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Updated: 9 hours 52 min ago

Predator of Our Public Lands

Fri, 2019-09-06 15:49

Joshua Tree National Park. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

For generations, our country has been Mother Nature’s steward, setting aside and protecting important expanses of public lands for posterity. But what if these lands and natural resources suddenly got a “steward” who was a predator, rather than a protector?

Meet William Perry Pendley. For more than 40 years, he’s been a fringe political operative and lawyer for a network of loopy, anti-environmental extremists intent on helping corporate predators grab and plunder our national assets for their private profit.

And now — Holy Teddy Roosevelt! — developer-in-chief Donald Trump has named Pendley to be acting head of the Bureau of Land Management.

Yes, a guy who favors the wholesale privatization of your and my public lands is to oversee the future of America’s public lands. Indeed, Pendley has been lost in the ultra-right-wing weeds for years, screeching that the “Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold.”

That’s nuts, but nuttier yet is Pendley’s listing of a sextet of demons he believes are “at war” with western civilization: radical environmentalists, federal bureaucrats, the media, academia, Hollywood, and “ignorant” Americans who are “easily panicked” into believing in things like climate change.

But this caped corporate crusader saves most of his manic fury for the environmental movement, bizarrely proclaiming that its millions of adherents “don’t believe in human beings.”

Also, with funding from the Koch brothers and Big Oil, Pendley has been a fanatical fossil fuel proselytizer, even declaring in a moment of rapture that fracking is “an energy, economic, and environmental miracle!”

Don’t just keep an eye on this corporate extremist — don’t even blink! For updates, contact Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility at

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War in All But Name as US State Department Offers Bribes to Pirates of Iranian Ships

Fri, 2019-09-06 15:49

If at first you don’t succeed, spread some money around. The Financial Times reports that the US State Department is offering cash bribes to captains of Iranian ships if they sail those ships into ports where the US government can seize them.

The offers are funded from a “Rewards for Justice” program authorizing payouts of up to $15 million for “counter-terrorism” purposes. It’s  not about counter-terrorism, though. It’s about doubling down on US President Donald Trump’s decision to violate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, usually called the “Iran Nuclear Deal.”

The other parties to the deal –especially France, the UK, and Germany — don’t want to let the deal go, but also don’t want to enrage Trump by violating the unilateral sanctions he’s imposed on Iran. The Iranians, on the other hand, have made it clear that unless those other countries find ways to deliver meaningful sanctions relief, they’re abandoning the deal too. They’ve started taking concrete steps in that direction.

On July 4 — Independence Day in the United States — members of the United Kingdom’s Royal Marines boarded an Iranian oil tanker, the Grace 1, off the coast of Gibraltar. They seized ship, crew, and cargo in an act of open piracy.

The pretext for the seizure was that selling oil to Syria violates European Union sanctions. But neither Iran nor Syria are EU member states, and the tanker was taken in international “transit passage” waters. That’s like giving a speeding ticket to a driver in Hungary for violating  Kazakhstan’s speed limits.

Spain’s foreign minister, Josep Borrell, plausibly asserted that the seizure was requested by the US government. The ship was released after Iran agreed that the oil would not go to Syria (its whereabouts and destination remain unknown as of this writing).

In the meantime, a US court had issued a seizure warrant — for an Iranian vessel, carrying Iranian oil, to a non-US destination, clearly outside any reasonable definition of US jurisdiction. And the Iranians had hijacked a British-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz in reprisal for the taking of Grace 1.

So now the US State Department is reduced to simple bribery in its attempts to clean up after Trump’s 2016 campaign promise to get the US out of the “nuclear deal.”

Under the deal, the Iranians went beyond their obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to “end” a nuclear weapons program which the US intelligence community didn’t even believe existed. All they got out of it was some relief from sanctions that should never have been imposed, and the return of some money stolen by the US government decades ago. All the US got out of it was an empty propaganda victory.

But electoral politics required Trump to throw even that tiny trophy away. He had to either promise foreign policy belligerence SOMEWHERE or risk establishment mockery as a peacenik. Enter the Israeli lobby and Sheldon Adelson’s millions. Iran drew the short straw.

So did we. This is war in all but name and only likely to escalate as Election 2020 draws nigh.

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Any War on Terror is Bullshit

Fri, 2019-09-06 15:49

The saying goes that the greatest trick the devil ever played was fooling the world that he doesn’t exist. I’ve long said that the greatest trick the state ever played was fooling the world that only its existence could keep the devil at bay. The devil in this case being a constantly evolving crop of scapegoats often labeled terrorists. Then again the Old Testament interpretation of the devil has always been the ultimate scapegoat. Lucifer’s great crime was trying to mimic god’s omnipotence with a failed coup. God cast the rebellious angel out of heaven but allowed him to continue to play god in hell because his existence served as the ultimate excuse for god’s unlimited power. My childhood priest, Father Foster, probably wouldn’t agree with this interpretation, but as a budding young anarchist, this is the way the tale sounded to me. The devil’s very existence was defined by god and god in turn needed the devil to justify his power. And this is what I see when I look at the issue of terrorism.

Terrorist attacks aren’t prevalent in peaceful nations. No one’s blowing up Lichtenstein. It’s violence that perpetuates violence. So it only seems natural to me that America, a state with an epic reputation for violence, both at home and abroad, should become a magnet for copycat killers. The United States makes over a hundred attempts to wack Fidel Castro and Lee Harvey Oswald guns down the president. The United States turns the jungles of Vietnam into a massive killing field and Charles Whitman turns the University of Texas into a free fire zone. The United States burns a compound full of women and children alive in Waco and Timothy McVeigh blows the Murray Building to smithereens. The United States hollows out a skyscraper in Serbia with hellfire missiles and our former client in the Balkans, Osama bin Laden, takes down two towers with hijacked commercial airliners. The United States wipes out an entire village in Yemen with a Navy Seal death squad and a white nationalist dressed in Navy Seal cosplay turns himself into a one man death squad and wipes out a bustling Walmart full of brown civilians.

I may be something of a wonk when it comes to mass violence, it’s a peculiar hobby that goes back to my peculiar Catholic childhood, but I take very little pride when I tell you that I could quite literally go on like this all fucking day. As Malcolm X astutely observed about the Kennedy Assassination, these are all simply tragic cases of the chickens coming home to roost.

It’s amazing to me how many scapegoats the mainstream media can drum up for these atrocities, from Grand Theft Auto to Marilyn Manson, without drawing the most blatantly obvious conclusion that those living beneath the yoke of the most violent empire on earth might be a bit more susceptible to becoming copycats of state violence than most. It’s less amazing to me that the agents of this state fail to make this same conclusion once you realize that their very existence relies upon this demonic proliferation of mass violence. This becomes a sort of twisted self-fulfilling prophecy machine that the state inspires terrorism with acts of terrorism launched to combat terrorism. But with the very American reaction to the latest spree of mass killings, we see a new and dangerous trend. The state has finally given birth to the ultimate scapegoat, the Alt-Right lone wolf.

In the past twenty years, America has used its reactionary War on Terror to rapidly expand the police-warfare state by scapegoating the world’s fastest growing religion of Islam. They skillfully used the attack that their own barbaric foreign policy invited on 9/11 to justify an endless forever war across the ever-expanding Muslim world. Perhaps even scarier is the Orwellian nightmare state created on the home front, which subjects us all to near full spectrum surveillance 24/7. While the FBI kept up a steady quota of Muslim headhunting by entrapping mentally feeble brown kids online, most of the police state’s attention was directed towards the existential threat of radical tree-huggers and wily peace activists. But in our PC age of racial sensitivity, this brown-baiting bait and switch has become an increasingly tough sell even for the most prudent statist lunkhead. The specter of the white nationalist is the perfect upgrade. After all, even child pornographers are sickened by Nazis.

But the mainstream interpretation of this right-wing radicalism is recklessly vague. With every virtue signalling call from Time Magazine to Elizabeth Warren to declare all out war on the radical right there is often a half-whispered addendum of “…and other anti-government extremists.” But what constitutes an anti-government extremist? Well, dearest motherfuckers, whoever the fuck you want, or rather whoever the fuck our lethal executive office wants. Me, you, Ilhan Omar, Black Lives Matter, with a thin skinned lunatic like Trump in the White House, whoever criticizes his tie or suggests he pees sitting down. The Resistance clamoring for these knee-jerk state reactions to state inspired violence seem to be totally oblivious to the fact that they’re merrily building their own fucking caskets. Just as Obama’s hope-and-change posse handed an orangutan an Uzi by allowing Barack to turn the Oval Office into a drone-strike internet cafe, today’s self-proclaimed leftists are pushing for sharper fangs on the state without even considering the possibility that they could get bit.

But what is even more terrifying than further empowering our hollow-point presidency is the fortification of the permanent state in the police/intelligence community. According to disturbingly influential Russophobic crowd exciters like Rachel Maddow and Alexander Reid Ross (no relation, thank Christ), the entire spectrum of the anti-authoritarian fringe from left to right is part of one big John Nash-style spiderweb of red-brown Putin puppets. Everyone from Ron Paul to Jill Stein is a part of this neo-McCarthyite orbit and we’re all connected by dots to angry white men in white sheets. You don’t have to be an Alt-Right nut-job to recognize how dangerous this philosophy has become, especially once it’s made official state policy. After all, according to this increasingly mainstream conspiracy theory, anybody who doesn’t vote for a Bush or a Clinton is now an honorary Alt-Right nut-job anyway. See you at the next cross burning.

At the end of the day, all acts of mass violence are acts of terrorism, regardless of whether they’re committed by skinheads or cops, and the last time I checked, the cops have a way bigger body count of brown and queer civilians. Do we really wan’t to give them Bazookas to chase after their own shadows? Does anybody honestly believe that they would even be the primary targets? I ain’t biting, dearest motherfuckers and neither should you. In our current national hell, all non-state terrorists are convenient scapegoats for the state that births them. And any war on terror is bullshit.

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Inevitable Withdrawal: The US-Taliban Deal

Fri, 2019-09-06 15:48

It took gallons and flagons of blood, but it eventuated, a squeeze of history into a parchment of possibility: the Taliban eventually pushed the sole superpower on this expiring earth to a deal of some consequence. (The stress is on the some – the consequence is almost always unknown.) “In principle, on paper, yes we have reached an agreement,” claimed the US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad on the Afghan channel ToloNews. “But it is not final until the president of the United States also agrees to it.”

The agreement entails the withdrawal (the public relations feature of the exercise teasingly calls this “pulling out”) of 5,400 troops from the current complement of 14,000 within 135 days of signature. Five military bases will close or be transferred to the Afghan government. In return, the Taliban has given an undertaking never to host forces with the intention of attacking the US and its interests.

Exactitude, however, is eluding the press and those keen to get to the marrow. Word on the policy grapevine is that this is part of an inexorable process that will see a full evacuation within 16 months, though this remains gossip.

The entire process has its exclusions, qualifications and mutual deceptions. In it is a concession, reluctant but ultimately accepted, that the Taliban was a credible power that could never be ignored. To date, the US has held nine rounds of talks, a seemingly dragged out process with one ultimate outcome: a reduction, and ultimate exit of combat forces.

The Taliban was not, as the thesis of certain US strategists, a foreign bacillus moving its way through the Afghan body politic, the imposition of a global fundamentalist corporation. Corrupt local officials of the second rank, however, were also very much part and parcel of the effort, rendering any containment strategy meaningless.

A narrative popular and equally fallacious was the notion that the Taliban had suffered defeat and would miraculously move into the back pages of history. Similar views were expressed during the failed effort by the United States to combat the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. An elaborate calculus was created, a mirage facilitated through language: the body count became a means of confusing numbers with political effect.

Time and time again, the Taliban demonstrated that B52s, well-equipped foreign forces and cruise missiles could not extricate them from the land that has claimed so many empires. Politics can only ever be the realisation of tribes, collectives, peoples; weapons and material are unkind and useful companions, but never viable electors or officials.

Even now, the desire to remain from those in overfunded think tanks and well-furnished boardrooms, namely former diplomats engaged on the Afghan project, is stubborn and delusionary. If withdrawal is to take place, goes that tune, it should hinge on a pre-existing peace agreement. An open letter published by the Atlantic Council by nine former US State Department officials previously connected with the country is a babbling affair. “If a peace agreement is going to succeed, we and others need to be committed to continued support for peace consolidation. This will require monitoring compliance, tamping down of those extremists opposed to peace, and supporting good governance and economic growth with international assistance.”

The presumptuousness of this tone is remarkable, heavy with work planning jargon and spread sheet nonsense. There is no peace to keep, nor governance worth preserving. Instead, the authors of the note, including such failed bureaucratic luminaries as John Negroponte, Robert P. Finn and Ronald E. Neumann, opt for the imperial line: the US can afford staying in Afghanistan because the Afghans are the ones fighting and dying. (Again, this is Vietnam redux, an Afghan equivalent of Vietnamisation.) In their words, “US fatalities are tragic, but the number of those killed in combat make up less than 20 percent of the US troops who died in non-combat training incidents.” All good, then.

In a sign of ruthless bargaining, the Taliban continued the bloodletting even as the deal was being ironed of evident wrinkles. This movement knows nothing of peace but all about the life of war: death is its sovereign; corpses, its crop. On Monday, the Green Village in Kabul was targeted by a truck bomb, leaving 16 dead (this toll being bound to rise). It was a reminder that the Taliban, masters of whole swathes of the countryside, can also strike deep in the capital itself. The killings also supplied the Afghan government a salutary reminder of its impotence, underscored by the fact that President Ashraf Ghani played no role in the Qatar talks.

This leaves us with the realisation that much cruelty is on the horizon. The victory of the Taliban is an occasion to cheer the bloodying of the imperialist’s nose. But they will not leave documents of enlightenment, speeches to inspire. This agreement will provide little comfort for those keen to read a text unmolested or seek an education free of crippling dogma. Interior cannibalisation is assured, with civil war a distinct possibility. Tribal war is bound to continue.

As this takes place, the hope for President Donald Trump and his officials will no doubt be similar to the British when they finally upped stakes on instruction from Prime Minister David Cameron: forget that the whole thing ever happened.

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Get Ready for Unnatural Disasters This Hurricane Season

Fri, 2019-09-06 15:47

Donald Trump discusses immigration as if the benefits of residence in the U.S. are a pie. When immigrants get more, the people who were already here get less.

In general, that’s not true. When immigrants come here, they don’t just take some jobs (often low-wage jobs U.S. citizens don’t want), they also create new jobs. They need housing, transportation, food, and clothes, and they buy all of those things, creating more jobs for other people in this country.

However, in one way, Trump is turning his viewpoint into a self-fulfilling prophecy: He’s using our finite government funds to pay for incarcerating immigrants in detention facilities, which means he’s shifting that money away from other uses that could benefit the American people.

In that sense, it’s not immigrants who are taking from us. It’s Trump.

For example, disaster relief. Trump’s using over $100 million in federal disaster aid money to pay for detention centers for immigrants — even as hurricane season gets underway.

Does that worry him? Apparently not.

When asked about Hurricane Dorian, which was then a category 5 storm nearing the Atlantic coast, Trump actually said: “I’m not sure I’ve ever even heard of a category 5.” He said the same thing last year about Hurricane Michael. And the same thing again the year before, about Hurricane Irma.

Hurricanes, wildfires, and other natural disasters are threats that definitely harm Americans. Historically, we as a nation take care of one another by appropriating some of our tax dollars for federal disaster relief.

Nobody plans to be the victim of a natural disaster, and we can’t predict which communities will be hit by them. We can prepare for them as a nation so that when they happen, we are as ready as we can be, and we have the resources to deal with the aftermath.

While we can’t control whether or not we get hit by hurricanes or tornadoes, we can control whether we invest in being prepared — or whether we waste that money instead on locking up immigrants in taxpayer-funded detention facilities.

We don’t need to do that.

When we take money from disaster relief and use it to imprison people who pose no safety threat to the American people, we are also harming the victims of natural disasters who need aid they won’t receive.

By moving money within the Department of Homeland Security from other areas (the Coast Guard, FEMA, etc.) to pay for beds in detention centers for people who have crossed the border illegally but represent no safety threat to this country, the Trump administration could leave America open to other types of threats instead.

Rather than spending tax dollars needed for actual threats to national security on detaining immigrants, we need comprehensive and humane immigration reform that keeps families together. Then we can use our money on what we actually need, like disaster relief.

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Juniper Removal is a Red Herring

Fri, 2019-09-06 15:46

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has launched a massive juniper removal project in Idaho and plans to expand it throughout the Great Basin. Juniper is a common native species that grow in arid landscapes along with sagebrush and grasses.

The rationale given for the juniper removal is to improve sage grouse habitat. However, that is a red herring. The real reason is to create more forage for private livestock. Juniper removal gives the public the impression that the agencies are doing “something” to enhance sage grouse survival.

The BLM and the livestock industry suggest that juniper deforestation will benefit sage grouse because the juniper is occasionally used as perches by avian predators.

There are no studies that I’m aware of that demonstrate that use of juniper as perches by sage grouse raptor predators is common.

Furthermore, much of the habitat where juniper removal is occurring is steeper ground not typically utilized by sage grouse.

There is one paper that suggests that juniper removal potentially increases sage grouse nest and adult survival by up to 25% which they attribute to removal of perches for birds of prey.  However, like other papers, the authors do not demonstrate that birds of prey are the main culprit for sage grouse mortality. They assume that juniper removal reduces avian predator losses, but the evidence is not conclusive.

Ravens, another bird that occasionally preys on nests and eggs, will use scattered juniper for perches. However, this does not appear to be common.

Plus there is evidence that the presence of livestock (dead livestock and afterbirth) leads to higher raven numbers.

However, many studies show that birds of prey like golden eagles use fence posts for perching.  In areas where junipers have been removed, sage grouse tend to avoid the areas that have fences.

Besides, up to 30% of the mortality of sage grouse in some areas is due to collision with fences. Thus, if the BLM were genuinely concerned about the future of sage grouse, it would be eliminating or decreasing fences, not juniper.

Livestock degrades sagebrush habitat by eating and trampling and thereby, decreasing the hiding cover of grass exposing the bird to higher predation losses.

The bulk of BLM lands are in poor to fair condition, meaning grass cover is less than desirable. It’s possible that removing or reducing livestock grazing might lead to much higher sage grouse survival than juniper removal.  However, this alternative is never considered by the BLM due to its strong alliance to the livestock industry.

Livestock production also impacts sage grouse by the damage done to wetlands and riparian areas from trampling, the resultant soil compaction, and loss of vegetative cover due to livestock grazing. Sage grouse chicks are dependent on these wet areas where they feed on insects and specific flowers.

Livestock water troughs are used by mosquitoes that carry West Nile Virus, which can cause significant mortality in sage grouse.

Sage grouse avoid flying over vast expanses of non-sagebrush habitat created by hay fields. Considering many valley bottoms around the West have been converted to hay production, the resulting habitat fragmentation is significant.

Perhaps one of the main ways that livestock production harms sage grouse is by the spread of cheatgrass. Cheatgrass is an alien annual grass that is highly flammable. Cheatgrass spread is facilitated by livestock due to the selective grazing of native grasses. Removal of native grasses by livestock gives cheatgrass a competitive advantage in the competition for resources like water.

Furthermore, cattle hooves trample soil biocrusts, which generally grow in the spaces between native bunchgrasses. Biocrusts inhibit the establishment of cheatgrass.

Collectively all these livestock production factors create a “headwind” for sage grouse survival in many parts of the West. (Energy production, conversion of sagebrush habitat to wheat and hayfields, and so forth are also factors in sage grouse decline).

Another problem associated with the BLM justification for juniper removal is the use of old ideas about juniper and fire. According to the standard party line given by range conservationists and range professors (both of whom indirectly work on behalf of the livestock industry), juniper is “invading” due to “fire suppression.”

This myth was created by a range professor from Oregon State University Range Department who asserted that since range fires were frequent and low severity, burning sagebrush ecosystems every 10-25 years. Such recurrent blazes would logically preclude the establishment of juniper except on rocky sites and other areas where a fire was excluded.

However, more recent research has concluded that most sagebrush species typically burn on a 50-400 year fire rotation. So this creates a problem for the BLM argument that “frequent” fires limited juniper since it turns out that fires were not that regular.

In a more recent review of juniper fire ecology, the researchers concluded that “spreading, low-severity surface fires were likely not common.” Instead of low severity fires, the researchers found that “nearly all observed fires since EuroAmerican settlement in these woodlands were high-severity fires.”

Several more recent studies on juniper have verified this long rotation. For instance, a survey conducted in Dinosaur National Monument found that juniper fire rotations were 550 years. Similar long fire rotations of 400 years in one case, 480 years in the other have been reported.

Therefore, much of what is viewed as juniper “expansion” may be recolonization after high severity fires. Climate change may also be contributing to juniper expansion.  Juniper establishment only occurs when there are favorable conditions for seed production and seedling survival.  Seedling survival is better in disturbed rangelands where livestock have decreased the competition from other vegetation.

All of which the BLM appears to ignore because it doesn’t fit the paradigm that justifies juniper removal.

The BLM does not address that juniper removal, and the disturbance that comes with it promotes the establishment and spread of cheatgrass. The highly flammable cheatgrass by shortening the regular fire rotation is a far greater threat to sagebrush ecosystems and sage grouse survival than the presence of juniper.

It’s essential to keep in mind that range conservationists and/or range professors/researchers whose jobs depend on the continuation of livestock grazing are the primary advocates of juniper removal. Just follow the money.

To the degree, that juniper removal might, in some cases, benefit sage grouse is a distraction or smoke screen. The more significant factors contributing to sage grouse declines, which include the cumulative impacts of livestock production continued to be ignored.

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Capitalism, Socialism, and Existential Despair

Fri, 2019-09-06 15:46

Decades ago, Edward Said remarked that contemporary life is characterized by a “generalized condition of homelessness.” Decades earlier, Heidegger had written that “Homelessness is coming to be the destiny of the world.” Around the same time, fascists were invoking the themes of blood and soil, nation, race, community, as intoxicating antidotes to the mass anonymity and depersonalization of modern life. Twenty or thirty years later, the New Left, in its Port Huron Statement, lamented the corruption and degradation of such values as love, freedom, creativity, and community:

Loneliness, estrangement, isolation describe the vast distance between man and man today. These dominant tendencies cannot be overcome by better personnel management, nor by improved gadgets, but only when a love of man overcomes the idolatrous worship of things by man…

Over a hundred years earlier, Karl Marx had already understood it was capitalism that was responsible for all this collective anguish. “All fixed, fast-frozen relations…are swept away,” he wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…” Home, community, the family, one’s very relation to oneself—all are mediated by money, the commodity function, “reification,” exploitation of one form or another.

And now here we are in 2019, when the alienation and atomization have reached such a state that it seems as if the world is in danger of ending. The phenomenology, the “structure of feeling,” of living in this society is that everything is transient and “up in the air,” human survival is in question, a hectored, bureaucratized anonymity chases us from morning till night, nothing really matters, no one gets their just deserts. Young people are refraining from having children. There is certainly no collective sense of belonging—that’s long gone. We’re les étrangers, passively consuming distractions as we wait for the other shoe to drop.

Meanwhile, we read of little else but agonized suffering, from children in cages to rainforests burning, from opioid epidemics to rampaging neofascists.

The case for socialism is usually made, rightly, from the perspective of its justice. It would be just to have economic and social democracy, for one thing because it is intrinsically right that people not be forced to rent themselves to a business owner who exploits them for profit but instead that they collectively control economic activities and distribute rewards as they see fit. Moreover, economic democracy, whether in the form of worker cooperatives or democratic government control, would essentially make impossible the extreme income inequality that corrodes political democracy and ultimately unravels the social fabric.

But it’s also worth broadcasting the message that even from an existentialist point of view, our only hope is socialism. Certain types of conservatives (usually religious) like to complain about the demise of the family, the community, non-hedonistic interpersonal ties, and the sense of meaning in our lives, a demise for which they blame such nebulous phenomena as secularism, “humanism,” communism, and liberalism. That is, everything except what really matters: capitalism, the reduction of multifaceted life to the monomaniacal pursuit of profit, property, and power. So these conservatives end up in the realm of fascism or neofascism, which promises only to complete the destruction of family and community.

The truth is that only socialism, or an economically democratic society in which there is no capitalist class, could possibly usher in a world in which the existentialist howl of Camus and Sartre didn’t have universal resonance. Mass loneliness, “homelessness,” and the gnawing sense of meaninglessness are not timeless conditions; they’re predictable expressions of a commoditized, privatized, bureaucratized civilization. Do away with the agent of enforced commoditization, privatization, and hyper-bureaucratization-for-the-sake-of-social-control—i.e., the capitalist class—and you’ll do away with the despair that arises from these things.

It’s true that the current suicide epidemic in the U.S. and the mental illness epidemic around the world have more specific causes than simply “capitalism.” They have to do with high unemployment, deindustrialization, underfunded hospitals and community outreach programs, job-related stress, social isolation, etc. In other words, they have to do with the particularly vicious and virulent forms that capitalism takes in the neoliberal period. But long before this period, widespread disaffection and mental illness characterized capitalist society.

Now, in light of global warming and ecological destruction, it’s possible that humanity won’t last much longer anyway, in which case capitalism will never be overcome and our collective existential anguish is perfectly appropriate. But nothing is certain at this point. Except that we have a moral imperative to do all we can to fight for socialism. “By any means necessary.” It is what justice demands, and it offers the only hope that even we privileged people—not to mention the less privileged majority—can know what it is to truly have a home.

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Jerome Powell, Labor Day Hero?

Fri, 2019-09-06 15:46

The Federal Reserve Board chair might seem an odd pick of a person to honor on Labor Day, but he really does deserve some recognition. In addition to dealing with incoherent tirades from the whiner-in-chief, Jerome Powell has led a hugely important shift in the focus of the Fed.

Powell has explicitly made the plight of the poor and working-class part of the Fed’s agenda. He began his speech at the Fed’s recent annual meeting in Wyoming by noting the unemployment rate for people of color, increasing wages for those at the bottom end of the wage distribution, and efforts by employers to offer training to attract workers with fewer skills.

It is almost inconceivable that Powell’s predecessors would have begun an important talk on monetary policy this way. In the past, monetary policy was a story about inflation and the risks of future inflation; the prospects of the disadvantaged did not figure into the picture.

Of course, Powell did not get to this place on his own. There was a concerted effort by the Fed Up Coalition, organized by the Center for Popular Democracy, to force the Fed to broaden its focus. This coalition included members of labor unions and community groups across the country. I am proud to have been able to work with Fed Up, along with a number of other progressive economists.

Fed Up organized meetings with then-chair Janet Yellen, as well as with presidents of the 12 district banks and other members of the board of governors. The message we tried to send was that the Fed’s decisions on interest rates had a very direct impact on the lives of people in disadvantaged areas.

The unemployment rate for blacks is typically twice the unemployment rate for whites. For black teens, the ratio is close to six-to-one. Unemployment for Latinos tends to be roughly one-and-a-half times the unemployment rate for whites. This means that even small changes in the overall unemployment rate, which is usually close to the unemployment rate for whites, have a large impact on the employment prospects for more disadvantaged groups.

We also pointed out that wage growth for these groups largely depends on the strength of the overall labor market. Those higher up the wage ladder may have enough bargaining power to grow their paychecks even in a weak labor market. But, for those at the bottom end of the ladder, a low unemployment rate is an essential component of their bargaining power.

Fortunately, Yellen, Powell and others at the Fed took these arguments seriously. It may seem hard to believe today, but back in 2014 there were many economists, including many at the Fed, who wanted the Fed to raise interest rates and slow the economy when the unemployment rate was still over 5%.

They argued that if the unemployment rate fell below that rate, inflation would pick up, and then the Fed would then have to raise interest rates rapidly to slow it. Fed Up insisted that there was little evidence that lower rates of unemployment would lead to any sharp spike in inflation. We reasoned there was little risk from delaying rate increases and allowing the economy to continue to expand at a healthy pace and for unemployment to fall further.

That reasoning turned out to be right. Millions more people have jobs this Labor Day than would have been the case if the inflation hawks had carried the day. As Powell noted in his opening comments, wages have been rising faster than prices for those at the bottom of the wage ladder. And employers are making efforts to recruit people, such as those with criminal records, who they otherwise would not have been interested in hiring.

None of this takes away from the hardships that tens of millions of low- and middle-class people still face. A few moderately good years does not reverse decades of upward redistribution and an even longer legacy of slavery and racism. But we should welcome real improvements when they occur, and Powell deserves some of the credit.

This article originally appeared in the New York Daily News.

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Defying the Nuclear Sword

Fri, 2019-09-06 15:45

“. . . and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

These lost words — Isaiah 2:4 — are nearly 3,000 years old. Did they ever have political traction? To believe them today, and act on them, is to wind up facing 25 years in prison. This is how far we haven’t come over the course of what is called “civilization.”

Meet the Kings Bay Plowshares 7: Liz McAlister, Steve Kelly, Martha Hennessy, Patrick O’Neill, Clare Grady, Carmen Trotta and Mark Colville. These seven men and women, Catholic peace activists ranging in age from their mid-50s to late 70s, cut open the future, you might say, with a pair of bolt cutters a year and a half ago — actually they cut open a wire fence — and, oh my God, entered the Kings Bay Naval Base, in St. Mary’s, Ga., without permission.

The Kings Bay Naval base, Atlantic home port of the country’s Trident nuclear missile-carrying submarines, is the largest nuclear submarine base in the world.

The seven committed their act of symbolic disarmament on April 4, 2018, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. Here’s what they did, according to the Plowshares 7 website: “Carrying hammers and baby bottles of their own blood,” they went to three sites on the base — the administration building, a monument to the D5 Trident nuclear missile and the nuclear weapons storage bunkers — cordoned off the bunkers with crime scene tape, poured their blood on the ground and hung banners, one of which contained an MLK quote: “The ultimate logic of racism is genocide.” Another banner read: “The ultimate logic of Trident is omnicide.”

They also spray-painted some slogans (such as “May love disarm us all”), left behind a copy of Daniel Ellsberg’s book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, and, oh yeah, issued an indictment of the U.S. military for violating the 1968 U.N. Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, signed by 190 countries (including the United States).

Article VI of the treaty reads: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

Then they waited to be arrested.

The plowshares movement has been taking actions like this since 1980. The Kings Bay action was approximately the hundredth.

Three of the seven have been in prison ever since, and the other four, who were able to make bail, have had to wear ankle bracelets, limiting and monitoring their movement. In early August — indeed, between the anniversaries of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — the seven testified at a U.S. District Court hearing in Brunswick, Ga. The charges were not dismissed and their trial date is set for Oct. 21.

What will happen, of course, is anyone’s guess. One of the defendants, Martha Hennessy (granddaughter of Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day), put the question this way: “Will we be allowed to speak?”

That is to say, will the judge give the defendants and their legal team a chance to open the case to the size of humanity’s future — the omnicidal danger represented by the nuclear weapons in U.S. possession — or will she insist on limiting the case to the matter of trespassing and damaging (or belittling) government property?

“We took these actions to say the violence stops here, the perpetual war stops here — at Kings Bay, and all the despair it represents,” said defendant Clare Grady. “We took these actions grounded in faith and the belief that Jesus meant what He said when He said, ‘Love your enemies,’ and in so doing offers us our only option for hope.”

In other words, will this trial truly be equal to the “crime” that it’s about? The crime is the possibility of nuclear annihilation, the death of hundreds of millions of people — and the fact that there is no way to hold a nation accountable . . . at least not this nation . . . for its arrogant possession and ongoing development of weapons of mass destruction.

Just for a moment, try to imagine national policy based on “love your enemies.”

The mind stops, crying out: Are you kidding me? What could possibly seem more absurd? What could possibly ignite more cynicism? Hitler, Munich, blah blah blah. National policy, especially for the world’s dominant superpower, is based on the threat of unrelenting force. O Kings Bay Plowshares 7, what were you thinking? Globally speaking, nothing but force is possible, or imaginable without a dismissive snort.

But then a pause sets in: “and they shall beat their swords into plowshares.”

This concept, bigger than any specific religion, has failed (so far) to alter history. Preparing for and waging war has dominated human collective action throughout recorded history, and for nearly three-quarters of a century now, the human race (or a fragment of it), has been in possession of weapons of mass destruction, and some of the guardians continually plan to use them.

Here, for instance, is a single sentence from the Nuclear Operations Handbook, which was mistakenly uploaded by the Pentagon last June, then quickly removed from public access, but not before the Federation of American Scientists got ahold of it and reposted it: “Nuclear forces must be prepared to achieve the strategic objectives defined by the President.”

Strategic objectives? Our current president, the guy with access to the button, recently suggested nuking hurricanes, a preposterous idea that would essentially use their winds to spread radiation. “Usable nukes” are being developed, and the United States is a country married to endless war, not to mention gerrymandering, voter suppression and a commitment to making certain that peace remains politically marginalized and beyond the reach of public opinion — thus guaranteeing that there is no way to bring political accountability to our insane nuclear stockpile.

Enter the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, trespassing in defiance of this crime against the future. Ordinary citizens have begun to hold the nation, and its military, accountable.

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Kamala Harris, Another Establishment Candidate

Fri, 2019-09-06 15:45

Everyone knows that Joe Biden—with his long history of serving corporate interests, is an establishment candidate. There are others like New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who, because of large contributions from people like Mark Zuckerberg is also known as the “Senator from Silicon Valley.” He votes with his Valley and Big Pharma funders. Kamala Harris is less well known as an establishment candidate. Her true colors can be illustrated by her personal political history, by the staff she has assembled to run her campaign, by the funding and favorable media attention that she receives from the powers that be and by the numerous identity rather than class politics policy proposals she is putting forward.

Kamala Harris’s Political History

Much of Harris’s early political history is obscure, but we do know that she was an unknown 29 year-old lawyer in the early 1990s when her career was kick-started through a romantic relationship with master politico Willie Brown (Los Angeles Times January 21, 2019; San Francisco Chronicle January 26, 2019). Brown was not only the Speaker of the Californian State Assembly; he was also a central figure in the San Francisco Bay Area Democratic Party political machine. Brown likely saw both Harris’s beauty and identity politics potential, a rare combination of female, African-American and Asian-American. Bright, well-educated and ambitious, Harris and her family came from the professional class that usually serves and aspires to join the rich and powerful. Her maternal grandfather was an Indian diplomat, her Jamaican born father was a Stanford economics professor, and her mother was a cancer scientist. Power broker Brown appointed Harris to two state boards–the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board and the Medical Assistance Commission–that paid well for very little work. Brown also introduced her to other key members of the Bay Area Democratic political machine–people like Dianne Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi–and some of the machine’s wealthy backers, all of whom could help her with fundraising, endorsements and staffing for electoral campaigns. This gave Harris the opening she needed to use her smarts and talent to successfully run for San Francisco City Attorney (served 2004-2011), State Attorney General (served 2011-2017), and the U.S. Senate (beginning in 2017), all after ending the relationship with Brown. Once in office, Harris became known for her lavish personal lifestyle, using campaign and other funds for first-class air travel and upscale hotels which routinely cost $800 to $1000 a night, topping out in one instance at $1,722.59 for one nights’ stay. One former aide commented that “Kamala demands a life of luxury.”

Once in office as a prosecutor, Harris clearly failed to pursue social and economic justice for the broader public which should be the true aim of anyone in the people’s service, including law enforcement. Instead, she favored corporate criminals like Steven Mnuchin (now Trump’s Secretary of the Treasury), who raked in millions as the CEO of OneWest Bank from 2009-2015. Investigations of home foreclosures by prosecutors in Harris’s own office of the California State Attorney General in 2013 found that OneWest had illegally backdated massive numbers of key documents, violated notice and waiting periods, as well as gamed foreclosure auctions to deprive tens of thousands of California’s homeowners of their property. All this to the benefit of Mnuchin and OneWest. The violations were in the thousands, summed up as “widespread misconduct” by leaders of the Attorney General’s own Consumer Law Section. They recommended a civil enforcement action against the bank, even writing up a sample legal complaint, but, despite their urgings, Harris refused to prosecute the case. Mnuchin and billionaire George Soros, an investor in OneWest, both evidentially appreciated what Harris did: each of them made a generous campaign contribution to Harris’s 2016 Senate campaign.

In sharp contrast to the kid-glove treatment of corporations and the rich, Kamala Harris was harsh and unrelenting toward rank-and-file people accused of crimes even when there was clearly false testimony and evidence tampering used to convict. The story is a long one, studied and recounted in depth by San Francisco School of Law Professor Lara Bazelon and published January 17, 2019 in The New York Times. Bazelon concluded that Kamala Harris was not a “progressive prosecutor,” writing that “time after time, when progressives urged her to embrace criminal justice reforms as a district attorney and then the state’s attorney general, Ms. Harris opposed them or remained silent. Most troubling, Ms. Harris fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions that had been secured through official misconduct that included evidence tampering, false testimony and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors.” Harris even refused to investigate officer-involved shootings when called upon by the California State Legislature and appealed a ruling by a federal judge in Orange County that the death penalty was unconstitutional, bizarrely arguing that the ruling undermined defendant protections!

She also promoted and succeeded in getting a law criminalizing parental conduct when their children were truant from school. Some parents were in fact prosecuted. The real reasons for truancy – poverty, drug use, survival issues for parents, lack of community support – were ignored in this law which disproportionately affected low-income people of color.

Staffing for a Presidential Run

Kamala Harris’s earlier campaigns and cross-endorsements (candidates agree to endorse each other) allowed her to build up the key staff needed for a presidential campaign. Here members of her family became central, together with a reliance on an informal alliance with Hillary Clinton. Clinton and Harris endorsed each other in 2016, Harris was an enthusiastic supporter of Clinton and has recruited a number of Hillary Clinton’s staff for her own campaign. These two themes come together in the person of Harris’s sister and presidential campaign chair Maya Harris. Maya Harris, formally an official with the Ford Foundation, is currently a commentator for the MSNBC, one of the three key cable news outlets (with Fox and CNN) covering the presidential campaign. Positive news coverage for media favored candidates is a key feature of presidential campaigns in the U.S., and having a connection to possibly receive this kind of advantage is central to a successful campaign. Maya Harris also has other important ties to key political networks. In 2015 Hillary Clinton appointed her to lead a small team of policy advisers to develop the agenda for Clinton’s 2016 campaign. Then she became a senior policy adviser for Clinton in 2016. Maya Harris also brings to the table membership in the Council on Foreign Relations, “Wall Street’s Think Tank” with the numerous connections and favorable treatment that membership in this 5000-plus member capitalist class think tank brings. The Council (CFR) is the world’s most powerful private organization, the ultimate networking, socializing, strategic planning, and consensus-forming institution of the dominant U.S. plutocratic billionaire class, the think tank of monopoly-finance capital. Its connections extend deeply into key American corporations, leading media, top universities, powerful non-profits, foundations, other think tanks and international organizations, as well as meetings groups like the Bilderberg group, Trilateral Commission, and Davos (see Laurence H. Shoup, Wall Street’s Think Tank: The Council on Foreign Relations and the Empire of Neoliberal Geopolitics 1976-2019, Monthly Review Press).

Just to cite one concrete example of corporate and CFR connections, Maya’s employer, MSNBC, was founded in 1996 as a partnership of General Electric’s NBC unit and Microsoft. Microsoft has since divested its interest, leaving GE/NBC in charge. GE has many CFR connections and Council members in leading roles in MSNBC include Brian Williams, Mica Brzezinski, Joe Scarborough, and Andrea Mitchell (who is also Council member Alan Greenspan’s wife). The CFR’s broad network also includes key print media, resulting in favorable coverage for some candidates. For example, the Financial Times (FT), a “world business newspaper” has a special relationship with the Council, the FT often has CFR leaders, staff, and active members writing opinion pieces for it, and the Council often invites key FT staff to speak at one of their two headquarters. The FT had a long favorable article on Kamala in their weekend edition June 22-23, 2019 ending by quoting a political strategist who concluded that Kamala “obviously has great political talent” (Financial Times June 22/23, 2019 Life and Arts: 18-19). Another FT opinion writer stated that if you are looking for someone “…who could beat Donald Trump next year, the answer without a shadow of a doubt is Californian Senator Kamala Harris” (Financial Times June 29/30, 2019:9). Having a CFR member as her sister and campaign chair means that a Kamala Harris administration would very likely bring many Council on Foreign Relations members into government and into leading roles in the policy formation process. Having the FT on your side means that wealthy campaign donors and other media outlets will take you seriously.

Kamala’s family’s corporate ruling class connections do not end with her sister, because Maya’s husband is Tony West, a leading corporate lawyer whose father was an IBM executive. West is politically close to Kamala, he co-chaired her 2016 Senate campaign, and recently stated that he is with her 100% (San Francisco Chronicle July 14, 2019). West was chief counsel for Pepsi Cola, a giant multinational corporation prior to taking his current job. He is now the highly paid chief counsel for Uber. Uber’s business model relies on maintaining that their working class drivers are not employees and so not subject to regulations on wages and benefits. This means that West is a central figure defending the interests of the company’s owners against the claims of their exploited drivers. Many Uber drivers want the status of employees so they can gain minimum wages, paid holidays, healthcare and other benefits. Australia’s workplace regulator ruled that Uber drivers are not employees, but a U.K. court ruled they are. Uber’s legal team, led by Tony West as chief counsel, has now appealed this ruling to the U.K. Supreme Court.

Kamala Harris’s other staff members represent a combination of people connected to the Bay Area Democratic Party political machine, former Barack Obama operatives, and former Hillary Clinton staff members. The connection with Clinton appears especially close. Besides Maya Harris at least four other top staff members for Kamala played similar roles in Clinton’s 2016 campaign. General counsel Mark Elias was general counsel for Clinton in 2016; communications director Lily Adams was Iowa communications director for Clinton in 2016; media consultant Jim Margolis served in the same role for Clinton in 2016; and advance director Joyce Kazadi served in an identical role for Hillary in 2016.

The Kamala Harris connection to Hillary Clinton extends to at least on one Hillary’s election clients. A firm named Legion AVS worked for Hillary for America. Harris hired this firm to organize her kickoff rally in Oakland. Legion AVS was reportedly paid $485,000 to organize this one, evidently lavish event. The Oakland Police Department was also paid $187,000, and there were other expenses. So this one event cost the Harris campaign in excess of $672,000, quite a sum for an event of this kind.


The U.S. system of private political campaign funding gives the wealthy corporate ruling class a key way to influence politicians in what is a carefully managed “democracy.” Publicly funded election systems that are much more democratic exist in many nations, but not in the U.S.

Running a successful presidential campaign requires a serious amount of money, especially for staff and political ads. Where a given candidate gets this money is one key to whom this candidate ultimately owes allegiance. In this realm, as in her political history and staff, Kamala Harris clearly represents the corporate class. So far in the 2020 campaign, Harris is the queen of large donations, just as Bernie Sanders is the king of small donations. Open Secrets, which tracks campaign funding, found that Harris received the largest amount from large donors among the 16 candidates then in the 2020 race when it did the study (Joe Biden had not yet reported).

Data from the Center for Responsive Politics offers more specifics. CRP found that as of mid-April 2019, over 85% of Harris’s donations came in the form of checks for $1000 or more. Lawyers for the giant Paul Weiss multinational law firm are Harris’s biggest single donor. Among their key clients are GE, Exxon-Mobil, IBM and Avon. Members of other top law firms also give heavily to Harris, including DLA Piper and Venable LLP. DLA Piper is another global law firm with offices in 40 different nations. Piper’s clients include over one-half of all top Fortune 250 corporations, and is often number 1 ranked annually in mergers and acquisitions deal volume. Piper also has a strategic alliance with the Cohen business consulting group. William Cohen, a Republican and a former director of the CFR, is chair and CEO of this group, which includes several other Council members among their vice chairs and senior counselors. Venable LLP is Kamala Harris’s husband Douglas Emhoff’s law firm. It is paid well to lobby government for leading corporations like GE, Time-Warner, Oracle, Met Life, Fiat Chrysler, American Express, American Airlines, Allianz, and Hilton. These corporations would obviously have an inside advantage in a Harris Administration. Other prominent corporations which have given thousands to Kamala Harris include Time-Warner; Alphabet/Google; Wells Fargo Bank; Apple. Microsoft and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, whose grossly biased coverage helped Trump get elected in 2016. All of these giant corporations have good reasons to try to influence a potential Democratic administration. Just to cite one example, Alphabet/Google has been fined over $8 billion by the European Union for anti-trust violations, something that could be repeated in the U.S. (Financial Times June 6, 2019:14).

Additionally, in late May, 2019, Harris was the star at a San Francisco fundraiser hosted by oil billionaires Gordon and Ann Getty and attended by California Governor Gavin Newsome, who is also part of the Bay Area Democratic political machine (San Francisco Chronicle May 26, 2019:A15). Newsome has also endorsed Harris for president. The list of other, likely very wealthy ruling class attendees has not yet been reported.

Policy Proposals, The Context

To fully comprehend Harris’s (or any presidential candidate’s) policy proposals, one has to first understand some key facts about the complexity of American society and its power dynamics. The U.S. is a racialized, multicultural class society, which, according to the 2010 census, is made up of about 56% people from European (“white”) background; 16% Latino background; 13% African (“black”) background; 5% Asian and only a few percent from Native American, Native Hawaiian, mixed race and “other” background. These facts need to be kept in mind, plus the historical reality of eons of patriarchy, victimizing females; hundreds of years of slavery, victimizing Africans; as well as genocide against Native Americans. This class society has at the top of the economic and political power hierarchy a relatively small group of very wealthy capitalist families (the capitalist ruling class), about 5% of the total population. They own enough capital to live well without entering the nation’s labor market. This 5% owns fully 63% of the wealth of the United States. The next most powerful group is a professional class of experts, (often inaccurately called the “middle class”) amounting to about 30% of the population and mostly serving this ruling capitalist class. This top 35% is well-educated and predominantly European-America The remaining approximately 65% of the population is properly called the working class, people who have few assets and have to enter the labor market to survive. This working class is racially, ethnically and economically diverse, including both the relatively well-paid and those receiving minimum wages and below. There are many other cleavages: cultural, political, and language among this working class, making it difficult to unite the class to fight for its own interests. This difficulty is made more acute by the fact that the main means of education and communication (especially universities and mass media outlets) are fully controlled by the capitalist class and their professional class allies.

The messages that the powerful want to send to the majority are that identity, individual characteristics constructed and stressed by society such as one’s racial/ethnic background, gender, religion, age, sexual orientation, and culture are what is central, not one’s material/class position in economy and society. Differences, not commonalities are affirmed. Except among the capitalist ruling class, where class consciousness is very high, class is mainly left out of the discussion and is mainly missing from people’s consciousness. This is in line with the long used divide-and-conquer strategy and tactics on the part of the nation’s and world’s rulers dating centuries. Thus identity politics is an easy way to unite a sector of society, those who feel powerless, aggrieved or fearful such as white workers exploited by corporations or African-Americans who are racialized and oppressed by the dominant society. This focus on the individual creates a divided society, without strong community bonds, with the majority working class fighting among themselves, right in line with what those at the top and in control want. Political alliances are then forged based on divided identities, not the potential unity and power of the majority working class. This approach allows the right wing white nationalist form of identity politics to advance and become powerful, since white people are a majority, and are often a large majority in rural areas and in places like the Midwestern section of the U.S. This is why Steve Bannon, a key theorist of the right wing in the U.S. and worldwide, stated that he could not “get enough” of the left’s “race-identity politics…the longer they talk about identity politics, I got them…I want them to talk about racism every day.”

To counteract the right, diversity must be thought of in a holistic way, since our personal (identity) and our economic (class based) lives are completely intertwined in a cultural and economic totality. Therefore, class, usually left out, must be brought into the conversation in a decisive way. The capitalist social relations that give rise to identity politics can best be overturned and people’s real problems solved by confronting capitalism and the corporate and other powers that be. Identity politics is actually harmful to the real interests of oppressed groups because it diverts attention from the real problems, creating division and confusion. Maximum unity of the working class through a class based politics “for all and the good of all” must be the true goal of progressive and left people.

The Harris Policy Proposals—Specifics

Kamala Harris is strongly wedded to identity politics as a way of gaining support in her quest for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. This obscures the fact that she herself is part of the corporate capitalist ruling class. With her policy proposals she focuses on specifics like woman’s issues (abortion and equal pay); advocacy for immigrant dreamers; “moderate” health care reform, background checks on guns; advances in marriage equality; higher minimum wage; prison reform (Harris was a zealous prosecutor, she even stated that she was “as close to vigilante as you can get,” but then, once a victim was locked up, “reforms” in terms of training for the life outside became appropriate for Harris). Indicative of the Harris identity politics approach was the first debate confrontation she had with fellow candidate Joe Biden over busing, when she pointed out that as an African-American child she was bused and so knew first-hand what it was like. But the central, and broader, class-based issues behind busing like enforced residential segregation, poverty and poor schools for working class people were not mentioned.

Tellingly, Harris’s approach to the environment and clean energy is to use “market forces” to speed up implementation of programs like the limited Democratic Party’s version of the Green Party’s Green New Deal. All this reinforces the fact that Harris represents the liberal wing of the neoliberal program, where identity politics and capitalist market forces are dominant and class issues are downplayed or left out entirely.

Summary and Conclusion

This article has illustrated in some detail, through her political history, staffing, family connections, campaign funding and policy positions that Kamala Harris is an establishment candidate, a Clinton clone backed by the corporate ruling class and its close allies. She is only pretending to be “for the people” (her campaign slogan). Furthermore, Harris is playing into the hands of the right wing by focusing on divisive identity politics instead of unifying working class politics. A class based program for human rights for all is what is needed, for health care for everyone as a human right, full employment at living wages, free education, affordable housing ensured by the federal government, adequate retirement funding and a clean environment, saving our planet based on the strongest version of a Green New Deal. Confrontation with the corporate and wealthy powers that be is necessary to achieve this program, and is also the road to winning the unity of the vast majority, defeating Trump and moving rapidly toward a just society with ecological sanity.

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Ottawa Goes to Havana to Talk Venezuela, Returns Empty-Handed.

Fri, 2019-09-06 15:43

Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland has just concluded a working visit to Cuba on August 28 intended to discuss the “crisis in Venezuela” with her Cuban counterpart Bruno Rodriguez. A reading of the news release from the Ministry indicates that there were no tangible results aside from a statement that the two foreign ministers had “different perspectives on the crisis in Venezuela”, having agreed to disagree, and that “senior officials would stay in contact and continue to exchange views”.

If Ottawa’s intention was to break the close Cuba-Venezuela relationship, that is as close to a diplomatic statement of failure as it gets. Cuba on the other hand has been much more explicit about the “different perspectives” in its official Cuban Foreign Ministry website stating, “the Cuban minister reiterated the firm and unchanging solidarity of Cuba with the Constitutional President Nicolás Maduro Moros, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and the civic-military union of its people.” It also added, “he proposed to Canada to contribute to [the] elimination” of U.S. unilateral coercive measures that hurt the Venezuelan people.

This impasse raises more questions than it answers.

This has been the third visit to Havana by Chrystia Freeland this year. This last visit was preceded by a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Ottawa last August 22. Freeland received Pompeo with lots of praises for him and the wars that Canada has fought alongside the U.S. She also announced the agenda for the meeting, which included the “crisis in Venezuela”.

Few days later Ottawa officially announced that Freeland would travel to Havana to meet with her counterpart, and they would “continue their ongoing discussions on the crisis in Venezuela and the potential for Cuba to play a positive role toward a peaceful resolution.

Was there any formal request for Cuba’s role? What would that role be? Maybe the role required a predetermined outcome? One that Cuba could not accept?

There is no doubt that Cuba is considered an important actor vis-à-vis Venezuela. The U.S. administration perceives Cuba as key to sustaining the Government of Nicolas Maduro. It is not clear how – maybe politically – given that both countries are under severe U.S. economic and financial blockades.

One additional item has been on the agenda: “the United States’ decision to end the suspension of Title III of the Helms-Burton Act.” The U.S. implemented Title III last May 2. Canada immediately responded that Canadians doing business in Cuba are protected under Canadian law against any extraterritorial U.S. legislation. Therefore, this seems to be an issue that does not concern Canada.

What was the point, then, of “discussing” a U.S. law affecting Cuba?

Is it possible that Freeland was bringing the metaphorical carrot (or stick) on behalf of Pompeo to persuade Cuba to break ranks with Venezuela?

We do not know, but we do know that Ottawa is determined to produce a regime change in Venezuela along side Washington in favor of self-appointed “interim” president Juan Guaido. We also know that Freeland is not one that gives up easily.

Do Ottawa or Washington really believe that Havana will break with Caracas in order to benefit from a relief on the U.S. blockade? Unlikely. Cuba has a 60-year-old track record of unbroken resistance.

Given the long-standing diplomatic relationship between Canada and Cuba, Ottawa may have limited capability to put any pressure on Havana without jeopardizing the relationship. But it is still possible to send signals of disapproval. A series of events could be construed as such.

Last January the Canadian government cut back half of its Havana embassy staff claiming health concerns resulting from unproven “sonic attacks”. Later on May 8, following the first visit to Cuba by Freeland in March, Ottawa announced major reduction of consular services in Havana that severely affected Cubans applying for those services. On May 16 Freeland traveled to Cuba again. Then in June, Cuban Bruno Rodriguez visited Ottawa and in late July some consular services are re-established in Havana.

Are the links between these events coincidental, or do they reflect some message in a diplomatic language?

The intensity of the exchanges between Canada and Cuba this year has been quite high. This intensity is only consistent with a high degree of negotiations on important issues, Venezuela being the obvious one. But given the balance of forces between Canada and Cuba we can only assume that Cuba is being pressured to make some significant concession. There is no expectation that Chrystia Freeland will grasp the parallel that Cuba-Venezuela relationship is just as important to the two countries as her professed Canada-U.S. relationship.

At first reading, Chrystia Freeland’s trip to Havana to “talk” Venezuela accomplished nothing of relevance if the intention was to pull Cuba away from Venezuela. How will the Canadian government react to this diplomatic failure?

Source: OneWorld Global Think Tank


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Democrats: To Beat Trump, You Need to Buck Your Leadership

Fri, 2019-09-06 15:43

This essay is for rank-and-file Democrats, which includes friends of mine. (Disclaimer: As many of you know, I’m not a Democrat; my politics are much further to the left. However, in this piece I am wishing you well with your contest.)

Many of you are focused on the 2020 election, which you hope Trump will lose. Of course. But you cannot trust the leadership of your party to do what it takes to make that happen.

If you are serious about putting a Democrat in the White House, you’ll need to do it yourselves, through dint of will and sweat of brow. It’s not impossible. In fact, it’s totally doable. But you need to get on the stick now, and that means educating yourself about the reality of your challenge, which has not been well publicized.

As you know, your candidate, Hillary Clinton, won the popular vote in 2016 by nearly 3,000,000 votes. This is impressive given how unpopular she was as a personality. The good news for 2020 is that virtually anyone nominated from the Democratic fold this time around will have better numbers than her going in. Given that Trump’s approval rate is stalled in the low 40s and his disapproval remains in the mid-50s, it should be no problem to meet and exceed that margin in the popular vote again.

Of course, as you don’t need to be reminded, the 2016 outcome wasn’t decided by the popular vote. Yes, it’s a travesty that the results were decided by the electoral collegean arcane institution put into place to serve the interests of slaveowners (and whose descendants, in both blood and spirit, it is still serving)but you’re not going to make it go away before 2020 (if ever) so you’ll just need to work with it.

Let’s look at the numbers. Trump eked out his 304 vote victory by winning three “battleground” states: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Had Clinton taken them, her electoral total would have been 273 votes, rather than 227: three more than the required 270.

State : Electoral votes : Popular margin
MI : 16 : 10,704
PA : 20 : 44,292
WI : 10 : 22,748

So, Trump “won” with just 77,744 votes. That’s only 0.55% of the 13,967,421 votes cast in those states.

That’s nothing. If that were the whole story, then victory in 2020 would be as simple as flooding those states with volunteers to pound the pavement, knock on doors and register voters; surely the hatred for Trump is strong enough that sufficient people could be rounded up and bussed in for such a campaign. If the party’s national leadership didn’t bother to organize this effort (and there’s certainly no guarantee they would), then party activists could do it themselves, in cooperation with county and state level officials who care about their people.

But the electoral college is not the whole story.

The whole story involves uncounted ballots, voter suppression and other dirty tricks. Nothing that can’t be overcome, but yourank-and-file Democratswill have to face these challenges without the assistance of your national party leadership, who have shown no interest in addressing them.

Let’s look at some details.

Investigative journalist Greg Palast has been a bulldog on on these issues, and I rely heavily on his work for what follows. Palast began his muckraking during the 2000 Bush v. Gore debacle in Florida where he was one of several journalists who demonstrated that Gore would have won there if all the votes had been counted by the state (which they never were). Two months before the 2016 election, Palast released his film, “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy,” and predicted that Trump would win by means of a Republican-connived theft. Post-election, he jumped into the fray, pursued the story relentlessly, and uncovered numerous cases of fraudenough to change the results. His work is very well-documented but the implicationthat US elections are not as free or fair as people would like to thinkis a hot potato for both the mainstream media and the political establishment, including the Democratic party leadership, so we haven’t heard enough about it.

But you, Democratic rank-and-filer, can be more honest and forthright; you can educate yourself on what happened and what’s going on, the better to kick out the orange menace.


What went down in Michigan is a case study of malfeasance, and much of what happened there was repeated elsewhere.

At least 75,355 ballots were not counted there in 2016. What’s more, most of these were from Detroit and Flint, both majority Black cities (82+% and 55+% respectively). According to CNN exit polls, 92% of Black voters in Michigan voted for Hillary. So if half these uncounted ballots were cast by Black voters at that ratio, an additional 34,662 votes would have been tallied in Hillary’s column and given her the state by a margin of 23,958 votes.

These ballots were not counted because they were unreadable by machines. When the oval next to a candidate’s name on the paper ballot was not filled in correctlyi.e., it was checked or was marked with red inkthe machine did not register it and the ballot was set aside. In other cases, no voter error occurred and the machines simply didn’t work. Writes Palast:

How come more ballots were uncounted in Detroit and Flint than in the white ‘burbs and rural counties? Are the machines themselves racist? No, but they are old, and in some cases, busted. An astonishing 87 machines broke down in Detroit, responsible for counting tens of thousands of ballots. Many more were simply faulty and uncalibrated… How did Detroit end up with the crap machines? Detroit is bankrupt, so every expenditure must be approved by “emergency” overlords appointed by the Republican governor. The GOP operatives refused the city’s pre-election pleas to fix and replace the busted machines.

“We had the rollout [of new machines] in our budget,” Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey said. “No money was appropriated by the state.”
Same in Flint. GOP state officials cut the budget for water service there, resulting in the contamination of the city’s water supply with lead. The budget cuts also poisoned the presidential race.

As Palast notes, the human eye is easily capable of identifying a red oval or a check mark as the voter’s intent and tallying it appropriately. The post-election recount in Michigan (kickstarted by Green Party candidate, Jill Stein) would have done just that but the full process was not allowed to go forth. Palast, again:

But Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette stymied Stein’s human eye count. The Republican pol issued an order saying that no one could look at the ballots cast in precincts where the number of votes and voters did not matchexactly the places where you’d want to look for the missing votes. He also ordered a ban on counting ballots from precincts where the seals on the machines had been broken – in other words, where there is evidence of tampering.

Such naked partisanship was not limited to Michigan:

This story was repeated in Wisconsin, which uses the same Opti-Scan system as Michigan. There, the uncounted votes, sometimes called “spoiled” or “invalidated” ballots, were concentrated in Black-majority Milwaukee… GOP state officials authorized Milwaukee County to recount simply by running the ballots through the same blind machines. Not surprisingly, this instant replay produced the same questionable result.

Do you see what happened? Black people still can’t vote. I repeat: Black people still can’t vote. How is this not a big deal? In fact, it’s a scandal of epic proportions. That it hasn’t received the press it deserves speaks to the racism of the media.

Are you mad yet? I hope so, but it gets worse.

Interstate Crosscheck

Arguably the biggest component of the 2016 election theft by the Republicans happened before a single ballot was cast. The Interstate Crosscheck system was devised by Kris Kobach, a Republican Secretary of State in Kansas. Its ostensible purpose was to prevent people from voting or registering to vote in more than one state, although documented instances of this crime are exceedingly rare–in fact, out of 1 billion votes cast, only 31 credible instances of double-voting have been identified. In actuality, Crosscheck was used to purge voters from state rolls on a basis that disproportionally affected Blacks, Latinos and Muslims, all of whom are more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans.

Palast revealed:

An eye-popping 449,092 Michiganders are on the Crosscheck suspect list. The list, which my team uncovered in an investigation for Rolling Stone, cost at least 50,000 of the state’s voters their registrations… The “double voters” are found by simply matching first and last names. Michael Bernard Brown is supposed to be the same voter as Michael Anthony Brown. Michael Timothy Brown is supposed to be the same voter as Michael Johnnie Brown.

In the Keystone State, Interstate Crosscheck listed 344,000 voters as suspect; in North Carolina: 589,000; Arizona: 258,000, Colorado: 769,436, Nevada 90,000, Illinois 500,000. Altogether, 28 states used Crosscheck and over 7,000,000 voters were deemed suspect on extremely flimsy pretenses. (You can view the full list of states and the number of suspect voters here.)

You don’t have to believe Palast alone. A study authored by researchers from Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Penn Universities which examined Crosscheck records estimated that the best possible performance expected from the program would result in the purging of 300 voters for every 1 voter who is possibly—possibly—dubious, with a good chance that this single instance was a clerical error.

As bad as Crosscheck is, and as pervasive its reach was in 2016, it is not an unstoppable behemoth. Palast, teaming up with other organizations, has been suing various states to expose their wrongdoing and pressure them to drop the program. By April of this year, ten states had ceased using Crosscheck, including Arizona, Colorado, Pennsylvania and Illinois. <> These efforts can be supported and expanded by regular citizens pitching in. That’s who’s doing it now, and they’d appreciate the help. Check out the Palast Investigative Fund.

Don’t expect the DNC to lift a finger. So far, they have been uninterested. This one is up to the people to push.

Other Examples of Republican-Sponsored Disenfranchisement

The list of shenanigans the Republicans have been pulling is long. A few lowlights:

* The 2013 gutting of Voting Rights Act: A case paid for by a Republican billionaire went all the way to the Supreme Court, where a key provision of the legislation was struck down: jurisdictions with known histories of racist policies were relieved of the requirement to vet any changes to their voting laws with the federal Justice Department. In a bitter irony, Clarence Thomas was the deciding vote in the 5-4 case. President Obama, with a degree in constitutional law, offered no remedy. Soon after, disenfranchisement ramped up across the nation, hitting people of color the hardest.

* “Purge-by-postcard”: In this method, states mail postcards to voters to “verify” their addresses and if the postcards are not returned, the voter’s registration is canceled. According to Palast, who spoke with direct mail experts and referenced Census research, postcard mailings are not an accurate method of confirming personal information. Return rates vary significantly by income and race, with wealthier, older whites responding more than poorer, younger households and people of color. Additionally, 12% of such mailings “simply go astray.” Republicans are surely aware of who they are casting out this way.

In this way 340,134 voters were falsely purged from the rolls in Georgia in 2017 by Republican Secretary of State, Brian Kemp. After sending out postcards, Kemp removed over 530,000 voters, claiming they had moved. The Palast Investigative Fund hired experts to go over this list and found that 340,134 were still living at the same addresses. Additionally, several thousand were illegally struck for moving within the same county, which is against the law; intra-county moves do not require re-registration for voting. Kemp won his bid for Georgia governor against Democrat Stacey Abrams, who blames her defeat on the voter purges. Through ongoing legal action, the Palast Investigative Fund hopes to restore all these voters their rights by the 2020 election.

* Voter ID laws: Republican lawmakers present these laws as a means of discouraging voter fraud, but their true intent–and actual results–are to disenfranchise voters who are less likely to have a state-issued photo ID. Such people include students, the elderly, the poor and people of color, many or even most of whom lean to the Democrats. Many of these laws have been based on bills written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which is responsible for pushing other reactionary legislation (i.e., against immigrants, worker rights, and the environment, and favoring mandatory sentencing, privatization of public services and deregulation). (See

* Votes not counted: Writes Palast:

The nasty little secret of US elections, is that we don’t count all the votes. In Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania and all over America [in 2016]-there were a massive number of votes that were simply rejected, invalidated, and spoiled. They were simply, not counted. Officially, in a typical presidential election, at least three million votes end up rejected, often for picayune, absurd reasons.
The rejects fall into three big categories: provisional ballots rejected, absentee and mail-in ballots invalidated and in-precinct votes “spoiled,” spit out by a machine or thrown out by a human reader as unreadable or mis-marked.

The process of deciding which ballots to count is undeniably partisan. Palast, again:

Hillary Clinton only won one swing state, Virginia, notably, the only one where the vote count was controlled by Democrats. She lost all swing states-Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arizona, North Carolina and Florida-where the GOP set the rules for counting these ballots and their hacks acted as the judge and jury on whether a ballot should be counted.

Clearly, what we have here is deliberate, repeated election theft by Republicans, who apparently can’t win national office without cheating. They have been nothing if not creative and diligent in their efforts, and so far they have not been adequately challenged.

Summing it up: What To Do

In shortmy Democratic friendsyou’ve got to make sure your people can vote and you’ve got to make sure their votes are counted. This is essential. Without ensuring these two things, preaching about the importance of voting is really hollow.

Your party leadership isn’t going to pursue this. May I remind you that the DNC can’t even be trusted to run an honest primary among its own candidates. This is no conspiracy theory. No less a source than the New York Times revealed (if grudgingly) that Sanders was given short shrift by party leadership in 2016. (For more details, see In These Times and Truthdig.) Riggers aren’t going to oppose rigging.

We have Trump because Republicans stole the election. Not because young people didn’t turn out to vote. Not because of third party “spoilers.” Not because of foreign interference. Hillary won by nearly three million votes and was denied office only because of outright partisan fraud in a handful of states.

If Trump holds on to office after 2020, it won’t be because he won. It will be because he stole it again.

This is your mission, Democratic rank-and-filers, if you choose to accept it: stop waiting for your leadership to do the right thing. They’re not going to. Get out there and do it yourself. Take that hatred for Trump and turn it into meaningful action. Don’t just complainthrow the bum out!

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Migrants Should Automatically be Offered Care, Education, Housing, Food, and the Right to Vote

Fri, 2019-09-06 15:39

Eric Mann: “Twenty years after the Watts rebellions of 1966, black unemployment in South Central Los Angeles has remained virtually unchanged. The main culprits—the closing of Bethlehem Steel, Goodyear and Firestone Rubber, and GM’s Southgate plant. These plants provided good paying unionized jobs, and their workers were stable and creative members of the community.”

Eric Mann wrote the quote above in 1986, a bit before the 1992 LA Riots / Rebellion. In 2019, South Central now South LA still struggles with a job crisis. What has changed is an influx of migrants largely from Central America, marginalized by our constitution, unable to fully participate in building a new South LA. What is the grassroots process by which “illegal” migrants can regenerate a community / district / region’s economy? When the political process is rigged both against legal citizens especially against migrants, and their solidarity should be the way forward? Would offering a first solution to “what process” mentioned above not be offering a solution to a deep and larger crisis?

Life as an “illegal” migrant. A migrant must negotiate a livelihood with the powerful. Powerful here means those who can navigate a city legally without worry and are stable and settled in identity and material life. This negotiation is stunted by a migrant’s illegality despite a migrant”s participation in building the commons. So, despite the fact that interest in the commons (language, economy, neighborhood) intersect and overlap a migrant is never truly able to negotiate for example where one lives, even if this growth has been stunted by the legals, ie a mix of political apathy and corporatism. This creates a paralysis in parts of the body of a city, on top of another paralysis, that of community left behind by corporatism and prejudice. In a republic supposedly founded with the ideas of the enlightenment in mind, in other words under the sign of reason, we perform tribalist citizenship, as some sort of blood rite. Instead, we should allow migration to replenish this country perpetually by allowing migrants to negotiate its present and fate, instead of sitting outside of the boundaries of negotiation.

Let’s concern ourselves with the city as an organizational category, and how migrants are organized (fated) to exist in a new city. Here in this city exchanges between different groups are conflictual and inexistant, and one side is not able to negotiate the city with the other. Certain institutions should stand in the way of such arbitrariness and conflict but the current American crisis is a crisis of many of its institutions that have left the grassroots fighting for a new society. Let us use citizen and participant interchangeably. In this city Migrants are citizens in the economic sense: they (without othering) pay sales tax, labor, consume supply which allows our society to finance itself, produce demand, and help landlords pay property taxes. It’s as simple as that, as Richard Wolff argues in his video on the economics of migration. Politically, however, migrants are excluded from fully participating, though many migrants do for Unions and other political associations. The migrant perspective is dangerously pushed out of the political equation, and has never been allowed to develop our society as part of the demos, for what is citizenship if not for development. What if migrants were granted political citizenship by virtue of being economic citizens? A cosmopolity would emerge, one with a dynamic that addresses the urgency in poverty, and poverty and migration’s perspective on government.

A hybrid would also emerge anywhere, as if already has in the city of Los Angeles, a hybrid that connects migrants with non migrants to produce territories of right and life that can negotiate with political power. This hybrid can be a site, a location, for building future just and prosperous America if embraced, instead of it being a site of conflict between “ethnic groups” and legality versus illegality.

As Richad Sennett writes in The Fall of Public Man, stage and street come together and intermix in 18th century cities, guided by industrial capitalism. In the following essay, I will use Sennett’s above two observations to argue that in LA, a descendant of 18th century city life, theatricality is used to hide a private criticism of the “respectable classes”, a theatricality sourced in mass culture, and private criticism cultivated behind closed doors. This private criticism, in coexistence with the demise of public education and a quickly receding public sphere, is an enemy of both progress and change, but especially an enemy of the migrant. It is time for our democracy to put our private prejudices aside and empower and enfranchise migrants who have and continue to build this country outside of the boundaries of political negotiation (including political economy). It is what is humane, and what will perpetually replenish this country’s culture, economy, and politics.

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The High Price of Fake Degrees

Fri, 2019-09-06 15:37

Like so many aging college people, Pnin had long since ceased to notice the existence of students on the campus.

– Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin

They’re back-the folks in the Education Department.

Remember Betsy DeVos? Trump made her  Secretary of Education.  She had no experience in education but was a big fan and supporter of charter schools in Michigan. Those schools  were, by most measures,  less successful than their public school counterparts and scored much lower on various comparative measures than schools in other states. Nonetheless, she was very wealthy and that, as we have learned over the years, is all that is required for someone to be invited to play in the trump playground.

Remember Diane Auer Jones?  She is a senior adviser to the Department of Education on post-secondary education.  She was an early hire by Betsy. Before starting work there she spent five years as a senior vice-president at Career Education Corporation.

Career Education Corporation was a company in the for- profit education world that in early 2019 agreed to forgive $494 million in student debt as a result of an investigation into its practices by 49 State Attorneys General.  The Attorneys General concluded that Ms.  Jones’ employer had engaged in deceptive tactics in order to recruit students.  Among other things,  the students were charged for vocational programs that did not have the proper accreditation for students to obtain licenses to work in their fields of study. The forgiven loans were for money owed to the institution. The practices in question had all occurred during the time Ms. Jones was a senior vice president at the company.

Now, Mesdames Jones and  DeVos are at it again.  On August 30, 2019 , the Education Department announced that it was making it more difficult for students who had been defrauded by for-profit institutions  to receive relief from their debts. They were reforming rules known as the “borrower defense to repayment” rules.  Those rules had enabled recipients of educational loans to avoid repayment under certain circumstances.

The new rules apply to loans made after July 2020.  The loans significantly tighten up the ability of a student to get a loan discharged when, for example, the for-profit institution closes its doors before the student has graduated.  Under the Obama era rule there was something called  the “automatic closed school discharge.”  That rule provided that, if a for-profit school, such as Ms. Auer’s, closed its doors before a student had gotten a degree, the student could apply to have the loan discharged.  Under the Obama era rules, there was no  time limit on when the student had to apply for debt relief.

Under the DeVos rule the student must apply for relief within three years after the school closing.  As Ms. Auer explained: “We believe that within three years, the borrower will know whether or not there has been misrepresentation.”  In masking that assertion she is probably drawing on her own experience while working at Career Education Corporation.

Under the Obama rules, the student debt was automatically discharged if the student did not enroll elsewhere within three years.  Approximately 20,000 borrowers availed themselves of that provision resulting in the discharge of close to $222 million in student  loans. That will no longer be permitted.

The burden of proof on the student seeking loan forgiveness has been increased.  A student seeking relief will have to prove that the college made a deceptive statement “with knowledge of its false, misleading or deceptive nature or with reckless disregard for the truth” and that the student relied on the statement in deciding to enroll or stay in the school.

The burden the new rules place on students seeking relief from for-profit schools that scammed them,  is offset by the benefit received by the taxpayer.  As Ms. Devos said when announcing the new rules, fraud in higher education “will not be tolerated.”  But, she went on to explain, the  rules include “carefully crafted reforms that hold colleges and universities accountable and treat students and taxpayers fairly.”  The “fairness” means that the amount of student debt being forgiven will be reduced by more than $500 million annually.  Over the next ten years it is estimated that the taxpayers will save more than $11 billion.  The savings to the taxpayers will, of course, rest on the backs of the defrauded students.

Commenting on the new rules, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois said:  “This rule is another Trump-DeVos giveaway to their for-profit college cronies at the expense of defrauded student borrowers.”  Rep. Bobby Scott (D.Va.) said that “the Trump administration is sending an alarming message: Schools can cheat [their] student borrowers and still reap the rewards of federal student aid.”

Betsy DeVos is pleased with the new rule.  So is Diane Auer Jones.  So is Ms. Jones’ former employer.  It is pleased because the new rule makes it less likely that it will be on the hook for paying back students it scammed.  Ms. Jones is pleased because her new position enabled her to do a favor for her former employer and other companies in the student loan business she got to know when working in the business.  Ms. DeVos is pleased because she could do a favor for taxpayers like herself.  It’s a win-win for everyone but the defrauded students.

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Biden’s Unappealing Fundraising Appeal Letter to My Mother

Fri, 2019-09-06 15:30

Dear Joe,

I recently read a fundraising letter from your campaign that was addressed to my mother (by her first name) who turned 101 in 2019. You let her know that you are running for president and need her help. You describe her “as a prominent supporter of the Obama-Biden administration” which was news to me and went on to claim she is “a well-known advocate and leader in the Oakland area.”

Joe, my mom, who passed away in April, never lived in Oakland or in the Oakland area. You could probably ask every resident of Oakland if they ever heard of my mom. With the exception of family members and a small number of friends, they would all say no.

FYI: After she passed away, I arranged to have her mail forwarded to my Oakland address.

How did you come up with this nonsense about my mom? What kind of firm are you using to gather data on potential supporters and funders?

Much of the space of your letter is devoted to going after Trump. On a daily basis, he has proven why he is unfit to hold any office. You describe the time of the Trump regime as an “aberrant moment in time.”

“An aberrant moment in time” suggests your time as vice president was normal. What happened then was, unfortunately, all too typical and ordinary. During those eight years, the Obama-Biden administration failed to prosecute numerous people who had tortured other human beings during Bush’s time in office. It sent more troops into Afghanistan; it escalated the use of drones that killed alleged enemies as well as innocent people; it went to war in Libya; and it failed to vigorously oppose the coup against a democratically elected government in Honduras that resulted in conditions there that have prompted many people to flee to the United States.

Additionally, during the eight years before Trump, serious environmental problems were inadequately addressed as oil production, for which Obama takes credit, increased dramatically.

Furthermore, the Obama-Biden administration backed programs to spend over a trillion dollars over the next 30 years to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal. A news article on the U.S. upgrading of this arsenal quotes Clinton’s Secretary of Defense William Perry saying “the danger of a nuclear catastrophe today is greater than it was during the Cold War.”[1]

In your letter, you bemoan how, under Trump, the gains of “the rising stock market…are only benefitting a few” while “everyday Americans are hurting.” Wasn’t that hurt present when you were vice president and millions were suffering from food insecurity, living in poverty and the wealthiest were accumulating an even greater share of the nation’s wealth than they held under Bush?[2] Have you forgotten that during the great recession, many lost their personal homes to foreclosures while the Bush-Cheney and Obama-Biden administrations provided billions to bailout the financial industry that is predominantly owned by and serves the wealthy?

If what happened during the eight years before Trump is a period of normalcy, many people might prefer a period of abnormality.

You want to stop Trump. You ask my deceased mom to “stand with” you and send you some money by using an enclosed envelope unless she wants to provide money sooner by going to your website. Joe, my mom had not used a computer in years, perhaps accounting for the flawed data you have about her.

You go on to write that if she helps your campaign with a donation, she and you together “will strengthen the backbone of this country—the middle class—so that this time everybody comes along.” And end up where?

This claim about the middle class caused me some confusion. Is the U.S. a society consisting of a few wealthy people with everyone else being in the middle class? You claim the middle class “built” the U.S. Were slaves members of the middle class? Children working in factories? Are farmworkers? Miners? Dishwashers and maids? to name a few.

Sorry Joe, but any reasonable definition would recognize that the vast majority of the U.S. population are not in the middle class, but belong to the working class.

Perhaps a key issue is your desire for “the very wealthy” to “pay their fair share” of taxes because they “should not pay lower tax rates than firefighters or teachers.” What should they pay; the same rate? I visited your website where there is the statement “Economic inequality is pulling this country apart.” The site contains tax proposals that include getting “…rid of the capital gains loophole for multi-millionaires. Warren Buffett said it best: he should not pay a lower tax rate than his secretary.”

During your time as vice-president, the capital gains loophole was maintained. Furthermore, Buffett does not pay taxes on gains in the value of his wealth unless he sells his assets that have increased in value resulting in the gain showing up as income on his tax return. Your proposals will have a minimal impact on the level of wealth inequality especially since most wealth will remain untaxed.

Having Buffett pay his taxes at the same or even a higher rate (which you favor is not clear) than his secretary will result in, at best, his unearned income being taxed at the same rate at which earned income from working is taxed. However, unlike Buffet, those working also have to pay social security taxes. This does not strike me as very fair.

The last part of your letter is devoted to lofty ideals that you claim are centered on the founding principle “that all are created equal” and that “it’s time to treat each other with dignity.” Please tell that to the homeless people living in squalor during the Obama-Biden administration and the millions of children living in poverty while Obama saw fit to spend more money on the military than was spent on it during the Bush regime.[3] In Obama’s words,

“…over the past ten years, since 9/11, our defense budget grew at an extraordinary pace.  Over the next ten years, the growth in the defense budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this—it will still grow, because we have global responsibilities that demand our leadership.  In fact, the defense budget will still be larger than it was toward the end of the Bush Administration.  And I firmly believe, and I think the American people understand, that we can keep our military strong—and our nation secure—with a defense budget that continues to be larger than roughly the next 10 countries combined.”

Your mailing included a card with a picture of you smiling and waving. On the back of the card in big letters is:

“Our best days still lie ahead. Together we will choose hope over fear, unity over division and truth over lies.”

This bland and all too common political rhetoric may make people feel warm and fuzzy inside, but it is essentially meaningless.

Please save some trees by no longer wasting paper writing letters with problematic messages, especially to deceased people such as my mother who will not be sending you any money now or in the future.


Rick Baum


1. See

2. See my articles at: and

3. Ibid.

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Changing Light Bulbs in the Cosmos with Charles Simic

Fri, 2019-09-06 15:26

Back in the ‘70s, when I first learned to write poetry in earnest, I lived in a small country village with two boarding schools. One for the very rich; one for the middle class. At the rich school, where I was a scholarship student, we were favored with lectures from the likes of Dick Gregory and Dan Rather, while we heard that students at the other school were doing things like smoking reefer and watching A Clockwork Orange backwards. We listened to toccatas and fugues in our intimate chapel, while the others brought to life the J. Geils Band. We were an all-boys school; they were coed. On Saturday evenings, I would lay on my back on a circle of lawn and gaze up at the cosmos, while they smashed pumpkins, dated, and drank until they saw stars. Two worlds: two belongings: two visions of “Singing in the Rain.”

My English teacher liked my writing and told me his best advice was to read everything voraciously; and he set me up to correspond with a New York writer, Nat Hentoff, who sent communiques of encouragement to me occasionally. I was restless, insomniac; my mind was full of ideas and lyrical wisps that were sometimes ‘elegant’ visual solutions to problems nobody wanted to hear about. I used to take long melancholy walks at night, through pungent apple orchards, look up through autumn maples leaves lit by a street lamp, recall lines from Frost, think heavy cosmological stuff. In short, I was a struggling poet.

Reading New Yorker magazine, I came across the poetry of Charles Simic, and was immediately blown away by the juxtapositions of minimalistic imagery and an ironic humor that I didn’t quite understand but which made me chuckle. There was humanism that laughed at itself, that seemed to peek out at me from the shadows of what could have been a bleak pessimism. His images were feisty, sometimes like a comic frame in words. I was reading T.S. Eliot for the first time and especially liked his shorter more accessible stuff — like Preludes. I read a vision of human misery similar to Simic’s, but without the humor.

For instance, I read, from Prelude II:

With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.

I re-read the finality, the heavy chords of the last line. Laughter, not so much. Eliot was steeped in the Anglican, urban fatalism, the kind that sends you genuflecting early in the chapel before the others arrive, and which seemed like a deep, vain thrombosis that crept up toward his heart his entire career.

Charles Simic, on the other hand, can bring you to a similar place of darkness and simplicity, but the illumination that follows is bound in a conceit that is not yet ready to give up. Take these opening lines from his early poem “Butcher Shop,” for instance:

Sometimes walking late at night
I stop before a closed butcher shop.
There is a single light in the store
Like the light in which the convict digs his tunnel.

Simic’s poem is potent, driven — an escape toward freedom; The Great Escape, with Steve McQueen, rather than the bulldozers of Auschwitz. (I love Eliot, by the way.) It could have gone South: Like the light which in which the convict digs his own grave. Say.

Charles Simic has been asked a lot about his past over the years. His English, though coherent and smooth, is delivered as a second language speaker. He is a Serb from Belgrade. He spent his early childhood there during World War II. Bombing and destruction eventually led to his family to emigrate — first to Paris, then New York, and, later, Chicago. “Everybody thinks I’m out of my mind when I tell them that I had a happy childhood even with bombs falling on my head. Playing with toy soldiers, I would go boom, boom, and the planes would go boom, boom,” he writes in an essay, “The Prisoner of History,” at NYRB in 1984.

He expected to become a painter, rather than a poet. But love of women drove him to try his hand at ‘pick up’ lines. “When I noticed in high school that one of my friends was attracting the best-looking girls by writing them sappy love poems,” he says in an interview. “I found out that I could do it, too. I still tremble at the memory of a certain Linda listening breathlessly to my doggerel on her front steps.” One can almost see her pounding heart.

Lots of male poets and painters would attest to this romantic French benefit — a beauty modeling naked under the sun in the shade of the mind’s eye near the blue lapping sea. One can see why Simic admired Byron’s Don Juan. In an early untitled prose poem from his collection, The Monster Loves His Labyrinth, he describes his first romantic intersection, with the help:

There was a maid in our house who let me put my hand under her skirt. I was five or six years old. I can still remember the dampness of her crotch and my surprise that there was all that hair there. I couldn’t get enough of it. She would crawl under the table where I had my military fort and my toy soldiers. I don’t remember what was said, if anything, just her hand, firmly guiding mine to that spot.

And out of the war years poetry was soon born — boom, boom, boom.

Simic’s poetry has won the Pulitzer Prize (1990) and has been a finalist twice more. If he’s not careful, he might win the Nobel prize one day — his stuff’s that good. In his just released collection, Come Closer and Listen, Simic continues to develop his surrealist survival technique. His images are as sharp as ever, the humor is intact. He cares about the right thing — his poetry — and is not so anxious to hold dear positions of cultural power.

The three qualities I have enjoyed most from reading Come Closer are his humor, his characterizations, and his healthy metaphysical relationship with things unknown. His humor is founded on the wry twists of his surreality, playful surprises, and modest language that overachieves with its humanity. Sometimes it’s so simple that you don’t fully ‘get it’ until you’re moving your eyes to the poem on the next page. “Astronomy Lesson” feels like that:

The silent laughter
Of the stars
In the night sky
Tells us all
We need to know

Similarly, and complementing his winky feel for space is his wry take on time, in “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle”:

Time–that murderer
No one has caught yet.

Space and time, out of which we are ‘evolutionary’ constellations of consciousness, seems to mock us, lugubriously, from the dark side of our own minds.

Simic fancies John Keats’ expressed notion of “negative capability” in his poetics — what Simic calls “the uncertainty of certainty,” of living within the means of what’s knowable (or not), without giant leaps of faith across event horizons, which can leave you absorbed, not in light, but in total darkness. Like the fellow in “Butcher Shop,” Simic uses available light to dig out of the jail of constraining concepts. In his essay, “Negative Capability and Its Children,” he observes, “We could … bring in recent political history, all the wars, all the concentration camps and other assorted modern sufferings, and then return to Keats and ask how, in this context, are we capable of being in anything but uncertainties.” (83)

In contrast, Eliot’s characters proceed through a symbol-laden, even Jungian suffering leading to a pre-supposed “objective correlative.” Simic’s characters don’t seem capable, by disposition, of drowning in an oversaturated consciousness of the world. Like Simic’s childhood itself, Simic’s characters keep on ‘playing,’ even as the bombs of chaos fall all around them. There is a toy poem to play with — in everything.

Simic’s characters thrash in the world, “Like that crazy old woman / With something urgent to say / You couldn’t make sense of.” We’re all on the road to Babel, and if not careful, of being inexpressive selves and inscrutable. This poetic recognition is all the ‘symbolism’ Simic needs. Again in “Negative Capability,” he writes, “The goal in surrealism as in symbolism is a texture of greatest possible suggestiveness, a profusion of images whose meaning is unknown and unparaphrasable to a prior system of signification.” (88) There is no real translation.

Similarly, in “Sunday Service,” one of my favorite Simic characters, having briefly considered, in three stanzas, a Sunday world seemingly hard at work ridding itself of sin (even a dog is chasing a cat up a tree for religious purposes), our character tells us:

Descartes, I hear, did his best philosophizing

By lazing in bed past noon.

Not me! I’m on my way to the dump,

Waving to neighbors going to church.

Classic Simic. Junk as sin, sin as junk. Out it goes, on Sunday morns.

But he can go further, getting downright farcical with joy, as in the romping “Bed Music.” Four quick stanzas: one to set the scene — lovers in a worn-out bed; another to express the noisy musicality of the coital enterprise; another to introduce mad-driven neighbors downstairs, and then the coup de grâce stanza:

That was the limit!

They called the cops.

Did you bring beer?

We asked the men in blue

As they broke down the door.

If Eliot’s Preludes are Chopin, then Simic goes all Liberace at times. He just doesn’t care.

Without hanging a moral compass around the neck of his perceiving subject, unbalancing his vision like a phenomenological albatross, Simic allows the frame that is seen to be seen for what it is — whatever values (moral, aesthetic) are self-evident and don’t require the intervention of prejudice. Such is the case with his wonderful poem “Among My Late Visitors”:

There is also a cow

Whose eyes the soldiers

Took out with a knife

And lit straw under its tail

So it would run blind

Over a minefield

And thereafter into my head

From time to time

I’ve never considered ‘war’ that way before. Going through Simic’s poems is like going through a mindfield full of IEDs (improvised expressive devices), if you’ll forgive the pun.

There is an upbeat metaphysics at work in Simic’s crooked world, things don’t quite line up right, and he doesn’t even have to try to ‘find’ oddball juxtapositions — they’re just there, and he just needs to wait and observe, as he did with a “Cockroach” early in his career, where he provokes the reader by saying he doesn’t see cockroaches the same ‘icky’ way he presumes the reader does. It’s a playful tactic that makes the reading a kind of agent provocateur’s test.

In one interview, he tells J.M. Spalding of Cortland Review, “I’m a hard-nosed realist. Surrealism means nothing in a country like ours where supposedly millions of Americans took joyrides in UFOs.” It would still be surrealism in most other places, but, uh, in America, the road of excess doesn’t necessarily lead to the palace of wisdom — at all. He continues, “Our cities are full of homeless and mad people going around talking to themselves.”


In “Metaphysics Anonymous,” homeless, downtrodden truth-alkies seek Salvation:

A storefront mission in a slum

Where we come together at night

To confess our fatal addiction

For knowledge beyond appearances.

…we line up with bowed heads

For coffee and cookies to be served.

For Simic, there are only these places we go, lost, to stand up and attest to our powerlessness before our addiction, and tell our story, often poignant, of how the search for Truth has torn apart our lives and left us ruined. People holding up their 3-month or 6-month badges of sobriety smiling, full of genuine support, knowing, though, it’s just a matter of time before they fall off the wagon again — into the gutter, where all truths run in the end.

Simic decided to duck out of re-upping for another year as America’s Poet Laureate in 2008. He noted humorously: “It was just too much. I had at least 50 or 60 interviews and countless number of other things I had to do. I would receive 30 emails every day relating to poetry. It’s enough to make you hate poets and poetry. Enough! You know? I want to do other things.”

He is now a Professor Emeritus in English at the University of New Hampshire, where he is involved in the MFA program. At work and life in a New England setting. Lucky bastard. Under the table, still playing with toy soldier revolutionaries, being manhandled by beauty.


Note: A well-produced short documentary of his life can be found here. Simic reading his “Hide and Seek,” from Come Closer and Listen can be found at “Light Sleeper” and “The Old Orphan” from the collection are also there.

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Race Riots

Fri, 2019-09-06 15:06

Race riots go way back in the United States. One of the worst occurred in Chicago in 1919; it killed 23 blacks, 15 whites, injured 537, and its arson left 1,000 homeless. As Eve Ewing writes in her new poetry collection, 1919, the melee was in part a reaction to the Great Migration. Her first poem presents the train’s perspective on the migrants it brings up from the South: “

…the lash lives in their shoulders
…I can never take you home. You have none.
And so you go, out into the wind.

Into the wind indeed. The migrants landed in one Windy City neighborhood, the South Side, also known as the Black Belt. They were not welcome elsewhere in Chicago, which remains to this day a pretty thoroughly segregated town. During the 1919 Red Summer, so-called for its many race riots throughout the U.S., the heatwave pushed Chicagoans to lakeside beaches, where, according to an official, 1922 governor’s report, compiled by six white and six black men, the spark lit the riot: “There was a clash of white people and Negroes at a bathing beach in Chicago, which resulted in the drowning of a Negro boy.” Later, as Ewing quotes, “no arrest was made. The tragedy was sensed by the battling crowd, and, awed by it, they gathered on the beach. For an hour both whites and Negroes dived for the boy without results.” Gunfire ensued.

Ewing prefaces each poem with a quote from the report. One, at the end, lists solutions dismissed for the race difficulties, including “the dying out of the Negro race.” Though not considered workable, it was apparently still contemplated. Integration was not. This is not surprising given the virulent race hatred of Chicago’s large Irish population, which, unimpressed by Slavic immigrants’ violence against African Americans, resorted to tricks and subterfuges to provoke the East Europeans to join in their hooliganism.

Not only immigrants raged against African Americans. The city’s elite did too. Ewing quotes the report about blacks “invading” the district, and how this was regarded as the worst catastrophe to strike Chicago since the Great Fire. A prominent white real estate man said: “Property owners should be notified to stand together block by block and prevent such invasion.” Yet still the migrants came, determined to escape the persecution and lynchings of the South.

With the 1919 civil disturbance, any faint mask of racial harmony came off. “As darkness came on, white gangsters became active,” Ewing quotes the report. “Negroes in white districts suffered severely at their hands. From 9 p.m. to 3 a.m., twenty-seven Negroes were beaten, seven were stabbed and four were shot.” Chicago whites had no intention of tolerating black rage at the drowning of a child. With violence on both sides, black people got the worst of it, even though they defended themselves. Everybody had guns. In a precursor to modern drive-by shootings, whites drove their cars through the South Side, armed with rifles and revolvers, firing as they went. Residents shot back from behind barricades.

Ewing argues that the riot cemented fear and mistrust for a solid century. Certainly the segregation has endured almost that long. In her previous book, “Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side,” she documents how white realtors and banks first penned African Americans into the Black Belt; this was later compounded by mid-twentieth century construction of public housing on the South Side. Not until well after much public housing was demolished, with the arrival of a brash neoliberal mayor, Rahm Emmanuel, did a new form of discrimination emerge: gentrification. The city’s real estate community began evicting African Americans from their neighborhoods, especially those conveniently located close to the downtown Loop, and therefore so appealing to wealthy hipsters and young professionals. One strategy has been closing schools, because clearly parents can’t live in a neighborhood without schools. Starving a district of such services resembles economic sanctions, a form of violence against a black community, which began in 1919. As Ewing writes of this brutality,

…we live in a time of sightseers
standing on the bridge of history
watching the water go by
and there are bodies in the water.

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The Crimes of the Criminal Justice System

Fri, 2019-09-06 14:34

Still from “When They See Us.”

Your first reaction to the concurrence of three online films about the racist abuses of the American criminal justice system might be to attribute this to pure happenstance. However, given the objective reality of the increasing legal, moral and political rot of the police, the courts and the prison system, it was inevitable that filmmakers of conscience would feel impelled to respond to the crisis. In other words, we should not speak of happenstance but ineluctability.

Made for Netflix, Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” is a docudrama about the Central Park Five, a group of African-American teens who spent up to twelve years in prison for a crime they did not commit. Running on HBO, “Who Killed Garrett Phillips?” is a documentary about a Jamaican soccer coach accused of the murder of the 12-year old son of his ex-girlfriend in Potsdam, New York. Like the cops in DuVernay’s film, their investigation is filled with irregularities intended to help convict a Black man. Finally, there is “Free Meek” on Amazon Prime, another documentary, this time about a successful rapper from Philadelphia who is hounded by an African-American female judge determined to keep him on probation for the rest of his life for a crime he supposedly committed when he was 19-years old. Like the Central Park Five, his main crime in the eyes of the cops was being Black. As is so often the case with such victims, having Black cops, judges or prison guards does not make much difference to people of color being cast down into the system of hell they maintain.

Unlike the very good documentary done by Ken Burns on the Central Park Five that I reviewed in 2012, DuVernay’s goal is as much to flesh out the humanity of the five young men both before and after their imprisonment as it is to expose police malfeasance. The emphasis is on the terrible suffering endured by Korey Wise, the only one of the five who was over fifteen at the time of his arrest and thus eligible to be treated as an adult. Or, more accurately, mistreated.

The circumstances of his arrest epitomize the way in which the DA and the cops conspired to entrap all five young men, in his case in the most extreme manner. Wise was friends with Yusuf Salaam, who was fifteen at the time of his arrest on April 19, 1989, and only arrested because he accompanied Salaam to the precinct house out of solidarity. Wise was hearing-impaired and suffered from a learning disability. Given his status as an adult, the cops were not required to bring in a guardian or parent to monitor the interrogation. This, combined with his other problems, made him easy prey for the cops who managed to extract multiple statements and two videotaped confessions from him. It didn’t matter that all were at variance with each other and inconsistent with the victim’s injuries.

In a casting coup, Felicity Huffman plays Linda Fairstein, the cynical, self-serving chief of the sex crimes unit of the DA’s office in New York. Huffman has been found guilty of paying to have her daughter’s SAT scores inflated for her to get admitted to USC. She will be sentenced on September 10th. Fairstein is despicable and DuVernay nails her to the wall. So compelling is the portrait she draws that Fairstein has become a persona non grata in the heights of the legal, educational, philanthropic, and literary world she inhabited, even after the innocence of the five men was established by the confession of a convicted rapist who ironically was in the same prison as Wise. To give you an idea of the class and race bias of Fairstein, she assisted District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. in his decision not to prosecute Dominique Strauss-Kahn for sexual assault in 2012.

The fourth and final episode of “When They See Us” is focused on the brutal treatment of Korey Wise in various prisons as he struggled to maintain his dignity, all the while insisting on his innocence.. All he had to do to become a parolee was acknowledge his supposed crimes. Refusing to do so cost him years of additional imprisonment. With the settlement of 41 million dollars for their false arrest, the Central Park Five have now been able to live good lives and to lend their support to other people victimized by the criminal justice system. Korey Wise, who received $12.25 million, has contributed $190,000 to the Innocence Project, a legal aid group devoted to the defense of indigent and racially oppressed people.

With this film, DuVernay builds upon the reputation she established with “Selma”, a film about the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights. She makes films that combine social messages with cinematic genius. As such, “When They See Us” should be on your list of must-see films of 2019.

While she has received nearly universal acclaim for this work, other critics find fault. While none of them go so far as Donald Trump and Ann Coulter in insisting on their guilt no matter the confession alluded to above, they grumble that she didn’t tell the full story. One of them is Aaron Bady, who has written for liberal flagships like The Nation and The Boston Review. In a piece for The Week titled “The danger of knowing one thing about the Central Park Five”, Bady accepts that the five boys were railroaded into false confessions but warns that there is another “thing” about them that has to be understood:

Meanwhile, on the other side of the argument, defenders tend to elide or overlook the fact that Salaam, Richardson, McCray, Wise, and Santana had, in fact, been among a group of two or three dozen boys who had been hassling bicyclists and throwing rocks at cars: Antonio Diaz, a man they took to be homeless, was beaten unconscious and robbed; and a series of male joggers — David Lewis, David Good, Robert Garner, and John Loughlin — were assaulted, Loughlin seriously enough to spend two nights in the hospital.

This is the same “thing” that Trump and Coulter go on about. They were “among” a group of marauding youth and through the time-dishonored method of guilt by association worthy of punishment of some sort. What Bady doesn’t get is the need for legal transparency within a system of justice that is color-blind. By smearing the five men in this fashion, he exhibits the fatal flaws of American liberalism that while certainly not as bad as the outright racism of the Trump administration still serves as its “good cop”.

Although only one episode of “Who Killed Garrett Phillips” has aired, it promises to be one of the most gripping documentaries I have seen on HBO since “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills”, the 1996 film about Goth-styled teens being found guilty of the ritual murder of 3 younger boys.

Like that film and like “When They See Us”, this is the story of how hysteria can create a climate akin to the Salem witch trials. On October 24, 2011, the twelve-year-old son of a bartender named Tandy Cyrus was found close to death in her second-floor apartment in Potsdam, a town of over 17,000 people near the Canadian border that was home to two colleges, the SUNY school of the same name and Clarkson University. Garrett Phillips died later that night and the police took no time in identifying Oral “Nick” Hillary as their chief suspect.

Originally from Jamaica, Nick Hillary was a soccer coach at Clarkson who had been part of a group of Jamaicans who helped lead the soccer team at St. Lawrence University to a national championship. Despite his lack of a real motive and his elevated status as a college coach, the cops were just as determined to make a case against him as Linda Fairstein was with the Central Park Five. It turns out that right from the start, Tandy Cyrus’s prior boyfriend before Hillary, a local cop named Johnny Jones, worked closely with other cops to pin the rap on him.

About half of the first episode is the actual video of Hillary being interrogated by the Potsdam cops who kept trying to dominate this proud, self-assured Black man. They were annoyed that he was not as easy to bully as the Central Park Five, as his lawyer put it in the film,. We see the cops trying to pressure him psychologically, at one point making him remove all of his clothes, even his underwear. As another lawyer put it, this was unprecedented in such an interrogation.

The film is directed by Liz Garbus, a seasoned director who made “The Farm: Angola, USA” (about the notorious Louisiana prison), “Ghosts of Abu Ghraib”, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” (about Nina Simone) and other films that take up the cause of the exploited and the oppressed. As is the case with Ava DuVernay, she is a brilliant filmmaker and every minute of this latest work will keep your eyes glued to the TV screen. If you don’t have HBO, try to find a friend who does and hang out with them. Bring a bottle of good wine with you to show your gratitude.

The oddly-named “Free Meek” was produced by Roc Nation, the company owned by billionaire Jay-Z, about whom I will say something more later. Meek is the rapper Meek Millz, whose birth name was Robert Rihmeek Williams. Like many other rappers, including Jay-Z, Williams adopted a performance name.

Born in South Philadelphia on May 6, 1987, Millz came from a hardscrabble background. His father made a living robbing drug dealers, a job that cost him his life at an early age. Like many poor Blacks in Philadelphia, selling drugs, robbing people and other street crimes was the only way to survive. For Meek Millz, an escape from that life was to be found in rapping, a dream as likely to come true as becoming an NBA professional or any others that Black youth fantasize about. In his case, the dream came true because he had talent and because he had an all-consuming drive to succeed. We see videos of him as a young teen taking part in rap battles with older more accomplished rappers. In one case, after being humiliated by one of them, he only resolves to work harder.

In 2005, he left his apartment to go to a corner grocery to pick up some food. Before going out on the street, he put a pistol in his waistband, a measure taken strictly for self-defense. As soon as he reached the sidewalk, a group of cops swarmed around him, dragged him back into the apartment, and beat him mercilessly—all under the pretext of busting a crack den. This was a false charge, just like the charge that he pointed his gun at them, an act that would have resulted in him being shot a dozen times or more.

Brought before Judge Genece Brinkley, he was sentenced to 11 to 23 months in prison, to be followed by eight years of probation. Not long after being released from prison, he began to carve out a career as a musician. Starting modestly, he sold cassette tapes to Philadelphia shopkeepers who could barely keep them in stock because of the demand.

The next step was getting a record contract with Rick Ross, a powerful recording executive who specialized in the kind of gangsta rap that Millz perfected. His life experience likely made his lyrics closer to the truth than those of others in the field. Eventually, Millz partnered with Jay-Z, became the boyfriend of Niki Minaj, and seemed poised to become a multimillionaire.

That would have happened if Genece Brinkley had not decided to treat him the way that whites in the criminal justice system tend to do. Unlike the cops who rigged evidence against the Central Park Five and Nick Hillary, she operated strictly within the law—which was the problem. She enforced the letter of the probation codes to the point that violations based on technicalities kept adding years to Millz’s probation and thus preventing him from going on tour and carrying out other tasks related to his career.

For example, in 2012, he was in NYC in the middle of a tour. Scheduled for a concert date on his next leg, he was stuck in the city because of Hurricane Sandy. So, using the only means at his disposal, he took a train to Philadelphia to catch a plane from there. When Judge Brinkley found about this, she ruled that he could not leave Philadelphia, costing him dearly.

At the risk of revealing a spoiler (skip ahead to next paragraph if you must), the judge gets her comeuppance eventually.

When it comes to issues of class that prejudiced the high and mighty African-American judge against Millz, it is worth pointing out that Jay-Z has come under scrutiny himself. He has formed a partnership with the NFL on social issues but only brokered on the basis of sidelining Colin Kaepernick. Eric Reid, Kaepernick’s former San Francisco 49er teammate, tweeted last month: “The NFL gets 2 hide behind his black face 2 try to cover up blackballing Colin.”

None of that devalues “Free Meek”. It is both an important film in line with the others covered above as well as an introduction to the social and artistic basis of rap music. I can’t say that the music I heard while watching the film will convince me to go out and buy such music but I am glad to have my eyes opened to how it is made.


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Review: Lucy Ellmann’s “Ducks, Newburyport”

Fri, 2019-09-06 14:10

There are novels, and then there are extraordinary novels—truly unique, one-of-a-kind, sui generis—terms that are often used as clichés but I assure you not in Lucy Ellmann’s case, regarding her eighth novel, Ducks, NewburyportI confess that I have not read any of the earlier ones by this American born but Irish writer, which is one of the mind-blowing aspects of Ducks, Newburyport, a truly great American novel that catches our zeitgeist more accurately during the Trump years than anything else I have read. From Ireland (where she resides) Ellmann has crawled into the horrifying times in which we live and written an explosive story that will engage you on every one of its 1000 pages but particularly in the final hundred, where things happen that you, the reader, did not realize were being foreshadowed in the earlier pages of the narrative.

That’s part of Ellmann’s magic. For the first 900 pages, Ducks, Newburyport seemingly has no plot. In fact, it appears to operate outside of any narrative time. Rather, it’s composed of the ramblings (“this monologue in my head”) of a middle-aged woman and mother of four. The children range in age from about five or six to fifteen and are the product of her two marriages. And, although she is never named, her current husband, Leo, is. He’s a professor of engineering at a university in Ohio. She has had cancer (“I had to get the most embarrassing kind of cancer”), and although Leo has decent health insurance from the university, the family’s finances have still been wrecked. In order to supplement his income and save money for their children’s college educations, she bakes pies and other sweets (especially tartes tatin) for restaurants, a seemingly innocuous job, but one that will eventually jump back and—in the last hundred pages of the story—almost destroy the family.

But it’s this woman’s/mother’s/wife’s mind that will engage you. Other reviewers have already compared her to Molly Bloom, her publishers refer to the novel as Moby-Dick in the kitchen; but these facts also provide a key to understanding her monologue: Lucy Ellmann’s father, Richard Ellmann, was James Joyce’s biographer. Some of it (the stream-of-consciousness, especially) must have rubbed off. Ellmann’s wife was also a celebrated academic. Lucy grew up in a very erudite family, although Lucy Ellmann’s narrator (the wife of an academic and a one-time teacher herself) operates not so much by stream-of-consciousness as cluttered free association. Think, perhaps, of Gracie Burns relating an endless story. Hence—a few pages after she’s said that her whole life has been a failure:

“[T]he fact that I don’t like licorice, I just like the way Good & Plenty look, though sometimes they look like microbes, if you’re not careful, which is none too appetizing, gosh, Goshen, New Philadelphia, the fact that the stink that came out of that chicken place was a scandal long before the tornadoes, chickens by the trillion, the fact that the whole idea of keeping animals in such numbers is disgusting, disgusting, the fact that there’s something really sick about it, one hundred and ten billion chickens, zillion, trillion, trillium, Goldfinger, the goose that laid the golden egg, the fact that trillium’s the state flower, frillium, brillium, fritillaries, ‘twas brillig and the slithy toves, trivium, trivia, the fact that Ohio is like a trillium petal hanging off Lake Erie, the fact that the chicken factory used slave labor too, undocumented, underage Guatemalans, child slaves, slave children the fact that I feel like going over there right now and giving them a piece of my mind….”

The fact is that most of the story is composed of a one thousand-page sentence, the fact is that most of the transitions begin with “the fact…,” the fact is that this middle-aged woman raises chickens (for the eggs) to help with her baking business, the fact is that she is very insecure; the fact is that she’s spending her entire life trying to make everyone else happy, the fact is that she’s easily embarrassed, the fact is that she has never gotten over her mother’s death at an early age from a botched hospital operation, the fact is that she has some of the most vivid dreams of any character in any novel you will ever encounter; but—and these may be the most important aspects of her mothering: her concern for her children and her husband, the fact is that she is the epitome of all mothers these days as soon as their children go off to school. Will they return? Will they be shot by some right-wing MAGA wing nut (“I’m always scared that they get shot,”) a worry earlier generations of parents did not have. She’s legitimately worried that Trump will nuke the world but relieved that her parents didn’t live long enough to see the way he’s sucked the air out of everyone’s life.

Her mind has the elasticity of a gigantic rubber band, with free associations constantly juxtaposing family life and movie pots (dozens of them), song lyrics, novels, especially-so-called children’s novels such as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Little House on the Prairie, but also Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, plus an entire array of writers and literary works, from Jane Austin to Anne Frank, Doris Lessing, Masters & Johnson, Emily Dickinson, King Lear, John Brown to mention a few in her encyclopedic associations as “the historian of [her] own life.” Puns (“the right to bare arms”); fears that carry over to her children (the first word spoken by one of them was “dangerous”); constant worries about whether she is a good mother (“motherhood is just impossible”); worries that all involved parents share (the environment, the infrastructure, gun violence); all tied into the last couple of years in our Trumpian neurosis.

Then, to top this all off in this delicious narrative, there’s a curious secondary story (told in very brief sections of a page or two) appearing every forty or fifty pages about a female mountain lion whose three newly-born cubs are whisked away from her when she leaves them for a few minutes to scrounge some food for herself. The cubs become emblematic of every mother’s worry that her children will be kidnapped. The mountain lion wanders for days, or possibly weeks, trying to find her cubs, and the fact is that as readers we ask ourselves what the hell these brief inserts in the narrative (told in complete sentences with standard paragraphs and punctuation) have to do with our pie-baking daughter/wife/mother narrator until the surprising final pages when the mountain lion is sighted in various communities in Ohio, including the one where most of the story takes place.

That’s as far as I can go in describing Lucy Ellmann’s brilliant novel (“a brick of a novel” as her publisher described it to me) that has been listed as a finalist for the Man Booker Award, the United Kingdom’s most prestigious literary prize. Nor will I tell you what the title means.

The fact is, it should win that award.

Ducks, Newburyport.
Lucy Ellmann. 
Biblioasis (Windsor, Ontario).
1029 pp., $19.99.

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The Future of Listening

Fri, 2019-09-06 14:06

Back in the spring an email arrived in my in-box from Davinia Caddy, a music historian working in New Zealand. She asked if I’d contribute a short essay on the “future of listening” to a new on-line venture being launched by Naxos Records and for which she will serve as editor. Headed by the indefatigable octogenarian Klaus Heymann, who founded the company in Hong Kong more than thirty years ago, Naxos is still thriving even in this age of doom—or better doomsayers—for classical music recordings.

The new digital initiative will be called Naxos Musicology International and is aimed at reaching a global audience. NMI (if it goes with that acronym it will have to be shared with the National Museum of Ireland and the National Measurement Institute in Australia) will pursue this goal with the benefit of the label’s strong digital platform, using it to offer accessible and enlightening scholarship not just to other academics but, more importantly, to enthusiasts. Alongside historical research, aesthetic reflections, critical analysis, the site will publish opinion pieces and course syllabuses. This last category comes in place of the book reviews that make up the typical closing section of academic journals. These syllabuses strike me as a quick and valuable way for the interested to educate themselves by finding out what professors across the world are teaching, reading, listening to. (I wonder if universities might begin to assert copyright control of the syllabi of their faculty.)

It is often claimed that with knowledge comes greater enjoyment—and, it might be hoped, higher sales for Naxos. This is perhaps especially the case when it comes to obscure repertoire, a Naxos specialty. Heymann long ago rejected the relentless issuing of the classics—Beethoven symphonies and the like—practiced by the major labels, in favor of issuing previously unrecorded music. Given its avoidance of duplication, Naxos can rightfully claim itself as “the world’s leading classical label as measured by the number of new recordings it releases and the depth and breadth of its catalogue.”

Originally known for this admirable project of filling out the classical music repertoire with no-frills CDs, Heymann’s Naxos early on anticipated the potential of streaming; for a decade the company has been offering subscriptions to music schools, universities, and public libraries whose members and patrons can listen for free. Through my account at Cornell University I had, on September 4th 2019, immediate access to 2,225,190 tracks on its 145,755 discs. These numbers are visible on the upper right corner of the Naxos catalogue homepage. I checked again this morning, and the figures have gone up to 145,956 and 2,258,061: more than two hundred discs in two days. The Naxos catalogue is a huge and ever-expanding resource, one I have used frequently, often with amazement that high quality performances of long-buried musical treasure can so be easily conjured from the ether.

As laudable as this vigorous expansion is, the Naxos music-odometer puts me in mind of other running tallies I’ve seen: like the ever-increasing number of square miles of Amazon rain forest that have been cleared (now similar whizzing numbers of burning acres) or the tons of carbon being dumped minute-by-minute into the atmosphere.

This is pretty much what I told Davinia, though in less overtly pessimistic terms. These days I try, vainly, to live for and in the moment, rather than think of the future. Advance, development, research, plentitude, excess: these drive Naxos to mine its musical riches, delivered to the world for its betterment, uplift, amusement, distraction.

Much of my listening to, writing about, and performance of music has been devoted to the work of J. S. Bach. To judge from his early biographers, Bach must have been one of the most directed, focused, engaged, and critical listeners of all time. According to these admittedly hagiographic accounts, Bach’s sharp ears could catch even the smallest mistakes emanating from anywhere in any ensemble he was leading. When listening to a fugue by another musician, he would dadsplain to his son Wilhelm Friedemann about the clever operations that could (and should) be performed on the theme, nudging him smugly when those predictions were proved correct or shaking his head when these artful possibilities were not seized on.

When listening, Bach was virtuosically in the moment but always thinking ahead to the climax of the piece. But his listening was futuristic on a much longer scale, too. Right up to the end of his life, even after he lost his eyesight, Bach labored on monumental projects such as the B-Minor Mass and the Art of Fugue, a compendium of the techniques that had so often sent his elbow into Friedemann’s ribs.

The future of a musical theme was just one temporal cycle within the much larger one of a lifetime of research into God’s creation. These concentric circles were encompassed by the widest one still to come: eternity. There, the saved would be surrounded by the unending harmony of rapturous counterpoint—infinite complexity become simple sounding truth. Sonic ambrosia listening did not serve a purpose. It did not challenge the imagination. It did not improve a performance or lead to a better job. Listening to the angels, even joining in, was not a competition. This hearing was in the moment and forever.

The names we give to sonata form—the dominant structural paradigm of Western classical music—speak to a kindred reliance on time and progress: the opening movement of a symphony, to cite the most prestigious of classical genres, is the exposition; it is followed by the development, and closes with an altered return of the opening material in the recapitulation. The first two terms—and even the third—might be applied to the Amazon basin or the growth forever of attitudes we live by: discover your raw material, exploit it, let it improve your life.

Failing the religious salvation anticipated by Bach, even as he mentally parsed the fugue subject of friend or foe, the longer view says the future of listening is as bleak as that of the natural world. That is one reason, I believe, that so many students (and professors) at this university and elsewhere listen to music as they walk, ignorant of what is around them. Even as they march to their next class they are in the moment, distracted from their future, both near and not far enough away.

Yesterday I nearly collided with a young woman ensconced in her own private earbudded audiotopia when she stepped into a cross walk against the advice of the DON’T WALK signal. Later that afternoon I was nearly run down myself by the driver of a large SUV – not on her cell phone, but clearly listening to something. Maybe it was music. Whatever it was, she nearly ended my future listening.

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