Michael Slager – Informed Comment https://www.juancole.com Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Tue, 01 Dec 2020 06:36:52 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.16 Columbus didn’t represent Italy, and he Killed and Enslaved Americans, and we Don’t need his Statues https://www.juancole.com/2020/08/columbus-represent-americans.html Sat, 01 Aug 2020 04:04:54 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=192322 Chicago (Special to Informed Comment) – Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered the removal of two statues of Christopher Columbus after police and protesters clashed last week. The confrontation at the navigator’s monument in Grant Park resulted in injuries to both officers and demonstrators. According to NBC News, Chicago Police Department officials confirmed that the gathering was peaceful until a small group began throwing objects. Carting away the Grant Park Columbus came after some protesters had earlier tried to pull it down. The second one stood in Arrigo Park, in the city’s Little Italy neighborhood.

Lightfoot’s move has sparked much local and national criticism.

Some Italian-Americans are angry about the mayor’s decision, considering it an insult to their national pride and a fellow countryman. The city’s Italian immigrant community raised the money for the Grant Park Columbus and gifted it to Chicago in honor of its centennial during the Century of Progress and Second World’s Fair in 1933.

Speaking of Italian ethnic pride, Columbus did not have much of that. He swore loyalty to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, who controlled what was then called the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily. With the exception of a couple of short, unsuccessful French incursions there, Spain dominated southern Italy for generations. Historian H.G. Koenigsberger writes that the Spanish “with their contingents of Italian soldiers, sacked their cities [and] laid waste their countryside … Spain, holding Sicily [and] Naples, … dominated and stifled Italian political life.”

Columbus claimed vast territories in the Americas, took whatever gold he could find, and established colonies all for the greater glory of and to help finance the Spanish crown. At that time and for many years after, it was also the kingdom that militarily controlled and economically exploited the very region of Italy where most Italian-Americans’ ancestors once lived. It is likely that Columbus could not have cared less about poor farmers and fishermen from Naples and Sicily.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Northwest Side Alderman Anthony Napolitano (incidentally, his last name indicates that his ancestors were from Naples) complained that that the dual Columbuses’ banishment was decidedly un-American. He said that they were taken away without “discussion [and] debate.” As a result, the city has “lost its sense of decency and American soul.”

And Fox News’ Tucker Carlson claimed that hurling water, firecrackers, and soft drinks at the likeness of the Genoese admiral is just the start of dark, chaotic days ahead for the entire nation. He suggested that “they” will soon arrive somewhere and attack some people with something far more lethal than a two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew. “Violence rarely remains symbolic,” he said.

Columbus never bothered much about democracy, discussion or debate, and his violence was literal, never symbolic. In addition, he was neither decent nor the embodiment of the “American soul,” as Alderman Napolitano calls it, unless he means that Americans should aspire to the murder and slave trading that shocked even some of Columbus’ contemporaries. The admiral was also a dictatorial, incompetent administrator, obtuse geographer, and ambitious social climber. He lied about the actual amounts of and alleged easy access to gold on the Caribbean islands so that he could ingratiate himself to his benefactors at the Spanish court.

When Columbus first arrived in present-day Haiti and Cuba, which he insisted to the end of his days were located in Asia, there was little gold to be found. He instead filled his ships with slaves—indigenous Arawaks—and sent them back to Spain. Many died from disease or abuse on the way to Europe. In Hispaniola, today’s Haiti and Dominican Republic, the Spanish forced Taino men to dig for gold on the island’s mountains and many were dismembered or killed outright for not supplying the required amounts. Forced labor on cassava plantations was also common, and thousands died from starvation, illness, overwork or suicide. Rape was a grim fact for thousands of native women.

A witness to the early colonization of the Caribbean, a Catholic priest named Bartolomé de las Casas, described how the Spaniards under Columbus “thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades.” Other similarly gruesome examples of Spanish rule are legion and make for difficult reading.

Yale University’s Genocide Studies Program estimates that 25 years after Columbus’ arrival, an indigenous population that numbered between several hundred thousand and one million had been reduced to just 32,000.

One can find better, more deserving heroes who actually exhibited the literal, not symbolic, quality of “decency” that could animate the “American soul.” Since there are now two vacant pedestals, I can recommend at least one person: Her name is Florence Scala.

Most people outside of Chicago do not know who she is. For some who are from the city or its environs, however, she is something of a local legend. There is much to recommend her to statue or at least memorial plaque status.

First, the similarities: like Columbus, Scala was of Italian ancestry. She was born in 1918 to Alex and Teresa Giovangelo, immigrants from Italy who settled in the city’s Near West Side Italian neighborhood. Her father was a tailor and her mother a garment worker. Similar to the Admiral of the Ocean Seas, she also did not discover North America. Other people from Asia did that thousands of years earlier, and there is no statue of them in either Grant or Arrigo Park.

But the differences between the two are more instructive. Besides never having participated in ethnic cleansing, Scala stood up to those in power, while Columbus mostly flattered them. She valued building community, fostering democracy, and providing support to vulnerable people; Columbus and his men decimated entire populations in their quest for wealth, fame, and domination.

Scala, whose family had little money for school, started taking classes at the Hull House settlement, which was run by the socially progressive Jane Addams. Like other such organizations, Hull House was located in and served poor immigrant communities by providing meals and an array of free classes. It also offered no-cost concerts, lectures, and vocational training. In addition, Addams and her staff advocated for political and social reform, championing the rights of women and working people from all backgrounds for many decades. Scala volunteered there for over 20 years. She said that when she began to spend time at Hull House, “Life began to open up,” and she and her family realized that “There was something else … beside sewing and pressing.”

In 1961, the city announced that the University of Illinois at Chicago would be built right in her neighborhood. To make way for it, hundreds of homes and businesses, as well as Hull House, would fall victim to the wrecking ball. There were better places for the university, like areas with no people in them, but the city wanted the Little Italy location. Scala headed up a community organization and went to battle with America’s version of Spanish royalty: Mayor Richard J. Daley, last of the big city bosses.

They marched, started petitions, organized, educated, wrote to and visited government officials. Scala and her group camped out on the fifth floor of City Hall, right outside of Daley’s office. One time, as the mayor was leaving for the day, he passed the little group, and then came back, stopping for a moment where Scala was sitting. He asked if he could buy everyone a cup of coffee. Apparently, the mayor felt a little sorry for them. She declined. He shrugged and walked away.

She had met him before and said that he could be disarmingly friendly, full of Irish charm and promises of new housing. She refused to fall for it. Essentially, Scala told a man, who had the power to make or break US presidential candidates and commanded the obedience of thousands of patronage workers, to take a long walk off a short plank.

Later, Scala said that she should have had that cup of coffee with him. She mused that maybe, since he was also the product of a tight-knit ethnic neighborhood, she might have been able to change his mind.

Their fight made it all the way up to the US Supreme Court, but in the end, the university was built, and most of the Hull House settlement destroyed. Daley got what he wanted and went back on his pledge to build new homes for them.

She kept on advocating for the people of her neighborhood, fighting real estate and big business interests and epidemic-level corruption. In 1963, Scala ran as an Independent candidate for the notoriously corrupt First Ward, lorded over by shady Alderman John D’Arco. Before losing the race, her family’s building was bombed. Still, she stood her ground, refused to move away, and remained active in community organizing.

Later, she and her brother, Mario, converted the first floor of their building into a restaurant. She called it Florence.

Scala died in 2007. She was 88.

Those whom we choose to honor are commentaries about the kind of America we would like to be. Crucially, some of our poor choices of flesh-and-blood candidates have been and will continue to be quite literally fatal if we reject the priorities of decent people like Florence Scala.

With or without a statue, she is worth remembering when we cast our ballots in November.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

WGN News: “Christopher Columbus statues removed”

No, Racism isn’t in the Past, and isn’t Rare or Aberrant: Stop Romanticizing https://www.juancole.com/2020/06/racism-aberrant-romanticizing.html Fri, 05 Jun 2020 04:05:24 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=191319

This painting by by Winslow Homer (1836 – 1910) is entitled “The Veteran in a New Field.” He painted it in 1865, not long after Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Lee’s capitulation marked the end of the American Civil War (1861 – 1865) and the death of the Confederacy.

The painting depicts a Union soldier who has just returned to his home in the North after the cessation of hostilities. His military jacket and canteen can be seen lying in the foreground, partially covered by stalks of freshly-cut wheat. It is a peaceful and solitary scene, free from the killing and horror of those preceding four years. For many, like that soldier, there must have been a desperate hunger for normalcy and quiet.

Onto it one may inscribe a national redemption of past wrongs; the South’s horrid slave society was vanquished, and the promise of real democracy has finally emerged. With the war over, life immediately resumes a sane, predictable-as-the-seasons course. Presumably, that should have been true for everyone, white and black alike.

I don’t know what the artist’s original intentions were or what, exactly, he wanted to convey to viewers. However, I think that if the painting were put in front of many twenty-first century white people, some profoundly flawed and self-flattering views of race and US history would be read into it. Namely, that racism is not really so bad now. The evidence? The Civil War and its perceived legacy, civil rights legislation, eventually summoned forth the “angels of our better nature,” as President Abraham Lincoln once put it in a somewhat different vein.

By virtue of the hardships so many suffered in that conflict and the hundreds of years of oppression that finally ended in the wake of that bloodshed, one needed only to reap, like Homer’s former soldier, the future’s promise. Along with vanishing battle lines, racial divisions were supposed to have disappeared, too. There was enough land, food, and opportunity to sustain everyone. It was and is just a question of getting down to work in that newly configured social geography, to cultivate a new field and wait for the bounty of one’s toil. A great leveling force, work and its rewards do not discriminate. After all, that is part of the American Dream. That is our preferred image and interpretation of the country.

Homer completed the painting the same year that the 13th Amendment abolished slavery. Three years after that, in 1868, the 14th Amendment granted citizenship to African-Americans. In 1870, when the US Congress passed the 15th Amendment, black men were granted the right to vote. The following years would briefly witness the election of black lawmakers, something unimaginable just a decade earlier. The Civil War made these possible.

It is true that progress was made, and over the course of succeeding decades some serious inequities were addressed, at least partially (and officially and rhetorically, too).

Much of our contemporary understanding of the country’s past as it relates to race goes something like this: Whatever the Civil War did not fix, then the civil rights movement did. And whatever Martin Luther King did not address, later legislation did. They seem firmly linked in a chain of cause and effect, the inevitable march of American progress. There is affirmative action these days, restrictive covenants are illegal now, and discrimination in hiring is old news. Besides, there are hate crime laws on the books. It seems that we have become the angels of our better nature, just as Lincoln hoped we might, and that means things are not really that bad today. Not as bad as they say, right?

These notions are often translated into a twenty-first-century vernacular: “Get over it already. It’s time to forget the past. All this racism stuff is mostly over. And what about all these programs, like food stamps and welfare and Head Start and supplemental tuition awards? Sure, it’s not perfect, but all this discrimination talk is overblown. People want handouts, special treatment. They just need to get a job. They just need to be responsible. Anyway, things are not really as bad as they say.”

It’s just a question of getting down to work.

And it’s not just ordinary people. Members of the US government tried to obscure unflattering racial antipathies by not admitting them into the public forum. They had long maintained that many racially motivated murders, for example, were not really animated by racism at all. White people lynched nearly 3,500 black men and women between 1882 and 1968. These acts were often seen as aberrations, not symptoms of a deep-seated social pathology. Deemphasizing race, one could construe mob murders of African-Americans as simple, ordinary crimes that needed no special adjudication or classification as a kind of terrorism.

Anti-lynching legislation bills were proposed more than two hundred times in well over a century, unsuccessfully. More than a few lawmakers opposed them. In 1950, Democratic Representative Charles E. Bennet of Florida, for example, opined that “… some lynchings which are called lynchings are truly nothing, completely nothing but ordinary types of murder.” Even when two white men killed a black man, one should never just assume, according to Bennet, that racism was the motive. Skin color was simply incidental. Hostility toward African-Americans must be excised as a reason for vicious acts, even when race was most likely a factor.

Many argue that lynchings happened a long time ago, but it’s not all so safely obscured in the distant past. In 1998, when three white supremacists in Texas tied James Byrd Jr., an African-American man, to a pickup truck and dragged him for several miles until only his torso remained, people back then still said racism was not really that bad.

Hideous, racially-motivated crimes are not just peculiar to the South, of course. Not long before James Byrd’s murder, 13-year-old Lenard Clark of Chicago unwittingly rode his bicycle across an invisible border separating the largely African-American neighborhood of Bronzeville into Bridgeport, an all-white enclave on the city’s South Side. Some young white men beat him into a coma for his transgression. People back then still said racism was not really that bad.

In 2015, when white supremacist Dylann Roof stormed a church in South Carolina and shot nine black people to death, people back then still said racism was not really that bad.

Just this year, when some white men followed and shot 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery for the crime of jogging near them, people said racism was not really that bad.

And they said, they still say, that racism is not really that bad after the murders of Michael Brown, Philando Castile, George Floyd, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Breonna Taylor, and many, many others.

Most white people would not count themselves among the ranks of racists, and many are horrified by these crimes. But minimizing violent acts as aberrant, rare incidents does not efface the bone-deep antipathies in the culture of this country that inform them. It does not remove structural racism and common, unofficial discrimination, the kind that hovers just below legal radar detectors. How can one be an ally in addressing all these problems without first fully recognizing them? The effects of romanticized blindness, of reading what we want into history, of preferring to see better historical results in a better place than the one in which we actually live mean that abuses continue unchecked; it allows tensions and frustrations to grow unabated.

The past is not quite so neatly in the past; it’s still with us, here, now. It’s in burnt African-American churches. It’s in funeral parlors. It’s in telling black people that the rents are high when they really aren’t so they won’t live near you, or that no more apartments are available in the neighborhood when there are plenty to be had; it’s in saying that all the candidates have been hired when they haven’t. It’s in telling people that the only jobs now available are a little lower down on the ladder, but try again next year; it’s in racial profiling and police brutality. It’s in the racial gerrymandering of political districts to quieten the voices of those whose complexion is darker than ours.

It’s the new “For Whites Only” sign.

Many white Americans do not see such messages because they don’t apply to us and we often don’t believe they exist even when we are told. What is more, they are not written in our language. This lexicon has to be translated for us by those who are literate in its nuances because they suffer its meaning.

Still, many refuse to listen because that sort of coded language does not square with how we, fellow white person, would like to think of the country, its historical trajectory, the comforting myths we have constructed, the luxury and privilege (yes, privilege) of refashioning the past and fictionalizing the present to our liking.

Graphic or coded racism and its attendant physical or psychological violence did not end when Winslow Homer’s soldier-farmer and thousands of others returned to their homes. True, much has changed since their time.

But many have been telling us for years, fellow white person, that much else has not changed, and it is long past time that we started to listen: It really is that bad.

How the Trump Administration is Moving us Closer to Nuclear Midnight https://www.juancole.com/2020/02/administration-nuclear-midnight.html Mon, 03 Feb 2020 05:02:04 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=188891 Chicago (Special to Informed Comment) – In 1983, Stanislav Petrov, a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Air Defense Forces, saw something shocking on his computer. The United States had launched a nuclear missile, and it was heading toward Moscow.

Petrov said that he “just sat there for a few seconds, staring at … the screen with the word ‘launch’ on it.”

One minute later, the computer confirmed that it was a real strike.

The US sent a second missile, a third, and then two more in quick succession.

He counted five in all.

“All I had to do,” he recalled, “was to reach for the phone; to raise the direct line to our commanders.”

That was standard practice, but Petrov decided not to confirm an actual launch.

He knew that his superiors in the Kremlin would likely order a retaliatory attack, resulting in terminal nuclear war and the end of life on Earth. He also knew the approximate number of US missiles that had launch capability and reasoned that “When people start a war, they don’t start it with only five missiles.”

He waited.

Nothing happened.

The US did not launch five rockets. It did not launch anything.

It was the autumnal equinox, when the sun’s rays reflect particularly intensely off the tops of higher-altitude clouds. The early-warning satellite had mistaken this light for missiles.

Embed from Getty Images
Photo by EVA HAMBACH / AFP) (Photo by EVA HAMBACH/AFP via Getty Images.

Petrov was reprimanded for not correctly recording the incident in his logbook. Armies around the world are curiously scrupulous about silly things.

Although he did not consider himself a hero, he claimed credit for one thing: he had received a civilian education, not a military one. Petrov said that this allowed him to ponder and doubt. He was not the type to automatically follow orders.

Stanislav Petrov died nearly three years ago, at the age of 77.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that we came so close to disaster. Old technology was less sophisticated than today. Since the dawn of the nuclear age, there have been many false alarms due to technical failures, human error, and accidents. By some miracle, none of them set off a nuclear chain reaction.

Also, after many decades of Cold War animosity, political tensions were running very high. The fall of the Soviet Union was still seven years away back when Lieutenant Colonel Petrov was sitting at his computer, searching the skies for harbingers of death.

However, with that ideological contest long over and advanced computers a contemporary reality, such things would be far less likely to happen now.

That would be reassuring if it were true; it is not. Not even close. In fact, we are today closer to possible annihilation than we were in 1983.

Although appearing briefly in the press but then quickly overshadowed by Trump impeachment news, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently announced its annual Doomsday Clock findings. The organization, whose founding members included Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer, announced that humanity now stands at 100 seconds to midnight, or annihilation. This is the closest it has ever been since the Clock, a metaphor for our proximity to nuclear war, was first created back in 1947. At that time, we stood at seven minutes to midnight. For perspective, one year after Stanislav Petrov’s fateful decision, the world was at three minutes to the end.

Over the last seven decades, the minute hand has fluctuated depending on social and political conditions. In the wake of several arms control treaties, we were, in 1991, at 17 minutes till midnight, the furthest away from self-immolation the planet has witnessed since the beginning of the nuclear era. This is an instructive blueprint for how we can move away from 12 o’clock.

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 was one of the primary drivers of increased threats to human survival. Not long after he entered the White House in 2017, the Doomsday Clock was moved to two and a half minutes, and then to two minutes till midnight in 2018 and 2019. Prior to these years, the closest it had been was in 1953, when the United States and Soviet Union began testing hydrogen bombs.

John Mecklin, the editor-in-chief of the Bulletin’s biannual publication, noted that its “Science and Security Board … moved the clock forward … based in part on Trump’s words and actions during the presidential campaign and the months immediately following [it].” Mecklin further opined that the Board’s initial assessment was insufficient because of what later proved to be the president’s greater-than-expected “intemperate and careless behavior with regard to matters that threaten the whole of humanity.” Scientists and risk experts also considered the president’s “wanton disregard for [international] security” after he had assumed the White House.

Specifically, the approach to midnight over the last several years is largely, though not exclusively, the result of the Trump administration’s scrapping of a vital nuclear arms treaty, the possible non-renewal of another, and its hastening of global warming. The Bulletin’s policy analysts stated in their January press release, “US-Russia cooperation on arms control and disarmament is all but non-existent.” Last summer, for example, the administration refused to renew the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987. According to Jane’s Defence Weekly, the agreement eliminated 2,692 conventional and ground-launched missiles in Europe.

The US claimed that Russia had violated the accord, but investigations and negotiations were never seriously conducted. If they had, good faith discussions could have gone some distance to address the alleged breach. Abandoning the agreement simply opens the way to a new arms race and precludes mutually verifiable inspections. President Trump’s justification was that since Russia might have broke the rules, the deal had to be thrown out because “We always have to be in the lead.”

Another US-Russia nuclear accord that the administration could toss on the scrap heap is the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, which was ratified in 2010. It is essentially an improved version of the START I agreement signed by President George H.W. Bush and Gorbachev in 1991. The Arms Control Association reported that START I limited strategic nuclear warheads to 6,000. New START, however, caps this grade of weapon (as well as some others) at 1,550, marking a 74 percent reduction.

In 2016, candidate Trump falsely claimed that Russia had increased production of these armaments in violation of the treaty’s parameters, while a beleaguered America stuck to it. Russia has, in fact, honored the treaty. In a 2017 phone conversation, Trump reportedly told President Vladimir Putin that New START was a “bad deal” for the US, suggesting that he might withdraw from it.

In June 2019, then-US National Security Advisor John Bolton echoed the president’s sentiments and said in an interview with the Washington Free Beacon that “There [was] no [final] decision” about the treaty’s fate, but “it’s unlikely” that the administration would extend the accord beyond its 2021 deadline.

Putin asserted that his government will sign the agreement without any preconditions.

Recently, Trump has adopted a more conciliatory tone, now claiming that he wants to include China, as well as fold other categories of weaponry into a revised deal. Beijing is not interested, and some commentators have speculated that the president might be willing to let New START expire if he does not get his way. If the treaty is not renewed, then it will be the demise of the last US-Russia arms control agreement.

The Bulletin also points out that the administration and its allies in the US Congress, among other dangerously irresponsible national leaders, are flagrantly disregarding the near-unanimous scientific consensus regarding the threats posed by anthropogenic climate change. Global warming has severely exacerbated storms, floods and draughts, resulting in crop disruption and significant population displacement. Environmental degradation leads to more refugee flight and competition for resources, creating the conditions for more regional conflicts. These factors and the US withdrawal from the Paris climate accord are rapidly driving our species (and many others) to the precipice.

Also, the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review of 2018 outlines a larger role for low-yield nuclear weapons in US strategic considerations. This is deeply troubling. The fact that the executive branch and some members of the Pentagon believe that limited nuclear strikes are safe flies in the face of other, more sober assessments.

For instance, the late Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, would have been horrified by recent developments. His tenure in government was marked by the Cuban Missile Crisis, another incident that nearly wiped out the planet but was avoided thanks to another Russian military officer, Vasily Arkhipov. As a Cold Warrior and an architect of the Vietnam War, McNamara was certainly no dove. Yet, he was intimately familiar with nuclear arms and their destructive capacity.

In an essay published in Foreign Policy in 2005, McNamara said, “There is no way to effectively contain a nuclear strike … no guarantee against unlimited escalation once the first nuclear strike occurs.” He later advocated for the elimination of all nuclear arsenals, a proposal shared by many current and former world leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev. The human and environmental consequences of the detonation of even a few weapons would be nightmarish. As the former defense secretary emphasized, we entertain notions of limited use at our peril.

McNamara’s article, which should be required reading in high schools and universities, is called “Apocalypse Soon.” It is an appropriate title. Back in 2005, when the end was a bit further away, he warned that “The risk of accidental or inadvertent nuclear launch is unacceptably high.” Today, treaties are torn up and inspection programs are ending, resulting in the production of more nuclear weapons. The risks have become even more unacceptable now than they were then.

As we creep closer to midnight, much depends on what we do from here. There might not be another Stanislav Petrov to save us next time.


Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

Quicktake by Bloomberg: “Doomsday Clock: ‘It is 100 Seconds to Midnight'”

Philosopher Slavoj Žižek thinks Trump is in a Perverse Way good For U.S.; Americans Disagree https://www.juancole.com/2019/08/philosopher-perverse-americans.html Mon, 05 Aug 2019 04:35:43 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=185661 (Informed Comment) – In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, noted philosopher and culture critic Slavoj Žižek said in an interview with Channel 4 News in UK that if he had been a US citizen, he would have voted for Donald Trump. Even though Trump “horrifies” him, Hillary Clinton was the “true danger” because “she stands for this absolute inertia [while] pretending to be socially progressive.” Presumably, a Clinton victory would have betrayed or co-opted progressive supporters, and that would have eventually deepened alienation among the electorate, leading to further political stagnation.

He claimed that a Trump win, on the other hand, would force “… both big parties … to return to basics, rethink themselves, and maybe some things can happen there. [I]t will be a kind of big awakening.” In other words, an unorthodox politician like Trump, whose major talents lie in creating deep fear and posing existential threats, would unwittingly engender a radical reaction, injecting a much-needed energy into the body politic. This would fuel real social change in ways that Clinton—or a standard Republican candidate—never could.

Since then, Žižek claimed that recent developments have proved him right. Last June, in an op-ed for the Independent, he writes that “… I stand by what I said, [and] I think last year’s events fully confirmed my choice.” He does not specifically say what those events are, but one may safely assume he means, at least in part, the election of four progressive candidates to the House in the 2018 midterm elections. Is one to suppose that they and the people who elevated them to Congress, a collective constituency of nearly 760,000 people, are some of this Trump-inspired reaction?

Partisans of the far-left, according to Žižek, could never find common cause with establishment Democrats, and Democratic voters have nothing in common with Republicans because of a “growing lack of agreement on the basics in US politics.” It seems that Americans can no longer come to any consensus on anything. Group A believes that its experiences are “alien” to Group B and vice versa. Many “don’t understand [another group’s] feelings and don’t care about [its] vital interests.”

Consequently, Žižek asserts that Trump is the solution to our political impasse since his “victory can start a process out of which an authentic Left would emerge” independent of those like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. In fact, the president has already “triggered a process of radicalization in the Democratic Party.”

Supporting Trump in order to facilitate a kind of radical political reorientation is highly dangerous and irresponsible. We are facing a rapidly accelerating climate catastrophe and have already lost several years under the current regime to do much about it. If Trump wins again, we could well lose—with horrifying consequences—the time that remains. In addition, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the administration’s nuclear arms policies have increased the threat of terminal destruction. Despite his Leftist orientation and sympathy for people like Bernie Sanders, Žižek’s support for Trump and the theoretical rationale for it are part of the problem, not the solution.

The fact that Clinton shifted some of her positions under popular pressure during the primaries and would have likely continued to do so had she become president speaks against Žižek’s notion that after her nomination, she formed an “impossible coalition” with Sanders that was doomed to failure. The Wall Street Journal reported that as she faced off with Sanders in 2016, she became more receptive to demands to change some of her earlier policy plans. For example, she began to support increases in Social Security benefits, backed off from possibly approving the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, supported more gun safety measures, and started to oppose some so-called free trade agreements in response to labor union pressure. Modifications such as these might have become wider as Clinton discovered how well they would have resonated with the public. At the very least, she demonstrated a willingness to change direction. Trump’s government has shown no such flexibility, and that could prove fatal for the reasons mentioned above.

Much of what Žižek argues regarding a great American political schism collapses upon examination. He repeats assumptions, which frequently appear in the press, about a hopelessly divided US population that cannot agree on the basics of social organization or fundamental solutions to pressing problems. There is, in fact, broad agreement on a host of issues (though by no means all), and that consensus has existed for at least eighty years.

A good first step to understand this is to review what Americans have or have not supported over time. Therefore, a reasonable measure of pre and post-Trump attitudes and consensus (or a lack thereof) about matters of basic survival for millions of people can be found in decades of polling data. A brief survey of Americans’ views on poverty alleviation, access to healthcare, public education, and wealth disparities can give us a window into the veracity of Žižek’s claims that there is massive disagreement “on the basics” and that the Trump administration has sparked a new, radical Left.

For decades, much of the public has wanted more, not less, government assistance in response to economic and social troubles, starting at least from the 1930s. A 2010 Pew Research Center analysis of the available public opinion data from 85 years ago found that “… average Americans of the mid-1930s revealed downright ‘socialistic’ tendencies in many of their views about the proper role of government.” Only two percent self-identified as “socialist,” but most supported “liberal” social and economic policies. Much of this is still true today.

Jumping ahead to the post-2008 Great Recession period, a 2011 Gallup poll revealed the following:
• 55 percent opposed cuts to anti-poverty programs
• 66 percent opposed slashing Medicare
• 67 percent opposed defunding public education.

A Pew survey from 2013 found that just two years later—and three years before Trump’s election—those numbers increased, and in some cases, by quite a lot:
• 59 percent wanted to keep spending on poverty alleviation the same
• 69 percent opposed Medicare and Social Security cuts, including 62 percent of Republicans
• 80 percent favored then-current levels or even an increase in public education spending

In terms of wealth distribution, a 2015 Pew study reported,
• 64 percent of the population believed that US corporations do not pay their fair share in taxes
• 67 percent said that wealthy individuals do not contribute enough to US tax rolls

These numbers speak to a wide consensus, suggesting most Americans believe that wealthy, powerful elites unfairly benefit from the current economic system and that income should be distributed in a more equitable manner.

Let’s fast-forward to the Trump administration’s tenure. One might expect, given Žižek’s prediction, that we would witness a dramatic upsurge, a “radical” spike in progressive sentiments. We should therefore see that reflected in greater support for what the GOP calls “entitlement” or “socialist” programs. Pew’s latest study, conducted in 2019, has this to say: “In most cases, the public’s views on government spending have changed little since 2017, but there is considerably more support for increased spending in several areas now than in 2013.” So, starting in 2013, during Democrat Barack Obama’s second term in office, increases in support for social help programs, healthcare, and public education began and then later leveled off, showing little marked change after Trump assumed the presidency.

Žižek inaccurately characterizes Bernie Sanders, and, one assumes, figures like Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as radical leaders of a policy-driven civil war within the Democratic Party. They are not extremists. They represent longstanding, mainstream sentiments, at least if the population is considered a crucial part of the political landscape. The above-mentioned lawmakers, two of whom are current Democratic presidential contenders, seek to continue and build upon Roosevelt’s New Deal: they advocate for greater poverty alleviation, the expansion of a national health service, more funding for Social Security and public education, including free higher education, and a more equitable distribution of wealth. These initiatives are not new, and Sanders, for example, has been supporting them for over fifty years, not since the last presidential election cycle or as a result of Trump’s victory.

The two main political parties have moved in a precariously rightward direction since the 1970s. The population, however, has not, and it is largely aware that it has been left behind. Sanders, Warren, and others say out loud what majorities of Americans would like to see turned into actual policy. To consign them and their preferences, as Žižek does, to some radical, militant category on the left end of the political spectrum unwittingly plays into Republican-authored caricatures of dreamy, unrealistic radicals bent on ruining the country.

Continuing to support Trump will do much more than harm the United States. Given what we face, the damage could become irreparable and global.

Žižek is dead wrong.


Bonus video added by Informed Comment:

David Pakman Show from last month: “Trump Trying to Suppress Polls Showing He’s LOSING”