in the US. Intentionally rejecting this commercial hell would go a long way toward helping matters, but hopes should not be ratcheted up too high - a quick scan through the comments below the line of this perfectly sensible and reasonable piece in The Daily Telegraph will remind the reader just how brainwashed the vast majority of people are, and also the difficulty of changing their minds thanks to the phenomenon known as system justification.

Media

The corporate media itself fuels this shallow and inane view of life and society. Marvel at this Guardian editorial urging its readers to consume consume consume, averring that it is a patriotic duty to do so, buying fully into the erroneous idea that GDP growth is necessary for a healthy society.

Climate Change

Shocking as all these issues are, they all pale in comparison to the single true existential threat to humanity, that of climate change. This truly terrifying report should bring home the danger we are in to all but the willfully blind. This means that the conservative estimates of serious climate scientists could well be violently torn up as climate change occurs far more swiftly than expected thanks to the mass release of methane formerly trapped below melting permafrost.

Given that the International Energy Agency a year ago warned in a detailed analysis of the world's energy infrastructure that any more use of fossil fuels over the next five years will lead to irreversible climate change. The idea that the extra methane now being released will only add to the obvious inaction of the world on curbing fossil fuel use is frankly terrifying.

This is no conspiracy theory. A huge consensus of the serious scientific community (97%) affirms man-made global climate change, but thanks to long and concerted misinformation campaigns by the major oil and gas companies, the general public has been slow to catch up. The good news is that, even with the corporate US media barely mentioning climate change in comparison with other meaningless topics (like Kim Kardashian etc.), 70% of Americans now believe climate change is occurring, and 54% believe it is caused by man-made activities.

There can be no dithering. Climate change is already affecting the planet significantly and it may only be a matter of damage control at this stage. To see just how bad things are, an article here details the likely consequences of inaction. Meanwhile the corporate media gave the ludicrous Mayan apocalypse story far more attention than the true threat to us all. Tongue in cheek though the commentary was in almost every case, it nonetheless highlights an unforgivable dereliction of duty with regard to the need to inform the public relentlessly on a topic which is of vital importance to us all. Publishing a few articles (informative as they are) here and there on the issue by George Monbiot simply does not cut it.

One thing is clear, however: all these issues plague us despite our 'democratic' systems. While the causal factors are many and complex, the backdrop nevertheless consists of false democracies brought about through flawed, easily manipulated electoral systems that do not reflect true public opinion, combined with an utterly corrupted form of deregulated and exploitative capitalism. The inescapable conclusion, therefore, is that the 'democratic' systems we continue to champion and support do nothing to alleviate these problems, and indeed have exacerbated them in almost every case.

It is therefore time, in the words of the band Orange Juice, to rip it up and start again. Direct democracy is a system which is easy to implement and has been proven to work - indeed, Switzerland, the only nation which employs a form of direct democracy in national politics, was recently named the best nation to be born in, due to high quality of life, on the planet. Direct democracy further has the enormous advantage that it removes big-money lobbyists from the equation; indeed the bought politicians we are forced to endure would become a thing of the past at a single stroke. My free book details a method of making this system reality.

Given the litany of nightmares in this article, it seems strange to wish my readers a happy holiday or new year, as this article was written in the knowledge that for the vast majority of people on Earth, the holiday period will be as thoroughly miserable as any other time of the year.

People who suffer in slavery and human trafficking; the starving and those dying of easily preventable diseases; those in poverty or forced labor and those dying (or losing a loved one) due to lack of health coverage; victims of addiction, domestic violence, abuse and discrimination; families who have lost their daughters in honor killings; girls who have suffered genital mutilation; political prisoners; those who have suffered due to official corruption, persecution and war; families whose children were blown to pieces by drones; male, female and child victims of rape and genocide; people displaced by climate change, pollution, desertification, drought, famine and war; those needlessly and illegally tortured; people who have lost life or limb due to cluster bombs or land mines; mothers whose children have been born with leukemia or genetic deficiencies thanks to the use of chemical weapons and depleted uranium (by the US and its allies)...saying happy holiday or happy new year to these poor people is not likely to lighten their burdens.

But to the loyal readers of my blog, I do wish you a happy holiday and new year, with two simple messages: firstly, that the victims in the list of horrors above need your help as they are too traumatized or weak to help themselves in most cases; and secondly to keep in mind that the only truly important things in life are not money, status, cars, nice houses and great clothes - the only important things are those that money cannot come close to buying: compassion, friendship, loyalty, freedom, justice, courage, shared prosperity, good health, meaningful personal fulfillment, contentment and love. Freely give as many of these things as you can while rejecting contempt and negativity and you may be surprised to discover that the rewards for all, yourself included, will be immeasurable.

'The 99.99998271% - Why the Time is Right for Direct Democracy' by Simon Wood is available for free download. In this 70-page book, the current state of human rights and democracy is discussed, and a simple method of implementing direct democracy is suggested.
Simon Wood on twitter (@simonwood11) and Facebook or at his blog. The Direct Democracy Alliance, a voluntary group dedicated to creating national/global direct democracy, is now also on twitter: (@DDA4586)

Author's note: For eleven months I have been writing detailed articles on human rights and direct democracy, and have written a book on the topic which is freely available. However, despite some small successes, I am yet to make a scratch in any meaningful way that will bring about real change. For this to happen, I need to create an NPO or similar organization devoted to creating and promoting direct democracy. I therefore appeal to any reader who has significant resources, or who has connections to someone who has, to contact me with regard to making a philanthropic donation to bring about a transparent organization with paid, professional staff which can actually make a difference.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Rejecting Consumer Hell (In 8 Easy Steps)

"Was it a millionaire who said imagine no possessions?" - Elvis Costello (The Other Side of Summer)

In just another example of media-generated hysteria and manufactured fear, thousands of people sincerely believe the world will end a week next Friday when the 'long-count' Mayan calendar ends its current cycle. Panic buying of candles and other essentials has been reported in China and Russia and the trade in underground survival shelters in the US has picked up very nicely.

By what appears to be sheer coincidence, the 2009 disaster movie "2012" starring John Cusack made around $770 million at the box office worldwide (the budget was $200 million).

It is no surprise that there will always be some gullible enough to fall for this kind of thing, and yet if it is so obviously bullshit for the vast majority of people (and it really is the vast majority), why does it receive so much coverage nonetheless?

Remember Y2K, aka the Millennium Bug? That had significantly more people fearful, probably because it was based on a rational possibility instead of some Nostradamus-type prediction; namely that computers would not be able to handle the change in their internal clocks as they entered the new millennium and go haywire, causing mass chaos and probably destruction.

Apart from a few minor problems, they didn't, but anyone regularly watching the mainstream news channels and television in general in the final months of 1999 was subjected to relentless fearmongering as well as half-baked speculation on what life would be like after the disaster struck.

How can the sane and rational among us repel this endless assault on our brains by the various forms of media, and why is it important that we do so? In considering this question it becomes apparent that it is not just the media we need to tackle in order to retain cognitive independence...it is practically everything around us. With this in mind, today's blog posting will provide a (non-exhaustive) list that will aid you, the reader, in breaking free of the materialistic hell we all inhabit, in many cases without even realizing we do.

1. Re-order Priorities

Modern mainstream media reporting relentlessly promotes the concept of economic growth, namely growth of GDP, as paramount in creating and maintaining a successful society. This is a dangerous and indeed erroneous view. GDP growth does not necessarily create a healthy and happy society, partly because it does not address issues like inequality and tax avoidance/evasion.

Yvonne Roberts expressed the dangers of putting economic considerations before human ones very well in a short column on the recent moronic prank by two Australian DJs that allegedly led to the suicide of a London nurse:

The late philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm wrote in the 50s that if prevailing trends that put economic production before human engagement continued, we would all eventually occupy a dangerously unbalanced society, peopled by alienated individuals living atomised existences, lacking in empathy, quick to judge because judgment by others is always anticipated, equipped with "the greatest material power without the wisdom to use it". What might halt the march to misery, he argued idealistically in The Sane Society, was sharing experience, living by "love, reason and faith".

Certainly, in the decades since then, aided more recently by the instant opinionator Twitter, blogs and social networks, our inclination to judge, critique, analyse, blame and scorn, often on the basis of next to no knowledge, has grown incrementally. We are propelled like narcissistic toddlers in a permanent state of tantrum to place ourselves in the centre of the dramas, scandals and terrible tragedies of total strangers. We cannot bear to witness a set of circumstances that remain private and resistant to our obsessive compulsion to know all and pass judgment, no matter what the consequences to the sometimes random recipients of blame.


Sound familiar? Until human concerns are placed above all else, societies are doomed to be just so. Do not allow yourself to fall into the trap of believing the manufactured consensus that economic growth trumps all.

2. Turn off the TV

Television is a colossal waste of everyone's time except for the corporate advertisers desperate to brainwash everyone into thinking that the product they are selling is absolutely vital for your lives. Worse, great human achievements in the fields of art and music are co-opted by corporate interests to sell products which have absolutely no connection to the original work of art. When one hears a beautiful piece of music by Mozart playing as the BMW glides down the empty road, we unconsciously link the two together, debasing the music as we do.

Sports stars and movie actors are paid millions to allow their images to be used in conjunction with corporate advertising. Watch Brad Pitt rake in a reported $7 million here simply by making a complete dick of himself. The ad is quite entertaining in that you can see in Pitt's face that he is trying not to throw up in horror at the words he is forced to speak, giving an extreme new perspective to the expression, 'think of the money'.

Mainstream newspapers and magazines should also be avoided except perhaps for some of the straight news articles in serious publications like the New York Times and the Guardian etc. Opinion pieces should be treated with extreme caution as many newspapers have clear ideological axes to grind, as can be seen for example in the Guardian's embarrassing and seemingly endless hatchet jobs on Julian Assange.

It must always be kept in mind that the single number one priority of television stations and most newspapers is profit, mainly advertizing revenue, and for this reason we can expect manufactured drama and endless sensationalism. In other words, many articles cannot be trusted to be truly balanced and objective, especially when the big stories hit. The Fukushima disaster in Japan was fertile ground for many a dishonest and idiotic reporter, as this wall of shame amply demonstrates.

It is a real balancing act to get trustworthy news while at the same time filtering out the white noise. One useful medium for achieving this balance is Twitter, on which one can directly follow trustworthy journalists and other people who provide a wide range of views that are not hysterical or hyped. It is also possible to follow investigative journalists who actually report from the troubled areas of the world - but be sure to avoid the so-called 'embedded' journalists working for the mainstream news cable channels, who are far more likely to omit information that does not conform to the prevailing view of the channel they work for.

If a great movie or drama is on, record it and watch it later with the ads filtered out. Do not pollute your brain with the rampant commercialism that pervades television, both during and between ad breaks.

3. Buy Only What You Need

People are often heard to lament, in these times of rampant materialism, that the true spirit of Christmas has been lost. This does not seem to prevent millions of people maxing out their credit cards to buy stuff for people who don't actually need it. Letting kids believe in Santa (that guy in the Coca Cola outfit) is a very early form of commercial indoctrination that they will pass on to their own kids when they grow up, believing that everyone should 'experience the magic' of Christmas.

This may sound Scrooge-esque (which is how the establishment tries to make people feel guilty for not conforming to standard Christmas behavior), but going into credit-card debt to enrich department stores and thereafter suffering financially is surely not the only way for kids to experience the 'magic'. And let's face it - kids know that Christmas is a time when they can get new things, again reinforcing the idea that material possessions beyond what you need are extremely desirable. One could not play into corporate hands more easily.

Here is the true meaning of Christmas.

It is hard to imagine Jesus being pleased to hear that Christians around the world celebrate his birth by going into debt buying computer games that glorify war or the latest Nike offerings, but this goes beyond Christmas, which, along with Black Friday after US Thanksgiving, certainly encapsulates pure commercialism more than any other holiday.

People everywhere are constantly conned into thinking that there is no choice but to spend large sums of money. Weddings, for example, are extremely expensive. People are conditioned to believe it is the 'happiest day of your life' and they should therefore not hold back on spending when it is in fact possible, with a little imagination and planning, to hold a very nice wedding at extremely low cost. However, fears of being labelled a cheapskate in this instance are overpowering, leading to...

4. Reject Conventional Thinking

Stop caring what others think about you. There is no shame in standing out and going against the crowd - in fact, such behavior can be worn as a badge of honor. Constantly question one's beliefs, even (and especially) the most closely-held ones. Billions around the world follow the standard life path: go to school, get a job, get married, have kids, retire, die. While there is nothing wrong in following such a path, it can be problematic when people do so due to peer pressure.

5. Reject All Dogma

Almost every person on the planet holds beliefs that are based on erroneous foundations, hearsay, religion or obsolete philosophical/psychological thinking. If these beliefs are not backed up with hard, irrefutable evidence, they are worthless and must be discarded. Anything else is lazy thinking. One may believe in UFOs and ghosts as much as they wish, or that our world was created 6,000 years ago by a supernatural, omnipotent being, but until these hypotheses are proven without doubt, such beliefs are without basis, having the same value as believing black cats bring bad luck or that the movements of gaseous spheres millions of light years away somehow affect the life of a person born in a particular month on Earth.

6. Trust REAL Science

And avoid pop/junk science: coffee three times a day is good for you etc.

Via the scientific method using careful, painstaking experimentation, analysis, and extensive peer review we can best describe the physical world around us. That said, scientific theories should never be accepted as universally correct - Darwin's Theory of Evolution has been amended multiple times since it was first published - but they nonetheless represent the safest and most logical ways to explain observed phenomena. The alternative is creating possible explanations using cultural or religious dogma as a context (thunder and lightning means God is angry and so on).

7. Treat All Equally And Do Not Bother Others

This English translation of the fifth chapter of 'Ti Tzu Kui', a book written during the Qing Dynasty by Li Yuxiu and based on the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius sums it up perfectly:

Human beings, regardless of nationality, race, or religion - everyone - should be loved equally. We are all sheltered by the same sky and we all live on the same planet Earth. People with high conduct naturally have high reputations; what people value is not high looks. People with great ability naturally have great fame; what people respect is not great words. If you have an ability, don't be selfish with it. If other people have an ability, don't lightly denigrate them. Don't toady to the rich; don't be arrogant to the poor. Don't despise the old; don't favor the new. If people don't have time, don't bother them with things. If people are not at peace, don't bother them with words. When people have shortcomings, definitely don't publicize them. When people have secrets, definitely don't tell them. Speaking of others' good deeds is in itself a good deed. When others learn of it, they become more encouraged. Publicizing other people's shortcomings is in itself evil. People hate it very much, and troubles arise. Admonishing each other to do good builds up both parties' virtue. Not dissuading the other person from doing wrong damages both parties' character. When taking and giving, making the terms clear is most important. Better to give more and take less. When about to do unto others, first ask yourself; if you don't want it yourself, then stop immediately. One wants to repay kindness and forget grudges. Repaying grudges is short; repaying kindness is long. In dealing with maids and servants, one is of high station. Though of high station, one must be kind and forgiving. Using force to make people submit doesn't make their hearts submit. Only using reason to make people submit will cause there to be no mutterings.

8. Renounce and Condemn War and Violence at Every Turn

There are really only two morally defensible reasons for war or violence: self-defense and perhaps in very strict circumstances (though this is murky) humane intervention (peacekeeping) by a neutral body (as the UN should be).

Any other war, however noble the stated justifications, is ultimately a grab for power and/or resources. In an era when the world's nations spend $200 million an hour on arms, when only around 13% of that could eradicate hunger and extreme poverty while providing clean water for all, the behavior of the human species needs to be stated exactly as it is: insanity.

Only with these recommendations (among others) kept firmly in mind and acted upon can one successfully evade the commercial deluge and live free of the forces that see each and every person as a consumer. Only if significant numbers of people unplug themselves from the matrix, as it were, can human society have any hope of tearing down our commercial hell. Under those circumstances alone can a world in which human rights and interests are put firmly above financial ones emerge.

'The 99.99998271% - Why the Time is Right for Direct Democracy' by Simon Wood is available for free download. In this 70-page book, the current state of human rights and democracy is discussed, and a simple method of implementing direct democracy is suggested.
Simon Wood on twitter (@simonwood11) and Facebook or at his blog. The Direct Democracy Alliance, a voluntary group dedicated to creating national/global direct democracy, is now also on twitter: (@DDA4586)


Author's note: For nine months I have been writing detailed articles on human rights and direct democracy, and have written a book on the topic which is freely available. However, despite some small successes, I am yet to make a scratch in any meaningful way that will bring about real change. For this to happen, I need to create an NPO or similar organization devoted to creating and promoting direct democracy. I therefore appeal to any reader who has significant resources, or who has connections to someone who has, to contact me with regard to making a philanthropic donation to bring about a transparent organization with paid, professional staff which can actually make a difference.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Welfare State

"You have to score 15+ points, I scored 6 so therefore I am deemed fit to work, I asked how can that be, I have a deteriating [sic] health problem, things won't get any better, I will only get worse. She told me my disability is not being questioned, they know I have JHS/EDS3. She said it's not your disability being questioned, it's your capability. I said I wasn't capable of holding down a job, some days I can't get out of bed, I can't even cook anymore. She said it wasn't there [sic] problem, it's the job center's problem to find me a job" - Reader's comment below article on Atos Work Capability Assessment for people claiming disability benefits (minor punctuation errors corrected)

On the morning of the 1945 UK general election the Daily Mirror newspaper dedicated almost its entire front page to an iconic cartoon by the legendary Philip Lec entitled: 'Don't Lose It Again!' It depicted a wounded, heavily bandaged soldier returning home and delivering a note upon which a message was written: 'Victory and Peace in Europe'. This cartoon is now considered by historians as a significant factor in the landslide defeat of Winston Churchill and his Conservative Party by Clement Atlee's Labour Party, one of the most shocking election results in history.

From 1940 the UK was governed by a wartime coalition government comprising Labour and the Conservatives, with Clement Atlee eventually becoming the nation's first ever Deputy Prime Minister. In 1945, with victory over the Nazis achieved, Labour demanded that the nation be offered a choice at the polls. It became clear that while Churchill commanded great respect as a wartime leader, people nonetheless seemed apprehensive of his credentials on the domestic front.

Voters weary of the austerity enforced during the war proved eager to embrace Atlee's promised radical reforms, namely the nationalization of several major industries including coal mining, the steel industry, transportation, electricity, gas and so on, even the Bank of England. Atlee also espoused the liberal economic theories of John Maynard Keynes, now known as Keynesian economics, as well as the 'cradle to the grave' welfare state conceived by the economist William Beveridge in the visionary Beveridge Report of 1942. This report detailed a system of social insurance for all citizens regardless of income.

Beveridge identified 'five giant evils' in society: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. Squalor damaged the nation because the poor could not pay for medical attention and could often therefore not work, creating a lack of labor as well as less income; ignorance described those of higher social class seemingly ignorant of their role in a community; want covered the necessity to provide an adequate living for all; idleness applied to Beveridge's desire for full employment (leading to the creation of job centers); and disease described the obvious handicap of those suffering from a disease being unable to earn an adequate income.

The radical reforms passed as a direct result of the overwhelming public support for Beveridge's report. In coalition, the 1944 Education Act was passed, providing free education for all up to the age of 15. After gaining power, Atlee passed (among others) the Family Allowances Act of 1945, the National Insurance Act of 1946, the National Health Service Act of 1946, and the Pensions Act of 1947. Clement Atlee, once memorably described by Churchill as a 'sheep in sheep's clothing', proved to be anything but, presiding over one of the most radical administrations in the nation's history.

The welfare state was born. The UK was now a community where, in theory, even the most vulnerable would be cared for and not allowed to slip through the net. To this day, the National Health Service, the largest and oldest single-payer healthcare system in the world, is regarded as Labour's crowning achievement and, despite its endemic bureaucratic and funding problems, still commands public support.

And to this day we arrive. Proposed changes to the NHS in the form of David Cameron's Health and Social Care Bill have inspired widespread opposition, not only among the general public, but also from medical professionals. As an aside, this mind-boggling list of Conservative Lords who have financial links to the private healthcare industry, demonstrating an obvious conflict of interest, will likely not aid the Coalition government in its cause.

A remarkable article published earlier this year in the Daily Mirror shows, thanks to Freedom of Information Act requests, that 32 people die every week after failing the Work Capability Assessment, a controversial test that is intended to get people claiming disability benefits back to work if they are able, and being put in the so-called Work-Related Activities Group (WRAG).

It is important to note that while it is obviously impossible to determine whether all these people died as a result of being forced into the WRAG, the endless stream of tragic personal stories (many of which can be found below the article linked in the previous paragraph as well as elsewhere) make it clear that a significant percentage of them did. Readers of this article are urged to read all the comments as they more than adequately convey the magnitude of personal suffering. More can be found here.

As Owen Jones of the Independent newspaper writes, those claiming benefits are now demonized as 'scroungers' and 'lazy'. He further notes that numerous voices within the media spread the myth that benefits fraud is rampant, no thanks to countless articles in newspapers like the Daily Mail depicting extreme cases as representative of the entire population. Meanwhile charities reported in September that verbal abuse of disabled people had risen 41% over four months in September, with up to two-thirds suffering some form of hostility or taunting.

What kind of person abuses or taunts someone in a wheelchair?

As usual with modern mainstream tabloid journalism, the reality is quite a different story. The Department for Work and Pensions' own estimates put fraud at 0.5%, hardly a figure representative of all disabled people, while a simple read through some of the personal tragedies which can be found in abundance online shows that the vast majority of disability benefits claimants worked hard before being struck down by the vagaries of fate, and indeed would jump at the chance to work if they were able.

Despite all this, however, there is one issue on which most can agree: the UK is in severe debt (over 1 trillion pounds) and is running a deficit of around 91 billion pounds. It is obvious that the nation needs to put its finances in order. For this to occur, either income must be increased or spending cut.

The UK's coalition government has gone for the cutting option, specifically aiming at the welfare state. Ministers argue that these cuts are vital for the country to get back on its feet. It is worth examining this claim.

A useful graphic in the Guardian gives a clear picture of the UK's finances for the financial year 2012-13. The Coalition is looking to cut a further 10 billion pounds in benefits cuts, mainly after the next election.

Is it really necessary to target the weakest and most vulnerable members of society? Are there no other areas that can be cut?

From an earlier article on this topic (which is worth reading in full):

The reality is that the government could save a great deal more by dealing with tax evasion and avoidance. In this very informative article, we can see that the tax gap, namely the amount of tax evaded, avoided and not collected, is estimated to be over 120 billion pounds.

Cameron and his rich chums, along with The Daily Mail, like to vilify those on welfare as lazy scroungers and benefits cheats. As can be seen from a chart in the same article, benefits fraud accounts for less than 1% of that lost in the tax gap. If Cameron was truly serious about reducing the debt and deficit, he would address tax justice at the very least, but as this would upset his support, don't hold your breath.

It is not only the tax gap that can be worked on; huge sums of money are wasted on private consultants in the armed services or in education and multiple other areas, fields that could be easily staffed by the armies of unemployed with proper training. Again, this would not please the Tory donors so...keep holding that breath.

Even more money is thrown into the totally unnecessary Trident program, not to mention the bottomless hole also known as the Afghanistan War, and let's not forget our proud military adventures in Libya, where we saw costs like 183,000 pounds for a Brimstone missile and 50,000 pounds per Paveway guided bomb (see article for the full scandalous list).


An article by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) expertly explains the dubious tick-the-box practices behind the Work Capability Assessment carried out by staff from the private firm Atos, which is on the receiving end of a 100 million pounds a year contract for providing this service.

Atos made a 42-million-pound profit in 2010.

Social security exists for everyone, meant to provide dignity and professional support for those who suffer the misfortune of long-term illness or disability. It is particularly easy for those who have (thankfully) never suffered a debilitating condition to condemn those less lucky as faking it. Yet the fact remains that every single person on this planet (excepting those lucky enough to have substantial funds) is vulnerable at any time to accident or illness which could strike them down, rendering them incapable of working no matter how strong their desire to earn for themselves.

Seventy years ago Beveridge and Atlee understood this simple fact of life and put their strong desire for social justice and equality to good use, providing generations with free health care and education and allowing people to live without fear of falling through the cracks. In the new millennium we see a systematic dismantling of these noble structures. We see the voracious private sector waiting in the wings, desperate to have their slice of the action. We see politicians who themselves have invested in said private companies and stand to benefit handsomely. We even see GPs themselves in the trough.

And we see multitudes of unfortunate souls who pay the price.

NOTE: For those struggling to cope with the complex forms involved in the process of maintaining sickness or disability benefits, please visit this helpful site.

NOTE 2: A reader emailed the following comments after reading this article. They add an important dimension missing from the original article:

WRAG, wrong though it is, isn't the worst thing that can happen, especially if you are sent to a sensible back-to-work advisor who acknowledges many clients are too sick to work and excuse them from work-related activities (this may be about to change with the probable introduction of mandatory Workfare). Far worse is that many really sick and disabled people are dumped onto Jobseekers Allowance and expected to get back to working like a healthy person immediately. Because they are no longer officially ill or disabled at all, little data is held on what happens to them. The 32 deaths per week in WRAG figures are, of course, a very good indicator of how poor the WCA is as a means of assessing sickness.

People are facing total denial of their sickness/disability (the Brian McArdle case http://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/scottish-news/atos-killed-my-dad-says-boy-1411100 and that of Colin Traynor: http://www.channel4.com/news/disability-testing-system-failing-says-dead-mans-parents were both examples of terribly ill people given zero points on the system).

There's far more to the WCA debacle than just politics, it is based on the fundamentally flawed bio-psychosocial model of illness. More info here: http://downwithallthat.wordpress.com/category/dubious-academics-universities/professor-mansel-aylward/ and here: http://www.internationalgreensocialist.org/wordpress/?page_id=1716.

My thanks to the reader for these helpful comments.

Written by Simon Wood

Twitter: @simonwood11

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Perspectives from Obama's Terror Victims

"They’re there twenty-four hours. Three or four drones in the sky, twenty-four hours, they don't even stop for a minute" - Local resident

Newly-re-elected US President Barack Obama celebrated his easy victory this week with a drone strike in Yemen. As with all drone strikes, this one was personally authorized by the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner via his 'kill list', now rechristened in pure Orwellian terms as a 'disposition matrix'.

Proponents of drone strikes will no doubt cheer at the news that an al-Qaeda commander and his bodyguards were allegedly killed, but note that the article says that 'at least three terrorists' were among the victims. This could mean more 'terrorists' were killed, or that there was perhaps, to invoke another Orwellian euphemism, some 'collateral damage'.

It is now standard establishment media orthodoxy to label a man a 'terrorist' or 'militant' before his being allowed to defend himself against such an accusation at a fair trial, a basic precept of any honest legal system. Readers of mainstream articles are now supposed to simply accept that government spokesmen tell the truth with complete accuracy, despite the fact that, to take a recent example, the US government itself lied blatantly to the public about WMDs in Iraq to justify the invasion, even utilizing a detailed presentation from a respected member of the administration (Colin Powell) before the United Nations Security Council. It should also be remembered that the Bush administration had willing enablers in the media, even at the so-called newspaper of record, The New York Times.

More insidious however is the media's standard tack-it-on-at-the-end approach with regard to civilian casualties. One major reason why, according to a Washington Post-ABC News survey, 83% of Americans support drone strikes is because they are misled by their own media into believing (read accepting uncritically) that their government is out there 'bug-splatting' the bad guys with their tax dollars. The mainstream media does not do complex reality and subtle nuances well at all, so actually informing the public of the precise details, as far as they exist, of drone strikes, will always be a non-starter.

The citizens of the world, Americans and Britons in particular (along with citizens of other NATO countries) urgently need to be informed of the human angle of this new form of slaughter by robots, and who better to ask than the people who actually live under this threat every day?

Rightsadvocacy.org provides a short list of heartbreaking stories:

It was after dinnertime. Three men were chatting and sipping ‘kehwa’ (local/tribal version of green tea) after dinner in the ‘hujra’ (male compartment) of Karim Khan’s house, a local journalist. Suddenly 3 hellfire missiles were fired on the hujra. Karim Khan was not present at the time of attack but it killed the 3 kehwa-sipping tribals. The first victim of this atrocity was Karim’s eldest, 18-year-old son named Zainullah Khan. Zainullah was an employee of the Education department and worked at a girls’ school in Mirali Tehsil in NWA as helping staff. There are only a few girls schools in tribal areas of Pakistan and even those which exist face acute shortage of qualified teachers. The second casuality was Asif Iqbal, Karim’s brother who, like his nephew Zainullah, was working in the Education department and was English language teacher in a government secondary school of Dattakhel (another town in NWA), in NWA. Asif Iqbal held a Masters in English Literature from National University of Modern Languages (NUML) in Islamabad. After completing his education in the capital, he preferred going back to his village to teach.

Drone apologists like to cite the Taliban's opposition to education for girls as a reason to wipe them out, often raising the case of Malala Yousafzai, the very brave and admirable young girl shot by a Taliban member, as an example. First, one needs to take issue with the fact that simply wiping out an extremist Muslim group would lead to a satisfactory education for girls in Afghanistan - while the absence of the Taliban would certainly be a positive factor for women, the issue is in fact far deeper and more complex, one with societal and historical roots. Second, as we can see from the above story, a drone just killed a completely innocent worker at a girls school.

Sanaullah Jan, aged 17 was an 11th-grade pre-engineering student in Government Degree College Mirali. On 26th November 2010, after college, he and couple of friends from college decided to go to Miranshah, a nearby city. It was a nice day and driving to another town with friends was quite enjoyable. It was on road to Miranshah that a missile fired from a drone burnt the car down. No one survived. Khairullah Jan, Sanaullah’s elder brother reached the scene after he heard about the attack. All that was left was his dead brother’s half-burnt college ID. Khairullah not only lost his brother but a classmate as both were in same class. Sanaullah was the bright one of the family and use to help Khairullah in his studies, but not anymore.

Today Khairullah is pursuing his brother’s legal action against those who wrongfully executed his brother and he is determined to get justice one day.


Sanaullah was a 17-year-old student. He was neither a militant or a terrorist. He was a living, breathing young man. It is pleasing that Khairullah is pursuing legal action. Good luck with that.

Fahim Qureshi was only 13 years old when on one evening in January 2009, his house was attacked by a CIA-operated drone. The house is situated in Zeraki village in NWA. That day there were about 8 family members gathered in Fahim’s family house and as usual the male members were in the hujra. Some of their friends were present in the hujra as well. Fahim was living in a joint family house, so all his father’s brothers were staying together along with their respective families.

The missile fired killed 7 people present in the hujra, including Muhammad Khalil (Fahim’s uncle), Mansur-ur-Rehman (Fahim’s uncle), Azaz-ur-Rehman (Fahim’s cousin), Khush Dil Khan (Fahim’s uncle), Obaid ullah (local shopkeeper and family friend), Rafiq ullah (neighbor), and Siffat ullah (neighbour). Fahim was severely injured and was immediately moved to a hospital in Peshawar (approx. 200 kms). His injuries were complicated though as shrapnel cut through his stomach so he was transferred to the Combined Military Hospital in Rawalpindi (another 200 kms) where he was treated for next 6 months. Fahim lost his left eye as well but he is continuing his education and wants to be an engineer. His elder uncle Muhammad Khalil, who was killed in the same attack, was his mentor and a retired teacher from the village school.


This is a testament to the courage and strength of character of a young boy who has fought through trauma and heartbreak as well as life-threatening injuries and the permanent loss of an eye. Was this mentioned by any of the major media outlets, or was he just another 'civilian casualty'? Imagine how many of the 83% who support drones might begin to question their judgment if they had a media which informed them of such vital information with regard to the consequences of the drone bombing campaign. If this were the plot of a Hollywood movie, how many of the 83% would now despise the perpetrators of this crime and want justice for young Fahim?

Livingunderdrones.org also provides harrowing accounts and sourced quotes from victims:

Tahir Afzal’s brother died in a drone strike.

“It was in the afternoon around two o’clock and he was on his way to work. They were in a car. A drone struck and four people died in it, including children who were walking on the road. . . . There were lots of drones wandering over that day. They were wandering all over, and as the car passed by, it was targeted.” Tahir told our team, “He was my older brother, and I miss him a lot.”

“[Before, e]verybody was involved in their own labor work. We were all busy. But since the drone attacks have started, everybody is very scared and everybody is terrorized. . . . People are out of business, people are out of schools, because people are being killed by these drone attacks.” Tahir emphasized, “It’s not a [fictional] story. It’s brutality that we are undergoing and that needs to be stopped.”


Ismail Hussain’s cousin was killed in a drone strike.

“We were sitting together and my mother said Sajid did not come home. She said there was [a] drone [attack] and so my mother said to go ask about Sajid. . . . When I came to know that the drone [attack] had happened in the other village, I took my motorcycle to go to that village. . . . When I reached that village, people told me Sajid and some others were injured and were taken to the hospital. They didn’t want to make me sad. Then I went to Miranshah hospital. I didn’t meet with him because before I arrived he died. The body of my uncle’s son was put into a box. I took it to my village. I placed it in the house of my neighbor during Fajr [dawn] prayers. At the time of Fajr, I took it to my home.” Ismail informed us, “His mother hangs his picture on the wall. She looks at it 24 hours [a day] and cries.”

Hisham Abrar’s cousin was killed in a drone strike.

“When the weather is clear, three or four [drones] can be seen . . . . They are in the air 24 [hours a day], seven [days a week], but not when it’s raining. Every time they are in the air, they can be heard. And because of the noise, we’re psychologically disturbed—women, men, and children. . . . When there were no drones, everything was all right. [There was] business, there was no psychological stress and the people did what they could do for a living.”

“[The drone strikes have caused many problems:] [f]irst, it’s psychological. Diseases that people have—psychological, mental illnesses. And that’s a huge issue. Secondly, a lot of men have been killed, so they’re the wage earners for the house, and now the kids and the families don’t have a source of income because of that.” Hisham noted that “[others in the community help sometimes, but [i]n Waziristan, there are poor people, and [victims] usually rely on . . . daily wage earning. That’s only sufficient for themselves, so it’s hard to help others. But whenever they can, they do.”


Firoz Ali Khan is a shopkeeper in Miranshah.

“I have been seeing drones since the first one appeared about four to five years ago. Sometimes there will be two or three drone attacks per day. . . . [We see drones] hovering [24 hours a day but] we don’t know when they will strike.” Firoz explained, “People are afraid of dying. . . . Children, women, they are all psychologically affected. They look at the sky to see if there are drones. Firoz told us, “[The drones] make such a noise that everyone is scared.”

These stories are all obviously tragic, but they raise another issue as well. Readers of this blog are now challenged to close their eyes and imagine drones circling over your local area 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with their distinctive buzzing noise a constant factor in your lives. Envisage also the fact that you live there in the knowledge that any of these machines can suddenly swoop and blow you and your children into the next world simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, knowing that even being in your house does not make you necessarily secure. The psychological effects must be (and indeed are, as we can see from the testimonies) devastating.

The only way to describe such an imposed scenario is terrorism, both physical and psychological. Were this to happen against any Western ally at the hands of, say, Russia or China, the Western establishment media would without doubt rush to label it so...and quite rightly. Why, therefore, is it not described in these terms in Waziristan, in Afghanistan, in Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Libya and Palestine?

Further reinforcing this, Obama now presides over so-called 'double-tap' strikes: drones strike a target, often a 'signature strike', namely one based on patterns of behavior rather than hard intelligence, and then return to the same scene later to target rescuers. Even the most rabid supporter of drone attacks would have trouble labeling this as anything other than a grotesque, despicable and inhuman act of terror, one that is clearly illegal under any possible interpretation of relevant international law statutes.

Many of those who voted Obama back in for four more years have used that old chestnut about him being the 'lesser of two evils'. Romney would be much worse, they say. That may be true for some, but asking the innocent victims of Obama's drone bombing campaign may bring a different reply. From the article:

"Any American, whether Obama or Mitt Romney, is cruel," Warshameen Jaan Haji, whose neighborhood was struck by a drone last week, told Reuters on the eve of the election. "I lost my wife in the drone attack and my children are injured. Whatever happens, it will be bad for Muslims."

To these people, it makes no difference. The drones will be overhead 24/7 whoever the president is, and they'll continue to swoop down and extinguish more innocent lives.

What does one call an official campaign that targets a single group (based on religion, ethnicity or whatever) for killing, particularly when one man decides who lives or dies in a process shrouded in secrecy and devoid of transparency and accountability?

What is the word for that?

Written by Simon Wood

Twitter: @simonwood11

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Created Unequal

"In America everybody is of the opinion that he has no social superiors, since all men are equal, but he does not admit that he has no social inferiors, for, from the time of Jefferson onward, the doctrine that all men are equal applies only upwards, not downwards" - Bertrand Russell

Regular readers of this blog will be all too aware of the laxity of the establishment media in its adversarial role in democratic society, not to mention its selective bias on many important issues. The UK's Guardian newspaper nevertheless remains an important mainstream source of information on most issues (despite its ludicrous and embarrassing bias against Wikileaks and its founder) and it often carries excellent articles on neglected human rights issues.

This week was no exception with two fine articles highlighting what inevitably happens when large private companies are given free rein with people's lives and livelihoods: the always excellent Zoe Williams here explains the scandalous implications of outsourcing of foster care and Felicity Lawrence here exposes how large food companies and agribusiness exploit immigrants as an ultra-cheap, 'on-tap' labor force.

From Zoe Williams' article:

We don't have a particularly strong tradition, in this media trajectory, of asking what happened to the money. You can be sure money is being spent – it costs between £200,000 and £300,000 a year for residential care for a child, and £30,000 to £60,000 for foster care. Why is it so expensive? (For comparison, it costs £30,000 to keep someone in a low-security prison for year, and £30,000 to send someone to Eton.) Who gets the money? It's a long story, but the answer emphatically isn't the carers or the foster family.

After 20 years of outsourcing, the bulk of children's homes are run by private companies, with money sucked upwards into one or two private equity companies, GI Partners or Bowmark Capital or Baird Capital. Two-thirds of fostering provision is controlled by the private sector. Only 11% of children's homes are run by charities; the third sector started off quite big in children's care, as you'd expect, meeting local-authority contracts by spending their own reserves. Eventually, though, the private sector underbid them, and they went bust or moved into other services.

Having whittled down the competition, the private sector became eye-poppingly expensive: £200,000 is actually a low estimate, based on overall spending of £1bn on 5,000 children in residential care homes in England. In 2009, it was leaked that CastleCare, which runs 40 homes in Northamptonshire, was charging £378,000 a year for a residential place. This would be money well spent if the care was brilliant, but it isn't. Only 2.5% of children's homes have an Ofsted rating of "outstanding".


...

At the end of this period in "care", then, why are kids and young adults moved miles away from their foster homes? Why are 44% of 16-year-olds who leave care still not in education, employment or training three years later? For the same old reasons – because housing is found wherever it's cheapest.

The cheapest house in the UK went on sale this week, for £750, in Stockton. That's also where a huge amount of asylum seekers' and post-care housing is – I know, wild coincidence! It's quite a saving, but mainly for the contractor rather than the government. Where housing is cheap, the local economy tends to be sluggish, and unemployment is generally high. Brilliant. Now you have a young person with no roots, no money and no realistic prospect of employment. I don't know why we don't just cut out the middle man and send them directly to jail.

It's reasonable to talk about the morality of having a profit motive in this sector at all. You shouldn't run a home for a profit. But before we start on any of that, we need to scotch the idea that private-sector involvement has made any of this any cheaper.


From Felicity Lawrence's article:

Why, when unemployment among the young and unskilled here is so high, do companies like Noble Foods need to turn to foreign workers supplied by gangmasters? The description of the life led by the Lithuanians who were liberated into the care of the UK Human Trafficking Centre earlier this month might offer a clue.

They told how they were shuttled, in mini-vans, the length and breadth of the country, often sleeping in the vehicles between working shifts of up to 17 hours on farms contracted to Noble. Much of this type of work happens at night, a few hours here and a back-to-back double shift there. The flexible workforce big business says it needs is one they like to be able to turn on and off as easily as a tap.

Few people other than recent migrants can tolerate conditions of this sort for long. They are incompatible with any sort of ordered, decent family life. The pay is rarely enough to live on. The Agricultural Wages Board set rural pay slightly higher than the minimum wage and made sure workers received basic sick pay and protection at work. The government wants to abolish it. More than 150,000 low-income workers will be directly affected, another 100,000 indirectly.

Small farmers don't want to see the board go. They hate having to conduct individual negotiations with seasonal workers, and want a level playing field on which everyone is obliged to pay properly. It is the larger producers and agribusiness that are lobbying to get rid of it. When pay is too low to live on, local people are forced out, leaving a gap to be filled by those who are more desperate from elsewhere. Immigration becomes the wages policy, with government actually promoting its increase.


...

Each year the government says it wants to close down schemes, such as the seasonal agricultural workers programme, that allow foreign workers to come into sectors that need low-skill labour, to curb immigration and help British workers. Each year industry argues that it needs them, and they are reopened.

The Conservative stance on Croatian accession to the EU next year is dog-whistle shrill. It wants restrictions to prevent access to the UK labour market by Croatian nationals. Few are likely to come, as they have much stronger ties with Germany. But why miss an opportunity to grandstand to your anti-immigration heartlands?

The more noise made about foreign workers, the easier it is to distract people from the fact that the best way to keep British jobs is to preserve employment protection and enforce the law.


Both articles demonstrate very clearly the dangers of allowing private corporations, aided by deregulation, to make their own rules. The theory when turning vital services over to the private sector is that by creating competition, the quality of the service or product will increase, but time has proven that this is not the case. Instead, one or a few huge companies end up monopolizing the entire field or industry, removing most of the competition by either buying them up or undercutting them out of business. These few companies then set their own standards, ones which invariably suit them and satisfy their single driving aim: profit.

In order to satisfy this aim, costs are cut across the board as far as is legally allowed, and if this means finding a bunch of miserable immigrants and putting them through hell, or making vulnerable kids like orphans even more vulnerable, you can be sure that is exactly what will happen. And even when human rights groups raise an outcry, the politicians who are desperate to keep big business on their side will do all they can to dilute any efforts toward regulation, as Felicity Lawrence writes in the same article:

In response to complaints from agribusiness it [the UK's coalition government] has instructed the [Gangmaster Licensing Authority] (GLA) to be "lighter in its touch" when it regulates and inspects. Providing gangs of vulnerable migrant workers you don't have to bother to pay properly to factories and farms has got easier. Life for those who want to operate legally, providing decent jobs, filled by the sort of workers who know their rights and are not so easy to exploit, has got harder.

Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.


Sixty-four years after the declaration, signed at a time when the horrors and abuses of World War II were still fresh in the memory, we have allowed humanity to revert to its default state; namely one in which unscrupulous people with extensive power and influence get away with as much as they are permitted to by elected officials who possess the all-too-human capacity for greed, cronyism and corruption, officials who will agree to almost anything in order to receive funds for political campaigns and party coffers, and often a nice seat on a board when their political career comes to an end.

It is now popular orthodoxy that 'red tape' is a hindrance to business and therefore to economic growth, leading to direct inhibition of the livelihoods of ordinary citizens. This could be more accurately labelled a 'red herring', as strict regulations on powerful corporations and other bodies actually protect all citizens from the destructive practices described in this article.

This excellent set of graphics sets out the results of the deregulation of the financial industries forced by Reagan (and Thatcher) in the 1980s. It can be seen with crystal clarity that deregulation benefits the already wealth and only them, while the poor are left to stagnate and rot, yet another devastating consequence of relaxing the rules for the rich and powerful.

Felicity Lawrence's article is particularly shocking because what she describes is slavery by another name. The generally accepted definition of the word slavery is work done for no payment. This is inadequate. The only meaningful dividing line is that which separates those who have a wage that can enable them and their family to have an 'existence worthy of human dignity' and those who do not. Paying people peanuts after putting them through the conditions described in the article can only be regarded as a lesser form of slavery, yet slavery nonetheless.

Humans without power are generally good and kind with millions around the world engaged in charity or volunteer work and many many others willing to dig into their pockets for a good cause. Unfortunately, the people who rise to the very top of huge corporations or who reach the upper echelons of political power are often a different breed.

Treating fellow humans in the manner described in the two articles highlighted here dehumanizes us all. That this can happen among the members of a supposedly enlightened, civilized and intelligent species speaks eloquently of the fundamental flaws of our 'democracies' and cries out for a viable alternative system (described in my free book linked below) in which human rights and the rule of law reign supreme over material concerns.

'The 99.99998271% - Why the Time is Right for Direct Democracy' by Simon Wood is available for free download. In this 70-page book, the current state of human rights and democracy is discussed, and a simple method of implementing direct democracy is suggested.
Simon Wood on twitter (@simonwood11) and Facebook or at his blog. The Direct Democracy Alliance, a voluntary group dedicated to creating national/global direct democracy, is now also on twitter: (@DDA4586)


Author's note: For nine months I have been writing detailed articles on human rights and direct democracy, and have written a book on the topic which is freely available. However, despite some small successes, I am yet to make a scratch in any meaningful way that will bring about real change. For this to happen, I need to create an NPO or similar organization devoted to creating and promoting direct democracy. I therefore appeal to any reader who has significant resources, or who has connections to someone who has, to contact me with regard to making a philanthropic donation to bring about a transparent organization with paid, professional staff which can actually make a difference.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Dysfunctional World

"Remember, any state, any state, has a primary enemy: its own population" - Noam Chomsky

A significant incident occurred in 2010 during a football match between Germany and England at the World Cup finals in South Africa. England midfielder Frank Lampard's shot hit the crossbar and the ball bounced clearly over the line, but then span back out into the German goalkeeper's grateful grasp. The referee and linesmen all missed what the entire world could see in replays and supporters of England cried foul.

The German goalkeeper later admitted he had seen the ball cross the line, but deliberately 'conned' the referee by disguising his reaction. Any desire for sportsmanship or honesty on his part was clearly eclipsed by a desire to win the game at all costs, coupled with the obvious disincentive of likely condemnation from team mates, fans and the German media.

Every kid and indeed adult watching the game was faced with a cognitive dissonance: on one hand, they had heard from teachers and parents throughout their lives that lying is wrong and that sportsmanship is an admirable quality, while on the other, many would approve of the goalkeeper's actions, likely stating that the football world is already full of simulation and players bending the rules as far as possible in order to sway results in their favor so it would be foolish to act otherwise and risk defeat.

This justification is a standard human reaction to cognitive dissonance, namely the alteration of one of the opposing beliefs so that it becomes morally acceptable. Such justification is extremely simple because the idea of cheating to 'get results' is now ingrained as normal - in some cases, admirable - in almost every aspect of modern society.

Such is the power of this in the world of professional football that on the extremely rare occasions that a player acts honestly, the establishment itself reacts with incredulity, as in this case when one pundit opined that the sportsmanlike player in question should have had a 'clip round the ear'.

This week a CIA whistleblower, Jack Kiriakou was sentenced to two years in prison for informing the world of the CIA's torture rendition program (known as the Rendition, Detention, Interrogation (RDI) Program). On the other hand, the head of the program, Thomas Fletcher, a man who allegedly oversaw and actually took part in horrendous abuse of detainees is free to enjoy his retirement in Virginia.

Torture is illegal under international law.

Bradley Manning, the young US private who allegedly passed hundreds of thousands of US diplomatic cables to Wikileaks, has been detained for two and a half years in conditions described as 'torture' by both Amnesty International and Juan Mendez, the UN's top torture official. The perpetrators of the multiple criminal acts detailed in the cables remain free of even a whiff of investigation.

These are but two examples of literally thousands of cases of human rights abuse, political persecution and gross injustice, but from them the message is crystal clear: act in good conscience in order to inform your fellow citizens of corruption, illegality or criminality on an industrial scale and you will be punished and persecuted; actually commit the crimes and you will be left alone; indeed, you may be rewarded.

The world is upside-down. The level of dysfunction is such that true justice, democracy, equality and freedom for all is now a distant ideal, a romantic concept espoused by the naive, contemptuously dismissed by the Machiavellian advocates of realpolitik.

What allows this poisonous climate to prevail?

The answer to this can be found in a tour of the world's key institutions, entities presented in the media as benign which are in fact strategically vital for maintaining the status quo.

Public perception of the nature of governance is based on outdated concepts; the average citizen quite reasonably believes that they live in a country, and that nation is ruled by a government, which, if it is a so-called 'representative democracy', they feel lucky enough to have voted for (or against).

The reality is far more complex: governments are increasingly defined by their relationship with (and subservience to) trans-national corporations, lobbyists, thinktanks, media, and certain influential and extremely rich individuals. When Joe Public votes for a political party, he is in fact helping to maintain an extremely complex web of mutual back-scratching, where politicians act far more in the interests of their financial backers than the general public.

All systems are open to abuse and elections are no different: flawed voting systems lead to all manner of anti-democratic ills like tactical voting and disenfranchisement and can ultimately allow minority governments to unleash vicious reforms upon entire populations based on ideologies only a small minority share.

Corporate lobbyists can easily outdo ordinary citizens in getting the ear of the most influential people in power, and are used to getting results that will benefit them. Thinktanks, presented neutrally by so many media outlets as groups of benign and concerned experts, are in many cases biased with particular axes to grind.

These are the bare bones for an infrastructure in which financial and power elites can get what they want. The genius of it all is this: they make you a complete sucker. The vast majority of people living in even democratic societies are under the mistaken impression that they are free to do what they want.

"But I am free!" you insist. "I can buy what I want, go where I want, marry who I want (as long as it is not someone of the same sex)..." This is true, because none of these things threaten the status quo. However, as an experiment, try doing something that actually does challenge the entrenched elites. Try publishing some diplomatic cables that show immoral and criminal acts by your own government in files that have no business being classified under any interpretation of the word...do that and then you will see how free you are. Try peacefully demonstrating in a major US city about broad inequality and see what the police think of your democratic right to protest.

The Occupy movement tried this and were taken to pieces, ridiculed and now ignored by the establishment, perceived by even mildly sympathetic observers as a bunch of worthless hippies who have no idea what they are even protesting. Chalk that perception up as a victory for establishment forces, particularly the media, who went all out with contemptuous criticism and dismissal of the seriousness of the aims of the movement.

Forgotten is the idea that the people out braving the New York winter were actually trying to do something to help ordinary people: you and me; attempting to bring attention to the gross corruption of the Western political system which does not serve the people it claims to.

This is how free we really are. If you are a good little citizen who keeps your mouth shut and nose clean, you can certainly buy what you want and go where you like. Speak out in any way that threatens the establishment and you will pay, depending on how much damage you actually or may potentially cause.

What is then required for the aforementioned elites is something to keep people ignorant of and distracted from what is actually going on. Corporate establishment media and its enabling journalists: take a bow. The vast majority of people on the planet get their news from the major media outlets. Because of the combination of profit motive in the media and the human desire for instant gratification, we are duly drenched with trivialities, an endless deluge of thin, watery horse shit: celebrity scandals and gossip, 'controversial' incidents involving public figures, sports dramas, sensational (and therefore unrepresentative) crimes, and manufactured outrage.

To illustrate this, I will list a sample of the current headlines from the US Yahoo news site:

Tsunami warning for Hawaii after Canadian quake

'Frankenstorm': Worse than sum of its parts

R&B singer Natina Reed struck by car in Georgia

Marines, police prep for mock zombie invasion

Magnitude-7.7 quake strikes off western Canada

Tsunami warning issued for southern Alaska

Romney wins major newspaper endorsement in Iowa

Navy replaces admiral leading Mideast strike group

Rubio's daughter in fair condition after accident


The earthquake and tsunami warnings certainly belong here as they represent vital information to the public. The Romney story also deserves its place, as does the navy one, although these stories are far from cutting to the heart of the malaise in US society. The rest is pointless drivel.

What about independent media outlets? The Raw Story describes itself as 'progressive, bringing attention to stories that it sees as downplayed or ignored by other media outlets'. (from Wikipedia). Sounds good? Here is a sample of today's headlines:

MIT student wins competition by suggesting paintball pellets could save Earth from asteroids

Former Powell Chief of Staff: ‘My party is full of racists’

Maher: Romney thinks a blow job is how the Pep Boys clean out a carburetor

Ann Coulter defends 'retard' comment, downplays Roe v. Wade on Piers Morgan

GOP Rep. says working mothers should have stayed at home

Conservative pollster: Nate Silver is wrong because he is ‘thin and effeminate’

Poll: Majority of Americans are racist against blacks


The last story is mildly interesting and certainly in the public interest. The rest is a waste of everyone's time.

The role of the media is to inform the public in an accurate and neutral fashion how the world around them works, and to present its readers or viewers with all the choices and information available in a way that is understandable to people who are unlikely to be experts. The sensationalist nonsense listed above serves only as a distraction, dumbs everyone down, and in fact gives rise to mass confusion. This confusion, mixed in with the myriad cognitive biases we are all as humans cursed with, is toxic to healthy democracy.

Even worse, high-profile journalists, who are supposed in a democracy to act as checks against abuses of power, are all too often subservient to it. Glenn Greenwald explains here how some stenographers will agree to literally anything in order to have 'access' to the president or other key figures in power.

Let's take a look at some other societal cogs in place to ensure the long-term continuance of the status quo:

1. Allow Glenn Greenwald to talk you through the utter sham popularly known as the US presidential debates, a corporate-sponsored process to insulate candidates from being forced to discuss topics that are politically risky while at the same time presenting the debates as some kind of vital expression of a healthy democracy.

2. In the US and increasingly the UK, a vast surveillance society apparatus has been constructed post 9/11. This is justified by the need to 'combat terrorism'. The idea that if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear is aggressively marketed, despite the fact that this ranks as one of the all-time most stupid assertions, as explained here.

3. While mendacious politicians like the UK Conservative Party's Iain Duncan Smith vilify the poor and fan the populist flames of anger about benefits fraud, the fact that benefits fraud accounts for less than 1% of funds lost due to the so-called 'tax gap', namely tax revenue lost due to tax evasion and avoidance, something the rich are overwhelmingly responsible for, is lost in the noise generated by widely read newspapers like the Daily Mail which march in lockstep with the Conservative Party on issues like this.

4. Two streams of justice seemingly exist: one for ordinary people, another for the rich and powerful. While the criminal bankers who brought about the 2008 financial crash get to continue to work in the same industry and keep receiving obscene bonuses and pay-offs, the poor are punished severely for offenses that did not bring down the world's financial system.

5. International institutions like the UN have been rendered powerless to stop the spread and escalation of war and the malign influence of the arms industry, which has its tentacles wrapped lovingly around the key decision makers in governments around the world.

6. Vaunted international bodies like the IMF, the World Bank and NATO, and even international law itself, in reality serve as arms of the US empire and its allies, a means on multiple fronts to enable and maintain Western hegemony.

7. Even organizations that exist explicitly to aid the world's poorest and most helpless are in crisis, with enormous amounts of aid swallowed up in costs. A lack of consistent regulation leads to horror stories like this:

From an article by Craig Murray:

Of 110 containers of pharmaceuticals entering West Africa searched in a special operation coordinated by the World Customs Organisation (WCO), 84 were found to contain fake pharmaceuticals. 82 million doses of fake medicine were confiscated which included anti-malarial and anti-HIV drugs and antibiotics.

Here in sub-Saharan Africa, over two children die every minute of malaria – which in 98% of cases can be cured with US $6 worth of genuine drugs. A spokesman for the WCO on BBC World Service radio last night said that the number of deaths caused directly by counterfeit medicine in Africa every year was in the hundreds of thousands. He called it 'genocide'.


This dysfunctional world system is able to persist because the entire human population has been made simultaneously a consumer of products and services offered by the major corporations (having bought up or closed down almost all competition from small businesses) and also unwitting supporters of this very system via perceived free elections.

Worse, it is self-perpetuating. Inequality will grow, injustices will increase, war will spread, all to serve the aims of the tiny elite minority that is in control. Basic human rights like higher education and health are becoming available only if you can afford them, and this trend is increasingly excluding the poor in particular in nations that have succumbed to neoliberal economic methodology.

In nations like the US and the UK with their militarized police forces and ubiquitous surveillance, it is already too late for direct revolutionary movements to change anything - the Occupy movement being an object lesson. Nevertheless as the US in particular has enormous influence on the world as a whole, it is vital that the corruption of its political process, its lack of any third-party option, and the rigid control of powerful corporate lobbyists be broken.

A massive grassroots movement toward direct democracy to take power out of the hands of politicians (and by extension the lobbyists) is both essential and possible. This system has been implemented successfully in Switzerland, a safe nation with a strong economy. It can be done simply with mass participation, as described in my FREE book linked below.

Time has run out for all other options. To make things worse, we have a global climate emergency looming over all our heads that is being studiously ignored by almost every government on the planet. We no longer have the luxury of choice.

'The 99.99998271% - Why the Time is Right for Direct Democracy' by Simon Wood is available for free download. In this 70-page book, the current state of human rights and democracy is discussed, and a simple method of implementing direct democracy is suggested.
Simon Wood on twitter (@simonwood11) and Facebook or at his blog. The Direct Democracy Alliance, a voluntary group dedicated to creating national/global direct democracy, is now also on twitter: (@DDA4586)


Author's note: For nine months I have been writing detailed articles on human rights and direct democracy, and have written a book on the topic which is freely available. However, despite some small successes, I am yet to make a scratch in any meaningful way that will bring about real change. For this to happen, I need to create an NPO or similar organization devoted to creating and promoting direct democracy. I therefore appeal to any reader who has significant resources, or who has connections to someone who has, to contact me with regard to making a philanthropic donation to bring about a transparent organization with paid, professional staff which can actually make a difference.