Thursday, October 30, 2008

On interest

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote briefly about my views on interest -- that is, about the concept of making money with money. Wall Street news got me thinking about it again. I looked up an essay I read some time ago by one of my longtime sheroes, peace and civil rights activist and war tax resister, Juanita Nelson.

Juanita's ideas influenced my own. Here is what she wrote:

On Interest

By Juanita Nelson

I consider war tax refusal an essential step in the direction of a saner society, when a society is squandering its substance on war waging and preparation. But if I stop at that point I haven’t got the point. Another imperative for me is to look at economics, beyond the use and abuse of federal tax funds, and to take whatever faltering steps I can in the light of insights as I gain them.

An insight I gained many years ago concerns interest, or the ability of money to multiply, to grow, to reproduce itself. I examined the concept inside out, upside down, top to bottom, and concluded that money has no reproductive powers. A hundred pennies sealed in a jar for however many years remains a hundred pennies. It makes no difference if the jar rests on your desk or in the vault of a bank or is invested in the Sleight-of-Hand Corporation. (Experiment with the jar of pennies on your desk.)

Interest is a construct invented so that, as John Ruskin observes in Unto This Last, some can take advantage of other's distress. If I lend you a hundred dollars that I have no need of at the moment, or that I obviously can manage without, why would I demand a hundred and ten from you within a year instead of merely the original hundred? I would have done nothing to deserve the ten dollars. It would result from work you had performed and therefore, according to my calculations, I would be extracting ten dollars worth of your labor.

For a paragraph, I'd prefer to remove the discussion from the distraction of dollars or money, only a representation of the real thing. What I'm really dealing with is the product of labor applied to natural resources, the only combination I am aware of which yields wealth. (No matter how many dollar bills, of whatever denomination, are thrown to the ground, they cannot dig a hole, as one person can.) So I, having a surplus, let you use ten bushels of corn to supplement your poor crop, a supplement without which you must go hungry much of the winter. But I stipulate that the next year you must return to me not the ten bushels you had from me, but eleven. If we assume that it takes equal amounts of time to grow a bushel of corn, I would be usurping a bushel of corn's worth of your time, your labor. With what justification?

So, the first thing to ask about interest is, what is it? And the answer appears to be: appropriation of another’s labor - though the ultimate victims of that appropriation may be many times removed from our immediate view - maybe just a polite way of saying robbery. If this sounds harsh, listen to Cicero in De Officius, 44 B.C.E.: When Cato was asked what was most profitable in the way of property, he replied, "good pasture." And when the man who asked the question said, "And what about lending at interest?" Cato answered, "What about manslaughter?" I was pleased also to be backed up by economist Maynard Keynes: "At the base of today’s acquisitive society is legalized usury, or lending money at interest."

Pioneer Valley War Tax Resisters reluctantly keeps a small bank account to enable check processing. Some years ago we agreed that taking interest on the piddling sum was contrary to all we believed in. We approached the bank to ask that we not be credited with interest. We went from a surprised receptionist to a nonplussed teller to an adamant president, who told us their charter required them to give us the interest. It was only after I recounted an experience in Philadelphia where I had been allowed to forego the unwanted sum that the president decided he could honor our request. Not only that, he consented to what we’d mentioned only offhandedly because we thought it would be too much - we could return the interest we had previously collected! Which we did. We had won permission not to take money we didn’t want.

photo of Juanita and Wally Nelson, 1986

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Soldier turned Conscientious Objector stands his ground

Nice article posted on Alternet:

How 21 year-old Blake Ivey came to see war as "flat-out murder"

By Sarah Lazare

"I believe war is the crime of our times," Blake Ivey, a specialist in the U.S. Army, said over the phone in a slow, deliberate voice.

Ivey, currently stationed in Fort Gordon, Ga., is publicly refusing to deploy to Afghanistan. The 21-year-old soldier filed for conscientious objector status in July but was ordered to deploy while his application was being processed. He is determined not to go, and as of our last phone call, was still actively serving on his base, weighing his options for refusal.

Ivey joins what appears to be a growing number of troops refusing to fight in the so-called Global War on Terror. While there is no way to tell the exact number of resisters, military statistics indicate that resistance is on the rise. Since 2002, the Army has court-martialed twice as many soldiers for desertion and other unauthorized absences per year than for each year between 1997 and 2001. The Associated Press reports AWOL rates in the Army at its highest since 1980, with the desertion rate (defined as 30 or more days of unauthorized absence) having jumped 80 percent since the start of the Iraq War. More than 150 soldiers have publicly refused to fight in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an estimated 200 war resisters are living in Canada.

Many war resisters are conscientious objectors (C.O.s) who were deterred at early stages of the C.O. application process or ordered to deploy before their C.O. paperwork went through. Just last week, 19-year-old conscientious objector Tony Anderson at Fort Carson, Colo., publicly shared his experience. Anderson had been discouraged by his commanding officers from applying for C.O. status, and he disobeyed orders to deploy to Iraq. He now faces steep punishment at the hands of the military.

Ivey, who grew up in Augusta, Ga., just a few miles from the Fort Gordon base where he is now stationed, joined the Army willingly. After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, he felt that it was "his generation's time to stand up in defense of the country." He states, "I went to the recruiter myself. No one approached me." So, in 2005 he joined the service out of high school, despite his mother's pleas that he take more time to think it over.

Yet once Ivey was in the military, his feelings about war changed. He found it unsettling to chant "Blood, blood, blood makes the grass grow" in basic training, and he wrote a letter home to his mother describing his discomfort. When he was deployed to Korea in 2006, he started questioning the value of military service. Halfway through his yearlong deployment, he began studying anarchist philosophers and nonviolent thinkers such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.

The refusal of close friend Ryan Jackson to deploy to Iraq led Ivey to re-evaluate his own situation. They got to know each other in Advanced Individual Training in 2005 and were in the same unit together in Fort Gordon after Ivey's return from Korea.

They discussed at length their reluctance to go to war. Ivey provided simple advice to Jackson: "I told him, you've got to do what you believe in." So, Jackson decided not to go. He attempted to gain administrative leave, but when his paperwork failed to go through, he decided to go AWOL rather than face deployment. Ivey remained close with Jackson throughout the process, giving him emotional support when he went AWOL in 2007 and was court-martialed and sentenced to 100 days of confinement. "When I talked to Jackson before he went to court-martial, that's when I decided I was going to start on my conscientious objector paperwork," says Ivey.

Meanwhile, Ivey continued to research alternatives to war, immersing himself in the texts of nonviolent philosophers. He also got involved in his local community, helping start a chapter of Food Not Bombs, a collective movement to serve free food, mostly vegan and vegetarian, to others. "I want to make a difference in people's lives," he says.

While his conscientious objector paperwork was being processed, Ivey was ordered to deploy to Afghanistan. Application for C.O. status cannot forestall deployment, but applicants are supposed to be assigned tasks that do not conflict with their C.O. convictions. However, this military directive is subject to ambiguous interpretation, and the commanding officer has considerable discretion in determining appropriate assignments. Furthermore, many conscientious objectors consider deployment to a combat zone by definition ethically compromising.

If Ivey refuses to deploy, he could be charged with "Missing Movement" -- Article 87 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice -- by a general court martial, punishable by up to two years in the stockade, loss of pay and a dishonorable discharge. There is also the danger that the military might try to pile on charges against him, such as Article 90, "willfully disobeying superior officer," and General Article 134, which covers all conduct "unbecoming" a service member.
Ivey is determined not to go to Afghanistan, and he is working with a civilian lawyer to explore his options. He has also enlisted the support of Courage to Resist, an organization that supports the troops who refuse to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan and has worked with several GIs in similar situations, including Anderson and Jackson.

Ivey's mother, who lives in Augusta a few miles from where Ivey is stationed, is supportive but worried about her son. "I am concerned because any time someone you care about is in a situation that could cause them turmoil in their life or legal charges, whether they are right or wrong, I am going to worry," she says. "But I would in no way encourage him to do anything different. He is following his moral beliefs, and he has to do that."

Despite the threat of steep punishment, Ivey remains steadfast in his commitment to nonviolence. "I am against organized war," he says. "It is flat-out murder."

Monday, October 27, 2008

Texas Senator gets the pink slip

Say, was that a giant pink slip displayed across the street from US Senator John Cornyn's office on Friday morning? I believe it was!

At about the same time the pink slip was flying downtown, the Austin American Statesman was running a Cornyn ad on its home page.

Strangely, the AAS editorial board endorses the senator, even while admitting that he has been "little more than an agent of the Bush administration."

Rather than giving the Senator another term to "move to the center," we think he should keep following the Bush administration right out the door.

The CodePink delivery service reported that the message was well received by morning commuters with many honks and waves, even though parking garage security were soon on the case, ordering the slip team to roll it up and threatening to "cut it down with a knife." Notta lotta drama in the parking garage most of the time, I'm guessin.

After being kicked out, the pink slippers decided to walk the banner to another garage and unfurl it again. All together, the pink slip flew for about an hour.

I wonder how much the Cornyn campaign pays to run a Statesman ad. The parking garage cost $4 -- and a little strategery.

photo by Deborah Vanko

Monday, October 20, 2008

Camilo Mejia: private rebellion, public resistance

When Camilo Mejia walked into the auditorium of UT's Garrison Hall where he was to speak last Thursday night, his first reaction was to shake his head at the large book-cover images of himself that were projected onto screens in front. He's a humble guy, and self-promotion is not his leaning.

But, he's on the Resisting Empire speaking tour with the new Haymarket Books publication of The Road from ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia: An Iraq War Memoir, so he was in Austin to promote both the book and the mission of his fellow Iraq Veterans Against the War: immediate and unconditional withdrawal of occupation forces from Iraq, adequate care for all veterans and reparations for Iraq.

With his youthful good looks, casual attire and backpack slung over his shoulder, Mejia could have been one of the many students in his audience. But, when he began to speak, his seriousness revealed a deeper level of experience. He invited the five other members of Iraq Veterans Against the War who were present to join him in the front and take questions from the crowd, creating an instant IVAW panel that personified the variety of membership within the rapidly growing organization.

As chair of the board of IVAW, Mejia reported that from 7 original members who organized the group in July 2004, IVAW membership has expanded to about 1400, including the most quickly growing contingent: active duty soldiers. One of the newest chapters formed at Ft. Hood this year.

Mejia stressed the importance of the camaraderie that he and other vets experience through their involvement with IVAW. The sense of shared purpose and belonging mirrors an aspect of military life they value. He also said that in his role with IVAW, he has learned a new sense of what leadership entails: "respect, communication and shared ideals," rather than leadership based on fear and punishment that he was trained to demonstrate as an army staff sergeant.

Mejia's primary message is that conscience, not combat, is the source of our freedom. When a soldier is in the midst of combat, it is very difficult to think about moral implications. "You're under so much pressure; there's so much fear, so much fatigue." Soldiers can't be expected to weigh right and wrong in the middle of a firefight. Drilled in reflexive fire training and armed with powerful weapons, they don't have to get an order to kill civilians; they're just thrown into situations where they do it. Mejia said that in the five months he was in Iraq, his unit killed 33 civilians. Only 3 were armed.

Mejia talked about following orders to abuse Iraqi prisoners. He describes this also in the new film, Soldiers of Conscience, a documentary that happened to air in Austin the same night that Mejia spoke here. While in Iraq, Mejia felt conflicted about what he was doing, but it wasn't until he was home on a two week leave that he had the time and distance to really think about it. "Some people say, 'once a soldier, always a soldier,'" he says in the film. "Well, once a human being, always a human being."

Through his interviews, his appearances in documentaries like Soldiers of Conscience and The Ground Truth, his speaking tours and in his own incisive writing, Mejia has modeled what IVAW has been aiming to do as a group through the "Winter Soldier" hearings and panels. As he said in the concluding remarks of the initial Winter Soldier hearings held in March '08 -- now transcribed in a new book (also published by Haymarket Books), Winter Soldier, Iraq and Afghanistan: Eyewitness Accounts of the Occupations,

"Iraq Veterans Against the War has become a source of stress to the military brass and to the government ... We have become a dangerous group of people not because of our military training, but because we have dared to challenge the official story. We are dangerous because we have dared to share our experiences, to think for ourselves, to analyze and be critical, to follow our conscience, and because we have dared to go beyond patriotism to embrace humanity."

Winter Soldier testimony from the March hearings can be seen on the IVAW website, and the book can be ordered there, too.

As terrible as it is to hear the testimonies of these veterans, it is even more terrible to have lived the stories, either as a soldier or as an Iraqi or Afghan civilian. As US Marine veteran Anthony Swofford writes in his foreword to Winter Soldier, "Do not turn away from these stories. They are yours, too."

As I walked home from Mejia's presentation, I passed the brilliantly burnt orange-lit UT tower, on which is inscribed the new testament passage, "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." I passed the Cesar Chavez statue that includes several Chavez quotes, such as "You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore," and "You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride."

We don't turn away from civil rights stories, from freedom movement stories, because they are our stories. Veterans who are using their voices and actions to try to stop war are joining this proud legacy, exchanging weapons for the power of truth. The freedom they are gaining is ours, too.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

If candidates won't discuss war costs, veterans will

During the final presidential debate, the candidates and the moderator prodded one another to explain how they would pay for particular programs and policies they believe will help the US recover from its economic crisis.

Yet, with all the talk about taxes and scarcity of federal funds for what America needs, the candidates and the moderator avoided discussing the primary reason that funds for education, health care, alternative energy and civic infrastructure are in such short supply: war spending. In fact, even apart from the huge costs of the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, the US uses approximately half of it's federal tax revenue, excluding trust funds like Social Security, to fund the military budget.

Whether or not one approves of this federal spending priority -- and I obviously don't -- the fact of its effect on our economic crisis should be faced squarely, not swept under the table.
If candidates won't talk about the war's costs, there are war veterans who will.

Austinites have the opportunity tonight to hear Iraq war veteran, Camilo Mejia speak about his experience, which has been referenced on this blog in previous posts.

And, if you can't make it out to UT, Camilo is coincidentally featured in a film that will be aired tomorrow (Thursday) night at midnight on KLRU's Point of View (POV) program. The film documentary, Soldiers of Conscience is highly recommended.

Here's the info about Camilo's UT appearance as sent by the student group sponsoring his talk, Campus Antiwar Movement to End Occupations (CAMEO):

Camilo Mejia
Thursday, October 16, 7:00 PM
Location: UT Campus, Garrison 0.102

Camilo Mejía grew up in Nicaragua and Costa Rica before moving to the United States in 1994. He joined the military at the age of nineteen, serving as an infantryman in the active-duty army for three years before transferring to the Florida National Guard. After fighting in Iraq for five months, Mejía became the first known Iraq veteran to refuse to continue to fight in Iraq, citing moral concerns about the war and occupation. He was eventually convicted of desertion by a military court and sentenced to a year in prison.

Mejía currently serves as the chair of the board of Iraq Veterans Against the War, and is the author of Road from Ar Ramadi: The Private Rebellion of Staff Sergeant Mejia: An Iraq War Memoir (new edition, Haymarket Books 2008). In Road from Ar Ramadi, Mejía tells his own story, from his upbringing in Central America and his experience as a working-class immigrant in the United States to his service in Iraq - where he witnessed prisoner abuse and was deployed in the Sunni triangle - and time in prison. In this stirring book, he argues passionately for human rights and the end to an unjust war. Camilo will be introduced by Hart Viges, president of the Central Texas chapter of IVAW.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Challenging market economy assumptions

Regarding the Wall Street crash, here's one of my thoughts:

To a certain extent, I think all investors, from the big players on down, share some responsibility for what is happening.
The market system encourages speculation. It's based on the presumption that making money with money is the wisest use of one's financial resources, even when it's a gamble.

But, inevitably, this leads to the concentration of wealth in fewer hands, to greater disparity between rich and poor and to individual investors losing sight of exactly what their money is being used for. It leads to inflated prices for goods whose intrinsic value does not increase.

The thing is, money doesn't make money all by itself. Money plus labor makes money. Is it right or fair to accrue wealth through someone else's labor?

I decided some years ago that it didn't seem fair to me to benefit from the labor of others by obtaining money from investments. Folks talk about "earning" interest, but I don't think interest is earned by the person holding the bank account. Someone else is doing that work.

So, I do what I can to stand aside from the market-driven bandwagon. I have a non-interest bearing bank account and don't invest in the stock market. I don't buy on credit. I realize the bank invests my funds in ways that I may not approve, but my compromise is to not accept the interest on that investment.

These views are not shared by many, I know, but given the current state of affairs on Wall Street and Main Street, maybe some are questioning the basic assumptions underlying the economy, too.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Daniel Ellsberg speaks at UT

When I attended the presentation at UT on Tuesday evening by Daniel Ellsberg, the concept of freedom of conscience was already on my mind.

A few days prior, I had gone to a special commemoration of Gandhi’s birthday, where conscience was posed as a religious freedom issue by one of the speakers, a local war tax resister. Souvenir bookmarks containing Gandhi quotes were distributed around the tables, and the one I happened to pick up read, “In matters of conscience, the law of majority has no place.”

Then, over the weekend, an inaugural conference was held in Austin, organized chiefly by the pastor and congregation of the Austin Mennonite Church. The National Assembly to Honor Freedom of Conscience featured guest speakers Walter Wink (noted theologian and nonviolence trainer), Gene Stoltzfus (former director of Christian Peacemaker Teams) and Ann Wright, whose book, Dissent: Voices of Conscience was published this year and includes a foreword by Daniel Ellsberg. Conference panelists included conscientious objectors and GI resisters whose stories parallel those in Wright’s book.

Ann Wright spoke also at a book signing event at BookWoman on Monday, where matters of conscience, government, law, risk, family and the military were discussed by those present, including, again, several conscientious objectors. The week seemed to come full circle with Ellsberg’s Austin appearance the following evening.

In conjunction with a UT conference planned for the coming weekend, Ellsberg was asked to compare what was happening in 1968 with what is happening now. He packed a lot in – dates, names, places and people – while his primary message echoed what I had heard all week: truth can free us from war.

Ellsberg did not talk much about the tragedies and tumult of 1968, but rather focused on what he saw and experienced as a government insider. “1968 is a year I don’t like to relive,” he admitted. He spent most of his time describing events leading up to that year, beginning with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964 and the tangled web that was spun from it and later documented in the Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg also recounted something about the less tangible factors that led to the escalation of the Indochina War – the human strengths and frailties of the political and military actors at that time, including him.

Ellsberg spoke with an intense clarity of memory, recounting the details of who said what when, what they probably meant and what they probably did or didn’t know at the time. I sensed that in spite of the strange mix of pariah/hero status he attained following the publishing of the Pentagon Papers, he still is proud of the insider position he once held and perhaps even misses the feeling of closeness that resulted from being loyal to powerful people and knowing their secrets. In fact, he said that being called a traitor is something he has never gotten used to.
In his talk, Ellsberg didn’t fully explain his inner change of heart, the private crisis of conscience that led him to shift from personal loyalty to the president and joint chiefs of staff to a more abstract loyalty to the Constitution and international law. But, as he wrote in an article in Harpers in 2006 (quoted by UT’s Evan Carton during his introduction of Ellsberg),

“I had long prized my own identity as a keeper of the president’s secrets. In 1964 it never even occurred to me to break the many secrecy agreements I had signed, in the Marines, at the Rand Corporation, in the Pentagon. Although I already knew the Vietnam War was a mistake and based on lies, my loyalties then were to the secretary of defense and the president (and to my promises of secrecy, on which my own career as a president’s man depended). I’m not proud that it took me years of war to awaken to the higher loyalties owed by every government official to the rule of law, to our soldiers in harm’s way, to our fellow citizens, and, explicitly, to the Constitution, which every one of us had sworn an oath ‘to support and uphold.’ It took me that long to recognize that the secrecy agreements we had signed frequently conflicted with our oath to uphold the Constitution.”

More about the role of conscience in Ellsberg’s moral conflict can be found in a passage I read about ten years ago in Daniel Hallock’s collection of writings and interviews, Hell, Healing and Resistance: Veterans Speak. The book includes an interview with Ellsberg in which he recalls these pivotal personal events in 1968 and ’69:

“Now, two things affected my life at that point. I’d been reading Gandhi since the spring of ’68, when I happened to meet people from the Quaker Action group at a conference in Princeton. I had gone there to study counter-revolution, and they were there as nonviolent revolutionaries. So I started reading MLK, Stride Toward Freedom, and Barbara Deming, who wrote an essay called Revolution and Equilibrium. I read and reread many times a book by Joan Bondurant called The Conquest of Violence, on Gandhian thought, which converted me very strongly, very impressively.

Then, in late August 1969 I went to a conference of the War Resisters League – they were founded by World War I CO’s; Einstein was once their honorary president – and in the course of this conference I was induced to go to a vigil for somebody who was going to prison for draft resistance, which was a very unusual thing for me to be doing. There I was, standing in the street outside the Philadelphia post office, passing out leaflets. This was not the sort of thing the GSA Team did. It seemed, you know, rather undignified – giving away your influence and your access in such a ridiculous way, just handing out leaflets like a bum.

Then, at the end of this conference, I met another young man, Randy Kehler, a Harvard college graduate who had gone on to Stanford but then stopped his studies to work for the War Resisters League. He gave a talk and at the end he announced that he was also on his way to prison for refusal to cooperate with the draft. And this came to me as a total shock. It just hit me that it was a terrible thing for my country that the best he and so many others could do was go to prison. I went to the men’s room and just sat on the floor and cried for about an hour and thought, ‘My country has come to this? We’re eating our young. We’re relying on them, to end the war and to fight the war?’ And I felt it was up to me. I was older. I was thirty-eight. It was up to us older people to stop the war.”

Ellsberg realized his tool was information and his sacrifice was the loss of his insider position and a risk, like that of the draft resister, of imprisonment. MLK’s April 4, 1967 admonition, “A time comes when silence is betrayal,” gained special meaning for him.

Ellsberg feels we are in a similarly critical time now. It’s a time that calls for greater risk-taking. He said that Obama, for example, could risk standing against an escalation of the Iraq war into Iran, Afghanistan or Pakistan. Links ought to be made between the economic crisis and the war. “Can we afford to murder people at this cost indefinitely?” is the question we must ask, he says. He pointed out that in the five years after 1968 – when the Indochina war had lost almost all popular support, four times as many bombs were dropped in Southeast Asia as were dropped prior to 1968. He fears the same kind of enlargement of war could easily happen again. “Power doesn’t learn from history,” he said. “Power follows its own dictates; power doesn’t give up its power.”

Ellsberg concluded, “This country needs to advance in another direction.” Directed by conscience and moved by the acts of conscience of others, people can change course. His life is a case in point. Truth can stand up to power, and a bum with a leaflet can change the course of history.

photo from Wall Street action by arts group, "The Critical Voice," Oct. 7, 08. Photo courtesy of CodePink