The republicans may have lost the battle to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA), but their war on our access to medical care will certainly continue. Donald Trump and Paul Ryan are determined to dismantle the social safety net, and health care funding is their central focus.
Trump openly states that he wants the ACA to collapse, and there are some key aspects of "Obamacare" that need to be defended, such as the expansion of coverage via Medicaid and children up to age 26 and the ban on denying insurance based on pre-existing medical conditions.
But the reality is that the ACA is a completely inadequate solution to our broken health care system. It mandates severe cuts to Medicare and funding to hospitals for the uninsured, and it shovels money to insurance companies while still leaving 28 million people without health insurance. Now many insurance companies have pulled out of the ACA, making even a "high cost/bad coverage" insurance plan more difficult to get.
In response to the bleak debate between the Democrats' shoddy ACA and the Republicans' proposals for even worse, there has been growing support for a government-run "Medicare for all" system that makes health care a basic right and not a matter of profit.
This is an important development that has received a lot of media attention. But what's received less attention is the growing organization and militancy of the heath care workers -- particuarly nurses -- whose unions have the power to both win better care for their patients on a local level and be the driving force for a national health care reform movement.
Health care workers are the ones who titrate medication drips, clean bowel movements and comfort families, and who shoulder the emotional, physical and psychological work that makes hospitals run, yet they are left out of the discussion of who gets care, when they get it and how the care will be designed.
Nurses daily coordinate every patient's care with other health care professionals -- doctors, social workers and pharmacists -- as well as transporters, ward clerks and lab technicians. Because of this key role, nurses' strikes have a disproportionate impact on the running of hospitals which cannot function properly without them.
As health care has become a more central part of the U.S. economy, hospital unionization rates have increased -- in stark contrast to the declining numbers of the larger labor movement.
Union membership in hospitals grew from 13.8 percent in 2000 to 14.3 percent in 2010. "Although the growth in density might seem modest," writes labor analyst Kim Moody, "it was nonetheless significant as union density in hospitals was twice that for the private sector workforce as a whole."
Nurses are at the forefront of this trend: In 2014, 17 percent of registered nurses and 11 percent of licensed practical nurses were unionized.
Organized nurses have tremendous potental to use collective action to win improved staffing and safety for themselves and their patients, as well as improved wages and benefits. Hospital corporations are well aware of this, of course, and many have gone on the offensive in recent years against their employees.
Last month, Tufts Medical Center in Boston imposed a four day lockout on its 1200 nurses in the Massachusetts Nurses Association, in retaliation for the nurses' one-day strike over patient safety, staffing levels and cuts to wages. Tufts spent $6 million on replacement nurses but offered no money to meet the nurses' concerns.
The battle at Tufts comes on the heels of two 2016 strikes involving 4800 members of the Minnesota Nurses Association at Allina Hospital, which sought to strip nurses of their health care. Allina spent $104 million to bring in scab nurses during that time.
The strikes at Allina and Tufts have inspired health care workers, but in both cases nurses returned to work with questionable contract gains and financial hits taken by both the union and the members.
The lesson to be taken from these heroic efforts is not that nurses shouldn't strike or that they can't win, but that -- like working people everywhere -- they're up against cold-hearted corporations and need to be clear about the issues they're fighting for and what it will take to win them.
What gives nurses a potential advantage over many other workers is that health care a highly politicized industry. Strikes by nurses and other hospital workers can shine a light on the miserable conditions being created in hospitals every day by the for-profit health care system -- and rally public support both for the strikers and for larger reform.
One common argument made hospital CEOs during a nurses' strike is that the workers are prioritizing their own needs over their patients and violating the pledge all health care workers take to "do no harm."
The idea that nurses organizing to strike are going to simply abandon their patients mid-shift is preposterous, and it's especially rich coming from health care managers who talk about their patients as "clients."
Hospital bosses present a moralistic and self-serving vision of nurses and other health care workers as servants who are there to provide a good patient experience first, and medical care second for patients -- with no agency over how their workplace is run.
In reality, the constant pressure coming from above to cut costs, drive down wages and benefits and slash staffing reveals the empty morality of management and foces nurses to collectively organize for their patients and themselves. "Safe staffing" has beome a key demand in most contract negotiations and strikes.
The Massachusetts Nurses Association emphasized the centrality of its demand for better staffing by calling its walkout a "Patient Safety Strike." Striking nurses held signs with slogans that read, "Tufts Patients Deserve Safe Care" and "Tufts RNs Protecting Patient Care."
Similarly, during the Allina strike, striking nurse Gail Olson told Labor Notes, "Our number one issue is staffing. Allina is refusing to agree to a staffing proposal that actually adds staff."
It's obvious to nurses that better staffing leads to better patient outcomes, and their feeling is backed up by research. A 2014 study from the British medical journal The Lancet found an increase in a nurse's workload by just one additional patient increased the likelihood of a patient in that hospital dying by 7 percent.
In other words, it is striking nurses who are the ones fighting for patients, and hospital bosses who put their own selfish interests above those of their "clients".
Nothing makes this clearer than hospitals' dangerous use of replacement nurses as scab labor during a strike.
During a strike at St. Vincent Hospital, in Worchester in 2000, "three replacement nurses recruited by the same strike replacement nurse agency Tufts plans to use were fired after separate incidents in which they left a patient alone after surgery ...gave the wrong baby to a nursing mother," according to the Massachusetts Nurses Association. "Another patient was given a nearly fatal overdose of morphine because a replacement nurse misunderstood a doctor's order."
Similar incidences occurred in the Allina strikes, compelling one replacement nurse to quit and join the strking nurses on their picket line. Explaining her decision to the Star-Tribune, the nurse said,"There are some nurses working out of the scope of their practice that are completely lost."
When nurses strike over staffing, it can strengthen the relationship between patients and nurses. It is through this social connection, much like the one between students and teachers, that a common struggle for both better care and better working conditions can be forged.
But nurses and other healthcare workers also have a right to a safe and respectful workplace. The issue of safety in hospitals is centered primarily on patients. While patient safety is obviously critical, workplace safety for nurses often takes a backseat.
Whether it's physical injuries, exposure to communicable diseases or the daily grind of seeing people at their worst moments, nurses are supposed to "suck it up," ignore the pain and take care of patients. There are few other jobs where it is routine to be bitten, punched, kicked and verbally abused on a daily basis with few protections.
According to data from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), Bureau of health-care workers experience the most nonfatal workplace violence compared to other professions by a wide margin. A 2014 study in the Journal of Emergency Nursing found almost 80 percent of nurses reported verbal and physical abuse on the job from patients and visitors within the past year.
For many nurses, this violence intersects with the daily sexism they experience on the job. Female health care workers are often the victims of sexual harassment from physicians, administrators, managers and patients. More than fifty percent of female nurses say they have been sexually harassed.
The sexism faced by nurses isn't just interpersonal but institutional. Over the last several decades, nursing has attracted more men because it's a growing field with the prospect for higher hourly wages, benefits and stability. But even as more men enter the profession, 90 percent of nurses still being women.
Yet the gender pay gap between male registered nurses and their female counterparts has not narrowed. In fact, male hospital nurses make almost $4000 more per year than female nurses with similar positions.
The struggle against sexism and for equal pay should be central to improving the conditions that healthcare workers face daily.
Like all workers, nurses face an unrelentingly hostile force in the Trump White House.
Public-sector nurses unions face the potential of national "right-to-work" union-busting if the Supreme Court, stacked with conservative judges, rules against unions in Yohn v. California Teachers Association and Janus v. AFSCME.
Trump's new appointees to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) may revive the 2006 Kentucky River cases to declare that because nurses delegate work to other licensed and ancillary staff, they are supervisors and therefore inelibigle for unionization.
Within this context, nurses' unions must be defended as they remain the key organizations by which nurses can speak out for themselves and their patients, against the onslaught of profit-driven work flow management schemes.
Organized nurses are the most powerful force for resisting the power of for-profit insurance companies, pharmaceutical corporations and the American Hospital Association -- and it's bought off backers in both political parties.
A recent Associated Press survey found that 62 percent say it is the federal government's responsibility to make sure that all Americans have healthcare coverage. But health care workers and their patients can't depend on a two party system to legislate away a $3 trillion dollar industry.
Nurses and other health care workers have the potential to democratically put forward a different vision of free health care for all, provided in safe, clean and well-staffed hospitals. For this to happen, nurses will need to show that they have the organization and ability to strike for themselves, their patients and their community.Danny Katch contributed to this article.
Police with binoculars and a rifle position themselves on a roof across the street from the Charlottesville City Hall before Jason Kessler, a white nationalist organizer, tried to speak outside the Charlottesville City Hall on August 13, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia. The police often stood by as white supremacists escalated violence against anti-racist counter-protesters. (Photo: Win McNamee / Getty Images)
If the neo-Nazis feel especially emboldened to come out of the shadows now, it's because elements of their neo-fascist ideology have found a comfortable place at the highest levels of the current administration, including with Trump himself. Such normalization of hate and bigotry is usually the first step to authoritarianism.
Police with binoculars and a rifle position themselves on a roof across the street from the Charlottesville City Hall before Jason Kessler, a white nationalist organizer, tried to speak outside the Charlottesville City Hall on August 13, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia. The police often stood by as white supremacists escalated violence against anti-racist counter-protesters. (Photo: Win McNamee / Getty Images)
The recent "Unite the Right" march by a couple of hundred white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists across the University of Virginia campus offered a glimpse of the growing danger of authoritarian movements both in the United States and across the globe, reeking of the 1930s. The image of hundreds of fascist bullies chanting anti-Semitic, racist and white nationalist slogans, such as "Heil Trump," and later attacking peaceful anti-racist counter-demonstrators makes clear that the radical right-wing groups that have been on the margins of American society are now more comfortable in public with their nihilistic and dangerous politics.
They appear especially emboldened to come out of the shadows because elements of their neo-fascist ideology have found a comfortable if not supportive place at the highest levels of the Trump administration, especially in the presence of Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions and Stephen Miller, who espouse elements of the nefarious racist ideology that was on full display in Charlottesville. As is well known, Trump has embraced the presence and backing of white nationalists and white supremacists while refusing to denounce their Nazi slogans and violence in strong political and ethical terms, suggesting his own complicity with such movements.
It should surprise no one that David Duke, a former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, told reporters on Saturday that the Unite the Right followers were "going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump … to take our country back." Nor should it surprise anyone that Trump initially refused to condemn the fascist groups behind the horrifying, shocking images and violence that took place in Charlottesville.
Trump's silence made elements of the far right quite happy. For instance, the Daily Stormer, a white supremacist website, issued the following statement: "Refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him."
It appears that the presence of Nazi and Confederate flags, along with the horrible history of millions lost to the Holocaust and slavery, lynchings, church bombings, and the assassination of Black leaders, such as Medgar Evans and Martin Luther King Jr., did little to move Trump to a serious understanding or repudiation of the poisonous historical forces that surfaced in Charlottesville. As New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb observes, this was a telling moment. He writes:
When [Trump] did speak about the crisis, he denounced bigotry and violence "on many sides," in a statement that was bizarrely punctuated by references to efforts to reform trade relationships and better conditions for veterans. We have seen a great number of false equivalencies in the past two years, and the most recent Presidential election was defined by them. Yet it remains striking to hear Trump imply that Nazis and the interracial group of demonstrators who gathered to oppose them were, in essence, equally wrong.
While Trump finally gave way to overwhelming pressure on Monday and delivered a speech in which he asserted that "racism is evil" and described the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists as "repugnant," by Tuesday he had already reverted to his initial assertion of "blame on both sides," equating neo-Nazis with anti-racist counter-protesters (whom he labelled as the "alt-left") and speaking of "very fine people" among the crowd of right-wing extremists who chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans on Friday night.
The authoritarian drama unfolding across the United States has many registers and includes state violence against immigrants, right-wing populist violence against mosques and synagogues, and attacks on Muslims, Black people and others who do not fit into the vile script of white nationalism. The violence in Charlottesville is but one register of a larger mirror of domestic terrorism and home-grown fascism that is growing in the United States.
Such demonstrations represent a historical moment that capture some of the elements of a past that led to some of the worse crimes in human history. At the risk of falling prey to historical amnesia, the crucial lesson to be learned is that the ideology, values and institutions of a liberal democracy are once again under assault by those who no longer believe in equality, justice and democracy. As the historian Timothy Snyder has observed, it is crucial to remember that the success of authoritarian regimes in Germany and other places succeeded, in part, because they were not stopped in the early stages of their development.
The growing call for illiberal democracies (code for authoritarian regimes) first begins with the popularization and normalization of hate and bigotry, which we have witnessed under the Trump regime, and then morphs into right-wing groups developing their own militias, organs of violence and paramilitary forces.
Charlottesville provides a glimpse of authoritarianism on the rise and speaks to the dark clouds that appear to be ushering in a new and dangerous historical moment. While it is problematic to assume that a US-style totalitarianism will soon become the norm in the United States, it is not unrealistic to recognize that the possibility for a return to authoritarianism is no longer the stuff of fantasy or paranoia, especially since its core elements of hatred, exclusion, racism and white supremacy have been incorporated into both the highest levels of state power and the mainstream right-wing media. The horrors of the past are real, and the fears they produce about the present are the necessary work of both historical memory and the power of civic courage and moral responsibility.
Liberal Democracy Is Losing Its Grip
In Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci, the great Italian Marxist philosopher, observed that one measure of a time of crisis is "that the great masses ... become detached from their traditional ideologies and no longer believe what they used to believe previously. The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear."
While Gramsci was characterizing a different historical period, his words are as relevant today as they were when written in the 1930s. All over the globe, liberal democracy is losing its grip on the public imagination and in the midst of this loss a toxic form of illiberal democracy is taking its place. As institutions that once provided public visions and proactive spaces are stripped of their authority and decay under the scourge of casino capitalism, the foundation is being set for the rise of new modes of authoritarianism. What they all share is both a hatred for democracy and a willingness to feed off the anger and rage of those who have suffered under punishing austerity measures imposed by global capitalism. At a time in which the growing problems of inequality, terrorism, war, state violence, immigration, precarity, mass poverty and the elimination of the welfare state have accelerated, stable democracies have been shattered.
In the midst of a massive global attack on the welfare state and social provisions fueled by neoliberal policies, the social contract central to liberal democracies has been shredded and with it any viable notion of solidarity, economic justice and the common good. Progress has been turned into its opposite and registers more inequality, suffering and violence. The older language of collective rights has given way to the discourse of individual rights, and the vocabulary of collaboration and compassion has been uprooted by a discourse of radical individualism and a harsh, survival-of-the fittest ethos. "Freedom" has morphed into a synonym for unbridled self-interest and a rationale for abdicating any sense of moral and political responsibility. Under global neoliberalism, the future is viewed as more of a curse than a blessing and has lost its value as what Zygmunt Bauman calls "the safest and most promising location for investing [one's] hopes." In contrast, as Bauman observes in his contribution to The Great Regression, the future has now become a repository for projecting our most dreaded anxieties. He writes that such fears and apprehensions are now driven by a number of elements that have come to characterize neoliberal societies:
the growing scarcity of jobs, of falling incomes reducing our and our children's life chances, of the yet greater frailty of our social positions and the temporality of our life achievements, of the increasingly widening gap between the tools, resources and skills at our disposal and the momentousness of the challenges facing us. Above all, we feel our control over our own lives slipping from our hands, reducing us to the status of pawns moved to and fro in a chess game played by unknown players indifferent to our needs, if not downright hostile and cruel, and all too ready to sacrifice us in pursuit of their own objectives. Not so long ago associated with more comfort and less inconvenience, what the thought of the future tends nowadays to bring to mind most often is the gruesome menace of being identified or classified as inept and unfit for the task, denied value and dignity, and for that reason marginalized, excluded and outcast.
The dream of the democracy has turned into a nightmare as more and more people are considered expendable and subject to the whims of a market that reduces them to the status of merely surviving rather than getting ahead. The failure of neoliberalism's promise of social mobility, equal opportunity, employment and privatized dream worlds gave way to regressive taxation, off shoring, deindustrialization, the slashing of social provisions, the dismantling of public services and the rise of right-wing populism. Desperation, isolation and a sense of abandonment coupled with the collapse of democratic institutions and public spheres have produced a new collective fatalism all over the globe.
Growing Support for Authoritarianism
The increasing failure of global neoliberalism has produced the conditions in which more and more people are inclined to express support for authoritarian alternatives that reproduce the power of right-wing populist nationalists and favor the interest of white majorities who advocate a return of barricades and borders rather than eliminating the systemic conditions of economic, cultural and social domination. Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, spoke for many when he proclaimed that societies founded on liberal principles will not be able to compete successfully in a global market and that there is no reason for democracies to be liberal in order to be successful. According to Orbán, the state is not defined by democratic values, but by its economic and cultural interests, interests that fall on the side of a growing number of far-right regimes. He writes:
The new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state. It does not deny foundational values of liberalism, as freedom, etc. But it does not make this ideology a central element of state organization, but applies a specific, national, particular approach in its stead.... We are searching for (and we are doing our best to find, ways of parting with Western European dogmas, making ourselves independent from them) the form of organizing a community, that is capable of making us competitive in this great world-race.
This worldwide rejection of liberal democracy is fuelled by a landscape of massive instability, inequality, fear and insecurity driven by a counterrevolutionary global capitalism of permanent change that, in the words of Pankaj Mishra, can neither "fulfil its own promise of general prosperity [or conceal] its contempt for the democratic principle of equality." In the place of failed states and broken economies, there has been a retreat into promises offered by the rise of the security state, racial cleansing, economic nationalism, xenophobia and a call for the suppression of dissent and a growing emphasis on law and order. Heinrich Geiselberger has called this "the great regression," an apt metaphor for the growing collapse of public discourse, values and democratic institutions and public spheres. As is well documented, the toxic effects of neoliberalism cannot be separated from diverse counterrevolutionary and right-wing populist forces that have contributed to the resurgence of authoritarianism across the globe.
The political crises and earthquakes shaking the foundations of liberal democracy reveal more than the pent-up collective energies of despair, rage and insecurity. They also speak to the growing mechanisms of exclusion and ideologies of racist contempt that have returned with a vengeance all over Europe and in the United States. Dressed up in the discourse of a ruthless hyper-capitalism, the crises haunting liberal democracies across the globe have provided fodder for right-wing demagogues to promote nationalistic policies. In so doing, they denounce democratic values in the name of a popular will that both resents what the political establishment has done to them and is comfortable with political leaders who are xenophobic, authoritarian and patriarchal. Accompanying the rise of authoritarian states in Russia, India, Turkey, Hungary, Egypt, the Philippines and the United States, among others, there is also the growing presence of right-wing political formations in France, Greece, Italy and a number of other countries.
Rising Bigotry and Nationalism
Politics has become more personal, wrapping itself in the narrow embrace of cultural nationalism and racial, religious and ethnic bigotry. Historic calls for democratization that marked the post-war period have given rise, in part, to a collective anxiety and apprehension fuelled by a despair and anger deeply tied to a form of casino capitalism that camouflaged its underlying modes of oppression and politics of disposability in the seductive yet failed discourses of freedom and justice, both of which were defined in strictly economic and market terms. Stoked by fear and a resentment toward those considered a threat to white nationalist ideologies, the retreat from the imposed death-dealing effects of neoliberalism parading as democracy gave rise to the awkward return of the repressive ideologies of ethno-nationalism, the stifling of dissent and exaltation of state violence as a mode of governance.
For instance, under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey there has been a return to the traditions and grandeur of an Ottoman past. In India, the right-wing ideologue, Narendra Modi, has resurrected the ideology of Hindu nationalism. In a similar vein, President Trump has fuelled a culture of fear, racism and demonization as part of his efforts to resuscitate a culture of white Christian nationalism has reproduced in the first part of his presidency his own brand of political illiberalism. As Paul Mason points out:
If we analyse Trump through his actions, rather than his garbled words, it is political illiberalism that has won out during the first seven months of his presidency. When a judge blocked his Muslim immigration ban, he attacked the judiciary's constitutional role. When the press revealed malfeasance, he labelled them "enemies of the American people". When James Comey refused Trump's appeals for "loyalty," he was sacked.
White resentment and white nationalism have come to symbolize Trump's politics, beginning with his egregious and false claim that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and taking shape in his appointment of white nationalists, such as Jeff Sessions and Steve Bannon, to the highest levels of government -- an issue I have discussed in detail in my forthcoming book American Nightmare: The Challenge of American Authoritarianism (City Lights Press, 2018). Such measures have bolstered his credibility with white militias, neo-Nazis and other white nationalist groups. Carol Anderson correctly states that "The guiding principle in Mr. Trump's government is to turn the politics of white resentment into the policies of white rage -- that calculated mechanism of executive orders, laws and agency directives that undermines and punishes minority achievement and aspiration."
Arjun Appadurai argues that what Trump and similar authoritarian leaders have in common is a hatred of democracy because it stands in the way of their monomaniacal efforts to seize political power. In his contribution to The Great Regression anthology, he writes:
The leaders hate democracy because it is an obstacle to their monomaniacal pursuit of power. The followers are victims of democracy fatigue who see electoral politics as the best way to exit democracy itself. This hatred and this exhaustion find their natural common ground in the space of cultural sovereignty, enacted in scripts of racial victory for resentful majorities, national ethnic purity and global resurgence through the promises of soft power. This common cultural ground inevitably hides the deep contradictions between the neoliberal economic policies and well-documented crony capitalism of most of these authoritarian leaders and the genuine economic suffering and anxiety of the bulk of their mass followings. It is also the terrain of a new politics of exclusion, whose targets are either migrants or internal ethnic minorities or both.
It is against this wider historical and social context marked by a mounting embrace of illiberal democracy that the authoritarian populism of Donald Trump and other demagogues can be both interrogated and challenged, especially when the political interests that bear part responsibility for producing what Mike Lofgren has described as a "neoliberal economics turned punitive and illiberal" now claim to be the only force capable of resisting Trump's authoritarianism. It is also against this worldwide embrace of illiberal democracy that a debate must begin over rethinking politics outside of the discourse of capitalism.
Failures of the Politics of Resentment
Trump's appearance on the political landscape is part of a much broader politics of resentment, one that denies the theoretical and political tools to assess the conditions for free-floating anger and despair in the first place. Put differently, the political crisis signalled by the US morphing into a form of authoritarianism has not been matched by a crisis of ideas. That is, the issue of how everyday problems and hardships are connected to wider economic and political structures is left unanswered for most Americans. Instead, the politics of resentment has become part of a threefold failed project of politics. First, the politics of resentment has been appropriated by Republican extremists to serve as part of a politics of authoritarianism. Second, resentment politics has produced highly restricted forms of resistance on the part of many liberals whose focus is on Trump the man rather than on the economic conditions and ideological movements that produced him. Third, the expressions of resentment and the authoritarian politics they produced have become a new form of entertainment through which the corporate-controlled media generates an endless stream of what might be called tabloid politics in which the political realm dissolves into a lurid pornography of aesthetics. As one expression of such a politics, news cycles fill up their time slots and papers by devoting endless amounts of commentary to Trump's tweets, all the while legitimating the notion that the pathology of authoritarian governance is primarily about the spectacle of performance. What the corporate media miss is that Trump's tweets are meant to produce a politics of fatigue and theatrics that serve as code for his right-wing followers in an expanding counterrevolution that embraces the values of a Second Gilded Age.
The growing tide of demagoguery in the United States and across the globe must begin with the changing nature of neoliberal ideology and its transformation from a free-market utopia to a normalized dystopian reality. At stake here is the need for a post-neoliberal narrative in which democratic ideals can no longer be defended under conditions of neoliberal globalization. The rise of illiberal democracy is based on the premise that democracy should not be defended because it cannot be realized under neoliberal regimes. The bold new authoritarian strategy emerging out of this cold recognition is not to dispense with neoliberalism but with democracy itself.
No longer able to hide the massive misery, inequality and hardship that the "free market" has produced across the globe, the new authoritarians no longer praise the laws of an unfettered market fundamentalism. Instead, they rely on a politics of distraction, such as an appeal to cultural nationalism and the longing for the re-establishment of a mythic past. Trump has appropriated this politics of distraction, giving it a unique configuration, one that reinforces the domination of neoliberal elites while making invisible the underlying structures of predatory economic and political power that have consolidated further still under his administration. Of course, this is not meant to confuse elements of his popular racist, fascistic and white nationalist base. Rather, it is meant to distract those politicians, pundits and anti-public intellectuals who have no interest in fighting for progressive change and who prefer the theater associated with Trump's tweets rather than engaging in a serious debate about the bankruptcy of the neoliberal system. This diversion has been successful in delaying the debate about how the crisis of democracy is largely connected to the crisis of neoliberal capitalism, militarism and the emergence of an authoritarianism in support of an illiberal democracy.
While demagogues across Europe and other parts of the globe maintain control through the outright suppression of dissent and the dismantling of civil liberties [Turkey, China, Russia and Egypt], Trump has taken a different route. Trump's policies benefit not only the financial master class but also the established neoliberal politicians and intellectuals who still champion globalization, assuming the role of his most serious opposition while posturing as the vanguard of resistance against his accelerating authoritarianism. Trump inverts the rules of ideology by denying its very premises, thus introducing a form of depoliticization and manufactured ignorance that eliminates the affective and educational foundations for a liberal democracy.
Trump's endless lies, impetuous outbursts and regressive policies -- such as stepping up deportations of undocumented immigrants, rolling back affirmative action and banning transgender troops from serving in the military -- are largely engineered to satisfy his shrinking base of support. But there is more at work here than simply creating subterfuge for political ends or for justifying such deceitfulness as part of a militaristic and reactionary strategy of making politics an extension of the art of war. The latter has become an industry and it has a long history in US politics. Trump's mendacity should be viewed as part of a staged politics of distraction that provides cover for the brutal neoliberal policies that he both ruthlessly supports and egregiously symbolizes. After all, it was largely the debris of neoliberal policies that brought Trump to power, a wreckage he relentlessly exploited.
Certainly, it is obvious that Trump is a racist, xenophobe and egregious sexist. But most of all, he is emblematic of a ruthless corporate, self-serving, greedy elite who will do anything to consolidate their class and financial power. His theatrical antics and spectacularized politics represent crude entertainment for his base and rising profit margins for the mainstream media; they also signal the need to divert attention away from the ideological, economic, political and structural forces that have laid the groundwork for the appeal of illiberal democracy and the rising tide of authoritarianism in the United States. The latter is especially true for those Trump supporters who are more independent politically, who are not driven by white supremacist imperatives and who are sympathetic to the call of anti-establishment politicians.
What Trump, or at least Steve Bannon, is well aware of is that the struggle over power is not only about the struggle over language and beliefs, but also about the destruction of those intellectual and institutional elements that enable the capacity for informed judgment and the ability to hold onto any belief with a sense of commitment and integrity. Hence, his ongoing attempts to destroy critical media, public education and those democratic public spheres that provide the protective spaces of education in the broadest sense of the term. What is disturbing about this endorsement of mass illiteracy and political ignorance is that it is not just about accusing the critical media of producing fake news, it is also about creating support among his 35 million followers for supporting unconstitutional legislation designed to silence the so-called liberal press for inaccurate reporting. For instance, The Economist reported that "When YouGov asked whether courts should be allowed to 'shut down news media outlets for publishing or broadcasting stories that are biased and inaccurate', 45% of Republicans were in favour, compared with 20% who opposed the measure. More than half thought it acceptable to fine an offending news outlet (and 40% thought it would not violate the First Amendment to do so)."
Trump's authoritarianism is as much about the crisis of democracy as it is about the crisis of casino capitalism, clearly exemplified by the emergence of right- and left-wing populist movements that are angry and bitter over what the conservative and liberal elites and their political and economic systems have done to them. No longer able to employ the mythical elements of neoliberalism in light of the growing attack of progressive activists on the financial ruling classes and a mounting criticism of what many believe is a failed state -- an attack that cuts across ideological boundaries -- the Republican disciples of neoliberalism have dispensed with ideology and now rely on a raw politics bent on voter suppression, gerrymandering, mass incarceration, defunding of public goods and other tactics to eliminate any vestige of a liberal democracy.
Trump's diversions make it difficult for the public to uphold or even define the standards that sustain the rule of law, democratic governance and the value of educational institutions committed to individual freedom, civil liberties, justice and human rights. Trump's lies do more than distract and pollute the space of a shared potential reality -- they empty language of any substantive meaning and in doing so serve to erase the power and value of historical consciousness and the critical formative cultures that produce both informed agents and individual and collective acts of resistance. Trump's presidency stands for the abandonment of ideology or what I will call a pedagogical politics of persuasion in which ideas become weapons and educational tools to shape consciousness, desires and identities. This is not to deny that Trump is afraid of ideas or the willingness to embrace them when it serves his political ends as much as to suggest that his deepest concern is with preventing people from developing the capacity to think critically in the first place and to act on informed critiques of power. This in part explains his obsession with a notion of loyalty that has little to do with a commitment to justice or the common good as much as it is a cover for unquestioned obedience to him.
Rites of "Purification" in the Wake of Neoliberal Corporate Sovereignty
What we are witnessing in the rise of illiberal democracies across the globe is a rite of political, racial and social purification that appeals to an imagined lost dominance on the part of individual nation states in the wake of neoliberalism's corporate sovereignty. What is left out of this narrative by Trump and other authoritarian leaders is that modern states no longer control their economies, which are now in the hands of a global financial elite and authoritarian populists. Power is now financial, mobile and global, managed by a free-floating elite at liberty to pursue its own interests and targets. Fiscal and monetary policies are no longer in the hands of the nation states, residing in the hands of international financial institutions, such as the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund, which exist beyond national accountability. As Zygmunt Bauman and Leonidas Donskis have argued in their book Moral Blindness, the nation state remains the repository of a politics "squeezed and robbed of all or nearly all of its power, muscles and teeth," reduced to serving the dictates of global capital and expanding its role as a punishing state. As the protective functions of the state are targeted, the foundations of existential security and solidarity are eroded, giving rise to a Hobbesian world where no room exists for care and compassion, only callousness and indifference, cruelty and suffering.
Arjun Appadurai, in his discussion of "democracy fatigue," captures the hollowing out of the nation state, describing the return to cultural purification and ethno-nationalism as a means to stifle dissent and to avoid addressing the underlying causes responsible for economic sovereignty being replaced by ethno-nationalism and cultural sovereignty. He writes:
This, then, is what the leaders of the new authoritarian populisms have in common: the recognition that none of them can truly control their national economies, which are hostages to foreign investors, global agreements, transnational finance, mobile labour and capital in general. All of them promise national cultural purification as a route to global political power. All of them are friendly to neoliberal capitalism, with their own versions of how to make it work for India, Turkey, the United States or Russia. All of them seek to translate soft power into hard power. And none of them has any reservations about repressing minorities and dissidents, stifling free speech or using the law to throttle their opponents.... Thus populist authoritarian leaders and demagogues are to be found everywhere across the old continent, and they too operate with the same mix of neoliberalism, cultural chauvinism, anti-immigrant anger and majoritarian rage.
In Trump's world, there is no need to rely heavily on ideology because there are no standards, no firm ground on which matters of persuasion and belief root themselves. Instead, ideas, reason, evidence and truth collapse in a sea of misrepresentations, engineered stupidity and diversions, all of which are designed, as Hannah Arendt once argued, to prepare the ground for a form of totalitarianism rooted in contempt for critical thought, if not the very act of thinking. The foundation for authoritarianism, she wrote, lies in a kind of mass thoughtlessness in which a citizenry "is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also its capacity to think and to judge." Manufactured ignorance and the slide into authoritarianism has become a staple of American life, but it cannot be reduced to the scourge of economic structures.
Cultural politics and the educational force of the corporate-controlled cultural apparatuses such as the mainstream media are a potent force for ignorance and depoliticization in the United States. The blight of celebrity culture, an engineered culture of fear that activates a hatred of others, the destruction of public education and the corporatization of higher education, the rise of the surveillance state and the war on terrorism all contribute to a collective paranoia that produces social isolation, a heightened sense of rootlessness, the privatization of everything and the conflation of citizenship with a dreary ethos of consumerism.
Under neoliberalism, too many people are trapped in their own private orbits, unable to address the systemic conditions that destroy the ties that connect them to others while reproducing the conditions in which the body is uprooted from any sense of community and the existential need for belonging. As George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, Zygmunt Bauman and other prominent intellectuals have predicted, such isolation kills the imagination and finds symbolic compensation in the ideological appeals of authoritarian leaders who promise communities organized around hate, violence and exclusion. All of this amounts to a swindle of fulfillment and a rejection of liberal democracy.
Trump has dispensed with the fiction of democracy because he believes that in the interest of power both people and the planet are disposable, excess to be plundered and discarded. As part of an effort to normalize this pathology, he systematically employs a politics of diversion to prevent the public from addressing the underlying neoliberal forces and conditions that sold democracy to the bankers, hedge fund managers and other surrogates of finance. Under Trump, democracy is not being thinned out, it is being replaced by a regime that is hostile to its existence while fighting to maintain the economic conditions that have allowed the United States to slide into authoritarianism.
Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council and author of Losing an Enemy - Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy, issued the following statement regarding comments by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani suggesting Iran could back out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) if the U.S. continues to escalate sanctions:
Moments ago, activists from UltraViolet, a national women’s advocacy organization, and the Working Families Party, unveiled a massive banner inside Trump Tower’s lobby reading: “WOMEN RESIST WHITE SUPREMACY.”
Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Quad Caucus Demand Immediate Removal of Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka and Stephen Miller from White House
Today, Congresswoman Barbara Lee and leadership of the Congressional Quad-Caucus – which is composed of chairs of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC), the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) and the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) – sent a letter to President Donald Trump calling for the immediate removal of Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka and Stephen Miller from the White House. Bannon, Gorka and Miller serve as senior advisors to the President.
A coalition of conservation groups took legal action today to protect clean water and native trout on wild public lands in northwest Montana’s Cabinet Mountains from pollution threatened by development of a massive copper and silver mine.
In a rebuff to the Trump administration’s decision to ignore climate change in federal decision-making, a U.S. District Court judge on Monday invalidated a proposed expansion of Signal Peak Energy’s Bull Mountain mine because its climate impacts were not adequately considered.
As CEOs Abandon Trump’s Manufacturing Council Over Lackluster Repudiation of White Supremacists, Over 26,000 Demand Ford, GM, IBM, JPMorgan Chase and Other CEOs Follow Their Lead
Over 26,000 people have signed a petition by consumer watchdog group SumofUs, demanding CEOs on President Trump’s business councils to resign from their posts advising the president. The petition comes after news yesterday that Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, and Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank announced their resignations from Trump’s manufacturing council over Trump’s failure to adequately repudiate white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, VA this past weekend.
Net Neutrality Activists Launch Crowdfunded Billboards Targeting Key Members Of Congress During August Recess
Today digital rights organization Fight for the Future unleashed a series of crowdfunded billboards targeting lawmakers who support FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s efforts to repeal the country’s net neutrality rules.
Jewish Voice for Peace stands unequivocally and emphatically against the white supremacy, antisemitism and fascism on display in Charlottesville this weekend. We join the voices of mourning for Heather Heyer, who was murdered by one of the white supremacist marchers, and for the full recovery of all those injured and traumatized by Saturday’s events.
The Iranian parliament on August 13, 2017, approved a long-awaited amendment to the country’s drug law that significantly raises the bar for a mandatory death sentence, Human Rights Watch said today.
Tech Firms Urge Supreme Court to Adapt Privacy Protections for ‘Realities of the Digital Era’ in Cell Phone Tracking Case
Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Verizon, and other technology companies filed a brief with the Supreme Court late last night declaring that when it comes to the government’s tracking of people’s cell phone locations, “Rigid analog-era rules should yield to consideration of reasonable expectations of privacy in the digital age.”
Tech billionaires are often portrayed as champions of innovation and social entrepreneurship in the mainstream media, while their tax evasion schemes and labor abuses go underreported. So, when billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Laurene Powell-Jobs procure major media outlets, we should be paying closer attention, especially in the wake of an election that hinged on media coverage.
Billionaire Peter Thiel. (Photo: Ken Yeung)
In July, reports surfaced that a private company known as Emerson Collective LLC had purchased a majority stake in The Atlantic. The news seemed hardly unwonted: the company had a history of media investments, with such outlets as news-summary site Axios and criminal-legal journalism outlet The Marshall Project among its beneficiaries. What distinguished the acquisition, however, was the person at Emerson's helm: Laurene Powell-Jobs -- also known as the widow of Steve Jobs.
As reporters have noted, Powell-Jobs' procurement came on the heels of Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos's purchase of The Washington Post in 2013. Indeed, the parallel events would seem to mark an inchoate phenomenon: West Coast tech billionaires' foray into mainstream media ownership.
This is cause for alarm. To begin to parse why, it's prudent to examine the seductive narrative of tech billionairedom. The villainy of such figures as Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch and Peter Thiel -- the rogue Silicon Valley Trump supporter who infamously engineered the dissolution of Gawker Media due to a personal vendetta -- is transparent. However, those who've amassed their fortunes in the tech industry (with the exception of Thiel) are often deemed the "good billionaires," earning the trust of the business-cheerleading professional class and its young aspirants.
One of the draws of the "good billionaires" is their brandishing of "innovation" and corporate liberalism, a reflection of the industry's age-old PR aphorism "change the world." Powell-Jobs extols the virtues of "social entrepreneurship"; among Emerson Collective's stated priorities are immigration and education reform. While Bezos has long been notorious for his comparative dearth of philanthropy, he has professed support of same-sex marriage and has recently sought ideas for charitable projects. "'The Good Rich' Do Exist," Forbes declared in 2013; writers Brian Solomon and Caleb Melby proclaimed that "billionaire philanthropists ... genuinely care about making the world a better place," citing Bill Gates's global work and tech luminary Elon Musk, whose companies "are trying to solve the world's energy problems."
Furthermore, pundits often fetishize tech magnates as modern Horatio Alger characters. Industry leaders tend to be "self-made"; rather than a breeding ground of moneyed dynasties, the technology industry is framed as a hub of innovators who "bootstrapped" their way out of kitchens, garages or prestigious universities to futuristic mega-campuses. (This perspective, of course, often disregards the social and financial capital that permitted such ascents in the first place.) Much of the hagiographic lore surrounding these figures centers on resilience: Google cofounder Sergey Brin immigrated from Russia to the United States, where his ingenuity would catapult him into realizing the "American Dream"; Bezos, an adoptee of his Cuban immigrant grandfather, dared to quit his Wall Street job to begin selling books out of his garage; Steve Jobs, born to an immigrant and adopted by a working-class San Francisco couple, disrupted his way into superlative affluence. ("Remember what a Syrian immigrant looks like -- the father of Steve Jobs," Nicholas Kristof has fondly mused.)
Under the auspices of these celebrated techno-capitalists, media outlets will likely only heighten these narratives while obfuscating dissent. A recent survey from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) found that since Bezos acquired The Washington Post, the newspaper had published "almost uniformly uncritical -- oftentimes boosterish -- coverage" of Amazon over the last two years, as had The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Ninety-five percent of The Washington Post's coverage "ranged from neutral to positive/fawning"; The New York Times's and Wall Street Journal's percentages were 93 and 94, respectively. In a crowning example, FAIR noted, the Post ran a piece entitled "An exclusive look at Jeff Bezos's plan to set up Amazon-like delivery for 'future human settlement' of the moon" last March.
Such corporate propaganda substantiates what would seem like an obvious truth: When businesspeople buy the media, they leverage it to protect their own interests. It's not hard to imagine the direction The Atlantic -- a periodical that already has a history of repackaging Apple's press releases -- might take under its new ownership; a simple look at Axios's soft, often glowing coverage of Apple provides another clue. (Among its greater offenders: a story about a new Foxconn manufacturing plant in Wisconsin that neglects to address the pattern of suicides at the Foxconn iPhone factory in China.)
These reverent biases ignore the myriad ills their subjects inflict -- from Apple's tax-evasion schemes to Amazon's labor abuses -- essentially absolving tech's aristocracy of its iniquities. In the wake of an election whose outcome hinged largely on media coverage, the political influence of corporate media can't be understated. This is especially true considering the growing fusion of tech's upper crust and US politics; though Bezos has denied presidential ambitions, his monopolistic intrigues -- namely, Amazon's recent Whole Foods purchase -- betray an interest in titanic power, and his California counterparts Mark Zuckerberg and Thiel are angling for technocratic policy influence and possibly political office. Powell-Jobs, whose fortune has afforded her personal ties to both the Clinton and Bush families, might not be far behind.
Painted as champions of performative innovation, titans of industry and purveyors of the "American Dream," tech elites have manufactured a trifecta of hype; meanwhile, the voices that should be rebuking them are instead beholden to them. Bezos's and Powell-Jobs's acquisitions must serve as cautionary tales of a system in which the flow of information can be treated as another business venture, a mere stratagem in a campaign to pursue the sheerly capitalist virtues of wealth and power. At a time when the US is suffering from the election of one billionaire, it can't afford to be bamboozled into empowering others.
A vigil is held in downtown Philadelphia on August 13, 2017, in support of the victims of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend. (Photo: Jessica Kourkounis / Getty Images)
Opposing white supremacist mobilizations is important in the defense of marginalized people and civil society. But focusing mainly on the acts of individuals or emotions like "hate" obscures the role of structural racism in white supremacist violence. To prevent more acts of violence, we must confront and eradicate the structural foundations of white supremacy.
A vigil is held in downtown Philadelphia on August 13, 2017, in support of the victims of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend. (Photo: Jessica Kourkounis / Getty Images)
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White supremacist James Alex Fields Jr.'s murder of 32-year-old Heather Heyer and near-massacre of antiracist protesters at the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville turned the mobilization into a flashpoint for politicians on both sides of the aisle, as well as for media outlets. Heyer's death shifted the mainstream portrayal of Charlottesville from a "street fight between the right and the left" to a terrorist attack aimed at the antiracist left.
Donald Trump, of course, did not make this shift. Although he has supplied swift responses to the attacks that have occurred in places like Paris, the president initially remained mum about Heyer's murder and the dozens of people who were injured in the white supremacist attack.
Trump's conspicuous silence and weak response led both conservatives and liberals to frame their conversations on Charlottesville through discussions of the president's lack of moral leadership. Republicans and Democrats, such as Senators Orrin Hatch and Marco Rubio, and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe condemned Trump for his initial silence. Once Trump finally issued a response condemning what he described as "violence on many sides," he attracted more criticisms from both liberal and conservative politicians and pundits for failing to identify that white supremacists were at fault and suggesting that both the left and the right were to blame.
While Trump's comments were indeed egregious, mainstream narratives about Charlottesville that focus primarily on Trump's bad character and the actions of one murderous racist (Fields), leave something to be desired: They obscure the need to creatively confront and defeat the white supremacist right. These limited narratives belie the structure of white supremacy in the US. Ultimately, this framing tells many of us on the left what we already know: Neither liberals nor conservatives have a real strategy for eradicating white supremacy at its root.
Like many Americans, I was horrified to hear about the murder of Heather Heyer and the injuries to other anti-racists and anti-fascists resisting white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday. As an organizer working to confront racist police violence in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I have seen tense moments where drivers have threatened to ram their vehicles into marchers exercising their right to protest, so I knew that this violence was not a case of a few "rotten apples;" the threat of it persists everywhere.
Fields' evil deed recalls this nation's deep history of state-sanctioned white supremacist violence aimed at people of color, especially African Americans, and the left. Friday night's tiki-torch march and Saturday's deadly assault recall the wave of race riots as well as the first Red Scare after World War I. Part of the white nationalists' vision, at least as described by white supremacist leader Richard Spencer, is to create a white "ethno-state." Driving through a multiracial flank of radicals could represent a pursuit of this goal, or at least an attempt to create the space needed for further white nationalist organizing.
However, the framing of Saturday's attacks by liberal and conservative politicians and pundits does not really present death as a logical outcome of white supremacist organizing and a white nationalist White House. The overwhelming emphasis on the actions of the driver, as well as on Trump's responses, reduces the problem of eradicating white supremacy to one murderous act by an individual and a lack of moral leadership from an immoral president, not the product of structural racism. Rather than seeing white supremacy as a system, many analysts are describing Friday's and Saturday's events as the result of an emotion: "hate."
Critiques of Trump focused on his days-long inability to reference Neo-Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan, eventually forcing him to deliver a new statement. But what is the point of pushing Trump to denounce white supremacists, when he clearly does not have the moral authority to criticize them? Trump helped popularize birtherism, which offered a basis for Republican Party obstructionism during the Obama era. Trump-fueled birtherism also helped delegitimize certain policies, such as the Affordable Care Act.
Trump has employed white nationalists, such as Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, in his administration. His administration has sought to implement a constellation of policies that can only be described as an attempt to explicitly center white racial nationalism in domestic and foreign affairs. These policies include the Muslim travel ban, the continuation of restrictive immigration and aggressive deportation, a turn toward resurrecting racist drug war policies, and the Department of Justice's flirtation with suing colleges and universities over their use of affirmative action policies. Trump is also "seriously considering" pardoning racist Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Calling on him now to denounce a part of his electoral base that he helped cultivate with his birtherism -- without rolling back any of the aforementioned policies -- seems like an empty gesture. Would we take seriously a well-known jewel thief's disavowal of the latest bank robbery because the robbers killed a hostage? Probably not. So, why should anyone believe this president if he says he condemns white supremacists?
We are mistaken to focus on Trump's inability to do the easiest thing ever -- call folks who wave Nazi flags "Nazis" and white nationalists who commit murder "white supremacist terrorists." We are also mistaken to reduce Heyer's murder and white nationalist organizing to "hate" and a product of "fringe" and "bad" beliefs. We will not defeat white supremacy by just trying to shoo all of the "bad racists" back out of public life.
Black- and people-of-color-led movements against state violence have illustrated how white supremacy is resilient and powered by acts of institutional violence. These acts are perpetrated by policies constructed and enacted by both Democrats and Republicans. Bill Clinton was not wearing a KKK hood when he signed the 1994 crime bill, which fueled the mass incarceration of people of color. George W. Bush was not waving a Nazi flag when he and Congress enacted the Patriot Act, which led to egregious forms of racial profiling of Arab and Muslim folks after 9/11. While the KKK and other white supremacists have a history of using violence to block African Americans' property, labor and voting rights, the federal government has not always needed the KKK to enact discriminatory policies.
So, yes, we must use a diversity of creative tactics to resist white supremacists whenever and wherever they organize, but that is not the only strategy. Eradicating institutional racism -- especially as it is related to a host of other legal, political and material structures, such as private property rights and policing, restrictive immigration and deportation, wage and property theft, deindustrialization and the assault on organized labor, the patriarchal assault on reproductive rights, the theft of Indigenous land, imperialist wars, and other crimes committed by capitalists and the state -- offers us the best chance to eradicate the foundation of white supremacy.
Without the acts of the criminal state to stand on, white supremacists will not have a platform to build a movement. Denying white supremacists' racist symbols and ideas is important. I am a fan of confederate flag burners. But we may be able to prevent more acts of white supremacist violence if we finally eliminate their structural foundation.
This elimination will not be initiated by Democrats or Republicans. The focus on Trump's behavior reflects the lack of a structural analysis. This should not surprise us. Before Black Lives Matter's emergence, Republicans mainly operated on the official line that the United States was colorblind, while Democrats, colleges and universities, and much of corporate America embraced superficial notions of diversity and multiculturalism. In recent years, however, resistance to economic injustice, deindustrialization, mass incarceration, racist police violence, Islamophobia, restrictive immigration and deportations, and theft of Indigenous land for corporate gain has shattered both of these visions.
As Democrats scramble to adjust their racial politics, we should, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor emphasizes in her piece demanding "No More Charlottesvilles," confront the violent right whenever and wherever it emerges. And while we are opposing the violent right, we should continue to offer our alternative: a working class-focused multiracial solidarity politics that aims to enact racial justice and economic democracy for everyone. Working from these strategies, hopefully, we will be able to prevent future Charlottesvilles.
This is a tall order, because structural transformation is difficult. Let's not take the easy way out.
Ta-Nehisi Coates on How Cities and Municipalities Are Winning Reparations for Slavery at Local Levels
The white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend came after thousands of neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members and other white nationalists descended on Charlottesville to protest the city’s plan to remove a Confederate statue of Robert E. Lee. The effort to remove this statue was spurred in part by the African-American city Vice-Mayor Wes Bellamy, who convinced his fellow city councilmembers not only to vote to remove the statue, but also to create a "reparations fund" for Charlottesville's African-American residents. For more, we speak with award-winning author and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who in 2014 penned the influential piece for The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations."
Please check back later for full transcript.
A North Korean soldier (R) looks at South Korea across the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on July 12, 2017, in Panmunjom, South Korea. (Photo: Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images)
The highest-ranking US military officer again warned that the Trump administration stands ready to attack North Korea, despite pleas for peace from South Korea.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Joseph Dunford on Monday said that the Pentagon is prepared "to use the full range of military capabilities to defend our allies and the US homeland." Dunford made the comments in Seoul while meeting with South Korean civilian and military officials.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Monday urged the sabre-rattling to stop, declaring "there must not be another war on the Korean Peninsula."
President Moon also vowed to work with the US "to safeguard peace," according to the AP, and told Pyongyang to "stop issuing menacing statements and provoking."
"Whatever ups and downs we face, the North Korean nuclear situation must be resolved peacefully," Moon also stated.
Top ranking US officials have been claiming that President Trump is intent on avoiding war, and that he has issued threats to back-up diplomatic efforts.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis wrote an op-ed, published on Sunday by The Wall Street Journal, saying that "diplomacy is our preferred means of changing North Korea’s course of action."
Dunford claimed on Monday that the US is "seeking a peaceful resolution to the crisis."
The crisis comes in the wake of North Korean missile tests, UN sanctions, and a Washington Post report about the US intelligence community's assessment of North Korean capabilities.
The paper said Tuesday that American intelligence officials believe Pyongyang "has successfully produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can fit inside its missiles," and that it "is also outpacing expectations in its effort to build an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of striking the American mainland."
President Trump responded to the Post report by vowing that North Korea "will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen."
North Korean officials then threatened to launch four missiles into the sea off the coast of Guam.
Trump replied with another aggressive claim on Friday, tweeting that: "Military solutions are now fully in place,locked and loaded,should [sic] North Korea act unwisely."
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When we declare war on phenomena like crime, drugs, or terror, instantly militarizing such problems, we severely limit our means for understanding and dealing with them. (Photo: Pixabay)
Since September 11, 2001, the United States has been fighting a "war on terror." Real soldiers have been deployed to distant lands; real cluster bombs and white phosphorus have been used; real cruise missiles have been launched; the first MOAB, the largest non-nuclear bomb in the US arsenal, has been dropped; and real cities have been reduced to rubble. In revenge for the deaths of 2,977 civilians that day, real people -- in the millions -- have died and millions more have become refugees. But is the war on terror actually a war at all -- or is it only a metaphor?
In a real war, nations or organized non-state actors square off against each other. A metaphorical war is like a real war -- after all, that's what a metaphor is, a way of saying that one thing is like something else -- but the enemy isn't a country or even a single group of Islamic jihadists. It's some other kind of threat: a disease, a social problem, or in the case of the war on terror, an emotion.
In truth, it may not matter if the war on terror is a real one, since metaphorical wars have a striking way of killing real people in real numbers, too. Take the US war on drugs, for example. In Mexico, that war, fueled by US weapons, using US drones, and conducted with the assistance of the Pentagon and the CIA, has already led to the deaths of many thousands of people. A 2015 US Congressional Research Service report estimates that organized crime caused 80,000 deaths in Mexico between 2007 and 2015. Most of the guns used in what has essentially been a mass murder spree came from this country, which is also the main market for the marijuana, cocaine, and heroin that are the identified enemy in this war of ours. As with our more literal wars of recent years, the war on drugs shows no sign of ending (nor does the US hunger for drugs show any sign of abating). If anyone is winning this particular war, it's the drugs -- and, of course, the criminal cartels that move them across the continent.
American metaphorical wars fought in my own lifetime began with President Lyndon Johnson's "war on poverty," first announced in 1964 when I was 12 years old. Indeed, my mother "served" in that war. We lived in Washington, D.C., at the time and she worked for the United Planning Organization, a community-based group funded under Johnson's Model Cities program. It fought poverty in the slums of my hometown, just a few blocks from the White House. As with other similar groups around the country, its personnel tested new "weapons" in the war on poverty -- job training programs, citizen advice bureaus, and community-organizing efforts of various sorts. I was proud that my mother was a "soldier" in that war, which for a few brief years it even looked like we might be winning.
And there were victories. After all, the legacy of Johnson's Great Society and the war that went with it included Medicare for older people -- I'll be starting on it next month myself -- and Medicaid for people of any age living in poverty. The struggles, sacrifices, and deaths of civil rights activists together with Johnson's political mastery gave us the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. (Of course the Trump Justice Department is doing its best to roll back both of these victories.) Then, as now, poverty touched the lives of many white people, but it flourished most abundantly in black and brown communities and so these new rights for people of color, some of us believed, signaled a light at the end of the tunnel when it came to the genuine abatement of poverty.
By 1968, Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Council were addressing poverty across racial divides, organizing a Poor People's Campaign. It was to include a march on Washington and culminate in the building on the Capitol Mall of a "Resurrection City," which was to serve as a model -- a metaphor -- for a United States risen from the cross of poverty. King was, however, murdered that April and so didn't live to see that city. It turned out, in any case, to be a plywood encampment that would be drowned in mud from days of torrential rain. In the minds of those who still remember it, Resurrection City became a sad metaphor for Lyndon Johnson's war. "The war on poverty," as the saying went, "is over. Poverty won."
Meanwhile, much of the country was distracted from that metaphorical war by an actual war in Vietnam, where the only metaphor around was the insistence of commander of US forces General William Westmoreland that there was "light at the end of the tunnel" when it came to that disastrous conflict.
What's in a Metaphor?
The war on poverty was hardly this country's first metaphorical war. In the 1930s, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover launched a "war on crime," anticipating by some 40 years Richard Nixon's war on drugs, which itself has lasted another 40 years with no end in sight. Nixon also gave us the "war on cancer" -- still ongoing -- even as he continued to pursue the actual war in Vietnam, a rare American conflict in the second half of the twentieth century, metaphorical or otherwise, that came to a definitive end (even if in defeat).
Nor is the United States alone in fighting "wars" against nonhuman enemies. The World Bank, for example, ran a seven-year "total war" on AIDS in Kenya. The project ended in 2014, by which time 1.6 million people, or 6% of the population, were infected with HIV. Perhaps the bank was smarter than the US in choosing to declare victory and go home, as at one point Vermont Governor George Aiken famously suggested we should do in relation to Vietnam.
What, you might wonder, is the problem in using the metaphor of war to represent a collective effort to battle and overcome some social evil? Certainly, fighting a war often requires from whole populations a special kind of heroic focus, a willingness to mobilize and sacrifice, a commitment to community or country, and for those in uniform, loyalty to one's fellow soldiers. It also requires people to relinquish their own petty interests in the service of a greater whole. Correspondent Chris Hedges caught this aspect of war in the title of his powerful book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Aren't such qualities useful ones to bring to the struggle to solve urgent, life-destroying problems like disease, poverty, or addiction? Wouldn't it be wonderful if human beings could confront those horrors with the same kind of passion, intensity, and funding we bring to actual wars?
Yes and no. A metaphor is, of course, an implied comparison in which two things share enough qualities in common that calling one by the other's name will be illuminating. If, for instance, you said, "Donald Trump is a giant Cheeto," you wouldn't be suggesting that the president is actually a large, puffy piece of junk food. You would be highlighting the way he shares with that particular delicacy a certain orange coloration, as well as an airy structure that crumbles when you try to get your teeth into it -- as so many of Trump's statements crumble in the jaws of truth.
Metaphors only work when the similarity between two things is striking enough that you learn something about one by comparing it to the other. Those two things must also, however, be different in crucial ways, or what you have isn't a metaphor but an equation. For instance, Trump as Cheeto works exactly because you and I are unlikely to transfer to Donald J. Trump the feelings and attitudes we have toward Cheetos. We know enough about the nature of both never to want to eat the president, however much we may love the salty crunch of that snack food. When, however, you know less about at least one of the terms of comparison -- or less than you think you do -- then a powerful metaphor can be a deceiver, making us think we understand a phenomenon that actually goes over our heads (another metaphor). A bad metaphor can affect how we act individually and as a society and in some grim cases even whether we, or others, live or die.
And the use of war as a metaphor -- the treating of every human ill as if it were an enemy that could be defeated by a battle plan -- works just that way. When we declare war on phenomena like crime, drugs, or terror, instantly militarizing such problems, we severely limit our means for understanding and dealing with them.
The Power of Metaphor
What happens, for example, when we transform the problem of human addiction into a war on drugs? For one thing, fighting a war requires an enemy, at least one group that, given the logic of war, we can imagine as not quite human as well as an existential danger to the rest of us. It's easy to forget that the ultimate aim of the war on drugs is not, or at least should not be, to destroy drug users but to release them from the prison of addiction (to mix metaphors dangerously). Instead, not just drugs but drug users often become the enemy.
One consequence of militarizing the problem of drugs -- a lesson from the war on terror, too -- is that our survival comes to seem dependent on ensuring that captured enemies be detained until the end of hostilities. And since such hostilities never seem to end, that means essentially forever. In other words, as soon as you make war on drugs (and so on those who use them), the urge to end the real human suffering that drug addiction causes quickly devolves into, in Trumpian terms, "winning." That, in turn, means ensuring vastly more suffering through actual violence and the endless incarceration of millions of people, a startling number of them for drug offenses, or what might be thought of as the Guantanamo-ization of America.
Can a metaphor really do all that? It can indeed when it so limits our vision that any other approach becomes unthinkable, unimaginable. In the war on drugs, as in all wars, there must be good guys and bad guys, good citizens who are to be mobilized (at least in their sympathies) against not-quite-human drug users. Similarly, when we declare war on a disease, like cancer, we risk limiting understanding of the disease process to models like invasion, or territorial aggression, and so limit imaginable treatments to therapies that eradicate the invaders with poison or radiation. In effect, we accept that in the case of cancer, as in the case of the Vietnamese village of Ben Tre, it may be necessary to destroy the patient in order to save her. (This is not to say that chemotherapy and radiation don't save lives; they do. Rather, it suggests that a military approach to disease can cause doctors to think of patients as battlefields, rather than as people.)
There's another problem with declaring "wars" on threats to human well-being: a tendency to conflate the threat and the victim of the threat. A war on AIDS becomes a campaign to protect "society" from "AIDS carriers," as happened in 1986 when California voters were asked to approve Proposition 64, which would have made it possible to quarantine everyone in the state with HIV. Proposition 64 was soundly defeated, but by then almost 30% of that state's voters had been convinced that the enemy they confronted wasn't AIDS, but people living with AIDS.
Suppose we were to think about the struggle to deal with drug abuse not as a metaphorical war, but as a real public health problem (as seems to be happening in the case of the opioid crisis that presently affects mainly white people). What might change? For one thing, we might be able to separate the concepts of drug use and criminality in our minds. Not automatically identifying drug use with crime might make it possible to imagine adopting a program similar to Portugal's decriminalization of drug possession. In 2001, that country stopped prosecuting simple possession of all illegal drugs and made government-run drug treatment easily available. Unlike the rest of Europe, let alone the United States, Portugal's addiction rates have plummeted since decriminalization took effect and that country began putting funds that would previously have gone into incarceration into treatment instead. With Americans stuck on the idea of fighting a drug war, however, the Portuguese example remains beyond imagining here. It would be the moral equivalent of surrender.
Another problem with war as a metaphor for social ills is that warring and caring call upon very different moral qualities. While both share characteristics like courage, persistence, and often the need to endure real hardship, the prosecution of war also requires other qualities: obedience, indifference to the suffering of oneself and others, and the necessity of viewing the world in black and white. War requires that we recognize in ourselves only virtue and, in our foe, only inhuman evil. We should not be surprised when President Trump informs us that, in his wars on crime and drugs, the human enemies -- gang members, and by extension immigrants in general -- are not people, but "animals." And to be good soldiers, the rest of us are expected to practice dehumanizing the enemy, too.
When, in the twentieth century, the United States began fighting metaphorical wars against social ills, most Americans understood actual war as something with a beginning (requiring a congressional declaration) and an end (the surrender of one side, with a peace treaty to follow). However, the American wars of the second half of that century turned out to lack such clear demarcations. With the exception of outright defeat in Vietnam, starting with the Korean War, our military conflicts have lacked endings. We now have a generation of young people who have never known a time when the United States was not involved in war, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, or Yemen.
In a 2001 essay, "The War Metaphor in Public Policy: Some Moral Reflections," the philosopher James Childress argued that, like real wars, metaphorical wars against social evils ought to be just wars. In the tradition of what ethicists call "just war theory," legitimate wars begin for just reasons (primarily defense against direct aggression), are necessary and proportionate (military action taken is in proportion to the aggression suffered), and have a reasonable expectation of success.
Most crucially, just war theory imagines wars with beginnings and ends. But in the twenty-first century, Washington's wars have essentially become endless, or as the Pentagon has taken to saying, "generational." Former CIA head Michael Hayden is typical these days in predicting that the fight against ISIS alone will last 30 years. And the country's metaphorical wars have followed an eerily similar pattern.
War metaphors mainly have the effect of distorting legitimate efforts to resolve real social problems, while at the same time cheapening our understanding of actual war. We misunderstand the complexities of a problem like poverty when we approach it as if it were an enemy to be defeated. We also fail to appreciate the horrors of actual war when we equate the destruction of entire nations with attempts to end the suffering of impoverished people. A bad metaphor obscures at least as much as it illumines. Unlike attempts to improve people's lives by eradicating poverty or curing disease, actual war involves the imposition of the will of one group on another, through acts causing injury, pain, destruction, and death.
Of course, as we've seen with recent Republican attempts to repeal Obamacare, policy proposals can kill, too, but they are not wars. It's important to maintain that distinction.
White nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the "alt-right" exchange vollies of pepper spray with counter-protesters as they enter Emancipation Park during the "Unite the Right" rally August 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
In July of last year, after The New York post ran the headline, "CIVIL WAR: Four cops killed at anti-police protest," I wrote the column "How We Report on Structural Racism Can Hurt Us -- Or Heal Us." I could have easily written the same article today.
That column recalled the Kerner Report, the findings of President Johnson’s commission investigating the uprisings that occurred throughout 1967, to determine what happened and why, and to provide recommendations to prevent them from happening again.
While reading and watching the news stories unfolding from the college town of Charlottesville, Virginia, what I and many others are calling White nationalist race riots, I couldn’t help but recall the Kerner Report again.
A fundamental criticism in the report was that news media had failed to analyze and report adequately on the many incidents of racial injustice in the United States. The report noted that the social ills, challenges, and grievances African Americans face were "seldom conveyed."
In considering the history of racism in this country, they wrote, "By and large, news organizations have failed to communicate to both their Black and White audiences a sense of the problems America faces and the sources of potential solutions. The media report and write from the standpoint of a White man’s world." This "White press … reflects the biases, the paternalism, and the indifference of White America. This may be understandable, but is not excusable of an institution that has the mission to inform and educate the whole of our society."
The commission found media outlets had distorted information and made protests look more racially divisive and destructive than they actually were.
They were not accurate. They were not truthful.
Today, still, not much has changed.
In the case of Charlottesville, media outlets are being careless with words, whitewashing the intentions and the actions of White nationalist protestors. The "Unite the Right rally" stopped being a rally sometime Friday night when a stream of torch carrying White supremacists arrived at night to the University of Virginia campus chanting "blood and soil." They used those torches as weapons in fights with counter-protesters.
On Saturday, NBC said, "Charlottesville rally turned deadly." CNN said, "1 dead, 19 injured after crash near Unite the Right rally."
What took place was not a rally. Who wears paramilitary gear and carries automatic weapons to a rally? Who takes shields and helmets and pepper spray and bats and sticks to a rally? The car didn’t "crash" -- it was driven at full speed into a crowd of counter-protesters.
What happened in Charlottesville was White nationalist extremists inciting a riot.
We cannot unite, come together, overcome, Kumbaya, or whatever else, until we get some truth-telling. Media professionals need to get it right this time.
It is also the responsibility of those of us who are anti-racist not to be silent in this time. Call out every media outlet that is soft-selling White supremacy and sidestepping the ugly truth.
Nothing less is acceptable. This milquetoast coverage lets White nationalists off the hook, even when the dithering commentary comes from President Trump.
His statement about being against violence "on many sides" stopped short of calling out the domestic terrorism of the White men who carried out acts of violence on American citizens today. Walking away when you’re asked if you denounce these actors is the definition of cowardice.
Trump managed to anger both "sides," Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke as well as anti-racists.
What side are you on? Are you on the side that makes excuses for and sanitizes these acts and actors by calling them misunderstood Americans, the "alt" right, misguided, upset, fringe, and whatever other name might diminish the outright terrorism these people are perpetrating.
Or are you on the side that calls bullshit on anti-Black, anti-Native, anti-Jewish racism, bigotry, and xenophobia -- and the White supremacist domestic terrorists who marched on Charlottesville to shed some blood.