Tomdispatch – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Thu, 02 Feb 2023 20:30:06 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Nightmare of Republican Voter Suppression Fri, 03 Feb 2023 05:02:29 +0000 By Clarence Lusane | –

( ) – The fundamental right to vote has been a core value of Black politics since the colonial era — and so has the effort to suppress that vote right up to the present moment. In fact, the history of the suppression of Black voters is a first-rate horror story that as yet shows no sign of ending.

While Democrats and progressives justifiably celebrated the humbling defeat of some of the most notorious election-denying Republican candidates in the 2022 midterms, the GOP campaign to quell and marginalize Black voters has only continued with an all-too-striking vigor. In 2023, attacks on voting rights are melding with the increasingly authoritarian thrust of a Republican Party ever more aligned with far-right extremists and outright white supremacists.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that the insurrection of January 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington was also an assault on minority voters. In the post-election weeks of 2020, insurrection-loving and disgraced President Donald Trump and his allies sought to discard votes in swing-state cities like Atlanta, Detroit, Las Vegas, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Phoenix. Those were all places with large Black, Latino, or Native American populations. It was no accident then that the overwhelmingly white mob at the Capitol didn’t hesitate to hurl racist language, including the “N” word, at Black police officers as that mob invaded the building.  

For years, Republican lawmakers at the state level had proposed — and where possible implemented — voter suppression laws and policies whose impacts were sharply felt in communities of color nationwide. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “At least 19 states passed 34 laws restricting access to voting,” laws invariably generated by Republican legislators. These included bills to limit early voting, restrict voting by mail, and even deny the provision of water to voters waiting for hours in long lines, something almost universally experienced in Black and poor communities.

While normally pretending that such laws were not raced-based but focused on — the phrases sound so positive and sensible — “voter integrity” or “election security,” on occasion GOP leaders and officials have revealed their real purpose. A recent example was Republican Wisconsin Elections Commissioner Robert Spindell, one of three GOP appointees on the six-person commission that oversees that state’s elections. He openly bragged that the “well thought out multi-faceted plan” of the Republicans had resulted in a dramatic drop in Black voters in the 2022 midterm elections, including in Milwaukee, the state’s largest city, which is about 40% African American. He wrote: “We can be especially proud of the City of Milwaukee (80.2% Dem Vote) casting 37,000 less votes than cast in the 2018 election with the major reduction happening in the overwhelming Black and Hispanic areas.”

How Far Might Voter Suppression Go?

You undoubtedly won’t be surprised to learn that, rather than develop policies attractive to voters of color, the GOP and conservatives generally have chosen the path of voter suppression, intimidation, and gaming the system. And if anything, those attempts are still on the rise. In 2023, less than a month into the new year, according to the Guardian, Republicans across the country have proposed dozens of voter-suppression and election-administration-interference bills in multiple states.

Republican state legislators in Texas alone filed 14 bills on January 10th, including ones that would raise penalties for “illegal” voting, whether committed knowingly or not. More ominously, one Texas proposal would fund the creation of an election police force exclusively dedicated to catching those who violate voting or election laws. That unit would be similar to the draconian election-police unit created in Governor Ron DeSantis’s Florida as part of what is functionally becoming a regime dedicated to a version of right-wing terror. Symbolically enough, for instance, Black ex-felons were disproportionately targeted by DeSantis. Although the campaign was launched with great fanfare, only a few generally confused ex-felons were arrested and most of them had been given misinformation by state officials about their eligibility to vote and were convinced that they had the right to do so.

But DeSantis never really wanted to stop the virtually nonexistent crime of voter impersonation or fraud. His goal, and that of the GOP nationally, has been to strike fear into the hearts of potential non-Republican voters to ensure election victories for his party. 

In states like Alabama, Mississippi, and 20 others where the GOP controls both chambers of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion, intimidating voter-tracking police squads could be the next play in an ongoing effort to undemocratically control elections. Such policing efforts would without question disproportionately target communities of color.

While the expected midterm “red wave” of Republican victories didn’t occur nationally in 2022, the same can’t be said for the South. As documented by the Institute for Southern Studies’ Facing South, the GOP actually outperformed expectations, expanding its hold on multiple state legislatures in the region. Prior to the election, analysts had predicted that the Republicans might gain 40 seats across the South; in fact, they gained at least 55. Not only did they take control of at least 25 state legislative chambers — the lone exception, Virginia’s state senate where Democrats retained a two-seat majority — but they also built or maintained supermajorities in legislative chambers in Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, and West Virginia. This means that even if a Democratic governor is in office, Republican legislators can pass extremist bills into law despite a gubernatorial veto.

None of this is spontaneous, nor is it random. Tens of millions of dollars or more from super-rich conservative donors and right-wing foundations have poured into voter-suppression and election-manipulation efforts. Heritage Action for America, a conservative legislative-writing group linked to the Heritage Foundation, spent upwards of $24 million in 2021 and 2022 in key swing states to help Republicans write bills that would restrict voting, targeting Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, and Texas. Consider it anything but a coincidence that the language in voter-suppression bills in those states and elsewhere sounded eerily familiar. As the Guardian reported, at least 11 voter suppression bills in at least eight states were due, in part or whole, to advocacy and organizing by Heritage Action. A New York Times investigation found that in Georgia, “Of the 68 bills pertaining to voting, at least 23 had similar language or were firmly rooted in the principles laid out in the Heritage group’s letter” that offered outlines and details for how to limit voting access.

Contemporary voter suppression efforts, however, go significantly beyond just trying to prevent people from voting or making it harder for them to do so. Credit that, at least in part, to the determination of so many Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans to vote despite restrictions imposed by the states. Consequently, Republican legislators now seek to control — that is, manipulate — election administration, too. Their tactics include the harassment of election workers, far-right activists seeking positions as election officials, and various other potentially far-reaching legal maneuvers.

In fact, in recent voting, attacks on election workers, officials, and volunteers have become so prevalent that a new national organization, the Election Officials Legal Defense Network (EOLDN), was formed to protect them. EOLDN provides attorneys and other kinds of assistance to such officials when they find themselves under attack.

Meanwhile, a flood of far-right activists has applied for positions or volunteered to work on elections. Neo-fascist Steven Bannon and other extremist influencers have typically called for such activists to take over local election boards with the express purpose of helping Republicans and conservatives win power.

Finally, GOP leaders in multiple states have been pushing an “independent state legislature” doctrine that argues such bodies have the ultimate power to determine election outcomes. They contend that governors, state supreme courts, and even the U.S. Supreme Court have no jurisdiction over non-federal elections. Their fanciful and erroneous reading of Article 1, Section 4 and Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution suggests that state legislatures can not only overturn the will of voters in a given election but select electors of their choice in a presidential contest, no matter the will of the voters.

In past decisions, Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and the late Antonin Scalia indicated that they were at least open to such a reading. A firm decision on this matter may occur in that court’s current session in the case of Moore v. Harper. Court watchers are split on whether the court’s conservative majority might indeed embrace that “doctrine” in full, in part, or at all in ruling on that case later this year.

Missed Chances

Much of this dynamic of voter suppression is the result of the failure of congressional Democrats to carry two voting rights bills across the finish line. Black activists are all too aware that the Democrats blew the opportunity to pass such legislation during the last two years when they controlled both chambers of Congress, even if by the slimmest of margins in the Senate. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (JLVRAA) and the For the People Act (FtPA) were each game-changing bills that would, in many ways, have blunted the massive efforts of Republicans at the state level to institute voter restrictions and other policies that result in the disproportionate disenfranchisement of African Americans, Latinos, young people, and working-class voters generally, all of whom tend to vote Democratic.

The JLVRAA would have restored the power of the Voting Rights Act to prevent the very passage of voter suppression laws taken away by the Supreme Court in 2013 in the case of Shelby County v. Holder. The FtPA would have banned partisan gerrymandering, expanded voting rights, and even supported statehood for Washington, D.C. Those bills were aimed specifically at countering the hundreds of voter-suppression proposals in Republican-controlled state legislatures.

In its final report, the January 6th committee actually blew a chance to highlight the attacks on Black voting rights. That report’s full-scale focus on the role of Donald Trump, who certainly was the key instigator of the insurrectionary events at the Capitol and its chief potential beneficiary, ended up obscuring the role of racism and white nationalism in the stop-the-steal movement that accompanied it and was so crucial to Republican election deniers. It should be remembered, though, that Trump’s central argument and the biggest lie of all was that Black, Latino, and Native American votes should be thrown out in Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia, and other urban areas in states like Arizona and Nevada where he was rejected by overwhelming numbers. 

Unfortunately, the January 6th report didn’t sufficiently identify white supremacy as a driver of the “stop the steal” movement. Despite the prominence of certain Black faces among the Trump camp, including conservative organizer Ali Alexander, Trump campaign aid Katrina Pierson, and former Georgia legislator Vernon Jones, January 6th, in fact, represented the culmination of months of attacks on Black campaign workers, especially in Atlanta and Detroit. President Trump explicitly fired up white nationalists by name-checking and endangering individual African American election workers as spoilers of his alleged victory.

The movement in some democratic states to follow Trump’s autocratic playbook is now also metastasizing globally. In Brazil, on January 8th, thousands of followers of the defeated far-right former president Jair Bolsonaro attacked government buildings in Brasilia. Newly elected President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva has had to confront a surging wave of election deniers in the early days of his administration. And it’s important to note that Lula’s voters were disproportionately from the north and northeastern regions of Brazil, areas with deep concentrations of Black and indigenous communities.

In the United Kingdom, in 2022, the Conservative Party pushed through legislation that requires photo identification to vote in future elections beginning in May 2023. As with Republican legislation in Texas, student IDs will not suffice, creating a new obstacle for a constituency that tends to vote for the Labour Party. In a country where many working-class people don’t have drivers’ licenses and the state does not easily provide acceptable IDs, voter suppression is operative.

A democracy agenda that recognizes the racial elements of voter suppression and election denial is sorely needed. At the federal level, President Biden and Congressional Democrats should prioritize keeping the issue alive, while forcing Republicans to divulge their undemocratic hand, until the Democrats (hopefully) fully take back Congress in 2024.

At the state level, Democrats who have momentum from their victories in 2022 need to consolidate and strengthen voting-access laws and policies. In Michigan, for example, where the GOP had for years used its control of the state legislature to pass outlandish, racist laws that generated significant harm for Black communities, the recent Democratic sweep should mean a new voting day.

Former President Trump and the rest of his crew, as well as state versions of the same, are sadly enough in a significant, if grim, American tradition. Isn’t it time to focus more energy on how to stop their urge to suppress the Black vote?


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For all the Hooplah, Nuclear Fusion won’t Save us from Climate Change, and it is Dangerous Fri, 27 Jan 2023 05:02:42 +0000 By Joshua Frank | –

( ) – I awoke on December 13th to news about what could be the most significant scientific breakthrough since the Food and Drug Administration authorized the first Covid vaccine for emergency use two years ago. This time, however, the achievement had nothing to do with that ongoing public health crisis. Instead, as the New York Times and CNN alerted me that morning, at stake was a new technology that could potentially solve the worst dilemma humanity faces: climate change and the desperate overheating of our planet. Net-energy-gain fusion, a long-sought-after panacea for all that’s wrong with traditional nuclear-fission energy (read: accidents, radioactive waste), had finally been achieved at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

“This is such a wonderful example of a possibility realized, a scientific milestone achieved, and a road ahead to the possibilities for clean energy,” exclaimed White House science adviser Arati Prabhakar.

The New York Times was quick to follow Prabhakar’s lead, boasting that fusion is an “energy source devoid of the pollution and greenhouse gasses caused by the burning of fossil fuels.” Even Fox News, not exactly at the top of anyone’s list of places focused on climate change, jumped on the bandwagon, declaring fusion “a technology that has the potential to accelerate the planet’s shift away from fossil fuels and produce nearly limitless, carbon-free energy.”

All in all, the reviews for fusion were positively glowing and it seemed to make instant sense. What could possibly be wrong with something that might end our reliance on fossil fuels, even as it reduced the risks posed by our aging nuclear industry? The message, repeated again and again in the days that followed: this was a genuine global-warming game-changer.

After all, in the fusion process, no atoms have to be split to create heat. Gigantic lasers are used, not uranium, so there’s no toxic mining involved, nor do thousands of gallons of cold water have to be pumped in to cool overheated reactors, nor will there be radioactive waste byproducts lasting hundreds of thousands of years. And not a risk of a nuclear meltdown in sight! Fusion, so the cheery news went, is safe, effective, and efficient!

Or is it?

The Big Catch

On a very basic level, fusion is the stuff of stars. Within the Earth’s sun, hydrogen combines with helium to create heat in the form of sunlight. Inside the walls of the Livermore Lab, this natural process was imitated by blasting 192 gigantic lasers into a tube the size of a baby’s toe. Inside that cylinder sat a “hydrogen-encased diamond.” When the laser shot through the small hole, it destroyed that diamond quicker than the blink of an eye. In doing so, it created a bunch of invisible x-rays that compressed a small pellet of deuterium and tritium, which scientists refer to as “heavy hydrogen.”

“In a brief moment lasting less than 100 trillionths of a second, 2.05 megajoules of energy — roughly the equivalent of a pound of TNT — bombarded the hydrogen pellet,” explained New York Times reporter Kenneth Chang. “Out flowed a flood of neutron particles — the product of fusion — which carried about 3 megajoules of energy, a factor of 1.5 in energy gain.”

As with so many breakthroughs, there was a catch. First, 3 megajoules isn’t much energy. After all, it takes 360,000 megajoules to create 300 hours of light from a single 100-watt light bulb. So, Livermore’s fusion development isn’t going to electrify a single home, let alone a million homes, anytime soon. And there was another nagging issue with this little fusion creation as well: it took 300 megajoules to power up those 192 lasers. Simply put, at the moment, they require 100 times more energy to charge than the energy they ended up producing.

“The reality is that fusion energy will not be viable at scale anytime within the next decade, a time frame over which carbon emissions must be reduced by 50% to avoid catastrophic warming of more than 1.5°C,” says climate expert Michael Mann, a professor of earth and environmental science at the University of Pennsylvania. “That task will only be achievable through the scaling up of existing clean energy — renewable sources such as wind and solar — along with energy storage capability and efficiency and conservation measures.”

Tritium Trials and Tribulations

The secretive and heavily secured National Ignition Facility where that test took place is the size of a sprawling sports arena. It could, in fact, hold three football fields. Which makes me wonder: how much space would be needed to do fusion on a commercial scale? No good answer is yet available. Then there’s the trouble with that isotope tritium needed to help along the fusion reaction. It’s not easy to come by and costs about as much as diamonds, around $30,000 per gram. Right now, even some of the bigwigs at the Department of Defense are worried that we’re running out of usable tritium.  

“Fusion advocates often boast that the fuel for their reactors will be cheap and plentiful. That is certainly true for deuterium,” writes Daniel Clery in Science. “Roughly one in every 5,000 hydrogen atoms in the oceans is deuterium, and it sells for about $13 per gram. But tritium, with a half-life of 12.3 years, exists naturally only in trace amounts in the upper atmosphere, the product of cosmic ray bombardment.”

Fusion boosters brush this unwelcome fact aside, pointing out that “tritium breeding” — a process in which tritium is endlessly produced in a loop-like fashion — is entirely possible in a fully operating fusion reactor. In theory, this may seem plausible, but you need a bunch of tritium to jumpstart the initial chain reaction and doubt abounds that there’s enough of it out there to begin with. On top of that, the reactors themselves will have to be lined with a lot of lithium, itself an expensive chemical element at $71 a kilogram (copper, by contrast, is around $9.44 a kilogram), to allow the process to work correctly.

Then there’s also a commonly repeated misstatement that fusion doesn’t create significant radioactive waste, a haunting reality for the world’s current fleet of nuclear plants. True, plutonium, which can be used as fuel in atomic weapons, isn’t a natural byproduct of fusion, but tritium is the radioactive form of hydrogen. Its little isotopes are great at permeating metals and finding ways to escape tight enclosures. Obviously, this will pose a significant problem for those who want to continuously breed tritium in a fusion reactor. It also presents a concern for people worried about radioactivity making its way out of such facilities and into the environment.

“Cancer is the main risk from humans ingesting tritium. When tritium decays it spits out a low-energy electron (roughly 18,000 electron volts) that escapes and slams into DNA, a ribosome, or some other biologically important molecule,” David Biello explains in Scientific American. “And, unlike other radionuclides, tritium is usually part of water, so it ends up in all parts of the body and therefore can, in theory, promote any kind of cancer. But that also helps reduce the risk: any tritiated water is typically excreted in less than a month.”

If that sounds problematic, that’s because it is. This country’s above-ground atomic bomb testing in the 1950s and 1960s was responsible for most of the man-made tritium that’s lingering in the environment. And it will be at least 2046, 84 years after the last American atmospheric nuclear detonation in Nevada, before tritium there will no longer pose a problem for the area.

Of course, tritium also escapes from our existing nuclear reactors and is routinely found near such facilities where it occurs “naturally” during the fission process. In fact, after Illinois farmers discovered their wells had been contaminated by the nearby Braidwood nuclear plant, they successfully sued the site’s operator Exelon, which, in 2005, was caught discharging 6.2 million gallons of tritium-laden water into the soil.

In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) allows the industry to monitor for tritium releases at nuclear sites; the industry is politely asked to alert the NRC in a “timely manner” if tritium is either intentionally or accidentally released. But a June 2011 report issued by the Government Accountability Office cast doubt on the NRC’s archaic system for assessing tritium discharges, suggesting that it’s anything but effective. (“Absent such an assessment, we continue to believe that NRC has no assurance that the Groundwater Protection Initiative will lead to prompt detection of underground piping system leaks as nuclear power plants age.”) 

Consider all of this a way of saying that, if the NRC isn’t doing an adequate job of monitoring tritium leaks already occurring with regularity at the country’s nuclear plants, how the heck will it do a better job of tracking the stuff at fusion plants in the future? And as I suggest in my new book, Atomic Days: The Untold Story of the Most Toxic Place in America, the NRC is plain awful at just about everything it does.

Instruments of Death

All of that got me wondering: if tritium, vital for the fusion process, is radioactive, and if they aren’t going to be operating those lasers in time to put the brakes on climate change, what’s really going on here?

Maybe some clues lie (as is so often the case) in history. The initial idea for a fusion reaction was proposed by English physicist Arthur Eddington in 1920. More than 30 years later, on November 1, 1952, the first full-scale U.S. test of a thermonuclear device, “Operation Ivy,” took place in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. It yielded a mushroom-cloud explosion from a fusion reaction equivalent in its power to 10.4 Megatons of TNT. That was 450 times more powerful than the atomic bomb the U.S. had dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki only seven years earlier to end World War II. It created an underwater crater 6,240 feet wide and 164 feet deep.

“The Shot, as witnessed aboard the various vessels at sea, is not easily described,” noted a military report on that nuclear experiment. “Accompanied by a brilliant light, the heat wave was felt immediately at distances of thirty to thirty-five miles. The tremendous fireball, appearing on the horizon like the sun when half-risen, quickly expanded after a momentary hover time.”

Nicknamed “Ivy Mike,” the bomb was a Teller-Ulam thermonuclear device, named after its creators Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam. It was also the United States’ first full-scale hydrogen bomb, an altogether different beast than the two awful nukes dropped on Japan in August 1945. Those bombs utilized fission in their cores to create massive explosions. But Ivy Mike gave a little insight into what was still possible for future weapons of annihilation.

The details of how the Teller-Ulam device works are still classified, but historian of science Alex Wellerstein explained the concept well in the New Yorker:

“The basic idea is, as far as we know, as follows. Take a fission weapon — call it the primary. Take a capsule of fusionable material, cover it with depleted uranium, and call it the secondary. Take both the primary and the secondary and put them inside a radiation case — a box made of very heavy materials. When the primary detonates, radiation flows out of it, filling the case with X rays. This process, which is known as radiation implosion, will, through one mechanism or another… compress the secondary to very high densities, inaugurating fusion reactions on a large scale. These fusion reactions will, in turn, let off neutrons of such a high energy that they can make the normally inert depleted uranium of the secondary’s casing undergo fission.”

Got it? Ivy Mike was, in fact, a fission explosion that initiated a fusion reaction. But ultimately, the science of how those instruments of death work isn’t all that important. The takeaway here is that, since first tried out in that monstrous Marshall Islands explosion, fusion has been intended as a tool of war. And sadly, so it remains, despite all the publicity about its possible use some distant day in relation to climate change. In truth, any fusion breakthroughs are potentially of critical importance not as a remedy for our warming climate but for a future apocalyptic world of war. Despite all the fantastic media publicity, that’s how the U.S. government has always seen it and that’s why the latest fusion test to create “energy” was executed in the utmost secrecy at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. One thing should be taken for granted: the American government is interested not in using fusion technology to power the energy grid, but in using it to further strengthen this country’s already massive arsenal of atomic weapons.

Consider it an irony, under the circumstances, but in its announcement about the success at Livermore — though this obviously wasn’t what made the headlines — the Department of Energy didn’t skirt around the issue of gains for future atomic weaponry. Jill Hruby, the department’s undersecretary for nuclear security, admitted that, in achieving a fusion ignition, researchers had “opened a new chapter in NNSA’s science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program.” (NNSA stands for the National Nuclear Security Administration.) That “chapter” Hruby was bragging about has a lot more to do with “modernizing” the country’s nuclear weapons capabilities than with using laser fusion to end our reliance on fossil fuels.

“Had we not pursued the hydrogen bomb,” Edward Teller once said, “there is a very real threat that we would now all be speaking Russian. I have no regrets.” Some attitudes die hard.

Buried deep in the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s website, the government comes clean about what these fusion experiments at the $3.5 billion National Ignition Facility (NIF) are really all about:

“NIF’s high energy density and inertial confinement fusion experiments, coupled with the increasingly sophisticated simulations available from some of the world’s most powerful supercomputers, increase our understanding of weapon physics, including the properties and survivability of weapons-relevant materials… The high rigor and multidisciplinary nature of NIF experiments play a key role in attracting, training, testing, and retaining new generations of skilled stockpile stewards who will continue the mission to protect America into the future.”

Yes, despite all the media attention to climate change, this is a rare yet intentional admission, surely meant to frighten officials in China and Russia. It leaves little doubt about what this fusion breakthrough means. It’s not about creating future clean energy and never has been. It’s about “protecting” the world’s greatest capitalist superpower. Competitors beware.

Sadly, fusion won’t save the Arctic from melting, but if we don’t put a stop to it, that breakthrough technology could someday melt us all.


Who Will Speak Up for My Child, the Drag Queen? And the Non-Binary and Transgender Folks Among Us, Too Wed, 25 Jan 2023 05:02:24 +0000 By Ira Chernus | –

( ) – What makes a good society? Is it a guaranteed right to pursue happiness, as our Declaration of Independence proclaimed? Perhaps, as Gandhi said, it’s providing the poorest and most vulnerable among us with the means to control their own lives. But what happens when it’s the pursuit of happiness that makes someone most vulnerable?

Let me introduce you to my child, my one and only. They — and, no, it wasn’t as hard as I expected to get used to the gender-neutral plural pronoun that they prefer — are brown-skinned, Mexican-American, secular-Jewish, and gay-married. In a country where Donald Trump is still admired by some 40% of the public, don’t imagine for a second that my child, with all those identities, isn’t horrifyingly vulnerable.  

Lately, however, the Trumpian movement (with the full support of the future president’s assumed Republican opponent in 2024, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis) has targeted its most intense hatred on another part of my child’s identity. They are a gender-non-binary (and highly successful) drag queen, bringing happiness not only to themselves but to their cheering audiences. That’s where their right to the pursuit of happiness is most threatened at the moment and what makes them most vulnerable.

My child has been safe from attack — so far. Others haven’t been so fortunate. The murderous shootings at a drag club in my home state of Colorado are just the most notorious in a string of hate crimes directed at drag shows. More than 120 of them reportedly experienced protests, were threatened, or even attacked in 2022. Some transgender folks have come to believe that it’s no longer safe to live in this country. Others are thinking they might be better off taking leave of life itself.

In such a world, what’s a proud, concerned, on-the-edge-of-frightened father to do? For me, a first step is to come out of retirement and try to write some helpful words.

It would be easy to simply denounce the spread of right-wing bigotry as misinformed, misguided, and unjust, but what good would that do? Right-wingers live in a Fox News-mediated world of their own, where their bigotry seems to make perfectly good sense to them, while otherwise reasonable arguments fall on deaf ears.

So I want to write for a different audience. I’m inspired by the words Martin Luther King, Jr., penned while sitting in a Birmingham jail. “The Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom” was not, he said, the out-and-out racist. It was “the white moderate, more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice… Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Of course, there are big differences between the Jim Crow South of his day and the gender-identity-biased world of today. Still, I’ve talked to people who would never countenance discrimination, much less violence, against any minority, yet offer, at best, the most lukewarm acceptance of drag queens, non-binary, or transgender folks. They tell me they aren’t quite sure how they feel about such people. Some admit to just not being comfortable going to a drag show and finding themselves surprisingly unnerved around anyone who claims to be transgender.

Often, their understanding of what’s going on in our world couldn’t be shallower. They may even refer to my child as transgender because they haven’t grasped the difference between that and non-binary. To put it all too briefly: a transgender person has a specific gender identity different from the sex assigned them at birth; a non-binary person doesn’t identify exclusively as male or female, but as both, neither, or some combination of the two. Acquaintances who do know the difference have said to me that it’s still not clear to them what category my beloved drag queen fits into. (In fact, drag queens come with all kinds of gender identities.)

Since many people of good will remain uncertain and confused on issues like these, they don’t raise their voices to protest such discrimination. To my mind, that hesitation holds the key to understanding the problem in a basic way — and also to reducing discrimination and violence, and so moving this society in a more just direction.

Reinforcing the Wall of Gender Separation

Why are many thoughtful, well-educated people so ready to lump drag queens, non-binary, and transgender people in a single rejectable category? I suspect it’s much the same reason that leads to attacks on all three from the bigoted right and the same reason media stories often lump all three together: they all challenge the traditional division of humanity into two simple categories, male and female. They seem to blur that line or even dissolve it. Think of them, then, as gender-blenders. And because of that, they threaten our sense of social order, which, as King pointed out, may be more important than justice, even to many well-meaning people.

In my professional field as an academic, the study of religion, we have often explored how people create order in their lives by translating the world into sets of binary opposites with firm values attached: up is better than down; God is better than the devil; our God is better than their devil; we are better than them. Religion is often remarkably devoted to shoring up the boundary lines that keep those opposites apart. 

These days, scholars are more likely to stress the ways that religion can actually help people blur and cross boundaries, because most of us grasp the danger of maintaining a separation between categories that naturally blur in the real world. Doing so is a first step down the slippery slope to creating ever more extreme hierarchies, which all too often end in injustice, oppression, and violence. The quest for order, in other words, has a way of transforming itself into a license to suppress or even ultimately eliminate “those people” on the other side of the line.

One recent analyst of the right-wing’s hatred of gender-blenders, Nathan Robinson, explains that it comes from “a visceral distaste for that which is different.” And behind that distaste lies “a devotion to traditional hierarchies.” Trumpublicans hope, writes Amanda Marcotte, “that they can return men to some imaginary glory days when the line between the genders was thick and inflexible, and women’s role was unquestionably that of subservience to men… If people start questioning what gender even means, then the whole right-wing system of power allocation begins to crumble.” 

To paraphrase Robert Frost, something there is about a bigot that does love a wall, whether it’s between Mexico and the U.S. or men and women. How appropriate, then, that the legendary beginning of the gay rights movement in this country was a 1969 police raid on a gay bar named the Stonewall Inn. Consider it an irony, then, that there is now a growing acceptance of gays and lesbians, in part because they are seen as maintaining (or even reinforcing) the clear difference between male and female.

Despite the bill Florida Governor DeSantis passed — dubbed by its opponents the “Don’t Say Gay” bill — the reactionary right-wing has largely lost the battle against gay and lesbian rights and is now turning to a more popular target: those who blur, or even dissolve, that gender boundary. And the bigots fight all the more fiercely because they’re not just defending a particular boundary, but the very existence of social demarcation itself.

Today, the appropriate metaphor for it may not be a wall at all, but a dam. Martin Luther King put it aptly so long ago, indicting those “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice” because order without justice is a “dangerously structured dam that blocks the flow of social progress.” And a New York City politician proved King’s point all too well recently. Condemning schools and libraries that bring in drag queens to read books to children, that Republican (after mouthing the usual, totally unfounded charge of “sexual grooming”) revealed her deepest source of anger — that it’s “a program teaching little children about their gender fluidity.” 

Fluids, of course, may dissolve whatever they touch, whatever kinds of boundaries we create to give us a sense of social order. If so, the satisfaction we get from believing those lines to be immutable will begin to dissolve, too. Hence, the fierce desire to attack “gender fluidity.”

There surely is a big difference between the right-wingers who actively hate gender-blenders and the moderates or liberals who offer lukewarm acceptance and shallow understanding. The latter earn the title “people of good will” because they’re not seized by the urge to maintain boundaries or strengthen hierarchies that give them power and control over others. They won’t, in other words, actively demand unjust laws and policies.

But neither will they take a strong stand for justice, because those binary categories and boundaries still offer them a sense of order in their own lives. Somewhere, somehow, they want our fast-changing world to remain stable, simple, and familiar. As a result, they do share with the bigots, though obviously to a lesser degree, discomfort at seeing that classic boundary between male and female, which used to feel so immutable, disappear before their very eyes.

If we look in the mirror honestly enough, we’re likely to recognize that all of us have some boundary lines that are truly important to us, even if it’s only “us well-meaning liberals against those nasty Trumpsters.” Each of us has our own bottom line, the place where the blurring of lines does indeed become disturbing or even intolerable.

For a lot of people, however unconsciously, the distinction between male and female may be the hardest one of all to surrender. No wonder, then, that even people of good will regularly offer only lukewarm acceptance and shallow understanding to their fellow Americans who are gender-blenders.

Tear Down the Dam, It’s Good for Us All

Make no mistake, though. Those same people of good will may hold the key to freeing the gender-blenders from oppression and violence, if they can be roused to active support.

Every successful movement for social change needs just such a broad base of support. That’s why Dr. King called those lukewarm white moderates the great stumbling block to his own movement’s success. Doug McAdam, a prominent scholar of the civil rights movement, notes that it had to “compel supportive intervention by liberal northern allies… to the point where sympathetic media coverage and broad public support for the movement could be mobilized.” He quotes famed civil rights leader Bob Moses: “When the interest of the country is awakened, the government responds to that issue.”

America’s laws now demand that schools, parks, restaurants, and the like be open to all. Even virulent racists no longer call for those laws to be repealed. That’s because things do indeed become unthinkable once a large enough chunk of the public views them that way. Just as no one talks openly about reinstituting Jim Crow laws anymore, nobody urges that the vote be taken away from women either.

How can we make the right of gender-blenders simply to be who they are an equally unquestionable part of American society? Perhaps the key is to persuade well-meaning but confused and hesitant Americans not merely to tolerate them, or even simply to speak out for their safety or rights, but to appreciate how they actually enrich life for us all.

How we treat the most marginal and vulnerable among us determines the quality of life for the rest of us, too. A good society takes care of the most vulnerable by assuring their safety and the means to sustain their lives, along with their liberty to choose their own unique paths in pursuing happiness. If some find happiness by blending familiar categories, or even erasing the lines between them totally, supporting their choice could make a better society for us all.

The famed poet Walt Whitman suggested that there are “two main constituents for a truly grand nationality: first, a large variety of character, and second, full play for human nature to expand itself in numberless and even conflicting directions.”

Gender-blenders serve us by bringing us closer to that ideal. They are a model for a truly free society where we don’t feel compelled to fit ourselves into narrow binary categories, where everyone can accept themselves and explore who they really are, safely and without shame.

If the gender-blenders are provocative, all the better. Then they’ll provoke us to think and talk more freely about individuality, acceptance, and true community. Why wouldn’t we want them teaching our children? Even a 10-year-old can see that drag performers are “the most encouraging thing ever.” Openly non-binary and transgender people can be similarly encouraging.

Just to speak for myself, I’m so proud of my child, and the many thousands like them, claiming and proclaiming their right to pursue happiness by tearing down the old gender walls. To me, they — and in this case I mean all of them — are heroes because, as Whitman put it, they “walk at their ease through and out of that custom or precedent or authority that suits them not.

I will be equally proud of my country when enough of us stand up strongly for the right to, and value of, gender fluidity — so strongly that this innocent and socially constructive pursuit of happiness will never make anyone vulnerable again.


America has staged 392 military Interventions since 1776; How Can we Have fewer in Future? Fri, 20 Jan 2023 05:02:08 +0000 By Nan Levinson | –

( ) – I like to sing and what I like best is to do so at the top of my lungs when I’m all alone. Last summer, taking a walk through the corn fields in New York’s Hudson River Valley with no one around but the barn swallows, I found myself belting out a medley of tunes about peace from my long-ago, summer-camp years. That was the late 1950s, when the miseries of World War II were still relatively fresh, the U.N. looked like a promising development, and folk music was just oh-so-cool.

At my well-meaning, often self-righteous, always melodious camp, 110 children used to warble with such sweet promise:

“My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine
but other lands have sunlight too and clover
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine”

It seemed such a sensible, grown-up way to think — like, duh! we can all have the good stuff. That was before I got older and came to realize that grown-ups don’t necessarily think sensibly. So many years later, as I finished the last chorus, I wondered: Who talks, let alone sings, that way about peace anymore? I mean, without irony and with genuine hope?

Since my summer ramble, International Peace Day has come and gone. Meanwhile, militaries are killing civilians (and sometimes vice versa) in places as disparate as Ukraine, Ethiopia, Iran, Syria, the West Bank, and Yemen.  It just goes on and on, doesn’t it? And that’s not even to mention all the fragile truces, acts of terrorism (and reprisal), quashed uprisings, and barely repressed hostilities on this planet.

Don’t get me started, by the way, on how the language of battle so often pervades our daily lives. Little wonder that the Pope, in his recent Christmas message, bemoaned the world’s “famine of peace.”

Amid all of that, isn’t it hard to imagine that peace stands a chance?

Sing Out!

There’s a limit to how much significance songs can carry, of course, but a successful political movement does need a good soundtrack. (As I found out while reporting then, Rage Against the Machine served that purpose for some post-9/11 antiwar soldiers.) Better yet is an anthem crowds can sing when they gather in solidarity to exert political pressure. After all, it feels good to sing as a group at a moment when it doesn’t even matter if you can carry a tune as long as the lyrics hit home. But a protest song, by definition, isn’t a song of peace — and it turns out that most recent peace songs aren’t so peaceful either.  

As many of us of a certain age remember, antiwar songs thrived during the Vietnam War years. There was the iconic “Give Peace a Chance,” recorded by John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and pals in a Montreal hotel room in 1969; “War,” first recorded by the Temptations in 1970 (I can still hear that “absolutely nothing!” response to “What Is It Good For?”); Cat Stevens’s “Peace Train,” from 1971; and that’s just to begin a list. But in this century?  Most of the ones I came across were about inner peace or making peace with yourself; they are self-care mantras du jour. The few about world or international peace were unnervingly angry and bleak, which also seemed to reflect the tenor of the time.

It’s not as if the word “peace” has been cancelled. The porch of a neighbor of mine sports a faded peace flag; Trader Joe’s keeps me well-supplied with Inner Peas; and peace still gets full commercial treatment sometimes, as on designer T-shirts from the Chinese clothing company Uniqlo. But many of the organizations whose goal is indeed world peace have chosen not to include the word in their names and “peacenik,” pejorative even in its heyday, is now purely passé. So, has peace work just changed its tune or has it evolved in more substantial ways?

Peace 101

Peace is a state of being, even perhaps a state of grace. It can be as internal as individual serenity or as broad as comity among nations. But at best, it’s unstable, eternally in danger of being lost. It needs a verb with it — seek the, pursue the, win the, keep the — to have real impact and, although there have been stretches of time without war in certain regions (post-WW II Europe until recently, for example), that certainly doesn’t seem to be the natural state of all too much of this world of ours.

Most peace workers probably disagree or they wouldn’t be doing what they do. In this century, I first experienced pushback to the idea that war is innate or inevitable in a 2008 phone interview with Jonathan Shay, a psychiatrist noted for his work with Vietnam War veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. That was the subject we were talking about when he veered off-topic and asserted his belief that it was indeed possible to end all war.

Most such conflicts, he thought, stemmed from fear and the way not just civilians but the military brass so often “consume” it as entertainment. He urged me to read Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant’s treatise Perpetual Peace. When I did, I was indeed struck by its echoes over two centuries later. On recurring debates about reinstating the draft, to take one example, consider Kant’s suggestion that standing armies only make it easier for countries to go to war. “They incite the various states to outrival one another in the number of their soldiers,” he wrote then, “and to this number no limit can be set.”

The modern academic field of peace and conflict studies — there are now about 400 such programs around the world — began about 60 years ago. Underpinning peace theory are the concepts of negative and positive peace first widely introduced by Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung (though Jane Addams and Martin Luther King both used the terms earlier). Negative peace is the absence of immediate violence and armed conflict, the conviction perhaps that you can buy groceries without taking a chance on getting blown to smithereens (as in Ukraine today). Positive peace is a state of sustained harmony within and among nations. That doesn’t mean no one ever disagrees, only that the parties involved deal with any clash of goals nonviolently. And since so many violent clashes arise from underlying social conditions, employing empathy and creativity to heal wounds is essential to the process.

Negative peace aims at avoiding, positive peace at enduring. But negative peace is an immediate necessity because wars are so much easier to start than to stop, which makes Galtung’s position more practical than messianic. “I am not concerned with saving the world,” he wrote. “I am concerned with finding solutions to specific conflicts before they become violent.”

David Cortright, a Vietnam War veteran, professor emeritus at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and co-creator of Win Without War, offered me this definition of such work in an email: “To me, the question is not ‘world peace,’ which is dreamy and utopian and too often used to ridicule those of us who believe in and work for peace, but rather how to reduce armed conflict and violence.”

Peace Comes Dropping Slow

Peace movements tend to mobilize around specific wars, swelling and declining as those conflicts do, though sometimes they do remain in our world afterward. Mother’s Day, for instance, grew out of a call for peace after the Civil War. (Women have been at the forefront of peace actions since Lysistrata organized the women of ancient Greece to deny men sex until they ended the Peloponnesian War.) A few still-active antiwar organizations date from before World War I and several arose from the Vietnam War resistance movement and the antinuclear one of the early 1980s. Others are as recent as Dissenters, organized in 2017 by young activists of color. 

Today, a long list of nonprofits, religious groups, NGOs, lobbying campaigns, publications, and scholarly programs are intent on abolishing war. They generally focus their efforts on educating citizens in how to rein in militarism and military funding, while promoting better ways for countries to coexist peacefully or stanch internal conflicts.

Count on one thing, though: it’s never an easy task, not even if you limit yourself to the United States, where militarism is regularly portrayed as patriotism and unbridled spending on murderous weapons as deterrence, while war profiteering has long been a national pastime. True, a signer of the Declaration of Independence later proposed a Peace-Office to be headed by a Secretary of Peace and put on equal footing with the War Department. Such an idea never got further, however, than renaming that War Department as the more neutral-sounding Defense Department in 1949, after the U.N. Charter outlawed wars of aggression. (If only!)  

According to a database compiled by the Military Intervention Project, this country has engaged in 392 military interventions since 1776, half of them in the past 70 years. At the moment, this country isn’t directly waging any full-scale conflicts, though U.S. troops are still fighting in Syria and its planes still launching strikes in Somalia, not to speak of the 85 counterterror operations Brown University’s Costs of War Project found the U.S. had engaged in from 2018 to 2020, some of which are undoubtedly ongoing. The Institute for Economics and Peace ranks the U.S. 129th out of 163 countries in its 2022 Global Peace Index. Among the categories we’ve flunked in that reckoning are the size of our jailed population, the number of counterterrorist activities conducted, military expenditures (which leave the rest of the planet in the dust), general militarism, our nuclear arsenal being “modernized” to the tune of almost $2 trillion in the decades to come, the staggering numbers of weapons we send or sell abroad, and the number of conflicts fought. Add to that so many other urgent, interlacing problems and mundane brutalities against this planet and the people on it and it’s easy to believe that pursuing sustained peace isn’t just unrealistic but distinctly un-American.

Except it isn’t. Peace work is all too crucial, if only because a Pentagon budget accounting for at least 53% of this country’s discretionary budget undercuts and sabotages efforts to address a host of crucial social needs. It’s hardly surprising, then, that U.S. peace activists have had to adjust their strategies along with their vocabulary. They now stress the interconnectedness of war and so many other issues, partly as a tactic, but also because “no justice, no peace” is more than a slogan. It’s a precondition for achieving a more peaceful life in this country.

Recognizing the interconnectedness of what plagues us means more than just coaxing other constituencies to add peace to their portfolios. It means embracing and working with other organizations on their issues, too. As Jonathan King, co-chair of Massachusetts Peace Action and professor emeritus at MIT, put it aptly, “You need to go where people are, meet them at their concerns and needs.” So, King, a longtime peace activist, also serves on the coordinating committee of the Massachusetts Poor People’s Campaign, which includes ending “military aggression and war-mongering” on its list of demands, while Veterans For Peace now has an active Climate Crisis and Militarism Project. David Cortright similarly points to a growing body of peace research, drawing on science and other scholarly fields, including feminist and post-colonial studies, while pushing a radical rethinking of what peace means.

Then there’s the question of how movements accomplish anything through some combination of inside institutional work, general political clout, and public pressure. Yes, maybe someday Congress might finally be persuaded by a lobbying campaign to revoke those outdated Authorizations for Use of Military Force passed in 2001 and 2002 in response to the 9/11 attacks and the wars that followed. That, at least, would make it harder for a president to deploy U.S. troops in distant conflicts at will. However, getting enough members of Congress to agree to rein in the defense budget would likely require a grassroots campaign of staggering size. All that, in turn, would undoubtedly mean a melding of any peace movement into something far larger, as well as a series of hold-your-nose compromises and relentless fundraising appeals (like a recent plea asking me to “make a down payment on peace”).

The Peace Beat?

This fall, I attended a panel, “Chronicling War and Occupation,” at a student-organized conference on freedom of the press. The four panelists — impressive, experienced, battered war correspondents — spoke thoughtfully about why they do such work, whom they hope to influence, and the dangers they deal with, including the possibility of “normalizing” war. At question time, I asked about coverage of antiwar activity and was met with silence, followed by a half-hearted reference to the suppression of dissent in Russia.

True, when bullets are flying, it’s not the time to ponder the alternative, but bullets weren’t flying in that auditorium and I wondered whether every panel about war reportage shouldn’t include someone reporting on peace. I doubt it’s even a thought in newsrooms that, along with war reporters, there could also be peace reporters. And what, I wonder, would that beat look like? What might it achieve?

I doubt I ever expected to see peace in our time, not even long ago when we sang those lilting songs. But I have seen wars end and, occasionally, even avoided. I have seen conflicts resolved to the betterment of those involved and I continue to admire the peace workers who had a role in making that happen.

As David Swanson, co-founder and executive director of World Beyond War, reminded me in a recent phone call, you work for peace because “it’s a moral responsibility to oppose the war machine. And as long as there’s a chance and you’re working at what has the best chance of succeeding, you have to do it.”

It’s as simple — and as bedeviling — as that. In other words, we have to give peace a chance.


Lessons Learned in the Internet’s Darkest Corners Fri, 23 Dec 2022 05:02:44 +0000 ( ) – We all do it. Make little snap judgments about everyday strangers as we go about our lives. Without giving it a second’s thought, we sketch minibiographies of the people we pass on the sidewalk, the guy seated across from us on the train, or the woman in line in front of us at the grocery store. We wonder: Who are they? Where are they from? How do they make a living? Lately, though, such passing encounters tend to leave me with a sense of suspicion, a wariness tinged with grim curiosity. I think to myself: Is he or she one of them?

By them, I mean one of the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of “people” I encountered during my many forays into the darkest recesses of the Internet. Despite the staggering amount of time many of us spend online — more than six-and-a-half hours a day, according to recent research — we tend to haunt the same websites and social media platforms (Facebook, YouTube, CNN, Reddit, Google) again and again. Not me, though. Over the past five years, I’ve spent more hours than I wish to count exploring the subterranean hideaways and uncensored gathering spaces for some of the most unhinged communities on the Internet.

Call it an occupational hazard. Only recently, I published my first book, A Death on W Street: The Murder of Seth Rich and the Age of Conspiracy, an investigative political thriller that opens with the 2016 street murder of a 27-year-old who had worked for the Democratic National Committee. In the absence of a culprit, Seth Rich’s killing got swept into the fast-flowing conspiratorial currents of that year’s presidential race, a contest that pitted an unabashed conspiracy theorist, Donald Trump, against a candidate, Hillary Clinton, who had been the subject of decades’ worth of elaborately sinister claims (with no basis in reality). For my book, I set out to understand how a senseless crime that took the life of a beloved but hardly famous mid-level political staffer became a national and then international news story, a viral phenomenon of ever more twisted conspiracy theories that reached millions and all too soon became a piece of modern folklore.

To do so, I traced the arc of those Rich conspiracy theories back to their origins. In practical terms, that meant hundreds of late nights spent huddled over my desk, eyes fixed on my computer screen, clicking and scrolling my way through a seemingly endless trail of tweets, memes, posts, and videos. The Internet is, in some ways, like an ancient city, its latest incarnation resting atop the ruins of so many civilizations past. I came to think of myself then as an online archeologist digging my way through the digital eons, sifting through archived websites and seeking out long-vanished posts in search of clues and answers.

Or maybe I was a waste handler, holding my nose as I picked through piles (or do I mean miles?) of toxic detritus that littered old versions of social media sites you’d know like Twitter and Reddit, and others you probably don’t, like 4chan, 8kun, and Telegram. It was there that I encountered so many of them, those faceless users, the ones I might have passed on the street, who, with the promise of anonymity, had felt unburdened to voice their unfiltered, often deeply disturbing selves. It was all id, all the time.

Who were these people? I couldn’t help but wonder whether they actually believed the stuff they wrote. Or was it all about the thrill of saying it? In an unnervingly boundless online world, were they testing the boundaries of the acceptable by one-upping each other with brazen displays of racism, misogyny, or antisemitism (just to start down the list)?

Firing up my laptop and venturing into those noxious places was like entering an inside-out world impervious to logic and critical thinking. They had their own language — losers were “cucks,” loyal foot soldiers “pedes,” and Hillary Clinton was Hillary “Klanton” — and they operated with their own sets of elaborate but twisted rules and hierarchies. After a few hours of studying such “conversations,” a form of vertigo would set in, a spinning sensation that made me get up from my desk and clear my head with a walk or a conversation with a real human being.

Now that the book is published, I don’t spend much time in those disturbing online worlds. Still, every once in a while, I can’t help checking in — old habits die hard — despite the horrors I saw there while gathering material for my book. What nags at me even now — in fact, it haunts me in some way — is the knowledge that there were real people behind those toxic accounts. The same people you might sit next to on a bus without having the slightest suspicion of just how disturbed they were and what a disturbing world they were helping create or elaborate. That knowledge still weighs on me.

Weapons of Mass Disinformation

A confession: on a few of those late nights spent in the online ruins, I caught myself starting to nod along with some of the wild-eyed nonsense I was reading. Maybe I found a particular Reddit thread surprisingly convincing. Maybe the post in question had sprinkled a few verifiable facts amid the nonsense to make me think, Huh? Maybe my sixth cup of coffee and lack of sleep had so weakened my mental safeguards that madness itself began to seem at least faintly reasonable. When I felt such heretical thoughts seep into my stream of consciousness, I took it as a sure sign that I should log off and go to bed.

Thinking back on those moments, I admit that the first feeling I have is pure and utter embarrassment. I’m an investigative reporter. I make a living dealing in facts, data, and vetted information. Heck, my first job in journalism was as a full-time, trained fact-checker. I should be impervious to the demented siren song of conspiracy theories, right?

The correct answer is indeed: right. And yet…

I realize now that, on those disturbing long nights at the computer, I was more than an avid journalistic explorer of online content. I had immersed myself — and immersion is what the Internet does best. It’s the gateway point to a seemingly infinite number of rabbit holes. Who hasn’t clicked on a Wikipedia entry about, say, the making of the atomic bomb only to check the time, realize that two hours had slipped by, and you’re now watching a YouTube video about the greatest comebacks in baseball history with no memory of how you got here in the first place?

That frictionless glide from one post to the next, video after video, tweet upon tweet, plays tricks on the mind. Spend enough time in that realm and even the most absurd theories and narratives start to acquire the patina of logic, the ring of reason. How else to explain the sheer number of QAnon adherents — one in five Americans, according to an analysis by the Public Religion Research Institute — who believe that a secret cabal of pedophile elites, including Tom Hanks and Oprah, run the world, or that the Earth is indeed flat, or that the moon landing more than half a century ago was faked, no matter what news broadcaster Walter Cronkite might have said at the time?

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that conspiracy theories weren’t a fixture of American life before the Internet came along. Quite the opposite: for as long as we humans have existed, we’ve dreamt up elaborate theories and fables to explain the inexplicable or, increasingly in our time, the otherwise all too explicable that we refuse to believe. Some of the founders of this country were unashamed conspiracy-mongers. What those delirious late nights at the computer led me to believe, however, is that tools for spreading such fantastical theories have never been more powerful than they are today and they’ve entered our politics in an unnerving fashion (as anyone paying attention to the January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol knows).

Put simply, we don’t stand a chance against the social media companies. Fueled by highly sophisticated algorithms that maximize “engagement” at all costs by feeding users ever more inflammatory content, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the rest of them don’t simply entertain, inform, or “connect” us. As New York Times reporter Max Fisher writes in his book The Chaos Machine, “This technology exerts such a powerful pull on our psychology and our identity, and is so pervasive in our lives, that it changes how we think, behave, and relate to one another. The effect, multiplied across billions of users, has been to change society itself.”

Spending so much time burrowing into such websites, I came away with a deep sense of just how addictive they are. More than that, they rewire your mind in real-time. I felt it myself. I fear that there’s no path out of our strange, increasingly conspiratorial moment, filled with viral lies and rampant disinformation, without rewriting the algorithms that increasingly govern our lives.

The Lost Art of Saying Hello

Still, I’m under no illusion that Tweets and memes can adequately explain the schisms in American life and this country’s descent into a more embittered, polarized, us-versus-them cultural moment. Nor can Donald Trump, who is as much a product of the strange Internet world of conspiracies as a cause of it. They are, in fact, the ever-more-virulent symptoms of a country in which it’s not enough to disagree with your opponents. You also have to demonize them as subhuman, criminal, and alien, while, in the process, doing genuine harm to yourself.

In what still passes for the real world, how else to explain the prominence of conspiracy theories like QAnon or the current far-right trend of accusing someone, especially anyone who disagrees with you, of being a “groomer”? Or how do you account for the existence of a seemingly inextinguishable belief now lurking in our world that one of the country’s prominent political families, the Clintons, are also prolific serial killers who have slaughtered dozens, if not hundreds of people? Or the explosion of those baseless claims I spent all that time exploring about the murdered Seth Rich, claims that would haunt his family for years, denying them even the space to grieve for their own son?

No amount of late-night online sleuthing was going to provide an answer to the larger social ills afflicting this country. Indeed, the more time I spent online, the greater the chasm appeared — so vast, in fact, that I began to wonder whether it could ever be bridged. Nor is this a malady that can be dealt with by politicians or governments, important as they are. It runs even deeper than that.

When I think about the root causes of such societal drift, I return to a phrase I read in a 2021 study that described a “national friendship decline.” According to that survey, “Americans report having fewer close friendships than they once did, talking to their friends less often, and relying less on their friends for personal support.” The data wasn’t all grim. More than four in ten respondents said that they had made a new friend during the pandemic. Still, the lockdowns and self-isolation of these Covid years had exacerbated what the survey’s authors called a “loneliness epidemic.”

When I think about those endless Twitter rants and Reddit screeds I encountered, I envision lonely people hunched over their computers in empty apartments, posting and scrolling madly (sometimes in the most literal sense) deep into the night. Loneliness and social isolation, of course, can’t explain away all the mad conspiratorial rants you find on the Internet, nor are they the sole cause of the brittle, increasingly dangerous state of American politics. But it’s so much easier to resent and rage against a perceived enemy if you’ve never met them or anyone like them, so much easier to cast the other side as the out-group or the villain if you’ve never shared a meal or a coffee or a phone call with them.

I mention that “loneliness epidemic” only to underscore my belief that healing the schism in our culture and politics will require something more difficult and yet simpler than major policy reforms or electing a new generation of officials. Don’t get me wrong: both of those are needed, on both sides of the proverbial aisle. Today’s politics too often resemble a race to the bottom, as politicians rush to outflank their rivals and whip up their constituencies (often using social media to do it). All the while, powerful interest groups, their lobbyists, and a growing billionaire class shape (or sink) the kinds of wholesale changes needed to reboot our political system.

Yet our problems run deeper than that — and the solutions can’t be found in Washington, D.C.

One answer is finding ways to knit back together an unbearably frayed nation. Neighborhood groups, book clubs, sports leagues, civic associations, labor unions, religious groups, whatever it is, the surest way out of this stubborn conflict must come through the simplest of gestures — human connection. The lost art of saying hello.

Tech executives love to talk about the value of “connection” and their goals of “connecting” the world. Almost two decades into the social media era, we should know better than to believe those empty paeans used as cover for the relentless pursuit of profits. Now more than ever, it’s time to step away from those weapons of mass disinformation.

I don’t care much for New Year’s resolutions, but if I did, I would say: let’s make 2023 the year of logging off. Get to know your neighbors and colleagues. For my part, I’ll work on not thinking of those everyday strangers, or even those tiny avatars on the Internet, as them. Instead of fearing them, I’ll think I say hello.


Inferno: Climate Disaster Is Turning the Planet into a Tinderbox Wed, 14 Dec 2022 05:02:27 +0000 By Jane Braxton Little | –

( – Mike Savala’s boots scuffed the edge of a singed patch of forest littered with skinny fingers of burnt ponderosa pine needles. Nearby, an oak seedling sizzled as a yellow-shirted firefighter hit it with a stream of water. Spurts of smoke rose from blackened ground the size of a hockey rink. A 100-foot Ponderosa pine towered overhead.

“Third response today,” said Savala, shaking his head.

This hillside in my own backyard in California’s northern Sierra Nevada mountains hadn’t seen lightning for months and yet it had still burst into flames. All summer long, it had baked in heat that extended into an unseasonably hot autumn. Now, in late October, it was charred by a fire of mysterious origin. A spark from a wandering hiker? An errant ember from a burn pile? Spontaneous combustion?

Savala, a fire-crew boss for the Greenville Rancheria of Maidu Indians, scanned the sky. Cloudless. There had only been three inches of precipitation since July 1st — 15% of normal. And no wonder, since California is in the throes of its fourth dry year. More than 95% of the state is now classified as under severe or extreme drought.

Although small and easily contained, this tiny fire in rural northeastern California was another wake-up call, up close and personal, about an ominous trend. A warming planet and changing land use are fueling a dramatic surge in forest fires worldwide. Terrifying projections forecast a 57% increase in extreme fires globally by century’s end. The indisputable cause: climate change.

“The heating of the planet is turning landscapes into tinderboxes,” a team of 50 researchers from six continents reported in “Spreading Like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires,” published this year by the United Nations Environment Program. That document describes what can only be viewed as a future flaming version of planetary collapse that could push humanity perilously close to a precipice of no return. 

Like dozens of previous reports from the U.N. and other international organizations, it describes a situation that, while dire, isn’t yet hopeless. Despite those ever stronger, hotter, drier winds that will fan the flames, governments could slow climate change by improving their forest management techniques, planning and preparing far better, and communicating more effectively. To reduce the likelihood of future mega-fires means working with forests where fire is an element as essential to ecosystems as sunshine or rain. It also means working with forest communities, where local knowledge accumulated over generations is too often shunned. And of course, it means honestly confronting our reluctance to ween ourselves from the fossil fuels that power our factories, cars, and those absurdly unnecessary leaf blowers that are backing us toward the cliff.

A Fiery Feedback Loop

If my small backyard fire was a personal wake-up call, the 2021 Dixie fire was a four-alarm blaze. On its rampage from the Feather River Canyon through Lassen Volcanic National Park and beyond, it destroyed my adopted town of Greenville, 160 miles northeast of San Francisco. In fact, it torched close to a million acres. Nearly half of them burned so intensely that the once-majestic, now blackened pine and fir forests there may never again support the biologically diverse ecosystems that drew me here so long ago.

The single-largest fire in California’s history, Dixie was part of a record-breaking fire year globally. Around the world, fires burned nearly 23 million acres, an area almost the size of Portugal. Dixie contributed to the worldwide loss to fire of more than a third of the tree cover that disappeared in those 12 months, according to a report from the World Resources Institute. And this is only a preview of what’s to come. Scientists believe that there may be a 30% increase in extreme fires globally by 2050.

Such an acceleration of forest fires will, it seems, spare few parts of the world. Fires, burning longer and hotter, are already flaring in unexpected places, shattering assumptions about what’s safe, let alone normal. Even the Arctic, that remote expanse of sea ice, treeless permafrost, and minus 40-degree Celsius temperatures, home to polar bears, lemmings, and snowy owls, is now beginning to burn. After July 2019, the hottest month on record so far, fires erupted across the Arctic Circle in Alaska, Greenland, and Siberia. As temperatures soared to as much as six degrees Celsius above normal, flames spurted across an expanse of tundra larger than England.

Arctic fires are particularly worrisome because of the vast amounts of carbon locked beneath that frozen soil. Much of it, after all, is peatlands, largely formed at the end of the last ice age, 12,000 years ago. Although it covers just 3% of the Earth’s surface, peat sequesters 42% of the carbon stored in all other types of vegetation, including the world’s forests. Global warming is now drying out that peat, making it ever more susceptible to fire. As it burns, of course, it releases that carbon.

Nor is such a bio-feedback loop limited to the Arctic. As the world becomes hotter and drier, the carbon we emit from our reliance on fossil fuels is drying out forests everywhere, making them ever more prone to burn, while extending burning seasons globally. Firefighters in California used to don fire-resistant Nomex shirts in May or June, knowing they could shed them by mid-October. Now, there’s barely a pause before things heat up again and those shirts go right back on.

As wildfires are transformed into year-round challenges, the carbon they release only further contributes to emissions from other sources, making it that much more difficult to halt rising temperatures. Think of it as a mutually exacerbating feedback loop: wildfires are worsened by climate change, which, in turn, is intensified by the ever-fiercer wildfires.

Management for Better — or Worse

Forests around the world evolved with fire, hosting species that came to depend on its cleansing power for renewal and the flushes of nutrients it releases. Indigenous people understood this and learned to live with fire. Over the last century, however, many forests have been fundamentally altered by a misunderstanding of its essential role in forest resilience. While climate change is indeed the primary driver of the global increase in wildfires, forest management has played its own substantive and mostly negative role in that increase by overemphasizing the importance of fire suppression.

Scientists and policymakers are urging fire-fighting agencies to rethink their use of financial and human resources. Instead of focusing primarily on how many crews can be mustered for fire suppression, the emphasis should shift to planning and prevention. Most countries devote less than 0.2% of their wildfire expenditures to such planning, according to U.N. researchers. In the United States, just 40 cents of every dollar spent on managing wildfires goes toward reducing fire risk or helping forest communities like mine recover in ways that could make them more resilient.

“There isn’t the right attention to fire from governments,” says Glynis Humphrey, a fire expert at the University of Cape Town and one of those U.N. researchers.

Whether it’s the collapse of forest ecosystems before our eyes or the trauma of entire towns like Greenville burning up in raging infernos, forest managers are slowly starting to respond to the global crisis — with sadly mixed results.

A wave of deadly fires in Portugal in 2017 that killed 117 people and ravaged 1.3 million acres evoked fierce popular condemnation of the government’s response, prompting that country to adopt an aggressive 20-year plan to transform its fire management. It aims to use fire as a tool, while increasing understanding of its positive role in such a heavily forested country. Prime Minister Antonio Costa has restricted funding aimed at combatting fires to less than 10% of the total spent, while rural communities are to become more involved in protecting their homes and businesses. However, his new plan was barely launched last summer when temperatures of up to 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) and 40-mile-per-hour winds contributed to yet another series of out-of-control wildfires, forcing evacuations of whole communities and a nationwide state of emergency.

Throughout the western United States, a century of public policy committed to suppressing all wildfire has left our forests unnaturally crammed with small-diameter trees and brush. Scientists documented as much as a sevenfold increase in tree density in the Sierra mountains between 1911 and 2011. While large old-growth trees have evolved to live with fires, those small trees and shrubs form an unnatural bed of fuel for future infernos. As a result, blazes in the West increased by seven large fires a year from the mid-1980s through 2011, according to a study by scientists at the University of Utah and the University of California, Berkeley.

What needs to be done is clear, says Scott Stephens, a professor of fire science at Berkeley. “Active stewardship is the only way we’ll ever get out of this.”

In California, state and federal officials have committed to reducing the threat of catastrophic wildfires by returning fire to the forest ecosystems that evolved with it. They’ve set a goal of igniting planned fires to burn away such brush and seedlings on one million acres annually. In September 2021, Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation allocating $1.5 billion to wildfire mitigation projects, the largest such investment in state history. Last January, the federal government also announced a $600 million program to support California’s wildfire recovery efforts. As well-intentioned as such programs may be, however, they have so far fallen well short of their objective. Fire managers hope that, in 2022, they will have set prescribed burns on 200,000 acres, only 20% of the goal. Add in logging to thin overcrowded stands of trees and they may reach 300,000 acres.

Amid the frightening statistics on rising temperatures and scorched acres, an 8,800-acre area in California demonstrates the potential for active management to reduce the dangers of destructive wildfires. In 2019, Forest Service crews set intentional fires on the western slopes of the central Sierra Nevada near Caples Lake. Last summer, when the 222,000-acre Caldor fire roared through there en route to South Lake Tahoe, it left a finger of green where prescribed fires had reduced the forest’s fuels. While that was only a small island of resilience, consider it an enormous example of possibility.

The Promise of Technology

Some of the government agencies most criticized for their management of wildfires are now turning to technology to help detect them before they turn into infernos. In this, they are not alone globally.  Take Australia, where fires in the catastrophic 2019-2020 summer season, the worst in that country’s recorded history, killed 34 people directly and another 445 through smoke inhalation. Often sparked by lightning at a time of warmer-than-average temperatures and lower-than-average precipitation, they destroyed about 6,000 buildings and killed an estimated 1.5 billion animals. In response, last year, Australia launched a satellite system connected to ground-based cameras and aerial drones meant to spot any fire within one minute of ignition.

Sonoma County, California, has similarly been testing fire-detecting artificial intelligence technology for two years now. In 2017, that area just north of San Francisco was devastated by the deadly 37,000-acre Tubbs fire. Three other fires followed in 2019 and 2020. In 2021, county officials linked artificial intelligence software to an already existing system of tower-mounted cameras. Called ALERTWildfire, it snaps photographs every 10 seconds, exposing smoke and flames. The AI sifts through the camera images in a fashion designed to increase the speed of detecting such blazes and so getting firefighters to them faster.

After the first full season, the results, however, were anything but overwhelming: AI detections beat humans in spotting fires only once out of every 10 times. Now, managers are directing their AI-adapted cameras to look for fires where humans are unlikely to spot them — as Sam Wallis, a community alert and warning manager, put it: the fires “way out in the middle of nowhere, the ones that really scare us.” He’s also optimistic about AI’s potential for detecting nighttime fires, which can smolder in the forest duff for significant periods before bursting into uncontrollable flames. Overall, Wallis said, “the AI is not a silver bullet, but it is a bullet.”

Last year, Pacific Gas and Electric also began adding AI software similar to the kind Australia is testing to its network of cameras. It’s a better-late-than-never effort to reduce the number of deadly wildfires sparked all too notoriously by its own faulty equipment. The company has, after all, been implicated in at least five major California wildfires including the Dixie one.

Then there are the “dragon eggs.” The Forest Service is dropping those ping-pong-sized balls from remote-controlled aircraft to start controlled burns designed to return fire to its natural role of keeping forest fuels more balanced. The chemicals in the spheres ignite when they hit the ground. During the Dixie fire, drones dropped such incendiary balls on a mountainside ahead of the advancing flames to start what’s known as a backfire and did indeed create a fire-unfriendly zone in its wake.

Such management efforts may prove effective both in returning forest stands to a state of fire resilience and in curbing runaway blazes. They don’t, however, relieve officials of what many consider their unconscionable failure to enact the most basic laws to curb the greenhouse gases that are driving such climate-change-induced disasters. Apocalyptic scenes — cities blanketed in smoke, vast landscapes left lifeless — have prompted proposals before the U.N. to include “ecocide” as the 5th international crime, alongside genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression.

Sadly, humanity may already have passed the point of simply managing ourselves out of the fiery apocalypse scientists predict we’re heading for. Global mean surface temperatures are already up 1.09 degrees Celsius and rising. The precipice looms.

Yes, technology can help and, if the feet of agencies are held to the proverbial flames they’re committed to managing more effectively, the oncoming inferno may yet be slowed, if not halted altogether. But if we don’t take responsibility for what’s happening, all our talk, all that bureaucratic lingo about creating a low-carbon economy and hitting net zero in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 may be little more than what environmental activist Greta Thunberg has called the “blah blah blah.”

Still, hope is empowering and activity galvanizing. While it’s taken far too many destroyed towns to get there, California, at least, is beginning to grasp what’s needed to live with fire. Both cultural and monetary support is now strong — and growing — for prescribed burns and fuel-treatment projects. And so, locally, we take chainsaws to the smaller trees overcrowding our woods, using what we remove to heat our homes. We prune the branches from the large fire-resilient trees, chopping them to fit our stoves. We rake the small debris and forest litter into burn piles, wishing we had a way to utilize those forest products, too, instead of adding to the very emissions we’re trying to reduce. And we keep on igniting small, safe burns to return resilience to these lands that once enjoyed the benefits of fire. On such a planet in such a time, the question remains: Will any of it be enough to live with the fire next time?

Days after our backyard blaze flared up, it snowed: eight inches of reassurance that this fire, at least, would not smolder and restart. But by the end of November, the Sierra had no additional rain and state officials were at the edge of declaring a fourth year of drought. Somewhere in our future, the inferno still lurks.


Unequal Mercy: The West’s Approach to Refugees Mon, 05 Dec 2022 05:02:10 +0000 By Helen Benedict | –

( – Almost anyone would agree that war is horrifying and peaceful countries should do their best to help its victims. The widespread eagerness to welcome fleeing Ukrainians after Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded their country last February is a heartening example of such aid. But behind that altruism lies an ugly truth: most of the countries embracing Ukrainians are simultaneously persecuting equally desperate refugees from elsewhere.

Such unequal mercy would be no surprise from nations like Ukraine’s neighbors Hungary and Poland, controlled by nationalist parties that have rarely welcomed anyone not white and Christian. However, the same thing is happening in Western Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia, and here in the United States, the very democracies sworn to protect those fleeing war and persecution and that, in the case of America, sometimes turned those people into refugees in the first place. Our Global War on Terror alone has displaced an estimated 37 million people since we invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

One of the worst examples of this unequal mercy is taking place in Greece, a major gateway to Western Europe for anyone fleeing the Middle East or Africa. Between February and mid-April of this year, some 21,000 Ukrainians made it to Greece — more in three months than the total number of asylum seekers who entered the country in all of 2021. There, the Ukrainians were instantly granted temporary protection status, giving them access to medical care and jobs, subsidized housing and food allowances, schooling for their children, and Greek language classes for adults.

This is an admirable example of how all people who flee danger and war should be welcomed. But I’ve been visiting Greece for years now to research my new book, Map of Hope and Sorrow: Stories of Refugees Trapped in Greece, and I know a lot of refugees there who have found no such generosity. Most are Syrian, Afghan, or Iraqi, but some are Kurdish or Palestinian, while others come from African countries, including Cameroon, Eritrea, Gambia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and the Republic of Congo.

They, too, escaped war, violence, and other kinds of persecution. In fact, the Syrians, just like the Ukrainians, fled Putin’s bombs when he was helping Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, hold onto power. Yet unlike the Ukrainians, these refugees are forced to languish for years in inhumane, slum-like camps, while their children are denied schooling. They are routinely turned away from hospitals, doctors, or dentists, and are all too often treated with disrespect, even hatred, by landlords, employers, and regular citizens. That hurts. As my friend and co-author, the Syrian writer and refugee Eyad Awwadawnan, whom I first met in Greece, put it, “I think the world should do all it can for Ukrainian refugees, but we are getting a clear message from the Greek government that we are worth less than they are.”

Doomed to Helplessness

During my visits to Greece between 2018 and 2022, I witnessed many examples of its appalling treatment of refugees. At one point, in a camp on the Northern Aegean island of Samos, I found more than 3,000 people living in shipping containers or tents in and around an old military base, surrounded by piles of garbage swarming with rats. They had no potable water, the few toilets were broken, the food mostly inedible, and there was no security for women, children, LGBTQ+ people, or anyone else particularly vulnerable to bullying, assault, or rape. Thousands more asylum seekers were similarly trapped on other islands with nowhere to go and nothing to do, while yet others were locked up in Greek prisons for merely exercising their right to seek asylum. In our book, Eyad and I describe the way people are arrested and imprisoned simply for steering their boats to Greece, or for coming from the wrong country.

Since its New Democracy government took power in 2019, well into the anti-immigrant, Muslim-bashing administration of Donald Trump here in the United States, the Greek government has been ratcheting up its mistreatment of Middle Eastern and African refugees even further. One of its first acts was to evict everyone granted asylum from subsidized housing or camps, while also withdrawing all financial aid. In this way, they were flung into a homeless, jobless void — that is, into forced helplessness. Winning asylum is supposed to mean winning international protected status as a refugee, but in Greece it now means the opposite — getting no protection at all.

Then, in June 2021, just before the Taliban took over Afghanistan, the Greek Minister of Migration, Notis Mitarachi, announced that all new arrivals from Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Somalia, and Syria would be denied the chance to apply for asylum and deported to Turkey, which he deemed a “safe third country,” a legal term for a safe haven for asylum seekers. Yet as human rights groups have made clear, Turkey is anything but safe for those in flight from war or persecution. Not only does Turkey refuse to recognize Syrians as refugees, but it never signed onto the part of the U.N. 1951 Refugee Rights declaration banning refoulement, the term used for returning refugees to a country where they may be subjected to persecution. This means that Turkey can legally send refugees back to the nations they fled, no matter what dangers await them there.

Last April 16th, Greece upped its persecution even further by closing the housing it offers vulnerable people, such as victims of torture, trafficking, and rape, and sending them to live in camps where there is no security at all. 

None of these policies apply to Ukrainians.

At sea, matters are even worse. The Greek authorities and Frontex, Europe’s border and coast guard agency, have been pushing refugees back out to sea instead of rescuing them. They have left families and children abandoned on flimsy rafts or inflatable boats, or on tiny islands without shelter or food. During the pandemic, Greece and Frontex treated some 40,000 refugees this way, causing at least 2,000 to drown — abuse that’s been well-documented by human rights groups. Yet Greece’s immigration minister has denied that any of this is happening. 

No less shocking is the way Greece has criminalized the rescue of refugees at sea. Volunteers who go out to search for and rescue the capsized boats of desperate immigrants are being arrested and charged with human trafficking. Sara Mardini, a Syrian professional swimmer portrayed in Netflix’s new movie The Swimmers, is one of these. If convicted, she faces 20 years in prison.

Hard as it may be to grasp the idea of making it illegal to rescue drowning people, Greece is far from alone in engaging in such behavior. Just this month, Italy, Malta, and Cyprus banded together with that country to call for the European Union (EU) to take measures against civilian sea rescuers. Of course, the train drivers and airplane pilots who brought Ukrainians into the rest of Europe are never similarly targeted.

The Greek government has justified all this unequal mercy with chilling language, declaring Ukrainians “real refugees” and everyone else an “illegal migrant.” In just that spirit, last month, Greek authorities forced Afghans in a camp outside Athens to cede their housing to Ukrainians and instead live in filthy and derelict shipping containers. 

That government has long claimed that it is not at fault for treating refugees so badly because it lacks the money and personnel to handle so many of them. But the minute those 21,000 Ukrainians arrived, the same officials suddenly found themselves able to help after all.

Greece is not entirely to blame for such violations of international law, because many of them are underwritten by the EU, which has been pumping money into the country to keep refugees out of Western Europe since 2016. Recently, for example, the EU paid $152 million to the Greek government to build five remote prisons for asylum seekers. I saw the prototype for them on the island of Samos: Camp Zervou, a collection of white metal shipping containers on a bare patch of land in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a double layer of hurricane fences topped with barbed wire and surveilled by closed-circuit cameras. It is hot, bare, and hideous. Such prisons will not, of course, hold Ukrainians.

Breaking Hearts and Laws

Greece is hardly the only country meting out all this unequal treatment. The persecution of non-white refugees seems to be on the rise not just in countries with far-right governments, but in those previously known for their liberality. Along with this persecution, of course, goes the same sort of racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric Donald Trump (not to speak of the Republican Party as a whole) continues to use about those crossing our own border.

Take the United Kingdom, for example. The new Conservative Party Prime Minister Rishi Sunak just offered France $74 million to increase its border security by 40% with the goal of arresting more “illegal migrants” and smugglers to stop them from crossing the English Channel.  (An asylum seeker, by the way, is not an “illegal migrant.” The right to cross borders to seek asylum is enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention.) That same $74 million could have been put toward legal and humanitarian services for asylum seekers, helping them find safe ways to apply for protection in either France or the United Kingdom, and so depriving smugglers of business without throwing those refugees into even further danger.

Within France itself, while President Emmanuel Macron quarrels with the British over who is to blame for the rising number of refugees trying to cross the Channel, Jordan Bardella, the new leader of the country’s increasingly popular far-right party, has rested his entire platform on closing France’s borders to “drastically limit” immigration. He has made it clear that he’s talking about Muslims and Africans, not immigrants like his own Italian parents.

Meanwhile, in Italy, Giorgia Maloni, the new right-wing prime minister, has just issued a decree forbidding male refugees from getting off rescue boats or setting even one foot on Italian soil. Similarly, Sweden, once a bastion of progressive ideas, elected a new government this past September that cut its refugee quota from 5,000 people a year to 900, citing the white supremacist trope that non-white, non-Christian refugees will otherwise “replace” traditional Swedes.

I could go on: France, Greece, Italy, Malta, and Spain are fighting over who will (or won’t) take stranded boats of refugees, pushing those desperate seagoers from shore to shore like so much litter. The Danes are sending Syrians back to Syria, even after they’ve lived in Denmark for years. Australia is incarcerating asylum seekers under horrifying conditions in detention centers and on isolated islands. And Britain has locked thousands of refugees in warehouses, passed laws denying them basic services like health care and housing, and tried to implement a policy of forcibly deporting some of them to Rwanda.

Here in the U.S., we’re not doing much better. True, President Biden has managed to curtail some of the worst of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, undoing the former president’s Muslim ban and raising the number of refugees allowed into the country every year, but his efforts have been inconsistent. Just this October, shortly before the Democrats barely held onto the Senate in the midterm elections, he expanded the Trumpian Title 42 border policy to include Venezuelans, who, only a week or so earlier, were being welcomed into the country. That policy uses Covid fears to force asylum seekers to stay in dangerous, sometimes deadly camps in Mexico, while rendering it virtually impossible for them to even apply for, let alone win, asylum in the U.S. (Biden originally promised to do away with Title 42 altogether, but the Supreme Court blocked his effort. After declaring that he would continue the fight, he now appears to have reversed course.)

Ukrainians are, however, exempted from this Mexican purgatory as a way of “recognizing the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine” (to quote the Department of Homeland Security). Some Afghans are similarly exempt, but only those who worked with the U.S. during our devastating 20-year war in their country. Everyone else is kept waiting for months or even years for their asylum decisions, many of them in detention, regardless of the humanitarian crises they also fled.

All the unequal mercies described here are not only breaking hearts, but laws. A little history: In 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt and the newly formed United Nations created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in reaction to the shocks of the Holocaust and the mistreatment of Jews seeking asylum. Three years later, the U.N. held a convention in Geneva to create a bill of refugee rights, which were ratified into law by 149 nations, including Australia, Britain, Canada, Greece, most of the rest of Europe, and the United States. (Some countries didn’t sign on until 1967.) The idea was to protect the dignity and freedom of human beings everywhere, while never again spurning refugees in the way that had sent so many Jews back to their deaths.

The Geneva Convention defined refugees as people forced to flee their countries because of “a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group” and who “cannot return home or [are] afraid to do so.” It gave them the right to international protection from discrimination and persecution; the right to housing, schooling, and the chance to work for a living; the right not to be criminalized for simply seeking asylum; and, most importantly, the right not to be subjected to refoulement — and be returned to the countries they had fled.

Thanks, in part, to that convention, when people are driven to flee their countries, they head for the safety and dignity they believe they will find in the West, a belief we are now betraying. To rectify this, the EU’s governing arm, the European Commission, must insist that Europe’s unequal treatment of refugees be replaced with humane, accessible processes that apply consistently to all asylum seekers, regardless of where they come from. The same should be done in Australia, Britain, and the United States. After all, the way we treat refugees today speaks volumes not only about how humanitarian we are, but about how we are likely to act in the future when climate change forces ever more people to flee their homes just to stay alive.

On the other hand, should we continue to favor white Christian refugees over everyone else, we will not only shred the promises and values enshrined in our democracies, but fertilize the poison of white supremacy already festering in the very heart of the West.

We Have not Yet been Defeated: Who will Pay for an Overheating Earth? Fri, 02 Dec 2022 05:04:20 +0000 By Priti Gulati Cox and Stan Cox | –

( ) – On October 29th, 75-year-old Saifullah Paracha, Guantánamo Bay’s oldest detainee, was finally released by U.S. authorities and flown home to his family in Karachi, Pakistan. He had been incarcerated for nearly two decades without either charges or a trial. His plane touched down in a land still reeling from this year’s cataclysmic monsoon floods that, in July, had covered an unparalleled one-third of that country. Even his own family’s neighborhood, the well-heeled Defense Housing Authority complex, had been thoroughly inundated with, as a reporter wrote at the time, “water gushing into houses.”

Having endured 19 years of suffering inflicted by the brute force of imperialism during America’s “Global War on Terror,” Paracha, along with all of Pakistan, will now suffer through the climatic devastation wrought by the invisible hand of economic imperialism. Indeed, even as his family members were embracing him for the first time since that fateful day in 2003 when he was seized in an FBI sting operation in Thailand, governments and corporations throughout the Global North were sharpening their knives, preparing to reassert their dominance as they do at every year’s U.N. climate conference — this one being COP27 in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt.

But delegates from climate-vulnerable, cash-poor countries like Pakistan and Egypt, along with members of climate-justice movements from across the planet, were also there. Tired of being pushed around, they had other plans.

A Breakthrough and an All-Too-Predictable Flop

At previous COPs, negotiations inside the hall were focused primarily on what’s come to be known as “climate mitigation” — that is, trying to keep future greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere — along with adaptation to climate disruptions, past, present, and future. For the first time in official negotiations, COP27 would also feature the demands of low-income, vulnerable countries eager to be compensated for the devastating impacts they, like flooded Pakistan, have already suffered or will suffer thanks to climate change. After all, the global overheating of the present moment was caused by greenhouse gases emitted during the past two centuries, chiefly by the large industrial societies of the global North. In the shorthand of those negotiations, such polluter-pays compensation is known as “loss and damage.”

At previous climate summits, the “haves” resisted the very idea of the have-nots demanding loss-and-damage compensation for two chief reasons: first, they preferred not to admit, even implicitly, that they had created the crisis now broiling and drowning communities across the Global South, and, second, they had no interest in shelling out the humongous sums that would then be required.

This year, however, the shocking death and destruction inflicted by the inundation of Pakistan and more recently of Nigeria stoked an already surging movement to put loss and damage on COP’s agenda for the first time. And thanks to unrelenting pressure from that climate-justice groundswell, COP27 did end with the United States, the European Union, and the rest of the rich world approving an agreement to “establish a fund for responding to loss and damage.” Echoing the thoughts of many, climate justice leader Jean Su tweeted that the deal was “a testament to the incredible mobilization of vulnerable countries and civil society. Much work still to be done, but a dam has broken.”

The euphoria that followed over the creation of a loss-and-damage fund was well justified. But, as Su noted, the struggle is far from over. In a correction to its story reporting on that agreement, the Washington Post made clear that, although the batter had now been mixed, the cake was anything but in the oven. The paper informed readers, “An earlier version of this article incorrectly said wealthy nations agreed to pay billions of dollars into a loss and damage fund. While they agreed to create a fund, its size and financing mechanism have yet to be worked out.” Those two remaining how-much and how-to-do-it questions are anything but trivial. In the loss-and-damage debate, in fact, they’re the main issues countries have been arguing over for many years without resolution of any sort.

If the world does commit sufficient (or even insufficient) funds to pay out on loss and damage (and that’s a truly big if ), vulnerable countries may finally have the means to begin recovering from the latest climate disasters. Tragically enough, however, there’s little question that, as ever greater amounts of carbon and methane continue to head for our atmosphere, whatever the affected populations may need now, it’s likely just a hint of the sort of compensation they’ll need in a future guaranteed to be full of ever-increasing numbers of disasters like the Pakistan floods.

And the reason for that isn’t complicated: COP27 negotiators failed to match their loss-and-damage breakthrough with any significant progress on reining in greenhouse gas emissions. Efforts to come to an agreement on phasing out the chief sources of those emissions — oil, gas, and coal — flopped, as they have at all previous COPs. The only thing the negotiators could manage was to repeat last year’s slippery pledge to pursue a “phase-down [not ‘-out’] of unabated [not ‘all’] coal [nor ‘coal, gas, and oil’] power.”

On the one hand, civil-society movements prevailed in the debate over loss and damage. On the other, energy imperialism remained all too alive and well in Egypt, as corporate interests and the governments that serve them extended their 27-year winning streak of blocking efforts to drive emissions down at the urgently required rate. Yeb Saño, who led Greenpeace’s COP27 delegation, told, “It is scarcely credible that they have forgotten all about fossil fuels. Everywhere you look in Sharm el Sheikh you can see and hear the influence of the fossil fuel industry. They have shown up in record numbers to try and decouple climate action from a fossil fuel phaseout.”

How to Pay?

The World Bank estimates that the floods in Pakistan caused more than $30 billion in damage, while rehabilitation and reconstruction will cost another $16 billion. And that, says the bank, doesn’t even include funds that will be needed “to support Pakistan’s adaptation to climate change and overall resilience of the country to future climate shocks.” The floods seriously harmed an estimated 33 million people, displaced 8 million from their homes, and left more than 1,700 dead. According to the World Bank’s report, “Loss of household incomes, assets, rising food prices, and disease outbreaks are impacting the most vulnerable groups. Women have suffered notable losses of their livelihoods, particularly those associated with agriculture and livestock.” The disaster starkly illustrated the indisputable moral and humanitarian grounds for compelling the governments of rich countries to pay for the devastation their decades of fossil-fuel burning have caused.

Buy the Book

For Pakistan in particular, America’s lavishly funded war-making and national-security industries are joined at the hip with the global climate emergency. While those forces are directly responsible for depriving Paracha and countless others of their freedom or lives, the greenhouse-gas emissions they generate have also contributed to the kind of devastation that he came home to when finally released. Furthermore, these industries have wasted trillions of dollars that could have been spent on preventing, adapting to, and compensating for ecological breakdown.

So far this fall, Washington has pledged $97 million (with an “m”) in flood-relief aid to Pakistan. Sounds like a lot of money, but it amounts to just one five-hundredth of the World Bank’s loss-and-damage estimate. In bleak contrast, from 2002 to 2010 alone, at the height of that Global War on Terror, the U.S. government provided Pakistan with $13 billion (with a “b”) in military aid.

To dodge blame and minimize their costs, the rich countries have been proposing a range of alternatives to simply paying loss-and-damage money to low-income ones as they should. Instead, they’d far prefer to have disaster-plagued governments finance their own climate-change recovery and adaptation by borrowing from banks in the North. In effect, rather than obtain relief-and-recovery funds directly from the North, countries like Pakistan would be obligated to make interest payments to banks in the North.

Fed up with having unbearable debt burdens thrust upon them time and time again, countries in the South are saying no thanks to the proposition that they go even deeper into debt. In response, the North has been tossing out other ideas. For instance, encouraging development banks like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund to release disaster-hit countries from their obligations to pay some portion of the money they already owe as interest on past debts and use it instead to support their own recovery and rebuilding. But countries in the South are saying, in effect, “Hey, for decades, you’ve used your power to saddle us with punishing, unjust debt. By all means, please do cancel that debt, but you’ve still got to pay us for the climate loss and damage you’ve caused.”

The rich countries have even floated the idea of taking a portion of the money they’ve previously earmarked for development aid and depositing it in a global fund that would pay damages to vulnerable countries suffering future climatic disasters. Note the key to all such “solutions”: no extra expense for the wealthy countries. What a sweet deal! It’s as if, domestically, the U.S. government started issuing smaller Social Security checks and used the money it “saved” that way to pay Medicare benefits.

The new COP27 loss-and-damage fund is supposed to prohibit such shell games, while also pulling climate finance out of the realms of imperialism, debt servitude, and what Oxfam calls the “disaster begging bowl.” What’s needed, says Oxfam, an organization focused on alleviating global poverty, is “a fair and automatic mechanism for financial support — rooted in the principle that those who have contributed most to the climate crisis pay for the damage it causes in countries least responsible and hardest hit.”

How Much and Where to Get It?

When confronted with numbers ending in “-illion,” as Americans were during the debates over the congressional spending bills of 2021 and 2022, it’s easy enough for your eyes to glaze over and miss the orders-of-magnitude differences among such figures. In an American world where the Pentagon budget alone is headed for $1 trillion sometime in this decade, it’s easy enough to forget, for example, that a million of those dollars is just one-millionth of a trillion of them. In response, in discussing the staggering sums needed to deal with our already desperately overheating planet and the amounts available to pay for loss and damage, we’ll now put everything in terms of billions of U.S. dollars.

High-emitting countries like ours have run up quite a climate tab. A June 2022 report from the V-20 group, which represents 55 of the world’s lowest-income, most climate-vulnerable economies, estimates that, from 2000 to 2019, their membership lost $525 billion thanks to climate disruption. That’s a huge blow to a staggeringly large set of countries whose gross domestic products add up to just $2,400 billion. But in the Global North, such sums and even far larger ones, while more than pocket change, are still easily affordable, as that Pentagon budget suggests.

By Oxfam’s reckoning, hundreds of billions of dollars could be raised for paying loss-and-damage by taxing fossil-fuel extraction, international cargo shipping, frequent flying, and other significantly carbon-producing activities. Progressive wealth taxes could net even more: $3,600 billion annually, according to the Climate Action Network (CAN), which also estimates that ending government subsidies to corporations (one-third of which go to fossil-fuel companies) could net $1,800 billion annually. Furthermore, cuts in military spending could free up a whopping $2,000 billion per year globally. The latter could be an especially juicy target. For instance, by CAN’s estimate, the United States’s fair share of payments owed to the Global South for climate mitigation and adaptation, plus loss-and-damage reparations, would come to roughly $1,600 billion over the next decade. And those 10 payments of $160 billion each could be covered if the Pentagon just ditched production of its most disastrously expensive jet fighter, the $1,700 billion F-35, and diverted the money toward climate assistance.

It’s always the government’s job to spend big when America faces a dire emergency, wherever the money comes from. In 2020-2021, Congress passed more than $3,000 billion in Covid relief — enough to pay our international climate tab, as estimated by CAN, for 19 years.

“Our Cause Is One”

Shortly after Saifullah Paracha’s return to Karachi in October, another family, in Sharm el Sheikh 2,340 miles away, had embarked on what reporter Jeff Shenker called “a desperate and possibly reckless mission” to save the life of one of their own: the British-Egyptian human-rights activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah, possibly Egypt’s most prominent political prisoner.

Abd el-Fattah, who has spent most of the last decade behind bars for speaking out against Egypt’s oppressive regime, had been on a partial hunger strike since April. After visiting him on November 18th, his family reported that he had broken his hunger strike “out of a desire to stay alive, but he would resume it if no progress was made regarding his freedom.” His sister Sanaa Seif told reporters inside the COP27 conference hall,

“He’s not in prison for the Facebook post they charged him with. He’s in prison because he’s someone who makes people believe the world can be a better place. He’s someone trying to make the world a better place… There are tens of thousands of political prisoners in Egypt. There are more around the world. Climate activists get arrested, kidnapped in Latin America. We face the same kind of oppression, and our cause is one.”

What is Guantánamo Bay but a place where the American empire has practiced its human-breaking tactics for 20 years without accountability offshore of any system of justice? What is the U.N. climate summit but a meeting place where the world’s elite have protected their power for 27 years and counting?

Living as a “forever prisoner” (as the Guardian dubbed Saifullah Paracha in 2018) was, he once said, “like being alive in your own grave.” Forever wars, forever prisoners, forever climate chaos, forever theft. That’s the world we live in, where governments like those of the United States and Egypt throw innocent Muslims like Saifullah Paracha and pro-democracy dissidents like Alaa Abd el-Fattah into prison for standing in the way of their forever-repressive interests.

Reporting on the struggle to free Abd el-Fattah, Shenker noted, “The phrase ‘We Have Not Yet Been Defeated’ became the unofficial slogan of COP27, a reference to the title of a book by Abd el-Fattah published in 2021, ‘You Have Not Yet Been Defeated.’” Could the perseverance and courage of people like Paracha, Abd el-Fattah, and the activists for climate justice and human rights — both those who attended the conference at Sharm el Sheik and countless others around the world — make it possible someday to drop the “Yet” and say simply, “We Have Not Been Defeated”?

Copyright 2022 Stan Cox and Priti Gulati Cox

The MAGAfication of America: The White Nationalist Coup isn’t Over Wed, 30 Nov 2022 05:02:36 +0000 By Clarence Lusane | –

( – Just in case you didn’t notice, authoritarianism was on the ballot in the 2022 midterm elections. An unprecedented majority of candidates from one of the nation’s two major political parties were committed to undemocratic policies and outcomes. You would have to go back to the Democratic Party-dominated segregationist South of the 1950s to find such a sweeping array of authoritarian proclivities in an American election. While voters did stop some of the most high-profile election deniers, conspiracy theorists, and pro-Trump true believers from taking office, all too many won seats at the congressional, state, and local levels.

Count on one thing: this movement isn’t going away. It won’t be defeated in a single election cycle and don’t think the authoritarian threat isn’t real either. After all, it now forms the basis for the politics of the Republican Party and so is targeting every facet of public life. No one committed to constitutional democracy should rest easy while the network of right-wing activists, funders, media, judges, and political leaders work so tirelessly to gain yet more power and implement a thoroughly undemocratic agenda.

This deeply rooted movement has surged from the margins of our political system to become the defining core of the GOP. In the post-World War II era, from the McCarthyism of the 1950s to Barry Goldwater’s run for the presidency in 1964, from President Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy, President Ronald Reagan, and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in its current Trumpian iteration, Republicans have long targeted democratic norms as impediments to establishing a neoliberal, race-based version of all-American authoritarianism. And that movement has been far too weakly opposed by far too many Democratic Party leaders and even some progressives. Don’t think of this phenomenon as right-wing conservativism either, but as a more dangerous, even violent movement whose ultimate aim is to overthrow liberal democracy. The American version of this type of electoral authoritarianism, anchored in Christian nationalist populism, has at its historic core a white nationalist pushback against the struggle for racial justice.

Liberal Democracy for Some, Racial Authoritarianism for Others

Liberal democracy had failed generations of African Americans and other people of color, as, of course, it did Native Americans massacred or driven from their ancestral lands. It failed African Americans and Latinos forced to work on chain gangs or lynched (without the perpetrators suffering the slightest punishment). It failed Asian Americans who were brutally sent to internment camps during World War II and Asians often explicitly excluded from immigration rosters.

The benefits of liberal democracy — rule of law, government accountability, the separation of powers, and the like — that were extended to most whites existed alongside a racial authoritarianism that denied fundamental rights and protections to tens of millions of Americans. The Civil Rights reforms of the 1960s defeated the longstanding, all-too-legal regime of racist segregationists and undemocratic, even if sometimes constitutional, authority. For the first time since the end of the Reconstruction era, when there was a concerted effort to extend voting rights, offer financial assistance, and create educational opportunities for those newly freed from slavery, it appeared that the nation was again ready to reckon with its racial past and present.

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Yet, all too sadly, the proponents of autocratic governance did anything but disappear. In the twenty-first century, their efforts are manifest in the governing style and ethos of the Republican Party, its base, and the extremist organizations that go with it, as well as the far-right media, think tanks, and foundations that accompany them. At every level, from local school boards and city councils to Congress and the White House, authoritarianism and its obligatory racism continue to drive the GOP political agenda.

The violent insurrection of January 6, 2021, was just the high (or, depending on your views, low) point in a long-planned, multi-dimensional, hyper-conservative, white nationalist coup attempt engineered by President Donald Trump, his supporters, and members of the Republican Party. It was neither the beginning nor the end of that effort, just its most violent public expression — to date, at least. After all, Trump’s efforts to delegitimize elections were first put on display when he claimed that Barack Obama had actually lost the popular vote and so stolen the 2012 election, that it had all been a “total sham.”

During the 2016 presidential debates, Trump alone stated that he would not commit himself to support any other candidate as the party’s nominee, since — a recurring theme for him — he could only lose if the election were rigged or someone cheated. He correctly grasped that there would be no consequences to such norm-breaking behavior and falsely stated that he had only lost the Iowa caucus to Senator Ted Cruz because “he stole it.” After losing the popular vote but winning the Electoral College in 2016, Trump incessantly complained that he would have won the popular vote, too, if the “millions” of illegal voters who cast their ballots for Hillary Clinton hadn’t been counted.

Donald Trump decisively lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden, 74.2 million to 81.2 million in the popular vote and 232 to 306 in the Electoral College, leaving only one path to victory (other than insurrection) — finding a way to discount millions of black votes in key swing-state cities. From birtherism and Islamophobia to anti-Black Lives Matter rhetoric, racism had propelled Trump’s ascendancy and his political future would be determined by the degree to which he and his allies could invalidate votes in the disproportionately Black cities of Atlanta, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia, and Latino and Native American votes in Arizona and Nevada.

The GOP effort to disqualify Black, Latino, and Native American votes was a plot to create an illegitimate government, an unholy scheme that took an inescapably violent turn and led to an outcome for which the former president has yet to be held accountable. Sadly enough, the forces of authoritarianism were anything but dispatched by their defeat on January 6th. If anything, they were emboldened by the failure so far to hold responsible most of the agents who maneuvered the event into motion.

Democracy, Authoritarianism, or Fascism?

The last decade has exposed a severely wounded American democratic experiment. Consider it Donald Trump’s contribution to have revealed how spectacularly the guardrails of liberal democracy can fail if the breaking of laws, rules, and norms goes unchallenged or is sacrificed on the altar of narrow political gains. The most mendacious, cruel, mentally unstable, thin-skinned, vengeful, incompetent, narcissistic, bigoted individual ever elected to the presidency was neither an accident, nor an aberration. He was the inevitable outcome of decades of Republican pandering to anti-democratic forces and white nationalist sentiments.

Scholars have long debated the distinction between fascism and authoritarianism. Fascist states create an all-engulfing power that rules over every facet of political and social life. Elections are abolished; mass arrests occur without habeas corpus; all opposition media are shut down; freedoms of speech and assembly are curtailed; courts, if allowed to exist at all, rubber-stamp undemocratic state policies; while the military or brown shirts of some sort enforce an unjust, arbitrary legal system. Political parties are outlawed and opponents are jailed, tortured, or killed. Political violence is normalized, or at least tolerated, by a significant portion of society. There is little pretense of constitutional adherence or the constitution is formally suspended.

On the other hand, authoritarian states acknowledge constitutional authority, even if they also regularly ignore it. Limited freedoms continue to exist. Elections are held, though generally with predetermined outcomes. Political enemies aren’t allowed to compete for power. Nationalist ideology diverts attention from the real levers and venues of that power. Political attacks against alien “others” are frequent, while public displays of racism and ethnocentrism are common. Most critically, some enjoy a degree of democratic norms while accepting that others are denied them completely. During the slave and Jim Crow eras in this country — periods of racial authoritarianism affecting millions of Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans — most whites in the South (and perhaps a majority outside of it) either tolerated or embraced the disavowal of democracy.

Under the right confluence of forces — a weakened system of checks and balances, populist rhetoric that taps into fears and perceived injustices, an anemic and divided opposition, deep social or racial divides, distrust of science and scientists, rampant anti-intellectualism, unpunished corporate and political malfeasance, and popularly accepted charges of mainstream media bias — a true authoritarian could indeed come to power in this country. And as history has shown, that could just be a prelude to full-blown fascism.

The warning signs could not be clearer.

While, in many ways, Trump’s administration was more of a kakistocracy — that is, “government by the worst and most unscrupulous people,” as scholar Norm Ornstein put it — from day one to the last nano-seconds of its tenure, his autocratic tendencies were all too often on display. His authoritarian appetites generated an unprecedented library of books issuing distress signals about the dangers to come.

Timothy Snyder’s 2017 bestseller On Tyranny was, for instance, a brief but remarkably astute early work on the subject. The Yale history professor provided a striking overview of tyranny meant to dispel myths about how autocrats or populists come to and stay in power. Although published in 2017, the work made no mention of Donald Trump. It was, however, clearly addressing the rise to power of his MAGA right and soberly warning the nation to stop him before it was too late.

As Snyder wrote of the institutions of our democracy, they “do not protect themselves… The mistake is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions — even when that is exactly what they have announced that they will do.” He particularly cautioned against efforts to link the police and military to partisan politics, as Trump first did in 2020 when his administration had peaceful protesters attacked by the police and National Guard in Lafayette Square across from the White House so that the president could take a stroll to a local church. He similarly warned about letting private security forces, often with violent tendencies (as when Trump’s security team would eject demonstrators from his political rallies) gain quasi-official or official status.

The period 2015 to 2020 certainly represented the MAGAfication of the United States and launched this country on a potential path toward future authoritarian rule by the GOP.

The Vulnerabilities of Democracy

Journalists have also been indispensable in exposing the democratic vulnerabilities of the United States. The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen has, for instance, been prolific and laser-focused in calling out the hazards of creeping authoritarianism and of Trump’s “performing fascism.” She writes that while he may not himself have fully grasped the concept of fascism, “In his intuition, power is autocratic; it affirms the superiority of one nation and one race; it asserts total domination; and it mercilessly suppresses all opposition.”

While Trump is too lazy, self-interested, and intellectually undisciplined to be a coherent ideologue, he surrounded himself with and took counsel from those who were, including far-right zealots and Trump aides Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and Stephen Miller. Bannon functioned as Trump’s Goebbels-ish propagandist, having cut his white nationalist teeth as founder and executive chair of the extremist Breitbart News media operation. In 2018, he told a gathering of European far-right politicians, fascists, and neo-Nazis, “Let them call you racist. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor. Because every day, we get stronger and they get weaker.”

Someone who knows the former president better than most, his niece Mary Trump, all too tellingly wrote that her uncle “is an instinctive fascist who is limited by his inability to see beyond himself.” For her, there is no question the title fits. As she put it, “[A]rguing about whether or not to call Donald a fascist is the new version of the media’s years-long struggle to figure out if they should call his lies, lies. What’s more relevant now is whether the media — and the Democrats — will extend the label of fascism to the Republican Party itself.”

Mainstreaming Extremism and Democracy’s Decline

Given these developments, some scholars and researchers argue that the nation’s democratic descent may already have gone too far to be fully stopped. In its Democracy Report 2020: Autocratization Surges — Resistance Grows, the Varieties of Democracy (VDem) Project, which assesses the democratic health of nations globally, summarized the first three years of Trump’s presidency this way: “[Democracy] has eroded to a point that more often than not leads to full-blown autocracy.” Referring to its Liberal Democracy Index scale, it added, “The United States of America declines substantially on the LDI from 0.86 in 2010 to 0.73 in 2020, in part as a consequence of President Trump’s repeated attacks on the media, opposition politicians, and the substantial weakening of the legislature’s de facto checks and balances on executive power.”

These findings were echoed in The Global State of Democracy 2021, a report by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance that argued, “The United States, the bastion of global democracy, fell victim to authoritarian tendencies itself, and was knocked down a significant number of steps on the democratic scale.”

The failure of Donald Trump’s eternally “stolen election” coup attempt and the presidency of Joe Biden may have put off the further development of an authoritarian state, but don’t be fooled. Neither the failure of the January 6th insurrection nor the disappointments suffered in the midterm elections have deterred the ambitions of the GOP’s fanatics. The Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, however slim, will undoubtedly unleash a further tsunami of extremist actions not just against the Democrats, but the American people.

Purges of Democrats from House committees, McCarthyite-style hearings and investigations, and an all-out effort to rig the system to declare whoever emerges as the GOP’s 2024 presidential candidate the preemptive winner will mark their attempt to rule. Such actions will be duplicated — and worse — in states with Republican governors and legislatures, as officials there bend to the autocratic urges of their minority but fervent white base voters. They will be supported by a network of far-right media, donors, activists, and Trump-appointed judges and justices.

In response, defending the interests of working people, communities of color, LGBTQ individuals and families, and other vulnerable sectors of this society will mean alliances between progressives, liberals, and, in some instances, disaffected and distraught anti-Trump, pro-democracy Republicans. There are too many historical examples of authoritarian and fascist takeovers while the opposition remained split and in conflict not to form such political alliances. Nothing is more urgent at this moment than the complete political defeat of an anti-democratic movement that is, all too sadly, still on the march.

Copyright 2022 Clarence Lusane