Counterpunch Articles

Coronavirus Offerings and Job Losses

It was predicted, warned against and is happening. Universities fattened by the Chinese student market are now in a state of financial shock, cutting losses, trimming courses and doing what over managed institutions do best: remove working productive staff while preserving the gouty managerial class. COVID-19 was but a catalyst for something that was already deep seated, a doomsday scenario for universities with management structures keen to make a killing from one traditional source. There were other incentives to do so, of course: falling government investment in education, an increased interest in finding sources of private income.

No better example of this is present than Australia, a country indulgent and intoxicated with the seemingly endless number of Chinese payers (for that is what they are) coming in for an education often delivered on the cheap, corners roughly cut and admission standards adjusted. (This is particularly the case regarding language requirements.) COVID-19 began in China, and from China, the constriction in supply from manufacturing to education is being felt. Industries are facing storms. Airlines are cancelling flights and grounding aircraft; desperate equity selloffs are taking place.

Gita Gopinath, writing for the International Monetary Fund’s Blog, makes the following point on consequences arising from the virus: “In addition to this sectoral effects, worsening consumer and business sentiment can lead to firms to expect lower demand and reduce their spending and investment. In turn, this would exacerbate business closures and job losses.”

In the tertiary and broader education sector, incomes are falling. “I have already lost a lot of work from the coronavirus outbreak, and will continue to lose more if it isn’t under control soon,” laments Luke C on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Facebook Messenger page. One Tim O, who claims to be a doing sessional work at a university, expresses a similar attitude on the same forum. “If coronavirus gets bad and the university shuts down or provides fewer tutorials, I could be left jobless. That would lead by income to be cut by a total of approximately $750 a week. It would be devastating for me.”

Casual staff at the University of Queensland in the Institute of Continuing and TESOL Education are feeling the pinch, having lost 17 weeks of work even as Chinese students were warned of failing courses if they did not cough up their semester fees on time. “About half our students are from China,” Francine Chidgey, a casual teacher in ICTE’s employ, explained to Guardian Australia. “I’ve been told that I won’t have teaching shifts for 17 weeks. About 40 of my colleagues are in the same position, with others receiving only one or two days’ work per week, and occasional relief work.”

Deeper considerations are at play here. COVID-19 has presented university management with a grand razor and a distraction. The consequences of myopic decisions can be minimised. The University of Tasmania, for one, is taking the lead in making use of the coronavirus. Where there is catastrophe, let there be opportunities; where there is darkness, let there be a venal hope. Now is the time to clean the stables, count the losses, make cuts.

The timing was, as ever with these things, immaculate, given the plea from Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison to employers across the spectrum “to support your workers, by keeping them employed. Hold on to your people, because you will need them on the bounce back on the other side.”

University of Tasmania’s Vice Chancellor Rufus Black had other ideas in mind when penning his letter to staff. The university, he argued, was “working against powerful forces” in seeking sustainability but an “overreliance on China as a market for international education and what is now emerging as a pandemic” necessitated drastic decisions on course offerings. (The number is to fall from 514 to 120.)

“Thanks to the good work of our teams responding to the issue, the majority of our students in China and subject to travel restrictions have started to study with us. But as we know the spread of the illness continues to shift. We have a long way to go in dealing with this issue and its consequences will last well beyond this year.”

 

Reading such justifications requires an abundant degree of scepticism. Management-speak is a nasty sort of agitprop and should be treated as such. It sees the removing of competent staff as necessarily expedient while it deflects from its blunders. The letter from Black, for instance, speaks of the reaction to COVID-19 as part of a broader pattern of planning that was already in the works, but was simply hurried along in somewhat violent fashion. “In the face of it we are not making enough progress to be the right size to be sustainable even in the short time.”

Black also inadvertently reveals the mens rea of the university managerial class, that concept of criminal guilt lawyers of the British legal tradition are so fond of. University planners were aware that an overreliance on the Chinese market was dangerous, a “known strategic risk”.

The university’s press release on Tuesday packages the slashing of jobs and the reduction of courses as part of a vision, as astigmatic as it might have been. The point being made here is that such reductions were always on the table, factored and measured. There was a “redesign” of the university’s “course architecture”, one designed to “remove much of the complexity” of what was being offered. This is crude code for job cuts, staff losses and, as is the norm, the continued thriving of the vampiric handlers at the top end of the management spectrum. They won’t be offering their heads on the platter of accountability any time too soon.

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“Two Sides” of Trump’s India Visit!

President Donald Trump’s brief visit (Feb 24-25), his first to India, has left many questions unanswered for both sides, United States as well as India. Of course, there is no denying that Trump would not have travelled all the way to visit just one country if he did not foresee some gains. The same may be said for Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi having gone overboard in making preparations to welcome him. A mega-mega show was organized for him in Modi’s home state, Gujarat. It seems, Trump loved each minute of it as in his view no other leader had been welcomed in the same manner as he had been. On his part, Modi must have been quite delighted by Trump appearing to be fairly pleased by his brief visit. But this is one side of the story.

Looking at the whole show from Trump’s own perspective, that there are “two sides” to everything, one may draw varying interpretations. He used these words while addressing a press conference (attended by this scribe) prior to heading back for Washington. As various analysts have put it, a key aim of Trump is to gain votes of Indian Americans settled in United States during the race for presidential elections. Will he or will he not, time will tell. Of course, prospects of his gaining their votes on the basis of his addressing a large crowd at “Namaste Trump” program organized at Motera Stadium (Ahmadabad, Gujarat) are fairly dim. This is the largest cricket stadium in the world. The crowd that he addressed has nothing to do with US elections. Most of them probably did not understand his English speech. But that apparently did not matter for either Trump or Modi. Both were more concerned about a packed stadium listening to Trump irrespective of whether what he said was Greek to the crowd or not.

Paradoxically, while organizing the Namaste Trump program at a cricket stadium, Modi government paid little attention to minimal importance of cricket the game in United States. Indians are cricket-crazy but the same cannot be said about Americans. Cricket does not figure in the list of popular games in United States. This aspect may have been sidelined as stadiums of games Americans are fond of just as Basket-Ball, Base-Ball and others, would not have been able to hold as large a crowd as desired by Trump and Modi.

On his part, initially Modi must have been pleased at being described by Trump as “very good friend.” But he was probably left flabbergasted when Trump used practically the same words for Prime Minister of Pakistan, a country known as India’s permanent enemy. During the press conference when questioned on Kashmir-dispute between India and Pakistan, he talked of having a “very good relationship” with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan. He reiterated the words, “very good” and then said, “I’ll do whatever I have to do, if I can do that, because my relationship with both gentlemen is so good.” Interestingly, considering that India doesn’t want external interference in what it views as its “internal” problem, his willingness to help solve Kashmir-dispute as well as his having “good friendly ties” with premiers of both countries, did not exactly symbolize hug diplomacy displayed earlier by the two. Or it would be more appropriate to say that Trump was not able to avoid Modi’s hugs, a diplomatic practice the latter is fairly adept at. Trump received several Modi-hugs during his brief visit. He was greeted on his arrival with a hug, was showered with another at Motera Stadium…

But Modi’s hug diplomacy was apparently given only some importance by Trump. It had little or no impact on the latter’s diplomatic stand towards Pakistan. It is possible, Trump deliberately laid stress on his relations with premiers of both countries. Ah, the visiting President chose not to give any diplomatic importance to internal usage of anti-Pak card by India. This refers to Indian politicians’ tendency to try their hand at their much tried and tested anti-Pak card frequently particularly during their electoral campaigns. At certain levels, it is viewed as their trump-card.

Modi probably hoped that Trump’s visit would play a great role in elevating his diplomatic image through substantial coverage accorded to it across the world. Here too, Modi’s diplomatic calculations faltered. India’s capital city was rocked by violence, with extremist elements allegedly linked with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), brutally targeting property and lives of minorities, while Trump was here. Thus headlines across the world gave importance to Trump’s visit as well as violence in Delhi. At present, Modi’s diplomatic image seems to have been severely punctured in most parts of the world. Queries continue to be raised on why did his government fail to check the violence?

Prospects of political gains in store for Trump because of his brief India-visit seem minimal. With respect to Modi, whatever he sought to gain by playing on this Trump-card stands defeated by Delhi-violence!

 

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The Fed’s Baffling Response to the Coronavirus Explained

When the World Health Organization announced on February 24th that it was time to prepare for a global pandemic, the stock market plummeted. Over the following week, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped by more than 3,500 points or over 10%. In an attempt to contain the damage, on March 3rd the Federal Reserve slashed the fed funds rate from 1.5% to 1.0%, in their first emergency rate move and biggest one-time cut since the 2008 financial crisis. But rather than reassuring investors, the move fueled another panic sell-off.

Exasperated commentators on CNBC wondered what the Fed was thinking. They said a half point rate cut would not stop the spread of the coronavirus or fix the broken Chinese supply chains that are driving US companies to the brink. A new report by corporate data analytics firm Dun & Bradstreet calculates that some 51,000 companies around the world have one or more direct suppliers in Wuhan, the epicenter of the virus. At least 5 million companies globally have one or more tier-two suppliers in the region, meaning their suppliers get their supplies there; and 938 of the Fortune 1000 companies have tier-one or tier-two suppliers there. Moreover, fully 80% of US pharmaceuticals are made in China. A break in the supply chain can grind businesses to a halt.

So what was the Fed’s reasoning in lowering the fed funds rate? According to some financial analysts, the fire it was trying to put out was actually in the repo market, where the Fed has lost control despite its emergency measures of the last six months. Repo market transactions come to $1 trillion to $2.2 trillion per day and keep our modern-day financial system afloat. But before getting into developments there, here is a recap of the repo action since 2008.

Repos and the Fed

Before the 2008 banking crisis, banks in need of liquidity borrowed excess reserves from each other in the fed funds market. But after 2008, banks were reluctant to lend in that unsecured market, because they did not trust their counterparties to have the money to pay up. Banks desperate for funds could borrow at the Fed’s discount window, but it carried a stigma. It signaled that the bank must be in distress, since other banks were not willing to lend to it at a reasonable rate. So banks turned instead to the private repo market, which is anonymous and is secured with collateral (Treasuries and other acceptable securities). Repo trades, although technically “sales and repurchases” of collateral, are in effect secured short-term loans, usually repayable the next day or in two weeks.

The risky element of these apparently-secure trades is that the collateral itself may not be reliable, since it may be subject to more than one claim. For example, it may have been acquired in a swap with another party for securitized auto loans or other shaky assets – a swap that will have to be reversed at maturity. As explained in an earlier article here, the private repo market has been invaded by hedge funds, which are highly leveraged and risky; so risk-averse money market funds and other institutional lenders have been withdrawing from that market.

When the normally low repo interest rate shot up to 10 percent in September, the Fed therefore felt compelled to step in. The action it took was to restart its former practice of injecting money short-term through its own repo agreements with its primary dealers, which then lent to banks and other players. On March 3rd, however, even that central bank facility was oversubscribed, with far more demand for loans than the subscription limit.

The Fed’s March 3rd emergency rate cut was in response to that crisis. Lowering the fed funds rate by half a percentage point was supposed to relieve the pressure on the central bank’s repo facility by encouraging banks to lend to each other. But the rate cut had virtually no effect, and the central bank’s repo facility continued to be oversubscribed the next day and the next. As observed in a March 5th article on Zero Hedge:

This continuing liquidity crunch is bizarre, as it means that not only did the rate cut not unlock additional funding, it actually made the problem worse, and now banks and dealers are telegraphing that they need not only more repo buffer but likely an expansion of QE…

The Collateral Problem

As financial analyst George Gammon explains, the crunch in the private repo market is not actually due to a shortage of liquidity. Banks still have $1.5 trillion in excess reserves in their accounts with the Fed, stockpiled after multiple rounds of quantitative easing. The problem is in the collateral, which lenders no longer trust. Lowering the fed funds rate did not relieve the pressure on the Fed’s repo facility for obvious reasons: banks that are not willing to take the risk of lending to each other unsecured at 1.5 percent in the fed funds market are going to be even less willing to lend at 1 percent. They can earn that much just by leaving their excess reserves at the safe, secure Fed, drawing on the Interest on Excess Reserves it has been doling out ever since the 2008 crisis.

But surely the Fed knew that. So why lower the fed funds rate? Perhaps because they had to do something to maintain the façade of being in control, and lowering the interest rate was the most acceptable tool they had. The alternative would be another round of quantitative easing, but the Fed has so far denied entertaining that controversial alternative. Those protests aside, QE is probably next on the agenda after the Fed’s orthodox tools fail, as the Zero Hedge author notes.

The central bank has become the only game in town, and its hammer keeps missing the nail. A recession caused by a massive disruption in supply chains cannot be fixed through central-bank monetary easing alone. Monetary policy is a tool designed to deal with “demand” – the amount of money competing for goods and services, driving prices up. To fix a supply-side problem, monetary policy needs to be combined with fiscal policy, which means Congress and the Fed need to work together. There are successful contemporary models for this, and the best are in China and Japan.

The Chinese Stock Market Has Held Its Ground

While US markets were crashing, the Chinese stock market actually went up by 10 percent in February. How could that be? China is the country hardest hit by the disruptive COVID-19 virus, yet investors are evidently confident that it will prevail against the virus and market threats.

In 2008, China beat the global financial crisis by pouring massive amounts of money into infrastructure, and that is apparently the policy it is pursuing now. Five hundred billion dollars in infrastructure projects have already been proposed for 2020 – nearly as much as was invested in the country’s huge stimulus program after 2008. The newly injected money will go into the pockets of laborers and suppliers, who will spend it on consumer goods, prompting producers to produce more goods and services, increasing productivity and jobs.

How will all this stimulus be funded? In the past China has simply borrowed from its own state-owned banks, which can create money as deposits on their books, just as all depository banks can today. (See here and here.) Most of the loans will be repaid with the profits from the infrastructure they create; and those that are not can be written off or carried on the books or moved off balance sheet. The Chinese government is the regulator of its banks, and rather than putting its insolvent banks and businesses into bankruptcy, its usual practice is to let non-performing loans just pile up on bank balance sheets. The newly-created money that was not repaid adds to the money supply, but no harm is done to the consumer economy, which actually needs regular injections of new money to fill the gap between debt and the money available to repay it. As in all systems in which banks create the principal but not the interest due on loans, this gap continually widens, requiring continual infusions of new money to fill the breach. (See my earlier article here.) In the last 20 years, China’s money supply has increased by 2,000 percent without driving up the consumer price index, which has averaged around 2 percent during those two decades. Supply has gone up with demand, keeping prices stable.

The Japanese Model

China’s experiences are instructive, but borrowing from the government’s own banks cannot be done in the US, since our banks have not been nationalized and our central bank is considered to be independent of government control. The Fed cannot pour money directly into infrastructure but is limited to buying bonds from its primary dealers on the open market.

At least, that is the Fed’s argument; but the Federal Reserve Act allows it to make three-month infrastructure loans to states, and these could be rolled over for extended periods thereafter. The repo market itself consists of short-term loans continually rolled over. If hedge funds can borrow at 1.5 percent in the private repo market, which is now backstopped by the Fed, states should get those low rates as well.

Alternatively, Congress could amend the Federal Reserve Act to allow it to work with the central bank in funding infrastructure and other national projects, following the path successfully blazed by Japan. Under Japanese banking law, the central bank must cooperate closely with the Ministry of Finance in setting policy. Unlike in the US, Japan’s prime minister can negotiate with the head of its central bank to buy the government’s bonds, ensuring that the bonds will be turned into new money that will stimulate domestic economic growth; and if the bonds are continually rolled over, this debt need never be repaid.

The Bank of Japan has already “monetized” nearly 50% of the government’s debt in this way, and it has pulled this feat off without driving up consumer prices. In fact Japan’s inflation rate remains stubbornly below the BOJ’s 2% target. Deflation continues to be a greater concern than inflation in Japan, despite unprecedented debt monetization by its central bank.     

The “Independent” Federal Reserve is Obsolete

In the face of a recession caused by massive supply-chain disruption, the US central bank has shown itself to be impotent. Congress needs to take a lesson from Japan and modify US banking law to allow it to work with the central bank in getting the wheels of production turning again. The next time the country’s largest banks become insolvent, rather than bailing them out it should nationalize them. The banks could then be used to fund infrastructure and other government projects to stimulate the economy, following the model of China.

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War, Profit and the Coronavirus

If you want expertise, don’t bother reading any further here. I know as much about coronavirus as any stunned disbeliever with a sudden, irresistible urge to touch his face.

This is a news story that’s spookily personal — far more personal, somehow, than all those other ongoing horror stories out there, about war, refugees, climate change. Those stories are real, yet compared to the coronavirus story, they feel like abstractions. This is about a potential pandemic — the possibility of hundreds of millions of deaths worldwide — and it’s about the need to use hand sanitizer. Right now. And also, don’t touch people anymore. And stay home.

Part of me feels positively Donald Trumpian about this: Come on, this isn’t real. Indeed, my urge is to defy the warnings and hug my friends, shake strangers’ hands, continue living a connected and joyous life. But part of me stops cold, thinks about the post-World War I influenza pandemic that wound up infecting almost a quarter of the world’s population and killed as many as 100 million people. These things really happen. Don’t be ignorantly dismissive. But don’t panic either.

So, stabbed with “maybe,” all I can do is grope for understanding.

We live in a dangerous and paradoxical world. OK, fine. But is our social infrastructure capable of calmly and sanely handling new dangers that emerge — or is it more likely to make them worse?

I begin with this crumb of data from a recent USA Today story:

According to the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution grants the federal government isolation and quarantine authority.

“The Secretary of Health and Human Services can take actions to prevent the spread of communicable disease from foreign countries into the United States and between states.

The words invoke both a need for top-down, authoritarian control of things and what I call the Yikes Syndrome: the idea of a viral invasion from a “foreign country,” from somewhere out there beyond our borders — beyond what is known and safe. Somehow the assumptions quietly hidden in this sort of wording throw me into a spiral of doubt. Like climate change, a potential pandemic requires global cooperation: people and governments pulling together to survive and transcend the danger. While enforced order and temporarily isolating people is also sometimes necessary, I see in such wording how panic spreads. We’re quick to “go to war” against a problem and haven’t learned yet, at the highest levels of government, that wars don’t end and are never won; they simply set the stage for further war.

In that regard, consider these words from the social-justice and peace organization Code Pink:

This is bad. Since February 19, when the first coronavirus cases were identified in Iran, at least 6,566 people — about one in every 12,000 Iranians — have been infected. At least 237 people have died. Iran is third, behind China and South Korea, in cases of coronavirus per population. Due to U.S. sanctions, Iran is suffering from a shortage of the medical supplies, products, and equipment required for diagnosis, prevention, and treatment of the coronavirus.

Is this a learning moment? As the Code Pink message goes on to point out, the U.S. Treasury Department has said it will waive some of the sanctions against humanitarian supplies sent to Iran, but this slight give in the rules is probably too late to do any good. It also points out the danger of playing war. The unintended and often shocking consequences of war have not yet fully penetrated humanity’s collective awareness. Preparation for war, as well as the declaration of a national enemy du jour, remain assumed and unexamined functions of most national governments.

And one of the costs of this is . . . everything else.

For instance, at a recent coronavirus roundtable in Detroit, someone asked Deborah Burger, president of National Nurses United, how the United States, when it develops a COVID-19 vaccine, could afford to make it free for everyone — a stunning question, when you consider the cost, to everyone, of not making the vaccine universally accessible.

Burger responded: “How insane and cruel is it to suggest that we have to figure out how to pay for it when we can actually go to war and not ask one question, but to prevent this kind of a disease, we have to say, ‘How can we pay for it?’”

And Bernie Sanders, who was also at the roundtable, added: “Does anybody in their right mind believe that if you’re rich you should be able to afford a vaccine and save your life but if you’re poor you gotta die? Is that really where we’re at in the United States of America?”

Guess what? Not everyone agrees with Sanders on this. Fox News (of all places), for instance, quoted Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, who asked: “Who’s going to want to make a new drug if the government is just going to come along and confiscate the profit?”

As I read these words, I quickly reach for the hand sanitizer. If there’s an ounce of sanity in this defense of profit, it can only be because the possibility of a coronavirus pandemic is fake news — a profit-feeding scare tactic. But if the possibility of a global pandemic is real, how could anyone question the urgency of government investment in the development of a vaccine and then making it universally available? Had Fox News been around during good old World War II, my guess is that it wouldn’t have tossed snarky challenges at the Manhattan Project or lamented that the military-industrial complex should have been able to patent the atomic bomb. But, oh yeah, we worship war. Waging it is the point of government.

But then there’s Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine. In 1955, Edward R. Murrow asked Salk, in a live TV interview, who owned the patent for this vaccine. Speaking from a mountain of higher values, Salk responded:

“Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

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Washing our Hands of Trump and Powerlessness

It’s time to wash our hands of Donald Trump. The coronavirus pandemic is quickly becoming Trump’s Hurricane Katrina, because the federal government bungled the early stages of the disaster so badly. The CDC initially sent out faulty test kits, limited tests to overseas travelers, and blocked other labs from testing. All that practical incompetence can and should be held against Trump.

But ideologically, the coronavirus is also a shot in the arm for Trump’s far-right, xenophobic worldview. He will exploit the pandemic to the hilt, and Biden may also use it as an argument against making deep reforms.

At The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, we’re now wrapping up our winter-quarter class “Catastrophe: Community Resilience in the Face of Disaster,” which I taught with Suree Towfighnia. It has unfortunately been a wildly appropriate class to be teaching near the pandemic’s North American epicenter.

We’ve learned from previous disasters that fear makes citizens more obedient to authority. Fear reinforces the superstate as our protector and justifies oppressive or unequal responses (for example, service workers do not have the option to telecommute). “Elite panic” generates repressive measures that start to bring out the police, vigilantes, and military, ironically in the name of preventing public panic.

Trump and his European clones are using the so-called “foreign virus” as a xenophobic rationalization for “stronger borders” against immigrants, even though right now Syrians and Hondurans medically have much more to fear from contact with European and U.S. citizens than the other way around. Stephen Miller’s evil fingerprints were all over Trump’s vile address to the nation on Wednesday evening. It’s not a “foreign virus”—it’s a human virus.

The very idea of “social distancing” tears at our values of community. Whereas an earthquake or hurricane may bring strangers together in a common cause (as Rebecca Solnit documents in A Paradise Built in Hell), a pandemic reinforces neoliberal individualist isolation and prioritizes our own nuclear family over our potentially “zombie” neighbors.

The American mentality of “contagion” has been historically fraught with racial, cultural, and political exclusion, rooted in “Red Scares” and “Yellow Perils.” Angel Island, in San Francisco Bay, was used as a center to interrogate and quarantine Asian immigrants, not as a place of welcome like Ellis Island usually was for European immigrants. Anti-Chinese pogroms here on the West Coast were often justified with claims of banishing leprosy and other diseases.

These irrational fears run deep in the western psyche, and when fear predominates over love and care, conservatism rules. It especially rules when it harnesses the concept of a (white) defensive community that ostracizes “foreign hordes,” and when the only posed alternative is neoliberalism that splits us into isolated, powerless individuals. That’s another reason why another neoliberal candidate like Biden is vulnerable to a fascist sympathizer like Trump, because he doesn’t counter with an alternative, more egalitarian vision of community.

The conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat on Wednesday morning even speculated that the pandemic has helped Biden in the primaries against the “outsider” Sanders. Democratic voters sought an “insider” authority figure as “a flight to safety, the surrender of grand plans and big ambitions in favor of a desire to just survive” against both Trump and the virus. That’s even though Bernie’s plans for universal health care and sick pay leave would vastly help us right now.

For the past quarter, our students have been studying ways to build community in times of emergency. The only communities we can effectively build in the coming weeks are probably online. The millions of people who have been in quarantine in China have been sharing their thoughts, fears, hopes, and even homestyle recipes in online forums. Young people have the ability to do amazing work with video blogs and chat rooms.

Community groups can start holding video conference calls, discussions, and mass webinar teach-ins. They can also provide services such as food and sanitizer deliveries and moral support to quarantined people. Facebook is no substitute for face-to-face networking, and I don’t think distance learning is half as educational as classroom teaching. But joining together online is a way to express love and caring for those who need to overcome fear and isolation.

One of our students from Japan, Koki Hiraguchi, presented his research project this week, on the ninth anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. He contrasted two Japanese schools that reacted differently in the critical 50 minutes between the quake and tsunami. In the “Miracle of Kamaishi,” the students took the lead in seeking higher ground, so all but a few “survived based on their own judgement, saving not only their own lives but also those of the adults around them.” They had drilled for disaster, did not believe the tsunami hazard maps, and “were taught to make decisions for themselves.”

In the “Tragedy of Okawa,” teachers did not adequately prepare, believed the hazard maps, and ordered their students to evacuate to an area that was not high enough, so nearly all of them perished. This contrast reiterates some profound lessons we’ve learned from other disasters, from 9/11 to Katrina and María. Obedience to authority (and its existing procedures) can be fatal. Thinking flexibly for ourselves and creating community can improve our chances for survival and resilience.

Community resilience that emerges in response to the coronavirus crisis may become models to overcome the innate crisis of social isolation under capitalism. In this way, we would not only survive, but start thinking for ourselves, to pose real alternatives to the ideology that underpins this Trumpdemic.

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You Can be Free to Vote, Even Behind Bars

Birmingham, Alabama is a landmark city for the American civil rights movement. Even today, it’s ground zero for a vital fight over voting rights.

I visited Jefferson County Jail in Birmingham recently to deliver inmates a simple message: you are free to vote, even if you don’t know it. And now is the time for you to claim and exercise this right.

I was there with volunteers from The Ordinary People Society (TOPS), the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, and prominent Birmingham lawyers. All are veterans of voter registration drives, but for most this was their first time registering voters in a jail or prison.

Nationwide, more than 6 million people are kept from voting because of felony convictions. Many millions more who haven’t been convicted are wrongly told they are ineligible to vote when they are awaiting trial.

Now we want to let all of these citizens know they are free to vote, even if they are behind bars.

Since 2003, Rev. Kenneth Glasgow and other members of TOPS and the Prodigal Child Project have gone into jails and prisons to register new voters. In 2007, we convinced Florida to restore voting rights to 150,000 people, which laid the groundwork for last year’s landmark referendum in that state to restore the right to vote to more than 2 million.

The state of Alabama, however, has resisted this change. So in 2008, we took them to court — and won.

For 106 years, Alabama lied to those who were convicted of felonies and told them they had lost their right to vote forever. And there are still plenty in Alabama who want to keep it that way.

We won’t let that happen. So now, with a new coalition called Alabama RACE (Restoring Alabama’s Civic Engagement) with Hometown Action, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Voices of the Violated, and the Alabama Black Women’s Roundtable, we’re doubling down to register voters in every one of our hundreds of state, city, and county jails and prisons.

In 2017, after our campaigns, Alabama passed the “Moral Turpitude Act,” which restored the right to vote for more than a quarter million people — including many who are still behind bars.

Our latest victory is that Alabama’s absentee ballots now clearly state you have the right to vote, even if you are currently incarcerated or have a previous conviction. Alabama is the only state in the nation where this is true.

We’ve already registered nearly 10,000 voters, but to reach them all, we need all the help we can get.  And before November, we’ll register more voters in Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee — four states that, like Alabama, suffer from the legal legacy of Jim Crow.

Since this issue affects millions more potential voters in every state, we have partnered with Just Leadership USA and theFormerly Incarcerated, Convicted People & Families Movement to train volunteers in 30 states and have developed a toolkit any organization can use to register incarcerated voters.

Anyone who wants to bring these tools to their hometown can text RELEASE to 33777.

For every voter we register inside a prison or jail, there are two to five loved ones or family members on the outside who are inspired to register, too. That’s the real power of this hidden vote.

Whenever we go behind bars to register new voters, we don’t ask if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. We don’t care about that. What we do care is that you, like every citizen — Black or white, incarcerated or not — know you are free to vote.

Voting is a sacred right we fought for you to have, and now we’ll fight for you to use it. We need your help to make sure all citizens have access to the ballot.

Kenyetta Rich is the co-executive director of The Ordinary People Society (TOPS).

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Malm’s “Fossil Capital”

Capital is Karl Marx’s theory of capitalism. Capitalism is a mode of production, a historical social system (as were primitive communism, the slave states of Greece and Rome and feudalism). After primitive communism, society divided into social classes. Class societies are composed of (1) an economy, based on the relationship of the owners of the means of production to the direct producers (e.g. slave-owner to slave, feudal lord to peasant, capitalist to wage-worker); (2) a reproductive unit (e.g. clan, nuclear family); and (3) a state, which maintains the system in interests of the ruling class. Historical Materialism is Marx’s theory about the origin and development of modes of production. Let us begin with a sketch of that theory.

It begins with human needs: subsistence (i.e. food, clothing, shelter) and reproduction (i.e. the rearing of children). Every mode of production must provide for them. It is also subject to the environment (e.g. climate, the availability of water, raw materials, fertility of the soil, etc.), which, together with human needs, provide the meeting between society and nature, the Labor Process.

The Labor Process is conceived in terms of the architectural metaphor of base and superstructure. Upon an economic base arises the superstructure of the state, family and other social institutions. The base (i.e. economy) is composed of the relations of production and subject to the forces of production.

The forces of production are composed of the means of production (i.e. technology, raw materials) and labor power (i.e. human strength, knowledge and skills). The relations of production connect human beings to the forces of production: this determines the class structure of society. This structure is viewed dynamically as the class struggle between the ruling class (i.e. those who control the means of production) and the working class (i.e. the direct producers) over the social surplus (i.e. food reserves, etc.). The development of the productive forces – particularly the discovery of new technologies and sources of energy – is the primary cause of the rise and fall of historical modes of production. To Marx’s political-economic model, Andreas Malm, in Fossil Capital, has added an ecological dimension: a Marxist Theory of Climate.

Like Marx, Malm’s model is Britain, which he considers the creator of fossil capitalism and, therefore, the homeland of Global Warming. A fossil economy is “…one of self-sustaining growth predicated on the growing consumption of fossil fuels, and therefore generating a sustained growth in emissions of carbon dioxide (p. 11).” The fossil economy, the main cause of Global Warming, first appeared in Britain during the Industrial Revolution.

Coal, first among fossil fuels, had been used before the fossil economy for centuries for heating homes. Malm calls this the proto-fossil economy,”…one in which: (1) a coal industry has developed, with underground mines and regular trade; (2) coal has become the major source of heat in the public sphere; (3) coal has penetrated industry as a heat provider; (4) domestic consumption is predominate; (5) impressive rates of growth in coal consumption is achieved during the phases of substitution, without any self-sustaining economic growth being predicated on fossil fuels (p. 52).” As Britain is our model of fossil capitalism, so the manufacture of cotton is the “…key industry of the British economy (p. 68).”

The transition to fossil capitalism was the product of a revolution in power: in both its scientific and social meanings. In Marx’s model, these are represented by the forces and relations of production. In cotton manufacture, the forces of production were provided by (1) labor-power (i.e. human capacities, knowledge and skills); (2) machines (Arkwright’s mill, Watt’s steam engine, the self-acting mule, the power loom); (3) energy (i.e. human, animal, water, coal); and (4) raw materials (i.e. cotton, plant dyes, etc.). The relations of production consisted of the means by which the capitalist class controlled the working class. Fossil capitalism was, consequently, a system of power over both nature and human beings. Let us examine its history.

The factory system was initiated in 1772 with Arkwright’s cotton spinning mill at Cromford. Its machines were powered by the water of a stream, and manufactured cotton for clothing, a basic human need. Cotton thread was spun in machines in a fraction of the time taken by the spinning wheel. The factory began with 300 workers, and as the years passed and more mills were built, rose to as many as 1150. The rate of profit was as high as 50%, so that the owners accumulated colossal wealth.

“…A novel logic of self-fueling expansion was implanted in the British economy…ceaseless improvements in productivity, high rates of profit, reinvestment of profits and thereby – output multiplying – continuous accumulation of industrial capital. Self-sustaining growth had arrived. It took another half a century or so before it seized hold of the British economy in its entirety (p. 47)”.

But cotton manufacture had arisen on the basis of waterpower. James Watt enters the story, in 1784, with the invention of the steam engine. Its only viable fuel was coal, which was much more expensive that waterpower. The invention of the steam engine was followed by that of the self-acting mule, a machine for cotton spinning, and the power loom, one for weaving. “The self-acting mule was not only the first truly automatic machine, but also the first invention of the cotton industry to be geared, from its birth, to the steam engine as prime mover (p. 66).”

But cotton clothing had to be both spun into thread and woven into cloth. “The ‘power loom’ had been invented in 1784, refined over the following decades and demonstrated to be equal or superior to the handloom but consistently snubbed by manufacturers (p. 69).” The handloom, used by workers in cottages and cellars, continued to outnumber the power loom by almost four to one. The handloom weavers were the largest group of workers in any British industry.

“Because earnings after 1825 were so low as to frequently fall below subsistence levels, the handloom weavers were driven deeper into the survival strategy of embezzlement, which, in turn, caused mounting losses and ruinous competition among manufacturers…For an individual capitalist, the shift to power looms would then have been the safest insurance against theft; for cotton capital as a whole, it seems to have gone a long way in eradicating the black market and consolidating control over labour (p. 74).”

But protection against embezzlement was not the sole aim of the cotton manufacturers; if so, they could have simply brought workers together in sheds under the watchful eyes of foremen. Under the direction of the steam engine, on the other hand, workers could be forced to work at a steady pace dictated by the machine. And power looms produced at least three times more cloth per unit of time (p. 74).

“Just as in spinning, capitalist victory materialized through the mobilization of power: protection against embezzlement, regulation of the work rhythm, higher productivity, the exploitation of female and juvenile labour, larger profits or smaller losses, coalescence of the two great departments of cotton production to mechanical energy. For the handloom weavers, this was an extinction event (p. 76).”

The decision to use coal over water was also the result of cotton manufacturers inability to cooperate and employ planning in the division of the river’s waterpower (p. 118). They quarreled over the amount of water needed, the timing of its delivery, and its cost. Steam engines powered by coal, they believed, preserved their independence. And steam engines enhanced their mobility: they could be placed in populous cities and towns where workers were easily procured. Furthermore, 1851 was the beginning of urbanization. The census of that year for the first time recorded that the majority of the population lived in urban areas. By 1900, the metropolitan region of Manchester “…contained the largest concentration of human population on the planet (p. 145).” The period of the transition from water to steam coincided with the greatest burst in urbanization ever seen in Britain.

These populous towns became the sites for one of capitalism’s defining features, the factory system. “Power was essential to the factory system…because the ‘synchronization of a sequence of highly specialized machines could not be effected by manual power.’ It was the mechanical centrality of the non-human prime mover, its propulsion of an integrated process of production that set the factory apart (p. 127).”

“In the factory, the laborer had to conform to the motion of the central prime mover. She was under obligation to keep pace with it, carrying out the actions directed by its array of machines in unison with a whole team of operatives who had to begin, pause, restart and stop at signals. She must submit to the command of the manufacturer and his over-lookers, who enforced compliance with rules laid down (p. 128)…”

The factory system demanded factory discipline. It was repugnant to workers who had formally worked for themselves with their own tools. It was done in dark, dirty, cramped conditions, where the air was polluted. The machines emitted loud, frightening noise; and were dangerous to life and limb. It was regarded “…as a kind of prison (p. 120).” Factory discipline required habituation, which could only be the result of successive generations becoming gradually accustomed to this miserable life.

In the beginning, the cotton mills were dependent on the forced labor of the apprentice system. Orphan children in poorhouses, between the age of twelve to twenty-one, worked without remuneration for fourteen to fifteen hours a day. These penal colonies for children began to decline in 1820. Afterwards, it was rural families, who had migrated to the cities and towns, who worked in the mills. Immigration gave way to natural increase as the largest source of urban population growth. And coal, used for heating, encouraged urban growth. An industrial reserve army of the unemployed located in densely populated cities placed downward pressure on the wages of workers in factories.

“…the ranks of urbanites swelled primarily with second generations: young boys and girls born and raised in towns with no personal memories of other forms of social existence (p. 146).” These subsequent generations of youth gradually became habituated to the gruesome factory world. The urban location also facilitated cotton manufacturer profitability by being near the markets for purchasing its materials and the sale of its products. “Once the process was set in motion, the synergies of labour supplies, markets, hubs of knowledge, shared infrastructure and other features of the nucleus tended to grow by themselves, further attracting new factories…Steam power was the sine qua non of this agglomeration (p. 158).”

“Once capitalist property relations were established in commodity production, capital and labour were locked in combat, inducing the former to unleash wave after wave of machines to subdue the latter (p. 199).” The advantage of the machine was to supersede human labor altogether, or to diminish its cost by substituting women and children for men, or ordinary laborers for skilled artisans. This general assault by capital on the working class brought the response of the Factory Movement of 1825-1850.

Its activity was centered on cotton manufacturing, and its chief goal was the ten-hour day. Locked out of the franchise, the working class sought the advocacy of sympathetic MPs, who introduced the Ten Hours Bill and later the Factory Acts. “…the British textile industry nevertheless changed forever: henceforth there would be a fixed normal working day (p. 188).” With this limit on the length of the working day, the manufacturer responded with greater intensity, or speedup. “…a shorter day would spur the mill-owner to drive the workers – hence the machinery, hence the engine – ‘at the utmost rate of speed’ (p. 188).”

The fossil economy saw its highest rate of growth between 1815 and 1830. With manufacturers presiding over the largest share of combustion, followed by proprietors of iron and steel works, by 1855 Britain had consummated the fossil economy.

***

Chapter 26, The Secret of Primitive Accumulation, is the final part of Marx’s Capital, Volume 1. In it he describes the history of the capitalist mode of production, beginning with its “point of departure”, the process by which the working class was divorced from the means of production. To this history “…written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire.”, Malm, has, once again, added an ecological dimension.

“Primitive accumulation of fossil capital is the process by which capital is invested in the production of fossil fuels while at the same time dissolving the bond between the direct producers and the earth, fencing off nature as private property, dispossessing farmers, hunters, herders, fishermen and others hitherto independent of the market, contributing to the creation and expansion of capitalist property relations (p. 320).”

It began with coal. For the coal industry to emerge, the laws for the ownership of land and its contents had to be entirely rewritten. “…in 1566, eight years into Queen Elizabeth’s reign, a royal court excluded all mineral resources except gold and silver from the regale, or the ownership and control of the Crown. With a stroke of the pen, coal deposits were transformed into private property. (p. 322).” Mining rights could now be bought and sold by investors.

“Under customary law, tenant farmers were entitled to move cattle on commons, take wood and even coal for domestic use…after Elizabeth’s accession to the throne, enclosures and expulsions were almost never inspired by riches underground, but after Elizabeth’s succession to the throne, such motives came to the fore. Lords would simply appropriate land where they suspected that minerals were buried (p. 323).”

This provoked desperate resistance on the part of the peasantry. By the end of the seventeenth century, exclusive private property to coal rich lands had been conclusively enforced, the customary tenants and commoners deprived of virtually all of their rights (p. 324).” “…ownership of the stock…came to be concentrated in the hands of the few…the rise of coal contributed to the eviction of tenants and the general decline of peasant proprietorship in England. In some regions, coal enclosures were paramount in divorcing the direct producers from the land (p.324).”

“’Only in Great Britain…were rights of the landowners to all minerals, except gold and silver, made absolute.’ That principle had no precedent or analogue anywhere else in the world (p. 325).”

“…this reinterpretation…allows us to flesh out a theory of the primitive accumulation of fossil capital…a process by 1) initiating the accumulation of capital through the provision of F (fuel) to the market 2) having its origins in the expropriation of the land and the conversion of the stock into private property and 3) spreading and consolidating capitalist property relations. It laid the foundation for the subsequent rise of the fossil economy (p.325).”

(Malm’s Fossil Capital is largely the story of the coal/steam engine epoch of capitalism. It would take another history on its scale and depth to bring us from coal to capitalism’s expansion into petroleum and natural gas. Malm recommends Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy. It suggests that the organized power of the working class – in mines, railroads, and docks – resulted in major coal strikes during the world wars. This caused the capitalists to invest in oil. “An important goal of the conversion to oil, was to permanently weaken the coal miners, whose ability to interrupt the flow of energy had given organized labour the power to demand the improvements to collective life that had democratized Europe’: a more tranquil source of energy would be oil from the middle Eastern deserts. Gushing from the ground, it could be pumped into the landscape by a relatively small workforce…thanks to its liquidity, the transport required less labour. From the mid-twentieth century, the fossil economy turned towards the Middle East as its new centre of gravity (p. 356)…”)

***

Imperialism is Lenin’s description of the “latest stage” of capitalism. Having begun in the late nineteenth century, it spread across the globe to create the world commodity market. But the capitalist mode of production, in the form of the large-scale factory, had been largely confined to Europe, the United Stated and Japan. The rest of the world was used as a source of raw materials, cheap labor, markets and investment. The advanced nations had partitioned the globe among themselves, closing one sphere of influence to the others. From the beginning of the twentieth century, it had been completely divided; so that further competition required its redivision. Imperialism’s chief characteristics are: (1) the centralization of production and distribution in monopoly corporations; (2) the export of capital; (3) the merging of firms with banks, as finance capital; and (4) the fusion of capital with the state. This economic competition, between blocs of nations-states, led to military competition; and this, in turn, to two world wars. Malm’s Fossil Capital adds an ecological dimension to our current imperialist, or “globalized” world economy.

“…we may propose a simple hypothesis for the era of globalized production. Globally mobile capital will relocate factories to situations where labour power is cheap and disciplined – where the rate of surplus-value promises to be largest – by means of new rounds of massive consumption of fossil energy (p. 333).”

“A transnational corporation (TNC) is a firm-specific asset, something it owns and can insert into the host country (p. 334).”

“…on a quest for optimum profitability, capital roams the earth more freely than ever before. Labour, on the other hand, remains relatively place-bound…’…labour forces must be sought out, fought with and , on occasion, abandoned by industry in its ceaseless process of evolution and restructuring (p. 334).”

“…as capital moves around, it will attach great weight to the national characteristics of the labour supply. It will look for cheap labour; places where labourers are easily procured. It will look for workers amenable to discipline, accustomed to high labour intensity and long working days: a population trained to industrious habits…It follows that industrial production will tend to move from nations with higher average incomes to those with lower ones – not in a complete evacuation from the former, but in a process of relative relocation (p. 335).”

States wanting to attract foreign direct investment must have such a disciplined workforce. Furthermore “…the arrival of foreign capital will stimulate enlargement of the infrastructure of the host country…first and foremost, power plants and electricity grids capable of delivering the indispensable energy (p. 336).

***

An historical explanation for the adoption of fossil capitalism demands that we distinguish ourselves from what Malm calls the “Anthropocene Narrative.” This is the view that “humanity” – not capitalism – is responsible for Global Warming. “It would, first of all, view self-sustaining growth as an emergent property of capitalist property relations rather than as an attribute of the human species (263)…” It was initiated by the owners of the capitalist means of production, and presupposed the institution of wage labor. “Steam won because it augmented the power of some over others…(it) was foisted upon the rest of society… by the power of the gun (p. 267).

Furthermore, in determining responsibility for Global Warming, we must also distinguish between the actions of some nations and classes, rather than others. It is the capitalist class and their trans-national corporations and banks that make the decisions to invest in the fossil economy. It is they who derive their wealth from it, and should be held responsible for Global Warming. “…as of 2000, the advanced capitalist countries or the ‘North’ composed 16.6 percent of the world’s population, but were responsible for 77.1 percent of the CO2 emitted since 1850 (p. 268).” The data suggests that this disparity between poor and rich nations’ environmental impact is only widening. So it can hardly be blamed on poor and working people, who have little choice whether or not they will participate in the economy as workers and consumers.

***

‘The Transition’ is the process whereby we replace fossil capitalism by an economy based on renewable energy. It will be the largest, most expensive project in human history. Some have likened it to the New Deal of the Great Depression, or the waging of World War II. It is imperative that we try to grasp the obstacles such a transition would encounter. In 2013, Fortune’s list of the 500 largest corporations of the world had Royal Dutch Shell in the lead, Exxon Mobil as number three, Sinopec as four, China National Petroleum five, BP six. And financial support from banks is essential. JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, Morgan Stanley and Barclays are the leading financers of fossil fuel projects.

“Oil and gas fields, coal trains, pipelines, coal-carrying vessels, oil and LNG tankers, coal treatment plants, refineries, LNG terminals – counting in the tens of thousands, covering millions of kilometres – ‘constitute the world’s most extensive, and most costly, web of infrastructures (p. 358)…” Such a vast global write-off of capital would be unprecedented in scale.

Only states can be the vehicles for the transition. Only they have the power to tax, provide the funds and invest them according to a long-run plan. Only they can coordinate that plan with other states internationally, which will be essential to address Global Warming. “…states and their municipalities can have other goals than profit and are under no compulsion to expand like capital…they simply have to take charge of the transition if there is to be anything of the kind (p.381).”

Malm is pessimistic about the prospects for socialist revolution and the Climate Crisis. “Any argument along the lines of…’socialist property relations are necessary to combat climate change’ is now untenable. The experiences of the past two centuries indicate that socialism is an excruciatingly difficult condition to achieve; any proposal to build it on a world scale before 2020 and then start cutting emissions would be not only laughable, but reckless. At this moment in time, the purpose of an inquiry into the climatic destructivity of capitalist property relations can only be a realistic assessment of the obstacles to the transition (p. 383).”

It has been estimated that a Green New Deal would take 20 to 40 years. Furthermore, it is unlikely that governments will undertake such a program – considering the recalcitrance of fossil capitalist corporations and banks – without the pressure of a mass social movement. What are the current prospects for a Green New Deal?

The defeat of Jeremy Corbin was a tragedy for Britain. He appreciated the gravity of the Climate Crisis, and would have initiated a Green New Deal. And it would have been historically apt that Britain, the creator of Fossil Capital and homeland of Global Warming, would have been the first to address the issue. Now the torch has been passed to Bernie Sanders in the United States. Unless Sanders (1) gets the nomination and (2) wins the presidency, there will not be a Green New Deal. The other Democratic candidates consider themselves on the side of capitalism; they will not put up the fight it will take to tame the recalcitrant fossil fuel corporations and banks. Otherwise, a socialist revolution will necessary. And what are its current prospects? Union density is at an all-time low. Organizations of the working class are few, small and not implanted in the workplace. Nevertheless, the Left must be prepared, both to pressure a Sanders’ presidency with a mass movement from below, and to build a third party and other organizations of the working class.

Since the 1950s, capitalism has entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. It now has a decisive influence on our planet’s climate, one which has accelerated the earth’s evolution and led to today’s Global Climate Crisis. This crisis is the result of capitalism’s antagonistic relationship to the environment. A system based on the exploitation of labor for profit, it has treated the earth as a realm of unlimited economic growth. Its atmosphere, seas and land are no more than sources of wealth to be extracted; polluted oceans, forests and mountains of toxic waste, left behind. These ‘global commons’ are ‘enclosed’ by wealthy states’ transnational corporations. And climate change is the result, the ruin of the planet’s atmosphere, caused mainly by capitalism’s addiction to the burning of fossil fuels. Since the Industrial Revolution, its carbon emissions have been accumulating in the air, causing the average atmospheric temperature to rise in Global Warming. The level of carbon dioxide is now approaching a critical point – a ‘global rift’ – when the earth’s climate will spin irreversibly out of control. Today’s rate of climatic degradation puts the planet on a collision course to reach that catastrophe in the year 2035.

The advanced capitalist nations are most responsible for Global Warming; yet they are the ones least affected. The poor southern countries, the least responsible, are the most vulnerable of all. Already the victims of droughts, storms and floods – seven million climate refugees in the year 2019 alone – the climate crisis is only exacerbating the world’s existing obscene inequality. The Global Climate Crisis is now unfolding in a sequence of events that will lead to an apocalyptic vision: an island fortress of wealthy nations, surrounded by cyclopean walls, within an endless sea of refugee camps in which hundreds of millions suffer and die.

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The Democratic Establishment’s Drive to Derail Sanders Will Backfire Again

It’s repulsive, though unsurprising, that former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg ended his campaign to help Joe Biden take out Bernie Sanders just before Super Tuesday. After winning Iowa on February 3rd, only slightly losing New Hampshire and going on to lose South Carolina, top Democratic donors pressured Buttigieg to drop out to consolidate the moderate vote behind Biden. Like an obedient, moneyed tool, Buttigieg “behaved,” as multi-billionaire candidate Michael Bloomberg accurately put it, by ending his campaign. With the momentum from his win in South Carolina and Amy Klobuchar and Buttigieg endorsements, Biden emerged from Super Tuesday with a decisive lead over Sanders.

Pressuring Buttigieg to drop out before Super Tuesday is yet another dirty trick the Democratic Party pulled to derail Bernie, perhaps almost as undemocratic as the DNC’s successful 2016 effort to undercut him. Although Hillary Clinton won the popular vote that year, she lost the general election to US presidential history’s biggest joke: Donald Trump.

And yet the Democratic Party never learns.

Again, they will run a ‘moderate’ who will fail to turn out the party base and Trump will emerge victorious. Biden will pander to his Woke supporters and run with either a ‘moderate’ women or minority – because it will look good and feign ‘change’; albeit, the appointed VP candidate will do little to help either women or minorities.

The Democratic Party has maintained its myopic tone-deafness to Americans’ desire for fundamental change. Wage stagnation, insurmountable college debt, offshored employment, AI-job takeover, perpetually rising inequality and sickness causing thousands to go broke are the fuel that helped elect Trump in 2016. These factors have contributed to Americans’ dismal view of the Democratic and Republican party establishment. Through acknowledging some of average Americans’ woes and repurposing them into xenophobic, Islamophobic and racist scapegoating, Trump gained office.

On the other hand, Bernie Sanders fully acknowledges Americans’ diminished socio-economic conditions, during a time of ironic near-full employment, and directly addresses these problems with constructive policy proposals. Unlike Biden, Bernie is far more likely to overturn the countless far-right policies of Trump, while gaining policy and legislative ground to improve Americans’ well-being.

On the electability front, which has been the recent rally cry for Biden supporters in the media and elsewhere, Biden’s lack of charisma and pro-corporate inclinations will inspire few progressives to turn out in November. Nor will Biden inspire independents, who aren’t too fond of Trump but see Biden as a status quo candidate. And, too, although Trump’s allegations against Biden’s son, Hunter, are largely unfounded, Hunter’s appointment to the Burisma board reeks of nepotism. Such legalized corruption helps drive Americans’ abysmal perspective on the status quo in the first place.

When Biden goes against Trump in November, he will fall hard. If Bernie were to face off against Trump, he’d run away with it – as moderate, progressives, independents and even some rational conservatives (like those whose votes Sanders received in the NH primary) see Sanders as the most sincere, least corrupt and least-bought candidate. While not everyone agrees on all of Bernie Sanders’ policies, he is the most likely candidate to improve average Americans’ socio-economic conditions, across the racial, class, ethnic and gender lines.

Therefore, the Democratic Party and their media mouthpieces should distill their delusion that a pulseless moderate can successfully take on Trump.

Why not let democracy decide who’s on the November ticket.

Or is that, also, too radical?

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The Photographs of Thomas Moore and Quench

“The school was a circle—an all-encompassing environment of resocialization. The curriculum was not simply an academic schedule or practical trades training but comprised the whole life of the child in the school. One culture was to be replaced by another through the work of the surrogate parent, the teacher.”

-John Milloy, author of A National Crime: the Canadian government and the Residential School System, 1879-1986 (1999)

In A national crime, John Milloy provides us with two sharply contrasting photographs of Thomas Moore, a First Nation schoolboy. These photographs capture poignantly the massive resocialization project, launched in the late nineteenth century, to “move Aboriginal communities from their “’savage’ state to that of ‘civilization’ and thus to make in Canada but one community—a non-Aboriginal one.”

In one photograph, youthful Thomas poses against a fur robe. He is in his beaded dress, his hair braided and he is holding a gun. The “symbols of the past—of Aboriginal costume and culture, of hunting, of the disorder and violence of warfare and of the cross-cultural partnerships of the fur trade and of the military alliances that had dominated life in Canada since the late sixteenth century” are displayed for the viewer.

Although these alliances and partnerships had enabled Europeans to find their way in the new land, the founding of the new nation in 1867 had little or no role whatsoever for Indigenous people. Their knowledge and skills of fishing, hunting, trapping, arts and crafts were cast out of the “circle of knowledge” and deemed of no worth for a future of “settlement, agriculture, manufacturing, lawfulness, and Christianity.” Politicians, civil servants and missionaries all thought that Aboriginal knowledge was “neither necessary nor desirable in a land that was to be dominated by European industry and, therefore, by Europeans and their culture.”

The other photograph of Thomas Moore portrays this young, now confident schooled lad with barbered short hair, standing confidently and fashionably with one arm on his hip and the other leaning on a pedestal. His feet are crossed; his hat laid on a large piece of furniture. Close to his right arm, sits a flowering pot. Portraits teach us much. They are coded images. Milloy comments: “Here he is framed by the horizontal and vertical lines of wall and pedestal—the geometry of social and economic order; of place and class, and of private property the foundation of industriousness, the cardinal virtue of late Victorian culture. But most telling of all, perhaps, is the potted plant. Elevated above him, it is the symbol of civilized life, of agriculture. Like Thomas, the plant is cultivated nature no longer wild. Like it, Thomas has been, the Department suggests, reduced to civility in the time he has lived within the confines of the Regina Industrial School” (pp. 3-6).

Another captivating photograph in Milloy’s book, “Quewich and his children,” carries significant propaganda value. Everyone involved in Indian Affairs, with the exception of Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, Frank Oliver, believed that Native children must be separated from their parents. They had to be relieved from the “influences of Indianism” and brought “under those of civilization.” The children were, in a sense, farmed out to the residential school for cultivation.

The Quewich photograph illustrates the “confident conviction” that a coercive assimilative pedagogy was necessary to kill the Indian in the child to save the man. “The ‘weak child,’ the ‘influences of Indianism,’ the father, stooped and wrinkled, already a figure of the past, having reached the limit of evolution, appears to be decaying right in front of the camera, dying off, as was his culture. In sharp contrast, his children, neatly attired in European clothing, the boy’s cadet cap a symbol of citizenship, are, like Thomas Moore after tuition, examples of the future, of the great transformation to be wrought by, separation and education in the residential school” (p. 28).

Children, fearful children, entered the White World to be transformed into something they were not. It was if they were of a different order of human, something akin to Aristotle’s “natural slaves.” The transformation was symbolized, Milloy comments, by the “shearing of Aboriginal locks and the donning of European clothes and boots”. After this rite de passage, they would live like White children within a “round of days, weeks, months and years punctuated by the rituals of European culture” (p. 36). They were socialized into the round of rituals of the European Christian calendar. Reversing the child’s “cultural clock,” to act with precision, concerned the Department greatly. “Innate in him [the Aboriginal child] has inherited from his parents … an utter disregard of time and an ignorance of its value” (cited, p. 28).

Thus: “The temporal orchestration of life heard in the sounds of water breaking through spring ice and leaves rustling in freshening fall breezes was to be replaced by ticking locks and ringing bells—the influence of the wigwam replaced by the factory” (ibid.). Indians had to abandon their dances and festivals. They could not roam freely any longer.

These photographs codify essential elements of the “founding vision” of residential schools. They capture the Canadian government’s desire to totally re-socialize the Indigenous people, so intensely pursued in the period from around Confederation in 1867 to the 1960s. This project was, in the end, calamitous, leaving a ghastly legacy of spiritual desolation and brokenness.

 

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The Incident on King Street Remembered a Quarter of a Millennium Later

Paul Revere’s plagiarized engraving of Boston Massacre.

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

– Neil Young, “Ohio”

It’s generally true what they say about public history — that it’s easily trivialized and forgotten, so that we can soon start over again, and make the same mistakes next time, with more brio and technology-driven enthusiasm. And don’t even get me started on personal memory. Ever since postmodernism came along and said that just because the Foo shits on you doesn’t mean you have to wear it. We don’t really know what happened, or what hit us. We’re like the dinosaurs that way. Fuck, if I can remember where I left the keys, let alone my dignity. And I tell myself: if memory doesn’t flatter, what good is it?

I’ve been reading a lot of “history” lately. And it’s only made me more confused. Last year I read a book about mosquitoes the writer referred to as General Anopheles and how her bites changed the course of history. Napoleon might have ruled America, the writer claims, except that his men couldn’t handle the still loo water of mosquito incubation. So he sold Louisiana, and abandoned Haiti. One reads, gobsmacked, that the General has been responsible for the deaths of “as many as half of the people who have ever lived.” It’s not the butterfly effect we should be worried about, but the mossie effect.

And that’s history with some sobering science behind it. When looking into history that depends on “master narratives” the whole shebang is open to question. Says Who? is what you want an answer to. It depends on your point of view, and history, married to memory, is one big parallax view. Good luck, Mr.Truth! I keep these things in mind now as I plod through accounts in time — especially ones I thought for sure I understood, accounts pounded into me by thoughtless teachers playing out careers, accounts no more valuable in the end than the J-E-L-L-O ads I started out my language life with in the Fifties. Always somebody, selling something, against my will.

These were the deconstructive tools I took with me as I read into The Boston Massacre: A Family History by Serena Zabin. Rather than yet another standard angle on the bim-bang-boom of Red Coat muskets flashing and Sons of Liberty — plus Crispus Attucks — falling that cold snowbally night in March, Zabin asks the reader to consider other factors leading up to the “massacre” that paint the evening with more familial complexities at work. As she puts it,

In an eighteenth-century Anglo-American world in which family and government were closely connected notions, the shooting in Boston marked not the beginning of the American Revolution but the breakdown of a family.

The Massacre didn’t lead to treasonous insurrection immediately — and Zabin tells us why.

Sagas of surly Empire, and their overseas colonies, are often told from the point of view of sea captains, army generals, rummy sailors, and the powdered wigs who provide policies and directives from back home. But as her title suggests, Zabin is keen to provide a human vision of events, somewhat removed from mere political interpretations. It’s complicated, and humans aren’t always avatars for His Majesty’s wishes: Real people eat, shit and fuck — the Ol’In/Out — and produce other humans who do the same; they need a system that produces food, provides proper places for inevitable poopery, and protocols of attraction and opportunities to taste the punch and fall in love. But integrating military and civilian lives in a colony can get edgy, Zabin implies.

Zabin spends a few chapters describing the complicated logistics of 18th century colonial maintenance. Not many Brits wanted to be Red Coats; recruitment was not easy. Zabin cites an Irish estate manager who “bemoaned the difficulty of finding men to enlist, noting that ‘people are so full of bread, at present, that they care neither to work, nor be under any command of any kind.’” It was difficult to find incentive to join. There were sordid tales of soldierly demise in far flung colonies. Zabin writes, “Troops stationed anywhere, even on sundrenched islands in the Mediterranean, lost their will to live after too much time in isolation.” Newfoundland soldiers after only a few years there, were “reduced to mere Ideots [sic] by Drink and Debauchery.”

Marriage was discouraged in the military officer’s handbooks; women were depicted as “distractions,” shady distributors of VD, and likely to get soldiers drunk. But many of the same officers conceded that women offered valuable services. They nursed the ill, and they washed clothes — “an essential task, since privates were issued only one uniform each year (which they had to buy out of their own wages).” So marriages happened regularly, women and children became part of the military, and vice versa, in a symbiotic union that redeployed or regularly “rotated” from colony to colony. Though there wasn’t much to recommend to a would-be soldier, writes Zabin, “Putting on a red coat was one way for a young man to improve his chances at marriage.”

Zabin concentrates on the 29th Regiment as they prepare to rotate from their base in Cork, Ireland to Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1765. She discusses the harsh administrative decision-making involved in such a move, especially the rule governing accompanying families — given ship space, a provisions budget, and abiding officer reservations about women — “only one in ten soldiers” was allowed to take along his family. Under this rule, hundreds of sorry soldiers would sail, leaving their families behind in destitution for years or even life. As he planned the rotation to Halifax, Lieutenant General Robert Rich, to avoid having Cork foot the costs of providing for families left behind, worked out a scheme that allowed all families to travel with their soldiers. Happy beams all around.

Zabin focuses on one family in the 29th Regiment — the Chambers. This device allows Zabin to humanize the soldiers (from the 29th) who fired on Bostonians that fateful March night. They were as ordinary as the townies they lived amongst; they were, you could argue, the equivalent of the National Guard who took out four students at Kent State 200 years later — not hated, until they fired, and immediately changed how the middle class saw their government. The miserable languishing in Halifax, with its privations, boredom, and limited opportunity for social engagement, seems set up by Zabin as a prelude to the bustling and raucous — and healthy — environment the regiments would be called in to police in Boston.

Zabin introduces us to the grievances behind Boston’s “troubles.” In a nutshell, England had been using a hands-off or laissez faire approach to its colonies, allowing for relatively stress-free local governance with limited local taxation. Zabin paints it like a family portrait — we’re all Brits in this frame. But then, the Sugar Act of 1764 placed an excise tax on sweet stuff, and that was followed a year later by the Stamp Act, which taxed “stamped, or embossed, paper, produced in London and used in the Colonies.” Invoices, receipts and bills of lading…. Zabin writes, “The Sugar Act had provoked grumbling; the Stamp Act would produce riots.”

“Bostonians were feeling distinctly underappreciated,” writes Zabin. “Having paid for the [Seven Years] war in ‘blood and treasure,’ they did not see why the new costs of empire should fall on them.” Locals published threatening rhymes such as:

What greater Joy Can New England see
Than Stamp men hanging on a tree.

Massachusetts governor Francis Bernard panicked at the popular response and expressed in ‘hurried’ letters to other governing confidantes, such as Thomas Gage of New York, that he was “feeling completely powerless and ‘extreamly weak’ in the face of a popular uprising.” He fled from the city to an island in Boston Harbor and called in, against Gage’s advice, policing regiments from Halifax. Some of his pollie pals called him “spineless” behind his back.

But though popular pressure led to the repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766, it was soon replaced with the so-called Townshend Acts, a series of laws that included: import duties on glass, lead, paints, paper, and tea; and the precedent-setting establishment of the British Parliament’s right to tax the colonies. Charles Townshend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, decided to establish a collection commission headquarters in Boston. “That meant,” writes Zabin,” that the men responsible for overseeing the new taxes, known as the Board of Customs Commissioners, would be living in a town of only sixteen thousand people,” and knocking door-to-door to collect taxes. This was a new experience for Bostonians and it didn’t go down well.

It’s into this milieu that three regiments of Red Coats and their families– including the 29th with the Chambers family — arrived in Boston from Halifax in early November 1768. Matthew Chambers “[gazing] at the buildings ahead of him and the barracks behind him on Castle William…must have wondered where his own family, once they finally disembarked, would sleep that night.” His 29th Regiment ended up pitching tents “among the cattle that grazed” on the Boston Common.

Boston’s King Street was like a grand bazaar of worldly goods, imported and local — “French Indigo, Albany Peas, Connecticut Pork, Esopus Flour, new-York Butter-Bread, refin’d Iron, Pig Iron, Ship Bread, Cordage, Anchors, Spermaceti Candles, Cotton Wool, Silk Handkerchiefs, Feathers, Logwood, &c, &c.” — and slaves. There was strain in the new comminglings. As Zabin writes, “Given this influx of more than a thousand new residents, Bostonians could not help but encounter military families at every turn: in the streets, in the churches, and eventually even in their own homes.”

Bostonians had to accommodate the surliness of starchy officers drinking to excess and mouthing off in their beloved taverns, while soldiers marvelled at the general unruliness and disorder of the populace. Still, there were record desertions, 10% annually in Boston, according Zabin. Single soldiers were beatlemania-ed by uniform-loving local lasses; other soldiers created labor friction by working jobs for lower wages.

But behind the scenes was a controlling force, a virtual secret society called the Sons of Liberty, whose espoused purpose was to seditiously resist the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, and any other forms of taxation initiated in London that amounted to “taxation without representation.” No, they said. And boldly blew governmental shit up to underline their point. (Oh, those italics.) Members included Paul Revere and Sam Adams, who would become important framers of the narrative describing the Incident on King Street and its eventual catalytic conversion to revolution. Oh, and those SOLs (soon to be sons of guns) didn’t much care for Red Coats dating their daughters.

Just days before the Shooting, there was an incident involving a local ropemaker and a Red Coat. The soldier was looking for work. Zabin writes,

[O]ne rope maker offered a soldier work requiring no particular skill: cleaning his latrine. The soldier was offended at what he took to be fighting words, and a quarrel escalated over the next several days, as each side brought more friends into the fray.

A dunny-brook of words ensued, as the People (“working class people”) and Soldiers got increasingly shitty with each other.

Then one ill-lit night (quarter moon, snowy sky, no torches) on March 5, 1770, 250 years ago, after days of exchanged catcalls and newspaper doggerels, Edward Garrick, an apprentice wigmaker, with a hair across his ass, yelled out to a freezing Red Coat, Hugh White, guarding the Customs house (wherein the evil taxes were stored), and busted his balls for non-payment of a peruke. Whatever Garrick said, he crossed the White line and received a musket-whipping for his troubles. The townie cried out in pain, the soldier called for help. The commotion emptied the bars, snowballs and sticks flew, more Red Coats arrived, and then — bimmety-bangety-boomany — down dropped liberty lovers in the night. Crispus Attucks, a recently freed slave, was the first to be shot by the po-lice in Red Coats (maybe the only totally believable part of the narrative). Here’s a re-enactment.

After the event, a word fight broke out in the Press between the Sons of Liberty and more conciliatory, circumspect media voices, and the fight to frame the narrative was on. Paul Revere got on his high horse and commandeered (i.e., plagiarized) a drawing by Henry Pelham that depicted the shooting. “Pelham called his work ‘The Fruits of Arbitrary Power,’” writes Zabin. “Revere, of course, called his ‘The Bloody Massacre.’” The Boston Gazette pushed Revere’s interpretation, and most Bostonians were in no mood to consider other angles. When the Boston Chronicle settled for calling the event an “unfortunate affair,” townspeople boycotted the paper and “most of its advertisers pulled their support…; it folded less than four months later.”

The war of words continued in the “official” accounts of what happened. Sons of Liberty members James Bowdoin, Joseph Warren, and Samuel Pemberton were assigned the task of coming up with a Boston-friendly account, which was long-titled, A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston, Perpetrated in the Evening of the Fifth Day of March, 1770, by Soldiers of the XXIX Regiment. This went up against the army version of events, A Fair Account of the Late Unhappy Disturbance in Boston. Both versions played for the hearts and minds of politicians, wits and wags in London. It was the shot heard — across the bow.

The trial itself was a decrescendo from the high-strung, orchestrated noise that colored accounts of the event. The officer in charge of the Red Coat shooters, John Preston, was tried separately, and though it looked grim at first, as soon as he saw two buds on the jury, he knew he’d be walking. The others got off relatively easy, too, thanks to the wise counsel of Sam’s cousin, John Adams, the future 2nd president of the U.S. Zabin writes,

In the end, the defense was almost entirely successful. Wemms, McAuly, White, and Hartigan were exonerated. Kilroy and Montgomery were found guilty of manslaughter, not murder, and their punishment was commuted from hanging to branding on the thumb.

The soldiers left town before they could be lynched.

By the time the trial was over all the regiments had been removed from Boston and it was no longer a garrison town. And with the tension released, temperatures simmered for a few years until, lesson unlearned, the British parliament once again imposed new taxes and it was Tea Party Time. Late in the book Zabin owns that

In the end, however, even if we had the ability to ascribe responsibility for those deaths 250 years ago, the answer would bring us no closer to understanding how the massacre brought us to the American Revolution.

After all the music of her humane re-telling, the admission is rather disconcerting.

Tea parties come and go, in some we dress as Indians and in some we dress as Mad Hatters; and there have been only a few decades, since Crispus Attucks took one for the team, that Americans haven’t been firing shots heard around the world. As Zabin points out, even today, after countless hours spent by academic interrogators trying to break the privileged code of 18th century colonial Boston, nobody really understands the argot or what caused the events of that night to happen the way they did.

TIn some depictions, the Sons of Liberty were scalawags, as much as heroes– helpful to later democracy the way scalpers (scalperwags?) outside Fenway are helpful in liberating a couple of Benjamins from your wallet for Yankees tickets. Sometimes I wonder what Paul Revere got up to when he wasn’t riding his high horse. When I think of Sons of Liberty today, I think: Revere Sugar, Hancock insurance, and Sam Adams beer.

I don’t know if I like them apples or not.

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If Someone Says You’ve Hurt Them, Believe Them

Six years ago, I messed up.

In 2014 I started grad school. I went to the first school event for new students and told another student an anecdote about my study abroad in China in 2000. I told the story exactly as I always had — and I used a bad Chinese accent and broken English to imitate a man I met in Beijing.

I want to say unequivocally, I was wrong. Also, I truly did not know I was wrong. If I had known, of course I would have never done it.

So why did I think it was okay? Because my entire life’s experience up to that point had taught me that it was.

I assumed that if it wasn’t okay, then my Chinese friends would have told me so. I assumed that if it wasn’t okay, John Hughes wouldn’t have made fun of Long Duk Dong, the Chinese exchange student character, in the film Sixteen Candles.

This was before comic Hari Kondabolu made a movie called The Problem With Apu explaining why The Simpsons’ Kwik-E Mart owner is hurtful to South Asians. I assumed Apu was fine because the white people I grew up with thought he was funny — and my Indian and Pakistani friends never said anything either.

So, how did I react when a fellow student called me to task for my tasteless impression? Unfortunately, the wrong way.

I didn’t listen. I felt attacked. I told her that I had lots of Chinese friends and a degree in East Asian studies and blah blah blah, I did nothing wrong.

In my head, I wasn’t trying to make fun of the man in China. I was trying to recount the incident as it happened, the same way I use a British accent when I tell stories about my time in London. I think that’s why I didn’t listen.

What I didn’t realize is that white people make fun of Asians and their accents and grammar enough that, no matter your intent, as a white person you probably just shouldn’t do it.

Regardless of my intent, imitating an accent propped up stereotypes of Asians to anyone who heard me doing it. Imitating a British accent doesn’t have the same effect.

After I made a second blunder — and did not listen again — the other student told our professor what I did. Not listening to the other student compounded how much I hurt her.

After the professor talked to me, I realized I had to change the way I thought. I began actively and intentionally learning what I could about race so I could become a better person.

There are several lessons here. For white people, don’t assume that your life experience to date in America has taught you what you need to know about race. It probably hasn’t, even if you have non-white friends.

If a person of color says you said something hurtful, try to understand their point of view. There’s probably something you need to learn, and it might be a long learning process. Some things take time and experience to really sink in.

I find it helpful to consume media by people of color to better understand their point of view. I like comics like W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu, shows like Dear White People, lots of fiction books by authors of color, and websites like TheRoot.com. It’s a lot easier to do your learning when you aren’t the one who screwed up and got called on it.

Even if mistakes come from well-meaning ignorance, like mine did, we all still have a responsibility to learn and change so we can continue moving toward social justice.

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Paul Krugman, COVID-19, and Broken Windows

The jury is still out on which of two things — COVID-19 or the panic over COVID-19 — will cost more lives and do more damage to the global economy. My money’s still on the latter. In the meantime, I’ve developed a surefire, Groundhog Day type test for whether the emergency is over:

Watch for Nobel laureate economist and New York Times  columnist Paul Krugman to start trying to convince us it was, all in all, actually a GOOD thing.

Krugman on 9/11: “[T]he direct economic impact of the attacks will probably not be that bad. And there will, potentially, be two favorable effects.”

Krugman on Fukushima:”[T]he nuclear catastrophe could end up being expansionary, if not for Japan then at least for the world as a whole.”

Krugman would even have us believe that Pearl Harbor ended the Great Depression (which actually ended more than half a decade later). “If we suddenly had a threat of war and a military build up,” he once asserted on ABC News’s  Roundtable,  “you’d be amazed how fast the economy would recover.”

Krugman is the 21st century’s foremost evangelist of the Broken Window Fallacy.

In Frederic Bastiat’s “parable of the broken window,” a shopkeeper’s son carelessly breaks a window pane.

A witty onlooker — Paul Krugman’s ideological ancestor — considers this a good thing because it creates business for the glazier who replaces broken windows.

As Bastiat points out, though, while the cost of replacing the  pane is seen, other things aren’t:  That was money the shopkeeper could have spent on a new pair of shoes, or on a book he wanted to read.

Instead of buying something that improves his life, the shopkeeper has to spend that money just getting back to his previous condition.

To cover costs like replacing the window, he probably raises prices, meaning his customers have to spend more on his products, leaving them less to spend on other things they might like.

Even the glazier’s customers get screwed. Broken windows increase demand, which means higher prices. The man building a new house has to pay more, and wait longer, for new windows.

The matter is a loss, not a gain, for everyone except the glazier.

Can we expect to see some long-term beneficial consequences from COVID-19 and its associated hysteria? Yes.

Two likely outcomes are large, permanent increases in “telecommuting” (working from home instead of traveling to an office) and “distance learning” (taking classes from home instead of traveling to a university campus).

Those two trends were already noticeable, but fear of contagion is boosting them tremendously. When the fear subsides, the benefits will be remembered. Not as many people will be returning to offices and campuses as left them. That means lighter traffic, lower energy consumption, and more spare time for many workers and students.

Those are good things, but we could have had them any time we wanted them, with or without COVID-19 and the associated mass hysteria. Contra Krugman, any “bright side” to catastrophe costs more than it’s worth.

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The 2020 Socially Relevant Film Festival

NOTE: THE FESTIVAL HAS BEEN POSTPONED.

Still from Undermined: Tales From the Kimberley.

Although I’ve covered dozens of film festivals in New York since becoming a member of New York Film Critics Online twenty years ago, none is closer to my heart than the Socially Relevant Film Festival, now in its 7th year. Its mission statement defines its goal as shining the spotlight on filmmakers who tell “compelling, socially relevant, human interest stories across a broad range of social issues without resorting to gratuitous violence or violent forms of film making.” While Hollywood produces movies like “Joker,” SRFF offers documentaries and narrative films that shed light on the condition of ordinary people living in extraordinary times. Considering the extraordinarily terrible conditions of the past year, we are indebted to SRFF director Norah Armani for curating films of the sort reviewed below.

Speaking of terrible conditions, you are likely to consider the coronavirus pandemic that has already led to the suspension of basketball games and other large-scale events. In light of that, the festival, which begins on Monday, March 16th, has issued this statement:

NOTE regarding COVID-19:

The festival will run as planned unless a directive from the city obliges us to cancel. Please check back regularly, keep calm, and wash your hands as directed by the official communications. Download the instructions here

Feature films

Good Morning

In 1981, Louis Malle made a film titled “My Dinner With Andre” that had a cast of two: Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn. They wrote the screenplay and played semi-fictional versions of themselves. During the entire 111 minutes, the cameras were trained on the two as they sat eating and chatting at Café Des Artistes, a luxurious restaurant on the upper west side. Despite defying Hollywood film conventions across the board, the film impressed Roger Ebert enough to name it best of the year.

“Good Morning,” a Lebanese film, is this year’s “My Dinner With Andre.” Every morning an 80-year-old former General in the Lebanese army and an 84-year-old military doctor meet at a coffee shop in Beirut to spend time working on crossword puzzles together. They, like me (I am a bit younger), enjoy doing such puzzles both intellectually and therapeutically. They hope that by exercising the brain, they will stave off dementia just as jogging or bicycling will stave off heart disease.

Unlike “My Dinner With Andre,” which featured Andre Gregory as a flamboyant raconteur and Shawn as his timid interlocutor, the dialog between the General and the doctor is far more mundane. The drama, however, flows from their uphill battle against declining cognitive and physical abilities that puts their long-time friendship into bold relief. They become Everymen facing the inevitability of death just Max Von Sydow’s Knight faced off Death, the hooded chess master in “The Seventh Seal.”

Each day, the General habitually approaches total strangers in the coffee shop to ask them if they’d like to hear a joke. For most of the film, we don’t make too much of this since we accept this as the attempt of an elderly man to enjoy interaction with younger people, even if fleetingly. Toward the end, he begins to overstay his welcome at tables to the point that the doctor warns them that it has become a sickness with him. The look of consternation on the hapless General’s face is enough to bring tears to your eyes.

Against the human drama taking place within the four walls of the coffee shop, Lebanon is sinking into the regional crisis. Suicide bombers attack every so often while Syrian refugees beg on the street beneath them. Like most old-timers, they are nostalgic for the Lebanon of their youth. When they are not working on crossword puzzles or sharing their latest medical complaint with each other, they sing classic Arabic songs.

Considering the likelihood that the director Bahij Hojeij used an actual coffee shop and modest technical gear to make “Good Morning,” this film would educate aspiring filmmakers that a work of art does not require a $10 million budget. It requires instead deep humanist instincts and a flair for storytelling, traits that remain priceless.

Lorik

With a Russian director (Alexey Zlobin) and a mixed Russian and Armenian cast, “Lorik” tells the story of a middle-aged actor in Yerevan that Freud would have diagnosed as a case of extreme narcissistic disorder. He cares nothing about the people around him and only expects them to cater to his needs. When a makeup artist is a bit late supplying him with the fake nose he needs to play Cyrano de Bergerac, he throws a tantrum. Upon further reflection, you might say that in the world of actors and actresses, he is fairly normal.

His world is turned upside down when he learns that the local government has decided to renovate his beloved theater. Robbed of a stage where he is in complete control, he makes the mistake of ordering the construction crew to cease and desist. Unaware that goons from the local government are providing security at the site, he gets the heave-ho and lands on his head on the pavement below the theater. When he regains consciousness, he is shocked to discover that people no longer see him as Lorik the famous actor. In their eyes, he has become Johnik, a parking garage attendant his neighbors regard as the village idiot.

Through some sort of supernatural process, Lorik—so used to playing larger-than-life characters like Cyrano—is now transforming into real-life characters who represent the social contradictions of Armenian society, both male and female, young and old. Among the youngest is a bed-ridden girl who requires costly surgery to recover from a serious illness. Not long after he sheds her “role,” he turns into the crooked politician who ordered the closing of the theater. He plans to turn into headquarters for his nationalist party.

Whether or not the screenwriter Michael Poghosian, who also plays Lorik, intended it or not, the film has a strong affinity with Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” Lorik is Scrooge and the sickly girl is Tiny Tim. In the course of stepping into the roles of Yerevan’s divided society that overthrew a nationalist oligarchy last year, Lorik experiences redemption. Poghosian is excellent as Lorik. Despite my impatience with magical realism in other films, I found “Lorik” altogether enchanting.

Documentaries

Microplastic Madness

Like Greta Thunberg taking on the fossil fuel energy producers, the fifth graders in PS15 in Red Hook, Brooklyn are taking on the fossil fuel plastic manufacturers threatening marine life.

Like most kids, they love whales and other creatures living in the ocean. When their teacher takes them on a field trip to Jamaica Bay, they are disgusted to see all the plastic garbage strewn across the beach and in nearby bushes. They are even more disgusted to learn that the plastic stiffens under years of sunlight and then fragments into tiny particles. Swept up by the tides and into the ocean’s depth, the fish cannot distinguish them from food. Consequently, they eat them and perish. All in the name of a corporation’s bottom line.

Seeing the interaction between the students, mostly black and Latino, and their dedicated teacher, you wonder why can’t every school in the USA be following their example. They examine plastic fibers under a microscope connected to an Apple laptop. Imagine the most exciting science project that ever took place in your school and you’ll get an idea of the intellectual and political energy taking place at PS15. I taught fifth grade for a week in 1968 and would have stuck with it if I had the training to teach science to kids like these.

In addition to chronicling the intellectual odyssey of these youngsters, the film is also a primer on plastic pollution in the oceans. The website has information on the movement to reduce plastics in New York City that resulted in the elimination of Styrofoam in their school and plastic shopping bags in local grocery stores. The task of building a sustainable society will require a crusade against petrochemical energy and plastics companies. We are fortunate to have kids like Greta Thunberg and these fifth graders on the front lines.

Undermined: Tales form the Kimberley

The Kimberley is the northernmost of the nine regions of Western Australia. Bordered on the west by the Indian Ocean, Aboriginals make up forty percent of the population. The documentary describes their efforts to defend their homeland against mining companies and corporate agriculture. For those who have been following the struggles of the Lakota in the U.S.A. and the Wet’suwe’en in Canada against energy company incursions, seeing this film will help you understand that they are global in character.

Like Montana, Wyoming, and other rugged western states, Kimberley is a magnet for billionaires who buy land by the thousands of acres and build luxurious ranch estates. Ted Turner owns two million acres and fifteen ranches in 10 different states. Australian versions of Ted Turner have also moved in on Kimberley. Worth $15 billion, mining company owner Gina Rinehart is at the forefront of “developing” Western Australia. She was involved with a secessionist movement that would allow capitalists to exploit the region’s valuable natural resources at a faster rate than the government in Canberra would allow.

Besides her, the Aboriginals also have to contend with Kerry Stokes, who has major investments in mining and media companies. He is also a big-time rancher like Ted Turner. Stokes bought 1,563 square miles of land in the Kimberley and then stocked it with 20,000 head of Red Brahman cattle worth up to 40 million Australian dollars. To give you an idea of his commitment to environmental values, Stokes is on record as stating that the fires that raged last year in Australia do not have much to do with climate change.

Gratefully, the film does not pay much attention to such characters. It mostly allows Aboriginals, some of whom are small ranchers devoted to a pastoral lifestyle, to make the case for keeping predatory big businessmen out. If memory serves me correctly, this film gives Australia’s indigenous people the biggest opportunity to speak for their culture than any I have ever seen in a film.

Speaking most eloquently for the Aboriginal cause, Albert Wiggan seemed to be poised to enjoy the benefits of urban life as a college graduate and a professional. Instead, he returned to Kimberley and became a tribune of a struggle to maintain a civilization that goes back thousands of years. He belongs to the Bardi-Kija-Nyul Nyul people who live near Cygnet Bay on the Dampier Peninsula. When the government tried to build the world’s largest LNG plant at James Price Point, he lobbied the Supreme Court and led a blockade until the developer withdrew from the project. He now works as an environmental consultant with the Nyul Nyul Rangers and is Deputy Chair of the Kimberley Indigenous Saltwater Science Project. Like the fifth graders in Red Hook, Brooklyn, he is on the front lines of the struggle to make this planet livable for thousands of years into the future. Like “Microplastic Madness,” “Undermined” is a powerful tool on its behalf.

Stonewall With A ‘T’

Directed by Samy Nemir Olivares, a gay Puerto Rican immigrant and media activist, this film examines the rift between transgender people and the gay movement in the years following the Stonewall riot. While you are accustomed to seeing the case for LGBT rights today, for a number of years the T was absent.

Despite being sympathetic to transgender rights, gay men in leadership positions felt that legislators in both Albany and Washington would not pass a bill that included gender identity. The irony, as the film points out, is that it was transgender women who finally stood up and resisted the cops back in 1969.

Stonewall was not a club patronized by closeted stockbrokers or lawyers. Owned by the Mafia, it was popular with the poorest and most marginalized people in the gay community. They were up-front about their identity: butch lesbians, effeminate young men, drag queens, male prostitutes, transgender people, and homeless youth.

The film celebrates the leading roles played by Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, black and Latina transgender activists who were to the transgender movement that Harvey Milk was to the gay movement. To get an idea of the oceanic gulf between a Tim Cook and such people, I recommend a Washington Post article that celebrates Stonewall :

Sylvia Rivera even credited Johnson with saving her life — a life marked by hellish trials from the beginning. Her father abandoned her at birth, and her mother killed herself when she was 3. As a child, Rivera would try on her grandmother’s clothes and makeup, and was beaten when caught. By 11, she was a runaway and child prostitute.

She met Johnson on the streets in 1963, when she was still a preteen.

“She was like a mother to me,” Rivera said later. Johnson gave Rivera a measure of stability and love she had never experienced.

There are many stories about what Johnson and Rivera did in the early-morning hours of June 28, 1969, when the Stonewall riots erupted. Almost everyone agrees they were there. One legend has Johnson throwing the first “shot glass heard around the world”; another has her throwing the first brick. Stonewall historian David Carter concluded it was “extremely likely” that Johnson was among the first people to resist the police.

 

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Mountains of Sound: the Music of McCoy Tyner

McCoy Tyner at Newport Jazz Festival, 1998.

What resounds in many admiring ears and in the many panegyrics that followed in the wake of piano master McCoy Tyner’s death last weekend at the age of eighty-one is the colossal sound he pulled from his instrument: his left hand—with wrist high to get more leverage—thundering octaves that catapulted up from that low bass toward the middle of the keyboard to grab jagged chords. The right hand joined in either with simultaneous hammer blows of its own or to  draw out fiery skeins of barbed, frenetic melody: a dance of life or death or both. Like John Coltrane, musical and spiritual leader of the famed quartet of which Tyner was a vital cohesive force during his tenure in the group over the first half of the 1960s, the pianist could unleash avalanches of sound or provide the spreading terrain over which the saxophonist unleashed his torrents.

Too little praised in this week’s tributes was Tyner’s sensitivity. Great musicians are great listeners, a quality especially crucial for improvising chamber players in whose front ranks stood Tyner. These artists do not suppress their identity when in concert with others, but allow it to feed and flourish on their partners’ ideas, inclinations, genius.

Already memorialized for the monumental dimensions of his pianism, Tyner had, as his admirers and emulators also know, a huge range that was as much about subtlety, calm, the thoughtful aside, and whispered affirmation, as it was about percussive outpourings. Tyner departed Coltrane’s band in 1965 because he felt it was getting too loud and jumbled.

A watershed pianist, Tyner was a central influence on his colleagues and younger musicians during his lifetime, and will remain so after it. All jazz keyboardists refer to him in ways large or small, conscious or unconscious.

Tyner made jazz history because he understood jazz history. As a teenager in musically rich Philadelphia, where Coltrane befriended the younger musician (twelve years his junior), Tyner became obsessed with the bebop greats, Bud Powell and Thelonius Monk. These two occupied opposite ends of the modern jazz spectrum, from the fleet to the sparse, and Tyner learned important lessons from both.

In his Jazz Roots solo album of 2000, Tyner offered his appreciation of, and creative response to, his forbears—not just Powell and Monk, but also Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and others. Tyner had a huge range of jazz piano styles in his hands and heart. Jazz Roots closes with that chestnut—often reduced to mush by lesser figures—“Misty” written by Erroll Garner, another important piano stylist. Tyner begins his encounter with this standard as if ventriloquizing himself: while the drone bass threatens to burst its shackles into sforzando, the higher textures corruscate as if ready to launch into a dazzling fantasy. But the storm recedes, Tyner treads gently into the damp light; his elegant broken chords shimmer like Garner’s. Soon though, stride piano left hand and glittering arpeggio runs conjure Art Tatum, the mightiest of the jazz piano titans. This gives way to textures of his own devising that echo from the Coltrane years—as if Tyner himself is mingling on the keyboard with his heroes and a younger version of himself. At last Tyner returns to the crystalline repose of Garner with a dash of modal McCoy thrown in on the way out—not as a taunt but as a thank you.

 

Yes, none were bolder that Tyner, but he was a wonderful ballad player, too. Coltrane understood this better than anyone, as can be heard on the albums Quartets and John Coltrane and Johnny Hartmanboth on the Impulse label from 1963. Also from Impulse that same year came the numinous, suave, and swinging Nights of Ballads & Blues with Tyner fronting his own trio. Tyner had extraordinary gifts for creating atmosphere while illuminating an interior truth of a song even when—perhaps especially when—playing with others. His billowing chords and arabesques on Rogers and Hart’s “You are Too Beautiful” on the Coltrane/Hartman collaboration caress the object of desire in sound.

In extolling this immortal of the piano pantheon there is a universe to choose from. Tyner made more than seventy albums as a leader and dozens more as a sideman. With Coltrane he was involved in more than thirty, though a few of those were released after the saxophonist’s death in 1967. I’ve heard perhaps a quarter of Tyner’s vast oeuvre, and I own a dozen of his recordings, mostly on the Blue Note; he signed with the label in 1967 and spent five years there. He launched this phase of his recording career with The Real McCoy. Besides tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, and Miles Davis’ bassist Ron Carter, Tyner was joined on the date by his Coltrane bandmate, drummer Elvin Jones, who adds abundant kinetic energy to the already unbeatable swing, launched right from the opening track with “Passion Dance”—an exuberant etude in joyful angularity.

Tyner had worked for Blue Note many times before The Real McCoy, recording at the famed Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey from the beginning of the 1960s. There he’d contributed to sessions led by Lee Morgan, Blue Mitchell, Wayne Shorter, Hank Mobley, among others.  One of those others was the soulful tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, who’d also spent time in Tyner’s Philadelphia playing with the organist, Jimmy Smith.  Like Coltrane, too, Tyner had put in lots of time in R&B groups growing up, so he fit right into the  Turrentine sound and style—the tenor man’s straight ahead grooves, his cool Latin numbers, and his ballads, too.

Tyner played on five of Turrentine’s Blue Note records; the first of these was from 1964, and its title, Mr. Natural, speaks to the ease of the collaboration, the generosity of the music—the eponymous naturalness of it all. The LP was recorded in September of 1964, three months before he did the seminal A Love Supreme with Coltrane and a year before he left that quartet. A Love Supreme is perhaps Tyner’s most famous recording, and there is immense breadth and energy to his playing, but also—especially in the “Psalm” that is the final movement of the suite—poise and stasis. The pianist provides both foundation and vaulting for Coltrane’s prayers and plaints.

 

So close chronologically to A Love Supreme and like it recorded at Van Gelder Studio, Mr. Natural is worlds away—a welcome walk in the secular fresh air. Tyner appears as clever musical chameleon, who even when and while he changes remains authentically himself. The consummate chamber musician and eager, expert listener enthralls and enlivens right from the waltzing blues of the title track.

The B-side kicks off with another blues, “Tacos.”  The requisite Latin spice is imparted by conga player Ray Barretta, heard for the second time on the LP after having joined in on “Mr. Natural.” Tyner introduces “Tacos” accompanied at first by just conga and bass, veteran Blue Noter Bob Cranshaw leaving plenty of space for the rest of the trio by playing on just the first and third beats of each bar. As if sampling the best street food, Tyner assumes the sardonic verve of a pianist like Wynton Kelly (and later Herbie Hancock)—he’s sparsely incisive, the laconic cool brightened by sparkling arcs of figuration.

 

Lee Morgan on trumpet alongside Turrentine on saxophone step in to the scene to deliver the strutting tune with sly precision, braced by the electrifying Elvin Jones on drums.  Morgan wrote the number and he gets the honor of the first solo: the trumpeter is as brash as ever,  he holds back for his opening gambit, starts into a long line rising in volume and melodic amplitude towards its goal, the arrival marked by Tyner’s re-entry into the fray with a crisp chord more impulse than force. Morgan and the rest take off. Tyner and Jones are the twin motors capable of much more horsepower than called for here, their spontaneous colloquy and spirited collisions the product of all those Coltrane years together. Whether at idle or revving, the pair thrills. They thrive off each other, emboldened by the rest of the ensemble even as they bolster it.

Beneath Turrentine’s improvisation Tyner explores more complex syncopations that spar and jostle with the drums. Tyner expands the temporal scale of his rhythmic structures and in so doing builds intensity, before the vigor slackens again for the start of his solo. This he begins with an initial aloofness, but he soon warms to his tasty theme, ripping off a bluesy right hand run up and back over a wide expanse of the keyboard. With his sticks, Jones breaks into a chattering double time that spurs Tyner to some disjointed, yet agile arpeggios. Pulling back on the throttle, the pianist mulls over a bluesy riff, tries some cool quips intermixed with virtuosic skeins, before getting down to stubborn chords that spar with Jones, who gets in some climactic bashes. Tyner implies more power than he deploys: enough to thrill, but not overwhelm.  His exuberance never strains.

The crucial ingredients Tyner added to this jaunty blues represent just one of the  myriad examples of musical diversity and ingenuity that he always adapted to those he played with.

Tyner could create mountains of sound and rouse sublime thoughts, but it is his musical range that ensures his legacy as securely as do the grand visionary moments that he fostered and felt. It was in listening to others that he sounded most like himself.

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The Killing and Raping Game in Kenya and the Despots Who Run It

Photograph Source: DEMOSH – CC BY 2.0

Politics in Kenya is dominated by rapacious elites consumed with the looting of state resources, using violence to avoid any possible accountability. Elections serve as key points of entry and consolidation in this system for both ruling and competing elites, and are manifestations of corruption, fraud, and repression. Both President Uhuru Kenyatta, and his deputy William Ruto, were indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, for organising and supporting the huge violence that occurred during elections in 2007-2008: the case collapsed as witnesses absconded or died.

Impunity accompanies the looting of the state, and according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), lies ‘at the heart’ of Kenya’s governance. Impunity for politicians suspected of state plunder, was a ‘national tradition’ in the country, which both ‘raise[d] the stakes’ for incumbents and, as transgressors went unpunished, ‘contributed to its continued use’: politicians who have been publicly named for their role in political violence remained in parliament and were appointed to cabinet, notably said HRW, in the cabinet of President Mwai Kibaki. Some of those named for fomenting violence through the 1990s and in 2002, continued in parliament in 2007-2008 (‘Ballots to Bullets’, March 2008). Daniel arap Moi, president 1978-2002, died on 4 February, aged 95, was ‘one of Africa’s most ruthless autocrats’, wrote Adekeye Adebajo (Business Live, 9 February 2020). Before he finished as much as $4 billion went to his family and allies (The Economist 8 February 2020)

Violence takes many forms. The manipulation of the poor and unemployed was a common initiator. As Daniel Howden instanced in 2013: ‘political barons marshalled armies drawn from the young and unemployed’ and set them against their rivals with guns and machetes. In Central province then, politicians incited militias to attack supporters of rivals and populations unlikely to vote for them. It also took the flagrant form of planned, organised direct brutality by police. Killings totalled some 1,300 people in 2013, with reputable groups reporting that police had directly targeted people uninvolved in demonstrations, firing live rounds and gas canisters into the flimsy shacks of the poor.

The accumulation of great wealth in conditions of wide and deep poverty was a form of violence in itself. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) assessed Kenya’s Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI) around 2016 at .377 (below highly inequitable South Africa on .428 and Botswana on .431, not to say very equitable Iceland on .846). It also found that 36% of Kenya’s population experienced ‘multidimensional poverty’, and 46% of those people suffered ‘intense deprivation’, according to its Human Development Report 2016. Kenya’s gross national income (GNI) per capita was $2,881 at purchasing power parity. President Uhuru Kenyatta stood at or near the country’s pinnacle. He had acquired what was termed the ‘fabulous wealth’ of his father, founding President Jomo Kenyatta, and regularly features on the lists of the wealthiest Africans. His family was said to own half a million acres of land, and has interests in banking, property, an airline and a television network, according to The Economist in 2013.

Organised, unscrupulous accumulation has raged. After independence in 1963, according to John Githongo, Kenyatta and his Kikuyu inner circle, ‘steadily plundered the country’. His death in 1978 was followed by the rule of Daniel arap Moi, who declared that his philosophy was walking in the “Footsteps”. When he stood down at the end of 2002, he and his cronies had then looted some $3 billion. His successor, Mwai Kibaki, ‘pledged to root out corruption’, but his ‘Mount Kenya mafia’ of Kikuyu politicians simply replaced Moi’s Kalenjin syndicate.

While the ruling elite enjoyed access to state resources and foreign aid, the poor had grown into ‘an army of discontent’: most survived on a dollar a day, and the bulk of Nairobi’s population ‘lived in fetid slums.’ The Luo of western Kenya ‘felt especially aggrieved’, from exclusion from power for forty years and long government neglect. In the approach to national elections at the end of 2007, ‘a tidal wave of resentment [arose] against the Mount Kenya mafia,’ according to Martin Meredith in 2011. Raila Odinga, son of Oginga Odinga, stood as a candidate in a Nairobi constituency that included the large Kibera slum, and could credibly appear as a champion of the poor and marginalised.

When so much flows from winning elections, the costs, financial and otherwise, are extremely high. The ruling elite protects its position in part by extending the spoils system to all MPs. The 500 or so parliamentarians (National Assembly and Senate) are among the highest paid in the world, enjoying a monthly salary in 2013 of about $10,000, plus generous perks and benefits. For those lucky enough to be employed, the average incomes were below $2,000 a year. And it deploys violence on a wide, regular and variegated scale.

Extrajudicial Killings, Assassinations and Disappearances

Particular forms of violence target specific individuals and groups. One such is extrajudicial killings. Mathare is a low-income district of Nairobi, and the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) issued a report in mid-August 2017 ‘documenting dozens of extrajudicial killings by police over the past two years.’ The Centre said there had been a ‘normalization’ of these actions, as ‘entrenched impunity continues’ (as noted by Maria Burnett, HRW Africa in August 2017).

Killings are sometimes flagrant. The shooting of Oscar Kingara and John Oulo came in a car on a busy street in central Nairobi in March 2009: ‘the assailants kept firing into the air to keep bystanders away until they were sure both men were dead’. Kingara was the founder and director of the Oscar Foundation, and Oulo was its programme coordinator. The Foundation provided free legal aid clinics, and it had ‘made its name investigating police abuses’: since 2007 it had reported 1,721 extrajudicial killings, and 6,452 enforced disappearances by police. Many of these killings were allegedly by members of the shadowy Mungiki gang, which Xan Rice said had been used by President Kibaki’s party during the 2007 electoral violence. Kingara and Oulo had briefed Philip Alston, a UN special rapporteur, during his investigations in Kenya in February 2009. Alston found strong evidence of ‘systematic, widespread and carefully planned extrajudicial executions undertaken on a regular basis.’ He noted that the Mungiki gang were actually police acting on the explicit orders of their superiors. And he praised the analyses done by the Oscar Foundation (Rice, Guardian Online, 6 March 2009).

Political assassinations are another area where Kenyan state agencies excel. One of the first killings in independent Kenya occurred on 24 February 1965, when Pio Gama Pinto, a left-wing journalist and associate of Vice President Oginga Odinga, was shot dead in his Nairobi home: this was a time of rising Cold War tensions in the country, and increasing pressures on Odinga from within the ruling party (Odinga, Not Yet Uhuru, 1965, 250-300). Tom Mboya, shot on 5 July 1969, and J.M. Kariuki, murdered in March 1975, were two others.

A recent killing was Chris Msando, one of the most senior officials of the Independent Election and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), who had a key role developing a new electronic ballot and voter registration system. He was one of only ‘a handful of people in Kenya who knew both the login information and the physical location of the servers that w[ould] run the highly digetised [2017] election.’ He was kidnapped, tortured and murdered, and his mutilated body abandoned in a forest outside Nairobi, just before the polls opened. Msando had received death threats, had reported them to the police, but had no security protection. His body was reportedly missing an arm and was still bleeding at the morgue, as reported by Naniala Nyabola and Jason Burke in Aljazeera and Guardian, 1 August 2017.

And there is the violence directed at the people en masse as voters and citizens. Corruption, elitist tribalism and electoral turmoil are here interlinked and regularised. Late in the 2007-2008 election, it appeared that change unanticipated by the incumbents was occurring: Kibaki’s cronies were being thrown out in the parliamentary polling, Odinga’s party was capturing 95 out of a total of 210 seats, and winning in six out of eight provinces. The old guard around President Kibaki set about rigging the result in the presidential race. By 30 December glaring disparities were evident in the voting figures released at constituency level and those presented by the electoral commission in Nairobi. Kibaki was declared winner by only 232,000 votes (enough to avoid a second round) and hurriedly sworn in. According to John Githongo (quoted by Michela Wrong 2009 and by Meredith), the Mount Kenya mafia possessed ‘a huge network of civil servants, intelligence agents, generals and police chiefs to do their bidding.’

‘High-level politicians from all sides’ mobilised ethnic militias for violence in which, over thirty days, more than 1,000 people were killed and 3,000 injured. In protracted talks, Kibaki and Odinga reached a settlement where the former remained president and the latter would be prime minister in a coalition government. Adekeye Adebajo said that the country ‘came within a whisker’ of being plunged into civil war (Business Live, 9 February 2020). From within a wider pool, the looting continued.

The 2017 Presidential Elections

Donors had given some $24 million to a new electronic voting system for 2017. On 11 August the IEBC announced that Kenyatta had won another five-year term with over 54% of the vote. Observer groups, including the Carter Centre, led by ex-State Secretary John Kerry, rushed to endorse the results, and declared they had no evidence of significant fraud. Departing soon after, Kerry praised the IEBC for “an extraordinary job”, and even felt able to admonish the opposition to “get over it and move on.”

On 18 August Odinga, leader of the opposition National Super Alliance (NASA), petitioned the Supreme Court to annul the vote. He claimed that nearly half of all votes cast had been tampered with: secret, unofficial polling stations had transmitted false votes to the IEBC; NASA’s official observers had been expelled from polling stations in Kenyatta’s strongholds. On 29 August, the registrar of the Supreme Court reported that some five million votes were unverified.

Soon after, the six-judge bench of the Supreme Court, in a four-two decision, ruled that the vote had been hacked and manipulated in favour of the incumbent. The electoral commission had committed “illegalities and irregularities”. The election was invalid, and they ordered a new vote within 60 days (Jason Burke, 2 September 2017).

Many noted that the courts in Kenya had long been subservient to the executive. Odinga accurately hailed an “exceptional example for all of Africa”: it would certainly be impossible to imagine a similar decision being made, for instance, in Botswana, where the judiciary regularly defers to presidential power (When the present writer was declared a prohibited immigrant in Kenya in 2005, he appealed on the grounds of freedom of speech enshrined in the constitution, but the High Court determined that the President had the power to do what he did, and nothing more was to be said.) There were many “fundamental decisions” that now had to be made, including “who will conduct the next election?’ It was clear, Odinga said, that “the entire electoral commission is rotten,” quoted by Burke 2 September 2017.

In Kenya, as in many other African countries, power is highly centralised in the presidency, facilitating the execution of violence. During the two-stage 2017 presidential elections, in August and the re-run on 26 October, severe assault was directed at women and girls. Rape by state security agents occurred. As before, the state deployed large numbers of well-equipped paramilitary units in opposition areas in anticipation of violence, and to mete it out themselves, as deterrent and punishment: they carried guns, batons, tear gas cannisters, and often wore helmets and body armour.

In a report of 14 December that year, ‘They Were Men in Uniform’, HRW identified the police as perpetrators. In investigations carried out between September and November 2017, HRW reported widespread violence directed at the vulnerable both for their gender and their ethnicity: to ‘punish the individual and their communities for the way they voted’ and their suspected allegiances. They documented cases of vaginal and anal rape, gang rape, mass rape, and rape with an object. ‘About half’ of their reported cases were gang rapes. Sexual violence was intended to have, a wide and ‘devastating impact’: many experienced injuries and other consequences leaving some unable to work, care for themselves and for families, or handle schooling. ‘Profound mental trauma’ was common. With their history of human rights abuses, contacting the police was not a viable option for most victims.

The Report provides graphic details of the assaults endured by the victims, and makes clear that the rapist police aimed at political repression. This was what Josephine Anyango experienced in Nairobi on 5 October 2017: “It was the Saturday after Uhuru was announced the winner. Guns were ringing all over. There was tear gas all over. They broke the gate to our plot. They were men dressed in uniform. They were just beating people…They were saying, ‘Come out now and throw stones.’ I heard women crying, saying, ‘Don’t rape me’. Three came to my house, beat me seriously, and raped me.”

Rose Otieno, 37, was in her house with her five children on the night of 11 August. She said that two men dressed in green and black uniforms, boots and helmets, broke into my house. “One asked me to say, ‘I don’t support Raila, I support Uhuru’. I refused. The one with the gun slapped me and told me to shut up. The other said, ‘Let’s teach her a lesson.’ He raped me in the presence of my children.”

Georgina Musa went to buy groceries on Saturday afternoon 12 August, when she “saw three policemen. They wore helmets, had guns and teargas. I started running…One ripped off my clothes. I told him, ‘I could be your mother.’ He slapped me, kicked me, and raped me as the others were watching. They took 200 shillings ($2) from me. One told me, ‘Go and tell Baba [Odinga]’”

Doris Syombua was at her bar on the night of 11 August, and she was trembling with fear. Three policemen in uniform broke the door and entered. “One raped me in the front [vaginally] and the other at the back [anally].”

In about one-third of the cases documented by HRW, women and girls were raped in the presence of other family members including young children.

Jackline Mkamburi was at home with her three children and husband on the night of 11 August. Three men wearing police uniforms burst in. They raped her before her husband and children. They said, “This is our government and there is nothing you can do to us.”

Several women in Dandora in Nairobi told HRW that their rapists threatened, ‘We will come back in the night to rape and kill’.

The assaults were devastating. Most survivors experienced heavy pains and aches. On 11 August at about 11 a.m., Gladys Moraa went to help her neighbour’s young child who had been hit with a teargas cannister. Amid confusion, she tripped and fell. “A police officer kicked me on my upper back with his booted feet. I couldn’t move. He raped me and left. Another one came, kicked me on the stomach and back, and raped me. I thought I would die.” Grace Kungu was raped on 12 August on her way from work. “They took me to an unfinished building and all four raped me in front and behind. Since that day…I take pain killers all the time.”

Many of the women and girls interviewed by HRW spoke of ‘feelings of shame, anger, hopelessness, self-hatred, fear and anxiety, sleeplessness, and suicidal thoughts.’ Janet Kiptoo, 16 years, and her 15-year-old cousin, Darlene Chemutai, were raped by two men at gunpoint. The men beat, harassed, and tortured them for almost two hours. She told HRW: “I don’t know if it will ever end. I have no peace…I should just die.”

‘Almost all survivors’ worry if their rapists had infected them with HIV, and that ‘their families will find out that they are rape victims. The women were particularly concerned ‘about the emotional state of children who had witnessed the sexual violence.’ Their traumas were compounded by the fact that ‘many of them suffer alone in silence’.

Pamela Wambua was raped by four GSU men at gunpoint on 11 August. She said: “I remember the rape all the time. It disturbs my mind…It’s like you are in a different world”.

The country’s history of impunity negates people’s confidence in the police. Grace Kungu did not report her assault to the police because “They are the same people who rape us.” Neema Abdul never went to the police. “The men who raped me wore green uniform. They stole my phone and 15,000 shillings” ($146). Purity Onyancha went to the police to report her daughter’s rape. “The police said if I don’t know the rapist, they won’t open a file… I realised we were not going to get help, so I told my daughter we leave.”

The denial and the immunity continued. HRW launched their report, ‘They Were Men in Uniform’, in Nairobi in mid-December 2017, and Senior Researcher, Agnes Odhiambo, detailed their findings. The Inspector General of Police, Joseph Boinnet, stated that the organisation had fabricated their evidence, and rejected the report out of hand.

But the evidence came from disparate sources and was huge. Mathare was a district of densely packed shacks, home to some 250,000 poor people. The MSJC ‘counted 803 reports’ of police killings in the community between 2013-2015, and had ‘documented dozens of these’. A survey by the International Police Association, an American group, ranked the Kenyan police as the third worst in Africa, after those in Congo DRC and Nigeria, The Economist, 10 March 2018.

HRW’s study of police violence in the August stage of the 2017 elections estimated that some 67 people had probably been killed then nationally, 33 killed in Nairobi alone. Most shot or beaten to death, others killed by teargas and pepper-spray fired at close range. The government’s so-called ‘Contingency Plan’ had identified ‘hotspots’, where violence was most likely: these were ‘all opposition strongholds in ethnic majority Luo and Luhya areas.’ Police and paramilitaries were deployed ‘in large numbers…ahead of the polling.’ Such deployments, HRW said, fuelled political tensions, and ‘exacerbated the unrest that followed the announcement of the results’. The protests which resulted faced shootings and people being ‘beaten to death on the street and in house-to-house searches’. The ‘hotspots’ were actually the informal settlements or shanty towns, among them Mathare, Kibera, Dandora, where 2.5 million of Nairobi’s 3 million population, lived: heavily deprived communities, where typhoid and cholera were common, and unemployment was around 50%. HRW reported that police destroyed cameras and phones, beat photographers, and arrested journalists. ‘In many cases,’ victims and family members did not report violations and deaths ‘because they feared retribution from police’ (‘“Kill Those Criminals”: Kenya’s August 2017 Elections’, (n.d.) 2-4 and 12.

The Worsening of the Oppression

Legally and politically, nothing improved following the annulment. On the account of two senior American diplomats, in the approach to the second round of the presidential election at the end of October, and its aftermath, the Kenyatta government and its supporters ‘waged an onslaught against both the courts and the IEBC. Judges were threatened, with one surviving an assassination attempt. IEBC commissioners were menaced or offered bribes’. Kenyatta won the re-run, but the diplomats felt that Kenyatta and Odinga each commanded roughly half the electorate. Turnout was only 38%, partly because Odinga had withdrawn in protest against the absence of change in the IEBC which he had previously identified as essential. He concentrated on staging a swearing-in of himself as a so-called ‘People’s President’. The government reacted with ‘fury’, said the diplomats, to these theatricals: NASA officials were ‘harassed, threatened, detained, and deported’. Nairobi’s three main TV stations were taken off the air when they attempted to broadcast Odinga’s event. The Inspector General of Police repeatedly refused to comply with orders to release detainees and cease all unconstitutional actions. Kenyatta and Ruto, they said, were challenging the rule of law and embracing dictatorial rule. Mark Bellamy and Johnnie Carson (Guest Column, allAfrica.com 27 February 2018).

The Roots of Violence, Authoritarianism and Oppression

The roots of conflict lie decades deep in Kenyan society: stemming most actively from the ascendancy of a Kikuyu landed, ‘Loyalist’ elite in the last decades of settler colonialism, and the associated uprising of landless Kikuyu striving for ‘Land and Freedom’, the Mau Mau movement. But it had deeper origins much earlier, in the beginnings of Kenya colony. The conquest and control of Kenya was brutal, characterised by systematic killing and destruction, and the seizure of crops and stock. By the late 1920s, government and settlers in Kenya had forced the African population to play its assigned role as a cheap wage-labour force. By 1952 some 9,000 settlers had exclusive rights to 16,700 square miles of land, while several million Africans tried to exist on congested reserves, as contract labourers on white farms, and as un- and semi-skilled labourers in the towns.

The former were largely the constitutional-nationalists in the Kenya African Union (KAU), formed in 1945, while the latter were a disparate formation of Kikuyu ex-servicemen some of whom had close trade union connections: Fred Kubai and Makhan Singh of the East African Trade Union Congress held an 18-day general strike in Nairobi in May 1950. A polarisation grew between the moderate nationalist KAU, and the young militants, particularly over secretive political mobilisation. Kenyatta had returned home in 1946 after 13 years absence, and assumed the presidency of KAU: he believed that politics was for elders and that the young militants endangered society.

At midnight on 20-21 October 1952 a State of Emergency was declared by Governor Evelyn Baring. It was intended to decapitate Mau Mau, but Kenyatta, deeply opposed to militancy, was an immediate detainee. Not for the last time, colonialism got it badly wrong: Kenyatta was far from being “the leader to darkness and death”. Arrested too were Bildad Kaggia, Fred Kubai and Achieng Oneko. Of the five members of KAU’s national executive arrested then, three were trade union leaders, and further arrests followed of many lower-level organisers in Nairobi. The effects of these losses were to deprive the Mau Mau movement of skilled personnel with experience in modern political organisation, and to narrow the composition of the insurgents: to poor peasants, unskilled workers, and people with only basic primary education. (The historical material here builds on ‘Kenya’ ch.2 in Good, The Struggle of Democratisation Against Authoritarianism in Contemporary Africa, 2019.) By the end of 1952, 121 loyalist Kikuyu had been murdered (David Anderson, Histories of the Hanged, 2005, 70). Fearful and outraged, well-armed settlers initiated a wide-scale, extra-judicial open season against Kikuyu.

But it was an unplanned uprising, and Britain had taken the militants by surprise. They had few weapons and no established lines of supply. They had a strong network of support among the Kikuyu, but no military structures, no initial strategy, and no established forest bases (Anderson, 68). Britain’s imperial military power was overwhelming. When the Emergency was declared, Britain had a cruiser stationed off Mombasa. As of June 1953, it had deployed a squadron of Lincoln heavy bombers, an armoured car division, eleven battalions of British, East African and Kenyan troops, totalling over 10,000 soldiers; a police force of 21,000, and the paramilitary Kikuyu Home Guard: the British and Kenyan governments were utilising ‘a force of well over 50,000 against the insurgents’ (Barnett and Njama, Mau Mau From Within, 1966, 312). Yet Dedan Kimathi, a leading Mau Mau commander, was not captured until October 1956.

The Struggle in the Forests

An aggressive colonial strategy followed the arrival of a new Commander-in-Chief, General Sir George Erskine, in June 1953. Five tracks were cut into the Aberdares by Royal Engineers and forced Kikuyu labour, and battalion-strength bases were established within the forest fringe from which sweeps and cordon operations were launched. Military power was only part of the offensive. The oppression of the general population was deepened. The Kikuyu reserve became a Special Area where anyone failing to halt when challenged could be shot, and in the forests of Mt Kenya and Nyandarua, all unauthorised Africans were to be shot on sight. In addition, in ‘a 100-mile strip of land, from one to three miles in width, lying between the forests and the reserve, huts and granaries were burned, peasants evicted and crops slashed.

After almost a year and a half of fighting, with vastly superior power and extreme political ruthlessness, the government had not defeated the guerrillas (Barnett and Njama, 225, 330). But by the last half of 1954, the forest fighters were increasingly isolated and divided. They were critically short of arms. Importantly, they were being alienated from the Kikuyu peasantry, enduring the full weight of colonial repression (Barnett and Njama, 375). By the end of 1955 only some 1,500 fighters remained in the Aberdares. Kimathi was captured in October 1956, after which he was tried, hanged and buried in an unmarked grave in quick succession.

The Swynnerton Plan and the Gulag

Britain’s anti-colonial war took place on many inter-related fronts. Caroline Elkins believes that in total some 320,000 people were detained (Britain’s Gulag, 2005, xi). A massive Villagization of the Kikuyu was enforced. 800 enclosed villages were established throughout Kikuyu territory, controlled by a Home Guard of 15,000 in early 1953, cutting off the Mau Mau-fish from the water of a supportive free peasantry. A Loyalist was then a Kikuyu who served on the British side against Mau Mau, and received in return ‘the best of everything’, in grants of large and fertile land, trading licences, tax exemptions and, not least, ‘carte blanche to settle old scores with Mau Mau neighbours’ (Elkins, 72).

The creation of Britain’s Loyalists dove-tailed with the programme to promote a class of rich peasants and aspirant rural capitalists as long-term social bulwark against the landless peasantry in the central highlands. This programme took full shape in the Swynnerton Plan for African commercial agriculture in December 1953. It consolidated land and conferred legal ownership on recipients, and poorer Kikuyu ‘knew full well’ that this would ‘benefit their wealthier, loyalist neighbours and lead inevitably to their own further impoverishment.’ Colonialism was creating ‘permanent socioeconomic divisions within Kikuyu society…along the fault line between loyalist and Mau Mau’ (Elkins, 127). Divisions not absent today between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga and their respective supporters.

Still the defeat of Mau Mau did not come quickly or easily. Operation Anvil on 24 April 1954 detained Nairobi’s entire African population, and screened all Kikuyu, Embu and Meru. This was the start of Britain’s Gulag, a complex process built on brainwashing and torture, with a pipeline of screening and classification, parts of it manned by life-determining hooded loyalist invigilators (Elkins, ch.5). Yet even ‘behind the wire’, Mau Mau tried to maintain their political consciousness and their organisation, within a system where violence was ‘intrinsic’ (Anderson, 2005, 316). ‘Humiliation, concentrated, continuous and consistent’ was the principal operational element (words of Kaggia, Kubai, Joseph Murumbi and Oneko, Barnett and Njama, 9). In the course of the Emergency, 1,090 Kikuyu were sent to the gallows, double the number of insurgent executions in French Algeria then, and ‘many more than in all the other British colonial emergencies’, Malaya, Cyprus, et.al, at this time (Anderson, 7). Additionally, Britain claimed to have killed 11,000 Mau Mau in action: measures of their great capacity to endure and resist. By October 1956 they had lost 17,000, most killed in action, casualties ‘heavier than any regular army could have sustained’ (Julie Macarthur, Dedan Kimathi on Trial, 2017, 275). Altogether, Elkins suggests that ‘perhaps hundreds of thousands’ of Kikuyu were killed (xiv).

The price of the repression was huge, especially through the socio-political costs of the elevation of the loyalists, and the gulf created between them and the militants. Timing was still critical before Britain could confidently devolve power to the moderate/constitutional nationalists. The State of Emergency remained in force until January 1960. Only in June 1955 were political parties permitted, then only at district level. No parties at all were allowed in Central province. British colonial policy was to ‘prolong the State of Emergency in Kenya and to delay the release of some of us until long after the Emergency ended.’ The Restriction Order imposed on Kaggia was not revoked until 17 November 1961. A collaborative leadership was given priority to establish its social base, and it would ensure that ‘none of the ex-detainees had any chance of coming to the top’ (Kaggia, Roots of Freedom, 1975, 120-182).

Kenyatta was brought home by slow stages. From Lokitaung, in the far north, he was moved to Lodwar, then to Maralal. On 14 August 1961 he arrived home in Gatundu in Kiambu. The cadre of colleagues assembled around Kenyatta at the top of the (now) Kenyan African National Union (KANU), formed 27 March 1960, were solidly moderate and anti-militant. Former rebels like Kaggia, Kubai and Waruhiu Itote (ex-General China) were briefly accorded junior ministries in Kenyatta’s first government. But the gulf between them and him was total. After earlier declaring that his would not be ‘a gangster government’, in September 1962 he affirmed: “Mau Mau was a disease which had been eradicated, and must never be remembered again” (Kenyatta, Suffering Without Bitterness, 1968, 147,189). General elections next year swept Kenyatta into high office. Britain’s aim of handing power to constitutional nationalists had finally been achieved.

Kenya remained tied to Britain by many economic, military and strategic arrangements. Whites did not flee from Kenya as the colons did then from Algeria: about 400,000 settlers left Algeria between March and June 1962, and eventually out of a colon population of one million, about 900,000 departed. The numbers of settlers in Kenya initially dropped from some 61,000 in 1960, but remained at 42,000 in 1965. Britain retained influence.

But the militants did not easily forget the price paid by ordinary people. Kaggia soon resigned as parliamentary secretary in education, saying he “found it very difficult to forget the freedom fighters who gave all they had, including their land, for the independence we are enjoying.” Kaggia, Odinga, and Pinto were all critical of Kenyatta’s own acquisition of large farms. Kenyatta both endorsed the normality of naked self-interest and publicly ridiculed Kaggia’s militant principles and solidarity with the poor: speaking with him before a large meeting in Murang’a in April 1965: “We were together with Paul Ngei in jail. If you go to Ngei’s home, he has planted a lot of coffee and other crops—what have you done for yourself? If you go to Kubai’s home, he has a big house and a nice shamba—Kaggia what have you done for yourself?” (quoted in Good, 1968, ‘Kenyatta and the De-Organisation of KANU’, 132-133). Pinto was killed in Nairobi on 24 February just two months earlier. In the middle of the year, Odinga finally broke with Kenyatta and the ruling party, resigned as Vice President, and helped form the Kenya People’s Union (KPU).

It remains difficult for Raila Odinga, NASA and their supporters to follow John Kerry’s uninformed advice of 2017 to ‘move on’. The past is not really passed. Thousands of survivors of the forest fighting and the detention camps were then pressing claims for compensation from Britain for what they had endured: 5,000 of them were awarded 20 million British pounds in 2013, and 40,000 others were claiming 200 million more (Cahal Milmo, Independent Online, 23 November, 2014).

The Continuance of the Repression

There was no letup in the killing of the poor in Nairobi at the end of 2019 and early 2020. Since Christmas Day police shot dead at least eight people in Mathare, Kasarani and Majengo, as they ‘continued to kill crime suspects and protesters in cold blood’. As HRW showed, there was ‘a longstanding pattern of excessive force and unlawful killings in Nairobi’s low-income neighbourhoods.’ Legitimate protest at lamentable living conditions and against authority’s brutality was suppressed. Among the eight victims were Peter Irungu, 19, and Brian Mung’aru, 20, both shot dead while kneeling and pleading with police. Then on 26 December police attacked a protest over the young men’s killing, using live ammunition, tear gas and beatings. In a protest on 15 January in Kasarani over bad road conditions, police fired on protesters and residents, and shot dead Stephen Machurusi, 19, while kneeling and pleading for his life. He was trying to get to work, uninvolved in the demonstration, but according to a witness, one officer “just shot him at close range in the chest”. The Independent Policing Oversight Authority (IPOA) announced on 24 January that they had recorded abuses and killings by police numbering 3,200 in 2019. This was being done in the name of ‘maintaining law and order in Nairobi’s informal settlements’ (HRW, ‘No Letup in Killings by Nairobi Police’, 20 February 2020).

The Controllers of the Killing Game

Prominent among their number, not just for his longevity, was the recently deceased Daniel arap Moi. He made his mark quickly. He pushed through a one-party state in 1982, and when a coup attempt followed by air-force personnel, he arrested the entire 2,000-strong force: some ‘were never seen again’. Ruthlessness prevailed. Thousands of activists were consigned to underground torture chambers in Nyayo House in central Nairobi, and a popular foreign minister, Robert Ouko, ‘was killed in one of Moi’s residencies in 1990.’ He acquired large tracts of farmland in the Rift Valley. The West tolerated his repression as ‘a bulwark against communism’. When the Soviet Union collapsed, he restored multipartyism, and won elections in 1992 and 1997. His legacy will persist beyond 4 February: corruption, tribalism and, as noted, the unrelenting repression of the poor. ‘Most of today’s top politicians served under him’, including Uhuru Kenyatta since 2013 (The Economist, 8 February 2020 and Reuters, Guardian Online, 4 February 2020).

 

The post The Killing and Raping Game in Kenya and the Despots Who Run It appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

How ‘Bernie Bros’ Were Invented, Then Smeared as Sexist, Racist and unAmerican as Borscht

The Democratic presidential nomination race is a fascinating case study in how power works – not least, because the Democratic party leaders are visibly contriving to impose one candidate, Joe Biden, as the party’s nominee, even as it becomes clear that he is no longer mentally equipped to run a local table tennis club let alone the world’s most powerful nation.

Biden’s campaign is a reminder that power is indivisible. Donald Trump or Joe Biden for president – it doesn’t matter to the power-establishment. An egomaniacal man-child (Trump), representing the billionaires, or an elder suffering rapid neurological degeneration (Biden), representing the billionaires, are equally useful to power. A woman will do too, or a person of colour. The establishment is no longer worried about who stands on stage – so long as that person is not a Bernie Sanders in the US, or a Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.

It really isn’t about who the candidates are – hurtful as that may sound to some in our identity-saturated times. It is about what the candidate might try to do once in office. In truth, the very fact that nowadays we are allowed to focus on identity to our heart’s content should be warning enough that the establishment is only too keen for us to exhaust our energies in promoting divisions based on those identities. What concerns it far more is that we might overcome those divisions and unify against it, withdrawing our consent from an establishment committed to endless asset-stripping of our societies and the planet.

Neither Biden nor Trump will obstruct the establishment, because they are at its very heart. The Republican and Democratic leaderships are there to ensure that, before a candidate gets selected to compete in the parties’ name, he or she has proven they are power-friendly. Two candidates, each vetted for obedience to power.

Although a pretty face or a way with words are desirable, incapacity and incompetence are no barrier to qualifying, as the two white men groomed by their respective parties demonstrate. Both have proved they will favour the establishment, both will pursue near-enough the same policies, both are committed to the status quo, both have demonstrated their indifference to the future of life on Earth. What separates the candidates is not real substance, but presentation styles – the creation of the appearance of difference, of choice.

Policing the debate

The subtle dynamics of how the Democratic nomination race is being rigged are interesting. Especially revealing are the ways the Democratic leadership protects establishment power by policing the terms of debate: what can be said, and what can be thought; who gets to speak and whose voices are misrepresented or demonised. Manipulation of language is key.

As I pointed out in my previous post, the establishment’s power derives from its invisibility. Scrutiny is kryptonite to power.

The only way we can interrogate power is through language, and the only way we can communicate our conclusions to others is through words – as I am doing right now. And therefore our strength – our ability to awaken ourselves from the trance of power – must be subverted by the establishment, transformed into our Achilles’ heel, a weakness.

The treatment of Bernie Sanders and his supporters by the Democratic establishment – and those who eagerly repeat its talking points – neatly illustrates how this can be done in manifold ways.

Remember this all started back in 2016, when Sanders committed the unforgivable sin of challenging the Democratic leadership’s right simply to anoint Hillary Clinton as the party’s presidential candidate. In those days, the fault line was obvious and neat: Bernie was a man, Clinton a woman. She would be the first woman president. The only party members who might wish to deny her that historic moment, and back Sanders instead, had to be misogynist men. They were supposedly venting their anti-women grudge against Clinton, who in turn was presented to women as a symbol of their oppression by men.

And so was born a meme: the “Bernie Bros”. It rapidly became shorthand for suggesting – contrary to all evidence – that Sanders’ candidacy appealed chiefly to angry, entitled white men. In fact, as Sanders’ 2020 run has amply demonstrated, support for him has been more diverse than for the many other Democratic candidates who sought the nomination.

So important what @ewarren is saying to @maddow about the dangerous, threatening, ugly faction among the Bernie supporters. Sanders either cannot or will not control them. pic.twitter.com/LYDXlLJ7bi

— Mia Farrow (@MiaFarrow) March 6, 2020

How contrived the 2016 identity-fuelled contest was should have been clear, had anyone been allowed to point that fact out. This wasn’t really about the Democratic leadership respecting Clinton’s identity as a woman. It was about them paying lip service to her identity as a woman, while actually promoting her because she was a reliable warmonger and Wall Street functionary. She was useful to power.

If the debate had really been driven by identity politics, Sanders had a winning card too: he is Jewish. That meant he could be the United States’ first Jewish president. In a fair identity fight, it would have been a draw between the two. The decision about who should represent the Democratic party would then have had to be decided based on policies, not identity. But party leaders did not want Clinton’s actual policies, or her political history, being put under the microscope for very obvious reasons.

Weaponisation of identity

The weaponisation of identity politics is even more transparent in 2020. Sanders is still Jewish, but his main opponent, Joe Biden, really is simply a privileged white man. Were the Clinton format to be followed again by Democratic officials, Sanders would enjoy an identity politics trump card. And yet Sanders is still being presented as just another white male candidate, no different from Biden.

(We could take this argument even further and note that the other candidate who no one, least of all the Democratic leadership, ever mentions as still in the race is Tulsi Gabbard, a woman of colour. The Democratic party has worked hard to make her as invisible as possible in the primaries because, of all the candidates, she is the most vocal and articulate opponent of foreign wars. That has deprived her of the chance to raise funds and win delegates.)

.@DanaPerino I'm not quite sure why you're telling FOX viewers that Elizabeth Warren is the last female candidate in the Dem primary. Is it because you believe a fake indigenous woman of color is "real" and the real indigenous woman of color in this race is fake? pic.twitter.com/VKCxy2JzFe

— Tulsi Gabbard ???? (@TulsiGabbard) March 3, 2020

 

Sanders’ Jewish identity isn’t celebrated because he isn’t useful to the power-establishment. What’s far more important to them – and should be to us too – are his policies, which might limit their power to wage war, exploit workers and trash the planet.

But it is not just that Democratic Party leaders are ignoring Sanders’ Jewish identity. They are also again actively using identity politics against him, and in many different ways.

The ‘black’ establishment?

Bernie Sanders’ supporters have been complaining for some time – based on mounting evidence – that the Democratic leadership is far from neutral between Sanders and Biden. Because it has a vested interest in the outcome, and because it is the part of the power-establishment, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is exercising its influence in favour of Biden. And because power prefers darkness, the DNC is doing its best to exercise that power behind the scenes, out of sight – at least, unseen by those who still rely on the “mainstream” corporate media, which is also part of the power-establishment. As should be clear to anyone watching, the nomination proceedings are being controlled to give Biden every advantage and to obstruct Sanders.

But the Democratic leadership is not only dismissing out of hand these very justified complaints from Bernie Sanders’ supporters but also turning these complaints against them, as further evidence of their – and his – illegitimacy. A new way of doing this emerged in the immediate wake of Biden winning South Carolina on the back of strong support from older black voters – Biden’s first state win and a launchpad for his Super Tuesday bid a few days later.

It was given perfect expression from Symone Sanders, who despite her surname is actually a senior adviser to Biden’s campaign. She is also black. This is what she wrote: “People who keep referring to Black voters as ‘the establishment’ are tone deaf and have obviously learned nothing.”

People who keep referring to Black voters as “the establishment” are tone deaf and have obviously learned nothing.

— Symone D. Sanders (@SymoneDSanders) March 3, 2020

 

Her reference to generic “people” was understood precisely by both sides of the debate as code for those “Bernie Bros”. Now, it seems, Bernie Sanders’ supporters are not simply misogynists, they are potential recruits to the Ku Klux Klan.

The tweet went viral, even though in the fiercely contested back-and-forth below her tweet no one could produce a single example of anyone actually saying anything like the sentiment ascribed by Symone Sanders to “Bernie Bros”. But then, tackling bigotry was not her real goal. This wasn’t meant to be a reflection on a real-world talking-point by Bernie supporters. It was high-level gaslighting by a senior Democratic party official of the party’s own voters.

Survival of the fittest smear

What Symone Sanders was really trying to do was conceal power – the fact that the DNC is seeking to impose its chosen candidate on party members. As occurred during the confected women-men, Clinton vs “Bernie Bros” confrontation, Symone Sanders was field-testing a similar narrative management tool as part of the establishment’s efforts to hone it for improved effect. The establishment has learnt – through a kind of survival of the fittest smear – that divide-and-rule identity politics is the perfect way to shield its influence as it favours a status-quo candidate (Biden or Clinton) over a candidate seen as a threat to its power (Sanders).

In her tweet, Symone Sanders showed exactly how the power elite seeks to obscure its toxic role in our societies. She neatly conflated “the establishment” – of which she is a very small, but well-paid component – with ordinary “black voters”. Her message is this: should you try to criticise the establishment (which has inordinate power to damage lives and destroy the planet) we will demonise you, making it seem that you are really attacking black people (who in the vast majority of cases – though Symone Sanders is a notable exception – wield no power at all).

Symone Sanders has recruited her own blackness and South Carolina’s “black voters” as a ring of steel to protect the establishment. Cynically, she has turned poor black people, as well as the tens of thousands of people (presumably black and white) who liked her tweet, into human shields for the establishment.

It sounds a lot uglier put like that. But it has rapidly become a Biden talking-point, as we can see here:

NEW: @JoeBiden responds to @berniesanders saying the “establishment” is trying to defeat him.

“The establishment are all those hardworking, middle class people, those African Americans…they are the establishment!” @CBSNews pic.twitter.com/43Q2Nci5sS

— Bo Erickson CBS (@BoKnowsNews) March 4, 2020

 

The DNC’s wider strategy is to confer on Biden exclusive rights to speak for black voters (despite his inglorious record on civil rights issues) and, further, to strip Sanders and his senior black advisers of any right to do so. When Sanders protests about this, or about racist behaviour from the Biden camp, Biden’s supporters come out in force and often abusively, though of course no one is upbraiding them for their ugly, violent language. Here is the famous former tennis player Martina Navratilova showing that maybe we should be talking about “Biden Bros”:

Sanders is starting to really piss me off. Just shut this kind of crap down and debate the issues. This is not it.

— Martina Navratilova (@Martina) March 6, 2020

 

Being unkind to billionaires

This kind of special pleading by the establishment for the establishment – using those sections of it, such as Symone Sanders, that can tap into the identity politics zeitgeist – is far more common than you might imagine. The approach is being constantly refined, often using social media as the ultimate focus group. Symone Sanders’ successful conflation of the establishment with “black voters” follows earlier, clumsier efforts by the establishment to protect its interests against Sanders that proved far less effective.

Billionaires should not exist. https://t.co/hgR6CeFvLa

— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) September 24, 2019

 

Remember how last autumn the billionaire-owned corporate media tried to tell us that it was unkind to criticise billionaires – that they had feelings too and that speaking harshly about them was “dehumanising”. Again it was aimed at Sanders, who had just commented that in a properly ordered world billionaires simply wouldn’t exist. It was an obvious point: allowing a handful of people to control almost all the planet’s wealth was not only depriving the rest of us of that wealth (and harming the planet) but it gave those few billionaires way too much power. They could buy all the media, our channels of communication, and most of the politicians to ringfence their financial interests, gradually eroding even the most minimal democratic protections.

That campaign died a quick death because few of us are actually brainwashed enough to accept the idea that a handful of billionaires share an identity that needs protecting – from us! Most of us are still connected enough to the real world to understand that billionaires are more than capable of looking out for their own interests, without our helping them by imposing on ourselves a vow of silence.

But one cannot fault the power-establishment for being constantly inventive in the search for new ways to stifle our criticisms of the way it unilaterally exercises its power. The Democratic nomination race is testing such ingenuity to the limits. Here’s a new rule against “hateful conduct” on Twitter, where Biden’s neurological deficit is being subjected to much critical scrutiny through the sharing of dozens of videos of embarrassing Biden “senior moments”.

Twitter expanding its hateful conduct rules "to include language that dehumanizes on the basis of age, disability or disease."https://t.co/KmWGaNAG9Z

— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) March 5, 2020

 

Yes, disability and age are identities too. And so, on the pretext of protecting and respecting those identities, social media can now be scrubbed of anything and anyone trying to highlight the mental deficiencies of an old man who might soon be given the nuclear codes and would be responsible for waging wars in the name of Americans. Twitter is full of comments denouncing as “ableist” anyone who tries to highlight how the Democratic leadership is foisting a cognitively challenged Biden on to the party.

Maybe the Dem insiders are all wrong, but it's true that they are saying it. Some are saying it out loud, including Castro at the debate and Booker here: https://t.co/0lbi7RFRqG

— Ryan Grim (@ryangrim) March 6, 2020

 

Russian ‘agents’ and ‘assets’

None of this is to overlook the fact that another variation of identity politics has been weaponised against Sanders: that of failing to be an “American” patriot. Again illustrating how closely the Democratic and Republican leaderships’ interests align, the question of who is a patriot – and who is really working for the “Russians” – has been at the heart of both parties’ campaigns, though for different reasons.

Trump has been subjected to endless, evidence-free claims that he is a secret “Russian agent” in a concerted effort to control his original isolationist foreign policy impulses that might have stripped the establishment – and its military-industrial wing – of the right to wage wars of aggression, and revive the Cold War, wherever it believes a profit can be made under cover of “humanitarian intervention”. Trump partly inoculated himself against these criticisms, at least among supporters, with his “Make America Great Again” slogan, and partly by learning – painfully for such an egotist – that his presidential role was to rubber-stamp decisions made elsewhere about waging wars and projecting US power.

I’m just amazed by this tweet, which has been tweeted plenty. Did @_nalexander and all the people liking this not know that Mueller laid out in the indictments of a number of Russians and in his report their help on social media to Sanders and Trump. Help Sanders has acknowledged https://t.co/vuc0lmvvKP

— Neera Tanden (@neeratanden) December 8, 2019

 

Bernie Sanders has faced similar smear efforts by the establishment, including by the DNC’s last failed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton – in his case, painting him as a “Russian asset”. (“Asset” is a way to suggest collusion with the Kremlin based on even more flimsy evidence than is needed to accuse someone of being an agent.) In fact, in a world where identity politics wasn’t simply a tool to be weaponised by the establishment, there would be real trepidation about engaging in this kind of invective against a Jewish socialist.

One of the far-right’s favourite antisemitic tropes – promoted ever since the publication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion more than 100 years ago – is that Jewish “Bolsheviks” are involved in an international conspiracy to subvert the countries they live in. We have reached the point now that the corporate media are happy to recycle evidence-free claims, cited by the Washington Post, from anonymous “US officials” and US intelligence agencies reinventing a US version of the Protocols against Sanders. And these smears have elicited not a word of criticism from the Democratic leadership nor from the usual antisemitism watchdogs that are so ready to let rip over the slightest signs of what they claim to be antisemitism on the left.

But the urgency of dealing with Sanders may be the reason normal conventions have been discarded. Sanders isn’t a loud-mouth egotist like Trump. A vote for Trump is a vote for the establishment, if for one of its number who pretends to be against the establishment. Trump has been largely tamed in time for a second term. By contrast, Sanders, like Corbyn in the UK, is more dangerous because he may resist the efforts to domesticate him, and because if he is allowed any significant measure of political success – such as becoming a candidate for president – it may inspire others to follow in his footsteps. The system might start to throw up more anomalies, more AOCs and more Ilhan Omars.

So Sanders is now being cast, like Trump, as a puppet of the Kremlin, not a true American. And because he made the serious mistake of indulging the “Russiagate” smears when they were used against Trump, Sanders now has little defence against their redeployment against him. And given that, by the impoverished standards of US political culture, he is considered an extreme leftist, it has been easy to conflate his democratic socialism with Communism, and then conflate his supposed Communism with acting on behalf of the Kremlin (which, of course, ignores the fact that Russia long ago abandoned Communism).

Sen. Bernie Sanders: "Let me tell this to Putin — the American people, whether Republicans, Democrats, independents are sick and tired of seeing Russia and other countries interfering in our elections." pic.twitter.com/ejcP7YVFlt

— The Hill (@thehill) February 21, 2020

 

Antisemitism smear at the ready

There is a final use of weaponised identity politics that the Democratic establishment would dearly love to use against Sanders, if they need to and can get away with it. It is the most toxic brand – and therefore the most effective – of the identity-based smears, and it has been extensively field-tested in the UK against Jeremy Corbyn to great success. The DNC would like to denounce Sanders as an antisemite.

In fact, only one thing has held them back till now: the fact that Sanders is Jewish. That may not prove an insuperable obstacle, but it does make it much harder to make the accusation look credible. The other identity-based smears had been a second-best, a make-do until a way could be found to unleash the antisemitism smear.

The establishment has been testing the waters with implied accusations of antisemitism against Sanders for a while, but their chances were given a fillip recently when Sanders refused to participate in the annual jamboree of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a prominent lobby group whose primary mission is to ringfence Israel from criticism in the US. Both the Republican and Democratic establishments turn out in force to the AIPAC conference, and in the past the event has attracted keynote speeches from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

But Sanders has refused to attend for decades and maintained that stance this month, even though he is a candidate for the Democratic nomination. In the last primaries debate, Sanders justified his decision by rightly calling Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “racist” and by describing AIPAC as providing a platform “for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights”.

Trump’s Vice-President, Mike Pence, responded that Sanders supported “Israel’s enemies” and, if elected, would be the “most anti-Israel president in the history of this nation” – all coded suggestions that Sanders is antisemitic.

But that’s Mike Pence. More useful criticism came from billionaire Mike Bloomberg, who is himself Jewish and was until last week posing as a Democrat to try to win the party’s nomination. Bloomberg accused Sanders of using dehumanising language against a bunch of inclusive identities that, he improbably suggested, AIPAC represents. He claimed:

“This is a gathering of 20,000 Israel supporters of every religious denomination, ethnicity, faith, color, sexual identity and political party. Calling it a racist platform is an attempt to discredit those voices, intimidate people from coming here, and weaken the US-Israel relationship.”

Where might this head? At the AIPAC conference last week we were given a foretaste. Ephraim Mirvis, the chief rabbi of the UK and a friend to Conservative government leader Boris Johnson, was warmly greeted by delegates, including leading members of the Democratic establishment. He boasted that he and other Jewish leaders in the UK had managed to damage Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral chances by suggesting that he was an antisemite over his support, like Sanders, for Palestinian rights.

His own treatment of Corbyn, he argued, offered a model for US Jewish organisations to replicate against any leadership contender who might pose similar trouble for Israel, leaving it for his audience to pick up the not-so-subtle hint about who needed to be subjected to character assassination.

WATCH: “Today I issue a call to the Jews of America, please take a leaf out of our book and please speak with one voice.”

The Chief Rabbi speaking to the 18,000 delegates gathered at the @AIPAC General Session at their Policy Conference in Washington DC pic.twitter.com/BOkan9RA2O

— Chief Rabbi Mirvis (@chiefrabbi) March 3, 2020

 

Establishment playbook

For anyone who isn’t wilfully blind, the last few months have exposed the establishment playbook: it will use identity politics to divide those who might otherwise find a united voice and a common cause.

There is nothing wrong with celebrating one’s identity, especially if it is under threat, maligned or marginalised. But having an attachment to an identity is no excuse for allowing it to be coopted by billionaires, by the powerful, by nuclear-armed states oppressing other people, by political parties or by the corporate media, so that they can weaponise it to prevent the weak, the poor, the marginalised from being represented.

It is time for us to wake up to the tricks, the deceptions, the manipulations of the strong that exploit our weaknesses – and make us yet weaker still. It’s time to stop being a patsy for the establishment.

The post How ‘Bernie Bros’ Were Invented, Then Smeared as Sexist, Racist and unAmerican as Borscht appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Turkey’s Failed Gamble in Syria

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s latest gamble in Syria’s civil war appears to have come up snake eyes. Instead of halting the Damascus government’s siege of the last rebel held province, Idlib, Turkey has backed off, and Ankara’s Syrian adventure is fueling growing domestic resistance to the powerful autocrat.

The crisis began on Feb. 25, when anti-government rebels, openly backed by Turkish troops, artillery, and armor, attacked the Syrian Army at the strategic town of Saraqeb, the junction of Highways 4 and 5 linking Aleppo to Damascus and the Mediterranean. The same day Russian warplanes in Southern Idlib were fired upon by MANPADS (man portable air-defense systems), anti-aircraft weapons from Turkish military outposts. The Russian air base at Khmeimim was also attacked by MANPADS and armed Turkish drones.

What happened next is still murky. According to Ankara, a column of Turkish troops on its way to bring supplies to Turkish observer outposts in Idlib were attacked by Syrian war planes and artillery, killing some 34 soldiers and wounding more than 70. Some sources report much higher causalities.

But according to Al Monitor, a generally reliable on-line publication, the column was a mechanized infantry battalion of some 400 soldiers, and it wasn’t Syrian warplanes that did the damage, but Russian Su-34s packing KAB-1500Ls, bunker busting laser guided bombs with 2400 lb warheads. Syrian Su-22 fighters were involved, but apparently only to spook the soldiers into taking cover in several large buildings. Then the Su-34s moved in and brought the buildings down on the Turks.

The Russians deny their planes were involved, and the Turks blamed it all on Damascus, but when it comes to Syria, the old saying that truth is the first casualty of war is pretty much a truism.

Erdogan initially blustered and threatened to launch an invasion of Idlib—which, in any case, was already underway—but after initially remaining silent, Rear Adm. Oleg Zhuravlev said that Russia “cannot guarantee the safety of flights for Turkish aircraft over Syria.”

The Turkish President is a hardhead, but he is not stupid. Troops, armor and artillery without air cover would be sitting ducks. So the Turks pulled back, the Syrians moved in, and now Russian military police are occupying Saraqeb. Russia has also deployed two cruise missile armed frigates off the Syrian coast.

But for Erdogan, the home front is heating up.

Even before the current crisis, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) has been demanding that Erdogan brief the parliament about the situation in Idlib, but the President’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) voted down the request. The rightwing, nationalist Good Party—a CHP ally— made similar demands, which have also been sidelined.

All the opposition parties have called for direct negotiations with the Assad government.

The worry is that Turkey is drifting toward a war with Syria without any input from the Parliament. On Feb. 12, Erdogan met with AKP deputies and told them that if Turkish soldiers suffered any more casualties—at the time the death toll was 14 dead, 45 wounded—that Turkey would “hit anywhere” in Syria. To the opposition that sounded awfully like a threat to declare war.

Engin Altay, the CHP’s deputy chair, said “The president has to brief the parliament, Idlib is not an internal matter for the AKP.” Altay has also challenged Erdogan’s pledge to separate Turkey from the extremist rebels, like Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an affiliate of al-Qaeda. “Is this even possible?” he asked, “There is no way to distinguish these from each other.”

Turkey made an agreement with Russia in 2018 to allow it to set up observation posts in Idlib if it pledged not to support extremists like Tahrir al-Sham , but Ankara has facilitated the entry of such groups into Syria from the beginning of the war, giving them free passage and supplying them with massive amounts of fertilizer for bombs. In any case, the extremists eliminated any so-called “moderate” opposition groups years ago.

“Turkey said it would disassociate moderate elements from radicals,” says Ahmet Kamil Erozan of the Good Party, “but it couldn’t do that.’

The Kurdish-based progressive People’s Democratic Party (HDP) parliamentarian Necdet Ipekyuz charged “Idlib has become a nest for all jihadists. It has turned into a trouble spot for Turkey and the world. And who is protecting these jihadists? Who is safeguarding them?

Erdogan has jailed many of the HDP’s members of parliament and AKP appointees have replaced the Party’s city mayors. Tens of thousands of people have been imprisoned, and tens of thousands dismissed from their jobs. The media has largely been silenced through outright repression—Turkey has jailed more journalists than any country in the world—or ownership by pro-Erdogan businessmen.

But body bags are beginning to come home from a war that looks to a lot of Turks like a quagmire. The war is costly at a time of serious economic trouble for the Turkish economy. Unemployment is stubbornly high, and the lira continues to fall in value. Polls show that a majority of Turks—57 percent—are more concerned with the economy than with terrorism. While Turks have rallied around the soldiers, before the recent incident more than half the population opposed any escalation of the war.

And Turkey seems increasingly isolated. Erdogan called an emergency session of NATO on Feb. 28, but got little more than “moral” support. NATO wants nothing to do with Syria and certainly doesn’t want a confrontation with Russia, especially because many of the alliance’s members are not comfortable with Turkey’s intervention in Syria. In any case, Turkey is not under attack. Only its soldiers, who are occupying parts of Syria in violation of international law, are vulnerable.

The Americans also ruled out setting up a no-fly zone over Idlib.

Erdogan is not only being pressed by the opposition, but from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) within his own ruling coalition. The MHP, or the “Gray Wolves,” have long represented Turkey’s extreme right. “The Turkish nation must walk into Damascus along with the Turkish army,” says Devlet Bahceli, leader of the MHP.

Erdogan has no intention of marching on Syria’s capital, even if he could pull it off. The President wants Turkey to be a regional player and occupying parts of Syria keeps Ankara on the board. But that line of reasoning is now under siege.

Turkey’s allies in the Syrian civil war are ineffective unless led by and supported by the Turkish army. But without air cover, the Turkish army is severely limited in what it can do, and the Russians are losing patience. Moscow would like the Syria war to end and to bring some of its military home, and Erdogan is making that difficult.

Moscow can be difficult as well, as Turkey may soon find out. The two countries are closely tied on energy, and, with the sanctions blocking Iranian oil and gas, Ankara is more and more dependent on Russian energy sources. Russia just built the new TurkStream gas pipeline across the Black sea and is building a nuclear power plant for Turkey. Erdogan can only go so far in alienating Russia.

Stymied in Syria and pressured at home, Erdogan’s choices are increasingly limited. He may try to escalate Turkish involvement in Syria, but the risks for that are high. He has unleashed the refugees on Europe, but not many are going, and Europe is brutally blocking them. He may move to call early elections before his domestic support erodes any further, but he might just lose those elections, particularly since the AKP has split into two parties. A recent poll found that 50 percent of Turks say they will not vote for Erdogan.

Or he could return to his successful policies of a decade ago of “no problems with the neighbors.”

—30—

Conn Hallinan can be read at disptachesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com and middleempireseries.wordpress.com

 

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Time to Think About Hiroshima and Nagasaki Again

In 2018 the Trump administration published its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the highlight of which was the option of using low-yield nuclear weapons even in response to a non-nuclear attack.

While the NPR says the US will consider using nuclear weapons only “in extreme circumstances”, such “extreme circumstances could include significant non-nuclear strategic attacks”, including “attacks on the US, allied, or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on US or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities”.

The US has manufactured a “low-yield” warhead, known as the W76-2, to be deployed on submarines carrying Trident II ballistic missiles.

The yield, or destructive power, of the W76-2 is classified. Experts suggest it may be about 5-7 kilotons, while the destructive power of the bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima in the final days of World War II was 15 kilotons, killing hundreds of thousands of people.

The W76-2, while not as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb, is still going to cause immense destruction.

At the same time, Russia’s Avangard missile has been operational since December last year. It is capable of flying 27 times faster than the speed of sound, and carries a nuclear weapon of up to 2 megatons (2000 kilotons, or over 13 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb).

While in New Delhi a couple of weeks ago, I caught-up over dinner with fellow CounterPuncher N.D. Jayaprakash (“JP”).

JP is the Joint Secretary of the Delhi Science Forum and Co-Convener of Bhopal Gas Peedith Sangharsh Sahayog Samiti (The Coalition for supporting the Cause of the Bhopal Gas Victims), and clearly an all-round force for good in a country where neoliberalism and globalization rule the roost in the name of “development” and “modernization”.

JP is also the author of The Meaning of Hiroshima Nagasaki (1990), and tells me it is about to be reprinted.

This reprinting is to be welcomed.

Yes, we know the destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was hellish, but how so and with what magnitude?

No, unless we take the trouble to trawl for such information, we know hardly anything about the contentious politics underlying the deployment of the two bombs by the US.

So most of us, even if educated and relatively well-informed, know a little bit of this and a little bit of that where the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is concerned.

Many of us will know that several of those who participated in the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos (which built the atom bomb) came to have deep regrets about their participation in the project, such as the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who told an unimpressed (and indeed furious) President Truman in 1945 he felt he had “blood on my hands”—Truman of course had given his presidential seal of approval for the bombs to be dropped, so Oppenheimer’s implication was that Truman had blood on his hands as well.

But information about the politics underlying the regrets of protagonists such as Oppenheimer, as well as other matters concerning Hiroshima and Nagasaki, needs to be put in one place and made available to all, and The Meaning of Hiroshima Nagasaki does this splendidly.

Harrowing photographs of the bombings precede the book’s chapters.

The first chapter give a concise but startling (for this reader) overview of the bombings and their impact.

+ An estimated 350,000 people inhabited Hiroshima on the day the bomb dropped (6th August 1945), of whom over 200,000 died by October 1950.

+ An estimated 270,000 people inhabited Nagasaki on the day the bomb dropped (9th August 1945), of whom 140,000 died by October 1950.

+ The bombs’ impact– in the form of thermonuclear and nuclear radiation as well as blast trauma and fires– on health continues to this day (2020), and the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF), a binational organization run by both the United States and Japan, is still in operation today.

The following chapter deals with the decision-making which led to the use of the atomic bombs on Japan.

President Truman maintained that the bombs needed to be dropped in order to shorten the war and save lives.

The Meaning of Hiroshima Nagasaki shows conclusively that this was not the case.

Japan did not have the capacity to produce a similar weapon, but work on the bomb was speeded-up after the surrender of Germany. The US did not give Japan more time to consider its surrender ultimatum and did nothing to indicate to the Japanese that it was in a position to deploy a weapon with an unprecedented destructive capacity.

Moreover, the Americans were not involved in any major combat with the Japanese after the end of the battle of Okinawa (22 June 1945), that is, several months before Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A war crime of massive proportions had now been committed— neither Hiroshima nor Nagasaki were targets of military value (they were like Dresden in this respect), and the bombs were dropped in the certain knowledge that the civilian death toll would be absolutely devastating.

Another informative chapter deals with the part played by scientists in the bomb’s development, and the various rationales advanced for their participation.

Niels Bohr, the “father” of the project, and Joseph Rotblat (the name is misspelt in this book), a Polish émigré on the British team (he called himself “the Pole with a British passport”), were concerned about US motives once it became clear that Germany could not build a nuclear weapon before it was defeated (Rotblat even left the project at that point and returned to England).

What would the US do to other countries now that Germany could no longer be targetted? The concern of Bohr and Rotblat was an arms race with the Soviet Union, especially since the Dane Bohr had been invited to join the Soviet team working on their version of the bomb.

After the bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Bohr published his misgivings about its use, as did Oppenheimer (Truman called him a “cry baby” for this), along with another member of the team, the Nobel Laureate Rudolf Peierls. These scientists became staunch advocates of nuclear disarmament.

The following chapter deals with the plight of the hibakusha (the survivors) in post-war Japan.

The US occupation placed restrictions on Japan’s burgeoning peace movement, in which many hibakusha were active, while secretly and cynically rehabilitating many Japanese war criminals.

Precious little was done to help the surviving bomb victims, and it was not until 1954 that the Japanese government came up with official policies to help survivors, and not until 1965 that the government conducted its own health survey of the hibakusha.

Occupation politics was tailored completely to suit US interests, and clearly the interests of the hibakusha were not high on the US’s list of priorities. Japanese governments at that time had no alternative but to do America’s bidding.

The Meaning of Hiroshima Nagasaki concludes with a Postscript pointing out the exponential growth in nuclear-weapon stockpiles since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The threat posed by these weapons is augmented by a missile technology that did not exist in 1945.

The availability of low-yield nuclear weapons magnifies this threat— some lunatic political leader somewhere may think a nuclear war could be “winnable” thanks to a first-strike deployment of such low-yield weapons. The fact that there are too many imponderables (a country targetted in a first-strike may retaliate using more powerful nuclear weapons) in such a scenario to withstand contemplation, may not deter someone as erratic, impulsive, and poorly-informed as Donald Trump.

The Meaning of Hiroshima Nagasaki certainly merits reprinting in the age of Trump, Putin, Netanyahu, and Kim Jong-un.

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Six Quick Points About Coronavirus and Poverty in the US

In the United States, tens of millions of people are at a much greater risk of getting sick from the coronavirus than others. The most vulnerable among us do not have the option to comply with suggestions to stay home from work or work remotely. Most low wage workers do not have any paid sick days and cannot do their work from home. The over two million people in jails and prisons each night do not have these options nor do the half a million homeless people.

One. Thirty-four million workers do not have a single day of paid sick leave. Even though most of the developed world gives its workers paid sick leave there is no federal law requiring it for workers. Thirty-seven percent of private industry workers do not have paid sick leave including nearly half of the lowest-paid quarter of workers. That means 34 million working people have no paid sick leave at all. As with all inequality, this group of people is disproportionately women and people of color. More than half of Latinx workers, approximately 15 million workers, are unable to earn a single sick day. Nearly 40 percent of African American workers, more than 7 million people, are in jobs where they cannot earn a single paid sick day.

Two. Low wage workers and people without a paid sick day have to continue to work to survive. Studies prove people without paid sick days are more likely to go to work sick than workers who have paid sick leave. And workers without paid sick days are much more likely to seek care from emergency rooms than those with paid sick leave.

Three. About 30 million people in the US do not have health insurance, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Nearly half say they cannot afford it. They are unlikely to seek medical treatment for flu-like symptoms or seek screening because they cannot afford it.

Four. Staying home is not an option for the homeless. There are about 550,000 homeless people in the US, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Homeless people have rates of diabetes, heart disease, and HIV/AIDS at rates three to six times that of the general population, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Shelters often provide close living arrangements and opportunities to clean hands and clothes and utensils are minimal for those on the street. Homeless people have higher rates of infectious, acute and chronic diseases like tuberculosis.

Five. Nearly 2.2 million people are in jails and prisons every day, the highest rate in the world. Prisoners are kept in close quarters and receive inadequate medical care. Iran released 70,000 prisoners because of coronavirus. Hand sanitizers are generally not allowed in jails because of their alcohol content. Prisoners are kept in local over 3,000 different federal, state and jails and prisons, each of which has its own procedures and practices for dealing with infectious diseases.

Six. Solutions? For sick leave, see The National Partnership for Women & Families which publishes several fact sheets about the need for paid sick days. For prisons, see Prison Policy Initiative which has five specific suggestions for jails and prisons, starting with releasing as many people as possible. New York City has developed a working paper on coronavirus for homeless shelters. And of course, the country needs economic justice and universally available health care.

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Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30 (40?), Says This 70 Year Old

Photograph Source: Phil Roeder – CC BY 2.0

The Sanders movement, the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America), the BLM (Black Lives Matter) and BAR (Black Agenda Report) types, the post Occupy Wall Street activated (over-indebted under-employed college educated), the anti-ICE pro-immigrant Latinos (mostly) and Muslims, the anti-pipeline and American Indian and sacred land environmentalists, the anti-gig-slavery pro-upping-the-minimum-wage all-hours ‘flexible’ contingent laborers, and the downwardly mobile climate change and school massacre enraged children of Boomers, are all by and large YOUNG PEOPLE.

For these young people the current political struggle is one of US: socio-politically and economically disinherited YOUTH — the FUTURE, against THEM: economically entrenched, corporately huddled, materialistically ($$$) clinging, responsibility avoiding and mentally ossified OLD PEOPLE — the PAST.

That past includes the hoary relics of antique and esoteric “revolutionary” political ‘analysis paralysis’ and arcane argumentative ideological number-of-angels-on-a-pinhead wise-ass sophistry oratorical gratification.

Youth wants action NOW, and those who are seen to be working EFFECTUALLY to produce such action now — and who are known as always having been active on the right side of history, and most effective over time in comparison to all other claimants to the mantles of “progressive,” “socialist,” and “revolutionary” — are who youth are listening to and contributing their energies to join in movement with (a.k.a. Bernie Sanders in 2020).

Youth will NEVER follow old political theorists, into becoming the old ideologues’ perennially hope-for revivifying force of the old dreams of the old dreamers, because the actually inconsequential presence and extreme isolation of the always-on-the-fringe follower-less vanguard — both in matters of mind as well as living experience in today’s world — simply shows what complete failures those lonesome ever-forsaken ‘leaders’ have been as agents of political change and revolution in American life.

These are just the facts, most easily verified by having children who are among the youth of today, and listening to them.

The youth-swarm today is buzzing around Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, and the political campaigns and careers of Sanders’ vibrant youthful associates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Kshama Sawant and numerous others. Why? Because these people have gotten elected (i.e., gained some political power), pushed on the political system legislatively and from their bully pulpits, and actually gotten some useful results in the here and now (e.g., many minimum wage increases and college tuition waivers).

And what of the 2020 future? The intellectually grey-bearded volunteer left-wing ‘professortariat’ fustigates in its self-assured sagacity that Bernie Sanders will be robbed of the Democratic Party presidential nomination by the intrinsically allied with Trump-Republicans — the capitalist parasites — intransigently corrupt mammon-clinging (i.e., Clinton-Obama-Biden-Schumer-Pelosi-DNC) Democratic Party establishment, and with sarcasm dripping with the oily venom of envy disparage Sanders as a sheepdog-in-waiting to mislead naively hopeful youth into voting “Blue no matter who” for Biden, to defeat Trump while still also against their own interests, and thus extending the life of the detested-by-‘all’ (including me) DNC-possessed Democratic Party. You are stupid if you imagine that today’s youth are unaware of this potentiality, and of its framing by the people of THE PAST.

What will youth (THE FUTURE) do if the fossilized Democratic Party politburo (or, “Inner Party”?) is underwhelmed by the 2020 socialist-democratic swarm, and Sanders’ candidacy is sidetracked to ensure a Trump — and raw capitalism’s — reelection as Joe Biden has urged?

Some will vote for Biden or whatever Blue Animatronic Bowsprit Figurehead the DP politburo proposes to hang off the prow of the ship of state, in an effort to defeat Trump and the Republicans and to eke out whatever marginal improvements can be gained by that — for now.

Some will storm off in a huff into the third party doldrums of political frustration, perhaps in chimerical hopes of fracturing the Democratic Party once and for all and birthing a new “revolutionary” and/or “socialist” party, or rebirthing a magically amplified Green Party — for now.

Most will focus on their more-local pro-youth pro-socialist economic justice activism, as well as on their own very personal survival needs — for now because it’s always now — and they will be keenly focused on those politicians and political coalitions that retain the most legitimacy for pushing their dreams and interests forward against the capitalist measly-wage-slavery death spiral. Sanders has done too much for them for too long to ever be discredited in all their eyes whatever course he takes in the coming months. The opposition and disdain Sanders has received from all sides only reinforces his credibility as the leading champion of the dreams of the people of THE FUTURE.

Everybody knows that any frustration of the Sanders’ candidacy by the DP politburo will be blamed on Sanders by the DNC Dems and their allied corporate media, as well as by the envious leading-edge leftist ‘inconsequentials’; and any reelection of Trump and Republicans will be blamed on Sanders for “splitting” the DP whether it is actually split or not. It really doesn’t matter whether Sanders “sheepdogs” for the Blue Corporatists after being bypassed (if such; and why write him off from the get-go you old has-beens?), or rages off TR-and-Nader-like into his own Bull Moose (“spoiler”) independent ‘third’ party. Sanders is very obviously the pre-ordained favorite scapegoat of all of the PAST people for their anticipated (and, sadly, longed-for) political failures of 2020. (I voted for Nader, multiply, with no regrets.)

Criticisms of Sanders for his pragmatism and his supposed inadequacies in comparison to any political ideologue’s theoretical idealizations are completely immaterial in the as-lived here and now. All his admirers know that he is just an ordinary finite and thus fallible man, not a super-being nor the Second Coming, but an honest man doing his utmost best for others, for longer and better than anyone else has demonstrated in American political life in a generation. His greatest achievement has been to fully and memorably articulate the societal dreams and political visions of today’s youth, making those visions vivid common knowledge in 2020, and which dreams and visions today’s youth will put their energies into actualizing in the soonest possible now, and independent of whatever personalities temporarily get their names tacked onto that movement in the future. In the eyes of YOUTH: those who CAN, get elected and change things; those who CAN’T, squawk about everything and no one cares.

If any of my old friends in the internet volunteer commentariat (do I actually have any?) are offended by my intemperate expostulations on 2020 electoral politics, don’t take it to heart it’s not personal. It’s just simply that our day is done, long gone, and I’m rooting for the kids and getting behind them, without getting in their way by pretending to be in front of them. You could do the same if you really wanted to pass the torch.

NOTE to the READER: My use of CAPITALIZED letters and words in the middle of sentences is a device I have copied from Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) — as used by him in “Tale of a Tub,” “A Modest Proposal,” “Gulliver’s Travels,” and his own epitaph — (as well as my use of dashes as done by F. Scott Fitzgerald [1896-1940]) because I find these devices helpful in firing my ranting political broadsides (which Americans definitely need). I have done this without any fear of appearing literarily old and ridiculous: because I am and I don’t care. My aim is to sink the self-serving pomposity of the still lingering animated cadavers of THE PAST, and to blast cannon-holes through the masonry erected by those powdery blinkered fossils to prevent the passage of YOUTH into their deserved radiant FUTURE.

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