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Burning Books, Banning Art, and the Persistence of American Puritanism

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:57

“Puritanism has made life itself impossible. More than art, more than estheticism, life represents beauty in a thousand variations; it is indeed, a gigantic panorama of eternal change. Puritanism, on the other hand, rests on a fixed and immovable conception of life; it is based on the Calvinistic idea that life is a curse, imposed upon man by the wrath of God. In order to redeem himself man must do constant penance, must repudiate every natural and healthy impulse, and turn his back on joy and beauty.”

– Emma Goldman

“The important task of literature is to free man, not to censor him, and that is why Puritanism was the most destructive and evil force which ever oppressed people and their literature: it created hypocrisy, perversion, fears, sterility.”

– Anaïs Nin

Several months ago I had a conversation about art with an American friend of mine. I consider him to be fairly left leaning, but I was puzzled when he told me he was seriously having to reconsider his “appreciation and enjoyment of certain artists” now that he knows of their “sexual abuse and sexist misogyny.” When I asked what he was referring to he mentioned Picasso and Gauguin as a couple examples. At the moment I was left nonplussed. In that short conversation I was taken aback by the swiftly moving and insidious undercurrent of puritanism still strong in American life.

What is more interesting to me is that this strain of authoritarianism is quite strong in many on the left end of the political spectrum. I’ve encountered similar attitudes when it comes to books. In fact, many 21stcentury American liberals appear all too willing to run to the bonfire when a new cause célèbre calls out abook that may contain offensive language or a work of art that may display a difficult, complex or nuanced sexual content. But what has been lost in this maelstrom of purging the past (and the present for that matter) is a needed dialogue about censorship, sexuality in relation to fascism, and the pernicious role it plays in suppressing political dissent. It has in many ways become a rush to censor and erase artists and writers from the pages of history for infractions they may have made against current sensibilities and silence current writers and artists for daring to speak in a voice that differs from the mainstream.

There are seemingly countless instances of conservative driven censorship. The book Stick by Andrew Smith, for example, faced backlash because it contains themes of gay and adolescent sexuality. Even The Diary of Anne Frank, a young girl’s thoughts and feelings while she hid with her family during the Holocaust, was edited of parts where she writes about exploring her body. Yet the fact that adolescents have a sexuality to begin with is a topic that is oft forbidden and increasingly censored even among many on the left and among liberals. One example of this was at New York’s Metropolitan Museum where Manhattanite, Mia Merrill, launched a campaign to remove a painting by Balthus entitled Thérèse Dreaming” due to an apparent psychological projection about an alleged sexual sub-context. She attached her outrage to the #MeToo movement. Other works of art have been targeted as well for related “concerns.” Even in Britain, J.W. Waterhouse’s painting depicting the Greek myth Hylas and the Nypmhs” was removed by a Manchester museum to supposedly start a “conversation.”Yet one would be hard pressed to start any conversation about a missing piece of artwork sans the topic of censorship.

But American culture in particular is rooted in a persistent and often insidious puritanism and a generalized panic when it comes to expressions or representations of human sexuality. And this continues to inform it and shape the contours and boundaries for what is deemed acceptable speech or thought for that matter. It is a toxically puerile form of selective corporate censorship. For example, Hollywood pumps out a flood of sappy movies and sitcoms that make the 1950s look risqué all while producing films that parrot hyper-militaristic, Pentagon endorsed, hagiography of the nation and war. While its productions often masquerade as edgy, at its core it is profoundly reactionary via its authoritarian demands for conformity to the so-called “American way.”This all has deep misogynistic, racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic undertones to it as well. Historically, but even today, and even on the left.

Sexuality has always been weaponized to oppress an underclass or caste within American society. One of the earliest forms of it was organized violent misogyny. From the onset, the Puritans were determined to eradicate Native American culture and implant a stoic version of Christian piety based on a rigid work ethics and moral conformity onto the “New World.” Borrowed from medieval Europe, this of course led to the trials, tortures and executions of scores of women as witches in New England for the “crimes” of consorting with or having “unnatural relations” with the devil. In one sense this represented a deep loathing of feminine sexuality and even nature itself, but what is often left out of this narrative is the powerful class motive for the usurpation of women’s land and property. And this fetishization of female sexuality is often portrayed today in contradictory forms. The so-called virtuous, upstanding woman is juxtaposed to the promiscuous one with little nuance, depth or complexity between the two stifling stereotypes.

African slaves were stereotyped over centuries as being hyper-sexual and promiscuous thus an existential threat to so-called “white purity.” It may have culminated in the culture in the form of the racist film “Birth of a Nation” which was lauded by President Woodrow Wilson and shown in the White House, but the racist stereotypes persist in contemporary media. Historically, this served as a way of dehumanization and othering, particularly in regard to the creation and promotion of the supremacy myth. And it translated into actual policies of segregation and discrimination. The societal impact can be seen manifested in the copious crimes of rape and assault against black women by white men during and after slavery, and in the horrific era of lynching in the 20th century throughout the country where tens of thousands of men were hanged, burned alive and often tortured to death because of allegations of rape or sexual improprieties against white women. Today that legacy continues in the form of police brutality and incarceration. But African American culture suffered as well from this stereotyping and was largely marginalized and censored, only later to be appropriated by many white artists in what was considered a more acceptable or sanitized form. Jazz and blues being good examples of this.

Antisemitism plays a large role in this too. For decades Jews were demonized and censored via the use of puerile and often arcane “obscenity” laws which were constructed in large part as a purity tests for Americanness. Author Josh Lambert outlined this in his book “Unclean Lips: Obscenity, Jews and American Culture.” Jewish influence on the arts have long been painted as dangerously sexual, politically subversive and debased by the white Christian establishment. And this has played out historically in the political class as well. Nixon and Billy Graham’s infamous recorded White House chats give us an insight into how that reached to the highest offices. Even today anti-Semitic conspiracy theories persist which suggest Jews control the American media, art and movie industry; once again providing an excuse for a crusade of white “purity” against supposed “obscenity.”

Homophobia and transphobia are ever present in today’s moral policing as well and its roots stem from a long history of puritanical sexual repression and rigid gender conformity. LGBTQ people had long been persecuted by the police, the church and corporations and have lost jobs, homes or were incarcerated for decades while antigay laws were still on the books. The “Red Scare” of the 1950s which aimed to purge the US of communists and their sympathizers is an example of how that unfolded in relatively recent times. Thousands of people lost careers, relationships, faced financial ruin, and even lost their lives in some instances due to suicide, thanks to being labeled a subversive, a homosexual (which was socially taboo and largely illegal at the time) or a pervert (which could be twisted to mean just about anything). How this relates to book burning is informative also since it was at the behest of Senator Joseph McCarthy that US State Department libraries purged their shelves of books deemed “controversial” or communist. And this happened across the board in Hollywood too, a bastion of American reactionary bigotry.Today queer sexuality in American culture is often portrayed by Hollywood in ways that appear more like pantomime. A parody or shtick rather than lived reality. But this is what sellsto corporate buyers. Honest representations of human sexuality in its rich, multilayered and complex forms does not.

One could spend days ruminating on the pious drenched and often hysterical puritanism of the religious right, yet without understanding how puritanism itself is a broad cultural phenomenon deeply effecting the liberal left as well, one cannot analyze current trends of censorship with true accuracy or, indeed, honesty. The reason all of this history is important is that it relates to the moral policing going on today under the often nebulous auspices of “social justice.” That rape culture and sexual harassment have been called out for the social maladies they are is a good thing. But movements, especially when they are championed by the wealthy elite, must always be looked at critically and approached with caution.

And this is where class comes in. After all, it is the lower castes within American society who already suffer disproportionately from a draconian and punitive legal system. Sex offender registries are one example of this. Designed to punish crimes of a serious sexual nature and protect the public from dangerous predators, they have all too often ruined the lives of people who pose no threat whatsoever. Urinating in public, teenagers having sex with other teenagers, breast feeding in public, sex work, all these things have threatened working class people, especially queer people and people of colour, with the stigma of being on a registry for life. And once on, they are restricted in employment, education and housing, further impoverishing people who were already poor. And corporate media culture reinforces this, giving the public a paranoid, hysterical narrative that the nation is somehow awash in predators of all kinds. This is not to diminish the very real abuses of a very real culture of rape, but to show the arbitrary nature of a deeply unequal system which has historically been based on a skewed and bigoted moral value system and administered via sweeping class disparity.

It is in this disparity in particular that I find liberal, and to some extent some leftist, outrage at certain art works, books or music so telling and peculiar. It displays a stunning lack of curiosity and an insularity to the lived lives, lived realities really, of others. And it willfully ignores the enormous role of bigotry and class differences in it all. That art or literature might be offensive to some is a given. That it should be censored or erased from the commons and from public memory should never be. It is sponging away what is often deeply relevant out of a fear that it might trigger an unwanted feeling; and in doing so diminishing the growth that can come with exposure to different ideas and perspectives. Of course one should decide for themselves what they are able to view based on their emotional or mental state, but when it becomes a public crusade of sorts the dangers should be obvious.

What’s more is that I often see a desire for kitsch to replace art, and this reflects a kind of childish or toxic naivety rife in the culture today. This is not to say that kitsch has no place at all, but it has become the overarching artistic genre of the American modern era and this is striking to say the least because sexuality and its expression are stunted, infantilized and deformed in such mediums, which might explain its appeal in the current era of hyper corporate consumerism and diminished human connection. It can also explain how the porn industry, a medium rife with hollow or kitsch representations human beings, has largely replaced erotica. That kitsch is considered art at all may be problematic, but it is what it has replaced that should trouble us more. The seriousness of artistic expression is diminished by what is absent, not what is displayed and it is often done so to soothe bourgeois sensibilities, not challenge them. And this is the sort of thing that can be an indicator or precursor to a sharp rise of fascism within a society. Because within the fascistic framework human sexuality is a another potent mechanism for social control.

But today’s digital culture aids this. It is one that encourages little interest in historic, cultural or artistic content. It isn’t one that encourages reading much either and this has led to a truncation of the language and critical thought in general. Now communicating ideas are often done in a staccato versing that has arisen from the text, meme, emoji, hashtag and Twitter mediums. But that is what makes this rush toward censorship even more alarming.

As has been revealed several times, social media has aligned with corporate and state interests to censor alternate or opposing views. It often begins with the repression of marginalized communities, banning art, alternate viewpoints, ideas and even thought deemed perverse or obscene, essentially any threat to the status quo hierarchy. But this is a poison that can rapidly spread to the rest of society. And American puritanism has long shadows that reach far beyond its borders now, making the implications rather chilling in that regard. Indeed, we should look at this erasure of public memory as not only a corporate approved curbing of curiosity and a purge of intellectual imagination; but also a pernicious repression of dissent and the systematic curtailing of our political agency. And this is what is so very dangerous about it all.

Categories: News for progressives

On Pocahontas: Democrats, Press Must Stop Playing Into the Master Manipulator’s Hands

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:57

The day after Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced that she was launching an exploratory committee for the 2020 presidential race, National Public Radio reported that President Donald Trump had responded to the news by again referring to the Massachusetts senator as “Pocahontas” and ridiculing her recent attempt to prove her Native American ancestry via a DNA test.

Rather than talking about Sen. Warren’s policies, her advocacy for consumer protections, her experience as a longtime Ivy League economics professor, her political and economic ideas, her bootstrap autobiographical story, instead of talking about Trumps’ countless lies and potential crimes, National Public Radio — and many other news outlets and pundits — was talking about…“Pocahontas.”

This is Trump’s genius. Don’t get me wrong, Trump is a moron, but like Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog, he knows one important thing. How to divert the press and the public’s attention from what is truly important (his lies, charges of obstruction of justice, etc.) toward whatever nonsense he wants them to focus on: Pocahontas. Hillary’s emails. George Soros. Trump knows that an outrageous utterance by the President of the United States is considered news. News that will knock the real news of the day off the front page: Dow Jones plummets more than 800 Points? Trump responds by tweeting: FAKE NEWS – THE ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!

Sen. Warren’s decision to take a DNA test to prove her Native American ancestry is looking more and more wrongheaded as time goes by. Not only did her gambit fail to stop Trump from calling her “Pocahontas” and a liar, it seems to have emboldened him. It not only raised the ire of some Native American tribal leaders, who Warren should have consulted first,but it has drawn criticism from progressive groups who, according to The New York Times, have complained she put too much emphasis on the controversial field of racial science. The ploy made the Massachusetts senator look foolish as she lowered herself to the president’s level. It was yet another win for Trump.

As Democrats deliberate over who will take on Trump in the 2020 general election, the party needs to carefully consider who among the contenders can best avoid being played by The Master Manipulator. Not being manipulated by Trump won’t be easy. He has managed to “own” the media, Congress, the Republican Party, and more than half of American voters. It may take a candidate with superhuman strength of character to counteract Trump’s superpowers of diversion and manipulation. Sadly, Sen. Warren has already shown that she can be manipulated.

I, for one, will no longer discuss the racial slur Pocahontas with anyone. But I will happily discuss Senator Warren’s record in government and her progressive ideas. The media should do likewise. That Trump calls Senator Warren a racial slur is no longer news. Perhaps it was news the first five times he insulted the senator this way, but no longer. Now it is simply Trump’s cynical manipulation of the American people. And the media’s ignorant complicity in same.

Categories: News for progressives

The Hidden Structure of U.S. Empire

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:57

My father was a doctor in the British Royal Navy, and I grew up traveling by troop-ship between the last outposts of the British Empire – Trincomalee, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Malta, Aden, Singapore – and living in and around naval dockyards in England and Scotland.

The British naval bases where I grew up and the fading empire they supported are now part of history. Chatham Dockyard. a working dockyard for over 400 years, is now a museum and tourist attraction.  Trincomalee Dockyard, where I was born, has been in the news as a site where the Sri Lankan Navy is accused of torturing and disappearing Tamil prisoners during the Sri Lankan civil war.

Since the late 1970s, I have lived in California and Florida, grappling with the contradictions of U.S. empire like other Americans.  The U.S. does not have an internationally recognized territorial empire like the British or Ottoman Empires. American politicians routinely deny that the United States maintains or seeks an empire at all, even as they insist that its interests extend across the entire world, and as its policies impact the lives – and threaten the future – of people everywhere.

So how are we to understand this phenomenon of U.S. empire, which is so central to all our lives and our future, and yet whose structure remains hidden and covert?

Ethnographies of U.S. Empireco-edited by Carol McGranahan of the University of Colorado and John F. Collins of CUNY, twenty-four anthropologists studied groups of people whose lives are shaped by the U.S. empire and their interactions with it. Their subjects ranged from indigenous peoples in the U.S. and Hawaii to call center workers in the Philippines to the forcibly exiled people of Diego Garcia.

Many of the ethnographies highlighted the seeming contradiction of an actually existing global empire in a post-colonial world where nearly all countries are internationally recognized as independent and sovereign.

Stratified Sovereignty

The final entry in Ethnographies of U.S. Empire arrived at the most comprehensive analysis of the stratified and complex patterns of sovereignty through which formally independent states and their citizens nonetheless fall under the overarching sovereignty of the U.S. empire.

This chapter, “From Exception to Empire: Sovereignty, Carceral Circulation and the Global War on Terror,” by Darryl Li, an anthropology professor at the University of Chicago, follows a group of men who came to Bosnia Hercegovina from mostly Arab countries to fight on the Bosnian Muslim side in the U.S.-backed proxy war to break up Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

By 2001, most of these 660 men had made new homes in Bosnia. Many had married Bosnian women and had Bosnian families.  All had been granted Bosnian citizenship in recognition of their role in their adopted country’s independence. But after the crimes of September 11th 2001, the U.S. government saw these former mujahideen as inherently dangerous, and insisted that they must be “denaturalized” and “repatriated.”

At first, this was done through an extrajudicial process of “rendition,” but after 2005 it was institutionalized in a nine-member State Commission (which included a U.S. Army officer and a British immigration official) to strip people of Bosnian citizenship; a “Reception Center for Irregular Migrants,” a prison built at European Union expense on the edge of a refugee camp for Bosnian Serbs in Lukavica on the outskirts of Sarajevo; and a “Service for Foreigners’ Affairs” under Bosnia’s Ministry of Security, organized, trained and equipped by U.S. advisers at U.S. taxpayer expense, to run the prison and conduct deportations.

Darryl Li visited, studied and stayed in contact with some of these men and their Bosnian families for several years. He observed how, while the U.S. exercised supreme sovereignty over these men and their fate, the U.S. role was carefully hidden behind and operated through the formal sovereignty of Bosnia Hercegovina; and also how the fates of groups of men of different nationalities were governed by U.S. imperial relations with the various countries they came from and to where they could be “repatriated.”

Most Egyptian men were sent back to Egypt, a reliable U.S. ally, where they were imprisoned, tortured and, in many cases, disappeared, according to their Bosnian families. By contrast, six men from Algeria were rendered to the U.S. concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. They were imprisoned there until they won a landmark casein the U.S. Supreme Court that allowed them to sue for habeas corpus in U.S. courts. They were finally released in 2009, 2010 and 2013.

A Syrian-Bosnian man named Abu Hamza became the de facto leader of resistance to these denaturalizations and deportations. He was imprisoned for 7-1/2 years at the Lukavica prison, during most of which time the U.S. and its allies fought a bloody but failed proxy war to install a more subservient regime in his country of origin. He was finally released in 2016 to rejoin his Bosnian family.

When Darryl Li first visited Abu Hamza at the prison in Lukavica in 2009, he was dressed in an orange jalabiyya and baseball cap, on which he had stenciled the word “BOSNATANAMO.” He had made this uniform for himself to highlight the parallels between the plight of prisoners at Lukavica and Guantanamo.

The flags flying over the guard gate of the prison in Lukavica were those of Bosnia and the European Union, and the U.S. was officially involved in the imprisonment of the men there only through diplomatic channels, generous funding and the assistance of American trainers and advisers. And yet the U.S. empire was the thinly veiled power behind the very existence of the prison and all that happened there.

Darryl Li compared the fates of the men in Bosnia with other cases of post-9/11 U.S. detention, and found a similar pattern throughout the U.S. gulag, in which the fates of people from specific countries were largely determined by the nature of U.S. imperial relations with the countries involved.

For example, four British men detained in Pakistan and sent to Guantanamo were among the first prisoners to be released and repatriated, and returned home to relatively normal lives in the U.K. By contrast, Li met a Palestinian man in Gaza in 2007 who was “repatriated” there despite never having lived there before. He was born in Jordan and grew up in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, where he was arrested and handed over to U.S. forces. After several years in U.S. military and CIA prisons, mostly in Afghanistan, he was sent back to Jordan, handed over to Israel and banished to Gaza.

In all these cases, Li observed how the U.S. empire maintained a systematic and overarching sovereignty over the people and countries involved, not by completely ignoring the sovereignty of Bosnia, Egypt, the U.K and other countries, but by selectively and opportunistically exercising its own power through their nominally independent political and legal systems and the particulars of its relations with each of them.
Darryl Li’s research revealed an international system of stratified sovereignty, in which people’s lives were subject to the overarching imperial sovereignty of the U.S. empire as well as to the nominally independent sovereignty of their own countries.

Empire, not exception.

The U.S. concentration camp at Guantanamo in Cuba is widely viewed as a glaring exception to U.S. and international rules of law. Darryl Li noted that the prisoners are not the only non-Americans and non-Cubans living at Guantanamo, which also has a civilian staff of janitors, cooks and other workers, mostly from Jamaica and the Philippines. Like the prisoners and their American guards, these workers also live under the overarching sovereignty of the U.S. Empire.

“Both third-country national prisoners and workers at GTMO share the predicament of dwelling in a space between the juridical protections of their governments, the local state and the U.S. hegemon,” Li observed.

Darryl Li concluded that this framework of stratified sovereignty, in which people live under the sovereignty of both their own country and that of the U.S. empire, is not an exception, but a norm of life in the U.S. empire. The shared predicament of workers and prisoners at Guantanamo is a striking example of how the U.S. empire works, not an exception to it.

Other seemingly exceptional cases can also be better understood as examples of this actually existing imperial system of stratified sovereignty.

Julian Assange’s precarious asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London is a case in point. In Julian’s case, U.S. imperial power has worked through a network of four nominally independent but subordinate states – Australia, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Ecuador – to corner him in London for over six years and prevent him from regaining his freedom.  And it may soon succeed in rendering him to the U.S. in shackles.

If this is what happens to Julian, his fate will not differ substantially from that of people who dared to defy the formal, territorial empires of the past. The Saudis conquered most of Arabia in the late 18th century, but their leader Abdullah bin Saudwas defeated, captured, rendered in chains to Istanbul and beheaded at the order of the Ottoman Sultan in 1818.

Until 1830, the British Royal Navy brought mutineers, smugglers and pirates captured on the high seas around the world back to London to be hung (slowly, in the case of pirates) at Execution Dock on the Thames. The most notorious pirates’ bodies were covered in tar and hung in chains from a gibbet on the riverbank as a warning against piracy to sailors on passing ships.

If anything can save Julian Assange from a 21st century version of their fate at the hands of today’s imperial power, it is empire-wide public outrage and the fear of U.S. officials that such a naked display of imperial power will give their game away.

But fear of exposing its brutality and criminality rarely constrains the U.S. empire. Since 2001, the U.S. has been more ready than ever to attack or invade other countries at will, with no regard for U.S. or international law, and to kidnap or extradite people from around the world to face imperial retribution in U.S. prisons and courts.

Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, now detained in Canada, is the latest victim of U.S. imperial power. At least 26 U.S. and foreign banks have paid fines of billions of dollars for violating U.S. sanctions on Iran, but none of their executives have been arrested and threatened with 30 year prison terms. In launching a trade war with China, challenging Chinese sovereignty to trade with Iran and holding Meng Wanzhou as a hostage or bargaining chip in these disputes, the U.S. is displaying a dogged determination to keep expanding its imperial ambitions.

The case of NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden illustrates that there are geographic limits to U.S. imperial power. By escaping first to Hong Kong and then to Russia, Edward evaded capture or extradition. But his narrow escape and the very narrow choices available to him are themselves an illustration of how few places on Earth remain safely beyond the reach of U.S. imperial power.

The End of Empire

The corrosive and debilitating impact of U.S. empire on the sovereignty of other countries has been obvious to its detractors for a long time.

In the introduction to his 1965 book, Neo-Colonialism: the Last Stage of Imperialism, President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana wrote, “The essence of neo-colonialism is that the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside.”

Darryl Li quoted Nkrumah’s verdict that this is, “…the worst form of imperialism. For those who practice it, it means power without responsibility, and for those who suffer from it, it means exploitation without redress.”

Nkrumah was deposed in a military coup orchestrated by the CIA the year after his words were published, but his critique remains, begging serious questions, “How long will the world tolerate this irresponsible form of empire?”  Or even, ” Will we allow this ‘last stage of imperialism’ to be the last stage of our civilization?”

The way the U.S. empire exercises power through stratified layers of sovereignty is both a strength and a weakness.  For a brief period in history, it has enabled the U.S. to wield imperial power in an otherwise post-colonial world, as Nkrumah described.

But Nkrumah had good reason to call this the last stage of imperialism. Once the U.S. empire’s subject nations decide to claim in full the legal sovereignty they gained in the 20thcentury, and reject the U.S.’s anachronistic imperial ambitions to dominate and exploit their institutions, their people and their future, this empire cannot permanently hold them back any more than the British or Ottoman Empirescould.

This irresponsible empire has squandered the resources of our own and other nations and spawned existential dangers that threaten the whole world, from nuclear war to environmental crisis.  The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has gradually advanced the hands of its Doomsday Clock from 17 minutes to midnight in 1994 up to 2 minutes to midnight in 2018.

The U.S.’s system of “managed democracy” or “inverted totalitarianism” concentrates ever-growing wealth and power in the hands of a corrupt ruling class, increasingly subjecting the American public to the same “exploitation without redress” as the U.S. empire’s foreign subjects and preventing us from tackling serious or even existential problems.

This self-reinforcing vicious circle endangers us all, not least those of us who live at the heart of this corrupt and ultimately self-destructive empire. So we Americans share the vital interest of the rest of the world in dismantling the U.S. empire and starting to work with all our neighbors to build a peaceful, just and sustainable post-imperial future that we all can share.

This piece first appeared at

Categories: News for progressives

Sanders, Warren and the DSA

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:56

For the past few months, dating back at least to Bhaskar Sunkara’s October 23rd Guardian op-ed piece titled “Think Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are the same? They aren’t”, the “democratic socialist” wing of the Democratic Party has mounted an ideological offensive against the Senator from Massachusetts, laying the groundwork for Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign. Though likely almost as happy to get behind a Warren candidacy, it faults her for backing “Accountable Capitalism” rather than the Scandinavian-style socialism Sanders embraces. From the perspective of the Republican Party, and likely the Biden/Clinton wing of the Democratic Party, there’s not much difference between the two Senators. The “The Opportunity Costs of Socialism”, issued by Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers in the same month as Sunkara’s op-ed, had this take on the two:

The Chinese leader Mao Zedong, who cited Marxism as the model for his country, described “the ruthless economic exploitation and political oppression of the peasants by the landlord class” (Cotterell 2011, chap. 6). Expressing similar concerns, current American senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have stated that “large corporations . . . exploit human misery and insecurity, and turn them into huge profits” and “giant corporations . . . exploit workers just to boost their own profits.”6

Can you guess which Senator’s quote was which? Take 5 minutes to decide but no cheating, please. Okay, the answer is that Sanders’s quote came first. But wouldn’t any DSA’er be nearly as happy to see Warren become President in light of her belief that “giant corporations . . . exploit workers just to boost their own profits”? It is worth noting that some on the left—including Boris Kagarlitsky and Diana Johnstone—took Trump’s populist rhetoric to heart, so maybe something more than words have to be taken into account.

Sunkara warns that with Warren getting support from prominent Democratic Party policy wonks like Matt Yglesias, the co-founder and editor of Vox, there’s reason enough to downgrade her. Maybe Sunkara forgot that Vox was a major booster of Jacobin, calling attention to how it was winning the war of ideas on the left. And who doesn’t love a winner?

Vox followed up with another article helping to bolster Jacobin’s cred. After Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary victory, DSA member and Jacobin editor Meagan Day wrote a piece titled “Democratic socialism, explained by a democratic socialist” that warned against confusing her comrades with namby-pamby “New Deal liberals”. Unlike FDR, the democratic socialists are for “overthrowing capitalism”. This is apparently Sanders’s idea as well, according to Sunkara’s op-ed.

To understate things, Sanders’ background is unusual. He was trained in the dying remnants of the Socialist party and cut his political teeth in trade union and civil rights organizing. His lifelong lesson? The rich were not morally confused but rather have a vested interest in the exploitation of others. Power would have to be taken from them by force.

The best-known leader of the Socialist Party referred to above was Michael Harrington, who would be startled to learn that he advocated taking power by force. Perhaps Sunkara got Harrington confused with Lenin, given both men’s baldpate. In 2013, when Sunkara was beginning to become a household name at least in Park Slope, he wrote an article for In These Times  paying respects to the Socialist Party leader who understood—apparently like his 24-year old acolyte—that socialism needed liberalism and vice versa. He concludes his article with a call for what amounts to a Popular Front:

The only way back to political relevance for socialists lies through realistic engagement with politics as it exists today. And that involves messiness and compromise—reaching out to liberals as friends and allies—while not losing sight of the need to decisively transform a political framework built on a self-destructive and morally intolerable mode of production.

Unlike Sunkara, there were some leftists who had a direct and unpleasant experience with Harrington and as such were less inclined to see him as a role model. In a rebuttal to Sunkara, ISO’er Joe Allen faulted Harrington for red-baiting the Port Huron Statement (a rather mild call for reform by the nascent SDS) and backing LBJ’s war in Vietnam. Sunkara defended Harrington once again with a highly revealing admission about what socialism means to Jacobin and the DSA:

WHAT’S MORE, his [Joe Allen] labeling of Harrington as a “social democrat” is either a polemical device or reflects a frightening lack of clarity. Through his life, Harrington advocated not just for socialism within capitalism, but for socialism after capitalism–a break with class society and the bourgeois state.

What does it mean to be “for socialism after capitalism”? Is this similar to changes in the natural world, like a pupa turning into a butterfly or summer following spring? As Sunkara put it in his lip-service to revolution, state power from the capitalists will have to be taken by force. If there is anything that is crystal-clear, it is that Jacobin/DSA has no perspective of building a movement with such designs based on a July 2018 article titled “What is Democratic Socialism”.  The author was Neal Meyer, who is on the NY chapter’s Citywide Leadership Committee and bent on differentiating democratic socialists from those brontosauruses still taking the Communist Manifesto seriously:

It’s one thing to know what democratic socialists fight for, and another to lay out a convincing path to realizing it. This is where democratic socialists truly differ with some of our friends on the socialist left. We reject strategies that transplant paths from Russia in 1917 or Cuba in 1959 to the United States today, as if we could win socialism by storming the White House and tossing Donald Trump out on the front lawn.

This is as grotesque a caricature as anything that appeared in the White House’s report on “The Opportunity Costs of Socialism”. To start with, the Russian Revolution of 1917 was a result of the democratic will of the people, reflected through the soviets, to withdraw from WWI and to provide land to the tillers. Essentially, Meyer is describing the Bolshevik seizure of power as a coup, a well-worn trope of the Sovietologists. As for Cuba, Fidel Castro exhausted all peaceful possibilities by running in elections until concluding that Batista would not make the changes necessary to provide a decent life for all its citizens. He resorted to guerrilla warfare but never could have taken power without massive support from the cities, including the student movement, the intellectuals, and the trade unions as documented in a new book by Steve Cushion titled “A Hidden History of the Cuban Revolution: How the Working Class Shaped the Guerrillas’ Victory”.

Clearly, there are vast differences between Russia in 1917 and Cuba in 1959 on one side and the USA today on the other. The USA is the world’s leading capitalist power and the kind of misery, especially in the countryside, that existed in such backward societies can only be found in communities that have been traditionally marginalized. In a place like my own New York City, there is homelessness and hunger but only suffered by those in the lowest economic rungs. Ironically, Michael Harrington’s main contribution as a writer was “The Other America” that revealed the chronic poverty in places like West Virginia as a way of spurring Washington to mitigate the suffering. Despite Harrington’s eloquence, West Virginia is as economically depressed as it was in the 1960s, a function of deep-pit coal mining giving way to mountaintop removal that puts an emphasis on machinery rather than labor. Piling one injury on top of another, the unemployed coal-miners had to deal now with undrinkable water, a result of toxic waste from strip-mining seeping into the state’s rivers.

Can a 25-year old college graduate forced by the job market to work as barista or a Banana Republic salesperson ever reach the level of despair necessary to join a revolutionary movement? When Frederick Engels wrote “The Conditions of the Working Class in England”, wage workers were universally downtrodden:

On the occasion of an inquest held Nov. 16th, 1843, by Mr. Carter, coroner for Surrey, upon the body of Ann Galway, aged 45 years, the newspapers related the following particulars concerning the deceased: She had lived at No. 5 White Lion Court, Bermondsey Street, London, with her husband and a nineteen- year-old son in a little room, in which neither a bedstead nor any other furniture was to be seen. She lay dead beside her son upon a heap of feathers which were scattered over her almost naked body, there being neither sheet nor coverlet. The feathers stuck so fast over the whole body that the physician could not examine the corpse until it was cleansed, and then found it starved and scarred from the bites of vermin. Part of the floor of the room was torn up, and the hole used by the family as a privy.

As miserable as this family was, Marx and Engels would eventually write off the English working class as spoiled by its relative comfortable position. In a letter to Marx, dated October 7, 1858, Engels wrote: “…The English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justifiable.”

It is understandable why DSA might have diminished expectations and a willingness to compromise. Without a revolutionary subject, what is the point of revolutionary goals? Ever since the end of the 60s radicalization, there have been movements that challenge the status quo but none have the almost apocalyptic urgency of the Maoist or Trotskyist movements of my youth. In a very real sense, the moderation of the DSA simply reflects the tenor of the times.

The problem, however, is that revolutionary change is still necessary but on a different basis today. In the 1960s, most of us who organized antiwar demonstrations saw the Vietnam War as being repeated on a continuous basis given the USA’s determination to act as the policeman of the world. This would lead to proletarian revolutions demanding peace. However, the “Vietnam syndrome” soon set barriers to new boots on the ground. Except for Iraq and Afghanistan, which resulted in a hollow victory and likely an impending defeat respectively, imperialism prefers proxy forces and drones for imposing its will.

In addition, our generation saw blue collar resistance in places like the Lordstown GM plant as the wave of the future. A revitalized trade union movement would provide the working-class muscle necessary to topple the capitalist state, probably no later than 1990 or so. (Sigh.) This year, GM has announced that 14,000 workers would be fired, including those in the Lordstown plant. None of us fifty years ago could have anticipated the collapse of manufacturing in the USA, especially when China was still solidly run on Maoist principles. US imperialism proved to be one step ahead of us, attaching wings to American jobs that then flew to China.

So where does that leave us today? Has capitalism resolved its contradictions? Ironically, the contradictions have deepened but on a different basis. We are in a period when the conditions for capitalism being able to create the basis for its own reproduction have begun to collapse. Climate change, species extinction, epidemics tied to ecological despoliation, water shortages, unbreathable air in mega-cities, and a host of other ills not directly tied to commodity production are reaching the point that commodity production itself will eventually be undermined.

Furthermore, even if the cosmopolitan centers in advanced capitalist countries will go on as if nothing has changed, the underdeveloped nations will continue to exist as if they belonged in Engels’s portrait of the English working class. With many of these nations having a majority Muslim population, tendencies for sectarian and atavistic militancy will increase. When ISIS, or something like ISIS, gets its hands on a portable nuclear weapon, all bets are off.

There is a cognitive dissonance between the meliorism of DSA leaders and the tasks that humanity faces. Since the USA is the hub of the world capitalist machine that is systematically destroying the planet, it will take a resolute political force here and starting now to wage a struggle capable of replacing that machine with one that serves humanity and the planet. It is a daunting task but one that must be undertaken. As Rosa Luxemburg once said but attributed to Engels: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.” In actuality, the words were Karl Kautsky’s according to ecosocialist Ian Angus but whatever the origins of this oft-cited phrase, we can be assured that with Donald Trump in the White House, we are getting a good taste of that barbarism now.

Categories: News for progressives

Class War in Sweden

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:56

The “Peace Obligation” Proposal

The resurgence of – true or self-proclaimed – socialist movements in the Global North has implied very generous interpretations of life in the Nordic countries. Sweden, in particular, has often been hailed as a model for the “democratic socialism” espoused by Bernie Sanders and others.

It is true that the legacy of Sweden’s strong working-class movement and social-democratic governance makes the welfare state somewhat more resilient than in other countries. Sweden still enjoys a relatively high level of unionization, government funding for equal opportunities in education, employment, and the arts, universal health care, free education, and so forth. Sweden also ranks high when it comes to the implementation of the rights of women and LGBTQ people, it has relatively liberal immigration policies, and it dedicates an above-average percentage of its GDP to development projects in the Global South. All of this rightfully appeals to people embracing socialist values of equality and internationalism.

But Sweden has been marked by the neoliberalist era as much as any other country. In the 1990s, the Social Democratic Party – which has been governing the country, with short interruptions, since the 1920s – embraced New Labour-type policies, privatizing huge parts of the public sector, including clinics, schools, postal services, the transport system, and council flats. The center-right government that ruled the country from 2006 to 2014 accelerated these developments. In Stockholm, thepercentage of council flats in available housing dropped from 75% in 1990 to 45% in 2015. Prices on the private market have skyrocketed, which has reshaped the city’s entire social fabric. Across the country, eligibility for unemployment and invalidity benefits have been cut substantially. And the once powerful unions have been losing much influence, not least due to large economic sectors being absorbed by the gig economy (from delivery, cleaning, and catering to cultural, academic, and IT work).

If any further proof was needed both for the misperception of Sweden as a quasi-socialist country, the increasing attacks on the workers’ movement’s achievements, and the class betrayal of the Social Democratic leadership, it has been delivered by a June 2018 proposal to rewrite important sections of Swedish labor law. The proposal carries the title “Peace Obligation at Workplaces with Collective Bargaining Agreements, and in the Case of Litigation.” It was conceived in a joint effort by the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise and the country’s biggest trade union associations, and turned into a proposal for legislation by the Swedish Ministry of Labor, headed by the Social Democrat Ylva Johansson.

The summary of the 68-page proposal includes the following lines:

“This text proposes that an employee must not engage in an industrial action against an employer who has signed a collective bargaining agreement with another union, that is, an employer who is already bound by a collective bargaining agreement. The text proposes that industrial action shall only be lawful if its purpose is to establish a collective bargaining agreement implying a peace obligation, and if the demands attached to the industrial action have been negotiated with the employer beforehand. … The bill furthermore proposes an extension of the prohibition against industrial action during litigation. The current prohibitiononly applies to employers and employees bound by collective bargaining agreements when engaged in legal cases relating to these agreements. This text proposes that the ban shall also apply to employers and employees who are not bound by a collective bargaining agreement.”

In layman’s terms, this renders all forms of industrial action illegal apart from attempts to force employers to sign a collective bargaining agreement if they haven’t done so before – and even in this case, workers and their organizations need to come to the negotiation table first.

In order to understand how far-reaching the consequences would be if this proposal was to become law, we need to look at what the Swedish Labour Court has classified as “industrial action” over the years. In a 2005 verdict, the court declared that “basically any action – or lack thereof – that can have an impact on the party against which it is directed, can be considered an industrial action.” This can practically encompass anything. Indeed, we find that in certain cases, the Swedish Labour Court has classified actions such handing out leaflets and writing opinion pieces as industrial actions. If, as the proposal suggests, actions like these will become illegal in connection with pretty much any labor dispute, then out-of-court actions – or mere declarations – of solidarity with workers who have been harassed or discriminated against will become illegal, too.

The consequences of violating the legal code are already unevenly divided between capital and labor. According to Swedish labor law, employers can avoid legal proceedings in the case of, for example, unlawful sackings by offering compensation payments. Workers do not get off that easily. Unions can, for example, be made liable for all alleged losses that employers suffer as a result of unlawful industrial action directed against them. Once almost all forms of industrial action will be outlawed, entire workers’ organizations can be ruined.

It must also be stressed that, according to the proposal, employers will not be forced to sign collective bargaining agreements with majority unions. It is up to them to decide which union they want to sign an agreement with, and this agreement will then be binding for everyone else. This is, essentially, a license for establishing so-called yellow unions: unions that are initiated by employers to ensure that labor laws are met while the employers retain full control over them. In a piece for the Transnational Social Strike (TSS) website, the organizers of a TSS conference in Stockholm in November 2018 described this graphically: “This means that an employer can invite any number of workers just to sign an agreement and then force all others to follow its peace treaty. The owner could essentially employ his/her cousins or buddies, settle the worst possible deal and from then on criminally charge anyone who takes action against it.”

The “Peace Obligation” proposal is also deceitful. One example concerns the consequences for employment equality. Under the header “Consequences for the Equality Between Men and Women,” the proposal claims that “more men than women” will be affected by it. The reason given is “the division of gender within the transport and construction industries.” Leaving aside the unsettling suggestion that more gender equality can be reached by curtailing the rights of men rather than by extending those of women, this assertion is simply not true. A report by the National Mediation Office – which is regularly cited throughout the proposal – clearly states the opposite: “During the period in question [2000-2016], most cases of such conflict [involving industrial action] occurred among cleaners (about 50), followed by hotel and restaurant workers (about 45), longshoremen (about 35), construction workers (about 30), in the retail business (about 30), and in heavy industry (about 20).” In short, the industries most affected if the proposal becomes law will be industries dominated by women. This stands in glaring contradiction to the proposal’s claims.

It is also questionable how the proposal can be reconciled with the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 87, titled “Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise.” The convention, ratified by Sweden in 1949, requires all ratifying countries “to take all necessary and appropriate measures to ensure that workers and employers may exercise freely the right to organise.” It further states that “the law of the land shall not be such as to impair, nor shall it be so applied as to impair, the guarantees provided for in this Convention.” Now, in practice, the right for Swedish workers to join particular labor organizations will be rendered meaningless if these organizations have no right to act. The conundrum becomes particularly obvious if we look at how “freedom of association” is defined in Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights, ratified by Sweden in 1953: “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” Yes, workers should be able to join trade unions for the protection of their interests, not just for the heck of it.

If, as suggested by its authors, the “Peace Obligation” proposal will become law by January 1, 2020, independent unions that have not yet come to power-sharing agreements with the ruling class – or that have no interest in ever signing any such agreements – can no longer act as unions. The syndicalist SAC, for example, opposes signing collective bargaining agreements due to the stipulations that already come with them according to Swedish law, for example non-strike agreements and other restrictions on their activities.

If the “Peace Obligation” proposal becomes law, industrial action will pretty much disappear from a country where it already has become rare given the social-democratic institutionalization of the workers’ movement. Since the 1980s, the number of strike days has steadily decreased. In 1986, there were still 682,652 strike days registered. In 2017, there were 329. The SAC, with a modest membership of 3000 people, often tops the annual list.


The 2017 strikes at the Port of Gothenburg, led by the Swedish Dockworkers’ Union, are often considered as the events that triggered the “Peace Obligation” proposal. The Swedish Dockworkers’ Union, one of Sweden’s biggest independent unions, has been denied collective bargaining rights since it split from the Swedish Transport Workers’ Union in 1972. This has led to repeated labor unrest at the Port of Gothenburg, Scandinavia’s biggest. The purported loss for Swedish industry caused by the 2017 strikes was estimated at half a billion US dollars.

However, the conflict at the Port of Gothenburg mainly served as an excuse for the ruling class to move its positions forward. Already in 2005, the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise had published a report with the revealing title “The Swedish Model Has Capsized.” Its authors bemoan the unfair advantage that trade unions allegedly have in Sweden vis-à-vis industry, or, to use the report’s official wording, “the imbalance between the partners on the labor market.”

In a campaign called “Advantage Sweden,” the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise offered its proposals for rectifying this perceived imbalance. An April 2005 press release was very clear: “Today, it is easy for unions to call strikes. … But order on the labor market is important for the competitive power of Swedish companies, and for Sweden to remain an attractive country for companies. Our campaign addresses the conditions under which companies in Sweden can operate, and future job opportunities. If Sweden does not provide an adequate system for its labor market, many companies will refrain from establishing and developing branches here.” The measures deemed necessary to establish an “adequate system for the labor market” included a “rule of proportion, that is, the demand that an industrial action and its goal must be proportional to the consequences and effects it has for enterprises and third parties”; a “prohibition against sympathy actions, that is, a measure to ensure that third-party employers cannot be drawn into the conflict of other parties”; a “prohibition against conflicts with damaging social effects”; a “prohibition against unions to engage in industrial action against enterprises where they do not have members”; and – unsurprisingly – a “prohibition against industrial action for organizations without collective bargaining agreementsat workplaces where collective bargaining agreements already exist.”

In order to understand how Social Democrats can back such proposals (or, at least, parts thereof), we have to understand how deep class compromise runs in Swedish society. It was first cemented at the 1938 Saltsjöbaden Agreement between the Swedish Employers Association (a forerunner to the the Confederation of Swedish Enterprise) and LO, the biggest of the national trade union confederations and, to this day, strongly tied to the Social Democratic Party. Of particular importance for the current situation, however, was the postwar Rehn-Meidner model, named after Gösta Rehn and Rudolf Meidner, two LO economists.

The Rehn-Meidner model was in tune with Keynesian policies of stimulating economic growth and safeguarding political stability through state intervention in fiscal policies and on the labor market. It helped keep inflation low, employment high, and incomes fairly equally divided. But its success very much dependent on the economic boom experienced in Europe post-World War II, and had no provisions for economic crises. This also affected on one of its key aspects, the so-called “solidarity wage policy,” which was to prevent significant differences in wages between industries. Companies that could not maintain the wage levels required by the policy had to shut down, which, in turn, led to a strong concentration of industrial power. At the end of the 1970s, 80 percent of the LO membership worked for but 20 highly profitable companies. It isan often overlooked fact that Sweden is home to some of Europe’s richest and most powerful companies. Today, 10 percent of the Swedish population own 70 percent of the country’s wealth, a figure significantly higher than in most other European countries. In tandem with the diplomaticskills of the country’s politicians, Sweden’sprofitable export industry wascentral for the development of the Swedish welfare state.

When, in the 1970s, economic growth started to decline and labor-intensive production began to move to low-wage countries, the Rehn-Meidner model was no longer viable.Increased international competition meant that wages in Sweden’s export-oriented industries could no longer rise at previous rates if massive relocation was to be avoided. The solidarity wage policy was abandoned and export-oriented industries now set the standard for wages in the country. This also increased the power of unions in the export-oriented sector. The metalworkers’ union IF Metall became a particularly powerful player in this context. Both Sweden’s current caretaker prime minister Stefan Löfven and LO president Karl-Petter Thorwaldsson have come up through the IF Metall ranks.


While LO and other mainstream union confederations cozy up to business interests – IF Metall, for example, explicitly condemned the strikes at the Port of Gothenburg – there is resistance among the rank and file. However, the rank and file’s powers are limited considering that union leaders disapprove of any public critique of the “Peace Obligation” proposal, let alone protest actions. But resistance by independent unions and activists is on the rise. Led by a coalition called “Strike Back,” several demonstrations and direct actions have taken place across the country since the summer. On August 25, 2018, two thousandpeople gathered in Stockholm for a day of action that included marches, blockades, and a rally outside the LO headquarters.

But makeno mistake: The significance of this conflict is by no means limited to Sweden. The reason that the rights of Swedish dockworkers, along with those of independent unions, are under attack has much to do with the increased significance of logistics in a capitalist system, in which global chains of production and just-in-time manufacturing have become essential. The Gothenburg strikes struck at the core of neoliberal capitalism. Capital, in Sweden and beyond, desperately wants to prevent ripple effects. Laws such as the ones laid out in the “Peace Obligations” proposal can become a blueprint for similar legislation in other countries. We are entering a new phase of international class struggle.

Should the proposal indeed become law, it will require radical labor organizations such as the SAC to redefine their role. They can be rendered powerless as unions, but not as militant workers’ organizations. In fact, the intensification of the class struggle might open up new opportunities for mobiliziation in the years to come. This is how an SAC member ended their speech at a December 2018 rally:

“We will always fight for our rights. In fact, there can be big freedom in engaging in industrial action outside the law. If the law doesn’t protect us, we must ensure that it doesn’t protect the enterprises and the bosses that make money off our labor either. Think about how liberating it might be to no longer dutifully inform the National Mediation Office about strike actions! And think about how nice it would be to avoid endless filibustering in labor courts and other formal obstacles that bosses and politicians employ to keep us at bay. … In a year from now, the right to strike might be history – but strikes will live on!”

Gabriel Kuhn and Micke Nordin are Central Committee members of the syndicalist Sveriges Arbetares Centralorganisation (SAC).

Categories: News for progressives

Judge Richard Goldstone Suffered for Turning His Back on Gaza, But Not as Much as the Palestinians He Betrayed

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:56

When a hero lets you down, the betrayal lasts forever. I’m not alone, I know, when I say that Richard Goldstone was a hero of mine – a most formidable, brilliant and brave judge who finally spoke truth to power in the Middle East. And then recanted like a frightened political prisoner, with protestations of love for the nation whose war crimes he so courageously exposed.

Now, after years of virtual silence, the man who confronted Israel and Hamas with their unforgivable violence after the 2008-09 Gaza war has found a defender in a little known but eloquent academic. Judge Goldstone, a Jewish South African, was denounced by Israelis and their supporters as “evil” and a “quisling” after he listed the evidence of Israel’s brutality against the Palestinians of Gaza (around 1,300 dead, most of them civilians), and of Hamas’ numerically fewer crimes (13 Israeli dead, three of them civilians, plus a number of Palestinian “informer” executions).

Professor Daniel Terris, a Brandeis University scholar admired for his work on law and ethics, calls his new book The Trials of Richard Goldstone. Good title, but no cigar. ​Terris is eminently fair. Perhaps he is too fair. He treats far too gently the column that Goldstone wrote for the Washington Post, in which the judge effectively undermined the research and conclusions of his own report that he and three others wrote about the Gaza war. The book recalls how Richard Falk, a Princeton law professor and former UN rapporteur on human rights in Gaza and the West Bank, described Goldstone’s retraction as “a personal tragedy for such a distinguished international civil servant”. I think Falk was right.

But the subtext of Terris’s book revolves around this personal tragedy rather than the tragedy of the Palestinians, many of whom put their trust in Goldstone when he arrived in Gaza, and told him of the slaughter of their families. Wa’el al-Samouni, for example, personally described to Goldstone how 23 of his family members were killed by the Israeli army, pointing out their individual photographs on a wall. “The pain of loss affected Goldstone deeply,” Terris writes. “As Wa’el completed the tour, neither man could contain his emotion, and the two clasped each other in a tearful embrace.”

So here was a Palestinian who believed in Goldstone, as did many others. Initially, some Israelis welcomed his involvement too: he was a highly admired member of South Africa’s Jewish community as well as an eminent lawyer and judge. Furthermore, he had been chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

In his last days at The Hague, I spoke to Goldstone at great length and asked him about the dividing line between war crimes and mass murder. “I suppose I’m really optimistic by nature,” he said to me. “I’ve got absolutely no doubt at all that the overwhelming majority of people in the world, in any country, are decent, good people – not evil people. There are a very small number of evil people who do so much harm… I’m not talking about evil leaders. I’m talking about ordinary people who commit terrible crimes; otherwise decent, law-abiding people. And the basic drive is fear: fear that if they don’t kill, they’ll be killed or dispossessed of their country. You have to say that ‘these people are going to kill us, these people are going to dispossess us of our homes and our land, in fact have no right to be here and are not worthy of being here anyway’.”

When Goldstone agreed to lead the UN Gaza inquiry, 13 years later, I re-read these words. How prescient would they prove to be when he travelled to Gaza, to talk to the Palestinians? The Israelis would refuse to participate in his investigation, although individual Israelis were able to give evidence to the UN in Geneva.

There was another element to our discussion at The Hague, where Goldstone had talked to me of the need for all victims to obtain justice. “It’s to officially acknowledge to the victims what happened to them,” he said. “You want society to officially acknowledge what happened to you.” But what of the million and a half Armenian victims of the 1915 genocide at the hands of the Turks, I asked him? They could not now have the benefit of Mr Justice Goldstone’s tribunal. “Well, they’ve missed it,’ he replied immediately. “The boat didn’t come into their harbour.” This was a hard judgement, I said. “But it’s true,” Goldstone replied. “They were entitled to justice. It wasn’t offered to them.”

So what would happen to the Palestinian victims of a far smaller mass killing in Gaza and of the fewer Israeli victims of the same conflict? Would Goldstone bring the boat into their harbour? Would they be offered justice? The Palestinians obviously believed the judge would offer them this. They knew he was Jewish and they didn’t care. They had heard of his courage at the Yugoslavia trials.

What they could not have known was that he would himself be referred to as “evil” by none other than that scourge of all brave liberals, Alan Dershowitz. And I remembered then what Goldstone also said to me in The Hague in 1996. Seeking justice, he said, was “the only possible deterrent to put some curb on the terrible atrocities that have been committed over 90 wars in the last half a century… if international criminal leaders know that they may be called to account, it must… in a substantial manner of cases act as a sort of a deterrent”.

So there you had it: now, for the Palestinians and for the Israelis, their own officers/soldiers/fighters/guerrillas could today surely be arraigned in the highest courts for their actions in Gaza. Goldstone’s final report in 2009 said that both Israelis and Palestinians had violated the laws of war, that Israel had used disproportionate force – which with the 1,300 to 13 exchange rate for death was a hardly avoidable verdict – and targeted Palestinian civilians and civilian infrastructure, and used civilians as human shields. It said that Hamas and other groups deliberately targeted Israeli civilians. Their third-rate weaponry and the small number of Israeli victims did not excuse them.

Then the abuse against Goldstone began, wearingly, ever more strident, hateful and personal.

Without even telling his report’s three co-authors, he wrote an article for the Washington Post which undermined all their work. The gist of this short essay – already, if oddly, rejected by the New York Times – was that later investigations by Israel (which had, of course, declined to assist the original Goldstone inquiry) indicated “that civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy”.

But that’s not what the original report said; it said that Israel deliberately employed disproportionate and indiscriminate force in order to “punish”, humiliate and terrorise civilians. Which arguably constitutes a war crime. Although Goldstone largely ignored the fact, Israeli soldiers had themselves revealed that they were told, as part of a new military policy, to regard their own lives as more important than that of civilians. An Israeli cabinet minister had actually said that Israeli soldiers “went wild” in Gaza.

It wasn’t about “intent”. It was about the mass killing of civilians with the use of tactics which would lead – inevitably and irrevocably — to a bloodbath.

Friends of Goldstone told me later that he had been “painfully” pressured by both Israel and members of his own family to recant, and was in a state of great personal distress. There was talk of how much Goldstone was influenced by Israel’s inquiry into the behaviour of its own soldiers – one of whom, it turned out rather bizarrely, had been charged with stealing a credit card in Gaza.

I was by now researching for my forthcoming book on the Middle East and wrote to Goldstone, asking if he would tell me just what happened to him in the months following his report. He replied in a message that was both kind and courteous, noting that he had read my columns with “much admiration” over many years, but adding that he had refused all interview requests on his Gaza report and that this remained his policy. It would be “invidious”, he said, to make an exception. Well, he did make an exception for Daniel Terris – and rightly so. For the Goldstone tragedy deserves an entire book, not the two chapters by Fisk which he will receive in my own work. The problem is that Terris himself finds it difficult to give Goldstone the golden mea culpa which his subject would probably have liked.

“By stepping back from the more far-reaching conclusions of the mission,” Terris writes, “he revived the opportunity to consider the laws of war in all the complexity and nuance that they demanded.” The Goldstone report “brought to the fore the challenging questions about how best to protect civilian lives in the complex circumstances of asymmetric warfare”.

There is more of this guff. I doubt if Wa’el al-Simouni found anything very complex or “asymmetric” in the slaughter of his family. And the Nuremberg judges didn’t need to spend their time waffling on about the complexity and “nuances” of the laws of war.

In reality, Goldstone was harassed by the Jewish community in South Africa. He was to have been effectively barred from his grandson’s bar mitzvah, a prohibition later rescinded. He was dropped from the board of governors of the Hebrew University. And his family – especially his daughter Nicole, who is described in Terris’s book as “an ardent Zionist” – found themselves shunned too. “Nicky’s emotions sometimes got the better of her, and on more than one occasion she had erupted at one or the other of her parents,” Terris writes.

Along with accusations that he had acted like a Nazi collaborator in excoriating the Jews of Israel, an Israeli press campaign began, based on evidence that in his native South Africa, Judge Goldstone, who had done his best to shield coloured and black citizens from the worst rigours of apartheid laws, had nonetheless supported death sentences against black defendants. He was called a “hanging judge”. Terris does not quite clear up these events, save for a comforting suggestion that the sentences were not carried out. Certainly Goldstone had not referred to these death sentences in press interviews or in publicity material prior to his appointment in The Hague or his position as leader of the Gaza report.

I still feel very sorry for Goldstone. I think he was – and remains – a fine and good man. But I feel a lot sorrier for the Palestinian civilians who suffered so cruelly from the shells, rockets and bullets of the Israelis. For all his later “distress”, they endured far more than Goldstone.

Public purgatory is one thing. Hell quite another. They trusted the gentle, thoughtful, legalistic and honourable man who came to Gaza to give them justice. And after giving them justice, Goldstone then took that justice away from them. Even the Obama government tried, in its lickspittle way, to bury the Goldstone report. Outrageously, so did Mahmoud Abbas’s so-called Palestinian “Authority”.

The Palestinians have so often been betrayed. And now by Goldstone as well. That is indeed a tragedy. His biographer now concludes that as a judge “who understood the imperfections of the law”, Goldstone “charted a course for the future of justice”. Not for the Palestinians, he didn’t.

Categories: News for progressives

Surprise Ruling Opens New Avenue for Mumia to Win New Trial on his Murder Conviction

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:55

In a surprise order signed Dec. 27, a Philadelphia Common Pleas supervising judge has offered a new chance for Mumia Abu-Jamal to challenge his 1982 conviction for the murder of white Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner.

Specifically, Judge Leon Tucker has ordered the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to reconsider four Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA) hearings and petitions for hearings in the Abu-Jamal case that the state’s high court had rejected over the years.

The world-famous prisoner, journalist and political activist Abu-Jamal, better known to both his supporters and his enemies as Mumia, has spent 37 years in jail, most of that time in solitary confinement and on death row. His death sentence was initially vacated on constitutional grounds by Federal District Court Judge William Yohn in December, 2001 but at the insistence of the Philadelphia DA’s office, he remained held on death row until that office’s appeals were exhausted a decade later by the decision of an appellate court.

Barring a pardon, which in Pennsylvania is not remotely likely, particularly in this politically fraught case, the only way for Abu-Jamal to get out of prison at this point is for him to have his conviction overturned and a new trial ordered. This is what PCRA hearings seek to do by presenting new evidence of innocence or by challenging trial errors, witness recantations or prosecutorial misconduct in the original trial.

After two years of a bitterly contested hearing, Judge Tucker ruled that the four PCRAs in question had all been improperly rejected by a state Supreme Court that since 1994 included, and that between 2008 and 2014 was headed by Justice Ronald Castille. Castille from 1986 to 1991 had been Philadelphia’s district attorney, a position that had him overseeing the Commonwealth’s legal response to the appeal efforts of Abu-Jamal, unarguably the politically hottest case facing the DA’s appellate legal team. Judge Tucker ruled that because of those years as DA, Justice Castille should have recused himself from considering those PCRA requests. Because he refused to do so — joining the court majority in rejecting all four of the requests including three that never even got a hearing or heard witness testimony —now the defense gets to resubmit them all to a high court that no longer includes the ethically challenged Castille.

As Tucker wrote in his 37-page decision signed on Dec. 27:

“…the claim of bias, prejudice, and the refusal of former Justice Castille to recuse himself from Petitioner’s PCRA appeals is worthy of consideration as true justice must be completely just without even a hint of partiality, lack of integrity or impropriety. Regardless of the underlying guilty verdict of the first degree murder charge, and regardless if the tribunal was trial or appellate, Petitioner is entitled to an unbiased tribunal, without even the appearance of impropriety.”

Judge Tucker, in his order, was particularly critical of several memos by then-DA Castille that an intense search by current DA Larry Krasner concluded were mysteriously missing from the Abu-Jamal case file in the DA’s office. The existence of those memos is proven because memos referring to them were found in the DA’s files.

Judge Tucker wrote:

“This court finds that the Commonwealth had a duty to preserve the memo by Mr. Castille to Ms. Barthold. The Commonwealth argues that there was no duty to preserve the memo. However, the Commonwealth has been involved in post-conviction death penalty case litigation regarding his particular case since 1983. Therefore, the Commonwealth knew or should have known that litigation in this death ase matter was likely and preservation of all documents relating to this case should be preserved. It is ironic that the Commonwealth accepts no responsibility for the preservation of the memo request from Mr. Castille yet has been able to retain the responsive document from Ms. Barthold that the memo request from Mr. Castille was attached to. Likewise, this court finds that it was foreseeable that the misplacement of the death penalty case documents could be prejudicial to the Petitioner.”

A stiff rebuke of the former Chief Justice, the Tucker order for a reconsideration of the four rejected PCRAs also represents a huge turning point in how Pennsylvania courts have handled Abu-Jamal’s tortuous and tortured journey through the state’s corrupt legal system.

His case, from the moment he was arrested, when police left him cuffed and unattended for ovr half an hour in a police van, bleeding internally from a chest wound in which a police bullet critically pierced his lung and liver, has been plagued by official abuse, bias and corruption. This includes prosecution witnesses who were coached to lie and a high-profile murder trial in which the presiding judge was heard to say, following a day of jury selection, “…yeah, and I’m going to help them fry the nigger.” This outrage was followed by an appeals process that featured a governor, Republican Tom Ridge, secretly obtaining privileged communications between the incarcerated Abu-Jamal and his attorneys. These communications, forwarded by the governor to the Philadelphia DA’s office, tipped prosecutors off to the timing of a defense appeal. Abu-Jamal also had several avenues of appeal of his conviction and sentence that were made available to other death row prisoners declared inapplicable in his case (a pattern of selective application of precedent that my colleague, journalist Linn Washington, has condemned as “the Mumia exception”). Police, in uniform and on the public payroll, have routinely been permitted to pack court hearings during Abu-Jamal’s appeals, including in the latest case in Judge Tucker’s courtroom, inevitably putting pressure on judges who have to face re-election and who know the political power of the Fraternal Order of Police in Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania in those races.

That said, or perhaps feeling that pressure, while Judge Tucker did give Abu-Jamal another shot at having his PCRAs more fairly considered by a state court, he also put limitations on those re-hearings he ordered. He said that they cannot be “re-briefed,” but must be reconsidered based only on resubmissions of the original briefs written by Abu-Jamal’s various attorneys during that period: Leonard Weinglass (now deceased) and Daniel Williams, Eliot Grossman and Marlene Kamish (the latter also deceased), and the current legal team of Widener University Law School Prof. Judith Ritter and NAACP Legal Defense Fund Director Sam Spital.

Ritter says that Abu-Jamal’s defense team can challenge that restriction and seek an opportunity to update the briefs, but there is no guarantee that would be allowed.

Ritter adds that there is no guarantee that the new state Supreme Court will even review the four PCRA requests at all. As she explains, “It’s only death penalty cases that go automatically to the State Supreme Court for consideration. And since Abu-Jamal is no longer on death row, the Supreme Court could say the PCRA petitions should be decided by a Superior Court judge” — a lower tier of the state court system.

Ritter says Abu-Jamal will argue, however, that since the four PCRA petitions denied by the Castille Supreme Court were filed while he was still facing execution, they should be treated the way they should have been when initially filed, and be considered anew directly by the state’s Supreme Court.

It remains to be seen what aspects of his four earlier rejected PCRAs Abu-Jamal will be able to appeal. The rejected PCRA filed by attorneys Weinglass and Williams addressed a number of critical issues including the integrity of prosecution witnesses, the intimidation of defense witnesses, withheld evidence and the improper removal of qualified potential black jury panelists. Any one of these issues, as well as others that were raised in 1995, if upheld, could open the door to a new trial for Abu-Jamal. The same goes for issues raised in the other PCRAs that never got a hearing.

Ritter says Tucker’s order strictly limits any reviews of old PCRA petitions to the issues raised in the initial improperly rejected briefs. New issues, she says, cannot be raised at any of those re-hearings.

Still, while it may be a long-shot, a reconsideration of the four PCRA hearings tarnished by Chief Justice Castille’s unwillingness to recuse himself from considering and voting on them, does offer a chance for a new Supreme Court panel of judges to weigh the issues raised, and potentially to find something that sufficiently changes the evidence in the case or exposes a procedural flaw of such consequence that a new trial might be required.

There is even the possibility that, if the current Pennsylvania Supreme Court were to reject all four of the reconsidered PRCA requests, the defense could file a habeas corpus petition and obtain a new hearing in federal district court, where political pressures from groups like the Fraternal Order of Police would be less significant because federal judges, unlike Pennsylvania’s state judges, serve lifetime appointments.

Categories: News for progressives

Migration, Injustice and the Horrific Irony of It All

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:55

When Jimmy Gomez, U.S. Congressman, accompanied a group of recently arrived migrants to the U.S. border in San Isidro, he got a revealing, first hand glimpse of ICE policy.  The group went to the border to inquire as to how they could apply for asylum. They were no sooner at the border when, in the Congressman’s words, they were “corralled” by armed ICE agents, who literally built a cage around them and forced them to remain, and eventually sleep on the cold ground right at the border.

While Gomez and the other U.S. citizens were told by ICE they could leave, they decided to stay with the group of immigrants which was a majority children, to protect them with their presence. While they were huddled in ICE’s makeshift prison, ICE agents harassed them and a few “hurled verbal abuse about ‘vile’ migrants who are ‘criminals’, ‘bringing disease.’”  The “criminal” charge has become the standard Trump line of agitation to rile his white supremacist, fascist adorers. The charge of bringing disease is particularly hypocritical and revolting, given that within the past few weeks, many otherwise healthy children —  who successfully endured a long and difficult journey — have taken ill, and even died, while in the custody of these border protectors!

Two children, Jakelin Caal, seven and Felipe Gomez, eight, likely died as a direct result of CBP and ICE “care”.  There are indications that Jakelin may have died of contaminated water at an ICE facility in New Mexico, water that agents themselves refused to drink. Felipe likely sickened due to the callous abuse that nearly all migrants who surrender themselves to ICE at the border are subject to.  It has become routine to throw migrant families – mothers, fathers and children – into “hieleras”, cold rooms with cement floors, with no more protection from the purposely air conditioned cold than thin mylar sheets. While in custody they are fed a diet of frozen bean burritos.  In these conditions migrants are kept for days, without access to showers.  When they’re released, as they have been in El Paso and other areas, the children are often sick with the flu, strep throat and pneumonia, or (when lucky) only colds and sore throats.

When confronted with criticism over the death of these children Homeland Security head Kirstjen Nielson complained that DHS has been overwhelmed by the number of migrants that have come to the border in the past month. This is hardly credible for agencies – CPB, ICE and Border Patrol — which have a combined annual budget of more than $24 billion!  Nielson and other ICE spokespeople never mention the purposeful and systematic abuse by ICE of those in their custody.  Nor does their rationale explain how refugee shelters on the border, also confronted with a sudden, dramatic increase in immigrants, have managed, overnight, with volunteers from the community and around the country, to serve these same immigrants in these same large numbers without access to the vast resources of the “wealthiest and most powerful” government on the planet!  No child has died in the care of these emergency shelters set up in churches, community centers and motels.  In addition to providing warm healthy food, warm places to sleep, adequate hygiene, clothing and conscientious medical help, the shelters have also facilitated the travel for many thousands of migrants to cities around the country.

Unlike ICE, which has callously left hundreds of immigrants stranded at El Paso bus depots, for example, the shelters have provided guides who accompany new immigrants to bus depots and airports to help in making travel connections for people completely new to the country and unfamiliar with the language. The shelters provide travel food, blankets and other things for their journeys.   All of this from the good will of people motivated by a moral commitment to other human beings, but also, by outrage at the shabby and overtly hateful actions of ICE.

According to the NY Times 2,100 migrants are now appearing at the Mexico – U.S. border every day, 60% of them in families. More than 25,000 migrant families have come in the past month. This wave is different from past migrations which have generally been mainly single men from Mexico.  This change in geography and demographics is significant, but the fact of migration to the U.S. from south of the border is not new.  There is a consistent historical fact that the migration north has paralleled the flow of wealth in the same direction.  Mexico, Central and South America have, historically, been areas of exploitation by U.S. economic interests and victims of vast interference in their country’s internal affairs by government agencies of the U.S. — for the purpose of geo-political and economic advantage. The result has been a freakish and insane polarization of wealth — stupendous affluence accumulating among a small number of corporations and individuals at the U.S. end of the spectrum and horrific poverty and misery among millions at the other.

At the same time, U.S. border and immigration policy is shaped to serve that arrangement in the most advantageous way for U.S. imperial interests.  The impoverishment and accompanying violence that drives Mexicans and Central Americans north, also provides a large pool of cheap, vulnerable labor for low wage jobs in the U.S., or in U.S. owned maquiladora factories on the U.S.- Mexico border, U.S. controlled agricultural zones in Mexico and special industrial zones in Central America.   Essential industries in the U.S. like agriculture, construction and service survive and thrive on the influx of low wage labor.  U.S. border policy, even amid an overheated rhetoric about “national sovereignty”, and xenophobic rage over demographic shifts, largely serves to facilitate this arrangement.

And, it needs to be mentioned, that both major political parties, Democrats and Republican, have been equally involved over the years in shaping the immigration policies of mass detention, deportation and border walls that have directly lead to the deaths of thousands of immigrants.  The policies of plunder such as CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement), that have lead to so much misery and desperation, especially among farmers in Central America, have been consistently bi-partisan.

In an increasingly more complex world, border policy has become more contentious, but the same essential factors are at work today as they were nearly 80 years ago when hundreds of thousands of bracero workers from Mexico came north to help feed the U.S. at a time of war and in the post war era (1942 to 1964).  U.S. policy on its southern border has been largely about regulating the flow of highly exploitable labor that has been a significant factor in the rise of the U.S. as a major economic and political power.

Some of the conditions that have driven this recent wave of immigrants from Honduras and Guatemala have received notice in the press – especially the gang violence.  Less discussed, if not completely missing, are the historical and present day factors that create and perpetuate the violence, especially the extreme economic hardships resulting directly from foreign plunder and meddling.

Another relevant factor is the damage to Central American agriculture as a result of global climate changes. Deadly droughts, hurricanes, flood and mudslides have wreaked havoc in this vulnerable region, and provoked the desperate flight of migrants.

Less clear are the factors up north that also influence this surge of migration.  The expansion of job opportunities, the need for workers in such industries as agriculture and the service sector serves as a magnet. An aging population that requires greater services is also a stimulant.   And, this might well include the recruitment of low-wage workers in areas hard hit by the effects of global climate change, hurricane struck areas in the U.S. southeast, for example.   Climate-created destruction at one end of the migratory path serving to assist repair to climate-created destruction at the other end  — climate refugees in Central America forced to leave their homes and communities coming north to assist in repairing damage to climate created destruction in the U.S.    Could there be a more compelling illustration of the staggering inequality and injustice of this system?

Bruce Neuburger is a retired teacher and author of the book Lettuce Wars.

Categories: News for progressives

The Biden Band-Aid: Will Democrats Contain the Insurgency?

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:55

The 2020 election horse race is beginning to take shape.  Unless something unexpected happens (e.g., impeachment, resignation), Trump will likely seek reelection as the Republican candidate.   A number of independents will seek third-party (e.g., Greens, Socialists) candidacy.  And then there are the Democrats.

Numerous Democratic politicos are beginning to cluster behind the starting gate considering a primary run for the 2020 presidential nomination.  The UK’s Independent lists 40 possible candidates that fall into four broad categories – former elected officials, current Senators and Congress-persons, celebrities and billionaires.  Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has announced her plans to explore a candidacy.  However, the paper, like other media outlets, identifies Joe Biden as the current front runner.  “The former two-term vice president consistently receives a majority of support among Democratic voters to run in 2020 against any other potential candidates in recent polling,” it reports.

Liberal outlets like Vanity Fair and The Atlantic are touting Biden’s candidacy.  Vanity Fair sputters, “Is Biden progressive? Absolutely. Gaffe-prone? Duh. But he is the antithesis of Trump, with the added benefit that he’s been vetted before, and passed muster.”  And The Atlantic reflects, “These are odd times for Biden. He gets dismissed as too old, or he gets held up as the only adult who can actually come in to lead the Democrats to beat Trump in 2020. He is to many in his party the perfect answer to how to win back the white working-class voters that he helped bring in for Barack Obama, but to others he’s a relic of a Democratic Party of the past.”

The National Review, a voice of Republican but anti-Trump conservatives, has joined the Biden bandwagon.  It notes that with “36 years in the Senate, eight more as vice president — [he] has an ability to appeal to parts of Trump’s base.”  It goes on to pinpoint Biden’s apparent appeal to Trump supporters and other Republicans:

Biden is one of the few Democrats with credibility among the white working-class voters who abandoned the Democrats to elect Trump in 2016. Like Trump’s, his predilection for bluster endears him to these voters, even as it horrifies high-minded coastal elites. … Americans — or at least the rock solid 35–45 percent of the electorate that supports President Trump — don’t seem to care that their standard-bearer isn’t always faithful to the truth so long as he is skewering the people that they despise.

Numerous early-bird opinion polls indicate that Biden not only leads the Democratic pack but could likely defeat Trump in a 2020 match-up.  A December 24th The Hill-HarrisX poll reports “Biden leading Trump, 42 percent to 36 percent”; it also finds Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) beating the incumbent president 38 to 37 percent, but that Trump would defeat Rep. Beto O’Rourke(D-TX) 30 to 37 percent.

According to CNN, the Des Moines Register and Mediacom poll found that 32 percent of likely Democratic-Party caucus-goers claim Biden as their first choice. It reports Biden had the highest favorability rating among likely Democratic caucus-goers at 82 percent.  The rating for other prominent Democrats was: Sanders, 19 percent; O’Rourke, 11 percent; Warren, 8 percent; Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), 5 percent.

Politico published the most revealing Biden promotional piece. Juleanna Glover, a long-term Republican operative and Biden-apparatchik (i.e., she is a member of the Biden Institute Policy Advisory Board), proposes that Biden not only run do so as a third-party candidate but team up with a moderate Republican like Mitt Romney (new elected Utah Senator), Sen. Ben Sasse (NB) or outgoing Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

Glover repeats many of the National Review’s platitudes: “[Biden] appeals to the kind of working-class voters Democrats have been bleeding to Republicans over the years. Most important, he could make a good president, and not just because he has a deep mix of domestic and foreign policy experience; he also has the character for the job.”

She adds one further suggestion to her pitch – a Biden-led third-party ticket should pledge to serve only one term in office.  “It decouples a president from the demands of reelection politics while simultaneously easing concerns about age—Biden would be 78 on inauguration day.”  She notes, “It also ensures governance unpolluted by campaign finance concerns and narrow special interests inherent to maintain a winning coalition.”

Glover dismisses previous third-party campaigns like that of Jill Stein and Ralph Nader of the Green Party or Ross Perot as coming “from the lunatic fringes.”  But with a Biden campaign, a “trans-party” third-party “presidency would be genuinely disruptive.”

In all likelihood the Democratic establishment will seek a “safe” candidate like Biden, one who would not challenge political conventions like a “democratic socialist” or be an African-American, an Hispanic or another woman.  Biden is the perfect band-aid candidate, one well-tested in compromise or “bi-partisan” politics.  Best case, a Biden candidacy and possible victory over Trump in 2020 could also lead to a further increase of Democrats in the House and possibly the defeat of many Senate Republicans.

The unasked question is simple: Is that all Americans can ask for? Sadly, Biden is an older, 21st century version of Bill Clinton.  Does nothing ever change in American politics?

In 1990, Biden opposed the Gulf War but in 1998 switched positions and supported the Iraq invasion, calling Saddam Hussein a national-security threat.  More troubling, he’s been a long-term backer of bank deregulation and – like Clinton and Obama — close to Wall Street financiers. He helped secure the passage of the “new Jim Crow” legislation, Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, that Clinton signed. And in 2001 he backed the USA PATRIOT Act – i.e., Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act – that institutionalized the national security state.  Biden is an old-hand playing the political card he’s dealt.

Perhaps most important, Biden’s run – and possible victory — can help the Democratic Party establishment contain the grassroots insurgency that spouted in the mid-term 2018 elections.  Some of these insurgents include the democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Native American Deb Haaland (NM) and Sharice Davids (KS, and a lesbian), Veronica Escobar and Sylvia Garcia (TX, state’s first two Latina congresswomen), African Americans Ayanna Pressley (MA), Jahana Hayes (CT) and Lauren Underwood (IL).  Others, with even bolder visions, will likely emerge during the 2020 campaign.

The U.S. is in the midst of a great restructuring, with globalization superseding the American Century, inequality replacing the American Dream.  Trump and his supporters know this and invoked a renewed call for white-skin privilege – i.e., make America great again – to deny the inevitable. One of the lessons of the 2018 midterm election was that Trump’s false policies of 2016 are not working, and more and more people, including among his supports, know it.

Unfortunately, Biden and the establishment Democrats are unlikely to admit to the fundamental structural changes remaking the country – or propose meaningful policies to address them. Sadly, Biden, like Hillary Clinton before him, will offer only band-aids to stop the bleeding of the symptoms and not deal with the deeper cancers sickening the nation.

Categories: News for progressives

Elizabeth Warren Pierces Through Rhetoric on Economy, Muddles on Foreign Policy

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:55

In her New Year’s Eve announcement forming an exploratory committee for the presidency, Sen. Elizabeth Warren made a great point: “Right now, Washington works great for the wealthy and the well-connected. It’s just not working for anyone else.”

In case you missed that, she pointedly did not say “the economy isn’t working well” or such, as we’ve all heard numerous politicos say countless times.

She rather said the opposite of that — repeatedly: “The way I see it right now, Washington works great for giant drug companies, but just not for people who are trying to get a prescription filled. Washington works great for for-profit colleges and student loan outfits, but not for young people who are getting crushed by student loan debt. And you could keep going through the list. The problem we have got right now in Washington is that it works great for those who’ve got money to buy influence.”

And in case anyone at all missed the point, she said it yet again: “We want a government that works not just for the rich and the powerful. We want a government that works for everyone.”

It’s laudatory that Warren is using her perch and analytical skills to avoid a common rhetorical trap and is articulating the truism that the political establishment largely does the bidding of the wealthy and connected when it comes to the economy.

The problem is that she doesn’t articulate that in the same manner when it comes to bloody wars. Quite the contrary. That is, she says that she goes down a list — drug companies, for-profit colleges and student loan outfits — but that list doesn’t seem to include those who have an interest in continuing horrific wars.

When asked on Wednesday night by Rachel Maddow about Trump’s recent announcement on Syria, Warren said the U.S.’s wars are “not working”.

She didn’t say: “The wars are working great for military contractors, just not for regular people in the U.S. or Syria or anywhere else.”

Warren — who is on the Senate Armed Services Committee — did not say: “The wars are are great for the wealthy profiting off of them, they’re just terrible for the people getting killed in them.”

Instead, Warren actually swallowed some of the rhetoric about U.S. wars having as their alleged goals stability or humanitarianism or security. The profits of military contractors or geopolitical elites are thus not examined.

She said it was “right” to pull U.S. troops out of Syria and Afghanistan, an arguably positive position, but added: “It is not working and pretending that somehow, in the future, it is going to work…it’s a form of fantasy that we simply can’t afford to continue to engage in.”

But part of the fantasy is ignoring that the wars are indeed working great for some. Indeed, if Warren heard someone else say that “it is not working” about the economy, she’d likely correct them.

Warren did at least raise the question of what “success” in the perpetual wars might be, which is certainly better than most of official Washington: the advocates of perpetual war “need to explain what they think winning in those wars look like and where the metrics are.”

But, like most of the U.S. political establishment, Warren doesn’t actually scrutinize the underlying motives: “When you withdraw, you got to withdraw as part of a plan, you got to know what you’re trying to accomplish throughout the Middle East and the pieces need to be coordinated,” Warren said, adding, “this is why we need allies.”

What allies? France, Britain and Turkey — the traditional colonial power in the region? Or the ever aggressive, oppressive Israel? Or the tyrannical Saudi Arabia?

And that’s rather the point — U.S. foreign policy appears as a muddle, without clearly stating what is supposed to be accomplished, because its stated goals obscure actual goals.

The idea that the U.S. establishment gets the country into wars for ulterior financial or geopolitical reasons should be regarded as banal. Instead, it’s barely articulated at all.

Most obviously, the military contractors benefit from wars.

Indeed, the power of the euphemistically called “defense sector” would seem to be substantially larger than the drug companies Warren focuses on. According to, the top five military contractors — Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and Raytheon — more than doubled the top five companies in the pharmaceutical manufacturing sector ($14.4 million vs. $7.7 million) in their outlays to politicos. For more, see the writings of William Hartung, such as “Corporate Patriots or War Profiteers?

Even more critically, the U.S. establishment’s geopolitical aims frequently thrive on war. Dahlia Wasfi argued in 2015 in “Battling ISIS: Iran-Iraq war redux” that “Obama’s unofficial strategy to fight ISIS may be that of Reagan’s for Iran and Iraq in the 1980s: a long, drawn-out war to strengthen U.S.-Israeli hegemony in the region.” Also, see Robert Naiman’s “WikiLeaks Reveals How the U.S. Aggressively Pursued Regime Change in Syria, Igniting a Bloodbath” and my own “Is U.S. Policy to Prolong the Syrian War?

In 2015, Sen. Bernie Sanders was actually calling for more Saudi intervention in the Mideast. Said Sanders: The Saudis have “got to get their hands dirty.” He was criticized for this by Margaret KimberleyDavid Swanson and myself.

Now, Sanders has taken the lead in Congress in criticizing the Saudi war in Yemen, opening the door to some alleviation of massive suffering. I wish he would be much better still on foreign policy, but this may be serious progress, though the ACLU has criticized the congressional resolution.

It’s imperative to criticize presumable progressive politicians and parse their words carefully. It might open the door to actual improvements in policy, as in the case of Sanders. And in the case of Elizabeth Warren, it’s simply asking her to cease obscuring war as she clarifies economic issues.


Categories: News for progressives

Will Bernie Sanders Will Be Our President in 2020?

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:53

The 2016 Presidential election had two starkly different primaries. Inspired by hatred of Barack Obama, every Republican, big hands and small, came out to run. The 17 candidates in the field were all, at least relatively speaking, establishment candidates, save one Donald J. Trump. We now know, and we should have seen then, that Donald Trump was quite establishment, if not the most establishment candidate in the race. Elections are won on perception though, and everything about this shiny old orange toy seemed different.

If you liked the old guard your vote was split between many establishment candidates. There were a few Trump lite candidates (Carly Florina and Ben Carson), but Trump stood pretty much alone. The Republican establishment never wanted Trump to get elected, but he was hard to stop simply because he was the clear favorite. The establishment Republicans split their own vote. If the only two real candidates in the race were say, Marco Rubio and Trump, Trump may have lost.

Such was the case for the rigged 2016 Democratic primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The Democrats didn’t hate Obama, they wanted someone to succeed him. And while I am convinced the Obamas never liked the racist bully Clinton machine, the neoliberal mold was much the same. The agreement within the party was to let Hillary win. So no one who mattered bothered running. And everyone who mattered endorsed Hillary. Bernie Sanders didn’t matter much, but he, one of the few politicians in Washington who could see the disastrous implications of Obama style mediocrity, decided to run anyways.

Bernie Sanders soon became much more popular than Hillary Clinton because his politics benefitted the majority of the American public. Bernie was a very refreshing political figure. He spoke out explicitly against poverty. He wanted health care for all Americans. He offered all Americans a living wage and a chance to go to college for free. Bernie was not so much radical as he was radically sane. The people just loved him.

No one liked Hillary Clinton. Partly because she was a woman and partly because she was a nasty person. Thus when Trump called Hillary a “nasty woman” he could stumble into truth, not so much because he knew what nasty was, but because he didn’t like women. Regardless of the reasons, Hillary was disliked by everyone. She only won the primary for two reasons: 1. Because the party rigged it for her. 2. This was only a two horse race.

Now, we know the Democrats always rig their primaries. They don’t count mail-in ballots that are primarily from independents and poor people, they bar independents from voting in some states, they repress the votes of young people and people of color, they have a rigged delegate system, and they have a biased corporate media that really is propaganda. They could rig it against Bernie last time because Hillary could keep it close against him even if the rules were fair. 2016 was a two horse race and Bernie was universally unknown, starting the polls at about the 1% he despised.

Now, Bernie is known and is easily the most popular politician in America. I don’t think anyone likes even a single other politician in America. Indeed, if someone polled me I would say yes, I like Bernie, and no I don’t like X, Y, or Z. Bernie will be in the lead this primary season, and it won’t even be close. On top of Bernie’s new head start, he will have many Hillarys (perhaps even the Queen herself) running tone deaf campaigns in the Democratic Primary. They will split the establishment vote, leaving Bernie with a large lead.

Seeing that there is only about half a progressive in Washington, the establishment literally cannot water down Bernie’s base with other progressive candidates. They have no one to use! Maybe they wish they had kept a progressive or two around, but it is unlikely they see that far ahead. The neoliberal Democrats of all stripes will be using Trump as an opportunity for their own political gain. And the American public will hate all of them, for good reason. Every single one will present a wishy-washy emotionally charged Trump whining session that don’t relate to the daily lives of working people in America.

Meanwhile, Bernie, as he always does, will remain focused on the issues. He will speak about inequality, about funding for schools and roads, he will speak about regulations that will protect workers and the environment, he will speak about education for everyone, he will speak about the trade deals that are tearing this country apart.

And he will provide specifics. Bernie will, unlike the rest of the Democrats, have a plan for America. He will make promises he can keep because he is not indebted to corporate interests. He can have policy that makes sense for the working class because his campaign will be funded by the working class. And if Bernie is undermined again, the working class will be mad, even if this is missed by the talking heads of corporate media.

Now, of course dear reader, I agree with you, Bernie is an imperialist pig! (To quote Glen Ford). I try not to say that at a farmer’s door in Iowa, but we are in good company here on this publication, so we can all admit Bernie leaves a lot to be desired.

If Bernie wins, America will not have a peace President or even a socialist President. But 2020 is too unique an opportunity to boycott the project of electing Bernie. The Democrats hold no legitimacy other than not being Donald Trump (not the first thing I put on my resume, but true nonetheless). Bernie will emerge as the people’s candidate, capable of beating Trump handily. If the Democrats sabotage Sanders, they will be openly saying they don’t mind a Donald Trump Presidency. We all know the Democrats are the same as Trump, but when they must admit it they will lose legitimacy.

I see only two scenarios in 2020. Either the Democrats have to give Sanders the nomination and he beats Trump. Or, the Democrats have to sabotage Sanders, the voters bail on the party, Trump wins again, and the Democrats are revealed for who they really are. Either one is a step forward, but for their sake as well as our own, let’s hope the Democrats nominate Bernie Sanders, or they, and many more dying species under the Trump administration, will be extinct.

Categories: News for progressives

A Tale of Two Toilets: Profiting from Necessity?

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:52

Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities famously opens with the lines “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…” Reflecting extremes in wealth and well-being, a number of current publications mirror Dickens: Andrew Levine’s “A Tale of Two Cities,” Mike Davis’ “A Tale of Two Wildfires”, James McAuley  “A Tale of Two Killings” Juan Gonzalez’ Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America’s Tale of Two Cities (Juan Gonzalez). Nowhere is “a tale of two” more fitting than the world of toilets. Indoor plumbing arrived in the U.S. in the 1840s, Dr. John Snow’s treatise on sewage-contaminated water causing cholera came out in 1855, and A Tale of Two Cities was published in 1859. The current global toilet situation cannot be attributed to lack of knowledge, technology, or resources.

Yet toilets and sanitation remain a global crisis with multiple causes. It is a known and well-documented problem; Mike Davis, in his 2007 book Planet of Slums, has a section “Living in Shit” in which he quotes Frederick Engels: “over two hundred people shared a single privy” in Manchester. In 2007, ten million people in Kinshasa had no waterborne sewage system, and there were only ten working pit latrines in Kibera for 40,000 people by the end of the 20th century. War and militarization also destroy sanitation infrastructure. In Gaza, Baghdad, Fallujah, Sana’a, power supply is the first thing bombed, wiping out water treatment and sanitation. The Yemen and Haiti cholera epidemics are directly attributable to the military presence. For at least a decade, official agencies have repeatedly warned that Gaza is unlivable because of contaminated water and lethal sewage spills which have caused death.

In 2013, the UN General Assembly designated November 19 as World Toilet Day. On October 1, 2018, the World Health Organization launched its first (!) global guidelines on sanitation and health. At present, the U.N. puts the number of people living without household toilets at 4.5 billion. Open defecation leaves women particularly vulnerable to rape, and approximately 314,000 children die each year because of poor sanitation.  “The transmission of a host of diseases, including cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid and polio, is linked to dirty water and inadequately treated sewage. Poor sanitation is also a major factor in transmission of neglected tropical diseases such as intestinal worms, schistosomiasis and trachoma, as well as contributing to malnutrition,” the WHO states.
Two Toilets and Two Political Economies:

The Gates Foundation here and the small NGO Practical Action offer very different, and very telling, solutions about toilets. Practical Action prides itself on practical, feasible and ingenious ways to improve rural and urban life for impoverished people. According to their website, last year they helped nearly 620,000 people access clean water, sanitation, and waste services. “We also advocate tirelessly to demand that governments, both nationally and at city levels, include poor people in their sanitation planning and provide transparency on sanitation spending.” The website shows that ventilated pit latrines are “cheap to build, easy to understand and maintain, no running costs, maintenance is very simple, does not need water to operate, controls flies and smells….” A second type of toilet, bio-latrines, also do not need water and they produce organic manure; a disadvantage is that they are more expensive but costs can be recovered by selling organic fertilizer and methane gas. The toilet blocks can also house showers, and methane gas can be used for cooking and lighting. This practical NGO realistically states that it would be difficult to provide this second kind of latrine for every house in an area.

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge was initiated in 2011 and is now in its third phase with sixteen different research teams around the world. Gates says of himself that he never thought he would turn from a computer whiz into a “toilet geek.” He’s “committed to the task, since better toilets could help save millions of lives and open up an entirely new market.”

In the first phase, the California Institute of Technology received the $100,000 first prize for designing a solar-powered toilet that generates hydrogen and electricity. Loughborough University in the United Kingdom won the $60,000 second place prize for a toilet that produces biological charcoal, minerals, and clean water. University of Toronto won the third place prize of $40,000 for a toilet that sanitizes feces and urine and recovers resources and clean water. Special recognition and $40,000 went to Eawag (Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology). The toilets were not field-tested as both the Gates Foundation and the World Health Organization determined that they were prohibitively expensive and energy intensive. The manufacture of porcelain toilet bowls is energy intensive and requires firing at 1,203C.

The latest phase of Reinvent the Toilet Challenge was launched at the Gates Expo in November, 2018. “Companies from China (Clear, CRRC, EcoSan), the United States (Sedron Technologies), India (Eram Scientific, Ankur Scientific, Tide Technocrats), and Thailand (SCG Chemicals) announced the availability of the world’s first pathogen-killing reinvented toilets and small-scale waste treatment plants (called omni-processors), which are now ready for sale to municipal and private entities.” “This Expo showcases, for the first time, radically new, decentralized sanitation technologies and products that are business-ready,” said Bill Gates during the opening plenary of the Reinvented Toilet Expo. “It’s no longer a question of if we can reinvent the toilet and other sanitation systems. It’s a question of how quickly this new category of off-grid solutions will scale….Development finance institutions at the Expo—including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the African Development Bank—announced commitments with the potential to unlock $2.5 billion in financing for City-Wide Inclusive Sanitation projects that provide people in all parts of a city—including the poorest neighborhoods—with safely managed sanitation services.” The prize money itself could have funded thousands of Practical Action toilets.

The Gates toilet is top-down in planning and design and quite possibly energy-intensive to manufacture and distribute, while Practical Action is cooperative and communal in planning, design, and installation. The externalities of the toilets also need assessment, including materials, the resources used in their production, and all transportation costs. The Gates toilet has been in “transition” for six years while the Practical Action toilet does not require any delays or transitions and is already widely used, saving lives and preventing severe and lifelong illness. According to Forbes, the Gates Foundation, funded by capital gains, is charitable and not taxed; the federal government has “likely lost out on $15-20 billion.”

There are related tales of great concern. The basic material need for water and sanitation is for the most part neglected across the political spectrum, including the anti-war and climate communities which focus on higher level living conditions like replacement jobs and personal fulfillment. Austerity and dismantling of public services brings overwhelming hardship to the global population, especially at a time of massive displacement due to war and to climate change. The COP meetings, and the IPCC, continue to obfuscate and delay even acknowledging the dire human situation. What is most egregious is that the solutions are readily available, affordable, and easily implemented. In addition to the institutional barriers and obstructions, there is the grandiosity, narcissism, and lack of integrity among the people whose prime ostensible responsibility is fiduciary. The institutions responsible for polluting the living environment and immiserating billions of people now presume to profit from technology that makes human feces pristine: turning fecal infrastructure into gold.

Categories: News for progressives

Tribal Nationalism vs Global Unity

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:51

Change, discontent and uncertainty are some of the most prominent characteristics of the times. These interconnected terms are routinely used to describe global affairs and are key factors animating the global protest movement as well as the growing tide of nationalism: Both movements arise from the same seed, one is progressive and in harmony with the new, the other is of the past and seeks to obstruct and divide.

These are transitional times, as humanity moves out of one civilization imbued with certain ideals, values and beliefs to a new way of living based on altogether different principles; times of unease and insecurity certainly, but also times of great hope and opportunity.

If humanity is to progress and the natural environment is to survive, fundamental change in the way life is lived is essential, systemic change as well as an accelerated shift in attitudes and values. Many people throughout the world recognize this and are advocating such a shift; those in power – political and corporate – reject such demands and do all they can to maintain the status quo and perpetuate the existing unjust systems. Despite this entrenched resistance, the new cannot be held at bay for much longer: change is coming; the question is when, how and with what impact it will occur, not if.

Widespread uncertainty is in part the result of this sustained intransigence, coupled with the instability within the socio-economic systems, which are in a state of terminal decay; fuelled by the past, they are carcasses – forms without life. The pervading uncertainty is being exploited by the reactionary forces of the world; powerful forces using fear to manipulate people and drum-up what we might call tribal nationalism, as opposed to civic nationalism, in order to assert themselves, and in many countries they appear to be in the ascendency.

The current explosion of tribal nationalism or right-wing populism is a crude response to worries about immigration and national identity, coupled with genuine social injustices including economic hardship and unemployment. Throughout the world right-wing groups with protectionist economic policies and anti-immigration views continue to gain support and in some cases win power. The loudest sign of this regressive trend was the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016. His nationalistic, ‘America First’ message fuels intolerance and division and encourages national or self- interest. It casts a shadow of suspicion over foreigners, particularly those that think, live and pray differently, and it is by nature inward looking and brittle.

Strengthened by Trump’s election, far right and ultra conservative politicians in other countries have flourished. Throughout Europe right-wing and far right parties have been empowered: Prime-Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary (who has repeatedly called for an end to ‘liberal democracies’ in Europe); President Recep Erdoğan in Turkey who has attacked the media, centralized power and is pursuing a form of Islamic nationalism; the Law and Justice government in Poland; Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister; The Freedom Party in Austria; Jair Bolsonaro the newly elected President of Brazil and Prime-Minister Narendra Modi of India. And in Russia, according to a series of studies conducted by the Research Council of Norway, “nationalism has been growing since the dissolution of the Soviet Union (1990-1991), along with attempts by the regime to commandeer it.

These political parties, and others, have adopted what The Economist states is “a pessimistic view that foreign affairs are often a zero-sum game in which global interests compete with national ones. It is a big change that makes for a more dangerous world.” The Brexit vote (52% voted leave, 48% remain in the 2016 referendum) in the UK was another example of how right-wing politicians manipulated a disgruntled populous by inflaming nationalistic sentiment and intolerance. The vote to leave was in many ways a protest vote – a negative vote – largely against freedom of movement of people from Europe, i.e. against immigration. Duplicitous advocates of leaving the European Union, mainly from the Conservative and UKIP parties, used slogans like ‘taking back control’ and taking ‘our country back’ to win support for their campaign. Consistent with the response in other countries many who were won over by the nationalists agenda and voted to leave where over 60 years of age; young people (those under 30) who will feel the impact of leaving most, commonly see themselves as ‘citizens of the world’ and overwhelmingly voted to remain part of the EU.

Civic nationalism and cooperation

Tribal nationalism plays on notions of identity, encouraging allegiance to a national and in some cases racial ideal; national bonds of belonging and personal identity rooted in the nation state are fostered, and in a world in which many people, particularly older individuals, experience a fragmented sense of self and a national feeling of loss, such ideals appear comforting, offering a sense of belonging. But far from creating security this type of nationalism (like all forms of conditioned constructs) isolates and excludes, strengthening false notions of superiority and inferiority, creating an atmosphere of distrust, and establishing a climate in which fear can flourish.

Images of self, which are rooted in any form of ideology (religious, political, racial, etc.), imprison and divide, feeding intolerance and division. All of which is in opposition to the movement and tone of the time, which is towards greater levels of cooperation, tolerance and understanding of others. Within the paradigm of Tribal Nationalism ‘the other’, other nations as well as people from other nations, are seen as a threat, as rivals, and are viewed with suspicion, if not outright hostility. When outsiders are described in inflammatory terms, such as ‘murderers’, ‘rapists’ and people who ‘infest’ the pristine nation, fear and anger is facilitated, violence legitimized and a process of dehumanization of ‘the other’ set in motion. And, as history shows when this takes place unbridled atrocities are perpetuated.

Civic nationalism on the other hand brings the people of a particular nation together around common values to work for the good of the community. It encourages cooperation, tolerance and sharing and can serve as a stepping stone to global responsibility; collective action in which the skills, gifts and abilities of the individual nations of the world are used for the benefit and enrichment of all, and not just for the nation state. Conversely, tribal nationalism is tied to the old ways of competition and suspicion, it is a dangerous ideology, which is being cynically employed by right-wing politicians, who see widespread public discontent as an opportunity to manipulate the argument and gain power. It is of the past, is detrimental to human development and has no place in our world.

As any child will tell you, beyond national constructs, beyond racial and tribal identities, humanity is one, diverse but part of a single unity. We are moving into a time when this essential fact will be the guiding principle of human affairs.

Categories: News for progressives

Things Hidden from the Beginning of the World: Between Ozymandias and Gaia

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:50

Statue of Isis by Auguste Puttemans (1866–1927). The statue was given to Herbert Hoover by the people of Belgium in 1922 and was originally displayed at the Thomas Welton Stanford Art Gallery. Since 1939 it has been located at the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site in West Branch, Iowa.

The Veil of Isis is said to hide all the secrets of nature, secrets that remain forever beyond the reach of mortals. Legend has it that the words, “I am all that has been and is and shall be; and no mortal has ever lifted my veil.”are inscribed on Isis’ original statue.

These days we’re more familiar with a different veil, the one that hides the bride’s face, which is lifted in a marriage ceremony by the groom as a symbolic gesture that uncovers the reproductive, life-giving mystery found in a woman’s body. It is an ancient Jewish tradition, this marital veil.

Veil’s are enigmatic. Veils opaquely reveal mysteries by pointing beyond themselves into a hinterland that we cannot see. This is why veils must both be seen and yet transparent and this creates a presence/absence mysterious phenomena generating a desire not for the thing-itself — the veil — but for that to which it point, the unseen. This unseen phenomena towards which the veil point creates a desire in us to traverse beyond the veil.

The logic of the veil is the opposite of a magic trick. The magic trick, which according to Christopher Priest, the author of the 1995 fantasy novel, The Prestige has three acts. The first is “The Pledge” where the magician shows you some ordinary object, like a deck of cards. This ordinary object is then turned into something extraordinary, perhaps the object disappears. This is the second act called, “The Turn”. And, finally, the final act is when the object reappears and this is called, “The Prestige”. What Priest is clever in pointing out is a dual even conflicting desire that drives you to both want to know the secret and yet at the same time want to enjoy the magic that cannot be explained.

In the first place, the veil is no ordinary object, but is already both an object and non-object –it’s absence. It is both the object and “the turn” in the same moment. And the veil never reappears in the same way twice, because what it points too, beyond itself is more than a “Prestige” it is the mystery itself, which is at the same time, the desire for the unknown.

In many ways, the history of human life on Earth can be described as a quest. It is a quest or desire to want to know and discover the unknown. The birth of philosophy is like that: an act to want to know–to uncover the veil that hides the secrets of the universe from us. Religion is similar, but with one exception. Religion, like philosophy, is a quest for the unknowable, but unlike philosophy, claims to possess thesacred key that unlocks the mysterious doors of ultimate meaning once and for all. If religion claims the key that unlocks the universe’s mysteries, philosophy more modestly claims only the search itself as way into the unknown that is never fully disclosed. Recall Socrates’ claim, “I know that I do not know.”

Apart from philosophy and religion, there is of course, science, which like philosophy, figures out different ways to know the unknown and hidden truths of our existence, only again, like religion but unlike philosophy, science claims to possess thekey that uncovering truths absolutely. And so our journey unfolds whose destiny is yet unwritten.

By contract to philosophy, religion, and science, whose destinies are in some sense bound up together even if their specific paths and methods vary, there are spheres of life that are apathetic to Isis’ veil– to the search itself.

Philosophy is faithful to the veil as it seeks what’s behind the veil knowing there is never an absolute final answer, only the quest. The logic of the veil is thus not an ordinary object, but a process, a way, even a journey that never ends. Again, by contract, religion and science, in the final analysis, finally claim to know the unknown that turns the process and journey into a reified object: God for religion, the Scientific Method, for science.

Art, insofar as it uncovers and reveals mysteries, is like philosophy in that the object of art reveals something beyond itself as more than an object, that is until the art object is commodified into a thing whose value is turned from a process of unveiling into a dogmatic value (money) that enslaves the object so it can be sold like a slave on the auction-block in New York or other financial hubs around the globe. It’s similar with music and mathematics.

The lesson of the Isis’ veil, I suggest, is to remain faithful to its own logic as a infinitely unfolding process that never comes to rest in the solidification of a commodified object — God, a method, the ego, or an unquestionable dogma or guru, or worse money. And yet, it is all too easy to give into the temptation to want to seize the power contained in an authoritarian object that finally dissolves the unknown into the known. We have a name of this logic that through sheer brute power turns a mystery into an authoritarian object — in political terms it is called, fascism. Examples abound of the act of idolizing and reifying an object into an absolute dogma — political power, economic power, military power, religious power, scientific-corporate power, Wall Street are just a few easily named.

In this way, The Veil of Isis poses a direct threat to power because it’s a sign that that power, unlike the quest for knowledge and life, will invariably fade away like dust in the wind.

It is the difference between Isis and Ozymandias. The one with the veil reveals the endless, undogmatic journey of knowledge, whereas the Egyptian Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the world in 1200’s BCE, is transformed into bare sand by idolizing power as such.

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

These are the last lines in Percy Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias penned in 1818. Far from Isis’s Veil revealing the unrevealable, what it actually does is create the desire to know the unknown, and in that act of remaining committed to the process and not an absolute, intrinsically threatens power that pretends to know as the refusal of limits in the face of the all-devouring and destructive force of time (Chronus–the god of time).

The sphere of idolatrize power is the business person who refuses any limits to his money, houses, stocks and bonds, and brute material force. Milton Friedman’s summarized this power, “There is one and only one social responsibility of business — to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.” The problem with this statement is that the statement itself commits an act of fraud against the universe itself. Let me explain.

It is little wonder why the business world has pushed for “free” and “unregulated” power and that anything in the wake of brute force is deemed an enemy– the state, the law, the educated, society in general, even philosophy.

The latest manifestation of this expression of veil-less, brute power is the ideology of neoliberalism, which in fact has undermined liberal democracies “the nation-state” as a means to their strategic ends of ultimate global domination, like Ozymandias. To the neoliberal power-obsessed wealthy-class, the Nation-State is rhetorically the enemy but practically it is used as a necessary and tactical means through which all threats to it’s wealth and power are neutralized through the state itself. Of course, Chronus–the god of time, has other plans despite the unsavory efforts of plastic surgeons.

Interestingly enough, Pankaj Mishra quotes Quinn Slobodian who says, “Neoliberals are people who believe that ‘the market does not and cannot take care of itself,’ and indeed neoliberalism is a form of regulation — one that insulates the markets from vagaries of mass democracy and economic nationalism.”  In other words, neoliberals ignore Isis’ Veil to their own peril and to the destruction of life itself.

Between Ozymandias & Gaia

It was the 19th century Prussian war theorist, Carl von Clausewitz who said in his book, On War, to win a war you must fold your opponent’s will to your will and the means of winning a war must include neutralizing your enemy’s ability to resist your power.

Examined from this perspective, taxes are a means to continue resisting the power of the brutal ideology of the rich. Taxes help fund education, public infrastructure, keeping air safe to breathe, and water clean to drink. To the diehard neoliberal, all abilities to resist their power must be destroyed, taxes included. Or, to put it in terms of Steve Forbes, “The tax code is a monstrosity and there’s only one thing to do with it. Scrap it, kill it, drive a stake through its heart, bury it and hope it never rises again to terrorize the American people.”

The state has become an arm to the Franco-esq, neoliberal war machine as policy and political parties are largely controlled by powerful interest groups that represent the wealthy to the detriment of the people themselves, to the peril of life as such.  And yet, despite the roar of the neoliberal machine, we have reached the historical apex when Chronus is joined by the goddess, Gaia –the mother of all life. The Veil of Isis alights.

Since WW2 the biggest threat to humanity was fascism and nuclear weaponry and both of these threats remain so, but now, seven decades later, new and much more ominous threats have emerged including increased greenhouse effects, polluted air and water that jeopardize basic life-sustainable support. These new threats are a direct result of human activities including fossil fuel burning (oil and coal), “the decomposition of wastes in landfills, agriculture and manure management associated with domestic livestock”[1] that release Methane (CH4) which together with (C02) and (N2O) work together to create warming greenhouse effects. These effects heat our atmosphere that increasingly destabilizes the environment and ecosystems on which life is dependent. The vicious cycle accelerates exponentially overtime to the point where the planetary ecosystem will no longer be able to re-establish stabilization. This is the point of no return. It is a point in history that must be stopped or else we will all vanish.

In this way, it is not too unfair to compose the struggle of our time as the struggle over Isis’ Veil — that is, between two interpretations of her veil: Ozymandias (who ignores it altogether) and Gaia (who submits to the logic of life).

The Ozymandiasian’s reading of the Veil of Isis believes that forces must seize and solidify the object for themselves (wealth, materialism, power, ego, ideology etc.)

The Gaian reading of the Veil is that we must remain faithful and humble participants in the process of life itself so that our search for knowledge does not fall into the trap of solidifying knowledge into an absolute dogma.

Our historic life-struggle, in sum, is one between dogma (that results in violence and brutality) and life that shares in the diversity and pluralization of ideas without claiming a dogma that dominates others.

From the Nuclear to Wall Street

If the drive to create and deploying nuclear bombs was the expression of an ideology of domination, so too the driving engine for wealth creation “market fundamentalism” is the expression of an ideology of domination that threatens and neutralizes our life on Earth not to mention the foundations of social life altogether. Recall Margaret Thatcher’s famous line, “There is no such thing as society”.  Like taxes, society, is a threat to the ideology of neoliberalism because society is that which enables a resistance to the neoliberal war machine.

The reality that we can identify and characterize this threat to our life together both as its root cause as well as its destructive effects, makes it theglobal challenge of our historic epoch. It is a challenge that we mustn’t shy away from, but confront head-on with sober strategies, assemble and distribute resources, as well as deploying tactics that run the gamut from our personal daily habits to forging global alliances.

In the context of WW2’s domestic front, people’s lives were changed dramatically. Food was rationed, rubber, newspapers, steel were collected, people in many countries starved to death. Untrained factory workers, especially women, entered assembly lines en mass for the first time in history. To the degree that the nation-state has been exploited by the political and economic platform of “irrational exuberance”, framed in rhetorical terms as “trickle-down” and peddled by corporate media, the time it takes to wait and recover the nation-state in democratic terms may have already passed. What is needed in the short term is the creation of new ventures that circumvent the logic of economic fundamentalism in order to form different modes of production on the bases of which new resilient life-sustaining habits can be forms and reproducted. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t struggle to reclaim the nation-state and liberal democracy in order to arrest the virus of Wall Street greed and predatory debt-creators that only enslave us all the more. We must reclaim our democratic voices and power as a people, but given that at least in my country (USA) both major parties essentially work for the same or similar corporations within an identically perilous ideological outlook, a completely different strategy must be imagined and implemented. The Green New Deal may be one such way that seeks to reform liberal representative democracy back to its post WW2 days but there is already significant doubt about this even if it’s a worthy attempt.

And the principles that drive us into creating new and different modes of production must be focused on the implementation of life-sustaining actions that are able to repeat themselves without harming the environment, while at the same time, empowering and protecting people from the Ozymandias axis. This way must therefore be committed to hopeful futures, collaboration (P2P) and not a future in which people are put into financial enslavement (debt) on the bases of which the Nation-State (under neoliberalism) can activate it’s policing power levers against tens of millions of citizens. Additionally, this different “Gaian” strategy must be committed to searching for knowledge, healthy social interactions, and a hope that tomorrow will be better than today–it is the way of Gaia that is humbled by the Veil of Isis.

Education, An Example of a Venture: GCAS College Dublin

Education inherently poses a threat to the rulers in power, if it’s education committed to thinking and action for the betterment of our world. From the birth of western philosophy in the humble olive groves outside the city of Athens, thinking was always the gadfly to the salivating mouths of the greedy and power-trippers who refused to see Isis’ Veil.

The threat can be located in a life-stance, a worldview. To the thinker devoted to where knowledge leads, a great reserve of humility is required. The thinker–knowledge seeker, must stand under knowledge — to understand. By contract, to the ruling class, humility is considered a weakness because otherwise their power is threatened by what is unknown and thus, uncontrollable. Instead of understanding, the materialist ruler, must stand-over and not under knowledge. This act of closing off knowledge (and it’s path) is dangerous not just to society but eventually, as we are starting to see in the 21st century, to life itself.

One way to maintain power is to control knowledge acquisition, which is to say, controlling how a society is educated.  Those in power must control what it’s subjects can and cannot think, what can be done and what can’t be done. When the 1960s generation began to question the basic foundations of the USA, from the war in Vietnam, to how women and minorities were treated and how religion functioned to reproduce social inequality, this was seen as a great threat especially because much of the strength of protestors against the status quo emerged out of the university. This threat was strategically identified by the wealthy class in many ways, but one famous way was articulated as through what became known as the Lewis Powell Memo.[2]

Powell’s confidential memo was entitled “Attack on American Free Enterprise System” and it’s framed like a war strategy whose enemy is identified as the intellectual coming from the university campus, which Powell is quick to point out, is funded by US tax dollars. There are other enemies too like the preacher, the media, the literary journals, the arts and sciences profession and even politicians. In essence, this memo lays out the war-plans to not just neutralize all opposition to “free enterprise” system backed by the wealthy business-class, but to deploy and implement a full-scale coup d’etat of democracy itself. Now this may sound too radical, but if we just focus on the facts and not get distracted by rhetoric and misinformation, it’s very straightforward to demonstrate Powell’s position.

First, it’s important to point out that less than two-years after Powell’s memo was composed, the USA backed the militant, General Augusto Pinochet in illegally overthrowing a democratically elected president, Salvador Allende in Chile on 11 September, 1973. Before Allende was elected, President Nixon ordered the CIA to “make the economy scream” in Chile to “prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him.” Here is the recording of Nixon telling his press secretary Ron Ziegler to directly intervene into Chile’s democracy.

Second, the connection from Powell’s memo to the military dictatorship and the economy on which it was based, is made through Milton Friedman who is named in the memo. It was Milton Friedman (a professor at the University of Chicago whose school became known as “The Chicago Boys”) who spearheaded the neoliberal “free enterprise” agenda in Chile in the wake of the coup, as Naomi Klein points out,

“After the coup and the death of Allende, Pinochet and his Chicago Boys did their best to dismantle Chile’s public sphere, auctioning off state enterprises and slashing financial and trade regulations. Enormous wealth was created in this period but at a terrible cost: by the early 80s, Pinochet’s Friedman-prescribed policies had caused rapid de-industrialisation, a tenfold increase in unemployment and an explosion of distinctly unstable shantytowns. They also led to a crisis of corruption and debt so severe that, in 1982, Pinochet was forced to fire his key Chicago Boy advisers and nationalise several of the large deregulated financial institutions. (Sound familiar?)”[3]

In other words, this neoliberal “free enterprise” approach requires the use of a military dictatorship in order for it to be implemented. In other words, within the context of engaging with Isis’ Veil, the “free enterprise” warrior falls into the hubris trap of reifying the object by dominating life by the sheer use of brute force.

By contrast, a true form of education, resists solidifying a process into an object. This is the locus of a true education that stands under the process of life as opposed to dominating life in the name of wealth and power.

As mentioned above, the need for alternative ventures is necessary not just to resist neoliberalism– the “Ozymandiasian axis” of death, but to provide a different way to live altogether. This is precisely what The Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS) and GCAS College has done. We have created a means of education production submits to Isis’ Veil to a life giving process that is able to reproduce itself because it doesn’t operate within the logic of corporate power and domination, but rather remains open to the process of life. Moreover, GCAS College has emerged from different locations around the world (Sydney, Santiago, New York, in France, Dublin etc) in a way that allows for a network to grow together while at the same time remain local.

The main threat to the “free enterprise” strategic ideological plan, as Powell identifies, is a process that remains open to the unknown unfolding of life as such. This process is both intellectual and practical. The university system in the USA and increasingly elsewhere (in the UK, Canada and elsewhere) from the early 1980s to today, has been replaced by a mode of production dominated by a corporate “for-profit” outlook–an Ozymandiasian encounter to life. It is for this reason why thinking in education has been supplanted by vocational desires. And this is why the university has lost its most essential resource. GCAS College Dublin reclaims this resource to follow life whereever it may lead us.


[1]NASA Climate Change December 29, 2018.

[2]Powell, Lewis F. Jr., “The Memo” (1971). Powell Memorandum: Attack On American Free Enterprise System. 1.

[3]Klein, Naomi: The GuardianMarch 3, 2010: Dec 29, 2018).

Categories: News for progressives

How I Fell in Love With Greek Art

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:50

The Francois Krater: Archaeological Museum of Florence. This valuable and beautiful vase was painted by Kleitias and made by potter Ergotimos, about 570 BCE. Kleitias painted miniatures of great mythical-historical events in the life of the Greeks. Photo: Wikipedia.

I rarely paid attention to images or pictures. My focus was always the written word. My mind built the gods, heroes, and material artifacts, including temples and the Parthenon. I had to do that because the country of my birth, Greece, in the twentieth century, was largely without the statues of ancient Greek gods and heroes or the temples built to honor the gods.

Greek art in Greece and America

Certainly, Greek museums are full of ancient Greek treasures, including statues of gods and heroes. But step outside the museums and you are in a desert decorated by Christian churches built for the most part on the ruins of temples.

The first time I visited the Acropolis was when I left Greece for the United States.

My historical studies enriched my knowledge and understanding of Homer and the Greeks. I have been proud Greece is the birthplace of Western civilization.

However, my working experience at the US Environmental Protection Agency shocked me so much I began having doubts Greek influence was more than a lipstick in America.

Yes, several museums in America, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Getty Villa in California, have exquisite collections of Greek art. But what did these largely stolen goods do in shaping public opinion and forming a character befitting a civilized country?

Nevertheless, Greek art in America has had some influence in architecture and in the appreciation of the good and the beautiful. When, in 1974, I first saw the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Senate and House office buildings in Washington, DC, I had the sensation I was vising Athens in the fifth century BCE.

It took years of dealing with reality – the world as is — before that sensation, like a cloud in the bright Sun, dissipated into the chaos of America the New Rome. It also took more years for me to turn to the archaeological images of ancient Greece I came to love.


This was a process of self-education and reflection, my frequent visits of museums and archaeological sites. I kept taking  pictures. I kept admiring the pictures in art history books. I even had the audacity of reviewing the great art history books of Oxford University professor John Boardman, the foremost Greek art historian of the planet.

The Greeks, Boardman says, influenced civilizations from China to Peru. Art was the weapon of choice. Greek art” had something of the character of a virus in antiquity.”

But to appreciate why Greek art was so powerful, Boardman says, one has to understand it in Greek terms, namely understanding the society that created it.

The Greeks created art for the satisfaction of their esthetic, metaphysical, and practical needs, quite independently from Assyrian or Egyptian influences. They were obsessed with the idea of the good and the beautiful. Could something be good but not beautiful? What was the connection between the good and the beautiful? The Greeks incorporated that passion in their crafts and art.

Ceramic iconography

The potter, the humble craftsman of soil and dreams, created a tremendous variety of vases, cups, mixing bowls and storage jars for everyday use. He painted the surface of his ceramic pots, telling stories of wine and roses, ivy and grape leaves, and the god of wine, Dionysos; giving impressions about the fashionable and desirable in his society.

He drew his images from the past and his personal experience: the poetry of Homer and mythology, the athletic and religious celebrations of the Greeks, the numerous festivals, and the beauties of the natural world.

For example: In 1844, an enterprising man named Alessandro Francois discovered fragments of a large krater (vase) near Florence. This was a black-figure vase constructed in Athens at approximately 570 BCE by the potter Ergotimos and the painter Kleitias.

The beauty of the Francois Vase is that it’s like a brief illustrated history of Greece: its paintings send us to Homer, the Olympics, and myths.

One looks at the Trojan War hero Ajax carrying the body of the dead Achilles. Homer becomes alive. The greatest Greek hero, Achilles, fulfilled his wish to die young but live in the memory of men and women forever.  Or the chariot race from the Olympics flashes into the mind the intensity of the competition and the triumph of victory hovering over the lucky charioteer: the excitement of the greatest Greek spectacle and struggle of all times becomes as real as possible.

A computer of heavens and Earth

Writing my book on the Greek computer also opened the doors slightly more to the fascinating and gorgeous world of Greek art.

The computer is dated from the second century BCE. It’s a mind-boggling example of scientific technology. I had to have the images of its fragments so I would be better able to understand what that device did and why.

I started my investigation in 2007 and I am still looking for reasons of how and why the Greeks embarked on so difficult but satisfying project – the equivalent of going to the moon.

I started from the gods of science and technology: Metis, Athena and Hephaistos. They were the models of intelligence and craftsmanship.

I continued with philosophers like Thales, Anaximander, Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle; scientists and mathematicians like Euclid and Archimedes; and astronomers like Aristarchos of Samos, Hipparchos and Ptolemaios. They codified cosmological, mathematical and engineering knowledge.

At each step of this intellectual adventure I found images that glued the text in more solid foundations. Each image brought me back to the origins of Greek thought and technology.

Craftsmanship was more than technical stuff. It was a process of the good and the beautiful, all mixed up with scientific technology. It was art.

That’s how I fell in love with Greek art.

Categories: News for progressives

Happy New Year?

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:50

A new year is upon us, and this writer is pondering the national and international disasters of 2018, as well as gazing into his crystal ball to see what 2019 will bring. Although it is a bit hazy (it hasn’t been all too lucid since it predicted a disastrous Clinton presidency being elected in 2016), it does show a few things with some clarity. The new year does not portend to be a whole lot better than its predecessor.

So, what exactly do we have to look forward to? This writer will list just a few of them for the reader. He cautions the reader against getting his or her hopes up; the picture is not pretty.

Yes, the Democrats have wrested power, and now control the U.S. House of Representatives. Does this mean that the highly-moral Democrats, with only the good of the common man and woman in mind, will now save the nation from the corrupt, corporate-owned Republicans? Can we all now breath a giant sigh of relief? Is the nation’s long nightmare at an end? Do pigs fly?

Reality is a harsh concept, but, sadly, it must be dealt with. The incoming Democrats are gleeful at the prospect of harassing the nation’s presidential buffoon, Donald Trump, for the next two years. They will open investigations of his campaign activities, with all the accusations of ties to Russia; they will demand years (decades?) of his tax returns. They will interview has-been models and porn stars striving for just another moment in the sun, as they provide more detail than most people can possible bear of their illicit relations with the aforementioned buffoon.

That, of course, leaves no time to fix the tax program that Trump and his cohorts passed last year, which overwhelmingly benefits the wealthy. It won’t do anything to stop the bombs the U.S. drops throughout the Middle East, or move the nation toward some adherence to international law.

A brief and, in this writer’s view, very diplomatic comment was made by Rashida Tlaib, the first Palestinian-American member of Congress. She declared that she would vote for the aging, corporate- and Israeli-shill Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House. But, she said, she first wanted to meet with Pelosi to talk about poverty and “…the fact that it’s important to uplift the middle class.”  Tlaib said she “wanted to be able to be heard”. Then, a reporter asked if what she’d said ‘resonated’ with Pelosi, to which Tlaib showed amazing tact and diplomacy, but responding “I don’t know”.

Well, I will answer for the new Congresswoman; I can only imagine Pelosi eyes glazing over when the words ‘poverty’ and ‘middle class’ were mentioned. It’s remarkable that the Speaker-to-be even met with Tlaib, since Pelosi’s hostility towards anything Palestinian is well known. But be that as it may, this writer doesn’t need to be a mind-reader to be quite confident that Tlaib’s concern for the poor and middle class is meaningless to Pelosi.

In the current and recent Congresses, the members, on either side of the aisle, have seldom seen a war they didn’t like. Anything related to war is generally just fine, from financing Israeli genocide of the Palestinians, to selling record amounts of weaponry to Saudi Arabia, and supporting its genocide of Yemenis. Bombing numerous Middle Eastern countries and violating international laws designed to make that planet safe from catastrophic wars have all been acceptable to the illustrious officials who stroll the streets of the nation’s capital. Will this change? Will the new Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, with its unprecedented number of women and minorities, steer the ship of state in a saner direction? Well, the fact that Pelosi has been elected as Speaker of the House does not herald any cause for hope. This is the same woman who, as Speaker previously, said that the impeachment of George Bush for Iraqi-related war crimes was ‘off the table’. This is the same woman who was an enthusiastic supporter of the bizarre rules that ensured the nomination of Hillary Clinton in 2016. It looks as if, regarding war, we can all look forward to ‘same old, same old’.

Living conditions. There is absolutely nothing, Tlaib’s concerns notwithstanding, to indicate that the middle class won’t continue to shrink, as members of its ranks fall into poverty. More children, not fewer, will be hungry, because such luxury items as food stamps must be reduced; feeding the military budget is far more important to elected officials who rely on the ‘defense’ industry for campaign contributions, than feeding starving children. Do starving children have a powerful lobby? No? Then how on earth can they be expected to be attended to?

The nation’s education is still in the hands of the ditzy Besty DeVos, an extremely wealthy woman who basically bought her appointment as Secretary of Education through her family’s contributions to the Trump campaign. A year into her tenure, she blissfully proclaimed that she hadn’t visited any under-performing schools. She has been too busy trying to remove Obama-era protections for students who were swindled by for-profit colleges, and removing the need of young male college students to treat their female peers with some level of respect. The great champion of charter schools certainly has better things to do than concern herself with educating the children of the poor.

As this is being written, the U.S. government is partly shut down, since Congress will not give the petulant president $5 billion for a border wall, one of the stupidest ideas any president has ever suggested. And one of the provisions in the current budget proposal makes criticism of Israel a crime.

Has it actually come to this? The United States president is willing to shut down the government, because he can’t get funding to build a wall on the U.S. – Mexican border. And the budget being held up includes a major violation of freedom of speech that would not withstand any court test.

We see, on Trump’s side, his pandering to his base: those who fear anyone who is not white. We see on the other side, Democrat’s pandering to a powerful foreign lobby.

Is there anything holier to elected officials than being re-elected? Is there no higher good than that? The good of the people? Not if they aren’t rich. International law? Sure, if it’s not inconvenient. Human rights? Not necessary, as long as the nations in which those humans live does exactly what the U.S. wants.

While the pundits proclaim a new era of Democrats, we must recognize the old cliché: ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss’. Unless and until a third party gains sufficient strength to challenge the Republicans and Democrats, a feat that those two parties have made almost impossible, nothing will change.

Categories: News for progressives

Despite Everything, the US Troops Should Leave Syria

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:50

Donald Trump’s sudden decision to remove U.S. forces from Syria appears to have been impetuous and ill-considered — apparently a result of a conversation with Turkey’s autocratic president Recep Erdoğan. That doesn’t mean, however, that the United States should remain in that country.

It’s quite reasonable to question how and why Trump made his choice. This doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right one, however.

First of all, the presence of U.S. forces in Syria is illegal. There was never any authorization by Congress, as mandated by the U.S. constitution, to send troops there, making the frantic bipartisan calls for congressional oversight regarding the withdrawal particularly bizarre.

There’s also the matter of international law. While the brutality of the Syrian regime and the mass atrocities it has committed do raise questions regarding its legitimacy, it is nevertheless illegal for a country to send troops to another country without either the permission of that government or authorization by the United Nations.

One can make a case that the presence of foreign troops within a nation-state’s borders against the will of that country’s recognized government, and without the authorization of the UN Security Council, is nevertheless justifiable — if it is to protect the population from mass killing. There’s little to indicate that this is why U.S. forces are in Syria, however.

Lest one think that protecting civilian lives is a high priority for the United States, let’s remember that U.S. forces were responsible for many hundreds of civilian deaths in the assault on the Syrian city of Raqqa.

According to administration officials supporting the ongoing deployment of U.S. troops inside Syria, the main reason for staying was to counter Iranian and Russian influence. They had largely given up on pursuing the remnants of the so-called “Islamic State,” or Daesh. There had been little mention from the administration of protecting the Kurds.

So, basically Washington was saying is that it has the right to send troops into a foreign country and keep them there because we don’t like the fact that the country’s government has close strategic ties with (and some armed forces in their country from) two governments we don’t like.

This is a rather startling justification for the deployment of U.S. combat troops. It would establish a very dangerous precedent, particularly with no debate in Congress as to whether the United States should engage in such a provocative policy.

Like other debates over the years on the wisdom of withdrawing U.S. forces from foreign entanglements, those who insist that U.S. forces remain are based on rather dubious arguments.

First, some say that a U.S. departure would lead to a revival of Daesh. Contrary to what Trumps says, the group hasn’t been defeated in Syria. However, they have been relegated to a small strip of territory near the Iraqi border, only a tiny fraction of the vast “caliphate” they once ruled. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) should be strong enough to resist their expansion, especially since the U.S. has pledged to use air power to fight them in such an event.

Second, others worry that the Syrian regime will quickly reclaim Kurdish territory in northern Syria. But Syrian forces are probably stretched too thin at this point to seize most of the vast areas of northern Syria currently controlled by the SDF.

Though falling well short of the kind of egalitarian anarchist utopia that some Western leftists have claimed, Syrian Kurds have nevertheless organized one of the most democratic, popular, and well-functioning governing structures in the Middle East. During the past couple of years, they were able to make accommodations with the Syrian regime in several areas where government forces did move in — without violence and without any U.S. support that would have enabled them to keep control.

The most legitimate concern is in regard to Turkey moving its forces into northern Syria to attack the SDF and slaughtering many thousands of Kurdish civilians in the process.

During a number of periods over the past few decades, Turkish forces have engaged in just this kind of brutal repression in Kurdish areas of their own country in the battle against the PKK militia, which has close ties to the Kurdish forces leading the SDF. That is a real possibility, though it seems unlikely they would engage in the same kind of savagery against the civilian population as they did within Turkey, whom they saw as traitors for supporting the PKK and threating the country’s national integrity.

More pertinently, how are 2,000 U.S. troops in such a vast area an effective deterrent for Turkish intervention? They did nothing to halt the Turkish offensive that seized the SDF-controlled Afrin region back in March, for example. Given the small number of U.S. troops in an area more three times the size of Lebanon, it would be easy for Turkish forces to avoid confronting U.S. troops while slaughtering Kurds, and it would be hard to imagine Trump moving U.S. troops into position to stop it.

A more effective deterrent than simply keeping U.S. troops in Syria would be for Washington to make clear to the Turks that the United States will suspend all arms transfers and strategic cooperation with Turkey if it moves any more troops into Syrian territory.

The United States has set up the Kurds only to abandon them on at least three occasions in recent decades, and it is naive to think it would have come out differently this time. If the goal is to keep U.S. forces in Syria until their legitimate rights are recognized and there was no longer a threat from Syrian or Turkish forces, U.S. troops would likely be there for decades to come. Without the support of Congress and a broad consensus of the American public for such a policy, it makes more sense to withdraw.

Regardless of all the above, perhaps a case could be made for keeping U.S. forces in Syria if the United States had a more competent commander-in-chief. However, given the risks of confrontations with Russian or Iranian forces and the sheer complexity of the situation in that country, it is frankly dangerous to have American troops in such a volatile area under Trump.

Americans are tired of endless overseas wars. Regardless of Trump’s questionable motivations and lack of strategic forethought, now is not the time to demand further U.S. troop deployments in the Middle East.

This column originally appeared on Foreign Policy in Focus.

Categories: News for progressives

There’s Got to be a Better Way: Of Friends, Science, Politics and Bears

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:48

My Canadian friend Barrie Gilbert was visiting Yellowstone Country recently, just like he does every spring and every fall. I look forward to Barrie’s visits – we have a lot of fun getting together with other close friends, usually at the Chico Saloon, but best of all, Barrie and I get out for some serious hiking in Yellowstone’s backcountry. Barrie is totally amazing. At eighty-one (81!) years of age, he is strong and fit enough to travel off-trail into the wild heart of Yellowstone, and this we do. In this, Barrie is more than a trusted friend and companion – he is an inspiration.

Barrie Gilbert in a wild corner of Yellowstone National Park, September 2018.

As for many friends from afar, the major attraction of Yellowstone for Barrie is not its world-renowned thermal features. It’s the wildness. There are other landscapes just as spectacular in their own way, and there are hot springs, hot pools and geysers elsewhere, but not all of these combined with wildlife that is the wildness of Yellowstone. Furthermore, an important part of this wildness is the presence of fierce beasts.

Barrie adds an additional dimension to any hike in Yellowstone because he is an accomplished wildlife ecologist and he freely shares his knowledge. He is, in fact, an internationally recognized authority on grizzly bears.  Barrie’s interaction with Yellowstone’s grizzlies is both deep and unique. Many years ago as a young research scientist he surprised and was horrifically mauled by a female grizzly high on Crowfoot Ridge, Yellowstone National Park. The full account of this experience is documented elsewhere, including Scott McMillion’s Mark of the Grizzly. The only reason Barrie survived, I’m convinced, is that he is one tough old bird. Tough physically, but even more so mentally and spiritually.  So far as I can tell, Barrie holds no ill-will towards the bear that mauled him, or any other bear for that matter. Following an experience that would send most of us indoors cowering under our beds for the remainder of our lives, Barrie continued research on grizzlies, including up-close, personal observation.

Most grizzly research these days involves radio tracking or other forms of remote sensing, but Barrie’s observational work has provided valuable insights into the culture of grizzlies, how knowledge is passed from one generation to the next, and the key role grizzlies play in nutrient cycling and other ecosystem functions. To say Barrie is an expert on grizzlies is to state the obvious.

While it’s always a rare privilege to spend a day hiking Yellowstone’s backcountry with someone like Barrie, I was particularly anxious to visit with him this time because of the recent US Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) delisting of Yellowstone’s grizzlies, and the subsequent reversal of that decision in US District Court. Like most grizzly experts, Barrie thinks delisting Yellowstone’s grizzlies is a bad idea. Judge Christensen’s reversal of the USFWS delisting rule reflected the preponderance of scientific opinion. His decision was based not on some technicality, but on the GROSS insufficiency of scientific evidence used to support their delisting decision. I say, “GROSS deficiency” because in cases of legitimate scientific disagreement, a Federal Judge will invariably rule in favor of Agency Scientists. The deck is stacked in favor of the Agency and the bar is extremely high for demonstrating an “arbitrary and capricious” decision. Yet this high standard has been met three times (Montana Federal District Court, 2009; Ninth District Court of Appeals, 2011; and now Montana Federal District Court, 2018) in legal challenges to delisting Yellowstone’s grizzlies.

The story of how Yellowstone’s grizzlies came to be included on the list of Threatened and Endangered species, and the history of the USFWS attempts to remove them from that list, is convoluted at best. However, a bit of history. The Endangered Species Act contains language requiring decisions be based on the best available science. In the Agency’s own words, “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service developed the Species Status Assessment (SSA) framework as part of the ongoing effort to improve implementation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and enhance conservation success. An SSA is a focused, repeatable, and rigorous assessment of a species’ ability to maintain self-sustaining populations over time. This assessment is based on the best available scientific and commercial information regarding life history, biology, and consideration of current and future (emphasis added) vulnerabilities. The result is a single document that delivers foundational science for informing all ESA decisions, including listing determinations, consultations, grant allocations, permitting, and recovery planning.”

The first attempt to delist Yellowstone’s grizzlies came in 2007, shortly followed by a consortium of environmental organizations challenging that decision in Montana Federal District Court. The Court then vacated the delisting rule because the USFWS failed to adequately–scientifically–evaluate the consequences of catastrophic losses of whitebark pine, a critical food resource for Yellowstone’s grizzlies.

In their delisting rule, the USFWS claimed that only 16% of Yellowstone’s whitebark forests had suffered serious mountain pine beetle outbreaks. The court found evidence supporting this claim to be grossly deficient. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s decision in 2009, and subsequent research, also conducted during 2009, supported the court’s decision by documenting that, in fact, the beetles had infested more like 90% of Yellowstone’s whitebark pine stands.

Nine years later, after questionable agenda-driven research that attempted to discredit the District Court and Ninth Appellate Court rulings, the USFWS once again delisted the great bear. The major thrust of this research was to search the literature for all items eaten by grizzlies and then use this list to argue that bears had many food choices other than whitebark pine. The fallacy of this argument is that most of these alternative foods are nutritionally inferior to whitebark pine seeds. There was also no evaluation of the risks associated with obtaining those few that were comparable in nutritional value. Or, as  Barrie countered “if all these items were sufficient, why were grizzlies not staying in the park and using them instead of moving beyond the Park’s boundaries in their search for high quality meat.” Unfortunately livestock and the remains of hunter’s kills, known as “gut piles,” have become the dominate substitutes for whitebark pine seeds–resulting in a consequent escalation of negative interactions with humans.

This time the decision was even more ominous than in 2007. The states of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana preceded the ruling to delist with publication of hunting regulations, and Wyoming and Idaho followed delisting by announcing plans to hunt within the year. The idea of trophy hunting such an animal galvanized public opinion opposing delisting, but public opinion holds little sway in a Federal courtroom.  Rather, once again, the court based its decision on USFWS’s egregious lack of attention to scientific evidence in reaching their delisting decision.

The Montana District Court found the USFWS failed to consider the impact of delisting Yellowstone grizzlies on other US grizzly populations; used a population estimator based on political accommodation rather than best science; and did not adequately evaluate the long-term implications of genetic isolation. Read the full text of Judge Christensen’s order vacating the USFWS’s delisting rule here.  And, as before, the USFWS has announced its intention of appealing Judge Christensen’s ruling.

So, here we go, a seemingly endless cycle of delisting, litigation, reversal, appeal, lower court decision upheld, delisting, litigation, reversal etc., etc., etc.

Both Barrie and I agree this process squanders everyone’s valuable time and money. But even more importantly it continuously fails to address the real question: What does it take to bring the great bear back to its rightful role as the apex omnivore in the complex web of wilderness ecosystems? Resources expended on endless litigation could better be spent on meaningful recovery of this threatened population, restoring its role in providing ecosystem services, and deeper still, ensuring the continued spiritual presence of something much larger than ourselves.

There has got to be a better way – and there is. However, it is not through ill-considered legislation that would delist the great bear by congressional edict, but instead, a process truly based on “best science.” As is often the case on hikes with Barrie, our conversation turns to grizzlies, but this time, we speculate on how we might change this counterproductive cycle–a Groundhog Day that resolves nothing and serves no one, particularly not the great bear. We both agreed that a viable alternative would necessarily include an impartial panel involving scientists representing all interested parties (Federal agencies, the tribes, academic institutions, and scientific societies, to name a few) to develop a set of criteria that would be required for full recovery, and hence removal of Yellowstone’s grizzlies from Threatened and Endangered Species status. And then work to achieve those goals.

These are the major elements of an alternative approach that I remember from our conversation:

Impartial review panel. The environment surrounding recovery of the threatened Yellowstone grizzlies has become so toxic it is hard to imagine a truly objective analysis by the Federal and State Agencies that have so far been responsible. Truly impartial oversight, perhaps led by the National Academy of Sciences, would help to defuse this issue.

Demonstrated genetic connectivity. Lack of genetic connectivity with other North American grizzly populations was one the reasons Judge Christensen ruled to overturn the USFWS’s delisting decision. Any credible scientist understands that a genetically isolated population is doomed to decline and, longer-term, extirpation. Demonstrable natural gene exchange is therefore a prerequisite for a truly recovered population.  Barrie expressed concern that hunting would essentially eliminate the opportunity for natural gene exchange between Yellowstone’s grizzly and other current or potential grizzly populations. He thinks that connectivity between grizzly populations is essential, and that the the USFWS’s proposal to artificially import grizzlies from other populations is ill considered and probably doomed to failure because it disrupts the bear’s natural social structure.

Scientifically defensible method to estimate population numbers, and more importantly, estimate the effective breeding population. Another key point Judge Christensen made in his decision revolved around inconsistencies in the way the USFWS estimated the size of Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population. A joint letter issued by The American Society of Mammologists and the Society for Conservation Biology further criticized the way in which effective population size, the population required to maintain long-term genetic viability, was estimated.

Honest evaluation of climate change impacts. For once, just once, I’d like to hear an Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team scientist or USFWS biologist treat seriously the daunting threat of a rapidly changing climate instead of dismissively stating that, “ … (we) do not expect that habitat changes predicted under climate change scenarios to directly threaten grizzly bears.” How can it be that in the face of major impacts to all other Yellowstone Park wildlife, grizzly bears are somehow miraculously immune? It doesn’t make sense, and in fact a direct quote from the National Park Service on global climate change is, “Ongoing and future climate change will likely affect all aspects of park management.” (See this article for a speculative explanation of agency intransigence). Given the universal acceptance of major threats to all Greater Yellowstone wildlife, the only defensible course of action that meets the criterion of “best available science” is an honest evaluation of how climate change will impact grizzlies, followed by development of strategies to mitigate those determined to be detrimental.

Addressing impacts of reduced carrying capacity due to decimation of critical food resources.  Of four historically dominant high-quality grizzly food resources, two–whitebark pine and cutthroat trout–have catastrophically declined in abundance, only to be replaced by meat associated with humans. Replacing these, particularly whitebark pine seeds, with meat has resulted in decreased carrying capacity, increased dispersal, and dramatic increases in grizzly mortality. These issues have not been realistically addressedin delisting attempts, and this lack of integrity has been a major reason the courts have reversed efforts by the USFWS to delist Yellowstone’s grizzly bear population.

Rather than attempting to discredit the impact of reduced carrying capacity, Barrie thinks that the USFWS should consider proactive responses like restoration of traditional berry patches decimated by decades of overgrazing by artificially high elk populations. It sounded radical but no more so than introducing wolves to return ecological balance to the system. After all, Barrie argued, if negative impacts of predator removal could be countered by remedial action, then why not facilitating recolonization by other historical high quality food resources.

No trophy hunting of grizzlies. Period. Some animals, like the bald eagle and grizzlies, simply should not be shot. Many hunters, myself included, agree with this proposition. The only reason I can see why someone would shoot a grizzly is to bolster their own faltering self-esteem.  Additionally, it should be self-evident that in the Yellowstone ecosystem a live grizzly is worth vastly more than a trophy squirreled away on some corporate office wall or as a rug on which to wipe one’s feet.  As Barrie said, “grizzlies should be defended as a living treasure,” and this from a guy who narrowly escaped death from a grizzly mauling. As the second slowest reproducing land mammal in North America, grizzlies need, and deserve, something equivalent to the Bald Eagle Protection Act. Aside from ethical considerations, recent mortality levels even with Federal protection are unsustainable.

A recent statement by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Grizzly Bear Recovery Coordinator, Hilary Cooley, indicated that they too were concerned about the wastefulness of continued litigation, although the USFWS has, in fact, recently appealed Judge Christensen’s decision. It is also apparent from the article containing this quote that the Service is more interested in yielding to political pressure to delist grizzlies than in addressing the very real issues Barrie and I raised during our conversations.

Volumes could be written about any of the alternatives I outlined above, and in some cases have. Clearly, a full discussion of implications would require far more space than I have here, and besides, that is not my intent. In part, I wish to celebrate what a truly wild place Yellowstone is, and how that wildness is capable of stirring the soul through the humility of experiencing something much larger and more powerful than oneself. In part, I also want to debunk the false narrative being promoted by the USFWS that the best available science, and most grizzly scientists, support delisting Yellowstone’s grizzlies. This, simply, is a fabrication. Instead, the opinion of most grizzly experts, including Barrie, is that delisting is premature, unwarranted and unsupportable.

Finally, I hope to have described a viable alternative to the current wasteful and futile litigation treadmill. We should, instead, be expending resources to achieve a truly recovered, sustainable population – imagine that! How likely is that to happen given perverse economic imperatives and the current political proclivity to invent expedient alternative realities? Admittedly, it seems unlikely. On the other hand, there are committed people such as Barrie who will remind us that there is an objective reality to how grizzlies make a living, and that there are habitat requisites to sustaining that living. Hopefully, embracing that reality will inspire us as a society to attain the worthy goal of meaningful long-lasting recovery of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears.

Jesse Logan is literally a man of the mountains. Much of his former career as a civil servant was spent studying why forests of the American West live and die. He amassed an impressive body of work publishing papers as a researcher. He is also revered, even among millennial-aged telemark skiers, for his ability to hold his own off-piste with wayfarers a third his age.

Categories: News for progressives

What It Means to Put Class First

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:48

Analysts of capitalist society who give primacy to class relations—sometimes branded “class firsters”—have been met with a mix of false and contradictory charges. Michael Yates’s CounterPunch (12/24/18) essay, based on his book Can the Working Class Change the World? (Monthly Review Press, 2018), is a good example of this muddled criticism. Yates’s piece warrants a close look for two reasons: first, unlike “race reductionists” who tend to operate without a structural analysis of capitalism, Yates explicitly offers such an analysis; and second, by sorting out where he goes wrong, it might be possible to find a way forward.

One of Yates’s key points, reiterated multiple times, is that capitalism, racism, and sexism “cannot be separated.” Racism and patriarchy, Yates says, are “essential features” of capitalism; along with ecological destruction, racism and patriarchy are “fundamental to capitalism.” In his book, Yates suggests (p. 79), invoking W. E. B. Du Bois, that it is not even possible to imagine a non-racist, non-sexist capitalism. In light of this insistence on the ontological inseparability of capitalism, racism, and sexism, it rings odd, then, when Yates criticizes class-firsters for failing to see that “to some extent, race and gender are independent of class.”

Aside from the apparent contradiction between claims that race/racism and gender/sexism are both inseparable from and independent of class, there are two problems here. One is that the people Yates identifies as class-firsters—most notably Adolph Reed; though perhaps with Walter Benn Michaels also in mind—don’t at all fail to see that race and gender, as systems of inequality, are “to some extent, independent of class.” Indeed, this is part of what they’ve been arguing.

The class-first argument, as made by Reed, Michaels, and others, is not that sexism and racism are unimportant, tolerable, or likely to be swept away by social democratic reforms. The argument, in brief, is that ending sexist and racist discrimination, as worthy a goal as this is, won’t end the inequality and suffering created by capitalist class relations. It would be possible, the argument goes, to end sexist and racist discrimination and still be left with vast inequalities in wealth and power—a rainbow capitalist society that affords a more diverse group of people the opportunity to dominate and exploit others. A further result might be, as Michaels has argued, a reinforcement of class relations because, absent the barriers of discrimination, greater blame could be placed on those who fail to get ahead.

The reason, then, to foreground capitalist class relations is not that the suffering caused by racism and sexism is less severe than the suffering caused by economic deprivation. Rather, it’s a matter of getting to the root of things: an economic system that fosters status differences to legitimate the exploitation of targeted groups; that uses these differences to divide and weaken the working class; that encourages discrimination and opportunity hoarding as ways to seek advantage and protect economic interests; that inherently undermines democracy; and that delivers the fruits of human labor to a tiny few at the expense of the many. It’s a matter of attacking causes rather than symptoms, without dismissing the importance of relieving those symptoms.

To suggest that recognizing the foundational importance of class relations means not taking racism and sexism seriously is unfair; class relations are a problem in part because they help perpetuate discrimination. It’s also unfair to suggest that those who emphasize class fail to see how capitalism is deeply connected to racism. Adolph Reed, in particular, has devoted a significant part of his scholarly work to examining precisely this connection. I suspect that this charge arises, as seems to be the case with Michael Yates, from confusing historical connections with theoretical ones.

It’s clear when looking at the North American case that racism and capitalism developed hand in hand. Capital accumulation, in both the North and South, was aided by or largely dependent on the brutal exploitation of people of African descent. It’s also clear that the ideologies of racial inferiority created to legitimate slavery, as well as the laws and institutions created to enforce the continuing subordination of Blacks, Native Americans, and other people of color, shaped what capitalism became in the United States. And so if historians and other analysts of race and capitalism say that US capitalism is thoroughly inflected by racism, to the point of being what can be called “racialized capitalism,” there is little room, based on historical actuality, to object.

But Yates, in criticizing the class-firsters, does not merely say that capitalism and racism in the US are intertwined as a matter of history. He says, as noted earlier, that they are inseparable; that racism and sexism are essential to capitalism; and that capitalism is unimaginable without racism and sexism. From an analytic standpoint, and from a wider historical vantage, this is incorrect. Moreover, it is important both theoretically and practically to distinguish capitalist class relations from racism and sexism.

The defining features of capitalist class relations are capitalist control of the means of production and, by virtue of this control, the exploitation of wage workers to generate profit. There must of course be people whose minds and bodies are available to be exploited, and this exploitation, if it is going to last, must be ideologically legitimated. This is where racism and sexism come into play. Both can be used to create vulnerable others and justify exploitation; but neither is essential. Economic dispossession—as in Britain prior to the Industrial Revolution—can create a working class. And other status inequalities—based, for example, on ethnicity or religion—can be (and have been) used to justify the exploitation of workers, as well as their civic and political subordination.

Recognizing that capitalist exploitation can be analytically separated from racism and sexism, and that racism isn’t necessary for capitalism to function, carries an important implication: racist and sexist discrimination could be eradicated while leaving capitalism intact. Economic exploitation could survive, inequalities in wealth and power could grow, even in the absence of race and gender hierarchies. As long as a sufficiently large group of people could be exploited, and this practice could be legitimated on some ideological grounds, class society would be preserved. This is another point that class-first analysts, as I understand them, have been trying to make.

To be clear, Yates and others are right that the solidarity needed to transform capitalist society requires combatting racism and sexism. So anti-racist and anti-sexist efforts can’t be postponed until capitalism is transcended, because these efforts are necessary to achieve that goal. Racism and sexism are also morally wrong and harmful in themselves, and for these reasons ought to be opposed—now, not later. But analysts who appear to put class first do not deny these points. Their critique is not of anti-racist and anti-sexist work per se, but of such work that does not directly oppose—and even appears to accept—the fundamental class relations that cause the greatest suffering for working people in all social categories.

The what-comes-first or what-is-more-fundamental debate is old and perhaps inevitable whenever exploitive economic arrangements are combined with oppression based on status differences. It’s understandable that people in the most marginalized or least-privileged groups want relief from what feels like their immediate source of pain—no matter what anybody else’s theory says is more basic to a society’s core dynamics. I suspect that part of the reason this debate has become such a mire today is that the discourse of intersectionality masks a failure to think seriously about class even while regularly invoking it as an evil on par with racism and sexism.

Casual reference to “race, class, and gender” as the three major systems of inequality on which industrial capitalist societies are built, or claiming to look at inequality through an “intersectional lens,” creates the impression of having thought about how these systems work together. The problem, however, is that this lens has come to give a clearer view of racism and sexism than of class. Which is why intersectionalists so easily slide into speaking of fighting “racism, sexism, and classism.” This phraseology tends to reduce all three to matters of prejudice, most perilously obscuring the nature of class as a set of institutionalized relationships among groups that control greater or fewer economic resources and opportunities.

Without a structural conception of class and an understanding of how racism and sexism arise from and fuel economic exploitation, talk of intersectionality remains analytically shallow and politically stunted. It can even lead to delusions, such as thinking that opposing “classism,” which is just another name for elitism, is equivalent to opposing capitalism. What thus gets lost is the class-first insight that ending interpersonal bigotry won’t, by itself, alter capitalist class relations, challenge capitalist domination of the state, or even reduce overall economic inequality.

Unlike intersectionalists who lack a structural understanding of class relations, Michael Yates looks at capitalist society from a Marxist perspective and would, I presume, accept most of the class analysis I’ve offered above. Much the same analysis, minus the points I’ve disputed, is laid out in Can the Working Class Change the World? And much of what Yates calls for (see chapter 6) by way of change points squarely at the economy and the state. So why is there a problem here? Why sharpen the divide between Left analysts who are, in the long run, seeking the same social transformations?

Perhaps criticizing those who center the analysis of class relations is a backhanded way to attract readers who might be put off if racism and sexism are not foregrounded. Perhaps it is just what one must do to appeal to a generation of activists raised on the language of intersectionality but with only cultural notions of what class is or how it works. Perhaps for some critics of class-firsters—and here I exclude Yates—the unspoken objection is that putting class into question goes too far, threatening their own class position and privileges. For these critics, liberal intersectionality, focusing mainly on racism and sexism, is okay; radical intersectionality, treating class itself as a problem, is not.

It’s a dispiriting irony that analysts who try to expose the roots of inequality in capitalist class relations should have to fend off criticism from the Left. Some of this criticism, as I’ve suggested, is driven by a popular discourse of intersectionality that invokes class in a superficial way. Some of the criticism is just wrong, especially suggestions that class analysts don’t care about the myriad forms of discrimination and injustice that capitalism generates. What they care about, and I count myself in this company, is what ought to unite us: a desire to uproot an evil tree and not be content merely to prune its branches.

Categories: News for progressives

It’s Time to Get Serious About CO2 Pollution

Fri, 2019-01-04 15:48

Fifty years ago, a bipartisan U.S. Congress enacted novel, far-reaching legislation that changed our country and the world for the better. At that time, the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act were new, untested approaches to combating pollution. The U.S. had a huge problem in the 1970s; rivers regularly caught fire, and many big cities were choked with air pollution.

These new laws enshrined a new but logical principle: polluters should control, and if necessary pay for, the damage they cause to human health and natural resources. For many decades, polluters had a free ride. They dumped pollution in our air and water with impunity. Our kids got sick from unchecked auto exhaust. Our rivers caught fire because they were laden with oil.

These environmental laws have stayed on the books for over five decades, because they work. Today our waters are much cleaner, our air far-less polluted. Missoula. Montana is a great case in point; those who lived here in the 1970s and ’80s will remember how bad our air quality was and how much better it is today. The Clark Fork River is much healthier too now that mining wastes are being cleaned up.

These changes did not occur voluntarily; environmental regulations required tougher standards for air pollution. Mining companies had to pay for the pollution they caused to the Clark Fork. Today, many countries around the world seek to emulate our environmental laws. They are one of the great gifts American democracy has given to the world, a legacy we should be proud of.

Now we are faced with a new type of pollution. Carbon dioxide and other pollutants are accumulating in the atmosphere. These accumulations have already contributed to serious problems; for example, record-breaking fires in California and more powerful hurricanes in Texas and Florida. According to the Fourth National Climate Assessment, recently released in collaboration with 13 federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, Department of Health and Human Services and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the air quality impacts from increased wildfires will cause serious impacts on human health, not to mention billions of dollars of damage to our economy from property and job losses. Scientists agree that if we continue on our current trajectory of increasing CO2 emissions, our children and grandchildren will face a world dominated by climate-caused impacts. It’s a world we don’t want to see, and one that we may be able to avoid.

Recently, a group of Republicans and Democrats introduced the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. This bold legislation uses a market-based approach to address the problem of CO2 pollution. Large corporations will be required to account for, and pay for, their carbon pollution. Each American household will receive a monthly dividend from the funds collected from polluters that for most Americans will more than offset any increases in energy costs. The legislation will spur American innovation in everything from building design to electric cars, further boosting the economy. Our carbon emissions will drop significantly, a fact our children and grandchildren will appreciate in years to come.

Just as our nation got serious about addressing water and air pollution years ago, it is urgent that we now get serious about CO2 pollution. This bipartisan legislation represents an important step, and deserves the support of Montana’s congressional delegation.

For more information about the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, please visit

Jack Tuholske has taught environmental law and policy as a visiting professor at the University of Montana School of Law, Vermont Law School and the University of Ljubliana in Slovenia. He is a member of the local chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby.

Categories: News for progressives



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