America is in the Heart

July 31, 2019

Just finished “America is in the Heart,” a memoir by the Filipino poet Carlos Bulosan, first published in 1946 and reissued this year by the University of Washington Press in a new series called Classics of Asian American Literature. It’s a harrowing read, the story of a peasant boy in the Philippines, dirt poor and on the verge of starvation, who musters all his strength and courage and resourcefulness to find his way to the fields, canneries, and fisheries of the West Coast of the US. There his dreams of freedom crash into the hard realities of discrimination, racism, exploitation, cruelty, and violence. He sees it all—the casual brutality of the cops, the hatred of the vigilantes, the thievery of the bosses, the angry mob chanting, “Why don’t they ship those monkeys back where they came from,” but also the generosity of an emergency room nurse and doctor, the kindness of several chance encounters, and the support of fellow artists. He and his brothers become labor organizers and join the Young Communist League. His experiences—brutal and raw—are an essential part of the complex narrative that is our country. Bulosan persists, certain that the America of his dreams—a place where people take care of one another and cooperate to build a world based on love and respect and justice—is still possible. This story is part of his attempt to make it so.

Woody Guthrie:

The crops are all in and the peaches are rotting

The oranges are piled in their creosote dumps

They’re flying you back to the Mexico border

To pay all your money to wade back again.

My father’s own father, he waded that river

They took all the money he made in his life

My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees

And they rode the truck till they broke down and died.

Good-bye to my Juan, good-bye Rosalita

Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria

You won’t have a name when you ride the big air-plane

And all they will call you will be deportees.

Some of us are illegal, and others not wanted

Our work contract’s out and we have to move on

But it’s six hundred miles to that Mexican border

They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.

We died in your hills, we died in your deserts

We died in your valleys and died on your plains

We died ‘neath your trees and we died in your bushes

Both sides of the river, we died just the same.

Good-bye to my Juan, good-bye Rosalita

Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria

You won’t have a name when you ride the big air-plane

And all they will call you will be deportees.

A sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos canyon

Like a fireball of lightning, it shook all our hills

Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?

The radio says they are just deportees.

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?

Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?

To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil

And be called by no name except deportees?

Good-bye to my Juan, good-bye Rosalita

Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria

You won’t have a name when you ride the big air-plane

And all they will call you will be deportees.

Megan Rapinoe:

July 23, 2019
“I think this country was quite literally built on the backs of people who weren’t from here, and were forced to come here in slavery.”

From Comrade Fred Klonsky

July 20, 2019

Ilhan Omar, the courageous Congress member from Minnesota, has introduced a bill affirming that Americans have the right to participate in economic boycotts for political purposes.

The legislation doesn’t specifically mention the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, but the BDS movement (which some free speech deniers want to make advocating for a crime), would be covered.

House Resolution 496  asserts that boycotts “have been effectively used in the United States by advocates for equal rights since the Boston Tea Party and include boycotts led by civil rights activists during the 1950s and 1960s in order to advocate for racial equality, such as the Montgomery bus boycott, and promote workers’ rights, such as the United Farm Workers-led boycott of table grapes.”

It also identifies historical moments when Americans participated in boycotts to push human rights in other countries: the boycotting of Imperial Japan during the late 1930s, the boycotting of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1941, the boycotting of the 1980 summer Olympics in Moscow, and the boycotting of South Africa.

Omar’s bill currently has two cosponsors: Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Rep. John Lewis (D-GA).

Omar’s bill comes in the wake of a law requiring Texas teachers to sign a loyalty oath to Israel.

In 2015 the Illinois legislature passed a bill that calls for our public pension funds to disinvest in any companies participating in an economic boycott of Israel.

I pointed out at the time the irony of a legislative body that has consistently underfunded our pension system using the funds for political purposes.

But the bill was passed unanimously.

So was a similar bill in the Chicago City Council.


Once again, thank you Congress member Omar for understanding what the first amendment means. Sometimes even our most progressive legislators seem to forget.

I Stand with Ilhan Omar

July 18, 2019


July 18, 2019

By Robert C. Koehler

“The easy movement of high ranking military officers into jobs with major defense contractors and the reverse movement of top executives in major defense contractors into high Pentagon jobs is solid evidence of the military industrial-complex in operation.”

I was utterly stunned when I read these words of former Wisconsin senator William Proxmire, quoted in an essay by William Hartung, not because of the point he was making — like, what else is new? — but because he said them in . . . 1969.

Oh my God, fifty years ago!

This is basically the span of my adulthood. I was so young and revved up in 1969 — a hippie and idealist, a true believer in social change. We’d just defeated Jim Crow racism and antiwar consciousness was spreading across the nation, soon followed by the women’s rights movement, the gay rights movement and environmental awareness. A new day was dawning! I could feel it in every fiber of my being. Even politicians were standing up, being counted.

For an instant, as I read Proxmire’s words, I remembered the bubble before it burst. Then I was overwhelmed with a sense of collective failure. When it comes to the culture of war, nothing has changed. Indeed. military-industrial financial leverage has grown enormously over the last half century, quietly consuming American democracy along the way.

As Hartung writes: “. . . there’s no question that spreading defense jobs around the country gives weapons manufacturers unparalleled influence over key members of Congress, much to their benefit when Pentagon budget time rolls around. In fact, it’s a commonplace for Congress to fund more F-35s, F-18s, and similar weapons systems than the Pentagon even asks for. So much for Congressional oversight.”

So much for hope. So much for any possibility of a sane, nuke-free, united planet. The “world’s greatest democracy” has morphed, over the course of my lifetime, into a money-driven military-industrial monstrosity, waging pointless wars, selling arms to the world, expanding its prison archipelago and generating endless wealth for the powerful — all the while insulated from public scrutiny by the mainstream propaganda industry, which shrugs and calls it all self-defense and situation normal as it serves up endless distractions to Spectator Nation.

But as I reflected on the extent to which money rules — and how we have quietly transitioned as a nation and as a planet to endless war, solely for the benefit of those who profit from it — I saw a light of hope coming from the oddest direction imaginable.

It’s called climate change. It’s called environmental disaster, existential crisis, the creation of an uninhabitable planet. Where “flower power” failed to change the world half a century ago, global warming, melting icecaps and rising oceans — even if they don’t obliterate civilization — will eventually strip money of its power to exploit the planet and do what it wants. Change is coming, no matter how many defense-industry lobbyists there are attempting to shape national politics.

Maybe climate change will “win,” but even if it does, nothing else, as far as I can tell, has the power to force humanity to think so utterly out of the box — by which I mean beyond the borders of nations — and to begin transitioning to a one-planet consciousness.

Here’s where we are today, as reflected in the tweets of Donald Trump: “So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe . . . now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came?”

This, of course, is the president raging against four newly elected congresswomen — Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar — who have had the courage to stand up to him and have pushed for a sane environmental policy called the Green New Deal. His rant reveals caged thinking at its most blatant: thinking trapped in the borders of racism and nationalism, precisely the kind of thinking that has driven 500 years of Western domination and exploitation.

Trump talks and tweets in defiance of the rules that have emerged over the last 50 years, a.k.a., political correctness, the point of which is to hide global exploitation, war profiteering and the death of democracy behind a cliché-ridden cover story of respect for everyone.

The unspoken assumption behind this cliché is that national borders are as basic to the makeup of the planet as oceans, rivers and mountains. Human beings are defined by the nations in which they live and all problems we face are addressed either within the confines of our borders or in a state of national unity in violent opposition to the behavior of a “foreign” nation.

But climate change is a phenomenon that cannot be addressed in such a limited mindset, even though this is how the discussion begins. The economist Joseph Stiglitz, for instance, writing last month in The Guardian, noted that the term Green New Deal honors the massive response by FDR to the Great Depression of the ’30s — the New Deal — but pointed out: “An even better analogy would be the country’s mobilization to fight World War II.

“Critics ask, ‘Can we afford it?’ . . . Yes, we can afford it, with the right fiscal policies and collective will. But more importantly, we must afford it. The climate emergency is our third world war. Our lives and civilization as we know it are at stake, just as they were in the second world war.”

While this is absolutely true, Stiglitz doesn’t go far enough. He fails to ponder what it means that this is not a “war” against anything or anyone except the natural consequences of destructive behavior: behavior that is at the foundation of Western, if not global, civilization. Fighting this war is as much a matter of demobilization — reversing courses of action, shrinking our carbon footprint — as it is mobilizing green energy production and rebuilding society around a green consciousness.

And a serious part of this new consciousness must be addressing what it means to live as part of one global community that is in peril from the consequences of exploitative human behavior. This is not a mere moral abstraction, something to do because it’s right and good. We will disappear as a species if we don’t — no matter how much money we have.

We have to start revering the whole planet, indeed, thinking as one planet, and valuing the people on both sides of the border. All of us are equal. At some point, even the war profiteers and the politicians they presume to own must wake up to this.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is available. Contact him at or visit his website at

An American Fascism

July 13, 2019
When Robert Jordan is asked in Ernest Hemingway’s FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS if the US could ever be permeated with fascists, he says: There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes.
The time is now, as we sink and stumble toward a kind of familiar fascism:
~~~Forges national unity under an autocratic, authoritarian leader—the classic Strong Man—who will “solve all your problems” as he implements a program advocating stability, law and order, and more and more centralized power, claiming all of this is necessary in order to defend the homeland, and to respond effectively to economic instability.
~~~Attempts to mobilize a mass base through deliberately constructed fear and hatred as the leader prepares for armed conflict and permanent war, holding the military as a unifying model of organizational excellence, expanding the carceral surveillance state, glorifying national greatness and appealing to patriotic nationalism while militarizing the police and security forces and all aspects of society; agitates bigotry, intolerance, and threats as it fuels violence by demonizing targeted, distinct racial, religious, or gendered vulnerable populations, and creates sacrificial scapegoats who are repeatedly blamed for every social or economic problem people experience.
~~~Promotes disdain for the arts, for intellectual life, for reason and evidence, as well as deep contempt for the necessary back and forth of serious argument or discussion.
~~~Entangles corporations, the military, and the state, creating a military/industrial/corporate complex that takes over the instruments of government while it works to destroy the commons or a free and public space (public schools, public health, public safety), and disappear any sense of a public or a collective need in favor of hyper-individualism.

Some things never change: Biden opposes busing, and Arne Duncan is against “forced integration.”

July 13, 2019
Thinking of the establishment Dems and remembering the brilliant troubadour Phil Ochs, and his classic “Love me I’m a Liberal”:
I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
Tears ran down my spine
I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy
As though i’d lost a father of mine
But Malcolm X got what was coming
He got what he asked for this time
So love me, love me, love me, i’m a liberal…
The people of old Mississippi
Should all hang their heads in shame
I can’t understand how their minds work
What’s the matter don’t they watch Les Crain?
But if you ask me to bus my children
I hope the cops take down your name
So love me, love me, love me, i’m a liberal…


July 11, 2019


By Robert C. Koehler

“They were quiet, and just staring, blankly,” she said. “There were just blank stares and no expressions on their faces.”

Welcome to hell, as presided over by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

This image bears deep reflection. It doesn’t change. Children are taken from their parents, jammed into cages. They have no lives left.

The speaker is Dr. Sara Goza, new president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, who recently toured some emigrant detention facilities, including CBP’s Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas. “The first thing that hit me when we walked in the door,” Goza said, according to NBC News, “was the smell. It was the smell of sweat, urine and feces.”

A few days later, combat planes roared over the nation’s capital and Trump supporters cheered wildly, sucked in by the noise and excitement. America is great again, right?

The children in the cages weren’t cheering.

I know, I know. Who cares, right? Out of curiosity the other day I opened one of the right-wing emails that I somehow manage to attract and followed its link to a story at Breitbart: “A majority of Americans want mass deportations of illegal aliens if Congress fails to reach a deal this week that closes loopholes in the country’s asylum system that allow mass flows of foreign nationals to pour through the U.S.-Mexico border.”

This paragraph requires as much reflective groping as the other one. Suddenly the caged hell at the border doesn’t matter; it has no emotional impact. All it took was a different choice of words. When the issue is “illegal aliens” flowing over the border into the Land of the Free . . .

“In addition to costing us money they also cost us resources.” So began one of the thousand-plus comments at the end of the article. “Would California even have had a water crisis if millions of illegal aliens were using water meant for actual Americans?”

And here’s the national divide, defined with a razor cut across the soul. Those damn illegals were drinking water “meant” (can’t you just feel the divine empowerment in this word?) for “actual Americans.” Are the majority of actual Americans really this intellectually and psychologically caged, this trapped in their own ignorance? What’s next, telling the illegals to drink out of the toilet?

This country — the one defined by “actual Americans” endlessly needing to defend themselves against some lesser aspect of humanity — is not the country I believe in, but it’s the one I live in, at least for the moment. Its days are limited, simply because ignorance does not remain bliss for very long. We, by which I mean all of life, will survive and prevail only if we relearn that everything is connected. All people are connected. If we obsess about borders rather than focus on understanding, we will choke and die from the very dehumanization with which we contaminate Planet Earth.

And understanding must begin with knowing there is no such thing as “actual Americans” — there are only actual human beings.

Eerily, the NBC story in which Dr. Goza described the conditions the children she visited were enduring contained this random bit of information: The Central Processing Center that held them is “known as Ursula.” I almost couldn’t believe it, since I had already begun thinking how much this real-life scenario was reminding me of perhaps the most disturbing short story I have ever read in my life. The story is called “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” The author is Ursula Le Guin.

In this story, Le Guin cracks open the paradox of the human condition. She postulates a utopian city called Omelas, whose residents are joyous, loving and creative, their lives the fulfillment of all human striving. The scenario is seductive, though hardly credible, so the author pauses midway in the story to ask: “Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.”

And she tells us about a tiny room — not a cage, exactly, but a tiny closet: “In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads stand near a rusty bucket.

“. . . In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops.”

The child, the author explains, has been ripped away from a mother it still remembers and locked in a squalid mop closet. Its absolute misery constitutes the terms of the city’s prosperity and happiness. All the residents of Omelas know about the child; their visit to its cell in early adolescence is a coming-of-age ritual. They leave in tears, but most wind up accepting the bargain: one child’s misery in exchange for the happiness of thousands.

This isn’t exactly the American bargain, but it’s close enough to tear all certainty to pieces. Some of the children who left the Central Processing Center were asked to draw what their time was like at the detention facility. They drew pictures of kids in cages.

Fascinatingly, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has contacted the American Academy of Pediatrics about acquiring these drawings and adding them to its collection. The museum wants to continue “telling the complex and complicated history of the United States and to documenting that history as it unfolds.”

And director emeritus Brent Glass explained to NPR that the museum has a mission “to inspire people to know more about American history and to hopefully create a more humane society.”

You mean inspire actual Americans? Show them the mop closet? That may not be enough. What if we all spent some time living in it?

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is available. Contact him at or visit his website at

American Concentration Camps

July 2, 2019