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Dangerous Times Demand Dangerous Books

Fri, 2018-10-12 15:39

All history is contemporary history. After all, historians look at the past through the lens of the present. They’re prisoners of their own times no matter how far and wide they stray into the past. In These Truths: A History of the United States (Norton; $39.95) Jill Lepore traces the narrative of our failing republic through the prism of Donald Trump, Facebook, Fox, “fake news” and the current, often volatile and very nasty debates about abortion, guns, the Second Amendment and the Constitution itself, that landmark document that the author returns to again and again in her 932-page tome that offers dozens of biographies of the famous and the infamous, hundreds of pages of footnotes and thousands of facts. At the end, Lapore acknowledges her students and her esteemed colleagues, including Adam Hochschild, Jane Kamensky, Louis Menand, Emma Rothschild and Sean Wilentz.

After just a few pages, one wonders who the hell will read this book? Certainly some of Lepore’s colleagues; at the very least they’ll peruse it. Then there are Lepore’s students at Harvard where she has taught American history, plus the readers of The New Yorker where her articles and essays have appeared for years, and where I first encountered her name and her distinctive style.

In an article entitled “Misjudged” in the October 8, 2018 New Yorker she writes about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and makes it clear that she, Lepore, values moderation, restraint, rules and clear separation of the legislative and judicial branches of the federal government. “There are very few rules left anymore, and even less restraint,” she complains.

I like These Truths much more than I have liked her essays in The New Yorker. In her history book, she fires off provocative comments such as “Instead of Marx, America had Thoreau,” which is neither the truth nor a fact, but rather an opinion. In fact, the U.S. had both Thoreau and Marx, who served as the European correspondent for Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune in the 1850s. Later, he covered the American Civil War.

Reading Lepore’s first few hundred pages—which are entertaining and aimed for a mass audience—can feel a lot like watching a Ken Burns documentary. The illustrations help immensely, especially when they’re combined with discussion about nineteenth-century photography, which was supposed to extend democracy and that reached a pinnacle in the mid-nineteenth-century with Matthew Brady’s photos of slain soldiers in the Civil War.

There’s a lot that’s hard to take in Lepore’s recounting of the carnage of the Civil War, lynching, mob rule, the use of torture by the U.S. military, and homegrown American terrorists who bombed abortion clinics. In the last hundred pages or so, it seemed to me that Lepore had stolen some of the thunder of H. L. Mencken, who appears briefly in this book, and who wrote, Lepore points out, a mock “Constitution for the New Deal” that began, “All government power of whatsoever shall be vested in a President of the United States.”

At times, Lepore also becomes a latter-day Ambrose Bierce, who doesn’t appear in these pages, though he wrote The Devil’s Dictionary, a classic of U.S. literature, in which he defines a cynic as someone “whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.”

Bierce, who fought in the Civil War, and who disappeared in Mexico in 1914, would probably call Lepore a cynic and mean to praise her. Occasionally, one can feel her sense of frustration, anger, resentment and sadness at what has happened to the American experiment with democracy.

On page 688, she offers a quotation from Justice Thurgood Marshall who observed that the government that the “Framers devised was defective from the start.” Three pages on, when describing the fall of the Berlin Wall, she writes about “the end of the Cold War.” The last time I looked, the U.S. and Russia were still at one another’s throats, though they weren’t threatening to bomb one another with nuclear weapons. I suppose that’s progress.

Lepore does not glamorize or sentimentalize the past, though she admires some historical figures far more than others, such as Frederick Douglass, while she loathes others, including pollsters, publicists, public relations professionals and those who are paid to lie for politicians and get them elected to the White House and the U.S. Senate.

Near the top of her list of villains are Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter who started Campaigns, Inc., the first political consulting firm in the United States, and who helped to defeat Upton Sinclair when he ran for Governor of California and then pulled strings and worked behind the scenes to help elect Eisenhower and Nixon.

Arch cynics, Whitaker and Baxter, noted that “The average American doesn’t want to be educated; he doesn’t want to improve his mind; he doesn’t even want to work, consciously, at being a good citizen…Every American likes to be entertained. He likes the movies; he likes the mysteries; he likes the fireworks and parades.”

Lepore doesn’t write about the average American. She doesn’t seem to believe that such an animal exists. But she writes about citizens and about people, as well as “the People”—as in “We, the People”—and the short-lived People’s Party. But she has not written a “peoples’ history of the United States.” Howard Zinn did that and did it well in a book that has sold more than one million copies and that has influenced several generations of U.S citizens.

Characteristically, Zinn called his history “biased.” He also noted that the U.S. system of government was “the most insidious” ever created for control of the people.

Lepore doesn’t cop to her own biases. Nor does she argue which systems of government are more insidious than others, though she has no trouble denouncing American slavery, American racism, Jim Crow, segregation and the on-going, never ending war (or so it seems) against African Americans.

What’s missing from these pages, and glaring so, is a narrative about Native Americans. In the index, under Native Americans, there are references to 25 or so pages.

Two-thirds of the way through her history, Lepore explains that, “The civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam called attention to aspects of American history that had been left out of American history textbooks from the very start.” She adds that the “American Indian Movement, founded in 1968, challenged the story of the nation’s origins.”

What she neglects to say is that beginning in the seventeenth-century Native Americans offered narratives about themselves, their history and culture that ran counter to the narratives written by colonists, settlers and soldiers. Not only that, Indians also resisted occupation and colonization long before 1968.

When Lepore writes that, “Americans are descended from conquerors and from the conquered,” she’s far too schematic, at least from my point of view. It hasn’t always been clear who conquered whom, and indeed whether it’s useful to refer to some people as “conquered” and others as “conquerors.”

Many of the Native Americans in my part of California know the history of the wars that were waged here and in other part of the U.S. between their ancestors on the one hand and settlers and soldiers on the other hand.

They know about genocide, and yet they’re not willing to say that Indians have been conquered once and for all. We’re still here, they say. We’re still resisting. The story isn’t over yet.

Popular social, cultural and political movements, including the movements for the abolition of slavery and the end of segregation, show up in These Truths, but Lepore is less interested in movements and causes than she is in the decisive role played by individuals, including William Jennings Bryan, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Phyllis Schlafly and Ronald Reagan. Her history is history told through the lens of biography and through influential books such as Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology that misread the history of ideas, and failed to see the return of ideology in The Sixties and beyond.

In some ways, Lepore is best when she writes about seminal texts and their messages.

Gifted, or perhaps afflicted, with a steel-trap mind, she has an eye for significant facts, crucial anecdotes and spectacular sound bites. Lepore quotes Hitler as saying, “Transport a German to Kiev, and he remains a perfect German. But transport him to Miami, and you make a degenerate out of him.”

What Lepore doesn’t say is that the quotation reveals more about Hitler’s pathology than it does about Germans, Russians and the U.S.

Occasionally, she’ll sneak in some humor, as, for example, when, in December 1941, Churchill was staying at the White House with FDR. The president entered the prime minister’s room just as he was getting out of the bath and was stark naked.

“You see, Mr. President, I have nothing to hide from you,” Churchill said.

Savvy fellow. Of course, he had plenty to hide from FDR and from Stalin, too.

These Truths is packed with adjectives, bright shining images and metaphors. Lepore’s crucial metaphor is that of “the ship of state,” which appears again and again, from start to finish and in the middle, too. The ship metaphor is often coupled with comments such as “Time seemed to be moving both backward and forward.”

Indeed, These Truths offers a tale of revolutions and reactions, liberation from old chains and the imposition of new forms of bondage.

In the chapter entitled “Of Ships and Shipwrecks,” she offers an extended discussion of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s long, long poem—much too long—entitled “The Building of the Ship” (1849), which Lincoln apparently read and that, according to his secretary, brought “tears” to his eyes. Lepore pulls on heartstrings; she isn’t above aiming to bring tears to the eyes of her readers.

In the last paragraph of the Epilogue, he writes that, “the ship of state lurched and reeled.” She adds that liberals, “had neglected to trim the ship’s sails” and that conservatives “had courted the popular will by demolishing the idea of truth itself, smashing the ship’s very mast.”

A plague on both your houses, she seems to say. Radicals, cultural revolutionaries and dissidents don’t merit mention at the end of These Truths. Whether or not Lepore thinks that the ship can be saved she doesn’t explicitly say, though she doesn’t leave much room for optimism.

To save the ship, she writes, “a new generation of Americans…would need to learn an ancient and nearly forgotten art: how to navigate by the stars.” What she seems to be saying is that modern technology, including computers, won’t save us.

What she doesn’t say is that in that dark future there might not be trees to harvest to make lumber for the ship, and that the seas themselves might be burning cauldrons. In 932-pages, there is precious little about the destruction of forests, lakes and rivers.

More about the environment—the continent of North America itself—and more about environmental movements, and less about the Supreme Court and its landmark decisions, would have helped to make These Truths a veritable history for our time.

If I were a good liberal I might say that my criticism of the book does not detract from its glory, and that it’s a triumph of scholarship. I can’t say that. I won’t say it. These Truths has moments of glory, but it will not help us as a nation and as a people to cut though the lies and the fake news of the Trump era.

Perhaps that’s too much to ask of a history book. Still, it seems to me that dangerous times like ours demand books that venture into dangerous territory more boldly than These Truths.

Categories: News for progressives

Dangerous White Lies

Fri, 2018-10-12 15:36

When I started teaching at the university level, about 1,500 students ago, I had no idea that I’d ever have to dedicate class time to address honesty. Some brief reminders on plagiarism was all that I was used to. That Melania Trump could use some help, her “Be Best” speech was stolen from Michelle Obama, is good for a couple laughs. Over time truth has become quite an issue. What sense should my students make of a president who’d told 4,229 lies in the first 558 days of his presidency? What about his claims about “fake news?” Over and over Donald Trump cries out “FAKE NEWS” only for the story to be confirmed as true. My job is not to be an oracle of truth, I don’t lie, but that only encourages the return to authority as truth; I try to give the tools for navigating the terrain of dishonesty, but I’ll admit it is getting harder.

“All politicians lie.”

Statements of universal political dishonesty are ubiquitous, but are they accurate? In class students are expected to learn about ad hominem arguments, this is the fallacy of attacking a source instead of the claim, which is intended to inspire a false equivalence. That Trump has lied at a pace without any comparison is not in and of itself proof that any particular statement is a lie, it is just good evidence for claiming him to be untrustworthy. Barack Obama lost some trust when he won the lie of the year distinction in 2013 for saying, “if you like your health care plan you can keep it.” Claims must be judged on their merits, period. Not all lies are the same, and a university education is expected to provide students with the ability to evaluate claims. Clearly some politicians are more honest than others.

“It is just he said, she said…”

Trump’s recent nomination to the Supreme Court is a controversy, like many (maybe even most) of his decisions so it is not surprising that people have chosen sides. But many popular memes are simple not true. “He said, she said” is an effort to make an equivalence in testimony, and it is used to argue towards the point that if you’re going to believe testimony, then you must trust both testimonies equally. The point could not be further from the truth. Testimony is evidence, and evidence is used to support or deny claims. Witness testimony is one of the most common types of evidence used, and there are many mitigating factors used in judging the veracity of its value as evidence. Evidence must always be weighed against a standard of judgment.

“Supporting Kavanaugh means you believe in innocent until proven guilty.”

Students are very confused about standards of judgment. Despite the factual basis for standards of judgment—let me be clear here, class, the presumption of innocence relates to criminal law—the hearing for a Supreme Court Justice is not a criminal matter, it is a job interview. The elevated standard—beyond reasonable doubt—is used in criminal cases because a person’s freedom or life is at stake. Other cases use different standards, like “preponderance of the evidence” or “clear and convincing.” The burden of proof is different out of utility, an employer does not need to “prove” you were smoking marijuana outside before the interview, they may pass on your application just for smelling the weed on you, even in a state where it has been legalized.

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” ― Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Senator Jeff Flake used this quote when he called out Trump’s dishonesty. He noted “alternative facts” and the assault on the free press among his criticisms. He was troubled by Trump’s naming of the press as “the enemy of the people.” Flake is credited with getting the Senate to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct in the Kavanaugh nomination, which may have been prompted by two women confronting him with their “my assault does matter” in an elevator. But the fact here is that the investigation was limited. The Whitehouse has been allowed complete control over “facts,” they determined some allegations were not credible enough to be investigated. Fact: checks and balances were put in place on purpose. Opinion: we should be scared that Trump has too much influence over appointing a judge who could possibly have a deciding vote in a case on his impeachment; the lies are destroying the country, and the US has become a complete laughing stock; the Russian troll farms were able to weaponize American ignorance and susceptibility to dishonesty—the lies have real consequences. When will Americans become lifelong learners and begin to sift truth from lies competently?

Categories: News for progressives

Miami Cubans and the Midterm Elections

Fri, 2018-10-12 15:32

The Cuban community residing in South Florida, in the United States, mainly in Miami Dade County, is returning to the state of great anxiety and fear. These are traditionally imposed by the Cuban-American extreme right and its sponsors from the American terrorist extreme right.

Numerous and widely-publicized visits by special agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation have been made to the homes and workplaces of Cuban émigrés in Miami. Those visited have been, for many years, activists for the improvement of relations between the peoples and governments of the United States and Cuba. Now they have reason to be alarmed.

The local media and even the U.S. national media speculate about the reasons for this intimidating campaign by the federal government’s main counterintelligence agency. On September 12, the FBI published an article in the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, stating that the reason for such warning visits was “to send to the Cuban government the message that the FBI is looking for and watching Cuban spies who might be infiltrating the United States.

Andrés Gómez, director of the Areitodigital website, based in Miami, has written that this FBI campaign is for political reasons. “In the first place, it’s because a decisive mid-tern election is about to be held on November 6. Control of both houses of Congress is at stake, as well as the future of the Trump Administration and the Cuban-American extreme right in Washington.

In Gómez’s opinion, “since the Cuban-American extreme right was unable to obtain the changes in U.S. policy towards Cuba that they wanted, the FBI could be giving them these FBI visits in order to partially satisfy them in today’s political environment. In this way, the fantasy of Cuban spies under every pebble and on every grain of sand of our long and famous beaches is once again being imposed on the social and political environment of our community.”

The director of Areitodigital believes that it could also be to warning against the electoral triumph in the mid-term elections on November 6 of candidates more in tune with the new policy toward Cuba laid out in Miami by President Barack Obama in December 2014.

But, according to Gómez, “we are no longer in Florida then, with a demonized Cuba as an evil and perverse enemy. To the horror of the Cuban-American extreme-right in Miami and its political and ideological allies in the rest of the country, and to the resentment of some FBI special agents who are visiting innocent citizens who maintain irreproachable social behavior-even though they defend their right to travel to their native country, and condemn the blockade against Cuba and everything that impedes the development of the Island and the possibilities of the Cuban people to advance and live in peace.”

In the national political environment, and in Florida in particular, there is a close electoral contest for governor between the progressive African American Democrat Andrew Gillum and the racist and reactionary Republican Ron DeSantis. It is feared that African American voters and progressives who do not normally participate in elections will be motivated to go to the polls to give electoral triumph to the most liberal and progressive candidates. That’s what might be motivating the FBI’s current intimidation campaign, notes Andres Gomez.

The official statement issued by the FBI says that “in the course of performing our duties, the FBI -on a regular and open basis- interacts with members of our communities to enhance the mutual trust necessary to combat potential criminal activities and possible threats to our population.

With respect to that, Gómez says “the FBI leadership should appeal to the mutual trust necessary to combat criminal activities, such as the immediate arrest and judicial prosecution of all terrorists of Cuban origin who live freely and with impunity in Miami under the protection of the FBI itself. They have attempted and killed many innocent people over many years, in a campaign of state terrorism sponsored by successive U.S. governments. They targeted the Cuban people and those of us who live in the United States and whom we have supported a more reasonable policy between both peoples and governments, such as the one initiated by President Barack Obama.”

It would have been good for Gomez to point out that the objective of all fifteen presidents of the United States since the triumph of the Cuban revolution, including Obama, has been to liquidate the example of effective independence and socialism that is Cuba. Of them all, Trump’s government is the one that contributes the least to those perverse imperialist ends, because he exposes it so brazenly.


Categories: News for progressives

Proof of Life: Self-Abnegation Amongst the Post-Colonial Pirates of Somalia

Fri, 2018-10-12 15:18

In April 2010, ten young Somali pirates were caught trying to hijack the Taipan, a German cargo ship, some 500 miles off the coast of Somalia.  They were returned to Germany for trial, which took place in Hamburg the following year. Michael Scott Moore, covering the trial for Der Spiegel at the time, noted the almost ‘farcical’ quality of the proceedings–no one had been tried in Germany before for piracy, raising new legal questions; the pirates came from a country with no working centralized government, so background information on the pirates couldn’t readily be obtained; and, the ages of the defendants were impossible to determine, leading to their being tried as juveniles. Their defense lawyer seemed to liken the pirates to joy-riding car thieves–wayward kids from a broken home–who needed a lift up, rather than internment in a “Guantanamo at sea,” such as they would have faced in an American trial. Germany, largely accommodating to immigrants, chose the more humane route.

Moore was piqued by the unanswered questions of the young pirates’ lives and soon thereafter decided to venture to the village of one of the defendants, to seek unknown truths and gain journalistic perspective. “The rise of modern pirates buzzing off Somalia,” he writes in his memoir, “was an example of entropy in my lifetime, and it seemed important to know why there were pirates at all.” As is often the case with any trek into ‘the unknown interior’ of a mystery, shit happens: Moore got kidnapped by Somalis in the early days of his investigative journey and stayed with his captors for 977 days.  The Desert and the Sea is the memoir that describes that experience.  

In Somalia, captive Moore is immersed in the every-man-for-himself desperation of ordinary people living in a failed state–a place of droughts, warring clans, and post-colonial insurgencies of power-grabbing Islamists battling Western forces (think: “Black Hawk Down”)–which informs the background mindscape of Moore’s ‘journalistic’ memoir. This wild west milieu has changed little in the years since his release.  In a recent piece, Dr. Fikrejesus Amahazion, an Assistant Professor at the National College of Arts and Social Sciences in neighboring Eritrea, writes of the latest doings in Somalia, “Despite years of international efforts and billions of dollars spent, sustainable peace, security, and stability remain elusive in Somalia….Structural marginalization and exclusion, divisive politics, clan rivalries and disputes, displacement, persecution, endemic poverty, inequality, rampant corruption, a dire lack of transparency and accountability, the absence of basic economic infrastructure, a lack of social services, and unemployment, particularly among youth, are significant grievances that extremists [such as al-Shabab] are often able to tap into and exploit.”  

While Moore manages to stay out of the hands of al-Shabab during his tenure with pirates (although there is speculation he will be sold to the Islamic terrorists), he and other wayward tourists, as well as kidnapped ships’ crews, come to intimately understand what it’s like to be property–a ‘normalized’ commodity in a human trafficking market.  Writes Moore, “Piracy was just a brutal form of trade, and it flourished where jobs were scarce, in modern Somalia as well as the colonial United States.” (At one point, Moore, as others have, discusses the importance of American piracy in the movement toward democracy.) But, just as importantly, his long captivity at the hands of khat-chewing, Kalashnikov-wielding pirates forces him to come to terms with his own presumptuous humanity and suicidal ideation.  Turns out, when you think about it, it’s a jungle in there.

Moore, the journalist, takes in and ‘objectively’ analyzes his environs and the ineluctable situation he’s in; there is an aspect of ‘dry reporting’ that frames the subjective experience he endures.  A leitmotif of the memoir is Moore’s coming to terms with his deeply unhappy father’s suicide–his father’s motives fueled by alcoholism and self-abnegation, and his own propensity for self-destructive thinking; coming to Somalia seems to him, after a while, to be a good example.  “My real mistake had been coming to Somalia at all,” he writes. “What did I think I would find around here? Pirates who trusted writers? Truth?” Instead, he moves toward an epipahny, repeating to himself, like a mantra, “You have made a mistake. Mistakes are human.”

To fill in the long days of having little to do but think, Moore settles in to long considerations of great thinkers–Epictetus, Nietzsche, Einstein–and mental exercises: “For me these afternoons were long and terrifying. The heat mounted; the flies lost their minds….My heart knocked  against my sternum and I lay rigid, one arm over my face, just trying to keep the floor-grimed chains off my mattress, while in my head I recited the capitals of all fifty American states. When that was done, I tried to name all of Saul Bellow’s novels in order. Then Dylan albums. Then Faulkner.”

Naturally, religion, especially Islam, figures into his daily thinking, too.  For instance, the title of the book, “The Desert and the Sea,” is a derived from a Ryszard Kapuscinski passage in Travels with Herodotus  which refers to two kinds of Islam–one a “war-like, nomadic”  desert-bound Islam, reflected, in say, the Sharia-driven authoritarianism of Sunni adherents; the other reflective of a more open, mercantile Islam, perhaps more reflective of Sh’ia followers. This is a crucial distinction for Moore, as his capture by, say, al-Shabab, would have been a much more brutal experience than it proved to be with his more open market-driven kidnappers, who saw him as a way of making a buck ($20 million ransom) and rarely directly threatened physical harm. Although, tension builds as the ransom demands are impossible to meet after about 900 days, and he is told he “would be sold like chattel to the jihadist beasts [al-Shabab].”

Crucial to his mental survival was the role of Moore’s mother, back in Los Angeles, who received the ransom demand and had to deal with rounding up the cash. In an interesting narrative contrast, as Moore is getting to become accustomed to the limited humanity of the pirates’ treatment of him and others, sharing meals, making sure he has writing supplies, listening to Somali folk music together, and watching pirated videos together (“Captain Phillips” was a pirate favorite) on their cell phones, he details the frequent visits by FBI agents to his mother. “Whenever the FBI paid a visit, she served coffee and bagels, and whenever a meeting or a phone call had been scheduled in advance, she ordered sandwiches. Later she baked banana bread and cookies. She’d started to think of the agents as surrogate family.”  Together, they watch her son’s proof of life videos, commenting on the staged quality of the proceedings, and generally keeping hope afloat.

 Eventually, the ransom is reduced to $1.5 million and Moore is released–physically, and emotionally from his world-weary Dad’s ghostlike presence in his mind: “Dad’s disillusion sounded like bare-knuckled realism, but it proved to be a stubborn chemical ignorance of a beauty that surrounded us every day.”  This new attitude of release from his father seems to be the first and perhaps most important example of a new philosophy evolving from his captivity. In the end, he sides with the relativism of Albert Einstein: “…‘The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self,’ he wrote in a letter in 1934….” It seems a more productive take on his father’s fatal self-abnegation.

Despite his liberation, Moore’s transition back to the ‘real’ world proves troublesome.  “I was in a fugue state,” he writes, “dissociated from my old life and self even while I returned to it. I had trouble believing they were real.” It was a dissociation no doubt amplified by a return to a world now-conditioned by Internet dependency, especially the addiction to the sometimes-surreal social media world–for instance, recently, on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Moore relates how he was later contacted on Facebook by one of his captors, who updates him on the doings of his kidnappers, almost like two pals getting together for a beer and catch-up. Moore rejects this notion, never forgetting the ordeal with its suffering and murders, but it’s clear he accepts the humanity of the dialogue–he has continued the correspondence, maybe mapping it through his journalistic filters, and it aligns with his original desire, during the Hamburg trial of Somalis, with his desire to understand what makes pirates tick.

A side note: I found the audiobook version of The Desert and the Sea more engaging than the text version.  Corey Snow does an outstanding job narrating the audio version, opening up the spaces of captivity, the boring routines, the pithy observations; pirate characterizations come to life in a well-modulated textual performance, and the narrative voice seems just the right age for the author.

Categories: News for progressives

Lynching Journalists

Fri, 2018-10-12 14:48

Washington Post Global Opinions correspondent, Jamal Khashoggi, who is Saudi, entered his country’s consulate in Istanbul Tuesday of last week and hasn’t been seen since. Worse, Turkish officials say that Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate, his body dismembered, and then sneaked out of the building—lynched, you might say, and then disappeared, instead of hanged from a tree. The journalist had written articles critical of his country’s young leader, Mohammad bin Salman, the 33-year-old crown prince, who considers himself something of a liberal or at least as a reformer. How ironic that this barbarian act happened in Turkey, where in recent years more journalists have disappeared than in any other country (245 as of earlier this year, though, far as we know, none have been murdered).

Almost simultaneously with the incident in Istanbul, a 30-year-old Bulgarian journalist, Viktoria Marinova, was brutally raped and killed in Ruse, in the northeast of the country, where she was employed as a TV commentator. She had been a political investigator. Nor was she the only European journalist murdered during the past year. Daphne Caruana Galizia, similarly reporting on political issues (corruption in the government), was killed in Malta by a car bomb. And Jan Kuciak, a Slovakian journalist also working on government corruption, was shot and killed along with his fiancée.

Killing journalists has become a growth industry. In April, Jason Rezaian (another Global Opinions writer for the Washington Post, who was held captive in Iran for 544 days) described the deaths of journalists in Nicaragua, India, Brazil and Mexico during the past year. He cites President Rodrigo Duterte, of the Philippines, as saying, “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son-of-a-bitch.” In words, perhaps less colorful, Donald Trump has unloaded on journalists (and the fake media) ever since he became president. It’s surprising that an American journalist in our country hasn’t been murdered for criticizing this administration (the killing in June of five journalists who worked at the Capital Gazette, in Annapolis, MD, although horrible, falls into a slightly different category: the killer had a lengthy feud with the paper).

Still—and this is especially true in our country—opinions considered contrary to one’s own have led to a resurgence of death threats, often directed at people in the opposite political camp. I attribute the rise of such threats as one of the results of President Trump’s ugly bombast, statements made at his political rallies seemingly making such violence—beat the hell out of him—permissible. Think of Trump’s on-going diatribe against immigrants and minorities. We all know that hate crimes against minorities (or perceived minorities) have dramatically increased. So much to be thankful for.

The worrisome escalation of death threats has been most visible during the past couple of weeks during the hearings involving Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. We listened in outrage to Dr. Christine Blassey Ford’s account of what happened to her after her accusation of Judge Kavanaugh became public. She and her family have had to move out of their home because of death threats. In all fairness to Kavanaugh, I suspect that he and his family have also experienced similar death threats. I know from my reading in the past couple of years that death threats against many, many people (such as the Parkland Florida students who have spoken in favor of gun control) are now commonplace. You don’t like someone, well, threaten to kill them. We also know that most threats are hollow statements, but if one is made against you, you had better take it seriously. So disrupt you and your family’s life and destabilize your finances by paying for security.

I began by writing about journalists dying from despicable violence in many parts of the world and then segued to the increasing number of death threats that people thrown into the limelight have been experiencing in America. Both are disgusting, but the latter, I suspect, is likely to be more benign than the former. (One famous person’s recent account of his death threats described the fractured writing in those messages, implying a rather minimal educational background of the person making the threat.) Many of them may be letting off steam, pumping themselves up, or so they believe.

This cannot be said of people who kill journalists or hire professionals to do their dirty work. Their power has been threatened, their wrongdoings exposed, their corrupt accusation of wealth curtailed. Hence, the blatant violence (rape, torture, physical dismemberment) against others. I regard these acts (because there is no attempt to cover them up) as today’s lynchings. Warnings. Stop writing, or you will be next.

It’s journalism that is being decapitated.

Categories: News for progressives

Faking It: the Return of Orson Welles

Fri, 2018-10-12 14:46

Still from “The Other Side of the Wind.”

Orson Welles’ spectral return to the screen, ingeniously in posthumous mode, should have come as a comfort to the magicians skilled in the arts of trickery.  Beyond the grave, he seems to be exerting a continuing influence, with his film, The Other Side of the Wind making its debut after 48 torrid years at the Telluride Film Festival.  His delight for illusion and the magical manipulations of the camera would not have been out of place in the anxiety filled age mistakenly called the “post-truth” era.

Starting momentously grand and at summit greatness in Citizen Kane, and heading low into financial difficulty and stuttering projects, his genius was as prodigious as his luck was absent.  His aptitude in mastering the brutish nature of the directing set was unquestioned – except in Hollywood.  Throughout he was plagued by the curse that money has over the genius of expression. Power and control do not necessarily entail backing and profits – for Welles, it was the sheer sense of doing something, the need to run multiple projects that might never have seen the light of day.  His mind, and application, proved inscrutably errant.

What Welles did master, to an extent, was the degree of fakery, creating a world of illusion that refuses to date.  The word “fake” has a certain pejorative quality, having been further stained by its users in the age of Donald J. Trump, often in connection with that other unreliable companion, “news”.  But Welles managed to give it a boost of respectable guile, a teasing sense of about how other realities might be seen. Now, to challenge such ways of seeing by claiming them to be fake would either make you a mental patient or a US president.  For Welles, it was a cinematic experiment or a broadcasting contrivance, an effort to alter the senses and entertain.

Welles could hardly have been despondent about this age, he being the finest exponent of the values of fakery.  He would have gotten down to work, tyrannically engaged with his staff in producing a fine work on the odiously named “post-truth world” (since when was there a fully truthful world in any case, one pulsating with verity?).

His most delightful ribbings would have now been subsumed under such tags as misinformation, crowned by the meaningless nature of fake news.  Could he have gotten away with the radio announcement made on October 30, 1938 that extra-terrestrials had, in fact, landed on earth and attacked it with single minded fury?  Any empanelled jury would have to ponder.

The occasion is worth retelling. Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, and the Mercury Theatre group, featured, along with an updated version of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.  National radio supplied the thrilling medium and the delivery.  “The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the air in the ‘War of the Worlds’ by H.G. Wells.”  A mild mannered, sensible start.

Then came the Welles’ introduction, followed by a weather report.  The announcer duly took listeners to “the Meridian Room in the Hotel Park Plaza in downtown New York, where you will be entertained by the music of Ramon Raquello and his orchestra.” Cue the music, then a report that “Professor Farrell of the Mount Jennings Observatory, Chicago, Ill” had noted “explosions of incandescent gas, occurring at regular intervals on the planet Mars.”  Re-cue the music, then an interruption that a meteor had found its way into a farmer’s field in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.

The Martians had purportedly arrived.  Observers were on hand.  Emerging from a metallic cylinder was a creature “wriggling out of the shadow like a grey snake. Now here’s another one and another one and another one.”  There were unsettling notes of “wet leather”; the faces were “indescribable”. “The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent.”  Then the shooting commenced: “heat-ray” weapons trained on the humans at the site.  Some 7,000 National Guardsmen were vaporised. The US military were deployed.  Poisonous gas followed in retaliation.

The hoax had seemingly had its dastardly effect, though the extent of it remains disputed.  Tim Crook, in his discussion on the psychological potency of radio, suggested that the newspapers had embellished the account, largely on account of the threat posed to their estate by the emergence of radio.  “It does not appear that anyone died as a result, but listeners were treated for shock, hysteria and heart attacks.” Welles came to a similar conclusion: paper headlines reporting lawsuits running into $12 million were a consequence of envy occasioned by threat posed by radio advertising.

One myth speaks of thousands of New Yorkers speeding from their homes in deluded panic, their minds impregnated by the prospective deeds of extra-terrestrial terror.  Ben Gross of the New York Daily News recalled in his memoir a scene of New York’s streets: there was a state of near total desertion that October in 1938.

The Federal Communications Commission, trapped between the remit of enforcing regulations ensuring proper use of the airways for such things as “promoting safety of life and property” yet also fostering “artistic, informational and cultural needs” conducted an investigation into the affair. It found the laws of the United States unbroken, regulations intact. This was a fine thing, given the famous assertion by US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in Schenck v United States (1919) that, “The most stringent protection of free speech should not protect a man in falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a theatre and causing panic.”

The wily Welles, ever the tease, escaped ruination and duly went on to make Citizen Kane.  “We can only suppose,” he reflected on being informed that the FCC would investigate the episode, “that the special nature of radio, which is often heard in fragments, or in parts disconnected from the whole, had led to this misunderstanding.”  And in this, we have the precursor to mass information and disconnection; between selected parts and the baffling whole; the Internet and social media dissemination; Trump tweeting at midnight and digital trolls roaming around the clock; the misinformation merchants and the mercenaries of trickery.

At the release of The Other Side of the Wind, Peter Bogdanovich struck a melancholic note on the Palm Theatre stage. “It’s sad because Orson’s not here to see it.”  But then came a rueful qualifier.  “Or maybe he is.”


Categories: News for progressives

On Noah’s Curse

Fri, 2018-10-12 14:45

After the great deluge had receded, Noah became a farmer and  also made wine. This delicious product had to be sampled once in a while, and overdoing the sampling can make one drunk. So, there he was lying in his tent, intoxicated, naked and fast asleep, when his son, poor Ham, happened upon him  incidentally, or perhaps even by God’s will. Obviously back in those days, it was an unforgivable transgression to see one’s father’s bareness. So, Ham reports to his brothers Shem and Japheth about their old man’s circumstances. And these two guys mercifully remedy the situation in their way. They approach Noah walking backwards, and they cover him with a piece of cloth.

The next day when Noah had sobered up and learned about his misadventure, he cursed Ham, oops, excuse me, rather Ham’s son Canaan, the patriarch of the Canaanites, with a horrible consequence: in eternity will he (they) be the servant(s) of Shem and Japheth.

The revealed word of God? No, thank you!

Interpretation: Bible scholars suggest that after their return from the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century BC, simultaneously with reconstructing the Jewish state and writing down the Torah for the first time, a state doctrine was to be developed. Among other things,the terrible cruelties committed during the conquest of the ”Promised Land” under Joshua, the judges and the kings had to be justified: Noah’s curse was only one of many fiats and orders God Yahweh visited on the Israelites. These poor wretches had no choice but to obey Yahweh’s will if they did not want to fall victim to his wrath. Thus to eradicate or enslave the Canaanites was by no means a despicable war crime, rather it was the heroic execution of God’s will. – And to add on a cynical accent, even today, there are fundamentalist television – evangelists, particularly in the Bible belt states, who do not shy away from justifying the enslavement of the Afro – Americans with the alleged fact that Ham was the forefather of the Black Africans. 

In addition to the moral grounds, for instance Noah’s (God’s?) curse on the totally innocent Canaan, there is enough evidence to say that the story of Noah’s ark was not derived from divine sources. Technically contemplated, it is extremely unlikely, that the entire fauna of the Earth could have found shelter in the floating abode, including the fodder for the approximately 200 days they had to stay there. Also, that Noah was able to build such a huge ship in the available time span is very hard to imagine, not to question the mere act in the first place. And if he had supernatural, divine assistance, that very fact would have been mentioned in the biblical text for sure.

The dimensions of the Ark are stated in cubits: length 300, width 50, height 30. With the average cubit’s metric equivalent assumed at 0.5 meter, its overall volume amounts to 56250 cubic meters. Furthermore if we guessed that the draught was about half the height, then we would have to imagine a stately ocean liner of  28000 tons displacement, about half the size of the ill-fated Titanic. There are people who believe in the literary authenticity of all biblical texts and driven by this conviction, they calculate mathematically that all the animals found sufficient space for their accommodation in Noah’s Ark, which we can leave undecided. But that Noah was able to gather all those animals and birds within seven days, according to Genesis 7, verses 4 & 10, nobody with common sense can take seriously. All the fleets in our modern days combined could not accomplish this master piece of logistics in such a short period of time, if at all. Think about the marsupials of Australia, the sloths, Jaguars, monkeys and snakes from Amazonia, the polar bears and moose in the arctic, the elephants, zebras, lions and ostriches from Africa, the tigers, wolves, camels and cobras in Asia, not to mention any flying birds. Even if the dry earth had been one vast, coherent continent (Pangaea was gone 100 Million years before), all the wildlife catchers and animal haulers of our modern world would not be able to pull off this feat. And the biblical text does not suggest any divine, supernatural intervention. But these “gaps” do not compromise the faith of the word for word believers. They can be filled with the necessary assumptions, i.e. God took care of the logistics; all it takes is humility and good will. 

It is so simple and marvelous!

Categories: News for progressives

Tenor Madness: Kavanaugh Hearings as Opera “Boof”

Fri, 2018-10-12 14:10

Grassley the baritone bombed. No bouquets were thrown at the feet of contralto Feinstein, the prima donna of mediocrity. Mezzo Murkowski chewed the scenario, bleated sparsely, then scuttled into the wings to a chorus of boos. Collins cracked in her coloratura.

It was the two tenors who stole the show.

Brett Kavanaugh relished his Wagnerian stretches as hero to half-his-audience-plus-one, anti-hero to the rest. Rather than the echo chamber of the Supreme Court, it is the limelight he craves. Throughout the epic simulcast role of a lifetime he stayed high in his register, throttling the skeins of stratospheric notes with terrifying tenacity. Sotto voceis not his forte.

Not to be outdone on the biggest stage (in terms of market share) east of La Scala and west of the Hollywood Bowl, Lindsey Graham hit his mark, commandeered the mike and made every high C sting. His rage aria powered by million-dollar vocal cords that, had he followed his true desires, would have landed him at the Met not in the U. S. Senate.

Throughout the spectacle one thought of Verdi’s Don Carlos. An auto-da-féon Capitol Hill seemed inevitable—and still does. The hearing and the stilted drama of the vote that followed have provided rich material for directors keen to update the classics to the shrill present: a softer, gentler Grand Inquisitor from Don Carlosdone as sex crimes prosecutor Rachel Mitchel; a cryogenic Orrin Hatch as the Duke of Llerma; a bumbling Patrick Leahy as Rodrigo; bel canto Brett in the title role, hopelessly in love with his step-mother and ready to show it …

So overheated was the bizarre performance of the two tenors, Kavanaugh and Graham—and so byzantine that of the supporting cast—that one naturally thought of grand opera. Yet perhaps the greatest composer for the strident, sanctimonious, unhinged, and utterly thrilling tenor voice was Johann Sebastian Bach. To deliver his demanding lines with the requisite shape, accuracy and emphasis is one of the most arduous tasks in music. Kavanaugh accomplished the analogous feat with his string of aggrieved arias.

Listen to Bach’s bone-chilling aria “Schweig, schweig nur, taumelnde Vernunft!” from a cantata he composed in 1724 for a mid-summer church service in Leipzig and you can practically hear Kavanaugh ripping to the next page of his script, his scowl set, his lips quivering, his voice electric with outrage.

The jerks and heaves of the instrumental introduction of slashing strings anticipate the tenor entry with molten fury: the voice cannot restrain itself, entering even before the violins have finished and arrived at their cadence.  This is a male voice that can’t wait to testify, to shout down his accusers:

“Be silent, just silent, reeling reason!
Do not say: the righteous are lost;
The cross has only given them birth again.”

These words indignantly elaborate on the warnings issued by Jesus in the Sermon of the Mount, the Gospel reading for the Sunday on which the cantata was performed, the eighth after Trinity: “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.”

The tenor will not yield, repeating his call for “silence” in octave jabs and angular leaps punctuated by short, exasperated pauses. Defying his own gag order, it is his ardent singing that fills the void and quashes dissent. Reasoned inquiry is the enemy: faith not fact promises redemption. In depicting the image of lurching and staggering reason, Bach has the vocal line hesitate and doubt, circling back on itself in disorienting figures and feints. After these vexations, the music brightens with the prospect of redemption for believers.  Once reason has been bludgeoned into submission the door to salvation opens.

The door into the inner sanctum of American justice, too.

A frequent concept invoked across Bach’s oeuvre of some 200 church cantatas is that of “Gerechtigkeit”— Justice. As in, the God of. Many times in Bach’s sacred music the Almighty is often depicted as a Judge, harsh and unforgiving. Bach is stupendous at retribution; Kavanaugh will be, too.

For the first Sunday after New Year, 1724—a time of reappraisals and beginning again—Bach produced “Schau lieber Gott, wie meine Feinde” (BWV 153), a musical reflection on the Slaughter of the Innocents. Rather than a fully-fledged chorale fantasy to start the work, Bach went easy on his choristers and filled out the cantata with simpler, hymn-like harmonizations. Unusually, one of these begins the piece:

“See, dear God, how my enemies,
With whom I must constantly battle,
Are so deceitful and so powerful,
That they easily oppress me!
Lord, where Your grace does not sustain me,
The devil, flesh, and the world can
Easily plunge me into misfortune.”

Soon after this placidly expressed persecution complex is aired, the voice of God promises in a bass aria to remain with the oppressed and protect him with “the right hand of his justice.”

But the alleged victim is not calmed by these pronouncements, and instead whips himself up into a tenor frenzy in the aria “Stürmt nur, stürmt, ihr Trübsalwetter” that is pure Kavanaugh:

Rage, just rage, you storms of trouble,
Surge, you floods, over me!
Explode, you flames of affliction,
Over me at once,
Destroy, you enemies, my peace,
Yet God speaks comfortingly to me:
I am your refuge and rescuer.

The violins of the instrumental introduction curl upward in threatening vortices then break back on themselves. Against these whipping winds, the bass is obstinate at first, then seethes downward towards doom. The elements combine for a furious gust of octaves that is shattered by a bolt of lightning at the cadence. The music threatens to be pulled apart by its own force, even before the tenor starts his emergency alert announcement, bullying the tempest towards greater destruction, tossing and turning on the storm surge of his own victimhood.  Flames break out and these thrill him to apocalyptic, bravura bluster. Amidst these pyrotechnics a long note low in the register literally holds out “peace” and an eerie vision of the heavenly protector glows momentarily, then recedes beyond the horizon of the catastrophe as the storm renews its assault, the tenor shouting against its unjust wrath.

Kavanaugh donned his inky costume and gargled his voice back to readiness for select connoisseurs and complainants behind the closed doors of the Supreme Court just as God pounded Florida with the bipartisan fury of Hurricane Michael.  Ensconced in his stormproof marble fortress, the anti-heroic tenor would no longer be buffeted by the media frenzy.  He had landed high and dry and on the bench.  But that won’t stop him getting into character and hot under the judicial collar.  It won’t stop him from singing his heart out.

Categories: News for progressives

The Democrats and “Socialism”

Thu, 2018-10-11 16:05

Photo Source Neeta Lind | CC BY 2.0

One sign of the falling rate of intelligence in American public discourse is the wildly inaccurate use of political labels. Listening to the political noise, one might think the country is being overrun by a horde of “neo-fascists”, “fascists”, and bonafide “Nazis”.  In a world riddled with imagined threats to U.S. imperial power, new Hitlers (or aspiring Hitlers) abound, from Putin in Russia, Maduro in Venezuela, and whoever is ruling Iran.  President Trump himself has been characterized as the most recent reincarnation of Hitler.   That none of these images is even remotely connected to political reality hardly interrupts the continuing nonsense.

Fascistic tendencies are indeed visible at the summits of American power: unrestrained corporate interests, militarism, the surveillance state, imperialism, authoritarianism.  But that, on the whole, is not what politicians and media pundits have in mind when they attack people they hate – mostly ordinary right wingers – with overheated epithets drawn mindlessly from the past.  Nowadays the terms “fascism” and “Nazism” are lazily invoked simply as personal smears.

When it comes to socialism, matters are no better: references are typically detached from any recognizable historical meaning. Listening to FOX News and vocal Republicans, we learn that the Democratic party is being taken over by a wave of Marxists and socialists getting ready to overthrow capitalism.  Thanks to Bernie Sanders, whose membership in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is taken as a measure of oppositional zeal, we are told the Democrats have suddenly fallen under the spell of insurrectionary politics.  Recent Ben Shapiro broadcasts have been advertised as a “Warning Against the Socialist Threat”, triggered by the stunning primary victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for New York’s 14thCongressional seat.   Facing Democrat Beto O’Rourke to keep his Senate seat, Ted Cruz says he fears that Texas will be overrun by “freedom-hating socialists” in the event O’Rourke wins.   Many progressive Democrats, for their part, have embellished a “socialist” identity, including Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders, and Cynthia Nixon in her failed campaign against New York governor Andrew Cuomo.

Could the outsized fears of Shapiro and others – or, conversely, the hopes of DSA-style Democrats – make sense?  The prominence of Sanders and the breakthrough of Ocasio-Cortez have in fact boosted DSA fortunes and revitalized hopes for a left-leaning Democratic party that could, finally, break the conservative hold of the Clintonites. At present no fewer than 42 DSA-backed candidates are running for office in 20 states.   National membership has increased from about 6000 to more than 45,000, with additional surges expected.  Karl Marx has enjoyed something of a revival.  DSA folks often refer to each other as “comrades”.  Even the mainstream press, including the New York Times, has been duly impressed by the “socialist” upsurge – no doubt seen as yet another counter to the evil Trump.

Ocasio-Cortez received an astounding 58 percent of the vote against the fourth most powerful Democrat in Congress – a triumph celebrated by CNN, Time magazine, The Guardian, and other gatekeepers of political opinion. She ran as the more “inclusive” candidate, dependent on small individual donations and outspent 18 to one ($3.4 million to $194,000).  She embraced a strongly progressive agenda: medicare for all, enhanced minimum wage, liberalized immigration reforms, getting money out of politics, building a green infrastructure, gun control, a “peace economy”.  The campaign set out to reach those feeling disempowered, alienated, and dejected in the wake of Trump’s ascent to the White House, surpassing all expectations.

The leftward shift set in motion among Dems might indeed be worth celebrating.  American society badly needs these reforms, however truncated.  Two questions arise, however: to what extent can such reforms be achieved within the framework of an uncompromisingly capitalist party, and, even if achieved, in what sense would they resemble socialism as traditionally understood?

Judging from the lengthy European experience, some far-reaching reforms could be adopted without significantly altering the deeply-entrenched class and power relations of advanced capitalism.  The outcome would be social democracy of the sort that has for many decades prevailed within most European (and other industrialized) societies.  A more conservative American power elite has fiercely resisted any shift toward a broader social Keynesianism (expanded domestic spending), opting for greater reliance on military Keynesianism, but perhaps that could change if the Sandernistas and DSA manage to push the Dems further leftward.

Socialism, however, has always meant opposition to capitalism as a system of economic and political power, replacing corporate interests with public ownership leading to a more egalitarian class structure and expanded democratic governance.  Unfortunately, the modern landscape in Europe is bereft of anti-system movements and parties at a time when global capitalism (despite its severe contradictions) has solidified its ideological hold.  Leftist forces, generally fixated on electoral politics, have become appendages of the corporate-state system, reflected in the trajectory not only of postwar social democracy but of Communism, the Greens, and dispersed radical groups that surface and re-surface from time to time in such countries as Italy, France, Spain, and Germany.  Meanwhile, social Keynesianism itself has come under mounting siege in the face of heightened austerity policies.

In the U.S., “socialists” aligned with the DSA envision no future beyond an extensively reformed capitalist order – roughly equivalent to what European social democracy realized at its peak a few decades ago.   For the moment, their goal is to refashion the Democratic party – that is, push it leftward primarily through an electoral strategy.  The DSA program, according to official statements, anticipates a “humane social order based on popular control of resources and production, economic planning, equitable distribution, feminism, racial equality, and non-oppressive relationships”.   Entirely laudable, to be sure, but hardly rising to the concrete features of a distinctly socialist politics.  In other words, something considerably short of a Marxist avalanche.

Thus, even should the Sandernistas emerge as the “new face of the Democratic party”, problems loom.   The first of these goes to the heart of the matter: just how far can the Dems, fully embedded in the power structure, be pushed leftward?  The party is, after all, dominated by Wall Street, the warfare state, transnational corporations, and foreign entanglements that will not be easily pushed aside in favor of a “more humane social order”, especially as electoral politics ultimately dictates moderation and “centrism”.   Nowhere in Europe has the once-championed “parliamentary road to socialism” led to a break with the state-corporate order – and those oppositional movements and parties never had to confront a powerful military apparatus like that of imperial America.

The “democratic socialism” professed by Ocasio-Cortez and the DSA will in any event be subverted by the strategic decision to throw a preponderance of resources into the Democratic party.  Ocasio-Cortez believes the Dems can be transformed into a “party of the people”, but that is sheer delusion given a long history of futility not only for the Dems but for their European counterparts.  There is nothing in DSA literature or experience suggesting the organization is prepared to attack the main centers of American power, much less overturn capitalism.

“Democratic socialism” (often confused with social democracy) turns out to be a fiction where the all-consuming party of capital can so extensively influence the course of events.  This might be considered an ironclad truth gained from past experience.  The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, reflecting on the socialist impasse at the end of World War I, could write: “Illusion is the most tenacious weed in the collective consciousness.  History teaches but it has no pupils.”   The modes of exit from a narrow parliamentarism – factory councils, Leninist party, fascism – are well known to anyone paying close attention to the first half of twentieth-century history.  Exactly one century later, little has changed.

While Ocasio-Cortez speaks optimistically of a “peace economy”, the means of reaching such an alternative – involving abolition of the permanent war economy – remain vague.  More crucially, the general DSA program is notorious for its lack of critical attention to global politics.  This was even true of Sanders’ campaign.  A “new politics” does not systematically address the enormous challenges posed by U.S. militarism and imperialism, without which social reforms cannot go very far.   With the largest military-industrial apparatus in history still intact, what in the end could an American democratic socialism concretely promise?

In fact DSA leaders have been perfectly willing to live with the warfare-state behemoth, even as one of its main purposes is to combat leftist opposition wherever it seems threatening.  Sadly, the recent national outpouring of praise for John McCain was joined by both Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, who toasted the ultimate warmonger as true American hero.  Ocasio-Cortez added: “John McCain’s legacy represents an unparalleled example of human decency and American service.  I learned a lot about the power of humanity in government through his deep friendship with Senator Kennedy.”

Social democracy, anyone?  Whatever the electoral fate of Ocasio-Cortez and those other 41 DSA-endorsed candidates, Ben Shapiro and those those other anxious FOX pundits can relax:  socialist revolution is not on the horizon, while its historical agency would never be DSA (or the Dems) in any case.  For those DSA activists still genuinely committed to democratic socialism, the ensemble of structural and ideological obstacles posed by the grand party of neoliberal globalization and imperialism is sure to be insurmountable.

Categories: News for progressives

The Molestation of Earth

Thu, 2018-10-11 15:58

Photo Source Sam Beebe | CC BY 2.0

This past year’s reckoning against powerful men in the United States whose alleged abuses have been reported on nearly every day by the corporate media has made me reflect on a performance by artist Marina Abramovic done in 1974. Filmed on camera, she stood in a room for six hours and allowed the audience to do anything they wanted to do to her body without resistance. It was a piece that left me shaken. As the hours progressed the artist endured humiliation, torture and even near death as individuals, mostly men, cut off her clothes, groped her and even made her point a loaded gun at her neck.

Of the experience Abramovic observed:

“This work reveals something terrible about humanity. It shows how fast a person can hurt you under favorable circumstances. It shows how easy it is to dehumanize a person who does not fight, who does not defend himself. It shows that if he provides the stage, the majority of ‘normal’ people, apparently can become truly violent.”

The performance piece was a powerful display of the lengths human beings, particularly men, will go to degrade, violate and even mutilate other human beings, particularly women, whom they view as powerless or inferior. This had nothing to do with a harmless, consensual fetishism, it was about the ruthless and merciless patriarchal power that pervades our culture. And I found it to have even broader implications. On some level it exposed a latent animus on a micro-scale that echoes how most women and children are treated day in, day out largely throughout the global south thanks to a system of exploitation imposed by the global north. But it also speaks to the way industrial capitalism has long treated the living earth which is often portrayed as a mother and as “not fighting back” against her assailants

The West’s relationship with nature and the “wilds” has always been problematic at best. It has long been viewed as something to be feared, then conquered, then subdued and exploited. Where its pagan progenitors generally celebrated the divine feminine of Gaia, patriarchal Christian Europe mostly denigrated it. Feminine sexuality, often conflated with nature, was also painted in a fiendish way giving rise to puritanical repression, persecution and witch trials. Those women who allegedly “communed” with nature were cast in a diabolical light and were subjected to the most heinous forms of torture and execution imaginable. Then, thanks to the greed of the feudalistic elite and the industrial revolution, capitalism took this animus toward nature and women to another level: commodification.

I believe it was at this point when humanity started on its modern path toward a nihilistic psychological severance from the natural world. This is demonstrable by the compartmentalization of the biosphere by government and business entities as simply another category or issue of discussion. After centuries of conditioning by the moneyed powerful this disconnect has so deeply corrupted the collective psyche of the global north that to call it out is viewed as preposterous to most and heresy to many. Yet it underpins every societal problem from mass shootings and drug addiction, to racism and misogyny, to political corruption, genocide and war. Indeed, the commodification of the planet by the ownership class is an existential threat, rapidly unwinding the entire lifeweb on which we rely.

Abramovic’s performance art in 1974 stands as a striking example of our pathological culture of detachment in that it shows us how ordinary human beings are capable of depravity and violence when they spurn meaningful connection with the “other.” It also demonstrates how misogyny and sexism work as functions of this pathological detachment. But it is perhaps best understood as a prophetic warning for our species.

As we enter headlong into the Sixth Mass Extinction, with biomass imperiled and global insect, bird, tree, coral and marine populations in a literal free fall, we do not have the luxury of ignoring our role in this violence anymore. As long as this paradigm persists there will be no substantive change in time to matter to our species or others in any consequential manner.

Like Abramovic, the earth herself continues to be molested and desecrated before our eyes by wealthy and powerful men. As a testament to the sickness of our age they commit most of their acts of violence, pillage and rape under full protection of the law. But their hubris and folly will not prevent her fighting back. And without a doubt, her reckoning will be like nothing any of us could ever imagine.

Categories: News for progressives

What is the United States of America?

Thu, 2018-10-11 15:58

Photo Source Bruce Berrien | CC BY 2.0

Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court despite being creditably accused of multiple sexual assaults and appearing to commit perjury. He will almost definitely make a number of decisions that serve to erode the accountability of big business in general and our Molester-In-Chief in particular.

All of this is deeply troubling and it’s been reassuring to see the level of outrage across the country. But there’s a deeper conflict going on here, one over a simple question: What is the United States of America?

Is the USA the home of the free? A settler colonial state? A country of equality? Or a place where Latina women earn only 54% of what white men do, where the state smiles on police killings of black people, and where a handful of billionaires control the majority of resources and poor people scrounge to survive?

Socialist organizers like myself have a set of answers to these questions. The USA is a patriarchal, colonial, oligarchic state built on dispossession of native peoples, on slavery, continuing exclusion of people of color, and on undervaluing, objectifying and profiting from women’s bodies. Gender privilege, race privilege and class privilege are the remnants of systems that were designed to enrich the very few. In meaningful ways, those systems have not ended.

Up until now, those answers were in opposition to the answers of the people in charge. Those people (almost all of them rich white men of both major political parties) looked at the same set of data and came to different conclusions.

“Colonialism committed many crimes, but that’s all in the past,” they might say. “And besides, Native people and the descendants of slaves have access to modern comforts now, that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Capitalist economics may not be great, but it’s doing much better than the Soviet Union did. Yes there are problems, but things are in general trending up. We have equality of opportunity if not outcome. Yes there are centuries of discrimination to overcome but we’re moving towards a more just and multicultural future. Maybe not as fast as you socialists would like.” (At this point in the discussion I’d usually feel a little condescending pat on the head.) “Women are already in the boardroom and other places of power. Free trade and globalization will make these divisions meaningless in the log run.”

My debates with neoliberal elites are not about values. We all agree (or pretend to agree) that liberty, equality and justice are worthy ideals. We also agree on the data – they are intent on spinning the facts, not denying them. But where I see a need for radical social transformation, they at most see a need for minor adjustments to a status quo that works pretty well. (For them at least.)

The Trump era – and this Kavanaugh moment – is in some ways similar. We don’t disagree on the facts. No one who saw Kavanaugh’s performance on October 4 should doubt that this person is capable of belligerence and using violence to get what he wants. In addition to the allegations of sexual assault, his own friends and colleagues say that this guy should not be anywhere near the Supreme Court. And Trump himself has bragged about sexual assault. Lindsey Graham,  Susan Collins and others are simply lying when they say that there’s no credible evidence against Kavanaugh. And they know it.

And therein lies the difference between Trumpist leaders and those of an earlier era. We don’t disagree on the facts and we don’t even disagree on the spin. Kavanaugh got away with it; they believe he has the right to. As does Trump. The USA means rich white men in charge – they should be; it’s their birthright. History has winners and losers. They are the winners. Trump avoided or evaded taxes? Of course he did, taxes are for chumps. What are you gonna do about it?

The arrogance and bravado is the same whether they are talking about sexual assault, tax avoidance or global warming.

When faced with this attitude, it is tempting to join the chorus from the centre decrying the evil men who don’t even aspire to democracy and equality. But did we really have more democracy and equality when those in the political center paid lip service to it?

Instead of joining the mainstream, the socialist left should be following grassroots movements who have long been calling for transformational change. That means challenging the system where it matters – minimum wages, maximum wages, worker-owned businesses, universal good quality free healthcare and education, cracking down on the tax avoiders who should be paying for these policies, and ending mass incarceration, the military-industrial complex, and corporate welfare. There’s no shortage of transformative policy proposals; there is a shortage of political will on all sides to take these projects forward.

Politics in the age of Trump means supporting movements that are building a new set of institutions within which transparency, accountability, democracy and justice are more important than the “rights” of the few to rule over the many. Those institutions need to be asshole-proof. Over-privileged men should not be able to co-opt and control those new institutions. Those working within and outside of the left of the Democratic party – like the Democratic Socialists of America – have their work cut out for them. Transformation needs to go mainstream and fast. As does accountability for the rich and powerful.

If other Democrats – those who occupy the current mainstream and see themselves as guardians of the status quo – are willing to be allies in that process they are more than welcome to pick up a picket sign, send emails to their lists and make phone calls like the rest of us.

Categories: News for progressives

Not All Quiet on South China Sea

Thu, 2018-10-11 15:56

Photo Source Official U.S. Navy Page | CC BY 2.0

The near collision last week between a US warship and a Chinese destroyer in the Spratlys was more than two naval powers playing cat and mouse on the high sea. The incident came hot on the heels of Trump and Pence accusing China of meddling in US midterm elections, America slapping sanctions on China’s defence procurement unit and its head for buying S-400 air defense system from Russia, wild allegations that China interned more than one million Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, and the intensifying Sino-American trade war.

Such vitriol coming thick and fast from Washington perturbs and angers Beijing, even though China was the preferred scapegoat and whipping boy in past American hustings. What is different this time round is the total and full-frontal assault on the People’s Republic since the National Security Strategy report in December last year named Beijing, along with Moscow, as the foremost threats and adversaries to Washington. Already, the venom and viciousness spouted by Washington against China in recent weeks have far surpassed that directed at Russia.

America’s Unipolar Moment was well and truly over when Russia regained Crimea after the US-orchestrated coup against the democratically-elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. Cold War 2.0 began in earnest when Moscow sent troops to Syria in September 2015 at the request of President Assad to help Damascus fight against ISIS terrorists sponsored, trained and armed by the US. The new Cold War expanded to include China late last year after the National Security Strategy report.

It’s against such backdrop and in such geopolitical context that the recent incident in the Spratlys should be viewed. China’s patience and tolerance with almost monthly freedom of navigation patrols or FONP by the American Navy has been tested to the limit. The sanctions imposed on China for purchase of S-400 and allegations of interference in American elections were the proverbial last straws that broke the camel’s back. Beijing considered it necessary to send a strong warning to the Pentagon to cease and desist.  Just as the mid-air collision between the American reconnaissance plane and a Chinese fighter jet near Hainan Island 17 years ago put a stop to US aerial reconnaissance near the Chinese southern coast, Beijing wanted to stop America’s incursion into the territorial waters of Chinese islands in South China Sea. Should the US Navy intrude again into 12 nautical miles of those islands, a collision or worse would be more than likely to occur.

The Pentagon took China’s utmost restraint in the face of provocations as weakness and stepped up its FONP in recent months. That has raised tension anew in South China Sea after the Philippines and Vietnam reached accommodation with China on disputed maritime claims in the region, and after Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China agreed on a draft Code of Conduct for South China Sea. Restoration of peace in the Western Pacific unsettles and vexes the Provocateur-in-Chief, who feels compelled to step into the breach, and exhorts Australia, Japan, the UK and France to do the same.

America has reportedly drawn up plans to stage a large-scale show of force in South China Sea after the near collision. China is certain to respond vigorously to such intimidation. If that were to come to pass, it would be déjà vu : Uncle Sam’s two aircraft carriers and numerous warships were strutting in South China Sea immediately before and after the issue of Hague arbitral rulings on maritime disputes between China and the Philippines in July 2016. China responded to the threat by despatching all its three naval fleets to the Paracels for the biggest military drill ever. The upshot was the American armada fled with their tails between their legs. Should the US re-enact the war theater of the absurd, the outcome would be no different this time. Two years on, China’s Navy has put into service more submarines, battleships and anti-ship missiles including the “carrier killer” DF-21D missiles, not to mention China’s first flattop Liaoning is now combat-ready.

Indeed, as Mao Zedong said decades earlier, America is just a paper tiger.  For the US to take on China in South China Sea would be biting off more than they can chew. Several computer simulations by the Pentagon have shown that the US Navy would sustain heavy losses in a confrontation with China in those waters.

It goes without saying that Washington isn’t the least interested in the barren rocks in South China Sea. The US Seventh Fleet is there to contain and intimidate  China, together with more than 200 military bases in Japan, South Korea and Guam. Even though Pentagon know full well they enjoy no clear advantage in a hot war with China in South China Sea, they still haven’t tired of the game of bluff and one-upmanship. China has had enough of the game, and is ready to call America’s bluff. If accidents happen as a result, there is no love lost.

Categories: News for progressives

On the Use and Abuse of Rage for Life

Thu, 2018-10-11 15:52

Photo by Nathaniel St. Clair

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” How much truer is that statement now than in 1776! We’re poised on the precipice, peering over into the crocodile pit below, where fascists swarm and writhe in sanguinary anticipation. Humanity is on the verge of losing its footing and plunging headfirst into the open maw of reptilian sadism. Where you stand, in this climactic moment of history, determines whether you are reptile or hominid.

We know where the majority of the ruling class stands, in their contempt for the poor, for the future, for democracy, the working class, the natural environment, the impartial rule of law, social cooperation, community, and a rational public discourse: they’re on the side of the reptiles. Whether it’s the boorish, amoral mediocrity of a Brett Kavanaugh, the rank hypocrisy of a Lindsey Graham or a Susan Collins, the naked cupidity of a Jeff Bezos, the proud Israel-fascism of a Chuck Schumer, the unfettered evil of a Mitch McConnell, or the undisguised corporatism of a Nancy Pelosi, a Barack Obama, and virtually every other politician on the national stage, the ruling class despises morality and law as an insolent threat to its unchecked power. Almost as offensive as these people’s lack of all principles besides unwavering loyalty to the rich is their aggressive mediocrity, their transparent conformism and cowardice. One is stunned at the gall of such insipid nonentities to believe themselves superior to the rest of us.

Even from the perspective of their intelligence, these elitists don’t exactly distinguish themselves. Consider one of the more honored and allegedly intellectual specimens: Anthony Kennedy. In what I suppose constituted an attempt at self-criticism, he recently offered the following rueful analysis of the state of the nation: “Perhaps we didn’t do too good a job teaching the importance of preserving democracy by an enlightened civic discourse. In the first part of this century we’re seeing the death and decline of democracy.” The lack of self-awareness takes your breath away. The man responsible for the supremely anti-democratic decisions in Bush v. Gore, Citizens United v. FEC, Shelby County v. Holder (which gutted voting protections for minorities), and Janus v. AFSCME (which by harming unions harms democracy), and who vacated his seat during the term of a president who prides himself on his authoritarianism and disrespect for the rule of law, is chagrined and apparently puzzled that democracy is declining.

Evidently the man is an imbecile, devoid of the capacity for self-critical reflection and empathic understanding of opposing arguments. And yet he’s an esteemed member of the ruling elite. (Precisely because, one might maliciously suggest, of his incapacity for critical thought.)

How maddening it is that such indoctrinated fools have power! It’s the blind leading the sighted!

Anyway, it’s for the rest of us to decide where we stand. Will we stand idly by, cynical and apathetic, while what’s left of society is dismantled, piece by piece, as a sacrificial offering to the great god Mammon? Or will we, fueled by sheer rage, stand up as one to the orgiastic misanthropy of our “leaders” and smash their petty little self-aggrandizing ambitions into dust? Will we march in the streets, occupy offices, organize mass strikes, take over workplaces, and confront our political “representatives” wherever they turn and wherever they are at every moment of the day? Or will we remain the domesticated dogs we’ve become under the long-term impact of corporatization, bureaucratization, and privatization?

In a time of universal atomization and a zombified-consumerist public life, the redemptive power of collective rage shouldn’t be scoffed at. It is in fact key to the recovery of our humanity, our de-robotization, and to the very survival of humanity itself. We should embrace our rage, cultivate it as though it were the tree of life, cherish it, for its power of both motivation and social transformation is prodigious.

The plaintive cries of establishmentarians to restore “civility” in the public sphere are laughably self-serving and shouldn’t be taken seriously. “You don’t call for incivility,” Megyn Kelly says in response to Representative Maxine Waters’ call for exactly that. Angry left-wing responses to Trumpism are “unacceptable,” according to Nancy Pelosi. “We’ve got to get to a point in our country,” says Cory Booker, “where we can talk to each other, where we are all seeking a more beloved community. And some of those tactics that people are advocating for, to me, don’t reflect that spirit.” And poor, long-suffering Sarah Sanders sent out a tweet of Solomonic wisdom after the owner of a restaurant had asked her to leave because of her noxious politics: “[The owner’s] actions say far more about her than about me. I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so.”

In short: let institutions operate as they’re supposed to, and don’t enforce accountability on public officials outside the electoral process. By all means vote us out of office if you don’t like our policies, but don’t make life uncomfortable for us.

The truth is that, from more than one perspective, the decline of civility or politeness in the “political dialogue” is a sign of progress, not retrogression. Politeness upholds the politics of “respectability,” which is the politics of conservatism, hierarchy, and the status quo. It coddles the powerful, even as they’re enacting substantivelyuncivil, which is to say destructive, policies aimed at everyone who lacks the money to buy influence. The essence of politics, which is but war by other means, has always been “incivility”—struggle over resources, competing agendas, bribery, corruption, the defense of privilege against the unprivileged and the latter’s struggle to wrest power from the former. There is a “beloved community” only in the milquetoast liberal imagination of a Cory Booker. The task for actual democrats is to bring the war to the doorstep of the privileged, to make them viscerally aware of the stakes involved, even if it means directly acquainting them with the wrath of the dispossessed. They’ve been sheltered far too long.

Even from the other side, the side of the reptiles, there is something to be said for Trumpian insult-flinging and demagoguery. At least it serves to take the fig leaf of high principles and public-spiritedness off the reactionary policies of almost fifty years. When Obama deported millions of immigrants and separated tens of thousands of families, it seemed as if no one cared. Now that Trump is doing it (arguably in even more sadistic ways), even the establishment media expresses outrage. The vulgarity and blatant evil, in short, tend to radicalize everyone who still has a vestige of moral consciousness in him. That’s useful.

Ultimately, though, it hardly needs arguing that Trumpian “incivility” is disastrous, e.g., in its promotion of white rage and white supremacy. But this is exactly why the time has come for the politics of extreme disruption, as expounded and defended in that classic of sociology Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail, by Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward.

The Usefulness of Violence

As Piven and Cloward show, mass social disruption and civil disobedience were essential to the victories of several major popular movements in the twentieth century: the 1930s’ unemployed workers movement (which indirectly brought forth the modern welfare state), the industrial workers movement that unionized the core of the economy, the civil rights movement, and the welfare rights movement of the 1960s that forced huge expansions of welfare programs. Even the scores of urban riots between 1964 and 1968 had a partially constructive impact. In the violent summer of 1967, for example, the Pentagon established a Civil Disturbance Task Force and the president established a Riot Commission. Seven months later, the commission called for “a massive and sustained commitment to action” to end poverty and racial discrimination. “Only days before,” the authors note, “in the State of the Union message, the president had announced legislative proposals for programs to train and hire the hardcore unemployed and to rebuild the cities.”

Without going into further detail, the lesson is already clear: not only “disruption” but even rioting can, potentially, be constructive, given the right political environment. This doesn’t mean riots ought to be encouraged or fomented, of course; they should be avoided at almost all costs. But when conditions become so desperate that waves of riots begin to break out, we shouldn’t too quickly condemn them (or the rioters) as hopelessly irresponsible, self-defeating, primitive, immoral, etc. The state’s immediate response might be repression, but its longer-term response might well be reform.

Other scholars go further than Piven and Cloward. Lance Hill, for instance, argues in The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement that the tactic of nonviolence wasn’t particularly successful in the civil rights movement. SNCC’s peaceful local organizing in the early 1960s didn’t bring about many real, tangible gains: months-long campaigns succeeded in registering minuscule numbers of voters. White power-structures, racism, and Klan violence were just too formidable. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “moral suasion,” his hope to shame Southern whites out of racism, failed utterly. So the strategy shifted to provoking white violence in the full view of television cameras—and, as with the Deacons for Defense in Louisiana, inflicting violence as well (mostly in self-defense). By 1964 things were threatening to get out of control, with riots and some white deaths, so the government was able to pass the Civil Rights Act—which it proceeded to enforce only sporadically, usually when compelled to by violence or its threat.

Nonviolence was a useful tactic for getting white liberal support, but without the threat of black violence always lurking in the background it would have accomplished little. “One of the great ironies of the civil rights movement,” Hill says, “was that black collective force did not simply enhance the bargaining power of the moderates; it was the very source of their power.”

In general, the point is that people have to act in such a way that authorities will feel compelled to give them concessions lest social hierarchies be threatened. In the long run, needless to say, the goal is to replace the authorities, to empower people who actually care about people. But in the meantime it’s necessary to extract concessions—by putting the fear of God, or, far more frighteningly, of revolution, into the heads of the thugs at the top. The credible threat of violence can, then, bring results, as history shows.

One last example, perhaps most apposite of all, is the near-chaos that engulfed the nation in the early 1930s, as unemployed workers took to the streets and violated the “rights of property” on an epic continental scale. As I’ve related elsewhere, the epidemic of protest, “eviction riots,” and thefts in, e.g., Chicago between 1930 and 1932 impelled Mayor Anton Cermak to repeatedly appeal in desperation to the federal government. “It would be cheaper,” he told Congress in early 1932, “to provide a loan of $152,000,000 to the City of Chicago, than to pay for the services of federal troops at a future date.” Because of the panic that widespread theft and violence induced in businessmen and government officials like Cermak, Herbert Hoover’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation began that summer to give loans to states for providing relief to the unemployed. A year later, Roosevelt’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration started distributing $500 million worth of grants to the states, followed by massive jobs programs, and the New Deal proceeded to alleviate the misery of tens of millions of Americans. All because of the power of collective rage and defiance.

In 2018, after the consolidation of a reactionary regime on the Supreme Court, it is long past the time for organized collective violations of “law and order” and “property rights.” It’s time to badger elected officials at every moment of every day, and to foster political polarization so that the ground caves in beneath the feet of the “centrists.” Conditions aren’t yet desperate enough for collective looting and rioting—since, after all, the economy is booming! (right?)—but it’s necessary at least, in the coming years, to stoke such fears in the minds of the rich. Monolithic, sustained, savage repression cannot work for long in a nominally democratic country like the U.S. Radical reforms are inevitable—if, that is, we rise up en masse.

A “Crisis of Legitimacy”

The one good thing about Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court is that it completes the delegitimization of the most undemocratic and typically reactionary institution at the federal level. Having an obvious perjurer, sexual harasser, overgrown frat boy, and overtly partisan hack on the Court strips away whatever patina of honor and impartial dignity that farcical institution still had. It has now lost all pretense of representing not only the will of the people but even the rule of law. This fact, too, will facilitate radicalization.

The entire political economy, and the august institutions that protect it, are being thrown into question.

The whiff of revolution is in the air, just starting to float, here and there, on the breezes blown back from the future into the present. The scent is positively revivifying.

It’s a good time to be angry. And to translate your anger into action.

Categories: News for progressives

U.S. Policy towards Immigrant Children is not Policy, it is Cruelty

Thu, 2018-10-11 15:51

Photo by Nathaniel St. Clair

On June 16 2015 Donald Trump announced his candidacy to the presidency and set the tone of his priorities. The elimination of illegal immigration to the United States, mainly from refugees fleeing from poverty and violence in Mexico and Central America was one. He didn’t say at the time that his policies included separating children from their parents, some of whom might never meet again.

Immigrants come to the U.S. from Mexico and Central America try to escape abject poverty and food insecurity in their own countries. In Mexico, 2016 data reveal that 52.3 percent of children over 11 years old live under the poverty line, and 9.7 percent live in extreme poverty. Among indigenous children, the figures are more startling. Near 80 percent of them live under the poverty line, and 18.9 percent show symptoms of chronic malnutrition, a reflection of their unhealthy quality of life.

In Guatemala, indigenous populations in rural areas are affected by lack of food and economic burden. Guatemalan children have the third-highest rate of stunting worldwide, an effect of chronic malnutrition. It is estimated that 49.8 percent of Guatemalan children are undernourished, a figure that increases to 69.5 percent in children living in rural, indigenous areas.

As in other Central American countries, stunting and malnutrition in Honduras children are major concerns, particularly for those living in rural areas. It is estimated that 75 percent of the Honduran population live in extreme poverty and 12 percent of households are food-insecure. In rural areas, chronic malnutrition can be as high as 48.5 percent.

In El Salvador, 16.3 percent of rural Salvadoran families cannot cover the costs of basic needs. 18.9 percent of children under age 5 experience chronic malnutrition, a figure that increases to 25.6 percent for those children living in rural areas. In addition, El Salvador is one of the countries with the highest presence of violent juvenile gangs called “maras”.

Nicaragua, which is going presently through a time of considerable social unrest, is considered one of the poorest countries in Latin America. Approximately 29 percent of households live in poverty, and 8.3 percent live in extreme poverty. The highest rates of child chronic malnutrition occur in what is called the northern Dry Corridor, with rates of almost 30 percent. According to the World Food Programme, 300,000 people are in need of food assistance.

Poverty in Central America is due to factors intrinsic to the countries themselves such as a modern form of feudalism, profound inequality, rampant government corruption, and to foreign interference. The U.S. has influenced their political and economic situation by helping to overturn democratic governments, as in Guatemala and Honduras, or supporting anti-democratic elements, as in the case of the death squads in El Salvador and the “contras” in Nicaragua.

This dismal picture of poverty and violence explains the desire of those people to seek better conditions for them and their children. “We leave our countries under threat. We leave behind our homes, our relatives, our friends. We are not criminals, we are people living in fear in our countries,” told Maritza Flores, a Salvadoran woman, to the BBC.

It is in this context that families come to the U.S., where children are separated in the border from their parents, in some cases permanently. More than 2,300 children were removed at the border between 5 May and 9 June 2018. Children are placed in shelters where they do not always receive the care they need. Separating from their parents produces considerable anguish and depression in those children, many of whom become violent and suffer psychological effects. The president of the American Academy of Pediatrics calls these policies “child abuse”.

President Donald Trump doesn’t hide his dislike for immigrants, both legal and illegal, and forgets the contributions immigrants have made, in all fields of activity, to the U.S. In the meantime, children become pawns for his policies on immigration. In his infantile view of the world, President Donald Trump doesn’t seem to realize that his decisions on immigrant children are not a policy, they are cruelty.

Categories: News for progressives

Is Twitter the New Der Stürmer? How the Ugandan Dictator Uses the App Against His Victims

Thu, 2018-10-11 15:47

The internet’s historic impact on global politics (think the Arab spring) has a dark side. While it enabled otherwise repressed people to communicate, organize and take political action, it is also used as an agent of repression.

During WWII there was a magazine whose sole purpose was to spread disinformation and run smear campaigns against people seen as enemies of the regime, particularly Jews but also Catholics and others. There were no limits to what could be published and it included pornography and deliberate libel. It was published by a Nazi Party insider.

Twitter has made it possible for the work of disinformation and character assassination to be carried out without the hassle and expense of publishing. The government of Uganda, short of money, has embraced Twitter as the vehicle of choice for its anti-opposition propaganda. Always repressive, it reached a new level when in August it found itself losing a by–election it arrested five members of parliament, killing the associate of one (having mistaken him for the MP) and severely tortured two. The public responded instantly with demonstrations which involved attempting to block roads with burning tyres. The government’s response was another wave of violence that lasted over a month.

Two members of parliament had to be hospitalized after being subjected to protracted torture by the Special Forces Command. Councillor Night Asara (Arua Hill) Saudha Madada and other women were kicked in the abdomen and were unable to walk for weeks afterwards. Asara was produced in court on trial for treason with vaginal bleeding.

In response, the European Parliament, British Parliament and Congress condemned the brutality visited by the State against the population. The Canadian government has withdrawn a promise to finance the national airline. The Inter-Parliamentary Union (a global organization of parliaments) has also acknowledged the torture as have Human Rights Watch and other bodies. This is mainly due to the global public outcry, fuelled by a twitter campaign to #FreeBobiWine.

The arrested MPs were released but the injured were rearrested when they arrived at the airport to travel to India and the United States for medical care. Francis Zaake, MP was removed from life support only weeks later. His hands and part of his ears were stripped of skin and flesh with pliers.

A raft of new accounts created in in the same month began following accounts using the hashtag. They were easily recognizable by the lack of avatars, lack of content and other signs obvious to Ugandans. Some evidence has surfaced showing the bots are part of an organized operation, probably using public funds. Then there were other seemingly genuine accounts, notably carrying photographs and information on tourism in Uganda and heaping praise on the government of President Museveni.

Their work is to amplify government propaganda denying that the MPs were tortured. Following the President’s denial, and his public commendation of the Special Forces Command for a job well done in apprehending the ‘violent’ MPs, the bots have kept up a barrage of tweets ridiculing the injured, accusing them of dissembling and making libelous allegations about them. There is a lot to be gained from towing the party line, and the bots will go to great lengths to catch the eye of the powers that be in order to advance their careers.

Odong Lomache is a case in point. Tweeting under his own name. @odonglomache is an aspirant member of parliament intending to stand in the 2021 elections for the Gulu Municipality seat. His time line is an homage to the regime. After birthday wishes for the president, he tweets, “Former President Milton Obote once said, A good Muganda is a dead one. Meaning; never trust a Muganda. Hon. @HEBobiwinewill NEVER be President of Uganda. Therefore, Hon. Robert Kyagulanyi, SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP.”

Anyone familiar with Uganda’s history will understand how incendiary that statement is. It was first made at a time when even the name Buganda had been erased from the map (and replaced with East Mengo and West Mengo.) Today, Buganda, having been reinstated after Obote’s fall, was again erased and maps published by Museveni’s government and replaced with ‘Central Region’ while all the other regions were labelled according to their ethnicity.

A number of tweeps of a cross–section of ethnicities reported Lomache’s hatespeech to Twitter Support. They also reported it to the police, sectarianism being a criminal offence in Uganda. Twitter took no action (neither did the police) and the offensive tweet stands, followed by further retweets of messages from President Museveni and his son, an army general.

Clearly, Lomache is hoping to be selected as the party candidate in 2021 and is doing everything necessary to establish himself as a die–hard, blind supporter of President Museveni.

Disinformation has come (in spite of the evidence and the findings of the UK and European Union missions which visited Bobi Wine in prison on 22 August 2018) from the highest level. The Principal Private Secretary to the President Molly Kamukama posted a photograph purportedly of the healthy happy Bobi Wine and his wife laughing on a plane and claimed that he had been acting when he left Entebbe airport in a wheelchair looking dejected. The photograph turned out to have been lifted from a Facebook where it had been posted two years earlier.

The most assiduously mean–spirited, bold and callous tweets are posted by a man under a pseudonym and disguised as a woman in his avatar. He has been revealed as Ian Musiimenta, an architect, one of the beneficiaries of a controversial State House scholarship fund intended to pay for the education of war orphans and other under–privileged children. As suspected, some recipients have become (or were) regime lackeys.

He first began the work of disinformation when he persecuted members of the opposition at the beginning of the last election cycle in 2016. She/he has continuously mocked the injured victims of the Arua atrocities, belittled their suffering, accused them of play–acting and questioned their intelligence.

Der Stürmer died a natural death in 1945. Going on current form, Twitter can be expected to grow from strength to strength. This is why it is important that it takes complaints more seriously, especially those of a potentially genocidal nature.

Categories: News for progressives

The Post-US Midterm Elections Bombshell

Thu, 2018-10-11 15:45

Liberals and the left were shocked by the Kavanaugh confirmation this past weekend. They may experience an even greater shock to their political consciousness should the Democrats fail to take the House in the upcoming midterm elections.

The traditional media has been promoting the message that a ‘blue wave’ will occur on November 9. Polls as evidence are being published. The Democratic Party is pushing the same theme, to turn out the vote. But these are the same sources that in 2016, on the eve of that election, predicted Trump would get only 15% of the popular vote and experience the worse defeat ever in a presidential election! Should we believe their forecasting ability has somehow radically improved this time around?

Anecdotal examples, in New York City and elsewhere in deep Democrat constituencies, are not sufficient evidence of such a ‘wave’. Especially given the apparent successes underway of Republic-Right Wing efforts to suppress voter turnout elsewhere, where House seats must be ‘turned’ for Democrats to achieve a majority in the House once again. (See, for example, Greg Palast’s most recent revelation of voting roll purging going on in Georgia, which is no doubt replicated in many other locales).

Should the Democrats clearly win enough seats to take over control of the US House of Representatives on November 9, liberals and progressives may be further disappointed. Democrat party leaders will most likely talk about impeachment, make some safe committee moves toward it, but do little to actually bring it about in the coming year. What they want is to keep that pot boiling and leverage it for 2020 elections. Such prevarication and timidity, so typical of Democrat leadership in recent decades, will almost certainly have the opposite intended effect on liberal-left voter consciousness. Voters will likely retreat from voting Democrat even more in 2020 should Democrat Party leaders merely ‘talk the talk’ but not walk.

Conversely, should the Dems fail to take the House a month from now, an even deeper awareness will settle in that the Democratic Party is incapable of winning again in 2020. Even fewer still may therefore turn out to vote next time, assisted by an even more aggressive Republican-Trump effort to deny the right to vote than already underway.

In short, a Democrat party failure to recover the US House of Representatives next month will have a debilitating effect on consciousness for the Democrat base that will no doubt reverberate down the road again. So too will a timid, token effort to proceed toward impeachment should the Democrats win next month.

But a takeover of the House by Democrats will result in an even greater, parallel consciousness bombshell—only this time on the right. Bannon, Breitbart, and their billionaire money bags (Mercers et. al.) are already preparing to organize massive grass roots demonstrations and protests to scare the Democrats into inaction so far as impeachment proceedings are concerned. And it won’t take much to achieve that retreat by Democrat party leaders.

The recent Kavanaugh affair is right now being leveraged by Trump and the far right to launch a further attack on civil liberties and 1st amendment rights of assembly and protest. Trump tweets are providing the verbal ‘green light’ to go ahead. Kavanaugh has become an organizational ‘cause celebre’ to mobilize the right to turn out their vote. The plans are then to take that mobilization one step further, however, after the midterm elections.

Plans are in the works for Bannon and friends for a mobilization of the right to continue post November 9, should the Dems take the House. They’re just warming up with the Kavanaugh affair. Demonstrations celebrating Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court win are just a dress rehearsal—first to turn out the vote but then to defend Trump in the streets if the Democrats actually take the House.

The public protests and demonstrations on the right will aim to intimidate House Democrats, should they win, but will also serve as counter demonstrations to attack protestors demonstrating for impeachment.

Either way—should the Republicans retain the House or the Democrats take it—a sea change in US political consciousness will occur once again this November, as it did in November 2016. And should the Democrats take the House, political instability will almost certainly intensify in the US, as the developing political crisis will ‘move to the streets’.

The 2016 election and events of the past two years wrenched the consciousness of many Americans about how the US system works. The myths have fallen by the wayside, one by one in the intervening two years. The belief that somehow the sane leaders appointed to Trump’s initial cabinet would somehow control him or the Republicans in the Senate keep him check have both dissipated. Trump has purged them from his administration, or they have dropped out of running for Congress again as the well-financed, pro-Trump, right wing local machine has promoted right wing candidates to run against them. Trump has been successfully reconstituting the Republican party increasingly in his far right image. The myth that Trump will ‘tear up NAFTA’ and bring manufacturing jobs back is now debunked. Or that he will end the wars in the Middle East. The list is long.

Democrats in the meantime have continued to show their strategic ineffectiveness and tactical ineptness in dealing with Trump. Their party leaders have shown more concern, and success, in keeping Bernie Sanders and his supporters at bay, as witnessed by the recent Democrat Party measures that keep their ‘superdelegates’ barrier to party reform in place while giving the chair of the Democratic Party the power to veto any candidate to run on its ticket who may win a primary in the future. Nor have they adopted an effective program to win back the working class, the loss of which in key Midwestern states in 2016 cost them the 2016 election. The latter not surprising, given that the central committee of the party is composed of more than 100 corporate lobbyists and CEOs. Promoting ‘identity politics’ has become the mantra—not programs to restore good jobs, ensure wages, protect retirement, defend union rights, push Medicare for All, and similar class-based demands.

Whether right or ‘left’ prevails in the upcoming November midterms, a few things are certain:

First, political consciousness, both right and left, will likely undergo another major shift, and perhaps on a scale close to that which occurred in 2016.

Second, the midterm elections will be used by the Bannons, Breitbarts, Mercers and others on the far right as an opportunity to mobilize the grass roots into a more centralized right wing movement. Initially for purposes of voter turnout, that organization, centralization, and mobilization will expand into the post-midterm US political landscape. More intimidation, more threats, and even now confrontations between left and right in the streets is a real possibility in the years to come in Trump’s remaining two years in office. (And the Republicans and the right will now own the police and the courts and will thus have a decided advantage in protests and demonstrations).

Increasingly, US intellectuals, artists, and even experienced old-guard politicians, who were once eye-witnesses in their early years, have begun to see parallels about what’s happening now in the US with past origins of fascist movements. Up to now, however, one especially important element of fascist politics has been missing in the US, although its ugly head has been peering above the horizon since 2016. That element is a grass roots movement of fascist-like supporters, activists and sympathizers, whose main task is to confront, intimidate, and violently discourage demonstrations and protests against their leader (Trump) personally, and in support of democratic rights under attack and the exercise of civil liberties in general.

The emergence of just such a right wing grass roots movement, better organized and well financed, and willing to engage in violent confrontations against other protestors and demonstrators in the streets, may soon be upon us. Should the Democrats win in November and launch impeachment proceedings the phenomenon will quickly appear. But even if Democrats prevaricate (the more likely scenario), the right is preparing to mobilize nonetheless. Their response to the Kavanaugh affair shows how much they’re ‘itching’ to do so. And should the Democrats win the House, their development will become even more evident.

Categories: News for progressives

The Tyranny of the Horizontal: a Call for a Creative Uprising

Thu, 2018-10-11 15:43

The Spectral aspect of the Enlightenment…the “cruel instrumentality of Reason” – “flattens permissible consciousness into one big 2-D map” (Adorno)…Hence the contemporary plague of meaninglessness: we all feel its germs lurking behind some thin scrim of hygienic daylight.  Collapse of ethics.  No thought for seven generations. Stop forest fires by cutting down forests.

– Peter Lamborn Wilson, in 5thEstate,vol. 37 #4

To [do research in “anarchist spirituality”] means participation, a willingness to hallucinate and be swept away beyond the Censor of Enlightened Reason, perhaps even into the daemonic.

– Ibid

The conviction credited to Albert Camus, used by Howard Zinn in his People’s History of the U.S., that says “in a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners” seems to me to be morally correct, though it’s too “black and white” for modern tastes conditioned to prefer “wiggle room” and gray areas.  Such a peremptory statement is too certain and authoritative for us. It’s not nuanced enough for  the neoliberal environment that allows us to both acknowledge the genocide of native Americans and the slave trade and to treat these as  not sufficiently evil to force us to re-evaluate everything about our way of life within the flattened “2-D” horizontalism we’re left in (since the Death of God).  Fortunately for those like me who are maladjusted to bourgeois amorality, authors are expected to be authoritative, and the greatest of them – writers like James Baldwin, H.D. Thoreau, D.H. Lawrence, Albert Camus, etc., speak with authority, without apology.  In time, often after being reviled in their own time, they become among that “elite” who are commonly cited, and, because they thrillingly exemplify freedom, loved and revered.

To me, this exception we make for literary authors to reflexive liberal anti-authoritarianism, is a clue to the possibility of escape from 2-D reality.  Since the 70’s Feminist movement,  we have learned to idealize horizontal power arrangements over the vertical or hierarchical ones that characterize patriarchy.   At the same time, it is impossible not to notice that top-down power arrangements that serve the few at the top rather than the many at the bottom,  prevail in America today, perhaps even more so than in the 70’s. The intensity on the left when a Supreme Court appointment – that utmost seat of authority – falls to a Republican president,  while the actual ongoing multi-front evils of creeping neoliberalism continue almost unnoticed, may suggest an unconscious obsession with authority.  A huge flaw exists in this ideal of horizontal relationships as  practiced in shared  liberal bourgeois reality. It pretends that genuine authority, i.e., a basis for conviction that motivates action on behalf of the Truth of the in-common, interdependent whole, does not exist. The avoidance of such conviction, such a standpoint,  has left liberal anti-authoritarianism vapid, banal, and bankrupt.  Because of their need for identity and rank in the existing order, liberals ignore the only real existent authority, which is the individual inner authority located in the creative, pluralistic, irrational and organically moral soul.

The reverence I feel for Thoreau or Orwell or John Cowper Powys comes not from their position of authority in a hierarchy of power, but because through their connection to their creative imaginations (or souls), they speak prophetically, which is to say, they speak not only to the rationally thinking  head,  but to the heart.  Through their art, the writers, poets, prophets, that comprise our humanities tradition were able in their time to overcome the horizontal pressure from social peers not to be better than anybody else, or different from everybody else. Through their art, they appropriated hierarchy for the purpose of freedom.   

If there is any hope left for clarity of thought in the midst of pervasive banality, and for moral purpose in the face of aggressive amorality, doesn’t it make sense we each must take the next step and become  in like manner the authors of our own authority?  If we are to have a prayer of living by the values of that better world we dream of, surely we each must claim that authority to speak, just as if it were our dutyto do so.  Conveniently, we  excuse ourselves from the sphere of artists and geniuses whom we elevate to be the creative ones  for the rest of us non-geniuses.  What if, instead, I (and you) take on creative self expression (leaving “art” broadly defined of course) as my duty?  In so taking an action that clearly is not reasonable,  this insurrection against the total oppression of 2-D reality opens a standpoint that otherwise remains hidden.  The artist’s standpoint, located outside the culture, allows the whole to be seen.   No longer speaking for the shallow self-interested egoic “I” that compulsively embeds with capitalism, the authoritative voice speaks for the embodied soul and its never ceasing process, its deep roots connecting all of humankind, all inhabitants of the natural world and nature itself.

On one hand, I’m proposing a very different, less stratified world of art and artists than what we have. The art world does in fact need some leveling.  I’m not saying everyone can be a great artist.  I’m saying, in line with Dr. Jung’s usage, and with meanings derived from classical Latin and Greek languages (and echoed in Picasso’s famous words: “Every child is born an artist.  The problem is to remain one after growing up”) that each individual, at birth, contains a genius or daemon, an existing “seed” or “acorn” that reveals in its unfolding the destiny of that person.  “Genius,” unlike we’re taught, is not rare; it is discernible when individual desire is freed from the top-down suppression of desire that is the rule in our educations.  We learn to fear that freedom more than desire it, but considering the universality of desire and longing, can it be just to encourage the artist or genius in some and not in everyone?

On the other hand, the routine discarding of  inborn “genius” in order to make a living on capitalism’s terms,  amounts to the renunciation of innermost authentic authority in favor of outer authority (i.e., state, government, schools and all other institutions including families) and thus has political consequences, i.e.,  a preference for obedience and passivity over initiative, creativity and leadership. Unaware of their dutyto their creative genius, withits mythic-level unfolding story, people can be only partial, their spirit and spiritual strength fatally hobbled. Too weak for freedom, they are dependent always upon a consensus agreement coming down from the dominant social order to confirm for them that they are on the “right” side.  Disobedience to this unspoken rule that rules out eros would make a more effective call to revolution than Marxism, Socialism, or even Anarchism.  If the “left” is ever to regain a moral authority, not to mention energy and a sense of humor, it is in our common interest that the “artist” or “genius” in each person develop and be expressed.  Surely a just, egalitarian, and free society would insist on this, rather than insisting, as ours does, on more “STEM” curricula in public and charter schools to produce more servants for the technocracy.

For those stakeholders in the art world who insist that art must be for arts’ sake alone, we assure them we are not talking about socialist or political art.  We are saying art-making depends on roots nourished in the common ground of the universal creative soul.  To claim to be above or apart from humanity’s struggle – to be free not enslaved, to be sovereign rather than ruled and exploited for others’ purposes, etc.  – leaves the artist a member of an exclusive club in a hierarchy of talent.   The self-identified artist owes herself and us a confession; she must reveal her/his “standpoint,” and not hide it behind conceptual intellectualism.  She has to plainly indicate her art is not on the side of the executioner without fear that such naked revelation may hinder her being considered for an NEH grant, or for publication in the New Yorker, or her making that big sale, or that it may incur the disapproval of colleagues.  There will be a cost.  Not every artist who courageously resists the horizontally tyrannical system ends up a Neil Young or a Bob Dylan.  For most it will mean a lifelong befriendment of poverty.  We must believe however, or know, that what we create from this devotion to the creative genius will touch and enliven the souls of others.  It will make a bond with our fellow humans at a deep and soul-nourishing level that most people, by now areligious and “apoetic” as well as apolitical, have lost the language for.  It will embody the anarchist vision of an interdependent egalitarian and just world for everyone.

With humanity degraded and diminished in our time, it may be difficult to see that what I’m really asking for is not “only” for people to serve their creative geniuses, but for the return of men and women actors to the stage of history.  A man who is a man serves his innermost authority, his soul or conscience and its  feminizing influence–not the flag or the military might of the nation, not the world as defined by MSNBC and the New York Times, not the subtler pressure of his friends and family. True men and true women following personal visions for  a better world arepitted directly against the horizontal pressure to conform that is neoliberal capitalism’s “trump” card.  By its measure, their behavior is irrational, foolish, perhaps insane, definitely stupid.   Creative people who do not correctly understand their relation to the dominant and ongoing dehumanization, will likely fall into the trap of defining their uphill struggle in terms of their own inadequacy, or in terms of their living in the wrong place, or other outer-imposed limitations, rather than understanding that their vision, their desire, opposes them to the top-down neoliberal context that is not benign.   Currently, I fear some of our community visionaries here in Utica, those starting much needed small businesses or community-serving non-profits lack the understanding that their struggle to realize their vision is the struggle of humanity for its right to exist.  It is the struggle for the “bottom-up,” locally-bonded, stable conditions that have been shown over time to be human-supporting. They do not realize that their small business is insurgent.  In the eyes of the hegemonic capitalist reality their upstart enterprise places them not among the bourgeois but with “the rabble,” the fear of whose uprising by those at the top, beginning with the Founding Fathers, has cost us the promised freedom and justice for all.

Though in the neoliberal world fascism now wears a confusingly benign face (for white people) behind which all institutions and the media manage never to hint that the world is made up of victims and executioners – in the sea of banality – the avenue to not being on the side of the executioner still exists. Even though the 60’s revolutionary spirit was lost due to failure to realize the revolution is duty [to God or gods now hidden in immanence],it is never too late to challenge fascistic authority at its  frontline in the individual soul and thereon build a world safe for all souls.

Categories: News for progressives

What’s Happened to the Big Wage Increases Promised by Republicans?

Thu, 2018-10-11 15:40

The recent announcementby the founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, that his company would give substantial raises to its lowest-paid employees should not blind us to the fact that most American workers are not receiving big wage increases. In fact, the real wages (that is, wages adjusted for inflation) of average American workers are declining.

When justifying the Republicans’ December 2017 $1.5 trillion tax cut for corporations and the wealthy, President Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan claimed that it would result, in 2018, in wage gains for American workers ranging from $4,000 to $9,000each.

But, in reality, nothing like that has materialized. Instead, as the U.S. Labor Department reported, between the second quarter of 2017 and the second quarter of 2018, the real wages of American workers actually declined. Indeed, the second quarter of 2018 was the third straight quarter―all during the Trump administration―when inflation outpaced wage growth. The last time wages grew substantiallyabove inflation was in 2016, during the Obama administration. Consequently, by August 2018, as the Pew Research Center reported, the purchasing power of American workers’ wages was at the same level as in 1978.

Why did the Republican promises go unfulfilled? A key reason for stagnating wages lies in the fact that U.S. corporations used their windfallderived from the slashing of the corporate tax rate from 35 to 21 percent under the 2017 GOP tax legislation to engage in stock buybacks (thereby raising their stock prices) and to increase dividends to share-holders. This practice produced substantial gains for big corporate investors but did nothing for workers. Although it appears that some workers (a reported 4 percent) did receive pay raises thanks to the tax cuts, it’s estimated that corporations spent 88 times more on stock buybacks than on pay increases for workers.

Another important long-term factor that has depressed workers’ wages is the dwindling membership and declining power of America’s labor unions. Once a force that created a more level playing field between workers and their bosses, unions have been badly weakened in recent years by Republican-sponsored anti-union measures, such as so-called “Right-to-Work” lawsand the subversion of the National Labor Relations Board.

The Republican opposition to raising the minimum wage has also undermined wage levels. In the past, numerous Republican Presidentsbacked legislation that increased the minimum wage. But that position has radically changed as the Republican Party has turned sharply to the Right. Although the federal minimum wagehas remained at $7.25 for more than nine years, Trump and Congressional Republicans have blocked legislative efforts to raise this pathetically low wage floor, contending that they saw no need for a federal minimum wage. Moreover, Republicans have used their control of state governments, as in Missouriand Iowa, to block cities and counties from raising local wage levels through legislation.

By contrast, Republican policies have done wonders for the wealthy and their corporations. By the fall of 2018, the stock market had reached new heightsand the fortunes of the wealthiest Americans had grown remarkably. According to Forbes, the wealth of the 400 richest Americans averaged $7.2 billion each―a hefty increase over the previous year, when they averaged $6.7 billion. Moreover, the ten richest Americans possessed $730 billion among them―an increase in their wealth of nearly 20 percent over the past year. And the very wealthiest American, Jeff Bezos, nearly doubled his wealth during this time―to $160 billion. From the Republican standpoint, their programs had been a great success. Accordingly, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives voted in late Septemberto make its steep tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy permanent.

So let’s stop saying that Republican rule in the United States―from the White House, to the Congress, to the Supreme Court, and to the states―has been dysfunctional. It’s been very functional―not for American workers, of course, but certainly for those people Bernie Sanders has referred to as “the billionaire class.”

Categories: News for progressives

Hardly Strictly Peace Movement

Thu, 2018-10-11 15:38

The CIA’s New York Times correspondent David Sanger reported Oct. 7 that Gen. William Westmoreland had requested “tactical” nuclear weapons to be shipped to Vietnam in February, 1968, for use if and when US troops were overrun at Khe Sanh. President Lyndon Johnson, notified by an adviser,  immediately nixed Westy’s mad scheme, which had been dubbed “Operation Fracture Jaw.”

Sanger quotes once-secret cables which, amazingly, Westmoreland wrote at the height of the Tet offensive, as battles raged far to the south of Khe Sanh and the NLF flag flew over the Citadel in Hue.

Buried in the Times story is the fact that Westmoreland also sought the option of using chemical weapons. What appears to be a belated exposé is also a cover-up in the now:

“Should the situation in the DMZ area change dramatically, we should be prepared to introduce weapons of greater effectiveness against massed forces,” General Westmoreland wrote in a cable [to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Earle Wheeler, on Feb. 3, 1968]. Under such circumstances, I visualize that either tactical nuclear weapons or chemical agents would be active candidates for employment.”

In his great book, Hue 1968, Mark Bowden wrote:

Westy’s preoccupation with the vulnerability of Khe Sanh played perfectly into Hanoi’s plans. The buildup of NVA forces there had been a feint. the objective all along had been Hue and the other cities. Westmoreland had fallen for it so completely that even after Hue fell, neither he nor his superiors in Washington could see it, much less admit it.”

Commemorating the Presidio Mutiny

Westmoreland’s aggressive obtuseness was a factor in the decision to press mutiny charges against the 27 prisoners at the Presidio of San Francisco stockade who, on October 14, 1968, staged a non-violent sit-down to protest the killing of a fellow prisoner. The commanding general at the Presidio was a close ally of Westmoreland and out to show that strictest repression was the appropriate response to dissent. (During fiscal 1968 there were 53,357 desertions, 155,536 AWOLs.)

The first mutineers to be sentenced  —Nesrey Sood, Larry Reidel, and Larry Osczepenski— got 15, 16 and 14 years. An article about Sood by Barry Farrell in Life Magazine alerted millions of Americans to the level of unrest within the military and the madness of the brass.

GIs facing court martial are assigned Army lawyers and can also hire civilian lawyers. Terence Hallinan, a leftist San Francisco defense lawyer, represented 14 of the mutineers pro bono. “These are the children of America’s poor whites, a hidden class of people,” he said in one summation. “In peacetime they would never have been held in the Army, but because of the war  because the Army needs every body it can get— they couldn’t be discharged. The war is really so unpopular among GIs that the Army senses that if it started giving these discharges —CO, psychiatric— the floodgates would open and thousands of men would try to get out. Since they can’t let them out, yet they can’t use them in the field, they fill the stockades with them.”

Several of the surviving mutineers, with the support of the Presidio Trust, have organized a 50th-anniversary get-together at the stockade Sunday, Oct. 14. On Saturday evening Oct. 13, 7 pm at the Officers Club, five knowledgable panelists will discuss the significance of the mutiny and the ensuing trials: Randy Rowland, a conscientious objector who the Army considered the mutineers’ ringleader because Hallinan was his lawyer when he turned himself in; Brendan Sullivan, who, as an Army captain, defended Larry Reidel, and would go on to defend Oliver North and tell Senate investigators, “I’m not a potted palm —I’m his lawyer;” Notre Dame history professor David Cortright, author of Soldiers in Revolt (another great book, reprinted in 2005 with an intro by Howard Zinn); Jeff Patterson of Courage to Resist, the first service member to refuse to fight in Iraq); and Susan Schnall, a Navy nurse who has stayed active in the peace movement.

On October 12, 1968, Lieutenant Schnall was among the hundreds of active duty personnel who took part in a peace march in San Francisco that culminated in a rally at the Civic Center. Schnall spoke at the rally and was charged with disobeying an order (by being in uniform) and conduct unbecoming an officer (distributing leaflets for a rally allegedly intended to impair morale). At her trial Lt. Schnall insisted that her participation was protected by the First Amendment and in no way promoted disaffection. A prosecution witness from Naval Intelligence testified, “I heard her say that young men are being trained as killers and the Vietnam was is a dirty filthy war. She said, ‘End the war now. Bring the boys home. Bring the boys home alive!”

Schnall was found guilty on both counts and sentenced to six months at hard labor. But the Secretary of the Navy invoked an obscure policy of not confining women officers with sentences lighter than a year, and she was allowed to return to work at the Oak Knoll Naval Hospital, where the wounded sailors greatly appreciated her.

The Department of the Army also recognized that the Presidio Mutiny had turned into a public relations disaster and began reducing sentences. The mutiny helped open the eyes of the US Power Elite to the fact that they couldn’t rely on draftees to maintain the empire. Soon they would transition to a “Volunteer” Army, and later to Blackwater, and here we are today.

Commemorate the Presidio Mutiny! Saturday evening at the Officers Club, 50 Moraga Ave., 7-9:30 pm. Sunday afternoon at the stockade, 1213 Ralston Ave., 1-3 pm. Be there or be in DARE.

Categories: News for progressives

Unleashing My Inner Jihadi

Thu, 2018-10-11 15:27

For a big, strapping nation like the United States of America to be obsessively fixated on foreign-born evildoers is really quite strange, especially given that it has so many of its own. Other than 9/11, all terror attacks in the US since 2000 that weren’t thwarted or aborted involved firearms. Even if you include mass shootings that didn’t receive the Government’s Terrorism imprimatur, how many mass killings can you cite that were committed by undocumented aliens or foreign infiltrators?

Not that there aren’t foreigners who have bones to pick with America. According to Statista, nearly 200,000 Iraqi civilians lost their lives due to the US invasion, the ensuing resistance, and subsequent conflicts with ISIS invaders. From the start of the Iraq War in 2003 under GW Bush to his exit from office in 2009, 105,000 Iraqi civilians were killed, peaking at nearly 30,000 in 2006. During Obama’s first term, civilian deaths totaled 93,300, hovering at less than 5000 per year.

When ISIS stormed into Iraq in 2012, deaths escalated; 20,000 in 2014, remaining above 13,000 until steeply declining to 2500 in 2017. US Military deaths for those 15 years totaled 4541, peaking at 904 in 2007. Overall, 44 Iraqi noncombatants fell for every American soldier who died there. This is the so-called Price of Liberty, paid by innocent Iraqis, traumatized veterans, bereaved military families, and American taxpayers, at the further cost of eternal vigilance over everyone by our intelligence agencies.

Due to foreign forces and internal conflicts, by 2016 5.5 million Syrians had fled their homes, as did 2.5M Afghani citizens. As of 2017, Turkey had admitted 3.4M Syrians. By 2016 Germany had received 100,500 Syrian asylum seekers, while only 1540 were admitted into the US. Within Syria, by 2017, 23% of the housing stock had been damaged and more than half of working age adults were unemployed (source: Statista). Although the US did not cause this situation, it certainly intensified it, having motivated assorted foreign jihadis to coalesce there in expectation of creating a caliphate.

* * *

It’s hard to deny that America is a violent nation. Glossing over that inconvenient truth are official and self-appointed apologists, eager to point fingers at criminal elements and foreign evildoers. But the sad fact they belie is that the perps of the vast majority of shootings are homegrown resentful gun-happy white men, most without criminal records.

Know that the United States enjoys a near-monopoly in gun violence. Constituting 4.4% of the world’s population, its residents own 42% of all civilian-owned guns (of 644 M worldwide). In 2012, the US enjoyed 29.6 homicides from firearms per million people. The closest runner-up, Switzerland, had 7.7 per M, while our Canadian cousins had a rate of 5.1.

Also know that since 9/11, there has been only one case of mass murder in the US that officially bears the label of terrorism—the 2016 massacre at a Christmas party at a social service agency in San Bernardino, CA that left 14 dead and 22 injured. Both suspects, one of whom was a native US citizen and the other a legal alien, died in a shootout with police the same day. (source: Vox)

That this couple, along with Nidal Hasan and Omar Mateen, the 2009 Fort Hood Texas shooter and the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooter, respectively, were Muslims with Middle Eastern roots only served to fan the flames of Islamophobia, even though the US Government declined to designate either Hasan or Mateen as terrorists. (Hasan couldn’t be tried by a military tribunal for terrorism, while Mateen’s actions were attributed to homophobia.)

They were all loonies, right? Yet, a study in the American Journal of Public Health found that databases that track gun homicides show that people with a diagnosed mental illness committed less than 5 percent of 120,000 gun-related killings in America from 2001 to 2010. In any event, that mass shootings are rare events makes coming up with effective mental health regulations challenging. Gun violence research shows that the strongest predictors of violence in general include alcohol and drug abuse and a history of domestic violence. Many such incidents may involve undiagnosed mental disturbances that regulators would be unable to screen for.

After a spate of other tragic shootings, especially in public schools, politicians appeared to lean toward denying gun permits to psychologically impaired individuals, not that such regulations are likely. The National Rifle Association has spent $203.2 million on political activities since 1998. Close to 90% of that was direct spending, while the remainder went to campaign committees, all of it aimed at forestalling any and all gun regulation and weeding out legislators and candidates whom the NRA believes lack sufficient Second Amendment fervor.

Take assault rifles. American civilians collectively own and actively trade between 6 to 10 million AR-15-type semi-automatic rifles. The NRA routinely refers to this style of weapon as “modern sporting rifles” and resists all efforts to rein them in (Politifact). Besides the gun lobby’s resistance, any regulations aimed at suppressing ownership of these weapons would be doomed by the black market—smuggling, Dark Web trading, and 3D printing of increasingly sophisticated firearms, abetted by a lack of enthusiasm on the part of gun-loving law enforcement officers to enforce them.

* * *

So here we have a superpower with its military and its citizenry armed to the teeth, a nation that commits and abets more violent acts than any since WWII (or during it, if we count the firebombing of German and Japanese cities), fearful of terrorism. A nation that defends freedom by arming unsavory autocrats. A nation that has created more terrorists than have ever beset its citizens, with an “intelligence community” that routinely and in some ways unconstitutionally spies on them, all in the name of combatting an exaggerated menace that US military adventures and foreign policies have conjured up.

They all are drunk with power and continue to cow Congress to give them greater resource to expand their capabilities. And now they want to take hegemony into orbit with a Space Force, for crying out loud. What for? To defend our spy Satellites? To block Iran or ISIS from landing on the Moon or Russia from colonizing Mars? And nothing that the American people can say in protest will stop them.

After a decade or more of witnessing gratuitous carnage perpetrated in my name at home and abroad, unchecked lust for military and economic supremacy around the globe, and collateral damages at a scale hard to comprehend, I lost it. I considered most terrorist acts—especially those committed by Islamic jihadists—as blowback, pure and simple, events that wouldn’t have taken place but for cruel and unusual punishments visited on Muslim-majority nations with the temerity to reject the decadent imperialism of America and its western allies.

Now, I’m sure there are jihadis who consider all infidels to be fair game, no matter whose flag they live under. Even so, I’m equally sure that America’s actions must have strengthened their resolve. Realizing that made me feel both contrite and complicit, and I vowed to take action to purify my soul.

What I did not do was to contact ISIS on Facebook, buy a gun, or round up bomb-making supplies. What I did do was to invent a fictional God-fearing Islamic jihadi, a young Iraqi man cast straight out of Blowback Central. Between what the US-led coalition and then ISIS did to him in Iraq, he has a lot of anger to blow back. To be clear, I wasn’t calling for America’s destruction; I just wanted my compatriots to get comfortable with the idea that decimating civilians and their infrastructure might just breed a bit of resentment that certain people might act out.

Mahmoud (that’s the protagonist’s name) understands he can’t directly retaliate against the US, but is enticed to join a terrorist conspiracy in Piraeus led by a mysterious Turk. And so, he projects himself across Anatolia to the Aegean coast to float to Greece to partake in a plot that he learns upon arrival will send him back to Turkey. He comes mentally unprepared for such a mission or for the steaming cauldron of chaos that was greater Athens in 2015, where a bitching brew of leftists and ultranationalists pit themselves against the callow Greek government and each other. The more extreme among them plot institutional destruction. The extremist Mahmoud hooks up with has no small plan; he’s targeting the upcoming G-20 meeting in Turkey.

So, let’s talk Turkey, which features prominently in the plot. Despite their recent bickering, there’s a weird parallel between our current president and theirs, involving power-lust, side deals with cronies, and advancing radically conservative and anti-secularist agendas. Both are happy to help industrialists, moneymen, and the religious right to do what they will; in both lands we see foxes guarding henhouses and dominant religions enforcing their articles of faith. Too, both leaders are truculent, bombastic, and thin-skinned; one takes refuge in his luxurious palace, the other behind a symbolic wall. But, while the US is folding itself into fetal position with regard to alliances, treaties, and trade, Turkey is building bridges to nations the US condemns, like Russia, Iran, and now even Syria. Is Venezuela its next best friend?

Although the novel doesn’t dwell on these similarities, many readers will pick up that subtext as Mahmoud and his comrades reshape their mission to Turkey. They pick a new target to dispatch. They eschew firearms and explosives, having decided that the way to his heart is intravenous.

After all is said and done and destinies revealed, the reader may still not be sure whom to root for, the state or the terrorists. It’s a tougher choice than one might think, and causes one to ponder what it might take to wrest remnants of democracy from the clenched jaws of tyranny. How, for instance, would you feel about a foreign power that turned its firepower on your community and you had to flee, perhaps never to return, and what might you do about it?

The novel is called Turkey Shoot. There’s a link to it on the CounterPunch main page.


Categories: News for progressives



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