Capitalism doesn’t give a flying fuck

Leela Yellesetty explains why the abysmal conditions endured by airline passengers and workers alike have everything to do with the bosses’ bottom line.

Airlines are cramming more and more passengers onto each flight

Airlines are cramming more and more passengers onto each flight

DURING HIS brief but memorable tenure as White House communications director, Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci attempted to explain Trump’s vision for health care reform:

What the president is trying to do is make the health care system freer. So why not disrupt and decentralize the system, make it more price competitive, increase competition for the insurance companies and trust the process of the free market, like in telecom, like in airlines?

Really? Yes, the health care system is awful, but did the Mooch really think a good selling point for reform would be to make it more like Comcast, the most hated company in America? Or United Airlines, which wasn’t able to beat out Comcast even by dragging a bloodied man off a plane, so they decided to kill a bunny rabbit for good measure?

“No one wants health care to be like the airlines!” talk-show host Seth Meyers quipped in response, “‘How was the hospital?’ ‘Not great. My surgery was three hours late, my bed was double-booked so they dragged me out of the OR, and then they sent my appendix to Albuquerque!'”

What’s to blame for the awful treatment of passengers and airline workers alike? The problem isn’t bad business decisions, but the drive for sky-high profits.

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FOR THOSE of us who hate the elaborate torture that is U.S. air travel–that is, all of us who can’t afford first class–we have some tentative good news. A recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals directed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to address “the Case of the Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat,” as one judge put it.

The ruling came in response to a petition filed by the consumer advocacy group Flyers Rights, which pointed out that the distance between seats, known as the “pitch,” has decreased from an average of 35 inches to 31, with some as low as 28, while seat widths have shrunk by an inch and half in the past decade–at the same time as the average passenger has grown larger.

The group argued that this posed a health and safety hazard by making it difficult to evacuate in an emergency and increasing the risk of passengers developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a potentially fatal condition caused by a blot clot as a result of prolonged sitting in cramped space.

The FAA rejected the petition, claiming–with “research” to back it up–that the issue of seat size was one of comfort and not safety. While the court agreed that the danger of DVT was not well established, on the safety claims, it blasted the FAA for a “vaporous record” of “off-point studies and undisclosed tests using unknown parameters.”

Indeed, the FAA refused to disclose most of the tests used to make its decision, claiming they were proprietary.

While the ruling simply directs the FAA to revisit the petition and doesn’t directly compel the agency to set minimum standards for seat size, it is certainly a positive development in the face of the ongoing airline assault on our safety and comfort, not to mention dignity.

Apparently not everyone is cheering this development, though.

In article sneeringly titled “Let Them Shrink: FAA Should Not Regulate Airline Seat Space,” Forbes‘ Omri Ben-Shahar argued that the airlines are actually giving consumers exactly what they asked for. That is, if we want cheaper flights, we should be prepared to suffer for them.

If you want better seats, just pay more–indeed, one reason our seats are shrinking is to make room for “premium” options for the lucky few.

William McGhee, author of the airline industry expose Attention All Passengerssummed up the attitude of Forbes writers and airline executives this way:

Things are just fine in business class and first class. I don’t think that’s coincidental. It reflects the larger issues we face as a society right now, the 99 Percent vs. the 1 Percent. I’ve talked to execs about deteriorating conditions in the back, and their response is basically, ‘You should pay for and sit up front,’ which is a bit of a ‘Let them eat cake’ response.

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AS EASY as it can be to dismiss an argument inspired by Marie Antoinette, it’s worth probing some of the claims that Ben-Shahar makes more closely.

For one thing, it’s true that airline travel is more affordable and accessible to the average person that it was in the glory days of free food and adequate legroom.

Back then, air travel was largely a preserve of the wealthy. For free-market enthusiasts like Ben-Shahar and the Mooch, therefore, the deregulation of the airline industry in 1978 was a victory for consumers, increasing competition and thereby lowering fares and improving service.

This sounds good, but it doesn’t remotely depict what has actually happened in the decades since deregulation. Instead, what’s played out is a sordid tale of rampant inefficiencies, corruption, bankruptcies, mergers and deteriorating conditions for both passengers and workers.

Right after deregulation, there were more than 400 certified carriers and 10 major airlines. Today, just four airlines control 80 percent of all domestic flights. Rather than encourage competition, deregulation removed antitrust provisions, allowing airlines to collude in raising fares while reducing service.

The 2013 merger of American and US Airways to create the world’s largest airline was accomplished by an army of corporate lobbyists, lawyers and economists, while executives and their Wall Street backers salivated at the profits to be made from the deal:

Indeed, government investigators had uncovered documents showing airline executives crowing about how mergers allow them to charge travelers more. “Three successful fare increases–[we were] able to pass along to customers because of consolidation,” wrote Scott Kirby, who became the president of the new American Airlines, in a 2010 internal company presentation…

A 2014 Goldman Sachs analysis about “dreams of oligopoly” used the American-US Airways merger as an example. Industry consolidation leads to “lower competitive intensity” and greater “pricing power with customers due to reduced choice,” the analysis said.

Another useful tool in the industry playbook is bankruptcy. All of the four remaining airlines filed for bankruptcy in the past decade–and they are now the four most profitable airlines in the world.

In fact, they were doing just fine before, but bankruptcy allowed them to slough off inconvenient costs of providing decent pay and benefits to their employees. As United Auto Workers activist Gregg Shotwell commented on American’s 2011 bankruptcy:

Capitalism isn’t above the law in the United States–it is the law. Peace and solidarity activists are hounded, harassed and arrested, but the forcible transfer of wealth from the working class to the investing class is protected concerted activity.

American Airlines’ debt doesn’t outweigh its cash and assets. In fact, American is financing its own bankruptcy. That’s not distress, it’s brass-knuckles union busting. The business press makes no bones about American Airlines’ plan to profit off the broken backs of labor contracts. In fact, they crow about it.

American Airlines ordered 460 new planes from Boeing and Airbus less than five months ago, at a cost of $38 billion. Those contracts will be honored even as American plans to dump pensions underfunded by about $10 billion for approximately 130,000 workers and retirees.

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THIS UNION busting comes with real consequences for passenger safety as well. Abysmal pay and working conditions for pilots in budget regional carriers has resulted in an increase in crashes, to give just one example.

While cutting corners on workers’ rights has helped boost airline profits and executive compensation, the impact on fares for passengers is less than meets the eye. As Carl Finamore explained in a 2010 article republished at

Champions of the free market boast about upwards of a 20 percent reduction in fares since 1978 when airlines were freed to set their own prices without the nuisance of government regulators. But this is very misleading. There are several factors contributing to the decline in prices. For example, booking online has almost entirely eliminated the large commissions of travel agents. Experts state these fees normally accounted for a full 10 percent of ticket prices.

And while it is true that fares to large cities has benefited from increased competition, where it exists, smaller communities have, conversely, seen substantial fare increases as their airports have experienced reduced or lost service. Millions of travelers are also forced to purchase tickets to major hub airports they otherwise would have bypassed during the period of regulation where direct flights to and from smaller markets were offered.

The last major factor making the price of flights misleading is the explosion of fees for everything from luggage to meals to wifi to the ability to board early–coming soon: the surcharge if you would like to not be beaten and dragged off the plane. This has been the single largest source of profits for airlines in the last decade, with Delta alone pulling in $5.7 billion from such fees in 2013 alone.

As Tim Wu pointed out in the New Yorker, this pricing model sets up a perverse incentive:

Here’s the thing: in order for fees to work, there needs be something worth paying to avoid. That necessitates, at some level, a strategy that can be described as “calculated misery.” Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded in order to make people want to pay to escape it. And that’s where the suffering begins.

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IS THERE any way out of calculated misery?

The current trajectory we’re on doesn’t seem promising. While the past few years saw record profits for airlines in part due to lower fuel costs, as costs begin to rise, we should expect new rounds of crisis, bankruptcies and mergers, all of which will, of course, be apaid for by further attacks on worker and passenger dignity.

Ultimately, we would be wise to heed the words of former American Airlines CEO Bob Crandall that “market forces alone cannot and will not produce a satisfactory airline industry, which clearly needs some help to solve its pricing, cost and operating problems.”

Nationalizing and making the airlines a public utility would be a rational response to the anarchic yet calculated misery of deregulation. In a sane system, we would also look for ways to reduce the amount of air travel, given its carbon footprint, but this would require reorganizing corporate practice and providing affordable, sustainable travel alternatives, such as high-speed rail, as well as providing workers more vacation days to make slower forms of travel feasible.

Of course, we should expect none of these solutions to be forthcoming from the airline executives–least of all under a certain president who, within weeks of taking office, gleefully told a group of them: “You’re going to be so happy with Trump.”

Instead our salvation from the unfriendly skies lies, as an anonymous Delta employee put it recently, in passengers and airline workers joining forces in support of each other:

Instead of indicting each other (employees and passengers), we should focus on fostering solidarity. Many of our interests are the same.

Most obviously, a passenger’s flying conditions are also an airline employee’s working conditions…The declining emphasis put on passenger comfort and airline employee working conditions can be traced back to a common cause: the deregulation of the U.S. airline industry and the relentless pursuit of profit.–k

Amelia Earhart May Have Survived Crash-Landing, Newly Discovered Photo Suggests

Image: A photo discovered in the National Archives shows a woman who resembles Amelia Earhart on a dock in the Marshall Islands
A photo discovered in the National Archives shows a woman who resembles Amelia Earhart on a dock in the Marshall Islands. National Archives

A newly discovered photograph suggests legendary aviator Amelia Earhart, who vanished 80 years ago on a round-the-world flight, survived a crash-landing in the Marshall Islands.

The photo, found in a long-forgotten file in the National Archives, shows a woman who resembles Earhart and a man who appears to be her navigator, Fred Noonan, on a dock. The discovery is featured in a new History channel special, “Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence,” that airs Sunday.

Independent analysts told History the photo appears legitimate and undoctored. Shawn Henry, former executive assistant director for the FBI and an NBC News analyst, has studied the photo and feels confident it shows the famed pilot and her navigator.

Amelia Earhart mystery may have new clue in never-before-seen photo

“When you pull out, and when you see the analysis that’s been done, I think it leaves no doubt to the viewers that that’s Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan,” Henry told NBC News.

Earhart was last heard from on July 2, 1937, as she attempted to become the first woman pilot to circumnavigate the globe. She was declared dead two years later after the U.S. concluded she had crashed somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, and her remains were never found.

Amelia Earhart
Amelia Earhart sits in her Electra plane cabin at the airport in Burbank, California, on May 20, 1937. Albert Bresnik / Paragon Agency via AP

But investigators believe they have found evidence Earhart and Noonan were blown off course but survived the ordeal. The investigative team behind the History special believes the photo may have been taken by someone who was spying for the U.S. on Japanese military activity in the Pacific.

Les Kinney, a retired government investigator who has spent 15 years looking for Earhart clues, said the photo “clearly indicates that Earhart was captured by the Japanese.”

Japanese authorities told NBC News they have no record of Earhart being in their custody.

RelatedThe Search Is Still On for Amelia Earhart 80 Years After She Disappeared

The photo, marked “Jaluit Atoll” and believed to have been taken in 1937, shows a short-haired woman — potentially Earhart — on a dock with her back to the camera. (She’s wearing pants, something for which Earhart was known.) She sits near a standing man who looks like Noonan — down to the hairline.

“The hairline is the most distinctive characteristic,” said Ken Gibson, a facial recognition expert who studied the image. “It’s a very sharp receding hairline. The nose is very prominent.”

Gibson added: “It’s my feeling that this is very convincing evidence that this is probably Noonan.”

A newly discovered photo shows a woman who resembles Amelia Earhart and a man who appears to be her navigator, Fred Noonan. National Archives

The photo shows a Japanese ship, Koshu, towing a barge with something that appears to be 38-feet-long — the same length as Earhart’s plane.

For decades, locals have claimed they saw Earhart’s plane crash before she and Noonan were taken away. Native schoolkids insisted they saw Earhart in captivity. The story was even documented in postage stamps issued in the 1980s.

“We believe that the Koshu took her to Saipan [in the Mariana Islands], and that she died there under the custody of the Japanese,” said Gary Tarpinian, the executive producer of the History special.

“We don’t know how she died,” Tarpinian said. “We don’t know when.”

It is not clear if the U.S. government knew who was in the photo. If it was taken by a spy, the U.S. may not have wanted to compromise that person by revealing the image.


Scientists have discovered a new branch of the Taurids meteor stream that could pose a major risk to Earth, with asteroids up to 1,000 feet wide flying past us every few years.

The Taurids meteor shower peaks every October and November, producing a relatively small display of shooting stars as the planet passes through its stream.

Meteor shower displays happen when tiny bits of cosmic debris enter Earth’s atmosphere and burn up in the sky. Because the Taurids are made up of branches and a core, activity levels increase and decrease depending on how much debris Earth passes through.

Mostly, the meteoroids are about the size of a grain of sand and pose no risk at all. However, if a large enough asteroid entered the atmosphere, instead of disintegrating it would pass through and hit the Earth’s surface.

A stark reminder of the risk posed by asteroids and meteors came in 2013, when the 66-foot-wide Chelyabinsk meteor fell over Russia’s southern Ural region.

A team of researchers from the Czech Academy of Sciences in the Czech Republic has now found evidence to suggest Earth is at greater risk of being hit by an asteroid than we previously thought.

In their study, which is to be published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, the team analyzed data on 144 Taurid fireballs that had been filmed with new digital cameras over the 2015 shower—a year of enhanced activity. They were able to work out the orbits of these fireballs, and found 113 of them show “common characteristics and form together a well-defined orbital structure, which we call new branch.”

This branch was found to contain at least two asteroids with diameters of between 650 and 980 feet. An impact from an asteroid of this size would cause a huge amount of damage if it hit a populated area of the planet.

As well as the two large asteroids, the team also found the branch likely contains “numerous” undiscovered objects that are at least 30 feet wide. “Since asteroids of sizes of tens to hundreds of meters pose a threat to the ground, even if they are intrinsically weak, impact hazard increases significantly when the Earth encounters the Taurids new branch every few years,” the scientists wrote.

The branch is not new. It has been passing by Earth every few years, ever since it formed around 1,000 years ago. However, now that we know it exists, the researchers say we need to carry out further studies to better understand “this real source of potentially hazardous objects.”

In an email interview with Newsweek, study author Jiří Borovička says that at present they do not have enough data to quantify the risk the branch poses to Earth. “A systematic search for asteroids within the newly identified branch will be needed to find the size-frequency distribution of large bodies within the branch,” she says. “The impact risk increases during the encounters of the Earth with the branch.”

She describes the risk of Earth being hit by a large asteroid during one of these encounters as a “lottery”—or “to be hit by a bullet or not.”

Their findings come just weeks ahead of Asteroid Day, on June 30. This event, first held in 2015, is a global awareness campaign to highlight the risk asteroids pose to Earth. Scientists estimate we have only detected around one percent of the one million asteroids that have the potential to impact Earth. Launching the event in 2014, astrophysicist Brian May said, “The more we learn about asteroid impacts, the clearer it becomes that the human race has been living on borrowed time.”

Borovička says the latest findings should serve as a reminder of the importance of identifying asteroids that could impact, adding she hopes scientists will turn their attention to the Taurids meteor stream in the future.

“So far, the search for hazardous asteroids has been done over all the sky,” she says. “We have pointed out a well-defined region in the solar system with a larger concentration of meteoroids and asteroids, which periodically come close to Earth’s orbit. We hope that people with access to large telescopes will explore this region in detail.”

She also says their findings reinforce the hypothesis that the Taurids stream is a remnant of a giant comet that disintegrated. Some of the debris from this event is thought to have struck the Earth, and has been connected with at least one catastrophic event in Earth’s history.

“Our observation gives some weight to that hypothesis,” Borovička says. “Perhaps there was a series of comet/asteroid disruptions and one of the recent ones created the new branch. We believe that our detailed description of the new branch will enable other people to explore this hypothesis in more detail than was possible before.”

The Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1933-2017) and the fate of the ‘60s generation

By Vladimir Volkov
3 May 2017

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the best-known Soviet poet from the 1960s to the 1980s, died at 83 from cancer on April 1, 2017, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Yevtushenko, born in 1932 in the small town of Zima in Siberia’s Irkutsk region, became one of the leading Soviet poets of the “thaw period” under Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev. Those years were bound up with official condemnation of the “cult of personality” around Joseph Stalin and the widespread hope within the Soviet people that the country could be renewed on a socialist basis.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko in 2009 [Photo: Cybersky]

In one of his most renowned poems, “The Heirs of Stalin,” published in 1961 at the time that Stalin’s body was removed from the mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square, Yevtushenko wrote:

Let someone repeat over and over again: “Compose yourself!”
I shall never find rest.
As long as there are Stalin’s heirs on earth,
it will always seem to me,
that Stalin is still in the Mausoleum.
[Translated by Katherine von Imhof]

Yevtushenko’s father was a geologist of Baltic German origin. His parents divorced when he was 7 years old. The boy’s original last name was Gangnus, but his mother changed it to her family name after they moved to Moscow at the end of the war.

In secondary school and during his student years, Yevtushenko struggled and had various problems, but he quickly emerged as a talented poet. His first attempts at writing poetry were published in the journal Sovetsky Sport (Soviet Sport), when he was 17 years old, and his first volume of poetry, The Prospects of the Future, came out in 1952.

The poem “Babi Yar,” written in 1961 in honor of the Jewish victims of mass murder by the Nazi occupiers in a ravine outside Kiev in the fall of 1941, brought him true international fame. In the poem, translated into 72 languages, Yevtushenko writes:

I am
each old man
here shot dead.
I am
every child
here shot dead.
Nothing in me
shall ever forget!
The ‘Internationale,’
let it thunder
when the last antisemite on earth
is buried for ever.
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage,
all antisemites
must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason
I am a true Russian!
[Translated by George Reavey]

“Babi Yar” is justly Yevtushenko’s best known poem. It is deeply moving and had an enormous impact when it was first published in the Soviet journal Literaturnaya Gazeta in September 1961.

In the Soviet Union, both under Stalin and his successors, state anti-Semitism flourished behind the scenes and—under this malevolent official influence—found expression in everyday life. Even though Red Army correspondents such as Vasily Grossman had been among the first to write and report on the Holocaust, the horrors were subsequently covered up by the Stalinist bureaucracy, which denied that genocide had been committed against the Jewish people, instead arguing that only “Soviet citizens” were murdered.

Composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who incorporated the poem into his Symphony No. 13 (1962), reportedly told a friend: “I was overjoyed when I read Yevtushenko’s ‘Babi Yar’; the poem astounded me. It astounded thousands of people. Many had heard about Babi Yar, but it took Yevtushenko’s poem to make them aware of it. They tried to destroy the memory of Babi Yar, first the Germans and then the Ukrainian government. But after Yevtushenko’s poem, it became clear that it would never be forgotten. That is the power of art.”

Andrei Voznesensky reading at the Moscow Polytechnic Museum

In the early 1960s, the great enthusiasm of Soviet young people for poetry generated the phenomenon of readings in large venues. The most legendary poetry evenings were the ones held at Moscow’s Polytechnic Museum, which attracted thousands of admirers. Apart from Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the three best-known young poets—Andrei Voznesensky, Robert Rozhdestvensky and Bella Akhmadulina (who later became Yevtushenko’s first wife)—also read their verses there.

The readings at the Polytechnic Museum became part of the fiction film I am Twenty (Marlen Khutsiev, 1965), widely recognized as one of the symbols of the “thaw” period and the attempts of the best layers of the Soviet intelligentsia of the time to make a connection between the epoch of the 1917 revolution and the contemporary period.

The young poets often emulated the leading figures of the 1920s, such as Sergei Yesenin and especially Vladimir Mayakovsky. The influence of the latter was particularly felt in the works of Rozhdestvensky and Yevtushenko himself.

The principal peculiarity of Yevtushenko’s poetic style was the combination of a deep lyricism and self-examination—often bordering on self-infatuation and egocentrism—with a civic or social pathos and an urge to comment on the most topical questions of political life.

Yevtushenko elaborated his view on poetry, according to which the self-expression of the individual cannot limit itself to the “ivory tower” of “pure art,” and according to which it [individual self-expression] is inseparable from the striving to have a certain social position, in his poem “The Bratsk Hydroelectric Station” (1965). This poem was conceived as a hymn to the success of building Soviet society, which surpassed anything hitherto known in human history.

The poet in Russia is more than a poet.
Only those in whom the proud spirit of citizenship roams,
Who find no comfort or peace,
Are fated to be born as poets in Russia.

At the same time, the main unresolved question that determined Yevtushenko’s fate as a poet, as it did that of the entire Soviet “‘60s generation,” lay in the incapacity to truly break with the Stalinist bureaucracy and find a direct path to the genuine history and spiritual pathos of the 1917 October Revolution.

This incapacity, in the final analysis, was an objective socio-cultural problem, not a failing of the individual artists. Stalinism had murdered off the finest elements in the working class and the intelligentsia, anyone perceived to represent a threat to the bureaucracy. As a result of the physical and intellectual devastation, the Soviet population was largely blocked from contact with genuine Marxism, including of course a left-wing critique of the counter-revolutionary regime itself.

The artists undoubtedly felt a sincere hatred and revulsion for Stalin, but the terrible practices and legacy of Soviet Stalinism could not be reduced to the personal foibles and malice of an individual, but rather were rooted in the nationalistic, reactionary theory of “socialism in a single country,” which represented the opposite of the international and revolutionary perspectives of October.

Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1963

The 1960s generation certainly went through a romantic infatuation with the revolution and the Civil War. This resulted, inter alia, in the lines written in 1957 by Bulat Okudzhava, the son of the Georgian Old Bolshevik, Shalva Okudzhava, accused of “Trotskyism” and shot by Stalin during the Great Terror in the late 1930s:

No matter what new battle shakes the globe,
I will nevertheless fall in that single Civil War,
And commissars in dusty headgear will bow in silence over me.

To resurrect the genuine spirit of the first years of Soviet power, however, and to lay a bridge between the two epochs, separated by the gulf of a horrible tragedy, the political genocide of several generations of the Bolshevik party and the entire culture of Russian socialism, it would have been necessary to turn seriously to the heritage of Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition. This political heritage embodied the best traditions of October and represented the socialist alternative to Soviet Stalinism. But the conditions for the artists making such a turn were very unfavorable.

Making this conscious connection to the history of the Left Opposition, the continuator of Bolshevism, was also necessary for a new—and genuine—“discovery” of Lenin, whom the official Soviet “Marxism-Leninism” had turned into an embalmed mummy, a dead statue with the face of a “state person.”

Without confronting this primary and most critical problem, the generation of Soviet intellectuals of the 1960s was condemned to degeneration and moral degradation, as well as to an increasing creative impotence.

Ambivalence, growing hypocrisy and cynicism found their reflection in Yevtushenko’s work and personal eccentricities.

In the mid-1960s he condemned the witch-hunt in the USSR of poet Joseph Brodsky and writer Yuli Daniel, and wrote about the merciless suppression of the 1968 Prague Spring by the Brezhnev leadership in the words: “Tanks are moving on Prague, Tanks are moving on the truth.” He also wrote a series of poems about the Vietnam War. However, in the 1970s Yevtushenko turned more and more into a stereotyped figure of a “representative of Soviet culture” abroad.

The celebrity poet visited over a hundred countries, meeting not only Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, but also such repugnant representatives of world imperialism as Richard Nixon.

President Richard Nixon and Yevtushenko

The necessity to regularly “speak out” on topical political questions in the general spirit of the interests of the Kremlin leadership too often gave birth to hurriedly cobbled together, often botched verses. The journalist and writer Denis Dragunskii remarks: “Yevtushenko is flashy, colorful, and sometimes tasteless. Just like his clothes—these overtly colorful jackets, rings, shirts of crazy styles.”

Discussing Yevtushenko’s ability to establish relations with the powers that be and “advance himself,” Dragunskii cites a story of one journalist from the newspaper Komsomolskaya pravda [ Komsomol Truth —organ of the Central Committee of the Komsomol, youth wing of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union], who observed Yevtushenko in the mid-1970s “twice during one day. In the morning, the poet came into the ‘Komsomolka’ [which was in these years one of the anchors of “free thought” within the framework granted by the authorities] and was dressed very fashionably, striking and foreign. And at three in the afternoon he met Yevtushenko in the Central Committee of the Komsomol and hardly recognized him—he was dressed in a modest, Soviet suit, tie… He apparently had gone home only to change this clothes.”

The process of degeneration of the Soviet intelligentsia was not completed in an instant, but stretched out over a lengthy period of time, at least two decades or more, proceeding quite steadily in the years of the so called “stagnation” (under Leonid Brezhnev and his successors). Nevertheless, having received a significant impetus from the “thaw,” Soviet culture continued to yield significant fruits for some time. The flourishing of cinema, for instance, continued from the late 1960s to the early 1980s.

But the continued rule of the counter-revolutionary Stalinist bureaucracy, which could only have been ended in a progressive fashion by a political revolution of the working class, doomed the Soviet Union.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika (“restructuring”) policies brought to light the hidden, long-term process of decay and the real danger of capitalist restoration, while leading layers of the Soviet intelligentsia “suddenly” discovered that, in the name of the democratic “values” of bourgeois society, they were prepared to curse the revolution, socialism and their own recent past.

The acknowledged leaders of the “Soviet ‘60s” in the various spheres of science and culture became the primary intellectual prop for the restoration of capitalism which the Stalinist bureaucracy conducted at the turn of the 1980s and 90s and which destroyed the Soviet Union.

Proceeding ever further along the path of renunciationism and anti-Communism, a significant section of this layer, including the above-mentioned Bulat Okudzhava, supported the authoritarian Boris Yeltsin regime and enthusiastically approved his shelling of parliament by tanks in October 1993. Some few years later, in full accordance with the positions of the most influential group of recently emerged “oligarchs,” they supported Vladimir Putin as Yeltsin’s successor.

Yevtushenko tried to find a new footing in the post-Soviet period, but without much success. His moderate criticisms of Yeltsin’s Russia allowed him to maintain or develop a certain popularity, but all this resembled, more than anything else, a life after death.

In 1991, he moved with his family to the United States, after receiving a position at the University of Tulsa. From this point on, he returned to Russia mostly for short visits; he held readings from time to time, gave interviews and worked on editing a five-volume anthology of Russian poetry covering “ten centuries in the history of the country.”

In 2014 Yevtushenko disgracefully supported the pro-Western coup in Kiev, which was carried out by far-right and fascist forces. A few days before the overthrow of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, he wrote the poem “State, Be a Human Being!,” in which he declared “With me on the Maidan are the warm ghosts of Pushkin and Briullov [Karl Briullov, the Russian painter who donated the proceeds of the sale of one of his paintings to buy the freedom of Ukrainian writer-artist Taras Shevchenko from virtual slavery].”

This final transformation of Yevtushenko from a “fellow-traveler” and “friend” of the Soviet bureaucracy into a loyal supporter of imperialism guaranteed him the sympathies of the pro-Western liberal opposition, which “rehabilitated” him as fully as they could.

The poet and writer Dmitry Bykov speaks today of the “drama and triumph of Yevtushenko,” asserting he was “a man, endowed with super-human abilities.” At the same time, the decades-long “conflict” between Joseph Brodsky and Yevtushenko has finally come to an end. Brodsky, who received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1987, at the height of Gorbachev’s perestroika, had already, by the end of the 1960s, politically turned far to the right, to extreme anti-Communism. His personal animosity toward the officially recognized Soviet writers and poets found its most specific expression in his hostile attitude toward Yevtushenko. His animosity, it is said, went so far that Brodsky declared: “If Yevtushenko is against the kolkhozes [Soviet collective farms], then I am for them.”

When looked at today, this feud looks like a trivial episode, even though one that bears some significance if only from the standpoint of literary history.

It would be a gross oversimplification and a genuine error to regard the fate of the generation of the Soviet ‘60s as nothing more than one colossal defeat in the moral and creative sense. These figures left us quite a lot that is vivid and fresh and which will continue to live in the memory of future generations.

In the present day, the American ruling elite is conducting a ferocious anti-Russian campaign, trying to incite open hatred of the Russians as a people in order to justify their plans for global domination. Under such conditions one is pleased and moved to remember one of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s best poems written in 1961. In one of the most difficult periods of the Cold War, on the eve of the Cuban missile crisis, he wrote, recalling the lessons of the Second World War:

Say, do the Russians want a war?—
Go ask our land, then ask once more
That silence lingering in the air
Above the birch and poplar there. …

Sure, we know how to fight a war,
But we don’t want to see once more
The soldiers falling all around,
Their countryside a battleground.
Ask those who give the soldiers life
Go ask my mother, ask my wife,
Then you will have to ask no more,
Say—Do the Russians want a war?

The Real Targets of Trump’s Strike Were His Domestic Critics


Six thoughts on the US bombing of Syria.

The bombing was for domestic consumption. According to The New York Times, “The Pentagon informed Russian military officials, through its established deconfliction channel, of the strike before the launching of the missiles, the official said, with American officials knowing when they did that Russian authorities may well have alerted the Assad regime.” In other words, the object of Trump’s Tomahawks was not Syria’s capacity to deploy gas, but domestic liberal opponents who base their resistance to Trump entirely on the premise that he is anti-American because he is too close to Putin, and that he is a traitor to a bipartisan policy of humanitarian military interventionism. He bombs, drones, and kills, but he doesn’t do it, as his predecessors did, in the name of humanity. Until yesterday.

Trump hit his targets, and the resistance—at least, composed of an alliance with liberal hawks baying for a new war and criticizing Trump for not giving it them—has been gravely damaged. Early reports indicated that most of the Democratic leadership has announced that it supports his actions. New York Senator Charles Schumer said it is “the right thing to do.” John McCain and Lindsey Graham, held up by the press as Trump’s main Republican critics, jointly said: “Building on tonight’s credible first step, we must finally learn the lessons of history and ensure that tactical success leads to strategic progress.” Adam Schiff, ranking Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee and a #resistance darling, went on MSNBC to say he supported the bombing and that he would press Congress to authorize more of it. With the sole exception of Chris Hayes, MSNBC turned into something like a Patriots Day Parade, with one guest after another crediting Trump for his decisiveness. Needless to say, CNN is worse. Josh Rogin of The Washington Post reminded his Twitter followers that Trump’s bombing brings him into the mainstream: “Former senior U.S. intelligence official: This is almost exactly the strike plan Obama readied in 2013.” Indeed, just the day before, Hillary Clinton had called on Trump to “take out” Assad’s air force. NYT columnist Nick Kristof saidTrump “did the right thing.” A “proportional response,” Nancy Pelosi said.

The bombing reveals that there are no limits to the media’s ability to be awed, if not shocked, by manufactured displays of techno-omnipotence. Just as it did in the 1991 Gulf War, the Pentagon passed footage of its nighttime missile launches to the networks. And just as what happened then—when, CBS’s Charles Osgood called the bombing of Iraq “a marvel” and Jim Stewart described it as “two days of almost picture-perfect assaults”—today MSNBC’s Brian Williams called the Tomahawk takeoff “beautiful.” In fact, he described it as “beautiful” three times: “‘They are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is for them what is a brief flight over to this airfield,’ he added, then asked his guest, ‘What did they hit?’” Why, don’t you know, they hit their target: Williams and his colleagues’ ability to have a critical thought.

All criticism from the Democratic leadership has been framed in terms of procedure, focused on the fact that Trump didn’t get congressional approval. Schumer, Schiff, and the rest of them have all pronounced thusly, promising to bring the matter to Congress. This is exactly the kind of danger I warned about here, comparing Democrats’ opposition to Trump—and particularly their obsession with Russia—to Iran/Contra. That was a crime that should have handed the keys to all three branches of government to the Democrats. Instead, by accepting the premises of Reagan’s objectives but dissenting over how he achieved them, Democrats blew it then, just as they blew it in 2004 when John Kerry ran for president criticizing how the war in Iraq was being waged but accepting the justifications for why it was being waged. And they are going to blow it now. In fact, the only senator, as far as I know, who criticized the bombing itself, and not the way it was carried out, was Rand Paul: “While we all condemn the atrocities in Syria, the United States was not attacked.… Our prior interventions in this region have done nothing to make us safer, and Syria will be no different.”

Coming back to the first point, Russia was alerted beforehand of the bombing, thus limiting the danger of escalation. If this was the case, it raises the question of just how committed Putin is to defending Assad, and of whether Trump might just be able to have his cake and eat it too. That is, he might be able to win the trifecta: distance himself from the slur of “isolationism,” placate the interventionists, and keep his budding alliance with Russia. A jump in oil prices as a result of the bombing will make Russia and Tillerson happy. And perhaps this is all a test run for the real game: figuring out a way to drive a wedge between Iran and Russia. Then Trump can have Moscow and McCain and Schumer can have Iran.

Finally, Washington’s use of the “established deconfliction channel” to warn Moscow that it was readying its missiles might have, for now, reduced the risk of escalation. But the risk is still substantial. That the bombing came on the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entrance into World War I underscores the oft-made point that war is unpredictable. If Trump doesn’t get what he wants from these bombs, if his domestic numbers don’t go up, or if Assad’s behavior still remains unchecked, what will he do? As I argued here, we are in uncharted territory: Never before has foreign policy—including war and the threat of war—been as completelydriven by domestic polarization as it is now. Not even in the 1960s was the US governing establishment as fractured as it is today, with Trump both a symptom and an accelerant of that fracture.

Fifty years ago, the Mexican critic Octavio Paz described the United States as a “giant which is walking faster and faster along a thinner and thinner line.” Today, that line is about gone, and we teeter like never before over the abyss.

What Did 9/11 Inaugurate?

9-11 Calamity

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Viktor Vasnetsov)

On this 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, we should ask ourselves what those attacks inaugurated.  In a word, calamity.  The wildly successful actions of Al Qaeda, combined with the wild overreactions of the Bush/Cheney administration, marked the 21st century as one that will likely become known to future historians as calamitous.

The wild overreactions of the Bush/Cheney administration, essentially continued by Obama and the present national security state, have played into the hands of those seeking a crusade/jihad in the Greater Middle East.

In thinking about the 9/11 attacks, as an Air Force officer, what struck me then, and still does now, is the psychological blow.  We Americans like to think we invented flight (not just that the Wright Brothers succeeded in the first powered flight that was both sustained and controlled).  We like to think that airpower is uniquely American.  We take great pride that many airliners are still “Made in the USA,” unlike most other manufactured goods nowadays.

To see our airliners turned into precision missiles against our skyscrapers, another potent image of American power, by a terrorist foe (that was once an ally against Soviet forces in Afghanistan) staggered our collective psyche.  That’s what I mean when I say Al Qaeda’s attacks were “successful.”  They created an enormous shock from which our nation has yet to recover.

This shock produced, as Tom Engelhardt notes in his latest article at, a form of government psychosis for vengeance via airpower.  The problem, of course, is that the terrorist enemy (first Al Qaeda, then the Taliban, now ISIS) simply doesn’t offer big targets like skyscrapers or the Pentagon.  The best the U.S. can do via airpower is to strike at training camps or small teams or even individuals, all of which matter little in the big scheme of things.  Meanwhile, U.S. air strikes (and subsequent land invasions by ground troops) arguably strengthen the enemy strategically.  Why?  Because they lend credence to the enemy’s propaganda that the USA is launching jihad against the Muslim world.

The wild overreactions of the Bush/Cheney administration, essentially continued by Obama and the present national security state, have played into the hands of those seeking a crusade/jihad in the Greater Middle East.  What we have now, so the experts say, is a generational or long war, with no foreseeable end point.  Its product, however, is obvious: chaos, whether in Iraq or Libya or Yemen or Syria.  And this chaos is likely to be aggravated by critical resource shortages (oil, water, food) as global warming accelerates in the next few decades.

We are in the early throes of the calamitous 21st century, and it all began fifteen years ago on 9/11/2001.

William J. Astore

What Did 9/11 Inaugurate?

Obama and the US secret war in Laos


6 September 2016

Barack Obama arrived Monday night in the Laotian capital of Vientiane, becoming the first US president to return to the scene of one of US imperialism’s bloodiest crimes, even as his administration is preparing new wars on a far greater scale.

Obama will attend the East Asian Summit where rising tensions with China over the South China Sea are set to dominate following a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in favour of a US-backed Philippine challenge to China’s territorial claims.

In a pre-recorded CNN interview aired on Sunday, Obama signalled his intent to deliver a blunt message to Chinese President Xi Jinping to abide by the court’s decision. “When we see them violating international rules and norms, as we have seen in some cases in the South China Sea, or in some of their behaviour when it comes to economic policy, we’ve been very firm,” he said, warning: “We’ve indicated to them that there will be consequences.”

What utter hypocrisy! As with every other international rule and norm, the US insists that others abide by rulings under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which it has not even ratified. Over the course of his two terms in office, Obama has transformed the long-running regional disputes in the South China Sea into a dangerous international flashpoint that threatens to trigger war.

Obama routinely declares that China must abide by the “international rules-based order”—that is, the post-World War II order that enshrined American global hegemony and empowered Washington to write the rules for others. He also boasts that it was US military might in the Asia Pacific that ensured “peace” and underwrote the region’s massive economic expansion over the past 40 years.

American dominance in Asia, however, was only established through a series of criminal neo-colonial wars—in particular in Korea and Indochina—that cost the lives of millions, as well as countless diplomatic intrigues and CIA-backed coups. The bloodiest coup, in Indonesia in 1965-66, involved the slaughter of at least a half million workers, peasants and members of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI).

The CIA’s secret war in Laos ranks among American imperialism’s worst war crimes. Between 1964 and 1973, the US conducted 580,000 missions and dropped more than two million bombs on a country less than the size of New Zealand. That is equivalent to one planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, or roughly one tonne of explosives for every man, woman and child in Laos at the time. Laos remains the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.

The US took over from the French in attempting to suppress the anti-colonial movement throughout Indochina—Vietnam and Cambodia as well as Laos—that was dominated by Stalinist parties and backed by the Soviet Union and China. The CIA used every dirty trick in the book to prop up the Royal Lao Government and disrupt North Vietnamese soldiers and supplies from passing down the so-called Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam.

The CIA was centrally involved, as the war did not have congressional approval and was kept under a cloak of secrecy by the American political and media establishment. As the Royal Laotian army crumbled, CIA operatives recruited, armed and trained an anti-communist guerrilla force estimated at 30,000 from among hill tribes, largely the Hmong. These were bolstered by a secret army of mercenaries from Thailand and US-trained soldiers from South Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines.

Some 350,000 men, women and children were killed in the carnage, and a tenth of the country’s population was displaced by the fighting. The CIA’s Hmong allies lost so many fighters that they turned to the forcible recruitment of child soldiers as young as eight. To fund the war, the Hmong, assisted by the CIA, grew and sold opium, helping to fuel a global heroin epidemic. The CIA company, Air America, flew the drugs out of land-locked Laos.

The secret war devastated the country. According to one account, “Village after village was levelled, countless people burned alive by high explosives, or by napalm and white phosphorus, or riddled by anti-personnel bomb pellets.” Vast quantities of unexploded ordnance cover nearly a third of the country and have killed or maimed at least 20,000 people since the end of the war. More than 12,000 survivors are in need of ongoing medical care and rehabilitation.

A pittance in US aid—just $118 million—has been provided to deal with unexploded bombs. An estimated 1 percent of contaminated land has been cleared. The Obama administration has increased the amount from $5 million in 2010 to $19.5 million this year, not out of any concern for the Laotian people, but rather as part of its efforts to bully and bribe the Vientiane regime to loosen its ties with Beijing and reorient towards Washington.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War has not led to peace but to an escalating succession of wars over the past 25 years, as American capitalism has sought to offset its decline through military might. As was the case in Laos and more broadly Indochina and Korea, whole countries—Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya—have been devastated in an effort to shore up American global hegemony.

As the global economic breakdown worsens, the United States is actively and aggressively preparing for war against major powers—above all, China and Russia. Washington’s diplomatic efforts in Vientiane are part of Obama’s far broader “pivot to Asia” over the past five years aimed at undermining, weakening and militarily encircling China. As a result, the South China Sea is just one of the flashpoints in Asia that Obama has deliberately inflamed and that could set off a conflict between the two nuclear-armed powers.

Only the working class can halt the slide into another catastrophic world war. This underscores the necessity of the political fight being waged by the International Committee of the Fourth International to build an international anti-war movement uniting workers in the US, China, throughout Asia and the world to put an end to capitalism and to reconstruct society on socialist foundations.

Peter Symonds


The wonders of Pluto revealed

NASA’s latest findings are a sight to behold

New Horizons fly-by captures dwarf planet’s haunting beauty and offers new clues of a possible sub-surface ocean

The wonders of Pluto revealed: NASA's latest findings are a sight to behold
This article was originally published by Scientific American.

Scientific AmericanLast July, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto, the last unvisited world of the classical solar system. As the largest known member of the Kuiper belt, Pluto is also the gateway to a new frontier, a scarcely studied collection of primordial icy bodies far from the sun that constitutes the “third zone” of the solar system after the realms of the inner rocky planets and the outer gas giants.

Like most first glimpses of new frontiers, Pluto held so many surprises for New Horizons that the past eight months have seen a steady stream of discoveries coming from the mission, as the spacecraft’s small radio transmitter beams its gathered data back home. The biggest surprises have been Pluto’s surface and atmosphere, which are restlessly active and diverse despite average temperatures of only tens of degrees above absolute zero. Some scientists expected New Horizons would find Pluto to be little more than an inert, sunlight-starved orb. Instead, the spacecraft encountered a world where nitrogen glaciers flow down into plains of frozen methane from towering mountains of water ice. Sunless half-frozen oceans lurk deep beneath the surface, and multiple moons tumble overhead through hydrocarbon-hazed red skies that tinge to blue at sunrise and sunset.

But beyond celebrating the visceral thrill of the Pluto flyby itself, or the intellectual frisson of gazing on full-color close-ups of a place so alien and faraway, most of these discoveries from New Horizons have so far found a muted public reception. The story has simply been that we went to Pluto, and witnessed wonders. What those wonders actually mean—for our understanding of Pluto, for planetary evolution, and for the broad history of the solar system—is something that the mission scientists themselves are still working out. They summarize their latest thoughts in this week’s edition of the journal Science, with a quintet of papers that constitute the synthesis of our current understanding of Pluto.

Here are the three big-picture takeaways from our emerging portrait of this strange, frozen world:


New Horizons was only able to closely study one hemisphere of Pluto as it whizzed by, revealing a sprawling heart-shaped plain of mixed nitrogen, carbon monoxide and methane ices ringed by mountains and heavily cratered terrain. Dubbed Sputnik Planum, the 1,000-kilometer-wide western lobe of the heart looks almost bubbly, like a churning pot of creamy oatmeal or frothy foam on a pint of Guinness beer.

An 80-kilometer strip of Pluto’s surface, stretching from the crater-free northwest shoreline of Sputnik Planum on the right, through blocky mountains of water ice, into rugged, pitted icy plains on the left.

Sputnik Planum has no craters, and is likely less than 10 million years old, probably formed from fresh snow and glaciers sliding down from nearby rugged highlands. Its bubbles are convection cells driven by heat rising through the thick ice from deep below. A small “mountain range” at Sputnik Planum’s northwestern edge is in fact blocks of water ice that seem to be bobbing in the higher-density ices like cubes in a glass. These blocks are perhaps crust fractured and overturned by some tectonic upheaval. To the south, New Horizons scientists have spied what seem to be two young cryovolcanoes, Wright Mons and Piccard Mons, relatively unblemished kilometers-high mounds surrounding central pits at least as deep.

Taken together, these features show that more than four billion years after its formation, Pluto still somehow retains enough internal heat to maintain an active geology and, here and there, a very youthful surface replenished by cryovolcanism and the seasonal sublimation and deposition of volatile ices. Deep within the world, Pluto’s heat could be sufficient to sustain an ocean of ammonia-rich water beneath a thick roof of water-ice bedrock. Long linear striations upon parts of Pluto’s surface hint that any subsurface ocean may be slowly freezing, deforming the ground and releasing additional latent heat as it turns to ice.


Sputnik Planum’s smooth-featured youth is exceptional. Most of the rest of Pluto’s exterior is far more craggy and ancient, altered extensively across hundreds of millions or billions of years. Varying mixtures and combinations of nitrogen, water, carbon monoxide and methane that make up Pluto’s crust create different varieties of ice and terrain, similar to how rocks on earth can form cliffs of soft chalk or mountains of hard granite. These varying substrates can then be textured with pits, grooves and channels produced by subliming ice, eroding glaciers and precipitating frost—effects driven by Pluto’s weather, which fluctuates in decades-long seasons.

Centered on Sputnik Planum, this partial geological map of Pluto reveals the diversity of terrain seen by NASA’s New Horizons mission during its flyby.

The results are usually bizarre, and difficult to decipher. Northeast of Sputnik Planum, past stretches of pitted plains, the surface is wrinkled with closely spaced ridges that rise sharp and knife-like half a kilometer into the air. This “bladed terrain” may be vestiges of an old, once-buried layer of highly durable material exhumed and weathered by some combination of scouring ice, swirling winds and glaring sunlight. Or it may be newer, formed from airborne methane frost glazing rigid crests of water ice. What is clear is that Pluto’s landscape cannot be understood without also closely studying its weather—its atmosphere.

An intricate series of sharp, steep ice ridges form the distinctive “bladed terrain” of a region called Tartarus Dorsa, northeast of Sputnik Planum.

New Horizons has revealed Pluto’s tenuous atmosphere of gaseous nitrogen and methane to be colder and more compact than previously thought, and layered with hazes of soot-like hydrocarbon particles produced by ultraviolet light and cosmic rays. The particles are reddish, but at sunrise and sunset when sunlight passes through the thickest hazes, they scatter the light to give Pluto’s sky a blue tint. The particles are also sticky, and grow like snowflakes over tens of thousands of years, until at last they become heavy enough to fall, accumulating as crimson sludge in the world’s most ancient terrains.

Silhouetted against the sun, Pluto’s atmosphere appears blue. The azure color comes from sunlight scattered by layers of soot-like hydrocarbon particles.

The most primordial part of Pluto’s surface may be a hemisphere-spanning splash of red called Cthulhu Regio, a region so thoroughly pulverized by craters it is thought to be some four billion years old. Curiously, it is directly adjacent to the western edge of what could be Pluto’s youngest landform, the fresh, cream-colored ices of Sputnik Planum. Even Sputnik Planum, it turns out, has surprisingly ancient roots: Its youthful ice fills a deep basin that may be the oldest, largest impact crater still in existence on Pluto.

A close-up of the transition between the fresh, light-colored ice of Sputnik Planum and the dark, heavily cratered and ancient terrain of Cthulhu Regio.


Besides Cthulhu Regio, Pluto’s most notable other old, reddish, impact-generated feature isn’t actually on the dwarf planet at all—it’s Pluto’s largest moon, Charon. Long thought the product of a cataclysmic impact of the same sort that made Earth’s moon, Charon’s violent origins have been all but confirmed by New Horizons. Most of Charon’s surface is actually grayish bright water ice, with craters indicating it is more than four billion years old—a strong hint it coalesced from shattered and ejected pieces of Pluto’s water-ice crust. Its connection to Pluto hasn’t been completely severed, though: Mordor Macula, a cap of dark red hydrocarbons at its north pole, is likely produced by ultraviolet light reacting with wisps of upper atmosphere that drift away from Pluto’s gravity and freeze onto Charon, building up like layers of red varnish over billions of years.

Much like Pluto, Charon also seems to have a subsurface ocean—or at least it used to. New Horizons discovered a deep gash snaking across some 1,800 kilometers of the moon’s surface—a furrow four times longer than the Grand Canyon on a moon roughly the size of Texas. The gash seems to be from a time when Charon’s inner ocean froze, bulging as it turned to ice and rupturing the moon’s crust from within.

A high-resolution image of Pluto’s moon Charon, revealing the reddish region called Mordor Macula at its north pole and a moon-girdling gash that hints at a now-frozen subsurface ocean.

In addition to Charon, Pluto has four much smaller moons: Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra. New Horizons has found them to be much brighter and smaller than most researchers expected. They all are spinning rapidly, and have extreme axial tilts so off-kilter to those of Pluto and Charon that they are not easily explained. These smaller moons were probably also produced by the great Charon-forming impact. Like Charon, they seem to possess crater-battered surfaces of four-billion-year-old water ice, and they are oblong rather than spherical, as if they are all less moons and more barely-held-together piles of coalesced rubble. At least one of them, Kerberos, is shaped like a dumbbell, signaling its formation from two smaller bodies merging after the cataclysmic impact.

One of New Horizons’ final images of the “encounter hemisphere” of Pluto, snapped by the departing spacecraft as the frozen world rolled into twilight.

What’s next for all these weird worlds of staggering geological richness? We’ll find out soon. Fully half the data New Horizons took remains onboard, still awaiting transmission. Meanwhile, the spacecraft is continuing its mission, cruising toward a rendezvous with a smaller, more distant Kuiper belt object in 2019. The best may be yet to come.

Pentagon deploying drone aircraft within the US


By Joseph Kishore
12 March 2016

A report released by the Department of Defense inspector general reveals that for nearly ten years, the US military has been coordinating the domestic use of drones with local officials and the National Guard. It has done so without any public accountability or reporting by the media.

The Pentagon report, prepared last month, was made public last week only after a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Federation of American Scientists.

The inspector general report provides only a glimpse into the extensive use of the military within the borders of the United States. It refers to “less than 20” instances since 2006 when drones were requested by US agencies for use outside of military bases. It does not include a complete list of cases where drones were used, but instead provides nine examples occurring between 2011 and 2016.

While the report is accompanied by the usual reference to “protecting the American public’s civil liberties and privacy rights,” the use of drones (or unmanned aircraft systems, UAS) within the country is a serious warning. It is part of a broader expansion of domestic military activity over the past fifteen years and complements the much more extensive deployment of drone aircraft by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Several of the examples listed include large-scale training exercises that involve a simulated natural disaster. Such exercises provide an opportunity for the military to practice the coordination of its assets with local, state and federal civilian agencies.

The cases listed include Exercise Guardian Shield 2015. In this exercise, carried out last summer in Ohio, the Ohio Air National Guard, the FBI and state and local agencies simulated incidents throughout the state. Exercise Ardent Sentry 2011, another example listed in the report, was a nationwide exercise simulating an earthquake along the New Madrid Seismic Zone, which includes parts of Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi and Tennessee. The exercise was overseen by the US Northern Command, set up in 2002 under the Bush administration as the first-ever command in charge of military activity within the United States.

Military drones were also reportedly deployed during several natural disasters, including flooding in the Mississippi River Valley at the beginning of this year and in South Carolina last October. Of the nine cases listed, six took place in the last 10 months, indicating a significant expansion of military drone use.

The use of drone aircraft is part of the integration of the military with domestic agencies (through a program known as Defense Support of Civil Authorities, or DSCA), under the authority of the US Northern Command. In 2006, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld signed an interim order that, according to the inspector general report, “encourages the use of DoD [Department of Defense] UAS to support appropriate domestic mission sets.”

The current DSCA policy guidelines (adopted in 2012 under the Obama administration) contain extremely broad language calling for the military to respond to requests “from civil authorities for domestic emergencies, law enforcement support, and other domestic activities, or from qualifying entities for ‘special events.’”

The ground is being laid for a much broader use of military drones. A 2012 Department of Defense report to Congress identified 110 potential drone bases within the US and called for expanded military access to domestic airspace, ostensibly for the purpose of training individuals to meet the vast growth in “operational demand” abroad, i.e., the assassination program of the Obama administration in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and other countries.

The potential drone bases cited in the 2012 report were located in 39 different states throughout the country.

Since the US Northern Command was first established, the Pentagon, under the Bush and Obama administrations, has pushed for a reinterpretation of the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits the use of the military for domestic purposes. In 2008, the Pentagon established an “anti-terror” unit within the framework of the Northern Command composed of 20,000 regular Army troops that could be used within the US.

A Department of Justice “white paper” on drone assassination, leaked to the press in February 2013, outlined the Obama administration’s position that the White House has the authority to kill anyone, including US citizens, anywhere in the world without judicial process. In the spring of that year, Attorney General Eric Holder refused to rule out the possibility that the president could, under “extraordinary circumstances…authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States,” including by means of drone strikes.

Over the past several years, the Pentagon has carried out a series of domestic exercises simulating large-scale military operations. These include most significantly Operation Jade Helm, begun in July 2015 and involving drills in parts of California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico and Texas.

The expanded use or simulated use of military forces within the country has coincided with the militarization of local police and the use of the National Guard to impose effective martial law in response to terrorist attacks or social protests, including the lockdown of Boston following the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, and the states of emergency in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland during protests against police violence in 2014 and 2015.

Last June, FBI Director James Comey acknowledged that his agency had used drone surveillance aircraft to monitor the protests in both Ferguson and Baltimore. An Associated Press report prior to Comey’s testimony revealed that the FBI had conducted more than 100 flights in 11 states during a single month that year, employing shell companies to operate the aircraft.

The events in Ferguson and Baltimore revealed the essential purpose behind all of these measures. Utilizing the “war on terror” as a pretext, the White House and the Pentagon have worked systematically to expand the apparatus of surveillance and repression—military and police—to utilize the instruments of war ever more directly against social opposition within the United States.

Exporting Death: When It Comes to Arming the Planet, America Is Unrivaled

New report shows that over the past five years, the United States was the top arms exporter in the world.

Over the past five years, the United States oversaw the dramatic rise in weapons transfers worldwide.
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

The United States is driving the global surge in militarization, as the number one arms exporter over the past five years—during which it shipped deadly weapons to at least 96 countries—according to a disturbing new reportby the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

From 2011 to 2015, the U.S. oversaw the dramatic rise in weapons transfers, the global volume of which jumped a stunning 14 percent compared to levels seen during the previous five years.

The Middle East was the top recipient of American arms, and within the region, Saudi Arabia was the number one importer. These shipments continued despite human rights calls for an arms embargo, over concerns that the Saudi-led coalition is committing widespread war crimes in Yemen.

In fact, SIPRI researchers note that the coalition has been able to continue its relentless aerial assault of Yemen thanks primarily to U.S. and European shipments. “A coalition of Arab states is putting mainly U.S.- and European-sourced advanced arms into use in Yemen,” said Pieter Wezeman, senior researcher with the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Program.

Worldwide, U.S. arms exports over the past five years jumped 27 percent over 2006-2010 levels. Weapons exports are poised to rise even more.

“As regional conflicts and tensions continue to mount, the U.S. remains the leading global arms supplier by a significant margin,” said Dr. Aude Fleurant, director of the SIPRI Arms and Military Expenditure Program. “[T]he U.S. arms industry has large outstanding export orders, including for a total of 611 F-35 combat aircraft to 9 states.”

Coming in behind the United States, Russia, China, France, and Germany were in the top five exporters. The top five importers were India, Saudi Arabia, China, the UAE and Australia.

The U.S. led the world in arms exports during a period of rising conflict and war, leading to levels of human displacement not seen since World War II.

The United Nations Refugee Agency estimated last year that one out of every 122 people on the planet has been violently uprooted from their homes by war and persecution, thereby forced to become refugees, asylum seekers, or internally displaced people. If all of these displaced people formed a country, it would be the 24th largest in the world.

Sarah Lazare is a staff writer for AlterNet. A former staff writer for Common Dreams, Sarah co-edited the book About Face: Military Resisters Turn Against War. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahlazare.