This Thing Called Courage

Monday, February 28, 2011


Hello People,
In less than three hours' time, it will be March. Don't know about the rest of you, but I'm not sure I've ever looked forward more eagerly to a month than this one-- it was a long, challenging winter, and my usual panacea of walking five miles a day with the dog was severely impacted by-- not so much the weather, as blocked sidewalks, towering piles of snow at street corners, and other hazardous impediments. It seems many people, and municipalities, gave up on keeping sidewalks and other pedestrian ways open about midway through this very long winter.

And then I got sick, and a bad chest cold turned into pneumonia. Just starting to feel better now, but it's been a long haul.
But away with all that! March is upon us, and that means spring, not just on the 20th or 21st, but in our hearts and minds at various unpredictable moments. Like love, we all know when it happens to us. For some, it's when they spot/hear their first Red-Winged Blackbird; for others it's Big Night, when the salamanders move. Still others declare it isn't spring until they hear their first peepers, or wood frogs.
But for me, always and forevermore, it's the first peent, that magical sound the male American woodcock makes just before taking off for his sky dance. The woodcock carries spring on his back, and I'll be waiting for him in my secret woodcock spots beginning tomorrow nigh-- not that I'm likely to hear one for at least a week or two; but my earliest sighting was March 1 and, besides, hope is the thing with feathers-- the fact that I can go out and wait is gift enough, for now. I can wait for the peent.
Happy Spring, everyone.


Scientist Warns On Safety Of Monsanto's Roundup

Date: 01-Mar-11
Country: USA
Author: Carey Gillam

Questions about the safety of a popular herbicide made by Monsanto Co have resurfaced in a warning from a U.S. scientist that claims top-selling Roundup may contribute to plant disease and health problems for farm animals.

Plant pathologist and retired Purdue University professor Don Huber has written a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack warning that a newly discovered and widespread "electron microscopic pathogen appears to significantly impact the health of plants, animals, and probably human beings." He said the pathogen appears to be connected to use of glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup.

Huber coordinates a committee of the American Phytopathological Society as part of the USDA National Plant Disease Recovery System. He is a long-standing critic of biotech crops, such as Monsanto's "Roundup Ready" soybean and corn, which have been genetically altered to withstand treatments of Roundup herbicide.

In his letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Huber said the organism has been found in high concentrations of Roundup Ready soybean meal and corn, which are used in livestock feed. He said laboratory tests have confirmed the presence of the organism in pigs, cattle and other livestock that have experienced spontaneous abortions and infertility.

The organism is also prolific in corn and soybean crops stricken by disease, according to Huber.

"I believe the threat we are facing from this pathogen is unique and of a high risk status," Huber wrote. "In layman's terms, it should be treated as an emergency."

Monsanto scoffed at the allegations and said its own research as well as independent field studies and tests by multiple U.S. universities do not corroborate Huber's claims.

"Monsanto is not aware of any reliable studies that demonstrate Roundup Ready crops are more susceptible to certain diseases or that the application of glyphosate to Roundup Ready crops increases a plant's susceptibility to diseases," the company said in a statement.


Huber said in his January 17 letter to the USDA that the findings were at an "early stage," but it appeared side effects of glyphosate use may have facilitated growth of the pathogen, or allowed it to cause greater harm to weakened plant and animal hosts.

He requested USDA participation in an investigation, and he urged a moratorium on approvals of Roundup Ready crops.

USDA officials declined to comment about the letter's contents.

"We're reviewing it, and will respond directly to Dr. Huber, rather than responding through the media," said USDA spokesman Andre Bell.

Roundup has long been a draw for critics, who say the herbicide promotes widespread weed resistance, or "super weeds."

"While the evidence is considered preliminary, the potential damage to humans and animals is severe," said Jeffrey Smith, executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology.

There have been other alarms raised about Roundup, including a report last year from Argentine scientists who claimed that Roundup can contribute to birth defects in frogs and chickens.

Monsanto says the chemical binds tightly to most types of soil, is not harmful and does not harm the crops. But some scientists say there are indications of increased root fungal disease as well as nutrient deficiencies in Roundup Ready crops. They say manganese deficiency in soybeans in particular appears to be an issue in key U.S. farming areas.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said last year that it may review glyphosate for any adverse effects as part of a protocol to review products every 15 years.

But the agency had no immediate comment Thursday as to whether or not such a review would be undertaken.

Monday, February 07, 2011

New Short Fiction

A few weeks ago I took this mini-course at the Cambridge Center where I occasionally teach. The course was entitled Flash Fiction, 'the hot new thing,' pieces that are 300-1200 words in length. Brevity has never been one of my strong suits so I looked upon this as a challenge. Our first assignment was to write something about someone's profession/occupation, and the result is the story below.

Copyright J.G.Hayes

Due North

“George! How are you feeling? I’m not…disturbing you?”

“Come in, my friend, come in,” George says, smiling, half rising from his easy chair by the window. There are three pots of bright red geraniums on the sill. Beyond the glass, the lawns and woods are leaking their colors, as October becomes November.

“Oh don’t get up, please.”

The orange blob of the setting sun—“So soon! So early!” George protests, jerking his head at it-- smears its last light onto the blue plaid afghan spread over his knees. With a courtly unfurling of his hand, he motions me to the chair across from him. His gestures seem Mediterranean today. He’s a king, granting favors.

“Paolo has left for the day, so I can only offer you these,” he adds, motioning to a dish of dusty mints on the table between us.

“I’m fine George, thank you,” I answer, fascinated. I loosen my suit jacket and take the proffered seat. George’s palms are joined together, the long index fingers resting on his lips as we regard each other. His brown eyes shine.

“How well you look!” he enthuses, sitting back. “Certainly you appeal to me more than your predecessor. I believe marriage suits you!”

“When I see her. We’re working all the time, we’re both…we both have similar professions. What were you thinking, when I came in?”

“Ah! Down to business, eh? Well-- two things, really. Mostly I was at sea.”

“Really? At sea?”

“Remembering the days. Dipping into…how to say it…dipping into the river of time. Dipping into the river of time, and extracting a few drops to quench the thirst for days gone by. What else, at my age?” He laughs silently, shakes his head. He looks at me with something like pity. “How free we were then, my friend, how very free! I do not believe such freedom is to be had today.”

“Mmmm, you may be right. I like your beret, George. French?”

“Corsican, in fact-- the Isle of Deep Ravines. If this thing could talk! But as it can’t, perhaps I should?”

“Oh, please—I want you to.”

His magnificent head eases back. He joins his hands as he smiles at the ceiling. “Wherever to begin? How to make you see—perhaps…well, it was at this time of year one heard the old and sacred call. And didn’t we answer it, following the seasonal urgings!”

“And ahhh…what call was that?”

“Ah! Ask the birds! The south, the south! I heard it earlier, as the wind came through those pines outside. The very trees, the south! The south! Urging on whoever might be left. ” He sighed. “I pity I can answer that call no more.”

“So this wasn’t—you weren’t living round here then, these times of…uhm, freedom?”

“The merchant marine, my friend, the merchant marine. We were called merchant mavericks, for we signed on for only one hitch at a time, so we might follow the heart’s instructions.”

“And this time of year—you were saying--”

“Yes! But summers—let me begin with summers. They were sweeter then, greener--summers would find us in some place of great Northern gaiety—Copenhagen, Oslo, Reykjavik—the farther north the better.”


“Of course! You see, after such darkness as visits these winters every winter, the people come out to feast and dance in the never-ending light of spring and summer, until life loses its dullness entirely and one cannot distinguish today from tomorrow. All days become holy when they are freed from the burden of names and their corresponding behaviors. The bright red and yellow local costumes, a green that astonished the eye, made from the dye of a particular flax known to grow only in the northern realms of the Reindeer--the processions, the holidays, learning the dances, following your lover into the fragrant boreal forest to feast on wild berries and each other—ah!

“But--” George shrugs, opens up his palms. “All too soon the northern shadows return. The nights begin to assert themselves, the people grow thoughtful—but then, here comes the sweet voice of the south, singing her songs. One finds oneself gazing southward more often, always southward, wondering what might be over that horizon. Then down to the docks we would hurry, the only question being to which southern port would we embark? My own favorite route often found me on what we called ‘the cheese boat.’ Rotterdam and Le Havre, then Normandy, the harvest dances round the hay piles, but then of course Paris, to slake the insatiable French appetite for cheese—and we would find ourselves catching up to summer all over again. Ah, those smells and colors…and the Sunday mornings of Paris…”

He leans in closer and holds my eye.

“There are several Sunday mornings in particular I am recalling now. Mmmm, her name was Claudette—a student of art. Her father fished for eels by night farther up the Seine, beneath Burgundian stars. We would take his boat Sundays and let the waters lead us where they might. Drifting, the green poplars and copper beeches and chartreuse willows leaning in to watch us and they meeting overhead, their leaves and branches entwining, and the light coming down all spangled, all lime-colored. Then, a shower of bird-song falling down upon us, and our words and cooings of love intermingled did not seem out of place with these songs. And after love, I would play my squeezebox, while Claudette would sing—though sometimes she would lean over the gunwales and wash her hair in the river water, which she said was beneficial—the color of burnished copper, her hair.

“But then, soon enough, the leaves take on this same color, as if in sympathy. One afternoon, it pleases the Bois de Boulogne to flush up like a robin’s breast and one morning, a week later, the sun stabs you awake, you among the tangled sheets alone. In the kitchen with the view of Montmartre, there is a lingering aroma of coffee, and a note, alongside a croissant-- and she is back to University, back to her favorite odors of oils and gouache and linen canvas-- which is just as well, as one’s own southern smells are rising in the fresh yeast of memory. And these are…ripening olives. Orange blossoms, the lavender fields of Provence and, farther along, cliff-hanging, sun-bleached villages of white, beneath an Aegean sky so blue it is nearly black, beneath the wine-dark sea that Homer speaks of, and the wine that our ships would carry across it, calling, always calling…can’t you hear it? And the scent of your lover’s skin in those isles of love, gleaming skin and limbs bathed in rosemary and lemons, sometimes a young woman, sometimes a young man and it makes no difference, everyone is a lover in these isles-- everyone loves, nobody minds. Somewhere I have sketches, as I drew then, a habit from Claudette…some are private as you can understand, but perhaps the next time—and one evening, oh, one evening we ascended a mountain sacred to Aphrodite. How the junipers poured out their aromas, like confessions to the midnight air! As we climbed higher the stars blazed out, and they seemed to whisper encouragement, to call out their names and ask to be known, and I distinctly remember how when we reached the summit—“

We both start as my beeper goes off intrusively. I hunt for it, my notebook clattering to the floor, only to find it’s the new Blackberry, hiding in my bottomless kit bag. George looks startled, accusatory.

‘I’m Sorry, George, it’s just…one moment…just…”

“As you wish. It must…be important.”

“Not really, but…necessary,” I fumble, as I send a distinctly ungrammatical response. “Okay, I’m good. So…you were saying?”

But George’s arms are folded, his head turned to the wall. The day has leaked away from this room, as days will. The attendant has not yet put on the lights. I know from experience there will be no more today. But still—

“Please, George?” I try to hide the pleading quality, fail.


“Until the next time, then,” I mumble, rising.

In the adjacent nurses’ station, I fill out the necessary forms. “I’m cutting most of these scripts in half,” I mumble, as a nurse plods in. “For George. George Shattuck.” From the corner of my eye I see her halting, abrupt displeasure.


“You object?”

“He’s…he’s more trouble when you do that,” she says, observing my wedding ring. “He gives us fits and keeps the other patients up half the night with his stories. Yesterday to sail a hot air balloon across the Pacific.” She pauses. “Dr. Miller never did that.”

“I’m not Dr. Miller. I…don’t suppose you know much of his personal history? George?”

“As it turns out, I do. I grew up here. He was in my mother’s high school class.”

“He was never…he wasn’t in the merchant marine?

“Oh no, Doctor-- oh God, no.” She laughs, as if this might be something we could make common cause over. “I never knew him. But I knew who he was. Used to write endless letters to the editor, and recite his poetry at Town Day. When they had Town Day. Took over his father’s hardware store and never left town. Went out of business when Wal-Mart came in. Been here ever since.”

Later, driving home-- and however to explain this lingering in a nameless parking lot? Stolen minutes, when I’m expected, and perhaps mildly wanted, elsewhere? And all to watch the November wind push an empty plastic bag across the infinity of empty space--

Here’s that odd dismay again, lying bitter upon my tongue like a strange medieval poison. I resume my cold way home, but my malaise grows keener when the car’s guidance system informs me that I am traveling due north.

Pepe Escobar on US Role in Egypt


Why the US Fears Arab Democracy

By Pepe Escobar, Asia Times
Posted on February 6, 2011, Printed on February 7, 2011

Anybody believing that Washington's "orderly transition" led by Vice President Omar Suleiman (aka Sheikh al-Torture, according to protesters and human-rights activists) could satisfy Egyptian popular will believes Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin could have gotten away with a facelift.

The young, urban masses in Egypt fighting for bread, freedom, democracy, Internet, jobs and a decent future - as well as their counterparts across the Arab world, two-thirds of the overall population - see right through it.

Real "change we can believe in" (the Egyptian version) means not only getting rid of the dictator of 30 years but of his torturer-in-chief, who happens to be so far a key interlocutor of Washington, Tel Aviv and European capitals, and a key exponent of a regime rotten to the core, dependent on pitiless exploitation of its own citizens, and receiver of US aid to pursue agendas virtually no one would vote for in the Arab world.

"Orderly transition" may also be regarded as a ghastly euphemism for sitting on the fence - way distinct from an explicit call for democracy. The White House has morphed into a succession of white pretzels trying to salvage the concept. But the fact is that as much as Pharaoh Mubarak is a slave to US foreign policy, US President Barack Obama is boxed in by geopolitical imperatives and enormous corporate interests he cannot even dream of upsetting.

A crash course on 'stability'

To cut to the chase; it's all about oil and Israel. That's the essence of Washington's foreign policy for the past six decades as far as the Middle East, Arabs and the Muslim world at large are concerned. This has implied coddling an array of dictators and assorted autocracies, and sprinkling their countries with military bases. A crucial example - the story on how the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) brought down democracy in Iran in 1953. Geostrategically, the code word for this state of things is "stability".

Egypt plays out a very special strategic role. This is how Obama himself spelled out the strategic value of Hosni Mubarak and his regime when he went to Cairo in June 2009 to deliver his freedom message to the Arab world; "He has been a stalwart ally in many respects to the United States. He has sustained peace with Israel which is a very difficult thing to do in that region."

So as one of the pillars of the "cold peace" with Israel, Egypt is a paradigm. It's a bipartisan phenomenon, in US terms; Republicans and Democrats see it the same way. There's the Suez Canal, through which flows 1.8 million barrels of crude a day. But "partner with Israel" in the 1979 Camp David accords is what explains all the billions of dollars showered on the Egyptian military and the three decades of unconditional support to the corrupt Mubarak military dictatorship (and make no mistake, the US implication in that vast shop of horrors is all documented in the vaults of the regime). On a parallel track, "stability" also translates as a lousy quality of life for virtually the totality of Egyptians; democratic rights of local populations are always secondary to geostrategic considerations.

The dominant geostrategic status quo in the Middle East, that is the Washington/Tel Aviv axis, has hypnotized Western public opinion to accept the myth that Arab democracy = Islamic fundamentalism, disregarding how all attempts of popular rebellion in the Arab world over the past decades have been squashed. The Israeli government goes beyond this equation; for Tel Aviv it's Islamic fundamentalism = terrorism, ergo, Arab democracy = terrorism. Under this framework, Mubarakism is an essential ally more than ever.

It's me or chaos

Yet the fact that former president Anwar Sadat made a deal with Israel in 1979 in exchange of precious gifts from the US - a system perpetuated under Mubarak - does not mean that Egypt and Israel engage in French-kissing.

Take for example Egyptian state TV insistently spreading the blatant lie of Israeli spies in the streets of Cairo disguised as Western journalists; that led to concerted, terrifying attacks not only on foreign journalists but on Egyptians working with them. And, believe it or not, Mubarakism had the gall to include the Israeli Mossad, along with the US, plus Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas as co-participants in a huge conspiracy to overthrow it.

This happens while in fact it was the Jihad Amn-Ad-Dawlah ("The Security of the State Apparatus") - the most sinister of the state security agencies, a counter-terrorism unit with extremely close ties with the CIA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Mossad - that unleashed its goon squads over the protesters and foreign media alike, funded by the billionaire cronies of Mubarak's son Gamal (who has not fled to London after all).

To add to the perversity, Mubarak then says he's "fed up" and wants to quit but can't because otherwise there will be chaos - the chaos the regime's own goons provoked; meanwhile his number two, Suleiman, blames the Muslim Brotherhood for the "riots".

As much as the revolution threatens the political survival of an entire ruling class in Egypt - including the current military junta of Suleiman, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi and Lieutenant General Sami Annan, chief of staff of the army - the new young actors, because they are an expression of local communities, are not manipulated by foreign powers. These are new, more autonomous, more unpredictable, more self-respecting actors. Another factor to scare the US "stability" myth.

What's most extraordinary is that as these new actors emerging in the Maghreb, Mashrek and Middle East directly collide with the Israeli obsession in keeping the extremely unbalanced status quo (which includes the genocide in slow motion of Palestine), they provoke a major strategic clash between US interests and Israel.

The Obama administration had understood that the absolutely crucial issue to be solved was the Palestinian tragedy. Now the administration is absolutely helpless to deal with an Israel under the acute paranoia of being encircled by "hostile" forces; Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, an ever more assertive mildly Islamist Turkey, a "nuclear" Iran, an Egypt dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood ...

Truth will set you free - maybe

"But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed, confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice, government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people, the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas. They are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere."

This was Obama in Cairo in 2009. Is America really supporting these rights now that Egyptians are willing to die for them?

As much as Obama went to Cairo to "sell" the case for democracy (and one may say he's succeeded), one may bet that the Washington establishment will do all it can to try to "damage control" really democratic elections in Egypt. The financial markets and Machiavellian politicians (and we're not even considering rabid rightwingers) are almost praying for the Brotherhood to become an alternative reality so they can finally legitimate the concept of an Egyptian military dictatorship forever.

It escapes them that the real actors in Egypt, the urban, middle class masses - the people peacefully protesting in Tahrir square - know very well that fundamentalist Islam is not the solution.

The two top mass organizations in Egypt are the Brotherhood and the Christian Coptic church - both persecuted by the Mubarak regime. But it's new movements that will be crucial in the future, such as the young labor activists of April 6, associations of white and blue collar workers, as well as the New Wafd Party, a revival of the party that dominated Egypt from the 1920s to the 1950s, when the country had real parliamentary elections and real prime ministers.

The Brotherhood hardly would get more than 30% of the votes in a free and fair election (and they are firm believers in parliamentary democracy). They are not hegemonic, and definitely not the face of the new Egypt. In fact there's a strong possibility they would evolve to become similar to the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in Turkey. Moreover, according to a recent Pew poll, 59% of Egyptians want parliamentary democracy, and 60% are against religious extremism.

Egypt essentially makes money out of tourism, tolls in the Suez Canal, manufacture and agricultural exports, and aid (mostly military) such as the annual $1.5 billion from the US. It badly needs to import grain (the reason behind increasing food prices, one of the key reasons for the protests). All of this spells out a dependency on the outside world. The Egyptian souq (the bazaar), with a large Coptic Christian community, totally depends on foreign tourists.

It's fair to imagine a really representative, democratic government in Egypt would inevitably open the Gaza border and de facto liberate hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. And that those Palestinians, fully supported by their neighbors in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria in the fight for their legitimate rights, would turn the "stability" of the region upside down.

So it boils down to the same old song. For bipartisan Washington, there are "good" democracies (those that keep serving US strategic interests) and "bad" democracies which vote "wrong" (such as in Gaza, or in a future Egypt, against US interests).

This is the dirty secret of the "orderly transition" in Egypt - which implies Washington only meekly condemning the bloody Mubarakism wave of repression of protesters and international media. That's considered OK - as long as the military dictatorship remains in place and the glacial status quo is maintained. Moreover, sacrosanct Israel came out swinging praising Mubarak; this also means Tel Aviv will do everything to "veto" Mohamed ElBaradei as an opposition leader.

You're talking to me?

Washington after all bought Egypt and its army. Suleiman works for Washington, not Cairo. That's another meaning of "stability".

Washington never really cared about Egypt's martial law, the crushing of labor demands, the human rights abuses, not to mention the high unemployment among the young, and college graduates barely surviving under a mega-corrupted system. Over the years, "stability" literally killed a Nile of labor activists, young idealists, human rights workers and progressive democrats.

In a sane world - and if Obama had the will - the White House would back people power unconditionally. One can imagine, in terms of improving the US's image, what a roaring success that would be.

For starters, it would instantly erase the perception in the Arab street that Mubarak's Frankenstein response - totally ignoring Obama - shows how the dictator believes he can get away with it. One more instance of US irrelevance in the Middle East - the tail wagging the dog.

Shameless self-aggrandizing Mubarak must have thought; if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can publicly humiliate Obama, why not me?

The Arab street is very much aware how the Mubarak system was bribed to send natural gas to Israel at ridiculous prices; how it enforces the blockade against civilians in Gaza; and how, bribed by the US, it acts as Israel's bouncer. Netanyahu stealing Palestinian land or starving Gaza to death, and Mubarak using billions in US military aid to crush people power - this is all seen by the Arab street as supported by Washington. And then clueless US rightwingers carp on "why do they hate us".

Obama saying to Mubarak "now" means "now" - and meaning not only himself but the whole gang in uniform - would alienate the hyper-powerful Zio-con lobby. Not such a bad deal, considering that after all the oil is in Arab lands, which double as the crux of Middle East politics. But that won't happen. "Orderly transition"? Beware of what you wish for.

Pepe Escobar is a journalist based in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

© 2011 Asia Times All rights reserved.
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