I worked for years as an editor at Pantheon Books. Its publisher, maybe the most adventurous in the business, was André Schiffrin. Among his many accomplishments, he “discovered” Studs Terkel (already a well-known Chicago radio personality), published his first oral history (Division Street: America), and made him a bestseller. Sometime after I arrived at Pantheon in the mid-1970s, he asked me to take a last look at a new manuscript by Studs. It was the equivalent of sending the second team onto the field, but it began my own long relationship with the famed oral historian. He was an experience -- a small man who, when he wasn’t listening professionally in a fashion beyond compare, never stopped talking. In doing so, he had an almost magical way of making those around him feel larger than life. Later, I would be the editor for two of his oral histories, one on death and the other on hope (in that splendid order and the second with the Studs-appropriate title Hope Dies Last).
Last October, Bill Moyers interviewed me about the dismal state of American politics. As our conversation was ending, he suddenly asked: “What keeps you going against all the evidence?” At that moment, Studs came to mind. I mentioned editing “one of the greats of our world” and responded this way: “It turned out that when he wrote his book about hope, it was all about activists and the basic point he made was: in good times you could just be hopeful about your life. You didn’t have to be an activist. You didn’t have to be an anything. In bad times, if you want to be hopeful, you have to take a step. You’ve got to take some step to do something in the world. And in that sense, TomDispatch is my medicine against despair. So what makes me hopeful is doing TomDispatch.”
All true. But I realize now that it wasn’t quite a full response. I had left out one crucial figure in my life: Rebecca Solnit, who taught me how to hope in a world that seemed dismal indeed. She was the one who -- I’ve written about it before -- slipped through the barely ajar door of my life in May 2003, at a moment as grim and dreary as any in my political experience. The largest antiwar movement ever to protest a war that had yet to happen had just packed its tents and gone home in despair, while Baghdad was occupied by American troops and George W. Bush and his top officials were in their “mission accomplished” triumphalist mode. Many activists then feared that they would remain so forever and would have dismissed out of hand someone who suggested that their Pax Americana dreams of domination would begin unraveling in mere weeks (as happened), not decades or centuries.
Ten years ago, exactly to the day, I published Rebecca's miraculous piece “Acts of Hope,” which she would later expand into her book Hope in the Dark. It was written to welcome that “darkness” which seemed already to be enveloping us. It was written with a sense of how the expectable unravels, of how the future surprises us, often enough with offerings not of horror but of hope.
With few people can you ever say, she (or he) changed my life, changed the very way I understand our world. For me, she’s one of the few -- and she's still doing it with her miraculous new book (out in June), The Faraway Nearby. She taught me how to look into that future darkness with hope. Like Studs, she taught me that acting, even while not knowing, is a powerful antidote to despair. So it means the world to me that she’s returned to the subject of hope to celebrate the tenth anniversary of her arrival in my life and at TomDispatch. Tom
Too Soon to Tell
The Case for Hope, Continued
By Rebecca Solnit
Ten years ago, my part of the world was full of valiant opposition to the new wars being launched far away and at home -- and of despair. And like despairing people everywhere, whether in a personal depression or a political tailspin, these activists believed the future would look more or less like the present. If there was nothing else they were confident about, at least they were confident about that. Ten years ago, as a contrarian and a person who prefers not to see others suffer, I tried to undermine despair with the case for hope.
A decade later, the present is still contaminated by the crimes of that era, but so much has changed. Not necessarily for the better -- a decade ago, most spoke of climate change as a distant problem, and then it caught up with us in 10,000 ways. But not entirely for the worse either -- the vigorous climate movement we needed arose in that decade and is growing now. If there is one thing we can draw from where we are now and where we were then, it’s that the unimaginable is ordinary, and the way forward is almost never a straight path you can glance down, but a labyrinth of surprises, gifts, and afflictions you prepare for by accepting your blind spots as well as your intuitions.
Once upon a time, the election season began with the New Hampshire primary in early March and never really gained momentum (or much attention) until the candidates were chosen and the fall campaign revved up. Now, the New Hampshire primary is in early January, and by then, the campaign season has already been underway for a couple of years.
Consider campaign 2016, the next 1% presidential election of the twenty-first century. It’s more than underway with congressional hearings that are visibly organized to skewer possible Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, and that special table-setter, the first Karl Rove super PAC attack video/ad, also lighting out after the former secretary of state. Looked at another way, like recent presidential campaigns, the 2016 version actually began before the last election ended. The initial media handicapping of future candidates by reporters and pundits, for instance, hit the news well before the first voter emerged from a polling booth in 2012 -- and it’s never stopped. Similarly, the first Iowa poll for the next campaign season made it on the scene within days of the 2012 vote count (Hillary was ahead), and the first attack ads in early primary states are already appearing. With thousands or perhaps tens of thousands of polls to follow, Americans will repeatedly “vote” in contests set up by companies, often hired by political parties or politicians to take the pulse of the public in the unending serial ballots that now precede the actual election.
And don’t forget the single most obvious characteristic of supersizing American democracy: money that will flood the zone. Billions of dollars will go to “political consultants” (in 2012, an estimated $3 billion) and billions of dollars in ads will inundate TV, radio, and almost any other medium around ($6 billion in 2012 and expected to climb in 2016). Billions of words of punditry and commentary about the election (always) “of the century” will flow from well-funded TV news outfits stoked by all those ad dollars. Above all, there will be the money pouring into super PACs and the dark side, which will inundate everything else, shaping the new landscape in which U.S. elections now take place. The sums are staggering, and the limits on how much a wealthy person can “contribute” are rapidly falling away.
As a result, “earlier” and “more” are likely to be the operative political words for 2016, which means that, in a sense, American “democracy” couldn’t be more vigorous. Unfortunately, it's the vigor of the wealthy, as TomDispatch Associate Editor Andy Kroll makes clear. Increasingly, it's their system, politically speaking and in every other way, and welcome to it. Tom
The New Pay-As-You-Go Landscape of American “Democracy”
By Andy Kroll
Billionaires with an axe to grind, now is your time. Not since the days before a bumbling crew of would-be break-in artists set into motion the fabled Watergate scandal, leading to the first far-reaching restrictions on money in American politics, have you been so free to meddle. There is no limit to the amount of money you can give to elect your friends and allies to political office, to defeat those with whom you disagree, to shape or stunt or kill policy, and above all to influence the tone and content of political discussion in this country.
Today, politics is a rich man's game. Look no further than the 2012 elections and that season's biggest donor, 79-year-old casino mogul Sheldon Adelson. He and his wife, Miriam, shocked the political class by first giving $16.5 million in an effort to make Newt Gingrich the Republican presidential nominee. Once Gingrich exited the race, the Adelsons invested more than $30 million in electing Mitt Romney. They donated millions more to support GOP candidates running for the House and Senate, to block a pro-union measure in Michigan, and to bankroll the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other conservative stalwarts (which waged their own campaigns mostly to help Republican candidates for Congress). All told, the Adelsons donated $94 million during the 2012 cycle -- nearly four times the previous record set by liberal financier George Soros. And that's only the money we know about. When you add in so-called dark money, one estimate puts their total giving at closer to $150 million.
It was not one of Adelson's better bets. Romney went down in flames; the Republicans failed to retake the Senate and conceded seats in the House; and the majority of candidates backed by Adelson-funded groups lost, too. But Adelson, who oozes chutzpah as only a gambling tycoon worth $26.5 billion could, is undeterred. Politics, he told the Wall Street Journal in his first post-election interview, is like poker: "I don't cry when I lose. There's always a new hand coming up." He said he could double his 2012 giving in future elections. "I'll spend that much and more," he said. "Let's cut any ambiguity."
But simply tallying Adelson's wins and losses -- or the Koch brothers', or George Soros's, or any other mega-donors' -- misses the bigger point. What matters is that these wealthy funders were able to give so much money in the first place.
Every now and then, news about U.S. military bases abroad actually gets a little attention. The most recent example: Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s announcement that the U.S. will be able to keep nine bases after the 2014 withdrawal of its combat troops. (“‘They want nine bases... across the country, in Kabul, Bagram, Mazar, Jalalabad, Gardez, Kandahar, Helmand, Shindand and Herat,’ he told faculty members and students [at Kabul University]. ‘We agree to give the bases. We see their presence after 2014 in Afghanistan as a positive.’”) These aren’t, of course, small bases. Two of them, Bagram and Kandahar, are veritable monsters, and so offer some indication of Washington’s possible plans -- evidently still in flux -- for keeping U.S. troops, trainers, advisors, special operations forces, CIA types, private security contractors, assorted allied Afghan militias, and whatnot in place once the war is officially “over” and “withdrawal” complete.
Most of the time, though, you have to be a fanatic news jockey to notice pieces about what could be considered the most singular aspect of the American overseas persona: our “empire of bases” (as Chalmers Johnson used to call it). Though base numbers remain staggering and historically unprecedented, most Americans are hardly aware of their existence. So, picking and choosing from the last month of overlooked base news, how many of you noticed that a U.S. KC-135 refueling plane, based at an American “military installation” connected to Manas International Airport near Bishtek, went down over northern Kyrgyzstan? How many of you knew that the U.S. had a military installation in Kyrgyzstan, just a hop, skip, and a jump across Tajikistan from Afghanistan? How many of you can even locate Kyrgyzstan? (I just checked my own atlas to be sure!)
How many of you heard that a U.S. military helicopter, evidently from a U.S. base -- one of a number -- in South Korea, crashed recently near the North Korean border? Or that the Chinese press is now plugging for the “return” of the Japanese island of Okinawa, with its huge U.S. military complex? How many of you realized that 68 years after the end of World War II, the U.S. still has dozens of bases there and that Okinawans continue to protest the construction of a new base amid the staggering concentration of foreign military installations on their soil?
How many of you noticed that Spain, going through tough economic times and significant defense cutbacks, has upped its basing relationship with the U.S.? According to the Christian Science Monitor, “500 U.S. Marines are in the process of deploying to Morón Air Base in southern Spain as part of a rapid reaction force that will act as the vanguard to protect American interests in the increasingly volatile North African region.” And speaking of Northern Africa, did you notice the report by John Reed at Foreign Policy mapping U.S. installations, especially drone bases, there and elsewhere in Africa, including satellite shots of installations you’ve probably never heard of in places like Arba Minch in Ethiopia, Niamey in Niger, the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean, and Lamu on the Kenyan coast? (Hey, don’t beat up on yourself. We Americans have next to no idea what’s being done in our name globally!)
You get the gist, right? Set foot just about anywhere on this planet other than China, Russia, and Iran, and you’re likely to find some kind of U.S. base, installation, or shared facility, and some news that goes with it, though you could pay endless attention to the U.S. media and never know that. You can watch our TV news for months and not have the slightest clue that we are the most militarized of global landlords and that this is the face we present to much of the world. Nor would you know that, as TomDispatch regular David Vine reports today, in tough economic times your tax dollars are still flowing bounteously to a small group of private contractors, making money hand over fist supporting that empire of bases. As he indicates, they are working hard to ensure that crony capitalism, like garrisoning the planet, remains as American as superheroes and cheeseburgers. Tom
Where Has All the Money Gone?
How Contractors Raked in $385 Billion to Build and Support Bases Abroad since 2001
By David Vine
Outside the United States, the Pentagon controls a collection of military bases unprecedented in history. With U.S. troops gone from Iraq and the withdrawal from Afghanistan underway, it’s easy to forget that we probably still have about 1,000 military bases in other peoples' lands. This giant collection of bases receives remarkably little media attention, costs a fortune, and even when cost cutting is the subject du jour, it still seems to get a free ride.
With so much money pouring into the Pentagon’s base world, the question is: Who’s benefiting?
Has a weapon ever been invented, no matter how terrible, and not used? The crossbow, the dreadnought, poison gas, the tank, the landmine, chemical weapons, napalm, the B-29, the drone: all had their day and for some that day remains now. Even the most terrible weapon of all, the atomic bomb, that city-buster, that potential civilization-destroyer, was used as soon as it was available. Depending on your historical interpretation, it was either responsible for ending World War II in the Pacific or rushed into action before that war could end. In either case, it launched the atomic age.
During the Cold War, the two superpowers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, relied on a strategy that used to be termed, without irony, “mutual assured destruction” or MAD. Its intent was simple enough: to hold off a planetary holocaust by threatening to commit one. With their massive nuclear arsenals, those two imperial states held each other and everyone else on the planet hostage. Each safely secured more than enough nukes to be able to absorb a “first strike” that would devastate its territory, leaving possibly tens of millions of its citizens dead or wounded, and still return the (dis)favor.
After the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, nuclear weapons did, too -- without going away. The American and Russian arsenals, and the nuclear geography that underlay them, remained in place, just largely unremarked upon. In the meantime, the weaponry itself spread. In those years, the last superpower, which seldom discussed its own arsenal, selectively focused its energies on containing the spread of nuclear weaponry in three nations: the first was Pakistan some part of whose ever-growing nuclear arsenal it feared might fall into the hands of extreme Islamic fundamentalists in a land Washington was in the process of destabilizing via a war in neighboring Afghanistan and a CIA drone campaign in its tribal borderlands; the second was North Korea, a country encouraged in its quest for nuclear weapons by watching the U.S. take down two autocrats, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi, who gave up their nuclear programs prior to U.S. interventions; and the third was Iran, which had a nuclear program (started by the U.S. in an era when the country was considered our bulwark in the Persian Gulf), but as far as anyone knows no plans to weaponize it. In the meantime, Washington (and so the American media) simply ignored the very existence of Israel’s massive nuclear arsenal and actually aided the further development of the Indian nuclear program. In these years, it also threatened or, in the case of Iraq, a country that no longer had a nuclear program, actually launched what Jonathan Schell has called “disarmament wars.”
That the spread of nuclear weapons, whatever the country, is a danger to us all is obvious. Who exactly will use such weapons next and where remains unknown. But there is no reason to believe that, sooner or later, nuclear weapons -- which have now spread to nine countries -- and are likely to spread further, will not be used again.
Recently, a Texas-based nonprofit got a lot of publicity by announcing that it had fired the first handgun ever made almost totally by a 3-D printer. This act, modest enough in itself, nonetheless highlights a trend of our time. Weaponry that once only a large state, mobilizing scientists, industrial power, and resources could produce can now be made by ever-smaller states -- say North Korea with limited resources and a malnourished populace. Similarly, weapons once made by large companies can now be assembled by individuals. Or put another way, ever more powerful weaponry is increasingly available to ever less powerful states and even non-state actors. It was, for instance, the Aum Shinrikyo cult that, in 1995, produced sarin nerve gas -- “the poor man’s atomic bomb” -- in its own laboratory and used it in the Tokyo subways, killing 13, just as in the U.S. anthrax began arriving in the mail a week after 9/11, killing five people.
We don’t know where or why a nuclear weapon will be used. We don’t know whether it will be a North Korean, South Korean, Indian, Pakistani, Lebanese, Iranian, Israeli, or even American city that will be hit. All we should assume is that, as long as such weapons are developed, amassed, and stored for use, one day they will be used with consequences that, as Nick Turse, author of the bestselling Kill Anything That Moves, reports today, are -- even for those who have studied the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- beyond imagining. Tom
Nuclear Terror in the Middle East
Lethality Beyond the Pale
By Nick Turse
In those first minutes, they’ll be stunned. Eyes fixed in a thousand-yard stare, nerve endings numbed. They’ll just stand there. Soon, you’ll notice that they are holding their arms out at a 45-degree angle. Your eyes will be drawn to their hands and you’ll think you mind is playing tricks. But it won’t be. Their fingers will start to resemble stalactites, seeming to melt toward the ground. And it won’t be long until the screaming begins. Shrieking. Moaning. Tens of thousands of victims at once. They’ll be standing amid a sea of shattered concrete and glass, a wasteland punctuated by the shells of buildings, orphaned walls, stairways leading nowhere.
This could be Tehran, or what’s left of it, just after an Israeli nuclear strike.
Iranian cities -- owing to geography, climate, building construction, and population densities -- are particularly vulnerable to nuclear attack, according to a new study, “Nuclear War Between Israel and Iran: Lethality Beyond the Pale,” published in the journal Conflict & Health by researchers from the University of Georgia and Harvard University. It is the first publicly released scientific assessment of what a nuclear attack in the Middle East might actually mean for people in the region.
Indefinite detention of the innocent and guilty alike, without any hope of charges, trial, or release: this is now the American way. Most Americans, however, may not care to take that in, not even when the indefinitely detained go on a hunger strike. That act has certainly gotten Washington’s and the media’s collective attention. After all, could there be anything more extreme than striking against your own body to make a point? Suicide by strike? It’s the ultimate statement of protest and despair. Certainly, the strikers have succeeded in pushing Guantanamo out of the netherworld of non-news and onto front pages, into presidential news conferences, and to the top of the TV newscasts. That, in a word, is extraordinary. But what exactly do those prisoners, many now being force-fed, want to highlight? Here’s one thing: despite the promise he made on entering the Oval office, President Obama has obviously not made much of an effort to close the prison, which, as he said recently, “hurts us, in terms of our international standing... [and] is a recruitment tool for extremists.”
If Congress has been thoroughly recalcitrant when it comes to closing Guantanamo, the president’s idea of what shutting down that prison meant proved curious indeed. His plan involved transferring many of the prisoners from Cuba, that crown jewel of the offshore Bermuda Triangle of injustice that the Bush administration set up in January 2002, to a super-max-style prison in Illinois (“Gitmo North”). That would mean, of course, transferring indefinite detention from the offshore world of extraordinary rendition, black sites, and torture directly into the heart of the American justice system. Obama himself has indicated that at least 50 of the prisoners can, in his view, never be released or tried (in part because confessions were tortured out of some of them). They would be kept in what he, in the past, politely termed “prolonged detention.”
Here’s a second thing the strikers undoubtedly wanted to highlight and it's even harder to take in: Guantanamo now holds 86 prisoners (out of the 166 caged there) who have been carefully vetted by the U.S. military, the FBI, the CIA, and so on, and found to have done nothing for which they could be charged or should be imprisoned. All 86 have been cleared for release -- years late, often after brutal interrogation experiences sometimes involving torture. The problem: there is nowhere to release them to, especially since the majority of them are Yemenis and President Obama has imposed a moratorium on transferring any prisoner to Yemen.
Then there are the prisoners who may indeed have done something criminal in regard to the U.S., but had confessions tortured out of them which won't hold up in court. They are among the ones who will never be brought to trial, but never cleared for release either. In other words, indefinite detention, something anathema to the American justice system, will for the conceivable future be us. The fact that relatively few Americans seem fazed by this should be startling. No charges, no trials, but never getting out of prison: that would once have been associated with the practices of a totalitarian state.
We know one thing: no one, not George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, or other top officials involved in setting up such a global system of injustice, sweeping up the innocent with the guilty, and subjecting them to horrors without end (including now force-feeding) will ever be brought to justice in an American court, nor will anyone involved in the system of rendition, torture, or abuse. In the Obama years, while indefinite detention remained a grim American reality, the government, as TomDispatch regular and former State Department officer Peter Van Buren himself experienced, honed other methods for punishing those it was unhappy with, especially whistleblowers of all sorts.
One of those methods might be called “indefinite suspension.” Instead of not being charged, you are charged repeatedly and dragged endlessly -- your life in a state of suspension -- through various bureaucratic judicial processes, the actual courts, and endless appeals thereof, so that even if sooner or later you come out the other side exonerated, you will still have been punished for your “crimes.” Let Peter Van Buren explain this mockery of "justice." Tom
Seven Years, Untold Dollars to Silence One Man
By Peter Van Buren
What do words mean in a post-9/11 world? Apart from the now clichéd Orwellian twists that turn brutal torture into mere enhanced interrogation, the devil is in the details. Robert MacLean is a former air marshal fired for an act of whistleblowing. He has continued to fight over seven long years for what once would have passed as simple justice: getting his job back. His is an all-too-twenty-first-century story of the extraordinary lengths to which the U.S. government is willing to go to thwart whistleblowers.
First, the government retroactively classified a previously unclassified text message to justify firing MacLean. Then it invoked arcane civil service procedures, including an “interlocutory appeal” to thwart him and, in the process, enjoyed the approval of various courts and bureaucratic boards apparently willing to stamp as “legal” anything the government could make up in its own interest.
And yet here’s the miracle at the heart of this tale: MacLean refused to quit, when ordinary mortals would have thrown in the towel. Now, with a recent semi-victory, he may not only have given himself a shot at getting his old job back, but also create a precedent for future federal whistleblowers. In the post-9/11 world, people like Robert MacLean show us how deep the Washington rabbit hole really goes.
[Note for TomDispatch Readers: For those of you in the mood to donate to this website, keep in mind that you can still get signed, personalized copies of Nick Turse’s surprise bestseller Kill Anything That Moves, or his TomDispatch book The Changing Face of Empire, not to speak of my books, The End of Victory Culture and The United States of Fear, or even Terminator Planet, the drone war book Nick and I did together. Check out our donation page for the specifics and know in advance that your contributions really do keep TD alive and kicking. Tom]
And Then There Was One
Imperial Gigantism and the Decline of Planet Earth
By Tom Engelhardt
It stretched from the Caspian to the Baltic Sea, from the middle of Europe to the Kurile Islands in the Pacific, from Siberia to Central Asia. Its nuclear arsenal held 45,000 warheads, and its military had five million troops under arms. There had been nothing like it in Eurasia since the Mongols conquered China, took parts of Central Asia and the Iranian plateau, and rode into the Middle East, looting Baghdad. Yet when the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, by far the poorer, weaker imperial power disappeared.
And then there was one. There had never been such a moment: a single nation astride the globe without a competitor in sight. There wasn’t even a name for such a state (or state of mind). “Superpower” had already been used when there were two of them. “Hyperpower” was tried briefly but didn’t stick. “Sole superpower” stood in for a while but didn’t satisfy. “Great Power,” once the zenith of appellations, was by then a lesser phrase, left over from the centuries when various European nations and Japan were expanding their empires. Some started speaking about a “unipolar” world in which all roads led... well, to Washington.
To this day, we’ve never quite taken in that moment when Soviet imperial rot unexpectedly -- above all, to Washington -- became imperial crash-and-burn. Left standing, the Cold War's victor seemed, then, like an empire of everything under the sun. It was as if humanity had always been traveling toward this spot. It seemed like the end of the line.
The Last Empire?
After the rise and fall of the Assyrians and the Romans, the Persians, the Chinese, the Mongols, the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French, the English, the Germans, and the Japanese, some process seemed over. The United States was dominant in a previously unimaginable way -- except in Hollywood films where villains cackled about their evil plans to dominate the world.
As a start, the U.S. was an empire of global capital. With the fall of Soviet-style communism (and the transformation of a communist regime in China into a crew of authoritarian “capitalist roaders”), there was no other model for how to do anything, economically speaking. There was Washington’s way -- and that of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank (both controlled by Washington) -- or there was the highway, and the Soviet Union had already made it all too clear where that led: to obsolescence and ruin.
[Note for TomDispatch Readers: The TD crew is taking a rare weekend off. The next post will be Tuesday morning. Tom]
Gary Judson had just been removed from his shackles when they slapped the handcuffs on him. The 72-year-old Methodist minister had chained himself to the fence surrounding a compressor station -- part of the critical infrastructure associated with hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking -- a stone’s throw from Seneca Lake in upstate New York. The sheriff and his deputies freed him only to arrest him for trespassing.
“They don’t have the right to do this -- to put the lake in jeopardy. We’ll all end up paying for their mess,” Judson told a small group of supporters on hand to witness his act of civil disobedience. The “this” he was protesting, Sandra Steingraber recounts in a recent issue of Orion magazine, was the plan of Missouri-based Inergy Midstream to turn abandoned salt caverns beneath the lake’s shores into storage areas for millions of barrels of natural gas piped in from Pennsylvania’s fracking fields. “Inergy has been in violation of the Clean Water Act at this facility every single quarter for the past three years,” Judson said. “Since 1972, there have been fourteen catastrophic failures at gas storage facilities. Each one of them has been at a salt cavern.” A “failure” at Seneca Lake could be particularly catastrophic because, Steingraber writes, it provides the drinking water for 100,000 people. (Last month, Steingraber was jailed for 15 days for her own act of civil disobedience against Inergy.)
In Pennsylvania, where gas is currently being forced out of the shale rock in which it’s resided for millions of years, “failures” are already an everyday affair, as TomDispatch regular Ellen Cantarow reports in the latest in her series of articles from fracking’s front lines. Once upon a time, coal miners, tunnel workers, and “radium girls” faced the horrors of their dangerous trades in seclusion, deep below ground, inside mountains, or hidden behind factory walls. They worked and died unseen and unheard.
Today, industrial safety issues have come home -- literally. Toxic chemicals aren’t just reserved for Superfund sites; they are increasingly in our houses, our water, and our food. When something goes wrong at a fertilizer plant, it doesn’t just mean workers are in danger any more, but also -- as in the case of the town of West, Texas -- a nursing home, a school, an apartment complex, and five blocks of residences in a small town. As Cantarow writes, Pennsylvania farming communities are being turned into huge, open-air laboratories by energy companies eager to make North America a twenty-first-century Saudi Arabia, with ordinary people serving as its guinea pigs. And those people are paying a heavy price: mystery illnesses, dead animals, polluted water, land made worthless, and the loss of a way of life. In the midst of this new hell, however, there’s also hope. Like Gary Judson in New York, Pennsylvanians are speaking up, organizing, and doing what they can in the face of long odds and tough times. Nick Turse
Fracking Ourselves to Death in Pennsylvania
By Ellen Cantarow
More than 70 years ago, a chemical attack was launched against Washington State and Nevada. It poisoned people, animals, everything that grew, breathed air, and drank water. The Marshall Islands were also struck. This formerly pristine Pacific atoll was branded “the most contaminated place in the world.” As their cancers developed, the victims of atomic testing and nuclear weapons development got a name: downwinders. What marked their tragedy was the darkness in which they were kept about what was being done to them. Proof of harm fell to them, not to the U.S. government agencies responsible.
Now, a new generation of downwinders is getting sick as an emerging industry pushes the next wonder technology -- in this case, high-volume hydraulic fracturing. Whether they live in Texas, Colorado, or Pennsylvania, their symptoms are the same: rashes, nosebleeds, severe headaches, difficulty breathing, joint pain, intestinal illnesses, memory loss, and more. “In my opinion,” says Yuri Gorby of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, “what we see unfolding is a serious health crisis, one that is just beginning.”
[Note for TomDispatch Readers: First, a confession. Whenever I read a new Eduardo Galeano book, I drive my wife crazy. I can’t help myself. I wander out every five minutes, saying, “You’ve got to hear this.” And then I read her some moving, dazzling passage, and disappear, only to reappear five minutes later, saying, “You’ve got to hear this.” The arrival of a new book by one of our great writers is always an event. This is publication day for his latest work, Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History. It follows Mirrors, his history of humanity in 366 well-chosen episodes. You might think of his latest volume as a prayer book for our time: a page a day for 365 days focused on what’s most human and beautiful, as well as what’s most grasping and exploitative, on this small, crowded planet of ours. I would be urging all of you to celebrate the event and buy copies under any circumstances. (Confession: once, long ago in another life, I was Galeano’s U.S. editor and when his Memory of Fire trilogy burrowed into our North American landscape and refused to leave, it was among the best moments of my book publishing life.) Today, however, is a double celebration for me, because Galeano, the single most charismatic (and modest) man I’ve ever met, appears at TomDispatch for the first time. I've chosen six “days” from his new book, just a taste of the year’s worth of pleasures between its covers. What follows is a little introduction in imitation of his distinctive style. Tom]
As a teenager, you dreamed of being a writer and I imagine you dream of it still. When young, you were a cartoonist and, ever since, you’ve noted the exaggeration in our world. You were the editor-in-chief of a newspaper and, with the skills you honed, you’ve never stopped editing our history -- from our first myths to late last night. You were imprisoned and it left you with an understanding of how we’ve imprisoned this planet and its inhabitants. You went into exile and so grasp the way many in this uprooted world of ours never feel, or are allowed to feel, at home.
You’ve traveled this planet so widely that, as a friend of yours once told you, “If it’s true what they say about the road being made by walking, you must be the commissioner of public works.” And on those travels, you’ve discovered that boundaries between states (and states of mind) are not to be trusted, so as a writer you’ve never felt cowed by categories or hesitated to merge journalism, history, scholarship, and the thrilling feel of fiction, of recreating other worlds so intensely that we seem to inhabit them ourselves.
And none of this would have happened if your youthful dream -- to be a soccer player -- had come true. Instead, you’ve played "the beautiful game" on the page. You’ve even explained our unjust, unequal world by noting the only place where North and South meet on “an equal footing” -- a soccer field at the mouth of the Amazon River that the Equator cuts right through, “so each team plays one half in the South and the other half in the North.”
You’re so well known in Latin America that, when Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez met President Barack Obama, the only gift he chose to give him was a copy of your early book Open Veins of Latin America, whose subtitle explains why it remains so relevant 42 years after its publication: “five centuries of the pillage of a continent.”
Your work has been translated into 28 languages, which is undoubtedly part of the reason you mourn the loss of words on this planet. You have a way of finding people. Your first English translator, Cedric Belfrage, was a former British journalist who covered the silent movies in Hollywood for the Beaverbrook press, helped found the left-wing National Guardian in the U.S., was deported in the McCarthy period, and ended up in Mexico. You seem to have known everyone who was anyone, for better and sometimes worse, over the last several thousand years, and many who could have been someone if their circumstances and the powers-that-be hadn’t made that impossible. You've taken us with you to visit Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz as she first enters a convent in “New Spain,” studies “the things God created” that were forbidden to women, is set upon by the Inquisition, forced to renounce literature, and “chooses silence, or accepts it, and so America loses its best poet.”
You’ve been with Ben Franklin as he sends up a kite and discovers “that heavenly fires and thunders express not the wrath of God but electricity in the atmosphere,” while his sister Jane “resembling him in talent and strength of will,” has a child every two years and toils raising those that live, forgotten by history, but not by you. You’ve been with Joseph Stalin’s son Yakov, after his suicide attempt, when his father standing at his hospital bedside tells him, “You can’t even get that right.”
You somehow take our embattled world and tell its many stories in ways no one else can. And perhaps because people sense the storyteller in you, they regularly -- I’ve seen this myself -- come up to you and spill their guts. So one more volume from you, Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History, a daily prayer book for our moment, is cause for elation. We should celebrate you for stealing the fire of the gods, like the Cakchiquels, descended from the Mayas, who reputedly hid it “in their mountain caves,” or in your case, in your books which, from Open Veins to Children of the Days, burn ever bright. Tom
The Life and Death of Words, People, and Even Nature
From Walking Libraries and a God Named “Word” to What Sherlock Holmes Never Said
By Eduardo Galeano
[The following passages are excerpted from Eduardo Galeano’s new book, Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History (Nation Books).]
Memory on Legs
On the third day of the year 47 BC, the most renowned library of antiquity burned to the ground.
After Roman legions invaded Egypt, during one of the battles waged by Julius Caesar against the brother of Cleopatra, fire devoured most of the thousands upon thousands of papyrus scrolls in the Library of Alexandria.
A pair of millennia later, after American legions invaded Iraq, during George W. Bush’s crusade against an imaginary enemy, most of the thousands upon thousands of books in the Library of Baghdad were reduced to ashes.
Throughout the history of humanity, only one refuge kept books safe from war and conflagration: the walking library, an idea that occurred to the grand vizier of Persia, Abdul Kassem Ismael, at the end of the tenth century.
This prudent and tireless traveler kept his library with him. One hundred and seventeen thousand books aboard four hundred camels formed a caravan a mile long. The camels were also the catalogue: they were arranged according to the titles of the books they carried, a flock for each of the thirty-two letters of the Persian alphabet.