Tag Archives: usa

There shall be no next war

TW: nuclear war, colonialism

“[T]here shall be no next war” is what President Truman remarked 71 years ago to the day. He announced that publicly after having approved a second nuclear strike against Japan. He was motivated by leaked Japanese intelligence suggesting they were unlikely to agree to unconditional surrender in the nightmarish aftermath of Hiroshima on August 6th.

History makes a mockery of that sentiment, of course, as Truman used that speech to lay the groundwork for a US military presence around the world that has remained to this day. That is a presence that exacerbated Cold War tensions and ignited several proxy conflicts. It is a presence that today has morphed into the bulwark against terrorism and other inheritors of the not-so-long-lived forever war against communism. They are among the bases from which drones today take off and at which they land, having done their deadly work in unmanned skies.

In many ways, the US has seen nothing but war after Truman’s pronouncement.

800px-Nagasaki_1945_-_Before_and_after_(adjusted)(Nagasaki, Japan – before and after nuclear bombing.)

To attribute this militarization of the US to that single decision by Truman – to use nuclear weapons to force a total, complete, and unconditional surrender by Japan – is to inflate it unrealistically. But, still, it seems a notable stop along our way into the modern situation. This was the beginning of the presidency as a position that has a finger eternally perched on top of a button labeled “end the world.”

It was already pushed once with no adequate justification – 71 years ago today. Hiroshima, of course, only has paper thin excuses, of ignorance, of the heat of battle, of the seeping paranoia of a rising Soviet Union. But what happened 71 years ago today, in Nagasaki, followed the tearing down of all of those weak claims. The president by that time had the information key to understanding the pointless inhumanity of nuclear strikes, yet strike he did.

The risk the world faces in November is not our arsenal falling into unwise hands, but it returning to them. We have been here before, and tens of thousands of civilians died in one of the worst ways imaginable.

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Good news

Trigger warning: indefinite detention, electoral disenfranchisement, racism

The past few weeks have seemed like a bit of a parade of bad news – with Donald Trump’s ascendancy in the Republican primary among other worrisome events. Recently, however, there’s been a few small but significant changes that can give us hope.

Think of the children

After the number of unaccompanied children crossing into the US peaked in 2014, the public’s attention to the issue has steady declined. Even as fewer children have ended up in the overcrowded and dangerous detention facilities scattered across the southwest US, those already here have largely faced a toxic mixture of judicial neglect and increasingly unrealistic orders for them to leave the country.

A new report from Generation Progress touches on the issues that I and others noticed were looming problems just as the crisis began – that very few of these cases have assigned lawyers or even translators. Concerned Senators and Representatives have stepped in with new federal legislation requiring more extensive availability to those services as well as more thorough accountability for the agencies overseeing these detention facilities and court proceedings. Unfortunately, as long as the Senate and House are Republican-controlled, these reforms are unlikely to become law.

The day’s wages

In New York and California a similar tentative step forward, in this case on the minimum wage, has unfolded. In both progressive-leaning states with large labor pools, local activism was sufficient to push for incrementally raising the wage floor. In New York, the main determinant will be regional, with New York City proper seeing its wages move up the most quickly, followed by outlying parts of the urban center, and lastly other parts of the state. To a certain extent, that reflects cost of living, although across the state that will catapult minimum wage workers from $9 an hour into a more manageable economy. In California, the changes will be tailored more to the type of business, with smaller companies given slightly more time to adapt.

(Changes have so far been concentrated in states with minimum wages higher than the federal minimum wage, however. Image modified from here.)

Many commentators have viewed this as a reflection of the populist politics fueling Senator Sanders’ presidential run, but the piecemeal approach in both California and New York is more reflective of the gradual and contextual increases advocated by Secretary Clinton. Far from outside of these policy victories, Clinton took part in the celebratory rally put on by New York Governor Cuomo in her adoptive state.

Who counts the voters

Whether at the state level or federally, these different movements aimed at improving the quality of life have relied on elected leadership. In short, they have needed at least the possibility of voters caring about these issues to motivate political action. The capacity for that to happen as evenly as possible with the population of a district was upheld 8-0 by the Supreme Court on Monday in Evenwel v. Abbott.

This case was launched by the Project for Fair Representation, which previously played a role in an unsuccessful challenge to affirmative action and a fruitful dismantling of the electoral pre-clearance system. The racial dimensions of their work are deliberate and striking, and Evenwel was no exception. The Cato Institute (known for its own relationship with racist, colonialist, and antisemitic ideologies) published a rather flowery amicus curiae on behalf of the plaintiffs in Evenwel where they argued-

Once again this Court finds itself at the intersection of the VRA and the Fourteenth Amendment. The parties here are caught in the inevitable trap of (1) maintaining majority-minority districts under complex, overlapping standards and (2) administering electoral schemes that do little to advance racial equality while doing much to violate voter equality— the idea that each eligible voter’s vote should count equally. In the background of this conflict, there lurks a cacophony of precedent and oft-conflicting court administered standards that have arisen from Section 2 cases. Basic constitutional guarantees of equal protection inherent in the Fourteenth Amendment— such as OPOV—are getting lost in this thicket.

Avoiding racial discrimination under these circumstances is particularly difficult in jurisdictions where “total population” and “citizens of voting age population” (CVAP)—standard metrics for evaluating whether a district violates OPOV—diverge due to varied concentration of non-citizens. As with the tensions amicus Cato has described before, jurisdictions navigating between the VRA’s Scylla and the Constitution’s Charybdis are bound to wreck individual rights—here, voter equality—on judicial shoals.

The reality that redefining electoral districts across the country by either eligible or registered voters would cast aside representation for people ineligible to vote or unregistered (who are largely people of color) is only indirectly considered. It’s framed as an unfortunate cost needed to make each vote cast equally contested by candidates – a pipe dream as turnout can easily inflate a given voter’s power or swamp their decision in a sea of others’. These organizations, all too recently comfortable with the legal realities of Apartheid, were pushing for a milder version of the same multi-tiered political system, where there are people represented and people beneath consideration.

Perhaps most tellingly, the case here sought a structural response to the reality that millions of people are disenfranchised – while being incarcerated (and depending on the state, afterwards as well), for being undocumented or otherwise non-citizens, or from the inaccessibility of the voter registration system. Instead of asking why those people are beyond the pale of electoral participation and what could be changed about that, it treated their exclusion as an accepted given to be worked around.

Luckily the Supreme Court saw things differently, and as the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund described it:

Upwards of 75 million children—13 million of whom are Black—not yet eligible to vote would have been counted out of the redistricting process had appellants prevailed. Indeed, appellants’ case threatened to take America’s redistricting process back to nefarious periods in our democracy similar to when Black people were counted as 3/5ths of a person for redistricting purposes and expressly excluded from the body politic.

The Court’s decision today vindicates the “one person, one vote” standard, which rightly takes into account Census-derived total population counts when apportioning voting districts. This standard has been applied universally for over 50 years by all 50 states and the thousands of localities within them. Moreover, this clear understanding of “one person, one vote” is already regarded as America’s “de facto national policy” in legislative redistricting, enjoying overwhelming, bipartisan support among state and local governments. Today’s decision reaffirms the guiding logic of this inclusive standard, which fosters access to electoral representation and constituent services for all people, regardless of race, sex, citizenship, economic status, or other characteristics, or whether a person chooses to or is able to vote.

That vision of participatory democracy is the engine that’s helping to drive these modest steps towards a fairer political and economic system. This newly post-Scalia Supreme Court has made clear that they favor that understanding of how this country could organize itself.

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Economics helped decide the Michigan primaries, maybe more

The Progressive Caucus in the US Congress released their proposal for how the US should spend its money in 2017 earlier this month, and it’s garnered about as much attention as it typically does – which is to say virtually none. An executive summary is available here, which has a link to their full budget at the bottom.

Looking over it, it’s not exactly surprising to see it flounder in the recent news cycles. It’s exactly the sort of deliberate, careful accounting of resources and responsibilities that certain political elements have drummed out of politics. We can all argue about whether it offers the right solutions to the problems in this country, but it’s asking at least some of the right questions when many at that level of government won’t.

On the same day as that budget’s publication, the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) released a report on the effect of trade relations on employment within the US. It’s caught little more attention than the budget, unfortunately. Breaking it down by congressional district, the EPI only found two such districts where trade deficits with fellow signatories of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) had a net positive impact on local employment. In stark contrast, a band across the middle of the country, stretching from the western Rust Belt down into the Deep South, is estimated to have lost staggering numbers of jobs to this international effect.

(An interactive version of this map can be found here.)

As the presidential primaries continue, both of the economic concerns these and other issues have stoked threaten to take center stage in the general election. Exit polling in Michigan showed majorities of voters in both major party primaries agree with the EPI assessment that international trade reduces the number of jobs in the US. These aren’t just meaningless statistics, but lived realities that help people decided whether and how to vote.

What’s more, the exit polling showed Donald Trump taking a large portion of the Republican primary voters who felt that way and an even larger majority in the Democratic primary supporting Bernie Sanders.The former has in many ways become a vehicle for political and economic fervor, as racist violence has routinely erupted at his events, including even ones held since the Michigan primary on Tuesday. The latter is already bringing his explicitly anti-TPP message to Ohio and Illinois. In an election cycle previously dominated by less economically-driven policy debates, economics has suddenly jumped back into center stage.

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Socialism here, socialism there

In the Democratic Presidential Primary Debate held last Sunday, sitting Senator Bernie Sanders stole the show with two intriguing admissions that spoke volumes about his politics and his electoral appeal. In the coverage of the debate that I have looked over, I was surprised to see that no one seems to have highlighted those two rather illuminating moments of the night.

In the (largely unexpected) competition for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders’ momentum has been shocking for many. Hillary Clinton, a national figure who entered the race without any apparent challenger, has lost ground to him as he surged from locally celebrated Senator to contender vying for Iowa, New Hampshire, and possibly the nomination. Much of that support has come from voters, particularly younger ones, interested in challenging the existing political process and pushing policy proposals from as many candidates as possible towards more economic redistribution and equality.

Sanders’ answer to a question about climate change was one of the few he delivered on Sunday that didn’t stay within the confines of economics or immediately pivot to them, but it still detailed why he’s been so attractive to that type of voter. Here’s the exchange that caught my ears:

HOLT: “Senator Sanders, Americans love their SUVs, which spiked in sales last year as gas prices plummeted. How do you convince Americans that the problem of climate change is so urgent that they need to change their behavior?”

SANDERS: “I think we already are. Younger generation understands it instinctively. I was home in Burlington, Vermont, on Christmas Eve, the temperature was 65 degrees. People in Vermont know what’s going on. People who did ice fishing, where their ice is no longer there on the lake understand what’s going on.”

His answer from there moved into his well-worn tracks of denouncing the broken political process and the economic pressures that keep it dysfunctional. Still, before moving into that he articulated a certainty that people already realize these problems exist.

I think this speaks to his broader political philosophy, which he and others sometimes misname as socialism. It falls short of a systemic transformation of the means of production into communal resources (you know… the definition of socialism), but it shares with that a belief in a common denominator of sensibleness. That’s the raw material needed to inspire people to believe that something actually like socialism is possible, so it’s not wildly unrelated to be fair.

Before anyone gets too excited about what Sanders’ politics might make tangible though, there’s the other revealing thing he said when discussing foreign policy in the Middle East:

“And one point I want to make here that is not made very often, you have incredibly wealthy countries in that region, countries like Saudi Arabia, countries like Qatar. Qatar happens to be the largest — wealthiest country per capita in the world. They have got to start putting in some skin in the game [of counter-terrorism] and not just ask the United States to do it.”

The best statistics aren’t with Bernie Sanders on pretty much any part of this economic picture of Qatar and Saudi Arabia or even more generally the Persian Gulf region. In a very literal, numerical sense, these aren’t countries wealthier than the US asking for us to fight their battles for them.

The most reliable cross-country data on per capita wealth date back more than a decade and a half, and they paint a wildly different picture, which is difficult to dismiss as having radically reversed. What they show is that Qatar’s per capita net worth is about ninety percent of the US’s based on exchange rates and a little over seventy percent based when factoring in local purchasing power differences.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, and Bahrain – all with comparable economies to Qatar – fair similarly in comparison to the US. Saudi Arabia comes out markedly worse, coming out to barely over ten percent of the US’s per capita net worth based on exchange rates, which only grows to just over fifteen percent when accounting for greater Saudi purchasing power.

It’s easy for these discussions to become very abstract discussions of sales and productivity and various percents, removed from the lived realities of international economic inequality. In terms of infant mortality within the region, only Qatar and the UAE have both reduced their rates to equal that of the US, but that’s a development that’s happened only in the past five years. Bahrain and Kuwait still have infant mortality rates that lag several decades behind the gradually decreasing US rate, while Saudi Arabia still has a rate more than double that of the US’s current one.

It’s a similar story for the infants who survived too, with only Qatar’s life expectancy at birth rivaling the US’s in the past couple of decades. Still, the average person born in the US has gained about a year of anticipated life every five years, to the average Qatari’s year gained every decade. In other words, while the gap of how many children live is closing, the gap in terms of how long they live for is widening.

To exhaust the ways of interpreting Sanders’ comments, a country could have significantly lower standards of living than another in general, but have resources concentrated in a minority of the population that’s effectively rather wealthy. That wouldn’t fit what he’s describing, in terms of there being more resources for a typical Qatari than someone in the US, but it at least would explain why someone might draw the wrong conclusions he’s reached.

That said, while there are certainly some very wealthy people from those countries, this isn’t the case, as far as the statistics suggest. Information about the distribution of wealth within many Gulf countries is extremely difficult to find, but what little is internationally known shows them to have a Gini Coefficient equivalent to the US’s or very modestly lower. That means that while there are extremely wealthy elites within these countries that may be wealthier than the average US resident, the same is true and probably more statistically common within the US. The Qatar that Sanders described as overshadowing the US in economic power doesn’t even exist as a part of the country, let alone the whole.

qatar migrant workersMigrant workers in Qatar, from here.

There’s also the unsupported assertion that these (not actually) wealthy countries are asking us to get involved in anti-Daesh organizing, specifically with a ground occupation of parts of Syria and Iraq. Sanders’ approach towards the region misrepresents not just the existing relationship between these countries and our own, but misinterprets what leaders and average people in those countries want to have as a relationship with us.

In a nutshell, the unequal distribution of resources and as a result power which Sanders has centered his politics around criticizing doesn’t just exist within the United States but in some sense between us and many other parts of the world. His faith in people’s knowledge and intentions extends greatly, but it gets much patchier outside of US borders. There’s more nationalism in his politics than an actual socialist’s would have. It may make room for movement towards something like socialism domestically, but his take on international issues suggests that the revolution Sanders mentions is designed not to rewrite the global economic dominance of the United States.

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The Afghanistan made by the US

In the wake of a recent attack on US service members in Afghanistan, the long ignored issue has come to the fore in national discussions. For the many in mainstream media who particularly highlight veterans’ and military issues, like Rachel Maddow, this was an opportunity to ask if we’re still an occupying presence in Afghanistan (technically, no; effectively, maybe).

Even in reporting focused beyond the experiences of US military, there’s a looming expectation. The attacks on not only the few US service members remaining in the country but also on religious and ethnic targets, namely the Hazara minority, are presented as the alternative to a larger US military presence. The implication is that they’re on the ends of a fulcrum, with US presence dampening the terrorism and related violence, which proliferates in our absence.

Another, more seldom presented, way of understanding the situation is that perhaps the recent attacks – against Hazara and US military – are themselves the result of the way that US became involved in the country. Far from opposites, they essentially encourage each other.

Long before the US’s presence there under the auspices of the War on Terror, the funding of counter-Soviet jihadists armed radical Sunni groups in Afghanistan to the teeth. Long hostile to Hazara and other ethnic groups who are predominantly Shia, this already threatened to tip the already militarized balance of ethnic power within the country against the Hazara and others. The Soviet invasion was, of course, a colonial nightmare, like most of the Soviet escapades through central Asia. This one, however, has reached even more nightmarish heights because of how another power, the US, perpetuated the internal conflicts.

Even as the Cold War melted away and new global struggles captured the US’s interest, Afghanistan remained a site of proxy war. A number of ethnic groups, including the Hazara to some extent, were the backbone of the Northern Alliance, the primary opponents to Taliban rule – the ultimate state-like incarnation of those same radical Sunni circles. Supported by many neighbors, primarily those further north and with similar ethnic compositions, this and other groups fighting against the Sunni supremacist and largely Pashtun-run Taliban were effectively off the US’s radar until Sunni supremacists hit here. Suddenly, those same largely Pashtun Sunni supremacists transformed from militants upsetting another empire to militants striking within the heart of ours.

With the overwhelmingly US-driven NATO presence then arriving in Afghanistan, you might expect the US’s alignments to change. Not so, as Pashtun politicians rode the wave of US-backed democratization into a new form of power. Even outside of positions explained by the formidable Pashtun voting bloc, they tended to rise to the top. Hamid Karzai, later the president of Afghanistan, rose to power first as an appointed interim leader at least to some extent condoned by the US military occupation.

The most notable exception to that trend was Mohammed Fahim – a prominent leader within the Northern Alliance and a non-Pashtun. His exceptional status is dampened somewhat when it’s pointed out that he was Tajik, not Hazara, and like many Tajiks, he was a Sunni Muslim, and at that one who studied Sunni Islamic law. What’s more, his role within the nominally moderate Karzai administration was to find as much common ground as possible with radical Sunnis and draw them back into non-violent politics. He died of natural causes just before the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014.

Beyond the political world as well, the part Pashtun Khaled Hosseini captured the US’s interest with The Kite Runner. While not fully Pashtun and quite vocally in favor of expanding the opportunities for Hazara and other ethnic minorities, his non-Pashtun ancestry is apparently Tajik, like Fahim. In his most prominent of several well-received stories, he painted a sympathetic picture of the Hazara as a uniquely constrained minority within Afghanistan, even as he at once embodied the greater attention paid by the US to the other groups within and from the country.

Perhaps most iconically however, there’s Sharbat Gula, better known the world over as simply “the Afghan girl”:

Sharbat_GulaSteve McCurry’s “The Afghan Girl” taken in December 1984.

She is also Pashtun, and like a large number of Pashtun people in the part of the world, even though not a Taliban supporter, she was sympathetic to their causes and was essentially open to their return. As she put it, quite accurately for many Sunni Pashtuns in all likelihood, under the Taliban “there was peace and order”.

That Pashtun-designed peace and order disintegrated with the US shifting from Cold War proxy support, to 1990s disinterest, to War on Terror occupation. The many modern militant groups currently threatening Hazara and US military members alike, are all committed to recreating some small slice of that in an era in which US drones can and regularly do coldly strike their villages along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

It’s a rather indirect path from US intervention to a toxified Afghanistan, in which the political choices are often between Pashtun-dominated/Sunni supremacist rule and an anemic centrist government that regularly negotiates with that precise political bloc. That said, there are recurrent patterns here – about whom the US chooses to arm, to fund, to advance, and otherwise to support. Our relationship with the many different Pashtun communities in the world is one riddled with inconsistency, but that stands in sharp contrast to a monolithic disinterest towards all things Hazara, which clearly extends out into higher standards for other non-Pashtuns too.

There are other, more common ways of noting that the US presence isn’t necessarily a check against extremism. If nothing else, our military presence anywhere in the Islamic world serves as a reason to radicalize. Beyond that, however, there’s a very simple question of which people in Afghanistan have been the recipients of our resources.


The featured image for this article is an ethnographic map of Afghanistan, from here.

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The final spirit

This is the fourth post in this series. You can read about the first chapter here, the second chapter here, the third chapter here, or the full series.

Trigger warning: war, racism, islamophobia, ableism

When we last left Scrooge, he had just been introduced to a boy who represented the characteristic (ignorance) he had just displayed about how a huge chunk of the world’s population lives. The dying spirit who had shown him the child told him that across the boy’s forehead was written one word: doom. As if that’s not enough to spook Scrooge somewhat, that spirit then vanished into thin air, making room for one of the most iconic characters in this story to enter.

christmas future final.jpg
(From here.)

In Dickens’ words, the final spirit is-

“shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.

[Scrooge] felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside him, and that its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved.”

In spite of its rather chilling appearance, Scrooge’s turn from isolation towards interaction holds firm. He speaks to the spirit, telling it among other things, “I am prepared to bear your company and do it with a thankful heart.”

Wordlessly, the spirit then conducts him on a similar tour of his surroundings. There’s a series of business-minded men who discuss an unnamed colleague’s recent death in unemotional and even disparaging terms. The man’s death is a passing topic, like the weather. The spirit then transports Scrooge from the genteel detachment exhibited among them to its more naked counterpart among those hocking items they’d taken from the dead man’s house.

In a pawnshop, three of them met unexpectedly – one an employee of an undertaker, another a charwoman (basically a part of the cleaning staff), and the other a laundress. As the pull out of their parcels all sorts of random items taken from the dead’s house:

“They were severally examined and appraised by old Joe, who chalked the sums he was disposed to give for each upon the wall, and added them up into a total when he found that there was nothing more to come.”

The cold calculation that this dead man’s life is reduced to is the horror in this story. Since many know before reading it who the man is or otherwise pick up on the many references in the story to his wealth, it’s easy to read this and think of this dehumanizing reduction of him as a universal human problem. He’s a wealthy man however, who doesn’t experience this until he dies at a ripe old age – not everyone is so lucky.

Throughout this year, similar calculations have been made about those in less stable standing – living and working in war zones, on the edge of empires, or disabled within the heart of them. Most recently, this sort of mathematics applied to human lives led to the bombing of a hospital in Afghanistan, the on-going demands to “vet” Syrian refugees, and the social abandonment of thousands of disabled people in the UK many of whom have since died.

When Scrooge begs the spirit to see someone moved by this death, as he begins to suspect who it may be, he gets a taste of how this older man came to be looked at as a resource and not a person. In a nutshell, he treated others that way, engaging in his own calculations not dissimilar to others’ that have had medical centers torched, survivors of war zones denied refuge, and the disabled left to die.

The only emotion stirred by the death that the spirit can show him is that of thankful reprieve – a couple indebted to the dead man eat better, sleep better, and breathe better knowing they have a few more days to pay off their debt, if it isn’t outright forgiven. Their creditor is something other than human to everyone else in part because he saw them as simply costs, revenues, and resources – just as he in turn shrewdly saw them.

Scrooge begs the spirit to show him something outside of this morose world of seeing others in such a dehumanizing light and in turn being seen that way. It takes him to a now familiar house – his employee’s. Bob Cratchit is deep in grief for Tiny Tim, something which many adaptations manage to show quite well. What’s less common for them to capture is what comes later out of his mouth. He asks his children –

“”[H]owever and whenever we part from one another , I am sure we shall none of us forget poor Tiny Tim – shall we?  – or this first parting that there was among us?’

‘Never, Father!’ cried they all.”

The grief never totally dissipates from the Cratchits’ home, but there is tenderness and remembrance that cuts it down to manageable size. This other way for the world to exist is one predicated on empathy and love, and it’s one in which the cold can be fought off and warmth shared. It seems callous to write off the Cratchits as quite simply “not broken” over the death of one of their children or siblings, but there is a resilience often lost in adaptations of this story, which speaks to the durability of the alternative they embody to an unfeeling world.

Scrooge is pulled away from his look into that world by the spirit. His doubts around him, he has a bit of a relapse of his avoidance-centered way of approaching the world. He runs away from where the spirit points to look at where his current office is, someone else is inside. When the spirit collects him from there and takes him to a graveyard, he won’t look at the headstone at which the spirit points – instead he asks a question of the spirit. For a return to his self-isolating ways, he seems remarkably reliant on interaction as a means to avoid looking at what he doesn’t want to see.

Having all but guessed who the dead man is, Scrooge begs the spirit to at least once speak and explain if these visions of the future are changeable. His only hope is to alter them, and he reasons out that there is no purpose in showing him his doom if he has no means to avoid it. The spirit offers no confirmation of that or other reassurance though – it simply points with its one feature, still to one particular grave. It bears Scrooge’s name.

Scrooge sinks to his knees and pleads to be told that he can change these outcomes, then insists he will heed the warnings he has been given by these spirits, and ultimately, catches the spirit’s hand and won’t let it go. It’s not clear what causes Scrooge to wake up in his own bed, the phantom transformed into his bedpost – his promise to be different or his demonstration of that by reaching out and grasping someone else. It’s a bit of the magic in the story that it can be both and between the two.

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Bigger than Trump

Trigger warning: islamophobia, war, mass surveillance

Donald Trump has returned to dominate lists of trending tags with an astounding call to bar all Muslims – only days later clarifying citizens would probably be exempt – from entering the United States. His campaign underscored exactly what he was talking about when asked to clarify. He really means everyone, from immigrants to refugees to tourists, with a complete and total ban on admission into the United States for any amount of time.

Cordoba House supporters protesting in New York City in 2010, from here.

With that, the Republican front-runner has managed to do the unthinkable, and draw criticism from not only outside of his party but also some of the most militant voices in the Republican establishment for being too vocally or categorically or extremely anti-Muslim. Dick Cheney, Carly Fiorina, and Lindsey Graham have spoken out, in Graham’s case with a request for a Party-wide rebuke of Trump.

That speaks to an odd, scapegoating dynamic. Trump isn’t the source of anti-Muslim attitudes in the US, he’s simply ridden them (and related prejudices) to the top of the polls in the Republican primary. The establishment or establishment-approved voices now calling for a rejection of Trump and his politics have all dabbled in the building blocks of his call for an anti-Muslim travel ban. Previously a number of other candidates had called for a smaller scale version of the precise same thing, with a complete ban on Muslim refugees, including establishment-favorite Jeb Bush.

I’ve touched on this before, but the anti-Muslim elements that Trump has put out in full display have long been woven into the national politics in the US. The language not only Republicans or conservatives but almost everyone in political discussion uses to describe militancy or oppression – jihad, Taliban, Mecca- is studded with words borrowed from various Islamic contexts. Their use draws on that negative image of Muslims, and repurposes some of that. That speaks to the way that islamophobia has become a public resource, tapped into to find ways of characterizing others you disagree with.

More unique to the American rightwing, however, has been the development of an entire industry devoted to weaponizing that. The research cited by Trump’s campaign to justify their proposed policy has come under scrutiny for its lack of rigor. The study, however, speaks to the vast web of connections within anti-Muslim conservative politics, in which the head of the group conducting the study was active in stirring up a whole series of panics over the past few years.

In 2011, Frank Gaffney Jr. of the Center for Security Policy inspired multiple Republican congressional representatives and several Republican-controlled state governments to look into the possibility of efforts to enshrine Sharia law within the US. From there, his organization’s periodicals and pamphlets shifted to trying to root out a first Iranian, later Wahhabi conspiracy within the White House. In each of those cases, Gaffney explicitly sought out “a new and improved counterpart to the Cold War-era’s HUAC” and Republicans at both the national and state level attempted to deliver.

While extremist figures in the Republican Party tilted at those windmills, like representative Peter King and former representative Michele Bachmann, Gaffney’s description of a US at existential risk appears to have circulated in other, more establishment-aligned Republican circles. Presidential contender Marco Rubio is widely considered the moderate Republican alternative to the imploding Jeb Bush, and his campaign seems to be making “civilizational struggle,” a tweaked version of Gaffney’s “civilizational jihad,” their main refrain.

The policy prescriptions within these discussions are quite predictable – bans on immigration or even visitation, more militarization at US borders, more US military presence and operations in Muslim-majority countries. It’s at its core the state-centered politics that a number of conservatives spent 2009 declaring their abject opposition to, only to call for all that and quite literally a reboot of the House Un-American Activities Committee. As has been said before, it’s a smaller government… for some. For others, namely Muslims, it’s a sprawling global system of mass surveillance and warfare.

Decatur Boarding the Tripolitan Gunboat” by Dennis Malone Carter in 1804, a depiction of the first conflict in which the US flag was planted in military triumph – in a majority Muslim territory’s soil. From here.

The Republican efforts to win at the state or local level often with these investigations and policy ideas speaks to which side ultimately wins between the establishment and the base.

The national party has a campaign war chest and their share of candidates. Still, their money has lost handily to Trump going national with what’s worked for them at the state level. In the meantime, establishment-friendly candidates like Bush and Rubio have been presenting policies and making claims cut from the same anti-Muslim cloth.

Trump is just one person, saying more obviously and at the national level what’s been said throughout the Republican Party and more broadly even for years. It’s worked in more local elections, and so far in this primary the same sort of thing has only helped him amass support. National polls haven’t yet documented whether Trump’s support has eroded after his recent comments, but initial signs show his appeal only growing within the primary.

Just like the steady drift towards a more heavy-handed solution in conversations among self-described libertarians, he’s simply following a Republican playbook to its logical conclusion. Doesn’t that say more about the playbook than about him?

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The ends justify the means

Paris has remained the center of international attention after the coordinated terrorist attacks on November 13, in part because of the looming climate talks that have now begun. In light of recently stoked fears of panic and chaos, a large-scale and officially recognized protest was prevented from occurring. Many have questioned whether the shutting down of the primary demonstration – planned months in advance to be one of the largest mobilizations in the world on this issue – was an opportunity for the many heads of state meeting today, seized with the justification of anti-terrorism.

For all the fears of a creeping police state, unleashed by counter-terrorism but focused squarely on silencing political dissent, the marchers appear to have gotten most of their goals. Various commitments (yeah, considering how Kyoto went, you can roll your eyes at that) have already been agreed to by major international players. For those who wanted to physically protest and fight the French state, opportunities for that have been available too, although probably not ones they wanted.

(From here.)

One detail curiously lost in the paranoia about a steadily expanding French surveillance system that can easily curtail civil liberties (which isn’t really unfounded), is the US’s own strangely undemocratic stance. President Obama has embraced a legal framework designed to allow him, or any future president, to move the US towards its emissions commitments without congressional approval. If you remember the reaction to his executive actions on immigration, you can already see how that could potentially play out.

There is an unfortunate way that this does reflect negatively on him. Instead of deciding that it was possible to win a majority in the Senate that supported collective action on this issue, his administration has opted for a strategy that’s essentially undemocratic. Admittedly, this is in some sense to be expected – the losses of the Democrats in the midterm elections in 2010 and 2014  made any other tactic untenable, especially given the memory of how the Kyoto Protocols went over in the US Senate last time around.

The US Senate is, as I’ve said before, at the heart of how the US democracy isn’t representative of the political ideas and considerations of a solid majority of US voters, let alone residents. To those familiar with the millenia-old ancient Greek understanding of tyranny, this situation might be eerily familiar. Representative structures hijacked by powerful and enfranchised groups can be opposed by populist pressure, in the form of what ultimately amounts to a dictator’s answer to their illusion of democracy.

This is one of the ways that representative governments have historically fallen – when achieving something that resembles a democratic, populist outcome requires jettisoning or even dismantling the established, at least nominally democratic process. For modern Western states, this is perhaps best understood in the phantom of Napoléon, the quintessential revolutionary turned emperor.

Amid the fears that even a zealous commitment of the current goals would only modestly curb climate change, the haunting warnings of The Hunger Games universe seem apt. In those book series, set in a distant future in North America, President remains the title of the head of state, but is unambiguously a dictatorial position. The cultures and economies in that dystopia reflect among other things the damage wrought by climate change, which is implied to have helped dictatorial figures retain control, enforcing among other things, restrictions aimed at having positive environmental effects.

Before anyone reading this thinks I’m falling into a kind of pop culture rebuke of doing anything about climate change, let me assure you I’m not. The true horror here isn’t that President Obama is the next Napoléon. His elaborate work-around for dealing with the Senate isn’t to amass power within his own political office and deal with climate change or any other problems himself. Instead, his effort is to support the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other non-government organizations, which can circumvent the political requirements of a treaty.

This is less dictatorship and more privatization. We’re not a modern democracy, at risk of the revolution becoming an empire. We’re a post-modern democracy, in danger of cutting the state into private structures beyond democratic check.

Perhaps, France’s police, pushing protesters to the ground and throwing tear gas canisters, are less of a sign of things to come and more of a historical holdover. Instead of populist politics finding their expression in hands of just one person – and hence corroding democratic processes – or a lumbering or even misguided “democratic” government, we’ve entered a new era in which the state actually cedes power. For all their deep flaws, either of those options at least have some basis in popular consensus. The libertarian future being hinted at here has little to no democratic oversight.

The iconic images of undemocratic rule – of an all powerful state – might only just be that, icons, infused with political meaning only within a specific cultural context. We’re in a brave new world, in which the power of the few doesn’t necessarily control or even want to control the state.

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A broader understanding of LGBT issues

Trigger warning: heterosexism, cissexism

It’s hard to believe, but much earlier this month, Senator Al Franken was campaigning for a new batch of anti-discrimination measures at the federal level for LGBT people. Designed to impact the negative experiences of members of those communities when seeking out or using housing, employment, or other basic economic arrangements, this was just a new chapter in a far longer history, of seeking a broader set of anti-discrimination LGBT-minded protections.

It’s strange to note that that’s where some prominent members of the federal government were focusing at the beginning of this month, because public discussion has quickly move on to other topics. Franken hasn’t changed positions on that or any other LGBT-related policies, nor have most people in the federal government or at more local levels. In the wake of the Paris attacks, however, political debate in the US has solidified around the on-going humanitarian and security concerns raised by the intensifying conflict born out of the unresolved Syrian Civil War.

All Out, an international LGBT advocacy organization, has implicitly called into question whether we can necessarily talk about either of those issues that way – with LGBT rights and the instability in the Middle East as totally separate topics. While a recent fundraising request from them highlighted LGBT asylum seekers from countries in that region with various experiences with the Syrian Civil War, it included a key mention of a same-gender Syrian couple, displaced by a number of factors in the war-torn nation.

In a months-earlier debate about asylum seekers and refugee camps in the US, the anti-LGBT aspects of who had been displaced and what special considerations they might need were largely overlooked. This new refugee crisis is an opportunity for the US to be more thoughtful of those dimensions of what people are at greatest risk and need inclusion and respect in the asylum-seeking and refugee-status-attaining process.

Even now, the legal statuses of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America remain uncertain. In the near future, many are expected to undergo immigration court assessments, often only swayed when children “prove they have been abused, abandoned or neglected by a parent” – but not necessarily with particular attention to anti-LGBT animus that may have motivated or influenced the abuse, abandonment, or neglect.

gay_asylum_seekersFrom here.

The chance to step up and address the complicated aspects of these and other immigration-related crises is on-going. In both of these major incidents, unique attention to the needs of LGBT people hasn’t been paid.

There is growing awareness of the need to do just that in the basic functioning of our society with policies like ENDA. In a more complex examination of how countries and institutions work, not so much. An LGBT-mindful approach to immigration has yet have been incorporated into the legal oversight that determines the fates of ultimately millions of people. The way in which discussions so far about LGBT rights have been treated as fundamentally a different discussion than those about the needs of Syrian refugees suggests that unfortunately, that will likely remain the case.

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Shots across the bow

Trigger waring: climate change, food insecurity, anti-Black racism

The attacks in Paris have dominated the broader news cycle all week as well as my writing on here. That’s exactly the type of situation I started Let Me Link You Fridays to help counteract, so here’s a short list of other events that caught my eye recently. Maybe the attacks in Paris put everyone on edge, because almost everyone was firing shots across the bow at someone or other.

GMOs: not all they’re cracked up to be?

Greenpeace, an environmental organization largely known for activist efforts other than opposing genetically modified (GM) crops, responded to the recent rebranding of genetic modification in agriculture. Seemingly encouraged by the defeat of GM labeling initiatives in 2012 and by the increasing market prominence of GM salmon, advocates of the new technologies have trotted out a number of older arguments for GM products. Chief among them is that the GM industry, which many GM advocates are critical of for its gene patenting and heavy use of pesticides, is separable from the GM technologies which might improve food security and yield other benefits for marginal communities around the rapidly crowding and warming world.

The report released by Greenpeace earlier this month doesn’t mince words on those arguments. The very title of it – “Twenty Years of Failure” – cuts to the core issue with many of those claims. If either GM technologies or the groups wielding them actually could resolve the problems in the world’s food systems, why haven’t they had any measurable impact in that way yet? It notes that literally all genetic modifications are designed with a highly industrialized agricultural model in mind – the same one that has outcompeted fragile food economies in some of the poorest parts of the world. What’s left in GM crops’ favor are only a few hypothetical improvements – better crop yields, ready-made adaptations to climate change, and other changes they haven’t yet been developed and for which local and traditional food production systems often have an already tangible alternative waiting in the wings.

Who doesn’t count in the Census?

More domestically, the American Prospect asked what might happen as a result of increased pressure on the Census Bureau to count the country’s population with online means. An aggressive inclusion of face-to-face counting was the order of the day in 2000 and 2010, and appears to have helped reduce the miscount discrepancy between White people and people of color to historic lows.

As the Census Bureau’s own website makes clear, the assessment of how many people live in a given area is among the deciding factors that “determine how more than $400 billion dollars of federal funding each year is spent on infrastructure and services.” Those are the medical, educational, and other community services that people of color in the US have inadequate access to – in part because censuses regularly undercount them where they live and overcount White people where they live.

The American Prospect notes that there is a partisan dimension to this. It’s a largely Republican effort to defund the Census Bureau. The loss of funds is mostly likely to affect the availability of the Bureau’s face-to-face services and other strategies key to creating the most accurate count, so that the government can serve all its citizens.

Who doesn’t count at the polls?


The Republicans weren’t just under fire for the racially-charged outcomes of their policies – they also showed they weren’t interested in backing down on those issues. A local court case about Virginia’s state legislative districts, which found that the Black population had been gerrymandered into a single district, has been appealed and may be heard by the US Supreme Court. Considering that the Republicans appealing the case neither live in the district nor represent it, they may be found to lack standing on the matter. Sticking their necks out like that seems a bit bold, possibly in a way that’s more likely to backfire than overturn the decision they disagree with.

One other act of boldness has been the claim from Virginia Republicans that the gerrymandered district was mandated under the (now defunct) preclearance system put in place by the Voting Rights Act. With the NAACP among the organizations arguing that this effectively disenfranchised the Black population of Virginia, and even presenting alternative maps, it’s a bit difficult to believe that the Republicans just had to limit Democratic-leaning Black voters to essentially a single district.

This is a bit of a warning shot that Republicans may argue in the many gerrymandering districts that the alternative to maps which pack Democratic-leaning demographics into “dump districts” are somehow what they were forced to comply with under preclearance. It’s also a bold move, if accepted by the courts, since it would force the plaintiffs to choose between supporting the reinstatement of preclearance (designed to prevent voter suppression measures) or advocating for non-gerrymandered districts. Those are two different issues, ultimately about different things, but Republicans look like they’re hoping to muddy the waters between the two.

The featured image was produced from 2010 census data of New York City. Red dots represent 25 White residents. Blue are 25 Black residents; green are 25 Asian residents; orange are 25 Latin@ residents; yellow are 25 who marked other. From here.

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Puzzles of the Orient: a random note on the Republican Debate

Last night’s debate didn’t strike me as something worth liveblogging on twitter or even commenting about as I posted in the middle of it. That anything much is going to be said that’s new or original is hopefully something no one came into the debate expecting. In passing, still, one strange entanglement of talking points caught my attention and seems to speak to something rather horrifying about the politics of not only the Republican Party, but the United States and even the broader world.

In the midst of the debate, Senator Marco Rubio argued that the supportive relationship between the US and Israel in contrast to the combative and hostile relationship the US has with almost every other country in the region made sense, saying:

“For goodness sake, there is only one pro-American free enterprise democracy in the Middle East. It is the state of Israel. And we have a president that treats the prime minister of Israel with less respect than what he gives the Ayatollah in Iran. And so our allies in the region don’t trust us. […] all those radical terrorist groups that, by the way, are not just in Syria and in Iraq, ISIS is now in Libya. They are a significant presence in Libya, and in Afghanistan, and a growing presence in Pakistan.

Soon they will be in Turkey. They will try Jordan. They will try Saudi Arabia. They are coming to us. They recruit Americans using social media. And they don’t hate us simply because we support Israel. They hate us because of our values. They hate us because our girls go to school. They hate us because women drive in the United States. Either they win or we win, and we had better take this risk seriously, it is not going away on its own.”

While his criticism of Arab or Islamic communities highlighted the sexism he perceived, the point seems deeply interconnected to other ideas about how societies should work. Not only should women be able to drive cars, they should be able to vote. It’s hard to imagine that kind of plea for “modern” women’s rights without accompanying ideas about “modern” political rights and other expectations (in Rubio’s mind that goes hand in hand with free enterprise, notably).

Mere minutes later, Ohio Governor John Kasich in his own words gave the audience “a little trip around the world”. He transitioned from describing a military strategy towards Russia to one in the Middle East, which in turn led him to saying this about the political culture of the region: “Saudi Arabia, cut off the funding for the radical clerics, the ones that preach against us. But they’re fundamentally our friends. Jordan, we want the king to reign for 1,000 years. Egypt, they have been our ally and a moderating force in the Middle East throughout their history.”

The limitations on free speech in Saudi Arabia are, of course, far more extreme than the limiting of funding for radical clerics. The regular and increasing use of the death penalty by the government there is primarily used on clerics critical of the Kingdom, especially those critical because of sectarian disagreements. Overwhelmingly, it’s the Shia minority clerics targeted with that and other state controls designed to limit their communities’ voices and shutdown opposition. They are also famously one of the governments in the region which most systemic restricts women’s rights – to drive, to go out in public, and to control their bodies and appearance. Those, in Kasich’s words, are “our friends” because of how they restrict their people and simultaneously, in Rubio’s view, someone we are locked in an existential struggle with… because of how they restrict their people.

Virtually no one – from Politico to the Seattle Globalist – pretends that the current government in Egypt is democratic. Politico’s coverage touches on a particularly interesting point, that sitting president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is a product of the military exchange programs run by and within the United States. In short, he was more than a little groomed for his current strongman role, with his wife beside him, notably in a hijab not in the more veiling niqab. When it comes to other women, however, his defense of the use of “virignity tests” to assess rape and harassment claims by women participating in the street democracy movements in Egypt speaks for itself. Much like Saudi Arabia, the same despotism that is woven into the fabric of how we decide that part of the world is categorically deserving of criticism, and yet oddly also, its saving grace.

Hopefully I don’t have to explain the irony in a debate where most of the Middle East is criticized as undemocratic where another person calls for the Hashimite dynasty in Jordan to rule for a thousand years. It’s worth noting that’s not just simply a millennium of rule, it’s another millennium.

It’s worth noting that even if Kasich and Rubio understood each other as disagreeing, they both continue to address the realities of political life in the Middle East with a common assumption. If you look at the autocratic and patriarchal aspects of life in that part of the world and judge it as exotic and foreign and Other to a US-backed alternative, at least one of the mistakes you’re making is overlooking the ways in which the US has encouraged these undemocratic and restrictive politics. If you look at the dictatorships and call them our friends, you’re insisting that popular rule in the region would inherently be incompatible with US interests and those are more important. Rubio looks at the region shaped by US and other foreign meddling and wonders how it got that way, while Kasich simply shrugs and notes we have to keep them in line. In either case, there’s a denial of the violence inherent in US policy, stretching back decades.

Whether you view this as a cultural war or a strategic conflict, the Republican debate last night offered only variations on viewing the average person in the Middle East as lesser, with no alternative to that.

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The more things change

If this year has seen a unifying story about homophobia, heterosexism, however we want to label that, then it’s been this: a desperate plea from many corners of the LGBT community to both fellow members and outsiders to not discount it as “over”. Within the US, marriage equality has not only become national policy but withstood most challenges so far, and increased rights for many students have gelled in particular. The only sometimes spoken fear is that this recent history of modest victories will lull people into a false sense of security. Maybe the only good thing about the National Religious Liberties Conference, to be held in Iowa this coming Friday and Saturday, is that if properly covered it might deflate those illusions about what progress has been made.

A shocking number of people to this day shrug off the statements from the conference’s head organizer on HIV/AIDS. Saying that the debilitating disease that disproportionately affects non-straight men and transgender women is essentially a divine retribution has become almost a cliché, sarcastic device. Well, Kevin Swanson, the organizer in question, brought it out seriously in a recent radio broadcast, in which he called HIV/AIDS “God’s retribution to their [LGBT people’s] sexual habit”. What’s more, he characterized any sort of government financing of research to treat, prevent, or cure HIV/AIDS “support for their homosexual activity” and  “accommodate their activity”.

hiv_aids_godA woman wearing a shirt reading “Thank God for AIDS,” from here.

He and his guest commentator agreed, “This is a politically protected disease” – and they didn’t mean that its spread and effects have been encouraged through and framed as just desserts for LGBT people. They meant that the status as someone slowly dying from a treatable infection that was historically underfunded and underexamined in part because of the marginalized classes it affected is privileged over them. This is fueled by and fuel for almost every modern heterosexist fire in America – that true persecution is a purely straight experience, that HIV/AIDS is comically over-addressed, that LGBT people in general are a shadowy conspiratorial class, and so on.

This might originate as a theological argument about sin, sexuality, and disease, but it has become a political argument in favor of societal resources not being structured in a way that accounts of the unique needs of LGBT people. Quite the opposite of changing society to make it more livable for LGBT people, this argument can only tolerate one form of organized collective social action towards LGBT people other than direct, unambiguous violence – neglect. For anything active and positive, Swanson is very clear on his perspective: “The solution is private charity”. The emphasis on private cannot be ignored, as he stresses it. In spite of that, he can’t even imagine private liberal churches or other organizations being able to stomach supporting people with HIV/AIDS. The argument against it being publicly addressed is both a way of denying HIV/AIDS research some of the most extensive resource pools and, it’s imagined, a way of ultimately making the problem one that society as a whole neglects.

The political dimensions of this aren’t something to be laughed away. The conference will only draw a small number of devoted attendees – by most estimates around 1,600 – but has confirmed three Republican Presidential candidates (Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, and Ted Cruz) will be among them, and Ben Carson might make an appearance as well. The conference is quite blatant about the point of the presidential involvement. Their website notes that in the Iowan caucuses “the Christian conservative element will have its largest impact at the outset of the race” and that “presidential candidates need to hear from us”. The Republican Party, for all of the 2012 promises to rise from their electoral ashes like a more tolerant phoenix has at least four presidential contenders with some involvement in this conference, predicated on spreading a virulently anti-LGBT agenda.

That is one of the major parties in the country, and this is the continuing political reality. One in which LGBT lives are uniquely disposable.

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Scary stories, just add campfire

If your day has been anything like mine today you are quickly grabbing together the most important things to bring with you to a Halloween party either tonight, tomorrow, or some other time in the next couple of days. Costumes, candy, and drinks are, of course, the expect items you have to gather together in preparation, but let’s not overlook one holiday-specific must-have: scary stories. Let me link you to a couple of spooky tales to wow people with this weekend.

Zombies… at the polls

The SF Weekly has a bleak portrayal of the emerging voter landscape in one of the country’s largest cities. Although apathy and disengagement have flourished in the midst of an anemic economic recovery and the widespread perception that there are few to no possible solutions to social and economic inequality within the democratic system, the problem appears to have been uniquely stoked within San Francisco.

The longer form piece goes into detail about potential contributing factors – including Democratic Party bungling, flawed election scheduling, and most deeply the ways that gentrification has recreated San Francisco’s communities. Beyond the myriad causes, the message is that democratic governance in many parts of the country is rapidly becoming something run on autopilot. Yikes!

Watching you

From France to the US, a number of countries are now considering even more extensive surveillance regimes that promise to make the system revealed by Edward Snowden look like child’s play.

Access Now released an assessment of the bill now facing consideration in the US Senate which called it “a surveillance bill dressed up as a cybersecurity bill.” Their look into the French bill, just passed by their senate, is even more grim, noting that it mandates “telecommunications companies to install ‘black boxes’ on their networks, which use an algorithm to indiscriminately sweep data for suspicious activity”. It’s worryingly unclear what will be counted as “suspicious” of course.

Not in either France or the US? No problem, these are policies that apply to any data picked up by anyone, citizen or not, in any part of the world.

The end of the world as we know it, and some feel fine

It’s come up on this blog before that climate change is likely to disproportionately damage some of the poorest communities and countries (who are also often least responsible for the crisis). The process of that is complex and combines together the fact that those groups typically have fewer resources to spend on either preparing for the new climate or directly address its impacts as they arise, as well as the happenstance that many of the poorest communities in the world are in climatic areas simply more likely to see dramatic changes.

One recent study from UC Berkeley, however, attempted to quantify exactly how the world’s national economies will be affected and found two startling results. According to it, the lost wealth for many of the world’s poorest regions – South Asia, Africa, and Latin America namely – will be much larger than many have anticipated. For a huge swathe of the world’s population, this means a reduced income and an inherently limited economy. What’s more, there are a few countries that might even see modest economic gains thanks to climate change. They’re concentrated in northern Europe, with a few other inclusions mostly from some other countries with comparatively healthy economies in current day. In short, not only are the pains felt by the world’s poor probably going to be much worse, there’s a number of people disproportionately responsible for global warming who actually stand to benefit from the changed climate.

With these stories you’ll be the toast of the party. That doomed, doomed party.

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Reagan Democrat yesterday, independent tomorrow

Trigger warning: racism

Earlier today, sitting West Virginia Senator Jim Webb announced that he’s wrapping up his candidacy to be the Democratic Party nominee for president in 2016. His official campaign announcement underscores that he will remain politically active and for the time being continue to run for president. His website still requests visitors for donations, claiming that with “enough financial support to conduct a first-class campaign, there is no doubt that we can put the issues squarely before the American people and gain their support.” That certainly implies that he is seeking the funds to run a write-in or third party campaign. With that potentially pulling Democratic voters away from the Party’s nominee, you might wonder why the Democratic Senate is weakening his own Party’s chances in the general election. As a kicker to his announced withdrawal, he has stated that he is unsure he will remain a registered Democrat.

As he lays out in his statement, the most overt case made for his candidacy is essentially that as a Reagan administration official turned Democratic Senator (turned independent?) he would be able to transcend partisanship. The fundamental assumption baked into his politics is that partisan hostilities are driving polarization in politics. Divergent ideas about who we are and how we should organize this country are, in this view, irrelevant. The singular way he speaks of gaining support from “the American people” suggests he may not even consider that a facet of the modern US. While his call for bipartisan comity will likely inspire some, they’re attractive to most voters as an end goal, not a means of governance. The surging popularity of more combative candidates – from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump – demonstrates that large numbers of voters want some sort of a conflict between the parties. For many, it seems, they envision a war to secure the peace that Webb describes.

When it comes to his party affiliation, the Senator’s comments in the recent Democratic debate linger around the edges of his withdrawn candidacy. His in-person and textual versions of the announcement both declared that he felt that the Democratic primary is more or less rigged, mainly to the advantage of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He was vague, however, as to what differences drove support towards her and made him “not compatible with the power structure and the nominating base of the Democratic Party.” The image that draws up for many are the shadowy party figures, which for both major parties are largely wealthy White donors. In light of his debate performance, during which Webb insisted that race was not a determining factor for who had “no voice in the corridors of power,” it seems that Webb may in fact be implying that his racially-charged policy perspectives are what he sees as disqualifying. That explains his hostility not only to a Democratic donor class he views as never having given him a shot, but also what he called the Party’s “nominating base” – by which he seems to mean the voters of color and perhaps White voters too who refused to support someone with his perspectives on those issues.

When he spoke during the debate so dismissively of the many ways that race has contributed to limiting or denying people access to the political process, I tweeted:

Webb’s inconsistent relationship with both the Democratic and Republican parties are admittedly a bit different than the standard Dixiecrat history, but he serves as a sort of example for how those politics have fallen out of the Democratic fold. (What’s more, he seems quite comfortable adopting historical talking points of the Dixiecrat movement.) Once central to that Party’s coalition, what he obliquely refers to as its “traditional message” is no longer a key part of it. “I wish that I could see it” return or remain central, he said today, while noting that he might no longer identify as a Democrat.

The fear, which Webb himself helps spread, is that redistribution of power along racial lines will eclipse a more general redistribution of wealth and power. At its core, his understanding of this society seems fixed around the belief that race has never categorically shaped groups’ ability to politically engage. As a result, anti-racism is not a welcome addition to anti-poverty politics but a distraction from them. After his debate insistence on the irrelevance of race, he made his case that true disenfranchisement was actually felt by the “struggling whites like the families in the Appalachian mountains”. One implication that raises is that supposedly entirely empowered people of color have too much power within the Democratic Party and are shaping policy in a way specifically leaving some White people in poverty. To be frank, this makes no sense as a point made on a stage with, worryingly, only White candidates. What’s more, a few podiums away, Bernie Sanders offers both more substantive anti-poverty politics and at least some recognition of the ways race continues to devalue and deprive entire communities.

In short, the primary consistency in these politics is the sleight of hand. We have to subordinate anti-racism to White supremacist anti-poverty politics, because of a fear with literally no factual basis. We have to abandon advancing party-specific policies in favor of a post-partisan utopia that we simply will wish into existence. For a candidate who seems genuinely unhappy that no one flocked to his camp, he doesn’t seem to know how to offer people something that isn’t snake oil. Perhaps this is taking the metaphor too far, but that would explain why Webb has had to shed his skin and transform first from Reaganite to anti-Bush Democrat and seemingly now into an independent.

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Corbyn and Sanders

Jeremy Corbyn’s successful election as opposition leader within the UK Labour Party’s shadow government has caused quite a lot of buzz within the broader anglophone political world. In that highly visible position he will be the one to detail Labour’s rhetorical and policy alternatives to the current conservative UK government. As arguably the most liberal person running a plausible campaign for the position, this suggests the possibility of a bold turn left within the Labour Party and arguably many centers of non-right political power in the UK. With Sanders, a registered independent and self-described socialist, running in the Democratic Presidential Primary in the US and similar rumblings within Canadian politics it seems as though further left political figures are coming out of the woodwork around the world, but especially in English-speaking circles.

These changes have not been without their critics of course, as many have decried the these comparatively leftist politicians are “unserious” or “unreasonable” compared to center-left figures they threaten to replace. As Matt Bruenig asked last week, there’s a structural question that raises: what exactly are further left politicians supposed to do? In both the party leadership elections within UK parties and in the presidential primaries and generals in the US, the systems offer only two choices for them: to compete within the center-left in in-party elections or outright against it as a separate party. In either case, they are inevitably challenging the center-left for control of policy, and face criticism for jeopardizing the advancement of a center-left alternative. It’s presented as a kind of making the perfect the enemy of the good by the center left, but as a necessary test of a careful approach’s merits by those to the further left.

Of course, as Bruenig points out, that push-and-pull between gradualism and radicalism within a broader left coalition assumes that the center-left and left share common goals. Ultimately politicians like Sanders and Corbyn want to entirely restructure society in a way that dramatically recontextualizes or even overhauls the procedures under which they compete with more centrist candidates. Is that true of their rivals?

bernie sanders revolutionFrom here.

Beyond these issues of political process, it seems relevant to ask what counts as “reasonable”. The comparatively moderate portions of left wing coalitions treat it as a self evident truth that they’re more electable and realistic. Both the US and UK are facing epidemic levels of disengagement. It’s unsurprising that that’s the case given how parties from center-left on towards the right have largely failed to tackle some of the most systemic difficulties for the average person – global climate change, the economic downturn, and globalization. As some have pointed out, its specifically the poor who are most likely to disengage from electoral politics, and that’s at least in part because there are few to no parties or major figures addressing their concerns with viable solutions.

Arguably the recent political success of comparatively far right politics in both the US and UK (and many other countries) have demonstrated the power that rightwing parties can harness simply by offering a response to those problems, not even necessarily a logical or actionable one. In general, lower income voters still skew towards left-center parties, but that exists within a general vacuum of more leftist alternatives.

An electoral landscape shaken up by higher rates of participation would drive political discussion most likely towards the left, but that would threaten the fragile consensus that has allowed the center-left to become so powerful. Corbyn and Sanders are essentially moderate compared to the politicians who might follow them if they’re able to enact policies that would enable greater political participation. The need to prevent that sort of constituency “escape” to the left is a reason for the center-left to make common cause with the center and right and frame themselves as an end-point of reasonableness even if that reinforces on a rightwing view of the broader political world and discourages leftwing activism. Power is more important than change, for some.

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