A Grim Reaper Speaks

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President Biden’s first speech to Congress last night hit all the pandemic hot buttons. Even though most members of Congress are vaccinated, all of the 200 attendees in the Capitol were required to wear masks and “socially distance.” The Hill reports that the “ imagery will underscore how the pandemic is still gripping the nation despite the availability of vaccines and hope for inching back toward a semblance of normalcy.”

But the speech looked as sparsely attended as a Biden campaign rally or perhaps a Saturday morning Kiwanis breakfast in Hogstooth, Arkansas. As Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) quipped, “If Biden is going to take credit for vaccines and defeating the virus, why is he speaking to a practically empty chamber with everyone except him wearing a mask?”

A Washington Post headline aptly summarized Biden’s message last night: “Government is good.” Biden portrayed himself as the heroic conqueror of Covid and quoted a nurse who told him: “Every [vaccination] shot is giving a dose of hope.” Shots had a redemptive effect in part because people were terrified after Biden repeatedly vastly exaggerated the number of Covid fatalities during his presidential campaign. Biden got a two-fer: first he fanned irrational fears to win the presidency, and then he got credit when dread subsided thanks in part to a vaccine program propelled by the Trump administration. 

Like an astute career politician, Biden found other fears to fan. He told Congress, “One hundred days ago, America’s house was on fire.” Biden described the January 6 clash at the Capitol between Trump supporters and police as “the worst attack on our democracy since the Civil War” that was “an existential crisis—a test of whether our democracy could survive.” Biden rhapsodized: “We have stared into an abyss of insurrection and autocracy.” As a recent Inspector General report concluded, Capitol Police and other officials did a dreadful job of preparing for and responding to angry protestors, some of whom became violent and damaged property. Biden’s attempt to exploit that ruckus to railroad a domestic terrorism law through Congress seems to be faltering. 

The only unifying thread in Biden’s spiel was that it was written by the same White House speechwriting team. Biden boasted that the economy would grow by 6% this year – but insisted that a massive new jobs program was necessary. Biden claimed that extending schooling would greatly benefit children at the same time that his administration continues to undermine parents’ efforts to get public schools reopened five days a week. 

Biden talked of crises being opportunities, and he is working hard to see how many more trillions of dollars of government spending he can squeeze out of the Covid emergency. A Washington Post headline captured the administration’s presumptions: “Biden’s big bet: That he can remake economy with no bad side effects” such as “less incentive to work.” But the extension of bonus payments for unemployment recipients is already whipsawing the labor market as employers find no applicants. There are plenty of warning signs that inflation could be readying to rocket. It is unclear if Biden’s team assumes that federal debt can be piled up forever with no consequence or merely with no catastrophes until after the next election. 

After rattling off a long wish list of vast expansions of handouts and other programs, Biden assured listeners everything could be financed “without increasing deficits.” Biden portrayed tax boosts on “corporate America and the wealthiest 1% of Americans,” along with closing “loopholes,” as a cornucopia to finance all of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s fantasies. But the real windfall may be from Biden’s plan to vastly increase the IRS budget to set agents loose squeezing affluent people and corporations across the nation. As Slate reported, “Biden wants to fund a massive upgrade to the American welfare state by making the IRS great at audits again.” IRS crackdowns will be in lieu of reforming the tax code to make it less mind-boggling if not hellishly confusing. A Politico headline summarized the speech: “Biden embraces his inner Robin Hood.” Biden never explained how forcibly transferring money from private owners to the federal treasury would magically create “millions of jobs.” 

Biden is capitalizing on public opinion which seems to have become increasingly oblivious to government failures. In 2015, 47 percent of Americans thought government should do more to solve problems. By last summer, that number had leaped to 57%. The poll showed only “39 percent said government is doing too many things best left to businesses and individuals.” With “cancel culture” run amok these days, perhaps the most surprising victim is all recollections of past political abuses and government failures in US history. 

Instead, boundless faith in rulers – at least progressive ones – is the order of the day. A 2017 tweet by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) perfectly captured the spirit of Biden’s expansive proposals: “There is no anxiety or sadness or fear you feel right now that cannot be cured by political action.” Biden portrayed government spending as a panacea for practically anything that ails America. In a pitch for more spending for the National Institutes for Health, Biden declared, “Let’s end cancer as we know it. It’s within our power … to do it!” Congressional Democrats applauded almost as fervently as they had a dozen years earlier when President Barack Obama announced that he was launching “a new effort… seeking a cure for cancer in our time.”

Biden portrayed his presidency thus far as a resurrection of political faith: “In our first 100 Days together, we have acted to restore the people’s faith in our democracy to deliver… real results people can see and feel in their own lives.” He stressed that his Americans Families Plan Puts “up to $7,200 in your pocket” – reminiscent of Biden’s earlier boasting about the Covid stimulus checks shotgunned out. Handouts legitimize democracy and somehow prove that our system is better than any other form of government. But Biden’s derisive comments on autocratic regimes last night did not deter him from issuing a blizzard of executive order decrees in his first months in office. 

Biden wrapped up his long speech with an FDR theme: “It’s time we remembered that We the People are the government. You and I. Not some force in a distant capital. Not some powerful force we have no control over.” But the Capitol where Biden spoke was walled off by fences and surrounded by thousands of National Guard troops. Until recently, those fences were topped by razor wire that made the “Temple of Democracy” look like a Beirut bunker. For Biden’s speech, roads were closed and few people were allowed to get anywhere near the president or his entourage. But at least commoners were permitted to watch the television broadcast of the Great Leader boasting how he had saved them. 

Reprinted with permission from American Institute for Economic Research.

CDC Changes Its Tune On Masks, But Media Propaganda Continues

The CDC announced this week that people who have been fully vaccinated can now go outside without masks on. Meanwhile in many of the open states people have been outside all along without masks. The Texas Rangers baseball team played its opener to a full stadium of mostly unmasked people. Meanwhile the mainstream media continues to obfuscate and propagandize over the "embarrassing" successes of "free" states like Texas and Florida, still quoting "experts" who have been wrong over and over. Watch today's Liberty Report:

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Surveillance, Policing, and Algorithms

Since the brutal murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police at the onset of last summer, there has been a resurgence of political energy amongst the American population centered on significantly reforming policing in the United States. Ranging from demilitarization to defunding, there has been no shortage of policy proposals issued by an endless assortment of governmental bodies, academic institutions, think tanks, non-profits, etc., as a means to promote greater accountability amongst a public institution that has fully exerted its monopoly on violence upon the American people. A critical area of policing that is in desperate need of stringent regulation is the seemingly unfettered use of surveillance tools. Specifically, surveillance tools that are embedded with artificial intelligence and machine-learning, algorithmic functioning. Some of these tools include but are not limited to: predictive policing software, facial recognition, automated license plate readers (ALPRs), and risk assessment scoring.

The utility of these kinds of surveillance technologies is seen in a few ways. First, it allows for a mass extraction of data points from various sources. Second, it allows for automated processes of analyses such as pattern recognition and data point linkage and connection. Third, based on the machine-learning of patterns and connections, it allows for predictive analysis and the alerting and signaling to end users (police) of the technology of potential risks or threats. These tools have be used to inform law enforcement which people and places to monitor. Moreover, they have assisted law enforcement in determining which people are potential threats to public safety and order. Consequently, people will have interactions with police, will be arrested, will be charged, and will be imprisoned based on the application of these surveillance technologies.

To this point it may be unclear as to what the problem is in regard to these police using these surveillance technologies. Surely, law enforcement is in need of some tools in order to root out and investigate crime. But before we fully address the problem with these tools we need further background regarding the functionality and utility of policing. To start, it must be acknowledged that the presence of an elite grouping of people, or a ruling class, who hold a disproportionate amount of political and socioeconomic power relative to the rest of the population has been a constant theme since the inception of the nation. Institutions and structures (of the government and economy) that form the backbone of the American state have been historically designed by and for the exclusive benefit of certain individuals: namely white, land-owning, generally wealthy males.

One of the most prominent of these institutions is law and the criminal justice system, in relating these institutions to that of the powerful, sociologist Richard Quinney argues in his book The Social Reality of Crime that, “Although law is supposed to protect all [residents], it starts as a tool of the dominant class and ends by maintaining the dominance of that class. Law serves the powerful over the weak…Yet we are all bound by that law, and we are indoctrinated with the myth that it is our law.” Consequently, there is a robust history of non-privileged classes and groups in American society challenging this unequal distribution of power through various resistance methods. Examples of these challenges include, but are not limited to: the abolitionist movement, organized labor movements, women’s rights movement, civil rights movements, anti-war movements, and most recently the resurgence of criminal justice reform and anti-police brutality movements. Unsurprisingly, all of these challenges have been met with immense pushback from the ruling class, expressed through government, i.e. the police, due to the significant threat they impose on their source of power. Sociologist Alex Vitale, thoroughly documents these episodes throughout his book The End of Policing and perhaps one the best takeaway points from this work is this: “The myth of policing in a liberal democracy is that the police exist to prevent political activity that crosses the line into criminal activity, such as property destruction and violence. But they have always focused on detecting and disrupting movements that threaten the economic and political status quo, regardless of the presence of criminality.”

The authority of the government is vested into the police to enforce the law, which itself is typically crafted to meet the interest of the ruling class. Thus the police serve as an extension, or more fittingly, a weapon and a shield of this power dynamic. Each iteration of the police has been imbued with the authority to use force as both a weapon of repression and as a shield to protect power and privilege from challenges and threats. As a result certain techniques and tools are used by the police to counter and neutralize these threats. One such tool is surveillance technology.

Perhaps one of the most succinct passages that captures the essence of this idea comes from a report entitled “Before the Bullet Hits the Body: Dismantling Predictive Policing in Los Angeles,” authored by the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition wherein they state, “Communities of color, immigrants and the economically marginalized are the primary targets of these modes of surveillance… It is yet another tool, another practice built upon the long lineage including slave patrols, lantern laws, Jim Crow, Red Squads, war on drugs, war on crime, war on gangs, war on terror, Operation Hammer, SWAT, aerial patrols, Weed and Seed, stop and frisk, gang injunctions, broken windows, and Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR).”

Finally, in contemporary society it is not a secret (especially since the Snowden revelations) that surveillance is ubiquitous in the US. It is ostensibly utilized for the promotion of national security and public safety and there is a truth to this claim. Yet, in a society that remains highly unequal with the existence of an incredibly privileged ruling class it remains relevant to point out, as privacy scholar Jeffrey Vagle argues in his article “Surveillance is still about power”, “…surveillance is, at its core, about the establishment, use, and maintenance of power…even the most common surveillance practices have a power dynamic that too often shifts from generally beneficial to abusive.” In sum, surveillance is an expression of power. It is also a tool wielded by the institution of law enforcement, itself an arm of the ruling class. Surveillance mechanisms are designed and have been utilized to preempt organized dissent from the status quo: which is the highly unequal distribution of political and socioeconomic power.

With this political and historical context in mind, we can now return to the issue at hand: police use of surveillance technologies embedded with artificial intelligence and machine-learning, algorithmic functioning. Rather than outlining each of the surveillance technologies listed in the introduction in regard to their various features and components, I will summarize some of the major concerns that have been put forward in the literature surrounding this topic. Sociologist Sarah Brayne has shown in her work, most notably her article entitled “Big Data Surveillance: The Case for Policing” that there are noteworthy implications for the reproduction of inequality through the utilization of these technologies. For example, historical crime data serves as one of the primary components of information that is fed into these surveillance tools.

This is significant because historical crime data is embedded with bias and discrimination which leads to the reinforcement and reproduction of criminal justice and legal biases but on a much wider scale given this expansive and proliferating surveillance architecture. As one report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation finds “Police are already policing minority neighborhoods and arresting people for things that may have gone unnoticed or unreported in less heavily patrolled neighborhoods. When this already skewed data is entered into a predictive algorithm, it will deploy more officers to the communities that are already overpoliced.” Another related issue that would feed into this reproduction of inequality is the unequal distribution and deployment of the physical surveillance technology. They will proliferate in areas already subject to higher police activity (areas that include residents primarily of color and low-income). Allowing for an even wider dragnet over a historically targeted population.

One example of this is the tool ShotSpotter, which is a sensor for gunshots that sends immediate alerts to nearby police units, and its proliferation in certain Chicago neighborhoods. As discussed in this article from The Intercept documenting ShotSpotter’s use in what led up to the recent death of 13 year old Adam Toledo, the author states that “ShotSpotter is operative only in low-income Black and Hispanic neighborhoods and is coupled with software, also sold by ShotSpotter, that guides deployment decisions. The inevitable rejoinder will be: That’s where the crime is. Here, we encounter the circular logic of predictive policing by which supposedly scientific methods yield racist results, as overpolicing of communities of color drives an “evidence-based” dynamic that produces more overpolicing and attendant harms.”

Lastly, these surveillance technologies present a daunting future for civil liberties and rights such as right to privacy, speech, due process, etc. In regard to privacy, given a near total absence of guidelines and regulation, essentially all types of digital data, no matter how identifiable or private, is fair game to be collected, aggregated, and analyzed for any sort of prosecution, raising critical questions about what privacy is protected. The British media scholar John Fiske in the article entitled “Surveilling the City: Whiteness, the Black Man and Democratic Totalitarianism” asserts that surveillance and its affront on privacy is a crucial component of the larger power struggle between the rulers and the ruled in which, “Privacy maintains the area where the less powerful can exert control over the immediate conditions of their lives and bodies, reducing it decreases the localizing power of the weak and increases the imperializing power of the strong, [the ruling class, the state, the totalitarian].” In regard to speech, there are also negative implications for the ability to peacefully dissent against the rule of power structures if there is a wide-scale surveillance architecture monitoring these challenges. This is especially relevant for historically oppressed and marginalized groups who as mentioned already, have been systematically targeted and repressed by law enforcement when attempting to challenge power and attain greater rights.

The increasing reliance on AI-generated algorithms to replace human-led oversight of potentially life-altering events and interactions with police spells grave dangers for society’s most vulnerable as has been documented above. The complete degradation of our most basic democratic ideals and values and the erosion of government transparency and accountability are plausible consequences with the widespread adoption of these kinds of surveillance technologies. Ultimately, this technology is nothing more than a tool. Tools are imbued with the intention of those who create and wield them. They can be designed and/or used for ostensibly beneficial purposes, conversely they can be used for malevolent purposes as well. This is why it is then critical to understand the political and historical context in which the tools are birthed into existence. Given the extensive and current sordid utilization of surveillance tools by its wielder, the police, as a means to oppress and control masses of people, we should analyze every subsequent tool designed for our ‘security’ and ‘safety’ with scrutiny and a critical eye.

Over the past year there has been a heightened level of scrutiny and due criticism, resulting in numerous victories in regard to regulating this police surveillance. Various local and municipal governments around the US have banned predictive policing and facial recognition technologies after experiencing strong pushback from well-organized community coalitions. But this is only a start and we must continue to resist the implementation of this algorithmic oppression in its shaping of group behavior towards dehumanized obedience and conformity. We have to seize upon this energy to stay mobilized, organized, and to articulate our demands for more and more police reform. There is an urgent need to address the worst police abuses and it is incumbent upon all of us to stand in solidarity with those who experience the brunt of this abuse.

The post Surveillance, Policing, and Algorithms first appeared on Dissident Voice.

The Arc of the Moral Universe?

On April 21, police in Elizabeth City, North Carolina executed Andrew Brown. According to a private autopsy, he was shot five times, including the “kill shot” to the back of his head whil;e his hands were on the steering wheel of his car. Seven officers equipped with body cameras were at the scene but only a 20-second snippet was provided to the family. Based on what we know so far, the official story has zero credibility.

This unfolding story, along with many others, prompts me to once again pause and think about the metaphor, “The Arc of the Moral Universe is Long, But Bends Toward Justice.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. frequently employed the above phrase as did Barack Obama. King was paraphrasing a portion of a sermon delivered by the abolitionist minister Theodore Parker who said in 1853 “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. … a long one. My eye reacts but little ways; I cannot calculate and complete the figure by experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”

Given this context, I think we can read the longer statement as more nuanced, more equivocal than the abbreviated more popular version. And here it’s worth remembering that Rev. Parker was a Transcendentalist who believed there was a natural morality in the universe that would eventually triumph. Because slavery was such a terrible evil, that would happen sooner rather than later and, if necessary, God himself, would intervene.

King’s version, with its historical determinism and preordained justice undoubtedly provides comfort to many people, including those harboring the belief in American exceptionalism, that we are on an odyssey of continual progress. Barack Obama liked King’s version so much that he had it woven into a rug in the Oval Office. Cynically, I suspect he did so because looking at it allowed him to abdicate responsibility for doing anything.

However, the unrelenting trajectory of racial animus and white supremacy, going back 250 years, suggests the statement is magical thinking and even dangerously naive. And to those lacking the certainty of religious belief, it’s even more problematic.

I want to think it’s possible that white people can be anti-racist, that racism is not an unchangeable character deficiency, that Americans can divest themselves of white supremacy. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I want to take issue with the Afro pessimistic claim that most white people (not only cops) see Blacks as not fully human subjects. I want to believe that UC-Irvine Prof. Frank Wilderson errors in positing a structure of anti-Black violence in this country that lies under the surface of leftist dreams of a universal humanity and intersectional solidarity.

I want to dismiss out of hand that whites are incapable of seeing that this country was built on genocide, stolen land, violence and Black slave labor. And along with activist Bette Lee, I want to think it’s possible that white Americans will eventually agree that “Only an honest reckoning with its history of settler colonialism and its toxic legacy of systemic racism, white supremacy and grinding poverty will lead to real social change and the transformation of America to where justice can prevail.” I want to think it’s possible that whites will grasp that this responsibility is entirely on us.

To this last point, the editors at Black Agenda report (April 21, 2021) remind us that “Black people cannot change white people’s warped perception of the world, although, Lord know, we’ve tried.” As such, housing and school segregation are more entrenched than ever; incarceration functions as a “Black-erasure machine;” White people continue to believe they are the “primary victims of racial discrimination;” and white supremacy is “impervious to any legal recourse.”

I think it’s important to see things as they really are before proceeding to respond. And that means that it will take more than reforms because, as the saying goes, “culture eats policy.” And that begs questions about the origins of our culture and who benefits from it?

Finally, given all of the above, there are days when it feels like our legacy of ghettoization, marginalization, the entire criminal justice system, mass incarceration, warrior cops, massive structural violence and rest means that pessimism and feelings of hopelessness can’t be dismissed. It remains an open question whether most white people are committed to lending their weight toward bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice. That said, in the spirit of Gramci’s pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will, I’ll conclude with a quote from Edward Said: “Where cruelty and injustice are involved, hopelessness is submission, which I believe is immoral.” For me, assuming this responsibility is tantamount to saving our secular souls.

The post The Arc of the Moral Universe? first appeared on Dissident Voice.

No Justification for the Existence of Charter Schools

Non-profit and for-profit charter schools are privatized, marketized, corporatized education arrangements that appeared 30 years ago in the U.S. They are legal in 45 states, Washington DC, Puerto Rico, and Guam. About 3.3 million youth are currently enrolled in roughly 7,400 charter schools.

Charter schools openly embrace “free market” ideology and siphon billions of public dollars a year from public schools, many of which are chronically under-funded. Their academic track record is unimpressive and often very poor. Many do not provide employee retirement programs. Like a private business, charter schools spend lots of money on advertising and marketing and have high student, teacher, and principal turnover rates. They are also frequently mired in controversy, scandal, and corruption. They cannot levy taxes, are run by unelected individuals, and regularly hire uncertified teachers. Most charter schools are segregated and thousands have closed over the course of three decades, leaving many minority families out in the cold. The three main reasons for charter school closures are: financial malfeasance, mismanagement, and poor academic performance. Charter schools also dodge many public standards and laws followed by public schools. Moreover, about 90% of charter schools have no teacher unions and charter school authorizing is defective in many states. Many other problems could be listed.

It is also worth observing that the vast majority of individuals who enroll in teacher education programs do so in order to graduate and teach in a public school. Few, if any, teacher education candidates enroll in teacher education programs because they want to graduate and teach in a charter school. That is typically not the goal or outlook of people enrolled in teacher education programs. Further, as more problems with charter schools are exposed and publicized, the larger the number of people who oppose them. Criticism and rejection of charter schools has steadily increased over the years.

To be sure, charter schools did not start out as a humble, virtuous, principled, benign grass-roots effort. The charter school idea did not come from ordinary everyday parents, students, and teachers. There was never anything grass-roots or pro-social about the charter school movement. It is no surprise that many millionaires and billionaires are involved in charter schools. From the very beginning, charter schools have been a top-down initiative to break the public school “monopoly” and outsource education to the private sector under the veneer of high ideals. Charter schools did not emerge 30 years ago free of the influence of narrow private interests. They are a textbook product of the neoliberal period and project.

The notion that charter schools began as a way to empower teachers, serve as a laboratory for innovative replicable practices, provide parents with “choices,” reach kids who are “at-risk,” or some other lofty goal is designed to fool the gullible and divert attention from their inherently privatized and marketized character. It is not the case that charter schools started out as a great desirable idea that everyone could get behind but later on were hijacked by “the wrong people” and turned into the crisis-prone controversial schools that they are today. Such a perception implies that there is something legitimate or worth supporting about charter schools, which is another way of saying that there is something legitimate or worth supporting about the privatization of public schools.

From a human-centered perspective, privatization only increases problems, it does not solve them.

Privatization usually leads to more corruption, less transparency, poorer services, higher costs, diminished worker voice, more inequality, and less efficiency. Privatization negates the public interest. Privatization leaves workers and the public with fewer funds to serve workers and the public.

Private literally means the opposite of public. Private and public are antonyms. Blurring or trivializing the distinction between public and private serves only private interests and creates the illusion that the public sphere and private sphere do not have irreconcilable aims and practices. Public-private “partnerships” (PPPs), for example, have nothing to do with benefiting the public. PPPs, which are growing rapidly at home and abroad, mainly transfer public money to private hands under the banner of high ideals.

The aim of privatizers is not to advance the public interest but to seize as much public wealth as fast as possible through neoliberal state restructuring, that is, through state-organized corruption to funnel money to the rich. This harms education, society, the economy, and has nothing to do with a modern nation-building project.

The challenge confronting the society as a whole is how to ensure that the country has fully-funded, publicly-governed, world-class, integrated public schools in every neighborhood. Treating education as a commodity and parents and students as consumers and “school shoppers” is not the way forward. It reinforces a “winner-loser” ethos, which has no place in education. A modern society based on mass industrial production cannot operate and develop well on such a basis.

Creating the impression that there is something legitimate about charter schools 1 or that they can somehow be improved and become something other than charter schools does not serve the public interest or jibe with the results of investigation. More charter schools equals more problems, including for charter schools themselves.

Closing all charter schools will help improve education, society, the economy, and the national interest in many ways. The deepening crisis in these spheres cannot be solved by further empowering the rich while further excluding people from making the decisions that affect their lives.

  1. Charter means contract. Charter schools are contract schools. Unlike public schools, charter schools are not state agencies.
The post No Justification for the Existence of Charter Schools first appeared on Dissident Voice.

Bottom-up Politics: Grassroots Activism Behind Pro-Palestine Shift in the US

At a recent virtual J Street Conference, US Senators, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren broke yet another political taboo when they expressed willingness to leverage US military aid as a way to pressure Israel to respect Palestinian human rights.

Sanders believes that the US “must be willing to bring real pressure to bear, including restricting US aid, in response to moves by either side that undermine the chances for peace,” while Warren showed a willingness to restrict military aid as a “tool” to push Israel to “adjust course”.

Generally, Sanders’ increasingly Pro-Palestinian stances are more progressive than those of Warren, although both are still hovering within the mainstream Democratic discourse – willingness to criticize Israel as long as that criticism is coupled with equal – if not even more pointed – criticism of the Palestinians.

Seraj Assi explained this dichotomy in an article published in Jacobin Magazine: “Sanders’ stance on Israel-Palestine could undoubtedly be more progressive. He has consistently voted in favor of US military aid to Israel, which subsidizes occupation, settlement expansion, and systematic violence against Palestinians. He still opposes the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign, signing onto an anti-BDS letter to the UN Secretary-General in 2017 and reiterating his opposition to BDS”, years later.

However, as Assi himself indicated, Sanders’ position on Palestine and Israel cannot be judged simply based on some imagined ideal, but within the context of the US’ own political culture, one in which any criticism of Israel is viewed as ‘heretical’, if not outright anti-Semitic.

Sanders’ influence on the overall Democratic political discourse is also palpable, as he has paved the way for more radical, younger voices in the US Congress who now openly criticize Israel, while remaining largely unscathed by the wrath of the pro-Israel lobby, mainly the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Gone are the days when AIPAC and other pro-Israel pressure groups shaped domestic American political discourse on Israel and Palestine. Nothing indicates that the tide has completely turned against Israel, as this is nowhere close, yet. However, a decisive US public opinion shift must also not be ignored. It is this popular shift that is empowering voices within the Democratic Party to speak out more freely without jeopardizing their political careers, as was often the case in the past.

In order to decipher the roots of the anti-Israeli occupation, pro-Palestinian sentiments among Democrats, these numbers could be helpful. While Sanders, Warren and other Democratic officials who are willing to criticize Israel but vehemently reject BDS, the public within the Democratic Party does not hold the same view. An early 2020 Brookings Institute poll found that, among Democrats who had heard about BDS, “a plurality, 48%, said they supported the Movement, while only 15% said they opposed it.”

This indicates that grassroots activism, which directly engages with ordinary Americans, is largely shaping their views on the Movement to boycott Israel. Ordinary Democrats are leading the way, while their representatives are merely trying to catch up.

Other numbers are also indicative of the fact that the vast majority of Americans oppose pro-Israeli efforts to promote laws and legislations that criminalize boycotts as a political tool, as such laws, they rightly believe, infringe on the constitutional rights to free speech. Expectedly, 80% Democrats lead the way in opposing such measures, followed by 76% independents, then 62% among Republicans.

Such news must be disturbing for Tel Aviv as it has heavily invested, through AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups, in branding BDS or any other movement that criticizes Israel’s military occupation and systematic apartheid in Palestine, as anti-Semitic.

Israelis find this new phenomenon quite confounding. Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has been repeatedly criticized in the past, even by mainstream Israeli officials and media pundits, for turning Democrats against Israel by unabashedly siding with former President Donald Trump and his Republican Party against their domestic rivals. Hence, Netanyahu has turned the support of Israel from being a bipartisan issue into a Republican-only cause.

A February 2020 Gallup poll perfectly reflected that reality as it found that a majority of Democrats, 70%, support the establishment of a Palestinian State, in comparison with 44% Republicans.

The rooted support for Israel among establishment Democrats is too deep – and well-funded – to be erased in a few years, but the pro-Palestine, anti-Israeli-occupation trend continues unabated, even after the defeat of Trump at the hands of Democratic candidate, now President, Joe Biden.

The last year, in particular, was possibly difficult for the Israel lobby, which is unaccustomed to electoral disappointments. Last June, for example, the lobby painted itself into a corner when it rallied behind one of the most faithful Israel supporters, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, depicting his opponent, Jamaal Bowman, as ‘anti-Israel’.

Bowman was hardly anti-Israel, though his position is relatively more moderate than the extremist one-sided views of Engel. In fact, Bowman had made it clear that he continues to support US aid to Israel and openly opposed BDS. However, unlike Engel, Bowman was not the perfect candidate whose love for Israel is blind, unconditional and ever-lasting. To the embarrassment of the lobby, Engel lost his seat in the US Congress, one which he had held for more than 30 years.

Unlike Bowman, Cori Bush, a grassroots activist from Missouri who has ousted the pro-Israel candidate, Congressman William Lacy Clay, has defended the Palestine boycott Movement as being a matter of freedom of speech, despite a relentless smear campaign describing her as ‘anti-Semitic’ for merely appearing in photos with pro-Palestinian activists. Last August, Bush – a black woman from a humble background – became US Representative for Missouri’s 1st congressional district, despite all pro-Israeli efforts to deny her such a position.

Indeed, it is important to acknowledge the role played by individuals in the undeniable shift within the American political discourse on Palestine and Israel. However, it is ordinary people who are making the real difference. While the Israel lobby still wields the dual weapon of money and propaganda, politically engaged grassroots activism is proving decisive in garnering American solidarity with Palestine, while slowly translating this solidarity into actual political gains.

The post Bottom-up Politics: Grassroots Activism Behind Pro-Palestine Shift in the US first appeared on Dissident Voice.

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Your Honor: Justice in a time of collapse

Cranston at the 68th Berlin International Film Festival in 2018

Your Honor is an American mini-series starring Bryan Cranston

*This article contains spoilers*

A well-meaning New Orleans judge, Michael Desiato, finds himself in a frightening situation when he discovers that his son, Adam, was in a hit and run accident with a son of the local mafia boss, Jimmy Baxter. Adam had been visiting the site of his mother’s death when approached by local guys. He drives off at speed only to drop his inhaler on the car floor during an asthma attack. As he struggles to drive the car and pick up the inhaler at the same time his car is in a collision with Jimmy Baxter’s son’s first spin on his motorbike. Rocco Baxter, the son, chokes to death on his own blood at the side of the road as Adam panics and drives off. When Michael realises who the dead boy was he tries to protect his son by arranging with Adam to cover up what happened.

He asks a friend to organise the destruction of Adam’s car but it ends up in the hands of a teen, Kofi Jones, who is caught with the car after running a red light. The police discover that this was the car involved in the hit and run when a piece of the motorbike is dislodged from underneath the car. Jimmy Baxter now believes it was Kofi who killed his son in a crime gang hit. Kofi is sentenced without parole for the hit and run. Things escalate when Jimmy’s other son kills Kofi in prison and Jimmy has Kofi’s family house blown up, basically getting his retaliation in first. For Judge Michael Desiato, things go from bad to worse as the more he uses his middle-class power and influence to protect his son, the greater the negative effect this has on the working-class family and friends of Kofi, extending out like ripples in a pond. Or worse still, more like the Butterfly Effect, as the initial freak accident sparks off intergang rivalry and then further knock-on wider repercussions on a political level.

Your Honor, starring Bryan Cranston, combines elements from Breaking Bad (well-meaning professional gone bad) and The Sopranos (ruthless mafia boss) in a show which goes beyond middle-class fascination with organised crime and its ill-gotten wealth and demonstrates the disastrous effects that chess-like power-plays have on the ordinary people caught up in the resulting tsunami of deadly consequences. While the powerfully corrupt seek revenge outside the system, and powerful professionals try to avoid justice within the system, the working class can only hope for ‘saviours’ (e.g. empathetic lawyers) or fair-minded judges conscious of the social context of much crime (like Judge Michael Desiato). Like a Greek tragedy, the more Judge Michael Desiato tries to avoid Fate, the more he brings about the show’s ironic deadly ending. Had he just trusted the institutional justice system in the first place, the final outcome would most likely not have been so tragic.

The fact is that the struggle against the ideology of revenge (i.e. ‘an eye for an eye’) is one that has been going on since the Enlightenment, the intellectual and philosophical movement of the 17th and 18th centuries. The insidious effect of revenge on the judicial system, unpredictable and outside of the law, was a motivating force for philosophers like Cesare Beccaria (1738–1794) to try and establish a fairer system not based on fear or favour. Thus:

Enlightened reformers moved away from corporal punishment, seeking to design a penal system that would make punishment more useful, edifying the prisoner while simultaneously repairing the damage the prisoner had inflicted upon society. Central to these plans were work and imprisonment. Work was a common corrective technique, and many reformers believed the regularity and discipline of labor would lead to the moral rejuvenation of the wrongdoer while serving social needs at the same time.

Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794), father of classical criminal theory

Thus, the two main modern theories of retributive justice (or punishment for wrongdoing) are utilitarian theories that “look forward to the future consequences of punishment, while retributive theories look back to particular acts of wrongdoing, and attempt to balance them with deserved punishment.”

At the very least Enlightened views on justice try to reform the criminal, stop him from repeating the crime, while at the same time, deterring others. The main purpose of punishment, then, is to create a better society and avoid revenge.

Leon F Seltzer summarises the important differences between justice and revenge:

1.  Revenge is predominantly emotional; justice primarily rational.
2. Revenge is, by nature, personal; justice is impersonal, impartial, and both a social and legal phenomenon.
3. Revenge is an act of vindictiveness; justice, of vindication.
4. Revenge is about cycles; justice is about closure.
5. Revenge is about retaliation; justice is about restoring balance.

The cycles that Seltzer discusses can be seen, for example, in the Gjakmarrja (English: “blood-taking”; i.e., “blood feud”) or hakmarrja (“revenge”) of Albanian culture referring to the social obligation to commit murder in order to salvage honour. Gjakmarrja can be initiated when a guest is killed, failure to pay a debt, or rape. The profound consequences of the gjakmarrja on society is shown when the feud extends over many generations or leads to family members living in shame and seclusion for the rest of their lives, imprisoned in their own homes because they refuse to pay with the lives of their family members.

The overwhelming psychological power of revenge in Your Honor is demonstrated by the fact that the narrative centres around a judge, an important representative of the modern justice system. It shows why it is so important to gain general acceptance of a system of punishment that deters others from committing crimes while at the same time preventing criminals from repeating their crimes. In this way justice acts like a controlling carbon rod in the potential fission of escalating cycles of revenge.

Justitia by Maarten van Heemskerk, 1556. Justitia carries symbolic items such as: a sword, scales and a blindfold

We live in a time when disillusionment with the justice system (short sentences, crimes committed on bail, clever lawyers getting offenders off, etc.) is amplified in the popular press, making the justice system appear to be a lot less ineffectual than it actually is. However, Your Honor, with its relentlessly depressing atmosphere and its narrative of desperate actions and reactions gives us some inkling of what societies would be like if that was the norm rather than the exception, and when your honor is more important and sacred than life itself.

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