Counterpunch Articles

Bloomberg Versus Bernie: The Upcoming Battle?

Between January 11 and April 14, 2019, Tulsi Gabbard, Kamala Harris, Marianne Williamson, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg had all announced their presidential bids. Sanders after entering the race formally on Feb. 19 was the immediate front runner. Biden entered the race on April 25, immediately replacing Bernie as the new front runner. This was automatic; Biden represented the Democratic establishment, had been Obama’s loyal lackey, had the DNC behind him, and was guaranteed positive coverage on CNN and MSNBC.

The talking points discussed among DNC and news directors would include: Biden is moderate, and the party needs unity; he’s beloved by the African-American community vital to a Democratic victory; he’s the ONLY candidate who can defeat Trump; he is the most experienced candidate. It would be okay to mention his “gaffes” (especially if in an endearing way), and even to note that he’s slowing down. But the anchors and contributors would put the best spin on his debate performances, proclaiming each one better than the last—even if he looked like a deer caught in the headlights half the time. Like Hillary Clinton, Biden could expect a coronation at the convention.

But he started disappointing early on, prompting the media to briefly fawn on Beto O’Rourke as back-up after he entered the race on May 14. But Beto soon lost steam, and along with Harris, Williamson, and Andrew Yang has dropped out. For the last ten months, it’s basically been Biden versus Sanders, with Sanders consistently in second place. It had become the polite convention for news anchors—while posting in the viewer’s face day after day charts clearly showing Sanders in the number two position—to observe “Biden remains the [clear] front runner” adding helpfully, “but Warren [or Buttigieg, or Klobachar] continues to climb” while absolutely ignoring the consistency of Sanders’ strength. The inconvenient truth is that Sanders’ support has outlived Biden’s support and Bernie is now the front runner.

One day we woke up to hear that indeed, Sanders is leading. Finally the news media was honestly seeing things as they really were and are.

But no! Not so fast, responds the Democratic establishment! Its views are conveyed via Donny Deutsch on MSNBC and Sam Donaldson (interviewed by Anderson Cooper) on CNN. Mike Bloomberg—who announced his candidacy late in the game Nov. 21, after Biden’s weak performance, had produced doubts—is just the sort of moderate we need!

The former New York City mayor has done so much for that crucial African-American demographic that the Democratic Party needs to win this year! (That’s the party he joined in 2018 after being Republican mayor 2001-2013 and enforcing the “Stop and Frisk” policy.) Deutsch announcing his support reiterates the need to oppose socialism. Donaldson having declared his support awkwardly read through a list of Bloomberg’s benevolent gestures to African-Americans and became visibly annoyed when Cooper tried to hurry him up.

There’s a script being prepared, to promote Bloomberg over Sanders—as the moderate, rational choice “to defeat Trump” as the sole and ultimate goal. It’s a goal made all the more elusive due to the miserable failure of the impeachment trial to either remove Trump or damage his popularity—indeed its unintended result of boosting Trump’s poll numbers. This script’s talking points include: Bloomberg was a popular mayor, an experienced leader; a billionaire due to his brilliant entrepreneurship, he has been a generous philanthropist; he has expressed regret about “Stop and Frisk” and worked with the African-American community in X Y and Z ways; is strong on environmental issues; can work with Republicans, etc.

It’s impossible for Bloomberg to ignore attention to “Stop and Frisk;” indeed he has repeatedly apologized (since announcing his election bid) for causing so much pain. We can expect that issue to linger in the air so long as he runs. But some will also embarrass him by noting his support for the war on Iraq based on lies, his endorsement of George W. Bush, his boasts about “doing” women in many cities. And then there’s that thing about him being a racist billionaire. So is this Bloomberg candidacy, this last-ditch effort to sabotage the democratic process–whereby normal rules Sanders would after Super Tuesday victories sweep to the nomination in Milwaukee—and produce a brokered convention, leading to someone who personifies all the Sanders supporters detest taking the prize, going to succeed?

Watching MSNBC right now, I think there’s a distinct possibility that it might come down to a billionaire (barking at a self-pronounced socialist for being unelectable for being what he is), and a self-pronounced socialist (barking back at the billionaire that there should be no billionaires). A Bloomberg victory might satisfy the DNC and mainstream, as the second choice to Wall Street’s Joe Biden. But it would infuriate much of the “progressive wing,” and totally alienate the Bernie activists (who will not celebrate their humiliation at the hands of the enemy by graciously “uniting” around him, but stay at home on election day meditating on the profound truth that there’s little difference between one billionaire capitalist racist oppressor and another, no reason to vote for one over the other and pretend to be happy to be “free” to vote in this oh-so-democratic country, the beacon of the world.) Many preferring Bloomberg to Bernie might worry about Bloomberg’s electability. But for them the risk will be worth it: four more Trump years, to stop Bernie.

Isn’t it special that Bloomberg has promised to spend a billion dollars to elect the next Democratic president, even if the nominee isn’t him? He pairs that commitment with a promise to back whatever candidate is selected at the party convention. It is an implicit demand that the other candidates (who do not have a billion dollars) to similarly promise to back him should he successfully buy the election. Fair? Bloomberg will back Bernie if he gets the nomination through mass mobilization; Bernie will back Bloomberg if he gets enough votes from saturating the media with misleading ads targeting the African-American community. That at least is the proposed deal, the gentlemanly norm in bourgeois parliamentary politics.

Now I hear now on MSNBC is that Bloomberg has suggested Hillary Clinton could be his vice president. Why not? Oh, I see. A sympathetic African-American politician explains that both Bloomberg and Clinton are New Yorkers so they couldn’t be on the same ticket.

It’s like the system is playing with our brains, pitting Bloomberg and Sanders against one another in a game that pits rational rejection of the status quo against abject deference to the Wall Street Democrats demanding the masses choose the latter to defeat Donald Trump.

Idiot-anchors have been trained to ask rhetorically: What’s more important? Voting for someone who agrees with you, or defeating Trump? The unstated assumption is that the former are selfish, the latter big-hearted. The talking heads will now ask, angrily: Are you so narrow-mindedly fixated on revolution that you can’t let your Sanders campaign be sunk by a billionaire racist sexist WHO CAN REALLY DEFEAT TRUMP? What’s more important? Getting your man in power? Or defeating Trump and going back to the George W. Bush and Barack Obama eras of responsible normality?

The very posing of such questions insults one’s intelligence. But that’s what the Democratic Party leadership is asking us to consider: an open buy-out of the nomination, to defeat both Trump and Sanders. If they succeed in sabotaging Bernie (again!) they will, I think, finally prove to our youth that U.S. “democracy” is a cruel myth.

***

Every hour more dirt on Bloomberg is unleashed—most of it already known but crying out for repeated exposure. This is accompanied by commentary demanding that Bloomberg further explains (but offers a road to forgiveness). Just listen to Rev. Al on MSNBC. Anchors note increased attention to Bloomberg’s record but also state matter-of-factly that his poll numbers will rise. Have their producers told them “Expect Bloomberg’s numbers to rise, and keep saying that to your audience—but also keep noting what’s obvious, which is that he’s no friend of minorities”?

It looks to me like Iowa and New Hampshire have caused the DNC to bet for the time being on the billionaire. Yes, there’s the racism issue. But hey, look at Trump.

Backing Bloomberg is a daunting task. He’s is not only anti-socialist; he is the very epitome of capitalist decadence, patriarchy, and racism. One cannot imagine a figure more repugnant to the progressives. For him to invite the latter’s support—after stabbing them in the face in a brokered convention—would be more than insulting. It is impossible.

How can Sanders at this point to adhere to his pledge to support any candidate chosen in Milwaukee? He should declare that if Bloomberg buys his way to the Democratic Party’s nomination, he (Sanders) will be morally obliged to his supporters to deny him support. Because Bloomberg is no better than Trump. Indeed, as a supporter of George W. Bush and his war on Iraq based on lies he’s in some respects worse.

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The Young Lords: Luchadores Para La Gente

The Young Lords were a somewhat unique political formation. Their primarily Puerto Rican membership focused their organizing on the neighborhoods they lived in. Despite the Marxist foundations of their political philosophy, they were able to gain popular support for their programs among the traditional Catholic Puerto Rican population. As Johanna Fernandez patiently explains in her newly released book The Young Lords: A Radical History, this success could be attributed to several factors. Most importantly were the rootedness of the Young Lord’s members in the communities they organized and the issues they decided to organize around.

Like other community organizations of the period, the Young Lords were mostly young and angry. Angry at the poverty they experienced and saw around them; angry at the refusal of the politicians and their system’s refusal to address the issues causing the poverty; and angry at the police, whose racism and brutality many of the Young Lords knew of firsthand. Tired of accepting this situation and inspired by other New Left groups—especially the Black Panthers—the Young Lords took it upon themselves to demand some justice for their people. They established breakfast programs for children, provided medical screening and assistance for everyone who wanted it, and set up liberation schools for young and old alike. In addition, the Young Lords provoked elements of the establishment, including churches and city governments, into providing services they were legally bound to provide but had neglected.

Although the Young Lords were the brainchild of Cha Cha Jiménez and other Puerto Ricans in Chicago, Fernandez’s text is primarily a history of the Young Lords in New York. This is because New York is where the organization truly took hold and became a nationally recognized force to be reckoned with. Jiménez initiated the Chicago Young Lords after a stint in prison for his gang activities and a subsequent visit to Puerto Rico. It was during this time that he embraced his roots and gained a political awareness of Puerto Rico’s colonial status and the effects it had on Puerto Ricans in the continental United States. In 1969, the New York Young Lords came together when a group of students were looking for a way to organize the East Harlem Puerto Ricans that transcended the existing organizing efforts emanating from government-funded efforts under the aegis of the War on Poverty. After conversations with Cha Cha and the Chicago Young Lords, the New York Young Lords came into being.

Their first major campaign had to do with garbage. Fernandez details the failure of the companies contracted by New York City to fulfill their contracts in certain neighborhoods—mostly Black and Puerto Rican. This meant that garbage would pile up on certain streets for days and sometimes weeks before the contracted collection services would do their jobs and pick it up. Besides the appearance of squalor this neglect produced, it meant that rats and the health issues associated with them and other vermin plagued the neighborhood. In response, the Young Lords organized a series of actions that were both media savvy and invited their neighbors into the action. Some of the more spectacular elements involved dumping piled up the trash into the streets, blocking major intersections. This caused traffic jams and backups, which in turn got the city involved, who then ordered the trash companies to pick up the garbage in the streets. Eventually, as the campaign grew more popular and involved many more people who dumped their piled-up trash in the street, the city began negotiations with the Young Lords. Ultimately, an agreement was reached where the trash pickup was increased to a few times a week, resulting in a cleaner neighborhood. The success of the campaign brought respect and support for the Young Lords while attracting unwanted attention from the police and associated agencies.

Other campaigns initiated by the Young Lords focused on the nature of health services for Puerto Ricans and other poor people of color in New York City. Like the garbage campaign, the actions undertaken by the Young Lords attracted the media while also actually providing services to the previously underserved populations. As Fernandez points out throughout her text, the Young Lords understood the nature of the mainstream media and how to use it in a manner that furthered their issues into the public consciousness. At the same time, they understood the fickle nature of that media and who it really served. Consequently, they published their own newspaper called Palante. At its peak, Palante had a circulation of more than twenty thousand. Young Lords were required to sell the paper and kept half of the sales proceeds to live off of.

The Young Lords: A Radical History is more than a timeline of the organization’s actions and campaigns. It is also a discussion of the organization’s politics and internal debates. Like virtually every other New Left organization (especially those composed of and for non-whites), the Young Lords were infiltrated by various law enforcement agencies. This fact would eventually lead to a climate of fear and mistrust intentionally fostered by those infiltrators, with members facing off over ideology and personal relationships. When combined with an effort by the Nixon administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to destroy the New Left, an omnipresent fear settled over leftist political organizations throughout the United States. The repression was real and occasionally fatal. As Fernandez notes, this wave of repression occurred simultaneously with a decline in membership for many groups on the Left, the Young Lords among them. In addition, many groups were turning inward and intensifying educational efforts among their members. These efforts usually took the form of study groups where various Marxist-Leninist texts were read and discussed. While the Young Lords had always conducted these study groups and applied those lessons to their work, this period saw an intensification of the study groups while the community work declined. In part, this phenomenon can be linked to the decision by the Young Lords’ central committee to set up an office in Puerto Rico and organize for independence. This was a controversial decision, to say the least. Fernandez details the debates around the decision and the ultimate failure of the effort. In a similar manner, she discusses the organizational changes that followed that failure, the eventual splintering of the organization and the creation of the Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers Organization (PRRWO). Interesting to note in this period was the presence of a law enforcement agent who was not only on the Central Committee but was married to the leader of the group at the time. That infiltrator’s name was Donald Wright, whose cover as a member of the Revolutionary Union (RU) enabled him to gain the trust of the Young Lord’s leadership. (An interesting side note to Wright and the RU can be found in the works of Aaron Leonard, who has written two excellent books on the government infiltration of the Revolutionary Union, one of the largest groups in the New Communist Movement of the 1970s).

When I lived in the Bronx and attended Fordham University in 1973-1974, one of the guys I would party with was a member of the Young Lords. He and I would discuss politics while we hung out in a dorm room listening to music, drinking a Rheingold and maybe sharing a joint. When the Allende government was overthrown, he and I went to a demonstration in Manhattan where he met up with his people from the Barrio and I got hooked into selling papers with the Attica Brigade. Little did I know at the time that his organization was crumbling. A little over a year later, I was living in Maryland and taking classes at the University of Maryland where I started attending meetings of the Revolutionary Student Brigades—the youth wing of the Revolutionary Union. It was at one of those meetings that the subject of the formation of the PRRWO came up and where I discovered that it was no longer associated with the RU. As Fernandez makes clear, this was a period of defeat for the US left; a period it has never recovered from, in my opinion. The government program known as COINTELPRO had done its job.

The Young Lords: A Radical History is a contextualized and comprehensive discussion of an organization that was emblematic of its time and important beyond its numbers. Like so many other organizations in the United States that were both leftist and radical, the Young Lords’ history has been removed from most recollections of the period known as the Sixties until now. Fernandez’s work is a bold, brilliant and engaging challenge to this omission. Its publication in 2020, when the people of Puerto Rico are under attack from the colonial regime in Washington, DC is an almost perfect synchronicity. Indeed, as the Puerto Ricans people attempt to recover from decades of exploitation exacerbated by a recent series of natural disasters, the example of the Young Lords stands before them.

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Loss Leaders

There is a vintage Odd Couple episode in which uber-neatnik Felix Unger, desperately trying to woo back his beloved ex-wife, concocts a scheme to prove his newfound flexibility by emulating Oscar Madison, his slob supreme of a roommate. Felix attempts to generate just the slightest bit of sloppiness. He finds himself utterly incapable of even the most minute gesture in that direction, unable to toss a napkin on the floor, to disturb the pristine order of his apartment—anything, really. He lacks the template to change this aspect of his behavior.

And so it is with the Democratic Party. They simply do not possess the template to operate as a bona fide opposition party.

Conspiracy theories are part and parcel of the American fabric. Were I to cultivate my own pet conspiracy theory, it would be this: That the Democratic Party is in cahoots with the Republican Party, that their opposition—true opposition—is a sham.

The big issue with conspiracy theories—besides the fact that conspiracy theories are the domain of wingnuts, many of them armed—is that political transgressions here in the USA are of the non-secretive, in-your-face variety. The Democratic Party’s endless acquiescence to the Republicans is in no way a conspiracy: It is on display for all to see. But if it is not a conspiracy, there is also something far from arbitrary about the party’s behavior.

Trump is mentally incompetent. This is glaringly obvious. It doesn’t require much in the way of conjecture. His speeches are incoherent, full of lunatic claims. Some of his assertions are of the bizarro sexual variety, such as his oft-repeated assertion that migrant women are duct-taped. He often compares his crowd size to that of Elton John concerts. He knows next to nothing and seems to be functionally illiterate.

Yet Trump–somehow–bests the Democrats again and again. No powerful, entrenched political entity like the Democratic Party is that inept or passive. The Democrats are quite capable of overseeing massive incarceration, gutting social welfare programs, wreaking havoc in Libya. They are unafraid to castigate “welfare mothers” for their (supposedly) parasitic behavior. Barack Obama instituted a domestic surveillance system that would have done Richard Nixon proud. He deported millions.

The Democrats are not credulous Charlie Browns, doomed by their own naïve faith in the goodness of humanity to be forever hoodwinked by unscrupulous Lucys.

What then, is the Democratic response to the unhinged dolt that is Donald Trump? Conventional party wisdom is that he will be, because of our robust economy, a formidable opponent. It’s hard to think of a nicer accolade. There is probably nothing Trump would like to see more than the perception of his formidability, as opposed to what he really is: A corpulent, pampered rich boy with funny hair who’s prone to hissy fits. The economy, though, is not robust. It is the opposite of robust. This is a desperately poor country. That assertion requires no research, no consultation of position papers. All one has to do is, quite simply, look around. Houses are dilapidated. Pawn shops are to be found all over the place. So are check-cashing outlets. Homeless people can be easily seen in the cities. This country’s poverty is visible. This too is not conjecture.

When the Democratic Party isn’t busy praising George H.W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney (or voting to fund the wall and extend the Patriot Act), they are attacking Trump. The nature of this attack, though, equals anything hatched up by the nutty John Birch Society: Trump is a stooge—a traitor, even—in what is a vast, nefarious Russian plot.

And then there is the ostensible reason for the quixotic, doomed impeachment trial: A Ukrainian arms deal. It is hard to believe that there is an honest expectation on the part of the Democrats that these, of all things, will resonate with the voting public. Democratic Party tactics are akin to planned obsolescence.

The party is absolutely complicit in this endless Republican rampage. No amount of fulminating against Ralph Nader, Jill Stein, or “Bernie bros” will mitigate this.

Felix Unger is, of course, a fictional character. And The Odd Couple is a comedy. What the Democrats are doing is all too real. It is not a comedy, but a tragedy. And a crime.

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Roma: How Romans Differ From Europeans

Drive across the Alps into Italy and set out southwards and you’re surprised that the capital city on the Mediterranean is still hundreds of kilometers away. That long road ahead makes you conscious of the isolation of the ancient city called Roma. And you are right. Rome is isolated. Far away from the “real” Europe of London and Paris and Berlin, cities of high diplomacy and international accords. Far away not only in kilometers. It is also that isolation that makes Rome and the rest of Mediterranean Italy—packed onto the protrusion sticking out southwards toward Africa—so different from “Europe”. From the rest of the Continent. And therefore its fatal attraction. North Europeans love Italy. Poles have long had a special relationship with Rome—the Polski Dom for Polish pilgrims to the holy city is near my house. Like their writer Gogol, Russians feel a powerful attraction to Rim. The fascination these peoples of the North perceive for Roma is itself a mystery. I find it like the romantic mysteries of, say, Baranquilla or Macao or Alexandria. But one perception that most of them—Germans, Poles, Russians and Englishmen and others—have in common is that Italy is an exotic abroad. So it is no wonder that the mysteriousness of the city of Roma stirs your own imagination. And once there and have seen it you feel you have to get to the bottom of it. For you too might fall victim to it someday.

But then, when you draw near the city, the first signs of the ugly suburbia momentarily deflate your imagination of the wonders you’ve pictured. True, the landscape of the Sabine Mountains and the rugged hills and valleys is magnificent; but what men have built there is scandalous. This is Rome? Well! Be that as it may, you begin reviving on the ‘road of salt’—the Consular Via Salaria—still reaching from downtown Rome 254 kilometers to the Adriatic Sea. Layer after layer of the city unfolds before you and you begin to feel the time of the ages passing. Then, abruptly, the scenery changes again; ugly suburbia gives way to ring after ring of bourgeois peripheries of fortress-like, apparently self-sufficient palazzos enclosing invisible micro-societies. But you see few people even though you sense the proximity of the city core. But where are the people? Truly a mystery. Roman magic. Not to worry, however. For later, you will see the masses of Rome that can form instantaneously; and magically vanish in a flash. The words flash mob took on quickly in Italian.

But unraveling the mysteries of this city doesn’t come for free; it can become a lifetime goal. Thrilling thought! In reality, most visitors never feel the city’s isolation … or its intransigence, its force, its subtle mysteries. For if you arrive by air, you are just in another world city and a guide book suffices. Two hours flight from Berlin, three from Moscow. And tourists have no inkling of Roman mysteries. For you the voyager there are those heavy tomes of Roman history, and archeology and legend, too. But unlike the copious literary fiction set in Paris, imaginative fiction set in Rome is strangely scarce … unless you go for Hollywoodish things like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.

So best for you the curious voyager is the arcane book that is Roma itself. You learn it on your own.

Singular, this city of hills and the stone of the ages … a city surrounded by sea and mountains. Truly magical, this metropolis on the dirty River Tiber. Three thousand zigzagging years. In the high times, caput mundi with one million inhabitants. In the low times, sheep grazed in the Forum and the population sank to thirty thousand. But then you may still find the pagan Sun-God Mithras sitting on a pedestal on the second underground level of a church near the Coliseum, still creating magic, while Rome time has marched past. Eternal City—Città Eterna. While Teutonic tribes roamed around the North of Europe, enchanted spaces emerged among the hills of Roma. Sumptuous stone palaces rose. Sorcerers and evil spirits practiced secret exorcisms while urban planners sought the perfect city; alchemists, eternal life.

Roma, the capital of two coexisting exploitative worlds: the secular and the spiritual—both murderously cruel. Curiously though, during the three millennia Romans never rebelled. Well, except for one rebellious slave in the provinces: Spartacus revolted and was crucified for it. And fifteen hundred years later, the monk, Giordano Bruno, rebelled against Church doctrine and was burned alive for it, leaving behind his heretical philosophy and his shadowy statue on Campo de’ Fiori standing flabbergasted amidst food vendors and drug pushers.

But a popular social revolution? Never!

Feminine Roma. Whorish Roma. A smiling, deceptive, boisterous, aggressive, vulgar, garbage-ridden Roma. And a generous, haughty, superb, impenetrable Roma. Sinful and angelic, impertinent and condescending, cynical and naïve, uncompromising and malleable, superficial and profound, clownishly gay and effusively Mediterranean melancholy. Those Romes merged into the elusive stone city that remains … majestically impervious to her components. Romans know her somewhat. Wannabe Romans meet her. Her arms are wide open, ‘Do come in … and do it my way.’ And the seduction begins, spiritual and social … and violent. A rape of the senses. Then, after the seduction and acclimation, love and hate, fascination and repulsion remain. Roma, Rome, Rom, Rim.

For beginners, a deep secret: Rome climate is not what it’s cracked up to be. So a discussion of weather is obligatory. In short, most likely you’ll never get used to Rome weather. Only real Romans do. Sort of. Unless they’re in Cortina d’Ampezzo or Rhodes or the Seychelles, even Rome bourgeois claim they suffer constipation if they venture north of Florence. It’s bizarre, Rome climate, what with its winter thunder rolling around Mediterranean heavens. Nevertheless real Romans love their climate, they really do. A climate unaffected by environmental analyses and international accords. A micro-climate as incomprehensible as are the city and its patient people. A people different from Northerners, a people driven mad by the historical cross they bear. Roma! Long before the universal climate change crisis Rome climate was independent, if not autarchic … never all sunshine and roses. Yet real Romans are unconcerned about what is to be done about it, though they firmly believe that a climate crisis exists and is three thousand years old.

Transplants however need a few years to become sensitive to its weather. So say the psychologists. You can observe the phenomenon live on Piazza Navona where a dialectical happening occurs on sunny days in March: Nordic tourists and innocent expats in shorts and sandals stroll around under the noonday rays of an early spring sun on the landmark piazza, lifting their arms in joy, their red faces to the sun. But suspicious Romans, never. Romans of at least five generations back—and a handful of hermitic types muttering about crazy March—marzo pazzarello—dress in multiple layers of clothing and hold close to the sunny side of the stone piazza. Oh yes, the climate changes and so do Romans, but dialectically.

On that majestic piazza on a Sunday morning in March you may experience the reality of the weather-related Jerome Syndrome. Wary of both sun and shade, with consummate care you choose a fine table under a wide umbrella at the end of a middle row at the sidewalk café facing Borromini’s church of Saint Agnese in Agone with its twin bell towers and in front of which they once pilloried Agnese naked so Romans could see what a holy woman’s body looked like. But you of the twenty-first century are cozy in the early spring sunrays warming your half sun-half shade spot so that you sit serenely in security with your coat draped urbanely over your shoulders …neither too cold nor too hot.

An old story, the Jerome Syndrome. In Three Men in a Boat, the English writer Jerome K. Jerome visited the British Museum to study his hay fever symptoms. And after digging into distemper and delving into devastating scourges and all kinds of symptoms he concluded that he had them all: typhoid fever, Bright’s disease, severe cholera and even St. Vitus’s Dance. The only malady he eluded was housemaid’s knee, so is said. And so his hypochondria became known as the Jerome Syndrome. But does it matter? Well, the dialect poet, Gioachino Belli, wrote a famous oxymoron about the syndrome’s causes: the ‘freezing tramontana wind emerging from hell’s fire’. And it had ramifications in Roma: the humidity, the icy winds, sudden freezes and the famous syndrome combined to create the antibiotic craze that affects Romans today: the need for a fix. For the Buriana wind arriving from Siberia brings sicknesses like the chilblains that once plagued the iron-clad centurions of the battle legions of ancient Roma.

Before coming south, Northerners imagine sunning on Rome’s beaches in March: lounging on white deck chairs under colorful umbrellas, radios blaring, kids kicking up sand, beach volley, ice cream vendors, kites flying, fast boats roaring past while couples in the sand are close to going all the way. True that on good winter days you might take the sun on a Rome beach even in January when a beguiling sun makes you do crazy things, excursions into the unknown where nothing is withheld, when your secret self shows forth and that unspoken Noli me tangere relents and unfetters the alien part of yourself to strike camp from the ordinary… a petit betrayal, an unannounced departure to that secret withheld place of your other self. Now that is very Roman thinking: the flight, momentary freedom, and the return, head bowed and you again escape proof.

Two thousand years ago Roman imperial warships performed naval war games in the crater lake of Nemi in the Roman Castles area. Today, you tramp around an ancient Emperor’s turreted city walls erected to keep out the Barbarians, then you learn that they got in anyway. You shrug. And wandering among an empire’s abandoned spaces waiting for conversion to modernity, you understand why native Romans do not know where and when they are in this palimpsest of a city.

Time passes and one after another things happen, while some things remain the same … but not all. Aches in the belly. Confusion in your mind. Nostalgia rampant. You feel something alien inside you. Then if you stay in Roma longer, the night of your dwindling relationship with your former self thickens. And you suffer from invasive images of a past elsewhere, a longing you justify to yourself that it is only your longing for a different time and for what was in its essence completely different. Like longing for the person who promised you eternal love … and you feel helpless and say ‘shit-fuck! And fuck Jerome and his syndrome, too! And you tell yourself that with enough time you can acquire immunity to Jerome’s illnesses and become insensitive to the magical force of Rome’s winter sun and the bite of those killing north winds. And you say fuck those winds, too! But you still have issues. Pressing issues. The Northerner is enfeebled by memories of a former life elsewhere, life that seems fictitiously fragmented condemning him to live a double life in which he fears he is mistaking fervid imagination and romanticism for prescience. Wavering, you think that Romans know that not every situation requires a choice. That choosing is sometimes presumptuous. And you know you will never get away from that thought.

Clearly the urban passion is necessary to penetrate the gossamer unknown that is Roma. Tramping city streets is harmless enough. An innocent pastime. If you don’t play tennis or golf, you can walk cities. Street by street, block by block. neighborhood by neighborhood, mentally mapping-tabulating the streets of Roma or Paris or Buenos Aires. Searching for the points of juncture between their urban sections, the points where they coalesce, where the expanding city has overrun the satellite townships and hamlets and made of the group of settlements a metropolis. In sum, you seek the essence of your cities … mapping the march of progress. At first glance, a rich neighborhood in Rome may look analogous to the poor ones, only cleaner and with less people. An observant eye, however, draws more profound conclusions. Place and people characterize the city of yesterday and today. The rich still differ from the poor in myriad ways. Rich women tend to be more attractive, as before. Rich and poor people get drunk differently, also as before; the rich more slowly and quietly and somehow reach their beds before passing out. It’s the expensive wine and brandy they drink. The poor drink rowdily and downing anything handed to them; they drink in order to forget their disastrous situation until they pass out wherever they happen to be. The rich are acutely sensitive to bad smells and rough language and noise and crowds and promiscuous celebration. In their neighborhoods: heavy brass door handles, immaculate doormen in black, elegant newsstands with wrought iron framework, darkened cafés and restaurants so exclusive they seem unnamed, tiny parks where pampered canines do their business in private. Boring areas where you might never meet a living soul, so unlike the noisy and dangerous life-on-the-edge poor people encountered in the shitty parts of any big city where people hang out at questionable taverns where mistrust reigns and everyone feels their links with their world but are still isolated one from the other even though they crowd into the same rickety-rick elevators lifting them to high low-ceilinged floors. The nearly invisible rich live together too, albeit with little bumping into one another in their individual mirrored, hydraulic elevators and trendy expensive restaurants at the top of luxury hotels. They like it that way. They shut their eyes to the poverty, the vision of which offends their highly-developed sensitivity. Yet they prefer living near the poor whose proximity helps them feel less their lonesomeness. To dig deeper into people you have to get inside those you meet on the streets and in the taverns and the metro. Asking directions is an eye opener … in any neighborhood, rich or poor. You can classify neighborhoods according to the answers to questions that only seem banal, like: “Where is the nearest pastry shop?” Poor people can send you to the nearest bar but they might not know pastry shops. The fearful rich lady, still good looking in her advanced age, mincing along a garbage-free street waves you away, unaware that exclusivity and ignorance go well together. People present themselves to an inquisitive stranger in a way they do not to an acquaintance. One sends you to the devil, another escorts you to your destination. You might find the love of your life that way.

The urban conglomeration of Roma: three thousand years of crushing apartment complexes for rich and poor. Now, subways, buses, trams, central stations and high-speed trains, shopping malls, escalators, fountains and park benches, homeless, fortune-tellers, gadget hucksters, green grocers, corner shops and tiny supermarkets, hidden gas stations, billboards, theaters and cinemas, hospitals, schools and dance halls, all part of the lives of ant-like human beings piled atop each other, many detesting each other in the struggle for space and autonomy but restrained by social rules from shootouts and other such apocalypses, combine to make you aware of what specialists describe as “the mysterious disappearance from the pages of history of cities” like the ghost cities in the Bolivian Andes known only to a handful of archaeologists. Rich and poor comprehend that the best way to torment one another is to group together in an exclusive society. Sartre wrote a play about the “hell” of the restricted unchanging group. Cioran wrote that all countries should be like Switzerland: people should occupy themselves only with matters like hygiene, the idolatry of the laws and the cult of man. I find Sartre’s conclusion truly hellish. And Cioran’s concerns, dull. Dull? Because the sometimes apparent neutrality between rich and poor is deceptive and ambiguous, and the gulf between them—whether in Switzerland or India or the USA—is not something about which you can remain neutral. Not if you are engaged in the permanent war between the two classes. Class struggle and resistance against capitalist-inspired violence should be the normal way of life. But instead it has become an anarchic everyone-against-everyone hell. That is just so much merda. It really is. And neutrality is impossible … unless you are alone in the desert without water or compass or even a name.

So, you float like a phantom through the streets of the eternally new city of Roma seeking confirmations. Marmorean Rome. Empire marble from Spain and Gaul, Tripolitania, Greece and Asia, from Oriental lumachel to imperial reds. You stand on a piazza and crane your neck to observe the return of the birds, great formations swelling and shrinking, inhaling and exhaling, ready to occupy the stone city for a time. You wander over cobbled alleys inhabited by shady figures with conspiracy in their blood and through the ugly semi-periphery, down the putative freeway to open-air markets and the pulsating train stations for the seashore of Ostia. You examine deserted tram tracks covered haphazardly by layers of fresh macadam but patiently waiting for the next tram to arrive—which happens: trams are re-born into new existences, emerging from the pressed tar to add to the confusion Romans love. You investigate the tombs and imagine the cobblestoned roads lined by rows of the crosses of crucified Spartacus and his dissident army and marching legions herding new slaves and prisoners of war from newly conquered foreign lands, strong men whose blood will flow on the sands of Emperor Vespasiano’s Coliseum. When you feel fixed in your escapist mode of the urban wanderer, you feel a distance from Rome while at the same time striving for connection with it. (“Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling. Street names must speak to the urban wanderer like the snapping of dry twigs, and little streets in the heart of the city must reflect the times of day, for him, as clearly as a mountain valley. This art I acquired rather late in life; it fulfilled a dream, of which the first traces were labyrinths on the blotting papers in my school notebooks.” Walter Benjamin, Berlin Childhood, around 1900)

Once upon a time I liked to stand at the French bay windows of a Via Cassia flat and peer across the chaotic web of streets toward Monte Mario. I was looking for the wandering Roman forever searching for himself. I used powerful binoculars to zero in on figures moving back and forth inside a window in one or another of the pastel palazzos swarming among the hills and valleys, many of which uninhabited. Voyeurism? No. Or not very. Actually a complement to my urban explorations. Why the construction of apartment buildings destined to remain empty of people? And they keep on filling in every empty space, every piece of green that remained after the construction industry’s previous “rape of the Eternal City” in the sixties and seventies leaving behind an ugliness—to which Romans seem blind—and scattered abandoned spaces, they too ugly—an uncontrollable putrid mess of real estate scandals and administrative corruption that combined to leave an indelible mark on the landscape of the chic heights above the two thousand year old Milvio Bridge: the Foreign Ministry and Olympic Stadium flanked by swimming pools and tennis courts for international meets.

The Roman! Mysterious like his city. Must be his age that makes time so fundamental for the Roman. The Roman talks a lot about time. Past time, you would think. Yet the future weighs heavy, the future awaiting his children. The Roman lives to the full the present, though not wisely. A recent “scientific” finding puts Romans in second place after Bogotà residents in the number of annual hours spent in their cars: Romans spend 254 hours: they say it is because of a city sprawl bigger than London’s, besides some of Europe’s worse public transportation and traffic worse than Calcutta or Mexico City. The Roman should be furiously revolutionary. But no! The Roman’s relationship with time and his car saves him from the final step of reviving the guillotine. For his time is relative. He just doesn’t give a shit about those 254 hours. Oh, yes, he gripes. Yet many seem to love those wonderful hours. Why? Because the Roman is the personification of urbanity and patience … Italian style. This is NOT North Europe. Maybe not even Europe. Some years ago in the high political spheres of Rome they posed the question: Does Italy need “Europe”, meaning the European Union? Europeanists answered that Italy without Europe was not Italy; nor was Europe without Italy, Europe. Oh, young Italians want to be Europeans. And they are. More or less. Each year one hundred thousand of them, educated and smart, leave the peninsula. But many return, especially the wandering Roman comes back home.

For Italy remains that exotic land separated from the rest by the Alps and the seas. Just a tail, barely attached to Europe. A protrusion from the protrusion that is Europe itself from the great Euro-Asian continent. And since the time of the Huns of Attila Northerners have felt an irresistible attraction to that Italic protrusion. Also Romans feel the same irresistible attraction. They may leave, but most return.

The Roman is simply different. No planned 9-5 jobs for the Roman. Though 8-2 is more his style, he opposes fixed hours … unless it’s a bank sinecure. But generally if a specific job is to be done, the Roman forgets time and does it. Around the clock. A Stakhonvite. Otherwise he goes out for a café. His relationship with time makes him the best of workers: he and his Italian brothers built the New York subway and re-built post-WWII Germany. Good soldiers, revolutionary failures. Fickle Romans in fact love their tyrants who take care of things … but for a limited time. Then away with him. And bring on another. Il Papa é morto. Viva il Papa!

And religion? Christianity? Well, yes. The Roman is a catholic. But also an atheist. A technical atheistic catholic. After baptism at birth, he goes to church only for marriages and funerals. Or he takes a foreign visitor to see Caravaggio in San Luigi dei Francesi or Santa Maria del Popolo.

Then what about St. Peter’s Square—you know, popes on the balcony, the Swiss guards, the security checks? Oh, that charade is for fanatics and tourists. And Vatican City? Rumors fly about bribing a certain priest to show you its Inquisition torture chamber where many victims entered but few came out; the same priest who once said there’s no better place to lose your soul than the halls of the Vatican … an organization run by criminals. Still, the Roman loves his Pope and the World Church … but at a distance. Gives him a sense of the international community even though he considers it all hokus-pokus, The Roman wonders if American Protestants are even Christians, considering all the fundamentalists and their billionaire preachers over there. What goes around, comes around!

The Roman confuses the names of the Seven Hills and includes his own hill among the original seven. And he knows the names of the city’s thirty bridges, more or less, but he doesn’t give a shit for the River Tiber even though he knows Julius Caesar once stood on its banks somewhere and said “the die is cast”. What Julius did then is cloudy. But that river! You can simply fill it in and eliminate it. Good riddance. But we have to keep our bridges. National heritage. Names of Kings and Queens and gods and angels. Once good also for hanging heretics’ bodies.

Football! The term is confusing; calcio (kickball is proper). Die for your Rome big league team. Lazio for fascists; Roma for communists (once upon a time). Calcio and food! That’s life. And holidays and holiday food. Christmas and Easter (Natale e Pasqua: Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi!—Christmas with your family, Easter with whomever!). Where is the best pasta carbonara made? Roma! And fettucine Alfredo? Roma!

ROMA, ROMA? What does the word mean? Three millennia-old after all, the name of our city. Maybe ROMA derives from the ancient word Ruma meaning “breast” or “hill”… a silly name for the city that dominated the Old World. Or, Roma is the Etruscan Rumla, the name lent to the city by the three Etruscan kings of early Rome. Or, the name is more enigmatic than its simplicity suggests. The explanation lies in Rome’s secrets. A mixture of myth and fact. Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote of an occult reserve name for Roma. Uttering that name outside secret rituals was a crime carrying the death penalty. All the same, that secret name proved to be naive: a derivation of “Ara Volupiae or Altar of Volupia”, a Roman goddess. Through a series of mystical mental gymnastics, from the pleasure of voluptas you arrive at the Greek Eros, whence to the Latin Amor which, as even non-etymologists can decipher, is Roma written backwards. As the graffiti in black and blue and red on Rome’s subway station walls, the simplest palindrome, ROMA-AMOR, AMOR-ROMA. It is said that the secret name theory derived from the Renaissance idea of creating a parallel Rome of economic power to the north, leaving the political-cultural life in the fraudulent hands of the Vatican whose presence many Romans consider the cause of the city’s backwardness and wish was back in Avignon.

In the sixteenth century, Pope Sistus V, the Italian, Felice Peretti, counter reformist pope, also wanted to restrict Rome to “the city of the Vatican”. But that retrograde pope was also an urban explorer … his only redemptive quality. There he is driving around in his purple papal carriage peeping out from behind velvet curtains at the urban wonders, his face lined by a conniving papal smile. He stops his eccentric vehicle near startled strollers on the Pincio hill from where St. Peter’s Basilica and the steeples and domes of the city are so picturesque at sunset. The Pope opens a tiny window and bestows holy trinkets on befuddled idlers who have no concept of a planned city design and wonder what that wild man with the besotted smile huddled inside his mysterious buggy is drinking. May your cup always be filled, Sisto! Actually, Sistus was fascinated by a city design in the shape of a star, the principle points of which were the obelisk of Trinità di Monte at the top of the Spanish Steps and the basilicas of Santa Maria Maggiore, San Giovanni, and Saint Peter’s itself, still in their same places, symbolic of the Renaissance search for the ideal city. And the star was the symbol of the sun. Sistine Roma became the “city of the sun”, the ideal city of the Golden Age.

Yet despite rampant fraud and corruption the Roman is too forgiving for his own good. The Roman forgives the misdoings of others for he too wants to be forgiven his own aberrations. Now this is the terrible part for any society: The day-to-day reality for Romans is a society in which corruption is an established norm … not really sinful. Every step has its graft price tag. Actually corruption has a certain allure: you always know where you stand with the corrupt. The Roman concurs that good intentions and personal morality and public ethics are admirable qualities indeed; but what exists in reality is a culture of amorality and illegality. A society in which it’s almost as immoral to actively oppose low-level corruption as to demand bribes for performance of one’s duty. A society in which the difference between the corrupter and the corrupted fades. Call a plumber “friend” to fix a bathroom pipe. You pay an arbitrary price, no receipts, no tax paid. He is the corrupted, you the corrupter. Rome society in which to be anti-corruption or anti-clerical is in essence anti-Italian.

These Romans, questi romani, are a cynical people, scheming and not at all romantic as Northerners believe Italians are—and they have not changed since the Roman Empire. Not one iota. They hold tight to their Machiavelli, who took the shortcut of separating politics from morality. Many believe—but never admit—that the end justifies the means. Therefore they will elect a half-educated party leader to a government position, a politician who may rise to national leadership and one day demand “full powers”. Corruption lives in the heart of Roman society; everybody plays some small part in the corrupt society; and the state is the reflection of that society. The Roman considers this reality universal. And who can say he is wrong?

History! Opinion or legend? Tales told by storytellers or truthful social evolvement? From abroad your fixation had been ‘historic Rome’. But after coming to know the minutiae of the city, the real Roma emerges as proof that pure historicism has no heart. Walter Benjamin reminds us in confirmation of Napoleon that “All rulers are the heirs of those who conquered before them.

And we see the Roman armies as we do our foreign armies in the Middle East today, etiolated victors hurtling forward with zero regard for the past, carrying away the victor’s spoils of that past; cultural treasures now stained by terror and indelible blood tainting the transmission of those treasures to the future. The elite but simplistic white species has distanced itself from the main body of mankind: those of dark skin colors, the great wave of the future—while the blanched ones march toward extinction. That is to say that the others do count. Real life is based on man’s capacity to see and identify with the other. A universal truth … if there is one truth.

Thoughts inspired by Roma.

 

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The Soviet Century

Moshe Lewin (1921-2010) was a scholar of Russian and Soviet history. Of Jewish stock, he was born in what is now modern Lithuania. In his youth he worked on a collectivized farm and in a metallurgy factory in the Soviet state, before enlisting in the Red Army during the Second World War.

Afterwards, Lewin spent much of his academic life in Paris where he had received his PhD from the Sorbonne. The work here under review, The Soviet Century, was his last book, the first edition of which was published in 2005, but which has since been reprinted in 2016 by Verso Books; a publisher known for its left-wing and radical outputs.

As the great English Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm tells us “probably no other Western historian of the USSR combines Moshe Lewin’s personal experience of living with Russians from Stalin’s day – as a young wartime soldier – to the post-communist era, with so profound a familiarity with the archives and the literature of the Soviet era”.

The emergence of Stalinism

According to Lewin, two divergent strands existed within Bolshevism in the wake of the Civil War of 1918-21. “One concentrated on equipping Russia with a state that defended the interests of the majority of the population; the other focused its strategy on the state itself”. This second strand was embodied in the figure of Josef Stalin.

By 1921, Stalin and Vladimir Lenin were bitter rivals and not long before the latter’s death they clashed, especially on the issue of the “nationalities”. Lewin argues that Stalin, influenced by his experience as Commissar for Nationalities after 1917, sought to fashion a situation whereby the nations would become nothing more than “administrative units subordinate to Russia”. Lenin advocated a more equitable federalist model, while Stalin’s centralized model was “manifestly the direct heir of the Tsarist federation”.

Leon Trotsky opposed this “ultra-statist” tendency. Writing a memorandum for the Politburo in 1923 he noted that many in the central Soviet bureaucracy viewed the creation of the USSR as a means of eliminating all autonomous political entities.

Lewin takes Stalin to task further claiming that his conception of the Soviet state involved placing himself in a position of “unaccountable personal power”. The logic of this power was to foist the blame for failures that occurred upon those at the lowest levels of the hierarchy, for if they were not burdened with blame then it “might be attributed to those at the top”.

At the apex of this system, Stalin vied for control with Trotsky, whom he loathed. Eventually, Trotsky met his demise at the hands of an assassin in 1940 on the orders of Stalin. Yet, years prior to that, Stalin had begun to censure Trotsky and erase his memory – going as far as to practice the ultimate act of historical revisionism in claiming Trotsky’s exploits, such as the defense of Petrograd in 1919, as his own.

Following Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin deployed an “oath to Lenin”, which Lewin calls a “long incantation”, essentially designed to launch a personality cult around the aspiring leader. Lewin compares Stalinism to a medieval religious fundamentalism and contends that its version of “socialism in one country” stemmed from a “great power chauvinism”.

As the 1920s progressed the apparat, or apparatus of the Bolshevik party, grew increasingly detached from the bureaucracy of the state. Meanwhile, those at the summit of the apparat, the verki, grew detached from those at the lower rungs, the nizy. This occurred within the context of a broader battle within the Soviet state between the forces of bureaucratization/centralization on the one hand, and those of democratization on the other.

The soviets, which had been a feature for several decades, remained confined to “accomplishing local administrative tasks”. Party apparatchiks became bored, the five-year plans completely separated the bureaucracy from the working class, and a mass departure from the party followed.

The five-year plans

From the 1930s onward, the rapidity of social flux due to urbanization meant that many millions became town dwellers but were slow to leave behind their rural mentalité. Likewise, millions became employed in manufacture and other skilled jobs but, paradoxically, remained uneducated.

Lewin is heavily critical of the agricultural collectivization of the 1930s which, he says, did not consider the peasantry, instead deeming them a “detail”. This transformation of the countryside, in tandem with urbanization and industrialization, saw the doubling of the urban population between 1927 and 1939. The Soviet state bore witness to mass internal migration as a consequence of these tectonic shifts. Housing remained poor and birth rates declined during the 1930s due to overcrowding.

Lewin’s portrait of Stalin during the 1930s and 40s is no more flattering than that of the 1920s. He alleges that Stalin, devoid of any real personal life, decided to “privatize institutional power”. He wielded the Politburo and the NKVD to this end and engaged in mass purges from 1936-38. The state was micromanaged through the issuing of ultimata. Worst of all, perhaps, Stalin dominated talents in the arts and sciences and twisted them to his own ends.

Most Soviet citizens were unaware of this Machiavellian behavior, as they were of the purges. In cases where the political class knew of atrocities, they were overlooked due to an overriding desire to catch up with the West, both industrially and militarily.

The Gulag system is covered here too, with Lewin making sure the reader is aware that it was not a monolith but instead constantly evolving. It was “a state within a state … with its complicated economic interests, its secret police, its intelligence and counter-intelligence agencies, its educational and cultural activities”.

The post-Stalin era

Lewin points to a “thaw” following Stalin’s death in 1953 and the emergence of Nikita Khrushchev. What he terms the “de-Stalinization of labour” occurred during this period, which witnessed a restoration of democracy in the workplace in the shape of collective bargaining. But the ghosts of Stalin still haunted the USSR and this progress was not linear – what Lewin terms “conservative reflexes” re-emerged in the form of the KGB.

During the 1950s and 60s some progress was made in addressing the issues surrounding the bloated bureaucracy which had developed under Stalin. However, Lewin argues that deep structural forces – the backwardness of Russia, its imperial past, and the external existential threat from the West – militated against any moves away from the “strong state”.

Having spent much of the book castigating Stalin and his “agrarian despotism”, in the final chapters Lewin reflects on some of the positive inroads made by the Soviet state into modernizing society and the economy. By the 1980s, “in broad terms, the distance between Russia and the West had thus been reduced, and the country was no longer part of the developing world”.

He notes some of the beneficial features such as “personal physical security, libraries, a broad reading public, interest in the arts in general and poetry in particular, the importance of science”. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 presided over by Boris Yeltsin, in which vast swathes of the public sector was acquisitioned by oligarchs, “all these developmental indicators have regressed appreciably”.

Other advances included those made by women. By 1970, women were “broadly well educated, were well represented in the technical professions, and had a strong presence in scientific research”. But Lewin is quick to point out the shortcomings such as the “purely symbolic presence [of females] in the power structure and a tenacious patriarchal system, including in urban families”.

Final assessment

Lewin elsewhere admits that “the state worked hard to reduce material inequalities and it unquestionably succeeded”. He cites the work of sociologist Tatyana Zaslavskaya, who pointed to the biological improvement of Soviet citizens over the course of several decades:

“Even if the system offered its citizens a much lower standard of living that that of Western countries, it remains the case that the height of men went on increasing in Russia, until the 1980s at least, at about the same tempo as in developed countries”.

However, even here Lewin calls these improved living standards “a mirage, like cheeks that glow after they have been pinched”. The Soviet state was in terminal decline due to a massive section of the population being employed unproductively as administrators, a chronic shortage in labor supply and low labor productivity, among other problems.

Lewin points to the vastness of the USSR as an impediment to the possibility that the state might endure – it was “unwieldy” to govern. Russia’s quantitative imperial expansion eventually undermined it. Sporadic forces beyond the control of the state such as internal migratory fluxes and consequent population imbalances greatly added to this problem. It was thus difficult to “alter its historical course”. Yet:

“Paradoxically, such extensive, quantity-oriented development was also embodied in the vigorous Stalinist mobilization that made victory possible in 1945, saving Russia and Europe with it. In other words, the traditional impetus from above – from the state – could accomplish many things. But such prowess had its limits and was only fully effective in the transition from a profoundly rural civilization to an increasingly urban one”.

However, even after Stalin’s death Lewin remarks that a “bureaucratic absolutism” filled the vacuum in spite of attempts at top-down reform by Khrushchev and, later, Mikhail Gorbachev. The post-Stalin Soviet state was not socialist then? “Definitely not. Socialism involves ownership of the means of production by society, not by a bureaucracy”.

Ultimately, Lewin probably reserves his harshest criticism for revisionist historians of the anti-communist variety who attempt to “Stalinize” the entirety of the Soviet era; when, in fact, there were qualitative differences in various periods. As he forcefully exclaims, “anti-communism (and its offshoots) is not historical scholarship: it is an ideology masquerading as such. Not only did it not correspond to the realities of the political ‘animal’ in question, but waving the flag of democracy, it paradoxically exploited the USSR’s authoritarian (dictatorial) regime in the service of conservative causes or worse”.

 

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We Can Fireproof Homes But Not Forests

Using wildfires as their cover, Montana’s Republican Senator Steve Daines announced that he and California’s Democrat Senator Diane Feinstein are introducing legislation to weaken federal environmental laws and allow more logging and thinning of our national forests.  Private, for-profit timber companies have already over-cut the private forest lands in the West and now Feinstein and Daines want to allow them to “cut and run” on our publicly-owned national forests.

Fire-prone homes are going to burn

Daines and Feinstein think that thinning will magically make homes in forests fireproof — but they won’t.  First, homes are on private property, not on public land, which means installing fire-proof roofing and siding is the homeowner’s responsibility, not the federal government’s.  Second, the Forest Service’s own fire scientists have found that logging won’t stop wildfires, but having a non-flammable roof and clearing most trees next to your home will definitely help keep your home from burning down in a wildfire.

One need only look to the destruction of Paradise, CA, to see that most of the structural damage was caused by wind-driven embers leaping from home to home, while nearby trees remained standing and unburnt.  The lesson of Paradise: If one homeowner does not fireproof their house, it will likely burn in a forest fire and then start their neighbors’ houses on fire.

Forests aren’t commercial tree farms – they’re functioning ecosystems

In 1960, Congress passed the Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act.  It was meant to ensure that our national forests produce a sustained yield of timber while preserving clean water, clean air, and native fish and wildlife habitat.  Simply put, forests are not tree farms.  They are watersheds, fish and wildlife habitat, carbon sinks, places to hike and enjoy the vast diversity of natural ecosystems.

Logging and thinning also removes essential habitat.  For instance, snowshoe hare and red squirrels are primary food sources for numerous forest predators.  Mountain lions, lynx, pine martins, fisher, wolverine, coyotes, goshawks, great gray owls, and boreal owls are all in decline and destroying the habitat of their prey only ensures their eventual demise.  Thinning thick forests also removes the security cover for elk and deer, which then flee hunters on public national forests for the “no trespassing” security of private lands.  And few can afford to pay thousands of dollars to hunt on gated private lands.

Bulldozing new logging roads destroys watersheds

The new and rebuilt roads required for the Daines-Feinstein logging bill will send even more sediment into vital headwater streams. Teddy Roosevelt created our national forests to protect habitat for fish and wildlife and provide stable, non-eroding watersheds to produce abundant clean drinking water.  When timber companies bulldoze new logging roads into forests, sediment runs into streams, fills the rocky bottoms and smothers fish eggs and aquatic insects.

The most valuable commodity our national forests produce is clean drinking water, not logs.  When logging runoff pollutes municipal watersheds the costs to bring the once-clean water back up to drinking water standards is enormous and wind up being loaded on local taxpayers, not the logging companies that caused the problem.

Logging cost taxpayers billions of dollars while forests work for free

The Forest Service and the BLM lose a stunning two billion dollars a year subsidizing logging on our public lands.  If Daines and Feinstein really want to help, they should fund programs to educate people on how to fireproof their homes, not cut down national forests.  Our national forests already do what they do best, produce clean drinking water, habitat for native fish and wildlife and absorb carbon. Best of all, forests do all of this for free.

Thick forests are natural and absorb the most carbon

Over 200 years ago when Lewis and Clark crossed Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains on their way to the Pacific they were forced to ride their horses up Lolo Creek because the forests were too thick to get through.  Daines now claims that forests are unnaturally thick because of prior fire suppression.  He not only ignores historical documentation and recent science, but also the fact that native wildlife depends on thick, not thinned and open, forests for its survival.

Conclusion:  Leave our national forest ecosystems alone

Daines and Feinstein are great examples of politicians’ knee-jerk, uninformed reaction to wildfires which, as science proves, are primarily weather-driven.  Even clearcuts will burn when high temperatures, high winds, and drought combine – all of which are exacerbated by global warming, which takes a lot more political courage to address than simply logging more forests.

While politicians’ promises to plant a trillion trees worldwide is a good start, an even better idea is to simply leave our nation’s existing environmental laws and forests intact. National forests absorb a whopping 10 percent of the carbon America produces – an amount equal to the emissions from 50 million cars every year — and native forests suck up the most carbon.

It takes centuries to create a forest but only a few seconds to cut down a tree.  We need to leave forests intact with both small and big trees to do their job as carbon sinks and provide the ecosystem continuity required by native species for survival.

Please join the Alliance for the Wild Rockies in fighting to protect, maintain, and restore our national forest ecosystems and protect the laws that require environmental analysis and public review and comment.

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Gaslighting Bernie and His Supporters

I have to preface this by saying it’s personal for me. I spent years of my early adulthood having ferocious fights about politics with my father. The more animated I became, the cooler he got. He had a lawyer’s knack for flipping an argument on its head. By the end I felt not only defeated but exposed and dirty, as if whatever I believed was just emotion-fueled nonsense. Not until I turned 50 was I able to hold my feelings in check and parry back with equal aplomb. It’s taken me another 12 years to realize that I was being gaslighted.

When people I encounter, mainly on social media, don’t like Senator Bernie Sanders – I’m talking mainly about Democratic voters who support one of the other candidates – almost invariably they’re gaslighting me, and Bernie. His rivals do it, too, as when they label him divisive or misogynist or socialist or intolerant of others’ views. These tactics are many and ingenious. They assume that if they’ve been “attacked” on social media by a Bernie supporter – although why these supposed victims are suddenly oh-so-vulnerable is never clear – every supporter is a “Bernie Bro.” Every expression of passion and partisanship is an attack.

Because Bernie’s supporters believe that his policies and proposals are far more progressive than most and represent something like a challenge to the status quo – though the most realistic of us know that he could be so much more, and that to a not inconsiderable extent he is as much a creature of American Exceptionalism as the others – we point out the weaknesses of the other candidates’ platforms. Elizabeth Warren is closest, perhaps, but has declared herself a dyed-in-the-wool capitalist, which makes her progressive bona fides somewhat questionable. I hardly need to point out here that Pete Buttigieg is the current darling of Wall Street and Amy Klobuchar has horrible environmental and prosecutorial records. As for “Mike” Bloomberg, if the Democrats really want a racist, classist billionaire in office, they might as well just stand down. Maybe that’s the point?

One of my Pete or Amy friends is reading that last sentence and getting ready to tell me that I’m a conspiracy theorist. Speaking of which, try asking politely how it is that, more than two weeks out from the Iowa caucuses, we still don’t know how Buttigieg ended up getting 14 delegates and Bernie 12, when the last figures made public showed them tied 11-11, based on a virtual tie (less than .1% difference) in “state delegate equivalents” and Bernie’s leading in individual “popular votes,” and you’re whining and complaining just like Bernie does. Don’t even bother pointing out the factual links between the app developer “Shadow, Inc.,” the DNC, and the Buttigieg campaign. You’re deep into tin-foil hat territory.

Line up a dozen stories in the New York Times – in just the last two weeks! – that blatantly or subtly make Bernie look bad, or relegate him to a footnote, and you’ll be told you’re becoming paranoid.

Do you gag when you hear the ever-loving trope that Bernie can’t get elected? You’d think that the fact he leads in national polling both against his rivals and head-to-head against Trump might be persuasive. But you’d be wrong. In that case, polls aren’t very reliable. Or else they’re just ignored. Every Tom, Dick and Harry knows that Bernie is just not “electable” because, well, that’s what every Tom, Dick and Harry says.

To believe in Bernie, his platform and his deep and broad support is cast as “unrealistic.” “That’s not the real world,” people say. “In the real world, not enough people like Bernie. He’ll turn off too many voters.” Polls? Results so far? Turn on the white noise machine.

Some of my combatants concede that Bernie could win, but they won’t support him anyway. Why not? Because “he won’t be able to get anything done; he’ll try to ram his extreme policies down Congress’s throat and they’ll defeat his proposals.” These people’s solution, I guess, is to elect someone who will concede everything to the lawless, unbending Republican right without a fight.

There’s a common thread through all this gaslighting. Virtually every argument focuses on a supposed inherent flaw in Bernie or his supporters. His “unelectability,” his “divisiveness,” his “Bros,” etc. What’s missing? A single word about policy. People I know who support Pete talk about his “gravitas” and cool demeanor, never about his “Medicare for all who want it.” What is there to defend? A policy that nearly all experts agree is bogus and would drive up costs? And beyond that, crickets about foreign policy or the economy or social justice or anything else. Besides, now that we have the new Yale study out, the argument that true Medicare for All would cost Americans more has no more legs under it.

Of course, a lot of people I know vote simply on the basis of gut feeling: “I like that person. I could imagine being their friend.” I think that might be one of the traits that does distinguish Sanders supporters. We’re not interested in a popularity pageant, we’re interested in changing and improving this country and the world. (Honestly, if Bernie was my uncle, I’d probably be annoyed as hell.)

So in place of offering any kind of cogent arguments in favor of their candidates, the Un-Bernie crowd just picks away at every nit they can find, big and small. Their ultimate go-to is the tired old trope that it was Bernie cost Hilary the election. They’ll never get over that. “But,” I say, “he campaigned hard for her!” La-la-la-la-la-la. And it’s not just what they say, it’s how they say it. So cool. With that smug, “Why get so hot and bothered? We’re only saying that nothing you believe is true in the ‘real world.’ You just need to face facts!” Gaslighting.

I want to say this again: Bernie is not ideal. Not even close. Like a lot of his supporters, I was angry four years ago when he caved to pressure and didn’t go third-party. But if you listen to what he’s saying – and stop imagining he’s yelling angrily at you – you will hear a candidate, as I did at a New Hampshire rally, who is laying out a platform, plank by plank. Other than saying “We’re taking on the whole Republican establishment, and the Democratic establishment, too” (which, you know, is kind of true), I heard exactly zero attacks or even mentions of his opponents. Instead, I heard the word “justice.” And that one word alone, unheard from any other candidate, is a bolt of lightning that tells me this man can win and fight for real change (however degraded that last word).

As for his vaunted “Bernie Bros”? Poof. A mirage. Listen, I know lots and lots of Sanders supporters, online and in real life. Women and men, black and white, young and old. A radio host, a massage therapist, an environmentalist and former Occupy activist. At the rally I met a candy maker, two college students, and a therapist. All of these people are gentle souls. Not one of them would raise a cross word on Twitter or anywhere.

Which is not to say I won’t. You gaslight me and I’m going to fight back. Enough is enough.

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Our First Amendment or Our Empire, But Not Both

“A community will evolve only when a people control their own communication”

– Frantz Fanon

At long last we (i.e., Americans) are forced to make a clear choice—either preserve the freedoms established by the First Amendment in 1791, or toss them aside and obstinately plod on with our exceptionalism. Julian Assange’s extradition hearing will begin on the 24th of February in London, but it is also a trial for Americans. We are being interrogated about how much we value our freedom, if we think we have a “right to know” anymore, and whether we will respect the rights of foreign journalists and international law.

A thoughtful, ethical approach would discuss the needs of others first, before considering our own needs, but since this is an emergency, and as we need Americans above all to take action (by the first day of his extradition hearing if possible), let us consider the selfish reasons now—what is best for U.S. citizens, who are entitled to participate in politics and choose their government.

In the year 2000, many months before the horrible violence of 11 September 2001, a book entitled Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (Fitzhenry & Whiteside) came out. The American political scientist Chalmers Johnson presciently considered the important question “why we are hated around the world,” why the U.S. is the “world’s most prominent target for blowback.” He noted the following important facts:

1. The U.S. is the only imperial power

2. It is the “primary source” of “operations that shore up repressive regimes”

3. It is the “largest seller of weapons”

Indeed, it has been demonstrated in numerous CounterPunch articles that Our Government engages in imperialist actions, thwarts democracy, and begets violence through weapons sales.

The term “blowback” in general can mean “negative reactions or results that were not intended, such as criticism, protest, or anger,” but Johnson used the term in the sense of the “unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people.” He wrote that “what the daily press reports as the malign acts of ‘terrorists’ or ‘drug lords’ or ‘rogue states’ or ‘illegal arms merchants’ often turn out to be blowback from earlier American operations.”

This is no secret. The Department of Defense received advice from a committee of civilian experts in 1997 that concluded, “Historical data show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States. In addition, the military asymmetry that denies nation states the ability to engage in overt attacks against the United States drives the use of transnational actors.” Johnson explained that by “actors” they meant “terrorists from one country attacking in another.”

When the U.S. invades other countries, or supplies, trains, and funds the militaries of other invading states, the situation becomes one of “asymmetric warfare.” Countries that are bullied by the U.S., e.g., Iran, prepare for war with the U.S. by investing in “asymmetric attack capabilities”. That term “asymmetric,” often used in analyzing military conflicts between the U.S. and other states, underscores the huge, unfair advantage that Washington has in such conflicts. That advantage should not put a smile on our faces because it also makes us targets of violence, criticism, and ostracism.

Johnson pointed out that “one man’s terrorist” is “another man’s freedom fighter.” One could call Julian Assange a “freedom-fighter journalist.” The 12 July 2007 Baghdad airstrikes that WikiLeaks called “Collateral Murder” revealed to us all a level of brutality that only generals, military affairs specialists, and soldiers were familiar with. The illegality, the cowardliness, and the injustice captured by those epoch-making clips must have spurred on Chelsea Manning, Assange, and others to publish them, regardless of the consequences. In that sense, the leaked documents and various publications from WikiLeaks are a kind of “blowback” caused by the violence of Our Government.

The chain of cause-and-effect goes something like this: Western, state violence over the course of hundreds of years (recently led by Washington) against peoples of the Middle East causes the terrorist backlash called “9/11.” The shock of 9/11 for Americans opens the door to new, extreme, lawless measures, including the creation of heretofore unseen legal exceptions (and exceptionalism) such as Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the “Collateral Murder.” Such uncontrolled state violence leads whistleblowers and journalists like Assange to work extra hard and take on great personal risk in order to expose U.S. crimes. While the U.S. government normally spies on the people, Assange and other committed journalists found a way to “spy” back, i.e., to force some transparency and accountability on the Gangster State, and as a result, the “gloves” of the Gangster State come off.

In order to re-assert control, Washington’s lawlessness requires a veneer of legitimacy. This is why our stupid and outdated Espionage Act of 1917 is now being re-fitted. If Washington succeeds in building this new authoritarian tool, it will be able to thoroughly eradicate the revolutionary and democracy-promoting journalism of WikiLeaks, which actually bypasses the mass media and makes information about foreign affairs available to anyone in the world with an Internet-connected computer. And the government will also be able to stop any journalist in their tracks who produces writings, films, recordings, etc. that can be portrayed as benefiting from “stolen” information (i.e., information made available to government officials through U.S. tax dollars, supposedly for the benefit of Americans).

How will people in the Middle East evaluate the work of Julian Assange ten years from now, in the context of the current U.S. lawlessness? Although I have never asked anyone from that region of the world this question, perhaps they will thank Assange for standing up to the cowardly bullies who killed the dozen or more non-combatants in the “Collateral Murder” video recording. Unlike most Americans today, surely well-informed intellectuals of countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq are already painfully aware that the U.S. 1) backed a coup in Iran (1953), 2) backed Israel’s violence in Palestine (from 1967), 3) smashed secular nationalism and defended Islamic fundamentalism, 4) ignored Israel’s possession of nukes even after the NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons), 5) bombed Libya (1986) and attacked that country later with the U.K. and France (2011), 6) started the Gulf “War” (1990), the War in Afghanistan, and the Iraq War, 7) supplied Saddam Hussein with chemicals for the poison gas that he used on the Kurds, and helped him kill Iranians, 8) cooperated with the “revenge killing” of Saddam in the words of the second George Bush, 9) committed high-profile extrajudicial killings, such as those of Osama bin Laden, the U.S. citizens Anwar al-Awlaki and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki (his son), Muammar Gaddafi (2011), and Qasem Soleimani last month, 10) assassinated hundreds of people with drones in several countries of the region—mostly foot soldiers (at least between 2008 and 2010, according to Reuters), 11) caused psychological trauma and anxiety among millions of people from the drones, 12) undermined democratic movements, such as the Arab Spring (2010), 13) directly aided terrorists (such as in August 2012 and ’14) did not apologize or compensate for U.S. soldiers’ sexual violence, such as when a 14-year-old Iraqi girl named Abeer Qassim al-Janabi was gang-raped and murdered (2006). No wonder the vast majority of Egyptians viewed the U.S. and Israel as the number one threat, and only 10% viewed Iran as a threat (in 2010).

If it were not for that kind of violence, maybe WikiLeaks would never have published the “Collateral Murder” video. Maybe Assange would never have exposed the Democratic National Committee (DNC)’s wrongdoing, causing five of the members to resign in disgrace for cheating Sen. Bernie Sanders and blocking the will of Democratic Party voters. Instead of trusting Hillary Clinton even after the last months before the election, when her duplicity was repeatedly revealed, the DNC leadership could have been purged. A new Democratic Party establishment could have chosen Sanders, and he would have become president.

But no, the DNC felt that reforming their organization was less important than attacking the one who told the truth. Only Assange and WikiLeaks were sued by the DNC, when in fact, “no factual basis has been supplied for the accusation that Assange knew the DNC emails derived from a Russian source, and especially not the Russian government. Assange himself has repeatedly stated that the leaks came from an individual, not from a state actor” (Introduction to Tariq Ali and Margaret Kunstler, eds., In Defense of Julian Assange, OR Books, 2020, p. xxiv).

As the Croatian philosopher and political activist Srećko Horvat has written, “It was the Democrats, by choosing the wrong candidate in the first place (Hillary instead of Bernie), who brought Trump to power—not WikiLeaks” (Horvat, “What’s the Point of Swimming in the Sea, If You Don’t Believe in Anything?” In Defense of Julian Assange, p. 145). And one thing the DNC must worry about now is that a few people might remember that it was they, not the Republicans, who first welcomed foreign intelligence assets into our elections when they paid for “former MI6 asset Christopher Steele to produce opposition research to discredit Trump” (Margaret Kimberley, “The Naïveté of Julian Assange,” In Defense of Julian Assange, p. 43).

Conclusion

Assange’s naïveté is a forgivable sin, if a sin at all. Perhaps he was completely focused on the injustice of U.S. foreign policy, so he was unaware of, or possibly even ignored, the injustice of U.S. domestic discrimination (racism, sexism, classism, etc.) and did not understand that the Republican Party is the party of white male supremacy, a party that rides Humvee military vehicles over our civil rights and women’s rights even more than the Democratic Party.

But Assange is not the only one who will be tried in the coming weeks. So will we. And the question for us is not how much we like Assange but how much we love our liberty and that of others. Will we recall those words “Sweet land of liberty”? Or instead, will we turn our eyes away as the U.K. persecutes this Australian citizen on behalf of Washington for the “crime” (!) of exposing the injustice of our endless wars, to serve as a lesson to us all—that it is not for journalists to stop wars? And will we let the Bully President and our Gangster Government become the new Global Thought Police?

Many thanks to Stephen Brivati for comments, suggestions, and editing.

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A Story for the Anthropocene

“An alien planet” – “old and strange as the moon” – “like arriving on a different planet” – “red and dry and hot.” Australia’s burning.

Kate Thompson’s novel is called Provenance, a tricky term both authenticating art as private property for the auction houses and the collectors’ circuits and a term related somehow to human origins and everything else. Who and what exactly is on the auction block? Not the desert. Perhaps the planet.

It’s explained that as a kardiya (non-indigenous) person and you go to work in an Australian Aboriginal community you’re either a missionary, mercenary, or misfit. Twice the England-born doctor, Elliot by name, afflicted by nose-bleed, goes into “country,” a misfit. His anxieties and fears are neither assuaged by possessiveness nor reduced by money. They leave him angry and untrusting of his companions, the yapa people or Warlpiri, who can find their way around the desert. Nevertheless, Elliot, this whitefella, is open to “the intangible essence of the land.” Even if he doesn’t know it, it knows him. Mulga, ghost-gum, saltbush, spinifex, dingo, the song of the butcher bird, the meat of the goanna, and – at last! – water from the jila.

The first time Elliot enters “country” it is with an art-hunting collector. The second time it is with Luke, an Aboriginal man who once worked the gold mines in Kimberley, and now takes it upon himself to teach a couple adolescent kids “in language” traditional indigenous “law” and “ceremony” by taking them thousands of kilometers into the deserts of northern Australia. He’ll clean up their insides with bush tucker. What’s “middle of nowhere” to Elliot turns out to be sacred homeland to Luke. Naïve, isolated, childless, and unprepossessing, Elliot is uncertain politically and romantically vulnerable, but he’s also a good doctor at the edge of … what? civilization? neo-liberalism? capitalism? the city? Actually, all of these, where people behave like steamrollers. On the other side of that edge people believe that “Money is for everyone” and act as though automobiles were common property. Something numinous, the holy shivers, touches Elliot.

A small and precious particle of erotic energy leads to one thing then another – a glance, a bargain, a troopy, and an expedition that leads to near baptism with a skin name and to a skull-
fracturing disaster: a collision that compresses tens of thousands of years of human cultures into incomplete memories, dreams from the hospital bed, fragmentary thoughts from a brain recovering, signs painted on rocks, lines and dots painted on canvases – this is aboriginal dreamtime transferred with acrylic into the high class art market, all for the clamorous racket of private property, ego-centrism, and the money fetish. The novel moves harmoniously switching between the tale of the wounded doctor doing good amid vicious, humbugging structures to the dreams, memories, and visions of a recovering person longing for redemption.

Psychologically subtle with an array of interesting children, women, and men, philosophically unpretentious and ever faithful to the locale, this is a thrilling read, a human story for the anthropocene. It explains jukurrpa, that dancing, signing, and sacred inseparability between self and land.

The tone of the book is far from nostalgic. The yapa and the whitefellas strain against each other like a tug of war, in town and in wild country, yet this is not a book of pure identities. Elliot returns to the practice of medicine yet “still roaming with the dingoes on the other side of the dog fence.”

It might be usefully read in conjunction with what Mary Watkins writes in her book Mutual Accompaniment and the Creation of the Commons (Yale, 2019) who shows other subjectivities than missionary, mercenary, or misfit. Watkins quotes Aboriginal activists, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

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Where Have You Gone Smedley Butler?

There once lived an odd little man — five feet nine inches tall and barely 140 pounds sopping wet — who rocked the lecture circuit and the nation itself. For all but a few activist insiders and scholars, U.S. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Darlington Butler is now lost to history. Yet more than a century ago, this strange contradiction of a man would become a national war hero, celebrated in pulp adventure novels, and then, 30 years later, as one of this country’s most prominent antiwar and anti-imperialist dissidents.

Raised in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and educated in Quaker (pacifist) schools, the son of an influential congressman, he would end up serving in nearly all of America’s “Banana Wars” from 1898 to 1931. Wounded in combat and a rare recipient of two Congressional Medals of Honor, he would retire as the youngest, most decorated major general in the Marines.

A teenage officer and a certified hero during an international intervention in the Chinese Boxer Rebellion of 1900, he would later become a constabulary leader of the Haitian gendarme, the police chief of Philadelphia (while on an approved absence from the military), and a proponent of Marine Corps football. In more standard fashion, he would serve in battle as well as in what might today be labeled peacekeeping, counterinsurgency, and advise-and-assist missions in Cuba, China, the Philippines, Panama, Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti, France, and China (again). While he showed early signs of skepticism about some of those imperial campaigns or, as they were sardonically called by critics at the time, “Dollar Diplomacy” operations — that is, military campaigns waged on behalf of U.S. corporate business interests — until he retired he remained the prototypical loyal Marine.

But after retirement, Smedley Butler changed his tune. He began to blast the imperialist foreign policy and interventionist bullying in which he’d only recently played such a prominent part. Eventually, in 1935 during the Great Depression, in what became a classic passage in his memoir, which he titled“War Is a Racket,” he wrote: “I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service… And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street, and for the Bankers.”

Seemingly overnight, the famous war hero transformed himself into an equally acclaimed antiwar speaker and activist in a politically turbulent era. Those were, admittedly, uncommonly anti-interventionist years, in which veterans and politicians alike promoted what (for America, at least) had been fringe ideas. This was, after all, the height of what later pro-war interventionists would pejoratively label American “isolationism.”

Nonetheless, Butler was unique (for that moment and certainly for our own) in his unapologetic amenability to left-wing domestic politics and materialist critiques of American militarism. In the last years of his life, he would face increasing criticism from his former admirer, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the military establishment, and the interventionist press. This was particularly true after Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany invaded Poland and later France. Given the severity of the Nazi threat to mankind, hindsight undoubtedly proved Butler’s virulent opposition to U.S. intervention in World War II wrong.

Nevertheless, the long-term erasure of his decade of antiwar and anti-imperialist activism and the assumption that all his assertions were irrelevant has proven historically deeply misguided. In the wake of America’s brief but bloody entry into the First World War, the skepticism of Butler (and a significant part of an entire generation of veterans) about intervention in a new European bloodbath should have been understandable. Above all, however, his critique of American militarism of an earlier imperial era in the Pacific and in Latin America remains prescient and all too timely today, especially coming as it did from one of the most decorated and high-ranking general officers of his time. (In the era of the never-ending war on terror, such a phenomenon is quite literally inconceivable.)

Smedley Butler’s Marine Corps and the military of his day was, in certain ways, a different sort of organization than today’s highly professionalized armed forces. History rarely repeats itself, not in a literal sense anyway. Still, there are some disturbing similarities between the careers of Butler and today’s generation of forever-war fighters. All of them served repeated tours of duty in (mostly) unsanctioned wars around the world. Butler’s conflicts may have stretched west from Haiti across the oceans to China, whereas today’s generals mostly lead missions from West Africa east to Central Asia, but both sets of conflicts seemed perpetual in their day and were motivated by barely concealed economic and imperial interests.

Nonetheless, whereas this country’s imperial campaigns of the first third of the twentieth century generated a Smedley Butler, the hyper-interventionism of the first decades of this century hasn’t produced a single even faintly comparable figure. Not one. Zero. Zilch. Why that is matters and illustrates much about the U.S. military establishment and contemporary national culture, none of it particularly encouraging.

Why No Antiwar Generals

When Smedley Butler retired in 1931, he was one of three Marine Corps major generals holding a rank just below that of only the Marine commandant and the Army chief of staff. Today, with about 900 generals and admirals currently serving on active duty, including 24 major generals in the Marine Corps alone, and with scores of flag officers retiring annually, not a single one has offered genuine public opposition to almost 19 years worth of ill-advised, remarkably unsuccessful American wars. As for the most senior officers, the 40 four-star generals and admirals whose vocal antimilitarism might make the biggest splash, there are more of them today than there were even at the height of the Vietnam War, although the active military is now about half the size it was then. Adulated as many of them may be, however, not one qualifies as a public critic of today’s failing wars.

Instead, the principal patriotic dissent against those terror wars has come from retired colonels, lieutenant colonels, and occasionally more junior officers (like me), as well as enlisted service members. Not that there are many of us to speak of either. I consider it disturbing (and so should you) that I personally know just about every one of the retired military figures who has spoken out against America’s forever wars.

The big three are Secretary of State Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, retired Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson; Vietnam veteran and onetime West Point history instructor, retired Colonel Andrew Bacevich; and Iraq veteran and Afghan War whistleblower, retired Lieutenant Colonel Danny Davis. All three have proven to be genuine public servants, poignant voices, and — on some level — cherished personal mentors. For better or worse, however, none carry the potential clout of a retired senior theater commander or prominent four-star general offering the same critiques.

Something must account for veteran dissenters topping out at the level of colonel. Obviously, there are personal reasons why individual officers chose early retirement or didn’t make general or admiral. Still, the system for selecting flag officers should raise at least a few questions when it comes to the lack of antiwar voices among retired commanders. In fact, a selection committee of top generals and admirals is appointed each year to choose the next colonels to earn their first star. And perhaps you won’t be surprised to learn that, according to numerous reports, “the members of this board are inclined, if not explicitly motivated, to seek candidates in their own image — officers whose careers look like theirs.” At a minimal level, such a system is hardly built to foster free thinkers, no less breed potential dissidents.

Consider it an irony of sorts that this system first received criticism in our era of forever wars when General David Petraeus, then commanding the highly publicized “surge” in Iraq, had to leave that theater of war in 2007 to serve as the chair of that selection committee. The reason: he wanted to ensure that a twice passed-over colonel, a protégé of his — future Trump National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster — earned his star.

Mainstream national security analysts reported on this affair at the time as if it were a major scandal, since most of them were convinced that Petraeus and his vaunted counterinsurgency or “COINdinista” protégés and their “new” war-fighting doctrine had the magic touch that would turn around the failing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, Petraeus tried to apply those very tactics twice — once in each country — as did acolytes of his later, and you know the results of that.

But here’s the point: it took an eleventh-hour intervention by America’s most acclaimed general of that moment to get new stars handed out to prominent colonels who had, until then, been stonewalled by Cold War-bred flag officers because they were promoting different (but also strangely familiar) tactics in this country’s wars. Imagine, then, how likely it would be for such a leadership system to produce genuine dissenters with stars of any serious sort, no less a crew of future Smedley Butlers.

At the roots of this system lay the obsession of the American officer corps with “professionalization” after the Vietnam War debacle. This first manifested itself in a decision to ditch the citizen-soldier tradition, end the draft, and create an “all-volunteer force.” The elimination of conscription, as predicted by critics at the time, created an ever-growing civil-military divide, even as it increased public apathy regarding America’s wars by erasing whatever “skin in the game” most citizens had.

More than just helping to squelch civilian antiwar activism, though, the professionalization of the military, and of the officer corps in particular, ensured that any future Smedley Butlers would be left in the dust (or in retirement at the level of lieutenant colonel or colonel) by a system geared to producing faux warrior-monks. Typical of such figures is current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army General Mark Milley. He may speak grufflyand look like a man with a head of his own, but typically he’s turned out to be just another yes-man for another war-power-hungry president.

One group of generals, however, reportedly now does have it out for President Trump — but not because they’re opposed to endless war. Rather, they reportedly think that The Donald doesn’t “listen enough to military advice” on, you know, how to wage war forever and a day.

What Would Smedley Butler Think Today?

In his years of retirement, Smedley Butler regularly focused on the economic component of America’s imperial war policies. He saw clearly that the conflicts he had fought in, the elections he had helped rig, the coups he had supported, and the constabularies he had formed and empowered in faraway lands had all served the interests of U.S. corporate investors. Though less overtly the case today, this still remains a reality in America’s post-9/11 conflicts, even on occasion embarrassingly so (as when the Iraqi ministry of oil was essentially the only public building protected by American troops as looters tore apart the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, in the post-invasion chaos of April 2003). Mostly, however, such influence plays out far more subtly than that, both abroad and here at home where those wars help maintain the record profits of the top weapons makers of the military-industrial complex.

That beast, first identified by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, is now on steroids as American commanders in retirement regularly move directly from the military onto the boards of the giant defense contractors, a reality which only contributes to the dearth of Butlers in the military retiree community. For all the corruption of his time, the Pentagon didn’t yet exist and the path from the military to, say, United Fruit Company, Standard Oil, or other typical corporate giants of that moment had yet to be normalized for retiring generals and admirals. Imagine what Butler would have had to say about the modern phenomenon of the “revolving door” in Washington.

Of course, he served in a very different moment, one in which military funding and troop levels were still contested in Congress. As a longtime critic of capitalist excesses who wrote for leftist publications and supported the Socialist Party candidate in the 1936 presidential elections, Butler would have found today’s nearly trillion-dollar annual defense budgets beyond belief. What the grizzled former Marine long ago identified as a treacherous nexus between warfare and capital “in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives” seems to have reached its natural end point in the twenty-first century. Case in point: the record (and still rising) “defense” spending of the present moment, including — to please a president — the creation of a whole new military service aimed at the full-scale militarization of space.

Sadly enough, in the age of Trump, as numerous polls demonstrate, the U.S. military is the only public institution Americans still truly trust. Under the circumstances, how useful it would be to have a high-ranking, highly decorated, charismatic retired general in the Butler mold galvanize an apathetic public around those forever wars of ours. Unfortunately, the likelihood of that is practically nil, given the military system of our moment.

Of course, Butler didn’t exactly end his life triumphantly. In late May 1940, having lost 25 pounds due to illness and exhaustion — and demonized as a leftist, isolationist crank but still maintaining a whirlwind speaking schedule — he checked himself into the Philadelphia Navy Yard Hospital for a “rest.” He died there, probably of some sort of cancer, four weeks later. Working himself to death in his 10-year retirement and second career as a born-again antiwar activist, however, might just have constituted the very best service that the two-time Medal of Honor winner could have given the nation he loved to the very end.

Someone of his credibility, character, and candor is needed more than ever today. Unfortunately, this military generation is unlikely to produce such a figure. In retirement, Butler himself boldly confessed that, “like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical…”

Today, generals don’t seem to have a thought of their own even in retirement. And more’s the pity…

This article first appeared on TomDispatch.

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What’s a Social Democratic Political Program Really Mean?

Social Security is back in the news, as both Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg, two emblematic one-percenter oligarchs, raise the issue of its future as part of their campaign strategy.

Trump (a faux wannabe billionaire) has put Americans on notice that while he may have promised during his 2016 campaign “not to touch” the New Deal’s most lasting legacy program, on which some 70 million Americans –- the elderly and the disabled as well as dependent children of those dependent upon Social Security rely — during his term of office as president, he is ready to start hacking away in a second term. His first target: benefits for the disabled.

Meanwhile, Michael Bloomberg, America’s eighth-richest man with $62 billion in assets at last count (minus the third of a billion has just spent so far on an ads-only campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination), is promising to “strengthen” and “improve” Social Security if he becomes the country’s first oligarch/president.

But before we get all excited about improved Social Security, let’s consider what that could mean. First of all, most of the time when US politicians, like Bloomberg, talk about “strengthening” or “improving” social security, they are actually talking about making it harder to get, by for example raising the full-retirement age for receiving benefits, or adopting a cost-of-living metric that further reduces that adjustment made for inflation each year, so that actual benefits decline gradually over time with no actual numerical cut in the dollar amounts received.

As things stand the CPI measure used for adjusting Social Security benefits for inflation is an index designed to reflect the costs experienced by urban service workers, not the elderly. For the current year benefits were raised 1.6%, a ludicrously low amount by any standard, but wholly unlike the inflation that the elderly, whose major expenses are for food, housing and healthcare, have actually been hit with. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, food prices rose 1.9% in that year, housing costs rose 2.9% and health care costs rose 2%.) Many politicians in Congress, especially Republicans (Bloomberg’s party of choice from 2000 until 2018) want to use something called a “chained CPI) which would vastly lower inflation adjustments by substituting a cheaper product whenever one included in the index rises substantially in price, the theory being that low-income consumers will shift to a cheaper product as prices rises — for example switching from beef to chicken as meat prices rise, or from a car to a bus if car prices and/or fuel prices rise.)

So beware of those talking of “strengthening” Social Security without reading all the fine print!

But beyond that, let’s consider how inadequate Social Security really is as things now stand.

So-called think tank “experts” and politicians, Republican and Democratic, are wont to remind us all the time that Social Security “was never intended to be a primary pension” for Americans. We poor schmucks were supposed to have employer-funded pensions and savings. But over the years, as unions have been deliberately crushed by state and federal laws making it easier and easier for companies to break unions and to keep them from winning contracts in the workplace (despite majority support among the American people for a union on their job), those pensions have practically vanished, replaced only by 401(k) plans and private IRA plans. But most employers don’t even contribute to, or contribute very little to the 401(k) tax-deferred plans they offer, and in fact the median size 401(k) for workers in the 60-69 age bracket where most people choose to or need to retire is just $62,000, hardly enough to get one through the next 10-20 years of life!

It’s fine to say that Social Security was “never intended” to be a complete retirement plan, but for a majority of Americans, these days it is their only retirement plan.

Things have only gotten worse over the years. Where once people at least had a paid-off house to live in when they retired, now college costs have gotten so high, even at so-called public universities, that many families have remortgaged their homes to pay for their kids’ college educations… or for needed medical care, which has also soared even as Medicare has covered less and less, especially when it comes to drugs and of course long-term care.

So what should be done?

Well, let’s look at Finland. I visited there a few years ago, and interviewed the Finnish Social Security Program’s chief actuary. He told me that back in the 1990s, the country, which has an older average population than even the US, realized they had a looming problem with the program’s funding. Instead of cutting back on benefits — the preferred US solution to date in Washington — the government conducted a study, first to determine how much of a benefit would be required to allow people to retire without taking a hit to their living standard, and then how to fund a program that could achieve that goal.

The study found that people needed replacement income of about 60% of their final year’s pre-retirement working income to continue with their existing lifestyle. This was based upon the fact that at retirement people in Finland typically expected to own their home free and clear, and of course knew that their healthcare in Finland, as in all the Nordic countries, would continue to be free. They could own their own homes easily, since in Finland, education through college is free, and students also receive a $600 monthly living stipend, so children either leave high school and get a job, or go to college. Either way, they no longer cost their parents much if anything as they progress into independent adulthood.

Of course, here in the US, we don’t have free college, and we don’t have free health care, even in retirement. At present Social Security typically only replaces about 38% of a worker’s pre-retirement income, according to Social Security data, so Social Security benefit checks may be enough to keep a person or a couple from starving on the sidewalk, for more people they are not enough to allow anyone to live as they used to live as a working person. So if we’re talking about improving (as opposed to Bloomberg’s ambiguous strengthening) Social Security, as for example candidate Bernie Sanders is doing, we really have to look at how to make the program more like what they have in Finland or the other Nordic nations.

That’s why we need, as part of any reform, to have Medicare for All. Retiring parents cannot be expected to live decently if they have to subsidize private medical insurance premiums for their own care (Medicare Part B and D for example) or for their uninsured or typically underinsured kids and grandkids, as many find themselves having to do. We need to take those costs off the budget for retirees.

And we need to eliminate the burden of paying for higher education for current workers and for their children. Free public college, as they well understand in far more enlightened Finland, besides being good social and economic policy for a nation, is also a key part of making retirement affordable.

Put those two things in place, and we too, in the US, could look at making Social Security a true public retirement program for all. Instead of people (most of whom we know live from paycheck to paycheck) needing to have the sufficient income over expenses and the discipline to sock away millions of dollars in an IRA or 402(k) plan on their own, we need a Social Security program that will provide benefits of roughly 60% of what workers are earning right before they retire, at least up to a level of a decent middle-class living standard of say $70,000 for a married couple (roughly the median income for a couple in 2020). That would mean a Social Security benefit for two of about $42,000. Since the median Social Security benefit amount for an individual who retires at age 67 is currently $15,000, assuming a couple with two workers, that would max out at $30,000 a year — about $1000 a month short. Obviously for people who were higher earners, living on $120,000 a year, the needed retirement benefit would need to be closer to $70,000 a year, but their Social Security benefit if they retired at 67 currently would be closer to $48,000 combined, or almost $2000 a month short or maintaining their standard of living in retirement.

We’re obviously talking about having to make a major adjustment of assets paid into the Social Security system to make it a genuine public retirement program, even after initiating a Medicare-for-All health system and free public higher education, but it can be done. What’s required is what was done in Finland and the other Nordic nations: an increase in the retirement fund payroll tax, known as FICA, in this country, from its current 6.2% rate for employee and for employer, to perhaps 8 percent or more, and an end to the 50/50 split in that tax, so that employers, who would no longer need to voluntarily pay into 401(k) plans to attract workers, would instead be required to pay a higher share of the FICA tax for the people on their payroll. This is uneven split in taxation to fund retirement plans is common in Finland and other European countries that have such public retirement plans. (It’s odd that we find it quite logical for employers to voluntarily pay into 401(k) plans, but extortionate to make them do so through FICA, but that’s America for you.)

All of this can, and should be done as part of any genuine reform to make the US a decent place for all of us to live. It should no longer be a survival-of-the-fittest jungle in the US, as it has been increasingly becoming over recent decades of alternating conservative and neoliberal governments.

Of course, there’s one more issue that has to be dealt with if we’re going to accomplish all these critically important things, and that is ending the death grip of the Military Industrial Complex on the US economy and on our political system. No progressive change is really possible in this country if we continue to spend upwards of $1.3 trillion a year on wars and preparing for wars, occupation and intervention in the affairs of other nations. We need to bring the half million or more troops stationed abroad or at sea home to the US and cashier them out into civilian life, to slash the US military payroll overall by perhaps 75-90 percent (especially the top-heavy officer corps), cancel the $1.3-trillion “modernization” program for the US nuclear arsenal, and eliminate the US standing army, against the existence of which the Founding Fathers rightly warned. If Russia can get by on a $66-billion annual military budget, and China, with its internal domestic occupation army alone of almost a million men, can get by on $200 billion a year, surely the US can get by on a military budget a tenth the size of what it is now. That would free up some $1 trillion a year for social spending.

So do you want to know what social democracy is? It’s a socio-political system and economy that has as its premise improving the lives of all, with a focus on those at the bottom economic rungs of the ladder. It’s not about how we organize the ownership of the means of production (that would be true socialism – – or even communism with a small “c”). Rather, social democracy, as practiced by many of the nations of Europe, all of them still staunchly capitalist at their core, and in many ways more democratic and socially mobile than our own, which is where Bernie Sanders says he wants this country to go, fundamentally means a system where the people of a country do not need to struggle to survive. Most Americans are clueless about this but they are countries where people have time for their children, six weeks or more per year of paid vacation, often higher standards of living than the US, maternity/paternity leaves of as much as a year per child, and even, in Finland, sabbatical leaves every 10 years for all workers, not just academics! We in the US can get there from here if we want to.

Truly remaking Social Security, and as part of achieving that worthy goal, establishing Medicare for All and free public college for all who want it, while slashing military spending, is something that all Americans — the elderly, the disabled, and the younger folks who care for those who need the program, and who want it for themselves when they get older or become disabled — should be fighting for in this critical election year and beyond.

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A Broken Promise to Teachers and Nonprofit Workers

Before sharing my opinions about Trump’s recent proposal to cut student loan forgiveness, let me explain my own situation.

In my 20s, I was fresh out of college with a business degree and worked in software for a few years. In my 30s, I went to graduate school for sociology. I’m single and I had no family support. So I took out student loans.

I made the decision to take student loans carefully. It’s a risk, because you might not graduate and then you’ll be left with thousands of dollars to pay back.

There were two mitigating factors that led me to go for it. First, you can opt for income-based repayment. Under that option, your loan payments are tied to your income. If you’re broke, your payments are small. If you’re rich, you pay more. That seems fair.

Second, if you work in the public sector or at a non-profit organization, your loans are forgiven after 10 years of repayment. (If not, they are forgiven after 20 years.)

I’m a little more than a year away from graduation. After seven years of graduate school, if I’m lucky, I’ll get a job that pays less than I made in software in my 20s. And then I’ll pay back loans for a decade.

I’ll be 50 years old when my loans are forgiven. It will affect my ability to buy a home, start a family, or save for retirement. I chose that.

Yet Trump has proposed cutting loan forgiveness for people who work in non-profit or government jobs for ten years. For students like me who already took out loans, it’s reneging on a promise.

If you want to run the government like a profit-maximizing business, maybe cutting loan forgiveness makes sense. But there are good reasons why the government should not be run like a business.

Businesses are run to maximize the profits of their shareholders. Any benefits to their customers or the wider public are incidental. The government should benefit all of us.

A healthy society is one with social mobility, where a talented, hardworking person born into poverty can rise above their class. Unless you’re a star athlete, education is the key to getting ahead. Education is not equally accessible to all.

Students from low-income families with college aspirations are already at a disadvantage for a long list of reasons. Sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab studies how the current financial aid system is skewed against the poor. For example, she finds that aid packages underestimate the actual cost of attending school, and assume that children don’t contribute financially to their parents (which many low income students do).

Loans aren’t ideal. Any measures that could allow students to graduate without crippling debt would be better. But they are something. They allow some students who could not otherwise afford it to get a college education. They promote social mobility.

I want to live in a country where talented people from poor families can still go to college. I think that makes our country better — not just in an idealistic way because of lofty morals, but in a real, tangible way that I believe we will all gain from.

I don’t think we are better when the rich stay rich because Aunt Becky can buy her kids’ way into college without them earning it, while a genius born to poor parents can’t. I think we all do better when talented people born into poor families can realize their full potential, enriching our society for all of us.

Loan forgiveness isn’t the magic bullet to achieving a perfect meritocracy, but it’s something. And it’s not a giveaway of free money — it’s an investment in a better society.

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“Leave Our Bloke Alone”: A Little Mission for Julian Assange

“I think that now it is time that the government I am a part of needs to be standing up and saying to both the UK and the US: ‘enough is enough, leave our bloke alone and let him come home.’”

– George Christensen, Australian conservative MP, Sydney Morning Herald, Feb 19, 2020

An odd crew and perhaps the sort Julian Assange would have liked. Australian parliamentarian and government backbencher George Christensen, conservative to the point of parody. Andrew Wilkie, MP from Tasmania, a man fitfully dedicated to fight poker machines and gambling, formerly of the Office of National Assessments. Both united by a distinct liking for the cause of Julian Assange and a dislike for his treatment, showing the astonishing cross appeal of the WikiLeaks publisher, a point missed by his detractors and even his own followers.

Visiting Assange in London’s Belmarsh Prison, Wilkie found “a man under great pressure, holding up OK” but showing “glimpses” of a “broken man”. For his part, Christensen, did not “want to talk too pejoratively about the state that we saw him in but it was the kind of state that you’d expect from a man who’s been absolutely and utterly isolated and who just does not know what is going on.” Assange had been “depersonalised” and “dehumanised” in confinement.

Their calls chime with those of over 117 doctors and psychologists from 18 nations, whose letter published in the medical journal The Lancet condemned “the torture of Assange”, “the denial of his fundamental right to appropriate health care”, “the climate of fear surrounding the provision of health care to him” and “the violations of his right to doctor-patient confidentiality.”

Both parliamentarians insist, with good reason, on the nagging matter of having a British court deliberate over whether an Australian citizen should be extradited to the United States or not. “There’s a lot of Australians who think Julian Assange is a rat bag,” observed Christensen. “But he’s our rat bag – he should be brought home.” Wilkie, on leaving Belmarsh, was “in absolutely no doubt that [Assange] has become a political prisoner in this country and that the US is determined to extradite him to get even.” Unblemished, Assange could not be accused of hacking or espionage, but merely for “doing the right thing and publishing important information in the public interest”.

Christensen, an avowed fan of British prime minister Boris Johnson, was keen to impress him on Assange’s treatment. “It is highly political what’s going on – it involves values that Boris Johnson as a former journalist holds dear – press freedom.”

The delegation is receiving various mixed messages, some of them heartening. British Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, soundly beaten at the December elections, is confident he has found a changing mood towards the Australian publisher. Johnson, he claimed, had given some hope in comments made on the UK-US Extradition Treaty, a document heavily slanted in favour of the United States. “He accepted that it is an unbalanced treaty and it is not a fair one, therefore I think this is a big change by the British government.”

In of itself, this says little. Johnson, it is true, did concede to Corbyn in the House of Commons that “there are elements of that relationship that are unbalanced and I certainly think it is worth looking at.” The point has been admitted as much by various UK politicians over the years. The report of the Home Affairs Committee from 2012 expressed “serious misgivings about some aspects of the current arrangements” despite favouring an extradition arrangement with the US. An “imbalance in the wording of the Treaty, which sets a test for extradition from the US but not from the UK, has created the widespread impression of unfairness within the public consciousness and, at a more practical level, gives US citizens the right to a hearing to establish ‘probable cause’ that is denied to UK citizens.”

The treaty is the subject of much conversation of late. Washington’s curt rejection of an extradition request by the UK of an American citizen accused of causing the death of Harry Dunn, a teenage motorcyclist, has muddied diplomatic waters. The claim by British police was that Anne Sacoolas, wife of an intelligence officer, was driving on the wrong side of the road. On returning to the US, she duly shielded herself behind diplomatic immunity.

Sacoolas, through her attorney, claimed that the charges against her carried a disproportionate sentence of 14-years. She would “not return voluntarily to the United Kingdom to face a potential jail sentence for what was a terrible but unintentional accident.” The US State Department was irate at the very idea that extradition would be sought in such instances. “The use of an extradition treaty to attempt to return the spouse of a former diplomat by force,” claimed a spokesman, “would establish an extraordinarily troubling precedent. We do not believe that the UK’s charging decision is a helpful development.”

A review into the immunity arrangements for US personnel conducted by the Foreign Office subsequently found, in the words of Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, an “anomaly”, namely, that family members had “greater protection from UK criminal jurisdiction than the officers themselves”.

In January, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo scotched the extradition request via an email to the UK government. To have granted it, he claimed offhandedly, would have rendered “the invocation of diplomatic immunity a practical nullity”. The decision, according to the Dunn’s family spokesman Radd Seiger, filled Raab with incandescent rage. That rage, it seemed, had cooled by the time Raab met his US counterpart at an event chaired by the centre-right think tank, Policy Exchange. “We’re going to work on every aspect of that [regarding the Dunn case] and want to see this get resolved.”

Whether Assange’s case sparks appropriate concern in Downing Street might be another matter. For one thing, it will provide a test case regarding extraditions for non-British citizens to the United States. For his part, Johnson is a curious fish, often adjusting his course in infuriatingly erratic, and amoral ways. While he might well adopt a Bold Britannia line regarding the Australian’s possible extradition, the chances remain slim. Should the request be granted, it will establish an extraordinarily troubling precedent, to use the US State Department’s own words, a blatant misuse of the treaty for political purposes.

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Oil or Food? Notes From a Farmer Who Doesn’t Think Pipelines are Worth It

I live on my family’s farm in Fallon County, Montana near where the Keystone XL pipeline will pass. My neighbors here want the pipeline, believing it will provide a boost to the local economy.

I think they’ve been misled by pipeline advocates who have exaggerated benefits, especially the number of jobs it will generate. However, I grudgingly agree, the pipeline will provide the local economy with some jobs and increase tax revenue. I want to explain why I, nevertheless, remain opposed to it and other fossil fuel projects like it.

The climate crisis poses a serious threat to agriculture and our food security. While increasing carbon dioxide levels do have a fertilizing effect on crops, everything that comes with them makes it more likely that crop yields will fall, perhaps abruptly past a certain point. It isn’t just the higher temperatures that threaten agriculture; it’s changing precipitation patterns, increasingly extreme weather, and a long list of increasing disease, insect, and weed problems that come with climate change.

For me, as a farmer, the main problem with the climate crisis is that nothing is normal anymore, not temperatures, not rainfall, not even the direction of the wind. To develop best practices for their farms, farmers depend on each year being like the last. Whatever the variations from year to year, so long as the climate reverts to a norm the next, farmers can continue farming as they have, knowing when to plant, what to plant, and how to plant. But if the climate starts changing, and each year is nothing like the last, past experience is no guide to future success.

I used to think climate change would happen slowly, perhaps not even perceptibly, with gradually changing climate records the only proof, but that is not what I am seeing. Instead, extreme weather events like droughts, floods, heatwaves, hail storms, and tornadoes, have been becoming both more frequent and severe across Montana.

A couple of years ago, for example, a hailstorm hit our farm, completely wiping out the crops close to home, sparing only a few winter wheat fields miles away. It was the worst hailstorm ever for us. I know this because my great grandfather built a Quonset back in the 1930s. It was made of heavier steel than is common now, and before this storm, there were only a few dents in it that had accumulated over the decades from all previous hail storms. The pings were perhaps, on average, an arm’s length apart. But after the storm, the pings were within inches of each other. Our Quonset looked like a golf ball, as did our pickups.

When I was a child, we occasionally heard of tornadoes in North Dakota, but we never had them where we lived. Never. Now, almost every other year, we are getting tornadoes that are far more powerful than anything we might have expected. One of them assaulted Baker, the town near my family’s farm, a few years ago, filling the lake in the center of town with debris, costing the taxpayer millions of dollars to dredge. More recently, another tornado picked up a neighbor’s tractor in Carter County, and bounced it over the hills, breaking it into pieces, many of them small enough to pick up and throw in the pickup.

In economic terms, the millions of dollars of damage these tornadoes are causing might be the least of it. A couple of years ago, a drought caused the worst hay yields of my life. Before, I’ve usually swathed most of every hayfield on our place, but this time most of our hayfields didn’t grow enough even to bother trying. This fall, on the other hand, it was so wet, neither our neighbors nor we were able to harvest our corn crop before the snow came.

The climate crisis, in short, is making our weather too erratic and extreme to farm. I shudder at what could happen if things continue as they have, with each year developing more extreme weather than the year before. Agriculture across Montana is in danger; it truly is. And so, we all have a choice to make: Continuing to use fossil fuel as we have, doing things like building the Keystone pipeline and operating Colstrip, or being able to eat. We can’t do both, and so which would you rather have, oil or food?

Wade Sikorski, Ph.D., has written several books on political ecology, including Before it is Too Late: The Climate Crisis and Economic Development.

 

 

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The Politics of Vengeance

The evil that men do lives after them. . . .

–  Shakespeare, Julius Caesar 

It is a threat no one has contemplated and, therefore, not thought to address.  We can only hope that that will change and that we will now begin to anticipate events that may  confront us in November and begin planning to protect the country.

There are few aspects of the malignant trump that we have not become acquainted with during the trump three-year reign of terror over what was formerly known as the UNITED States of America.  That we are no longer united is apparent from the hatred that is spewed from the trumpian mouth and its adoring acolytes in the United States Senate, many of whom are such admirers that they seek to emulate the hate speech that is spouted from that vessel.  Of course the trumpian venom is not limited to verbal assaults.  It manifests itself in retributive acts against perceived enemies.

Following the conclusion of the Congressional impeachment proceedings, the trump promptly got rid of two of the witnesses who had testified during the House proceedings implicating the trump in what our ancestors would have considered impeachable  behavior .  The first was Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman.  He was a Ukrainian expert serving on the National Security Council at the White House.  He was fired by trump two days after the impeachment trial concluded.  The trump had let it be known he was not happy withVindman because of his testimony during the impeachment trial and had repeatedly tweeted messages calling for his dismissal.

Within hours of the Vindman dismissal, Gordon Sondland, a hotelier from Oregon who had given the trump inauguration committee $1 million was fired.  He had been rewarded for his generosity by being appointed United States Ambassador to the European Union but was fired because of the testimony he had provided during the impeachment hearings.

The trump’s willingness to avenge himself for actions taken he perceives to be hostile to him is not limited to individuals.  He can also exact revenge on an entire population as he has done to New Yorkers.

On June 17, 2019,  New York enacted what is known as the Green Light Law.  That law went into effect on December 16, 2019.  The law allows undocumented immigrants to use foreign-issued documents to prove their age and identity thus enabling them to apply for driving privileges. The law prohibits the Department of Motor Vehicle Division  from providing any of its data to entities that enforce immigration law unless a judge orders them to do so.  As a result three federal agencies have been denied access to New York data bases beginning in December 2019. The trump was furious.

Although there are thirteen other states that give immigrants drivers’ licenses regardless of their immigration status, the trump has elected to take out his anger on New Yorkers.  Since there is no one individual upon whom he can seek revenge as he could with Messrs. Sondland and Vindman, he has done the next best thing.  He has exacted revenge on the entire population of New York.

The trump might have liked to invalidate the passports of everyone who lives in New York, thus requiring them to apply for visas before returning home but  that was beyond his control.  He did the next best thing.  He suspended the right of New Yorkers not already enrolled in those programs, to apply to enroll in the Global Entry and other trusted traveler programs thus making it more difficult and time consuming for them to reenter the United States upon returning from foreign travel.

As the foregoing shows, if events are perceived by the trump as conspiring against him, he will find ways to exact revenge, either on individuals or on entire populations.  The question we should all be trying to answer is how can we protect the United States from the consequences of a vengeful trump should he lose the election in November.

Between the date of the election and the swearing in of a new president on January 20, 2021, 78 days of the trump administration will remain.  Based on the evil that the trump has shown he can inflict on large populations when angry with their behavior, only a fool would think the trump would exit quietly if he awakens on November 4 to learn that his tenure is drawing to a close.

It is frightening to contemplate what evil the trump may inflict on the country during those remaining days and it is none too soon to begin thinking of how he can be thwarted.  As Edmund Burke once observed: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”  Let the country beware.

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No Fascist USA! Lessons From a History of Anti-Klan Organizing

Ever since fascism first crawled out of the ideological sewer, anarchists and autonomists have been there to confront, antagonize and organize against it. You need not dig deep into past history to find evidence of this. After the mayhem of Charlottesville, Cornell West, reported to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!:

Those 20 of us who were standing, many of them clergy, we would have been crushed like cockroaches if it were not for the anarchists and the anti-fascists who approached, over 300, 350 anti-fascists. We just had 20. And we’re singing ‘This Little light of Mine,’ you know what I mean? So that the anti-fascists, and then, crucial, the anarchists, because they saved our lives, actually. We would have been completely crushed, and I’ll never forget that.

The anarchist tradition holds many insights into the approaches to fighting of fascism. Ones that liberals and socialists would do well to consider. One, they know that relying on the state for liberation is a fool’s game. Secondly, as the Spanish Civil War shows us, that political parties of any stripe often capitulate to fascism in favor of a mythical “long game.”

In the Reagan-era, the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee (JBAKC) fought a pitched battle against the resurgent forces of fascism and racism in the United States. They were Marxists, committed to taking leadership from Third World national liberation movements. In practice, they both applied a highly creative and unorthodox interpretation of this tradition. Their approach is reflected in contemporary anti-fascist movements to this day, with considerable alignment with anarchist and abolitionists.

In 1977, the JBAKC was founded in upstate New York. Many of their early members belonged to the New Left and had been committed to anti-racism and anti-imperialist actions since the 1960s. Their work was an outgrowth of solidarity activism with incarcerated people, many of whom were locked up due to their involvement with the Black Liberation Movement.

In that year, Khali Siwatu-Hodari, imprisoned at the Eastern Correctional Facility wrote to his outside allies to alert them that the Ku Klux Klan was organizing both guards and white incarcerated people. The JBAKC’s early efforts to lend support grew into a national anti-racist and anti-fascist network with chapters in Brooklyn, Austin, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities.

Their model prioritized mobilization and confrontation instead of vying for state intervention, an attempt to win white people as supporters of Black and Brown autonomy (self-determination). They went toe-to-toe with Nazi skinheads for the allegiance of young punk rockers and mobilized against racist graffiti campaigns in Chicago. Their slogan “No Cops, No KKK, No Fascist USA!” was taken from Born to Die, a song by the hardcore band Multideath Corporations/Millions of Dead Cops (M.D.C.). The politics of no-platforming and general aesthetics influence anti-fascist politics to this day.

We wrote, No Fascist USA! The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee and Lessons For Today’s Movements (City Lights/Open Media Publishing, 2020), in hopes of harvesting the insights and shortcomings for today’s opponents of fascism and racism. This excerpt illustrates another one of the group’s strengths: the willingness to organize against the Klan, far outside of liberal enclaves.

No Fascist USA!

THE KU KLUX KLAN HAS COME TO TOWN

In the summer of 1982, residents of Austin, Texas, turned on local Channel 24 to watch Good Morning, Austin. It was like any other Thursday, except that on this day, the Grand Dragon of the Texas Klan, Gene Fisher, and Imperial Wizard James Stanfield were on the show, describing their youth training camps and showing off their shotguns and semi-automatics. That afternoon, local radio station KLBJ hosted the same Klan members, this time inviting Austin listeners to call in and chat with the Klan. Over the next two days, the Klansmen made two more television appearances. They used this media blitz to publicize their upcoming August rally in Bastrop, Texas. “We’re going to destroy Communism,” they boasted, and vowed to “take action, violent if necessary” to counter those who dared to oppose them. For these Klan leaders, three things were essential: deploying border patrols for “sealing” the border between the United States and Mexico, purchasing land for “survival camps” in preparation for an inevitable race war, and staging cross burnings. In response to their media blitz, the Black Citizens Task Force newspaper ran a headline that read: “The Ku Klux Klan has come to town.”

In 1982, the Task Force had joined up with the Brown Berets and the East Town Lake Citizens to form the Austin Minority Coalition. Their aim was to build a united force against the problems they faced in their respective communities: police brutality, high utility rates, and gentrification. The Austin John Brown Anti-Klan chapter participated in this coalition. Their efforts included driving community members to political education meetings, mobilizing white support for actions against developers’ land grabs in the barrio, investigating Klan activity, and monitoring police actions in communities of color. For instance, the Austin chapter was able to find phone records of frequent calls between CIA agent Charles Beckwith and local Klan leaders about land purchases in Bastrop, Texas, a half hour east of Austin, where the Klan burned a cross along with a casket inscribed with “reserved for commies.”

The organizations in the Austin Minority Coalition shared the belief that an active anti-racist majority could be established, and that the best way to get there would be for groups to specialize their efforts. For the Task Force, the Brown Berets, and East Town Lake Citizens, this involved building community power, addressing a community’s basic needs, and engaging in self-defense. They would have to apply pressure to moderates while also confronting paramilitary formations like the Klan. The majority of elected positions in Austin were held by white people who often spoke about opposing racism but still colluded with racist local policies and practices. For example, they wouldn’t take a position against the University of Texas’s financial support for South African apartheid and they would implicitly condone racist police behavior by supporting lengthy misconduct investigations.

In January 1983, the Klan submitted a legal request to stage a rally at the Capitol in Austin. The Austin Minority Coalition was the first community-based formation that intervened, beginning with attending a series of city council meetings. They recognized that, time and again, local governments had sanctioned Klan rallies on First Amendment grounds. During the previous year in Atlanta, the Klan, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, had won approval in federal court to march after its request was rejected by the local government, and even won a temporary restraining order pre- venting the city from interfering with the march. Weeks before the city council made a decision about the Klan permit, the Austin Minority Coalition knocked on doors to spread the word and bring people to the meetings in an attempt to reframe the debate.

A series of editorials in local newspapers urged residents to stay at home and let the Klan march. Some of the editorials also accused groups that wanted to stop the Klan of being instigators who would make things worse. In response, the Brown Berets circulated a leaflet arguing that resistance to the Klan was a matter of survival for their members. “Our plan is not to infringe upon anyone’s First Amendment rights, an argument used by public officials and the media to confuse the issue, but rather to expose the Klan’s practice of genocide, which constitutes a criminal act according to the United Nations’ Convention on War Crimes Against Humanity.”

By the time the Austin City Council meeting took place in January, there wasn’t a resident in Austin who hadn’t heard about the opposition to the rally. The council room was filled to capacity with more attendees gathered outside. The mayor of Austin, Republican Carole Keeton McClellan, delivered the decision. She prefaced her comments, “Believe me when I say we abhor, deplore, and detest the Ku Klux Klan.” She then motioned to grant the Klan a permit with the restrictions that no vehicles were allowed in the parade, and no rifles, shotguns, or other weapons were to be carried by any marcher.

Charles Ordy, the only Black council representative, agreed to read a statement from the Black Citizens Task Force about the Klan’s history of racist violence in the United States. “The freedom of speech is not absolute,” read Ordy, his voice commanding the room’s attention. “If a person is not allowed to scream fire in a crowded movie theater, we do not see how the KKK is allowed to propagate their racist theories and actions. The essence of the KKK’s ideology is white supremacy.” The Task Force’s statement received cheers and applause from the people who filled the council chambers. The decision was made to grant the Klan a permit, but the attention had succeeded in escalating public momentum to oppose it. Before leaving the council room, the Black Citizens Task Force called for a human rights march that would commemorate Malcolm X’s assassination on February 21, coinciding with the Klan’s rally.

The Austin Minority Coalition began preparations, with each member group taking on specific tasks in coordination with the others. Their collective intention was to have an anti-Klan rally that represented a wide range of the Austin community, including different ethnic neighborhoods, youth, and university students. The Black Citizens Task Force focused on dangers, given the high number of Klansmen and police expected. “Some of us wanted to scatter amongst the crowd,” recalled Terry Bisson. But others wanted to play a variety of roles, from blocking the Klan’s route options to providing security for the Brown Beret and Black Citizens Task Force. They decided on the latter.

On a sunny day in Austin in 1984, chanting from 2,500 anti-Klan demonstrators could be heard for blocks. From the beginning, the police presence loomed large with four hundred officers in the streets and SWAT teams positioned on rooftops. Protesters surrounded the seventy white supremacists — some in red and black Klan robes — marching alongside the KKK Boat Patrol formed in 1979 to attack Vietnamese fishermen. The police formed a perimeter around the Capitol building. A wall of riot police in green military uniforms protected the Klan members, who intended to march from the park to the State Capitol and back. The human rights march brought out a broad cross section of Austin, including professors, students, teachers and punk rockers. People chanted, “We’re fired up, won’t take no more!” Banners read “Abajo Con el Klan” and “Reagan and the Klan Go Hand in Hand.” The massive crowd fell silent when Black Citizens Task Force leader Velma Roberts took the bullhorn. “We have been discouraged by people saying we should ignore the Klan,” she commanded. “We think silence is consent. And if we decide to ignore the Klan, then they come into our community and march.”

Terry Bisson remembered the visceral sense of being in a crowd unified against the Klan and its supporters. The goal to drown out any Klan speeches was met. The plan to block the Klan’s march route, however, didn’t work, and Coalition leadership had to improvise. Bisson recalled the strong sense of solidarity among the protesters throughout the day, from sharing food and water to helping each other avoid arrest. “I threw a huge bolt, almost hitting [a] Klansman in the head. I was immediately thrown to the ground by plainclothes police.”

LESSONS FOR TODAY

The business of confronting organized fascists and racists in the streets is necessarily an act of risk and bravery. It is important then to peel away from the temptation to romanticize the past. What lessons can the JBAKC’s history provide us today?

The JBAKC put forward a type of “anti-fascism without illusions.” They were crystal-clear that fascism in the United States was not anything new. Right-wing backlash pivots around racist conceptions of migration in the United States. Many of these narratives stem from Nativist politics, placing foreigners as the evil other and collapsing whiteness with citizenship. No Fascist USA! shows how white supremacist organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan, have adapted these tropes in the last two hundred years and how anti-racist groups in the Anti-Klan Movement responded in the 1980s.

The organization also developed ever-evolving strategies. They attempted to go beyond simply fetishizing street confrontations (which they embraced as a necessity) to experiments of following “leadership from below,” or coordinating with the communities that are most impacted by systemic oppression in order to uplift their vision, methods and wisdom. The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee formed in response to incarcerated leaders of the Black Panther Party and Puerto Rican Independence movement, as they were under attack from Ku Klux Klan members from inside prison.

Instead of promoting guilt based politics, the JBAKC sought out ways to deploy white people effectively in the overall quest for liberation. This meant choosing to take on certain kinds of risks, talking to other white people about anti-racism, fundraising or accessing funding, and making lasting connections to build a strong network of white people committed to anti-racism and anti-fascism.

Ultimately, the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee was a living experiment of radicals confronting the far-right in the Reagan era. Their decentralized network allowed them to build projects that responded to the demands of cities they mobilized in. As today’s far-right seems poised to expand no matter who sits in the White House, we would do well to consider the JBAKC’s legacy.

Hilary Moore is an anti-racist political education trainer. She works with Showing Up for Racial Justice and wrote Climate and the Far Right: Lessons for Climate Justice in a Changing Europe (RLS, 2020).

James Tracy is an instructor at City College of San Francisco. He is also the co-author of Hillbilly Nationalists Urban Race Rebels and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times.

This is an excerpt from No Fascist USA!: The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee and Lessons for Today’s Movements by Hilary Moore and James Tracy. Reprinted with the permission of City Lights Books.

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Ridiculing MLK’s Historic Garden State ‘Firsts’

The Governor of New Jersey and that state’s two top black elected officials face criticism for their silence on a recent ruling by New Jersey state historic preservation authorities that devalues the early activism of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Many deem that ruling fallacious while some also denounce that ruling as racist.

Dr. King staged his first formal protest against racism in New Jersey on June 11, 1950, years before his leadership of the history-changing bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama catapulted King to national prominence.

That 1950 protest produced Dr. King’s first lawsuit against discrimination. During the protest he organized at a café in the small South Jersey town of Maple Shade, the white owner chased King and his three companions from the premises with a gun.

The criticism that stains New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, New Jersey Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver and U.S. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey erupted in the wake of that historic preservation ruling, released on the literal eve of Black History Month 2020.

In that ruling NJ authorities rejected state historic registry listing for the house in Camden, NJ where evidence documents that King plotted his 1950 protest. Authorities rooted their rejection ruling in the astounding assertion that Dr. King’s first protest and his first lawsuit hold “minimal” historic importance.

This dismissal by NJ authorities of the significance of Dr. King’s first protest and his first lawsuit is historically inaccurate, stated Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, Professor and Chair of the Department of Africology and African American Studies at Temple University in Philadelphia.

“One can never say accurately that the site of the first formal protest by the most consequential transformative person of an era has “minimal” historic importance without either being deceptive or ignorant of American history,” Dr. Asante said.

Governor Murphy, Lt. Governor Oliver and Senator Booker have refused to comment on the widely criticized rejection/dismissal actions announced by NJ’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), the state agency that oversees the Historic Preservation Office (HPO), the entity that approves or rejects state historic registry listings.

Gov. Murphy declined to address specific questions about his position on the DEP/HPO dismissal of Dr. King’s historic ‘Firsts’ in New Jersey. Oddly, Murphy’s office directed questions about Murphy’ opinions regarding DEP/HPO anti-MLK actions to the entities that perpetrated those actions: the DEP/HPO.

Governor Murphy, in a statement released by his office, said, “The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s State Historic Preservation Office should be contacted for further information.”

Despite Governor Murphy’s evasive non-comment comment, at least he did respond to inquiries. That’s in stark contrast to New Jersey’s two top black elected officials.

Lt. Governor Oliver and Sen. Booker respectively failed to respond to repeated requests for comments regarding DEP/HPO dismissal of the historic import of the Camden house where King launched his legendary activism plus the historic ‘Firsts’ of King’s activism in New Jersey.

The failure of Murphy, Oliver and Booker to address the demeaning actions/assertions by DEP/HPO on Dr. King’s legacy in New Jersey is disheartening, stated Lloyd Henderson, president of the Camden County NAACP branch.

“This part of African American history is New Jersey history,” Henderson said. “What is so heartbreaking is to have this happen when Democrats are in charge. These politicians only come around at the time to vote. But when it’s time to work they’re not around.”

The DEP/HPO posture on King is even more baffling from the perspective of New Jersey history because it completely dismisses the pivotal roles two noted NJ civil rights leaders played in King’s 1950 protest and lawsuit. Hours after King’s 1950 protest, he received assistance from the then NJ state NAACP president and that NAACP’s lawyer.

That NAACP president, Dr. Ulysses Wiggins, had lobbied for passage of the civil rights law the NAACP’s lawyer, Robert Burke Johnson, utilized for King’s lawsuit. That NJ civil rights law was the first such statewide civil rights enforcement measure approved anywhere in the United States. Further, both Wiggins and Johnson achieved their own series of historic ‘Firsts’ in New Jersey.

The NAACP connection makes the silence from Murphy, Oliver and Booker peculiar because each touts their respective connections to the NAACP.

Gov. Murphy’s official biography highlights his past, ‘proud’ service as New Jersey’s sole representative on the national board of the NAACP. Campaign material during Oliver’s successful 2017 race for Lieutenant Governor stated “she had held membership” in the NAACP. And, Booker is a frequent speaker at NAACP events nationwide, most recently during his aborted bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“The problem with Murphy, Oliver [and Booker] is that they don’t know the other side of the narrative. They just know what HPO said. They never came to Camden to discuss this with us who know,” Kelly Francis said. Life-long Camden resident Francis noted, “What King did in Maple Shade has been known in Camden since the 1950’s.”

Criticism of the DEP/HPO dismissal of Dr. King’s historic ‘Firsts’ in New Jersey extend far beyond the Garden State (the nickname for New Jersey).

In London the founder of the Nubian Jak Community Trust, called the DEP/HPO actions “shocking.” The Trust is an acclaimed organization known in part for placement of plaques around England to honor the contributions of non-whites to Britain –- including blacks from America.

“This is a total disrespect of MLK’s legacy,” Dr. Jak Beula said. “I honestly believe the detractors know what they are doing. This is why I have always said we should do things ourselves.”

Tony Warner, founder of the respected Black History Walks tours in London, characterized the DEP/HPO actions as “more evidence of the Trump trickle-down effect.”

While DEP/HPO discounted King’s activism in New Jersey, Dr. Beula said he’d consider having his organization place a historic plaque at the Camden property where King plotted his first protest.

Warner said he is raising funds for the placement of a plaque in London at a site where King once spoke. That King address in London is another example of King’s activism that had roots planted deeply in New Jersey.

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Evaluating the Democratic Candidates: the Importance of Integrity

On March 3, Democrats in the 15 Super Tuesday states (including Democrats Abroad) will have up to 15 (or more) presidential candidates on the Democratic ballots from which to choose. With so many choices, a voter may ask: “how should I decide?” The most obvious criteria are politics (policy positions), electability and personal integrity. Among those three, integrity should be foremost.

In the Democratic presidential debates over the past months, we’ve have heard much from the candidates about the policies they propose and how they would implement them.  Yet there has been scant focus on the qualification that should be sine qua non for selecting the next President of the United States: personal integrity. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “integrity” as “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles.”  The word may also be defined by qualities not found in the current incumbent: honesty, decency, respect for others and civility.  A White House that spews untruths while punishing immigrants and minorities, brings shame to the nation.

There’s no single litmus test for assessing integrity.  For example, one might ask whether the candidate’s past inspires confidence that the vote-seeker means what he or she says.  Does the candidate endorse easy, politically correct positions, when a moral choice would entail political risk? For example, does the candidate support continued unconditional military assistance to a country that violates human rights?  If the country in question is Israel, the politically correct answer would be yes, while the moral answer is no. Voters should review the political ads and listen to the candidate’s speeches and tweets.  If they are peppered with lies and half-truths or show personal disrespect for opponents, integrity is lacking.

Candidates who pass the personal integrity test, can then be evaluated for the policies they propose. Each of the Democratic candidates has advocated important policy initiatives on a range of issues, including health care, immigration, the economy and foreign affairs. Since reasonable minds may differ on which policies will yield the best results, voters must rely on their own research and judgment. Unsurprisingly, most attention is given to domestic policies, especially those that affect the U.S. economy, wages and jobs.  Yet foreign policy includes military, diplomacy and international trade issues that affect the lives of every American.  Voters need to decide which candidate offers (and is most likely to implement) the best policy package. They need to judge how a particular candidate would solve the national problems that affect both self and the broader society.

Another judgment issue is electability. With the Democratic party mostly split between center and left, which candidate on either side of the divide is most electable?  Since it’s impossible to predict with any certainty whether a moderate or a progressive voice will have the best chance of winning in November, why not go with the candidate who best meets the other two of the above three criteria?

The Democratic nominee should be a candidate who advocates worthy and achievable policies and offers the best chance of defeating President Trump.  It should also be a person who acts in accord with his or her moral compass.

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Bloomberg Won’t, as They Say, Play Well in Peoria, But Then Neither Should Trump

It seems that having money, plenty of money, must somehow bestow a certain sense of omniscience upon the very wealthiest in society, making some of them feel that they are uniquely qualified to hold political office.

It would appear, unfortunately, that there are many voters and media outlets who feel those who possess great wealth, regardless of how they came by their fortune, are indeed, qualified to hold elected office– even if their wealth is their only claim to fame.

Clearly that happened in the 2016 Presidential contest when the winner was seen as a “businessman” who would run America like a business. Well, whether a government should be run like a private business is up for debate, but by any stretch, few would feel it should be run like a business that has declared bankruptcy six times and during a nine year period, lost over $1 billion. Any wonder that running the government as that kind of business has stuck the taxpayers with another $3 trillion in debt over the past three years?

We are getting hints from the past as to what some aspects of a Michael Bloomberg Presidency might look like. Based on his years as mayor of New York City, can we expect more racial and religious profiling, increasing rates of homelessness, crackdowns on the right of citizens to peacefully assemble or protest? Some would say, other than more dedicated bike lanes, he will mostly be remembered as a mayor who governed as if he were a king. Not a good quality in a President either, –-as we have seen.

While the current President has a long history of disparaging anyone he deems to be somehow deficient in comparison to his apparent skills and self-proclaimed genius, Michael Bloomberg is no second-stringer. His mentioned record of profiling should put up a huge red flag for everyone, there is absolutely no excuse.

But his penchant for insult and belittling as it turns out, are more widespread than we knew. In 2016 during an appearance at Oxford University, Bloomberg categorically belittled the knowledge and expertise of farmers and factory workers.

“I could teach anybody, even the people in this room (to farm). You dig a hole, you put a seed in, you put dirt on top, add water, up comes the corn.” Factory workers as well, at least in his opinion, seemed to lack brainpower “You put the piece of metal in the lathe, you turn the crank in the direction of the arrow, and you can have a job.”

Jobs like his, that apparently require “gray matter” – or brain cells – are those “built around replacing people with technology.” “That is a whole degree level different,” he said. “You have to have a different skill set, you have to have a lot more gray matter.” Again, we’ve heard similar sentiment coming out of the White House.

Much as Bloomberg’s contempt for minorities was on display as a mayor, his contempt for and denigration of those he deems as lesser than himself is showing, it is not pretty and like Sonny Perdue, it will not play well in rural America.

During his time in the New York State Assembly, Theodore Roosevelt was critical of the courts he was trying to reform. He felt they lacked both the knowledge of and concern for, the needs and the social wellbeing of the average citizen. Roosevelt noted that– “they knew nothing whatever of the needs, or of the life and labor, of three-fourths of their fellow-citizens in great cities.”

So, here we are again, nearly 150 years later and we see that same contempt from those in power for their fellow citizens, that same power that Roosevelt fought against, coming from a sitting President and an even richer “businessman” who wants to replace him.

These two do have a lot in common. Money, (at least Bloomberg earned his) a sense of privilege, racism, arrogance, sexual harassment charges, no desire to raise the minimum wage, a longstanding desire to cut Social Security and Medicare and a fair amount of disdain for farmers, (although they’ll deny it).

So, what’s the deal with Bloomberg’s campaign saying, “Bernie’s New Bro … Donald Trump”, seriously? What fantasy world are they living in?

The reality is that Bloomberg and the President are little more than two peas in a pod.

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We Need to Treat Nuclear War Like the Emergency It Is

If the current state of global affairs reminds you of an over-the-top plot by a white-cat-stroking James Bond villain, you’re not far off. When it comes to nuclear policy, we are closer than ever to a real-life movie disaster.

During his February 4 State of the Union address, President Donald Trump declared that “the Iranian regime must abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons.” He omitted the part where he withdrew the United States from the only existing international treaty with the capability to compel the Iranian regime to do so.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), aka the Iran Deal, is the one international treaty that has effectively de-escalated tensions and ensured continued progress in securing Iran’s nonproliferation. It’s vital that the United States reenters the Iran Deal, or it could take ages to repair the damage and restart progress.

That treaty isn’t the only one on the chopping block.

The United States has also withdrawn from the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the United States and Russia, a vital arms reduction treaty that was responsible for eliminating over 2,600 intermediate-range missiles, bringing tangible progress in stabilization and disarmament efforts between the two countries.

The most important remaining international arms control treaty to which the United States is still a party, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), is set to expire in February 2021, just a year from now.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly offered to immediately extend New START, without any preconditions. However, the treaty’s future is unclear — Trump may attempt to reach a broader deal involving China, as some of his advisors have suggested, or may trash this treaty as well.

Nuclear weapons make us all less safe. The United States can and must once again lead on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament. Nothing less than human health and survival is at stake. We all have a vested interest in ensuring nuclear weapons are not used.

Despite that existential risk, the U.S. Defense Department confirmed on February 5 that the Navy has deployed a low-yield, submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead. Bill Arkin and Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists first disclosed the deployment a week before that.

These warheads lower the threshold for potential nuclear conflict while increasing the chances of a real-life James Bond movie situation, due to human error or miscalculation. These low-yield warheads may be indistinguishable on radar from missiles armed with high-yield bombs, meaning an adversary could respond to such a launch with a full attack, immediately escalating the conflict to full nuclear war.

Proponents of this low-yield nuclear warhead say it is more “usable,” a euphemistic phrase that should send chills down the spines of anyone who can’t afford to escape planetary orbit on a SpaceX rocket.

“Low-yield” nuclear weapons are misleadingly named. At 6.5 kilotons, they are 591 times more powerful than the largest conventional weapon the United States has ever used, the GBU-43/B “Massive Ordnance Air Blast” (MOAB) bomb, and 2,600 times more powerful than the 1995 Oklahoma City bomb.

In fact, the W76-2 “low-yield” nuclear weapon that was deployed on those submarines can have up to 43 percent of the yield of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945. That bomb killed between 90,000 and 166,000 people.

According to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock, we’re at just 100 seconds to midnight, thanks in part to the Trump administration’s reckless, systematic dismantling and undermining of vital international arms control agreements.

We can and must avoid getting any closer to the brink of nuclear war — we’re already dangling too close to the edge. It’s time for the United States to reenter or renegotiate vital arms control treaties like the Iran Deal and extend New START.

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