Monday, December 31, 2007

Sitting On the Fence Is Creasing My Activist Butt

Warning, this is a long post. It’s long because supporting a presidential candidate for me is deeply personal. It’s not simply deciding which candidate I will pull the lever for in the privacy of a voting booth. Rather I approach the decision as an activist and ask myself: after weighing all the virtues and flaws of the declared candidates on whose behalf am I willing to devote my free time?

In my darker moments I’ll ask myself, “Do any of these lying corporatist whores deserve my support? Why bother with any of them?” The ship has long sailed on my days of being a "true believer."

Ultimately, in spite of my disenchantment, I believe in the power of the vote. Even with the sordid history of stolen elections and broken promises, I remain convinced the best way to change the system is through participation in the political process. And the best vehicle for progressive reform is by leveraging the Democratic Party – flawed as it is. Which means I have to finally stop creasing my butt, get off the fence and choose a candidate.

Picking a candidate this primary season has been especially agonizing. My top choices were former Vice President Al Gore and Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold. I would’ve volunteered for either in a heartbeat. When both opted not to run I was left cold and preferred to wait until the race sorted itself out.

Meanwhile, this past year I amused myself reading blog postings on Daily Kos and elsewhere expressing certitude about the virtues of particular candidates while trashing rival campaigns. The theme was usually along the lines of “only my candidate is the true progressive with a chance to win while so and so is simply an enabler of the corporate pro-war plutocracy who will destroy the Democratic Party and eat your children.”

The only certitude I felt was disenchantment with Hillary Clinton whom I believe would govern entirely from weakness and be an agent of the status quo. Furthermore, I never bought into the Clinton rationale about “experience” because of her tenure as First Lady. For what it’s worth, as a New Yorker, I believe Clinton’s done an admirable job of constituent service in the senate. But on the broader issues of war and peace, bridging the gap between rich and poor and being a progressive advocate, Clinton’s record is under-whelming at best.

Otherwise the remaining field left me uncommitted. Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Bill Richardson and Barack Obama are all compelling figures with many virtues as well as flawed agents of a corrupt political system. And yes that includes Edwards who despite his populist message is also not a white knight. None of them are.

I appreciate much of what Dennis Kucinich has to say, resent how he was denied access to a recent debate but never seriously considered supporting him. As a protest candidate Kucinich has contributed and I respect his supporters. But he was a failure as Mayor of Cleveland and would have as much chance winning a national election as I do of dating Scarlett Johansson.

If I were twenty again, I might find stuffing envelopes, canvassing and phone banking on Kucinich’s behalf the right way to go. But that doesn’t feel right this time. Rather I believe it imperative Democrats avoid the calamity of nominating Hillary Clinton and supporting a protest candidate won’t get that done.

Clinton’s original support of the Iraq war was a callous and cowardly act of political expediency. Her tepid ‘if I knew now what I knew then’ explanation regarding Iraq is neither believable nor acceptable. War and peace requires a different standard of leadership. Not calculating cynicism resulting in needless bloodshed.

In 2007, Clinton’s vote labeling the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization for example was irresponsible at best. One can presume that as president the political fifty-yard line will be looked upon as the Holy Grail and doing right a secondary consideration. Senator Clinton has managed to achieve a rare political feat: she is both a polarizing figure and without a principled core.

As long as Clinton is regarded as a polarizing figure anyway, it boggles the mind why she refused to stand for something as senator. Clinton's had six years to put her prestige on the line for the working poor, human rights and a judicious foreign policy. Instead she only enabled the neo-cons and is now regarded favorably by the drug and pharmaceutical companies.

Whereas Bobby Kennedy became a tribune to the underclass as senator, Hillary Clinton positioned herself as a reassuring figure for corporate special interests. Tell me Senator Clinton has scheming to achieve centrist nirvana taken the edge off your polarization in any way? Clintonism undermines the progressive cause just when the center of political gravity is in our favor. Conservatism is sucking wind and we can’t allow this moment in history to be squandered by nominating another Clinton.

Edwards and Obama are the only Democratic candidates who have any chance of defeating Senator Clinton and prevailing in November. Hence, supporting any of the other candidates, regardless of their principles, personal virtues and credentials is a waste. Sorry, that’s just the way it is. I wish it were otherwise because the field beyond Clinton, Edwards and Obama is far more accomplished in my opinion. Unfortunately, our political system rewards style over substance. If I didn’t feel it so imperative to stop Hillary Clinton from getting the nomination I’d likely support Chris Dodd. But under the circumstances I’m left to choose between Obama and Edwards. There are positives in the biographies of both men.

Obama could have pursued a career as a corporate lawyer after Harvard Law School and dedicated himself to making money. Many in his position would’ve done exactly that. Instead he chose community activism. That impresses me.

As an Illinois state legislator, Obama skillfully navigated the complex web of race, entrenched power and ego that comprise Chicago politics to be an agent of pragmatic reform. It was there that Obama’s political persona was defined: he fights fire with water. That has translated into a presidential campaign of progressive advocacy with the soft rhetoric of unity.

In my blog writing I’ve occasionally referred to Obama as a “platitude machine” in frustration at his reluctance to forcefully indict the agents of corporatism and militarism that have plagued our country. Too often this year Obama appeared content to utter polite words about bringing everyone to the table under the mystical aura of bipartisanship.

Yet Obama has shown remarkable growth in recent weeks and found his voice. I am impressed at how he’s drawn distinctions without coming off as shrill. The fist in the velvet glove is a rare gift in politics and Obama seems to have it. He’s been especially effective at contrasting himself with Clinton’s institutional/machine oriented politics of restoration entitlement.

I also note that among Obama’s foreign policy advisors is former Bill Clinton National Security Advisor Tony Lake. Unlike other members of the Clinton Administration currently advising Senator Clinton, Lake opposed the war with Iraq from the beginning. And of course so did Obama himself.

For a time I was ready to jump on Obama’s bandwagon, excited at the prospect of his potential for knocking off Hillary Clinton. Also, symbolism does indeed matter in politics and statecraft. A dark skinned president named Barack Hussein Obama, with part of his childhood spent in Indonesia and possessing Kenyan ancestry is powerful. Domestically the very idea of a President Obama is unifying for a nation sundered by race and baby boomer culture wars. Moreover, Obama’s international profile offers the promise of helping America return to the community of civilized nations. The temptation to support him is almost irresistible and I was nearly seduced by it.

America however needs far more than what Obama offers. Class warfare waged from the top has metastasized under the Bush Administration and must be forcefully reversed. Yes, water is usually the best antidote for fire. But this moment in history requires someone willing to make an omelet by breaking some eggs.

Politics is a fight and the quest for fairness in our current gilded age won’t be accomplished without a determined struggle. Edwards as we all know rose from humble beginnings to take on predatory corporations in the courtroom and he won big. Whenever Republicans talk about tort reform it's code, to prevent advocates such as John Edwards from helping regular folks against entrenched corporate power. The fact Edwards earned a fortune at the expense of predatory corporations only angers the predatory conservative establishment even more. Remember the plutocracy considered FDR a traitor to his class too.

As previously noted, Edwards is not a white knight. For much of 2007 I leaned toward Edwards but his original support of the Iraq War and dabbling in hedge funds bothered me. Was his apology for originally supporting it genuine or merely politically expedient? How can any of us really know? Politicians have a nasty habit of being chameleons as it suits them.

Yet even as politicians pander to win over a public more interested in Hollywood scandal then global warming, it is possible to identify a core in some of these people. Al Gore for example, was a tactile politician who could shift with the prevailing winds but believed and worked for reversing global warming before it was popular. And John Edwards has spent much of his adult life standing up for ordinary people against predatory corporate power. This is a man who remembers where he came from.

Some consider the John Edwards message one of anger and prefer the soothing rhetoric of Obama. I find the Edwards message empowering. As Paul Krugman wrote in today’s New York Times,
“There’s a fantasy, widely held inside the Beltway that men and women of good will from both parties can be brought together to hammer out bipartisan solutions to the nation’s problems.”
As we saw six years ago, even with no mandate, predatory conservatives had no interest in sensible bipartisan solutions. Instead they shamelessly exploited the symbols of patriotism and war to finance crony capitalism at the expense of consumers, small business owners and the very old and young. One can’t negotiate power with these people. Power must be taken from them. For the first time in a generation we have a window to facilitate a true progressive reformation if we’re willing to fight for it. We negotiate when we’re cutting our losses. We fight when we have hope. This blogger is opting for the audacity of hope and supporting John Edwards.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Benazir Bhutto and Sergei Kirov

My first thought after learning about Benazir Bhutto’s assassination today was Sergei Kirov. On December 1, 1934, the Leningrad Communist Party boss, Sergei Kirov was murdered. Kirov, was a prominent Bolshevik and popular within the party. Josef Stalin, perhaps the most evil and paranoid leader in history, perceived Kirov as a threat to his rule.

Stalin had valid reasons for fearing Kirov who benefited from much support during the 1934 Communist Party Congress when he was elevated to a position on the Central Committee. It’s possible that Stalin asked Kirov to work for him in Moscow in order to undermine his emerging political clout. Kirov turned Stalin down, perhaps to retain his independent power base in Lenigrad and on the Central Committee. Another factor that made Kirov a threat was nationality. Stalin was a Georgian while the ruggedly handsome Kirov an ethnic Russian. So Stalin used the NKVD to have Kirov murdered. He then ingeniously exploited Kirov’s murder as a pre-text for the Great Purges to defend the Soviet state against “saboteurs” and “Trotskyites.”

I don’t know who was behind former Pakistani Prime Minister Bhutto’s murder. Perhaps it truly was an act of terrorism by al Quaeda. It nevertheless is difficult not to suspect that Pakistan’s intelligence services opposed to any democratic reforms she might have implemented, wanted Bhutto out of the way and allowed assassins to get too close. For damn sure it provides Pakistan's President Musharaff, a pre-text for subverting the democracy Bhutto hoped to build. Her murder is also expedient for the Bush Administration and provides the neocons a pre-text for another cycle of fear mongering.

Hopefully, Bhutto’s martyrdom will have more success thwarting both the agents of reaction within the Pakistani government as well Islamic terrorists than she did in life. As a Muslim woman committed to democracy, Bhutto represented a beacon of light in a world of secular autocrats and religious radicals. Alas, her death represents a victory for the forces of darkness in a world spiraling out of control.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Is 2008 the Year Democrats Finally Realize Iraq Is An Occupation?


In 2007, the Democratic Party was a self-gelding machine of ineptitude. Activists such as myself worked feverishly in 2006 to retake congress and end America’s occupation of Iraq. Instead the Bush Administration implemented a “surge” as Democrats retreated from flexing their constitutional muscle. They continued to fund military operations, never invoked the War Powers Act and impeachment was taken off the table.

Remarkable considering how unpopular both the Iraq occupation and President Bush had become. Cracks even appeared in the façade of GOP unity as their Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell warned the Bush Administration that congressional Republicans would not allow Iraq to harm their electoral prospects in 2008. Indeed, on June 26th the Washington Post quoted McConnell as saying,
“I anticipate that we'll probably be going in a different direction in some way in Iraq. And it'll be interesting to see what the administration chooses to do."
McConell was anticipating the September testimony of Army General David H. Petraues. Yet as 2007 ends there is no denying that the unpopular Bush Administration successfully thwarted both the Democratic majority and the will of the people. How did this happen?

One can offer all sorts of explanations. Among them is that sixty-votes are required in the Senate and a thin Democratic majority had no real shot of making a difference. Others may prefer to scapegoat for their controversial “Betray Us” advertisement prior to the testimony of the highly decorated General Petraeus. Finally, some may simply contend that the surge worked and the rationale for withdrawal no longer applies.

Personally, I believe Democrats never truly wanted to end our occupation in Iraq. Iraq had sapped Bush’s popularity into oblivion, debased the Republican brand and helped fill Democratic coffers. Hence, both Reid and Pelosi were content to pursue the politics of symbolism without truly forcing the Administration’s hand.

Casting symbolic votes about timetables appeared safe and had the added advantage of keeping congressional Republicans on the defensive for supporting an unpopular war. It seemed a sure way to enhance their congressional majority as well as retake the White House but changed nothing on the ground. As a result, 2007 ends with congressional Democrats appearing impotent and unprincipled. Is it any wonder their poll ratings are so low?

Tragically, Democrats failed to realize that the American public opposed the war because we were perceived as losing rather than believing toppling Saddam’s government was wrong. Furthermore, even Americans who opposed the war from the beginning are instinctively repulsed at the notion of “losing” a war. Culturally, Americans don’t accept losing a war gracefully. Most countries don’t. For example, the Vietnam War was unpopular at the end yet liberals were easily stigmatized as weak defeatists for opposing it. Hence, once the so-called surge helped establish superficial conditions of stability, casting symbolic votes about withdrawal deadlines ceased to be effective.

It is therefore imperative that in 2008 Democrats stop referring to Iraq as a war but an occupation instead. The war in Iraq was both ill conceived and immoral. Many citizens including myself took to the streets and protested in 2002-2003. We didn’t protest because we feared losing. Rather we didn’t accept the rationale for the war and feared the occupation to follow.

The war as we all know ended when President Bush declared “Mission Accomplished.” Saddam’s regime was easily toppled and weapons of mass destruction were never found. The military did its job. The war was wrong but it happened and we won. We have been sustaining a brutal occupation since its conclusion. Occupations typically result in the wholesale deaths and torture of civilians. Maintaining an occupation is corrupting to the “victor.” Numerous people including bloggers and thinkers far more intelligent and eloquent than myself already reached that conclusion and the folly of buying into Bush’s framing the Iraq debate as a “war.”

As George Lakoff wrote on July 5, 2006,
“In an occupation, there are pragmatic issues: Are we welcome? Are we doing the Iraqis more harm than good? How badly are we being hurt? The question is not whether to withdraw, but when and how? What to say? You might prefer ‘End the occupation now’ or ‘End the occupation by the end of the year’ or ‘End the occupation within a year,’ but certainly Congress and most Americans should be able to agree on ‘End the occupation soon.’ In an occupation, not a war, should the president still have war powers? How, if at all, is the Supreme Court decision on military tribunals at Guantanamo affected if we are in an occupation, not a war? What high-handed actions by the President, if any, are ruled out if we are no longer at war?”
If Democrats at long last get their heads out of their ass the “surge” can be looked upon in its appropriate context. Yes, the surge reduced deaths of American GIs. Tactically it’s been a success. To deny that is to ignore reality. Even more significant are the Iraqi Sunnis resisting al Quaeda themselves. But what does any of that have to do with ending America’s immoral occupation, facilitating a political settlement inside Iraq and earning a measure of diplomatic good will in the Muslim world? As long as this occupation has a white Christian face we’ve condemned ourselves to walking on a toxic treadmill. The occupation is not beneficial to America or Iraq.

On December 4th, I interviewed talk radio’s Thom Hartmann, about his new book Cracking The Code: How To Win Hearts, Change Minds, and Restore America's Original Vision. Hartmann eloquently echoes Lakoff about framing Iraq as an occupation instead of a war in his book. He noted during our interview that immediately after he and Lakoff suggested the “occupation” frame in 2006, Democrats took their advice. But they soon reverted to talking about Iraq as a war. Hartmann further observed that the corporatist media finds the war frame too profitable. Writing and broadcasting about an “occupation” doesn’t sell as well or profit companies such as General Electric who have a financial stake in the media as well as military operations. The media is not going to describe Iraq as an occupation any time soon.

So it’s up to the reality based community of citizen journalists, bloggers, activists and just plain regular people to set the record straight. Many progressive bloggers reading this thread properly realized this long ago. But as we head into 2008 a reminder is in order. I for one plead guilty of too often playing into the hands of predatory conservatives and describing Iraq as a war.

So no matter what presidential candidate you’re supporting in 2008, please let their campaigns know you want Iraqi policy referred to as an “occupation” and be assertive about it. Please telephone and write your representatives in congress as well (click here and here ). And on your blogs refer to Iraq as an occupation every time you post about it. Any street protests should also reinforce the message that we're opposing an occupation. Our 2008 New Years resolution should be to once and for all shift the terms of debate about Iraq from being a “war” to an “occupation.” At stake is the blood of our GIs, innocent Iraqi civilians and ending America’s estrangement from the civilized world.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Soul of the GOP

As longtime readers of The Onion or viewers of the Daily Show can attest, comedy often reveals truth far more effectively than the so-called news as presented by the corporatist media. This hilarious parody of a Mike Huckabee campaign commercial on You Tube illustrates just how vile and toxic the Republican Party truly is.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Inside Track: Off the Warpath?

Barbara Slavin, a guest writer here at the Intrepid Liberal Journal, just published an important article in the National Interest entitled "Inside Track: Off the Warpath?" Both the National Interest and Barbara Slavin have graciously granted their permission for her article to be posted here.

Barbara Slavin is a senior diplomatic reporter for USA Today on leave as a Jennings Randolph fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the author of Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation. I interviewed Barbara Slavin about her book and U.S./Iranian relations on October 21st. You can listen to that interview by clicking here.

The smiles on the faces of several U.S. military personnel at a previously scheduled Washington think tank session on Iran’s “bomb” said it all Tuesday: The United States is not going to start a third Middle East war anytime soon.

Monday’s new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) stating “with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program” dropped the big one on those in Washington and elsewhere who have been urging the Bush Administration to strike Iran “before it is too late.”

Despite President Bush’s efforts at his press conference to act as though nothing has changed, everything has. Chuck Frelich, a former Israeli deputy national security adviser, called the news “an earthquake” that “gives us more time to explore the diplomatic route.” The Nixon Center’s Geoffrey Kemp, appearing on the same panel at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agreed. The NIE “changes the political dynamics in this town”, he said. “The out of the blue pre-emptive strike . . . is a long way off.”

There are still many questions about the new estimate and its origins. The intelligence community, in its eagerness not to promise another “slam dunk”, may have erred on the side of caution. Iran has accelerated its overt enrichment program since 2005 and could produce enough fissile material for a bomb in as little as two years, more plausibly by 2015, the estimate said.

But a key conclusion of the NIE is that a negotiated solution is possible. Iran, it turns out, is not a nation of mad mullahs but a country whose “decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach.” Its leaders are susceptible to pressure and worried about Iran’s international posture. Iran shut down the weapons program in 2003 because it had been caught cheating and in a post-9/11 environment, was worried about the consequences. At the same time it started negotiations with Great Britain, France and Germany—negotiations that it thought would be quickly joined by the United States.

That did not happen. President Bush, at his news conference, misspoke when he said that the United States “facilitated” the European talks with Iran in 2003. In fact, then–under secretary of state John Bolton did nothing to help. He actively tried to sabotage the talks with leaks about threatening Iranian remarks to the Europeans. Bush also misspoke when he said that “at that point in time” (2003) his administration said it would stop blocking Iran’s application to join the World Trade Organization and provide spare parts for civilian airliners if Iran halted its program. Those carrots were not put on the table until 2005, shortly before Iranian presidential elections replaced Mohammad Khatami with the more belligerent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The United States did not offer to actually join the negotiations until May 2006—and only then if Iran suspended its uranium program.

Will Bush now pursue a diplomatic option more strenuously? New sanctions will be harder to achieve but it will be easier to justify talks with Tehran. At the very least, Bush will not bomb Iran before he leaves office. And that is something for which everyone around the world—not just the overstretched U.S. military—should be grateful.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

An Interview With Talk Radio's Code Breaker Thom Hartmann

From 1968 to 2004, conservatives utilized the art of communication to persuade voters into supporting policies against the interests of peace and their personal prosperity. While liberals advocated obscure abstractions and responded with cerebral nuance, conservatives prevailed by hitting people in their gut. Law and order, welfare Cadillac Queens, Willie Horton, death tax, permissiveness, the flag and God were all exploited to define liberals as weak elitist traitors and conservatives as upstanding guardians of American values.

Even the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton did little to prevent the center of political gravity from shifting to the right. Consequently, a corporate plutocracy plundered the American economy at the expense of working people and small business owners, our civil liberties were systematically eroded and the neo-conservative empire culture shamefully eroded America’s moral authority and geopolitical position.

This trend metastasized in 2004 as Republican propagandists profiled John Kerry, a candidate with three purple hearts into a modern day Benedict Arnold and a flip-flopper. Following that election, liberals began absorbing the work of intellectuals such as George Lakoff and Michael Tomasky to better “frame” issues. Progress was made as Democrats captured congress in 2006 and the Republican brand is currently sucking wind.

Yet, it is quite apparent that more work needs to be done to advance the liberal cause. The Democratic congress has struggled to stand up for civil liberties, oppose our disastrous policies in Iraq and even prevent the confirmation of a pro-torture attorney general. Hence, liberals like myself still have much to learn about how to persuade people why progressive policies merit broad support.

Thom Hartmann, the premiere voice for progressive talk radio, breaks down the art and science of communication with his new book, Cracking The Code: How To Win Hearts, Change Minds, and Restore America’s Original Vision (Berrett-Kohler). Drawing on his extensive experience as a psychotherapist, advertising executive, and host of a national talk radio show, Hartmann shares the tools to become conscious about the ways people think, sort and understand the world. More importantly, Hartmann illustrates how to successfully communicate progressive values.

Hartmann’s daily progressive radio talk show, has been going strong for five years and replaced Al Franken on the Air America Radio Network. It is also distributed to radio stations nationwide on the Jones Satellite system, and boasts more live daily listeners than any other progressive talk radio show.

Hartmann agreed to a telephone interview with me about his latest book and the art of political communication. Our conversation is just over forty-four minutes. Please refer to the media player below. This interview can also be accessed for free via the Itunes Store by searching for “Intrepid Liberal Journal.”

This interview is Hartmann’s second appearance on Intrepid Liberal Journal podcasts. Last year he spoke to readers/listeners of the Intrepid Liberal Journal about his book, Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Sutras of Abu Ghraib: An Interview With Conscientious Objector Aidan Delgado

In 2001, Aidan Delgado was twenty-years old and in need of a life anchor. Delgado had primarily grown up abroad in far away places such as Cairo, Egypt, Thailand and Senegal due to his father’s career as a diplomat. While attending college in Florida, Delgado felt culturally out of place and adrift. Having led an “ivory tower” existence of academia and privilege, Delgado opted to join the United States Army Reserves for a different perspective.

By sheer coincidence he signed his enlistment contract on September 11th. Those closest to him questioned the wisdom of Delgado's choice. The terrorist attacks convinced Delgado he made the correct decision as the country underwent a surge of patriotic feeling and rallying to the flag. At the time he was proud of having decided to join the United States Reserves before September 11th. Delgado didn’t know it yet but the next three years of his life would transform his entire being.

To calm his nerves prior to reporting for basic training at the end of October 2001, Delgado read about Buddhism. He concluded that Buddhism was like “coming home” and suited his outlook on life even as he prepared for war. Initially, Delgado embraced the Samurai ethos that blended Buddhism with the warrior spirit to justify his participation.

He was trained as a mechanic and assigned to the 320th Military Police Company in 2003. Initially, Delgado served in Nasiriya, the Southern Part of Iraq for several months before being redeployed with his unit to Abu Ghraib. Since Delgado knew Arabic from his adolescent years in Cairo, he was frequently utilized as a translator on missions. On these missions he witnessed horrific abuse committed by Americans against Iraq’s civilian population. He told Bob Herbert of the New York Times in 2005 that,
“Guys in my unit, particularly the younger guys, would drive by in their Humvee and shatter bottles over the heads of Iraqi civilians passing by. They'd keep a bunch of empty Coke bottles in the Humvee to break over people's heads."
That sort of gratuitous violence was a harbinger of things to come. During this period in 2003, Delgado experienced an internal crisis. The warrior ethos was not compatible with his sensibilities as a Buddhist and he opted to apply for an honorable discharge as a conscientious objector.

The army tried to persuade Delgado to apply for non-combatant status instead and still complete his duties as a mechanic. It would’ve been the path of least resistance and Delgado rejected it. As far as Delgado was concerned, applying, as a non-combatant was a half-measure and he wanted to make a moral statement.

The path Delgado chose was a long tough road of bureaucratic struggle, taunts, bullying and peer abuse. The army hoped to provoke Delgado away from pacifism, make him feel ostracized and humiliated. Many considered Delgado a coward and a traitor as he continued to fulfill his duties while the application process went forward.

Delgado’s application for conscientious objector status had not been resolved when his unit was redeployed to Abu Ghraib in November 2003. Shortly after he arrived, a prison riot against the miserable conditions there resulted in a fatal shooting of four detainees who threw stones. Delgado told Bob Herbert how he confronted a sergeant who claimed to have fired on the detainees:
"I asked him if he was proud that he had shot unarmed men behind barbed wire for throwing stones. He didn't get mad at all. He was, like, 'Well, I saw them bloody my buddy's nose, so I knelt down. I said a prayer. I stood up, and I shot them down.'"
When Delgado initially arrived at Abu Ghraib he assumed most of the detainees were hardened insurgents and terrorists. He later learned while working as a radio operator for the Abu Ghraib headquarters brigade that most detainees were either petty civilian criminals or completely innocent. Ultimately, Delgado concluded that regardless of why they were there, American behavior could not be excused.

Delgado’s unit was dismissed after it completed its duty in March 2004. He received an honorable discharge after returning to America in April 2004. Currently, he’s an antiwar activist as a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War and the Buddhist Peace Alliance. Delgado captured his spiritual journey and experience in Iraq with his recently published memoir, The Sutras of Abu Ghraib: Notes From A Conscientious Objector In Iraq (Beacon Press)

It’s not fully possible to grasp what soldiers like Delgado went through and witnessed. What does it mean to read that serving in Abu Ghraib is hell or living through mortar attacks is scary? Is it really possible for mere words to convey how soldiers such as Delgado are torn between loyalty to the uniform they wear and their humanity? How can one truly understand without having lived in the shoes of someone like Delgado himself?

Those of us who haven't been in that position can't truly understand. Nevertheless, Delgado skillfully puts the reader in the front row of his year in Iraq, the friends and antagonists he interacted with, the near death experiences he endured and the torturous battle waged within his soul about right and wrong.

Delgado agreed to a podcast interview with me over the telephone about his book, experiences inside Iraq and Abu Ghraib in particular. We also discussed how racism towards Arabs and the Muslim world helped facilitate the crimes committed against Iraqis and his spiritual journey as a Buddhist and anti-war pacifist. Our conversation is approximately fifty-six minutes and took place on Sunday, November 18th. Please refer to the media player below.

This interview can also be accessed for free by searching for "Intrepid Liberal Journal" at the Itunes Store.

Please note that Aidan Delgado only had access to a cell phone for this interview. The sound quality is quite good most of the time and the passion of his convictions comes through. Also, I made a couple errors during the podcast I would like to correct. In introducing Aidan I referred to his unit as the 320th Military Police “Academy” instead of “Company.” I also listed Kuwait among the countries Aidan lived in while growing up when in fact he only visited there.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Conservatives Have No Clothes: An Interview With Greg Anrig

To paraphrase former President Ronald Reagan, conservatism is not the solution to the problem; conservatism is the problem. In his recently published book, The Conservatives Have No Clothes: Why Right-Wing Ideas Keep Failing (Wiley & Sons), policy expert and journalist Greg Anrig indicts right-wing ideology and examines their legacy of insipid governance.

It’s a familiar tale of woe for liberals at this point. The conservative method over simplifies problems such as terrorism with misguided fear mongering about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Domestically conservatives will distort the root causes of why inner city schools fail by demonizing the entire public school system or make false claims that Social Security is poised for imminent collapse. In terms of obtaining and holding onto power the conservative method of marketing distortion has been highly effective in most national elections since 1968.

The consequences for the country have been disastrous. Even when Democrats have prevailed, the radical trend of privatization was only slowed temporarily to the detriment of workers and consumers alike. From healthcare, to the gutting of FEMA and the misguided pursuit of empire have left Americans economically insecure and isolated in a dangerous world.

In a sober analysis, Anrig, the Vice President of Programs at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank and regular contributor to the liberal blog, critiques the conservative record. Specifically, Anrig evaluates the degree that policies championed by conservatives have delivered on their promise to make America stronger and safer and our government smaller and more efficient.

E. J. Dionne, syndicated columnist for the Washington Post praised Anrig’s book and noted:
“Ending the conservative era requires organizing, yes, but also hard thinking and shrewd analysis. When progressives of the future look back at how they triumphed, one of the people they'll thank is Greg Anrig. Drawing inspiration from the work of the early neoconservatives who demolished public support for liberal programs, Anrig casts a sharp eye on conservative ideas and nostrums and shows that many of them simply don't work because they are rooted more in ideological dreams than in reality. Facts are stubborn things, Ronald Reagan once said, and Anrig makes good use of them in this important and engaging book."
Anrig agreed to a podcast interview with me over the telephone about his book and issues such as education, Social Security, national security and the Democrats ineffectiveness at challenging the conservative paradigm. Please refer to the media player below. Our conversation is approximately forty minutes.

This interview can also be accessed at no cost via the Itunes Store by searching for the “Intrepid Liberal Journal.”

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

To Die In Jerusalem

When I was seven years old my brother and I were fighting in the back seat of my grandmother’s car. This particular skirmish had a back-story of recriminations and mutual dirty deeds. We were both angry. Each of us felt justified. As the fight escalated everyone in the car and others on the highway were endangered. So my grandmother turned sharply and simply said, “Stop it!” We both protested about who started what and when. My grandmother wasn’t having any of it and forcefully declared, “I don’t’ care who started it. It stops now.” We stopped. Grandma had spoken.

I recalled that incident from my childhood while watching a “screener” for the documentary, To Die in Jerusalem which premiers on HBO this Thursday at 9:00 P.M. EST.

To Die in Jerusalem recounts the tragic story about two teenaged girls – one a 17-year-old Israeli student named Rachel Levy, the other an 18-year-old Palestinian student/suicide bomber named Ayat al-Akhras – brutally entwined by fate in March 2002. They died together in a Jerusalem market when Ayat chose the path of martyrdom. Both girls made the cover of Newsweek as a result.

This documentary focuses on Rachel’s mother, Abigail Levy, efforts to coordinate a one-on-one meeting with her counterpart, Um Samir. Both mothers are in pain and victims of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On camera, Um Samir claims she would have stopped her daughter “by force” if she had known what Ayat planned to do. At the same time she blames the state of Israel for an occupation that has compelled Palestinians to resist by any means necessary. Naturally, Abigail Levy believes the act to be senseless murder making peace even more unattainable.

The mothers finally speak via satellite hookup. In fleeting moments there seems to be the potential for common ground. Um Samir proclaims they are both victims and observes that presidents and prime ministers who make decisions of war and peace were far above mothers like them. But as the conversation continued it was clear they were both culturally and ideologically locked and incapable of processing the other’s point of view.

Abigail Levy simply couldn’t accept that Israel’s occupation bore any responsibility for nurturing an environment of hate among the Palestinians. Um Samir seemed incapable of accepting that terrorism was only digging the Palestinians into a deeper hole of despair and therefore her daughter as well as other suicide bombers had sacrificed their lives for nothing.

The documentary ends with both giving up on trying to persuade the other because neither is truly listening to the other. When it ended my heart felt as if it were impaled on a dull blade. Um Samir had declared that presidents and prime ministers were above mothers like them. In reality the leadership of both societies largely reflect both of these mothers. Consequently, it’s doubtful we’ll see peace between both peoples in my lifetime.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Albany's Mayor For Life: An Interview With Erastus Corning Biographer Paul Grondahl

Erastus Corning 2nd was elected mayor of Albany, New York eleven times, serving forty-two consecutive years, an unsurpassed tenure in American political history. Even before birth, Corning’s destiny as Albany’s “mayor for life” was scripted. As pillars of the WASP establishment, Corning men were expected to attend Groton and Yale and assume positions of leadership in industry and politics. One could say that the Corning family was noblesse oblige on steroids: an assumption that with wealth, power and prestige come social responsibilities. Yet the noblesse oblige represented by the Cornings had a dark side as their class established an oligarchy in Albany to preserve their status and power.

In the 1920s, the financial, institutional and industrial strength represented by the Corning dynasty forged an omnipotent alliance led by a salty tongued Irish working class political boss named Dan O’Connell. This unlikely union of the well bred Corning family and the O’Connell clan of Irish saloonkeepers initially bonded through cock fighting! Eratus’s father Edwin served as Lt. Governor in the late ‘20s and collaborated with O’Connell until poor health forced him to step away from politics.

When Edwin Corning died in 1934, Dan O’Connell became a surrogate father for the future mayor. As Albany’s political boss, O’Connell paved the way for Corning to assume the reins and become mayor at the age of thirty-two in 1941. Corning served until he died in 1983. Ironically, this powerful man who battled Thomas Dewey, sparred with Nelson Rockefeller and mentored Mario Cuomo, never enjoyed the power of self-determination.

A complex and lonely soul, Corning presided over a fiefdom of cronyism, corruption and stability. He mingled easily with the working class that the O’Connell-Corning machine kept obedient while enjoying the exclusive privileges of men in his social class. As other cities peaked with post war development and endured social turbulence in the 1960s, Albany remained virtually unchanged. And the citizens of Albany continued to return Corning to power.

Paul Grondahl, an award winning journalist with the Albany Times Union skillfully captured the “shadow" and “light” of Corning’s rule, as well as his convoluted private life in his book, Mayor Erastus Corning: Albany Icon, Albany Enigma. Originally published in 1997, Grondahl’s biography about Corning was just released in paperback by the State University of New York Press.

William Kennedy, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Ironweed, writes in the introduction that,
“This is an important book for Albany, for anyone interested in political power. It widens our vision (with a view from inside City Hall) of the O’Connell Democratic organization, which controlled Albany from 1921 until the Mayor died in 1983, making it the longest-running boss machine in American political history.”
Grondahl agreed to a podcast interview with me over the telephone about his book and Erastus Corning. Our conversation lasted forty-five minutes as we discussed the public figure, the political machine he served and his private life. Please refer to the media player below.

This interview can also be accessed via the Itunes store at no cost by searching for “Intrepid Liberal Journal.”

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Demand Serious Change

I received an important email today from J-Ro at The Seminal, a group blog that,
"presents an independent media viewpoint outside of partisan politics and corporate control. Hailing from all over the globe, our writers bring you thoughtful commentary on current events."
They've organized a national protest movement against the ongoing war in Iraq. As J-RO put it to me,
"Our blog has started a national protest movement against the Iraq war called Serious Change . Serious Change is about reclaiming the symbols of power for progressives and for the anti-war movement. We protest in professional attire to communicate that we are intelligent, we are organized, and we are seriously dissatisfied with our country’s direction. We demand Serious Change."
You can read more about it by clicking here. One of the cities they will be marching in is New York. Information on where and when to meet can be found by clicking here. Even if you can't make it yourselves, please publicize this information on your own blogs to help recruit as many people as possible.

Simply put, we're killing people we shouldn't be killing. And we're losing people we shouldn't be losing. The time has long past for Serious Change. Blogging is wonderful and the "netroots" have accomplished things. However, we will not end this war from our keyboards. Stopping a war requires marching feet and leather lungs.

How the U.S. Helped Sink Larijani

Editor's Note: This is Barbara Slavin's first post with the Intrepid Liberal Journal. She is a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and author of "Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S. and the Twisted Path to Confrontation." Barbara has also covered the Middle East for over twenty-years as a reporter, most recently as a senior diplomatic corresspondent with USA Today. I'm most gratified at Barbara's willingness to share her unique perspective. The views expressed here are her own.

Bush administration officials often say they don't understand the Iranian government. They have proven this time and time again by undermining those mostly likely to negotiate crucial differences with the United States. Now the administration appears to have lost yet another opportunity to slow Iran's march to nuclear power and its efforts to play the spoiler in the Middle East.

The loss this time involves Ali Larijani, a red-bearded intellectual who styles himself Iran's Henry Kissinger. A conservative who ran for president and lost to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, Larijani got the consolation prize of chief nuclear negotiator and secretary of Iran's national security council. This weekend, Larijani resigned from the negotiator post. His replacement: an obscure deputy foreign minister, Saeed Jalili, who is said to be an ally of Ahmadinejad.

Despite a reputation as a hardliner, Larijani began reaching out to the United States soon after Iranian elections in 2005. In an interview he gave me in Tehran in February 2006, Larijani praised his U.S. counterpart, Stephen Hadley, as a "logical thinker" and said "there is no limitation on our side" to negotiations with the United States.

Larijani authorized a deputy, Mohammad Javad Jaffari, to ask for backchannel talks with Hadley or a designated emissary. When the White House did not respond, Larijani publicly on March 16, 2006, accepted a prior U.S. offer for talks limited to the situation in Iraq. A week later, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei endorsed the proposal -- a dramatic step for someone who had up until then threatened those who publicly advocated talks with the United States as traitors. An Iranian website close to the conservative leadership, Baztab, announced that the Iranians had put together a high-level delegation and that talks would begin in Baghdad on April 9. But the Bush administration got cold feet. Its refusal to meet undermined Larijani within the Iranian power structure and humiliated Khamenei. The chief beneficiary was Ahmadinejad.

The United States finally agreed to enter nuclear negotiations at the end of May 2006 but only if Iran would suspend its efforts to enrich uranium and as part of talks including Britain, Germany, France and the European Union. (Larijani did take part in a half dozen subsequent meetings with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana but without success.) Direct U.S.-Iran talks about Iraq did not take place until May of this year. Delay on both fronts has been costly: Despite a U.S.-driven campaign of pressure and sanctions, Iran-backed attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq have escalated and Iran is much closer to the ability to make nuclear bombs. President Bush said last week an Iran with nuclear weapons would usher in "World War III."

A U.S. decision to talk to Iran unconditionally in 2006 might not have stemmed this escalation. But it is impossible to know -- just as it is impossible to say what would have happened had the Bush administration not put Iran on an "axis of evil" in 2002 or accepted an offer for comprehensive negotiations with the government of Ahmadinejad's predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, in May 2003.

Administration officials argue that U.N. and other sanctions are exacerbating divisions within the Iranian regime and that Iran will eventually knuckle under to pressure. Divisions certainly are increasing in Tehran but the "reasonable people," as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice likes to call them, are still not getting their way. The victors so far are those like Ahmadinejad who argue that the best way to earn U.S. respect and recognition is to confront Americans in Iraq and elsewhere and gain the capacity to build nuclear bombs as soon as possible.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

An Interview With Iranian Expert and Journalist Barbara Slavin

Barbara Slavin, senior diplomatic correspondent for USA Today since 1996 and author of the recently published book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the U.S., and the Twisted Path to Confrontation (St. Martin’s Press), writes that,
“Iran and the United States are like a once happily married couple that has gone through a bitter divorce. Harsh words have been exchanged – husband and wife have come to blows and employed others to inflict more punishment. Apologizing is hard and changing behavior even harder. This relationship is unequal, with one side or the other feeling more vulnerable at any given time and afraid the other will take advantage of concessions.”
Currently, the public faces of both nations, presidents George W. Bush and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have been content to throw rhetorical bombs and raise the diplomatic temperature – increasing the likelihood of war. Indeed, at times it appears that conservative hardliners in both countries are eager for conflict as a means to maintain their respective grips on power.

The journey from the CIA backed coup that overthrew Iran’s democratically elected leader Mossadeq in 1953 and replaced him with the Shah, to the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and current tensions is replete with ill conceived schemes that damaged both nations. Slavin, using her extensive contacts among the powerful inside Iran and the United States, documents missed opportunities for reconciliation between both countries during the administrations of the first President Bush as well as Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

The combination of her remarkable access to people such as Madeline Albright, Condelezza Rice, Iranian reformers like former President Mohammad Khatami, longtime establishment figures such as Ali Rafsanjani, as well as dissidents like Akbar Ganji and everyday citizens, allows Slavin to shed sunlight on a nation most Americans know very little about. She is also the first newspaper reporter from the United States to interview Iranian President Ahmadinejad.

Slavin has accompanied three secretaries of State on their official travels and reported from Iran, Libya, Israel, Egypt, North Korea, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia and Syria. She is also a regular commentator for U.S. foreign policy on National Public Radio, the Public Broadcasting System's Washington Week In Review and C-Span. This month, she joined the U.S. Institute of Peace as a Jennings Randolph fellow, to continue her research on Iran. Slavin also serves as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Prior to joining USA Today, Slavin was a Washington-based writer for The Economist and the Los Angeles Times, covering domestic and foreign policy issues, including the 1991-93 Middle East peace talks in Washington. From 1985-89, she was The Economist's correspondent in Cairo. During her career, Slavin has traveled widely in the Middle East, covering the Iran-Iraq war, the 1986 U.S. bombing of Libya, the political evolution of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism. Earlier in the 1980s, Slavin also served as The Economist's correspondent in Beijing and reported from Japan and South Korea.

Prior to moving abroad, she worked as a writer and editor for The New York Times Week in Review section and a reporter and editor for United Press International in New York City.

Slavin agreed to a podcast interview with me about her book, Iran and their turbulent relationship with the United States. Please refer to the media player below. Our conversation is just under thirty minutes. This interview can also be accessed via the Itunes Store by searching for “Intrepid Liberal Journal.”

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Are Voters Irrational: An Interview With Economist Bryan Caplan

People across the political spectrum routinely question the senses, intelligence and values of their fellow voters. A decade ago conservatives chafed, as President Bill Clinton remained popular in spite of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In recent years liberals like myself seethed while Republicans maintained one-party dominance in spite of their incompetence and criminal policies. They’re also citizens who challenge the wisdom of any voter who supports the two-party duopoly.

Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University and co-editor of EconLog challenges the rationality of voters with his book, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (Princeton University Press). Caplan, a libertarian, contends that democracies fail because of voters themselves rather than favorite scapegoats such as special interests. He argues that voters are regulated by four irrational prejudices:

1. Too little faith in the free market;
2. A distrust of foreigners;
3. Undervaluing the conservation of labor;
4. Unjustified pessimism that the economy is going from bad to worse.

Referencing those four biases are a reoccurring theme of Caplan’s book that skillfully mixes economics, political science, and psychology to analyze how voters think and the public policies that result from what they want. Overall his book is compelling and provocative. On July 30th, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times referred to Caplan’s book as “the best political book this year.”

I concur with Caplan that for too many voters ideology is analogous to religious faith and evidence doesn’t penetrate their entrenched worldviews. However, as a liberal I disagree with Caplan’s equating skepticism about the free market or free trade agreements with irrationality.

In my opinion the free market isn’t appropriate for all sectors of the economy such as healthcare or education and free trade has too many imbalances that require attention. Furthermore, I believe too many conservative/libertarian economists ignore the hidden economy that isn’t measured by the Gross Domestic Product or quarterly statements. Caplan of course disagrees and I suppose by his definition I’m one of those irrational voters.

Each of us can become imprisoned by our own belief systems and it’s healthy to challenge our perspectives. Caplan graciously agreed to a podcast interview with me over the telephone about his controversial book. Our conversation was approximately forty minutes. Please refer to the media player below. This interview can also be accessed via the Itunes store by searching for "Intrepid Liberal Journal."

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Erik Prince Is the 21st Century Cadillac Queen

Remember when Ronald Reagan mythologized welfare recipients as “Cadillac queens” who lived luxuriously off the government as a presidential candidate in 1980? His anecdotal hyperbole about welfare Cadillac queens successfully exploited racial stereotypes and helped convince working class whites that government “was the problem.” Hence the “Reagan Revolution” facilitated an ethos of hyper individualism that dwarfed community values as greedy privatization fundamentalists lay in the high weeds.

Erik Prince, the 38-year old owner of Blackwater USA, is the public face of this privatization fundamentalism championed by corporatist conservatives. Click here to review Prince’s political contributions according to the Federal Election Commission database. Since 1998 Prince has donated over $140,000 to either the Republican National Committee or its candidates. Naturally, Blackwater USA was awarded a no bid contract in the aftermath of “Mission Accomplished.” As Jerry Schall, an investigative reporter for The Nation put it, Blackwater USA are "hired guns, above the law."

Erik Prince and his company illustrate how our government and civil service has been subcontracted to hell, even to the point of using mercenaries in war. They are funded by American taxpayers, committing crimes in our name but have not been regulated.

Thankfully, Representative Henry Waxman of California's 30th congressional district is relentlessly pursuing the truth about Blackwater. But that is not enough. Once and for all, Democrats and liberal/progressives of all banners must vigilantly make people like Erik Prince the personification of all that is immoral and wrong about privatization run amok. Reagan’s, welfare Cadillac queen was a myth. Prince and his company are shamefully real. And the innocent blood they’ve shed in America’s name is also real.

Too many people such as Erik Prince are profiting off the American war machine, as well as our deteriorating healthcare system and the prison industrial complex. As private contractors they have avoided accountability for their incompetence and indecency. The time has long past to rise up and challenge their perversion of our economy, values and national honor.

ADDENDUM: I’ve received some emails from loyal readers noting that I’ve reverted to posting mostly on the weekends and wondering why. Well, as some may have noticed, I’ve had numerous interview posts in recent weeks with authors. Reading and preparing for the interviews are quite time consuming as I have a fulltime job. Consequently, I’ve had to sacrifice posting more frequently or writing developed essays for the time being. Please stay tuned as my next few interviews in October and November are with provocative and accomplished subjects. Most likely they will be posted in podcast format on weekends.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Industrial Revolution Unplugged: An Interview With Author Gregory Clark

Our current world of globalization, technological advancement and the widening schism between rich and poor stems from the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, the Industrial Revolution is arguably the most important historical watershed in human history. So why did it happen in eighteenth-century England? Furthermore, how come the unprecedented economic growth it produced only served to make parts of the world even poorer?

Conventional wisdom is that the Industrial Revolution resulted from the development of stable, political, legal and economic institutions in seventeenth-century Europe. Many assume factors such as geography, natural resources or exploitation were behind the Industrial Revolution. A decade ago, Jared Diamond postulated in his best selling and Pulitzer prize winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, that natural endowments such as geography were largely responsible for differences in the wealth of nations.

Gregory Clark, a professor of economics at the University of California, Davis as well as department Chair, is posing a direct challenge to Diamond and our longstanding belief of why the Industrial Revolution happened. In his recently published book, A Farewell To Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World (Princeton University Press), Clark contends that culture not imperialism or geography explains the wealth and poverty of nations.

His provocative book has garnered much attention and provoked considerable debate. Tyler Cowen of the New York Times wrote late last year that,
“Professor Clark’s idea-rich book may just prove to be the next blockbuster in economics. He offers us a daring story of the economic foundations of good institutions and the climb out of recurring poverty. We may not have cracked the mystery of human progress, but ‘A Farewell to Alms' brings us closer than before."
Still others take issue with Clark’s suggestion that culture is far more influential than institutions in generating economic growth. In a New York Times review in August, Robert P. Brenner, a historian at the University of California, Los Angeles is quoted as referring to Clark’s idea of genes for capitalist behavior as a “speculative leap.”

Prior to even reading Clark’s book, conservative Andrew Sullivan wrote the following for his blog in August,
“Conservatism has long posited that human nature has no history. But what if it does? What if genetic adaptation occurs more swiftly among humans than we once believed? This implies that human nature is actually more plastic than we have long thought - but generationally, not individually. It suggests that different populations may have not just different cultural but different genetic inclinations. It means that some populations may therefore have different skill-sets than others, and even different aptitudes with respect to complex systems like, liberal democracy, that require specific habits of mind and custom. It means that these facts about human societies across the globe may be somewhat stubborn things in the short term, if not in the long.

If these ideas undermine parts of conservatism (its belief in unchanging human nature in history), they also entrench others (that societies cannot be abstracted from their moment in time or culture). These ideas also suggest, of course, that a place like, say, Iraq, will not soon muster anything like the skills and practices for a Western European democracy. These are my wild-eyed inferences from a book I have not yet read.“
Yet Clark’s book is also a difficult pill to swallow for liberals idealists like me who believe in activism to promote peace, justice and prosperity on a global scale. Personally, I believe factors beyond culture such as natural resources, geography and hostile neighbors are largely responsible for defining cultures. Hence, I further believe that activism is required to help influence those factors that shape cultures and hopefully facilitate worldwide prosperity and social justice.

Putting my own misgivings about some of his conclusions aside, Clark’s book is compelling, scrupulously sourced and contains an abundance of remarkable facts. Clark graciously agreed to a telephone interview with me about his book. Below is a transcript of our conversation.

ILJ: Professor before we delve into the substance of your book let’s talk about why you embarked on this project in the first place. Why is it so important to establish why the Industrial Revolution happened?

Clark: Well, the industrial revolution is actually one of those amazing puzzles of world history. And it’s something that’s up there with things like String Theory in physics and quasars in astronomy. It’s how we got here. It’s how we have the modern world. And the puzzle is why did it occur only 200 years ago when people were around for at least a hundred thousand years before that? One of the reasons it was fun to write this book is that you could actually explain this puzzle in terms that any intelligent person can understand and let them see why it is such an amazing puzzle about why history would take that particular form. Whereas with things like quantum mechanics I certainly know I’m never going to understand that stuff (laughs)!

ILJ: I’m curious as to how you compiled the impressive historical data you utilized. Whether one agrees with your arguments or not, and I’m skeptical about some of your conclusions, the information you accumulated whether it’s last wills and testaments from men in the 1600s or pre-industrial fertility rates is quite astounding. I found myself transfixed by all the data presented in your charts and graphs. How did you obtain access to this data as well as economic surveys from hundreds of years ago?

Clark: Well, I’m a specialist in English economic history. And that’s actually one of the countries that is the best documented, going way back to the middle ages. I’ve been working on this book for twelve years. I’ve been in this field for twenty-five years. And then the other thing is I actually love to read anthropology and that provided this whole other source of data. And then I’ve been teaching for the last fifteen years effectively world history courses. So the great thing is you gradually get exposed to more and more evidence and more and more materials. And what’s nice about this particular history is this is a very obscure corner of the academic realm.

People are just not aware of how useful and interesting various bits of information we have from the past are. How we can estimate how literate the upper Roman classes were, or what was the speed of travel for information in the ancient world. We actually do know all these things so part of the fun of the book was to reveal to people that there is this amazing body of information about the past. So it’s partly my own research and partly just drawing on this huge body of knowledge that scholars in economic history and anthropology have assembled.

ILJ: So you really were combining two disciplines: economics and anthropology?

Clark: Yeah, I’ve always had an interest in anthropology and also particularly in socio-biology. When I was in graduate school at Harvard I listened to all sorts of lectures from evolutionary anthropologists. So for me it was fun just to try and bring different types of evidence and arguments together in this book and expand people’s idea of what economic history is about. It’s more than just boring stuff about prices and wages.

ILJ: Professor, a reoccurring theme in your book, especially the first part of your book covering the pre-Industrial Revolution is what you term the Malthusian trap, named after Thomas Malthus who in 1798 wrote “An Essay On the Principle of Population.” For the benefit of those who haven’t read your book or the work of Thomas Malthus for that matter, what is the Malthusian trap?

Clark: Well here is an interesting piece of intellectual history. Malthus was writing just as the world he was describing was coming to an end. It’s interesting that just as that world was ending he finally figured out its true nature. The problem with all societies prior to 1800 was that technological advance was very slow.

In a world with slow technological advances and unrestricted fertility (or at least very modestly restricted fertility), when technological advances occur living standards are increased in the short run. But those increased living standards result simply in fewer people dying and more people being born, and that drives up the population. With a fixed land endowment that just drives wages down back to some kind of subsistence level.

So in all of the world before 1800, technological advancements were absorbed into population growth. None of it got translated into any long-term increase of living standards. That’s the Malthusian trap that existed before 1800. And that produced a topsy-turvy world in which all our intuitions about what is good for society turn out to be wrong.

ILJ: That leads to my next question. In Chapter five about life expectancy you note that the cultures in China and Japan respectively practiced superior hygiene then their European counterparts during the pre-industrial era. Did the Europeans, England especially, perversely benefit from inferior hygiene because their populations were kept down from plagues while the standard of living for those who survived, were enhanced?

Clark: Yes, this is one of the paradoxes of history and an example of why this book is meant to be bold and controversial. It’s previously been known that England and the Netherlands had very high living standards compared to most pre-industrial societies in the eighteenth century. People have identified that with an idea of greater economic progress in those societies. What my book argues instead is that living standards were good there not because of any sophistication of their economies, but because of the nature of hygiene practices across different societies in the pre-industrial world.

For a country like Japan living standards were only 1/3 or ½ of those in Western Europe. But that was because in Japan people bathed every day, and they carefully separated human waste products from people. When they used human waste in agriculture they carefully treated it to eliminate bacteria. They swept the floors of their houses. They swept the streets. Japan was a very orderly, hygienic society. But that has the perverse effect in a Malthusian world that you can live, you can sustain the population, at a much lower subsistence level. Material consumption can be much less, yet people still survive, and enough children can be born that the population can be replenished in each generation.

Whereas if you look at pre-industrial Western Europe, these people lived truly filthy (laughs). Before 1800 in England, no one seems to have bathed! It was just a relatively rare activity. For example Samuel Pepys, who was a high English civil servant in the 1660s, kept a famously detailed diary for almost ten years. And he records every minutia of his life. That’s why it’s so fascinating for historians. In that entire time he records his wife having a bath once!

ILJ: Yes, it was like a big event! (laughs)

Clark: Yes, it’s a notable event! And he actually notes that she “pretends to becoming clean (laughs). But we’ll see how long that lasts!” And apparently she never again took another bath in this decade.

ILJ: (laughs)

Clark: And she wouldn’t let him come to bed with her that night because he was filthy. People didn’t bathe. Another thing is that in cities like London, what did people do with human waste? They stored it in their basement until it was emptied every few months by the night soil men. So they’re living on piles of shit in the richest areas of pre-industrial England. And Pepys again in his diary records going down into his basement when his neighbor’s waste storage has overflowed, and he’s stepping on turds!

It’s just very interesting how little attention Europeans paid to hygiene and the book argues that everything in a Malthusian world that kills off the population – plagues, war, disease - actually ends up making the population richer because fewer people have to die because of the misery of every day life and material existence. We can actually see that English living standards in 1450 where double those of the 18th century even though there was much less technological advance. The reason for that is because the “Black Death” was raging across Europe in that period.

ILJ: Just to follow up on that, if I interpret the data you present correctly, those who survived, and you coined the phrase “survival of the richest” in your book, enjoyed a superior standard of living because there were less people to divide the wealth among and they passed that wealth onto their descendants. Your contending that passing on wealth to offspring facilitated a culture of patience because for them survival wasn’t contingent upon immediate consumption. Do I have that right?

Clark: Yes. Pretty much. One of the implications of this Malthusian existence, and this is deeply embedded in this Malthusian picture of the world, is better economic conditions allow people to be more successful reproductively. Within any of these societies there is a huge range of living standards. There are very poor people and very rich people. Those rich people, because they enjoy so much better material consumption, should be able to produce many more surviving children. The way this happens is you have more living space, you have more food, more changes in clothing. You have cleaner water. So we would expect in this society we would have a Darwinian element. Only two children will survive to adulthood in any period of the pre-industrial world because the population can only change slowly. But amongst the rich you’ll have many more than two children surviving. Among the poor, many fewer. And we can observe this process when reviewing 16th and 17th century England. It’s a very strong process.

So the rich are taking over this society biologically. That leads to the question, does this get transmitted from one generation to the next? If you have the rich in one generation, are their children also likely to be rich? Are their children also likely to be successful economically and reproductively? It turns out we can show in England that’s the case.

This raises the intriguing possibility that if the rich are different from the poor, either culturally or genetically, then this process may be gradually transforming society because the rich and their descendants are taking over all the positions in society. So if it was a genetic advantage the rich had, there may actually be genetic changes in this long Malthusian interval between the arrival of settled agriculture and the Industrial Revolution.

It turns out we have very clear evidence of changes in peoples preferences over this long pre-industrial interval. The example the book gives is that people were becoming more patient as the Industrial Revolution approached. The measure of patience in these pre-industrial societies is the interest rates? Because the interest rate tells you much you have to reward people to own land or own houses. How much do you have to pay them not to consume immediately, but instead own that asset and wait for future consumption? If you go back to ancient Babylon they had mortgage markets but the interest rates were typically twenty to twenty-five percent. If you go to medieval Europe their interest rates were ten to twelve percent for things like land. By the eve of the Industrial Revolution the return on land in England dropped to about four percent. So in the pre-industrial world interest rates seem to indicate the amount of patience people are exhibiting.

ILJ: One element of your book I found ironic is your challenge to Adam Smith, considered the founding father of capitalism, who in 1776 published The Real Wealth of Nations. Smith postulated that the rule of tyrants and their institutions undermined incentive for productivity because the ruling class ultimately confiscated any wealth that was produced. You contend that pre-industrial England had plenty of incentive for producers, such as limited government and low taxes, yet prosperity still wasn’t generated. Hence, Smith who is identified with the ethos of limited government actually postulated that the ruling class can positively or negatively influence economic policy with activist government. Why do you believe Adam Smith was wrong about that?

Clark: Well, since I’ve published the book I’ve come under criticism from intellectual historians. So, I think what I should be careful to identify it’s the modern image we have of what Smith was about, rather than Smith himself. I’m not a historian of economic thought, so what I mainly want to emphasize is the message we’ve taken from Smith, the Smith we’ve constructed.

Smith is regarded as arguing that growth results from getting the correct economic incentives, which results from getting the right set of economic institutions. That’s really an incredibly strong founding principal of modern economics, the idea that people really are at base the same everywhere. If you can only get the incentives correct, then economic growth will result. So, the book strongly takes issue with that.

I’m saying that economists have had to construct a false history of the world. They’ve had to imagine a pre-industrial past that is, you know, a cross of Brave Heart and Monty Python’s Holy Grail and all the bad movies about medieval England. An image of rape, and pillage, disorder and violence, and serfs groaning under the weight of the lords emerged about medieval England.

My knowledge of medieval history, and this is one of the areas I’ve studied in detail, shows that picture is just unsustainable. If the World Bank was to now score medieval England against modern economies in any objective way, in terms of what are the incentives for production and for innovation, medieval England would score much more highly than somewhere like modern Sweden – which is a very rich and successful society. One way that shows up is, for example, in the average government tax rate for medieval England? It’s one percent. In low tax America we’re closer to forty percent, and in places like Sweden they’re even close to sixty percent in terms of how they’re taking from any extra earnings of the average wage earner.

Medieval England had absolute price stability. It had almost no government debt. It had very strong security of property. People who invested in land in local villages, who needed a ten percent return in order to make that investment, had absolute property security. We can see through the course of 500 years that lots of these land plots were transferred properly from one legal owner to another. They had a free market. And they had huge incentives. If you produced you ate, if you didn’t produce you starved. For example we can see from the records that in 1316-17, in the last great famine that England experienced, poor people died and the rich lived (laughs).

ILJ: (Laughs)

Clark: You had every incentive to acquire assets in this world. Assets could be the difference between life and death. And yet this was still a world with very, very slow economic growth. Almost none. So one of the things the book is saying is look, modern economics in some sense is a cult. It’s like pre-modern medicine, where you keep repeating these same ineffective treatments. They keep failing. In the book I provide lots of other instances where good economic institutions are not associated with economic growth. That’s why I’m saying there has to be some other thing required, and what the book is arguing is that there really are important cultural processes that take place before you get modern economic growth. If we neglect that we’re never going to understand the true nature of economic growth. And so we really need to move away from incentive explanations, and what the book is saying is that history is illuminating about this and we really need to know more about that history.

ILJ: Now if I interpret your book correctly, it’s your provocative contention that the industrial revolution happened in England ahead of Japan, China, India or her European rivals because of a cultural evolution instead of institutions established by the ruling class. Specifically this cultural evolution encompassed what we would term middle class or bourgeoisie values of thrift, hard work, nonviolence, negotiation and patience. Couldn’t one argue however that what really gave the English a leg up on their rivals was their superiority at imperialism, colonization and subjugation of other peoples for their material benefit?

Clark: Well, it is absolutely the case that the English were very successful colonists in this area. But the book is at pains to stress that the Industrial Revolution was home grown. It is the result of people in England innovating, introducing new processes in a way that they did not do earlier, as a result of changes in the culture. Not as a result of better incentives. And the book does acknowledge that events outside England, particularly England’s great access to food supplies from the Americas, its access to cotton from colonies, helped magnify that process. But the book strongly stresses that the break, the move toward higher productivity growth rates, is really a homegrown feature of England.

Further I go on to look at the relationship between England and India in the nineteenth century. India was England’s great colony in this period. Everything the English did, they didn’t mean it this way, but everything they did should have led to the industrialization of India. They were not systematically exploiting India. They were in fact offering India the enormous possibility of becoming the second great industrial power in the world. That didn’t happen, but it wasn’t because of anything the British did. It was because of what happened internally in India. Because of India’s weak responses to the new incentives the British Empire offered. And so the book says look, it’s not that the imperialists had any kind of good motives, it’s not that we should admire them in anyway, but in the case of something like British imperialism, it was actually, if you believe modern economics, it was actually a force for rapid world economic development and that Britain gained very little directly from its colonies. Most of Britain’s gains actually came from Britain’s internal processes of economic change.

ILJ: It seems to me you have adroitly combined elements of the classic nature/nurture divide. You’re contending that the intrinsic human characteristics of a growing economy were nurtured in England and became part of that society’s DNA – that so called middle class values were passed on almost genetically. And then around eighteen hundred, after years of this cultural development, a critical mass was achieved and the industrial revolution happened. But wasn’t pre-industrial Japan a civil society with laws and customs that resembled England’s? Couldn’t it be argued that England had advantages transcending culture over the Japanese such as a more powerful imperial empire? I know you’re saying it’s home grown and you do acknowledge in your book some of the outside cultural advantages England had. But couldn’t one argue that those outside forces were even more powerful than what was homegrown since there was many parallels between Japanese and English society?

Oh yes. The interesting thing is that there were actually surprising parallels between England and Japan in this period. But what the book says, I want to emphasize, is that the Industrial Revolution was going to occur somewhere. There were a bunch of societies that all seemed to be moving in the same direction. One of them was going to achieve the breakthrough into modern industrial society. And there were element also of luck and accidents in that. But England on most of these dimensions was the society that had moved furthest along.

So if you compare England and Japan you can see similar kind of processes in England and Japan. But that Japan looks like England three hundred to four hundred years earlier. The book is contending that if England never had an Industrial Revolution, then likely somewhere like Japan within three hundred or four hundred years would’ve actually made that breakthrough towards a modern world. There were just accidents of British history that gave the English the lead, and one of them was that the demographic system in pre-industrial England really created an enormous reproductive advantage for the upper classes. In Japan, their demographic system only created a modest advantage for the Samurai class. Consequently, there wasn’t the same kind of cascade downward into the merchants and mechanics ranks of the excess children of the upper classes that you get in someone like England. And so the book is still sympathetic to accident and contingency, but it’s saying you can still see a pattern. Another feature of England is the incredible stability of the English economy. It’s actually internally very boring from the Middle Ages on.

ILJ: (Laughs)

Clark: And that’s one of the reasons England is so incredibly well documented is because nothing ever gets destroyed! (laughs)

ILJ: (Laughs)

Clark: Even the Civil War results in almost no destruction for the economy … the Civil War of 1642. So one of the things this allows is for these basic demographic processes that are changing the composition of the English population to be much more rapid than in other societies where there is more disruption, invasion, chaos which disrupts these demographic processes. But the basic thing the book emphasizes is that this was a common trend across long settled agrarian pre-industrial societies. That China, Japan and England are not that different by the time you get to 1800 but England is further along in this process.

ILJ: Your postulating that only long established stable societies develop the necessary cultural characteristics for economic growth. It seems to me that a society’s economic development is influenced by so many variables, such as geography, access to fresh water, whether or not a society has been conquered or how long they’ve been subjugated, profoundly influences whether or not that society develops the cultural characteristics needed for economic growth. For all the impressive data your presenting - and it should be noted that your peers do not dispute your data, they’re very impressed by what you’ve done - isn’t it a leap of logic to say that culture is the cause of economic growth instead of those variables determined by fate which influence culture? How can we really know if it’s the chicken or the egg?

Clark: Oh yeah. This is always a problem. Again, to be clear the book is saying when we look at the modern world it’s beginning to resemble again the world pre- 1800. The great actors of economic life are beginning to look like those of 1800. It’s Europe and European offsprings. East Asia and East Asian offsprings that are becoming the world’s great economic powers again, and that looks exactly like the world before 1800.

But the argument of the book is that was because the long histories of these societies gave them an enduring cultural advantage in terms of modern economic competition. The puzzle then that comes up is why did these societies have such long histories of agrarian settlement. That’s when you might say that maybe Jared Diamond could be right in terms of saying geographical advantages these places had in the beginning gave them much longer access to settled agrarian society. And so when you come down to it, the book seems to be posing a mechanism by which these societies have an advantage that is completely different from the one that Jared Diamond suggests. But in the end, I will admit, you can still think geography played a role. But not current geography. Now it turns out we’re in a world where most societies have equal access in terms of geography and the possibilities of economic growth. Maybe some landlocked African economies don’t. But most, a huge number do have equal access now. But I am not denying there maybe geographical advantages in the distant past that may have moved groups from hunter gatherers to agrarian societies in Europe and in China much earlier than in other parts of the world.

ILJ: Fair enough. Professor Clark you’ve been very generous with your time. A final question if I may sir. Assuming all your conclusions about the importance of culture in facilitating the industrial revolution are correct, what lessons can we draw from history as we try to influence economic growth in the underdeveloped world in the 21st century?

Clark: Well, the lesson is unfortunately a little pessimistic. But I think one thing that is important is that for fifty years institutions like the World Bank have been applying the same kind of medicine. And it’s like pre-industrial doctors, you try bloodletting, and when it doesn’t work, you conclude let’s do more bloodletting.

ILJ: (Laughs)

Clark: And there is this emphasis now, it seems, a very strong emphasis, on achieving good government in a bunch of African societies which really have a hard time maintaining Western style governments. But yet when you look you see someone like China growing very rapidly with a very corrupt government, terrible social institutions, and the rule of law really evaded on a massive scale (laughs).

ILJ: (Laughs)

Clark: And so when you see this you think maybe to focus all your energies on institutions is not the way to go. What the very clear problem, say, within these African societies, is that even inside production enterprises it’s very hard to get people to cooperate in production in a way that makes workers have high value. And the shocking thing that’s occurred recently is that in Zambia and Malawi, where Chinese entrepreneurs have moved into these very poor African countries, wages are much lower now then they are in most of China. But they’ve actually been importing Chinese workers in factories in sub-Saharan Africa.

ILJ: That’s ironic.

Clark: And encountering a lot of local opposition. The puzzle then is it seems just very hard to get people to cooperate effectively in production in these societies. I think that says this is an area where we really must examine what is going on here. One interesting idea is that the nature of modern technology is very demanding in terms of how careful workers have to be, how exactly they have to follow rules. So one thing to think of is there any way to develop other technologies more forgiving of the cultural histories of these societies? Another thing to look at is if we expose workers more to the kind of Western high income economic life and send them back would that actually help in changing workers attitudes and changing the economic life of those societies? But I don’t have any simple recipe for economic growth, and anyone who does is someone you should avoid.

ILJ: (Laughs)

Clark: I do think that we’re looking in the wrong place, and have been systematically. And it’s the ideology of economics that pushes us there but it’s very clear that it is the wrong place. So it’s at least worth considering, given the true constraints, what can we do? How can we operate? What are the processes we can set in place? And if we are going to solve the problem of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, the solution is going to come in a very different form then the followers of Adam Smith are going to accept.