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Life, time and songs of Pete Seeger

Posted on January 30th, 2014 in Biography by Robert Miller

Pete Seeger from The Nation

Pete Seeger died of natural causes at the age of 94 in a New York Hospital. I am not an aficionado of Seeger’s long career as a musician and advocate for good causes, such as his opposition to the Vietnam War and lending his strength and popularity to the Civil Rights movement and other worthy causes stretching back farther than anyone can remember. Anyone who gets blacklisted as a result of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) has my enduring admiration. What always impressed me about his performances was how effective he was at getting the audience to sing along with him—no one did that as well as he did and of course just about everyone in the audience knew the songs. And speaking of songs The Nation has posted a large number of them on their website, going all the way back to performances by the Weavers, one of the early folk singing groups he helped put together in the 1950s. I think somewhere buried in my record collection I have a Weavers album, which I will search for later and hopefully play. For me, music came alive during the folk-song era of the late 1950s and early 60s, right up until the Beatles showed up, and although my music interests were transformed by that group, I always enjoy listening of folk songs and Pete Seeger was one of the reasons, along with early Bob Dylan, the Kingston Trio, Limeliters, Peter, Paul and Mary, Simon and Garfunkel, Judy Collins, The Mamas & The Papas, Don Maclean, The Brothers Four, Trini Lopez, The Seekers, The New Christy Minstrels, The Smothers Brothers, Roger Miller, Burl Ives, Berry McGuire, The Byrds, Joan Baez, Glenn Yarbrough, The Chad Mitchell Trio and Glen Campbell. How many more can you name?


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NSA spying: for fun or something more serious?

Posted on January 27th, 2014 in Culture,Politics by Robert Miller
Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden

I was prepared to believe that the motivation behind the NSA’s sweeping intrusion into our lives through their extensive surveillance operations, collecting metadata about our phone calls and using their enhanced ability to spy on our email communications, that it reflected the capacity of our government to “if it can be done, let’s do it!,” a kind of mindless march towards a technical achievement without necessarily having a clear vision as to why it would be useful or the implications if such information became public: now, thanks to Edward Snowden, it has become public and it seems more and more disturbing as we try to acclimate to the sheer scope and motivation for the outrageous, mind-numbing levels of surveillance, followed by the obvious question, Why?  It seems that with each new revelation about the scale of the spying, we feel more and more deceived by the sheer magnitude of the practice and the level of deception! In the aftermath of Snowden’s revelations, it’s like the NSA had some cold water thrown in its face. But Professor Alfred McCoy (professor of History, University of Wisconsin, Madison), well known for his work in uncovering complicity between the CIA and drug cartels in Southeast Asia (The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia), has written an article in TomDispatch which presents a different side to all this NSA surveillance activity and describes how it represents the sign of a fading superpower, with a more sinister opinion of how we should view the purpose of such massive NSA surveillance.

McCoy points out “For an imperial power losing its economic grip on the planet and heading into more austere times, the NSA’s latest technological breakthroughs look like a bargain basement deal when it comes to projecting power and keeping subordinate allies in line — like, in fact, the steal of the century.  Even when disaster turned out to be attached to them, the NSA’s surveillance programs have come with such a discounted price tag that no Washington elite was going to reject them.”

In other words the spying will continue unabated (as we already know from Obama’s recent speech on the problem) because it’s a cheap way to hold on to your superpower status; it provides you with dirt and insights into your competitors and their leaders, all achieved in the name of national security—keeping us all safe—including the friendly nations that we spy on—interrupting plots against us and isn’t it really a small price to pay for you to continue tweeting in comfort? It’s a greatly expanded view of what J. Edgar Hoover enjoyed during his reign of fear about communism, except his power through fear and intimidation was mostly confined to the Washington DC politicians, except for a few “communists,” such as Martin Luther King, Jr.  But with the NSA program we have the entire planet covered with a growth industry that shows little sign of retreating anytime soon. The program started with Bush, but Obama has shown every willingness to continue and expand the NSA spy program. Snowden got out too early, because the spying will only get more pervasive and more intrusionary. It is really just the beginning: it would be better for us if he had stuck around for a while longer to give us a more advanced view of what the NSA is doing, because we know they are going to do a lot more surveillance in the future: it’s in their DNA. We will need a lot more Snowden’s to understand the depths of this new growth industry.

You might notice that this is our government spying on the world and keeping the information all to itself, although there are probably more than a million Americans who have the security clearance necessary to have access to these findings. That should shock every citizen of the planet. When did we give this authority away? Apparently a generous set of extrapolations from the Patriot Act were used as the beginning of this authority to conduct surveillance on the rest of the planet. What Edward Snowden did was to turn the tables on the NSA’s surveillance program and they are angry because of it, but their anger is also derived from the embarrassment of the revelation that national leaders, such as Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel’s phone conversations were recorded and listened to. McCoy argues that this was no accident, but rather the reaction of a fading superpower trying to keep ahead of the curve using resources that cost a lot less than a giant military with hundreds of bases throughout the world.  Our government is still unwilling to reveal to the public why Merkel’s phone conversation was monitored, but McCoy’s interpreation is that these are the things that will be done in the future in order to maintain our grip as the only superpower left on the planet, fade or no fade.

Right after WW II, we provided 50% of the world’s economic output; today that number has dwindled to 23% and it is projected to fall to 17% by 2016, right around the corner. Yet we still maintain 40% of the world’s armaments, which are hugely expensive to develop and support, considering that we have more than 650 bases worldwide that require troop deployments, expensive equipment and high maintenance costs. When you consider that our projected social welfare costs will soar from 4% of GDP in 2010 to 18% by 2050, you can appreciate that something has got to give. The Republicans know these figures and that is why the want to gut our social welfare programs in order to keep a large military operation afloat. But the NSA surveillance program may offer a solution because it’s cheap. Our invasion of Iraq will cost us $3 trillion,  but the NSA budget for 2012 was only $11 billion—quite a bargain!

The technology behind all of this is truly astounding: McCoy points out “Once upon a time, such surveillance was both expensive and labor intensive. Today, however, unlike the U.S. Army’s shoe-leather surveillance during World War I or the FBI’s break-ins and phone bugs in the Cold War years, the NSA can monitor the entire world and its leaders with only 100-plus probes into the Internet’s fiber optic cables.” Without Congressional leaders stepping in to trim the Patriot Act, or other Snowden’s making timely revelations for future details of the program, America seems to be enjoying a new found niche in surveillance technology, though unfortunately, unlike the computer chip revolution, we are unlikely to export our surveillance technology.

If you are listening Angela Merkel, we are not going to change eavesdropping in on you once in a while!  So there.


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What happened to the water supply in West Virginia can happen anywhere

Posted on January 18th, 2014 in Environment,General by Robert Miller
Residents in Charleston W. Virginia obtaining fresh water because their water supply was fouled by a chemical spill

Residents in Charleston W. Virginia obtaining fresh water because their water supply was fouled by a chemical spill (CBS News)

The NYT yesterday had an editorial on the accident that contaminated the water supply in West Virginia, in which 7,500 gallons of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM), a chemical that is used to clean coal, spilled into the Elk river, leaving 300,000 people in Charleston West Virginia without a safe water supply, and as yet, no clear indication when the water will be safe for normal use, even though some in the community have been told the water is usable.  Who gains from these spills? The bottled water companies gain because now many families will conclude their water supply has been permanently fouled. I watched a video from a restaurant in the area which used bottled water to wash the dishes. Such places now have to advertise their independence from the commercial water supply. A failure equal to the laxity of safety measures to insure safe water, competes with the disturbing fact that we don’t really know how much harm MCHM can do for short or long-term exposures, because it hasn’t been adequately tested. Google 4-methylcyclohexane methanol and see what comes up. If this agent causes cancer it may be decades before we understand the toxic nature of this chemical, but if it causes birth defects, we may eventually piece together an understanding of its toxicity over a shorter time scale by doing a spatial plot of birth defect children over a map that outlines the contaminated water supply: in either case families will needlessly suffer because of failures at both the state and federal level to insure a safe water supply and any child born with birth defects will have parents wondering and searching the internet to find information related to 4-methylcyclohexane methanol exposure. Tragically,  our chemical safety tests have moved from rats to humans, as we are now the guinea pigs for testing new chemicals, since the EPA is woefully underfunded to meet this responsibility.  Our water supply should be treated as the Holy Grail of government responsibility and far too many of us think it’s handled in that way, but our water supply does not currently meet the Holy Grail status, from either the state or federal government. One of the main problems we confront in America over this issue is that we have more than 80,000 chemicals in our environment, but only a few hundred have been tested, with a small subset rejected.

This is the third major chemical accident in the region in the past five years. The residents of Charleston need to be more demanding about the integrity of their drinking water, but in a state where coal companies are given high priority, it is an uphill battle just to secure something we once took for granted—safe drinking water! It is not very reassuring to see Governor Earl Ray Tomblin appearing on TV and claiming to the public that the worst is over, as if long-term toxicity effects are completely unknown to him.  I saw no evidence that the governor intends to have this serious matter treated with the kind of investigation it deserves. Why wasn’t the spill detected earlier? And what does the governor know about the toxicity of MCHM?

Our current system for chemical safety puts the responsibility for evaluating chemicals on the federal government, specifically the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as established by the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. The inadequate study of our chemical inventory  has allowed tens of thousands of poorly tested chemicals to have their spigots turned on. What we need are the safety regulations that govern the introduction of new chemicals in Europe, where, if a company wants to introduce a new chemical into the environment, it is their responsibility to prove that the chemical is safe. We have the just the opposite set of procedures which provides the chemical industry with a free pass. In America if a company wants to introduce a new chemical into the environment it is up to a poorly funded government agency to evaluate its safety; as a result we don’t understand the safety issues surrounding most of the chemicals in our environment; putting such chemicals adjacent to the rivers and streams that feed into our water supply is the height of folly.

What America needs to safeguard us from toxic chemicals turned loose in the environment is meaningful reform like the Safe Chemicals Act of 2013 introduced by the late Senator Frank Lautenberg, Democrat of New Jersey, and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, the New York Democrat, that would require manufacturers to prove that chemicals are safe before they can be sold. It is time to put the pin of responsibility for chemical safety on the right donkey—the chemical industry itself—where it should have been in the first place. The recent toxic spill in West Virginia should alarm every American. We can be certain that some people affected by this spill will conclude that water safety is not a high priority for the responsible city and migrate to bottled water as “safe.” Eventually, with more people drinking bottled water, the city begins to loosen its already very loose regulation of water and water quality degrades further. Citizens must insist in demanding that the Holy Grail of a clean water supply is a government function that must receive the highest priority and remove containers along river beds that could foul the water.

CBS News reports that the Chemical Company responsible for the spill, Freedom Industries, has declared bankruptcy as it faced 31 lawsuits related to the spill. Many homeowners in the region report that the water is still contaminated, despite what the Governor said and their experience has further alienated residents. The solution of having the companies responsible for testing safety of chemicals should warm the cockles of the Tea Party hearts. Isn’t this privatization of a government function?


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