Counterpunch Articles

Sneering at “Conspiracy Theories” is a Lazy Substitute for Seeking the Truth

On the morning of August 10, a wealthy sex crimes defendant  was reportedly found dead in his cell at New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center.

“New York City’s chief medical examiner,” the New York Times reported on August 11, “is confident Jeffrey Epstein died by hanging himself in the jail cell where he was being held without bail on sex-trafficking charges, but is awaiting more information before releasing her determination …”

That same day, the Times published an op-ed by Charlie Warzel complaining that “[e]ven on an internet bursting at the seams with conspiracy theories and hyperpartisanship, Saturday marked a new chapter in our post-truth, ‘choose your own reality’ crisis story.”

After three years of continuously beating the drum for its own  now-discredited conspiracy theory — that the President of the United States conspired with Vladimir Putin’s regime to rig the 2016 presidential election — the Times doesn’t have much standing to whine about, or sneer at, “conspiracy theories and hyperpartisanship.”

Is Jeffrey Epstein really dead? If so, did he kill himself or was he murdered? If he was murdered, whodunit and why?

Those are legitimate questions. Calling everyone who asks them, or proposes possible answers to them, a “conspiracy theorist” isn’t an argument, it’s intellectual laziness.

Yes, some theories fit the available evidence better than others. And yes, some theories just sound crazy. If someone says a UFO beamed Epstein up, or that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump posed as corrections officers and personally strangled him, I suggest setting those claims aside absent very strong evidence.

But there are plenty of good  reasons to question the “official account.”

Yes, prisoners have committed suicide at federal jails and prisons. But prisoners have also escaped from, and been killed at, such facilities. In fact, notorious Boston gangster Whitey Bulger was murdered in a federal prison just last year.

Given Epstein’s wealth and power, the wealth and power of persons accused of serious crimes in recently unsealed court documents, the claim of one of his prosecutors that Epstein “belonged to” the US intelligence community, the well-established inability of the federal government to secure its facilities or prevent criminal activity inside those facilities (including the corruption of its own personnel), the equally well-established unreliability of claims made by government agencies and officials in general, and the already flowing stream of admissions that the Metropolitan Correctional Center’s procedures weren’t followed where Jeffrey Epstein was concerned, the question is not why “conspiracy theories” are circulating — it’s why on earth they WOULDN’T be.

No, I’m not saying that Epstein is alive and living it up in “witness protection,” or that he was murdered by a hit team on behalf of one of his “Lolita Express” cronies. I just don’t know. Neither, probably, do you. Nor do those screaming “conspiracy theory!” at every musing contrary to the suicide theory.

Maybe we’ll find out the truth someday. Maybe we won’t. Pretending we already have, and shouting down those who suggest we haven’t, isn’t a method of seeking knowledge. It’s a method of avoiding knowledge.

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Careerism and the War Machine

In Three Guineas, which I am reading at the request of a young friend who tells us she is writing her dissertation on Woolf and James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf answers the question asked of her by a prominent liberal of his day, which is that she give her opinion as to how war – this was 1938, in Europe – can be prevented. In the course of answering, Woolf suggests that the independent aspect of women’s thought, cultivated as (unwilling) outsiders in patriarchal society is what’s needed to address the evil of war. She does not so much answer his question as state that, by virtue of their differences, well-intentioned men and women must seek to “destroy” evil in different ways. Her vision of a just (i.e., sane, healthy) society as one that must include its outsiders, bringing them from the margins into the center, has not come to pass, needless to say. The problem may have been that she did not envision women remaining outsiders, and, moreover, presumed that by the fact of their inclusion, and the breakdown of patriarchy, society would be improved.

What Woolf calls the “advantages” of having been a woman and an outsider in 19th century British society – i.e., obscurity, ridicule and censure – had left women free to critique the dominant society. However, the freedom and independence of mind that could ask the fanciful, but exquisitely sane question: “how can we enter the professions and yet remain civilized (sic) human beings, human beings, that is, who wish to prevent war?” would become irrelevant once women no longer struggled to be accepted into the professional classes and became themselves, bourgeois. The advantages of outsiderhood would be discarded once they’d been overcome. And of course endless war and militarism are now unchallenged among both men and women in the liberal class! Surely, measured by the standard of remaining “humanly civilized,” we might now ask, is it so bad to be an “other” (i.e. obscure, ridiculed and censured)? Might not “otherhood” be preferable to entering the professional class without answering that question?

Instead, professional identity became the Holy Grail for women, hungry to lose our obscurity and the isolation of being homemakers and second-class citizens. While Woolf’s contemporaries dreamed of having paid work as a means to independence (from being ruled by their fathers), modern “liberated” women have entered another kind of bondage which has cost them all of the hard-won independence of mind gained from centuries of “obscurity.” It has made them fully cogs in this neoliberal, war-making, heart-hardened (insane) society, for anyone who takes the prevention of war or the dream of peace too seriously surely is no professional!

The question we who still are interested in preventing war, or, better, in the dream of peace, might ask is how to make a virtue of obscurity, outsiderhood, or “otherness” such that being of that “lower” caste is a meaningful and desirable alternative to professionalism and success! To accomplish this would require an entirely alternative source of identity and meaning than that provided by neoliberal social ordering, its education, career ladder and its health and retirement benefits. As the insanity of our society must by now be apparent to everyone (I write this the week after double-header mass killings in El Paso and Ohio as the incessant babbling of media commentators flows on in their wake) we must be ready now to sit down at the table where we can discuss what we are willing to sacrifice to bring about sanity. Can we at last, question the Holy Grail of professional status and the good salary, which simply puts us in a higher caste than those working for wages? Can we just say no to career advancement knowing, if I accept that tantalizing offer of the “next upward rung” that I’ve worked hard for and deserve, I will accept with it the muzzling of my independence of thought? Can we now see that fear of obscurity is driving us to the sameness of professionalization, a sameness that serves capitalism’s inhuman purposes, war, imperialism, exploitation, destruction of the commons, etc., rather than the human good?

Strange as it at first seems, real independence of thought calls for letting go of the fear of obscurity such that we can inhabit its real freedom, the freedom known to those obscure 19th century English women who could see the potential for evil in succeeding in “the professional system, with its possessiveness, its jealousy, its pugnacity, its greed,” that’s now hidden from us. Not the freedom to “self-actualize” but the freedom to reclaim the bonds that human beings must have for health and sanity, which are those of mutuality and interdependence, a society of “safe,loving and caring relationships.” (Levine) What’s needed now is the freedom and independence to be sane, and to demand the conditions for sanity – which isn’t possible until each one, in defiance of the one-size-fits-all liberal bourgeois program for success, finds and allies herself with freedom’s source in the “anti-structure” genius of the creative human soul.

The first and necessary step in regaining independent thought, and the possibility of contributing to a society that can repudiate the evil of war, is to find that “other within” (i.e., the creative soul) that dwells in obscurity while the individual concentrates upon joining society’s program for success. In a recent Counterpunch article, Bruce E. Levine reports on the 1990’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, (suppressed for 20 years), which demonstrated childhood trauma is far more prevalent in middle and upper middle classes than might be expected, and that early trauma predicts adult health problems, both physical and emotional. The implications (for those who need science to tell them this!) are that the society itself – not individual abusers and particular dysfunctional families – is making people sick, and thus, we may presume, sanity lies somewhere outside “the center of things.”

My own childhood would not have predicted my becoming a champion of independent thought. As conformist as any white middle-class suburban Upstate NY girl could be, I was jolted out of complacency not by the social tumult of he 60’s, nor by women’s liberation in the 70’s, but later, when forces larger than myself pulled me down into the “illness” end of the mental health spectrum. From there my psyche, humbled and malleable instead of rigidly defended and fear-dominated, followed an innate trajectory toward health, into this “otherness” I prefer to consider sanity (though this has not been confirmed by any psychiatric test).

The ACE findings agree with the conclusions I came to based upon my personal experience of having the luxury of denial taken from me, and having been forced to face the truth, the trauma that darkened my happy childhood. That experience eventually became my major “clue” in the attempt to make my way out of false neoliberal reality, in which, though ill, I could pass for normal but never be well enough to challenge its fundamental orthodoxy, i.e., the pervasive meaninglessness gnawing away at the soul I had not known I possessed, making me depressed. Because by most measures my family was normal and good – no molestation, no beatings – and even admirable, and because I did not want to hate my parents forever, I concluded that my experience must speak to the larger context that shaped my parents, and thus, reasonably, might speak for others as well, whether or not they were conscious of early trauma. More accurately, I felt that I had been left in a position to speak for the souls, or the geniuses of others.

My hope, still, is that by putting this evidence before people, others may be encouraged to make their individual ways out of the closed mental world of neoliberal, top-down society that keeps us crippled, adapting to meaninglessness (in turn making us insane) even though leaving “the center of things” might cost them their “buoyant ignorance.” (Deardorff) I never fully imagined the tenacity of denial, such that the more my life follows the trajectory of my (ongoing) restoration to sanity, the more I find myself a “bewilderingly grave” outsider in relation to the shared neoliberal world.

Sanity, as conscious inhabiting of “otherness,” is a hard sell compared, for instance, to accepting the proffered step up the career ladder, which frequently calls for leaving not the “power centers,” but the real on-the-ground community and relationships one has so far cultivated in that place. (As I write this, yet another friend joins the steady trickle of talented people leaving Utica for a brighter job prospect elsewhere.) “Sanity” cannot be equated with “happiness,” at least not by me. To the contrary, I deem myself “melancholic” because that designation allows me to be true to my unhappiness. Confessing my sad condition, even to myself, frees me from having to compare myself to those more buoyant and successful people whom though they avoid the fall into obscurity, the cost is the alliance with their creative souls!

It’s plausible to me that professionalism, and the education that prepares one for it, play a major part in the denial of childhood trauma, for what could be more ruinous to the phony touted values of top-down professional expertise than masses of people who realized they’ve been cruelly treated and then lied to about it! Americans wishing to retain our humanity could benefit greatly from learning to tolerate, even to love, the unwanted gloomy “other” within, and even more, from standing with that intimate “other’s” independent, anti-structure perspective toward these careerist jobs, as well as toward the war-making neoliberal context.

What I mean to say here is that independent thought, and with it the capacity for agency, are tied – and tied up – in an unconscious way with those earliest dependencies by means of which love became complicated, and much darker. (Freud told us this!) If we are to remain human, this fact cannot be escaped, wished, or imagined away. In 1938, Woolf discusses the “infantile fixation” – the insanity – that, because it was protected by society – allowed educated fathers to behave cruelly to their daughters, preventing their daughters from earning an independent (of them) income. Ironically, although this private obstacle to equality is obsolete in 2019, society’s overall momentum is still largely controlled by unconscious forces, including those which produce so many “abusive and neglectful adults” that, if someone wants to claim families are safer than in Woolf’s time we would have to ask them to clarify in what way. The incontestable authority of the fathers has been replaced by the unquestioned, inverse authority of neoliberalism. This far subtler authority can be contested, but revolution on the left now must begin at “soul level” with individuals loyal to the soul’s poetic aim, which in Virginia Woolf’s words is “the unity that rubs out divisions as if they were chalk marks only…” and with that loyalty, gain the freedom to be human that’s still available in obscurity and commonness.

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Dead Canaries

“Many people think that the fight for America is already lost. They couldn’t be more wrong. This is just the beginning of the fight for America and Europe. I am honored to head the fight to reclaim my country from destruction.”

This is how the El Paso killer ended his white supremacy screed, posted just before he “went in” and killed 22 “invaders” who were shopping at a Walmart’s store this past weekend. And, as everyone knows, half a day later another armed maniac wearing body armor and sporting a semiautomatic went on a shooting rampage outside a bar in Dayton, Ohio, killing nine and wounding 26. And a few days earlier, a gunman killed three people, including two children, at a festival in Gilroy, Calif.

So what else is new? Should we sing the national anthem?

Something is terribly wrong in this country of almost 400 million guns — wrong beyond solution by gun control or increased security measures . . . at shopping malls, schools, garlic festivals, churches, temples, synagogues and everywhere else. Americans are killing each other at an average of one mass shooting a day. How is this possible? What poison is permeating the social infrastructure?

Nearly seven years ago, after the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, sociologist Peter Turchin called the nation’s mass murders, which have been increasing at a dizzying rate over the last half century, “canaries in a coal mine.”

He wrote: “The reason we should be worried about rampages . . . is because they are surface indicators of highly troubling negative trends working their way through deep levels of our society.”

In other words, tragic and horrifying as such events are in and of themselves, they are also collective signals of some deeply embedded flaw in the social infrastructure that must be discovered and addressed. Racism is only part of it. Guns are only part of it.

Consider the media consensus after the El Paso shootings that it was also a “hate crime.” Was this supposed to ramp up its level of seriousness? Innocent people are dead no matter what you call it. Pondering whether it should be considered a hate crime seemed as nitpicky to me as pointing out that the shooter not only killed 22 people but parked his car illegally before entering Walmart.

Here’s what it was: a dehumanization crime. In every mass shooting rampage that has ever taken place, the killer had no personal connection to his victims. They weren’t people, they were either symbols of a social wrong with which he was obsessed or, at best, collateral damage.

Turchin called this “social substitutability” — substituting a particular group of people for a general wrong, proclaiming them enemies because of their ethnicity, religion, presence in a classroom or any other reason.

Engaging thus has another name. It’s called going to war.

“On the battlefield,” Turchin wrote, “you are supposed to try to kill a person whom you’ve never met before. You are not trying to kill this particular person, you are shooting because he is wearing the enemy uniform. . . . Enemy soldiers are socially substitutable.”

They’re gooks. They’re nips. They’re hadjis.

Writing in the wake of a mass murder way back in May (in Virginia Beach), I noted: “War is a combination of dehumanizing and then killing an enemy along with any civilians in the way (a.k.a., collateral damage), and then glorifying the process: that is to say, it’s mass murder plus public relations.”

When we celebrate war, salute it and revere it, we’re not celebrating the corpses in mass graves or the bomb-shattered cities and villages and wedding parties. We’re not celebrating the radioactive fallout, the birth defects caused by depleted uranium or the global military’s unfathomably large carbon footprint contributing to the environmental collapse of Planet Earth. We’re not celebrating PTSD and the high suicide rate among vets.

We’re celebrating the waving flag and the national anthem, the glory and the bravery and the heroism. All this stirs the heart — especially the heart of a young man — like little else. All of which brings me back to the El Paso killer’s screed. He was going off, fully armed, to a shopping mall to kill moms and dads buying school supplies for their kids in order “to reclaim my country from destruction.”

He was playing war. My guess is that they’re all playing war, in one way or another. Whether or not the mass murderer is a vet — and a large percentage of them are — they are giving meaning to their lives by turning their anger and despair into a military operation. When we mix racism in with the easy availability of lethal weaponry, it turns into terrorism, which is to say, collective lunacy — a lunacy surpassed in its scope and human cost only by the lunacy of war itself.

So my question is this: Why can’t we talk about this at the national level? How many minutes of the last two Democratic presidential debates were devoted to the defense budget or nuclear weapons or the 21st-century phenomenon of endless war? Tulsi Gabbard, a vet, used about a minute of her time to address the issue, taking a clear stand against our regime-change wars. Otherwise . . . nada.

Does anyone think that lockdown drills in the public schools or security checks at shopping malls (a recent New Yorker cartoon depicted a woman in a grocery checkout line removing her shoes and putting them on the conveyor belt) will keep us safe? Does anyone believe that our current political system is capable of addressing the prevalence of war and the trillion dollars-plus we hemorrhage annually for “national defense” and prisons and “border security”?

Does anyone doubt that the mass murders will continue?

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Winnemem Wintu Chief Asks Delta Tunnel Amendment Negotiators

Despite the fact that new Delta Tunnel project supported by Governor Gavin Newsom has not been approved, the Department of Water Resources is proceeding forward with negotiations with its water contractors over the State Water Contract Amendment for the Delta Conveyance.

DWR held two meetings, the first on July 24 and the second on July 31. Most of the meeting time on July 24 was not open to the public.

DWR was caucusing in its room as the State Water Contractors were caucusing in their room — and those sessions were not open to the public. Bob Wright, Senior Counsel for Friends of the River, estimated that about 75 people were present at the start of the public session

Before the first meeting on July 24, the public water agencies made a first offer including the setting the Delta tunnel capacity and alignment.

Ann West, of KearnsWest, the same corporation that facilitated the controversial Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative to create “marine protected areas” in California, served as the meeting facilitator. Tom McCarthy for Mojave Water Agency, with Steve Arakawa of the Metropolitan Water District at his side, did most of the speaking for the contractors, while DWR attorney Tripp Mizell did most of the speaking for DWR.

During the public comment period, Caleen Sisk, Chief of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, posed a number of questions and comments to DWR officials and the negotiators, including a question on when tribal water rights, which have not been discussed by the state and federal governments in previous or current Delta Tunnel planning, will be finally discussed.

According to the ground rules for the negotiating sessions, “The comment period is designed for input and not for exchanges with the negotiators, therefore the negotiators will listen to comments without responding,” so the negotiating parties didn’t respond.

First, Chief Sisk asked, “How and when will the California Environmental Water Quality Act (CEQA) and AB 52 be considered?”

Assembly Bill 52, signed by Governor Jerry Brown on September 25, 2014, created a new category of environmental resources that must be considered under the California Environmental Quality Act: “tribal cultural resources.”

The legislation imposes requirements for consultation regarding projects that may affect a tribal cultural resource, includes a broad definition of what may be considered to be a tribal cultural resource, and includes a list of recommended mitigation measures.

Second, Chief Sisk asked if a “Delta smelt revitalization plan” would be considered as part of the negotiations.

Third, Sisk said improved water flows are needed for salmon spawners and fry on the Sacramento River and its tributaries.

Fourth, she said they needed to consider discuss an “invasive plants eradication plan” for the Sacramento River.

Fifth, Chief Sisk emphasized, “We need to discuss Tribal Water Rights. When can this be discussed?”

After speaking, Sisk told me about the Tribe’s continued opposition to the Delta Tunnels. “I don’t think we need one tunnel to dig up the Delta because we don’t know what we will get when we dig up the Delta,” she noted.

“Our belief is that Mother Earth made the Delta the way it is because it is a fully functional and perfect system. By digging the Delta up, we don’t know how it will end up. You don’t want to ruin a perfect system for an imperfect project. You can’t negotiate a perfect system. Once we dig up the Delta, you can’t return it to its natural state,” stated Sisk.

Deirdre Des Jardins of California Water Research expressed her concerns that the Department of Water Resources has rescinded performance standards for the Delta Tunnel project.

“The public water agencies have made a first offer that includes setting the Delta tunnel capacity and alignment,” said Des Jardins. “But as public water agencies, you should be concerned that the performance standards for the Delta tunnel project have been rescinded. The performance standards included requirements that the facilities be designed to withstand a maximum earthquake in the Delta, and to have a 100 year lifetime.”

She said the deletion of the requirement for a 100 year lifetime is of “major concern” because of the sea level rise forecasted by climate scientists.

“The impact of sea level rise on the proposed location of the North Delta intakes was last evaluated in 2010. The modeling assumed 55 inches of sea level rise, and no failure of levees in the North Delta,” said Des Jardins.

Other members of the public present for the meeting included Bob Wright, Senior Counsel for Friends of the River; Mike Brodsky, Counsel for the Save the Delta Alliance; and Charlotte Allen for the Sierra Club California.

After the meeting, Wright said, “DWR made it clear at the outset that this process is being done separate and in advance of the CEQA process and the Governor’s water resilience portfolio process.”

“In other words, the process is upside down in terms of doing as much as possible to, before rather than after, learning from the CEQA and water resilience portfolio processes, whether there is any real need for a water tunnel project, and if so, whether the economic costs and/or environmental harms outweigh any benefits from such a project,” said Wright.

“The Contractors seek an agreement in principle that would include a definition of the project to include capacity, and general configuration including alignment, number of intakes, tunnels, pump stations, and so forth. They include language at the end that DWR and the Contractors would retain discretion under CEQA to consider and adopt alternatives, including not going forward with the project. Returning to reality, the Contractors, seek an in advance agreement on what they want prior to even starting the CEQA process and prior to completing the Gov.’s water inventory and assessment, and water resilience portfolio process,” he stated.

Further negotiation meetings are scheduled for August 7, 14, 21, & 26.

The meetings will be held at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel, 2001 Point West Way, Sacramento, CA 95818 starting at 10:00 a.m. Parking will be validated. Attendees need to pull a ticket and bring it with them to the meeting for validation.

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The Biggest News of the 21st Century

What’s the most significant occurrence so far in the 21st century?

Worsening weather calamities caused by global warming?

Endless suicide bombings and massacres by religious fanatics in the Islamic “cult of death”?

Snowballing acceptance of gays as equal humans?

Kakistocracy (government by the worst) under a ludicrous president who has told 10,000 countable lies?

Recurring U.S. gun massacres?

All of those are important, and I nominate another: The remarkably rapid collapse of religion in advanced democracies. It’s major news with far-reaching impact.

Sociologists are stunned by the abrupt downfall of supernatural faith in Western civilization. The swift cultural transformation gained recognition in the 1990s and then accelerated.

For example, more than half of United Kingdom adults now have no church identity, according to the latest British Social Attitudes survey. The Guardian of London reported:

“Fifty-two percent of the public say they do not belong to any religion, compared to 31 percent in 1983 when the BSA began tracking religious belief…. One in four members of the public stated, ‘I do not believe in God,’ compared with one in ten in 1998.”

The London Telegraph added that 26 percent of Britons labeled themselves “confident atheists,” up from 10 percent in 1998. It quoted researcher Nancy Kelley as saying the surprising retreat of religion is “one of the most important trends in postwar history.”

Similar findings are reported across western Europe, Scandinavia, Canada, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the like. Secularism has soared since the 1990s. Europeans spent centuries killing each other over religion, but now it elicits a mere shrug.

America traditionally was an exception, a faith stronghold, but the United States is joining the secular tsunami. A recent Gallup poll found that church membership fell twenty percent in the past two decades. One-fourth of American adults now say their faith is “none” – and the ratio is one-third among those under thirty.

In fact, this country has more nonreligious adults than any other nation except China, according to a 2015 book, American Secularism.

However, like many profound culture shifts, the change is barely noticed in daily life. Television still teems with big-money evangelists who buy air time to beg for cash to buy more air time. Politicians (especially Republicans) still invoke the holies daily and demand public displays of the motto “In God We Trust.”

Speaking of Republicans, the GOP relies heavily upon white evangelicals as its political base. As religion shrinks, the future power of the conservative party is thrown into doubt.

Polls show that born-again whites were 27 percent of America’s population in the 1990s, but now they’ve slipped as low as 13 percent. Southern Baptists have lost 1.5 million members since 2006. But those who remain are intensely active in politics. They gave 81 percent of their votes to Donald Trump in the 2016 election.

Why do fundamentalists embrace a vulgar, shallow, obnoxious, juvenile, self-worshiping racist who abuses women and boasted that he can “grab ‘em by the pussy”? Why do they want the extreme opposite of Jesus? Wake Forest University church historian Bill Leonard says white evangelicals flock to Trump because they’re in “panic at the precipitous decline of Christianity.”

In other words, conservative Christians feel their dominance of America’s culture evaporating, and they’re desperate. For example, they spent centuries demonizing “evil” gays – yet most Americans now accept homosexuals cordially, and the Supreme Court allowed same-sex marriage. It was a crushing blow to the “religious right.”

In fact, repulsive political activity by white evangelicals is a strong reason why many tolerant young Americans renounce religion.

Of course, faith remains strong in Muslim lands (where several nations decree death for ”blasphemy”) and in the tropics (where millions of Africans and Latin Americans are Pentecostals who “speak in tongues”).

But in Western civilization, profound demographic change is happening in this 21st century. It’s major news, although not fully recognized.

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Farm Rot is Eating America Alive

Field Corn, southern Indiana. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

American politics covers up the bleeding of nature

Listen to the Democratic presidential candidates Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. They promise a more democratic, equal, just, compassionate and civilized America. But the statistics they cite are numbing. Millions of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. Additional millions have no medical insurance. Three billionaires own as much as 150 million Americans. Hundreds of thousands of people are homeless.

How different is this picture from the picture of France on the eve of the French Revolution? Inequality alone says not much. In contrast to the French, we “elected” king Trump. He owns several Versailles.

This distressing political reality in 2019 America is riddled with the bullets of madmen. Young Americans, desperate for meaning and a future, arm themselves for a minute in the TV Sun. They hear Trump badmouthing the non-white immigrants from Mexico and Central America and resort to the mayhem of El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio: killing innocent Americans and immigrants, the anger of the killers finding a murderous outlet.

In this condition of domestic upheaval, Americans have no time or interest for anything else. They are obsessed with survival. They see Congress and the Supreme Court and the White House taking care of the billionaire class, as Senator Sanders rightly defines the tiny minority of wealth and power behind the broken government in Washington, DC.

Meanwhile, Trump is like an extraterrestrial despot visiting Washington, DC, in order to keep the White House in perpetual chaos, play golf in his exclusive resort in Florida, and tweet his orders to the world.

This political reality could be out of a fictional best seller, but it is not. It dazzles, confuses, and angers Americans. Trivia becomes king.

That’s why criminals and polluters have a free hand. No one is watching the store. Laws are great but take away law enforcement, like Trump has done, and the country becomes an open field for poisoners.

The environment

The environment is the immense natural world  that  nourishes life and keep us alive. But instead of protecting and loving it, our corrupt Trump government signals to the business and billionaire classes the environment is theirs to exploit and destroy.

The same confused mentality has been keeping the politicians mumbling about social problems, all but neglecting environmental policies that undermine the very ground under their feet.

Petrochemical agriculture

A look at that ground demolishes the bible of agribusiness: that our food is the safest in the world: that our agriculture is science-based.

In the place of this fiction, farm rot is eating the country alive. It’s a repeat of the early twentieth century when Upton Sinclair wrote about the mafia-like culture of food and agriculture: the complete absence of government regulation, the loathsome slaughterhouses of Chicago, the adulteration and poisoning of food.

Scientists often publish dense articles about farming that, reading between the lines, you grasp the dreadful effects of our irresponsible decisions of allowing farmers to do as they please.

These farmers have been addicted to huge petroleum-fueled machines, mountains of petroleum-based fertilizers, and rivers of petrochemical poisons. These “inputs” undermine the fertility and life of the land. Petrochemicals fight nature, primarily by killing beneficial microorganisms in the soil and poisoning beneficial insects and other wildlife.

The vision of the petrochemical farmers is not diversity in crops, much less diversity in the natural world where they are producing food. No, their nightmare of “scientific” agriculture takes flesh in  the cultivation of one crop at a time, covering a vast acreage.

In this futile struggle against nature, farmers keep adding more of old sprays, and often replace old chemicals with newer more acutely deleterious materials.

Petrochemical companies, and the land grant universities that have been inventing many of the toxic weapons of the farmers, keep the farmers hooked on ever newer hazardous substances.

This farm chemical warfare has been going on for several decades. Farmers, academic and business experts and environmentalists know about it, though rarely any one of them calls farm sprays chemical warfare agents. They hope against hope this process can last forever.

But it won’t. It annot. Nature does not work that way. It does not hide its secrets like men do. Employ reason and science and the truth and beauty of nature is all over you. But pretend you are the king and knows best, that you have the right to dominate the natural world, and you face the abyss of destruction.

Allow farmers spraying insecticides and, unavoidably, you starve birds and other wildlife. You keep poisoning honeybees and you impoverish wildflowers and reduce the varieties and amounts of pollinated plants and crops.

Moreover, poisons sprayed over the land don’t fade into nothingness. They remain in the land, sometimes for a very long time, never ceasing their killing of life. They move to groundwater and the water of creeks, lakes and rivers. They even become gases, lifting themselves off the land, entering into the atmosphere and moving with the winds around the globe.

The effects of the lives of pesticides in the environment are awesome and terrible.

The toxification of the land 

A peer-reviewed studypublished August 6, 2019, revealed that American agriculture is now about 50 times more deleterious to insects than it was 25 years ago. The second terrible truth is that neonicotinoid insect-killing chemicals account for 92 percent of the growing toxic wrath of land and farming.

These neonicotinoids were invented in Germany and introduced to farming in this country in the early 1990s. They are neurotoxins that confuse and kill honeybees and other insects in droves.

The dramatic decline of honeybees is probably and primarily because of the widespread use of these German nerve poisons. They are used all over America primarily in millions of acres of corn and soybeans. This is happening at a time when there’s an unprecedented in scope global decline and extinction of insects.

The authors of the study are warning that, given the toxification of the land and the near insect apocalypse it is bringing about, it’s not out of the question we could bring about a catastrophic ecosystem collapse.

Insects, after all, are the “food web” sustaining life on Earth. They are essential for birds, amphibians, fish, reptiles, and mammals. They decompose animal wastes and dead vegetation, enriching the soil. They make farming possible. They pollinate our crops and eat those bugs harming our fruits, vegetables, and other crops.

You would think that farmers would be the best friends of insects. However, the metaphysics of most farmers working the land in 2019 are straightforward petrochemical metaphysics. They want all insects, including honeybees, dead. They coat the seeds of corn and soybeans with neonicotinoids: powerful systemic nerve poisons. Every part of corn and soybean growing out of the poisoned seed has the neurotoxin in it.

Tom Theobald, a beekeeper from Colorado, paid a terrible price for the fancy and deadly weapons of the farmers, especially their religious addiction to neonicotinoids. He saw some 40 years of devotion to honeybees go up in smoke. All his honeybees died from coming in contact with crops brought up by neonicotinoids.

In a message he sent me on August 6, 2019, he summarized the national drama unknown to politicians:

“For the past decade or more we have seen an annual input of neonicotinoids to the environment of the toxic equivalent of about 400 BILLION POUNDS of DDT, on top of accumulating toxicity remaining from prior years. The evidence is that soils and groundwater all across the North American continent are poisoned at toxic levels. There is no escape for lower level life forms, nor ultimately for us as well. The Iowa drinking water study showed that treated drinking water still had enough neonicotinoids left after treatment to exceed the EPA Threshold for the onset of environmental damage by several times. In other words, homeowners in most municipalities in the heartland could use their tap water as an insecticide. When will this insanity end? Not until the perpetrators of these crimes against the environment and crimes against humanity are held to account along with their enablers in  the EPA and congress.”

Theobald is angry. Yet his understanding of the grievous effects of the addiction of farmers to neurotoxic pesticides is correct. Neonicotinoids have no place in farming. And when the Democrats capture the Senate and the White House, these chemicals should be banned immediately. In fact, farm reform should lead us out of the present toxic model to ways of raising food that are friendly to human and ecological communities.

Time has come for an end of American enclosures and a return to family farms. Equally important, we must replace pesticides by agroecology, allowing the beneficial insects to take care of crop pests. This means a reconciliation with beneficial insects and Mother Earth.

The looming global warming emergency demands the end of poisonous farming and the end of animal farms, which make a large contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. The latest (August 2019) UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report summarized the evidence of the impact of agriculture on climate change. Agriculture and forestry are responsible for 21 to 37 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

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Rattling the Nuclear Cage: India, Pakistan, Israel, Iran and the US

Photograph Source: Leslie Groves, Manhattan Project director, with a map of Japan – Public Domain

We like our anniversaries in blocks of 50 or 100 – at a push we’ll tolerate a 25. The 100th anniversary of the Somme (2016), the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain (2015). Next year, we’ll remember the end of the Second World War, the first – and so far the only – nuclear war in history.

This week marks only the 74th anniversary of the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It doesn’t fit in to our journalistic scorecards and “timelines”. Over the past few days, I’ve had to look hard to find a headline about the two Japanese cities.

But, especially in the Middle East and what we like to call southeast Asia, we should be remembering these gruesome anniversaries every month. Hiroshima was atomic-bombed 74 years ago on Tuesday, Nagasaki 74 years ago on Friday. Given the extent of the casualty figures, you’d think they’d be unforgettable. But we don’t quite know (nor ever will) what they were.

The bombing of the two cities, we are told, left between 129,000 and 226,000 dead. The first US statistics suggested only 66,000 dead in Hiroshima, 39,000 in Nagasaki. But in later years, the Hiroshima authorities estimated their dead alone at 202,118 – taking account of those who later died of radiation sickness, rather than just the incinerated corpses and human shadows left in the immediate aftermath of the explosion.

In the Middle East, where Aleppo and Mosul and Raqqa count the dead from conventional bombs – American, Russian, Syrian – in the tens of thousands, you might think the 1945 statistics would leave the folk who live there pretty cold. But the book of crises unfolding in the region – by the chapter, almost every month – is of critical importance to every soul who lives between the Mediterranean and India.

For India itself is a nuclear power. So is Pakistan. And so, of course, is Israel. None of them have signed the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT). All are threatening war, over Kashmir, or over Iran, the only nation under threat which has not (yet) got nuclear weapons.

Ayatollah Khomeini originally seized on America’s refusal to express its remorse at the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings: “They’ve killed hundreds of thousands of people … many years have passed and they can’t even bring themselves to apologise,” he said, and the current Iranian leadership has continued Khomeini’s theme. The “only nuclear criminal in the world”, according to the “supreme leader’s” successor, Ali Khamanei, “is falsely claiming to fight the proliferation of nuclear weapons”.

Iran, it should be added, did sign the NPT, but was later found in non-compliance of the safeguard agreement. And Iran, of course, is the non-nuclear power now being constantly threatened with war by two nuclear powers – America and Israel – the first of which, under Donald Trump, tore up his country’s commitment to the only international agreement that ever existed to limit Iran’s nuclear programme.

As the US applies new sanctions to Iran – miserably supported by the ever-compliant banks and big businesses of Europe – Iran marginally breaks its side of the nuclear control agreement. And thus becomes the recipient of even more ferocious threats from Washington and Israel.

The word “nuclear” is not just a harmless adjective. Look at the old photographs of the blisters on the dying Japanese of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Iran itself suffered the horrors of gas warfare when Iraq – supported at the time by the US – used chemicals on Iranian soldiers and civilians. I saw their gas-gangrene wounds with my own eyes in the late 1980s and they reminded me of the Hiroshima snapshots. The Iranians really do know the effects of “weapons of mass destruction”.

Yet they, we are supposed to believe, are the nuclear “threat” in the Middle East. The Islamic republic is no saints’ paradise. Its corruption (within the government), its cruelty towards its own dissenters, its hangman’s noose justice against its own people and its prim disgust at even the most innocent demand for freedom scarcely qualify the immensely wealthy Revolutionary Guards Corps – “heroes” of a new “tanker war” and masters of Houthi drone technology – to give lectures on morality. And if we thought that the Iranians held in reserve – let us say – 200 nuclear warheads, we should be trembling in our boots. But they don’t. It’s Israel that conceals – but will not say so – perhaps 200 nuclear warheads.

Not only do we not complain about this. We regard any suggestion of their existence as akin to interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. Israel has never confirmed that their nuclear weapons exist: therefore we must not say that they do. Enquire about their exact number and you are treated by Israel’s supporters with deep suspicion. It’s a private matter, we are led to understand. Anyway the Israelis can be trusted with such vile weapons. Can’t they?

Which brings us to Saudi Arabia. Every nation in the Middle East which seeks nuclear power – and the list includes Egypt, by the way – insists, like Iran, that the technology is needed to build power plants.

Yet when Reuters – whose investigations of human rights and secret criminal activities in the region are first-class in both courage and detail – reports on the accurate leaks that US energy secretary Rick Perry approved six secret authorisations to give nuclear assistance to Saudi Arabia, few outside congress issued a murmur of concern. Not even Israel – which always rages when America’s arms manufacturers hoover up billions of dollars from Arab arms buyers, especially from Saudi Arabia.

South Koreans – those endangered people always under nuclear threat from the Rocket Man turned good guy further north – are also bidding for the Saudi nuclear deal. So are the Russians. So how come, now that the Saudi regime has talked of “cutting off the head of the snake” in Iran, we don’t regard Riyadh as a potential nuclear threat?

How soon will it be before we wonder if the Saudis aren’t going a bit too far down the nuclear path and we suggest a nuclear control agreement along the lines of Obama’s Iran deal? After all, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman – and let’s not bring up the little matter of the Saudi evisceration and chopping up of poor Jamal Khashoggi at this point – told CBS last year that his kingdom would develop nuclear weapons if Iran did.

And as we digest all this – although we really are not talking about it at all, are we? – India decides to tear up its own legal arrangements in Jammu and Kashmir. As the only Muslim-majority state in India, it is now to be split into two union territories, diminishing Muslim power and allowing non-Muslim Indians from other regions to move into this dangerous remnant of the old Raj. The Hindu-led government used a presidential order to revoke the special constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan, which holds the other bit of Kashmir – both claim the whole area as their own – is understandably infuriated by this change in the status quo.

And both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers. Indeed, there was nothing more pathetic, after Pakistan’s first nuclear tests in 1998, than to travel around this other “Islamic republic” and, amid the abject poverty of its villages, gaze at the awful commemorative papier-mache recreations of the granite mountains in which the explosions took place. There is, I suppose, no point in adding that there are more armed extremist Islamists on Islamabad’s payroll in both Pakistan and Afghanistan – coddled by the Inter-Services Intelligence agency – than there are in the whole of Iran.

So this is a very good week, as we typically ignore the commemoration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for us to remember the nuclear threat in the Middle East. At least one nation in every potential conflict in the region is a nuclear power or a prospective one. India against Pakistan and vice versa, the US with Iran, the Israelis with Iran – or just about any other Levantine power – and the Saudis versus Iran, and Iran against almost anyone else except Syria.

Oh yes, and Donald Trump has just pulled out of the Cold War Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia – blaming Russia for violating the ban on missiles ranging up to 3,400 miles. All Russia’s fault, says Mike Pompeo. The treaty is now “dead”, the Russian foreign ministry confirms. So it’s time, perhaps, to rewatch those old documentaries of the the B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay and the bomb codenamed “Little Boy” and the brilliant mushroom cloud and all those scorched corpses at Hiroshima.

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Trump: Out of the Graveyard and Into the Pyre?

Photograph Source: DVIDSHUB – Public Domain

Afghanistan has long been touted as the “graveyard of empires.” The British and the Soviets certainly discovered that lesson to their great regret. Perhaps future historians will judge the failure of the United States to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan over a two-decade period as a critical factor in the loss of American hegemony as well. If so, these historians will no doubt chuckle at the irony of Mr. Make America Great Again throwing the last shovelful of dirt on the grave.

After all, the Trump administration is working hard to negotiate a deal to end America’s longest military engagement. If the two sides can agree, Washington will withdraw nearly half of the contingent of 14,000 U.S. troops as long as the Taliban renounces al-Qaeda and similar groups, adheres to a ceasefire, and sits down with the Afghan government to discuss power-sharing.

So what if Trump wants a troop drawdown only so that he can tell voters that he is ending America’s “forever wars” before the 2020 election? Ending a war is ending a war.

As with the North Korea negotiations, however, U.S. critics are worried that Trump will make one-sided concessions in his eagerness to achieve the semblance of a foreign-policy win. In their worst-case scenario, the Taliban will use any ceasefire to press its advantages – on the ground and then politically – to overrun the country and reestablish their medieval rule.

Those concerns are premature, to say the least. The current deal doesn’t look anything like the end of the Vietnam War, for instance, when helicopters evacuated U.S. personnel from the rooftop of the U.S. embassy in Saigon as the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong prepared to take over. If the preliminary details hold true, the United States would still keep 8,000-9,000 troops in Afghanistan, which is more or less the number of soldiers deployed there when Trump took office. So, “withdrawal” is something of a misnomer. Also, the U.S. military would likely continue to operate out of several bases, including Bagram, Kandahar, and several in and around Kabul, in order to preserve U.S. air power.

The United States continues to conduct drone strikes in Afghanistan. Indeed, a recent UN report indicates that these aerial attacks are largely responsible for the significant uptick in civilian casualties so far this year. The Trump administration no doubt wants to preserve its capacity to conduct such strikes so that, if the president changes his mind about seeking an end to the war, it can turn around and pound the Taliban from the air just like it did to the Islamic State.

Remember: Trump dropped the “mother of all bombs” – the most powerful conventional ordnance – in Afghanistan back in 2017. The president has a fondness for “fire and fury.” Trump said this week: “We could win Afghanistan in two days or three days or four days if we wanted. But I’m not looking to kill 10 million people.” He didn’t specify how many people he might be willing to kill in order to “win” in Afghanistan.

If Trump does follow through on his determination to at least reduce the U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan, he would be attempting to put out one fire even as he stokes several more. In fact, the president is pushing ahead with provocative moves on both the nuclear weapons and trade fronts that may have implications far greater than any deal currently on the table with the Taliban.

The China Quagmire

In a column this week in The New York Times, economist Paul Krugman compares the Trump administration’s trade conflicts to a classic quagmire, no different from the wars in Vietnam or Afghanistan.

Trump’s trade war is looking more and more like a classic policy quagmire. It’s not working — that is, it isn’t at all delivering the results Trump wants. But he’s even less willing than the average politician to admit to a mistake, so he keeps doing even more of what’s not working. And if you extrapolate based on that insight, the implications for the U.S. and world economies are starting to get pretty scary.

This week, the Trump administration imposed tariffs on Chinese imports to the United States worth approximately $300 billion. It also declared China to be a currency manipulator. The announcements led to a significant drop in the stock market, as investors worry that a trade war between Washington and Beijing could precipitate a global economic downturn.

Although investors were reportedly “blindsided” by Trump’s move, they shouldn’t have been. The president has been threatening to impose these additional tariffs for some months. And late in July, the administration upped the pressure on the World Trade Organization to remove China’s “developing nation” status. Meanwhile, as I explained in a cover story for The Nation a couple months back, the consensus of opinion among China experts in the United States now favors a more aggressive response to Beijing, which provides Trump with elite cover for his moves.

While Wall Street worries, Main Street braces for the impact of the new policies. U.S. farmers will suffer in particular, and none more so than the soybean growers who have relied on Chinese purchases for over $11 billion in revenues annually. Last year, Chinese soybean purchases dropped by an astonishing 75 percent. The Trump administration has promised billions of dollars more in bailouts to keep American farmers afloat (more to the point: to secure the farm vote for the 2020 elections). But temporary government subsidies are not going to cut it if the trade war becomes semi-permanent as China switches to other suppliers for its agricultural and manufacturing needs.

It’s not just farmers and manufacturers who pay. Ordinary consumers will have to pony up more at the checkout counter. This is, in effect, a hidden tax on Americans that they’ll invariably blame on China and other countries rather than on the Trump administration.

China is not the Taliban. It won’t be cowed by Trump’s rhetoric or his aggressive trade moves. Beijing allowed its currency to plummet in order to make its exports more competitive, which will squeeze U.S. products out of foreign markets. It’s digging in for the long haul, and it has the resources to do so. The Chinese government has many more levers at its disposal to adjust monetary and fiscal policy to weather this storm. And unlike Trump, Xi Jinping doesn’t have to worry that he’ll be voted out of office.

As Krugman explains, the tariffs are not even accomplishing Trump’s goals. The trade deficit is growing larger, and U.S. exports are actually shrinking. Tariffs are probably the worst possible tactic for boosting U.S. trade and addressing ongoing disagreements with Beijing. Not only are they ineffective in the short term, they have the potential to drag the global economy into a depression much deeper than the financial crisis of 2008.

More Nuclear Escalation?

The Obama administration negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran in 2015. It pushed through the New START treaty with Russia in 2010 (though, to get the treaty through the Senate, the administration had to commit to an expensive and entirely unnecessary modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal). And Obama was the first president to embrace the goal of complete nuclear disarmament (as opposed to mere arms control).

Trump, by contrast, seems to have fallen in love with nuclear weapons. He has pushed for an increasein the nuclear weapons budget that will mean an additional $100 billion over the next 10 years over and above what the Obama administration had planned. He plans to test some new nuclear-capable missiles, including a low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile a new nuclear submarine-launched cruise missile.

But the most dangerous development is the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Force treaty, which the administration finalized last week. I described this projected development a couple months ago, but I probably underestimated the potential negative consequences.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared that his country is prepared to go head-to-head with the United States in a new nuclear arms race. Now that the INF restrictions have disappeared, Putin has pledged to build short-range and intermediate-range nuclear missiles to match anything Trump develops.

At the same time, the U.S. insistence on missile defense has pushed Russia and China in particular to develop measures to bypass this so-called shield in order to preserve their deterrent capabilities. As Alex Wellerstein writes in Quartz:

The US military is well-aware of these foreign developments and is somewhat giddy at the prospect of funding its own projects to “keep up” with them, even though they’re the cause for race in the first place. But it’s not just about legit defense: The tit-for-tat nature of this kind of technological development means new toys, more tax-payer money, and—importantly—more prestige.

As part of this escalation, the Trump administration is committed to developing more “usable” nuclear weapons – which of course increases the risk of a conventional conflict turning into a devastating nuclear exchange.

Addicted to War

The Trump administration favors a war of all against all. That’s obvious from its response to the mass shootings in the United States. Rather than support gun control measures, the administration has backed the NRA line: more guns for teachers in schools, more guns for the average person to take out the “bad guys” on the street, more military-grade firepower for local police.

Similarly, the Trump administration has come out shooting in trade relations, most disastrously with China but also with allies like Canada and Mexico. And it has reopened an arms race around nuclear weapons that should have been shut down once and for all at the end of the Cold War. These policies threaten to drag the United States and the world backward: to the heyday of U.S.-Soviet rivalry in the first case and to the days of tariff escalation of the 1920s in the second. If only one of these happens, it will be a disaster. If both happen, it will be a catastrophe.

Ending the war in Afghanistan is indeed a noble goal. But even if does happen, it would qualify as only a minor accomplishment in comparison to the escalating trade war and the new nuclear arms race. It would be like putting out a little brushfire in your backyard when a massive forest fire approaches from the other direction. And given the terms of the latest deal on the table, the brushfire will continue to burn, though perhaps at a less dangerous level.

Meanwhile, even if you can’t actually see the forest fire approaching, you can at least smell the smoke and hear the distant crackle of flames. It’s an entirely avoidable conflagration. The president who claims to be saving the United States is out there patrolling the firebreak, but with lighter fluid in hand.

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At the End of the Barrel of a Gun

Photograph Source: A demonstrator offers a flower to military police at an anti-Vietnam War protest in Arlington, Virginia, 21 October 1967 – Public Domain

I want to stay far away from anything resembling anti-intellectualism or guilt by association, especially since the right-wing political, economic, and social systems we live in in the US give plenty of space to anti-intellectualism and the dominance of ignorance. Blood now runs in the streets, so the impact of the far right (read fascists) must also be acknowledged and strenuously fought.

The bookstore is located in the heart of Harlem, a place where I seem to feel more comfortable with than many other places in New York City, with the important exception of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village because of how many of the profoundly personal, societal, cultural, and historical changes took place there during the 1960s and early 1970s. Many lived that history, so criticism of some of its aberrant ideological leanings  is a valid exercise.

I went into the bookstore because it had a reputation as both a welcoming place and a shop at which lots of great critical titles could be found with histories, biographies, autobiographies, poetry, essays, and critiques about how bad it really is and some possible ways out of the maelstrom. I write these words after two mass shootings in the US, one in Texas and one in Ohio, so readers understand exactly where I’m coming from and the pressing need for radical change. The radical right media, personified by Fox News, demonizes antifa while the blood of innocent people runs in the streets.

I also went to the bookstore to find out if the group that operates the store would review and possibly sell my book, Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2018), about my resistance to the Vietnam War. It seems that resistance during that war has all but been forgotten, and I refuse to be a participant in that amnesia in the face of militarism and endless wars. Gun violence in the streets here is connected in some ways to those endless wars. Although I was greeted at the bookstore with open arms and friendliness that is not seen in retail establishments in a society where everything is bought and sold and everything has value solely as a consumer good, I quickly learned that the shop would never accept my book and put it on their shelves. It’s not that I wouldn’t submit it, it’s the fact that reading the political handouts  available at the bookstore show that a strict sectarian ideology informs almost everything about the place. I felt as if I was at a political organizing meeting in New York City around 1970. Two of the people associated with the bookstore and the particular communist organization on which the bookstore was founded quickly turned to questioning me about my politics in a manner that bordered on the invasive. I felt as if I was being interrogated for potential membership in their politcal organization.

The politics that the store represents is an old variety of communism with a fresh coat of paint. Just how the masses will create the conditions for a revolution through some kind of bloodless transformation remains a mystery after reading some of the literature about the brand of radicalism that the store promulgates. I’m not averse to many of the premises of democratic socialism, it’s just that the societies where communism was installed as a political and economic system ended up with horrific examples of mass murder. Whether it was the mass relocations of people out of the cities in Mao’s China, or Stalin’s gulags filled with real and imagined political opponents, the results were just about the same: mass bloodletting. There’s a poster of Mao Zedong on a wall of the shop that depicts him among the masses. Left out is the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China that took place from 1966-1976 in which from 500,000 to 2,000,000 people were killed in that “sociopolitical movement.”  During the same period, the US, in its insane variety of anti-communism and imperialism, killed millions of people in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. The historical record shows that when more rational forms of communism and democratic socialism came to power in places like Chile, they were annihilated by the far-right forces of capitalism and imperialism, and they were murdered violently. Would Cuba under Castro have been different had the US cooperated with his government, or would some extremes of his political system have developed anyway: it’s impossible to know with any certainty? Cooperation would never happen with Cuba (with a brief respite during the Obama administration). The US still enforces the Monroe Doctrine there. I know, however, that I could not write these words in Cuba, either in the past or now and hope to be allowed to remain in that country.

The leader of the communist political party under which the bookstore operates was a member of the New Left and one of the revolutionary groups that formed as that Left spiraled into oblivion in the early

1970s. Reading the biography online about the leader, I recalled the asinine debates about who could actually be called politically authentic in the leadership as the New Left reached its demise. Some have called the leadership of the party that the bookstore lionizes as a “cult of personality.” It was reminiscent of the sectarian squabbles that are so accurately portrayed by the journalist Jack Reed in Ten Days That Shook the World (1919), his first-person account of the Russian Revolution.

As I left the shop, one person said that if I took nothing else with me that day, I needed to buy the manifesto of the communist group’s leader that was prominently displayed near the front entrance to the shop. I balked, as my superficial perusal of the book reminded me of both my own experiences with sectarian ideolouges from the Vietnam era and what I have learned from history. The one true way is seldom the one true way, as Jack Reed and others quickly learned from their experiences at the inception of the former Soviet Union. Yes, there were vicious roadblocks put in the way of that revolution by the West, but the dictatorship of the proletariat always turned out to be a blot on humanity and not something that benefited humankind. Governments cannot lock up political opponents and throw away the key and call themselves progressive. Those same governments can’t summarily shoot opponents  True, challenges come at revolutionary systems from all sides, but taking away personal and societal liberties ends with mass incarceration that is also so obvious in the US today.

I don’t think after my visit that I will submit my book to the bookstore for review because my approach to political, economic, and social change is to look at those realities as they are found on the ground in the real world, not in any sectarian paradise that really has never existed and may never exist considering the foibles and extremes of human behavior. One foot in the system and one foot out seems to be a good ideal and practical even if the results are often disappointing. Parties and movements in the US always get sucked into the politcal duopoly and their achievements are soon eliminated or radically muted. As limiting as the reality on the ground often is, a person can maintain his or her ideals for a new world while fighting for ways to reshape the tattered one we see before us.

The New Left quickly faded with the end of the Vietnam War, after some lethal forays into violence by a tiny minority that many view today as great mistakes. This is not a critique of methods, but a realization of how the ends can be confused with the means, when the means lead to a cul-de-sac to nowhere. It opens movements for social change to valid criticisms as we see how the system of capitalism that spawns vicious and murderous levels of hate and greed has deteriorated at the end of the barrel of a gun.

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Dear Progressives for Warren: Your Class Is Showing

Photograph Source: Senate Democrats – DSC_8923 – CC BY 2.0

Let me begin by making the apparently mandatory and sacrosanct ritual offering to the gods of progressive politics in 2019: “Sure, I like Warren. In fact, I agree with her on many issues. She’s not bad.”

There. I said it. Can we do real politics now?


We’re at that ignominious point where people from all over the left end of the political spectrum in the United States are engaged in the quadrennial kabuki festival known as a presidential campaign, positioning themselves behind whichever hollow woman or stuffed man makes the best promises without improperly picking their nose or farting into a hot mic. Oh joy, campaign season once more.

But this time it feels more urgent, as if every day brings with it another mass slaughter, another crime against humanity. In fact, every new day does bring with it another slaughter, another affront to human decency and civilized society.

The Fascist-in-Chief has activated the darkest, most reactionary, most dangerous elements of American society, bringing them out of the shadows and into the light of the mainstream. Trump is the fascist smack mainlined into the body politic; crystal meth huffed from the billowing smokestacks of coal-fired power plants and fracking methane plumes.

And Americans, especially progressives, are desperately searching for treatment.

Some look to the celebrity rehab retreats of Malibu neoliberalism, hoping that if we could just get past the withdrawals in an exquisitely furnished room with silk bedsheets and an ocean view, that somehow things will return to normal. This is the fairy tale propagated by that powerful publishing house of Harris, Biden & Buttigieg and its billionaire shareholders. But their stock price is way down. Sales are plummeting as customers are increasingly turning to smaller, more independent publishers whose content is more aligned with the national mood.

So, we look to these indie leaders for a new story, a narrative arc as inspiring as it is exciting. We want Bernie Sanders to slay the dragon and ride in on a white horse to save us. We long for Elizabeth Warren to reassure us that the story we’re living is just make-believe as she kisses our foreheads and tucks us in. We need a heroic daddy; a smart, stable mommy.

This is what it feels like being on the left in American politics today, to say nothing of us Marxists, anarchists, and other political runaways hitchhiking on the road to climate perdition. But, unfortunately, feelings aren’t going to stop fascism. Rather, we must stick to the facts. We must allow the material reality of this political moment to guide our analysis.

And it is from that perspective that we must understand that the real separation between Sanders and Warren isn’t man versus woman, heroic daddy versus nurturing mommy. It isn’t electability or likeability. No, what separates them is class: which class supports them, which class’s aspirations and needs they represent, and which candidate has a class-based movement behind them.

Class Matters, Don’t Let Liberals Tell You Otherwise

If you think you’re reading the words of some “Bernie Bro” you’re way off. I didn’t support Sanders in 2016, and in fact saw him as part of an effort to rope the left back into the Democratic Party and its neoliberal Catherine wheel. I’ve repeatedly and openly attacked Sanders for his extreme blind-spot for US imperialism which gets almost no attention in national political discussion despite the US being engaged in multiple wars and various forms of imperialist aggression all over the world. I’ve noted that Sanders is not only not a socialist, but in fact is closer to mainstream FDR-style liberalism than anything resembling socialism.

But despite all that, today in Summer 2019, there is no doubt about the class nature of Bernie’s movement. This is a working class movement, not simply a campaign, and Sanders has risen to become unquestioningly the most powerful and resounding voice of the American working class. Attend any Sanders event and you see this in action: working class immigrants, broke students and recent graduates, disabled and/or elderly pensioners, union workers, etc.

This is not simply a matter of representation. This isn’t Trump getting a few brown and black faces in front of the camera to obscure the sea of fascist neanderthals at his rallies. No, at Bernie’s events this is genuine and represents an accurate snapshot of the working class in America which is majority non-white.

Warren too has a dynamic campaign that hits all the right notes. Even her events, as any video will show, have a more diverse crowd than many other candidates from the past and today. But it isn’t working class, and it isn’t a movement. Let’s look at the numbers.

According to recent polling data from Morning Consult (one of the best, most reputable along with Pew and Quinnipiac) regarding Democratic primary voter support:

* Voters earning less than $50,000 (Sanders – 22%; Warren – 12%)

* Voters without college degrees (Sanders – 22%; Warren – 10%)

* Voters with college degrees (Sanders – 16%; Warren – 15%)

* Voters with postgraduate degrees (Sanders – 12%; Warren – 19%)

Just from these numbers one clear fact jumps out: Sanders supporters are less wealthy and less privileged on the whole. Looking specifically at income and education, two key indicators of class orientation and access to social mobility, it’s clear which candidate is supported by the poor and working class. Moreover, because access to education is directly correlated to wealth and privilege, these numbers reflect a broader political tendency among those most economically marginalized, seeing Sanders, not Warren, as the voice of the poor in America.

But you don’t actually need these numbers to reach this conclusion. Just monitor the campaign events, the venues, the attendees. While Sanders goes to Skid Row and snubs liberal kingmaker rituals like Netroots Nation, Warren passes the collection plate among the Forever Hillary liberal crowd. The faces and voices you see at Sanders events from California and Michigan, Ohio to Vermont speak volumes about the class character of the movement behind Bernie. People living paycheck to paycheck, seeing in Sanders a voice of their plight. Moreover, in Sanders they see a movement of themselves, not simply faith in a Democrat politician. Warren does not enjoy a similar movement. She is, at best, the face of a very good political campaign. But a good campaign does not a movement make.

Let’s look a little further.

The Kids Are Alright

Sanders also dominates Warren with young people, another indication of class, though perhaps less obvious than income and education. According to Morning Consult:

* Support from 18-29 voters (Sanders – 33+%; Warren – 11%)

* Support from 30-44 voters (Sanders – 25%; Warren – 13%)

* Support from 45-54 voters (Sanders – 17%; Warren – 12%)

* Support from 55-64 voters (Sanders – 12%; Warren – 13%)

* Support from 65+ voters (Sanders – 8%; Warren – 13%)

The numbers paint a fairly obvious picture: Sanders has huge support among the young, those who must look forward to decades of life to be lived in this country. The older the voter gets the less they like Sanders and more they like Warren. But let’s look a little deeper at what this actually means.

Increasingly, America’s educated youth must be considered largely working class as tens of millions are already, or soon will be, saddled with so much debt that they are likely to have no wealth at all despite years of working. Sanders call to cancel all student debt, as opposed to Warren’s half-measure that would reduce debts by a maximum of $50,000, is predictably popular among these key demographics. It should be noted though that student debt is also held by many middle-aged Americans who are either still paying their loans or are paying those of their children.

Naturally, young people from underprivileged backgrounds are much more likely to have less access to education and are more likely to get caught up in the prison-industrial complex, social ills which Sanders’s free public higher education and criminal justice reform proposals speak to. Warren may “have a plan for that” but the data says that its Sanders who they’re listening to.

Perhaps we can most clearly define what we’re witnessing on the progressive end of the political spectrum as something akin to Rosa Luxemburg’s 120-year-old question: reform or revolution?

I’m the first to say that Sanders isn’t exactly my ideal communist revolutionary…hell, he’s not even really a socialist in the true sense of the word. But for this moment, after three years of Trump-addled political fog, he represents the revolutionary upsurge in American politics. Warren represents a moderate, reform-oriented tinkering with the system, Sanders is for upending it.

Warren is praised by analysts on CNN and MSNBC while Sanders is marginalized and maligned. Why?

Because while Bernie rides his white stallion to defend workers, it is Warren who is being tapped to ride in and save the ruling class from Bernie and the Sandernistas that are propelling his candidacy.

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Postmodern Sexual Identity

What is your sexual identity? And what is your erotic desire?

Are you female or male, straight or gay/lesbian, trans, intersex or something still other, a “gender nonconforming” person?Welcome to 21st-century postmodern sexual identity.

Equally critical, how do you fulfill your erotic desire, achieve sexual satisfaction, feel pleasure?  By yourself?, with another?, with more than one?, as a top or bottom?, with sex toys and costumes?  Or simply in private, with someone you care for, “naturally”? Or not at all?  Welcome to 21st-century postmodern sexual pleasure.

America celebrated the 200th birthday of Walt Whitman, the nation’s poet laureate, on May 31st.  He gave voice to sensuous, sexual desire, especially the pleasures of nature and erotic – especially homoerotic — indulgences.  In his 1867 poem, “A Woman Waits for Me,” he chants:

A woman waits for me—she contains all, nothing is lacking,
Yet all were lacking, if sex were lacking, or if the moisture of the right
man were lacking.
Sex contains all,
Bodies, Souls, meanings, proofs, purities, delicacies, results,
Songs, commands, health, pride, the maternal mystery, the semitic milk,
All hopes, benefactions, bestowals,
All the passions, loves, beauties, delights of the earth,
All the governments, judges, gods, follow’d persons of the earth,
These are contain’d in sex, as parts of itself, and justifications of itself.

Without shame the man I like knows and avows the deliciousness of his sex,
Without shame the woman I like knows and avows hers.

Whitman’s words and rhythmic invocation bespeaks a consciousness of sensuous life that has always been part of the human experience. He invoked those legendary voices from time immemorial to proclaim the sensuous joys of erotic pleasure.

Yet, since the nation’s founding four centuries ago, pleasure — in all its forms – has threatened what was prescribed as “acceptable” social and sexual life.  For many, sex was to serve one simple purpose – to foster procreation, thus legitimizing the nation’s moral order.  For Whitman — and a growing number of others – sexual pleasure offered a lot more.

Whitman’s great literary work, Leaves of Grass, was published a decade earlier, in 1855, and celebrated erotic desire.  It drew the wrath of the literary establishment. The New York Herald objected to Whitman’s “disgusting Priapism”; a New York Times critic accused Whitman of rooting “like a pig among a rotten garbage of licentious thoughts”; and the New York Criterion attacked it as “a mass of stupid filth.” Emily Dickinson criticized the work and Willa Cather referred to Whitman as “that dirty old man.”

In the two centuries since Whitman’s birth, America’s sexual culture has profoundly changed. Cather’s “dirty old man” has morphed into a 21st-century eroticist, one for whom the living nature of the human body remains as marvelous as once-wild nature.  Sadly, two centuries after Whitman’s birth, we live defined by a profound contradiction: sexuality is freer than anytime in U.S. history while the threat to nature has never been greater.


Few remember how shocked, shocked!, mainstream America a half-century ago was by Alfred Kinsey’s revelations about male and female sexuality. Based on approximately 18,000 interviews conducted between 1938 and 1953, Kinsey’s twin studies — Sexual Behavior of Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior of Human Female (1953) – represent a landmark in not only empirical research, but moral philosophy as well.

Kinsey and his team revised the popular tri-part model of human sexuality – i.e., heterosexual, homosexual and bisexual — into a seven-point range that ran from zero to six in terms of sexual proclivity, or heterosexual-to-homosexual scale based on the reported sexual practices of his subjects. His research acknowledged the fiction at the heart of traditional Christian patriarchal ideology that then framed American moral order and legal standards.

To everyone’s – including Kinsey’s – surprise, his 804-page scientific tome, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, became a best seller, quickly selling over 200,000 copies; it rose to the top of the New York Times best-seller list in spite of the fact that the Times failed to review it when it first appeared and refused to carry advertisements for the book.

Kinsey sought to make it impossible to continue to deny the full range — or “individual variation,” as he referred to it — of sexual practices engaged in by American white men and women.  For Kinsey, there were no “homosexuals” or, for that matter, “heterosexuals” – only people engaged in sexual acts which were labeled the one or the other.  Equally revealing, Kinsey recognized that then-conventional sexual values did not accept the difference between sex for procreation and for pleasure.  Perversion was understood as a sexual practice that subverted the goal of reproduction.

His findings are, today, broadly accepted as part of national value system yet are still contested by religious fundamentalists.  Often forgotten, the first volume on male sexuality precipitated a near crisis of social conscious.  Moralists, politicians, academics and the medical establishment could no longer conceal the deepest private truths about the sex life of adult Americans.

Kinsey’s research was conducted during the post-WW-II era, a period marked by a fierce culture war fought on two fronts.  It was a “cold war” waged against subversion, the communist threat, civil-rights activists and bohemian free-thinkers; and a “hot war” against sin, perversion’s temptations, including pornography, comic books and homosexuals. The “hot war” involved campaigns against rock-&-roll, fashion, movies and birth control (e.g., information and devices). The campaign culminated in the trials, convictions and executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on June 19, 1953.

The great postwar consumer revolution – the “American Dream” — promoted an insistent sexuality that threatened many traditional values.  It was an ideology and practice that was increasingly articulated – sometimes to exaggeration — in all aspects of a person’s life.  Most insidious, it was principle targeted at women and, increasingly, underage girls.  Most evident, the sexualized female was promoted by the fashion and cosmetics industries as well as in all media forms of representation.

The ‘50s gave rise to an insurgency that shaped the disruptive ‘60s and now, a half-century later, gives voice to a set of critical issues that are informing the upcoming 2020 elections.  Most important, since the “hot war” days of the ‘50s, sexual politics (e.g., abortion, gay rights, sex work) have become an important political issue.  It joins civil rights (e.g., voting, legal policies), foreign policy (i.e., war and other interventions), climate change (i.e., weather, earthquakes) and bread-and-butter concerns (e.g., income, health care) as a 2020 campaign issue.


In the shadow of Kinsey’s work, Herbert Marcuse published Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (1955).  In it, he reinterpreted one of Freud’s most notions within the context of the contradictions of post-WW-II consumer revolution.  “What makes an infant characteristically different from every other stage of human life is that the child is polymorphously perverse,” Freud wrote. He added, the child “is ready to demonstrate any kind of sexual behavior, with any kind of pleasure, without any kind of restraint.”

Marcuse warned, “the full force of civilized morality was mobilized against the use of the body as mere objects, means, instruments of pleasure; such reification was tabooed and remained the ill-reputed privilege of whores, degenerates and perverts.”

Michel Foucault provided a second stepping stone from Kinsey to 21st-century sexual culture.  In The History of Sexuality (vol. 1), published in English in 1978, he identified a key transition in sexual politics from the late-19th century to the mid-20th century: “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.”

Now, four decades later, sexual culture is being further reconfigured under a broad catch-all concept, “LGBTQIA” – it refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex and asexual or allied.  Broadly speaking, these are gender nonconforming people.  Looking exclusively at transsexual people, Paisley Currah asks:

Are transsexual people born in the wrong body, or is the wrong body narrative imposed by a medical establishment and legal architecture intent on maintaining the rigid border between male and female, even as they develop diagnoses and criteria that would allow one to move morphologically and/or legally from one gender to another? … Is gender a property of the brain or an effect of the social, of the psyche, of discourse, of language?

He adds, “third wave feminist theory … denaturalized gender.” He stresses that radical queer theory is about “celebrating fluidity over stasis, acts over identity, a queer anti-normative politics over the assimilationist tendencies of the gay and lesbian rights movement. Queer theory wanted to free sexuality from heteronormativity, intimacy from monogamy, and sex from private property.”

The old ‘60s slogan, “the personal is political,” has become a 21st-century truism. For many Americas, a person’s sex-identity embodies her/his self-identity, the person’s political self.  The American Psychological Association points out that the notion of “transgender” is “an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth.”  It adds that “gender identity “refers to a person’s internal sense of being male, female or something else; gender expression refers to the way a person communicates gender identity to others through behavior, clothing, hairstyles, voice or body characteristics.”

Planned Parenthood further clarifies the difference between sex and gender, noting:

Gender is … a social and legal status, and set of expectations from society, about behaviors, characteristics, and thoughts. Each culture has standards about the way that people should behave based on their gender. This is also generally male or female. But instead of being about body parts, it’s more about how you’re expected to act, because of your sex.

John Galbraith Simmons, writing about sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) in Sex and Gender: A Reference Handbook (2017), notes “advances in the biological sciences complicated traditional gender determination at birth and obviated the simple binary male/female dichotomy.”  He adds, today “SRS could be considered a mature set of procedures to treat a condition, transsexualism, which provided most patients an acceptable remedy for gender dysphoria.”

However, since the rise of 2nd-generation feminism in the 1970s, some radical feminists have objected to male-to-female transsexuality.  Robin Morgan made perhaps the strongest assertion, arguing in 1973:

I will not call a male “she”; thirty-two years of suffering in this androcentric society, and of surviving, have earned me the title “woman”; one walk down the street by a male transvestite, five minutes of his being hassled (which he may enjoy), and then he dares, he dares to think he understands our pain? No, in our mothers’ names and in our own, we must not call him sister.

Others have pointed out that most trans women have taken female hormones, but only about a quarter of them have had genital surgery.

Michelle Goldberg observed that radical feminists insisted that “gender is less an identity than a caste position.” Such feminists adhere to a simple principle with regard to transsexuals:

Anyone born a man retains male privilege in society; even if he chooses to live as a woman—and accept a correspondingly subordinate social position—the fact that he has a choice means that he can never understand what being a woman is really like.

Some of these feminists promote “womyn-born womyn” events, excluding male-to-female trans people. Some insist that female-to-male transsexualism is a capitulation to misogyny.

A number of contemporary writers embrace this analysis.  Daphna Whitmore argues, “Trans ideology is bollocks.”  She points out “we are suppose to believe that trans women are women, lesbians can have penises, and biological sex is a social construct. …  The majority [of transsexuals] are hanging on to their penises and are aggressively demanding rights that impact on women.”

Ann Menasche, in “Remembering lesbians in lesbian and gay liberation,” argues:

Lesbians have become extremely marginalized within the modern LGBTQ+ ‘alphabet soup’ – the corporatized stepchild of the Lesbian and Gay Liberation Movement. … We are being pressured and guilt-tripped on the one hand to accept men calling themselves women into our communities and our bedrooms. At the same time, rebellious young girls with same-sex feelings, and lesbian adults are being convinced in growing numbers they are really “men” and are being coerced or swayed into “transitioning”.

These critics raise a fundamental concern as to the status transsexual people: Who are they?  As Currah asks:

Are transsexual people born in the wrong body, or is the wrong body narrative imposed by a medical establishment and legal architecture intent on maintaining the rigid border between male and female, even as they develop diagnoses and criteria that would allow one to move morphologically and/or legally from one gender to another?

This question defines one of the boundaries of early-21st century sexual culture.


American sexual culture has fundamentally changed during the last half-century. Key to these development are a series of critical Supreme Court decisions that have been ruled since Roe v. Wade (1973). They include: Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) that affirmed Roe and introduced two new elements: (i) it permitted states to regulate abortions so as to protect the health of the mother and the life of the fetus and (ii) permitted states to outlaw abortions of “viable” fetuses; Lawrence v. Texas (2003) that overturned Bowers v. Hardwick (1986), extending privacy protections to adults who engage in private, consensual sodomy; U.S. v. Windsor (2013) that ruled the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional; Obergefell v Hodges (2015) that legalized gay marriage; and Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt (2016) that overturned a Texas law restricting the delivery of abortion services.

Shifts in the nation’s sexual culture are expressed in still other developments.  Thousands across the country celebrated the 50th anniversary of the ’69 Stonewall riot as a celebration of self-hood.  Others remembered the momentous American Psychiatric Association (APA)1973 resolution to remove “homosexuality”from its list of mental illnesses.  Some recalled successfully beating-back Anita Bryant’s anti-gay Save Our Children campaign to ban gays in Miami (1977). Military personnel cheered the adopted the “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” policy, in place from 1994 until 2011.

Last year, 400,000 fetishists, their admirers and voyeurs gathered in what is considered the world’s largest assembly of sexual deviants, San Francisco’s Folsom Street Fair.  And then there is the ever-growing “sexual wellness” – i.e., sex-toy – market with estimated revenues of $14 billion industry; Amazon dominates this niche sector, offering an estimated 60,000 products.

The Trump administration is aggressively promoting the religious right’s culture wars as federal policy, seeking to turn back the sexual clock.  Sadly, it might succeed.

Trump & co. are pushing to overturn Roe, thus ending legal abortion rights; whether Trump’s reconstituted Court will reverse the earlier decisions is an open question. It is restricting teen sex education and birth control information.  It supports failed “conversion” therapies that purport to end homosexuality and bars transsexual people from the military and led the effort to curtail the rights of gender-nonconforming students (i.e., “bathroom bills”).

The Christian right shares the fear of the changing sexual culture.  R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, warns: “in the postmodern world, all realities are plastic and all principles are liquid. Everything can be changed. Nothing is fixed. All truth is relative, all truth is socially constructed, and anything which is constructed can also be deconstructed in order to liberate.”  He added:

For those whose agenda is to undermine Judeo-Christian morality and to disconnect Western civilization from biblical norms, there is no better strategy than to subvert marriage, family, and sexuality, and unleash on society an age and culture of polymorphous perversity.

Today, transsexual people are playing a social role analogous to that played by homosexuals during the early day of the culture wars. Then, gays and lesbians were targets of mass discrimination campaigns, included congressional hearings, the loss of jobs and widespread arrests and jailing.  Even worse were the anonymous as attacks, robberies and even killings of purported homosexuals.

Most troubling, what is old is new again. The Human Rights Campaign reminds Americans that in 2018 26 transgender people were killed in the U.S. “due to fatal violence, the majority of whom were Black transgender women.”  For 2019, so far at least 11 transgender people were “fatally shot or killed by other violent means.”  Do these attacks on black transgender people suggest a deep social – patriarchal, heterosexual – fear of postmodern sexual culture now in formation?

Following Foucault, one can ask: did Whitman’s premodern, 19th-century sodomite become the modern, 20th-century homosexual who, as the postmodern, 21st century takes shape, become the transsexual? Does this reconfiguration of postmodern sexual identity suggest the eclipse of patriarch and old-fashioned heterosexuality?

To answer these questions, we need three critical pieces of the puzzle.  First, we need a 21st-century Whitman to reconceive sexual pleasure, one that links the body as a living, erotic social organism to the natural world of which it is part. Second, we need a postmodern Kinsey to reconceive the sexual spectrum, freeing people from the tyranny of patriarchal heterosexuality. And then we need today’s activists and the growing popular insurgency turn into a popular movement like that of feminism and gay rights that could move America into the sexual future.

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Conspiracy, Death and Jeffrey Epstein

Within minutes of news about his death in a Manhattan jail cell Saturday morning, theories spread with pestilential vigour. Was Jeffrey Epstein murdered? Accepting the premise without qualification, the next question followed: Who did it? MSNBC host Joe Scarborough was not giving anyone time to wonder. “A guy who had information that would have destroyed rich and powerful men’s lives end up dead in his jail cell. How predictably…Russian.”

There had been a potential trigger: the unsealing of documents by a Federal court from a lawsuit by one of Epstein’s accusers directed against socialite Ghislaine Maxwell, the woman behind the man behind the women. In 2017, Virginia Giuffre, who had accused Maxwell of procuring young girls for sexual abuse by Epstein, settled. The depositions were duly salacious, linking the procurement to the Epstein circle, which, by all accounts, was rather large. Specific to Giuffre were claims that Maxwell had issued her instructions “to serve”, amongst others, Britain’s Prince Andrew, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, and scientist Marvin Minsky.

Epstein was the insider mogul, a deeply connected, even embedded figure holding the confidences of the rich and powerful even as he pampered them. Having become a sordid archive of sorts, to have him accused of trafficking in underage sex was a powerful incentive for the narrative of silence to charge forth on an unruly stead. To have the Epstein largesse was to have its taint. And in Donald Trump’s USA, the conspiracy machine furnishes the means of settling scores and scuttling accounts; never mind the facts, those silly little things that tend to be bound up in order to die in isolation.

Anyone involved with Epstein in any intimate way could hardly have denied that sinister gothic element to his life, itself sketchy about details as college dropout, high school teacher in Manhattan and money manager. What proved striking was a pseudo-intellectual leaning in his circle: the need for a permanently horny financier to be with the bright in order to arrive at some justification for, as Andrew O’Hagan observed, “personally impregnating countless women”.

His home on East 71st Street in New York sported a stone satyr over a fifteen-foot front door leading to a home with décor “of the Gothic Quagmire school”. When he sparked interest in the authorities – of the unhealthy type – he tended to wriggle out of it, using heavy artillery lawyers to do his bidding. Operation Leap Year, conducted by the FBI over a period of 14 months some twelve years ago, found evidence that 34 underage girls had been solicited by Epstein. Not so, claimed the Alan Dershowitz-led team: the girls were not underage. A “non-prosecution” agreement was struck, allowing Epstein to escape incarceration.

The details, since released, show that Dershowitz convinced Miami prosecutors that Epstein could avoid federal charges provided he owned up to two counts of soliciting, one of them being with a minor. Immunity would also be provided for “any potential co-conspirators”. Epstein’s accusers were not to be informed of this nasty jigging of the legal system, a point in clear violation of the Crime Victims’ Rights Act. (The legal eagle soaring over the proceedings, it should also be said, had been accused by Giuffre of being one of the Epstein inner circle she was to sexually service.)

Such a resume has commanded much suspicion in terms of timing and result. New York mayor Bill de Blasio deemed it “way too convenient”. To reporters, he asked what Epstein could possibly have known. “How many other millionaires and billionaires were part of the illegal activities that he was engaged in?” In the social media scape, facts were already being killed off as rapidly as they were conceived.

President Donald Trump relished a chance to muck in, retweeting a post by comedian and commentator Terrence K. Williams sceptical about the “24/7 suicide watch”. Here was a chance to aim a few blows at his old sparring partners, the Clintons. The rancid smell of dough and sex from the fictional paedophile rings associated with “Pizzagate” in 2016 had reappeared. “#JeffreyEpstein had information on Bill Clinton & now he’s dead.”

That whole matter was preceded by a retweet of a post by BNL News: “BREAKING: Documents were unsealed yesterday revealing that top Democrats, including Bill Clinton, took private trips to Jeffrey Epstein’s ‘pedophilia land’.” The president felt in the pink of things, launching thick salvos against the media he regarded as “lamestream”. “Think how wonderful it is to be able to fight back and show, to so many, how totally dishonest the Fake News Media really is. It may be the most corrupt disgusting business (almost) there is!”

Clinton spokesman and press secretary Angel Ureña added to the news cycle with a statement that, “President Clinton knows nothing about the terrible crimes Jeffrey Epstein pleaded guilty to in Florida some years ago, or those with which he has been recently charged in New York.”

The Daily Beast indulged a scenario in mocking fashion. Perhaps that other part of the Clinton duo, Hillary, “performed a flawless HALO parachute jump onto the roof of the Manhattan Correctional Center, rappelled down the elevator shaft”, in the process infiltrating cell, killing Epstein and making off “with her blonde hair perfectly in place and not a single stain on her tactical pantsuit”.

Not wishing to be outdone, anti-Trump tweets have aggressively followed in the wake of claims that the Clintons were intent on silencing Epstein, leaving, along the way, a good number of corpses. The hashtag #TrumpBodyCount was a response as measured as that of #ClintonBodyCount.

Epstein’s death is being covered, interpreted and heaved over in a scattergun environment resistant to news. Any news account must, by its Trump inflected nature, be a set-up, a contrivance, a concoction of power. “He reportedly tried to kill himself two weeks ago,” snorts Scarborough. “And is allowed to finish the job now? Bullshit.”

This leaves such questions as those posed by O’Hagan in the London Review of Books lukewarm in their intensity, however sensible they might seem. “When guilty men kill themselves, are they acknowledging their guilt, or is it more like an act of self-pity?” Epstein’s suicide terminated “a judicial process that he spent millions to disdain”; it also negated a life in prison he sought to avert. Any answers found by the Metropolitan Correctional Center (New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wants “lots of them”) are bound to fall short in the current milieu of celebrated pandemonium.

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Difficult Discussions, Not-So-Difficult Answers

There are some things we should not have to discuss with our kids. Ever.

My daughter will be 16 in less than two weeks. She’s a good kid and, thankfully, very healthy. Sunday, August 4 was one of the hardest days we have had, however, as we tried to process the atrocity of three mass shootings in 24 hours. I never thought she’d ask me if I had an escape plan at work, as universities too are the sites of mass shootings. She disclosed that she thinks of how she will escape every time she goes into a public place—the mall, a restaurant, the movie theater. As she attends Florida Virtual School she has been spared the fear of getting shot at school, but she worries about her friends who attend public schools and do not have that luxury. She really wants to get a job when she is 16 but is concerned that anywhere can be a target.

My heart breaks for the many victims of this weekend’s mass shootings in El Paso, Dayton and Chicago. And it also breaks that our future—our kids—are growing up spending time identifying escape plans and evaluating whether it is safe to go out.

While gun control is a complex topic, one my daughter recognizes as such given the differences between mass shootings, accidental killings, suicides and other types of gun-related incidents, she cannot fathom why we would not have a ban on assault weapons. Although I explain to her that the previous assault weapon ban, which passed in 1994 and expired in 2004 had some significant loopholes, experts agree that it probably did save lives. As usual, determining exactly how much effect a law has is tricky, given that crime rates fluctuate for many reasons unrelated to law and mass shootings, albeit horrific, represent a fairly small percentage of overall gun-related injuries and fatalities. Nevertheless, it is quite possible to fix the loopholes with that version, which featured complicated descriptions of which firearms were actually prohibited, grandfathered-in weapons and magazines that were manufactured before the law took effect, among others.  A new version might be more effective.

Yet where we live, in Florida, Republican Attorney General Allison Moody has asked the State Supreme Court to block a ballot initiative to put an assault weapons ban before voters in 2020. This is despite the fact that the group Ban Assault Weapons Now (BAWN) has already gathered 99,000 certified signatures, which is enough to trigger an automatic legal review of the amendment by the state’s highest court. Claiming the definition of an assault weapon is too broad and the requirement that existing owners register their weapons within one year is misleading, what seems to really be the case is that Moody is another Florida NRA shill. This in a state that has seen some of the most horrendous mass shootings, including 49 dead and 53 injured at Pulse Nightclub in 2016 and 17 dead and another 17 wounded at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.

So, what do we tell our kids? Certainly not to hope and pray—that has been a dismal failure. Ideally not how to harden themselves as targets—that’s a world none of us want to live in. I’m not sure I’ve got it all right, but I prefer to emphasize treating all people with dignity and respect, volunteering to collect signatures on petitions, calling members of Congress and the Attorney General’s Office, rallying peers to support events and efforts to raise awareness and educate people on the facts about gun-related crime and mass shootings, and getting people out to vote.

Floridians interested in helping get signatures for the assault weapons ban to be on the ballot can find more information at

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Five Ways the Economy is Stacked Against the Young

The mechanics of wealth building are fairly simple. Save more than you spend, invest those savings to generate more money. Lather, rinse, repeat.

There’s one big problem for younger people trying to do this: The rules are rigged against them. Here are five facts showing the unfair burden millennials carry.

1. Wages are stagnant.

Today’s rising generation earns 20 percent less than their parents did at their age, despite being better educated and more productive. In fact, millennials are on track to become the first generation in modern American history to make less money than their parents did.

The federal minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, is lower than the cost of living in every city in the country — and hasn’t gone up in 10 years. It’s hard to save when the money coming in doesn’t come close to covering the basics.

2. Student debt is out of control.

The cost of attaining a college degree leaps annually, with aggregate student debt now topping $1.5 trillion. Savings that could’ve gone to a down payment on a house, starting a business, or saving for retirement are eaten up by monthly student debt obligations.

This is largely the result of state governments disinvesting in public colleges and universities, shifting the costs onto families. Since student debt is the only form of debt not discharged in bankruptcy, you either pay it off or die trying.

3. Everything else costs more too.

Millennial wealth problems aren’t due to avocado toast, lattes, or any other consumer spending habits. Millennials spend lessthan previous generations on food, alcohol, shelter, utilities, transportation, and entertainment.

A few of these things are cheaper today than a few decades ago. But these are far outpaced by the skyrocketing cost of buying a house, rent, health care, college, child care, cars, and insurance — and wages aren’t keeping up at all.

4. Buying a house is out of reach.

Starter home prices have increased by nearly 60 percent over the last five years, while inventory has dropped by over 20 percent, according to Zillow. Buying a house has become a punchline for many millennials who don’t have the privilege of family members who can help with a down payment.

Homeownership has historically been the greatest generator of middle class wealth, but millennials are buying houses at a lower rate than previous generations. The top reason they cite isn’t lack of interest or lust for living in a converted van. It’s inability to save for a down payment.

5. Traditional money advice is laughably out of touch.

The standard personal finance advice doled out these days is to save at least three months of expenses, save for retirement, and spend less than a third of your income on housing.

But when you don’t have enough to cover rent, student loans, and insurance, not to mention groceries, where’s all this saving going to come from? What’s the advice for the 40 million of us earning under $15 an hour, whose jobs don’t cover the cost of living?

The good news? Last year, for the first time ever, young voters outpaced boomers at the ballot box, with millennial turnout nearly doubling from 2014. This year, they overcame baby boomers as the biggest voting bloc.

Bold solutions to un-rig the economy are on the table, like Medicare for All, college for all, student debt forgiveness, first time home buyer programs, and a Green New Deal. Millennials are in a position to benefit the most from these programs — and to contribute the most to ensuring they become law.

Without bold solutions, the steady rise of inequality will continue unabated for generations to come.

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Are We Ready Now to Put Shooters’ Gender at Center of Gun Debate?

Last weekend’s killing sprees in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, brought the number of mass shootings in the first 215 days of the year to 251. In the United States of Ammunition, that’s more than one a day. What’s going on? To paraphrase James Carville, “It’s the masculinity, people.”

It’s infuriating to me that because it’s so obvious who did the shooting the media, politicians, and pundits rarely cite the most significant common denominator of virtually every mass murder in the U.S.—the shooter’s gender! Patrick Crusius, the 21-year-old Texan charged with the El Paso murders, is an avowed white supremacist. The slain Dayton killer, Connor Betts, had previously compiled a “rape list” of females he wanted to sexually assault. Both are poster boys of toxic masculinity.

Any hope we’ll end the madness must begin by acknowledging that it’s almost always men shooting. Until we make gender central to our efforts to prevent mass shootings, we are on a fool’s errand. I have been repeating this message for 20 years, since Columbine. Before Tree of Life, Thousand Oaks, Parkland, Sutherland Springs, and Las Vegas, there was Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Aurora. All male shooters; usually white supremacists.

Let’s also acknowledge what’s not being examined—how we socialize boys and how little attention we give disaffected men. Think about the loner, the male outcast in high school. (Connor Betts’s ex-girlfriend told MSNBC that the Dayton killer had “no support system.”) Because we know how alienated nearly all perpetrators are, that gender is not central to the national conversation reveals a blindness of the highest order. Ignoring this fact just escalates the danger.

Don’t get me wrong. Increase gun regulations—the tougher, the better. Step up pressure to shutter the NRA. Support the Giffords Law Center, Guns Down America, Everytown for Gun Safety, and the Brady campaign. Have at it.

National Study on Boys’ Socialization

We need a nationwide uprising. Demand Congress authorize the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to study how we socialize males, beginning in preschool. Imagine if from age three on we followed males not just to identify troubled boys—but also and more importantly—to better develop curricula to cultivate their emotional intelligence and enhance their sense of connection. A pilot program could be rolled out next spring through Head Start.

What role could the authentic media play? How about a Frontlines investigation on manhood and violence? Or, a John Oliver Last Week Tonight special. Newspapers in the cities where shootings have occurred could collaborate to produce a multipart nation-wide series on “Men, Masculinity, and Mass Shootings.” The networks and cable news could do specials, too. Since the #MeToo movement began the media’s been pretty successful connecting the dots between toxic masculinity and sexual assault. Why the blind spot around mass shooters?

For years I’ve been part of a global movement of antisexist men working in 700 NGOs in 70 countries committed to transforming masculinity. From preventing violence against women and girls to advocating for women’s reproductive health and rights; from campaigns championing involved fatherhood to raising healthy boys. The magazine I edit, Voice Male, has been chronicling these efforts for years.

So ask yourself: why does virtually no one think about gender when considering mass shootings? Or, for that matter, when contemplating how to best protect people of color, LGBTQIA folks, Muslims and Jews when we are attacked? Because we assume the perpetrators will be men, usually white. If women had been the shooters in El Paso or Dayton, that’s all we’d be talking about, right? (Ditto if the shooters were persons of color.)

It is the masculinity, people. Addressing mass shootings without making gender central to the debate is like expecting a three-legged stool to stand on two legs. Challenging weak or no gun laws and pointing out how secondary mental health challenges are is not enough. We must keep the focus on masculinity.

If you agree, do more than lobby your elected representatives. Blast social media; wake up your faith communities, your schools. Demand media coverage, too. To honor the memories of the murdered, and to comfort the wounded and their families, it’s the least we can do.

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Bodies on the Ground and the Rise and Rise of the Economic Elite

The US is less of a nation than a collective, psychotic episode.

Within day to day life in the nation, a cultural aura exists that shifts, mingles, and merges between a sense of nervous agitation and displaced rage, in combination with a sense of weightlessness. The fragmented quality of daily life imparts an insubstantial, unreal quality wherein the citizenry of the capitalist/consumer empire of hungry ghosts drift through a nadascape comprised of ad hoc, fast-buck-driven, suburban/exburban architecture and the ersatz eros of constant, consumer come-ons.

Yet beneath the nebulous dread and nettling angst of it all, there exists the primal human imperative for connection and social communion i.e., authentic eros. The most lost among the lost in the ghostsphere of the collective mind attempt to animate the realm of shades with libations of blood. The gods of the capitalist death cult demand no less.

Where does an impulse to possess an unlimited number of firearms fit into the scheme of things?  A firearm’s heft, for one. The weapon feel substantial when held and hoisted thus serves, provisionally, to mitigate a psychical sense of weightlessness. The act of engagement eases nervous agitation.  Guns reality is antithetically to the weightless content of media reality. Focus is achieved when one aligns the weapon’s site to a target. Nebulous dread transforms into adamantine purpose. The presence of an Angel Of Death will focus the mind. The ground, for the moment, feels solid beneath one’s feet. Hence, there arrives a craving, in the sense of addiction, to hoard the object that provides relief; in addition, massive quantities of ammunition must be stored as emotional ballast. The mystifying, rankling, uncontrollable criteria of this weightless Age and the white noise of uncertainty seem to yield to the clear and decisive crack of a rifle shot. Relief is imagined in the concomitant carnage. Rebecca West captures the phenomenon in prose:

“Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations.”

―Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon 

Because we, on a personal level, in most cases, choose the primary option, our hidden, shadow half will live out the latter on a collective basis. During the blood lust on display at Trump rallies, the mob finds a collective comfort zone in catastrophic longings. The domestic landscape of paranoia works in behalf of the profiteers of perpetual war, perpetrators of the U.S.-created deathscapes overseas, and vice versa, in a self-resonating feedback loop of carnage.

In our era, in which, the US empire is in decline, as a consequence, the White supremacist order no longer seems inevitable, Trump’s frightened legions have personalised the decline. In their gut, they feel as if their identity is under siege. Seal off the nation’s borders. Construct an unscalable wall. Create a cordon sanitaire to protect and preserve racial purity. A strong authority figure is craved in order to set the world back in order. The phenomenon could be termed, Authoritarian Simpatico Syndrome (ASS) — a pathology manifested in personality types who have been traumatized by the authoritarianism of the US socio-political milieu but who seek to assuage their hurt and humiliation by identification with the very forces responsible for their torment.. The stuff of a cultural nervous breakdown.

To that end, according to its own laws, the nation’s citizenry, sufferers of mental distress, should be restricted from purchasing a gun. Yet without a doubt, the most disturbed of all are the nation’s political class, those responsible for gun legislation. There is compelling evidence that they present a clear and present danger to themselves and others. The political class is a menace to society; they make decisions, more often than not, based on delusional thinking, that are responsible for harm on a massive scale. Thus they should be subject to institutional-style restraint, within the confines of the most heavily secure, lockdown ward in an asylum for the criminally insane.

Although the so-called mentally ill, as a rule, are not any more inclined to commit violent crimes than are the general population of capitalist dystopias. The US nation was founded in genocidal violence and the fortunes of its ruling class’ are protected by the state sanctioned violence of the police and are bloated by the violence inherent to imperialist shakedown operations.

It comes down to this: In our emotionally brutal era, those deemed mentally ill are suffering from capitalism. The pummeling stress and boot-in-the-face, hierarchy-inflicted humiliations inherent to the system inflict trauma on large swathes of the citizenry.

Epidemic levels of middle age, US citizen’s are dying with needles in their arms. The inherent and internalised White supremacy of the societal order has been exacerbated by Trump’s self-serving, reckless agitprop and acts in a drug-like manner causing dopamine levels to rise in those experiencing emotional torment due to humiliation-caused despair. Demagogues such as Trump are aware and exploit the manner despair can be palliatively mitigated by the emotional displacement of rage.

Fascist insignias rise when the hopes and aspirations of the working class lay shattered across a capitalist economic wasteland. Hoisted torches provide the illusion that dark despair has been banished. The fascist mob becomes possessed by a belief that they, en masse, can ascend into the precincts of heaven by scaling a mountain of corpses comprised of outsider groups.

Fascism not only acts as anaesthetic to the wounds delivered by capitalism, it is a psychoactive drug because incantatory rhetoric and imagist psychical material get those susceptible to its crude allure high.

Capitalism is borne on manic wings. The economic elite move from corporate skyscrapers and high rise rooftops in order to travel by helicopter, where upon landing, they board private, luxury jets, then, whereupon landing again, they are transported by helicopter to corporate skyscrapers and high rise rooftops. Touching the earth is a fleeting experience. The ruling class have lost touch with ground level verities. In a classical sense, such displays of hubris were understood as the progenitor of madness. The gods first elevate those they drive mad.

And, yes, race-based fears and animus are in play.  Racism engendered mass murder has been coming to pass since armed Europeans trudged ashore in the Americas, with their blood-sodden religion and their murderous craving for gold and land. Of course, the racist demagoguery of the Bloated Orange Tub Of Nazi Goo oozing into and agitating the limbic systems of violent cretins during homegrown Nuremberg Rallies and his compulsion to blitzkrieg the pixel-sphere with Der Stürmer tweets is fomenting racist mayhem that includes bacchanals of blood. US mythos is rancid with the reek of the corpses of the innocent slaughtered by White men brandishing firearms. Mass murderers have been and continue to be enshrined as heroes, from Wounded Knee to Afghanistan.

The nation was established by gun-enabled genocide and the intimidation of African slaves held at gunpoint on capitalist plantations. The truth has never been faced e.g., the suppression of the Nixon tape in which Ronald Reagan displayed his racist mindset.

The US citizenry thanks the soldiers of its racist wars of aggression for their “service.” Perpetual shooting sprees origins can be traced to the heart of darkness of the nation and its concomitant White supremacist creed. The killings happened long before the rise and election of the Tangerine Tweet Führer. Of course, the racist shit-heel Trump has exacerbated the situation. He deserves all scorn cast his way. It is obvious his capacity for malice does not possess a governor’s switch.

Trump is a two-legged emblem of the hypertrophy at play in late US imperium. Gun-inflicted violence is steeped into the blood-stained fabric of the US (sham) republic. Withal, Trump is not an anomaly; he is an emblem. Gun-strokers are no more going to shed their mythos than liberals and progressives are going to shed theirs that the US is a democratic republic, governed by the rule of law, and progressive reforms will be implemented by its High Dollar owned and controlled political class that will serve to turn around the trajectory of the blood-built and maintained US empire.

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The Need for Unity in Ethiopia

Ethiopia is a tribal nation, made up of 80 or so different groups, some large some small, some powerful, some not. Large numbers of people, the majority perhaps, identify themselves with their tribe more powerfully than their country, or their region. Tribal affiliation runs deep among all age groups, loyalty is strong, resentment of tribal others can be fierce.

Social divisions along tribal lines, fear and animosity, particularly between the three largest groups – the Oromo, Amhara and Tigrinian – are acute. People within all three are heavily armed; carrying weapons in rural Ethiopia is commonplace, expected even. Isolated conflicts have occurred in various parts of the country in recent months leading to deaths and displacement of people.

Ethiopia now boasts the largest number of internally displaced persons in the world. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (iDMC) states that, “about 2.9 million new displacements associated with conflict were recorded in 2018.” The total number displaced in the country is estimated to be close to four million.

The new government has not responded effectively to this humanitarian crisis or the incidents of tribal-based violence; it appears weak and indecisive, and when it has reacted it has done so in a heavy-handed, clumsy manner. Many Ethiopians, both inside and outside the country are concerned that matters could spiral out of control; one spark, carelessly thrown, could ignite fury, civil war even. This is not a new fear, but it is becoming more widespread, and with every eruption of ethnic violence unease deepens, tensions grow.

The government, under the leadership of PM Abiy Ahmed Ali, appears unclear how to respond to the frustration that many in the country feel. Maintaining Law and order by the police is essential, the military should not be involved, but, they have been deployed to deal with unrest, and the government has on occasion retreated into the Old Ethiopian Way of Control; arresting troublesome journalists and restricting Internet access – the regime still owns the sole telecommunications company. The Committee to Protect Journalists report that “on June 22, Ethiopia was plunged into an internet blackout following what the government described as a failed attempted coup in the Amhara region.”

In the aftermath at least two journalists were detained under the country’s repressive anti-terror law. The draconian Anti-Terrorist Proclamation was introduced in 2009, was described by Human Rights Watch (HRW) at the time as “a potent instrument to crack down on political dissent, including peaceful political demonstrations…. It would permit long-term imprisonment and even the death penalty for ‘crimes’ that bear no resemblance, under any credible definition, to terrorism.” The government has been discussing reforms to the proclamation, but what is required is not endless debate, but for the law to be scrapped immediately and new legislation brought forward.

From dictatorship to Democracy

Until PM Abiy took office, the ruling EPRDF coalition was dominated by a group of men from Tigray under the banner of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). For 23 years they imposed their ideology of ‘Revolutionary Democracy’ – a highly centralized authoritarian political and economic system, which the regime was never able to clearly define. Human rights were ignored, corruption was rife, the judiciary politicized, state terrorism commonplace in various parts of the country, and “ethnic federalism”, a system of regional administration based on ethnicity, introduced. Good on paper, it promised to respect cultural diversity and give autonomy to ethnic groups should they wish it. In practice ethnic federalism was a way for the TPLF to control the people, to “Divide and Rule”. Competition among groups for land, government funding, aid and natural resources increased, historic tribal flags hoisted, differences aggravated and national unity impaired, all by design.

The EPRDF is still in office under PM Abiy, but the cabinet is new (50% women), and the approach has radically changed; democracy is, many hope, a real possibility in the country.

Abdi is Oromo and holds the office of chairman of the Oromo Democratic Party (ODP). Although they constitute the largest group (with around 35% of the population), there has never before been an Oromo Prime Minister. As large numbers of Oromo see it, they have been dominated for generations by people from the Amhara and Tigray regions, who have suppressed and abused them. With an Oromo PM and a large number of Oromo ministers in place many Oromo people believe their time has come; their time for what precisely though, is unclear. Revenge perhaps – dangerous, to redress historic injustices, to gain independence or autonomy – something that is geographically impossible; Oromia sits on land in the center of the country and includes the capital, Addis Ababa.

Since the new government took office in April 2018 political prisoners have been released, prisons – in which torture was routine – closed down, peace established with Eritrea, troops withdrawn from the Ogaden region in the south. Ethiopians living abroad, many of who were critical of the previous regime, were welcomed back, and the media unshackled. A new beginning then, and much to be welcomed. But as the old repressive measures are rejected, deep-seated anger has surfaced; some see the disquiet as an opportunity to advance their narrow political agenda, they exploit the situation, agitating, stirring up anger.

The evolution into democracy, something Ethiopia has never before known, needs to be carefully nurtured if the transition away from fear and suppression is to be peacefully realized. The government is new and needs time, they also need support; Ethiopia’s major beneficiaries, Europe, USA and Britain, need to become engaged. As with the world as a whole, the key for Ethiopia is unity: unity enriched by the diverse tribal cultures and traditions that exist in this beautiful country.

There is a great deal to be done in Ethiopia: it remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and finds itself languishing at 173rd on the UN Human development Index, out of 189 countries. Health care is poor as is the standard of education. Civil society is weak, it lacks a comprehensive legal infrastructure, the judiciary is not trusted; the cost of living is high and inequality extreme. It will take time, cooperation, tolerance and goodwill to address these fundamental societal issues. Every effort needs to be made to unite the disparate groups; no matter the tribe, all are Ethiopian and all have a contribution to make in the New Ethiopia.

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Lunch at the St. Regis New York

I had long admired Carlos Fuentes, one of Latin America’s best writers. He was the winner of several important literary awards and was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In addition to being a writer, he was also a diplomat, as Mexico’s Ambassador to France from 1975 to 1977.

Fuentes was one of the leading figures of the Latin American literary “Boom”. He had a profound sense of justice. In 1983, he gave a commencement address at Harvard, which was interrupted 44 times with applause, probably a record for this kind of address. During this lecture, he made a well-reasoned appeal for the U.S. not to intervene in Central America.

When he lived in Europe, Fuentes had an active social life and had several high-profile affairs, such as the widely publicized ones with actresses Jeanne Moreau and Jean Seberg. This last one was an inspiration for his novel Diana: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone.

Fuentes’ best-known novel, The Death of Artemio Cruz, is considered one of the most important of modern Latin American literature. Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’ movie, was the inspiration for Fuentes’ magnificent novel, in which he uses literary parallels to Welles’ cinematic technical approaches.

When Fuentes came to New York, he used to stay with his wife Silvia Lemos at the Hotel St. Regis New York, located in midtown Manhattan. The St. Regis, as many people call it, is one of Manhattan’s most traditional hotels. It was the favorite hotel for Salvador Dalí and his wife Gala, and for Marlene Dietrich. John Lennon recorded a demo for one of his songs there, and Alfred Hitchcock had a “favorite” 5th floor suite.

My younger sister Lilia, who was a manager at the hotel, became friendly with both Fuentes and his wife, so I asked her to give him a few of my political articles. After he read them, he told my sister that he was inviting me to lunch at the hotel. When I arrived there, my sister introduced us and then left. As we started talking, we found out that we had the same editor – a difficult man- at The New York Times opinion page. And we shared our frustration at the amount of time it takes to write a good opinion piece, as well as about the difficulties of dealing with that editor.

Fuentes told me that he usually followed the Mexican tradition of a heavy, late lunch and a light dinner. I usually have a good appetite, so I had no problem with that. Because a bartender at the hotel named Fernand Petiot had invented a drink that he called “Red Snapper”, which later became famous as Bloody Mary, we decided to start with that. We had a lunch fit for a king, with oysters and champagne followed by wonderful paella with excellent Rioja wine. As dessert, we had a couple of excellent profiteroles each. All in all, we had a great lunch meeting.

I shared with Fuentes most of his political views, particularly those related to U.S. intervention in Latin American political affairs. He was very critical of President Ronald Reagan’s opposition to the Sandinistas and his support to the Contras in Nicaragua. Late in his life, he commented, “The United States is very good at understanding itself, and very bad at understanding others.”

After a sumptuous two-hour lunch Fuentes asked for the bill. When the waiter handed it to him, I said, “Don’t pay Carlos, it is my treat”. He agreed and the waiter then gave me the bill. I put my hand inside my pocket and with horror realized that I hadn’t brought my wallet.

With an extreme sense of embarrassment, I was ready to tell Fuentes about the situation when a light opened in my head and I told the waiter, “I am Lilia’s brother, is it OK if I just sign the bill?” “Of course,” Sir, “there is no problem at all” replied the waiter. Late that evening, when my sister returned home, I called her, told her about the incident and apologized for sending the bill to her. “Oh,” she replied, “don’t worry. One of the few perks of my job is that many times they don’t charge me for personal expenses…”

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Militarized Observers: Institutional Daydreams of Ethics End Runs to Weaponize Culture

A significant limitation facing scholars studying US military uses of anthropology and other social sciences is that while the existence and activities of various military programs are known, and some related documents are available, there is much about these programs that remains unknown to outsiders. Yet, even with these gaps in knowledge, it is possible to detect patterns indicating trends or recurrent institutional desires and approaches.

For this research I spend a lot of time following dead ends and reading all sorts of boring reports. These reports often have little or no concrete information pertaining the programs I’m researching, yet cumulatively this reading builds a gestalt suggesting institutional patterns and gaps that have apparent shapes, even if a lack of documentation prevents establishing exactly what is happening in the bigger picture. But without documents discussing these apparent patterns, these elements remain just speculation. Occasionally I come across a document that, even with its limitations, expresses the contours of these apparent patterns. I discuss one such document here—a document showing institutional desires of the sort I have long assumed existed but would have been happier to learn weren’t as twisted as I suspected.

Four years ago, I filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for a master’s thesis titled, “Intelligence and Anthropology: The Cultural Knowledge Gap,” written by a student at the National Defense Intelligence College. A few weeks ago, the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) mailed me a redacted version of this 114+ page 2008 master’s thesis.

The Department of Defense redacted the author’s identity under exemptions 10 U.S. Code §424, exemption (b)(3)—exemptions indicating an affiliation with the Department of Defense’s National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. The student’s committee’s identities are redacted under more general FOIA exemptions protecting identities of personal privacy (§552 (b)(6)). This redaction of the author of a master’s thesis, seems an unusual withholding, a withholding that marks a distance separating this sort of work from normal practices of academic accountability.

Master’s theses are rarely works of significant scholarship; I know mine wasn’t, nor were most of my colleagues or friends’ theses. Master’s theses are usually waymarks denoting the development of academic skills in progress, showing a student’s command of literature, abilities to design and complete a research project while engaging with significant methodologies and theoretical debates in their discipline and institutions. In consultation with committee members, a student’s raw work is shaped by the temperaments, styles, and assumptions of their discipline, institution, and times. It is this engagement with the assumptions of the institution in which this thesis was produced that makes this thesis a worthy artifact for contemplation: its assumptions and approach to anthropology as an intelligence tool illuminate significant assumptions and practices of the author, thesis committee, and the National Defense Intelligence College.

The cultural moment birthing this particular thesis was a highwater mark for US military and intelligence agencies’ optimistic dreams of harnessing anthropology for counterinsurgency campaigns in America’s terror wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. General David Petraeus’ pitch for counterinsurgency strategies was a hot commodity and his popularity was on the rise, as his counterinsurgency strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan had not yet failed. Petraeus and his counterinsurgency cronies were making extraordinary claims that the US military could use culture as a weapon in military victories—claims contrary to the overwhelming historical record of counterinsurgency quagmires.

The ethos of this rising counterinsurgency era birthed history’s most expensive, and wasteful, federally anthropological project: the almost three-quarters of a billion dollars Human Terrain Systems (HTS) program ($727,000,000), that embedded anthropologists and other social scientists with soldiers in settings of occupation and battle zones. HTS ran from 2007 until it was terminated in 2014 with a record of failing to function as promised, institutionalized sexism, widespread mismanagement, and unaccounted for funds. HTS was a boondoggle. As a con, it succeeded by telling an unimaginably rich mark (the Pentagon) exactly what it wanted to hear: that it could do extraordinary things with what appeared to be common undervalued objects (anthropologists), in much the same way that shysters seek investors for schemes claiming they have the secret to powering cars with tap water. HTS made wild promises about the magic beans of culture that it couldn’t fulfill, and like most cons it eventually collapsed. And it was these sorts of extraordinary promises made by HTS and the counterinsurgency gurus that fed the drive of this master’s thesis.

The thesis opens with the era’s obligatory salutes to Sun Tzu, Herodotus, T.E. Lawrence, and David Petraeus, as sages of what was then imagined as a new age of warfighting. This was a time when the Powell-Weinberger doctrine (“which emphasized the use of overwhelming disproportionate force, had proven disastrous in Iraq and Afghanistan”) was being replaced by culture warriors, who would conquer and occupy with new levels of success based on their harnessing and weaponizing the secrets of culture. A touchstone of this new age was “Ethnographic Intelligence,” referred to by those in the know simply as “EI.” Proponents of “ethnographic intelligence” argued that the solutions for America’s occupations were found in anthropology’s understandings of the local cultures.

The thesis’ author acknowledged that the most significant hurdle facing Ethnographic Intelligence was that most anthropologists reject using anthropology to assist military or intelligence agencies; acknowledging that, “as scholars of the ‘human condition,’ most anthropologists remain unwilling participants of warfare, military strategy, and security policy making.”

The author noted that anthropologists have significantly different ethical responsibilities to studied populations than do soldiers, who “unlike the anthropologist, the soldier ethnographer does not have a Code of Ethics, instead he has the Soldier’s Creed.” This is not entirely true, and it is surprising that this student’s academic advisors did not clarify there are ethical guidelines governing soldiers’ human research, that for example, the (1978) Belmont Report was written by the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research or other research standards still apply. Ignoring this, the thesis argued that the soldier’s creed, “instructs him that he is a Warrior and member of a team. He serves the people of the United States and lives the Army values. He will always place the mission first. And, he will stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat because he a guardian of freedom and the American way of life.”

The thesis argued that despite anthropologists’ disciplinary aversion to assisting counterinsurgency operations, the political economy of higher education could assist with recruiting anthropologists:

“As the Department of Defense ramps up its recruitment of anthropologists in an effort to integrate cultural knowledge into today’s military, anthropologists will have to weigh the pros and cons of working for government agencies. The government has one eternal reality to its advantage, each year there are far more graduates in the field of anthropology than there are academic faculty positions available. Although anthropologists will continue to bemoan the threat government work poses to the field’s integrity and ethical standards, the reality is that employment opportunities abound for anthropologists in the national security and intelligence communities. Such opportunities will only increase as these communities attempt to determine the next threat to U.S. national Security.”

In other words, with the increasing rates of crushing student loan debt, reduced research grant funds, and lack of university job prospects, the Pentagon could bet that anthropologists can stop worrying and learn to love the bomb. While I’ve long written about these conditions assisting the military’s recruitment efforts, it is creepy to find this argument explicitly made as part of this militarized calculus. Academic ideas are certainly swayed by funding, and with skyrocketing debt and the collapse of sustainable tenure track jobs in universities, such scenarios appear to become increasingly likely.

This point was later expanded as the thesis argued that, unlike the rich streams of military funding, the severe limitations of academia create natural vulnerabilities that can be exploited, writing that,

“There has never been a surplus of research funding, yet conducting field research remains a rite of passage for those wishing to establish anthropological legitimacy and credentials. Consequently, despite protests from the ethical traditionists, funding for research regardless of the source would be welcome in academia provided that academics still had the latitude to conduct research at their discretion and to draw their own conclusions about the data they collected.”

The author recognized that general social science funding, with no military or intelligence links was a good way of generating useful cultural knowledge that could be used by the military. Though this research is completely independent from the military, the fruits of this research would still become available for use by military and intelligence agencies. In very general terms, this has always been part of the rationalization for funding basic science at the National Science Foundation, Title VI funded foreign language study, and Fulbright scholarships: even with independence from the military-intelligence machine, some of the generated knowledge will later by others, including the military.

The thesis then argued that,

“those anthropologists that remain wary of government funding would also benefit without having to acquiesce. Money or research funding in this case in fungible. The bottom line is that more funding is more funding. Scholars without ethical reservations would accept funding from the Minerva Consortium or equivalent government source inevitably freeing up other sources of funding for the wary. The end result is that more anthropological literature would be available to military and intelligence professional and policy makers.”

Still, the author was impatient and called for more aggressive and systematic approaches to harvest anthropological knowledge, arguing that the “Military and Intelligence Communities cannot afford to wait for the fate of the Minerva Consortium or the reconciliation of academia and intelligence.” This urgency demanded immediate action, the offered solution was that that “the Department of Defense and the [Intelligence Community] must begin to passively but meticulously consume all available references pertaining to their area of expertise in order to build a deeper foundation of cultural knowledge.”

This consumption of open source anthropological knowledge to inform counterinsurgency operations is what the Human Terrain Systems program was then seeking to accomplish. HTS tried to develop high-tech means of connecting embedded its “social scientists” in Afghanistan and Iraq with stateside HTS scientists accessing relevant ethnographic data in real time. While none of this worked as planned, it was an effort to realize military dreams of weaponizing the published ethnographic literature in the field so clearly expressed here.

The author conceded that even with the wonderful prospects of debt and unemployment, there may be difficulties in finding enough anthropologists willing to work for empire. This was because the “friction that exists between academic organizations such as the American Anthropological Association and Military and Intelligence communities has precluded for the most part any fruitful collaboration. Consequently, it is necessary to consider alternative methods that would allow analysts to obtain the type of cultural knowledge described earlier.” Because of anthropologists’ frequent ethical objections to working for intelligence agencies, the author weighed other, less direct, means of harvesting anthropological information for intelligence work.

One of the proposals for obtaining anthropological knowledge was to have members of intelligence agencies undertake ethnographic-based research, noting that programs like the Peace Corps or Fulbright Programs “provide excellent opportunity to conduct in-depth research in a country being studied.” However, the author acknowledged that using such programs could endanger the “goodwill” and “U.S. soft power” generated by these programs. The author appears unaware that using Peace Corps volunteers and Fulbright scholars for intelligence work has long been prohibited by federal law and would constitute violations of longstanding agreements between the State Department and military and intelligence agencies. This is no small oversight, and shows a significant gap in this student’s understanding, but more significantly it reflects poorly on the [identity redacted] scholars overseeing this master’s thesis project. It is troubling that the thesis committee did not catch this.

The thesis then considered several programs more explicitly linked to military and intelligence agencies. The National Security Education Program (NSEP) was viewed as one way to bring anthropologists into intelligence work through the “payback” requirement built into the fellowship. NSEP’s “payback” provision requires recipients to later seek employment in federal agencies linked with national security work. The author noted that many anthropologists refuse to participate in NSEP, because of these links to intelligence work, but then added that many prominent anthropology departments continue to provide links to information on NSEP on departmental websites, thereby passively encouraging participation. The thesis noted that the University of Chicago Anthropology Department webpage listed NSEP as a funding source for grad students. Yet, while advertising this funding, the webpage cautioned students that these funds are from the Department of Defense—which the author pointed out no other fellowship (including those from foreign governments, and the State Department) carried any such cautionary warning.

The third considered method of generating ethnographic intelligence proposed attaching individuals to embassies, where they could use their posting to gather ethnographic intelligence. The thesis refers to these hypothetical teams as “ethnographic Intelligence reconnaissance groups.” But this idea was rejected, acknowledging the many problems facing any embassy-linked individuals trying to integrate and acquire meaningful cultural information.

A final, fourth, alternative means of gathering ethnographic intelligence was suggested. This alternative aligns with what I elsewhere describe as “dual use anthropology”—a process where the research of independent, non-military aligned, academic anthropologists is later repurposed by military researchers for their own uses. The thesis proposed that,

“The alternative is that the [Intelligence Community] allows anthropologists to continue to conduct their professional field research uninterrupted and without interference from the federal government. Intel analysts, however, should be encouraged to exploit the products of such research for their own benefit once published. Certainly one can argue that the topics anthropologists choose to study may not always seem compatible with intelligence objectives. One student from the United Kingdom proposed studying the usefulness of ‘Community Led Total Sanitation Approach in Nepal’ and another ‘The Influence of Nepal’s Culture and Traditional Beliefs on the Development of Interior Design and Its Application to Urban Living Spaces.’”

Examples of field based ethnographic analysis were examined to show how specific cultural factors influence the power dynamics in these societies, arguing that if these factors were properly understood, then military and intelligence forces could make alliances or affect desired changes in these communities.

The thesis discussed how, during the Vietnam War, American anthropologist Gerald Hickey drew on his own extensive ethnographic fieldwork to write numerous reports at RAND for military and intelligence consumption. But the thesis does not address what a tragic figure Hickey became, as one who started out trying to help the Hmong villagers being harmed by the Vietnam War, then later misunderstanding that the government was only interested in taking what they wanted from his RAND reports, ignoring information that ran counter to its purposes. The dissertation instead used Hickey as an example of the sort of ethno-historical work that should be supported for the later uses by the military, ignoring that none of this worked out particularly well for Hickey, the Hmong, much less the American military. The thesis provided several examples demonstrating how the non-military linked ethnographic writings of academic anthropologists can be repurposed as intelligence data. One example was drawn from literature on Nepalese Maoist insurgency movement from the 1990s and 2000s, including an analysis of University of Chicago anthropologist, Tatsuro Kujikura’s analysis of this Maoist insurgency.

The master’s thesis has two parts, the first is 63 pages in length, complete with bibliographic sources, citing a range of academic literature, including works by me and colleagues critical of anthropologists working with military and intelligence agencies. The thesis’s first half concluded by arguing that in order to best integrate cultural knowledge for warfare, some US governmental agency needs to study cultures around the world. The author conceded that “one could argue that the Smithsonian already has that function, however, [HTS founder Montgomery] McFate’s proposal appears to be for a more practical organization that would be readily accessible to both policy makers and field commanders.” There is no awareness that during the Second World War the Smithsonian oversaw the “Ethnogeographic Board,” which coordinated ethnographic information needed by the War Department in many of the ways described in this thesis. It remains unknown what would happen today if the Pentagon requested this sort of ethnographic assistance from this governmental institution, but one complication would be that Smithsonian anthropologists abide by the same professional ethical guidelines used by other anthropologists; guidelines which developed after World War II, in part because of problems that emerged as anthropologists aggressively assisted the war effort, and adherence to these ethical standards would limit access to the forms of weaponized anthropology the Pentagon seeks.

The thesis’ second half is a 50 page “Classified Appendix” titled “National Intelligence Estimate Nepal: Prospects for long-term stability.” This is classified “Confidential/NOFORN,” and was released to me in full except for a few redacted passages and a bibliography containing classified sources. This chapter provided the sort of open source-based intelligence briefing that the first half of the thesis argued can be produced using anthropologists’ publications. The resulting work is a summary of political developments in Nepal, predictions of upcoming elections resulting in the formation of a multi-party government and the likelihood that the Nepal Army will support the new government—along with other predictions that are rated as having high, moderate, or low confidence. None of these predictions are startling, or vary from the sort of general comments any competent ex-pat makes over drinks when speaking of local politics. The sources for this analysis were mostly a mixture of news articles and academic publications.

Dreaming of a Weaponized Anthropology

What I like best about this master’s thesis is that the crude views expressed in it confirm what I and other anthropologist critics assumed at the time was the sort of dialogue transpiring within military and intelligence circles, and it adds credence to the analysis and warnings many critical anthropologists made at the time.

A decade ago, I speculated that one of the likely outcomes of the American Anthropological Association’s efforts, which I supported for political and ethical reasons, to curb the weaponization of anthropology would be that the military would seek to develop its own means of training “anthropologists.” I argued that given the military’s primary motivation for developing its own cultural training was to crudely sidestep anthropologists’ ethics codes, what the military would get for these efforts would be something a derogated form of mock anthropology, unable to deliver what it sought, but capable of some managerial feats.

This master’s thesis revisits old themes of military and intelligence operatives repurposing the research of unwitting academic anthropologists for intelligence purposes. In the past, this repurposing has occurred in a variety of ways. One of the more remarkable ways occurred between the early 1950s until the mid-1960s, as the CIA ran at least two dozen funding front foundations, creating funding sources that appeared to be normal foundations that the CIA used to directe funds to unwitting scholars working on research in areas of interest to the Agency, while the most funded scholars had no idea CIA funds were funding their work. This allowed scholars to pursue their research interests, while the CIA consumed reports and publications for knowledge of interest to it. This practice appears to have ended in the late 1960s after revelations in the press and congressional exposed numerous foundations running on CIA funds. But governmental and foundation records on the crisis of these “CIA orphans” created by the dissolution of these exposed CIA fronts, shows a recognition that much of the same outcomes would occur through the continued funding of research through legitimate non-CIA linked foundations.

These CIA fronts were in many ways an extraordinary, even unnecessary, means of collecting academic research for intelligence uses. This is because intelligence agencies routinely use open source materials for the bulk of their work; sources that include academic materials on specific geographical or topical areas of interest—if academics don’t understand this as they write and publish, they are missing a significant dimension of their disciplinary history. A point that this master’s thesis significantly highlights.

It is important to keep in mind what this thesis is and is not. Most significantly, it is only a master’s thesis, as such it was not written with the authority to enact policy or launch programs. It is the writings of a grad student far from any seat of power. Yet anthropologically speaking, it is also a useful artifact revealing the views and desires floating within a military educational institution at a specific period of time; as such, it tells us about particular institutional desires and views. The thesis’ desire for ethnographic knowledge is matched only by the author’s misunderstanding that the reasons why anthropologists won’t easily line up to help subjugate other cultures are not separate from how and why ethnography works. The author was unable to see how the processes of ethnographic research so frequently spawn loyalties embedding the truths departed in relationships of trust that make working for occupiers generally anathema. But still, even with this paradoxical barrier keeping the ethnographic sensitivities the military desires out of reach, acting as secret sharers, the military can read ethnography and search for spare parts to try and weaponize.



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Democrats and the Politics of Change

Photograph Source: Georgia Democrats – CC BY 2.0

With the political season underway, the question of an effective politics is the subtext of the debates and speeches intended to motivate constituencies and movements. This should read as odd: in the U.S., it is the act of getting elected that defines effective politics. But as neoliberalism has crept into every aspect of modern life, elections have become an anti-politics, a way of working against the democratic will.

However, this formulation isn’t complete. For the last half-century, the consolidation of political and economic power has motivated the political establishment’s policy objectives. Electoral politics has been made a game of minimizing democratic tendencies. Programs and policies to consolidate power miraculously slipped past cautionary incrementalism. It is this singular direction that tells the wider story.

Nevertheless, arguments for incrementalism are still used to dampen resistance to this capitalist takeover. Public schools, roads, healthcare, transportation, pensions, housing and on and on have been privatized, power over labor has been handed to capitalists and foreign policy is now run by and for Goldman Sachs and Exxon Mobil. There was nothing incremental about the structural changes that have taken place.

No popular vote was taken in support of a capitalist revolution, nor in support of any of its major political and economic objectives. Oligarchs funded right-wing think tanks and university economics departments to give intellectual cover to naked power grabs. Trade agreements were used to shift sovereign power to multinational corporations and the oligarchs who own them.

A paradox was created within the partisan frame: the last two Democratic presidents were the most successful Republican politicians of the neoliberal era. Bill Clinton oversaw the emancipation of capital and the final destruction of the idea of the polity. Barack Obama oversaw the resurrection of the neoliberal order, with the wealth and power of the oligarchs and corporate chieftains his central concern.

Calls for allegiance to the mythical political ‘center’ suggest a gravitational force. But then, why was a revolution launched against it from the right after 1968? The New Deal and various programs of social reconciliation were unceremoniously tossed on the rubbish heap. But isn’t revolution precisely what we are now being told isn’t possible? If only our centrist friends had been advising the capitalist revolutionaries on what wasn’t possible in the 1970s!

In the present, this tendency can be seen in the Democratic establishment’s favoring of Republican-like candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris over closer representatives of the nominal party ethos, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. In fact, were one to set aside the prior’s party affiliations to judge them by their political acts, both would clearly fall into the Republican purview. It is only by this skewed measure that Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren aren’t mainstream Democrats.

This distance between the Democrat’s nominal ethos and its governing practices is alternatively explained as that between electoral marketing and service to power. Modern Democratic presidents have enacted truly radical programs. Mr. Clinton officially ended the New Deal in favor of giving capitalists free reign over American political economy. Mr. Obama resurrected neoliberalism following the massively disruptive circumstances it created.

In other words, the national Democrats haven’t acted cautiously or incrementally. In the service of power, they have acted boldly. It is only with programs that would redistribute power downward— as with a robust Green New Deal, Medicare for All and / or enacting universal suffrage and publicly funding political campaigns, that decorum and moderation have ruled.

This distinction between getting elected and the power to enact programs needs to be expanded on. While for obvious reasons this isn’t a problem for candidates whose politics end with being elected, it is for those whose programs redistribute power downward. With recent history as a guide, having well-considered program proposals has no bearing on their probability of being enacted.

One explanation for the Democrat’s #resistance to Bernie Sanders emerges from the ‘wrong left turn’ mythology of Jimmy Carter’s loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980. It was Mr. Carter who began deregulation and privatization of the public realm, engineered the financial portion of the de-industrialization of the heartland and allowed the economy to be killed for the benefit of Wall Street.

Rather than Mr. Carter’s liberalism causing his electoral loss, it was the brutal recession that Mr. Carter’s Federal Reserve Chairman, Paul Volcker, engineered near the end of Mr. Carter’s term that led Democrats to abandon him. Mr. Carter’s policies launched the neoliberal era. Acting on his behalf, Mr. Volcker decimated the industrial base while diminishing the lot of organized labor.

Back in the present, a major drawback of the reactive politics of this era is that they reinforce existing power by foregoing creation of a political movement to support them. Gun control efforts are simply overwhelmed. The U.S. is the largest maker of guns and purveyor of violence in the world. Racism has its explicit and implicit forms as illustrated by Wall Street’s disappearance of the preponderance of black wealth through predatory finance around 2009.

Implicit racism has a political solution while explicit racism is left asking people to be nice to one another. Had Barack Obama put predatory financiers in prison and closed bank lending units and ‘external’ lending facilities that engaged in predatory finance, predatory lending practices would have been curtailed. Instead, predatory lenders were bailed out as Democrats claimed the disappearance of black wealth inexplicable.

The Green New Deal likewise suffers from this lack of a supportive political context. Taken as an aggregation of individual programs, it is posed as a ‘wish list of progressive programs.’ As the integrated whole needed to facilitate environmental replenishment and healing, the loss of any of the constituent parts quickly renders the whole politically infeasible. This exposes the political content embedded in ‘process.’

In contrast, when George W. Bush launched the U.S. war against Iraq or when Barack Obama ‘saved’ Wall Street, system logic prevented the programs from being rationalized into oblivion. Raytheon didn’t have riders added that the company would be paid a billion dollars for every Iraqi killed and Goldman Sachs didn’t play the terms of the bailout off against the Obama administration through the Chinese government.

This service to power was managed through an internal logic that kept it from being cannibalized from within. There was nothing centrist or incremental about either the war or the bailouts. They were reckless and / or desperate acts. The committees of industry insiders that ‘advised’ the political leadership were there to divide the spoils, not to endlessly debate the meaning of the term pre-existing condition.

This has bearing when considering the 2020 presidential contest. Bernie Sanders correctly asserts that getting left programs implemented requires redistributing political power away from current concentrations. Otherwise, the logic that nothing is possible and there is no point in trying— to paraphrase Elizabeth Warren, is to grant that its current distribution is permanent and immutable, no matter how great the social need or brilliant the plan is to address it.

Back to Jimmy Carter’s ‘wrong left turn,’ given that it is a misreading of history, the Democrat’s aversion to left political programs is more probably stated as deference to existing power. This is the central impediment to democratic action within the Democratic Party. The Democrat’s fear isn’t of losing elections, but of winning them with a mandate to upend the existing order.

When presented truthfully, left programs are remarkably popular. This is why so much energy is put into ‘proving’ that they aren’t. Contrariwise, neoliberalism has had fifty years to prove itself. The result is that nothing works except for the very rich. The U.S. can’t solve the environmental problems it creates. It has the most dysfunctional healthcare system amongst rich countries. And Donald Trump is deeply emblematic of the oligarch class.

Establishment Democrats aren’t defending a system that ‘works,’ they’re defending one that doesn’t. The question then: is redistributing power a prerequisite for democratic political control? Or will it emerge as a result of machinations within the electoral system. Evidence has it that establishment Democrats and their surrogates are undermining the 2020 electoral process just as they did in 2016 in favor of Republican-like candidates.

This produces several contradictions for electoral politics: the first is the theory that getting elected places one on the inside of existing power. Again, Messrs. Clinton and Obama claimed Republican obstruction as they successfully promoted audacious political programs that favored existing power. ‘Obstruction’ only precluded policies that distributed power downward.

Second, if the political establishment represents the will of the people, what does shifting power outside of it even mean? House leader Nancy Pelosi has pre-emptively promised corporate representatives that none of the progressive agenda will pass the House. Without getting around establishment gatekeepers, any left / progressive programs promised by Mr. Sanders or Ms. Warren are doomed.

Those who wield economic power are unelected. However, it is economic power that determines American politics. Were Bernie Sanders to win election, in what sense is he obligated to answer to economic power? Under liberal theories of democracy, the interests of capital hold no sway over politics. Under liberal theories of capitalism, economic interests operate in a realm separate from politics. However, without confronting economic power, there is no chance of achieving real political power.

Amongst Democrats, it is Mr. Sanders who appears to understand this paradox. Economic control over the political process isn’t ‘centrist’ because economic interests exist outside of the liberal conception of politics. Nor is it incrementalist for the same reason. That it takes a self-described ‘socialist’ to understand that a prerequisite for political democracy is economic democracy gives Bernie Sanders a workable frame for attacking the problem.

Third, how do elected officials sustain their claim of legitimacy given the wholesale abandonment of the mainstream political parties in recent decades? Granted, this conflates Party politics with the electoral process. Even before recent mass shootings, charges of environmental fascism were being used to counter government ‘interference’ in business decisions. The so-called founding ‘freedom to’ own slaves and commit genocide against the indigenous population has been updated for the era of ecocide.

(As an aside, eco-fascist calls for genocide find basis in the oft used term ‘Anthropocene’ as an assignment of cause for environmental decline. To date, over-population has had little to do with planet-wide environmental threats. Greenhouse gas emissions and species loss are attributable to industrial methods, a/k/a capitalism, not to population growth. The corporatists who favored the term Anthropocene to shift culpability away from capitalism need to rethink the term).

This issue of political legitimacy is about to get a lot more complicated. With Nancy Pelosi’s pre-emptive promise that oligarchs and corporate representatives get to decide public policy, attempts to enact policies in the public interest will be posed as authoritarian, totalitarian and fascist to the extent that they interfere with profits. The relation of ‘terrorism’ to lost profits in the Patriot Act was a shot across the bow for left programs.

The question then: is telling someone what to do, as solving environmental problems will inevitably require, substantively different from forcing circumstances such as environmental pollution onto them without asking their consent? Ironically, the prior leaves room for democratic consent while the latter is an imposition without political recourse. It is hardly accidental that industrial polluters pollute in areas where people lack the political power to stop them.

These questions have bearing on building the broad coalitions needed to wrest power from those who currently hold it. A robust Green New Deal could build the coalition needed to support left activist government, but only to the extent that it counters capitalist power. If left to establishment Democrats, they will produce a ‘poison pill’ with the intent of discrediting the environmental movement and destroying the left.

With the DNC once again acting directly and through surrogates to undermine Bernie Sanders’ campaign, my sense would be that all bets are off. If progressives and the left were waiting for someone to tell them that the rules don’t matter, the DNC just told you so.


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