Rebecca Gordon – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Mon, 12 Feb 2024 03:47:46 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Public Libraries under MAGA Threat: Banning what Matters Mon, 12 Feb 2024 05:02:03 +0000 ( – When my mother died in 2000, I inherited all her books. Sadly, after several moves and downsizings over the decades, her collection had shrunk. Still, it remains considerable and impressive in its own way. Her legacy to me included some special volumes like a first edition of Frederick W. Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management, a famed codification of time-management practices and an origin point for concepts that helped shape work in the last century — and this one, too.

Oh, and there’s also a first American edition of E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End. On the flyleaf, she inscribed this note: “Stolen by Suzanne Gordon.” As the bookplate on the cover’s interior indicates, it was indeed stolen from (or at least never returned to) The Free Library of Philadelphia. When did this bit of larceny occur? It would certainly have been after she married my dad in 1949, when she acquired his surname Gordon, so probably sometime in the 1950s. The good news is that the Philadelphia library still has several copies of Forster’s book on its shelves today, along with audio books and film DVDs of the work. The bad news is that it’s among the many books on the American Library Association’s list of most frequently banned classics.

Of course, the all-American penchant for banning books didn’t begin in the Trump era. Just ask almost anyone who lived through the Red Scare days of the 1950s (not to speak of the first Red Scare of 1917-1920). But the last few years have seen a remarkable acceleration of attempts to keep certain books off the shelves of public and school libraries. The American Library Association reports an almost four-fold increase in the number of banning attempts between 2003 (458) and 2022 (1,269), most of that increase coming between 2020 and 2022. That this new passion for book banning coincides with the rise of Donald J. Trump, MAGA Republicanism, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s failed “anti-woke” presidential campaign is no accident.

The Most Benign Institution

Name any public institution — the U.S. military, say, or a county welfare office – and it’s bound to have its negative aspects. Maybe you appreciate that the military is one of the most racially integrated bodies in the country. At the same time, perhaps you’re distressed by its recent turn to U.S. universities as a locus for the development of A.I.-powered autonomous lethal weaponry. Perhaps you appreciate that your county welfare office helps people get access to benefits they’re entitled to like SNAP (formerly food stamps) and health insurance. At the same time, you may not admire the mental and emotional burden the welfare system places on people working to secure those benefits or the racial animus and disrespect they may encounter in the process.

I’d like to argue that there is, however, one institution that’s almost entirely benign: the public library. As I wish one could say about our medical system, it does no harm (though many right-wingers disagree with me, as we shall see).

What could be more wonderful than a place that allows people to read books, magazines, and newspapers for free? That encourages children to read? That these days offers free access to that essential source of information, entertainment, and human connection, the Internet? It’s even a place where people who have nowhere to live — or who are regularly kicked out of their homeless shelters during daylight hours — can stay dry and warm. And where they, too, can read whatever they choose and, without spending a cent — no small thing — use a bathroom with dignity.

Free public libraries first appeared in this country in the late 1700s or early 1800s, depending on how you parse that institution’s defining characteristics. It’s generally agreed, however, that the first dedicated, municipally funded public library in the world opened in 1833 in Peterborough, New Hampshire. A century earlier, Benjamin Franklin had founded the Philadelphia Library Company, a private, subscription-based outfit, funded by members who paid annual dues.

While members of such libraries would indeed pay annual dues or even buy shares in them, circulating libraries — some operated by publishing companies, others as stand-alone profit-making businesses — charged the public rent on specific volumes. At a time when books were very expensive, circulating libraries made them available to people who couldn’t afford to own the ones they wanted to read. Such libraries were especially attractive to female readers, the main audience for the expanding universe of fiction in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Private-Public Partnerships

I’m lucky to live less than a block from a branch library located in a classical-style two-story stone building. With almost floor-to-ceiling deep-set windows, thick walls, and a hushed interior, the Mission branch of the San Francisco Public Library is an island of peace in the choppy waters of my vibrant neighborhood. In many ways, the Mission is contested territory. Here, the children and grandchildren of Latin American immigrants compete for cultural and commercial space with a new group of migrants — the tech workers who love the Mission District for its edginess, but whose comparatively high earnings are pushing up rents for older residents and, in the process, sanding off some of those edges.

Still, the library serves us all without fail. It has children’s story hours, a bank of Internet-connected computers, and shelves and shelves of books, including a substantial selection of titles in Spanish. Many mornings, I see snaking lines of tiny kids waiting for the library to open so they can listen to stories and exchange last week’s books for a new selection.

Public branch libraries as we know them might never have existed if it weren’t for the munificence of a single obscenely rich private donor. Like more than 2,500 others built worldwide, my branch is a Carnegie library. It was constructed in 1916 with funds provided by the Scottish-American robber baron and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Like every community seeking Carnegie money, San Francisco had to satisfy his specific requirements. It had to demonstrate the need for a public library. It also had to guarantee that it would provide an appropriate building site, salaries for a professional staff, operating funds once it was open, services for free, and (perhaps most importantly) use public money (in addition to any private donations) to support the library. Carnegie believed that communities would only value and maintain their libraries if they were collectively supported by taxpayers. He also thought that libraries belonged in local neighborhoods where potential readers would have easy access to them, so early on he stopped funding the main libraries in cities in favor of neighborhood branches.

Almost 1,700 of these, along with about 100 university libraries, were built in the United States with his money between 1886 and 1929. He also funded them around the world from Canada and Great Britain to Mauritius, Fiji, and New Zealand, among other places. In the Jim Crow South, Carnegie did nothing to oppose racial segregation but did at least apply the same approach and standards to the construction of libraries in Black neighborhoods of segregated cities as in white ones.

In an age when today’s robber barons are investing their money in fantasies of personal survival, whether through cryogenic freezing or riding out climate change in luxurious private bunkers in New Zealand or Hawaii, it’s hard not to have a certain nostalgia for Carnegie’s brand of largesse. I don’t know whether Peter Thiel’s New Zealand “apocalypse insurance” redoubt will still be there a century from now, but my library is already more than 100 years old and I wouldn’t be surprised if it were still offering whatever the equivalent of books might be, assuming no ultimate apocalypse has occurred, 100 years from now.

Threatening the Benign Institution

You might think that an apparently harmless public good like a library would have no enemies. But in the age of Trump and his movement to Make America Grotesque Again, there turn out to be many. Some are “astroturf” outfits like the not-even-a-little-bit-ironically named Moms for Liberty. M4L, as they abbreviate their name, was founded in 2021 in Florida, originally to challenge Covid-era mask mandates in public schools. They’ve since expanded their definition of “liberty” to include pursuing the creation of public school libraries that are free of any mention of the existence of LGBTQ people, gender variations, sex, or racism. In effect, the freedom they are seeking is liberation from the real world.

You won’t be surprised to learn that M4L supported Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s 2022 and 2023 “Don’t Say Gay” laws, which outlaw any discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in public schools, while making it extremely easy for parents or other citizens to demand the removal of books they find objectionable from school libraries. Copycat laws have since been passed in multiple states, including Tennessee where a school district banned MAUS, the bestselling Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, from its curriculum, thanks to eight now-forbidden words and a drawing of a naked mouse. (In doing so, it also drove the book back onto national bestseller lists.)  

One Florida school district chose to play it especially safe, not limiting itself to removing commonly banned books like Push by Sapphire, the 1970s anti-drug classic Go Ask Alice, and Ann Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. According to CBS News, “Also on the list are ‘Merriam-Webster’s Elementary Dictionary,’ ‘The Bible Book,’ ‘The World Book Encyclopedia of People and Places,’ ‘Guinness Book of World Records, 2000,’ ‘Webster’s Dictionary and Thesaurus for Students,’ and ‘The American Heritage Children’s Dictionary.’” I guess the book banners don’t want to risk kids encountering any words they disapprove of in a dictionary.

Contemporary book-banning efforts extend beyond school libraries, where reasonable people might differ (a little!) about what books should be available to children, to public libraries, where book banners seek to keep even adults from reading whatever we choose. EveryLibrary, an anti-censorship organization, keeps a running total of active “legislation of concern” in state legislatures that relates to controlling libraries and librarians. They maintain a continually updated list of such bills (the number of active ones changed just as I was exploring their online list). As of today, they highlight 93 pieces of legislation moving through legislatures in 24 states as varied as Idaho and Rhode Island.

In 2024, they are focusing on a number of key issues, including “bills that would criminalize libraries, education, and museums (and/or the employees therein) by removing long-standing defense from prosecution exemptions under obscenity laws and/or expose librarians to civil penalties.” In addition to protecting libraries and their employees from criminal prosecution for stocking the “wrong” books, they are focusing on potential legislation that could restrict the freedom of libraries to develop their collections as they wish, as well as bills that would defund or close public libraries altogether. Sadly, as those 93 active bills indicate, in all too many states, libraries are desperately under attack.

Legislation pending in Oklahoma offers an interesting example of the kinds of bills moving through statehouses around the country. The proposed “Opposition to Marxism and Defense of Oklahoma Children Act of 2024,” unlike some bills in other states, is not concerned with excising specific offerings from Oklahoma’s library shelves. Rather, it focuses on a key organization, the American Library Association (ALA), which, since 1876, has existed to promote and support librarians. One of the ALA’s most important activities is the accreditation of library schools, where future librarians study their craft.

Oklahoma’s “Opposition to Marxism Act” would outlaw all cooperation with the ALA, including a previously existing requirement that public librarians have degrees from ALA-accredited library schools. In this context, “opposing Marxism” means opposing the main professional organization for librarians and its Oklahoma affiliate. I imagine this has something to do with the ALA’s support for “Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion,” which any MAGA adherent will assure you is just another code word for Marxism.

Like Mother Like Daughter?

I’ve loved libraries since I was a small child. I used to regularly ride my bike to our local branch and return home with a basketful of books. With my mother’s permission to borrow books from the adult section, I had the run of the place. She brooked no censorship in my reading life (although I do remember her forbidding me to see the movie West Side Story because she thought it would be too sad for me).

I seem to have inherited my mother’s regrettable tendency to hold onto library books past their due dates. Or at least I blame her for that terrifying evening when I was perhaps 10 years old and heard the doorbell ringing. My mother called me downstairs to greet the two people on our doorstep. They were probably college kids but, to me at the time, seemed all too grown-up. They were there on a mission: to reclaim seven overdue library books. Fortunately, I knew where in my messy bedroom each one could be found and was able to round them up in a few minutes.

These days, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of my overdue books reclaimed that night wouldn’t even be found on library shelves in some states. (After all, I do remember that my mother introduced me to E.M. Forster when I was still pretty young.)

The tendency to hold onto books past their due date has, alas, continued to this day. Just this morning I received an email reminding me that I needed to return one that was squirreled away in my backpack. So, off I trundled to my neighborhood library, silently thanking Andrew Carnegie and the good people of San Francisco that I still have a library to go to and promising myself not to let any MAGA-minded fools take it away.


Nowhere to Run – The world’s Refugees say, ‘Gimme Shelter’ Tue, 09 Jan 2024 05:06:40 +0000 ( ) – Think of Donald Trump as, in his own fashion, a creature of climate change. After all, in 2015, he descended that escalator into the election race denouncing immigrants at the southern border (those “Mexican rapists”) and calling for a “big, fat, beautiful wall” to be built along those very lands. As 2024 begins, his people are already preparing for a Trumpian future of vast detention camps (or, if you prefer, “concentration camps”) for staggering numbers of immigrants (and god knows who else), many of whom will head for the U.S. because of the devastation that climate change is already delivering elsewhere on Earth. And it’s a phenomenon that will only grow so much worse in the decades to come. After all, as the New York Times recently reported, “The number of asylum cases pending in U.S. immigration courts has surpassed one million, up from about 750,000 in 2022, and from barely 110,000 a decade ago. Another one million cases being assessed by asylum officers are also pending, more than double the number two years ago.” And increasing numbers of them are climate refugees.

We are, in other words, entering a new world. Just imagine that, according to the experts on the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, over the next three decades, up to 143 million people globally could be turned into climate refugees, “uprooted by rising seas, drought, searing temperatures and other climate catastrophes.” And mind you, that isn’t by any means the largest number of climate refugees predicted. Try, for instance, the 1.2 billion by 2050 suggested by the Institute for Economics and Peace.

Sadly, should Donald Trump win the presidency again in 2024, he will have done so by campaigning on his own fantastic, mocking version of “climate change,” which goes like this: “The world is going to be destroyed because the oceans are going to rise 1/100 of an inch within the next 300 years. It’s going to kill everybody.” Yes, indeed, only 1/100th of an inch! And to ensure that unreality, the man who has sworn from day one of his next presidency that he will “drill, drill, drill” will undoubtedly lend quite a hand to making so many of the rest of us climate refugees on this wounded planet of ours (not to speak of putting Mar-a-Lago underwater). And with that, take a moment with TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon to consider just what it means to be a refugee on Planet Earth in these grim years and those to come. Tom

Nowhere to Run

Where Will the World Find Refuge in 2024?

Back in 1968, my father announced that, if Richard Nixon were elected president that November, he was going to move us all to Canada. I’m not sure who “us all” actually was, since my younger brother and I were then living with my mother and my parents had been divorced for years. Still, he was determined to protect us, should someone he considered a dangerous anti-Semite make it into the Oval Office — and leaving the country seemed to him like the best way to do it.

As it happened, Nixon did win in 1968 and none of us moved to Canada. Still, I suspect my father’s confidence that, if things got too bad here, we could always head somewhere else (Canada? Israel?) was a mental refuge for him that fit his own background very well. It was, after all, what his father had done in 1910, when his family was attacked by Cossacks in what’s Ukraine today. His parents had him smuggled out of town in a horse-drawn rig under bales of hay. He then walked across a significant part of Europe and took a boat from Antwerp, Belgium, to New York City. There, he was met by a cousin who brought him to Norfolk, Virginia. Eventually, my grandfather managed to bring his whole family to Norfolk, where he became, among other things, the president of his local Zionist club, fostering his dream of refuge. My father grew up in the haze of that dream.

In the Shadow of the World Wars

In fact, my father’s reliance on the guarantee that he could go “somewhere else” accorded well with the post-World War II international consensus that people in danger of persecution where they lived had a right to seek refuge in another country. Shortly after the formation of the United Nations, that view was codified in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

The Convention consolidated various treaties created by European nations to address the desperate situation of millions of people displaced by the two World Wars. It defined a refugee as a person who:

“As a result of events occurring before 1 January 1951 and owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

More recent regional agreements have expanded that definition to include people subject to external aggression, internal violence, or the serious disturbance of public order, whose lives, in short, have become unsustainable thanks to various forms of systemic violence. The Convention also laid out the obligations of nations receiving refugees — including providing housing, work permits, and education — while recognizing that receiving countries might need assistance from the international community to meet those obligations. It also affirmed the importance of maintaining family unity (something blatantly violated by the Trump administration under its policy of family separation at the U.S.-Mexican border).

With the phrase “events occurring before 1 January 1951” the Convention’s framers alluded to the two world wars of the preceding decades. What they didn’t foresee was that millions more refugees would be churned up in the second half of the twentieth century, much less what humanity would prove capable of producing in this one.

The trajectory was clear enough, however, when, the year before Nixon was elected, the 1967 Protocol to the Convention removed limits on migration-producing events occurring after 1951 and geographical restrictions of any sort. No matter when or where people became refugees, they were now subject to protection in all 148 nations that signed on, including the United States, which signed and ratified both the original Convention and the 1967 Protocol.

Refugees Everywhere

Twenty-first-century conflicts have already created millions of refugees. In fact, by mid-year 2023, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) put the number at 36.4 million worldwide, a number that has doubled in just the last seven years. Three countries alone — Syria (6.5 million), Afghanistan (6.1 million), and Ukraine (5.9 million) —accounted for 52% of all external refugees in 2023.

And keep in mind that those 36.4 million refugees only include people officially registered with the UNHCR (30.5 million) or with UNWRA, the U.N. Works Relief Agency for Palestinians in the Near East (5.9 million). UNWRA was created in 1952, specifically to serve people displaced in the formation of Israel in 1948. Unlike the UNHCR, it provides direct service to registered Palestinian refugees and their descendants in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), and Gaza.

And that figure doesn’t even include the majority of people fleeing war and other systemic and climate violence, who are “internally displaced persons.” They are not counted as refugees in the legal sense because, while they’ve lost their homes, they still remain inside their own national borders. There were — take a breath — 62.2 million internally displaced persons when the UNHCR issued that mid-2023 report.

Where do we find the majority of internally displaced persons? More than 90% of them have been uprooted by events in seven key countries or regions: Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, various Latin America and Caribbean countries, Myanmar, Somalia, Sudan, and Ukraine.

Which countries are taking in refugees? According to the UNHCR, “Low- and middle-income countries host 75% of the world’s refugees and other people in need of international protection.” Furthermore, “the Least Developed Countries provide asylum to 20% of the total.” Despite Donald Trump’s histrionic claims about asylum-seekers pouring into the United States and “poisoning the blood” of this country, the United States is not, in fact, a major recipient of international refugees.

Nor is the United Kingdom, whose Tory government has come up with a perverse scheme to potentially ship any asylum seekers approaching Great Britain by boat to Rwanda for “processing” in return for financial support of various kinds. (In November 2023, that country’s supreme court nixed the plan, but in December the government signed a new agreement with Rwanda, which it claims will satisfy the court’s objections to the agreement.)

In fact, Americans may be surprised to learn that the two countries taking in the most refugees at the moment are Iran and Turkey, at 3.4 million each, followed by Germany and Colombia at 2.5 million each and Pakistan at 2.1 million.

Let me highlight just two areas where, at this very moment, refugees are being created in enormous numbers with no apparent end in sight. One of them people around the world just can’t take their eyes off right now (and for good reason!), while the other seems almost entirely forgotten.

Gaza: Since Hamas’s vicious and criminal October 7th attack on targets in Israel, the world has focused intently on events in Israel-Palestine. The UNHCR’s 2023 report was compiled before the attack and Israel’s subsequent and ongoing genocidal destruction of Gaza, which has seen the deaths of more than 21,000 Gazans (a majority of them women and children) and the loss of more than half of its housing stock and three-quarters of its 36 hospitals. In one sense, Gaza’s residents are not new refugees. More than 85% of its pre-war population of 2.3 million are now “merely” considered internally displaced. Yes, they have been starved, deprived of medical care and potable water, harried by bombs and missiles falling on homes and temporary shelters from one part of that 25-mile-long strip of land to the other, and forced into an ever-shrinking area near Gaza’s southern border with Egypt. Still, for now they remain in Gaza with nowhere else to go.

It’s no secret, however, that the Israeli government intends to change that. On Christmas Day 2023, Prime Minister Netanyahu told the Israeli newspaper Hayom Daily that he is seeking the “voluntary migration” of Palestinians from Gaza. A week earlier, Trump’s former U.N. ambassador and now rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Nikki Haley, had opined that “the Palestinians should have gone to the Rafah crossing and Egypt would have taken care of them.” Even if Egypt were willing to accept more than two million displaced Gazans — which it is not — it would be hard to see such a migration as anything but a forced population transfer, which international law considers a crime against humanity.

Sudan: While the world has watched Gaza’s decimation in horror, an even larger refugee crisis in the African nation of Sudan has gone almost unremarked upon. In 2019, a massive nonviolent movement of Sudanese civilians led to a military coup against longtime dictator Omar Bashir. While the military initially agreed to hand power over to civilian rule in two years, by October 2021, its leaders had declared their intention to remain in power, while the United States, despite rhetoric supporting civilian rule, stood idly by. Since then, war between the military government and a paramilitary group, the Rapid Support Forces, has displaced 4.5 million or more within Sudan, while another 1.2 million have fled to neighboring countries.

Good “Refugees” and Bad “Economic Migrants”

Human beings have always moved around the world, beginning with our first forays out of Africa 60,000 to 70,000 years ago. However, it is only within the last two centuries or so that countries have attempted to control human transit across their borders. International law concerning refugees is even newer, first forged, as noted, in the critical period immediately following World War II.

One perhaps unintentional consequence of those laws, created half a century ago to protect refugees, is the relatively new distinction between them and “economic migrants.” Refugees able to demonstrate a “well-founded fear of being persecuted” have the right to seek asylum in any country that’s signed the U.N. refugee convention. Anyone else, however economically desperate or deeply endangered from, say, increasingly fierce climate-change-induced weather extremes, has no actual right under international law to move to a safer country. That legal reality hardly makes the existential desperation of such migrants any less genuine, as evidenced by the fact that they risk — and lose — their lives daily in perilous sea crossings or thousand-mile treks like the one that passes through Central America’s deadly Darien Gap in a bid for survival. At present, however, international law offers them no special protection.

This will have to change, and quickly, as global warming makes ever more parts of the world increasingly uninhabitable, often in the very areas that are the least responsible for the actual burning of fossil fuels. We all live on one planet, and no country or individual, no matter how rich, can hope to remain insulated from the ever more devastating effects of the continued record burning of fossil fuels and the desperate overheating of our planet.

Bad News at the Border

My father was pretty sure that the Canadians would be glad to receive him and his kids in the event of Nixon’s election. I don’t know what the rules were back then, but today Canada allows “Express Entry for skilled immigrants,” presumably including people from the U.S. wishing to cross that country’s southern border.

It’s not so easy, however, for immigrants, skilled or otherwise, hoping to cross the southern border of the United States these days. Despite our signature on the Convention on refugees, people seeking refugee status in this country now face almost insurmountable barriers. And those designated mere “economic” migrants have little hope of ever gaining legal residence in the United States.

Despite his promise to take “immediate actions to reform our immigration system,” three years after his election and the defeat of the man who had promised to build that “big, fat, beautiful wall” on our southern border, President Biden has done little to alleviate the situation. While he did end the Trump family separation plan and allow Covid-era restrictions on migration to expire, he’s kept in place a version of another Trump policy: denying asylum in the United States to migrants who fail to first request it in another country they’re passing through on the way to this one. So, as many as 10,000 immigrants a day now cross illegally into the United States. Since May, almost half a million of them have been caught and deported. As of this writing, 11,000 are living in camps on the Mexican side of the border, having applied for asylum using the Biden administration’s cell phone app. No one knows how long they will be there while this country’s overburdened asylum system limps along and election 2024 fast approaches (along with Trump’s proposed plans to create vast border deportation camps).

To be fair to Biden, with the exception of President Obama’s creation of a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status for immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally as children, no administration or Congress has done much of significance over the past 40 years to address immigration issues in this country. What institutions do exist, including immigration courts, remain desperately underfunded, leading to staggeringly lengthy waiting times for asylum applicants.

The situation at the frontiers of wealthy countries like the U.S. will undoubtedly only get worse. Nations like ours can’t hope to keep the human urge for survival forever bottled up on our borders.

My father said he’d go to Canada if Nixon were elected. Recently, I’ve heard a few friends echo that intention should another dangerous authoritarian — Donald Trump — regain the White House in January 2025. If that were to happen, people around the world, citizens and migrants, the sheltered and unsheltered alike, can expect things to get so much worse. For us in the United States, emigration won’t be an option. Like it or not, we’ll have to stay and fight.


Is it Time (Once Again) for Nonviolent Rebellion? On Ending Dreams of Revenge in Israel, Palestine, and Elsewhere Wed, 29 Nov 2023 05:02:54 +0000 ( – When I was in my early twenties, I seriously considered murdering someone. He had given my best friend genital herpes, which many health practitioners then believed was the agent responsible for causing cervical cancer in women. (It wasn’t.)

Back in the 1970s, though, I believed that, by infecting my friend, he might have set in motion a process that would someday kill her. That he was an arrogant jerk made it that much easier for me to contemplate murdering him. But there was a larger context to my private dream of revenge. My anger was also fed by a growing awareness that so many of us were just then acquiring of the history of systematic patriarchal threats to, and constraints on, the lives of women. And in those heady days of second-wave radical feminism, I could imagine killing that man as a legitimate response, however brutal, to the male violence that seemed to surround me, and as part of a larger uprising of women.

Lest you think that my sense of systemic, state-supported male violence was nothing more than a fever dream of the times, remember that, in the 1970s, domestic violence was still often treated as a predictably normal possibility in marriage. Men’s white sleeveless T-shirts were known as “wife-beaters” and, on reruns of The Honeymooners, I could still watch comedian Jackie Gleason threaten to use his fist to send his wife Alice “to the moon.” Oh, and should you think that everything has changed since then, today, more than half a century after my murderous daydreaming, the Supreme Court is considering a case that could overturn a federal law prohibiting someone from buying a gun while still under a domestic-violence restraining order.

When I remember what I considered doing at the time, however, I’m now horrified. Even then, I was an antiwar activist, a proponent of nonviolent action against the still-ongoing American war in Vietnam and in the struggle for Black rights here at home. But truly grasping the level of woman-hatred then drove me a little crazy and gave me the urge to fight back in kind.

Epistemic Certainty and War

Was I overreacting to the idea of my friend getting a sexually transmitted disease? Of course I was, especially by trusting so completely my “knowledge” about the connection between herpes and cervical cancer. In fact, what I “knew” would prove dead wrong decades later. Indeed, I didn’t even know (with what a philosopher might call “epistemic certainty“) that my friend had gotten herpes from that particular guy in the first place. But someone gave it to her, and someone, I thought, should pay.

My murderous intentions then might serve as a miniature version of President George W. Bush’s epistemic certainty in 2003 that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. (It didn’t.) Did Bush and his vice president, Dick Cheney, truly believe in those weapons of mass destruction? My guess is that they just wanted to invade Iraq and didn’t care one way or the other. Nonetheless, enough people in this country did believe in them — including that illustrious flagship newspaper the New York Times — for the invasion to take place with the support of a majority of Americans.

According to the Iraq Body Count project, at least 300,000 people would die in that war, a substantial majority of them civilians. Brown University’s Costs of War Project has tallied up the human costs of all of America’s post-9/11 wars of revenge and found that “at least 940,000 people have been killed by direct war violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan. The number of people who have been wounded or have fallen ill as a result of the conflicts is far higher.”

Millions more, Costs of War’s research suggests, were killed indirectly through economic collapse, the disruption of public services and health systems, and environmental contamination. And 38 million people were displaced from their homes thanks to Washington’s post-9/11 “Global War on Terror.” That’s about 1,300 people made homeless for each of the almost 3,000 who died in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Those 9/11 attacks were a hideous crime. But none of the 19 men directly responsible for them were citizens of any of the countries against which the United States launched its wars of reprisal. (Fifteen were Saudis, two were from the United Arab Emirates, one was Egyptian, and one Lebanese.) Still, it didn’t matter to the people of this country. Someone had killed almost 3,000 of us that day, so someone had to pay.

Horror from Gaza, Horror in Gaza

On October 7, 2023, as the world watched in horror, the military wing of Hamas launched a surprise attack from Gaza, murdering about 1,200 people, most of them Israelis, most of them civilians, significant numbers of them children. They kidnapped as many as 240 others, a few of whom have since died and a few of whom have been released. I must admit that I’m glad my father, raised as an Orthodox Jew in this country, didn’t live to see that day.

Like the U.S. in 2001, Israel has now launched its war of reprisal. The announced goal is the complete destruction of Hamas, which, whether achievable or not, now seems to entail the destruction of much of Gaza itself.

More than 12,000 people, nearly half of them children, have already been killed as of this writing. Half the population — over a million people — have been forcibly displaced from the northern to the southern part of Gaza, supposedly to avoid a crushing aerial war. Meanwhile, an estimated 45% of all housing units in the north have been damaged or destroyed. On November 16th, however, Israel began warning people in Khan Younis, a town in southern Gaza that they would have to move again, as its ground war continued to expand.

To understand what this means, it’s helpful to look at a map of the area. It’s called the Gaza “Strip” because it’s a roughly rectangular little strip of land, less than 25 miles long and 10 miles wide at its widest point. Yet it houses 2.2 million people (half of whom are 18 or younger). It’s surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea on the west, Egypt to the south, and Israel on the east and north. Because most Gazans can never leave and communication with the rest of the world has largely been controlled by Israel, it has been described as the world’s largest open-air prison.

Epistemic Certainty (and Bombs) Strike Again

Despite the fact that international humanitarian law, including the Geneva Conventions, absolutely forbids attacks on medical facilities in wartime, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) launched repeated raids on a number of hospitals and health centers, including the Al-Shifa Hospital, a sprawling medical center in northern Gaza. Here we encounter another instance of how epistemic certainty is used to justify wars and their inevitable collateral damage. In this case, the Israeli government maintained that Al-Shifa sat atop a major Hamas command-and-control center, part of a network of underground tunnels. Just as certainty about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction justified American crimes in those post-9/11 wars, certainty about a command center that may well turn out not to exist justified attacks on one of northern Gaza’s last functioning hospitals.

There’s no need to further catalog the horrors of this war here. The world’s media has done little else for the last month and a half. Meanwhile, wars continue elsewhere: an ongoing conflict in Sudan has killed thousands and displaced millions to almost no notice in the U.S. media; Europe is living through a World War I-style conflict in Ukraine, where Russian and Ukrainian armies continue to chew through the lives of thousands of soldiers to advance a few yards in one direction or the other.

War Works — for the Weapons Companies

“War! What is it good for?”

That’s the question the Motown group the Temptations asked back in 1968. Their answer, as people my age will remember, was: “Absolutely nothing!” Modern wars almost always kill more civilians than combatants, especially when collateral effects like the destruction of infrastructure are taken into account, and they rarely achieve their stated objectives.

And yet, today’s wars are regularly fought because people believe war is the best, often the only method of protecting innocent people from violent death. Collective human experience would seem to suggest the opposite. As a means of preventing death, war really does leave something to be desired. Even if you’re willing to treat the deaths of enemy civilians as a “necessary” price to pay for your own people’s survival, history suggests that, in the long run, those deaths won’t protect you. Unless the IDF is prepared to kill everyone in Gaza, it’s unlikely that those who live through the present nightmare will come out of it with less desire to kill Israelis than they had before it started.

It turns out, however, that wars — big and small — are good for something: enriching the corporations that manufacture weapons. As the Los Angeles Times reported in September, the war in Ukraine has been a boon to weapons manufacturers, especially in the United States:

“Weapons companies are seeing their shares rise on the stock market to their best level in years, with indexes for the defense sector outperforming those tracking the broader market by a wide margin… The combat in Ukraine, now in its second year, has jacked [up] the global arms trade, fueling a new appetite for matériel not just in Moscow and Kyiv but also around the world as nations gird themselves for possible confrontations. The war has rocked long-standing relationships within the weapons industry, rejiggered the calculations of who sells what to whom and changed customers’ tastes in what they want in their arsenal.”

One example of this realignment: Israel and the United Arab Emirates have started a joint weapons development project. European governments, too, from the United Kingdom to Germany, have raised their weapons-production game, with Germany pledging to spend $100 billion to re-equip its armed forces in the next few years.

Now, Ukraine seeks to kill two birds (and a lot of people) with one stone, by partnering with U.S. companies to turn the country into what the Associated Press calls a “weapons hub for the west.” As the Ukrainian Minister for Strategic Industries Oleksandr Kamyshin told the AP, “We’re really focusing on making Ukraine the arsenal of the free world.”

War may not be healthy for children and other living things, but it’s great for the arms industry.

Is There No Alternative?

Why, when war so rarely seems to achieve its stated aims, are the people who seek alternatives to it invariably considered naïve or stupid? Where is the wisdom in doing the same murderous thing again and again, each time expecting a different outcome?

War, we are told, is necessary because there is no legitimate alternative. Refusal to use violence when you’ve been attacked or when you live under a regime of grinding oppression is at best stupidity and at worst cowardice. Yet for decades, as journalist Peter Beinart wrote eloquently in the New York Times after the October 7th attacks, Palestinians, who are neither stupid nor cowards, have done precisely that — employing time-honored strategies like the 2018 March of Return, a series of massive peaceful demonstrations at the Israeli wall surrounding Gaza. In the nonviolent Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, or BDS, Palestinians have adopted a method once employed by the African National Congress to bring pressure on South Africa’s apartheid regime. As a senator, Joe Biden voted for sanctions on South Africa, but as president, he’s condemned the BDS movement as “too often veer[ing] into antisemitism.”

In Israel/Palestine, it turns out there is an alternative to war, indeed more than one. It’s not easy or safe, however. The Israeli organization Standing Together, for example, unites Palestinians and Jews in concrete work, like running a bilingual hotline for people affected by violence or racism, in an effort to bypass what they see as the stagnation miring both major NGOs and the leftist parties in Israel. In the wake of the October 7th attack, they wrote to their supporters:

“After over a month in this horrific reality, the feelings of despair are starting to creep up on everyone. It’s in moments like these that solidarity and hope are more important than ever. If we let despair win, we lose our ability to act, and if we don’t act, we won’t have an impact on our reality. We know that, in these incredibly difficult times, we must continue to act — by strengthening the partnership between Jews and Palestinians — and working together to start to think about what happens the day after this deadly war ends, and what kind of society we want to build.”

Standing Together is not alone in seeking another way. One of those killed by Hamas was peace activist Vivian Silver, who spent her life building connections between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis. She served on the board of B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, and routinely drove Gazans in her car to healthcare appointments in Israel. In her newsletter, her friend Dana Mills, a former director of the Israeli group Peace Now, wrote that “the only way to avenge this horrific loss of Vivian’s life” is to continue to support her demand for justice and peace for everyone “between the river and the sea.”

That response to Silver’s death continues the tradition of nonviolent action as the only possible means of interrupting a deadly cycle of revenge and counter-revenge.

In her essay “On Revolution and Equilibrium,” written at the height of the Black Power movement, the nonviolent activist Barbara Deming addressed a number of critiques of nonviolent action by her comrades. Far from being a coward’s way out, Deming argued, nonviolence in response to aggression is so difficult precisely because it’s so dangerous. On the other hand, nonviolence doesn’t condemn your own side to mass suicide. Take the long view, the one that might extend beyond our own personal deaths, and you’ll see that eventually those who oppose violent oppression with nonviolent obstruction will take fewer casualties than those who choose armed struggle. Eventually (though never soon enough), we’ll wear out the opposition. Yes, some of us will certainly die in the process, because we face real violence. But we’re already dying. The only question is how to prevent more death.

As Deming wrote,

“In nonviolent struggle, the violence used against one may mount for a while (indeed, if one is bold in one’s rebellion, it is bound to do so), but the escalation is no longer automatic; with the refusal of one side to retaliate, the mainspring of the automation has been snapped and one can count on reaching a point where de-escalation begins. One can count, that is, in the long run, on receiving far fewer casualties.”

I am glad that I encountered this tradition of vigorous nonviolent struggle back when I was in the grip of that murderous rage. It convinced me that I could take more effective action against the systems that demeaned and constrained me than any of my nightmare dreams of violent revenge could offer. The longer I live, the surer I become that, in a world filled with deadly armed struggles, nonviolent rebellion is the only way off the hamster wheel of war.


Republican Contradictions: Are they Fascists or Nihilists — or Both? Wed, 25 Oct 2023 04:02:14 +0000 ( ) – Sometimes the right wing in this country seems like a riddle wrapped in an enigma encased in a conundrum.

Do they want to strengthen the government in line with the once-fringe doctrine of the “unitary executive,” concentrating most official power in the hands of a president who would then rule more or less by fiat? That’s the fascist position. 

Or would they prefer to destroy the government, to “starve the beast,” something anti-tax activist Grover Norquist used to call for decades ago? “I don’t want to abolish government,” he declared. “I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” That’s the anti-government nihilist position.

You might not think that those two goals could coexist comfortably within a single party. And of course, you’d be right if you were talking about an ordinary American political party. But the Republicans are no longer an ordinary party. In many respects, in fact, they have become the however-fractious sole property of one Donald J. Trump. That former and quite possibly (God forbid) future president has no trouble simultaneously advocating contradictory, not to mention devastating, ideas. That’s because, for him, ideas are an entirely fungible currency that he deploys primarily to maintain the attention and adulation of his — and it is increasingly his alone — GOP “base.” And precisely because Trump has so little invested in actual policy, the right wing believes he’s a weapon they can point and shoot in whatever direction they choose.

You might also wonder why, at a moment when horror is being heaped on horror in Israel/Palestine, when wars continue unabated in Ukraine and Sudan, I find myself focusing on some distinctly in-the-weeds aspects of the American political system. Perhaps it’s partly to distract myself from all the other nightmares around us. But even if I believed (which I don’t) that the right response to the crisis in Israel/Palestine involved sending more weapons and money to Benjamin Netanyahu, Congress isn’t in a position to appropriate anything at the moment.

Just as we face so many crises globally, the legislative branch of the world’s (theoretically) most powerful country has ceased to function. Perhaps by the time you read this, Republicans in the House of Representatives will have stopped squabbling over which right-wing bigot should be speaker. Maybe they will have opted for Jim Jordan, who has accused the Biden administration of planning to replace white voters with immigrants, or perhaps someone else entirely. Remember, too, that whatever joker emerges as speaker from such a chaotic process will be second in line to the presidency, should something happen to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

Fearsome Power

Recently, I’ve somehow managed to end up on a few right-wing email lists. The strangest people (Ron DeSantis, for example) are writing to ask me for money. My most recent supplicant was Stephen Miller, former senior adviser to President Trump and co-author, with Steve Bannon, of Trump’s 2017 inaugural address in which the new president inveighed darkly against the “American carnage” he saw defiling the nation’s landscape. These days, Miller is himself a president of something called the America First Legal Foundation, which bills itself as “Fighting Back against lawless executive actions and the Radical Left.”

Miller, it turns out, has written to let me know that “we are living in extremely perilous times and a truly dangerous moment for our Republic.” As it happens, I agree with him, though obviously not for the same reasons. “The federal bureaucracy has turned against the American people,” Miller’s missive continues. “It has been completely corrupted into an ideological monolith of hard-left loathing for America. The fearsome power [his emphasis] of the state is raining down on political dissidents, while violent and vile criminals are released into our communities.” The solution, of course, is to send money to America First Legal, so it can get on with the business of “Fighting Back against lawless executive actions.”

Miller, however, will likely be less concerned about the fearsome power of the state once it’s again in the hands of Donald Trump. Indeed, he’s part of a group of former and present Trump advisers engaged in planning for a potential presidential transition in 2025. These include Russell Vought, who ran Trump’s  Office of Management and Budget, and former Trump White House chief of personnel John McEntee. As the New York Times reported in July,

“Mr. Vought and Mr. McEntee are involved in Project 2025, a $22 million presidential transition operation that is preparing policies, personnel lists and transition plans to recommend to any Republican who may win the 2024 election. The transition project, the scale of which is unprecedented in conservative politics, is led by the Heritage Foundation, a think tank that has shaped the personnel and policies of Republican administrations since the Reagan presidency.”

The key thrust of Project 2025 is full implementation of the “unitary executive” principle — the view that the Constitution locates the power of the executive branch in a single individual, the president. In its maximalist version, according to the Times, this theory also contradicts the long-held doctrine of the separation of powers, under which three co-equal branches of government — executive, legislative, and judicial — provide checks and balances on each other. Under the unitary executive principle, presidential power simply outweighs that of either Congress or the Supreme Court. Project 2025’s backers know that Donald Trump will agree and act accordingly.

By “long-held doctrine” I mean a blueprint for democratic government that goes back to two seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political philosophers: Charles Montesquieu, who first wrote about the separation of powers, and John Locke, whose ideas about unalienable rights were enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Like Montesquieu, Locke advocated for a separation of governmental powers in which the legislative, not the executive, would be supreme. In that view, the democratically elected legislature makes a nation’s laws and — just as the name suggests — the executive exists to “execute” them.

Despite their occasional homages to Montesquieu and Locke, the Heritage Foundation and its followers have flipped that thinking upside down by insisting that the Constitution considers the executive branch superior to the other two. If that were the case, wouldn’t the executive branch be described in that document’s first article? In fact, Articles I, II, and III describe the legislative, executive, and judicial functions in that order, suggesting that if any of these is superior, it is (as Locke argued) the legislative.

Heritage, however, points to Article II, which begins: “The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. He shall hold his Office during the Term of four Years, and, together with the Vice President, chosen for the same Term, be elected, as follows…” What “follows” is a lengthy description of the very electoral process that Trump and company tried so hard to suborn on January 6, 2021.

While Trump was president, he delighted in explaining to anyone who’d listen that he had “an Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” At the time, that suggestion of ultimate power was met with widespread derision.

However, were Trump to be re-elected, the folks at the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 and the America First Policy Institute have plans to, as the starship Enterprise captain Jean-Luc Picard would say, make it so. As the Times reported in July, their goal is “to alter the balance of power by increasing the president’s authority over every part of the federal government that now operates, by either law or tradition, with any measure of independence from political interference by the White House.” Consider what follows a first step in exactly that direction.

A (Schedule) F in Government

Okay, now let’s truly dive into the weeds: In his final year as president, Trump issued an executive order amending the regulations governing the federal civil service. That service was instituted by law in 1871 in response to what was then seen as rampant favoritism throughout the federal government. Patronage jobs — positions granted, often to the friends and family of powerful politicians or in return for money or favors — were officially eliminated. Competitive processes designed to select qualified candidates for specific positions replaced the old system.

Today, the Office of Personnel Management oversees the hiring and firing of roughly 2.2 million civilian federal employees, the people who keep the wheels of government turning. They administer Social Security, Medicare, and the Internal Revenue Service, among many other things. They make sure that your meat isn’t rotten and the alcohol content of your vodka bottle is what it says on the label.

The vast majority of those employees are chosen through competitive examinations, but about 4,000 key positions are directly appointed by the president or other senior officials, including the leadership of many agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and other government executives. It’s not unreasonable for presidents to want to put their own policy stamp on various branches of government through such appointments.

Those 4,000 positions exempted from competitive hiring fall into five categories, delineated in five “schedules” (lists) described in a subsection of Title 5 of the United States Code. To be exact, Rule VI of Subsection A of Title 5 — I told you we were going to get into the weeds! — lists in Schedules A through E the employees exempt from civil service exams.

Or at least those were all the exempt categories until October 2020. That’s when Donald Trump issued an executive order creating Schedule F, which exempted from competitive hiring all “career positions in the Federal service of a confidential, policy-determining, policy-making, or policy-advocating character.”

Such a broad, ill-defined category could, in fact, have come to include any junior employee in any federal department who might in the course of his or her employment have cause to send a memo to a superior advocating any action. It’s estimated that implementing Schedule F would have sent the number of exempt civil service employees soaring from 4,000 to roughly 50,000.

On taking office, however, President Joe Biden immediately rescinded that executive order so, at the moment at least, Schedule F no longer exists.

In fact, the feckless President Trump we knew wasn’t even vaguely prepared to replace 50,000 civil servants with his own people during his last few months in office or, likely as not, over the following four years had he been re-elected. That’s where the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025 comes in. They are now spending millions of dollars to recruit and vet political appointees who would toe the Trump line (a line they hope to draw in a future Trump presidency).

Jokers to the Right of Me…

The rock band Stealers Wheel caught our current situation perfectly back in 1972 when they sang about “Clowns to the left of me/Jokers to the right.” The jokers to the right of me (and to the right of the majority of the people in this country) are the members of the House Freedom Caucus, their allies, and other MAGA followers. They are the ones (de)constructing the house of cards that Congress is becoming at this very moment. To call them anarchists would be an insult to conscientious anarchists everywhere. They are, in fact, anti-government nihilists who believe in little beyond a kind of gun-slinging performative violence. They don’t want to drown the government quietly in a bathtub but to strangle it on live TV. And keep in mind that they have imagined nothing with which to replace it.

Where to begin? Those Freedom Caucusers in the House are now walking weapons in search of a target. Yes, they threatened to shut down the government unless their demands were met, but then they couldn’t even decide what those demands were. Did they want to cut Social Security, Medicare, and other social service programs? Impeach President Biden? Stop the prosecutions of Donald Trump? Increase border security? Stop funding Ukraine’s war effort?

When House Speaker Kevin McCarthy agreed to cooperate with the Democrats to prevent just such a shutdown, they threw him out. Then they couldn’t agree on a new speaker, even though the House of Representatives can’t conduct business without one. Yet not a day passes without a bomb-thrower like Matt Gaetz strutting around saying things like:

“My goal is to get the most conservative Speaker of the House with broad trust across the conference. The Swamp of Washington D.C. is going crazy right now because they are not in complete and total control — this gives us a great opportunity to put the interests of our fellow Americans first.”

All Together Now

Much of this would be funny if it weren’t so deadly serious. However, recent polls suggest that a 2024 contest between Donald Trump and Joe Biden remains a toss-up. As historian Heather Cox Richardson recently told the Guardian, “Democracies die more often through the ballot box than at gunpoint.” The re-election of Trump. she believes, will signal

“an end of American democracy. I have absolutely no doubt about that, and he’s made it very clear. You look at Project 2025, which is a thousand pages on how you dismantle the federal government that has protected civil rights, provided a basic social safety net, regulated business, and promoted infrastructure since 1933. The theme of his 2024 campaign is retribution.

“I don’t think people understand now that, if Donald Trump wins again, what we’re going to put in power is those people who want to burn it all down.”

I can’t say it any better than she has. They want to burn it all down so that they can rule over the smoldering ashes. That would put us on a true Schedule F — for Failed State — a condition this country now seems hellbent on achieving.


Getting old in America is another Lonely Game of Haves and Have-Nots; It doesn’t have to be this Way Fri, 22 Sep 2023 04:02:47 +0000 ( ) – For twelve years starting in 1982, my partner and I in San Francisco joined with two friends in Seattle to produce Lesbian Contradiction: A Journal of Irreverent Feminism, or LesCon for short. We started out typing four-inch columns of text and laying out what was to become a quarterly tabloid on a homemade light table. We used melted paraffin from an electric waxer to affix strips of paper to guide sheets the size of the final pages.

Eventually, we acquired Macintosh computers, trekking to a local copy shop to pay 25 cents a page for laser-printed originals. We still had to paste them together the old-fashioned way to create our tabloid-sized pages. The finished boards would then go to a local commercial printing press where our run of 2,000 copies would be printed.

This was, of course, before ordinary people had even heard of email. Our entire editorial process was mediated through the U.S. Postal Service, with letters flying constantly between our two cities. On the upside, through 12 years and 48 issues, we only had to hold four in-person meetings.

All of which is to say that I’m old. That fact — and recent events in the lives of several friends — have brought to mind the first article I ever published in LesCon: “Who’s Going to Run the Old Dykes’ Home?” It’s a question that’s no less pertinent today, and not just for lesbians. My worldview was more parochial back then; I naively believed that someone — the state or their families — would look out for heterosexual elders, but that we lesbians were on our own. It turns out that we — the people of this country — are all on our own.

Playing Aging Roulette

These days, my partner and I seem to be doing a lot of elder care. Actually, I’ve long been a source of tech support for the octogenarian set, beginning with my own father. (“OK, you’re sure you saved the file? Can you remember what name you gave it?”) With our aging friends, we also help out with transport to doctors’ offices, communications issues (with landlines, cell phones, and the Internet), and occasionally just relieving the loneliness of it all.

In recent months, elderly friends of ours have faced losing their housing, their spouses, their mobility, or their cognitive abilities. I find it terrifying and ache because there’s so little I can do to help them.

I shouldn’t be surprised, but I’m daily reminded that getting older can indeed be frustrating and frightening. It pains me to know that my bones are weakening, that I don’t hear as well as I used to, that my skin’s drier and wrinkling, that my once familiar face in the mirror is growing ever stranger. I’m lucky that — like my father who used to say, “After 70, it’s all maintenance” — I’ve managed to maintain a fair amount of brown hair on my head. I especially hate the way words that used to leap down my tongue in merry cadence now frequently lurk sullenly in the backwaters of my brain.

In a piece about our aging political class, Robert Reich, secretary of labor for President Bill Clinton, has written charmingly about the “diminutions” that come with growing older and his own decision to stop teaching after decades of doing so. His take on anomic aphasia is similar to mine. He laments his trouble remembering people’s names, noting that “certain proper nouns have disappeared altogether. Even when rediscovered, they have a diabolical way of disappearing again.” I know what he means. For some years now, whenever I want to talk about cashew nuts, all I can initially think of is “carob.” Some devious gremlin has switched those words somewhere in the card catalog of my brain.

But even as I grieve for capacities lost and departing, I’m still not ready to come face to face with the only true alternative to aging: not some tech bro’s wet dream of eternal life, but the reality of death. I’m opposed to dying and, had the universe consulted me, I’d have left mortality out of its design completely.

No One Else Is Going to Do It for Us

Written more than 40 years ago, parts of my piece “The Old Dykes’ Home” are flat-out embarrassing now. Getting old seemed so strange and far off before I was even 30. When I imagined being aged then, I think it was with the piercing sorrow of Paul Simon’s song “Old Friends/Bookends”:

“Can you imagine us years from today
Sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange to be seventy”

In other ways, my article was depressingly prescient about just how much this country would expect aging people to shift for themselves by the time I reached that strange period of my own life. Not only old dykes, but pretty much anyone who isn’t affluent, can find that old age brings economic desperation.

Yes, U.S. citizens and permanent residents over 65 can get medical attention through Medicare, but the standard program only covers 80% of your bills. Beginning in 2006, we gained access to some prescription drug coverage, but that requires sifting through an ever-changing menu of medications and the ability to predict today what meds you might need tomorrow.

Most people who live long enough will receive some monthly income from Social Security, although the amount depends in part on how much they were able to earn during their working lives. But we’re constantly staving off attacks on Social Security, including attempts to privatize it, reduce benefit amounts, or increase the age at which people can collect because Americans are living longer. That last proposal, as economist Paul Krugman has pointed out, is really another way of penalizing low-wage workers. As he wrote,

“Life expectancy has indeed risen a lot for the affluent, but for the less well-paid members of the working class, it has hardly risen at all. What this means is that calling for an increase in the retirement age is, in effect, saying that janitors can’t be allowed to retire because lawyers are living longer. Not a very nice position to take.”

Suppose the disabilities of age mean you can no longer safely live in your own home. Well, you’re on your own. Unless you can afford to move to some kind of assisted-living facility, you’re in real trouble. Your main alternative is to spend down most of what you own, so you qualify for the pittance that your state Medicaid program will pay a (most likely for-profit) nursing home to warehouse you until you die.

The threat of being old and unhoused is very real. A recent major study of unhoused people in California found that almost half of them are over 50 and 7% over 65. As housing costs continue to rise, we can only expect that more old people will find themselves on the street.

Back then, I wrote that, under capitalism, we could expect the “owners of wealth” to do very little for people who are no longer creating profits through their labor — or indirectly, by doing the work “to make it physically and emotionally possible for the paid laborers to go out in the world and work one more day.” Why, after all, should capital take any interest in people who are no longer a source of profit?

These are the people — old, disabled, permanently unemployed — who, according to the political philosopher Iris Marion Young, experience a particularly sinister form of oppression: marginalization. “Marginalization,” writes Young, “is perhaps the most dangerous form of oppression. A whole category of people is expelled from useful participation in social life and thus potentially subjected to severe material deprivation and even extermination.”

There were some other missing pieces in that article. I left out the fact that it’s easier to justify low pay for the art (and science) of caregiving when most of its practitioners are women. I failed to envision caretakers organizing on their own. I never imagined that, decades later, a National Domestic Workers Alliance would arise to represent the interests of the poorly paid, disrespected workforce of immigrants and women of color who largely do the work of caring for the aged in this country.

I had just lived through an episode in which on the bus to work I suddenly fainted from pain caused by a herniated disk in my back. I found myself lying on my bed for several months recovering while living on a monthly welfare check of $185 and food stamps. Still, the lesson I drew was that the solution to caring for people with chronic disabilities was what had then worked for me: drawing on a community of volunteers, a roster of almost 30 women who took turns shopping for groceries, doing my laundry, and ferrying me to doctors’ appointments. Why couldn’t that work for everyone?

That network of support existed, however, because I belonged to a lesbian community self-consciously constructing a parallel society tucked inside the larger city of Portland, Oregon. It was packed with institutions like a women’s bookstore, a drop-in community center, a women’s mental health project, and a feminist credit union, among others. I acted with a women’s theater company and, at times, worked as a secretary at a women’s law cooperative.

In reality, though, we weren’t nearly as independent as we thought we were. Most of those institutions were staffed by women paid through the Comprehensive Education and Training Act, passed during the presidency of Richard Nixon and continued under Jimmy Carter. When Ronald Reagan and his new brand of Republicans took over in Washington in 1981, those salaries disappeared almost overnight — and with them, most of our community’s infrastructure.

So, my answer to the problem of aging then was to endorse an ethic of volunteerism rooted in specific communities, like our lesbian one. “Feminists,” I wrote, “are rightly uneasy about asking each other to perform any more unpaid work in our lives than we, and centuries of women before us, have already done.”

Nevertheless, I argued, “the truth is… no one is going to pay us to take care of each other… and we can’t afford to believe the capitalist and patriarchal lie that we are cheating each other when we ask each other — even strangers — to do that work for free.”

In retrospect, it seems clear to me that I was then inching my way toward an ethos that could free the project of caring for each other from the claws of capitalism. But I was naïve about the amount of time and energy people would be able to spare outside of their day’s labor — especially as real wages were about to stagnate and then begin to fall. I didn’t imagine a time to come when people without much money would need to work two or even three jobs just to get by. I didn’t think, as I do now, that it would be better, instead, to focus on raising the status and pay of caring work.

Even back in the 1980s, however, I recognized the limits of volunteerism. I knew that I’d been lucky during my period of temporary disability. I was an outgoing person with quite a sizeable set of acquaintances. With a reasonable levity of spirit and a dependable store of gossip, I knew then that I could make taking care of me relatively pleasant.

But I also knew that no one’s survival should depend on having a winning personality. Instead, as I wrote at the time, we needed to “develop simple, dependable structures to serve those among us who require physical care.”

How hard could that be, after all? “A file of volunteers and a rotating coordinator could do the job,” I wrote then. Here, too, I was more sadly prescient than I even realized. In recent years, the market for aging care has indeed found a way to commercialize volunteer efforts like the ones I imagined in the form of Internet-based options like Lotsa Helping Hands and Mealtrain.

On Our Own?

My point back then was that, as lesbians, we were on our own. No one was going to run the Old Dykes’ Home if we didn’t do it ourselves. (Perhaps I should have foreseen then that someone might indeed run it, if they could make money doing so!) I figured we had 10 to 15 years to develop “formal networks of support to deal with illness and disability,” because eventually each of us would need such structures. We lesbians would have to look out for ourselves because we lived then “on the edges of society.” I didn’t realize at the time that we shared those edges with so many other people.

Building volunteer structures was, I thought, just the short-term goal. The longer-term project was something much more ambitious: to build “a world in which the work of caring for each other happens not at the fringes of society, but at its heart.”

I still believe in that larger goal, and not because it’s a lovely fantasy, but because it’s a response to a fundamental reality of life. It’s a fact that human beings, like all beings, live in a web of interdependence. Every one of us is implicated, folded into that web, simultaneously depending on others, while others depend on us. The self-reliant individual is an illusion, which means that constructing societies based on that chimera is a doomed enterprise, bound in the end (just as we’ve seen) to fail so many on whom — though we may not know it — we depend.

Aging really is a roulette game. My partner and I are gambling that good genes, regular exercise, a reasonable diet, and sufficient mental stimulation will keep our limbs, organs, and minds hale enough to, as they say, “age in place.” We plan to stay in the house we’ve occupied for more than 30 years, in the neighborhood where we can walk to the library and the grocery store. We don’t plan to get Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s or congestive heart failure or (like yet another friend) take a life-changing fall down a flight of stairs. Having somehow forgotten to have children (and never wanting to burden even our hypothetical offspring in any case), we’re planning to take care of ourselves.

Talk about hubris!

The truth is that we have much less control than we’d like to believe over how we’ll age. Tomorrow, one of us could lose the disability lottery, and like so many of our friends, we could be staring at the reality of growing old in a society that treats preparation for — and survival during — old age as a matter of individual personal responsibility.

It’s time to take a more realistic approach to the fact that all of us lucky enough to live that long will become ever more dependent as we age. It’s time to face reality and place caring for one another at the heart of the human endeavor.


Kissinger at 100: Did Realism really require War Crimes? Fri, 25 Aug 2023 04:02:08 +0000 ( ) – Henry Alfred Kissinger turned 100 on May 27th of this year. Once a teenage refugee from Nazi Germany, for many decades an adviser to presidents, and an avatar of American realpolitik, he’s managed to reach the century mark while still evidently retaining all his marbles. That those marbles remain hard and cold is no surprise.

A couple of months after that hundredth birthday, he traveled to China, as he had first done secretly in 1971 when he was still President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser. There — in contrast to the tepid reception recently given to U.S. officials like Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry — Kissinger was welcomed with full honors by Chinese President Xi Jinping and other dignitaries.

‘That ‘lovefest,’” as Daniel Drezner of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy wrote at Politico, “served the interests of both parties.” For China, it was a signal that the United States would be better off pursuing the warm-embrace policy initiated so long ago by Nixon at Kissinger’s behest, rather than the cold shoulder more recent administrations have offered. For Kissinger, as Drezner put it, “the visit represents an opportunity to do what he has been trying to do ever since he left public office: maintain his relevancy and influence.”

Even as a centenarian, his “relevancy” remains intact, and his influence, I’d argue, as malevolent as ever.

Rehab for Politicians

It’s hard for powerful political actors to give up the stage once their performances are over. Many crave an encore even as their audience begins to gaze at newer stars. Sometimes regaining relevance and influence is only possible after a political memory wipe, in which echoes of their terrible actions and even crimes, domestic or international, fade into silence.

This was certainly the case for Richard Nixon who, after resigning in disgrace to avoid impeachment in 1974, worked hard for decades to once again be seen as a wise man of international relations. He published his memoirs (for a cool $2 million), while raking in another $600,000 for interviews with David Frost (during which he infamously said that “when the president does it, that means it is not illegal”). His diligence was rewarded in 1986 with a Newsweek cover story headlined, “He’s Back: The Rehabilitation of Richard Nixon.”

Of course, for the mainstream media (and the House of Representatives debating his possible impeachment in 1974), Nixon’s high crimes and misdemeanors involved just the infamous Watergate break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters and his subsequent attempts to cover it up. Among members of the House, only 12, led by the Jesuit priest Robert Drinan, had the courage to suggest that Nixon be charged with the crime that led directly to the death of an estimated 150,000 civilians: the secret and illegal bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam war.

More recently, we’ve seen the rehabilitation of George W. Bush, under whose administration the United States committed repeated war crimes. Those included the launching of an illegal war against Iraq under the pretext of eliminating that country’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction, attempting to legalize torture and unlawful detentions, and causing the death of almost half a million civilians. No matter. All it took for the mainstream media to welcome him back into the fold of “responsible” Republicans was to spend some years painting portraits of American military veterans and taking an oblique swipe or two at then-President Donald Trump.

A “Statesman” Needs No Rehabilitation

Unlike the president he served as national security adviser and secretary of state, and some of those for whom he acted as an informal counselor (Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush), Kissinger’s reputation as a brilliant statesman never required rehabilitation. Having provided advice — formal or otherwise — to every president from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Donald Trump (though not, apparently, Joe Biden), he put his imprint on the foreign policies of both major parties. And in all those years, no “serious” American news outfit ever saw fit to remind the world of his long history of bloody crimes. Indeed, as his hundredth birthday approached, he was greeted with fawning interviews by, for example, PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff.

His crimes did come up in the mainstream, only to be dismissed as evidence of his career’s “broad scope.” CNN ran a piece by David Andelman, a former New York Times foreign correspondent and one-time student of Kissinger’s at Harvard. He described watching “in wonder” as demonstrators gathered outside New York City’s 92nd Street YMCA to protest a 2011 talk by the great man himself. How, he asked himself, could they refer to Kissinger as a “renowned war criminal”? A few years later, Andelman added, he found himself wondering again, as a similar set of protesters at the same venue decried Kissinger’s “history concerning Timor-Leste (East Timor), West Papua, Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, Cyprus, Bangladesh, Angola, and elsewhere.”

The “events they were protesting were decades in the past,” he observed, having happened at a time when most of the protestors “were only barely alive.” In effect, like so many others who seek to exonerate old war criminals, Andelman was implying that the crimes of the past hold no meaning, except perhaps in testifying “to the broad scope of people, places, and events that [Kissinger] has influenced in the course of a remarkable career.” (“Influenced” serves here as a remarkable euphemism for “devastated” or simply “killed.”)

Fortunately, other institutions have not been so deferential. In preparation for Kissinger’s 100th, the National Security Archive, a center of investigative journalism, assembled a dossier of some of its most important holdings on his legacy. They provide some insight into the places named by those protestors.

A Dispassionate Cold Warrior

If nothing else, Kissinger’s approach to international politics has been consistent for more than half a century. Only actions advancing the military and imperial might of the United States were to be pursued. To be avoided were those actions that might diminish its power in any way or — in the Cold War era — enhance the power of its great adversary, the Soviet Union. Under such a rubric, any indigenous current favoring independence — whether political or economic — or seeking more democratic governance elsewhere on Earth came to represent a threat to this country. Such movements and their adherents were to be eradicated — covertly, if possible; overtly, if necessary.  

Richard Nixon’s presidency was, of course, the period of Kissinger’s greatest influence. Between 1969 and 1974, Kissinger served as the architect of U.S. actions in key locales globally. Here are just a few of them:

Papua, East Timor, and Indonesia: In 1969, in an effort to keep Indonesia fully in the American Cold War camp, Kissinger put his imprimatur on a fake plebiscite in Papua, which had been seeking independence from Indonesia. He chose to be there in person during an “election” in which Indonesia counted only the ballots of 1,100 hand-picked “representatives” of the Papuan population. Unsurprisingly, they voted unanimously to remain part of Indonesia.

Why did the United States care about the fate of half of a then strategically unimportant island in the South China Sea? Because holding onto the loyalty of Indonesia’s autocratic anticommunist ruler Suharto was considered crucial to Washington’s Cold War foreign policy in Asia. Suharto himself had come to power on a wave of mass extermination, during which between 500,000 and 1.2 million supposed communists and their “sympathizers” were slaughtered.

In 1975, Kissinger also greenlighted Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor, during which hundreds of thousands died. In contravention of U.S. law, President Gerald Ford’s administration (in which Kissinger continued to serve as national security adviser and secretary of state after Nixon’s resignation) provided the Indonesian military with weapons and training. Kissinger waved off any legal concerns with a favorite aphorism: “The illegal we do immediately; the unconstitutional takes a little longer.”

Southeast Asia: Beginning in 1969, Kissinger was also the architect of Richard Nixon’s secret bombing campaign in Cambodia, an attempt to interdict the flow of supplies from North Vietnam to the revolutionary Viet Cong in South Vietnam. He believed it would force the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table. In this, the great statesman was sadly mistaken. It’s fair to say, in fact, that Kissinger either initiated or at least supported just about every one of the ugly tactics the U.S. military used in its ultimately losing war in Vietnam, from the carpet bombing of North Vietnam to the widespread use of napalm and the carcinogenic herbicide Agent Orange to the CIA’s Phoenix Program, which led to the torturing or killing of more than 20,000 people.

The Vietnam War might well have ended in 1968, rather than dragging on until 1975, had it not been for Henry Kissinger. He was acting as a conduit to North Vietnam for the administration of President Lyndon Johnson, which was working on a peace deal it hoped to announce before the 1968 presidential election. Believing Republican candidate Richard Nixon would be more likely to advance his version of U.S. strategic interests in Vietnam than Democratic candidate and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Kissinger passed information about those negotiations with the North Vietnamese on to the Nixon campaign. Although Nixon had no clout in Hanoi, he had a channel to U.S. ally and South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu and convinced him to pull out of the peace talks shortly before the election. Thanks to Kissinger, the war would follow its cruel course for another seven years of death and destruction.

Pakistan and Bangladesh: In 1971, in a famous “tilt” towards Pakistan, Kissinger gave tacit support to that country’s military dictator General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan. In response to a surprise victory by an opposition party in Pakistan’s first democratic election, Yahya then loosed his military on the people of East Pakistan, that party’s geographical base. Three million people died in the ensuing genocidal conflict that eventually led to the creation of the state of Bangladesh. In addition, as many as 10 million members of Bengali ethnic groups fled to India, inflaming tensions between Pakistan and India, which eventually erupted in war. Although the U.S. Congress had forbidden military support for either nation, Kissinger arranged for an American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to travel to the Bay of Bengal and provide war materiel to Pakistan. (By then, contempt for congressional restrictions had become a habit for him.)

But why the tilt toward Pakistan? Because that country was helping Kissinger create his all-important opening to China and because he also viewed India as a “Soviet stooge.”

For all his supposedly “brilliant statesmanship,” Kissinger proved incapable of imagining any event as having a significant local or regional meaning. Only the actions or interests of the great powers could adequately explain events anywhere in the world.

Latin America: There was a time when September 11th called to mind not the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon but the violent 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende, Chile’s elected socialist president. That coup, which made General Augusto Pinochet the country’s dictator, was the culmination of a multi-year U.S. campaign of economic and political sabotage, orchestrated by Henry Kissinger.

Once again, a genuinely indigenous economic reform movement was (mis)interpreted as evidence of growing Soviet strength in South America. Within the first few days of the coup, 40,000 people would be imprisoned at the National Stadium in the capital, Santiago. Many of them would be tortured and murdered in the first stages of what became a regime characterized for decades by institutionalized torture.

Similarly, Kissinger and the presidents he advised supported Argentina’s “Dirty War” against dissidents and the larger Operation Condor, in which the CIA coordinated coups d’état, repression, torture, and the deaths of tens of thousands of socialists, students, and other activists across Latin America.

So, what should we give a hundred-year-old presidential adviser for his birthday? How about a summons to appear at the International Criminal Court to answer for the blood of millions staining his hands?

What’s Real about Realpolitik?

If you google images for “realpolitik,” the first thing you’ll see is a drawing of Henry Kissinger holding forth to a rapt Richard Nixon. As a political thinker who prides himself on never having been swayed by passion, Kissinger would seem the perfect exemplar of a realpolitik worldview.

He eschews the term, however, probably because, given his background, he recognizes its roots in the nineteenth century German liberal tradition, where it served as a reminder not to be blinded by ideology or aspirational belief when taking in a political situation. Philosophically, realpolitik was a belief that a dispassionate examination of any situation, uninflected by ideology, was the most effective way to grasp the array of forces present in a particular historical moment.

Realpolitik has, however, come to mean something quite different in the United States, being associated not with “what is” (an epistemological stance) but with “what ought to be” — an ethical stance, one that privileges only this country’s imperial advantage. In the realpolitik world of Henry Kissinger, actions are good only when they sustain and advance American strategic power globally. Any concern for the wellbeing of human beings, or for the law and the Constitution, not to mention democratic values globally, is, by definition, illegitimate if not, in fact, a moral failing.

That is the realpolitik of Henry Alfred Kissinger, an ethical system that rejects ethics as unreal. It should not surprise anyone that such a worldview would engender in a man with his level of influence a history of crimes against law and humanity.

In fact, however, Kissinger’s brand of realpolitik is itself delusional. The idea that the only “realistic” choices for Washington’s leaders require privileging American global power over every other consideration has led this country to its current desperate state — a dying empire whose citizens live in ever-increasing insecurity. In fact, choosing America first (as Donald Trump would put it) is not the only choice, but one delusional option among many. Perhaps there is still time, before the planet burns us all to death, to make other, more realistic choices.

Via (

The Ugly Side of American Exceptionalism: Refusing to Play by the Rules Wed, 26 Jul 2023 04:02:08 +0000 ( ) – In 1963, the summer I turned 11, my mother had a gig evaluating Peace Corps programs in Egypt and Ethiopia. My younger brother and I spent most of that summer in France. We were first in Paris with my mother before she left for North Africa, then with my father and his girlfriend in a tiny town on the Mediterranean. (In the middle of our six-week sojourn there, the girlfriend ran off to marry a Czech she’d met, but that’s another story.)

In Paris, I saw American tourists striding around in their shorts and sandals, cameras slung around their necks, staking out positions in cathedrals and museums. I listened to my mother’s commentary on what she considered their boorishness and insensitivity. In my 11-year-old mind, I tended to agree. I’d already heard the expression “the ugly American” — although I then knew nothing about the prophetic 1958 novel with that title about U.S. diplomatic bumbling in southeast Asia in the midst of the Cold War — and it seemed to me that those interlopers in France fit the term perfectly.

When I got home, I confided to a friend (whose parents, I learned years later, worked for the CIA) that sometimes, while in Europe, I’d felt ashamed to be an American. “You should never feel that way,” she replied. “This is the best country in the world!”

Indeed, the United States was, then, the leader of what was known as “the free world.” Never mind that, throughout the Cold War, we would actively support dictatorships (in Argentina, Chile, Indonesia, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, among other places) and actually overthrow democratizing governments (in Chile, Guatemala, and Iran, for example). In that era of the G.I. Bill, strong unions, employer-provided healthcare, and general postwar economic dominance, to most of us who were white and within reach of the middle class, the United States probably did look like the best country in the world.

Things do look a bit different today, don’t they? In this century, in many important ways, the United States has become an outlier and, in some cases, even an outlaw. Here are three examples of U.S. behavior that has been literally egregious, three ways in which this country has stood out from the crowd in a sadly malevolent fashion.

Guantánamo, the Forever Prison Camp

In January 2002, the administration of President George W. Bush established an offshore prison camp at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The idea was to house prisoners taken in what had already been labelled “the Global War on Terror” on a little piece of “U.S.” soil beyond the reach of the American legal system and whatever protections that system might afford anyone inside the country. (If you wonder how the United States had access to a chunk of land on an island nation with which it had the frostiest of relations, including decades of economic sanctions, here’s the story: in 1903, long before Cuba’s 1959 revolution, its government had granted the United States “coaling” rights at Guantánamo, meaning that the U.S. Navy could establish a base there to refuel its ships. The agreement remained in force in 2002, as it does today.)

In the years that followed, Guantánamo became the site of the torture and even murder of individuals the U.S. took prisoner in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries ranging from Pakistan to Mauritania. Having written for more than 20 years about such U.S. torture programs that began in October 2001, I find today that I can’t bring myself to chronicle one more time all the horrors that went on at Guantánamo or at CIA “black sites” in countries ranging from Thailand to Poland, or at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, or indeed at the Abu Ghraib prison and Camp NAMA (whose motto was: “No blood, no foul”) in Iraq. If you don’t remember, just go ahead and google those places. I’ll wait.

Thirty men remain at Guantánamo today. Some have never been tried. Some have never even been charged with a crime. Their continued detention and torture, including, as recently as 2014, punitive, brutal forced feeding for hunger strikers, confirmed the status of the United States as a global scofflaw. To this day, keeping Guantánamo open displays this country’s contempt for international law, including the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Convention against Torture. It also displays contempt for our own legal system, including the Constitution’s “supremacy” clause which makes any ratified international treaty like the Convention against Torture “the supreme law of the land.”

In February 2023, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, became the first representative of the United Nations ever permitted to visit Guantánamo. She was horrified by what she found there, telling the Guardian that the U.S. has

“a responsibility to redress the harms it inflicted on its Muslim torture victims. Existing medical treatment, both at the prison camp in Cuba and for detainees released to other countries, was inadequate to deal with multiple problems such as traumatic brain injuries, permanent disabilities, sleep disorders, flashbacks, and untreated post-traumatic stress disorder.”

“These men,” she added, “are all survivors of torture, a unique crime under international law, and in urgent need of care. Torture breaks a person, it is intended to render them helpless and powerless so that they cease to function psychologically, and in my conversations both with current and former detainees I observed the harms it caused.”

The lawyer for one tortured prisoner, Ammar al-Baluchi, reports that al-Baluchi “suffers from traumatic brain injury from having been subjected to ‘walling’ where his head was smashed repeatedly against the wall.” He has entered a deepening cognitive decline, whose “symptoms include headaches, dizziness, difficulty thinking and performing simple tasks.” He cannot sleep for more than two hours at a time, “having been sleep-deprived as a torture technique.”

The United States, Ní Aoláin insists, must provide rehabilitative care for the men it has broken. I have my doubts, however, about the curative powers of any treatment administered by Americans, even civilian psychologists. After all, two of them personally designed and implemented the CIA’s torture program.

The United States should indeed foot the bill for treating not only the 30 men who remain in Guantánamo, but others who have been released and continue to suffer the long-term effects of torture. And of course, it goes without saying that the Biden administration should finally close that illegal prison camp — although that’s not likely to happen. Apparently it’s easier to end an entire war than decide what to do with 30 prisoners.

Unlawful Weapons

The United States is an outlier in another arena as well: the production and deployment of arms widely recognized as presenting an immediate or future danger to non-combatants. The U.S. has steadfastly resisted joining conventions outlawing such weaponry, including cluster bombs (or more euphemistically, “cluster munitions”) and landmines.

In fact, the United States deployed cluster bombs in its wars in Iraq, and Afghanistan. (In the previous century, it dropped 270 million of them in Laos alone while fighting the Vietnam War.) Ironically — one might even say, hypocritically — the U.S. joined 146 other countries in condemning Syrian and Russian use of the same weapons in the Syrian civil war. Indeed, former White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that if Russia were using them in Ukraine (as, in fact, it is), that would constitute a “war crime.”

Now the U.S. has sent cluster bombs to Ukraine, supposedly to fill a crucial gap in the supply of artillery shells. Mind you, it’s not that the United States doesn’t have enough conventional artillery shells to resupply Ukraine. The problem is that sending them there would leave this country unprepared to fight two simultaneous (and hypothetical) major wars as envisioned in what the Pentagon likes to think of as its readiness doctrine.

What are cluster munitions? They are artillery shells packed with many individual bomblets, or “submunitions.” When one is fired, from up to 20 miles away, it spreads as many as 90 separate bomblets over a wide area, making it an excellent way to kill a lot of enemy soldiers with a single shot.

What places these weapons off-limits for most nations is that not all the bomblets explode. Some can stay where they fell for years, even decades, until as a New York Times editorial put it, “somebody — often, a child spotting a brightly colored, battery-size doodad on the ground — accidentally sets it off.” They can, in other words, lie in wait long after a war is over, sowing farmland and forest with deadly booby traps. That’s why then-Secretary General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon once spoke of “the world’s collective revulsion at these abhorrent weapons.” That’s why 123 countries have signed the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions. Among the holdouts, however, are Russia, Ukraine, and the United States.

According to National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, the cluster bombs the U.S. has now sent to Ukraine each contains 88 bomblets, with, according to the Pentagon, a failure rate of under 2.5%. (Other sources, however, suggest that it could be 14% or higher.) This means that for every cluster shell fired, at least two submunitions are likely to be duds. We have no idea how many of these weapons the U.S. is supplying, but a Pentagon spokesman in a briefing said there are “hundreds of thousands available.” It doesn’t take much mathematical imagination to realize that they present a real future danger to Ukrainian civilians. Nor is it terribly comforting when Sullivan assures the world that the Ukrainian government is “motivated” to minimize risk to civilians as the munitions are deployed, because “these are their citizens that they’re protecting.”

I for one am not eager to leave such cost-benefit risk calculations in the hands of any government fighting for its survival. That’s precisely why international laws against indiscriminate weapons exist — to prevent governments from having to make such calculations in the heat of battle.

Cluster bombs are only a subset of the weapons that leave behind “explosive remnants of war.” Landmines are another. Like Russia, the United States is not found among the 164 countries that have signed the 1999 Ottawa Convention, which required signatories to stop producing landmines, destroy their existing stockpiles, and clear their own territories of mines.

Ironically, the U.S. routinely donates money to pay for mine clearance around the world, which is certainly a good thing, given the legacy it left, for example, in Vietnam. According to the New York Times in 2018:

“Since the war there ended in 1975, at least 40,000 Vietnamese are believed to have been killed and another 60,000 wounded by American land mines, artillery shells, cluster bombs and other ordnance that failed to detonate back then. They later exploded when handled by scrap-metal scavengers and unsuspecting children.”

Hot Enough for Ya?

As I write this piece, about one-third of this country’s population is living under heat alerts. That’s 110 million people. A heatwave is baking Europe, where 16 Italian cities are under warnings, and Greece has closed the Acropolis to prevent tourists from dying of heat stroke. This summer looks to be worse in Europe than even last year’s record-breaker when heat killed more than 60,000 people. In the U.S., too, heat is by far the greatest weather-related killer. Makes you wonder why Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill eliminating required water breaks for outside workers, just as the latest heat wave was due to roll in.

Meanwhile, New York’s Hudson Valley and parts of Vermont, including its capital Montpelier, were inundated this past week by a once-in-a-hundred-year storm, while in South Korea, workers raced to rescue people whose cars were trapped inside the completely submerged Cheongju tunnel after a torrential monsoon rainfall. Korea, along with much of Asia, expects such rains during the summer, but this year’s — like so many other weather statistics — have been literally off the charts. Journalists have finally experienced a sea change (not unlike the extraordinary change in surface water temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean). Gone are the tepid suggestions that climate change “may play a part” in causing extreme weather events. Reporters around the world now simply assume that’s our reality.

When it comes to confronting the climate emergency, though, the United States has once again been bringing up the rear. As far back as 1992, at the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, President George H.W. Bush resisted setting any caps on carbon-dioxide emissions. As the New York Times reported then, “Showing a personal interest on the subject, he singlehandedly forced negotiators to excise from the global warming treaty any reference to deadlines for capping emissions of pollutants.” And even then, Washington was resisting the efforts of poorer countries to wring some money from us to help defray the costs of their own environmental efforts.

Some things don’t change all that much. Although President Biden reversed Donald Trump’s move to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate accords, his own climate record has been a combination of two steps forward (the green energy transition funding found in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, for example) and a big step back (greenlighting the ConocoPhillips Willow oil drilling project on federal land in Alaska’s north slope, not to speak of Senator Joe Manchin’s pride and joy, the $6.6 billion Mountain Valley Pipeline for natural gas).

And when it comes to remediating the damage our emissions have done to poorer countries around the world, this country is still a day late and billions of dollars short. In fact, on July 13th, climate envoy John Kerry told a congressional hearing that “under no circumstances” would the United States pay reparations to developing countries suffering the devastating effects of climate change. Although at the U.N.’s COP 27 conference in November 2022, the U.S. did (at least in principle) support the creation of a fund to help poorer countries ameliorate the effects of climate change, as Reuters reported, “the deal did not spell out who would pay into the fund or how money would be disbursed.”

Welcome to Solastalgia

I learned a new word recently, solastalgia. It actually is a new word, created in 2005 by Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht to describe “the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment.” Albrecht’s focus was on Australian rural indigenous communities with centuries of attachment to their particular places, but I think the concept can be extended, at least metaphorically, to the rest of us whose lives are now being affected by the painful presences (and absences) brought on by environmental and climate change: the presence of unprecedented heat, fire, noise, and light; the presence of deadly rain and flooding; and the growing absence of ice at the Earth’s poles or on its mountains. In my own life, among other things, it’s the loss of fireflies and the almost infinite sadness of rarely seeing more than a few faint stars.

Of course, the “best country in the world” wasn’t the only nation involved in creating the horrors I’ve been describing. And the ordinary people who live in this country are not to blame for them. Still, as beneficiaries of this nation’s bounty — its beauty, its aspirations, its profoundly injured but still breathing democracy — we are, as the philosopher Iris Marion Young insisted, responsible for them. It will take organized, collective political action, but there is still time to bring our outlaw country back into what indeed should be a united community of nations confronting the looming horrors on this planet. Or so I hope and believe.


Yes, We have home-grown Fascists: And Now They’re beginning to say the quiet Part Out Loud Mon, 26 Jun 2023 04:02:41 +0000 ( ) – One day when I was about six, I was walking with my dad in New York City. We noticed that someone had stuck little folded squares of paper under the windshield wipers of the cars parked on the street beside us. My father picked one up and read it. I saw his face grow dark with anger.

“What is it, Papa?”

“It’s a message from people who think that all Jews should be killed.”

This would have been in the late 1950s, a time when the Nazi extermination of millions of Jews in Europe was still fresh in the American consciousness. Not, you might have thought, a good season for sowing murderous antisemitism in lower Manhattan. Already aware that, being the daughter of a Jewish father and gentile mother, I was myself a demi-semite, I was worried. I knew that these people wanted to kill my father, but with a typical child-centered focus, I really wanted to know whether the gentile half of my heredity would protect me in the event of a new Holocaust.

“Would they kill me, too?” I asked.

Yes, he told me, they would if they could. But he then reassured me that such people would never actually have the power to do what they wanted to. It couldn’t happen here.

I must admit that I’m grateful my father died before Donald Trump became president, before tiki-torch-bearing Nazi wannabes seeking to “Unite the Right” marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, chanting “Jews will not replace us!” before one of them drove his car into a crowd of counterdemonstrators, killing Heather Heyer, and before President Trump responded to the whole event by declaring that “you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”

Are Queer People the New Jews?

Maybe the grubby little group behind the tracts my father and I saw that day in New York would have let me live. Maybe not. In those days home-grown fascists were rare and so didn’t have that kind of power.

Now, however, there’s a new extermination campaign stalking this country that would definitely include me among its targets: the right-wing Republican crusade against “sexual predators” and “groomers,” by which they mean LGBTQI+ people. (I’m going to keep things simple here by just writing “LGBT” or “queer” to indicate this varied collection of Americans who are presently a prime target of the right wing in this country.)

You may think “extermination campaign” is an extreme way to describe the set of public pronouncements, laws, and regulations addressing the existence of queer people here. Sadly, I disagree. Ambitious would-be Republican presidential candidates across the country, from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis to the less-known governor of North Dakota, Doug Burgum, are using anti-queer legislation to bolster their primary campaigns. For Florida, it started in July 2022 with DeSantis’s Parental Rights in Education act (better known as his “Don’t Say Gay” law), which mandated that, in the state’s public schools,

“Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

In April 2023, DeSantis doubled down, signing a new law that extended the ban all the way up through high school. Florida teachers at every level now run the very real risk of losing their jobs and credentials if they violate the new law. And queer kids, who are already at elevated risk of depression and suicide, have been deprived of the kind of affirming space that, research shows, greatly reduces those possibilities.

Is Florida an outlier? Not really. Other states have followed its lead in restricting mentions of sexual orientation or gender identity in their public schools. By February of this year, 42 such bills had been introduced in a total of 22 states and are creating a wave of LGBT refugees.

But the attacks against queer people go well beyond banning any discussion of gayness in public schools. We’re also witnessing a national campaign against trans and non-binary people that, in effect, aims to eliminate such human beings altogether, whether by denying their very existence or denying them the medical care they need. This campaign began with a focus on trans youth but has since widened to include trans and non-binary people of all ages.

Misgendering: As of 2023, seven states have laws allowing (or requiring) public school teachers to refuse to use the preferred pronouns of students if they don’t match their official sex. This behavior is called “misgendering” and it’s more than a violation of common courtesy. It’s a denial of another person’s being, their actual existence, and can have a lethal effect. Such repudiation of trans and non-binary young people significantly increases their chances of committing suicide.

It also increases the chances that their non-queer peers will come to view them with the kind of disrespect and even contempt that could also prove lethal and certainly increases their chances of becoming targets of violence. In 2022, for example, CBS News reported that “the number of trans people who were murdered in the U.S. nearly doubled between 2017 and 2021.” It’s no accident that this increase correlates with an increase in high-profile political and legal attacks on trans people. Sadly, but not surprisingly, race hatred has also played a role in many of these deaths. While Blacks represent about 13% of trans and non-binary people, they accounted for almost three-quarters of those murder victims.

Medical care: Laws allowing or even requiring misgendering in classrooms are, however, only the beginning. Next up? Denying trans kids, and ultimately trans adults, medical care. As of June 1st of this year, according to the national LGBT rights organization Human Rights Campaign, 20 states already ban gender-affirmative medical care for trans youth up to age 18. Another seven states now have such bans under consideration.

What is “gender affirmative” medical care? According to the World Health Organization, it “can include any single or combination of a number of social, psychological, behavioral, or medical (including hormonal treatment or surgery) interventions designed to support and affirm an individual’s gender identity.” In other words, it’s the kind of attention needed by people whose gender identity does not align in some way with the sex they were assigned at birth.

What does it mean to deprive a trans person of such care? It can, in fact, prove to be a death sentence.

It may be difficult to imagine this if you yourself aren’t living with gender dysphoria (a constant disorienting and debilitating alienation from one’s own body). What studies show is that proper healthcare reduces suicidal thoughts and attempts, along with other kinds of psychological distress. Furthermore, people who begin to receive such care in adolescence are less likely to be depressed, suicidal, or involved in harmful drug use later in life. As Dr. Deanna Adkins, director of the Duke Child and Adolescent Gender Care Clinic at Duke University Hospital, notes, young people who receive the gender-affirming care they need “are happier, less depressed, and less anxious. Their schoolwork often improves, their safety often improves.” And, she says, “Saving their lives is a big deal.”

Denial of life-saving care may start with young people. But the real future right-wing agenda is to deny such health care to everyone who needs it, whatever their ages. In April 2023, the New York Times reported that Florida and six other states had already banned Medicaid coverage for gender-affirming care. Missouri has simply banned most such care outright, no matter who’s paying for it.

And the attacks on queer people just keep coming. In May 2023, the Human Rights Campaign listed anti-queer bills introduced and passed in this year alone:

“• Over 520 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been introduced in state legislatures, a record;

“• Over 220 bills specifically target transgender and non-binary people, also a record; and

“• A record 74 anti-LGBTQ laws have been enacted so far this year, including:

“• Laws banning gender affirming care for transgender youth: 16

“• Laws requiring or allowing misgendering of transgender students: 7

“• Laws targeting drag performances: 2

“• Laws creating a license to discriminate: 3

“• Laws censoring school curricula, including books: 13″

We’re not paranoid. They really do want us to disappear.

Anti-Gay Campaigns in Africa: Made in the USA

Though they’re starting to say the quiet part out loud, even in this country, they’ve been so much less careful in Africa for decades now.

It’s not all that uncommon today for right-wing Christians in the United States to publicly demand that LGBT people be put to death. As recently as Pride month (June) of last year, in a sermon that went viral on Tik-Tok, Pastor Joe Jones of Shield of Faith Baptist Church in Boise, Idaho, called for all gay people to be executed. Local NBC and CBS TV stations, along with some national affiliates, saw fit to amplify Jones’s demand to “put them to death. Put all queers to death” by interviewing him in prime time.

In keeping with right-wing propaganda that treats queer people as child predators, Jones sees killing gays as the key to preventing the sexual abuse of children. “When they die,” he said, “that stops the pedophilia. It’s a very, very simple process.” (The reality is that most sexual abuse of children involves male perpetrators and girl victims and happens inside families.)

Though American “Christians” like Jones may be years away, if ever, from instituting the death penalty for queer people here, they have already been far more successful in Africa. On May 29th, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni signed perhaps the world’s harshest anti-LGBT law, criminalizing all homosexual activity, providing the death penalty for “serial offenders,” and according to the Reuters news agency, for the “transmission of a terminal illness like HIV/AIDS through gay sex.” It also “decrees a 20-year sentence for ‘promoting’ homosexuality.”

While Uganda’s new anti-gay law may be the most extreme on the continent, more than 30 other African countries already outlaw homosexuality to varying degrees.

It’s a little-known fact that right-wing and Christian nationalist churches from the United States have played a major role in formulating and promoting such laws. Since at least the early 2000s, those churches have poured millions of dollars into anti-gay organizing in Africa. According to Open Democracy, more than 20 U.S. evangelical groups have been involved in efforts to criminalize homosexuality there:

“The Fellowship Foundation, a secretive U.S. religious group whose Ugandan associate, David Bahati, wrote Uganda’s infamous ‘Kill the Gays’ bill, is the biggest spender in Africa. Between 2008 and 2018, this group sent more than $20m to Uganda alone.”

Such groups often employ the language of anticolonialism to advance their cause, treating homosexuality as a “western” import to Africa. Despite such rhetoric, however, quite a few of them are actually motivated by racist as well as anti-gay beliefs. “Of the groups that are active in Africa,” says Open Democracy, “ten are members of the World Congress of Families (WCF), which has been linked to white supremacists in the U.S. and Europe.”

Is MAGA Really Fascism? And Does It Matter?

Back in the late 1980s, I published an article entitled “What Is Fascism — And Why Do Women Need to Know?” in Lesbian Contradiction, a paper I used to edit with three other women. It was at the height of the presidency of Ronald Reagan and I was already worried about dangerous currents in the Republican party, ones that today have swelled into a full-scale riptide to the right. There’s a lot that’s dated in the piece, but the definition I offered for that much-used (and misused) bit of political terminology still stands:

“The term it­self was invented by Benito Mussolini, the premier of Italy from 1922 to 1945, and refers to the ‘fasces,’ the bundle of rods which symbolized the power of the Roman emperors. Today, I would define fascism as an ideology, movement, or government with several identifying characteristics:

“• Authoritarianism and a fanatical respect for leaders. Fas­cism is explicitly anti-democratic. It emerges in times of social flux or instability and of chaotic and worsening economic situations.

“• Subordination of the individual to the state or to the “race.” This subordination often has a spiritual im­plication: people are offered an opportunity to transcend their own sense of insignificance through participation in a powerful movement of the chosen.

“• Appeal to a mythical imperial glory of the past. That past may be quite ancient, as in Mussolini’s evoca­tions of the Roman Empire. Or it might be as recent as the United States of the 1950s.

“• Biological determinism. Fascism involves a belief in absolute biological differences between the sexes and among different races.

“• Genuine popularity. The scariest thing to me about real fascism is that it has always been a truly pop­ular movement. Even when it is a relatively minor force, fascism can be a mass movement without being a majority movement.”

“Having laid out these basic elements,” I added, one “real strength of fascism lies in its ex­traordinary ideological elasticity,” which allows it to embrace a wide variety of economic positions from libertarian to socialist and approaches to foreign policy that range from isolationism to imperialism. I think this, too, remains true today.

What I failed to emphasize then — perhaps because I thought it went without saying (but it certainly needs to be said today) — is that fascism is almost by definition deadly. It needs enemies on whom it can focus the steaming rage of its adherents and it is quite content for that rage to lead to literal extermination campaigns.

The creation of such enemies invariably involves a process of rhetorical dehumanization. In fascist propaganda, target groups cease to be actual people, becoming instead vermin, viruses, human garbage, communists, Marxists, terrorists, or in the case of the present attacks on LGBT people, pedophiles and groomers. As fascist movements develop, they bring underground streams of hatred into the light of “legitimate” political discourse.

All those decades ago, I suggested that the Christian fundamentalists represented an incipient fascist force. I think it’s fair to say that today’s Make America Great Again crew has inherited that mantle, successfully incorporating right-wing Christianity into a larger proto-fascist movement. All the elements of classic fascism now lurk there: adulation of the leader, subordination of the individual to the larger movement, an appeal to mythical past glories, a not-so-subtle embrace of white supremacy, and discomfort with anything or anyone threatening the “natural” order of men and women. You have only to watch a video of a Trump rally to see that his is a mass (even if not a majority) movement.

Why should it matter whether Donald Trump’s MAGA movement and the Republican Party he’s largely taken over represent a kind of fascism? The answer: because the logic of fascism leads so inexorably to the politics of extermination. Describing his MAGA movement as fascism makes it easier to recognize the existential threat it truly represents — not only to a democratic society but to specific groups of human beings within it.

I know it may sound alarmist, but I think it’s true: proto-fascist forces in this country have shown that they are increasingly willing to exterminate queer people, if that’s what it takes to gain and hold onto power. If I’m right, that means all Americans, queer or not, now face an existential threat.

For those who don’t happen to fall into one of MAGA’s target groups, let me close by paraphrasing Donald Trump: in the end, they’re coming after you. We’re just standing in the way.


The Non-Profit Industrial Complex Fri, 21 Apr 2023 04:02:46 +0000 ( – We’ve just passed through tax time again. (Unless, like me, you live in one of several states ravaged by recent extreme weather events brought on by climate change. In that case, you can wait until October.) It’s also that moment when the War Resisters League — slogan: “If you work for peace, stop paying for war” — publishes its invaluable annual “Where Your Income Tax Money Really Goes” pie chart and publicizes a series of Tax Day events nationwide.

For many of the rest of us, it’s time to pat ourselves on the back for the charitable donations we made to tax-deductible organizations in 2022. Time to pat ourselves on the back for being clever and generous enough to “do well by doing good,” right? Time, perhaps, to wonder why, even when we give to organizations seeking radical change, the IRS still rewards us with a tax deduction. Do the feds really support organized opposition to, for example, the military-industrial complex? Or is there more to the story of what my students sometimes refer to as the “nonprofit-industrial complex”?

What’s That Tax Deduction Really Worth?

For many decades, people who give away money have been schooled to seek a tax deduction in return. We’re encouraged to be suspicious of organizations that don’t qualify under section 501(c)(3) of the U.S. Tax Code, which offers a bonus for our generosity. We’re told that the federal government will bless any organization that’s really doing something useful with the magic wand of that coveted tax-deductible status.

Can’t charitable donations save us thousands of tax dollars? Doesn’t that make insisting on such a tax deduction the grown-up thing to do?

Not, as it turns out, for most people. This belief that charitable write-offs also pay off is based on a misunderstanding about how such tax deductions work. Suppose you give a qualifying charity $100. That will reduce your tax bill by the same amount, right? Alas, no. That $100-dollar gift will reduce the amount of your income that you pay taxes on by half the amount of your gift, or $50. This means that if you, like most working folks, pay federal taxes at an effective rate of less than 15%, the amount you save on taxes by giving $100 is less than 15% of $50, or a whopping $7.50 — the price of a couple of fancy coffee drinks.

But giving to get a tax deduction is even less financially advantageous than that. Suppose you’re part of a married couple that earned $120,000 in 2022. Lucky you. If you were taxed for every penny of that amount, your federal income tax bill would be $17,634, an effective tax rate of 14.7%. (Look here to see how it works.)

What if you decide to tithe, donating 10% of that $120,000, or $12,000, to qualifying charities. Such giving would reduce your taxable income by $6,000, bringing it down to $114,000. Your federal income tax bill would then come down to $16,314, saving you about $1,320. Not bad, eh?

But here’s the kicker: Suppose instead that you decide not to “itemize” — that is, list all your contributions (and other expenditures like that great middle-class welfare plan, the mortgage interest tax deduction)? Instead, you opt for the “standard deduction.” For a married couple filing together, that will reduce your taxable income by $25,900, bringing that same tax bill to a mere $11,396, saving you about $5,700 in taxes without your giving away a penny. To get the same tax write-off by making contributions, you’d have to donate twice the standard deduction, or $51,800.

So am I suggesting that we shouldn’t give money to non-profits, because we often don’t really benefit from the tax deduction? Absolutely not. I’m saying that when we donate, we shouldn’t do it because of the tax deduction. We should do it, if we can, because it supports activities crucial to our own and the long-term survival and even flourishing of so many other people. This is true, whether you’re helping a relative pay the rent this month or contributing to a candidate for the Wisconsin supreme court. Neither of those gifts will garner you a penny in tax deductions, but one will keep someone you love off the street and the other would have helped ensure that women in Wisconsin could still get an abortion when they needed one.

Who loses out when we refuse to give without a tax deduction? To begin with, we do, because we’ve placed an artificial limit on the kinds of campaigns, organizations, and people we allow ourselves to donate to. We’ve automatically excluded, for instance, gifts to political parties and candidates. No organization offering tax deductions can support or oppose any candidate for elected office. Of course, elected officials aren’t the only people in a position to affect our lives, but four years under Donald Trump and a couple under Joe Biden should have reminded us that they can do a whole lot of harm, or substantial good.

Making Sense of the Foundation-Non-Profit Complex

The current system of tax deductions creates other losers as well. The halo that surrounds 501(c)(3) status also constrains recipient non-profit organizations. Those that agree to the IRS rules are making a not-always advantageous deal with the devil. That tax-deductible status comes with some hefty limits:

  • No electioneering (campaigning for or against candidates)
  • No activities outside the “charitable and educational purpose” described in the organization’s original application for such status
  • Organizations may not be created for the purpose of violating laws, meaning that advocating for civil disobedience, for example, or tax resistance can’t be part of an organization’s official purpose.

Failure to comply with the rules can get an organization’s tax-exempt status yanked. One result: organizations begin to censor themselves, sometimes restricting their activities even more than the law requires. For example, while 501(c)(3)s aren’t allowed to get involved in election campaigns for specific candidates, depending on their total annual income, they are allowed to use as much as 20% of their spending each year to influence legislation or government policies.

That means they can work directly for or against ballot initiatives and spend money to lobby government officials. They can, for example, employ paid lobbyists or rent buses to bring people to a state capitol or Congress to talk to their representatives about a particular issue. Many smaller non-profits may not even know this and so may limit their scope of action even more severely than the law requires for fear of losing that precious status.

The third restriction (no illegal purposes) has ramifications for organizations that may want to fund or be involved with actions that are nonviolent but illegal, like certain kinds of civil disobedience. In 1975, for instance, the IRS denied 501(c)(3) status to an antiwar organization whose stated charitable purpose was training people to participate in nonviolent civil disobedience. Does that mean that no 501(c)(3) outfit can engage in civil disobedience? No, but it does mean that your entire stated charitable purpose cannot be law-breaking. Fear of losing their status, whether well-founded or not, keeps many organizations from even considering participation in entire realms of political action.

Given these restrictions, why would organizations seeking radical change to existing racial, gender, or economic structures want to go the 501(c)(3) route? What makes that status so valuable for a non-profit organization? We’ve already seen that individual donors shy away from giving when they don’t get a tax deduction. But for many organizations there’s an even more important source of funds that also requires the 501(c)(3) tag: foundation grants. Although individuals give far more money overall than foundations, many organizations depend on large chunks of money from foundations, which in most cases will only make grants to 501(c)(3) groups.

But accepting foundation funding is another Faustian bargain for several reasons:

  • Foundation funding can deform your program: It can entice you to change your focus and your activities to attract grant money. You’re no longer choosing your own priorities. Instead, you find yourself tailoring what you do to what foundations want to support.

    Say yours is a racial-justice organization working for serious police reform. Funding for your area of work is scarce, but a whole tranche of funding for after-school youth programs suddenly becomes available. Now, there may even be a place for such programs addressing young people in your overall political strategy. But if you need the money to keep the doors open, you may be tempted to refocus large parts of your program, not because you think after-school youth activities are the best vehicle for police reform, but because that’s where the money is.

  • Foundations can be fickle: They are easily distracted by the new and shiny. One moment, they may be all about “sustainable communities,” which might be a perfect fit for your organization’s efforts to address the problems of renters in your city. So you spend three years building the coalitions and doing the public contact work necessary to put a rent-stabilization ordinance on the ballot. At that very moment, however, the money dries up, because funders are now focusing on public transit instead. Just when you most need the support to help win the next election, your benefactors have wandered off in pursuit of something different.
  • Foundations can rearrange an entire non-profit “ecosystem”: They may, for example, look at organizations in various states working on racial justice in public education and decide that such a movement needs a national “collaboration” (a foundational buzzword). So a coordinating council is created and funded, requiring that individual organizations participate as a condition for receiving grant money. That means they’ll have to divert staff time for planning for national meetings, Zoom calls, and conferences. Such a coalition could, of course, supercharge the work of individual organizations, but it might just as easily distract them from crucial local work while involving them in controversies they’d rather avoid.
  • Foundations have no incentive to support fundamental economic change: Where do foundations come from? The majority, even in the liberal and progressive world, are private, often funded by a single family (think “Rockefeller”) or company (think “Ford” or “Kellogg”). Creating such philanthropic vehicles provides real tax advantages to such families and companies. It also gives them a very respectable way of influencing public policy. Ultimately, these foundations are not going to support serious challenges to the capitalist system, because that system guarantees the continued wealth of their founders.

Foundations and “Movement Capture”

I teach at a college and, over the years, many of my justice-minded students have expressed a desire to change the world by founding their own non-profit organizations. In their minds and based on the models they see in their worthy community-engaged learning classes, non-profits are the sine qua non of social change and social movements. For most of them, working for social justice means working for a non-profit.

It wasn’t always this way. Before the 1954 U.S. tax code created the 501(c)(3) designation, charities existed, but mostly to provide direct aid to people in need. They certainly weren’t the main political vehicles for social change. In fact, many people organizing to improve their lives were far more likely to turn to unions, not only to improve wages and working conditions, but to address other issues in their lives like housing. It’s probably no accident that the rise of the non-profit sector in the second half of the twentieth century coincided with the reduced power of unions.

It was during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s that modern non-profits and foundations first played a significant role in attempts to bring about structural change in this country, even while also ensuring that such change, in the end, would be limited in nature. The giant among those philanthropic organizations was then the Ford Foundation, the largest collection of charitable wealth the world had ever seen.

A bit late to the civil rights fight, Ford turned its attention in that direction toward the end of the 1960s, after the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Under the leadership of McGeorge Bundy, a Cold War liberal and Vietnam War architect, Ford began to make huge contributions in the field of civil rights, mainly to the venerable National Urban League, but also to the NAACP. At the same time, it sought to reduce more militant activities, refusing, for example, to fund Martin Luther King’s planned Poor People’s March on Washington, scheduled for 1968. At the time when the Black Power movement was growing, Ford used its inaugural funding of Black organizations to moderate the influence of more radical voices.

University of Washington scholar Megan Ming Francis has labeled such attempts to use foundation money to control and channel a powerful social movement as “movement capture.” In a 2019 paper, she describes an early example of this process. During the 1920s and 1930s, she writes, funders, including the white-run Garland Foundation, used “their financial leverage to redirect the NAACP’s agenda away from the issue of racial violence to a focus on education at a critical juncture in the civil rights movement.” A decades-long fight for a federal anti-lynching law never succeeded. 

Who knows what might have happened had the most powerful civil rights organization of the time kept its focus on lynching and the institutionalized state torture of Black people in the early twentieth century? Maybe police would no longer continue to routinely kill people of color with such impunity in this century.

An extract from the Ford Foundation’s 1967 annual report indicates that the tradition of squelching popular uprisings and redirecting the focus of activists lived on at Ford:

“Staff attention has been turned to the more militant civil rights organizations, specifically the Congress Of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Our interest in both is in seeing whether we may be of help to them in fashioning rational, goal-oriented programs of constructive action.” [Emphasis added.]

In other words, use Ford money to get the militants to pivot to activities their “betters” then considered “constructive action.”

What’s a Donor to Do?

The view of funders and non-profits I’ve offered here doesn’t fit either the right-wing understanding of charity as an alternative to government action (former President George H.W. Bush’s “thousand points of light”) or the liberal belief in the power of foundation-funded organizations to change the world. Unfortunately, I have no prescription for how or where to give your money away this tax season, or indeed during the rest of the year. I can only suggest that you do give. And that whatever any of us give, whether it be money, time, or attention, we do it expecting the only return that really matters: taking part in the larger movements for justice and mercy in all their forms.

Via (