Roaming Charges: Nothing Was Delivered

Nothing was delivered
And I tell this truth to you
Not out of spite or anger
But simply because it’s true
Now, I hope you won’t object to this
Giving back all of what you owe
The fewer words you have to waste on this
The sooner you can go

— Bob Dylan, “Nothing Was Delivered

The congressional inquisition has become a ritual of American politics, a ritual whose rites of interrogation and humiliation were largely scripted by Donald Trump’s life coach Roy Cohn. In the 1950s, Cohn acted as Joseph McCarthy’s hatchet man during the congressional hearings into the “Red Peril” of the 1950s. Cohn (a closeted gay at the time) even went so far as to claim that Soviet spies were blackmailing American homosexuals to act as a Communist agents. This witch hunt became known, rather quaintly, as the Lavender Scare. Hypocrisy has always closely shadowed the politics of persecution.

From Watergate to Iran/Contra, every decade or so the country seems eager for a national bloodletting of its politicians, as if a public lancing of a few black pustules might heal the body politic. If this is the case, then why has the strange investigation into Russia’s alleged hacking of the 2016 elections fallen so flat?

There’s no better example than the over-hyped hearing last Monday held by the House Permanent Committee on Intelligence featuring FBI director James Comey and Admiral Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency. The proceedings went on for an almost unbearable five hours, enlivened only by some real time Tweeting from the POTUS account. Otherwise, the big day was a dull affair that delivered almost nothing new, featuring monotonous speeches from barely literate members of congress stumbling their way through prepared scripts and opaque non-answers from the two witnesses. As a rule, the Republicans tried to put the press on trial and the Democrats tried to smear as a traitor anyone who had any dealings with Russians of any kind–excepting, naturally, all of the Democratic lobbyists and politicians (notably Chuck Schumer and Bill Clinton) who have enriched themselves at Russia’s expense.

The Democrats’ desperate gambit to delegitimize Trump for his camp’s dealings with Russia still hasn’t grabbed the attention of the American public at large, despite the non-stop promotion on CNN and MS-DNC. And it won’t after this desolate hearing either. Why? Because most Americans have other things on their minds: their work, their health, their debt, and whether the water pouring out of their tap is so toxic that it might burn through the lining of their kid’s throat. Moreover, the old fear of Russia, long considered a more blood-curdling bogeyman than ISIS, has lost much of its potency. People are sick of 16 years of constant war. They don’t see why it is wrong to want improved relations with Russia. And they aren’t all that sad that Hillary lost the election. Her poll numbers are now more deflated than Trump’s.

People need a storyline and there still isn’t a coherent one for Russiagate. And in the absence of a story, there have to be some compelling characters to latch on to and mostly what we’ve been presented with are bland bit players no one has heard of, like JD Gordon and Carter Page, or unappetizing self-promoters like Roger Stone, who on his most nefarious day was only a third-rate Gordon Liddy. The most intriguing figure in the whole affair is probably Sergey Kislyak and few Americans can pronounce the name of the Russian ambassador and alleged spymaster, never mind spell it. Even Spell-Check freezes trying to auto-correct “Kislyak.”

There was some hope that the hearings might take a more salacious turn when Rep. Adam Schiff began to read from the so-called Dirty Dossier compiled by former MI6 intelligence officer Christopher Steele. This fanciful assemblage of rumors, innuendo and make-believe about the shady adventures of Trump and his possé at least reads like a mediocre Frederic Forsyth novel. Alas, Schiff stopped his recitation before he got to the really dirty parts.

The incompetence of the Republicans on the committee, led by Devin Nunes and the odious Trey Gowdy, had the deleterious effect of inflating the performance of  Schiff, whose Russophobia is equalled only by John McCain and the Walter Winchell of MS-DNC Rachel Maddow. The Republicans’ obsession with leaks made them look like a gang of unlicensed plumbers searching for a Deep Throat to plug.

Nunes is one of the more pathetic figures on the Hill. The rather dull-witted son of a California land baron in the Imperial Valley, he is clearly far out of his depth running the Intelligence Committee, even if his sole mission is to blunt the investigation from the inside. There are many ways to abort an investigation without drawing attention to yourself. Nunes knows none of them. As the former head of the National Security task force for Trump’s transition team, Nunes was compromised from the very start of the investigation. But instead of at least pretending to be an honest broker, Nunes has acted like Trump’s Labradoodle, running back and forth to the White House for treats and pats on the head. Witness his theatrical performance on Wednesday, when Nunes, who is allegedly very concerned about leaks, viewed leaked documents relating to ongoing counter-intelligence investigations, then rushed to the White House to leak the content of those documents to Trump, who may be the target of the investigation, and then described them to the press. (Unless the whole psycho-drama was a charade.) I’m tempted to nominate him for this year’s Daniel Ellsberg award.

As bad as Nunes is, Trey Gowdy is even worse. Gowdy is a failed prosecutor who slithered into Congress from some patch of kudzu in South Carolina. He is verbose, vacuous and vicious. Gowdy is the kind of lawyer Charles Dickens loved to satirize, a self-righteous prig whose warped physiognomy expresses his vile moral character. Gowdy, who endlessly extols himself as a “constitutionalist,” spent much of his time advocating the arrest, prosecution and jailing of journalists. If we are going to go this route, I suggest we start by opening the cell doors for Judith Miller, Jeffrey Goldberg and the other hack journalists who used fake intelligence leaked from Cheney and Co. to start a war that left 657,000 dead.

I still believe that most of the contacts between the Russians and the Trump circle had less to do with getting Trump elected than making a financial killing. Even the Russians seemed to seem to have given up on the idea of flipping the election to Trump by the end of September and began preparing themselves for dealing with the woman who seemed quite prepared to nuke Moscow. Of course, whether having Trump at the helm makes nuclear war more or less likely is still an open question.

That a sleazy political fixer like Paul Manafort made tens of millions of dollars from a Russian oligarch close to Putin shouldn’t come as any surprise. Hundreds of other American political and business figures have sold their services to Russian tycoons and companies, including John Podesta’s own lobbying outfit and the Clinton Foundation. In fact, Russia was pried open for business by Jeffrey Sachs and his economic wrecking crew from Harvard. Their brutal shock therapy regime imposed a rapid privatization scheme on Russia that paralyzed the economy and led to the creation of a new billionaire class looking to hire people like Manafort to clean them up for western consumption.

So what did we learn? Not much. We heard some new euphemisms. Out with that old word “collusion” and in with “coordination,” which is how the FBI is now describing the possible liaisons between the Trump team and figures in the Russian government. More interestingly, we now know, on the unimpeachable authority of James Comey, that the Russians didn’t provide the Podesta emails directly to Wikileaks, assuming they had access to them at all. We also know that Comey, who requested a break after only a couple of hours of questioning, has a weaker bladder than his counterpart Adm. Rogers. Might want to have that prostate examined, Jim. On the limited evidence offered in this pathetic excuse for an inquiry, the Republicans acted as if Trump is guilty (most of them want him gone anyway) and the Democrats behaved like they have nothing but this entangled conspiracy theory to offer their voters–what voters they have left.

As for Trump himself, he could have avoided this recent spectacle if only he hadn’t succumbed to his early morning impulse to Tweet smack at Obama about wiretapping his phones in Trump Tower. I can understand his angst. If Trump’s wires weren’t being tapped, he would be one of the few Americans not to have the records of his phone calls end up in some NSA data -vault. Like most professional con men, Trump is paranoid that someone is watching him from behind, looking to spot the secret tricks of his grifters game. Trump probably learned to be wary of federal wiretaps early in his business career from his buddies in the Genovese crime syndicate.

Trump is a reckless and self-immolating personality. In the end, the most formidable resistance to Trump will likely prove to be Trump himself. The man takes to Twitter as if he were strapping on a suicide vest. One day he’s going to blow himself up. The question is how many others will he take out with him?

On another positive note, the most uplifting thing about this whole tendentious affair is that public confidence in the FBI is at an all-time low and not even the return of Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. seems likely to resurrect it.

***

Roaming Charges

+ Someone told me this week that Trump was lucky that he hadn’t had to confront a “national tragedy” yet. I said, “What if Trump is the national tragedy that Trump has to confront every morning?”

+ Steve Curtis, the former head of the Colorado Republican Party, has railed against voter fraud for much of his career, claiming that illegal voters only benefited Democrats. This week Curtis was arrested on charges of … voter fraud. Once upon a time you couldn’t make up this kind of hypocrisy, now it’s a daily headline in your newsfeed.

+ Trump’s pick as Labor Secretary, Alexander Acosta, helped his good buddy, the pathological billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, escape prosecution on charges of having sex with underage girls. Now Epstein is free to fly the skies in Air Lolita once again…

+ Donald Trump’s most recent public laceration of Colin Kaepernick is vindication of the heroic stand (or squat, I guess) taken by the former San Francisco 49ers QB. Now, if he could only get a job…

+ In Russia, they call them “oligarchs,” with a pejorative sting to the word. Here we call them “philanthropists,” with the distant hope we’ll somehow be mentioned in the will. I’m talking about David Rockefeller, who died this week at the age of 102. Rockefeller was a Malthusian Monster, who spent much of his life (and hundreds of millions in grants) obsessing over cruel ways to limit the birthrates of the under-classes.

+ So Ivanka is getting both an office in the West Wing and security clearance. Increasingly Trump administration beginning to resemble either the Romanovs or the Gambino family–assuming there’s much of a difference.

+ Not only is Radiohead playing Tel Aviv, defying the international cultural boycott of Israel, they’re doubling-down by taking an Israeli band with them on their tour of the USA. I stopped listening to them after guitarist Johnny Greenwood’s inchoate soundtrack for Inherent Vice, now you should follow suit for a more profound reason.

+ Credit where credit is due: It looks like Trump was right about those bomb threats to Jewish centers being kind of “an inside job.”

+ Trump: “We will kill their families, too.” Promise made, Promise kept.

+ Hillary’s KXL Pipeline, already 2/3s completed, moves one step closer to the big hook up. I wonder if she sent Rexxon a thank you note?

+ Fracking the Bakken Formation in North Dakota began under George W. Bush and soared under Obama. The result: 6,648 major oil spills from just six states who rode the Fracking boom. That works out to something like 55 spills per 1000 fracking sites per year. No way you’d get insurance if you wrecked your car 55 times for each 1000 trips. But we’re talking oil, so…

Frack me baby one more time
Don’t you worry about the sheets
Honey the maids won’t mind

+ The rampant police atrocities, such as the murder of Eric Garner, don’t just “happen”. They’re standard practice. Want proof? Check out the bloody service record of the cop who killed Garner.

+ Lest we forget: Afghanistan under Obama, where civilian casualties nearly doubled during is tenure in the White House…

C7nWuNfXkAA_4nv.jpg-large

+ The GOP says “austerity,” the Democrats say “neoliberalism.” Same grim results. Same high-paid architects.

+ Only a kind of political Stockholm Syndrome keeps 80% of the members of the Democratic Party in the Democratic Party.

+ In Kentucky this week, Trump repeated the canard that he forced the owners of the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines to use US-made steel (they weren’t and won’t)….By the way, we need to compile a yuuge new list of synonyms for “lying” in order to survive the next four years, journalistically speaking.

+ Much of the burden from Trump’s budget cuts will fall on the very rural voters in the West and Midwest who helped to election him. No sweat off his brow, though. Trump knows they’ll vote for him anyway because he’s the man that put that wonderful pipeline through their cornfield, which they couldn’t harvest anyway because he’d locked up all their fieldworkers…

+ This week the Trump administration began shaming cities by posting a list of police departments that have refused to cooperate with ICE raids on undocumented immigrants. I thought Trump had unwavering support for the cops? I guess that’s only when they shoot someone in the back.

+ Trump is that irritating guy at the end of the bar who knows almost nothing yet insists he’s right about everything.

+ Trump sat down with a couple of reporters from TIME magazine this week to discuss his awesome achievements, the press and his fanciful Tweets. Before talking about his favorite topic, himself, Trump took a barbed shot at TIME:

And then TIME magazine, which treats me horribly, but obviously I sell, I assume this is going to be a cover too, have I set the record? I guess, right? Covers, nobody’s had more covers.

Trump has been on the cover of TIME 12 times. His idol Nixon holds the record. His horrid visage haunted 55 covers of TIME. But who’s counting? The anthology of Trump’s tweets are the best collection of fabulist short stories since Donald Barthelme’s Come Back, Dr. Caligari….

+ The Iraq war began (GWB edition) 14 years ago this week. Before Bush fell in love with Michelle Obama, there was that very unseemly public affair with Tony Blair, which resulted in 657,000-plus deaths. It’s the tragedy of their marriage that Blair never looked at Cheri with the excited gaze he saved for Bush…

+ Lockheed’s CEO admits that Trump’s push to jack-up defense spending for NATO is all about increasing contracts with … Lockheed. To the tune of $100 million….

+ When Norman Mailer & Jimmy Breslin ran for mayor of NYC in 1969 they ran on a secessionist platform that would have turned the five boroughs of New York City into the 51st State, giving local neighborhood control over police, housing and education. Rent control would have been instituted across the city. Another key plank to their platform was the banning of all private cars from the island of Manhattan and shutting down all mechanized traffic one Sunday a month, which they called Sweet Sundays.

The campaign had three slogans: “Power to the Neighborhood,” “The Other Guys are the Joke,” and “I’d Sleep Better with Mailer as Mayor” (certainly written by Norman himself.)

I like Breslin’s book on Watergate, How the Good Guys Finally Won, more than the self-glorifying All the President’s Men. It’s available for $2 on Kindle, worth reading to learn how a cynical journalist who’d seen it all covered a real political scandal.

What journalist other than Breslin could land a cereal commercial?

Here’s Breslin on Trump:

“Trump’s instincts appear to tell him that people crumble quickly at the first show of bravado, particularly members of the media, which is the plural of mediocre…As far as getting publicity whenever he wants it, Trump is the white Al Sharpton.”

+ Ignoring the experience of Canada, the UK, France and nearly every other industrialized nation on Earth, OMB director Mitch Mulvaney announced that the “only way to get to truly universal health care is to throw people in jail.” You have to give them credit. Not only do they think this repulsive shit, they actually speak their minds.

+ A woman in Texas named Rose Maria Ortega was sentenced to eight years in prison for illegally voting (for Republicans, by the way). Ortega holds a green card, but she is not a US citizen. My grandmother came to the US from Sheffield in 1918 at the age of 12, proudly voted in every election for 45 years before she finally got her US citizenship and she didn’t destroy the Republic–well, not single-handedly. I hold firmly to the idea that everyone who lives under the shadow of the US imperium deserves to vote in US elections.

+ Bernie goes all-in on Russiagate. Sanders: “How does it happen that we have a president who has nothing but nice things to say about Mr. Putin? What do the Russians have on Mr. Trump?”

+ Will MS-DNC interrupt their wall-to-wall Russia Bombed Our Elections coverage to spend a few days–even hours–on a white nationalist from Baltimore who came to New York to kill black people with his sword? Nah…

+ In Florida, prison guards boiled a mentally ill black inmate to death. Of course, they won’t be charged.

+ Go back to Mexico (even though you’re from Indianapolis) kids and take your joyful faces, scientific minds and engineering genius with you!

+ Unbelievably, W’s new career as one of the worst painters since Thomas Kincaide has succeeded in redeeming him with the liberal NPR/NEA crowd for his unrivaled record of constitutional crimes.

+ Why making the future of the Supreme Court the last excuse for voting for a “lesser evil” candidate NEVER works: only 43 percent of Americans can name even one Supreme Court justice.

+ Can you really refer to yourself as the leader of the “Free World” (whatever that means) when you supervise the largest prison population on the planet?

+ The best way to make kids curious about evolutionary biology is to force Creationism down their throats in middle school.

+ When Dr. Strangelove doesn’t get you off any more and you’re in desperate need of some late-night nuclear porn, check out this video archive of all 210 open-air atomic blasts conducted by your friendly government…

+ Elvis may have been a King in the white precincts of rock, but Chuck Berry was THE KING and his Kingdom was the whole damn Universe.

+ Apparently this is “World Poetry Week.” I don’t care too much for “poetry” but I do love poems, like this one from Langston Hughes, which seems to anticipate every great lunch poem Frank O’Hara wrote. It’s called…

Madam and the Phone Bill 

You say I O.K.ed
LONG DISTANCE?
O.K.ed it when?
My goodness, Central
That was then!

I’m mad and disgusted
With that Negro now.
I don’t pay no REVERSED
CHARGES nohow.

You say, I will pay it—
Else you’ll take out my phone?
You better let
My phone alone.

I didn’t ask him
To telephone me.
Roscoe knows darn well
LONG DISTANCE
Ain’t free.

Booked Up

What I’m reading this week…

Lenin on the Train by Catherine Merridale
The Gulf: Making of an American Sea by Jack E. Davis
Dirty Snow by George Simenon

Sound Grammar

What I’m listening to this week…

St. Louis to Liverpool by Chuck Berry
One Dozen Berrys by Chuck Berry
Memories are Now  by Jesca Hoop
Graveyard Whistling by Old 97s
Elwan by Tinawiren

Last of the Barbarians

James Crumley: “Americans are the best and the last of the barbarians, the conquerors, the long knives, the jolly green giants of history who move at first across the land with fire and sword, then with transistor radios and toothpaste, seeking not even greener grass, nor even movement itself, but merely senseless turds in the large bowel of history.”

The CIA and the Intellectuals…Again

Photo by Toxic5 | DeviantArt

Photo by Toxic5 | DeviantArt

How persistent and how strange is the look backward upon the intellectual life of the Cold War. The New York Times A3 page, Mar.5, carried this teaser, “The C.I.A. once ran a covert operation to publish a literary magazine, Encounter, as a propaganda exercise.” The relevant piece, in T, the Style Magazine, happens to be rather different. “The Joys of Propaganda,” by Andrew O’Hagan, is a shorty, touched by  nostalgia for a simpler age of lies and half truths purported to  be something other than False News–a distinction that remains elusive. A mere paid propaganda exercise, those old Cold War literary efforts? Actually, O’Hagan explains, it was a high minded effort to win the masses over from Communism by way of modernism, emphatically including poetry!

The contrast with the miseries of present day vulgarity is all too obvious. “The impulse to choose a side and press its case with wily elegance” is now gone, obviously.  And badly missed—although no one who chose the other side seems to have possessed similar “wily elegance,” notwithstanding the fame, reputation and readership of antiwar and anti-imperialist Leftwing (if not necessarily Communist) novelists, poets, screenwriters and so on hounded for their views and often enough, also their art. In the same issue of T, the hysterically Islamophobic French playboy-philosopher, Bernard-Henri Levi, has a lush photo and a page to talk about his favorite subject, himself. (He no longer highlights his enthusiasm for the US invasion of Iraq.) Perhaps things have not changed quite as much as our aesthete commentator laments.

This brings us to the subject and the book at hand, Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers by Joel Whitney. It is doubtful that any survey of the CIA operation in the world of American intellectuals will surpass the treatment of Frances Stonor Sauders’ The Cultural Cold War. Saunders managed to get at sources denied others (including this writer), dig out the evidence of widespread moral corruption, and present it with great lucidity. Modernism existed aplenty, literary to artistic (Henry Luce, after all, called Abstraction Expressionism “Free Market Art”), but played a distinctly minor note to the larger “propaganda exercise.” It is safe to say that the propaganda doled out by the CIA to labor leaders for use across Europe and Latin America was itself of minor significance compared to the generous accompanying paychecks. But the process worked rather differently among the prose masters that Whitney describes in Finks.

The Congress for Cultural Freedom and its counterpart American Committee for Cultural Freedom served, Whitney usefully explains, as a master PR campaign, mainly European and American, for the intellectuals who operated within it.  First finkswhitneyclass air flights, four star restaurants and five star hotels were the least of the benefits.  Any writer, almost any writer, wants to attend a Manhattan cocktail party with trade publishers rushing to offer generous advances, and probable reviewers in the New York Times and other prestige venues meandering about, waiting for the handouts on the hot authors. Chicago’s Nelson Algren, a holdout who dubbed iconic critic Lionel Trilling  “Lionel Thrillingly,” was naturally viewed as a sorehead, as were others who demurred. Opponents of the Cold War, pro-Russian or not, were excluded on principle and likely to be attacked on principle–and in personal terms.

Joel Whitney is most interested in the High Lit, Euro side of the adventure. Encounter magazine was the gem, figures like Isaiah Berlin the precious human resources of the Agency,  endlessly denying CIA ties, meanwhile quietly and gratefully accepting the benefits. Poet Stephen Spender may be best remembered politically for going after John Berger, who failed on aesthetic as well as political grounds to be a loyal supporter of the West. A Painter for Our Time, Berger’s novel, was as much as withdrawn after initial publication and awaited a calmer decade to be welcomed as a major work (and Berger as a major writer).

Now and then clients rebelled. Dwight Macdonald, who rose to literary heights thanks in part to quiet Establishment assistance, faced censorship for repeatedly going over the line. The Free Europe Committee characteristically “screened” articles to be published in the French language Combate, among other subsidized magazines. Fidel Castro’s revolution naturally brought propaganda to a new height and propelled client George Plimpton into great uneasiness with his idol, Ernest Hemingway. Papa liked Fidel, and Plimpton, a free spirit by his own definition, went into a veritable frenzy. Unlike Robert Lowell, early on hawkish to an extreme and one of the CCF’s favorite clients, Plimpton did not have a nervous breakdown.

The CIA’s favorites had cheerfully endorsed the overthrow of the elected Arbenz in Guatemala, in 1954, with all the enthusiasm that they cursed the Russian invasion of Hungarian in 1956. How to reconcile the implied contradiction, amped up with the slaughter of some 400,000 peasants by the Guatemalan military paid and trained by the US over the next decade? Mostly by changing the subject, a technique pursued unsuccessfully by the ACCF, which dissolved amidst internal crisis in 1957. The CCF itself managed, largely thanks to maneuvers by godfather Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., to persist, with CIA funding intact, until 1979, under the change title of the “International Association for Cultural Freedom.”  Peter Matthiessen, another major client, himself successfully changed the subject by engaging Native American history. Might he still have been doing a bit of Agency work, here and there, until his last days? He would not, the author tells us, respond to queries, perhaps out of shame—or discretion.

Whitney’s coda, “Afghanistan,” does not quite measure up, no doubt because so much had changed since the 1967 revelations in Ramparts magazine that the old literary panache could never be reconstructed. He points to Freedom House, the sturdy Cold War operation and its partner, the National Endowment for Democracy, and to the long list of pass-throughs (that is, convenient intelligence agency fronts) for American writers, think tank intellectuals and others eager to press the US cause in Afghanistan against the Russians. Whitney ends by coming back to the origins of the CIA and the craziness with which global resistance against the Russians was pursued, as if the age old conflict of Empire vs Empire had not been largely recuperated with new ideological clothes. By now, actually long since, the true scholars of Empire have known better.

But of course they do not wish to say so, and the recent passing of New York Review of Books founder Robert Silvers, which might have marked a more fitting final note on an era, instead reminds us of how the Cold War basics go on and on. A militant intellectual journal in the days of the Vietnam War and Watergate, the New York Review reverted, soon enough, to hawkish liberalism in defense of empire, a defense that extends across all history, naturally enough because history culminates in The West and in the powers of the leading intellectuals to explain all.  We are reminded, in the New York Times obit, that Silvers was a CIA client in his early days, but perhaps unwittingly (what with the furor of controversy and charges in the early 1960s, hardly likely). He came back home, and there his intellectual legacy remains. A fitting coda after all.

Paul Buhle is co-author of the biography of William Appleman Williams, The Tragedy of Empire.

Ryan’s Choice

Photo by DonkeyHotey | CC BY 2.0

Photo by DonkeyHotey | CC BY 2.0

By the standards of Republican legislators, Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, is a whiz kid — smarter than the average and a policy wonk to boot.  Compared to his colleagues, he is a serious thinker; the bar is set that low.

Nevertheless, he embarrasses himself each and every time he puts his thinking cap on.

Ryan’s deficiencies have become glaringly apparent as House Republicans and Donald Trump duel with each other over how to “repeal and replace” Obamacare.

Ryan and his co-thinkers bring muddled minds to the table.  Trump’s mind is a blank slate; he is, by his own account, too busy to read or waste time thinking.

He is too busy to do much of anything except vacation weekends at taxpayer expense at his over-the-top cash cow, Mar-a-Lago, hold campaign rallies in friendly venues (even now, with the election over), repeat what he heard on Fox News and even sleazier sites like Breitbart and from Steven Bannon and his band of miscreants, and, of course, post tweets.

He is never too busy, though, to do what he claims to be good at: make deals.  Whenever the situation calls for it, the Donald is there, locked and loaded.

He needs a deal now with GOP leaders on health care insurance; they need a deal as well.  In both cases, the level of need is desperate.

They believe, with good reason, that if they don’t get rid of Obamacare soon, they are headed for disaster.

It is harder to say what the consequences would be for Trump.  Until he resigns or is impeached, he has the institutional power of the presidency behind him.  There is also the astonishing fact that most of his “base” still supports him.

And he has Democrats for opponents.  They do seem to have learned from the shellacking they brought upon themselves last November that it is unwise to badmouth the people who fell for the Donald’s con.  Beyond that they remain useless.

They don’t fight Trump; not really.  Instead, they blame the Russians.

And so, disguised as a “populist” hero, the billionaire huckster fools enough people enough of the time to hold on by the skin of his teeth.

If Ronald Reagan was the Teflon President, Trump has been, so far, the Teflon President 2.0.   Daily, sometimes hourly, he adds to an already long list of embarrassments and offenses that would have done in anybody else.

Can he keep it up until the voters get another say?  It is hard to see how.  But with the Donald, anything is possible; absurdity rules.

That repealing and replacing Obamacare would even matter to his base, much less become a life or death matter for the GOP establishment and the Trump administration, is itself absurd.

For this, the Tea Party deserves a lot of the blame; Tea Party people have always had it in for Obamacare.  To be sure, their moment has passed, only the tail of the comet is left.  Nevertheless, they still call the shots.  Therefore Ryan and Trump really have no choice; if they want to lead, they must follow.

The odd – indeed, absurd — thing, though, is that, for the most part, Trump voters are fine with Obamacare – with its provisions, that is.  This is becoming clearer all the time.  Republicans worried about running for office in 2018 are finding that many of the people who voted for them in 2016 actually fear losing what they want to repeal and replace.  This puts those Republicans between the proverbial rock and hard place.  It would be wonderful if they were to perish there.

How could Obamacare have become such a lightening rod?  The only plausible explanation is its association with Obama.  Early on, he and his people decided to make the Affordable Care Act (ACA) their signature piece of legislation; that alone made it anathema to the Tea Party rank-and-file.

Tea Partiers hated Obama – not for his drones or his deportations or because he protected Bush era war criminals and continued their work (in a kinder gentler guise), or because he started a half-dozen undeclared wars.  They hated him because he obtained the genes that regulate the color of his skin from a Kenyan man, and because his success in the world of white privilege made them anxious.

They revile the ACA, in turn, because Obama’s name is indissolubly linked to it.  This is not much of an explanation, but it is as good as any.  It is hard, after all, to make sense of an absurdity.

But how else can we account for such fierce Republican opposition to what is essentially a Republican program?  The idea behind it was developed in think tanks close to the Republican Party and implemented by the Republican governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney.

Obama didn’t even do much of the minimal refashioning that Romneycare underwent.  He did do all he could to get the ACA through Congress, but his role in tweaking its details was minimal.  He delegated that task partly to his staff, but mainly to Clintonite Democrats in the House and Senate.

Because the ACA really just is a recycled Republican program, Ryan and Company can hardly help getting into trouble when they try to justify the animosities they and their constituents express.  But this is not the main reason why the rationales they come up with are silly or confused or both.  The explanation for that is that their thinking is flawed.

Trump got into trouble by linking his campaign promises to their rationales.

But he really had no choice – not if he wanted to hold fast to the idea that making health care an “entitlement,” a right all citizens enjoy, is out of the question.  Trump did sometimes suggested otherwise, when he was selling his snake-oil in populist guise.   That is ancient history now.  On the Single-Payer Question, he, like Ryan, is currently as bad, or worse, than the Democrats.

If Ryan and the others had the sense they were born with, they would have just let the issue pass.  There is a precedent for that: the 2012 election.  When that was looming, Romney was their candidate for President; they therefore had little choice.  Now that is ancient history too.

Obamacare aimed to reduce the number of Americans who are uninsured; at that, it did a tolerably good job.  It also aimed to stave off efforts at more serious reforms that would make health care a right. It did a spectacularly good job at that.

It also enriched private insurers, Big Pharma, and the for-profit health care industry.  This, presumably, was not one of its express objectives.  It was, however, an inevitable, and foreseeable consequence.

It is unclear whether Obama and his people grudgingly went along with this, seeing it as necessary for buying off the opposition, or whether they actively favored it for the opportunities it provided them for feathering their own nests.  For all practical purposes, it makes little difference.

In any case, when Obama decided to use the political capital he gained in the 2008 election to do at the national level what Romney had done in Massachusetts, he  terminated the Republican purchase on the idea behind the ACA.  From that point on, the Democratic Party owned it.

It owns it so thoroughly that, since being welcomed into the Party’s establishment, even Bernie Sanders, who had made single payer insurance a cornerstone of his campaign against Hillary Clinton, has become an Obamacare defender.

This is shameful and sad, but clearheaded to a fault.  Sanders made a cold and calculated decision to turn against what he had campaigned for.  The muddled thinking is all on the Republican side.

During the campaign, Trump would say pretty much anything to win over his marks.  To keep them from bolting now, he knows that he has to honor at least some of those campaign promises — or at least to make a conspicuous display of trying to do so.

Too bad that the promises he actually is honoring are the “deplorable” ones, the low hanging fruit, the ones that harm Muslims and people of color and that coarsen and degrade life in the United States for all but the super-rich.

Ryan and Company don’t mind that.  They are fine with Trump stirring up nativist and Islamophobic animosities, though they would probably be happier if he would tone it down.

What they would mind very much would be efforts to honor those of his campaign promises that outflanked Hillary from the progressive side – for instance, his repeated insistence that he would see to it that everybody is insured.   Therefore, don’t count on him going there. Because he needs to keep Ryan and the others on board, he couldn’t, even if he wanted to, which he almost certainly does not.

He will therefore have to sign on to the rationales Ryan and the others concocted – or, more precisely, appropriated and adapted.  Those arguments are timeworn and unoriginal, and fatally flawed.  But, as Donald Rumsfeld famously put it, “you go to war with the army you have.”

Ryan and the other ideologues giving the bad old arguments voice, are Trump’s army now; and their loyalty to the Donald is nil. Add this to the list of ways that the Donald is in over his depth.  But then it has been clear since long before Day One that the very idea of a President Trump is ridiculous.

***

From time immemorial, human communities have been organized around the principle that social solidarities of one or another kind take precedence over individualistic interests.

In one way or another, this deeply human sentiment helped shape views of what persons owe one another, giving rise to social practices and institutional arrangements that accord with these understandings.

High among the obligations of persons living in “moral economies,” as Karl Polanyi (1886-1964) called them, were duties to help community members in need.

Ryan et. al. oppose notions of a moral economy – for reasons that others, long before them, set out with far greater clarity and nuance.  Those reasons appeal both to economic and, ironically, also to moral considerations.

The economic arguments reduce to the claim that redistributive state programs and their more decentralized communal antecedents are detrimental to economic development and therefore make outcomes worse.

The moral arguments appeal to the virtue of self-reliance.

In the Golden Age of the Tea Party, self-described conservatives would sometimes go on about how everything good hard working Americans have they got entirely on their own.  This was nonsense, of course — “no man is an island.”  But with their babble they were able to fool themselves and other mindless folk.

Societal interdependence is an inexorable fact of the human condition.  The founders of modern social theory, all the many strains of it, knew this as well as anybody. Consistent with this truism, most of them also maintained that a condition for the development of capitalist economies and the social and cultural forms built upon them was the replacement of the communal ties that held traditional societies together by contractual relations between individuals who were in theory, and increasingly in practice as well, radically independent of one another.

Because consciousness arises out of real social conditions – out of life, as Marx famously put it — the idea therefore took hold that individuals ought to make their way through life on their own, without the aid of the practices and institutional arrangements that constitute moral economies.

It then follows that persons in distressed circumstances who struggle on without aid are better, more virtuous people than those whom the community carries along.

Having taken this thought on board, the Scrooges satirized in Dickens novels tended mainly to advance moral arguments against helping others that apply not just to programs organized through states, but to private charity as well.  If the idea is to advance a conception of virtue the accords preeminence to self-reliance and related virtues, help to others is problematic no matter how it is provided.

Today’s libertarians are less hard hearted than their counterparts a century and a half ago.  Their opposition to the moral economy has more to do with its coercive aspects than with Scrooge-like objections to helping others.

The prevailing view today in libertarian circles is that if people want to be charitable, that is their business; so long as other identifiable individuals are not harmed, they can do whatever they want with resources that are rightfully theirs.  Their position is just that the state cannot rightfully force anyone to use those resources to help others – whether or not it would be good or bad if they did.

This view has evidently found a way into Paul Ryan’s wheelhouse.

He is a little shaky on its rationale, however.

Ryan and his co-thinkers obsess over the importance of expanding choices – in a way that conflates libertarian arguments against the welfare state with a certain view of freedom.

It is a testament to the power and depth of the New Deal – Great Society settlement that, well into the Reagan era, conservatives were generally disinclined to appeal to Scrooge-like arguments.  Their view then was that while the goals of liberal defenders of New Deal – Great Society institutions were beyond reproach, their ways of implementing their objectives were counter-productive– because they fostered a “culture of dependence” and otherwise tended to backfire, leaving the worst off worse off still.

That “new Right” moment has passed.   Conservative ideologues have gone back to siding with Dickens’ villains.  This is evident in the rationales offered for the American Health Care Act (AHCA), Ryan’s proposed replacement for the ACA.

Insurance markets cannot exist unless risk is socialized – sellers must be able to get enough people to buy insurance at high enough rates to enable them to pay out the benefits they must, and to make a profit as well.

Because health care costs are high and getting higher – in part, thanks to the ways insurance markets are structured – and because it is hard to socialize this particular risk when the young and the healthy can reasonably conclude that they have better, or more urgent, things to do with their money than buy insurance — insurers will not be able to sell their policies at prices most people can afford.

Therefore, most people cannot be covered by private health insurance programs unless there are subsidies – either from employers, with the costs effectively deducted from wages and benefits, or from general state revenues or special taxes collected by the state for that purpose.

Republicans and Democrats, intent on addressing constituents’ demands for health care insurance, therefore have no choice: they must offer subsidies.

Single-payer systems avoid these problems – by bringing everyone into the risk pool, and by using their monopsony position to control costs.  But, as we know, Republicans and Democrats will not consider single-payer options; the insurance, pharmacological, and for-profit health care industries they serve won’t hear of it.

This is why, to know what is going on in on-going debates over health insurance, one must follow the subsidies – to see who benefits and who is worse off.

Stereotypical Trump voters – white, middle aged, rural, less educated victims of the neoliberal turn – would have to be remarkably dense or stubborn or both not to see that they are not among the beneficiaries of Ryan’s – and therefore Trumps — plan.

For all its shortcomings, Obamacare did improve the lot of people in the Trump demographic; it provided affordable health care for some, though far from all, of them, and it did do something, not nearly enough, to keep costs down.

Trumpcare – or Ryancare, as Trump prefers to call it – will make their lot worse.  It will leave people in the Trump demographic high and dry – especially in the short run.

Ryan has wonkish reasons for denying this obvious point — for insisting, as his ideological forbearers did, that, in the long run, even the poor will be better off.

Even if the arguments he uses were worth taking seriously, which they are not in his version, we should remember that, as Keynes famously said: “in the long run we are all dead.”  Keynes was speaking generally; with respect to health insurance, his words ring especially true.

Ryan and the others understand this at some level.  Perhaps this is why they take every opportunity to turn the conversation in a different direction: away from the economic effects of sticking it to the poor – towards philosophical issues where their positions are less obviously wrongheaded.

It is easy, even natural, in this case, to steer discussion of the AHCA in that direction because, as already noted, the economic and philosophical views Ryan endorses converge on a certain muddled understanding of the importance of choice.

***

The more choices we have, Ryan and the others seem to think, the freer we are.

Their arguments, however, support a different claim: that the more choices we have, the better off we are, the more our welfare is enhanced.

Welfare and freedom are not the same.

The issue now is not the welfare state, except in a very attenuated way.  By “welfare,” I mean what philosophers and political economists mean – wellbeing, as measured by happiness (or pleasure), or by want-satisfaction or by some ideal-regarding standard.

It is far from obvious but let’s stipulate anyway, that an effect of the AHCA would be to increase competition among health insurance providers, driving down costs at least in the short run.   It would do so, presumably, by diminishing regulations: permitting insurers to cross state lines more easily and to offer watered-down products.  Then, libertarians say, more of them would come into the marketplace; and the additional competition would drive down costs.

This is right in a sense: making cheaper products available arguably would increase welfare for a while – in the way that being able to shop at a Walmart does.

Before long, though, pressures for consolidation would set in, as they have with airlines and telecommunication companies.   This is normally what happens in deregulated industries.

This consideration apart, would having more choices make people better off in any more robust sense?

The answer is that it all depends.   Adding items to a menu doesn’t make the food better and, in most cases, beyond a certain point, it doesn’t make the experience of eating better either.  Having more choices can be, and often is, burdensome.

This is especially true when the choices involve specialized knowledge, as they inevitably do when health care is concerned.

But there is no general rule.  It is sometimes better to have more choices; sometimes not.

However, for those who don’t think too hard about the issue, what Ryan and the others say about expanding choice sounds good; their jibber jabber has its uses.  No wonder Trump is able to get on board with them; conning people by making them think he will make their lives better is his stock-in-trade.

However, the muddle doesn’t stop there.

When Ryan and the others go on about how they want people to have more choices, they are alluding to a venerable, though antiquated, body of thought that, to this day, fuels important strains of libertarian theory.

The clue is the ease with which they shift from the claim that adding on choices enhances welfare to the idea that the more choices there are, the freer people become.

In the seventeenth century, as the nascent capitalism emerging in the Netherlands and the British Isles began the long process of replacing traditional social solidarities with contractual relations organized through markets, the idea took hold that freedom – a word  with meanings that in the Western tradition harken back to the days of Greek and Roman antiquity – meant the absence of constraint.

People were free, in the sense in question, to the extent that others do not block them from doing what they want.

This is not quite the same as saying that they are freer the more choices they have, but it does suggest that this is the case – not perhaps to those who demand conceptual rigor, but to those, like Ryan, with a capacious tolerance for conceptual imprecision.

Their appropriation of this notion of freedom – it is sometimes called “negative liberty” – is plainly in need of refinement, even if only to take the moral importance of various restrictions on persons doing what they want into account.  Would Ryan and the others hold, for example, that the more parking restrictions there are, the less free automobile drivers are?   And how would they view constraints that are unintended consequences of institutional arrangements?  Would they say that unemployed workers are free to start their own factories?  If so, theirs is a shallow freedom indeed.

In short, what Ryan says and seems to assume about freedom and choice could stand some serious elaboration and perhaps also a bit of “deconstruction” – to use that now thoroughly besmirched (Bannon-ized) word.  This would be easier to do if Ryan’s thinking was more coherent to start with.

In any case, his confusions are Trump’s problem now.  The promises that the Donald made to voters on health care are about to fall due; and, unless he has his base thoroughly mesmerized, all hell will break loose as it becomes increasingly clear to them how much worse off they will be as a result.

As they find themselves entirely on their own, it will not be much consolation that, having more choices, they will, by Ryan’s lights, be freer than before.

Global Coal in Freefall, Tar Sands Development Drying Up

Photo by Russ Walker | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Russ Walker | CC BY 2.0

 

Environmentalists don’t have much to happy about these days. The Earth is warming fast, species are dying everywhere and our forests and oceans are being destroyed. At times there seems to be no turning back, and perhaps there isn’t. Humans’ collective toll on the planet, with industrialization and greed as the driving forces, may be irreparable. Maybe. Even so, that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the few victories that do occasionally come our way.

This week it was reported that State Department officials are moving forward in approving the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. While President Obama already okayed the southern portion of KXL, it was predicted Trump would green light its northern expansion. If completed, the pipeline could carry oil from Canada’s tar sands in Alberta down to Gulf Coast of Texas.

Certainly, this isn’t good news, but what is great news is the whole venture may not be profitable enough to move forward, despite Trump’s glowing stamp of approval.

In early March, Royal Dutch Shell announced they were pulling out and going to sell their tar sands’ assets. Why? Tar sands aren’t likely to be profitable in the future. Continued low oil prices, coupled with stronger climate policies around the world, are forcing Shell and others to reconsider their investments.

According to Environmental Defense, a total of seven multinational oil companies are either scaling back their operations in Alberta’s tar sands or yanking their operations out altogether. These companies include: ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, Statoil, Koch Industries, Marathon Oil, Imperial Oil and now Shell.

ExxonMobil decided to not develop their 3.6 billion barrel tar sand reserve. Imperial stated it was going to “write-down” its 2.8 billion stake, citing low oil prices. Koch ended its plans to excavate the proposed Muskwa tar sands project. Marathon cut tar sands from its portfolio because of its high cost. ConocoPhillips said low energy prices make their 2 billion barrel venture too risky and Statoil sold its tar sand interests at a loss.

All in all, it looks like the investment dollars for tar sands exploitation is drying up quickly, and when the money evaporates so does the oil. Of course, this doesn’t bode well for Keystone’s proponents. Expensive, dirty tar sand oil won’t be running across the heartland of the United States if there’s no money to be made.

If this wasn’t enough good news, a joint report put out this week by CoalSwarm, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace found a 62 percent decline in new coal plant construction around the globe. To top it off, there’s been an 80 percent drop off of new coal plant permits in China alone.  Coal plant construction around the world is in freefall and their may be no turning back.

“This has been a messy year, and an unusual one,” says Ted Nace, director of CoalSwarm. “It’s not normal to see construction frozen at scores of locations, but central authorities in China and bankers in India have come to recognize overbuilding of coal plants is a major waste of resources. However abrupt, the shift from fossil fuels to clean sources in the power sector is a positive one for health, climate security, and jobs. And by all indications, the shift is unstoppable.”

While Trump claims that he’s set to bring back the US’s barely breathing coal industry and black lung with it, global economics and common sense see otherwise. Since 2010, a total of 251 coal plants in the US have announced retirement and are closing in the near future or have already. Sorry Donny.

Dirty coal and now tar sands may soon be dead — or rather, buried in the ground where it should have all stayed in the first place.

London and the Dreary Ritual of Terrorist Attacks

Five dead, including one police officer, with forty injured, seven of them seriously – this is the human toll of yet another terrorist atrocity on the streets of a major European city, on this occasion London.

The banality of such attacks by now, their dreary regularity, should in no way be allowed to minimize their impact on multicultural societies and cities, where millions of people of all faiths and none live cheek by jowl and have done for decades. The risk that the fabric of those societies may be ruptured, if not in time ripped apart, is a pressing one, and every effort must be made by politicians, religious leaders, the media, and all people of goodwill to ensure that it does not happen.

Sadly, we have now come to accept that these attacks are a matter of when not if, despite the security measures and efforts expended by police and intelligence services to prevent them before they occur. And by now predictably, whenever such attacks erupt, political leaders and establishment voices rally round with the same tired platitudes praising the bravery of the police and other emergency services, assuring the public that ‘we’ will not be defeated by terrorism, that the motives involved in such deranged attacks are either the fact they hate our freedoms, the fact that we live in open societies, and that we cannot and must never allow them to turn against one another.

So-called security experts are rolled out across the media to dissect and analyse the nature of the threat posed by this menace. Flags are flown at half-mast and a minute of silence is observed. And of course, as is now customary, people will superimpose the flag of the country where the attack takes place, in this case the UK, on their Twitter or Facebook profiles as a gesture of collective defiance and national solidarity.

In other words, these by now ritual attacks are met with the same ritual response before the media and everybody else moves on, having learned absolutely nothing – or at least nothing that is worth learning.

The deranged individual – or indeed individuals, as it may turn out – carried out his deed on the basis of a sick, twisted, and dangerous ideology. As with the countless others like him who have come and gone, and the others who are yet to appear, he was an alienated human being who sought and found meaning in this ideology – one that values death more than life, and which holds at its heart a Manichean worldview in which modernity and Islam are deemed incompatible.

However this is only one side of a two-sided coin, which is where we come to the heart of the matter. For this sick and dangerous ideology of religious extremism and fundamentalism is in the last analysis the product of the even sicker and more dangerous ideology of Western regime change. The idea that you can set fire to countries in the Middle East, collapse their societies and traumatize entire populations, sowing carnage on a biblical scale, and not expect any reaction in the form of blowback, is utterly insane.

Even worse is the notion that you can impose the cultural and political norms of Western liberal democracy on other parts of the world, regardless of regional, cultural, or historical specificities. Countries and societies do not develop according to blueprints drafted in Western capitals. They are not the product of a preconceived Western-centric moral paradigm. They develop instead according to concrete economic, social, and cultural factors – factors which themselves are a product of specific histories.

When Theresa May and members of her cabinet regale the British people with Churchillian rhetoric about fighting terrorism, they insult those who actually have been and are fighting terrorism and have been consistently demonized by the British, French, and US governments in the process. Syria, Iran, and Russia are the countries that are in the frontlines resisting this menace, yet rather than offer support or assistance to them in this struggle, the West has been doing its utmost to impede and undermine their efforts.

Let us envisage for a moment the following scenario. Instead of deploying British troops to Estonia with the aim of keeping the big bad Russian bear in check, imagine if those troops had instead been deployed to Syria as part of a multinational force fighting alongside Russia, Syria, and Iran against Daesh and other Salafi-jihadi groups. Imagine if Russia, France, the UK, US, and every other country in the West and Middle East that is sincere about confronting and defeating this menace established an international coalition to coordinate their efforts, one that confronted terrorism in all its particulars – i.e. militarily, ideologically, and so on.

Imagine in such a scenario how different the world might be, and how much progress would be made when it came to dealing with an equal opportunities scourge that knows no borders when it comes to unleashing the slaughter of the innocents.

In the meantime, while we are waiting for such a world to materialize, perhaps British Prime Minister Theresa May and US President Trump may wish to consider asking Saudi Arabia’s King Salman a few questions the next time their closest Arab ally and longstanding customer for arms sales deigns to pay them a visit – questions, for example, concerning the role of Saudi state-funded Wahhabi preachers in spreading a message of religious extremism and sectarianism to the faithful: questions concerning their fixation with slaughtering ‘infidels’ and ‘apostates’.

Until they do ask such questions, and act according to the answers, then neither the UK or US are serious when it comes to combatting terrorism.

Ditching the “Deep State”: The Rise of a New Conspiracy Theory in American Politics

Photo by Nicolas Raymond | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Nicolas Raymond | CC BY 2.0

The stratospheric rise of Mike Lofgren’s “deep state” critique has been matched only by its meteoric fall into the pits of conspiracy theory and caricature. What started off as a potentially interesting analytical framework, which sought to spotlight the U.S. corporate-national security-intelligence apparatus, has quickly devolved into a cartoonish absurdity. This decline was predictable considering that the “deep state” analysis provided by Lofgren was such an expansive, vague concept from the start. The “deep state” framework lacked the nuance of previous versions of “elite theory” developed over the decades, so its adoption by various rightwing partisan stooges and conspiracy theorists doesn’t surprise me. We have now reached the point where the “deep state” rhetoric is no longer useful, and has even become harmful to informed political discourse on American politics.

I will say from the outset that I admire Mike Lofgren, a former Congressman, for drawing attention to the rise of corporate power and the ever-expanding, runaway military state. His book, The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government, appears to be a genuine, heartfelt effort to fight back against the reactionary forces that control American politics. And his main concerns with the American political system are warranted. He is right to focus on the dangers of the growing national security state, coordinated largely through the NSA and other agencies, and to condemn their assault on citizens’ privacy rights. Lofgren adopts the metaphor of the panopticon to describe the security state, referring to Jeremy Bentham’s conceptual prison design, which was comprised of a circular structure with a central “watchman” tower. The structure is designed so that prisoners cannot tell whether a guard can see them at any given time, despite the central location of the tower, which suggests that the state could be watching you at any moment.51XQywzD50L._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_

The use of the panopticon as a symbol of the modern-day surveillance state is apt. The NSA, while not recording every phone call in the United States, keeps records of these calls, allowing for closer inspections of conversations on a case-by-case basis. Even if the state is not technically recording every word we speak, it always has its eye on the American people, and is ready to intervene at a moment’s notice. Drawing on the panopticon, Lofgren refers to the rise of “militarized authoritarianism” via the growing power of the U.S. intelligence apparatus, and I find it hard to disagree with him.

Lofgren is also right to emphasize other threats to American democracy. He laments the rise of corporate profiteering in the “War on Terror,” calling back to warnings from decades’ past about the U.S. military industrial complex. Corporate and political actors profit from hundreds of billions a year spent on a bloated “national security” state, at the expense of social spending on education, health care, and infrastructural needs. In an era of record inequality, the fixation of U.S. political and economic elites on militarism exacts a huge cost, draining much needed financial resources that could be allocated toward rebuilding the country and providing for the basic needs of the citizenry.

Finally, Lofgren’s concern with the rise of Wall Street power, which has coincided with the financialization of the U.S. economy, is timely and welcome. Financial deregulation is one of the greatest threats to our economy, and the failure of both political parties to limit the power of financial elites is one of the great tragedies of modern times. The American banking system has historically been a parasitic force in the American economy. Wall Street’s speculation on vital goods such as oil, housing, internet stocks, and other goods has fed stock market bubbles, the collapse of which wreak havoc on the economy and American workers, draining their retirement savings, and fueling the rise of unemployment and underemployment. Financialization undermines the economy – which is now largely driven by speculators and characterized by anemic to non-existent economic growth. What profit gains exist are now largely captured by financial and other corporate elites. Meanwhile, the masses of Americans find themselves working longer hours, with increased productivity, for stagnating to declining wages, amidst huge increases in cost-of-living via out-of-control health care and education costs.

Despite the serious and legitimate concerns that Lofgren raises, there are several serious problems with the “deep state” framework. These problems become harder to deny as Lofgren’s work gains prominence among American pundits, intellectuals, and political elites. Lofgren popularized the “deep state” term, referring to “a hybrid of national security and law enforcement agencies, plus key parts of other branches whose roles given them membership. The Department of Defense, the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Justice Department are all part of the Deep State.” But the “deep state” concept lacked nuance and clarity, making it ripe for adoption by partisan hacks and conspiracy theorists. This is not to attack Lofgren for promoting a conspiracy theory, as he is clear in his book that he is providing an institutional analysis of the threats to American democracy. In fact, I find claims that Lofgren is a conspiracy theorist to be rather bizarre and ill-informed. If anything, his analysis comes off as somewhat tame within the broader intellectual history of elite theory, in that he fails to identify corporate capitalism as the primary threat to the U.S. economy and to the American public. Lofgren is no socialist or Marxist, and his analysis is somewhat pedestrian and conservative in that he eschews traditional efforts at institutional analysis that incorporate Marxian tools for spotlighting systemic repression such as alienated labor, economic determinism, hegemony, and commodity fetishism.

Because of the vague nature of the “deep state,” it has become a Rorschach test for American pundits and citizens alike. It is something upon which they can impute whatever beliefs or values they have. It can mean whatever one wants it to mean. Reactionary partisan hacks like Sean Hannity, Newt Gingrich, Andrew Napolitano, and Sean Spicer freely adopt the term to refer to allegedly pro-Obama elements within the U.S. government and intelligence apparatus. Hannity takes aim at “the liberal media” and “American intelligence agencies,” the latter of which he claims is dominated by a “deep state swamp of Obama holdover DC lifers” who are “hell-bent on destroying Trump.” Of course, Hannity has raised no concern with an emerging deep state swamp of Trump DC lifers populated by plutocratic billionaires, as the president moves to populate the federal bureaucracy with his preferred political supporters and hacks.

We have also seen the rise of conspiratorial rhetoric on “the left” regarding the ominous “deep state.” I’ll refrain from identifying any specific person by name (fratricide is not an endearing trait), but the depth of conspiracy-mongering “deep state” absurdity has clearly afflicted various leftist critics of the American political system. Over the last year, various leftists framed the “deep state” as a secret shadow government, impervious to any controls or regulation by elected officials. It is said to represent a miniature government within the larger government, and it is so nefariously effective that it ensures the American people have zero political influence over American politics. Forget about social movements or protests. They’re pointless. The secret paper-pushers of the “deep state” have already ensured that representation of the masses is a fiction. Don’t even bother with protest or social action – there’s really nothing you can do to promote progressive political change. Furthermore, forget about efforts to stifle U.S. militarism abroad. The “deep state” shadow government secretly pulls the strings of political officials such as Barack Obama, forcing him to escalate wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere, despite growing anti-war sentiment at home.

It should be clear from anyone who studies American history how absurd these claims are. While those on the left have long known that the U.S. political system is captured by corporate power and wealth, to suggest that social movement activism and opposition to the status quo are bound to fail is a horrifically misinformed position, and is contradicted by history itself. The last century of U.S. political activism demonstrates that large numbers of social movements were able to fundamentally transform American culture and politics, as seen in the women’s rights movement, the struggle for civil rights, the rise of modern environmentalism and the struggle against nuclear power, the successes of organized labor activism, the gay and lesbian rights movement, and numerous other progressive uprisings.

Furthermore, to claim that appointed “deep state” bureaucrats hold all the power in Washington, at the expense of elected officials, is equally outlandish. Lofgren doesn’t even try to make this claim in his book, as he refers to “deep state” operatives in the U.S. bureaucracy as largely “order-takers,” serving those who visibly hold power as elected officials or as heads of “national security-related” federal agencies.

Lofgren is right not to frame elected officials as slaves to faceless bureaucrats, and one can see the silliness of such depictions when looking at recent history. For example, looking at the case of the 2009 escalation of the war in Afghanistan, the troop “surge” (which occurred in phases throughout the year) was explicitly supported by Obama when he ran in the 2008 election. Furthermore, anyone closely paying attention to the news at the time could have recognized that the fight between Obama and General Stanley McChrystal (and other elements of U.S. military leadership) was not over whether to expand the war in Afghanistan, but over how quickly to escalate and drawdown the war, and over how many forces would be committed. In other words, the “fight” was over strategy and logistics, not principle or substance. It should be pointed out, by the way, that Obama won this logistical battle with the generals, announcing a smaller infusion of troops than McChrystal wanted, attached to a date (of 2011) in which a drawdown was supposed to begin. This deadline was opposed by the generals (for the story on the surge, see: Peter Baker, “How Obama Came to Plan for ‘Surge’ in Afghanistan,” New York Times, December 5, 2009).

I don’t mean to marginalize concerns that the U.S. is witnessing a creeping authoritarianism, via the growing strength of our institutionalized military-intelligence state. I agree that this is occurring, and is a serious threat to the country. But depictions of U.S. elected leaders as puppets of the bureaucracy – the latter of which retain all the power in U.S. politics – are outlandish caricatures of how the political system really works. Furthermore, we insult the victims of the fully-fledged dictatorships of the world by depicting Americans as suffering under some sort of comparable military dictatorship (remember the “deep state” terminology was originally developed in reference to Turkey). There is simply no equivalent in the United States to the mass torture and mass killings engaged in by brutal dictatorships of history run by Mubarak in Egypt, Assad in Syria, or Erdogan in Turkey, among others. Certainly the U.S. has its own unique and repressive version of a militarized police system, which has long been used to criminalize and suppress minorities and protesters. But to ignore the obvious differences between the U.S. and dictatorships regarding the presence of basic political freedoms to say what one wishes, and to openly disagree with government, is to engage in a distortion of epic proportions.

As an aside, it is also worth pointing out that the U.S. intelligence community is nowhere near as uniform as “deep state” conspiracies claim. Members of the U.S. “security” state have at times sought to pressure elected officials, with harmful effects on democracy. A few recent examples include the hysteria voiced by agencies like the CIA over Russia’s alleged interference in the U.S. election, and in which Democrats have claimed, without presenting evidence, that Vladimir Putin effectively threw the election in favor of Trump. Another example of wheeling and dealing by the intelligence community is the Afghanistan surge. It seems clear, despite Obama’s pro-surge inclinations, that the attacks from McChrystal and the U.S. military did create additional pressure on the Obama administration to escalate war.

Recognizing that the U.S. intelligence community and military apparatus have power in the political process, however, does not mean that these officials always serve state power or imperial interests. One can look no further than the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which represented a collective middle finger to the Bush administration from the intelligence community, on the issue of whether Iran was developing nuclear weapons. Members of the intelligence community were clearly angry at the egg left on their faces following the embarrassment that was the 2002 NIE, which sugar-coated the Bush administration’s case for war with Iraq. Subsequent historical accounts documented how the intelligence community, particularly analysts at the CIA, were bullied by high-level members of the Bush administration in the pre-war period to “get behind” the president and the war effort. The 2007 NIE represented a comprehensive effort on the part of the intelligence community to pump the breaks on Bush’s imperial war agenda, and it was effective in defusing the case for war. The push against war with Iran was not an isolated incident, either. It should be clear by taking a longer historical view recognizing the many intelligence analysts willing to question U.S. militarism and imperialism by leaking sensitive and classified information to the press. Whether one is talking about “Deep Throat” (Mark Felt) or Daniel Ellsberg in the Nixon era, or anonymous intelligence analysts feeding critical information to news outlets like Knight Ridder prior to the 2003 Iraq war, or more recent whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, the U.S. intelligence community is not all of one mind about U.S. militarism and empire.

As a scholar, I’ve struggled with the rise of “deep state” rhetoric in public discourse. Despite Lofgren raising legitimate points about the perversion of power in America, it’s not clear to me what additional analytical value comes with simply referring to U.S. intelligence agencies and the military apparatus as a “deep state.” Many intellectuals and scholars over the decades have offered a variety of “elite theory” frameworks that incorporate U.S. militarism and go well beyond simply examining the “security” related aspects of American plutocracy. So it’s unclear what additional insights Lofgren and his supporters are contributing. To provide a brief run-down of previous theoretical frameworks, consider the following:

In the 1950s, the sociologist C. Wright Mills warned of a “power elite” comprised of political, business, and military leaders. The American political system was captured, Mills warned, through a hegemonic system in which affluent Americans were socialized – as part of the upper-class – to embrace elitist political and economic beliefs, which later drove their decisions as they ran for, and took over major positions in government. Whereas Mills provided a way to understand how affluent Americans are socialized to embrace elite views (since they themselves are elites), no focus on the hegemonic powers of education, the mass media, and political propaganda appear in any serious way in Lofgren’s book.

In the late 1960s, political scientist Ted Lowi warned that the U.S. political process was dominated by a system of “clientelism,” in which multiple groups of economic elites – representing different industries and sectors of the economy, exercised control over specific aspects of public policy. Lowi’s description of multiple elites and various “subgovernments” driven by specific business groups was much more nuanced than Lofgren’s single “deep state,” which fails to discuss how various industries outside of Wall Street and military profiteers manipulate public policy.

In the early 1980s, the political scientist Charles Lindblom offered a compelling analysis of American power, in which he likened the capitalist marketplace to a prison. U.S. corporations exercised power over communities, much like Kings do over feudal serfs, by exercising ownership over the means of production in the U.S. economy. They command worker loyalty due to their ability to hire and fire Americans and provide basic benefits such as health care or 401k and pension benefits. But corporations also possess the power to destroy people’s lives via capital flight. Simply by threatening to leave a community and move factories abroad in pursuit of higher profits and weaker environmental regulations, corporations hold citizens hostage, and can destroy entire cities and states, in pursuit of ever-greater profits. The marketplace is a prison, Lindblom warned, because these corporations ultimately control the levers of the U.S. economy, and control the life outcomes of American workers.

Most recently, a cottage industry of empirical studies document precisely how business elites maintain control over public policy, utilizing the military state, Congress, the White House, and state and local government officials to pervert policy in favor of the interests of the wealthy. Notable in these studies are various books, including Daniel Butler’s Representing the Advantaged, Nicholas Carnes’ White Collar Government, Martin Gilens’ Affluence and Influence, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s Winner-Take-All-Politics, Rebecca Thorpe’s The American Warfare State, and Martin Gilens’ and Ben Pages’ article, “Testing Theories of American Politics.” All these works provide far richer, nuanced documentation of how business elites manipulate policy outcomes in favor of the top 1 to 20 percent of American income earners.

To put it simply, elite theory has come a long way over the last half-century, and especially since the 2008 economic crash. Because of the explosion in the last decade of studies of elite power, we know more about the American plutocracy than ever before. Considering this new informational environment, Lofgren’s book provides an interesting reflection on the experiences of one man in Congress over the decades, and it is a welcome addition to the discussion of elitism in government. But it is not clear how much his “deep state” framework tells us about U.S. policy than we already knew.

I’ve refrained from referring to the “deep state,” seeing the term as more of a faddish framework for studying political power. The term’s value in political discourse appears to be dwindling, as various pundits caricature the original points offered by Lofgren. The concept has come to mean whatever people want it to mean, independent of any clear-headed analysis of the political power structure. Cliched references to the “deep state” will grow in coming months and years, but I’d suggest it’s time to start looking for a more coherent, informed analyses than what is being offered by various conspiracy theorists on the left and right.

Inventing Enemies

On February 22, Adam Purinton of Olathe, Kansas, was at Austin’s Bar and Grill. He saw two men, both from India, and began to argue with them. “Get out of my country,” Purinton said to the two men, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, 32, and Alok Madasani, 32, both tech workers at the multinational technology firm Garmin. Purinton began to yell racist slurs at the men, got out his gun and began to shoot. A bystander, Ian Grillot, rose from his hiding place to catch the gunman. He was then shot through his chest and hand. Kuchibhotla died, while Madasani survived his wounds. Grillot, one of whose vertebrae was fractured, also survived. “I was just doing what anyone should have done for another human being,” he said from his hospital bed.

A week later, on March 2, Harnish Patel, 43, a businessman, was shot dead just outside his house in the quiet town of Lancaster, South Carolina. Patel ran a Speed Mart—a convenience store that was popular in his area—and was known as a popular employer as well as a kind man. While the Federal Bureau of Investigation has decided to investigate the Kuchibhotla killing as a hate crime, Lancaster County Sheriff Barry Faile said: “I don’t have any reason to believe that this [the killing of Patel] was racially motivated.”

The next day, on March 3, Deep Rai was working on his car in the driveway of his house in the East Hill neighbourhood of the Seattle suburb of Kent, Washington. A white man wearing a mask confronted Rai, a Sikh who wears a turban, and said: “Go back to your own country.” Then he shot Rai in the arm. Rai survived the attack. Kent Police Chief Ken Thomas said that his department was taking the attack very seriously.

The theme of “get out of my country” or “go back to your own country” is central to these attacks. A new website by Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ) asks people to report hate crimes (standagainsthatred.org). The impetus for this website was the attacks on East Asian Americans as a consequence of Donald Trump’s anti-China rhetoric, Karin Wang of AAAJ said. “It is reminiscent of the 1980s when Japan was portrayed as the economic enemy,” Karin Wang noted. Japan was seen at the time as a threat to the United States auto industry. Now China is depicted as a thief of U.S. jobs.

It is not the anti-China rhetoric that drives the attacks on Indian Americans. What motivates them is a combination of seeing Indians as terrorists and of seeing Indians as usurpers of high-tech jobs. Kuchibhotla, Patel and Rai are not the first to be assaulted in this way, nor will they be the last. After 9/11, many Sikhs were shot or beaten because the turban they wore was identified with the turban worn by Osama Bin Laden. In 2012, Wade Michael Page went into a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and shot dead six people and wounded four others. He came to start a “racial holy war”.

The sewer of white supremacy that produced Page and Purinton does not distinguish between Iranians and Indians, Sikhs and Muslims. It reeks of resentment and hatred, bilious political anger of the most dangerous kind.

Who is a terrorist?

Purinton suggested that he had killed two Iranians or “Middle Easterners”. It is no point saying that Indian Americans are neither Iranians nor “Middle Easterners”. To Purinton, these men were Iranian. It is enough that he believed it. His gun was more important than their denials.

Hollywood has made it a habit to hire South Asians to play “terrorists”. The role Aasif Mandvi (born in Mumbai) played in The Siege (1998) defined the terrorist as South Asian looking. Last year, Riz Ahmed, the British-born child of Pakistani parents, wrote a powerful essay on his experience as an actor. Called “Typecast as a Terrorist”, the essay lays out Ahmed’s struggle to find roles outside the stereotype and of his experiences at the U.S. immigration counter. “As a minority, no sooner do you learn to polish and cherish one chip on your shoulder than it’s taken off you and swapped for another,” wrote Ahmed. “The jewellery of your struggles is forever on loan, like the Koh-i-Noor diamond in the crown jewels. You are intermittently handed a necklace of labels to hang around your neck, neither of your choosing nor making, both constricting and decorative.”

The point is never whether one is or is not an “Arab” or a “terrorist” but that one resembles an “Arab” or a “terrorist” in the imagination of a racist. Stereotypes become reality; hatred short-circuits rationality. It is infantile to yell “I am not an Arab” or “I am not a racist”. People like Purinton and Page do not care about such denials. They see what they want to see. The litmus test for them is the brown skin. It glistens with the word “terrorist”.

President Donald Trump’s special adviser Steve Bannon has long disparaged South Asian high-tech workers such as Kuchibhotla and Madasani. In 2015, Bannon interviewed candidate Trump on the Breitbart News Daily radio show. Bannon suggested that there were far too many Asians in the high-tech industry in the U.S. and that perhaps there should be barriers placed on their entry. The H-1B visa, which allows high-tech workers to enter the U.S., is a particular grouse of Bannon’s. Trump expressed doubts about Bannon’s extreme views: “We have to be careful of that, Steve,” Trump said. “You know,” he continued, “we have to keep our talented people in this country.” Bannon would have none of it. “When two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think…,” he said, then hesitated. “A country is more than an economy,” Bannon said. “We’re a civic society.”

By “civic society”, Bannon meant that the first priority of the U.S. should be to its own “native” citizens. In other words, white Americans need to be the first in the queue for the benefits of the country. In March 2016, Trump absorbed Bannon’s position. “The H-1B programme,” Trump said, “is neither high-skilled nor immigration: these are temporary foreign workers, imported from abroad, for the explicit purpose of substituting for American workers at lower pay. I will end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labour programme and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers first.” When the term “American workers” is used, people like Purinton and Page hear “white workers”. It is what they signal when they yell: “Go back to your country.”

In another radio show, in April 2016, Bannon said that the migrants to the U.S. “are not Jeffersonian democrats”. “These are not people with thousands of years of democracy in their DNA coming here,” he said. The idea of democracy in the DNA could only imply that certain “races” have democracy under their skin and that Asians are not in that company.

An idiosyncratic group in Ohio, Save American Information Technology Jobs, hounds Indian Americans in public places to document their lives. The group produced a document on “Indian guest workers in the Great Midwest”, which shows Indians in parks and outside their homes. The author is flabbergasted by the increase in the number of Indians in the area. “Displacement of Americans has occurred,” notes the report, “and Indians with various visa documents in hand have become part of the landscape.” The report drips with resentment and anger. The hand that holds the iPhone camera to produce this report shares the same motivation of the men with the guns who shot the Indian Americans. Both hands are not far either from the opinions of Trump’s adviser Bannon.

Kuchibhotla’s wife, Sunayana Dumala, wrote a moving Facebook post on February 28. At the end of her note, she asked: “the question that is in every immigrant’s mind—DO WE BELONG HERE? Is this the same country we dreamed of and is it still secure to raise our families and children here?” Sunayana Dumala does not answer her question. There is no answer from her.

Boris and Natasha Visit Fantasy Island

During the Great Depression Wall Street was reined in and culpable bankers were sent to prison because its business practices had laid waste to some fair portion of the country. It wasn’t because the citizenry ‘felt’ that Wall Street had done so— evidence was collected, testimony was taken and determinations were made.

In recent decades the shift to a language of ‘feelings’ to describe social consequences has been instructive. The language is dismissive in the sense that no effort at determination like that undertaken in the 1930s has been made. And as a political strategy, it only works when presented to people who have no direct experience with the consequences under consideration.

For the vast majority of the liberal hawks who supported George W. Bush’s war on Iraq like the New Yorker’s David Remnick and the editorial staff of the New York Times there were no real consequences for that catastrophe. The same can’t be said for the Americans who lost life and limb, the million or so Iraqis who lost their lives and the millions more who were displaced.

This relationship where one group of people make decisions while others bear the consequences falls into Noam Chomsky’s definition of class. The definition is useful for present purposes in that decisive social power takes the place of fraught distinctions between political and economic power.

In this frame Wall Street and America’s corporate ‘leadership’ are among the class that decides how the rest of us live. This is the same class that supports both national political parties. What then is the likely motive for national Democrats who point to foreign others (Russia) as the source of domestic political dislocations?

And to whom might this misdirection seem plausible? Probably not those who were lied to by the Bush administration about weapons of mass destruction. And probably not those who lost their jobs, homes, families and communities in the Great Recession. While certainly not determinant, lived experience serves as an occasional check on self-serving bullshit.

The original Cold War was similarly misdirection for the benefit of American political and business interests. The ‘communist threat’ was used as a pretext for wars, invasions, political overthrows and engineered coups before it was replaced by terrorism. Is it a surprise then that liberal Iraq war hawks are trumpeting the new Cold War much as they did George Bush’s WMD scam?

The point has often been made that no one went to prison for George W. Bush’s criminal war on Iraq and no one went to prison for the financial crimes that led to the Great Recession. The bi-partisan strategy has been to hold no one to account and in so doing demonstrate that the engineers of catastrophe have borne none of the consequences.

But this formulation understates the class division at work: it isn’t simply that no one went to prison for ruling class crimes. There has been no resolution of the social destruction that resulted from these crimes. The people who committed them are still in charge and those who have suffered the consequences are still suffering.

To the extent that ‘resisting Trump’ accepts the ruling class premise that ‘resisting Clinton’ was any less of an imperative, there is nowhere to go politically. Well over half of the country has the well-earned right to ask where this resistance was over the last eight years when it was tossed onto the economic garbage heap?

This isn’t an issue of competitive misery per se. Social outcomes are a matter of who holds social power, not opinions. Class divisions place those whose lives are determined by others on the same side of the class divide no matter how much they may dislike each other. Gaining the power of political and economic self-determination requires forming alliances to counter ruling class power.

The charge that Donald Trump’s election has emboldened socially destructive groups is most certainly true— I’ve seen it with my own eyes. With deregulation and bailouts the national Democrats emboldened Wall Street— the same Wall Street that devastated people and communities around the world with predatory loans and financial instruments backed by them.

Fear of the prior and not the latter and vice versa is largely a function of historical experience. The question in the present is one of the capacity to cause social harm and the answer depends on social vulnerability. The only certainty is that the people gratuitously dismissing fears based on / in historical experience live on the other side of their social consequences.

Framed differently, tightly circumscribed social vulnerabilities that fall together on the side of class— of those who bear the consequences of the decisions of others, are unified through a class divide. ‘Resistance’ that proceeds from this class view would necessarily include most of the people who voted for Donald Trump.

Grant for the moment that the all of the worst that can be said about Mr. Trump is true. (1) Personalizing the attack gives the political economy that produced him a pass, (2) the strategy is reactionary— where is the principled alternative? And (3) without a program, where do you take it once Mr. Trump is out of office?

uriepix1

Graph: Moral opposition to Donald Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ would benefit from knowledge that Barack Obama spent his time in office bombing the people Mr. Trump wants to ban. Mr. Obama led stealth ‘hot’ wars against Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya in 2016 after substantially destroying Libya, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leading the charge, in 2011.

The question of the missing principled alternative is crucial. The Democrats’ mantra of ‘we suck less’ depends on a base level of suck— a residual of the New Deal, that spiraled lower on their watch until political inflection became the result. Without building a floor based in human needs, e.g. food and housing security, meaningful work, quality health care and quality public education, cynical rhetoric from demagogues will carry the day.

As the ‘Russia hacked the election’ story comes unwound the intellectual and moral vacuums at the heart of the DNC will become increasingly visible. To loosen the conceptual shackles ever so slightly, between Vladimir Putin, Wall Street and Exxon Mobil, who would you rather have scamming an election? Now assume for the moment that Russian ‘meddling’ is removed from the mix due to a lack of evidence.

uriepix2

Graph: Blacks ended the Clinton – Bush – Obama years with less wealth (net worth) than they started with, thanks mostly to the national Democrats’ close relationship with Wall Street. Net worth includes home equity. Blacks were heavily targeted by Wall Street with home-equity destroying predatory loans in the housing boom-bust. But the Clintons and Mr. Obama aren’t racists just because their major campaign contributors looted neighborhoods of color, are they? Source: Pew Research.

While there are good and legitimate historical reasons for fearing Mr. Trump’s White nationalist contingent, the more socially potent threat is the suburban swing voters who were swayed by the ‘soft’ racism of the Clinton’s class-divisive revival of the ‘Black criminality’ canard. As the facts have it, the intersection of the Clinton’s / Obama’s ‘consumer choice’ neoliberal economic policies have done more to re-segregate American neighborhoods and institutions than White nationalists could ever have brought about.

This last point is crucial: while White nationalists can be locally virulent, neoliberal political economy will determine how the overwhelming preponderance of people live. Local funding of schools is an example— poor people have poor choices (schools, employment) and rich people have rich choices. As neoliberal choices have multiplied, economic mobility has plummeted.

(Where there are concentrations of poverty, public services are degraded through privation. Consumer choice for the poor becomes between degraded services. Poverty and wealth become self-perpetuating. Neoliberal ‘choice’ quickly devolves to trade in luxury goods for those who can afford them). Welcome to America.

In this way dispassionate technocrats engineer racist outcomes without being explicit racists. Through ‘consumer choice’ policies that multiply existing social inequities and special rights and privileges for the already rich and connected (bailouts, patents, transfers of publically funded technologies to ‘private’ interests, etc.), divided societies become super-divided. Who needs Donald Trump to create racist outcomes when you have technocrats?

So while there are very good reasons for rejecting Mr. Trump’s program, doing so without also rejecting the national Democrats’ program is evidence that those doing the objecting either don’t know, or don’t understand, the Democrats’ actual history. It was only three years ago that Mr. Obama and Hillary Clinton implemented a targeted immigrant ban against orphaned children fleeing narco-state violence that they (Obama and Clinton) helped create in Honduras. That they did so without passion hardly alleviated the human misery that they caused.

And in fact, Mr. Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ is more objectionable than has generally been articulated. Through the influence of the French philosophes on America’s plutocratic ‘founders,’ Christianity was widely considered a misplaced cosmology. With 10% – 15% of kidnapped Africans held in slavery being Muslim, Islam could well be considered a ‘founding’ religion (of the nation, not the cultures that preceded it).

Between Bernie Sanders run as an old-school Democrat and Donald Trump’s support from those who bought his economic populism there is a sizeable constituency for a political program based on human needs, environmental resolution and an end to militarism— call it socialism. Democrat ‘pragmatists’ have already proved that their only program is support for the ruling class and they can’t even win an election against Donald Trump. And Mr. Trump’s program to date is more of the same right-wing horseshit that sank the Democrats.

The political idiocy of blaming Vladimir Putin for the Democrats well-deserved electoral loss will become apparent as the case falls apart. Likewise, other strategies that aim to concentrate the support of dwindling Democrat loyalists have their analog in Donald Trump’s misreading of his ‘mandate’ to go full plutocrat. The real dividing line— the one created and enforced by the political and economic elite, is and will remain class. Resistance that accuses half of the electorate of being racist hicks should (1) take a harder look at Democrat policies and (2) reframe the struggle in class terms. The alternative is increasing political crisis as the dominant parties grow narrower and ever more deluded.

Finally, if you want to know America in 2017, here is the spy dildo, here is the (American made) My Friend Cayla doll and here is the intersection of the technologies. Who says America is an artless wasteland populated by scam artists?

Why Did Trump Target Transgender Youth?

On February 22rd, Pres. Donald Trump signed an executive order reversing Pres. Barack Obama’s earlier order protecting transgender youths under Title IX from so-called “bathroom” bills may be the most odious.  In short order, the Supreme Court ordered a pending case involving Gavin Grimm, a self-identified male student prohibited from using the boys’ bathrooms at his Gloucester Country, VA, high school, returned the local federal court.  Sadly, the outcome of looks bleak given Trump’s nomination of a strict conservative to the Court and his February 22rd executive order.

As of January 2017, the National Conference of State Legislatures reports that 14 states were considering bills to restrict access to multiuser restrooms, locker rooms and other sex-segregated facilities.  Bills introduced in these states — Alabama, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming – seek to restrict bathroom access based on one’s gender assigned at birth or “biological sex”; similar bills were defeated in South Dakota and Virginia.

The troubling unasked – and unanswered — question in why Trump targeted transgender youth?

***

Two knowledgeable specialists suggest very different — but complementary –answers to the question.

Jack Drescher, MD, is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in private practice as well as a clinical professor of psychiatry & behavioral sciences at New York Medical College and adjunct professor at New York University’s postdoctoral program in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis.  “The religious social conservatives having lost the gay marriage war,” he points out, “and have started to take it out on the transgender community, especially trans kids and bathroom bills.”  He notes that gay rights evolved slowly with time and now more and more heterosexuals accept gay people because they know gay people, whether family member, neighbors or coworkers.  “Awareness has led to acceptance and tolerance.”

The transgender population in the U.S. is but a tiny segment of the American public.  UCLA’s Williams Institute estimates that less than 1 percent (0.6% or about 1.5 million) of U.S. adults identify as transgender and only an estimated 350,000 youths aged 13 to 17 identify as transgender.  So, why has Trump singled-out transsexual young people as a target in his political agenda?

Howard Lavine, PhD, is professor of political science and psychology at the University of Minnesota, director of the Center for the Study of Political Psychology and editor-in-chief of the journal, Advances in Political Psychology.  He offers a more sanguine assessment.  “Trump is targeted low hanging fruit,” he says.  “I’m sure that Vice President Mike Pense, an anti-gay hardliner, probably told him he had to do it.  And he did it to appease hardliners in the party – and it was an easy way to gain support among Republicans.  I don’t think there’s anything psychological about his action.”

The modern culture wars were launched in 1972 by Phyllis Schafly, a lawyer and conservative activist, when she led a successful campaign to block the adoption of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).  She and other Christian conservatives were infuriated by ‘60s political and cultural radicalism, of calls for Black Power, mounting anti-Vietnam War protests, a nascent feminist movement and a counterculture celebrating sex, drugs and rock-&-roll.

In 1973, Schafly and others, including many fundamentalist Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church, were infuriated when an all-male Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that a Texas woman had the right to an abortion.  They were further incensed when, that same year, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) reclassified homosexuality, dropping it as a mental disorder from the revised Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (DSM-3).

Drescher, who edited the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Mental Health and has edited and co-edited more than a score of books dealing with gender, sexuality and the health and mental health of LGBT communities, served on the APA’s DSM-5 Workgroup on Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders.  He explains that the term “transgender,” like “gay,” is a non-scientific concept but “a term used by a community of individuals whose gender expression may not match their birth sex to define itself.“  He adds, “no one know why people are trans, let alone why people are gay.”  The revised, DSM-5, published in 2013, includes a diagnosis of “gender dysphoria” which has been applied to some, but not all, transgender people who are very uncomfortable with the bodies they were born with.

The religious right’s war against homosexuals and, by extension, transsexual youth, runs deep – back to the Puritans and the nation’s founding.  More recently, in 2001, James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, claimed that the growing gay-rights movement was targeting schools.  Two years later, Louis Sheldon, head of the Traditional Values Coalition, argued that “homosexual militants are pushing for aggressive recruitment programs in public schools.”  This attitude seems to have contributed to a rise in bullying within American schools over the last two decades; it declined during Obama’s presidency.

Bullying has long been an endemic feature of the lives of school-age children. Sadly, the targeting of young people who do not adhere to strict conventions of gender identity often has terrible consequences.  Drescher links the current campaign against transgender youth to the bullying of gay kids in schools.  In a 2010 New York Times Letter-to-the-Editor, he wrote: “Avoiding discussions of homosexuality and gay families serves its own political agenda: maintaining an intolerant status quo where bullying can flourish and schools become unsafe for gay youth to come out.”

In 2008, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center reported that lesbian, gay and bisexual youth were “nearly one and a half to three times more likely to have reported suicidal ideation” and “nearly one and a half to seven times more likely than non-LGB youth to have reported attempting suicide.”  The following year, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s National School Climate Survey found over four-in-five (nearly 85%) of LGBT students reported harassment because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and nearly one-in-five (20%) reported “being physically assaulted at school in the past year because of their sexual orientation.”

The issue of transgender youth came to a head in 2013 when the Colorado Civil Rights Division ruled that Cory Mathis, a 6-year-old transgender student, could use the girls’ bathroom at her elementary school.  The decision precipitated a panic among conservative religious politicians in states across the country.

In 2014, the Southern Baptist Convention — the largest Protestant group in the U.S. with 16 million members — approved a resolution, “On Transgender Identity,” claiming that “gender identity is determined by biological sex and not by one’s self-perception.”  It also dismissed transgender and intersex people as, respectively, “psychological” and “biological” manifestations of “human fallenness.”  It opposed all efforts at physical gender transition and rejected any governmental or cultural validations of transgender identities.

The following year, the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC), an organization representing conservative Christian counselors, hosted what it claimed was the “first-ever” evangelical conference on “transgenderism” in Louisville, KY; the event was co-sponsored the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood.  One session was called, “Transgender Confusion and Transformational Christianity.”

***

So, why did Trump target transsexual young people?

University of Minnesota’s political psychologist Howard Lavine argues that the answer is simple.  “It’s nothing but politics,” he says.  “It was very easy for Trump to do it.  He signs an order and it was done.”  Going further, he points out: “Any Republican president would have overturned [Obama’s] executive order.  There is no skin off his back.  It’s a clear win.”  Chuckling, he poses a more pointed question: “I would be shocked if he didn’t do it – and that would have been a real story.”  He adds, “It’s a clear win for him, politically.  He doesn’t lose anything by doing it.  He isn’t spending much political capital.”

“Remember, during the campaign homosexuality and transsexuals was not a major issue for him,” Lavine reflects.  “Trump seemed to care more about immigration and terrorism than this issue.”  He adds, “Trump said that Caitlyn Jenner could use any bathroom at Trump Tower.”  In reaction to Trump’s order, Jenner challenged the president in a video posted on Twitter:  “I have a message for the trans kids of America: You’re winning. I know it doesn’t feel like it today or every day, but you’re winning.”  Lavine laments, “This is a disaster, and you [Trump] can still fix it … protect the LGBTQ community.”

 

As a political scientist concerned with the issue of political power, Lavine said that Trump’s action was not an issue of the weak vs. strong, but how a group works as part of a political alignment.  “It’s a lot easier to pick on poor,” he notes.  “The poor are less active, don’t contribute money, not well represented when their interests collide with those with power.”

The New York Medical College psychiatrist, Jack Drescher, believes that Trump’s executive order “was a bad policy decision.”  He is concerned “how it might adversely affect the well-being and mental health of transgender kids.”  “Trans presentation is much rarer than gay presentation,” he points out.  “Most Americans have never met a trans person – or if they have, they likely don’t know it.  Most people’s images of a transgender person come from TV & movies or personal fantasies which makes people anxious, if not frightened, about trans people.”

Drescher opined, “I think everyone, regardless of political affiliation, should be concerned when those with the most power target the most vulnerable populations.”  Because there are fewer transgender people out in society, they are less known.  He notes, with a sense of irony, that for most Americans fear of transgender means fear of a man in women’s clothing entering a women’s bathroom.  “If bathroom bills were to be enforced, a common consternation will be trans be men with beards using the women’s bathroom and the trans women in the men’s room,” he jests.

There is yet another possible answer to the troubling question as to why Trump targeted trans youth and other marginal groups.  There’s a growing perception that Pres. Donald Trump is mentally “sick.”  Public figures have begun to question Trump’s sanity, including Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Richard Friedman, MD, professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the psychopharmacology clinic, Weill Cornell Medical College.  Paul Krugman went so far to declare, “An American first: a president who was obviously mentally ill the moment he took office.”  A Change.org petition claiming that Trump has “a serious mental illness” was endorsed by 20,000 people.

The most critical diagnostic assessment of Trump’s apparent psychological state was presented shortly after his 2016 electoral victory.  Three highly-respected academic psychiatrists — Judith Herman, MD, Harvard Medical School; Nanette Gartrell, MD, University of California, San Francisco (1988-2011); and Dee Mosbacher, MD, PhD, University of California, San Francisco (2005-2013) – published an open letter to Pres. Barack Obama in the Huffington Post.  They present, in scrupulous detail, a clinical, psychiatric evaluation of the president-elect, arguing that, in term of APA’s DSM-5, Trump suffers from a Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Their diagnosis, along with those offered by others clinical professionals, may violate what is known as the APA’s Goldwater Rule.  The rule is part of the organization’s code of ethics and named after former Sen. (and presidential candidate) Barry Goldwater and in an uninformed and highly-critical diagnosis made of the candidate by a psychiatrist.  The rule states it is unethical for psychiatrists to give a professional opinion about a public figure they have not examined in person, and obtained consent from, to discuss their mental health.  In any case, one can only speculate as to Trump’s apparent mental health and the role it played – if any — in his targeting of trans kids.

From the perspective of many ordinary citizens, there seems to be something wrong, “sick” (in a non-clinical sense), about Trump, his closest associates and his misbegotten Cabinet.  Collectively, they seem irrationally mean-spirited, if not immoral or simply evil.  They all seem out for themselves, whether it’s in terms of furthering the business interests of the 1 percent or imposing their moral beliefs on all Americans.  Trump’s order revoking bathroom protections for transgender youths in public schools is among the most punitive of his still-early presidency.  One can expect it to only get worse.

Outrage From the Imperial Playbook

The disparity in coverage of violent outrages depending on who the victims are is one thing that never ever changes about the news media. Drone strikes are up 432% under Trump; his first military action, a special forces raid in Yemen, resulted in the deaths of 30 people including women and children in the vicinity in addition to the 15 Islamist militants and a US navy seal. Maybe he should have examined the intelligence reports. US-sponsored aerial bombing by Saudis has killed thousands of Yemenis over the last few years.

There are of course no sprawling headlines for them, for Yemenis are poor and brown, and are therefore expendable unpeople. This is not so much the case in the first World, where violent outrages meet with a chorus of righteous outrage from officialdom and the media — all of whom are complicit in the culture of terrorism that makes it possible to write off the deaths of thousands of people as collateral damage in the war for civilization.

It is well known to criminologists that lone wolf attacks are the most common form of violent outrage, and the hardest to combat. There are no communications between conspirators to be intercepted and no groups to be infiltrated. Lone wolf attacks are particularly disastrous given the fact that, in addition to the destruction of life they produce, they expose the shortcomings of deterrence policing — as do, ironically enough, coordinated acts of terrorism.

Definitions of terrorism are notoriously hard to pin down. Attorneys working for the US government tried to formulate a suitable working definition at one stage, and had to give up because, no matter which way they framed them, every definition they came up with applied to policies and actions of the US government. Perhaps this explains why the working definition of terrorism these days is ‘refuses to allow their country to be used as a colony for US corporations.’ Or perhaps this is the working definition of communist. They are much the same in practice; ask a Latin American. Ask one of those dead Yemenis.

In the case of the London attack, officialdom and the media decide the act is one of terrorism despite no apparent indication at all as to why it happened. Some speculate that it’s because 22 March is the first anniversary of the Brussels bombings. Perhaps it would have been a coordinated attack in that case. It’s also the anniversary of the Enabling Acts, Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, the release of Ricky Martin’s Livin’ La Vida Loca (which went on to sell 8 million copies), and the awarding of a Golden Raspberry to ‘Freddy Got Fingered.’ Maybe the attacker felt Tom Green deserved more respect. How do you know otherwise without evidence?

Furthermore, the perpetrator managed not to die until he was shot by police. Towards the end of January, a deranged driver in Melbourne drove through the Bourke St Mall in the central business district, killing 4 and injuring scores. In that instance, the driver was Greek, and was neither shot dead even after killing and injuring a comparable number of people, not was the outrage adjudged a terrorist attack. In this instance, we still don’t even know the name of the suspect, but we are asked to believe he was ‘inspired by international terrorism’ (Business Insider).

Which international terrorism would that be then, theirs or ours? Many are inspired by our terrorism after all and we have exactly zero problem with that. We disavow the United Nations and international law to the point that most people no longer even bother to wonder if we shouldn’t defer to them in conducting relations between states, we construct a culture of lawlessness and terrorism based on victim blaming, playing of the victim and refusing to differentiate between being criticized and being attacked, and then act surprised when people adopt exactly the same principle we make the rule instead of law against us. The cognitive dissonance is unmistakable — much less to say the hypocrisy.

But then never let facts get in the way of a good story I always say. Cue the standard clichés about protecting our way of life and how we will not be cowed, make some defiant poses to the echo chamber that cost us nothing while we keep the terror alert at severe despite not having any information whatsoever so suggest that an attack is immanent. It does serve as a great way to keep people scared and to remind everyone — those who are alienated and thinking of doing something stupid to get their own back on this majestic neoliberal paradise that has left the vast majority of the world’s population behind — that we are a society that uses violence to solve our problems.

We are also one that shamelessly exploits tragedy each time to perpetuate the vicious cycle of blame and retribution endlessly as excuses to big note ourselves, ensuring a fresh batch of victims at some point in the future to be used by opportunists amongst the political class as excuses to grandstand, play the victim and reassert the legitimacy of a corporatist status quo from which they and the interests they represent benefit most, nay at all. Reading like a champion from the script in this sense, London Mayor Sadiq Khan insists that;

You will see Londoners returning to work whether it’s in Parliament, whether it’s in City Hall, whether it’s in hospitals or businesses across London, because that’s who we are. We are not going to allow these terrorists to cow us, we’re not going to allow them to change our way of life.

All the standard clichés narrowed down to two sentences; such is worthy of a gold medal at the Propaganda Olympics. For others of a more pompous and grandiose bent it often takes more; either way they’re still so very, very tired. ‘Our way of life’ always refers to those who benefit most from the counterterrorist narrative — that being the one that associates challenges to the right of global corporations to use second and third world countries as colonies for exploitation as they see fit with threats to freedom, as noted. So of course Londoners are those who work in Parliament, or City Hall, or businesses, they being the ones who benefit most from corporate globalism.

Londoners who work casually or part-time, on the other hand, maybe not so much. Londoners who are out of work, remember them? They don’t fit the standard narrative about our way of life, hence unpeople — paradoxically enough much like the forgotten victims of our terrorism which is also conveniently swept under the rug much like the many and increasingly terminal shortcomings of an increasingly dysfunctional political system which in the US has of late produced a true monstrosity. But such is the will to carry on with the standard counterterrorism narrative that the politicians who wax lyrical about our majestic virtues need reminding of Donald Trump.

I would just like to say I for for one can’t wait for the Internet Troll President to start sounding off about the glories of electoral democracy and western civilization.

An extra special effort in articulating completely predictable but false outrage (since it never inspires anyon who espouses it to address the root causes, cf. Chomsky’s comment about the best way to prevent terrorism being to stop participating in it) came from Australian PM and corporate sock puppet Malcolm Turnbull who announced that, ‘This is an assault on every democracy, every parliament, every free nation.’

In what pass for representative democracy in the west, the assaults on democracy are coming from a far different source — that source being neoliberalism — and have done so unrelentingly for some decades now. But again, never let the facts get in the way of a good story. The increasingly threadbare character of the counterterrorism narrative is absolutely no reason to stop using it as long as there are rubes willing to believe that their interests and those of the transnational oligarchy are one and the same. Of even more interest in Turnbull’s case is that what appears as a statement of solidarity is in fact a subtle form of convergence, part of what renowned sociologist Stuart Hall described as part of a ‘signification spiral’ of strategies designed to shift blame though the production of deviance and the construction of moral panics, ie.

a) The intensification of a particular issue;
b) The identification of a subversive minority’;
c) ‘Convergence’ or the linking by labeling of the specific issue to other problems;
d) The notion of ‘thresholds’ which, once crossed, can lead to further escalation of the problem’s ‘menace’ to society;
e) The element of explaining and prophesying, which often involves making analogous references to the United States – the paradigm example;
f) The call for firm steps (Hall et al; Policing the Crisis, 220).

There is nothing more paradigmic where counterterrorist narratives are concerned than the United States, though the idea that freedom and human rights there is under greater threat from anyone other than the Trump administration and the Deep State might perhaps serve to explain why President Anyone For Golf has to the time of writing been restrained from indulging his characteristic grandiosity. Even his handlers can see that Trump spouting that shit about the majestic values of democracy would have people rolling in the aisles.

The political class and the corporate media don’t hate terrorism, they love it. If the facts were otherwise, they would not turn themselves into the world’s biggest free public relations mouthpiece for terrorism there is. They love terrorism so much they need to make terrorism out of things that aren’t terrorism, and people who aren’t terrorists. Just ask the Newburgh Four. When someone decides that they want to take their problems out on other people and don’t feel like being classed as a common criminal, they can claim affiliation to Islamic State in the aftermath to pretend that their pure and simple lashing out was an expression of anything other than their incapacity for self-restraint, or to deal with their own problems constructively and without engaging in criminal violence. In this respect, the use of counterterrorism narratives to rationalize things like keeping terror alerts high in the face of zero evidence to actually justify doing so only serves to enable this kind of behavior.

It is no secret why the powers that be should be so attached to them. The refusal to make any distinction between the interests of the world as a whole and American interests — much less to say the class privilege of wealthy elites (‘American interests’ in counterterrorism narratives) and the common interests of everyone — has been and remains the tool that the political class in the west and the corporate interests they serve have used to rationalize invading other countries to steal their resources and prop up the value of the dollar and dismantle civil liberties at home in the name of national security. If we ever stopped for a moment to ask ourselves why we don’t reflect on our own shortcomings and why we can’t brook criticism, then we would know why terrorist atrocities and violent incidents never stop happening. But then there would be no culture of counterterrorism, or more honestly just terrorism, to use as an excuse to avoid ourselves.