Politics

American Carnage

 American Carnage

Photo by iStock/BasSlabbers

This piece is reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.

In his inaugural address, President Trump described a dark and dismal United States, a country overrun by criminal gangs and drugs, a nation stained with the blood seeping from bullet-ridden corpses left at scenes of “American carnage.” It was more than a little jarring.

Certainly, drug gangs and universally accessible semi-automatic weapons do not contribute to a better life for most people in this country. When I hear the words “American carnage,” however, the first thing I think of is not an endless string of murders taking place in those mysterious “inner cities” that exist only in the fevered mind of Donald Trump. The phrase instead evokes the non-imaginary deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in real cities and rural areas outside the United States. It evokes the conversion of millions of ordinary people into homeless refugees. It reminds me of the places where American wars seem never to end, where new conflicts seem to take up just as the old ones are in danger of petering out. These sites of carnage are the cities and towns, mountains and deserts of Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, and other places that we don’t even find out about unless we go looking. They are the places where the United States fights its endless wars.

During the 2016 election campaign, Donald Trump often sounded like a pre-World War II-style America First isolationist, someone who thought the United States should avoid foreign military entanglements. Today, he seems more like a man with a uniform fetish. He’s referred to his latest efforts to round up undocumented immigrants in this country as “a military operation.” He’s similarly stocked his cabinet with one general still on active duty, various retired generals, and other military veterans. His pick for secretary of the interior, Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke, served 23 years as a Navy SEAL.

Clearly, these days Trump enjoys the company of military men. He’s more ambivalent about what the military actually does. On the campaign trail, he railed against the folly that was -- and is -- the (second) Iraq War, maintaining with questionable accuracy that he was “totally against” it from the beginning. It’s not clear, however, just where Trump thinks the folly lies -- in invading Iraq in the first place or in failing to “keep” Iraq’s oil afterward.  It was a criticism he reprised when he introduced Mike Pompeo as his choice to run the CIA. “Mike,” he explained, “if we kept the oil, you probably wouldn’t have ISIS because that’s where they made their money in the first place.” Not to worry, however, since as he also suggested to Pompeo, “Maybe we’ll have another chance.” Maybe the wrong people had just fought the wrong Iraq war, and Donald Trump’s version will be bigger, better, and even more full of win!

Perhaps Trump’s objection is simply to wars we don’t win. As February ended, he invited the National Governors Association to share his nostalgia for the good old days when “everybody used to say ‘we haven’t lost a war’ -- we never lost a war -- you remember.”  Now, according to the president, “We never win a war. We never win. And we don’t fight to win. We don’t fight to win. So we either got to win, or don’t fight it at all.”

The question is, which would Trump prefer: Winning or not fighting at all? There’s probably more than a hint of an answer in his oft-repeated campaign promise that we’re “going to win so much” we’ll “get tired of winning.” If his fetish for winning -- whether it’s trade wars or shooting wars -- makes you feel a little too exposed to his sexual imagination, you’re probably right. In one of his riffs on the subject, he told his audience that they would soon be pleading they had “a headache” to get him to stop winning so much -- as if they were 1950s housewives trying to avoid their bedroom duty. But daddy Trump knows best:

“And I'm going to say, ‘No, we have to make America great again.’ You're gonna say, ‘Please.’ I said, ‘Nope, nope. We're gonna keep winning.’”

There’s more than a hint of where we’re headed in Trump’s recent announcement that he’ll be asking Congress for a nearly 10% increase in military spending, an additional annual $54 billion for the Pentagon as part of what he calls his “public safety and national security budget.” You don’t spend that kind of money on toys unless you intend to play with them. 

Trump explained his reasoning, in his trademark idiolect, his unique mangling of syntax and diction:

“This is a landmark event, a message to the world, in these dangerous times of American strength, security, and resolve. We must ensure that our courageous servicemen and women have the tools they need to deter war and when called upon to fight in our name only do one thing, win. We have to win.”

So it does look like the new president intends to keep on making war into the eternal future. But it’s worth remembering that our forever wars didn’t begin with Donald J. Trump, not by a long shot.

The Forever Wars

Joe Haldeman’s 1974 novel, The Forever War, which won the three major science fiction prizes, a Hugo, a Nebula, and a Locus, was about a soldier involved in a war between human beings and the Taurans, an alien race. Because of the stretching of time when traveling at near light-speed (as Einstein predicted), while soldiers like Haldeman’s hero passed a few years at a time at a front many light-years from home, the Earth they’d left behind experienced the conflict as lasting centuries. Published just after the end of the Vietnam War -- fought for what seemed to many Americans like centuries in a land light-years away -- The Forever War was clearly a reflection of Haldeman’s own experience in Vietnam and his return to an unrecognizable United States, all transposed to space.

In 1965, Haldeman had been drafted into that brutal conflict, probably one of those that Donald Trump thinks we didn’t “fight to win.” It certainly seemed like a forever war while it lasted, especially if you included the French colonial war that preceded it. But it did finally end, decisively, with an American loss (although, in a sense, it’s still being fought out by the thousands of Vietnam veterans who live on the streets of our country).

After the attacks of 9/11 and George W. Bush’s declaration of a Global War on Terror, some people found the title of Haldeman’s novel a useful shorthand for what seemed to be an era of permanent war. It gave us a way of describing then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s vision of a new kind of war against an enemy located, as he told NBC’s Meet the Press on September 30, 2001, “not just in Afghanistan. It is in 50 or 60 countries and it simply has to be liquidated. It has to end. It has to go out of business.”

More than 15 years later, after a decade and a half of forever war in the Greater Middle East and parts of Africa, al-Qaeda and the Taliban are still in business, along with a set of new enemies, including Boko Haram in Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon; al-Shabaab in Somalia; and ISIS, which, if we are to believe the president and his cronies, is pretty much everywhere, including Mexico. In a war against a tactic (terrorism) or an emotion (terror), it’s hardly surprising that our enemies have just kept proliferating, and with them, the wars. It’s as if Washington were constantly bringing jets, drones, artillery, and firepower of every sort to bear on a new set of Taurans in another galaxy.

Decades before Haldeman’s Forever War, George Orwell gave us an unforgettable portrait of a society controlled by stoking permanent hatred for a rotating cast of enemies. In 1984, the countries of the world have coalesced into three super-nations -- Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. Winston Smith, the novel’s protagonist, recalls that, since his childhood, “war had been literally continuous, though strictly speaking it had not always been the same war.” Smith joins thousands of other citizens of Oceania in their celebration of Hate Week and observes the slick substitution of one enemy for another on the sixth day of that week:

“...when the great orgasm was quivering to its climax and the general hatred of Eurasia had boiled up into such delirium that if the crowd could have got their hands on the two thousand Eurasian war-criminals who were to be publicly hanged on the last day of the proceedings, they would unquestionably have torn them to pieces -- at just this moment it had been announced that Oceania was not after all at war with Eurasia. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Eurasia was an ally.”

Except that there is no actual announcement. Rather, the Party spokesman makes the substitution in mid-oration:

“The speech had been proceeding for perhaps twenty minutes when a messenger hurried onto the platform and a scrap of paper was slipped into the speaker’s hand. He unrolled and read it without pausing in his speech. Nothing altered in his voice or manner, or in the content of what he was saying, but suddenly the names were different. Without words said, a wave of understanding rippled through the crowd. Oceania was at war with Eastasia!

And it had always been thus. “Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.”

1984 is, of course, a novel. In our perfectly real country, human memories work better than they do in Orwell’s Oceania. Or do they? The United States is at war with Iraq. The United States has always been at war with Iraq. Except, of course, when the United States sided with Iraq in its vicious, generation-destroying conflict with Iran in the 1980s. Who today remembers Ronald Reagan’s “tilt toward Iraq” and against Iran? They’re so confusing, those two four-letter countries that start with “I.” Who can keep them straight, even now that we’ve tilted back toward what’s left of Iraq -- Trump has even removed it from his latest version of his Muslim ban list -- and threateningly against Iran?

Many Americans do seem to adapt to a revolving enemies list as easily as the citizens of Oceania. Every few years, I ask my college students where the terrorists who flew the planes on 9/11 came from. At the height of the (second and still unfinished) Iraq War, when many of them had brothers, sisters, lovers, even fathers fighting there, my students were certain the attackers had all been Iraqis. A few years later, when the “real men” were trying to gin up a new opportunity to “go to Tehran,” my students were just as sure the terrorists had been from Iran. I haven’t asked in a couple of years now. I wonder whether today I’d hear that they were from Syria, or maybe that new country, the Islamic State?

I don’t blame my students for not knowing that the 9/11 attackers included 15 Saudis, two men from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), one Egyptian, and one Lebanese. It’s not a fact that’s much trumpeted anymore. You certainly wouldn’t guess it from where our military aid and American-made weaponry goes. After Afghanistan ($3.67 billion) and Israel ($3.1 billion), Egypt is the next largest recipient of that aid at $1.31 billion in 2015.

Of course, military aid to other countries is a windfall for U.S. arms manufacturers. Like food money and other forms of foreign aid from Washington, the countries receiving it are often obligated to spend it on American products.  In other words, much military “aid” is actually a back-door subsidy to companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Being wealthy oil states, the Saudis and the UAE, of course, don’t need subsidies. They buy their U.S. arms with their own money -- $3.3 billion and $1.3 billion worth of purchases respectively in 2015. And they’re putting that weaponry to use, with U.S. connivance and -- yes, it should make your head spin in an Orwellian fashion -- occasional support from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, by taking sides in a civil war in Yemen. U.S.-made fighter planes and cluster bombs have put more than seven million Yemenis in imminent danger of starvation.

War Without End, When Did You Begin?

When did our forever war begin? When did we start to think of the president as commander-in-chief first, and executor of the laws passed by Congress only a distant second?

Was it after 9/11? Was it during that first Iraq war that spanned a few months of 1990 and 1991? Or was it even earlier, during the glorious invasion of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983, codenamed Operation Urgent Fury? That was the first time the military intentionally -- and successfully -- kept the press sequestered from the action for the first 48 hours of that short-lived war. They did the same thing in 1989, with the under-reported invasion of Panama, when somewhere between 500 and 3,500 Panamanians died so that the United States could kidnap and try an erstwhile ally and CIA asset, the unsavory dictator of that country, Manuel Noriega.

Or was it even earlier? The Cold War was certainly a kind of forever war, one that began before World War II ended, as the United States used its atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to, as we now say, “send a message” to the Soviet Union.  And it didn’t end until that empire imploded in 1991.

Maybe it began when Congress first abdicated its constitutional right and authority to declare war and allowed the executive branch to usurp that power. The Korean War (1950-1953) was never declared. Nor were the Vietnam War, the Grenada invasion, the Panama invasion, the Afghan War, the first and second Iraq wars, the Libyan war, or any of the wars we’re presently involved in. Instead of outright declarations, we’ve had weasely, after-the-fact congressional approvals, or Authorizations for the Use of Military Force, that fall short of actual declarations of war.  

The framers of the Constitution understood how important it was to place the awesome responsibility for declaring war in the hands of the legislative branch -- of, that is, a deliberative body elected by the people -- leaving the decision on war neither to the president nor the military. Indeed, one of the charges listed against King George III in the Declaration of Independence was: “He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.”

Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the others who met in the stifling heat of that 1776 Philadelphia summer, close enough to battle to hear the boom of British cannons, decided they could no longer abide a king who allowed the military to dominate a duly constituted civil government. For all their many faults, they were brave men who, even with war upon them, recognized the danger of a government controlled by those whose sole business is war.

Since 9/11, this country has experienced at least 15 years of permanent war in distant lands.  Washington is now a war capital. The president is, first and foremost, the commander-in-chief. The power of the expanding military (as well as paramilitary intelligence services and drone assassination forces, not to mention for-profit military contractors of all sorts) is emphatically in presidential hands. Those hands, much discussed in the 2016 election campaign, are now Donald Trump’s and, as he indicated in his recent address to Congress, he seems hell-bent on restoring the military to the superiority it enjoyed under King George. That is a danger of the first order.

Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches in the philosophy department at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes. Her previous books include Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States and Letters from Nicaragua.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Feffer's dystopian novel Splinterlands, as well as Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Rebecca Gordon

To the Women of America and the World: A Warning and a Rallying Cry From Poland

 Black Monday
Photo courtesy Agnieszka Morcinek / Agencja Gazeta

An international strike of and for the women of the 99%, A Day Without a Woman, will take place on March 8, 2017.

We, the women of Poland, have watched the emergence of the biggest threat to American democracy in the person of Donald Trump with a sickening feeling of familiarity. As we near March 8th, the day of our international strike against the curtailing of women’s rights, we wish to share with you what is at stake, from the perspective of a country where an Alt Right government has been in power for over a year. Dear Women of America and the world, your fears are well founded. But you are not alone.

March 8th will be our second stand against the toxic relationship our current government is trying to force Polish women into. Our first strike was Black Monday, in October of last year, when we flooded the streets under black umbrellas in defense of our reproductive rights. Much like Donald Trump, who on his first day in office imposed the global gag rule on NGOs bringing reproductive support to women, the Polish government began its tenure with an attempt to criminalize the few exceptions to our already rigorous anti-abortion law. We could not and did not allow this proposal to pass.

Since that time, we have seen that a government’s playbook that begins with an attack on women’s rights goes on to write nationalism and the demonization of immigrants into the history books of schoolchildren. We have witnessed that a presidency which begins by passing the reins of a woman’s life into the hands of authorities, goes on to remove protection from endangered natural environments. It has also been our experience that when a man who has been elected to represent an entire nation turns his back on women, he quickly goes on to do the same with the media and the courts. When a bully wields major political power, the consequences are what we see in Poland today — a crippled constitutional court, an education system plunged into chaos, a country smothered in smog, where primeval forests and urban trees are recklessly cut down, where independent media is weakened by economic sanctions and the public media turned into a government propaganda machine. What started with a stab at our reproductive rights has gone on to attack much of what we as a modern society hold dear. These changes took place in Poland very quickly. It may be the same in America.

Indeed, it may soon be the same in many parts of the world. We recognize that the politics and economic policies of the West have passed the limit of social tolerance for income disparity and the corruption. Changes are now inevitable and it is certain that we all face a period of turbulent transformation. But we must not allow for fascism and other mistakes of the past to be put forward as solutions to the challenges of today. It is our unshakable conviction that women’s rights are human rights. And a future built on democracy, which means a respect for all human rights, is the only one that we will participate in.

Twenty-eight years ago, our massive Solidarity movement brought democracy to Poland after decades of Communist occupation. On March 8th, A Day Without a Woman, inspired by our Black Monday, we will strike again in international solidarity, to defend those values.

We will strike with you as women of the 99%. As the mothers, the wives, the sisters, the daughters and the leaders of the revolution for an inclusive, sustainable future for all: one where the remarkable connectivity of technology can spread wisdom and cooperation more quickly and farther than false truths and hatred. A world where the value of human beings is based on what they know, what they can do and how they contribute, not on their gender, the place of their birth or the name of their god. A society, where it is the invisible hand of democratic values that lifts citizens up into equality for all. We strike against the trampling of human rights, hard won by brave men and women of the past, in the name of a new progress. We stand together to take active part in the forming of a new balance, which will emerge from today’s crises on both sides of the Atlantic.

To bring home the impact of our global coming together, we propose to take a roll call. Let us see for ourselves, and let others see, just how huge a force our movement really is. Count yourself in — regardless of whether you are in a big city or a small town, whether you live in Europe, North America, South America, Africa or Asia, whether you are able to participate in public demonstrations or not. If you support the concept of a new, interconnected future based on democratic equality for all then please, get your number.

The counter below will give you a unique id number in the global movement of women for democracy. Use it! Show it on March 8th and anytime when you need to call out injustice, protest abuse, applaud cooperation, or when you need to call for help. Show it online and wherever you can do so and remain safe. Use it to build support and rally for a future that we can all be proud of. And get your number so that you do not feel alone. Because you’re not.

www.CountMeIn.pl

Sincerely,

Kongres Kobiet – Poland's Congress of Women

International Women’s Strike – Poland

Lilja Ólafsdóttir, one of the organizers of Iceland’s original Women’s Strike in 1975, a member of Redstockings

Gudrún Hallgríms­­dóttir, one of the organizers of Iceland’s original Women’s Strike in 1975, a member of Redstockings

Guðrún Jónsdóttir, a participant in Iceland’s original Women’s Strike in 1975, currently an activist in Stigamot, and Icelandic organization dedicated to fighting the sexual abuse of women

Wysokie Obcasy - Poland’s weekly women’s issues magazine

Gazeta Wyborcza - Poland’s largest liberal daily newspaper

Loving America and Resisting Trump

White House
Photo by iStock/D.aniel

This piece is reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.

So reality has inexorably, inescapably penetrated my life.  It didn’t take long. Yes, Donald Trump is actually the president of the United States. In that guise, in just his first weeks in office, he’s already declared war on language, on loving, on people who are different from him — on the kind of world, in short, that I want to live in. He’s promised to erect high walls, keep some people in and others out and lock up those he despises, while threatening to torture and abuse with impunity.

Still, a small personal miracle emerges from this nightmare. It turns out that, despite growing up an anarchist protest kid who automatically read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States alongside the official textbooks, I love this country more each day.  So I find myself eternally upset about our new political reality-show, about a man so thin-skinned he lashes out at everything and so insulated in his own alt-reality that no response to him seems to matter.

Above all, I am so mad. Yeah, I’m mad at all those people who voted for Trump and even madder at the ones who didn’t vote at all. I’m mad at everyone who thinks the sum total of their contribution to the political well-being of this country is voting every two or four years. I’m mad at our corporate-political system and how easily distracted people are. I’m steaming mad, but mostly at myself.  

Yep, I’m mad at myself and at the Obamas. They made empire look so good! Their grace and intelligence, their obvious love for one another and the way they telegraphed a certain approachability and reasonableness. So attractive! They were fun — or at least they looked like that on social media. Michelle in the karaoke car with Missy Elliot singing Beyoncé and talking about global girls' education! Barack and a tiny Superman at a White House Halloween party. Michelle, unapologetically fierce after Trump’s demeaning Access Hollywood comments came to light. I loved those Obamas, despite my politics and my analysis. I was supposed to resist all his efforts at world domination through drones and sweeping trade deals and instead I fell a little bit in love, even as I marched and fasted and tried to resist.

Falling in Love With My Country

Now, we have a new president. And my love is gone, along with my admiration, my pride, and my secret wish to attend a state dinner and chat with the Obamas over local wine and grass-fed beef sliders.

What’s not gone, though, what’s strangely stronger than ever, is my love for this country.

I didn’t love the United States under Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan or Bush the First. I was a kid and they were names on protest banners and headlines in the news. My parents were the Catholic peace activists Liz McAlister and Phil Berrigan, and I grew up in an anarchist collective of Christian resisters. My parents and their friends went to jail repeatedly and resolutely. We demonstrated, rallied, and railed at every institution of power in Washington. Those presidents made the adults around me angry and agitated, so they scared me.

I didn’t love the United States under Bill Clinton either — I was young and in college and opposed to everything — nor under George W. Bush. I was young and in New York City and still opposed to almost everything.

I started calling myself a “New Yorker” three years after moving there when, on a sunny Tuesday morning, airplanes became weapons, tall towers fell, and 3,000 people died. I emerged from my routine subway ride at 14th Street, unaware and unscathed, to stand still with the rest of the city and watch the sky turn black. I spent the rest of that day in Manhattan with friends trying to reach my parents and following the news, as we all tried (and failed) to come to grips with the new reality. Once the bridges reopened, we walked home to Brooklyn that evening, terrified and shell-shocked.

9/11 provided the rationale for sweeping changes in Washington. War by fiat, paid for in emergency supplementals that circumvented Congressional processes; a new Department of Homeland Security (where did that word “homeland” even come from?); a proliferation of increasingly muscular intelligence agencies; and a new brand of “legal” scholarship that justified both torture and indefinite detention, while tucking secret black sites away in foreign countries. All this as the United States went to war against “terrorism” — against, that is, an idea, a fringe sentiment that, no matter how heavily weaponized, had been marginalized until the United States put it on the map by declaring “war” on it.

The U.S. then invaded and occupied big time, including a country that had nothing to do with the terrorists who had attacked us, and we’ve been at war ever since at a heavy cost — now inching toward $5 trillion. Conservative estimates of how many people have been killed in the many war zones of what used to be called the Global War on Terror is 1.3 to 2 million. The number of U.S. military personnel who have lost their lives is easier to put a number to:more than 7,000, but that doesn’t count private contractors (aka mercenaries), or those (far more difficult to quantify) who later committed suicide. Now, President Trump has begun adding to this bloody death toll, having ordered his first (disastrous) strike, a Special Operations raid on Yemen, which killed as many as 30 civilians, including children, and resulted in the death of an American Navy SEAL as well.

September 11th was a long time ago. But I finally fell in love with my country in the days following that awful attack. I saw for the first time a certain strain of patriotism that swept me away, a strain that says we are stronger together than alone, stronger than any blow that strikes us, stronger in our differences, stronger in our unities. I’m talking about the kind of patriotism that said: don’t you dare tell us to go to Disney World, Mr. President! (That was, of course, after George W. Bush had assured us that, while he made war, our response as citizens to 9/11 should be to “get down to Disney World in Florida.  Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.”)

Instead of heeding that lame advice, some of us went out and began to try to solve problems and build community. I had read about it in books — the labor movement of the 1920s and 1930s and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s — but I hadn’t seen it myself, hadn’t been a part of it before, and I fell in love.

Of course, the drumbeat for war started instantly in Washington and was echoed throughout the nation, but many of us — the intended victims of that attack — said “our grief is not a cry for war.” We circled around the victims’ families; we reminded America that it wasn’t only lawyers and hedge-fund managers who died that day, but cooks and couriers and homeless people and undocumented immigrants, too.

We pulled people from the rubble.  We made the “pile” a place of sacred memory long before a huge monument and gift shop were erected there.  We honored the first responders who died, we stood up for Muslims and Arabs and all those whom ignorance scapegoated.  We marched against war in Afghanistan and then in far vaster numbers against war in Iraq.  We called for an international police response to those acts of terrorism — that weapon of the weak, not the powerful — instead of the unilateral, militarized approach adopted by the Bush administration. We celebrated, and saw as a strength, New York’s incredible diversity. We made art and music and poetry. We prayed in all languages to all the names of God.

The Donald, a One-Man 9/11

I guess I’ve been thinking about September 2001 again because, only weeks into his presidency, Donald Trump already seems like a one-man 9/11. He’s ridden roughshod over business as usual without even a geopolitical crisis or calamity as an excuse — and that’s not so surprising since Trump himself is that calamity.

With a razor-thin mandate, considerable bluster, and a voracious appetite for alt-facts (lies), he’s not so much tipping over the apple cart as declaring war on apples, carts, and anything else beginning with the letter A or C.

It seems almost that random and chaotic. In these weeks, he’s shown a particular appetite for upending convention, saying screw you to just about everyone and everything, while scrapping the rules of decorum and diplomacy. With a sweep of his pen and a toss of his hair, he takes away visas, nullifies months of work by advocates for refugees, and sends U.S. Special Forces off to kill and be killed. With a few twitches of his thumbs he baits Mexico, disses China, and throws shade at federal judges. With a few ill-chosen words about Black History month (comments that would have been better written by my 10 year old), he resurrects Frederick Douglass, disparages inner cities, and slams the “dishonest” media again (and again and again). His almost-month as president can be described as busy and brash, but it barely hides the banality of greed.

Flying Our Flag

Sure, Donald Trump’s a new breed, but perhaps in the end our resistance will make him the aberration he should be, rather than the new normal. So many of his acts are aimed at demeaning, degrading, demonizing, and denigrating, but he’s already failing — by driving so many of us to a new radical patriotism. I’m not the only one falling in love with this country again and this love looks like resistance — a resistance that, from the first moments of the Trump era, has seemed to be almost everywhere you looked.

Even at his inauguration, a group of young people stood on chairs wearing matching sweatshirts spelling out R-E-S-I-S-T in big letters. They had positioned themselves in the inner ring of the Capitol and were loud and visible as Chief Justice John Roberts swore the new president into office. The environmental group Greenpeace greeted Trump’s White House with a daring banner drop from a crane across the street — a huge, bright banner also emblazoned with RESIST. Pink woolen “pussy hats” were popularized by the Women’s March, a global event and possibly the largest demonstration in American history, one that rekindled our hope and strengthened our resolve on inauguration weekend. Now, those hats help us recognize and salute one another.

We’re working hard. We’re tying up the phone lines all over Capitol Hill, turning town halls into rowdy rallies for health care and human rights, shelling out money to support Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the immigration lawyers fighting for people barred from the U.S. and the closest Black Lives Matter chapter. We’re getting organizedgetting trainedgetting prepared, and getting connected. And we’re doing it all with a sense of humor: the Bowling Green Massacre Victims FundPriceless!

We are, in short, resisting in old ways and new.

Given my background, it’s no surprise that I’m not a flag waver. While growing up, I learned a lot more about what was wrong with my country than about what was right with it. But I’m seeing so much that’s right about it in this new Trump era of engagement or, if you prefer, call it radical patriotism. I’m mad... I’m scared... I’m hopeful... I’m still in love — more so than ever — with this country Trump is trying to hijack.

I don’t live in a big city any more. I’m not a scrappy kid in my early thirties either. I’m a mother of three kids and a homeowner. I’ve sunk my roots in a small, struggling, stalwart community along Connecticut’s eastern shoreline and I’m planning to live here for the rest of my life.

New London is a community of 27,000 or so, poor and diverse.  It’s almost a majority-minority community, in fact. We’re home to three refugee families settled from Syria and Sudan. We have a good school system, getting better all the time. Every Wednesday, the chefs at the middle school up the street from my house cook a meal, open the cafeteria, and invite the whole community to eat dinner for five dollars per person. I went with my girls a couple of weeks ago for Cajun shrimp stew and white rice. The room was full and the mood was high. Young professionals and hipsters with kids ate alongside folks who had just stood in line for an hour and a half for a free box of food from the United Way across the street and gotten a free meal coupon as well for their troubles.

New London’s mayor held a press conference soon after in the lobby of City Hall where the heads of all the city departments asserted their support for immigrants and refugees in our community. The last city council meeting was standing room only as people pushed an ordinance to keep fracking waste out of our area.

The weekend after the inauguration, my husband and I raised a flagpole on the second story porch of our house and hung a rainbow peace flag from it. I look up at it every morning waving in the breeze and I’m glad I live here, in this country, in this moment of radical upsurge and a new spirit of patriotism.

I’m talking to my neighbors. I’m going to city council meetings. I’m writing letters to the editor of our local paper. I’m taking my Sudanese neighbors grocery shopping and to the post office. I’m loaded for bear (nonviolently, of course) if anyone tries to mess with them.

My kids are the anti-Trumps. “We went to the women’s march in Hartford, Mommy,” two-year-old Madeline shouts every time she hears the word woman. She knows enough to be proud of that. “Look, Mommy! They have a flag like ours!” says four-year-old Seamus with delight whenever he sees another rainbow, even if it’s just a sticker. He’s learning to recognize our tribe of patriots.

We’re engaged, we’re awake, we’re in love, and no one is taking our country from us.

Frida Berrigan, a TomDispatch regular, writes the Little Insurrections blog for WagingNonviolence.org, is the author of It Runs In The Family: On Being Raised By Radicals and Growing Into Rebellious Motherhoodand lives in New London, Connecticut.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Feffer's dystopian novel Splinterlands, as well as Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Frida Berrigan

The Collective "Wisdom" of the U.S. Intelligence Community

CIA
Photo by iStock/Ruskpp

This piece is reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.

They call themselves the U.S. “Intelligence Community,” or the IC. If you include the office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), which in 2005 began as a crew of 12 people, including its director, and by 2008 had already grown to a staff of 1,750, there are 17 members (adding up to an alphabet soup of acronyms including the CIA, the NSA, and the DIA). The IC spends something like $70 billion of your taxpayer dollars annually, mostly in secret, hires staggering numbers of private contractors from various warrior corporations to lend a hand, sucks up communications of every sort across the planet, runs a drone air forcemonitors satellites galore, builds its agencies multi-billion-dollar headquarters and storage facilities, and does all of this, ostensibly, to provide the president and the rest of the government with the best information imaginable on what’s happening in the world and what dangers the United States faces.

Since 9/11, expansion has been the name of its game, as the leading intelligence agencies gained ever more power, prestige, and the big bucks, while wrapping themselves in an unprecedented blanket of secrecy. Typically, in the final days of the Obama administration, the National Security Agency was given yet more leeway to share the warrantless data it scoops up worldwide (including from American citizens) with ever more members of the IC.

And oh yes, in the weeks leading up to the inauguration of Donald Trump, several of those intelligence outfits found themselves in a knock-down, drag-out barroom brawl with our new tweeter-in-chief (who has begun threatening to downsize parts of the IC) over the possible Russian hacking of an American election and his relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.  In the process, they have received regular media plaudits for their crucial importance to all of us, our security and safety, along with tweeted curses from the then-president-elect.

Let me lay my own cards on the table here. Based on the relatively little we can know about the information the Intelligence Community has been delivering to the president and his people in these years, I’ve never been particularly impressed with its work. Again, given what’s available to judge from, it seems as if, despite its size, reach, money, and power, the IC has been caught “off-guard” by developments in our world with startling regularity and might be thought of as something closer to an “un-intelligence machine.” It’s always been my suspicion that, if a group of smart, out-of-the-box thinkers were let loose on purely open-source material, the U.S. government might actually end up with a far more accurate view of our world and how it works, not to speak of what dangers lie in store for us.

There’s just one problem in saying such things. In an era when the secrecy around the Intelligence Community has only grown and those leaking information from it have beenprosecuted with a fierceness unprecedented in our history, we out here in what passes for the world don’t have much of a way to judge the value of the “product” it produces.

There is, however, one modest exception to this rule. Every four years, before a newly elected president enters the Oval Office, the National Intelligence Council, or NIC, which bills itself as “the IC’s center for long-term strategic analysis,” produces just such a document. The NIC is largely staffed from the IC (evidently in significant measure from the CIA), presents “senior policymakers with coordinated views of the entire Intelligence Community, including National Intelligence Estimates,” and does other classified work of various sorts. 

Still, proudly and with some fanfare, it makes public one lengthy document quadrennially for any of us to read. Until now, that report has gone by the name of Global Trends with a futuristic year attached. The previous one, its fifth, made public just before Barack Obama’s second term in office, was Global Trends 2030. This one would have been the 2035 edition, had the NIC not decided to drop that futuristic year for what it calls fear of “false precision” (though projections of developments to 2035 are still part of the text). Instead, the sixth edition arrives as Global Trends: The Paradox of Progress, an anodyne phrase whose meaning is summarized this way: “The achievements of the industrial and information ages are shaping a world to come that is both more dangerous and richer with opportunity than ever before. Whether promise or peril prevails will turn on the choices of humankind.” According to the NIC, in producing such documents its role is to identify “key drivers and developments likely to shape world events a couple of decades into the future” for the incoming president and his people.

Think of Global Trends as another example of how the American world of intelligence has expanded in these years. Starting relatively modestly in 1997, the IC decided to go where no intelligence outfit had previously gone and plant its flag in the future. Chalk that up as a bold decision, since the future might be thought of as the most democratic as well as least penetrable of time frames. After all, any one of us is free to venture there any time we choose without either financing or staff. It’s also a place where you can’t embed spies, you can’t gather communications from across the planet, you can’t bug the phones or hack into the emails of world leaders, no drones can fly, and there are no satellite images to study or interpret. Historically, until the NIC decided to make the future its property, it had largely been left to visionaries and kooks, dreamers and sci-fi writers -- people, in short, with a penchant for thinking outside the box.

In these years, however, in the heartland of the world’s “sole superpower,” the urge to control and surveil everything grew to monumental proportions leading the IC directly into the future in the only way it knew how to do anything: monumentally. As a result, the new Global Trends boasts about the size and reach of the operation that produced it. Its team “visited more than 35 countries and one territory, soliciting ideas and feedback from over 2,500 people around the world from all walks of life.”

As its massive acknowledgements section makes clear, along with all the unnamed officials and staff who did the basic work and many people who were consulted but could not be identified, the staff talked to everyone from a former prime minister and two foreign ministers to an ambassador and a sci-fi writer, not to mention “senior officials and strategists worldwide... hundreds of natural and social scientists, thought leaders, religious figures, business and industry representatives, diplomats, development experts, and women, youth, and civil society organizations around the world.”

The NIC’s two-year intelligence voyage into a universe that, by definition, must remain unknown to us all, even made “extensive use of analytic simulations -- employing teams of experts to represent key international actors -- to explore the future trajectories for regions of the world, the international order, the security environment, and the global economy.”  In other words, to produce this unclassified report on how, according to NIC Chairman Gregory Treverton, “the NIC is thinking about the future,” it mounted a major intelligence operation that — though no figures are offered — must have cost millions of dollars.  In the hands of the IC, the future like the present is, it seems, an endlessly expensive proposition.

A Grim Future Offset By Cheer 

If you’re now thinking about tossing your Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, and Octavia Butler novels into the trash bin of history and diving into the newest Global Trends, then I’ve done you an enormous favor.  I’ve already read it for you.  And let me assure you that, unlike William Gibson’s “discovery” of cyberspace in his futuristic novel Neuromancer, the NIC’s document uncovers nothing in the future that hasn’t already been clearly identified in the present and isn’t obvious to you and just about everyone else on the planet. Perhaps Global Trends’ greatest achievement is to transform that future into a reading experience so mind-numbing that it was my own vale of tears.  A completely typical sentence: “The most powerful actors of the future will be states, groups, and individuals who can leverage material capabilities, relationships, and information in a more rapid, integrated, and adaptive mode than in generations past.”

Admittedly, every now and then you stumble across a genuinely interesting stat or fact that catches your attention (“one in every 112 persons in the world is a refugee, an internally displaced person, or an asylum seeker”) and, on rare occasions, the odd thought stops you momentarily. Generally, though, the future as imagined by the wordsmiths of the IC is a slog, a kind of living nightmare of groupthink.

Whatever quirky and original brains may be hidden in the depths of the IC, on the basis of Global Trends you would have to conclude that its collective brain, the one it assumedly offers to presidents and other officials, couldn’t be more mundane. Start with this: published on the eve of the Trumpian accession, it can’t seem to imagine anything truly new under the sun, including Donald J. Trump (who goes unmentioned in this glimpse of our future). Even as we watch our present world being upended daily, the authors of Global Trends can’t conceive of the genuine upending of much on this planet.

Perhaps that helps explain why its leadership felt so caught off-guard and discombobulated by our new president.  In him, after all, the American future is already becoming the unimaginable American present, tweet by tweet.  (And let me here express a bit of sympathy for President Trump. If Global Trends is typical of the kind of thinking and presentation that goes into the President’s Daily Brief from the Intelligence Community, then I’m not surprised that he chose to start skipping those sessions for almost anything else, including Fox and Friends and spitball fights with Meryl Streep and John Lewis.) 

As the IC imagines it, the near-future offers a relatively grim set of prospects, all transposed from obvious developments in our present moment, but each of them almost mechanistically offset by a hopeful conclusion: terrorism will undoubtedly spread and worsen (before it gets better); inequality will increase in a distinctly 1% world as anti-globalist sentiments sweep the planet and “populism,” along with more authoritarian ways of thinking, will continue to spread along with isolationist sentiments in the West (before other trends take hold); the risk of interstate conflict will increase thanks to China and Russia (even if the world will not be devastated by it); governing will grow harder globally and technology more potentially disruptive (though hope lurks close at hand); and the pressures of climate change are likely to create a more tenuous planet, short on food and especially water, and filled with the desperate and migrationally inclined (but is also likely to foster “a twenty-first-century set of common principles”).  In essence, in the view of the National Intelligence Council, for every potentially lousy news trend of the present moment projected into the future, there’s invariably a saving grace, a sense that, as the report puts it, “the same trends generating near-term risks also can create opportunities for better outcomes over the long term.” In fact, by 2028 according to one of its scenarios, we could be “entering a new era of economic growth and prosperity.”

In truth, even the grimmest version of the IC’s future seems eerily mild, given the onrushing present — from a Trumpian presidency to the recently reported reality that eight billionaires now control the same amount of wealth as the bottom 50% of the planet’s population. (Only a year ago, it took 62 billionaires to hit that mark.) According to the Engelhardt Intelligence Council, the likelihood is that we’re already entering a future far more extreme than anything the NIC and its 2,500-plus outside experts can imagine. 

The Global Trends crew seems incapable of imagining futures in which some version of the present doesn’t rule all.  Despite the global wars of the last century that leveled significant parts of the planet, the arrival of climate change as history’s possible deal-breaker, and the 9/11 attacks, disjunctures are simply not in their playbook.  As a result, their idea of futuristic extremes couldn’t be milder.  In one of the report’s three scenarios, even the surprise use of a nuclear weapon for the first time since August 9, 1945 — in a 2028 confrontation between India and Pakistan — is relieved of most of its potential punch.  The bomb goes off not over a major city, killing hundreds of thousands, but in a desert area.  And at what seems to be remarkably little cost, the shock of that single explosion miraculously brings a world of hostile powers, including the United States, China, and Russia, together in a strikingly upbeat fashion.  (By 2028, it seems that Mr. Smith has indeed gone to Washington and so, in Global Trends, “President Smith” heartwarmingly shares a Nobel Peace Prize with China’s president for the “series of confidence-building measures and arms control agreements” that followed the nuclear incident.)

I, of course, don’t have thousands of experts to consult in thinking about the future, but based on scientific work already on the record, I could still create a very different South Asian scenario, which wouldn’t exactly be a formula for uniting the planet behind a better security future.  Just imagine that one of the “tactical” nuclear weapons the Pakistani military is already evidently beginning to store at its forward military bases was put to use in response to an Indian military challenge.  Imagine, then, that it triggered not world peace, but an ongoing nuclear exchange between the two powers, each with significant arsenals of such weaponry.  The results in South Asia could be mindboggling — up to 21 million direct deaths by one estimate.  Scientists speculate, however, that the effects of such a nuclear war would not be restricted to the region, but would spark a nuclear-winter scenario globally, destroying crops across the planet and possibly leading to up to a billion deaths.

Living in an All-American World

Such grim futures are, however, not for the NIC.  Think of them as American imperial optimists and dreamers only masquerading as realists.  If you want proof of this, it’s easy enough to find in Global Trends. Here, in fact, is the most curious aspect of that document: the members of the U.S. Intelligence Community evidently can’t bear to look at the last 15 years of their own imperial history.  Instead, in taking possession of the future, they simply leave the post-9/11 American past in a roadside ditch and move on. In the future they imagine, much of that past is missing in action, including, of course, Donald J. Trump.  (As a group, they must be Clintonistas.  At least I can imagine Hillary wonkishly making her way through their document, but The Donald?  Don’t make me laugh.) 

Give them credit at least for accepting the obvious: that we will no longer be on a “unipolar planet” dominated by a single superpower, but in a world of “spheres of influence.” (“For better and worse, the emerging global landscape is drawing to a close an era of American dominance following the Cold War...”) But you can search their document in vain for the word “decline.” Forget that they were putting together their report at the very moment that the first openly declinist candidate for president was wowing crowds — who sensed that their country and their own lives were on the downhill slope — with the slogan “Make America Great Again.”

Nor were they about to take striking aspects of present-day America and project them into a truly grim future.  Take, for example, something that amused me greatly: you can search Global Trends in vain for all but the most passing reference to the U.S. military.  You know, the outfit that our recent presidents keep praising as the “finest fighting force” in world history.  Search their document top to bottom and you still won’t have the faintest idea that the U.S. military has been fighting ceaselessly in victory-less conflicts for the past 15 years, and that its “war on terror” efforts have somehow only fueled the spread of terrorist movements, while leaving behind a series of failed or failing states across the Greater Middle East and northern Africa.  None of that is projected into the future, nor is the militarization of this country (or its police), even though the retired generals now populating the new Trump administration speak directly to this very point.

Or to pick another example, how about the fact that, in a world in which a single country — the very one to which the IC belongs — garrisons the planet with hundreds of military bases from Europe to Japan, Bahrain to Afghanistan, there is but a single futuristic mention of a military base, and it’s a Chinese one to be built on a Fijian Island deep in the Pacific. (A running gag of Global Trends involves future newspaper headlines like this one from 2019: “China Buys Uninhabited Fijian Island To Build Military Base.”) What will happen to the present U.S. military framework for dominating the planet? You certainly won’t find out here.

But don’t think that the United States itself isn’t on the mind of those who produced this document. After all, among all the stresses of the decades to come, as the IC’s futurologists imagine them, there’s one key to positive national survival in 2035 and that’s what they call “resilience.” (“[T]he very same trends heightening risks in the near term can enable better outcomes over the longer term if the proliferation of power and players builds resilience to manage greater disruptions and uncertainty.”)

And which country is the most obviously resilient on Planet Earth? That’s the $100 (but not the 100 ruble or 100 yuan) question. So go ahead, guess — and if you don’t get the answer right, you’re not the reader I think you are.

Still, just in case you’re not sure, here’s how Global Trends sums the matter up:

“For example, by traditional measures of power, such as GDP, military spending, and population size, China’s share of global power is increasing. China, however, also exhibits several characteristics, such as a centralized government, political corruption, and an economy overly reliant on investment and net exports for growth — which suggest vulnerability to future shocks.

“Alternatively, the United States exhibits many of the factors associated with resilience, including decentralized governance, a diversified economy, inclusive society, large land mass, biodiversity, secure energy supplies, and global military power projection capabilities and alliances.”

So if there’s one conclusion to be drawn from the NIC’s mighty two-year dive into possible futures on a planet we still garrison and that’s wracked by wars we’re still fighting, it might be summed up this way: don’t be China, be us.

Of course, no one should be surprised by such a conclusion, since you don’t rise in the government by contrarian thinking but by going with the herd. This isn’t the sort of document you read expecting to be surprised, not when the nightmare of every bureaucracy is just that: the unexpected and unpredicted. The Washington bubble is evidently too comfortable and the world far too frightening a place to imagine a fuller range of what might be coming at us. The spooks of the NIC may be living off the money our fear sends their way, but don’t kid yourself for a second, they’re afraid too, or they could never produce a document like Global Trends: The Paradox of Progress.

As a portrait not of the future but of the anxieties of American power in a world it can’t control, this document provides the rest of us with a vivid portrait of the group of people least likely to offer us long-term security.

The last laugh here belongs to Philip K. Dick, Ursula Le Guin, and other authors of their ilk. If you want to be freed to think about the many possible futures that face us, futures that we will help create, then skip Global Trends and head for the kinds of books that might free your mind to think afresh, not bind it to a world growing more dismal by the day.

Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He is a fellow of the Nation Institute and runs TomDispatch.com. His latest book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Feffer's dystopian novel Splinterlands, as well as Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Tom Engelhardt

Fighting for the Good Life in Trumplandia

Constitution
Photo by iStock/Daniel Bendjy

This piece is reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.

Many of the folks I know are getting ready to play serious defense in 2017, and they’re not wrong. Before we take up our three-point stance on the national line of scrimmage, however, maybe we should ask ourselves not only what we’re fighting againstbut what we’re fighting forWhat kind of United States of America do we actually want? Maybe, in fact, we could start by asking: What is a country for? What should a country do? Why do people establish countries in the first place?

Playing Defense

There is, without question, much that will need defending over the next four years, so much that people fought and died for in the twentieth century, so much that is threatened by the ascendancy of Donald Trump, the white nationalist right, and the Republican Party.

The twentieth century saw the introduction of many significant laws, regulations, and — yes —entitlements: benefits to which we have a right by virtue of living in, and in many cases being citizens of, this country.

We could start earlier, but let’s begin with the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. It established the right of workers to collectively negotiate wages and working conditions with their employers and made collective bargaining the official “policy of the United States.”

This policy faces an immediate threat. Identical Republican-sponsored bills in the House and Senate would end the right of unions to require the workers they represent to pay union dues.  These bills would, in other words, reproduce at the federal level the so-called right-to-work (more accurately, right-to-starve) laws already in place in more than half the states. If — or as seems likely, when —they pass, millions of workers will face the potential loss of the power of collective bargaining and find themselves negotiating with employers as lonely individuals.

Then there was the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which guaranteed a minimum wage and overtime pay to many workers (although not, notably, those laboring in agricultural fields or inside other people’s homes — workplaces then occupied primarily by African Americans, and later by other people of color as well).

Andrew F. Puzder, Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of labor, opposes the very idea of a minimum wage. This shouldn’t be too surprising, since his current day job is as CEO of the parent company of two fast-food franchise operations, Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr.

We could mention other New Deal era victories under threat: Social Security, unemployment insurance, food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP), and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (now known as TANF for Temporary Aid to Needy Families, or more commonly simply as “welfare”), which was created to promote the wellbeing of children in families facing poverty. In the coming Trump years, we can expect predation on all these programs — from renewed efforts to “privatize” Social Security to further restrictions on welfare. Indeed, former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, Trump’s transition team point man on Social Security, is a firm believer in “privatization,” the idea that the federal government should encourage people to gamble on the stock market rather than rely on a guaranteed government pension.

The one entitlement program that will probably survive unscathed is SNAP, because its primary beneficiaries are not the people who use it to buy groceries but the giant agricultural corporations it indirectly subsidizes. It’s no accident that, unlike other entitlement programs, SNAP is administered by the Department of Agriculture.

Then there was the 1937 Housing Act, designed to provide financial support to cities so they could improve the housing stock of poor people, which eventually led to the creation of the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). In Ben Carson we are about to have a HUD secretary who, in addition to having announced that he’s not qualified to head a federal agency, doesn’t believe in the very programs HUD exists to support.

And so it goes with the victories of the second half of the twentieth century. In Jeff Sessions, for instance, we have a potential attorney general staunchly opposed to the civil and voting rights won by African Americans (and women of all races, in the case of the 1964 Civil Rights Act). In Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, we’ll have a climate-change denier and fossil-fuel advocate running the Environmental Protection Agency.

Medicare entitles — there’s that word again — older people and some with chronic illnesses to federally subsidized healthcare. Its introduction in 1965 ended the once-common newspaper and TV stories about senior citizens eating pet food because they couldn’t afford both medicine and groceries.  That program, too, will reportedly be under threat.

There’s more to defend. Take widespread access to birth control, now covered by health insurance under Obamacare. I’m old enough to remember having to pretend I was married to get a doctor to prescribe The Pill, and being grateful for the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade that guaranteed me a legal abortion, when a gynecologist told me I couldn’t conceive.  (He was wrong.) Then there are the guarantees of civil rights for LGB (if not yet T) people won in the 1990s, culminating in the astonishing 2015 Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges granting marriage rights to same-sex couples. All of this could be wiped out with a couple of Trumpian Supreme Court picks.

Nor should we forget that in addition to people’s rights, there are actual people to defend in the brave new world of Trumplandia, or at least to help defend themselves: immigrants, Muslims, African Americans — especially young black men — as well as people facing poverty and homelessness.

One potentially unexpected benefit of the coming period: so many of us are likely to be under attack in one way or another that we will recognize the need for broad-based coalitions, working at every level of society and throughout its institutions. Such groups already exist, some more developed than others. I’m thinking, for example, of United for Peace and Justice, which came together to oppose Bush-era wars and domestic policies, the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, a national coalition of community organizations led by people of color, and National People’s Action, another effective coalition of community organizations, to name just three. On the state level, there is the powerful work of the Moral Mondays project, led by the North Carolina NAACP and its president, the Reverend William J. Barber II. In my own backyard, there are the many community groups that make up San Francisco Rising and Oakland Rising.

Such multi-issue organizations can be sources of solidarity for people and groups focused on important single issues, from the Fight for Fifteen (dollars an hour minimum wage) to opposing the bizarrely-named First Amendment Defense Act, which would protect the right of proprietors of public accommodations to refuse service to people whose presence in their establishments violates “a religious belief or moral conviction that: (1) marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, or (2) sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage.”

Defense Matters, But We Need More 

As important as such defensive actions will be, we're going to need something beyond a good defense: a coherent reason why all these disparate things are worth defending. We need to be able to say why black lives, women’s lives, workers’ lives, brown and immigrant lives matter in the first place. We need a vision of a society in which not only do all people’s lives matter, but where they all have the possibility of being good lives. We need a picture of what a country is for, so that as we fight, we understand not only the horrors we oppose, but what it is we desire.

Fortunately, we don’t have to start any description of what a good human life consists of from scratch. People have been discussing the subject for at least as long as they’ve left written records, and probably far longer. In the third century BCE, for example, Aristotle proposed that the good life — happiness — consists of developing and using both our intellectual and moral capacities to the fullest possible extent across an entire lifetime. The good life meant learning and then practicing wisdom, courage, justice, and generosity — along with some lesser virtues, like being entertaining at a dinner party.

Aristotle wasn’t an idiot, however. He also knew that people need the basics of survival — food, clothing, shelter, health, and friendship — if they are to be happy. Not surprisingly, he had a distinctly limited idea about which human beings could actually achieve such happiness.  It boiled down to men of wealth who had the leisure to develop their abilities. His understanding of the good life left a lot of people, including women, slaves, and children, out of the circle of the fully human.

Although it may sound strange to twenty-first-century American ears, Aristotle also thought that the purpose of government was to help people (at least those he thought were capable of it) to live happy lives, in part by making laws that would guide them into developing the capacities crucial to that state.

Who nowadays thinks that happiness is the government’s business? Perhaps more of us should. After all, the Founding Fathers did.

“We Hold These Truths...”

Where should we who seek to defend our country against the advance of what some are now going so far as to call “fascism” enter this conversation about the purpose of government? It might make sense to take a look at a single sentence written by a group of white men, among them slaveholders, who also thought happiness was the government’s business. I’m referring, of course, to the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence. Its much-quoted second sentence reads in full:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Political philosopher Danielle Allen has pointed out that modern versions of the Declaration’s text “update” the original punctuation with a period after “happiness.” But that full stop obscures the whole point of the sentence. Not only do people self-evidently possess “unalienable” rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but the very reason we form governments in the first place is to “secure” those rights. Furthermore, when a government — rather than protecting life, liberty, and happiness — “becomes destructive” of them, we have the right to abolish it and put a better one in its place, always keeping in mind that the purpose of any new government should be to “effect” the people’s safety and happiness.

Of course, beginning any conversation with those words from the Declaration raises the obvious question: “Who’s ‘we’?” Can those of us who are women, people of color, descendants of slaves and/or slaveholders, all claim participation in that “we”? Should we want to? Allen, who describes herself as biracial and a feminist, addresses the contradictions inherent in claiming this document for our own in her valuable book Our Declaration. She concludes that we not only can, we must. There is too much at stake for us to cede equality to a white, male minority.

Life, Liberty...

What would it mean to take seriously the idea that people create governments so they can enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? What would the United States look like if that were its purpose?

Let’s start with life. It’s reasonable to think that the Declaration’s authors were following the ideas of another dead white man, John Locke, who believed that people create governments so that they don’t have to spend all their time and energy preventing other people from hurting them, or taking revenge when they’ve been hurt. Instead, people delegate this authority to governments.

But what has the U.S. government done with those delegated powers?

Over the last 15 years of what we still call the “war on terror,” Americans have been told repeatedly that we have to choose between life and liberty, between “security” and freedom. We can’t have both. Do we want to be safe from terrorists? Then we must allow mass collection of our telephone and Internet-use data. And we must create a registry of Muslims living in this country. Do we want to be safe on our streets? Then we must allow federal and state governments to keep 2.2 million people locked up and another 4.5 million on probation or parole. Ours is the largest prison population in the world, in raw numbers and in proportion to our population. Safety on the street, we’re told, also demands an increase in the amount of daily video surveillance Americans experience.  And that’s just to start down a long list of the ways our liberties have been curtailed in these years.

At the same time, successive Congresses and administrations have cut the programs that once helped sustain life in this country. Now, with the threatened repeal of Obamacare (and so the potential loss of medical insurance for at least 20 million Americans), the Republicans may literally cut off the lives of people who depend on that program for treatments that help them survive.

The preamble of the Constitution also establishes the importance of life, liberty, and happiness, with slightly different language. In it, “We the people” establish that Constitution for the following purposes:

“to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”

Is it possible that our common “defence” is not, in fact, aided by maintaining the world’s most powerful military, garrisoning the planet, and endlessly projecting power across the globe? After all, the United States is protected by an ocean off each coast and friendly countries on our northern and southern borders (although we may not always deal with them as friends should be treated). Certainly, I want my government to defend me from invading armies; on the other hand, I’m not convinced my safety is increased when the United States does the invading.

It’s useful, too, as we think about the purpose of government, to consider the idea of the “general Welfare.” This phrase implies something important: my welfare, my good life, is bound up with yours. The people established the Constitution to promote the welfare of all of us, and not of a tiny, mega-rich minority, which is now running our government. We could do worse than reclaim the importance of the general welfare, with its suggestion that it is the primary business of any decent government to promote our wellbeing.

...And the Pursuit of Happiness

Surely the definition of the good life, of happiness itself, is such a personal thing that it can’t be the subject of legislation or the object of government. Perhaps that’s true, but I’d like to introduce one more thinker here, also white, and, sadly, deceased: the political philosopher Iris Marion Young. In her Justice and the Politics of Difference, she offered a definition of a good human life. We can say, she argued, that a society is more or less a just one depending on the degree to which it satisfies basic physical needs, and equally importantly (as Aristotle also believed), “supports the institutional conditions necessary” for people to participate in self-development.  To her, that means “learning and using satisfying and expansive skills,” as well as the expression of “our experience, feelings, and perspective on social life in contexts where others can listen.” But self-development and expression, she says, are not sufficient for a good life. We also need self-determination — that is, participation in the decisions that affect our lives and how we live them.

We have much to defend, but we also should have a vision to advance. As we fight against a secretary of education who abhors public schools, we should also be fighting for the right of all of us to develop and use those “expansive and satisfying skills” — from reading and writing to creating and doing — that make life worth living. In a society with less and less demand for non-robotic workers, education will be more important than ever, not just so people can earn their livings, but also so that their lives are valuable and valued.

As we fight against an administration of generals and billionaires, we should also be fighting for a country where we are free to express ourselves in language, dress, song, and ritual, without fear of finding ourselves on a registry or all our communications in the files of a spy agency. As we fight against a president elected by a minority of voters, we fight for a country in which we can take part in the decisions that affect all aspects of our lives.

For many years I’ve opposed most of what my country stands for in the world. As a result, I often tended to see its founding documents as so many beautiful but meaningless promises spoken in our time to convince us and the world that the coups, invasions, and occupations we engaged in do represent life and liberty.

But what if we were actually to take those words at face value? Not naively, but with the bitter nuance of the black poet Langston Hughes who, recognizing both the promise and the sham, wrote:

“ O, let America be America again —   
The land that never has been yet —   
And yet must be — the land where every man is free. 
The land that’s mine — the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME — 
Who made America, 
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, 
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain, 
Must bring back our mighty dream again.”

Maybe it’s not so strange that, in these dismal times, I find my hope in a dream, now hundreds of years old, of a country dedicated to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I guess it’s time to develop those satisfying and expansive skills of thinking, organizing, and acting to bring back that mighty dream again, that dream of a land that never has been yet — but will be.


Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches in the philosophy department at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes. Her previous books include Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States and Letters from Nicaragua. 

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, John Feffer's dystopian novel Splinterlands, as well as Nick Turse’s Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2017 Rebecca Gordon

Madres De La Plaza De Mayo

Norma Elsa March
Elsa Massa (left) and Norma Vermeulen (right) march at the Plaza 25 de Mayo in Rosario.

On Thursday following Argentina’s national Flag Day, shortly after four, the plaza was quiet and the air was brisk. Few people wandered around the statues of Argentine heroes, including Manuel Belgrano and Jose de San Martín, walking their dogs and tossing bird feeder into the air for the pigeons to peck. Golden brown autumn leaves lie on the ground, blown by the wind that gently brings to life the national flag nearby.

“Madres de La Plaza de Mayo,” reads a long white banner that two men begin unraveling and then hang at the bottom of the Liberty Column. The banner also has an image of a headscarf painted with the sky-blue tone of the Argentine flag. These symbols line the walkway, circling the statues, next to footsteps that are engraved into the brick ground which mark the exact steps that the mothers have made for so long.

“40 Today the Fight Continues,” reads another banner, bright with colorful flags waving over a vast green field. The banner stretches nearly the width of the plaza, hanging between three trees.

Not yet wearing her white headscarf, one of the remaining “Madres de la Plaza de Mayo,” in Rosario, Norma Vermeulen, appeared alone in the corner of the plaza, not calling attention to herself, but rather fulfilling a personal duty she has held onto for so long.

Vermeulen, who is 86 years old now and walks with a cane clenched in her right hand, still makes it out to the plaza to march as much as she can. The white headscarf loosely laced on the back of her head symbolizes a diaper of a child who was taken by the military dictatorship. The back reads “Madres de la Plaza de Mayo Rosario,” and was originally worn so that people, including journalists, would start recognizing the mothers and informing themselves about those who disappeared during the seventies and eighties.

This particular Thursday served not only as an opportunity to recognize the mothers marching in the plaza, demanding answers about the past, but also for participants to express their displeasure towards President Mauricio Macri. Macri took office in December 2015 and made an appearance at the Flag Monument on National Flag Day, which motivated outbreaks of violence by opponents of Macri’s “Cambiemos”—“Let’s change” political coalition.

Large Perón posters made it clear on this day that those who attended stood not only by the mothers, but also against the radical group that overthrew their “Peronist” government, kidnapped their sons and daughters, and began what’s widely known as the “Dirty War.”

As a place for defending one’s beliefs, this landmark serves well—from the Liberty Column that symbolizes the defense of Buenos Aires against the Spanish on May 25, 1810, to the “Madres de la Plaza de Mayo” marches that occur today.

“La Plaza de Las Madres is a place of resistance and we’re going to continue resisting as long as we’re alive. When we die, our children and grandchildren will march,” Vermeulen said.

Some supporters are drinking yerba mate and others are holding flags above their heads as they make several rounds around the Liberty Column. The anger surrounding the president along with the celebrations that come with a community bound by mutual support makes for a mixed tone.

Soon enough, the plaza is engulfed with people. Age doesn’t matter during the march because age was never a factor to begin with. María, the daughter of Juan Domingo Salomon Donati, who was kidnapped at 33 years old, talks about her lost father while passing out fliers to educate people and tell of the impact this loss has had on her life.

“Madres de la Plaza” chants begin to ring throughout the plaza as Eduardo, one of Vermeulen’s friends who often accompanies her to the plaza, passes her the microphone.

“We’re getting back what we lost,” Vermeulen says to the men, women and children engulfing the plaza. Her eyes glisten as if trying to hold back tears of gratitude, while in an amplified, soft and crackly voice, she says, “Many thanks. You all are so loving.”

An audience erupting with chants and applause begs the question: What led to such immense support for the “Madres de la Plaza de Mayo” in the first place and how, after 31 years of marching, is Vermeulen still compelled to make it to the plaza each week? Upon entering the plaza on any given Thursday at 5 p.m., these questions may come up to those unfamiliar with these mothers’ stories.

“Where’s your son?” the police asked upon forcefully entering Norma Vermeulen’s house.

These words unsettled Vermeulen, who remembers ironing clothes that day—April 1, 1977. The police proceeded to ransack her house, stealing and destroying her personal items. They left with her 23-year-old son, Osvaldo Mario, who was never seen again.

This story, like many others beginning between 1977 and 1983, is left without a resolution. The “desaparecidos”—translated as “disappeared ones”—are estimated to be 30,000 by Amnesty International and Argentine human rights organizations. Labor workers and students may have originally been targeted but the kidnappings went beyond them, to their friends and family members—anyone who was suspected of having ideals subversive to those of the military dictatorship. They were taken to clandestine detention centers and tortured. On various occasions, the military personnel injected them with sedatives, which they claimed were routine vaccinations necessary for their transfer to a new detention center farther south, and threw their unconscious bodies from an aircraft into the Atlantic Ocean.

These death flights were a way of disposing bodies in a manner the military members deemed inconspicuous. The whereabouts of Osvaldo Mario still remain unknown, almost 40 years later.

In the Plaza 25 de Mayo, Vermeulen isn’t the only one with a story like this to tell, and she’s not quite the last “Madre de la Plaza de Mayo” in Rosario either. Her companion, a hunched-over 91-year-old woman named Elsa Massa, nicknamed Chiche—“Toy”—marches alongside her while the other two remaining Rosario mothers are living in rest homes.

“It’s a wound that can never be healed,” Massa said in a video interview with Panóptico Rosario about the disappearance of her son, Ricardo Alberto on August 26, 1977.

As they march the plaza together, it’s obvious they enjoy each other’s company. They walk slowly, smiling and talking, tracing the same steps as the footprints engraved into the ground, passing by a framed picture taken more than 10 years ago showing the two of them marching the plaza. Norma points at it and then Elsa looks and smiles.

Today, these are the only two mothers who march on Thursdays, but the amount of sons and daughters, aunts and uncles, and other family members who are still trying to recover from the actions of the military dictatorship 40 years ago is unimaginable.

With the hope of continuing the fight for answers after she and the remaining mothers are gone, Norma Vermeulen says she doesn’t want to leave people with any special legacy about what they’ve done. The “Madres de la Plaza de Mayo,” along with the sons and daughters of parents who disappeared, instead wish to instill in others these two words: “Nunca más,” — “never again.”

Malign Neglect? What Will Urban Policy Look Like Under a Trump Presidency

Ben Carson
Donald Trump's pick for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Photo by istock/Bastiaan Slabbers

As Niels Bohr, or maybe Yogi Berra, said: predicting is difficult, especially when it’s about the future. Perhaps even more so when considering Trump’s stance on urban policy — one of many issues the president-elect has never disclosed his position on, or even shown any particular interest in.

Actually, that might make prediction easier, not harder.

Why? It seems pretty clear that Trump doesn’t have much policy bandwidth; in fact, he may be the least policy-minded person to serve as president since Warren Gamaliel Harding.

What that means, I believe, is that when it comes to issues that don’t engage him on a gut level — and are not red meat to his base — he’s not likely to push any policy ideas of his own. Instead, he’s more likely to leave those issues to the Republicans in Congress, along with whichever right-wing apparatchik or mortgage lender becomes housing and urban development secretary.

That means that there’s not going to be much urban policy, period. The Republican party leadership doesn’t care much about cities, which are full of Democrats, minorities and poor people.

Programs with broad constituencies, like Community Development Block Grants and the HOME Investment Partnerships Program, will probably remain but shrink further; Low-Income Housing Tax Credits may stay under the radar and survive. After all, they’re good business.

Modest Obama initiatives like Promise Zones will disappear, and nothing will replace them. Cities have become used to getting relatively little help from the federal government to address their social and economic problems, and they will soon get even less.

Changes to housing policy are potentially more serious. The big issue is less about affordable housing — though if Congress decides to significantly reduce the number of vouchers in circulation, it could spell disaster for hundreds of thousands of struggling families — but rather with the nation’s mortgage system.

For the last decade, that system has been a makeshift hybrid of public and private actors, held together with the fiscal equivalent of duct tape. Everyone agrees that it needs to be changed. But with major policy differences separating the administration, different factions in Congress, lenders and advocates, nothing was done.

Now, that may change. Congress and the Trump administration could work together to privatize the mortgage industry, deregulate financial markets and declaw the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Those actions could further starve cities of the capital they need, reducing mortgage access for low- and middle-income urban households, and in low-price neighborhoods. A less likely but possible alternative could be a return to the worst excesses of the subprime mortgage scandal.

On the big issues that will affect cities’ futures, we shouldn’t expect much. If you start with the premise that climate change is a hoax, you’re not likely to see much point helping low-lying cities like Miami or Norfolk adapt to something that doesn’t exist.

There is, however, encouraging evidence that cities are already taking action on adaptation — even in red states where the phrase “climate change” cannot be spoken in public. Another positive sign is strong Republican interest in major infrastructure investment: Trump has called for spending $1 trillion on infrastructure over the next 10 years. Unfortunately, Trump believes that money will come from private sources incentivized with “revenue-neutral” tax credits — a strategy that is highly unlikely to succeed. Infrastructure spending may help some cities, but if it favors projects that can draw private financing, a lot more money will end up in fast-growing urban areas like Houston or Denver than in the Midwest or Northeast.

Trump talked a lot about manufacturing jobs during the campaign, which may have swung a lot of rustbelt voters to his side. Certainly, a revival of manufacturing, and thousands of new, well-paying factory jobs, would be a great boon for the cities.

The problem is — as many of the people who voted for him may sooner or later realize – it’s all smoke and mirrors. (Interestingly, a wildly unscientific poll on attn.com has 91 percent saying no to the question “do you think Donald Trump will restore manufacturing jobs?”) Sadly, those jobs are largely gone, for many and complicated reasons. Starting a trade war with China won’t bring them back.

The neglect part is pretty clear. What about the malign part? This is harder to predict, but there are some tea leaves to read. There’s an ominous line buried in the Republican platform that reads, “We expect Congress to assert, by whatever means necessary, its constitutional pre­rogatives regarding the District.” It goes on to say that Congress should pass a law “allowing law-abiding Washingtonians to own and carry firearms,” even though the citizens of the District of Columbia have voted for strict gun controls.

This is not an outlier. Other Republican-controlled statehouses — including those in Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina — have sought to impose their preferences on cities and cut back municipal powers.

A good example came from North Carolina this past spring. Buried in the bill that mandated same (biological) sex bathrooms, which got the headlines, the legislature added a zinger with huge policy implications: a law that supersedes any local effort to regulate “wage levels of employees, hours of labor, payment of earned wages, benefits, leave, or well-being of minors in the workforce”. Goodbye to city ordinances setting minimum wage, or mandating parental leave or health benefits.

I suspect we will see more of this sort of thing at the federal level. Since Congress’ ability to directly dictate city ordinances is limited (at least, outside the District of Columbia), these provisions are likely to show up as conditions of federal funding, either at the city or state level. You want federal transportation funds? Legalize concealed carry. You want federal education funds? Require same-biological-sex bathrooms, etc.

History has shown that all the talk about “less government intrusion” and “the best government is closest to the people” quickly goes out the window — one might say is trumped — by any policy agenda that stirs the passions of the Republican base.

It’s likely to be a long four years.


Alan Mallach is a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress, a US non-profit organization which focuses on urban America. He is the author of the new book “America’s Urban Future: Lessons from North of the Border”.

This post was produced in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, with support from The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation.