Nearly 4,000 US communities have higher rates of lead poisoning than Flint

By Jerry White
16 November 2017

In an updated study, Reuters news agency has identified 3,810 neighborhoods where recently recorded child lead poisoning rates are at least double those found in Flint, Michigan during the height of that city’s water crisis in 2014 and 2015. In some 1,300 of these “hotspot” communities, the percentage of children six and under with elevated lead levels was at least four times the percentage in Flint during the peak of the crisis.

In pockets of Baltimore, Cleveland and Philadelphia, where lead poisoning has spanned generations, Reuters reported that the rate of elevated tests over the last decade was 50 percent or higher. An interactive map released with the study shows one census tract in Buffalo, New York—a former steel and auto center that, like Flint, has suffered decades of deindustrialization—where 68 percent of the children had high levels of lead.

Map of lead concentrations in the United States

The ingestion of any amount of the heavy metal, whether through tainted water, lead-based paint, contaminated soil or fumes and dust, can do irreparable harm to children. This includes impeding the development of the brain and nervous system, lowered IQ, memory loss, hearing and speech problems, and behavioral and attention-related problems. The toxin, which remains in the body and can be passed on for generations, is also responsible for a host of adult health problems, including decreased kidney function, high blood pressure, tremors and infertility.

In the year following the switchover of Flint to water from the polluted Flint River, which caused leaching from the city’s antiquated lead pipe system, five percent of the children who had their blood tested showed lead levels in excess of five micrograms per deciliter. This is the threshold requiring immediate public health intervention, according to the US government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which acknowledges that there is no safe level of exposure to lead.

Reuters used data collected by the CDC based on neighborhood-level blood testing results for 34 states and the District of Columbia. As devastating as the results are, they do not provide a full picture. The CDC funds 35 state and local health departments for lead surveillance. Reporting is voluntary in the remaining states, many of which do not have staff to collect data. Despite the well-known public health hazard, the US government does not require reporting and does not oversee the systematic collection and analysis of data on lead poisoning.

Dr. Kim Cecil of the Cincinnati Lead Study shows how the brain isdamaged by lead poisoning

Reuters says this is the first look at data broken down by census tracts, which are small county subdivisions averaging 4,000 citizens, or by zip codes, with average populations of 7,500. In December, Reuters noted that far from being the exception, Flint did not even rank among the most toxic cities in America. It pointed to Warren, Pennsylvania, a town on the Allegheny River, where 36 percent of the children tested had high lead levels, to a zip code on Goat Island, Texas, where a quarter of tests showed poisoning.

The newest map includes additional data collected this year by Reuters from Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Vermont, North Carolina, New York City and Washington, D.C. The newly identified areas with high levels of child lead poisoning include a historic district in Savannah, Georgia, areas in Rutland, Vermont near a popular skiing area, and a largely Hasidic Jewish area in Brooklyn, New York.

Like Flint, which has acres of land polluted by General Motors and other industrial firms, impoverished homes with peeling paint, and underground lead water mains and service lines, the areas throughout the US with the worst lead poisoning are invariably working class and poor.

There has been a sharp decline in poisoning since lead was removed from paint in 1976 and gasoline in 1995, the latter after more than a decade of resistance by the oil industry. The elimination of lead poisoning, however, is not possible due to lead pipes, residual lead paint in poor urban and rural areas, and former or current industrial sites polluted with lead.

he Flint River

“The dramatic decline in blood lead over the last several decades in the US is a public health triumph, resulting from control of lead in gasoline, paint, food, water, soil, consumer products and other sources,” said Marc Edwards, a professor of environmental and water resources engineering at Virginia Tech University, who was instrumental in exposing the lies of state and local officials who claimed that Flint’s water was safe.

He continued: “Before the increased use of lead in paint and gasoline, lead in water was once the dominant source of human lead exposure in the United States, and it was generally acknowledged to cause widespread lead poisoning, fatalities and adverse pregnancy outcomes. Flint is yet another reminder that we must remain vigilant to harm caused by all lead sources, especially lead pipes, which are out of sight and out of mind. It is also the only government-owned source of lead, which directly affects potable water, a product intended for human consumption. Flint is just the most recent example of how this inherent conflict has harmed people.”

The poisoning of Flint was brought into the national and international spotlight only due to the courageous efforts of the city’s working class residents and science professionals like Edwards and pediatrician and public health advocate Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. She was denounced by Governor Rick Snyder’s office for “slicing and dicing” the results of blood samples.

Flint became a symbol of everything that was wrong in America: corporate and political criminality and the indifference of both the Democrats and Republicans to the plight of working people. The media, celebrities and politicians from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders poured into the town and legal proceedings were initiated against several lesser figures involved in the crime and cover-up. More than three years since the switch to the Flint River, however, nothing has been done to make the residents whole.

The new report from Reuters has been largely ignored by the rest of the corporate-controlled media, which originally presented the Flint crisis as an anomaly, until it was unable to deny the massive and nationwide scale of the problem. Far from committing the necessary resources, including an estimated $500 billion to $1 trillion to replace the nation’s lead pipes, the Obama and Trump administrations have failed to provide any significant funding to address this public health care threat, even as they have squandered trillions on bank bailouts, military spending and tax cuts for the wealthy.

Trump’s 2018 budget request includes a $1.2 billion, or 17 percent, cut to the CDC and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Genetic study demonstrates that racial classification by skin color has no scientific basis

By Philip Guelpa
9 November 2017

A new study, published in the journal Science (“Loci associated with skin pigmentation identified in African populations,” 12 October 2017), elucidates the genetic mechanisms controlling human skin color and demonstrates that racial conceptions regarding skin color and its supposed marking of distinct groupings of human beings have no scientific foundation.

The traditional view has been that early humans had dark skin as an evolutionary adaptation to protect themselves from the dangerous ultraviolet radiation of the harsh African sun. As humans spread to other continents and higher latitudes, where solar input was less intense, lighter skin developed to permit greater production of vitamin D, an essential nutrient, which is produced in the skin using sunlight. However, the actual geographic distribution of populations with varying skin tones does not neatly fit this simple scenario. The new research, while not denying this mechanism, reveals a much more complicated picture.

Until recently, while the basic factor leading to variation in skin tone due to differing concentrations and kinds of the pigment melanin was known, there was very little understanding of the biological basis of how an individual’s skin color was determined, and most of that was based on studies of European populations, providing only a very narrow view of the total range of variation. As the birthplace of humanity, Africa has the most diverse human gene pool (populations there having had the longest time for genetic variation to develop) and is, therefore, likely to provide useful data on genetic variation, including that influencing skin color.

The data used in the new research, conducted by a team of nearly 50 co-authors from more than a dozen different institutions in the US and several African countries, was derived from a study of 2,092 volunteers in Tanzania, Ethiopia and Botswana, of diverse ethnic and genetic backgrounds. Their skin color was measured and the genomes of 1,570 people were analyzed in detail. This resulted in the identification of six genetic regions (genes) that are, in combination, significantly associated with determination of an individual’s skin color, collectively accounting for 29 percent of the observed variation. Each of the gene loci has variants (alleles) associated with different skin tones, ranging from relatively lighter to darker. The results were then compared with existing genetic data from West African, Eurasian, and Australo-Melanesian populations.

The fact that 71 percent of the variation is unaccounted for by the genes identified so far strongly suggests that the genetic determination of skin color is even more complicated than the current research has disclosed. Significantly, most of the variants, for both light and dark skin, were found to have originated in Africa. It is also important to note that the identified genes are located on several different chromosomes, indicating that their transmission is not closely linked in reproduction.

The actions of the various genes were tested by introducing them into lab mice and zebrafish, and observing the results.

The finding that skin color is controlled by multiple genes, each with a range of variants, demonstrates conclusively that any individual’s coloration is the result of a complex mix of multiple factors, dialectically interacting with each other. Each person’s exterior appearance (phenotype) is the expression of a balance resulting from the combination of this genetic color palate (genotype). Furthermore, this may not simply be an additive process. As with so many other biological characteristics, some gene variants, singly or in combination, may be dominant in their expression over others, known as recessive, making the outcome even more complex.

In addition to clarifying the genetic mechanisms controlling skin color, the analysis also provides insights into the evolutionary history of these mechanisms. According to the study, at least some of the variants are quite old, having evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago. With regard to variants associated with lighter skin color, seven are at least 270,000 years old and four are over 900,000 years old. One of the latter is found both in Europeans and San hunter-gathers of Botswana.

Among the significant implications of this finding is that these variants either coincide with or substantially predate the appearance of modern humans, which occurred 200,000 to 300,000 years ago. In other words, a complex variation in skin color has been part of human evolution for a very long time.

Another finding is that at least some skin color genes have changed significantly over time. Three of the variants that produce the darkest skin appear to have evolved from lighter color versions. Another variant, which originated relatively recently among people in Europe and the Middle East, has spread into Africa, possibly in association with migrations of early agriculturalists.

It is likely that the wide range of skin color variation originally evolved as small early human populations adapted to a myriad of local environments, influenced by many different selective factors. Subsequent population movements, spanning hundreds of thousands of years, including interbreeding between modern humans, Neanderthals and perhaps other local populations, mixed and remixed the genetic pool, creating an array of physical characters that often were only partly reflective of the environmental settings where they wound up.

As one of the study’s authors, Sarah Tishkoff, points out, chimpanzees, our closest living evolutionary relatives, are light-skinned below their body hair. So, it is likely that early hominins were similarly light-colored and that darker skin developed later, once they moved from forested areas onto the savannah.

The multiplicity of genetic controls over skin color means that there are no fixed categories based on this essentially superficial characteristic. The myriad array of skin tones that currently exists across the globe merely reflects a moment in the constantly changing variation that has typified human evolution over millions of years.

As with numerous other scientific studies, this latest research confirms, yet again, that the concept of race among humans is a social construct without any objective biological basis. Those who view skin color as a marker of distinct racial groupings, associated with other characteristics such as intelligence, choose, consciously or unconsciously, to ignore the vast range of variation that exists among contemporary humans. The study published in Sciencedemonstrates forcefully that the genetic control over the color of a person’s skin is extremely complex and, therefore, not susceptible to simplistic classification.

That is not to say, however, that racism has no objective basis, although it is social and not biological. In capitalist society, racial, ethnic, religious, and linguistic distinctions have been and continue to be a weapon in the hands of the ruling class to keep workers divided in the face of class-based oppression.

Survivors of Northern California fires face new ordeal of recovery

By Therese Leclerc
6 November 2017

The fires are out in Northern California. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has announced that all the wildfires that have ravaged the counties of Napa, Lake, Sonoma, Mendocino, Butte and Solano, north of San Francisco, since October 9 have been completely contained.

At the height of the blaze, 42 residents lost their lives as 10,000 firefighters, many of them volunteers, worked shifts of up to four days straight to battle the infernos. Crews were mobilized from throughout the state. Others came in from neighboring Nevada and Oregon and from as far away as Canada, Mexico and Australia.

With the extinguishing of the flames, however, the ordeal for the survivors has entered a new stage.

The fires are the most severe California has ever faced. Some 15,000 homes and 3,000 vehicles were destroyed or damaged.

Figures released by the state insurance commissioner’s office last week put the damage at over $3 billion. That figure is certain to rise.

For the first time, this year’s fires, driven by up-to-50-mph winds, engulfed urban areas, such as the city of Santa Rosa, where the Coffey Park neighborhood was reduced to ashes after the flames jumped six lanes of Highway 101.

Homeowners and renters, still in makeshift accommodation, are currently tackling the onerous task of cleaning up, attempting to retrieve any of their belongings that may have survived and applying for insurance and what federal assistance is available.

California has declared a public health emergency in the fire area. Mobile homes that were incinerated in Santa Rosa were found to have contained asbestos. Freon from air conditioners and heavy metals such as arsenic, copper and lead pose health risks throughout the area as well.

Recent rain—and the rainfall to come with the approach of winter—risks carrying the hazardous waste down into waterways, and even into water treatment plants, downstream of destroyed forests and charred neighborhoods.

Some homes have been designated toxic waste sites, further complicating the job for residents trying to salvage belongings.

There are residents who face even more obstacles to regaining their homes and jobs. These are the undocumented workers, who form the core workforce of the main industries in the region—hospitality, tourism and the wineries. It is estimated that some 28,000 undocumented adults and children lived in the region worst affected by the flames.

These workers do not qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) aid. One of the many details required on the FEMA application forms is a social security number, denied to these residents, some of whom have lived in the area for up to 18 years. Children of these families who are American citizens do qualify for federal aid, but there is a fear that if the family seeks aid, other family members will be detained and deported.

This fear also kept many out of the shelters set up for residents who lost their homes or were ordered to evacuate endangered areas. Members of the National Guard were stationed at the shelters.

In the days following the outbreak of the fires, dozens of these families slept in cars and on beaches along the California coast.

Officials have said it will take years for the region to recover, socially and economically. Judging by the experience of residents in the wake of other recent disasters in the United States and its territories, that may be an understatement.

In Houston, recently flooded after the passage of Hurricane Harvey, the disaster is worsening the level of social inequality in the region.

NBC reported on October 23 that the poor in the Houston area are likely to fall further into poverty and homelessness while the wealthy are moving ahead with rebuilding.

Those who have been receiving temporary assistance from FEMA over the last two months now find themselves struggling to regain a foothold in their lives.

“Displaced renters have found themselves reliant on the whims of landlords or the generosity of friends,” the NBC report stated. “Homeowners without flood insurance are in a similar bind, while those who have it are waiting for their claims to go through. Some are maxing out their credit cards, or moving back into damaged houses.

“In some prosperous neighborhoods,” the report added, “certain homeowners aren’t bothering to wait for their insurance checks—if they had flood insurance at all—and are paying their contractors up front.”

An even more extreme situation exists in Puerto Rico, devastated by Hurricane Maria in late September. Most residents have been told they will be without power until January or February, with some of those in the outlying areas having to wait until spring or summer, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

The hardship experienced by people in these situations can become permanent. In New Orleans, flooded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, residents were temporarily removed to neighboring states, far from their homes and jobs. Twelve years later, many are still displaced. While some have managed to start again in their new location, those who would prefer to return face expenses most people cannot meet. There is a lack of affordable housing in the city and new safety standards for elevating homes. Some people will never be able to return.

In Northern California, those who manage to overcome all the obstacles to rebuilding may encounter a further problem: insurance rate hikes.

In a press conference on Tuesday, state insurance commissioner Dave Jones warned that in the wake of the disaster insurers were likely to reevaluate the risk that wildfires pose to structures previously considered low-risk to such threats.

“I am concerned the fire we just experienced is not an anomaly and may represent a new normal,” Jones said.

The US media and the Kennedy assassination documents: “Move along, nothing to see here”

By Bill Van Auken
30 October 2017

The Trump administration’s partial release of previously classified documents related to the November 22, 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy has been dropped by the US mass media with what can only be described as unseemly haste.

Last Thursday night, when the White House announced that it was releasing only 2,800 of the once-secret papers, withholding a significant amount of the most sensitive material in compliance with demands from the Central Intelligence Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the event was widely covered, including the publication of numerous articles in advance of the document release concerning its historic significance. A large force of reporters was deployed to stake out the National Archives.

By Sunday, it was as if the whole thing had never happened. The question was not discussed on any of the Sunday television talk shows, and neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post published so much as a word about the assassination documents in either their news or editorial pages.

From the outset, the media’s treatment of the event was characterized by a palpable nervousness. Cable news anchors and talking heads expressed their concerns that Trump’s extraordinary acknowledgment that he had “no choice” but to withhold a significant number of files because of CIA and FBI warnings over “potentially irreversible harm to our nation’s security” would only encourage “conspiracy theorists.”

This epithet, when used in relation to the Kennedy assassination, applies to roughly two-thirds of the American population, who reject the official story. Codified in the cover-up produced by the Warren Commission, this narrative insists that the murder of the 35th president of the United States was the work of a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, firing a $21 mail order rifle at Kennedy’s motorcade as it moved through Dallas’s Dealey Plaza.

This majority consensus has declined somewhat from the period of 1975 to 2001, when polls showed that over 80 percent of the population rejected the US government’s version of the Kennedy assassination.

Why would the withholding of the documents not strengthen the views of the hundreds of millions of “conspiracy theorists” who populate the United States? What plausible explanation is there for this action other than the fact that the files contain incriminating material relating to elements within the US government and its intelligence agencies?

It is not as if the documents that were released are of such scant interest as to justify the media’s collective response of “Move along folks, nothing to see here.” They expose a state apparatus steeped in bloodshed and criminality, in which assassination was an accepted means of advancing US imperialist interests.

Some of the documents concern conspiracies exposed over 40 years ago, such as the CIA’s connivance with the Mafia in plotting the assassination of Cuban leader Fidel Castro with such exotic methods as exploding seashells and a toxic wetsuit. Then there are newly exposed files that raise serious questions about a state conspiracy surrounding the assassination. These includes a document citing FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s frantic demand, two days after Kennedy’s death and before the investigation had even begun, for something to be “issued so that we can convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin.”

Along similar lines is a truncated file from the 1975 Rockefeller Commission’s investigation of the CIA, which records the agency’s former director Richard Helms being asked, “Is there any information involved with the assassination of President Kennedy which in any way shows that Lee Harvey Oswald was in some way a CIA agent or agent.. .” The file leaves the question uncompleted and Helms’s answer unrecorded.

Whether there exist withheld files containing the answers to such questions is unknown. No thinking person, however, can give the slightest credence to Trump’s Saturday night tweets pledging to release “ALL #JFKFiles other than the names and addresses of any mentioned person who is still living,” in order to “put any and all conspiracy theories to rest.” Trump, who during the 2016 race for the Republican presidential nomination charged that the father of his rival, Ted Cruz, was part of the conspiracy, will make public only the documents the CIA allows.

In its rather cursory coverage of the document release under the headline “A Peek Back at an Era of Secrets and Intrigue,” the New York Times on Friday commented that the “once-secret documents…harken back to an era of Cold War intrigue and spy-versus-spy contests, when assassinations and clandestine plots were a matter of trade craft, not John le Carré novels.”

The article approvingly quotes political analyst Larry Sabato as stating, “It was a very different time, and you have to remember the context. Almost everything revolved around the bipolar system we had between the United States and the Soviet Union.”

That it was “a very different time” no one can deny. The Kennedy assassination marked a turning point in the crisis of US imperialism and was bound up with political, economic and social contradictions that have only deepened in the more than half-century since. But to suggest that we have left behind the era of “assassinations and clandestine plots” is ludicrous.

If anything, the end of the “bipolar system” through the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the subsequent attempt by Washington to offset the declining global influence of US capitalism through the pursuit of a “unipolar” world by means of military force, has seen an explosive development of state criminality that makes the methods of the early 1960s look quaint by comparison.

Assassinations have moved from the realm of covert operations to open state policy, including not only a global drone assassination program initiated under the Obama administration that has killed thousands, including American citizens, but also the open discussion of “decapitation” operations to murder Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and North Korea’s Kim Jung-un.

Wars are launched behind the backs of the American people, with no debate, much less authorization by Congress, and with the CIA arming and supporting Al Qaeda elements to carry out regime-change operations in Libya and Syria.

With the Trump administration, the political underworld of CIA assassins and criminals that emerges in the still limited number of documents released about the Kennedy assassination is, together with the military brass, firmly in control of the levers of state power.

The truncated coverage of the Kennedy documents by the major media and the concerns expressed about “conspiracy theories” are driven less by the events of November 1963 than by the ongoing conspiracies in Washington. The real worry is not so much what will be exposed about the state criminals of the 1960s, but rather the light these crimes shed upon the methods of a government that is today far more thoroughly dominated by the sprawling US military and intelligence apparatus.

Among the most revealing reactions to the Trump administration’s limited release of the Kennedy documents is that of the Democratic Party. Twenty-five years ago, the Democratic-led Congress passed the legislation requiring that all of the Kennedy files be released by October 26, 2017. That Trump bowed to the CIA and FBI in keeping a substantial number of these documents secret provoked not a peep of protest from any leading figure in the Democratic Party, which has moved uninterruptedly to the right since the Kennedy assassination.

The Democrats are seeking to align themselves as closely as possible with the CIA and the military. They oppose Trump not from the standpoint of the threat of nuclear war against Korea, his vendetta against immigrants, his assault on health care, his tax cuts for the rich or his scrapping of corporate and environmental regulations, but rather on the basis that he is “colluding” with Russia to “sow divisions” within American society.

The Democratic Party has emerged as a champion of Internet censorship and a general assault on democratic rights aimed at suppressing “conspiracy theories” exposing the conditions producing mass opposition within the working class to war, social inequality and the destruction of living standards.

New reports document declining life expectancy and worsening health of US workers

24 October 2017

Three recent reports provide new data on the worsening social crisis in America.

According to the annual update of the Society of Actuaries’ (SOA) mortality improvement scale, released last Friday, life expectancy for 65-year-old men and women declined from 85.8 and 87.8 years to 85.6 and 87.6 years respectively between 2014 and 2015, the most recent years available. The 1.2 percent jump in the mortality rate was the first year-over-year increase since 2005, and the first by more than one percentage point since 1980.

Previous reports noted that life expectancy at birth also declined in the US between 2014 and 2015, the first decline since 1993, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Someone born in 2015 is expected to live to 78.8, down from 78.9 in 2014.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, life expectancy at birth, the decline was due to an increase in eight of the ten leading causes of death in the US, including heart disease, chronic lower respiratory diseases, unintentional injuries, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, kidney disease and suicide.

Source: National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics System (NVSS). Note: CLRD stands for Chronic Lower Respiratory Diseases

Another study by a team of researchers from the University of Michigan found that middle-age workers ten years away from collecting Social Security retirement benefits are in poorer health than prior generations when they were in their 50s. This includes higher rates of poor cognition, such as memory and thinking ability, and at least one limitation on the ability to perform a basic daily living task such as shopping for groceries, dressing and bathing, taking medications or getting out of bed. The percentage with such limitations jumped from 8.8 percent of people who retired at 65 to 12.5 percent of current Americans ages 56 to 57 who will retire in a decade.

Americans born in 1960 will not be able to collect their full Social Security benefits until they reach 67, instead of 65, because of the increase in the retirement age enacted by the Reagan administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress in 1983. At the time, they claimed the change was necessary because Americans were living longer and would see continual health improvements in their old age.

The opposite is now the case. “We found that younger cohorts are facing more burdensome health issues, even as they have to wait until an older age to retire, so they will have to do so in poorer health,” said Robert Schoeni, an economist and demographer who co-authored the University of Michigan study.

Inequality among seniors in the US is among the worst in the developed world, according to a report issued last week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which found that the gap between wealthy and low-income seniors is wider in the US than in all but two of the thirty-five OECD member nations—Mexico and Chile. While the rich in America live longer and very comfortably, the poor are working longer, dying younger and increasingly living with pain and ill health.

These are but the latest in a succession of reports documenting higher death rates, higher infant and maternal mortality and declining life expectancy for broad sections of the working population. Meanwhile, Donald Trump routinely hails the record-setting stock market boom as proof of the “success” of his administration.

Source: National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics System

There is, in fact, an intimate connection between the spectacular rise in the Dow, the ever-greater enrichment of the top 5 and 1 percent of the country, and the destruction of decent-paying jobs, the lowering of wages and the gutting of social programs. The corporate-financial oligarchy is benefiting from the impoverishment of broad sections of the population.

As CNN Money reported, “Declining health and life expectancy are good news for one constituency: Pension plans, which must send a monthly check to retirees for as long as they live.” In fact, the health care policies of both political parties are designed to lower life expectancy for the working class and thereby decrease the sums “wasted,” in the eyes of the ruling class, on retirement benefits and health care for workers who have ceased to be a source of profit.

As the World Socialist Web Site wrote in November 2013, citing think tank studies on the “crisis” resulting from America’s aging population, underlying the health care counterrevolution set in motion by Obamacare “is a basic concern of the American ruling class, a concern that is generally left unstated—namely, that people in the end are simply living too long. The advances of modern medicine have extended lives, often significantly beyond the age of retirement.

“For the political strategists of the corporate and financial elite, these years of retirement and medical care are not seen as a good, but as a source of costs that must be slashed, so that they can take that money. This is to be accomplished either by raising the retirement age, by lowering life expectancy so that people die earlier, or both.”

The scenes of hundreds of low-wage workers and retirees lining up in Charleston, West Virginia over the weekend for free dental and vision care—in some cases for their first treatment in years—underscores the scale of the social crisis. In McDowell County, part of the depressed coal mining region of southern West Virginia, life expectancy for males is 63.9 years, only slightly ahead of Haiti, Ghana and Papua New Guinea, due to chronic poverty, ill-health, suicide and drug and alcohol abuse.

The reports on life expectancy, health, etc. provide a measure of the drastic social retrogression resulting from the crisis of the capitalist system—a system that is incompatible with the satisfaction of basic social needs.

The working class must take matters into its own hands. What is necessary is a frontal assault on entrenched wealth and the political monopoly exercised by the corporate-financial oligarchy through its two right-wing political parties. The wealth of the financial parasites must be expropriated and the major corporations and banks turned into publicly-owned and democratically controlled utilities, so that the wealth produced by the working class can be used to provide jobs, education, housing and free, high-quality health care for all.

Jerry White

What fueled the inferno?

Ragina Johnson and Nicole Colson describe the man-made backdrop to the deadly fires that caused terrible destruction across wide areas in Northern California.

An entire neighborhood in the city of Santa Rosa was wiped out by the California fires

An entire neighborhood in the city of Santa Rosa was wiped out by the California fires

THE DEADLIEST wildfires in California’s history ripped through large areas in Northern California this month, terrorizing residents, causing mass evacuations, and leaving behind catastrophic destruction.

Described as a “hurricane of fire,” the web of interconnected blazes, centered primarily in Napa and Sonoma Counties, north of the Bay Area, had killed at least 41 people–many of them elderly residents who could not escape–and forced more than 100,000 people to evacuate as this article was being written.

The wildfires have burned more than 220,000 acres across wine country, but what distinguished this disaster from others is that the flames didn’t stay in the “wild.” Hot winds whipped the fires back and forth, sending them a mile or more into urban and suburban areas. At least 6,700 homes and business have been destroyed, with an estimated loss of at least $3 billion.

While the exact causes for the blazes aren’t yet known, and may not be for years, if ever, we do know that the scale of the devastation was unquestionably magnified by man-made factors like climate change and exacerbated by things like poorly maintained infrastructure.

And as is the case with all “natural” disasters–from Hurricane Katrina to the more recent Hurricanes Harvey and Maria–the devastation isn’t hitting everyone equally. Poor and working-class families–especially undocumented immigrant workers who make up a large portion of the agricultural workforce in wine country–will face an uphill battle to rebuild their lives.

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MUCH OF Santa Rosa has been reduced to ash and debris, leaving this city, only 50 miles north of San Francisco, looking like a city flattened by continuous bombardment. News reports have shown cadaver dogs sniffing through the ashes to find human remains, and almost 3,000 buildings are gone. Sheriff Rob Giordano told the Los Angeles Times, “I don’t even think I understand what the damage toll is going to be, and I have a better handle on it than most…Santa Rosa will be a different planet.”

According to Cal Fire, full containment of the Northern California blazes was still days away as this article was being written, so a complete tally of the catastrophe is far from known. We do know, however, that thousands of lives have been thrown into crisis, with many families losing everything.

The fires traveled so quickly that many residents had to flee with just the shirts on their backs. In some cases, they were forced to drive down roads with 40-foot walls of flame chasing them.

In several instances, evacuations were made more difficult by roads that were unsafe or made impassable, forcing people to set out on foot and hike through hills. Others had to jump into swimming pools in a desperate attempt to survive as a wall of fire engulfed them. Seventy-six-year-old Armando Berriz and his wife of 55 years Carmen took shelter in a pool; he held her in his arms as she died.

Of the tens of thousands of people who evacuated, large numbers will be homeless, especially if they didn’t own their homes. Even many homeowners, however, won’t have the financial means to help get them through this crisis.

Although the image conjured up in the media of “wine country” is of well-to-do residents, some of the communities hardest hit are primarily working class and immigrant–like Coffee Park, the Santa Rosa neighborhood that sustained some of the worst losses.

According to the New York Times, some one-fifth of Santa Rosa metropolitan residents are foreign-born, and immigrants make up a majority of those employed by the wine industry and the resorts and upscale restaurants that attract tourists. And yet, as the Times noted, “Sonoma County also has some of the highest rents in the country, at par with the San Francisco Bay Area.”

The most vulnerable members of the working class, undocumented immigrants, face an especially tough road ahead. Although these workers make up the backbone of local labor force, they can’t get disaster relief through the Federal Emergency Management Agency or other government agencies–and can’t receive unemployment or welfare benefits.

Manuel Vieyra, an undocumented immigrant who came to the U.S. from Mexico as a teenager, had been paying $1,650 a month to rent a three-bedroom house for his family. Although they narrowly escaped when the house burned, the family lost almost everything–including the cars they depended on to get to their jobs.

They are now finding it difficult to find a place to live. “[Landlords are] asking $2,000, even $2,800 a month,” Vieyra told the Times. “I don’t know what we’ll do.”

Vieyra and his family are currently staying with friends–because they are too scared to stay in one of the shelters, due to Manuel and his wife’s status as undocumented immigrants. While politicians claim that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is not going to be conducting raids in areas impacted by the fires, the record of the Trump administration in pursuing the undocumented has made many wary of such promises.

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IN A similar fashion to the recent hurricanes that caused devastation for working people in Houston, Miami and Puerto Rico, the Northern California fires have exposed the reality that, even in the wealthiest state in the U.S., the resources allocated for dealing with such disasters are woefully inadequate.

As of October 14, hundreds of evacuees were still taking refuge in the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, sleeping in a pavilion crowded with cots. “There is no way of knowing where people go,” Rob Brown, a Lake County supervisor, told “You’d be surprised how self-reliant people become. People appreciate having a place to go, but after two or three weeks sleeping on a cot they will find another alternative.”

But that begs the question: Why, in the richest state in the richest country on the planet, should people who have lost everything be expected to be “self-reliant” or spend weeks sleeping on a cot?

Then there is the outrageous truth about the firefighters who combat California’s seasonal wildfires. Some 40 percent are actually prison inmates who don’t even make the state minimum wage paid to Cal Fire crews. When prisoners fight fires they are working for just $1 an hour.

La’Sonya Edwards, an inmate who fights fires in the Southern part of the state, told the New York Times in August: “The pay is ridiculous. There are some days we are worn down to the core. And this isn’t that different from slave conditions.”

Changes in prison sentencing designed to decrease state prison overcrowding have led, incredibly enough, to the “problem”–as the San Francisco Chronicle described it back in September–of the state “heading into the height of this year’s fire season with a drop in the number of what one official called ‘the Marines’ of wildfire fighters” because “not enough inmates are joining up.”

This lack of public resources to deal with fires–including the absence of an adequate emergency alert system, as well as infrastructure upkeep–is what made the situation that preceded the fires more deadly and destructive.

As officials search for a cause, there is speculation that downed power lines may have sparked the initial blazes. Records show that Sonoma emergency dispatchers sent fire crews to at least 10 reports of downed power lines and exploding transformers at the time the fires were first reported.

The electrical utility PG&E claims these downed lines were the result of “hurricane strength,” 75-mile-per-hour winds. But according to the Mercury News, weather station records show that “wind speeds were only about half that level as the lines started to come down”–suggesting that lack of maintenance was a likelier culprit.

Other human factors–which officials had years of prior warning about–also likely added to the horror.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Napa, Sonoma and Butte Counties–three of those hardest hit–were warned years ago about improperly maintained roads and staffing that could compound such emergency situations. A 2013 civil grand jury report in Sonoma, for example, warned that because of neglect and underfunding, many rural roads had “deteriorated to a crisis condition” and could “hamper emergency response, evacuation, medical care, and fire response efforts.”

Lack of aggressive fire regulations in building construction also added to the destruction. As the Los Angeles Times reported, one of the reasons that the destruction in Santa Rosa’s Coffee Park was so severe was because it was considered outside of the “very severe” fire hazard zone just five miles away–meaning the buildings in the area were exempt from regulations designed to make structures more fire resistant.

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REGARDLESS OF what sparked the fires or created the conditions that made containment harder, at its root, the Northern California disaster is the result of a compounding climate crisis that, unless taken seriously, is going to continue to cause successive “unprecedented catastrophes”.

The fires expose how, despite the end to the state’s prolonged drought, California has not escaped the worst effects of climate change.

Last winter, heavy rains replenished much of the state’s water reserves and caused officials to declare that the drought had ended. But in fact, this contributed to a deadlier fire season–all the greenery produced by the rains dried out during a hot summer and turned into starter fuel for the fires. This, combined with shifting weather patterns and high winds, combined to make the fires harder to contain.

As Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and co-author of a report linking global warming to increased wildfires said on Democracy Now!:

The fires are really being driven by a big high-pressure system that is sitting over the coasts of the U.S. and driving winds from the east to the west, bringing very dry, warm air from the deserts of Nevada and Arizona out to the coast. And by the time, the air gets to the coast, it’s compressed down to sea level. It’s very warm and very dry. It pulls the moisture out of vegetation, makes it ready to burn.

Without the kind of controlled burns traditionally practiced by Native American tribes, such fires are inevitable–whether sparked by man-made or natural causes.

Meanwhile, left-wing author Mike Davis noted that the predictable response to such disasters–rebuilding more suburban sprawl without addressing the loss of an agricultural “buffer zone”–will only exacerbate future fires, even in a state whose leaders pride themselves on being environmentally conscious. As Davis wrote:

[California Gov.] Jerry Brown’s California enters this new age with a halo over its head. We “get” climate change and thumb our noses at the mad denialist in the White House. Our governor advocates the Paris [climate] standards with rare passion and sends our anti-carbon missionaries to the far corners of the earth…And we continue to send urban sprawl into our fire-dependent ecosystems with the expectation that firefighters will risk their lives to defend each new McMansion…

This is the deadly conceit behind mainstream environmental politics in California: you say fire, I say climate change, and we both ignore the financial and real-estate juggernaut that drives the suburbanization of our increasingly flammable wildlands.

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AMID THE horror, however, there are also glimpses of decency and hope–in the heroic actions of exhausted and overworked firefighters, community members and other volunteers coming together to care for each other.

Multiple relief funds have been set up for the fire victims, including the “UndocuFund for Fire Relief in Sonoma County,” which was launched by a coalition of immigrant service providers and advocates specifically to “provide direct funding to undocumented immigrants and their families” who will otherwise not qualify for government assistance.

Other labor and community groups are coming together to help organize events to aid those dealing with their grief and loss, like one recently held by the North Bay Organizing Project, in conjunction with the Graton Day Labor Center (Centro Laboral de Graton) and North Bay Jobs With Justice.

As Sonoma County resident and Service Employees International Union Local 1021 member Julia Rapkin described to Socialist Worker, even in the midst of this horrible event, residents reached out to help each other:

People checked on neighbors to see if they needed assistance evacuating, using trailers to even help evacuate farm animals. People knocked on doors. Over the last few days, when you were shopping, cashiers at Trader Joe’s asked if you are okay and are you safe. With everyone you see in the street and in the store, there’s a sense of real solidarity and people caring for each other, which is really beautiful.

Chomsky: Trump’s #1 Goal as President

Donald Trump’s policies will devastate future generations, but that’s of little concern to the Republicans.

Noam Chomsky discusses the recent climate agreement between the US and China, the rise of the Islamic State and the movement in Ferguson against racism and police violence. 
Photo Credit: screen grab via GRITtv

[This interview has been excerpted from Global Discontents: Conversations on the Rising Threats to Democracy, the new book by Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian to be published this December.] 

David Barsamian: You have spoken about the difference between Trump’s buffoonery, which gets endlessly covered by the media, and the actual policies he is striving to enact, which receive less attention. Do you think he has any coherent economic, political, or international policy goals? What has Trump actually managed to accomplish in his first months in office? 

Noam Chomsky: There is a diversionary process under way, perhaps just a natural result of the propensities of the figure at center stage and those doing the work behind the curtains.

At one level, Trump’s antics ensure that attention is focused on him, and it makes little difference how. Who even remembers the charge that millions of illegal immigrants voted for Clinton, depriving the pathetic little man of his Grand Victory? Or the accusation that Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower? The claims themselves don’t really matter. It’s enough that attention is diverted from what is happening in the background. There, out of the spotlight, the most savage fringe of the Republican Party is carefully advancing policies designed to enrich their true constituency: the Constituency of private power and wealth, “the masters of mankind,” to borrow Adam Smith’s phrase.

These policies will harm the irrelevant general population and devastate future generations, but that’s of little concern to the Republicans. They’ve been trying to push through similarly destructive legislation for years. Paul Ryan, for example, has long been advertising his ideal of virtually eliminating the federal government, apart from service to the Constituency — though in the past he’s wrapped his proposals in spreadsheets so they would look wonkish to commentators. Now, while attention is focused on Trump’s latest mad doings, the Ryan gang and the executive branch are ramming through legislation and orders that undermine workers’ rights, cripple consumer protections, and severely harm rural communities. They seek to devastate health programs, revoking the taxes that pay for them in order to further enrich their Constituency, and to eviscerate the Dodd-Frank Act, which imposed some much-needed constraints on the predatory financial system that grew during the neoliberal period.

That’s just a sample of how the wrecking ball is being wielded by the newly empowered Republican Party. Indeed, it is no longer a political party in the traditional sense. Conservative political analysts Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have described it more accurately as a “radical insurgency,” one that has abandoned normal parliamentary politics.

Much of this is being carried out stealthily, in closed sessions, with as little public notice as possible. Other Republican policies are more open, such as pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, thereby isolating the U.S. as a pariah state that refuses to participate in international efforts to confront looming environmental disaster. Even worse, they are intent on maximizing the use of fossil fuels, including the most dangerous; dismantling regulations; and sharply cutting back on research and development of alternative energy sources, which will soon be necessary for decent survival.

The reasons behind the policies are a mix. Some are simply service to the Constituency. Others are of little concern to the “masters of mankind” but are designed to hold on to segments of the voting bloc that the Republicans have cobbled together, since Republican policies have shifted so far to the right that their actual proposals would not attract voters. For example, terminating support for family planning is not service to the Constituency. Indeed, that group may mostly support family planning. But terminating that support appeals to the evangelical Christian base — voters who close their eyes to the fact that they are effectively advocating more unwanted pregnancies and, therefore, increasing the frequency of resort to abortion, under harmful and even lethal conditions.

Not all of the damage can be blamed on the con man who is nominally in charge, on his outlandish appointments, or on the congressional forces he has unleashed. Some of the most dangerous developments under Trump trace back to Obama initiatives — initiatives passed, to be sure, under pressure from the Republican Congress.

The most dangerous of these has barely been reported. A very important study in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, published in March 2017, reveals that the Obama nuclear weapons modernization program has increased “the overall killing power of existing US ballistic missile forces by a factor of roughly three — and it creates exactly what one would expect to see, if a nuclear-armed state were planning to have the capacity to fight and win a nuclear war by disarming enemies with a surprise first strike.” As the analysts point out, this new capacity undermines the strategic stability on which human survival depends. And the chilling record of near disaster and reckless behavior of leaders in past years only shows how fragile our survival is. Now this program is being carried forward under Trump. These developments, along with the threat of environmental disaster, cast a dark shadow over everything else — and are barely discussed, while attention is claimed by the performances of the showman at center stage.

Whether Trump has any idea what he and his henchmen are up to is not clear. Perhaps he is completely authentic: an ignorant, thin-skinned megalomaniac whose only ideology is himself. But what is happening under the rule of the extremist wing of the Republican organization is all too plain.

DB: Do you see any encouraging activity on the Democrats’ side? Or is it time to begin thinking about a third party? 

NC: There is a lot to think about. The most remarkable feature of the 2016 election was the Bernie Sanders campaign, which broke the pattern set by over a century of U.S. political history. A substantial body of political science research convincingly establishes that elections are pretty much bought; campaign funding alone is a remarkably good predictor of electability, for Congress as well as for the presidency. It also predicts the decisions of elected officials. Correspondingly, a considerable majority of the electorate — those lower on the income scale — are effectively disenfranchised, in that their representatives disregard their preferences. In this light, there is little surprise in the victory of a billionaire TV star with substantial media backing: direct backing from the leading cable channel, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox, and from highly influential right-wing talk radio; indirect but lavish backing from the rest of the major media, which was entranced by Trump’s antics and the advertising revenue that poured in.

The Sanders campaign, on the other hand, broke sharply from the prevailing model. Sanders was barely known. He had virtually no support from the main funding sources, was ignored or derided by the media, and labeled himself with the scare word “socialist.” Yet he is now the most popular political figure in the country by a large margin.

At the very least, the success of the Sanders campaign shows that many options can be pursued even within the stultifying two-party framework, with all of the institutional barriers to breaking free of it. During the Obama years, the Democratic Party disintegrated at the local and state levels. The party had largely abandoned the working class years earlier, even more so with Clinton trade and fiscal policies that undermined U.S. manufacturing and the fairly stable employment it provided.

There is no dearth of progressive policy proposals. The program developed by Robert Pollin in his book Greening the Global Economy is one very promising approach. Gar Alperovitz’s work on building an authentic democracy based on worker self-management is another. Practical implementations of these approaches and related ideas are taking shape in many different ways. Popular organizations, some of them outgrowths of the Sanders campaign, are actively engaged in taking advantage of the many opportunities that are available.

At the same time, the established two-party framework, though venerable, is by no means graven in stone. It’s no secret that in recent years, traditional political institutions have been declining in the industrial democracies, under the impact of what is called “populism.” That term is used rather loosely to refer to the wave of discontent, anger, and contempt for institutions that has accompanied the neoliberal assault of the past generation, which led to stagnation for the majority alongside a spectacular concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.

Functioning democracy erodes as a natural effect of the concentration of economic power, which translates at once to political power by familiar means, but also for deeper and more principled reasons. The doctrinal pretense is that the transfer of decision-making from the public sector to the “market” contributes to individual freedom, but the reality is different. The transfer is from public institutions, in which voters have some say, insofar as democracy is functioning, to private tyrannies — the corporations that dominate the economy — in which voters have no say at all. In Europe, there is an even more direct method of undermining the threat of democracy: placing crucial decisions in the hands of the unelected troika — the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission — which heeds the northern banks and the creditor community, not the voting population.

These policies are dedicated to making sure that society no longer exists, Margaret Thatcher’s famous description of the world she perceived — or, more accurately, hoped to create: one where there is no society, only individuals. This was Thatcher’s unwitting paraphrase of Marx’s bitter condemnation of repression in France, which left society as a “sack of potatoes,” an amorphous mass that cannot function. In the contemporary case, the tyrant is not an autocratic ruler — in the West, at least — but concentrations of private power.

The collapse of centrist governing institutions has been evident in elections: in France in mid-2017 and in the United States a few months earlier, where the two candidates who mobilized popular forces were Sanders and Trump — though Trump wasted no time in demonstrating the fraudulence of his “populism” by quickly ensuring that the harshest elements of the old establishment would be firmly ensconced in power in the luxuriating “swamp.”

These processes might lead to a breakdown of the rigid American system of one-party business rule with two competing factions, with varying voting blocs over time. They might provide an opportunity for a genuine “people’s party” to emerge, a party where the voting bloc is the actual constituency, and the guiding values merit respect.

DB: Trump’s first foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia. What significance do you see in that, and what does it mean for broader Middle East policies? And what do you make of Trump’s animus toward Iran?

NC: Saudi Arabia is the kind of place where Trump feels right at home: a brutal dictatorship, miserably repressive (notoriously so for women’s rights, but in many other areas as well), the leading producer of oil (now being overtaken by the United States), and with plenty of money. The trip produced promises of massive weapons sales — greatly cheering the Constituency — and vague intimations of other Saudi gifts. One of the consequences was that Trump’s Saudi friends were given a green light to escalate their disgraceful atrocities in Yemen and to discipline Qatar, which has been a shade too independent of the Saudi masters. Iran is a factor there. Qatar shares a natural gas field with Iran and has commercial and cultural relations with it, frowned upon by the Saudis and their deeply reactionary associates.

Iran has long been regarded by U.S. leaders, and by U.S. media commentary, as extraordinarily dangerous, perhaps the most dangerous country on the planet. This goes back to well before Trump. In the doctrinal system, Iran is a dual menace: it is the leading supporter of terrorism, and its nuclear programs pose an existential threat to Israel, if not the whole world. It is so dangerous that Obama had to install an advanced air defense system near the Russian border to protect Europe from Iranian nuclear weapons — which don’t exist, and which, in any case, Iranian leaders would use only if possessed by a desire to be instantly incinerated in return.

That’s the doctrinal system. In the real world, Iranian support for terrorism translates to support for Hezbollah, whose major crime is that it is the sole deterrent to yet another destructive Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and for Hamas, which won a free election in the Gaza Strip — a crime that instantly elicited harsh sanctions and led the U.S. government to prepare a military coup. Both organizations, it is true, can be charged with terrorist acts, though not anywhere near the amount of terrorism that stems from Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the formation and actions of jihadi networks.

As for Iran’s nuclear weapons programs, U.S. intelligence has confirmed what anyone can easily figure out for themselves: if they exist, they are part of Iran’s deterrent strategy. There is also the unmentionable fact that any concern about Iranian weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) could be alleviated by the simple means of heeding Iran’s call to establish a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. Such a zone is strongly supported by the Arab states and most of the rest of the world and is blocked primarily by the United States, which wishes to protect Israel’s WMD capabilities.

Since the doctrinal system falls apart on inspection, we are left with the task of finding the true reasons for U.S. animus toward Iran. Possibilities readily come to mind. The United States and Israel cannot tolerate an independent force in a region that they take to be theirs by right. An Iran with a nuclear deterrent is unacceptable to rogue states that want to rampage however they wish throughout the Middle East. But there is more to it than that. Iran cannot be forgiven for overthrowing the dictator installed by Washington in a military coup in 1953, a coup that destroyed Iran’s parliamentary regime and its unconscionable belief that Iran might have some claim on its own natural resources. The world is too complex for any simple description, but this seems to me the core of the tale.

It also wouldn’t hurt to recall that in the past six decades, scarcely a day has passed when Washington was not tormenting Iranians. After the 1953 military coup came U.S. support for a dictator described by Amnesty International as a leading violator of fundamental human rights. Immediately after his overthrow came the U.S.-backed invasion of Iran by Saddam Hussein, no small matter. Hundreds of thousands of Iranians were killed, many by chemical weapons. Reagan’s support for his friend Saddam was so extreme that when Iraq attacked a U.S. ship, the USS Stark, killing 37 American sailors, it received only a light tap on the wrist in response. Reagan also sought to blame Iran for Saddam’s horrendous chemical warfare attacks on Iraqi Kurds.

Eventually, the United States intervened directly in the Iran-Iraq War, leading to Iran’s bitter capitulation. Afterward, George H. W. Bush invited Iraqi nuclear engineers to the United States for advanced training in nuclear weapons production — an extraordinary threat to Iran, quite apart from its other implications. And, of course, Washington has been the driving force behind harsh sanctions against Iran that continue to the present day.

Trump, for his part, has joined the harshest and most repressive dictators in shouting imprecations at Iran. As it happens, Iran held an election during his Middle East travel extravaganza — an election which, however flawed, would be unthinkable in the land of his Saudi hosts, who also happen to be the source of the radical Islamism that is poisoning the region. But U.S. animus against Iran goes far beyond Trump himself. It includes those regarded as the “adults” in the Trump administration, like James “Mad Dog” Mattis, the secretary of defense. And it stretches a long way into the past.

DB: What are the strategic issues where Korea is concerned? Can anything be done to defuse the growing conflict? 

NC: Korea has been a festering problem since the end of World War II, when the hopes of Koreans for unification of the peninsula were blocked by the intervention of the great powers, the United States bearing primary responsibility.

The North Korean dictatorship may well win the prize for brutality and repression, but it is seeking and to some extent carrying out economic development, despite the overwhelming burden of a huge military system. That system includes, of course, a growing arsenal of nuclear weapons and missiles, which pose a threat to the region and, in the longer term, to countries beyond — but its function is to be a deterrent, one that the North Korean regime is unlikely to abandon as long as it remains under threat of destruction.

Today, we are instructed that the great challenge faced by the world is how to compel North Korea to freeze these nuclear and missile programs. Perhaps we should resort to more sanctions, cyberwar, intimidation; to the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system, which China regards as a serious threat to its own interests; perhaps even to direct attack on North Korea — which, it is understood, would elicit retaliation by massed artillery, devastating Seoul and much of South Korea even without the use of nuclear weapons.

But there is another option, one that seems to be ignored: we could simply accept North Korea’s offer to do what we are demanding. China and North Korea have already proposed that North Korea freeze its nuclear and missile programs. The proposal, though, was rejected at once by Washington, just as it had been two years earlier, because it includes a quid pro quo: it calls on the United States to halt its threatening military exercises on North Korea’s borders, including simulated nuclear-bombing attacks by B-52s.

The Chinese-North Korean proposal is hardly unreasonable. North Koreans remember well that their country was literally flattened by U.S. bombing, and many may recall how U.S. forces bombed major dams when there were no other targets left. There were gleeful reports in American military publications about the exciting spectacle of a huge flood of water wiping out the rice crops on which “the Asian” depends for survival. They are very much worth reading, a useful part of historical memory.

The offer to freeze North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs in return for an end to highly provocative actions on North Korea’s border could be the basis for more far-reaching negotiations, which could radically reduce the nuclear threat and perhaps even bring the North Korea crisis to an end. Contrary to much inflamed commentary, there are good reasons to think such negotiations might succeed. Yet even though the North Korean programs are constantly described as perhaps the greatest threat we face, the Chinese-North Korean proposal is unacceptable to Washington, and is rejected by U.S. commentators with impressive unanimity. This is another entry in the shameful and depressing record of near-reflexive preference for force when peaceful options may well be available.

The 2017 South Korean elections may offer a ray of hope. Newly elected President Moon Jae-in seems intent on reversing the harsh confrontationist policies of his predecessor. He has called for exploring diplomatic options and taking steps toward reconciliation, which is surely an improvement over the angry fist-waving that might lead to real disaster.

DB: You have in the past expressed concern about the European Union. What do you think will happen as Europe becomes less tied to the U.S. and the U.K.? 

NC: The E.U. has fundamental problems, notably the single currency with no political union. It also has many positive features. There are some sensible ideas aimed at saving what is good and improving what is harmful. Yanis Varoufakis’s DiEM25 initiative for a democratic Europe is a promising approach.

The U.K. has often been a U.S. surrogate in European politics. Brexit might encourage Europe to take a more independent role in world affairs, a course that might be accelerated by Trump policies that increasingly isolate us from the world. While he is shouting loudly and waving an enormous stick, China could take the lead on global energy policies while extending its influence to the west and, ultimately, to Europe, based on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the New Silk Road.

That Europe might become an independent “third force” has been a matter of concern to U.S. planners since World War II. There have long been discussions of something like a Gaullist conception of Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals or, in more recent years, Gorbachev’s vision of a common Europe from Brussels to Vladivostok.

Whatever happens, Germany is sure to retain a dominant role in European affairs. It is rather startling to hear a conservative German chancellor, Angela Merkel, lecturing her U.S. counterpart on human rights, and taking the lead, at least for a time, in confronting the refugee issue, Europe’s deep moral crisis. On the other hand, Germany’s insistence on austerity and paranoia about inflation and its policy of promoting exports by limiting domestic consumption have no slight responsibility for Europe’s economic distress, particularly the dire situation of the peripheral economies. In the best case, however, which is not beyond imagination, Germany could influence Europe to become a generally positive force in world affairs.

DB: What do you make of the conflict between the Trump administration and the U.S. intelligence communities? Do you believe in the “deep state”?

NC: There is a national security bureaucracy that has persisted since World War II. And national security analysts, in and out of government, have been appalled by many of Trump’s wild forays. Their concerns are shared by the highly credible experts who set the Doomsday Clock, advanced to two and a half minutes to midnight as soon as Trump took office — the closest it has been to terminal disaster since 1953, when the U.S. and USSR exploded thermonuclear weapons. But I see little sign that it goes beyond that, that there is any secret “deep state” conspiracy. 

DB: To conclude, as we look forward to your 89th birthday, I wonder: Do you have a theory of longevity? 

NC: Yes, it’s simple, really. If you’re riding a bicycle and you don’t want to fall off, you have to keep going — fast.


Noam Chomsky is institute professor emeritus in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent books are Who Rules the World? (Metropolitan Books, 2016) and Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power (Seven Stories Press, 2017). His website is

David Barsamian, the director of the award-winning and widely syndicated Alternative Radio, is the winner of the Lannan Foundation’s 2006 Cultural Freedom Fellowship and the ACLU’s Upton Sinclair Award for independent journalism. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.

Thirteen dead, thousands displaced as wildfires rip through northern California

By Trévon Austin
10 October 2017

At least 13 people have died and more than 20,000 evacuated, in what authorities are calling one of the most destructive fire emergencies in California’s history. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, an estimated 2,000 structures have been destroyed and 73,000 acres burned.

Firefighters are battling at least 15 different fires spread across eight counties—Napa, Sonoma, Lake, Mendocino, Yuba, Nevada, Calaveras, and Butte.

The largest of the blazes began around 10 p.m. Sunday night and spread rapidly due to 50 mph winds and dry conditions in Napa and Sonoma counties, a region known for its vineyards and wineries. The fires sent smoke as far south as San Francisco, about 60 miles away.

The fire spread so quickly that some residents received an official evacuation notice three hours after they had already evacuated in the face of the advancing flames.

A group of elderly evacuees in Sonoma County, California

A large section of Santa Rosa, a city with about 175,000 in Sonoma County, has been ordered to evacuate. Over 200 patients were forced to evacuate from Kaiser Permanente Hospital and Sutter Hospital, including expectant mothers. At Kaiser Permanente, nurses had to race patients away from the area in their own personal vehicles.

Over 100 patients have been treated at local Napa and Sonoma county hospitals for fire-related illnesses—including burns, smoke inhalation and shortness of breath.

The immediate cause of the fire is unknown but authorities noted that dry conditions made it easy for the fires to spread. Janet Upton, a deputy director of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told the New York Times that October is typically the busiest month for wildfires in California. Low humidity, dry conditions, a buildup of vegetation, and heavy winds known as diablo winds create prime conditions for wildfires to spread rapidly. “Combined, that’s a recipe for disaster,” she noted.

“I’ve been with the department for 31 years, and some years are notorious,” Upton said, concluding, “I’m afraid that 2017 is going to be added to that list now.”

Governor Jerry Brown issued an emergency proclamation for Napa, Sonoma and Yuba counties. “These fires have destroyed structures and continue to threaten thousands of homes, necessitating the evacuation of thousands of residents,” his emergency proclamation stated.

“This is really serious. It’s moving fast. The heat, the lack of humidity and the winds are all driving a very dangerous situation and making it worse,” Brown said at a news conference. “It’s not under control by any means. But we’re on it in the best way we know how.”

Napa County Fire Chief Barry Biermann pointed to a lack of resources that exacerbates the danger posed by wildfires and limits the ability to contain fires when they break out. “As of right now, with these conditions, we can’t get in front of this fire and do anything about the forward progress,” he said. Firefighters have been forced to focus on evacuation efforts.

Because fires are blazing in more than one part of California, firefighters are not able to focus their efforts on properly combating the flames.

Additionally, state and federal budgets have not kept up with the increasing scope and intensity of wildfires. At the beginning of this month, before the latest fires, Cal Fire had used $250 million of its $426.9 million emergency fund which was expected to last until June of next year.

On federal lands, which account for one-third of the state, there is no emergency fund for fighting wildfires, meaning that money is taken from fire prevention and forest health budgets, only exacerbating the dangers.

“So real work on the ground to reduce the intensity of fires isn’t getting done or is being delayed,” the director of Cal Fire, Ken Pimlott, told KQED news earlier this month. “It really just further exacerbates the intensity of fires because we can’t get on the federal ground in particular to get the fuels treated.”

Recent budget cuts have also hampered efforts to prevent and battle wildfires. California’s proposed 2017-18 budget cut funds for local efforts to remove dead trees to just $2 million. Acres of dead trees are a central problem fueling wildfires.

Cal Fire saw funding slashed nearly in half from $91 million to $41.7 million for the extended fire season, increased firefighter surge capacity, Conservation Corps fire suppression crews, and aerial assets.

Active wildfires were reported across the state this weekend. A fire burning through Orange County in Southern California burned multiple structures and forced residents of about 1,000 homes to evacuate. The wildfire spread over more than 4,000 acres and has burned at least six buildings in Anaheim.


Puerto Rico is facing an historic crisis

Puerto Rico is facing one of the worst human disasters in its history following two powerful hurricanes that devastated the island. The scale and scope of the crisis are still not fully known. What is clear, however, is that Puerto Rico’s colonial overlords in Washington are determined to do as little as they can to help the victims. The federal response has been painfully slow and totally inadequate to meeting the island’s needs.

Donald Trump added insult to injury last weekend when he lashed out at the mayor of San Juan on Twitter for daring to appeal for more federal aid. Trump complained that Puerto Ricans “are not able to get their workers to help” and “want everything to be done for them.” Meanwhile, in cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, protesters took to the streets to demand immediate emergency relief. In the midst of this developing situation, two Puerto Rican artists and activists, Jael Pimentel and Yara Liceaga-Rojas, talked with Dorian B.about the crisis–and about resistance on the island.

Families line up for water in Puerto Rico

Families line up for water in Puerto Rico

WHAT ARE conditions like on the ground in Puerto Rico? How severe is the humanitarian crisis?

Jael: There are many parts of the country outside the San Juan metro area that are completely without electricity, without any form of communication. Their roads are blocked and in many cases their situation is unknown.

Yara: There are massive infestations of mosquitos and rats because of the accumulation of rotting garbage. There were many animals killed during the storm, and they haven’t been removed. At several cemeteries that were badly flooded, bodies have been forced from their graves by the water and are now just lying out in the open. Conditions are seriously unsanitary.

Many people are ill. The lack of air conditioning in the hospitals is leading to the spread of bacteria and bacterial infections. There are many hospitals in really bad condition, so much so that family members of patients are no longer being let in because it’s unsafe.

Jael: Not only that, but people have no food. I have a cousin who waited in line for four hours. She was given three cans of spaghetti for five people.

Yara: Supermarkets are empty. Gas is being rationed out. You have to wait up to seven or eight hours in your car to get gas, only to be sold $10 to $15 of gas.


Several grassroots organizations are taking donations to support ongoing efforts to bring immediate relief in Puerto Rico, reach the most vulnerable populations and foster an equitable rebuilding of the island. SW urges its readers to prioritize these grassroots efforts over mainstream NGOs.

— Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico

— Hurricane Maria Community Relief and Recovery Fund

— Comedores Sociales de Puerto Rico (donate via Paypal to

— Feminist Solidarity Post-Hurricane Relief Fund organized by Colectiva Feminista

Jael: There are endless lines for everything. I really want to stress this because someone like my father, who is 85 years old, has tried to wait in lines twice already, but has had to leave because of his physical condition. He woke up at 3:30 a.m. one day to cue up for five hours to get gas. The elderly simply cannot stand in line for five hours. There are many people who are unable to access a lot of basic supplies.

HOW MUCH do we know about the loss of life so far?

Yara: The number of dead is far higher than the current official count, which as of this interview is 16. There are no mechanisms in place to actually locate and count the dead. So we really don’t know the number, and it could climb into the hundreds.

The Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico has written a report on the overwhelming number of critically ill people in Puerto Rico’s hospitals. But not only that–they spoke with hospital officials who informed them that there are dozens of deceased people in hospital morgues around the country, who are not yet included in the official count because no one has been able to register or identify them. With little or no air conditioning, these bodies are also quickly decomposing.

Jael: There are many people who have died in remote places. Their families and friends are burying them because there’s no way to transport them to hospitals in town. You know you’re supposed to register the bodies of the deceased, but in an emergency situation like this, you have to either bury the person or leave them on the ground.

This is a full-scale public health crisis. And the U.S. government is really not doing anything to address it. There are medical organizations that could be sent, helicoptered in, to different parts of the island to bring medical professionals who are trained to treat people and provide emergency relief. But that isn’t happening.

People with disabilities are also particularly vulnerable right now. They can’t go out and wait in these five-, six-, seven-hour lines for a couple of cans of spaghetti. What is happening to people in this situation? We don’t yet know. There is still so much we have to find out.

There’s also a shortage of medication. Puerto Rico has high rates of diabetes. There are also a lot of cancer and HIV patients who aren’t receiving medication or treatment. Often this is because the medication needs to be refrigerated, and there is no power for that. For people who depend on daily medication, the health consequences are frightening.

IN THE midst of this crisis, there have been many reports about relief supplies sitting in ports that aren’t getting to those in need. Why aren’t these materials being distributed?

Yara: The government authorities at the ports are refusing to distribute the donations, the food and the supplies arriving on the island. This is where the large military presence comes in.

The U.S. military and state national guards are supposedly being mobilized to distribute these supplies all across the archipelago. From what we know, this distribution hasn’t happened yet. What we are constantly hearing from everyone who can post online is that barely anything is being distributed.

Jael: When food arrives at the ports, instead of treating it as emergency supplies, the authorities are going through a long, bureaucratic process. They check every shipping container and make sure their contents meet requirements and regulations, which takes a very long time, especially now when much of that has to be done manually rather than electronically.

But this situation urgently demands a different approach. Officials at the ports must release these containers and distribute the goods because people are dying.

The other point is that the authorities and shipping companies claim that there are not enough drivers to distribute the goods. But we’ve heard multiple stories of people being turned away at the ports when they show up with their own trucks because they’re told they don’t have the right kind of license.

All of the reports that we’ve heard repeat the fact that people are extremely frustrated and angry with the government–the federal government as well as the government of Puerto Rico–and that people are taking matters into their own hands to organize relief themselves.

CAN YOU describe some of what ordinary Puerto Ricans are doing to organize relief?

Yara: People are getting very creative in organizing various kinds of solidarity. Some arts communities, like El Local or Casa Taller, have been making and distributing food. The infrastructure of gas and stoves has collapsed. So these organizations have been giving out meals for free.

People have been going to San Juan’s main financial district, the Milla de Oro, to find buildings with functioning electricity. They’re bringing power strips down there and helping people charge their phones. It’s also one of the few remaining spaces with Internet, where people can communicate with family and friends, both on and off the archipelago.

The initiative to bring power strips to the financial district is quite brilliant because people really don’t have any way to charge their phones, which is the only means of communication with the United States. Most of the information that we know has come through speaking with friends and family on the phone or looking at the things they’ve posted on social media.

Jael: It’s important to emphasize that people are forming many grassroots organizations. Those are the organizations that we’re trying to find ways to donate money to, because that’s what they need.

Yara: And, of course, we also have to recognize that many people are also trying to leave the island right now to escape to safety. But in response, the airlines have jacked up ticket prices to several times the normal cost. So it’s very hard for most people to leave.

And this brings up another issue, which is that, as you might imagine, the crisis unfolding right now is not touching everyone on the island. The rich and the big business owners are doing fine.

The owner of one of the island’s biggest malls, the Plaza las Américas, has electricity in their mall. But it’s closed to the public. The wealthy are hiring others to supply them with generators, water supplies and other materials, while people around them are suffering.

CAN YOU talk about this crisis is affecting the millions of Puerto Ricans who live in the diaspora in the continental U.S.?

Yara: Here in the U.S., we are working really hard to do what we can for our friends and family on the island. Doing this interview is an important part of that work, because people in Puerto Rico really want people here to know what is actually happening. The full story is not reaching the mainstream news.

There are many people who until this day do not know the status of their family members. Many people in Puerto Rico are actually asking those in the U.S. for information about what’s going on, because they can’t gain access to information themselves.

Jael: At the same time, many people on the island have taken it upon themselves to check on the family members of people in the diaspora. People have offered their help through social media and gone to the houses of friends and relatives, which those of us here in the U.S. are trying to reach. One man did this for me and assured me that my parents are okay, after several days of not hearing from them.

Those of us who live in the diaspora have more political rights. We can vote in presidential elections and impact state politics, and we can apply pressure through protests and other actions.

The main demands that I think we need to call for are the cancellation of Puerto Rico’s debt and the repeal of the Jones Act.

There is no way Puerto Rico can recover from this disaster without canceling the debt. Before the storm, people were already going through immense suffering because of the destruction of the social infrastructure due to the onerous debt and austerity measures. The situation was already so bad. Now it’s gone over the edge.

The second thing is that we must demand the repeal of the Jones Act. This law, which forces all incoming ships to first dock in the U.S., not only damages the recovery effort, it makes economic stabilization very difficult. Our taxes are higher, the prices of consumer are goods are higher, and our commercial relationships are restricted. We can’t be economically independent under these conditions.

THE ONGOING reality of U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico doesn’t receive the attention it deserves. How do you think this colonial relationship is impacting the current disaster?

Jael: We have to recognize the connection with colonialism. This is why the Jones Act was passed into law–to deny Puerto Ricans access to anything that the U.S. doesn’t approve of. Trump has lifted the Jones Act for only 10 days. Ten days is nothing. It’s going to take a lot of time to get to and treat all of the people on the island who are starving and suffering. That’s not enough time.

We continue to feel like the United States wants to keep Puerto Rico trapped, wants to keep it locked in an imperialistic relationship and isn’t doing enough to help on the ground. Not nearly enough. The U.S. state can go to any country, invade it, find oil and all kinds of things. They organize and do it. And for Puerto Rico, they’re not doing anything.

Yara: I think that both the U.S. and Puerto Rican governments are scared that people on the island will soon begin to resist, to resist what is happening.

People on the ground are living in shock right now. This shock has different stages, from the initial shock to the mobilizations in the streets. People are protesting, because there is obviously no plan, no strategy by the authorities to resolve this crisis, and the situation is quickly deteriorating. Both the governments of the United States and Puerto Rico have failed miserably.

Jael: It’s incredible to watch Trump say that Puerto Rico is hard to reach because it’s in a “big ocean.” He has clearly shown that he has no respect or regard for the people of our country, and he couldn’t care less what happens to us. His response has been absolutely deplorable.

I also want to say that one of the main arguments we’ve heard so far is that Puerto Ricans deserve to be helped because we are American citizens. That may be true, but it’s a bad argument to lead with. We deserve to be helped not because we’re citizens, but because we’re human beings. We have fundamental rights that are being totally violated in this crisis.

Trump’s photo-op in Puerto Rico

By Rafael Azul
4 October 2017

Two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, leaving millions without electricity, water and other basic necessities, US President Donald Trump did a quick fly-in and fly-out Tuesday to pronounce what a wonderful job his administration has done to address the crisis.

Trump’s entourage included his wife Melania, some cabinet members, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Jenniffer González, chairwoman of the Puerto Rico Republican Party and the island’s nonvoting member of the US House of Representative.

The president’s handlers made sure that Trump—who clearly did not want to be there—appeared in public as little as possible to prevent any opportunity for public protest. After a little more than four hours, the president flew off, an hour ahead of schedule.

The people the president did speak to were preselected. He visited an upscale neighborhood in Guaynabo, west of the capital city of San Juan, which has been one of the fastest areas to have electricity, communication and other services restored. At a local church, he threw rolls of paper towels out to a crowd in the most demeaning fashion, later saying, “There’s a lot of love in this room, a lot of love. Great people.”

During his press conference, however, Trump could hardly contain his contempt for the population of the US territory. The recovery effort and the current situation on the island, he claimed, was “really nothing short of a miracle,” adding that it was nothing like the “real catastrophe” that occurred during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Following the press conference, Trump visited the Muñoz Rivera housing project in Guaynabo. One of the housing project residents, Raúl Cardona, told Trump “he should visit the central parts of the islands, where a lot of people have no food, no water, where a lot of people have died. What he saw in Guaynabo was nothing compared to the rest of the island,” Cardona told the ElNuevo Día newspaper about his words with Trump.

Only four percent of the island’s 3.4 million residents have power, more than half do not have clean water, and many residents are washing in rivers. With temperatures in the 90s, the lack of air conditioning and medical attention could lead to further fatalities, particularly among the elderly and infirm. Roads are blocked with debris and standing water is attracting mosquitos that can carry deadly diseases.

Thousands remain in shelters, gasoline is scarce, ATMs are out of money, and many of the supplies sent to the island have been left on docks because of the lack of diesel for trucks. Public schools, which suffered devastating destruction, may not open for six months or more, officials have said.

Trump repeated the official claim of 16 hurricane-related fatalities. After the president left, Governor Ricardo Rosselló raised the death toll to 34. The number of fatalities is expected to grow once rescuers reach more isolated rural and mountainous areas.

Earlier in the morning, the island’s Secretary of Public Health Héctor Pesquera announced there were more than 100 cadavers in hospitals around the island, which are currently being examined to determine if they died as a result of the hurricane, the most powerful storm to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century.

Governor Rosselló—the MIT-trained politician who was a Clinton delegate during the Democratic Party convention last year—dutifully suppressed this information during Trump’s visit. The president later praised Rosselló for “not playing politics.”

Trump previously denounced Puerto Rican residents for the massive debt owed to the Wall Street banks, which is the result of the island’s colonial legacy, a decades-long economic recession and wholesale looting by financial speculators who control Puerto Rican debt. Rosselló and his predecessors have imposed savage austerity measures, and the island, which declared bankruptcy last May, is currently under the dictatorship of a financial oversight board imposed by the Obama administration.

During a press conference, Trump—who is proposing the largest tax cut for corporations and the rich in history—complained that the recovery effort was costing the US government too much money. “Now I hate to tell you, Puerto Rico, but you’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack because we’ve spent a lot of money on Puerto Rico. And that’s fine. We’ve saved a lot of lives.”

Rosselló, who has revised upward his government’s estimate of the cost of rebuilding the island’s infrastructure to $90 billion, is seeking a low-interest emergency line of credit as soon as possible, saying otherwise the government will run out of public funds by next week.

Trump has complained that Puerto Rican residents are not helping themselves enough and are essentially expecting government handouts. Last week he poured scorn via text message from his luxury golf course on local officials, including the mayor of San Juan, for complaining about the slowness of the administration’s response.

Shortly after Trump had left the island, US federal authorities denied Puerto Rico’s petition that recipients of food stamps (which are used by 46 percent of the population) be allowed to purchase meals in fast-food restaurants, given the scarcity of food in the island’s supermarkets.