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On this week’s episode of Truthdig radio in collaboration with KPFK, author Alice Walker tells tales of her beloved chickens, Scott Tucker speaks up for Bradley Manning, and Sarah Stillman reports about financial coercion in U.S. war zones. Plus: What’s all this about fracking?
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Kasia Anderson: This is Truthdig Radio. I’m Kasia Anderson, Truthdig’s associate editor. This week, we hear why chickens matter to author Alice Walker; why Bradley Manning matters to actor and activist Scott Tucker; energy expert Tom Kenworthy gives us the latest on fracking; and Sarah Stillman reports on a startling form of economic coercion going on in American military zones.
Kasia Anderson: This is Kasia Anderson. I’m associate editor at Truthdig, and we’re pleased to be here with Alice Walker, who is one of the most prominent writers of our time. She has written more than 30 books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, and she is known for her literary fiction, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning work “The Color Purple.” But she’s also a longtime activist, and we hope to talk to her a little bit more about that towards the end. But I’m also here with Narda Zacchino, who is the former associate editor of the L.A. Times and is now a book publisher and editor. And we’re going to talk about Alice Walker’s new book, which has a very fun and lengthy title: “The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting With the Angels Who Have Returned With My Memories: Glorious, Rufus, Gertrude Stein, Splendor, Hortensia, Agnes of God, The Gladyses, & Babe: A Memoir” [Laughter]. So, Narda, do you want to kick off the questions here?
Narda Zacchino: Sure. Well, for the last several years you’ve raised chickens on your farm near Mendocino [Calif.]. And without those chickens, we wouldn’t have this charming and thought-provoking book. So can you tell us how keeping those chickens came about?
Alice Walker: Yeah. It was a surprise to me, and I think of it now as a gift from the unconscious. I was in Bali many years ago, recovering from writing “The Color Purple” and facing a few slings and arrows. So I went off to Bali, and I was coming back from a fire dance and I saw a hen with her little chicks, and I was transfixed. And I couldn’t figure out why, of all the amazing things I was seeing in Bali, that was the image that stuck. So for years I wanted to understand what had happened. I mean, it was so forceful. I came back—I was an editor at Ms. Magazine at the time—but I came back and I wrote a piece that was published in the magazine called “Why Did the Balinese Chicken Cross the Road?” [Laughter] And I thought it was because I was as always struggling, pretty much, with my vegetarianism—especially around chicken, which is so traditionally a Southern dish. So I thought it was that, and then I went on, you know, years and years and decades … always with knowing that ‘Oh, a real life, a real life”—I mean, for me anyway—“would have chickens in it.” And I was always trying to figure out how I could raise them, how I could see them, how I could know them, how I could … they just were very much very present somewhere in my mind. And I worked it out with my neighbors eventually, here in Mendocino, because I travel a lot. And I’m nomadic; I mean, I’m not just traveling for work, but I just seem to love the earth so much I want to see—what is it doing somewhere else. So I had to make an arrangement to have a shared parentage of these little creatures. And I think of myself as mommy—I pretty much think of myself now as mommy to everything, but especially these little ones. And so tending them, feeding them, sitting with them, being with them, studying them and loving them very much started to open this place in myself from my childhood that turned out to be scary in some ways, but also really affirming. In that place that I had closed off there was my father, for instance, in a way that I had never really let myself feel him. You know, with a great, great tenderness and understanding. So they’ve been really good for me.
Narda Zacchino: Well, you used your relationship with these chickens, which are told in 36 vignettes, to share your musings on love and freedom and all of life’s lessons. And you reflect upon your memories of your mother and your siblings. And one of the things that fascinated me was when you wrote about how your mother used to get chickens in the mail. [Laughter] And I wanted to ask you—like, did they come in a little box, or what? And …what was your childhood relationship with chickens?
Alice Walker: Well, we always had chickens. I mean, I can’t remember when we …we never, never didn’t have chickens; we always had them. And yes, she ordered them from the Sears Roebuck catalog [Laughter], and they arrived at the mailbox in a big brown box, you know, with little air holes. And she would take the box down to our house and gently unpack the little chickens, and we all of course adored them. And so that was—that was unlocked; that was given back to me, that moment of anticipation and love and warmth and closeness with her—my mother—as this happened every year, at least once a year. And she would raise these chickens; and some of them, of course, would not have made the journey; they would have died of suffocation or starvation or something. But the chickens that were left she very carefully tended, and then showed us how to tend them; you know, to mix up the cornmeal with water because often there wasn’t very much to give them. But we would share our own cornmeal, and if you mix it with water it comes out in little pellets. So we would give them that. So, yeah, that was that.
Narda Zacchino: And you, also, you wrote about having the job—I forget, I think you were 10 , but—you would remember, of course—of wringing the necks of the chickens for the Sunday dinner. And your complex feelings, I think, not just over that, but also you wrote about other farm animals that had to be slaughtered. And can you just talk about that for a minute?
Alice Walker: Yeah. Well, my feeling is that we as a culture have suffered a disruption of our real connection to the animal world—the other animals. And … because don’t you often think, how can we so callously kill these beings that are so exquisite, and just eat them without any kind of thought? And I think what happens, and I think what happened to me, and what was one of the reasons I had to have chickens and go through this again, was that when I was 9 or 10 and my other siblings had left—I was the youngest—it did devolve to me to go and chase down the chicken for dinner. You know, my mother would say “Go out and get whoever,” because they all had names. And I would go out and get this chicken and I learned to wring its neck and help her pluck its feathers; after you scald it, you pluck the feathers and singe the carcass, and eviscerate it, and the whole thing. And knowing myself, pretty much [Laughs], by now, I can imagine that that on some level for me—for any child—that this would be a traumatic moment. Because the day before, you were carefully tending and appreciating this being that you have now killed and you have to eat it.
Kasia Anderson: This is Kasia again, Alice. And I wanted to pick up on that last point, when you’re kind of reconfiguring our thoughts about chickens. Most people don’t think of chickens as pets. …
Alice Walker: I don’t think of them as pets, either.
Kasia Anderson: Oh, really? OK. But they enrich your life in some way. Are they easier to live with [than] humans? You now, you can interact with them, and cuddle with them, and …
Alice Walker: Well, but you know, I always know that they don’t really care. I mean, they care that they’re well cared for, of course, with a nice heater and lights and a clean house and all of that. But they are chickens, and their world is really with each other—really. And I get to visit and to hold them if they jump up on my knee. But I don’t think of them as pets; I don’t think of any animals, really, as pets. I mean, I have a cat; we have a dog. But I’m not so … I’m not so human- …
Kasia Anderson: … -centric? [Laughter]
Alice Walker: … as to assume that anything can be my pet, you know? I mean, they are here to live, and they are not here to be my pet. I mean, somehow they have managed to—my partner’s dog, for instance, just appeared. He just appeared next to him one day, and he’s just the ideal dog for him. My cat just appeared in my life; I didn’t go after her, she just found me. And the chickens—we did kind of go after them, but I just think we’re pretty much equals, you know? [Laughs]
Narda Zacchino: I think that comes across in your book, where you—I think what you’re saying also is that you disdain the idea of owning anything or possessing anything like an animal. And that what you do is you share the living space with them.
Alice Walker: Exactly. And I see that they—I mean, look at what they give me. Look at what I’m getting. Maybe they can think of me—sometimes I think my cat thinks that I’m her pet, you know. But it is much more rich and developed as a relationship than most people, I think, let themselves feel. And I think when you just open up to the magic and the wonder of life, and … the amazing, astonishing stuff that’s going on every second—not just with us, but with the plants and with all the creatures—you begin to feel a certain degree of enchantment, really.
Narda Zacchino: Mm-hmm. In your book, you write letters to your chickens from, as you said earlier, you call yourself “mommy.” And these become letters to your readers, in essence. And I was very taken with the one letter where you talked about being in shock the week that Michael Jackson died. In fact, in your chronicle of him, you call him Saint Michael. And you wrote in the next chapter a most beautiful poem about him. Can you tell us why he was so important?
Alice Walker: Yes. Because he was extremely gifted and extremely beautiful, and obviously, he was not told this enough. I mean, he had fans, but in his own home he was ridiculed and told, for instance, that his nose was way too big, and whatever else went with that. But psychic abuse for sure, from his family. And this is what happens so often to us: that people abuse children. And yet Michael was able to continue to give; he was here to give us joy. He was here to give us an insight into the possibility that we, too, had this spirit—this dancing, singing, loving, free spirit. And yet because he was not sufficiently met with the appreciation that he deserved, somehow he felt that he was ugly and that he had to transform himself into something that we seemed to prefer. And so in some ways, he died when he changed his face. And I think … I’m alluding in this poem to Saint Sebastian, who is shown with all the arrows in him as he’s on a cross of sorts. And I feel that Michael was similar: Here’s this decent, good person who loves animals, who loves people, who just goes around really trying to get you up, and dancing and seeing and understanding. And he was often misguided, but he still had a loving heart; he had a very kind and loving heart. So to me, I think of saints not as saintly people, but as people who basically have a gift, they try to give it, they’re really forced to suffer through things that they shouldn’t have to, and often they don’t make it because of what they encounter.
Kasia Anderson: This is Truthdig Radio, once again; I’m Kasia Anderson, associate editor. And I’m here with Narda Zacchino talking to writer Alice Walker. And maybe, if it’s fine by you, we can talk a little bit about your activism, Alice. Because we’ve checked out your blog; it’s at AliceWalkersGarden.com. Our readers, I know, are particularly interested in the case of Bradley Manning, and you posted an item about that that was quite profound, I thought. I wondered if you could speak a little bit about that.
Alice Walker: Well, I felt that I needed to speak not just about Bradley but also about [Julian] Assange—and there’s another piece about Assange. But yeah, I couldn’t resist commenting on the treatment of Bradley Manning, because it was so wrong. I mean, it’s just clearly wrong, and as humans we have to really speak to these atrocious actions taken against people who are helpless. The fact that you would put someone naked in the room in a cell and not let him exercise and not let him have any access to anything; that he’s in solitary, and you haven’t yet even charged him with something—and even if you charged him with something, it wouldn’t be right. You just wouldn’t do that to any creature. I wouldn’t put my chicken, any one of my chickens, in a cell without the ability to move around and have exercise; you just don’t do that. Because at some point, it’s not—I mean, it’s always about what you do to other people, but basically it’s what you do to yourself. It’s what you permit to be done to that place in you that you should really work to keep free and joyful and open and loving.
Kasia Anderson: I think that’s all we have time for, unfortunately. But this is Kasia Anderson with Narda Zacchino and Alice Walker, reminding everyone to treat both humans and chickens humanely. And to buy the book, which is “The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting With the Angels Who Have Returned With My Memories: Glorious, Rufus, Gertrude Stein, Splendor, Hortensia, Agnes of God, The Gladyses, & Babe: A Memoir.” Thanks so much for your time.
Alice Walker: Thank you.
Josh Scheer: Hi, this is Josh Scheer with Truthdig. We just heard Alice Walker talking about Bradley Manning, so we brought in Scott Tucker, who wrote an amazing piece about Bradley Manning this week, to discuss it. Scott is a writer and democratic socialist. He is a founding member of ACT UP Philadelphia and Prevention Point Philadelphia, a harm-reduction and syringe-exchange program. His book of essays, “The Queer Question: Essays on Desire and Democracy,” was published by South End Press in 1997. Scott currently lives in Los Angeles with his spouse of 32 years, Larry Gross, a writer and teacher. Hi, Scott, thanks for joining us.
Scott Tucker: Thanks for inviting me.
Josh Scheer: It’s great to have you come in, especially after we just heard Alice Walker talking about Bradley Manning. We want to, obviously, go more in depth with it. Let’s talk about the ABCs of the Bradley Manning case for the listeners.
Scott Tucker: OK. Bradley Manning was a private first class in the U.S. Army; he was a U.S. Army intelligence analyst. And in the wake of 9/11, one of the reasons more people like Bradley Manning had access to classified information was precisely because they were kind of rebundling, rechanneling those kinds of classified, and all the way up to top-secret, information. None of the information that Bradley Manning is charged with possibly releasing to some other source, possibly [WikiLeaks]—none of that information is, in fact, top-secret. So if we’re thinking for example of Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers, those were in fact classified top-secret, unlike the documents Bradley Manning is charged with releasing. That’s important to keep in mind. His, Bradley Manning’s father, had been also an intelligence analyst in the U.S. Navy, and had—encouraged is a mild word—had really pressured his own son into joining the military. So at the age of 23 years old, [on] May 26 of 2010, Bradley Manning found himself in solitary confinement in the military brig at the Marine base at Quantico, Va. And those were under really quite harsh conditions. At one point, he was stripped naked and was under suicide watch officially, even though the psychiatrists in that unit were saying that he was not suicidal. So, but that was the official story given to the media, which then the media, you know, replayed—that he was under suicide watch. So those were very harsh conditions, and more recently on April 20th, 2011, Bradley Manning was transferred to a federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan. By all accounts, that seems to be a milder regime, but anyone who’s been behind bars will tell you that if he is facing that day after day, for 10, 20, 30 years, who knows how long, that’s not going to be fun.
Josh Scheer: And I want to ask you about the Nuremberg Principles. And so what are they, and why does it pertain to this case?
Scott Tucker: The Nuremberg Tribunal was set up to try some of the German war criminals after World War II. And the principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal were codified in 1950. The one that I think should be directly quoted is Principle No. 4, quote: “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him,” unquote. And this is directly relevant to the Bradley Manning case, because if he’s simply going to be charged and tried under a strict military contract, then he’s in big trouble. But if an argument is going to be made that there was moral necessity, then this does relate back to the Nuremberg Principles. The Nuremberg Principles are often treated as though that was then, this is now. But in that case, what was the point of establishing the Nuremberg Tribunal? Then it was simply a propaganda campaign. The whole force of the Nuremberg Principles relates to international law. And that is why it counts, and that’s why it should be applied in the case of Bradley Manning. He was a soldier who understood that there were moral values, and democratic concerns, that were as important—even more important—than strictly following orders as a soldier.
Kasia Anderson: Hi, Scott, it’s Kasia here. And I’m wondering on just a basic level what compelled you to write about Manning now. Was there something missing, you felt, in the media narratives about him, or what was significant about this moment for you?
Scott Tucker: I had a strong personal motive, and political motive. I was a war resistor at a young age, and that was a scary decision, to resist the Vietnam War. I was lucky to have comrades from the War Resistors League, the first political group I ever joined; but I also had a large group of Quakers from a Quakers study center I was attending at that time. So they all showed up with me at my local draft board in Media, Pa., and what I did was I turned up with a letter of non-registration basically saying, “No, I won’t.” And that’s one of the most important powers we each have as individuals; when they tell us who we have to vote for, or what wars we have to fight in, or any other commands from on high, we can always say, “No, I won’t.” So that aspect of the Bradley Manning case appealed to me very deeply—morally, politically. Also the fact that Bradley Manning was being pathologized, including by some presumably progressive venues such as the [“Frontline”] show that was broadcast by PBS, and then later The Guardian [newspaper] produced a video and basically picked up some of the same tropes and elements and storyline. I don’t think the issue here is whether Bradley Manning’s mind is fractured; I’d be surprised if someone at the age of 23 who makes a decision this big isn’t under intense pressure. But the real pathology here is the pathology of militarism; it’s the pathology of putting someone, sort of spying on them through the keyhole of the mass media; it’s sort of treating his relationship as a young gay man with what appears to have been possibly his first boyfriend—that suddenly made kind of a spectacle. Don’t we all deserve to have boyfriends and girlfriends and go through the usual growing-up experiences? What matters to me is that at the age of 23, he had the self-possession and courage to stand up against the state.
Josh Scheer: Which is very difficult for a military person, right, because they oftentimes are—the individuality is beat out of them.
Scott Tucker: Yes.
Josh Scheer: Yeah, I mean, it is.
Kasia Anderson: Certainly not encouraged, yeah.
Josh Scheer: Yeah. It’s interesting, though … so now, why do you think he’s in such deep trouble? Can we go further into that? Why do you think he’s—because there have been other people who’ve leaked to the government; there have been other people who’ve kind of exposed things, and they’re usually protected, and they’re usually, you know, once it comes out they’re not under the same scrutiny as Bradley Manning.
Scott Tucker: Well, he’s being charged with aiding the enemy, technically. And that really can ramp up to a charge of treason if they wish; potentially, at the end of that legal road, a possibility is execution. Now, there are people on the far right—that’s exactly what they’re demanding, including Mike Huckabee. He’s demanding that he be tried and executed for treason. So unless the word goes out to the widest possible public that this is a young person in very deep trouble who did something very brave against wars that have gotten out of control, then there’s no solidarity for this guy behind bars. That’s my concern.
Josh Scheer: And then … do you want to talk about the support network, because there is a support network that can help Bradley Manning.
Scott Tucker: Well, the best way to get the most information in one place is to go online to BradleyManning.org. That’s the Bradley Manning support network. And once you’re on the Web page, you’ll find all kinds of resources, including the Bradley Manning Defense Fund, if you want to contribute directly to that defense fund. And of course his lawyer is working on the case, his solidarity supporters are working with David Coombs—that’s the name of his lawyer. And you’ll find a calendar of events and articles, interviews, related to his case on that website.
Josh Scheer: Just one more question here, about the bipartisanship. You’re talking about the far right, with wanting him killed—but in your piece you talk a lot about the bipartisanship both in the Patriot Act, which just got extended, and things like that. Can you go further into that?
Scott Tucker: Well, yes. I want to mention in particular that President Obama himself said he [Manning]broke the law. Now, Obama is fond of letting the world know that he was a constitutional scholar. In that case, he should know better than to be the prosecutor in chief of a young man who has already done hard time in prison and has not even yet come to trial. Shame on him.
Kasia Anderson: One last question from me, Scott, is that I wonder if you think that some of this issue has to do with the public image, which was in part created by the mainstream media, of WikiLeaks in general. That there’s a kind of ambivalence, to say the least, about WikiLeaks that could come to bear on people’s perceptions about Manning.
Scott Tucker: Well, again, WikiLeaks protects sources. So they’re not saying that Manning gave them the info. And all of this has to be established in court. However, yes—a lot of the animus that’s directed towards Manning—Manning is sort of the pinched nerve for citizens of this country. But we all know that WikiLeaks is part of the bigger background. And the issue there can be summarized pretty simply: Do we want the state to be the only entity that can keep secrets? Because, apparently, private citizens don’t have a right to privacy anymore. This state can strip-mine all our information as it pleases, and that’s no problem—whereas the state can sit on top of the mountain with full surveillance of the rest of us, and it gets to keep whatever secrets it wants. So WikiLeaks has brought that issue into crisp, clear foreground. And for that, I think we owe them a debt of gratitude.
Josh Scheer: Now, playing psychic now, what do you think is going to happen to Bradley Manning? Obviously, we know what should happen, right, he should go to trial and then ultimately be released.
Scott Tucker: At the very least, he should get a fair trial.
Josh Scheer: But do you think that’s going to happen, or do you think they’ll hold him in contempt, or treason, or the possibility of death for the next X amount of years?
Scott Tucker: It’s hard to get a fair trial when the president of the United States has already said that he broke the law.
Kasia Anderson: On the topic of WikiLeaks, it’s also true, I think, that what I said about the mainstream media feeling ambivalent toward WikiLeaks—they also have come to rely on WikiLeaks as a source of information while not always, let’s say, making that predominantly clear in their reporting. So …
Scott Tucker: They want to have it both ways. They want to … first of all, the mainstream, established media is in a panic that there’s going to be other venues, other modes of communication, that are going to go under, over and around the dead tree media—that’s only one aspect—but also around the nightly broadcast news. This really rattles their nerves. And with WikiLeaks, of course, there’s a particular concern about state secrecy. Well, as citizens in a democracy, we all have to take responsibility for the wars that are being waged. It’s not like we got to vote on whether those wars were going to be waged in our name or not. They were waged without our consent for the most part. And the decisions were made behind closed doors. So this goes to the heart of democracy, but it also goes to the sort of seismic changes in the communications technology. This is all unknown territory, and we’re discovering it day by day as we go along.
And some of these sources were a little late to the online party, let’s say, so … [Laughter]
Scott Tucker: That’s true.
Josh Scheer: Well, thank you very much for joining us, Scott, for coming in. We were speaking with Scott Tucker, who’s a writer, democratic socialist, founding member of ACT Up Philadelphia, and the author of “The Queer Question: Essays on Desire and Democracy.” Thanks again for joining us. And for Kasia, for Scott, for Josh, this was Truthdig; thank you very much.
Josh Scheer: This is Truthdig. We’re speaking with Tom Kenworthy, who is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He joined American Progress after spending two years as a senior fellow at Western Progress, a regional nonpartisan policy institute in the Rocky Mountain West, where he focused on renewable energy and environmental issues. Tom has spent more than three decades as a newspaper reporter, the majority of that time with The Washington Post and USA Today. He has reported on a wide variety of subjects, including state and national government and politics, Congress, the environment, and the states of the Rocky Mountain West. Well, thanks for joining us, Tom.
Tom Kenworthy: Hey, it’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me on.
Josh Scheer: And we’re talking about your article “Bringing Fracking to the Surface,” which I think was released yesterday.
Tom Kenworthy: Ah, a couple days ago.
Josh Scheer: A couple days ago. So now, briefly to our audience—I heard this is only in the periphery. I mean, I know that it’s a big deal with natural gas, but what is fracking?
Tom Kenworthy: Fracking, which is sort of the shorthand term for the more technical term of hydraulic fracturing, is a method of enhancing mostly natural gas production, though it’s used in some oil wells as well. It’s a process that’s been—it was first used, oh gosh, 50 or 60 years ago, but is much more sophisticated now. And it’s used in combination with horizontal drilling, and what it’s done is it’s opened up the ability to drill successfully for natural gas in unconventional formations, primarily shale gas, which is gas trapped in shale rock deep beneath the surface. And the brief explanation of how it works, it involves pumping in high pressure a mixture of mostly water but also involving sand and chemicals, and what it does is it fractures the rock deep underground and allows the gas to come to the surface.
Josh Scheer: And how bad for us is this?
Tom Kenworthy: Well, that’s a matter of great debate. With the ability and discovery of really, really vast shale gas formations going from western New York state down into Pennsylvania, and also in Arkansas and Louisiana and Texas, the United States is really awash in natural gas. And many estimates say we have enough gas now to last more than a century; and gas, because it’s cleaner than coal, has the ability or at least the promise to reduce our carbon emissions. And so we’ve seen a big rush to drill, particularly in areas in Pennsylvania and in New York and Arkansas and Louisiana, in [some] places where they haven’t seen much drilling before. And hydraulic fracturing is becoming a very controversial practice; there are a lot of fears that it can lead to contamination of water supplies. There are concerns that with some exceptions, the chemicals used are not publicly disclosed. And it’s an underground injection process that is not regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act. So it’s quite a controversy, and it’s a long way from over.
Kasia Anderson: You mention in your article that the Obama administration is starting to get going with getting involved in this issue. What’s the status on that at this point?
Tom Kenworthy: Yeah, there’s a couple of things going on there. The Environmental Protection Agency is conducting what appears like it’s going to be a quite thorough investigation into hydraulic fracturing. They did kind of a cursory one some years ago that was criticized as insufficient, and this one is—I think the final results may not come out until 2013 or 2014; they’re taking their time. And more recently, Energy Secretary Steven Chu appointed a subcommittee to his scientific advisory panel that is doing its own, more fast-track investigation into some of these issues. And one of the great questions here, and it’s become a lot more interesting lately, is to what extent natural gas is really superior to coal in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. There’ve been some conflicting studies on that, and one of the things that my organization is pushing for is for kind of a definitive study, perhaps by the National Academy of Sciences, that would really settle this question once and for all. Because it’s really, it’s very important; it makes … we are, my organization is generally supportive of natural gases as kind of a bridge fuel to a cleaner energy future. But if it turns out that gas really isn’t cleaner in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, it doesn’t make sense to have a big transition now.
Kasia Anderson: Tom, I was going to push you a little bit on that last point. Do you personally—or professionally, I guess the combination of the two—do you have a stance on fracking that you can sum up, or are you still kind of waiting to see what happens, too?
Tom Kenworthy: Well, I think I’m waiting to see what happens. I live in Colorado, where we went through a big drilling boom back during the Bush, the administration of George W. Bush. And what we found here was that the regulatory structure at the state level—and states do a lot of this regulation—really wasn’t equipped to handle the big rush. And we went through a couple-year period where we wrote our oil and gas regulations to better protect water and wildlife and those kinds of things. And you’re seeing that same thing back in the East, in Pennsylvania and New York, where the regulators just really aren’t equipped. I mean, my position on it is I believe that gas holds out significant promise as a cleaner fuel; but it has to be done in a manner that protects public health and safety and the environment. And part of that process is tougher regulation, both at the federal and state level.
Josh Scheer: Well, you talk about regulation, and you were talking about the Safe Drinking Water Act. And you talk about it in your piece; Congress enacted a lot of laws in the ’70s and ’80s that there are exemptions from the oil industry, like the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Emergency Planning Community Right to Know Act, Resource Conversation and Recovery Act, and Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act, and the last one being the National Environmental Policy Act. And each one had things stripped out, like the Clean Water Act has oil and gas operations exempt from storm-water runoff regulation, and along those lines. Until we can fix those regulations, are we not going to see a change? I mean, is this going to just be dangerous? I mean, shouldn’t they have the same regulations, and how do we help the states get better regulations?
Tom Kenworthy: Well, I think part of the issue there is for policymakers in Washington to take a hard look at those exemptions and see whether they should be repealed. You know, the Safe Drinking Water Act is a good example. This is one of those foundational environmental laws we have that guards against the injection of hazardous materials underground, and hydraulic fracturing was never regulated under that act. But in 2005, as these natural gas fields were opening up, Congress explicitly exempted hydraulic fracturing from that act. And that’s a loophole that should be closed, and we should have full disclosure of the chemicals that are used. The industry argument by the oil service companies that do the drilling is that—historically it’s been that these concoctions are, you know, they’re kind of like Coca-Cola recipes; they don’t disclose them. But we’re seeing movement now by the companies voluntarily to disclose, but there’s still a long way to go on that. And just in the past few weeks we’ve had states like even Texas, which is sort of the most prominent oil and gas state in the country, the Legislature down there is moving to have disclosure of those chemicals. So there’s a range of things in these laws, and some of them major, some of them less major, that really should be looked at. And I think there’s an obligation by the state oil and gas commissions to make sure that they’re protecting their citizens, because some of these federal laws are actually implemented and enforced at the state level.
Josh Scheer: And so this is something we need to keep our eyes on for the next many years …
Tom Kenworthy: Yes.
Josh Scheer: … because as you’ve said, this is going to be around for a while.
Kasia Anderson: Fracking is a keyword for our readers.
Josh Scheer: Fracking, and then also make sure that you just don’t believe the bus. Because the bus always tells me that it’s driven by clean natural gas, but if fracking pollutes the groundwater, then it’s not really clean.
Tom Kenworthy: Right. And this issue is going to be around for quite some time. There are projections that gas is going to increase its role in electricity production; there’s a lot of advocacy out there for using natural gas as a transportation fuel. We have really large supplies of it, and it’s going to be drilled and used more and more. I think one of the problems in that, and I hope it doesn’t happen, is that in terms of electricity production it could, if it’s cheap enough, tend to crowd out real renewables—wind and solar. And you’re speaking to me from California, where you’ve got a requirement that 33 percent of your electricity come from wind and solar and other renewables. And it’s important for you to meet that goal, and it’s important for the perhaps three dozen other states that have similar, no less ambitious requirements.
Kasia Anderson: Well, we’ve got our work cut out for us there. And that’s all the time we have, unfortunately. We’ve been talking with Tom Kenworthy, a senior fellow at American Progress. This is Kasia Anderson, associate editor at Truthdig. I’m here with Josh Scheer. Thanks for your time, Tom.
Tom Kenworthy: Hey, thanks for inviting me on. It was a pleasure.
Kasia Anderson: This is Kasia Anderson, associate editor at Truthdig. And I’m here with Josh Scheer, also of Truthdig, and one of our own writers from our flock, who has now gone on to greater pastures in the New Yorker here. We have Sarah Stillman, who is a New York-based journalist who is reporting on Iraq and Afghanistan; has appeared in many publications including The Washington Post, Slate, The Nation, TheAtlantic.com, TheNewRepublic.com, and The Dallas Morning News. And we were proud to say that in 2008 she was a foreign correspondent in Iraq for Truthdig, and she was embedded with the 116th military police company. So, but today we want to talk about, Sarah, your piece in The New Yorker called “The Invisible Army.” And I like this little tagline they have under it, which is “For foreign workers on U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, war can be hell.” And from reading the piece, it seems like a lot of these workers didn’t really gamble on ending up in these destinations. Is that right?
Sarah Stillman: Yeah. You know, I first learned about all this when I was doing the embed for Truthdig over in Iraq in 2008. And I stumbled upon, on one of the bases, a big or a medium-sized beauty salon, where they were giving manicures and pedicures to U.S. soldiers on the base, right alongside like a Cinnabon and various fast-food chains that were also on the base, which came as a surprise. …
Kasia Anderson: It’s one-stop shopping, huh?
Sarah Stillman: Exactly. So—and you could get a motorcycle as well, that they would send home to you. So I started speaking with the women in the salon, and eventually they told me that they had initially been promised great jobs in Dubai by a local recruiting company. And instead it ultimately turned out there was no job for them in Dubai; instead they were actually slated for jobs in these beauty salons in Iraq.
Kasia Anderson: And at this point, just to get a grip on how this happened, they had signed some document that ostensibly made it difficult for them to back out at that stage?
Sarah Stillman: Well, at that point some of the women had taken out loans to get the jobs, to pay the recruiting fees for the jobs. Others were told that once they got to Dubai they would have to pay—one woman was told she would have to pay up to 4,000 U.S. dollars if she actually wanted to go back, which was money she just didn’t have. And so they were quite vulnerable; they were women traveling on their own in another country under the supervision of this company, and didn’t really feel like they had much recourse at that point.
Josh Scheer: They were basically indentured servants, one might say.
Sarah Stillman: Yeah, you know, what I write about in the piece is that many of the workers I encountered were in much worse straits that I think really did constitute, resembled indentured servitude. Which is basically they would pay a lot of these companies in the home country, the recruiting companies, they would pay between a thousand U.S. dollars and all the way up to 6,000 U.S. dollars to get the jobs. And often the recruiters are promising them, you know, don’t worry, you’ll make it back in a month or two, as soon as you get to Iraq or Afghanistan. And instead, they get there and it turns out they’ll have to work almost an entire year or more to actually just pay back the recruiting fees. Sometimes they’re making as little as $150 or $250 a month working basically seven days a week, 12 hours a day.
Josh Scheer: They’re basically serfs, modern serfs, right? [Laughter]
Sarah Stillman: Probably something close, yeah.
Kasia Anderson: He just wants you to say yes. [Laughter]
Sarah Stillman: Right, sure …
Josh Scheer: No, no, it’s fine, you don’t have to say serfs.
Sarah Stillman: So many different workers in so many different circumstances. Some are absolutely indentured servants, I would say. And others … and some are, you know, the U.S. government has documented victims of outright human trafficking. And some of the cases are a much more complex version of economic coercion.
Josh Scheer: Now, did you do a lot of the research? Like, is this typical for wars that the U.S. fights? Do we use these kind of, as you point at, fly-by-night subcontractors, that are financed by us, the taxpayer? Or is this typical now for the new war in, like, Iraq and Afghanistan?
Sarah Stillman: Yeah, this is totally unprecedented in American history. I mean, obviously the history of contracting itself goes back to George Washington making these attempts to contract out, like, liquor for the troops. But never before have we brought in, certainly not these numbers of foreign personnel to be getting these jobs. Because we’re talking about people from Uganda, and Fiji, and India, and Sri Lanka—I mean, people from many of the world’s poorest countries. And that’s just something you didn’t see before. I mean, I think … and in Bosnia there was, under Clinton, there were a number of experiments with the sort of earlier versions of contracting, often using local hires. But we’ve never seen anything on this scale before.
Kasia Anderson: So, kind of walk us through this process, maybe, that some of these workers may encounter. First of all, they get a kind of a surprise with where they end up working, and then they through economic coercion, as you put it; they can be held longer than they thought they were going to be, because of owing debts for recruitment, et cetera. What is the next step that can happen here?
Sarah Stillman: Well, I think what’s interesting is they face a lot of the same struggles that, in some cases, U.S. soldiers face, except with far fewer resources and far fewer, less clear avenues when something goes wrong. So for instance, I write about a guy, Constantine Rodriguez, who was working in a Pizza Hut, a guy from Goa, India, and he was hit by a rocket, and two workers in the shop were killed; I think they were Bangladeshis. And he lost his eye and he lost his leg, and he was sent back to his home country, and he doesn’t have the access to medical care that people from the U.S. would have. And essentially what so many of these workers who get injured face is that technically they’re entitled to Defense Base Act payouts from the U.S. government; they’re entitled to insurance and medical care. But most of these workers don’t even have any idea that that exists; they have no idea how they would file for it if they did; they don’t have a lawyer; they don’t necessarily speak English. So that’s just one example of many. Another quick example is something I write about in the piece quite a bit, which is in some of the labor camps where they’re kept by the foreign subcontractors on the U.S. bases, sometimes they’re held without sufficient food. And I documented a riot in which 1,200 Indian and Nepali workers literally just started smashing everything in the camp, saying they needed more food.
Josh Scheer: And what has the Pentagon done about this? I mean, I know you’ve talked to them and … there’s some kind of toothless regulations, and this was a while ago. What are they going to do about this?
Sarah Stillman: You know, it’s really stunning that these people just don’t … they don’t really have a voice, and they don’t really have advocates within the U.S. government. So I think that’s why we’ve seen such little motion on it. In 2006, following a bit of reporting that was quite fantastic after a very, very depressing case of a group of Nepali workers who had been promised great jobs, again, in I think Jordan, and they were instead en route to a U.S. military base in Iraq when they were kidnapped by insurgents, and I believe 11 or 12 of them were killed by the insurgents. After that, the U.S. government started looking into the human-trafficking issue in particular. And they did put forth a few regulations, but as I found over the past few years, the abuses continue and there’s, again, very little transparency or accountability.
Kasia Anderson: We’re hearing a lot about kind of worst-case scenario outcomes here for these foreigners being shipped into Iraq and Afghanistan. But are there any cases that you encountered in which what they signed up for and what they actually got matched up?
Sarah Stillman: Absolutely. I mean, again, this is a huge population of tens of thousands, some people estimate upward of 70,000 workers on these bases. And I think many of them are making far more than they could make in their home countries. So what leads them into a war zone is not necessarily even coercion or trafficking, but rather like a desperate desire to make money they can send back to their families, which they absolutely do. And I even met some people—one man from Ghana who had, he’d initially signed up for a job in Kuwait, and instead was sent into Iraq as a trucker. And when I spoke to him he said he was really, he’d been very terrified to go, but now he was very grateful to be there because he was making a lot more money than he ever could have hoped to make, and he’d built a home for his family. And I’ve met a number of workers who were able to really improve their lives. And that’s part of the real complexity, I think, of the issue; is that even in Fiji, this same company that scammed the Fijian women is now still recruiting. And the company is very—they’ve been part of a big scandal in the Fijian press for all of their deceptive recruiting practices; and yet they still have many, many workers who line up outside their gates every day trying to get a job with them.
Kasia Anderson: Do you have a sense for, now that we’re supposedly withdrawing and trying to wind things down as a presence over there—at least that’s the official line—do you have any sense for how this withdrawal will affect workers like this in American military zones?
Sarah Stillman: Yeah, I think there are kind of two major concerns around that. And one of them has been raised by several colonels in the contracting command in Iraq, who have said a lot of these companies are shedding workers, and sometimes they’re not actually supplying the workers with any way to get home, or any of the things that they thought they were entitled to. So I actually met people on Kandahar Airfield who had basically just been abandoned by the company because the company didn’t need them anymore. They gave them a letter saying thank you for your service. And this one particular man I write about in the piece, Joel Santano, who basically had these massive debts he had to pay, and he had no way to get home to the Philippines. And so I think that’s one concern. And then the other concern is that a lot of rogue entrepreneurs in these home countries have figured out this is a very lucrative market, and why not … they’re still recruiting people to come to Iraq and Afghanistan at the same rate that they were before, and yet oftentimes there are no jobs for them. So they’ll basically just hold them in a warehouse off the base for months at a time with no pay, and often very little food, just kind of awaiting a job in case one appears. Which I think is one of the second, kind of longer-term concerns, is what’s going to happen as these jobs disappear.
Josh Scheer: Maybe to wrap this up, but in this country we hear all the time about immigration and businesses that traffic in illegal immigrants, and that we can’t—or undocumented, I’m sorry about the word illegal—obviously we have big policies against human trafficking. Is this just because this is in a foreign country, these guys are allowed to do this, or are the Pentagon not subject to our own U.S. laws, or is it just kind of the Wild West?
Sarah Stillman: Yeah, I think you have a bit of the Wild West component, because it’s just very, the subcontracting … is very convoluted. And so it’s very, everyone at every stage can kind of wash their hands of accountability. You know, the U.S. government is paying KBR in Texas, and in Texas KBR is paying a Kuwaiti company, and a Kuwaiti company is paying let’s say a local Fijian recruiter. And so it’s very hard to keep tabs on who is doing what, and how you would go about even figuring out what the promises being made to workers on the ground are. And so I think if there were the will to enforce even just more straightforward contracting chains, I think that would go a very, very long way. And also just basic laws about what are these people entitled to. If you talk to contracting officers in Afghanistan and ask them what is the minimum wage here, what are the basic kind of living and working standards these workers are entitled to, it’s quite hard to get a straight answer. And I don’t think there is one.
Josh Scheer: And to be clear, that if they were doing this kind of thing in the U.S. they’d probably be at least arrested or have a heavy fine.
Sarah Stillman: Yeah, absolutely, because we have laws. [Laughs] We have very … not that all workers are able to kind of access those modes of recourse, but they certainly exist. And on these bases, as far as I can tell, they don’t.
Kasia Anderson: It sounds like lack of accountability is built in structurally to these contracting agreements in a way.
Sarah Stillman: Yeah, and that’s also caused major problems for U.S. troops. I think some people in the military are quite upset about it, because they’ve found at various stages it has unforeseen consequences. Like KBR, several years back, there were a number of cases of U.S. soldiers being electrocuted in the showers while I was there in 2008. And they found that in some cases, during congressional testimony, it came out that many of the workers who had been doing the electrical wiring were people, were third-country nationals who had not been necessarily trained in U.S. standards, by no fault of their own, but that’s again another example of kind of the potential consequences of having this very unregulated labor market.
Josh Scheer: Yeah, I mean, it’s sad also with the economy that we have here. You know, there could be good jobs that people might want to do in the Middle East. I would imagine the reason they have to do this is because no one really wants to go there, and these people have to be tricked. Again, this is Sarah Stillman; she’s a writer, she’s written for The Atlantic, she’s written for The New Republic online, Dallas Morning News, of course Truthdig. This is in The New Yorker; it actually came out June 6th, the print issue … again, Sarah, thanks for joining us.
Sarah Stillman: Thanks a lot for having me on the show.
Josh Scheer: OK, have a great day.
Kasia Anderson: That’s all for this week’s Truthdig Radio. On behalf of myself, Kasia Anderson, as well as Josh Scheer and Narda Zacchino, thanks to engineer Stan Misraje; board operator Jee; Alan Minsky, and our guests Alice Walker, Scott Tucker, Tom Kenworthy and Sarah Stillman. We’ll be back next week, when we return triumphant from the Webby Awards in New York City, where we’ll humbly accept the trophy for best political blog for the second year in a row. And as always, check us out on the Web at Truthdig.com.
Posted on Feb 7, 2016
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