As ubiquitous as chemical contamination is in our environment, we often don’t think about our food supply as carrying a high chemical load. But it can—and does. Much of this is added through industrial farming methods, food processing and packaging. Not all of food contamination comes from these industrial activities, however, and awareness can go a long way toward protecting yourself and your family from exposure.
Fortunately, you can flip the switch to have a healthier diet to reduce your chemical exposure. Here are 10 of the most contaminated foods in your refrigerator that you should throw away right now—and healthy alternatives.
(image: Yuriy Golub/Shutterstock)
We all know the look of the plastic mustard squeeze bottle that is an iconic image of convenience food in the U.S., a mainstay of backyard barbeques and picnic tables.
Also: Processed foods and drinks (including unexpected ones, such as cheap beer).
Chemicals of Concern: Food dyes, preservatives, chemicals to adjust textures, emulsifiers, natural and artificial flavorings, plasticizers.
The problem: Concerns include cancer, ADHD and gut-health disruption. Environmental Working Group has a thoughtful discussion of 12 harmful additives and how to avoid them.
Simple switch: Choose food and drinks without chemical additives. Look for artisan producers.
Tips: Shop at health food stores, read labels, call companies for ingredients when labels don’t list additives and eat real food.
2. Unfiltered and/or bottled water and drinks
Water is a solvent so it is especially important that we store it in inert containers such as glass or stainless steel.
Also: Juice, soda, other drinks stored in polycarbonate, other plastic, or aluminum cans (as in seltzer); unfiltered water.
Chemicals of concern: Packaging containing bisphenol-A (BPA) (polycarbonate), plastics, aluminum; ground water and municipal water contaminants; #1 Polyethylene terephthalate, PET or PETE (disposable soft drink, juice, water bottles; resins can contain flame retardants; aseptic packaging); #2 HDPE (cloudy milk and water jugs); resins can contain flame retardants, #3 PVC (some soft beverage bottles contain PVC); #7 Polycarbonate (a plastic that contains BPA).
The problem: Water and drinks can be contaminated from chemicals such as BPA leaching out from the packaging, causing endocrine disruption; long–lasting chemicals stored in fat; carcinogens. It is hard to imagine any groundwater system in the world that isn’t contaminated, and municipal water filters a range of chemicals but not all and includes additives. Filtering water is the safest approach.
Simple switch: Drink filtered water and natural drinks stored in glass.
Tip: Note that BPA-free bottles does not mean they are free from endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
(image: Dariia Belkina/Shutterstock)
Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Monsanto's popular Roundup herbicide, has contaminated a wide swath of the U.S. food supply.
Also: Bread and wheat cereal; GMO foods such as soy, corn, canola, alfalfa, dried legumes, sorghum, grains, and seeds.
Chemicals of concern: Glyphosate “Roundup Ready” herbicide.
The problem: Glyphosate has been reported in scientific reviews to have a negative impact on gut health and cause gluten intolerance and even celiac disease. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization, classified glyphosate as a "probable carcinogen." Many non-GMO grains, seeds and legumes receive a dose of Roundup immediately prior to harvest—a process know as desiccation.
Simple switch: Choose organic, non-GMO labeled foods.
Tips: Look for the “Non-GMO” label or make your bagels at home with organic ingredients.
4. Cheese in plastic packaging
Plastic tends to migrate into fatty foods, especially hot fatty foods, leaching endocrine disruptors.
Also: Other foods and leftovers packaged or stored in plastic, especially hot fatty foods (such as those heated in plastic a microwave)
Chemicals of concern: Leaching plasticizers such as phthalates and BPA; #1 Polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE) (disposable soft drink, juice, and water bottles; boil-in-a-bag foods, aseptic packaging); #2 High density polyethylene HDPE (tubs for butter and other dairy products); #3 polyvinyl chloride (PVC) (meat wrap, bottles for salad dressing); #4 low density polyethylene LDPE (cling wrap, sandwich bags, plastic squeeze bottles); #5 polypropylene (PP) (cloudy plastic water bottles; yogurt cups and tubs; food packaged hot, such as syrups; #6 polystyrene (PS) (disposable hot beverage cups and plates, clamshell take-out containers; egg cartons); #7 polycarbonate (hard plastic such as baby bottles, some reusable water bottles; stain-resistant food storage containers).
The problem: Almost all plastic products, including those advertised as "BPA-free," have been found to leach endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which are implicated in the precipitous rise in breast and prostate cancer as well as ADHD and other cognitive disorders.
Simple switch: Store in glass.
Tips: Make sure you don’t take cheese in plastic on picnics when the weather is warm. Stock up on glass food containers or stainless steel for children’s lunches and snacks when glass containers could be dangerous.
5. Take-out leftovers
Many food wrappers and takeout containers have high resulting fluorine, an indicator of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), a chemical similar to Teflon.
Also: Polystyrene, paper coated with Teflon-like chemicals, plastic containers.
Chemicals of concern: #6 polystyrene (PS) may leach styrene; plastic migration into food from plastic containers; PFC.
The problem: Endocrine-disrupting chemicals, industrial chemicals stored in fat, neurotoxic chemicals in polystyrene, Teflon-like chemicals that are long-lasting in the environment and our bodies.
Simple switch: Glass; food-grade butcher’s paper.
Tip: California is the first state to ban PFCs.
6. Spaghetti sauce cooked in aluminum/non-stick pans and/or from cans
(image: Hurst Photo/Shutterstock)
Chemicals from the pans you cook with can leach into your food. Acidic foods such as tomato sauce are especially prone to leach chemicals from pots and cans.
Also: Anything cooked in non-stick or aluminum pans, canned food.
Chemicals of concern: Aluminum, perfluorooctanic acid (PFOA), BPA and other plasticizers.
The problem: Aluminum and/or non-stick pan PFOA contamination migrating into food. PFOA is long lasting in the body and is a likely carcinogen and endocrine disruptor, plasticizers are widely known to be endocrine disruptors, aluminum can accumulate in the brain with unknown consequences.
Simple switch: Cook in inert pans/materials, such as glass, baked enamel and stainless steel.
Tip: Anodized aluminum cookware has placed a hard, non-reactive surface over the aluminum, blocking the leaching. Because a can’s label says it is BPA-free doesn’t mean the replaced plasticizer isn’t an endocrine disruptor.
(image: Marina Onokhina/Shutterstock)
Ocean water carries a lot of toxic chemicals, including neurotoxic mercury, and they find their way into the bodies of fish. The more long-lived and high on the food chain, the more toxic the fish can be.
Also: Shark, king mackerel, tilefish, northern pike, marlin, tuna, imported Mahi Mahi, Atlantic and Pacific cod, Atlantic halibut.
Chemicals of concern: Mercury, heavy metals.
The problem: Mercury and other heavy metals are highly toxic to the peripheral nervous system and have a negative effect on the digestive and immune system; they can cause heart problems.
Simple switch: Track the healthiest fish to eat at Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch.
Tip: As coal-fired plants are being reduced in number, the amount of mercury found in tuna, for example, is dropping. Track the progress at seafoodwatch.org.
Heavy industrial farm spraying leaves residues on fruit and vegetables.
Also: Spinach, nectarines, apples, peaches, pears, grapes, cherries, celery, tomatoes, potatoes, and sweet bell and hot peppers. (This list is from the May 2017 “Dirty Dozen” report by the Environmental Working Group.)
Chemicals of concern: Pesticides, herbicides.
The problem: Neuorotoxic, carcinogenic.
Simple switch: Buy organic.
Tip: Buy foods from the list of the safest “Clean Fifteen” non-organic foods.
9. Full-fat milk
(image: Dan Groy/Shutterstock)
Animals high on the food chain can have high concentrations of industrial chemicals stored in their fat. Humans are at the top of the food chain.
Also: Other foods high on the food chain, such as beef, pork, chicken, fish, and other dairy.
Chemicals of concern: PCBs (insulators and coolants), PBDEs (flame retardants), dioxin and DDT.
The problem: The chemicals are long-lasting in the environment and in our bodies. They can cause cancer, liver damage, birth defects, reproductive disorders and more, depending on the contaminant.
Simple switch: As often as you can, eat low on the food chain, such as organic produce, grains and legumes.
Tip: Prioritize a plant-based, low-fat diet.
10. Peeled garlic cloves from China
While sometimes difficult to isolate, much produce from China is heavily contaminated with lead and other heavy metals.
Also: Other foods imported from China have a strong probability of lead and heavy metal contamination; even so-called “organic” foods imported from China deserve scrutiny.
Chemicals of concern: Heavy metals such as lead.
The problem: Lead is very neurotoxic and can lower the IQ, heavy metals can cause a host of health problems including to the heart.
Simple switch: Buy U.S.-grown organic produce.
Tip: Country of Origin labeling is complex. Check out this excellent overview from the American Frozen Food Institute.
Protecting your health and the health of your family from the chemical assault of industrialized agriculture and toxic food packaging can seem daunting. But if you follow these simple tips, you're well on your way to becoming more aware of what kinds of foods to stay away from, and what kinds to buy. You'll soon find that keeping the toxic stuff out of your kitchen and home will become second nature.
In 1948, Samuel Brannan ran through the streets of San Francisco, shouting “Gold! Gold from the American River!” To this day, California has maintained an almost-magical allure: the Golden State, a place where wealth seeps from the earth and lingers in the air, a promised land of economic prosperity. And so over the last two centuries, when times are tough, emigres have flocked to the fields of yellow poppies in search of gold hidden in the soil or jobs as fruit pickers and reprieve from the horrors of the Dust Bowl. But like the Rush of the 1840s and the rumors of economic mobility during Great Depression, California’s latest guarantee to those in need—earning money collecting recyclables—is falling short.
In 1986, California lawmakers passed Assembly Bill 2020, known as the Bottle Bill, to encourage recycling and reduce litter by offering monetary redemption values on beverage containers. Up until recently, the bill has been wildly successful. The state has become a leader of environmental policy with Californians redeeming over 85% of all containers within the Bottle Bill guidelines, an amount that equals 5 billion units annually and consists of 20% of all beverage recyclables in the entire country. And as an added positive, thousands of California’s homeless have earned a steady income by collecting cans, glass, and plastic bottles and exchanging them for cash.
“This is how I eat,” a 52-year-old named Johnson told KQED News outside of Our Planet, a recycling center in San Francisco. “It gets us lunch, cigarettes, coffee, cat food; the basic necessities. It’s better than nothing.”
The sun has not yet risen over the hills, but the pavement outside of Our Planet is already crowded with collectors. Clutching garbage bags and leaning on shopping carts heaped with cans, glass, and plastic bottles, the collectors will patiently wait until 7:30 when the center opens and they can trade their findings for what they need—the money that will allow them to survive.
Johnson’s partner, Jackie, explains that he often heads out to collect materials at 11pm and returns in the morning. Most homeless people who collect do so at night, scouring event venues and sorting through blue bins before heading to recycling centers at daybreak, carrying somewhere between 3 to 10 bins of recyclables. Ors Csaszar, the owner of Our Planet, estimates that an average person waiting in line earns anywhere from $15 to $35 per day. Other studies have shown that people living in homeless encampments in nearby Fremont, Oakland, and Union City can earn as much as $50 to $100 per day.
The lives of many homeless are entirely dependent on the operation of recycling centers. However, over the last two and half years, more than 20% of these centers have closed in California. In January 2016, a single company announced it would be closing a grand total of 191 centers. With fewer locations to buyback goods, total redemption payback throughout the state has decreased by $3 million per month.
In 2016, following the shutdown of Alliance Recycling Center, right across the bay in Oakland, 400 homeless and marginally housed people lost their only source of income. For years, Alliance was essential to the city, serving as a rare form of economy and organization for those who mostly live without it. Food Not Bombs and church groups often provided bagged lunches to frequenters of Alliance. Richard, an East Oakland resident, told the East Bay Express that there “ain’t no other recycling place like this one. It’s like a community.”
In the months following, the closure left many people displaced. Mike, who spent 19 years bringing recyclables to Alliance, told the Street Spirit that he plans to “go someplace else” because the other centers in area, all much smaller than Alliance, will not be able to handle an influx of traffic. To many, the closing of the center was a sure sign of the creeping force of gentrification.
The closing of recycling centers like Alliance has twofold significance. In addition to uprooting the homeless, the decline is indicative the decreasing value of the American recycling system as a whole. From as early as pre-school, Americans are taught the importance of recycling, its beneficial impact, and the potential environmental catastrophe that would occur without it. Recycling continues to be a popular topic of conversation among politicians and celebrities, pandering to the needs of supporters who want a relatively easy way to feel as though they are making a positive impact.
The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (known as CalRecycle) reported that recycling throughout the state has dropped below 80% for the first time in nine years, a decline that is occurring throughout the country.
Despite the national obsession with recycling in both policy and public discussion, a variety of economic factors makes recycling difficult to maintain. The low cost of oil is incentivizing manufacturers to simply make new products rather than use recycled goods. Furthermore, a lot of American recycled materials have previously been shipped overseas. However, in 2013, China put restrictions on imported waste, limiting the demand for American recyclables. New developments in technology are also reducing the need for raw materials because packaging producers can make cans and bottles thinner than ever before.
Although long heralded as one solution to environmental degradation, recycling may not have as much of an impact as one might think. As John Tierney wrote in the New York Times, “the recycling movement is floundering, and its survival depends on continual subsidies, sermons and policing.” He explains that, in reality, recycling actually poses little positive environmental impact compared to other waste management processes. While he concedes that recycling offers benefits in reducing greenhouse gases, he clarifies that “once you exclude paper products and metals, the total annual savings in the United States from recycling everything else in municipal trash—plastics, glass, food, yard trimmings, textiles, rubber, leather—is only two-tenths of 1 percent of America’s carbon footprint.”
Additionally, while recycling seems as simple as separating certain materials from the trash and hauling a blue bin out to the curb once a week, the system is often misused. People think that their broken Christmas lights can be recycled come January. And when their rubber garden hose pops a leak in spring, they think that they can recycle that too. Or they might just be lazy. Nevertheless, contaminated recycling is causing its value to decrease rapidly. When recycling programs were first implemented 30 years ago, the value of the recovered materials was intended to make up for the cost of the sorting, shipping and processing. But because of the increase of recycled materials being tainted with food waste and mixed-in non-recyclable materials—even a broken glass bottle can ruin everything in an entire bin—the whole system is declining in value.
A study by Rob Taylor of the State Recycling Program in the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality reported that the average market value of a ton of mixed recycled materials fell from $180 in 2011 to just over $100 over the following six years. That loss of about $80 per ton of recycled materials—a year’s worth of plastic bottles alone accounts for 300,000 tons—can no longer be used to keep open recycling centers.
So what is to be done? With the limited success of recycling, how can consumers make an environmentally conscious decision when dispelling their waste?
Thomas C. Kinnaman, an economist at Bucknell University, has proposed subsidizing the recycling of some metals, and imposing a $15 tax per ton of trash. With that system, the tax would take care of the environmental costs and recycling overall would decrease immensely.
Mark Murray, executive director at Californians Against Waste and an advocate of recycling, has other ideas about how the problem might be fixed. However, he similarly calls for subsidies on recycling. By offering subsidies to recycling centers, they would be able to cover their costs and continue to give money to the homeless in exchange for recyclable goods. The only question is, would giving value to the recycling of only some metals, as suggested in Kinnaman’s plan, be enough to help the homeless?
Until California and states across the nation implement legislation and policy changes to keep recycling centers in business, it is unclear how the homeless will make do under the failing system.
Late last year, the Senate approved $1 billion of taxpayer money for “opioid prevention and treatment programs” as part of the 21st Century Cures Act. Yes, taxpayers are stuck paying for the opioid crisis which Big Pharma created for no other reason than to make more money.
Once upon a time, narcotics were limited to post-surgery, post-accident and cancer pain because they are addictive. But cagey Pharma marketers, assuming that both younger doctors and patients had forgotten why narcotics were so heavily restricted, spun the lie that the narcotics were not addictive per se—that addiction boiled down to the individual person. Right. They began marketing narcotics for everyday pain and the result is the opioid and heroin crisis we have now.
When Big Tobacco was busted for a similar scheme—lying to consumers that its products were neither addictive or deadly—it was forced to pay $206 billion in the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. [executives are pictured before Congress in 1994) Provisions include paying states, in perpetuity, for some of the medical costs of people with smoking-related illnesses. Why are taxpayers paying for the similar, Pharma-caused scourge?
Because drug ads account for as much as 72 percent of TV commercials and almost all media companies allow drug company representatives to serve as board members, mainstream media enables the deadly deception and pretends the opioid crisis "just happened" like the Zika virus or influenza. Recently, the New York Times said the controversy swirling around the new mental health czar was whether the opioid crisis should be treated with "the medical model of psychiatry, which emphasizes drug and hospital treatment and which Dr. McCance-Katz [the new czar] has promoted” or “the so-called psychosocial, which puts more emphasis on community care and support from family and peers.”
Nope, New York Times. The issue is about Pharma money pure and simple. The “medical model of psychiatry” also known as “addiction medicine” is a big, second line business for Pharma. People who were totally normal until Pharma hooked them on narcotics by marketing opioids for everyday pain are now said to have the “psychiatric disease” of an “addiction disorder” and need to be treated with more lucrative Pharma drugs. Ka-ching.
To get an idea of how lucrative addiction medicine has become, Bain Capital paid $720 million for CRC Health in 2006 and resold it for $1.18 billion in 2014. The National Alliance of Advocates for Buprenorphine Treatment (one Pharma drug marketed for addiction) unashamedly admits it is industry funded to “Educate the public about the disease of opioid addiction and the buprenorphine treatment option; [and] help reduce the stigma and discrimination associated with patients with addiction disorders.” Addiction medicine is so lucrative, Amazon may start acquiring addiction chains!
Pharma is so camped out in the opioid crisis, insurance companies will no longer reimburse rehab facilities unless they use an expensive drug to treat the “disease.” The message of peers, patient advocates and former addicts, on the other hand, who know that more drugs is not the answer to drugs and that peer support is 100 percent free, is lost in the greed scramble.
In covering Dr. McCance-Katz’s appointment, the Times cites her support from the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Is that a joke? Both the APA and NAMI are so steeped in Pharma money they were investigated by Congress.
When Big Tobacco said its products were neither addictive or deadly it was forced to pay $206 billion in the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement. Why are US taxpayers paying for Pharma’s similar deception?
As the drama crests this week surrounding possible Senate passage of an extraordinarily punitive health care bill, we should ask, why is the GOP so heartless? Why are Republicans bent on cutting access to care for the most vulnerable people, especially the poor—including the white working-class voters who were said to be a pillar of Trump’s base?
After the election, many in mainstream and progressive media said that Trump’s base, and indeed the wave that lifted the GOP into its congressional majority today, were white working-class voters who abandoned Democrats en masse. The Atlantic heralded Trump’s “blue-collar” rise on “class, not ideology.” The AP pointed to “both parties’ working-class whites.” Thomas Frank—whose 2004 book, What’s the Matter With Kansas, traced the rise of white conservatives—described Trump’s base as mostly “working-class whites” worried about the economy.
It turns out that most of the Americans who helped elect Trump and the GOP are white, but they are not poor. In his crusade to dismantle Obamacare and cut Medicaid’s future appropriations by a quarter, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is not turning on his voters; according to recently released national survey data, those who voted for Trump and the GOP in 2016 are overwhelmingly white, yes; but the majority of them are not poor and not working class.
“A few weeks ago, the American National Election Study—the longest-running election survey in the United States—released its 2016 survey data. And it showed that in November 2016, the Trump coalition looked a lot like it did during the primaries,” blogged Duke University’s Nicholas Carnes and Vanderbilt University’s Noam Lupu for the Washington Post. “Trump’s voters weren’t overwhelmingly poor. In the general election, like the primary, about two-thirds of Trump supporters came from the better-off half of the economy.”
“In short, the narrative that attributes Trump’s victory to a ‘coalition of mostly blue-collar white and working-class voters’ just doesn’t square with the 2016 election data,” they said, explaining that most pollsters incorrectly assumed that the 70 percent of Americans who don’t have college degrees were working class and poorer—and many are not.
“Many analysts have argued that the partisan divide between more and less educated people is bigger than ever. During the general election, 69 percent of Trump voters in the election study didn’t have college degrees. Isn’t that evidence that the working class made up most of Trump’s base? The truth is more complicated: many of the voters without college educations who supported Trump were relatively affluent,” they wrote.
In the survival-of-the-fittest world of American capitalism and GOP politics, there’s no shortage of right-wingers bashing the poor, whether they are white or not. That mindset clearly has spilled over into those promoting the GOP’s health care bills, where a schism is emerging between the voters in the GOP's 2016 base and those McConnell's bill is targeting.
A typical example emerged this weekend on CBS-TV’s Face the Nation, where Ben Domenech, the Federalist’s founder and publisher, smeared Ohio’s Medicaid disability recipients as unworthy of public benefits.
“When Governor Kasich, you know, pushed for the Medicaid expansion in Ohio, he ended up having to throw 34,000 disabled people off of the program because it incentivized adding these working, able-bodied adults over people who actually were in the system who had disabilities or had other dependence,” he said, repeating the GOP's old trope of deadbeats on welfare.
There’s nothing new about this undercurrent in the GOP. Last year, writing in the National Review, Kevin D. Williamson went after poor whites (drawn to Trump) as people who could do the nation a favor by dying.
“The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die,” he wrote. “Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs....The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.”
How much of this attitude is reflected in the Republicans’ health care bills? The answer is plenty. The House-passed bill takes $820 billion out of future Medicaid appropriations over the next decade, rapidly phases out government subsidies for insurance premiums bought by individuals on government exchanges and deregulates insurance without any coverage requirements or price controls. While those policies will cause chaos across the economic spectrum, including the middle class, the poor are the hardest hit.
The Senate bill has even harsher elements than the House bill. It would cut Medicaid more by turning it into a rationed-care system where states receive grants, and adopt a stingy new formula for annual increases. Health policy experts have noted McConnell’s plan wants “lower-income people to pay more.” Its use of tax credits to offset premium increases and deductibles will be of little use to the working-class poor and lower-income seniors, a new analysis from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities found.
Just as mainstream media mischaracterized those who elected Trump and the GOP, it’s likely they are missing the same ingredient in who would be hurt most by the GOP's health care proposals: non-GOP voters. It’s not just blue states that would see the largest rollbacks—as they are the states that most aggressively embraced Obamacare and its expansion of Medicaid. It’s also poorer people, working-class whites and non-whites, who, as the American National Election Study notes, didn’t elect Trump and the GOP.
Where McConnell’s plan is likely to fall off the rails is from the chaos it would bring to more middle-class and affluent whites—or red rural states like Alaska and Maine with high health care costs. That is, if his efforts to please corporate health care interests are seen as backfiring on Tea Partiers who infamously yelled, “Hands off my Medicare.” (Late Monday's release Congressional Budget Office analysis may provide that catalyst, projecting the Senate bill will leave 22 million Americans uninsured by 2026.)
But as policy experts dug into the Senate bill on Monday, their analyses seemed to confirm that McConnell’s bill wasn’t targeting his party’s better-off base. One newly discovered provision would lock out anyone who missed an insurance payment from buying a new policy for six months. One-third of those with pre-existing conditions had this coverage gap in the past two years, but they tend to be poorer. Another report found the bill could push seniors out of nursing homes paid by Medicaid, as a subsidy of Medicare.
Those likely to be hardest hit include working-class whites, but they were not Trump's voters, the analysis by Duke University’s Nicholas Carnes and Vanderbilt University’s Noam Lupu underscored. “According to the [American National] Election study, white non-Hispanic voters without college degrees making below the median household income made up only 25 percent of Trump voters. That’s a far cry from the working class-fueled victory many journalists have imagined.”
No one ever accused McConnell of not knowing what he is doing.
There is something about the behavior of Donald Trump in the White House that is almost hallucinatory. What is to be done about a president who seems impervious to normal standards of decency, who makes name-calling and ranting our new normal, and who gravitates toward extremists? There is beastiality in this that challenges the courage and imagination of ordinary people.
As to the people who voted for Trump, one can only wonder if they will ever come out of denial. How can they possibly enjoy a situation that makes us the laughing stock of the world? It is almost as if Trump’s supporters belong to a different nation altogether.
A different nation.
One of the most demoralizing things about America today is the feeling that we are separating into “two nations,” two estranged populations who regard one another with a hatred that defies conciliation.
There are plenty of divisions in our polity that will never vanish completely, divisions we have lived with for years. Not the least of them is the perfectly normal division that results from our two-party system. But there was something quite different in 2016 as the “blue state” Americans and “red state” Americans assailed one another. There was something very different as, according to many accounts, the candidacy of Trump led to family break-ups and divorces. There was something about the election of 2016 that cut like a knife.
It transcended other sorts of divisions, even those of ideology and religion.
For instance, one of the stunning facts about the last election was the way that so many Christian evangelicals voted for a candidate who demonstrated scorn for some of their values. Of course, the phenomenon of “holding one’s nose” and voting for the lesser of two evils is not unusual. But if the content of much of the on-line support for Donald Trump is to be taken seriously, something more indicative was happening. “Lock her up,” was the chant at the Trump rallies as Hillary Clinton was vilified for the mistake of using the wrong email server. “A basket of deplorables,” was Clinton’s characterization of 50% of Trump’s supporters. Granted, there were issues at stake: Clinton did make admitted mistakes that had legal implications, and some of Trump’s supporters, such as the “alt-right” neo-Nazis, must indeed be held by all decent people to be deplorable.
But this was not an election in which such issues could be argued out on rational grounds. Abetted by the out-of-control technologies of social media, analysis for a great many people was impossible, unnecessary, and an afterthought. What seemed to matter above all else was the rush of immediate gratification, the rush of expressing one’s hatred for the likes of . . . them.
How did we get to this point?
One of the most important causes of our deep division is the rise of the radical right. Once before, in the McCarthy era, this group became very powerful — until their power was reduced by the moderate and popular policies of Dwight D. Eisenhower. After the candidacy of Barry Goldwater crashed and burned in 1964, the Republicans reassembled as a party containing a considerable amount of ideological diversity.
Something comparable happened at the other end of the spectrum, in the days when the radical left surged forward in the late 1960s under the banner of groups like the S.D.S., the Weathermen, and the “Symbionese Liberation Army.” But the New Left never controlled the Democratic Party as the radical right had taken brief but unmistakable control of the Republican Party in 1964.
In any case, the surges of extremism on the right and left were short-lived. Both parties by the 1970s encompassed a spectrum of voters and leaders who ran the gamut from “conservative” to “moderate” to “liberal.” And within each one of those ideological labels could be found a welter of people who agreed with one another on some things while disagreeing on others. But this situation has changed.
The Democratic Party by the time of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had stabilized as a force for moderation with a slightly leftward tilt. But beginning with the Reagan presidency, Republicans lurched insistently rightward to the point where the party was veritably transformed within one generation by the radical right. Republicans today who believe in compromise and consensus — the values of Dwight D. Eisenhower, surely — no longer recognize their party. When one recalls the Republican liberals of the 1960s — Jacob Javits, Nelson Rockefeller, John Lindsay — it is impossible to find their counterparts now. Liberals and moderates have been driven out of the party or else reduced to a state of powerlessness as the shrill and fanatical forces of the right have taken over. Trump’s most powerful rival for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 was Ted Cruz. The days when the Republicans could nominate people like John McCain and Mitt Romney appear to be — at least temporarily — over.
Putting aside for a moment the policy agenda of the radical right, there is one thing about these people that is terribly clear: they are haters. Their agenda is to dominate, to persecute, to revel in others’ degradation. They smile when they hear that undocumented immigrants who have married, had children, and started businesses here in America are being deported. They like to hear such things, it makes them happy. There is an insensate cruelty in the radical right, a cruelty that poisons their minds. These people are looking for victims, especially those who are helpless.
They “take no prisoners.” They will never give ground or say “enough.” They seek not only to defeat liberalism but to destroy a fabric of enlightened compromises that Republican moderates have built.
And so it was that in 2013, Steve Bannon, now a key adviser to Trump, said he wanted “to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” So the Trump administration undercuts federal efforts that command overwhelming support. Agencies such as the EPA and NIH are under attack. Meanwhile, in states where they now possess both the legislature and the governorship, Republicans are planning to ram through some of the most extreme parts of the radical right’s agenda, to try to ban abortions with no exceptions whatsoever — even in cases of incest or rape — and to protect the “right” of psychotics to obtain deadly weapons whenever they feel the itch to kill.
And at the national level, they continue a slow but incessant campaign to undercut Social Security and Medicare in hopes of privatizing one or both of those systems sometime in the future.
In short, the radical right has been tearing this nation apart, and they have no intention of stopping. The Republican Party has been taken over by people who would, if they could, force America’s majority — the majority who voted for Hillary Clinton — into a way of life they find abhorrent.
But let’s be fair. One has to acknowledge that some of Trump’s supporters, especially Christian evangelicals, feel as if they have been subjected to the treatment just described: they believe that they have been forced to go along with a way of life that they reject. Indeed, people on both sides of this culture war believe that their opposite numbers are people who “don’t understand what America is all about.”
If this isn’t a formula for civil war, what is? Granted, the opposite sides in our first civil war were aligned geographically by states. And with all due respect to the importance of the “blue state/red state division,” a struggle for control is going on right now in a great many states, and the outcome cannot be predicted.
But if the California situation is indicative, we may be in trouble. On the one hand is the left-of-center effort to detach California from the nation through secession. On the other hand, a right-of-center counterattack seeks to split California in two. In both cases, people feel that their entire way of life is in jeopardy. In the meantime, Eisenhower’s “middle way” is in ruins.
We are in trouble.
Former “toughest sheriff” Joe Arpaio is set to begin his criminal contempt trial in federal court Monday. Heading into the week-long event, here are five things you should know as we’re watching it unfold.
1. Arpaio is being charged with criminal contempt — not the abuse of prisoners or for his immigration policies.
Federal prosecutors charged then Sheriff Arpaio alleging he violated a US District Court Judge Murray Snow’s order in a racial profiling case. At the time, the judge directed him to stop arresting suspected “unauthorized” immigrants saying the local sheriff’s department didn’t have the authority to enforce federal immigration laws. Arpaio allegedly ignored the judge and continued to arrest people for 18 months.
Snow concluded that Arpaio purposely ignored his orders to keep up his hard immigration stance going into his 2012 election. Arpaio went on to win that race but lost in 2016 after spending most of his election advising Donald Trump on immigration policies. He blamed former President Barack Obama for the loss, claiming Obama ordered the Justice Department to announce the charges shortly before Election Day.
2. Arpaio has already admitted he’s guilty.
After the charges, Arpaio’s legal team begged for more time and requested multiple delays to buy even more time. As part of one of the motions, Arpaio’s counsel claimed that the Sheriff was “coerced” into a confession that he committed civil contempt because he thought that it would prevent him from being charged criminally.
“Defendants acknowledge and appreciate that they have violated the Court’s orders and that there are consequences for these violations,” the statement from Arpaio’s attorneys read.
The confession didn’t stop federal prosecutors from charging him with criminal contempt.
3. Arpaio had a hard time keeping an attorney.
Working for Arpaio can’t be easy. It’s unclear if his either Arpaio or his legal team was involved in his confession but not long after, Arpaio’s lawyer quit for ethical reasons.
Mere weeks before his trial, Mel McDonald filed a brief with the court saying that under “good cause” and under ethical rules, his resignation from the case is “mandatory.”
4. Arpaio continues to cost taxpayers a fortune.
While working for him was probably a challenge, it seemed to be a lucrative one. The contempt violation concluded with a judge being forced to create a taxpayer-funded account that compensates Latinos who have been illegally detained by the Maricopa Sheriff’s Department while he was violating the order for 18 months. As of April, $1 million was set aside for the account.
For his legal problems alone, Arpaio was expected to spend as much as $72 million in legal fees all paid for by taxpayer dollars.
Arpaio lost in November in part, due to conservative Trump voters who were sick of the costs the notorious sheriff was racking up. According to a December report from Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting, in precincts that leaned Democratically Arpaio earned about the same percentage of votes that Donald Trump did. But in heavy GOP areas, Trump voters were unwilling to also support his friend. Arpaio earned 49.3 percent where Trump scored 54.3 percent of the vote.
The thinking is that conservatives want to lower taxes and less money being spent by the government in general. Arpaio’s legal problems violate that principle.
5. Arpaio could end up in jail for six months unless Trump pardons him.
Arpaio was already found in civil contempt but the penalty for criminal contempt, if Arpaio is found guilty, is six months in jail. It isn’t known which jail it would be and if he would encounter some of the people he put behind bars. Many Latino gangs are operating in prisons, including the MS-13, the Mexican Mafia and La Nuestra. They might not take kindly to Arpaio. That could put Arpaio in a position where he might have to be put in solitary confinement for his own protection.
However, Arpaio became friends with Trump over the years as the two attacked former President Barack Obama, claiming his birth certificate was a forgery, Obama was born in Kenya and thus, was an illegitimate president. Trump was ultimately forced to acknowledge that Obama was born in the U.S. Trump hasn’t weighed in on the case, much less said whether he would pardon Arpaio to prevent him from serving jail time.
It’s go back 50 years, to mid-July 1967: A jeep arrives at an abandoned Syrian army base in the Golan Heights. A man jumps out. He’s 24, a shepherd from a determinedly secular, left-wing kibbutz in the Galilee. Feeling adventurous, he has joined a group that will establish a new kibbutz in the Heights, part of the territory that Israel conquered a month before.
He’s the first to arrive—which also makes him the first Israeli settler in occupied territory.
So began the Great Entanglement. Today more than 600,000 Israelis live in land conquered in June 1967 in six days of fighting with Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.
The victory created a temporary military occupation and the potential for Israel to negotiate for peace from a position of strength. It’s the settlement enterprise that has chained Israel to occupied territory. It’s settlement that creates a two-tier legal and political regime in the West Bank—Israelis living with the rights of citizens; Palestinians without those rights. It’s settlement that steadily undercuts Israel’s status as a democracy.
Outside of declaring its independence in 1948, starting to settle its citizens in the occupied territories may be the most consequential act in Israel’s history.
The founding of the kibbutz in the Golan Heights makes clear a fundamental fact about the settlement project: It began as an initiative of the left-of-center, secular political forces that dominated Israel in 1967, and later accelerated as a project of the mostly secular right-wing forces that have held power for most of the years since 1977.
There was no ceremony on July 16, 1967, no press release, no media coverage. The moment of beginning went unreported then—and it is still almost entirely absent from the popularly accepted history of settlement, as told in Israel and as reflected in foreign news coverage. This isn’t just an academic dispute: This mis-telling of history warps debate in Israel, and perhaps beyond, about making peace with the Palestinians.
IF YOU'D LIKE TO get the classic, inaccurate Israeli narrative of settlement in two hours, watch The Settlers, a documentary released this past year in time for the 50th anniversary of the 1967 war.
The film tells us, correctly, that the “joy of victory ... consumed many Israelis” after the Six-Day War. But from there on, The Settlers focuses on the young followers of Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook, the charismatic teacher of a nationalist theology. Kook’s students believed he had prophesied the conquests in a speech he gave a short time before the war, and they saw settling the “liberated territories” as a divine imperative.
The “first settler”—according to the film, apparently quoting earlier versions of the same story—was Hanan Porat, a student of Kook. In late September 1967, Porat led an Orthodox group to settle between Hebron and Bethlehem in the West Bank. They reestablished Kfar Etzion, a religious kibbutz that had fallen to Arab forces on the eve of Israel’s independence. In the film’s portrayal—again, echoing many others—Prime Minister Levi Eshkol was reluctant to allow the project, but approved it when he learned that the settlers had loaded trucks with supplies and planned to go ahead regardless of what he said.
From that opening, the film’s narrative skips ahead to the spring of 1968, when another Kook follower, Rabbi Moshe Levinger, brought a group of religious nationalists to settle in the Palestinian city of Hebron, again overcoming resistance from a weak Israeli government. The chapter after that is set in 1975: The new Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) movement, led by Porat, Levinger, and others, led illegal settlement attempts near the village of Sebastia in the northern West Bank. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres folded under their pressure and allowed a small group of settlers to remain. Many thousands of Gush Emunim supporters would follow in the years to come, establishing dozens of settlements.
A strange irony of this origin tale is that it recasts some of the icons of Israeli toughness—such as Rabin, Golda Meir, and Moshe Dayan—as nebbishes who cede policy to a fringe group of extremists.
The Settlers, a two-hour film, pauses briefly to tell us about the Allon Plan, the postwar strategy put forward by Labor politician Yigal Allon. The plan called for building Israeli settlements in the sparsely populated area along the Jordan River, while refraining from settling in the more heavily populated mountains of the West Bank. Another brief interlude in the film is devoted to Israelis who move to the West Bank for reasons of comfort rather than ideology. In settlements, they can afford homes much larger than what their money would buy inside the Green Line, the pre-1967 border.
Overwhelmingly, though, the film pictures settlers as religious nationalists, from Porat to today’s far-right extremists. All this fits Israeli popular perceptions. In media debate, “settler” is practically a synonym for Orthodox nationalist. For years, I’ve given a one-question history test to well-informed Israelis, asking them what the first settlement was. With few exceptions, their answer is Kfar Etzion, Hebron, or Sebastia.
The problem with this account is that it mistakes the supporting actors for the stars. Religious nationalists have played a key role in the settlement saga—but as the fractious clients of Israel’s major parties, Labor and the Likud. Those parties, and their leaders, are the main characters in the drama.
Take that first kibbutz in the Golan Heights. Its founders were followers of Yitzhak Tabenkin, the octogenarian ideologue of the Ahdut Ha’avodah (Unity of Labor) Party, then an important faction of the Zionist left. Tabenkin saw rural communes, kibbutzim, as the means to build socialism from the bottom up. Tabenkin also saw the Jewish homeland—the Land of Israel—as extending well beyond the borders of pre-1948 Mandatory Palestine, which were the invention of European imperialists. The narrower borders of independent Israel were even less satisfying. The fighting had barely ended in June 1967 when Tabenkin began urging massive settlement in the newly conquered land.
One of Tabenkin’s disciples was Yigal Allon. After the war, Allon stunned his comrades when he proposed giving up the most populated parts of the West Bank. Allon thought this was necessary to avoid turning Israel into a binational state. At the same time, as a minister in Eshkol’s government, he aggressively pushed for settlement in areas he wanted to keep. He channeled ministry funds to the Golan kibbutz, and pushed for settlement in Hebron.
Allon’s lifelong rival, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, advocated building Israeli towns in precisely the land that Allon wanted to relinquish. He proposed giving West Bank Arabs limited autonomy, or creating an Israeli-Jordanian condominium in that territory. Either way, the goal was to maintain overall Israeli rule and allow settlement without giving citizenship to the Palestinians living there. Dayan’s younger ally, Shimon Peres, held those ideas as well.
Eshkol himself had two immediate priorities after the war in 1967: building Jewish neighborhoods in annexed East Jerusalem, and returning Jews to the handful of spots in the West Bank where they had lived before 1948, including Kfar Etzion. Porat and his religious nationalist friends weren’t overcoming Eshkol’s resistance; they were providing him with the warm bodies needed to carry out his goals.
Early in 1968, three left-of-center parties merged, bringing Eshkol, Allon, and Dayan all into the new Labor Party. The arguments within the party, and within the government it led, were over where to build settlements in occupied territory, not whether to do so. Eshkol, for the most part, agreed with Allon’s strategy. So did his Labor successors as prime minister, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin.
Religious nationalists were just one source of recruits for settlement. The partnership between them and the government was sometimes strained by a public dispute—again, over where to settle. That’s what happened at Sebastia. One reason that Rabin compromised with Gush Emunim is that his own party was in danger of splitting. The Peres faction was closer to Gush Emunim than to Rabin.
In the big picture, though, settlement was a government project. The Allon Plan wasn’t a sidelight; it was Labor governments’ blueprint for settlement-building.
The clash over where to settle had an element of the absurd. Allon was convinced it was possible to reach peace with Jordan on the basis of his map. The religious nationalists wanted to prevent such an agreement by settling in areas that the government seemed willing to give up. Allon’s confidence remained completely undented by his 1968 contacts with Jordan’s King Hussein, the Arab leader most eager to make peace. At a secret meeting with the king in London, Allon presented his maps. Hussein rejected Allon’s idea and, to leave no doubt, followed up with a position paper saying that the proposal was “wholly unacceptable.”
That exchange has defined the real parameters of Israeli-Arab peace contacts ever since. The 1967 war convinced most Arab leaders—some immediately, some later—that Israel’s existence and its pre-1967 borders had to be accepted. King Hussein’s position that any border changes had to be based on a one-to-one exchange of land later became a principle in Israeli--Palestinian negotiations. Under those parameters, Labor’s settlements along the Jordan River were just as much a barrier to peace as Gush Emunim’s settlements elsewhere.
By the time Labor lost power to the Likud in 1977, it had established close to 80 settlements in the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai, and the Golan. The Likud built on that foundation, but built much faster. Its map, drawn by Ariel Sharon, deliberately created bands of settlements between Palestinian cities. The result was that Palestinians lived in enclaves surrounded by settlements.
The Likud used two different kinds of settlements to draw Israelis into the West Bank. One was small, members-only communities, many of them deep in occupied territory. These attracted the Orthodox nationalists who fit the public stereotype of settlers. The other was larger settlements with a classic suburban appeal: A young family could get more home for less money.
The “quality of life” suburbanites can’t be squeezed into the standard settler stereotype. Many are secular. Some are ultra-Orthodox Jews, who don’t buy into the theology of religious nationalism. But with large families and small budgets, they find the cheap housing in settlements irresistible. The two largest settlements are ultra-Orthodox, and account for nearly a fifth of all settlers. For that matter, one-third of all Israelis in occupied territory live in the Jewish neighborhoods of annexed East Jerusalem. In mainstream Israeli discourse, they are almost never referred to as settlers.
What all these people have in common is that they live where they do because of fifty years of government policy.
GIVEN THE FACTS, WHAT explains the staying power of the classic narrative of settlement as a religious project?
For one thing, first impressions have staying power. In this case, the first impressions were formed by news coverage in the early months and years of settlement. And the government then tried its best to minimize coverage.
The ruling parties of the Zionist left had a tradition going back to pre-independence days of quietly “establishing facts.” When it came to settlement, Labor’s motto could have been “Speak little and carry a big hoe.” Yisrael Galili, the settlement czar under prime ministers Meir and Rabin, was particularly obsessed with secrecy.
Being in power made acting quietly easier, especially in an era when the Israeli press was much tamer than it is today. Much of the account I’ve given here of Labor’s settlement effort is based on internal government documents that remained classified for 30 years or more. Hanan Porat, the supposed “first settler,” sincerely believed that he’d forced Eshkol’s hand, but wasn’t privy to the prime minister’s office files.
In contrast to the Labor governments, the young religious activists loved publicity and the glory of being rebels. They happily told their version of events. While researching settlement history, I found that most published accounts of the founding of Kfar Etzion could be traced back to Porat and a couple of his activist colleagues.
Quite naturally, confrontations drew media coverage. So the face-off at Sebastia between Gush Emunim and the Rabin government filled the Israeli press in December 1975. Government settlement efforts elsewhere got less attention.
Another factor: The Kulturkampf between ideological secularism and Orthodoxy has always been an intensely emotional feature of Israeli politics. There’s a tendency to map the debate about settlement onto the religious-secular divide. This makes the political picture simpler—and deceptive. The original Labor advocates of settlement fade from sight. Even Likud leaders such as Sharon and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu become enigmas.
There are also valid reasons for paying particular attention to religious settlers today, as long as you don’t ignore the rest. The extremists who have engaged in violence against Palestinians come from the religious camp. And if there is a peace agreement, the most extreme religious settlers pose the greatest risk of violent resistance to evacuation.
ONE DUBIOUS ASSUMPTION that pervades Israeli politics, especially the center and center-left of the spectrum, is that the religious settlements would have to go in a two-state agreement with the Palestinians, while quality-of-life settlements, at least those in large “settlement blocs,” could stay put. After all, those settlement blocs are simply too big to evacuate, and don’t intrude too deeply into the West Bank. The reasoning here is that territorial concessions by the Palestinians, or territorial exchanges, would allow Israel to keep those blocs.
By this logic, the religious settlements are the obstacle to peace; the “consensus” settlement blocs are not.
It’s true that small religious settlements are scattered throughout the West Bank, far from the pre-1967 border. They stand in the way of any imaginable peace agreement. But what about the “quality of life” town of Ariel, home to 19,000 Israelis and the anchor of one of those supposed blocs? For Israel to hold Ariel would mean annexing a finger of territory sticking deep into the West Bank. The town of Ma’ale Adumim, east of Jerusalem, has over 37,000 residents and is the core of another such bloc. But connecting it to Israel would mean annexing more land and creating another finger of territory that practically divides the West Bank in two.
The distinction between religious settlements and settlement blocs, then, repeats the error built into the Israeli political debate during the first years of the occupation. Back then, the self-deception was that Allon Plan settlements posed no impediment to peace. Jordan would just have to accept that Israel would keep parts of the West Bank. Now the myth is that Israel will be able to keep the blocs—which means annexing pieces of land outside its pre-1967 borders.
In reality, no one knows which settlements, if any, Israel would be able to retain under a peace agreement. Judging from the brief periods of serious final-status talks over the years, the baseline for new Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will be the Green Line. Negotiations could lead to small exchanges, with Israel giving up bits of its pre-1967 territory in return for equal-sized bits of the West Bank. But even if that happens, the amount of land involved, and the number of settlements saved, is certain to fall far short of the expectations created by the talk of keeping the settlement blocs.
The narrative that focuses exclusively on religious settlement is more than an academic error. It stands in the way of Israel coming to terms with what happened in 1967 and after: Settling Israelis in occupied territory wasn’t imposed by a radical fringe. It was a national policy, for which the country’s major political camps—Labor as much as the Likud—share responsibility.
Even worse, the distorted telling of the past continues to distract attention from the hard political reality of today: Any home, built in any settlement, makes it harder to negotiate peace. It’s one more knot in the Great Entanglement.
In states where marijuana has been legalized, traffic stops resulting in searches by state police are down dramatically, according to a new analysis from the Marshall Project and the Center for Investigative Reporting.
With marijuana possession being legal, police in legal states can no longer assume criminal activity merely because of the presence of pot, which would have given them probable cause to conduct a search. And that means fewer interactions between drivers and police, reducing the prospect of dangerous—or even deadly—clashes.
But even though the number of searches dropped for all racial groups, black and brown drivers are still being subjected to searches at a higher rate than whites, the study found. And because the report only studied state police (Highway Patrol) stops, not stops by local law enforcement, which patrols urban areas with higher minority population concentrations, it may understate the racial disparity in traffic stop searches.
The report is based on an analysis of data from researchers at Stanford University, who released a report this week studying some 60 million state patrol stops in 31 states between 2011 and 2015, the most thorough look yet at national traffic stop data. The results from the legal pot states of Colorado and Washington are striking.
In Colorado, the number of traffic stop searches dropped by nearly two-thirds for whites, 58% for Hispanics, and nearly half for blacks. In Washington, the search rate dropped by about 25% for whites and Hispanics, and 34% for African Americans.
Still, racial disparities in search rates persisted in both states. In Colorado, the search rate for black drivers was 3.3 times that for whites, and the rate for Hispanic drivers was 2.7 times that for whites. In Washington, blacks were twice as likely to be searched as whites, while the search rate for Hispanics was 1.7 times that of whites.
The traffic stop search data parallels what happened with marijuana arrests in legal states. In Colorado, for instance, a 2016 Department of Public Safety report found that while the number of pot arrests dropped by nearly half after legalization, the arrest rate for blacks was still nearly three times that of whites.
"Legalizing marijuana is not going to solve racial disparities," said Mark Silverstein, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. "We need to do a lot more before we get at that."
But legalizing marijuana does reduce the number of traffic stop searches, and given the fraught relationship between police and the citizenry, especially communities of color, that is a good thing in itself.
The recent decision by half the nations in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and a few other countries to isolate fellow member Qatar came as a surprise to many – though perhaps it shouldn’t have.
Essentially, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt severed all ties over Qatar’s positive opinion about Iran and support for Islamist groups like Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Besides cutting those ties, one of their demands also included putting curbs on the Al-Jazeera media network, which is based in Qatar’s capital of Doha and is partially funded by its ruling family.
The diplomatic and security ramifications have so far taken center stage, with most Western nations, including the U.S., and countries in the region calling for a negotiated resolution to avoid further escalation. Yet the dispute that led to the recent outburst has been lingering for years – and erupted in a similar if smaller kerfuffle in 2014 – which begs the following questions:
What exactly has allowed Qatar to defy its more powerful GCC neighbors for so long? And what (or who) could possibly change that?
Flouting its neighbors’ demands
Qatar is the second-smallest country in the GCC with a national population of just 243,000. That swells to almost 2.4 million when you include expatriates, yet it’s still just a fraction of Saudi Arabia’s 31 million total population or the UAE’s 8 million.
Despite this large gap in population and military power, Qatar has long ignored the complaints of its stronger neighbors over its foreign policy positions that on some issues are diametrically opposed to theirs.
There’s essentially one reason Qatar can afford to do this: the American security umbrella, which includes basing some 11,000 U.S. military personnel in Doha – the largest deployment in the region – as well as hosting the U.S. Combined Air Operations Center, which oversees air power in 20 countries.
Like the other GCC countries, Qatar has a bilateral security arrangement with the U.S., and it hosts the United States’ largest military base in the region. The U.S. military protection not only shields Qatar against military threats from outside the region but empowers it to stand up to its larger GCC allies when it chooses to do so.
Qatar is not the only GCC member that takes advantage of U.S. military protection in this manner. Bahrain has also defied other GCC members on occasions. In 2005, this tiny island of one million and home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet upset Saudi Arabia when it signed a bilateral free trade agreement with the U.S., which violated the GCC common tariff regulations. In a sign of America’s pull in such disputes, it was Saudi Arabia that ultimately backed down.
Consequently, as long as Qatar remains under U.S. military protection, Saudi Arabia and the UAE can not resort to military options and have to limit their campaign to diplomatic and economic pressure. In other words, bilateral security relations with the U.S. serves as an equalizer in interactions among GCC countries regardless of their size.
How long can Qatar hold out?
A secure and protected Qatar can afford to remain defiant in the face of economic isolation from its neighbors as long as it can tolerate the economic and financial costs. While these costs are hardly trivial, Qatar, as the richest country in the world on a per capita basis, can probably afford to ride them out for some time.
In terms of imports, Qatar’s reliance on other GCC countries and Egypt is relatively modest and easily substitutable. The main immediate impact of the severing of ties was a disruption of food imports from Saudi Arabia, but Qatar managed to quickly switch to air shipments from Iran and Turkey – notably more expensive than ground shipments via Saudi border.
A key reason for so little trade between countries in the GCC is that their primary exports (oil and gas products) and imports (food and industrial products) are very similar.
So all in all, economic disengagement from the UAE and Saudi Arabia will disrupt about 13 percent of Qatar’s commodity imports and 5.6 percent of its exports (trade with Bahrain and Egypt is insigificant).
Qatar also has financial and commercial investment links with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain. By one account, 300 Saudi businesses are active in Qatar with investments worth $13.3 billion, as well as 1,075 UAE companies. The same report estimated 4,200 Qatari businesses were engaged in the UAE in 2016.
While disruption of these business activities will also be costly for Qatar, the value of these investments is only a small share of its financial and commercial capital. Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, for example, is estimated at $335 billion.
Beyond U.S. protection, the relatively small size of trade and investment links with Saudi Arabia and the UAE is what gives Qatar little immediate incentive to concede to their demands, even as it hopes to avoid escalation.
US still holds the key
So while Qatar’s economy is under some stress, its substantial financial resources as well as diplomatic and economic support from several countries including Turkey, Iran, Kuwait and Oman give it quite a bit of breathing room.
But in the end, it all comes down to its security patron, the U.S., and President Donald Trump, who in a tweet praised and even seemed to claim credit for the move by Saudi Arabia and the other countries.
During my recent trip to the Middle East, I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar - look!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 6, 2017
Afterwards, officials at the State and Defense departments expressed a more neutral position toward this dispute and called for a negotiated resolution, as some diplomats acknowledged Qatar’s efforts to prevent financial support for terror groups.
So if Qatar ends up making any major concessions, it will most likely be a response to demands from the United States, on whom Qatar depends for its security. A few years ago, Qatar’s former ruler Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani put that dependence this way: Without the Americans, “my Arab brothers would invade me.”
And in a sign that the U.S. commitment to Qatar remains solid, the Pentagon just announced a $12 billion deal to sell as many as 36 F-15 jets to its ally.
In other words, apart from President Trump’s tweet burst, the U.S. government has given diplomatic breathing room to Qatar. But if the United States calls for significant concessions, it is unlikely that Qatar will risk its military protection by saying no.
In violation of a longstanding legal mandate, scores of federal law enforcement agencies are failing to submit statistics to the FBI's national hate crimes database, ProPublica has learned.
The lack of participation by federal law enforcement represents a significant and largely unknown flaw in the database, which is supposed to be the nation's most comprehensive source of information on hate crimes. The database is maintained by the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division, which uses it to tabulate the number of alleged hate crimes occurring around the nation each year.
The FBI has identified at least 120 federal agencies that aren't uploading information to the database, according to Amy Blasher, a unit chief at the CJIS division, an arm of the bureau that is overseeing the modernization of its information systems.
The federal government operates a vast array of law enforcement agencies — ranging from Customs and Border Protection to the Drug Enforcement Administration to the Amtrak Police — employing more than 120,000 law enforcement officers with arrest powers. The FBI would not say which agencies have declined to participate in the program, but the bureau's annual tally of hate crimes statistics does not include any offenses handled by federal law enforcement. Indeed, the problem is so widespread that the FBI itself isn't submitting the hate crimes it investigates to its own database.
"We truly don't understand what's happening with crime in the U.S. without the federal component," Blasher said in an interview.
At present, the bulk of the information in the database is supplied by state and local police departments. In 2015, the database tracked more than 5,580 alleged hate crime incidents, including 257 targeting Muslims, an upward surge of 67 percent from the previous year. (The bureau hasn't released 2016 or 2017 statistics yet.)
But it's long been clear that hundreds of local police departments don't send data to the FBI, and so given the added lack of participation by federal law enforcement, the true numbers for 2015 are likely to be significantly higher.
A federal law, the 1988 Uniform Federal Crime Reporting Act, requires all U.S. government law enforcement agencies to send a wide variety of crime data to the FBI. Two years later, after the passage of another law, the bureau began collecting data about "crimes that manifest evidence of prejudice based on race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, or ethnicity." That was later expanded to include gender and gender identity.
The federal agencies that are not submitting data are violating the law, Blasher told us. She said she's in contact with about 20 agencies and is hopeful that some will start participating, but added that there is no firm timeline for that to happen.
"Honestly, we don't know how long it will take,"Blasher said of the effort to get federal agencies on board.
The issue goes far beyond hate crimes — federal agencies are failing to report a whole range of crime statistics, Blasher conceded. But hate crimes, and the lack of reliable data concerning them, have been of intense interest amid the country's highly polarized and volatile political environment.
ProPublica contacted several federal agencies seeking an explanation. A spokesperson for the Army's Criminal Investigation Command, which handles close to 50,000 offenses annually, said the service is adhering to Defense Department rules regarding crime data and is using a digital crime tracking system linked to the FBI's database. But the Army declined to say whether its statistics are actually being sent to the FBI, referring that question up the chain of command to the Department of Defense.
In 2014, an internal probe conducted by Defense Department investigators found that the "DoD is not reporting criminal incident data to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for inclusion in the annual Uniform Crime Reports."
ProPublica contacted the Defense Department for clarification, and shared with a department spokesman a copy of the 2014 reports acknowledging the failure to send data to the FBI.
"We have no additional information at this time," said Christopher Sherwood, the spokesman.
Federal agencies are hardly the only ones to skip out on reporting hate crimes. An Associated Press investigation last year found at least 2,700 city police and county sheriff's departments that repeatedly failed to report hate crimes to the FBI.
In the case of the FBI itself, Blasher said the issue is largely technological: Agents have long collected huge amounts of information about alleged hate crimes, but don't have a digital system to easily input that information to the database, which is administered by staff at an FBI complex in Clarksburg, West Virginia.
Since Blasher began pushing to modernize the FBI's data systems, the bureau has made some progress. It began compiling some limited hate crimes statistics for 2014 and 2015, though that information didn't go into the national hate crimes database.
In Washington, lawmakers were surprised to learn about the failure by federal agencies to abide by the law.
"It's fascinating and very disturbing," said Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., who said he wanted to speak about the matter with the FBI's government affairs team. He wants to see federal agencies "reporting hate crimes as soon as possible."
Beyer and other lawmakers have been working in recent years to improve the numbers of local police agencies participating in voluntary hate crime reporting efforts. Bills pending in Congress would give out grants to police forces to upgrade their computer systems; in exchange, the departments would begin uploading hate crime data to the FBI.
Beyer, who is sponsoring the House bill, titled the National Opposition to Hate, Assault, and Threats to Equality Act, said he would consider drafting new legislation to improve hate crimes reporting by federal agencies, or try to build such a provision into the appropriations bill.
"The federal government needs to lead by example. It's not easy to ask local and state governments to submit their data if these 120 federal agencies aren't even submitting hate crimes data to the database," Beyer said.
In the Senate, Democrat Al Franken of Minnesota said the federal agencies need to do better. "I've long urged the FBI and the Department of Justice to improve the tracking and reporting of hate crimes by state and local law enforcement agencies," Franken told ProPublica. "But in order to make sure we understand the full scope of the problem, the federal government must also do its part to ensure that we have accurate and trustworthy data."
Virginia's Barbara Comstock, a House Republican who authored a resolution in April urging the "Department of Justice (DOJ) and other federal agencies to work to improve the reporting of hate crimes," did not respond to requests for comment.
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A police officer kills a black person in a show of excessive force and is then acquitted of all charges in a court of law. This sequence of events has played out time and again. It happened twice last week, when a mistrial was declared in the case of Cincinnati officer Ray Tensing accused of fatally shooting Sam DuBose during a traffic stop, and when Milwaukee officer Dominique Heaggan-Brown was acquitted of fatally shooting Sylville Smith. It happened again on June 16, when Minnesota police officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted of all charges for fatally shooting Philando Castile in his car last July, with his girlfriend and her young daughter witnesses to his death.
The outcome of these cases, coupled with the studies showing that only a minuscule number of cops have been charged for killing another person, suggests that the law seems to operate on behalf of police officers—who are readily equipped with guns and the strength of police union contracts—rather than the people they are sworn to serve. It also seems like just about any justification can strengthen an officer’s case in a trial. Officer Yanez testified that he “feared for his life” because he smelled marijuana in Castile’s car during the encounter, never mind the fact that Castile was complying with the officer throughout the traffic stop.
In an op-ed for the New York Times, Ibram X. Kendi says it all comes down to the fact that it is black death that matters. “It matters to the life of America, by which I mean the blood flow of ideas that give life to Americans’ perception of their nation,” he writes.
“In these high-profile cases, it is not just police officers who are on trial,” Kendi writes. “America is on trial. Either these deaths are justified, and therefore America is just, or these deaths are unjustified, and America is unjust.”
It is not just jurors and prosecutors who have supported the actions of law enforcement over the lives of the people who have died by their hands—most Americans feel positively about the police and this country’s criminal justice system. According to the Pew Research Center, 50 percent of white people feel blacks and whites are treated equally by the police. In contrast, only 16 percent of black people felt this way, with 84 percent saying black people are treated less fairly than white people. Within the court system, 43 percent of white people believe black people are treated less fairly than whites, compared to 75 percent of black people who believe this statement.
The survey also revealed disparities in how black people and white people think about achieving racial equality. About 38 percent of white people think the U.S. has made the changes needed to make black people equal to whites, while only 8 percent of black people believe this.
Kendi argues that these stark contrasts about race and race relations are rooted in the American falsehood that this country is post-racial, that it has solved its race problem. This echoes similar points made by James Baldwin in the film “I Am Not Your Negro,” the belief that Americans deal with race by believing in a dream and thinking that they are not responsible for racism or racist attacks.
But time after time, Kendi points out, white Americans have actually contributed to the systemic oppression of black people by justifying and enabling state-sanctioned discrimination. There was the defense of slavery as a “positive good” or a “tool to civilize.” The 1900s saw the defense of separate but equal under Jim Crow laws, and later there was the victim-blaming of rioters who marched for their civil rights.
Landmark advances in equality for black people were fiercely met with racist and oppressive backlash from white Americans to stop justice in its tracks. The ending of slavery via the Emancipation Proclamation was met with the convict-leasing system and black codes that ensnared many free blacks into another form of slavery through forced labor. Thousands of lynchings were employed by the KKK following the end of the Civil War to uphold white supremacy and terrorize black people. After the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s, America’s prison population skyrocketed into the millions, making the U.S. the country with the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The Republicans’ Southern Strategy also helped to exacerbate white fears of black people through dog-whistle politics. It’s no surprise that the so-called war on drugs waged by Nixon and subsequent presidents incarcerated black people at alarmingly high rates.
Kendi adds that the constant vilification of black people allows many Americans to hold onto the myth of a post-racial America: “Black people were violent, not the slaveholder, not the lyncher, not the cop,” he writes.
“This is not just the America people perceive,” he continues. “This is the America people seem to love. And they are going to defend their beloved America against all those nasty charges of racism. People seem determined to exonerate the police officer because they are determined to exonerate America.”
For any true change and justice to occur, Kendi says, Americans must confront the reality of racism head first and kill the post-racial myth, for “black people and the post-racial myth cannot both live in the United States of America.”
The U.S. cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base, in retaliation for what the White House said was a deadly nerve agent attack carried out by the Syrian government, proved to be a rare moment of glory in Donald Trump’s embattled presidency. The president basked in praise from usually critical Democrats and news organizations.
Yet behind the scenes, U.S. military and intelligence officials doubted that the Syrians had used chemical weapons, according to investigative reporter Seymour Hersh.
Trump was “warned by the U.S. intelligence community that it had found no evidence that the Syrians had used a chemical weapon,” Hersh writes on the German news site Die Welt.
"Some American military and intelligence officials were especially distressed by the president's determination to ignore the evidence. 'None of this makes any sense,' one officer told colleagues upon learning of the decision to bomb. 'We KNOW that there was no chemical attack ... the Russians are furious. Claiming we have the real intel and know the truth ... I guess it didn't matter whether we elected Clinton or Trump.'"
The source for much of Hersh’s story is anonymous. He is described as “a senior adviser to the American intelligence community, who has served in senior positions in the Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency.”
The source’s description of divisions within Trump’s national security advisers conflicts with previous news accounts that depicted the president and his military and intelligence advisers as united in the belief that Syrian forces had used sarin gas, which is banned under international law.
"U.S. intelligence agencies quickly identified the source of the attack and the chemical agent used," reported USA Today. "'That confidence level has just continued to grow in the hours and days since the attack,' national security adviser H.R. McMaster said."
If accurate, Hersh’s article renews doubts about the attack first raised by MIT professor Theodore Postol. In a series of blog posts about video from the scene of the attack, Postol argued that the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun had suffered conventional, not chemical, attack.
In Hersh’s account, Trump was persuaded by social media images of victims who seemed to show the signs of a chemical attack. Members of his national security team were not convinced the images were proof of a chemical attack, according to Hersh.
Hersh cites transcripts of a U.S.-Russian “deconfliction” communications channel that he says shows the alleged chemical attack was actually a conventional attack on a warehouse used by al-Qaeda militants. Following standard procedures, the Russians notified the U.S. in advance of the planned Syrian attack and the U.S. commanders had no objection, Hersh reports.
The victims seen on social media were actually suffering from the effects of breathing in chemicals dispersed into the air by the bombing of the al-Qaeda warehouse, according to Hersh:
"A Bomb Damage Assessment (BDA) by the U.S. military later determined that the heat and force of the 500-pound Syrian bomb triggered a series of secondary explosions that could have generated a huge toxic cloud that began to spread over the town, formed by the release of the fertilizers, disinfectants and other goods stored in the basement, its effect magnified by the dense morning air, which trapped the fumes close to the ground."
A team from the doctor’s group Médecins Sans Frontières treated victims from Khan Sheikhoun and reported that “eight patients showed symptoms—including constricted pupils, muscle spasms and involuntary defecation—which are consistent with exposure to a neurotoxic agent such as sarin gas or similar compounds.”
Hersh's claim that chemical weapons were not used in the attack conflicts with the findings of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the French government.
An OPCW report dated May 19 analyzed samples from the site. Signs of sarin or sarin-like substances were detected in many samples, as well as sarin degradation products, and at least two samples that state sarin itself was detected, according to the OPCW.
The OPCW's fact-finding mission is seeking to visit Khan Sheikhoun as part of its investigation.
Hersh portrays Trump as determined to act in the absence of corroborating evidence that Assad had used sarin on his own people. Among the four policy options he was presented, Trump chose to bomb an airfield in Syria, but only after alerting the Russians (and through them, the Syrians) to avoid too many casualties.
On April 6, U.S. commanders fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian base, a show of force Hersh depicts as meaningless:
“Most of the important personnel and operational fighter planes had been flown to nearby bases hours before the raid began. The two runways and parking places for aircraft, which had also been targeted, were repaired and back in operation within eight hours or so. All in all, it was little more than an expensive fireworks display.”
But the attack yielded political benefits for Trump. Speaking on CNN, Fareed Zakaria said, “I think Donald Trump became president of the United States.” A review of the top 100 American newspapers showed that 39 of them published editorials supporting the bombing in its aftermath, including the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.
Hersh’s anonymous source expects more such incidents:
“'The Salafists and jihadists got everything they wanted out of their hyped-up Syrian nerve gas ploy,' the senior adviser to the U.S. intelligence community told me, referring to the flareup of tensions between Syria, Russia and America. 'The issue is, what if there’s another false flag sarin attack credited to hated Syria? Trump has upped the ante and painted himself into a corner with his decision to bomb. And do not think these guys are not planning the next faked attack. Trump will have no choice but to bomb again, and harder. He’s incapable of saying he made a mistake.'”
But whether Hersh's anonymous source is right is still open to question.
The Transportation Safety Administration is considering implementing a new national policy that would require passengers to remove books from their bags at airport checkpoints, like they do laptops. And given the administration's reputation for religious profiling, the procedure could be used to violate passengers' First Amendment rights.
“[B]ooks raise very special privacy issues,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote in response. “There is a long history of special legal protection for the privacy of one’s reading habits in the United States, not only through numerous Supreme Court and other court decisions, but also through state laws that criminalize the violation of public library reading privacy or require a warrant to obtain book sales, rental, or lending records.”
One week after implementing a restriction on large electronic devices, Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly previewed changes travelers may experience going into the summer.
"We're going to raise the bar for, generally speaking, aviation security, much higher than it is now," Kelly told "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace on May 28.
Books aren't the only items being targeted. The new policy applies to all paper products, and has been introduced in two states—Missouri and California—since May.
So far, it's proven disastrous for an industry already under heavy scrutiny.
Sen. Al Franken's constituents are quite literally crying over Senate Republicans' Obamacare repeal bill, revealed in draft form by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) last week.
"We're talking about completely going backward," the Minnesota Democrat said in a "Morning Joe" interview Monday. "We're talking about an $880 billion cut [to] Medicaid and matching that with a $900 billion tax cut for the wealthiest Americans."
As a member of the Senate Health Committee and co-chair of the bipartisan Senate Rural Health Caucus, Franken regularly participates in town halls devoted to health care access for Minnesotans.
"I've gone to rural health meetings in hospitals and nursing homes and clinics people are crying about this [bill]," he explained. "One woman was crying because her mom gets her home health care through Medicaid... and she says she's going to lose that."
Franken also addressed the divide between progressives and moderates in his own part, acknowledging the party needs to win back rural Americans who voted for Donald Trump.
"How do you change the view that the Democrats are simply 'limousine Democrats'; that the party is in the [pocket] of Wall Street," panelist Eddie Glaude Jr. asked Franken.
“Well, we gotta stop riding in limousines,” Franken deadpanned.
“But there’s a presumption, right?" Glaude Jr. pressed. "That the corporate wing of the Democratic Party is no different than corporate Republicans, right?"
“If you’re talking about limousines," Franken pivoted, getting back to the health bill. "How about the top 400 people in terms of tax cuts here. The amount of money they’ll get in tax cuts would pay for Medicaid for 750,000 people.”
Two competing factions of President Donald Trump’s racist supporters rallied at a small event at the Lincoln Memorial over the weekend to speak out for their right to free speech and against political violence.
However, interviews conducted by the Daily Beast show the rally’s most famous attendees seem to be turning on each other.
First, the rally gathered two forces, white nationalist Richard Spencer and Trump allies like Mike Cernovich and Michael Flynn Jr., son of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. The groups couldn’t agree on why Trump ally Roger Stone never showed.
Emcee Jack Posobiec, who egged on Trump supporters taking to the stage of the New York Theatre’s production of “Julius Caesar,” said that Stone feared “security concerns.” But Spencer explained Stone wouldn’t be caught dead in the sea of “pathetic” rally goers.
“It was actually far more pathetic than I had imagined,” Spencer told the Daily Beast.
Some on the far right have toned down their violent rhetoric after an Illinois man opened fire on Republican congressmen earlier this month.
“It was a great event! I got a crowd of Trump supporters to sing ‘Give Peace a Chance’ by John Lennon and that’s a testament to our commitment to peace and our stand against violence and violent rhetoric,” said Posobiec, a PizzaGate conspiracy theorist.
The infighting has been going on since Trump was elected in November, resulting in online blows over “The Deplora-Ball,” a right-wing inaugural event for Trump activists. That’s when Posobiec and Cernovich began to be mocked as the “alt-lite.”
“I think a lot of those people are really against intelligent people,” Spencer said of the “other” rally. “If you’re a total goofball or someone who has no connection with the facts and reality, it’s like ‘ok you’re f*cking based.’ They’re all just bad human beings. So many of them are just physically ugly people.”
He explained that the good thing about the two groups clashing over the weekend was that it helped him to know who to “weed out” from the movement.
Posobiec said he “doesn’t really follow” Spencer and dismissed claims his rally attendees were “ugly.” He went on to say that he wants to see people like Donald Trump Jr., Sheriff David Clarke, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, and “of course POTUS himself” attend rallies like this in the future. This time around, however, failed Republican Virginia gubernatorial candidate Corey Stewart did attend the weekend rally. Stewart didn’t attend Spencer’s rally held last year after the election.
As the rally died down, the two groups argued over whether which was right. Spencer wanted his supporters to focus on preserving the white race and white culture. Posobiec wanted to see an alternative to the lying, “fake news” media.
“This is the just the beginning for us,” Spencer claimed. “I think it would be possible to have a rally on the mall for tens of thousands of people.”
Posobiec agreed it wasn’t the end of his group either.
“I want to have rallies all across the country, we are organizing and growing by leaps and bounds,” he said.
The tabs on their shoulders read “Special Forces,” “Ranger,” “Airborne.” And soon their guidon -- the “colors” of Company B, 3rd Battalion of the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group -- would be adorned with the “Bandera de Guerra,” a Colombian combat decoration.
“Today we commemorate sixteen years of a permanent fight against drugs in a ceremony where all Colombians can recognize the special counternarcotic brigade’s hard work against drug trafficking,” said Army Colonel Walther Jimenez, the commander of the Colombian military’s Special Anti-Drug Brigade, last December. America’s most elite troops, the Special Operations forces (SOF), have worked with that Colombian unit since its creation in December 2000. Since 2014, four teams of Special Forces soldiers have intensely monitored the brigade. Now, they were being honored for it.
Part of a $10 billion counter-narcotics and counterterrorism program, conceived in the 1990s, special ops efforts in Colombia are a muchballyhooed American success story. A 2015 RAND Corporation study found that the program “represents an enduring SOF partnership effort that managed to help foster a relatively professional and capable special operations force.” And for a time, coca production in that country plummeted. Indeed, this was the ultimate promise of America’s “Plan Colombia” and efforts that followed from it. “Over the longer haul, we can expect to see more effective drug eradication and increased interdiction of illicit drug shipments,” President Bill Clinton predicted in January 2000.
Today, however, more than 460,000 acres of the Colombian countryside are blanketed with coca plants, more than during the 1980s heyday of the infamous cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar. U.S. cocaine overdose deaths are also at a 10-year high and first-time cocaine use among young adults has spiked 61% since 2013. “Recent findings suggest that cocaine use may be reemerging as a public health concern in the United States,” wrote researchers from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in a study published in December 2016 -- just after the Green Berets attended that ceremony in Colombia. Cocaine, the study’s authors write, “may be making a comeback.”
Colombia is hardly an anomaly when it comes to U.S. special ops deployments -- or the results that flow from them. For all their abilities, tactical skills, training prowess, and battlefield accomplishments, the capacity of U.S. Special Operations forces to achieve decisive and enduring successes -- strategic victories that serve U.S. national interests -- have proved to be exceptionally limited, a reality laid bare from Afghanistan to Iraq, Yemen to the Philippines.
The fault for this lies not with the troops themselves, but with a political and military establishment that often appears bereft of strategic vision and hasn’t won a major war since the 1940s. Into this breach, elite U.S. forces are deployed again and again. While special ops commanders may raise concerns about the tempo of operations and strains on the force, they have failed to grapple with larger questions about the raison d'être of SOF, while Washington’s oversight establishment, notably the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, have consistently failed to so much as ask hard questions about the strategic utility of America’s Special Operations forces.
Special Ops at War
“We operate and fight in every corner of the world,” boasts General Raymond Thomas, the chief of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM or SOCOM). “On a daily basis, we sustain a deployed or forward stationed force of approximately 8,000 across 80-plus countries. They are conducting the entire range of SOF missions in both combat and non-combat situations.” Those numbers, however, only hint at the true size and scope of this global special ops effort. Last year, America’s most elite forces conducted missions in 138 countries -- roughly 70% of the nations on the planet, according to figures supplied to TomDispatch by U.S. Special Operations Command. Halfway through 2017, U.S. commandos have already been deployed to an astonishing 137 countries, according to SOCOM spokesman Ken McGraw.
Special Operations Command is tasked with carrying out 12 core missions, ranging from counterinsurgency and unconventional warfare to hostage rescue and countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Counterterrorism -- fighting what the command calls violent extremist organizations (VEOs) -- may, however, be what America’s elite forces have become best known for in the post-9/11 era. “The threat posed by VEOs remains the highest priority for USSOCOM in both focus and effort,” says Thomas.
“Special Operations Forces are the main effort, or major supporting effort for U.S. VEO-focused operations in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, across the Sahel of Africa, the Philippines, and Central/South America -- essentially, everywhere Al Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are to be found...”
More special operators are deployed to the Middle East than to any other region. Significant numbers of them are advising Iraqi government forces and Iraqi Kurdish soldiers as well as Kurdish YPG (Popular Protection Unit) fighters and various ethnic Arab forces in Syria, according to Linda Robinson, a senior international policy analyst with the RAND Corporation who spent seven weeks in Iraq, Syria, and neighboring countries earlier this year.
During a visit to Qayyarah, Iraq -- a staging area for the campaign to free Mosul, formerly Iraq’s second largest city, from the control of Islamic State fighters -- Robinson “saw a recently installed U.S. military medical unit and its ICU set up in tents on the base.” In a type of mission seldom reported on, special ops surgeons, nurses, and other specialists put their skills to work on far-flung battlefields not only to save American lives, but to prop up allied proxy forces that have limited medical capabilities. For example, an Air Force Special Operations Surgical Team recently spent eight weeks deployed at an undisclosed location in the Iraq-Syria theater, treating 750 war-injured patients. Operating out of an abandoned one-story home within earshot of a battlefield, the specially trained airmen worked through a total of 19 mass casualty incidents and more than 400 individual gunshot or blast injuries.
When not saving lives in Iraq and Syria, elite U.S. forces are frequently involved in efforts to take them. “U.S. SOF are... being thrust into a new role of coordinating fire support,” wrote Robinson. “This fire support is even more important to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a far more lightly armed irregular force which constitutes the major ground force fighting ISIS in Syria.” In fact, a video shot earlier this year, analyzed by the Washington Post, shows special operators “acting as an observation element for what appears to be U.S. airstrikes carried out by A-10 ground attack aircraft” to support Syrian Democratic Forces fighting for the town of Shadadi.
Africa now ranks second when it comes to the deployment of special operators thanks to the exponential growth in missions there in recent years. Just 3% of U.S. commandos deployed overseas were sent to Africa in 2010. Now that number stands at more than 17%, according to SOCOM data. Last year, U.S. Special Operations forces were deployed to 32 African nations, about 60% of the countries on the continent. As I recently reported at VICE News, at any given time, Navy SEALs, Green Berets, and other special operators are now conducting nearly 100 missions across 20 African countries.
In May, for instance, Navy SEALs were engaged in an “advise and assist operation” alongside members of Somalia’s army and came under attack. SEAL Kyle Milliken was killed and two other U.S. personnel were injured during a firefight that also, according to AFRICOM spokesperson Robyn Mack, left three al-Shabaab militants dead. U.S. forces are also deployed in Libya to gather intelligence in order to carry out strikes of opportunity against Islamic State forces there. While operations in Central Africa against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a brutal militia that has terrorized the region for decades, wound down recently, a U.S. commando reportedly killed a member of the LRA as recently as April.
What General Thomas calls “building partner nations’ capacity” forms the backbone of the global activities of his command. Day in, day out, America’s most elite troops carry out such training missions to sharpen their skills and those of their allies and of proxy forces across the planet.
This January, for example, Green Berets and Japanese paratroopers carried out airborne training near Chiba, Japan. February saw Green Berets at Sanaa Training Center in northwest Syria advising recruits for the Manbij Military Council, a female fighting force of Kurds, Arabs, Christians, Turkmen, and Yazidis. In March, snowmobiling Green Berets joined local forces for cold-weather military drills in Lapland, Finland. That same month, special operators and more than 3,000 troops from Canada, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Kosovo, Latvia, Macedonia, the Netherlands, Slovenia, and the United Kingdom took part in tactical training in Germany.
In the waters off Kuwait, special operators joined elite forces from the Gulf Cooperation Council nations in conducting drills simulating a rapid response to the hijacking of an oil tanker. In April, special ops troops traveled to Serbia to train alongside a local special anti-terrorist unit. In May, members of Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Iraq carried out training exercises with Iraqi special operations forces near Baghdad. That same month, 7,200 military personnel, including U.S. Air Force Special Tactics airmen, Italian special operations forces, members of host nation Jordan’s Special Task Force, and troops from more than a dozen other nations took part in Exercise Eager Lion, practicing everything from assaulting compounds to cyber-defense. For their part, a group of SEALs conducted dive training alongside Greek special operations forces in Souda Bay, Greece, while others joined NATO troops in Germany as part of Exercise Saber Junction 17 for training in land operations, including mock “behind enemy lines missions” in a “simulated European village.”
"We have been at the forefront of national security operations for the past three decades, to include continuous combat over the past 15-and-a-half years," SOCOM’s Thomas told the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities last month. “This historic period has been the backdrop for some of our greatest successes, as well as the source of our greatest challenge, which is the sustained readiness of this magnificent force.” Yet, for all their magnificence and all those successes, for all the celebratory ceremonies they’ve attended, the wars, interventions, and other actions for which they’ve served as the tip of the American spear have largely foundered, floundered, or failed.
After their initial tactical successes in Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, America’s elite operators became victims of Washington’s failure to declare victory and go home. As a result, for the last 15 years, U.S. commandos have been raiding homes, calling in air strikes, training local forces, and waging a relentless battle against a growing list of terror groups in that country. For all their efforts, as well as those of their conventional military brethren and local Afghan allies, the war is now, according to the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, a “stalemate.” That’s a polite way of saying what a recent report to Congress by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found: districts that are contested or under “insurgent control or influence” have risen from an already remarkable 28% in 2015 to 40%.
The war in Afghanistan began with efforts to capture or kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Having failed in this post-9/11 mission, America’s elite forces spun their wheels for the next decade when it came to his fate. Finally, in 2011, Navy SEALs cornered him in his long-time home in Pakistan and gunned him down. Ever since, special operators who carried out the mission and Washington power-players (not to mention Hollywood) have been touting this single tactical success.
In an Esquire interview, Robert O'Neill, the SEAL who put two bullets in bin Laden’s head, confessed that he joined the Navy due to frustration over an early crush, a puppy-love pique. “That's the reason al-Qaeda has been decimated,” he joked, “because she broke my fucking heart.” But al-Qaeda was not decimated -- far from it according to Ali Soufan, a former F.B.I. special agent and the author of Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State. As he recently observed, “Whereas on 9/11 al-Qaeda had a few hundred members, almost all of them based in a single country, today it enjoys multiple safe havens across the world.” In fact, he points out, the terror group has gained strength since bin Laden’s death.
Year after year, U.S. special operators find themselves fighting new waves of militants across multiple continents, including entire terror groups that didn’t exist on 9/11. All U.S. forces killed in Afghanistan in 2017 have reportedly died battling an Islamic State franchise, which began operations there just two years ago.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq, to take another example, led to the meteoric rise of an al-Qaeda affiliate which, in turn, led the military's secretive Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) -- the elite of America’s special ops elite -- to create a veritable manhunting machine designed to kill its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and take down the organization. As with bin Laden, special operators finally did find and eliminate Zarqawi, battering his organization in the process, but it was never wiped out. Left behind were battle-hardened elements that later formed the Islamic State and did what al-Qaeda never could: take and hold huge swaths of territory in two nations. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch grew into a separate force of more than 20,000.
In Yemen, after more than a decade of low-profile special ops engagement, that country teeters on the brink of collapse in the face of a U.S.-backed Saudi war there. Continued U.S. special ops missions in that country, recently on the rise, have seemingly done nothing to alter the situation. Similarly, in Somalia in the Horn of Africa, America’s elite forces remain embroiled in an endless war against militants.
In 2011, President Obama launched Operation Observant Compass, sending Special Operations forces to aid Central African proxies in an effort to capture or kill Joseph Kony and decimate his murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), then estimated to number 150 to 300 armed fighters. After the better part of a decade and nearly $800 million spent, 150 U.S. commandos were withdrawn this spring and U.S. officials attended a ceremony to commemorate the end of the mission. Kony was, however, never captured or killed and the LRA is now estimated to number about 150 to 250 fighters, essentially the same size as when the operation began.
This string of futility extends to Asia as well. “U.S. Special Forces have been providing support and assistance in the southern Philippines for many years, at the request of several different Filipino administrations,” Emma Nagy, a spokesperson for the U.S. embassy in Manilla, pointed out earlier this month. Indeed, a decade-plus-long special ops effort there has been hailed as a major success. Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines, wrote RAND analyst Linda Robinson late last year in the Pentagon journal Prism, “was aimed at enabling the Philippine security forces to combat transnational terrorist groups in the restive southern region of Mindanao.”
A 2016 RAND report co-authored by Robinson concluded that “the activities of the U.S. SOF enabled the Philippine government to substantially reduce the transnational terrorist threat in the southern Philippines.” This May, however, Islamist militants overran Marawi City, a major urban center on Mindanao. They have been holding on to parts of it for weeks despite a determined assault by Filipino troops backed by U.S. Special Operations forces. In the process, large swaths of the city have been reduced to rubble.
Running on Empty
America’s elite forces, General Thomas told members of Congress last month, “are fully committed to winning the current and future fights.” In reality, though, from war to war, intervention to intervention, from the Anti-Drug Brigade ceremony in Florencia, Colombia, to the end-of-the-Kony-hunt observance in Obo in the Central African Republic, there is remarkably little evidence that even enduring efforts by Special Operations forces result in strategic victories or improved national security outcomes. And yet, despite such boots-on-the-ground realities, America’s special ops forces and their missions only grow.
“We are... grateful for the support of Congress for the required resourcing that, in turn, has produced a SOCOM which is relevant to all the current and enduring threats facing the nation,” Thomas told the Senate Armed Services Committee in May. Resourcing has, indeed, been readily available. SOCOM’s annual budget has jumped from $3 billion in 2001 to more than $10 billion today. Oversight, however, has been seriously lacking. Not a single member of the House or Senate Armed Services Committees has questioned why, after more than 15 years of constant warfare, winning the “current fight” has proven so elusive. None of them has suggested that “support” from Congress ought to be reconsidered in the face of setbacks from Afghanistan to Iraq, Colombia to Central Africa, Yemen to the southern Philippines.
In the waning days of George W. Bush’s administration, Special Operations forces were reportedly deployed to about 60 nations around the world. By 2011, under President Barack Obama, that number had swelled to 120. During this first half-year of the Trump administration, U.S. commandos have already been sent to 137 countries, with elite troops now enmeshed in conflicts from Africa to Asia. “Most SOF units are employed to their sustainable limit,” Thomas told members of the House Armed Services Committee last month. In fact, current and former members of the command have, for some time, been sounding the alarm about the level of strain on the force.
These deployment levels and a lack of meaningful strategic results from them have not, however, led Washington to raise fundamental questions about the ways the U.S. employs its elite forces, much less about SOCOM’s raison d'être. “We are a command at war and will remain so for the foreseeable future,” SOCOM’s Thomas explained to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Not one member asked why or to what end.
Ivanka Trump, special assistant to the president, told Fox News on Monday: “I try to stay out of politics.”
“I try to stay out of politics,” Ivanka Trump said in answer to a question about her father’s use of Twitter to bypass most normal channels of presidential communication. “His political instincts are phenomenal. He did something that no one could have imagined he’d be able to accomplish.
“I feel blessed just being part of the ride from day one and before. But he did something pretty remarkable. But I don’t profess to be a political savant.”
Donald Trump won the 2016 election in the electoral college, after a campaign marked by bitter partisan rancour and interference by Russian actors working, according to a Washington Post report last week, at the direct instruction of Vladimir Putin to help Trump beat Hillary Clinton. Clinton won the popular vote by more than 2.5m ballots.
Ivanka Trump became a trusted lieutenant to her father, delivering a well-received convention speech in Cleveland in July and moving to Washington in January with her husband, Jared Kushner, who is one of the president’s closest advisers. Her White House position is unpaid.
Though Trump claims to “stay out of politics”, she has been a familiar surrogate for her father in the media and on the world stage. Earlier in June, she told Fox and Friends: “We’re really focused on why the American people elected Donald Trump as their president and implementing that plan.”
Amidst congressional and FBI investigations into links between Trump aides and Russia and the reported investigation of her father for possible obstruction of justice related to those probes, she said then: “It is hard and there’s a level of viciousness that I was not expecting. I was not expecting the intensity of this experience, but this isn’t supposed to be easy.”
Asked in the interview broadcast on Monday if she ever disagreed with her father – who has, for example, pursued policies on climate change, pulling out of the Paris agreement, that might be thought anathema to a registered New York Democrat, which she until recently was – the first daughter said: “So naturally, there are areas where there is disagreement.”
Climate change, with women’s rights, is part of Ivanka Trump’s White House brief.
“We’re two different human beings,” she continued. “I think it’s normal to not have 100% aligned viewpoints on every issue. I don’t think anyone operates like that with a parent, or within the context of an administration.
“And I think that all different viewpoints being at the table is a positive thing. And I think one of the things that, in this country we don’t have enough of, is dialogue.”
In the wake of the big Washington Post report last week chronicling the Obama administration’s responses to the Russian interference in the presidential campaign, President Donald Trump finally admitted that it happened. Sort of. He did it the only way he could that would make him feel comfortable: passing the buck. In one of his greatest acts of chutzpah yet, Trump attacked Obama for failing to stop the Russian government from helping him win the election.
Since the Obama Administration was told way before the 2016 Election that the Russians were meddling, why no action? Focus on them, not T!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 24, 2017
Obama Administration official said they "choked" when it came to acting on Russian meddling of election. They didn't want to hurt Hillary?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 24, 2017
Then he seemed lose himself for a moment and just tweeted out in all caps “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
It’s tempting to think this was all just Trump needing to vent on Twitter (not that that’s an acceptable practice for the president of the United States) but it also now appears to be the official White House strategy. Kellyanne Conway echoed this line on Sunday morning:
It’s the Obama administration that was responsible for doing absolutely nothing from August to January with the knowledge that Russia was hacking into our election. They did absolutely nothing. They’re responsible for this … I have a hacking question for the Obama administration: Why did you, quote, choke, in the name of one of their senior administration officials? Why did you do nothing? Why didn’t you inform candidate Trump?
Trump himself went on Fox and said, “Well, I just heard today for the first time that Obama knew about Russia a long time before the election, and he did nothing about it. The CIA gave him information on Russia a long time before the election. … If he had the information, why didn’t he do something about it? He should have done something about it. But you don’t read that. It’s quite sad.”
That’s crazy talk. He just heard it that day for the first time? The whole world knew about it on June 14, 2016, when the Washington Post first reported that Russian agents had apparently hacked the Democratic National Committee. And Donald Trump certainly knew about it at least as early as July 27 of last year, when he said, “They hacked — they probably have her 33,000 emails. I hope they do. Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”
In the first presidential debate in September, Trump memorably responded to Hillary Clinton’s assertion that the Russians had interfered by saying, “I don’t think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC. She’s saying Russia, Russia, Russia, but I don’t — maybe it was. I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?”
As for Conway’s obnoxious question about why the Obama administration didn’t inform candidate Trump, well they did. After that contentious debate exchange NBC News reported:
During Sunday’s debate, Donald Trump once again said he doesn’t know whether Russia is trying to hack the U.S. election, despite Friday’s statement by the U.S. intelligence community pointing the finger at Putin –- and despite the fact that Trump was personally briefed on Russia’s role in the hacks by U.S. officials.
A senior U.S. intelligence official assured NBC News that cybersecurity and the Russian government’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 election have been briefed to, and discussed extensively with, both parties’ candidates, surrogates and leadership, since mid-August. “To profess not to know at this point is willful misrepresentation,” said the official. “The intelligence community has walked a very thin line in not taking sides, but both candidates have all the information they need to be crystal clear.”
His rejection of this information has continued for months with tweets about the Russia scandal like this:
All those statements were made since Trump became president. Who is supposedly withholding information from him? Is he withholding it from himself? And his persistent unwillingness to criticize Vladimir Putin or even admit that election interference happened has created an overwhelming suspicion that he’s hiding something.
None of this is to say that President Obama and his administration made the right decision by not taking action earlier. The Washington Post article is fairly damning on that count. As Julia Ioffe observed in this article in the Atlantic, it might have made a difference in another way if the administration had done before the election what it did afterwards:
When Obama did make the attack public, the amount of panic and political dust kicked up by the release of the intelligence report in January, along with the congressional investigations it triggered, proved debilitating for Russian ambitions. The Russians lost their main ally in the White House, Michael Flynn, who was pushing President Trump to unilaterally lift Russia sanctions.
It’s doubtful that alone would have altered the outcome of the election. We know that the Republican leadership was happy to get help from the Russian government, and would have dismissed any public actions by the Obama administration as dirty partisan pool. But it’s possible that might have made the Russians pull back from the brink and think better of making such an audacious move.
It’s likely that Obama officials thought that Hillary Clinton was a lock, and that they could deal with the whole situation properly after the election. That was bad judgment. They should have known that in a year in which the Republican Party had 17 (mostly) qualified candidates and wound up nominating Donald Trump, anything could happen.
Blaming Obama for the Russian hacking will probably convince most of Trump’s voters that he’s off the hook. They’ll believe anything. But that won’t solve his problems. Thanks to his own clumsy and self-destructive attempts to get the investigation into Russian interference quashed, the president is now the subject of a criminal inquiry. Repeatedly tweeting, “I know you are but what am I” will do nothing to change that.
MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough mocked President Donald Trump for handing Democrats a winning campaign ad for the midterm elections due to his intense jealousy of his predecessor, Barack Obama.
The president sat down for an interview Sunday with Fox News, where he reminded voters that he was the one to describe the Republican Senate health care bill as “mean,” and not Obama.
“That is incredible,” Scarborough said. “First of all, Republican senators and House members (are) fighting for their political lives, trying to figure out what to do, and just because Donald Trump is so, so crazy and so jealous of Barack Obama, he gets him to admit that the health care bill is mean.”
The “Morning Joe” host mimicked the president, who was goaded into slamming the bill after Obama blasted the “fundamental meanness” of the GOP Senate bill.
“That’s my word, I’m the one that said it was mean,” Scarborough said, parodying the president. “I’m the one that said it would throw seniors out in the street. I’m the one who said young children with pre-existing conditions were going to die. That was me.”
Scarborough joked that Trump had fallen for a “Jedi mind trick,” like Obi-Wan Kenobi plays on stormtroopers in “Star Wars,” by repeating Obama’s criticism of the Republican legislation.
“Think how damaging this is,” he said. “We joke about it, but what is the impact of the president doubling down on the House bill where they had their party in the beer gardens and now he’s saying it’s mean. What’s the impact?”
Scarborough, a former GOP congressman, said Trump’s televised remarks would be recycled next year in Democratic campaign ads and undermined the president’s ability to convince Republican senators to vote for the bill.
“How it is he’s going to go and say, you must take this vote on this bill I have denounced as mean — I don’t know how that works,” he said. “It seems like a strange sales pitch.”
Donald Trump’s ascendancy in American politics has made visible a plague of deep-seated civic illiteracy, a corrupt political system and a contempt for reason that has been decades in the making. It also points to the withering of civic attachments, the undoing of civic culture, the decline of public life and the erosion of any sense of shared citizenship. As Trump has galvanized his base of true believers in post-election demonstrations, the world is witnessing how a politics of bigotry and hate is transformed into a spectacle of demonization, division and disinformation. Under President Trump, the scourge of mid-20th century authoritarianism has returned not only in the menacing plague of populist rallies, fear-mongering, threats and humiliation, but also in an emboldened culture of war, militarization and violence that looms over society like a rising storm.
The reality of Trump’s election may be the most momentous development of the age because of its enormity and the shock it has produced. The whole world is watching, pondering how such a dreadful event could have happened. How have we arrived here? What forces have allowed education, if not reason itself, to be undermined as crucial public and political resources, capable of producing the formative culture and critical citizens that could have prevented such a catastrophe from happening in an alleged democracy? We get a glimpse of this failure of education, public values and civic literacy in the willingness and success of the Trump administration to empty language of any meaning, a practice that constitutes a flight from historical memory, ethics, justice and social responsibility.
Under such circumstances and with too little opposition, the Trump administration has taken on the workings of a dis-imagination machine, characterized by an utter disregard for the truth and often accompanied by the president’s tweet-storm of “primitive schoolyard taunts and threats.” In this instance, George Orwell’s famous maxim from “Nineteen Eighty-four,” “Ignorance is Strength,” materializes in the administration’s weaponized attempt not only to rewrite history but also to obliterate it. What we are witnessing is not simply a political project but also a reworking of the very meaning of education as both a crucial institution and a democratizing and empowering cultural force.
Truth is now viewed as a liability and ignorance a virtue. Under the reign of this normalized architecture of alleged common sense, literacy is regarded with disdain, words are reduced to data and science is confused with pseudo-science. All traces of critical thought appear only at the margins of the culture as ignorance becomes the primary organizing principle of American society. For instance, two-thirds of the American public believe that creationism should be taught in schools and a majority of Republicans in Congress do not believe that climate change is caused by human activity, making the U.S. the laughing stock of the world. Politicians endlessly lie, knowing that the public can be easily seduced by exhortations, emotional outbursts and sensationalism, all of which mimic the fatuous spectacle of celebrity culture and reality TV. Image-selling now entails lying on principle, making it easier for politics to dissolve into entertainment, pathology and a unique brand of criminality.
The corruption of both the truth and politics is abetted by the fact that much of the American public has become habituated to overstimulation and lives in an ever-accelerating overflow of information and images. Experience no longer has the time to crystallize into mature and informed thought. Opinion now trumps reason and evidence-based arguments. News has become entertainment and echoes reality rather than interrogating it. Popular culture revels in the spectacles of shock and violence. Defunded and corporatized, many institutions of public and higher education have been all too willing to make the culture of business the business of education, and this transformation has corrupted their mission.
As a result, many colleges and universities have been McDonald-ized as knowledge is increasingly viewed as a commodity, resulting in curricula that resemble a fast-food menu. In addition, faculty are subjected increasingly to a Walmart model of labor relations designed “to reduce labor costs and to increase labor servility.” Students are relegated to the status of customers and clients.
In addition, public education is under siege to an almost unprecedented degree. Both political parties have implemented reforms that “teach for the test,” weaken unions, deskill teachers, and wage a frontal assault on the imagination of students through disciplinary measures that amount to pedagogies of repression. Moreover, students marginalized by class and color find themselves in schools increasingly modeled after prisons. As more and more security guards and police personnel occupy schools, a wider range of student behaviors are criminalized, and students increasingly find themselves on a conveyor belt that has appropriately been described as the school-to-prison pipeline.
On a policy level, the Trump administration has turned its back on schools as public goods. How else to explain the president’s appointment of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education? DeVos, who has spent most of her career attempting to privatize public schools while acting as a champion for charter schools. It gets worse: As a religious Christian extremist, DeVos not only supports religious indoctrination in public schools but has gone so far as to argue that the purpose of public education is “to help advance God’s Kingdom.” Not exactly a policy that supports critical thinking, dialogue or analytical reasoning, or that understands schooling as a public good. DeVos is Trump’s gift to the billionaires, evangelicals, hedge fund managers and bankers, who view schools strictly as training and containment centers — and as sources of profit.
On a larger scale, the educational force of the wider culture has been transformed into a spectacle for violence and trivialized entertainment, and a tool for legitimating ignorance. Cultural apparatuses that extend from the mainstream media and the diverse platforms of screen culture now function as neoliberal modes of public pedagogy parading as entertainment or truthful news reporting. As “teaching machines,” these apparatuses — as C. Wright Mills once predicted — have become the engines of manufactured illiteracy while producing identities, desires and values compatible with the crudest market ideologies.
Under these circumstances, illiteracy becomes the norm and education becomes central to a version of zombie politics that functions largely to remove democratic values, social relations,and compassion from the ideology, policies and commanding institutions that now control American society. Welcome to the land of the walking dead.
I am not referring here to only the kind of anti-intellectualism that theorists such as Richard Hofstadter, Ed Herman, Noam Chomsky and Susan Jacoby have documented, however insightful their analyses might be. I am pointing to a more lethal form of manufactured illiteracy that has become a scourge and a political tool designed primarily to make war on language, meaning, thinking and the capacity for critical thought. Chris Hedges captures this demagogic attack on thoughtfulness in stating that “the emptiness of language is a gift to demagogues and the corporations that saturate the landscape with manipulated images and the idioms of mass culture.” Freedom now means removing one’s self from any sense of social responsibility so one can retreat into privatized orbits of self-indulgence, unbridled self-interest and the never-ending whirlwind of consumption.
This updated form of illiteracy does not simply constitute an absence of learning, ideas or knowledge. Nor can it be solely attributed to what has been called the “smartphone society.” On the contrary, it is a willful practice and goal used to actively depoliticize people and make them complicit with the political and economic forces that impose misery and suffering upon their lives. At the same time, illiteracy bonds people: It offers the pretense of a community bound by a willful denial of facts and its celebration of ignorance.
How else to explain the popular support for someone like Donald Trump who boldly proclaims his love for the “poorly educated”? Or, for that matter, the willingness of his followers to put up with his contemptuous and boisterous claim that science and evidence-based truths are “fake news,” his dismissal of journalists who hold power accountable as the opposition party, and his willingness to bombard the American public with an endless proliferation of peddled falsehoods that reveal his contempt for intellect, reason and truth.
What are we to make of the fact that a person who holds the office of the presidency has praised popular “rage addict” Alex Jones publicly, and thanked him for the role he played in his presidential election victory? Jones is a conspiracy trafficker who runs the website InfoWars. He has suggested that the 9/11 attacks were an “inside job” and that the massacre of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut was faked.
Illiteracy is no longer restricted to populations immersed in poverty with little access to quality education; nor does it only suggest the lack of proficient skills enabling people to read and write with a degree of understanding and fluency. More profoundly, illiteracy is also about refusing to act from a position of thoughtfulness, informed judgment, and critical agency.
Illiteracy has become a political weapon and form of political repression that works to render critical agency inoperable, and restages power as a mode of domination. Illiteracy in the service of violence now functions to depoliticize people by making it difficult for individuals to develop informed judgments, analyze complex relationships and draw upon a range of sources to understand how power works and how they might be able to shape the forces that bear down on their lives. As a depoliticizing force, illiteracy works to make people powerless, and reinforces their willingness to accept being governed rather than learn how to govern.
This mode of illiteracy now constitutes the modus operandi of a society that both privatizes and kills the imagination by poisoning it with falsehoods, consumer fantasies, data loops and the need for instant gratification. This is a mode of illiteracy and education that has no language for relating the self to public life, social responsibility or the demands of citizenship. It is important to recognize that the prevalence of such manufactured illiteracy is not simply about the failure of colleges and universities to create critical and active citizens. It is about an authoritarian society that eliminates public spheres that make thinking possible while imposing a culture of fear in which there is the looming threat that anyone who holds power accountable will be punished. At stake here is not only a crisis of education, memory, ethics and agency but a crisis that reaches into the very foundation of a strong democracy.
In the present moment, it becomes particularly important for progressives, educators and concerned citizens to protect and enlarge the formative cultures and public spheres that make democracy possible. The relentless attack on truth, honesty and the ethical imagination makes it all the more imperative for the public to think dangerously, especially in societies that appear increasingly amnesiac — that is, countries where forms of historical, political and moral forgetting are not only willfully practiced but celebrated. All of which becomes all the more threatening at a time when a country such as the United States has tipped over into a mode of authoritarianism that views critical thought as both a liability and a threat.
Not only is manufactured illiteracy obvious in the presence of a social order and government that collapses the distinction between the serious and frivolous, it is also visible in media platforms marked by the proliferation of anti-intellectual discourses among a range of politicians and anti-public intellectuals who are waging a war on science, reason and the legacy of the Enlightenment. How else to explain the present historical moment, with its collapse of civic culture and the future it cancels out? What is to be made of the assault on civic literacy and the institutions and conditions that produce an active citizenry at a time when massive self-enrichment and a gangster morality are operative at the highest reaches of the U.S. government, all of which serves to undermine the public realm as a space of freedom, liberty, dialogue and deliberative consensus?
One of the challenges facing the current generation of leftists, progressives and cultural workers is the need to address the question of what counts as education, and what it should accomplish in a society that is slipping into the dark night of authoritarianism. In a world in which there is an increasing abandonment of egalitarian and democratic impulses, what will it take to educate young people and the broader polity to challenge authority and hold power accountable? Such a vision suggests resurrecting a democratic project that provides the basis for imagining a life beyond a social order immersed in massive inequality and endless assaults on the environment, a social order that elevates war and militarization to the highest and most sanctified national ideals.
At issue here is the need for educators, progressives, artists and other cultural workers to recognize the power of education both in schools and the wider culture in creating the formative spaces being mobilized against the ideas of justice and democracy. At the same time, there is a need for the left and others to fight for those public spheres that offer alternative modes of identity, thinking and social relations that support democratic socialism and radical democracy.
At the very least, this requires that education be regarded as central to politics, and that cultural apparatuses such as the mainstream media, digital culture and Hollywood films be perceived as powerful teaching machines and not only as sources of information or entertainment. Such sites should be viewed as spheres of struggle that need to be removed from the control of the financial elite and corporations who use them as work stations for propagandizing a culture of vulgarity, self-absorption and commodification while eroding any sense of shared citizenship and civic culture.
There is an urgent political need for the left and progressives to understand and combat an authoritarian society that uses education to weaponize and trivialize the discourse, vocabularies, images and aural means of communication in a variety of cultural sites. Or, for that matter, to grasp that a market-driven discourse does not and cannot provide the intellectual, ethical and political tools for civic education and the expansion of the social imagination.
On the contrary, the pedagogical machinery of capitalism uses language and other modes of representation to relegate citizenship to the singular pursuit of unbridled self-interests, to legitimate shopping as the ultimate expression of one’s identity, to portray essential public services as reinforcing and weakening any viable sense of individual responsibility, and to organize society for the production of violence as the primary method of addressing a vast array of social problems.
One of the most serious challenges facing progressives, educators and diverse cultural workers is the task of grasping education as a crucial political tool that can be used to enhance the capacities of people to translate their hidden despair and private grievances into public transcripts. At best, such transcripts can be transformed into forms of public dissent or what might be called a moment of rupture, one that has important implications for public action in a time of impending tyranny and authoritarianism.
In taking up this project, individuals and cultural workers can attempt to create the conditions that give the wider public an opportunity to acquire the knowledge and courage necessary to make desolation and cynicism unconvincing and hope practical. In a world in which there is an increasing abandonment of egalitarian and democratic impulses, what will it take to educate young people and the broader polity to challenge authority and hold power accountable?
In the age of financial and political zombies, the ability of finance capitalism to cloak itself in a warped discourse of freedom and choice has been weakened. Its willingness to separate toxic economic, cultural and political policies from their social costs has ruptured neoliberalism’s ability to normalize its worldview. The contradictions between its promises and its harsh effects have become too visible as its poisonous policies have put millions out of work, turned many black and brown communities into war zones, destroyed public education, undermined the democratic mission of higher education, flagrantly pursued war as the greatest of national ideals, turned the prison system into a default institution for punishing minorities of race and class, pillaged the environment and blatantly imposed a new mode of racism under the fanciful notion of a post-racial society.
The crisis of capitalism and the production of widespread misery has opened up new political opportunities to reclaim education as a central element of politics and resistance. Education as it functions on multiple levels and through diverse registers matters. It is one of the most powerful sources for changing consciousness, desires and agency itself.
Pierre Bourdieu was right to argue that leftists “must recognize that the most important forms of domination are not only economic but also intellectual and pedagogical and lie on the side of belief and persuasion.” Bourdieu’s concerns about leftists underestimating “the pedagogical and symbolic dimensions of struggle” are more relevant today than ever, given the accelerated political merger of power, culture and everyday life.
Too often leftists and other progressives have focused on domination as mostly an economic or structural issue and in doing so have forgotten about the political role of education and consciousness-raising in providing a language and narrative in which people can recognize themselves, make identifications that speak to the conditions that bear down on them in new ways, and rethink the future so as not to mimic the present. Yet matters of subjectivity, identity and desire are not only central to politics, they are the crucial underpinning through which new theoretical and political horizons can be imagined and acted upon.
In an age in which authoritarianism is dismantling the foundations of democracy across the globe, the ideological and subjective conditions that make individual and collective modes of agency possible — and capable of engaging in powerful and broad-based movements of resistance — are no longer an option. They are a necessity.
White Americans remain the only major demographic group in which the percentage of people who think Donald Trump is doing a good job outpaces the number who think he’s doing poorly.
That finding comes from Pew Research Center, which polled more than 2,500 adults around the U.S. between June 8-18. While African Americans and Latinos overwhelmingly gave the president’s performance a thumbs-down, 50 percent of white respondents report feeling good about Trump’s presidency. Just 44 percent think that Trump deserves a poor performance review.
Contrast that with people of color who responded to the survey. A staggering 88 percent of black Americans say they disapprove of the Trump administration, while 72 percent of Hispanics are similarly dismayed with the president. That means 12 percent of African Americans and 28 percent of Hispanics believe Trump’s pros outweigh his cons, figures that seem extraordinarily high considering the evidence.
The findings of the Pew survey reveal that Trump’s historically low approval numbers have reached their current depths—just 39 percent of Americans overall applaud the job he's doing—because of voiced dissatisfaction from nonwhites. Despite signing no significant legislation since he took office, spending an extraordinary amount of time golfing, and mounting evidence that he and his team may have colluded with a hostile foreign power, white Americans haven’t yet hit a tipping point of majority outrage.
Trump ran on a campaign of racism and xenophobia. Hate crimes against racial and religious minorities, including bias-motivated murders, have increased precipitously under this administration. A recent data analysis by Buzzfeed News found over “50 incidents, across 26 states, in which a K-12 student invoked Trump’s name or message in an apparent effort to harass a classmate during the past school year.” The president has been eerily silent about nearly all of these violent incidents, though he has taken to Twitter to complain to his 32 million followers (nearly half of which are fake accounts) about factual media coverage of his policies, as well as to promote television appearances by his surrogates.
The long-simmering conflict between the United States and Iran is fast escalating toward war. The battlefield is the desert expanse of eastern Syria where civil war has raged for the last five years. Tehran wants to keep U.S. forces out of the area, while Washington wants to use the region to wage war against Iran’s ally, Syria.
After 15 years of unsuccessful war in Afghanistan and Iraq, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says the Trump administration is pursuing a policy of "regime change" in Iran that might lead to a third U.S. ground war in the Middle East since 2001.
Restraint is breaking down. While President Obama resisted U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war, Trump has approved it. While Obama pursued dialog with Iran, Trump has embraced the new Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who laid down his country’s new, harsher line in April. ‘We will not wait until the battle is in Saudi Arabia," he said, "but we will work so the battle is there in Iran."
Secretary of Defense James Mattis, while resisting White House pressure for rapid escalation, has given battlefield commanders more leeway to attack Iranian-backed forces. The result is a series of unprecedented incidents that have Washington experts asking “Is Trump preparing for a conflict with Iran?"
As the United States and Iran compete for battlefield advantages, here are six places their struggle might erupt into war.
After ISIS is defeated the Syrians, backed by Iran, want to reestablish the authority of the President Bashar Assad’s regime throughout the area. The U.S.-backed forces want to pivot from the fight against ISIS to take on the Syria government directlyRaqqa is where these ambitions will collide.
2. Eastern Syria
As the sway of ISIS shrinks, Assad and his allies have launched an operation to “take control of the eastern desert in Syria,” which borders on Iraq. They want to drive out the Sunni extremists, but also prevent other rivals—namely the United States—from filling the void.
Iran wants to deny the United States and its allies a sanctuary, while the U.S. military seeks freedom to operate in the area. Both sides hope to benefit from the changing status quo in eastern Syria to their advantage. Only one can prevail.
3. Unfriendly skies
American, Iranian, Syrian, Russian, and Turkish air forces are all active in the airspace over Syria—and all are becoming less tolerant of the others.
When the U.S. shot down a Syrian jet last week, Russia warned it would target all foreign aircraft west of the Euphrates River. When the Iranians sent drones over U.S.-controlled territory, the United States shot down two of them.
The conflict is escalating vertically, as well as horizontally.
Iran compensates for its weak army and air force with a potent ballistic missile force that the United States regards as a threat to Israel and the region. The U.S. Congress just voted to increase sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile program.
Iran’s decision to use the missiles in eastern Syria was more than a message to ISIS, said Iranian Gen. Ramazan Sharif in a television interview.
"The Saudis and Americans are especially receivers of this message," Sharif said. "Obviously and clearly, some reactionary countries of the region, especially Saudi Arabia, had announced that they are trying to bring insecurity into Iran."
If the United States is threatening Iran with regime change, and Iran uses missiles when it feels most threatened, then missile warfare is more likely.
Americans of a certain age will never forget that the Iranians took 52 Americans hostages in 1979 and held them for more than a year. Another hostage situation would inflame American public opinion and be used to justify escalation.
When the Iranian navy detained 10 U.S. sailors whose patrol boats strayed into Iranian waters in January 2016, the sailors were released within 24 hours. Secretary of State John Kerry used his working relationship with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to secure their freedom.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has no such communication channel with the Iranians, and no interest in having one. If such an incident occurred again, opened-ended escalation is much more likely than quick resolution.
6. Special Forces
Both Iran and the United States have deployed elite military forces to the Syrian battlefield.
More than 500 U.S. Special Operations forces are advising and training anti-Assad forces in Syria. An equally big contingent of Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces, under the command of legendary general Qasem Soleimani, are advising and fighting with pro-Assad forces.
In a crisis, military and civilian commanders on both sides are less likely to back down, compromise or negotiate if their most prestigious forces are fighting and dying.
Ali Vaez, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, has noted, if the U.S. ends up going to war against Iran, it would “make the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts look like a walk in the park.”
After the spread of democracy at the end of the 20th century, authoritarianism is now rolling back democracy around the globe. In the US, supporters of democracy disarmed themselves by imagining an “end of history” in which nothing but their own ideas were possible. Authoritarians, meanwhile, keep practicing their old tactics and devising new ones.
It is time for those who support democracy to remember what activists from around the world have paid a price to learn: how to win.
Modern authoritarians rely on repression, intimidation, corruption and co-optation to consolidate their power. The dictator’s handbook mastered by Orban in Hungary, Erdogan in Turkey, Maduro in Venezuela, Zuma in South Africa, Duterte in the Philippines and Trump here provides the traditional tactics: attack journalists, blame dissent on foreigners and “paid protestors,” scapegoat minorities and vulnerable groups, weaken checks on power, reward loyalists, use paramilitaries, and generally try to reduce politics to a question of friends and enemies, us and them.
Yet tyrants’ tactics require the consent of large numbers of people. The first lesson, then, is not to obey in advance. If individuals make the basic effort to consider their own sense of values and patriotism rather than subconsciously adjusting to the new reality, aspiring authoritarians have a major problem. Good citizens will then ask: but what should we do? History provides an answer: civil resistance.
Unarmed civilians using petitions, boycotts, strikes, and other nonviolent methods have been able to slow, disrupt and even halt authoritarianism. Civil resistance has been twice as effective as armed struggle. Americans will remember the historical examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and perhaps the peaceful east European revolutionaries of Solidarity in Poland and Otpor in Serbia. Many of us have overlooked the more recent examples of successful civil resistance in Guatemala, South Korea and Romania.
Civil resistance works by separating the authoritarian ruler from pillars of support, including economic elites, security forces, and government workers. It attracts diverse groups in society, whose collective defiance and stubbornness eventually elicits power shifts.
Mass, diverse participation empowers reformers and whistle-blowers and weakens the support base of hardliners. The best gauge of the health of a resistance movement, then, is whether the size and representativeness of active participation are growing.
Civil resistance is strategic. Movements articulate clear, achievable goals (achieving independent trade unions in the case of Solidarity; de-segregating public places during US civil rights movement) and know when and how to declare small victories. They must endure inevitable set-backs – like arrests, large counter-mobilizations by regime supporters, and legislative defeats – while maintaining momentum.
Movement organization can take different forms, but decentralized leadership rooted in local communities is more important than charismatic leaders. The Serbian Otpor movement combined centralized planning with de-centralized tactical adaptation and recruitment.
The organizing approach of Harvard lecturer Marshall Ganz, which emphasizes building cross-sector relationships and turning resources into the power needed to achieve clear goals, highlights how to build resilient movement infrastructure over the long haul.
Movements that devise and sequence a broad repertoire of tactics, including those that bring people together for concentrated actions (rallies, sit-ins, blockades) and those that involve dispersed acts of resistance (consumer boycotts, stay-aways, go slow tactics), are more likely to endure and grow.
Repeating the same tactics is boring, predictable, and unlikely to move the needle. Gene Sharp has identified 198 methods of nonviolent action grouped according to the level of risk, preparation, and forcefulness associated with them.
Authoritarian regimes often seek to provoke violence by opposition elements in order to justify repressive counter-measures. Nonviolent movements have invested in training, they have devised codes of conduct and designated marshals to enforce nonviolent discipline at protests. Scholars have found that the stronger the organization of a movement, the more likely it is to avoid responding to violence with violence, which weakens the resistance by decreasing the level of citizen participation.
Successful movements need to be able to inspire hope and optimism in order to sustain popular participation in the resistance and focus people on building alternative systems. Authoritarians thrive on popular fear, apathy, resignation, and a feeling of disorientation. Movement leaders need to assure people that their engagement and sacrifices will pay off, something Solidarity leader Adam Michnikunderstood well: “Above all, we must create a strategy of hope for the people, and show them that their efforts and risks have a future.”
Supporters of democracy have access to immense resources, in dozens of languages, on strategic applications of civil resistance and movement building. These include films, manuals, books, articles, databases of global nonviolent campaigns, and organizations that specialize in online and offline training and mentoring.
In the United States, the resistance is strong. Older civil rights organizations like the ACLU have stepped up their legal game and are starting to invest in grassroots people power training and activities. New structures, like the over 6,000 local Indivisible groups across the country, are channeling citizen outrage and depression into constructive forms of putting pressure on members of Congress at town halls and in their offices. The Women’s March mobilized the single-largest demonstration in American history.
Social trust is strengthening between movement leaders and organizations. Over 50 major organizations and movements representing a variety of issues, including environmental rights, economic justice, immigrant rights and anti-racism, formed a United Resistance campaign and vowed to treat an attack on one as an attack on all.
Another social change collective, The Majority, brings together activists, organizers, and groups with different missions. Meanwhile, sanctuary cities are popping up across the US to protect undocumented immigrants from forceful arrest and deportation. Federal workers are enrolling in trainings to learn their legal rights and discuss ways to serve ethically.
The question of “what can I do” has answers, supported by scholarship and experience. Authoritarianism always begins with the advance obedience of the thoughtless and the disorientation of the thoughtful. But we know that we should act, and we know how.
In the center of Barcelona, sits the majestic church, still unfinished, designed by Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926). It is a 20th-century masterpiece, coddled with belief and an edge of mischief. One of the first sculptures that Gaudi produced for La Sagrada Familia sits at one of its entryways. It is of the last supper. Jesus sits next to Judas. He turns toward him, but pivots a few degrees too far and looks into the eyes of those believers (and tourists) who are walking into the church. ‘You too have betrayed me,’ he says to Judas. But he is looking at the weary churchgoers and tourists when he says so. Betrayal is one thing. Complicity is another. You might not have done a bad thing, but if you didn’t do anything about it, wouldn’t that be as bad?
One hundred years ago, the German communist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) offered a stark choice to the world: socialism or barbarism. There was no third road, she suggested. If human beings did not try and organize our societies around the principles of socialism—namely the social good—we would descend rapidly into the fires of barbarism. She was thinking about war and the destruction of nature. Luxemburg was murdered a few years after she made that premonition. It was a brutal killing, with her body tossed unceremoniously into Berlin’s Landwehr Canal.
Perhaps Luxemburg’s formula was not sufficient. Barbarism is not the only option. Our choice is much starker: socialism or annihilation. It is the end of everything that has emerged once more as a possibility.
This was the sentiment after the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and during the worst time of the Cold War when Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) was a real threat. In 1979, a U.S. government study found that a nuclear weapons exchange between the USA and the USSR would result in casualty rates in the hundreds of millions. A few years later, scientists coined the phrase ‘nuclear winter’ to capture what would happen to the earth after a massive nuclear war. The climate would be altered dramatically with ‘nuclear famine’ producing enormous deaths since agriculture would be disrupted permanently. Near extinction of the human species was thought to be possible.
As I write this, I am sitting not far from the small fishing village of Palomares, Spain, where a B-52 struck a KC-135 oil tanker at 31,000 feet. The B-52 broke apart and three of its four hydrogen bombs fell near the little village. The fourth fell into the Mediterranean Sea. The bombs that hit the land exploded on impact, but did not generate a nuclear explosion. Nonetheless, the area suffered great contamination. This was in 1966. Even now, snails are fished out of the waters with strange deformations. It is not the safest place to go for an afternoon swim.
As if by serendipity, the last time I was in this area, 20 years ago, I carried with me Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth (1982), one of the most powerful books on the prospects and outcomes of nuclear warfare. The descriptions by survivors—the hibakusha—which illustrate Schell’s book are deeply meaningful. There is one memory of a terrible noise as a survivor sees a horse, pink because its skin has fallen away, galloping down the street, shrieking. Schell quotes Torako Hironaka’s list of things she remembered, which included, 1. Some burned work-clothes. 5. A naked woman. 6. Naked girls crying ‘Stupid America’. 10. A field of watermelons. 12. What with dead cats, pigs and people, it was a just a hell on earth. The writings of the Hibakusha are sentinels of the feeling of near annihilation.
Watching U.S. President Donald Trump toss binders of environmental regulations onto the ground underscored the grave dangers of this administration: the final administration. The disregard for the negative social and natural implications of human-induced climate change and warfare is striking. It is not as if Trump has broken fundamentally with a past where the world leadership was somehow truly worried about climate catastrophe and extinction by weapons of mass destruction. There are more continuities here than sharp breaks. Trump has nonetheless moved the needle faster, with a much more vicious temperament, unwilling to bend to liberal hypocrisies, eager to hasten the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock. It would not be too much to expect the Trump administration to propose to use ‘small’ nuclear weapons to blast coal seams and uncover more carbon to power the world to Armageddon.
It is not as if the Paris or Kyoto agreements would have been sufficient to stem the tide of adverse climate change. Even those were too mild, too friendly to corporations that make their money destroying the planet. But at least these agreements forced governments to accept that human activity—namely industrial capitalism—had hastened the destruction of nature. Now, Trump’s Energy Secretary Rick Perry says openly that carbon dioxide emissions are not the main drivers of climate change. Perry pointed the finger of blame at ‘ocean waters,’ allowing industrial capitalism an exit from responsibility. Why bother with alternatives to carbon when there is no ‘evidence’ that such energy sources bring the planet closer to annihilation?
Meanwhile, at the two ends of Eurasia, Trump has moved closer to war at a planetary scale. Trump has authorized the U.S. military to go after Syrian and Iranian military assets in western Syria that are currently engaged against ISIS. Russia has now warned the United States that any U.S. aircraft in that airspace will be seen as ‘air targets.’ Iran has fired ballistic missiles from Iran into eastern Syria. This sends a message to Israel and Saudi Arabia that they are within range of Iranian missiles. What might be seen as deterrence at any other time could very well be a provocation in these times of the final administration. Trump’s messy entry into the Gulf crisis, backing Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates against Qatar and Turkey, suggests no finesse in contemporary U.S. diplomacy. More firepower and more belligerent talk is the currency of our times. That this might provoke a much greater altercation in West Asia is of little concern to the final administration. That the war might spread from there into other locations, such as Eastern Europe and North Africa, seems to be of no concern.
Even more chilling was a tweet Trump sent this week that pertains to the other flank of Eurasia. ‘While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea,’ wrote Trump, ‘it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!’
So now what? Is the United States preparing for war against North Korea? South Korea and the U.S. have increased their military activity near North Korea—all provocations against a government terrified of being attacked. When a North Korean drone drifted into South Korean airspace this week, even the less military-minded new government in the south led by Moon Jae-in suggested that war was on the horizon. Will a ‘small’ nuclear exchange be contemplated for the Korean Peninsula and for Eastern Asia in general?
We are between climate catastrophe and wars of extinction, with the final administration provoking both at hyper-speed. Trump plays the role of Judas in Gaudi’s sculpture. Jesus speaks to him about betrayal. But he is looking over Judas’ shoulder. He is asking the rest of us if we are participants in the betrayal. What are you doing today to prevent Trump's agenda from driving our planet closer to extinction?
U.S. Secretary Betsy DeVos had another rough day in Congress this week when Senators grilled her on the details of her budget which slashes over $9 billion from the education department and diverts $1.4 billion to privately operated schools such as charter schools and private schools.
Even Republican senators expressed strong reservations for cuts to Special Olympics, after-school programs, and a cluster of programs for supporting low-income and first-generation college students.
But the fireworks in the media focused primary on what DeVos said about enforcing federal government laws related to discrimination in schools.
Senators pointed out that her ideas for diverting public money to private institutions could result in federal dollars going to schools that discriminate against students on religion, their sexual orientation, or other characteristics.
DeVos repeatedly insisted, “Schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law. Period.” But when senators tried pinning her down on whether federal money would go to schools that discriminate against LGBTQ students, she stated, “On areas where the law is unsettled, this department is not going to be issuing decrees.”
But her remarks are cloaked in such ambiguity, it’s hard to predict what DeVos will do to protect students from discrimination and where, and for whom, her department would enforce protections.
However, based on some of her personnel decisions, there is a great deal of cause for concern.
Already, much has been written about Candice Jackson, DeVos’s deputy assistant secretary and acting head in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
An in-depth profile by ProPublica revealed her “limited background in civil rights law” and her previous writings in which she “denounced feminism and race-based preferences.”
A recent piece in the New York Times tried to rehabilitate Jackson’s image, noting, “She is a sexual assault survivor, and has been married to her wife for more than a decade.”
“The fact that Candace Jackson is gay does not qualify her to enforce civil rights if she does not believe in enforcement of civil rights,” wrote education historian Diane Ravitch on her personal blog after reading the Times piece.
A more recent hire for the department’s deputy assistant secretary for higher education programs is former Koch Foundation employee and director of the Individual Rights Defense Program Adam Kissel.
According to Inside Higher Ed, Kissel has accused universities of “violating the free speech rights of students and faculty. He’s also criticized broader ‘intolerance’ on campuses” and “taken issue with the standard of proof used by colleges in the adjudication of recent sexual harassment and assault cases.”
Kissel has been a high profile critic of the federal government’s enforcement of Title IX, the federal gender-equity law, and how it’s been applied to campus sexual violence. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Kissel has used op-eds and Twitter to declare, “American higher education is smothered in intolerance of diverse ideas,” a phrase often used to allow hate speech on college campuses.
Richey was previously the state counsel for Oklahoma’s state superintendent of education Janet Barresi. During Richey’s tenure in 2014, Barresi got into hot water for creating a new assistant state superintendent position and hiring Richey’s husband to fill it.
He resigned a year later after a new state superintendent was elected and took over. But the taint of cronyism may follow Richey in her new position with the federal government.
As state counsel, Richey’s duties were to oversee and advise the state on legal matters, including, presumably, on enforcement of anti-discrimination laws. Yet under her watch, Oklahoma had a deplorable track record in its treatment of students with disabilities.
A 2015 examination by Oklahoma Watch found, “Oklahoma ranked first in the nation in rates of special education students being expelled from schools. It ranked fourth in corporal punishment of such students, 19th in in-school suspensions, 28th in out-of-school suspensions and 20th in arrests.”
According to state data, students with disabilities “were more likely than their peers to be suspended, expelled, arrested, handcuffed or paddled. In dozens of schools, special education students are anywhere from two to 10 times more likely to be disciplined, the data show. At some schools, every special education student has been physically disciplined, suspended or expelled.”
How this track record qualifies Richey to take over the duties of overseeing the nation’s special education and rehabilitative services is anyone’s guess.
Does it really matter who DeVos hires?
In a nuanced discussion about the issues of discrimination that arose during the DeVos senate hearing, experts on the subject said there is a lot of “unsettled law” on the matter, especially when privately operated schools accept federal money. According to Education Week.,”No state lays out protections for all marginalized groups of students, whether based on their religion, race, ethnicity, disability, sex, or sexual orientation.”
Potential discrimination against students with disabilities is a particularly tricky subject. Many states have set up their voucher programs in a way that requires parents to “waive certain disability rights for their children under federal education law in order to participate in a special-education-specific voucher program.”
The experts explained there are “plenty of questions on what solid protections exist for different groups of students between overlapping federal and state laws.”
The article quotes a former civil rights official at the U.S. Department of Education under President Bill Clinton who emphasizes that, “The design and the operation and the effects of any federal program that may be proposed will, therefore, likely matter … and matter a lot.”
In other words, federal programs affecting students’ rights, and the enforcement of civil rights laws in schools, depend a lot on who’s in charge of them.