Marsaxlokk, if you do not remember, is the place when in December 1998 W.H. Bush met Gorbachev and officially ended the Cold War. We suggest it as a place for a Trump-Putin meeting where minds could be cleared once more.
We visited the village of MARSAXLOKK, of La Valetta, Malta, as part of a MSC Splendida cruise of the Western Mediterranean. This was on a beautiful December 21, 2016 – First Winter Day. Our guide insisted in pointing out the difference from the stormy 1998 day – when right after the fall of the Berlin Wall – this bay was host to the first post Cold War meeting between the the presidents of the USA and the Soviet Union – Messrs. Gorbachev and H. W. Bush.
I decided right there to post about that old event, that closed the era codified at Yalta by the 1945 interim settlement between Stalin and Roosevelt with only Churchill sitting in. Today we seem to enter an era that replaces the global peace that came after the cold war with a Putin-Trump concordance that has the potential to destroy everything that achieved since the 1990s.
We visited today the village of MARSAXLOKK, of La Valetta, Malta, as part of a MSC Splendida cruise of the Western Mediterranean. This was a beautiful December 21, 2016 First Winter Day, and our guide insisted in pointing out the difference from the stormy 1998 day when right after the fall of the Berlin Wall this bay was host to the first post Cold War meeting between the the presidents of the USA and the Soviet Union Messrs. Gorbachev and H. W. Bush.
I decided to post about that old event, that closed the era that was codified at Yalta by the 1945 interim settlement between Stalin and Roosevelt with only Churchill sitting in. Today we seem to enter an era that replaces the global peace that came after the cold war with a Putin-Trump concordance that has the potential to destroy everything that was achieved since the 1990s.
I thought that a new meeting at MARSAXLOKK – BETWEEN PUTIN AND TRUMP – could help both of them open eyes to where they want to lead the global community that by now got glued together in a manner that it is impossible to see any of the old super-powers not cooperating, or not making place for China and India as well, or ignoring the future rise of Africa and Brazil. Could it be that we are the first to call for such a meeting? Is it really far-fetched to attribute to the present two gladiators, that will be active on the global stage into the 2017-2020 years, a sense of the need of covering each other’s back when in the midst of the aspiring powers of China, India, other Asians, and some form of a reformulated Europe. All this while basic concepts of Democracy and Human Rights are being shelved, and replaced with power of oligarchies bent on increased personal gains that leave behind hordes of malcontents – the brew of a new undertow of Despicables a la Les Miserables?
(To be seen a Monument in Bir?ebbu?a commemorating the Malta Summit)
The Malta Summit comprised a meeting between US President George H. W. Bush and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, took place on December 2–3, 1989, just a few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
During the summit, Bush and Gorbachev would declare an end to the Cold War although whether it was truly such – is a matter of debate. News reports of the time referred to the Malta Summit as the most important since 1945, when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin and US President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed on a post-war plan for Europe at Yalta.
No agreements were signed at the Malta Summit. Its main purpose was to provide the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, with an opportunity to discuss the rapid changes taking place in Europe with the lifting of the Iron Curtain, which had separated the Eastern Bloc from Western Europe for four decades. The summit is viewed by some observers as the official end of the Cold War. At a minimum, it marked the lessening of tensions that were the hallmark of that era and signaled a major turning point in East-West relations. During the summit, President Bush expressed his support for Gorbachev’s perestroika initiative and other reforms in the Communist bloc.
The U.S. delegation:
James Baker, U.S. Secretary of State
Robert Blackwill, then Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and Senior Director for European and Soviet Affairs at the National Security Council
Jack F. Matlock, Jr., U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union
Condoleezza Rice, then Director for Soviet and East European Affairs at the National Security Council
Brent Scowcroft, U.S. National Security Adviser
Raymond Seitz, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs
John H. Sununu, White House chief of staff
Margaret Tutwiler, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs and Spokeswoman of the Department
Paul Wolfowitz, U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy
Robert Zoellick, Counselor of the Department of State
Venue: “From Yalta to Malta”, and back.
The idea of a summit in the open sea is said to have been inspired largely by President Bush’s fascination with World War II President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s habit of meeting foreign leaders on board naval vessels. The choice of Malta as a venue was the subject of considerable pre-summit haggling between the two superpowers. According to Condoleezza Rice:
“… it took a long time to get it arranged, finding a place, a place that would not be ceremonial,
Although the Maltese were wonderful, the weather was really bad.”
The choice of venue was also highly symbolic. The Maltese Islands are strategically located at the geographic centre of the Mediterranean Sea, where east meets west and north meets south. Consequently, Malta has a long history of domination by foreign powers. It served as a British naval base during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and suffered massive destruction during World War II.
Malta declared its neutrality between the two superpowers in 1980, following the closure of British military bases and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Regional Headquarters (CINCAFMED), previously located on Malta.
Neutrality is entrenched in the Constitution of Malta, which provides as follows, at section 1(3):
Achieving a low-carbon economy is dependent rather on new, well-designed energy law that shifts private incentives towards efficient use of renewable energy to “game-changing” technology such as Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) motor vehicles.
Those interested in how a near 0 economy could be achieved using existing technology may find this chapter, available at papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?a…
Integrating Vehicles and the Electricity Grid to Store and Use Renewable Energy by David Hodas :
The world could be powered by renewable energy: more energy from the sun hits the earth in one hour than all of the energy consumed on our planet in an entire year.
In Delivering Energy Policy in the EU and US: A Multi-Disciplinary Reader, (Heffron and Little, eds.) (Edinburgh University Press, 2016)
Widener University Delaware Law School Legal Studies Research Paper Series No. 16-13
V2G vehicles integrate separate energy conversion systems: the electricity grid and light vehicle transportation fleet by storing electricity from the grid when it is not needed and returning it to the grid when it is needed.
The total U.S. light vehicle fleet power capacity is about 39 times the power generation capacity of the U.S. electrical generation system.
The grid could use power stored in idle V2G batteries whenever needed, yet each vehicle would be tapped only within the constraints of its drivers’ specific schedule and driving needs. 20,000,000 V2G cars (just 10% of the U.S. fleet) with an average peak power rating of only 50 Kw, would have the combined power capacity equivalent to the entire U.S. Electric grid. This fleet would be the backup system for a fully renewable (e.g., solar and wind) energy generation system.
David R. Hodas
4601 Concord Pike
302 477 2186 (tel)
9 May, 1:15-2:30pm
Yale University will launch its flagship Environmental Performance Index (EPI) report at United Nations Headquarters in New York City with a discussion event on Monday, 9 May 2016 from 1:15-2:30pm in Conference Room 8. This index ranks 180 countries on high-priority environmental issues including air quality, climate change, and water resources. Now in its 15th year, the EPI provides a scorecard and baseline to assess each country’s performance and inform progress on United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Change Agreement.
H.E. Mrs. Janine Coye Felson – Ambassador, Deputy Permanent Representative of Belize to the United Nations
Mr. Elliott Harris – Assistant Secretary-General, Head of the New York Office of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP)
Ms. Kim Samuel – President of The Samuel Family Foundation and Professor of Practice at the Institute for Studies in International Development at McGill University
Dr. Angel Hsu – Assistant Professor at Yale-National University of Singapore (NUS) College; EPI Principal Investigator
The event provides an opportunity for UN Member States, UN staff, civil society and others working to advance environmental policy and implement the SDGs to learn which environmental issues require the most attention and resources. Country representatives will have a chance to see a breakdown of their EPI scores, allowing them a better understanding of which national environmental policies are working and which are not.
About the EPI
The 2016 Environmental Performance Index is a project lead by the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy (YCELP) and Yale Data-Driven Environmental Solutions Group at Yale University (Data-Driven Yale), the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) at Columbia University, in collaboration with the Samuel Family Foundation, McCall MacBain Foundation, and the World Economic Forum.
For more information, please visit:
The monthly Mother Pelican, started May 2005, is a Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability and it released now an amazing (encyclopedic) May 2016 issue. You can communicate with Gutieres via: the.pelican.web at gmail.com
It srates: “The patriarchal culture of control and domination is the root of all social and ecological violence. It corrupted the original unity of man and woman (cf. Genesis 3:16) and is now disrupting the harmony between humanity and the human habitat. Just as we are now aware that slavery and racism are moral evils, we must become aware that gender discrimination is a moral evil that must be eradicated if solidarity and sustainability are to be attained.
The need to reform patriarchal structures applies to both secular and religious institutions. Overcoming patriarchy is a “sign of the times” to the extent that it fosters authentic gender solidarity and nonviolence for the good of humanity and the glory of God. Given the enormous influence of religious traditions, it is especially critical for religious institutions to extirpate any semblance of male hegemony in matters of doctrine and religious practices.”
THE PELICAN is an ancient symbol of unconditional service. To be a “person for others” requires full awareness of the personal self and also requires sacrifice of the one who serves. The following excerpt from The Physiologus (the author is unknown, circa 4th century CE) captures this ideal:
“The long beak of the white pelican is furnished with a sack which serves as a container for the small fish that it feeds its young. In the process of feeding them, the bird presses the sack against its neck in such a way that it seems to open its breast with its bill. The reddish tinge of its breast plumage and the redness of the tip of its beak fostered the folkloristic notion that it actually drew blood from its own breast.”
The author of The Physiologus found the action of the pelican, interpreted in this manner, to be a symbol of merciful and sacrificial service and thus an apt symbol of Jesus the Christ (Cf. Matthew 23:37, Luke 13:34). While professing no affiliation to any specific religious body, the Mother Pelican journal is committed to the promotion of basic Christian values, human rights, social justice, gender equality, and ecological sustainability.
“Ubi caritas et amor,
I do not delve now into the many articles and attachments of this issue. The material reaches into practically every aspect of what is – and also much of what, unjustifiably, is not front news today. As said, my intention here is to make sure our readers are aware of this resource – specially with Pope Franciscus having stepped into all theses areas that the church was so slow in recognizing earlier.
Nevertheless, I could not resist not posting here the followig item I picked up from MOTHER PELICAN quoting the CLUB OF ROME reaction to a Bernie Sanders comment.
Club of Rome
During a live debate on CNN, US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders compared climate change to World War II. The Centre for Climate Safety asked Club of Rome member Ian Dunlop to comment on this.
“Responding to climate change goes beyond strengthening the green party. Sanders is absolutely right; a war footage is the sort of response we have to adopt. After WWII the whole economy was turned on its head in the space of one-two years. What we need now is a Government of National Unity.” – Ian Dunlop
Listen to the whole interview here: climatesafety.info/thesustainable…
Club of Rome
What’s the ultimate goal of a circular economy? According to Club of Rome member Walter Stahel, it’s to recycle atoms! For that, “we will need new technologies to de-polymerize, de-allow, de-laminate, de-vulcanize and de-coat materials” he explains in an article in Nature. We will also need to revisit our relationship to goods and materials and our policy focus.
Lucid words by Uri Avnery: ” Terrorism is a weapon – like cannon. We would laugh at somebody who declares war on “international artillery;” likewise There is no such thing as “international terrorism.”
There is no such thing as “international terrorism”.
To declare war on “international terrorism” is nonsense.
Terrorism is a weapon. Like cannon. We would laugh at
Terrorism is a method of operation. It is often used by
Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military thinker,
Terrorism is a weapon. Generally it is the weapon of the
(I cannot restrain myself from boasting that long ago I
MANY ORDINARY Israelis felt deep satisfaction after the
Binyamin Netanyahu, a diminutive thinker but a brilliant
It is a stroke of genius: if they are one and the same,
This has nothing to do with reality.
Palestinians who want to fight and die for Allah go to Syria. Palestinians – both
So let’s stick to the comfortable conclusion: they kill us
TRAGIC AS the results of each terrorist event may be, there
The height of absurdiocy was reached in Brussels, when a
But the reaction in Paris was not much better. The number
It seems incredible that ten mediocre individuals, with a
The next best friend of the terrorist is the politician. It
Francois Hollande is a typical example. A mediocre yet
Not understanding the malady, their remedy is worse than
It was a sad spectacle to see all these world leaders, the
THE PROBLEM is indeed far more complicated than simple
This is not a completely unprecedented phenomenon: more
I don’t know how to fight the Islamic State (or rather
I am not sure that even a territorial invasion would
Indeed, if one is looking for an example of total
(For history-lovers, there is something fascinating about
It has been said that war is far too important to leave to
ISRAELIS BELIEVE (as usual) that we can teach the world. We
But do we?
For weeks now, Israelis have lived in a panic. For lack of
These are individual acts, often quite spontaneous, and
Netanyahu tries to ride this wave like Hollande and
All in order to obliterate one glaring fact: the occupation
There is no direct connection between IS terrorism around
If I were a believer, I would whisper: God forbid.
N.B.: My articles can be read
Also my books are now online uriavnery.com/en/
From: Wolfgang Obenland wolfgangobenland at globalpolicy.org
Will the UN follow willingly the leadership of Pope Francis and that of a joint Obama-Xi pact?
As you know, over one hundred Heads of State and Government will gather this week to adopt the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This agenda is intended to make the United Nations (UN) ‘fit for purpose’, but it is important to ask, ‘whose purpose will it be fit for’?
We would like to share the latest Global Policy Forum report which warns that the changing funding patterns of the UN and its development system reveal alarming trends. These trends include a growing gap between the scale of global problems and the (financial) capacity of the UN to solve them; a growing share of non-core and earmarked contributions in UN finance; and the outsourcing of funding and decision-making to exclusive global partnerships.
Funding of all UN system-wide activities is around US$40 billion per year. While this may seem to be a substantial sum, it is smaller than the budget of New York City, less than a quarter of the European Union budget, and only 2.3 per cent of the world’s military expenditures. Many Member States, particularly the large donors, pursue a dual approach of calling for greater coherence in UN development activities while at the same time increasing their use of earmarked funding. This pick- and- choose dynamic has opened the space for corporate sector engagement. Increasingly the UN is promoting market-based approaches and multi-stakeholder partnerships as the business model for solving global problems. Driven by a belief that engaging the more economically powerful is essential to maintaining the relevance of the UN, this practice has harmful consequences for democratic governance and general public support, as it aligns more with power centers and away from the less powerful.
Fit for Whose Purpose? Private Funding and Corporate Influence in the United Nations, released today, gives a comprehensive overview of current UN funding trends and ends with a summary of findings and policy recommendations to counter the new ‘business model’ of global governance and to make the United Nations really ‘fit for purpose’, fit for the purpose of a democratic and inclusive global governance. Detailed and specific, the demands range from adopting measures to limit earmarked funding as a percentage of total funding, to strengthening the rules and tools governing engagement with the business sector, and to establishing an intergovernmental framework for partnership accountability.
You can Download full report here (PDF, 2,5 MB): www.globalpolicy.org/images/pdfs…
From the Boulder , Colorado, National Renewable Energy Laboratories – Victoria Healey victoria.healey at nrel.gov
This week the Solutions Center, in partnership with the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and other international experts, published a report, “Policies to Spur Energy Access”, which reveals policy options for developing countries to engage the private sector in creating market solutions to energy access. The report discusses the regulatory and policy frameworks that can enable decentralized solutions and attract private sector investment. The report also notes that creating a robust market for energy services requires policymakers to address broader market issues. Policymakers can catalyze private financing and build human capacity to meet the needs of an emerging market. Because energy access impacts a wide range of development goals—poverty alleviation, health, education, agriculture, disaster planning and the environment—integrating the efforts of various public ministries can streamline energy access and leverage wider resources. The second part of this two-volume report includes in-depth case studies of public-private programs for financing energy access in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Mali, Mexico and Nepal. The case studies focus on the policy decisions that underpin each program and their impact on energy access for underserved populations. Along with this report, the Solutions Center has engaged additional international experts on energy access to offer assistance to policymakers via the Ask an Expert program.
The report can be accessed and downloaded at cleanenergysolutions.org/news/po….
LET THERE BE WATER: The Middle East, Africa, China – a remark by German Emperor Wilhelm II that is still directing Israeli Water-Diplomacy. A potential aid to the SDGs – ask the PM of Uganda Mr. Ruhakana Rugunda.. UPDATED
From: Seth M. Siegel <email@example.com>
Earlier this week, my book Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World was released. Thanks to significant pre-sales and a smart sales executive at my publisher, Barnes & Noble agreed to put the book on the New Non-Fiction table found at the entrance to all of the bookseller’s stores. Walking in and seeing the stack of books was a remarkable experience, a milestone. (See photo.)
PRAISE FOR LET THERE BE WATER: Former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Prime Minister of Uganda Ruhakana Rugunda, Edito-in-Chieg Arianna Huffington, co-author of Start-UP Nation Dan Senior and former US Diplomat.
THE SEPTEMBER 9th POSTING:
by: Seth M. Siegel, Sept. 9 2015
Seth M. Siegel is an entrepreneur, writer, and lawyer in New York.
Utopian novels set the bar high, and Altneuland is nothing if not a utopian novel. Yet even before statehood, Zionists made remarkable strides in putting the land’s limited water resources to good use. They drained swamps, drilled wells, and developed irrigation systems. By the 1960s, Israel had developed a nationwide system of underground pipes to transport water from the relatively water-rich north to the Negev desert in the south. Israeli engineers also developed the system known as drip irrigation, which simultaneously conserves water and increases crop yields. Later, Israel would pioneer desalination technology. Combining scientific advances with efficient management, the Jewish state is now in no danger of running out of water. In fact, it provides large amounts from its own supplies to the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan, while each year exporting billions of dollars’ worth of peppers, tomatoes, melons, and other water-intensive produce.
In its early years, the Mashav initiative was warmly embraced by African states as well as countries in Asia and South America. When she became Israel’s prime minister in 1969, Meir saw to it that the African program continued to get the support it needed. But then came the 1973 Yom Kippur war, in the aftermath of which, at the urging of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, every sub-Saharan nation broke diplomatic relations with Israel and expelled the Mashav specialists. Traumatic as it was for Meir—she “had been messianic about her African program,” writes Yehuda Avner in The Prime Ministers—it was a much greater misfortune for the many Africans who had benefited from the now abruptly terminated programs.
In the 1980s, some African countries expressed interest in renewing ties. Ethiopia restored relations in 1989, and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa followed suit in 1993 with the signing of the first Oslo agreement. Today, Israel provides training in water management, irrigation, and other areas for specialists from more than 100 countries, 29 of them in Africa.
Her answer was Innovation: Africa (in shorthand, i:A), an organization that installs not only water pumps but similarly solar-powered electricity for light bulbs and vaccine refrigerators in medical clinics. It now runs water projects in seven African countries, and Yaari has plans for expansion. “It turns out,” she explains, that
there is a lot of underground water in Africa. You just have to know where to look for it. The bigger problem facing African water-assistance programs is that as soon as the aid professionals leave the villages, the systems begin to break down and the people are no better off than before.
To overcome this, Innovation: Africa has created a system that seems impervious to breakdown, vandalism, or theft—and that can be run remotely from Israel. The concept is deceptively simple. Once a source of potable underground water is located, a rented diesel-powered drill is brought in to reach it, a water pump is inserted into the shaft, properly sized solar panels are installed and connected, and water is drawn out and deposited into an adjacent water tower, from where gravity propels it to destinations all around the village. In addition, the waterlines are connected to a drip-irrigation system installed alongside the solar panels, enabling the villagers to plant seeds and harvest the produce.
Thousands of miles away, in Tel Aviv, i:A’s technology chief Meir Yaacoby has created a device to monitor and manage each African water system from the office. By means of whatever wireless service is available locally (Yaari: “They may not have shoes, but the adults have cell phones”), frequent messages keep Yaacoby updated with key information on, among other things, the quantity of water in the tower and any problems with the equipment. He also receives a constant Internet feed on local weather conditions. If it the outlook is for hotter weather than usual, or if a cloudy spell threatens to block solar rays, he can pump more water into the tower as a precaution; if rain is in the offing, he can stop and restart drip irrigation as needed by a particular crop at any given stage in its growing cycle. If the system itself develops a mechanical problem, he is apprised within minutes and can send detailed information for repairing it to a local engineer. Every part of the system can also be automated, making it infinitely scalable.
These drip-irrigation systems are having another, unexpected effect. Yaari cites a village in Uganda as a representative case study. Beyond providing more food for the village and relief from hunger, the system has enabled the villagers to sell their surplus at the market. “With the extra money, they’ve bought chickens and developed a poultry farm,” she reports. In addition, “Once you begin providing water, the children aren’t filling jerry cans with muddy water and they can wash. They also stay healthy; a large number of the children had been getting sick from drinking unclean water.” And there are still other benefits: “The children, especially the girls, had been walking two to three hours a day fetching water,” she says. “They would come back exhausted and filthy. Now, with water being pumped, they can go to school.”
Despite the country’s enormous natural resources, the PRC has long been plagued with water problems. Many farming regions are inefficient and wasteful when it comes to water usage; infrastructure is overburdened and superannuated, losing enormous amounts in leaks; sewage treatment is often inadequate; and lax enforcement of environmental laws has led to the severe deterioration of many sources of freshwater.
“I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” said one senior Israeli official, “but if we perform well here, we will have the opportunity to help rebuild the water systems of cities all over China.” Whatever one’s view of Communist China’s domestic behavior or global ambitions, the potential economic benefits to Israel of such an enterprise are undeniable—to say nothing of the independent moral value of significantly improving the living conditions of millions of ordinary Chinese citizens.
This essay is adapted from Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution for a Water-Starved World by Seth M. Siegel, to be published next week by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press. Copyright © 2015 by the author.
From GeorgeSoros.com, September 16, 2015
Dear Friends and Colleagues,
In the attached essay George Soros says that assuring the success of the new Ukraine should be the top priority of the European Union. In ‘Ukraine and Europe: What Should Be Done?’ Mr. Soros argues that of all the divisive crises that the EU faces – the euro, Greece, migration and the British EU referendum – the external threat posed by Russian aggression towards Ukraine should be treated as the most urgent, as it has the possibility of uniting the European Union. From that unity, the “spirit of solidarity” that “characterized the European Union’s early days” could be recaptured, helping to solve these other crises. In the essay, George calls on Ukraine’s allies to do “whatever it takes” to help the new Ukraine succeed. Though Ukraine and its allies cannot prevail militarily over a Russia willing to risk armed conflict, they can “outbid Russia financially” – an expenditure that Mr. Soros argues should be thought of as a defense expenditure. He describes the current €3.4 billion EU contribution to the IMF-led rescue package for Ukraine is “wholly inadequate”.
Ukraine & Europe: What Should Be Done?
Because of the structural defects of the euro, the European authorities have had to become masters of the art of muddling through one crisis after another. This practice is popularly known as kicking the can down the road although it would be more accurate to describe it as kicking the can uphill so that it keeps coming back. But Europe now faces at least five crises at the same time: four internal ones—the euro, Greece, migration, and the British referendum on whether to remain in the EU—and an external one, Russian aggression against Ukraine. The various crises tend to reinforce one another. Both the public and the authorities are overwhelmed. What can be done to arrest and reverse the process of disintegration?
Obviously five crises cannot all be solved at the same time. There is a need to give preferential treatment to some of them without neglecting any. I have been strenuously arguing that Ukraine should be given top priority. The internal crises tend to divide the European Union into debtor and creditor countries, the UK and the Continent, as well as “arrival” and “destination” countries. By contrast, an external threat like the Russian aggression against Ukraine ought to unite the European Union.
There is a new Ukraine that is determined to become the opposite of the old Ukraine. The old Ukraine had much in common with the old Greece that proved so difficult to reform: an economy that was dominated by oligarchs and a political class that exploited its position for private gain instead of serving the public. The new Ukraine, by contrast, is inspired by the spirit of the Maidan revolution in February 2014 and seeks to radically reform the country. By treating Ukraine like a second-class Greece that is not even a member of the European Union, Europe is in danger of turning the new Ukraine back into the old Ukraine. That would be a fatal mistake because the new Ukraine is one of the most valuable assets that Europe has, both for resisting Russian aggression and for recapturing the spirit of solidarity that characterized the European Union in its early days.
I feel I am in a strong position to make this argument because I have an intimate knowledge of the new Ukraine through both my Ukrainian foundation and my own involvement in the country. At the beginning of this year, I developed what I called “a winning strategy for Ukraine” and circulated it among the European authorities. I also outlined this strategy in these pages.*
I argued that sanctions against Russia are necessary but not sufficient. President Vladimir Putin has developed a very successful interpretation of the current situation with which to defend himself against the sanctions. He claims that all of Russia’s economic and political difficulties are due to the hostility of the Western powers, who want to deny Russia its rightful place in the world. Russia is the victim of their aggression. Putin’s argument appeals to the patriotism of Russian citizens, and asks them to put up with the hardships—which include financial instability and shortages—that the sanctions cause. The hardships actually reinforce his argument. The only way to prove Putin wrong is by establishing a better balance between sanctions against Russia and support for Ukraine.
My “winning strategy” advocates effective financial assistance to Ukraine, which would combine large-scale budgetary support with affordable political risk insurance, along with other incentives for the private sector. Coupled with the radical economic and political reforms that the new Ukraine is eager to introduce, these measures would turn it into an attractive place for investment. The linchpin of economic reforms is the restructuring of the state gas monopoly, Naftogaz, moving from the current artificially low prices for gas to market-determined prices and providing direct subsidies for gas purchases to needy households.
The political reforms center on establishing an honest, independent, and competent judiciary and media, combating corruption, and making the civil service serve the -people instead of exploiting them. These reforms would also appeal to many people in Russia, who would demand similar reforms. That is what Putin is afraid of. That is why he has tried so hard to destabilize the new Ukraine.
If Ukraine’s allies combined the sanctions against Russia with effective assistance for the new Ukraine, no amount of propaganda could obscure the fact that Russia’s economic and political problems are caused by Putin’s policies. He could, of course—in clear violation of the Minsk II agreement of February 11, 2015—prevent the new Ukraine from succeeding by launching a large-scale military offensive. But that would be a political defeat for Putin. It would reveal the falsehood of his interpretation of the conflict with Ukraine; and a military conquest of part of eastern Ukraine would place a heavy economic and political burden on Russia.
President Putin has gained a temporary tactical advantage over Ukraine because he is willing to risk large-scale and even nuclear war while Ukraine’s allies are determined to avoid a direct military conflict with Russia. This has allowed him to alternate between hybrid war and hybrid peace at will, and he has exploited this advantage to the full. Ukraine cannot prevail over Russia militarily because President Putin can mobilize more and better-armed forces than Ukraine and its allies on the battlefield. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had to learn this lesson at great cost. But surely Europe and the US can outbid Russia financially.
This argument for European and American support had some impact among Ukraine’s allies but my assertion about their willingness to provide large-scale financial support proved to be wrong, at least until now. I attribute this to two factors. One is the Greek crisis, which was an outgrowth of the euro crisis and set a bad example for the European Union to follow in Ukraine. The other is the Minsk agreement itself that, for reasons explained below, induced the European authorities to continue keeping Ukraine on a tight financial leash.
The euro crisis has created an acute shortage of funds for budgetary purposes. The EU budget of E145 billion is only about one percent of the GDP of the member states, but Europe is barely growing and member states are clamoring to reduce their contributions to the EU budget. The shortage of funds is particularly acute in the eurozone, which has no budget of its own.
The European authorities under German leadership mishandled the Greek crisis. They started out by providing emergency loans to Greece at punitive interest rates; they imposed their own program of reform and micromanaged it instead of allowing Greece to take ownership and control of the reforms; and they always lent too little too late. The Greek authorities are far from blameless but the primary responsibility lies with Germany because it was in charge. The Greek national debt has become unsustainable but the European authorities are now unwilling to write down their loans to Greece.
A dispute over this point between them and the IMF has greatly complicated the recent and current negotiations. The authorities have corrected some of their mistakes—for instance, they insist on “bailing in” rather than “bailing out” bondholders (bailing in requires bondholders to write down the value of their bonds). But they repeat others. The biggest mistake has been to treat Ukraine in the same way as Greece. The new Ukraine seeks to be the opposite of Greece and, although it is not a member, it is actively defending the European Union against a military and political threat from Russia.
As I argued in my original case for a winning strategy, helping Ukraine should be treated as a defense expenditure. Seen in this light, the current E3.4 billion contribution from the European Union to the IMF-led rescue package for Ukraine is wholly inadequate. The European Union has the appropriate fiscal tool—the Macro-Financial Assistance mechanism (MFA)—that, with appropriate modifications, could be used to overcome the shortage of funds in the EU budget. The MFA allows the European Union to borrow funds from the financial markets, making use of its almost completely unused triple-A credit.
The EU budget has to allocate only 9 percent of the amount lent to Ukraine as a noncash reserve requirement against the possibility of a future default. In comparison, US budget rules imposed a 44 percent noncash reserve requirement on the latest $1 billion credit guarantee the US gave Ukraine, so the budgetary burden of the $2 billion US contribution to the IMF-led assistance package is actually greater than that of the European Union. But the MFA framework -agreement expired in 2009 when the Lisbon Treaty was introduced and needs to be renewed in order to be used on a larger scale. Allocating 1 percent of the EU budget to the defense of Ukraine seems appropriate; this would allow the European Union to contribute as much as E14 billion annually to the IMF-led assistance program—a contribution that would be large enough to allow for the European Union to do “whatever it takes” to help Ukraine succeed.
The Minsk II agreement of February 2015 followed a major military defeat inflicted on Ukraine by the separatists, strongly assisted by Russia. Ukraine was desperate for a cease-fire and negotiated under duress. The Minsk II agreement guaranteed a special status to the separatist enclaves in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine and implied that Ukraine would subsidize them. President Putin exploited his advantage by keeping the text of the agreement deliberately ambiguous. It called for the Ukrainian government to negotiate with representatives of the Donbas region without specifying who they are.
The agreement was signed by Presidents Putin, Poroshenko, and François Hollande, and by Chancellor Angela Merkel. This has set a trap for the last two. They wanted an agreement bearing their signatures to hold; if it fails it must be Russia that scuttles it, not Ukraine. They were also anxious to avoid a military confrontation. This attitude led them to tolerate Russian and separatist violations of the cease-fire yet to insist that Ukraine should observe it to the letter. By taking a neutral position on the question of how President -Poroshenko would meet the requirements of the ambiguous agreement, they reinforced President Putin’s advantage.
After the agreement was reached, Ukraine came close to financial collapse because of delays in delivering the second IMF-led rescue package until March 11, 2015. The low point was reached in February when the Ukrainian public lost confidence in the national currency, the hryvnia. Official transactions were suspended and the hryvnia traded on the black market between thirty and forty to the dollar that day. Since then the currency has recovered to about twenty to twenty-five hryvnia to the dollar. A precarious financial stability has been reestablished but only at the cost of accelerated economic contraction. The sudden drop in the exchange rate led to higher inflation, a substantial drop in living standards, and a large reduction in imports; this has helped to narrow the trade deficit. At the same time, the budget has benefited from lower expenditures on social benefits for the general public and on the wages of government employees.
When I visited Ukraine this April, I found a troubling contradiction between objective reality, which was clearly deteriorating, and the reformist zeal of the new Ukraine that was under tremendous economic, political, and military pressure but still moving forward with its reforms, which were having a cumulative effect.
During 2014, the reform program for a new Ukraine was in the planning stage; only in 2015 did it result in a large number of laws being passed to meet the requirements of the IMF and, more recently, the Minsk agreement. Even so, the oligarchs—industrialists who use political influence to enrich themselves—were more experienced in defending their interests than the reformers were in curbing them. Just when the economy was on the brink of collapse and political tensions were at a peak, the government had to face a challenge from the most powerful oligarch, Igor Kolomoisky, who tried to use his militia to retain his control over a subsidiary of Naftogaz. The government was forced to resist this and managed to defeat him.
That was a turning point. Since then, the central bank has been exercising strict control over the banking system, although recapitalizing the banks will take time. Other oligarchs, notably Dmytro Firtash and Rinat Akhmetov, are being reined in. Regrettably, this happens on a case-by-case basis and not yet by the application of the rule of law. Efforts to reform the police and introduce online services in government and transparency in official procurement have made more progress. But the reformers are encountering resistance at every step and the general population is increasingly dissatisfied both with the slow speed of reforms and the continued decline in living standards. So the stress under which the reformers operate continues to increase and may reach a breaking point at any time.
The Greek crisis greatly intensified Ukraine’s problems by diverting the attention of the European authorities from Ukraine and reinforcing their tendency to treat it as yet another Greece. The effect on Chancellor Merkel has been especially detrimental. She had behaved as a truly European leader in standing up to President Putin but remained hesitant about giving wholehearted support to Ukraine. When it came to Greece, she abandoned her characteristic caution in order to prevent a Greek exit from the euro. This brought her into conflict with her own party and her minister of finance, Wolfgang Schäuble, who had the backing of her party. While she managed to keep Greece in the eurozone, at least for the time being, she used up much of her political capital in the process. The loss will be sorely felt by the new Ukraine, which needs all the support it can get in complying with the Minsk agreement.
The ambiguity of the Minsk agreement has forced the two sides into a charade where the task is to pass the obligation to make the next move to the other side. Kiev has been a fast learner. Under prodding from its allies it established the special status of the Donbas enclaves by passing a law that quoted the ambiguous text of the Minsk agreement verbatim. This has created a financial problem for President Putin by starving the enclaves of funds until they are willing to hold elections in accordance with Ukrainian law.
But it would be risky for Ukraine’s allies to push President Poroshenko too far in making unilateral concessions to the separatists. As the recent bloodshed in front of the Ukrainian parliament demonstrated, ultranationalist elements are on the verge of rebellion. In short, the political and economic condition of the new Ukraine is extremely precarious.
A critical examination of the recent Greek negotiations reveals where they went wrong. Greece should not have taken precedence over Ukraine and Ukraine should not have been treated as yet another Greece. A similar examination of the Minsk agreement leads to a more equivocal conclusion. Ukraine’s European allies fell into a trap, but the current impasse has brought one important benefit: it has stopped Russia from carrying its cease-fire violations beyond the point where it can deny them. It would be a pity to lose this advantage.
This analysis leads logically to a new winning strategy for Ukraine. Ukraine still should be reinstated as the top priority of the European Union because the new Ukraine is one of its great assets. Every effort should be made not only to preserve the new Ukraine but to assure its success. If by helping Ukraine the European Union could effectively rebuff the Russian menace, then most of the European Union’s other priorities would fall into place; if it fails, the other objectives would be pushed further out of reach.
How can the success of the new Ukraine be assured? The analysis on which the original winning strategy was based remains valid. It was and is clear that President Putin can always show Russia to be stronger than Ukraine and its allies by escalating its use of force. Ukraine cannot militarily prevail over Russia. This means that it cannot regain its territorial integrity, at least in the short term, but it can maintain its moral and political integrity. When it comes to a choice, the latter is by far the more important. The new Ukraine is eager to undertake radical economic and political reforms. It has a large population and a battle-tested army willing to defend the European Union by defending itself. Moreover, the spirit of volunteerism and self-sacrifice on which the new Ukraine is based is a highly perishable good: if it is depleted it will take a generation to replace it.
Chancellor Merkel has put the political and moral integrity of the new Ukraine under tremendous stress by pushing President Poroshenko to observe the Minsk agreement to the letter even if President Putin does not. This brought the benefit, however, of keeping the military conflict within bounds, an achievement that needs to be preserved. Attaining some degree of political and military stability has to be one of the objectives of a winning strategy.
It is the second part of the winning strategy that is missing. Ukraine’s allies have to decide and declare that they will do “whatever it takes” to enable Ukraine not only to survive but to introduce far-reaching economic and political reforms, and to flourish in spite of President Putin’s opposition. This approach would require significantly more money than is available within the current budget of the European Union. The two prongs of this updated winning strategy—keeping military conflict within bounds and providing Ukraine with adequate financial support to carry out radical reforms—have to be carefully reconciled because they are liable to interfere with each other.
The original strategy called for Ukraine’s allies to declare their commitment to do “whatever it takes” at the end of June in conjunction with extending the sanctions on Russia. The European Union missed that deadline. The next opportunity will arise at the end of the year and it should be combined with a promise to reduce the sanctions on Russia if it fulfills its obligations under the Minsk agreement. This will greatly enhance the chances of success by offering a significant material reward to Russia for abiding by the Minsk agreement as well as a -face-saving way out of its conflict with Ukraine.
The prospects of the Minsk agreement holding have greatly improved over the past few months. The weakness of oil prices and the further downward slide of the ruble have put renewed pressure on the Russian economy. But the decisive factor has been the decline in Russian oil production. Output has been falling year over year, and for the first time, both the quantity and quality of the petroleum output fell this year between the months of June and July. This means that the sanctions are biting and the lack of spare parts is accelerating the depletion of existing oil fields. Putin could compensate his cronies for their financial losses by allowing them to take over the properties of the less reliable oligarchs; but the only way he can arrest a general decline of the oil industry is by having some of the Western sanctions lifted. This consideration now outweighs the threat that the eventual prosperity of the new Ukraine poses. The fact that the period of maximum danger has passed without a large-scale military attack indicates that Putin has chosen to rely on more subtle means to destabilize the new Ukraine.
It is all the more important that Ukraine’s allies should embrace the modified winning strategy outlined here. The change in Putin’s attitude gives them more leeway to do so. They can provide some immediate financial support to Ukraine in order to relieve the financial and political stress without provoking countermeasures from Russia. And they must prepare the ground for a declaration at the end of the year promising to do “whatever it takes” to help the new Ukraine to succeed. That means that they must start to establish an MFA framework agreement now because the process will take several months to complete. It cannot begin without prior approval from the German Ministry of Finance.
There are some welcome signs that Chancellor Merkel is moving in the right direction. She moved far ahead of the German public and business community when she used her leadership position to forge European unanimity in imposing sanctions on Russia. It was only after the downing of the Malaysian airliner in Ukraine that the German public caught up with her. She took an uncharacteristic political risk in order to keep Greece in the eurozone. She faced intense internal opposition, but that did not stop her from taking another bold step by announcing that Germany will process as many as 800,000 asylum seekers in 2015.
By doing so Germany has set a positive example for other member states to follow; it also has implicitly abandoned the Dublin Regulation, which requires asylum seekers to register and remain in the country of arrival and has been a source of friction between the “-arrival” and “destination” countries. This has brought about a dramatic shift in public attitudes toward asylum seekers. There has been an outpouring of sympathy that started in Germany and spread to the rest of Europe. If this trend gained momentum, it could lead to a positive resolution of the migration crisis.
Chancellor Merkel has correctly recognized that the migration crisis could destroy the European Union, first by causing a breakdown of the Schengen Treaty, which allows free movement within Europe, and eventually by undermining the common market. It would be an appropriate continuation of her recent risk-taking actions if she now combined firmness toward Russia with greater trust and support for Ukraine. The United States is -already more firmly committed to the new Ukraine than most European governments; President Obama could therefore play a constructive role in persuading Chancellor Merkel to move in this direction. With their joint support, the new winning strategy for Ukraine has a realistic chance of success. And success in Ukraine should give the European Union enough momentum to find a positive resolution of the various other problems it faces.
Chancellor Merkel’s bold initiative toward asylum seekers could have far-reaching effects. She has challenged the German anti-euro party, but that party was already divided in its opposition to immigrants and is likely to collapse under the weight of public sympathy for asylum seekers. This may encourage President Hollande to take on the National Front in France, which is split by the animosity between its founder and his daughter; and it may encourage Prime Minister Cameron to successfully challenge the anti–immigrant agitation of UKIP. This could transform the political landscape of the European Union.
There is a danger that Europe’s preoccupation with the migration crisis could once again divert attention from what in my judgment is an even more fundamental issue: the fate of the new Ukraine. This would be a tragic error. As I have argued here, the new Ukraine is the most valuable asset that Europe has. Losing it would cause irreparable harm: it could create a failed state of more than 40 million people and become another source of refugees. But by helping the new Ukraine, the European Union could save itself. By doing “whatever it takes” to enable the new Ukraine not only to survive but to flourish, the European Union would achieve a dual objective: it would protect itself from Putin’s Russia and it would recapture the spirit of cooperation and solidarity that used to fire people’s imagination in its early days. Chancellor Merkel has already -rekindled that spirit toward asylum seekers. Saving the new Ukraine would truly transform the political landscape in Europe.
*“A New Policy to Rescue Ukraine,” The New York Review, February 5, 2015.
From Laura Musikanski: The Happiness Alliance – Home of the Happiness Initiative and the GNH (Gross National Happiness) Index
Hi Friend of the Happiness Alliance,
You are one of 61K people who took the Gross National Happiness Index and, in doing so, are the happiness movement. And the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) agrees – happiness, wellbeing & sustainability are important.
So what? October 13-15 in Guadalajara, Mexico is the OECD’s Fifth World Forum on statistics, knowledge and policy “transforming policy, changing lives.” We will be there (chat with us at our booth), as will be nef, Richard Layard, Jeffrey Stiglitz, Gus O’Donnell and so can you.
Our latest tool, Happiness for the Depressed, takes a real look at how to address depression. It is quickly becoming one of our more popular tools in part because it does not to give a bandaid to real problems.
And for the data and policy geeks, our second of a four essays that will constitute a white paper on the happiness movement has finally been published. The peer review process is no joke – but we are grateful to the Journal for Social Change for the input and editing. The essay is Measuring Happiness to Guide Public Policy Making. The end includes a grid of the areas included by different measures.
Community activists – check out the wonderful work Laura Hannant had been leading in the Creston, British Columbia region. Elected and appointed officials from the city, region and community boards came together with volunteers to measure and now manage the happiness and wellbeing of the community as part of a three year long project.
Academics and Researchers – check out the article covering the research Professor David Pendery did with four different universities in Taiwan. He is particularly concerned with the happiness and wellbeing of Chinese youth.
Laura Hannant and David Pendery both plan to be at the OECD fifth world forum and share a booth with the Happiness Alliance.
Last, please keep using the Gross National Happiness Index for your life and for your group. If you have not tried the new platform, check it out! You can create a group with one click. If you have, please let us know what you think and of any problems ( info at happycounts.org)
P.S. We need donations to help us cover costs for posters, handouts and a banner for the OECD forum. If you can help, please donate here!
Can Bolivia Chart a Sustainable Path Away From Capitalism?
FOR THE FULL ARTICLE PLEASE GO TO: truth-out.org/news/item/28778-can…
The number of conflicts over natural resource extraction and refining, road building and pipeline construction, and forest and water use have all steadily grown under Morales.
Ruthless extraction of Bolivia’s bountiful natural resources has concentrated the natural and social wealth of the country in a small group at the top of society, and exposed Bolivians to an extreme degree of imperial intrigue and attempted subjugation.
In stark contrast to monoculture farming, several hundred different varieties of potato are grown in the Bolivian Andes, as a resilient subsistence food by 200,000 small-scale farmers.
With the melting of the Andean mountains ice and climate change farmers no longer know how community can grow food because “it now rains at all different times, and it’s drier for longer. This place did not used to be as hot as it is now.”
Higher average temperatures will lead to an increase in evaporation, causing soils to dry out. In turn, drier soils will increase erosion and loss of topsoil, an effect that will be compounded by two other effects of a warmer climate.
But for all of Morales’ rhetorical championing of “buen vivir,” Gudynas believes that the MAS government instead operates more along the lines of a new form of Keynesian neoliberalism, or what he calls “neo-extractivismo.”
And despite a change in official rhetoric, and some welcome redistribution of wealth, Morales’ policies are practically the same as his predecessors’ with respect to natural resource extraction.
“We have lost an opportunity for something based on our self-organization and self-management.”
“The people do not decide; the government decides. Despite the constitution guaranteeing rights for indigenous people and Mother Earth, those policies are not implemented; they are just words.”
As through so much of its history, the small Andean nation of Bolivia sits at the center of a whirlwind of political, social and climatological questions. Arguably, no other country thus far in the 21st century raises the question of an “exit strategy” from neoliberal capitalism more concretely, and with greater possibility and hope, than Bolivia. That hope is expressed specifically in the ruling party, MAS, or Movement Toward Socialism. The country’s leader, former coca farmer and union organizer Evo Morales – South America’s first indigenous leader since pre-colonial times – was overwhelmingly elected to his third term of office in 2014. Morales has broadly popularized the Quechua term pachamama, which denotes a full commitment to ecological sustainability, and public hopes remain high that he’ll guide the country toward realizing that principle.
Bolivia has seen impressive and consistent economic growth since Morales’ first election victory in 2006, including the establishment of government programs to alleviate poverty and attain the social equity goals promised in his campaign. However, this growth has primarily rested on an expanded and intensified exploitation of the country’s natural resources, principally from fossil fuel production, mining, and the growth of large-scale, mono-crop agriculture and manufacturing.
This economic growth has also created what the Bolivian non-governmental organization CEDLA (Centro de Estudios Para el Desarrollo Laboral y Agrario) calls the rise of a new bourgeoisie comprised of Santa Cruz agriculture producers, traders from the west of the country and small mining producers. The Bolivian government also believes that a new class is emerging, and will become Bolivia’s new dominant group. Carlos Arce, researcher from CEDLA, says in an article in the Bolivian press:
A new type of entrepreneur has emerged from the popular classes. These emerging strata are mostly traders and are also present in the cooperative sectors, especially in mining. This new type of entrepreneur saves more and has a more austere mentality, in the classical Weberian sense. Within the state, representatives of this strata interface with middle-class intellectuals and other sectors of society, seeking to build alliances with small urban and rural producers that respond to the prerogatives of the market.
The so-called “plural economy” institutionalized by the government recognizes the state, communitarian, private and cooperative forms of economic organization. It also puts the state in direct control of the plans for economic development. In other words, the Bolivian people are the owners of the natural resources, but it is the state that administers and industrializes these natural resources.
In Arce’s view, the government exalts this new “emerging bourgeoisie.” The government’s program of a plural economy “facilitates the alliance of these market-driven sectors with key sectors of international capital. This opens the door to transnational corporations and makes permanent their presence.”
In December 2014, the Financial Times reported on the rise of a new indigenous bourgeoisie in El Alto, less constrained by older cultural ties of thrift, and striving for greater wealth, more ostentatious luxury buildings and opulent traditional clothing.
On the other hand, while many journalists and analysts have focused on the accomplishments of the Morales’ government, few have looked at the state of the labor force, unions and labor conditions. Research by local organizations shows that finding secure employment has become very difficult. According to the Bolivian Labor Ministry’s own data just 30 percent of the labor force in Bolivia has a secure and formal job, with almost 70 percent working in the informal sector. These workers have no employment security, which makes people more dependent on welfare protections and programs that have become more elaborate and extensive in recent years.
Bolivia’s geography is very diverse: The verdant and tropical Amazonian lowlands give way to the austere beauty of the highlands and snow-capped peaks of the Andes that ring the capital, La Paz. Bolivian elevations range from 130 to 6,000 meters above sea level dividing the country into three distinct geographical areas: the high plateau, the Andean valleys and the eastern lowlands.
Given all of these factors, Bolivia offers a case study on the impact of climate change, people’s resistance to exploitation and racist oppression, and the potential for genuine change from below.
Much of that resistance was formed in response to centuries of relentless extraction of the country’s minerals, semi-precious and precious metals, and guano. Following the privatization of Bolivia’s public airline, train system and electric utility, in 1999, the government sold the water and sanitation system of Cochabamba to a transnational consortium. Over the following five months, mass demonstrations and violent confrontations with the police and military forced the government to cancel the contract and keep the water supply in public hands. This popular struggle for public control of water became recognized worldwide as the Cochabamba Water War.
Marcela Olivera is a water commons organizer based in Cochabamba, Bolivia. After graduating from the Catholic University in Cochabamba, Bolivia, Marcela worked for four years in Cochabamba as the key international liaison for the Coalition for the Defense of Water and Life, the organization that fought and defeated water privatization in Bolivia. Since 2004, she has been developing and consolidating an inter-American citizens’ network on water justice named Red VIDA.
Chris Williams is an environmental activist and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis. He is chairman of the science department at Packer Collegiate Institute and adjunct professor at Pace University in the department of chemistry and physical science. His writings have appeared in Z Magazine, Green Left Weekly, Alternet, CommonDreams, ClimateandCapitalism.com, Counterpunch, The Indypendent, Dissident Voice, International Socialist Review, Truthout, Socialist Worker and ZNet. He reported from Fukushima and was a Lannan writer-in-residence in Marfa, Texas. He recently was awarded a Lannan Cultural Freedom Fellowship.
By Bill Scher of The Campaign for America’s Future www.ourFuture.org
Many people are having a good laugh watching Sarah Palin’s unintentionally hilarious speech to a conservative gathering in Iowa over the weekend. But Palin is never going to get anywhere near the White House.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco Friday, someone else gave a painfully incoherent speech. “And since the speaker really could end up in the White House, it’s actually worth your attention.”
Sounds refreshing. There’s just one problem. When you pay attention to what he is saying, the speech doesn’t make any sense.
Take this passage:
In other words, government is making things so hard for business … that auto dealers are doing really well.
In fact NADA just announced that, “Light-vehicle sales for 2014 amounted to 16.4 million units up 5.8 percent from 2013 making 2014 the year with the highest sales since 2006.” Also, truck sales are up 17.5 percent from last year. And the NADA annual report from May summing up 2013 said “the annual financial profile of America’s franchised new-car dealerships—shows a robust and highly competitive industry that is helping boost the U.S. economy. Last year, for example, dealerships employed more than 1 million people in their communities.”
Now here’s Jeb talking about economic growth and taxation:
Our nation’s economy used to grow at 3.5 to 4 percent, that was the norm throughout all but the last 15 years … we had a stable and growing middle class … now, in spite of the last few months which have been good economic news, the new normal if you talk to the smart people that decide these things, the new normal is 1.5 to 2 percent growth. And the challenge with that is, if we’re to grow at that rate, kind of the European economic model, we’re not going to be able to build the kind of capacity for people to pursue their dreams as they see fit … No amount of exotic forms of taxation proposed by our president or the progressives in this country comes close to the kind of revenue that government would get if we were to grow at 3.5 or 4 percent a year.
Jeb tries to shrug off the “last few months” as some sort of meaningless fluke. But we’ve had back-to-back quarters of growth faster than what Jeb desires: 4.6 and 5 percent.
Furthermore, despite this being his first 2016 stump speech, Jeb seems to have not updated his numbers since the recent boomlet. “The smart people” at the Federal Reserve and the National Association of Business Economics foresee a solid year for growth in 2015 at around 3 percent.
And contrary to Jeb’s attack on progressives, all this growth is happening after President Obama installed the most progressive tax code in 35 years.
When talking about the history of growth, Jeb is forced to deride “the last 15 years” of subpar performance, encompassing his brother’s tenure without calling him out by name. But his brother’s record matters in this history. George W. Bush famously cut taxes, only to preside over the biggest economic recession since the Great Depression. Before that, President Clinton simultaneously experienced strong economic growth while raising taxes on the wealthy.
So why is Jeb using “fuzzy math” to pit progressive taxation against economic growth?
Jeb’s ideological blinders get stronger as he turns to how he would improve economic growth. His first prescription: “We need to reform our health care system … Obamacare is clearly a job killer.”
Huh? Let’s check the record: The Obama economy has created more than 10 million private sector jobs since of the recession in mid-2009 (Obamacare was signed into law March 2010). Compare that to the Bush economy, which lost 462,000 private sector jobs.
We proved that we can simultaneously regulate health care and create jobs. But we can’t fail to regulate Wall Street and still create jobs.
The final bizarre part of Jeb’s address was his recommendations for energy policy.
Talking as if we are still living in George W. Bush’s America, Jeb complains that we are too dependent on foreign oil: “$300 billion left our country to countries that either are unstable and could hate us if there was regime change, or already do hate us.” But once again contradicting himself, he acknowledges how energy independent we’ve become in recent years, following his critique by observing “the United States is fast becoming the largest producer of oil and gas in the world.”
In fact, on Obama’s watch we’ve slashed the amount of oil we import from those awful regimes, because of the oil and gas boom Jeb lauds and Obama’s environmental regulations Jeb ignores.
Jeb proceeds to praise the fracking-fueled rise in natural gas production, and when describing his energy policy recommendations, he insinuates federal regulators are acting in a hostile way to the industry: “Washington shouldn’t try to regulate hydraulic fracking out of business. It should be done reasonably and thoughtfully to protect the natural environment, but it shouldn’t be done with the intent of paralyzing it.”
Who in Washington is Jeb talking about trying to kill fracking? Not President Obama. Here’s what Obama said about fracking in the 2014 State of the Union address: “America is closer to energy independence than we’ve been in decades. One of the reasons why is natural gas – if extracted safely, it’s the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change.”
In turn, the EPA has done nothing to paralyze fracking – as Jeb himself mentioned, we’re number one!
Instead, the EPA is working on methane emission regulations so natural gas lives up to the promise of being a net benefit for the climate. This regulatory strategy has been chosen precisely to negate the push to ban fracking. Jeb’s argument is textbook straw man, undercut by his own admission of the oil and gas boom happening under Obama.
Jeb wants to be seen as the grown-up in the 2016 field, the one person big enough to resist pandering to fringe right-wing factions, the one person you can trust to govern in a serious manner. But his incoherent policy speech is not serious, however soberly it was delivered. He is honest enough to mention the good things that have happened in the last six years, but not brave enough to acknowledge how they happened and adjust his ideological assumptions in response. As a result, his stump speech is incoherent mush.
He may be relatively sane compared to Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee or Chris Christie. He may even be more competent than his brother. But we should have a high bar for who becomes president. This contradictory mess of a speech falls well short.
A Godless Jewish Humanist, Marxist and Psychoanalyst – who forced into migration from Nazi Germany – developed several lives and had achievements in different areas – we would prefer mention by citing the title of one of his many books – “THE SANE SOCIETY” (1965)
Sunday, January 4, 2015 The review by Dinah M. Mendes of Tikkun – of a book about Erich Fromm – by Lawrence J. Friedman, assisted by Anke M. Schreiber, Columbia University Press, 2014
Even before opening Lawrence J. Friedman’s biography, “The Lives of Erich Fromm: Love’s Prophet,” readers are alerted by its title to the enormousness of the task of conveying the range and reach of this once celebrated intellectual. Erich Fromm was a Heidelberg University-trained sociologist, a psychoanalyst who helped found and direct psychoanalytic institutes in the United States and Mexico, author of more than a dozen books—many of them best sellers—a social commentator, and a political activist who promoted worldwide socialist humanism and nuclear disarmament. For college students and the educated reading public from the mid 1940s through the late ’60s, Escape from Freedom (1941), The Sane Society (1955), and The Art of Loving (1956) were often their first introduction to psychoanalytic, Marxist, and sociological constructs that Fromm incorporated and popularized in his reader-friendly prose.
The Public Versus the Private Lives of Erich Fromm
At the same time, Friedman traces the various, often parallel trajectories of Fromm’s life: his educational course, vocational development, emigration, institutional affiliations, significant relationships, and his steady output of books—for each of which he offers a detailed summary and statistics about sales and translations.
Friedman unfolds the public lives of Erich Fromm the social critic, political activist, and global educator with great vividness, but he is less successful at bringing to life the private Erich Fromm, whose inner life remains largely obscured beneath the evidence of his amazing productivity and range. While this might be regarded as a deficit in any comprehensive biography (and Friedman’s stated intention is to supplement previous Fromm biographies by elucidating the influence of his personal life on his intellectual contributions), it is especially striking in the biography of a man who defined himself as a psychoanalyst. Although the book is sprinkled with tart observations about Fromm—and even criticisms about the unabashed self-referential basis of his later writings or his “unethical trysts” with female patients—under Friedman’s hand they never quite coalesce into a satisfactory psycho-biographical portrait. In one notable example, he observes:
For much of his life, Fromm responded to disappointments and adversities … [by] jumping from one location to another, quitting one professional association and joining or creating another, altering his conceptual and clinical approaches, and switching from one intimate friendship or bed partner to another.
This is heavy-duty stuff, seemingly ripe for analysis and interpretation, but in the very next sentence, Friedman reverses direction, foreclosing deeper exploration and turning weakness into asset: “There was a pertinacity here. Fromm would rarely allow a difficult situation to immobilize him,” he concludes summarily.
Friedman’s myopia, his tendency to justify and smooth over rough edges, is mirrored on a larger scale by his authorial stance in relation to his subject, regarding whom his undisguised admiration and identification seem to preclude more objective assessment and critique. At one point, he compares Fromm’s “narcissism” to Freud’s, noting, “both regarded themselves as founders of unique psychoanalytic ideas, institutions, and traditions.” The unqualified idealization expressed in the elevation of Fromm to Freud’s status highlights Friedman’s difficulty in consolidating a profile of a man with outsized talents and passions, as well as egregious shortcomings, and in producing a critical evaluation of Fromm’s intellectual contributions—his psychoanalytic and ethical humanism theories in particular.
Fromm was an avid student of great teachers and systems, beginning with the vast tradition of Jewish learning, and followed by Marxism and psychoanalysis. But it seems that his enthusiasm and valuation were matched by an equally strong need to reject essential components of every system, assimilate seemingly divergent concepts, and refashion them—often on a grand scale—into a new product of his own making.
Fromm was a master of syncretism, and while Marxism and Freudianism remained the orienting poles of his professional identity, he combined them with the ethical foundation derived from the Hebrew Bible, with elements of Christianity and Buddhism added to the mix. Friedman lays out a detailed map of the stages of Fromm’s intellectual journey, but he does not provide the psychological scaffolding or insight that might illuminate the course that Fromm charted.
Why, for example, did he find it necessary to reject Freud’s instinctual basis of psychic development and substitute in its stead the construct of social character (drawn from a fusion of Freudian and Marxian tenets)? What made him throw out the baby with the bath water instead of extending Freud’s idea into the social realm? Much later in life, Fromm apparently softened his anti-instinctual bias, and his constructs “biophilia” and “necrophilia,” first cousins of the life and death instincts enshrined in Freud’s Eros and Thanatos, appear without explanation or commentary (The Heart of Man, 1964).
With even greater cogency, the reader might wonder about what impelled Fromm, raised as an Orthodox Jew and enamored of its culture of learning and spirituality, to strip his ethical humanism of the influence and authority of a deity and to insist that everything of value is inherent in man (Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics, 1947)? Although Friedman frequently refers to the deficiency of Fromm’s parents as role models, Fromm’s childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood were filled with powerful and sustaining relationships with mentors.
The precocious young Fromm began studying Talmud with his great-uncle Ludwig Krause, a Talmudic scholar, and as a teenager, came under the influence of Nehemia Nobel, rabbi of a prominent Frankfurt synagogue and student of the noted Kant scholar, Hermann Cohen, who had incorporated the universalism of Kant’s moral philosophy into Jewish religious tradition. The Nobel circle, which included Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem and Leo Baeck, was instrumental in setting up the Free Jewish Teaching Institute (Lehrhaus) dedicated to introducing enlightened but assimilated German Jews to the richness of their Jewish heritage.
At the University of Heidelberg, under the tutelage of the sociologist Alfred Weber, brother of Max, Fromm wrote his dissertation on the function of Jewish law in maintaining social cohesion and continuity in three Diaspora communities: the Karaites, Reform Jews, and Hasidim. During the same period, he also studied with Salman Rabinkow, a Russian socialist and Talmudist, whom Fromm later acknowledged as his most influential mentor. Rabinkow introduced Fromm, variously, to the Lithuanian approach to Talmud, the writings of Maimonides, and the Tanya (the central text of Chabad Hasidism)—as well as to Hasidic melodies that Fromm reportedly sang for the rest of his life.
Friedman skillfully records the gradual transformation of Erich Fromm, the Orthodox Jew, the Frankfurt Institute academic, and psychoanalytic clinician—all private roles—into Erich Fromm, the public intellectual, educator, and activist. Both the cloistered cubicles of academia, and the individual focus of psychoanalysis, respectively, must have felt too restrictive to Fromm, especially when compared to the far-reaching impact of a political or religious system or the delivery of a message with universal reverberations. With his arrival in New York in the mid-’30s, Fromm began writing in English and grew adept at rendering psychological-sociological-political concepts accessible to a broad readership. His two best-known works, Escape from Freedom, an exploration of the seduction of and submission to authority and the fear of freedom, and The Art of Loving (which in Germany is still outsold only by the Bible) sold in the millions.
An Iconoclastic Proponent of Secular Religiosity
Fromm’s passion for refashioning ideas into a mold bearing his individual stamp seems nowhere more evident than in his application of Jewish ethical precepts and learning: Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics (1947); You Shall Be as Gods: A Radical Interpretation of the Old Testament and Its Tradition (1966); and To Have or To Be? (1976). His erudition is often on full display: in You Shall Be as Gods, he frequently offers his own translation of the Hebrew when the original interpretation does not measure up to his standards, and his love for the richness of the ancient texts is palpable. This does not deter him, however, from taking a free hand—the “radical interpretation”— in reaching the light at the end of the tunnel: a Frommian nontheistic humanist ethics.
Fromm could be alternately creative, iconoclastic, and single-mindedly reinterpretive in reaching his goal; one of the opening stories in Genesis, the eating of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden (the Fall, in Christian theology) is recast by Fromm as a salutary and emblematic act of disobedience that reveals the innate human potential for independence of mind and freedom.
In Fromm’s explication, Hebrew Bible idolatry was actually a demonstration of the triumph of the “having” mode over the “being” mode, a harbinger of Marx’s later emphasis on the corruption of capitalism and consumerism. The greed and acquisitiveness of the newly liberated Hebrews in the desert, unable to resist stockpiling manna that God had warned them would rot, is another illustration of both the having mode and the intolerance of freedom, as is the Jews’ insistence to the prophet Samuel, many generations later, that he appoint a flesh and blood king over them.
Fromm’s odyssey through the Hebrew Bible leads him to the prophets of messianic vision, who foretell a time of universal peace and co-existence when—in Fromm’s version—divisions between people and states will be eliminated, and a universal ethics, motivated by brotherly love and the joy of human productivity (a melding of Marx and Freud), will prevail. Ultimately, Fromm espouses a secular religiosity—a fervent devotion to ideals that emerge from self-cultivation that is not obstructed by recourse to God’s authority or external directives.
A New Ethical Humanism
Fromm’s attitude to authority was nothing if not vexed, and he had a visceral reaction to authority in any doctrinal form. In his critique of Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr ventured that Fromm confused duty with authority, and, it might be suggested, authority with authoritarianism. Fromm’s antipathy to authority sparked his acclaimed formulations on authoritarianism, but also colored his controversial negation of key tenets of Freudian theory and the concept of a real God who is accepted as an external authority. Fromm took issue with the concept of the Freudian superego as an internally regulating authority that derived originally from parental authority, just as he did with the linkage of ethical principles to the authority of an existing God. He rejected Freud’s concept of the death instinct and the aggressive drive, just as he did the darker image of human nature captured in the idea of yetzer hara—the innate human propensity for evil and destructiveness. Fromm’s humanism is adamantly anti-theistic, anti-authority, and optimistic, if not actually utopian.
Fromm’s attitude to Freud (whom he never met) was admiring but critical, as the title of his posthumously published work, Greatness and Limitations of Freud’s Thought (1980) indicates. Freud referred to himself as a “godless Jew,” but his vehement opposition to religion stemmed from his conviction that it was based on infantile helplessness and dependency, and the false succor of illusions that it extended to its adherents. Fromm too might be described as a godless Jew, but one with an entirely different provenance and orientation. His quest was to free the cultivation of spirituality and ethics from their theistic, authoritative moorings in the Hebrew Bible and forge them—with elements of Hasidic mystical relatedness and themes from Marxism, Christianity, and Buddhism—into a new ethical humanism. A messianic mission, a desire to be a “light unto the nations” is discernible in the proselytizing, prophetic inflections of his late writings on ethical humanism. Freud, in his turn, might have identified in Fromm a tangled knot of Oedipal conflicts—the Freudian complex that signifies the generational struggle for power and authority, manifest in strife over the transmission or rejection of the old versus the new.
Friedman is lavish with information about Fromm but leaves the final assessment of his contributions up to the reader. Fromm’s legacy resides neither in the innovation nor the profundity of his psychoanalytic and ethical concepts. Rather, his place in intellectual history is assured by his adaptation and popularization of ideas—mixing and matching across systems—which he introduced into the public domain via his accessible and best-selling books. Without him, many of Freud and Marx’s ideas—and he courageously upheld the value of Marx’s contributions at the height of the Cold War—might have remained sequestered in academic isolation.
Perhaps Fromm’s greatest gifts were as a social psychologist and critic; he had his finger on the social and cultural pulse, auguring trends that were still incubating or in the process of fomenting. In Escape from Freedom he wrote about the global threat and psychological appeal of authoritarianism and totalitarianism, even as they were advancing. In The Art of Loving, he differentiated between healthy self-love and selfishness, daring to suggest that self-love was not only healthy and desirable but a prerequisite for loving others—anticipating by many years the work of the psychoanalyst, Heinz Kohut. Assessing the threat of an engulfing consumerism, and the “having versus being modes,” he coined such enduring terms as “automaton conformity,” and the “marketing personality.”
Ultimately, it is impossible to pigeonhole Erich Fromm. He was a man of letters, and simultaneously a man of action, who used money earned from his books to support peace-promoting organizations. He was a psychoanalyst committed to the painstaking task of changing lives one by one, who sought at the same time to influence thousands and even millions of people with his ideas and prophetic exhortations. Prefiguring our contemporary immersion in global communication and veneration of celebrities, Fromm—a man of outsized passions and ambitions—was a public, celebrity intellectual and educator.
AlterNet / December 25, 2014 / By Valerie Tarico
Not-So-Virgin Birth: Why Stories of Jesus Became More Magical Over Time
Sometime toward the end of the first century, the writer of Luketold a story that would become one of the most treasured in all of Western Civilization, the birth of the baby Jesus. It opens with an announcement known as the Annunciation. A messenger angel named Gabriel appears to a young Jewish virgin, Mary, telling her that the spirit of God will enter her and she will give birth to a child who is both human and divine:
The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. (Luke 1:30-34 NRSV)
Two wonder-filled stories merge.
Our modern Christmas story is a composite drawn from two gospels, meaning devotional accounts of the life of Jesus, known as the books of Matthew and Luke. Both accounts underscore that Mary, a virgin, was impregnated by God alone. The writer of Matthewdoesn’t repeat the Annunciation, but he does say that Mary’s fiancé Joseph wants to end their betrothal when he discovers that Mary is pregnant. An angel tells Joseph in a dream that her pregnancy is “of the Holy Spirit,” and so he keeps her a virgin until she gives birth to Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25)
Mary’s virginity is just one of several ways that the (now unknown) authors of the gospels signal to readers that this is no ordinary birth. Each accounts includes several supernatural wonders and pronouncements of God’s favor.
Because the gospels were aimed at different audiences, the auspicious events differ from story to story. Matthew: A rising star is seen by astrologers who bring gifts that foreshadow the baby’s future. Luke: A chorus of angels singing to shepherds on the hills. Matthew: A jealous king murders baby boys to protect his throne but the family of the holy child, having been warned in a dream, escapes. Luke:A prophet and prophetess recognize the infant’s divine spark.
Christmas pageants that merge these elements into a single story have delighted children and adults alike for centuries. The traditional manger scene or crèche merges them into a single panorama.
Grand Beginnings are Soon Forgotten
Many people might find it surprising that these auspicious infancy stories are never referenced elsewhere in the New Testament, for example in the letters of Paul or in the other two gospels that made their way into the Christian Bible. Even in the book of Luke itself, by the time Jesus is a boy, it is almost as if even his parents have forgotten the extraordinary circumstances of his birth. When he turns twelve, his family travels to Jerusalem, where his parents lose him. After three days, they find him in the temple:
When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” He said to them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” But they did not understand what he said to them. (Luke 2:48-50 NRSV).
Why would two authors describe a virgin birth announced by an angel and accompanied by natural wonders and then, not long after, have their characters behave as if it didn’t happen? That seems like an oddly wasted opportunity for writers who were seeking to establish both their own credibility and the credibility of their fledgling religion. Why don’t the dramatic astrological and biological signs of divinity surrounding the birth of Jesus get more play?
Christianity’s virgin birth narrative, both what it says and why it is poorly integrated into the rest of the Bible, is a fascinating study in cultural evolution. Specifically, it illustrates a process called “syncretism” whereby religions merge over time when cultures come into contact.
The New Testament Is Out of Order
Mainstream Bible scholarship tells us that the marvel-filled stories about the birth of Jesus don’t get referenced later in the New Testament because they were written aftermany of the books that follow them. When the books of the New Testament are arranged chronologically using the best information available, the gospels of Matthew and Luke are numbers 11 and 20 respectively. They come after letters that are believed to be authentic writings of Paul, for example, and after the gospel of Mark, which may have been a source for both authors but fails to mention an auspicious birth.
In addition, the birth narratives may have been late additions to the gospels themselves, which would explain why they seem forgotten later in the story. Evidence for this can be seen in how different versions of the gospels changed over time.
But the Catholic councils that decided which texts would go into the New Testament didn’t know that. They lacked the modern tools of linguistic analysis, archeology and anthropology and the mindset of antiquities scholarship. They believed that the books called Matthewand Luke were written by men named Matthew and Luke, one a disciple of Jesus and the other a companion of Paul, who had gotten some stories second hand and had been eye witnesses to others. The councils put the gospels first (and the book of Revelation last) because they were trying to assemble a coherent narrative.
Christianity Adapted to the Roman World
In 2012, Jesus scholar Marcus Borg published Evolution of the Word: Reading the Bible in the Order It was Written.Borg encourages readers to explore the 27 books of the New Testament in the order they were written to see how Christian thinking unfolded over time. Ordering the texts as they were written also allows scholars to put the evolution of Christianity in a historical context.
Read this way, one trend line is that the stories about Jesus become more magical over time. For example, John, the last gospel written, has Jesus making the boldest claims about his own deity. Another trend line is that over time, Jesus worship picks up bits of other cultures as Christianity spreads among the gentiles of the Roman Empire. Borg describes “an increasing accommodation within the cultural conventions of the time.” Some of those conventions came from Greek mythology and Roman civic religion.
The Earliest References to Jesus’ Birth Are More Mundane than Magical
The earliest mention of the birth of Jesus comes in Paul’s letter to the church at Galatia, likely written between 49 and 55 C.E, or about half a century before the gospels of Matthewand Luke.Paul’s description makes no mention of a virgin birth. He says simply that, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law” (Galatians 4:4).
In another letter, Paul seems to imply that Jesus came into the world in the usual way. In Romans 1:1-3 he refers to . . . the gospel of God…concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh.” The phrase “seed of David” refers specifically to the genealogy of Joseph, the husband of Mary.
So Why Divine Insemination?
Symbologist and retired religion professor Dr. Tony Nugent, tells us that the miraculous elements of the Christmas story have their roots in ancient mythic traditions that predated and surrounded nascent Christianity. In Greek and Roman mythology, heroes and great men often were born from the union of a god and a human woman. For example, in the story of Hercules, Zeus impregnates his mother by taking the form of her husband. Helen of Troy is conceived when Zeus takes the form of a swan and either seduces or rapes her mother Leda. Danaë, the mother of Perseus, is impregnated by a shower of gold. Mars, the Roman god of war fathers the twins Romulus and Remus through Rhea Silvia, a Vestal Virgin. Even Augustus, Pythagoras, and Alexander the Great were reputed to have human mothers and divine fathers.
The idea of gods or demi-gods mating with human women was familiar throughout the Ancient Near East. It appears in the book of Genesis:
When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown. (Genesis 6:1-4, NRSV)
Early Christians disagreed over when, exactly Jesus became divine. Jewish converts promoted a theory called “adoptionism” in which Jesus is uniquely adopted as God’s son later in life. The Gospel of Mark for example, suggests that this happens at the time of his baptism. Paul suggests that it happens when he is resurrected. The authors of Matthewand Luke,clearly had a view in this debate—they believed that the sonship of Jesus began at birth, and they made their case in terms that would be both familiar and persuasive to people of their time.
An Ambiguous Prophecy Helps the Story Along
One key goal of the gospel writers was to show that the life of Jesus had been predicted by Hebrew prophesies and that the details of his life fulfilled these prophesies. Many Christians to this day take the fulfilled prophecies of the gospel stories as proof positive that stories are true. The naturalistic explanation, of course, is that the gospel writers (or the oral and written traditions they received) may have shaped their stories about Jesus to fit the Hebrew scriptures. And the careful documentation of Mary’s sexual history—or lack thereof—offers one bit of evidence that they did exactly that.
After telling readers that Jesus was fathered by God himself in spirit form, the writer of Matthew adds the following words:
“All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’” (Matthew 1: 22-23).
The quotation is taken from the book of Isaiah (7:14), and in the context of the time it is understood as predicting a hopeful future for the Kingdom of Hezekiah. But the Christian who first linked this passage to the person of Jesus must have been delighted.
Early Judaism was very focused on purity—pure foods, unblemished bodies, and female sexual abstinence that ensured pure bloodlines for God’s chosen people. The Apostle Paul made sexual purity central to mainstream Roman Christianity. To a believer steeped in Rome’s tradition of divine insemination and Judaism’s tradition of virtuous virginity, a divine virgin birth might seem like exactly how Jesus should be born.
The twist is this: The Hebrew word used by the writer of Isaiah is almah, which can mean either a young woman who hasn’t had sex or simply a young women who hasn’t yet born a child. Anglican theologian John Shelby Spong tells us that a different word Hebrew word betulah, is used 50 times in the Hebrew Bible when the writer wants to refer specifically and clearly to a woman who hasn’t had sex.(Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Virgin Birth and the Treatment of Women by a Male Dominated Church.) But the gospel writers relied on a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Septuagint. In the Septuagint, the word almah is translated as parthenos, which also can mean either young girl or virgin, but which is strongly associated with the virgin goddess Athena.
Would the writers of Matthew and Luke have emphasized Mary’s virginity if they had been privy to the original Hebrew? We will never know. What we do know is this. The story of a virginal young woman who is impregnated by a god and gives birth to a man who changes history appeals to the human imagination. It is a trope that has emerged in many mythic traditions and endured across centuries, cultures and continents. After it took root in Christianity, alternatives fell by the wayside, and the story of the baby Jesus, born to a virgin amidst signs and wonders, became the most celebrated and cherished story in the Bible.
Thank you to Dr. Tony Nugent, Presbyterian ordained symbologist and retired religion professor, for consultation on this article.