Peter G. Prontzos – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Tue, 20 Sep 2022 21:18:04 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Roots of White Rage Wed, 21 Sep 2022 04:08:36 +0000 Vancouver (Special to Informed Comment) Recent development show just how divided the United States of America really is.

The latest polling shows that 72% of Americans believe that democracy is in serious danger. Even more strikingly, 43% said civil war was at least somewhat likely in the next 10 years.

Robert Reich, a former US secretary of labor and currently professor of public policy at the University of California, has warned us about the threat coming, “from an increasingly authoritarian-fascist Republican party”.

Nevertheless, there is still a lot that we can do to reverse this alarming trend before it is too late. And the most effective way to do so is fairly obvious: make life better for everybody.

The United States has faced many serious problems before, and we have been able to resolve them non-violently (mostly) for the past 150 years. The difference now has a lot to do with the increasing stress and anxiety that most people are feeling in their daily lives.

These conditions are central to understanding the growing anger that we see everywhere, including, of course, in politics.

Perhaps the most striking example of this phenomenon is what have been termed, “deaths of despair”.

The American Council on Science and Health defines them as deaths due to suicide, overdoses, and alcoholic liver diseases, with contributions from the cardiovascular effects of rising obesity.

These deaths disproportionately impact Caucasian males without a college degree.

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, there was a large increase in drug overdose deaths alone from April 2020 to April 2021. “The center estimates 100,306 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. over that time, a 29% rise from 78,056 overdose deaths over the same period one year prior.” (That toll is twice as many as the number of Americans who died during the U.S. war in Vietnam).

Anger, despair, and toxic “masculinity” is another major factor. As the Washington Post reported:

“Males are overwhelmingly responsible for violence in the United States, according to the most recent crime data published by the FBI. They committed about 80 percent of all reported violent crimes in the country in 2020, including 87 percent of homicides…Men themselves are often the targets, making up nearly 80 percent of people murdered in the country and also nearly 80 percent of suicides.”

Adding to the crisis is the fact that the United States has a much less comprehensive safety net than other rich countries, such as Canada, Denmark, and Japan. Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky notes, “the only other place that has come close with a similar phenomenon was Russia after the collapse of the USSR, both in terms of decreased life expectancy (mostly men) and its causes.”

(In fact, in 1993, I had the chance to ask Mikhail Gorbachev what he thought about the potential rise in Russian nationalism after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He replied that, as long as living conditions improved, it would probably not be a major problem. Then the oligarchs took over and life did get worse for most Russians).

The classic examination of this crisis of inequality is, “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism”, by Anne Case and Angus Deaton.

Their main point is that, “the deaths of despair among whites would not have happened, or would not have been so severe, without the destruction of the white working class…”

Not surprisingly, the decline in wages, along with the growth of economic inequality, has slowly undermined all aspects of the lives of working people. In particular, the “increase of deaths of despair were almost all among those without a bachelor’s degree.”

In their middle years, the risk of severe mental illness among whites with a bachelor’s degree, “is only a quarter of that faced by those without a bachelor’s degree.” Part of the problem is that the less educated are often underpaid and disrespected, “and may feel that the system is rigged against them.”

And even though black mortality rates remain above those for whites, in the past three decades, the gap in death rates between blacks and whites with less than a bachelor’s degree fell markedly.

Also, we must not forget the role that the pharmaceutical companies played in this horror, as they literally made hundreds of billions of dollars in profits from pushing OxyContin and other opioid painkillers.

The outcome of the 2016 election, the January 6 attack on democracy, and the increasing threats of violence are, according to Case and Deaton, “a gesture of frustration and rage that” made “things worse, not better. Working-class whites do not believe that democracy can help them…”

So, how do we improve people’s lives while reducing anger and the threats of violence? It’s not easy, but it’s not rocket science either.

Improve wages and working conditions for everybody, reduce economic inequality, and provide more comprehensive and affordable services like parental leave, medical care and social services.

Making college education affordable is another crucial step.

Of course, there are many other areas where the United States can make improvements, but whatever the choices, in the words of John Fogerty: “The time is now!”

]]> 0
What we can Learn from Bolivia’s Struggle for Free Water: Review of Maude Barlow, “Still Hopeful After All These Years” Fri, 17 Jun 2022 04:08:25 +0000 Review of Maude Barlow, Still Hopeful: Lessons from a Lifetime of Activism. ECW Press, 2022.

When I was teaching Political Science, some of the most memorable events were the teleconferences that Noam Chomsky did with my students.

During a discussion of international trade treaties, Noam singled out the work of Maude Barlow, then Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, as being instrumental in defeating the proposed international “corporate bill of rights” known as the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI).

That victory was just one of a lifetime of Barlow’s achievements, starting with her work for women’s rights in the early 1980s, including as advisor on women’s issues to Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (father of the current Prime Minister, Justin).

In 1985, Barlow, along with progressive thinkers such as Margaret Atwood, founded the Council of Canadians. The CoC focuses on issues such as promoting democracy and equality within Canada, as well as Canada’s role in international affairs.

She wrote her first book on the Canada–U.S. trade deal in 1990.

After more than two decades of tireless work, Barlow was awarded the Right Livelihood Award (the “Alternative Nobel”) in 2005 – but she was just getting started.

From 2008–2009, Barlow served as the United Nations Senior Advisor on Water to Miguel D’Escoto Brockman, President of the U.N. General Assembly. (Note: D’Escoto first came to the world’s attention as Foreign Minister in the Sandinista government in Nicaragua when the U.S. was conducting its terrorist “contra” war. When I interviewed him later, I asked what was the biggest mistake that the Sandinistas made. D’Escoto replied: “We underestimated the aggression of the United States”).

Barlow led the campaign to have water recognized as a human right by the U.N. She has also fought the corporate takeover of freshwater supplies in order to guarantee that people will never lack access to this vital resource.

It will not come as a surprise that the U.N. campaign was resisted by both private water utilities and bottled water companies like Nestlé. Nevertheless, in 2010, the United Nations formally voted to enshrine access to clean water as a human right.

She also was instrumental in the formation of the Blue Communities Project, which calls on cities to adopt a water commons framework by:

· Recognizing water and sanitation as human rights.

· Banning or phasing out the sale of bottled water in municipal facilities and at municipal events.

· Promoting publicly financed, owned and operated water and waste water services.

Blue Communities have been declared around the world, in Spain, Greece, Brazil, Germany, Chile and so on – as well as in the U.S. and Canada, of course.

In her 20th book, “Still Hopeful: Lessons From A Lifetime of Activism”, she cites the incredible ten year struggle of the people of Bolivia to reverse an agreement that was made between their government and the World Bank to privatize the water system of its third largest city, Cochabamba. The government granted a 40-year concession to run the debt-ridden system to a consortium led by Italian-owned International Water Limited and US-based Bechtel Enterprise Holdings.

Maude Barlow, Still Hopeful: Lessons from a Lifetime of Activism. Click here.

Oscar Olivera, the executive secretary of the Cochabamba Federation of Factory Workers, explained that: “From that water war, we not only recovered water for all, we created new forms of social coexistence and human bonding. We recovered trust in one another, and that caused us to lose our fear.”

Despite such significant victories, however, Barlow acknowledges that despair is not unreasonable in the face of the multiple existential crises that humanity is facing regarding democracy, our environment, growing inequality and poverty, and military conflict, to name a few.

Hope, on the one hand, is a multi-faceted phenomenon. It can be vital to coping with – and improving on – an unhealthy status quo.

On the other hand, hope can lead us to be passive in times when decisive actions – individually and socially – are required.

The dilemma regarding “hope” was the key point in the Greek legend of Pandora’s jar. It contained all of the evils of the world and when she opened it, they began to escape. When she quickly closed the lid, one evil remained: (passive) hope.

Barlow definitely does not buy into mindless optimism that humanity will definitely be able to address the multiple crises that we are facing, nor does she succumb to despair that we are helpless in the face of these existential challenges.

Instead, we are treated to an eloquent and personal account of her experience of more than four decades as an organizer, activist, and writer in her fight against greed, patriarchy, pollution, and inequality, among other evils. She provides no simple answers because there aren’t any. (In the wise words of San Francisco detective Sam Spade – aka Humphrey Bogart in, “The Maltese Falcon”: “It’s not always easy to know what to do.”)

Not surprisingly, it is younger people who are the most affected by these threats to our collective well-being. It is their future especially that are in danger. Barlow asks what can be done to, “inspire young people to see that the life of an activist is a good life…find joy in the struggle to make a better world…help them not to be overwhelmed with the enormity of the task ahead?”

That was her primary motivation for writing “Still Hopeful”.

(As an aside, a high school teacher recently told me that, while her students are anxious about their future, she has noticed a sense of activism that reminds her of the youth movements of the 1960s and ‘70s).

Barlow’s writing is clear and concise, and her narrative is enhanced by personal stories that are included when describing the lessons that she has learned in her decades of fighting for social and environmental justice.

One of her critical insights is that we cannot depend on our governmental and corporate “leaders” to do the work of creating a better world. In Barlow’s view, it is consistent, grassroots organizing and public education, at both the local and national levels, that has the best chance to lead to the kinds of change that could vastly improve our ecological, political, social, and economic realities.

And here’s one intriguing reason why hopelessness and inaction are not justified:

Research by Harvard professor Erica Chenoweth has shown that it takes only around 3.5% of the population actively participating in organizing and non-violent protests to ensure that significant political change will take place. Of course, a democratic movement must have fairly widespread support and work as much as possible within the limits of the electoral system too; but if they do so, people have a surprisingly good chance of success. The U.S. civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam war movements are two of the more significant examples. (And never forget that it was the power of the global peace movement that forced Nixon to abandon plans to drop nuclear bombs on the Vietnamese people).

Barlow explains that such grassroots movements need both, “a vision of what we want” as well as clear and “concrete goals and plans”, in order to have a real chance to make that vision a reality She notes that every achievement that societies have made, such as workers’ rights, medicare, steps toward Indigenous sovereignty, and so on, took years of community effort.

The problem with hope, as we have seen, is remaining passive in the “hope” that our political and corporate leaders will suddenly, somehow, see the light and change their ways. In fact, it is more likely that benevolent aliens from the planet Tralfalmadore will arrive to bring peace and love than the 1% will suddenly change their selfish ways…

For Barlow, active, compassionate, and inclusive hope is our best path out of our collective crisis.

Summing up, in the aftermath of the pandemic, Barlow notes that:

We now truly understand the need to ensure public health at a global level and that means it cannot be profit driven. The fight for human rights and racial, religious and gender equality has entered a new stage and is widely supported. Public appreciation for working people and their unions has never been higher as we commit to class justice as well…Never has there been a greater need for principled and informed activism – and hope.

And it helps to remember that, very often, nothing changes until a tipping point is reached – and then everything changes.

More than ever, we should remember what The Rascals sang many years ago:

“If we unite, it will all turn out right!”

Ukraine and NATO Expansion Thu, 07 Apr 2022 04:08:23 +0000 Vancouver (Special to Informed Comment) – To be absolutely clear, the attack on Ukraine was a clear violation of international law, and there is absolutely no excuse for this invasion. Putin is a war criminal for initiating this unjustifiable bloodshed.

However, NATO in general and the United States in particular followed an unnecessary and dangerous policy of political and military expansion that quite predictably aggravated tensions in Eastern Europe.

As part of his effort to dismantle the Soviet empire in 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev was naturally concerned to ensure the safety of Russia. To put this worry into context, Russia had been invaded by Napoleon in the 19th century, attacked by Germany (and Austria-Hungary) in the First World War, and attacked by Nazi Germany in the Second World War.

The Nazis killed about 27 million people in the Soviet Union.

Given that bloody history and the fact that West Germany was part of NATO in 1990, it is not surprising that Russians were concerned about their security. Assurances were given by Western leaders. For example, on January 31, 1990, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher promised that NATO would rule out an expansion of its territory towards the Soviet borders.

Just over a week later, on February 9, during talks about the reunification of Germany, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker told Gorbachev that NATO would not expand, “one inch eastward”. 1

One day later, on February 10 at a meeting in Moscow, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Gorbachev agreed in principle to German unification and membership in NATO, as long as NATO did not expand to the east – and they formally signed the deal in September 1990.

Similar assurances were made by French President François Mitterrand, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and other western leaders.

Despite these promises, NATO did expand towards Russia, and in 1997, dozens of foreign policy veterans (including former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and former CIA Director Stansfield Turner) sent a letter to then-President Bill Clinton calling, “the current US-led effort to expand NATO…a policy error of historic proportions.” They predicted, accurately, that:

In Russia, NATO expansion, which continues to be opposed across the entire political spectrum, will strengthen the nondemocratic opposition, undercut those who favor reform and cooperation with the West [and] bring the Russians to question the entire post-Cold War settlement.” 2

“Even George Kennan, rightly considered to be THE architect of the US Cold War strategy of containment, also worried about NATO expansion:

    I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else.”

Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are—but this is just wrong.” 3

Despite the promises (and the threat of empowering the hawks in Russia), Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999, with Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia following in 2004.

US planners were warned again in 2008 by US Ambassador to Moscow William Burns (now director of the CIA) that:

…NATO aspirations not only touch a raw nerve in Russia, they engender serious concerns about the consequences for stability in the region. Not only does Russia perceive encirclement, and efforts to undermine Russia’s influence in the region, but it also fears unpredictable and uncontrolled consequences which would seriously affect Russian security interests. 4

The possibility of stationing nuclear weapons in Poland and Ukraine would naturally concern Russia, which worried that they might give NATO the capacity to launch a nuclear first-strike. (In 1961, the U.S. instituted a naval blockade around Cuba and threatened to invade the island when the Soviet Union placed nuclear missiles there).

It is not unreasonable that Putin called on the West to halt NATO expansion, negotiate Ukrainian neutrality, and remove missiles, troops and bases near Russia.

Had the US been genuinely interested in avoiding war, it would have taken every opportunity to de-escalate the situation. Instead, it did the opposite nearly every step of the way.

Again, although there was no excuse for Putin to invade Ukraine, “calling it ‘unprovoked’ distracts attention from the US contribution to this crisis. The US ignored warnings from both Russian and US officials that a major conflagration could erupt if the US continued its path…” 5

Given the suffering of the people of Ukraine (as well as the Russian “cannon fodder” who are also victim’s of Putin’s war, and the brave people inside Russia who are standing up to Putin), and the danger of nuclear omnicide, it is more important than ever for Western audiences to direct our governments to make peace a true priority.

Remember, the United States is not a force for peace and justice in the world. A partial list of their crimes is horrific: Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Chile, Nicaragua, Panama, Iraq (remember the WMD – not), Afghanistan, and Vietnam (over 3 million people killed).

And now Yemen. As Edward Hunt wrote in The Progressive:

    “An estimated 377,000 people have died in the war. Nearly 60 percent of these deaths are due to the humanitarian crisis, which is making it nearly impossible for the Yemeni people to access food, water, and health care. Most of these indirect deaths have been young children, who have been devastated by malnutrition . . . A study commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme estimates that, in 2021, a Yemeni child under the age of five died every nine minutes due to factors related to the war.” 6

    Are Western countries outraged? Hardly. Britain, Canada, and other NATO countries are still selling military equipment to Saudi Arabia as it continues to slaughter Yemenis. The United States supplies spare parts for Saudi/UAE coalition war planes, along with maintenance and a steady flow of armaments. Noam Chomsky explains that,

    “The Saudi and Emirati air forces cannot function without U.S. planes, training, intelligence, spare parts. Britain is taking part in the crime, along with other Western powers, but the U.S. is well in the lead.” 7

In Afghanistan, millions of people are facing starvation, a crisis made much worse because Washington is refusing to release billions of dollars of Afghanistan’s central bank reserves. One result is that,

    “…more Afghans are forced to resort to the unimaginable to survive: since August, the number of Afghans resorting to negative coping capacities has risen sixfold, such as selling young daughters into marriage, pulling children out of school to work, selling organs…”

UNICEF recently warned that more than a million Afghan children will need treatment for severe acute malnutrition this year and 13 million kids in total will need humanitarian assistance. 8

And let’s not forget about the Palestinians, living in what Desmond Tutu and Amnesty International called an “apartheid” state. Stephen Zunes accurately notes that, “If Biden really believed that countries have a right self-determination he would…support Palestinian self-determination…” 9

As the most powerful nation on Earth, the United States has more influence on global affairs than any other state actor. And while there are numerous and complex explanations for its actions, multinational corporations, especially those who profit from war and the threat of war, have the most influence on U.S. policy.

The problem is hardly new. In 1961, U.S. President (and five-star general) Dwight Eisenhower warned against, “the unwarranted influence”, of the “Military-Industrial Complex”, which will do anything to increase profits, which grow as arms sales increase and which benefit from wars.

So, while moral outrage over Russian crimes in Ukraine is completely justified, we in the West need to avoid simplistic good guy/bad guy dichotomies.

A global peace movement, like the one that prevented the United States from using nuclear weapons against the Vietnamese, is our best hope to reduce the risk of wars and other existential crises. As Nicolas Haeringer observes (in Informed Comment), “We can turn concrete acts of solidarity into the new norm…” 10 and reduce the unacceptable amount of suffering from conflicts, hunger, and poverty, as well as addressing the climate crisis.

It’s up to us.


1. Bryce Greene. “Calling Russia’s Attack ‘Unprovoked’ Lets US Off the Hook”. FAIR. 4 March 2022. []

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Edward Hunt. “As War Rages in Yemen, the United States Evades Responsibility”. 9 March 2022. The Progressive. []

7. C.J. Polychroniou. “Noam Chomsky: Russia’s War Against Ukraine Has Accelerated the Doomsday Clock”. Truthout. 30 March 2022. []

8. Jake Johnson. “Biden Won’t Release Afghanistan’s Central Bank Assets, Even in Face of Collapse”. Common Dreams. 30 March 2022. []

9. Stephen Zunes. The U.S. Hypocrisy on Ukraine”. The Progressive. 1 March 2022. []

10. Nicolas Haeringer. “We must turn solidarity with Ukraine into the new normal for all refugees”. Informed Comment. 29 March 2022. []

Word count: 1,365

Peter G. Prontzos, Professor Emeritus.

Political Science and Interdisciplinary Studies.

Langara College. Vancouver, Canada

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Informed Comment.