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Congress Is Missing in Action as Trump Escalates War in Syria Amid Russia Probe

Fri, 03/24/2017 - 21:00

Donald Trump is escalating US military operations in Syria just as Russia begins fighting in the region as well. However, the Democrats' recent efforts to paint Trump as Moscow's puppet -- while allowing the president to ramp up attacks abroad -- may have unintended consequences.  

President Donald Trump speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland on February 24, 2017. (Photo: Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

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As a House committee held the first congressional hearing on the Trump campaign's alleged ties with Russia this week, Republicans loyal to Trump tried to shift the focus to recent leaks surrounding it, as well as efforts to gather intelligence on Trump's transition team under the outgoing administration. Other conservatives are distancing themselves from Trump, perhaps in case FBI Director James Comey's investigation bares fruit. Democrats, meanwhile, took advantage of a fresh opportunity to place Trump as close to Russian President Vladimir Putin in the headlines as possible.

At the same time, in northern Syria, US warplanes and artillery units launched strikes against the Islamic State to cover for helicopters ferrying Syrian fighters and their US military advisors behind enemy lines. The operation has set the stage for a long and presumably bloody siege of Raqqa, the Islamic State's self-proclaimed capital. At least 33 people were killed when an airstrike by the US-lead coalition hit a school where civilians were hiding from the fighting, according to The Guardian. The number of US troops in Syria as grown from a couple hundred to at least 1,000 over the past few weeks.

"This represents a very serious escalation, and so far the media really isn’t reporting on it," said James Carden, the head editor for the American Committee for East-West Accord. Carden describes the group, a committee of academics, business leaders and former dignitaries, as essentially "pro-détente."

The US has launched hundreds of deadly airstrikes in Syria, Iraq and Yemen in recent months, but putting boots on the ground in Syria signals a new level of participation in a war that Russia is also fighting. The Syrian government's ambassador to the United Nations claimed recent US military actions constitute an "illegitimate" invasion.

Russia entered the conflict in 2011 to defend Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad against rebel uprisings that were initially supported by the Obama administration, but Russia and the US have found a common enemy in the Islamic State during the ensuing years of violence and chaos. The US and Russian militaries are operating close to one another in Syria -- sometimes too close for comfort -- but they have not agreed to work together, although Trump has entertained the idea.

"You have a dangerous situation in Syria, where the [US and Russia] are operating in close proximity. Also, you also have a situation in the Baltics and the Ukraine, where the Russians and NATO troops are also nose to nose," Carden said. "This is an exceedingly dangerous moment."

Anti-War Congress Members Challenge Escalation

A handful of progressive Democrats and one Republican in Congress are demanding a halt to the military escalation in Syria. They introduced legislation this week that would prohibit the Defense Department from putting more boots on the ground without congressional approval. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California) issued a statement declaring that the "executive branch has waged endless war in the Middle East with no meaningful oversight from Congress." President Trump's "decision to drag us deeper into this quagmire," she said, "endangers our troops and long-term national security."

Lee and her antiwar allies made a few headlines, but most of the news media and the rest of Congress couldn't be bothered. Under the Constitution, only Congress has the power to declare war -- but Congress has not made such a declaration since World War II, despite the multiple wars the US has fought since then. As demonstrated by former President George W. Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq, war powers have migrated alarmingly toward the executive branch, while Congress repeatedly signs blank checks to keep the wars going.

As for the current executive branch, Trump seems to remain certain that he can do and say whatever he wants, despite his rather public habit of ignoring basic facts. As he told Time magazine this week, "I'm the president, and you're not."

Members of Carden's organization include former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Jeff Matlock, one of the last US ambassadors to the Soviet Union, along with a number of academics and a few corporate CEOs. The group says cooperative efforts between the US and Russia over arms control and nuclear nonproliferation have been deteriorating since 2014, when western powers began a face-off with Russia over the future of the Ukraine. Now, they are "deeply concerned" about a new and "potentially even more dangerous" Cold War with Russia, and the current goings-on in Washington are not making them feel any better.

Carden and Stephen F. Cohen, a member of the committee and professor of Russian Studies at New York University and Princeton, are spreading their message in the pages of The Nation, where Cohen is a contributing editor. They warn that "neo-McCarthyism" threatens a longstanding détente with Russia, and war could be the result. Carden likened the House intelligence committee's hearing on the FBI to "political theater" for a partisan audience and urged lawmakers to address the situation in Syria instead.

Putin has proven his views to be in line with those of Trump and Trump's allies in a number of ways. His oligarchic practices, dismal human rights record, and policies attacking the rights of women, LGBT people and Muslims -- not to mention his recent endorsement of Marine Le Pen for the French presidency -- have demonstrated as much.

However, many have jumped to the conclusion that Putin is directly to blame for Trump's presidency (and thus, his extreme right-wing agenda and xenophobic crackdown Muslims and immigrants), placing a laser focus on Russia during this precarious time.

The results of the FBI's counterintelligence investigation remain important to many. Voters want to know whether Trump operatives colluded with the Russians during the election, and whether there is hard evidence that DNC email accounts were indeed hacked by Putin's cyber henchmen -- rather than leaked from the inside, as some analysts have suggested. Yet there's no full consensus on how these allegations should be approached.  Some critics are calling for an independent investigation.

Will Democrats Hammer Trump on Ethics?

Others wonder why -- given Trump's ludicrous and harmful behavior on many fronts -- leading Democrats have made Russia their focus. Ethics advocates have provided plenty of ammunition to undermine the White House, but efforts to hold Trump accountable for ethics violations have fallen by the wayside.

Last month, activist attorneys laid out their case for impeaching Trump, arguing that a long list of Trump's business interests violate the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which prohibits the president from receiving "gifts" and other benefits from foreign countries. All Congress needs to do, they said, is take their argument and run with it. In January, legal advocacy organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a lawsuit against Trump on similar grounds after he refused to completely divest from his business holdings.

"So, the rule is that [the president] can’t take payment from a foreign government, and the biggest tenant in Trump Tower is a Chinese bank owned by a foreign government," said CREW spokesman Jordan Libowitz, referring to one of Trump's several alleged violations of the emoluments clause. "That's an undeniable thing that is happening right now -- the Chinese government is renting space from Donald Trump."

On March 8, CREW and other watchdog groups asked Pareet Bharara, then a star US Attorney in New York, to investigate the allegations made in the complaint. Trump abruptly asked Bharara to resign two days later -- but Bharara wouldn't budge, forcing the president to fire him. Reports indicate that the president had originally asked Bharara (who had been appointed by former President Barack Obama) to stay in the position, but Trump changed his mind within days.

Trump's conflicts of interest continue to make headlines, but Democrats have not taken decisive action on this front. Perhaps leading Democrats don't think CREW has a strong enough case against Trump, and casting the president as a Cold War traitor is a better way to dismantle his credibility and clog up Congress so the Republican majority can't advance its legislative agenda. Maybe the Democrats are simply looking to amass all the ammo they can get, and they will return to Trump's business holdings if Comey's investigation of the Trump campaign comes up cold.

However, while politicians in Washington place their bets on Trump's alleged Russia connections, our soldiers are on the ground in war-torn Syria, with US and Russian warplanes sharing the skies overhead. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whose career as an oil baron brought him close to Russia, forced NATO to reschedule a meeting because he planned to skip it and meet with China and the Russians instead. In the vacuum left by the Obama administration, which -- while vocally criticizing Russia's gruesome human rights record -- quietly sought to cooperate with Moscow on efforts like nuclear nonproliferation, there is no coherent policy towards Russia emerging in Washington.

What we do know is that the US is still at war in the Middle East, where the language of our foreign policy is violence. Unfortunately, most of our leaders would rather talk about anything else. 

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16-Year-Old's Death After Coerced Meth Ingestion Underscores Violence of Immigration System

Thu, 03/23/2017 - 21:00

ICE has a long and sordid history of abusing migrants in detention. Under ICE's jurisdiction, migrants face sexual assault, torture and even death. (Photo: Todd Heisler / The New York Times)

ICE agents coerced 16-year-old Cruz Marcelino Velázquez Acevedo into drinking the amber-colored liquid he was carrying, which caused him to succumb to violent convulsions and die. Migrants frequently face torture and sexual assault under ICE jurisdiction -- sometimes resulting in death -- but only one out of 142 complaints has resulted in (less-than-adequate) disciplinary action against an agent.

ICE has a long and sordid history of abusing migrants in detention. Under ICE's jurisdiction, migrants face sexual assault, torture and even death. (Photo: Todd Heisler / The New York Times)

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In November of 2013, US Border patrol agents pulled aside 16-year-old Cruz Marcelino Velázquez Acevedo for questioning around a suspected illicit substance in his possession. He didn’t survive the exchange.

While in federal custody, Acevedo stated that the substance in question was apple juice. The agents, unconvinced, coerced the teen into drinking the liquid. Acevedo succumbed to violent convulsions and died two hours later. A test kit, readily available on the premises, would have confirmed the contents as liquid meth within three minutes.

Following a settlement reached this week by his family, Acevedo has been portrayed in the media as a "foreign drug dealer." We know little about his motivations: It is well documented that cartels employ intimidation tactics to rope in unwilling smugglers, and it is possible that Acevedo, who had no prior record, was coerced in this way. However, what led him to have meth in his possession is ultimately immaterial. ICE's haste to portray Acevedo as a "dangerous" drug trafficker skirts the issue of ICE's own culpability: Neither of the officers was disciplined, and both remain on the force today.

Acevedo's death is not an isolated incident: Terror of this sort is enacted on immigrant communities as a matter of routine. ICE has a long and sordid history of abusing migrants in detention. Under ICE's jurisdiction, migrants face sexual assaulttorture and even death. ICE is also aggressive in its cruelty toward those making the journey across the border, often disrupting humanitarian aid efforts to distribute water and condemning migrants to their deaths in the unforgiving terrain. However, within the system, there is little impetus to halt these abuses: Of 142 complaints against ICE compiled by the ACLU, only one resulted in disciplinary action -- a one-day suspension.

Immigration enforcement officials pay little regard to extenuating circumstances: Migrants are often quite literally deported to their deaths. Guidelines around asylum claims are highly restrictive, and barely a third of the claims are approved. Cases not benefitting from international recognition -- the Central American gang crisis is a particularly violent example -- are not taken seriously. Demonstrating that one is in danger is not enough: Immigration courts have more often than not refused to recognize forced gang recruitment as grounds for asylum.

These practices prove deadly. Countless migrants have been murdered upon their return to their home countries, some within days of their return. Moreover, we must recognize that the bloodshed these migrants are fleeing can largely be traced back to US policies over the past few decades. US intervention has created a migrant crisis spanning generations. We funded and trained paramilitary death squads that unleashed terror upon civilians in El Salvador and Honduras. We overthrew democratically elected governments in Guatemala and Chile and imposed regimes more friendly to US business interests. We sent gang members back to the very power vacuums we created: They now operate with impunity, and membership has grown tenfold. And we still have the gall to turn away those who flee our bloodshed.

Then there is the quiet, everyday violence of deportation. Families across the US are torn apart, and children of deportees bear lasting scars. Deportation is a traumatic experience for all involved, and children of deportees suffer high rates of anxiety and PTSD. Families report fear of venturing outside their homes following a raid, leading to even deeper social isolation. They also face high rates of economic and housing instability, as family income plunges after a parent’s deportation: An Urban Institute study of immigration raid sites found that income drops an average of 70 percent following the arrest of an undocumented parent.

Migrants in detention suffer greatly as well -- even those who are not subject to the kinds of extreme abuse that killed Acevedo. They routinely experience depression, feelings of helplessness and suicidal thoughts. Those in detention are given little to no information about their status. As Clara Long, researcher at Human Rights Watch notes: “They have no idea when they will be released, and they are terrified to be deported back to places where they could be killed, raped or otherwise harmed.”

It is crucial to bear in mind that -- even when we are considering individual cases of extreme violence -- the violence of immigration enforcement, detention and deportation cannot be pinned down to individual agents. Structural violence does not require individual racists in order to reproduce racial inequality.

Cruz Marcelino Velázquez Acevedo suffered needlessly at the hands of cruel and wrathful immigration agents. But kinder enforcers won’t help when racism is fundamentally embedded into these institutions.

US immigration policy is a matter of life and death.

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The Urgency of Addressing the Rise of Racist Hate Speech in K-12 Schools

Thu, 03/23/2017 - 21:00

For months, Micah Speed, a 15-year-old African-American student at Wake Forest High School in Wake County, North Carolina, turned the other cheek as a white classmate hurled racist insults at him.

As the classmate repeatedly called him the N-word, told him he looked like he bathed in coffee beans and dirt, and said he should name his future children "Convict" and "Crackhead," Speed did not lash out. But on March 2, after the student showed Speed a video of him firing a shotgun and told him to imagine he was shooting at Speed and his family, months of degradation culminated in a physical altercation when Speed confronted his tormentor in the school hallway.

As was documented in a video that went viral, Speed approached his bully from behind, dragged him to the ground by his book bag, then walked away. "You fucking Black piece of shit," the bully responded -- prompting Speed to drag him to the ground again more forcefully.

Speed was initially given a 10-day suspension while his tormentor was not reprimanded at all. But after students at the school launched a protest and walkout in Speed's defense and an online petition supporting him garnered nearly 40,000 signatures, the school cut his suspension in half.

Speed's case stands out because he confronted his bully. But many other students also face racist torment. When the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) following the 2016 election in their report "The Trump Effect",  they found that the largest portion of such incidents -- over 300 -- occurred on university campuses or in K-12 schools.

They include someone etching "kill the [N-words]" on the wall of a high school bathroom in Tennessee, and a middle school student in Virginia telling a classmate of Middle Eastern descent that he hated Muslims.

SPLC's post-election survey, which garnered responses from over 10,000 teachers, counselors, administrators, and other school officials, found that four in 10 educators heard derogatory language directed at minority students.

In Georgia, one teacher reported that students were making jokes about Hispanic classmates going back to Mexico. An elementary school teacher in the same state said that in her 21 years of teaching it was the first time she's heard a student call a classmate the N-word.

Then last week, another video of racist cruelty by students in Wake County, North Carolina, went viral. This time it was of three Leesville Middle School students at an off-campus location chanting "KKK" and making racist remarks about Blacks, Jews, Arabs and Latinos. "Go back to the fields of Alabama," they said. "Go back to the factories in Mississippi. You don't deserve freedom." The eighth-grade students were each given a three-day suspension.

At North Cobb High School in Atlanta, a student was also suspended for three days last week  for comments on social media that referenced "exterminating all [N-words]." Last Friday, more than 10 percent of the school's students skipped class out of fear that the suspended student would return and carry out the threats.

The Long-Term Effects of Racist Bullying

Students of color are not only at risk from physical violence by racist bullies: Studies have found that struggling to adapt to racist environments can also be harmful to students' health -- and even deadly.

In a 2015 study examining Black students and mental health, Ebony McGhee and David Stovall described what they call "weathering" -- the phenomenon characterized by long-term "physical, mental, emotional, and physiological effects of racism and living in a society characterized by white dominance and privilege."

Weathering can lead to a host of psychological and physical ailments, including heart disease, diabetes, and accelerated aging, they observed. Further, they discussed how the concept of "racial battle fatigue" and how exposure to racism and discrimination on campuses and the time and energy African-American students expend to battle stereotypes can lead to harmful psychological and physiological stress.

Having to constantly deal with toxic stress and micro aggressions can also be a risk factor for suicide, research has found. There are concerns that this could be behind the rising suicide rates among Black teens.

The 2016 election and the racist harassment it has unleashed is only adding to Black students' stress. For example, the SPLC report on post-election bullying documented a spike in suicidal thoughts among affected students.

"In a 24-hour period, I completed two suicide assessments and two threat of violence assessments for middle school students," reported one middle school counselor in Florida, who said that in the week after the election students were threatening violence against their African-American classmates. "Students were suicidal and without hope."

SPLC's report included recommendations to help educators deal with the problem, including doubling down on anti-bullying strategies. "Not everyone has to be a superhero," the report said, "but everyone can be an ally and an upstander."

Meanwhile, a local NAACP chapter in Wake County is calling for a meeting with schools Superintendent Jim Merrill to address the altercation between Speed and his bullying classmate and the racially-charged video made by the Leesville students.

"We must send a strong message that this behavior is unacceptable" said Gerald Givens Jr. of the Raleigh-Apex NAACP.

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Attorney for "Frozen Trucker": Neil Gorsuch May Have Been Most Hostile Judge I've Ever Encountered

Thu, 03/23/2017 - 21:00

As confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch wrap up and Senate Democrats vow to filibuster his nomination, we look at Gorsuch's ruling in a case known as the "frozen trucker." Truck driver Alphonse Maddin was fired after he disobeyed a supervisor and abandoned the trailer that he was driving, because he was on the verge of freezing to death. We speak with Robert Fetter, the attorney who represented Maddin in his wrongful termination lawsuit.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, which wrapped up Thursday on Capitol Hill as Senate Democrats vowed to filibuster his nomination. This is Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER: The Supreme Court matters a great, great deal. It matters for workers, who want to protect both their lives and their jobs; for employees, who need to be able to seek redress for discrimination; for parents, who want their kids to get a fair shake in the education system. It is with all this in mind that I have come to a decision about the current nominee. After careful deliberation, I have concluded that I cannot support Judge Neil Gorsuch's nomination to the Supreme Court. His nomination will have a cloture vote. He will have to earn 60 votes for confirmation. My vote will be no, and I urge my colleagues to do the same.

AMY GOODMAN: Senate rules require 60 votes to break a filibuster, meaning Gorsuch would have to earn the support of eight Democrats to overcome the Democratic effort to block his nomination. In return, Republicans have threatened to activate the so-called nuclear option of eliminating the filibuster entirely for Supreme Court nominations.

Throughout this week's four days of hearings, one of the most contentious issues was Gorsuch's ruling in a case known as the "frozen trucker." The case involves truck driver Alphonse Maddin, who was fired after he disobeyed a supervisor and abandoned his tractor-trailer that he was driving, because he was on the verge of freezing to death. This is Maddin speaking at a recent event in Washington, DC.

ALPHONSE MADDIN: In January of 2009, I was working as a commercial truck driver for TransAm Trucking Incorporated of Olathe, Kansas. I was hauling a load of meat through the state of Illinois. After stopping to resolve a discrepancy in the location to refuel, the brakes on the trailer froze. I contacted my employer, and they arranged for a repair unit to come to my location. I expected that help would arrive within an hour.

I awoke three hours later to discover that I could not feel my feet, my skin was burning and cracking, my speech was slurred, and I was having trouble breathing. The temperature that night was roughly 27 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. The heater in the cabin was not producing heat, and the temperature gauge in the truck was reading minus-7 degrees below zero. After informing my employer of my physical condition, they responded by telling me to simply hang in there.

As I sat there physically suffering in the cold, I started having thoughts that I was going to die. My physical condition was fading rapidly. I decided to try to detach the trailer from the truck and drive to safety. When I stepped out of the truck, I was concerned that I may fall, because I was on the verge of passing out. I feared that if I fell, I would not have the strength to stand up, and would die. I walked to the back of the trailer to place a lock on the cargo doors. The distance that I walked to the back of the trailer seemed like an eternity, as my feet absolutely had no feeling at all.

I eventually was able to detach the tractor from the trailer. Before I left, I called my employer to notify them that I had decided to head for shelter. And they ordered me to either drag the trailer or stay put. In my opinion, clearly, their cargo was more important than my life. My employer fired me for disobeying their orders. And I'd like to make it clear that although I detached the tractor from the trailer, I returned, and I completed my job. And I was still fired.

OK, I disputed my termination from TransAm Trucking and ultimately won. This was a seven-year battle. Seven different judges heard my case. One of those judges found against me. That judge was Neil Gorsuch.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Alphonse Maddin. For more, we're joined by Maddin's attorney in his wrongful termination lawsuit. Robert Fetter is a labor lawyer. He joins us from Detroit, Michigan.

Bob, welcome to Democracy Now! This is an astounding case. This happened in 2009. As Alphonse Maddin said, this case was heard by seven judges. Only one ruled against him, and that judge was the current Supreme Court nominee, Judge Gorsuch. Can you explain the course that this case took?

ROBERT FETTER: Yeah. Thanks for having me on. This case goes through an administrative proceeding through the Department of Labor. That's where it starts initially, through an investigation of the Department of Labor, then to a trial before an administrative law judge. The company had appealed our victory at trial to the Administrative Review Board, which found unanimously in our favor. They then appealed to the 10th Circuit, because the trucking company is headquartered in Kansas, which is in the 10th Circuit. And we were assigned a three-judge panel, which included Judge Gorsuch.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what happened there. The DOL, when he was in the Department of Labor, there were three judges. They all ruled in his favor, that he would -- he could be reinstated and get back pay?

ROBERT FETTER: Yeah, the initial judge, who was the trial judge, ruled in his favor. And then the three-judge panel at the Administrative Review Board all ruled in his favor. And two of the three judges on the 10th Circuit ruled in his favor. It seemed like it was a relatively uncomplicated legal issue, up until it got to Judge Gorsuch.

AMY GOODMAN: So, describe that day. You were there in court. When was it? Describe the scene in the courtroom.

ROBERT FETTER: Well, in January of 2016, I traveled from Detroit to Denver to oral -- to oral argument before the 10th Circuit. When you appear, you appear all at one time with several cases, and you all get called when your turn comes up. We happened to be the last one of that morning session. And I was watching the judges, because it's all the same three-judge panel, as to what their demeanor was. And I looked with particular interest with Judge Gorsuch, because I knew he was a very conservative judge. And I watched in most of these cases, which were uncontroversial, and he was seemingly either disinterested or pleasant to the attorneys. But it seemed like that was a stark change when our case was called. Judge Gorsuch was incredibly hostile. As attorneys on appellate panels, you have some judges that are hostile. And I've litigated many cases in appellate courts. And he -- that stood out, because he may have been the most hostile judge I've ever appeared before. In fact, it came back to me, interestingly, when I watched Senator Franken's questioning of Judge Gorsuch, which some described as hostile. But that's a similar type of tone that Judge Gorsuch took with me when I was arguing Mr. Maddin's case.

AMY GOODMAN: You were there with --

ROBERT FETTER: I did not get a --

AMY GOODMAN: You were there with another lawyer, right? From the DOL? You shared the time that you had?

ROBERT FETTER: That's right. Because the DOL, at that level, once it gets to the 10th Circuit, is actually the party. It was TransAm Trucking v. DOL. I intervened to represent the interests of Mr. Maddin in that case, so I had to split the time with the Department of Labor attorney. I believe there was 20 minutes; we each had 10 minutes. Judge Gorsuch was so hostile to the Department of Labor attorney that in the middle of a question, that Department of Labor attorney essentially conceded the rest of his time to me, indicated that, you know, "I've agreed to split my time with Mr. Fetter, and he'll answer that question, and he can have the rest of my time." It was so difficult on that Department of Labor attorney, from Judge Gorsuch, that he essentially gave up time that he had in the oral argument, which, as attorneys, on appellate time, you have such little time, you don't -- you don't normally give it up.

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Trump's Austerity Budget Increases Military Recruiters' Power to Prey on Youth

Thu, 03/23/2017 - 21:00

As the government pulls funds from social programs to beef up the military, youth in neighborhoods devastated by the cuts become even more vulnerable to military recruiters who feed on desperation. Peace activist and former soldier Rory Fanning talks about the important role veterans can play in disrupting this cycle.

Rory Fanning speaks in Japan on a Veterans for Peace trip in 2016. (Photo: Yoshiaki Kawakami)

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Since election night 2016, the streets of the US have rung with resistance. People all over the country have woken up with the conviction that they must do something to fight inequality in all its forms. But many are wondering what it is they can do. In this ongoing "Interviews for Resistance" series, experienced organizers, troublemakers and thinkers share their insights on what works, what doesn't, what has changed and what is still the same. Today's interview is the 23rd in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

Donald Trump's budget slashes social programs while inflating an already massive military budget, meaning that for many people in already underserved and underemployed communities, the military will be the closest thing to a welfare state they have.

Today we bring you a conversation with Rory Fanning, a veteran and conscientious objector, and author of the book Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger's Journey Out of the Military and Across America. His work centers on opposing US militarism at home. He is also the coauthor, with Craig Hodges, of the new book Long Shot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter. He lives in Chicago, which has become ground zero for military recruiting in the country, and often speaks at high schools there. "There are more kids signed up in Chicago JROTC and NJROTC than any other school district in the country; ten thousand kids: 50 percent Latino and 45 percent Black," he told me. We spoke about opposing Trump's military buildup, the roles that veterans and athletes can play in movements for change, and the long tradition of imperialism in the US.

Sarah Jaffe: We will circle back, certainly, to talk about military recruiting, but because we are in the wake of Donald Trump's first quasi-budget (and it has a lot of cuts to social programs in order to put all of this money into the military), I wanted to talk to you about the role the military plays in this right-wing nationalist political buildup and how people can resist that.

Rory Fanning: I think it is important first to note that this request by this budget, particularly through defense, is not unprecedented. It really only takes us back to 2011 numbers when they kind of set a cap on military spending. But Obama asked for $700 billion for defense in 2012. I think Trump is asking for $600 billion, which is an increase of $56 billion over the previous year. It is still more military spending than the next thirteen countries combined. One of the most alarming things about this budget is the number of active-duty Army troops that are going to be increased. It is going to go from 475,000 to about 540,000 at a time when there is really no existential threat to the United States. It is kind of ridiculous. I think that is just going to mean more intense recruiting in the most vulnerable communities in the US.

Obviously, when we are talking about the proposal to Make America Great Again, the military is seen as a key component of it. Talk about the role of this recruiting in communities of color and what kind of flawed promises are being made to people if they join.

You don't see this kind of recruiting out in the suburbs. I have spoken at high schools out in the suburbs and I have spoken at high schools in the inner city, and these recruiters ... know kids in poverty-stricken areas have less options after graduation. They know that paying for college is more difficult in poverty-stricken areas. So, they go there and promise kids education. They promise them leadership skills. They promise them discipline and structure. These programs are seen largely as positive in [many] school districts because of the lack of jobs and opportunities.

So there really is [minimal] pushback against these recruiters. There are ten thousand recruiters stalking the hallways, working with a $700 million advertising budget each year, to say nothing of the movies and the video games. It is next to impossible to offer a counternarrative....

In terms of when you are talking to high school students, what are some of the arguments that you make to counter this narrative?

I go in there first and foremost knowing that they are going to do what they are going to do regardless of what I tell them. I just try to plant a few seeds. I don't go in there and finger wag and say, "Don't join the military." I emphasize the importance of critical thinking -- right now, in the present, in high school and also if they do decide to go ahead and join the military....

The politics are completely detached from the mission in the military by design. It is about the person to your right and left. It is not about unending trillion-dollar wars. It is really brought down into the very micro levels of the day-to-day. I just ask them to think broader if they do decide to join up for the military. I communicate the fact that there is nothing worse than killing somebody for a cause that you don't understand.... It is almost maybe even better to lose your own life or get injured yourself as opposed to taking somebody's life who is innocent.

Their experience with the military [often] doesn't go further than movies and video games. [Many] say, "How much is the military like 'Call of Duty?'" (a popular first-person shooter game). I'll say, "Do you hear babies and moms crying when they watch people die in front of them, innocent people die in front of them?" "No, not really" is their answer. "Are the majority of the people you kill in 'Call of Duty' innocent?" "No, not really." "Is there torture in 'Call of Duty'?" "No, not really." "Can you turn off 'Call of Duty'?" "Yes." "Well, you can't really turn off war after you have been there."

I cite some statistics. There are 40,000 homeless US veterans, people who just can't get their minds straight after seeing what they saw overseas, can't get reintegrated into society because they have lost parts of themselves that can never be recovered. It is important to highlight some of that stuff.

And Trump's budget does not -- as far as I know -- increase programs to take care of people when they get back from war, right?

Well, once you sign up for the military, you are kind of a piece of equipment. You are not good to anybody after. You are just a drag on the system after you have left the military. There are hundreds of millions of dollars every year ... dedicated to veteran services. It is a huge drain on the system, the medical care of returning veterans. It is far from adequate. But, yes, as far as specifically -- I think he talks and pretends like he is going to, but as we know, what he says and what he does are completely different things.

Rory Fanning sits in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick at a Chicago Cubs baseball game in 2016. (Photo: Courtesy of Rory Fanning) We are talking about a budget that pulls funds from social programs to beef up the military and then recruits its new soldiers from communities that are being devastated by those cuts. Then, when people come home from serving, they are facing further cuts and a lack of a social safety net. The military ... sort of steps in and replaces an actual universal welfare state. What does it look like to actually make these connections and say, "What we are doing here is building this up at the expense of taking care of people?"

Recognize that people do the best with the information they have access to, and most people think that the US is fighting for freedom and democracy around the world and they sign up with very good intentions. I think a lot of people are disillusioned by what they actually see when they are overseas.... There is very little space for veterans to come back and tell their stories. There is a lot of patting on the back at sporting events and concerts and whatnot, but as far as actual space to hear the realities of war, there are next to none. Unless you have a very positive take on the last 15 years, people don't ask you to talk.

I think [there are] upwards of 50,000 war resisters who signed up for the military since 2001. So, there is a huge number of people that have had negative experiences that we could draw from.... I think the potential for veterans who come back to become positive influences in the fight against exploitation and oppression is really high. Reaching out to veterans to organize and to call out injustices that they see is high. Communicating with veterans is really important.

Yes, we have seen that several times in the last year. In particular I am thinking about the veterans going to Standing Rock and the way that, in particular, they used at least the lip service reverence that this country gives to veterans to really make a powerful political point.

Yes, absolutely. There is a lot of leverage in conversations when you are a veteran as to what is and isn't necessarily good for society, right or wrong. I think that is overblown on a lot of levels, but the whole Veterans for Kaepernick response, you saw that trending on Twitter. I think veterans are very sensitive to the fact that this largely is not a free country. There are more people in prison than any other country in the world per capita. The majority of [them are] Black and Latino.

When you sign up, allegedly, to fight for freedom and democracy and you see nothing of that kind being practiced here in the US, with the mass surveillance and the reach of agencies like the National Security Agency, etc., this is not what you put your life on the line for. When I see someone like Colin Kaepernick refusing to put his hand over his heart and stand for the national anthem, I think people who have actually sacrificed for freedom and democracy really respond well to that in a lot of ways.

There is a lot of history around that, particularly around returning Black veterans getting involved in the Civil Rights Movement. A lot of leaders from that movement had been people who served overseas and were told they were fighting for freedom and equality against a racist regime only to come back to Jim Crow America.

Absolutely. You are seeing veterans getting deported here in the US under Trump's new policies. It doesn't matter if they went overseas and fought two or three times. There is a case here in Chicago of a veteran who had been to Afghanistan twice, had a drug conviction 10 years ago and now is basically suing not to be deported and is requiring intervention from a Senator. Yes, there is a lot of hypocrisy in the system.

That reminds me, the DREAM Act, which never ended up getting passed, was partly for college students, but it was also for people who joined the military -- which in itself is an incentive for people to join.

Right. So many of these kids who came here when they were like eight years old or whatever, they sign up for the military thinking they are set. "OK, I don't have anything to worry about as far as my residency in the United States is concerned." Trump is showing that certainly is not the case and it is certainly not supporting the troops or supporting the veterans.

You were one of the people, the veterans sitting with Kaepernick at the Cubs game, right? For people who are reading this or listening who are veterans, do you have advice for them on how to use that moral authority? I think you have done it in a few moments. Also, I am thinking about the big Chicago protest against Trump on the campaign trail where he ultimately never ended up speaking.

Yes, I think the best advice is to find a group or an organization. Even if you are a veteran, it is way easier to stand up against something if you have a lot of people with you. I am a member of Veterans for Peace. Iraq Veterans Against the War exists. But, all of these groups need to be strengthened. We're at a lull in the anti-war movement, despite the fact that we are engaged in wars in seven countries right now. I think gathering together with other like-minded veterans is really important to recognizing your leverage as a veteran to be heard....

We were talking about Colin Kaepernick. You have a new book out with a fairly well-known athlete. I wanted to ask you about that book and about the role that professional athletes can play in social movements.

Yes, that is one of the reasons I was sensitive to what was happening to Colin Kaepernick, because people were saying that Colin Kaepernick was spoiled and he didn't appreciate what he was given and he was a coward for not respecting the flag. I found his case to be the complete opposite of that because I realized by working with Craig Hodges, who was black-balled by the NBA for demanding the league do more to fight racism, economic inequality. Not just the NBA, but also the president of the United States when he visited George Bush, Sr., after his second championship. He called on power, essentially, to do more to fight these problems in our society and he lost everything as a result.

I saw Colin Kaepernick subject himself to the same fate, potentially. We are seeing NFL owners turn their back on Kaepernick now as he is out in the market trying to get acquired by a team. A lot of what is happening to Kaepernick now happened to Craig Hodges. He lost, potentially, millions of dollars standing up for justice. But, he also recognized that he had a platform that could be heard. He realized that the people in his community weren't going to have the opportunity to have a microphone, or the New York Times interview you, or visit the White House, so he wanted to make the most out of it because he felt like he owed, not just his community, but his ancestors who came to this country as slaves and were subject to exploitation and oppression for the last couple hundred years. For him to just acquire all of these things and not acknowledge that, it just didn't sit well with him.

One thing that Craig and Colin Kaepernick have the same is they both understand history very well and they are connected to history. People like Michael Jordan are often criticized for not speaking up when they had the platform. Craig is actually pretty sympathetic to people like Jordan saying, "He just was very disconnected from his history. Of course, he experienced racism as a kid, but he didn't know how to really articulate his situation in this country that is all about personal responsibility and everybody is a clean slate." But, Craig, because he was so interested in people's history, the history of his people, recognized injustice when he saw it. I think Colin Kaepernick does the same thing, is similar.

Anything else that you are paying attention to right now that we should talk about?

The issues with crumbling infrastructure and the fact that it is going to take about $4.5 trillion to repair all the bridges, all the pipes, all the roads, all the failing infrastructure in this country. We spend about $1 trillion a year on our military; if we took just a percentage of that, we would have completely new infrastructure in this country. This failing infrastructure is a far greater threat than any terrorism here in the US. I think the odds of you dying in a terrorist attack are one in twenty-five million, but the odds of dying in a car crash in Mississippi are one in two thousand. I am writing an article on it now.

If a terrorist attack happened in this country or if we provoked Iran into some kind of war, I think the justification for further crackdowns on minorities in this country would be absolutely suffocating. I think it is important that people stay vigilant, pushing back against militarism as much as they can. We just don't want to; ideally not respond to, the next war that this administration seems hell-bent on pursuing. We already came extremely close to a war with Iran when Secretary of Defense Matthis was about to board an Iranian ship looking for weapons headed toward Yemen. I just think it is important to be as vigilant as possible right now against how this administration would respond to a terrorist attack or they could lead us into another war. If we were to go to war against Iran, I think there would be devastating consequences.

I know the anti-war movement is kind of still at a lull, but if we can connect the huge movements around the Women's March, the Day Without Immigrants, and all that kind of stuff to anti-imperialist/antimilitarist actions, I think we would be better for it.

A lot of people say, "Having 800 military bases around the world is a deterrent. Having 7,700 nuclear weapons is a deterrent." But, it can also be seen as provocation. Another country is only going to feel the need to amp up its own military as a result of the US amping up its [own]. If there was a collective disarmament, there is a retraction of these bases that are just draining our budgets ... I just think all of that stuff has to be connected. Then, if you are going to spend another $56 billion a year on the military each year, there is going to be overflow into police departments because the military doesn't need any more of these weapons. So, "Well, they already exist. Just give them to the police." And in such a pro-police administration, you can only assume that they are going to become even more militarized and target the most vulnerable.

It was interesting, because the NYPD is currently angry because Trump's budget cuts their personal antiterrorism funding in order to put more money into military.

If all you have is a hammer, everything becomes a nail.

How can people keep up with you then?

I am usually on Facebook more than I am on Twitter. If they would like to invite me to their school, they can just reach out to me on either of those two things. I am constantly looking to talk to more high schools and colleges, wanting to give these kids the full story, because if [military recruiting] is already predatory, it is just going to be on steroids with this administration, the pressures of sending kids overseas to fight wars for billionaires.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and concision. Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Categories: Latest News

Paul Ryan as Punchline: The Impending Failure of the AHCA

Thu, 03/23/2017 - 21:00

House Speaker Paul Ryan discusses the proposed American Health Care Act at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 9, 2017. (Photo: Gabriella Demczuk / The New York Times)

Guy walks into a bar. Second guy ducks.

This is, far and away, the worst "Guy walks into a bar" joke in the history of the franchise. Makes "A million ducks…" and "The twelve-inch pianist…" seem Shakespearean by comparison. Somehow, though, it still manages to amuse on a gutter slapstick level; a dude getting racked in the noodle is never not funny, and his friend avoiding the same fate just makes it complete.

It's even funnier when you see it in real life.

The story in brief: House Speaker Paul Ryan chose yesterday, the seventh anniversary of the signing of the Affordable Care Act into law, to be the day when congressional Republicans, along with President Trump, finally fulfilled their long-running promise to repeal Obamacare. The American Health Care Act, brainchild of Speaker Ryan, was ready to take the stage and rescue us all.

There were some flies in the ointment, to be sure. The bill as it stood, according to CBO scoring, would immediately strip millions of their health insurance. It was a massive tax cut for rich people. It would obliterate Medicaid as we've known it. It would deliver a deep and profound injustice to children and old people of every stripe, and would further do a big number on the same rural poor people who elected Donald Trump in the first place. The latest Quinnipiac poll shows a galloping 17 percent approval for the AHCA, a number that is sure to dwindle once more people find out just how much rat meat is in the stew.

Speaker Ryan's prescription for the pain? Speed. Get the thing passed and punted out of the House, let the Senate finish painting the corners, drop it on Donald's desk for a signature, and they can all lean back and say, "Look, see? We keep our promises." He spent Wednesday and the first part of Thursday delivering a one-man pep rally -- "this will pass, this will pass, it is the best thing ever …" -- until DONK, he walked into a bar called the House Freedom Caucus, and everything fell apart. Just before 4pm on Thursday, Ryan was forced to make the humiliating announcement: No vote today.

You gotta love those Freedom Caucus dudes. It's not often one gets to see actual ultra-conservative caricatures come to life, wear ties and say things to cameras in the Capitol Rotunda. What they were saying, more than anything else, was "No" to the AHCA, but not for any normal human reasons. It did not bother them that the bill was cruel; what bothered them was that it wasn't cruel enough.

In order to meet the approval of the Freedom Caucus, the drafters of the AHCA needed to agree to remove, among other things, what are called "essential benefits" which would be available to everyone. Among these are maternity and newborn care, emergency room services, laboratory services and pediatric services. Babies, mothers, seriously injured people and finding out what's wrong … no big deal, right? One Freedom Caucus member allegedly wanted to hold out for a provision that would allow him to stab you in the knee once a week, but this was deemed a bridge too far.

So now there's a Ryan-shaped dent in the wall at Freedom Caucus headquarters. Ryan's friend, the president, had the wherewithal to duck: "President Trump delivered an ultimatum to House Republicans on Thursday night: Vote to approve the measure to overhaul the nation’s health-care system on the House floor Friday, or reject it and the president will move on to his other legislative priorities." Trump is pissed at his own staffers, pissed at the Speaker's office, pissed at the Freedom Caucus, and just basically pissed … but he's not holding the bag on this one. This is Ryan's fudge, and he gets to cook it all by his lonesome.

Word has it the arm-twisting on the AHCA continues unabated, and a new vote will be called this afternoon. This space will be updated as circumstances warrant, but I wouldn't expect any surprises. People tend to jump off sinking ships, not jump on, and the longer this thing lingers more than a dozen votes short of passage, the more likely it is the defections will increase.

The fact is, it doesn't much matter. The bill could pass; introduce enough arms to enough torque and you can pass practically anything. But the truth of the matter is Ryan could offer up a recipe for bean dip and get it passed, and it would still be dead on arrival in the Senate. However you choose to slice it, the anti-Obamacare "revolution" has proven to be a truly spectacular failure.

Speaking of the Senate, it should be noted that Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer has signaled his party's intent to filibuster the Gorsuch nomination. Such an action would require Senate Republicans to find 60 votes to pass him -- they currently have 52 -- or radically rewrite the filibuster rules to do away with that 60-vote threshold. It's been a long time since Congress was this wild, and I don't mean that in a good way. Millions of lives are in the balance here. That being said, take a moment and consider where we stand. It takes a magical amount of failure to turn the threat of a filibustered Supreme Court nominee into back-page news, but Paul Ryan and the Freedom Caucus have managed to do exactly that.

Heard any good jokes lately?

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Categories: Latest News

Empire Files: The Sikh Experience in the US

Thu, 03/23/2017 - 21:00

People of the Sikh faith, commonly mistaken for both Muslims and Hindus, are frequent targets of bigoted hate crimes -- in fact, the first victim of post-9/11 hate crimes was a Sikh man. In 2016, attacks against Muslims -- and people perceived to be Muslims, in particular Sikhs -- has reached an all-time high. 

With 70% of Americans not able to properly identify the Sikh community, Abby Martin visits a place of worship to learn about their experience in the United States and who they are as a people. 

Promoting respect and understanding of this religious and cultural tradition, The Empire Files profiles this minority community with a long and rich history in America, and explores the roots of anti-Sikh racism with Georgetown Professor and civil rights attorney Arjun Singh Sethi (@arjunsethi81) .

Categories: Latest News

Trumping Trump and Howling at the Moonves

Thu, 03/23/2017 - 21:00

Les Moonves cannot lose … and he knows it. The all-too-well compensated CEO of CBS said as much back in late February of 2016. The Bataan Death March of presidential campaigns had finally kicked into high gear and a month-long barrage of primaries, caucuses and televised debates portended just the sort of never-ending story-line that makes a media mogul's dreams come true.

The man at the center of that long, pitched battle for the hearts and mindlessness of the American people was none other than future Reality-Star-in-Chief and all-around good for business-man President Donald J. Trump. His starring role in the daily melodrama also known as "The race for the White House" had Les leaping over the moon with financial excitement.

Moonves was so effusive that, in a fit of gleeful honesty, the titular head of America's number one network told the denizens of a Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference in San Francisco that Trump's candidacy "may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS."

At the time, Moonves was just pondering all the advertising dollars that would inevitably pile up on the way to a profitable political train-wreck. And Les was right. Train-wrecks may make for bad politics and even worse policy, but boy-oh-boy … do they ever make for great television!

In fact, televising train-wrecks, car crashes or any kind of contentious conflict is a sure-fire way to goad world-weary audiences into rubbernecking. In this age of low-overhead/high-drama reality programming, it's also the cheapest and easiest way to pile up cash on a corporate media balance sheet.

And no doubt, Moonves could see early on that Trump would pile it higher and deeper than anyone who'd come before him. As the Hollywood Reporter detailed, Les wanted a lot more. He hoped the "circus" full of "bomb throwing" would continue all the way through the campaign. And why not?

In 2012, the Obama vs. Romney match-up generated nearly $900 million on television ads. With the Clintons' infamous fundraising machine kicking into high gear and a billionaire businessman crashing the other party, Les was understandably forecasting a contest that would make it rain like never before.

As Moonves noted, "The money's rolling in and this is fun." He went on to say, "I've never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It's a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going."

That's exactly what Donald did. He kept it going all the way to the White House. And the ever-prescient Moonves -- who retroactively dismissed his gleeful honesty as a "joke" shortly after video emerged of Trump touting his penchant for grabbing a woman's genitals -- would not be disappointed by the reality star's hit political psychodrama.

But really, Les was only halfway right. Although Trump's GOP opponents would spend millions on their way to ignominious defeat, Les hadn't foreseen the bigger picture that came into focus when Trump squared off with Hillary. Ironically, Les and the media he so fully embodies were about to be recast in a whole new reality show.

Reality Bites

What Les didn't yet know back in February of 2016 was that the profligate trend-line of recent campaigns was about to be broken. Political ad spending would not be the full story … or even the main story … of 2016.

Actually, combined spending by the two campaigns was down. According to a post-mortem by Reuters, Trump dished out a mere "$107 million on advertising, including television ads." A report by analytics firm Borrell Associates found that the overall Trump campaign "spent around 34% less" than Mitt Romney did in 2012. That year, Romney dropped a cool $1 billion, which nearly matched the $1.1 billion spent by President Barack Obama. But in 2016, Trump and pro-Trump groups raised about $600 million and he was almost as likely to use that money to reimburse his own companies as he was to buy advertising.

Although Hillary Clinton spent nearly as much as the Obama campaign did in 2012, many broadcasters found that early predictions of "the most expensive race ever" kinda fell flat. And that drop -- which has been attributed in no small part to Trump's "unconventional campaign" -- turned into a significant financial pinch for smaller networks of local stations that rely on revenue from political ads every two and four years. The bottom line is that the well-heeled half of the Two-Party system simply didn't deliver't deliver on broadcasters' champagne wishes or their caviar dreams.

On the other hand, analytics firm mediaQuaint found that Trump scored a staggering $4.96 billion worth of "free" media. That's all the non-stop coverage, the constant kibitzing of the blatherati, the hours upon hours of live rallies, the one-on-one interviews, the Sunday show call-ins and everything else that transformed the campaign into a 24-hour version of TrumpTV.

Hillary Clinton got her share of freebies, too. But her $3.24 billion worth of gifted gab could not compete with the trump card Donald played in the middle of nearly every news cycle. Trump's tendentiousness, his relentless tweeting and his campaign's increasingly pugilistic attitude toward the press recast the contest.

Throughout a nearly 18 month-long process, the media and Trump switched back and forth between playing the role of bête noir and conquering hero. It was pure television gold that literally programmed itself.

And that's where Trump truly flipped the script … not just on the political establishment, but on the way the media would interact with and cover both his campaign and, sadly, cover his nascent presidency.

Flipping Out

Until the 2016 election, the media business (local stations, regional networks, medium-sized station groups, cable news channels and the big four broadcasters) reliably reaped a bi-annual windfall from the hundreds of millions of dollars in political advertising they packed into the commercial breaks in-between their programming. The two-year election cycle was good. The presidential cycle was way better. But Trump changed the paradigm.

This time, the coverage became the political commercial and the political commercial became the programming. Simply put, Trump's bloviating, bombastic style translated into ratings. And those ratings translated into dollars that could be earned by charging more for the ads in-between the coverage.

So, while Hillary and anti-Trump groups were flooding the commercial breaks with hundreds of millions of dollars in ad buys, Trump's freebie coverage was raising the price of all advertising by keeping eyeballs glued to the boob tube. Perhaps even more importantly, the same free media that both served Trump's political campaign and, thanks to his power to hold audiences, the value of ad time … also essentially rescued the cable news industry's flaccid business model.

Quite frankly, the cable news business was on the rocks before Trump. But Pew Research noted that 2015 (the start of Trump's long march) was the first time the industry saw primetime viewer growth after three years of decline. Daytime viewership grew, too.  Pew also found that ad revenue grew a bit for the major networks, but cable news saw a much-needed 10 percent increase in both ad and subscriber revenue.

So, just imagine the revenue that poured in during 2016 when FOX News topped ESPN as the most watched basic cable network. The Trump effect produced a 36 percent spike that gave FOX News an "average of 2,475,000 viewers in primetime." It also sparked CNN's 77 percent rise in viewership (from 732,000 to 1,298,000) and MSNBC's audience grew by 87% (from 596,000 to 1,113,000)," according to year-end numbers reported by IndieWire.

Amazingly enough, CNN didn't even rank in the top ten of all cable networks in 2015. But thanks to Trump's eye-grabbing impact, CNN went from the 24th to the 10th most-viewed network and MSNBC went from 29th to 12th on Deadline's cable ranking list.

And all of those numbers can ultimately be attributed to Trump. He turned boring political coverage into an egg-laying golden goose. And the unctuous media's substantial investment in "free" time paid some big dividends.

As Adweek reported, "the election resulted in big ad revenue bumps" with CNN notching a 57.8 percent jump, MSBNC an increase of 47.9 percent and Fox News bringing up the rear with a respectable 25.7 percent rise in ad income.

Overall, political advertising in 2016 reached a record high of $9.8 billion spent on everything from local races for dog catcher all the way up to the Presidency. It was a respectable rise of 4.6 percent from 2012, but rise in digital media spending meant "broadcast television turned out to be the big loser of the cycle," according to Mashable.

Broadcasting's "commanding 58-percent market share in 2012" slipped by 13 percentage points in 2016. And in spite of Moonves's early optimism, CBS saw a 6 percent drop in viewership. Still, they led all comers with an average 8.8 million viewers. Yet, for some reason Les is still bullish on Trump.

Why? Well, Moonves once again let the proverbial cat out of his cash-filled bag. And he did it at yet another bank-hosted media confab. This time, Les opined at the Deutsche Bank Media, Internet and Telecom Conference.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, Moonves is comforted by strong advertising and a strong balance sheet, but it's Trump's presidency that has him thinking even bigger.  At a conference ironically hosted by one of Trump's biggest creditors, Moonves "signaled his approval of the Trump administration's deregulatory agenda, which could allow the network to buy up more TV stations and get more revenue from retransmission consent fees."

That's right. The guy at the center of the monomaniacal coverage Moonves touted during the campaign is the selfsame guy Moonves is now banking on to deliver yet more media deregulation.

If nothing else, it is newsworthy to note that more media deregulation is even possible after the one-two punch delivered by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Apparently, there is still more to monopolize, which is why Les is willing to put aside Trump's supposed war with the media to make peace with Trump's deconstructive agenda.

As he said, "Obviously, there is a lot of information coming out of Washington and although we are not the enemy of the people, we welcome the deregulations that are going on there."

So Les's golden opportunism -- which got him into a bit of hot water after his "bad for America means good for CBS" quip -- is about to pay even more dividends. And that's despite the fact that more isn't exactly what Les … or the media … really needs.

Bark at the Moonves

Moonves was recently named "the most overpaid CEO on the S&P 500"… and for good reason. As the head of CBS, Moonves enjoys one of corporate America's best compensation packages. According to the last SEC filing, CBS lavished Les with a staggering pay package totaling $56.8 million for the 2015. That was actually down a little bit from 2014. As Variety duly noted, that year he brought home a cool "$57.2 million, including a $25 million bonus and $25 million in stock awards and options."

By comparison, Jamie Dimon of JPMorgan Chase garnered a "paltry" $27 million for 2015 … and, as the New York Times explained, that was a 35 percent increase over the previous year's sum. Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs came in just below Dimon with $23 million in 2015. And then there's Bank of America CEO Brian T. Moynihan. He "earned" $16 million for his role atop one of the nation's biggest banks.

Sure, that's a lot of coin for running a bank. But it doesn't quite compare to Moonves or the pharaoh-like compensation packages given to the small group of people who sit atop the media pyramid. Deadline noted that in 2015, the top seven "chiefs collectively made $283.8 million" and they followed Moonves all the way to the bank.

Here they are in descending order: Philippe Dauman of Viacom ($54.2 million), Bob Iger of Disney ($44.9 million), Brian Roberts of Comcast ($36.2 million), David Zaslav of Discovery Communications ($32.4 million), Jeffrey Bewkes of Time Warner, ($31.5 million) and last, but in many ways the least of all, Rupert Murdoch of Fox ($27.9 million).

So, the takeaway here is that the lowest paid of the top media dogs (Murdoch) actually made more than one of banking's biggest wigs (Dimon). In other words, the banksters who are so widely regarded as the poster boys for America's ever-widening wealth and income gaps actually pale in comparison to the television titans who lord over the vast majority of the Fourth Estate. But that's not the whole picture.

Some of the "news" media's biggest on-air talents garner salaries that approach the territory of the banksters so many Americans love to hate. Business Insider tallied the totals and Matt Lauer of NBC makes $20 million, Bill O'Reilly of FOX News makes $18 million to $20 million, Shepard Smith pulls $10 million, boyish George Stephanopoulos tallies $10 million, Anderson Cooper "earns" somewhere between $9 million to $11 million and former Fox star and Trump antagonist Megyn Kelly is going to take home between $15 million and $20 million from her new gig with NBC, according to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

So, what does any of this have to do with the price of tea in China?

It's a good question. The problem is that we'll never find out the price of tea in China … or anything else, for that matter … by turning on what now passes for "the news" on television. That's because the television news media -- which has long since seen its coverage whittled down as investigative units were culled, international bureaus where shuttered and even regional bureaus were amalgamated into ever-more sparsely populated offices housed in four or five of the biggest media markets -- just got it's great programming chief of all time. They essentially "hired" President Donald J. Trump to run their shops.

Just think of the $4.96 billion in free media that helped Trump get elected as an industry-wide investment in a four-year long reality show. It was non-stop Trump during the campaign. It was non-stop Trump during the transition. It's been non-stop Trump since the inauguration.

And the permanent campaign Steve "Apocalypse Soon" Bannon obviously wants to run is made sustainable by the self-reinforcing feedback loop Trump and the media first created during the campaign. Basically, the permanent campaign is here and it is far too juicy of a role for the media to turn it down.

Television News Made Easy

Remember when Trump was down in the polls and speculation about his post-election play had him starting his own network? The popular rumor was that he was positioning himself to start a venture with former FOX News Svengali and fellow sexual predator Roger Ailes. Oddly enough, Trump didn't lose nor did he have to start his own network. Instead, he just took over the entire news media by lassoing them into the ultimate feedback loop.

We know that Trump is a voracious consumer of the media. And we know that Trump's number one priority is to see himself being covered by the media. He's also a disciple of professional wrestling. And as a reality showman, he knows exactly how to drum up ratings and interest with conflict.

Remember the rubbernecking power of train-wrecks that had Moonves so happy during the campaign? Well, Trump has slammed that train into the White House. He's made the media his villain and since they oblige by covering him at nearly the exclusion of all else, Trump keeps on having good reasons to respond to the media's relentless coverage. And then they lavish coverage on his response to their coverage … and so the next cycle begins. Basically, the news cycle gets a ready-made story each time he peddles his irresistible brand of reality showmanship.

In other words, Trump isn't just good for ratings … he's television news made easy. He makes morning editorial meetings easy. He makes allocating resources -- like reporters and camera crews and field producers -- easy. Sometimes he even gets up in the wee hours to tweet out the forthcoming day's agenda.

And he doesn't just like to talk, but he almost always says something. Heck, he'll literally say anything. Each of the somethings and anythings he says are instantly news, even if they eventually turn out to be nothing. In fact, if something turns out to be nothing … that's almost the biggest news of all.

And Trump's willingness to turning the news into a dumpster fire also makes life atop a television network very, very easy. Whether you run a cable news channel or one of the big four behemoths, Trump has injected a level of cost certainty into the surprisingly profitable news business. They know exactly what the primary focus of their incessant coverage will be … so long as Trump keeps on shuttling between the White House and his golf course at Mar-a-Lago.

So long as Sean Spicer takes the podium. So long as Congress has to respond to the latest dust-up. Whatever comes up inside the bubble, they've got it covered. They've got the infrastructure in place. Their DC bureaus are, unlike almost everywhere else in America and the world, well-stocked with producers, reporters, photographers and editors. And New York can still be the center of their universe … one that turns on the axis of the Acela corridor.

Opportunity Costs

With TrumpTV pre-programming almost every single minute of every day's coverage, there's no need to worry about sending reporters around the world or around America to cover expensive stories that require hiring people and buying satellite time and booking travel and paying for insurance.

There's no need to go to Afghanistan to report on America's longest war (newsflash for the media: It's still going). There's no need to go to Yemen to chronicle America's escalating involvement. No need to trace the impact of bombs that America sold the Saudis that the Saudis, in turn, dropped on a funeral. Let the BBC do that. They've got reporters who do that sorta thing, anyway. And why bother following-up on the story of the women and children who saw other women and children killed in Trump's first military misadventure?

Why go there … when they've got Trump right here, right now. And why send a reporter to Baghdad when she can just go check Twitter?

Instead, they can ignore the crisis at Fukushima. They can ignore the tragic plight of the Rohingya who are being brutally "ethnically cleansed" by Chevron's partners in the government of Myanmar. They can ignore a looming famine around the Horn of Africa. They can ignore the cycle of massacre and exhumation that bedevils the Mexican people just across the border. And they can incessantly talk about Russia without ever spending a dime to send reporters to Moscow or St. Petersburg or Crimea to actually do some actual interviews with actual Russians and find out what it is actually like to live in Putin's Russia.

Instead, the media has turned over the programming of news to Trump. It's just too cheap and too easy. That's why Fox Business channel basically converted to TrumpTV. Why not? Business news is probably all about the "Trump Rally" or his faux jobs deals, anyway. And despite a recent suggestion by NBC's Chuck Todd that his network reopen a bureau in Denver so they might better cover those parts of America outside the Acela Corridor, the media has a huge financial incentive to stay in TrumpTV's low overhead lane.

But what if NBC heeded Chuck's call and took $5 million off Matt Lauer's salary and $5 million of Megyn Kelly's salary and hired ten reporters to crisscross America in search of stories that have nothing to do with Trump? Or what if they spent the combined ten million bucks to produce daily reports from one of America's wars? Does anyone think any of those high-priced on-air presenters would walk away from television if they only made $5 million per year? Or $2 million per year?

And what if Les Moonves could get by on $25 million per year? Heck, the extra $31.8 million bucks could probably open ten new bureaus here and around the world. And how many reporters, producers and camera crews could be deployed with just half of the $283.8 million made by the top seven media moguls?

Alas, unlike the Moonves' dream of a perpetually contentious campaign, that just ain't gonna happen. Not when the real masters of the universe -- the obscenely compensated captains of the media industry -- can get it coming and going.

To wit, the Hollywood Reporter noted, "Moonves … said Trump's ubiquity during his early days in the White House was giving a ratings bump to late night CBS shows like Stephen Colbert's Late Show." Yup, not only is TrumpTV programming the news division, but it's also helping stoke the entertainment division.

Les went on to say without a hint of irony, "Obviously Stephen is a big social commentator and the things that are going on in the country with the president … people want to see social commentary, they don't want to see fun and games."

And maybe that's all the people can expect -- a little biting social commentary to help us laugh at the absurdity they've helped create. The people certainly shouldn't expect Les or his profiteering peers to invest much in actual news … not when the fun and games of TrumpTV means everyone in the media can be a winner no matter the outcome of Trump's presidency.

Really, if the bottom line is their only bottom line … they literally cannot lose.

Categories: Latest News

Losing Home

Thu, 03/23/2017 - 21:00

As is true in many Native communities around the world, the Quinault have borne witness to the marked signs of climate change over the past century. In Taholah -- which is home to some 825 people -- these signs are becoming increasingly impossible to ignore.

Fawn Sharp grew up in Taholah village, a small community on the Quinault Reservation nestled between the mouth of the Quinault River and the Pacific Ocean. She spent her childhood summers surrounded by water, splashing in Lake Quinault on the eastern edge of the reservation, and hiking along the local beaches near the village, scouring the rocks for starfish and other treasures. In the mornings, she was often up before the sun, out fishing with her grandparents on the river.

The Quinault have borne witness to the marked signs of climate change over the past century. In Taholah – which is home to some 825 people – these signs are becoming increasingly impossible to ignore. (Photo: Larry Workman)

Decades after she left home for college, Sharp is back on the reservation, this time living near the lake, some 35 miles from her childhood home in Taholah. Now she goes by President Sharp, and leads both the Quinault Indian Nation and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians.

Since returning, Sharp has faced the kinds of tough issues that might have seemed outlandish, or even inconceivable, during her childhood. She's seen the tribe's salmon runs in sharp decline. She's observed the rapid retreat of nearby glaciers. And she's watched her childhood home, Taholah, endure dangerous flooding during increasingly harsh storm surges.

Given the growing threat that climate change poses to the "lower village," as tribal members refer to the lower portion of Taholah, paired with ongoing concerns about the village's vulnerability to earthquakes and tsunamis, Sharp and the Quinault leadership were forced to make an almost unthinkable decision: to leave home.

The Quinault have lived on the Olympic Peninsula for centuries, since long before the 1855 Quinault River Treaty established the Quinault Reservation and ceded vast tracts of lands to Washington State. The reservation is wedged between the towering mountains and dense temperate rainforest of Olympic National Park to the east and beaches and oceans to the west. It's bisected by the swift Quinault River, and is home to black bear, Roosevelt elk, and bald eagles. The tribe's ties to the land are strong. As it proudly claims on its website: "We are among the small number of Americans who can walk the same beaches, paddle the same waters, and hunt the same lands our ancestors did centuries ago."

Traditional canoes arrive at Point Grenville, near Taholah, as part of an annual inter-tribal festival celebrating Native history, culture, and tradition. For many tribes, losing home can also mean losing touch with vital cultural and spiritual practices. (Photo: Kris Krüg)

As is true in many Native communities around the world, the Quinault have borne witness to the marked signs of climate change over the past century. In Taholah -- which is home to some 825 people -- these signs are becoming increasingly impossible to ignore.

Globally, the twenty-first century has seen 16 of the hottest 17 years on record. In the Pacific Northwest, average air temperatures, which rose only 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit between 1895 and 2014, are expected to increase another 3 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Heavy rainfall events have increased in frequency, snowfall has decreased, and glaciers have pulled back, retreating deep into Washington's mountains. The Anderson Glacier, for example, which historically fed the Quinault River, shrank by 90 percent between 1927 and 2009. And as overall precipitation decreases and glaciers shrink, stream flows are also declining.

Impacts extend to the coastline as well. According to moderate projections, ocean temperatures along Washington's Pacific coast are predicted to increase by 2 degrees Fahrenheit by the 2040s. Sea level rise, influenced by a range of factors -- including warming water temperatures and melting ice sheets -- is difficult to predict, but NOAA's latest report, released in January, projects that the world's oceans will rise between one and eight feet by 2100, a significant increase above previous estimates, which will lead to more frequent and stronger high tides and storm surges.

These projections are more than just numbers for tribes in the Pacific Northwest. A November 2016 report from the 20 member tribes of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission lays out the extraordinary implications climate change has for Native communities. For these peoples, whose cultures and livelihoods developed around water and marine resources, a warmer future means declining fish runs, shrinking shellfish populations, loss of water supplies, and loss of opportunity to participate in traditional cultural activities, not to mention the disappearance of the land they have lived on for generations. As they note in the report: "Virtually all of the resources and activities that our treaties protect -- fishing, gathering, and hunting -- are impacted by the effects of climate change."

Taholah has already gotten a glimpse of this warmer future and the threats it poses to tribal culture, resources, and well-being. The signs of climate change became apparent on the reservation at least a decade ago when the Quinault River's endemic blueback salmon runs declined sharply to a fraction of their historical numbers. The shrinking population could be traced in large part to the loss of the Anderson Glacier, which resulted in lower and warmer stream flows and more sediment in the river. A lack of blueback (a type of sockeye) meant a depleted source of both food and income for the tribe.

Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation, is helping the tribe navigate the challenging process of relocating lower Taholah. (Photo: Larry Workman)This devastating reality spurred the tribe to take action to protect the salmon. "We undertook the first phases of the blueback restoration efforts back in 2006 and 2007 around trying to preserve our sockeye," says Sharp. Not long after, the "Quinault Nation started to adopt various climate change polices in order to contend with a declining species that is central to our culture and identity as Quinault people."

Shortly after that, Sharp was forced to declare multiple states of emergencies in the village because of increasingly frequent flooding of the lower portion of Taholah. One of these emergencies occurred in 2014 when waves breached the village's three-meter-high seawall, constructed in the 1970s. The Army Corps of Engineers partnered with the tribe to help rebuild the wall later that year, but flooding concerns emerged again in 2015 and the village was partially evacuated.

As Sharp puts it, "The Quinault Nation has become the front line -- ground zero if you will -- in dealing with climate change." And though the tribe had already begun considering relocation years earlier, the 2014 flood was a final straw of sorts, after which the Quinault hired a team to help manage the village's move to higher ground.

Though Native communities have themselves done very little to contribute to the causes of climate change, worldwide they are among those impacted first and worst by global warming. They are also often uniquely positioned to recognize the early signs of changing environmental patterns and weather given their proximity to, and deep connections with, the lands they live on.

"You're talking about communities that have been in place for generations, and live off the land and the waters, and they are seeing and experiencing the changes first and foremost," says Julie Maldonado, an environmental studies lecturer at University of California, Santa Barbara who specializes in environmental vulnerability and displacement of Indigenous peoples. "That relationship that they have, that long-term monitoring process, and that long-term knowledge they have of a place … they can see and understand and experience what is going on."

It should, therefore, come as no surprise that Taholah isn't the only Native community taking a proactive stance in the face of inevitable climate changes. In the Pacific Northwest alone, several other tribes are mounting relocation efforts, and many more are developing climate adaptation plans to build resiliency and prepare for rising temperatures on their reservations.

The Hoh, who have a small reservation north of the Quinault on the Olympic Peninsula, the arm that juts out of the northwest corner of Washington State, have struggled with increasingly frequent flooding as well as loss of land to erosion. They are in the early stages of moving their tribal village, which is home to about 130 people. The Quileute, located even farther north up the Peninsula, are also at risk from rising sea levels, and are also planning a move. Farther inland, the Sauk-Suiattle tribe, whose housing and infrastructure along the Sauk River is vulnerable to erosion and flooding, are, too, in the early stages of relocation planning.

Native communities beyond the Pacific Northwest, some of which face even more urgent climate dangers, are undertaking similar efforts. In Alaska, which is warming two to three times faster than the lower 50 states, the Army Corps of Engineers and Government Accountability Office have identified at least 31 villages facing imminent risk from climate change due to coastline erosion or flooding. So far, three Native communities -- Kivalina, Shishmaref, and Newtok -- have voted to move. In Louisiana, one of the US states most vulnerable to rising sea levels, the Isle de Jean Charles band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw plans to resettle farther inland. The community of about 60 people, which has lost roughly 98 percent of its lands since the 1950s, is the first Native community to receive federal funds to move.

Many other Native communities are adapting in place, at least for now. The University of Oregon's collaborative Tribal Climate Change Project lists nearly 30 tribes that have adopted climate adaptation plans of some sort. The majority of these are tribes are in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska -- 8 and 14 respectively -- but the effort extends across the continent.

Historical loss of land places practical limitations on where tribes can move to get out of harm's way.

The Red Lake Band of Chippewa in Minnesota, for example, have an adaptation plan emphasizing protection of water and forest resources. The Navajo Nation -- which reaches into Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah -- has conducted a vulnerability assessment of important wildlife and plant species that will provide a foundation for future adaptation work. And the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes in present-day Montana have developed a preliminary climate adaptation plan that integrates traditional knowledge and prioritizes cultural interests.

Moving an entire community is a monumental undertaking, riddled with complicated decisions and institutional barriers. To start, there's the issue of where to move. Ninety percent of the Hoh reservation is in a flood zone, and both Hoh and Quinault lands are especially vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis. Historically, the Quinault were semi-nomadic -- they used to have villages up and down the Quinault River and would move between them as necessary for hunting, gathering, and safety. With the colonization of North America, however, Native people were forced into much smaller areas, and "given" reservations on a fraction of their historical territory. This loss of land has not only compromised many of their cultural and spiritual practices, it now also places very practical limitations on where tribes can move to get out of harm's way.

Because land within reservation boundaries may not offer safe or desirable alternatives for relocation, tribes often must acquire new land. That is no small task, though several tribes in the Pacific Northwest have done so. The Quinault have acquired 120 acres adjacent to their current reservation, and a land exchange for an additional 80 acres is currently making its way through the US Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Sauk-Suiattle bought land about eight miles from their reservation, also with relocation in mind, and the Quileute tribe has been transferred 785 acres within Olympic National Park, land that it had ceded to the federal government in 1855.

The Hoh, too, have purchased several parcels of land to the east of their reservation from timber and railroad companies. The tribe has not, however, made big strides on relocation work since then, and according to Melvinjohn Ashue, vice chairman of the Hoh Tribal Council, there's a relatively straightforward reason for the delay: lack of funds.

Talk to any of the tribes, or to the academics and allies working with them about the challenges of adaptation planning and they are likely to put money at the top of the list. Relocation carries a steep price tag -- the Quinault tribe estimates that their move could cost as much as $400 million when all is said and done. Yet, "There is no federal program to support tribal relocations," Maldonado says, "or for that matter, other community relocations, and Native communities are among the poorest in the country."

That's not to say there's no funding -- limited federal funds have been made available for relocation planning. The Isle de Jean Charles band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw made headlines last year when the tribe was awarded $48 million from the Department of Housing and Urban Development for their inland resettlement. This award, however, was a one-time grant, made as part of HUD's $1 billion Natural Disaster Resiliency Competition, to a tribe that has already faced especially extreme land loss.

In general, funding for these efforts is ad hoc, and tribes must apply for assistance through various government programs. The US Environmental Protection Agency, for example, offers Tribal General Assistance Program Grants, which can be used to develop climate change adaptation plans. The Quinault have used funds from a Social and Economic Strategies grant from the Administration for Native Americans to hire three planners to coordinate their relocation effort. And the Army Corp of Engineers has several different programs through which it can work with tribes. All of these partnership mechanisms, however, require some type of cost-share agreement.

"A lot of times tribes don't have the resources to be able to partner with us," explains Lori Morris, tribal liaison with the US Army Corps' Seattle District, which is currently working with both the Quileute and Hoh tribes. "So we have to be kind of creative in how we get their cost-share paid for and assist them with that."

Other Native communities have been forced to think outside the box. In 2008, Kivalina, a small Native village of Inupiat Inuit that scientists estimate could be underwater by 2025, sued 22 energy companies for $400 million to help with a relocation effort, arguing they were responsible for the impacts of climate change. The village lost its final appeal for the case in 2012. More recently, in early January, Newtok -- another tiny community in western Alaska -- asked the federal government to declare climate impacts in the region, which include erosion and melting permafrost, as an official disaster. The tribe has selected a site for a new village nine miles away, and such a declaration would unlock federal funds for the relocation. The request was a long-shot from the beginning. Now, with Donald Trump in the Oval Office, it seems even less likely to be granted.

Funding challenges aside, there are also essential cultural issues to consider. Maldonado points out that community relocation efforts are "not just about moving a house from X to Y." Rather, it's crucial that tribes, particularly when they decide to move their entire community, are able to choose a safe location that is close enough to their original home that they can still access their natural and cultural resources and sites of cultural importance. They also "need to be able to maintain their community structure as it makes sense to them," she adds.

Maintaining proximity can help communities cope with the trauma of displacement. In the case of the Quinault and the Hoh, the tribes expect to remain close to their ancestral land. The Quinault plan to maintain their old reservation land, which will be connected to the new village, for recreational activities and wildlife habitat, among other things, and while the land purchased by the Hoh is not adjacent to their reservation, the tribe also acquired 37 additional acres of National Park Service land that would connect the current village with the new one. But both Kivalina and Shishmaref in Alaska have struggled to find suitable relocation sites.

In Louisiana, the Isle de Jean Charles band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw have lost roughly 98 percent of their land to erosion, flooding, and shifting soil from oil and gas development. Last year, the federal government awarded the tribe $48 million to relocate. (Photo: Karen Apricot)

Even when proximity is maintained, community relocation is not without a sense of loss. Melvinjohn Ashue spent his early years on the Hoh reservation in a trailer right along the beach. Now, Ashue says, much of the lower village has been abandoned, and the ocean has taken much of the landmass and more than a few trees. "Growing up [in the lower village,] it's one of my favorite places," he says. "All my family was there. We all lived down on the lower Hoh [River]. But since things have been changing down there, there are no homes. No one lives in the lower village right down by the beach."

Ashue also expects that, if the Hoh relocate, daily reminders of Hoh culture and traditions will be absent in the new community. For example, many of the houses in the lower village have carving sheds attached, which were used to carve traditional canoes. These days, few of these sheds are put to good use -- the younger generation has few carvers -- and it's likely that new homes will omit them. Ashue also regrets that environmental change on the Hoh lands has meant that he hasn't been able to participate in some of the activities that his parents and grandparents engaged in. "They used to do drift netting when they walked along the banks," he says. "Well, there are no more banks to walk along. Not being able to do that is kind of a bummer."

Seeing these changes over the course of his lifetime has been eye opening for Ashue. "I wish we could share and show everybody else, This is what it used to look like, and this is what it looks like now."

Atle Solberg cautions against estimating the scale of future climate-induced displacement. Head of the coordination unit of the Platform on Disaster Displacement, an intergovernmental group working to protect people displaced by disasters linked to natural hazards, he says there are simply too many variables at play. Still, the few estimates that are available are startling. The United Nations University Institute for the Environment and Human Security and the International Organization for Migration estimate that climate change could displace anywhere between 50 million and 200 million people by 2050.

A major driver of this displacement will be sea level rise. Indeed, island nations like the Maldives and Kiribati have been raising the alarm about rising oceans for years, and have been forced to consider the prospect of moving entire countries.

In the United States, where more than half of the population lives within 50 miles of the coast, researchers estimate that some 13 million people could be displaced by 2100 from coastal flooding alone, the majority in the southeast. Then there's desertification, melting glaciers, and droughts, all of which are projected to contribute to the displacement problem.

Unfortunately, despite the scale of the issue, there is an alarming lack of guidelines or regulatory structure for climate-induced relocations, or for community relocations in general.

So-called "climate refugees" are not, for example, considered refugees under international law, which limits the definition of refugees to those crossing international borders to flee war or persecution. Climate-related migration did receive mention in the Paris Agreement, and per a decision by the Conference of the Parties, there is now a nascent task force on climate displacement under the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage. But overall, "international law is very quiet on this issue [of displacement] with respect to climate change and weather," Solberg says. "There is almost nothing that guides or orients in that situation."

Like most international initiatives, assistance programs in the US also tend to focus on disaster response and recovery -- think FEMA relief after Hurricane Sandy -- rather than preparation and prevention, and are decidedly focused on the individual, rather than the community.

Robin Bronen, executive director of the Alaska Institute for Justice, who has been working with Native communities in Alaska on relocation issues for the past decade, is trying to fix that. With funding from NOAA and the National Science foundation, Bronen is working with 15 Native Alaskan tribes to design a human-rights based community relocation framework that will fill this gap for Native people in the Arctic.

In the Alaskan village of Kivalina, climate change is contributing to flooding, erosion, and increasingly intense storms. Warming temperatures are also delaying the seasonal formation of sea ice, which the village has traditionally relied on for protection from winter storm surges. (Photo: Shorezone / Flickr)

"One of the critical components to creating this relocation institutional framework is to design a community-based monitoring and assessment tool with state and federal government agencies," Bronen says.

Such a tool would help ensure that, before disaster strikes, people are able to determine whether relocation is necessary, and when. Bronen expects the model will be replicable in service of communities across the world. That's a tall order. "We are creating something that doesn't exist anywhere in the world, so it's just really hard," she says.

Monitoring and relocation guidelines for Native communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis could also help avoid what Bronen calls "the biggest concern," namely, the pitfalls of past relocation efforts. She points to the forced relocation of the Unangan from villages in the Aleutian Islands during World War II, during which 10 percent of the population died, as an example of "the track record we have when human rights aren't included and governments make decisions to relocate."

Solberg echoes these concerns. "Planned relocation processes haven't really been successful in the past," he says. "There is always an element of loss that people feel, whether it is non-economic loss or economic loss in the sense that the economic situation has deteriorated after the move."

Solberg uses the example of fishing villages that were relocated in countries like Indonesia and Sri Lanka following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. "You cannot move fisherman inland without having a very good plan about how they are going to access their livelihood," he says. Several villages that were built for relocations following the tsunami are now empty because planning was insufficient, and because people didn't want to move, he says.

For all of these reasons, relocation is always a measure of last resort, considered only after, as Maldonado puts it, "everything else has been pursued, after all other options to stay in place" have been exhausted.

Staying in place requires figuring how to adapt and build climate resilient communities. Countries like the Netherlands, which are vulnerable to flooding, owe their existence in large part to the use of dikes, canals, and water pumps, for example. Across the United States, cities from New York to San Francisco have begun to consider similar measures. But these options are usually expensive, require constant maintenance, and aren't necessarily foolproof.

Back in Taholah, the Quinault have worked hard to design a relocation plan that reflects the nation's culture and way of life. The tribe has prioritized moving seniors and families with children, for example, and the planning team is already designing a 30,000 square-foot "generations building" that will house the senior program, the head start program, early head start, and day care.

Relocation is always a measure of last resort.

The tribe began clearing land for the first 50 lots in the new village in December 2016, and Charles Warsinske, senior planner for the nation, expects that the master plan for the town will be done by early April of this year. Still, he says, "If we maintain our momentum," it will be 15 years before the majority of people who want to move do so.

President Sharp is clear that even as relocation efforts progress, no one in lower Taholah village will be forced to move. "We will do our best to provide information about the situation, but we will respect citizens' rights to live where the Creator put them -- the lands that were given to our ancestors," she has said.

Kathy Rosenmeyer is among those who might chose to stay. She bought her house in the lower village in 1997 close to where her ancestors used to have homes, and her daughter now lives next door. Rosenmeyer acknowledges that the lower village has changed in the time she's lived there. Homes have been torn down -- homes that the tribe has chosen not to replace -- and it's beginning to feel like fewer and fewer people live in the community. Still, she is hesitant to leave, in part because she's paid 20 years on a 30-year loan and is uncertain about how the transition will work.

Her indecision also reflects her love for where she lives. Her home is close the beach, where she walks her dogs, and she can hear the ocean from it. "I guess it's human nature to get attached to the homes that you buy," she adds. "So I'm actually not really considering moving out of there."

For others in Taholah, however, the decision to move is made with a view to the future. The promise of a new village on higher ground offers hope and opportunity -- a chance to keep the community together and for the tribe to proactively move out of harm's way on its own terms.

"While there is somewhat a sense of loss and closing that chapter in the lower village, there's also opening a new chapter of hope, and envisioning an entirely new village," says Sharp. "And that's been an exciting part of the process, engaging in a national visioning exercise with our citizens [about] the future that we all see, our collective future."

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Categories: Latest News

Economic Update: Capitalism and Democracy

Thu, 03/23/2017 - 21:00

This week's episode discusses Puerto Rico, slave labor in the cocoa fields, worsening UK inequality, leaders imposing austerity on others and Canada's Girl Guides among tourists to shun US. The episode also addresses  rising US wage inequality, connection and opposition between capitalism and democracy, and key differences between capitalist and worker-coop enterprises.

To see more stories like this, visit Economic Update: Your Weekly Dose of Revolutionary Economics

To listen in live on Saturdays at noon, visit WBAI's Live Stream

Economic Update is in partnership with Truthout.org

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Categories: Latest News

Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric Leads to Diminished College Enrollment

Thu, 03/23/2017 - 21:00

(Photo: Unsplash; Edited: LW / TO)

Anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim hate speech and incidents have contributed to a sharp decline in international student enrollment at US colleges. Some undocumented students are also staying away, administrators say. And many US-born students are struggling to support undocumented family members while staying in school. The impacts on the economy, some estimate, will run into billions of dollars.

(Photo: Unsplash; Edited: LW / TO)

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Two-and-a-half years ago, when Margarita left her home in Venezuela to study in the US, she had high hopes. No one in her family had ever attended university, let alone studied abroad, and she relished the opportunity to perfect her English and complete a Bachelor's degree.

Trump's election changed that and Margarita says that she now worries about whether it is in her best interest to remain in the country. Despite having a student visa, she says that she's always on edge. Nonetheless, she has decided to stay and finish her degree. "I want to make my dreams come true," she told Truthout. "I do not want to leave something half-way, that is incomplete." She expects to receive her undergraduate diploma in the spring of 2019.

Like most international students, Margarita is not eligible for financial aid and her family pays her tuition and living expenses out of pocket, in this case at $320 a credit. It's a huge investment, and as bias incidents and hateful rhetoric about immigrants ramp up, many would-be international students are asking themselves if it makes sense to continue seeking a home in a place where they may not be wanted.

According to Rudy Fichtenbaum, president of the American Association of University Professors, "The atmosphere -- the increasing attacks on Jewish centers, cemeteries, Muslim mosques and the recent murder of two Sikhs in Kansas City -- means that many international students are deciding to stay away from the US and are instead attending colleges in Canada, Australia or Europe."

A Large Decline in International Student Applicants to the US

Indeed, some Canadian colleges are experiencing a 70 percent bump in their number of international applicants. At the same time, the decline in international student applications to US programs has been precipitous: 40 percent of US colleges told Inside Higher Education in early March  that there has been a sharp drop in both undergraduate and graduate applications from foreign students for fall 2017. The biggest dip has come from China, India and the Middle East.

The reasons? Fear about the ability to reenter the country after trips home and apprehension about community acceptance.

Dr. Reza Fakhari, vice president for workforce development and strategic community partnerships and continuing education at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York (CUNY) -- my workplace -- explains the impact. "Some US graduate programs can collapse without international students," he begins. "Some, particularly in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, have a large percentage of students who come from other countries. The fear factor among these students is huge. The Trump administration's [leaders] ... do not want the country to be diverse. In fact, they actually want to reverse diversity.... It's at odds with reality not to see diversity as enrichment."

But Trump, Bannon and the Republicans disagree and have made clear that they see multiculturalism as a threat to American hegemony and cultural continuity.

Some of the Colleges That Stand to Lose

A year ago, during the 2015-2016 academic year, 33 percent of the students at the Florida Institute of Technology came from outside the US; 32 percent of those enrolled at the New School for Social Research were international. Other colleges and universities with large  international student  populations  include the Illinois Institute of Technology and the University of Tulsa (26 percent); Carnegie Mellon (22 percent); Brandeis and Northeastern (20 percent); UCLA (13 percent); Brown, Harvard, Rice and the University of Pennsylvania (12 percent); Princeton and Yale (11 percent); and Cornell, Duke, George Washington, Johns Hopkins and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (10 percent).

As CUNY's Dean Fakhari makes clear, STEM fields stand to be the biggest losers: 70 percent of electrical engineering, 63 percent of computer science, and half of all math, physics and statistics students entering master's level programs in the US come from abroad. And, he stresses, their presence benefits everyone  since they contribute an estimated $30.5 billion to the economy and support 373,000 domestic jobs.

Colleges recognize this and are trying to fight back, noting that the potential loss of these students -- and the money they bring with them -- will threaten their budgets and lessen intellectual collegiality. Although it's largely unprecedented, the presidents of more than 650 of the country's 4140 public and private colleges have signed onto a letter to John F. Kelley, Secretary of Homeland Security, that was sent on February 3. "International exchange is a core value and strength of American higher education," they wrote. "Moreover, our nation's welcoming stance to scholars and scientists has benefited the US through goodwill and a long history of scientific and technological advances that have been essential to the economic growth our country has experienced for decades." To date, Homeland Security has not responded to the appeal.

Some Undocumented Students Are Not Applying or Returning to College

International students are not the only constituency whose numbers are declining. Overall, college enrollment went from a peak of 20.6 million in 2011 to less than 19 million today  -- a fact that predates Trump. Some have opted to enter the workforce or have enlisted in the military instead of continuing in school. In addition, undocumented students -- with and without Deferred Action on Childhood Arrival or DACA status -- are also noticeably staying away, not applying at all, or not returning to complete their courses of study. Although this population was never huge -- reaching a total of approximately 225,000 in 2015  -- many universities across the country are responding to the heightened anxieties expressed by both undocumented undergraduates and the much larger pool of 5.1 million US citizens who live in mixed-status households  with someone at risk of deportation.

"The fear is in the airwaves," says Rev. Juan Carlos Ruiz, a pastor at St. Peter's Lutheran Church in New York City and a founder of the New Sanctuary Movement. "Financial aid to low-income immigrants was never adequate, but the systemic oppression that has always existed has been compounded by Trump. Right now, we're working with five students whose parents have been detained. One has an eight-year-old brother with special needs. This student may now need to become the family breadwinner. I've also seen some people decide to pack up and leave rather than live in danger and fear. They feel humiliated that they worked and paid taxes and are now being treated so badly."

Living and Studying Under the Threat of Deportation

Pamela Johnson, interim vice president for enrollment management at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois, a Catholic college established more than a century ago to educate the Irish immigrants then working in the area's lead mines, says that about 10 percent of the school's 2,300 undergraduates are directly impacted by administration policies on immigration. "The DACA students, in particular, feel vulnerable," she says. "They've given all this personal information to the government. Some have told us that they plan to move so that the address on file is no longer where they live. The anxiety is really high."

John DeCostanza, director of university ministry at Dominican, adds that as soon as the first executive order banning immigrants from Muslim-dominant countries was issued in January, pastoral counseling staff noticed a spike in the number of students calling for appointments. "Rumors of raids in Chicago were rampant, and in order to be good stewards and provide accurate and adequate care to our students, we've had to lean heavily on immigrant advocacy organizations working on the ground. They've provided us with the verification we need about ICE activity in and around Chicago," he says.

Good pastoral care, he continues, revolves around helping students grapple with the reality of the threat. It also involves learning their rights so that they can create the best possible plan to protect themselves and their loved ones. "The best source of protection is their own planning," DeCostanza continues. "They need to talk to their families and the people they're in community with about their options." This is a conversation that families often avoid, he added, especially when it involves discussing who will get custody of a US-born child if one or both parents are deported.

Like most DACA recipients or students in mixed-status households, he says, those enrolled at Dominican feel a deep sense of responsibility toward their parents and siblings and are committed to helping younger family members in whatever ways are needed. "The psychological burden that comes with that responsibility cannot be overestimated," he adds.

Not surprisingly, these responsibilities weigh heavily, and impact the number of applications coming from undocumented students and those living in mixed-status homes. They also impact retention. "CUNY students tell us that they feel safe on campus," Dean Reza Fakhari reports. "But on the bus or the train, they feel afraid. One student told me that he has stopped driving because he's so scared of being stopped."

The disquiet and dread these students feel can make college attendance seem impossible. After all, how can they concentrate on writing papers, complete course readings, begin a research project, or participate in in-class discussions when the possibility of deportation looms over everything?   

"We can't trust this administration to be rational," Fakhari concludes. "Will there be a Muslim registry? Will they or a loved one be deported? Who will take care of the children? We've already seen the number of international student applicants go down for next fall throughout CUNY. People are either afraid to apply or assume they'll never get a visa so don't even try. Undocumented students are also avoiding risks because, while the law protects their right to attend high school, it does not ensure their right to go beyond 12th grade."

Indeed, he says, the administration's contempt for diversity is at the heart of the administration's anti-immigrant efforts. After all, 40 years ago, only 4 percent of college students were Latino and Latina; 2 percent were Asian; 10 percent were African American; and 84 percent were white. By 2014, Latinos and Latinas were 17 percent of the total college student population; Asians were 7 percent; and African Americans were 14 percent. Meanwhile, white enrollment fell to 58 percent. This trend could reverse, however, if racist sentiment under the Trump administration continues to discourage international students from entering the US and to deter immigrants from continuing their studies.

"Racism is resurfacing and immigrants everywhere in the country are feeling the uncertainty," Fakhari says.

Categories: Latest News

Can We Leave the Atrocity Exhibition? Media Coverage of the London Attack

Wed, 03/22/2017 - 21:00

Coverage of yesterday's attack in London followed an all too familiar sensational scripting whose first casualty is a meaningful sense of perspective. Breaking this cycle of violence is going to require steering history in a different direction that the mainstream media can't seem to fathom.

Police and other emergency responders gathered on Westminster Bridge, where a driver mowed down pedestrians, in London, March 22, 2017. An attack near the British Parliament left at least three people dead and 20 others injured on Wednesday afternoon. A man believed to have been an assailant died after being shot by the police. (Photo: Andrew Testa / The New York Times)

Writing with considerable foresight, the author J.G. Ballard coined the term "The Atrocity Exhibition" to emphasize the changing influence the media was having on all human relations, especially the ethical challenges faced when witnessing tragedy. As Ballard famously wrote:

The media landscape of the present day is a map in search of a territory. A huge volume of sensational and often toxic imagery inundates our minds, much of it fictional in content. How do we make sense of this ceaseless flow of advertising and publicity, news and entertainment, where presidential campaigns and moon voyages are presented in terms indistinguishable from the launch of a new candy bar or deodorant? What actually happens on the level of our unconscious minds when, within minutes on the same TV screen, a prime minister is assassinated, an actress makes love, an injured child is carried from a car crash? Faced with these charged events, prepackaged emotions already in place, we can only stitch together a set of emergency scenarios, just as our sleeping minds extemporize a narrative from the unrelated memories that veer through the cortical night.

 Contemporary life is largely shaped by the digitalization of such atrocities, which now exhibit in real time a continuous stream of violent occurrences directly into the palms of our hands. This is how many of us have come to see and relate to the world. Consciousness itself is now atrocious.

Turning us into producers of content and forced witnesses to human suffering on a daily basis, our sleeping minds are often violently interrupted as if we are continuously playing out the awakening scene from Hitchcock's Vertigo. We awake from nightmares, night after night, only to realize that nightmare is the present condition.

I am writing this in the cold light of morning following more violence on the streets of London yesterday. Once again, it seems, we are shown the willful disregard some have for the basic value of human life. For the British Prime Minister Theresa May, this was not simply an act of psychopathic disregard for the suffering of others. She described the "lone wolf" attack as a strike against "the heart of our capital city where people of all nationalities, religions and cultures come together to celebrate the values of liberty, democracy and freedom of speech."

Reiterating how "these streets of Westminster" that were "home to the world's oldest parliament are ingrained with a spirit of freedom that echoes in some of the furthest corners of the globe," May insisted that the voices of hatred and evil would not succeed in driving people apart.

But isn't that exactly what the politics of fear achieves? It not only creates all too real divisions between humans based on the fearful suspicion of others but also co-opts us all into its logics, whose visceral effects are palpable. The politics of fear makes us play its game even if we are already exhausted.

Terror is not the fear of the unknown. It is borne of the fear of things ordinarily taken for granted. It is located in the weaponization of the everyday. And as a result, it sends everything into flux, for nothing holds certainty anymore. Neighbors become potential enemies. Zones of safety are filled with anxiety. Automobiles are turned into weapons of destruction. 

Terror is also imagined. That is not to say it is somehow unreal. On the contrary, it is viscerally felt, in the hearts and minds of people, often far away from the event itself. Everyday terrors are in fact played out in the minds of watching citizens, changing their behaviors as a result, thereby eviscerating the very notion of being some innocent bystander.

But if we know that terror reinforces a politics of fear, co-opting us all into its violent logics, which in turn often leads to further violence and retribution, might we not ask of our own culpabilities in perpetuating its fearful imaginary?

Where is the door actually located so that we might leave this Atrocity Exhibition?   

I want to turn to the role of the media in all this, for as Ballard intimated, they are principle narrators in setting out emergency scenarios. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is significant in this regard, for despite its claim to political impartiality, in practice it shows a notable penchant for the sensational in ways that reveal clear formulistic tendencies more often associated with the allegiant right wing presses.

This is not about laying down definitive truths about such violence. Certainties are, after all, comforting and make people feel secure. Reporting on terror works in accordance to a paradigm that brings every emotion into play, from the extreme to the absurd, the serious to the comic, the exceptional to its veritable normalization.  

Let's just take the sequencing of the reporting yesterday from the BBC to get some sense of this.

As the news of some tragedy started to appear on various newsfeeds across social media, the BBC immediately opted to describe the incident as an "attack," even though it could alternately have been read as a tragic "accident" before any of the facts were established. The Metropolitan police subsequently reiterated this pre-factual position. Terror was something that needed ruling out. In these terrifyingly normal times, it is the media default for all things atrocious.

What followed was the release of various cell-phone videos from people filming whilst fleeing the scene, so viewers could actually get a sense of and intimately connect to the panic, confusion and terror in closer proximity. All this was periodically overlaid with announcements for the public to remain calm and let the security services do their work.

We might argue that at the level of public consciousness, it doesn't really matter whether the event, in the end, turned out to be intentional or not. It was already framed and registered as yet another chapter in the psychic life of all things terrifying to which we have become accustomed. 

Since the event was immediately diagnosed as a terror incident, all too quickly various sensational superlatives appeared, such as "attack on the heart of the capital." The scale of the violence is thus quickly amplified and extended to bring every single resident into the orbit of endangerment. And since the "heart of the capital" is also the heart of the nation, this language implies that nowhere is actually safe from harm.

I am not in any way underplaying here the tragic loss of life and suffering. But one of the first casualties of terror, from both sides, is to deny us any meaningful sense of perspective. Instead of focusing on the local facts on the ground, what followed was the effective trans-historicizing and internationalization of the event as commentators started drawing comparisons to previous atrocities in the capital, such as the coordinated bombings on the British transport system that took place over a decade ago on July 7, 2005, resulting in 52 fatalities, and to more comparable events (in respect to the methods used) as witnessed in truck attacks in Nice and Berlin.

Geography, it seems, is secondary in this epic drama of sequential violence. 

We know that digital technologies have obliterated the modern time/space continuum. While everything is immanent, thereby denying us any time to reflect, there is no longer any "outside" or place to find refuge. But what we didn't foresee was the ways in which people on the street would feed into the various media machines to reinforce dominant narratives and sensational scripting.  

That the public provided the sensational interface between the watching viewers and the scene of the crime, further allowed commentators to technologically connect the violence to recent events like the killing of off-duty British Army soldier Lee Rigby in 2013 by two men who described the killing as retribution for the killing of Muslims by the British armed forces. This was brought up in a number of the commentaries, showing how the technological nature of the spectacle of violence is also capable of flattening or perhaps even completely circumventing what might be seen as more tenuous linkages. 

It didn't take too long, however, before the comical started to surreptitiously enter the discursive arena. No sooner had Londoners and the nation been put into a heightened state of insecurity consciousness, the BBC informed us that "MPs are locked in the Chamber" of Parliament: a message that could be taken either with extreme seriousness or a certain hilarity depending on your political disposition!

What followed would be a series of mixed messages whose differing tonalities only added to the blurring between the serious and the absurd for any slightly informed and politically considered listener. These ranged from the assertive declaration that "Theresa May is safe" (spoken in a way which suggested civilization depended on it); to a more conciliatory indication that "Donald Trump is being kept informed" (OK, perhaps you should be slightly worried about this development); onto "President Trump had now spoken with Theresa May" without any further details or content provided on the nature of this conversation. (One could only assume that we should keep an eye on Trump's Twitter feed for full details.)

Throughout the day, various terrorist "experts" were summoned to add clarity to the background noise of sirens and flashing lights. As we were presented with images of bodies on the ground, so the mantra about this being a "sophisticated and coordinated attack" was repeated to the point of monotony. One is left to wonder what exactly is sophisticated about someone plowing an automobile into a group of innocent bystanders?

Shutting down the digital infrastructure that powers the City of London would be sophisticated. What we witnessed on Wednesday was not.   

Violated bodies are always overlaid with overtly politicized discursive ascriptions. That the term "catastrophic" was particularly used to describe the injuries sustained by the survivors was not incidental. Ours is an age of catastrophe wherein the dominant political imaginary is one of "dystopian realism." There is always another inescapable catastrophe, in waiting, on the fateful horizon of future possibility.

As the day moved on, the line of questioning invariably turned toward asking how such an event could possibly happen. Commentators were drawn to ask about all the investment in counter-terror strategies, such as the official Prevent doctrine. Talking heads like Michael Clarke of the Royal United Services Institute appeared to remind us that this was the attack the experts had actually been expecting: despite all the preventative strategies, what we must accept is that our societies are fundamentally insecure by design.

The official government line reiterated by the media is to tell us, the population, that we must remain "vigilant" in this heightened state of emergency. But how is one expected to be vigilant when the source of the terror is ubiquitous? One cannot possibly be vigilant against something that appears to come out of nowhere and yet potentially resides everywhere in the fabric of a vibrant city.

What takes its place is a general state of anxiety and inertia, borne of the mutually assured sense of vulnerability. All of this ultimately plays into the hands of the "alt-right," whose allegiances blend Huntington's Clash of Civilizations, white supremacy, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism with a general desire for political stardom by those seeking to fill the void left by the fallen Milo Yiannopoulos.

As the evening wore on, the BBC's flagship evening news broadcast program, Newsnight, turned into a special edition dedicated to the day's atrocities. Here we encountered a heady mix of reinforcing narratives, which went from emphasizing the "exceptional" nature of the violence to enumerating the ways our society needs to come to terms with this as part of the "normalized" fabric of unending threats in these dangerously uncertain times.

This only adds to the confusion, as the exceptional and the normal, the friend and the enemy, the secure and the insecure, and truth and fiction blur into what the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has termed a "Zone of Indistinction." Nothing upon this terrain can be located with any certainty. 

It was left to the columnist and writer Simon Jenkins to provide a rare voice of reason. Lambasting the BBC on its Newsnight program, Jenkins took direct aim at the levels of coverage and prominence being afforded, which he explained was culpable of "aiding and abetting" extremism. The politically ill-equipped presenter, Evan Davis, was left to defend a decision from a position of evident bodily discomfort not even he seemed to believe in when questioned.

And so, as I now sit here, staring into the screen of my handheld device, I find myself scrolling through the various news items the BBC news site has to offer. None of them seem to offer any indication about how we might actually break the cycle of violence. The doors to this Atrocity Exhibition seem to be closed; they just forgot to leave everybody out beforehand.

My suspicion is that the answers are to be found behind a different door in another venue.

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Categories: Latest News

Dark Data: Trump Backers Bankroll Firm Developing Psychological Profiles of Every US Voter

Wed, 03/22/2017 - 21:00

One of the more mysterious parts of the Mercer family's political orbit is Cambridge Analytica. The data firm claims it has psychological profiles of over 200 million American voters. The firm was hired by the Trump campaign to help it target its message to potential voters. The Mercers have bankrolled the company and placed Steve Bannon on its board. We speak to The New Yorker's Jane Mayer.

TRANSCRIPT:

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We continue our conversation with Jane Mayer, staff writer at The New Yorker. Her latest piece is headlined "The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency: How Robert Mercer exploited America's populist insurgency." The piece looks at how the secretive billionaire reshaped the political landscape.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the companies heavily funded by Robert Mercer is Cambridge Analytica, which claims it has psychological profiles of over 200 million American voters. The firm was hired by the Trump campaign to help it target its message to potential voters. Steve Bannon even served on the company's board. This is Cambridge Analytica's CEO, Alexander Nix, speaking earlier this year.

ALEXANDER NIX: We started to look at issue models, predicting which issues, social and political, appeal to which members of the target audience, which voters. We actually assigned different issues to every adult in the entire United States. We could then take these models and put them into a matrix, a little bit like the dental health example, where we can categorize people or segment them according to how they're likely to behave. Core Trump supporters, top right, may be more susceptible to a donation solicitation. Get out the vote: people who are going to vote Republican, but they need persuading to do so. Persuasion audiences: people who need shifting a little bit from the center towards the right. Once we've identified a segment, we can then subsegment them by the issues that are most relevant to them, and then start to target them with specific messages.

AMY GOODMAN: Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix. So, Cambridge Analytica has -- claims to have psychological profiles of over 200 million American voters. Jane Mayer, tell us its significance. Steve Bannon was on its board, funded by the Mercers.

JANE MAYER: Well, again, this is part of -- if you look at the history, what happened was, after 2012, when Obama was re-elected, despite the fact that the Mercers had put millions of dollars into trying to defeat him, they were upset, and they wanted to try to get better political tools with more traction. So they put money into Breitbart. They put money into the Government Accountability Institute. And the third prong was Cambridge Analytica.

It was -- at that point, they concluded, and so did many others, that the Republican Party's data analytics for running campaigns were lagging behind those that the Democrats had. The Democrats -- Obama had a famously good sort of computer operation and data team. And so, they tried to -- they decided, "We'll run our own." They bought a company. They basically invested heavily in building an -- it's an offshoot of an existing English company called Strategic Communication Laboratories. And the British company had been involved in psychological warfare operations for militaries and international elections and kind of some pretty interesting and sneaky-seeming things, which raised a lot of eyebrows when its offshoot was purchased, basically, created by this one hedge-fund family.

You know, when I looked into this, it seemed that there was less than meets the eye, in many ways, so far. Alexander Nix, who is running Cambridge Analytica, is a great salesman, and he's got this pitch that makes it sound like something from, you know, the movie The Matrix or something, that they're going to be conducting psychological warfare with this propaganda machine in this country. The truth is, during the Trump campaign, they never used any of their so-called secret psychometric methods. They simply performed like any other kind of data analytics company. And the stuff they did was no different from what the Democrats do and other campaigns do. You know, maybe at some point they'll have some superpowers that have yet to be revealed, but they aren't there yet.

AMY GOODMAN: Jane, before we wrap up, we want to go to the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Judge Neil Gorsuch, really interesting dialogue between Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse questioning Gorsuch on the $10 million dark money campaign supporting his nomination.

SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: If a question were to come up regarding recusal on the court, how would we know that the partiality question in a recusal matter had been adequately addressed if we did not know who was spending all of this money to get you confirmed? Hypothetically, it could be one individual. Hypothetically, it could be your friend, Mr. Anschutz. We don't know, because it's dark money. Is it any cause of concern to you that your nomination is the focus of a $10 million political spending effort and we don't know who's behind it?

JUDGE NEIL GORSUCH: Senator, there's a lot about the confirmation process today that I regret.

AMY GOODMAN: That's Judge Neil Gorsuch being questioned by Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. Jane Mayer, in this last 30 seconds that we have, can you comment on this?

JANE MAYER: Well, yeah. I mean, the thing about dark money is, often the person who it's benefiting knows; it's just the public that's not allowed to know. And there's tons of money behind the Gorsuch nomination, and he probably knows who he owes the favor to.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain a little further the term "dark money."

JANE MAYER: Well, there are these organizations, 501(c)(4) groups, that are set up, where the donors' hands are not seen. They can spend money on advertising, and the public doesn't know who they are. They're nonprofit groups such as the Judicial Crisis Network. And I've looked at that one. And, you know, you, as a reporter, and me, as standing in for the public, cannot trace the money. Yet it's playing an active role in American politics.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jane Mayer, I want to thank you so much for spending the hour with us, staff writer for The New Yorker. We'll link to your piece, "The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency: How Robert Mercer exploited America's populist insurgency." Her book is out in paperback, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.

That does it for our show. We've got a new job opening, a full-time news production fellowship. Go to our website at democracynow.org.

Categories: Latest News

Jane Mayer on Robert Mercer and the Dark Money Behind Trump and Bannon's Radical Vision

Wed, 03/22/2017 - 21:00

We look at Robert Mercer, the man who is said to have out-Koched the Koch brothers in the 2016 election. The secretive billionaire hedge-fund tycoon, along with his daughter Rebekah, is credited by many with playing an instrumental role in Donald Trump's election. "The Mercers laid the groundwork for the Trump revolution," Trump's chief strategist Stephen Bannon said. "Irrefutably, when you look at donors during the past four years, they have had the single biggest impact of anybody, including the Kochs." Before Bannon and Kellyanne Conway joined the Trump campaign, both worked closely with the Mercers. The Mercers bankrolled Bannon's Breitbart News, as well as some of Bannon's film projects. Conway ran a super PAC created by the Mercers to initially back the candidacy of Ted Cruz. While the Mercers have helped reshape the American political landscape, their work has all been done from the shadows. To talk more about the Mercers, we speak with Jane Mayer, staff writer at The New Yorker. Her latest piece is headlined "The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency: How Robert Mercer exploited America's populist insurgency." She is also author of Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, which just came out in paperback.

TRANSCRIPT:

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to look at the man who is said to have out-Koched the Koch brothers in the 2016 election. His name is Robert Mercer, a secretive billionaire hedge-fund tycoon who, along with his daughter Rebekah, is credited by many with playing an instrumental role in Donald Trump's election.

Trump's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, said, quote, "The Mercers laid the groundwork for the Trump revolution. Irrefutably, when you look at donors during the past four years, they have had the single biggest impact of anybody, including the Kochs." Before Bannon and Kellyanne Conway joined the Trump campaign, both worked closely with the Mercers. The Mercers bankrolled Bannon's Breitbart News, as well as some of Bannon's film projects. Conway ran a super PAC created by the Mercers to initially back the candidacy of Ted Cruz.

The Mercers also invested in a data mining firm called Cambridge Analytica, which claims it has psychological profiles of over 200 million American voters. The firm was hired by the Trump campaign to help target its message to potential voters.

While the Mercers have helped reshape the American political landscape, their work has all been done from the shadows. They don't speak to the media and rarely even speak in public.

AMY GOODMAN: During the entire presidential campaign, they released just two statements. One was a defense of Donald Trump shortly after the leak of the 2005 Access Hollywood tape that showed Trump boasting about sexually assaulting women. The Mercers wrote, quote, "We are completely indifferent to Mr. Trump's locker room braggadocio." They went on to write, "America is finally fed up and disgusted with its political elite. Trump is channeling this disgust and those among the political elite who quake before the boombox of media blather do not appreciate the apocalyptic choice America faces on November 8th. We have a country to save and there is only one person who can save it. We, and Americans across the country and around the world, stand steadfastly behind Donald J Trump." Those were the words of Robert and Rebekah Mercer one month before Trump won the election.

Since the election, Rebekah Mercer joined the Trump transition team, and Robert Mercer threw a victory party of sorts at his Long Island estate. It was a hero and villain's costume party. Kellyanne Conway showed up as Superwoman. Donald Trump showed up as himself.

To talk more about the Mercers, we're joined now by Jane Mayer, staff writer at The New Yorker, her latest piece headlined "The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency: How Robert Mercer exploited America's populist insurgency." Jane is also author of Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, which just came out in paperback.

Jane Mayer, welcome back to Democracy Now! The beginning of the piece talks about a former colleague of Mercer's saying, "In my view, Trump wouldn't be president if not for Bob." Explain who Robert Mercer is.

JANE MAYER: Well, he's a, as you've mentioned, a New York hedge-fund tycoon. He's a computer scientist, a kind of a math genius and uber-nerd, who figured out how to game the stocks and bonds and commodities markets by using math. He runs something that's kind of like a quant fund in Long Island, and it's called Renaissance Technologies. He's the co-CEO. And it just mints money. So he's enormously wealthy. He earns at least $135 million a year, according to Institutional Investor, probably more.

And what he's done is he has tried to take this fortune and reshape, first, the Republican Party and, then, America, along his own lines. His ideology is extreme. He's way far on the right. He hates government. Kind of -- according to another colleague, David Magerman, at Renaissance Technologies, Bob Mercer wants to shrink the government down to the size of a pinhead. He has contempt for social services and for the people who need social services.

And so, he has been a power behind the scenes in Trump's campaign. He kind of rescued Trump's campaign in the end, he and his daughter. And, you know, most people think Trump was the candidate who did it on his own, had his own fortune, and he often boasted that he needed no help and had no strings attached, and he was going to sort of throw out corruption. And, in fact, there was somebody behind the scenes who helped enormously with him.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that moment, when you talk about them saving Donald Trump, which has become particularly relevant today. This was the time that Manafort was forced out as the campaign manager for Donald Trump. The campaign was in disarray. He was being forced out because of his ties to Ukraine and Russia and the money that was being revealed that he might or might not have taken. So, take it from there.

JANE MAYER: Well, right. And this was -- really, Trump's campaign was -- it was floundering. It was in August, and there was headline after headline that was suggesting that Paul Manafort, who had been the campaign manager, had really nefarious ties to the Ukrainian oligarchs and pro-Putin forces. And it was embarrassing. And eventually, after a couple days of these headlines, he was forced to step down.

And the campaign was, you know, spinning in a kind of a downward spiral, when, at a fundraiser out in Long Island, at Woody Johnson's house -- he's the man who owns the Jets -- Rebekah Mercer, the daughter of this hedge-fund tycoon, Bob Mercer, sort of cornered Trump and said, "You know, we'd like to give money to your campaign. We'll back you, but you've got to try to, you know, stabilize it." And basically, she said, "And I've got just the people for you to do the job."

And they were political operatives who the Mercer family had been funding for a couple of years, the main one being Steve Bannon, who is now playing the role to Trump -- he's the political strategist for Trump -- that's the role he played for the Mercer family prior to doing it for Trump. So, these are operatives who are very close to this one mega-donor. The other was Kellyanne Conway, who had been running this superfund, as you mentioned in your introduction, for the Cruz campaign, that was filled with the money from the Mercers. And so she became the campaign manager. Bannon became the campaign chairman. And a third person, David Bossie, whose organization Citizens United was also very heavily backed by the Mercer family, he became the deputy campaign manager. So, basically, as Trump's campaign is rescued by this gang, they encircle Trump. And since then, they've also encircled Trump's White House and become very key to him. And they are the Mercers' people.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Jane Mayer, Rebekah Mercer, whom you mentioned, is known -- described as "the first lady of the alt-right." Now, you tried to get Rebekah and Robert Mercer to speak to you for this piece. What response did you get?

JANE MAYER: Oh, I mean, it was hopeless, clearly, from the start. They have nothing but disdain for, you know, the mainstream media. Robert Mercer barely speaks even to people who he works with and who know him. I mean, he's so silent that he has said often that he -- or to a colleague, he said once -- I should correct that -- that he much prefers the company of cats to humans. He goes through whole meetings, whole dinners, without uttering a word. He never speaks to the media. He's given, I think, one interview I know of, to a book author, and who described him as having the demeanor of an icy cold poker player.

His daughter, Rebekah Mercer, who's 43 and has also worked at the family's hedge fund a little bit and is a graduate of Stanford, she's a little more outspoken. She has been in fundraising meetings on the right. She has spoken up -- and very loudly and irately, actually. But she doesn't speak to the press. And so, I had very little hope that they would.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about when they first met, the Mercers, Robert and Rebekah Mercer, first met Andrew Breitbart, and what that progression was and how they came to be linked up with Bannon?

JANE MAYER: Well, sure. The Mercer family, Robert and his daughter Rebekah, met Andrew Breitbart back -- I think it was late 2011 or early 2012, speaking at a conference of the Club for Growth, another right-wing group. And they were completely taken with Andrew Breitbart. He was pretty much the opposite kind of character from Bob Mercer. Breitbart was outspoken and gleefully provocative and loved to offend people and use vulgar language just to catch their attention. And you've got this kind of tight-lipped hedge-fund man from the far right who just fell for Breitbart big time.

And he -- mostly what he was captivated by, I think, was Breitbart's vision, which was, "We're going to" -- he said, "Conservatives can never win until we basically take on the mainstream media and build up our own source of information." He was talking about declaring information warfare in this country on fact-based reporting and substituting it with their own vision. And what he needed, Breitbart, at that point, was money. He needed money to set up Breitbart News, which was only just sort of a couple of bloggers at that point.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about Breitbart News, about what the alt-right represented, whether we're talking about anti-Semitism or white supremacy, and why they were attracted to this.

JANE MAYER: Well, I mean, you know, it changed. What happened was -- I mean, it started as a -- Andrew Breitbart had helped The Huffington Post get set up. And his idea was that he was going to launch The Huffington Post of the right. And so, he was setting it up, and his very close friend was Steve Bannon. And Bannon had been in investment banking. So Bannon got the Mercers to put $10 million into turning this venture into something that was really going to pack a punch. And they were just about to launch it in a big day -- big way. They were a few days away from it, when Andrew Breitbart died. That was in March of 2012. He was only 43, and he had a sudden massive heart attack. And so, this operation was just about to go big. It was leaderless. And that's when Steve Bannon stepped in and became the head of Breitbart News.

And in Bannon's hands, it became a force of economic nationalism and, in some people's view, white supremacism. It ran, you know, a regular feature on black crime. It hosted and pretty much launched the career of Milo Yiannopoulos, who's sort of infamous for his kind of juvenile attacks on women and immigrants and God knows what. You know, just it became, as Bannon had said, a platform for the alt-right, meaning the alternative to the old right, a new right that was far more angry and aggressive about others, people who were not just kind of the white sort of conservatives like themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: So they made a $10 million investment in Breitbart. They owned it --

JANE MAYER: A 10 million.

AMY GOODMAN: -- co-owned it.

JANE MAYER: They became the sponsors, really, behind it. And it's interesting to me that -- one of the things I learned was that Rebekah Mercer, this heiress, who's had no experience in politics, is so immersed in running Breitbart News at this point. I mean, she -- her family is the money, big money, behind it. That she reads every story, I'm told, and flyspecks, you know, typos and grammar and all that kind of thing. I mean, there is a force behind Breitbart News that people don't realize, and it's the Mercer family. So, anyway, it became very important, increasingly, on the fringe of conservative politics, because it pushed the conservatives in this country towards this economic nationalism, nativism, anti-immigration, pro-harsh borders, anti-free trade, protectionist. And it spoke the language of populism, but right-wing populism.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Jane Mayer, I mean, as you've said, one of the things that has made the Mercers so successful in their political interventions is precisely this, the way in which they've invested in an alternative media and information network, of which Breitbart is, of course, a very significant part. But can you also talk about the Government Accountability Institute, which you discuss in your piece?

JANE MAYER: Sure. I mean, and this was, you know, very much a design. You've got this family with all the money in the world, wanting to change American politics. And they hadn't been very effective in their earlier efforts at this, until they joined forces with Steve Bannon, who's a very sort of farsighted strategist who kind of sees the big picture and understands politics. And so, he very much focused their efforts on this information warfare, first with Breitbart, $10 million into that. And then, after 2012, when the Mercers were very disappointed that Obama got re-elected, at Bannon's direction, they started to fund a brand-new organization called the Government Accountability Institute. It's based in Tallahassee. It's small. It's really a platform for one major figure, Peter Schweizer, who is a conservative kind of investigative reporter.

And what they did with this organization, which the Mercers poured millions of dollars into, was they aimed to kind of create the -- drive the political narrative in the 2016 campaign. They created a book called Clinton Cash, which was a compendium of all the kinds of corruption allegations against the Clintons. And they aimed to get it into the mainstream media, where it would pretty much frame the picture of Hillary Clinton as a corrupt person who couldn't be trusted. And their hope was that they would mainstream this information that they dug up. It was like an opposition research organization, sort of masked as a charity and nonprofit. And they took this book, Clinton Cash, gave it to The New York Times exclusively, early, and the Times then ran with a story out of it, that they said they corroborated. But they ran with it, nonetheless, on their front page, which just launched this whole narrative of Hillary Clinton as corrupt. And it just kept echoing and echoing through the media after that. So, it was a real home run for them. A year later, they made a movie version of it also, which they launched in Cannes.

AMY GOODMAN: You're talking about Peter Schweizer and, as well, the Mercers. What about Cambridge Analytica, in addition to the Government Accountability Institute? And also, the Mercers' obsession with the Clintons, the whole issue that you write about.

JANE MAYER: Well, this is something that --

AMY GOODMAN: They're talking about they're murderers.

JANE MAYER: I mean, really -- I mean, one of the -- one of the challenges of writing about the Mercers, for me, was to figure out -- OK, so they're big players. There are players in the Democratic Party who put in tons of money, too. They're not the only people who put money into politics. But they're maybe the most mysterious people who put money into politics. Like nobody really knew what do they believe, what's driving them. And so, I was trying to figure that out.

And what I finally was able to do what was talk to partners and people they work with in business and people who've known them a long time, who paint this picture of them as having these really peculiar beliefs, and based on kind of strange far-right media. Among their beliefs are that -- Bob Mercer has spoken to at least three people who I interviewed, about how he is convinced that the Clintons are murderers, literally, have murdered people. Now, you hear that on the fringes sometimes when you interview people who are ignorant, but these are people who are powerful, well educated and huge influences in the country. And Bob Mercer was convinced that the Clintons are murderers. OK, so he's driven by this just hatred of the Clintons and, coming into 2016, is determined to try to stop Hillary Clinton, and looking for a vehicle who would do that, who eventually becomes Trump.

AMY GOODMAN: Jane Mayer, we're going to come back to this conversation. Jane Mayer is staff writer at The New Yorker. Her piece is "The Reclusive Hedge-Fund Tycoon Behind the Trump Presidency: How Robert Mercer exploited America's populist insurgency." And her book is out in paperback, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. There is so much to talk about. Stay with us.

Categories: Latest News

So Many Distractions

Wed, 03/22/2017 - 21:00
Categories: Latest News

We Have the Chance Now to Go Bold on Health Care -- and Freedom -- for All

Wed, 03/22/2017 - 21:00

(Photo: Sasint)

The House of Representatives is slated to vote Thursday on a health care repeal bill that will gut the Affordable Care Act and end Medicaid as we know it. In legislative and human terms, passage of the bill would set us back not to 2009 but to 1964.

But even if the Republicans succeed in repealing the health care law, they won't be able to erase what may be one of the Affordable Care Act's most important accomplishments: significant progress on the idea that all people should get health care. We can see this shift in the firestorm that has swept the nation in opposition to this legislation.

"We value what has been given to us and do not want to see it disappear," says Jay Johnson, the board president of People's Action and a leader with Virginia Organizing.

In her community in Virginia, where shoppers are talking about health care in grocery lines, people are awakening not just to the personal benefits of government-guaranteed health care but also to the need to fight for it. In other words, they are becoming politicized, and skeptical of the vacant, deadly language Republicans are using to sell their plan -- words like choice, access and even freedom.

Peddling the health care repeal bill, House Speaker Paul Ryan tweeted his take, equating freedom with "the ability to buy what you want to fit what you need." Everyone from Twitter users to Fox host Chris Wallace pounced, letting the Speaker know that you can't pay the doctor with freedom, and insurers won't accept it, either.

Ryan's statement seems absurd because Republicans are in the position of taking away something that makes many people feel more free, not less. This tin ear has earned GOP politicians boos across the country as they faced constituents in heated town halls. The wave of opposition that swept the country during February's recess reflects both good organizing by grassroots groups and a real groundswell of popular anger.

This includes outrage from people who had never spoken out in this way before, and in places the Democratic party has been losing ground for years, like southwest Virginia or Erie County, Pennsylvania.

People have every reason to be scared to death. Their lives hanging in the balance, they already feel trapped by uncertainty and anxiety. They don't feel free. And for all of Ryan's talk of choice, cutting health care funding and driving people further into the arms of a rapacious market only limits the choices they can make in their lives.

All that's bad enough. But many of the protesters perceive a threat to their freedom that goes beyond the strictly personal.

In the town halls that scorched the news in February, the GOP's callous and undemocratic approach to health care appeared as a top issue of concern, but it wasn't the only one. Constituents also raised questions about the Trump administration's assault on immigrants and Muslims, on the environment, and on the Constitution as a whole. If the identity of our country is at stake, what we do with health care is one measure among many. And we can't be free if we're ceding control of our lives and our environment to corporate power while using state force to harm and delegitimize entire classes of people: immigrants, Muslims, criminals, the poor, queer people, African Americans.

Even with President Trump's unpopularity and growing opposition to the health care repeal, the Republicans may well eke out a legislative victory. That certainly seems to be the idea behind Ryan's freight-train strategy -- barrel the bill through without full discussion of what's in it. (The devastation the bill will wreak on Medicaid -- and not just the ACA expansion of it -- is the biggest underreported story in this process.)

But the dismantling of the ACA will haunt Republicans. Remember that the law is doing more than provide insurance to more than 20 million people who would otherwise be uninsured. It also begins to address some of the inequities built into our health care system. For example, the ACA protects through regulation transgender people from discrimination, requires mental health and substance abuse parity, and makes permanent the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

The attempt to dismantle the ACA, then, is more than an assault on a safety-net program. It's also part of the right's move to make our country even more exclusive, even more unequal -- and even more unfree.

That's not to say the ACA "finished the job." Far from it. For many, costs are still too high, and for too many the law reproduces the same exclusions as our immigration system. The ACA also doesn't safeguard health care from the realm of the profit motive and fully establish it as a public good.

But what's become increasingly clear to the public is that the Republicans have no ideas for addressing these shortfalls -- and no real intention of addressing them, either. They just don't see protection of the common good as part and parcel of our freedom.

But the left does believe that freedom and the common good go hand in hand, and we do have ideas. These ideas won't be unfamiliar to progressives: opening Medicare to all people living in the United States, negotiating lower drug prices from drug corporations, fully funding the Indian Health System, and funding public and nonprofit health care institutions that people trust, to name a few.

What's new is the opening that the callousness of the Trump administration and the GOP provides for holding up an alternate vision -- one in which what we want for health care reflects what we want for our country overall.

The resistance movement that has flowered in 2017 is built on expressions of solidarity many of us haven't seen in our lifetime. This movement reflects a commitment not just to a particular policy goal but a renewed desire to develop real political power for transforming our country. Fighting for universal health care is part of our fight for freedom.

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Categories: Latest News

Ramona Africa Talks MOVE, Liberation and Surviving 1985 Bombing

Wed, 03/22/2017 - 21:00

Ramona Africa, the sole living survivor of the US bombing of the MOVE home in Philadelphia. (Photo: Courtesy of Lamont Lilly) Former U.S. political prisoner, Ramona Africa, is the Minister of Communication for the MOVE Organization and a Philadelphia-based organizer with the International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal. She is also the only living survivor of the 1985 MOVE bombing, when the FBI and Philadelphia police dropped two C-4 bombs on her organization's Philadelphia home, killing 11 people.

Lamont Lilly: Ramona, for those who may be unfamiliar, what is the MOVE Organization? Who founded MOVE, and what is the organization about?

Ramona Africa: The MOVE Organization is a revolutionary organization founded by a Black man named John Africa. He brought people together from all different backgrounds, nationalities, religions, etc., and gave us one common revolutionary belief. That belief is in the sanctity, and all importance of life, on all levels, without exception. And it is that uncompromising belief commitment to life that has put us in direct conflict with the system that we're living under, a system that doesn't care anything about life -- whether it's the air, the water, the soil that feeds us, they don't care. But as members of MOVE, we are committed to life.

We were animal rights activists long before that term was ever invented. We were environmentalists before that term was ever invented. Everything that John Africa taught us has come full circle.

John Africa had even coordinated a raw food diet for us. He put us in touch with what our natural diet is. People said we were crazy, that we were going to get sick and make our children sick. "You can't eat raw food like that. You have to cook it," they would say. Now, what do we see, some 45 years later? You see raw food restaurants, from the West coast to the East coast. You see nutritionists now teaching the benefits of raw food.

John Africa even encouraged MOVE women to have babies naturally, at home. He would tell us, "When you're pregnant, you're not sick. You don't need a hospital to do something as natural as giving birth." No other species of life goes to a hospital to have a baby.

Another thing, in terms of composting, there's a new movement going on around this now. Well, MOVE was composting 45 years ago. But when we composted, people went crazy. But today, they put a cute little word on it called "composting" and all of a sudden, it's the "green" thing to do. We were also homeschooling, 45 years ago.

Lamont Lilly: When exactly did you become a member of MOVE? What period of life was this for you? How did joining MOVE change your life?

Ramona Africa: (Laughing) Oh wow, Lamont! That's a story within itself. I went to catholic school during my high school years. I had begged my mother to transfer me to a public school, but she wouldn't do it because she wanted me to have what she perceived as a "good education." She was also in my ear telling me to be a doctor, be a lawyer, be anything you want to be. So I went with that and decided to focus on the legal system. When I graduated from West Catholic High, I ended up going to Temple University and took up a pre-law curriculum.

It was in my last semester at Temple that I started a work-study program because I needed the money to pay for school. I got hired at community legal services, a free legal aid agency. They assigned me to the housing unit. You can't work in the Philadelphia housing unit without being an advocate for the poor. That's when I first started getting active in the community. That period marked my first arrest at the Philadelphia City Council. I eventually had to go to court for that arrest and met a brother named Mel, there. We exchanged numbers, and he would call me and tell me things that were going on. He called me one day and asked if I wanted to go to a meeting to plan a MOVE demonstration.

I lived in West Philadelphia all my life. I had heard about MOVE, but I didn't really know about MOVE. So I went to the meeting with him. We were supposed to go out that night after the meeting, but I got so wrapped up in the meeting, I wouldn't go anywhere (laughing). I was really impressed.

The second time I was arrested, the sentencing judge gave me 60 days in the county jail, the "house of corrections." But you know what, I tell everybody, I owe her a million thanks because she sent me to the county jail for two months, up close and personal with MOVE women. That was the best thing she could have ever done for me. When I walked out, there was no turning back. I wanted to be like MOVE women and became a member in 1979.

Lamont Lilly: It sounds like MOVE really provided a new sense of wholeness and purpose for you.

Ramona Africa: Yes, for me, but my mother had some issues. She was a beautician by trade, and obviously the first thing that struck her was my hair. She had a problem with my hair because, from the time I was knee-high, she would "do my hair" by washing it, pressing it, straightening it and curling it. So, when I let my hair grow and lock on its own, oh my goodness -- (laughing) she wasn't too happy about that.

This was after the Black Power Movement and long before the current period of being Black and unapologetic. A lot of sisters are rocking "naturals" now, but that wasn't the case in 1979. She also took issue with me not going to law school. I didn't even go to my graduation at Temple University when I finished undergrad.

 Lamont Lilly: You mentioned 'the system' earlier and what it had done, can you take us back to May 13, 1985? What happened that day?

Ramona Africa: The first thing that people should be aware of, is that the bombing took place on Monday, May 13, but the cops came out in mass, surrounding our home on Mother's Day, Sunday, May 12. They laid siege on our home, supposedly because neighbors were complaining about us. What MOVE was saying was that we weren't denying that some neighbors had complaints about us, but name one community in this entire country where some neighbor doesn't complain about the other.

Not only that, when has this government ever cared about Black folks complaining about their neighbors? When did that start? Anyone who believes that is foolish. Obviously, the U.S. government does not care about Black folks complaining, about their neighbors, or anything else for that matter. So that "complaining" excuse was just a lie.

They came out there to kill MOVE -- to silence our righteous protests, our unrelenting fight concerning the unjust imprisonment of our family members, the MOVE 9 (who were arrested on the false charge of killing a cop on August 8, 1978). That's why they came out.

They started just like they did in August of '78, with the fire department (who take an oath to run into burning buildings and save lives). But in May of 1985, they worked with the cops to kill off life, to kill off the MOVE organization. Firefighters turned the water hoses against us -- each hose pumping out 10,000 pounds of water pressure per minute. They had four of those hoses so that's 40,000 pounds of water pressure per minute. This water was being pumped out for hours, but there was no fire.

When that didn't drive us out, they breached 3-inch holes in the connecting walls of our house. They wanted to blow holes into the walls to insert tear gas, at least that's what they said. When they finished exploding what they "claimed" was supposed to be 3-inch holes in the wall -- the whole front of our house was blown away. So, when they started inserting tear gas, a lot of it was just coming right back out. That's when they opened fire on us, and according to them, shot 10,000 rounds of bullets in the first 90 minutes. They had to send to their arsenal for more ammunition.

We were all in the basement. We heard this loud noise that shook the whole house. We were in the basement, but there was still a lot of tear gas in the house that had not found its way out yet, and it started getting a little warmer in there.

As the smoke and gas got thicker, we were like "wait a minute, this is something else." We were listening and could hear the tree in the back of our house crackling as if it were on fire. That's when we realized that our house was actually on fire. We immediately tried to get our children, our animals and ourselves out of that blazing inferno. But at the point when we were trying to come out, and could be seen trying to come out, the cops opened fire on us, forcing us back in.

We tried several times to get out, but each time we were shot back into the house. This was a clear indication that they didn't intend for any of us to survive that attack. But finally, like the third time, we knew that we would either choke to death and be burned alive, or were going to be shot to death. So, we made one more attempt at it, to get out. I was closest and got outside the door. I got Birdie out. Everybody was lined up to come out after us.

It was not until they took me into custody and to the local hospital, that I was looking for the rest of my family, but nobody came in. I'm in the hospital and wondering what was going on. I didn't find out until I left the hospital and was taken to the police administration building (to the homicide unit). Only then, did I find out that there were no other survivors other than me and my young brother, Birdie Africa.

The police were contemplating charging me with the murder of my family.

They charged me with everything they did: possession of explosives, arson, causing a catastrophe, attempted murder, simple and aggravated assault. But the charges and warrant they came at me with were all dismissed when I was able to challenge them in the pretrial. They eventually dropped those charges. Oh, and I forgot. They also threw in "terroristic threats," which was ridiculous.

Lamont Lilly: So let me get this clear, after all that, you were charged with attempted murder and arson?

Ramona Africa: Yep. Yes, I was. And that was another eye-opener for me because when all the charges and the warrants that they came at me with were dismissed, it seems like anything that came from these bogus warrants would have to be dropped as well. If their reasons for being out there were invalid, then how could anything that was a result of their presence be valid? But they were never going to drop all the charges on me.

Lamont Lilly: Did you serve time for any of those charges?

Ramona Africa: Yes, I did. First of all, I had a US$4.5 million bail. US$4.5 million! I was in jail from May 1, 1985, up until May 13, 1992, because I was convicted of "rioting," if you can believe that. I was sentenced to 16 months and 7 years. When my 16-month minimum was up, I was told by the parole board that they would parole me, but only if I agreed to sever all ties with MOVE. Sever ALL ties! And I wasn't about to do that. Instead of being released at 16 months, I did the whole 7 years.

Lamont Lilly: Eleven people were murdered May 13, 1985. How many children died in that bombing?

Ramona Africa: Five children and six adults! And not one single official, on any level, was ever held accountable, ever charged with a single crime against MOVE. But yet, you have the MOVE 9 being called murderers and being imprisoned for 38 years, working on 39 years now. Meanwhile, the people that murdered 11 of my family members, publicly on May 13 of 1985, not one of them was ever held accountable.

Lamont Lilly: As a new generation accepts the baton of mass resistance, the Black Matters Movement, what words of advice would you share?

Ramona Africa: The first and most important thing is to never stop. Don't ever stop pushing and fighting. Don't ever give in! Be consistent. Don't allow yourselves to be disillusioned. Don't allow anyone or anything to buy you off. And don't allow yourselves to be compromised or co-opted, because trust me, they will try. You can definitely believe that!

This system will come at you with all kinds of things. All kinds! But if you fall for it, you're done. You're done, and that's what they bank on. They bank on people flaring up for an instant and then fizzling out.

One last thing I really want the young people to remember. We do this work out of love, not hate. Love for life and the people. Long live John Africa! Long live the revolution! Ona move!

Categories: Latest News

Former Lobbyist With For-Profit Colleges Quits Education Department

Wed, 03/22/2017 - 21:00

Also see: For-Profit Colleges Gain Influence in Trump Administration

A former lobbyist for an association of for-profit colleges resigned last Friday from the Department of Education, where he had worked for about a month.

As ProPublica reported last week, the Trump administration had hired Taylor Hansen to join the department's "beachhead" team, a group of temporary hires who do not require approval from the U.S. Senate for their appointments.

On the day Hansen resigned, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., sent a letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, citing ProPublica's reporting and requesting more information on Hansen's role.

"Mr. Hansen's recent employment history clearly calls into question his impartiality in dealing with higher education issues at the Department of Education, and raises alarming conflicts of interest concerns," she wrote.

Jim Bradshaw, an education department spokesman, told ProPublica in an email that the department was "grateful for [Hansen's] contributions."

"He served ably and without conflict and decided his service had run its course," said Bradshaw. Hansen did not immediately respond to ProPublica's request for comment. Bloomberg first reported Hansen's departure.

Hansen isn't the only hire from the for-profit college industry to join the Education Department via the beachhead team. The New York Times reported that Robert S. Eitel, a former compliance officer at for-profit college operator Bridgepoint Education Inc., is working at the department. Eitel, a former deputy general counsel at the Education Department from 2006 to 2009, has been a critic of federal regulations on for-profit colleges.

Warren also criticized Eitel's hiring in her letter to DeVos. She noted that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau last September ordered Bridgepoint, Eitel's former employer, to refund $23.5 million to students whom it had deceived into taking out loans that cost more than advertised. Bridgepoint is currently under investigation by the Department of Justice, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the attorneys general of New York, North Carolina, California and Massachusetts, Warren wrote.

Until July 2016, Hansen worked as a registered lobbyist for the nation's largest trade group of for-profit colleges, Career Education Colleges and Universities, or CECU. He lobbied to weaken a regulation known as "gainful employment," which permits the education department to rescind federal funding from schools whose students fail to earn enough to repay their debts.

Just weeks after Hansen was hired by the Education Department, it began scaling back the regulations by delaying the deadline of certain provisions of the gainful employment rule. The move gives colleges three extra months to submit appeals and publish disclosures about the high debt loads of their graduates, while the department reviews the implementation of the rule.

Hansen told ProPublica that he wasn't working on the gainful employment regulations at the department, but he would not specify his responsibilities. He declined to comment on whether his role raised a potential conflict of interest.

Hansen worked as CECU's director of legislative and regulatory affairs from December 2013 to July 2016 and was a registered lobbyist for the group for the first half of 2016. Over the past five years, CECU has spent about $3.5 million lobbying on behalf of its more than 600 member institutions, the majority of which are for-profit colleges.

Shortly after his inauguration, Trump relaxed the Obama administration's restrictions on hiring lobbyists. He issued an ethics order that allowed former lobbyists, such as Hansen, to work for agencies that they recently sought to influence. The policy does preclude former lobbyists from working on any "particular matter" on which they lobbied.

Hansen would have been ineligible to work at the Education Department under the Obama administration's policies.

Hansen's father, William Hansen, served in the early 2000s as deputy secretary of the Education Department, where he helped to roll back regulations on for-profit colleges. After leaving the department, William Hansen worked for several years as a lobbyist for Apollo Group Inc., the parent company of for-profit college chain the University of Phoenix.

Ben Miller, the senior director of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, said that the lack of transparency around Hansen's hiring raises concerns about temporary hires at the Education Department.

"His entire tenure shows we need much more information on how the beachhead teams work," Miller said.

Categories: Latest News

The Great Unraveling: Imagining the Shattered World of 2050

Wed, 03/22/2017 - 21:00

"Empires, like adolescents, think they'll live forever.... As a result, it can be hard to distinguish growing pains from death rattles. When the end comes, it's always a shock." In this excerpt from Splinterlands, written in the form of a fictitious journal from the year 2050, John Feffer offers a grim speculative account of how the world unraveled.

(Photo: Pexels; Edited: LW / TO)

In a striking new novel, John Feffer imagines a dystopian yet all too familiar future in which the world's superpowers have fractured, global temperatures have soared, the global economy has collapsed and violent nationalism prevails. Order Splinterlands today by making a tax-deductible donation to Truthout!

In this excerpt from Splinterlands, written in the form of a fictitious journal from the year 2050, Feffer offers a grim speculative account of how the world unraveled.

Water boils most fiercely just before it disappears. And so it is, evidently, with human affairs.

Before all hell broke lose in 1914, the world witnessed an unprecedented explosion of global trade at levels that would not be seen again for more than six decades. Before the Nazis took over in 1933, Germans in the Weimar Republic were enjoying an extraordinary blossoming of cultural and political liberalism. Before the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, Soviet scholars were proudly pointing to rising rates of intermarriage among the many nationalities of the federation as a sign of ever-greater social cohesion.

And in 2018, just before the great unraveling, the world still seemed to be in a frenzy of what was then labeled "globalization." The volume of world trade was at an all-time high. Facebook had created a network of 3 billion active users. People on every continent were dancing to Drake, watching the World Cup final, and eating sushi. At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, more people were on the move as migrants and refugees than at any time since the end of World War II. Borders, between countries and cultures, seemed to be crumbling everywhere. Once divided into a relatively stable mosaic of nation-states, the world was becoming liquid, a rainbow swirl.

Before 2018, almost everyone believed that time's arrow pointed in the direction of greater integration. Some hoped (and others feared) that the world was converging on ever-larger conglomerations of nations. The internationalists campaigned for a United Nations that had some actual political power. The free traders imagined a frictionless global market where identical superstores would sell the same products at all their global locations and happy consumers would sing the same jingles in the universal language of commerce. The technotopians prophesied a world united by Twitter and Instagram: a republic of social media. Officially, more and more countries were committing themselves to diversity, multiculturalism, and the cosmopolitan ideals of liberty, equality, and individualism. Pundits had already proclaimed the advent of a flat world, a borderless world, a McWorld.

In those years, people were so busy crossing borders -- real and conceptual -- that they barely registered the growing backlash.

Everything began to change in the mid-teens of this century, a phenomenon I first chronicled in Splinterlands. That book, it turned out, would be the foundational text for a new discipline that came to be called geo-paleontology. I shouldn't have been taken aback by my book's success. Everyone likes a good scary tale, even one dressed up in statistics and footnotes. And the best horror stories are never about zombies or vampires or bug-eyed aliens. They're always about the everyday terrors right in front of us. I was the first to point out what should have been obvious to anyone with a modicum of realism: the world was falling to pieces -- and not in slow motion either.

As a middle-aged scholar in 2020, I practically created geo-paleontology. (We used to joke that we were the only historians with true 2020 hindsight). What we geo-paleontologists do is dig around in archives to exhume the extinct: all the empires and federations and territorial unions that have gone the way of the dinosaurs. We're interested in how the mighty are brought low. We look at the small fragments that remain and try to reconstruct what were once giants. During the twenties and thirties, when the modern-day giants were falling left and right, we were all the rage, less because of our acuity as historians and more because of our supposed prescience as prognosticators. As a result, we received a fair share of criticism for our supposed twist on Whig history.  But such controversies have long since become academic. Now that everyone is accustomed to the world as it is, they are less interested in how this world came to be. As a result, my profession is becoming as extinct as its subject matter.

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Today in 2050, ever fewer people can recall what it was like to live among those leviathans. In my youth, we imagined lumbering dinosaurs like Russia and China and the European Union enduring regardless of the global convulsions around them. Of course, at that time, our United States still functioned as its name suggests rather than as the current motley collection of regional fragments fighting over a diminishing resource base.

Empires, like adolescents, think they'll live forever. In geopolitics, as in biology, expiration dates are never visible. As a result, it can be hard to distinguish growing pains from death rattles. When the end comes, it's always a shock. Consider the clash of the titans in World War I. Four enormous empires -- the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and German -- went into that conflict imagining that victory would give them not just a new lease on life, but even more territory to call their own. And all four came crashing down. The war was horrific enough, but the aftershocks just kept piling up the bodies. The flu epidemic of 1918-1919 alone, which soldiers unwittingly transported from the trenches to their homelands, wiped out at least 50 million people worldwide. This, too, was globalization -- of death. It would have been impossible to imagine such an outcome in 1913 when the silkworms of modernity -- the telephone, the ocean liner -- were spinning gossamer threads to enclose the world in a cozy cocoon.

When dinosaurs collapse, they crush all manner of smaller creatures beneath them. Who today remembers the final throes of the colonial empires in the mid-twentieth century with their staggering population transfers, fierce insurgencies, and endless proxy wars -- even if the infant states that emerged from those bloody afterbirths gained a measure of independence?

Copyright (2016) by John Feffer. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, Haymarket Books.

Categories: Latest News

Release of Arctic Methane "May Be Apocalyptic," Study Warns

Wed, 03/22/2017 - 21:00

An impending release of methane hydrate across the Arctic could potentially doom life on Earth, according to a new study in a prestigious journal. The Permian Mass Extinction event that occurred 250 million years ago, annihilating 90 percent of species, was largely due to methane hydrate.

On a lake, plumes of gas, most likely methane from the breakdown of carbon in sediments below the lake, keep the water from freezing in spots, outside Fairbanks, Alaska, October 21, 2011. With temperatures warming across much of that region, which scientists primarily believe is because of the rapid human release of greenhouse gases, permafrost is also warming, and signs are emerging that frozen carbon may be destabilizing. (Photo: Josh Haner / The New York Times)

A scientific study published in the prestigious journal Palaeoworld in December issued a dire -- and possibly prophetic -- warning, though it garnered little attention in the media.

"Global warming triggered by the massive release of carbon dioxide may be catastrophic," reads the study's abstract. "But the release of methane from hydrate may be apocalyptic."

The study, titled "Methane Hydrate: Killer Cause of Earth's Greatest Mass Extinction," highlights the fact that the most significant variable in the Permian Mass Extinction event, which occurred 250 million years ago and annihilated 90 percent of all the species on the planet, was methane hydrate.

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In the wake of that mass extinction event, less than 5 percent of the animal species in the seas lived, and less than one-third of the large land animal species made it. Nearly all the trees died.

Methane hydrate, according to the US Office of Fossil Energy, "is a cage-like lattice of ice inside of which are trapped molecules of methane, the chief constituent of natural gas."

While there is not a scientific consensus around the cause of the Permian Mass Extinction, it is widely believed that massive volcanism along the Siberian Traps in Russia led to tremendous amounts of CO2 being added to the atmosphere. This then created enough warming to cause the sudden release of methane from the Arctic sea floor, which kicked off a runaway greenhouse effect that led to sea-level increase, de-oxygenation, major oceanic circulation shifts and increased acidification of the oceans, as well as worldwide aridity on land.

The scenario that humans have created by way of the industrial growth society is already mimicking these eventualities, which are certain to worsen.

"The end Permian holds an important lesson for humanity regarding the issue it faces today with greenhouse gas emissions, global warming, and climate change," the abstract of the recent study concludes.

As the global CO2 concentration continues to climb each year, the threat of even more abrupt methane additions continues to escalate along with it.

The Methane Time Bomb

The methane hydrate situation has, for years now, been referred to as the Arctic Methane Time Bomb, and as been studied intensely.

A 2010 scientific analysis led by the UK's Met Office, published in the journal Review of Geophysics, states clearly that the time scale for the release of methane in the Arctic would be "much shorter for hydrates below shallow waters, such as in the Arctic Ocean," adding that "significant increases in methane emissions are likely, and catastrophic emissions cannot be ruled out.… The risk of rapid increase in [methane] emissions is real."

A 2011 study of the Eastern Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS), conducted by more than 20 Arctic experts and published in the Proceedings of the Russian Academy of Sciences, concluded that the shelf was already a powerful supplier of methane to the atmosphere. The conclusion of this study stated that the methane concentration in the atmosphere was at levels capable of causing "a considerable and even catastrophic warming on the Earth."

Scientists have been warning us for a number of years about the dire consequences of methane hydrates in the Arctic, and how the methane being released poses a potentially disastrous threat to the planet. There has even been a study showing that methane released in the Arctic could trigger "catastrophic climate change" that would cost the global economy $60 trillion.

Of course, that level of planetary heating would likely extinguish most life on the planet, so whatever the economic costs might be would be irrelevant.

"Highly Possible at Any Time"

The ESAS is the largest ice shelf in the world, encompassing more than 2 million square kilometers, or 8 percent of the world's total area of continental shelf.

In 2015, Truthout spoke with Natalia Shakhova, a research associate professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks' International Arctic Research Center, about the ESAS's methane emissions.

"These emissions are prone to be non-gradual (massive, abrupt) for a variety of reasons," she told Truthout. "The main reason is that the nature of major processes associated with methane releases from subsea permafrost is non-gradual."

Shakhova warned that a 50-gigaton -- that is, 50-billion-ton -- "burp" of methane from thawing Arctic permafrost beneath the ESAS is "highly possible at any time."

This, Shakhova said, means that methane releases from decaying frozen hydrates could result in emission rates that "could change in order of magnitude in a matter of minutes," and that there would be nothing "smooth, gradual or controlled" about it. She described it as a "kind of a release [that] is like the unsealing of an over-pressurized pipeline."

In other words, we could be looking at non-linear releases of methane in amounts that are difficult to fathom.

A study published in the prestigious journal Nature in July 2013 confirmed what Shakhova had been warning us about for years: A 50-gigaton "burp" of methane from thawing Arctic permafrost beneath the East Siberian sea is highly possible.

Such a "burp" would be the equivalent of at least 1,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide. (For perspective, humans have released approximately 1,475 gigatons in total carbon dioxide since the year 1850.)

The UK's Met Office considers the 50-gigaton release "plausible," and in a paper on the subject added, "That may cause ∼12-times increase of modern atmospheric methane burden, with consequent catastrophic greenhouse warming."

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