Paris and beyond

Not surprisingly, the climate agreement signed by 195 countries in Paris last weekend triggered much commentary on its merit or lack thereof. But before I get to that, a few words about what the agreement says. First, the positives.

* The goal is to bring down the rise of global temperatures to zero by mid-century.

* A target temperature rise of no more than 2º C or 3.5º F was established.

A beautiful song and a modest proposal

While writing a commentary on the recently concluded climate change talks in Paris this morning, I heard a beautiful musical presentation of “Down by the Salley Gardens.” on WQXR, New York City’s classical music station. (The “Salley Gardens” was on the banks of the river at Ballysadare near Sligo County, Ireland, where the people cultivated trees to provide roof thatching materials.) The piece is based on a poem by the same name, written by the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats.

Down by the salley gardens my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy, as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish, with her would not agree.

In a field by the river my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.

The verse was subsequently set to music by others. And in listening to it this morning while at the same time writing a commentary on Paris and the climate crisis, two thoughts came to mind. One is that in a just and non-violent world every child should be surrounded and enriched by beauty in its myriad of forms. Or to paraphrase and take liberty with the poem of the great poet and visionary William Blake, every child should be “born to sweet delight.”

The other is that if we aren’t quite up to doing that, can we make a minimum commitment to do everything we can to make the world habitable and sustainable for this generation of children and those to come.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Good: Skilled auto workers at the Volkswagon plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee voted for union representation – United Automobile Workers Union (UAW). Small step for sure, but one that hopefully will lead to other bigger steps to organize auto workers and workers generally in South. Won’t be easy, but hard to imagine reshaping the political, economic, and cultural landscape of the South, or the country for that matter, without a much, much larger labor movement – not necessarily preceding, but rather embedded in and a decisive part of a broader process of political-social transformation.

The Bad (even though by any measure it fits into the ugly category): The comments of Justice (a misnomer) Anthony Scalia. In a hearing of the Supreme Court on the University of Texas’s admissions policy designed to promote a diverse student body, he said that minority students with inferior academic credentials may be better off at “a less advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well.”

“I don’t think it stands to reason that it’s a good thing for the University of Texas to admit as many blacks as possible,” Scalia added.

Which prompted this pointed remark by Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) on the Senate floor to say that the only difference between Scalia and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is that “Scalia has a robe and a lifetime appointment.”

The Ugly: Trump’s proposal to bar Muslims from entering U.S. in the aftermath of the terrorist killings in San Bernardino, California. The organizing principle of his campaign is to exploit people’s fears, and, I’m afraid, with some success.

Obama addresses terrorism, others must too

In his Sunday night speech, President Obama sought to ease the growing public anxiety following the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, last week that brutally killed 14 innocent people and injured many more.

Speaking to the nation from the Oval Office, the president deplored the anti-immigrant hysteria and expressed sorrow over the senseless attack, but he minced no words in saying that the two killers were home-grown terrorists. They were inspired but not directed by a terrorist organization overseas such as ISIS. And they were not “part of a broader conspiracy here at home,” he said. They were acting on their own.

He went on to say that the attacks were the latest evidence that “the terrorist threat has evolved into a new phase … It is this type of attack that we saw at Fort Hood in 2009; in Chattanooga earlier this year; and now in San Bernardino.”

But while “the threat from terrorism is real” and evolving, he declared, “we will overcome it. We will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us.”

In what was an obvious (and appropriate) swipe at the Republican Party and its presidential contenders, Obama asserted that eradicating terrorism “will take more than ‘tough talk,’ or abandoning our values, or giving into fear. That’s what groups like ISIL[ISIS] are hoping for.” Instead, it will be achieved by “being strong and smart, resilient and relentless, and by drawing upon every aspect of American power.”

Most of the steps that the president proposed to fight ISIS are familiar and nothing new. But it is noteworthy that in speaking about Syria he acknowledged Russia as a player and didn’t make the removal of Syria’s much maligned and demonized president, Bashar al-Assad, a precondition for negotiations among the parties to end the Syrian civil war.

Not unexpectedly, President Obama made the case for the umpteenth time for sensible gun control legislation, but with a new urgency born from yet another horrific mass killing. While every would-be mass shooter “can’t be identified, what we can do – and must do – is make it harder for them to kill,” he said.

If common sense guided lawmakers in Congress, these measures would pass tomorrow, but the likelihood of that happening is close to zero. Short of a demonstrative and sustained public outcry, the Republican Party’s far-right ideological disposition, hatred of the president, and reflexive loyalty to the gun lobby and manufacturers has made these modest proposals dead on arrival.

The president also repeated what he has said before: “we should not be drawn into another costly ground war,” which would only benefit terrorists who can turn a drawn-out occupation to their advantage, and provide fertile ground for recruitment.

And in what was probably the best moment of the speech, he responded forcefully to his Republican adversaries who are poisoning the atmosphere with anti-Islam and anti-immigrant vitriol and hatred. “[J]ust as it is the responsibility of Muslims around the world to root out misguided ideas that lead to radicalization, it is the responsibility of all Americans – of every faith – to reject discrimination. It is our responsibility to reject religious tests on who we admit into this country. It’s our responsibility to reject proposals that Muslim Americans should somehow be treated differently. ”

“Because when we travel down that road, we lose,” Obama continued. “That kind of divisiveness, that betrayal of our values plays into the hands of groups like ISIL. Muslim Americans are our friends and our neighbors, our co-workers, our sports heroes – and, yes, they are our men and women in uniform who are willing to die in defense of our country. We have to remember that.”

It is obvious that the president’s prime time address wasn’t designed to outline a significant shift in how the United States should fight terrorism. Apart from some tweaking here and there, Obama made it clear he thinks the current strategy – airstrikes, Special Forces, diplomacy, and working with local forces who are fighting to regain control of their own country – will lead to a “more sustainable victory.” The latter term is an oblique retort to and criticism of the current advocates of a “boots on the ground and regime change strategy” – a strategy that turned the Middle East into an inferno of war, death, dislocation, instability, sectarian strife, and breeding ground for terrorist activities and organizations.

Nor was the purpose of Obama’s speech to convince Donald Trump and the rest of the motley crew running for the Republican presidential nomination of the folly and danger of their ways. Yesterday, in fact, Trump, in response to Obama’s address Sunday, called for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the country.

What the president hoped, I suspect, is that his prime time speech would ease growing public alarm over terrorism and regain the narrative as to the best way to fight it. He correctly sensed that the events in San Bernardino had shifted the ground on which people go about their daily lives and form their opinions. Public anxieties about safety and security – their own, their families’, and their communities’ – had ratcheted up; fear had become more palpable.

All of which could turn politics generally in a direction that gives advantage to right wing extremism.

In these circumstances, it is imperative that public figures, liberal and progressive legislators, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and the broader people’s movement join the conversation as well. Silence isn’t an option, but a recipe for political marginalization and a nasty turn in our nation’s politics to the right. On the other hand, what to say about it requires sensitivity and thoughtfulness as well as courage.

This isn’t a moment, in other words, for the people’s movement and candidates to the left of center to look for “safe” political ground, to hope that the question of terrorism doesn’t come up. To the contrary, this is the moment to frontally reject xenophobia, nativism, militarism, and endless wars, to appeal to the better angels of the American people, and to challenge the reactionary, hypocritical positions of the Republican Party and its presidential candidates.

What is more, it is a moment to go beyond the president’s strategy, while supporting his administration’s positive initiatives and defending him against bizarre and racist political attacks from the right.

On every venue democratic, progressive, and left voices should argue with facts and convincing arguments for a strategy that heavily accents diplomacy, restraint, nonviolence, smart intelligence work that is mindful of privacy rights and civil liberties, full cooperation with countries like Russia and Iran, political settlement of sectarian conflicts in Iraq and Syria, reining in Saudi Arabia that is funding sectarian violence and civil war, statehood for the Palestinian people, and a global New Deal with a focus on the countries of the global South and communities of immigrants in the global North.

Another overarching task is to intensify the push for nuclear disarmament of big and small powers alike.

At the same time, it is naïve and wrongheaded to rule out in advance any military responses to ISIS and similar real threats, But when they occur, such actions should be measured, specific, and broadly supported and led by the international community – Muslim and Arab countries in the first place.

Furthermore, these actions must have the support of the Congress and American people. In his speech on Sunday, Obama noted that Congress is mandated to do what it conspicuously hasn’t done: debate and decide on whether to authorize the continued use of military force in the Middle East. “For over a year, I have ordered our military to take thousands of airstrikes against ISIL targets,” he said. “I think it’s time for Congress to vote to demonstrate that the American people are united, and committed, to this fight.”

Thus, a debate in Congress should be welcomed even if the outcome is uncertain. Congresswoman Barbara Lee, D-Calif., has been saying for months that it’s time for “ending the blank checks for endless war.”

Finally, it is plain that the imperative of defeating right-wing extremism, that is, the Republican Party, in next year’s elections takes on new significance in the light of recent events.

Game of the week

What else, but the Big Ten title game between Michigan State and Iowa. Iowa comes in with no losses, State with one. And the winner goes to the national college football playoffs. As much as I like Iowa, I like State more – 24 – 17.

Share This