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Waiting for Godot: a Tale of American Democracy

Fri, 2018-11-02 15:46

“Nothing to be and done.”

So begins Samuel Beckett’s tragicomedy, Waiting for Godot.

It’s a play I revisit every now and then. Each time it resonates on a different level—existential, psychological, social.

The other day I took the thin volume down from my bookshelves and read it again, captivated and curious, like it’s my first time. And as I contemplated on its gloomy bare stage, I thought of the United States of America. Its gloomy bare political stage.

Beckett’s two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, spend their time waiting for Godot who never arrives. Under a leafless tree they sit, stand, talk, speculate, even consider hanging themselves. They pass the time and they wait.

Vladimir: Say something!

Estragon: I’m trying.

[Long silence.]

Vladimir (in anguish): Say anything at all!

Estragon: What do we do now?

Vladimir: Wait for Godot.

Estragon: Ah!

[Silence.]

Vladimir: This is awful.

And here we are in America. Waiting. Some are waiting for the midterms, some for Mueller, for impeachment. Others are waiting for walls to be built. Waiting for wealth to be theirs. Waiting for America to be great again.

While some are still waiting for justice and equality.

Some, merely for a glimpse of decency and honesty.

It seems as if no matter who or what our Godot is, we are all Vladimirs and Estragons. Weary, we wait. We wait for that which does not arrive.

With the midterms looming, headlines in the media about the demise of democracy in America have multiplied, yet the crisis is nothing new. American democracy has never been complete, never been perfect. In Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism, philosopher and social activist Cornel West writes:

The American democratic experiment is unique in human history not because we are God’s chosen people to lead the world, nor because we are always a force for good in the world, but because of our refusal to acknowledge the deeply racist and imperial roots of our democratic project. We are exceptional because of our denial of the antidemocratic foundation stones of American democracy.

As long as the dire realities of blind patriotism, bigotry, moral indifference, self-absorption, disdain and fear of others abound, democracy simply cannot live up to its promise in this most diverse nation. As long as political and legal rights remain restricted, as long as civil liberties are eclipsed by financial interests, as long as political violence is an everyday threat…oppression and suffering will keep breathing in the shadow of the ideal that is American democracy. “Government of the people, by the people, for the people” will remain a mirage.

Vladimir: What’s the matter with you?

Estragon: I’m unhappy.

Vladimir: Not really! Since when?

Estragon: I’d forgotten. 

Midterms will be over soon. There will be old and new senators and congressmen, and congresswomen, in the ranks. They will lobby. They will fundraise. Bills will pass. Bills will fail. Large corporations, billionaires, and big donors will continue to triumph. Money will keep pouring into the campaigns. 2020. 2024. 2028. Citizens will go back to the ballot boxes. Votes will be counted. Presidents will come and go. Politicians will rise and fall.

Two steps forward, one step back. Two steps back, one step forward. The clumsy dance of American politics. A tragicomedy.

Vladimir: Charming evening we’re having.

Estragon: Unforgettable.

Vladimir: And it’s not over.

Estragon: Apparently not.

Vladimir: It’s only the beginning. 

Estragon: It’s awful.

Vladimir: Worse than the pantomime.

Vladimir: The circus. 

At one point during their wait, Estragon says, “I can’t go on like this.” Vladimir responds, “That’s what you think.” And they go on waiting.

And we, the American public, go on waiting. Polarized. Angry. Pained. Confused. We criticize, argue, resist. We think we resist.

Vladimir: You’re right, we’re inexhaustible.

Estragon: It’s so we won’t think. 

Vladimir: We have that excuse. 

Estragon: So we won’t hear. 

Vladimir: We have our reasons. 

We, too, have our reasons. We have our fears. We have our pleas. We gain hope, we lose hope. We repeat.

Estragon pulls off his boot. He peers inside it, turns it upside down, shakes it, feels inside it. Vladimir picks up his hat, peers inside it, shakes it, puts it back on. And they repeat.

The most important part of it all is that like Vladimir and Estragon—no matter how estranged, no matter how troubled—we continue to co-exist. For better or worse. Democrats, Republicans, independents. Different races, ages, regions. Those who stand in opposition whether the subject matter is immigration, same-sex marriage, health-care, taxes, climate change, or capitalism. Those who hate each other’s guts, threaten each other’s lives over reproductive or religious rights, gun-control or criminal justice. All of them, all of us. We are bound by that which is the country we call home. We are the divided people of the United States.

Boy: [in a rush] Mr. Godot told me to tell you he won’t come this evening but surely tomorrow.

[Silence.]

I place Beckett’s book on my desk. Consider writing something about the midterms. On the dangers of apathy, importance of civic engagement. The urgency. Then I pause. I take off my hat, peer inside it, put it back on.

Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?

Estragon: Yes, let’s go.

[They do not move.]

Curtain

Categories: News for progressives

Is China a “Responsible Great Power”?

Fri, 2018-11-02 15:45

President Xi Jinping would like everyone to pay attention to how China is exerting leadership in world affairs as a “responsible great power.” While the Trump administration is in retreat, Xi is taking full advantage of the leadership vacuum. He has, for example, emphatically supported globalization in response to Trump’s narrow nationalism, promised many billions of dollars in aid to developing countries that have signed up for the Belt and Road Initiative, promoted energy conservation and solar power at home, tried to play the honest broker in the North Korea-US dispute over nuclear weapons, and contributed importantly to UN peacekeeping missions. Xi can certainly claim that China is a major player on the most pressing international issues, but how responsible a great power is it?

China’s international record has a number of significant blemishes. It has defied a ruling of an arbitral tribunal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that censured China’s military buildup and ecologically damaging activities in the disputed South China Sea islands. It has tried to create an air defense zone in the East Sea (Sea of Japan) to keep US, Japanese, and other aircraft out of another disputed area. It has been putting pressure on Taiwan’s government to dissuade it from any movement toward independence or increased official contacts with the US.

Here I want to focus on two other rather blatant demonstrations of international irresponsibility. Both relate to large-scale violations of human rights: the mass incarceration of Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province and support of the Myanmar (Burma) government’s ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority. China’s failure to acknowledge these major abuses of human rights is consistent with Xi’s repression of dissent at home and concentration of power in the party-state, both to an extent not seen since the Mao era. But these are not ordinary abuses: They involve large, homogenous populations whose cultures are being systematically wiped out.

By now the Xinjiang roundup of Muslim families, perhaps a million people in all, has been widely reported and internationally condemned. The “reeducation centers,” sometimes also dubbed “counter-extremism training centers,” have been captured on satellite photos and video. Uyghurs, who are still the ethnic majority in Xinjiang, have been imprisoned in an effort, justified as counter-terrorism, to change their language, religion, and way of life—in short, ensure that their primary identity and loyalty is to the Chinese party-state. Now that the party’s secret is out, some Chinese officials have painted an entire population as enemies of the state who must be under surveillance at all times. It’s an Orwellian situation, with face-recognition cameras everywhere, the rule of law entirely absent, and tens of thousands of Han Chinese minders dispatched to villages to live with and report on Uyghur families.

In Myanmar, the most recent United Nations investigation casts the situation as “an ongoing genocide.” More than 700,000 Muslim Rohingyas have been driven from their homes into Bangladesh. Myanmar tried, with China’s support, to block the lead investigator’s briefing of the Security Council. He said: “The Myanmar government’s hardened positions are by far the greatest obstacle. Its continued denials, its attempts to shield itself under the cover of national sovereignty and its dismissal of 444 pages of details about the facts and circumstances of recent human rights violations that point to the most serious crimes under international law.” The investigator suggested referring the matter to the International Criminal Court.

Sadly, the UN special investigator on human rights in Myanmar reports that Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and de facto leader of the country, “is in total denial” about the brutal military campaign of rape, murder and torture of Rohingya. “Right now, it’s like an apartheid situation where Rohingyas still living in Myanmar … have no freedom of movement,” the special investigator said. “The camps, the shelters, the model villages that are being built, it’s more of a cementing of total segregation or separation from the Rakhine ethnic community.”

China’s support of the Myanmar government’s intransigence is founded on the noninterference principle, a perfectly respectable principle except when it becomes a convenient excuse for ignoring terrible events next door by pretending it’s wrong to speak out. Criticism of the military is not “helpful” and the situation is “complicated,” Chinese officials have said. They have called for “dialogue,” as though the rampaging Myanmar military has the slightest interest in talking. “Dialogue” is China’s alternative to Security Council and General Assembly resolutions that China has voted against since 2007.

Most likely, Chinese policy is motivated by Beijing’s treatment of its own ethnic minorities: avoid internationalizing inhumane behavior outside China that is going on inside China. Evidently, support of human rights for all is not part of being a “responsible great power,” whereas support of crackdowns on innocent minority peoples is.

Categories: News for progressives

Mary Shelley: the 200th Anniversary of a Rebel Girl and Her Creature

Fri, 2018-11-02 15:45

This year is the 200thanniversary of the first publication of Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1797-1851). In Greek mythology, Prometheus was the Titan credited with creating human-kind from clay and who defied the gods by stealing fire and giving it to humanity. Zeus, the king of the gods, sentenced the Titan to eternal torment for his transgression. The immortal Prometheus was bound to a rock, where each day an eagle was sent to feed on his liver, which would then grow back only to be eaten again the following day. The tragic story of Prometheus was very much on the minds of Mary and her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), who began writing, Prometheus Unbound, a four-act lyrical drama based on the myth, the same year Frankensteinwas published.

Mary Shelley was the daughter of the radical, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, one of the earliest works of feminism. As Charlotte Gordon points out in her excellent introduction to Penguin Classic’s 2018 reissue of the original 1818 text of Frankenstein, although Wollstonecraft died only ten days after Mary was born, the child was still profoundly influenced her mother’s ideas. A large portrait of Wollstonecraft hung on the wall of the family home. As a young girl, Mary studied it intensely, comparing herself to her mother and trying to find similarities. Mary’s father, William Godwin (1756-1836) was one of the first exponents of utilitarianism and is also considered the founder of philosophical anarchism. Godwin held up Wollstonecraft as an ideal in every respect. He even taught young Mary how to read by tracing the letters on her mother’s gravestone.

Here we should remind ourselves just how repressed women were two hundred years ago and how hard they had to fight for rights taken for granted today, though there is still much work to do. Gordon tells us:

“Experts declared that women were inferior to men in all areas of human development and could not be educated beyond a certain rudimentary level. Whereas men possessed the capacity for reason and ethical rectitude, women were considered foolish, fickle, selfish, gullible, sly, untrustworthy and childish. Wives could not own property or initiate divorces. Children were the father’s property. Not only was it legal for a man to beat his wife but men were encouraged to punish any woman they regarded as unruly. If a woman tried to escape from a cruel or violent husband, she was considered an outlaw and her husband had the legal right to imprison her.”

As she grew older, Mary read and reread her mother’s Vindication and also studied Wollstonecraft’s other books, including her celebration of the French Revolution, often learning the words by heart.

When she was sixteen Mary met twenty-one-year-old, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley was another political radical who had become estranged from his wealthy, aristocratic family because of his redistributionist economic views, which were influenced by Godwin, whom he visited regularly. Mary and Percy began meeting secretly at her mother’s grave in St. Pancras Churchyard, described by Gordon in her book, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, as “more like a pasture than a burial ground.” Though Shelley was already married they soon eloped and ran away to Europe, along with Mary’s stepsister, Jane Clairmont, who changed her name to Claire and never returned to the bourgeois life her own mother had tried to force on her back in England.

Given his criticism of the institution of marriage, Mary and Percy assumed her father would support their relationship but when they returned to England, Godwin refused to speak to his daughter. Society was merciless. Mary was called a whore and Percy a scoundrel. Claire Clairmont remained true to them but that was a mixed blessing, as Clair and Shelley had also grown so close Mary suspected they were having an affair.

In January 1816, Mary gave birth to a boy she named William, after her father, who she guarded carefully, fearing the child might be taken away from her. It was a wet spring and William developed a stubborn cough. Claire suggested they vacation in Geneva, where the air was supposed to be healthy. There was also the benefit of being near Lord Byron, the most notorious poet of the era, with whom Claire was having an affair. Byron had rented a grand home, the Villa Diodati and the Shelleys took a smaller house nearby. When the press got wind of this, they branded them the “League of Incest.”

The only problem was the weather. 1816 was known as the “year without a summer.” The preceding year, a volcano had erupted in Indonesia, spewing thick ash into the atmosphere, disrupting weather patterns in Europe, Asia and even North America.

In Switzerland, the weather was unseasonably cold and stormy. After weeks of rain, the little group was restless. Byron challenged his friends to see who could write the scariest ghost story. He was bored with the old German tales they had been telling one another for amusement. Surely, one of them could do better.

Byron and Shelley gave it a try but soon went back to other projects. Byron’s personal physician, John Polidori, wrote the draft of a story that would become The Vampyre, one of the inspirations for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. In her introduction to the 1831 revised edition of Frankenstein, Mary claimed she had trouble coming up with an idea too until one evening the discussion turned to the nature and principle of life. “Perhaps a corpse could be reanimated,” she recalled thinking, “galvanism had given a token of such things.” It was after midnight before they retired. Unable to sleep Mary became possessed by what she called her “waking dream”:

“I saw a pale student of the unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightening it must be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human behavior to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the World.”

Frankensteinwas first published anonymously. When people found out Mary was the author they were shocked beyond belief. As Gordon points out, “women weren’t supposed to write novels, let alone a novel like Frankenstein. Critics muttered that Mary Shelley must be as monstrous and immoral as her story.” This is the most likely reason why she fictionalized her account of difficulty in coming up with the idea for Frankenstein.Gordon notes there is no evidence to suggest this was true:

“At no point had she or any of her friends or family mentioned any difficulties in the composition of the novel. Indeed, from the records of those who were there and from reviewing notebooks in which Mary wrote the novel, all evidence suggests that she composed with an uncommon fluency and speed.”

The most likely answer for this discrepancy is that Mary sought to distance herself from her own work because of society’s disapproval. By 1831, both Shelley and Byron were dead and Mary faced enormous financial and social pressures as a single mother. If she could improve her sales by claiming to have struggled to come up with the monstrous idea for Frankenstein so be it.

After Frankenstein, Mary Shelley went on to write five more novels including The Last Man, a post-apocalyptic tale set in the 21stCentury, as well as many short stories and works of non-fiction. Frankenstein, was first adapted for the theater in an 1823 performance in London seen by Mary Shelley and William Godwin. It was at this early stage that people began to refer to the monster itself as “Frankenstein.” Frankensteinwent on to become one of the greatest horror franchises in history, spawning countless plays, films, tv shows, comics, toys, games and even an 80s health club chain called “Frankenstein’s Gym,” its motto: “We build monsters!”

Al Ronzoni is a writer, historian and political activist based in New York City. He can be reached at acjr0122@gmail.com

Categories: News for progressives

Lives that Matter?

Fri, 2018-11-02 15:44

What would it take for everyone’s life to matter as much as Jamal Khashoggi’s?

I ask this question over at the edge of the news, looking for a doorway into the human conscience.

Consider:

“The U.S. sold a total of $55.6 billion of weapons worldwide in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 — up 33 percent from the previous fiscal year, and a near record. In 2017, the U.S. cleared some $18 billion in new Saudi arms deals.”

This is from CBS News Moneywatch two weeks ago. No big deal, just a look at the U.S. weapons biz, which has been thrust into the national spotlight recently.

“Mr. Trump,” the story continues, “has dismissed the idea of suspending weapons sales to Saudi Arabia to punish its crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, for any involvement in the alleged murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. ‘I don’t like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States,’ Mr. Trump said this week. . . .”

And under the subhead “Bombs away,” the article informs us: “The current White House has shifted the type of weapons exports the U.S. favors. Prior to this year, aircraft was the largest component of U.S. arms sales, according to the Security Assistance Monitor. Under the first year of the Trump administration, sales of bombs and missiles dominated.”

This is a story about the infrastructure of killing and an economic system that, apparently, depends on doing so on a mass scale globally, which of course is known as waging war. War at a personal, specific level is always horrifying — as shocking and grotesquely wrong as Khashoggi’s murder. Why is it, then, that when you multiply these murders by a hundred or a thousand or a million, they become so much easier to talk about and write about and justify — with the focus on strategy, politics, economics and jobs — than is the murder of one man? Why is there not one word in this Moneywatch story as heart-stopping as “bone saw”?

I ask this in no way to belittle the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, but rather to belittle . . . no, to undo, to rip apart . . . what we call news. If it weren’t for news that normalizes and softens war, that turns it — here in the 21st century — into a spectator sport, the military industrialists and their political supplicants could not sell it to the public with such ease.

The United States had pretty much evolved beyond war by 1975, when its military pulled out of Vietnam. There followed a decade and a half of “Vietnam syndrome” — public disgust and distaste for mass murder, environmental devastation and spiritual suicide, of the sort we’d just been inflicting on Vietnam and on ourselves.

But because of the political and economic influence of the military industrial complex, “Vietnam syndrome” was unacceptable. The U.S. fought proxy wars for a decade and a half, particularly in Nicaragua (go, Contras!) and ended the draft (except for the poverty draft), which disentangled most Americans from a personal stake in future wars. Then — with the Cold War suddenly, unexpectedly over — war’s public relations unit had to find a new, more perfect enemy. It settled on our former ally, Saddam Hussein.

When the six-week-long Gulf War ended in February 1991, George H.W. Bush declared: “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all.” And indeed, that first Gulf War set the standard for the wars of the 21st century. They are, to the extent possible, reported as strategic spectacles waged from on high. Bombs away! No blood, no mess, no racism — just classified strategic objectives and a mission (never articulated) to fulfill.

And beyond America’s own wars, we have the Saudis and their allies and the war they are waging in Yemen, with our weapons, assistance and backing:

“The military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen has killed thousands of civilians in airstrikes, tortured detainees, raped civilians and used child soldiers as young as 8 — actions that may amount to war crimes, United Nations investigators said in a report issued Tuesday.”

So the New York Times reported in August, in advance of a U.N. report on the war.

“The main cause of civilian casualties in the war,” the story continues, “. . . has been airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition. It estimates that there have been 18,000 such strikes in little more than three years, inflicting a level of damage on civilians that ‘certainly contributed to Yemen’s dire economic and humanitarian situation.’

“The report, to be delivered to the United Nations Human Rights Council next month, comes not long after a Saudi-coalition strike this month killed 40 children on a school bus.”

Eventually the story tosses in this little moral grenade:

“A report released by Human Rights Watch last week warned Britain, France and the United States that they risked complicity in unlawful attacks in Yemen by continuing to supply arms to Saudi Arabia.”

But none of this has the shock value of the torture and murder of a man at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, not even the murder of 40 children on a school bus. That public outrage over Khashoggi’s killing won’t go away — that it is disrupting the U.S.-Saudi alliance and possibly even threatening future arms sales — is absolutely appropriate. But I can’t help feeling eaten alive by the question it raises.

Why do only some lives matter?

Categories: News for progressives

Sacrificing Border Communities for Political Gain

Fri, 2018-11-02 15:43

President Trump recently sent a threatening tweet in response to an estimated 7,000 migrants traveling together to the U.S.-Mexico border. If Mexico refuses to halt the caravan of men, women, and children seeking refuge, Trump warned, he’ll “call up the U.S. Military and CLOSE OUR SOUTHERN BORDER!”

The shutdowns have started to happen. On October 29, one port of entry in El Paso, Texas, was shut down, a Customs and Border Protection statement said, while the agency “is currently monitoring the situation regarding the caravan migrating from Central America toward the U.S. border.”

Either Trump isn’t at all aware of how border communities work, or he’s willing to sacrifice them for political gain.

I’m from El Paso, Texas, a city intricately connected to its sister across the border, Ciudad Juárez. Here, thousands of people cross the border both ways every day to work, go to school, visit family, and seek better health care options.

In 2017, more than 22 million people in passenger vehicles crossed the El Paso-Juárez border, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Another 6.8 million crossed on foot — I among them. So far in 2018, 11 million people have driven across this border, and another 3.5 million crossed on foot.

That’s not including the several million who’ve crossed at other ports of entry.

Hundreds of students from Juárez attend school at the University of Texas at El Paso, or the dozens of local K-12 public schools. People trade and own businesses on both sides of the border.

In many cases, Americans in El Paso who don’t have quality health care options see more affordable doctors in Juárez. I’ve done this myself numerous times.

Shutting down the border means shutting down an entire border economy. Mexico and the U.S. share a more than $600 billion trade relationship. Endangering it could have a detrimental ripple effect on the people who call the border home.

All for what? To stop people from seeking asylum — an act that isn’t just legal, but that the U.S. itself is required to permit.

It sounds terrifying — thousands of people from foreign countries showing up at the border demanding a way in illegally. Or at least that’s the picture the Trump administration is trying to paint. The reality is much more complex.

The first thing to understand is the border is not in crisis.

Although there’s been an uptick in unauthorized crossings this year, unauthorized migration overall has actually decreased over the past several years, and is nowhere near as high as it used to be in the early 2000s, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

What has increased is the number of families — that is, parents with their children — traveling to the U.S., along with unaccompanied minors. Some reports estimate half of the people traveling in this caravan to the U.S. are women and children.

Caravans of migrants to the U.S. have been taking place for several years, since they offer safety in numbers from gangs and traffickers that target people traveling alone. But it was only this year that Trump painted caravans as a new immigration crisis for political gain.

It’s against international law for a country to refuse someone’s claim to be considered for asylum. When migrants from this caravan turn themselves in at the border claiming asylum, they’re not breaking any laws. But we are if we forcibly turn them away.

Since Trump’s tweet, CBP has started shutting down at least one port of entry, and the Pentagon has plans to deploy 5,000 troops to the entire border.

Refugees deserve a chance to seek protection. And America’s border communities deserve not to be held hostage by a president that refuses to recognize people’s rights on either side of it.

Jasmine Aguilera is a freelance writer and reporter from El Paso, Texas. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, NowThis, and more.

Categories: News for progressives

Trump Returns to an Old Formula: Lies and Hatred

Fri, 2018-11-02 15:43

Midterm elections are approaching. The first major election since Trump took office, our current political landscape could shift dramatically depending on the results.

If Democrats can take back control of the House of Representatives — or even the Senate — that could have a major effect on Trump’s ability to pass legislation.

The damage that Trump has created since he’s been president has motivated a record number of women and people of color to run for office. Democrats are banking on this new wave of hope, and for candidates to assert progressive ideas and policies on the state and federal levels.

With many media outlets forecasting a potential “blue wave” in favor of Democrats, Republicans are ramping up their campaigns to secure their majority in Congress.

Among these Republicans is President Trump, who has benefited tremendously from our current GOP Congress.

Congress has given Trump the green light to pass an enormous tax cut for corporations and the ultra-wealthy, stood by as he’s separated thousands of immigrant children from their parents who are seeking asylum in the U.S., and confirmed Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh amid massive protests around credible sexual misconduct allegations against him.

With more to-do’s to check off his conservative agenda, such as building a border wall between Mexico and the U.S., Trump cannot afford to lose the Republican majority in Congress.

So, in an effort to get his supporters excited to vote for Republican candidates, he’s returning to tactics that have worked pretty well for him: lying and hatred.

Within the past month, President Trump has lied about creating a plan for a middle-class tax cut, when in reality he signed a tax bill that will create a $2 trillion federal budget deficit by helping millionaires and billionaires.

Similarly, the Trump administration is considering writing trans people out of Title IX, a federal civil rights code that bans sex discrimination in federally funded schools, by defining “sex as either male or female, unchangeable, and determined by the genitals that a person is born with.”

This act could reverse life-saving protections for transgender people across the nation. But to Trump it’s worth it, because he knows these types of actions rally up his evangelical base.

It doesn’t stop there — it also extends to Trump’s signature issue, immigration.

It’s no accident that just because of the upcoming election, he made a public promise to end birthright citizenship, an ironclad constitutional provision. That means babies who are born in this country to immigrant parents would no longer be granted automatic citizenship.

Not to mention, he’s sending 5,000 troops to the border to “fend off” a caravan of migrants and refugees, half of whom are women and children.

It’s obvious that Trump’s willing to put up a dirty fight to maintain the Republican majority in Congress. Will it have an impact on the outcome of the election? Or will voters turn out for candidates who promise to protect everyone in our country, including the most marginalized?

Well, that’s up to us.

Categories: News for progressives

Mass Murder and American History

Fri, 2018-11-02 15:42

“Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

This is bigger than hate, this latest mass shooting, last weekend, at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, in which, oh my God, 11 more innocent souls died at the hands of a home-grown terrorist.

The president’s anti-immigrant tweets may have been in grotesque synchronicity with the killer’s: “Many Gang Members and some very bad people are mixed into the Caravan heading to our Southern Border. . . . This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!” And they no doubt fed the climate in which Robert Bowers acted, but this is bigger than Donald Trump. He may be the trigger, but the weapon has been ready and waiting for a long time.

Every mass shooting happens in a context, and every mass shooting cries out that we must examine the social infrastructure of dehumanization and violence.

“Yet this too needs to be contextualized as a current manifestation of the racist foundations of our country,” Rabbi Michael Lerner wrote the day after the murders, reminding us of such matters as slavery, Native American genocide and the wars of the last half century.

“This pattern of violence and demeaning of ‘the Other’ has become so deeply embedded in the culture of the U.S. that only a true consciousness transformation will undermine its prevalence in both major political parties.”

“Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

These are the words I can’t get out of my head — the killer’s final post on his social media platform before he took his guns and headed off to the Tree of Life Synagogue. This is war talk — or rather, the pretend war talk of a boy playing with guns . . . a boy who has become an adult and now has real guns and a “real” enemy — the immigrants swarming into our country, aided by the Jews — and he’s about to leap to glory and save his people.

Maybe the problem of American violence begins here, in the fantasy of armed rescue and armed salvation. In this fantasy mindset, the default plot device of ten thousand mediocre movies and TV shows, the only consequence of violence is that it eliminates the bad guy.

Boyhood is all about glory, but boys grow up and learn a deeper reality — unless they don’t. And American militarism requires that Americans stay in their early adolescence psychologically, making a shift not in their understanding of other people but only in the weapons used against them. Beyond the entertainment industry and the gaming industry is the Department of Defense, which sustains itself by recruiting children before they grow up and teaching them to hate — and kill — the Other. The United States Army actually has a website devoted to hooking kids as young as 13. It’s called America’s Army, a gaming website with the message that war is awesome.

As I wrote some years ago, the site is “the very essence of America’s own arrested development: We command the world’s largest arsenal and throw our weight around with an adolescent swagger. Neocons famously declared ‘high noon’ with Saddam Hussein. If militarists had to face long-term or even short-term accountability for the damage they wreak, war would be obsolete in an eye blink.”

And war always, always, always comes home. Indeed, its consciousness pervades the social order. It grabs a mind and won’t let it go.

And those who want to wage war on their own, without the inconvenience of having to follow someone else’s orders, are free not merely to define their own enemy but also to assemble their own stash of weapons and, when they are ready, “go in” and wreck some lives. This is America, where we have the freedom to kill one another.

And . . .

This is the clincher. We are not allowed, in any official way, to be aware of this. While we pour maybe as much as a trillion dollars a year into Things Military, the amount of money devoted to research into the causes of social violence is, by congressional edict, zero. This has been true since 1996, when Congress, at the intense urging of the NRA, passed the Dickey Amendment, which in essence cut off any federal funding for research into the causes of gun violence.

Specifically, this piece of legislation, part of the federal government’s 1996 omnibus spending bill, bans at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using any federal money to conduct research that “may be used to advocate or promote gun control” — which is a built-in catch-22. Because research into gun violence is likely to reveal the need for gun control, the research cannot be federally funded.

As the New York Times pointed out: “The result is that 22 years and more than 600,000 gunshot victims later, much of the federal government has largely abandoned efforts to learn why people shoot one another, or themselves, and what can be done to prevent gun violence.”

And this is the context in which politicians peddle fear and war. Fear of immigrants is hardly new, hardly the invention of Trump. It has long been a component of American racism. As Trump threatens to dismantle the 14th Amendment and sign an executive order terminating birthright citizenship (an election ploy as the midterms grow nearer), we might want to reflect on good old Executive Order 9066, which Franklin Roosevelt signed in 1942 — and just like that, with a stroke of the pen, forced some 117,000 Japanese-Americans into concentration . . . excuse me, internment camps for the next three years.

We could also remember all the European Jews who were not allowed into the United States as they tried to flee Hitler, as we reflect on the nation’s moral shortcomings. This history, so lacking in official atonement, is available to anyone who wants to project blame on a specific Other. Indeed, there is no nationalism — white or otherwise — without an Other to fear and, every so often, kill.

“Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

The mass shootings will continue. We all know that. And we can’t undo our history. But we do have a choice: We can face it squarely and look beyond it, toward love, toward forgiveness, toward an understanding of our presumed enemies. When we do so, the hard part begins. We also start understanding ourselves.

Categories: News for progressives

An Exploration of Suicide and Grief: Sigrid Nunez’ “The Friend”

Fri, 2018-11-02 15:16

This is a profoundly personal book:  not in a confessional, nor even a confiding way, much less the gut-spilling vein that screams for attention in this ever more distracted world.  Sigrid Nunez’ The Friend is a calm, though unflinching, exploration of grief in the wake of a close friend’s suicide.

As survivor’s tale, it joins two other treasures of recent vintage, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story.  Where it departs from their course is in its billing not as memoir but as fiction, in which category it has found its way onto this year’s short list for the National Book Award, the winner to be announced November 14.

This classification might lead one to write off the book as a work of imagination with little relationship to real life.  But a close reading leads to the opposite conclusion:  The detachment afforded the author by presenting her narrative as fiction only serves Nunez’ purpose all the better of delving into her personal experience.  I, of course, have no idea how much of the book “really” happened but am convinced that in Nunez’ universe, the question is beside the point.

So what’s the book about?  Although the lion’s share of Amazon reviewers express unqualified praise, one complained that despite the picture of the distinguished-looking Great Dane sitting with regal posture on the cover, it’s not really about a dog.  The picture, according to this disgruntled reader, is a “marketing ploy” to… what?  Lure that huge chunk of the reading public that devours books with canine protagonists?  But it is true that the friend of the title is not primarily the mythic creature who first appears on page 25; it is the unnamed long time confidant, like Nunez herself, a writer and writing teacher, who. to the shock and bewilderment of close associates and three ex-wives, kills himself.  And to the surprise of Nunez in particular, designates her to inherit his unlikely “rescue” dog, Apollo.

Nunez’ grief in the aftermath of her former mentor’s loss occasions this prolonged study of suicide, among other subjects, for Nunez, in her understated way, is a formidable scholar of a wide array of topics.  Thus do we learn that [w]riting in the first person is a known sign of suicide risk.”   Other topics explored are animals and what they may be thinking: (“[T]he last thing you want,” a vet advises her, “is for [Apollo] to start thinking you’re his bitch;”) and writing students who seem to have no idea of what their chosen field is, (“[c]olor of eyes, color of hair – the usual student way of describing a character, as if a story is a piece of ID like a driver’s license;”) much less of what it requires.  (“I delete without answering the questionnaire from someone who is considering taking my class.  [Number one:  Are you over-concerned with things like punctuation and grammar?”])

It is Nunez’ vignettes from these worlds, her quotes, which are so off-the-wall as to have to be real, that offer the novel’s greatest rewards.

On writing:

Not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness, Simenon said writing was.  Georges Simenon, who wrote hundreds of novels under his own name, hundreds more under two dozen pen names, and who, at the time of his retirement, was the bestselling author in the world.  Now, that’s a lot of unhappiness….

…Who, asked what had made him a novelist, replied, “My hatred for my mother.  (That’s a lot of hatred.)…

…He had a daughter, who was psychotically in love with him.  When she was a little girl she asked for a wedding ring, which he gave her.  She had the ring enlarged to fit her finger as she grew.  When she was twenty-five, she shot herself.

Q:  Where does a young Parisienne get a gun?

A:  From a gunsmith she read about in one of Papa’s novels.

Such facts could not have been made up, of course.  And how much more powerful is the tragic story for being about a writer we all know.  Yet the accounts of prostitutes and sexually abused women, none of whose names are divulged, are equally affecting.

Much of the book is written in the second person, as though to resurrect the deceased, but towards the end, the “you” shifts from former human friend to current representative thereof, Apollo, the Great Dane.  Yet for this reader at least, the title ultimately refers to neither one.  Such is the sustained openness and generosity of the prose, not to mention the courage in examining the subjects of death and particularly, suicide, that the friend in question seems to be Nunez herself.

Jenna Orkin, a former student of Sigrid Nunez, is the author of  Ground Zero Wars: The Fight to Reveal the Lies of the EPA in the Wake of 9/11 and Clean Up Lower Manhattan.

Categories: News for progressives

Marie Colvin’s Wars

Fri, 2018-11-02 15:16

Still from “A Private War.”

On February 22, 2012, London Times foreign correspondent Marie Colvin and her photographer Paul Conroy were in the ground floor of a multi-story building in Baba Amr, a neighborhood in Homs, Syria, that was being used as a press center when a shell scored a direct hit that left her dead and Conroy badly wounded. Two new films are focused on their experience as the last foreign journalists reporting from Homs that was the first of the liberated areas to be reconquered by the regime mostly as a result of the asymmetric warfare that has drowned the revolution in blood. “A Private War” that opens in NY, Washington, and Los Angeles theaters today (screening information: https://www.aprivatewarfilm.com/) is a narrative film with biopic elements hoping to explain how a 56-year old woman with bad knees could have ended up in such a precarious situation. “Under the Wire”, a documentary that opens at Village East Cinema on November 16th, is much more Paul Conroy’s story and serves as a complement to the narrative film. Watching the two in tandem will remind you of the need for an independent press that is committed to telling the story of people under siege, particularly the women and children who Colvin made it her life’s mission to defend through her journalism.

Within five minutes, “A Private War” begins painting the portrait of a woman who lived on the edge. Chain-smoking, boozing late into the night, and using profanities that would make a truck driver or a hip-hop artist blush, Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike) is a larger-than-life personality whose patch covering her left eye accentuated her desperado image. One gets the sense that someone with such a self-destructive streak might have died long before Baba Amr, if journalism on behalf of the weak and the defenseless had not given her a reason to live. Without that mission, she might have been a casualty of booze in the same way that drugs caused Jimi Hendrix or Janice Joplin to die young.

Colvin certainly was a product of those turbulent days. Someone who smoked pot and went to Washington for Vietnam antiwar protests, she was not that much different from other Yalies like the Clintons. Unlike them, her goal was to use her talents for the common good rather than private gain. Of course, the coveted position of writing features for the London Times that allowed her to live in a townhouse on the Thames could not be overlooked.

The film depicts her as someone who liked “living large”. She enjoyed the prestige that attended her body of work covering conflicts all across the planet and was not loath to remind other reporters lower in the pecking order who was on top. In one scene, she is in Iraq in the early 2000s listening in on an American officer giving embedded journalists their marching orders about where they can and cannot go. She tells Conroy not to pay him any attention. They will go where the story leads them. In this instance, it is a mass grave of Saddam’s victims. This scene, as a number of others, closely adheres to the actual event as it was filmed in “Under the Wire”.

Both films are filled with graphic depictions of the wounds suffered by both journalists, some so grievous that you cannot help but cover your eyes. On April 16, 2001, Colvin was with a group of Tamil Tiger guerrillas in Sri Lanka crouching down after they came under fire from government forces. Worried that she might be killed, she took the risk of standing up and yelling “Journalist, journalist” to protect herself. Instead, they fired an RPG at her that punctured a lung and damaged her left eye permanently. Over a long career, Colvin took enormous risks to gather material for a story. If you are tempted to conclude that some kind of death-wish led her to places like Sri Lanka or Baba Amr, you should be reminded that this is the way that war correspondents operated for most of the 20thcentury. For example, Bernard Fall was killed by a landmine while accompanying United States Marines on a patrol in 1967.

Whatever your position was on Syria, you have to wonder about the tendency of some reporters to act as if there was no story worth covering in rebel-held territory. Being a correspondent might have meant staying at a four-star hotel in Damascus and being embedded with the Syrian army. If fear of losing one’s life to a barrel bomb or missile explains this, it is understandable but if it was ideological bias, then it is unforgivable.

“A Private War” was directed by Matthew Heinmann, who has only made documentaries in the past, including “City of Ghosts” that I reviewed for CounterPunch last year. It documents the takeover of Raqqa by ISIS, a brutal and totalitarian conquest that was just as much of a blow to the revolution as the bombs that fell on Baba Amr. Like “A Private War” and “Under the Wire”, it identifies with the young and idealistic activists who were swamped under by Islamist militias that had little interest in the democratic goals of the Arab Spring.

One of these activists from Baba Amr figures heavily in “Under the Wire”. Wa’el is a man in perhaps his early 30s who has a stylish beard and a man bun. He looks for all the world like a graduate student at Columbia but for all we know, he could have just been an ordinary citizen of Baba Amr. As head of the media desk, he worked closely with Colvin and Conroy and much of what makes “Under the Wire” so valuable is his testimony.

When Colvin broached the subject with Wa’el of working for the London Times as her assistant, he politely refused. Why? He explains that he had seen too many Syrian activists become subservient to the foreign press after going on their payroll. He would be happy to work with Colvin—thrilled really—but only under the condition that he works for free. Wa’el was like many of the people who constituted the vanguard of the Syrian uprising. They were idealistic, brave and committed to peaceful change. In driving them out of the country or killing them, Assad has only succeeded in sealing the doom of his own country. When the choice is sycophantism and an early grave, most people will just pick up and move to Europe or some other region as Wa’el did years ago. If they are the best of the youth who had the courage to speak up, who will help Syria navigate the desperate conditions that faces it—a combination of economic and ecological ruin fostered by Baathist misrule.

This is really Wa’el and Conroy’s film. We only hear briefly from Colvin who is increasingly overwhelmed by the desperate situation they face. In keeping with her long-standing commitment to those living under siege conditions, she convinces Conroy to return to Baba Amr to file one last dispatch before seeking refuge from relentless bombing. The only way to reach the neighborhood is to walk through a dark, miles-long drainage pipe that is so close to the ground that you need to stoop to make your way. After Conroy is wounded, he is borne through the same tunnel under conditions that would haunt him through the rest of his life. The time spent in this unfortunate town might have even broken the spirit of Marie Colvin if she had not succumbed to Assad’s bombs.

Ironically, director Chris Martin’s last film was co-directed by John Pilger, the 2007 “The War on Democracy” that detailed American intervention in Latin America that can be seen on Vimeo for free. I am positive that it will help make sense of Brazil, Venezuela, and Honduras. Of course, I find it regrettable that Pilger has failed to make the effort to understand what motivated someone like Wa’el to oppose Assad but his past work stands on its own merits.

We learn that Marie Colvin kept a copy of Martha Gellhorn’s The Face of War everywhere she went like some people carried bibles. This was a collection of newspaper articles by one of the 20thcentury’s most celebrated war correspondents who was also Ernest Hemingway’s third wife. (A film titled “Hemingway and Gellhorn” can be seen on Amazon but it was rated only 50% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. Caveat emptor.) As she approached 80, Gellhorn began to slow down physically but not enough to prevent her from covering the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989.

It is a shame that Colvin died so young. Since the London Times is behind a paywall, you were not likely to see her articles being aggregated on the leftwing of the Internet—of course, the bias toward Assad probably had a lot to do with that. Her last dispatch from Baba Amr on February 19th, 2012 before her death reveals the loss to journalism and, more broadly, human rights in general left in her wake:

They call it the widows’ basement. Crammed amid makeshift beds and scattered belongings are frightened women and children trapped in the horror of Homs, the Syrian city shaken by two weeks of relentless bombardment.

Among the 300 huddling in this wood factory cellar in the besieged district of Baba Amr is 20-year-old Noor, who lost her husband and her home to the shells and rockets.

“Our house was hit by a rocket so 17 of us were staying in one room,” she recalls as Mimi, her three-year-old daughter, and Mohamed, her five-year-old son, cling to her abaya.

“We had had nothing but sugar and water for two days and my husband went to try to find food.” It was the last time she saw Maziad, 30, who had worked in a mobile phone repair shop. “He was torn to pieces by a mortar shell.”

For Noor, it was a double tragedy. Adnan, her 27-year-old brother, was killed at Maziad’s side.

Everyone in the cellar has a similar story of hardship or death. The refuge was chosen because it is one of the few basements in Baba Amr. Foam mattresses are piled against the walls and the children have not seen the light of day since the siege began on February 4. Most families fled their homes with only the clothes on their backs.

 

 

Categories: News for progressives

Public Spaces Private Control

Fri, 2018-11-02 15:12

Some time ago I found myself in Paddington Central, a development of office and residential buildings near Paddington train station in London. I’d accidentally walked into the glass and metal concave and what appeared to be a public space, albeit one surrounded by the usual corporate outlets; green grass, a sort of amphitheater, people sitting around eating and drinking and a busker packing up. It appeared pleasant, but there was something artificial and menacing here. Upon investigation I discovered that it was not really a public space at all, but a privately owned square subject to undisclosed laws and regulations laid down by the corporation that owns it.

The commercialization of public spaces in British cities and elsewhere in the industrialized world is going on apace. It is a key element in the movement to lay claim to our cities and neighborhoods, and whilst the curse of gentrification is hard to miss, privatization of public spaces goes largely unnoticed by a weary populous beaten down by the relentless pressures of modern living, unaware of the devious ways of big business and the corporate state that supports it.

Peaceful Protest Denied

Unsurprisingly, the privatization of public spaces (POPS) in Britain began during the Thatcher years (1980’s), and, over the past few decades, The Guardian reports, “almost every major redevelopment in London has resulted in the privatization of public space, including areas around the Olympic Stadium, King’s Cross and Nine Elms.” One of the most notable areas of privately owned public space in the capital is ‘More London’ on the South Bank of the River Thames where City Hall sits surrounded by what looks like open public space. The 13-acre site is in fact owned by St. Martins, a Kuwait property company, who bought it in 2013 for £1.7bn. As described by the More London agent, the “development is a modern 13-acre business destination, situated on the Thames between London Bridge and Tower Bridge. Designed by Foster and Partners, the development comprises City Hall, a diverse mix of grade A office space, shops, restaurants, bars, a Hilton hotel, a theatre, a unique open-air music and entertainment amphitheater.” Further down their repugnant sales speak they make clear that the public space and what takes place there is in fact under corporate control, stating that, “the local community, up and coming arts organizations and charities are encouraged to use the space for free.”

Within these suffocating corporate spaces behavior and access is controlled and landowners are empowered to deny the public the right to peacefully protest. This was evidenced in 2011 when the Occupy Movement set up camp in Paternoster Square (renamed Tahrir Square by protestors) outside the London Stock Exchange, only to be forcibly moved on by police who secured a high court injunction against public access. To the shock and confusion of many of us, it transpired that the Mitsubishi Estate Company, a massive Japanese property developer actually owned the ‘public’ square.

The sterile environment of POPS promotes a false image of contemporary living that marginalizes the disadvantaged and ignores the reality of poverty and social injustice, while being a fundamental part of a system that perpetuates both. In such sanitized spaces certain ‘types’ of people, buskers, skateboarders, cyclists – the undesirable – are unwelcome; homeless people are shunned, their existence denied, and ‘hostile architecture’ – benches with arms making lying down impossible, studded doorways, sloped windowsills and anti-homeless spikes – aggressively reinforce the message of exclusion.

POPS is part of a major change in the nature of our cities as governments justify the sale of public land and buildings as economic prudence, and industrial sites are developed and converted into residential properties or refashioned as commercial units, studio spaces, ‘Class A’ offices, etc. This disturbing undemocratic “wave of urban change is characterized by certain key trends,” says Anna Minton, author of ‘The Privatisation of Public Space’, “relating this time to the private ownership and management of the public realm.” Minton cites an enormous regeneration scheme in Liverpool allowing Grosvenor Estates (headed by the Duke of Westminster, estimated to be worth around £9 billion) to “redevelop 35 streets in the heart of the city, replacing traditional rights of way with ‘public realm arrangements’, policed by US-style ‘quartermasters’ or ‘Sheriffs’.” Begging, skateboarding and rollerblading will be banned and “any form of demonstration will require police permission.” Systems of control more akin to fascism than democracy, but then corporate institutions are not at all interested in democratic principles, they are totalitarian institutions that have been granted extraordinary powers by indolent governments.

Landowners are free to draft the regulations for these pseudo public spaces, which are not subject to local authority bylaws. Like shopping centers and gated communities POPS are policed by unaccountable private security firms, the relevant rules do not have to be publicly posted and can be used indiscriminately to deny public access; free speech is certainly not part of the corporate model of public ownership, which suits the government very well.

In keeping with the homogenized high streets up and down the country all privately owned public spaces look and feel alike, creating a disturbing sense of uniformity. Streets and squares without character, all color and diversity eradicated, ‘corporatized’; individuality crushed, social conformity demanded. Captured under the umbrella of consumerism people are reduced to mere customers, divided into bands of affluence or need, towns, cities and countries spoken of as market places, the world seen as one giant shopping center in which the values of the market – greed and exploitation, division and selfishness – are promoted in day and night.

The creation of quasi-public spaces, and the selling off of previously authentic public spaces, is one more insidious step in the commercialization of all aspects of contemporary life, and the erosion of democracy; democracy that is already completely inadequate. The massive sale of common space that is taking place in British cities has, the Guardian states, “been strategically engineered to seem necessary, benign and even inconsequential.” It is happening within the broader construct of urban re-generation schemes, which take place without any democratic participation; land is sold off in secret, and the voices of local residents, small businesses, social and cultural centers go unheard.

Public spaces serve a range of purposes, they provide a platform for free assembly and collective action and, within cities, where most people live, they are an ever-precious resource. The world of Neoliberalism attempts to reduce everything to a commodity, but public spaces are not simply a financial asset to be sold off to the highest bidder: like libraries, playing fields and community centers they are an essential social democratic resource that must be fiercely defended and re-claimed as ours.

Categories: News for progressives

I Was Threatened With Two Years in Prison for Voting

Fri, 2018-11-02 14:59

My name is Keith Sellars, and I live in Haw River, North Carolina. I’m the father of four beautiful girls and one very protective son.

I was born and raised in Alamance County, North Carolina, and would call no other place home. I’m one of the so-called “Alamance 12” — the 12 people, nine of us black, who were unjustly prosecuted for voting in the 2016 election while on parole.

I’ve voted many times in my life. It started back in my 20s, when I realized that I wanted to make difference. I wasn’t happy with the way things were, especially for young people of color like me.

I was only 15 years old when I ended up in jail for the first time. As many stories like mine begin, I was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time, surrounded by bad influences, with very few options.

I quickly realized that the people around me didn’t have jobs, because there simply weren’t any jobs for them. And if there were jobs, discrimination meant they wouldn’t even get an interview.

To get by, sometimes I broke the law. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but we were just trying to make a living — and surviving has been criminalized for some of us.

It was during these years of going in and out of court when I learned that our legal system didn’t treat everyone the same. I remember white folks who’d done much worse things than I had getting away with a slap on the wrist, while dark-skinned men like me got locked up on harsh sentences.

One in three black men in the United States has been charged with a felony. In North Carolina, black men are incarcerated at four times the rate of white men. And here, as in most states, that can mean harsh restrictions on your right to vote. So even if we think these laws are unfair, the opportunity to influence them is taken from our hands.

These experiences led me to want to get involved in the political process. I voted in the 2008 and 2012 elections. I had trouble with the law again after that, but I was committed to turning my life around. I decided to practice my right to vote once again in 2016. I was told that I could and that I should, because it was the most important election of my life.

I didn’t realize at the moment that I would be targeted, prosecuted, and threatened with yet another felony — and two years in prison — for exercising that right.

For me it’s important that we call this what it is: voter suppression. Other policies — including a proposed voter ID constitutional amendment, polling site closures and early voting restrictions, and partisan and racial gerrymandering — hope to do the same.

I’ve suffered severe consequences to exercise my right to vote. Is it because politicians are afraid of poor and working people like me actually having a say in how we run things?

Keith Sellars, one of the 12 Alamance County, NC residents prosecuted for voting in 2016, organizes with Down Home North Carolina, a multiracial coalition for economic and racial justice.

Categories: News for progressives

Bach’s Beat

Fri, 2018-11-02 14:08

The Bach-o-sphere has been inundated this week by reports of a new study that purports to show that the performance of the Great Man’s music is getting faster, and doing so rapidly—as much as thirty percent quicker in just fifty years. At this rate an earbud-equipped aficionado will be able to imbibe the entire Art of Fugue (traditionally about a ninety-minute outing) in the time it takes to polish of a pumpkin frappuccino.

The claims about the quickening pace of Bach performance were issued in connection with BACH 333, a hugely ambitious recorded set of the composer’s complete works filled out with numerous “enhancements.” This box-set monument was assembled by the Universal Music Group under whose vast corporate umbrella the Deutsche Grammophon and Decca labels both now seek refuge against the market forces that have long laid waste to swathes of the classical music recording industry.  BACH 333 resists these forces with opulence and assurance and—it would seem—faster tempos.

Bach would have turned a third of a millennium this past March, and it’s a clever ploy to seek another anniversary to tout his music, though on seeing this project’s title I was expecting a retro move of bringing out his entire corpus on vinyl. The LP turns at 33 1/3 revolutions a minute—the perfect pace to mark Bach’s third-of-a-millennium birthday. However enticing for hipsters and analog-geeks, the noble format would require that most buyers get a mini-storage space for their Bach. Rather less bulky, but not exactly stocking-stuffer, BACH 333 is comprised of 222 CDs—another aesthetically pleasing number that may have been appreciated by Bach, who was, some have claimed, fascinated by figures and proportions. Along with the discs come hardback books: a biography and a collection of essays by leading scholars. The latest catalog of all his works is thrown in for good measure.

The project brings together the best of historically-informed interpretations played on antique instruments and led by conductors like John Eliot Gardiner (who provides a written “Welcome” to the collection), Ton Koopman and others, as well as vintage materials, valuable in their own right but also fascinating in tracing the evolving traditions of Bach interpretation in the age of recorded sound. There are premieres as well; harpsichord and organ works are recorded anew by young stars, Justin Taylor and Christian Schmitt, and the solo violin music gets yet another reading courtesy of the towering Italian virtuoso Giuliano Carmignola. Also included are eight CDs of music by composers who influenced Bach and whose music he knew, performed, and arranged; another eight discs collect the work of composers and performers inspired by him, beginning with his own sons and extending into our own time and also beyond the borders of classical music. The set retails for upwards of $500,  which doesn’t strike me as much of an outlay for the expertise and effort, the sumptuousness of the product, its historical reach, and the quality of the performances—not to mention the sheer quantity on offer.  To listen to the whole stack at one sitting would take two weeks round the clock.

It is from the cache of multiple performances of the same work spanning many decades that the shift in velocity has been noted by the curatorial team at the Universal Music Group. The set includes no fewer than five versions of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D Minor (BWV 1043). It is one of the best-known and oft-played pieces of classical music, not least because of its central position in the Suzuki String Method whose worldwide convocations often include dozens, even hundreds of young violinists, on each of the solo parts.

BACH 333 includes a performance of the concerto from 1961 by David and Igor Oistrakh. It takes the famed Russian father-and-son pair more than seventeen minutes to get through the work. The latest version in the set comes from 2016 and Nemanja Radulovic & Tijana Milosevic. They gambol through the work’s three movements in just twelve.

Sir Nicholas Kenyon, the editorial overseer of BACH 333, chalks this hastening beat—also noted by previous studies in the realm of pop—to modern audiences’ taste for lighter more sprightly interpretations of the music of certain composers, chief among them Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. Kenyon is former head of the BBC Proms, and also has served as music critic for the New Yorkerand editor of the scholarly journal Early Music. He’s a man of impressive intellectual range and engagement, and his views on the perceived quickening are hard to challenge.

Yet one doesn’t really need statistical buttress to come to the same conclusion about the fact of faster of tempos.  The BACH 333 promotional trailer makes it manifestly clear that modern Bachists are in a hurry: the timpani of Christmas Oratorio proclaim great things to come, spurring the cascade of strings into a full gallop right out of the gate, the snorting steed urged on by trumpet blasts. Dynamic CGI images of the box and its beckoning contents entice the prospective buyer as the glories of Bach at his most brisk rip past: high-speed snippets of the exuberant soprano cantata Jauchzet Gott in den Allen Landenmorph into a supercharged Italian Concerto on harpsichord racing headlong into the cross-hand antics of the first keyboard partita ion modern piano and into the frenetic flute Badinerie from the B-Minor Orchestral Suite (in baroque pitch that matches the preceding B-flat of the preceding). And the promo isn’t even half way done yet!  I was feeling woozy after just that much, and if anything, the pace accelerated all the way to the marketing Amen. It’s a topsy-turvy highlight reel as bruising as NFL Hits of the Week, and should probably come with a health advisory for anyone with heart palpitations.

Things are indeed getting faster, and not just on the Bach double.

In doesn’t take an Einstein to know that musical speed and its perception are relatively matters, dependent on taste and custom.  According to Bach’s second Carl Philip Emanuel, his father generally took a “very lively” tempo as a conductor.  Whether that was as quick as the opening of the Christmas Oratorio on the BACH 333 trailer is anyone’s guess.  Even in the eighteenth century, particularly in church, the Germans were renowned, even notorious, for the glacial progress of their music-making. After having visited Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach in Hamburg in 1772, the English traveler and music historian Charles moved on to the Hanseatic city of Bremen. On entering the cathedral there one Sunday he heard the organist start into a hymn at a “true dragging pace.”  Bored after “ten or twelve verses,” Burney went sight-seeing for two hours, but on his return, he claimed, certainly in a sardonic vein, that the congregation was “still singing all in unison, and as loud as they could, the same tune, to the same accompaniment.”

Did this lugubriousness apply to Bach’s lively Italianate music for the coffee house, princely chamber, and also church? One doubts it.

Whatever the case, the BACH 333 findings fuel the notion that time is short, that the end is near. Aside from the question of how fast Bach played, sang, or conducted his own music, it’s an attitude he might have shared, if we consider the profusion of millenarian tracts that appeared in his teenage years in the run up to the year 1700 with its ominous double zeroes. That very midnight was also the moment at which the Protestant Germany switched to the Gregorian calendar. Eleven days were suddenly edited from time’s tape.  According to many of the day’s theologically-informed opinions, Bach was lucky to be granted the ensuing decades to get down to the business of being Bach. It could have all ended in the first minutes of the 1700.

We live an age of acceleration:  ever more quickly the earth heats up, the glaciers melt, the species die.  It makes intuitive sense that we feel, perhaps like Bach did, that there just isn’t time to get it all in before the Apocalypse.

But ours is also an age of unfathomable of freedom in which the listener no longer need be subjugated by the will of the performer. With DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) software one can speed up or slow down to individual preference any recording without changing its pitch. If there is to be a future ushered in by BACH 333, it will be one of Extreme Listening in which the whole of his creation can be raced through in a single day—or a single sublime measure extended into eternity.

Categories: News for progressives

Catabolism: Capitalism’s Frightening Future

Thu, 2018-11-01 16:10

Photo Source SPACES Gallery | CC BY 2.0

“Out of the frying pan, into the fire” is an apt description of our current place in history. No matter what you think of globalization, I believe we’ll soon discover that capitalism without it is much, much worse.

No one needs to convince establishment economists, politicians and pundits that the absence of globalization and growth spells trouble. They’ve pushed globalization as the Viagra of economic growth for years. But globalization has never been popular with everyone. Capitalism’s critics recognize that it generates tremendous wealth and power for a tiny fraction of the Earth’s seven billion people, makes room for some in the middle class, but keeps most of humanity destitute and desperate, while trashing the planet and jeopardizing human survival for generations to come.

Around the world, social movements believe “Another World Is Possible!” when neoliberal globalization is replaced by a more democratic, equitable, Earth-friendly society.  They assume that any future without globalization is bound to be an improvement. But now it appears that this assumption may be wrong. In fact, future generations may someday look back on capitalism’s growth phase as the dynamic days of industrial civilization, a naïve time before anyone realized that the worst was yet to come.

The Return of Scarce Oil and Peak Debt

Today, rising energy prices and ballooning debt are poised to strangle the global economy once again. These suffocating conditions brought the economy to its knees in 2008. Afterward, fracking helped increase the supply and lower the price of oil and gas temporarily. Meanwhile, debt-dependent cash infusions in the form of bailouts, low interest rates, corporate tax cuts and leveraged stock buy-backs were injected into the economy to prop up stock prices and profit margins. [1]

But now, despite emergency infusions of hydrocarbons and cash, debilitating debt and rising energy prices are returning with a vengeance. Governments have used every trick at their disposal to keep growth alive and profits high. But debt-driven trickery cannot overcome the underlying reality: growth cannot survive without cheap, abundant energy. Fueling growth with debt instead of real energy is a disaster in the making.

Economists and politicians refuse to admit it, but Age of Fossil Fuels has reached its apex. The rapacious flight to the top was powered by the Earth’s dwindling hydrocarbon reserves. From these lofty heights, the drastic drop-off ahead appears perilous. As fossil fuel extraction fails to meet global demand, economic contraction and downward mobility will become the new normal and growth will fade into memory. But this new growth-less future may bear no resemblance to the equitable Green economy activists have been calling for.

Can Capitalism Survive Without Growth?

Optimistic Green reformers like Al Gore, Jeremy Rifkin and Lester Brown see a window of opportunity at this historic juncture. For years, they’ve jetted from one conference to another, tirelessly trying to convince world leaders to embrace their planet-saving plans for a sustainable, carbon-free society before it’s too late. They hope energy scarcity and economic contraction can act as wake-up calls, spurring world leaders to embrace their Green New Deals that promise to save capitalism and the planet.

Their message is clear: rapid, fossil-fueled growth is burning through the Earth’s remaining reserves of precious hydrocarbons and doing untold damage to the biosphere in the process. Businesses must lead the way out of this dangerous dead end by adopting renewable energy and other planet-healing practices, even if it means substantial reductions in growth and profits. But, despite their dire warnings, hard work, innovative proposals and good intentions, most heads of state and captains of industry continue to politely ignore them.

Meanwhile, more radical activists also hope climate chaos, peak oil and economic contraction will become game changers. Many assume that globalization and growth are so essential that capitalism must fail without them. And, as it does, social movements will seize the opportunity to transform this collapsing system into a more equitable, sustainable one, free of capitalism’s insatiable need to expand at all costs.

Both the green growth reformers and anti-growth radicals misunderstand the true nature of capitalism and underestimate its ability to withstand—and profit handsomely from—the great contraction ahead. Growth is not the primary driving force behind capitalism—profit is. When the overall economic pie is expanding, many firms find it easier to realize profits big enough to continually increase their share price. But periods of crisis and collapse can generate huge profits as well. In fact, during systemic contractions, the dog-eat-dog nature of capitalism creates lucrative opportunities for hostile takeovers, mergers and leveraged buyouts, allowing the most predatory firms to devour their competition.

Capitalism is a profit-maximizing economic machine. It is not loyal to any person, nation, corporation or ideology. It doesn’t care about the planet or believe in justice, equality, fairness, liberty, human rights, democracy, world peace or even economic growth and the “free market.” Its overriding obsession is maximizing the return on invested capital. Capitalism will pose as a loyal friend of other beliefs and values, or betray them in an instant, if it advances the drive for profit … that’s why it’s called the bottom line!

Growth is important because it tends to improve the bottom line. And ultimately, capitalism may not last without it. But those who profit from this economic system are not about to throw up their hands and walk off the stage of history just because boom has turned to bust. Crisis, conflict and collapse can be extremely profitable for the opportunists who know where and when to invest.

But how long can this go on? Can capitalism’s profit motive remain the driving force behind a contracting economy lacking the vital energy surplus needed to fuel growth? Definitely, but the consequences for society will be grim indeed. Without access to the cheap, abundant energy needed to extract resources, power factories, maintain infrastructure and transport goods around the world, capitalism’s productive sector will lose its position as the most lucrative source of profit and investment. Transnational corporations will find that their giant economies of scale and global chains of production have become liabilities rather than assets. As profits dwindle, factories close, workers are laid off, benefits and wages are slashed, unions are broken and pension funds are raided – whatever it takes to remain solvent.

Declining incomes and living standards mean poorer consumers, contracting markets and shrinking tax revenues. Of course, collapse can be postponed by using debt to artificially extend the solvency of businesses, consumers and governments. But eventually, paying off debts with interest becomes futile without growth. And, when the credit bubbles burst, the defaults, foreclosures, bankruptcies and financial fiascos that follow can paralyze the economy.

Without the capacity for re-energizing growth, the recessions and depressions of times past, that temporarily disrupted production between long periods of expansion, now become chronic features of a contracting system. On the downside of peak oil, neither liberal programs to increase employment and stimulate growth nor conservative tax and regulatory cuts have any substantial impact on the economy’s descending spiral. Both production and demand remain so constricted by energy austerity that any brief growth spurts are quickly stifled by resurgent energy prices. Instead, periods of severe contraction and collapse may be buffered between brief plateaus of relative stability.

Catabolism: The Final Phase of Capitalism

In a growth-less, contracting economy, the profit motive can have a powerful catabolic impact on capitalist society. The word “catabolism” comes from the Greek and is used in biology to refer to the condition whereby a living thing feeds on itself. Thus, catabolic capitalism is a self-cannibalizing system whose insatiable hunger for profit can only be fed by devouring the society that sustains it.[2]As it rampages down the road to ruin, this system gorges itself on one self-inflicted disaster after another.

The riotous train scene in the film The Marx Brothers Go West captures the essence of catabolic capitalism. The wacky brothers commandeer a locomotive that runs out of fuel. In desperation, they ransack the train, breaking up the passenger cars, ripping up seats and tearing down roofs and walls to feed the steam engine. By the end of the scene, terrified passengers desperately cling to a skeletal train, reduced to little more than a fast moving furnace on wheels.

In the previous era of industrial expansion, catabolic capitalists lurked in the shadows of the growth economy. They were the illicit arms, drugs and sex traffickers; the loan sharks, debt collectors and repo-men; the smugglers, pirates, poachers, black market merchants and pawnbrokers; the illegal waste dumpers, shady sweatshop operators and unregulated mining, fishing and timber operations.

However, as the productive sector contracts, this corrupt cannibalistic sector emerges from the shadows and metastasizes rapidly, thriving off conflict, crime and crisis; hoarding and speculation; insecurity and desperation. Catabolic capitalism flourishes because it can still generate substantial profits by dodging legalities and regulations; stockpiling scarce resources and peddling arms to those fighting over them; scavenging, breaking down and selling off the assets of the decaying productive and public sectors; and preying upon the sheer desperation of people who can no longer find gainful employment elsewhere.

Without enough energy to generate growth, catabolic capitalists stoke the profit engine by taking over troubled businesses, selling them off for parts, firing the workforce and pilfering their pensions. Scavengers, speculators and slumlords buy up distressed and abandoned properties – houses, schools, factories, office buildings and malls – strip them of valuable resources, sell them for scrap or rent them to people desperate for shelter. Illicit lending operations charge outrageous interest rates and hire thugs or private security firms to shake down desperate borrowers or force people into indentured servitude to repay loans. Instead of investing in struggling productive enterprises, catabolic financiers make windfall profits by betting against growth through hoarding and speculative short selling of securities, currencies and commodities.

Social benefits, legal and regulatory protections and modern society itself will also be sacrificed to feed the profit engine. During a period of contraction, venal catabolic capitalists put their lawyers and lobbyists to work tearing down any legal barriers to their insatiable appetite for profit. Regulatory agencies that once provided some protection from polluters, dangerous products, unsafe workplaces, labor exploitation, financial fraud and corporate crime are dismantled to feed the voracious fires of avarice.

Society’s governing institutions of justice, law and order become early victims of this catabolic crime spree. Public safety is stripped down, privatized and sold to those who can still afford it. As budgets for courts, prisons and law enforcement shrivel, private security firms hire unemployed cops to break strikes, provide corporate security and guard the wealthy in their gated communities. Meanwhile, the rest of us will be forced to rely on alarm systems, dogs, guns and – if we’re lucky – watchful neighbors to deal with rising crime. Privatized prisons will profit by contracting convict labor to the highest bidders.

As tax-starved public services and social welfare programs bleed out from deep budget cuts, profit-hungry capitalists pick over the carcasses of bankrupt governments. Revenues for social security, food stamps and health care programs are chopped to the bone. Public transportation and decaying highways are transformed into private thoroughfares, maintained by convict labor or indentured workers. Corporations scarf up failing public utilities, water treatment, waste management and sewage disposal systems to provide businesses and wealthy communities with reliable power, water and waste removal. Schools and libraries go broke, while exclusive private academies employ a fraction of the jobless teachers and university professors to educate a shrinking class of affluent students.

A Dark Alliance

Cannibalistic profiteers can thrive in a growth-less environment for quite some time, but ultimately, an economy bent on devouring itself has a dismal, dead-end future. Nevertheless, changing course will be difficult because, as the catabolic sector expands at the expense of society, powerful cannibalistic capitalists are bound to forge influential alliances, poison and paralyze the political system and block all efforts to pull society out of its death spiral.

Catabolic enterprises are not the only profit-makers in a growth-less economy. Even a contracting economy must extract energy and other resources from the Earth. Unless the profit motive is removed by bringing these assets under public control, corporate real estate, timber, water, energy and mining corporations will deploy their lobbying muscle to completely privatize these vital resources and enhance their bottom line with government subsidies, tax breaks and “regulatory relief.” The growing capital, energy and technology commitments needed to commodify scarce resources may cut deeply into profit margins. As less solvent outfits fail, the remaining politically connected resource conglomerates may maximize their profits by forming cartels to corner markets, hoard vital resources and send prices soaring while blocking all attempts at public regulation and rationing.

The extractive and the catabolic sectors of capitalism have a lot in common. An alliance between them could put irresistible pressure on failing federal and state governments to open public lands and coastlines to unregulated offshore drilling, fracking, coal mining and tar sands extraction. Scofflaw resource extractors and criminal poaching operations proliferate in corrupt, catabolic conditions where legal protections are ignored and shady deals can be struck with local power brokers to maximize the exploitation of labor and resources. To pay off government debt, national and state parks may be sold and transformed into expensive private resorts while public lands and national forests are auctioned off to energy, timber and mining corporations.

As globalization runs down, this grim catabolic future is eager to replace it. Already, an ugly gang of demagogic politicians around the world hopes to ride this catabolic crisis into power. Their goal is to replace globalization with bombastic nationalist authoritarianism. These xenophobic demagogues are becoming the political face of catabolic capitalism. They promise to restore their country to prosperity and greatness by expelling immigrants while carelessly ignoring the disastrous costs of fossil fuel addiction and military spending. Anger, insecurity and need to believe that a strong leader can restore “the good old days” will guarantee them a fervent following even though their false promises and fake solutions can only make matters worse.

Is Catabolic Capitalism Inevitable?

So, what about Green capitalism? Isn’t there money to be made in renewable energy? What about redesigning transportation systems, buildings and communities? Couldn’t capitalists profit by producing alternative energy technologies if government helped finance the unprofitable, but necessary, infrastructure projects needed to bring them online? Wouldn’t a Green New Deal be far more beneficial than catabolic catastrophe?

Catabolic capitalism is not inevitable. However, in a growth-less economy, catabolic capitalism is the most profitable, short-term alternative for those in power. This makes it the path of least resistance from Wall Street to Washington. But Green capitalism is another story.

As both radical Greens and the corporate establishment realize, Green capitalism is essentially an oxymoron. Truly Green policies, programs and projects contradict capitalism’s primary directive – profit before all else! This doesn’t mean there aren’t profitable niche markets for some products and services that are both ecologically benign and economically beneficial. It means that capitalism’s overriding profit motive is fundamentally at odds with ecological balance and the general welfare of humanity.

While people and the planet can thrive in an ecologically balanced society, the self-centered drive for profit and power cannot. A healthy economy that encourages people to take care of each other and the planet is incompatible with exploiting labor and ransacking naturefor profit.Thus, capitalists will resist, to the bitter end, any effort to replace their malignant economy with a healthy one.

Would the transition to a sustainable society be expensive? Of course. Our petroleum-addicted infrastructure of tankers, refineries, pipelines and power plants; cities, suburbs, gas stations and freeways; shopping centers, mega-farms, fast food franchises and supermarkets would have to be replaced with smaller towns fed by local farms and powered by decentralized, renewable energy. But the cost of making this Green transition is a priceless bargain compared to the suicidal consequences of catabolic collapse.

Is Resistance Futile?

Before we decide that resistance is futile, it’s important to realize that the converging energy, economic and ecological disasters bearing down on us all have the potential to turn people against catabolic capitalism and toward a more just, planet-friendly future. The approaching period of catabolic collapse presents some strategic opportunities to those who would like to rid the world of this system as soon as possible

For example, in the near future, energy scarcity and economic contraction may manifest themselves as a paralyzing financial meltdown. Interest-based banking cannot handle economic contraction. Without perpetual growth, businesses, consumers, students, homeowners, governments and banks (who constantly borrow from each other) cannot pay-off their debts with interest. If default goes viral, the banking system goes down.[3]

When the banking system finally implodes, credit freezes, financial assets vaporize, currency values fluctuate wildly, trade shuts down and governments impose draconian measures to maintain their authority. Few Americans have any experience with this kind of systemic seizure. They assume there will always be food in the supermarkets, gas in the pumps, money in the ATMs, electricity in the power lines and medicine in the pharmacies and hospitals.

During a financial meltdown, government officials find it difficult to retain public confidence; people blame them for running the economy into the ditch and suspect that their pseudo-solutions are actually self-serving schemes designed to keep themselves on top. Consequently, this crippling crisis could serve as a powerful wake-up call and a potential turning point if those who want to abolish catabolic capitalism are prepared to make the most of it.

But crises don’t necessarily incite positive responses. Power will be decisive in the unfolding struggle over the future of our species and the planet; and those that benefit from the status quo are bent on holding on to it. Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine warns us that those in power will exploit the traumas caused by major catastrophes to rally support for their own disastrous agenda (like invading Iraq after 9-11 or expelling the Black community from New Orleans after Katrina).

In the midst of shocking disasters those in power play upon our fears and prejudices to keep us passive, turn us against each other and under their control. If we resist all attempts to keep us apathetic, distracted and divided, they seldom hesitate to use every method at their disposal to keep themselves on top, including intimidation, coercion and brute force. Each time they succeed, life becomes more miserable for everyone but them.

Crisis only becomes our ally when popular anger is channeled into transformative insurrection against the system that causes it. How people respond to systemic disintegration will be pivotal. Who will be blamed? What “solutions” will gain support? Who will people listen to, trust and follow in times of extreme hardship, insecurity and unrest? To turn the tide against catabolic capitalism, activists must prepare people for the cascading crises that lie ahead. They must become trusted responders: defining the problem; organizing grassroots resilience and relief; and building a powerful insurrection against those who profit from disaster. But even this is not enough. To nurture the transition toward a thriving, just, ecologically stable society, all of these struggles must be interwoven and infused with an inspirational vision of how much better life could be if we freed ourselves from this dysfunctional, profit-obsessed system once and for all.

Climate chaos alone will impose many hardships, from extreme droughts, water scarcity, farm failures and food shortages to forest fires and floods, rising sea levels, mega-storms and acidified oceans. Movement organizers must help people anticipate, adapt to, and survive these hardships—but social movements cannot stop there.  They must help people mount the kind of political resistance that can strip the fossil fuel industry of its power and leverage their own growing influence to demand that society’s remaining resources be re-directed toward a Green transition.

Craig Collins Ph.D. is the author of Toxic Loopholes (Cambridge University Press), which examines America’s dysfunctional system of environmental protection.  He teaches political science and environmental law at California State University East Bay and was a founding member of the Green Party of California.  His forthcoming books: Marx & Mother Nature and Rising From the Ruins: Catabolic Capitalism & Green Resistance reformulate Marx’s theory of history & social change and examine the emerging struggle to replace catabolic capitalism with a thriving, just, ecologically resilient society.

Notes.

[1] Despite record corporate profits and cash flow, at least a third of the buyback shares are being purchased with borrowed money, bringing the corporate debt to an all-time high, not only in an absolute sense but also in relation to profits, assets and the overall size of the economy.

[2] The term “catabolic capitalism” used here is somewhat different from the theory of catabolic collapse developed by John Michael Greer.  Greer looks at the demise of all civilizations (capitalist and non-capitalist) as a catabolic process.  How Civilizations Fall: A Theory of Catabolic Collapse .

[3] Banks’ retained earnings and shareholder capital only amount to 2-9% of their loan portfolio, so it doesn’t take much of a loss to put them under.

Categories: News for progressives

Undermined Sovereignty in the Middle East

Thu, 2018-11-01 16:06

Photo Source Peter Mulligan | CC BY 2.0

The Israelis have violated Lebanese land, sea and airspace over 1,500 times this year. In the past week, Israeli jets flew over Northern Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley and the South.

On a daily basis in Southern Lebanon you hear, if you don’t see, Israeli drones buzzing away like huge mosquitoes in the sky. On occasion you might see Israeli jets flying towards Syria, or even hear Israeli jets pounding positions on the other side of the Anti-Lebanon mountain range, another violation of sovereignty.

All Lebanon can do is register its disapproval at the UN, and call on the USA to rein in its ally, a request the Lebanese state has made twice this year, following mock air raids in February, and every year since the Israelis were pushed out of the South in 2000. (Interestingly, according to a source at the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), there are no cumulative figures on Israeli violations, although they probably run into the tens of thousands).

Such calls for restraint fall on deaf ears, as the USA has no intention of slapping Israel over the wrist for such overflights and is actively trying to undermine UNIFIL, successfully working behind the scenes earlier this year to change the force’s commander to someone more amenable to its and Israel’s agenda.

One of UNIFIL’s roles, which has had its mandate renewed every six months since 1978, is to register the Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty. Locally however it is viewed in certain quarters as an occupation force, albeit a rather benign one. The reason: there is no UNIFIL equivalent on the Israeli side, land or sea, despite three land invasions by the Israelis (1978, 1982, 2006), and the daily overflights (the majority are drones).

Israel can act with impunity as Lebanon lacks political weight internationally, while any forceful response by the Lebanese Army or Hizbullah in defense of its sovereignty would result in Lebanon being sent back “to the middle ages”. Sovereignty be-damned. It is the same in Syria.

In September, an Israeli jet forced a Russian surveillance plane into the sights of Syrian air defense systems and was accidentally shot down. The Israelis blamed the Syrians, and there was minimal criticism internationally as to why Israel was violating Syrian airspace, yet again.

Israel is of course backed to the hilt by the USA and Europe, and can get away with what it likes; for Israel, the rules don’t apply. According to Foreign Policy Journal, there are some 79 ‘UN Security Council resolutions directly critical of Israel for violations of its Charter obligations and international law’.

It is not just the Israelis flouting sovereignty and international law in the Middle East. In North-eastern Syria, the US military, along with British special forces, is present, ostensibly to tackle the Islamic State. The same is true in Iraq.

Much further South, the USA and UK are backing, again to the hilt, the Saudi Arabian-led coalition in its war on Yemen. The legality of the war in Yemen, and the US-led coalition against the Islamic State are on shaky grounds – what mandate do they have, and what legitimate authorities requested military assistance? (What constitutes a legitimate government in Yemen is an open question).

In any case, there is an implicit dependence on US military and political support throughout much of the Middle East. In the Persian Gulf, US and British military bases dot the region, from Qatar and Bahrain to the UAE. As the ill-fated president of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara put it in relation to aid dependency: ‘he who feeds you, controls you’.

Stretching Sankara’s statement to other forms of dependency: ‘he who arms you, controls you’, or ‘he who enters your country armed-to-the-teeth, controls you’. Indeed, how we can talk of meaningful sovereignty – the independence of nations – when, according to Tom’s Dispatch, US Special Operations forces were deployed to 149 countries in 2017 – around 75% of all nations – and to 133 countries this year?

Sovereignty is not just being undermined by boots on the ground, drones in the sky and ‘hard’ power. As dangerous to sovereignty, if perhaps not more so given its impact on nearly all people, friend and foe of the US alike, are financial regulations and sanctions.

The US Treasury has becomes the world’s financial policeman, fining companies for not abiding by anti-money laundering (AML) and countering the financing of terrorism(CTF) regulations, and unilaterally imposed sanctions.

Foreign countries and financial institutions have to jump when the US says so, if they do not want to be cut-off from the US financial sector. To be cutoff from the world’s largest economy and financial sector can well mean economic suicide: the US dollar accounts for 62.5% of global reserve currencies, and trillions of dollars in transactions flow through the USA everyday.

Such power is highly evident in the case of Iran, with the US to impose secondary sanctions on the country on 5 November, following President Trump’s decision in May to pull out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – aka “the nuclear agreement” – inked in 2015.

Countries like Turkey, India and China are in a difficult position as they are exposed to the US financial sector but need Iranian oil and gas – how do you pay for commodities with a trading partner that is under sanctions?

The new sanctions aside, Iranian financial institutions could hardly deal with any European bank – in fact just a dozen – following the 2015 agreement, despite being legally allowed to do so. The primary reason was that Iran was not in compliance with the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) AML and CFT technical standards. The ‘most powerful organisation you have never heard of’, FATF’s mandate was heavily influenced by its core members, the G7 countries.

For Iran to be removed from FATF’s blacklist, a status it shares with just one other country, North Korea, Tehran has to fully implement FATF’s recommendations. One particular requirement is that Iran “should fully address” is “adequately criminalizing terrorist financing, including by removing the exemption for designated groups ‘attempting to end foreign occupation, colonialism and racism’”.

While the FATF does not mention the names of such exempted groups, it is clearly referring to Palestine’s Hamas and Lebanon’s Hizbullah, neither of which are designated by the UN as terrorist organizations (although they are by the US, Israel and some European states).

For Iran to meet this requirement it has to amend Article 154 of its constitution, which supports “the struggles of the oppressed for their rights against oppressors anywhere in the world”.

At a FATF press conference at the end of the October, the current president, Marshall Billingslea, who is also the US Department of the Treasury’s Assistant Secretary, was asked by Iran’s Press TV why this requirement was “such a sticking point for FATF. Does FATF not want to fight against colonialism and racism?”

Billingslea diplomatically answered that these are “terms” that the “international community discusses” and are outside the remit of FATF. “You would need to talk to individual nations as to how they interpret it. We have made it clear (Iran) has to criminalize terrorist financing without reservation,” said Billingslea. He also called on Iran to implement relevant UN Security Council resolutions “without delay”.

In a world where the concept of sovereignty is being so selectively applied, the rule book is in the hands of those with power, and those with powerful backers.

Categories: News for progressives

The Proud Boy President

Thu, 2018-11-01 16:05

Photo Source Tiffany Von Arnim | CC BY 2.0

We will kill you, that’s the Proud Boys, in a nutshell. We will kill you. We look nice, seem soft, we have boys in our name, but like Bill the Butcher in the Bowery Boys, we will assassinate you.

Fighting solves everything. We need more violence from the Trump people. Trump supporters: Choke a motherfucker. Choke a bitch. Choke a tranny. Get your fingers around the windpipe.”

– Gavin McInnes.

In the good old days this doesn’t happen because they used to treat them very, very rough. And when they protested once, they would not do it again so easily.

I don’t know if I’ll do the fighting myself, or other people will.

– Donald Trump

Donald Trump has been and promises to remain a cancer on the presidency and on the nation as a whole. It is not as if there were no warning signs. And it should not have taken belated public service announcements to alert Americans to the fact that flirting with fascism would prove dangerous to the health of our republic, though like cigarette ads, it was hard to see the latent danger lurking behind the glitz and glamor of the Trump brand as initially hyped by corporate media. America has elected its first (and hopefully its last) click-bait president. However, in the wake of the package bombs against Trump’s Democratic critics, the need to excise this malignancy has become more urgent.

It is often said that the presidency is a bully pulpit; Trump has turned it into a cudgel that he offers to his base as he directs them toward violence against the press and his many detractors. Speaking at a rally in Montana only weeks following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a tone-deaf Trump heaped praise on “his guy” congressman Greg Gianforte for body slamming a reporter in 2017. Media sites, apparently under the impression that the public expected anything better from Trump, reported that Twitter users were “shocked” by Trump’s unveiled avowal of violence. Really? It’s a bit like being shocked that Megyn Kelly would see nothing wrong with blackface and everything wrong with black Jesuses and Santas.

Given the regularity of Trump’s vacillating bloviations, nothing that comes out of the White House these days is shocking; it is all business as unusual, the business in question being the relentless unraveling of American civility. Here, Trump’s consistent inconsistency is more a strategy than a sign of mental decline, since it provides him the cover of plausible deniability however implausible those denials may be. Like his bromanatic partner in hyperbolic self-promotion Kanye West, Trump borrows a page from W.C. Fields: “If you can’t dazzle with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” The sobering reality is that it has worked. Many Americans are either bedazzled by its blinding glare or simply do not care so long as Trump grows the economy and stokes their most primal fears.

The marigold man-child of Mar-a-Largo, who boasts he has “the best words,” calls Stormy Daniels “horseface” and slouches behind the Resolute Desk as Kanye West tosses a 10-minute word salad that includes Samuel L. Jackson’s favorite profanity, a scene that views like a photo-op from some alternate universe “Apprentice” episode filmed live before a swarming horde of White House paparazzi. During this circus, a straight-faced Jonathan Karl asks Trump if he thought West would be a “future presidential candidate.” “He could very well be,” Trump responds, adding that he (Trump) had “important meetings with senators and with everything” but apparently “nobody (read: the “hateful” media) cared; they wanted this meeting,” implying that America’s fourth estate (or in Trump’s eyes, its fifth column) was more interested in covering his summit with West and Jim Brown – unfortunately, Frederick Douglass, whom the president once assured us is “doing an amazing job,” could not attend,  as he was too busy rolling in his grave – and that he felt he had to oblige them.

But is any of this really shocking? Only if one is inclined to forget that a previous White House guest, Ted Nugent, who once boasted of showing up at his draft physical wearing days-old, feces-encrusted underwear in order avoid the draft, notoriously called then-president Obama a “subhuman mongrel,” labeled Hillary Clinton a “bitch,” and Dianne Feinstein, a “whore.” And only if one forgets that more recently Trump mocked Christine Blasey Ford and could muster only tepid, passionless equivocations against Khashoggi’s Saudi assassins – and will with time no doubt find another side to blame (even odds it will be the media that reported his murder). Trump remains willfully oblivious to the fact that what happened in Saudi Arabia and continues to occur in other parts of the world where the lives of journalists are endangered is the deadly price paid when one declares the free press the “enemy of the people” and encourages violence against it. In fact, the deadly consequences have already materialized: according to the International News Safety Institute, during the first half of 2018, the U.S. was the secondmost dangerous country for journalists (Afghanistan was number one), a sobering statistic one would think the mainstream media would advertise.

Yet, since Charlottesville the fatuous narrative that “both sides” are violent has gained ground, as a forced, false equivalency is drawn between vocal nonviolent protest and political rhetoric that explicitly promotes physical violence – an equivalency drawn not only by Trump and his surrogates but also by its target, corporate mainstream media.

Ironically, the same media that has criticized Trump’s zealous anti-media crusade often underplays vitriolic rhetoric even when it spirals into acts of physical violence: TheNew York Times(October 16, 2018) didn’t seem to mind normalizing Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes after his followers clashed with protesters following a speech he gave at the Metropolitan Republican Club on October 12th. A self-avowed Islamophobe and “Archie Bunker sexist,” whom the Times profile toothlessly describes as a “Brooklyn hipster” turned “far-right provocateur” and “younger and more foul-mouthed President Trump,” while underplaying his  more caustic similarity to Trump in his advocacy of violence, his more colorful statements, two of which open this article, somehow escaping the notice of the Alan Feuer, the profile’s author, who simply repeats McInnes’s more innocuous descriptions of the group as “an ordinary club like the Shriners and the Elks” and as “a sort of safe space for him and what he calls his fellow ‘Western chauvinists.’”

In the rush to bilateral blame, the fact that such exhortations are of quite a different order of magnitude than congresswoman Maxine Walters’ urging citizens to “hassle” lawmakers or concerned citizens stopping Senator Jeff Flake’s elevator to urge him to reconsider his vote on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, or the restaurant heckling of Ted Cruz and Kirstjen Nielsenis conveniently overlooked. More ominously, it begs the question of what other non-violent options are currently available when voter suppression rather than voter fraud infects a Republican-headed, ruthlessly Machiavellian political drive that threatens the core of our participatory democracy, yet still receives scant attention by a media that casts itself as its stalwart guardians. If anything, Trump’s Democratic “angry mobs” should be praised for their restraint in the face of such constitutional onslaughts.

As Jane Coaston of Vox (Oct 15) points out, the event that ignited the violence at the Metropolitan Republican Club was “a reenactment of an assassination of a political opponent, meant to celebrate the use of violence in politics – something that aligns very well with McInnes’s vision” as well as that of an unscripted Trump who has been allowed to get away with such excesses. As, in fact, has McInnes who, in yellowface mimicry of Otoya Yamaguchi, the right-wing Japanese extremist who exactly 58 years ago to that day assassinated socialist Inejiro Asanuma, praised the act and later outside the venue, brandishing a fake Japanese sword and his white privilege before protesters and in full view of police, escaped unscathed, unlike Darrien Hunt, the black cosplayer who was shot four times in the back and killed by Utah police in 2014 for walking around with a fake sword. But then, McInnes,  a member of a protected species – angry white males – is, as the Timesprofile describes him, a “heavy drinking,” “angry nerd aesthetic” who is wont to “spout aggressive rhetoric” to draw a crowd and “is also willing to get physical at times,” a rather tepid description that makes it sound as if he simply enjoys engaging the laddies in a wee bit of Queensberry fisticuffs, though in the raw, non-sanitized world of domestic terrorism beyond the Times’s offices, be it Charlottesville, the Metropolitan Republican Club, a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh, a supermarket in Louisville, Kentucky, or the U.S mails, such behavior has proven neither civil nor civilized and both potentially and actually deadly.

In the wake of the MAGAbomber, our elected Proud Boy president has moved from dog-whistling button pusher to trigger man, an older, tea-totaling, foul-mouthed McInnes who eagerly watches his supporters attack his political enemies as he twitters implausible denials of culpability. Violent political rhetoric did not begin with either man, but they must be held accountable for their willful, even gleeful contribution to exacerbating the polarization of our violently fractious republic.

Categories: News for progressives

Bezos & Bipartisanship: Voting For Vets Not Always Best Choice For Them or Us

Thu, 2018-11-01 15:58

Photo Source thierry ehrmann | CC BY 2.0

Veterans running for office have never had a stronger personal brand or more political backing. To hold onto or win back seats in Congress, both major parties have recruited many candidates whose resume includes past military service. Across the political spectrum, various Super PACs have backed this effort to increase the veteran population on Capitol Hill. And one such group, the With Honor Fund, claims that electing more vets will help restore “public trust” in Congress and reduce “the extreme partisanship that has corroded our national legislature.”

With Honor is being funded by the richest man in the world, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. He and his wife have pledged $10 million to assist 33 Congressional hopefuls this Fall (19 Democrats and 14 Republicans). If elected, these Bezos-backed candidates have promised to avoid “hyper-partisanship” and embrace political “compromise,” for the good of our country and veterans in particular

My own experience, as a journalist covering veterans’ affairs, leads me to question this approach for two reasons. First, past military service does not insure trust-worthy—or even pro-veteran–behavior inside the Beltway, as revealed by the federal indictment of former Marine, Duncan Hunter Jr., a five-term Republican Congressman from Southern California.

Second, “bi-partisanship” has been the guiding principle of recent Congressional action adversely affecting the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), its 300,000 employees, and nine million patients. Former military men and women, in both parties, have jeopardized the quality of veterans’ care by embracing privatization of VHA services and leaving the government’s own hospitals and clinics for veterans increasingly under-funded and under-staffed.

This out-sourcing trend got a further boost in May when Congress passed the VA MISSION Act. Backed by veterans like the late Arizona Senator John McCain and Massachusetts Congressman Seth Moulton, the MISSION Act diverts billions of dollars from the VHA’s skilled and dedicated salaried workforce. It steers that money instead toward private doctors and for-profit hospitals, which, as studies document, have little experience treating veterans.

Nevertheless, on the campaign trail this fall, even Democrats like Montana Senator Jon Tester are touting the MISSION Act as a positive example of their willingness to compromise with President Trump (who, of course, has reciprocated by working hard to defeat Tester).

A Blue Falcon

During an on-going debate about the future of the VHA, many a patriotic speech has been made, from the White House on down, about how much everyone in Washington loves and cares for veterans. But actions speak louder than words—and even a personal biography brimming with past military heroism can be deceiving.

When Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran Duncan Hunter first ran for his father’s old seat in Congress ten years ago, he highlighted his three tours of combat duty, including participation in the battle for Falluja. “The U.S. Congress needs more military veterans, people who have walked the walk,” Hunter told the press. On the basis of his Marine credentials, he joined the House Armed Services Committee after getting elected and, more recently, became a rabid Trump supporter. Yet, according to the NY Times, it didn’t take Hunter long to also become “a ‘blue falcon,’ military slang for someone willing to sacrifice his friends for his own benefit.”

That behavior manifested itself in Hunter’s approach to constituent service—and, later, his alleged misappropriation of $250,000 in campaign funds. According to fellow veterans interviewed by the Times, their Congressman would “intervene in cases when a veteran was in trouble—as in one case when a veteran ended up in a Mexican jail. But, when it came to supporting military-friendly policies Mr. Hunter did little, they say.”

For example, despite constituent appeals, Hunter would not push hard for a requirement that military personnel facing less-than-honorable discharges (and denial of VHA benefits) be given a prior mental health assessment by the Defense Department. Instead, Hunter started using campaign funds to cover his own lavish personal spending, listing some improper payments as gifts for “wounded warriors,” according to his 47-page indictment. Since being charged with fraud and campaign finance violations, Hunter has gallantly tried to shift the blame to his co-defendant and wife.  His lawyer now argues that evidence of Hunter’s own “infidelity, irresponsibility, or alcohol dependence, once properly understood…does not equate to criminal activity.” (So much for Semper Fi!)

Chewed Up and Spit Out?

Needless to say, such scandals, involving any House member, hardly boost public confidence in Congress. Veterans, in particular, expressed anger about Hunter’s alleged betrayal of their trust. Surprisingly, Ammar Campa-Najjar—the 29- year old Latino-Arab-American Democrat running against Hunter—took the more exculpatory view that his opponent was a Marine who “never made it back from the battlefield,” a man who “lost his way” in Washington, which “chewed him up and spat him out.” (As their race tightens, Hunter  has reciprocated by smearing Campa-Najjar as an Islamic terrorist sympathizer and national security risk.)

If Hunter’s alleged misconduct on the job and resulting legal difficulties are indeed related to post-combat behavioral changes, he is not the first veteran, in public life, to display such problems. The Times reported on Oct. 3 that “Jason Kander, a war veteran who became a rising star in the Democratic Party abruptly dropped out of a Kansas City mayoral race, saying he needed to focus on healing from post-traumatic stress disorder.” At the time of his abrupt withdrawal, Kander—a best-selling author and non-profit group leader—was “breaking records with his campaign’s fundraising.”  But, he told The Times, “instead of celebrating that accomplishment, I found myself on the phone with the VA’s Veterans Crisis Line, tearfully conceding that, yes, I have had suicidal thoughts. And it wasn’t the first time.”

There are thousands of men and women, like Kander, who struggle every day with service related conditions that interfere with normal family life, going back to school, holding a job, and even getting a good night’s sleep many years after their participation in combat. To treat varied and complex wounds of war, they need a veterans’ health care system that is adequately funded and staffed with experienced care-givers, like the suicide prevention specialists who assisted Kander. Instead, would-be privatizers of the VHA want to contract out such services, for the benefit of politically connected private firms, like the sketchy vendor that Republican Senator Dean Heller has been trying to foist on a veterans’ hospital in Reno, Nevada. (See https://www.nevadacurrent.com/2018/10/25/guest-op-ed-hellers-penchant-for-privatizing-hurts-veterans-health-care/)

Ignored by the Officer Class

Veterans who are eligible for VHA coverage get the benefit of high quality care for wounds of war that can be mental, as well as physical, and very hard to treat. Now more than ever, they need reliable allies like the 70 House Democrats and handful of Senators who voted against the MISSION Act last May. Most of these dissenters, like Bernie Sanders, Nancy Pelosi, and Raul Grijalva never wore a uniform nor did they ever champion the “warrior mentality” so prized by Rep. Hunter.

But they did join hands with labor and veterans’ groups to oppose privatization and criticized the billionaire Koch Brothers for pushing this agenda, despite its manifest unpopularity among poor and working class veterans who use the VHA. In contrast, their patient care needs were often neglected or ignored by the well-known former officers—McCain, Moulton, Hunter, etc.—who are among the 19 percent of all members of Congress who did serve in the military (but sometimes don’t use the VHA).

When veterans and their families go to the polls on Nov. 6, they should remember that service to our nation takes many forms.  In Congress, the interests of those who enlisted or were drafted are sometimes best served by men and women with no military background.

Much needed changes in the composition of the House and Senate can create new opportunities, next year, to reverse some of the damage done to the VHA by President Trump and his bi-partisan helpers. A truly pro-veteran Congress will defend a veterans’ healthcare system that keeps health, healing, and hope in the hands of those who genuinely care about their patients, as opposed to private contractors just trying to profit from them.

Categories: News for progressives

Yes, Republicans Want People With Pre-Existing Conditions to Pay Up the Wazoo

Thu, 2018-11-01 15:57

Photo Source -ted | CC BY 2.0

The discussion of health care has been badly warped ever since the debate over the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2009. A central feature of the ACA was the requirement that everyone get insurance, or pay a penalty if they don’t. While many resented having the government force them to buy insurance, especially in a context where they had to buy it from a private insurance company (i.e. there was no public option), this was actually a central feature of the ACA.

The main point of the ACA was to make it possible for people with serious health issues to get coverage. Insurers are happy to cover healthy people. For the most part, covering a healthy person means insurers get a check every month for nothing. It’s good work, if you can get it.

People with health problems are a different story. They actually do cost the insurers money. This is why insurers either charged people with health problems very high premiums or didn’t allow them to buy insurance at all, in the years before we had the ACA.

The ACA prohibited discrimination based on pre-existing conditions. It only allowed insurers to vary premiums based on age, not health. But, as several states discovered, a ban on discrimination based on health will not work by itself. This means that the average cost of insurance will be much higher.

That makes it a bad deal for relatively healthy people, many of whom will then decide not to buy insurance. With fewer healthy people in the pool, the average cost per person rises. This leads to higher premiums, which leads to more relatively healthy people leaving the pool. You go through a few rounds of this process and you end up with an insurance pool with relatively few healthy people and very high premiums.

This is why the ACA came with a mandate for buying insurance. The point was to keep healthy people in the pool to ensure that health insurance would be affordable. Of course, even without discrimination based on health, insurance would still be very expensive. This was the reason for the subsidies.

Unfortunately, the subsidies were not very generous and they phased out at levels that left many middle-income families with very high insurance costs.  Still, many more people had access to insurance than before the ACA.

Trump and the Republicans are determined to dismantle the ACA and bring us back to the pre-ACA world in which people with health issues either cannot get insurance or face extraordinarily high premiums. The key to getting to this spot is unraveling the insurance pools so that relatively healthy people do not have to share in the cost of paying for less healthy people.

While keeping the pools intact was always the key to making the ACA work, this fact was largely derailed over the extensive coverage given to the “Young Invincibles.” The story here is that the premiums were modestly weighted so that younger people paid somewhat more than their average cost so that older people could pay somewhat less than their average cost.

This got highlighted as a case of the young subsidizing older pre-Medicare insurees. The argument was that if we didn’t get enough young healthy people to sign up for ACA insurance the system would not be financially viable. In reality, the Young Invincibles story was nonsense. As any simple analysis showed, it made relatively little difference if fewer young people signed up for insurance, what mattered was whether there was a skewing based on health.

The subsidy that young people on average paid into the system was relatively modest since their cost for insurance is on average just one-third of the oldest pre-Medicare age group, people between the ages of 55 and 64. It is healthy people in this latter age group that pay the largest subsidy for insuring less healthy people.

While most people in their twenties and thirties can count on being in generally good health, a large share of the people in their late 50s and early 60s are also in good health. These relatively healthy people pay a much larger sum towards supporting the less healthy than the “Young Invincibles.”

To take my own case: I have been fortunate to have very good health. The largest chunk of my health care bill consists of my bi-annual check-up with my family practitioner and a flu shot when I remember to get it. Yet, the average cost of health care for people in my age group is over $9,000 a year. This is hugely more than insurers are paying to cover my actual health care expenses.

If people like me are given the option to pay less money for a plan that excludes coverage for many conditions, and includes a large deductible, it would be a very good deal for us. It also would quickly destroy the insurance pools and leave people with health issues unable to afford insurance.

To take a simple story, suppose that the healthiest 20 percent of the pool, with average costs of $1,000 per person, opted out. This would raise the average for the cost for the remaining 80 percent to $11,000. If this higher price led the next 20 percent to leave, with average costs of $2,000 per person, the average for the remaining 60 percent would jump to $14,000 per year. This process continues until we get left with nothing but people with high costs in the pool, and correspondingly high premiums.

The Republican proposals are all about giving relatively healthy people more attractive options that would allow them to get out of pools that include individuals with high costs. This is the point of the Trump administration’s “short-term” insurance plans. These are plans that are not required to meet the ACA’s conditions. They would be unattractive to people with health issues but could save relatively healthy people large amounts of money.

Under the ACA, people could enroll in these plans for up to three months. This was a way to keep coverage for people who were changing jobs. The Trump administration’s new rules allow people to keep these plans for up to a year and to renew them for up to two more years.

This is all about giving relatively healthy people a way to get out of standard insurance pools and thereby avoid sharing in the cost of providing care to less healthy people. Over time, the Trump plan will reduce the number of relatively healthy people in the standard pools and once again make insurance unaffordable for people with serious health issues.

The basic point here is that if we want health care to be affordable for people with serious health problems, then the rest of us will have to share in the cost through some mechanism. We can do this through general taxation with some sort of universal Medicare-type program or we can look to do it through insurance premiums with something like our current system.

But, if we allow people to just pay for the cost of their own health care and no more, then we are telling people with heart conditions, cancer survivors, and other serious medical issues that they are screwed. Trump and the Republicans may think this is a good thing, but we should be clear on what they are doing. They want people with health problems to suck up their health care costs, and if they can’t afford these costs…next time, find some rich parents.

This article originally appeared on Dean Baker’s Beat the Press blog.

Categories: News for progressives

The New Global Tinderbox: It’s Not Your Mother’s Cold War

Thu, 2018-11-01 15:57


When it comes to relations between Donald Trump’s America, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and Xi Jinping’s China, observers everywhere are starting to talk about a return to an all-too-familiar past. “Now we have a new Cold War,” commented Russia expert Peter Felgenhauer in Moscow after President Trump recently announced plans to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The Trump administration is “launching a new Cold War,” said historian Walter Russell Mead in the Wall Street Journal, following a series of anti-Chinese measures approved by the president in October. And many others are already chiming in.

Recent steps by leaders in Washington, Moscow, and Beijing may seem to lend credence to such a “new Cold War” narrative, but in this case history is no guide. Almost two decades into the twenty-first century, what we face is not some mildly updated replica of last century’s Cold War, but a new and potentially even more dangerous global predicament.

The original Cold War, which lasted from the late 1940s until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, posed a colossal risk of thermonuclear annihilation. At least after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, however, it also proved a remarkably stable situation in which, despite local conflicts of many sorts, the United States and the Soviet Union both sought to avoid the kinds of direct confrontations that might have triggered a mutual catastrophe. In fact, after confronting the abyss in 1962, the leaders of both superpowers engaged in a complex series of negotiations leading to substantial reductions in their nuclear arsenals and agreements intended to reduce the risk of a future Armageddon.

What others are now calling the New Cold War — but I prefer to think of as a new global tinderbox — bears only the most minimal resemblance to that earlier period. As before, the United States and its rivals are engaged in an accelerating arms race, focused on nuclear and “conventional” weaponry of ever-increasing range, precision, and lethality. All three countries, in characteristic Cold War fashion, are also lining up allies in what increasingly looks like a global power struggle.

But the similarities end there. Among the differences, the first couldn’t be more obvious: the U.S. now faces two determined adversaries, not one, and a far more complex global conflict map (with a corresponding increase in potential nuclear flashpoints). At the same time, the old boundaries between “peace” and “war” are rapidly disappearing as all three rivals engage in what could be thought of as combat by other means, including trade wars and cyberattacks that might set the stage for far greater violence to follow. To compound the danger, all three big powers are now engaging in provocative acts aimed at “demonstrating resolve” or intimidating rivals, including menacing U.S. and Chinese naval maneuvers off Chinese-occupied islands in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, rather than pursue the sort of arms-control agreements that tempered Cold War hostilities, the U.S. and Russia appear intent on tearing up existing accords and launching a new nuclear arms race.

These factors could already be steering the world ever closer to a new Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world came within a hairsbreadth of nuclear incineration. This one, however, could start in the South China Sea or even in the Baltic region, where U.S. and Russian planes and ships are similarly engaged in regular near-collisions.

Why are such dangers so rapidly ramping up? To answer this, it’s worth exploring the factors that distinguish this moment from the original Cold War era.

It’s a Tripolar World, Baby

In the original Cold War, the bipolar struggle between Moscow and Washington — the last two superpowers left on planet Earth after centuries of imperial rivalry — seemed to determine everything that occurred on the world stage. This, of course, entailed great danger, but also enabled leaders on each side to adopt a common understanding of the need for nuclear restraint in the interest of mutual survival.

The bipolar world of the Cold War was followed by what many observers saw as a “unipolar moment,” in which the United States, the “last superpower,” dominated the world stage. During this period, which lasted from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Washington largely set the global agenda and, when minor challengers arose — think Iraq’s Saddam Hussein — employed overwhelming military power to crush them. Those foreign engagements, however, consumed huge sums of money and tied down American forces in remarkably unsuccessful wars across a vast arc of the planet, while Moscow and Beijing — neither so wealthy nor so encumbered — were able to begin their own investment in military modernization and geopolitical outreach.

Today, the “unipolar moment” has vanished and we are in what can only be described as a tripolar world. All three rivals possess outsized military establishments with vast arrays of conventional and nuclear weapons. China and Russia have now joined the United States (even if on a more modest scale) in extending their influence beyond their borders diplomatically, economically, and militarily. More importantly, all three rivals are led by highly nationalistic leaders, each determined to advance his country’s interests.

A tripolar world, almost by definition, will be markedly different from either a bipolar or a unipolar one and conceivably far more discordant, with Donald Trump’s Washington potentially provoking crises with Moscow at one moment and Beijing the next, without apparent reason. In addition, a tripolar world is likely to encompass more potential flash points. During the whole Cold War era, there was one crucial line of confrontation between the two major powers: the boundary between NATO and the Warsaw Pact nations in Europe. Any flare-up along that line could indeed have triggered a major commitment of force on both sides and, in all likelihood, the use of so-called tactical or theater atomic weapons, leading almost inevitably to full-scale thermonuclear combat. Thanks to such a risk, the leaders of those superpowers eventually agreed to various de-escalatory measures, including the about-to-be-cancelled INF Treaty of 1987 that banned the deployment of medium-range ground-launched missiles capable of triggering just such a spiral of ultimate destruction.

Today, that line of confrontation between Russia and NATO in Europe has been fully restored (and actually reinforced) along a perimeter considerably closer to Russian territory, thanks to NATO’s eastward expansion into the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and the Baltic republics in the era of unipolarity. Along this repositioned line, as during the Cold War years, hundreds of thousands of well-armed soldiers are now poised for full-scale hostilities on very short notice.

At the same time, a similar line of confrontation has been established in Asia, ranging from Russia’s far-eastern territories to the East and South China Seas and into the Indian Ocean. In May, the Pentagon’s Pacific Command, based in Hawaii, was renamed the Indo-Pacific Command, highlighting the expansion of this frontier of confrontation. At points along this line, too, U.S. planes and ships are encountering Chinese or Russian ones on a regular basis, often coming within shooting range. The mere fact that three major nuclear powers are now constantly jostling for position and advantage over significant parts of the planet only increases the possibility of clashes that could trigger a catastrophic escalatory spiral.

The War Has Already Begun

During the Cold War, the U.S. and the USSR engaged in hostile activities vis-à-vis each other that fell short of armed combat, including propaganda and disinformation warfare, as well as extensive spying. Both also sought to expand their global reach by engaging in proxy wars — localized conflicts in what was then called the Third World aimed at bolstering or eliminating regimes loyal to one side or the other. Such conflicts would produce millions of casualties but never lead to direct combat between the militaries of the two superpowers (although each would commit its forces to key contests, the U.S. in Vietnam, the USSR in Afghanistan), nor were they allowed to become the kindling for a nuclear clash between them. At the time, both countries made a sharp distinction between such operations and the outbreak of a global “hot war.”

In the twenty-first century, the distinction between “peace” and “war” is already blurring, as the powers in this tripolar contest engage in operations that fall short of armed combat but possess some of the characteristics of interstate conflict. When President Trump, for example, first announced tough import tariffs and other economic penalties against China, his stated intent was to overcome an unfair advantage that country, he claimed, had gained in trade relations. “For months, we have urged China to change these unfair practices, and give fair and reciprocal treatment to American companies,” he asserted in mid-September while announcing tariffs on an additional $200 billion worth of Chinese imports. It’s clear, however, that his escalating trade “war” is also meant to hobble the Chinese economy and so frustrate Beijing’s drive to achieve parity with the United States as a major world actor. The Trump administration seeks, as the New York Times’s Neil Irwin observed, to “isolate China and compel major changes to Chinese business and trade practices. The ultimate goal… is to reset the economic relationship between China and the rest of the world.”

In doing so, the president is said to be particularly keen on disrupting and crippling Beijing’s “Made in China 2025” plan, an ambitious scheme to achieve mastery in key technological sectors of the global economy, including artificial intelligence and robotics, something that would indeed bring China closer to that goal of parity, which Trump and his associates are determined to sabotage. In other words, for China, this is no mere competitive challenge but a potentially existential threat to its future status as a great power. As a result, expect counter-measures that are likely to further erode the borders between peace and war.

And if there is any place where such borders are particularly at risk of erosion, it’s in cyberspace, an increasingly significant arena for combat in the post-Cold War world. While an incredible source of wealth to companies that rely on the Internet for commerce and communications, cyberspace is also a largely unpatrolled jungle where bad actors can spread misinformation, steal secrets, or endanger critical economic and other operations. Its obvious penetrability has proven a bonanza for criminals and political provocateurs of every stripe, including aggressive groups sponsored by governments eager to engage in offensive operations that, while again falling short of armed combat, pose significant dangers to a targeted country. As Americans have discovered to our horror, Russian government agents exploited the Internet’s many vulnerabilities to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and are reportedly continuing to meddle in America’s electoral politics two years later. China, for its part, is believed to have exploited the Internet to steal American technological secrets, including data for the design and development of advanced weapons systems.

The United States, too, has engaged in offensive cyber operations, including the groundbreaking 2010 “Stuxnet” attack that temporarily crippled Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities. It reportedly also used such methods to try to impair North Korean missile launches. To what degree U.S. cyberattacks have been directed against China or Russia is unknown, but under a new “National Cyber Strategy” unveiled by the Trump administration in August, such a strategy will become far more likely. Claiming that those countries have imperiled American national security through relentless cyberattacks, it authorizes secret retaliatory strikes.

The question is: Could trade war and cyberwar lead one day to regular armed conflict?

Muscle-Flexing in Perilous Times

Such dangers are compounded by another distinctive feature of the new global tinderbox: the unrestrained impulse of top officials of the three powers to advertise their global assertiveness through conspicuous displays of military power, including encroaching on the perimeters, defensive or otherwise, of their rivals. These can take various forms, including overly aggressive military “exercises” and the deployment of warships in contested waters.

Increasingly massive and menacing military exercises have become a distinctive feature of this new era. Such operations typically involve the mobilization of vast air, sea, and land forces for simulated combat maneuvers, often conducted adjacent to a rival’s territory.

This summer, for example, the alarm bells in NATO went off when Russia conducted Vostok 2018, its largest military exercise since World War II. Involving as many as 300,000 troops, 36,000 armored vehicles, and more than 1,000 planes, it was intended to prepare Russian forces for a possible confrontation with the U.S. and NATO, while signaling Moscow’s readiness to engage in just such an encounter. Not to be outdone, NATO recently completed its largest exercise since the Cold War’s end. Called Trident Venture, it fielded some 40,000 troops, 70 ships, 150 aircraft, and 10,000 ground combat vehicles in maneuvers also intended to simulate a major East-West clash in Europe.

Such periodic troop mobilizations can lead to dangerous and provocative moves on all sides, as ships and planes of the contending forces maneuver in contested areas like the Baltic and Black Seas. In one incident in 2016, Russian combat jets flew provocatively within a few hundred feet of a U.S. destroyer while it was sailing in the Baltic Sea, nearly leading to a shooting incident. More recently, Russian aircraft reportedly came within five feet of an American surveillance plane flying over the Black Sea. No one has yet been wounded or killed in any of these encounters, but it’s only a matter of time before something goes terribly wrong.

The same is true of Chinese and American naval encounters in the South China Sea. China has converted some low-lying islets and atolls it claims in those waters into miniature military installations, complete with airstrips, radar, and missile batteries — steps that have been condemned by neighboring countries with similar claims to those islands. The United States, supposedly acting on behalf of its allies in the region, as well as to protect its “freedom of navigation” in the area, has sought to counter China’s provocative buildup with aggressive acts of its own. It has dispatched its warships to waters right off those fortified islands. The Chinese, in response, have sent vessels to harass the American ones and only recently one of them almost collided with a U.S. destroyer. Vice President Pence, in an October 4th speech on China at the Hudson Institute, referred to that incident, saying, “We will not be intimidated, and we will not stand down.”

What comes next is anyone’s guess, since “not standing down” roughly translates into increasingly aggressive maneuvers.

On the Road to World War III?

Combine all of this — economic attacks, cyber attacks, and ever more aggressive muscle-flexing military operations — and you have a situation in which a modern version of the Cuban Missile Crisis between the U.S. and China or the U.S. and Russia or even involving all three could happen at any time. Add the apparent intent of the leaders of all three countries to abandon the remaining restraints on the acquisition of nuclear weapons in order to seek significant additions to their existing arsenals and you have the definition of an extremely dangerous situation. In February, for instance, President Trump gave the green light to what may prove to be a $1.6 trillionoverhaul of the American nuclear arsenal initially contemplated in the Obama years, intended to “modernize” existing delivery systems, including intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and long-range strategic bombers. Russia has embarked on a similar overhaul of its nuclear stockpile, while China, with a much smaller arsenal, is undertaking modernization projects of its own.

Equally worrisome, all three powers appear to be pursuing the development of theater nuclear weapons intended for use against conventional forces in the event of a major military conflagration. Russia, for example, has developedseveral short- and medium-range missiles capable of delivering both nuclear and conventional warheads, including the 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile that, American officials claim, already violates the INF Treaty. The United States, which has long relied on aircraft-delivered nuclear weapons for use against massive conventional enemy threats, is now seeking additional attack options of its own. Under the administration’s Nuclear Policy Review of February 2018, the Pentagon will undertake the development of a “low-yield” nuclear warhead for its existing submarine-launched ballistic missiles and later procure a nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile.

While developing such new weapons and enhancing the capability of older ones, the major powers are also tearing down the remaining arms control edifice. President Trump’s October 20th announcement that the U.S. would withdraw from the 1987 INF treaty to develop new missiles of its own represents a devastating step in that direction. “We’ll have to develop those weapons,” he told reporters in Nevada after a rally. “We’re going to terminate the agreement and we’re going to pull out.”

How do the rest of us respond to such a distressing prospect in an increasingly imperiled world? How do we slow the pace of the race to World War III?

There is much that could, in fact, be done to resist a new nuclear arms confrontation. After all, it was massive public pressure in the 1980s that led the U.S. and USSR to sign the INF Treaty in the first place. But in order to do so, a new world war would have to be seen as a central danger of our time, potentially even more dangerous than the Cold War era, given the three nuclear-armed great powers now involved. Only by positioning that risk front and center and showing how many other trends are leading us, pell-mell, in such a direction, can the attention of a global public already distracted by so many other concerns and worries be refocused.

Is a nuclear World War III preventable? Yes, but only if preventing it becomes a central, common objective of our moment. And time is already running out.

This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

Categories: News for progressives

Our Rent is Due

Thu, 2018-11-01 15:56

In the past seven days of this country, a man executed two Black people at a grocery store; bombs were mailed to opponents of the president; and 11 people were murdered in a synagogue by an anti-Semite. And throughout all this, tens of thousands of children remain locked away at our southern border.

After the shooting in the Pittsburgh synagogue, anguished sentiments of “What are we to do?” have erupted on my phone, in my email, and within me. It is difficult to find words to console one another and to, as one of my colleagues often reminds me, protect our amygdalae from the constant onslaught of hate, vitriol, and violence. And while a part of me agrees that we must take care of ourselves and our minds as we ask “what now?” I believe we have a growing and urgent responsibility as psychologists and psychoanalysts to speak wherever we can and about what we are witnessing.

In the book, The Power of Witnessing: Reflections, Reverberations, and Traces of the Holocaust, Nancy Goodman writes that witnessing makes one “more human and more desirous of recognizing hatred and naming it as such…It is okay to have nightmares to be more human. It is important to know the unbearable.” When we imagine what it feels like to be separated from our children; when we imagine the human capacity to hate to such a level that innocent blood is shed;  when we try and understand how a human being could look at another human being and see not a person, but an alien, and then treat them as such, we are engaging in the difficult process of witnessing. And it is this experience of witnessing the unbearable that connects human beings to one another and that compels us to act.

We are in the midst of a political time that is marked by those in power determined to tell us what is real and what is not; that we are not to trust what we see with our eyes, what we hear with our ears, what we know in our minds, and what we feel in our hearts. We are in the midst of a political time that is marked by those in power determined to tell us who matters and who does not, and who has a right to be recognized as a human being. We are in the midst of a political time that is marked by those in power determined to make it acceptable to hate and to discount and to mock. And we are in the midst of a political time that overwhelms us daily with statements and actions of inhumanity and cruelty.

Let us also remember though, that we are in the midst of a political time that is marked by an uprising of resistance and activism and a commitment by so many of us to trust our eyes and our ears and our minds and our hearts. We are in the midst of a political time that is marked by a recognition that we have not valued all lives equally and that our African American community continues to pay the price of slavery and injustice. We are in the mist of a political time that is marked by a societal reckoning of the violence and harassment women have endured since the beginning of time. We are in the midst of a political time where high schoolers are marching out and taking gun control into their own hands.  And we are in the midst of a political time when our airports were filled with Americans protesting the travel ban and the presence of immediate protest in response to the Zero Tolerance policy was unlike anything we had seen before. Hope lies in remembering that even in the darkest of these political times, we are also in the midst of a movement that is marked by a refusal to allow hatred to go unnoticed and a refusal by so many of us to be silent.

So, my friends, what are we to do? What do we do with the outrage and the heartache we feel? What do we do when we think about the 13,000 children who remain detained like criminals for a crime they never commit? What do we do when we think about the internal anguish a mother must feel when she has to choose between holding her terrified child and risking refugee status? What do we do when we imagine a father having no control over the whereabouts or treatment of his family?  What do we do when we think about the racism and misogyny and the anti-Semitism that is horrifyingly and undeniably still alive within this country?  We witness. And we act from that position of witness. And we demand that our politicians witness. And we vote out those who do not. And some nights, we lose sleep. Sometimes it’s because of anguish and other times it’s because we are too busy not allowing the anguish to stop us. And we take, what a friend of mine calls “vacations from anger” when we need them. And then we get back involved and we stay compassionately angry and we have difficult conversations and we speak loudly when it is called for and we take care of ourselves and one another. Witnessing and action, after all, are hard work. You will notice that the witnessing I am describing is not one of silent bystander or blind eye. The witnessing I am talking about, and that I believe we are enacting when we speak out, is the active process of profound connection with that which is unbearable. And it is from this place of deep recognition that true sociopolitical change comes.

I have on my bookshelf a handwritten notecard I found in my Grandfather’s study. The note reads: “In a place where no one acts as a human being, strive to be a human being.” I can think of no message more necessary than this right now. While we must know the unbearable and recognize the human capacity for hatred and cruelty, striving to be a human being is also what allows us to profoundly connect with one another.

We have a growing and urgent responsibility to witness and to speak wherever we can. As a psychologist I think deeply about the presence of silence with my patients. We must now decide how silent we are going to be about what is occurring in our country. Activist and author Alice Walker said, “Activism is the rent I pay for living on this planet.” Our rent is due.

Dana L. Sinopoli, PsyD, is a Clinical Psychologist in private practice. She lives in Philadelphia, PA.

 

Categories: News for progressives

In An Apartment in Brooklyn

Thu, 2018-11-01 15:56

Faige (a fictitious name) remains in her apartment in Brooklyn, New York and all of the fears that she felt as a teenager in Eastern Europe during the onslaught of Naziism in the lead-up to World War II have come back. It was Kristallnacht on the night of November 9-10, 1938. She witnessed the murder of family members and was saved only through the intervention of a family acquaintance who was a taxi driver. She was a 17-year-old with striking red hair and the taxi driver and his basic humanity and fearlessness are the only things that saved Faige from the Holocaust that would follow.

Now in her apartment in Brooklyn the scenes of the horror that she witnessed 80 years ago have come back to her, as the news of the horrific attack against members of the Jewish congregation in Pittsburgh at the Tree of Life congregation became known.

Faige sees two men in her apartment from the Nazi past who are not physically present, but are all-too real to her and their intent is to murder her, as they did to members of her immediate family. Although people who have come to visit and comfort her sit in the chairs where she imagines the Nazis are sitting, she cannot distinguish between, in the horror she continues to experience, those who have come to be with her to help and the horrific ghosts that haunt from the past. Her fear cannot be assuaged and it is difficult for her to calm down in the new horror in which she finds herself.

There are some with the expertise to analyze with some measure of precision what is happening to Faige, who has witnessed the unspeakable and now is immersed in the reports of what has happened in a place where she thought that she was safe. Indeed, most Jews in the U.S. felt safe until the alleged attack by Robert Bowers in the Jewish congregation in Pittsburgh where people came to worship. Although a degree of anti-Semitism has been present in U.S. society, along with racism and other forms of hatred against immigrants and against other religious persuasions, that hatred was seen in context as extremist views and was not accepted and encouraged by those at the highest levels of government in Washington, D.C. But now there is a free-for-all of hate that the President of the United States and some members of his administration have forcefully supported. And the anti-Semites and white supremacists are listening carefully and heeding those words. In Kentucky, an alleged murderer shot and killed two elderly black people after he was thwarted by a locked door in an attempted attack against a black church.

Indeed, when Donald Trump admonishes and condemns madmen and violent extremists like alleged bomb maker Cesar Sayoc and alleged gunman Robert Bowers, it is a simple task to Google the numerous instances in which Trump has encouraged and stoked the flames of hatred by his own statements in public places. He began his presidential campaign with attacks against immigrants and is so lacking in judgement that he held a campaign rally in the Midwest on the night of the slaughter in Pittsburgh and added a call for arming those in houses of worship as a remedy for racist and religious intolerance and hatred that he himself has supported. This narcissist can’t begin to understand how those in grief need empathy in a time of great suffering.

How does Trump think that the doctored video clip of him attacking a caricatured figure with an image of a head composed of the CNN logo outside of a wrestling ring would be seen to those lost at the fringes of society? Trump is a master at playing the media in a perverse Orwellian manner that appeals to lost and hateful souls and many of those who support and supported Trump and his fellow travelers in the Republican Party. It is all calculated and has had its intended effect on those of us of goodwill and a woman in an apartment in Brooklyn who has suffered so much! Trump finds that among these mass murderers and terrorists are some “very fine people.” It takes a lot of ignorance and bald-face meanness to terrorize a 97-year-old woman! These fascists know the lethal effects of their words. They represent a decaying social, political, and economic system that the power elite has learned how to play.

Categories: News for progressives

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