New Hope for a Second Term

President Obama’s Second Inaugural Address surprised some pundits with his strong messages on climate change, immigration reform, gun safety and other social issues. But whether real action follows will depend on a shift in public consciousness, says Robert F. Dodge.

By Robert F. Dodge

This year’s presidential inauguration on Martin Luther King Day finds us as a nation and people at a remarkable crossroads. We have the same daunting issues we have faced for years before us; and yet there is something different.

There is a developing shift in our consciousness and responsibility. We are witnessing a new awareness of the challenges and necessity of addressing them. What is needed is the collective will and steadfastness of effort to realize the opportunities that are upon us.

This year commemorates profound social events in history, from the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech 50 years ago. That dream and challenge is alive and vital today, and recent events have made the need to realize it ever more apparent.

From Hurricane Sandy to Sandy Hook, the challenges we face loom large. They range from climate change, gun control, immigration reform, to mass incarceration, war and social and environmental justice. On our shared planet, there is a demand for environmental sustainability, social justice and spiritual fulfillment. We must recognize that these issues are all connected. Not one can be had without the others. The tipping point on these issues is at hand.

Daily we witness the devastating effects of climate change, from year after year record temperatures and 2012 being the warmest year on record for the lower 48 U.S. states. We see the catastrophic global storms and record melting of the Arctic Sea ice. People are making the connection of extreme weather and climate change. The storms affect everyone, though poor and underdeveloped communities and civilizations feel a disproportionate brunt with resultant environmental injustice.

Gun violence is a public health threat and national disgrace. Averaging 87 gun-related deaths per day, the United States saw more than 30,000 of our citizens die last year from gunshot. Gun-related deaths are the leading cause of death among inner city black children and teens.

This “war” rages on everyday right here on our soil. According to Bloomberg News, deaths from these weapons of mass destruction will soon overtake annual auto fatalities. This public health threat has gone on for far too long.

As with any public health threat, prevention is key. A sad and paradoxical outcome of the Sandy Hook shootings and the loss of innocent white school children and teachers is that previous congressional adversaries to gun control are starting to evolve, recognizing that there is no “safe” population. They are seeing the need for some sensible control of our current insane gun policy.

Immigration reform has long been ignored or used as a divisive political issue. Yet immigration is a reality in our society and how we respond will address social and economic justice. Our economy is dependent on the labor of these “non-recognized” people whom we so often overlook and treat as non-entities. This is a complex and international issue that demands compassion and leadership to resolve.

Mass incarceration that flows from the “War on Drugs” finds 2.3 million people in the U.S. behind bars. With 5 percent of the world’s population the U.S. has 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated, making the U.S. the “incarceration nation.” Fifty percent of this population are men of color; this has been referred to as the new “Jim Crow.” This institutionalized racism tears apart the social fabric of our communities.

Finally, as the U.S. prepares to withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan it is imperative that we look closely at addressing and eliminating the root causes of war. All war has the possibility of going nuclear, either by intent or mistake. In a world that remains wired for instantaneous nuclear annihilation stemming from outmoded Cold War thinking, the time at long last has come to make real progress in abolishing these weapons.

The cost of war and the military-industrial complex to our society and world in lives, treasure, natural resources, brainpower, and missed opportunities is incomprehensible. The entire war economy demands a complete review as we face the finite fragile future of our planet. It is inaugural time time to inaugurate some key necessary changes.

Robert F. Dodge, M.D., serves on the boards of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, Beyond War, Physicians for Social Responsibility Los Angeles, and Citizens for Peaceful Resolutions, and writes for PeaceVoice.

America’s War for Reality

Exclusive: The United States has been on a three-decade binge of unreality, imbibing delusions that began with Ronald Reagan and have continued through the Tea Party. The challenge now is for rational Americans to show they have the toughness and tenacity to fight for the real world — and to save it, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

The real struggle confronting the United States is not between the Right and the Left in any traditional sense, but between those who believe in reality and those who are entranced by unreality. It is a battle that is testing whether fact-based people have the same determination to fight for their real-world view as those who operate in a fact-free space do in defending their illusions.

These battle lines do relate somewhat to the Right/Left divide because today’s right-wing has embraced ideological propaganda as truth more aggressively and completely than those on the Left, though the Left (and the Center, too) are surely not immune from the practice of ignoring facts in pursuit of some useful agit-prop.

But key elements of the American Right have set up permanent residence in the world of make-believe, making any commonsense approach to the real-world challenges nearly politically impossible. The Right’s fantasists also have the passions of true-believers, like a cult that gets angrier the more its views are questioned.

So, it doesn’t matter that scientific evidence proves global warming is real; the deniers will insist the facts are simply a government ploy to impose “tyranny.” It doesn’t matter how many schoolchildren are slaughtered by semi-automatic assault rifles or what the real history of the Second Amendment was. To the gun fanatics, the Framers wanted armed rebellion against the non-violent political process they worked so hard to create.

On more narrow questions, it doesn’t matter whether President Barack Obama presents his short or long birth certificates, he must have somehow fabricated the Hawaiian state records to hide his Kenyan birth. Oh, yes, and Obama is “lazy” even though he may appear to an objective observer to be a multi-tasking workaholic.

The American Right’s collective departure from reality can be traced back decades, but clearly accelerated with the emergence of former actor Ronald Reagan on the national stage. Even his admirers acknowledge that Reagan had a strained relationship with facts, preferring to illustrate his points with distorted or apocryphal anecdotes.

Reagan’s detachment from reality extended from foreign policy to economics. As his rival for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, George H.W. Bush famously labeled Reagan’s supply-side policies of massive tax cuts for the rich which would supposedly raise more revenues as “voodoo economics.”

But Bush, who knew better, then succumbed to Reagan’s political clout as he accepted Reagan’s vice presidential offer. In that way, the senior Bush would become a model for how other figures in the Establishment would pragmatically bend to Reagan’s casual disregard for reality.

Perception Management

The Reagan administration also built around the President a propaganda infrastructure that systematically punished politicians, citizens, journalists or anyone who dared challenge the fantasies. This private-public collaboration coordinating right-wing media with government disinformationists brought home to America the CIA’s strategy of “perception management” normally aimed at hostile populations.

Thus, the Nicaraguan Contras, who in reality were drug-connected terrorists roaming the countryside murdering, torturing and raping, became “the moral equivalent” of America’s Founding Fathers. To say otherwise marked you as a troublemaker who had to be “controversialized” and marginalized.

The remarkable success of Reagan’s propaganda was a lesson not lost on a young generation of Republican operatives and the emerging neoconservatives who held key jobs in Reagan’s Central American and public-diplomacy operations, the likes of Elliott Abrams and Robert Kagan. The neocons’ devotion to imperialism abroad seemed to motivate their growing disdain for empiricism at home. Facts didn’t matter; results did. [See Robert Parry’s Lost History.]

But this strategy wouldn’t have worked if not for gullible rank-and-file right-wingers who were manipulated by an endless series of false narratives. The Republican political pros manipulated the racial resentments of neo-Confederates, the religious zeal of fundamentalist Christians, and the free-market hero worship of Ayn Rand acolytes.

That these techniques succeeded in a political system that guaranteed freedom of speech and the press was not only a testament to the skills of Republican operatives like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. It was an indictment of America’s timid Center and the nation’s ineffectual Left. Simply put, the Right fought harder for its fantasyland than the rest of America did for the real world.

There were a number of key turning points in this “info-war.” For instance, Reagan’s secret relationship with the Iranian mullahs was partly revealed in the Iran-Contra scandal, but its apparent origins in treacherous Republican activities during Campaign 1980 contacting Iran behind President Jimmy Carter’s back were swept under the rug by mainstream Democrats and the Washington press corps.

Similarly, evidence of Contra drug-trafficking and even CIA admissions about covering up and protecting those crimes were downplayed by the major newspapers, including the Washington Post and the New York Times. Ditto the work of Central American truth commissions exposing massive human rights violations that Reagan aided and abetted.

The fear of taking on the Reagan propaganda machine in any serious or consistent way was so great that nearly everyone looked to their careers or their personal pleasures. One side dug in for political warfare and the other, too often, favored trips to wine country.

Distrusting the MSM

As this anti-empiricism deepened over several decades, the remaining thinking people in America came to distrust the mainstream. The initials “MSM” standing for “mainstream media” became an expression of derision and contempt, not undeserved given the MSM’s repeated failure to fight for the truth.

National Democrats, too, showed little fight. When evidence of Republican misconduct was available as in the investigations of the early 1990s into Iran-Contra, Iraq-gate and the October Surprise case accommodating Democrats, such as Rep. Lee Hamilton and Sen. David Boren chose to look the other way. [See Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]

The Democrats even submitted when the Right and the Republicans overturned the electoral will of the American people, as happened in Election 2000 when George W. Bush stole the Florida election and thus the White House from Al Gore. [For details, see the book, Neck Deep.]

In the decades after the Vietnam War, the American Left also drifted into irrelevance. Indeed, it’s common in some circles on the Left to observe that “America has no Left.” But what was left of the Left often behaved like disgruntled fans in the bleachers booing everyone on the field, the bad guys who were doing terrible things as well as the not-so-bad guys who were doing the best they could under impossible conditions.

This post-modern United States may have reached its nadir with George W. Bush’s presidency. In 2002-03, patently false claims were made about Iraq’s WMD and virtually no one in a position of power had the courage to challenge the lies. Deceived by Bush and the neocons with the help of centrists like Colin Powell and the editors of the Washington Post the nation lurched off into an aggressive war of choice.

Sometimes, the Right’s contempt for reality was expressed openly. When author Ron Suskind interviewed members of the Bush administration in 2004, he encountered a withering contempt for people who refused to adjust to the new faith-based world.

Citing an unnamed senior aide to George W. Bush, Suskind wrote: “The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ …

“‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality, judiciously, as you will, we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”

Reality Bites Back

Despite this imperial arrogance, real reality gradually reasserted itself, both in the bloody stalemate in Iraq and in the economic crises that Bush’s anti-regulatory and low-tax policies created at home. By Election 2008, the American people were awaking with a terrible hangover from a three-decade binge on anti-reality moonshine.

In that sense, the election of Barack Obama represented a potential turning point. However, the angry Right that Ronald Reagan had built and the corresponding crippling effects on the Center and the Left didn’t just disappear.

The Right counterattacked ferociously against the nation’s first African-American president, even intimating violent revolution if Obama acted on his electoral mandate; Obama often behaved like one of those accommodating Democrats (in retaining much of Bush’s national security team, for instance); the mainstream press remained careerist; and the Left demanded perfection regardless of the political difficulties.

This combination of dysfunction contributed to the rise of the Tea Party and the Republican congressional victories in 2010. But Election 2012, with Obama’s reelection and a general rejection of Tea Party fanaticism, has created the chance of a do-over for American rationalists.

After all, the United States continues to see the consequences of three decades of right-wing delusions, including high unemployment; massive deficits; self-inflicted financial crises; a degraded middle class; poor health care for millions; a crumbling infrastructure; an overheating planet; costly foreign wars; a bloated Pentagon budget; and children massacred by troubled young men with ridiculously easy access to semi-automatic assault rifles.

Yet, if rational and pragmatic solutions are ever going to be applied to these problems, it is not just going to require that President Obama display more spine. The country is going to need its conscious inhabitants of the real world to stand up with at least the same determination as the deluded denizens of the made-up world.

Of course, this fight will be nasty and unpleasant. It will require resources, patience and toughness. But there is no other answer. Reality must be recovered and protected if the planet and the children are to be saved.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and

Keystone Pipeline’s March to the Sea

Progress continues on the Keystone XL pipeline as it overcomes creative protests and legal challenges in East Texas. But opposition also is building with big-name environmentalists, like Robert Redford, urging the Obama administration to stand up against global warming, reports William Boardman.

By William Boardman

Construction of the southern leg of TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline continues to march through East Texas toward the sea with the implacability of Sherman’s army through Georgia in 1864, although with less scorched earth and a lot fewer casualties (at least if one doesn’t factor in the future impact on global warming).

So far, the Canadian pipeline corporation has faced and overcome opposition all along the way from protesters, blockaders and court challenges and as of Jan. 4, TransCanada reported that the 485-mile construction projectwas roughly a third complete and pretty much on schedule for completion before the end of 2013.

Despite setbacks as recently as Jan. 3, when a police-supervised cherry-picker collected a tree-sitter from the pipeline right-of-way, the Tar Sands Blockade and other opposition groups kept their actions going with a non-violence training camp over the weekend.

This led to the Tar Sands Blockade’s largest demonstration so far, on Jan. 7, when about 100 protesters occupied the lobby in the TransCanada office building. After about an hour, police cleared the building almost peacefully, with little more than some pushing and shoving. There were few arrests.

Most of the evicted demonstrators gathered in a greenspace across the street, where they performed street theatre featuring a “pipeline dragon,” as some 40 police looked on, some on horseback quietly drinking their Starbucks coffee.

A potentially much more important struggle goes on mostly out of sight in Washington, DC, where the Secretary of State is officially responsible for accurately assessing the environmental impact of the whole Keystone XL, all 1,100-plus miles of it.

This assessment was ordered almost a year ago, when President Obama resisted congressional pressure and denied the pipeline a permit to cross from Canada into the U.S. until the evaluation was done making the final decision a clear indicator of the President’s seriousness about climate change.

This was the subtext of environmentalist and moviemaker Robert Redford in a  recent piece that doesn’t mention President Obama by name, but calls in quietly measured tones for his government to deny the pipeline a permit:

“This is a time for climate leadership. So, instead of a shoddy Keystone XL environmental review, the first major climate action for this Administration’s second term should be to set limits on climate change pollution from power plants. That is the kind of action that makes sense.

“And then it will make sense to reject this dirty energy project. With extreme weather taking its toll on communities all over America, we can’t afford another major dirty energy project such as the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.”

The Alberta tar sands in Canada, like tar sands everywhere, do not contain oil, per se. The near-solid bitumen in tar sands can be turned into a high-sulfur content oil by treatment with toxic chemicals, heat and pressure.

The Keystone XL pipeline is designed to transport over 700,000 barrels of hot tar sands oil under pressure every day, from Canada across the heartland of the United States to Gulf Coast refineries, from whence it will mostly go to overseas markets, especially China.

In contrast to Redford’s polite demurrer, NASA scientist James Hansen has looked at the very same set of facts and concluded that Canadian tar sands “contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history” and that exploitation of this “resource” would mean, effectively, “game over for the climate.”

Hansen was critical of President Obama for taking the attitude that the Canadians would exploit their tar sands no matter what the U.S. does. Redford suggests this may not be true, that “Canadians know better – they haven’t let new tar sands pipeline be built yet to either of their own coasts. In fact, the proposed Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline to the west coast is considered dead by many.”

Resistance Spreads

With completion of Keystone XL, this point would become irrelevant. With Keystone blocked, it remains, at least, wishful thinking. There is already serious resistance in British Columbia and Nebraska and Vermont as well as Texas and other points along likely pipeline routes.

And resistance appears to continue to grow, as noted in CounterPunch in discussing the rise of Idle No More, a coalition of indigenous people in Canada in recent months, who are now joining the tar sands protest in Texas:

“In the coming days a new blockade will be set up in Texas as the resistance to Tar Sands grows. Plans are afoot across the country and the world for solidarity actions with Idle No More movement and direct actions targeting these industries and governments that continue to push our health, the environment and the existence of future generations aside for the profits of the transnational corporations defining the global political regime.

“Let’s hope that 2013 brings a needed awakening in the United States and that the Obama liberals and progressives shake off their shackles to a system that is plodding along in the wrong direction and decide to be Idle No More!!!”

The Lufkin Daily News posted a video of a non-violent but nevertheless odd arrest on Jan. 3 of a man asking for an explanation of why he had to move out of a public right of way. Tar Sands Blockade described the sheriff’s behavior this way: “Escalated police harassment of supporters along public highway continues. Angelina County sheriffs continue to push the limits of their legal authority with their harassment of supporters trying to observe the blockade from the side of a public highway. Supporters have been detained under the pretense that they were ‘witnesses to a felony investigation’ and ordered to produce ID.” 

Later the group reported that six blockaders were being held in jail, with bail set at $10,000 each. To deal with one person of color who was arrested without ID, the sheriff’s department called immigration authorities.

William Boardman lives in Vermont, where he has produced political satire for public radio and served as a lay judge.

Al Gore’s ‘Current TV’ Debacle

Exclusive: Current TV’s core failure was the choice by its founder Al Gore to avoid political conflict in 2005 when President George W. Bush was near the height of his powers. That act of cowardice made the “progressive” network largely irrelevant to the biggest battles of the last decade, says Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

Al Gore’s soon-to-be-defunct Current TV should serve as a case study for American progressives on how not to construct a media outlet. It was a failure in nearly all respects, with possibly its only lasting contribution the fact that its sale to Al Jazeera may finally give that important media voice from the Islamic world a foothold in the United States.

The biggest error committed by Gore and his partner Joel Hyatt occurred at Current’s founding in 2004-05 when the project intentionally ducked what was then the most important fight underway for the future of America, whether President George W. Bush’s strategy for a permanent Republican majority would go unchallenged.

Gore specifically swore off any political leanings for the new network, vowing that it would be an “independent voice” focused on the 18-to-34 demographic by giving them “a voice they recognize and a view they recognize as their own.” The idea was to present an MTV with a little more social conscience.

Gore and Hyatt also located their new network in San Francisco, a pleasant place to live but, frankly, a news backwater, 3,000 miles away from and three hours behind the news centers of New York and Washington. In placing its headquarters in the Bay Area, Current TV followed the tendency of other progressive outlets to choose that gentler location at the rear rather than to fight it out in the trenches on the front lines.

So, as the American people were facing one of the most severe threats to their political future a brazen strategy by Karl Rove and other Republican operatives to seize total control and to veer the country off in a violent and cruel right-wing direction the former Vice President and Democratic standard-bearer from 2000 consciously sought to avoid political conflict for his fledgling network.

Even if that had been a sound business strategy, which it wasn’t, it represented an act of cowardice. In 2005, when Current went on the air, the American people desperately needed a courageous voice to challenge Bush’s abuses of power, including his neoconservative war of aggression in Iraq and his assault on fundamental constitutional protections, such as the right of habeas corpus and prohibitions against “cruel and unusual punishments,” i.e. torture. Bush and the Right also were contemptuous about the science of global warming and other reality-based threats.

Not only could Gore’s network have engaged aggressively on those political battle fronts, it could have provided important historic information, including evidence about broader Republican abuses of political power, from the days of Sen. Joe McCarthy through President Richard Nixon to the crimes of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, such as their tolerance of cocaine trafficking by the Nicaraguan Contra rebels.

Gore also could have demonstrated a meaningful independence by showing how Democrats contributed to those and similar offenses during the post-World War II years by commission and omission. [For details, see Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]

Indeed, a youthful audience might have found such evidence revelatory and useful in assessing what is needed to put U.S. politics back on a sound course. Certainly, these young people would have gotten a better sense of the battle they’re in, against a power structure that won’t simply budge because of some idealistic mini-documentaries about caring for the planet.

The All-Powerful Bush

It may seem odd today, since President George W. Bush is widely reviled as a dismal failure, a politician not even welcome at the Republican National Convention. But eight years ago, he headed a fearsome political juggernaut that scared many people into silence, especially anyone who wished to maintain “credibility” within the mainstream.

So, it was left to a handful of underfunded Internet sites, including our own, to explain what was happening within the U.S. political structure, to challenge the conventional wisdom on the Iraq War, and to provide the necessary historical context on how the country had lost its way. In those crucial years, Gore’s Current TV siphoned off millions of dollars in scarce media money while producing very little that was cutting edge regarding the fight for America’s political future.

Ironically, it was an outlet of General Electric, a founding member of the Military-Industrial Complex, that seized on the media opening that Gore had disdained.

MSNBC, another struggling cable outlet, had tried for a while to out-fox Fox News from the Right. In the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003, MSNBC dumped the popular Phil Donahue, who had dared to allow some anti-war voices on his talk show. Then, during the invasion, MSNBC produced glowing propaganda videos of American troops “liberating” Iraq, just like Fox was doing.

MSNBC, like other mainstream outlets, carefully censored out images of dead Iraqi civilians and wounded children at overflowing hospitals, so as not to dampen the jingoistic hysteria that was considered ratings gold. However, MSNBC executives soon learned that Fox had cornered the market on conservative viewers, leaving the wannabe super-patriots at MSNBC looking for another strategy.

That strategy emerged through the singular voice of Keith Olbermann, a former sports broadcaster who transformed his MSNBC show “Countdown,” which premiered almost at the same time as the Iraq War, into must-see TV for Americans uneasy about the direction that Bush was taking the country.

Though a temperamental personality, Olbermann demonstrated the courage to take on the Bush administration and Fox News and showed that his pugnacious though erudite style could work even amid the political conformity that dominated the early-to-mid part of the last decade. Every night, Olbermann chided Bush’s triumphant “Mission Accomplished” declaration by counting how many days the war had continued after that moment of bravado.

Olbermann’s ratings success convinced NBC Universal to expand its liberal-oriented evening programming, making MSNBC a counterpoint to Fox News and leaving CNN’s attempts at “even-handedness” looking wimpy and irrelevant.

Repeated clashes with management led Olbermann to depart MSNBC in January 2011, but his legacy was lasting and profound. By then, Bush was considered one of the worst presidents in U.S. history, the Iraq War was acknowledged to be a disaster, and MSNBC was the clear choice for millions of Americans tired of Fox’s right-wing propaganda and CNN’s phony “balance.”

It was only after Olbermann left MSNBC and after the ugly trench warfare with the Bush-Rove-Fox machine was largely over that Gore and Current TV decided to abandon their MTV-with-a-conscience format and opt for more hard-edged political programming. Current hired Olbermann to head its news division and to continue hosting his show, but he quickly grew alienated by the poor production values and left in a huff in March 2012.

The hard truth about Gore’s Current TV is that it missed its historic moment, a chance to truly fight for America’s political future. Gore and the network thought they could do good by not engaging the powerful forces that were intent on crushing the nation’s progressive tendencies and its democratic principles.

The idea was that Current could distance itself from such nastiness both politically and geographically, getting as far from the Washington Beltway as possible and focusing on the positive, not the negative.

That was a gross miscalculation, a failure of political courage and business acumen. Current will now disappear from America’s media landscape having accomplished very little and with very few lamenting or even noticing its departure.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and

Strategic Threat of Climate Change

As the American Right loses credibility from the Tea Party to the neocons there’s a chance for the reassertion of rationality, a new respect for empirical evidence and disdain for propaganda. Perhaps most importantly is the recognition of the grave threat from climate change, says Winslow Myers.

By Winslow Myers

Because the United States is the wealthiest nation on the planet, Americans have the luxury of being proactive in ensuring their future security. But the path to that security looks very different from the way it did even a few years ago.

A primary example of this transformed security context is the realization that there is only one atmosphere surrounding the earth. Unless all nations make a concerted effort to convert to sources of clean energy, global mean temperatures will continue to rise and cause undesirable extremes of weather.

Strategic competition between superpowers like Russia, China and the U.S. becomes irrelevant to the larger crisis of fossil fuel use and carbon dioxide emissions from all countries. The violence of storms in one country may be intensified by the environmental policies of another country, and vice-versa.

Fossil fuel corporations, more powerful than many national governments, must be pressured from taking more oil or coal out of the ground even though they have the technical means and the capital to do so. While entrenched interests are resistant to such painful change, countries like Germany are providing a model of how it can be done, having relinquished nuclear power and moved successfully toward hybridized alternatives like solar, wind, tidal, and low-head hydro power,indeed, a far more secure mix than a huge vulnerable nuclear reactor or coal-fired, smoke-belching plant.

Where would the capital come from for an American conversion away from fossil fuels?  How about our profligate and useless nuclear weapons renewal program? Nuclear weapons take their place as one more environmental challenge.

Scientists have computer-modeled the possibility that even a small nuclear war using only a fraction of the weapons available would loft enough soot into the atmosphere to cause a worldwide shutdown of agriculture for a decade. This accelerated climate event would be as much a death sentence for the planet as all-out nuclear war between two superpowers.

Established U.S. policy assumes that deterrence needs to be maintained against the Russian nuclear arsenal, even though the Cold War has been over for a generation. Deterrence theory also breaks down against a nuclear attack by terrorist extremists, who could simply bring a device into a country by stealth. A potent combination of obsolete deterrence strategy, the profitability of new submarines, missiles, and drones, and the assumption that no other nation is in a position to police the world, rationalizes the momentum of the American weapons industry.

The assumption that all U.S. ordnance will be perpetually fail-safe is the ultimate folly. We are rushing headlong toward a cliff that makes a molehill of the so-called “fiscal cliff.”

Conditions on the macro level are replicated at smaller scales. The massacre of children in Newtown has renewed discussion about which societal models most effectively protect the innocent. Some have suggested that safety lies in more rather than fewer weapons, a deterrence model similar to that which has been vainly pursued on the international level.

Arming everyone to the teeth, whether individuals or nations, is a devil’s bargain yielding only greater and greater insecurity, especially given the possibility of accident or misinterpretation. It has now been a half-century since we learned where this model inevitably leads. During the Cuban missile crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union came within a hair’s breadth of total global annihilation.

Presidents Gorbachev and Reagan saw the light when they met in Reykjavik in 1986 and considered the total elimination of nuclear arsenals on both sides. The momentum of global arms manufacture rushes us past such milestones of visionary common sense into a future that, unless we risk citizen-supported change, looks increasingly foreboding.

Even if the U.S. and Russia could agree to disarm to their last warhead, the planet needs to address the tensions between newer members of the nuclear club like India and Pakistan, who have yet to learn the inescapable lesson of the Cuban missile crisis. Perhaps the quickest way for them to learn it is by our setting an example.

The only force sufficient to counter this momentum is citizen awareness and action, building relationships across illusory divides with people in other nations on the basis of shared security concerns. The divides are illusory because all of us on the planet face the same challenges together. This reality is powerful enough to overcome the fear and enemy-imaging that has restrained global peace building in the past.

Americans, who are blessed with so much in spite of our present economic woes, shouldn’t find it so hard to imagine how deeply grateful people in places like Iran would feel if we built down our nuclear weapons programs, setting aside the resulting peace dividend toward a massive conversion to sustainable energy sources and meeting worldwide needs for medicine, clean water, nourishing food, and shelter.

As such initiatives came to be appreciated, terrorism would inevitably die a natural death. The scarcity of resources that is expected to be the cause of future wars would be addressed preemptively. Given the greater risks of continuing on our present course, this fundamental change of direction is worth the gamble. If you agree, write your representative.

Winslow Myers leads seminars on the challenges of personal and global change, is the author of Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide, serves on the Advisory Board of the War Preventive Initiative, is a member of the Rotarian Action Group for Peace, and writes for PeaceVoice.

Congressmen Eye Revolving Door

Outgoing members of Congress even as they consider legislation in the lame-duck session are preparing their exits through the revolving door to lucrative lobbying jobs, often with industries they assisted while doing the “people’s business,” as Bill Moyers and Michael Winship explain.

By Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

Last week, we talked about the infernal revolving door between government and big business and how one person in particular, Liz Fowler, has spun through it so many times she may need to take something for motion sickness. Which makes it a good thing that she’s going back to work as a lobbyist for the health care industry, where presumably she can get a prescription filled.

Fowler used to be a lobbyist with the health insurer WellPoint. Then she went to Capitol Hill as Sen. Max Baucus’s health care reform architect followed by some time at the Department of Health and Human Services and Barack Obama’s White House. Now she’s headed back to the private sector, going to bat for the medical giant Johnson & Johnson where no doubt her deep insider knowledge of Washington will be worth every dollar.

We were reminded of the revolving door again when Bill spoke with Tony Kushner, the screenwriter of “Lincoln,” on this week’s edition of Moyers & Company. Early in the film, Lincoln tells his Secretary of State William Seward that he wants to ram through a lame-duck House of Representatives the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery. He needs support from his opposition, the Democratic Party. Seward says there’s none to be had but the politically savvy Lincoln reminds him that 64 Democratic members have just lost reelection and will be looking for jobs.

“If procuring votes with offers of jobs is what you intend,” Seward replies, “I’ll fetch a friend from Albany who can supply the skulking men gifted at this kind of shady work.” And so he does.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. The actual revolving door may not have been invented until 1888, more than 20 years after Lincoln’s death, but the principle already was firmly in place back then and still turning ‘round today, especially among departing members of the House. They’re looking for jobs and the siren call of K Street is irresistible.

Some didn’t wait, and lined up their cushy lobbying positions even before their terms have officially ended. Outgoing House Rep. Jason Altmire, a Pennsylvania Democrat, was a health care lobbyist before being elected in 2006. He opposed Obamacare. Now he’s hooking up with Florida Blue they run that state’s Blue Cross and Blue Shield as senior vice president for public policy; a fancy title for lobbyist.

Rep. Mike Ross, Democrat of Arkansas, fought hard against a rule cutting back on dangerous emissions from coal-burning power plants. Now he’s leaving the House and becoming senior vice president for government affairs at Southwestern Power Pool that’s a group representing electric utilities that burn coal for energy and profit. Some coincidence.

Heath Shuler, Democratic representative of North Carolina and former NFL quarterback, is helping lead the congressional effort to prevent a plunge over the so-called fiscal cliff. Come January, he moves on to be senior vice president of federal affairs for the biggest electrical power company in the country, Duke Energy. Duke has enjoyed extensive tax subsidies and in the years 2008-2010 receiving tax refunds of $216 million while reporting a $5.5 billion profit.

Tim Carney, of the conservative Washington Examiner newspaper, writes that Duke Energy would have profited nicely if Congress had passed cap-and-trade legislation that Duke Power helped draft and Shuler supported. So he’ll still be working for Duke, just making more money.

Another case of coincidence, apparently, which is funny because only a few months ago, Shuler was in total denial when investigative reporters Lee Fang and Ziad Jilani asked him about his future:

Fang: Are you going to become a lobbyist?

Shuler: No

Jilani: What do you plan to do after you retire?

Shuler: Have a better job than you guys have, that’s for sure.

In pursuit of a so-called better job a lobbying job even a House member who was easily reelected is abandoning the ship of state. Republican Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson of Missouri just won her ninth term with a whopping 72 percent of the vote.

Hardly had the voters re-elected Emerson then she jilted them. She’s leaving to become head of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, a lobbying group which over the years coincidentally, of course has been her largest campaign contributor.

An editorial in the Kansas City Star noted that “As a congresswoman, Emerson was paid in campaign donations to help rural electric cooperatives avoid tough environmental regulations and reap tax credits. As a soon-to-be overseer of a large staff of lobbyists, she’ll be paid even more handsomely.” We don’t know what her new salary will be but the former congressman who had the job two years ago was paid $1.5 million, a number which would boost Emerson’s current paycheck by 862 percent.

Lobbying’s the biggest business in Washington, after government and tourism. According to James Thurber of American University, the industry spends as much as $8 billion a year and employs some 100,000 people, including former government staffers who make far more than they did on the public payroll.

Professional headhunters told the Washington newspaper The Hill that “former Obama cabinet members could start at $1 million, depending on their prominence at law and lobby firms.” Former assistants to the president could start at half a million a year and special assistants could pull in an annual paycheck of more than $300,000.

It’s a lucrative world through that revolving door no wonder that of the 119 members of Congress who left after the 2010 elections, roughly a third wound up in the lobby business, hitting up those they left behind for valuable information and favors.

Oh, I know, there are rules now in place that say outgoing members and their staffs can’t hit up their colleagues in government for a period of time. But you know how it works: ex-Congressman A follows the letter of the law but says to his new lobbying colleagues, call my good friend Congressman B. or Cabinet Secretary C. Tell him or her I said hello. And the deed is done. The bidding of big business is obeyed and the voter left flat-footed once again.

Abraham Lincoln Honest Abe was a realist; in another life he’d been a lawyer serving the interests of the railroads. Much of this probably wouldn’t surprise him and as we see in the movie he wasn’t above back-dealing to achieve a loftier goal. The 13th Amendment is “the greatest measure of the 19th century,” a character says in the film. “Passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”

But the extent of the back-dealing now is staggering, and what’s especially enraging is how it has become accepted, normal behavior in Washington the richest and most powerful corporate lobbyists are held in higher esteem than those elected to serve.

If you’re a public official or working for one you can’t keep your mind on the people’s business when your eyes are on the exit through the revolving door and the biggest paycheck available.

Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program, Moyers & Company, airing on public television. Check local airtimes or comment at

Dim Tidings of Political Disconnect

The insertion of false narratives is a powerful way to control populations, a technique that today’s American Right has perfected in persuading much of the population that global warming is a hoax and “the market’s invisible hand” is real,  a dilemma of the human condition addressed by poet Phil Rockstroh.

By Phil Rockstroh

As we draw near to the Winter Solstice and the days shorten, one’s thoughts are drawn inward. Bright lights, fragrant spices and sprigs of evergreen are appropriated to induce one back into the eros of life. Otherwise, daylight-bereft, in the half-light between the land of the living and the domain of the shades of memory, one can become stranded in impersonal despair or toxic nostalgia.

Cultures, throughout human history, have believed the realms of the living and the realms of spirits are drawn near to each other during Fall and Early Winter. Modern humankind dismisses the notion, yet, within, we feel unease. Enter: the manic compensations of the consumer state — the compulsion to avoid reflection by constant motion and contrived bedazzlement — the proffering of kitsch rather than the bestowing of meaning.

Personally, I would not be the least bit offended by manger scenes in public spaces, if equal space would be allotted to other religious sects. For example, let’s saynaked, dancing, cavorting pagans enacting rituals involving the Winter Solstice.

I’m not troubled by the mythology of others. It would be propitious to our soul-starved, public space-bereft culture to possess vivid agoras offering eros and a glimpse of salvation. I would be inclined to engaged in more frequent shopping outings if such a social milieu was extant.

Somehow, shuffling around the mall, chewing on an over-sized Cinnabon, does not serve as a balm to my soul.

Enmeshed, as we are, in the meta-storyline of a nearly all-encompassing media hologram, whether spun by the mainstream media or when slogging through a psychologically miasmic swamp of FaceBook postings, tweets and text messages, it is become increasingly difficult to listen to silenceto allow one’s innate nature to rise from one’s vital center to the fore of one’s being.

Therefore, the criteria of the imagination becomes concretized. For example, in the insular, cracked brain cosmology of febrile, media fantasies, there exists something called a War on Christmas, fought, with Weapons of Mass Destruction supplied by Syria on the chimerical landscape of a Financial Cliff — a struggle being waged, exclusively, in the minds of those who believe in a phantasmal “Invisible Hand of the Free Market” — but who deny the decades of scrupulously gathered data and rigorously proofed evidence of global Climate Change

To subject oneself to the dim, collective imaginings of the current day political and media culture is to navigate through realms of hackneyed fantasy — to make one’s way through storylines that are not only estranged from the daily exigencies of everyday life of the citizenry that they are tasked to serve, but are wholly removed from the rhythms and resonances of life on earth itself.

Throughout the ages, groups of elitists — generally self-serving — have dictated the criteria of the lives of the multitudes. One of the most potent means of maintaining power is to create the stories that dwell within the individual, as palpably present as any living thing, and often as deleterious as a parasite.

This is why it is imperative for an individual to create and tell his/her unique tale. History bears witness to the results of humankind’s collective refusal: a howling hellscape of war and economic exploitation. Any nitwit can seek happiness, and, generally, does. But it requires a cultivated courage of the heart to create comedy and beauty out of the material of constant sorrow.

Do not shrink from the task of dwelling in the truth of your unique being and living your way into the attendant tales spun by your awakened heart. There exist no neutral ground in the realm of soul-making. To demure from your calling — to cede your own power to the forces of unreasonable power — is the stuff of tragedy.

If the dead in their graves could speak as a chorus, they would admonish the living: Resist. Create. Let no other living thing define how you live out your days.

First start with an honest awareness of the world that exists around you, and the factors that create the criteria that you exist in, day by day. Then, in ways large and small, work to subvert the present order. Engage in an activism of your choice i.e., political, artistic, and social. That should keep you busy for a while.

In reality, the “Financial Cliff” is the abyss that yawns before the human soul regarding late capitalism in general. To proceed forward, speed unchecked and common sense unheeded, into the present paradigm, the human race careens, closer and closer, toward the abyss engendered by perpetual war, exploitation, and ecocide.

Withal, there are austerity cuts that would prove propitious. For example, to cut off the parasites of the One Percent from the means to continue the carnage resultant from the crime spree known as so-called free-market capitalism.

If there was such a thing as a Google Map of the soul, and if you were to perform a search for the term “free market,” its location would be revealed to be an array of shoddy structures, an architecture of nada e.g., payday loan outlets, jack shacks, Wall Street firms, meth labs and crack houses, K Street Lobby operations, pawn shops, Chick-Fil-A, Papa John’s Pizza and Cracker Barrel establishments tottering on the precipice of a howling chasm with a Climate Change-strengthened hurricane approaching.

We can use drastic austerity measures in the area of greenhouse gases, media consolidation, Pentagon budgets, CEO salaries and bonuses, deforestation, overfishing of the world’s oceans, junk food production and the concomitant expansion of the hindquarters of American consumers.

Otherwise, nature introduces eon’s old austerity measures. Recently, Sandy dropped by the U.S. Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions for a little meet-and-greet. The conversation, between humankind and catastrophic natural phenomenon, tends to be a bit one-sided. Accordingly, Sandy delivered a simple message: Continue on your present path and your trip’s itinerary will involve a very short excursion in the present direction and then a long, uncomfortable journey downward.

A few years back, my wife and I were driving through south Texas, through a sprawling section of Big Agra cattle ranches, livestock holding pens and massive slaughter houses — mechanized killing zones that bore the quaint name, “cattle country.” In reality, the area was an archipelago of misery, cruelty and death.

The reek of curdled blood, dung, urine, and mortal terror was as thick as the seething clouds of proliferate black flies scudding the air of the area; their impact-exploded carcasses stippled our car windshield in a hideous, greasy smear of insectile exoskeletons and entrails. Have you heard this old joke? What is the last thing an insect sees when it collides with a windshield? Its asshole.

Regarding Climate Chaos, we, as a culture, have placed our own heads, collectively, in a rectal blindfold of self-deception. The mass production and consumption of animal flesh is the largest single factor in the creation of the rise of atmospheric greenhouse gasses responsible for climate chaos such as super-storm Sandy.

As I listen to climate change deniers, I feel like my brain is passing through some sort of parallel dimension comprised of interlinking rectal cavities. In short, the destruction of the ecosystem, and the degraded and declining criteria of our lives is the fate we have sown for ourselves, because, as a people, we continue to allow our lives to be ruled by the caprice of an infestation of fly-brained, elitist, rectal sphincters on two legs.

The Soul of the World’s tears are endless. And that is a fortunate thing. Because if the weeping ever ceased — the rage of all things wounded would rise. There are times, when I become one with my wounded heart, my soul snarls like an injured animal. The origin and key to the lexicon of my fury is as follows:

Though I live and breathe, I was beaten to death as a child devoured in the all-encompassing flames of my father’s napalm rage. At dinner, flickering on the screen of our portable, black-and-white television, I glimpsed the jungles of Southeast Asia being immolated by the U.S. military. My father would shout at the set, “People — they are so fucking stupid! So fucking stupid! And, boy, if you don’t shape up and get good grades, so you can hide out in college, they will send you to those jungles of death. Hear me, boy?”

“You told me you signed up for the AirBorne when you were seventeen, Dad. Were your grades that bad?”

“I’ll knock that smart mouth of yours into next week, boy.”

“Be sure to get my ears too So that, next week, they will be able to hear an answer to my question.”

“I warned you, smart ass.” And the blows rained down of me.

Periodically, I have had dreams wherein I came upon two blonde children, brother and sister, who I was informed by an unseen narrator, died in a fire in 1965. In the dreams, I seek to comfort them to bestow a healing balm on their pain and confusion. On our last encounter, my wife and I embraced them, and our beings melded together, as the four of us dissolved into the arms of eternity seemingly, the devouring flames of personal happenstance had been transformed into a warming hearth of a universal and deathless love.

“So all things hobble together for the only possible.” ,Samuel Beckett, from his novel, Murphy

It is impossible to go it alone. Wounded, awkward, gripped by fears of our feeblenessall who live are all maimed and hobbled in some way. Yet our incompleteness saves us from the fate of sterile perfection, from a heart-negating completeness. Because of my incomplete nature, I need your collaboration. Because of my unsure gait, I need your assistance, so I do not fall.

Providence has made me ugly so that I can endure being constantly wounded by beauty. I stumble over my thick tongue and you help me to the farther shore of my sentence. More and more, I find that I need to rest and take refuge within your song of bitter grace.

If my heart had not been shattered into ten thousand shards, you would not have stopped to gather me, arranged me anew, and stood me, voiceless in awe, before a chorus whose song was so piercing I felt as though, for a fleeting moment, I might become privy to a furtive memory borne of ever-present eternity.

Fortunately, you sealed my ears in beeswax and spared me the terrible beauty of the perfect music of the grave.  You love me as I falter plangent with banality, reeking of lost promise yet daring enough to risk the enduring grace of ungainly devotion.

Do not ask why a person paints, writes poems, makes music, dances, or protests. You might as well make inquiries to the cells of your skin as to why they, every moment of every day, are engaged in the process of regeneration.

Apropos, there is no call to go out in search of oneself, because what we do is who we are.

Phil Rockstroh is a poet, lyricist and philosopher bard living in New York City. He may be contacted at:  Visit Phil’s website / And at FaceBook:

Vermont Nuke Case Cites Risks

Aging nuclear power plants present increasing risks to the U.S. environment, because of possible catastrophic events like the one that hit Fukushima, Japan, and storage problems with nuclear waste. A trespassing case in Vermont raised some of these questions, reports William Boardman.

By William Boardman

The Vermont justice system may have wanted just another routine jury trial on charges of criminal trespass, but for the accused six grandmothers the day-long trial was also an opportunity to bear witness, each in her own polite way, that they had acted out of conscience to protect themselves and others against the dangers of an aging nuclear power plant in particular and against the general danger of nuclear power to the planet.

That’s the rather strange context for a day-long trial in Windham County Superior Court in Brattleboro, Vermont, on Nov. 27, when six Massachusetts women, aged 64-93, faced possible jail time and fines up to $500, if convicted, for padlocking shut the gate to the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plantand then chaining themselves to that gate on Aug. 30, 2011.

The women, who have been arrested often in at least 21 other protests against Vermont Yankee since 2006, freely admitted these alleged acts, denied they were trespass, and welcomed the opportunity to explain why they acted.

Superior Judge John Wesley interpreted the women’s position to be an assertion of the “necessity defense” and ruled that that defense was not allowed. But he also took notice that the women were representing themselves, without attorneys, and that as pro se parties they would have unusual leeway in their testimony.

The resulting courtroom scene was only part legal proceeding. It was also part political theatre, part group therapy, and part something of a spiritual teach-in, with an audience of dozens of supporters for the women who are part of the Shut It Down Affinity Group, a bi-state association of activists focused on Vermont Yankee.

One of the supporters, Dusty Miller, described her response to the trial of what she called “actions motivated by conscience”: “Yesterday, I spent the day in a Brattleboro courtroom, witnessing the trial of six white-haired grandmothers who were charged with trespassing at the gates of Vermont Yankee.

“Yesterday, I was repeatedly moved to tears. I was inspired and challenged by the actions and the courage of the women I was there to support. Most important, I felt hope again, hope that ordinary citizens can take a stand against corporate powers who pollute our earth and water with impunity.”

Checkered Safety Record  

Vermont Yankee is located on the Connecticut River in southeast Vermont, close to both the New Hampshire and Massachusetts borders. There has been regional grassroots resistance to the plant since before it opened in 1972.

That resistance has increased significantly in recent years as Vermont’s governor, attorney general, and legislature have all joined in the effort to close the plant. Vermont Yankee’s safety record has been uneven and deteriorating, including releases of radioactive tritium that has reached the Connecticut River.

Even Vermont law enforcement, particularly the Windham County State’s Attorney (county prosecutor) whose jurisdiction includes Vermont Yankee, has taken a soft approach to protesters at the site arresting hundreds of people in recent years, often including these women, but prosecuting none until this case.

When the six grandmothers set out from Massachusetts on Aug. 30, 2011, 15 months ago, they were aware that Tropical Storm Irene had passed though New England and that it hadn’t had much impact where they lived. In retrospect, one of them, Mary Kehler, 64, of Colrain, said they would have re-scheduled their long-planned protest if they had realized how hard parts of Vermont had been hit by Irene.

Not knowing, they proceeded with their plan to block Vermont Yankee’s main gate with non-violent civil disobedience, chaining themselves to the gate and shutting it down until they were arrested, while causing only minor disruption to the plant’s operation.

This was not the first time any of them had been arrested at Vermont Yankee. They have demonstrated there several times since, most recently on Oct. 17, when police arrested 12, including four of the defendants.

The Shut It Down Six include a professor, social worker, mediator and psychologist, and each woman told her story in her own way as well as in coordination with others. Given great latitude by the judge, the women’s testimony drew frequent objections from the state, some of which were upheld, some not.

Deputy state’s attorney Steven Brown prosecuted the charges on behalf of the State of Vermont and kept his presentation narrowly focused on the facts, which were undisputed.

Barred Necessity Defense

While Judge Wesley denied the women the right to argue a necessity defense that they had not formally asked for, he allowed them to testify expansively, between objections, so that the jury of four men and eight women ended up hearing testimony that partly supported a necessity defense without actually clarifying it directly. In essence the necessity defense involves the admission of a crime, but argues that the crime was necessary to avoid a greater crime or a greater harm.

Perhaps the best-known use of “necessity” in Vermont is the 1984 case of the “Winooski 44,” in which opponents of arms sales to the Nicaraguan Contras staged a three-day sit-in that obstructed Republican Sen. Robert Stafford’s office.

Twenty-six people were arrested on trespass charges in March and at their November trial they presented a necessity defense, complete with expert witnesses including historian Howard Zinn and former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark. The jury acquitted all 26 defendants and the state did not appeal.

In the Winooski 44 case, the trespass at the senator’s office was justified by defendants as making it more difficult for him to support the Reagan administration’s covert and illegal war in Nicaragua.

By comparison, the Shut It Down Six argued that they were trespassing in order protect themselves and their neighbors downstream, and sometimes downwind, from Vermont Yankee which continues to generate lethal radioactive waste as long as it remains open.

Judge Wesley, in ruling against a necessity defense, cited a 1979 Vermont Supreme Court case, State of Vermont v. John Warshow et al., which stemmed from an earlier protest at Vermont Yankee.

That case comprises three distinct opinions from the court’s five justices, with the majority upholding the trial court’s denial of the necessity defense primarily because the defendants had not shown any example of an “imminent danger classified as an emergency sufficient to justify criminal activity.” But Justice Frederick Billings, in dissent, wrote that defendants had warned that re-starting Vermont Yankee would lead to an immediate meltdown. Someone got it wrong.

Any case with this great a discrepancy in perceived facts generally goes to a jury. As Chief Justice Paul Reiber wrote in a more recent dissent in a drug case, “Ultimately, this is a case in which the necessity defense should be heard by a jury. Indeed, it is a case where defendant’s actions cannot be explained in any way other than through a presentation of the necessity defense.

“Ascertaining the ‘ultimate truth or falsity’ of defendant’s necessity defense is ‘the principal mission of the jury,’ and the trial court should have squarely presented the defense to the jury so that they could ‘confront it, consider it, and resolve its truth or falsity by their verdict.’” State v. Brisson, 119 Vt. 48, 53, 117 A.2d 255, 257-58 (1955)

A Full Courtroom


It is not clear that the Shut It Down Six could have met the test for a necessity defense, had they had to address it formally. But they didn’t request it, though they mentioned it and referred to Warshow,  and the judge denied it, while still allowing much of their testimony, so the jury still heard enough evidence to consider it, although the judge instructed them not to.

Regardless of whatever legal confusion there may have been, as one observer put it, “the whole atmosphere in the court room at least until the closing arguments and sentencing was of mutual respect and kindness; there was a good deal of humor as well.”

During the trial, Frances Crowe, a 93-year-old Quaker from Northampton, started to discuss the inherent danger of the crowded spent fuel pools at Vermont Yankee. Prosecutor Brown objected and Judge Wesley ordered her to stop. One observer noticed what she thought was a pattern, that the judge would allow no discussion of fuel rods, tornados, or Fukushima.

At one point, Harriet Nestel, 73, of Athol, commented about Vermont’s efforts to control the behavior of the plant’s owner, Entergy Corporation of Louisiana: “They are operating illegally. They are the trespassers, and we are the enforcers of the state’s will.” She could not make the further argument that her crime of trespassing was a lesser harm than the continued illegal operation of Vermont Yankee.

At another point, reinforcing his ruling against any necessity defense, Judge Wesley said, “This trial is not about the legality of Vermont Yankee’s continued operation.”

Although the women said their activism had intensified since the meltdowns at the Fukushima plant in Japan in March 2011, they couldn’t present evidence that those four failed reactors in Japan have the same generic General Electric design as Vermont Yankee’s reactor.

Nor could the women introduce evidence that Vermont Yankee, by virtue of its riverside site, is one of 34 American plants that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) specifically considers at risk of flooding due to upstream dam failure. The NRC suppressed a report with those findings until a whistleblower recently released them, indicating that Vermont Yankee is a potential American Fukushima.

According to NRC risk engineers, although the likelihood of an upstream dam failure may be low, if there is a dam failure, then the likelihood of a melt-down at the downstream nuclear plant is close to certainty.

A Tropical Storm

During the trial, Prosecutor Brown stayed tightly focused on the trespass itself, mostly avoiding motivation and context. But after the jury returned with a guilty verdict and it was time for sentencing, Brown argued for a suspended sentence of 30-45 days, on the condition of no further protests and the completion of 100 hours of public service.

He justified the difference between this request and the hundreds of similar cases that were not prosecuted by blaming the six women for taking law-enforcement personnel away from post-Irene response.

As the Rutland Herald’s Susan Smallheer reported it: “The case was unusual because it was prosecuted, while hundreds of other, identical cases have gone unprosecuted.
But after the women were convicted, and set for sentencing, Windham County Deputy State’s Attorney Steve Brown said the women’s timing, and the fact that they pulled away needed resources from the police response to Tropical Storm Irene, needed to be computed into their sentence.

“Windham County prosecutors have, for the last 12 years or so, routinely declined to prosecute any protester cases, saying it was a misuse of limited court resources.”

The evidence had shown that these women were well known to local authorities and that they required no special police handling. Brown did not establish that any personnel were actually needed elsewhere when they were arresting the Shut It Down Six, he did not establish how many personnel were needed for the arrests, or whether the women could have been left chained to the fence until it was convenient for police to collect them.

Because he took no questions afterwards, prosecutor Brown could not be asked whether this case constituted selective prosecution. Associated Press reporter Dave Gram raised this issue with the prosecutor’s office pre-trial, but got no explanation.

Nor apparently did the judge inquire as to why these women were prosecuted when hundreds of other protesters similarly situated legally, had all had their charges dropped even some of these defendants on other occasions.

For their part, the Shut It Down Six rejected community service, arguing that trying to shut down Vermont Yankee was itself community service. At least some of them invited Judge Wesley to send them to jail. The judge refused.

Justice on Nuclear Risk

During the trial, as Dusty Miller wrote later: “Paki Wieland asked Vernon police Chief Mary Beth Hebert if, after the many times she had been called to Vermont Yankee to arrest these aging activists, ‘do you see us as unrepentant recidivists or persistent women?’

“Officer Hebert smiled warmly, answering in an unmistakably affectionate tone ‘you are persistent!’ As the women masterfully conducted their own defense, spectators in the court room heard from police officers –  and even VY’s head of security –  that the protestors had been consistently respectful and non-violent. Here was another lesson in the patience and courage it takes to act from conscience.”

Also during the trial, as the Brattleboro Reformer’s Mike Faher reported, Brown had intervened on the women’s behalf and “pointed out that it was allowable for the women to ask each other questions as cross-examination.  [Judge] Wesley agreed and praised Brown’s ethics, and the courtroom audience erupted in applause.”

In addition to Crowe, Kehler, and Nestel, the other defendants were Nancy First, 82, and Paki Wieland, 68, both of Northampton, and Ellen Graves of West Springfield. The Shut It Down Six have 30 days from the verdict to appeal.

As the judge thanked the jury for struggling with the case, he commented: “This has been a difficult trial with difficult issues of conscience” — even if he hadn’t allowed the Shut It Down Six to argue those issues conscientiously.  The judge also commented that: “There are certain criminal behaviors for which the criminal justice system is a pretty crude instrument.”

For all its relevance to serious, intractable public issues, substantive media coverage of this trial was largely limited to the Rutland Herald’s Susan Smallheer and the Brattleboro Reformer’s Mike Faher. A brief Associated Press report with little context or detail was picked up by news media around the country

What the rest of the country learned was that the judge fined the women $350 each for trespassing. What the rest of the country did not learn was that the Shut It Down Six told a reporter they wouldn’t pay the fine, and that the prosecutor said that if they didn’t pay, the matter would be turned over to a collection agency.

William Boardman lives in Vermont, where he has produced political satire for public radio and served as a lay judge.

Ignoring the Global Warming Reality

Even as the science and reality of global warming becomes painfully clear, some of the U.S. political/media class pretends it’s all a myth and that the important thing is to “drill, baby, drill.” But that rejection of empirical data is being challenged by international groups and grassroots movements, notes William Boardman.

By William Boardman

Based on the same publicly available scientific information, the World Bank issues a report calling for prompt action to ward off global warming, a coalition of the world’s largest investors calls on governments to act promptly to ward off global warming, the United Nations reports that greenhouse gas levels reached a new record and 18 United States senators (nine from each party) write a letter to President Obama calling on him to approve expanded fossil fuel exploitation without regard for global warming.

At the same time, students at Harvard are voting to divest from fossil fuels, and grassroots groups from British Columbia to Palm Beach, Florida, to London are demonstrating in solidarity with the Tar Sands Blockade in East Texas, where that two months long non-violent direct action is aimed at stopping construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline that is designed to set off “the biggest carbon bombon the planet” (the Canadian tar sands), amplifying the catastrophic impact of global warming.

On Nov. 18, thousands of demonstrators paraded around the White House, calling on the President to block the Keystone XL pipeline, only to get more coverage from Canadian media than American media, where little was heard from the mainstream that was busy pursuing the possible departure of Twinkies. (CNN was an exception.)

The current focal point for all these activities is the TransCanada construction project in East Texas, where the Tar Sands Blockade has been stepping up its tactics to slow the pipeline’s progress or as UPI reports it: “Protests mar Keystone XL build in Texas” over a story that makes no effort to sort out facts from claims.

When President Obama put the northern section of the Keystone Pipeline on hold last March, he also signaled his bureaucracy to let the southern leg begin. TransCanada began construction last August and when the work crossed into Texas in September, the Tar Sands Blockade set up a treehouse network with nine tree-sitters in the right-of-way for the pipeline, vowing to block construction until the pipeline was cancelled.

The White House is expected to decide whether Keystone XL can be built sometime in the next month or so, and all it takes to proceed is a presidential signature. For President Obama, this decision will be a clear signal defining his real priorities: stopping the rise of the oceans and healing the planet, as he campaigned, or settling for short-term economic gains with unknown long-term consequences.

Baptist Church Sides With Blockade 

In Nacogdoches, Texas, the current front line between the Tar Sands Blockade and TransCanada’s construction workers and private police, the blockaders have been surprised by the appearance of a new ally the Austin Heights Baptist Church that has extended hospitality to the protesters. The story reported by The Baptist Standard included these passages:

“Our earth-care ministry group has been involved for years in environmental projects ,recycling, environmental education discussion groups, looking at how our church can reduce its carbon footprint,” Pastor Kyle Childress said.

“These are mostly kids in their 20s who are a long way from home. There are a few Texans, but most are from out-of-state, places like New York, California and Chicago. They are urban, secular young people for the most part,” Childress said. “A handful of them are churchgoing Christians, but most aren’t. Most see the church as part of the problem.”

The article added: “During one encounter, Childress talked to a 20-something protester about the pressure many churches feel to incorporate the latest technology into worship in order to appeal to young people. ‘He told me, “If more churches were on the front lines of things that matter, they wouldn’t have any problem getting young people to church.”’”

On Nov. 19, over 100 protesters stepped up their non-violent efforts to slow construction, shutting down two sites for most of the day. Local police also stepped up their violent tactics to remove the protesters, eventually arresting 11.

Cherokee County sheriff’s deputies pepper-sprayed and used brutal techniques on protesters who chained themselves to heavy equipment.  Deputies violently dragged away those they arrested.  Deputies pepper-sprayed protesters who were just holding signs, one of them a 75-year-old woman, as CNN reported.

The following day, responding in part to police violence, local supporters in Nacogdoches joined with blockaders for a rally and candlelight vigil at Cherokee County Jail, where some protesters were held with high bail on felony charges. Combined bail for the 11 arrested is $132,250.

One reason for strong local support from Nacogdoches is that Keystone XL threatens local water resources. According to a Tar Sands Blockade news release:

“Today’s Day of Action [Nov. 19] is in solidarity with local landowners struggling to protect their water and land from TransCanada’s toxic tar sands pipeline. Keystone XL would cross 16 large rivers in Texas, including the site of today’s latest tree blockade, the scenic Angelina River.

“Nestled amongst 50 foot pine trees in forested bottomlands, the tree blockaders have settled in for a long standoff in protection of their fresh drinking and agricultural water. The waters downstream feed into the popular Sam Rayburn Reservoir, the largest lake entirely within the state of Texas, renowned for its angling opportunities and competitions.”

Risking the Planet   

The 18 U.S. senators, who urged the President to approve the Keystone pipeline as soon as possible, include nine Democrats and nine Republicans, mostly from coal-and-oil-producing states. They are:

Democrats Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Jim Webb of Virginia, Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

And Republicans John Hoeven of North Dakota, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, David Vitter of Louisiana, John Barrasso of Wyoming, Mike Johanns of Nebraska, Richard Lugar of Indiana, and Rob Portman of Ohio.

Despite the clear-cut climate science available to them, whether they’ve looked at it or not, they’ve decided that it’s in the best interest of the United States to ask the President to take an action that will jeopardize the future of humanity.

Their rationale, as puts it, with two false assertions to support the conclusion: “Climate change is an imaginary threat. The fiscal cliff is not. It’s time for real job and economic growth.”

William Boardman lives in Vermont, where he has produced political satire for public radio and served as a lay judge.

US Nuke Plants’ Flooding Risks

Thirty-four U.S. nuclear plants sit downriver from dams whose collapse could cause a nuclear accident along the lines of the Fukushima disaster in Japan. But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has withheld evidence of the threat, writes William Boardman.

By William Boardman

The likelihood was very low that an earthquake followed by a tsunami would destroy all four nuclear reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, but in March 2011, that’s what happened, and the accident has yet to be contained.

Similarly, the likelihood may be low that an upstream dam will fail, unleashing a flood that will turn any of 34 vulnerable nuclear plants into an American Fukushima. But knowing that unlikely events sometimes happen nevertheless, the nuclear industry continues to answer the question of how much safety is enough by seeking to suppressor minimize what the public knows about the danger.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has known at least since 1996 that flooding danger from upstream dam failure was a more serious threat than the agency would publicly admit. The NRC failed from 1996 until 2011 to assess the threat even internally.

In July 2011, the NRC staff completed a report finding “that external flooding due to upstream dam failure poses a larger than expected risk to plants and public safety” [emphasis added] but the NRC did not make the 41-page report public.

Instead, the agency made much of another report, issued July 12, 2011 “Recommendations for Enhancing Reactor Safety in the 21st Century,” sub-titled “The Near-Term Task Force Review of Insights from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Accident.”

Barely four months after the continuing accident began in Japan, the premature report had little to say about reactor flooding as a result of upstream dam failure, although an NRC news release in March 2012 would try to suggest otherwise.

That 2012 news release accompanied a highly redacted version of the July 2011 report that had recommended a more formal investigation of the unexpectedly higher risks of upstream dam failure to nuclear plants and the public. In its release, the NRC said it had “started a formal evaluation of potential generic safety implications for dam failures upstream” including “the effects of upstream dam failure on independent spent fuel storage installations.”

Bland PR

Six months later, in September 2012, The NRC’s effort at bland public relations went controversial, when the report’s lead author made a criminal complaint to the NRC’s Inspector General, alleging “Concealment of Significant Nuclear Safety Information by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”

In a letter dated Sept. 14 and made public the same day, Richard Perkins, an engineer in the NRC’s Division of Risk Analysis, wrote Inspector General Hubert Bell, describing it as “a violation of law” that the Commission “has intentionally mischaracterized relevant and noteworthy safety information as sensitive, security information in an effort to conceal the information from the public.

“This action occurred in anticipation of, in preparation for, and as part of the NRC’s response to a Freedom of Information Act request for information concerning the generic issue investigation on Flooding of U.S. Nuclear Power Plants Following Upstream Dam Failure.

“Portions of the publically released version of this report are redacted citing security sensitivities, however, the redacted information is of a general descriptive nature or is strictly relevant to the safety of U.S. nuclear power plants, plant personnel, and members of the public.

“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff has engaged in an effort to mischaracterize the information as security sensitive in order to justify withholding it from public release using certain exemptions specified in the Freedom of Information Act.

“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff may be motivated to prevent the disclosure of this safety information to the public because it will embarrass the agency. The redacted information includes discussion of, and excerpts from, NRC official agency records that show the NRC has been in possession of relevant, notable, and derogatory safety information for an extended period but failed to properly act on it. Concurrently, the NRC concealed the information from the public.”

The Inspector General has not yet acted on the complaint.

Huffington Post picked up the story immediately as did the Union of Concerned Scientists and a number of online news sites. The mainstream media showed little or no interest in a story about yet another example of the NRC lying to the public about the safety of nuclear power plants.

An NRC spokesman suggested to HuffPo that the report’s redactions were at least partly at the behest of Homeland Security. A second NRC risk engineer, who requested anonymity, said that Homeland Security had signed off on the report with no redactions. As HuffPo noted:

“If this were truly such a security concern, however, it would be incumbent on the agency to act swiftly to eliminate that threat, the engineer stated. As it is, the engineer suggested, no increased security actions have been undertaken.”

Blacked-Out Sections

This same engineer expressed serious misgivings, shared by others in and out of the NRC, that a nuclear power plant in Greenville, South Carolina, has been at risk from upstream dam failure for years, that the NRC has been aware of the risk, and that the NRC has done nothing to mitigate the risk. In the redacted report, the NRC blacked out passages about this plant.

South Carolina’s Oconee plant on Lake Keowee has three reactors, located 11 miles downstream from the Jocassee Reservoir, an 8,000 acre lake. As HuffPo put it: “the Oconee facility, which is operated by Duke Energy, would suffer almost certain core damage if the Jocassee dam were to fail. And the odds of it failing sometime over the next 20 years, the engineer said, are far greater than the odds of a freak tsunami taking out the defenses of a nuclear plant in Japan.

“’Although it is not a given that Jocassee Dam will fail in the next 20 years,’ the engineer added, ‘it is a given that if it does fail, the three reactor plants will melt down and release their radionuclides into the environment.’”

When the NRC granted an operating license to the Oconee plant in 1973, danger from upstream dam failure was not even considered, never mind considered a threat against which some protection was needed. The NRC and the plant’s owner both say the Jocassee Dam is not an immediate safety issue. Oconee’s initial license was for 40 years. It is now the second plant in the U.S. that the NRC has granted an extended license for another 20 years.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, which says it is neither pro-nuke nor anti-nuke, but committed to making nuclear power as safe as possible, has considered the risk factors for Oconee. The NRC wrote in 2009 that “a Jocassee Dam failure is a credible event and in 2011 wrote that “dam failures are common” and that since 1975 there have been more than 700 dam failures, 148 of them large dams 40 feet or more high. The Jocassee Dam is 385 feet high.

For a dam like Jocassee, the NRC calculates the chance of failure at 1 in 3,600 per year or 1 in 180 each year for the extended license. NRC policy, when enforced, requires nuclear plant owners to mitigate any risk that has a 1 in 250 per years chance of occurring.

Oconee has three nuclear reactors, each of which is larger than the reactors at Fukushima, and so has more lethal radioactive potential. Duke Energy reported its own upstream dam failure calculations to the NRC no later than 1996 and the NRC has responded by requiring no safety enhancements to address the threat.

Noting that the upstream dam failure risk does not take into account possible earthquakes or terrorist attacks, the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote:

“The 34 reactors of concern are downstream from a total of more than 50 dams, more than half of which are roughly the size of the Jocassee dam. Assuming the NRC’s failure rate applies to all of those dams, the probability that one will fail in the next 40 years is roughly 25 percent,a 1 in 4 chance.”

List of Reactors Potentially at High Risk of Flooding due to Dam Failure

Alabama:                          Browns Ferry, Units 1, 2, 3

Arkansas:                         Arkansas Nuclear, Units 1, 2

Louisiana:                         Waterford, Unit 3

Minnesota:                         Prairie Island, Units 1, 2

Nebraska:                         Cooper;  Fort Calhoun

New Jersey:                          Hope Creek, Unit 1;  Salem, Units 1, 2

New York:                         Indian Point, Units 2, 3

North Carolina:             McGuire, Units 1, 2

Pennsylvania:             Beaver Valley, Units 1, 2; Peach Bottom, Units 2, 3;

Three Mile Island, Unit 1

Tennessee:                         Sequoyah, Unit 1;  Watts Bar, Unit 1

Texas:                                     South Texas, Units 1, 2

South Carolina:             H.B. Robinson, Unit 2;  Oconee, Units 1, 2, 3

Vermont:                         Vermont Yankee

Virginia:                         Surrey, Units 1, 2

Washington:                         Columbia

(Source: Perkins, et al., “Screening Analysis,” July 2011)

William Boardman lives in Vermont, where he has produced political satire for public radio and served as a lay judge.