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Which Way, Germany?

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I’ll never forget the day my father’s ancient jalopy got stuck boarding the New York-Jersey City ferry; two wheels on the dock, two on the boat, the motor stalled, my father frantic, my mother scolding, cars behind us honking, and me, just 6, looking at the swirling waters below. Two muscular ferrymen finally pushed us back on land.

The gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 has markedly different proportions. But it’s also stuck; one end near Vyborg in Russia, the other, after a thousand km under swirling Baltic Sea waters, stalled only 164 km short of its safe goal, Sassnitz in eastern Germany.

Here, too, there is plenty of honking – and more than a few muscle men, with Germany half on and half off its policy toward Russia, between rapprochement and confrontation. Donald Trump offered his customary words of wisdom; blustering threats if Germany favors pipelines over ever greater military build-up. His buddies, far-right Senators Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton and Ron Johnson, warned little Sassnitz, pop. 9186, of “crushing economic and legal sanctions” if it lets the pipeline land there.

Some German business and political leaders were outraged at this crude interference and consider it far wiser to do business with Russia, selling it cars, chemicals, machinery and farm products, than kowtowing to arms manufacturers and other war hawks on both sides of the Atlantic. This at a time when, with more and more weapons along Russian borders, one little false move, a maneuver missile accidentally fired a bit too far eastward, a fighter pilot briefly losing his bearings, a misunderstood message, could unleash a world-destroying nuclear war. Like 1962 but at far closer range.

For Angela Merkel’s government it was two wheels on and two off. Then came Belarus. And then a poisoned Alexei Navalny. Both provided the hate-Russia crowd with exactly what they yearned for, to push things their way and counteract the wishes of a majority of Germans who want to stay peaceful.

Yet both issues were far from being so very clear-cut. As the keen analyst and one-time British ambassador Craig Murray wrote:

“I have no difficulty at all with the notion that a powerful oligarch or an organ of the Russian state may have tried to assassinate Navalny… What I do have difficulty with is the notion that if Putin, or other very powerful Russian actors, wanted Navalny dead, and had attacked him while he was in Siberia, he would not be alive in Germany today….One thing we know about ‘Novichok’ for sure is that it appears not to be very good at assassination… If the Russian secret services had poisoned Navalny at the airport before takeoff as alleged, why would they not insist the plane stick to its original flight plan and let him die on the plane? ….Next, we are supposed to believe that the Russian state, having poisoned Navalny, was not able to contrive his death in the intensive care unit of a Russian state hospital. …If Putin wanted him dead, he would be dead.” … “…There are a whole stream of utterly unbelievable points there… Personally I do not buy a single one of them, but then I am a notorious Russophile traitor.”

Nor is the Belarus uprising  as clear cut as European leaders and op-ed writers quickly decided. It is obvious that Lukachenko’s 80% election victory was a poor joke; it seems evident that many or most people there want to get rid of him after 26 years, for a wide variety of reasons.

But the outside support given the protests is steeped in hypocrisy. When Lukachenko seemed to be leaning westward the invective softened, there was a sudden increase of trust in Lukashenko, as in 2010, when the Polish and German foreign ministers and the Lithuanian president met both him and the opposition, and found that he might even be won over – and was supported by a majority of his citizens.

Just last February Secretary of State Michael Pompeo visited Lukashenko and told him temptingly:

“Our energy producers are ready to deliver 100% of the oil you need at competitive prices. We are the biggest energy producer in the world and all you have to do is call us…. The U.S. wants to help Belarus build its own sovereign country… Inspired by what I saw at Hi-Tech Park (in Minsk); a great example of how Belarus can seize its extraordinary growth potential by embracing forward-looking economic policies and smart regulation. It’s clear how impactful American investment can foster prosperity across the globe.”

He offered prosperity. Was he really thinking of power, not just fuel-based but strategic? Lukachenko has indeed maintained a merciless, tight grip. But Belarus is the only ex-Soviet republic to maintain public ownership of much of industry, instead of oligarch control, and permits no giant private landowners. Is a hope for good pickings behind western support for the current uprising? As for noble words; nasty as arrests and beatings in Minsk certainly are, they cannot compare with those of brutal cops elsewhere, often aiming missiles at heads, eyes and hands – in Chile, Ecuador, Iraq, France (against the yellow jackets) and the new buddy, Bahrein, or for that matter in Baltimore, Minneapolis or Staten Island. Are jail beatings in Belarus worse than in Riyadh or Abu Ghraib – or CIA “black sites”, with tortures worse than those of the Inquisition? All are horrible, but denouncing some and downplaying or ignoring others is pure hypocrisy.

Most important of all, perhaps; while Kharkov in the Ukraine is about 400 miles from Moscow, Vitebsk in Belarus is less than 300, not much farther than New York to Washington. (The US Army and Raytheon are working on a new Long Range Precision missile which can hit targets at least 310 miles away.)

Ups and downs in Germany are less dramatic than in Minsk or the USA, now suffering under the corona pandemic, terrifying forest fires and worrisome election-fever, with an outcome far from certain – and possibly even leading to armed violence.

But Germany, too, could veer left or right, when countless jobs are gone, small businesses vanish, evictions multiply. Some omens foreshadow grave differences. Can humane pressures force the government to accept more than a few planeloads with 400 child refugees from the miserable, burnt-down camp on Lesbos, where 13,000 refugees lost even their miserable tents and shanties?  Most fled Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria where foreign warriors destroyed their homes and livelihoods.

In German cities a re-named “Querdenken711” movement has been gathering crowds. ”Querdenken” –  “crosswise thinking”, rejecting both left and right; it is for “self-determination” and “love” – and strictly against face masks, social distancing, or even that there is an epidemic. Its mysterious, hitherto unknown leaders offer no other program. Many of those marching and filling squares oppose a world-wide Bill Gates “compulsory vaccine plot”, all vaccination, or the current “conspiracy  government”. A few are non-party “super-leftists”. Much more conspicuous are far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) members and groups with fascist tattoos and flags; a mob of them even stormed the Bundestag building, whose doors were defended (peculiarly!) by only three cops. Will this movement fade – or grow?

And what will follow the uneasy coalition between Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats after next year’s elections? The Social Democrat chosen to lead the campaign against whoever succeeds Merkel – still an ongoing rivalry – is Olaf Scholz, now Vice-Chancellor and Finance Minister. But poor Olaf was hit by a scandal about a phony software giant whose crooked organizer is missing (as are 1.9 billion euros), all of which he somehow failed to notice – or to deal with. And now he faces another scandal. While mayor of Hamburg he seems to have helped save the big Warburg bank from paying millions in back taxes – and later lied about his secret meetings with its boss.

And the LINKE? With a key congress due at the end of October it is facing a key issue. If it becomes possible to form a coalition government with the SPD and the Greens (current polls don’t make that possible but they could change) should the LINKE weaken or drop its basic demands to oppose NATO or sending any Bundeswehr soldiers to fight in foreign arenas, a condition set by the war-willing Social Democrats and Greens – and by doing so a few coalition cabinet seats, always the dream of some? Or should it stick to its position, thus remaining, in the Bundestag, the only “party of peace”?

This question will affect the choice of new LINKE leaders since the current co-chairs, after two terms, are stepping down. Two are already in the running. One, from the party’s “pragmatic wing”, is a leader in the LINKE-Social Democrat-Green- government in East German Thuringia. The other has led the LINKE quite  successfully in the  West German state Hesse. She is from the militant wing of the party. Others may also run, but at present it looks possible that they may join in a balanced slate which would make the LINKE the first party with two women in top leadership. If the two remain friendly it could also succeed in keeping both sides – not only geographically – in one piece, safe from the threatening waters swirling beneath them. More working-class muscles, politically speaking, might, like those ferrymen long ago, help the divided party to move and grow. It will be needed!

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The Spoils of War: Sexual Entitlement

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The lack of accountability of criminal behavior is a grotesque stain on human behavior and history. Many who follow history, either as scholars or informed individuals, know that until the second half of the 20th century, history was written by the victors and about the celebrated victorious, those anointed by the few and the very wealthy and often at the expense of truth and justice. History was mostly written at the expense of ordinary women and men.

Fort Hood in Texas has a big problem (“A Year of Heartbreak and Bloodshed at Fort Hood,” New York Times, September 9, 2020). Crime on the army base is rampant and sexual harassment and sex crimes follow upon the heels of that harassment. Two recent deaths at Fort Hood have all the earmarks of sex crimes. Soldiers have also disappeared from Fort Hood.

The Fort Hood deaths reminded some mental health experts of a cluster of violent behavior at Fort Carson in Colorado more than a decade ago. Those events show just how elusive answers can be in trying to identify the root causes of death and violence in the military.

The study (of Fort Carson), released in 2009, found that a number of personal, environmental and military-unit issues may have played a role in the violence, including soldiers’ previous criminal behavior, drug and alcohol abuse and combat exposure and intensity. That combination ‘may have increased the risk for violent behavior’ in some of the soldiers, the study concluded.

First an observation about how men and women in the military are viewed in terms of their targeting for sexual harassment, attacks, and worse. The primary objective of the military is victory in war. Victory in war means killing the enemy. It’s that simple. For the only superpower left standing with over 700 military bases around the world and involvement in endless wars, teaching and learning about war has the consequence of dehumanizing the declared enemy and training to kill that enemy. Teaching and learning about war often dismisses practicing normal moral guidelines about the worth of the individual. Since the US-led Global War on Terrorism began in 2001, the Costs of War Project (Brown University) tags the price of those wars at $6.4 trillion with over 800,000 people killed and 37 million people in eight countries driven from their homes. Isn’t it fitting that during the 1950s, Ronald Reagan, as TV mouthpiece for General Electric, producer of both home appliances and war goods, mouthed the words “Progress is our most important product.”

Killing in war and tormenting people in the military who don’t fit into the military’s definition of soldiering are both acts not so very far apart. Since the attacks of September 2001, the military has enjoyed a kind of status in the US not known since World War II. Although not daily news anymore, the drumbeat of war created a sense in the US that anything the US does militarily is acceptable and the military has been allowed to police its own regarding how men and women in its ranks  behave and are treated. It’s very similar to how police are treated and judged who fire their weapons and report, as a defense, that they felt threatened. The latter, at least until the spate of police murders of unarmed people of color, was generally accepted by the public.

The targeting of women and men for sexual harassment in the military has led to the growth of sexual assaults and worse, and the continued tradition within the system of military “justice” allows for judging its own wrongdoers from within the system with no external oversight. A footnote needs to be considered that most people in the military do not perpetrate violent acts against their fellow soldiers. But it’s also not the case of a few rotten apples because sexual harassment is widespread.

In terms of sex crimes, the cliché that military justice is to justice, as military music is to music, holds true.

I underwent military training at a base in Georgia, Fort Gordon, that had a contingent of the Women’s Army Corps on that base. My recollections of that period, during the Vietnam War era, were that the women on base were generally demeaned in harsh, inappropriate sexual terms.

On one of my basic training company’s first weekend leaves, a group of my fellow soldiers and I rented a van and we were driven across the border to South Carolina to a motel where each soldier in turn went into an adjoining room for sex with a sex worker. Since I thought we were leaving the base and getting away from the weight of military training, I naively went along with my fellows and refrained from taking part in the behavior in the adjoining motel room. As a footnote to our trip across the border, each soldier who entered the adjoining room developed a sexually transmitted disease after returning to the base and its treatment required medical intervention. Sex work has always been a reality around military bases and in war zones. Some have traditionally seen it as part of the rest and relaxation equation in war.

War has always involved the spoils of war that often includes predatory sexual behavior. Much legend about war involves romantic relationships that mirror life outside of war, and that happens, but predatory behavior has always accompanied war and some have condoned that behavior among some soldiers and top military brass. Bases, both inside and outside of theaters of war, have provided soldiers with access to sex, with much of that availability given a nod by military brass. The vulnerable among members of the military have sometimes been viewed as targets of predatory sexual behavior and an extension of military training and the deserved spoils of war in a male-dominated patriarchal universe. The reality of that behavior on the ground is happening in places like Fort Hood.

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Troubled Times at The Intercept

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On September 13, the New York Times ran a 2,900-word article on the biggest fuck-up in U.S. leftist media in a long time, perhaps ever.

The piece covered The Intercept’s fantastic and presumably unintentional sloppiness in handling the 2017 Reality Winner leak, the fallout from that sloppiness, and the unfortunate culture at The Intercept that seems to persist to this day, despite internal and at least quasi-external investigations into the monumental screw-up.

In 2017, at the age of 25, the unusually-named Reality Winner sent The Intercept a secret report on Russian cyberattacks on American voting software. Now, thanks in large part to The Intercept’s gross negligence, Winner, a former linguist at the National Security Agency (NSA), is serving a prison sentence of 63 months. On July 20, 2020, it was reported that Winner had contracted COVID-19 while behind bars.

But The Intercept wasn’t the only one to screw up. Winner herself helped. She copied the secret report on an NSA copier and sent that traceable copy to The Intercept. That’s when things went seriously wrong. The Intercept made a copy of that copy of the report and sent the new copy to the NSA media affairs office. The problem is that the new copy still bore markings that showed exactly where and when the original copy had been made. From there it was child’s play to track it back to Winner. She was a sitting duck.

This is a fantastic security breach for a news organization founded by Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, the two journalists who broke the gigantic 2013 Edward Snowden NSA leaks and were veterans of their own impressive security operation that brought them safely to Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room, where Snowden was hiding from the better part of the world’s security and intelligence apparatuses. That was the biggest national security story since Daniel Ellsberg’s 1971 Pentagon Papers, which probably helped end the Vietnam War, and it earned Greenwald and Poitras Pulitzer Prizes and George Polk Awards.

The Intercept, which has won a boatload of journalism awards, was founded in 2014 with $250 million in funding from billionaire Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar. With that kind of journalistic pedigree, and enough money to buy an army of lawyers and national security experts, the Winner mistake is shocking.

But there’s more.

Glenn Greenwald has aggressively downplayed or dismissed altogether Russian interference in the 2016 election, even after Winner’s leaks. In an April 19, 2019 Democracy Now debate with longtime Trump biographer David Cay Johnston, Greenwald insisted the Mueller report on Russian interference confirmed Trump’s assertion that there was no collusion between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign.

But according to businessinsider.com, fully 6-12 percent of the 448-page report was redacted. That’s fully 27-54 pages Greenwald has presumably never seen. How can Greenwald insist the report clears Russia and the Trump campaign when so much of the report is unknown?

What is worse, Greenwald essentially dismissed Johnston and anyone who believes in Russia-Trump collusion as naive, gullible, politically correct ideologues – essentially parroting the Trump line. Greenwald’s debate performance dripped of condescension, with no respect for Johnston’s outstanding decades-long Trump reporting and writing.

Where does such arrogance come from? The Times piece might offer some clues.

The Intercept was founded in 2013, and according to the Times, Greenwald made a tidy little $500,000 in 2015. That’s a lot of tacos. According to Don’t Quit Your Day Job (dqydj.com) that would in 2019 place Greenwald well within the 1%. And Greenwald’s 2015 take is more than 12 times the 2019 median U.S. income. But it’s more than that. Greenwald lives in Brazil, where the cost of living is much lower.

According to numbeo.com, consumer prices are 130% higher in the U.S. than in Brazil. That means Greenwald’s 2015 income of $500,000 has, in Brazil, the purchasing power of $1,150,000.

Not bad for a journalist.

The point is that arrogance is an occupational hazard in that stratosphere. Just as Greenwald portrayed collusion believers as naive in his 2019 David Cay Johnston debate, so too is it naive to think that income well within the realm of the 1% doesn’t color one’s perspective and invite the insidious creep of arrogance. One’s interests – or at least one’s economic interests – become, by definition, those of the 1%, which is starting to get close to those of the ruling class.

Large amounts of money almost invariably build walls that separate the wealthy from the teeming mass of humanity. Such walls almost always cloud one’s vision and make it difficult or impossible to practice journalism based and anchored in the real-world reality faced by the vast majority of people on this planet.

The Times piece indicates a persistent resistance to cultural change at The Intercept. But if The Intercept ever finds sufficient agreement to enact real change, it might want to start by reducing large salaries that divorce their recipients from the world that is exploding all around them.

Lawrence Reichard is a freelance journalist and editor who splits his time between Maine and Latin America.

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Trump and the Troops

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My father enlisted in the Army to fight in World War II. He was 19 or 20 years old, and he wanted to defeat the Nazis. He was one of a million other young Americans to sign up that year.

But my father was also a fun-loving guy who played clarinet in a jazz band and liked to party. Instead of reporting for duty, he went AWOL on a bender. When he showed up late at the military base, he was assigned to the kitchen patrol to peel potatoes. As a result, he stayed behind when his unit shipped out.

According to my father’s version of events, that entire unit perished somewhere in the Pacific.

From then on, my father did everything he could to avoid getting sent overseas. He was part of a group of radio men who continually failed their final test. Spending the entire war stateside in a succession of Army bases, he developed a distinctly anti-war perspective. Together with my mother, whom he met at an Army dance, he passed that philosophy onto his children.

I shudder to think that I have any overlap with Donald Trump. But we both inherited our discomfort with the military from our fathers. Fred Trump preferred to focus on the business of making money. My father had his close brush with war, and it changed his life.

Many other members of the “greatest generation” had a similar change of heart as my father. Like every preceding generation, they experienced the horrors of combat and suffered trauma for much of their post-war lives. Some learned that the other side, too, used the language of “sacrifice” to push young men into battle and persuade families on the home front to accept economic austerity.

Some even came to agree with Smedley Butler, the retired Marine Corps major general who wrote, in 1935, that “war is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious.”

Donald Trump knows a racket when he sees one. Growing up wealthy and white, Trump saw no reason to sacrifice limb or life to serve his country. The military was a lousy career for a would-be billionaire who had his own scams to foist on the American public. As my father discovered, the military was often a career-ender, particularly during wartime.

Lots of other men of Trump’s generation avoided the military. Joe Biden received five deferments, and so did Dick Cheney. Bernie Sanders applied for conscientious objector status and then aged out of the draft. Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, John Bolton: they all somehow skipped the Vietnam War.

Unlike these men, however, Trump said aloud what most of them must have been thinking, that the United States was involved in a “stupid war” in Vietnam. Trump has gone much further by disparaging military service his entire life.

Trump’s anti-military remarks reported in the recent Atlantic article by Jeffrey Goldberg — “Trump Calls Americans Who Died in War ‘Losers’” — are no surprise. Because they are blunter than even what the president blurts in public, the alleged remarks are causing a larger-than-usual frisson of schadenfreude among anti-Trumpers, and I confess to my own delight at the frenzy of denials coming from the White House.

Perhaps the Atlantic article will subtract just enough supporters from Trump’s side to ensure his defeat in November. Military support for the president was already slipping before the publication of the article — Trump had a 20 percent lead over Hillary Clinton in active-duty support in 2016 but Joe Biden now has the edge by 4 percent in this critical demographic. The military remains the most trusted institution in American society. It’s political suicide to diss the troops.

Trump’s comments are not going to change the way Americans think about war. He has neither the war record nor the gravitas of a Smedley Butler. But with the coronavirus pandemic racking up more casualties on the home front than the United States suffered in combat in World War I, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined, America is perhaps at a watershed moment when it comes to the meaning of sacrifice.

Trump’s Approach to War

Americans are tired of war. That was one element of Trump’s support in 2016. He criticized America’s “endless wars,” promised to bring U.S. soldiers home, and decried the corruption of the military-industrial complex.

Aside from some token reduction of troops from Afghanistan and Syria and the closure of a U.S. base in Germany, Trump has not honored his promises. He has pumped money into the military-industrial complex and brought its top people into his administration, like Defense Secretary Mark Esper, a former Raytheon lobbyist. Nor has Trump fundamentally altered U.S. military footprint in the world.

True, Congress and the Pentagon have blocked some of Trump’s plans. But the real problem has been Trump’s own ambivalence.

The man might not like soldiers or the military more generally. But he likes power and force. He likes to give orders to all the generals he has appointed as advisors. Above all, Trump likes to break things. If your intention is to smash a china shop, the Pentagon is just the bull you need.

Remember, this is the guy who promised to “bomb the shit” out of the Islamic State. He fulfilled that promise, killing a large number of citizens in the process.

Trump also refused to stop helping Saudi Arabia do the same to Yemen. Last year, he vetoed a bipartisan congressional effort to withdraw U.S. assistance to a war that has pulverized one of the poorest countries in the world. In his statement, Trump said, “This resolution is an unnecessary, dangerous attempt to weaken my constitutional authorities, endangering the lives of American citizens and brave service members, both today and in the future.”

It’s difficult to imagine that an effort to end a war would endanger the lives of “brave service members.” But read another way — that weakening Trump’s power endangers American citizens and soldiers — the sentence perfectly encapsulates the president’s me-first mentality.

Trump might have an aversion to putting U.S. boots on foreign soil, but he sure loves waging war from the air. In his first two years, Trump ordered 238 drone strikes — compared to the 186 strikes that Obama launched in his first two years. And he has made it more difficult to find out how many people have died in those strikes. Yet, as The Intercept reports, intrepid organizations continue to try to determine how often the administration conducts its aerial missions:

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that the U.S. carried out about 1,000 airstrikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen in 2016 — that is, strikes by both drones and manned aircraft. So far in 2019, they believe that the U.S. has conducted 5,425 airstrikes, five times as many. In the month of September, the U.S. upped the pace to almost 40 airstrikes per day.

Then there are the wars that Trump is threatening to unleash. He has continually upped the ante in the conflict with Iran, most recently attempting to trigger “snapback” sanctions that would doom the nuclear deal once and for all. Allies and adversaries alike rejected the U.S. gambit. Meanwhile, even as he adds yet another round of sanctions against Chinese firms, Trump is pushing the U.S. military to confront China in its own backyard by increasing U2 overflights and “freedom of navigation” exercises in the South China Sea.

Lest you think the “war on terror” has ended in other parts of the world, the Africa Command continues to conduct operations across the continent. As Nick Turse, Sam Mednick, and Amanda Sperber report in the Mail & Guardian:

In 2019, U.S. Special Operations forces were deployed in 22 African countries: Algeria, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Chad, Côte D’Ivoire, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Libya, Madagascar, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia, Tanzania, and Tunisia.

This accounts for a significant proportion of U.S. Special Operations forces’ global activity: more than 14 percent of U.S. commandos deployed overseas in 2019 were sent to Africa, the largest percentage of any region in the world except for the greater Middle East.

So, let’s put to rest (once again) the notion that Donald Trump is interested in restraining the military. In addition to pumping the Pentagon full of cash, he has ensured that it can conduct its actual war-fighting with as much flexibility and in as many places as possible.

Post-Trump Sacrifice

Donald Trump has devoted his life to hedonism and the accumulation of personal power. His dismissal of military service is actually the least of his sins. He doesn’t believe in sacrificing anything for others. He entered politics purely as a vehicle for his own self-aggrandizement.

But the alternative to Trump is not the glorification of military service. War is stupid. Devoting one’s life to extinguishing the lives of others is not the answer the world needs at this time of pandemic and climate catastrophe.

Coming out of the Trump era (I hope), it’s difficult to imagine Americans making a collective sacrifice for anything when even the mandatory wearing of masks is seen by some as too much of an abridgement of individual liberty.

Imagine asking gun-owning Americans to hand in their weapons, en masse, in order to make the country a safer place. Imagine asking wealthier Americans to tighten their belts in order to rebuild the economy along more equitable lines. Imagine asking Americans to give up their non-electric cars, their jobs in the dirty energy sector, or their frequent airline travel to help save the world from climate catastrophe.

At the same time, the pandemic has brought mutual aid to the foreground. In the absence of coordinated responses from states, people have banded together to help their friends, neighbors, and communities. This is all impressive, but it’s a stopgap, not a strategy. The problems facing the world can’t just be solved by individuals volunteering their time and energy. Indeed, the notion of voluntary service, like enlisting to fight in World War II, is antiquated. Ultimately it is as fragile a concept as the voluntary compliance expected of the world’s nations in the Paris climate accord.

Imagine if traffic were organized on the basis of mutual aid and volunteerism. There would be a few well-run intersections. The rest would be chaos and accidents. Traffic on the ground, in the water, and up in the air requires states to establish the rules of the road and punish non-compliance. That is what is necessary, post-Trump. U.S. society desperately needs fair, equitable rules of the road. And scofflaws have to be punished.

The next administration needs to re-establish the rule of law in America, cracking down on vigilante violence, police violence, and executive branch violence. I can’t think of a better place to begin than by putting the Scofflaw-in-Chief on trial for all of his law-breaking. A long prison sentence would be a fitting cap to Trump’s career.

But poetic justice dictates a different punishment.

After a lifetime of selfishness, Trump should be sentenced to a very long period of community service. Wouldn’t you like to see the former president picking up trash by the side of the road for the rest of his life?

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Smoke and Mirrors in a World of Pain

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The wild fires of Western United States are smoking out a huge portion of the country. And the Covid-19 pandemic, under Trump’s criminal abdication of responsibility, has turned our nation’s public health into a deadly hall of mirrors where state-level and federal-level policies reflect each other back and forth in an infinite regression of distorted images leading to stalemate.

Trump’s chaos cannot ever coalesce into an organized national response to beat the coronavirus because Trump breaks things apart.  Fragmentation and division are his default setting.

Even as he built his towers he broke honor and trust, defrauded banks, stiffed his workers, then took the money and ran all the way to the refuge of bankruptcy. He did this every time. He is doing this now with the United States of America.

As wild fires and pandemic boil in the cauldron of our racially- divided America, Trump remains on autopilot:  a robot programmed for the mechanical repetition of a binary repertoire:  cheat and attack.  Cheat and attack.

Every day with Trump in office chokes kindness and cooperation, and brings in hatred and insult, poverty and hunger, ignorance and fear.

Every day with Trump in office means another thousand deaths from Covid, and another thousand cuts into the spirit of America. Trump knows only theft and deception.

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive!” should be Trump’s epitaph, even if his sordid life of grift and bullying deserves no poetry.

Trump’s “American carnage” is White police killing unarmed Black men every week; it is night after night of national news filled with raging fires gorging equally on tinder and human lives. When smoke clears it unveils the silent and sullen desolation of scorched earth.

Trump’s American carnage is families ravaged by Covid and bereft; without a job and then evicted. It is parents betrayed by the system that took their taxes then tossed them overboard into the sea of poverty without a life jacket: no unemployment help, no housing, no means to feed their kids.  This is Trump’s America and kids can’t go back to school.

The selfishness of a tyrant is a destructive force that equally decimates the living and the dying.

And the dying are legion.

All across the land our ailing, flailing and failing United States is tearing itself apart from within and from without, in a perfect storm of calamity.

But it is in dark times when true leadership can emerge, because anyone can sound good in fair weather.  And it is in dark times that the best impulses in people can unite to change the course of history

Changing history means looking at reality past and present on the basis of fact and evidence. It means recognizing that the force of climate change now coming home to roost is real, and the wild fires are but a preview of what’s in store for the country and the world if we don’t change our ways immediately.

Changing history means being objective about Trump:  He is irremediable.  He showed us this yet again when we learned that back in February he confessed to Bob Woodward his accurate understanding of the new coronavirus’ lethality, contagiousness, and its ability to infect and kill children. And with that knowledge, an ice-cold Trump then went and lied to the American people, causing the deaths of countless thousands whose loss he could have prevented.

Trump’s corruption and cruelty snuff out the life and the opportunity of the much-deserving American working people. These are strong and vital men and women who keep working and remain unseen, mostly unappreciated, and kept at the bottom by non-living wages.

Almost ten percent of the firefighters in California are prison inmates receiving two dollars a day, plus one dollar for every hour they spend in the flames fighting active fires. This arrangement saves the state of California one hundred million dollars a year.  Other states pay them nothing at all.

In their world of forced labor, inmate firefighters can’t quit; they can’t complain; they have no rights; they do as they’re told or risk facing solitary confinement. Even asking a question could put you in solitary.  That means 23 hours a day you’re in a tiny concrete cell by yourself.  One hour a day the guards take you in chains to a chicken-wire cage where you can look at the outside,  pace around and maybe do some pushups.  And then back in you go.

Prison inmates are functional slaves because the 13th Amendment of the Constitution, which  officially ended slavery about a hundred and fifty years ago, allowed this exception for convicts. Part of their punishment was to remain slaves.  So prison labor for corporate profit is legal. It is also a sick and twisted industry making obscene profits to the tune of several billion dollars a year: The full-retail sales of goods from penal at no pay is lucrative indeed. There’s over a million productive slaves today in American jails, enriching the rich.  Some things never change.

And here’s the sticky part: Is this employment, or is this rehabilitation?  Is this done for profit or is this done for the inmates’ self-improvement?  These slippery categories make for slippery corporate debates that never get anywhere. Meanwhile, inmates keep churning out products and services, from office furniture to staffing call centers; from military equipment to 3-D modeling; etc.

Microsoft, Walmart, Whole Foods, and dozens of other blue-chip corporate American brands are in on it. Even Victoria Secret uses prisoners to cut off foreign manufacture labels, and replace them with  Made-in-USA tags.

Changing history means recognizing that mass incarceration in the United States is a racial and  fraudulent abomination. It means acknowledging that our neoliberal corporatist system of savage capitalism has deserted the people, the infrastructure, and the state’s obligations to provide all of its citizens with health care, education and housing.

The neoliberal state’s massive default on the common good has resulted in the government dysfunction that has made of Covid-infested America the world’s worst case of the pandemic.

We don’t have to suffer like this, or live in such dishonor  and confusion. We don’t have to be at the mercy of craven thieves who stole the powers of the public office we entrusted to them and  turned it against us.

They’re the pirates we voted to run our ship, and now they’ve killed the crew and can’t sail.  Unless we get rid of them we’ll all go down burning and protesting their smoke and mirrors.

The post Smoke and Mirrors in a World of Pain appeared first on CounterPunch.org.

Watching Religion Die

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Religion is fading more quickly in the United States than in any other nation, according to a forthcoming research book.

Religion’s Sudden Decline: What’s Causing It and What Comes Nextby University of Michigan scholar Ronald Inglehart, is to be released in January by Oxford University Press.  Writing in Foreign Affairs magazine – in an advance summary titled “Giving Up on God: The Global Decline of Religion” – Dr. Inglehart said:

“The most dramatic shift away from religion has taken place among the American public.  From 1981 to 2007, the United States ranked as one of the world’s more religious countries, with religiosity levels changing very little.  Since then, the United States has shown the largest move away from religion of any country for which we have data.”

A profound cultural transformation is in progress – mostly happening quietly out of sight, little-noticed in daily life.  Old supernatural beliefs are vanishing among intelligent, educated, science-minded western people, especially the young.  Religion is shriveling into the realm of myth and fantasy. Here are some indicators:

Almost two-thirds of teens who grow up in a church drop out of religion in their twenties, according to both Barna and LifeWay surveys.

The number of Americans who say their religion is “none” began to explode in the 1990s – rising to one-tenth of the population, then climbing relentlessly to one-fourth.  Among those under thirty, “nones” now are 40 percent.

American church membership fell 20 percent in the past two decades, according to Gallup research.  Southern Baptists dropped two million members since 2005.

Tall-steeple Protestant “mainline” denominations have suffered worst.  United Methodists fell from 11 million in 1969 to below 7 million today – while America’s population almost doubled.  Evangelical Lutherans dropped from 5.3 million in 1987 to 3.4 million now.  The Presbyterian Church USA had 3.2 million in 1982 but now is around 1.3 million. The Episcopal Church went from 3.4 million in the 1960s to 1.7 million now.

These highbrow mainline faiths with seminary-educated ministers once drew public respect.  But religion is shifting to lowbrow, emotional worship that is less admirable.  One-fourth of the world’s Christians now “speak in tongues,” researchers say.  Christianity is moving from advanced, prosperous, northern nations to the less-developed tropics. It’s losing its status as moral leadership.

Retreat of churchgoing in America may undercut the Republican Party, which depends on white evangelicals as the heart of its base.  In contrast, godless Americans tend to be compassionate progressives who have become the largest faith segment in the Democratic Party. The loss of religion may shift national political values to the left.

Personally, I hope the Secular Age continues snowballing until supernatural religion becomes only an embarrassing fringe. After all, belief in gods, devils, heavens, hells, miracles, visions, prophecies and the rest of dogma is extremely questionable.  It’s all a fantasy, a bunch of falsehoods, as far as any science-minded person can tell.  It lacks factual evidence.  The more religion declines, the more integrity is gained by society.

Come to think of it, maybe there’s a correlation:  White evangelicals swallow the falsehoods of faith – and they swallow the notorious falsehoods of President Trump.  Psychology researchers should study this gullibility pattern.

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No One is “Mentally Fit” to be President

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“Most voters in six 2020 swing states,” an early September CNBC/Change Research poll finds, “do not consider either President Donald Trump or Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden mentally fit to be president.”

In Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, 51% consider Trump mentally unfit for the office, while 52% feel the same way about Biden. Biden holds steady at 52% nationally, while Trump’s unfitness number ramps up to 55%.

Frankly, I find those numbers surprisingly low. No, not because both Trump and Biden are clearly narcissistic sociopaths. Nor because the two of them frequently and publicly behave and speak in ways consistent with dementia or brain damage.

Yes, those things are disturbing, but they’re not anomalous. Most if not all politicians are sociopaths, and at least one (Ronald Reagan) suffered from dementia while still in office and remains well-remembered by many.

The problem is the idea that any human being is even remotely “mentally fit” to the office of President of the United States as that office exists today.

George Washington presided over a federal government weaker than any of the 14 then-existing state governments, boasting a population smaller than that of Los Angeles alone today, lacking foreign territories or possessions, and for the most part eschewing foreign policy entanglements.

Donald Trump presides over a too-strong federal government and a sprawling global empire. He rules a population of more than 300 million at home — nearly 3 million of them employed by that government itself — and complicates the lives of billions around the planet with military interventions, economic sanctions, election meddling, etc.

Washington’s writ ran as far as he could plausibly (and personally) lead an army on horse.

Trump, like other recent presidents, can order a drone strike halfway around the world on a whim, and is never more than seconds away from a briefcase containing the codes for consuming the planet in nuclear fire.

Who can be trusted with that kind of power? Whose IQ and moral fiber are up to mastering it, using it wisely, resisting corrupt temptations, and exercising monumental self-restraint? No one, that’s who.

Even if the US Constitution’s original restraints on presidential power still held, and they haven’t for more than a century, the duties of the office are just too inherently complex for a single manager to do well, and  too lucrative and empowering to avoid attracting corrupt megalomaniacs like Trump and Biden and their hangers-on.

As a Libertarian who considers my party’s presidential nominee, Jo Jorgensen, a trustworthy human being who’s likely competent to any doable task, I’d like to believe that if elected she would (with the help of a hostile Congress) rein in the office, shrink its power to back within constitutional limits, and begin dismantling the post-World War Two imperial project.

But even a Libertarian president would merely be a stopgap solution to the problems the presidency itself represents. Until we rethink  not just who we allow power over us, but how much power we allow them, we’re increasingly exposing ourselves to both social and physical extinction.

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Repeal Section 230 to Fix Facebook

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Many people are worried that Facebook is playing the same role in the 2020 election that it did in the 2016 election, acting as a conduit for massive amounts of false and misleading information. They hope that Mark Zuckerberg will rise to the task and act to limit the spread of false and hateful stories.

This blind faith in Mark Zuckerberg is bizarre. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are there to make money. Fostering democracy is not really on their agenda, in the same way that helping the Kansas City Royals win the World Series is not on their agenda. If we want to be serious about limiting the sort of abuses that happened in 2016 we need to recognize that Facebook is about making money: full stop. And, we have to make sure that Facebook, or a Facebook like entity, is not making big bucks pushing nonsense stories related to the election.

The quickest way to fix the problem is the repeal of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. This provision exempts Facebook from being liable for material that is passed along through its network, either as ads or through individuals’ or groups’ Facebook pages.

This provision means that if someone buys ads on Facebook, or spreads a false story through a Facebook page, say that a prominent person is actually a serial killer, Facebook would face no liability. The person who spread the story could be sued for libel, but the victim of this libel would have no case against Facebook itself because of Section 230.

There would be logic to this exemption if Facebook were a common carrier like a telephone company. A telephone company charges people for use, either by the minute or the month, it doesn’t make a profit from the content of people’s calls. For this reason, it makes sense that AT&T can’t be held liable if people spread false and damaging stories over its lines.

We might feel differently about exempting AT&T if it was monitoring our calls and selling ads based on the things that we said or heard on these calls. However, this is exactly what Facebook does. They know everything we post and everything we look at. This is how Facebook makes its money, they can sell our eyeballs to advertisers since their system allows them to know in very great detail who we are and what we are interested in.

This is why exempting Facebook from facing the same sort of liability as its competitors in traditional media, like the New York Times or Time-Warner, makes zero sense. If these media outlets have to be responsible for the material they carry, why shouldn’t Facebook also be held responsible?

To be clear, the issue is not a direct act of libel by Facebook. If Facebook were to directly post a false and damaging charge against someone, it could be sued for libel in the same way as a traditional media outlet. The issue is with third party posters. If the New York Times runs an ad, a column, or a letter to the editor, it can be sued for libelous content.

In fact, the famous New York Times v. Sullivan case, which established that to win a libel suit public figures had to overcome a greater burden in establishing reckless disregard of the truth than an ordinary citizen, was over an ad placed in the New York Times, not the news or editorial content of the paper. In spite of this fact, there was no legal question that the New York Times would have been forced to pay damages, if it was determined that the ad actually met the standard of being libelous. It doesn’t make sense that Facebook should be subject to a different standard just because its medium is the Internet rather than a print publication.

Removing Section 230 protections would mean both that it could be sued for libelous content in a paid ad and that it could also be sued for libelous content transmitted through its system on individual or group Facebook pages. The first sort of liability is straightforward, just as traditional media outlets know they have to scrutinize ads for libelous material before accepting them, Facebook would have to go through the same process. This would make the process of buying ads on Facebook more time-consuming, and impose more costs on Facebook, but so what? If traditional media outlets have to spend resources to prevent the spread of libelous material through their ads, why shouldn’t Facebook have to incur the same costs?

The issue of individuals’ or groups’ postings is a bit more complicated, but not too much more. It would be unreasonable to expect that Facebook would scrutinize every item someone wants to post on its system for libelous content before it is actually posted. However, it could do this after the fact, when a complaint was brought.

The way this could work is that if a person, group, or corporation believes that they are being libeled by material posted on a Facebook page, they would bring their complaint to the company’s attention. Facebook could be allowed some reasonable period of time to assess the complaint. If it determined that the material is in fact libelous, then it would be obligated to remove it from the page(s) where it appeared.

Since Facebook’s system allows it to know everyone who viewed the libelous material, it would also be required to send out a notice to all these people indicating that the material was libelous and had been removed from the page where it had appeared. If Facebook failed to take these steps in a timely manner or determined that the material was not libelous, then it could be sued just like the New York Times was in Times v. Sullivan.

Mark Zuckerberg would undoubtedly be appalled at the idea that his company could potentially be held liable for all manner of nutty posts that appear on his system. He would have to spend large amounts of money paying people to evaluate the claims. Facebook would end up being a much less profitable, and likely a far smaller company. In that world, there would be little reason to care what Facebook’s policy was on political advertising since it would matter much less.

People obviously like Facebook, since they use it, but changing the law would not mean that this sort of social network type system would go out of existence. While Facebook may be hugely downsized, there could be other competitors that would step up as competitors.

We may also see systems set up that actually are common carriers, that would get the exemption laid out in Section 230. These would be systems that charged a flat fee, say $10 a year, to carry people’s pages, and allow them to interact with others on the network. (I have no idea if $10 would be a reasonable fee to cover costs and allow for a reasonable profit, but since this sort of system should require minimal labor inputs, hopefully $10 a year would be in the ballpark.)

These systems would not sell ads, nor would they acquire personal information on the people that used them. They would be similar to the on-line bulletin boards that many of us used in the early days of the Internet, although advances in technology would allow them to have much more sophisticated graphics and video material.

It is absurd that so many people are in the position of hoping and praying that Mark Zuckerberg will be responsible in how he deals with the 2020 election. We should never be in the position of having to rely on the goodwill of a billionaire to allow democracy to work. Repealing Section 230 will put an end to this problem.

This column first appeared on Dean Baker’s Beat the Press blog.

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Nature and the Meaning of Truth

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Carlos Fonseca’s newest novel Natural History is more than a story I wish I had written. It is a story I wish I had lived. A fantastic and even phantasmal tale of a quest, a work of art masquerading as a scam, and a contemplation on human lives, the novel is an incisive discussion about the nature and meaning of truth. It is also about the 1960s and their aftermath, the literal and figurative existence of fire, and love faded and otherwise. Reminiscent of Roberto Bolano’s novels in tone and approach, Natural History is a dream that is real and reality that is a dream.

The reader is introduced to the narrator through the narrator’s remembrance of an invitation to meet a reclusive fashion designer. The designer goes by the name Giovanna and lives in New York City. The narrator lives in New Brunswick, New Jersey. It was because of a paper he wrote for a scientific journal when he was a graduate researcher that he is invited to meet Giovanna. Even though the narrator has moved far past that time in his life both in terms of years and interests, he accepts the invitation. A limousine picks him up and drives him to a building in Brooklyn? There he meets the fashion designer and begins an ongoing conversation with her and with himself. Each time he receives the invitation he waits for the limousine which then takes him to an undisclosed location. Over time, he discovers that Giovanna is dying from an unnamed disease. After her death, he thinks about her considerably less until several manila envelopes are hand-delivered to him by her estate. This is where the book begins—with the delivery of these envelopes.

Fonseca’s narrator steers the reader into Giovanna’s past; the mystery of her childhood and parentage, the reason she was so alone. His curiosity leads the reader to a tale of an Italian adventurer who discovers photography and becomes a world famous fashion photographer and chronicler of the Sixties. His passion for photography is lit when he discovers that “a camera could make an anarchist smile.” His favorite subject is that anarchist who is also a fashion model descended from General Sherman, whose path of fire destroyed much of Georgia during the US Civil War. His arson is the genesis of many fires uncovered throughout the tale. The photographer and model fall in love, discard everything but that love and embark on a quest to a South American village of mystery where it is rumored a child leads his disciples to a new world. Giovanna is but a child herself and is taken on the journey. It ends in the photographer’s realization that the quest is just a scam to pull in western seekers; it involves child labor and drug trafficking. He takes his child to a doctor and leaves. The mother remains—still enamored with her quest despite the deceit all around her.

There’s a village that is mostly deserted because of the underground fires burning there. In a surreal scene, the narrator discovers the photographer in this village, befriends him and then leaves. The model disappears from the world’s view, another casualty of the Sixties and its excesses. The reader discovers along with the tale’s narrator that she is living in Puerto Rico, planting false stories in the press, and causing the stock market to dip and dive. Her home is a half-built hi-rise inhabited by squatters. Almost by accident, she is discovered there and arrested for financial crimes. In other words, her manipulation of the stock market is criminal according to those who run the market and make the laws. Her defense is that she was merely creating art exploring the nature of money. Her inspirations are numerous and include Subcomandante Marcos and the anarchist novelist B. Traven.

Bourgeois law often has very little tolerance for art, especially when it treads on certain totems considered sacred in capitalist society. Foremost among these hallowed concepts is the concept of money. After all, this is the basis of capitalist culture—the existence and accumulation of money. There may be other gods the bourgeoisie claim to worship, but the only one they will kill for is the one they call money. The novel’s description of the trial and the model/artist’s defense of her actions is a clever discourse on the value society places on something with little intrinsic meaning or value. Of course, she is convicted. Money really is sacred in a world where nothing else is.

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Are Christian Zionists the ‘Largest Pro-Israel Lobby’?

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The claim that US Christian Zionists are "the largest Israel lobby" is a canard now so commonplace that it appears within the first paragraph of Wikipedia’s page on the "Israel lobby in the United States." But are Christian Zionists really the largest Israel lobby? That all depends on your definition of "large," "lobby" and beliefs … Continue reading "Are Christian Zionists the ‘Largest Pro-Israel Lobby’?"

The post Are Christian Zionists the ‘Largest Pro-Israel Lobby’? appeared first on Antiwar.com Original.

Trump and Biden Should Tell Americans When They Plan To Go to War

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With the election just weeks away, both President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden claim to be the best person to protect Americans in a dangerous world. Yet neither one has explained when they would take the U.S. into war. Trump was recently asked whether he would let China "get away with" invading … Continue reading "Trump and Biden Should Tell Americans When They Plan To Go to War"

The post Trump and Biden Should Tell Americans When They Plan To Go to War appeared first on Antiwar.com Original.

Peace Plans That Have Nothing To Do With Peace

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On September 11, 2020, Bahrain announced that it had agreed to normalize relations with Israel, following a similar agreement by the United Arab Emirate (UAE). Both agreements are being packaged and sold as historic peace plans. They’re Not Peace Plans When President Carter brokered the peace plan between Israel and Egypt, that was a historic … Continue reading "Peace Plans That Have Nothing To Do With Peace"

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Here Are the Industries Doing Best on Diversity

Mother Jones Magazine -

The New York Times reports today that the diversity of corporate boards hasn’t made much progress over the past five years. Overall, non-white directors make up 12.5 percent of board seats today, up from 10 percent in 2015.

I can’t say I’m too surprised about this, but I was interested in the accompanying chart that breaks things down by industry sector:

What’s intriguing here is that the industry that gets the most public pressure is information tech  but they’re far from being the biggest problem. Five years ago they were among the top performers and today they are the top performer.

Compare that to the good ’ol boys in the oil bidness, who were at the bottom in 2015 and remain at the bottom five years later. But how often do they get Twitter mobs coming after them? Ditto for all the others, who could stand to see a few pickets or boycotts far more than the folks in Silicon Valley.

Perhaps the people pressing for diversity are mostly youngish technophiles, and tech companies are what they know best. There’s also the ironic fact that tech companies have all been pressured into reporting their progress on diversity goals, which makes it a lot easier to see where they’re falling down.

Still, how about a campaign targeting Exxon and Halliburton? These are the companies that really need a swift kick.

The Number of Uninsured Keeps Going Up Under Donald Trump

Mother Jones Magazine -

I see via the Washington Post that the Census Bureau has released its latest estimate of the uninsured population in the United States through 2019. Here it is:

The number of uninsured dropped steadily through 2016 but has risen slowly ever since Donald Trump took office. Let’s compare this to the CDC’s survey, which has always been my go-to source for the most accurate numbers. I haven’t checked in with them for a while, so here’s the latest, including the first quarter of 2020:

This tells roughly the same story. The data is a little bit noisier since the CDC reports quarterly, and it shows that the increase started around 2018. Either way, it appears that Trump’s effort to seed chaos in the Obamacare signup process had a modest success. The net increase in the uninsured comes to a little more than 1 percent, which represents about 3 million fewer people with health coverage. Nice work, Donald.

Who Is Best at Getting COVID-19 Unemployment Benefits? Wealthy White People, Of Course.

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I think I’ve written before about the Household Pulse survey from the Census Bureau, an “experimental data” product that was created and put into the field very quickly near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The idea was to collect frequent data that allowed us to see the impact of the pandemic in near real time. It started in late April and the latest survey finished up at the end of August.

A new question was added to the survey this time around, asking people if they’ve received unemployment benefits. This is, as far as I know, the first time we’ve gotten fairly firm figures on this, and overall it turns out that 50 million people applied for benefits and 38 million received them. This means that about 24 percent of the people who applied never received anything. Here’s how that broke down by income:

Most income groups had about the same success rate with one exception: the lowest income group, which is the one that needed it the most. Here’s the breakdown by race:

Again, not too much of a difference except for one group: Black applicants, who were turned down at a substantially higher rate than other groups.

There’s not enough information in this survey to tell us what caused these discrepancies. Maybe low-income applicants tended to misunderstand the criteria for benefits more often. Maybe a lot of qualified low-income applicants didn’t apply at all, which made the denial number artificially bigger. Or maybe they didn’t get the help they needed to fill out all the forms correctly. More research, please.

Bipartisan House Group Tries to Revive Pandemic Aid Negotiations With Longshot Bill

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A bipartisan coalition of 50 House representatives unveiled a new coronavirus relief proposal on Tuesday, in hopes of restarting pandemic relief negotiations and passing an aid package in the weeks ahead of the November election. The plan splits the difference between the meager Senate GOP bill and the more expansive House Democratic one, but it’s unlikely to please either side or stand a real chance of passage.

“What brings us together—25 Democrats and 25 Republicans—is our shared goal of finding a pragmatic solution—a bipartisan path forward—to help get negotiators to return to the table,” tweeted Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) on Tuesday. 

The proposal, spearheaded by Gottheimer and Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), follows weeks of deadlock between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate about how much relief to give to the American people, and in what form. Last Thursday, Senate Republicans forged ahead with a vote on a slimmed-down aid bill but came up short of the 60 Senate votes needed for passage. The legislation, which had a price tag of about $650 billion, included a $300-per-week boost to unemployment insurance but did not include a second round of $1,200 stimulus checks, nutrition assistance, financial help for renters, or aid to state and local governments whose budgets have been battered by economic shutdowns. Democrats had previously pushed for a $2.2 trillion aid package, after scaling back a $3 trillion bill the House passed in May, which included these elements and a continuation of the $600 weekly unemployment boost that expired at the end of July. Every Democrat—and one Republican—voted against the “skinny” relief bill last week, raising concerns that the two parties would not come to an agreement ahead of November. 

Tuesday’s proposal from the Problem Solvers Caucus attempts a compromise between these two visions. Among other things, it proposes $500 billion in aid to state and local governments and a $450-per-week unemployment boost for eight weeks, followed by up to $600 per week through January 2021. The plan also proposes another round of $1,200 stimulus checks, as well as $25 billion in rental assistance and an additional $10 billion for food stamps through next July. 

As it stands, the Problem Solvers’ package would cost about $1.5 trillion. But the proposal would only stay within the bounds of that Goldilocks price tag if the pandemic doesn’t intensify, because it includes a number of automatic triggers for additional aid if the pandemic worsens this winter and spring that could bring the total cost closer to $2 trillion—far more than most Republicans are willing to spend.

The proposal’s prospects could also be hurt by both parties’ political incentives to maintain the stalemate. Republicans have blamed the ongoing lack of aid on Democrats’ unwillingness to compromise. Democrats, on the other hand, have sought to put responsibility on the GOP, arguing that the scale of current need is enormous enough that settling for a far reduced aid package is untenable. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called last week’s GOP proposal “a missed opportunity to do what is right for the American people.” For the Problem Solvers Caucus—many of whose members are up for reelection this November in tight races—their new compromise proposal also presents an opportunity to show voters in their home districts that they, too, tried to find a solution, even if it goes nowhere.

The Number of People Without Health Insurance Has Gone Up Under Trump

Mother Jones Magazine -

The number of uninsured Americans rose by one million in 2019, according to a Census Bureau report released Tuesday, reversing a trend of lowering uninsured rates ushered in by the Affordable Care Act.

The number of people without insurance in the United States rose from 28.6 million, or 8.9 percent of the population, in 2018 to 29.6 million, or 9.2 percent of people, in 2019, according to the report.

The uninsured rate among the non-elderly population started falling in 2010 after the Affordable Care Act was enacted, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, but it started to tick back up in 2016. The increased uninsurance rates correlate with President Trump’s promotion of short-term “junk insurance” plans and the repeal of the individual mandate, which required people to pay a penalty if they weren’t insured.

The nicks and cuts inflicted on the ACA have likely to led to an increase in the number of people uninsured. These include massive cutbacks in outreach, leeway given to states to restrict their Medicaid programs, and repeal of the individual mandate penalty.

— Larry Levitt (@larry_levitt) September 15, 2020

The report also contains some disappointing numbers about coverage of children:

The ACS uptick in uninsured is concentrated among the nonelderly, both in the 19-64 group and for children.

Sad news about kids’ coverage: “In 2019, there were about 320,000 more uninsured children than there were in 2018.” pic.twitter.com/wcPoMIJalN

— Emily Gee (@EmilyG_DC) September 15, 2020

The data in the report was gathered before the pandemic caused record joblessness, so the number of people without insurance in 2020 is likely much higher. Meanwhile, the fate of the ACA hangs in the balance as a lawsuit that could repeal the entirety of the legislation awaits deliberation by the Supreme Court.

The Trump Administration Orders an Al Jazeera Affiliate to Register as a Foreign Agent

Mother Jones Magazine -

The US Justice Department on Monday declared that the Al Jazeera Media Network—the international news organization based in Doha—”is an agent of the Government of Qatar.” The DOJ has ordered the network’s US-based social media division, AJ+, to register as a foreign agent, a step the news outlet says will hobble its journalism.

AJ+ acts “at the direction and control” of Qatar’s rulers, Jay Bratt, chief of the DOJ’s counterintelligence and export control section, wrote in a September 14 letter obtained by Mother Jones. “Despite assertions of editorial independence and freedom of expression, Al Jazeera Media Network and its affiliates are controlled and funded by the Government of Qatar,” Bratt stated.

“Hobbling Al Jazeera was one of the top conditions of the UAE’s blockade against Qatar and the Justice Department just gave the UAE what it wanted.”

The designation follows a years-long push by lobbyists hired by the autocratic government of the United Arab Emirates, which has long resented the critical coverage it receives from Al Jazeera. That effort has been led by Akin Gump, a large law firm and a registered foreign agent for the UAE. Its employees, including former House Foreign Relations Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, amped up their work related to Al Jazeera this year, issuing a lengthy report in July and contacting scores of lawmakers and legislative aides, according to Akin Gump’s federal filings.

Since 2018, Republican members of Congress have sent three letters asking the DOJ force Al Jazeera to register under the  Foreign Agents Registration Act, better known as FARA. The network “engages in political activities and disseminates information in the United States that advance the interests of Qatar,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) wrote in an August 7 letter to Attorney General Bill Barr. Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) also signed on.

In June 2017, the UAE, along with Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern states, imposed a blockade on Qatar. They also reportedly considered invading Qatar, until senior US officials—including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis—dissuaded them. The blockade, which remains in place, harmed the small state’s economy and restricted its citizens’ travel. The UAE has said it will only lift the blockade if Qatar agrees, among other things, to shut down Al Jazeera.

“The UAE dislikes Al Jazeera partly for the narrative that the network provides across the Arab and Islamic world that exposes audiences to a point of view that is very different from the messaging the Emiratis have been trying to impose on the region since the Arab Spring,” said Kristian Ulrichsen, a Middle Eastern politics scholar at the Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “In the eyes of Qatar’s critics, Al Jazeera has also become so synonymous with Qatar in the regional and international mindset that any setback to Al Jazeera cannot but be perceived as a blow to Qatar.”

Akin Gump and other lobbyists have reported receiving more than $56 million in fees from the UAE since 2017, when the blockade began, according to records filed with the DOJ. Akin Gump’s most recent disclosure of its lobbying contacts cites extensive outreach to lawmakers regarding the “accuracy and transparency of Qatar government-owned media” and the “influence on US politics by Mideast regional media outlets and other groups.”

A spokesperson for Akin Gump did not respond substantively to questions about the firm’s work. The offices of Zeldin, Rubio, Cotton, Cruz, and Cheney did not respond to inquiries. 

In a statement Tuesday, a spokesperson for Al Jazeera argued that the DOJ had essentially helped the UAE accomplish its goal of maiming the news outlet. He noted that the network’s attorneys have corresponded with the DOJ about this matter since June 2018 and that Al Jazeera received Bratt’s FARA letter “the day before” the UAE signed a diplomatic deal with Israel that was brokered by the Trump administration. The spokesperson suggested the two developments might be linked, but he didn’t offer evidence proving that.

“Hobbling Al Jazeera was one of the top conditions of the UAE’s blockade against Qatar and the Justice Department just gave the UAE what it wanted,” the spokesperson said. “We are deeply disappointed by the Department’s decision, which runs counter to the extensive factual record we provided demonstrating that FARA registration is not applicable to AJ+. The legal structure, editorial structure, editorial policies, budgeting process and content of AJ+ clearly demonstrate its independence. We are reviewing the determination and considering our options.”

Bratt’s involvement is unusual. Comparable letters instructing other news organizations to register under FARA were sent by the head of the DOJ’s FARA unit, not by national security officials such as Bratt. The Justice Department did not respond to questions.

Bratt’s letter focuses on Al Jazeera’s funding and structure, asserting that the Qatari government “could and may withdraw or limit funding at any time” and stating that the Emir of Qatar controls the network by appointing its board. Al Jazeera says that the same criteria would dictate that other state-funded news organizations, such as the BBC and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, would have to register under FARA. Those outlets are not currently required to register, but the DOJ has required several others—including Russia’s RT and Sputnik, Turkish public broadcaster TRT, and five Chinese media outlets—to do so.

Bratt’s letter also argues that AJ+ publishes articles that invite its audience to question “what conduct constitutes terrorism; demonstrate a disdain for the term ‘Islamist Terror;’ adopt a positive view of Iran; show support for the Palestinian cause and question US support for Israel; reflect a critical position on the war in Yemen [where the UAE and Saudi Arabia have bombed forces backed by Iran to assist their own proxies on the ground]; and [promote] a Qatari-sympathetic view of the Saudi Arabian-led embargo against Qatar.”

Al Jazeera disputes this characterization and points to a study it commissioned that found that 93 percent of AJ+ content is on issues other than those DOJ asked the outlet about.

FARA, a 1938 law intended to force anyone working to advance the interests of foreign states to publicly disclose their activity, is not supposed to be used to punish outlets for political perspectives reflected in their reporting. The DOJ letter says that Al Jazeera’s content shows it is promoting the views of the Qatari government. But the litany of apparent political sins also echoes the talking points of the UAE and its lobbyists, who argue that the network’s perspective is too critical of US allies and too friendly to America’s foes.

“Foreign agents of the UAE are getting paid tens of millions of dollars to accomplish the objectives of the blockade through other means, including improperly weaponizing US laws such as FARA,” the Al Jazeera spokesperson said.

Trump’s Understanding of California Wildfires Is Way Off—Even for Him

Mother Jones Magazine -

As wildfires blazed across the American West, causing evacuations as far east as Idaho and spewing smoke over the Atlantic coast, President Trump flew to California on Monday to meet with Gov. Gavin Newsom and show support for firefighting efforts. It wasn’t long before climate change denialism surfaced. During a press conference with state officials, California Natural Resources Agency head Wade Crowfoot raised the importance of climate science in wildfire prevention strategy.

Trump was having none of it. “I don’t think science knows,” whether climate change is behind the severe flames seen this wildfire season, he said. Currently, six of the largest 20 fires in state history are burning across California. In Oregon, 40,000 people have had to evacuate from fires there.

Experts who study climate change and wildfires say science, actually, does know, and the spike in wildfire prevalence is directly linked to global climate change. Earlier this week, Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at the Oakland-based think tank Breakthrough Institute, told the LA Times, “What we’ve been seeing in California are some of the clearest events where we can say this is climate change—that climate change has clearly made this worse.” During an interview with Mother Jones at the beginning of this year, when wildfires were devastating Australia, climatologist Michael Mann said there has been no historical for wildfires of this frequency and destruction. “[T]hese processes have been in operation for decades and centuries and millennia,” he said. “And yet we have never witnessed the sorts of catastrophic impacts that we’re seeing right now.”

“What we’ve been seeing in California are some of the clearest events where we can say this is climate change—that climate change has clearly made this worse.”

This message has not reached the president. Almost immediately after stepping out of his plane onto the tarmac in Sacramento, where smoke has lowered air quality, Trump revived a debunked theory on wildfires: Climate change isn’t to blame for severe wildfires, but forest mismanagement is—specifically unraked leaves. “When trees fall down after a short period of time, they become very dry—really like a matchstick,” he said, according to the New York Times. “And they can explode. Also leaves. When you have dried leaves on the ground, it’s just fuel for the fires.” The president also noted that an unnamed European leader had told him that European counties “have trees that are far more explosive—explosive in terms of fire” than in California, but that diligent forest management precludes fires.

Experts who point to climate change as a leading cause of recent, devastating wildfire seasons acknowledge that unburnt ground brush can fuel the flames, but that it’s just one piece of a complex problem.

President Trump’s reluctance to accept climate change as a reality has a long history. The Trump administration has overseen massive rollbacks of environmental regulations and deep funding cuts for federal programs like the Environmental Protection Agency, while denying the severity of climate change and supporting the fossil fuel industry.

But his theory on wildfires is uniquely strange. It’s unclear which European leader Trump was referring to, but his understanding of wildfires appears to come from a misunderstood conversation with the Finnish president Sauli Niinistö in 2018 on the subject. After they met in Paris Trump seemed to believe that Finland, “a forest nation,” has avoided wildfires by vigorously raking its forest floors of leaves and brush. “[T]hey spend a lot of time on raking and cleaning and doing things, and they don’t have any problem,” he said at the time. Niinistö seemed to remember the conversation differently. In an interview with a Finnish newspaper, Niinistö said he told Trump that Finland’s wildfire mitigation program relies on “a good surveillance system and network.”

What’s more, Finland isn’t a wildfire free nation. Just this summer, Finland faced unusually large burns. In fact, in 2018, the year Trump’s misconception around wildfires apparently began, almost a dozen large wildfires burned north of the Arctic Circle above Europe. During the string of summer weeks that the wildfires burned, a series of daily temperature records were set worldwide.

In Sacramento, the president stuck to his guns, rejecting any suggestions that the fire’s catalyst could be weather-related. “It’ll start getting cooler,” he insisted. But, as Newsom noted, even if Trump’s theory is true, California only oversees three percent of its own land. Almost 60 percent of the land, and most of the raking, is the responsibility of the federal government.

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