I’d like to preface my presentation with a little story about September 11. Not September 11, 2001. September 11, 1973. On that date, the US government helped fund and sponsor a military coup in the South American nation of Chile. The democratically elected president, Salvador Allende, was overthrown and killed. They said he committed suicide…with a machine gun. In his place, the US propped up the dictator, General Augusto Pinochet. Not surprisingly, under Pinochet taking power, human rights violations in Chile skyrocketed. Surprisingly, someone within the US power structure talked about it.
A man named David Popper was US ambassador to Chile at the time and he sent a cable to the State Department about the human rights issues. The Secretary of State in the mid-70s was none other than Henry Kissinger. His response was short and sweet: “Tell Popper to cut out the political science lectures.”
Now, I may not have anything approaching a college degree, but I have taken one political science in my life. So I get it and, in a rare case of synchronicity with the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Henry Kissinger, I promise there will be no political science lectures here tonight.
Okay, here we are, in the year 2008…or, as I’d prefer to call it, the 28th consecutive year of the Reagan administration. This is the point in the evening when the speaker typically implores everyone to turn off the cell phones. But, as far as I’m concerned, you can leave yours on. This way, every time someone’s phone goes off, we can be reminded of the fact that half the humans on the planet have never made a single phone call.
Or maybe, when a phone rings, we can focus on these six simple words: The Democratic Republic of the Congo. We’d do that because one of the primary components of cell phone circuitry is a metallic ore called Columbite-Tantalite—or “coltan.” Eighty percent of the world’s known coltan can be found in African nation of The Democratic Republic of the Congo (or DRC), which just so happens to be embroiled in a brutal (even by current standards) civil war since the pre-cell phone days of 1994. Over time, all sides in the unrelenting struggles adroitly began using the mining and sale of coltan not only to nourish the West’s seemingly insatiable cell phone addiction, but also to fund their inexorable mayhem. Civilian deaths in the DRC during this time—mostly from war-related disease and malnutrition—are estimated not in the hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands, but rather in the millions…making it the world's deadliest military conflict since the Second World War.
And it gets worse. Just ask an Eastern Lowland Gorilla, the world’s largest primate, found almost exclusively in the DRC. According to National Geographic: "Following a decade of civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, new estimates suggest that the number of eastern lowland gorillas may have plummeted by 70 percent. Conflict, illegal mining for a mineral used for electronic-device components, and the growing bush-meat trade have all taken their toll." The UN Environment Program has reported that the number of eastern lowland gorillas in eight DRC national parks has subsequently declined by 90 percent. We can only hope that some enterprising soul has already recorded the eastern lowland gorilla’s call so it can be used as a ring tone long after they’re gone.
So yeah, go ahead and leave your phones on and enjoy your next text.
So here we are…in New York City in New York State in the white supremacist capitalist homophobic patriarchy we call America. Or, as it’s known by the indigenous crowd, “the occupied territories.”
Speaking of occupied territories, while I’m up here, let’s not forget that each and every one of us is sitting or standing on stolen land.
Let’s not forget that with each minute that passes, the US government spends one million of our tax dollars spent on war.
Let’s also not forget that on this planet of abundant resources, every two seconds, a human starves to death.
That usually quiets the crowd and gives me a chance to remind you that I am available for children’s parties.
Speaking of millions spent on war and too many people dying, I’d like to mention a forgotten anniversary: August 6, 1990. To most people—particularly activists—the starting date for the war in Iraq is March 19, 2003. However, to accept that date is to put far too much blame on one party and one president. A more accurate and useful starting date is August 6, 1990. Iraq invaded Kuwait—with US permission-on August 2, 1990. Four days later—at the behest of the US—the United Nations Security Council imposed murderous sanctions upon the people of Iraq. The war on Iraq began that day.
It is widely accepted that these sanctions were responsible for the deaths of roughly 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five. US Ambassador the UN in the mid-90s was Madelaine Albright. In 1996, Leslie Stahl asked her on 60 Minutes if a half-million dead Iraqi children was a price worth paying to pursue American foreign policy. Albright famously replied: “Yes, we think it’s worth it.”
Shortly after that, Albright was named US Secretary of State by noted liberal Democrat hero, Bill Clinton.
I highlight Clinton’s alleged liberal reputation because I’m not here to preach to the choir. I’m guessing most of you don’t need me to tell you what’s wrong with the Bush administration so I’d rather not just focus on the latest figurehead of empire. Instead, I’d rather dig deeper to the heart of our culture. A culture riddled with violence and hypocrisy. And speaking of riddles: Who gave up a life of luxury and turned his back on millions to fight for what he believed in, in the mountains and caves of Afghanistan and, as a result, is now revered by many as a "hero"?