A Lesson in Liberation

14 02 2011

     The ousting of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak after eighteen days of peaceful, determined protests across the country represents yet another moment in the continuum that is human progress.  However, what must be remembered, and what is so glaringly evident in Egypt at present, is that this continuum only exists as a result of the indefatigable efforts of regular people; those individuals who are willing to speak out and boldly defy existing norms and institutions in defense of freedom and social justice.

     Moments like these are peppered throughout the history of all nations, and the Egyptian people have taken their place on its stage.

     But change does not simply occur on its’ own.  The impetus for change begins and ends with the will of the people; their eagerness to get their hands dirty, to devote their efforts to a movement for positive change, and their willingness to do so en masse, alongside their fellow country men and women irrespective of their political persuasion.  We see this reality in Liberation Square as well as in the grassroots campaigns that helped bring about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the follow-up Voting Rights Act of ‘65 and a host of other political achievements throughout the history of this nation.

     Vigilance must be maintained, however, or Egypt will experience the near disillusionment we are experiencing currently as progressives in the U.S., whose president has failed to deliver on a multitude of promises, riding a wave of support and commitment that has certainly begun to falter.  Promises will only be followed up on provided we, the citizenry, continue to apply pressure.

     The Egyptian people must continue the struggle for progress; Tahrir square may be cleaned and slowly emptying, but its political and governmental condition is still bathed in the stench of dictatorship and years of criminal repression.  The struggle must continue.  President Mubarak has been ousted, but his cronies remain nearby and on the fringe and the role of governing must not remain in the hands of the military apparatus, no matter which army we are speaking of in whichever country.

     Those seeking progressive change in the United States must continue to struggle.  The election of an African American who professes to adhere to the liberal notions of democracy, human rights, progressive taxation, social justice and anti-war sentimentality, will not in itself bring about the legalization of gay marriage, the end to foreign occupation, nuclear disarmament, the creation of jobs on a scale necessary to put our entire nation back to work, or the abandonment of the desire to skirt international law in the fog of war.  Indeed, as we all have seen, such professions have fallen far short of actualizing themselves in practical terms.  After years of illegal warfare, unprecedented infringements in the sphere of civil rights and extreme mismanagement of public funds, the hunger for change was undeniable in the elections of 2008.  But this hunger still remains.

     Although these pronouncements are truly a welcome beginning in our nation’s political discourse, it is not the only necessary ingredient in the recipe for progressive action; it could even be determined a garnish and nothing more.  The incessant, determined and uncontainable pressure exerted by social movements, rather, provides the foundation for any such changes.

     Let the events in Egypt reignite the flame of activism and progressive, grassroots movements; the true seeds of revolution and progress all over the world.  Let us take some pointers from the people who have dedicated their safety, jobs, and even their lives to the struggle for human emancipation in Alexandria, Suez, Cairo, elsewhere in Egypt and across what we call the Middle East these past weeks.  Mass demonstrations, divestment campaigns, and other forms of public outcry are just a few of the tools at our disposal.  But it is the strength, solidarity and determination of the citizenry that is the crucial component.  This kind of spirit and commitment to achieving tangible results in the realm of social justice is something we could all use a little more of.

A Topsy-turvy World

14 02 2011

     In a 1970 visit to John’s Hopkins University to debate the notion of civil disobedience with philosopher Charles Frankel, Howard Zinn began by claiming, “I start from the supposition that the world is topsy-turvy, that things are all wrong…”  I believe it necessary to reclaim this simple fact and to take a look at the world in which we live today upon the arrival of 2011. 

     News from the Pentagon provides us with a perfect starting point.  On December 22, 2010 Congress was able to pass a bill that provided the Pentagon with the largest budget for military spending initiatives since the end of World War II.  The bill, The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011, allowed for the spending of $725 billion in the Defense Department’s budget in the next year alone.  This number includes the base sum of dollars needed to maintain our massive military machine, but also includes another $158.7 billion for endeavors within the presently occupied nations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Adjusted for inflation, this is nearly $280 billion more than the largest budget approved during the Reagan administration, a presidency with a lasting reputation for increased and almost obsessive spending with regard to the military, and the military alone.  All this, as Rick Rozoff states in his article entitled Pentagon’s Christmas Present: Largest Military Budget Since World War II, without any “meaningful dissent in either house of Congress.” 

     All this in the middle of a presidency whose leader received the Nobel Peace Prize, as he entered office in 2009, for his efforts to reduce the global nuclear weapons arsenal.  The 2011 budget also shows a somewhat inverse relationship between President Obama’s commitments to nuclear non-proliferation and the commitment of more money to the development of nuclear technology for military purposes.  As a breakdown of the budget by the War Resister’s League shows, the budget includes “steady increases in nuclear weapons spending over the next 10 years, including a new plutonium facility for the Los Alamos National Laboratory (NM) and a uranium manufacturing plant at Oak Ridge (TN),” (www.warresisters.org).  Although significant and progressive in its own right for the moment, it is not simply the ratification of the New START Treaty that is going to mend this ugly conflict between spoken promises and actual commitments.

     The 2011 budget data now begs the question of whether or not such spending measures are necessary, helpful, or even feasible in today’s broken economic system.  Data compiled by the National Priorities Project (www.nationalpriorities.org) serves to clarify the realities of our government’s budgetary priorities.  For each dollar collected from the taxpayer in 2009, 26.5 cents was allotted for military expenditures.  When it came to directing money towards other aspects of the federal budget, the picture was not so bright.  1.3 cents went to transportation, 2 cents went to education, 2.5 to environmental energy and science, and 3.7 cents went to food.  In New Jersey, the median income family paid roughly $7,500 in federal income taxes in the same year.  Of that amount, $1,987 went to the military and $187 went to our schools. 

     Of course, there is much of the Federal budget that is deemed “mandatory” or “non-discretionary,” which is untouchable by Congress in the process of constructing a budget each year.  However, it is the “discretionary” portion of which we are speaking.  Of that, military expenditures comprise over 50% of the total.  So, in reality, military spending represents over half of the portion of the federal budget which Congress has direct control over.  

     Does Zinn’s simple exclamation hold as true today as it did in 1970?  Considering these figures against the backdrop of our nation’s current economic, social and political depression, I would argue that indeed it does.  Things certainly seem to be quite topsy-turvy.