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Raping Words After Raping Women

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On the Feminist Glitter Revolt in Mexico City

Let’s put it this way – I am not someone who has no idea how is it to be raped in Mexico City with no chance to get any help from the police, let alone legal resources and a fair trial, so this issue is very close to my heart, as it is to other countless Mexican women.

A feminist Glitter Revolt (“la Diamantada” or “Brillanteada”) took place on August 12 and 16 in the heart of the old Aztec capital, causing the total destruction of an express-bus station, lots of buildings covered in glitter with signs against rape and femicides, and a few acts of physical confrontation (like women painting the face of a young man who refused to stay away from a protest that was widely announced as a women-only event, and women pushing two male reporters out). However, it all was triggered by actions far more violent than the resulting ones. That’s what the mainstream media and the city government thoroughly avoided mentioning.

On her way back home after a party, according to her own testimony, a 17-year-old woman who had just got out of a friend’s vehicle and walked a couple of blocks to her house, was stopped and raped by four police officers on August 3rd. It is hard not to believe her, not only because I know how things are in Mexico City, but the theatrical response of the government. Besides, when you are 17 years old, no matter what your economic class and upbringings, you are filled with romantic fantasies, not nightmares. No teenager makes up such a gruesome story about her body out of nowhere.

The young woman went with her mother to file a complaint at Mexico City’s appropriate office on August 3rd, but then the authorities leaked to the media personal data such as her case number, statements and a location that allowed her address to be known, which is illegal. They violated her privacy, putting pressure on her, probably expecting to intimidate her.

If that was the intention, it worked – she didn’t show up later to ratify her statement. She said she didn’t trust the authorities. The case did not proceed due to lack of evidence, although there are recordings, medical tests and testimonies.

Along with other two recent rape cases committed by policemen in July and August, this was the last straw for half the city, in a country where there is one female fatality out of hate violence every 2.5 hours, according to the Mexican Executive Secretariat. As the Fundar Analisis and Research Center Coordinator on Gender, Rights and Public Policies, Cécile Lachenal, explains, this means that 10 women are assassinated in Mexico, not every month, not every week, but every day.

Bursting with rage, women dropped pink glitter, literally speaking, on the head of the City Security Department, Jesús Orta. Not in a metaphorical sense, they painted his hair, preventing him from continuing the press conference he was giving. Then they marched towards the General Attorney’s Office, leaving a trail of graffiti on public walls against gender violence. They culminated their protest breaking the front windows of the building.

The Mayor of Mexico City and AMLO’s expected heir for the next presidency (unless López Obrador re-writes the law to get re-elected), Claudia Sheinbaum, did what most conservative, pro-life male politician does – minimize the rapists’ actions, call the protest a “provocation” against her, make it all about her, and divide the cause between the “good” and “bad” women. She had a group of “real feminists” (mostly privileged women on the Government’s payroll one way or another, headed by writer Elena Poniatowska, who has received a lifetime grant of about $42,000 Mexican pesos a month from all the administrations regardless their political party) scolding the protesters and declaring their legitimacy as true feminists over the “vandals.”

The mayor’s response raised more suspicion and rage, since great deal of her election campaign had been capitalized by the mere fact of being a woman.

More empty words followed. She organized a panel discussion with the “true feminists” (that is, senators, representatives, justice officials, and advisors) called “Zero Impunity and Absolute Justice for Women and Girls who are Victims of Violence” where they talked more eagerly against the vandal-like protesters than the vandal-like police officers who rape minors, and it seemed that none of them had ever been raped. People started calling her Claudia Shamebaum.

Then, a leaked video mysteriously appeared on TV, clearly edited, trying to suggest that the victim was lying. On these security-camera videos with the wrong time stamps “due to different time programming made by several owners,” there is not one, but two police cars, and eight police officers talking politely to the minor. They could have been taken after the attack, not before. After all, a neighbor called 911 because the young woman was screaming, and an ambulance arrived. All this clearly happened after the crime, but the TV anchors were ordered to say that the time stamps were “wrong.”

These are the surrounding facts. All this happened before the historical August 16th, protest, when the very landmark monument of Mexico City, the Angel of Independence (the equivalent of the Statue of Liberty in NYC), ended up covered in glitter with words of feminist rage, against femicides, systemic impunity and police brutality. Except some menacing messages, all of them are just mere descriptions and creative explanations of what is really going on.

The mainstream media, as usual, did its job – they changed the narrative from whether the testimony of a rape victim should be enough cause to suspend a police officer and start legal proceedings against him in Mexico City, to whether walls should be protected and women should not be allowed to carry spray bottles and bats at rallies.

Any similarity with the Anti-Fa controversy here is just mere coincidence, right?

Empty Words are Politicians’ Job

Like everyone knows, getting words empty is one of the most important jobs for politicians and publicists. However, two new phenomena in Mexico have brought the war against semantics to unprecedented levels: one is social media, like everywhere else – including trolls, bots, fake news – and the allegedly leftist agenda. When it comes to rape, we are required to add the word “alleged” until guilt is proven, but not on the progressive campaign that gave Andrés Manuel López Obrador his indisputable triumph in the polls, even though he has proven to be more on Trump’s side.

In the midst of this crisis, it is becoming clear that women need to create a space where those who don’t approve of any kinds of violence – for good reasons too – can at least have access to, and discuss, the history that makes oppressed young women break a window.

Painfully, the world wouldn’t know about what’s happening in Mexico City if these women wouldn’t have destroyed public property and covered walls with their indignation. It doesn’t mean there were not provocateurs at the rallies, but “those are not the one and only problem,” as the Zapata Vive Collective puts it in their communiqué regarding the events. Even though this Collective’s van and bus were destroyed by paid clash groups whose origins they are already investigating, “this is a generational, systemic, systematic and transversal crisis that requires a generational, systemic, systematic and transversal solution.”

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Beyond Protest

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I attended my first protest when I was fourteen years old. It was a mild-mannered affair in the suburban Maryland town I lived in. The date was October 15, 1969—the first Vietnam Moratorium—and it involved about twenty-five of us standing on a street corner with signs calling for an end to the US war in Vietnam. We read the names of the US war dead. I was one of perhaps a half dozen high school students at the protest. The rest of the attendees were college students from nearby College Park, nuns from the local Catholic high school and a couple World War veterans. Most people driving by had no idea what was going on and ignored us. A few people flashed us peace signs in support and many more yelled what they considered to be epithets at us. As the years went by, I attended many, many more protests. Some were peaceful, some involved pushing and shoving with the police and right-wing protesters and some involved fairly pitched battles that included rock throwing, barricades, tear gas, truncheons and rubber bullets.

However, the question of the effectiveness of these protests is still something I wonder about. I genuinely believe that there is no one way to protest and that the question of total nonviolence is primarily a tactical, not moral, question. At the same time, nothing is as simple as it seems when it comes to effective resistance to the ruling powers. Numerous factors are always in play when groups consider how they will express their opposition to some facet of the ruling class program or to the ruling class itself. The challenge, as any organizer will tell you, is to come up with the most effective means at any particular moment. The process involved in coming up with that means involves an understanding of the situation, the opposition and the desired outcome. Sometimes, the process fails and other time it succeeds. In other words, sometimes the disparate individuals and groups hoping to work together as an opposition manage to come up with strategies that allow a united and effective campaign. Other times, no genuine hope of unity exists.

This is the general topic of a new book by Canadian activist and writer Aric McBay. Titled Full Spectrum Resistance (vol. 1): Building Movements and Fighting to Win, the text is a twenty-first century take on what it will take to halt the madness of the capitalist class as it steps up its destruction of the planet and those who inhabit it. Part organizing manual and part philosophical discussion, McBay’s text intersperses those discussions with historical anecdotes from street protests and radical history that illustrate the long-term nature of the struggle and the debates about how to wage it. Simultaneously a call to move away from liberal activism towards direct action and an invitation to liberal activists to go beyond their comfort zone in order to have a real chance at stopping the approaching cataclysm, Full Spectrum Resistance uses historical examples as varied as the US Black freedom fighters Deacons of Defense and 1980s HIV activists ACT UP to make his point.

That point, to put it succinctly, is that liberal activism has not only proven to be ineffective, it actually strengthens the very system it pretends to oppose. While this point of view is not new to leftist radicals and revolutionaries, it bears being repeated and its truth proven once again. In this historical moment, the need for a strategic manual for the Left that is based on radical anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist principles is urgently needed. McBay’s clearly written book is one tract that serves that exact purpose. As noted above, the discussions range from purely practical ones regarding organizational structure and security to grander conversations regarding tactics and moral philosophies. It is clear from the text that McBay has not just been involved in various activist organizations and protests, he has experienced many of the situations he comments on. From interpersonal relations within groups to relationships between groups with different politics and approaches, this book does a decent job of covering them all.

The title of the first chapter of Full Spectrum Resistance is “Fighting to Win.” That is the reason for and the purpose of this text: to build a multidimensional movement dedicated to creating revolutionary social change in the world. Most people who care about such things understand that the time to do this seems to be growing ever shorter, no matter how much we pretend otherwise. If we are going to win this battle against those who seem intent on destroying the world for profit, not only must we fight, but we must fight to win. To do so, we need the appropriate tools and the desire. Aric McBay’s book provides us with at least one of those.

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Senator Cotton on the Need to Buy Greenland

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Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton has published an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “We Should Buy Greenland,” confirming the fact that Trump’s spurned bid was indeed dead-serious. In it Cotton reflects the imperialist mentality of his “crazy like a fox” president.

Cotton: “The acquisition of Greenland would secure vital strategic interests for the United States, economically benefit both us and Greenlanders, and would be in keeping with American —and Danish —diplomatic traditions.”

What imperialist jibberish. What are these “vital strategic interests” other than the exploitation (at somebody else’s expense, in the competitive capitalist world) of Greenland’s zinc, lead, gold, iron ore, heavy and light rare earth elements, copper and oil increasingly accessible with global warming? And the continued operation of Thule Air Force Base of course.

“Economic benefit” = capitalist profit for 10% of the 1% of “Americans” who already own everything, and dollar wages for Greenlanders working the mines like the happy dwarves of Norse mythology.

Cotton: “Strategically positioned in the Arctic Circle, Greenland has long attracted the attention of American policymakers.”

What does “strategically positioned” mean? What region of the globe is not “strategic”—for some strategist nearby or far? This is shorthand for the insinuation that securing Greenland in the U.S. imperialist camp is essential for U.S. “national security”—another hopelessly vague category.

And who cares if it has long attracted the attention of “American policymakers”? Korea and China long attracted the attention of Japanese policymakers. Does that precedent justify a new Japanese offer to buy Taiwan or Manchuria? And diplomatic sulking when a dumb offer’s repulsed?

Greenland’s next door, anyway, Cotton can observe. Sort of. Closer to Canada. Geographers consider it part of North America. Is it part of “Manifest Destiny”?

(In quaint 19th century U.S. religious mythology, God gave North America to Anglo-Saxons as He had given the Promised Land to the Israelites in the Bible. It was their clear, plain fate to suppress or annihilate the indigenous people as Joshua had wiped out the Canaanites.) Methodist Cotton still seems to adhere to this religious delusion and it colors his mytho-historical understanding.

Cotton: “America is not the only nation to recognize Greenland’s strategic significance. Intent on securing a foothold in the Arctic and North America, China attempted in 2016 to purchase an old American naval base in Greenland, a move the Danish government prevented. Two years later, China was back at it, attempting to build three airports on the island, which failed only after intense lobbying of the Danes by the Trump administration.”

Wow! The world’s number two economic power pursuing its ambitious Belt and Road initiative has tried to buy airports in Greenland, and was so nearly successful the U.S. had to pressure Copenhagen to turn down proposals the self-governing Greenlanders would have accepted. Cotton wants you to imagine China, not the U.S., buying Greenland. (Thus a preemptive purchase might be necessary.) But this is not how things happen in the world today.

Cotton: “Despite the historical ignorance of the president’s critics, the negotiated acquisition of sovereignty is a longstanding and perfectly legitimate tool of statecraft, particularly in the American tradition. More than one-third of America’s territory was purchased from Spain (Florida), France (the Louisiana Purchase), Mexico (the Gadsden Purchase) and Russia (Alaska).”

Cotton lauds the transfer of colonized territories between imperialist countries in the nineteenth century as models for a 21st century purchase of a self-governing state inhabited by a people seeking independence in a postcolonial world, in order to stave off its (irresponsible, Inuit) government’s plans to cozy up with America’s biggest rival. Talk about historical ignorance.

Cotton on a Danish precedent: “In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson — the great champion of self-determination — paid $25 million to purchase the Danish West Indies, which have ever since been known as the U.S. Virgin Islands.” Wilson was a racist, opportunistic hypocrite posing as a liberator who took advantage of Danish difficulties to expand the U.S. Caribbean empire, ultimately providing Jeffrey Epstein an ideal haven. Not necessarily the best comparison.

Withal, Cotton’s NYT piece indicates the persistence of colonialist mentality among the U.S. ruling class, and the failure to realize that the era of buying and selling peoples is over. When Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederisksen learned of Trump’s interest in a purchase, she responded with amused disbelief. Surely, she must have thought, the U.S. president realizes that this is not Wilson’s world, when most of the world was part of the British, French, Dutch, and U.S. empires; pieces of China were bought and sold; Africa was occupied by Europe; and world leaders rejected Japan’s proposal for a global ban on racial discrimination. Surely, she must have thought, Trump understands that what he’s proposing not only insults the Danish state (by implying it could or would wheel and deal 19th-century style with a people and their land), but insults Greenlanders as a nation.

But no. Trump is indeed a racist. The U.S. is an imperialist country. The world’s nightmare is not over. Idiots dominate U.S. politics. The Harvard-educated Cotton is a racist reactionary with fascist inclinations, a key Trump supporter in this case lending invaluable support by prettifying and dignifying an unbalanced mind’s preposterous thought.

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Stop Blaming Cows and Start Targeting the Corporations That are Destroying the Amazon

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Most of the reporting on the fires raging in the Amazon try to identify the guilty parties. Some of those that have been identified include ranchers and loggers, as well as the rightwing government of Jair Bolsonaro for its lack of enforcing environmental regulations. Yet, what we need to consider is that no single actor is responsible for destroying the rainforest, but instead corporate supply chains that crisscross our planet. To truly effect change, we need to target companies within these networks, which can occur if we restore Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) in agriculture and boycott firms that have been linked to deforestation.

As the Amazon burns, with the number of fires increasing more than 80% this year when compared to the last, many have proposed solutions to the crisis. Leonardo DiCaprio has advised us to stop eating meat, while others encourage consumers to recycle, become educated, and contact their representatives. There are also calls to privatize the rainforest to save it, with individuals such as Jeff Bezos – who is already the owner of one Amazon – implored to make the investment.

These supposed solutions have serious shortcomings. For instance, what specifically will you demand from your representative? Is the ask that they just ‘do something?’ The problem with eliminating meat from your diet is that you do not know if you are affecting the large-scale Brazilian rancher, or the struggling family farmer who lives down the road. Moreover, studies have shown that some forms of ranching – on well-maintained pastures with rotational grazing and the limited of fertilizers – can sequester carbon and help us face climate change. And if the Amazon were privatized, then what if it is later partitioned and sold, again to ranchers and loggers, or perhaps to the tourist industry?

The point is this – if we do not know how to put pressure on the right actors who have been connected to destroying the Amazon, then our efforts will be for naught.

So, what can be done? First, we need to know which farmers and ranchers are involved in deforestation. While identifying individuals is difficult, we can make a push for the US government to bring back Country of Origin Labelling (COOL) in agriculture. This policy became law with the 2002 Farm Bill, which required that retailors provide information on the sources of their food. The Obama administration later repealed COOL for beef and pork products, but not for lamb, chicken, and goat meat, perishable agricultural commodities, macadamia nuts, pecans, peanuts, and ginseng. If COOL were brought back and consumers saw that Brazilian beef was in their stores, then they could choose not to purchase it. Some farmer and rancher groups have been pushing for this policy’s return, as others see this as a way to assist struggling farmers in the United States.

While promoting the return of COOL would take time, now, we know of actual cases of corporations that have been connected to deforestation. For instance, many ranchers burning the rainforest sell to the Brazilian firm JBS, which is the largest meat processor in the world. If you are not familiar with JBS, then you may know its US subsidiary – Swift & Company. Meats with the Swift label are regularly available in most grocery stories. For public sector workers, namely, teachers and professors with pensions, the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (or TIAA, formerly known as TIAA-CREFF) through its subsidiaries in Brazil has been involved in large-scale land deals that have been linked to deforestation and land grabbing. Farmer and consumer rights groups have called out TIAA on this point for years. Along with these organizations, TIAA beneficiaries could rethink how their retirement funds are invested. Similarly, in a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Pizza Hut, Kroger, Subway, Wendy’s, Hormel, and Nestlé, were found to source beef in ways that contributed to rainforest destruction. We also cannot ignore the mining industry, which is responsible for upwards of 10% of deforestation in the Amazon. Vale SA is the world’s largest producer of iron ore, with operations in the Amazon. Last year, the company entered into discussions with the Brazilian state to enlarge the world’s already largest open-pit mine, the Carajás mine, which is located in the Amazon. While most iron ore exports move to China, in the US, people can demand an end to the US-China trade dispute, which has led Brazil to increase its iron ore exports significantly.

Leonardo DiCaprio can tell us to stop eating meat, but unless we know where the cow is from, then the protest could prove ineffective. To confront the causes of deforestation, we need to target specific companies within global supply chains. Now, with the right information of particular firms, the question is if we have the time to take on corporate power and the Bolsonaro regime to stop the decimation of our world’s lungs.

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Name and Shame Big Political Contributors

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This August, a phony controversy erupted over wealthy donors to President Trump’s campaign and political action committee being publicly named.

After Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) tweeted the names of San Antonio contributors who’d made large donations to support Trump, some reported receiving angry phone calls. A few residents said they would boycott businesses tied to the donors.

Now, the New York Times reported, “Republicans have accused the congressman of ‘doxxing’ private citizens and trying to incite harassment of the president’s supporters.”

Of course, campaign contributions are publicly available information. And it’s beyond elitist for wealthy donors to a president who openly incites violence and hate to complain of “harassment” when they face criticism.

Under this administration, entire communities have faced traumatizing harassment — including in the form of white supremacist violence in El Paso and elsewhere. Compared to that, or to a child ripped from their parents and caged, what’s an angry phone call?

Beyond this, the episode points to a longer-standing issue: the massive amounts of money sloshing around our political system.

For the 2016 presidential election alone (not counting the primaries), campaigns and outside groups raised a staggering $2.1 billion. The average cost of a campaign for a House seat is about $1 million, and for a Senate seat it runs into the tens of millions.

Where does all this money come from? Often from corporations and their trade associations, and from wealthy individuals, like the late billionaire David Koch, and their networks. In the 2016 cycle, the oil and gas industry alone contributed $113 million to campaigns and outside groups.

It’s either naive or willfully disingenuous to think that this staggering amount of money comes with no strings attached.

Here’s a story: The largest and second largest political contributors among oil and gas companies in 2016 were Marathon Petroleum and Koch Industries, who gave $3.3 million between them. Turns out, the Trump administration’s ongoing push to eviscerate automobile fuel efficiency standards was driven by lobbying from these same two companies.

Auto fuel efficiency regulations are common-sense. They cut greenhouse gases, nitrogen oxide pollution, and prices at the pump. But the Trump administration is gutting them to enrich the oil and gas industry, at the behest of two companies who essentially bribed them.

One of the best instruments we have to fight this system is to publicly name and shame the politicians and contributors who corrupt our democracy this way. I’ll take my own advice and name a few.

One is Robert Murray, a coal baron who gave Trump $300,000 and a policy agenda to go with it — one the Trump administration is dutifully implementing.

Another politically prolific coal baron is Joseph Craft, who’s spent several million dollars on political contributions over the years. He’s been rewarded with an unabashedly pro-coal federal policy agenda and an ambassador position for his wife. (Meanwhile the rest of us get terrible human consequences of coal.)

Trump’s Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, meanwhile, is a former partner of the lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck — which gave almost $1 million in contributions over a six-year period to senators who voted on his confirmation.

As Interior Secretary, Bernhardt has held secret meetings with representatives of industries regulated by his department. And his department has systematically stonewalled Freedom of Information Act requests, hiding corruption from the public eye.

We need more, not less, of a public spotlight on people who corrupt our political system for their own private gain. So let’s keep naming names.

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Prison Classrooms Reflect White Supremacy

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One story is that of a young man in the midst of bizarre, even outrageous interactions with a group of boys. He is inexperienced, but perseveres, learns, and overcomes what looks like a dead-end situation. The other story is about these imprisoned teenagers conveying a notion of their own racial oppression through dialogue with the same man, who is their teacher. The combination of the two is extraordinary.

Jason Trask, exposed to a brand of religious fundamentalism while growing up in rural Maine, served with the U.S. Army in Germany before briefly studying philosophy there. A few years later he is teaching English to teenage boys incarcerated in a New York City prison complex. Almost all of them are African-American or Latino. He reports on that three-year-long experience in a new book, The New Plantation: Lessons From Rikers Island.

The title comes from Trask’s first day on the job. Walking down a corridor, he meets a column of adult male prisoners. Their corrections officer and he and were the only white men on hand. Says Trask: “They’re looking at my central nervous system – somehow they’ve hacked their way in and they’re examining it through the lens of a single question: how afraid is this guy?” Then, “as I pass the last man in line he yells to me in white-man-ese: “Well, golly gee; if it’s not a representative of the Caucasian persuasion coming to watch the neeegroes work the fields … Welcome to the new plantation, Mister.”

Alone with his imprisoned students in a pre-fabricated classroom in a prison notorious for inmate abuse, Trask was by no means confident he could handle, teach, or survive them. Relying on notes and memory, he fashioned a narrative centering on dialogue with the students. Interactions with administrators and fellow teachers are part of his story. In his rendering, talk from the students is full of mostly sexually-tinged obscenities. Their words and behavior alike are provocative and at times even threatening. But what they say often is ingratiating, jovial, and very funny.

They end up liking Trask, and for good reason. He offers respect and relies on ingenuity and understanding. Readers far removed from black and Latino boys imprisoned in a big U.S. city may find themselves cringing as they root for this beleaguered teacher. They will likely end up recognizing his accomplishment. His book is a worthy representative of the so-called “bildungsroman” genre of literature that casts as hero a youngish person embarked upon experiencing and learning about the world. One famous example is Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries.

On this score alone the book is valuable, but there’s more. Introducing The New Plantation, Trask identifies his theme. “I was aware,” he writes, “that White Privilege exists. I just wasn’t aware of the degree to which it exists for me. By the time I left the island, there was no way … to deny that America’s reliance on incarceration is racist … Our best hope is that the system is broken. If it’s not what we have is intentional.”

This literary journeyman and previous author of a novel called I’m Not Muhammad wrote this book also in the capacity of a reporter. His beat was a classroom where the talk and actions of boys testified to dreadful harm at the hands of white supremacy. In his own way, Trask was on the path blazed in modern times by novelist John Hersey. Employing literary imagination, Hersey was the first to comprehensively describe both the horrors of the U.S. atomic bomb falling on Hiroshima and the horrors of the Holocaust as it descended on the Warsaw Ghetto. He did so in two books, Hiroshima (1946) and The Wall (1950), respectively.

As a reporter Jason Trask stands apart from the many commentators on the racial divide in the United States who rely on analysis and communication of data. Indeed, we are familiar with grim statistics on the violence, mortality, and poverty afflicting African Americans. We know about the demographics of the U.S. prison population and the numbers of spurned would-be voters.

Our minds have much to feed upon but our hearts, less. To know how victims live their lives, how they stumble and suffer, may be a necessary prerequisite for an emotional commitment to human solidarity. In order to know, we need to hear victims themselves speaking. Through Trask, we listen to teenage boys whose lives had been conditioned by systematic racism.

Trask is in good company. The passion of black historian, sociologist, and activist W.E.B. Du Bois is a case in point. Similarly, black theologian and historian Vincent Harding has a place for our author in his particular notion of resistance.

Harding’s book There Is a River (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981), traces the course of enslaved Africans’ resistance to U.S. white supremacy. He too has passion. Resistance for him is a wide river flowing through time. Leaders we know about – Nat Turner, David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and others – worked in the depths and in fast currents. There were shoals and reefs: the fugitive slave laws, the U.S. Constitution, the founding fathers, contradictions within white abolitionism, and capitalism.

Jason Trask’s students occupy the river’s side streams and backwaters where resistance is latent. They had run afoul of terrible schools, housing impermanence, and families vulnerable to a still festering drug epidemic. Work available to most black and brown families in big cities hasn’t sufficed to relieve distress and poverty, or to provide hope.

The concerns of his students were presumably worlds away from what occupied the minds of their white counterparts. Within the dominant society they were isolated.

In Trask’s hands, the students are resisting and – again presumably – they will be ready to resist. They are clear on the matter of white supremacy. In the book they fight back; their teacher is the available target. They are vigilant. In class they betray an instinct toward collective action.

A recent news item, a tiny one, highlights the overwhelming relevance of Trask’s book.

On August 22 a U.S. politician sought to advance her candidacy for the city council of Marysville, Michigan. Jean Cramer beseeched voters to “Keep Marysville a white community as much as possible.”

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The Troubling Relationships Between Bolsonaro and Dictatorships

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When he was a congressman, the walls of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s office were decorated with photos of Brazilian dictators. Bolsonaro has repeatedly defended the Brazilian military dictatorship that ruled from 1964 to1985. He even paid homage to the Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet. In an interview in 2015, Bolsonaro said that Pinochet “had to act violently to recover the country” and, on several occasions, stated that the dictator “did what had to be done” and that he “should have killed more people”.

It was no surprise that thousands of Chileans took to the streets to protest his visit to the country last March. Chilean politicians refused to meet him, and even President Sebastián Piñera consideredhis statements in support of the dictator “unfortunate”. Recently, Bolsonaro also expressed admiration for the dictator (also rapist and paedophile) General Stroessner of Paraguay.

Historian Murilo Cleto keeps a mental registry of Bolsonaro’s views of the past. “When Brazil erected a statue in honour of Rubens Paiva, a state representative kidnapped by the military in 1971 whose body has not yet been found, Bolsonaro went to the event to spit on it. In reference to the relatives of the guerrilla fighters killed and disappeared in the Araguaia, Bolsonaro said ‘those who look for bone are dogs’. To Matheus Leitão, son of journalist Miriam Leitão, who was placed pregnant, naked and alone with a snake in a dark room of an army battalion, Bolsonaro said he felt sorry for the snake,” Murillo Cleto recalled.

A former Army Capitan, Bolsonaro is also a confessed admirer of Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, one of the heads of torture centres during the military dictatorship. In a speech during a visit to Israel last month, Bolsonaro once again praised the torturer while also stating that Nazism would be a left-wing ideology.

Professor of Latin American literature at Tulane University and prolific political commentator, Idelber Avelar, noted “the Hispanic-American countries that had military dictatorships, all of them, carried out a work of memory and legal accountability of dictators and torturers that Brazil did not do. In this context, statements such as Bolsonaro’s are scandalous, because in Argentina and Chile they are out of the realm of what can be said.”

Avelar added that “it would never occur to Mauricio Macri or Sebastián Piñera to praise the military regimes of their respective countries. Southern Cone societies have built something very close to a consensus that torture and the murder of political opponents are unacceptable. This comes from the long and laborious process of judicial accountability of torturers and dictators, a process that Brazil has not carried out, and that leaves us with an unresolved pending past that returns to the present in the form of ghosts, idealizations and projections”.

Mauricio Santoro, professor of International Relations at the State University of Rio DE Janeiro, however, recalls that “Paraguay has a different scenario, closer to the Brazilian one. The father of the current president was an important ally and advisor to former dictator Alfredo Stroessner.”

Historic revisionism

Brazil “celebrated” the 55th anniversary of the 1964 military coup on April 1st (or March 31st by the calendar adopted by the regime’s admirers, since April 1st is Brazil’s “Fool’s Day”). Since the end of the dictatorship, the Army has celebrated the occasion and there are numerous private celebrations, such as in the one at the Military Club. In 2011 then-president Dilma Rousseff, who was part of the guerrilla movement against the regime during the so-called Lead Years and herself a victim of torture at the hands of military officers, ordered that the military avoid celebrating the date.

In his first months in office, Bolsonaro rescinded the previous order and recommended that the armed forces hold a celebration of the military coup in the barracks this year. The generals who are part of his government called for caution, considering the country’s political climate. Later, Bolsonaro walked back his public statement and said that he had not ordered a celebration, but a “remembrance“.

For Bolsonaro and many of those who still defend the military regime, the 1964 coup d’état was really a revolution aimed at averting the danger of communism in the country. Supporters of such historical revisionism posit that then President João Goulart was behind a plan to transform Brazil into a communist regime and the military had to take power to avoid this scenario. They also claim that the armed forces initially had the goal of quickly returning power to the civilians. But they ruled for long 24 years long years, during which more than 434 men and women were assassinated or disappeared by the dictatorships, according to the National Truth Commission, and 8,350 indigenous people killed in massacres.

Maurice Politi was arrested and then exiled during the dictatorship for his participation in the resistance to the dictatorship. He stated, “For those of us who have followed his political career for the past 25 years or more, Bolsonaro’s statements come as no surprise. He has often opted for historical revisionism regarding the Brazilian dictatorship and it should be obvious that he would do the same in his visits to the neighbouring countries (Chile and Paraguay) that also went through bloody and lasting dictatorial periods.”

On April 22 Bolsonaro promulgated Decree 9.759 that eliminates several councils, consultative commissions and working groups linked to key investigative and transnational justice efforts related to the military dictatorships. The decree practically shut down the Working Group of Perus, responsible for the identification of bodies of persons disappeared for political motives in the mass grave of the cemetery of Perus, in western São Paulo.

The group, created in 2014, is institutionally part of the Commission on Political Deaths and Disappearances of the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights and technically cannot be terminated by presidential decree. However, it is now prevented from carrying out any work for lack of personnel.

The suspension of the coup’s celebration ordered by Rousseff in 2011 was accompanied by the creation of the National Truth Commission, a working group that brought together various experts on enforced disappearance and extrajudicial executions. The formation of the commission was a direct result of intense pressure from the Organization of American States (OAS), which convicted the Brazilian state in 2010 for the disappearance of guerrilla fighters in the Araguaia region, in the central-west portion of the country, and the Brazilian Federal Court, which demanded that the remains of guerrillas be given to their families.

The OAS also demanded that Brazil try and sentence the abuses committed at that time – something that the Amnesty Law, approved by the dictatorial regime in 1979 to ensure the impunity of perpetrators of crimes against humanity, expressly vetoes. In 2011, the Supreme Federal Court confirmed that the Amnesty Law prevents cases against torturers of that period. The Brazilian justice system has never condemned anyone for abuses committed during the dictatorship.

The National Truth Commission had two years to investigate human rights violations that occurred in the period between 1946 and 1988, which includes the military dictatorship (1964-1985). In March, Damares Alves, Minister of Human Rights, named lawyer João Henrique Nascimento de Freitas as head of the Truth Commission. The Commission was created by former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, himself a political exile, in August 2001 with the aim of financially compensating families and preserving the memory of the victims of the regime. Freitas is one of the authors of the ruling that suspended the payment of compensation to 44 peasants who were victims of torture during the Araguaia guerrilla war and also promoted action to prevent reparations to the family of former guerrilla Carlos Lamarca. Military personnel have also been appointed to posts in the Commission.

Orlando Calheiros, Doctor of Anthropology and former adviser to the National Truth Commission, said that rigging the Commission with the appointment of the military officers “has immediate consequences, since the work of the Commission is, or at least was, fundamental to the establishment so-called ‘memory, truth and justice’ in this country.”

Denial of the Past

Calheiros believes that Bolsonaro is seeking the “consolidation of an ‘operation clean-up’, where the consequences of the military dictatorship are hidden. In the past the bodies were hidden, now everything is hidden. The suffering of the victims, which has always been something that could not be denied, is now being reconfigured as a kind of collective hysteria or lie promulgated by the leftists”.

Santoro agrees, adding that “Bolsonaro’s constant defence of Latin American dictators is not accidental– it is an essential part of his worldview, which disqualifies the left as intrinsically perverse and illegitimate and advocates a doctrine that the ends of excluding them from power justify the means. The denial of past and present atrocities is often the initial stage to justify them. Such declarations are not only contrary to the rhetoric of Brazilian politics since re-democratization, but also violate the 1988 Constitution itself, which establishes respect for human rights as one of its pillars, including in Brazil’s foreign relations.”

This year, following the controversy, the armed forces held a ceremony in the presidential palace to commemorate the date of the coup. There were protests in dozens of cities across the country and in São Paulo, coup supporters clashed  with protestors against the celebration and human rights defenders leading to violence.

“Many are the agents who, after the re-democratization, followed a political career, including settling scores with the past. The majority, as the upper echelons of the army have done now, resort to the Amnesty law to move on. But none of them are so petty. Bolsonaro is arguably the worst thing left of the dictatorship,” Cleto affirmed.

Bolsonaro’s close relationship with the memory of past dictators calls into question his commitment to democracy today. Elected on an authoritarian platform, with the support of groups that openly call for the end of the democratic rule of law – such as neo-Nazis, monarchists and groups of military and civilian defenders of the return of the military dictatorship who recently marched to support Bolsonaro while demanding the end of the National Congress – Bolsonaro has shown himself to be poorly able to deal with the congress, resorting to the force of the streets to advance his agenda.

On May 26, thousands of people took to the streets in various cities around the country with many carrying banners calling to close down congress and the Supreme Federal Court (STF). Bolsonaro publicly and actively supported the demonstrations, but in response to pressure from members of his own party, he criticized those who advocated the closure of the congress. The demonstrations produced cracks in his base of supporters – some groups, such as the Free Brazil Movement (MBL), refused to participate because of their authoritarian tone

Brazil has been a democratic society for a mere 34 years. Bolsonaro’s efforts to keep alive the memory of the dictatorship, while he governs with the support of those who preach the return of an anti-democratic period is (or should be) more than a cause for concern.

Raphael Tsavkko Garcia writes for America’s Program, where this essay first appeared.

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Leo Gerard, Single Payer, Highmark Health, and the Corporatist Labor Movement

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If you want to know why the single payer movement is having trouble breaking through in the United States, look no further than Leo Gerard.

From 2001 to earlier this year, Gerard was the president of the United Steelworkers of America.

Then earlier this month, just a few months after retiring as head of the union, Gerard joined the board of Highmark Health.

How can it be that a major American union leader who says he supports Medicare for All single payer, who says he grew up under a single payer system in Canada and “knows the benefits,” who wrote earlier this year that “with a single-payer system like Medicare for All, every American would have the safety and security of health insurance” —  how can it be that a professed single payer supporter would join the board of one of the largest health insurance companies in the nation?

A company that is a dedicated opponent of single payer?

A company that would be wiped out under a single payer system?

How can that be Leo Gerard?

“There are all kinds of single payer,” Gerard said when we reached him this week. “Haven’t you been watching the Democratic debates? There are different ways of doing it. I’m going to be the labor voice on the board of directors. Highmark is there now. I don’t know if the single payer thing will come to pass.”

Will you be a voice for single payer on the board of Highmark?

“I’m done with you,” he says.

Rank and file union leaders say that Gerard is symptomatic of a dysfunctional single payer movement and a corporatist union movement.

Ed Grystar is with the Western Pennsylvania Coalition for Single Payer Healthcare.

“Gerard has previously done TV commercials for Highmark. He now sits on their board,” Grystar said. “This is incompatible with supporting Medicare for All.”

“Especially when support for Medicare for All is rising, why would a retired union president give credibility to an insurance company that is opposed to single payer?” Grystar asks.

“There are over 500 unions that have endorsed Medicare for All. Why not use his time to publicly organize labor support for single payer?”

“Single payer means just that. One payer and the elimination of private health care insurance companies. They provide nothing of value to the health care delivery system. Tens of billions of dollars can be saved and utilized for patient care with their elimination. Health insurance companies are a dead weight on the system. They don’t comfort the sick or take care of the injured.”

Dan Kovalik was an associate general counsel at the United Steelworkers Union for 25 years before his retirement earlier this year.

Kovalik says that Gerard has always been close to Highmark.

“As president of the union, he even did television advertisements for Highmark. He has been endorsing them for years,” Kovalik said.

“It creates the appearance of impropriety. It is troubling. The labor movement is corporatist. It has been for a long time. It has been more focused on getting along with the companies instead of fighting them.”

“Highmark doesn’t employ steelworks. It’s non union and will never be union. The unions never have pushed for single payer. They didn’t even push for a public option. The unions have never aggressively supported it.”

Kovalik said that “President Richard Nixon would have green lighted single payer, but the AFL-CIO actively opposed it.”

“The unions are still negotiating employer based health care. That is one thing they can sell when they are organizing. That is one thing that prevents them from having full throated support for single payer. Unions were not even willing to push for even the public option. They didn’t want to offend anyone. If Bernie Sanders is pushing Medicare for All, the unions will rhetorically go for it. But if Joe Biden becomes president, they won’t push for it. They value their access to people like Biden, they won’t jeopardize that. Some of it is that the unions are so weak that they tend to overvalue access to institutions. Which is why Leo continued to do ads for Highmark and is now on the Highmark board. Part of it is feeling you have access to power.”

(Gerard says he was not paid for the Highmark ads and is not being paid to be on the board of Highmark.)

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As Schools Open

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With the start of the 2019-2020 school year, the ever-present debate over the issue of charter schools has found its way onto the pages of all kinds of publications. I read the daily Rhode Map that is published by the Boston Globe, an attempt to move into a state that was the long-secure territory of the Providence Journal, a paper which is in decline according to a  retired journalist from the latter with whom I correspond.

As a former educator who worked for decades in Rhode Island, I have a passing interest in what happens in the state. Nearly a decade ago, Rhode Island spearheaded a nationally recognized push to eliminate its legal obligation to honor the cost of living adjustment (COLA) that retired teachers and other state and local workers were guaranteed. Rhode Island won that battle and most unions who represented those workers in the legal battle were left licking their wounds, hobbling away with their tails between their proverbial legs. In all fairness to those unions (I am still a member of the American Federation of Teachers), they were outgunned by the anti-pension forces that current Governor Gina Raimondo brought to bear against retirees with her links to the anti-pension movement across the US. Rhode Island was a Waterloo in the battle to take money out of the pockets of retirees. It was sort of like pushing a grandparent aside to get across the street. This reflects the great loss of power of unions, as they became the targets of the few and the wealthy with Reagan’s first successful shot across the bow of the air-traffic controllers union. A global economy ended the pact between the capitalist class of owners and their workers that had existed since the New Deal.

When Rhode Map began publishing articles about the push to expand charter schools in the impoverished and dysfunctional school district in the state’s capital city, Providence, it was no surprise.

It’s interesting to follow the trajectory of the growth of charter schools across the US. Their inception was in the attack of Ronald Reagan against public education in the US with his administration’s publication of A Nation At Risk. Note the parallels between Reagan’s attacks against unions and the beginning of the war against public schooling, students, teachers, and teacher unions in the US. The juggernaut against public education was part of the push to privatize public schools and turn them into profit mills for the oligarchs. Lots of birds could be killed with a few stones in the attacks on public education in the US and education’s place as a bedrock of democratic institutions.

Here’s how Rhode Map frames the debate over charter schools in the troubled Providence school district:

State lawmakers approved mayoral academy charter schools in 2008, but supporters of the idea tell me [editor of Rhode Map] they weren’t prepared for the test they face now. Here’s my look at how Providence’s mayor stands in the way of the expansion of Achievement First, and why there isn’t much anyone can do about it.

As always, the argument for charter schools and their expansion is used as a given and a good, when in fact charters rob other schools in school districts of needed money to buy books, hire teachers, specialists, and administrators, repair and build school infrastructure, and buy basic school supplies. The charters often serve as sieves, through which kids with special needs, including behavioral problems, are winnowed out of these schools and left for the public schools to educate since the public schools must take all students who come to their doors and who live in a particular schools district.

Diane Ravitch, a former member of George H.W. Bush’s and Bill Clinton’s Department of Education, puts the dilemma of public schooling in these terms: “The best predictor of low academic performance is poverty-not bad teachers.”  Ravitch went on to become one of the foremost critics of charter schools and has written extensively as an expert on the subject in The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (2010), and Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools (2013).

Here’s a video and accompanying article from the New York Times that went viral in 2016 of a teacher scolding a young child during a math lesson at a well-known charter school. “At Success Academy School, a Stumble in Math and a Teacher’s Anger on Video,”(February 12, 2016).

While the latter may be a temporary and human lapse in teaching behavior and strategy, readers need to keep in mind that charters not only cull the students that they want for their schools from the public schools, but they can bar unions, have huge teacher dropout rates, and can be difficult to manage within the larger public school system where they are located. Often, new teachers at charters don’t last for more than a single year in the classroom. The big issue here is that charters take money available to the public schools in a school district and further the spiral of downward achievement that poverty can create.

The US is a nation with national, state, and local governments that sometimes penalize poor and innocent kids. Should it come as a surprise, then, that innocent immigrant children at our borders are penalized by taking away toothpaste, soap, bedding, medical care, and education?

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Don’t Subsidize Companies That Silence Workers

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As Labor Day approaches, a critical question arises: Will America finally grant its workers First Amendment rights?

The Constitution guarantees “freedom of speech,” the right to “peaceably assemble,” and the right to petition for “a redress of grievances.” Yet these civil rights are commonly denied to workers.

Sure, we can say what we want, but we pay a high price to speak — often losing our jobs, health care, and benefits for our families. But we pay an even higher price for not speaking.

In 2016, Kyaw Kyaw, 50, died on the job at Nishikawa Cooper, a manufacturer of auto parts in Fort Wayne, Indiana, leaving a grieving wife and family.

More than 100 of his coworkers — refugees and freedom fighters who fled Myanmar’s oppression — subsequently petitioned corporate headquarters over issues of discrimination, health, and safety.

Saw Eh Dah circulated the petition — and was then fired.

In 2018, Shacarra Hogue, a 23 year-old college student, was gruesomely crushed to death in a massive press on her fourth day on the job at Fort Wayne Plastics. Equipment manufacture safety restraints had been purposely removed.

Shacarra’s co-workers knew the job was dangerous but felt coerced to say nothing for fear of losing their jobs. Now many of her traumatized former coworkers commonly think, “If only I had said something.”

Deaths like these often go ignored unless family members and fellow workers fight back. Still, the best they often receive is a modest legal settlement — and a demand to sign a non-disclosure agreement to silence them.

This leaves other workers — and all of us — vulnerable.

Boeing workers in Renton, Washington were silenced when they tried to sound the alarm about the 737Max’s deadly safety problems. It took two crashes and 346 deaths before government and the media took an interest in the complaints of muzzled workers.

Now, according to Morningstar, the Boeing effect is “rippling through the U.S. economy, hurting the nation’s trade balance, and clouding the outlook for airlines, suppliers and their tens of thousands of workers.”

Back in Indiana, BAE, a link in the Boeing supply chain employing over 800 workers in Fort Wayne, is reducing overtime hours. The shop floor buzzes with talk of an impending lay-offs.

Boeing, its manufacturing supply chain, and the broader airline industry are subsidized by tax dollars. BAE, as well as Nishikawa and Fort Wayne Plastics, have been sometimes lavished with federal, state, or local government aid, too.

Incentives, abatements, loans, facilities, services, and training dollars are often granted to employers in the name of economic development by our elected officials. Multiple governmental entities essentially serve as covert co-employers, complicit in the silencing of workers.

Maybe holding governments liable as co-employers — or assigning elected officials a measure of fiduciary responsibility — might incentivize the government to honor workers’ First Amendment protections.

For instance, elected officials could mandate that their contracted employers no longer compel employees to sign nondisclosure agreements. Officials could also do a better job at vetting aid recipients, denying subsidies to employers with histories of sexual harassment or safety violations.

More substantively, governments could require employers receiving public largesse to recognize workers’ National Labor Relations Act protections, so employees could freely testify about safety issues or workplace abuse.

Firing or punishing workers for responsibly speaking, petitioning, and assembling would be illegal, punishable, and subject to remediation. Workers, as material witnesses and taxpayers, could petition the government to “redress grievances” and inform public policy.

And of course, they would be free to start a union without retribution.

First Amendment rights for workers are not an entitlement but a responsibility. And all of our well-being depends on their being honored.

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Humanism – Helping People

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Long ago, when I was a congressional press secretary, Jennings Randolph was a wise senator from West Virginia. On his Washington desk, he kept a motto I never forgot:

“The most important lesson you can learn is that other people are as real behind their eyes as you are behind yours.”

That nugget of insight has deep implications, asserting that nearly everyone in the world – all seven billion-plus of them – more or less share the same human feelings, fears, wants, hopes, questions, frustrations, pleasures and the like.

This, to me, is the heart of humanism: recognizing the worth of everyone, and striving to make life as good as possible for the whole populace.

Humanism means helping people, and secular humanism means doing it without supernatural religion.

It began as long ago in ancient Greece, when some thinkers advocated humanitas, a helpful spirit toward all. During the Renaissance, a few scholar-priests began caring more for people than for the church, so they became religious humanists. Then came the Enlightenment, when rebel thinkers challenged the supremacy of kings and holy men. They laid the groundwork for modern democracy, which is rooted in humanism.

Various manifestos have been written to crystallize the need for intelligent people to support human betterment. In 1933, the first Humanist Manifesto was signed by three dozen philosophers, Unitarians, reformers and scholars, including John Dewey. It called humanism a new “religion” to replace magic-based supernatural faiths.

Secular crusader Paul Kurtz spearheaded other declarations, including Humanist Manifesto II of 1973, which asserted: “No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.” It denounced racism and nuclear weapons, calling for scientific progress, universal birth control, world courts, and the right to choose abortion.

(Dr. Kurtz was my guru. He published my books, named me a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, and asked me to sign some of his declarations. He even let me drive his Cadillac to Niagara Falls from his headquarters in a Buffalo suburb.)

Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre declared that his existentialism was a form of humanism. His famed dictum that people are “condemned to be free” might be interpreted to mean that each person is forced to live isolated inside his or her own skull – behind the eyes – unable to experience the inner minds of surrounding people. However, he mostly meant that people are thrown into the world, alone within themselves, not knowing why they exist, with no god to guide them – yet they are solely responsible for all their actions.

As we act, we can realize the personal validity of others and share common humanity with them. We can work to craft a beneficial civilization that helps everyone.

I remember the slogan of a freethought group: “We are not alone in the universe. We have each other.”

That’s a noble call for cooperation. Although part of me responds: Yes, African Americans have the Ku Klux Klan and Hispanics have President Trump demonizing them as criminals and rapists. But I guess the rest of us must keep striving, regardless.

Secular humanists generally support more human rights, better education, reduction of wars, science advances, better nutrition and health, racial equality and other strides to improve life. Solid progress has been made. In 1900, the average lifespan was 48 years; now it’s nearly 80.

When I was born in 1932, the world had two billion population. Now it’s nearing eight billion, almost quadrupling in a single lifetime. Humanists face the challenge of trying to make life livable for the entire, ballooning, human swarm.

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Violent White Supremacists Threaten Basic Civil Rights — and Our Lives

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Every right we have fought for and won since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his monumental “I Have a Dream” speech 56 years ago this Wednesday is under unrelenting attack and in grave peril — from the right to drink fresh water and breathe clear air, to the right of workers to organize for better wages and safer conditions to the right to vote without interference from “enemies foreign and domestic” to the rights of women, children, the LGBTQ community and immigrants.

But it’s not just our rights that are in danger.

It is our very lives.

After the horrendous mass shooting in El Paso, Texas by a white supremacist — who drove more than 600 miles to the city with the explicit purpose of slaughtering Latinos in response to the mythical “invasion” President Donald Trump and the right ranted about — new attention has been paid to the growing violence of white supremacists.

In the few weeks since El Paso, six white supremacists have been arrested for plotting violent attacks. The Anti-Defamation League reports that white extremists killed 50 people last year — people of all races.

Some compare the threat posed by white supremacists here at home to the terrorist threat posed by ISIS or al-Qaida. What too often is overlooked, as MSNBC commentator Chris Hayes noted in his show last Friday, is that white terrorist violence has been part of the American experience from the beginning.

Hayes notes that the first real terrorist cells in the U.S. arose after the Civil War as a response by white southerners to the freeing of slaves. When slaves became free men, the power of the white establishment in the South was threatened.

The reaction was violent — with community leaders joining to create terrorist cells — most of which became known as the Ku Klux Klan. To preserve white dominance, the Klan launched a wave of terror against blacks and their white allies across the South, including lynching, murder, abduction and rape.

Hayes cites the 2,000 murders in the state of Kansas in the lead-up to the 1868 election, designed to terrorize potential black voters, with the explicit aim of sustaining white power.

When Ulysses S. Grant became president, Congress passed legislation in 1870 — the Enforcement Acts — that empowered the federal government to respond to the wave of terror.

For the first time, the newly created Department of Justice began prosecuting the Klan in federal courts, backed by federal troops on the ground in the South. They made great progress against the Klan until a political compromise that led to the withdrawal of federal troops and the reassertion of “states’ rights.”

That opened the floodgates to a wave of terrorist attacks launched by the Klan and others against blacks that enforced apartheid across the south.

White terrorism goes hand in hand with slavery.

White slave owners were in constant fear of slave revolts and on constant guard against slaves running away to seek their freedom. Slave patrol militias — made up of volunteers from the leading slave-owning families of the South — were created to police the plantations, to track down runaway slaves and to put down any insurrection.

Again, violence — from whipping to murder — was employed routinely by the slave patrols.

The Second Amendment — the right of people to join militias and bear arms — was added to the Constitution in large part to protect the right of slave owners to sustain the slave patrol militias.

In 1788, when Virginia met to consider ratification of the Constitution, slave owners attacked the Constitution for giving the federal government the right to organize militias.

At the time, slaves outnumbered the white population in much of eastern Virginia.

James Madison wrote the Second Amendment largely to protect the rights of slave owners to enforce the reign of terror against slaves in the South. It had nothing to do with the right of individuals to bear arms, because blacks — free or enslaved — were prohibited from owning and bearing arms across the South.

Today when demagogues like Trump fan the fears of an “invasion” of Latinos and blacks that he believes will erode white dominance, white supremacist violence is once more on the rise.

As Hayes argues, when the federal government acts to condemn and to prosecute this domestic terrorism, it can largely stamp it out. But when it fans the flames or turns its back or leaves it to the states that terrorism can easily get out of control.

Today, America is still wrestling with how and whether it will grow out of its racial divides.

By fanning the flames of those divides, Trump is dangerously choosing to feed an increasingly violent white supremacist reaction.

 

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The Primary Contradiction: Corporate Power vs. Progressive Populism

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For plutocrats, this summer has gotten a bit scary. Two feared candidates are rising. Trusted candidates are underperforming. The 2020 presidential election could turn out to be a real-life horror movie: A Nightmare on Wall Street.

“Wall Street executives who want Trump out,” Politico reported in January, “list a consistent roster of appealing nominees that includes former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Kamala Harris of California.”

But seven months later, those “appealing nominees” don’t seem appealing to a lot of voters. Biden’s frontrunner status is looking shaky, while other Wall Street favorites no longer inspire investor confidence: Harris is stuck in single digits, Booker is several points below her, and Gillibrand just dropped out of the race.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are drawing large crowds and rising in polls. In pivotal early states like Iowa and especially New Hampshire, reputable poll averages indicate that Biden is scarcely ahead.

“Bankers’ biggest fear” is that “the nomination goes to an anti-Wall Street crusader” like Warren or Sanders, Politico reported, quoting the CEO of a “giant bank” who said: “It can’t be Warren and it can’t be Sanders. It has to be someone centrist and someone who can win.”

But the very biggest fear among corporate elites is that Warren or Sanders could win — and then use the presidency to push back against oligarchy. If Biden can’t be propped up, there’s no candidate looking strong enough to stop them.

Biden, Warren and Sanders, as the New York Times reported on Wednesday, are “a threesome that seems to have separated from the rest of the primary field.” In fourth place, national polling averages show, Harris is far behind.

Biden’s distinguished record of servicing corporate America spans five decades. He is eager to continue that work from the Oval Office, but can he get there? A week ago, a Times headline noted reasons for doubt: “Joe Biden’s Poll Numbers Mask an Enthusiasm Challenge.” Enthusiasm for Biden has been high among Democratic-aligned elites, but not among Democratic-aligned voters.

While corporate news organizations — and corporate-enmeshed “public” outlets like NPR News and the PBS NewsHour — evade primary contradictions, Sanders directly hammers at how huge corporations are propelling media bias and undermining democracy.

Even though he has inspired media onslaughts — such as the now-notorious 16 anti-Sanders articles published by the Washington Post in a pivotal 16-hour period during the 2016 primary contest — the Sanders campaign is so enormous that even overtly hostile outlets must give him some space. In an op-ed piece he wrote that the Post published seven weeks ago, Sanders confronted Biden’s wealth-fondling approach.

Under the headline “The Straightest Path to Racial Equality Is Through the One Percent,” Sanders quoted a statement from Biden: “I don’t think 500 billionaires are the reason why we’re in trouble.” Sanders responded, “I respectfully disagree” — and he went on to say: “It is my view that any presidential candidate who claims to believe that black lives matter has to take on the institutions that have continually exploited black lives.”

Such insight about systemic exploitation is sacrilege to the secular faith of wealth accumulation that touts reaching billionaire status as a kind of divine ascension. Yet Sanders boldly challenges that kind of hollowness, shedding a fierce light on realities of corporate capitalism.

“Structural problems require structural solutions,” Sanders pointed out in his Post article, “and promises of mere ‘access’ have never guaranteed black Americans equality in this country. . . . ‘Access’ to health care is an empty promise when you can’t afford high premiums, co-pays or deductibles. And an ‘opportunity’ for an equal education is an opportunity in name only when you can’t afford to live in a good school district or to pay college tuition. Jobs, health care, criminal justice and education are linked, and progress will not be made unless we address the economic systems that oppress Americans at their root.”

Like many other progressives, I continue to actively support Sanders as a candidate who bypasses euphemisms, names ultra-powerful villains — and directly challenges those in power who’ve been warping and gaming the economic systems against working-class people.

Those systems are working quite nicely for the ultra-rich, like the giant bank CEO who told Politico that “it can’t be Warren and it can’t be Sanders.” That’s the decision from Wall Street. The decision from Main Street is yet to be heard.

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Why I’m a Proud Anti-American

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Anti-American, that’s the popular slur for any critic of American foreign policy, especially in an election year. If you happen to have enough of a conscience to give a shit about who this country happens to be bombing or starving this week, you’re an anti-American, you hate the troops and you should go back to where you came from. The knee-jerk reaction to this knee-jerk reaction from most peaceniks, left and right, is to designate their opposition to empire as a form of patriotism. And I can respect that, but it’s not really my style. I’ve always been the kind of fat insane faggot who owns her slurs and wears them proudly like gang colors. I call it the Eazy E school of political incorrectness. You can be a patriotic pacifist, or you can be an Anti-American with attitude. My homegirls in the Squad have sheepishly chosen the prior, but I for one am proud to be a flag burning, middle finger waging, Anti-American bitch, and if Trump wants to send me back to the County Cork, I’ll pack my bags if he agrees to kiss my ass on the way out.

The stone cold reality is that my fervent anti-imperialism cannot be divorced from the country I live in. America is not a republic inflicted by empire. America is a glorified corporation defined by empire and it always has been. America has grown from a plucky little European slave colony to the deadliest war machine the world has ever seen. You’ll have to forgive me if I have trouble finding something to love about a rabid ax murderer like Uncle Sam, but for the sake of bitching lets unpack some of the cherished myths even antiwar patriots tend to cling to like exiles to a lifeboat.

Let’s start with an easy one. “People died for your freedom!” Every time I hear some Toby-Keith-love-it-or-leave-it-limp-dick belch that one out, I instinctively start laughing and then feel like a total cunt. People died for our freedom? No they didn’t. When was the last time your “freedom” was personally threatened by some bearded zealot from a shithole country? Did the Vietcong threaten our precious freedom to buy Coke and vote for reality TV rapists? Did the Taliban? The only thing these peasant malcontents threatened was America’s ability to treat the Third World like a broodmare.

Even World War 2, every leftist’s favorite bloodbath, was none of our goddamn business. Hitler’s ass was as good as fucked the second he crossed the Danube. Like most rapid-fire empires, the Third Reich expanded fast and collapsed even faster. America didn’t even step foot in Europe until it had become frighteningly clear that Stalin was gonna take Berlin and all that shallow glory that came with it. As for Japan, America was provided with multiple opportunities to peacefully divvy up the stolen islands of the Pacific, but chose instead to piss on the nation’s Diet with crippling sanctions that all but begged for Pearl Harbor. Contrary to the popular mythology touted across the aisle, the Second World War was every bit as pointless, savage and avoidable as any other American conquest, and this is America’s sainted “Good War.” The troops may have joined up for all the right reasons but they died for Raytheon, Bell and Exxon Mobil. Let’s not dilute ourselves into believing that their deaths weren’t in vain. The sooner America embraces this uncomfortable truth, the sooner they can get over their toxic romance with interventionism.

How about that old jewel about America being the greatest nation on earth? Anybody who’s vile enough to say something that blatantly jingoistic is practically begging to give Stalin’s Nagant a blowjob. Only two kinds of people say shit like that unironically on a regular basis, fascist dictators and Americans. People from around the globe don’t swarm to our shores and borders because we’re some kind of beacon of liberal enlightenment. They come here because we horde a disproportionate amount of the world’s wealth and we stole it from them. First World countries can only be First World countries by keeping Third World countries, well, Third World countries. The only reason America can afford to burn its paper money on box stores, McMansions and amber waves of grain is because it sucks the rest of the globe dry with its Dollar tyranny, rapacious trade deals and wars, wars, wars.

And even then, you’re stretching the fabric of reality to call America the freest nation on the planet. We excel when it comes to gun rights and free speech, but Switzerland is actually a semi-direct democracy with few victimless crime prohibitions and a functioning civilian militia. And they achieved all of this without spilling a drop of blood or picking a side in a single World War. Something tells me Thomas Paine would find Geneva a bit more familiar than Georgia. All countries by and large suck, but America sucks more than most unless you’re one of the billionaire child rapists who runs the damn place.

Which brings us to every Libertarians favorite excuse for state-nationalism, the Founding Fathers. According to constitutionalist lure, the men who created this country were hyper-woke minarchist ubermenschen who ate monarchs and shit raw democracy. Certainly such gods among men would be appalled to see their great republic rendered to the status of the next British Empire. While I agree that the sharper minutemen like Jefferson and Adams would likely be appalled by this monster, they’re still the Doctor Frankenstein’s who made this horror show an inevitability. At the end of the day, when you look past all the flowery verbiage about liberty and equality, these moneyed English aristocrats where little more than well spoken apartheid apparatchiks gone rogue.

The main motivator behind the Revolution wasn’t liberty, it was England’s threats to end the slave trade and recognize the sovereignty of the Colonies’ neighboring tribal nations. The Constitution was a document designed to protect the property of the privileged. This doesn’t mean that it’s a bad premise or that it hasn’t evolved into a semi-useful tool for hardcore civil libertarians to use to fuck with the state, but this isn’t the fucking Bible, it’s authors weren’t gods and your average capital L Libertarian is too goddamn smart to be so fucking dogmatic about a glorified national fairy tale. Time to wake up and smell the bodies, children. Time to focus some that skepticism you brag about on the motherfucker in the mirror. This nation hasn’t been destroyed by war. This nation is war.

This isn’t to say that I necessarily hate America or Americans, I just recognize that everything wonderful about this wicked place was brought about by those who resisted its foul government. That’s why I’m not proud to be against America, I’m proud to be an Anti-American. The latest in a long line of anti-statist renegades who’ve made the best of this mess to make the world at large a better place, from Geronimo to Russel Means, from Nat Turner to Malcolm X, from Lysander Spooner to Ross Ulbricht. I am a proud Anti-American and I will always rage to make this country free, even if I have to blow it up to make it happen, metaphorically speaking.

America’s great historian of Anti-Americanism, the late Howard Zinn, once said that you can’t remain neutral on a moving train. Well I can’t pretend to be a patriot in a moving empire. Get back to me after we monkewrench this bitch.

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In Cybersecurity, Decentralization and Diversity are Strength

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The US Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), the New York Times reports, fears “ransomware” attacks against America’s voter registration systems in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. In response, it’s launching a program that “narrowly focuses” on protecting those systems.

A laudable goal, to be sure, but should we accept the premise? It goes almost without saying that CISA, created only late last year, is casting about for ways to justify its existence and its $3.3 billion annual budget. Is this a real problem? And is CISA the organization to solve it?

Yes, “ransomware” and other types of cyberattacks are real problems. They threaten the integrity of any computer systems they target, which means any systems connected to the Internet or even accepting data from external sources like potentially contaminated flash drives (most early microcomputer viruses reached their targets when users inserted contaminated floppy disks; no Internet needed).

On the other hand, the federal government’s track record on securing its own systems, let alone anyone else’s, is remarkably poor.  Millions of Americans have had their personal information exposed in hacks of the Office of Personnel Management and other government agencies.

And on the third hand, the worst way to respond to a diffuse set of threats against a large number of systems is to centralize that response, especially in terms of requiring or encouraging the operators of all those systems to adopt the same systems and the same security measures.

Suppose that every front door of every building in the world was secured by one model of lock, made by one company. A flaw in that model of lock would be a flaw in every front door. Anyone who could exploit that flaw at a building down the street or across the country could exploit that flaw at your house too.

Or suppose that every variety of vegetable had one genetic weakness that allowed a particular blight to infect it. Once that blight hit your neighbor’s tomatoes, it could easily jump to your bell peppers and your neighbor’s cucumbers.

The world’s computing power is already far less diverse than you might think. It’s dominated by a few processor architectures, a few operating systems, a few server software packages, a few browser engines.

That’s convenient, even necessary, to the increasingly automated and interconnected world we’ve created over the last 30 years or so. But it’s also a source of vulnerability — vulnerability we shouldn’t compound by centralizing cybersecurity solutions under a federal agency’s leaky umbrella.

Our state and local election systems are safer to the extent that an attacker has to find 50 or 500 different ways to hack 50 or 500 of those systems, instead of one way to hack them all.

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Why Some People Don’t Trust Doctors

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On a recent night on duty at my hospital, I was called to the room of a 60-year-old patient from Puerto Rico. He had a treatable cancer that had now turned end-stage and metastatic. But he refused medical interventions such as intubation or resuscitation.

Upon questioning him, I learned he was not fond of hospitals or medical treatment. In fact, he said he’d never accept chemotherapy from any doctor — even if it could have cured his disease.

He told me that a white physician once came to Puerto Rico and killed unsuspecting people using the same chemicals used to treat cancer. One of the victims was his relative, and the story was passed down through the generations, along with a warning: Never trust doctors.

I’m a black, Florida-based physician who grew up in third world Philadelphia. When I hear a story like this one, I investigate further.

My Puerto Rican patient proved to be no conspiracy theorist.

The man he referred to was Cornelius Rhoads, who traveled to Puerto Rico in 1931 to study anemia.

Soon after, Rhoads wrote a racist screed to a colleague: “What the island needs is not public health work but a tidal wave or something to totally exterminate the population. I have done my best to further the process of extermination by killing off 8.”

Hospital staff in Puerto Rico discovered the letter, spurring a scandal. A government investigation cleared Rhoads of his own claims, and he went on to start what we now know as modern-day chemotherapy. Yet a University of Puerto Rico researcherlater found evidence to support the original allegations.

Throughout our history, black and brown people have repeatedly been used as test subjects without their consent, from the Tuskegee experiment that shortened the lives of black men with syphilis, to forced sterilization of unsuspecting poor black women in Mississippi.

While I don’t know any doctors who emulate Rhoads, more subtle biases abound. A 2015 survey found that 50 percent of medical students at the University of Virginia think black people naturally feel less pain. Nationally, other studies show, black people are under-treated for pain.

Doctors are also 71 percent less likely to suggest routine clinical screening such as colonoscopy to black patients with a family history of colon cancer — and 31 percent less likely to Latino patients — compared to white patients, even though these patients are more likely to die from the cancer.

These biases and others have horrifying effects. For instance, black women experience over 3 times more pregnancy-related deaths than white mothers.

Such cases remain in the minds of many people of color when we go to the doctor — and in my mind, too, as a black doctor.

Here’s a prescription for American physicians: Stop violating the Hippocratic oath. Physicians must confront their biases by first recognizing what they are. The same way these are learned, they can be unlearned.

Take implicit bias tests to probe some of your own hidden prejudices. Read books like Medical Apartheid by Harriet Washington, which medical schools should make required reading. Join or start a local chapter of Campaign Against Racism to identify institutional bias and find solutions.

Finally, if patients say they don’t trust doctors, understand that they’re probably right on some level.

My Puerto Rican patient died before I could apologize for the evil that had been done to his family by people who swore to do no harm. How many more people have to die feeling that way?

Armen Henderson is a Florida-based physician from Philadelphia and founder of the Dade County Street Response. This op-ed was produced by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, first published by the Philadelphia Inquirer,

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Unplowed Tallgrass Prairie: Rarer Than Old-Growth Forest

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The following is an excerpt from my new book, “Roadtripping at the End of the World.

I was born and raised in Nebraska, but my curiosity about the native prairies was not piqued until years later. In September 2018, over twenty-five years since the last time I lived in the state, I finally visited a remnant of original, unplowed prairie, located outside the city of Lincoln and entirely surrounded by the farmland that replaced most of it. I was entranced by what I found.

As an ecosystem type, prairies exist in conditions too moist for desert flora and too dry to support forest. Grasses are the most prevalent family of plants, both in number of species and in sheer mass. Forbs—which are non-grass plants without woody stems (so, not trees or shrubs)—are less common but totally essential. Trees are rare except near water.

The prairies of the Great Plains formed two to five thousand years after the last glaciers retreated. Retreating ice left behind mixed sediments that were gradually built into topsoil over many centuries with the addition of wind-borne dust and decayed organic matter.The ecosystem co-evolved with various animals including Buffalo, Elk, Deer, Rabbits, and Prairie Dogs, the last of whom played an important role in aerating the soil and creating channels for water penetration with their extensive tunneling.

At one time, prairies dominated Illinois, southern and western Minnesota, Iowa, northern Missouri, southwestern Manitoba, both Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, central Texas, southern Saskatchewan, southeastern Alberta, Montana, and the eastern parts of Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. At their peak, the North American prairies covered 677,394 square miles, an area nearly a quarter (23%) the size of the lower 48 states. Within this vast zone, Tallgrass prairies grew in the east, where it was wetter at a lower elevation, and Shortgrass prairie in the west, where it was drier and higher, with Mixed Grass prairie taking up a wide band in between.

Grasses might strike most people as boring, but the many species found in Tallgrass Prairies are not the stuff of lawns. Growing three to six feet high, they send down roots five to twelve feet. Though their vegetative portion is the most obvious part to us—and is indeed tall—the majority of the plant’s bulk is underground; in the case of Big Bluestem grass, the volume of the roots is two to four times greater than the foliage. The masses of roots often form thick, perennial rhizomes that both spread horizontally and dig down deeply. How big can they get? According to Paul A. Johnsgard of the School of Biological Science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the famous ecologist John Weaver “once calculated that a square foot of big Bluestem sod might contain about 5 5 linear feet, and an acre about 400 miles of densely matted rhizomes, from the surface to a depth of only a few inches.” Johnsgard goes on to say: “The strong roots of big bluestem have individual tensile strengths of 55-64 pounds, making prairie sod one of the strongest of natural organic substances. It is indeed strong enough to construct sod-built houses that have sometimes lasted a century or more in the face of Nebraska’s relatively inhospitable climate.”[1]

All of this plant material, both above and below ground, ends up producing a lot of decomposed organic matter every season: about 3000 pounds per acre on the surface and 2000 per acre underground. The turnover rate—from production to decomposition—is also fast, taking about 15 months above ground and 3-4 years below. This contrasts greatly with ecosystems that feature more trees and shrubs; with such woody plants, turnover rate can be measured in decades.[2]

Fire played a crucial role in maintaining vegetation on the prairie by suppressing trees, returning nutrients to the soil, and clearing away vegetative detritus. Animals loved the fresh green shoots that popped up afterwards. Herds of Buffalo would travel hundreds of miles to graze such spots.[3]

Native Americans called prairie fires the “Red Buffalo” and they set them intentionally as part of their gathering and hunting activities. Given that the prairies are only five to eight thousand years old, and that humans have been living in the Americas for much longer, the role that the Native Americans played was possibly foundational. Some have described their actions as comprising “land management,” but that term is problematic given the contrast between Native American and European relationships to the land, the former being more participatory and the latter more dominating, if not malicious. “Wildtending” is a better word.

The “opening of the West” to colonial settlement had a devastating effect on the prairie ecosystems and their denizens. The invaders who rushed into these lands in the 1800s, especially after the building of the cross-country railroad, plowed under the grasslands and hunted the Buffalo nearly to extinction.

The slaughter of the Buffalo herds by Europeans is an event of such enormous scale that I would characterize it as unimaginable. In 1800, these animals numbered in the range of 30-60 million. Accounts from that time describe herds of animals stretching to the horizon. Try to picture that. I can’t. My eye knows only the colonized landscape: tilled under, chopped down, or raked over.

The commercial hide industry is what lead to the Buffalo’s near extinction. Highly organized hunting parties killed hundreds, if not thousands, of animals every day. Hides were pulled off the carcasses by pounding a spike through the dead animal’s nose and hooking it up to a team of horses. The remainder of the animal was left to rot. Later, impoverished settlers collected the bones which were shipped to factories for making fertilizer.

Profit was not the only motive. It was well known that the Native American tribes of the Great Plains depended on the Buffalo for food and that by wiping out the animals, you would be threatening the humans. Decisions at the federal level in Washington, D.C., supported this policy. When a government intentionally sets out to destroy a group of people based on ethnicity, that’s the definition of “genocide.”

By the 1880’s the Buffalo had been reduced to a few hundred. Some were protected on private ranches by individuals wishing to save them. The last remnant of truly wild Buffalo hid out in a valley in Yellowstone National Park and numbered just 23 at its lowest point.[4]

From tens of millions to mere hundreds in a few decades: what kind of travesty is that? What kind of sickness has overtaken a people when they engage in that kind of behavior? This greed cannot be excused as human nature, since other people cohabitated with the creatures for millennia without acting the same way, and in fact expanded their range with their wildtending practices.

No, there is something special about Western Civilization, and I mean that in the worst way. The outbreak of brutality can be traced to the agricultural revolution, a dramatic shift that led directly to cultures based on hierarchical domination and to lifestyles dependent on widespread environmental degradation.

This new worldview took expression in the Biblical injunction in Genesis 1:28, to “subdue” the earth and to “have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth.” Other translations replace “have dominion over” with “rule,” “reign over,” “be masters over” or “in charge of” and these are all synonyms so the top-down character of this relationship is not in dispute. Contemporary adherents to the Abrahamic religions who wish to recast their faith as environmentally responsible must reckon with this concept, which is at the heart of their traditions, and without which the moral of the story is very different.

Believe it or not, the Yellowstone Buffalo herd is still threatened. Though it grew throughout the 20th Century, and in the past decade its numbers have floated around four to five thousand, its individuals are not protected from being slaughtered. If they go outside the Park boundaries, which they tend to do every winter in search of food and calving grounds, they are at the mercy of the “Interagency Bison Management Plan,” under which the Montana Department of Livestock and National Park Service harass, capture and kill Buffalo. Over 11,500 have been murdered under this program since 1985. The stated pretext is that Buffalo will endanger cattle by infecting them with brucellosis, but there has never been a single documented case of that happening. No matter what spurious excuse is put forward, the true motivation for the annual killing is much deeper and darker, and it is this: Western civilization is just that profoundly sick that it can’t leave this last wild remnant in peace. It must torture it; it’s in the cultural DNA. Witness this account, as posted by the Buffalo Field Campaign, an activist organization that defends the Yellowstone herd:

On March 7, 1997, during a winter when 1,084 buffalo were killed, American Indian tribal leaders from around the country gathered near Gardiner, Montana, to hold a day of prayer for the buffalo. The ceremony was disrupted by the echo of gunshots. Lakota elder Rosalie Little Thunder left the prayer circle to investigate the shots. Less than two miles away, Department of Livestock agents had killed fourteen buffalo. Walking across a field to pray over the bodies, she was arrested and charged with criminal trespass. To Little Thunder and other tribal members present there was no question of coincidence: “They shot the buffalo because we were at that place on that day at that time,” she said.[5]

As the Buffalo were being decimated, the entire floristic web of the Tallgrass Prairie was being plowed under. Unfortunately for the prairie community, the soils it produces are ideal for agriculture. Explains Johnsgard:

The soils of Tallgrass prairie are among the deepest and most productive for grain crops of any on earth. They represent the breakdown products of thousands of generations of annual productivity of grass and other herbaceous organic matter. Because of these organic materials and the clays usually present in prairie soils, such soils have excellent water-holding capabilities. In addition to the humus and related organic matter thus produced, many prairie legumes have nitrogen-fixing root bacteria that enrich and fertilize the soil to a depth of at least 15 feet. Earthworms and various vertebrate animals such as gophers make subterranean burrows that mix and aerate prairie soils, in the case of earthworms to a depth of 13 feet or more.[6]

So for all the species of plants and animals of the Tallgrass Prairie—who number in the thousands if you count the insects—the end was nigh as soon as the Europeans arrived en masse, which didn’t happen until after 1850. Less than a century later, most of this unique ecology was gone. In the present day, the Tallgrass Prairie ecosystem is even more rare than old growth forest, with less than 4% of it remaining. Most of that is in the western part of its former range, in Kansas and Oklahoma. In the eastern parts, such as Illinois, less than 1% is left. Like the slaughter of the Buffalo, a loss on this scale is unimaginable.

Agriculture replaces the wild with the domestic and in the Tallgrass Prairie, it did so rapidly, with deranged ruthlessness.

* * *

It was with all of this in the back of my mind—the Buffalo, the Native Americans, the untilled grasslands—that I visited Nine Mile Prairie outside of Lincoln, Nebraska on September 10, 2018. I was astounded, and in some way it was the highlight of the entire cross-country trip I took that summer.

The preserve is owned by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and is located five miles west and four miles north of its downtown campus; hence the name. It is only 230 acres in size, which is barely more than a third of a square mile, but even so it is one of the biggest parcels of “virgin” Tallgrass Prairie in the whole state.

Nine Mile Preserve is not set up as a tourist destination. The parking area only accommodates a handful of vehicles, the entrance is not well marked, and the only signage is well inside. This is all for the best, as the preserve’s primary function is for research, and the fewer disturbances the better.

The first flower that greeted me inside the fence was the poorly named Purple Poppy Mallow (Callirhoe involucrata). Yes, it was undoubtedly a mallow, and certainly poppy-shaped, but “purple” was not right at all; it was much closer to “magenta,” “fuchsia” or possibly “cerise” (according to crowd-sourced suggestions I solicited on social media). Regardless of shade, the blossom itself was striking: five rounded petals formed a cup, white at the center, was a dense cluster of light yellow anthers shedding pollen enthusiastically. The foliage was also distinctive: lobed like the familiar Maple, but with deeper indentations and sharper points. The shape could have been the print of some strange web-footed creature. According to Jon Farrar—whose Field Guide to Wildflowers of Nebraska and the Great Plains[7] I drew on for many of the IDs and much of the ethnobotany that follows herein—the roots are both edible (raw or cooked) and medicinal. The Teton Dakota Native Americans “inhaled the smoke of burning, dried roots for head colds” and drank a tea of boiled roots “for assorted internal pains.”

But what to call C. involucrata since “Purple Poppy Mallow” won’t do? Other common names include Claret Cup (in reference to the flower’s shape), Buffalo Poppy (a tribute to the prairie’s former inhabitants), Low Poppy Mallow (which describes its growth habit) and Cowboy Rose (a salute to the region’s conquerors). Personally I prefer one of the first two, and would reject the last one out of hand; my heroes were on the other team.

Purple flowers that were actually purple soon appeared as we went further into the refuge: New England Asters (Aster novae-angliae), with their classic, daisy-style flowers; two Gayfeathers: Rough (Liatris aspera)—aka Button Snakeroot and Rattlesnake-Master—and Dotted (L. punctata)—aka Blazing Star and Starwort—with their spike-like inflorescences; and Purple Coneflowers (Echinacea angustifolia), renowned for their medicinal properties, and unmistakably identifiable by their drooping pinkish-purple ray petals and bristly collection of red-tipped disc florets.

Blue blossoms were displayed by only one plant that I saw: Pitcher’s Sage, whose scientific name, Salvia azurea, nails it; “azure,” the “color of the clear sky.”[8]

White was represented by the low-growing, dainty-flowered Heath Aster (Aster ericoides); the erect, brushy-blossomed Fragrant Cudweed, (Gnaphalium obtusifolium)—aka Sweet Balsam, Rabbit Tobacco or Poverty Weed (this last perhaps referring to its affinity for disturbed settings); and the cotton-topped White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima)—aka Deerwort Boneset and White Sanicle—a plant that struck back against the agricultural colonization of its home. To wit (as related by Farrar):

The herbage contains the toxin trematol. Snakeroot flourished, and was apparently more frequently eaten by cattle, when woods were cleared by pioneers and more attractive forage was unavailable. When passed on to humans in cow’s milk, trematol causes milk sickness, the disease from which Nancy Hanks, Abraham Lincoln’s mother, died.[9]

Yellow was by far the most widespread color. Nebraska’s state flower, the Goldenrod (genus Solidago, many species), was in full summery bloom. I was quite taken by the Showy Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata), whose brightly colored flowers climbed its spindly branches between splays of feathery compound leaves and slender green seed pods, still flat in their fresh immaturity. I was delighted to meet Curly Cup Gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa), whose genus I had come to appreciate in the West—from the Smith River Delta to the Olympic Peninsula—for its intense flavor and medicinal potency. Like its relatives out there, this one was also used by Native Americans to treat various conditions: “colic, kidney problems, bronchitis, skin rashes, smallpox, pneumonia, gonorrhea, tuberculosis, and saddle galls on horses.” Further, “powdered flower heads were used as asthma cigarettes by early settlers.”[10] Intriguing! Smoking has largely fallen out of favor as a delivery method for medicinal herbs (with the exception of Cannabis) but I presume the mode has declined due to an unfair association with commercial tobacco products rather than a lack of efficacy.

The yellow flowers that attracted me most were the wild sunflowers. My surname, Sonnenblume is the German word for “sunflower” so I consider them siblings. There were many kinds there,but lacking a field guide, I couldn’t identify them. I knew the genus—Helianthus—but what species was I seeing? Grosseserratus (Sawtooth), petiolaris (Plains or Prairie), maximiliani (Maximilian’s), tuberosus (Jerusalem Artichoke, Canada Potato or Sunchoke), or the plain old garden variety annuus? Were there also False Sunflowers (Heliopsis helianthoide)? Maybe!

All these flowering plants were mixed in with grasses. Some held their heads above, some filled the spaces between the clumps, and still others found a niche close to the ground. The tallest grasses were over five feet high, and it was a joy to stand in the middle of a patch like that. I tried to imagine what it was like when this was all you could see.

But when I raised my eyes from my immediate surroundings, I saw the fencing around the preserve and beyond that fields, roads, and buildings. In the distance was the state capitol building in downtown Lincoln (about a nine mile drive away).

Unlike most state capitols, which are modeled on the US Capitol in Washington, DC, Nebraska’s is centered around a tower. It was designed in 1920 and the architectural style is deemed to be “classical” but I would describe it as “proto-Deco” due to its sleek lines. Wikipedia notes that the 400 foot structure is sometimes referred to as, the “Tower on the Plains,” and I’m sure that’s true, but the nickname that I heard was “Penis on the Plains.” Not for nothing does that moniker fit. The undeniably phallic tower is capped with a dome that is in turn topped with a statue of—I’m not making this up—a man sowing seed out of a bag. Surely if archaeologists dug up such a structure they would describe it as a temple to fertility worship, wouldn’t they? And the difference here is… what, exactly?

Be that as it may, active processes of fertility and reproduction were going on at Nine Mile Prairie that day. Flowers contain the sex organs of plants and they are delivering an explicit “come hither” message to pollinators with their colors and shapes. That day I saw hundreds of insects: bees, butterflies, wasps, beetles and more. Specifically, I identified three butterflies: the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta), Sulfur (family Pieridae, subfamily Coliadinae) and Pecks Skipper (Polites peckius); a Soldier Beetle (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus); a Broad-headed Bug (genus Alydus); a male Golden or Northern Paper Wasp (Polistes fuscatus); and a Crab Spider (family Thomisidae). This is in addition to a multitude of pollinators including Bumble Bees. Where insects fly, web-spinning arachnids set up shop, and I found a big fat garden spider, striped yellow and black, stationed brazenly at the center of her net, which she had marked, running-light style, with zig-zags in stitched bold face.

Some plants were done flowering for the season, but I recognized their fruited or seeded forms: Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) for its spindle-shaped pods; Wild Rose (genus Rosa) for its red hips; Ground Cherry, aka Tomatillo (Physalis heterophylla) for its husk-covered fruits; and Illinois Bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), for its round, prickly seed pods. This last plant I had grown back in my farming days, hoping to process it for its dimethyltryptamine content, though I never got around to that.

Another plant I knew from farming whom I had never met in the wild—and which was the most exciting introduction of the day—was Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum). I originally got seed from Richo Cech’s Horizon Herbs (now Strictly Medicinal Seeds), of Williams, Oregon, because it was indicated for lung ailments. Richo has a way with words and describes the plant’s appearance so: “Towering herbaceous perennial with deep delving roots… The large, handsomely and characteristically lobed leaves are very impressive, designed by nature to rise up through and push away prairie grasses. The stems are heavy, thick, hairy and green, glistening with fragrant and bitter gum.” He later adds this advice: “During dormancy, burn off over the crown every few years (they won’t mind, they are stimulated and cleaned by the fire and nourished by the ash).”[11] After years of ordering seeds and plants from his company, I came to know I could count on Richo’s dry wit as well as his botanical expertise.

“Characteristically lobed” as a description of the leaves does understate the case, though. Here, Farrar goes the further mile:

Leaves leathery, clustered at base, up to 15 inches long and half as wide, deeply notched nearly to midrib forming lobes that are likewise notched. Stem leaves alternate, becoming progressively smaller, bases clasping stem. Leaves hairy but not conspicuously so, principally along main leaf veins, rough to the touch.[12]

It was from this foliage that I recognized Compass Plant (who had bloomed earlier in the year). I snapped some photos with my phone and texted them to Clarabelle (my former farming partner), knowing she would be excited too. We had grown the plant in Oregon and I always wondered if he (I thought) felt out of place and alone there. This was a plant integrated deeply into a particular ecological community; with the other plants and the animals to be sure, but also with the humid summers, the frigid winters and the wide open spaces. Over the years, when I reflected on the nearly complete destruction of the Tallgrass Prairies, I often mourned for the Compass Plant. I lovingly tended him in gardens, but when he shot up his towering flower stalk, I could see that he was missing his grass neighbors. I suppose all plants are shaped by their community, but Silphium laciniatum seems especially so to me. All the sadder that his home range is reduced to such ragged fragments.

Early conservationist Aldo Leopold, who witnessed the destruction of the Tallgrass Prairies first-hand in the early 20th century famously wrote, in his book, A Sand County Almanac: “What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.”

I’m asking.

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What to Ask Before Calling Out

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What do you do when someone says something offensive?

You’re in a group and someone says something racist, sexist, homophobic, classist, transphobic, or otherwise problematic. What they said isn’t OK. Now what do you do?

We often talk about “callout culture,” in which the norm is to immediately correct the person on their mistake. Often such a callout leads to escalating emotions on both sides: anger, hurt, and ultimately, no learning by the offending party. Is that the answer?

For me, the question is: What do you want to accomplish, and will calling the person out accomplish it? And is there a more effective way to reach the same goal?

I usually try to assess a few things. First of all, is this person capable of learning or changing?

If a self-identified white nationalist is spewing hate, then there is probably nothing I can say to convince them otherwise. That’s a lost cause.

Let’s say they are capable of changing their mind. Then there’s the second question: Can I help the person learn what they need to know without putting them on the defensive?

That means, if possible, speaking to them in a way that does not publicly humiliate them and does not feel like an attack. I might have the conversation in private and start my statement with words like, “Maybe you didn’t know but…” or “I’m sure you meant no harm but…”

People make mistakes. We can allow one another to make mistakes as they grow. Helping the mistakes be less painful and humiliating can create room for that growth.

Third, is this a conversation I can engage in without harming myself?

Sometimes, the conversation would just be too painful. If a man is claiming that women lie about being raped, as a rape survivor, that’s not a conversation I can have with him. It would hurt too much. That’s a job for someone else.

Fourth, am I the person they are most likely to listen to?

If the offending party is my student and they look to me to educate them, there’s a good chance they will listen to me. If I’m just a stranger on the internet, the odds are much lower.

It’s easy to shout your point of view, get really angry, and waste a day ranting at strangers on Facebook while changing nobody’s minds at all — but what’s the point? Even if you say all the right things and you are right, you hurt yourself while helping nothing.

I’d rather put the phone down, and use my energy helping to educate people who are willing to learn. I won’t fix every racist or sexist in the world, but I can educate myself and share what I learn with those who are able to hear it. In the end, that will do more good than typing in all caps at people who won’t listen anyway.

Some people will never be convinced. Some people won’t be convinced by me, but they might listen to someone else. My job isn’t changing everyone’s minds. It can’t be. I do what I can, and let that be enough.

Fighting for justice is difficult, but remember that you aren’t alone, and the fight won’t be over tomorrow. Focus your energy on where you can make the most difference.

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The Dream is Dead Not Just for Dreamers, But for All Americans

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It is a truism that whatever starts off hurting immigrants eventually harms us all. On the other hand, if something benefits immigrants that too ends up helping all of us. When xenophobia hits a nation, this basic principle is forgotten, as a false us-versus-them dichotomy takes hold. A disturbing aspect of American exceptionalism is that this dichotomy keeps being presented as something virtuous; the veneer of exceptionalism blinds us to our common interest and is now breeding the intense storm of resentment that is ostensibly targeted toward immigrants but is actually a reflection of deep self-hatred.

In her important op-ed for the New York Times on August 13, 2019, a DACA recipient (Dreamer) named Tawheeda Wahabzada, whose Afghan parents had earlier sought refuge in Canada but then came over to the U.S., declares that she is no longer willing to wait for our country’s legislative bodies to do something to help people like her out of the perpetual limbo, and that she’d rather “self-deport” back to Canada, the country of her birth.

She is 29 already, and there’s no end in sight to her existential crisis, which she now finds intolerable. Should she wait another 5 or 10 years to get a driver’s license, to pay taxes, to rent a place, to do all the things a citizen takes for granted as part of normal life? Should she continue to put her life on indefinite hold? Or should she accede to the demand made by white xenophobes, led by Donald Trump and his repulsive lieutenants like Stephen Miller, Julie Kirchner, and Kris Kobach, and cease to be part of this nation’s fabric?

Her decision is all the more fraught with sadness for her because she is a model of the American Dream judged on its own terms, according to scholastic, cultural, and political accomplishments; and yet, there is no path to legality open to her, and no conceivable hope on the horizon that one might reveal itself.

I completely sympathize with her decision. Wahabzada is able to return to Canada, a country much better off than ours in numerous respects (as many of the commenters to her op-ed have noted), though if she were to have to return to Afghanistan, just about the most challenging country one might imagine for someone of her background, I would be even more supportive.

I speak as someone who believes in completely open borders, to a degree far greater than any of the current Democratic party contenders, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Julián Castro, or Beto O’Rourke, are willing to concede. Migration, during the course of this century, will come to be recognized as a fundamental human right, like education and health care. Unfortunately, even the most progressive candidates in this cycle speak for “comprehensive immigration reform,” which has generally been code for a grand bargain which takes away a lot of migrant rights in return for much fewer concessions.

And yet, despite my strong belief in open borders around the world, and despite all my sympathies lying with every kind of migrant (I don’t make the false distinction between legal and illegal, because our bureaucracy doesn’t function in a way to allow for such an unsustainable differentiation), I would rather that Wahabzada not stay here. Though it is always excruciating to leave a country one has gotten used to, I believe she’d be better off exiting this schlock-spectacle of a collapsing empire and whatever unspeakable misfortunes are to befall it over the coming decades as we approach the end.

The Democrats, under Barack Obama, had near complete control over the legislature for a while, including almost a filibuster-proof Senate majority, and could easily have passed a humane immigration law, legalizing everyone with roots in the country, at a moment of great economic crisis when the window of opportunity existed. Instead, they preferred to stall young and old migrants alike and to kick them around as political footballs for as long as possible. When the 2012 election looked like it might be in danger from a revolt of the minorities, they came up with a stopgap measure for a small segment of idealized migrants in need of help, namely the Dreamers, and in the process set up a tragic division between Dreamers and other types of migrants and refugees and asylum seekers.

It was a quintessential neoliberal ploy. Instead of a universal law helping everyone, they divided according to qualifications and criteria that were ever-shifting and subject to interpretation, which meant breeding more chaos into the system, more inefficiency and injustice, all very much by design. And now, with Trump, even the dream of an attenuated Dreamer-oriented law, as Wahabzada clearly recognizes, is dead. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer would rather have the issue of unauthorized migration with us forever, because if they were sincere about solving the problem how would they leverage vulnerable constituencies for votes?

Between the lines of Wahabzada’s self-critical essay one can detect the funeral notes of an American exceptionalism she no longer believes in—and rightly so. Many Americans might not be aware of it, but the problem Wahabzada identifies far exceeds that of Dreamers: it affects every migrant to some degree or another, in this post-enlightenment phase of the American immigration ritual, torn apart by an obscene respect for wealth and slavish obedience, rather than independence of spirit. Also, what many Americans might not yet realize, is that a reverse brain drain has already been going on for some fifteen years, not only in the direction of Canada and Europe, but more remote countries of origin as well—a very welcome development. Finally, one hears again and again from Dreamers, despite the Democrats’ vulgar separation between them and their parents and families, that they’d rather not take the humiliating deal which saves them but sacrifices their parents.

But the emotional purge must extend beyond any political party’s dereliction. In post-liberal America, failure is often defined as success and vice versa. Wahabzada holds a master’s degree in global policy studies from the LBJ school at UT–Austin, and the nonprofit she has worked for, Open Data Watch, which helps countries manage and improve official statistics, contains in its very name the contradiction of relying on quantification, once the enemy of individualism, to help accomplish nonquantifiable goals. For a young person from Bangladesh or Egypt today, what does it mean to come to America? If it’s to lay claim to a prestigious profession like engineering or medicine, who will benefit, and how far removed is the “successful” profession from liberal foundations? Broad humanistic study—once quaintly called “liberal education”—has been cut off at its roots because of the high cost of maintaining empire at this late stage.

Education is supposed to empower, but it actually impoverishes. This may not apply to Wahabzada herself, or perhaps it might at a later stage of her freedom, but we should ask the question of how we define helping others: Can it be accomplished by data-driven enterprises mired in all the parochialisms of contemporary social science? How can we measure the value of an individual teaching a poor child in Afghanistan or Pakistan as a spontaneous activity, compared to the technocratic frenzy of hyperaccomplishment American students are programmed to follow if they are to be blessed with the official imprimatur of virtue?

The ironies, for Wahabzada and others like her, don’t stop there. How does one fight for freedom from the headquarters of the worst human rights violator, all across the globe, for the last seventy years? This includes, of course, Afghanistan, Wahabzada’s ancestral country, which was serially devastated after not one but two prolonged U.S.-sponsored wars, one against international communism and the second against international terrorism. The American empire, pretending as always to be looking out for human rights and venturing “accidentally” into unfortunate misadventures costing innocent colonial lives, is defiled by the same hypocrisy at its core as the American Dream, which is the hollowest known interpretation of what constitutes human happiness. It is not that the American Dream needs to be pursued elsewhere, but that the American Dream is itself at fault. Its realization signals capitulation, whereas having to face continual obstacles might well signify residual humanity in the aspirant.

By appropriating the term “self-deportation,” Wahabzada recognizes the grotesque parody of agency she partakes in. She is well aware of its psychological ramifications, for herself and for her auditors. The “self” in deportation has a history as old as slavery, Indian removal, Jim Crow, and twentieth-century internal migrations. It is the obscured counterpart to government-orchestrated mass removals, leaving it up to states or municipalities, or private actors, to enforce a regime of “choke points” so unbearable that the migrant chooses to terminate life as he or she knows it. The term in its modern usage likely originated with a pair of Mexican-American satirists reacting to California’s Proposition 187, which would have denied education and other services to migrants; Governor Pete Wilson soon borrowed it with the irony removed. When commentators acted surprised by Mitt Romney’s solution of self-deportation in 2012, they ignored the slew of subfederal laws enacted all throughout the 2000s to make life so intolerable for migrants that they voluntarily chose the final solution. Of course, there is nothing voluntary about any of this, as we can tell by the rise of the term “voluntary departure” (which is considered a privilege granted to the immigrant), as the other side of the term “expedited removal,” which came into currency with Bill Clinton’s passage of the draconian 1996 anti-immigrant law establishing many new categories of inadmissibility.

Wahabzada well realizes the strong demonstration effect of her publicized auto-da-fé, as I am aware of my own much smaller act of enhancement of her self-immolation, which is all very much part of the subterfuge of agency suggested by the term. It is not that Stephen Miller needs to be educated about the history of his own ancestors escaping anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia at the turn of the last century, but that there’s no amount of conformity that will qualify the excluded, regardless of cultural excellence. The same applies to Trump, whose current wife worked illegally before finagling her way into legality by way of the extraordinary ability (genius) visa, and who then brought over her family in what is derided as chain migration, all without making any visible contributions. The demonstration effect on the border, where most of our attention remains focused on child separations, makes continuous self-deportation by those in possession of this distorted agency invisible, because they are mostly poorer and have no public voice.

Despite all this, I applaud Wahabzada for what I hope are her first steps toward liberation, and I wish there were more like her. I wish youth, when it has its chances, would always have the foresight to reframe a problem of contingency as one of opportunity. America is not the only claimant to the dream anymore. It is not even one of the last ones. For many, the dream has become a nightmare, but there is yet a passage through the difficult terrain which might perhaps take us to a different kind of dream, because this one sure is extinct. It is a great step forward to recognize this and move ahead. That is the last best hope of mankind.

A shorter version of this article appeared at CommonDreams.

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Polishing Turds: Lord Bell’s Public Relations Revolution

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“Morality is a job for priests. Not P.R. men.”

– Tim Bell, New York Times, Feb 4, 2018

Lord Bell is dead, but his public relations tinkering, with all its gloss gilding and deception, remains. It was Tim Bell who cut his teeth in this dubious field, assisting Margaret Thatcher win the 1979 UK election through a mix of emotive tugging images with varying degrees of accuracy. It was also Bell who elevated public relations in politics from the level of unpolished turd worship to the level of, well, acceptable turd worship.

Bell’s own preference was for a urinary image, corporate communications seen traditionally as “peeing down your trouser leg – it gave you a nice warm feeling when it first happened, but goes cold and wet pretty quickly.” As he insisted in a 2018 interview with The New Yorker, “What we did was move the public-relations advisers from being senders of press releases and lunchers with journalists into serious strategists.”

He was the master of focused destruction, the devil’s able footman. He had a nose for the malodorous reek of public feeling. Thatcher was impressed by his proudly amoral talents, his instinct to manipulate the record by touching the appropriate nerve. “He could pick up quicker than anyone else a change in the national mood. And, unlike most advertising men, he understood that selling ideas is different from selling soap.”

Bell was credited, over generously, with fashioning the slogan “Labour Isn’t Working” in 1979, one that at the very least helped seduce voters into voting for the iconoclastic Thatcher. He claimed that she was one to worship, a true She-wolf, as he called her with some warmth. “I am a hero-worshipper. I work for my demi-gods.”

As the co-founder of the firm Bell Pottinger, his list of clients of varying degrees of scrupulousness proved extensive. PR will do that sort of thing, an easy way out for the complex problem and thorny dilemma. With the US-led invasion of Iraq going rather badly in 2004, it became clear to the occupation forces that something had to be done about that misunderstood “D” word; democracy would have to be sold, something that Freedom’s Land has not been particularly good at.

In an effort to prevent democracy dying in transit, Bell Pottinger was enlisted by the Pentagon to release a range of radio and television commercials explaining how and why a handing over of sovereignty to an interim Iraq government would take place in June. The British firm was essentially lecturing Iraqis on the joys, and necessities, of that jolly good system, whatever that might have looked like in the PR-world. In Lord Bell’s bland words, “We’re trying to keep people informed about the process and persuade them to participate in it.”

Even some advertisers wondered whether Lord Bell was going a touch too far with this caper, noting that similarly vain and flat-footed efforts had been made by Charlotte Beers in 2001. Can you really advertise democracy? Harry C. Boyte, senior fellow at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, warned of the dangers of treating democracy as an advertiser’s tarted-up product. If the product goes pear shaped, democracy would then be held to blame.

Other notables on the retainer list included the wife of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, Asma, who wound her way into Bell’s portfolio in 2006 desperate to join other first ladies and female leaders who had sought the services of the firm. “She wanted to be part of that club,” mused Bell in an interview with the New York Times. Something obviously worked: Mrs Assad was subsequently celebrated in the Huffington Post for her “All-Natural Beauty”; praised in French Elle as one of the world’s best-dressed women in politics; and dreamily described by Paris Match as the “eastern Diana” with an “element of light in a country full of shadow zones”.

Military despots such as Chile’s Augusto Pinochet could also count on his services. In 1998, Bell assisted the Pinochet Foundation in mounting a vigorous campaign to frustrate efforts to extradite the General to Spain on charges of murder and torture.

South Africa proved a particularly happy hunting ground. Former SA president FW de Klerk was counted as a client, as was the troubled athlete Oscar Pistorius. But it was also South Africa that would prove the firm’s undoing. Unfortunately for Bell and business partner Piers Pottinger, their clients, the Gupta family, proved a hard, and ultimately fatal sell. Ajay, Tony and Atul Gupta had reaped the rewards of a rich relationship with President Jacob G. Zuma, one that yielded contracts in mining, railways and armaments. But the brothers felt that a distraction from the activities of their holding company, Oakbay Investments, was needed.

Bell Pottinger were then slotted into the picture to confect something appropriate at the monthly cost of $130,000 over a three-month trial period. Local and community black activism was to be encouraged – not in itself a bad thing. The catch was crude but simple: the Guptas’ opponents were to be branded as sponsors of a racist system. The narrative of “white monopoly capital” was pushed through social media and websites (Bell called the theme one of “economic emancipation”), suggesting that white South Africans were on a rampage seizing resources at the expense of education and jobs for blacks.

Stoking racial tensions in South Africa did not go down well, and the company was expelled from the UKs Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA). An exodus of clients duly led to the company going into administration. The damage had been done. “Bell Pottinger,” lamented Francis Ingham, director general of the PRCA, “may have set back race relations in South Africa by as much as 10 years.” Bell was by that point out of the picture, the victim of a boardroom bloodbath engineered by fellow publicist James Henderson.

Business partner Piers Pottinger offers the usual sweet snippets to cover a well accomplished rogue dedicated to his clients. “He was a devoted family man and passionate supporter of the Conservative Party, most famously helping Margaret Thatcher win three general elections.” Naturally, he was “an inspiration” for those who worked for him. “Most importantly to me, he was always a true and loyal friend. Nobody can replace him.”

Perhaps not Bell, but certainly facsimiles of him, who operate with morally bankrupt impunity in London, a city famed for being a hive of reputational laundering. Despots and unsavoury regimes are queueing for services in numbers and will have much to thank Lord Bell for. After all, he saw good P.R. not merely as a service but an inherent right on par with legal representation.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

 

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