Working towards peace and sustainability

2017 Tax Day Thoughts

As Tax Day approaches, many people’s thoughts turn primarily to the task of assembling all the paperwork filing entails. Others mainly think about how much they might owe, or if a refund is in the offing.

These concerns are understandable, but we would do well to also think about the big picture. Are the taxes we’re being assessed fair and are they being well spent? Are those who we’ve hired to represent us in Washington reflecting our priorities, or are they voting for “tax reforms” that primarily benefit their wealthy campaign donors?

We, here at Peaceworks, think that a few key principles ought to guide any discussion of fiscal policy:

* Taxation Must be Fair: It should be based upon ability to pay. As we all know, economic inequality has been on the rise for nearly four decades. During this period we’ve repeatedly given “tax relief” to the most well to do. And, even though marginal tax rates for the richest of our fellow citizens were raised slightly under President Obama, those who are best positioned to pay are facing marginal rates that are less than half of the rates the richest paid under President Eisenhower in the 1950s, an era of rapid economic growth and growing equality.

While President Trump and the GOP Congress have yet to release a specific tax plan, the proposals Mr. Trump ran on last fall called for a dramatic reduction in marginal rates for top-end earners; dropping the top bracket from 40 to 33 percent. Those in the top one percent are projected to see their after-tax income increase by 13.5 percent, according to Fortune, while those in the bottom two-thirds would see less than a two percent increase, and those in the bottom 30 percent, less than one percent rise in after-tax income.

Trump’s platform also calls for cutting the marginal corporate tax rate from 35 to 15 percent, again, primarily benefiting those who have the least need for additional income. Trump’s plan also calls for eliminating the estate tax; one that only applies to estates valued at more than $5,450,000. This tax impacts only the top two-tenths of one percent of the population and is a modest check on the accumulation of vast, inter-generational fortunes.

The bottom line here is we need to raise, not cut, tax rates for the wealthy, as the growing inequality we see all around us hurts people, is bad for the economy and is ultimate a threat to our democracy.

* Fund Human and Environmental Needs: We need to invest in people, protect the planet and upgrade our infrastructure. Trump’s budget calls for deep cuts in virtually all of these programs, including cutting 29 percent from the State Department’s budget, 31 percent from the Environmental Protection Agency, 16 percent from Health and Human Services and 14 percent from the Dept. of Education. These and similar cuts will have serious impacts on the lives of tens of millions of Americans.

* Cut the Bloated Pentagon Budget: The U.S. spends more than the next seven largest military spenders, combined. Yet President Trump claims our military is “depleted” and is proposing a $54 billion increase in Pentagon funding. He’s also proposed an 11 percent increase in spending on nuclear weapons. These increases are corporate welfare for the Military Industrial Complex and do nothing to make us more secure. We should be spending enough for our nation’s defense, not funding global military dominance. In point of fact, the Pentagon’s budget could, and should, be cut significantly. The United States would still have the strongest military in the world.

* Release Trump’s Tax Returns: For many decades every president has released their tax returns. If Trump’s finances are on the up and up and he has nothing to hide, why has he repeatedly refused to demonstrate this to the American people? He has made the bogus claim that he cannot release his tax returns because he is under audit. Well, his 2016 returns are not under audit and they should be released as soon as they are filed.

This is no time for quietude. As citizens interested in our nation’s—and the world’s—well-being, we need to communicate with our elected officials and make our voices heard by our fellow citizens. Please let those who represent you, as well as your friends and neighbors, know where you stand.  

The U.S. Attack on Syria: Our Response

Pres. Donald Trump announces U.S. attack on Syria, April 6, 2017

Peaceworks is deeply troubled by the escalating violence in Syria. We condemn the use of chemical weapons—illegal under international law—and, likewise, condemn unilateral U.S. military action such as the cruise missile attack ordered by Donald Trump on April 6. Below is a statement that outlines some of our key concerns:

A Few Key Points RE: Trump’s Attack on the Syrian Military:

1) The rationale for this attack is the allegation of use of chemical weapons by President Assad’s government. While it is certainly possible, and perhaps probable, that the Syrian military has used illegal chemical weapons, there has been no evidence presented proving this the case. In fact, there is a plausible alternative explanation. This horrible incident, therefore, cannot be simply assumed to be the work of the Syrian military and it is incumbent upon those seeking to address this crime to seek out evidence first. Certainly this would be required prior to taking lethal military action.

2) Even if one assumes, without evidence, that this crime was the work of Syrian government forces, that does not legitimize a unilateral U.S. attack on a Syrian airbase.

First of all, it is illegal, under international law, to launch a military attack on a sovereign state except in an act of self-defense or when authorized by the United Nations Security Council. Neither criterion has been met, and, thus, the action ordered by President Trump is a clear violation of international law.

Additionally, as Congress has not declared war or authorized this military action, and the administration has not even asked for Congressional authorization, the attack Trump ordered is an unconstitutional use of military force. By attacking Syrian forces for the first time in the more than six-year old civil war, Donald Trump has initiated war on another nation without either a declaration of war or a Congressional resolution authorizing said use of force.

3) Making war on Syria is fraught with high-stakes risks. The most obvious is the possibility of military confrontation with the Russians, who are allied with the Syrian government and have military forces on the ground in, and in the air over, Syria. In a worst case scenario, this could even lead to the use of nuclear weapons.

It is being reported, in the wake of the U.S. attack, that Russia is suspending a deconfliction agreement that was designed to avoid accidental military confrontations between the two nuclear-armed superpowers. They also reportedly are beefing up air defenses in Syria, which increases the chances of U.S. aircraft being shot down. This is just one of many scenarios that could lead to a broader conflict.

The U.S. also has troops operating on the ground in Syria as part of a military campaign against the so-called Islamic State. These troops are now in harm’s way not only from ISIS forces but potentially from Syrian military or government-allied paramilitary forces. Should such actions occur, or even be alleged, it could lead to a wider, more deadly conflict.

It has also been reported that Syria has threatened that, if U.S. attacks continue, they will launch SCUD missiles against Israel. While hopefully this will not happen, a regional war in the Middle East is the last thing the world needs right now. Further, U.S. aggression against the Syrian military may be responded to by Syria’s regional allies, including Iran and Hezbollah.

The American attack also reinforces the perception of our country as both a bully prone to attacking smaller and weaker nations, and an anti-Muslim power; one that denies Syrian war refugees any shelter, and even attempts to prohibit any Syrians (and people from five other predominantly Muslim nations) from entering the country, while dropping bombs and killing Syrians. Another likely result, therefore, is increased recruitment by anti-western groups and more incidents of terrorism around the world, including, potentially, here in the United States.

4) The U.S. military attack is a clear setback to diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict. While opposition groups have fought for more than six years to militarily unseat President Assad, they have been unsuccessful. With little to no chance of achieving a military victory, it was hoped that the opposition groups would come to the table and negotiate a settlement with the government. Trump’s attack on Assad’s military, however, is likely to only increase the intransigence of the opposition groups, reigniting hopes of a military triumph with U.S. assistance. This is likely to prolong the conflict, which has already cost hundreds of thousands of Syrian lives and made refugees of many millions.

In conclusion, rather than launching 59 cruise missiles, our government should have taken steps to see that a thorough and impartial investigation of the apparent chemical incident was accomplished. This, if it did lead to the conclusion that Assad’s military was the perpetrator, would allow for action to proceed via the International Criminal Court, charging those responsible with a war crime. It is essential to recognize, however, that, at least at the moment, evidence regarding even the nature of the incident, let alone culpability, has not been obtained, or at least made public.

Further, President Trump’s illegal use of military force is likely to lead to more, not less, death and destruction; to prolong an already devastating conflict and to increase the risk of a significantly expanded conflict. And, to allow the President to launch such an unauthorized attack, without significant public pushback, threatens the already weak constitutional checks and balances on the unlimited use of military force by the chief executive, undermining our democracy.
Cruise missiles being launch from the USS Porter, April 6, 2017.

Fatigue Settling In? Discover/Co-Create Sustainable Activism

It’s been two months now—since the inauguration, that is—but really it’s been nearly two years—since the June 2015 candidacy announcement—that Donald J. Trump has occupied a huge amount of our attention.

Many of us have been deeply distressed throughout this entire period over the perils of our country adopting the profoundly misguided agenda he ran on. Equally disturbing was the prospect of ensconcing in positions of significant power people who so thoroughly embrace the interests of the top 1 percent, and have no qualms walking all over the rest of us and the only livable planet we have, to enrich themselves.

When we woke up on November 9, it was to the notion that we would need to ramp up “resistance” and do all we could to challenge the tremendously misguided directions Trump and Company would be aiming to take this country. The message sank in, for some of us immediately, for others, over a matter of weeks.

Ultimately, concern was so great that all across the nation millions join the Women’s March or other, similar demonstrations. Even in CoMo, where demonstrations are considered large if 100 people turn out, more than 3,600 marched in a Jan. 21 Solidarity March, a sister march to the DC Women’s March, co-sponsored by Peaceworks and 23 other groups.

A small portion of the crowd gathered at Courthouse Square for the Solidarity March on Jan. 21, 2017.

Over the next few weeks numerous additional demonstrations, town hall meetings and other gatherings drew from dozens to hundreds of participants. Many were engaged in activism for the first time ever. Others, who’d put their activism on the shelf years ago, returned to the picket lines. And many, who were currently engaged, elected to redouble their efforts in this critical period. All this is truly heartening.

Of course, while we all recognize the imperative of not allowing Trump’s presidency to be normalized, we can only operate in crisis mode for a limited period of time. While each person’s ability to devote their time and talents to activism varies significantly, most of us can push the boundaries of what’s workable for a while, but ultimately, if we’re to stay active, we need to find a level of engagement that can work on an ongoing basis; in two words, “sustainable activism.”

Given the urgency of many of the issues we face today, we in no way wish to discourage folks getting as involved as you feel works for you. But it’s also important for everyone to recognize that there is no shame in not going to every demo, or every meeting. In fact, attending to one’s own personal balance is key to avoiding burnout, which, of course, leads to dropping out of the struggle entirely.

Here are a few Suggestions for Making Activism Sustainable

1)  Engage Consistently:  Doing something every day is good, even if it’s just spending 5-10 minutes making key phone calls. If you can’t do this daily, keep at it, doing what you can as many days each week as you can.

2)  Choose Your Tasks:  Spend some time evaluating what’s the best use of your activist energies. Perhaps you have a particular skill or talent you can contribute. If nothing immediately stands out, consider what you enjoy doing that can carry over into the activist realm (e.g. making phone calls, doing door-knocking, petitioning, letter-writing, doing issue research, fundraising, building websites, demonstrating, etc.). You will do more if you’re doing things you like. Of course, you can, and probably should, mix it up and do at least some of a variety of things.

3)  Choose Your Battles:  There are so many critical issues that need to be addressed that none of us can do significant work on all of them. You likely agree with many progressive issue stands, but perhaps some issue(s) really move you viscerally in ways that others don’t. Whether it’s climate change, war and peace, healthcare, economic, racial, gender or other categories of justice, reproductive rights, civil liberties, the death penalty or what have you, you will likely be more effective if you hone in on one or a handful of key concerns and concentrate your efforts, while remaining supportive of other efforts. It is also really important to take the time to become knowledgeable about the primary issues you decide to focus on.

Of course, aside from considering what you’re most passionate about, it’s also important to consider what is timely. For example, when Trump instituted the Muslim Travel Ban, Peaceworks dropped some other work to focus attention there. And if the bombs and bullets start flying next week in some unexpected hotspot, we may need to refocus there.

4)  Choose Your Organizations:  While a few of us operate best as lone-wolf  activists, most of us find synergy comes through working with a group, and there are many wonderful progressive groups that would love to have your active participation. Some things you might consider in picking which groups to work with include: Are the issues they’re focused on among the ones that I’m most drawn to? Is the group positive, supportive and welcoming? Are the tactics and strategies they embrace ones I feel comfortable with? Does it seem like I can contribute significantly to their efforts?

5)  Get to Know Your Fellow Activists—Build Community: The work of social change is, in some real ways, also a process of creating structures that align our means with our ends. By this we mean that within our organizations we build structures that reflect the sort of world we seek to co-create; one that involves a paradigm shift. Hopefully we build bonds of friendship and mutual support as we create organizational structures that are cooperative, rather than competitive, inclusive and inviting of participation and embracing of diversity.

6)  Recognize that You Are Not Alone—Reach Out, Seek and Give Support: When we look at the crazy world we’ve inherited and we think of what we’re leaving to our collective progeny it can feel completely overwhelming. We can’t afford, however, to crawl under the nearest rock and pretend all is OK. Rather, we need to give and receive mutual support; we need to find hope in the vision, courage and persistence of our comrades in struggle. And we need to share our positive, hopeful visions of another world that is possible with others.

7)  Recognize that There is Not One Right Way:  There are many approaches to social change activism. The left has a well-deserved reputation for setting up circular firing squads; wasting more effort fighting those who should be allies over differences in tactics, strategies, etc. Our efforts will be much more effective if we focus on making our own projects as successful as we can, while appreciating and supporting those who are going about things differently.

The list above, like everything else we create, is a work in progress. As we move forward through uncharted waters we will likely learn many lessons. Your comments and feedback are most welcome.

These times are unprecedented and call for us to rise to the challenge. Many have been working to do this and we applaud all of you. Peaceworks, of course, would love to collaborate with as many of you reading this as possible. We also recognize that we are one of a number of good and worthwhile area organizations and we support your decisions to work with others as well, or instead.

We have a big tent approach and aim to collaborate with as many of those other groups as we can. There is strength in numbers. But all the various groups are ultimately made up of individuals—the people who are the backbone of our movements—that’s why you are the most essential ingredient in our resistance work, as well as our long-haul efforts to create a peaceful, just and sustainable future. And that’s why we see it as essential to make our activism sustainable.

Stay hopeful. Stay strong. Stay involved. Stay loving and kind. Know, if you are active, you are needed, appreciated and you are making a difference.

Nuclear News? What is the Take-Home Lesson?

There’s a news story you may have heard, but likely didn’t, as it’s not been very widely reported. Like many stories, it has various lessons to offer. In fact this story is kind of a Rorschach Test, as it is likely to yield very different messages, depending upon one’s headset.

It’s a story about the Russians, but, no, it isn’t about hacking the election, or connections to the Trump regime. Rather, this is a nuclear weapons story that was featured recently in PopularMechanics. The first sentence tells much of the story, “The Pentagon has confirmed that a new Russian nuclear delivery drone is real. The undersea drone, which carries an enormous nuclear warhead to destroy coastal cities and military bases, was tested late last month.”

The story goes on to detail how “Status-6,” the name of the new system, “is designed to attack enemy coastal cities, ports, shipyards, and naval bases. Once Status-6 arrives at its destination it detonates the bomb, causing an enormous amount of damage through blast and heat.” And it goes on to report “Reports from Russia indicate the bomb could be armed with a "salted bomb", or one that ‘salts the Earth’ with the dangerous isotope Cobalt-60. Such a bomb could spread such high levels of radioactivity it would prevent anyone from using the attack zone for approximately 100 years.”

How does one react to a story that warns that the Russians might send nuclear-armed, drone mini-subs into U.S. waters and blow Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington DC and dozens of other cities off the map?

Likely, many will react in fear, which is a reasonable response to an existential threat. But, in addition, many would add an element of anger and a dose of hostility to, and condemnation of, a nation deemed an “enemy.”

This is certainly not new. In 1963 Bob Dylan wrote the song “With God on Our Side” that contains the verse:

“I've learned to hate the Russians
All through my whole life
If another war comes
It's them we must fight
To hate them and fear them
To run and to hide
And accept it all bravely
With God on my side”

While a lot has happened over the past half century, it seems that rulers still need enemies and so does the Military Industrial Complex, so we are still encouraged to see the “Ruskies” as boogey men.

So, yes, the notion of drones delivering massive thermonuclear bombs destroying American cities is a horrible thing to contemplate; one that many might, without thinking too hard, see as demonstrating the inherent barbarian nature of our supposed adversaries. And, yes, the thought of deploying weapons that target cities and threaten to kill millions, is unsettling, at best, and an outrage beyond comprehension if one isn’t totally numbed.

Our Nation’s Responsibility?

But, wait a minute, targeting cities for annihilation? This is exactly what the U.S. has done for decades with its enormous nuclear arsenal. The so-called “Balance of Terror” in a system of “Mutually Assured Destruction,” has always been about as immoral as one can imagine; threatening to annihilate hundreds of millions in the blink of an eye. Further, our government has repeatedly refused to repudiate first use of nuclear weapons and has resisted treaty obligations to eliminate nuclear arsenals.

And, don’t forget that the United States is the only nation that has ever used nukes. In 1945 the U.S. military incinerated two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands, using primitive, first-generation nuclear weapons (Today’s thermonuclear bombs are several orders of magnitude more destructive). So, how does the United States claim the mantle of morality in this nuclear business?

Not only is righteous indignation misdirected if directed solely at the Russians, it also misses several key aspects of our unfolding nuclear nightmare:

Why did the Russians decide to build drone subs to deliver these Doomsday devices? Well Popular Mechanics has an answer to this, “Russia is thought to have conceived of Status-6 as a response to America's missile defense system.” That’s right, it’s our government’s own actions—its unwillingness to negotiate an arms control agreement that would ban destabilizing “Star Wars”-type systems that led the Russians to pursue this new mode of delivering massive death and destruction.

Ever since the 1980s the United States has been taking actions that destabilize the “Balance of Terror.” And, under President George W. Bush, our government withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, over Russia’s loud protestations. More recently, under President Obama, the U.S. initiated a one-trillion dollar program of “modernization,” which includes the development of more accurate delivery systems that provide the capability for launching a decapitating first strike.

The U.S. has not only pushed the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, putting NATO troops right on Russia’s borders, it has also been aggressively building so-called “missile defense” facilities in both Poland and Romania. Our government claims these installations are directed at Iranian missiles, but this strains credulity.

As the Reuters news agency reported in May of 2016, “Russia is incensed at such of show of force by its Cold War rival in formerly communist-ruled eastern Europe. Moscow says the U.S.-led alliance is trying to encircle it close to the strategically important Black Sea, home to a Russian naval fleet and where NATO is also considering increasing patrols. ‘It is part of the military and political containment of Russia,’ Andrey Kelin, a senior Russian Foreign Ministry official, said on Thursday, the Interfax news agency reported.”

A Way Forward?

As long as the United States insists on maintaining a nuclear arsenal in perpetuity, we will not be free of the threat of nuclear annihilation. The United States and all nuclear weapons states (NWS) are obligated, under the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty to eliminate these arsenals.

According to the Arms Control Association, “Article VI commits the NWS to ‘pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.’” No one really believes that 49 years represents action at an “early date,” but, more on point, U. S. strategic doctrine calls for maintaining and “upgrading,” not eliminating, its arsenal and its dominant nuclear posture.

Those of us who lived through the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis or the intense nuclear saber-rattling of the first term of the Reagan administration know what it’s like to feel viscerally the threat of nuclear annihilation. Younger readers likely view this threat in more abstract terms.

Either way, however, we are almost all living with some level of denial. It is high time that we recognized that we are not invulnerable. In fact, unless nuclear abolition is pursued and achieved, we are virtually guaranteed that at some point—be it by malfunction, miscalculation, misperception, mental illness, irrational, ideologically-driven responses to crises, etc.—that the world, or at least the human race and most of the other species we share the Earth with, will be lost to nuclear war.

There is some hopeful news, however. A United Nations conference that begins later this month will be focusing on drafting a treaty to ban nuclear weapons, along the lines of conventions banning chemical weapons or landmines. While this, alone, won’t eliminate the nuclear threat, it holds the potential for generating new momentum to drive forward the movement for nuclear abolition.

We, here at Peaceworks, find the current situation absolutely unacceptable and thus we are redoubling our efforts to make sure that the issue of nuclear weapons is addressed. To us, the take-home lesson is that our government urgently needs to work for mutual, verifiable, phased reductions of all nuclear arsenals on the road to nuclear abolition. We invite you to join us in making sure that nuclear disarmament is out, front and center, as an urgent concern. The alternative is too ghastly to accept.