All posts by Lawrence Wittner

Memories of Voter Suppression

Back in July 1962, when, according to Donald Trump, America was “great,” I was in the Deep South, working to register Black voters.  It was a near-hopeless project, given the mass disenfranchisement of the region’s Black population that was enforced by Southern law and an occasional dose of white terrorism.

It all started in the fall of 1961, the beginning of my senior year at Columbia College.  My roommate (Mike Weinberg) and I, both white, had joined the campus chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and participated in a few of its New York City projects.  The real action, though, was in the turbulent South, swept by sit-ins and Freedom Rides that demanded an end to racial discrimination and, especially, the right to vote.

On an evening in the spring of 1962, Ronnie Moore, a Black CORE Southern field secretary, brought the news of the Southern freedom struggle to our Columbia CORE meeting.  Having headed up desegregation efforts in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Ronnie and three other students at Southern University, a historically Black institution, were out on bail on “criminal anarchy” charges.  The laws under which they were charged and imprisoned, which provided for a penalty of ten years at hard labor and a hefty fine, dated back to the state’s early twentieth century repression of union organizing among Black and white timber workers.

Stirred by what Ronnie told us, Mike and I went up to him after his talk and asked him how we could help the cause.  Looking us in the eyes, he said, smiling: “What are you boys doing this summer?”  In reply, we explained that, inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, we would be driving around the country.  “Any chance that you’ll get to Baton Rouge?” he asked.  “We could manage it,” we said.  “Well, do it,” he remarked, adding: “Maybe we could arrange to get you arrested!”  We all had a good laugh about that.

That July, as Mike and I drove along Louisiana roads enveloped in an atmosphere of racial segregation, racist remarks, and unbearably hot and steamy weather, the venture no longer seemed quite as amusing.  Nor, after arriving in Baton Rouge, was it easy to find Ronnie, for the Congress of Racial Equality wasn’t listed in the phone book.  But we did find a Committee on Registration Education, and figured that, with the same acronym, that must be his group.  It was.  The state authorities had obtained a court order to shut down its predecessor.

When we arrived at CORE’s tiny office, Ronnie was delighted to see us and, together with his coworkers, took us to an all-Black hangout for coffee.  In his view, and ours, the only safe people in the South were Black.  As for local whites, we considered them all actual or potential Nazis, and stayed clear of them and their institutions.  Whether they would stay clear of us remained uncertain.  Mike and I slept on the Moore family’s entry hall floor, where local residents had been known to fire bullets into it through the front screen door.

Although most of the voter registration campaign Mike and I worked on in Baton Rouge was rather mundane, one evening was particularly exciting. At dinner time, Ronnie suggested that we drive over to Southern University, from which he and the other CORE activists had been expelled for their “crimes.” As we entered the all-Black dining hall, students started yelling: “It’s Ronnie!  It’s Ronnie!”  Hundreds of students swiveled around and cheers rent the air.  Leaping onto one of the tables, Ronnie made an impassioned speech about the freedom struggle and, then, announced that he had brought with him two movement supporters from the North.  “Get up here, Larry and Mike!”  So we jumped up there, too, and did our best to deliver strong messages of solidarity.  We had just about finished when someone rushed in, warning that the campus security police were on their way and that we had better get out of there fast!  We did while students ran interference for us.

One day, Ronnie suggested that Mike and I drive him to Jackson, Mississippi, where a region-wide CORE-SNCC conclave would be held at the local Freedom House. Accordingly, after dinner, we hit the road through northern Louisiana (where a local gas station operator threatened to kill us) and, then, through Mississippi to Jackson.  Here, in an abandoned building taken over by the movement and around which police cars circled menacingly, we joined dozens of CORE and SNCC activists from the Deep South.  At night, they had lengthy political discussions, in which they expressed their bitterness toward the Kennedy administration for its failure to back civil rights legislation or to protect movement activists from racist violence.

During the days, Mike and I joined Luvaughn Brown, a Black activist recently incarcerated at the county prison farm, going door to door in a Black Jackson neighborhood and encouraging its residents to register to vote.  This was a tough job because people feared retaliation if they dared to exercise their voting rights and, also, because they would almost certainly be rejected. At the time, Mississippi used a “literacy test” to determine if a citizen was qualified to vote. A voting registrar would ask a potential registrant to define the meaning of a section in the lengthy state constitution.  If you were Black, the registrar announced that you had failed the test; if you were white, you passed.

Voter registration work was not only frustrating, but exceptionally dangerous.  The following summer, Medgar Evers, head of the local NAACP, was murdered in Jackson by a white supremacist for his leadership in a voter registration campaign. The next June, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—participants in the Mississippi Freedom Summer voter registration project—met a similar fate.  Although rattled by our fairly brief Southern venture, Mike and I escaped with our lives, as did Ronnie.

Mike and I kept in touch, and were delighted when Congress responded to the scandal of Southern voter suppression with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed the discriminatory voting practices of the past and established federal oversight of any new voting procedures in the offending states.

Imagine, then, our sense of sorrow, mingled with disgust, when, in 2013, by a 5-4 vote, the Republican-dominated U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act.  This opened the door for numerous Republican-controlled state governments—many but not all Southern—to implement mass purges of their voter rolls, closure of polling places in minority neighborhoods, government ID requirements, felony disenfranchisement, and other barriers that deprived millions of Americans of the right to vote.

I wonder how Republican leaders can live with themselves when they betray the most basic principle of democracy.  Of all the things they have done during their time in power, this is surely one of the most despicable.

The post Memories of Voter Suppression first appeared on Dissident Voice.

American Workers Have Been Given a Raw Deal Throughout the Trump Era

Although Donald Trump has repeatedly claimed that American workers are “thriving” during his presidency, this contention rings hollow.  The mishandled coronavirus pandemic, of course, has created levels of unemployment, hunger, and misery in the United States not seen since the Great Depression.  But even in the years before the pandemic, when Trump claimed he had created “the greatest economy in history,”  that economy left American workers far behind.

During pre-pandemic years, the labor market was shifting, producing a rising percentage of workers concentrated in low-paying jobs.  A study released by the Brookings Institution in late 2019 reported that 44 percent of American workers (53 million people) earned low wages, with median annual pay of $17,950 per year.  Low-wage work was often precarious, with unpredictable schedules, reduced benefits, and unsteady employment.  Low-wage workers usually remained stuck in these jobs, and even workers in the middle class were “more likely to move down the occupation ladder than up.”  Unable to cover their living costs, substantial numbers of Americans worked at two or more jobs.

Overall, wages remained stagnant during the Trump era, with gains in take-home pay eaten up by inflation, leaving “real wages” for workers the same as 40 years before.  By contrast, the compensation received by their bosses rose dramatically, leading to an executive-to-worker pay ratio of 339 to 1.

Millions of American workers also suffered injury and even death on the job.  According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018 alone private sector employers reported 2.8 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses.  Fatal work injuries numbered 5,280.

Moreover, despite legal restrictions on child labor, it remained remarkably widespread.  According to the U.S. Labor Department, in 2017 there were 2.5 million child workers in the United States.  Child labor was particularly common in agriculture, where it was perfectly legal for a 12-year old to work 50 to 60 hours a week in the fields, exposed to toxic pesticides and extreme heat.  When Human Rights Watch interviewed child tobacco workers in four Southern states in 2019, most reported symptoms consistent with acute nicotine poisoning, including nausea, vomiting, headaches, and dizziness.

American workers faced other kinds of mistreatment, as well.  Enormous numbers filed official complaints of gender, race, age, and religious discrimination.  In late 2017, a Pew Research poll of U.S. working women found that 42 percent said they faced gender discrimination on the job.  Another survey, conducted in 2018, reported that 38 percent of women and 13 percent of men claimed that they had experienced sexual harassment at work.  McDonald’s, one of the largest employers in the United States (with over 800,000 employees), became notorious for the sexual attacks experienced by its workers, who even staged a nationwide strike over the issue.

Perhaps most significant, American workers were largely stripped of a key protection against exploitation:  labor unions.  Thanks to union activism, union members are more likely than other workers to have good wages, employer-provided health insurance, paid vacations, sick leave, and pension plans.  And even workers without unions gain when union agitation leads to improved working conditions and pro-worker legislation.  But unscrupulous U.S. employers effectively used legal and illegal tactics—including harassing union organizing drives, firing union sympathizers, and waging vicious, anti-union campaigns—to deprive workers of union representation.  As a result, although nearly two-thirds of Americans approved of unions and roughly half of unorganized workers said they would join one if they could, union membership in the United States fell to an all-time low, with severe consequences for workers.

But how does the record of United States compare with that of other advanced industrial countries?

In 2016 (the last year for which comparative statistics are available), the death rate for U.S. workers on the job was considerably higher than the rate in comparable nations—more than twice as high as in Japan, three times higher than in Canada, and more than five times higher than in Sweden.  Moreover, in 2019, U.S. unemployment insurance benefits were considerably lower than in many advanced industrial societies.

Among the three dozen industrial nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United States, in 2019, was exceeded only by Latvia in having the highest percentage of low-wage workers.  This is not entirely surprising, as the U.S. minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009, placing the United States behind Luxembourg ($13.78), Australia ($12.14), France ($11.66), New Zealand ($11.20), Germany ($10.87), Netherlands ($10.44), Belgium ($10.38), Britain ($10.34), Ireland ($9.62), Canada ($9.52), and Israel ($7.94).

Furthermore, American workers put in many more hours on the job than did their foreign counterparts.  At the beginning of 2020, full-time U.S. workers had a longer work week than full-time workers in 24 OECD nations.  In addition, the United States remained the only country with an advanced industrial economy that did not guarantee workers a paid vacation.  The European Union guaranteed workers at least 20 paid vacation days a year, with some countries mandating as many as 30.  Although the United States had no legally mandated paid holidays, most advanced industrial countries offered at least six per year.  As a result, close to one in four Americans had no paid vacation and no paid holidays, while the average American worker in the private sector received only 10 paid vacation days and six paid holidays—far less time free of employment responsibilities than in almost every other country with an advanced economy.  The United States also remained the only advanced industrial nation that failed to guarantee paid maternity leave to workers.

When it comes to unions, the story is much the same.  American unions represented a much smaller portion of the workforce than labor organizations in comparable societies.  In 2019, when union membership in the United States fell to 10.1 percent, it stood at 90.4 percent in Iceland, 66.1 percent in Sweden, 54.2 percent in Belgium, 34.3 percent in Italy, 25.9 percent in Canada, 24.2 percent in Ireland, and 23.2 percent in Britain.  Union membership in OECD nations averaged 16 percent.

Not surprisingly, in a 2020 report, the International Trade Union Confederation, representing 200 million workers in 163 countries, ranked the United States as the worst among the nations with the world’s leading economies for workers’ rights.

Against this backdrop, it’s hard to take seriously Trump’s claim that U.S. workers have thrived during his presidency.  Indeed, even before the disasters wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, American workers received a raw deal.

Making America Feared Again:  The Trump Administration Considers Resuming Nuclear Weapons Testing

Americans who grew up with nightmares of nuclear weapons explosions should get ready for some terrifying flashbacks, for the Trump administration appears to be preparing to resume U.S. nuclear weapons tests.

The U.S. government stopped its atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in 1962, shortly before signing the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963.  And it halted its underground nuclear tests in 1992, signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996.  Overall, it conducted 1,030 nuclear weapons test explosions, slightly more than half the global total.

Nuclear tests, of course, enabled the nine nuclear powers to develop bigger and more efficient nuclear weapons for the purpose of waging nuclear war.  Along the way, millions of people in the United States and other nations died or developed illnesses caused by the radioactive fallout from these tests.

The CTBT, which banned all nuclear weapons tests, has been signed by 184 nations, including the United States.  This century, only North Korea has flouted the treaty, triggering an avalanche of condemnation from other nations.

But the Trump administration now seems to be preparing to ignore treaty constraints and world opinion by reviving nuclear weapons explosions.  A Washington Post article reported that, in mid-May 2020, a meeting of senior U.S. officials from top national security agencies engaged in serious discussions about U.S. nuclear test resumption.  According to one official, the idea was that test renewal would help pressure Russia and China into making concessions during future negotiations over nuclear weapons.

In an apparent follow-up, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) introduced an amendment to the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would give the Trump administration “no less than $10 million” to conduct a nuclear weapons test, “if necessary.”  Taken up by the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 10, the amendment passed by a vote along strict party lines.  Currently, Congress is debating the NDAA.

Meanwhile, during a press briefing in Brussels, the administration’s special envoy for arms control stated that the U.S. government “will maintain the ability to conduct nuclear tests if we see reason to do so.”  Although he said he was “not aware of any reason to test at this stage,” he added that he would not “shut the door on it,” either.  “Why would we?”

Actually, there are numerous reasons why the resumption of U.S. nuclear weapons explosions is a terrible idea.  If the U.S. government began atmospheric nuclear testing, it would violate the Partial Test Ban Treaty (which it ratified), as well as the CTBT (which it signed but, thanks to Republican Senate opposition, has not yet ratified).  Even if U.S. nuclear tests were conducted underground and, thus, violated only the CTBT, the result would be a dramatic loss of credibility for the United States and an escalation of the nuclear arms race.  As Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, has remarked:  “Other nuclear powers would undoubtedly seize the opportunity provided by a U.S. nuclear blast to engage in explosive tests of their own, which could help them perfect new and more dangerous types of warheads.”

In addition, a considerable number of non-nuclear nations might decide that, given the U.S. government’s failure to fulfill its treaty obligations, their adherence to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty no longer made sense.  Therefore, they would begin nuclear testing to facilitate developing their own nuclear weapons arsenals.

Furthermore, U.S. nuclear weapons explosions, whether in the atmosphere or underground, would have serious health and environmental consequences.  Even underground U.S. tests have released large quantities of radioactive fallout, and the U.S. government is still dealing with the devastation they caused to communities near the testing sites.  Furthermore, no method has been found for cleaning up the plutonium and other radionuclides that the tests have left underground.

Remarkably, there is no military necessity for nuclear test resumption.  Not only does the U.S. government possess nearly half the world’s nuclear weapons, which are quite sufficient to eradicate life on earth, but the occasionally-cited justification for testing―that it is necessary to make sure U.S. weapons actually work—is deeply flawed.  The U.S. government has spent tens of billions of dollars on the Stockpile Stewardship Program, a wide range of diagnostic, non-explosive tests, to ensure that its nuclear weapons are reliable.  And every year the directors of the U.S. nuclear weapons labs report that they are.

In fact, the nuclear testing now being considered by the Trump administration is designed with the same purpose that weapons have traditionally had in world affairs:  to intimidate other nations.  Within this framework, it makes perfect sense to use U.S. military might to bully the Russian and Chinese governments into compliance with U.S. government demands.  The problem with that kind of thinking is that military intimidation is a very dangerous game, especially when it’s played with nuclear weapons.

Naturally, nuclear critics have assailed Trump’s new military gambit.  John Tierney, the executive director of the Council for a Livable World, declared that the administration’s reported consideration of nuclear tests “was as reckless as it was stupid.  The United States does not need to conduct explosive nuclear tests and we don’t want anyone else to, either.”  Congressional Democrats have been particularly outspoken in opposition.  In early June, Senator Edward Markey (D-MA), a long-time Congressional leader on nuclear arms control and disarmament issues—joined by 13 other Democratic Senators, including Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer—introduced the Preserving Leadership Against Nuclear Explosives Testing (PLANET) Act, which would prohibit funding for U.S. nuclear tests.

On July 16, Markey joined distinguished scientists and other nuclear experts at a virtual press conference to announce the publication of an Open Letter in Science calling upon the nation’s scientific community to support the PLANET Act and oppose nuclear test resumption.

Who knows?  Under fire, Trump might suddenly declare that he never heard of the idea!

Humanity is an Endangered Species

Have you noticed recently that things are collapsing?

Sure, the right-wing, nationalist rulers of many countries never stop telling us that they have made their nations “great” again.

But we would have to be dislocated from reality not to notice that something is wrong―very wrong.  After all, the world is currently engulfed in a coronavirus pandemic that has already infected over 12.5 million people, taken over 550,000 lives, and created massive economic disruption.  And the pandemic is accelerating, while, according to scientists, new and more terrible diseases are in the offing.

Moreover, we are now experiencing a rapidly-growing environmental catastrophe.  Not only are industrial pollutants poisoning the air, the water, and the land as never before, but climate change is making the planet uninhabitable.  Extreme heat, drought, storms, floods, melting glaciers, and rising sea levels are wreaking havoc on an unprecedented scale.  This June, the temperature in the Arctic reached 100.4 degrees fahrenheit―the hottest on record.

In addition, defying all reason, nations persist in arming themselves for a nuclear war that will destroy virtually all life on earth.  Publicly threatening nuclear war and casting aside or rejecting major nuclear arms control and disarmament treaties, the nuclear powers are currently engaged in an extensive nuclear weapons buildup, with the U.S. government alone planning to spend at least $1.5 trillion on this project.  In response to the looming catastrophe, the editors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently placed the hands of their famous “Doomsday Clock” at 100 seconds to midnight―the most dangerous setting in its 73-year history.

Even if these disastrous developments fail to snuff out the human race, plenty of mass misery can be expected from the rising economic and social inequality occurring around the globe.  According to a UN study, released in January 2020, 70 percent of the world’s people suffer from growing economic inequality.  In a foreword to the study, UN Secretary General António Guterres declared that the world is confronting “the harsh realities of a deeply unequal landscape,” characterized by “a vicious cycle of inequality, frustration, and discontent.”  Feeding on popular fears and anxieties, racism and xenophobia are on the rise.

But extinction or, at best, mass misery, need not be humanity’s fate.  Thanks to very substantial advances in knowledge over the centuries, plus the efforts of creative thinkers and determined reform movements, human beings have shown a remarkable ability to confront challenges and to improve the human condition.  From the abolition of slavery to the creation of public education, the banning of child labor, the guaranteeing of old age security, the legalization of unions, the recognition of women’s rights, and the defense of gay rights, previously unimaginable changes have been promoted and implemented.

Why should we assume that we are incapable of responding to today’s crises?  Working together, physicians and other scientists have either eradicated or dramatically reduced the range of numerous diseases, including smallpox, polio, guinea worm, malaria, and measles.  Responding to climate change activism, scientists and engineers have developed methods to utilize solar and wind power to replace fossil fuels.  Similarly, critics of the nuclear arms race and wise statesmen have fostered nuclear arms control and disarmament treaties and helped prevent nuclear war.  Furthermore, numerous movements have succeeded, on occasion, in securing a more equitable distribution of wealth and a reduction in discrimination.

Of course, the changes necessary to cope with today’s crises will not be obtained easily.  To successfully battle pandemics, it will be essential to create a far stronger public health system, accessible to everyone.  Combatting climate change will almost certainly require challenging the vast power of the fossil fuel industry.  To avert nuclear war, it will probably be necessary to both ban nuclear weapons and create a stronger international security system.  And when it comes to securing greater economic and social equality, limiting corporate greed, taxing the rich, and reducing deep-seated prejudices remain imperative.

Even if these conditions are met, however, another challenge remains, for implementing these kinds of changes necessitates action on a worldwide basis.  After all, disease pandemics, climate catastrophe, nuclear war, and economic and social inequality are global problems that require global solutions.  As the director general of the World Health Organization remarked in late June, the greatest threat to humanity from the coronavirus is not the virus itself, but “the lack of global solidarity” in dealing with it.  He added:  “We cannot defeat this pandemic with a divided world.”  Much the same could be said about overcoming the other onrushing disasters.

Although there is not much time left before the world succumbs to one or more catastrophes, human beings have been able to alter their behavior and institutions.  Let’s hope they will rouse themselves and do so again.

Let Them Eat Weapons: Trump’s Bizarre Arms Race

In late May of this year, President Donald Trump’s special envoy for arms control bragged before a Washington think tank that the U.S. government was prepared to outspend Russia and China to win a new nuclear arms race.  “The president has made clear that we have a tried and true practice here,” he remarked.  “We know how to win these races and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion.”

This comment was not out of line for a Trump administration official.  Indeed, back in December 2016, shortly after his election, Trump himself proclaimed that the United States would “greatly strengthen and expand” the U.S. government’s nuclear weapons program, adding provocatively:  “Let it be an arms race.  We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”  In a fresh challenge to Russia and China, delivered in October 2018, Trump again extolled his decision to win the nuclear arms race, explaining: “We have more money than anybody else, by far.”

And, in fact, the Trump administration has followed through on its promise to pour American tax dollars into the arms race through a vast expansion of the U.S. military budget.  In 2019 alone (the last year for which worldwide spending figures are available), federal spending on the U.S. military soared to $732 billion.  (Other military analysts, who included military-related spending, put the figure at $1.25 trillion.)  As a result, the United States, with about 4 percent of the world’s population, accounted for 38 percent of world military spending.  Although it’s certainly true that other nations engaged in military buildups as well, China accounted for only 14 percent of global military spending that year, while Russia accounted for only 3 percent.  Indeed, the United States spent more on its military than the next 10 countries combined.

The vast military superiority enjoyed by the United States, however, was not nearly enough for the Trump administration.  In February 2020, the administration introduced a 2021 fiscal year budget proposal that would devote 55 percent of the federal government’s $1.3 trillion discretionary spending to the military.  By 2030, the military proportion of the federal budget would rise to 62 percent.

Today, about four months later, this top priority for military spending might strike many Americans as bizarre.  After all, a disease pandemic continues to plague the nation (with over 110,000 deaths thus far), a large portion of the economy has collapsed, unemployment has reached the catastrophic levels of the Great Depression, and American cities are torn by strife.  Wouldn’t this be an appropriate time to focus America’s financial resources on public healthcare, educational opportunity, decent housing, and a major jobs program―or, in the words of the U.S. constitution, to “promote the general welfare“?  But Republican officials argue that these and other public assistance measures are “too expensive.”

What are not “too expensive” are the administration’s big ticket weapons programs, which, even by military standards, are of dubious value.  Not surprisingly, Trump continued pouring money into purchasing Lockheed Martin’s F-35 combat aircraft, which, though an operational disaster, had cost U.S. taxpayers $1.4 trillion by 2017.  Another pet project, quickly embraced by Trump, was the newest and costliest U.S. aircraft carrier, delivered with fanfare to the Navy in late May 2017 for $13 billion.  Its only problem was that it had difficulty launching planes from its deck and facilitating their landing.  Yet another very expensive military project is U.S. missile defense.  Originally derided as “Star Wars” when Ronald Reagan began promoting it in the 1980s, it has become an obsession with Republicans, who have managed to secure more than $250 billion in U.S. government funding for it thus far.  Nevertheless, it continues to fail most of its tests against intercontinental ballistic missiles, despite the fact that these tests are heavily scripted.

One of the most cutting-edged of the U.S. government’s current military weapons projects is the hypersonic missile.  Capable of travelling five times faster than the speed of sound (3,800 mph), hypersonic missiles with nuclear warheads are immensely appealing to the military establishments of Russia, China, and the United States.  In this case, too, however, there is a serious problem:  Given the missile’s incredible speed, it produces immense heat while traveling through the atmosphere, thus diverting or destroying it before it reaches its target.  Even so, this weapons project should produce yet another bonanza for Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest arms manufacturer, which has already received $3.5 billion for preliminary work on it.

Of course, the Trump administration has not forgotten about an array of its high tech weapons that do work.  America’s 5,800 nuclear weapons, capable of being launched from land, sea, and air, provide staggering firepower―more than enough to destroy most life on earth.  The current nuclear arsenal, however, is viewed as insufficient by the Trump administration, which is engaged in a vast “modernization” program to rebuild the entire nuclear weapons complex, including new production facilities, warheads, bombs, and delivery systems.  The price tag for this enormous nuclear buildup, which will occur over the next three decades, has been estimated as at least $1.5 trillion.

Against a backdrop of economic and social collapse, plus potential global destruction, the obvious thing to do is to pull out of this immensely costly and bizarre arms race and, instead, foster arms control and disarmament agreements with other nations.  But Trump seems determined to cast off whatever progress in this direction his predecessors have made, scrapping the INF Treaty, withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement, terminating the New START Treaty, and scuttling the Open Skies Treaty.  For a variety of reasons—rewarding giant corporationsgetting reelected, and dominating the world―Trump remains fixated on “winning” the arms race.

When it comes to increasingly desperate Americans, their lives and livelihoods spiraling downward, his message seems to be:  Let them eat weapons!

The Subversion of New York City’s Official Policy to Curb Police Brutality

In early November 1966, my sister and I―armed with a bucket of home-made paste, a wide brush, and a thick roll of “Vote No” posters―headed off from my student apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to plaster the surrounding area with the signs.  The Patrolman’s Benevolent Association (PBA), a very powerful police union, had placed a referendum on the New York City ballot to remove civilians from the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

We were a very small part of  a long struggle―one that continues to this day―to develop a public policy that would curb police misconduct, often directed against racial minority groups, in New York City.

That struggle became a significant force in 1950, when a coalition of 18 organizations organized the Permanent Coordination Committee on Police and Minority Groups to press city authorities to deal with police misconduct generally, and specifically “with police misconduct in their relations with Puerto Ricans and Negroes.”  In response, the city’s Police Department established a Civilian Complaint Review Board in 1953.  It was composed of three deputy police commissioners, tasked with investigating civilian complaints and deciding on whether or not to recommend disciplinary action against police officers.

This control of the process by the Police Department did little to correct police behavior, and civil rights groups, calling attention to ongoing police brutality, demanded the creation of an independent, civilian Board.  In the mid-1960s, after African-American uprisings swept through Harlem and Bedford Stuyvesant, John Lindsay, the city’s new mayor, added four civilians to the Board.  This action, however, which Lindsay thought a reasonable compromise, enraged the police.  John Cassese, president of the PBA, fiercely objected to a civilian presence, stating:  “I’m sick and tired of giving in to minority groups with their whims and their gripes and shouting.”  As a result, the PBA gathered enough signatures to place a measure on the ballot that would bar civilians from having any oversight of complaints against the police.

Naturally, in this context, my sister and I were wary of being caught by the police while pasting our “Vote No” signs on walls and abandoned storefronts.  Consequently, we set out after midnight, wearing dark clothing, and made sure to do each posting job rapidly and, then, quickly move on.  The police had an easier time of it, especially given the racial turmoil of the era that was sparking white backlash and widespread demands for “law and order.”  Ultimately, thanks to a PBA campaign of racism and misinformation, the ballot measure passed by an overwhelming margin, and the Board again became an all-police venture.

Over the ensuing decades, however, police misconduct led to the establishment of civilian review boards in cities around the nation and, in New York City, revived public pressure for taking the Board out of the hands of the police.  Finally, in 1993, Mayor David Dinkins and the New York City Council re-organized the Board as an all-civilian operation.

Even so, the Board remained weak and fairly ineffectual.  The Board’s minimal impact can be attributed in part to Dinkins’s mayoral successors, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, who limited its funding while instituting “zero tolerance” and “stop and frisk” programs that dramatically enhanced the power and impunity of the police.  Between June 1996 and June 1997, the city administration settled 503 police brutality cases in court, but no member of the police department associated with them was punished.  The well-publicized case of Eric Garner, who died from a police chokehold in 2014, merely highlighted the widespread problem of police brutality.

More important, however, is that fact that, as critics of police practices have argued, the agency lacks the capacity to hold police officers accountable.  This weakness of the Board is underscored by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), which, in March 2019, pointed out that, although the agency has the authority to investigate and, in certain instances, prosecute cases of police misconduct, “its recommendations on disciplinary outcomes are ultimately not binding” on the New York Police Department (NYPD).  The reason is that the police commissioner retains “exclusive authority to decide and impose discipline” for police officers.  Thus, in 2017 (the most recent year for which the NYCLU had full data), the police commissioner imposed penalties weaker than those recommended by the Board in a majority of cases that came before him.  Furthermore, in the most serious misconduct cases that involved full administrative trials, the police commissioner imposed discipline consistent with Board recommendations in only 27 percent of the cases.  The NYCLU concluded that “the current system in which the NYPD is accountable only to itself is untenable.”

Unfortunately, the situation has not changed dramatically since then.  In November 2019, voters in New York City―despite a fierce opposition campaign by the PBA, again incensed by the prospect of civilian control of the police―overwhelmingly approved measures to strengthen the Board.  But, in fact, these changes were rather modest, and still left the civilian oversight body without the final authority to discipline police officers.  Meanwhile, police brutality continues, sometimes quite flagrantly, in the nation’s largest city.

Although the Civilian Complaint Review Board reports that it has “investigated tens of thousands of complaints, leading to discipline for thousands of police officers,” it’s clear that it could do much more toward ending the scourge of police brutality.  And it probably would do more if it were not obstructed every step of the way by New York City’s police and their friends in high office.

Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic, America’s Billionaires Thrive and Prosper

Although most Americans currently face hard times, with unemployment surging to the levels of the Great Depression and enormous numbers of people sick or dying from the coronavirus pandemic, the nation’s super-rich remain a notable exception.

Financially, they are doing remarkably well.  According to the Institute for Policy Studies, between March 18 and April 28, as nearly 30 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits, the wealth of America’s 630 billionaires grew by nearly 14 percent.  During April 2020 alone, their wealth increased by over $406 billion, bringing it to $3.4 trillion.  According to estimates by Forbes, the 400 richest Americans now possess as much wealth as held by nearly two-thirds of American households combined.

Some of the super-rich have fared particularly well.  Jeff Bezos (the wealthiest man in the world) saw his wealth soar between January 1 and early May 2020 to $142 billion―an increase of $27.5 billion.  During that same period, Elon Musk’s wealth grew by $11.4 billion to $39 billion and the wealth of Steve Ballmer (ranking sixth in wealth) increased by $8 billion to $66.1 billion.  The gains of Mark Zuckerberg (ranking third) were more modest, but his wealth did rise to $79.3 billion.

Although some billionaires lost money, this was not likely to put them out on the streets.  The wealth of Bill Gates (ranking second) dropped from about $113 billion to $106 billion, while the wealth of Larry Ellison (ranking ninth) slipped from $58.8 billion to $58.7 billion.

During this time of economic crisis, two features of the U.S. government’s economic bailout legislation facilitated the burgeoning of billionaire fortunes:  first, the provision of direct subsidies to the wealthy and their corporations, and, second, the gift of huge tax breaks to rich Americans and their businesses.  Consequently, although the U.S. economy continues to deteriorate, stock prices, helped along by this infusion of cash, are once again soaring.

In terms of health, American billionaires are also doing quite nicely, with no indication that any of them have been stricken with the coronavirus.  When news of the disease hit, billionaires immediately began renting superyachts at fantastic prices to ride out the pandemic.  As one yacht broker explained, a yacht “in a nice climate isn’t a bad place to self-isolate.”  Such yachts can carry supplies that will last for months, and “clients are arranging for their children to be schooled on board, with cooking lessons from the yacht’s chef and time with the crew in the engine room learning about technology.”  Other super-wealthy Americans took refuge in their fortress-like country estates or flew off in their private jets to fashionable, secluded areas.

Of course, the ability of the rich to stave off a serious or fatal illness is enhanced by their easy access to the best of medical care.  On Fisher Island―a members-only location off the coast of Florida where the average income of residents is $2.2 million per year and the beaches are made from imported Bahamian sand―the residents, unlike other Floridians, had no problem purchasing thousands of rapid Covid-19 blood tests.  To secure immediate and near-unlimited access to healthcare, including such tests, billionaires often employ “concierge doctors”―for a hefty annual fee.

Naturally, thanks to their soaring wealth and relatively secure health, America’s billionaires are able to continue the kind of lifestyle to which they are accustomed.

Housing is not a major problem.  Although journalists have trouble keeping track of the bewildering array of mansions purchased by America’s billionaires, Jeff Bezos reportedly owns 14 homes, including a newly-acquired $165 million Beverly Hills mansion.  Another of his lavish dwellings, located in an exclusive section of Washington, DC, contains 11 bedrooms and 25 bathrooms. Although Mark Zuckerberg apparently possesses only 10 homes, Larry Ellison has bought dozens of incredibly expensive mansions and real estate properties, plus (at a price of $300 million) a Hawaiian island.

Just how many homes Bill Gates owns remains unclear, as he has made a number of secretive real estate purchases.  Nevertheless, they include multiple luxurious horse ranches scattered across the United States.  He spends most of the time, though, at Xanadu 2.0, his $127 million, 66,000 square-foot mansion in Medina, Washington.  Requiring 300 workers to construct, this behemoth contains very unusual high tech features, a trampoline room with a 20-foot ceiling, six kitchens, a dining room able to seat up to 150 people for dinner, a 22-foot wide video screen, a home theater, garages for 23 cars, and 18.75 bathrooms.  There is also a lakefront shore containing large quantities of sand delivered every year by a barge from the Caribbean.

The super-rich have more than enough wealth to squander upon a variety of extravagant items.  Their superyachts cost as much as a billion dollars each, and boast such fixtures as night clubs, swimming pools, helipads, and even missile defense systems.  In 2019, the United States ranked first in the world in superyachts, with 158 in operation.  Many billionaires also own private superjets, such as the $403 million (“before any customization work”) “Queen of the Skies,” featuring a full office, bedroom, and “a stately dining room that can be converted into a corporate boardroom.” (Both Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates are superjet owners.)  Moreover, the ultra-affluent possess luxury car collections, multiple passports (available for millions of dollars), and gold toilets.

Billionaires do face problems, of course, including boredom, finding the necessary household “help,” fending off challenges from their increasingly desperate workers, and defeating politicians who dare to champion taxing great wealth to fund vital public services.

Nevertheless, the vast gulf separating the lives of the super-rich from those of most Americans raises the issue of whether this small, parasitic stratum of U.S. society should be maintained in such splendor.  Many Americans might already be wondering about this as they cope with economic collapse and ever-widening death.

If Farm Workers Are “Essential,” Why Are They Treated So Badly?

On March 19, 2020, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, spurred to action by the coronavirus pandemic, issued a memorandum that identified the nation’s 2.5 million farm workers as “essential” workers.  Soon thereafter, agribusinesses began distributing formal letters to their farm laborers, also declaring that that they were “essential.”

Of course, it shouldn’t have required a government-business effort to establish this point.  Without farm workers, there is no food.  And the American people need food to survive.

But, remarkably, over the course of U.S. history, farm workers, although essential, have been terribly mistreated.  Whether as slaves, indentured servants, sharecroppers, or migrant laborers, these millions of hardworking people endured harsh and brutal lives, enriching others while living (and usually dying) in poverty.

Nor is the situation very different today.  Farm labor remains hard, grinding physical toil, often requiring long hours of bending and repetitive motion to gather crops under conditions of extreme heat.  Back strain, poisoning by pesticides, and other injuries, sometimes leading to death, contribute to making agriculture one of the nation’s most hazardous industries.  Employment is often seasonal or otherwise precarious.

Some problems hit portions of the farm labor force particularly hard.  Roughly half of all farm workers are undocumented immigrants, a status that places them in constant fear of being arrested, deported, and separated from their families.   Furthermore, women farm workers face high levels of sexual harassment, thereby confronting them with the difficult choice of reporting it and facing the possibility of being fired or remaining silent and allowing the harassment to continue.

In recent decades, the federal government has prosecuted numerous growers and labor traffickers in the Southeastern United States for what one U.S. attorney called “slavery, plain and simple.”  These cases revealed farm workers were lured to the United States under false pretenses and, then, deprived of their passports, chained, held under armed guard, and forced to work.  If they refused, they were threatened with violence, beaten, drugged, raped, pistol whipped, and even shot.  In 2015, President Obama awarded the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which exposed these practices, the Presidential Award for Extraordinary Efforts in Combatting Modern Day Slavery.

Although people performing some of the hardest and most essential work in the United States certainly seem to deserve a break―or at least reasonable compensation―they have not received it.  In 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, a quarter of all farm workers had a family income below the official poverty level, while most of the others teetered just above it.  Most of them were forced to rely on at least one public assistance program.  Even after some of the more progressive states raised the state minimum wage, the average wages of farm workers remained abysmal.  In 2019, they earned only a little more than half the hourly pay rate of all American workers.

Moreover, they now face enormous danger from the coronavirus pandemic.  Greg Asbed, a leading voice for agricultural laborers, has pointed out that, for farm workers, “the two most promising measures for protecting ourselves from the virus and preventing its spread―social distancing and self-isolation―are virtually impossible.”  Many farm workers live, crowded together, in decrepit, narrow trailers or barracks, ride to and from their workplaces in crowded buses, have little access to water and soap once in the fields, and cook and shower in the same cramped housing facility.  Rapid contagion is almost inevitable, and very few have access to healthcare of any kind.

Despite the heightened danger, though, working―even working while sick―is the only practical option for farm workers, for, given their impoverishment, they cannot afford to be unemployed.  Very few receive paid sick days.  Some, to be sure, will be assisted by the one-time $1,200 payment Congress voted for members of low and middle income families.  But undocumented workers, who constitute so many of the nation’s millions of farm workers, are excluded from the provisions of that legislation.  Nor are undocumented workers eligible for unemployment insurance―although, of course, they pay the taxes that fund these programs, as well as the programs that are now bailing out America’s multi-billion dollar industries.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is getting set to deliver yet another blow to farm workers.  Almost a tenth of that work force is comprised of Mexican guest workers, legally admitted to the United States for short periods under the U.S. Agriculture Department’s H-2A program.  As America’s big agricultural growers are perennially short of laborers to harvest their crops, they have pressed hard for the admission of these guest workers.  But they dislike the fact that, to avoid undercutting the wages of American workers, the H-2A program sets the wage level for guest workers at local American wage standards.  And in states like California, the state’s rising minimum wage has lifted the wages of farm workers considerably beyond the pitiful federal minimum of $7.25 an hour.  As a result, the growers have fought for years to reduce the wages paid to guest workers.  Finally, in April 2020, the news broke that their dream of cheap labor would soon be realized, for the Trump administration is now laying plans to lower the guest worker wage rate to $8.34 an hour.  These plans, made at the same time that farmers and ranchers are about to receive a $16 billion federal bailout, will cut between $2 and $5 per hour from the pay of guest farm workers.

Naturally, small labor organizations like the United Farm Workers, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee are fiercely resisting the continued exploitation of the 2.5 million people who grow and harvest America’s food.  But there are severe limits to their power, given the greed of the agribusiness industry, plus the nakedly pro-business policies of the Trump administration and its Republican allies in Congress and many states.  For the time being, at least, farm workers seem likely to remain essential, but expendable.

Will the Coronavirus Pandemic Help Curb War and Militarism?

Decades ago, when I began teaching international history, I used to ask students if they thought it was possible for nations to end their fighting of wars against one another.  Their responses varied.  But the more pessimistic conclusions were sometimes tempered by the contention that, if the world’s nations faced a common foe, such as an invasion from another planet, this would finally pull them together.

I was reminded of this on March 23, when the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, called for “an immediate global ceasefire.” The time had come, he said, to “end the sickness of war and fight the disease that is ravaging our world.”  A UN summary noted that the Secretary-General had “urged warring parties across the world to lay down their weapons in support of the bigger battle against COVID-19: the common enemy that is now threatening all of humankind.”

If human beings behaved rationally, they would certainly recognize their common enemy and back this proposal.  After all, why not work cooperatively to save humanity from massive global death and economic collapse rather than continue to devote $1.8 trillion a year to waging wars and engaging in vast military buildups with the goal of slaughtering one another?  The U.S. government alone is currently spending a record $738 billion a year on its ever-growing military machine―considerably more than it allocates every year for health, education, and all other civilian services.  How about using these enormous resources, now earmarked for war and war preparations, to meet the needs of its own people, such as coping with the coronavirus pandemic?  And surely other heavily-armed governments, currently shoveling the human and economic wealth of their nations down the rathole of war, would also benefit by a reordering of their priorities.

Furthermore, with the world swept by a deadly pandemic―and maybe only the first of many in the coming decades―how are nations going to maintain the necessary armed forces to fight wars?  Soldiers, like sailors, live in close proximity with one another and, as a result, their ranks are likely to be decimated by disease.  As illustrated by the recent dismissal from command of a U.S. Navy captain who warned of the spread of the coronavirus on his aircraft carrier, top military officials are likely to resist recognizing the deteriorating health of their military personnel.  But that willful ignorance won’t put an effective combat or military occupation force in the field.  It might even lead to widespread resistance and revolts among the troops, as disease and death sweep through their cramped barracks and ships’ sleeping quarters.

Nevertheless, as history shows us, we are not living in a thoroughly rational world.  Nations―and, before their existence, competing territories―have been squandering human and economic resources on war and war preparations for millennia.  Even 75 years after the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs, nations continue to arm themselves with roughly 14,000 nuclear weapons, preparing for―and sometimes threatening―a nuclear war that will destroy most life on earth.

Moreover, the coronavirus pandemic might be strengthening authoritarian political tendencies that, traditionally, have gone hand-in-hand with militarism.  Recognizing the fear and panic that are already gripping the general public, power-hungry government officials are using the crisis to proclaim a state of emergency and cut back political freedom.  In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbàn convinced parliament, controlled by his party, to cancel all elections, suspend its ability to legislate, and give him the right to rule by decree indefinitely.  In the United States, Donald Trump, after initially making light of the pandemic, did a total reversal―declaring “a national emergency” and reinventing himself as a “war president“.  Recently, under cover of the coronavirus crisis, Trump has escalated his military threats against other nations, ordering stepped-up action by the U.S. forces forces that risks war with Iran and, also, portends a U.S. military attack upon Venezuela.

In short, the jury is still out on whether the coronavirus pandemic will weaken or strengthen war and militarism.  Much will depend on what the public of heavily-armed nations will demand.  Will they press for a reorientation of their countries’ priorities from waging war to meeting human needs?  Or, despite the enormous challenges posed by the disease pandemic, will they once again rally behind their flag-waving rulers―all too often unscrupulous and incompetent―and pour their blood and treasure into war?

Given the world’s long history of violent international conflict, it would be foolish to bet on humanity turning over a new leaf.  But, on the other hand, there have been occasions when human beings have worked together to solve their common problems.  Perhaps they will do so again.

The Coronavirus Pandemic, Like Other Global Catastrophes, Reveals the Limitations of Nationalism

We live with a profound paradox.  Our lives are powerfully affected by worldwide economic, communications, transportation, food supply, and entertainment systems.  Yet we continue an outdated faith in the nation-state, with all the divisiveness, competition, and helplessness that faith produces when dealing with planetary problems.

As we have seen in recent weeks, the coronavirus, like other diseases, does not respect national boundaries, but spreads easily around the world.  And how is it being confronted?  Despite the heroic efforts of doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel, the governments of individual nations have largely gone their own way―some denying the pandemic’s existence, others taking fragmentary and sometimes contradictory steps, and still others doing a reasonably good job of stemming the contagion.  The UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) should be at the center of a global campaign to contain the disease.  But its early warnings were ignored by many national officials, including those of the U.S. government, who rejected the WHO’s coronavirus testing kits.  Moreover, the WHO has limited funding―more than three-quarters of which now comes from voluntary contributions rather than from the dwindling assessments paid by individual nations.  Undermined by parochial national concerns, the WHO has been less effective in safeguarding the health of the world’s people than it could have been.

Similarly, the unfolding climate disaster presents a stark contrast between a worldwide problem and the behavior of national governments.  The world’s leading climate scientists have concluded that urgent changes are needed by 2030 to rescue the planet from irreversible climate catastrophe, including extreme heat, drought, floods, and escalating poverty.  And yet, despite an upsurge of social movements to save the planet, national governments have been unable to agree on remedial action, such as sharps curbs on fossil fuel production.  Indeed, two of the biggest oil producers―the Russian and Saudi Arabian governments―are currently opening the spigots in an oil production war.  For its part, the U.S. government has turned sharply against the solar power industry and is heavily subsidizing the fossil fuel industry.  This national irresponsibility occurs despite the urgent pleas of UN leaders.  “The point of no return is no longer over the horizon,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters in late 2019.  “It is in sight and hurtling toward us.”

Warfare, of course, constitutes yet another problem of global dimensions.  Over the centuries, war has shattered countless lives and brought human civilization to the brink of annihilation.  It is estimated that, during the 20th century alone, war (including two world wars) caused 187 million deaths, plus far greater numbers of injuries, widespread devastation, and economic ruin.  Furthermore, nuclear war, unleashed in 1945 as the culmination of World War II, today has the potential to wipe out virtually all life on earth.  And how are individual nations preparing to avert this global catastrophe?  By getting ready to fight wars with one another!  In 2018 (the last year for which figures are available), world military expenditures rose to a record $1.8 trillion, with the governments of the United States and China leading the way.  Ignoring the 2017 UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the nine nuclear-armed nations, at enormous cost, are currently busy ramping up their nuclear production facilities and producing a new generation of nuclear weapons.  In response to the looming nuclear menace and climate catastrophe, the editors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently reset the hands of their famous “Doomsday Clock” at an unprecedented 100 seconds to midnight.

Nor are these the only global threats that the nation-state system has failed to adequately address.  Among other things, the world is undergoing a refugee crisis of vast proportions, suffering from the predatory policies of multinational corporations, and experiencing widespread poverty and violations of human rights.  Do we really think that the current crop of flamboyant, flag-waving nationalist leaders, busy promising to make their countries “great” again, are going to solve these or other global problems?

Of course, for centuries there have been great ethical, intellectual, and political leaders who have sought to move beyond nationalism by emphasizing the common humanity of all people.  “The world is my country,” declared the adopted American revolutionary Tom Paine, and “all mankind are my brethren.”  Albert Einstein dismissed nationalism as “an infantile disease,” while British novelist H.G. Wells, like Einstein, became a staunch advocate of world government.  The idea of limiting national sovereignty in the interest of global security helped spark the creation of the League of Nations and, later, the United Nations.

But, unfortunately, the rulers of numerous countries, though often paying lip service to international law and international security, have never accepted significant limitations on their own government’s ability to do what it liked in world affairs.  Thus, major military powers hamstrung the League and the United Nations by refusing to join these world organizations, withdrawing from them, vetoing or ignoring official resolutions, and refusing to pay their annual dues or other assessments.  A particularly flagrant example of contempt for global governance occurred in mid-March 2020, when the U.S. secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, ridiculed the International Criminal Court and threatened its staff (and even their family members) for daring to investigate U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan.

Thus, although robust and capable global governance is now more necessary than ever, a primitive, shortsighted nationalism continues to frustrate efforts to come to grips with massive global problems.

Even so, an extraordinary danger presents humanity with an extraordinary opportunity.  The coronavirus disaster, like the other current catastrophes ravaging the planet, might finally convince people around the globe that transcending nationalism is central to survival.