Tag Archives: USSR

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Why I Miss the Berlin Wall

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This week’s coverage of the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall brought me back, not to warm fuzzies about peace and freedom and Gipper Ron Ron and winning the Cold War, but the reaction of my former BFF Dan (whom I miss for his talent for lightening-quick, wicked-brilliant repostes).

The Berlin Wall has fallen, I informed him. Germany is reunited.

Thoughts?

“This,” he replied as usual without missing a beat, “is like the reunion tour recently announced by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. I didn’t care for any of their previous collaborations, and I’m not looking forward to the next one.”

The former two Germanies haven’t given us another Hitler. Not yet. But Germany 2.0 did revive and realize the Führer’s dream of uniting Europe into a unified trading bloc, with a common currency, big enough to give the United States a run for its devalued money. The new euro was, naturally, pegged to the old Deutsche Mark. Germany is by far the most powerful nation in Europe.

Which is a good place to start my List of Reasons I Miss the Berlin Wall.

As usually-correct economist-professor-columnist (and usually ignored) Paul Krugman has pointed out over and over, the German-dominated European Union — which would never have come into being had the Wall remained standing and the Soviet bloc continued to exist — has been an unwieldy amalgam of political autonomy and fiscal union, dragging relatively poorer nations like Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain (“PIGS”) into a vicious cycle of austerity, budget cuts and seemingly endlessly rising unemployment. “The creation of the euro was about politics and ideology, not a response to careful economic analysis (which suggested from the beginning that Europe wasn’t ready for a single currency),” Krugman wrote in May.

Why should hard-working Germans bail out lazy, corrupt Mediterranean nations? Protestant pundits ask. Scratch the surface of the Eurozone crisis and you find that the Germans aren’t the victims here. Far from propping up their swarthy southern partners, Germans are using their control over the euro to turn the PIGS into trade debtors.

Adolf blew his brains out but Germany won the war. Cuz: reunification.

The most important consequence of the fall of the Berlin Wall was, of course, the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union. “Economic shock therapy” — U.S.-backed Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s misbegotten attempt to convert the USSR’s state economy to neoliberalist capitalism overnight — led to the infamous Russian Mortality Crisis, when death rates soared 40% in Russia, and even higher in other former Soviet republics.

It has been estimated that 30 million people either died or will die as the result of the catastrophic dissolution of the USSR.

Socialism was destroyed but not replaced. The power vacuum opened by the collapse of the Soviet system was quickly filled by gangsters. Corrupt former factory managers forcibly seized state property and industries whose profits might otherwise have been used to create a blow-softening social safety net for the millions who lost their jobs. Hard drugs from Central Asia and Afghanistan, set free to fall apart after Gorbachev stepped down, supplemented rampant alcoholism. The infamous Russian oligarchy rose during this period, widening the gap between rich and poor, and set the stage for Putinism supported by traumatized Russians who happily chose authoritarianism over the anarchy of the post-Soviet period.

No wonder most Russians tell pollsters they miss the Soviet Union.

Former Soviet client states lost their financial and military backing. Nations like Somalia and Congo disintegrated into bloody civil conflict.

But hey. The demise of the Evil Empire was good for the United States, right?

Not really.

American and European citizens paid trillions for the Cold War. After 1991, pundits promised a “peace dividend” — lower taxes, more public spending on infrastructure and social programs. Barely two years later, the peace dividend was gone — spent, ironically, on the high costs of the Soviet collapse.
“Defense cuts and reductions in military forces have brought in their wake a series of job losses,” Britain’s Independent newspaper reported in 1993. “The transitional costs of the end of the Cold War, combined with the inadequacy of government responses across Western Europe, have meant that we are worse, not better, off.”

You’d think that, as believers in the magic of the marketplace, Americans would see the value of competition in the world of ideas, militarily and politically, on the international scene. Whether or not they admit it, however, citizens of the United States have gotten softer and dumber after assuming their status as the world’s last remaining superpower. Unchallenged ideologically and otherwise, Americans questioned themselves and their beliefs in capitalism and American exceptionalism even less after the 1990s than before. But now, as de facto rulers of the last empire, Americans became the obvious targets of choice for opposition forces that want to change the new order, like fundamental Islamist movements.

It’s tough to disagree with the French writer Nicolas Bonnai, who noted in Pravda in 2012: “The US oligarchy [went] berserk, started new wars everywhere with the Bush dynasty and ruined [its] finances. Drastic inequality became the lemma of this crazy society driven by lunatic leaders and wars. Today America leads to nowhere; America is just a [locus] (Al Qaeda) of the new global matrix made of wars and terrors, manipulation and deregulation.”

The fall of the Berlin Wall created at least as many hardships as blessings.

(Ted Rall, syndicated writer and cartoonist, is the author of the new critically-acclaimed book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan.” Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2014 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM

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Autographed Copies Now for Sale! Revised/Updated 2014 Edition of “Silk Road to Ruin”

The expanded paperback 2nd edition of Silk Road to Ruin: Why Central Asia is the Next Middle East is OUT NOW. You can order it from Amazon or scroll below to order an autographed copy directly from me. Signed copies come with a personal sketch and can be dedicated to anyone you want. And most of the money goes to me, unlike Amazon, which pays authors about a buck a copy.

The new edition updates the politics and current events sections to the present. In addition, there is a bonus chapter about my expedition to Lake Sarez in Tajikistan — Central Asia’s “Sword of Damocles,” which could cause an epic flood that could kill millions of people at any time.

If you are a book critic or reviewer interested in a review copy, please contact NBM Publishing directly.

If you would like me to speak about Central Asia and the new book at an event, please contact me through the contact form here on the Rallblog.

To order an autographed copy:


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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Suicide Kills More Americans Than Gun Violence

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As I waited for the body of a man who jumped in front of my train to be cleared from the tracks — less than a week before another train I was riding struck a suicide victim — it occurred to me that (a) I should check whether suicide rates are increasing due to the bad economy (they are, especially among men in their 50s), and that (b) talking about suicide is long overdue.

With modernity comes depression; depression sometimes leads to suicide. And it’s a global phenomenon. “The World Health Organization reports that suicide rates have increased 60 percent over the past 50 years, most strikingly in the developing world, and that by 2020 depression will be the second most prevalent medical condition in the world,” T.M. Luhrmann wrote in The New York Times recently.

Why are so many people opting out?

Can we eliminate or reduce the number of our brothers and sisters who kill themselves?

Disclosure: my best friend committed suicide when we were 15. Bill’s death, and his inability/unwillingness to find a reason to keep living among his friends and family, left me angry and confused, unable to process an unsolvable equation. No day passes without me thinking about Bill hanging himself. His death makes me question my own daily decisions to go on living. I am not in touch with anyone else who knew him, but I imagine their trauma was not wildly dissimilar from mine.

So, yeah, it’s a personal issue for me. Given that 30,000 Americans commit suicide and 800,000 attempt it every year, it’s personal for 5,000,000 survivors of close friends and relatives too.

Nobody talks about it, but suicide is a national epidemic. Suicide by gun kills more Americans — a lot more Americans — than gun violence committed against others. (Though research shows that having a gun in your house greatly increases the chance that you’ll shoot yourself.) More American soldiers have killed themselves than have died in the war against Afghanistan.

Perhaps public discussion is inhibited by the cultural myth of the rugged individual, personal responsibility, etc. — hey, it’s your choice to live or die — but we’re all in this together. We need to save as many people as we can.

One way to reduce the suicide rate would be to get rid of capitalism. Though not a truly communist state, citizens of the Soviet Union were far less likely to kill themselves before the collapse of socialism in 1991.

There is a relentless tendency toward monopoly, consolidation of wealth and rising inequality under capitalism. Inequality — specifically, awareness of inequality — kills.

Studies show that relative poverty — how much poorer you are than your societal peers — is strongly correlated to mental illness, including depression. Of course, you can find a study to support just about anything; there’s even a theory that country music prompts people to kill themselves. Still, as Lurhmann says: “We know that social position affects both when you die and how sick you get: The higher your social position, the healthier you are. It turns out that your sense of relative social rank — literally, where you draw a line on an abstract ladder to show where you are with respect to others — predicts many health outcomes, including depression, sometimes even more powerfully than your objective socioeconomic status alone.”

Being poor doesn’t bum people out. Being poorer than other people — people whose relative wealth you personally witness — does. Mali, Bangladesh and Afghanistan are poor countries. Yet their rates of inequality are low, similar to those of Germany and the Scandinavian countries. And so are their suicide rates.

“Overall life expectancy also tracks with inequality, with a bigger wage gap meaning shorter lives and worse health — for both rich and poor, though the poor are hit much harder,” Maia Szalavitz wrote in a much-cited 2011 Time magazine article. “Researchers suspect that this gradient is linked to stress caused by our place in the social hierarchy: Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky, for example, has found that even in baboons, lower ranked animals have higher levels of stress hormones and worse health. But when status conflicts are reduced, producing a more egalitarian situation, these differences are also reduced.”

In a famous 2003 experiment with monkeys, the animals refused to accept small food allotments than those offered to neighboring monkeys. They became angry at the researchers, throwing objects at them — apparently because they blamed them for unequal distribution of the treats.

Those monkeys were on to something. Better to turn our rage against those responsible for inequality than against ourselves.

(Support independent journalism and political commentary. Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2014 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM

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LOS ANGELES TIMES CARTOON: RoboSheriff

Minority Report

 

Computer algorithms drive online dating sites that promise to hook you up with a compatible mate. They help retailers suggest that, because you liked this book or that movie, you’ll probably be into this music. So it was probably inevitable that programs based on predictive algorithms would be sold to law enforcement agencies on the pitch that they’ll make society safe.

The LAPD feeds crime data into PredPol, which then spits out a report predicting — reportedly with impressive accuracy — where “property crimes specifically, burglaries and car break-ins and thefts are statistically more likely to happen.” The idea is, if cops spend more time in these high-crime spots, they can stop crime before it happens.

Chicago police used predictive algorithms designed by an Illinois Institute of Technology engineer to create a 400-suspect “heat list” of “people in the city of Chicago supposedly most likely to be involved in violent crime.” Surprisingly, of these Chicagoans — who receive personal visits from high-ranking cops telling them that they’re being watched — have never committed a violent crime themselves. But their friends have, and that can be enough.

In other words, today’s not-so-bad guys may be tomorrow’s worst guys ever.

But math can also be used to guess which among yesterday’s bad guys are least likely to reoffend. Never mind what they did in the past. What will they do from now on? California prison officials, under constant pressure to reduce overcrowding, want to limit early releases to the inmates most likely to walk the straight and narrow.

Toward that end, Times’ Abby Sewell and Jack Leonard report that the L.A. Sheriff’s Department is considering changing its current evaluation system for early releases of inmates to one based on algorithms:

Supporters argue the change would help select inmates for early release who are less likely to commit new crimes. But it might also raise some eyebrows. An older offender convicted of a single serious crime, such as child molestation, might be labeled lower-risk than a younger inmate with numerous property and drug convictions.

The Sheriff’s Department is planning to present a proposal for a “risk-based” release system to the Board of Supervisors.

“That’s the smart way to do it,” interim Sheriff John L. Scott said. “I think the percentage [system, which currently determines when inmates get released by looking at the seriousness of their most recent offense and the percentage of their sentence they have already served] leaves a lot to be desired.”

Washington state uses a similar system, which has a 70% accuracy rate. “A follow-up study…found that about 47% of inmates in the highest-risk group returned to prison within three years, while 10% of those labeled low-risk did.”
No one knows which ex-cons will reoffend — sometimes not even the recidivist himself or herself. No matter how we decide which prisoners walk free before their end of their sentences, whether it’s a judgment call rendered by corrections officials generated by algorithms, it comes down to human beings guessing what other human beings do. Behind every high-tech solution, after all, are programmers and analysts who are all too human. Even if that 70% accuracy rate improves, some prisoners who have been rehabilitated and ought to have been released will languish behind bars while others, dangerous despite best guesses, will go out to kill, maim and rob.

If the Sheriff’s Department moves forward with predictive algorithmic analysis, they’ll be exchanging one set of problems for another.

Technology is morally neutral. It’s what we do with it that makes a difference.

That, and how many Russian hackers manage to game the system.

(Ted Rall, cartoonist for The Times, is also a nationally syndicated opinion columnist and author. His new book is Silk Road to Ruin: Why Central Asia is the New Middle East.)

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: The Four Horsemen of the American Apocalypse

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What the Media Can’t/Won’t Tell You About Why Russia Invaded Ukraine

As usual, America’s foreign correspondents are falling down on the job.

Stories devoid of historical context cast Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a naked act of neo-Soviet aggression. Considering that the relevant history begins a mere two decades ago, its omission is inexcusable.

The spark that led to the takeover of Crimea was not the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovich. It is what happened the day after.

A 2012 law gave the Russian language official status in regions where Russians comprise more than 10% of the population. This is the case in most of eastern Ukraine and particularly in Crimea, where 59% are ethnic Russians.

One week ago, Ukraine’s rump parliament (members of Yanukovich’s party, hiding from opposition forces and in fear for their lives, didn’t show up) took advantage of Yanukovich’s downfall to overturn the language law. Americans didn’t notice, but Russians did.

            Attack on the Russian language in Ukraine is a brutal violation of ethnic minority rights,” Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s commissioner for human rights, tweeted that day.

Seems a little over-the-top, right?

Sure, but only if you don’t know that millions of ethnic Russians in former Soviet Republics have suffered widespread discrimination and harassment since the 1991 collapse — and that their troubles began with laws eliminating Russian as an official language.

Laws like the one passed last week in Ukraine.

The demise of the Soviet Union left 25 million Russians stranded in 14 newly independent states, in such countries as Belarus, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Ukraine. These new countries had to scramble in order to create the trappings of national identity virtually overnight. They designed new flags, composed national anthems and printed new currency.

To instill a sense of loyalty and patriotism, the governments of many of the freshly-minted republics resorted to rank nationalism.

Nationalism isn’t just about what your country is. It’s also about what it isn’t. This requires defining some things — some people — as outsiders. Unwanted. Scapegoats. Enemies of the state.

Turkmenistan, a Central Asian dictatorship and former Soviet republic in Central Asia, is one example. It instituted a policy of “Turkmenization” after 1991. Russians, a privileged group before independence, were now refused work permits. A 2000 decree banned the use of the Russian language in official business; since Turkmenistan is a totalitarian state and all business is legally governmental, this reduced Russians who didn’t speak Turkmen to poverty and low-status jobs.

The Turkmen government abolished dual Turkmen-Russian citizenship, leading to the mass exodus of panicked Russians in 2003. Denaturalization — the stripping away of citizenship — followed. “Many people…were having to sell houses and apartments at far below market values in order to leave by the deadline,” reported the UN. Hundreds of thousands of people lost everything they owned.

“Over the past decade Russians have been systematically discriminated against, and currently hold no positions in Turkmenistan’s government or state institutions,” says the report.

Russians who remained behind after 2003 fared poorly. “On the streets of the eastern city of Turkmenabat, Russians appear to be rapidly becoming an underclass in a nation mired in poverty. Many scrape a living as taxi drivers, waitresses or in other low paying, insecure jobs.”

Harassment of Russians is rife throughout the former USSR. Every other Commonwealth of Independent States nation has abolished dual citizenship.

In the former Soviet Union, everyone knows that the road to statelessness, unpersonhood and poverty begins with the official elimination of Russian as an official language.

National language statutes targeted against Russian speakers are analogous to Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws, which prevented Jews from holding jobs or even owning a radio: the beginning of the end. At the end of the Soviet period in 1989, the Tajik SSR passed a law establishing Tajik as the sole official language. Less than two decades later, 85% of ethnic Russians had left the country.

“The linguistic nationalization carried out in each republic provided a strong impetus to emigrate…Even if schools systematically introduce children to the official language today, the [former Soviet] states have established no programs to train adults,” Seymour Peyrouse noted in a 2008 report for the Woodrow Wilson Institute about the Central Asian republics. “It seems that the principal cause of emigration remains the absence of a future, or the perception of such, for the younger generations.”

Given recent history, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that ethnic Russians freaked out when one of the first official acts of Ukraine’s parliament was a linguistic nationalization law.

As for Russia’s response, you need to know two facts. First, Ukraine isn’t as independent of Russia as, say, Poland. None of the former Soviet republics are. “Kiev is an ancient Russian city,” Masha Gessen writes in Vanity Fair. “It is an overnight train ride from Moscow — closer than 90% of Russia is to the Russian capital. Russian citizens haven’t needed visas or even foreign-travel passports to go to Ukraine — the way U.S. citizens can enter Canada with only a driver’s license. Every store clerk, waiter, and taxi driver in Kiev speaks Russian.” And of course there’s the Black Sea Fleet. Really really independent countries don’t have 11,000 foreign troops stationed on their soil.

Had it been possible for rational diplomats and demographers to manage the Soviet collapse, Crimea probably would have wound up in Russia.

Until half a century ago, after all, Crimea was Russian. Nikita Khrushchev “gifted Crimea to Ukraine as a gesture of goodwill to mark the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s merger with tsarist Russia. Not surprisingly, at the time, it did not occur to anyone that one day the Soviet Union might collapse and that Ukraine would again be an independent country,” writes The Moscow Times.

It’s easy to see why Vladimir Putin would invade, why Russian public opinion would support him, and why neither cares what America thinks. Back in September, after all, most Russians told pollsters Crimea is part of Russia.

Why are American reporters covering Crimea ignoring the big picture, and instead so focused on secondary distractions like how it makes Obama look and whether there’s a chance of a new Cold War?

Four horsemen of the journalism apocalypse afflict overseas reporting:

Journalistic stenography, in which attending a government press conference constitutes research.

Kneejerk patriotism, where reporters identify with their government and are therefore less likely to question its actions, while reflexively assuming that rivals of the U.S. are ill-intentioned.

Jack-of-all-trades journalism, in which the same writers cover too many different beats. A few decades ago, there would have been a bureau chief, or at least a stringer, who knew Ukraine and/or the former Soviet Union because he or she lived there.

American ahistoricism, the widespread and widely acceptable ignorance of politics and history — especially those of other countries.

All four horsemen are pulling the Crimea story, but the fourth — not being aware of stuff that happened just one generation ago — is the most embarrassing.

(Support independent journalism and political commentary. Subscribe to Ted Rall at Beacon.)

COPYRIGHT 2014 TED RALL, DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS.COM

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Silk Road to Ruin: 2nd paperback edition

The expanded paperback 2nd edition of Silk Road to Ruin: Why Central Asia is the Next Middle East comes out April 1, 2014. It is now available for pre-order from Amazon. The new edition updates the politics and current events sections to the present. In addition, there is a bonus chapter about my expedition to Lake Sarez in Tajikistan — Central Asia’s “Sword of Damocles,” which could cause an epic flood that could kill millions of people at any time.

I will sell personally signed copies of the book through my website. Please use the contact form if you’d like me to add you to the mailing list and I will get in touch as soon as I have copies to sell — probably around May 1st. (The Amazon copies will ship first, though.)

If you are a book critic or reviewer interested in a review copy, please contact NBM Publishing directly.

If you would like me to speak about Central Asia and the new book at an event, please contact me through the contact form here on the Rallblog.

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: We Are All Soviets Now

Not-So-Secret “Secret Bombings” Have Big Implications

Did Israel bomb Damascus yesterday? Of course it did. According to Syrian rebel sources, 42 Syrian army soldiers were killed. But Israel – following its customary policy – won’t admit it. This has happened before. Usually, Syria doesn’t say anything about Israeli airstrikes. (The Syrian government’s complaint about Sunday’s airstrike is unusual, and thus cause for concern that the civil war might escalate into a regional conflict.)

According to experts, the official silence following not-so-secret secret bombings reflect the fact that even enemies have to cooperate sometimes. If Syria acknowledges that it has been the victim of what international law and anyone with a dictionary defines as an act of war, Syrian citizens and non-Syrians throughout the Muslim world would pressure the government of President Bashar al-Assad into a war it can’t win. Knowing this, the Israelis – who don’t want a war that could unite the fractious Arabs against them and set the Middle East ablaze – let Assad save face. By refusing to confirm or to deny, they quietly gloat over what everyone knows, that they can come and go as they please over Syrian airspace (or fire long-range missiles from Israeli territory, since even the Syrians don’t seem sure what hit them yesterday).

We live in a time that bears out the most dystopian of George Orwell’s predictions, yet even in a world of bluster and BS few news events are as surreal and mind-blowing as a so-called secret bombing. There is, after all, nothing secret about bombs. Especially when they fall into a densely populated metropolis. Certainly the families of those 42 dead soldiers are in the loop.

“Imagine an airstrike on a US weapons depot and no one claims responsibility,” the political cartoonist Kevin Moore tweet-asked. “Would we be so blasé about it?” We would be if we were a weak nation and the attacker was a strong one.

Not that this is a first-time occurrence.

Older readers remember the so-called secret bombing of Cambodia in 1969 and 1970, when President Richard Nixon ordered the carpet bombing of North Vietnamese supply bases in eastern Cambodia and Laos, a violation of international law. It was a sensational scoop for to readers of the New York Times and members of Congress (who hadn’t been informed), but if you were there, there was nothing secretive about the 100,000-plus tons of ordnance dropped in 3800-plus sorties by American B-52s.

Tens of thousands of Cambodians, including many civilians, were killed.

As far as the rest of the world was concerned, however, the bombings were cloaked by a conspiracy of silence. The international media found out about it right away but coverage was scant and tentative. Cambodia’s leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, supposedly sent his tacit approval through back channels; for its part, North Vietnam couldn’t say boo because they weren’t supposed to be in Cambodia either.

The US drone war in Pakistan bears similarities to Cambodia, though it features a delicious extra dollop of deception.

As I reported in 2010, the United States isn’t so much occupying Afghanistan as it is using eastern Afghanistan as a staging area to launch drone strikes against tribal areas in western Pakistan. Again we have the ridiculous spectacle of something that couldn’t possibly be less secret – Hellfire missiles streaming out of the sky from buzzing drones circling Pakistani cities in broad daylight and blasting homes and cars – while both the Americans firing the weapons and the Pakistani government whose territory they are landing on officially deny knowing anything about them. Although Pakistani officials either claim helplessness in the face of American military might or condemn the drone strikes outright, thousands of people have died in hundreds of attacks under the Bush and Obama administrations as the result of a brutal quid pro quo: the CIA kills political dissidents and other “enemies of the state” on the Pakistani regime’s hit list in exchange for the privilege of killing “terrorists” it deems a threat. (It recently came out that CIA drone operators fire blindly, without knowing who they’re killing.)

The United States has similar arrangements with Yemen and Somalia.

Oh, and the U.S. doesn’t even officially acknowledge that it has a drone program. It’s classified. If it exists. Even though Obama jokes about it.

I wonder whether the lawyered-up officials who gin up these pssst arrangements worry about the geopolitical implications. For at least 200 years – arguably since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 – the Western world has been governed on the basis of strictly defined borders. In the postwar era the United Nations has served primarily as an attempt to enshrine the sovereignty of nation-states. At the core of contemporary international law is the doctrine that invading the territory or airspace is an act of war, particularly when the victim is internationally recognized as sovereign. So how does that square with secret bombings?

If Israel can carry out acts of war against Syria with impunity, without suffering any sanction, and if United States can do the same in Pakistan, who is to say which cross-border incursions of the future are acceptable and which are not? If Syria and Pakistan tacitly consent to their territory being bombed, but don’t sign formal agreements to allow it, can they legitimately claim to be sovereign independent states? It seems to me that both the bombers and the victim countries are messing around with issues with huge potential ramifications without thinking them through.

When political leaders wallow in “who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes” absurdism, citizens roll their eyes and learn to reflexively distrust everything they see and hear from officials and in mainstream media. How, for example, can you take an Israeli government seriously that has had nuclear weapons since the 1970s but refuses to admit it (and sabre-rattles with Iran over its nuclear weapons program, which probably doesn’t exist)? Or a United Nations that refuses to call them to account under nuclear nonproliferation treaties?

The greatest enemy of political stability is alienation. Citizens don’t have to like their leaders to hand them the tacit consent of the governed. But if a regime wants to stay in power, the people have to believe their government more often than not. It can’t be perceived as totally full of crap.

Just ask Mikhail Gorbachev.

Sure, all rules are arbitrary. But once you start breaking your own rules, you undermine the basis of legitimacy for the system you’ve created and hope to perpetuate. If we go back to the basis of nationhood – you have a right to exist if you can carve out borders, defend them, and repel invaders – we unwind the world order that has been in place for nearly half a millennium. Which may be for the better. But it’s probably something that we should all discuss.

In the open.

(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in November by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Stuck

Why Can’t the U.S. Move Forward?

“Your dearest wish is for our state structure and ideological system never to change, to remain as they are for centuries. But history is not like that. Every system either finds away to develop or else collapses.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote that in 1974, in his famous “Letter to the Soviet Leaders.” But it could just as easily be addressed to President Obama, Congress, members of the media, corporate chiefs, and others who lead and maintain the power structure in the United States.

The United States is as ossified as the USSR was before its collapse.

Shortly after the start of the financial meltdown which began in 2009, polls found American citizens disgusted with the capitalist system. Tens of millions said they would prefer socialism. When the Occupy Wall Street movement took off in 2011, mainstream pundits began using the “R” word, revolution – but only to ask a question with a predetermined answer. Regime change, they said, was neither desirable nor possible.

Too bad.

We used to be a growing country. Not any more. We used to welcome new states into the Union. It’s been 53 years since we added a star to Old Glory; Puerto Rican statehood isn’t a subject of serious consideration. We used to amend the Constitution to suit changing mores. The last major amendment, granting the vote to 18-year-olds, was ratified in 1971. Apparently equal rights for women is too much to ask.

We don’t build anymore. Think about infrastructure. The last major public works project in U.S. history was the Interstate Highway System, built in the 1950s – not coincidentally when the economy was booming.

Our political system is ossified too. The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut prompted calls for tighter gun control. But nobody – not even liberals, the traditional enemies of gun rights – argued for getting rid of the Second Amendment which, depending on your interpretation of the prefatory comma, allows us to join a militia or carry guns in our waistbands. “I have no intention of taking away folks’ guns,” President Obama has said.

Well, why not? Personally, I’m against gun control and I’m glad that very little is going to change. Yet I find it disturbing that the Second Amendment is considered sacrosanct, even by the 24% of Americans who want to ban handguns. Pointing out that the country is very different now than it was in 1789 seems reasonable. Maybe we don’t need guns any more. A smart country, one willing to weigh the alternatives when trying to solve a problem, should be able to discuss the possibility of repealing the Second Amendment.

Look at our national political dialogue, which ranges from center-right (Democrat) to right (Republican). Whole strains of ideology – communist, socialist, nationalist, libertarian – are off the table. We pretend most of the ideological spectrum doesn’t exist. Not smart.

Our national unwillingness and/or inability to have a wide-ranging debate reminds me of New York City, where I have lived for many years. There are no public restrooms. Restaurants and other businesses post “Restrooms for Customers Only” signs on their doors. Yet peeing outside is against the law; in fact, it’s public exposure, a sex offense that can land you on a Megan’s Law-style pervert registry. So where are you supposed to go?

A child could tell you this is insane. You know what’s even more insane? That we New Yorkers don’t even talk about it. Like Germans on their way to work in the early 1940s, wondering what that funny smell coming from the camp down the road might be coming from, we pretend that this is all perfectly normal.

As a recent New York Times article by Louis Seidman pointed out, we have foolishly elevated the Constitution to the status of a sacred text, fetishizing a supposedly “living document” that in truth has been dead for years. (Congress, for example, has the sole right to start wars. President Bush ignored the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions concerning POWs at Guantánamo. And so on.) The result, Seidman argues, is endless petty bickering about what the meaning of “is” is – and what that stupid comma was supposed to be for.

The question for any society is not how to figure out how to conform ourselves to rules and assumptions laid down by our forebears, but to come up with the smartest solutions to our problems and the best systems to make things run smoothly now and in the future. If we were revolutionaries, if we were inventing the United States from scratch, would we create the Electoral College? Doubtful.

The people of the United States are changing all the time, but the United States government and power structure are stuck. The political “culture wars” date to the 1960s and 1980s. Our military thinks the Cold War is still going on.

Our economy reflects our national congealing.

Once a “land of opportunity,” the U.S. is now anything but. If you’re born into a poor family, your chances of elevating yourself into the middle or upper class are lower in America than in other industrialized countries. “It’s becoming conventional wisdom that the U.S. does not have as much mobility as most other advanced countries,” says economist Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution. “I don’t think you’ll find too many people who will argue with that.” Aside from the unfairness and the instability caused by inequality and lack of social mobility, we’re losing the talents of tens of millions of Americans who will never be able to live up to their potential, share their ideas and contribute to the making of a more perfect union.

We haven’t had a major social or political revolution since the 1960s. It’s been too long. Like the Soviet Union, we must develop – scrapping long-held assumptions and reconsidering everything from scratch – or collapse.

I think we’re headed toward collapse.

(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in November by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL

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Loopers

The 2000th U.S. soldier has died in Afghanistan, killed by an Afghan government soldier working for the Karzai puppet regime in a “blue on green” attack. Afghan government troops are trained to fight the Taliban. The Taliban originated with the mujahedeen, trained and armed by the U.S. during the 1980s to fight the Soviet Union in a proxy war. At some point you have to ask yourself: how do we unwind this mess?

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Is America’s Decline Inevitable?

This November: The Pessimist vs. the Cynical Pessimist

This week, decline is on my brain. Specifically, the decline of America.

“There’s not a country on Earth that wouldn’t gladly trade places with the United States of America,” President Obama says, denying Republican assertions that the U.S. is in decline.

(I don’t know about that. Would sick people in the 36 nations that have better healthcare systems than the U.S. want to switch places?)

Clearly we believe our country is in decline—polls show that Americans think that the next generation will live worse than we do. Pessimism about the future is reflected in a 2011 survey in which 57 percent of the public identified the U.S. as the world’s most powerful nation, but just 19 percent thought that we’ll still be #1 20 years from now.

Now The New York Times reports that life expectancy for white people without a high-school degree fell precipitously between 1990 and 2007. It’s shocking news. “We’re used to looking at groups and complaining that their mortality rates haven’t improved fast enough, but to actually go backward is deeply troubling,” the newspaper quoted John G. Haaga, head of the Population and Social Processes Branch of the National Institute on Aging.

“The five-year decline for white women rivals the catastrophic seven-year drop for Russian men in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, said Michael Marmot, director of the Institute of Health Equity in London,” reports The Times.

Bear in mind, the study includes the Clinton boom of the 1990s. And it doesn’t include the period after 2007, when the global fiscal crisis set off the current depression. It’s almost certainly worse now.

Even the two major presidential candidates seem to think that the U.S. doesn’t have much of a future. During his “60 Minutes” interview on Sunday, President Obama was asked what his big idea was for his next term. Interviewer Steve Kroft mentioned the Marshall Plan and sending a man to the moon as examples of big ideas.

Obama ducked.

“I think there’s no bigger purpose right now than making sure that if people work hard in this country, they can get ahead,” replied Obama. “That’s the central American idea. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. Because there was an economy that worked for everybody and that allowed us to do that. I think what Americans properly are focused on right now are just the bread-and-butter basics of making sure our economy works for working people.” A nonsensical answer. Yes, we should strive to get back to the lower gap between rich and poor that existed during the 1960s—but lower income inequality didn’t create the space program.

All Obama has to offer is a vague desire to restore the American Dream. Sorry, Mr. President, but getting back something we used to take for granted is the opposite of a big idea.

Though depressing, Obama’s pessimism is dwarfed by Mitt Romney’s.

Romney’s 2011 tax returns reveal that not only did he bet against the value of the American dollar—a staggeringly unpatriotic move for a presidential candidate—he received a quarter of his income from investments in other countries.

Romney, putting his money where his mouth isn’t, is literally betting his millions that the U.S. economy will head south. That the dollar will lose value. That foreign equities will outperform U.S. stocks. He even bought shares in the Chinese state oil company, which has contracts with Iran

He’s worse than a hypocrite. He’s an economic traitor.

Whether better, worse, or the same as today, the U.S. has a future. Who will lead us into that future? The person or movement that can credibly articulate a positive vision of a United States that doesn’t stand still, but actually moves forward–you know, like Obama’s campaign slogan. But who and where are they?

This presidential campaign is shaping up as a race between a pessimist and a cynical pessimist, and in such a contest the mere pessimist is likely to win. But it isn’t good for us in the long run.

“Never have American voters reelected a president whose work they disapprove of as much as Barack Obama’s,” observes the Associated Press’ Bill Barrow. “Not that Mitt Romney can take much comfort—they’ve never elected a challenger they view so negatively, either.”

Obama has the edge in the polls, partly because he presents a less somber vision despite his lack of big ideas. (It helps that Romney is a terrible politician.)

“This is America. We still have the best workers in the world and the best entrepreneurs in the world. We’ve got the best scientists and the best researchers. We’ve got the best colleges and the best universities,” said the President in his “not in decline” remarks.  (Never mind that there’s no point going into debt to attend school if there aren’t any jobs when you graduate.)

Well, the United States IS rich. Staggeringly so. The problem is that our wealth has become so unevenly distributed that there is no longer enough consumer demand to support the population. It’s a like a marriage in which both spouses can make it work—if they change their attitudes. If we began focusing on the problems of poverty, unemployment and underemployment, as well as rising income and wealth inequality—i.e., economic injustice—and then fix them—we’ll be OK.

I don’t think we’ll be OK.

The U.S. doesn’t have to be in decline. Some liberal elites, like Fed chairman Ben Bernanke and investor Warren Buffett, understand the need to redistribute wealth. They’re one side of a split in the ruling classes. Unfortunately for the system and for many Americans, they’re losing the argument to greedpigs like Romney.

(Ted Rall‘s new book is “The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt.” His website is tedrall.com. This column originally appeared at NBCNews.com’s Lean Forward blog.)

COPYRIGHT 2012 TED RALL

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