Tomdispatch – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Tue, 27 Oct 2020 05:39:32 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The United States of Paranoia — From the Salem Witch Hunt to Conspirator-in-Chief Donald Trump Fri, 16 Oct 2020 04:01:38 +0000 By Steve Fraser | –

( – News is “faked”; elections are “rigged”; a “deep state” plots a “coup”; Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died suspiciously in bed with a pillow over his face; aides of ex-president Barack Obama conspire to undermine foreign policy from a “war room”; Obama himself was a Muslim mole; the National Park Service lied about the size of the crowd at the president’s inauguration; conspiracies are afoot in nearly every department and agency of the executive branch, including the State Department, the CIA, the Justice Department, the Federal Drug Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI (“What are they hiding?”). Thus saith, and maybe even believeth, the president of the United States.

Donald Trump is not the first commander-in-chief to believe in conspiracies. And some of those conspiracies were real enough, but he is our first conspiracist president. “Conspire” in Latin means to “breathe together.” Conspiracy thinking is the oxygen that sustains the political respiration of Trumpism. Oval Office paranoid fantasies metastasize outside the Beltway and ignite passions — fear and anger especially — that leave armies of Trump partisans vigilant and at the ready.

Members of the administration’s inner circle keep the heat on. Michael Flynn, whose career as national security adviser lasted but a nanosecond, tweets “New York Police Department blows whistle on new Hillary emails: Money Laundering, Sex Crimes with Children, etc… MUST Read.” Michael Caputo, now on leave from his post at the Department of Health and Human Services, uncovered a supposed “resistance unit” at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention committed to undermining the president, even if it meant raising the Covid-19 death toll.

On a planet far, far away — but not so far as to prevent the president from visiting when he’s in the mood or the moment seems propitious — is QAnon, where the conspiratorial imagination really exhales and goes galactic.

The earliest moments of QAnon, the conspiracy theory, centered around “Pizzagate,” which alleged that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex-trafficking ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria where children were supposedly stockpiled in tunnels below the store. (There were no tunnels — the restaurant didn’t even have a basement — but that didn’t stop it from nearly becoming a murder scene when a believer in Pizzagate walked into the shop armed with an assault rifle and began shooting wildly.)

But QAnon was playing for bigger stakes than just child sex-trafficking. Q (him or herself a purported ex-government agent) supposedly relayed inside information on Trump’s heroic but hidden plans to stage a countercoup against the “deep state” — a conspiracy to stop a conspiracy, in which the president was being assisted by the Mueller investigation flying under a false flag.

QAnon supporters are only the best known among conspiracy-oriented grouplets issuing alerts about a covert CIA operation to spread lesbianism or alt-right warnings that FEMA storm shelters are really “death domes” and/or places where “Sharia law will be enforced”; or dark revelations that the “mark of the beast” is affixed to the universal price code, smart cards, and ATMs; or, even grislier, radio talk show performer Alex Jones’s rants about “false flag” events like the slaughter of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where (he claimed) “crisis actors” were employed, paid by George Soros, to simulate a massacre that never happened.

The point of it all is to make clear how close we are to The End; that is, to the overthrow or destruction of the Constitution and the Christian Republic for which it stands.

President Trump flirts with such a world of conspiracy thinking. He coyly acknowledges an affinity with it, then draws back from complete consummation, still sensing that it’s good medicine for what otherwise threatens to shorten his political life expectancy. QAnon “members” show up in the thousands at Trump rallies with signs and shirts reading “We Are QAnon.” (And 26 QAnon-linked candidates are running for Congress this November.)

Conspiracy thinking has always been an American pastime, incubating what the novelist Phillip Roth once called “the indigenous American berserk.” Most of the time, it’s cropped up on the margins of American life and stayed there. Under certain circumstances, however, it’s gone mainstream. We’re obviously now living in just such a moment. What might ordinarily seem utterly bizarre and nutty gains traction and is ever more widely embraced.

It’s customary and perhaps provides cold comfort for some to think of this warped way of looking at the world as the peculiar mental aberration of the sadly deluded, the uneducated, the left-behind, those losing their tenuous hold on social position and esteem, in a word (Hillary Clinton’s, to be exact), the “deplorables.” Actually, however, conspiracy mongering, as in the case of Trump, has often originated and been propagated by elites with fatal effect.

Sometimes, this has been the work of true believers, however well educated and invested with social authority. At other times, those at the top have cynically retailed what they knew to be nonsense. At yet other moments, elites have themselves authored conspiracies that were all too real. But one thing is certain: whenever such a conspiratorial confection has been absorbed by multitudes, it’s arisen as a by-product of some deeper misalignment and fracturing of the social and spiritual order. More often than not, those threatened by such upheavals have resorted to conspiracy mongering as a form of self-defense.

There at the Creation

Witch-hunting, of which the president tediously reminds us he is the victim, began long, long ago, before the country was even a country. Cotton Mather, a leading Puritan theologian in a society where the church exercised enormous power and influence, detected a “Diabolical Compact” in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. There, Satan’s servants were supposedly conspiring to destroy the righteous (sicken and kill them) and overthrow the moral order. By the time the witch frenzy had run its course, it had infected 24 surrounding towns, incarcerated 150 people, coerced 44 into confessing diabolical designs, executed 20 of the irredeemable, left four to languish and die in prison, and killed the husband of an alleged witch by pressing him to death under a pile of heavy rocks.

Salem is infamous today, mainly as a cautionary tale of mass hysteria, but from its outset it was sanctioned and encouraged by New England’s best and brightest. Cotton Mather was joined by local ministers and magistrates eager to allow “spectral evidence” to convict the accused. Social fissures fueled anxiety.

Worries about uppity women (widows in particular), especially with their own sources of income and so free of patriarchal supervision, added to the sense of disorientation. Slavery and the undercurrent of fear and foreboding it generated among the enslavers may also have raised temperatures. Can it be a mere coincidence that the first to “confess” her knowledge of satanic gatherings was Tituba, a slave whose fortune-telling to a group of four young girls set the witch-hunt process in motion? Fear of slave conspiracies, real or imagined, was part of the psychic underbelly of the colonial enterprise and continued to be so for many years after independence was won.

Elites, whether theocratic or secular, may be inclined, like Mather, to resort to conspiracy mongering and even engage in their own conspiracies when the social order they preside over seems seriously out of joint. Take the founding fathers.

Revolution and Counter-Revolution

Soon after independence was won, the founding fathers began conspiring against their fellow revolutionists among the hoi polloi. The Constitution is a revered document. Nonetheless, it was born in the shadows, midwifed by people who feared for their social position and economic well-being.

Most, if not all, of the revolution’s leaders were men of affairs, embedded in trans-Atlantic commerce as planters, ship owners, merchants, bankers, slave brokers, lawyers, or large-scale landowners. But the revolution had given voice to another world of largely self-sufficient small farmers in towns and villages, as well as frontier settlers, many of them at odds with the commercial and fiscal mechanisms — loans, debts, taxes, stocks and bonds — of their seaboard-bound countrymen.

Tax revolts erupted. State legislatures commanded by what was derisively referred to as the “democratical element” declared moratoria on, or cancelled, debts or issued paper currencies effectively devaluing the assets of creditors. Civil authority was at a discount. Farmers took up arms.

Men of property responded. They drafted a constitution designed to restore the authority of the prevailing elites. The new federal government was to be endowed with powers to tax, to borrow, to make private property inviolate, and to put down local insurrections. That was the plan.

Gaining consent for this, however, wasn’t easy in the face of so much turmoil. For that reason, the founding fathers met secretly in Philadelphia — all the windows and doors of Independence Hall were deliberately closed despite stifling heat — so no word of their deliberations could leak out. And for good reason. The gathering was authorized only to offer possible amendments to the existing Articles of Confederation, not to do what it did, which was to concoct a wholly new government. When the Philadelphia “conspirators” eventually presented their handiwork to the public, there was a ferocious reaction and the Constitution was nearly stillborn. Its authors were frequently labeled counter-revolutionary traitors.

Less than 10 years later the Constitution’s godfathers would themselves dissolve in fraternal enmity. Once again, charges of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary cabals would superheat the political climate.

John Adams and Alexander Hamilton would denounce Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as agents of godless Jacobinism, conniving in secret with revolutionary French comrades to level the social landscape and let loose a mobocracy of “boys, blockheads, and ruffians.” Jefferson and Madison returned the favor by accusing their erstwhile brothers of conspiring to restore the monarchy (some had indeed tried to persuade George Washington to accept a kingship), of being “tory aristocrats” seeking to reestablish a hierarchical society of ranks and orders. (Again, it was true that Hamilton had advocated a lifetime presidency and something along the lines of the House of Lords.) Everything seemed to hang in the balance back then, so much so that the feverish conspiratorial imaginings of the high and mighty became the emotional basis for the first mass political parties in America: Jefferson’s Republican-Democrats and Adams’s Federalists.

If you think Donald Trump has introduced an unprecedented level of vitriol and character assassination into public life, think again. Little was considered out of bounds for those founding fathers, including sexual innuendo linked to political deceit and scabrous insinuations about “aliens” infecting the homeland with depraved ideologies. It was a cesspool only a conspiracy monger could have completely enjoyed. Two centuries later those ventures into the dark side, even if largely forgotten, should have a familiar ring.

God Killers

Conspiracy mongering may not have been the happiest legacy of the revolutionary era, but it was a lasting one. New England’s social and religious elites, for instance, feared the atheism that seemed embedded in the revolution and its implicit challenge to all hierarchies, not merely clerical ones. So, for example, Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale College and a pastor, had nightmares about “our daughters” becoming the “concubines of the Illuminati,” an alleged secret society, atheist to the core, whose members, it was claimed, used pseudonyms and arranged themselves in complex hierarchies for the purpose of engineering the godless French revolution.

Those “Illuminati” came and went, but the specter of atheism endured as a vital element of the pre-Civil War conspiratorial political imagination. An anti-Masonic movement, for instance, emerged in the 1830s to deal with the Freemasons, a secret order alleged to harbor anti-republican and especially unchristian intentions and to engage in pagan rituals, including drinking wine out of human skulls.

Anti-Masonic sentiments became a real force and even developed into a political party (the Anti-Masonic Party), which exercised considerable leverage in New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and elsewhere — yet more evidence of how easily the specter of conspiracies against God could inflame public life. We are reliving that today.

Mongrel Firebugs

Along with American culture more generally, the conspiratorial imagination of the upper classes became increasingly secular as time passed. What most came to alarm them was class rather than spiritual warfare. From the years after the Civil War through the Great Depression of the 1930s, this country was the site of a more or less uninterrupted battle, in the phrase of the time, between “the masses and the classes”; between, that is, the exploited and their exploiters or what we might now call the 99% and the 1%.

One way to justify dealing harshly, even murderously, with the chronically restless lower orders was to claim that scheming among them were the covert agents of social revolution. If there were uprisings by anthracite coal miners in Pennsylvania, blame and then hang the Molly Maguires, alleged Irish terrorists imported from the old country. If there were hunger demonstrations demanding public relief and work during five miserable years of economic depression in the 1870s, blame it on refugee subversives from the Paris Commune, workers who had only recently taken rebellious control of that city and now threatened the sanctity of private property in the United States.

If there were nationwide strikes for the eight-hour day in the 1880s, it must be the work of secret anarchist cells inciting “mongrel firebugs” — immigrants, also known to respectable opinion as “Slavic wolves” — to riot in the streets. It was okay in 1913 for the Colorado National Guard and the Rockefeller company’s private army of guards to machine gun a tent colony of striking Colorado miners, including their wives and children, killing at least 21 of them, because they were, after all, the pawns of syndicalist plotters from the Industrial Workers of the World (colloquially known as “Wobblies”) who advocated One Big Union for all working people.

Upper-class hysteria, which consumed the captains of industry, leading financiers, the most respectable newspapers like the New York Times, elders of all the mainstream Protestant denominations, hierarchs of the Catholic Church, and politicians from both parties, including presidents, ran amuck through World War I. It culminated in the infamous Red Scare that straddled the war and post-war years.

Mass arrests and deportations of radicals and immigrants; the closing down of dissenting newspapers and magazines; the raiding and pillaging of left-wing headquarters; the banning of mass meetings; the sending in of the Army, from the Seattle waterfront to the steel country of Pennsylvania and Ohio, to suppress strikes — all were perpetrated by national and local political elites who claimed the country was mortally threatened by a global Bolshevik conspiracy headquartered in St. Petersburg, Russia. Attempts to overthrow the government by force and violence were, so they also claimed, just around the corner.

So it was that the conspiratorial mentality in those years became weaponized and the night terrors it conjured up contagious, leaping from the halls of Congress and the cabinet room in the White House into the heartland. A Connecticut clothing salesman went to jail for six months for saying Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin was smart. In Indiana, a jury took two minutes to acquit a man for killing an “alien” who had shouted, “To hell with the United States.” Evangelist Billy Sunday thought it might be a good idea to “stand radicals up before a firing squad and save space on our ships.”

The Great Fear

Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer best expressed the imagined reach of “the Great Fear,” an all-embracing dread of a fiendish conspiracy that supposedly sought to strike at the very foundations of civilized life. Denouncing “the hysterical neurasthenic women who abound in communism,” he warned of a hellish conspiracy “licking at the altars of churches, leaping into the belfry of the school bell, crawling into the sacred corners of American homes to replace marriage vows with libertine laws.”

You can hear something similar echoed in Donald Trump’s recent inveighing against “socialism” and the way Joe Biden and the Democrats threaten God, family, and country.

Arguably, America never truly recovered from that first Red Scare.

A generation later that same cosmological nightscape, brought to a fever pitch during the early years of the Cold War by the claims of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy that communists lurked in the highest reaches of the government, would terrify legions of Americans. His notorious “conspiracy so immense” reached everywhere, he claimed, from the State Department and the Army to movie studios, the Boy Scouts, advertising agencies, and the Post Office. No place in America, it seemed, was free of red subversion.

Still, it’s instructive to remember that McCarthy’s Cold War conspiracy culture was, in fact, set in motion soon after World War II not by him but by highly positioned figures in the administration of President Harry Truman, as loyalty oaths became commonplace and purges of the government bureaucracy began. And note the irony here: it wasn’t communist conspirators but the national security state itself, in particular the Central Intelligence Agency, which first conducted an ever-expanding portfolio of mind control and behavioral modification experiments, while launching disinformation campaigns, assassination plots, coups, and every other variety of covert action globally. That, as it happened, was America’s true new reality and it was indeed as conspiratorial as any on offer from the lunatic zone.

All of this nationalized the conspiratorial mindset at the highest levels of our society and helped make it into a permanent part of how millions of people came to understand the way the world works.

The Conspirator-in-Chief Lost in Space

Donald Trump might then be seen as but the latest in a long line of the empowered who either believed in or, for reasons of state, class interest, or political calculation, feigned a belief in grand conspiracies. Yet, as in so many other ways, Trump is, in fact, different.

Past conspirators offered a general worldview, which also came with meticulously detailed descriptions of how all the parts of the conspiracy supposedly worked together. Sometimes these proved to be dauntingly intricate jigsaw puzzles that only the initiated could grasp. Such cosmologies were buttressed by “evidence,” at least of a sort, that tried to trace links between otherwise randomly occurring events, to prove how wily the conspiracy was in its diabolical designs. And there was always some great purpose — a Satanic takeover or world domination — for which the whole elaborate conspiracy was put in motion, something, however loathsome, that nonetheless reached into the far beyond where the fate of humankind would be settled.

None of this characterizes the reign of the present conspirator-in-chief. Trump and his crew simply load up the airwaves and Internet with a steady flow of disconnected accusations, a “data set” of random fragments. No evidence of any kind is thought necessary. Indeed, when evidence is actually presented to disprove one of his conspiracies, it’s often reinterpreted as proof of a cover-up to keep the plot humming. Nor is there any grand theory that explains it all or points to a higher purpose… except one. Abroad in the land is, in Senator McCarthy’s classic 1950s phrase, a “conspiracy so immense” to — what else? — do in the Donald. The Donald is the one and only “elect” without whom America is doomed.

We live in conspiratorial times. The decline of the United States as an uncontestable super-power and its descent into plutocratic indifference to the wellbeing of the commonwealth is the seedbed of such conspiracy-mindedness. Soldiers are sent off to fight interminable wars of vague purpose against elusive “enemies” with no realistic prospect of resolution, much less American-style “victory” whatever that might mean these days. “Dark money” undermines what’s left of democratic protocols and ideals. Gross and still growing inequalities in the distribution of wealth and income are accepted year after year as business as usual.

All of this breeds entirely justified resentment and suspicion.

To the degree that political conspiracies take root among broader populations today, it is in part as a kind of folk sociology that tries to make some sense, however addled, of a world in which real conspiracies flourish. It’s a world where the complexities of globalization threaten to overwhelm everybody and a sense of loss of control, especially in pandemic America, is now a chronic condition as mere existence grows ever more precarious.

Trump is the chief accomplice in this to be sure. And his narcissism has produced a distinctive, if degraded and far less coherent version of the grander conspiracies of the past. Still, as in the past, when we try to come to terms with what one historian of the CIA has called this conspiratorial “wilderness of mirrors” we are all compelled to inhabit, we might better turn our attention to America’s “best and brightest” than to the “deplorables” who are so easy to scapegoat.

Steve Fraser, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of Mongrel Firebugs and Men of Property: Capitalism and Class Conflict in American History. His previous books include Class Matters, The Age of Acquiescence, and The Limousine Liberal. He is a co-founder and co-editor of the American Empire Project.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Steve Fraser


A House Divided: America’s new Civil Wars Wed, 23 Sep 2020 04:01:59 +0000 By Andrea Mazzarino | –

When it rains, pieces of glass, pottery, and metal rise through the mud in the hills surrounding my Maryland home. The other day, I walked outside barefoot to fetch one of my kid’s shoes and a pottery shard stabbed me in the heel. Nursing a minor infection, I wondered how long that fragment dated back.

A neighbor of mine found what he said looked like a cartridge case from an old percussion-cap rifle in his pumpkin patch. He told us that the battle of Monocacy had been fought on these grounds in July 1864, with 1,300 Union and 900 Confederate troops killed or wounded here. The stuff that surfaces in my fields when it storms may or may not be battle artifacts, but it does remind me that the past lingers and that modern America was formed in a civil war.

Increasingly, I can’t help thinking about possible new civil wars in this country and the violence we could inflict on each another. Recently, a family member reposted a YouTube video on her Facebook page that supposedly showed an Antifa activist accidentally setting himself on fire (with the 1980s hit “Footloose” playing mockingly in the background). “I’m just going to leave this here,” read her caption. Shortly thereafter she claimed that the “YouTube speech police” had taken it down.

I thought of saying something to her about how, in countries where I’ve worked, ones without a democracy, people celebrate the misery of their opponents. Was that really, I wanted to ask, the kind of country she’d like our children to see us creating? But I decided not to, rather than further divide our family, which has grown ever more apart since Donald Trump took office. In addition, I knew that confronting her would do neither of us any good. Inspired by a president who offers a sterling example of how never to self-police what you do, she would simply have dismissed my comments as the frivolous words of the “politically correct.”

War and Peace

These days, when I watch the news and see clashes among the police, Black Lives Matter protesters, far-right “militias,” and Antifa supporters, I’m often reminded that just because no one’s declared a civil war begun, doesn’t mean we aren’t staring at the makings of an armed conflict.

Our military service members and their families have toiled for endless years now in Afghanistan, Iraq, and so many other countries across the Greater Middle East and Africa under the mantle of establishing democracy and conducting a “war on terror.” They’ve done so to the tune of more than 7,000 of their own lives, a million of their own injuries and illnesses, hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths in those distant lands, and significantly more than $6 trillion in funding provided by the American taxpayer. Not surprisingly under such circumstances, they now live in a country that’s under-resourced and fractured in ways that are just beginning to resemble, in a modest fashion at least, the very war zones in which they’ve been fighting.

This is both a personal and professional matter to me. As the spouse of a Navy officer who served three tours of duty on nuclear and ballistic missile submarines and one on an aircraft carrier, and the mother of two young children, I bear witness in small but significant ways to the physical, emotional, and financial toll that endless war has had on those who fight. I’m thinking of those long separations from my husband, his (and my) unlimited hours of work, the chronic health issues that go remarkably unaddressed in the Navy, the hazing by war-traumatized commanders, one near-fatal boat crash, the rising frequency of violence and suicides among military families, a recent lack of regard for obvious safety precautions during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the service’s under-resourced healthcare and childcare systems — and that’s just to begin a far longer list.

As a co-founder of Brown University’s Costs of War Project and a therapist who has worked with active-duty troops, veterans, and most recently children and adults who have arrived here as refugees and asylum seekers from the very lands in which the U.S. still fights, I continue to bear witness in my own way to the human costs of war, American-style. As I look up into the forest of oaks and elms in the hills around my home where, once upon a time, Americans undoubtedly sought shelter from bullets fired by their countrymen, it seems ever less far-fetched to me that my family could be asked to take part in an armed conflict on American soil.

Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night with a line from former President Barack Obama’s recent Democratic National Convention speech still in my head: “Do not let them take your democracy.” In my lifetime, I’d never heard a former president refer to a government that’s still supposed to be of, by, and for the people as “them” — especially a president as prone to understatement as he is. As a military spouse, I wonder where my family will fall in that ever-deepening chasm between “us” and “them.”

Homefront, Warfront

Obviously, intimidation and even armed attacks are already realities in American cities. Take, for example, the president’s decision to send federal troops using tear gas to clear away peaceful protesters near the White House so he could pursue a botched photo op. And that only happened after he had declared “war” on a virus whose effects are made worse by the inhalation of that very gas. He and Attorney General William Barr have similarly turned a blind eye to physical violence against, and the intimidation of, protesters by far-right groups whose racism, anti-Semitism, and support for this country’s slave history is obvious. Our commander-in-chief, while threatening but, so far at least, shying away from starting new foreign wars (thank goodness), has used military helicopters to intimidate protesters and allowed Department of Homeland Security agents to kidnap demonstrators from the streets of an American city.

To be sure, the Antifa activist featured in that video my relative posted (if it even was real) could have been part of the same problem, as were those who looted storefronts, vehicles, and public property to make a point (or not) during the protests of these last months. And yet what choices did many of them have? Isn’t our major problem that those with power in a country growing more economically unequal by the month increasingly see themselves not as of the people but only as threatened by the people — by, that is, us?

More to the point, as Professor Robin Kelley wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times, what kind of society values property over Black lives?

Even journalism, once considered a hallmark of our democracy, has become the target of endless presidential insults and intimidation, including memes like the one in which the president is shown punching an opponent with CNN emblazoned on his head. What’s more, some of the Republican Party’s most vocal leaders all but directly condone racism. Typical of this Trumpian moment, for example, that rising star in the Republican Party Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton has called slavery a “necessary evil.” In June, he even urged that the Army’s 101st Airborne Division be sent into the streets to deal with Black Lives Matter protesters.

Under these circumstances, violence may be the only thing that actually captures the attention of parts of a nation seemingly indifferent to the dehumanization and disenfranchisement of large swathes of this country’s people.

Like Iraq and Afghanistan, which have borne witness to increasing sectarianism and violence, the United States seems to be devolving into its own kind of sectarian conflict. After all, the police, now regularly armed by the Pentagon with weaponry and other equipment sometimes taken from this country’s distant war zones, increasingly wage a kind of proto-counterinsurgency warfare on our streets.

At the heart of today’s crisis lies a grim but simple fact: in this century, America’s power brokers decided to invest staggering sums of taxpayer dollars, manpower, and time in distant and disastrous “forever wars.” As Catherine Lutz and Neta Crawford, co-directors of the Costs of War Project, wrote in a recent op-ed, had some of the money this country spent on its post-9/11 wars been invested in healthcare, we would have had the tools to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic so much more effectively. The same might be said of our crumbling infrastructure and cash-starved public schools.

Speaking of public education, as economist Heidi Garrett-Peltier has pointed out, $1 million in federal spending creates nearly twice the number of jobs in public education as it does when “invested” in the Pentagon. If money had been diverted elsewhere from the military-industrial complex, perhaps we would have been able to return to school reasonably safely with enough teachers, staff, and protective equipment to ensure small-group instruction, sanitation, and social distancing. Our inability to deal with the pandemic effectively has, in turn, fed into our children losing the chance for in-person education — for, that is, reasonably safe interaction with peers and teachers from all walks of life.

Recently, after my kindergartener overheard a conversation about the police killing of Breonna Taylor in her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, he asked me whether “they” might be coming to kill us in our home, too. I assured him that they weren’t, but I did mention our (white) privilege in relation to some of his black friends in the preschool that he loved and can’t attend in person this fall.

I then tried to explain how, in this country, the right to life is not evenly shared. He responded simply enough, “Yes, but I don’t see them anymore.” And I couldn’t help but think that precisely this kind of social distancing, where you don’t get to interact with people whose lives and perspectives are different from yours, could be one grim sectarian legacy of the Covid-19 pandemic in a country that looks like it might be starting to come apart at the seams. In these months, the Black Lives Matter activists so often filling our television screens and streets with their righteous rage are among the few who remind my children to care about racial inequality.

In the Footsteps of 9/11?

How did this country reach a point where a significant portion of us — our president’s most vocal supporters — are comfortable debasing the humanity of Blacks and liberals or progressives of every sort? Think of it as the road from 9/11, from that moment when, in response to a set of terror attacks by 19 mostly Saudi hijackers, the Bush administration launched what it quickly termed “the Global War on Terror,” invaded Afghanistan, then Iraq, and then… well, you know the rest of the forever-war nightmare that’s never ended. In the process, they turned the Pentagon (and the war industries that go with it) into a sinkhole for our tax dollars and our dreams of the future.

In no small part, we’ve reached this point of unease, sectarianism, and strife due to our reverence for the military as the way to solve what are actually problems of staggering and growing global and American inequality, economic and otherwise. My spouse and I stay up late talking about the upcoming elections. Even if (and that’s a big “if”) the November 3rd vote turns out to be free and fair — hard to imagine with a pandemic that has further disenfranchised communities of color and given Trump’s shenanigans encouraging double-voting, bad-mouthing mail-in ballots, and seeking to obscure or rewrite national intelligence information about Russian election interference — who wouldn’t worry about November 4th? Or 5th, or 10th, or whenever all those mail-in votes are finally counted? What uproar will this president stoke among his supporters, including a heavily armed and rogue Department of Homeland Security, if he seems to be losing?

And what about inauguration day? Trump has already threatened not to accept results that don’t please him. My husband feels sure that, if necessary, our military will escort him from the Oval Office and provide a hypothetical President Biden with the nuclear football. This I question, thanks to such acts as Trump’s recent appointment of retired Brigadier General Anthony Tata, a staunch supporter of his, known for his extreme Islamophobia and racist remarks, to the Department of Defense’s number-two policy post over the bipartisan objections of Congress.

That we even have to imagine a military solution to the usual peaceful transition of power is both absurd and 2020’s version of reality. That’s why what its enemies call “political correctness” — respect for standards of decorum, kindness, and the peaceful mechanisms of democracy — is vital. If you don’t like what the other side’s nominees say or do, then vote them down at the ballot box. Organize other voters. Write letters and attend town hall meetings. Support evidence-based journalism. But don’t debase the mechanisms that have, for centuries, allowed us to better our union.

War is an indescribable nightmare. I’ve gotten the barest taste of its horror from my work at the Costs of War Project; from photos of bloodied, pain-ravaged children in our war zones; from testimonies I’ve heard from refugees and survivors grieving over the killing, maiming, or rape of loved ones; and from the stories of veterans haunted by having to shoot other people, even armed children, in cold blood.

We can’t let such violence consume us. I don’t want to be left wondering whether someday my family and others like us could find ourselves hiding in the woods to escape a government that might ask us to do the unthinkable and kill or torture fellow Americans. Military families — most so much more than mine — have already suffered for far too long without watching our own country become a new war zone.

Andrea Mazzarino, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded Brown University’s Costs of War Project. She has held various clinical, research, and advocacy positions, including at a Veterans Affairs PTSD Outpatient Clinic, with Human Rights Watch, and at a community mental health agency. She is the co-editor of War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Copyright 2020 Andrea Mazzarino

Taking the Next Knee: Is this Athletic Revolt For Real and Is It a Danger to Donald Trump? Fri, 18 Sep 2020 04:01:38 +0000 By Robert Lipsyte | –

( ) – Last year, when LeBron James described some of President Trump’s public statements as “laughable and scary,” Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham ordered the basketball superstar to “shut up and dribble.”

LeBron responded thoughtfully by saying that her comment “resonated with me, but I think it resonated with a lot of people to be able to feel like they can be more.”

Those “people” have come to include most of the National Basketball Association and hundreds of other athletes in professional baseball, hockey, football, women’s basketball, and the top tiers of college sports. As for that “more” they have become? They are now active participants in the most significant and inclusive wave of the often crushed or coopted yet ever breathing “athletic revolution” that first took shape in the 1960s.

Thanks to the pandemically isolated “bubbles” in which some teams are now living and playing, and driven by Donald Trump’s continuing racially based attacks on various sports, some athletes are now communing with each other ever more regularly and making collective decisions as never before — decisions often supported by their teams and even leagues. In the process, many of their protests against systemic racism and specific acts of police brutality have gone from messages at their usual social media outlets to acts like forcing games to be postponed via wildcat strikes.

As baseball and basketball, battered by the Covid-19 pandemic, cautiously continue their delayed and shortened seasons and the National Football League and some college football conferences finally launch their own belated starts, more and more questions arise: Will such physically dangerous playing conditions be sustainable? (Is there even such a thing as a socially distanced tackle?) Will fans accept rule changes meant to take the coronavirus into account and still keep watching (while their own lives threaten to go down the tubes)? Will former San Francisco 49er Super Bowl quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who sparked the current sports revolt by kneeling to the national anthem four years ago and was subsequently abused by the president and functionally banished from football, ever get to play again? And above all, what effect will the various protests of such athletes have, if any, on the election?

The Women Led the Way

However it plays out, the most recent victory of National Basketball League players striking during their playoffs over yet another grim death of a black man at the hands of the police was spectacular. The team owners agreed that, in the Covid-19 moment with polling places potentially in short supply on November 3rd, pro basketball arenas would be made available as just such sites. Consider this path breaking: it’s the first time a player-owner bargaining agreement hasincluded such a gift to democracy from two of the (previously) most self-centered groups in America.

Before we cry “Bravo!” however, let’s cry “Brava!” After all, it was the most marginalized of the professional leagues, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), that provided the impetus for the current movement and remains its moral center. Keep in mind that, for years now, women pro basketball players have been protesting against gun violence and police brutality, both individually and as teams, while their male equivalents, who earn so much more money and possess so much more security, tended to posture and pontificate while putting themselves at much less risk.

Last month, the women upped their game. The WNBA’s Atlanta Dream players donned T-shirts endorsing Dr. Raphael Warnock, the Democratic opponent of Georgia Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler, who has disparaged Black Lives Matter and, as the New York Times reported, “publicly and frequently derided the league for dedicating its season to the Black Lives Matter movement.” Loeffler just happens to be the Dream’s co-owner. Other teams in the league followed suit and soon most teams were wearing such “Vote Warnock” T-shirts, while also proclaiming that Black Lives Matter. (BLM, by the way, was a group founded by women.)

Soon after, something stunning happened in the male version of pro basketball with the NBA in the first round of its playoff games in a “bubble” at Florida’s Disney World. After a white police officer shot an unarmed black man, Jacob Blake, in the back seven times in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Bucks refused to take part in their next playoff game. And that protest then produced a cascade of brief strikes by other NBA and WNBA teams and, most surprisingly, by predominantly white Major League Baseball teams.

While the statements of the protesters tended to describe the strikes as a response to recent incidents of police brutality, the underlying cause may have lain elsewhere. Those angry strikes may really have been side effects of the Covid-19 “bubbles” in which they were playing. In them, the usual focus on the game of the moment and the party to follow was replaced by conversations about Donald Trump, racism, and the responsibilities of rich Black sports celebrities to express themselves and act in the interests of their communities.

The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner conducted a revealing interview with Andre Iguodala, a Miami Heat forward and the first vice-president of the NBA players’ union, who said:

“African-Americans are trying to search for ourselves and ask where we stand in the world and where we stand in America. And we don’t know. We shoulder a lot of the burdens of our community, but I think a lot of that responsibility should fall on the majority, and those who are the lawmakers and who are supposed to insure that every man and woman is treated as an equal. But we still haven’t seen that. So we are still searching for our place.”

Take the Money or March?

One of the most poignant expressions of that search came from the coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, Doc Rivers, whose father had been a police officer. “It’s amazing,” he commented, “why we keep loving this country, and this country does not love us back. It’s really so sad… I’m so often reminded of my color… We got to do better. But we got to demand better.”

What exactly does “demand better” mean and what could it achieve? In the sports world, at least, with the possible exception of those still-must-be-seen-to-be-believed arena voting sites, the sporadic protests of various players over the years for equality and social justice have usually resulted, at best, in yet more discussion about the issues they were raising rather than actual solutions, however provisional. Although over the decades, the integration of baseball, the introduction of free agency, and the emergence of the Black quarterback could all certainly be viewed as progress in the sports world itself.

Today, however, it remains a question whether players will continue pushing for social reform or, as so often in the past, settle for better salaries and pensions. As Iguodala put it:

“Historically, money determines a lot of our actions. Do we stand up for something or take the money? We will always get caught in those crosshairs. But I think players are smartening up, and I think that will come into play with a lot of guys.”

Similar optimism has been expressed recently by a number of sporting icons including Hall of Fame basketball player Kareem Abdul Jabbar who began his career with the Milwaukee Bucks. He found hope in “the instantaneous support of other sports teams and athletes,” especially ones from Major League Soccer (only 26% black), Major League Baseball (8%), and overwhelmingly white pro tennis.

Times, Jabbar believes, may indeed be changing. After all, he remembers that “when I boycotted the 1968 Olympics because of the gross racial inequities, I was met with a vicious backlash criticizing my lack of gratitude for being invited into the air-conditioned Big House where I could comfortably watch my community swelter and suffer.”

Another long-time sports activist, retired sociology professor Harry Edwards who was instrumental in inspiring the memorable Black power salute given from the medal stand at the 1968 Mexico Olympics by American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos, is similarly hopeful. An adviser to Kaepernick, Edwards sees an opening for genuine change in this moment because, he says, it’s no longer just about the acts of individual sports figures. This wave of protest, he adds, “is distinctively different from the single athletes who were involved. These are entire teams that are reacting to this situation and leveraging their power to demand change. It’s not just a Colin Kaepernick or Eric Reid or Michael Bennett or Maya Moore. This one is about an entire organization and I could see this coming from the time the University of Missouri football team protested.”

That was back in 2015 when that football team joined a campus-wide demand for the resignation of the university’s president for mishandling racial incidents at the school. (He did finally resign.) Such a full-scale involvement of a college sports team in a protest movement was unheard of at the time. It would take another five years and so many more racial nightmares before that spirit of unity with a larger protesting culture in this Black Lives Matter era, not to mention the willingness of athletes to risk their own brief careers, would bloom throughout sports.

“Spoiled Rotten Millionaires”

The current reaction of the Trump administration and its allies to such protests has underlined the threat that they clearly feel from wildcat strikes, bent knees, and other actions disrupting their notions of “normality” in an unnerved and unnerving world. The president, in particular, has been counting on the return of pro sports and college football to help project an image of him being in control in this ongoing pandemic.

Weighing in from the White House, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner typically dismissed the recent set of basketball wildcat strikes by saying, “Look, I think that the NBA players are very fortunate that they have the financial position where they’re able to take a night off from work without having to have the consequences to themselves financially.”

That snide attempt to separate the athletes from their fan base, itself stricken by a weakening economy, the still-spreading coronavirus, and a mounting sense of political anxiety, soon blossomed into something more like a political campaign theme. At the right-wing website Newsmax, for instance, conservative radio host Chris Salcedo attacked “the spoiled rotten millionaires.” He then added: “Pro sports is no longer about unifying us but about shoving left-wing politics down our throat and up our nearest orifice. They push social justice, which is the absence of justice.”

For all the right-wing outrage over the basketball protests, football is now the true American national pastime and carries the most weight with Trump and gang. Several months ago, I speculated that, “if the National Football League plays regular season games this fall, President Trump stands a good chanceof winning reelection for returning America to business as usual — or, at least, to his twisted version of the same.”

Despite the fact that most NFL owners have been Trump donors, the league, which did away with pre-season games, has been bending leftward to avoid a NBA-style set of strikes that could cripple the season just as it’s starting. Last month, League Commissioner Roger Goodell professed regret for not paying more attention to Colin Kaepernick’s message when he took those knees. Topping that, earlier this month, Goodell announced that “End Racism” and “It Takes All of Us” signs will be stenciled in the end zones of all stadiums this season and the so-called Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” will be sung before each opening game. Political slogans will even be allowed on helmets.

In certain ways, when it comes to the Trump voter in particular, the return of college football — a major multibillion-dollar business that pays most of its “employees” nothing whatsoever — with its own cult-like regional passions is of particular importance. While college football fans tend to lean right and insist on their entertainment, no matter who has to die for it, college players have used the health risks of Covid-19 to ramp up their demands for more control over their lives and a share of the revenue that their schools collect from the sale of jerseys with their names on them.

After two of the five major conferences, the West Coast’s Pac-12 and the Midwestern-based Big 10, worrying about the toll that the pandemic might take, called off their fall seasons, the Trump campaign declared: “The Radical Left is trying to CANCEL college football.” The electoral implications were obvious: five key swing states — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Minnesota — have Big Ten teams and calling off the season in this fashion does, of course, send a message to future voters about the state of Trumpian America.

In reality, the urge to protest playing football in the midst of a pandemic was spreading (and not just among the usual suspects). Buzz Bissinger, the author of Friday Night Lights, a famed book on high school football in Texas, for instance, called on players in the remaining leagues to boycott their games:

“[M]any of the states advocating to play are the same states that find wearing protective masks optional, college football a sacred American right. Football is not like other sports. It is blood, snot, sweat and spit, bodily meals the virus craves. How can these schools even be contemplating the risk when several medical advisers to the N.C.A.A. said it was ill advised? Some coaches have suggested that football players alone should return to campus, which provides additional evidence that they are viewed more like employees than traditional students and should be compensated.”

Such evidence has, of course, been in plain sight for years, but maybe it takes a plague to see it clearly. College administrators may be no better than Trumpsters in their willingness to sacrifice lives for money and power. They certainly do fit comfortably with the sort of sentiments Donald Trump, Jr., expressed on Chris Salcedo’s show: “I can’t tell if some of this stuff is politically motivated because not going back to normalcy allows you to instill some fear that can be used as political leverage. Let them play, man.”

In other words, the position of the Trump administration as it makes a Covid-19-ignoring scoring drive for November 3rd is distinctly shut up and dribble. However, the question, in this moment from hell, is: Will the players and fans agree?

Who will take the next knee?

Robert Lipsyte, a TomDispatch regular, was a sports and city columnist for the New York Times. He is the author, among other works, of SportsWorld: An American Dreamland.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Robert Lipsyte


Isolation and Opioids During the Pandemic Wed, 16 Sep 2020 04:01:45 +0000 By Mattea Kramer | –

( – In our new era of nearly unparalleled upheaval, as a pandemic ravages the bodies of some and the minds of nearly everyone, as the associated economic damage disposes of the livelihoods of many, and as even the promise of democracy fades, the people whose lives were already on a razor’s edge — who were vulnerable and isolated before the advent of Covid-19 — are in far greater danger than ever before.

Against this backdrop, many of us are scanning the news for any sign of hope, any small flicker of light whose gleam could indicate that everything, somehow, is going to be okay. In fact, there is just such a flicker coming from those who have been through the worst of it and have made it out the other side.

I spoke with Rafael Rodriguez of Holyoke, Massachusetts, on a sweltering Thursday afternoon in late July. He had already spent hours that day on Zoom and, though I could feel his exhaustion through our pixilated connection, he was gracious. His salt-and-pepper beard neatly trimmed, he nodded gently in answer to my questions. “Covid-19 has made it more and more apparent how stigmatizing it is to be less fortunate,” he said. As we spoke, the number of Americans collecting unemployment benefits had just ticked up to around 30 million, or about one in every five workers, with nearly 15 million behind on their rent, and 29 million reporting that their households hadn’t had enough to eat over the preceding week. Rodriguez is an expert in what happens after eviction or when emergency aid dries up (or there’s none to be had in the first place) — what becomes, that is, of those in protracted isolation and despair.

Drug-overdose deaths were up 13% in the first seven months of this year compared to 2019, according to research conducted by the New York Times covering 40% of the U.S. population. More than 60% of participating counties nationwide that report to the Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program at the University of Baltimore saw a sustained spike in overdoses following March 19th, when many states began issuing social-distancing and stay-at-home orders. This uptick arrived atop a decades-long climb in drug-related fatalities. Last year, before the pandemic even hit, an estimated 72,000 people in the United States died of an overdose, the equivalent of sustaining a tragedy of 9/11 proportions every two weeks, or about equal to the American Covid-19 death toll during its deadliest stretch so far, from mid-April to mid-May.

What people do in the face of protracted isolation and despair is turn to whatever coping strategy they’ve got — including substances so strong they can be deadly.

“I think of opioids as technologies that are perfectly suited for making you okay with social isolation,” said Nancy Campbell, head of the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and author of OD: Naloxone and the Politics of Overdose. Miraculously, an opioid overdose can be reversed with the medicine naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan. But you can’t use naloxone on yourself; you need someone else to administer it to you. That’s why Campbell calls it a “technology of solidarity.” The solidarity of people looking out for one another is a necessary ingredient when it comes to preserving the lives of those in the deepest desolation.

Yet not everyone sees why we should save people who knowingly ingest dangerous substances. “I come from a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania and I have a large extended family there,” Campbell told me. She remembers a family member asking her, “Why don’t we just let them die?”

Any of us can answer that question by imagining that the person who just overdosed was the one you love most in the world — your daughter, your son, your dearest friend, your lover. Of course you won’t let them die; of course it’s imperative that they have another chance at life. There are people like Rafael Rodriguez who have dedicated themselves to ensuring that their neighbors have access to naloxone and other resources for surviving the absolute worst. One day, naloxone may indeed save someone you love. Perhaps it already has.

Another technology of solidarity has recently become commonplace in our lives: the face mask. Wearing such a mask tells others that you care about their well-being — you care enough to prevent the germs you exhale from becoming the germs they inhale, and then from becoming the germs they exhale in the company of still others. Face masks save lives. The face mask is a technology of solidarity. So is naloxone. And so is empathy.

“The Sheer Power of Being With Someone in the Moment”

As Rafael Rodriguez slowly told his astonishing story, I could see on my computer screen a spartan office behind him and a single bamboo shoot, its stem curled beneath a burst of foliage. When he was younger, he said, he used food as his coping mechanism for an embattled life, over-eating to the point where doctors worried he would die. Then, at age 23, he underwent gastric bypass surgery and lost a dramatic amount of weight. The doctors were pleased, but now his only means of coping with life’s hardships had been taken away. When three of his dearest family members died in rapid succession, he began drinking. Eventually he sought something that could help him stay awake to keep drinking, and so he started using cocaine. Later on, he needed something that could ease him off cocaine in order to sleep.

“That’s where heroin came into my life,” he told me.

Using that illegal drug left him feeling ashamed, though, and soon he found himself pulling away from his remaining family members, becoming so isolated that, in 2005, he fell into a long stretch of homelessness. Only after he had spent almost a year in a residential rehabilitation facility and gotten a job that left him surrounded by supportive colleagues did Rodriguez begin to name the dark things in his past that had driven him to use drugs.

“No one ever knew that I was sexually assaulted as a child,” he explained. After years in recovery, he is now in possession of a commanding insight. During the most troubled years of his life, he was punishing himself for someone else’s grim actions.

Portugal famously decriminalized all substance use in 2001 and multimedia journalist Susana Ferreira has written that its groundbreaking model was built on an understanding that a person’s “unhealthy relationship with drugs often points to frayed relationships with loved ones, with the world around them, and with themselves.” The root problem, in other words, is seldom substance use. It’s disconnection and heartache.

In 2016, Rodriguez was hired by the Western Massachusetts Recovery Learning Community in Holyoke, where heroin use constituted a crisis long before opioid addiction registered as a national epidemic. Rodriguez now dedicates himself to supporting others in their recovery from the trauma that so often underlies addiction. And while tight funding and staffing limitations have led many community organizations across the country to reduce services during the pandemic period, the Recovery Learning Community has sought to expand to meet increasing need. When state restrictions capped the number of people the organization could allow into its indoor spaces, Rodriguez and his team improvised, offering services outside. They prepared bagged lunches, set up outlets so people could charge their phones, and distributed hand sanitizer and bottled water. And they continued to offer compassion and peer support, as they always had, to people wrestling with addiction.

Helping those in the midst of painful circumstances, Rodriguez says, isn’t about knowing the right thing to say. It’s about “the sheer power of just being with someone in the moment… being able to validate and make sure they know they’re being heard.”

In many situations, he adds, he has helped people without uttering a word.

Criminalization Versus “Any Positive Change”

It’s something of an understatement to say that, in the United States, empathy has not been our go-to answer for addiction. Our cultural tendency is to regard signs of drugs or the persistent smell of alcohol as marking users as outcasts to be avoided on the street. But medical science tells us that addiction is actually a chronic relapsing brain disease, one that often takes hold when a genetic predisposition intersects with destabilizing environmental factors such as poverty or trauma.

Regardless of the science, we tend to respond unkindly to folks in the throes of addiction. In her book Getting Wrecked: Women, Incarceration, and the American Opioid Crisis, Dr. Kimberly Sue describes a complex and corrupt system of prosecutors, forensic drug labs, prisons, and parole and probationary systems in which discipline is meted out primarily to low-income people, disproportionately of color, who use illegal substances. An attending physician at Rikers Island in New York, Sue is also the medical director of the Harm Reduction Coalition. The philosophical opposite of criminalization, “harm reduction” is an international movement, pioneered by people who have used or still use such drugs, to reduce their negative consequences.

“Treat people with dignity and respect, respect people’s bodily autonomy” was the way Sue described to me some of harm reduction’s core tenets. In this country, we typically expect folks to cease all substance use in order to be considered “clean” human beings. Harm reduction instead espouses a kind of compassionate incrementalism. “Any positive change,” from the decision to inject yourself with a sterile needle to carrying naloxone, is regarded as a stride toward a healthier life.

In tandem with its decision to decriminalize all substance use, Portugal put harm reduction at the heart of its national drug policies. And as of 2017 (the most recent year for which data are available), nearly two decades after that country’s groundbreaking move, the per-capita rate of drug-related fatalities in the U.S. stood 54 times higher than in Portugal.

Now, the pandemic has made addiction even more dangerous. In addition to inflicting the sort of widespread hardship that can drive people to opioids (or even greater doses of them) and to take their chances with the potent synthetic opioid fentanyl, Covid-19 has stymied efforts by Dr. Sue and others to provide effective guidance and care. In normal times, opioid users can at least protect themselves from dying of an overdose by using their drug in the company of others, so that someone can administer naloxone if it becomes necessary. Now, however, that safety mechanism has been fatally disrupted. While social distancing saves lives, stark solitude can be deadly — both as further reason for using such drugs and because no one will be present with the antidote. Referring to naloxone as a miracle medicine, Sue said that there is no medical reason why people should die of an opioid overdose.

“The reason they die is because of isolation.”

Rx: Friendship

Back in March, one of the first recommendations for reducing the transmission of the coronavirus was, of course, to stay home — but not everyone has a home, and when businesses, restaurants, libraries, and other public spaces locked their doors, some people were left without a place even to wash their hands. In Holyoke, Rafael Rodriguez and his colleagues at the Recovery Learning Community, along with staff from several other local organizations, rushed to city officials and asked that a handwashing station and portable toilets be installed for the many local people who live unhoused. Rodriguez sees such measures not only as fundamental acts of humanity, but also as essential to any viable treatment for addiction.

“It’s really hard to think about recovery, or putting down substances, when [your] basic human needs aren’t being met,” he said. In the midst of extreme summer heat, he pointed out that there wasn’t even a local cooling center for people on the streets and it was clear that, despite everything he had seen in his life, he found this astonishing. He is now part of a community movement that is petitioning the local city government for an emergency shelter.

“When you have no idea where you’re going to rest your head at night, using substances almost becomes a survival tactic,” he explained. “It’s a way to be able to navigate this cruel world.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Sue continues to care for her patients whose maladies are often rooted in systemic injustice and the kind of despair that dates back to their early lives. Affirming that substance use is indeed linked to frayed relationships, she told me that, in this pandemic moment of isolation, what drug users most often need is a sense of connection with others.

“How do I prescribe connection?” she had asked during our phone call. “How do I prescribe a friend?”

Several days later, while writing this article, I left the air-conditioned space in which I was working and walked a couple of blocks to run some errands. In the stifling midday sun, I saw a woman sitting on the ground. I realized I’d seen her before and guessed that she was homeless. Her arms and face were inflamed with a rash. She said something to me as I passed. At first, I didn’t catch it. Her words were garbled and she had to repeat herself several times before I understood.

She was asking for water.

I blinked, nodded, and went into a nearby drug store where I grabbed a water bottle, paid in a few seconds at self-checkout, and gave it to her. And yet, if I hadn’t been working on this article, I might not have done that at all. I might have passed right by, too absorbed in my life to realize she was pleading for help.

Amid the sustained isolation of a global pandemic whose end is nowhere in sight, I asked Rafael Rodriguez what lessons could be learned from people who have long experienced isolation in their lives.

“My hope is that, as a society, we gain some empathy,” he replied.

Then he added, “Now that’s a big ask.”

Mattea Kramer, a TomDispatch regular, is at work on a novel about a waitress’s love affair with a prescription pill.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Mattea Kramer


Ending the Pentagon’s Pandemic of Spending Mon, 14 Sep 2020 04:01:34 +0000 By Mandy Smithberger | –

( ) -The inadequate response of both the federal and state governments to the Covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the United States, creating what could only be called a national security crisis. More than 190,000 Americans are dead, approximately half of them people of color. Yelp data show that more than 132,000 businesses have already closed and census data suggest that, thanks to lost wages, nearly 17% of Americans with children can’t afford to feed them enough food.

In this same period, a number of defense contractors have been doing remarkably well. Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon’s top contractor, reported that, compared to 2019, its earnings are actually up — yes, up! The company’s success led the financial magazine Barron’sto call it a “pandemic star.” And those profits are only likely to grow, given the Trump administration’s recent approval of a 10-year deal to sell $62 billion worth of its F-16s to Taiwan.

And Lockheed Martin is far from the only such outfit. As Defense One reported, “It’s becoming abundantly clear that companies with heavy defense business have been able to endure the coronavirus pandemic much better” than, for instance, commercial aerospace firms. And so it was that, while other companies have cut or suspended dividends during the pandemic, Lockheed Martin, which had already raised its gift to shareholders in late 2019, continued to pay the same amount this March and September.

The spread of Covid-19 has created one of the most significant crises of our time, but it’s also provided far greater clarity about just how misplaced the priorities of Washington have been all these years. Americans — the Trump administration aside — are now trying to deal with the health impacts of the pandemic and struggling to figure out how to safely reopen schools. It’s none too soon, however, to start thinking as well about how best to rebuild a devastated economy and create new jobs to replace those that have been lost. In that process, one thing is crucial: resisting the calls — and count on it, they will come — to “rebuild” the war economy that had betrayed us long before the coronavirus arrived on our shores, leaving this country in a distinctly weakened state.

A New Budget Debate?

For the past decade, the budget “debate” in this country has largely been shaped by the Budget Control Act, which tried to save $1 trillion over those 10 years by placing nominal caps on both defense and non-defense spending. Notably, however, it exempted “war spending” that falls in what the Pentagon calls its Overseas Contingency Operations account. While some argued that caps on both defense and non-defense spending created parity, the Pentagon’s ability to use and abuse that war slush fund (on top of an already gigantic base budget) meant that the Pentagon still disproportionately benefited by tens of billions of dollars annually.

In 2021, the Budget Control Act expires. That means a Biden or Trump administration will have an enormous opportunity to significantly reshape federal spending. At the very least, that Pentagon off-budget slush fund, which creates waste and undermines planning, could be ended. In addition, there’s more reason than ever for Congress to reassess its philosophy of this century that the desires of the Pentagon invariably come first, particularly given the need to address the significant economic damage the still-raging pandemic is creating.

In rebuilding the economy, however, count on one thing: defense contractors will put every last lobbying dollar into an attempt to convince the public, Congress, and whatever administration is in power that their sector is the country’s major engine for creating jobs. As TomDispatch regular Bill Hartung has shown, however, a close examination of such job-creation claims rarely stands up to serious scrutiny. For example, the number of jobs created by recent arms sales to Saudi Arabia are now expected to be less than a tenth of those President Trump initially bragged about. As Hartung noted in February, that’s “well under .03% of the U.S. labor force of more than 164 million people.”

As it turns out, creating jobs through Pentagon spending is among the least effective ways to rebuild the economy. As experts at the University of Massachusetts and Brown University have both discovered, this country would get significantly more job-creation bang for the bucks it spends on weaponry by investing in rebuilding domestic infrastructure, combating climate change, or creating more alternative energy. And such investments would pay additional dividends by making our communities and small businesses stronger and more resilient.

Defense Contractors Campaigning for Bailouts

At the Project On Government Oversight where I work, I spend my days looking at the many ways the arms industry exerts disproportionate influence over what’s still called (however erroneously in this Covid-19 moment) “national security” and the foreign policy that goes with it, including this country’s forever wars. That work has included, for instance, exposing how a bevy of retired military officers advocated buying more than even the Pentagon requested of the most expensive weapons system in history, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 jet fighter, while failing to disclose that they also had significant personal financial interests in supporting that very program. My colleagues and I are also continually tracking the many officials who leave the Pentagon to go to work on the boards of or to lobby for arms makers or leave those companies and end up in the Pentagon and elsewhere in the national security state. That’s known, of course, as the military-industrial complex’s “revolving door.” And as President Trump recently noted, it helps ensure that those endless wars never end, while stoking an ever-increasing Pentagon budget. While his actions on behalf of the arms industry don’t back up his rhetoric, his diagnosis of the problem is largely on target.

And yet, as familiar as I am with the damage that the weapons industry has done to our country, I still find myself shocked at how a number of those companies have responded to the current crisis. Almost immediately, they began lobbying the Department of Defense to make their employees part of this country’s “essential critical infrastructure,” so that they could force them to return to work, pandemic or not. That decision drew a rare rebuke from the unions representing those workers, many of whom feared for their lives.

And mind you, only then did things become truly perverse. In the initial Covid-19 relief bill, Congress gave the Pentagon $1 billion to help respond to the pandemic. Such aid, as congressional representatives imagined it, would be used to purchase personal protective equipment for employees who still had to show up at work, especially since the Department of Defense’s own initial estimate was that the country would need to produce as many as 3.3 billion N95 masks in six months. The Pentagon, however, promptly gave those funds to defense contractors, including paying for such diverse “needs” as golf-course staffing, hypersonic missile development, and microelectronics, a Washington Post investigation found. House appropriators responded that money for defense contractors “was not the original intent of the funds.”

And now those defense contractors are asking for yet more bailouts. Earlier this summer, they successfully convinced the Senate to put $30 billion for the arms industry in its next coronavirus relief bill. As CQ Roll Call reported, the top beneficiaries of that spending spree would be the Pentagon’s two largest contractors: Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

The pandemic has certainly resulted in some delays and unexpected expenses for such companies, but the costs borne by the weapons industry pale compared to the devastation caused to so many businesses that have had to close permanently. Every sector of the economy is undoubtedly facing unexpected costs due to the pandemic, but apparently the Department of Defense, despite being by far the best-funded military on the planet, and its major contractors, among the richest and most successful corporations in America, have essentially claimed that they will be unable to respond to the crisis without further taxpayer help. The chair of the House Armed Services Committee and the lead Democrat for the Senate’s defense appropriations subcommittee recently pointed out that, even though contractors across the federal government are facing pandemic challenges, no other agency has asked for additional funds to cover the costs of the crisis. Instead, they have worked on drawing from their existing resources.

It’s laughable to suggest that the very department that already has by far the most resources on hand and is, of course, charged with leading the country’s response to unexpected threats can’t figure out how to adjust without further funding. But most defense contractors see no reason to adapt since they know that they can continue to count on Washington to bail them out.

Still, the defense industry has become impatient that Congress hasn’t already acquiesced to their demands. In July, executives at most of the major contractors sent a letter to the White House demanding more money. In it, they included a not-so-subtle threat of electoral consequences for the president and Senate Republicans in close races if such funds weren’t provided. Only one major contractor, Northrop Grumman, has stayed away from such highly public lobbying efforts because its CEO apparently had the common sense to recognize that her company was doing too well to demand more when so many others are desperate for money, particularly minority-owned businesses, many of which are likely to never come back.

On a Glide Path to Disaster?

There are signs, however, that someday such eternal winners in the congressional financial sweepstakes may finally be made accountable thanks to the pandemic. This summer, both the House and the Senate for the first time each considered an amendment to cut the Pentagon’s budget by 10%. Such efforts even received support from at least some moderates, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), although it went down to defeat in both houses of Congress. Although Democratic vice presidential candidate Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) refused to support the specifics of the amendment, she did at least express her agreement with the principle of needing to curtail the Pentagon’s spending spree during this crisis. “As a member of the Senate Intelligence and Homeland Security Committees, I’m keenly aware of the global threats facing our country,” she said in a statement she released after the vote. “I unequivocally agree with the goal of reducing the defense budget and redirecting funding to communities in need.”

The first real test of whether this country will learn any of the right lessons about national security from this ongoing pandemic moment will undoubtedly come in next year’s budget debate when the question will be: Is everything finally going to be on the table? As I previously wrote at TomDispatch, giving the Pentagon trillions of dollars in these years in no way prepared this country for the actual national security crisis of our lives. In fact, even considering the Pentagon’s ridiculously outsized budget, prioritizing funding for unaffordable and unproven weapons systems over healthcare hurt its ability to keep the military and its labor force safe. No less significantly, continuing to prioritize the Pentagon over the needs of every other agency and Americans more generally keeps us on a glidepath to disaster.

A genuinely new discussion of budget priorities would mean, as a start, changing the very definition of “security” to include responding to the many risks we actually face when it comes to our safety: not just pandemics, but the already increasing toll of climate change, a crumbling infrastructure, and a government that continues to disproportionately benefit the wealthy and well-connected over everyone else.

At the simplest level, the “defense” side of the budget ledger should be made to reflect what we’re really spending now on what passes for national security. That means counting homeland security and veterans’ benefits, along with many other expenses that often get left out of the budget equation. When such expenses are indeed included, as Brown University’s Costs of War Project has discovered, the real price tag for America’s wars in the Greater Middle East alone came to more than $6.4 trillion by 2020. In other words, even to begin to have an honest debate about how America’s other needs are funded, there would have to be a far more accurate accounting of what actually has been spent in these years on “national security.”

Surprisingly enough, unlike Congress (or the Pentagon), the voting public already seems to grasp the need for change. The nonprofit think tank Data for Progress found that more than half of likely voters support cutting the Pentagon’s budget by 10% to pay for domestic priorities like fighting the coronavirus. A University of Maryland poll found bipartisan majorities opposed to cutting funding generally with two notable exceptions: Pentagon spending and agricultural subsidies.

Unfortunately, those in the national security establishment are generally not listening to what the American people want. Instead, they’re the captives of a defense industry that eternally hypes new Cold War-style competition with China and Russia, both through donations to Washington think tanks and politicians and that infamous revolving door.

In fact, the Trump administration is a military-industrial nightmare when it comes to that endlessly spinning entrance and exit. Both of his confirmed secretaries of defense and one acting secretary of defense came directly from major defense contractors, including the current one, former Raytheon lobbyist Mark Esper — and the Biden administration seems unlikely to be all that different. As the American Prospect reported recently, several members of his foreign policy team have already circumvented ethics rules that would restrict lobbying activities by becoming “strategic consultants” to the very defense firms aiming to win more Pentagon contracts. For example, Biden’s most likely secretary of defense, Michèle Flournoy, became a senior adviser to Boston Consulting Group and the first three years she was with that company, it increased its Pentagon contract earnings by a factor of 20.

So whoever wins in 2020, increased spending for the Pentagon, rather than real national security, lies in store. The people, it seems, have spoken. The question remains: will anyone in Washington listen to them?

Mandy Smithberger, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Mandy Smithberger


Memorialize This! Black Women organized for 19th Amendment, but did not get the Vote Mon, 24 Aug 2020 04:02:46 +0000 By Erin L. Thompson | –

( ) – On August 26, 2020, Alice in Wonderland will get some company. She will be joined in New York City’s Central Park by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sojourner Truth, the first statues there of women who, unlike Alice, actually existed. The monument is a gift to the park from Monumental Women, a non-profit organization formed in 2014. The group has raised the $1.5 million necessary to commission, install, and maintain the new “Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument” and so achieve its goal of “breaking the bronze ceiling” in Central Park.

Preparations for its unveiling on the centennial anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted suffrage (that is, the right to vote) to women, are in full swing. Celebratory articles have been written. The ceremony will be live-streamed. Viola Davis, Meryl Streep, Zoe Saldana, Rita Moreno, and America Ferrera have recorded monologues in English and Spanish as Stanton, Anthony, and Truth. The Pioneers Monument, breaking what had been a moratorium, is the first new statue placed in Central Park in decades.

As statues topple across the country, the Pioneers Monument is a test case for the future of public art in America. On the surface, it’s exactly what protesters have been demanding: a more diverse set of honorees who better reflect our country’s history and experience. But critics fear that the monument actually reinforces the dominant narrative of white feminism and, in the process, obscures both historical pain and continuing injustice.

Ain’t I a Woman?

In 2017, Monumental Women asked artists to propose a monument with statues of white suffragists Anthony and Stanton while “honoring the memory” of other voting-rights activists. In 2018, they announced their selection of Meredith Bergmann’s design in which Anthony stood beside Stanton who was seated at a writing desk from which unfurled a scroll listing the names of other voting rights activists.

Famed feminist Gloria Steinem soon suggested that the design made it look as if Anthony and Stanton were actually “standing on the names of these other women.” Similar critical responses followed and, in early 2019, the group reacted by redesigning the monument. The scroll was gone, but Anthony and Stanton remained.

The response: increasing outrage from critics over what the New York Times’ Brent Staples called the monument’s “lily-white version of history.” The proposed monument, wrote another critic in a similar vein, “manages to recapitulate the marginalization Black women experienced during the suffrage movement,” as when white organizers forced Black activists to walk at the back of a 1913 women’s march on Washington. Historian Martha Jones in an op-ed in the Washington Post criticized the way the planned monument promoted the “myth” that the fight for women’s rights was led by Anthony’s and Stanton’s “narrow, often racist vision,” and called for adding escaped slave, abolitionist, and women’s rights promoter Sojourner Truth.

Although the New York City Public Design Commission had approved the design with just Anthony and Stanton, Monumental Women did indeed rework the monument, adding a portrait of Truth in June 2019. The sculptor would later make additional smaller changes in response to further criticism about her depiction of Truth, including changing the positioning of her hands and body to make her a more active participant in the scene. (In an earlier version, she was seated farther from Stanton’s table, her hands resting quietly as if she were merely listening to the white suffragists.)

Their changes didn’t satisfy everyone. More than 20 leading scholars of race and women’s suffrage, for instance, sent a letter to Monumental Women, asking it to do a better job showing the racial tensions between the activists. Their letter acknowledged that Truth had indeed been a guest in Stanton’s home during a May 1867 Equal Rights Association meeting. They noted, however, that this was before white suffragists fully grasped the conflict between the fight for the right of women to vote and the one for the political participation of African Americans, newly freed by the Civil War, in the American democratic system. Stanton and Anthony came to believe that, of the two struggles, (white) women’s votes should take precedence, though they ultimately lost when Congress passed the 15th Amendment in 1870, extending the vote to Black men.

The tensions between race and women’s rights arose again when, in 1919, Congress finally passed the 19th Amendment, intending to give women the right to vote. Its ratification, however, was delayed largely because Southern states feared the very idea of granting the vote to Black women. During the summer of 1920, realizing that they still needed to convince one more Southern state to ratify the amendment, white suffragists began a campaign to remind white southerners that the Jim Crow laws already on their books to keep Black men from voting would do the same for Black women. Tennessee then voted to ratify.

The white suffragists would prove all too accurate. When southern Black women tried to exercise their new right to vote, they would be foiled by discriminatory literacy tests, poll taxes, or just plain violence. In 1926, for instance, Indiana Little, a teacher in Birmingham, Alabama, led a march of hundreds of African Americans on the city’s voter registration office. They were not, however, permitted to register and Little was both beaten and sexually assaulted by a police officer. (Meanwhile, Native American women remained without American citizenship, much less the right to vote, until 1924.)

For Black women, according to Martha Jones, author of the forthcoming book Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All, the 1965 Voting Rights Act would prove to be the “15th and 19th Amendments rolled into one.” It would give teeth to what had been merely a promise when it came to granting them the vote. And they would prove a crucial part of the fight to make it a reality. Amelia Boynton Robinson, the first Black woman in Alabama to run for Congress (her campaign motto: “A voteless people is a hopeless people”), even turned her husband’s memorial service into Selma’s first mass meeting for voting rights. She then became a key organizer of the 1965 march from Selma to the state capital, Montgomery, during which an Alabama state trooper beat her brutally as she tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. A widely published photograph of her lying on the ground, bloody and unconscious, would form part of the campaign that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act a few months later.

Glamour Shots in Bronze

With its gentle portraits of Stanton, Anthony, and Truth, the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument is far from that image of a bloodied protester. In following the model of the very kind of traditional monument it means to replace, it leaves out the pain and the struggle of the women’s movement.

It didn’t have to be that way. In 2015, one of Monumental Women’s leaders told the New York Times that they wanted a memorial that wouldn’t be “old-fashioned.” Nonetheless, the design they ultimately selected, with its realistic, larger-than-life portrait statues on a pedestal, would prove to be in precisely that traditional style.

The group has claimed that just such a stylistic compromise was necessary because the New York Parks Department refused to allow an “overtly modern” monument in Central Park. (That department disagrees that it should be blamed for the monument’s style. Its press officer told me that they “encourage innovative contemporary art” and pointed to a number of examples of modern, abstract monuments that “grace our parks” in Queens, Manhattan, Staten Island, and Brooklyn.) The Pioneers Monument sits on a leafy promenade nicknamed “Literary Walk” because of its statues of authors like William Shakespeare and Robert Burns. It fits in perfectly there, and would go hardly less well with the future “National Garden of American Heroes” President Trump demanded in response to Black Lives Matter protests. In his executive order to make it so, he specified that the statues in his garden must be realistic, “not abstract or modernist.”

Monumental Women’s style choice conveys important messages. For one, monuments traditionally show the people they honor in the most flattering form imaginable and this one is no exception. Bergmann has sculpted the women as attractively as possible (while being more or less faithful to the historical record). If the monument represents the moment in 1857 when the three women were together, Truth would have been 70 years old and Anthony, the youngest, in her late 40s. Yet all three are shown with unwrinkled faces, smooth hands, and firm necks. Stanton’s hair falls in perfect curls. While they may not look exactly young, neither are they aging. Think of the monument as the equivalent of Glamour Shots in bronze.

As historian Lyra Monteiro, known for her critique of the way playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda erased the slave past in his Broadway hit “Hamilton” — even as he filled the roles of the founding fathers with actors of color — pointed out to me, the monument makes the three women into feminists of a type acceptable even to conservative viewers. Besides portraying them as conventionally attractive, the sculpture uses symbols that emphasize the more traditional feminine aspects of their lives: Truth’s lap full of knitting; Stanton’s delicate, spindly furniture; and Anthony’s handbag. Who could doubt that their armpit hair is also under control?

The women’s faces are, by the way, remarkably emotionless, which is unsurprising for a monument in the traditional style. Since Greco-Roman antiquity, heroic statuary has famously sported faces of almost preternatural calm. Such expressions, however, only contribute to what Monteiro called the concealment of “the struggle” that marked feminism from its first moments.

Sojourner Truth, for instance, was known for speeches like “Ain’t I a Woman?” in which she drew deep and emotional reactions from listeners by describing the sufferings she experienced before escaping from slavery. The triumphalist calm of the Pioneers Monument avoids those emotions and so belongs to a long tradition in American statuary that celebrates revolutionary deeds as, in Monteiro’s words, “very old and very, very done.” Such monuments ask viewers to offer thanks for victory instead of spurring them on to continue the fight.

Monteiro also points out that the choice of commemorating universal suffrage is telling in itself. No matter how many fierce debates it once inspired, the idea that women should have the right to vote is today uncontroversial. But other women’s rights issues remain hotly debated. Imagine statuary celebrating the fight for the right to abortion or to use the bathroom of your choice.

As an example of monuments that energize viewers in an ongoing fight instead of tranquilizing them into thinking victory has been won, Monteiro pointed to Mexico City’s antimonumentos (anti-monuments), large if unofficial displays aimed at calling out government negligence. A typical one, made of metal and portraying the international symbol for women with a raised fist at its center, installed during a 2019 protest march in one of that city’s main squares, bears an inscription indicating that protestors were not going to shut up when it came to the gender-based violence that then continues unchecked in their country. City officials have let such antimonumentos remain in place, undoubtedly fearing negative publicity from their removal. So they continue to act as reminders that the government’s actions are both questionable and being scrutinized.

The triumphalism of the Pioneers Monument suggests that the problem of women’s rights is oh-so-settled. But of course, in the age of Donald Trump in particular, the kinds of oppressions that Truth, Stanton, and Anthony fought couldn’t be more current. Many feminists of color feel that white feminists still tend to ignore racial issues and seldom have the urge to share leadership in activism.

And today, despite Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s recent choice of Kamala Harris as his running mate, the voting rights of women of color remain imperiled. Since a 2013 Supreme Court decision struck down one of the Voting Rights Act’s key protections, minority voters have found it ever more difficult to exercise their theoretical right to vote amid growing efforts by Republican officials to suppress minority (and so Democratic) votes more generally. The fight for women’s votes is hardly over, no matter what the Pioneers Monument might have to say about it.

Todd Fine, a preservation activist, told me that he wishes Monumental Women had focused their discussions on what a truly diverse community might have wanted for such a commemoration rather than responding to bursts of criticism with modest tweaks of their proposed statue.

One explanation for the group’s resistance to change is that it is led by exactly the type of well-off, educated, white women whose right to vote hasn’t been in question since 1920. In the same period that they were reacting to criticism of their proposed monument’s exclusion of women of color, I found that Monumental Women’s tax filings reveal that they added three women of color to their board of directors. Diversification of leadership is certainly a positive step, but the organization’s president and other officers remain the same. And at least two of the new directors had already raised funds for the planned Stanton and Anthony monument, writing and speaking positively about the organization and its goals, and so could be expected to be at best modest critics of its path.

Historic Lies and Scented Candles

One reaction to the debate around the Pioneers Monument is to think that Monumental Women simply didn’t make the best decision about whom to honor or how to do it. But historian Sally Roesch Wagner has no doubt that searching for the right honoree is itself not the right way to go. She told me that, when it comes to the feminist movement, monuments to individuals are “a standing historic lie” because women’s rights have been won “by a steady history of millions of women and men… working together at the best of times, separately at the worst.” Wagner believes that to honor individuals for such achievements today is to disempower the movement itself.

Early feminists horrified the public. The Pioneers Monument is designed to soothe. It invites you to light a scented candle rather than to burn your bra. Bronze is long-lasting, but perhaps it’s no longer the best material for monuments. In a moment when a previously almost unimaginable American president is defending traditional Confederate monuments in a big way, perhaps something else is needed.

The playwright Ming Peiffer will premier “Finish the Fight,” an online theatrical work, as August ends. She aims to let us listen to some of the Black, Asian, Latinx, and Native American activists whose roles in the fight for the vote have been forgotten. Perhaps in 2020, the best monuments to the fight for women’s rights –for all our rights –may look nothing like what most of us would imagine.

Erin L. Thompson is a TomDispatch regular and a professor of art crime at John Jay College (CUNY). An expert on the deliberate destruction of art, she is the author of the forthcoming Smashing Statues: The Rise and Fall of America’s Public Monuments (Norton, 2021). Follow her on Twitter @artcrimeprof.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Erin L. Thompson



Bonus Video added by Informed Comment:

CBS Sunday Morning: “Votes for women: How the suffragists won”

War and Pandemic Journalism: The Truth Can Disappear Fast Fri, 07 Aug 2020 04:01:08 +0000 By Patrick Cockburn | –

( ) – The struggle against Covid-19 has often been compared to fighting a war. Much of this rhetoric is bombast, but the similarities between the struggle against the virus and against human enemies are real enough. War reporting and pandemic reporting likewise have much in common because, in both cases, journalists are dealing with and describing matters of life and death. Public interest is fueled by deep fears, often more intense during an epidemic because the whole population is at risk. In a war, aside from military occupation and area bombing, terror is at its height among those closest to the battlefield.

The nature of the dangers stemming from military violence and the outbreak of a deadly disease may appear very different. But looked at from the point of view of a government, they both pose an existential threat because failure in either crisis may provoke some version of regime change. People seldom forgive governments that get them involved in losing wars or that fail to cope adequately with a natural disaster like the coronavirus. The powers-that-be know that they must fight for their political lives, perhaps even their physical existence, claiming any success as their own and doing their best to escape blame for what has gone wrong.

My First Pandemic

I first experienced a pandemic in the summer of 1956 when, at the age of six, I caught polio in Cork, Ireland. The epidemic there began soon after virologist Jonas Salk developed a vaccine for it in the United States, but before it was available in Europe. Polio epidemics were at their height in the first half of the twentieth century and, in a number of respects, closely resembled the Covid-19 experience: many people caught the disease but only a minority were permanently disabled by or died of it. In contrast with Covid-19, however, it was young children, not the old, who were most at risk. The terror caused by poliomyelitis, to use its full name, was even higher than during the present epidemic exactly because it targeted the very young and its victims did not generally disappear into the cemetery but were highly visible on crutches and in wheelchairs, or prone in iron lungs.

Parents were mystified by the source of the illness because it was spread by great numbers of asymptomatic carriers who did not know they had it. The worst outbreaks were in the better-off parts of modern cities like Boston, Chicago, Copenhagen, Melbourne, New York, and Stockholm. People living there enjoyed a good supply of clean water and had effective sewage disposal, but did not realize that all of this robbed them of their natural immunity to the polio virus. The pattern in Cork was the same: most of the sick came from the more affluent parts of the city, while people living in the slums were largely unaffected. Everywhere, there was a frantic search to identify those, like foreign immigrants, who might be responsible for spreading the disease. In the New York epidemic of 1916, even animals were suspected of doing so and 72,000 cats and 8,000 dogs were hunted down and killed.

The illness weakened my legs permanently and I have a severe limp so, even reporting in dangerous circumstances in the Middle East, I could only walk, not run. I was very conscious of my disabilities from the first, but did not think much about how I had acquired them or the epidemic itself until perhaps four decades later. It was the 1990s and I was then visiting ill-supplied hospitals in Iraq as that country’s health system was collapsing under the weight of U.N. sanctions. As a child, I had once been a patient in an almost equally grim hospital in Ireland and it occurred to me then, as I saw children in those desperate circumstances in Iraq, that I ought to know more about what had happened to me. At that time, my ignorance was remarkably complete. I did not even know the year when the polio epidemic had happened in Ireland, nor could I say if it was caused by a virus or a bacterium.

So I read up on the outbreak in newspapers of the time and Irish Health Ministry files, while interviewing surviving doctors, nurses, and patients. Kathleen O’Callaghan, a doctor at St. Finbarr’s hospital, where I had been brought from my home when first diagnosed, said that people in the city were so frightened “they would cross the road rather than walk past the walls of the fever hospital.” My father recalled that the police had to deliver food to infected homes because no one else would go near them. A Red Cross nurse, Maureen O’Sullivan, who drove an ambulance at the time, told me that, even after the epidemic was over, people would quail at the sight of her ambulance, claiming “the polio is back again” and dragging their children into their houses or they might even fall to their knees to pray.

The local authorities in a poor little city like Cork where I grew up understood better than national governments today that fear is a main feature of epidemics. They tried then to steer public opinion between panic and complacency by keeping control of the news of the outbreak. When British newspapers like the Times reported that polio was rampant in Cork, they called this typical British slander and exaggeration. But their efforts to suppress the news never worked as well as they hoped. Instead, they dented their own credibility by trying to play down what was happening. In that pre-television era, the main source of information in my hometown was the Cork Examiner, which, after the first polio infections were announced at the beginning of July 1956, accurately reported on the number of cases, but systematically underrated their seriousness.

Headlines about polio like “Panic Reaction Without Justification” and “Outbreak Not Yet Dangerous” regularly ran below the fold on its front page. Above it were the screaming ones about the Suez Crisis and the Hungarian uprising of that year. In the end, this treatment only served to spread alarm in Cork where many people were convinced that the death toll was much higher than the officially announced one and that bodies were being secretly carried out of the hospitals at night.

My father said that, in the end, a delegation of local businessmen, the owners of the biggest shops, approached the owners of the Cork Examiner, threatening to withdraw their advertising unless it stopped reporting the epidemic. I was dubious about this story, but when I checked the newspaper files many years later, I found that he was correct and the paper had almost entirely stopped reporting on the epidemic just as sick children were pouring into St. Finbarr’s hospital.

The Misreporting of Wars and Epidemics

By the time I started to research a book about the Cork polio epidemic that would be titled Broken Boy, I had been reporting wars for 25 years, starting with the Northern Irish Troubles in the 1970s, then the Lebanese civil war, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the war that followed Washington’s post-9/11 takeover of Afghanistan, and the U.S.-led 2003 invasion of Iraq. After publication of the book, I went on covering these endless conflicts for the British paper the Independent as well as new conflicts sparked in 2011 by the Arab Spring in Libya, Syria, and Yemen.

As the coronavirus pandemic began this January, I was finishing a book (just published), War in the Age of Trump: The Defeat of Isis, the Fall of the Kurds, the Confrontation with Iran. Almost immediately, I noticed strong parallels between the Covid-19 pandemic and the polio epidemic 64 years earlier. Pervasive fear was perhaps the common factor, though little grasped by governments of this moment. Boris Johnson’s in Great Britain, where I was living, was typical in believing that people had to be frightened into lockdown, when, in fact, so many were already terrified and needed to be reassured.

I also noticed ominous similarities between the ways in which epidemics and wars are misreported. Those in positions of responsibility — Donald Trump represents an extreme version of this — invariably claim victories and successes even as they fail and suffer defeats. The words of the Confederate general “Stonewall” Jackson came to mind. On surveying ground that had only recently been a battlefield, he asked an aide: “Did you ever think, sir, what an opportunity a battlefield affords liars?”

This has certainly been true of wars, but no less so, it seemed to me, of epidemics, as President Trump was indeed soon to demonstrate (over and over and over again). At least in retrospect, disinformation campaigns in wars tend to get bad press and be the subject of much finger wagging. But think about it a moment: it stands to reason that people trying to kill each other will not hesitate to lie about each other as well. While the glib saying that “truth is the first casualty of war” has often proven a dangerous escape hatch for poor reporting or unthinking acceptance of a self-serving version of battlefield realities (spoon-fed by the powers-that-be to a credulous media), it could equally be said that truth is the first casualty of pandemics. The inevitable chaos that follows in the wake of the swift spread of a deadly disease and the desperation of those in power to avoid being held responsible for the soaring loss of life lead in the same direction.

There is, of course, nothing inevitable about the suppression of truth when it comes to wars, epidemics, or anything else for that matter. Journalists, individually and collectively, will always be engaged in a struggle with propagandists and PR men, one in which victory for either side is never inevitable.

Unfortunately, wars and epidemics are melodramatic events and melodrama militates against real understanding. “If it bleeds, it leads” is true of news priorities when it comes to an intensive care unit in Texas or a missile strike in Afghanistan. Such scenes are shocking but do not necessarily tell us much about what is actually going on.

The recent history of war reporting is not encouraging. Journalists will always have to fight propagandists working for the powers-that-be. Sadly, I have had the depressing feeling since Washington’s first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1991 that the propagandists are increasingly winning the news battle and that accurate journalism, actual eyewitness reporting, is in retreat.

Disappearing News

By its nature, reporting wars is always going to be difficult and dangerous work, but it has become more so in these years. Coverage of Washington’s Afghan and Iraqi wars was often inadequate, but not as bad as the more recent reporting from war-torn Libya and Syria or its near total absence from the disaster that is Yemen. This lack fostered misconceptions even when it came to fundamental questions like who is actually fighting whom, for what reasons, and just who are the real prospective winners and losers.

Of course, there is little new about propaganda, controlling the news, or spreading “false facts.” Ancient Egyptian pharaohs inscribed self-glorifying and mendacious accounts of their battles on monuments, now thousands of years old, in which their defeats are lauded as heroic victories. What is new about war reporting in recent decades is the far greater sophistication and resources that governments can deploy in shaping the news. With opponents like longtime Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein, demonization was never too difficult a task because he was a genuinely demonic autocrat.

Yet the most influential news story about the Iraqi invasion of neighboring Kuwait in 1990 and the U.S.-led counter-invasion proved to be a fake. This was a report that, in August 1990, invading Iraqi soldiers had tipped babies out of incubators in a Kuwaiti hospital and left them to die on the floor. A Kuwaiti girl reported to have been working as a volunteer in the hospital swore before a U.S. congressional committee that she had witnessed that very atrocity. Her story was hugely influential in mobilizing international support for the war effort of the administration of President George H.W. Bush and the U.S. allies he teamed up with.

In reality it proved purely fictional. The supposed hospital volunteer turned out to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador in Washington. Several journalists and human rights specialists expressed skepticism at the time, but their voices were drowned out by the outrage the tale provoked. It was a classic example of a successful propaganda coup: instantly newsworthy, not easy to disprove, and when it was — long after the war — it had already had the necessary impact, creating support for the U.S.-led coalition going to war with Iraq.

In a similar fashion, I reported on the American war in Afghanistan in 2001-2002 at a time when coverage in the international media had left the impression that the Taliban had been decisively defeated by the U.S. military and its Afghan allies. Television showed dramatic shots of bombs and missiles exploding on the Taliban front lines and Northern Alliance opposition forces advancing unopposed to “liberate” the Afghan capital, Kabul.

When, however, I followed the Taliban retreating south to Kandahar Province, it became clear to me that they were not by any normal definition a beaten force, that their units were simply under orders to disperse and go home. Their leaders had clearly grasped that they were over-matched and that it would be better to wait until conditions changed in their favor, something that had distinctly happened by 2006, when they went back to war in a big way. They then continued to fight in a determined fashion to the present day. By 2009, it was already dangerous to drive beyond the southernmost police station in Kabul due to the risk that Taliban patrols might create pop-up checkpoints anywhere along the road.

None of the wars I covered then have ever really ended. What has happened, however, is that they have largely ended up receding, if not disappearing, from the news agenda. I suspect that, if a successful vaccine for Covid-19 isn’t found and used globally, something of the same sort could happen with the coronavirus pandemic as well. Given the way news about it now dominates, even overwhelms, the present news agenda, this may seem unlikely, but there are precedents. In 1918, with World War I in progress, governments dealt with what came to be called the Spanish Flu by simply suppressing information about it. Spain, as a non-combatant in that war, did not censor the news of the outbreak in the same fashion and so the disease was most unfairly named “the Spanish Flu,” though it probably began in the United States.

The polio epidemic in Cork supposedly ended abruptly in mid-September 1956 when the local press stopped reporting on it, but that was at least two weeks before many children like me caught it. In a similar fashion, right now, wars in the Middle East and north Africa like the ongoing disasters in Libya and Syria that once got significant coverage now barely get a mention much of the time.

In the years to come, the same thing could happen to the coronavirus.

Patrick Cockburn is a Middle East correspondent for the Independent of London and the author of six books on the Middle East, the latest of which is War in the Age of Trump: The Defeat of Isis, the Fall of the Kurds, the Confrontation with Iran (Verso).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Patrick Cockburn



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Lincoln Project Ad Slams Trump’s COVID-19 Response | NowThis

Trump is making us Sick, and Unsafe: Covid Infection Rate Triples in US Military Thu, 06 Aug 2020 04:01:25 +0000 By Andrea Mazzarino | –

( ) – American military personnel are getting sick in significant numbers in the midst of the ongoing pandemic. As The New York Times reported in a piece buried in the back pages of its July 21st edition, “The infection rate in the services has tripled over the past six weeks as the United States military has emerged as a potential source of transmission both domestically and abroad.”

Indeed, the military is sick and I think of it as both a personal and an imperial disaster.

As the wife of a naval officer, I bear witness to the unexpected ways that disasters of all sorts play out among military families and lately I’ve been bracing for the Covid-19 version of just such a disaster. Normally, for my husband and me, the stressors are relatively mild. After all, between us we have well-paid jobs, two healthy children, and supportive family and friends, all of which allow us to weather the difficulties of military life fairly smoothly. In our 10 years together, however, over two submarine assignments and five moves, we’ve dealt with unpredictable months-long deployments, uncertainty about when I will next be left to care for our children alone, and periods of 16-hour workdays for my spouse that strained us both, not to speak of his surviving a major submarine accident.

You would think that, as my husband enters his third year of “shore duty” as a Pentagon staffer, the immediate dangers of military service would finally be negligible. No such luck. Since around mid-June, as President Trump searched for scapegoats like the World Health Organization for his own Covid-19 ineptitude and his concern over what rising infection rates could mean for his approval ratings, he decided that it was time to push this country to “reopen.”

As it turned out, that wouldn’t just be a disaster for states from Florida to California, but also meant that the Pentagon resumed operations at about 80% capacity. So, after a brief reprieve, my spouse is now required to report to his office four days a week for eight-hour workdays in a poorly ventilated, crowded hive of cubicles where people neither consistently mask nor social distance.

All of this for what often adds up to an hour or two of substantive daily work. Restaurants, dry cleaners, and other services where Pentagon staffers circulate only add to the possibility of his being exposed to Covid-19.

My husband, in other words, is now unnecessarily risking his own and his family’s exposure to a virus that has to date claimed more than 150,000 American lives — already more than eight times higher than the number of Americans who died in both the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that followed.

In mid-August, he will transfer to an office job in Maryland, a state where cases and deaths are again on the rise. One evening, I asked him why it seemed to be business as usual at the Pentagon when numbers were spiking in a majority of states. His reply: “Don’t ask questions about facts and logic.”

After all, unless Secretary of Defense Mark Esper decides to speak out against the way President Trump has worked to reopen the country to further disaster, the movement of troops and personnel like my husband within and among duty stations will simply continue, even as Covid-19 numbers soar in the military.

America’s Archipelago of Bases

Global freedom of movement has been a hallmark of America’s vast empire of bases, at least 800of them scattered across much of the planet. Now, it may prove part of the downfall of that very imperial structure. After all, Donald Trump’s America is at the heart of the present pandemic. So it’s hardly surprising that, according to the Times, U.S. troops seem to be carrying Covid-19 infections with them from hard-hit states like Arizona, California, Florida, and Texas, a number of which have had lax and inconsistently enforced safety guidelines, to other countries where they are stationed.

For example, at just one U.S. base on the Japanese island of Okinawa, the Marine Corps reported nearly 100 cases in July, angering local officials because American soldiers had socialized off-base and gone to local bars in a place where the coronavirus had initially been suppressed. No longer. In Nigeria, where official case counts are low but healthcare workers in large cities are reporting a spike in deaths among residents with symptoms, the U.S. military arms, supplies, and trains the national security forces. So a spike in cases among U.S. troops now places local populations (as well as those soldiers) at additional risk in a country where testing and contact tracing are severely lacking. And this is a problem now for just about any U.S. ally from Europe to South Korea.

What this virus’s spread among troops means, of course, is that the U.S. empire of bases that spans some 80 countries — about 40% of the nations on this planet — is now part of the growing American Covid-19 disaster. There is increasing reason to believe that new outbreaks of what the president likes to call the “Chinese virus” in some of these countries may actually prove to be American imports. Like many American civilians, our military personnel are traveling, going to work, socializing, buying things, often unmasked and ungloved, and anything but social distanced.

Public health experts have been clear that the criteria for safely reopening the economy without sparking yet more outbreaks are numerous. They include weeks of lower case counts, positive test rates at or beneath four new cases per 100,000 people daily, adequate testing capacity, enforcing strict social-distancing guidelines, and the availability of at least 40% of hospital ICU beds to treat any possible future surge.

To date, only three states have met these criteria: Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. The White House’s Opening Up America plan, on the other hand, includes guidelines of just the weakest and vaguest sort like noting a downward trajectory in cases over 14-day periods and “robust testing capacity” for healthcare workers (without any definition of what this might actually mean).

Following White House guidance, the Department of Defense is deferring to local and state governments to determine what, if any, safety measures to take. As the White House then suggested, in March when a military-wide lockdown began, troops needed to quarantine for 14 days before moving to their next duty station. At the close of June, the Pentagon broadly removed travel restrictions, allowing both inter-state recreational and military travel by troops and their families. Now, in a country that lacks any disciplined and unified response to the global pandemic, our ever-mobile military has become a significant conduit of its spread, both domestically and abroad.

To be sure, none of us knew how to tackle the dangers posed by this virus. The last global pandemic of this sort, the “Spanish Flu” of 1918-1919 in which 50 million or more people died worldwide, suggested just how dire the consequences of such an outbreak could be when uncontained. But facts and lived experience are two different things. If you’re young, physically fit, have survived numerous viruses of a more known and treatable sort, and most of the people around you are out and about, you probably dismiss it as just another illness, even if you’re subject to some of the Covid-19 death risk factors that are indeed endemic among U.S. military personnel.

Perhaps what the spread of this pandemic among our troops shows is that the military-civilian divide isn’t as great as we often think.

Protecting Life in the Covid-19 Era

Full disclosure: I write this at a time when I’m frustrated and tired. For the past month, I’ve provided full-time child care for our two pre-school age kids, even while working up to 50 hours a week, largely on evenings and weekends, as a psychotherapist for local adults and children themselves acutely experiencing the fears, health dangers, and economic effects of the coronavirus. Like many other moms across the country, I cram work, chores, pre-K Zoom sessions, pediatrician and dentist appointments, and grocery shopping into endless days, while taking as many security precautions as I can. My husband reminds me of the need to abide by quarantines, as (despite his working conditions) he needs to be protected from exposing top Pentagon officials to the disease.

Yet the military has done little or nothing to deal with the ways the families of service members, asked to work and “rotate,” might be exposed to infection. In the dizziness of fatigue, I have little patience for any institution that carries on with business as usual under such circumstances.

What’s more, it’s hard to imagine how any efforts to quarantine will bear fruit in a country where even those Americans who do follow scientific news about Covid-19 have often dropped precautions against its spread. I’ve noted that, these days, some of my most progressive friends have started to socialize, eat indoors at restaurants, and even travel out of state to more deeply affected places by plane. They are engaging in what we therapists sometimes call “emotion-based reasoning,” or “I’m tired of safety precautions, so they must no longer be necessary.”

And that’s not even taking into account the no-maskers among us who flaunt the safety guidelines offered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to indicate their supposed love of individual liberties. A relative, an officer with the Department of Homeland Security, recently posted a picture on Facebook of his three young children and those of a workmate watching fireworks arm in arm at an unmasked July 4th gathering. The picture was clearly staged to provoke those like me who support social-distancing and masking guidelines. When I talk with him, he quickly changes the subject to how he could, at any moment, be deployed to “control the rioters in D.C. and other local cities.” In other words, in his mind like those of so many others the president relies on as his “base,” the real threat isn’t the pandemic, it’s the people in the streets protesting police violence.

I wonder how the optics of American families celebrating together could have superseded safety based on an understanding of how diseases spread, as well as a healthy respect for the unknowns that go with them.

Sometimes, our misplaced priorities take my breath away, quite literally so recently. Craving takeout from my favorite Peruvian chicken restaurant and wanting to support a struggling local business, I ordered such a meal and drove with my kids to pick it up. Stopping at the restaurant, I noted multiple unmasked people packed inside despite a sign on the door mandating masks and social distancing. Making a quick risk-benefit assessment, I opened the car windows, blasted the air conditioning, and ran into the restaurant without my kids, making faces at them through the window while I stood in line.

A voice suddenly cut through the hum of the rotisseries: “Shameful! Shameful!” A woman, unmasked, literally spat these words, pointing right at me. “Leaving your kids in the car! Someone could take them! Shameful!” I caught my breath. Riddled with guilt and fearful of what she might do, I returned to my car without my food. She followed me, yelling, “Shameful!”

Aside from the spittle flying from this woman’s mouth, notable was what she wasn’t ashamed of: entering such a place, unmasked and ready to spit, with other people’s children also in there running about. (Not to mention that in Maryland reported abductions of children by strangers are nil.)

What has this country come to when we are more likely to blame the usual culprits — negligent mothers, brown and Black people, illegal immigrants (you know the list) — than accept responsibility for what’s actually going on and make the necessary sacrifices to deal with it (perhaps including, I should admit, going without takeout food)?

Typically in these years, top Pentagon officials and the high command are prioritizing the maintenance of empire at the expense of protecting the very bodies that make up the armed services (not to speak of those inhabitants of other countries living near our hundreds of global garrisons). After all, what’s the problem, when nothing could be more important than keeping this country in the (increasingly embattled) position of global overseer? More bodies can always be produced. (Thank you, military spouses!)

The spread of this virus around the globe, now aided in part by the U.S. military, reminds me of one of those paint-with-water children’s books where the shading appears gradually as the brush moves over the page, including in places you didn’t expect. Everywhere that infected Americans socialize, shop, arm, and fight, this virus is popping up, eroding both our literal ability to be present and the institutions (however corrupt) we’re still trying to prop up. If we are truly in a “war” against Covid-19 — President Trump has, of course, referred to himself as a “wartime president” — then it’s time for all of us to make the sacrifices of a wartime nation by prioritizing public health over pleasure. Otherwise, I fear that what’s good about life in this country will also be at risk, as will the futures of my own children.

Andrea Mazzarino, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded Brown University’s Costs of War Project. She has held various clinical, research, and advocacy positions, including at a Veterans Affairs PTSD Outpatient Clinic, with Human Rights Watch, and at a community mental health agency. She is the co-editor of War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Andrea Mazzarino



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ABC News: “US military bases in Japan face COVID-19 outbreak l ABC News”

We’ve been Sunk by Chickenhawks like Trump, but will the Veterans in Congress Save Us? Mon, 13 Jul 2020 05:36:49 +0000 By Nan Levinson |

( – If you still follow the mainstream media, you’re probably part of the 38% of registered voters who knew something about the op-ed Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) published in the New York Times early in June, exhorting the president to use the Insurrection Act to “restore order to our streets.” This was in response to what he called “anarchy” but others saw as peaceful Black Lives Matter protests. And yet that op-ed was actually less incendiary than an earlier tweet of Cotton’s demanding “no quarter for insurrectionists, anarchists, rioters, and looters” or his Fox News call to send the 101st Airborne onto the streets of America.


Anger at the decision to run that op-ed exploded at the Times. While there are certainly grounds for umbrage over giving Cotton’s screed such blue-chip journalistic real estate, the take-away for me was that a senator and military veteran who had sworn to uphold the Constitution in both capacities was demanding that soldiers patrol American streets in that protest moment. I shouldn’t have been surprised, I suppose. Cotton doesn’t seem to have met a fight he doesn’t relish. Still, it got me thinking about what difference, if any, veterans make in Congress when it comes to whether (and how) the U.S. military is sent into battle.

The answer matters now, as many veterans will be on the ballot in November, including the challenger to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. And veterans, we were told, are just what the doctor ordered. Back in 2018, in a Baltimore Sun op-ed promoting the idea of veterans running for Congress, retired four-star Army General Wesley Clark wrote that, because veterans “know the same sense of duty, commitment to results, and the integrity and discipline they have been trained to live by,” they are “uniquely well-positioned to fix” a broken Washington.

High on the list of brokens is American war-making, so I’d like to think that veteran-legislators, when in a position to do something about it, would use those qualities Clark extols to push Congress — and the White House — toward a less belligerent foreign policy. Veterans bring with them the authority of having been there. They know what it means to live with the consequences of congressional actions. They know the costs of war, especially the senseless wars of this century. And, increasingly, they’re fed up. Yet Congress, including its veteran-members, has allowed the U.S. military to stay mired in those conflicts, which continue largely off-stage as if propelled by some mysterious force everyone is powerless to stop.

What, then, has been the actual influence of the veterans now in Congress on this country’s war policy? For the twenty-first century, remarkably enough, the simple answer is: not much. It hasn’t always been this way, though, and could change again. Predicting history in the making is a fool’s errand.

The Veteran Effect

For much of our history, a stint in the military, preferably as an officer, was a useful, even necessary, starting point for a political career. Mitch McConnell, for instance, has acknowledged that he joined the Army Reserve early in his career because “it was smart politically.” (He lasted five weeks before being discharged for an eye condition and possibly thanks to political pull.)

In the military, young men, and more recently young women, practiced leadership skills, engaged in public service, made common cause with people of different backgrounds, and burnished their patriotic résumés, all of which was assumed to prepare them well for political life. That’s changed in recent years as the number of veterans in Congress has fallen significantly, but a change back may be coming as increasing numbers of Americans who fought the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan run for office, while the opinions of veterans more generally have taken a distinctly negative turn on America’s forever wars.

While voters don’t elect veterans just because they’re veterans, polls consistently find that the public has more confidence in the military than in any other American institution. Not everyone who’s been in that military thinks the same way, of course, and veteran status is but one determinant in a politician’s point of view. But a military usually has a powerful influence on its members, shaping their political, social, and decision-making attitudes and their ideas about the use of force as a means of achieving foreign-policy goals. Or so argue political scientists Peter Feaver and Christopher Gelpi who, in their influential book Choosing Your Battles, examined the impact of military experience on this country’s use of force abroad between 1816 and 1992, finding that it made a difference, sometimes a profound one. They concluded that the greater the proportion of veterans in the federal legislative and executive branches — what they termed “the policymaking elite” — the less likely the United States was to initiate wars of aggression. This “veteran effect,” however, was anything but straightforward. While civilian elites were more likely to go to war for ideological, imperial, or moral imperatives, military elites leaned more toward pragmatism and a clearer examination of the situation on the ground as reasons for sending the military into battle.

Both groups, however, were convinced that force works and that the United States goes to war only when provoked (never by being provocative). Moreover, the authors found that, once a war started, the more veterans in leadership roles, the bloodier and longer the use of force, while civilian elites were more willing to place constraints on how the military was used. No surprise there: no military likes civilians telling it how to fight “its” wars, a tension that has appeared in the conflicts launched or supported by every recent administration.

Bear with me now because the research only gets more intriguing. An international study demonstrated that, as the number of women in a national legislature increases, countries are more likely to intervene militarily for humanitarian reasons, but not for other ones. Research also has confirmed that American presidents raised in the South have been twice as likely as other presidents to use force in international conflicts, were less likely to back down militarily, and were more likely to win.

These days, the American public apparently doesn’t care much about veterans in the White House. Not counting George W. Bush’s questionable turn in the Texas National Guard, the last executive who did active military service was Vice President Al Gore. The last two presidential candidates who were veterans — John Kerry and John McCain — lost to civilians and, of the four veterans who ran for the Democratic presidential nomination this year, only Pete Buttigieg got any traction through referring to his military experience (often). For the record, Joe Biden, whose two sons enlisted, avoided the draft via student deferments and asthma, while Donald Trump, who appointed more recent active-duty military officers to senior policy positions than at any time since World War II — before he fired most of them — side-stepped military service with the world’s most famous bone spurs.

Authorizing War

While the president as commander-in-chief is empowered to determine how wars are conducted, the Constitution gives the power to declare war to Congress, which has made a formal declaration in only five wars throughout American history. At the end of the (never formally declared) Vietnam War, heated debate over the president’s role in deploying troops led to the passage of the War Powers Act of 1973. Theoretically,it restricts a president from launching a military excursion abroad without informing Congress and getting congressional consent within 60 days. In this century, however, presidents have easily skirted such limitations. (Examples: Barack Obama in his Libyan intervention, Donald Trump in his bombing of Syria.) Meanwhile, Congress itself has funded any number of congressionally undeclared wars since 1973.

In this century, with that all-important power to fund wars, Congress has acted lavishly indeed. The current Pentagon budget, at almost $730 billion, is about 13 times the State Department’s, an indication of what’s truly central (and not) to U.S. foreign policy. Such budgets are authorized by the Armed Services Committees of both houses of Congress. At the moment, veterans make more than half of the Senate’s committee and more than one-third of the House’s.

Still, it’s tricky to judge the role and effect of the post-9/11 crop of veteran-legislators when it comes to influencing American war-making policies, since there are so relatively few of them. Their number has been in decline since the early 1970s, when nearly three-quarters of congressional representatives had been in the military, usually in combat. Now, that number is 17%: 17 veterans in the Senate (excluding five-week McConnell) and 75 in the House (including the nonvoting delegate from the Northern Mariana Islands). They come from 39 states, about two-thirds of them are Republicans, nearly all are white, most were officers, seven are women,and fewer than half were in combat. Small as their percentage may be, it’s still about twice that of veterans in the general population.

In a phone interview last month, Dan Caldwell, former executive director of Concerned Veterans for America, a Koch-affiliated advocacy group, maintained that, while military service informs politicians’ views of war, it’s not a good indicator of their stance on foreign policy. I’ve thought that a better test might be voting patterns on authorizing war — if only such votes existed in recent years. Unfortunately, they’ve been rare indeed.

On September 18, 2001, Congress overwhelmingly approved an authorization for the use of military force, or AUMF, against those the president might determine responsible for the 9/11 attacks, which turned out to mean an invasion of, and never-ending war in, Afghanistan. (Never mind that most of the hijackers who carried out the attacks that day were Saudis.) Everyone in Congress voted for that AUMF except the prescient Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA), who had never served in the military and was concerned that the resolution would offer a blank check for limitless war, just as it proved to do.

The vote in October 2002 for a second AUMF, this one functionally preparing the way for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq the following spring, was at least modestly more controversial, passing the Senate by a vote of 77 to 23. Of the 38 then-senators who were veterans, 31 supported it. According to the Congressional Research Service, those two authorizations have been invoked ever since to cover at least 41 military actions across significant parts of the Greater Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere. The United States military has not won a sustained peace, nor achieved any of its long-term goals, through a single one of those conflicts.

Tracking congressional action on AUMFs, troop levels, arms sales, and escalating tensions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Niger, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and other countries in Africa and elsewhere requires a finely tuned political GPS, which Congress has hardly had in these years. (Remember when members of the Senate were stunned to discover that this country even had troops in Niger after four of them died in a clash with a terror group there?) In the Trump years, Congress has seemed to grow more active on the subject of America’s global conflicts mainly when annoyed at being openly and insultingly bypassed or slighted. For example, when the administration glossed over the murder of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 or when it didn’t alert Congress before the president ordered the assassination of Iranian Major General Qassem Suleimani in a drone strike early this year.

In April 2019, in a rare bipartisan rebuke to President Trump, both houses of Congress invoked the War Powers Act to end U.S. support for the Saudi military and involvement in the ongoing war in Yemen. The president, however, vetoed the resolution and a Republican-controlled Senate failed to override him. As it turned out, none of that really mattered since Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used an emergency provision in the Arms Export Control Act to allow American companies to sell $8.1 billion in arms primarily to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen. According to the New York Times, Congress has never successfully blocked an arms sale, but that didn’t keep it from trying again that July, sometimes with veteran-members like Ted Lieu (D-CA) in the lead. That resolution was vetoed, too. Steve Linick, until May the Inspector General at the State Department, was said to be investigating that huge arms sale when Trump fired him, reportedly at Pompeo’s urging.

Strange Bedfellows

On these and other issues of war, nearly all the veterans in Congress simply voted with their party. Yet, in the future, questions of how long to continue this country’s never-ending wars have the potential to forge unexpected alliances among them. That could be true even if they arrive at the same position for different reasons, as I discovered in conversations with some independent-minded veterans.

For instance, Warren Davidson, a West Point graduate, former Army Ranger, and the congressman from a solidly Republican district in Ohio, is one of the few veterans who, contrary to his party, voted consistently in 2019 to end U.S. association with the war in Yemen. He also took a stand this year against a future war with Iran. To understand his reasoning, you need to look at his personal history. He retired from the Army in 2000, in part, he told me, because the lack of a coherent strategy in Kosovo, along with Congress’s refusal to vote on U.S. involvement there, seemed all wrong to him. He cited costly and, to his mind, unnecessary projects, while the troops sent to fight that incursion went in ill-prepared. “I was like, can’t we just focus on what the military exists for? Which is fighting wars.”

Almost two decades later, a war he’s definitely done supporting is the one that started with the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and continues without, as far as he’s concerned, either resolution or a strategy to end it. “I don’t know if we’re going to eventually vote onAfghani statehood,” he jokes to me, before turning serious and adding, “If we’re not going to leave, what are we still doing there?”

I talked as well to Will Goodwin, director of government relations at VoteVets, a political action committee for progressive veteran-candidates who believes that “there’s near universal agreement that the executive branch has far exceeded the intent of the 2002 AUMF.” Yet, to our shared frustration, nothing changes. Last year, VoteVets and Concerned Veterans for America joined in a startling alliance across the right-left divide in veteran politics to push for a rethinking of Washington’s foreign and military policies, beginning with the removal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Syria. Echoing the findings of scholars Feaver and Gelpi, Concerned Vets argues on its website for a new realism and restraint in deploying American military power globally and concludes: “As the greatest nation in the world, America shouldn’t fight endless wars.”

Goodwin and Caldwell each cite a recent Concerned Vets national poll that found 57% of veterans believe this country should be less militarily engaged in conflicts around the world. For a while now, majorities of them have felt that neither the Afghan nor Iraq wars were worth fighting. Among such vets, “interventionist” and “restrained” may be replacing “hawk” and “dove” as the terms du jour, but Caldwell agrees when I suggest that Congress — including many of its veteran-members — is now generally out-hawking the U.S. military. Think of it as the veteran conundrum.

While a voting record tells us something, it can be a reductive way of assessing a politician’s thinking. It doesn’t allow for the long (or, in the case of America’s wars, even longer) game. Much of the reluctance of veteran-politicians to buck their parties on war-making arises from the increasingly divisive partisan politics of this country. Republican politicians, in particular, may fear that an antiwar vote could come back to haunt them and representatives in both parties have loyalties to military contractors who support their campaigns or do business in their districts.

For all that, it’s hard not to add lack of courage to the mix — not exactly the greatest compliment you can pay a military veteran. Coming to terms with the role of war in foreign policy requires serious and sustained attention to a subject many politicians and voters have shown themselves eager to ignore for years now. The reasons for the current state of perpetual war are complex, but they’re not inexplicable. If veteran-legislators were to use their capacity for leadership, Congress could take on its true constitutional responsibility as the custodian of war — and peace — and life in this country could change accordingly.

Nan Levinson’s most recent book is War Is Not a Game: The New Antiwar Soldiers and the Movement They Built. A TomDispatch regular, she teaches journalism and fiction writing at Tufts University.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Nan Levinson



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France 24 English from last Year: “Congress votes to end US support for Yemen war”