Counterpunch Articles

How Germany’s Courts Might Destroy the Euro

Photograph Source: Ithmus – CC BY 2.0

Germany’s highest court issued a ruling that could threaten the existence of the euro with a constitutional court decision that said the European Central Bank’s bond-buying operations exceeded the ECB’s legal remit, and violated German constitutional law. The U.S. equivalent of this would be a state Supreme Court limiting the ability of the U.S. Federal Reserve to conduct purchases or sales of Treasury securities.

Even more extraordinary, the court decreed that it could “ignore an earlier ruling of the European Court of Justice in favour of the ECB,”which, in the words of Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, is tantamount to “an act of judicial secession.” To extend the U.S. analogy, that would be akin to a state Supreme Court holding that it would not be bound by U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

Still, “judicial secession” might be too strong a characterization. The European Union has been an evolving structure since its inception and does not have an explicitly federal constitutional framework as a backstop that could quickly eradicate any ambiguity and nip the problem in the bud.

Here’s the problem: the euro is the official currency of 19 out of 27 EU member countries, and its users are governed by a federal monetary system roughly analogous to the U.S. Federal Reserve system. On the other hand, the euro and the ECB are parts of an intergovernmental union, not a real federal state. Europhiles have been hoping that the EU would just develop into the latter organically. The German court has just inconveniently reminded everybody what the true state of affairs is. The very absence of a corresponding federal political structure is what constitutes the longstanding Achilles heel of the entire single-currency union. It can’t just be wished into existence, or created via judicial improvisation.

However understandable, this legalistic approach poses considerable risks for Berlin. As the largest creditor nation in the eurozone and its largest economy, Germany has much to lose if it ends up being the party responsible for the breakup of the single-currency union. After all, if the creditor does not respect the rules of the organization (or family) of which it is part and on which it holds claims, why would the debtor be beholden to that arrangement?

A brief comparison of the two systems helps to illuminate the challenges ahead for the eurozone. The U.S. Federal Reserve consists of a network of 12 Federal Reserve Banks and 24 branches that together comprise a system that operates under the general oversight of the Washington-based U.S. Federal Reserve. The U.S. Fed (via its Federal Open Market Committee—FOMC) sets interest rate policy. The New York Federal Reserve branch is then authorized to buy and sell Treasury securities to the extent necessary to carry out the most recent FOMC monetary policy directive. If a New York-based court sought to limit that ability of the New York Fed to conduct bond-buying operations on behalf of the U.S. Federal Reserve, this would be immediately be shot down by the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds of ultra vires, i.e., the state court would be said to be acting beyond its legal power or authority. These rules are clearly established, governed, and backed by decades of legal precedent and the existence of a clear corresponding federal structure (that is replicated in the courts system). So, of course, this hypothetical would never arise in the U.S. (short of another act of secession).

The eurozone is ostensibly governed by a similar monetary structure: Just as the U.S. Fed uses the New York Fed to conduct purchases/sales of U.S. Treasuries, the ECB uses the various national central banks (e.g., the Bundesbank for German bonds, Banque de France for French paper, etc.) to purchase European government bonds. As the strains on the system have intensified, so has the scope of the ECB’s purchases, along with corresponding questions about the legality of its expanding operations. So, for example, even though the Maastricht Treaty—the international agreement responsible for the creation of the European Union (EU)—contains an explicit “‘no bailout’ clause” on sovereign bond-buying activities, the ECB has elided this particular legal obstacle in the past, suggesting that these purchases did not constitute bailouts as such, but were simply measures to help enhance the ECB’s ability to conduct its legally mandated monetary policies.

Both the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and German court rulings in the past have previously gone along with the ECB’s justifications. But that all appears to have changed in light of the recent German constitutional court decision succinctly summarized in the Financial Times:

“The court in Karlsruhe ordered the German government and parliament to ensure the ECB provided a ‘proportionality assessment’ of its bond-buying to check that its ‘economic and fiscal policy effects’ did not outweigh other policy objectives.

“Finally, it told the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, to stop buying bonds and to draw up plans to sell the more than €500bn it has bought if the ECB failed to comply within three months.”

The principle of proportionality in this instance means that the content and form of the actions undertaken by the ECB shall not exceed what is necessary to achieve the objective of the EU treaties. If the ECB fails to satisfy the German court that its actions are consistent with this principle, then further asset purchases (i.e., sovereign bond-buying operations) are impermissible. And existing ECB bond holdings would have to be sold, which would likely create carnage in the European bond markets.

The issue has urgency today, given the backdrop of the COVID-19 virus. In March, the ECB established the €750 billion Pandemic Emergency Purchase Program (PEPP) in response to the mounting economic challenges caused by the pandemic. While it is highly likely that the ECJ will move soon to re-establish its legal primacy against the German court ruling, Ana Bobić and Mark Dawson, two leading Berlin-based legal scholars, have questioned whether the new PEPP in fact meets the legal criteria established in previous court ECJ court rulings, given the absence of any of the ECB’s earlier-imposed constraints on sovereign bond purchases (such as restrictions on future government spending in exchange for the ECB’s help). Given the dire state of economies such as Italy, any legal encumbrance that interferes with the ECB’s bond-buying activities creates the potential for an Italian or Spanish bankruptcy.

Hence, it is highly problematic that the ECB will be undertaking new purchases against a backdrop of maximum legal ambiguity. To sustain its bond-buying operations under the new program, it will need to secure the cooperation of the Bundesbank. But Germany’s own central bank will be faced with two competing claims, given that the nation’s leading constitutional court specifically mandated that the Bundesbank could not continue to participate in the ECB’s asset purchase programs, until the ECB complied with the requested “proportionality assessment” of the program. Against that, as Wolf notes, the Maastricht Treaty “states that ‘neither the ECB, nor a national central bank… shall seek or take instructions… from any government of a member state or from any other body.’”

Imagine the next time the ECB initiates bond purchases under the PEPP, and the German Bundesbank hypothetically refuses to undertake these purchases on the ECB’s behalf, citing its national constitutional court ruling. What happens then?

The ECB could well initiate the program without the cooperation of the Bundesbank, but the lack of cooperation of the latter would be tantamount to initiating divorce proceedings with the rest of the eurozone. You would have a monetary free-for-all. And with no “United States of Europe” Treasury standing behind the ECB, Germany, as the largest creditor nation, would presumably be saddled with a substantial amount of the liabilities of the eurozone debtor countries. The latter (Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece) would be on very solid grounds to refuse repayment if the violator of the European Monetary Union is Germany itself. So in that sense, an Italian bankruptcy largely creates problems for Berlin, not Rome. One could argue that the German court decision actually gives the debtor nations a “get out of jail free” card.

It is probably unlikely to come to that. If nothing else, the European Union overall has proven itself remarkably adept at kicking the can down the road and resolving difficulties only at the last possible moment. One possible solution is something that I have suggested before, namely “annual distributions of funds to the national governments (credited to their accounts at the national central banks) on a per capita basis… [, which would] give the national governments the fiscal latitude to cope with the pandemic and engender long-term economic recovery.” As the funds would be distributed on a per capita basis, the courts might deem the actions consistent with the proportionality principle, especially if Bundesbank officials were to sign off on such a program.

In any case, these kinds of legal challenges aren’t going away any time soon. Each legal clarification is clearly designed to define the limits of the ECB’s actions, and provide less scope for the kind of ambiguities that have enabled the member states to defer difficult long-term decisions that will truly make or break the union. Germany, in particular, has persistently castigated other nations who have been serial violators of the EU rule book. But much like Shakespeare’s Shylock, who literally insisted on his “pound of flesh” as security for his loan to Antonio, Germany’s rigorous legalism could ultimately backfire if and when the tables are turned.

Longtime economic powerhouses like New York and California understand the value of being part of a larger political union and have willingly subsidized the rest of the U.S. for decades, even patriotically. Will Germany again overreach and squander its historic position of influence in the EU? Or will it accept some form of fiscal transfer union that ultimately consolidates its position and saves the euro, but likely puts Germany in a position of a perpetual net contributor to a broader, but more sustainable European Union? It has its recent domestic parallel to consider, when it absorbed and developed Eastern Germany after the Cold War. It all depends on what Germany ultimately imagines its role in the region to be, builder or breaker.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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China’s Two Sessions During Coronavirus


Even though it’s being held on its home turf, Beijing will play second fiddle for the next week as thousands of delegates pour into the capital to debate, argue and socialize amid the “Two Sessions”.

The sessions, taking place after being postponed in March due to COVID-19, are the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body drawn from delegates representing a cross-section of society, including the arts, medicine, transport, construction, and the National People’s Congress, the top legislative body.

In reality, the NPC is an exercise in public relations, a supreme example of rubber-stamping. Nothing of any merit will be discussed openly. TV coverage will highlight the mass, synchronized applause of the 2,975 delegates, led by the People’s Liberation Army with the most delegates at 294, followed not by Beijing, or Shanghai but Shandong, the most populous province, with 173 delegates.

Obviously, the COVID-19 outbreak will be presented as a challenge that China met successfully. The catastrophic initial mistakes, the denials, the harassment of doctors trying to publicize its danger, the mass gathering in January that saw tens of thousands of people openly celebrate Chinese New Year in a huge square, will not be mentioned. But neither will there be a sense of triumphalism. The virus remains a concern and seems, at the moment, to be under control but everyone knows it is far too early to declare absolute victory.

The importance of the “Two Sessions” is that it allows leaders of the provincial parties to come to Beijing and discuss, privately, their concerns. China is a one-party state. Ultimate political authority, of course, rests with the Chinese Communist Party, whose Politburo Standing Committee, headed by President Xi Jinping, sets policy. So the NPC deputies to the congress will sit politely, row-upon-row in the Great Hall of the People and choreograph their applause. But in the corridors of power, restaurants and hotel lobbies, there will be forthright discussions on the faltering economy, anti-pollution efforts, international affairs, the Trump presidency and how to recalibrate China’s damaged position in the world.

But one other subject will be raised that makes this Two Sessions intriguing for the outside world is that for the first time since Mao passed away in 1976 China does not expect tomorrow to be better than today.  The social contract, the implicit unwritten understanding between the party and the people – acceptance of the party’s political primacy  in exchange for growing prosperity – is at risk of unraveling.

Most people in China believe that for this contract to be maintained economic growth would have to be in the region of 5-6 percent minimum per year. No one believes it is anywhere near that today. Even before COVID-19 it was probably around 5 percent. After the outbreak it is much less, probably around 2 percent. Unforeseen circumstances. Sure. But unforeseen circumstances can have unforeseen consequences.   Beijing cannot turn on the export taps as it did before to get out of trouble because its major overseas markets are also on their knees. And China as a brand has been damaged. Long after this crisis is over there will be a residue of mistrust for things China.  Even before COVID-19 there was a growing sense in the West that China, ironically a communist country once considered just a few years ago as the savior of Western capitalism, could not be trusted.  Now there is almost unanimous certainty that it is beyond the pale. Frustration in Beijing at growing international isolation and a restive population demanding better living standards could prove to be a potent mix.

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Fundamentalist Pandemics: What Evangelicals Could Learn From The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam

This spring, the novel coronavirus pandemic has raised the issue of the relationship between the blindest kind of religious faith and rational skepticism — this time in two countries that think of themselves as polar opposites and enemies: Supreme Leader Ali Khameini’s Iran and Donald Trump’s America.

On the U.S. side of things, New Orleans pastor Tony Spell, for instance, has twice been arrested for holding church services without a hint of social distancing, despite a ban on such gatherings. His second arrest was for preaching while wearing an ankle monitor and despite the Covid-19 death of at least one of his church members.

The publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin’s famed Origin of the Species, arguing as it did for natural selection (which many American evangelicals still reject), might be considered the origin point for the modern conflict between religious beliefs and science, a struggle that has shaped our culture in powerful ways. Unexpectedly, given Iran’s reputation for religious obscurantism, the science-minded in the nineteenth and twentieth century often took heart from a collection of Persian poems, the Rubáiyát, or “quatrains,” attributed to the medieval Iranian astronomer Omar Khayyam, who died in 1131.

Edward FitzGerald’s loose translation of those poems, also published in 1859, put Khayyam on the map as a medieval Muslim free-thinker and became a century-and-a-half-long sensation in the midst of heated debates about the relationship between science and faith in the West. Avowed atheist Clarence Darrow, the famed defense attorney at the 1925 “monkey trial” of a Tennessee educator who broke state law by teaching evolution, was typical in his love of the Rubáiyát. He often quoted it in his closing arguments, observing that for Khayyam the “mysticisms of philosophy and religion alike were hollow and bare.”

To be fair, some religious leaders, including Pope Francis and Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, have followed the most up-to-date science, as Covid-19 spread globally, by supporting social-distancing measures to deal with the virus. When he still went by the name of Jorge Mario Bergoglio and lived in Buenos Aires, the Pope earned a high school chemical technician’s diploma and actually knows something about science. Indeed, the Catholic Church in Brazil has impressively upheld the World Health Organization’s guidelines for dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, defying the secular government of far right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro, that country’s Donald Trump. Brazil’s president has notoriously ignored his nation’s public-health crisis, dismissedthe coronavirus as a “little flu,” and tried to exempt churches from state government mandates that they close. The archbishop of the hard-hit city of Manaus in the Amazon region has, in fact, publicly complained that Brazilians are not taking the virus seriously enough as it runs rampant in the country. Church authorities worry about the strain government inaction is putting on Catholic hospitals and clinics, as well as the devastation the disease is wreaking in the region.

Here, we witness not a dispute between religion and science but between varieties of religion. Pope Francis’s Catholicism remains open to science, whereas Bolsonaro, although born a Catholic, became an evangelical and, in 2016, was even baptized as a pastor in the Jordan River. He now plays to the 22% of Brazilians who have adopted conservative Protestantism, as well as to Catholics who are substantially more conservative than the current pope. While some U.S. evangelicals are open to science, a Pew Charitable Trust poll found that they, too, are far more likely than the non-religious to reject the very idea of evolution, not to speak of the findings of climate science (action on which Pope Francis has supported in a big way).

Death in the Bible Belt

In the U.S., a variety of evangelical religious leaders have failed the test of reasoned public policy in outrageous ways. Pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, railing at “tyrannical government,” refused to close his mega-church in Florida until the local police arrested him in March. He even insisted that church members in those services of 500 or more true believers should continue to shake hands with one another because “we’re raising up revivalists, not pansies.”

As he saw it, his River Tampa Bay Church was the “safest place” around because it was the site of “salvation.” Only in early April did he finally move his services online and it probably wasn’t to protect the health of his congregation either. His insurance company had cancelled on him after his arrest and his continued defiance of local regulations.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis muddied the waters further in early April by finally issuing a statewide shelter-in-place order that exempted churches as “essential services.” Then, after only a month, he abruptly reopened the state anyway. DeSantis, who had run a Facebook group dominated by racist comments and had risen on Donald Trump’s coattails, has a sizeable evangelical constituency and, in their actions, he and Pastor Howard-Browne have hardly been alone.

It tells you all you need to know that, by early May, more than 30 evangelical pastors had diedof Covid-19 across the Bible Belt.

Two Epicenters of the Pandemic

In the Muslim equivalent of the Bible Belt, the clerical leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, stopped shaking hands and limited visits to his office in early February, but he let mass commemorations of the 41st anniversary of the founding of the Islamic Republic go forward unimpeded. Then, on February 24th, he also allowed national parliamentary elections to proceed on hopes of entrenching yet more of his hardline fundamentalist supporters — the equivalent of America’s evangelicals — in Iran’s legislature. Meanwhile, its other religious leaders continued to resist strong Covid-19 mitigation measures until late March, even as the country was besieged by the virus. Deputy Minister of Health Iraj Harirchi caught the spirit of the moment by rejecting social-distancing measures in February while downplaying the seriousness of the outbreak in his country, only to contract Covid-19 himself and die of it.

The virus initially exploded in the holy city of Qom, said to have been settled in the eighth century by descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. It’s filled with a myriad of religious seminaries and has a famed shrine to one of those descendants, Fatima Masoumeh. In late February, even after government officials began to urge that the shrine be closed, its clerical custodians continued to call for pilgrims to visit it. Those pilgrims typically touch the brass latticework around Fatima Masoumeh’s tomb and sometimes kiss it, a classic method for passing on the disease. Its custodians (like those American evangelical pastors) continued to believe that the holiness of the shrine would protect the pilgrims. They may also have been concerned about their loss of income if pilgrims from all over the world stopped showing up.

Despite having a theocratic government in which clerics wield disproportionate power, Iran also has a significant and powerful scientific and engineering establishment that looks at the world differently, even if some of them are also devout Shiite Muslims. In the end, as the virus gripped the country and deaths spiked, the scientists briefly won and the government of President Hassan Rouhani instituted some social-distancing measures for the public, including canceling Friday prayers and closing shrines in March, though — as in Florida — those measures did not last long.

In this way, as the U.S. emerged as the global epicenter of the pandemic, so Iran emerged as its Middle Eastern one. Call it an irony of curious affinity. Superstition was only part of the problem. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif blamed the Trump administration’s sanctions and financial blockade of the country for the government’s weak response, since the Iranians had difficulty even paying for much-needed imported medical equipment like ventilators. Indeed, the U.S. government has also had Iran kicked off global banking exchanges and threatened third-party sanctions against any companies doing business with it.

President Trump, however, denied that the U.S. had blockaded medical imports to that country, a statement that was technically true, but false in any other sense. The full range of U.S. sanctions had indeed erected a formidable barrier to Iran’s importation of medical equipment, despite attempts by the European Union (which opposes Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran) to allow companies to sell medical supplies to Tehran.

Still, as with Trump’s policies in the U.S. (including essentially ignoring the virus for months), Iranian government policy must be held significantly responsible for the failure to stem the coronavirus tide, which by early May had, according to official figures, resulted in more than 100,000 cases and some 7,000 deaths (numbers which will, in the end, undoubtedly prove significant undercounts).

A Rubáiyát World

Whether in America or Iran, fundamentalist religion (or, in the U.S. case, a Trumpian and Republican urge to curry favor with it) often made for dismally bad public policy during the first wave of Covid-19. Among other things, it encouraged people, whether in religious institutions in both countries or in American anti-shutdown protests, to engage in reckless behavior that endangered not just themselves but others. Ironically, the conflict in each country between defiant pastors or mullahs and scientists on this issue should bring to mind the culture wars of the early twentieth century and the place of the Iranian poetry of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam in what was then largely a Western debate.

That makes those poems worthy of reconsideration in this perilous moment of ours. As I wrote in the introduction to my new translation of the Rubáiyát:

“The message of the poems… is that life has no obvious meaning and is heartbreakingly short. Death is near and we might not live to exhale the breath we just took in. The afterlife is a fairy tale for children… The only way to get past this existential unfairness is to enjoy life, to love someone, and to get intimate with good wine. On the other hand, there is no reason to be mean-spirited to other people.”

Some of the appeal of this poetry to past millions came from the dim view it took of then (as now) robust religious obscurantism. The irreverent Mark Twain once marveled, “No poem had given me so much pleasure before… It is the only poem that I have ever carried about with me; it has not been from under my hand for 28 years.” Thomas Hardy, the British novelist and champion of Darwin, wove its themes into some of his best-known fiction. Robert Frost wrote his famous (and famously bleak) poem “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Night” with Khayyam’s quatrains in mind. Beat poet Jack Kerouac modeled Sal Paradise, the unconventional protagonist of his novel On the Road, on his idea of what Khayyam might have been like.

Although compilers have always attributed those poems to that great astronomer and mathematician of the Seljuk era, it’s clear that they were actually written by later Iranian figures who used Khayyam as a “frame author,” perhaps for fear of reaction to the religious skepticism deeply embedded in the poetry (in the same way that the Thousand and One Nightstales composed in Cairo, Aleppo, and Baghdad over centuries were all attributed to Scheherazade). The bulk of those verses first appeared at the time of the Mongol invasion of Iran in the 1200s, a bloody moment that threw the region into turmoil and paralysis just as Covid-19 has brought our world to an abrupt and chaotic halt.

As if the war’s urban destruction and piles of skulls weren’t enough, historians have argued that the Mongols, who opened up trade routes from Asia into the Middle East, also inadvertently facilitated the westward spread of the Yersina pestis bacillus that would cause the bubonic plague, or the Black Death, a pandemic that would wipe out nearly half of China’s population and a third of Europe’s.

A fifteenth-century scribe in the picturesque Iranian city of Shiraz would, in fact, create the first anthology of quatrains entitled The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam, many composed during Mongol rule and the subsequent pandemic. The dangers of what we would now call religious fundamentalism, as opposed to an enlightened spirituality, were trumpeted throughout those poems:

In monasteries, temples, and retreats
they fear hellfire and look for paradise.
But those who know the mysteries of God
don’t let those seeds be planted in their hearts.

While some turn to theology for comfort during a disaster, those quatrains urged instead that all of us be aggressively here and now, trying to wring every last pleasure out of our worldly life before it abruptly vanishes:

A bottle of Shiraz and the lips of a lover, on the edge of a meadow —
are like cash in hand for me — and for you, credit toward paradise.
They’ve wagered that some go to heaven, and some to hell.
But whoever went to hell? And whoever came back from paradise?

The poetry ridicules some religious beliefs, using the fantasies of astrology as a proxy target for the fatalism of orthodox religion. The authors may have felt safer attacking horoscopes than directly taking on Iran’s powerful clergy. Astronomers know that the heavenly bodies, far from dictating the fate of others, revolve in orbits that make their future position easy to predict and so bear little relationship to the lives of complex and unpredictable human beings (just as, for instance, you could never have predicted that American evangelicals would opt to back a profane, womanizing, distinctly of-this-world orange-faced presidential candidate in 2016 and thereafter):

Don’t blame the stars for virtues or for faults,
or for the joy and grief decreed by fate!
For science holds the planets all to be
A thousand times more helpless than are we.

Wars and pandemics choose winners and losers and — as we’re learning all too grimly in the world of 2020 — the wealthy are generally so much better positioned to protect themselves from catastrophe than the poor. To its eternal credit, the Rubáiyát (unlike both the Trump administration and the Iranian religious leadership) took the side of the latter, pointing out that religious fatalism and superstitions like astrology are inherently supportive of a rotten status quo in which the poor are the first to be sacrificed, whether to pandemics or anything else:

Signs of the zodiac: You give something to every jackass.
You hand them fancy baths, millworks, and canals —
while noble souls must gamble, in hopes of winning their nightly bread.
Who would give a fart for such a constellation?

In our own perilous times, right-wing fundamentalist governments like those in Brazil and the United States, as well as religious fundamentalist ones as in Iran, have made the coronavirus outbreak far more virulent and dangerous by encouraging religious gatherings at a time when the pandemic’s curve could only be flattened by social distancing. Their willingness to blithely set aside reason and science out of a fatalistic and misguided faith in a supernatural providence that overrules natural law (or, in Donald Trump’s case, a fatalistic and misguided faith in his own ability to overrule natural laws, not to speak of providence) has been responsible for tens of thousands of deaths around the world. Think of it as, in spirit, a fundamentalist version of genocide.

The pecuniary motives of some of this obscurantism are clear, as many churches and mosques depend on contributions from congregants at services for the livelihood of imams and pastors. Their willingness to prey on the gullibility of their followers in a bid to keep up their income stream should be considered the height of hypocrisy and speaks to the importance of people never surrendering their capacity for independent, critical reasoning.

Though you might not have noticed it on Donald Trump’s and Ali Khameini’s planet, religion seems to be in the process of collapsing, at least in the industrialized world. A third of the French say that they have no religion at all and just 45% consider themselves Catholic (with perhaps only half of those being relatively committed to the faith), while only 5% attend church regularly. A majority of young people in 12 European countries claim that they now have no religion, pointing to a secular future for much of the continent. Even in peculiarly religious America, self-identification as Christian has plunged to 65% of the population, down 12% in the past decade, while 26% of the population now disavows having a religion at all.

In post-pandemic Iran, don’t be surprised if similar feelings spread, given how the religious leadership functionally encouraged the devastation of Covid-19. In this way, despite military threats, economic sanctions, and everything else, Donald Trump’s America and Ali Khameini’s Iran truly have something in common. In the U.S., where it’s easier to measure what’s happening, evangelicals, more than a fifth of the population when George W. Bush was first elected president in 2000, are 16% of it two decades later.

Given the unpredictable nature of our world (as the emergence of Covid-19 has made all too clear), nothing, secularization included, is a one-way street. Religion is perfectly capable of experiencing revivals. Still, there is no surer way to tip the balance toward an Omar Khayyam-style skepticism than for prominent religious leaders to guide their faithful, and all those in contact with them, into a new wave of the pandemic.

This first appeared on TomDispatch.

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A Machiavellian US in the Middle East

The war in Syria has dropped out of the news, like almost everything else, in a time when the Coronavirus seems to dominate all discourse and reporting. But the regime of Bashar al-Assad continues to strangle its own country. The Russians continue to bomb on his behalf, terrifying civilians and hospitals. The Americans work semi-clandestinely to undermine both the regime and its Russian backers.

There is no sign in the US-Soviet relationship of what was called in the 1970s and 80s détente. The big powers, Russia, the US, the UK and France appear intent on maintaining their interests in the Middle East.

Russia has long been a friend of Syria and has had its single foreign base there since Soviet days. For even longer the US, France and the UK have been a friend of Saudi Arabia and today provide weapons for the Saudi air force so it can support Yemen’s government in its attack on the Houthi rebels, resulting in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Finding a pathway to big power détente in the Middle East seems to be eternally difficult. For those who want to shed some light on how it all works, I refer them to an excellent analysis in the current issue of Harvard University’s International Security by Professor Galen Jackson of Williams College.

Reading this one understands how US Middle East policy in the era of presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and their national security advisor Henry Kissinger became totally Machiavellian after Nixon’s resignation.

It raises the question about how Machiavellian it is today. Is the US engaged in undermining Russia so that it can ensure its dominance in the Middle East? Has it been about trying to give Russia a bloody nose in Syria via the firepower of its local allies, which it and some of its NATO allies have provided?

In the 1970s and 1980s many Western politicians, academics and media argued that détente was failing because the Soviet Union refused to pursue a non-idealogical and restrained foreign policy. But this in large measure was wrong – certainly so in the Middle East.

We now know from opened Soviet archives and Western scholars who have deeply researched the matter that Moscow was eager to cooperate with the US on a number of important issues, particularly on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. “Its ideas for how the dispute should be settled essentially mirrored those of the US.

The US, however, although tempted to respond favourably to the Kremlin’s initiatives, instead tried to expel the Soviet Union from the region”, writes Jackson.

The Soviets backed the Palestinians in their quest for statehood, following the Arab defeat in the June 1967 war. Yet they were anxious not to break their close links with Israel nor to open another front of a dispute with the US.

On the American side, Nixon wanted to be equidistant from the Palestinians and Israelis. Nixon thought that in the short run Israel’s position was “unassailable” but in the long run it was going to be “disastrous”. Kissinger, a Jew himself, felt that the Israelis were pursuing “a diplomacy which leads to suicide”.

The US was acutely aware after the October 1973 war and the imposition of the Arab oil embargo against the US of the linkage between oil and the Palestine/Israel issue.

It did not want to upset the Arabs more than necessary. Nixon seemed obsessed with the possibility that the Arab-Israeli dispute could drag the superpowers into war. If the Israelis felt threatened – as they had in 1967- they might feel the need to attack pre-emptively which would leave the US “looking down the barrels with the Soviet Union again”.

Moscow, for its part, was also fearful of being drawn into a war which might lead to the “nightmare scenario” of a direct conflict with the US.  President Leonid Brezhnev emphasised that the situation could lead to “unpredictable consequences”.

Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko wrote in January 1967, “We should, while supporting the Arab countries in their struggle against Israel’s expansionist policy, flexibly dampen the extremist trends in the policy of certain Arab states, for example Syria”.

The Kremlin had good reason to believe that Israel was contemplating an attack against Syria. At one point in a speech, Brezhnev warned the Arabs that their “belligerent statements could become inflammatory material”. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was told that the USSR would never support the destruction of Israel.

Frustrated with Moscow’s stance, President Anwar Sadat of Egypt decided in July 1972 to expel the Soviet military stationed in Egypt. Kissinger observed, “You know that the Russians showed restraint in the Middle East. That is why Sadat kicked them out.”

Just before the Israel/Arab war which began on October 6th 1974, KGB chairman Yuri Andropov noted that Soviet policy has been “directed at the prevention of the unleashing of military conflict.”

Moscow and Washington had good reason to cooperate – they sought an overall détente in foreign relations and they sought a solution to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Nixon is recorded as saying, “Any settlement will have to be imposed by both the US and the Soviet Union”. Yet, as he had told the Russian ambassador to Washington, “I don’t want to anger the American Jews who hold important positions in the press, radio and television”.

The Jewish lobby has enormous influence on Congress. Nixon wanted to wait until he had won his reelection and concluded the withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam and then he could face down the Jewish lobby. Later he told the ambassador, “I will deliver the Israelis”.

In one of his final acts in office, he ordered a complete cutoff of assistance to Israel. It was not to be. Watergate consumed his presidency. With his resignation in August 1974, all hope for a settlement disappeared. Kissinger’s influence became paramount.

Despite what had seemed like years of détente with the Soviet Union over Middle East affairs Henry Kissinger, who went on to serve Gerald Ford who took over as president from Nixon, laid out a truly Machiavellian path.

Kissinger was not interested in cooperating with the Soviets to reach an agreement. Kissinger told Chinese leaders, “The US will move matters towards a settlement in the Middle East, but we also want to demonstrate that it was not done by Soviet pressure”.

The US strategy, he argued, was to resist whenever Moscow pressed for progress. Only after the Soviet Union had been “defeated” was Kissinger prepared to alter his approach.

The US needed the Soviet Union more than ever, but Kissinger and Ford refused to reach out to Moscow. The most important thing for them, it seemed, was to reduce Soviet influence in the Middle East.

In a moment of honesty, Kissinger was recorded as saying, “The US-Soviet conflict had been “mostly our fault. What have they done that’s so bad”? Moscow, he said, had “got nothing” out of détente…..Brezhnev’s colleagues can say he was taken to the cleaners”. Despite these frank thoughts he didn’t want to give Moscow any points in the game of Realpolitik.

Pro-détente people in the Kremlin were undercut. Not just on Middle East policy but in the overall East-West dialogue which the Middle East diplomacy affected. Kissinger had humiliated the Soviets – which Nixon had been careful not to do.

If Kissinger had not fashioned such a Middle East policy under Ford then perhaps the Cold War would have ended sooner, or at least been ameliorated.

The Russians remember these games. Today they wonder what are the US’s real goals in the Middle East.

President Donald Trump says he wants to pull the US out, but much of the American foreign policy establishment doesn’t want a total withdrawal. Many Republicans in Congress would like to see Iran invaded and everyone knows how hostile Trump is to Tehran. It all makes it difficult for Russia to find a way to détente over Syria.

If the two countries could come together on Syria and the way to peace, peace would come rather quickly.

But Moscow once had its fingers burnt and the US wants, as it did before, to be the one who calls the shots. Peace will not happen until the US becomes seriously accommodating to Russian interests.

If Trump wants it the war can end, Israel and Palestine’s joint future secured and the US can emerge with its head held high.

But to achieve this it has to work with Moscow, not against it.


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Frances Goldin and a Unique New York Story

Death comes to us all but this is one that I feel acutely. For many years, I lived across from Frances on New York’s East 11th Street, but I was not very familiar with her long history of housing activism. Our relationship began in 1981 when, overnight, little green trucks began towing cars supposedly illegally parked all along the Silk Stocking District (on Manhattan’s East side) and dragging them into a garage directly across the street from my apartment building. The business sprouted abruptly like a mushroom. It was a Mafia operation, and had no variance to permit it to operate. It totally disrupted the street, between Second and First Avenues. There was a grade school at the end of the bloc at the intersection of 11th Street and First Avenue, so this also posed a danger to small children. This was a safe street, thanks to the presence of the mob, which ran a parking garage adjacent to my building, and had a “social club” at street level directly under my fourth-floor apartment. There was never a lock on the door to the building because a Puerto Rican woman on the first floor ran a numbers bank, so there was a constant coming and going of clients, as well as her Italian boyfriend. The building was owned by Ivan Nazarkewyc, a Ukrainian. I once complained to him that we needed a lock on the front door for security. But he said that was impossible, without going into details. He had an arrangement with the numbers bank and the mob. I liked living there.

But with the new green menace, that all changed. Some of the workers in the tow-truck garage were ex-convicts. One day one of them chopped the arm off another with a machete. Not the kind of neighbors one wants to have. That’s not counting the constant noise and commotion, from early morning to late into the night. I was so pissed off by it that I hung a banner on my fire escape demanding “Get Out!” Earlier, I woke up one day to find the entire street covered with small plastic Italian flags, and a few Israeli flags (for some reason I couldn’t fathom) noisily flapping in the wind. I cut down the ones tied to my fire escape. Who the hell did these people think they were to invade tenants’ space without so much as a by your leave?!

Other people on the block were also opposed to this intrusion of little green monsters, so we organized to fight it. It became a very New York story. Frances was the key organizer. Without her, this struggle, which lasted for eight months and involved a special hearing before the Board of Estimate and got plenty of coverage in local newspapers, would never have happened. The three people who were the main activists in the effort were Frances, a working-class Italian woman, and me. The Italian woman had an adopted black teenage son who had gotten into trouble for being caught by police with a gun. Like many Lower East Side citizens, she had gone to the social club in my building to ask for the mob’s help in resolving the issue. They told her they wouldn’t lift a finger to help because her son was black. She hated them.

So did the black workers at the garage next to my building, who kept their jobs only because of the support of their union. The racist Mafiosi hated blacks. But they had nothing against gays. One blatant fairy was a regular at their social club, and the numbers woman’s son once told me he had seen me on a cable show talking about man/boy love. Homosexuality was no problem. Blacks were a different story.

Our group of activists decided to close down the entire block and hold a block party. That put the mob out of business there for one day. We published a leaflet announcing the event in English, Spanish, and Ukrainian, reflecting the composition of the block. One day I walked into the social club with a pile of leaflets and asked them to distribute them. A few minutes later, as I looked down out my window, I saw one of their cronies toss them all into a trash can.

The police told me they supported our shutdown and themselves were against the tow-truck operation. Along with a paddy wagon of activists, I was arrested (my only arrest ever), in good company, including the local Democrat Party district leader and parents of the grade-school children, and a lesbian activist who lived in Frances’s building.

The court appearance for the dozen or so who had been arrested was a snapshot of New York. Almost everyone in the room were young black men arrested for trespassing and petty violations. Our large group was well dressed and consisted mostly of professionals. Our lawyers were  Silk Stocking Republican congressman Bill Green and State Assemblyman William Passannante. The charges were dismissed, and following it we held a celebration in the grade school with them and block residents and school parents. I brought my fifteen-year-old black boyfriend.

One day the numbers woman’s boyfriend confronted me in the hallway and issued a threat: “One day they’re going to find you dead in the street and nobody will know who did it.” The reason: I had black boyfriends.

I told Frances about the threat, and she took it seriously. But owing to her long experiences in the neighborhood, she had more contacts than I did, and so arranged for a meeting with the local Mafia don. Michael Lanza, who ran an Italian restaurant on First Avenue called Lanza’s. Frances arranged for me, her, and her boyfriend to have dinner there one evening. It was a strange experience. The food was excellent, but we were the only people eating there. The waiter, a middle-aged man dressed in a black and white uniform, stood with a slightly menacing but professional demeanor about a dozen feet away waiting for us to order anything we might need. There was a steady stream of local Mafia runners coming and going into the front of the restaurant, where Mr. Lanza sat behind a waist-high barrier to transact whatever business they had.

When the dinner was over, he came over to our table, sat down next to me, and put his arm around my shoulder. “David,” he said, “I hear you’ve been having some trouble. Tell me about it.” I felt I was in a Godfather sequel. He was in his sixties or seventies, had a prominent crop of white hair, and was distinguished and polite. I told him exactly what had happened and described the man who had threatened me well enough for him to know who it was, even though I didn’t know his name. At the time, I was a fairly prominent gay activist and often appeared in newspapers and on television. I told him: “If anything happens to me, it will be news and could create problems for operations on the block. My friends are more important to me than family, and I will not give them up.”

He handed me a tiny slip of paper and asked me to write my phone number on it. “I will talk to that man and get back to you,” he said.

Meanwhile, I made sure to be seen on the street, not wanting to give the impression I was intimidated by the threat I had received.

A week later, I got a phone call. “Hi, David. Do you know who this is?” “Of course,” I said. “I recognize your voice.”

“I spoke to that man,” Mr. Lanza, said, “and you will have no more trouble. That man will be speaking with you.” I thanked him for his help.

A few days later, the man approached me on the street, with two or three of his colleagues as witnesses, and issued what was supposed to be an apology: “We hate niggers,” he said. “I’m sorry to hear that,” I shot back. “I like everybody, even Italians.” He said that I wouldn’t have any trouble from him. And that was that. From then on, whenever our paths happened to cross on the street, Mr. Lanza would yell out so everyone could hear, “Hi, David!” At the time, we banked at the same bank on Fourteenth Street and First Avenue, and I would see him depositing a bag of cash. I assumed that I would now owe him something in exchange for his help, but nothing ever came up.

I remained forever grateful to Frances for her role in this little New York drama. Later, she represented me with a book proposal I had, titled Forbidden Fruit. She got a very good publisher to agree to look at it, but I was too slow in producing copy, so the agreement lapsed.

Frances was one more determined red who helped make life better for her fellow citizens. I was honored to know her and to have collaborated with her in just one of the many struggles she led during her long, radical life.

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The Cynical Actors Surrounding Tara Reade

At the outset, let me be absolutely clear that I have a particularly heightened level of sensitivity to matters of gender and violence against women. Almost everyone has either met someone with some kind of #MeToo story or, alternatively, has experienced gender-based violence in some form.

But with that said, there’s a metric ton of crass, blatant cynicism that the Tara Reade scandal is steeped in, even worse than the Monica Lewinski episode two decades ago. Ever since the former Senate aide to Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, disclosed to her allegations of sexual assault, almost everyone on the national media stage has handled this with all the class of a circus ringmaster.

Let’s begin with the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, whose leadership decided to throw Reade to the curb because of the identity of her alleged assailant. According to Reade, she only realized after reading Ryan Grim’s reporting for The Intercept  that this happened owing, in all likelihood, to the nonprofit’s professional relationship to Anita Dunn, a Biden advisor who works for SKDKnickerbocker, the PR firm for Time’s Up. Leaving aside any other critiques one has of The Intercept and Joe Biden, it is a tremendous faux pas for Ryan Grim to let a journalistic bombshell like that be published without forewarning to his source. The Watergate conspirators were given more courtesy, as demonstrated by the classic exclamation “[Washington Post publisher] Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer if that’s ever published!” What was he thinking?

In 2019, both the Associated Press and the Washington Post worked the story but ultimately canned coverage. The AP had the story in April of that year, when, simultaneously, everyone was publishing about Biden being too touchy for people’s comfort case and point this particular column in Clinton lap dog Ezra Klein’s Vox. Even if there were inconsistencies within Reade’s story (purportedly the reason for squashing it), she deserved a fair hearing and a forum. These venues have given far more airtime to far more dubious actors over the years (cf. 2016 Donald Trump campaign) and have no shred of credibility here. Sexual trauma and memory are very messy things from top to bottom. There are plenty of women who have very public accounts of suppression and triggering that causes them to recall details sometimes years after the events.

Then there’s the timing of the media coverage itself, which was a day late and a dollar short. Face it, the way it was publicized and the forums that did so were all rabid supporters for Bernie Sanders. The first reaction of anyone with half a brain was asking “Why the hell didn’t this come out before Super Tuesday?!” I have no doubt about the sincerity of Katie Halper, whose podcast broke the story simultaneous with Grim’s publication.

But honestly, the moment of delivery struck me as, at least partially, having two hypothetical sources:

1) Someone in the Sanders campaign with deep connections to the liberal-progressive media decided to throw this out as a last-ditch political pipe bomb. If it were a well-known journalist who just might have been raked across the coals in a slimy New York Times hit piece a month prior to the story breaking (and I have absolutely no way of knowing so make no accusations in any sense about this), that would be a tremendously vile deed, an act that reduces Tara Reade’s plight to a political prop in the center ring under the big top;


2) It could be even more wild!

In 2015-16, Steve Bannon and Breitbart trotted out every single possible rat-f&$king stunt (courtesy Donald Trump campaign staffer/advisor cum Nixon Plumbers alumnus Roger Stone) to muddy the waters and argue there was no distinct difference between Hillary Clinton and Trump. This included one of the most jaw-droppingly audacious media coups possible, first holding a press conference with and then inviting to sit in the front row of the presidential debates the various women who have accused Bill Clinton of his piggish behavior in the past 40 years. Simultaneously, allegedly, Wikileaks might have communicated with Stone about publicizing emails regarding how the 2016 nomination was stolen from Bernie Sanders, among other grotesque facts regarding the former Secretary of State, following the Democratic National Convention. The logical conclusion of Bannon’s strategy was simple. First, go after Sanders supporters and try to convince them not to vote for Clinton, either by selecting a third party or just staying home. Second, court the undecided voters, particularly in the Rust Belt, and constantly remind them about being burned by first NAFTA and, had Clinton won, the sure-to-be-passed Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deals. (In this scenario, per the ineptitude demonstrated at the end of the original Godfather, Salvatore Tessio might be such an unwitting doofus Bannon could have anonymously leaked him the Reade story and played Sally for a shmuck).

Regardless of the possibilities of the timing and the source, the cynicism has continued. That bastion of sensitivity, the New York Times, wrote the most antiseptic, anti-empathic story possible, making her look like a lone nut. Other hacks in Biden’s bag have tried to make the ridiculous claim that we should not trust Reade’s story because, of course, PUTIN! The perpetually-unfunny Bill Maher chimed in with an astonishingly nasty segment on a television show that hopefully shall not survive the economic apocalypse we are on the verge of. Various feminist auxiliaries of the Democratic Party are now doing mental gymnastics in order to avoid the obvious fact that they appear complete charlatans by maintaining unwavering support for Biden. Naomi Klein’s rather inept last-ditch pitch on behalf of Feminists for Bernie has a certain tinge of paternalism because, of course, the pivotal vote that handed Biden the nomination was delivered by Black women, the largest Democratic constituency on Super Tuesday.

In the long run, Tara Reade, however you feel about her story, is reduced to a spectacle. The press has made her into a sideshow amusement with a nickel ticket value.

But embedded in the background, as always, will be this damning truth. By creating another media circus where accusations of sexual assault are subject to public scrutiny and ridicule, the very real and dangerous impact is the devaluation of sexual violence accusations in toto. By constantly allowing the sensational circus productions, we make it harder for the most vulnerable womxn and girls in our society, low-income and impoverished BIPOC folk, to be rescued from the hell they are forced into for years.

And for that sin Dante provided no description of punishment.

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Social Studies for the Pandemic

The moment of clarity [in the pandemic shutdown], expressed in climate and consciousness, will pass and progressives will resume their regular, but now carefully washed, handwringing.

– John Davis, Visions of a Post-Covid-19 World

Ignorant and inexperienced, it is not strange that in the first years of our new life [Reconstruction period] we began at the top instead of the bottom, that a seat in Congress or the state legislature was more sought than real estate or industrial skill, that the political convention of some teaching had more attraction than starting a dairy farm or a stockyard.

– Booker T. Washington

In capitalist systems we’re not meant to feel joy.

– Kelsey Cham C., in Joyful Militancy, by Nick Montgomery and Carla Bergman

The push to re-open, get the economy up-and-running has the momentum behind it of people who’ve been starved for normal socializing, outings and cultural events, and even, if not felt in the same way, from the routine of going to work. But, for those willing to see, at the top where the decisions are being made by leaders who are supposed to have the peoples’ welfare front-and-center, the cold-hearted evil of neoliberal capitalism is being blatantly exposed. There’s no smiley-face on it when leaders are offering COVID-19 responses like the “herd immunity” approach (UK’s Boris Johnson) to essentially cull the old and vulnerable while the rest – in theory – develop “herd immunity.” But not only the evil ones – Trump, Bolsonaro, Johnson, etc., are to be held accountable. Does anyone believe we have in our representative government any who will fiercely oppose the too-rapid opening process, and stand up for the people being told they must go back to work or lose their job and unemployment payments? Who will take up the hopeless task of arguing for the good of all? And, more to my point, can we expect leaders to take up a (social) cause we (the people) have largely abandoned?

In the top down, profits-over-people neoliberal context we exist in, communal bonds have been drained of their meaning, all relationships made relative. However, for there to be resistance, no matter how shredded the bonds, no matter how corrupted our hearts, there must be unity. We must now turn back to the commanding value of relatedness, after decades of learning to be tolerant of America’s systemic atrocities and acceptable “collateral” cruelties. Only in unity can the neoliberalism that toxifies all relatedness – social, inter-species, inter-cultural, environmental – be resisted. Just as the evil of predatory capitalism is nakedly revealed in the pandemic, the multiple horrific collapses threatening all life on the planet are also unmistakeably revelatory; in this case, of a joyful truth: All beings are truly interconnected. The “social movement” that calls us now is to a complete transformation of relatedness – the expansion of the social to include the entire “web of life” – beginning at the bottom, where we are.

Starting at the bottom is important. Until we can have the unifying experience coming from toiling in that particular social garden that is ours, such that the social is once again real for us, we will have nothing to defend from neoliberal authority, no compelling personal reason to resist. We can bail out the super-rich over and over, be under full-time surveillance through our devices, be treated like faceless ciphers in the labyrinthine “healthcare system,” pay more for ever-crappier goods, be insulted in hundreds of ways, over and over – including being exposed as no other country has been to the ravages of covid-19 – but we cannot find our motivation to disobey. Incapable of political clarity, we get lost in banal confusion about whether we’re “bad” if we fail to eat the right nutrition, get fat, drink too much, fail to exercise, smoke tobacco or are unhappy with the way we look in the mirror, obsessing over regrets or guilts, we swirl around in a neurotic moral vacuum. Worried about our “goodness” in these picayune, win-lose, obsessive-compulsive, neo-puritanical ways, we remain far away not only from the joy of “now,” but also from the specific joy of relatedness – the goodness – of solidarity in defending all that is human and interrelated against the destructive forces of capitalism.

The problem for white middle class people’s participation in the reality of interdependence – though an attractive concept of which liberals are very fond – is its demand for life ways – local, face-to-face, place-based communities, stable over generations. Such a “bottom life”we emphatically reject. Problematically for us, interdependence is essentially a refusal of progress and a bowing to constraints. As such it is antipathetic to liberal industrial society. Realized interdependence, as little as we know of it, is limited to indigenous cultures and the Amish (and to nature!) Though we qualifiedly admire these cultures that understand limitation, their interdependence is largely responsible for what we consider their backwardness. No way do we wish to emulate them!

In individualist, competitive capitalist society, existing more or less comfortably, acquiescently, banally, as separate “samenesses,” we’re ignorant of the aspect of interdependence that could actually persuade us toward “downward” mobility. Without knowing the joy that accompanies a unity of othernesses, when the normal condition of polarization and separateness is transcended, the lifeways of interdependence can only be perceived negatively, as deprivation or poverty. This transcendence is not of the sports arena or political rally kind. Those are unities of sameness (closer to mobs), not of othernesses. The expansion of the social we seek has to challenge the illusion of separateness that guarantees only sameness, and its intolerance of difference, or otherness. Lucky for us non-indigenous people who must find our white middle class suburban conforming way to the interdependent reality, there is a way; though narrow, it is entirely navigable by any human being who is drawn to joy

Through the process of committed relationships, westernized people, reared on firm belief that only materiality – that which we can see, touch, hear, bomb, exploit, etc., – exists, may come to experience the immateriality of interconnection. This is joy. People who attain it – as seen in the case of mystics, poets, prophets, etc. – will sacrifice even the ideals of progress and the bourgeois life way – to follow it. In case the poet does not seem an example of social relatedness, that is only because we make a false distinction between relationships between people (the social), and relationship with inner creative reality. Interdependence, the unity of othernesses, includes and must have both kinds.

The crisis of pandemic with its heavy cost of involuntary seclusion, is a “custom-made” opportunity to retrieve the social, to consciously address the shattered bonds both outwardly and inwardly. In seclusion, social transformation is aimed not toward an ideology, nor toward the liberation of others. Instead, in shutdown, we face the ones we don’t think of as others, those who are actually inside Noah’s ark with us: partners, spouses, households – maybe a few beyond. Whether urban, working class, rural, or bourgeois suburban, the work can only begin where we are, with the company we’ve got. With the brakes on, the revolution now is exactly about being where we are, in cooperation with the invisible forces of transformation, a revolution going “down” into matter, as well as “up” toward goals of unity and brotherhood. Here, in constraint, we can have our postponed reckoning with fate; the crisis of the other.

Being white, middle class, public-schooled, and liberally reared, I had never consciously experienced unwanted constraints upon me until the twin, related crises of my marriage and the “shutdown” of mental illness caught up with me in my 40’s. Through this suffering, undergone as a psycho-spiritual transformative process – I regained a priceless relationship with “the other within” that strengthened my fragile sense of self in the marital “communion” of two othernesses. Emerging from that earlier “shutdown” crisis, and constantly practicing my writing, a kind of allyship developed between my ego and my creative soul. This allyship allowed me to be unified, for the first time, with my own truth. At the same time, I was an “other” in relation to liberal bourgeois reality, (and our marriage a kind of bottom-up insurgency of localism). Because the interdependent, heterogeneous reality I had discovered within needed my fierce protection, I had no choice but to be consciously and personally resistant to repressive, conforming liberal sameness. In a bottom-up political way, I needed to defend my hard-won, infinitely precious unified self. In knowing both my suffering and my need for redemption I had became like the people on the bottom who are routinely subjected to trauma in racist America. Because of that transformative experience, both intra- and inter-personal, I hear a different message out of the dark event of pandemic; beneath its catastrophe for the economy it holds liberatory potential for the ragged remnants of our hanging-by-a-thread in-common humanity:

In post-enlightenment, liberal society the door that opens onto human depths is supposed to stay shut, a rule to which we are largely obedient. Because of our obedience, the crisis of the unknown within oneself “stays in Vegas.” We don’t pry there. Without intractable other person(s), close enough to disturb our uneasy, fragile self-confidence, we remain in our bubbles of isolated sameness, provoked to no self-awareness, remaining that particular kind of well-intentioned, friendly, loquacious, often clever American that is also hollow, a monster with a corrupted heart. We are conditioned to separateness, to measuring by “face(book) value,” to in essence being conned and conning others in all our “relationships,” accepting such shallowness as “better than nothing.” We rarely linger long enough in the discomfort of relationships to deepen them. Thus, a significant radicalizing opportunity is lost. This is why the social in America, though cause of much “handwringing” on the left, is by now well-nigh irretrievable.

Speaking to white, liberal, progressive reality, that being what I know, I argue for the social circumstance not of one’s choosing. The illusion of freedom, any shred of hope of an “American Dream coming true for me” must be shed. Because of the toxic faith in progress we’ve been conditioned to, in order to force ourselves “back,” we must give up the wishful thinking that we can change our circumstances. The beginning point for change is not freedom from constraints but recognition of them. To the point, not of passively accepting harmful abuse within the patriarchal or colonialist structures and systems, but of framing “abuse” within a process of inner transformation. This process is the passage from neoliberal dehumanization to interdependent human beings, from meaningless suffering under capitalism’s treatment of people as discardable, to suffering that is meaningfully grounded in humanly attainable goals of wisdom and joy, the chief of these being the joy of knowing one’s creative efforts are the same as the efforts of divine love (i.e., bottom-up, interconnective, and reconciliatory).

Being involuntarily constrained by the COVID-19 threat, having the freedoms of social and consumer life we thought were non-optional taken away from us, has forced us to live in a way that is less polluting of the biosphere; that is, our constraint frees Mother Nature from our relentless assault. Those who voluntarily take up the imperative of constraint will more easily accept the fact of “original constraint,” i.e., our “animal nature” constrained by the biological limitation of birth-to-death cyclicality. Rather than clinging to the illusion we can escape biological limitation, which leads to assaulting the earth exploitatively and extractively, we can align ourselves with biological reality. By voluntarily accepting the bonds to the people in our lives, extending outward from parents, spouses and children, to local extended family, to the community in which fate has placed us, to the place we’re from, we move into harmony with biological processes. Most people reading this will already have been removed from the family and community of origin. Many will be removed from one or more marriages, and from familial bonds. No matter; constraints will find you once you stop where and with whom you are, making it an autonomous space that honors the invisibles of connection outside the deadening separateness and individualism of corporate neoliberal society.

Writing about voluntary constraint made me recall something that struck me years ago as I read about black educator Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute that taught practical “vocational” skills to former slaves. In advice that became controversial, Washington urged graduates, rather than to aspire to the top positions of rank and status in the country, to remain in the South, in their existing communities, to “cast down your buckets where you are.” To 21st century Americans, who believe in progress and advancement by education, and know the history of racism in the South, sickeningly brought to mind recently by the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, Washington’s advice sounds wrong. But I hear it differently. To me, his advice speaks not for capitalism’s need for people to enter the competitive race to the top, but from the powerful spiritual ideal of interdependence that can occur only in communities that eschew “progress” and build from the bottom up. Not solely applicable for black Americans, or to the south, it speaks relevantly to white progressive liberals today. It urges valuable constraint for people who truly aim to reclaim their hearts rooted in in-place community, the interdependent unity-of-othernesses that exists as an archetype in the soul but needs our allyship to be realized.

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Trump-style Dysfunction Comes to Montana

The Montana Public Service Commission is far from living up to its name. Instead of public service, we get a highly regrettable rat’s nest of in-fighting among its all-Republican members. Now, even more regrettably, not only is this public agency refusing to honor Montana’s constitutionally guaranteed “right to know” about our own government, but actually filed a lawsuit against media outlets that ask for information.

Now where did they get the idea this is how you run government? Look no further than the Oval Office and its ongoing war with the free press, its refusal to provide public information and, in the end, its totally dysfunctional model of government.

As succinctly noted in the Missoulian’s editorial last Friday: “the Montana Public Service Commission appears to have once again forgotten that it is supposed to serve the public and is now suing the Billings Gazette and other news media that made public records requests. The newspaper is seeking more information about a recent email spying scandal in which Commissioner Randy Pinocci and PSC staffer Drew Zinecker obtained Commissioner Roger Koopman’s emails without his knowledge. The emails came to light only after they were posted on a right-wing website. Rather than produce the requested information, the PSC filed suit — a tactic used more and more often by government agencies hoping to delay the release of public documents and discourage those who can’t afford a costly legal battle.”

What the Montana Public Service Commission is supposed to be doing — and what taxpayers are shelling out over $100,00 annually for each of its five commissioners for — is weighing the costs claimed by Montana’s public utilities against the rates charged to consumers.

NorthWestern Energy has already put Montana’s consumers on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in costs at the antiquated Colstrip coal-fired power plants and wants to stick us with hundreds of millions more. One might think the commission has its work cut out for it and ought to be full-time busy trying to keep Montanans from getting nailed with a hugely polluting coal plant and its enormous post-closure environmental cleanup costs. At least a reasonable person might think that that’s what the PSC should be doing.

But I guess it’s too much to expect these so-called “public servants” to do the job they were elected and are well-paid to do. Instead, we get what amounts to a grade-school-level fight internally and a big middle finger to the Montana press — and the citizens it serves — externally.

It’s worth noting that most Republicans run on a platform of “less government.” Why anyone who so disdains government would want to be part of the government is a good question. If they think government should be “run like a business” — instead of following the mandates of the constitutions which establish our form of government — maybe they ought to stick to the private sector.

Unfortunately, this is a huge and growing problem in our country right now. And it is being “led” from the very top as the Trump administration routinely lards public agencies with political toadies, fires those who disagree with a president who admits he doesn’t read, and corruptly shovels public largess to their private bank accounts and frivolous pursuits.

Fortunately, there is a remedy. It’s called “the election.” Come November, citizens will have a chance to mend our government by sending Republican candidates back to their beloved private enterprises — and electing those who can.

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Lives Depend on Argentina’s Debt Talks

Argentina is currently engaged in intense negotiations with its creditors over at least $65 billion in government debt. The most important part of that negotiation, which can make or break Argentina’s economic recovery, is foreign currency debt. That is mostly in dollars, and mostly owned by foreigners.

Argentina’s 45 million residents, as well as hundreds of millions of people on this planet, have a large stake in the outcome of these negotiations. With vital foreign exchange earnings plummeting in the world recession, how much will be used for essential imports such as medicine or food, and how much to pay off debt?

If governments are forced to use scarce foreign currency to make unsustainable debt payments, they will not be able to afford the health care, testing, medical equipment, and even “social distancing” measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic. And if the austerity prolongs or deepens economic crises, the problems of dealing with the health crisis worsen.

These are the kinds of dire choices that sovereign debt negotiations could set the precedent for in the coming months.

The World Food Program projects that the number of people who will be on the brink of starvation this year will roughly double, from 135 million to 265 million. In 2020 and 2021, low-and middle-income countries’ payments on their public external debt alone will soar to between $2.6 trillion and $3.4 trillion. Argentina is among the many countries whose current debt burden is unsustainable. Some of the largest creditors rejected the government’s initial offer, but they would be foolish to force Argentina into default. This could happen on May 22 when a grace period for interest payments expires, or earlier if negotiations break down.

To its credit, the International Monetary Fund has recognized this reality since at least February, when it explained why it would not be possible for Argentina to use budget austerity to pay down the debt. A “meaningful contribution from private creditors” would be necessary to restore debt sustainability, the I.M.F. economists stated. In other words, private creditors — who own 41 percent of Argentina’s foreign currency debt — would have to get less than their bonds’ promised payments.

Recognizing the need for the recovery of an economy already in its third year of recession, the I.M.F. conducted a more detailed analysis of Argentina’s debt crisis in late March that proposed no spending cuts for the next four years. They concluded that the Argentine government could not afford to make any debt payments in foreign currency to private creditors from 2020 to 2024.

The I.M.F. analysis of what might be sustainable is thus similar to what the recently elected Argentine government of President Alberto Fernández is proposing.

Of course the I.M.F. has also emphasized that there is enormous uncertainty about the near future and downside risks, since so much of what happens to both the Argentine and the regional and world economy depends on the unpredictable course of the pandemic. Even in the United States, a high-income country whose central bank is currently printing trillions of dollars, the pandemic has led to losses of jobs and gross domestic product at levels not seen for more than 70 years.

But the dangers are vastly greater for low-and-middle income countries, as in Latin America. The loss of export revenue can lead to balance of payments crises because the economy depends on these dollar earnings to pay for imports and debt service. The result can be shortages of essential, even lifesaving imports; as well as debt and financial crises that feed prolonged recessions and even depressions.

The Argentina case clearly shows how important it is for governments to be able to achieve a sustainable debt settlement, and how dangerous it is to try and pay a debt burden that is unsustainable.

In fact, some of these dangers materialized in Argentina before the Covid-19 crisis and world recession struck: an I.M.F. loan agreement with the prior government for a record $57 billion in 2018 required tighter budget and monetary policies. The result was exorbitantly high interest rates, a sharp depreciation of the peso and high inflation as well as increasing foreign indebtedness, and the deep recession that continues to this day.

These kinds of avoidable downward spirals have happened in various countries when previous crises hit, as during the financial crisis and Great Recession between 2008 to 2009, the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1999, or Latin America in the 1980s, a period known as the lost decade. These tragic outcomes could be repeated now if unsustainable debt burdens are backed by deadly austerity. And the immediate threat to human life today is much greater, as the difference between governments taking the necessary steps to contain the coronavirus, and not doing so, is estimated at millions of lives.

Here in the United States, there is at least some attention to the injustices exacerbated by the Covid-19 depression: for example, much higher infection and death rates by race and income.

Yet vast structural inequalities at the international level are exacerbated even more than they are nationally by the pandemic, and international debt and finance are among the main vehicles through which this happens. But Argentina’s debt negotiations can take a better path.

Argentina has put forward a reasonable proposal for restructuring its foreign currency debt with private creditors. Its latest offer postpones debt payments for the next three years. It extends maturities and reduces interest rates going forward from an average of about 7 percent to 2.3 percent. There is a minimal reduction in principal.

Martín Guzmán, the Argentine economy minister, has said that the government is flexible in the combination of these measures, so long as the debt is sustainable.

Creditors should accept the reality that unsustainable debt burdens only lead to worse crises up the road. At this crucial moment in the global pandemic and recession, many lives may depend on this understanding.

This column first appeared in the New York Times.

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Why Thinking Makes It So: Donald Trump’s Obamagate Fixation

The “gate” suffix has been wearing thin since the break-in scandal that gave it its birth.  Since Watergate, virtually anything dubious and suggestive, and much more besides, is suffixed.  Which brings us to the issue of President Donald Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.  Finding himself in hot water (did he ever leave it?) Trump has been sowing the seeds of “Obamagate”, a fairly grotesque measure that serves to fill the shallow spaces of the social mediaverse.

Obamagate is a show without much of a script, supported by the faintest of threads.  Supposedly, they revolve around the merrily murky former national security advisor Michael Flynn, a serial perjurer who was “unmasked” as an American talking to foreigners under the routinely engaged eyes of the intelligence community.  The revelations emerged from the declassification by acting national intelligence director Richard Grenell of unmasking requests made by the Obama administration in 2016.  The exercise raised eyebrows, at least among certain Trump critics who detected a heavy accent of politicisation.

On the surface, the move was distractingly galvanic.  The declassified document listing officials keen to identify Trump associates and any relevant ties to Russia suggested that Trump was going to embark upon yet another one of his exercises in mass distraction.  The president duly hopped on the Twitter train to drive a narrative of criminality, making his Mother’s Day a special one.  126 tweets and retweets featured, making it the second most prolific single-day posting of the Trump presidency.  Interspersed in the scatter were a few favourites: the QAnon conspiracy theory on Democrats being tied to a paedophilia cult; punchy counterattacks on those critical of his coronavirus non-policy.  The retweets also featured monumental errors of judgment, including messages critical of the Trump administration.  But something new had emerged in the smoke, all shinily suffixed.

Obama had, supposedly, committed “the biggest political crime in American history, by far”, one that made “Watergate look small-time.”  When pressed for details by such individuals as Philip Rucker of the Washington Post, Trump was not particularly forthcoming, suggesting it was patently obvious. “It’s been going on from before I even got elected, and it’s a disgrace that it happened, and if you look at what’s gone on, and if you look at now, all this information that is being released – and from what I understand, that’s only the beginning – some terrible things happened, and it should never be allowed to happen in our country again.”

Russia, yet again, features. But this is not Democratic demonization in the Hillary Clinton mould so much as a claim of Deep State antics gone awry.  Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists sees it as a ploy to seize the Russia narrative by the throat. “It is putting the spotlight on the investigators rather than the investigated.  It is saying what is irregular here is not the extraordinary contacts with the Russian government but the attempt to understand them.”  Obamagate has taken the place of “Crooked Hillary” as a call to arms.  As Fox News host Brian Kilmeade observed, reflecting on the November election, “it’s not gonna be Biden against Trump. It’s gonna be Obama against Trump.”

Terms such as Obamagate only exist because thinking of it makes it so.  It is the conjuring trick of a few words, fed by supposition and even superstition.  It is the howl and bark of the social media echo chamber. In a sense, such terms do not matter, though they do exercise such individuals as Will Bunch of the Philadelphia Inquirer.  The “idea of Obamagate”, he writes despairingly, grew “in Trump’s diseased mind and springing like a virus to his compromised and unjust Justice Department, his propagandists on Fox News’ quasi-state-media, and millions of truth-decayed supporters”.

As with so many assessments of Trump’s time in office, these are only some aspects of a broader, decaying Republic for which Trump’s opponents also have to answer for.  He is the excremental reminder of a state in ruins, of an imperium gasping on a respirator. Bunch gives Trump too much credit for killing “the very idea of objective truth”, suggesting a certain monopoly on criminality.  He even reserves some criticism for Obama, who he accused of being “too timid in looking into Trump and Russia.”  And there, the Russian bogeyman makes yet another appearance.

How catching will this noise prove to be?  Attention has turned to prosecutor John H. Durham, who examined the initial leak of information to the Washington Post on phone calls that took place between Flynn and the Russian ambassador Sergey I. Kislyak to the United States in 2016.  The Grenell list could, in turn, be leaked.  A fittingly messy turn that would be.

A sense that this will go nowhere is already being floated by Trump’s most loyal of deputies, the Attorney General William Barr.  “As to President Obama and Vice-President Biden, whatever their level of involvement, based on the information I have today, I don’t expect Mr Durham’s work will lead to a criminal investigation of either man.”  There is still time, but Obamagate is already expiring.


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Another Bank Bailout Under Cover of a Virus

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

When the Dodd Frank Act was passed in 2010, President Obama triumphantly declared, “No more bailouts!” But what the Act actually said was that the next time the banks failed, they would be subject to “bail ins” – the funds of their creditors, including their large depositors, would be tapped to cover their bad loans.

But bail-ins were tried in Europe, and the results were disastrous.

Many economists in the US and Europe argued that the next time the banks failed, they should be nationalized – taken over by the government as public utilities. But that opportunity was lost when, in September 2019 and again in March 2020, Wall Street banks were quietly bailed out from a liquidity crisis in the repo market that could otherwise have bankrupted them. There was no bail-in of private funds, no heated congressional debate, and no public vote. It was all done unilaterally by unelected bureaucrats at the Federal Reserve.

“The justification of private profit,” said President Franklin Roosevelt in a 1938 address, “is private risk.” Banking has now been made virtually risk-free, backed by the full faith and credit of the United States and its people. The American people are therefore entitled to share in the benefits and the profits. Banking needs to be made a public utility.

The Risky Business of Borrowing Short to Lend Long

Individual banks can go bankrupt from too many bad loans, but the crises that can trigger system-wide collapse are “liquidity crises.” Banks “borrow short to lend long.” They borrow from their depositors to make long-term loans or investments while promising the depositors that they can come for their money “on demand.” To pull off this sleight of hand, when the depositors and the borrowers want the money at the same time, the banks have to borrow from somewhere else. If they can’t find lenders on short notice, or if the price of borrowing suddenly becomes prohibitive, the result is a “liquidity crisis.”

Before 1933, when the government stepped in with FDIC deposit insurance, bank panics and bank runs were common. When people suspected a bank was in trouble, they would all rush to withdraw their funds at once, exposing the fact that the banks did not have the money they purported to have. During the Great Depression, more than one-third of all private US banks were closed due to bank runs.

But President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who took office in 1933, was skeptical about insuring bank deposits. He warned, “We do not wish to make the United States Government liable for the mistakes and errors of individual banks, and put a premium on unsound banking in the future.” The government had a viable public alternative, a US postal banking system established in 1911. Postal banks became especially popular during the Depression, because they were backed by the US government. But Roosevelt was pressured into signing the 1933 Banking Act, creating the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation that insured private banks with public funds.

Congress, however, was unwilling to insure more than $5,000 per depositor (about $100,000 today), a sum raised temporarily in 2008 and permanently in 2010 to $250,000. That meant large institutional investors (pension funds, mutual funds, hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds) had nowhere to park the millions of dollars they held between investments. They wanted a place to put their funds that was secure, provided them with some interest, and was liquid like a traditional deposit account, allowing quick withdrawal. They wanted the same “ironclad moneyback guarantee” provided by FDIC deposit insurance, with the ability to get their money back on demand.

It was largely in response to that need that the private repo market evolved. 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. Repo replaces the security of deposit insurance with the security of highly liquid collateral, typically Treasury debt or mortgage-backed securities. Although the repo market evolved chiefly to satisfy the needs of the large institutional investors that were its chief lenders, it also served the interests of the banks, since it allowed them to get around the capital requirements imposed by regulators on the conventional banking system. Borrowing from the repo market became so popular that by 2008, it provided half the credit in the country. By 2020, this massive market had a turnover of $1 trillion a day.

Before 2008, banks also borrowed from each other in the fed funds market, allowing the Fed to manipulate interest rates by controlling the fed funds rate. But after 2008, banks were afraid to lend to each other for fear the borrowing banks might be insolvent and might not pay the loans back. Instead the lenders turned to the repo market, where loans were supposedly secured with collateral. The problem was that the collateral could be “rehypothecated,” or used for several loans at once; and by September 2019, the borrower side of the repo market had been taken over by hedge funds, which were notorious for risky rehypothecation. Many large institutional lenders therefore pulled out, driving the cost of borrowing at one point from 2% to 10%.

Rather than letting the banks fail and forcing a bail-in of private creditors’ funds, the Fed quietly stepped in and saved the banks by becoming the “repo lender of last resort.” But the liquidity crunch did not abate, and by March the Fed was making $1 trillion per day available in overnight loans. The central bank was backstopping the whole repo market, including the hedge funds, an untenable situation.

In March 2020, under cover of a national crisis, the Fed therefore flung the doors open to its discount window, where only banks could borrow. Previously, banks were reluctant to apply there because the interest was at a penalty rate and carried a stigma, signaling that the bank must be in distress. But that concern was eliminated when the Fed announced in a March 15 press release that the interest rate had been dropped to 0.25% (virtually zero). The reserve requirement was also eliminated, the capital requirement was relaxed, and all banks in good standing were offered loans of up to 90 days, “renewable on a daily basis.” The loans could be continually rolled over, and no strings were attached to this interest-free money – no obligation to lend to small businesses, reduce credit card rates, or write down underwater mortgages. Even J.P. Morgan Chase, the country’s largest bank, has acknowledged borrowing at the Fed’s discount window for super cheap loans.

The Fed’s scheme worked, and demand for repo loans plummeted. But unlike in Canada, where big banks slashed their credit card interest rates to help relieve borrowers during the COVID-19 crisis, US banks did not share this windfall with the public. Canadian interest rates were cut by half, from 21% to 11%; but US credit card rates dropped in April only by half a percentage point, to 20.15%. The giant Wall Street banks continued to favor their largest clients, doling out CARES Act benefits to them first, emptying the trough before many smaller businesses could drink there.

In 1969, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi nationalized 14 of India’s largest banks, not because they were bankrupt (the usual justification today) but to ensure that credit would be allocated according to planned priorities, including getting banks into rural areas and making cheap financing available to Indian farmers. Congress could do the same today, but the odds are it won’t. As Sen. Dick Durbin said in 2009, “the banks … are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place.”

Time for the States to Step In

State and local governments could make cheap credit available to their communities, but today they too are second class citizens when it comes to borrowing. Unlike the banks, which can borrow virtually interest-free with no strings attached, states can sell their bonds to the Fed only at market rates of 3% or 4% or more plus a penalty. Why are elected local governments, which are required to serve the public, penalized for shortfalls in their budgets caused by a mandatory shutdown, when private banks that serve private stockholders are not?

States can borrow from the federal unemployment trust fund, as California just did for $348 million, but these loans too must be paid back with interest, and they must be used to cover soaring claims for state unemployment benefits. States remain desperately short of funds to repair holes in their budgets from lost revenues and increased costs due to the shutdown.

States are excellent credit risks – far better than banks would be without the life-support of the federal government. States have a tax base, they aren’t going anywhere, they are legally required to pay their bills, and they are forbidden to file for bankruptcy. Banks are considered better credit risks than states only because their deposits are insured by the federal government and they are gifted with routine bailouts from the Fed, without which they would have collapsed decades ago.

State and local governments with a mandate to serve the public interest deserve to be treated as well as private Wall Street banks that have repeatedly been found guilty of frauds on the public. How can states get parity with the banks? If Congress won’t address that need, states can borrow interest-free at the Fed’s discount window by forming their own publicly-owned banks. For more on that possibility, see my earlier article here.

As Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, create a new model that makes the old model obsolete.” Post-COVID-19, the world will need to explore new models; and publicly-owned banks should be high on the list.

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How Russia is Botching Its Relationship With Syria

Photograph Source: A.Savin – CC BY-SA 3.0

Russia’s relationships with its client states have never been easy. Of course, managing client states is always a complicated exercise. The Kremlin’s cupboard is full of skeletons—Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), Cuba (1962), Afghanistan (1980), Ukraine (2014) and so on.

What complicates Russia’s relationship with Syria, which has sometimes been referred to as a Russian client state, is that two strong-willed, highly self-opinionated leaders are also involved here—Russian President Vladimir Putin and President of Syria Bashar al-Assad. Both enjoy unshakeable clan support and can hold their ground. Assad is by no means a Russian protege, and the interests of the two countries do not always overlap, either.

The Syrian government is fighting an existential battle, and it sees no reason to barter away its hard-earned victories in order to accommodate implacable enemies who refuse to reconcile with defeat and seek to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. In sum, Assad is hell-bent on regaining Syria’s sovereignty and restoring its territorial integrity, no matter what it takes or the timeline involved—preferably with Russia’s help and cooperation. Assad is clear-headed that unless he achieves this objective, the predatory powers will not leave him in peace.

The Kremlin, on the contrary, has multiple goals, including objectives that are unrelated to the Syrian situation. These range from vanquishing the terrorist groups that include extremist elements from Russia’s restive Muslim population to Russia’s resurgence as a military power with the capability to fight expeditionary wars.

The intervention in Syria has signified post-Soviet Russia’s “return” to the eastern Mediterranean, while the establishment of permanent Russian military bases in Syria has assertively proclaimed Moscow’s intention to play the role of arbiter in Middle Eastern affairs. And all this while hoping to achieve a level of engagement with the U.S., which would give gravitas to the rocky Russian-American relations and reduce Russia’s tensions with Europe.

Evidently, the divergent priorities need to be harmonized, as it is in the mutual interests of the two sides that differences are tackled with patience, care, and sensitivity. Bringing them to the public domain can only be counterproductive, as adversaries waiting in the wings are keenly watching for just such opportunities to create discord and acrimony in the Russian-Syrian alliance.

However, Moscow recently broke this golden rule, even as writings began appearing lately, penned by Russian think-tankers and opinion-makers that carry the stamp of the Kremlin, voicing criticism of the Syrian government, including President Bashar al-Assad.

Among them, the most notable, perhaps, was the article titled “War, the Economy and Politics in Syria: Broken Links” penned by the former Russian ambassador to Syria Aleksandr Aksenenok, who is also vice president of the influential Russian International Affairs Council (affiliated with the foreign ministry).

The article was patently written with an eye on the Western audience to convey a sense of annoyance toward Assad and signaled Moscow’s wish that his regime ought to switch its priorities from reconquering all of Syria to pursuing post-war development in the approximately 65 percent of the country that it controls at present.

The Kremlin’s viewpoint appears to be that it cannot continue to bankroll the war, and there is an imperative need to motivate the West and the Gulf Arab states to provide the funds for Syrian reconstruction. A high degree of frustration in Moscow is palpable in Aksenenok’s imputation that vested interests in Damascus could be seeking continuation of the war. He wrote:

“The war produced centers of influence and shadow organizations that are not interested in a transition to peaceful development[,] although Syrian society, including businesspeople and some government officials, have developed requirements for political reform… However, this requirement cannot be expressed openly in an atmosphere of total fear and domination by the secret services.”

Such glasnost in Russia is rare, and it has caught wide attention (here, here and here). Of course, it was a highly damning allegation that Assad is surrounded by war profiteers.

As sure as night following the day, Damascus hit back. A prominent Syrian political personality credited with close links to the country’s security establishment, Khaled al-Aboud launched a tirade in early May against Russia and Putin. Al-Aboud wrote, inter alia, “If Assad wanted it, Putin would have ended, and not just in Syria but in the region and the world, and the name ‘Putin’ would have been erased from Russian history forever.”

Significantly, al-Aboud also showered praise on the role of Iran and Hezbollah and estimated that Assad gives precedence to relations with Tehran over Syria’s ties with Moscow.

The Russian motivation seems to be threefold. One, Putin seems frustrated that the military victories have not opened a pathway to political settlement in Syria—whereas Moscow is desperately keen to garner the victory in political and economic terms. Assad’s fixation about total victory is not helping matters.

Two, integral to the above, stabilization of Syria demands repair and reconstruction of the economy requiring massive financial investments, which Russia has no capacity to undertake. But the petrodollar states of the Persian Gulf are in a position to help, and some of them, especially the United Arab Emirates, are normalizing their relations with Damascus.

A greater degree of pragmatism on Assad’s part to share power with the erstwhile extremist groups mentored by the Gulf states might help. But Assad is unwilling to accommodate the rebel fighters except on his terms, which is that they should simply lay down arms and he will give them a fair deal.

Three, Moscow has every reason to be wary of a bear trap that the U.S. military may set up for Russian forces in Syria. The U.S. has trained and armed proxy groups and has been supplying them with sophisticated weapons. The U.S. military presence in northern Syria and on the borders with Iraq is showing signs of being open-ended, no matter what President Trump might have said.

A quagmire like in Afghanistan is the last thing Moscow wants. Speaking at a video event on May 12 that was hosted by the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, the U.S. special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey openly bragged that his mission is principally focused on bleeding the Russian forces and evicting them from the region.

Jeffrey said, “Our military presence, while small, is important for overall calculations. So we urge the Congress, the American people, the president to keep these forces on, but again this isn’t Afghanistan, this isn’t Vietnam, this isn’t a quagmire… My job is to make it a quagmire for the Russians.”

Jeffrey noted that “the Russian military has been successful in Syria, but argued ‘they don’t have a political way out of their problems’” with Assad. In some previous remarks made in March, Jeffrey was also on record while stating that “the U.S. aims to ‘make it very difficult’ for Russia to help the Syrian government achieve a military victory.” Jeffrey has been insisting that “Assad must go.”

Such provocative remarks and taunts, taken together, must be ringing alarm bells in Moscow. On the one hand, Turkey and the U.S. are blocking a total military victory in Syria while on the other hand, Assad will not settle for anything less than total victory and, as Josh Rogin wrote in the Washington Post, “Iran sees Syria as part of its ‘axis of resistance’ against the [U.S.] and Israel.”

Simply put, Russia has gambled and lost: in the final analysis, the U.S. and its European allies refuse to accept the prospect of Assad remaining in power, although they lost the proxy war.

Jeffrey’s pointed reference to “quagmire” opens deep wounds in the Russian psyche. The Russian public will never condone such an outcome in Syria, and the raison d’être of the intervention in 2015 will come under close scrutiny sooner or later if the present stalemate continues.

Meanwhile, the Russian economy has come under stress due to a combination of circumstances following the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to the steep fall in demand for oil and a consequent heavy loss of income from oil exports at a juncture when the Russian economy will need substantial fiscal stimulus to cope with the recession.

Russia has no choice but to accept the reality that Assad may be an imperfect partner, but is nonetheless a partner. The economic cost of that partnership is sustainable, too. The intervention in Syria as such has been a boon for Russia’s geo-strategy.

The military victories in Syria have brilliantly advertised Russia’s credentials as an exporter of weaponry. In political and diplomatic terms, Russia’s relationships with Iran, Turkey, Israel, and the Gulf states have all deepened, and its prestige in the region has been greatly enhanced. The military bases in Syria provide a permanent presence for Russia in the Middle East for decades to come.

Without a doubt, Russia and Assad make indispensable partners for the time being. Putin must set aside his ambition to play the role of a peacemaker in Syria. It is for the Syrian people to decide on their future government.

Fundamentally, Russia keeps pining for constructive engagement by the U.S., but Washington has no interest in working with Moscow. Russia is a toxic subject in the Beltway. The U.S. wants Russia to vacate its military bases in Syria, and it perceives the Russian presence in the Mediterranean as a challenge to NATO and finds it unacceptable. The sooner Moscow recognizes this geopolitical reality, the easier it becomes for the “Westernists” among the Russian foreign-policy elite to purge their illusions.

Yet, the pathetic part is that Assad’s trust in Putin must be badly shaken. Moscow has been less than fair to Assad by speaking ill of him behind his back—and that too to Jeffrey. At least, that is what Jeffrey kept insinuating in an exclusive interview recently with the Saudi establishment daily Asharq Al-Awsat.

Moscow’s bad faith can only tarnish its reputation in the Arab bazaar. Running with the hare and hunting with the hound never presents a pleasant sight to the audience, especially when a great power resorts to it.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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Global Cockfights, Viruses, and the Monsters Within

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

“We’re living on borrowed time. But that gives us a chance to do things we should perhaps have done before.”

– Klaus Stohr (WHO), 15 December 2004

It’s a funny thing, language. Geniuses tell us that it’s what separates us most from the chimpanzees at the zoo who spit at us, unimpressed. One time, I saw a guy spit back and pick up a banana that had fallen from the cage, and made as if to give it back to the chimp with entreating eyes, only to pull it back at the last minute and begin a burlesque peel that drove Bonzo, and his mates, cageshakingly apeshit, and as he ate it, like a one-percenter, I could see in Bonzo’s eyes a vow to evolve — just to get him back. The guy riposted with a finger, and flashed his opposable thumb, and walked away, a stream of ejectile whizzing past his head. Made me ashamed to be a homo sapien.

In these days of Covid-19 we need to be more careful about spitters and spittees, and the language that we use: lives are at risk. Nothing reveals the decline and fall of the American imperial mind better, at Das Kapital’s end, than the inane debacle that took place weeks back concerning the use of masks in our current pandemic. Should we wear them? Or should we not? Which ones should we wear? Can we make our own stylized sputum catchers? Can we mask-up like Jesse James, criminal hero of many childhoods? Are American Muslim women now laughing at us behind fashionable hijabs? Some people got so discombobulated by the mask fiasco, hearing that mouth masks don’t protect eyes from vile ejectile, that they panicked and wore face masks over their eyes and you gave them extra distance.

Well, we could all end up discombobulated by the time it’s all finished, going out masked and looking like Picasso’s Guernica, driven devolvos hoiked into our own spittoons. In a peculiar way, too many ‘folks’ in America seem to be enjoying Nature’s schadenfreude festival in ways that are uncomfortable to observe and may border on some kind of dissociative hysteria that feels like The End is near.

In his preface to The Monster at the Door (2005), Mike Davis calls us out on our special species lack of empathy during catastrophes. He writes,

Unlike certain other social animals, we have no collective sorrow instinct or biological solidarity that is automatically aroused by the destruction of our fellow kind. Indeed, at our worst we find a perverse, often delectable sublimity in Black Deaths, tsunamis, massacres, genocides, and collapsing skyscrapers.

You go to chide such an attitude, but, then, you can’t see how it’s untrue, looking back at history as a series of Bill Murray Groundhog Days (but without the happy ending), and guys going around flashing opposable thumbs at chimps the way hippies used to flash opposable fingers at The Man. We can be monsters, and we just don’t seem to get it.

And that’s one of many salient points Mike Davis makes in his new book, The Monster Enters: Covid-19, Avian Flu and the Plagues of Capitalism. The new book is actually The Monster at the Door redux, with a 45-page Introduction completed in late April 2020 that specifically addresses the coronavirus pandemic. Deflecting the apparent chutzpah of re-releasing a book

largely about the “avian flu” virus (H5N1), Davis offers up, “The [Covid-19] pandemic, according to my current publishers, has given new relevance to my old flu Monster…I should emphasize, however, that the threat of an avian flu outbreak and its global spread continues to be ‘imminent.’” In short, Covid-19 could team up with H5N1 and come at us like Godzilla, with Mothra, in a secondary wave of bio-terror.

That ‘full disclosure’ aside, The Monster Enters is a helpful reiteration of important details regarding the Problem we face: From AIDS to Ebola to SARS to MERS to Covid-19, Davis cites scientists who say we’ve entered a new epoch of pandemics; from now into an indefinite future, we will face waves of these ‘novel,’ viruses: “the species-jumping versions are extraordinary shape-shifters that constantly alter their genomes to foil the powerful immune systems of human and mammalian hosts.” Maybe a shape-shifting virus-tipped spitball from space conked out the dinosaurs, too.

Davis writes, “As a recent article in The New England Journal of Medicine observes: ‘It took the genome of the human species 8 million years to evolve by 1%. Many animal RNA viruses can evolve by more than 1% in a matter of days.’” It’s a scenario reminiscent of the alien, crystal-like virus that changes before the very eyes of terrified scientists in The Andromeda Strain.

We’ve known for quite some time that viruses come in different categories. Some have a high mortality rate, but don’t spread easily, so total deaths are down. Others have a lower mortality rate, but spread easier, and can kill more people. Davis says we are in the latter category, and that

Although not as deadly as the SARS or MERS, COVID-19’s currently guesstimated two percent mortality rate is comparable to the Spanish flu and like that monster it probably has the ability to infect a majority of the human race unless antiviral and vaccine development quickly come to the rescue.

Spanish flu ended up infecting a third of the human population and killing up to 100 million people. A sobering fact to get soused to in your solitude.

But there’s more, whether by avian flu or coronavirus human vulnerability to viruses seems to be growing exponentially, especially now that viruses seem to be getting closer and closer to cutting out the middle pangolin and getting at humans directly. Davis fears a perfect storm scenario whereby we are facing a virus that spreads easily and is so lethal that as many as “a billion people” could die. Citing Rene Snacken, leading influenza expert at the Scientific Institute of Public Health in Belgium, Davis mongers up a Doomsday image:

Eight years of research on H5N1 had convinced him that this cunning little Darwinian demon was capable of ecocide—the wiping out of entire species.

Covid-19 may just be the rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem, while we take zoom-selfies of our selfish doom.

So who’s to blame for Covid-19, hypocrite, mon lecteur, as the Rolling Stones once sang about the killing of the Kennedys — after all, it was you and me. Pleased to meet you. Well, it’s that and it’s not that, and not in a quantum way either. We western ords and occidental plebs, who mostly live in gorgeous representative democracies, cede our power as people to roaring dunderheads, time after time. Once they’re in office, Christ! They can be tough to get rid of, like cargo-cult cans of worn-out Spam on the shelves of supermarkets in Papua New Guinea. Davis says the biggest problem is the resistance to change, even at the potential cost of self-extinction. The two main factors of resistance are culture and politics.

He provides an example of cultural resistance in the form of cockfighting in Thailand. Our modern homogenized and pasturized moral minds recoil at hearing of such acts as setting one animal against another for bloody sport. But Davis has bigger chicken to fry: Farmers in China, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam raise chickens, and many of them supplement a subsistence income by grooming cocks to fight for money. When H5N1 broke out among Thai farmers in 2004 the government imposed a kill-down, and farmers with fighting cocks faced immediate destitution. Davis writes,

As they investigated, WHO officials were horrified to find out that it was common practice for the owners of fighting cocks to suck blood and mucous from the beaks of birds injured in a fight.

Strangely, I pictured the Holyfield-Tyson Bite Fight, Evander’s trainer ’s medically laving his ear. If you call reality “sur” long enough he becomes your master.

A more germaine and recent example of culture impacting on public health comes from Wuhan. The “wet markets,” said to be the source of the Covid-19 outbreak (although others have pointed to a research lab a mile up the road that was known to be experimenting with coronavirus before the outbreak), often feature exotic wild animals — pangolin, bats — that bring with them from the wilderness ‘novel’ viruses that come at us like zero-day attacks we have no ready solution for. Tourists and other travelers passing through the wet market took the virus away with them. The first American diagnosed with Covid-19 in January had just returned to Washington state from Wuhan. It is difficult to convince the locals to change their habits. Davis points out that Chinese did nothing to change wet market practices after H5N1.

But the biggest hindrance to solutions to pandemic planning, and all the other clear and dangerous humanity faces, is political will to take on vested corporate interests. Davis writes,

The essence of the avian flu threat…is that a mutant influenza of nightmarish virulence—evolved and now entrenched in ecological niches recently created by global agro-capitalism—is searching for the new gene or two that will enable it to travel at pandemic velocity through a densely urbanized and mostly poor humanity…Human-induced environmental shocks—overseas tourism, wetland destruction, a corporate “Livestock Revolution,” and Third World urbanization with the attendant growth of megaslums—are responsible for turning influenza’s extraordinary Darwinian mutability into one of the most dangerous biological forces on our besieged planet.

Davis provides evidence that novel coronaviruses are equally dangerous.

Covid-19 has already brought to the fore, yet again, the disproportionate suffering such pandemics bring to the poor — the Third World poor — whose conditions are so primitive, in many instances, that the viruses are practically part of their biomes. Davis notes that

Multiple studies confirm that SARS-CoV-2 [Covid-19] is being shed copiously in feces and accumulated in sewage. In African and South Asian slums, of course, fecal contamination is everywhere: in the water, in home grown vegetables and as windblown dust. (Yes, shit storms are real.)

Similarly, the slumdog millionaires of Mumbai have been economically devastated by the Covid-19 ‘lockdowns,’ as reported recently by The Democracy Dies in Darkness Daily, owned by Jeff Bezos. These “shitholes,” as Trump would describe them, may ironically be the breeding ground of the next revolution.

Davis is livid. He implies that Trump’s leadership inadequacies, including masks, chloroquine, and advising people to skip quarantine (as his economic numbers tumble) could be potentially impeachable offenses:

Trump’s craven abdications, tantrums, lies, and sundry high crimes and misdemeanors during this crisis. For now, it is possible to summarize the major factors responsible for the catastrophic meltdown of the federal response in the first three months of the pandemic.

And this doesn’t even include Trump’s early assignation of blame on a Chinese hoax — now apparently re-assigned to the Democrats, a conspiracy theory that son Eric now appears to be in charge of spreading.

Davis lists six reasons why the response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been so disastrous. First, says Davis, “there was no continuity of leadership” from the Obama administration to Trump’s. Two, he cites the “shocking incompetence and poor judgment of the CDC,” specifically in their handling of testing kits. Third, Davis says self-isolating is a back-up plan, not primary, and was “made necessary by the failure to implement early testing and detection.” Fourth — the aforementioned fiasco regardings masks. Fifth, Davis continues, “… the Trump administration … power grab in almost every sense…has consistently rejected power’s responsibilities.” Sixth, “Trump’s CDC, still reeling from the test kit fiasco, has abdicated a principal role in vaccine development as have Big Pharma and the WHO.”

And as if another impending pointless lesser-of-two evils election wasn’t depressing enough a prospect, Davis raises the potential for bioterror. He has suggested that H5N1 could potentially wipe out a billion people. This was known during the GW Bush administration. But, as with the 9/11 information he had at his disposal, he cynically turned around for political purposes. Davis writes that Bush set up Project BioShield which “was designed to build support for the invasion of Iraq by sowing the baseless fear that Saddam Hussein might use bioweapons against the United States.” Not only that, but he set aside funding for “fast-tracked vaccination programs for smallpox and anthrax,” when the focus should have been avian virus. Where do we get these leaders? Oh, right.

Davis says the sad reality is that Covid-19 is here to stay. Antibody testing will be ready soonest, drugs like remsevir, which are largely untrialled, will be given a shot to be a temporary solution, while no vaccine will be ready much before June 2022. In the meantime, the economy will continue to falter, weaknesses in the structure of the American social/political system will continue to blight what’s left of the democratic republic. Who’s in charge? You choose A or B in November. Then imagine if it will matter with the pandemics ahead and Climate breathing down our necks.

Davis explicitly points out that vested interests won’t by themselves change anything soon. They never have. Davis writes,

Today…multinational capital has been the driver of disease evolution through the burning or logging out of tropical forests, the proliferation of factory farming, the explosive growth of slums…and the failure of the pharmaceutical industry to find profit in mass producing lifeline antivirals, new-generation antibiotics, and universal vaccines.

Permanent bio-protection against new plagues, accordingly, would require more than vaccines. It would need the suppression of these “structures of disease emergence” through revolutionary reforms in agriculture and urban living that no large capitalist or state-capitalist country would ever willingly undertake.

TikTok. TikTok. TikTok. Zoom. Zoom. Zoom. Time is ticking away.

Now that the Monster is comfortably seated in our environs, munching on cell walls, glugging down tins of Precious Bodily Fluids, and checking out the breathless TV epic take-down of a clown legally elected president of a country that rules the world with chutzpah, we probably don’t stand much of a chance. Vaccines are years away. Davis says Covid’s beefier cousins are already in transit. It’ll take a special effort (a universal vaccine, global governance coming together) and we may just not have the wherewithal to get it done. We may have just shot our wads on the wild-eyed vision needed to build cathedrals.

It’s gonna be like all those old Untouchables episodes, Robert Stack machinegunning virus after virus, finally nailing Corona for tox evasion, and looking handsome doing it, while the climate kicks some heinie, and bankers get so toonish with money-lust, that in the final end (as Dylan would say), it’ll be like Nicholson playing a 1-percenter, sitting back, and getting his brains blown at the end of Carnal Knowledge by the 99% service sector, his last exploded selfish thoughts spattered all over the walls of the universe, a big bang, followed by a little whimper, like a God indifferent to it all.

One thing Covid-19 has reminded us, among many things, is how much we spit when we speak, and we must be more careful to ‘say not spray.’

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What The President Continues To Say (About The Plague)

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

In two previous pieces in CounterPunch I compiled Donald Trump’s statements on the COVID-19 pandemic up to May 2nd-3rd. Here is a continuation of that list.

Rather than place Trump’s statements in strict chronological order, I have sometimes put 2 or more of statements from different days together, to highlight Trump’s contradictions and subsequent deviations– these are prefaced by an asterisk. I have retained Trump’s numerous linguistic infelicities. It should be noted that Trump sometimes refers to himself in the third person:–

May 2—“She [Nicolle Wallace] was thrown off The View like a dog, Zero T.V. Personas. Now Wallace is a 3rd rate lapdog for Fake News MSDNC (Concast). Doesn’t have what it takes!”

May 3— “We are very confident we are going to have a vaccine by the end of the year.”

May 3– “We’re going to lose anywhere from 75, 80 to 100,000 people. That’s a horrible thing.” [In April Trump predicted 60,000 American lives would be lost.]

May 3—(asked why he didn’t act earlier on the epidemic, Trump said that on 23 January he was briefed thus) “There could be a virus coming, but it was of no real import. In other words, it wasn’t: ‘Oh, we’ve got to do something, we’ve got to do something.’ It was a brief conversation.”

May 4– “It’s not fair to the Republicans because all the states that need help — they’re run by Democrats in every case. Florida is doing phenomenal, Texas is doing phenomenal, the Midwest is, you know, fantastic — very little debt.”

May 5– “Dr. Fauci will be testifying in front of the Senate and he looks forward to doing that. But the House, I will tell you, the House, they should be ashamed of themselves and frankly the Democrats should be ashamed because they don’t want us to succeed. They want us to fail so they can win an election which they’re not going to win.”

May 5– “Will some people be affected? Yes. Will some people be affected badly? Yes. But we have to get our country open and we have to get it open soon.”

May 5– “There’ll be more death, the virus will pass, with or without a vaccine. And I think we’re doing very well on the vaccines but, with or without a vaccine, it’s going to pass, and we’re going to be back to normal.”

May 5– “We have to get our country back. You know, people are dying the other way too. When you look at what’s happened with drugs, it goes up. When you look at suicides, I mean, take a look at what’s going on. People are losing their jobs — we have to bring it back, and that’s what we’re doing.”

May 5— (as he boarded his plane to campaign in Phoenix, Arizona) “We’re going to do it again, and that’s what we’re starting, and I view these last couple of days as the beginning. We’re going to build the greatest economy in the world again, and it’s going to happen pretty fast. [as Trump’s plane touched down in Phoenix, the state reported that it had 33 deaths on May 4th, its single highest daily death toll.]

May 6– (responding to an ABC News interviewer who said: “You’re three years into your term. What did you do when you became president to restock those cupboards that you say are bare?) “Well, I’ll be honest, uh, I have a lot of things going on.”

May 6– “Let me tell you this. I closed the border if you want to use that term, I banned people from coming into China [sic]. I came in and what I did is, I said against many people, including Anthony Fauci, who I like very much, including Deborah, who I like very much, the doctors, and many other people…”

May 6– “The taskforce will continue on indefinitely with its focus on SAFETY & OPENING UP OUR COUNTRY AGAIN. We may add or subtract people to it, as appropriate. The taskforce will also be very focused on Vaccines & Therapeutics.” [Trump said the day before he planned to replace the taskforce with “something in a different form”.]

May 6— (replying to a nurse who said she wore the same N95 mask for “a few weeks” and that her health system’s supply was “sporadic”) “Sporadic for you, but not sporadic for a lot of other people. Because I’ve heard the opposite. I have heard that they are loaded up with gowns now. We had empty shelves and empty nothing because it wasn’t put there by the last administration.”

May 6– “We have to be warriors. We can’t keep our country closed down for years. Hopefully that won’t be the case … but it could very well be the case.”

May 6– “We went through the worst attack we’ve ever had on our country, this is worst attack we’ve ever had. This is worse than Pearl Harbor, this is worse than the World Trade Center. There’s never been an attack like this. And it should have never happened. Could’ve been stopped at the source. Could’ve been stopped in China. It should’ve been stopped right at the source. And it wasn’t.”

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The No Land’s Man

Photograph Source: Victorgrigas – CC BY-SA 3.0

A mother giving birth to a child right in the midst of the road with other women covering the space with sarees stretched around her is no more limited to the Bollywood movies; they are real stories of the modern India. The other day a migrant woman gave birth to a child on the roadside while walking from Maharashtra province to her home in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh province. The lady and her family walked 150 kilometres after the delivery of the baby. Did it shake our conscience? Not really. After the nationwide lockdown was announced, many such incidences have happened with the interstate migrant workers and the central and state governments have shown their thick skins to it. Just a day before the above incidence a train rammed over and killed 16 migrant workers in Aurangabad of Maharashtra province when they were exhausted and resting on the railway track (They may have thought that no trains would come as it’s a lockdown) while walking back to their homes. And wait, much more such incidences are going to happen as many migrants are still on the road, walking, cycling, and going by an auto rickshaw or by a truck.

Why are they walking?

After the first lockdown imposed on March 25, there was huge exodus of the interstate migrant workers from cities like Delhi, Mumbai, and Pune etc to their homes, who started walking as all transport services were shut down. Somehow, the situation was managed with the state governments taking them to temporary shelters from the roads. With the anticipation that they would be allowed to go home after the 21 days of lockdown, the migrant workers cooperated. The lockdown, however, never ended and the prospect of them returning home got indefinitely delayed. Many of them have lost their jobs by now and are hardly left with any money. The livelihood of 40 million migrant workers in India have been affected by the lockdown, said World Bank in April.

Despite widespread demands from economists and opposition parties for immediate cash transfer to the tune of $70 -$100 to the poor people, especially the migrant workers accounts, the government continued to be obstinate. The two financial packages announced till now, 1.7 trillion rupees or $22.6 billion on March 27 and another of 20 trillion rupees of $265 billion, hardly gave sufficient cash in hand for the migrants that would have encouraged them to stay in the cities till they are taken back homes through government arrangements.

Despite governments’ claim that food and ration were delivered to them in the cities of their work, the fact remains that many went hungry. The house owners continued to demand room rents from them. One can well witness several such cases beamed daily on Television channels. Limited train service have started during the third lockdown from May 4. But with no income, no food and no future, the migrant workers would hardly wait to die in the place, which was never theirs! Many migrant workers started walking back to their homes travelling a distance that is sometimes more than 1000 kilometres. Many were exhausted and died en route. Many faced with accidents and the number went on counting each day as the country brazenly witnessed them suffering! As I am writing this article, many are still on the roads walking empty stomach day and night, with the children on their shoulders and luggage on heads.

Who are these migrant workers?

Interstate migration has taken place long ago in India. But after the liberalisation of economy in early 1990s, the cities grew at a faster rate with construction work and service sector witnessing rapid growth. It required cheap casual labour to do unskilled manual labour or semi-skilled jobs in the informal sector in the cities. And simultaneously there has been consistent negligence of the agriculture in the country and decimation of the rural economy. On-going profession became economically unviable. People from villages started migrating to cities in large numbers individually or through labour contractors, to do odd jobs for a meagre income. People also migrated with families. Bigger cities attracted more such working class people. This push factor was created as part of the design under the neo-liberal economy adopted under what is known as Mamohanomics. And subsequent governments continued with the same economic model. And no wonder, due to the negligence of agriculture and rural economy, millions of farmers have committed suicide in last three decades or so.

They lived in slums in cities or in small rented houses. The slums went on expanding in the cities. These are uneducated people or having some levels of school education with low-level skills that are engaged as labourers in construction sites, textile meals, factories, as security guards, tailors, sales persons etc. People having some education level at college level or having some skill worked as supervisors, typists, receptionists etc. These people make the cities; therefore they are called city-makers. As there was nothing left in the villages, people also went to cities to open their small own ventures like vegetable selling, roadside eateries so on.

The other day, the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman puts the figure of migrant workers at 80 million while announcing the “One nation, one ration card” as part of the newly announced financial package. Umi Daniel, social activist working on the issue of migration however suggests based on studies, “Of about 400 million informal workers, 100 million are seasonal labourers” It may be pointed out that there is no proper mechanism to calculate the interstate migrant workers. The figure above also does not differentiate among the interstate and intra-state migrant workers.

Exploitation by design?

These people working as casual labourers and in informal sectors do not make great earnings. This is different from the high skilled workforces who work in big companies with handsome salaries, which is not being discussed here. These migrants live a minimalist life in cities in cramped condition limiting their expenses so that they can send the savings to their families in villages. Under the labour contractor system, an interstate movement of casual labour is promoted by design to work in construction sector, brick kilns etc so that the labourers cannot form unions and they have to work at the mercy of the employers.

The labour laws in the country hardly protect the interest of the workers. As Prata Bhanu Mehta, columnist puts it in his article in Indian Express, “Indian labour laws are irrelevant for 90 per cent of the labour force”. The minimum wages, norms of working condition, and their human rights are violated with impunity. These people are exploited to the fullest.

Uprooted from the villages and not owned by cities of their work, these migrants are left as no land’s men and women!

Reverse remittance during the lockdown

How these people have been living last two months in cities during the lockdown with no jobs in hands? One migrant worker from the Odisha province, Pabitra Muduli, who migrated to Gurgaon of Haryana province to work as tailor before ten years, has now taken more than $250 from his family back in home to feed himself and give the room rent – a case of reverse remittance! The family has taken a loan from a self-help group to send him the money. His company is closed now, he has exhausted his savings and wants to come back home. The government has started Shramik special trains to bring the migrants workers back to their homes. The irony is that these people who are starving during the lockdown have to pay for train tickets! The state and central government passed the buck on who should cover the ticket cost. It was never resolved and the migrants are forced to bear the same. Several instances of reverse remittance are reported now.

What’s next?

The government and all other institutions like the courts and the human rights commissions have miserably failed in dealing with the migrants’ crisis. The central government’s $265 billion package aims to make the economy self-reliant. It provides, among others, strengthening the agriculture and small-scale industries, and reviving the rural economy. It will take some time to analyse the possible impact of the package. But for the migrant workers, the unending journey back to homes continues amidst the risk of losing the life anytime!

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The Death of Hope

When foreign journalists would ask me if I thought that Antonio González Pacheco, alias “Billy el Niño” (BILLY THE KID), would ever be tried, I would answer no, that I never expected that there would ever be justice in Spain around the crimes committed during the Franco years. But deep down, I held on to the childish hope that an Argentine extradition suit against him would actually move forward and that one day we would see that criminal tried in a court of justice.

On May 7 that hope died with the death from complications of the coronavirus of the 73 year-old torturer. A death that took place in a hospital, attended to by skilled health workers who did all they could to save him. And if it had not been for the news media, the career of one of the most brutal criminals, who had thrived for 40 years with unchecked power and impunity, would have ended in anonymity.

What BILLY THE KID did is somewhat known in our country, although not nearly as well as in other countries that lived through the trials of their own dictators and torturers. Only Spain, lost in their interminable  dictatorship, had not tried even one of the authors of what Paul Preston coined the Spanish genocide. Not the military who bloodied Spain to kill the newly born Republic (1936) that augured a new era of equality, solidarity and democracy; not the politicians who ordered the massacres; not the police or the “State Security Forces”– what a laugh!– that carried out the orders; not the Falangists, the civil servants, the businessmen or the intellectuals who were their accomplices and justified it all with their florid fascist style.

Spain is an exception among the countries that overcame dictatorships. The impunity that followed the approval of the Amnesty Law in 1977, equivalent to the reviled Argentine Full Stop Law that was later overturned, did not allow for funeral rites for our assassinated mothers and fathers and family members thrown into the ditches of Spain, the bare minimum that any culture affords its dead.

In Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, Greece, Portugal, France, Germany, and  South Africa, democratic forces felt the obligation to come to terms with their recent history to salvage the honor of the country. No such thing happened in Spain. Spain has no honor. The fascists who won the Civil War ended that. We all know that criminal regime ruled for 40 years with the complacency of the international “democratic”  community. Then there followed the years of the Transition to democracy where the dead continued accumulating in the streets of our cities.

They say democracy arrived and a Constitution was approved, similar to that of other western countries, and the Spanish Socialist Workers Party won the elections and governed with an absolute majority for 14 uninterrupted years, and then returned, due to the overwhelming response of the public, for another eight years to direct our destiny. Despite diverse changes that have plagued Spanish politics over recent years, it’s now been more than two years since the Socialists returned to Moncloa (the Spanish White House), with the sizable support of the amalgam of populist leftist organizations that initially evoked such great enthusiasm among the masses. And with all this, they couldn’t even agree to take away BILLY THE KIDS’S four medals and the pension that he enjoyed.

And there’s still more. The Minister of Education, María Isabel Celaá Diéguez, who at that time was the government spokesperson, explained to the press that Mr. González Pacheco calmly strolled through the streets of Madrid because he was a free man since there was no court case against him. He continued to have impunity because it was part of the Pact of the Transition. Impunity for the military who participated in the 1936 Coup that overthrew the legally elected Spanish Republic, while those who belonged to the UMD (Democratic Military Unit) couldn’t go back into the Army. Impunity for the assassins– of the Atocha neighborhood lawyers in 1977; of the activists Yolanda González, Arturo Ruiz, Salvador Rueda– who had minimal sentences or who opportunely fled. Impunity for those who looted the country during four terrible decades, made off with private houses and public buildings, plots of land, factories, schools, works of art, union locales, newspapers, political parties.

And impunity for the torturers who operated in Franco’s special police force, the Social-Political Brigade, hanging the arrested by their wrists and beating their stomachs, as they did to me in Madrid’s General Security headquarters during nine interminable days, from September 16 -25, 1974. They drowned prisoners in bathtubs, electrocuted them with broken lamps, broke their jaws, pulled out their teeth, threw the arrested out the windows and down the stairs, while enjoying absolute power over their bodies.

It’s been futile that the organizations that belong to the Recuperation of Historical Memory demand, denounce, protest, and even bring to court notorious cases of torture and disappearances, with a tenacity and persistence worthy of praise. The 1977 Amnesty Law has forever shielded crime and infamy, with the support of all the parties who signed it.

And they all signed it. All of them. Let there be no doubt about it. Neither the socialists nor the communists nor the nationalists expressed condemnation of or disagreement with the Constitution or Amnesty Law. Not even the trade unionists who had so many victims among their rank and file—let’s remember communist union leader Marcelino Camacho’s worthless speech—or the Catalan nationalists who today are so critical of the Spanish state, spoke out or voted against it. Nicolás Sartorius, another former communist union leader, still defends that law of impunity. In ditches, in roads, in fields, and in cemeteries of Spain, the remains of our ancestors who sacrificed their lives so that ours would be happy, haven’t found an honorable grave.

As Elena de León, my sister feminist, writes, “In those ditches, we don’t know who is who or what happened. Really, there was more respect in the executions of the Paris Commune.”

Madrid, May 8, 2020. Seventy-five years after the surrender of Germany and the end of World War II in Europe.

Lidia Falcón is a Spanish lawyer, writer, and president of the Spanish Feminist Party.

Translated from the Spanish by Linda Gould Levine, Professor Emerita of Spanish, Montclair State University, and  Gloria Feiman Waldman, Professor Emerita, York College, CUNY.


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Conspiracies and the Coronavirus in the USA and Germany

By early May 2020, Coronavirus and Conspiracies had become a pressing issue. It should not come as a surprise that the global right-wing is linking the coronavirus to conspiracies. The use of conspiracies is nothing new. In 2018, CNN reported that within 72 hours, three hate crimes killed two African-Americans in Kentucky, nail bombs were sent to Democrats to people who criticized Donald Trump. Before that, a man shouting anti-Semitic slurs opened fire at a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing eleven people attending Jewish services. The men who committed these acts had one thing in common. They believed in conspiracies.

It seems that we have entered the age of half-truths, fake news, paranoia, resentment, and irrationality. Fired up by Donald Trump, this is the Age of Conspiracies. One of the nuttiest conspiracies is the hallucination that Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel is Hitler’s daughter. It is laughable, albeit obscene, and very dangerous. Conspiracies are neither theories nor science. They are not confirmed by scientific methods that are used to explain nature and society. As such, conspiracy theories do not produce provable information. They might better be labeled conspiracy myths. Still, conspiracy theories appear to provide broad, internally consistent explanations that sound plausible, connecting things that are not really linked while allowing people to preserve beliefs in the face of uncertainty and contradictions.

With the rise of Facebook & Co., conspiracies seem to have their very own digital reality existing quite apart from analog reality. Inside such digital spaces, a large amount of bullshit has been invented. It is no longer uncommon to hear conspiracy myths that secret forces created the refugee avalanche to destroy our homeland. There never was an avalanche – nor a caravan (Trump) but children in cages (Trump). There is no caravan and are no secret forces. And refugees will not destroy our homeland.

Still, these are more than just dangerous misbeliefs. They are early signs of rising fascism. Historically, the Nazi hallucination of a Jewish world conspiracy paved the way to the Holocaust and Auschwitz. Today, conspiracies aren’t dead and buried. The opposite is the case. They are the high currency for right-wing politicians. A sure sign of a rising belief in conspiracies remains. Just as White House Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon once says, the story is more important than reality. Today, this is applied to the coronavirus.

Coronavirus and Conspiracies

People who believe in conspiracies do not only have one overarching common denominator – low levels of educational and intellectual achievement. Hence, the fear of the unknown and the invisible. During the corona crisis, conspiracy creators found easy prey. Some people are particularly vulnerable to conspiracies. And these are not just aluminum hat-wearing people protected from cosmic radiation.

For weeks, a new virus has broken out in Germany: the virus of conspiracies. Right-wing extremists have organized so-called hygiene rallies set against restrictions preventing the spread of the coronavirus. Demonstrations took place in Stuttgart, Munich, Berlin, and other cities. Germany’s right-wing has skillfully mixed their ideology with a simple fear of losing individual freedom. Many attendees have been used by conspiracy theorists to attract even more followers.

German conspiracy theorists question the veracity of the virus. They believe Corona was bread in secret laboratories in China or even the USA. Others see the whole crisis as a gigantic maneuver to mask their l’idée fixe that 5G radio waves make people sick and even kill them. A highly popular conspiracy in Germany is that Bill Gates is using his money to develop vaccines, and in a massive plot, everyone will be forced to take the vaccines to fight the corona pandemics. This has enraged the global anti-vaccination groups.

Conspiracies work, and they are dangerous for democracy as conspiracies spread. There seems to be a conspiracy theorist in every village. He – mostly it is a “he” – was, in the past, commonly laughed at. Today, 20,000 conspiracy theorists can meet in a closed WhatsApp forum . They enter their WhatsApp echo chamber and hype up their levels of skepticism by exchanging obsessions and strengthen their conspiracies and ideologies.

In Germany, this has become a serious problem. We can observe this in many German cities. Of course, all of this is highly contagious. All those who feel that there is something wrong with state measures against Corona are quickly drawn into their hallucinogenic world. Suddenly, they found a new home. They enter a secure place. They are among like-minded people, all claiming there is an evil plan behind it all. The madness is then transferred from the digital sphere into the analog world.

It creates a sort of tribal thinking, tarnishing facts, rationality, science, and evidence. This has developed something that might be called a conspiracy mentality and a tribal mindset. Both obscure a clear view of the Corona facts. This can quickly lead to sometimes being subjected to one’s own worldview. This does not work for everyone.

But it works very well for those who have a slightly lower level of education. According to this explanation, someone like Donald Trump, for example, should be more likely to believe in conspiracy theories than, for example, someone like Angela Merkel, who was awarded a doctorate for her thesis on quantum chemistry. Unlike Merkel, believers in conspiracies are also more likely to accept the supernatural. They tend to extremes and have trouble thinking in scientific and statistical terms. Again, Trump (a man) is more likely than Merkel (a woman) to be deprived of this ability.

The Fear of the Invisible

We know that men are more open to conspiracies than women. There is a serious overlap between men and the far right as well as conspiracies with far-right ideas. In general, however, a fear of the scientific and technically elusive remains relevant for conspiracies. It is the fear of the unknown and the invisible that leads conspiracy theorists to cook up semi-plausible issues often linked to plausible but largely home-cooked speculations. The fear of the unseen, the inexplicable, and the artificial often work in favor of conspiracies. Essentially, it is the mesmerizing quack of the medieval village market transferred into modernity using modern technology.

There is an arms race between technology and education. On the one hand, there is more and more technology, and on the other, educational levels must be higher and higher to be able to understand counter this. If the technology race wins, the likely outcome is a significant increase in conspiracies. Consequently, conspiracies should be more prevalent in fly-over states and adjacent backwaters than in MIT’s library.

Facing Conspiracy Theorists

It is practically challenging to tell a conspiracy theorist that their “theories” are without foundation in facts and empirical evidence. When someone has embarked on conspiracies, they have gone through many processes of self-immunization. They tend to interpret any form of criticism only as confirmation of their own worldviews and convictions. One of the hardest things is to tell them that their ideas are dead wrong. This is true in political, social, environmental, and moral spheres. Still, perhaps one of the few ways to convince someone is dialogue. The only thing you can do is to seek a personal connection, ask, understand, discuss, and try to sow doubt about conspiracies. Researchers on right-wing extremists say this is tedious, and it takes a long time.

Climate Deniers Discover Corona

Those who deny climate change also tend to follow conspiracies on the coronavirus. The subject is very different, global warming here and the coronavirus there. Still, the accusations of conspiracy theorists are very similar. Claims about global warming mirror those about the coronavirus. In both areas, data and models of science are presented as doubtful and even wrong. In the case of the coronavirus, conspiracy theorists believe that governments were just trying to restrict people’s freedom.

Despite causing about 300,000 deaths globally (13th May 2020), conspiracy theorists believe that it isn’t bad. They believe that coronavirus is just a hoax. It is a grand conspiracy directed against ordinary people. Climate change deniers have been influencing the world for decades. With the coronavirus, conspiracies gaining renewed momentum. Their conspiracies have entered the global corona debate in large numbers. The top 10 current conspiracies are:

1) Blaming 5G

2) Bill Gates as a scapegoat

3) The virus escaped from a Chinese lab

4) Corona was created as a biological weapon

5) The US military imported Corona into China

6) GMOs are somehow to blame

7) Corona doesn’t actually exist

10) The pandemic is being manipulated by the ‘deep state’

11) Corona is a plot by Big Pharma

12) Corona death rates are inflated

Believers in these ten conspiracies are often the very same people who also argue against climate science. In an open worldwide letter, hundreds of doctors and nurses are now objecting to this. Conspiracies on the Coronavirus have become known as infodemie. Infodemie relies heavily on social media. Their conspiracies threaten lives all over the world, and it is worse than just false news. Medical staff, doctors, and nurses are calling on companies such as Facebook and Twitter to take action immediately and systematically.

Climate denial and corona denial is related and has now been documented for the first time. In the COVIDeniers Report, the research platform has compiled how patterns of reasoning, actors, financiers, and political intentions work hand in hand among climate and Corona skeptics, especially in the US. A stream of false information about the coronavirus has come together. This includes right-wing think tanks, so-called experts (some of them self-proclaimed and self-appointed), corporate-funded crypto academics, and right-wing activists. Many have already scorned climate science. Their common aim was to slow down action against the climate crisis. Now they work against efforts to fight the coronavirus.

DeSmogBlog is a platform that has been researching climate skeptics ties to energy companies and conservative donors since 2006. They have debunked their hidden and hideous, communication strategies, and their spreading of fake news. Since March 2020, the DeSmogBlog team has compiled statements, tweets, and articles that show that many US think tanks, such as the Heartland Institute, Americans for Prosperity, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute are funded by the US oil industry. The tink tanks’ purpose is to spread propaganda to interfere with scientific discussion on global warming. Using proven propaganda tactics that they have perfected since the 1990s, the current leitmotif is, get capitalism going – never mind the human cost. Their motive is to sow doubts about climate science using specific communication strategies.

Five Common Strategies

The German website has just created a new graphic on the propaganda strategies and methods used by deniers. It describes the five most common strategies. Klimafakten calls its model to explain their ideological work as FLICC:

Fake experts,

Logical fallacies,

Impossible expectations,

Cherry-picking, and

Conspiracy theories

Corona conspiracies run similar misinformation and disinformation. Corona deniers always follow the same reasoning patterns relying on abstruse justifications. They say that the computational models of science are unreliable. Corona deniers believe that Corona is no worse than the flu. Some have shifted from fighting against climate protection because Corona is now the new priority. Corona and global warming deniers believe that no money should be spent on a green deal. There are also mounting insults against the UN’s health agency, WHO, joining Donald Trump. They also dig up old favorites of the right-wing conspiracy theories surrounding big donors like George Soros and Bill Gates.

The central narrative of Coronavirus deniers is that they accuse governments around the world for creating fear about the coronavirus pandemic and global warming. They believe that governments use global warming and now the coronavirus to oppress people. Governments should do little to nothing about COVID-19, writes libertarian US author Richard Ebeling, because it is a social and medical problem, not a political one.

Such political worldviews quickly build a connection among deniers. Coronavirus deniers strongly reject the influence of governments on people’s lives, and their opposition to climate protection and their Corona fight presents an ideological attitude. Their homepages feature aggressive climate-skeptics like Germany’s infamous Eike Institute. In the Eike Institute (a corporate lobbyist), one finds entries fusing current Corona policies with conspiracies. Facts, data, and scientific evidence are presented as false, unscientific, and dangerous.

Eike even claims that the people who want to shut down the economy are looking for socialism. Unsurprisingly, Germany’s most notorious right-wing extremist party, The AfD links up with Coronavirus deniers. Faced with declining popularity, the AfD demands that CO2 emissions be considered secondary in the Coronavirus pandemic. This is bad news.

On the upswing, the corona crisis has changed the mood to the positive. How governments deal with this crisis could have a significant impact on their role in protecting the population. If individual states get their community through the crisis well, the people might also trust the government more on the issue of global warming. Still, there are some who think that the government should not interfere. Given the experience of coronavirus, this seems to be changing rapidly.

Thomas Klikauer is the author of The AfD published by Sussex Academic Press.

Nadine Campbell is the founder of Abydos Academy

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Inglorious Bastardry: Hacking for Vaccines

If you cannot discover or create something, best steal it. It has been the operating principle for everything from wealth to technology. With the efforts to discover a vaccine to the novel coronavirus being all but bound by solidarity, the race on plundering secrets has already begun in earnest. No one party can claim particular innocence in this endeavour. All states engage in economic espionage and old-fashioned secret pinching to advance their interests. Finding the building blocks for a COVID-19 vaccine is proving no different.

As with such accusations, the cloak is procured with the dagger. The case is probable, and plausible enough, but confirmation tends to come in rations. In the business of hacking, what is acceptable in torrid love and hideous war tends to be a hard one to pin down. In 2015, the US and China reached an accord to, in the words of President Barack Obama, refrain from conducting or knowingly supporting “cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information for commercial advantage.” At the time, an assessment by Wired came to the conclusion that the agreement did not prevent traditional, full blown espionage, focusing, instead, on such efforts as those to pinch company source codes for competitive advantage.

In addition to Obama’s main point, Beijing and Washington agreed to furnish timely responses to requests for information and assistance dealing with malicious cyber activities; engage in “efforts to further identify and promote appropriate norms of state behaviour in cyberspace” and “establish a high-level joint dialogue mechanism on fighting cybercrime and related issues.”

In 2018, the National Counterintelligence and Security Centre (NCSC) reported that “the Intelligence Community and private sector security experts continue to identify ongoing Chinese cyber activity, although at lower volumes than existed before the bilateral September 2015 US-China cyber commitments.” Not all bad then, especially given that cyber activity designed to pilfer intellectual property for other non-competitive purposes continued to be de rigueur.

During the pandemic crisis, the niggles and pinches caused by cyberactivity have reportedly increased in number. Academic and research programs are being scrutinised. The US Justice Department has taken a particular interest in the PRC-sponsored Thousand Talents program. One of their latest targets is University of Arkansas’ professor of engineering, Simon Saw-Teong Ang, accused of concealing his ties to the Chinese government and universities while he worked on projects with NASA funding.

The United States, while not exactly leading in its response to dealing with COVID-19, now claims that its efforts to identify treatments and a vaccines are being targeted by others, with the PRC leading (naturally), the keen pack. “The PRC’s behaviour in cyberspace,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued in a statement last Thursday, “is an extension of its counterproductive actions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.” Senator Marco Rubio, one of the noisiest of China hawks, has also been squawking on what he claims is an adjustment in Chinese tactics. “Beijing has shifted its recruitment efforts for the Thousand Talents Program online, and it has increased efforts to hack US medical research institutes for COVID-19 information.”

On May 13, a joint statement by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency was published. It alleged “the compromise of US organizations conducting COVID-19-related research by PRC-affiliated cyber actors and non-traditional collectors.” Allegedly, such actors had “been observed attempting to identify and illicitly obtain valuable intellectual property (IP) and public health data related to vaccines, treatments, and testing from networks and personnel affiliated with COVID-19-related research.”

The statement warned that organisations “conducting research in these areas” should “maintain dedicated cybersecurity and insider threat practices to prevent surreptitious review or theft of COVID-19-related material.” Systems should be patched for “critical vulnerabilities”; web applications for authorised access should be actively sought out. Users “exhibiting unusual activity” should be suspended.

The warning is skimpy in details, notably on the issue of how treatments will be hampered. Nor are many researchers blind about similar pinching efforts from the US side of the fence. Jason Healey, a senior researcher at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs makes a few valid points on this. “If the US is wanting to argue for norms, I look forward to us doing it directly and saying here’s what we think the playing field lies, because certainly we’re being active in many of these areas as well.”

China has also been the subject of cyber interest in this particularly busy playing field. In April, a Vietnamese hacking group known as APT32 is said to have taken interest in the PRC’s Ministry of Emergency Management and the government of Wuhan. According to Ben Read of the cybersecurity firm FireEye, “These attacks speak to the virus being an intelligence priority – everyone is throwing everything they’ve got at it, and APT32 is what Vietnam has.” Not a good time, it seems, to find a vaccine in solidarity.

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America’s Pandemic Role Reversal: Over There Is Now Over Here

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Remember the song “Over There”?

“Over there, over there
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming,
The Yanks are coming,
The drums rum-tumming everywhere…”

Maybe not, since it was popular so long ago, but it was meant to inspire American troops saying goodbye to their country on their way to a Europe embroiled in World War I. Written by George M. Cohan, the song paid homage to an American wartime urge to do good in the world, to take what was precious about this country and spread it to less fortunate, endangered peoples elsewhere. As Jon Meacham and country music star Tim McGraw reminded us, that song’s message couldn’t have been simpler: The good guys are coming.

A century later, that sentiment in Cohan’s lyrics had merged with a related but ultimately contrary message: the supposed determination of America’s leaders to keep at bay and away the dangers rife in so much of the rest of the world. As President George W. Bush repeatedly assured Americans after the 9/11 attacks, this country would keep the threat of terrorism “over there” — and so away from our shores. “We will fight them over there so we do not have to face them in the United States of America,” he typically toldAmerican legionnaires back in 2007.

More than a decade later, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham offered a reminder of the lingering persistence of such an “over there” mindset. Defending President Trump’s decision to keep American forces in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, he explained: “I want to fight the war in the enemy’s backyard, not ours.”

Trump’s version of keeping danger “over there” manifested itself most notably in his attempts to keep the immigrant version of the dangerous Other over there. Beginning with his “big, fat, beautiful wall” and his Muslim ban, such efforts, including most recently his April 22nd proclamation of a 60-day suspension on immigration by those seeking green cards, have never ended.

One “immigrant” he could not keep out, however, was the coronavirus, which — owing significantly to his acts (or lack of them) — has played havoc with the over-there conceit. When it comes to Covid-19, undeterred by a military presence abroad or border walls, keeping the threat to this nation at bay is no longer a possibility. Instead, an array of dangers, deprivations, and fears that have long beset the rest of the world — and from which the United States considered itself largely immune — have now entered our supposedly separate, well-guarded, very exceptional American world. Like the giant “murder hornets” from Asia detected for the first time in the United States in April, perils once reserved for places abroad are now squarely in our own backyard.

Like it or not, Over There is now Right Here.

America as a War Zone

The stage for bringing “there” to the homeland was aptly set when President Trump declared the country at war with a disease. Suddenly, America’s forever wars of the twenty-first century were no longer distant affairs. “War” was here and now, and this time we weren’t the invaders, but the ones who had been invaded.

Appropriately enough, in these last months, New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic in this country, has been described by many in terms normally reserved for a war zone: the bodies of the dead laid out in rows as after battlefield encounters; tents like those seen at the outskirts of battle zones serving as makeshift hospitals in parks; sirens screaming day and night as emergency vehicles transport severely ill casualties of the virus to exhausted and overworked medical teams. And in the context of such a war at home, the military — along with the various National Guard units — has been on hand to help build temporary hospitals and distribute food and supplies.

Inside this new war zone, the basic circumstances of life have begun to resemble those long considered forever distant. For years now, we’ve been reading about casualty figures from places where Washington has pursued its “over there” war on terror. As Brown University’s Costs of War Project has reported, since 9/11 more than 800,000 people have been killed in U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Pakistani borderlands alone.

Now, by far the largest numbers of deaths are no longer over there but right here in the United States, thanks to the invisible virus among us. The world watches us as we lose Americans by the thousands on an almost daily basis. Health systems worldwide, and particularly in Africa, have long been a focusof the World Health Organization (WHO) and other medical groups. For decades, specialists have tried to ameliorate a lack of doctors, an absence of medical equipment, a need for more hospitals and greater access to healthcare on that continent. That was over there. No longer.

Life in the U.S. Becomes Precarious

Alongside images of war, the U.S. healthcare system is now experiencing the kind of shortages and incapacity that had previously been associated with those in impoverished countries. As a 2017 WHO report concluded, “Half the world lacks access to essential health services.”

This past month, as Covid-19 patients overwhelmed New York City hospitals, conditions there began to resemble those in such lands. The most basic things like access to emergency rooms or to urgent care for people with the virus (but also for those with other problems entirely) became less certain. As the numbers of Covid-19 patients soared, those experiencing other life-threatening symptoms began to be treated according to a new, far grimmer calculus. At the same time, individuals in need of emergency care for other reasons came to fear going to ERs and exposing themselves to the pandemic, sometimes dying at home instead.

In these months, for instance, the number of organ transplants fell precipitously. On March 31st, the Regional Emergency Medical Advisory Committee of New York City announced that adults in cardiac arrest were not to be transported to the hospital for additional attempts at revival if their hearts had not restarted after 20 minutes. Many cancer surgeries have been delayed until further notice.

And it’s not just emergency care that’s under siege. Doctors have become unavailable for non-urgent matters. Messages like this one from a medical group tell it all: “If you are young, healthy, and sick but otherwise stable at home, please limit your calls to your doctor’s office so we can manage the high volume of calls incoming from high-risk patients.” While tele-health appointments with your general practitioner have become a way of life, they are no substitute for a yearly physical, let alone in-person attention to medical disorders and diseases. Dentists are, of course, not performing regular services. How many of us will have to forego our yearly mammograms, our regular dental check-ups, our annual physicals during this pandemic?

If lack of access to adequate healthcare is a measure of a country under wartime-like stress, the United States is no longer an exception.

An American World of Deprivation

Other normal expectations about American life are also breaking down in ways once associated with foreign lands. As George Packer recently wrote in the Atlantic, the federal government now looks more like a failed state than a vibrant democracy. As he put it, the Trump administration’s reaction to the coronavirus crisis was more “like Pakistan or Belarus — like a country with shoddy infrastructure and a dysfunctional government whose leaders were too corrupt or stupid to head off mass suffering.” In fact, the government’s response to the crisis has failed in a striking set of ways, ranging from the unpreparedness of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to the failure of diplomatic and domestic efforts to procure ventilators and protective masks or implement the distribution of stockpiles of medical equipment.

Meanwhile, the socio-economic level of the country has plummeted as middle-class Americans lose their jobs and begin the long fall into another existence. Since March, significant parts of the economy have been shut down and more than 33 million people laid off with 6% of the labor force filing for unemployment in the last two weeks of that month alone. Official U.S. unemployment recently hit 14.7%, a figure unseen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Unemployment claims have surged catastrophically and are still climbing weekly.

For an increasing number of Americans, food insecurity has become a fact of life. Empty shelves for some products are increasingly common in grocery stores nationwide. While predictions of shortages and price increases vary from cautious denials to measured concern, certain aspects of the usual food chain do seem to be breaking down. As Shub Debgupta, an economist who focuses on supply-chain risks to food, has pointed out, supplies from other countries that the United States depends on are likely to dwindle in the coming months. So, too, will farm labor, often made up of guest workersfrom across the southern border.

In the food industry and elsewhere, from grocery stores to hospitals, safe working conditions have deteriorated as the pandemic spreads, heading in directions previously associated with exploitative, impoverished, and corrupt countries. The proximity of workers inside the country’s meat-processing plants has, according to the CDC, already led to the infection of an estimated 5,000 workers (1,000 in a single plant).

Meanwhile, as the homelessness rate grows, many shelters have closed and those that remain open, social distancing being impossible and sanitary conditions bleak, are now potential hotbeds of infection, or as Emma Grey Ellis put it in Wired, “Homelessness is incompatible with health.” And let’s not forget the nightmare of nursing homes, some of which have become literal graveyards for the aged and infirm.

Prisons and detention centers have similarly become incubators for the spread of the disease, as our incarceration system suffers the kinds of deaths that might once only have been possible in countries like Chile, El Salvador, Peru, or elsewhere in Latin America (where notoriously overcrowded prisons have led to the rampant spread of Covid-19). Authorities in Arizona, for instance, now predict a 99% infection rate in its prison system and, despite the release of prisoners and immigration detainees across the country, unsanitary conditions and overcrowding still make prisons, as one expert remarked, “a ticking time bomb.”

In these and other areas where deprivation is being enhanced as the coronavirus runs wild in America, the burden has fallen overwhelmingly on low-income groups, blacks and Hispanics in particular. In doing so, it has heightened an already all-American reality. Though billionaires continue to prosper, low-income groups with heightened health-risk factors are now suffering disproportionately from Covid-19.

Blacks, for instance, have so far made up 25% of the deaths in this country from the virus, nearly twice their numbers in the general population. In New York alone, as the disease engulfed the city, black and Latino residents are estimated to have perished at twice the rate of whites. In states like Michigan and Illinois, the disparities have been similarly pronounced, while unemployment rates among African Americans now overshadow that of whites to a degree that is breathtaking. William Rodgers, former chief economist at the Department of Labor, has estimated that, as early as March, the real unemployment rate for African Americans may already have climbed to 19% and has only increased since.

The world, in other words, is coming home.

Long-Simmering Realities

In many ways, the current crisis has, of course, just exposed conditions that should have been attended to long ago. Much that suddenly seems broken was already on the brink when the coronavirus appeared. If anything, the pandemic has simply accelerated already existing trends. As a December 2019 Century Foundation report on “racism, inequality, and health care for African Americans” concluded, “The American health care system is beset with inequalities that have a disproportionate impact on people of color and other marginalized groups.” In fact, in 2019, the London-based Legatum Institute’s Prosperity Index had already ranked the American healthcare system 59th in the world for its standard of services.

As bad as Donald Trump and his administration have been, the growing American coronavirus disaster can’t simply be blamed on them. Covid-19 has brought home to the rest of us how over here over there really was. And now, the pathetic White House leadership in this crisis has raised another possibility: autocracy.

The Trump administration’s failure to handle the crisis competently stems in part from the president’s perception that whatever he says, in autocratic fashion, goes — or, as he has often put it, “I can do whatever I want.” From his early assertion that the virus was destined to go from 15 cases to one or disappear in the warmth of April to his fantasy numbers when it came to virus testing or obtaining crucial medical equipment to his recent advocacy of ingesting disinfectants as an antidote for Covid-19, the leader of the United States has come to resemble a run-of-the-mill autocrat spreading disinformation in his own interests. It’s one thing to point to the power-grabbing of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the underhanded machinations of the dictator of North Korea, or the ruthlessness of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. It’s quite another to have a power-hungry leader as our own head of state. Once again, we are not immune. There is here.

With Covid-19, the very idea of American exceptionalism may have seen its last days. The virus has put the realities of wealth inequality, health insecurity, and poor work conditions under a high-powered microscope. Fading from sight are the days when this country’s engagement with the world could be touted as a triumph of leadership when it came to health, economic sustenance, democratic governance, and stability. Now, we are inside the community of nations in a grim new way — as fellow patients, grievers, and supplicants in search of food and shelter, in search, along with so much of humanity, of a more secure existence.

The world, in other words, has turned upside down. Perhaps it’s sadly time to change those famed lyrics of George M. Cohan accordingly:

“Over here, over here
Send the word, send the word over here.”

Whether from there or from here, the sooner the good guys arrive, the better.

This essay first appeared on TomDispatch.

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