Counterpunch Articles

The UK’s Northern Irish Brexit Blues

Photograph Source: John Morton – CC BY 2.0

Northern Ireland has now become the focal point of the UK’s post-Brexit crisis.

While the connection between the more than a week of rioting by Protestant “Loyalists” and Brexit may not seem obvious, some, such as the Northern Ireland justice minister, Naomi Long, say the UK prime minister Boris “BoJo” Johnson’s “dishonesty” over the still-to-be-decided Brexit border has exacerbated the situation.

The protocol agreed between the EU and the UK fudged the issue of the land border between the UK-member Northern Ireland (NI) and the EU-member Republic of Ireland to NI’s south.

The Brexit deal put NI in a distinctive and somewhat anomalous position — legally part of the UK, but at the same time within the EU’s customs regime and part of the single market, with some exceptions, where trade is concerned.

This uncertainty over a nonstandard border between the Protestant-dominated NI and its neighbouring Catholic-majority Irish Republic has made more appealing the prospect of a united Ireland, primarily for economic reasons— such a reunion would confer the huge benefit of direct access to EU markets for NI, without the encumbrances involved in being tied to the UK.

NI is currently in the economic doldrums because of uncertainty over the UK-EU border issue.

At the same time, the merest prospect of a reunion with its Catholic neighbour alarms a significant part of the Protestant-majority NI.

NI’s Protestants would of course become a minority in a reunified Ireland, and many “Prots”, albeit of an increasingly older generation, would welcome the imposition of a hard border with its neighbour to the south, if only as an ever more redundant and forlorn symbol of NI’s ties to the UK.

BoJo was warned repeatedly (by the Biden administration no less) that any Brexit deal which compromised the Good Friday peace agreement between the two parts of Ireland would run the likelihood of jeopardizing that peace. These apprehensions are starting to be realized on the volatile streets of Belfast.

BoJo’s grovelling before Donald Trump showed how desperate he is for a UK-US trade deal to help replace trade lost when the UK left the EU. The pro-Irish Biden won’t offer BoJo the sniff of such a deal while the streets of Belfast are burning.

Meanwhile, the EU is taking legal action against the UK after the latter announced it will waive paperwork on food entering NI, an open breach of the Brexit agreement.

BoJo’s overwhelming electoral priority was securing a Brexit deal via any pretense under the Ukanian sun (those susceptible to omens may know that this sun is notorious for shielding itself behind rainy grey clouds, just read a novel by Dickens or Henry James?) — BoJo doesn’t give a rat’s posterior for maintaining peace in Ireland, nor for the greatly increased possibility of a push for independence on the part of the EU-supporting Scotland.

A few days ago, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said a fresh referendum on independence would impossible to resist should her party, the Scottish National Party (SNP), secure a majority in next month’s elections for the Scottish parliament.

Every opinion poll so far indicates the SNP will win this election.

The vagaries of its first-past-the-post electoral system ensure that UK general elections are largely determined by votes cast in England, and playing to the Brexit-inclined English electorate was BoJo’s overwhelming objective in the 2019 election.

The English chauvinist BoJo probably won’t lose any sleep over rioting in Belfast, there being for now no real likelihood that his whopping 80-seat parliamentary majority in Westminster (London) will be threatened by unrest in NI.

The ex-London mayor BoJo’s view of the political universe has always been somewhat London-centric, except perhaps when it comes to obtaining munificence, legally mind you, from shady Kremlin oligarchs and Gulf Sheikhs.

Responding to the unrest in Belfast, BoJo joined every other mainstream politician, British and Irish alike, in issuing his pro forma statement denouncing the criminality of thugs and hooligans, etc.

The violence in Belfast obscures for now the other drawbacks to the UK’s ramshackle Brexit deal.

Also contributing to the muddying of the economic impact of Brexit is the economic boost provided by the pent-up demand generated by the Covid lockdowns—with pubs, restaurants, and shops shuttered, and holiday travel vastly curtailed, Brits spent much less than usual, precipitating a retail crash and recession.

With the latest lockdown about to be lifted after a successful vaccination rollout, the expectation, especially in Downing Street, is that Brits will embark on a spending spree.

There are 2 counter-indications to this rosy scenario.

The first is that many Brits lost their jobs during the lockdowns, and these unfortunate individuals, if they obtain post-lockdown employment, will probably be paying-off debt rather than hitting the shopping malls.

The second is that none of the Brexit deal’s structural weaknesses will be removed by a burst of short-term household spending—there are only so many new cars, fridges, and flat-screen TVs a household needs or can afford.

The other distraction from any Brexit woes is the death of the queen’s husband, Prince Philip. All the UK mainstream media are giving this event saturation coverage, so much so that a growing number of Brits are turning off their TVs in sheer frustration. The Prince’s death has even eclipsed the Meghan Markle-Harry media drama as the cynosure of attention.

BoJo is benefitting (for now) from a vaccination “bounce”.

The latest Opinium poll for The Observer found that 44% now approve of the government’s Covid handling, with 36% disapproving. Overall, the poll recorded a 9-point lead for the Conservatives over Labour, the largest Tory lead since last May. This despite the fact that the UK’s death toll, just over 127,000, remains one of the highest in the world per 1000 of population.

Major events surrounding the royal family—births, marriages, funerals— usually provide a boost for the “king/queen and country” Conservatives.

If the Tories receive a helping hand from Philip’s death, Labour will be in deep trouble when local council elections take place in 3 weeks’ time.

The Tories have always had an electoral advantage from Ukania’s structurally unbalanced political system.

Now with the vaccination “bounce” and the royalist psychodrama (a hint here is provided by the BBC’S description of Philip as “the grandfather of the nation”) providing the Tories with yet another step-up the electoral ladder as “the nation’s grandfather’s” funeral takes place on live TV– there is talk in the media of the lacklustre Labour leader Keir Starmer being deposed from the party leadership should Labour receive its expected trouncing in the polls.

To think that in the 21st century, an advanced industrial country could have a fictive “grandfather of the nation” helping undermine the electoral prospects of its main opposition party!

In that country, to resort to a cliché, the surreal has now become its real.

The Northern Irish have of course experienced English surrealities for centuries, but then they have never really mattered for an England-dominated UK.

The riot has always been their voice, as it is now.

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Between Q’s Headspace and the Hard Place of Western History

Photograph Source: Anthony Crider – CC BY 2.0

Everything has meaning.

This is not a game.

Learn to play the game. 

– Q Drop # 885, March 8, 2018

In the early nineties, I was writing a novel about a young US military photographer in Honduras during the Contra War. I wanted one of the characters to be a science fiction reader. Since I don’t care for, or read much, science fiction, I felt I had to read at least one sci-fi book. So I read William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, a thriller about a young man having adventures in a totally artificial, computer world that Gibson dubbed “cyberspace.” The question whether or not cyberspace was a real place hovered over the story.

Fast forward 30 years to last week and I’m watching the documentary Q: Into the Storm on HBO. Fredrick Brennan is one of the three protagonists in the film, which is nominally a search for Q’s identity. Brennan was born with a severely disabling disease that involves very brittle bones. Still, he buzzes around,  sometimes a bit headlong, in a motorized wheelchair with his little pomeranian aboard. He was a player at the website that ends up channeling the secretive Q’s “droppings.” Q is named for his “Q level” security clearance. Rumor has it, Q is close to the president and is tight with the highest-ranking military men. Q speaks in riddles like the Oracle at Delphi. Q is cool. Q is the game.

Brennan is an amazing character. He got his first computer at age six and soon taught himself code. He’s clearly incredibly intelligent. The idea of engaging anonymously with other people in cyberspace and engaging in power struggles must be, for someone as disabled as he is, to literally accept your cyborgian reality.  He’s a rolling example of humanity melding with technology. Watching  Brennan like this made me flash back on Neuromancer. As a child, Brennan was literally weaned into cyberspace and immersed himself totally in that new and ever-expanding a place, a place where he could be as powerful as anyone else. Even he could pursue his very own Nietzschian Will To Power in a world assembled not out of atoms and cells but out of ones and zeros tricked out in codes and algorithms.

At one point, Brennan responds to a question from filmmaker Cullen Hoback by saying: “At first I thought the world and the internet were separate; now I don’t.” Later, he says: “The internet leveled the playing field.”

Not only is the six-part series Q: Into The Storm by Cullen Hoback a must-see for anyone interested in understanding this fraught moment in history, HBO followed it up with the four-part Exterminate All the Brutes by Raoul Peck. As someone who has spent decades traveling, reading, searching for and enjoying films on the abuses of European Colonialism and US Imperialism, Peck’s film is top-of-the-line magnificent. And due to its timing, it’s the ideal antidote for the simple-minded, white supremacist ideas embedded in the idea Make America Great Again.

Peck is Haitian and has made many fine films in his career, including Lumumba, Sometime In April and recently a documentary about James Baldwin called I Am Not Your Negro. In the ’90s, he was briefly Minister of Culture in Haiti. The title Exterminate All the Brutes is a reference to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and its character named Kurtz. It’s also the title of a book by the deceased Swedish writer Sven Lindqvist, who Peck cites as a friend and an inspiration for the film. Peck utilizes a host of techniques to tell his story. There’s personal elements from his childhood, one incredibly interesting historic photograph after another, many interviews, scenes from Hollywood movies and fictional scenes he’s directed using actors like Josh Harnett, who gets to represent the archetypal European and American son-of-a-bitch as seen through the eyes of the colonized.

Peck can be quite subtle in the midst of all the horror, and the scenes with Harnett playing a US cavalry officer with a thousand-yard-stare really work.  Some of them really got to me and made me think of my service in Vietnam. In one scene, looking very disturbed, he walks toward the camera through the smoking, moaning human carnage of a massacre and begins to remove his coat, then his shirt. He steps into a brook, and the scene ends. As a member of Veterans For Peace for 36 years, I felt the filmmaker was suggesting the possibilities of forgiveness and repentance. But it was the subtlest of suggestions. These scenes add heft to the argument as mythic evidence. They reminded me of the Vietnam vet poet W.D. Ehrhart’s great poem, “Making the Children Behave.”

The timing could not be better for a frank film history from the point of view of the darker-skinned people of the world who were conquered and colonized by the West. After four years of Donald Trump that, incredibly, culminated in the provocation of a violent mob that trashed Congress, now there’s crazy shooters  are suddenly popping up like daffodils and a polarized citizenry is watching the public trial of a white police officer for the flagrant murder of an African American male in Minneapolis — all thanks to a 17-year-old girl with an iphone. Then there’s the really big fear: whether the current virtual civil war will turn into a real, shooting civil war.

Let’s not kid around; Raoul Peck’s film is radical. I shouldn’t have to say this, but this radical is a good, constructive radical. We misuse the term radical all the time. Since 9/11, we’ve been groomed on the verb to radicalize, as in “he or she was radicalized by this or that.” The issue with terrorist violence is the encouragement of extreme action, not whether someone’s history sees past events differently than the consensus. Radicals like to look for the roots of things. It would be better to say: “He or she was extremicized by this or that.” But there doesn’t seem to be such a word, and “he was radicalized” just seems to roll off the tongue. People who strongly defending the status-quo certainly have a motive for demeaning and even criminalizing the idea of thinking radically.

Peck likes to use terms like “indisputable” and “irrefutable” when discussing certain horrific statistics. To me, he’s saying the reason the nation is in such troubled waters has to do with all this mechanized death and horror you rich white Europeans employed to get where you are, and now you want to shove it under your ornate four-poster beds because it’s not how you wish to see yourself. But one person’s nostalgia can be another person’s nightmare.

For Americans who may wonder, post Trump, how did we get in such a pickle, Peck peels back the onion layers. The tone is tragic, though there is grace, even some subtle elements of humor, as when the actor Harnett’s has the very same dirty bandage on his hand whether he’s a US cavalry officer or a South African. I saw it as a wink from the filmmaker: What is real? In the end, Peck doesn’t give much ground. Western myth has it wrong, period, and European domination could not have been pulled off without the acceptance — by those doing it and by those complicit at a distance — of mass, mechanized murder.

Hoback’s Q film is another animal, entirely. It focuses over time on a collection of contemporary characters, and it does have some elements of the soap opera. Because it’s trying to get around the hugely problematic idea of anonymity in cyberspace, the film is very much future oriented. To me, he’s saying: look at this story and see how anonymity in a post-truth cyberspace can be leveraged and manipulated to create angry mobs like the one on January 6th. Think in the future of cyber-fomented lynch mobs or death squads. Could the Salvadoran nightmare of the 1980s conceivably rise out of gringolandian cyberspace driven by anonymous, dark figures working the internet? From what we know, it isn’t implausible.

I saw these films virtually back-to-back, and in my mind they explain and enrich each other. They both put truth-telling to the task of meaning-making and reform. Hard truth as Medicine. Peck has the credentials and the gravitas to pull off his calm radical history, and Hoback comes off as a humble and honest journalist with a camera. One reviewer of Hoback’s earlier film on Facebook described it as a “non-fiction horror flick.” When I taught documentary photography at Drexel University, I liked to drill home the idea that character is part of the art, especially in the necessary function of suspending judgement to gain the trust of people you wish to photograph. Hoback seems to have this character integrity in spades. In that sense, he’s the opposite of his subject, Ron Q Watkins, a man who for some reason seems incapable of telling the truth.

Some say in 1918 Republican Senator Hiram Walker Johnson coined the phrase “The first casualty of war is truth.” Others say Samuel Johnson came up with the idea in 1758 in the magazine The Idler, where he wrote, “Among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.” The idea is an important one in the polarized, post-truth cyber-war we’re engaged in — whether we acknowledge it as “war” or not. Donald Trump and his operatives like Roger Stone, Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn are not practicing politics in the Jeffersonian context of democracy; for them, it’s about power and it’s war.  It’s not like war; it is war. It’s war as an extension of the long, bloody martial epic of western conquest and domination recounted so profoundly by Peck from the losing side. It’s a war where powerful white people and their allies (who may be non-white) attempt to hold onto the power they and their class have achieved — notwithstanding their talent and industry — by employing the worst kinds of violence.

Of course, there are civilizing strains in the story, but it always comes with a hook.  Once the colonial forces have utilized mass violence and other horrors to gain the necessary foothold to reach their goal, once in power, they can afford to ease up and allow their subjects some of the finer things of the West. Things like luxury and justice. But it all has to be earned from their masters. Go along and possibly become one of them, or in the end, face extermination.

Besides Brennan, the main protagonists of Hoback’s film are Jim Watkins and his son Ron. Jim is a US military veteran who is at the time of the film owner of a pig farm just outside of Manila, where he lives. Jim purchased the website 8Chan from Brennan. After the site attracted a few mass shooters and some post-shooting glorifying in the senseless violence, Brennan parted ways with the Watkins. Jim Watkins changed the name to 8Kun. Spoiler alert: By the end of the film, though he continues to deny it, it’s clear Ron Watkins is Q. Ron’s denial via Skype to Hoback feels very Trumpian, in that, although Hoback has tripped him up in a way that makes it obvious Ron is Q, grin aside, Ron still seems to feel not admitting the obvious is necessary for him to retain some kind of power vis-à-vis Q’s minions and vis-a-vis Hoback. He seems on some level to want Hoback to know he’s the guy smart enough to pull off the Q flim-flam. So much for anonymity; in the end, for some Q-ANONs, it might not matter that Q has been outed as a fraud. Isn’t that what post-truth means?

It may be a leap into metaphor, but I see all this cyber drama as the post-truth, anonymous way cyberspace is being colonized. In this sense, the colonization horror story told by Peck stands in as a cautionary metaphor for where the future of the internet could be headed? The more we know of the past, the better we are shaping the future.

Ron lives in Sapporo, Japan. He and his father clearly have issues with power. Ron poses for Hoback’s interviews in a set he has designed that includes the mythic-looking hammer he brandishes in a selfie video and the plastic sex doll he has apparently had some say in the design of. This is a young man who likes to frequent Soapland a place where you go to get anonymously soaped up by a young woman who, then, slithers all over you. Ron seems to be a very self-centered young man, someone inclined to become lost inside his own head. Given all this, is what we are dealing with, here, the technological ability to geometrically expand headspaces like the one inside Ron Watkin’s head into the space dubbed in 1984 by Gibson cyberspace. Now, 37 years later, most everybody has a machine, some of them hand-held, that can meld one’s headspace — with all its quirks, ambitions and delusions — into this new space that is everywhere and nowhere. What Hoback’s film makes clear is, unlike Gibson’s 1984 sci-fi novel, cyberspace is no longer science fiction.

As Trump, Flynn and others began to recognize Q and to quote his droppings, the Q movement took off. The last episode ends with the January 6th insurrection, where Hoback follows Jim Watkins on the march to the capitol building, where he stays outside. Over the chaotic scenes from January 6, the filmmaker has turned the Jefferson Airplane’s song “White Rabbit” into a haunting metaphor. As the scene gets crazier and crazier, the classic drug song grows in volume, until at the end when people are tearing things up and one person is shown being shot dead, the singers (not Grace Slick!) are screaming:

Feed your head!
Feed your head!
Feed your head!

What Ron Watkins as Q (and his allies) have been doing is feeding heads with provocative lies and volatile ideas and inciting a movement of frustrated, angry rightwing people. In the self-rewarding process of triggering a mob, these power-hungry nerds go on to provide service to demagogues and power-hungry opportunists like Trump, Stone, Bannon and Flynn. It’s a symbiotic arrangement, a pincer movement, one pincer being driven authoritarians, and the other, the mobs assembled by cyberspace colonizers like Ron Watkins.

“We have an army of digital soldiers,” Michael Flynn tells us in one of his speeches. If the failed right-wing coup of 1933 provides any insight, Michael Flynn is the man to watch: He’d love to play “The Man On a White Horse.”

“Q” is digital warfare. (“Q” being all the scammers and the duped, all the ignoramuses, loners, lost souls, whackjobs and psychopaths who either did the con or fell for it.) It’s the kind of disinformation warfare our CIA has made against foreigners for decades; now, it’s being used against us. With Trump still out there, there’s an effort to diminish democracy and encourage outright political war.

It would be fatal for radicals, progressives and liberals to ignore any of this. But  how to respond? As Professor Harry Frankfurt puts it, “The most salient feature of American culture is there’s so much bullshit.” Culturally, we need to overwhelm the bullshitters with hard truth in mainstream films like these and in other modes of expression.

Fight bullshit with the hard, unvarnished truth as we ease up on the righteous demands of identity politics. This requires mainstream journalism and the entertainment industry to be brave. A tall order. And, more important, it would demand less bottom-line, profit-oriented thinking. An even taller order. Like disease, truth can be contagious. One must be eternally vigilant, lest one run into that famous Spanish fascist (he could be played by Josh Harnett) who reportedly said: “Whenever I hear the world culture, I reach for my revolver.”

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The News Media Offers Wall-to-Wall Propaganda Every Day. We Only Notice When a Royal Dies

Photograph Source: Last Night of Freedom – CC BY 2.0

A few lessons to be learnt from the wall-to-wall coverage of Prince Philip’s death in the British media:

1. There is absolutely no commercial reason for the media to have dedicated so much time and space to the Prince’s death. The main commercial channel ITV, which needs eyeballs on its programmes to generate income from advertising, saw a 60 per cent drop in viewing figures after it decided to broadcast endless forelock-tugging. Audiences presumably deserted to Netflix and Youtube, where the mood of “national mourning” was not being enforced. Many viewers, particularly younger ones, have no interest in the fact that a very old man just died, even if he did have lots of titles.

The UK is one of the world's most propagandised nations on the planet.

Just look at the top of the @BBCNews website or the major 'newspapers' today.

— Media Lens (@medialens) April 10, 2021

The BBC, the state broadcaster, similarly ignored the wishes of its audiences, commandeering all of its many channels to manufacture and enforce the supposedly national mood of grief. That even went so far as placing banners on the CBBC channel for children encouraging them to forgo their cartoons and switch to the BBC’s main channel paying endless, contrived tributes to Philip. The resulting outpouring of anger was so great the BBC was forced to open a dedicated complaints form on its website. It then had to hurriedly remove it when the establishment threw a wobbly about viewers being given a chance to object to the BBC’s coverage.

BBC inundated with complaints over ‘too much’ Prince Philip coverage

— The Independent (@Independent) April 10, 2021

2. The BBC is reported to have heavily invested in coverage of Philip’s death for fear that otherwise it would face a barrage of criticism from Britain’s rightwing press for showing insufficient patriotism and revealing a supposed “leftwing bias”. That was what apparemtly happened when the BBC failed to grovel sufficiently to the royal family over the Queen Mother’s death in 2002. But if that is the case, doesn’t it simply underscore how vulnerable the supposedly “neutral” state broadcaster is to pressure from the rightwing billionaire owners of the establishment media?

If Rupert Murdoch and company can force the BBC into alienating and antagonising many of its own viewers with endless homilies to a royal little loved by large sections of the population, how else is the BBC’s coverage being skewed for fear of the potential backlash from corporate media tycoons? Is the fear of such repercussions also responsible for the BBC’s complicity in the recent, evidence-free smearing of a socialist Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, or the BBC’s consistent failures in reporting honestly on countries like Syria, Libya, Iraq and Venezuela – all of them in the oil-rich regions of the Middle East and Latin America that the United States and the west demand control over?

If the BBC makes its editorial decisions based on what rightwing and far-right newspaper tycoons think is good both for the country and for the world, then how is the BBC not equally rightwing?

3. The BBC is also reportedly afraid that, if it is not seen to be deferential enough to the royal family, it risks being punished by the ruling Conservative party, which regards the institution of the monarchy as sacrosanct. The BBC’s licence fee and wider funding – which need government approval – might be in jeopardy as a result.

But that is no less troubling than that the BBC is kowtowing to billionaire media magnates. Because if the ruling Conservative party can wield a stick sufficiently big to dictate to the BBC how and to what extent it covers Philip’s death, why can the government not also bully the BBC into giving it an easy ride on its failures to deal with Covid and its cronyism in awarding Covid-related contracts?

At what point does the UK officially become a banana republic? At the point when its health secretary awards a massive contract for medical supplies to his former neighbour and pub landlord?

— Jonathan Cook (@Jonathan_K_Cook) November 27, 2020

Similarly, if the BBC is quite so craven, why can the ruling party not also intimidate it into ignoring the biggest current assault on journalism: Washington’s relentless efforts to imprison for life Wikileaks founder Julian Assange after he exposed US war crimes?

And what would there be to stop Tory leader Boris Johnson from arm-twisting the BBC into ignoring the rampant racism documented in his own party and pressuring the state broadcaster instead into presenting the Labour party as riddled with antisemitism, even though figures show that Labour has less of a problem with racism than wider British society and the Tories?

And there is the rub. Because that is exactly what the BBC has been doing, serving as little more than a propaganda channel for the right.

That same fear of the ruling Conservative party might explain why the BBC keeps filling its top posts, and its most influential editorial jobs, with stalwarts of the right. Most egregiously that includes the BBC’s new chairman, Richard Sharp, who is not only one of the Tory party’s biggest donors but helped to fund a firm accused of “human warehousing” – stuffing benefit recipients into “rabbit hutch” flats – to profit from a Conservative government scheme.

New BBC chair Richard Sharp is not only a major donor to the Conservative party but he helped to fund a firm accused of 'human warehousing', stuffing benefit recipients into 'rabbit hutch' flats to profit from a Conservative government scheme

— Jonathan Cook (@Jonathan_K_Cook) February 26, 2021

It would also explain the appointment in 2013 as head of BBC news of James Harding, a Murdoch loyalist and former Times editor who vowed that he and his newspaper were unabashedly “pro-Israel”. It would explain too why Sarah Sands, editor of the unapologetically rightwing Evening Standard, was seen as suitable to serve as editor of the Radio 4’s morning news programme, Today.

4. The truth is that these factors and more have played a part in ensuring there have been only wall-to-wall tributes to Prince Philip. Corporate media is not there simply to make quick profits. Sometimes, it is seen by its billionaire owners as a loss-leader. It is there to generate a favourable political and social climate to help corporations accrete ever greater power and profits.

Manufacturing the pretence of patriotic solidarity in a time of supposed national loss or calamity; cultivating a reverence for tradition; promoting unquestioning respect for socially constructed authority figures; reinforcing social hierarchies that normalise grossly offensive wealth disparities is exactly what establishment media is there to do.

Is the worst our corporate media has to say about Prince Philip that he could have a 'gruff exterior'? Why is the supposedly 'liberal-left' Guardian offering page after page of homily? Could his death not have been wrapped up in one story, leaving it to the redtops to grovel?

— Jonathan Cook (@Jonathan_K_Cook) April 10, 2021

The corporate media, from the rightwing Daily Mail to the supposedly liberal BBC and Guardian, is there to make the patently insane – mourning an entitled man most of us knew little about and what little we did know made us care even less for him – seem not only natural but obligatory. To refuse to submit to compulsory grieving, to state that Philip’s death from old age is less important than the deaths of tens of thousands of people in the UK who lost their lives early from the pandemic, is not rudeness, or heartlessness, or a lack of patriotism. It is to cling to our humanity, to prize our ability to think and feel for ourselves, and to refuse to be swept up in a carnival of hollow emotion.

And most important of all, it is to sense – however briefly – that the wall-to-wall propaganda we are being subjected to on the death of a royal may look exceptional but is in fact entirely routine. It is simply that in normal times the propaganda is better masked, wrapped in the illusion of choice and variety.

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Israel Rejects ICC Investigation: What Are the Possible Future Scenarios?

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

The Israeli government’s position regarding an impending investigation by the International Criminal Court of alleged war crimes committed in occupied Palestine has been finally declared by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“It will be made clear that Israel is a country with rule of law that knows how to investigate itself,” Netanyahu said in a statement on April 8. Subsequently, Israel “completely rejects” any accusations that it has committed war crimes.

But it won’t be so easy for Tel Aviv this time around. True, Israel is not a party to the Rome Statute, according to which the ICC was established, but it can still be held accountable, because the State of Palestine is a member of the ICC.

Palestine joined the ICC in 2015, and the alleged war crimes, which are under investigation, have taken place on Palestinian soil. This grants the ICC direct jurisdiction, even if war crimes were committed by a non-ICC party. Still, accountability for these war crimes is not guaranteed. So, what are the possible future scenarios?

But first, some context …

‘Blatant Impunity’

On March 22, the Palestinian Ambassador to the United Nations, Riyad Mansour, declared that “the time has come to stop Israel’s blatant impunity”. His remarks were included in a letter sent to the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, and other top officials at the international body.

There is modest – albeit cautious – optimism among Palestinians that Israeli officials could potentially be held accountable for war crimes and other human rights violations in Palestine. The reason behind this optimism is a recent decision by ICC to pursue its investigation of alleged war crimes committed in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Mansour’s letter was written with this context in mind. Other Palestinian officials, such as Foreign Minister, Riyad al-Maliki, are also pushing in this direction. He, too, wants to see an end to Israel’s lack of accountability.

Till Netanyahu’s official position, the Israeli response has been most predictable. On March 20, Israeli authorities decided to revoke Al-Maliki’s special travel permit in order to prevent him from pursuing Palestinian diplomacy that aims at ensuring the continuation of the ICC investigation. Al-Maliki had, in fact, just returned from a trip to The Hague, where the ICC is headquartered.

Furthermore, Israel is openly attempting to intimidate the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah to discontinue its cooperation with the ICC, as can be easily gleaned from the official Israeli discourse. “The Palestinian leadership has to understand there are consequences for their actions,” an Israeli official told The Jerusalem Post on March 21.

Despite years of legal haggling and intense pressure on the ICC’s outgoing Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, to scrap the investigation altogether, the legal proceedings have carried on, unhindered. The pressure was displayed in various forms: direct defamation by Israel, as in accusing the ICC of anti-Semitism; unprecedented American sanctions on ICC officials and constant meddling and intervention, on Israel’s behalf, by member states that are part of the ICC, and who are described as amici curiae.

They did not succeed. On April 30, 2020, Bensouda consulted with the Court’s Pre-trial Chamber regarding whether the ICC had jurisdiction over the matter. Ten months later, the Chamber answered in the affirmative. Subsequently, the Prosecutor decided to formally open the investigation.

On March 9, a spokesman for the Court revealed that, in accordance with Article 18 in the Rome Statute, notification letters were sent by the Prosecutor’s office to ‘all parties concerned’, including the Israeli Government and the Palestinian leadership, notifying them of the war crimes probe and allowing them only one month to seek deferral of the investigation.

Expectedly, Israel remains defiant. However, unlike its obstinacy in response to previous international attempts at investigating war crimes allegations in Palestine, the Israeli response, this time, appears confused and uncertain. On the one hand, Israeli media revealed last July that Netanyahu’s government has prepared a long list of likely Israeli suspects, whose conduct can potentially be investigated by the ICC. Still, the official Israeli response can only be described as dismissive of the matter as being superfluous, insisting that Israel will not, in any way, cooperate with ICC investigators.

Though the Israeli government continues to maintain its official position that the ICC has no jurisdiction over Israel and occupied Palestine, top Israeli officials and diplomats are moving quickly to block what now seems to be an imminent probe. For example, Israeli President, Reuven Rivlin, was on an official visit to Germany where he, on March 18, met with his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier, thanking him on behalf of Israel for opposing the ICC’s investigation of Israeli officials.

After lashing out at the Palestinian leadership for attempting to “legalize” the conflict, through an international investigation, Rivlin renewed Israel’s “trust that our European friends will stand by us in the important fight on the misuse of the International Criminal Court against our soldiers and civilians.”

Unlike previous attempts at investigating Israeli war crimes, for example, the Jenin massacre in the West Bank in 2002, and the various investigations of several Israeli wars on Gaza starting in 2008-09, the forthcoming ICC investigation is different. For one, the ICC investigation targets individuals, not states, and can issue arrest warrants, making it legally incumbent on all other ICC members to enforce the Court’s decisions.

Now that all attempts at dissuading the Court from pursuing the matter have failed, the question must be asked: What are the possible future scenarios?

The Next Step

In the case that the investigation carries on as planned, the Prosecutor’s next step would be to identify suspects and alleged perpetrators of war crimes. Dr. Triestino Mariniello, member of the legal team that represents the Gaza victims, told me that once these suspects have been determined, “the Prosecutor will ask the Pre-trial chamber to issue either arrest warrants or subpoena, at least in relation to the crimes already included in the investigation so far.”

These alleged war crimes already include Israel’s illegal Jewish settlements, the Israeli war on Gaza in 2014 and Israel’s targeting of unarmed civilian protesters during Gaza’s Great March of Return, starting in 2018.

Even more ideally, the Court could potentially widen the scope of the investigation, which is a major demand for the representatives of the Palestinian victims.

“We expect more crimes to be included: especially, apartheid as a crime against humanity and crimes against Palestinian prisoners by Israeli authorities, especially torture,” according to Dr. Mariniello.

In essence, this means that, even after the investigation is officially underway, the Palestine legal team can continue its advocacy to expand the scope of the investigation and to cover as much legal ground as possible.

‘Narrow Scope’ 

However, judging from previous historic experiences, ideal scenarios in cases where Israel was investigated for war crimes rarely transpired. A less than ideal scenario would be for the scope of the investigation to remain narrow.

In a recent interview with former UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Occupied Palestinian Territories, Professor Richard Falk, he told me that even if the narrow scope remains in effect – thus reducing the chances of all victims seeing justice – the investigation is still a “breakthrough”.

The reason why the investigation may not be broadened has less to do with justice and much to do with politics. “The scope of the investigation is something that is ill-defined, so it is a matter of political discretion,” Professor Falk said.

In other words, “the Court takes a position that needs to be cautious about delimiting its jurisdiction and, therefore, it tries to narrow the scope of what it is prepared to investigate.”

Professor Falk does not agree with that view but, according to the seasoned international law expert, “it does represent the fact that the ICC, like the UN itself, is subject to immense geopolitical pressure.”

Still, “it’s a breakthrough even to consider the investigation, let alone the indictment and the prosecution of either Israelis or Americans that was put on the agenda of the ICC, which led to a pushback by these governments.”

Israel’s Missed Opportunity

While the two above scenarios are suitable for Palestinians, they are a non-starter as far as the Israeli government is concerned, as indicated in Netanyahu’s recent statement in which he rejected the investigation altogether. According to some pro-Israeli international law experts, Netanyahu’s decision would represent a missed opportunity.

Writing in the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, international law expert Nick Kaufman had advises Israel to cooperate, only for the sake of obtaining a “deferral” from the Court and to use the ensuing delay for political maneuvering.

“It would be unfortunate for Israel to miss the opportunity of deferral which could provide the ideal excuse for reinitiating peace talks with the Palestinians,” he wrote, warning that “if Israel squanders such an opportunity it should come as no surprise if, at a later date, the Court will hint that the government has no one but itself to blame for the export of the judicial process to The Hague.”

There are other scenarios, such as even more intense pressures on the Court as a result of ongoing discussions between Israel and its benefactors, whether in Washington or among the amici curiae at the Court itself.

At the same time, while Palestinians remain cautious about the future of the investigation, hope is slowly rising that, this time around, things may be different and that Israeli war criminals will eventually be held accountable for their crimes. Time will tell.

(Romana Rubeo contributed to this article)

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The Clandestine War on Africa: France’s Endgame in Mali

Photograph Source: Ferdinand Reus from Arnhem, Holland – Djenné – CC BY-SA 2.0

In a recent report, the United Nations Mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA, concluded that, on January 3, French warplanes had struck a crowd attending a wedding in the remote village of Bounti, killing 22 of the guests.

According to the findings, based on a thorough investigation and interviews with hundreds of eyewitnesses, 19 of the guests were unarmed civilians whose killing constitutes a war crime.

Unlike the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the wars in Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and other countries, the French war in Mali receives little media coverage outside the limited scope of French-speaking media, which has successfully branded this war as one against Islamic militants.

What is interesting about the Mali story is the fact that, despite its centrality to the geopolitics of the Sahel region in Africa, it is framed within disconnected narratives that rarely overlap.

However, the story has less to do with Islamic militancy and much to do with foreign interventions. Anti-French sentiment in Mali goes back over a century when, in 1892, France colonized that once-thriving African kingdom, exploiting its resources and reordering its territories as a way to weaken its population and to break down its social structures.

The formal end of French colonialism of Mali in 1960 was merely the end of a chapter, but definitely not the story itself. France remained present in Mali, in the Sahel and throughout Africa, defending its interests, exploiting the ample resources and working jointly with corrupt elites to maintain its dominance.

Fast forward to March 2012 when Captain Amadou Sanogo overthrew the nominally democratic government of Amadou Toumani Touré. He used the flimsy excuse of protesting Bamako’s failure to rein in the militancy of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) in the north.

Sanogo’s pretense was quite clever, though, as it fit neatly into a grand narrative designed by various Western governments, lead among them France and the United States, who saw Islamic militancy as the greatest danger facing many parts of Africa, especially in the Sahel.

Interestingly but not surprisingly, Sanogo’s coup, which angered African governments, but was somehow accommodated by Western powers, made matters much worse. In the following months, northern militants managed to seize much of the impoverished northern regions, continuing their march towards Bamako itself.

The army coup was never truly reversed but, at the behest of France and other influential governments, was simply streamlined into a transitional government, still largely influenced by Sanogo’s supporters.

On December 20, 2012, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 2085, which authorized the deployment of the African-led International Support Mission to Mali. Armed with what was understood to be a UN mandate, France launched its war in Mali, under the title of ‘Operation Serval’.

It is worth mentioning here that the Mali scenario had just transpired in Libya when, on March 17, 2011, the UNSC passed Resolution 1973, which was conveniently and immediately translated into a declaration of war.

Both scenarios proved costly for the two African countries. Instead of ‘saving’ these countries, the interventions allowed violence to spiral even further, leading to yet more foreign interventions and proxy wars.

On July 15, 2014, France declared that ‘Operation Serval’ was successfully accomplished, providing its own list of casualties on both sides, again, with very little international monitoring. Yet, almost immediately, on August 1, 2014, it declared another military mission, this time an open-ended war, ‘Operation Barkhane’.

Barkhane was spearheaded by France and included Paris’ own ‘coalition of the willing’, dubbed ‘G5 Sahel’. All former French colonies, the new coalition consisted of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. The declared goal of France’s indefinite intervention in the Sahel is to provide material support and training to the ‘G5 Sahel’ forces in their ‘war on terror’.

However, according to Deutsche Welle, the ‘optimism’ that accompanied ‘Operation Serval’ completely vanished with ‘Operation Barkhane’. “The security situation has worsened, not only (in the) the north but (in) central Mali as well”, the German news agency recently reported, conveying a sense of chaos, with farmers fleeing their land and with “self-defense militias” carrying out their own operations to satisfy “their own agendas”, and so on.

In truth, the chaos in the streets merely reflected the chaos in government. Even with a heavy French military presence, instability continued to plague Mali. The latest coup in the country took place in August 2020. Worse still, the various Tuareg forces, which have long challenged the foreign exploitation of the country, are now unifying under a single banner. The future of Mali is hardly promising.

So what was the point of the intervention, anyway? Certainly not to ‘restore democracy’ or ‘stabilize’ the country. Karen Jayes elaborates. “France’s interests in the region are primarily economic,” she wrote in a recent article. “Their military actions protect their access to oil and uranium in the region.”

To appreciate this claim more fully, one only needs a single example of how Mali’s wealth of natural resources is central to France’s economy. “An incredible 75 percent of France’s electric power is generated by nuclear plants that are mostly fueled by uranium extracted on Mali’s border region of Kidal,” in the northern parts of the country. Therefore, it is unsurprising that France was ready to go to war as soon as militants proclaimed the Kidal region to be part of their independent nation-state of Azawad in April 2012.

As for the bombing of the Bounti wedding, the French military denied any wrong-doing, claiming that all of the victims were ‘jihadists’. The story is meant to end here, but it will not – as long as Mali is exploited by outsiders, as long as poverty and inequality will continue to exist, leading to insurrections, rebellions and military coups.

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What are Turkey and the US Up to in Afghanistan?

Photograph Source: NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan – Public Domain

The zeal with which Washington is soliciting Turkey’s services to plot a way to normalize Afghanistan’s Taliban raises some troubling questions. Acting on Washington’s request, Turkey will be hosting high-level talks on the Afghanistan peace process this April to bring together the Afghan government and the Taliban. Turkey has appointed a special envoy to assume the mediation role.

Turkey is entering the cockpit to navigate the Afghan peace process to a conclusion that meets US objectives. This will have a salutary effect on the fraught Turkish-American relationship. The US appreciates that Turkey is an influential member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, enjoys historical links with Afghanistan and has a positive image among Afghans. But digging deeper, the unholy US-Turkey alliance in the Syrian conflict creates disquiet.

The Pentagon and CIA are reluctant to vacate Afghanistan by the deadline of May 1. Turkey will be overseeing an open-ended US-NATO presence. The US hopes to retain a strong intelligence presence backed by special operations forces. A report Friday from CNN disclosed that “CIA, which has had a significant say in US decision-making in Afghanistan, has ‘staked out some clear positions’ during recent deliberations, arguing in favour of continuing US involvement.”

The scale of the CIA activities in Afghanistan are not in the public domain — especially, whether its regional mandate extends beyond the borders of Afghanistan. The CNN report cited above lifted the veil on “one of the most heavily guarded bases” of the CIA — Forward Operating Base Chapman, “a classified US military installation in eastern Afghanistan.”

Suffice to say, given the presence of the ISIS fighters (including those transferred from Syria to Afghanistan — allegedly in US aircraft, according to Russia and Iran) — the nexus between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and above all, the presence of Uighur, Central Asian and Chechen terrorists, Turkey’s induction as the US’ buddy in Afghanistan is indeed worrisome for regional states. Turkey has transferred jihadi fighters from Idlib to Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh to fight hybrid wars.

Significantly, Turkey has abruptly shifted its stance on the Uighur issue after years of passivity and hyped it up as a diplomatic issue between Ankara and Beijing. China’s ambassador to Ankara was summoned to Turkey’s Foreign Ministry last Tuesday.

On the other hand, a perceptible “thaw” in the US-Turkey relations is under way. During the recent NATO ministerial in Brussels, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken underscored, “I believe having Turkey in  NATO is particularly for the benefit of us.” Clearly, any American overtures to Turkey will be in need of a powerful success story. That is where Turkey’s mediatory role in Afghanistan and a potential role in post-settlement Afghanistan become templates of Washington’s dual containment strategy toward Russia and China.

Turkey has staked claims for the mantle of leadership of the Turkic world stretching from the Black Sea to the steppes of Central Asia and Xinjiang. Simply put, Turkish role in Afghanistan and Central Asia will challenge its relationship with Russia, which is already under strain in Libya, Syria, Caucasus and potentially in the Black Sea and the Balkans. In a phone conversation on April 9, Russian President Vladimir Putin cautioned Turkish president Recep Erdogan about “the importance of preserving the 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits with a view to ensuring regional stability and security.” The Montreux convention regulates the passage of naval warships through the Bosporous.

Equally, the US hopes to keep Iran off balance regionally by encouraging Turkish revanchism. The Turkish-Iranian rivalry is already palpable in Iraq where Washington hopes to establish NATO as a provider of security. Serious rifts between Ankara and Tehran appear also over Nagorno-Karabakh. Thus, Afghanistan’s future figured prominently in the discussions during Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Zarif’s recent 6-day regional tour of Central Asian capitals.

China and Russia are vigilant about the US intentions in Afghanistan.) And both have problematic relations with Erdogan. Turkey’s ascendance on the Afghan-Central Asian landscape cannot be to their comfort. During his recent visit to Tehran, China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi voiced support for Iran’s membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is due to visit Tehran on April 14.

Overall, these geopolitical realignments are taking place as the US intensifies its suppression of China and Russia. But, for Turkey, the intervention in Syria has proved profitable. The Turkish-controlled territories of northern Syria consists of a 8,835-square-kilometre area already and Ankara has no intentions to vacate its occupation.

Turkey will no doubt look for similar gains. For a start, regaining primacy in the western alliance system as the US’ irreplaceable partner and as Europe’s interlocutor with Muslim Middle East has always been a Turkish dream. A clincher will be whether Washington can prevail upon the EU to grant some special dispensation for Turkey — “associate membership” is one possibility.

For EU, too, Turkey becomes a key partner if NATO is to consolidate in the Black Sea and encircle Russia in its backyard. Turkey has already positioned itself as a provider of security for the anti-Russian regime in Ukraine. Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky visited Erdogan on Saturday against the backdrop of rising tensions with Russia.

Turkish officials are cautiously optimistic about recent high-level efforts to improve dialogue between Ankara and Brussels. The European actors are coordinating with Washington. The EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel’s visit to Ankara last Wednesday can be seen as a significant initial effort to improve relations with Turkey. As one Turkish commentator put it, the “olive branch” given by the EU leaders to Erdogan has “five main leaves”:

  • Concrete agenda on economic cooperation and migration;

  • Handling and updating the problems related to the Customs Union;

  • Commitment to continue the flow of funds for refugees in Turkey;

  • Adding momentum to the relations with Turkey on key cooperation areas; and,

  • The Eastern Mediterranean security and stability.

All in all, Turkey is being “incentivised” to get back into the western fold and play its due role as NATO power. Today, Turkey is probably the only ally regionally and internationally that Washington can lean on to wean Pakistan away from the orbit of influence of China and Russia, which truly makes Turkey an indispensable partner for the US and NATO in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Indeed, Russia and Turkey have been historically rivals in Afghanistan. Turkey has deep-rooted centuries-old pan-Islamic ties with Afghanistan that by far predate Pakistan’s creation in 1947. How far Pakistan will be willing to play a subaltern role in future Afghanistan remains to be seen. But then, all this must be having Russia worried in regard of the security and stability of its Central Asian backyard and North Caucasia. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Islamabad last week was the first such ministerial since 2012.

Fundamentally, the contradictions in US-Turkey relations will not simply wither away — US’ alliance with Kurds in Syria; US opposition to Turkey’s intervention in Libya; Erdogan’s abysmal human rights record; discord over Turkey’s S-400 missile deal with Russia; and so on. But the two Cold War allies are also used to finessing contradictions whenever opportunities came their way to work together to mutual benefit.

Without doubt, in the power dynamic of the highly strategic regions surrounding Afghanistan, the two countries can look forward to a “win-win” cooperation.

Source: Globetrotter.

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Nimble Failure: The Australian COVID-19 Vaccination Program

“I am not going to be talking about numbers today,” Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly told Australia’s Radio National on April 12.  This echoed suggestions from the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, who had adopted the position that Australia best forget meeting any clear vaccination targets.  Having left battling the pandemic to State governments, the Federal government has found itself unable to execute its program, if one dare call it that.

Part of the monumental failings of the government can be put down to its stubbornness in prioritising the use of one vaccine.  AstraZeneca was meant to be the vaccine wonder, the Godhead, the miraculous deliverer.  CSL, Australia’s only vaccine manufacturer, was given the task of producing the majority of 54 million ordered doses at its Broadmeadows factory in Melbourne.  Many of those now risk being essentially useless.

AstraZeneca’s product has been plagued by a profile that has become a ballooning public relations nightmare.  While various medical authorities in Europe delayed the application of jabs fearing a possible link between the vaccine and a rare blood-clotting syndrome, Australia looked on with goggle-eyed wonder, insisting that no pause was necessary.  Administrative objectives took priority over medical ones.

Last week, Morrison’s medical advisers made things even more trying by suggesting that the AstraZeneca vaccine be ruled out for those under 50.  In a media release on April 8 by the Department of Health Secretary Brendan Murphy and Chief Medical Officer Kelly, it was revealed that they had “received very important advice” from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI).  ATAGI had been considering European and US findings regarding any possible link between the AstraZeneca vaccine and any possible cause of “thrombosis with thrombocytopenia” characterised by “blood clots with low platelet counts.”

In Europe, one in every 250,000 people who had received AstraZeneca had been diagnosed with the rare blood clot condition.  But Australia had not been spared, with one patient suffering thrombosis  and a low platelet count after being vaccinated on March 22.

ATAGI had recommended that those under 50 years of age should take the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine instead.  “This recommendation is based on the increasing risk of severe outcomes from COVID-19 in older adults – and hence a higher benefit from vaccination – and a potentially increased risk of ‘thrombosis with thrombocytopenia’ following AstraZeneca vaccination among those aged under 50.”

The advisory group also recommended, obliquely, that the AstraZeneca vaccine might still be used for adults aged under 50 in cases “where the benefits clearly outweigh the risk for that individual” and the individual in question had made “an informed decision based on an understanding of the risks and benefits.”  Patients, it would seem, beware.

Ominously, the health officers had to accept that the decision to accept the ATAGI advice would have “implications for the vaccine rollout program.”  One of them was already in evidence by the end of last week.  Victoria’s Department of Health was taking few chances.  “Until updated consent forms and consumer information are available from the Commonwealth Department of Health, and immunisation teams have been familiarised with these materials, it is advised that the AstraZeneca COVID-19 is not administered to eligible persons aged under 50 years.”

Those who had made vaccination appointments for April 9 at the Royal Exhibition building in Melbourne were denied the jab.  “They just turned me away,” St. John Ambulance employee Athena Stathoulas explained to the ABC.  “I had no idea it was for 50s and over. I had no notification.”

The Morrison government has been scrambling.  The Prime Minister announced on Friday that Australia had secured a further 20 million Pfizer vaccine doses, in addition to current orders for 20 million.  He tried to distract critics by noting that 170 million doses of vaccines in total, spanning deals with Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Novavax and COVAX, had been secured.  (Delivery has been quite another matter.)

None of this could conceal the fact that vaccination timetables had been shredded.  An October deadline had been proposed for all Australians wishing to be vaccinated to receive at least one dose.  Prior to that, the government had dreamily suggested a target of 4 million vaccinated Australian adults, with all remaining adults being finished by October.  On April 8, Morrison emphasised “uncertainties” and “many, many variables” that doomed any coherent planning.  “This is not a certain world and we’re not on our own.  The whole world is dealing with the same uncertainty.”

Government incompetence has also taken on a patriotic dimension. Stupidity can be forgivable, if it is shown to be defending the national interest.  Agriculture Minister David Littleproud is a startling example of this, refusing to consider how ordering other vaccines might ameliorate the problem.  Having not consulted the entire Australian population on the matter, he could confidently tell Channel Nine that he did not “think any Australian would want the Chinese vaccine or the Sputnik vaccine.”  He spoke of an approach “calm and methodical about making sure that we give the best vaccine with confidence, and however long it takes”.

The National COVID-19 Commission, through member Jane Halton, is also of the same view.  “The trick now is for people to calm down a little bit and get back to basics.”  Prizer would be the stand-in hero here.  Think, warbles Halton, that “there will be 40 million doses in total” of it.

The current state of calm, understanding of basics, and methodical application means that a further two years will be required for Australians to be fully vaccinated.  Daily tallies such as 27,209 are a far cry from the suggested number put forth by epidemiologist Mary-Louise McClaws, who opines that a total between 100,000 and 120,000 would be eminently more suitable.

AstraZeneca’s future is not promising in other respects.  The European Medicine Agency is currently reviewing reports on a possible cause of capillary leak syndrome.  Other drug titans are also not being spared scrutiny, with Johnson & Johnson’s own Janssen vaccine potentially being tarnished by the same blood clot problem.  “At present, no clear casual relationship has been established between these rare events and the Janssen COVID-19 vaccine,” stated the company in an email.

The damage, certainly in terms of public relations and the vaccination program, deepens.  But in Australia, the issue cuts deeper.  Bureaucratic incompetence has become the Siamese twin of unoriginal selections and poor supply lines.  With the State governments having performed the lion’s share of the work protecting populations from COVID-19, the Federal government has shown various, fabulous ways of soiling the stable.  A near future of closed borders, snap lockdowns and an increasingly enfeebled economy, seems likely.

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Patents and the Pandemic: Can We Learn Anything?

I realize that I may seem obsessed with the topic of patents (and copyrights), but it really is a big deal, and few people seem to appreciate the issue in its larger economic context. I have written about the inefficiency and corruption associated with these monopolies for decades, but if there was ever a time when public attention should be focused on reforming the system, it is now.

With the pandemic costing millions of lives around the world, and costing our economies trillions in lost output, we really should be asking whether the current system serves us well in producing vaccines, tests, and treatments. Incredibly, public debate is so dominated by the pharmaceutical industry and its allies, we are primarily seeing celebration of the system’s dubious claims to success, rather than discussions of the way in which system was and is failing us in addressing the pandemic. We also should be discussing the lessons for possible alternatives.

Starting with the failures, while we should all be glad that we now have several effective vaccines, which a large percentage of the U.S. population has now received, the fact is that only a small portion of the world’s population has been vaccinated. In Latin America less than one percent of the population has been vaccinated and in Sub Saharan Africa the figure is less than one percent.

The enormous gap in vaccination rates is important not only because of the unfairness of the world’s poor being left behind, but because of the risk the situation poses to the whole world. If the pandemic is allowed to spread unchecked through the developing world it is certain that we will see more mutations. It is very possible that some of these mutations may be more contagious and/or more deadly, and more resistant to our current crop of vaccines.

The last possibility should make us very worried. The makers of the mRNA vaccines are confident that they will be able to tweak their current vaccines to protect against new variants. That may prove to be true, but even if it is the case we would still be looking at a disastrous scenario.

In a best case scenario we would still be looking at many months where a new variant was spreading across the country, while we wait for a new vaccine to be tested and then produced in mass quantities. We would then need to distribute and administer hundreds of millions of shots. In the mean time we would be looking at more sickness, death, and economic shutdowns.

Given the enormous costs associated with a vaccine resistant strain, we should be doing everything possible to get the whole world vaccinated as quickly possible. We clearly are not going this route, as the U.S. and other wealthy countries insist on maintaining patent protections, as well as doing nothing to ensure that the technologies needed to manufacture vaccines are made widely available, instead of being kept as industrial secrets.

The Vaccines as a Dubious Success of Patent Monopoly Financing

There have been numerous efforts to point to the mRNA vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna as great successes of our system of patent monopoly financing of drug research. These celebrations are bizarre because so much of the research that led up to these vaccines was done on the taxpayer’s tab, through funding by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other government agencies.

Earlier this month New York Times ran a piece on Katalin Kariko, one the heroes in the development of mRNA technology, who spent her career going from lab to lab, where she was supported by government grants. According to the piece, she never made more than $60,000 a year.

This was the sort of work that created the basis for the developments of the vaccines shortly after the pandemic was recognized. The scientists at both Moderna and Pfizer (actually its German partner BioNtech) have boasted about how they were able to develop the vaccines now being distributed in a matter of days after getting the genome for the coronavirus. These companies claim that this success was only possible because of years of prior research. That claim is true, but most of the key research was on the taxpayers’ dime, not out of the pockets of these companies.

In short, telling the story of the mRNA vaccines as a tale of a successful patent system is a serious rewrite of history. This is a story where two companies stand to make tens of billions in profits off of decades of publicly funded research, while putting relatively little of their own money at risk.

In fact, if there is a tale to be told about the development of vaccines in response to the pandemic, it is how public funding can provide an enormous impetus to medical progress. In addition to the years in which the NIH supported the development of mRNA technology, we had the one-time influx of $10 billion in public funding through Operation Warp Speed (OWS).

While this is a substantial sum, it is just 11 percent of the $90 billion that the industry reports spending on research each year. This means that, if we think that a dollar of public funding is equal to a dollar of private funding in its impact, then we should have expected OWS to have roughly one tenth of the impact on medical progress as the industry’s annual spending.

From we have seen to date, this public spending could quite possibly have an impact that is ten times as large as the industry’s annual $90 billion in spending. In addition to helping to quickly develop vaccines against the coronavirus, it looks at though it is also leading to spinoffs results that could result in effective vaccines against Malaria, AIDS, and possibly other diseases. And, we must remember that only a portion of the $10 billion from OWS went to developing vaccines. Much of the funding went to developing treatments and tests.

Even this picture understates the potential benefits from publicly funded research. There was little concern from the Trump administration about sharing findings. If publicly funded research was fully open-source, researchers could build more quickly on each other’s successes and failures. There would also be the benefit that the cost of research itself is inflated by patent monopolies, due to the fact that many of the tools researchers must use are themselves protected by patents. As a result of patent protection, these tools sell at prices that are many thousand percent above the free market price.


Additional Benefits of Publicly Funded Research

In addition to the likelihood that research would advance more quickly if it were fully open, we would also have the advantage that we would take away the perverse incentives created by patent monopolies. When a drug or vaccines can sell for many thousand percent above the free market price to a government-granted monopoly, we give companies an enormous incentive to lie about the safety and effectiveness of their products.

We saw this most dramatically with the opioid crisis. The leading manufacturers of the new generation of opioids paid billions in settlements based on the allegation that they deliberately misled doctors about the addictiveness of the new generation of opioids, in order to maximize sales. They would have had little incentive to push their drugs so aggressively, if they had been selling as cheap generics.

We have seen the same sort of issue in the pandemic, where all the drug companies have been less fully transparent in sharing their clinical trial data. Most notably Astra Zeneca was accusedof cherry-picking results to inflate the reported effectiveness of its vaccine. More recently, the company insisted that there was no issue with its vaccines causing blood clots, even though a number of young healthy people got blood clots, many of them fatal, shortly after receiving its vaccine.

If the people managing clinical trials and overseeing a vaccine’s safety record had no incentive to misrepresent evidence, then we should see many fewer cases of deliberate lying. Anyone who believes that people respond to incentives has to accept this fact.

Patents and copyright monopolies are also a big part of the story of inequality. Bill Gates is the poster child on this one. Gates is one of the world’s richest people because the government will arrest anyone who uses software developed by Microsoft without its permission. Without government-granted patent and copyright monopolies, Mr. Gates would probably still be working for a living.

But we are also getting a lesson on the inequality story in front of our faces in the pandemic. The shareholders and top scientists at Moderna, Pfizer, and the other leading manufacturers stand to make billions that will come out of the pockets of the rest of us. The amount of money transferred to the drug industry alone through patent monopolies and related protections is close to $400 billion a year.

This comes to more than $5,000 a year for a family of four. People would have a lot more money in their pocket if drugs sold for ten or twenty dollars a prescription, instead of hundreds or thousands of dollars.

When economists claim that technology is the cause of the growth in inequality over the last four decades, they actually mean that patent and copyright monopolies are the cause. These government-granted monopolies are what allowed a relatively small group of people to get a grossly disproportionate share of the benefits of new technologies. It wasn’t the fault of the software or mRNA.

Finally, it is important that we recognize that the rents created by patent and copyright monopolies are implicit forms of government debt. With the passage of President Biden’s recovery plan and his newly proposed infrastructure package, we have seen the deficit hawks return in force, warning about the burden the debt will be placing on our children.

The argument is that they will have to pay higher taxes to service the debt created by current and future deficits. While I have mocked this argument numerous times, if anyone wants to take debt service burdens seriously, they have to also include the higher prices that our children will pay for drugs, medical equipment, software and other items due to the patent and copyright monopolies that we are currently granting.

It makes zero sense to claim that a tax on these, or other items, to cover debt service is a burden, but paying higher prices due to patent or copyright monopoly is not. Unfortunately, no one expects the people who lead our policy debates to be consistent, so the debt whiners literally never have to comment on the burdens of patent and copyright monopolies.

Can We Get to a Patent Free World?

To my view, there is no economic policy that is worse in its outcomes than our system of patent monopoly financing for prescription drugs. Yet, the question of alternatives almost never comes up in policy discussions. (My scheme is in chapter 5 of Rigged [it’s free].) It is encouraging that there are politically plausible proposals to limit drug prices in the United States, comparable to the limits that already exist in Europe, Canada, and elsewhere.

However, as we know, intellectuals have a hard time dealing with new ideas. Even though having public funding of biomedical research is not new, in public debates, it is treated like an alien concept. Corruption and inertia are very powerful forces in public policy, but we can still hope.

This post originally appeared on Dean Baker’s Patreon site.

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India’s Farm Crisis: Mitti of the Martyrs, Singhu’s Soil of Struggle

Photo: Amir Malik.

The large crowd in front of the main stage became silent. The only inaudible sound which remained was that of millions of hearts beating in unison here and hundreds of kilometres away in each person’s home state. Leaders stood with their heads bowed in respect, their spirits soaring high. In the air suffused with emotion, all eyes watched in rising anticipation as eight young men climbed onto the stage of the Samyukta Kisan Morcha at the Singhu border carrying earthen pots on their heads.

Each pot laden with memories and sacred soil that had travelled many miles to be with the protesting farmers on the borders of Delhi to mark the 90th martyrdom day of Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev on March 23, 2021.

“These young men from Punjab have brought the soil from eight historical spots. Places that are special to us, in our hearts – and we welcome them,” announced Jatinder Singh Chhina, a farm leader, from the stage.

The soil that has always had material and cultural significance in the lives of farmers acquired new political, historical and metaphorical meaning on this Shahid Diwas. Bringing the mitti sacred to their hearts from the villages of different martyrs was a way to reinvigorate and inspire the protesting farmers. And the idea sprang from ordinary people at district-level meetings of farm unions and activists.

“Right now, I am emotional. We all are. I do not know what blood and bones these martyrs were made of,” said Bhupender Singh Longowal, 35, from Sangrur in Punjab, one of the farmers who carried the soil . “We collected the mitti because it gives us courage and determination to fight against the oppressors.”

Martyrs’ Day, March 23, also marked the 117th day of the largest-ever non-violent and historic farmers’ protests at the gates of Delhi.

The farmers have been opposing the new legal ‘reforms’ in the form of The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, 2020; The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Act, 2020; and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act, 2020.

These laws, say the farmers, undermine the main forms of support to the cultivator, including the minimum support price (MSP), the agricultural produce marketing committees (APMC), state procurement and more.

They see their struggle as being against the complete corporate takeover of agriculture that fails to respect the rights, let alone meet any needs of the farmer-producer. They also see their struggle as one for justice and democracy along with a fight for their land and rights. Theirs is also a struggle for independence, but this time the oppressor is not an outsider.

“The revolutionaries fought against the Britishers,” said 23-year-old Mohan Singh Aulakh from Aulakh village in Kot Kapura block of Punjab’s Faridkot district. “That was an oppressive and brutal rule. The point is not that the British left. The problem is that the atrocious rule persists till today.” So for him and other there that day, reclaiming the soil enriched by the sacrifices of freedom fighters became a symbolic political act of asserting constitutional rights.

They arrived here at Singhu on the morning of March 23 – over 2,000 farmers from around the country. Photographs of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev Thapar and Shivaram Hari Rajguru were prominent on the stage, where the soil-filled pots were being placed.

Each of these legendary freedom fighters was just in his 20s when they were hanged to death by the British in Lahore’s central jail on March 23, 1931. Their dead bodies were stealthily brought to Hussainiwala village in the dark night and consigned to flames. In this village, on the bank of the river Sutlej in Punjab’s Firozpur district the Hussainiwala National Martyrs Memorial was built in 1968. This is also where another of their revolutionary allies, Batukeshwar Dutt, was cremated, as was Bhagat Singh’s mother Vidyawati. The first pot on the Singhu stage contained soil from here.

When Bhagat Singh was executed he had in his pocket a photograph of Kartar Singh Sarabha, another heroic freedom fighter hanged by the British in 1915 when he was just 19. The second pot of soil came from his village, Sarabha in Ludhiana district of Punjab. As Bhagat Singh’s mother Vidyawati said of the young Indian revolutionary, who was a journalist and leading member of the Ghadar Party, he was her son’s “hero, friend and companion.”

But Bhagat Singh’s story begins with his visit, at age 12, to Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, Punjab. Over 1,000 unarmed people had been massacred there on April 13, 1919, on the orders of Brigadier General Reginald Dyer of the British army. Bhagat Singh collected clumps of blood-stained soil from Jallianwala and carried these back to his village. He set the soil in a part of his grandfather’s garden and watched flowers grow from that ground. The third pot that arrived at Singhu came from this bagh .

The fourth pot of soil came from Sunam in Punjab’s Sangrur district. That is the village of Udham Singh – who changed his name to Mohammad Singh Azad during his trial in a British court for shooting dead Michael Francis O’Dwyer in London on March 13, 1940. O’Dwyer, as Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab, had endorsed Dyer’s actions at Jallianwala. He was sentenced to death and hanged on July 31, 1940, at Pentonville Prison in London. In 1974, his remains were brought back to India and he was cremated in Sunam.

“The way Bhagat Singh, Kartar Singh Sarabha, Chacha Ajit Singh, Udham Singh and our gurus fought against oppressors, we are also determined to follow our leaders’ path,” said Bhupendrer Longowal. Many of the other farmers at Singhu echoed his sentiments.

“We have always been defying the imposition of the will of the powerful over the powerless,” said Abhay Singh, 64, Bhagat Singh’s nephew, remembering the nearly 300 farmers who have lost their lives during the ongoing protests against the farm laws.

The fifth pot came from Fatehgarh Sahib, now a town in the Punjab district of the same name. That’s where, on December 26, 1704, the younger sons of Guru Gobind Singh, five-year-old Baba Fateh Singhand seven-year-old Baba Zorawar Singh were bricked up alive on the orders of the Mughal Governor of Sirhind, Wazir Khan.

The sixth pot brought soil from Gurudwara Katalgarh Sahib, which marks the site in Chamkaur town in Punjab’s Rupnagar district where the two elder sons of Guru Gobind Singh – 17-year-old Ajit Singh and 14-year-old Jujhar Singh – fell in battle against the Mughals. Ranbir Singh, from Nurpur Bedi block in Rupnagar district, carried the pot here. Stories of the courage and martyrdom of the four brothers are deeply etched in the minds of many of the anti-farm law protestors.

The seventh pot was from Anandpur Sahib, the birthplace of the Khalsa in Punjab’s Rupnagar district. Khalsa means ‘pure’, and denotes a special community within Sikhism founded by Guru Gobind Singh in 1699, of warriors with a duty to protect the innocent from persecution and oppression. “We got the spirit to fight back with the formation of Khalsa. And, the protests against the farm laws also began in the Punjab. Ours is a country where people respect the martyrs. Indians come from a tradition where we pay homage to our loved ones, who are no more,” said Ranbir Singh.

Three of the young men who brought the soil from different places, Bhuprender, Mohan and Ranbir, said that farmers protesting at the borders could not go to these places themselves, but the soil from there would “rejuvenate their resolve to fight back, while boosting their spirit and morale.”

The final pot, in a row of eight, was brought to Singhu from Khatkar Kalan, ancestral village of Bhagat Singh just outside Banga town in Punjab’s Shahid Bhagat Singh Nagar district. “The crux of Bhagat Singh’s ideas,” said his nephew Abhay Singh, “was that exploitation of humans by humans and of nations by nations must end. This fight at the borders of Delhi is a move towards achieving his ideals.”

“Bhagat Singh is called Shaheed-e-Azam because of his ideas. The idea is that you have to write your own history. And we, as women, as farmers, as the oppressed, are writing our history,” said 38-year-old farmer and activist Savita, who owns five acres of land in Sorkhi village in Hansi-I tehsil of Haryana’s Hisar district.

“This government is bringing these laws only to give big corporations easy access to our land. Those who defy the decree of the centre, the executive sends them behind bars. We fight against not just the three farm laws, but also the corporations. We have fought against the British in the past. We will do so with their allies now.”

This article originally appeared on the People’s Archive of Rural India.

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Do We Have to Hate Lincoln Now?

These days it seems there are two kinds of progressives. Those who have spent months in Florida trying to rally Amazon warehouse workers to approve a union, and those on the San Francisco board of education who sought to rename certain schools after more politically correct progressive heroes.

These recent stories out of San Francisco made some of us wonder if there is nothing higher on Bay area politicians’ agenda than renaming Abraham Lincoln Elementary School after Grace Slick or whoever. It’s not like San Francisco and Berkeley don’t have their share of problems. The cities are notorious for their struggles with homelessness, lack of affordable housing, NIMBYism and gentrification.

But I suppose it is human nature that, faced with intractable problems, San Francisco’s elected officials would prefer to do something that will have an immediate impact.

When conservatives attack liberal policies, they often go after the policies of those they call out-of-touch elites, like San Francisco’s elected officials. Elites who often focus on cultural issues (removing statues, renaming schools) rather than kitchen table issues (minimum wage, family leave).

These same conservatives, however, will never go after progressives who champion workers rights. That’s because the conservative base is solidly working class and conservatives don’t want to remind those workers that the GOP’s policies are anti-working family.

That is why Sean Hannity or Charlie Kirk or Tucker Carlson will spend hours railing about canceling Abraham Lincoln, but never devote a minute to, say, the Missouri GOP’s ongoing attempt to roll back a recently approved modest increase in the minimum wage.

Basically, it comes down to this: while cultural issues are not unimportant (I was glad to see the Columbus statue removed from my neighborhood park), they are not as critical as the issues affecting working families, i.e., health care for all, paid family leave, mandatory paid vacations, student debt forgiveness, predatory lending, and daycare subsidies, to name a few.

Nor will cultural issues win back working class voters. In fact, they tend to have the opposite effect.

It was the GOP’s single-minded focus on cultural issues (Vietnam War protests, abortion, busing, etc.) that led to the working class’s mass defection from the Democratic Party in the late 1960s and early 70s. At the time, many progressives said good riddance to the working class. They were tired of compromising with racists anyway.

But at what cost? Few progressive policies have been enacted since the mid-60s. In the last fifty years, there has been little to no action on gun control, health care, labor laws, family leave, Medicaid expansion, free public college, a liveable wage, immigration, climate change, etc., while the gap between the rich and poor has grown, union membership has plummeted, military spending has soared and corporations and the wealthy have seen huge tax breaks.

Progressives, socialists and communists used to be focused almost exclusively on the working class. And in those days working families returned the favor by voting for the Democratic Party.

For working families, changing the name of Abraham Lincoln School is not on their to-do list and never will be. Progressives might want to take a look at that list.


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What’s Driving the Tax Games Corporations Play?

How do we make sure America’s corporations pay their fair share of the nation’s taxes? We cut away, team Biden is now proposing, at the thicket of tax loopholes that Corporate America is now so shamelessly exploiting. U.S. corporations — the world’s most profitable — are currently paying just 7.8 percent of their profits in federal income taxes. The United States collects, the Treasury Department points out, “less in corporate tax revenues as a share of GDP than almost any advanced economy.”

The Biden administration’s focus on corporate tax-dodging could hardly be more welcome. But the emerging debate over corporate taxes is so far overlooking one core reality we can’t afford to ignore: To make sure corporations pay their fair tax share, we need to make sure individuals are paying theirs.

And right now, of course, rich individuals are not paying that fair share. Billionaire Warren Buffett has been famously pointing out, for well over a decade now, that he pays taxes at a lower rate than his secretary. No deep pockets today pay over 37 percent of any income dollar in federal income tax. In the middle of the 20th century, by contrast, individual income over $200,000 faced a tax rate just over 90 percent.

Back in those days, major corporations also faced taxes at appreciable rates, around 50 percent of profits from the early 1950s to the late 1970s. And corporations did that paying without much fuss. Their corporate tax departments operated cautiously. Top execs feared getting caught cheating on their corporate tax returns, worried that cheating charges would blemish their company image.

Larry Langdon, a former tax director at Hewlett-Packard, remembered those days clearly years later in an interview with ace tax journalist David Cay Johnston. In his days at Hewlett-Packard, Langdon noted, any questionable tax maneuver would be subject to a simple test.

“My boss would say, ‘I want you to write the article that you imagine that the New York Times or Wall Street Journal would run if they find out about this, and if the article passes muster, we will consider doing the thing,” he recalled. “The deals that couldn’t pass that muster were not done.”

In the mid-20th century, top corporate executives like Larry Langdon’s boss had no particular personal incentive to engage in shady tax deals that might boost their corporation’s bottom-line. Why bother? Any added income they could gain individually from that shady corporate dealing would face a 91 percent tax rate.

But that sort of corporate caution started evaporating as federal tax rates on high levels of individual income started sinking, from 91 to 70 percent in 1964, then from 70 to 50 percent in 1981 and from 50 to 28 percent in 1986. Shady tax maneuvers that fattened corporate bottom lines would turn out to have far more appeal for executives who no longer faced stiff tax rates on their own personal earnings. These execs would soon come to expect corporate tax departments to start doing whatever they could, in Langdon’s words, to “aggressively reduce” the corporate tax burden.

And corporate tax departments have been doing that aggressive reducing ever since. Sleepy corporate tax departments have become vital corporate “profit centers” that have significantly enriched the corporate executive class.

Just how much enriching has taken place? This past February, Grinnell College economist Eric Ohrn released an eye-opening analysis of the impact of just two of the many tax loopholes that Corporate America has worked so diligently to put and keep in place, bonus depreciation and the “Domestic Production Activities Deduction.”

For every dollar a corporation benefits from these two tax breaks, Ohrn’s research has found, that firm’s five highest-paid executives gain 15 to 19 cents. A mere one percentage point decrease in corporate costs due to bonus depreciation, adds Ohrn, increases executive pay by 4.4 percent. Every percentage-point of corporate savings from the domestic activities deduction jumps executive compensation 3.2 percent.

Average corporate workers, meanwhile, see no comparable benefit. Corporate tax breaks, Ohrn concludes, “increase within-firm income inequality.”

“America’s corporate tax system has long been broken,” Treasury secretary Janet Yellen pointed out earlier this week. “So too has been the way we think about corporate taxation.”

But we can’t afford, our last half-century of tax history suggests, to think about corporate taxation in isolation, separate from how we tax individuals. If we let our largest cohort of super-rich individuals — our corporate execs — continue to accumulate as much as they can grab, they’ll continue to have a powerful personal incentive to sabotage any moves that aim to make sure our corporations pay their fair tax share.

Low tax rates on high personal incomes enflame greed fever. We need to tamp that fever down. If we don’t, we’ll put at risk whatever corporate tax fixes the Biden administration can bring us.

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Prince Philip (1921-2020), Saviour of Vanuatu

On the island of Tanna in the Vanuatu island chain in Melanesia (colonized jointly by British and French predators from the 1880s, and long known as the “New Hebrides”)—specifically in the village of Yaohnanen—there is a curious tale about a mountain spirit that traveled from Tanna to a distant land. There the spirit married a powerful woman. But it was prophesied that he would return to Tanna.

This story line became the basis for a “cargo cult,” one example of a type of millenarian religious cult emerging in the 20th century Pacific. The cults are related to interactions between foreign mariners, traders and soldiers and local people who perceive these outsiders as bearers of a higher civilization. To bring back the visitors, the cultists think, and to again receive their amazing goods, the people must emulate the foreigners by embracing their symbols (like the Christian cross) and imitating their behavior (as in crude military drills). From at least 1945 stories about one John Frum, a (probably fictitious) GI on Tanna, began to circulate on the islands. A tall white man, Frum had told the people that if they prayed to him, he would bring “radios, TVs, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola and many other wonderful things.” Ever Feb. 15 is John Frum day on Tanna; hundreds gather, women dance, men do cosplay military drills.

Somehow the Frum cult got tangled up with stories about Britain’s Prince Philip. Do not ask why; religions as delusion-clusters do not develop rationally. The cult involving Philip, presumably emerging after Elizabeth was crowned in 1952, existed as of 1974 when the Queen and Royal Consort visited Vanuatu, six years before its independence. John Champion, the British Resident Commissioner for New Hebrides, explained to the prince that the adherents to this cult revered him as a god. (To this day Yaohnanen pray to Prince Philip to protect their yam crops.) He suggested that Philip send the Tanna villagers a personal photo, which his grace graciously did. It was a deliberate act of diplomacy catering to an absurd belief system, a statement of imperialist condescension. Moved by this generous token, the villagers sent Philip a nal-nal or pig-hunting club. A finely crafted weapon, the club was the most precious and symbolically charged gift the tribe could render its god.

The flattered prince sent the villagers another photo of himself posing with the club. And another in 2000. All three photos were received and preserved by Chief Jack Naiva (d. 2009).

Tanna island is not one of the most important Vanuatu islands (these would be Espiritu Santo, Malakula, and Efate). It is smaller than the Hawaiian island of Molokai, one-third the size of Oahu. But its population is about 29,000 (to Molokai’s 7000). But it has repeatedly sought independence from Vanuatu. The British royals have warmed to it, basking in the religious devotion. If it is better to be feared than loved it is best of all to be worshiped by naked dancing people. Princess Anne, only daughter of Elizabeth and Philip, deigned to visit Tanna in 2014, followed by her brother Charles as recently as 2018.

The John Frum cult established a political party in Vanuatu which may now morph into a new configuration. It is not because the Melanesian peoples represented among the country’s 308,000 citizens are more gullible and manipulable by idiotic religious conceptions than—say—the typical Trump voter in this advanced civilized country who listens to QAnon and the Rev. Franklin Graham. It is more due to the fact that the British royals found this all delightfully funny!

One can imagine Prince Philip growling one teatime as the Empire collapsed: “No one in the world respects us anymore,” One can imagine Her Majesty replied, “But they do love you dearly in the Hebrides.” And so Philip, never a sincere convert to Anglicanism, promoted his own Tanna-based church. It was so easy. Just a series of sacred photos was enough to encourage the cult and insure immortality.

Philip’s spirit is back on that mountain on Tanno Island now, watching over the yams and coconut groves. People are drinking kava on the beach in his honor. I understand that his followers (about 700 people) are planning to form a new party based on his legacy.

“The people were very sad to hear of the passing of this great man,” says Prince Philip Movement activist Jean-Pascal Wahé. “He was a very important man to us all and it’s a great loss.” He announces plans for a grand memorial service. “It’s impossible to know yet exactly how many people will come but we are expecting between 100 and 500 of them. We will share stories about Prince Philip’s life and there will be a lot of discussion about the future of the cult.” (Yes, he actually refers to “the cult.”) “But, since Prince Charles is his son, he will now be worshiped.”

One can only imagine Charles’ feelings. He might want to head to the beach right after the funeral, bearing the nal-nal as his scepter. He could assign brother Andrew to be his permanent representative on the island. (Andrew as you know has been silenced by the royal family due to those charges about sex with underage girls procured by his friend Jeffrey Epstein. If he were to relocate to Tanna this past would not haunt him; indeed, underage girls would worship him and he could exploit them at will. He could proclaim himself king. Just a thought.)

It all makes so much sense. Thank you for your service, Prince Philip! Thanks for showing how, even in the age of waning imperialism and humiliating defeat, the British royals could maintain a sense of humor in indulging the quaint fetishists of these one-time cannibal islands. How deeply, fiendishly moving.

Changing the subject: I see that the British people are upset that too much time’s being spent on the dead prince story and too many popular TV shows bounced to create an artificial atmosphere of public mourning. Given broad indifference in Britain, the excessive reverence on Tanna must comfort the surviving royals. Abject colonial deference rooted in quaint religious fantasies refreshes the royal soul granting it eternal life. Or life at least until John Frum comes back.

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Time, Not Cheap Political Theater, is of the Essence

Thankfully, the disastrous and benighted Montana legislative session is limping towards its ignominious conclusion, which cannot come soon enough for many, many Montanans. Meanwhile, in Congress Democrat “centrists” like Sen. Joe Manchin threaten to hold up the major measures President Biden is seeking to address the tidal wave of very serious threats to the nation and our people unless Republicans go along — a futile and rather naive approach as the dregs of Trumpism continue to plague a once-serious political party. And over it all, a new report by the nation’s top intelligence officials tells us the unvarnished truth about the future — and it says the national and global crises are piling up and our chance to survive, let alone prosper, means taking real actions now, not just talking about it. And time, as they say, is of the essence.

For those who think we will somehow deal with the increasingly disastrous effects of climate change, global pandemics, rampant inequality and international tensions by waving a flag for one nation or political party, the National Intelligence Council’s “Global Trends 2040” report will be a harsh awakening to reality. As the subtitle bluntly puts it: “A more contested future” looms large and unavoidable for mankind.

Indeed, after decades of warnings of the impending environmental and economic cataclysm wrought by human-caused atmospheric pollution with the by-products of our industrialized societies, that future has arrived. Just last week the Mauna Loa Observatory on Hawaii’s Big Island recorded carbon dioxide (CO2) levels of more than 420 parts per million, the highest levels ever in human history and twice the pre-industrial levels of this potent greenhouse gas.

But we didn’t need a number to realize the global warming predictions are coming true. The Atlantic Current is the slowest it’s been in 1,600 years. Sweeping warm water up from the Gulf all the way to Greenland, the effects of the current’s changes and resulting impacts are global in scope. Meanwhile, the ice caps are melting — and we surely don’t need a study to tell us Montana’s glaciers are disappearing at an alarming rate. Shorter, warmer winters; longer, hotter summers; drought and wildfires, and increasingly powerful and destructive storms are real manifestations of our troubles — not politically motivated hype, as some would have us believe.

Which brings us to the seminal questions: What are we going to do about it and who is going to do it? For the last four years, our nation not only didn’t move forward in addressing these environmental challenges, it exacerbated them through the “regulatory rollbacks” enacted by our delusional former president. Likewise, his tax giveaways to the already wealthy and fiscal policies have exacerbated the impending crisis of economic inequality. He’s gone, but the future will pay for his folly.

Now, however, comes a new president in Joe Biden and a new realization by the leaders of the Democratic majorities in Congress that we have frittered away far too many opportunities and dodged too many responsibilities while hiding behind the sorry excuse of “bipartisan solutions” to the nation’s and planet’s increasingly unavoidable problems.

If “centrist Democrat” Joe Manchin thinks the out-of-work coal miners in West Virginia are sitting around debating the merits of ending the filibuster or using reconciliation to pass Biden’s much-needed economic aid to feed their families, educate their children, get health care, reclaim their mine-ravaged lands, and receive the retraining they’ll need as industries leave coal behind, the only one he’s fooling is himself. Time, not cheap political theater, is of the essence now — and the simple truth is we are out of time.

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The Biden Administration and the Chaotic Middle East

Photograph Source: The U.S. Army – CC BY 2.0

The Middle East is as combustible as ever, and there is no non-Arab state with decisive influence in the region.  Lawrence of Arabia warned more than 100 years ago that the Middle East was a “trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honor.”  Did someone say that what goes around comes around?  The region has certainly become a briar patch for the United States.

Ten years ago, President Barack Obama announced a “pivot” from the Middle East to the Pacific, but there has been no significant change in our force disposition in the Middle East. Russia has stable state-to-state relations throughout the region, but cannot even influence Syrian President Bashar al-Assad whom they saved five years ago.  China makes no attempt to play an influential role in the region, and wisely pursues commercial arrangements such as the major oil deal with Iran in return for long-term investment in Iran’s outdated infrastructure.

Meanwhile, chaos reigns. Israel’s democracy is deadlocked, facing the possibility of its fifth national election in the past two years.  The most divisive politician in modern Israeli politics—Benjamin Netanyahu—is seeking reelection so that he gains immunity from prosecution of charges that include corruption and breach of trust.  The Hashemite royal family is waging a food fight in full public view, threatening one of the few states that can claim stability over the past twenty years.  When Lawrence of Arabia was referring to the Middle East as a “trap,” he was primarily concerned with Iraq, which President George W. Bush destabilized in 2003 with an invasion based on deceit.  U.S. forces remain in Iraq, where they confront Iranian-backed militia forces.  The U.S. invasion opened a strategic door for Iran’s influence in Iraq.

The United States and Iran have serious problems as they tiptoe toward a resumption of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the so-called Iran nuclear accord.  Iran refuses to hold direct talks with the United States until Washington returns to the accord, so the U.S. delegation is excluded from Iran’s negotiations with Russia, China, and key European states.  The leader of the U.S. delegation, Robert Malley, is housed in a separate hotel in Vienna, Austria and depends on messengers to deliver news of the negotiations.  U.S. and Iranian heads of states, Joe Biden and Hassan Rouhani, are moving slowly because they fear opposition from their right wing opponents.

The essential first step for the Biden administration is the return to the Iran nuclear accord, which would signal to the international community that some sense of diplomatic order has returned to Washington after the incoherence of the Trump presidency.  Biden’s appointment of every major player who negotiated the 2015 accord (John Kerry, Wendy Sherman, William Burns, Jake Sullivan) as well as the appointment of Malley as a special emissary for Iran points to this being the president’s priority.  The fact that Biden has dragged his heels in touching base with both Israel and Saudi Arabia, major opponents of the JCPOA, is also a healthy sign.

There is additional reason for optimism.  The fact that working groups have been established to discuss Iran’s concern with economic sanctions and the U.S. concern with the treaty’s verification and monitoring provisions is a healthy sign.  The fact that Iran’s breakout time for producing a potential nuclear weapon has been reduced to a matter of months, and that Iran and Israel are fighting a maritime battle in the Red Sea adds urgency to the matter.  Netanyahu did his best to stop the Iran nuclear accord in 2015; he is limited in carrying out his opposition to a resumption of the accord in 2021 because of his own political weakness and legal vulnerability.  Similarly, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has made himself a pariah in Washington because he ordered the brutal killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Biden also has placed a hold on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that have conducted war crimes in Yemen with U.S. combat aircraft, bombs, and missiles.  The United States sells more arms overseas than all other countries combined, and the UAE is our largest customer.  Three huge companies (Lockheed/Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon) account for 75% of U.S. sales, and Lockheed’s F-35 fighter aircraft accounts for 50% of its sales.  In 2020, Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa registered more than $40 billion in purchases, primarily combat aircraft, bombs, and missiles.

A renewed role for the United States in the Iran nuclear accord would signal that Washington and the Biden administration are returning to an important role in managing the strategic competition and chaos in the Middle East.  Thus far, U.S. presidents have largely ignored progressive voices regarding policy toward the Middle East, but some movement on the Iran nuclear accord could presage concrete policies that deemphasize the role of U.S. military power and intervention, and create an opening for genuine diplomacy.

Biden’s restoration of $235 million in aid to the Palestinians, which Donald Trump brutally stopped, is another indication of a saner policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Typically, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. denounced the restored funding as “anti-Israel and anti-Semitic” in nature.  The ambassador obviously needs schooling on the Semites in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, the past four presidential administrations over the last two decades have been dysfunctional in their approach to the Middle East, doing nothing on the Palestinian question; applying no political pressure on Israel; and ignoring Israeli construction of settlements on the West Bank.  President Obama delivered a remarkably even-handed speech in Cairo in 2009, but two years later endorsed the Israeli security perspective in a speech to the UN General Assembly.  In 2016, Obama ignored the friction with Netanyahu and orchestrated the most generous giveaway of sophisticated military weaponry to Israel in history, obtaining nothing in return.

The management of strategic competition in the Middle East is particularly difficult because of the domestic political weakness of every Arab state as well as Iran.  Ten years after the Arab spring, authoritarian leaders still rule and there is no serious organized dissent.  In addition to the political and economic weakness of the Arab states, there is the religious and geopolitical conflict between a Sunni bloc led by Saudi Arabia and a Shia bloc led by Iran.  Iran is the most influential foreign actor in Iraq, and plays a key regional role supporting Hamas in the Gaza, the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and al-Assad in Syria.

Russia’s major worry is that the Islamist and jihadist groups that wage confrontation in these states will create disarray in the Muslim states of Central Asia that share a border with Russia.  Russia was successful in its intervention in Syria because the United States stayed out, knowing full well that the alternative to al-Assad was al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other extremist organizations.  The cooperation between the United States and Russia to remove most of Syria’s chemical stockpile revealed the value of their “equal and mutually beneficial cooperation,” which was the key to the detente between Washington and Moscow in the 1980s.  Cooperation between Washington and Moscow on nuclear proliferation issues involving Iran and North Korea could lead to an overall improvement in the international environment.

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The Return of Northern Ireland as the Most Dangerous Open Wound in British Political Life

Photograph Source: Fribbler – CC BY-SA 3.0

On the night of 15 August 1969, a Protestant mob burst into the Catholic part of west Belfast and burned down houses in and around Bombay Street, forcing the Catholic population to flee. The pogrom had a traumatic impact on Catholics in Northern Ireland, delegitimising the authorities for tolerating or assisting the mob, and playing a key role in the creation of the Provisional IRA.

On Wednesday night this week, a Protestant mob from the Shankill Road used cars to smash their way through the massive steel gates in the so-called peace wall dividing Protestants from Catholics in west Belfast. “The attack was very dangerous,” says Brian Feeney, a historian and columnist on The Irish News, taking place as it did close to a rebuilt Bombay Street and reawakening old terrors. “If the mob had broken through [the steel gates], they would probably have been met with gunfire.”

Reports on violence in Northern Ireland over the last week – the worst for decades according to the police – fail to understand that rioting in the province is of two types that look the same but have very different impacts. One is skirmishing with the police by setting fire to vehicles and hurling stones, petrol bottles and fireworks. Dangerous though this is, it has been practised by both communities at different times to advertise their grievances, on the correct presumption that events in Northern Ireland will be ignored by people in mainland Britain and the wider world unless there are dramatic scenes of violence to grab their attention.

But there is another much more dangerous type of rioting in which one community is pitted against another and which awakens memories of past sectarian blood-letting. This is what gives that attack launched from the Protestant Shankill Road towards the Catholic Springfield Road in west Belfast this week such deadly potential.

“It is so depressing,” said a friend in Belfast with long experience of the conflict. “This is the sort of thing I thought we had left behind us.” Sectarian hostility between the Catholics and Protestants never died away, but for 23 years the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) has kept a rough-and-ready balance of power between the two communities that is now close to breaking down.

My friend in Belfast, who lamented the return to old animosities, puts much of the blame on the first minister and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster. “She is incredibly incompetent,” he says, and she certainly has a record for inept opportunism that weakens her own community and exacerbates sectarian friction.

Yet there is more to the escalating conflict than the failings of Foster and the DUP. Unionists determined to keep Northern Ireland part of the UK are facing a more general crisis. The origins of this go back to the ending of the Protestant-dominated statelet after what was politely called “The Troubles” but was really a vicious low-level war lasting 30 years.

Demographically the Protestants are slowly losing out. They constituted two-thirds of the population when the Northern Ireland state was established a century ago, but are now probably less than half of it – something that will become clearer with the publication of the latest census figures next year. Sinn Fein may become the largest party in the assembly election in May 2022, and thus able to appoint a first minister.

Such long-term trends might have been absorbed peacefully, but they have been envenomed by the UK voting to leave the EU in 2016, though the province voted solidly Remain. The decision automatically reopened “the Irish question”, which had poisoned British politics for over 200 years, and which the GFA had temporarily put to rest. The partition of Ireland once again became a live political issue, to the delight of Sinn Fein. The 300-mile-long border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is now the international frontier between the UK and EU. But, since the abolition of a hard border is an essential provision of the GFA, this border runs down the Irish Sea.

The DUP briefly held high political cards between 2017 and 2019 because it kept a minority Conservative government in power at Westminster. But it overplayed its hand catastrophically, put its trust in Boris Johnson’s hand-on-heart promises about rejecting any Irish Sea border, and ended up by accepting the Irish protocol, which was the worst possible option from the unionist point of view.

Graffiti saying “Kill the protocol” began to appear on walls in Protestant districts earlier this year as new regulations on trade between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland were applied. These regulations may not be particularly significant in commercial terms, but they looked like one more very visible wedge splitting the union.

More worrying for the DUP, an opinion poll in February showed it to be well behind Sinn Fein and losing support to the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice. Floundering about and looking desperately for a policy, the DUP turned against the protocol, and is seeking vainly to replace it. But at the same time their leaders – since they head the Northern Ireland Executive – are meant to implement it.

Foster and the DUP fell back on a “dead cat” strategy – making a dramatic gesture to divert attention from their missteps. The result is that Foster is demanding that the head of the police service of Northern Ireland, Simon Byrne, should quit because of the failure to prosecute members of Sinn Fein who allegedly broke Covid-19 restrictions by attending the funeral of IRA leader Bobby Storey last June.

In fact, the decision not to prosecute was taken by the director of the Public Prosecution Service because there was no chance of a successful prosecution. The Covid-19 regulations  “had been amended on nine separate occasions” in a short period of time, and nobody quite knew what they were. After protests, this decision is now being reviewed.

Demanding rigorous implementation of the law against opponents while ignoring it oneself is part of the rich political tradition of Northern Ireland. The danger at the moment is that such punching and counter-punching reinforces the impression of Protestants that they are on the losing side and that Sinn Fein and the Republicans are the winners. Ulster unionists have always been quick to claim that they have been betrayed – and this time around they genuinely have been betrayed by Boris Johnson, though a less naïve DUP leadership might have seen this coming a hundred miles away.

Some commentators downplay the significance of the riots by correctly saying that they are orchestrated by UDA and UVF gangs, which are primarily engaged in the drugs business. These gangs have recently come under heavy pressure from the police, with many of their leaders arrested and awaiting trial. But this does not alter the fact that the Protestant working class feel that they gained little from the GFA and, as in the rest of Britain, they have seen the disappearance of well-paid industrial jobs in ship building, engineering and textiles. Many of the riots are taking place in deprived areas with high rates of Covid-19 infection.

Neither a united Ireland nor a sectarian civil war are necessarily around the corner, but Northern Ireland is back as the most dangerous open wound in British political life.

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When Prince Philip Became a Monument

Photograph Source: Jamie McCaffrey – CC BY 2.0

The student from Ghana was insistent. “I want to meet him.”  The stubborn, well-attired fool, groomed and keen to make a good impression, was attending the Senate House ceremony in Cambridge for honorary awardees.  He was not the only one.  In attendance on this warm June day in 2006 were a gaggle of rascals, well-wishers and rogues.  This was gawking made respectable.

The awardees were justifiably brilliant.  There were the establishment birds of paradise: the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, a man who soporifically charmed; and the Bank of England governor, Mervyn King.  The mad cat mathematician’s contribution was also honoured in the form of string theorist Edward Witten of Princeton. Honorary doctorates in law were also conferred upon educator Charles Vest and writer Njabulo Ndebele. Ahmed Zewail scooped the honorary doctorate in science and novelist Margaret Drabble the honorary doctorate in letters.

The ceremony was softly coated in formal Latin, the awards themselves granted to the bright and the brightest, the hall acting as a brace of history.  But it was the Duke of Edinburgh who, as ever, managed to cut through what would have otherwise been a stuffy gathering with his immemorial manner.  Cambridge University’s chancellor turned up to preside, and, his cloak train held by the unfortunate subaltern, appeared like a decorated reptile, gown merged with body.

The reception – for that is what many there had hoped to get a hack at – saw Prince Philip make his various social sorties.  These had the usual devastating air about them.  Old mocking remarks about colonies; jabs of casual racism garnished with a mock innocence.  Andrew O’Hagan of the London Review of Books was not wrong to observe that his questions would often lie “somewhere between existential brilliance and intergalactic dunce-hood.”  To the student from Ghana, who sauntered up to him expecting a nugget of revelation, he said this: “I say, are you still a colony of ours?”

The Prince Philip treasury is laden with such remarks, the sort that inspired other family members such his grandson Prince Harry while enraging commentators such as Hamid Dabashi.  To a Scottish driving instructor, the Duke of Edinburgh inquired how it was possible to “keep the booze long enough to pass the test”.  To an Australian Aboriginal: “Still throwing spears?”  To a group of British students on a royal visit to China: “If you stay here much longer you’ll all be slitty-eyed.”

A national treasure?  A petrified disgrace?  For Dabashi, very much the latter, with one redeeming feature.  “He is not faking it,” railed the Columbia University professor of Iranian studies in 2017.  “This is who he is – and the long panoply of his racist, sexist, elitist, misogynistic, class-privileged and unhinged prejudices is a mobile museum of European bigotry on display.”

A man such as the Duke of Edinburgh operated in a different dimension, distanced from revolutionary tremor and social evolution, even as the country he presided over with Queen Elizabeth II changed.  To expect such a man to evolve with an institution created before an understanding of genetics was hope defiant of experience.  He was expected to remain in the putty of permanent infantilism – at least on some level, more role than man.  Accepting monarchy is accepting a condition of long service, and the Westminster model demands that the sovereign reigns but does not rule. And that role was reserved for Prince Philip’s wife, Queen Elizabeth.

So much came to massaging him into roles he did not want, and situations he would have thought peculiar.  A man condemned to opening buildings most of his life is bound to get tetchy at some point, strapped to concrete, pillars and boredom.  Presiding over the opening of structures can risk turning you into a monument, a biped structure condemned to endless ceremonies of tenured stiffness.  Naturally, he had to assume the role of consort as robot, breaking occasionally into performance, his sparkles of misguided human observations rippling through the institutional straitjacket.

The role of service can be deforming. The Duke of Edinburgh Awards is touted as an example of “Prince Philip’s belief in the infinite potential of young people”.  The Royal had a rather different view of it: the awards were not to be celebrated as some deep, insightful contribution to society.  It was simply something to do.  At points, he seemed to have strange attacks of modesty.  On one occasion, he admitted that his greatest speech involved the utterance of a few words: “I declare open the Olympic Games of Melbourne, celebrating the sixteenth Olympiad of the modern era.”

In the biography of the queen mother by William Shawcross, we find a note written by a newly married Prince Philip to his mother-in-law, touching in so far as it shows an awareness of role and position.  “Lilibet is the only ‘thing’ in this world which is absolutely real to me and my ambition is to weld the two of us into a new combined existence that will not only be able to withstand the shocks directed at us but will also have a positive existence for the good.”

A profound shock was the emerging force of media scrutiny, prompting him to call it “a professional intruder”.  That was, is, its job, so you could not “complain about it.”  So, in front of the media, he would be able to tell the young children’s rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai that children went to school because parents wanted them out of the house.  Many wearied parents would have agreed; even the youthful Malala stifled a giggle.

The river of tributes duly flowed on the announcement of his passing.  Few were more suited to delivering one than Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson.  The Prime Minister, in various previous incarnations, had merrily offended a good portion of the earth’s nations and races.  “Prince Philip earned the affection of generations here in the United Kingdom, across the Commonwealth and around the world,” said the Prime Minister.  “By any measure, Prince Philip lived an extraordinary life – as a naval hero in the Second World War, as the man who inspired countless young people through the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and, above all, as Her Majesty The Queen’s loyal consort.”

Not much difference was noted on the Labor side of politics.  “The United Kingdom,” wrote Sir Keir Starmer, “has lost an extraordinary public servant in Prince Philip.”  He noted a life marked by dedication to country, a distinguished career in the Royal Navy during conflict, and decades of service.

From outside Britain, Barack Obama was off the mark, unable to resist the urge to be modern and very contemporary.  “At the Queen’s side or trailing the customary two steps behind, Prince Philip showed the world what it meant to be a supportive husband to a powerful woman.”

From the European Union, there was understanding without hyperbole.  European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen preferred a no-nonsense approach, expressing her sadness and extending “sincere sympathy to Her Majesty The Queen, the Royal Family and the people of the United Kingdom on this very sad day.”

During the reception of the honorary graduands that day in 2006, the strawberries being readily consumed, the champagne flowing like arteries let, Prince Philip could still muster a few remarks, speared, sharpened, and directed.  He mocked those who had not been to Cambridge, geniuses who never had the chance to go to that great educational wonder in the Fens.  “Is it true that there are actually a few of you who did not go to Cambridge?”  To see him in motion was to see an institution within a man, bones and flesh going through tasks he did with a certain measure of irritation and resignation.  The heat of battle must have been much more fun.

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Right-Wing Attacks on Germany’s Press

Photograph Source: Kalispera Dell – CC BY 2.0

In recent months attacks on press freedom have been on the rise throughout Germany. There has also been a sharp increase in violence against journalists. Assaults on the media in general have intensified massively in recent years, months and even weeks. This is especially true since the rise of the right-wing AfD and its street fighting organization Pegida. But violence also came with current anti-government rallies against the state regulations to contain the Coronavirus pandemic. During these so-called “hygiene rallies” a mixture of right-wing extremists, Neo-Nazis, tin-foil-hat wearing conspiracy fantasy believers, etc. again and again assaulted the media.

In the former East-German city of Leipzig, on a cold and damp evening of 7 November 2020 everything looked rather ordinary. It was dark but local people came to the rally. They screamed and waved their arms. Bottles became missiles and fireworks exploded. Suddenly, a group of aggressive demonstrators broke through the police line. Right in the middle were newspaper reporters and public broadcast journalists from TV stations.

Some of these media people pressed their backs against a police car which seemed to offer the only protection. But the journalists were surrounded by the unruly crowd. The right-wing mob gathered. The police were watching as the howling pack across the street. Journalists were insulted and called whores and traitors. They were called liars and fake news mongers, just as Donald Trump did for years. The playbook is the same, the country different. Reporters were shoved, spat at, threatened with lethal injuries and the Hitler salute is shown.

These kinds of violence and street level brutalities increasingly occur during rallies organized by Germany’s radical right. Such groups are the self-proclaimed anti-thinkers (perhaps: non-thinkers), a mixture of esoteric believers, tin-foil-hat people, right-wing extremists like the Reichsbürger, conservative family members, religious fundamentalists, the petit-bourgeois middle-class and retirees. Yet there are also extremist leadership cadres of an extreme conservative variety, apparatchiks of right-wing parties, young Neo-Nazis, hooligans, organized right-wing extremists. And they come from all over Germany, united in their hatred of the government’s corona virus measures.

Right in front of the police, numerous media representatives have been violently assaulted. Reporters have been beaten in the face, and attacks on camera equipment and their operators are frequent. There are physical and verbal threats. These occurrences have become rather commonplace. Reporters, microphone in hand, have been beaten to the ground and kicked on the head while lying on the ground.

Among those beaten are multi-award winning freelance journalists. Some have been well0known names who have been writing on Germany’s radical right for years. Many know Germany’s right-wing networks, their organizational setup and their members. They know things few people in Germany are aware of, sometimes even by the police. These victims also know how the right-wing works during rallies, and yet they risk their livelihoods and lives by covering such events.

Forty-three attacks on media representatives were recently listed by Germany’s Union of Journalists (DJU) during just one radical right rally – one single day alone. A union secretary, who witnessed the demonstration, says the violence and threats against journalists have risen to a new height. The aforementioned rally at Leipzig fits into a common trajectory. Violence against journalists has increased exponentially during the course of 2020.

In January 2021, the federal government responded to a parliamentary request from Germany’s small environmental Green Party. Germany’s federal government admitted there had been 252 attacks on journalists during 2020 – officially! This is more than twice as many as in the previous year. Among them were insults, threats, damage to property, assaults, arson and robbery.

One hundred and forty-four of these right-wing attacks came from Germany’s right-wing extremists and a mere 42 from the left. In other words, there were more than three times as many attacks on the media coming from the radical right than the left. Interestingly, much of this violence occurs in the former East-Germany state of Saxony, followed by the city of Berlin and Germany’s most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia.

Many of Germany’s NGOs are experiencing a rising number of attacks. German Reporters without Borders, for example, counted more violent incidents than ever before. In the meantime, the trade unions of journalists also reports an acceleration of assaults. Ever more, Germany’s radical right uses these hygiene rallies as a cover for their Neo-Nazi activities. This happened recently in West-Germany cities like Kassel, Hannover, Munich and Würzburg but also in the former East-Germany city of Dresden. Wherever there is rally against corona virus measures , journalists are being harassed.

Other statistics, however, help put matters into perspective. In 2020, confidence in the media actually increased. Around two-thirds of Germans consider media reports and the quality of the media to be credible. This is more than at any time since 2015. In that year public pollster Infratest Dimap began to investigate trust in the media on behalf of one of Germany’s largest public broadcast stations, Westdeutscher Rundfunk.

The latest study was conducted in autumn 2020. It revealed record figures. More than 80% of Germans consider public service broadcasting to be very trustworthy. Meanwhile, daily newspapers are rated as credible by 74%. Four out of five respondents agreed that the reporting on the Covid-19 pandemic of public broadcasters is either good or even very good.

To understand this apparent contradiction of violence against journalists, one the one hand, and high ratings of public surveys for their work on the other hand, one has to look more closely at where the violence actually happens. It occurs predominantly at hygiene rallies and on the internet.

In Germany there are people who believe in what Donald Trump calls the “lying press”. The origins of the term reach far back to the 19th century. At that time it was mainly arch-conservative Catholics who wanted to use the term to denounce the liberal, progressives and democratic newspapers and other periodicals that had emerged in the wake of the 1848 Revolution. Even then, the term “lying press” already had an anti-Semitic undertone.

Yet the expression was carried on through World War One. The term “lying Press” experienced new heights of power with the Nazis, when Hitler and with Goebbels kept screaming them out at party rallies, over the radio and in their propaganda journals. Then, with the collapse of the Third Reich, the phrase “lying Press” largely disappeared until recently.

Since the early 2000s, German Neo-Nazis and right-wingers have rediscovered the term, along with the phrase “The Press is the enemy of the people.” And so did Donald J. Trump. In October 2014, hundreds of Neo-Nazis and right-wing hooligans shouted violently, proclaimed themselves street-thugs against salafists and “the press is lying”. However, the term was hardly used by the general population. That is, until January 2015. An analysis of the term’s frequency on Google shows that Internet searches for the words “lying press” has skyrocketed – particularly in the former East-Germany states of Thuringia, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt. This resurgence in such illiberal and right-wing extremist language marked the moment when right-wing Pegida rallies and their offshoots began using it.

Ex-Neo-Nazi, ex-criminal and Pegida boss Lutz Bachmann – who likes to dress up in Nazi uniform and give the Hitler salute – boasts (most likely falsely) that he had been a “reporter” for Germany’s main right-wing tabloid Bild-Zeitung. Bachmann’s right-wing Pegida Party rejects established media using the term “lying press”. The phrase was written on Pegida posters, splashed on walls and printed on Pegida stickers. The speakers at these rallies that the media were all state-run and thus is spreading lies. This led rather quickly to a more general hatred of journalists.

Today violence against the press comes mainly from the right. About 60% of all attacks on journalists last year were committed by Germany’s Neo-Nazi and AfD groups. Only about 15% came from the left. These are the official figures released by Germany’s federal government. Other surveys point to an even higher proportion of right-wing attacks on the media.

These days, hygiene rallies, anti-asylum protesters, Pegida, AfD, Neo-Nazis, far-right hooligans and similar lunatic crusaders seem to think it’s okay for violent offenders to put themselves at the top the food chain. On the whole, they aren’t sorry for what they do and wouldn’t back down when dishing out violence. This could be seen at virtually every anti-corona-virus rally throughout last year. Germany’s organized rightist mobs mix in with a supposedly innocent middle-class milieu.

Many journalists have been repeatedly threatened by people who move between the inside and the outside of organized Neo-Nazis. A 2019 book called Völkische Landnahme (territorial occupation by race-based settlers) describes far-right hooligans and how deeply they are already operating inside what is called “educated middle-class citizens”. It mixes its ideology with petit-bourgeois middle-class attitudes to establish Germany’s rising right-wing ecosystems.

Out of this political maelstrom, many journalists, especially those carrying on research into right-wing networks, have received hateful and threatening messages. One such packet contained a rotten pig’s head smeared with blood-red paint and a blackmail letter signed The Coup d’état Orchestra. NSU 2.0. The NSU is Germany’s most violent Neo-Nazi death squad, responsible for killing ten people between 2000 and 2007.

The European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) based in the former East-Germany city of Leipzig documents the development of anti-press incidents in Germany. Last year, its research concluded a five-year review which found that attacks on the press are now the norm. It also found that right-wing rallies are the most dangerous places for journalists in Germany.

The study by ECPMF called “enemy journalists” (Feindbild Journalist) shows a new record high in terms of the numbers of right-wing attacks on journalists. It counted 69 attacks in 2020 – a five fold increase compared to the previous year and more than in any year since the survey began six years ago. It found that 71% of attacks occurred during “pandemic related events” – these are the so-called hygiene rallies of Germany’s radical right. The study also counted 31 right-wing attacks coming from a broad alliance of conspiracy believers, Reichsbürger, Neo-Nazis and esoteric conspiracy fantasy people.

The ECPMF was stunned by the force with which a radicalized discourse is taking place leading to the incitement of violence; it is highly visible on the Internet. One journalist described right-wing extremism on the web as, “the pleasure of hatred” and “the lust for hate”. The press is no longer seen as a democratic element in society.

As a result of the digital transformation from print to the Internet, journalists are no longer gatekeepers of careful research and fact-checked information. Everyone can express themselves any way they want on the Internet. Editors no longer decide what is newsworthy and are no longer processing of information for the public.

Instead of vetted information, wild disinformation spreads. Fake news and deliberately produced false news are taking up an increasing share of publicly-uttered opinion in Germany. Things like conspiracy ideologies, conspiracy fantasies, incitement against minorities, rage against the system and the press tend to come along with a glorification redolent of 1930s and 1940s Nazism. This dangerous misinformation reaches more and more people through right-wing chat groups.

And the hate-speech does not stay there. One user in a right-wing chat group of the messenger service Telegram called Conspiracies posted a link to an article by news-website The online portal belongs to the media group Upper Franconia. The article was about a 48-year-old who died of Coronavirus. On Facebook, a user had doubted that the man had actually died of the disease. There are dreadful stories of patients in ICU beds who, while being offered treatment, deny that they have Corvid-19 and refuse medical attention.

Screenshots of these statements are shared in the Telegram group. One particularly loathsome member of the group comments: “TO HELL WITH YOU, YOU WRETCHED SCUMBAGS FROM THE LYING PRESS! TO HELL”. Underneath he posts the address, telephone number and mail address of the editorial office. He wrote, “Let the bomb[ing] begin friends!” (Typesetting error in the original).

This particular right-wing Telegram group has more than 50,000 members. In the days that followed the incident described above, huge loads of calls to the editorial staff of came in, mostly abusive calls and hysterical emails. Many were written directly to the editor of This is a small sampling of such vile rhetoric. And there are similar occurrences all over Germany.

These attacks might not signify direct violence. But they are the beginning. They are a kind of insidious poison and hatred that runs slowly into editorial offices. The enemy is the free press. Germany’s radical right seeks to undermine the free press by plastering the media with hate messages. One strategy is to keep the journalists and reporters from doing their work. Another strategy is to send more and more direct threats.

The radical right uses Anti-Corona hygiene rallies and ordinary people confused and disaffected by government measures as an accelerator to ignite mob attacks on journalists. The latest official numbers confirm this: of the 252 crimes against journalists counted by the federal government in 2020, a large proportion took place on the side-lines of so-called anti-Corona rallies, just like the one held in former East-Germany city of Leipzig in November 2020.

Hate messages on the net, beatings during such rallies and sending a dead pig’s head by mail. Attacks like these on journalists have become rampant. There are several explanations for this.

Neo-Nazi marches in Chemnitz in August 2018 spiced up with the Hitler salute, for example, was a very important moment of mobilization by Germany’s right-wing extremists against the press. The radical right’s brutality and blatant media hostility has now found a new outlet with the demonstrations against the government’s corona measures. Nobody likes to be told they can’t visit friends and relatives or walk through the streets or go for a glass of beer. Official medical explanations often don’t convince the uneducated and 1the inexperienced. Rising statistics on cases per day, number placed in hospitals and death rates are frightening. Frightened people blame the messengers and think that by shutting down the press and other media, the pandemic will go away.

Some experts argue that Coronavirus makes many people insecure. Insecurity makes them anxious. Anxiety cries out for quick solutions. Those looking for simple explanations for the complex crisis are susceptible to propaganda spewed out by right-wing extremists..

Soothing denials of reality and easy solutions is something Germany’s quality media does not offer because the Coronavirus pandemic is not a simple issue. Therefore, the media becomes the enemy. This is a common narrative that is rehearsed again and again by Pegida, AfD, the radical right, Neo-Nazis, etc. Anti-press resentment often appears during rallies against corona measures. The radical right claims Germany’s anti-Corona measures are instigated by the elites to control ordinary Germans.

At hygiene rallies one can see signs that say “Merkel is a puppet” and “Covid Press”. Anyone who thinks in such glib mind-sets can easily believe that the newsreader on television is an enemy and that the press is after them. Since most hygiene rallies and right-wing politicians are criticized by Germany’s quality media, the people side with the voices they can understand and condemn the elite broadcasters. The hatred of the entire apparently corrupt system, like an open sewer, is discharged into the town square and the nervous family’s living room.

Corona has also incited violence against journalists in other countries, to be sure . Journalists in the Netherlands were pelted with stones, beaten, sprayed in the face with a chemical substance and fired at with fireworks. Similar things have happened in Italy, Austria and Slovenia. In Germany, the official figures provided by the federal government on anti-press violence do not reflect the true reality of the problem, says Germany’s Reporters without Borders. It estimates that the true number must be at least twice as high as what is official counted. But as history teaches us, in the case of the Nazis in 1932, only a very small majority can quickly take over a whole nation. If Franklin Delano Roosevelt was right in saying on the eve of World War Two, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” we must see that the right-wing extremists have one product to peddle: fear.

In order to prevent journalists from being exposed to the hatred of right-wing demonstrators, reporters are, at times, accompanied by the police. But many press representatives do not want to rely on this: a free press has to be free to go where it needs to be report e vents properly. Again and again it happens during hygiene rallies that the police not only do not protect the press but even obstruct the press by not letting journalist past barriers, presenting them from interviewing members of the crowd and leaders of the rally. Many police officers do not even know that Article 5 of Germany’s constitution which guarantees freedom of the press, in fact, protects the press’ constitutional right to investigate such rallies.

One of the best-known examples of this happened to a ZDF (of one Germany’s main public broadcaster). Its team was filming a Pegida rally in the former East-German city of Dresden. Shortly into the event, two demonstrators reported to the police that journalists had allegedly violated their rights. The police detained the camera team for 45 minutes, checked their IDs and prevented them from working. The incident became known as “Pegizei” a portmanteau term combining “Pegida” and “Polizei” to show how close Saxony’s police and Pegida are. Despite an apology by Saxony’s police chief, the episode still shows how former East-German police officers protect the radical right against the media. This incident was so bad that Pegizei now has its own Wikipeida entry.

Overall however, there is a code of conduct between the police and the press. The code has a typical German and very cumbersome title “Principles of Conduct for the press/Radio and police to avoid obstructions in the performance of police duties and the free exercise of reporting”. Recently, politicians promised an urgent update of the code to outline how police officers should be better trained in legal issues when dealing with the media.

Today, some newspaper editors only send their press teams to demonstrations with bodyguards. A ZDF team which was attacked again recently during a so-called hygiene rally in Berlin suffered one of the most brutal incidents of last year. Four members of the reporting team had to be treated in hospital, despite the ZDF team having three security guards with them.

Germany’s DJU noticed that increasingly their members are experiencing violence and tend to avoid certain rallies. The journalists also tend to hide their press passes, camouflage microphones and take notes inconspicuously on their mobile phones. Before the big rally in Leipzig (November 2020), reporters and journalists had initially decided against reporting for fear of attacks.

In fact, there are regions in Germany – often in the former East-Germany – where journalists fear to go because police protection cannot be provided. This includes Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Brandenburg, Thuringia and Saxony. If this continues “reporting blind-spots” will appear in reminiscence that German Neo-Nazis call no go areas – areas cleansed of non-Germans. Historically, these are reminiscence to areas the real Nazis had cleaned of Jews – made Judenrein. In typical Nazi language, the German word “rein” or “clean” implies that an area was previously spoilt by the existence of Jews but now it has been cleaned up – purged of Jews. The inhumanity of the Neo-Nazis follows the inhumanity of Auschwitz.

Today, some of these areas remain un-spoilt by the presence of the media. This allows Germany’s right-wing extremists to operate more or less freely. Paradoxically, these “media free” areas mark places where media attention is mostly urgently needed. These are the cities, towns and villages where the enemies of democracy and free society congregate.

What right-wing extremists are capable of was demonstrated, not only in the former East-Germany but also on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC when thousands of Trump far-right extremists stormed the Capitol Building with the intention of threatening democratically elected members of congress and perhaps even of eliminating democracy altogether.


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Farmworkers Need Families, Not Deportation and Exploitation

Farmworkers pick persimmons in a field near Poplar, in the San Joaquin Valley, in a crew of Mexican immigrants. Many workers wear facemasks or bandannas as a protection against spreading the coronavirus. Maria Madrigal is a picker in the crew. Copyright David Bacon.

During the Trump administration, the U.S. deported an average of 275,725 people per year, almost the same number of workers – 257,667 – brought by growers last year to labor in U.S. fields. Contract laborers on H2-A visas now make up is a tenth of the U.S.’s total agricultural workforce – an increase of more than 100,000 in just six years.

Deporting people while bringing in contract farm labor is not new.  In 1954, during the bracero program the U.S. deported 1,074,277 people in the infamous “Operation Wetback, and brought in 309,033 contract workers. ” Two years later 445,197 braceros were brought to work on U.S. farms.

Farmworkers already living in the U.S. were replaced by contract labor when they demanded higher wages.  Farmworker advocates accused the government of using deportations to create a labor shortage, and force workers and growers into the bracero program. Braceros were abused and cheated, they argued, and deported if they went on strike.

In response, civil rights and labor leaders of that era, including Cesar Chavez and Ernesto Galarza, pushed Congress to end the bracero program.

After ending the bracero program in 1964, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.  A preference system for family immigration replaced the growers’ cheap labor supply scheme. By no accident, the grape strike which began the farmworkers’ union movement in Delano started the same year.

Today the Biden administration is seeking ways to undo the damage to immigrants and workers wrought by Trump’s executive orders.  For farmworkers the worst of those orders came last April, when an infamous tweet suspended all the processing of family preference visas, effective ending the program won by the civil rights movement. At the same time Trump tried to cut the wages of today’s braceros, the H2-A workers, and expand the program by making it even more grower-friendly.

In one positive move, Biden rescinded Trump’s wage cut.  But a deeper choice remains.

The H2-A program is even more abusive than the old bracero program.  An opaque system of private recruiters and contractors brings in workers, extorting bribes for visas.  Once in the U.S. these workers suffer wage theft and systematic labor violations.  During the pandemic their barracks and bunk beds have become centers for spreading infection, and several have died. When workers protest conditions and go on strike they are fired and sent back to Mexico, and blacklisted for future employment.

At the same time, farmworkers living in the U.S. have seen their wages stagnate.  It is not unusual to see workers living in cars and under trees at harvest time.  Legal cases document the replacement of resident farmworkers by H2-A workers. This is not legal, but only 26 out of over eleven thousand growers were temporarily suspended from the program last year for violations.  Already in states like Georgia and Washington more than a quarter of all farm jobs are now filled by growers bringing in contract labor, and the number is rising quickly.

Over 90 percent of all farmworkers living in the U.S. are immigrants, and half are undocumented. Yet there is no way for those without papers to gain legal status.  The largest agricultural employers have responded to demands for legalization with the Farm Workforce Modernization Act.  It sets up the conditions for enormous growth in the H2-A program, and would likely lead to half the farm labor workforce in the U.S. laboring under H2-A visas within a few years. The bill will prohibit undocumented workers from working in agriculture, while implementing a restrictive and complex process in which some undocumented farmworkers could apply for legal status.

Instead of competing for domestic workers by raising wages, growers want H2-A workers whose wages stay only slightly above the legal minimum.  This system then places workers with H-2A visas into competition with a domestic labor force, depressing the wages of all farmworkers.

For farmworkers trying to organize and change conditions, the H2-A program creates enormous obstacles.  When H-2A workers themselves try to change exploitative conditions, employers can terminate their employment and end their legal visa status, in effect deporting them. Workers are then legally blacklisted, preventing their recruitment to work in future seasons.  Farmworkers living in the U.S., thinking about organizing or going on strike, have to consider the risk of being replaced.

Copyright David Bacon.

Meanwhile, farmworkers who have visas or are citizens can’t reunite their families here in the U.S.  A mother who wants to bring her married daughter or son from Mexico City or Manila must wait over two decades because the family preference system has been starved for visas.  Meanwhile the H2-A program grows exponentially.

The time has come to do what Chavez and Galarza advocated, and won, half a century ago.  The H2-A program must be ended.  Family reunification visas should be made available to the families that need them.  People brought by their families to the U.S. will need work, and growers can hire them and others by raising wages and bargaining with farmworker unions.

Many people in Mexico need work in the U.S. as well.  Making permanent visas available that are not tied to work status, while prohibiting recruitment by employers and contractors, allows people to cross the border and settle here with families.  Growers needing their labor can pay higher wages to make farm labor jobs attractive.

High-wages and secure jobs for farmworkers can only come by discarding the old deportation/guestworker model, and instead supporting families with legalization, family-based visas, and unions and labor rights.

This oped is based on a report on the H2-A program from the Oakland Institute, “DIGNITY OR EXPLOITATION – WHAT FUTURE FOR FARMWORKER FAMILIES IN THE UNITED STATES?

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Will a Scorched-Earth Campaign Successfully Invisibilize Toronto’s Homeless Encampments?

Photo of the aftermath of the fire that destroyed Jeff Dagg’s tent taken June 21, 2020 by Doug Johnson Hatlem.

When Jeffrey Dagg returned to the tent he shared with his sister in Toronto’s George Hislop Park on Sunday, June 21st of last year, all that remained were the smouldering ruins seen in the picture above. The southern wall of the tent next to Jeff’s, as can also be seen, had been blown to hell shortly before 2 a.m. by the initial, very intentionally set, explosion. The occupant of that neighbouring tent, an Indigenous man in his twenties, narrowly escaped terrific injuries when he smelled diesel gasoline being poured from a yellow container, dropped the art supplies he was working with, and exited just in time.

Toronto’s police, fire department, and most other City officials have provided a carefully drawn study in steadfastly looking the other way when it comes to the cause of such fires.

Jeff, a gaunt, goateed man who had just turned forty-six years old, dealt drugs in the Sanctuary-Hislop encampment.

He made no apologies for such, though he did request extra time in the Sanctuary church basement during drop-in that evening. A swarm of 51 Division officers arrived in the park at the behest of a woman who had been traumatized by the fire and by the reported rape of another woman. The woman who reported the sexual assault pointed to the same man, nicknamed Sumo, that many encampment residents accused as responsible for the fire.

Jeff had outstanding warrants and feared police might run his name if he left the building.

Police, however, were uninterested in investigating the fire, though they were a bit taken aback by the large blackened area in the park. Officers from 51 did take possession, eventually, of the yellow canister of diesel, but the cops present the evening after the fire spent most of their time mocking the woman who had called 911 and was still hollering. The officers seemed to think they could calm things down by reminding her loudly and publicly that if she appeared to be cooperating with them, she might well face retaliation in the park. (She did not face any such retaliation.) Sanctuary’s staff, of which I am also a working member, instead convinced her to come inside for a second shower.

I had arrived first, early in the afternoon, to set up for Sanctuary’s drop-in that chaotic day. Over the subsequent hours and days, I managed to speak with four people who were outside in the park when the fire was lit or who were otherwise awake enough in their tents to know what was going on. All four fingered Sumo as the arsonist, together describing to me how things went down to a significant level of corroborative detail.

Jeff, who was not present at the time of the fire, described Sumo’s operational mode. “He showed up every night, driving his black BMW, telling everyone in the park that they had to buy from him and his dealers and not me – except on the nights where police raided us. And he’s just not there those nights. Why do you think that is, Doug?”

Photo of Jeff Dagg taken from his Facebook profile.

Other campers shared those sentiments, directly suggesting that Sumo was working with police as a confidential informant.

Less than three weeks earlier, police had arrested two of Sumo’s other rival dealers in the park next to Sanctuary, then quickly leaked damning details to a Court reporter for the Toronto Sun. The Sun article led with a bit about “the fentanyl-infested Tent City.”

Another of the more prominent dealers – one more friendly to Sumo, and with first-hand knowledge of the events surrounding the fire – spoke to me for this article on the condition of anonymity. “Look, that’s just how things work out here. If the police have something over you and ask you to do something, there are very few people who will say no. Certainly I don’t see any reason why Sumo would. He plays those games like everyone else. It happens all the time.”

A second woman accused Sumo of raping her the following evening and requested support reporting that sexual assault to police. Bypassing calloused frontline officers and untrustworthy upper ranks, I made use of an exception I have long allowed to my policy of not cooperating with the system of mass incarceration.

The second woman spent hours recounting what had happened with professional and sympathetic mid-level, sex crimes unit police women. Sumo, real name Hatim Zedan, was charged accordingly. He was, however, released on bail within twenty-four hours. Toronto Police showed no interest in further investigating the fire that destroyed Jeff’s tent, and the woman who had reported the second rape was attacked with bear mace to her face by two of Sumo’s associates the evening after his release.


There is a long history of police in Toronto (and beyond in Canada) targeting anti-poverty and anti-racist groups with undercover activity. Just before the G-20 meetings in Toronto in 2010, undercover police officers, later named as such in court proceedings, attempted to infiltrate Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) meetings. They were rebuffed.

Brian Dubourdieu, a long time Sanctuary community member, often organized with OCAP. Just days before the G-20 events began, a plain-clothed man tried to start a fight with him on the south end of George Hislop Park. Several police officers quickly rushed into the scene. When Brian dusted himself off, he realized that all the police officers and the plain-clothed man had quickly disappeared, along with a back pack that held a laptop he had recently been given for his organizing work. Brian is convinced the man who tried to fight him was working directly with police and the G-20 security apparatus.

A source, who asked not to be named to protect their occupation, relayed to me that they were present at a training session where a Toronto security company reviewed examples of their guards being used undercover in an attempt to infiltrate an OCAP demonstration at City Hall in 2013.

The use of confidential informants, as opposed to undercover officers or security guards, in Canadian context is even more murky.

In 2013, Mi’kmaq peoples engaged in months long resistance to shale gas fracking on Indigenous land in Elsipogtog, New Brunswick. APTN reported on the use of a security firm led by a Mi’kmaq man who wrote an entire book, still available on Amazon, which regales readers with tales of his time as a confidential informant working for the RCMP, primarily on the east coast, but also in Ontario. Those exploits included participating in gang rapes as part of his confidential work with biker gangs. Stephen Sewell directly stated that he kept police informed of such activities, even as he was regularly being paid by the same forces. “They told me that if the victim doesn’t file a complaint, then they were not going to act,” says Sewell in the book, as noted by then APTN reporter Jorge Barrera (now at CBC).

More recently, just two days before the June 2020 fire at the Sanctuary-Hislop encampment, Maclean’s published an article focusing on a nearly half million dollar bank transfer received by Gabriel Wortman, the man who killed twenty-two people during an hours long crime spree in Nova Scotia. During the massacre, Wortman was dressed as a police officer. The Maclean’s article more than strongly suggests that the type of payment transfer involved is only ever made as part of Canadian police remuneration of confidential informants.

Last Tuesday morning, I connected by phone with Ryan Teschner, Executive Director and Chief of Staff for the Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB). I asked Teschner whether there are any written policies governing Toronto Police (TPS) recruitment and use of confidential informants. Beyond knowing that TPS carefully guards the identity of such informants for their supposed safety, Teschner did not believe that the Board, or any other level of government, had specific written policies, outside of Court rulings, controlling such activity. But he was not certain.

Teschner followed up on Thursday morning by email, directing me to a TPSB policy that does, in fact, exist for these matters. Stunning in its breadth and detail, the policy consists of one entire sentence as follows:

“It is the policy of the Toronto Police Services Board that the Chief of Police will establish procedures and processes relating to the use and management of informants and agents.”

The policy was promulgated on October 26, 2000 and updated after the G-20 events on November 15, 2010. Ontario’s Police Service’s Act, to which the policy’s header material refers (Adequacy & Effectiveness of Police Services, O. Reg. 3/99, s. 13(1)(e)), does require each police chief in Ontario to “establish procedures and processes” for informants and agents. It does not, as per a subsequent message from TPSB Senior Advisor Sandy Murray, preclude a Board from guidance, oversight, or governance in establishing them. Murray, nevertheless, told me that it was only possible to ask for a copy of such procedures and processes from the Chief’s office.


Beyond the fire that destroyed Jeff and his sister’s tent last June, I wrote separately in these pages in December in the article “Is It Arson? Seven Suspicious Fires in Seven Days Rock Toronto’s Homeless Encampments.”

The main question and related questions from that article are still unanswered. Toronto Police, the fire department, and the larger City apparatus are focused, like Ahab on the white whale in Moby Dick, on clearing such encampments, consequences be damned. They continue to remain steadfastly incurious as to the cause of such fires.

To review, update, and extend the relevant reporting in that article:

Jimmie Tierney woke up to a fire being set in the foam dome next to his at HTO Park on the waterfront around 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 5. Toronto Police took a statement from Jimmie and his friend, but even after a subsequent fire in the same location a week later, police have never publicly established a cause of the fires, made an arrest, or engaged in any kind of visible further investigation. Jimmie noticed an unmarked car that he felt uneasy about near the encampment. It left, per Jimmie’s recollection, just after the fire was put out.

On December 7th, a Tiny House was set ablaze in Moss Park. My Sanctuary colleague Greg Cook drove the resident affected to shelter for the evening. Along the way, she told him that a person had threatened her just before the fire, demanding that she turn over possession of it immediately. A second fire, much less damaging, scorched the roof of a second Tiny House in the same location the following evening. At least one park resident told Jeff Bierk, Encampment Support Network (ESN) lead for Moss Park, that they had seen a police car keeping watch over the area of the encampment where the fire started from across Shuter Street just before the first night’s fire began.

On December 8, the evening of the second Moss Park fire, a major fire with terrific explosions rocked the homeless encampment on the west side of Lamport Stadium in Liberty Village. M.J. and her partner Warren were in the tent at the time the fire was set. M.J. got away from the scene after challenging the man she says doused the tent with gasoline, then set it ablaze. She did, however, receive minor injuries to her neck, which she showed to CBC News a few days later. Her partner Warren was less fortunate. He was taken to ICU and spent nearly a week recovering from his injuries in a nearby hospital.

Toronto Police Constable Edward Parks told the online outlet BlogTO that police were investigating reports of “a person who intentionally threw accelerant onto the fire” at Lamport. Police then showed video, reportedly with a man pouring liquid onto the tent prior to the fire, to multiple camp residents the next morning. Those residents included a woman named Kiki who described the video in detail to me. M.J. says she also viewed the video, but thought it was a neighbourhood resident, also a woman, who showed her the video. I immediately filed an Access request with Toronto Police to get a hold of the video.

.@TorontoPolice told @blogTO of reports of a "person who intentionally threw accelerant onto the fire" at Lamport Stadium last night. When CBC's @GregRoss17 asked for more info on this, TPS told him to file an FOI. I will be mailing tomorrow. @DesmondCole @cllrainslie @JohnTory

— Doug Johnson Hatlem (@djjohnso) December 10, 2020

TPS took far longer then the statutory 30 days to get back to me, after asking if I could provide written permission and photo ID from affected residents. I have informed TPS through email and and an appeal that the residents had given me verbal permission, but did not have photo ID. I and the affected residents were willing to work on other ways of relaying permission to the police for the video. I also stated that I did not feel it was necessary to prove such permission as this is clearly a public interest matter. The fire took place in a public park, multiple media outlets have reported on the matter, and a police spokesperson commented publicly on the fire and explosions, making reference, in fact, to the evidence in question.

In a letter dated February 22, 2021, Mr. P. McGee, Coordinator Access & Privacy for TPS denied my request for the video. While TPS is not claiming that the video does not exist, they are claiming that releasing it would violate the privacy of those involved and are claiming that PC Parks’ statement does not matter as “there were no formal statements released concerning the events on December 8th, 2020.”

Again, Toronto Police have made no effort to further investigate the matter and have, in fact, told media outlets that the fire is deemed accidental.

Another fire, considered highly suspicious by one or more residents, sent up in flames an encampment off Fleet Street in Toronto’s Parkdale area the week following my previous article on these matters. I have extensively interviewed Davit Sesishuili, who was badly affected by that fire. That event is beyond the purview of this article as it would require many more paragraphs to detail. Suffice it to say that Davit is convinced that the fire was set intentionally, and may well involve City employees or a specific police officer who regularly participated in a local Facebook forum that berated the encampment.

I am also, for now, mostly leaving out discussion of two fires at Holy Trinity Square behind the Eaton Centre which, together, would demonstrate the City and Toronto Police’s commitment to ignoring targeted fires that harm poor and racialized people while working to scapegoat an Indigenous man for a fire that harmed no one, where intent is completely unclear, and where Holy Trinity Church, whose south wall was partly blackened, had and has no interest in seeking legal proceedings criminal or otherwise.

It is, however, not just encampments that have seen major fire damage in recent months in Toronto. At least two shelter hotel rooms have caught fire, leading to the death of at least one resident so far in 2021. On December 29, 2020, Sasha Grey’s room at the Hotel Victoria shelter burned.

Sasha died of injuries from that fire on January 1.

On February 14, a fire at The Bond Place Hotel trapped a resident named Jennifer Jewell, who suffers physical disabilities, on the fifteenth floor, per her recollection. A man named Jeremy died a few days later, and some community reports have suggested the fire played a part in his demise. As per the media article noting Jennifer’s entrapment, Dixon Hall has stated clearly that there were “no injuries” related to the fire, a statement that Dixon Hall’s David Reycraft confirmed to me again this past weekend. The Office of the Fire Marshall in Ontario (OFM) has stated that it has no information about a death or injuries in that fire, information it would normally receive if a death or serious injury had occurred.

(On April 6, on CBC‘s Metro Morning show, I referred to two deaths by fire in shelter hotels so far in 2021. The preceding paragraph corrects that information based on better sourcing. I had submitted questions about the Valentines Day fire at The Bond to the City on April 1 toward the completion of this article but still have received no reply to any of the eleven total questions for this article as submitted.)

The best information I have been able to glean to date suggests that the fire that killed Sasha Grey, however, may well have been suspicious, and “[t]he incident remains under investigation” per a statement from OFM spokesperson Kristy Denette.


All of that foregrounds a major fire near dawn on Ash Wednesday, February 17th in the encampment that formerly existed at Richmond and Power Streets just on the edge of the downtown east area. Ms. Denette also confirmed that, in spite of the way the City has run riot in using this fire politically, OFM has not tendered its analysis: “[W]e are in the midst of completing a report into the origin, cause and circumstances of this fatal fire.”

Photo of Gordon’s burned wooden structure taken February 19, 2021 by Doug Johnson Hatlem.

While remaining relatively or totally mum on the fire that killed Sasha (with nothing at all in response to direct inquiry about whether sprinklers were installed and worked properly and whether there was an adequate fire safety plan in place), the City has consistently made exploitative use of the Power Street fire in media, camp clearance notices, and court documents. In particular, they have used the fire publicly to justify seeking an injunction against carpenter Khaleel Seivwright, a Black man who has used his experience of homelessness to help others by building Tiny Houses.

The resident who died in the Power Street fire, though never named in the City’s propaganda on this matter, was known by the first name Gordon per two other former residents of the encampment named Dan (last name withheld at his request) and Dave Gordon. I have so far not been able to track down Gordon’s last name.

Dave knew Gordon for years, particularly as they had both stayed at the Maxwell Meighen Salvation Army Shelter. Dave describes Gordon as a gentle, fun loving guy who got himself in trouble every now and again at the shelter when high. “He was a very humble guy, didn’t ask for much. He was a good friend. He was kind and caring and willing to help people. When I got my new place, I thought of home because he was always over there visiting the Asian guys [who stayed at the encampment].”

Dave, however, insisted that Gordon did not use opioids. “He wouldn’t touch down. He hated it. He was a crystal guy.” According to Dave, Gordon finally left Maxwell Meighen for the encampment at Power Street because of an interminable body lice infestation that he couldn’t beat while in the shelter. Dave, who had finally landed housing of his own a short time before the fire, gave over his wooden structure for Gordon’s use.

Toronto Police blocked off the site of the fire for several days, but told journalists that they could not investigate or comment further until OFM has completed its investigation. In the absence of official comment on the cause and circumstances of the fire, a wide variety of theories have arisen, some more credible than others.

One theory suggests that Gordon used opiates and fell asleep with a candle that subsequently tipped over and caused the fatal fire. There are several problems with this theory, however, among them Dave’s insistence that Gordon stayed away from “down” meticulously. There is, furthermore, no evidence that Gordon used candles for heating or lighting. Dave’s testimony, and evidence I viewed myself at the scene, suggested that Dave and Gordon used small flashlights for lighting. Dave said that the blankets and sleeping bags he used, and left to Gordon, provided plenty of heat even on the very coldest nights within the well-insulated wooden structure. “You could sleep in your underwear, and it was still warm.”

A second and third set of theories suggest that the real target was Dan, who stayed until recently in a tiny structure less than a metre from the structure in which Gordon died. Dave discounts these theories, as he believes which structure was used by whom was widely known, even by those who would have reason to attack Dave or Dan. Theories two and three suggest either that someone Dan owed money to for drug use attacked the wrong shelter or that a man Dan had gotten into a fist fight with approximately thirty-six hours before the fire was responsible. While Dan himself entertained such theories in multiple conversation with me, he was ultimately not convinced. He had been friends for years with the man he fought with on the Monday prior and just did not think him capable of such violence. He also could not think of anyone he owed enough money to engage in such a shocking act.

Dave, however, thinks he may have been the real target, as he had lived in the structure that burned until a few weeks prior. Dave’s girlfriend died of an overdose at The Bond Hotel on November 6, 2020. Dave is persuaded that she died of an intentionally strong dose, intended for someone else (a dose strong enough to kill someone is known on the street as a “hot shot”).  Dave says he has made it clear to the person he holds responsible for his girlfriend’s death that he intends to seek revenge. Dave’s theory, accordingly, is that he was targeted in the fire to pre-empt retaliation. I have been told that other sources, who were present the night of Dave’s girlfriend’s death, dispute this account, but I have not been able to reach any of those sources for comment with or without attribution.

A fifth theory has now arisen since my most extensive interview with Dave, a theory which caused a bit of a shift in focus and ire for my last conversation with Dave.

On March 18, a month and a day after the fire which killed Gordon, Dan’s Tiny House was removed from the encampment area by the City of Toronto. When workers, including myself, inquired with the City as to why it was removed, Esther Afriat, General Supervisor of Parks for Toronto and East York, told me: “There was a fire on Thursday morning, March 18. I saw it on my way to work. 911 was called and Fire Services and Police responded. The shed was on fire. A construction worker noticed the smoke and alerted the paid duty [police] officer on-site.” Dan lost belongings including a bike, phone, and tablet that were inside the Tiny House.

At this point, Dave feels the City’s answers are “total bullshit,” and it is not hard to see why. He and Dan went and examined the site, finding no evidence of a fire, just wheel tracks, likely from the City vehicle that removed the structure. As there would have been no one in the shelter at the time (I witnessed the door to the shelter as locked just hours prior on the previous afternoon), we would need a reasonable explanation as to how this fire mysteriously started with no one around, no other tent or structure nearby, and how it just happened that a City employee who works on camp clearances and a police officer discovered the fire in the exact same location a month after the previous fatal fire.

Dave, like so many other encampment residents and related workers like myself, has no confidence that the so-called proper authorities will ever actually get at the truth. “I’d like to see them to go to jail. People are dropping like flies around here. Nobody is doing anything about it, you know. Nobody’s trying to help us. We’re junkies, right. They don’t care about us.”


When it suits purpose, the City will ignore or brush aside a death for which they might reasonably be held responsible for failing to prevent it. (See my Twitter thread here on the recent CoVID-19 death of a shelter system resident that the City is hiding.) But when they want, for political reasons, to go after an Indigenous man or a Black man doing his best to help, City officials are plenty willing to talk ad nauseum.

As such, questions remain outstanding: does the political apparatus (including Mayor Tory and “progressive” downtown Councillors like Kristyn Wong-Tam, Joe Cressy, and Gord Perks who have strongly pushed and supported camp clearances) have any knowledge of tactics police have used, are using, or are planning to use in order to clear camps? Are there figures from the City engaged with counterparts from other cities like Los Angeles and Kansas City where recent camp clearances, and newly installed fencing, were also justified partly on the basis of the need to re-sod grassy areas in parks where encampments had existed for months? Will anyone at all that gets their paycheque from the City show that it cares a single solitary whit when it comes to figuring out what has actually happened with a bunch of highly suspicious fires?

Another angle overlooking the area (circled in red) where Jeff Dagg’s tent was intentionally burned down (photo by Doug Johnson Hatlem on April 8, 2021).

We cannot know for sure if Toronto Police are engaging confidential informants in the City’s scorched-earth campaign to clear highly visible encampments. None of the evidence or allegations in the stories above, on their own or taken together, are conclusive. However, not only does TPS feel the need to protect the confidentiality of specific informants, but TPS “[s]imilar to other Services across Canada has a procedure for handling confidential informants,” per a statement by Connie Osborne, Manager of Media Relations for TPS. “To ensure the security of individuals and to protect the integrity of our tactics we would not comment on the specifics” of those polices and procedures.

This, exactly, is how we wind up with confidential police informants bragging about participating without consequence in gang rapes, of which police handlers were informed and aware, and how a man dressed up as an officer could cut down twenty-two people in Nova Scotia after having received a $475,000 payment that looks for all the world like it came from Canadian police. A terrifically hierarchical system, rife with cash and with laughably non-existent accountability structures, is a perfect petri dish for terrible violence and abuse.

Late this Autumn, Jeff Dagg, who suffered from worsening COPD, was found in distress where he was staying at The Bond Hotel and was transported to St. Michael’s Hospital where he was pronounced dead on November 17. I am working with his sister, but have not yet discovered the cause of death. We recently learned that his cremated remains were released to an uncle.

I have appealed to Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner in an attempt to overcome Toronto Police’s naked refusal to release the December Lamport fire video, a video which may well show arson. If it was an arson event, like many others including the one that destroyed Jeff’s tent, police and the City appear to have less than zero interest in finding and telling the truth about it publicly.

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