Al-Azhar and the “dhimmitude”

Cairo's Al-Ahzar mosque, considered the highest authority among Arab Muslims, has launched a conference entitled: “Liberty and Citizenship…Diversity and Complementarity”. A number of theologians and politicians as well as different schools of Islam and Christianity are participating in it. The speakers included a large contingent from the Vatican. The Imam, Ahmad el-Tayyeb, is seeking to challenge the legal notion of “dhimmitude”. Throughout History, Muslim political powers have provided (...)

Trump in Historical Perspective: From Nixon to Breitbart

Photo by Brianna Privett | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Brianna Privett | CC BY 2.0

Trump is not a new phenomenon.  He is the latest, and most aggressive to date, repacking of corporate-radical right attempts to reassert corporate hegemony and control over the global economy and US society.  His antecedents are the policies and strategies of Nixon, Reagan and Gingrich’s ‘Contract for America’ in the 1990s.

Trump has of course added his ‘new elements’ to the mix.  He’s integrated the Teaparty elements left over from their purged by Republican Party elites after the 2012 national elections.  He’s unified some of the more aggressive elements of the finance capital elites from hedge funds, commercial real estate, private equity, securities speculators and their ilk—i.e. the Adelsons, Singers, Mercers, and Schwarzman’s.  He’s captured, for the moment at least, important elements of the white industrial working class in the Midwest and South, co-opted union leaders from the building trades, and even neutralized top union leaders in some manufacturing industries.  He’s firmly united the gun lobby of the NRA and the religious right now with the Breitbart propaganda machine and the so-called ‘Alt-Right’ fringe.

Trump is a political and economic reaction to the crisis in the US economy in the 21st century, which the Obama administration could not effectively address after the 2008-09 crash. Trump shares this historical role with Nixon, who was a response to another decline in US corporate-economic political power in the early 1970s; with Reagan who was a response to the economic stagnation of the late 1970s; and with the ‘Contract for America’, a program associated with a takeover of Congress by the radical right in 1994.  All these antecedents find their expression in the Trump movement and the policy and program positions that are now taking form under the Trump regime.

American economic and political elites are not reluctant to either change the rules of the game in their favor whenever warranted to ensure their hegemony, targeting not only foreign capitalist competitors when their influence grows too large but also potential domestic opposition by workers and unions, minorities, and even liberals who try to step out of their role as junior partners in rule.  This restructuring of rule has occurred not only in the early 1970s, early 1980s, mid 1990s, and now post Obama—a regime that failed to contain both foreign competition and domestic restlessness.  US elites did it on an even grander scale in 1944-47, and before that again during the decade of the first world war. What’s noteworthy of the current, latest restructuring is its even greater nastiness and aggressiveness compared to earlier similar efforts to restore control.

Trump’s policies and strategies reflect new elements in the policy and politics mix.  He’s rearranged the corporate-right wing base—bringing in new forces and challenging others to go along or get out.  But Trump’s fundamental policies and strategy share a clear continuity with past restructurings introduced before him by Nixon and Reagan in the early 1970s and 1980s, respectively.

Nixon-Trump

Like his predecessors, Trump arose in response to major foreign capitalist and domestic popular challenges to the Neoliberal corporate agenda.   Nixon may have come to office on the wave of splits and disarray in the Democratic party over Vietnam in 1968 but he was clearly financed and promoted by big corporate elements convinced that a more aggressive response to global economic challenges by Europe and domestic protest movements were required.  European capitalists were becoming increasingly competitive with American, both in Europe and in the US.  The dollar was over-valued and US exports were losing ground. And middle east elites were nationalizing their oil fields.  Domestically, American workers and unions launched the second biggest strike wave in US history in 1969-71, winning contract settlements 20%-25% increases in wages and benefits.  Mass social movements led by environmentalists, women, and minorities were expanding.  Social legislation like job safety and health laws were being passed.

+ Nixon’s response was to counterattack foreign competitors by launching his ‘New Economic Program’ (NEP) in 1971.  Not unlike Trump today, the primary focus of NEP was to improve the competitiveness of US corporations in world markets.

+ To this effect the US dollar was devalued as the US intentionally imploded the post-1945 Bretton Woods international monetary system. Trump wants to force foreign competitors to raise the value of their currencies, in effect achieving a dollar devaluation simply by another means. The means may be different, but the goal is the same.

+ Nixon imposed a 10% import tax, not unlike Trump’s proposed 20% border tax today.

+ Nixon proposed subsidies and tax cuts for US auto companies and other manufacturers; Trump has been promising Ford, Carrier Corp., Boeing and others the same, in exchange for token statements they’ll reduce (not stop or reverse) offshoring of jobs.

+ Nixon introduced a 7% investment tax credit for businesses without verification that he claimed would stimulate business spending in the US; Trump is going beyond, adding multi-trillion dollar tax cuts for business and investors, while saying more tax cuts for businesses and investors is needed to create jobs, even though historically there’s no empirical evidence whatsoever for the claim.

+ Nixon froze union wages and then rolled back their 1969-71 20% contract gains to 5.5%; Trump attacks unions by encourage state level ‘right to work’ business legislation that will outlaw workers requiring to join unions or pay dues.

+ Nixon accelerated defense spending while refusing to spend money on social programs by ‘impounding’ the funds authorized by Congress; Trump has just announced an historic record 9% increase in defense spending, while proposing to gut spending on education, health, and social programs by the same 9% amount.

+ Nixon’s economic policies screwed up the US economy, leading to the worst inflation and worst recession since the great depression; So too will Trump’s.

Similarities between Nixon and Trump abound in the political realm as well.

+ Nixon fought and railed against the media; so now too is Trump. The only difference was one used a telephone and the other his iphone.

+ Nixon declared he had a mandate, and the ‘silent majority’ of middle America was behind him; Trump claims his ‘forgotten man’ of middle America put him in office.

+ Nixon bragged construction worker ‘hard hats’ backed him, as he encouraged construction companies to form their ‘anti-union construction roundtable’ group; Trump welcomes construction union leaders to the White House while he supports reducing ‘prevailing wage’ for construction work.

+ Nixon continually promoted ‘law and order’ and attempted to repress social movements and protests by means of the Cointelpro program FBI-CIA spying on citizens, while developing plans for rollout in his second term to intensify repression of protestors and social movements; Trump tweets police can do no wrong (whom he loves second only to his generals)and calls for new investigations of protestors, mandatory jail sentences for protestors, and encourages governors to propose repressive legislation to limit exercise of First Amendment rights of free assembly.

+ Trump’s also calling for an investigation of election voting fraud, which will serve as cover to propose even more State level limits on voters rights.

+ Nixon undertook a major shift in US foreign policy, establishing relations with Communist China—a move designed to split the Soviet Union (Russia) further from China; Trump is just flipping Nixon’s strategy around, trying to establish better relations with Russia as a preliminary to intensifying attacks on China.

+ Anticipating defeat in Southeast Asia, Nixon declared victory and walked away from Vietnam; Trump will do the same in Syria, Iraq and the Middle East.

+ The now infamous ‘Powell Memorandum’ was written on Nixon’s watch—a plan for corporate America to launch an aggressive economic and social offensive to restore its greater hegemony over US society; an equivalent Trump ‘Bannon Memorandum’ strategic plan for the same will no doubt eventually be made public after the fact as well

Nixon was a crook; so will be Trump branded, but not until they release his taxes and identify payments (emoluments) received by his global businesses from foreign governments and security services.

Reagan-Trump

The parallels in economic policy and political strategy are too many and too similar to consider merely coincidental.  Nixon is Trump’s policy and strategy mentor.

Similar comparisons can be made between Trump and Reagan, given a different twist here, a change in emphasis there.

+ Reagan introduced a major increase in defense spending, including a 600 ship navy, more missiles and nuclear warheads, and a military front in space called ‘star wars’; Trump loves generals and promises them his record 9% increase in war spending as well, paid for by equal cuts in social programs.

+ Reagan introduced a $700 billion plus tax cut for business and investors, and an even more generous investment tax credit and accelerated depreciation allowances (tax cuts); Trump promises to cut business tax rates by half, end all taxes on their offshore profits, end all inheritance taxes, keep investor offshore tax loopholes, etc.—more than $1 trillion worth– while eliminating wage earners’ tax credits.

+ Reagan cut social spending by tens of billions; Trump has proposed even more tens of billions.

+ Reagan promised to balance the US budget but gave us accelerating annual budget deficits, fueled by record defense spending and the tax cuts for business of more than $700 billion (on a GDP of $4 trillion), the largest cuts in US history up to that time; Trump’s budget deficit from $1 trillion in business tax cuts and war spending escalation will make Reagan’s pale in comparison.

+ Reagan’s trade policy to reverse deteriorating US trade with Japan and Europe, was to directly attack Japan and Europe ( 1985 Plaza Accord and Louvre Accord trade agreements), forcing Japan-Europe to over-stimulate their economies and inflate their prices to give US companies an export cost competitive advantage; Trump’s policy simply changes the target countries to Mexico, Germany and China. Each will have its very own ‘Accord’ deal with Trump-US.

+ The first free trade NAFTA deal with Canada was signed on Reagan’s watch; Trump only wants to ‘rearrange the deck chairs’ on the free trade ‘Titanic’ and replace multilateral free trade with bilateral deals he negotiates and can claim personal credit for.

+ Reagan encouraged speculators to gut workers’ pension plans and he shifted the burden of social security taxation onto workers to create a ‘social security trust fund’ surplus the government could then steal; Trump promises not to propose cutting social security, but refuses to say if the Republicans in Congress attach cuts to other legislation he’ll veto it.

+ Reagan deregulated banks, airlines, utilities, trucking and other businesses, which led to financial crises in the late 1980s and the 1990-91 recession; Trump has championed repeal of the even token 2010 Dodd-Frank bank regulation act, and has deregulated by executive order even more than Reagan or Nixon.

+ Stock market, junk bond market, and housing markets crashed in the wake of Reagan’s financial deregulation initiatives; the so-called ‘Trump Trade’ since the election have escalated stock and junk bond valuations to bubble heights.

+ Reagan bragged of his working class Republican supporters, and busted unions like the Air Traffic Controllers, while encouraging legal attacks on union and worker rights; Trump has his ‘forgotten man’, and courts union leaders in the White House while encouraging states to push ‘right to work’ laws that prohibited requiring workers to join unions or pay dues.

+ Reagan replaced his chair of the Federal Reserve Bank, Paul Volcker, when he wouldn’t go along with Reagan-James Baker (Treasury Secretary) plans on reducing interest rates; Trump will replace current chair, Janet Yellen, when her term as chair expires next year

Then there are the emerging political parallels between Reagan and Trump as well:

+ Even before the 1980 national election was even held, Reagan’s future staff members met secretly with foreign government of Iran to request they not release the 300 American hostages there before the 1980 election; Trump staff (i.e. General Flynn), apparently after the election, met with Russian representatives to discuss relations before confirmed by Congress. Reagan’s boys got off; Flynn didn’t. Events are similar, though outcomes different.

+ Reagan attacked the liberal media. Much less aggressively perhaps than Trump today, but nevertheless the once liberal-progressive Public Broadcasting Company was chastised, under threat by the government of budget cuts or outright privatization. It responded by inviting fewer left of center guest opinions to the show. So too thereafter did mainstream television Sunday talk shows (‘Meet the Press’, etc.); Trump’s attack on the media is more aggressive, aiming not to tame the media but de-legitimize it.

+ Reagan staff directly violated Congressional laws by arranging drug money seizures from Latin America by the CIA to pay for Iranian arms bought for the US by Israel, that were then distributed to the ‘contras’ in Nicaragua to launch a civil war against their duly elected left government. Nixon had his ‘Watergate’, Reagan his ‘Irangate’. Next ‘gate’ will be Trump’s.

+ Reagan’s offensive against the environment was notorious, including appointments of cabinet members who declared publicly their intent to dismantle the department and gutting the EPA budget; Trump’s appointments and budget slashing now follow the same path.

+ If Nixon’s policy was court China-challenge Russia, Reagan’s was court Russia-isolate China; Trump’s policy is to return to a Nixonian court Russia-confront China.

The corporate-radical right alliance continued after Reagan, re-emerging once again in the 1994 so-called ‘Contract With America’, as Clinton’s Democrats lost 54 seats in the US House of Representatives to the Republican right after backtracking on notable Democrat campaign promises made in the 1992 elections.   The landslide was a harbinger of things to come in a later Obama administration in 2010.

The Contract for America proposed a program that shares similar policies with the Trump administration. It was basically a plagiarism of a Reagan 1985 speech. But it provided program continuity through the 1990s, re-emerging in a more aggressive grass roots form in the Teaparty movement in 2008.

Trump as the ‘Breitbartification’ of Nixon-Reagan

Trump is more than just Nixon-Reagan on steroids.  Trump is taking the content and the tone of the conservative-radical right to a more aggressive level. The aggressiveness and new elements added to the radical right conservative perspective in the case of Trump are the consequence of adding a Breitbart-Steve Bannon strategic (and even tactical) overlay to the basic Nixon-Reagan programmatic foundation.

The influence of Bannon on Trump strategy, programs, policy and even tactics cannot be underestimated.  This is the new key element, missing with Nixon, Reagan, the Contract with America, and the Teaparty.  The Breitbart strategy is to introduce a major dose of ‘economic nationalism’, heretofore missing in the radical right. The appearance of opposition to free trade, protectionism, reshoring of jobs, cuts in foreign aid, direct publicity attacks on Mexico, China, Germany and even Australia are all expressions.  Another element of Bannonism is to identify as ‘the enemy’ the neoliberal institutions—the media and mainstream press, the elites running the two parties, and even the Judiciary whenever it stands up to Trump policies. Added to the ‘enemy’ is the ‘danger within’, which is the foreigner, the immigrant, both inside and outside the country.  The immigrant is the ‘new jew’ potential in the Trump regime. This too comes from Breitbart-Bannon.  Another strategic element brought by Bannon to the Trump table is the expanded hiring and tightening of ties to various police organizations nationwide and the glorification of the police while denigrating anyone who stands up to them. Another element is to attack the character of democracy itself, raising issues of fraud in voting, and undermining popular understanding of what constitutes the right to assembly and free speech. Even the military is not exempt from the Bannon-Breitbart strategy:  high level military and defense establishment figures who haven’t wholeheartedly come over to the Trump regime are replaced with non-conformist and opportunist generals from the military establishment. Bannon-Breitbart is the conduit to the various grass roots right wing radical elements, that will be organized and mobilized if necessary, should the old elites, media and their supporters choose to challenge Trump directly with impeachment or other ‘nuclear’ options.

Nixon and Reagan both restructured the political and economic US capitalist system. But they did so within the rules of the game within that system.  Trump differs by attacking the rules of the game, and the established elites and their institutions, while offering those same elites the opportunity for great economic personal gain if they go along.  Some are, and some still aren’t. The ‘showdown’ is yet to come, and not until 2018 at the earliest.

Trump should be viewed as a continuation of the corporate-radical right alliance that has been growing in the US since the 1970s. The difference today is that that alliance is firmly entrenched at all levels and in all institutions now, unlike in the past, and inside as well as outside the government.  And the opposition to it today is far weaker than in the 1970s, 80s, or 90s: the Democratic Party has virtually collapsed outside Washington DC as it continues myopically on its neoliberal path with its recent selection of Perez as national chair by the Clinton-Obama-Big Donor wing still firmly in control of that party; the unions are but a shadow of their past selves and split, with some actually supporting Trump; the so-called liberal press has been thoroughly corporatized and shows it has no idea how to confront the challenge, feeding the Trump movement instead of weakening it; grass root minority, ethnic, and progressive movements are fragmented and isolated from each other unlike never before, locked into their mutually isolated identity politics protests; and what was once the ‘far left’ of socialists have virtually disappeared organizationally, condemning the growing millions of youth who express a favorable view of socialism to have to learn the lessons of political organizing from scratch all over again. But they will learn. Trump and friends will teach them.

“You’re Papers Please:” Are We Being Set Up for a National ID System?

Photo by Shardayyy | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Shardayyy | CC BY 2.0

“The triumph of the S.S. demands that the tortured victim allow himself to be led to the noose without protesting, that he renounce and abandon himself to the point of ceasing to affirm his identity. And it is not for nothing. It is not gratuitously, out of sheer sadism, that the S.S. men desire his defeat. They know that the system which succeeds in destroying its victim before he mounts the scaffold . . . is incomparably the best for keeping a whole people in slavery.”

—Hannah Arendt reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann

You can’t have it both ways.

You can’t live in a constitutional republic if you allow the government to act like a police state.

You can’t claim to value freedom if you allow the government to operate like a dictatorship.

You can’t expect to have your rights respected if you allow the government to treat whomever it pleases with disrespect and an utter disregard for the rule of law.

If you’re inclined to advance this double standard because you believe you have done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide, beware: there’s always a boomerang effect.

Whatever dangerous practices you allow the government to carry out now—whether it’s in the name of national security or protecting America’s borders or making America great again—rest assured, these same practices can and will be used against you when the government decides to set its sights on you.

Nothing is ever as simple as the government claims it is.

The war on drugs turned out to be a war on the American people, waged with SWAT teams and militarized police.

The war on terror turned out to be a war on the American people, waged with warrantless surveillance and indefinite detention.

The war on immigration will be yet another war on the American people, waged with roving government agents demanding “papers, please.”

So you see, when you talk about empowering government agents to demand identification from anyone they suspect might be an illegal immigrant—the current scheme being entertained by the Trump administration to ferret out and cleanse the country of illegal immigrants—what you’re really talking about is creating a society in which you are required to identify yourself to any government worker who demands it.

Just recently, in fact, passengers arriving in New York’s JFK Airport on a domestic flight from San Francisco were ordered to show their “documents” to border patrol agents in order to get off the plane.

This is how you pave the way for a national identification system.

Americans have always resisted adopting a national ID card for good reason: it gives the government and its agents the ultimate power to target, track and terrorize the populace according to the government’s own nefarious purposes.

National ID card systems have been used before, by other oppressive governments, in the name of national security, invariably with horrifying results.

For instance, in Germany, the Nazis required all Jews to carry special stamped ID cards for travel within the country. A prelude to the yellow Star of David badges, these stamped cards were instrumental in identifying Jews for deportation to death camps in Poland.

Author Raul Hilberg summarizes the impact that such a system had on the Jews:

The whole identification system, with its personal documents, specially assigned names, and conspicuous tagging in public, was a powerful weapon in the hands of the police. First, the system was an auxiliary device that facilitated the enforcement of residence and movement restrictions. Second, it was an independent control measure in that it enabled the police to pick up any Jew, anywhere, anytime. Third, and perhaps most important, identification had a paralyzing effect on its victims.

In South Africa during apartheid, pass books were used to regulate the movement of black citizens and segregate the population. The Pass Laws Act of 1952 stipulated where, when and for how long a black African could remain in certain areas. Any government employee could strike out entries, which cancelled the permission to remain in an area. A pass book that did not have a valid entry resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of the bearer.

Identity cards played a crucial role in the genocide of the Tutsis in the central African country of Rwanda. The assault, carried out by extremist Hutu militia groups, lasted around 100 days and resulted in close to a million deaths. While the ID cards were not a precondition to the genocide, they were a facilitating factor. Once the genocide began, the production of an identity card with the designation “Tutsi” spelled a death sentence at any roadblock.

Identity cards have also helped oppressive regimes carry out eliminationist policies such as mass expulsion, forced relocation and group denationalization. Through the use of identity cards, Ethiopian authorities were able to identify people with Eritrean affiliation during the mass expulsion of 1998. The Vietnamese government was able to locate ethnic Chinese more easily during their 1978-79 expulsion. The USSR used identity cards to force the relocation of ethnic Koreans (1937), Volga Germans (1941), Kamyks and Karachai (1943), Crimean Tartars, Meshkhetian Turks, Chechens, Ingush and Balkars (1944) and ethnic Greeks (1949). And ethnic Vietnamese were identified for group denationalization through identity cards in Cambodia in 1993, as were the Kurds in Syria in 1962.

And in the United States, post-9/11, more than 750 Muslim men were rounded up on the basis of their religion and ethnicity and detained for up to eight months. Their experiences echo those of 120,000 Japanese-Americans who were similarly detained 75 years ago following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Despite a belated apology and monetary issuance by the U.S. government, the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to declare such a practice illegal. Moreover, laws such as the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) empower the government to arrest and detain indefinitely anyone they “suspect” of being an enemy of the state.

Fast forward to the Trump administration’s war on illegal immigration, and you have the perfect storm necessary for the adoption of a national ID card, the ultimate human tracking device, which would make the police state’s task of monitoring, tracking and singling out individual suspects—citizen and noncitizen alike—far simpler.

Granted, in the absence of a national ID card, “we the people” are already tracked in a myriad of ways: through our state driver’s licenses, Social Security numbers, bank accounts, purchases and electronic transactions; by way of our correspondence and communication devices—email, phone calls and mobile phones; through chips implanted in our vehicles, identification documents, even our clothing.

Add to this the fact that businesses, schools and other facilities are relying more and more on fingerprints and facial recognition to identify us. All the while, data companies such as Acxiom are capturing vast caches of personal informationto help airports, retailers, police and other government authorities instantly determine whether someone is the person he or she claims to be.

This informational glut—used to great advantage by both the government and corporate sectors—is converging into a mandate for “an internal passport,” a.k.a., a national ID card that would store information as basic as a person’s name, birth date and place of birth, as well as private information, including a Social Security number, fingerprint, retina scan and personal, criminal and financial records.

The Real ID Act, which imposes federal standards on identity documents such as state drivers’ licenses, is the prelude to this national identification system. Individuals from states that fail to comply with the Real ID Act (there are nine states still not in compliance) will be unable to use their drivers’ licenses as forms of identification in airports starting in January 2018).

A federalized, computerized, cross-referenced, databased system of identification policed by government agents would be the final nail in the coffin for privacy (not to mention a logistical security nightmare that would leave Americans even more vulnerable to every hacker in the cybersphere).

So what is privacy?

In its purest sense, privacy means the right to walk down a street without fear of being accosted by a government agent demanding to know who you are, where you’re going and what you’re doing in that particular place at that particular moment in time.

Privacy means you have the right to tell any government agent who pokes his nose too far into your business to butt out.

Privacy means the right to remain anonymous, if you so choose.

Unfortunately, in an age of constant surveillance, in which we are constantly watched and our movements monitored and tracked—by our technology, by the government, by the corporations, and through our own obsession with social media and smart devices—the case for privacy is no longer quite so clear-cut.

Likewise, the penalty for telling the government to stick it (or mind its own business) is growing more severe with every passing day.

Noncompliance with a direct government order—whether that order is to show your papers, step out of a car, exit your house with your hands up, or bend over and submit to being searched, fondled or frisked—can now result in missed flights, broken bones and dead bodies.

Remember, the police state does not discriminate.

At some point, it will not matter whether your skin is black or yellow or brown or white. It will not matter whether you’re an immigrant or a citizen. It will not matter whether you’re rich or poor. It won’t even matter whether you’re driving, flying or walking.

After all, government-issued bullets will kill you just as easily whether you’re a law-abiding citizen or a hardened criminal. Government jails will hold you just as easily whether you’ve obeyed every law or broken a dozen. And whether or not you’ve done anything wrong, government agents will treat you like a suspect simply because they have been trained to view and treat everyone like potential criminals.

Eventually, when the police state has turned that final screw and slammed that final door, all that will matter is whether some government agent—poorly trained, utterly ignorant of the Constitution, way too hyped up on the power of their badges, and authorized to detain, search, interrogate, threaten and generally harass anyone they see fit—chooses to single you out for special treatment.

You see, it’s a short hop, skip and a jump from allowing government agents to stop and demand identification from someone suspected of being an illegal immigrant to empowering government agents to subject anyone—citizen and noncitizen alike—to increasingly intrusive demands that they prove not only that they are legally in the country, but that they are also lawful, in compliance with every statute and regulation on the books, and not suspected of having committed some crime or other.

It’s no longer a matter of if, but when.

You may be innocent of wrongdoing now, but when the standard for innocence is set by the government, no one is safe. Everyone is a suspect. And anyone can be a criminal when it’s the government determining what is a crime.

We’ve been having this same debate about the perils of government overreach for the past 50-plus years, and still we don’t seem to learn, or if we learn, we learn too late.

All of the excessive, abusive tactics employed by the government today—warrantless surveillance, stop and frisk searches, SWAT team raids, roadside strip searches, asset forfeiture schemes, private prisons, torture, indefinite detention, militarized police, etc.—started out as a seemingly well-meaning plan to address some problem in society that needed a little extra help.

Be careful what you wish for: you will get more than you bargained for, especially when the government’s involved.

In the case of a national identification system, it might start off as a means of curtailing illegal immigration, but it will end up as a means of controlling the American people.

Taking a prophetic cue from George Orwell’s 1984, 2013 video game Papers, Please “puts players in control of an unnamed border agent in the fictional Eastern Bloc totalitarian state of Arstotzka in 1982.”

As journalist Jason Concepcion explains,

“The rules are simple: Decide who can enter the country. This is accomplished by checking each traveler’s documents — passports, visas, work permits — for authenticity and cross-referencing with various guidelines handed down by the state. The state’s instructions are initially simple. Those holding Arstotzkan passports — assuming the information contained therein matches the person at the window — are considered citizens and may cross the border. Take out your green ACCEPTED stamp, mark the appropriate box on the entry visa, hand the owner back his or her documents, and call the next person in line.”

Where things start to get dicey is when the stakes get higher, when there’s money to be made, when there are lives on the line.

Concepcion continues:

As the game progresses, the restrictions on immigration become more complex. A trade war with a neighboring country causes the Ministry of Admission to ban travelers from the nation. Rumors of insurgent groups with forged documents mean every seal and stamp in an entry visa must be double-checked against those in your handbook. If a traveler is heavier than the weight indicated in their passport, then they must be questioned and X-rayed for contraband. Faces are checked against the state’s most-wanted list. Perhaps a prospective immigrant doesn’t resemble the photograph in their documents, in which case fingerprints must be taken and processed. With each passing day, there are more details to check. Some travelers don’t have the correct work visa, or have papers that would have been valid yesterday. These must be scrutinized closely.

Around day two or three on the job, one of the soldiers who guards the checkpoint steps to your window. He tells you he gets a bonus for each person processed for detention. He offers to cut you in. Criminals — sometimes even terrorists — attempt to pass through the Grestin checkpoint. But this is rare. Immigrants who haven’t kept abreast of the constant changes in state policy are much more common. Every now and again, a traveler comes to your booth with a heartrending story — a dying loved one, children they’ve never seen — but the wrong documentation. You could, easily and legally, hand a few of these people over to the guards and make a few bucks on the side.

This is what the banality of evil looks like, as described by historian Hannah Arendt.

Arendt explains: “The essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them.”

How do you persuade people to just follow orders and carry out the dictates of a police state?

You turn them into mindless robots. You teach them to obey unquestioningly. You brainwash them into believing that compliance and patriotism go hand in hand.

As Concepcion concludes, “Papers, Please gives players a window into how fascism manifests itself in bureaucracy. The brilliance of the game’s paperwork gameplay is that it makes the player complicit in the projection of state power… ‘What I found making this game,’ [designer Lucas Pope explained], ‘is that this communist setting or this dystopian, fascist setting works nicely for game mechanics because you can tell the player, ‘you have to do this.’ There’s not a whole lot of questioning of, ‘why?’ ‘You have to do it because that’s how we … run things here, we tell you how to do it and you do it.’ That works perfectly well with the setting of some kind of communist government or some kind of bureaucracy where the rules just come down from the top and boom, that’s your job.’”

Boom. That’s your job.

That about sums things up, doesn’t it?

Yet as I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, it’s not just the border patrol agents or the police or the prison guards who are marching in lockstep with the regime. It’s also the populace that obeys every order, that fails to question or resist or push back against government dictates that are unjust or unconstitutional or immoral.

We have been down this road before.

Reporting on the trial of Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann for the New Yorker in 1963, Hannah Arendt describes the “submissive meekness with which Jews went to their death”:

arriving on time at the transportation points, walking under their own power to the places of execution, digging their own graves, undressing and making neat piles of their clothing, and lying down side by side to be shot—seemed a telling point, and the prosecutor, asking witness after witness, “Why did you not protest?,” “Why did you board the train?,” “Fifteen thousand people were standing there and hundreds of guards facing you—why didn’t you revolt and charge and attack these guards?,” harped on it for all it was worth. But the sad truth of the matter is that the point was ill taken, for no non-Jewish group or non-Jewish people had behaved differently.

The lessons of history are clear: chained, shackled and imprisoned in a detention camp, there is little chance of resistance. The time to act is now, before it’s too late. Indeed, there is power in numbers, but if those numbers will not unite and rise up against their oppressors, there can be no resistance.

As Arendt concludes, “under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that ‘it could happen’ in most places but it did not happen everywhere.”

It does not have to happen here.

We do not have to condemn ourselves to life under an oppressive, authoritarian regime.

We do not have to become our own jailers.

We do not have to dig our own graves.

We do not have to submit.

Socialist Response to Trump’s Address to Joint Session of Congress

Photo by University Commons Groundbreaking | CC BY 2.0

Photo by University Commons Groundbreaking | CC BY 2.0

Sisters and Brothers,

In just 5 weeks, Donald Trump has unleashed a series of vicious attacks on one group of Americans after another. From his Muslim ban to the ramping up of ICE raids to his anti-trans executive order to his budget proposal to slash vital public services.

The ruling class is sharply divided about Trump. Capitalist strategists are horrified by the growing popular revolt and the damage his reckless policies and conduct will inflict on their system. Yet much of Big Business is salivating at the prospect of Trump’s corporate tax cuts and radical deregulation.

But there is a growing unity amongst millions of working people that they want no part of Trump’s bigoted, misogynist agenda. There is a mood of rebellion on a scale not seen since the Vietnam war.

Trump can be defeated. The protests in this first month were a tremendous starting point, but far more will be needed.

We need to disrupt business as usual through peaceful mass civil disobedience. Shutting down airports, highways, ICE offices, and prominent businesses.

On March 8, International Women’s Day, a “Women’s Strike” has been called by the organizers of the January 21 marches. Let’s take this up, and build for the largest actions possible.

May 1st, or “May Day,” is International Workers Day and has long been a day of working class action globally.

In 2006, immigrants brought the tradition of May Day back to the United States. Millions marched, many went on strike, and helped force back egregious anti-immigrant legislation.

This year, facing Trump’s brutal attacks, immigrants are again organizing en masse.

Discussions are also underway about strike and protest action in the labor movement, which is facing unprecedented attacks, with national “right to work” laws coming down the pike.

Working people have enormous potential power to fight Trump by shutting down the profits of big business.

This can be done through traditional strikes by the majority of workers at a workplace, but also by many non-union workers through taking the day off, calling in sick, or through other creative means.

We want the largest possible show of force, while keeping in mind that some actions would be too risky for some workers to take part in.

 

To be successful we cannot limit our movement to purely defensive battles against Trump.

We need to also fight offensively for concrete gains that can inspire the broader working and middle class.

We must not only oppose attacks on women’s rights and Planned Parenthood, but also fight to extend reproductive care, for it to be free and accessible to all women. For paid family leave and affordable childcare.  And a national $15 minimum wage.

I supported Bernie Sanders’ call for nationwide protests to defend the positive aspects of Obamacare, and to demand Medicare for all, a universal single-payer healthcare system.

This approach offers a real potential to undermine Trump’s base, but most of the Democratic Party leadership completely rejects it because of their ties to the insurance industry and Big Pharma.

Donald Trump now says healthcare “is complicated,” but I have a simple solution.

Many Democratic Governors are denouncing Trump’s attacks on ACA. But why don’t they immediately move to implement single-payer systems in their own states?

California is already discussing such a plan. My own state of Washington, along with Oregon, could come together in this effort. Along this blue West Coast we can develop a joint, single-payer alternative to the dysfunctional private health insurance system.

 

To most effectively fight the right we need an opposition party that is 100% against Trump & Billionaire Class. A party that helps organize mass movements from below.

The Democratic Party leadership is completely opposed to such an approach, as we saw again just this weekend in the DNC chair election.

While the Democratic establishment has stood against Trump, their opposition has been unreliable and far from sufficient

To the extent they have opposed Trump it has been grassroots pressure that has dragged them into it. This is due to their multi-faceted links to big business, their pro-capitalist program, and their conservative outlook.

Tens of thousands of people, primarily young people, are joining socialist organizations like Socialist Alternative but particularly the Democratic Socialists of America.

We need to build this emerging socialist movement towards a new socialist party. The space exists for such a force of 50,000 members to develop rapidly.

Such a new left party can be a forerunner to a mass workers’ party at a later stage.

A new left party will need to work alongside the larger number of anti-corporate workers and youth who are still looking towards progressive Democrats in their fight against the corporate establishment.

If Democratic activists do not succeed in fundamentally transforming the Democratic Party – which unfortunately I do not believe will happen – they should draw all the necessary conclusions and leave the Democrats and work to build a new mass party.

Because this is not only about Trump.

It is this predatory system of capitalism, in decline and crisis, that has given rise to Trumpism. Oxfam recently reported that 8 people now own more wealth than half the world’s population. This is the reality of the failed capitalist system.

We need fundamental change – an overturning of the capitalist oligarchy through a political, economic and social revolution which puts power in the hands of the overwhelming majority: of workers, youth and all those marginalized by this oppressive system.

The wealth of these 8 richest billionaires should be confiscated and democratically allocated for the needs of the majority.

Wall Street and the big fossil fuel companies represent an existential threat to the future of humanity and our environment. They must be also brought into democratic public ownership and their resources deployed for socially necessary production, including a massive expansion of renewable energy.

Sisters and brothers, socialism is not only possible, it is necessary. Our fight is not only against Trump and the right wing, but for a different kind of society. For a world based on equality, democracy and environmental sustainability: a socialist world.

Solidarity.

Click here to watch the video of Kshama Sawant’s response.

In Colombia Foreign-Owned Coal Mine Expands, Defenseless People Suffer and Die

Photo by Julián Ortega Martínez | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Julián Ortega Martínez | CC BY 2.0

As it expanded operations, El Cerrejón coal mine in Colombia’s La Guajira department threatened the survival of nearby Wayúu indigenous people. Many now are malnourished and children have died. Imperialism and the way it works bear most of the responsibility.

The stage for humanitarian disaster was already set. The Wayúu, who make up 45 percent of the Guajira population, are vulnerable: in 2012, 87.7% of jobs there were in the informal sector, and 60% of workers received less than the legal minimum wage. Unemployment in La Guajira is 47 percent, and more than half the people there live in poverty; 25 percent, in extreme poverty.  Some 15,000 school – age Wayúu children aren’t attending school this year. Social services are weak, notably health care.

Wayúu people living inland have relied on subsistence farming. Despite an arid climate, water and land were available and food sovereignty was maintained. As the mine grew and land was reserved for future expansion, farmers lost land. London activist Richard Solly reports that in 1960, “104,963 hectares of the department [were] suitable for agriculture; but in 2001 only 30,752 hectares were under cultivation and in 2008 much less.”

There is also the Wayúu people’s hulking neighbor. El Cerrejón, 35 miles long, is the world’s largest open-pit coal mine. Exporting 32 million tons of coal annually, the mining company owns a 93 mile – long railroad and a deep-water seaport. It’s Colombia’s largest privately-owned export company. Three multi – national corporations share ownership.

They are: BHP Billiton (Australia), which, operating in 100 locations in 25 countries, extracts iron ore, oil, coal, and diamonds; Anglo-American (South Africa) which mines coal, iron ore, and copper in South Africa, Australia, and the Western Hemisphere; and Glencore (Switzerland), the tenth largest corporation in the world, producing 90 commodities. Profits of the three in 2016 were: $3.2 billion (July through December), $1.59 billion, and $3.67 billion, respectively.

El Cerrejón has abused nearby Wayúu communities. Beginning in 2001, in the context of Cerrejón’s take-over of new land, bulldozers destroyed Wayúu villages. Cerrejón has ravaged over 30,000 acres of forest.

The company acted to ensure water for mine operations. After 2010, dams appeared across the Ranchería River and some tributaries to divert flow to the mine. These provided most of the people’s water.  Since then – and drought has intervened – twelve rivers have disappeared or almost so, crops are no longer irrigated, farm animals are dying, and only 0.7 liters per capita of untreated water are available each day for drinking.

The diversion allows Cerrejón to remove 17 million liters every day from the river system. Toxins exuding from mine wastage contaminate water remaining in the streams.

According to one report in 2016, “around 27% of children under five are suffering from malnutrition,” According to another that year, “more than 4770 children of this indigenous community have died over eight years due to malnourishment and a lack of drinking water.” In 2016, 36 mothers died of malnutrition.  The data may underestimate the damage; government record keepers overlook the deaths of many Wayúu infants.  The Colombian pediatric society, summarizing, says that, “an indigenous child [in La Guajira] has a 24 times greater risk of dying than children elsewhere in the country.”

The Colombian government stays away. In Bogota, says one observer, “they have no idea of La Guajira, there’s laxity in understanding it, studying it, respecting it.” A socially-conscious physician writes of “abandonment by the state, violent stealing of resources, and institutional and political crisis.”

Even if departmental and national governments were so inclined, funds generated from taxation or royalties from coal mining don’t suffice to bankroll social spending in La Guajira. Formerly 85 percent of the royalties derived from mineral extraction ended up in the department where operations took place; now “only 9.3 percent of the royalties come to the producing department.” Cerrejón benefits from a concession exempting the company from taxation until 2034. Royalties are paid, but since 2009 they’ve barely exceeded the value of government subsidies to the company.

Rampant corruption within the La Guajira government sidelines help from that quarter.  Reportedly, funds sent by the national government to help pay for schooling, health care, water, and food rarely leave the local government’s offices, or are wasted on costs tagged as administrative. Cerrejón allegedly bribes officials. The department’s own development plan for 2016 – 2019 rejected official statistics on grounds of under-reporting, adding that, “you can’t govern anything you know nothing about.”

Departmental governor Wilmer González Brito recently went to prison for buying votes. In 2013 authorities arrested his predecessor, Juan Francisco Gómez Cerchar, while in office. He had been a paramilitary and narco-trafficking operative. Charged with six murders, he is serving a 55 year jail sentence.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has insisted on “precautionary measures.” Its recommendations in late 2015 dealt with malnutrition in babies and children; others a year later, with malnutrition afflicting pregnant women and lactating mothers.

The national government announced it will be managing “health, education, and drinkable water resources” in La Guajira for three years. President Juan Manuel Santos denied that a “state of exception” – or emergency – existed. Colombia’s Constitutional Court recently sent inspectors to La Guajira; they avoided southern regions of the department where suffering is concentrated. The Council of State in December, 2016 stopped the diversion of Bruno Stream, a tributary of the Ranchería River.

Conclusions are in order. First, a powerful company is laying waste to the very weak, with state collusion. Worldwide, there’s a long history: rapacious individuals and commercial entities set forth from centers of wealth and power to plunder distant territories. Hallmarks of imperialism – that’s the name – are: free rein for capitalist imperatives, concentrated wealth, and bias that marginalized peoples don’t matter.

Two, apologists for this system predominate in Colombia’s government and among ruling circles there. They presumably accept Cerrejón’s successful pursuit of imperialist goals and tolerate Wayúu suffering.  Civil war in Colombia between the government and leftist insurgents may be ending, but the kind of war typified by the fate of the Wayúu is not. What happens to powerless, abandoned people like them isn’t on the official agenda for peace in Colombia.

Three, the U.S. government for decades has backed Colombia in its internal war. To suppose a creative response from there to suffering and human – rights violations in Colombia would be wishful thinking. The upper levels of U.S. society readily accept the U.S. role of protector and protagonist of the imperialist project. Their government stays solid with the status quo in Colombia.

Healthcare Workers Proclaim ‘Sanctuary Union’, Push for Medicare for All in California

Photo by Pictures of Money | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Pictures of Money | CC BY 2.0

Thirteen thousand members of the California-based National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) have taken the resistance movement a step further by declaring themselves a “sanctuary union.”

After a series of union-wide meetings, NUHW joined the growing network of sanctuary institutions last month by pledging to do everything within its power to “ensure the safety and security of all members of our community regardless of their immigration status.” This means the union “will not voluntarily cooperate with federal agents to enforce immigration laws.”

Immigrant labor is vital to patient care. American hospitals and nursing homes employ workers from around the globe, and membership reflects that diversity.

“Many of our members and their patients are undocumented immigrants, or have family members who are undocumented,” said NUHW President Sal Rosselli. “We have a responsibility to protect and defend them.”

NUHW adopted the resolution after holding membership meetings and polling members. About nine of ten members support declaring NUHW a sanctuary union.

I talked with Rosselli about the resolution and the challenges facing unions in the months to come.

How did the “Sanctuary Union” resolution come about and how will it be implemented?

Our Executive Board, which consists of elected rank-and-file members, wanted a strong political statement that immigrants are safe in this union and that we will protect and defend them.

We thought the resolution would be controversial among our members. Our membership is diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and political persuasion, and many of our members voted for Trump and are critical of illegal immigration. So we held membership meetings throughout the state to discuss the resolution and get feedback, and we polled our entire membership.

Support for the resolution was very deep. A few members vehemently opposed the resolution, but nine out of ten supported it, so our board formally adopted it.

Now we’re going to do a number of things. First, we’ll educate our members. Staff and stewards will make sure our members understand that one of our union’s primary responsibilities will be to protect and defend those of us who are undocumented immigrants or have family members who are undocumented.

Secondly, our lawyers are partnering with a prominent immigrant rights law firm here in the Bay Area to establish legal and economic support for members who find themselves at risk of deportation.

And finally, we will urge our members’ employers to make sure that these hospitals and clinics and nursing homes are safe places for both healthcare workers and patients — safe places to give and receive care.

I should add that NUHW is doing this as part of Our Revolution. We endorsed Bernie Sanders in the primaries. So, we’re part of that movement, and we’ll organize workers when we can to support other ways to contribute.

Tell me about a second resolution NUHW recently adopted, California version of Medicare for All.

Our union has been leading on this issue since the early 1990s and we reaffirmed our support for universal coverage earlier this year. We define real healthcare reform as Medicare for All — a single-payer system. In the 1990s there were initiatives on the California ballot toward accomplishing Medicare for All and other patient protections. We worked with scores of organizations to craft and advocate for those initiatives, but none became law.

Now, we have a new opportunity — even with all the things that are happening with the federal government and Obamacare. We have an opportunity in California to quickly achieve major healthcare reform for everyone in the state. State Senators Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) and Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) have introduced legislation that we strongly support. This is the way for California to get ahead of the curve and avoid the catastrophe of millions of people losing access to care. And if we can accomplish this in California, which has about 12 percent of the nation’s population, why not the whole country?

What are you expecting now from the Trump administration? And what is NUHW’s strategy as of now?

We have to prepare to resist. People that we care about — working people, immigrants, poor people — are going to have a much tougher time. So we’re beginning to figure out how, in a very bottom-up kind of way, we can educate our members about the problems with the new federal government and help them to organize others.

Can explain for us your commitment to winning parity for mental health care?

One of our longstanding goals is to ensure that patients have the same access to mental health services as they do to traditional medical care. We represent more than 3,000 California behavioral health clinicians that work for Kaiser Permanente, the nation’s largest healthcare corporation, as well as mental health workers at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland.

Our concern is that under the Trump Administration, it will be much more difficult to achieve mental health parity. The changes he wants to make to the Affordable Care Act will severely limit access to behavioral health care. So, I’m afraid it’s going to get worse, much worse.

We had a five-year battle with Kaiser over mental health parity. It took a long time to get Kaiser leaders to listen to their clinicians about the problems with Kaiser’s psychiatric services. We’re just now beginning to work together toward our common goal of making Kaiser the national leader in mental health care and the employer of choice for caregivers. Kaiser has finally recognized that they need to listen to their clinicians about how to address staffing issues and improve access to care. In Northern California, we recently convened a summit of Kaiser clinicians and managers to establish that relationship and start moving forward.

What about the rest of California’s labor movement, can it do more?

Absolutely. California has 6 million union members but far too many are members in name only. They’re not involved in their unions. Or worse — they’re held captive in unions that don’t have their best interests at heart.

NUHW does things differently. Our view is simple: We believe we have a fundamental responsibility to empower workers. This means our members make the decisions and determine our priorities and how we spend their dues dollars. Our members elect their co-workers to steward councils and to our Executive Board, which, in turn, charts our course.

That’s how we went about this process. Now we need to further educate our members about the importance of these issues and how together we can take action.

China in the Age of Trump and Brexit

Beijing.

The harsh winter has passed, the sky is blue, spring is in the air and the store that sells fake DVDs in Beijing is closed. The two sessions is about to start. Beijing goes political and is being spruced up (stores selling fake goods are shut down) from Friday (March 3) for the next two weeks or so as the delegates and deputies of the CPPPCC and the NPC gather for their annual meetings.

The Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body drawn from delegates representing a cross-section of society, including the arts, medicine, transport, construction, and the National People’s Congress, the top legislative body, gather to discuss and pass legislation for the coming year.

The two sessions, as they are colloquially known in China, gauge the political mood of the country outside Beijing’s “Beltway” the Fourth Ring Road. This is a one-party state and decisions take place behind tightly locked closed doors. But the two sessions is where many of those decisions will be made with about 3,000 provincial administrators, top businessmen and Chinese Communist Party bigwigs set to attend.

For the duration, smartly dressed delegates and deputies from across the country will pose for photographs on Beijing’s streets.  Ultimate political authority, of course, rests with the Chinese Communist Party, whose Politburo Standing Committee, headed by President Xi Jinping, sets policy. So the NPC’s influence is limited but it has an important input into the decision-making process.

While the deputies to the Congress will sit politely, row-upon-row in the Great Hall of the People, their presence in Beijing allows for forthright discussions on the economy, anti-pollution efforts, and international affairs. In public the NPC, with its bowing heads and demure clapping, may make a rubber stamp look energized but in the tea houses, and restaurants around Tiananmen Square, the issues of the day will be debated long into the night.

Premier Li Keqiang’s “work report,” which is delivered on the opening day of the NPC, will be the headline event, especially as it will forecast China economic growth for the year, presumed to be around 6-7 percent.

China’s official economic statistics are generally considered to be less than fully accurate, but the numbers are expected to give a sense of how dramatically officials expect growth to decline from the glory days of double-digit expansion.

At the end of the session, the premier’s closing news conference sometimes reveals insights into the leadership’s thinking, either by what he says or does not say.

The backdrop to this year’s two sessions is intriguing. At the end of the year, many of the seven members of the standing committee of the politburo will be replaced as Xi starts his second five-year term and is able to place his own men (they will be men) into the top positions. The sessions could give an indication as to what the priorities of the new leadership, for the next five years, will be.

On top of this the Trump presidency, with all its uncertainties, may, the feeling in Beijing goes, provide China with opportunities, or at least more leeway. According to this viewpoint the new administration in Washington, will not pay too much heed to human rights and view relations with China in a more pragmatic vein. In other words, it will be good for business.

The same goes for Europe, already dealing with Brexit, and possibly facing a National Front victory in France that would shake it to its foundations. Beijing senses greater opportunities here.

The feeling in Beijing is that anything that weakens its rivals is bound to make China stronger. That old Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times’’ has a certain resonance these days.

Letter from Tehran: Trump ‘the Bazaari’

The art of the deal, when practiced for 2500 years, does lead to the palace of wisdom. I had hardly set foot in Tehran when a diplomat broke the news: “Trump? We’re not worried. He’s a bazaari”. It’s a Persian language term meaning he is from the merchants class or, more literally, a worker from the bazaar and its use implies that a political accommodation will eventually be reached.

The Iranian government’s response to the Trump administration boils down to a Sun Tzu variant; silence, especially after the Fall of Flynn, who had “put Iran on notice” after it carried out a ballistic missile test, and had pushed the idea of an anti-Iran military alliance comprising Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan. Tehran says the missile test did not infringe the provisions of the Iran nuclear deal and that naval drills from the Strait of Hormuz to the Indian Ocean, which began on Sunday, had been planned well in advance.

I was in Tehran as one of several hundred foreign guests, including a small group of foreign journalists , guests of the Majlis (Parliament) for an annual conference on the Palestine issue.

The art of the deal, when practiced for 2500 years, does lead to the palace of wisdom. I had hardly set foot in Tehran when a diplomat broke the news: “Trump? We’re not worried. He’s a bazaari”. It’s a Persian language term meaning he is from the merchants class or, more literally, a worker from the bazaar and its use implies that a political accommodation will eventually be reached.

The Iranian government’s response to the Trump administration boils down to a Sun Tzu variant; silence, especially after the Fall of Flynn, who had “put Iran on notice” after it carried out a ballistic missile test, and had pushed the idea of an anti-Iran military alliance comprising Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan. Tehran says the missile test did not infringe the provisions of the Iran nuclear deal and that naval drills from the Strait of Hormuz to the Indian Ocean, which began on Sunday, had been planned well in advance.

I was in Tehran as one of several hundred foreign guests, including a small group of foreign journalists , guests of the Majlis (Parliament) for an annual conference on the Palestine issue.

Not surprisingly, no one from Trump’s circle was among the gathering of parliamentarians from over 50 nations who attended the impressive opening ceremony in a crowded, round conference hall where the center of power in Iran was on display; Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani and Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani.

Khamenei proclaimed that “the existing crises in every part of the region and the Islamic ummah deserve attention”, but insisted that the key issue remains Palestine. The conference, he said, could become “a model for all Muslims and regional nations to gradually harness their differences by relying on their common points”.

Khamenei’s was an important call for Muslim unity. Few in the West know that during the rapid decolonization of the 1940s and 50s, the Muslim world was not torn apart by the vicious Sunni-Shi’ite hatred – later fomented by the Wahhabi/Salafi-jihadi axis. The Wahhabi House of Saud, incidentally, was nowhere to be seen at the conference.

Hefty discussions with Iranian analysts and diplomats revolved on the efficacy of multilateral discussions compared to advancing facts on the ground – ranging from the building of new settlements in the West Bank to the now all but dead and buried Oslo two-state myth.

On Palestine, I asked Naim Qassem, deputy secretary-general of Hezbollah about the Trump administration’s hint of a one-state solution. His answer, in French; “One state means war. Two states means peace under their conditions, which will lead us to war.”

As with most conferences, what matters are the sidelines. Leonid Savin, a Russian geopolitical analyst, claimed that Russian airspace is now all but sealed with multiple deployments of the S-500 missile defense system against anything the US might unleash. Albanian historian Olsi Jazexhi deconstructed the new Balkans powder keg. Muhammad Gul, son of the late, larger-than-life General Hamid Gul, detailed the finer points of Pakistan’s foreign policy and the drive to build the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Pyongyang was also in the house. The North Korean delegate produced an astonishing speech, essentially arguing that Palestine should follow their example, complete with a “credible nuclear deterrent”. Later, in the corridors I saluted the delegation, and they saluted back. No chance of a sideline chat though to go over the unclear points surrounding Kim Jong-nam’s assassination.

Blake Archer Williams, a.k.a. Arash Darya-Bandari, whose pseudonym celebrates the “tyger tyger burning bright” English master, gave me a copy of Creedal Foundations of Waliyic Islam (Lion of Najaf Publishers) – an analysis of how Shi’ite theology led to the theory of velayat-e faqih (the ruling of the jurisprudent) that lies at the heart of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Every time I’m back in Tehran I’m impressed with the surprising number of open avenues for serious intellectual discussion. I was constantly reminded of Jalal Al-e Ahmad, the son of a mullah born in poor south Tehran who later translated Sartre and Camus and wrote the seminal Westoxification (1962).

He spent the summer of 1965 at Harvard seminars organized by Henry Kissinger and “supported” by the CIA. He pivoted to Shi’ism only toward the end of his life. It was his analysis that paved the way for sociologist Ali Shariati to cross-pollinate anti-colonialism with the Shi’ite concept of resistance against injustice and produce a revolutionary ideology capable of politicizing the Iranian middle classes, leading to the Islamic Revolution.

That was the background for serious discussions on how Iran (resistance against injustice), China (remixed Confucianism) and Russia (Eurasianism) are offering post-Enlightenment alternatives that transcend Western liberal democracy.

But in the end it was all inevitably down to the overarching anti-intellectual ghost in the room; Donald Trump (and that was even before he got a letter from Ahmadinejad).

So I did what I usually do before leaving Tehran; I hit the bazaar, via a fabulous attached mosque – to get reacquainted with the art of the deal, the Persian way.

That led me to Mahmoud Asgari, lodged in the Sameyi passage of the Tajrish bazaar and a serious discussion on the finer points of pre-WWI Sistan-Baluchistan tribal rugs from Zahedan. The end result was – what else – a win-win sale, bypassing the US dollar. And then, the clincher: “When you call your friend Trump, tell him to come here and I’ll give him the best deal”.

This piece first appeared at Asia Times.

Iraqi Army Makes Big Gains in Battle for Mosul

Iraqi military forces are advancing towards the main complex of government buildings in the centre of west Mosul, indicating that Isis is losing control of its last big urban stronghold in Iraq.

“The provincial council and the governorate building are within the firing range of the rapid response forces,” said an officer with the elite interior ministry units.

The Iraqi government offensive is evidently making ground faster than had been expected against some 4,000 Isis fighters, besieged along with 750,000 civilians in the half of Mosul city to the west of the Tigris river. The aim of the multiple attack against this enclave is to keep Isis under pressure on all fronts so it will not have enough men to hold back the Iraqi security forces that far outnumber it. Isis is making very effective use of a mix of snipers, suicide bombers, mortars, bombs, booby traps and drones.

Iraqi forces say they have seized both ends of one of the five bridges spanning the Tigris, which have all been broken by US air strikes and Isis demolition teams, but could be made passable again by using pontoon bridging equipment supplied by the US.

People inside the city are running out of food, and there are reports that the old Sarj-Khana market has been burned by Isis. Militants are setting fire to private houses in order to create a smoke screen that will hide its fighters from the US-led air strikes which are clearing the way for ground troops.

The UN humanitarian aid office said on Tuesday that 8,000 people have fled to government-controlled areas south of Mosul since the latest Iraq military offensive began on 19 February and they “are often exhausted and dehydrated”.

The main weight of the attack so far is coming from the south and has captured the airport along with several districts of Mosul. Isis is likely to make its main stand in the close-packed residential housing and narrow alleys of the old part of Mosul. It took Iraqi security forces three months from 17 October last year to capture east Mosul during which they lost 500 dead and 3,000 wounded according to General Joseph Votel of the US Central Command.

Many of the most effective Iraqi units reportedly suffered over 30 per cent losses, though the Iraqi government in Baghdad refuses to disclose military and civilian casualties.

The recapture of Mosul by the Iraqi armed forces, which lost the city to a much smaller number of Isis fighters in June 2014, will be a crushing blow to the Caliphate that was declared at that time and at its height controlled territory the size of Great Britain. Its astonishing victories against superior forces in Iraq and Syria two-an-a-half years ago were portrayed by Isis as proof that it had divine assistance. Its string of defeats and shrinking territory since 2015 have had the contrary effect of persuading many Sunni Arab tribes and communities that the self-declared Caliphate is coming to an end.

The real situation in front line positions in and around west Mosul is unclear because the Iraqi government reports only successes and never mentions setbacks or defeats. They sometimes announce the capture of districts and towns long before government troops have reached them. The blog Musings on Iraq , which has published a detailed daily account of the 132-day campaign to take Mosul, complains that “the Iraqi forces’ (ISF) statements either by officers or even official ones have become so unreliable that they cannot be trusted unless pictures are posted on social media or a western reporter confirms them”.

Nevertheless, Iraqi forces do appear to have improved their tactics since the grinding street-to-street fighting in east Mosul, which they had expected to seize much more quickly. One significant development is that US soldiers advising and calling in air strikes are now positioned closer to the front line than they were last year. Aside from closer involvement of US troops in the fighting, the Trump administration has so far changed very little in operations against Isis initiated under President Obama.

General Stephen Townsend, the commander of the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, says that since August 2014 the US-led Coalition “has conducted more than 10,000 air strikes against Isis targets in Iraq and trained and equipped more than 70,000 Iraqi forces to support Iraqi operations”.

Isis is under pressure on all fronts, including Syria, where it has lost the town of al-Bab to Turkish forces and Arab auxiliaries under their control. Isis commanders must also prepare for an assault on its de facto Syrian capital of Raqqa by the Syrian Democratic Forces, whose main fighting force is drawn from the Syrian Kurds operating in cooperation with the US air force and US special forces on the ground. Isis is beset on every side but is likely to fight to the end, which may be a long time coming.

Breakfast With Chairman Bobby: Local Panther History Revisited

The once controversial, much criminally prosecuted, and often violently repressed Black Panther Party for Self-Defense has achieved belated respectability fifty-one years after its birth in Oakland, CA.

New books, films, and commemorative conferences have provided its founding generation with a 21st century platform for cross-generational exchanges and burnishing of personal and political legacies (some much contested).

Nobody has been more active on the Panther nostalgia circuit than Bobby Seale, the author of two books about the Party and a popular collection of barbecue recipes. The avuncular 81-year old African-American community elder returned to Richmond, CA, for two Black History Month events, more than five decades after assisting young people in this East Bay city as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Gone was the black leather jacket and Panther beret of Seale’s militant youth; instead, our garrulous guest sported the brown corduroy jacket, blue oxford shirt, and neatly-knotted tie of a retired college lecturer.

Seale (aka “Chairman Bobby”) co-founded the BPP in 1966, along with his Merritt College classmate Huey P. Newton. The U.S. air force veteran and former aerospace worker became a Sixties’ icon in his own right and one of the era’s most famous political prisoners.

While enduring a four-year jail term for contempt of court, imposed by the infamous Judge Julius Hoffman during the 1969 trial of anti-war protestors known as “the Chicago Eight,” Seale also faced federal prosecution for alleged complicity in the murder of a New Haven, CT. Panther member suspected of being a police informant.

The jury deadlocked in that case and charges against Seale were eventually dropped. Two years after his release from jail, the Panther leader  embraced electoral politics. As chronicled in Stanley Nelson’s 2015 documentary, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Seale ran a surprisingly strongly race against the incumbent mayor of Oakland, finishing second in a field of nine candidates.

In 1974, Seale left the BPP, after falling-out with the increasingly dictatorial and unhinged Huey Newton. The party was, by then, a shadow of its former self due to state repression, police infiltration, internal factionalism, and a deeply destructive leadership cult. Its explosive growth in the late Sixties, from a handful of Bay Area members to 5,000 in nearly fifty chapters around the country, became an increasingly distant memory. By Seale’s count, in 1969 alone, 28 Panther supporters died and 69 were wounded in police raids and ambushes. He estimates that 12 police officers died during these same confrontations.

Richmond Roots

Chairman Bobby’s Richmond homecoming had a carefully staged symmetry, a bit redolent with historical irony. His first audience of the day was residents of the Pullman Point Apartments, where a Chevron-funded philanthropy called For Richmond, has organized a modern-day children’s breakfast program and other much needed services As mothers, grandmothers, and children (young and older) gathered for an early morning repast, Seale tried to set the record straight about himself and the Panthers.

“A lot of people think I was just some guy out on the street with guns,” he said, recalling a long list of enemies, like California Governor Ronald Reagan and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who denounced him as a thug, hooligan, or national security threat. Rebutting those characterizations, Seale described the Party’s focus on “realistic, practical programs” that fed children before school, provided free medical care, and sought police accountability. Panther organizing in East Bay communities was designed, he said, “to unite the people and get them registered to vote.”

The Party registered hundreds of new voters to insure that African-Americans could sign petitions, vote on ballot measures, and serve on what were then often all-white juries. In four cities—Richmond, Oakland, San Francisco, and Berkeley—the BPP gathered signatures to trigger a citywide vote on “community control of the police.” The Party newspaper also proposed that predominantly black North Richmond become an independent city so its residents could “control their own school system, and have the power to tax businesses in the area, like Standard Oil,” the city’s largest employer (known today as Chevron).

Under the Panthers’ plan for civilian oversight, elected police review boards would investigate officer-involved shootings, reports of unnecessary force, and other allegations of official misconduct. Then and now, such probes tend to be handled by internal affairs units or local prosecutors with close police department ties. Only in Berkeley did this cutting edge scheme make it onto the ballot.

In Richmond, it took another forty-seven years for the city to refashion its under-resourced Police Commission into a more pro-active Citizens Police Review Commission. This appointed body is now required to investigate every officer-involved civilian fatality or serious injury (that results in hospitalization for more than three days), even without a triggering complaint.  It’s currently in the process of hiring a professional investigator, who can subpoena officers and question them under oath. As part of on-going RPD reform, internal affairs probes are now conducted by a civilian-led Office of Professional Accountability. It’s located within city hall rather than the department, a rare arrangement in America today.

Open Carry, Sixties-Style

As Seale recalled last week, the BPP’s first local organizing in Richmond involved policing complaints. Denzil Dowell, a twenty-two-year-old North Richmond construction worker, was fatally shot by a deputy sheriff who believed he was a burglary suspect. In a sequence of events still familiar in major US cities half a century later, Dowell’s death was soon found to be “justifiable homicide.”

Seale knew the victim’s family, from his prior work in the neighborhood. “I believe the police murdered my son,” his mother told him. Seizing the time, the Panthers organized a protest rally attended by four hundred North Richmond residents and signed up many as new members. Fifteen BPP activists stood guard in their signature black berets and leather jackets. They were armed with twelve-gauge shotguns, M1 rifles, and assorted hand guns.

This dramatic display of what today would be called “open carry” got the attention of state legislators in Sacramento. A bill to restrict public

gun-toting (still legal at the time) was hurriedly introduced. During a now-famous lobbying visit to the State Capitol in May, 1967, the Panthers were packing again when they protested this new form of gun control. Seale and his comrades were arrested but made national headlines with the dramatic form of political theater first premiered in the East Bay.

In its Richmond heyday, the BPP fed twenty-five to forty-five kids a day in a lower-budget breakfast program not funded by Big Oil.  Panther volunteers did testing, door-to-door, for sickle cell anemia and hypertension. They gave away hundreds of free shoes to people in need an also started a “liberation school” that held classes on Saturdays, because, as Panther archivist Bill Jennings recalls, “African American history was just not taught in Contra Costa County public schools. Although it emphasized black empowerment, Seale described the BPP as a “populist movement” committed to “crossing all racial, religious, and ethnic lines.”

As a multi-racial progressive movement has gained city hall influence in Richmond, Panther history has won official recognition. In 2009, our visitor noted, the city council expressed its gratitude to “Mr. Seale, his organization, and all the Black Panthers who…emerged from Richmond to activate, unite, organize, educate, mobilize, rally and increase awareness and hope for a better future for all the residents of our city.”

That local appreciation was expressed again in person by the crowd of 350, which gave Seale a standing ovation after his hour-long speech at a second Black History Month event sponsored by For Richmond. Chairman Bobby opened his talk with the observation that it’s “time once again to struggle and stand up for what you believe in.” He concluded, as expected, with the famous Panther salute, “Power to the People!” But, in between, he reminded his listeners that “the methodology of grassroots community organizing” remains the key to gaining political power in Richmond or any other place else where it hasn’t been well shared in the past.