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‘Our Democracy Is Sick’: Progressive Groups Join Forces to Ensure Voting Rights and End Corporate Sabotage of Common Good

In Climate change, Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Peace, Politics, Public Health, Race on November 1, 2018 at 12:34 am

Common Dreams, October 30, 2018

“Today our system is in crisis,” warns the new Declaration for American Democracy. “Together we must build a democracy where everyone participates, every vote is counted, voting rights are fully enforced, and everyone’s voice is heard.”

The Declaration for American Democracy

The Declaration for American Democracy, a coalition of 100+ national groups committed to fundemental reforms in the U.S. political system, will officially launch its campaign the day after this year’s upcoming midterm elections. (Photo: declarationforamericandemocracy.org)

Increasingly alarmed by powerful corporate and wealthy interests that have pushed the U.S. political system toward “impending constitutional catastrophe,” nearly 100 national organizations on Tuesday announced that they are coming together for a campaign that aims to take back the country’s democratic institutions by fighting for “the structural changes necessary to rebalance power for people.”

“Our democracy is sick, and it’s not an accident.”
—Ezra Levin, Indivisible

“Today our system is in crisis,” warns the Declaration for American Democracy’s mission statement (pdf). “Together we must build a democracy where everyone participates, every vote is counted, voting rights are fully enforced, and everyone’s voice is heard.”

The coalition—which includes groups focused on the environment, reproductive rights, labor conditions, election security, criminal justice reform, and a host of other issues—vows to “work collectively to create and pass a series of fundamental reforms to rebalance our moneyed political system, empower everyday Americans, ensure equal justice for all, protect the public’s right to know, reduce barriers to participation in our elections, vigorously enforce voting laws, and fix our ethics laws.”

Their campaign officially begins on Nov. 7, the day after the upcoming midterm elections. Members include the Brennan Center for Justice, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), CODEPINK, Common Cause, Credo Action, Demand Progress, Demos, Greenpeace, Indivisible, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, MoveOn.org, the NAACP, NARAL Pro-Choice America, People’s Action, Planned Parenthood, Public Citizen, SEIU, Sierra Club, the Working Families Party, and dozens of other organizations.

“Our democracy is sick, and it’s not an accident. This is the result of a decades-long campaign to disenfranchise communities of color and reduce government’s responsiveness to the will of the people,” said Ezra Levin, co-executive director of Indivisible. “Opponents of democracy in America engage in acts of sabotage in order to entrench their own power and reward their donors. But that is about to change. America is ready for a bold vision for 21st century democracy.”

“The stakes for our civil and human rights are too high for inaction,” declared Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, another coalition member. “Voter suppression and intimidation, efforts to undermine a fair and accurate census, and corruption scandals are just a few reasons why we must advance an affirmative vision to build an America as good as its ideals.”

That vision includes protecting reproductive rights and access to healthcare, charged NARAL president Ilyse Hogue. “We deserve to live in a country where women, not out-of-touch politicians fueled by ideological and politically motivated interest groups, have the freedom to make the most personal decisions about if, when and how to grow their families,” she said. “It’s time that our democracy was fueled by elected officials willing to fight for our values, our futures and our votes.”

“We deserve a republic that truly serves the people rather than the private interests of public officials and wealthy political donors.”
—Lisa Gilbert, Public Citizen

It also includes taking rapid actions to address the climate crisis and safeguard environmental protections. As Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune pointed out, “corporate polluters have been flooding our political system with big money for too long, spending unprecedented millions to try to keep people from voting while propping up politicians who push their dirty agenda rather than the things the American people care about most, like clean air and water, safe communities and family-sustaining jobs.”

As the anti-choice movement, the fossil fuel industry, and other corporate powers have poured money into political lobbying to bolster policies that endanger public health and undermine U.S. democracy, the Trump administration’s “catastrophic ethical failings have exposed the gaps in our system of ethics laws,” noted CREW executive director Noah Bookbinder.

“Only by winning foundational reforms to our politics, can we hope to move forward the substantive policies that are so important to the American people—from protecting our environment, to fighting for consumers and working families, to improving our health care and lowering prescription drug prices and more,” concluded Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs for Public Citizen. “We deserve a republic that truly serves the people rather than the private interests of public officials and wealthy political donors.”

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Time to Stop Playing “Simon Says” with James Madison and Alexander Hamilton

In Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Politics, Race on July 16, 2018 at 7:17 am
by PAUL STREET
 

The People as a Problem to be Contained

As the United States’ depressed, distracted, disorganized, and demobilized populace watches the vicious white-nationalist and authoritarian Donald Trump and the arch-reactionary Republican Party craft a Supreme Court yet further to the right of majority public opinion, the worst of the nation’s slave-owning Founders might just be heard chuckling in their graves.

Democracy – the rule of the majority – was the last thing the nation’s aristo-republican Founders wanted to see break out in their new republic. Drawn from the elite propertied segments in the new nation, most of the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention shared their compatriot John Jay’s view that “Those who own the country ought to govern it.” As the celebrated U.S. historian Richard Hofstader noted in his classic 1948 text, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It:“In their minds, liberty was linked not to democracy but to property.” Democracy was a dangerous concept to them, conferring “unchecked rule by the masses,” which was “sure to bring arbitrary redistribution of property, destroying the very essence of liberty.”

Protection of “property” (meaning the people who owned large amounts of it) was “the main object of government” for all but one of the U.S. Constitution’s framers (James Wilson), as constitutional historian Jennifer Nedelsky has noted. The non-affluent, non-propertied and slightly propertied popular majority was for the framers what Nedelsky calls “a problem to be contained.”

Anyone who doubts the anti-democratic character of the Founders’ world view should read The Federalist Papers, written by the leading advocates of the U.S. Constitution to garner support for their preferred form of national government in 1787 and 1788. In Federalist No. 10, James Madison argued that democracies were “spectacles of turbulence … incompatible with … the rights of property.” Democratic governments gave rise, Madison felt, to “factious leaders” who could “kindle a flame” among dangerous masses for “wicked projects” like “abolition of debts” and “an equal division of property. … Extend the [geographic] sphere [of the U.S. republic],” Madison wrote, and it becomes “more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength and act in union with each other.”

At the Constitutional Convention, Madison backed an upper U.S. legislative assembly (the Senate) of elite property holders meant to check a coming “increase of population” certain to “increase the proportion of those who will labour under all the hardships of life, and secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings” [emphasis added]. “These may in time outnumber those who are placed above the feelings of indigence. According to the equal laws of suffrage, the power will slide into the hands of the former.”

In Federalist No. 35, the future first U.S. secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton, argued that the common people found their proper political representatives among the small class of wealthy merchant capitalists. “The idea of an actual representation of all classes of people by persons of each class,” Hamilton wrote, “is altogether visionary.” The “weight and superior acquirements of the merchants render them more equal” than the “other classes,” Hamilton proclaimed.

Somebody tell Lin-Manuel Miranda!

Checkmating Popular Sovereignty

The New England clergyman Jeremy Belknap captured the fundamental idea behind the U.S. Founders’ curious notion of what they liked to call “popular government.” “Let it stand as a principle,” Belknap wrote to an associate in the late 1780s, “that government originates from the people, but let the people be taught…that they are unable to govern themselves.”

It wasn’t just about teaching “the people” that they were incapable of self-rule, however. The Constitution was designed to make sure the popularity majority couldn’t govern itself even if it thought it could. The rich white fathers crafted a form of “popular government” (their deceptive term) that was a monument to popular incapacitation.

The U.S. Constitution divided the federal government into three parts, with just one-half of one of those three parts (the House of Representatives) elected directly by “the people”—a category that excluded blacks, women, Native Americans and property-less white males (that is, most people in the early republic). It set up elaborate checks and balances to prevent the possibility of the laboring multitude influencing policy. It introduced a system of intermittent, curiously time-staggered elections (two years for the House, six years for the Senate, and four years for the presidency) precisely to discourage sweeping popular electoral rebellions It created a Supreme Court appointed for life (by the president with confirmation power restricted to the Senate) with veto power over legislation or executive actions that might too strongly bear the imprint of the “secretly sigh[ing]” multitude.

It sanctified the epic “un-freedom” and “anti-democracy” of black slavery, permitting slave states to count their disenfranchised chattel toward their congressional apportionment in the House of Representatives.

The Constitution’s curious Electoral College provision guaranteed that the popular majority would not directly select the U.S. president—even on the limited basis of one vote for each propertied white male. It is still in effect.

U.S. Americans did not directly vote for U.S. senators for the first 125 years of the federal government.  The Constitution said that senators were to be elected by state legislatures, something that was changed only by the Seventeen Amendment in 1913.

It is true that the Constitution’s Article V provided a mechanism technically permitting “We the People” to alter the nation’s charter. But the process for seriously amending the U.S. Constitution was and remains exceedingly difficult, short of revolution and/or  civil war. As the progressive Constitution critic Daniel Lazare observes,

“Moments after establishing the people as the omnipotent makers and breakers of constitutions, [the 1787 U.S. Constitution] announced that … [c]hanging so much as a comma in the Constitution would require the approval of two-thirds of each house of Congress plus three-fourths of the states. … The people did not assert their sovereignty in Philadelphia in 1787. Rather, the founders invoked it. Once they uttered the magic incantation, moreover, they hastened to put the genie back in the bottle by declaring the people all but powerless to alter their own plan of government.”

U.S. progressives have long advocated constitutional amendments meant to more properly align U.S. politics and policy with public opinion and basic democratic values. But Article V is too steep a barrier for that, on purpose. Under its rule today, 13 of the nation’s 50 states can disallow constitutional changes while containing just more than 4 percent of the nation’s population. (It took the secession and military defeat of the slave South between 1861 and 1865 [the Civil War] to pass amendments abolishing slavery and granting citizenship and the suffrage to former slaves (new forms of Black slavery and racist disenfranchisement nonetheless took hold in the South during and after the Reconstruction era).

Don’t like that?  Too bad. Simon – well a bunch of slave-owners and other really rich guys and their holy national charter near the end of the 18th century – says.

 

Indirect Selection

The U.S. Constitution was written and enacted late in the1780s, when the infant republic’s masters wore powdered wigs, slavery was still the law of the land (as it would for nearly eight more decades), and (speaking of powdered wigs) the Bourbons still ruled in France.  Here we are more than two-and-a-quarter centuries later, still dealing on numerous levels with the purposefully authoritarian consequences of the nation’s founding charter.

It’s a little, well, pathetic.

The Constitution is no small part of how a majority-progressive nation that votes primarily (though with little enthusiasm) for a centrist party, the Democrats (viewed unfavorably by 51 percent of U.S.-Americans) is ruled by an ever more right-wing  government led by an arch- reactionary white-nationalist party, the Republicans.  So what if the GOP is viewed unfavorably by 59 percent of the U.S. populationand backs a hated president who is disapproved of by a super-majority of the citizenry?

Look at the Electoral College system, designed to curb democracy and expressly crafted to elevate the power of the slave states. By giving each state an extra vote for both senators they send to Washington (no matter how small or large each state’s populations), it triples the clout of the nation’s eight smallest states and doubles that of the next six smallest states relative to their populations.

For the fifth time in history and the second in this century, the Electoral College in 2017 installed a president who failed to win the national popular vote. Donald Trump, the biggest popular vote-loser to ever inhabit the White House, is a racist, sexist, authoritarian, uber-plutocratic, and malignant megalomaniac and narcissist. He’s an ecocidal climate change-denier who should not be allowed anywhere near the nation’s energy policy or its nuclear codes. It’s not for nothing that even the depressing and highly unpopular “lying neoliberal warmonger”Hillary Clinton polled 2.8 million more votesthan he did last November.

The extensively despised orange monstrosity made it into the world’s most powerful and dangerous job thanks in no small part to the Electoral College, which renders presidential campaigning irrelevant (and close to nonexistent) in most of the nation, gives absurdly outsized weight to disproportionately white and right-leaning rural states and openly violates the core democratic principles of majority rule and one-person, one-vote.

Along with some help from the constitutionally super-empowered Supreme Court, the openly ludicrous Electoral College is also part of how popular vote-loser George W. Bush (who criminally invaded Iraq partly out of the belief that doing so was God’s will) ascended to the presidency in 2000-2001.

The Senate is even more skewed to the right. The GOP holds a majority in the upper chamber thanks in no small part to the simple and expressly anti-democratic slant the Constitution gives—in the name of “equal suffrage for the states”—the 2 percent of Americans who live in the nation’s nine smallest states have the same amount of senatorial representation as the 51 percent who live in the nation’s nine largest states.

Wyoming, home to more than 586,000 Americans, holds U.S. senatorial parity with California, where more than 39 million Americans reside. Due to “a growing population shift from the agricultural interior to crowded corridors along the coast,” Lazare explains, “it is possible now to win the majority of the U.S. Senate with just 17.6 percent of the popular vote.”

That is completely insane, from a democratic perspective anyway.

It’s all coming into ugly authoritarian and racist play right now to create a right-wing Supreme Court ready to rule in defiance of majority progressive public opinion for a generation at least. Thanks to Trump’s Electoral College victory, to the Republican-run U.S. Senate’s “check and balance” refusal to let Barack Obama appoint a Supreme Court justice to fill the vacancy left by the death of Antonin Scalia, and to the resignation of two Supreme Court justice since Trump came in, the ultra-right GOP is about to solidify its control the appointed-for-life Supreme Court by getting its second hard-right justice appointed to the high court within one year.

Don’t like it?  Too bad. Simon, I mean the Constitution, says!

 

Gerrymander Rules

And then there’s the House of Representatives, where the widely hated Republican Party enjoys a 47-vote majority even though it outpolled the (admittedly dismal) Democrats by just over 1 percent in House races in 2016.  Even with the Trump-tainted GOP finding approval from just  one in three U.S.-Americans and with Republicans 17 percent less enthusiastic than Democrats about voting in the 2018 mid-term elections, it is not inconceivable that the rightmost of the two parties could retain its hold over the House in 2018 and 2020.

This reflects the widespread geographic manipulation of House district lines in such a fashion as to unduly advantage the Republican Party.  This partisan-geopolitical gerrymandering process is led by the nation’s mostly Republican-controlled state legislatures.  This is in accord with the federalist principle laid out in Article 4, section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, which proclaims that “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof…” Effectively, this means that state legislatures are granted primary authority to regulate federal elections, including how their congressional district lines are to be drawn.

It is true that Article 4 goes on to say that “the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Place of Chusing Senators.” Technically, then, Congress is the ultimate authority, and may supersede state laws on how districts are drawn.  It has done this in the past, requiring (in 1967) single-member districts (compelling voters to elect only one candidate to represent their district) and forcing states to enhance racial and ethnic minority groups’ representation. The federal courts have interpreted the Constitution to require that House districts hold roughly equal populations.

Still, Congress has never mandated a congressional redistricting process, something that has left states free to draw districts in accord with partisan considerations. And good luck getting “our” right-wing federal judiciary not to back  Republican challenges to any serious efforts at national democratic redistricting reform.

 

“The American People Have Input Every Four Years”

In some rich nations operating with parliamentary systems, terrible presidents or prime ministers can be forced to call or accede to new national elections. Such an action is of course unthinkable in the U.S.  Simon – I mean the slaveholders 18thCentury Constitution- says that qualified voters go to the polls to select presidents once every four years, national senators (apportioned two per state regardless of wildly different population sizes among the nation’s 50 states) once every six years, and (lower) House representatives (apportioned in accord with population but along now strictly gerrymandered geographical lines) once every two years. As George W. Bush’s White House spokesperson Dana Perino explained in March of 2008 when asked if the citizenry should have “input” on U.S. foreign policy: “You had your input. The American people have input every four years, and that’s the way our system is set up” [emphasis added].

Perino was on all-too-strong constitutional ground. So was Trump when he tweeted in response to the historic mass demonstrations that followed his inauguration: “Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn’t these people vote?” Never mind that most of the marchers did vote (for the horrific “lying neoliberal warmonger”) or that most U.S. citizens think public opinion should matter to presidents between elections.

Constitutional Simon Says you get to select a U.S. president in a voting booth for two minutes or so once every 1,460 days. Well, except you don’t really vote directly for the president. The U.S. presidential vote is filtered through the explicitly anti-democratic Electoral College, which has (to repeat) delivered the White House to a loser of the popular in 2 of the last presidential elections.

You get to vote for a US House member in a voting both for a few minute once every 730 days. You get to vote for each of your US Senators once every 1095 days.

To make matters worse, the choices on offer to voters in U.S. presidential, Senate, and House elections are almost always (with painfully few exceptions) reflect a narrow selection  between two corporate and imperialist candidates, one a Democrat and the other a Republican – representatives of dollar-drenched political organizations that function as “two wings of the same bird of prey” (Upton Sinclair, 1904). That, too, is related to the Constitution, as I will suggest below.

You don’t vote for Supreme Court justices, really. The president, for whom you don’t vote directly, does, subject to approval only from the upper Congressional body, the Senate, which absurdly overrepresents the rural and white populace. And the Supremes are appointed for life, which can be a long time.

 

Hello, Mike Pence?

You can push “your” Congressional “representatives” to advocate Trump’s impeachment (by the House) and removal (by the Senate). Trump has certainly given the House numerous grounds for impeachment, but the barriers to removal are high. The two houses of Congress, the absurdly gerrymandered House and the ridiculously unrepresentative Senate, are both under the control of the president’s broadly hated nominal party, the Republicans, and the Republicans are determined to get everything they can from Trump when it comes to advancing their radically regressive, racist, ecocidal and arch-plutocratic agenda. It takes a two-thirds vote in the Senate to remove a president. It’s never happened (though Richard Nixon would have likely been impeached and removed had he not resigned).

But what would impeachment and removal give the nation under the preposterously revered U.S. Constitution but the presidency of arch-right-wing Republican Mike Pence? You think Trump is scary? Pence is a white nationalist Christian proto-fascist under whose rule the hard-right agenda that most of the populace hates might be advanced more effectively than it is ever under Trump.

Constitution says that impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate makes the monstrous homophobe Pence POTUS.

Don’t like it?  Too bad. Simon, I mean the Constitution, says.

 

Money Is Speech: Simon Says

So “suck it up, buttercup” and get back in shape for the next strictly time-staggered and Constitutionally mandated quadrennial electoral extravaganza to vote a Democrat into the White House, right? Really? Why bother? Notice the quote marks I used three two paragraphs above (“You can push ‘your’ Congressional ‘representatives’”). Everyone who follows US politics and policy with more than three functioning gray cells knows very well that both of the nation’s reigning two “viable” political parties are controlled by the wealthy few in New Gilded Age America, where the top 1 Percent owns more than 90 percent of the nation’s wealth and a nearly equivalent percentage of its “democratically elected” office-holders. As the distinguished political scientists Benjamin Page (Northwestern) and Martin Gilens (Princeton) show in their important new volume Democracy in America?:

“the best evidence indicates that the wishes of ordinary Americans actually have had little or no impact on the making of federal government policy. Wealthy individuals and organized interest groups—especially business corporations—have had much more political clout. When they are taken into account, it becomes apparent that the general public has been virtually powerless . . . The will of majorities is often thwarted by the affluent and the well-organized, who block popular policy proposals and enact special favors for themselves . . . Majorities of Americans favor . . . programs to help provide jobs, increase wages, help the unemployed, provide universal medical insurance, ensure decent retirement pensions, and pay for such programs with progressive taxes. Most Americans also want to cut ‘corporate welfare.’ Yet the wealthy, business groups, and structural gridlock have mostly blocked such new policies [and programs] (emphasis added).”

Whichever party or whatever party configuration holds power in Washington and the state capitals, mammon reigns in the United States, where, Page and Gilens note, “government policy . . . reflects the wishes of those with money, not the wishes of the millions of ordinary citizens who turn out every two years to choose among the pre-approved, money-vetted candidates for federal office” (emphasis added).

Thanks to this “oligarchy,” as Page and Gilens call it, the United States ranks at or near the bottom of the list of rich nations when it comes to key measures of social health: economic disparity, inter-generational social mobility, racial inequality, racial segregation, infant mortality, poverty, child poverty, life expectancy, violence, incarceration, depression, literacy/numeracy, and environmental sustainability and resilience

The Democrats are every bit as corporatized and sold-out to the financial plutocracy and its military empire—to the capitalist class and system that emerged out of national development under the rule of the propertied elite the founders worked so brilliantly to protect—as the Republicans. This is thanks in part to the outrageously outsize role that big-money campaign contributions play in determining the outcomes of the nation’s evermore absurdly expensive elections.

And that role is traceable at least in part to the U.S. Constitution. The ridiculously worshipped Founders created the Supreme Court as a critical appointed-for-life check on the popular will. And in two landmark decisions, Buckley v. Valeo(1976) and Citizens United(2010), the high court has ruled that private campaign contributions are “free speech” and that there are no “constitutional” limits to be set on how much the rich and powerful can invest in the giant organized bribery project that is U.S. campaign finance.

As the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis is supposed to have said in 1941, “We must make our choice. We may have democracy in this country, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”

Protecting and expanding “wealth concentrated in the hands of the few” was the central purpose of government as conceived by the nation’s idiotically honored Founders.  They brilliantly constructed a charter, a set of rules for national policy and politics, designed to advance that purpose.

 

Left Electoral Dreaming

Let’s imagine that voters were still somehow able to get a domestically progressive and egalitarian, social-democratic Democrat—imagine a younger, more telegenic and gutsier Bernie Sanders (who damn near made it even at his advanced age in 2016)—into the White House. How much difference would it make? Besides the obstructionist hell he or she would catch from the corporate media and the blockage he or she would face from the Supreme Court, he or she would likely face steady, additional, potent “check and balance” impediments from corporate-captive Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

Along with corporate media ownership and big-money campaign-finance power – both among the many interrelated oligarchic outcomes of the capitalism brought to us by the propertied elite that the founders/framers carefully and skillfully safeguard from the populace in the name of “popular government” – the over-representation of right-wing rural states in the U.S. Senate militates against a progressive takeover of Congress. So does the widespread systematic gerrymandering of districts in the House of Representatives.

Want to form a politically relevant and more genuinely progressive and egalitarian third party beyond the radically regressive and reactionary Republicans and the dismal, dollar-drenched Democrats? The founders’ holy charter is not on your side. It encourages winner-take-all, first-past-the-post elections tied to specific geographical district lines. There’s no provision for proportional representation to accommodate and make legislative room for third or fourth parties not yet miraculously ready to compete and win pluralities in their relevant electoral jurisdictions.

Around the planet, constitutions do not last very long. As Zachary Elkins, Thomas Ginsburg and James Melton noted in their book, The Endurance of National Constitutions (2009), “The mean lifespan [of national constitutions] across the world since 1789 is 17 years. … [Since] World War I, the average lifespan of a constitution … [is] 12 years.”

The U.S. is different. Its absurdly venerated and purposefully democracy-disabling Constitution has remained in place with occasional substantive amendments for 230 years. We’ve bowed down and prayed to the ridiculously fetishized, openly anti-democratic U.S Constitution for as long as I can remember.

 

Simon Says Suicide

It’s pathetic and self-destructive. Trying to advance democracy and protect the common good under the procedures of a slaveowners’ charter designed precisely to cripple and prevent popular self-rule and to protect and advance oligarchy is a fools’ game.  The rules of the game were written to guarantee popular defeat a very long time ago. It’s long past time to stop playing by those rules altogether – and to write a new rule book, a people’s constitution.

Surrender is not an option, however, given capitalism’s Constitutionally-encouraged war on the common good, with its now evidently grave ecological consequences.  In our struggles to save humanity and other sentient beings from the ever more imminent fate of capitalogenic Geocide, we must demand a new national charter, committed to the Holy Founders’ ultimate nightmare: popular sovereignty in defense and advance of the commons, broadly understood.  Playing “Simon Says” with Virginia slaveholders and merchant capitalists and their clever statesmen from the 1780s is mass suicide in 2018.

How Memphis Gave Up on Dr. King’s Dream

In Democracy, Human rights, Justice, Politics, Race on April 6, 2018 at 6:43 am

By Wendi C. Thomas, New York Times, March 30, 2018
MEMPHIS — The 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on April 4 should have been an opportunity for the nation — and especially those who live in the city where he was killed — to reckon with the issue that he died fighting for: the right of workers to earn a living wage.

But for that reckoning to happen, we must acknowledge that the economic system and political structures that perpetuated poverty then are still in force now. And that the people who keep workers poor still too often get a pass.

In the last years of his life, with Jim Crow in retreat, Dr. King turned to what he labeled the three evils — poverty, militarism and racism — that kept black people in bondage. In 1968, he was planning the Poor People’s Campaign when black ministers invited him to Memphis to show support for about 1,300 black sanitation workers who had gone on strike after years of low wages and poor working conditions.

Henry Loeb III, anti-union and pro-segregation, was the city’s mayor. Born in 1920 in Memphis, he graduated from Phillips Academy and Brown, then served in the military during World War II before returning to Memphis to join his family’s laundry business, which was founded in 1887.

According to the historian Mantri Sivananda, whose 2002 Ph.D. dissertation focused on Loeb, the company’s records from 1900 to 1925 showed that wages “were not revised according to the increasing cost of living.” Loeb’s Laundry, which fought off a 1945 strike, continued to keep the wages of its hundreds of workers — most of whom were black women — low. By 1968, the company boasted that it was the South’s oldest and largest laundry business, with more than 60 locations.

Henry Loeb, who was sworn in for his second term as Memphis mayor shortly before sanitation workers went on strike.CreditGrey Villet/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty ImagesA 1961 federal wage survey of the laundry industry noted that of four regions nationwide, wages were lowest in the South. And of the 27 metropolitan areas surveyed, average hourly wages were lowest in Memphis. Over the years, the Loebs bought out much of their competition, and their policies most likely played a role in depressing the entire region’s wages in the laundry industry.

In 1956, before Loeb became mayor, he was a city commissioner, where he ran the Public Works division. When it came to fixing sidewalks and paving roads in white neighborhoods, Loeb spent liberally. But he skimped on the Sanitation Department, forcing the garbagemen to work with obsolete, dangerous machinery.

Loeb served two nonconsecutive terms as mayor, between which his brother bought his share of the laundry business. He ran as a fiscal conservative, promising to balance the city’s budget even if it cost workers their jobs. He balked at appointing blacks to any important city government jobs and resisted attempts to integrate public schools. But it was in Loeb’s second term that he set in motion events that still stain the city’s psyche. On Feb. 1, 1968, just a month after he took the oath of office, a dilapidated garbage truck malfunctioned, crushing two sanitation workers to death.

Angry about their co-workers’ needless deaths, fed up with the poor pay and demanding union recognition, black sanitation workers went on strike on Feb. 12. On March 18, Dr. King came to Memphis to encourage the strikers and their supporters, preaching to a full house at Mason Temple. Ten days later, Dr. King tried to lead a march to City Hall. But it deteriorated into looting and police violence. Then on April 4, during Dr. King’s third trip to Memphis on behalf of the workers, he was shot while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel.

Because Loeb refused to negotiate with the strikers or recognize their union, Time magazine blamed him for creating the conditions that brought Dr. King to town to meet his death. The strike would be settled on April 16, with an agreement that acknowledged the workers’ union and raised their wages.
Image

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, right, leading a march in Memphis for the sanitation workers on March 28.CreditSam Melhorn, The Commercial Appeal, via Associated Press
Just eight months later, Mayor Loeb’s brother, William, continued the family’s antagonism toward organized labor. When laundry plant workers scheduled a vote on joining the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s Laundry and Dry Cleaning International Union, William Loeb gathered them in the cafeteria. If they brought in a union, he told them, he’d close the plant and get out of the laundry business altogether.

That threat, the National Labor Relations Board later ruled, constituted an unfair labor practice. The board ordered the laundry to post a notice that read, in part: “We will respect the rights of our employees to self-organization, to form, join or assist any labor organization.”

By then, the Loebs owned dozens of laundries, often paired with convenience stores and barbecue restaurants on the same site, all reliant on low-wage labor. Over the next 20 years, as the family closed those businesses, they sold the properties and used the proceeds to upgrade to better lots. Today, Loeb Properties — run by two of Mayor Loeb’s nephews, Robert and Louis Loeb — is an empire, managing more than two million square feet of commercial, retail, industrial and residential property in and around Memphis, much of it in the city’s most expensive shopping strips. The company’s management team consists of 13 employees, all of them white.

Today, the city of Memphis is 64 percent black and 30 percent white. Memphis is the poorest large metropolitan area in the country, yet business leaders manage to spin underpaid workers as a plus, not a shame. As recently as last year, the Chamber of Commerce website noted that Memphis offers a “work force at wage rates that are lower than most other parts of the country.” Since 1968, high school and college graduation rates have soared for black residents, but median black household income remains stubbornly half that of white households.

Capitalism, Dr. King said in Chicago in 1967, was “built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor.” The problems of racial injustice and economic injustice, he continued, “cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”

Police officers confronted striking sanitation workers in downtown Memphis.CreditBettmann Archive, via Getty Images
In a statement, Robert Loeb claimed that his father, William, had put black entrepreneurs in business as franchisees of Loeb’s Barbecue restaurants, something he called “unheard-of in Memphis at that time.” His father, he said, had “endeavored to be part of the solution,” while his brother, the mayor, “steadfastly remained part of the problem.”

Yet Memphis today is a stark reminder of how much of Dr. King’s dream we’ve ignored. And in a way, Loeb Properties is an example of how little has changed. Instead of radical redistribution, we have yet another generation of Loebs poised to profit from low-wage labor. And local government is helping them do just that: Last year, Loeb Properties received a $6.1 million tax incentive to build a boutique hotel.

The project will create 65 jobs, 45 of which will be in housekeeping and food service and will have an average base pay of less than $20,000 a year. Economic vitality for the Loebs means hardship for these hotel workers, most of whom are likely to be African-American, since the city is nearly two-thirds black. Every time I see a Loeb Properties “For Lease” sign — and there are dozens across the city — I remember those underpaid black laundresses. And I am angry for the hotel workers who will be underpaid.

Is it any wonder that the black-white wealth gap has only widened since the Great Recession? Or that the income gap in the Memphis region has barely budged? Or that campaigns such as Fight for $15, which has raised wages for millions of workers but has stalled in many places, are necessary? Or that the new Poor People’s Campaign is as urgently needed today as the one Dr. King was planning just before he was killed?

It was Dr. King who said: “Many white Americans of good will have never connected bigotry with economic exploitation. They have deplored prejudice but tolerated or ignored economic injustice.” What have we done with Dr. King’s sacrifice? Too little.

Inequality is created and maintained by those who benefit from the labor of underpaid workers. Those people have names. Their names should be known.

Wendi C. Thomas, a former columnist for The Commercial Appeal of Memphis, is the editor and publisher of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a news project focused on economic justice.

What is socialism?

In Climate change, Cost, Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear abolition, Peace, Politics, Public Health, Race on March 27, 2018 at 10:12 am

By Tom Mayer, Peace Train Column for Friday March 23, 2018

Many people understand that socialism is a possible alternative to capitalism in the modern world, but few know what socialism really means. The nature of an economic system depends upon which social class controls the means of production. Power over the means of production enables the controlling class to govern the entire economic system.

Three basic economic systems (each with many variations) are possible in a modern technologically advanced society: capitalism, state collectivism, and socialism. Under capitalism the owners of productive property (i.e. capitalists) control the means of production. Capitalism is the economic system that currently exists in most parts of the world. Under state collectivism the government bureaucracy controls the means of production. State collectivism was the economic system of Communist countries like the Soviet Union and is often mistaken for socialism. Under socialism working people collectively control the means of production. Although some societies have adopted a few socialist institutions (e.g. economic planning, free health care, cooperative banks) there has never been a full-fledged socialist society in the modern world.

Socialism has five principal goals. (1) Sustainability: the economic system must be organized to sustain human life on our planet for the indefinite future. (2) Equality: the economic system must move towards complete economic equality. All forms of work are equally valued. Complete equality is the long term goal, but limited inequality based upon differential contributions to the economy exists initially. (3) Comprehensive Democracy: all major economic and political decisions are made through genuine democratic processes. (4) Personal Security: all fundamental personal needs are guaranteed by society. This guarantee includes food, clothing, shelter, health care, education, child care, elder care, etc. The levels at which personal needs are guaranteed increase as the socialist economic system matures. (5) Solidarity: a spirit of mutual support, cooperation, and friendship is created among all people. Socialist solidarity contrasts with the egoism and competitiveness fostered by capitalism.

What social institutions can achieve these five socialist goals? Socialists have different views on this subject, particularly on the issue of whether socialism should use markets. Here are some of the institutions proposed by socialists: (a) a democratic state that invites maximum participation and frequent circulation of political officials; (b) democratic and self-governing councils of workers and consumers; (c) jobs balanced for difficulty and desirability by workers councils (hazardous and unpleasant work being divided among all competent adults); (d) compensation according to effort as determined by fellow workers; (e) democratic and participatory economic planning in which workers councils have a major part; (f) use of computers and extensive feedback to reach a feasible and sustainable economic plan.

Building socialism in the context of a capitalist society involves a three prong strategy: (i) consciousness raising – developing socialist consciousness within the capitalist public; (ii) institution building – creating socialist institutions based upon cooperation, equality, and rational planning within capitalist society (e.g. workers cooperatives, strong labor unions, environmental regulation); (iii) political organizing – establishing an effective political party committed to socialism that contests for power within the capitalist political system.

The Ghost of Fascism in the Age of Trump

In Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Peace, Politics, Race, War on February 19, 2018 at 1:44 am

By Henry A. Giroux

http://www.truth-out.org/author/itemlist/user/44709

In the age of Trump, history neither informs the present nor haunts it with repressed memories of the past. It simply disappears. Memory has been hijacked. This is especially troubling when the “mobilizing passions” of a fascist past now emerge in the unceasing stream of hate, bigotry, lies and militarism that are endlessly circulated and reproduced at the highest levels of government and in powerful conservative media, such as Fox News, Breitbart News, conservative talk radio stations and alt-right social media. Power, culture, politics, finance and everyday life now merge in ways that are unprecedented and pose a threat to democracies all over the world. This mix of old media and new digitally driven systems of production and consumption are not merely systems, but ecologies that produce, shape and sustain ideas, desires and modes of agency with unprecedented power and influence. Informal educational apparatuses, particularly the corporate-controlled media, appear increasingly to be on the side of tyranny. In fact, it would be difficult to overly stress the growing pedagogical importance of the old and new media and the power they now have on the political imaginations of countless Americans.

This is particularly true of right-wing media empires, such as those owned by Rupert Murdoch, as well as powerful corporate entities such as Clearwater, which dominates the radio airwaves with its ownership of over 1,250 stations. In the sphere of television ownership and control, powerful corporate entities have emerged, such as Sinclair Broadcast Group, which owns the largest number of TV stations in the United States. In addition, right-wing hosts, such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have an audience in the millions. Right-wing educational apparatuses shape much of what Americans watch and listen to, and appear to influence all of what Trump watches and hears. The impact of conservative media has had a dangerous effect on American culture and politics, and has played the most prominent role in channeling populist anger and electing Trump to the presidency. We are now witnessing the effects of this media machine. The first casualty of the Trump era is truth, the second is moral responsibility, the third is any vestige of justice, and the fourth is a massive increase in human misery and suffering for millions.

Instead of refusing to cooperate with evil, Americans increasingly find themselves in a society in which those in commanding positions of power and influence exhibit a tacit approval of the emerging authoritarian strains and acute social problems undermining democratic institutions and rules of law. As such, they remain silent and therefore, complicit in the face of such assaults on American democracy. Ideological extremism and a stark indifference to the lies and ruthless polices of the Trump administration have turned the Republican Party into a party of collaborators, not unlike the Vichy government that collaborated with the Nazis in the 1940s. Both groups bought into the script of ultra-nationalism, encouraged anti-Semitic mobs, embraced a militant masculinity, demonized racial and ethnic others, supported an unchecked militarism and fantasies of empire, and sanctioned state violence at home and abroad.

Words carry power and enable certain actions; they also establish the grounds for legitimating repressive policies and practices.

This is not to propose that those who support Trump are all Nazis in suits. On the contrary, it is meant to suggest a more updated danger in which people with power have turned their backs on the cautionary histories of the fascist and Nazi regimes, and in doing so, have willingly embraced authoritarian messages and tropes. Rather than Nazis in suits, we have a growing culture of social and historical amnesia that enables those who are responsible for the misery, anger and pain that has accompanied the long reign of casino capitalism to remain silent for their role and complicity in the comeback of fascism in the United States. This normalization of fascism can be seen in the way in which language that was once an object of critique in liberal democracies loses its negative connotation and becomes the opposite in the Trump administration. Politics, power and human suffering are now framed outside of the realm of historical memory. What is forgotten is that history teaches us something about the transformation and mobilization of language into an instrument of war and violence. As Richard J. Evans observes in his The Third Reich in Power:

Words that in a normal, civilized society had a negative connotation acquired the opposite sense under Nazism … so that ‘fanatical’, ‘brutal’, ‘ruthless’, ‘uncompromising’, ‘hard’ all became words of praise instead of disapproval… In the hands of the Nazi propaganda apparatus, the German language became strident, aggressive and militaristic. Commonplace matters were described in terms more suited to the battlefield. The language itself began to be mobilized for war.

Fantasies of absolute control, racial cleansing, unchecked militarism and class warfare are at the heart of much of the American imagination. This is a dystopian imagination marked by hollow words, an imagination pillaged of any substantive meaning, cleansed of compassion and used to legitimate the notion that alternative worlds are impossible to entertain. There is more at work here than shrinking political horizons. What we are witnessing is a closing of the political and a full-scale attack on moral outrage, thoughtful reasoning, collective resistance and radical imagination. Trump has normalized the unthinkable, legitimated the inexcusable and defended the indefensible.

Of course, Trump is only a symptom of the economic, political and ideological rot at the heart of casino capitalism, with its growing authoritarianism and social and political injustices that have been festering in the United States with great intensity since the late 1970s. It was at that point in US history when both political parties decided that matters of community, the public good, the general welfare and democracy itself were a threat to the fundamental beliefs of the financial elite and the institutions driving casino capitalism. As Ronald Reagan made clear, government was the problem. Consequently, it was framed as the enemy of freedom and purged for assuming any responsibility for a range of basic social needs. Individual responsibility took the place of the welfare state, compassion gave way to self-interest, manufacturing was replaced by the toxic power of financialization, and a rampaging inequality left the bottom half of the US population without jobs, a future of meaningful work or a life of dignity.

The call for political unity transforms quickly into the use of force and exclusionary violence to impose the authority of a tyrannical regime.

Trump has added a new swagger and unapologetic posture to this concoction of massive inequality, systemic racism, American exceptionalism and ultra-nationalism. He embodies a form of populist authoritarianism that not only rejects an egalitarian notion of citizenship, but embraces a nativism and fear of democracy that is at the heart of any fascist regime.

How else to explain a sitting president announcing to a crowd that Democratic Party congressional members who refused to clap for parts of his State of the Union address were “un-American” and “treasonous”? This charge is made all the more disturbing given that the White House promoted this speech as one that would emphasize “bipartisanship and national unity.” Words carry power and enable certain actions; they also establish the grounds for legitimating repressive policies and practices. Such threats are not a joking matter and cannot be dismissed as merely a slip of the tongue. When the president states publicly that his political opponents have committed a treasonous act — one that is punishable by death — because they refused to offer up sycophantic praise, the plague of fascism is not far away. His call for unity takes a dark turn under such circumstances and emulates a fascist past in which the call for political unity transforms quickly into the use of force and exclusionary violence to impose the authority of a tyrannical regime.

In Trump’s world, the authoritarian mindset has been resurrected, bent on exhibiting a contempt for the truth, ethics and alleged human weakness. For Trump, success amounts to acting with impunity, using government power to sell or to license his brand, hawking the allure of power and wealth, and finding pleasure in producing a culture of impunity, selfishness and state-sanctioned violence. Trump is a master of performance as a form of mass entertainment. This approach to politics echoes the merging of the spectacle with an ethical abandonment reminiscent of past fascist regimes. As Naomi Klein rightly argues in No Is Not Enough, Trump “approaches everything as a spectacle” and edits “reality to fit his narrative.”

As the bully-in-chief, he militarizes speech while producing a culture meant to embrace his brand of authoritarianism. This project is most evident in his speeches and policies, which pit white working- and middle-class males against people of color, men against women, and white nationalists against various ethnic, immigrant and religious groups. Trump is a master of theater and diversion, and the mainstream press furthers this attack on critical exchange by glossing over his massive assault on the planet and enactment of policies, such as the GOP tax cuts, which are willfully designed to redistribute wealth upward to his fellow super-rich billionaires. Trump’s alleged affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels garners far more headlines than his deregulation of oil and gas industries and his dismantling of environment protections.

Economic pillage has reached new and extreme levels and is now accompanied by a ravaging culture of viciousness and massive levels of exploitation and human suffering. Trump has turned language into a weapon with his endless lies and support for white nationalism, nativism, racism and state violence. This is a language that legitimates ignorance while producing an active silence and complicity in the face of an emerging corporate fascist state.

Like most authoritarians, Trump demands loyalty and team membership from all those under his power, and he hates those elements of a democracy — such as the courts and the critical media — that dare to challenge him. Echoes of the past come to life in his call for giant military parades, enabling White House press secretary Sarah Sanders to call people who disagree with his policies “un-American,” and sanctioning his Department of Justice to issue a “chilling warning,” threatening to arrest and charge mayors with a federal crime who do not implement his anti-immigration policies and racist assaults on immigrants. What can be learned from past periods of tyranny is that the embrace of lawlessness is often followed by a climate of terror and repression that is the essence of fascism.

Whether Trump is a direct replica of the Nazi regime has little relevance compared to the serious challenges he poses.

In Trump’s world view, the call for limitless loyalty reflects more than an insufferable act of vanity and insecurity; it is a weaponized threat to those who dare to challenge Trump’s assumption that he is above the law and can have his way on matters of corruption, collusion and a possible obstruction of justice. Trump is an ominous threat to democracy and lives, as Masha Gessen observes, “surrounded by enemies, shadowed by danger, forever perched on the precipice.” Moreover, he has enormous support from his Vichy-like minions in Congress, among the ultra-rich bankers and hedge fund managers, and the corporate elite. His trillion-dollar tax cut has convinced corporate America he is their best ally. He has, in not too subtle ways, also convinced a wide range of far-right extremists extending from the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis to the deeply racist and fascist “alt-right” movement, that he shares their hatred of people of color, immigrants and Jews. Imaginary horrors inhabit this new corporate dystopian world and frighteningly resemble shades of a terrifying past that once led to unimaginable acts of genocide, concentration camps and a devastating world war. Nowhere is this vision more succinctly contained than in Trump’s first State of the Union Address and the response it garnered.

State of Disunion

An act of doublespeak preceded Donald Trump’s first State of the Union Address. Billed by the White House as a speech that would be “unifying” and marked by a tone of “bipartisanship,” the speech was actually steeped in divisiveness, fear, racism, warmongering, nativism and immigrant bashing. It once again displayed Trump’s contempt for democracy.

Claiming “all Americans deserve accountability and respect,” Trump nevertheless spent ample time in his speech equating undocumented immigrants with the criminal gang MS-13, regardless of the fact that undocumented immigrants commit fewer crimes than US citizens. (As Juan Cole points out, “Americans murdered 17,250 other Americans in 2016. Almost none of the perpetrators was an undocumented worker, contrary to the impression Trump gave.”)

For Trump, as with most demagogues, fear is the most valued currency of politics. In his speech, he suggested that the visa lottery system and “chain migration” — in which individuals can migrate through the sponsorship of their family — posed a threat to the US, presenting “risks we can just no longer afford.” In response to the Dreamers, he moved between allegedly supporting their bid for citizenship to suggesting they were part of a culture of criminality. At one point, he stated in a not-too-subtle expression of derision that “Americans are dreamers too.” This was a gesture to his white nationalist base. On Twitter, David Duke, the former head of the Ku Klux Klan, cheered over that remark. Trump had nothing to say about the challenges undocumented immigrants face, nor did he express any understanding of the fear and insecurity hanging over the heads of 800,000 Dreamers who could be deported.

Trump also indicated that he was not going to close Guantánamo, and once again argued that “terrorists should be treated like terrorists.” Given the history of torture associated with Guantánamo and the past crimes and abuses that took place under the mantle of the “war on terror,” Trump’s remarks should raise a red flag, not only because torture is a war crime, but also because the comment further accelerated the paranoia, nihilist passions and apocalyptic populism that feeds his base.

Fascism is hardly a relic of the past or a static political and ideological system.

Pointing to menacing enemies all around the world, Trump exhibited his love for all things war-like and militaristic, and his support for expanding the nuclear arsenal and the military budget. He also called on “the Congress to empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers — and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.” Given his firing of James Comey, his threat to fire Jeff Sessions, and more recently his suggestion that he might fire Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein — all of whom allegedly displayed disloyalty by not dismantling the Russian investigation conducted by Special Council Mueller — Trump seems likely to make good on this promise to rid the federal workforce of those who disagree with him, allowing him to fill civil service jobs with friends, family members and sycophants. This is about more than Trump’s disdain for the separation of power, the independence of other government agencies, or his attack on potential whistleblowers; it is about amassing power and instilling fear in those he appoints to government positions if they dare act to hold power accountable. This is what happens when democracies turn into fascist states.

Trump is worse than almost anyone imagined, and while his critics across the ideological spectrum have begun to go after him, they rarely focus on how dangerous he is, hesitant to argue that he is not only the enemy of democracy, but symptomatic of the powerful political, economic and cultural forces shaping the new US fascism.

There are some critics who claim that Trump is simply a weak president whose ineptness is being countered by “a robust democratic culture and set of institutions,” and not much more than a passing moment in history. Others, such as Wendy Brown and Nancy Fraser, view him as an authoritarian expression of right-wing populism and an outgrowth of neoliberal politics and policies. While many historians, such as Timothy Snyder and Robert O. Paxton, analyze him in terms that echo some elements of a fascist past, some conservatives such as David Frum view him as a modern-day self-obsessed, emotionally needy demagogue whose assault on democracy needs to be taken seriously, and that whether or not he is a fascist is not as important as what he plans to do with his power. For Frum, there is a real danger that people will retreat into their private worlds, become cynical and enable a slide into a form of tyranny that would become difficult to defeat. Others, like Corey Robin, argue that we overstep a theoretical boundary when comparing Trump directly to Hitler. According to Robin, Trump bears no relationship to Hitler or the policies of the Third Reich. Robin not only dismisses the threat that Trump poses to the values and institutions of democracy, but plays down the growing threat of authoritarianism in the United States. For Robin, Trump has failed to institute many of his policies, and as such, is just a weak politician with little actual power. Not only does Robin focus too much on the person of Trump, but he is relatively silent about the forces that produced him and the danger these proto-fascist social formations now pose to those who are the objects of the administration’s racist, sexist and xenophobic taunts and policies.

The ghosts of fascism should terrify us, but most importantly, they should educate us and imbue us with a spirit of civic justice.

As Jeffrey C. Isaac observes, whether Trump is a direct replica of the Nazi regime has little relevance compared to the serious challenges he poses; for instance, to the DACA children and their families, the poor, undocumented immigrants and a range of other groups. Moreover, authoritarianism is looming in the air and can be seen in the number of oppressive and regressive policies already put into place by the Trump administration that will have a long-term effect on the United States. These include the $1.5 trillion giveaway in the new tax code, the expansion of the military-industrial complex, the elimination of Obamacare’s individual mandate, the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and a range of deregulations that will impact negatively on the environment for years to come. In addition, there is the threat of a nuclear war, the disappearance of health care for the most vulnerable, the attack on free speech and the media, and the rise of the punishing state and the increasing criminalization of social problems. As Richard J. Evans, the renowned British historian, observes, “Violence indeed was at the heart of the Nazi enterprise. Every democracy that perishes dies in a different way, because every democracy is situated in specific historical circumstances.”

US society has entered a dangerous stage in its history. After 40 years of neoliberalism and systemic racism, many Americans lack a critical language that offers a consistent narrative that enables them to understand gutted wages, lost pensions, widespread uncertainty and collapsing identities due to feeling disposable, the loss of meaningful work and a formative culture steeped in violence, cruelty and an obsession with greed. Moreover, since 9/11, Americans have been bombarded by a culture of fear and consumerism that both dampens their willingness to be critical agents and depoliticizes them. Everyone is now a suspect or a consumer, but hardly a critically engaged citizen. Others are depoliticized because of the ravages of debt, poverty and the daily struggle to survive — problems made all the worse by Trump’s tax and health policies. And while there is no perfect mirror, it has become all the more difficult for many people to recognize how the “crystalized elements” of totalitarianism have emerged in the shape of an American-style fascism. What has been forgotten by too many intellectuals, critics, educators and politicians is that fascism is hardly a relic of the past or a static political and ideological system.

Trump is not in possession of storm troopers, concentration camps or concocting plans for genocidal acts — at least, not at the moment. But that does not mean that fascism is a moment frozen in history and has no bearing on the present. As Hannah Arendt, Sheldon Wolin and others have taught us, totalitarian regimes come in many forms and their elements can come together in different configurations. Rather than dismiss the notion that the organizing principles and fluctuating elements of fascism are still with us, a more appropriate response to Trump’s rise to power is to raise questions about what elements of his government signal the emergence of a fascism suited to a contemporary and distinctively US political, economic and cultural landscape.

What seems indisputable is that under Trump, democracy has become the enemy of power, politics and finance. Adam Gopnik refutes the notion that Trumpism will simply fade away in the end, and argues that comparisons between the current historical moment and fascism are much needed. He writes:

Needless to say, the degradation of public discourse, the acceleration of grotesque lying, the legitimization of hatred and name-calling, are hard to imagine vanishing like the winter snows that Trump thinks climate change is supposed to prevent. The belief that somehow all these things will somehow just go away in a few years’ time does seem not merely unduly optimistic but crazily so. In any case, the trouble isn’t just what the Trumpists may yet do; it is what they are doing now. American history has already been altered by their actions — institutions emptied out, historical continuities destroyed, traditions of decency savaged — in ways that will not be easy to rehabilitate.

There is nothing new about the possibility of authoritarianism in a particularly distinctive guise coming to the US. Nor is there a shortage of works illuminating the horrors of fascism. Fiction writers ranging from George Orwell, Sinclair Lewis and Aldous Huxley to Margaret Atwood, Philip K. Dick and Philip Roth have sounded the alarm in often brilliant and insightful terms. Politicians such as Henry Wallace wrote about American fascism, as did a range of theorists, such as Umberto Eco, Arendt and Paxton, who tried to understand its emergence, attractions and effects. What they all had in common was an awareness of the changing nature of tyranny and how it could happen under a diverse set of historical, economic and social circumstances. They also seem to share Philip Roth’s insistence that we all have an obligation to recognize “the terror of the unforeseen” that hides in the shadows of censorship, makes power invisible and gains in strength in the absence of historical memory. A warning indeed.

Trump represents a distinctive and dangerous form of US-bred authoritarianism, but at the same time, he is the outcome of a past that needs to be remembered, analyzed and engaged for the lessons it can teach us about the present. Not only has Trump “normalized the unspeakable” and in some cases, the unthinkable, he has also forced us to ask questions we have never asked before about capitalism, power, politics, and yes, courage itself. In part, this means recovering a language for politics, civic life, the public good, citizenship and justice that has real substance. One challenge is to confront the horrors of capitalism and its transformation into a form of fascism under Trump. This cannot happen without a revolution in consciousness, one that makes education central to politics.

Moreover, as Fredric Jameson has suggested, such a revolution cannot take place by limiting our choices to a fixation on the “impossible present.” Nor can it take place by limiting ourselves to a language of critique and a narrow focus on individual issues. What is needed is also a language of hope and a comprehensive politics that draws from history and imagines a future that does not imitate the present. Under such circumstances, the language of critique and hope can be enlisted to create a broad-based and powerful social movement that both refuses to equate capitalism with democracy and moves toward creating a radical democracy. William Faulkner once remarked that we live with the ghosts of the past, or to be more precise: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

However, we are not only living with the ghosts of a dark past; it is also true that the ghosts of history can be critically engaged and transformed into a democratic politics for the future. The Nazi regime is more than a frozen moment in history. It is a warning from the past and a window into the growing threat Trumpism poses to democracy. The ghosts of fascism should terrify us, but most importantly, they should educate us and imbue us with a spirit of civic justice and collective courage in the fight for a substantive and inclusive democracy. The stakes are too high to remain complacent, cynical or simply outraged. A crisis of memory, history, agency and justice has mushroomed and opened up the abyss of a fascist nightmare. Now is the time to talk back, embrace the radical imagination in private and public, and create united mass based coalitions in which the collective dream for a radical democracy becomes a reality. There is no other choice.

Why the moral argument for nonviolence matters

In Human rights, Justice, Nonviolence, Peace, Politics, Race, War on January 18, 2018 at 11:13 am

Kazu Haga May 5, 2017

“Bernard? Oh yeah, he’s great. He was always the principles guy.”

That was what an old Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, organizer told me when I mentioned that I had been trained by Bernard Lafayette, co-author of the Kingian Nonviolence curriculum and a legend of the civil rights era.

“I was always a strategies guy,” this elder went on to tell me. “I believed in nonviolence as an effective strategy, but Bernard was always talking about nonviolence as a principle.”

I let out a little laugh. In that moment, I was proud to have been trained by “the principles guy.”

When people talk about nonviolence in the context of social change, they’re typically talking about nonviolent organizing, nonviolent direct action, nonviolent civil resistance; arenas where the word “nonviolence” is only an adjective describing the absence of physical violence within a set of tactics and strategies. The philosophy of nonviolence and the moral question of violence are often considered too messy or complicated, even by those who do believe it to be a principle.

The civil rights movement was led largely by leaders who believed in nonviolence as a moral imperative. It was not only the most effective thing, but also the right thing. While Martin Luther King Jr. and his closest allies held to this belief, some other movement leaders — as well as the vast majority of people who mobilized for the movement — only understood nonviolence as a strategy.

Most of the movements I have participated in, even those that had a strict policy of nonviolence, tend to shy away from the moral question — possibly for fear of turning away potential participants.

And I get that. Making the argument that nonviolence should be seen as a way of life is a much harder sell than convincing people that it is the most effective strategy to accomplish a goal. Convincing people to remain nonviolent during a demonstration is a lot easier than convincing people to look at how to practice nonviolence in all areas of our life.

We find ourselves in an urgent moment in history. From climate change to the Trump agenda, we do not have the luxury to wait until tomorrow. We need a movement today. So maybe trying to make the moral argument is not the most strategic thing.

But King taught us that it is never the wrong time to do the right thing. And so, I believe the time is right to make the argument that violence itself is our biggest enemy.

Honoring violence

Making the moral argument for nonviolence does not mean placing a moral judgment on those who use or advocate for violence, especially as a means for self-defense.

As an advocate for nonviolence, I have learned a great deal from the likes of the Black Panther Party, the Zapatistas, the Deacons for Defense and the anarchists in the Spanish Civil War, among others. Their struggles and sacrifices should never be discounted, nor should we ignore the many lessons from their movements.

We should also never judge those who have used violence for self-defense in interpersonal relationships — abusive relationships, robberies, assaults, etc. If people felt like that was their only means of protecting themselves, I only pray that they were okay.

Finally, we need to acknowledge the extreme levels of violence that many people are born into because of systemic injustice. We put people into generations of poverty and invest in a culture of violence, then judge them for reacting with violence? As inarticulate as it may be, even riots are typically a cry for peace from a people who have never had it.

So violence can be an effective tool to protect yourself and others against a threat, and it can be used to express outrage about injustice. There is great value in both.

Yet violence is also limited in one very important way, and that is that violence can never create relationships.

Violence can never get you closer to reconciliation, closer to King’s “beloved community,” the reconciled world with justice for all people. And that is perhaps the most significant difference between a principled nonviolent approach and an approach using violence or nonviolence that is strictly strategic. The goals are different.

Resolution vs. reconciliation

In movements that are violent or simply use nonviolent tactics, the goal is victory, where victory is defined as “your” people beating “those” people to win your demands. The victory is over your opponents. But in a principled approach, there is no victory until you’ve won your opponents over.

In a principled nonviolent approach, the goal is always reconciliation and steps toward beloved community. The goal is always to build and strengthen relationships and to bring people and communities together, not separate them. If we are not able to find ways to bring communities together, we will always have separation, violence and injustice.

Even if you are able to achieve short-term gains, if relationships between people were harmed in the conflict and you are further away from each other as a result, then it is not a victory at all. If only your tactics are nonviolent and not your worldview, whatever issue you’re working on may get resolved, but the relationships don’t get repaired.

It was a team of incarcerated Kingian Nonviolence trainers in Soledad Prison that taught me this during a conversation we were having about the difference between conflict resolution and conflict reconciliation.

Conflict resolution is about fixing issues. Conflict reconciliation is about repairing relationships. Resolving an issue is about the mind. It’s about policies, structures, laws — the causes of violence. Reconciling a relationship is about the heart. It’s about the people, the stories, the history — the human impact of violence.

The levels of violence today are so heightened that there will be times when movements will need to use assertive and militant nonviolent tactics to stop the immediate harm and demand change.

As Marshall Rosenberg, the founder of nonviolent communication, says, we need to, “use the minimum amount of force necessary to stop the immediate harm.” And we never think about what the “minimum amount” looks like.

That is the realm of nonviolent strategies and tactics like noncooperation and civil disobedience. Tactics that could stop the construction of a pipeline, pass voter protection laws or even lead to a political revolution.

But if we stop there, the relationships between the communities are still divided, and there could still be fear, mistrust and resentment. If the human relationships are not healed, the conflict will resurface again on some other issue. Any peace gained through political revolution but not a revolution of relationships is short-lived.

Reconciliation is what a principled nonviolent approach demands.

The need for healing

The very nature of violence is unjust. As Rev. James Lawson, one of the lead trainers for the civil rights movement, has said, “Violence has a very simple dynamic. I make you suffer more than I suffer. I make you suffer until you cry uncle.” It is the very idea that we can use force, fear and intimidation to get what we want that is our enemy.

Because violence hurts. Period.

We all know that. We’ve all experienced it — physical, emotional and spiritual. It hurts to get punched, but it hurts more to feel abandoned, alone, ashamed, hopeless, desperate, unworthy, afraid, used. And too often, we are made to feel those things by people in our own families, in our own movements, in our own communities.

Being committed to a principled approach to nonviolence requires us to look at the pain that we carry ourselves, and the pain that we inflict on each other within our communities. It is easy to point the finger and say that the violence is “over there.”

I have talked to too many people who shared that the traumas they carry were only re-triggered and made worse by the violence they witnessed within movements. When we say that we are committed to nonviolence, we are not only saying that we want to stop the violence “over there” that “those people” are committing. We also try to work on the ways we ourselves perpetuate harm as a result of our own unhealed traumas. We are working to heal our own selves as much as anyone we perceive as our enemies. We are working to change how we relate to each other in own communities as much as we are working to change any policy.

Whether you live in an impoverished community or work in law enforcement where your job is to dehumanize people all day, we are not a healthy society. It hurts to witness violence, it hurts to experience violence, and it hurts to inflict violence. Each causes trauma.

Yes, we need to fight. But only so that we can create spaces to heal and to build.

Beloved community

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

This universal truth comes out in many cultures and traditions throughout the world. The aboriginal peoples in Australia teach us, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

That is the vision of beloved community. A world where we acknowledge our interdependence — our “inter-being,” as Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says.

My liberation is bound up in yours. That is a beautiful concept, and a popular quote in many progressive circles. But to what extent do we really believe it? Is our liberation bound up with the liberation of some and not others? How about people who voted for Donald Trump or people who have hurt us personally? Who draws that line? Do some people fall out of the “network of mutuality” that King talked about?

What does it look like to work together to “liberate” those who commit harm? What does it mean to acknowledge that being oppressed hurts, but being an oppressor also destroys your soul? The privileges of being an oppressor doesn’t take away the violence that gets internalized when you hurt someone.

Beloved community is not about loving the people who are easy to love. It is about cultivating “agape” — a Greek word for unconditional love for all of humanity, including those who are difficult to love.

King said that the civil rights movement was a movement for the bodies of black folks and the souls of white folks. He acknowledged that being a white supremacist destroys your soul. To have so much judgment and hatred in your heart is an act of violence you do to yourself, and part of the goal of the movement was to help them. To bring them back into the network of mutuality and to remind them that they are part of beloved community.

Because our liberation depends on it.

Faith in people

The core of the theory of nonviolence for me has become an unwavering faith in the nature of humanity. That at our core, we are a species that wants to live in peace and wants to be in service and relationship; that we have the resiliency to heal no matter how hurt we are, and we have the ability to transform no matter how much harm we’ve caused.

We get asked all the time in our workshops, “Well, isn’t violence just part of human nature?” And I used to struggle responding to it, because it was hard to argue. It has always been part of our history.

Then several years ago, I met Paul Chappell, a graduate of West Point turned peace activist. During his presentation at a conference, he said that every study that has ever been conducted shows that violence is traumatic. It can cause PTSD, depression, anxiety and permanent damage to our brain. And yet not a single person has ever been traumatized by an act of love.

He then asked, “If violence is part of our nature, then why does it short-circuit our brain?” Shouldn’t we be able to engage in it and not have it cause permanent damage?

That to him was evidence that violence isn’t in our nature, that at the core of human nature are the things that fulfill us: love, joy, community, peace.

And that is what we need today: a determined and dogged belief in the goodness of people. We need the fierce tactics of nonviolence to stop the immediate harm, and the principles of nonviolence to transform the pain. Without one or the other, we are always going to be spinning our wheels, fighting the next injustice or addressing the next hurt.

I’ve been very privileged in my life. I’ve gotten to see so many people transformed from the most violent circumstances, that it might be easier for me to have faith in people. It is the greatest honor being able to work with incarcerated communities. Everyday, I get to learn from people who have survived so much violence and in many cases have inflicted so much harm, yet have transformed to become some of the greatest peacemakers I’ve ever met. It gives me faith in the resiliency of people and in the core of human nature.

And if I can have faith in their core and their ability to transform, why not the prison guards? Why not the politician who passed the laws that filled the prison? Or the corporate lobbyist who pushed for that legislation? Or the conservative voter who put those lawmakers into office?

It may take seven generations, but if we are not working for a world that works for all of us, then what exactly are we working for? If we are working to change laws and policies, but the hearts and minds of the people are still corrupt and we still see each other as exactly that — “others” — will we ever know peace?

We are in need of a truly nonviolent revolution, not just of systems and policies, but also of worldviews and relationships. We need to understand that people are never the enemy, that violence and injustice itself is what we need to defeat, and that the goal of every conflict must be reconciliation.

Each conflict we face has to be seen as an opportunity to strengthen understanding between members of a human family that have grown so far apart that we have forgotten our dependence on each other.

That is why we need a principled nonviolent approach to society’s ills. Because it is not just laws and systems that have poisoned us. It is a worldview that has made us forget that our liberation is bound up in the liberation of all people.

And only a holistic nonviolent approach — one that involves both strategies and principles — can muster the force to stop injustice in its tracks while bringing communities towards reconciliation.

FIGHTING HATE // TEACHING TOLERANCE // SEEKING JUSTICE

In Democracy, Human rights, Justice, Nonviolence, Politics, Race on December 16, 2017 at 11:51 pm

DECEMBER 16, 2017
Good morning Leroy,

When it came time to cast her ballot in the presidential election last fall, Dechauna Jiles voted at the First Assembly of God in Dothan, Alabama. But when she returned to her polling place on Tuesday to vote in Alabama’s special election, poll workers told her she was “inactive.”

“That makes no sense,” said Jiles.

The African-American woman had always voted at the First Assembly of God.

Jiles told ThinkProgress’ Kira Lerner that it would be a “dishonor to her family” not to vote. Her parents, she said, grew up two blocks from the historic 16th Street Baptist Church. The church had been a rallying point for civil rights activists during the Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963, a pivotal moment in the movement. And it was the scene of one of the era’s most heinous acts of terror when Klansmen set off a powerful bomb on a Sunday morning – killing four little girls – in September of that year.

In fact, Doug Jones, the winner in Tuesday’s Alabama Senate election, successfully prosecuted two of the Klansmen nearly 40 years after the bombing.

But on Tuesday, workers told Jiles that she could only cast a “provisional” ballot, one that would not be counted unless she drove to another precinct to update her information. Six other voters, Jiles told Lerner, were told the same thing.

“It’s not that we’re not showing up to vote — we’re being suppressed,” said Jiles.

We were concerned going into the special election that Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill’s decision to inactivate 340,000 voters a month before the August primary — and his recent threat about jailing crossover voters — would have a chilling effect on turnout.

Merrill said he was updating the voter rolls to reflect address changes.

But black voters in Alabama are right to be suspicious. The state has a long history of making it harder for them to cast their ballot. In an interview with the SPLC ahead of 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, Dorothy Guilford, then 94, recounted taking a literacy test to become eligible and standing in long lines to pay her poll tax.

“Now that, I think, discouraged a lot of people, the long lines, because so many had to go back to work,” Guilford said.

The Voting Rights Act put an end to such overtly discriminatory measures, but the Supreme Court’s decision in 2013 to gut key provisions of the Act opened the door to new forms of discrimination.

In January of this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation concluded that Alabama — which requires a photo ID to vote — disproportionately hurt black voters in 2015 when it closed 31 driver’s license offices, including offices in eight of the 10 counties with the highest proportion of black residents.

“All you had to do was look at a map to see it,” wrote AL.com’s Kyle Whitmore.

Thanks to the federal probe, some of the offices have since reopened. But it wasn’t the last attack by an Alabama lawmaker on the right to vote.

Just before last year’s presidential election, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill criticized automatic voter registration as the “sorry and lazy way out,” claiming that “just because you turned 18 doesn’t give you the right to do anything.”

Merrill’s comments were not only ignorant — the 26th Amendment gives citizens who turn 18 precisely the right to vote — but part and parcel of a broader campaign to suppress minority voters.

We’ve seen it in President Trump’s unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud, in lawmakers’ purges of voter rolls, in lawsuits against poor counties for out-of-date voter rolls, and in gerrymandered districts.

We saw it in Alabama on Tuesday, when voters across the state reported misleading ballots, police intimidation at the polls, and text messages erroneously telling them that their polling locations had changed.

“It’s important for everybody to be able to vote and let their choice be known,” Dorothy Guilford told the SPLC shortly after the VRA was abolished.

Without its protections, systematic voter suppression – not voter fraud – is the real cause for concern.

As always, thank you for reading.

The Editors, Southern Poverty Law Center, Montgomery, Alabama

The Silence of the Good People

In Climate change, Democracy, Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nonviolence, Peace, Poetry, Public Health, Race, War on September 9, 2017 at 12:06 am

By Paul Street

Trutdig, Sept. 6, 2017

Editor’s note: This essay was written before Hurricane Irma emerged in the Caribbean. Irma is another historic superstorm whose fury is significantly fueled by climate change.

I naturally disapprove strongly of the virulent white racists who gathered to violently defend Confederate “slave power” statues in Charlottesville, Va., two weekends ago, but I’ll say one thing for them: At least they seem to care quite a great deal in urgent, if vile, ways about politics and current events.

The older I get, the more I am struck by the bloodless social and political indifference and lethargy of millions upon millions of my fellow Americans.

Tyranny feeds on mass apathy and docility as much as it does on the marshaling of dark and reactionary forces. As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people. … In end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

“He who passively accepts evil,” King added, “is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

Ecocidal Evil in Power

Look at the rolling national atrocity that is the quasi- and perhaps pre-fascist Donald Trump presidency. Every week, it seems, the orange-tinted beast comes forward with new threats and offenses to basic civilizational decency. Look at recent events: the crazy game of thermonuclear chicken Trump continues to play with Kim Jong Un; the dog-whistling cover Trump gave to the Nazis and other white supremacists in Charlottesville; the president’s threat to “shut down the federal government” if Congress doesn’t pay for his criminally idiotic and racist border wall; his granting of an early, pre-sentencing pardon to diabolical Joe Arpaio, the former longtime racist-fascist sheriff of Arizona’s Maricopa County.

Behind the scenes of “This Week in Trump” (TWIT), the “Insane Clown President” has been effectively advancing a hard-right agenda directly through the nation’s executive branch. The federal bench is being remade in the image of the radically reactionary and arch-regressive Federalist Society. Financial regulations are being rolled back along with environmental, consumer and civil rights protections. Trump is doing everything he can to slash health coverage for poor people short of his failed efforts to repeal Obamacare—this while he angles to pass a plutocratic tax cut for the rich in a nation where the top tenth of the upper 1 percent already has as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent.

The worst and least discussed part of the Trump outrage may be the White House’s climate change-denialist commitment to the deregulation of energy and the dismantling of environmental protections. Humanity stands on the precipice of full-on environmental collapse, with anthropogenic (really capitalogenic) global warming (A/CGW) leading the grave threat to livable ecology. Trump’s radically reckless response is to pull the United States out of the moderate Paris Climate Accords, to remove all references to climate change from federal websites, and to head the Environmental Protection Agency with a fellow petro-capitalist climate change-denier who is dedicated to crippling that federal department.

Trump’s proposed budget calls for a 16 percent cut to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, which monitors all things climate- and weather-related. The White House wants to slash $513 million from that department’s satellite program.

On Aug. 15, 10 days before Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, Trump signed an executive order repealing the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, established under Barack Obama in 2015. The standard required the federal government to factor in climate change and sea-level rise when building infrastructure.

Meanwhile, as Houstonians struggle to recover from an epic storm clearly rooted in A/CGW, Trump proposes to lop off $667 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). His budget slashes disaster preparedness and response programs and FEMA’s pre-disaster mitigation program. It would wipe out the agency’s entire national flood insurance analysis program.

This is exterminist, ecocidal madness on steroids.

At the same time, Trump calls for $2.6 billion to finish his big, stupid, racist wall. In Phoenix two weeks ago, he threatened to “shut down the federal government” if it fails to fund that great monument to white-nationalist nativism. All this while advancing major tax breaks for the wealthy few and their giant corporations.

The Destructive Ideology of ‘I Voted’

This is big, existentially dire stuff. Talk about evil. And yet I routinely confront abject indifference and aversion to anything and everything political on the part of ordinary white middle-class Americans. If I were to try to engage people on these topics in downtown Iowa City, Iowa, right now (I am writing on a sunny, football-perfect Saturday afternoon here), people would politely step past me with no more consideration than what they give to a Jehovah’s Witness. “Go Hawks” (short for the Iowa Hawkeyes), they’d tell me. Yes, there is a significant increase in occasional liberal and progressive activism and protest under Trump. But it’s nowhere close to matching the level of dangerous and malicious criminality in Washington.

Millions of “good Americans” go through life in a chilling state of morally idiotic self-obsession and consumerism, chattering endlessly about their vacations, purchases, home repairs, automobiles, ailments, jobs and purely private dramas. The fact that the world’s most powerful state is headed by a racist, sexist and eco-exterminist white-nationalist, nuke-wielding malignant narcissist atop a team of right-wing, arch-plutocratic, planet-killing, science-denying enemies of peace, justice and democracy somehow doesn’t register as worthy of mass civil unrest in most American minds—white minds especially.

Masses of good Americans have other things to worry about. A well-dressed liberal and white-haired white lady I often see downtown is perpetually on her computer planning her and her retired husband’s next flight to some city abroad (today it’s Amsterdam, last month it was Jakarta, Indonesia). I asked her recently if she thinks she makes the world any better by flying around it again and again. She shot me an angry look and said, “I voted. For Hillary.”

It’s one thing to tell a pollster that you think government should work for social justice and common good. It’s another thing to forgo your drunken football tailgate or your next planet-cooking travel adventure in order spend your time and money differently, for movements to bring your purported noble ideals into fruition.

Trump and his noxious cadres of sociopathic ecology-wreckers and plutocratic racists calculate that masses of good Americans are so pervasively indifferent, self-absorbed (often to the point of pathological narcissism), preoccupied, distracted, diverted, disinterested and demobilized that they can get away with just about anything while pounding his ugly and angry white base to make the world yet more precarious and vile.

There’s something else that Trump counts on: mass acceptance of the childish notion that going into a two- [capitalist-] party ballot box for two minutes once every two or four years is a great and glorious exercise in popular self-rule. “Rejoice citizens,” the U.S. wealth- and power-elite and its ubiquitous commercial media tell the people: “You had your input on Election Day.”

Under the American religion of voting, Noam Chomsky told Dan Falcone and Saul Isaacson last year, “Citizenship means every four years you put a mark somewhere and you go home and let other guys run the world. It’s a very destructive ideology … basically, a way of making people passive, submissive objects. … [We] ought to teach kids that elections take place but that’s not politics.”

Remember what Trump tweeted on the second day of his presidency in response to historic, large-scale protests of his inauguration: “Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn’t these people vote?”

Beyond the weird assumption that the people who marched against him didn’t vote against him, the real problem with that statement was the notion that a narrow-spectrum, candidate-centered election contest between two capitalist candidates once every 1,460 days grants a serious popular say on the direction the nation should take.

The marches against Trump’s inauguration were historic in scale. They were completely tied in with the election cycle, however. And, all of them (with all due respect for the airport and town hall protests in defense of Muslim travel rights and health care) have been remotely replicated in response to the actual policies—as opposed to the electoral advent—of the openly geocidal, racist and corporate-kleptocratic Trump presidency.

“The really critical thing,” the great radical American historian Howard Zinn once wrote, “isn’t who’s sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in—in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating—those are the things that determine what happens.” As Zinn explained in an essay on the “Election Madness” he saw “mesmerized liberals and radicals alike” as Barack Obama rose toward the White House in the spring of 2008:

The election frenzy seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us. … Would I support one [presidential] candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes—the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth. … But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.
‘The Real Issue to Be Faced’

But here Zinn was not radical enough. “Changing national [and state and local] policy” (Zinn) is only the tip of the iceberg of the transformation required. Near the end of his life, Dr. King wrote in his final essay that “the real issue to be faced” beyond “superficial” matters (like the color or partisan identity of a U.S. senator or president) was “the radical reconstruction of society itself.” He wrote that the black struggle of his time was “exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws.”

Those sage words ring with even greater relevance today than they did half a century ago. The U.S. didn’t get to its current horrific state simply through the machinations of the Trump campaign and the Republican Party. The real and deeper causes are systemic, institutional, cultural, moral and intellectual-ideological. As Naomi Klein notes in her new book, “No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need,” the shocking Trump ascendancy is “not just [about] an individual or even a group of individuals. … [It’s about the neoliberal capitalist] system that has elevated them to such heights.” A system, writes Klein, under which the “Democratic Party establishment [is] also enmeshed with the billionaire class.”

Hurricane Harvey is no aberration, no freakish fit of nature. It’s another terrible example of the new normal created by U.S-led global petro-capitalism, headquartered to no small degree in the “petro-metro” of Houston itself—the nation’s fourth largest city. As the environmental writer Robert Hunziker noted last Friday:

The human footprint is driving climate change to hyper speed. … Today’s rapidly changing climate is the upshot of the Great Acceleration or post-WWII human footprint into/onto the ecosystem. … Abnormal is now normal. One-hundred-year floods are passé. … Epic floods and historic droughts are the norm. It’s all happened within the past couple of decades. It was only [five] years ago that Hurricane Sandy caused $75B in damages as the second costliest hurricane in U.S. history. In France in 2003, the hottest heat wave in over 500 years killed approximately 15,000, as well as 70,000 throughout Europe. Stifling heat hung in the air for months, no movement, atmospheric troughs of jet streams stood still, likely influenced and altered by global warming, specifically via radical changes in the Arctic, which is losing its bright reflecting ice cap that used to reflect up to 90% of solar radiation back into outer space. … Meanwhile, drought clobbered the Middle East, especially Syria, experiencing its worst-ever drought in 900 years, displacing one-to-two million farmers.
This is the handiwork not of humanity per se but of Homo sapiens under the command of capital—as it has been for just a small slice (roughly half a millennium) of its history. Harvey is yet another deadly reminder that “nature bats clean-up” and will not let Homo sapiens off the hook for letting its capitalist “elite” drive global temperature to deadly extremes with excessive carbon emissions that are a direct consequence of modern capitalism’s lethal addiction to endless accumulation, commodification and quantitative “growth.”

‘The Time Is Always Right to Do Right‘

Those who persist in thinking that we can “wait” for the next election (assuming that Trump doesn’t take action to suspend the next presidential electoral extravaganza)—and then the next one after that and so on—to address the pressing issues of our time might want to read the following passage from a forgotten speech Dr. King gave at Illinois Wesleyan University in 1966:

The great challenge facing the nation today is to get rid of a system that is evil and that is morally wrong. Now, in order to get rid of this system, it will be necessary to develop massive action programs. The problem will not work itself out. In order to develop massive action programs, we’ve got to get rid of one or two myths that are quite prevalent and that we hear a great deal around various communities. One is what I often speak of as the myth of time … the argument that only time can solve the problem of racial injustice. Only time can bring integration into being. And so those who set forth this argument tend to say to the Negro and his allies in the white community, just be nice and just be patient and wait 100 or 200 years and the problem will work itself out.

I think there is an answer to that myth. That is that time is neutral, it can be used either constructively or destructively. And I’m absolutely convinced that in so many instances the forces of ill will in our nation, the extreme righteous of our nation have used time much more effectively than the forces of good will. And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people who would bomb a church in Birmingham, Alabama, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say wait on time.

Somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. It comes though the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. And so it is necessary to help time and to realize that the time is always right to do right.
As I’m sure Dr. King would observe were he alive today (he’d be 88 years old), climate change—the biggest issue of our or any time—is a problem that is not going to “work itself out.”

More to the main point of this essay, we don’t have time to wait for it to do so. The fourth chapter of Klein’s new book is properly titled “The Climate Clock Strikes Midnight.” Tell me, dear reader, when did then-senior Exxon scientist James Black write that “man has a time window of five to ten years before the need to make hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical” because of how “mankind is influencing the global climate … through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels”? As Klein notes, those words were penned in 1978—the very year, for what it’s worth, when I (a budding young former-juvenile-delinquent-turned-bibliophilic-Marxist) read the great eco-socialist Barry Commoner’s urgent 1971 book “The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology” and then promptly forgot about the environmental issue for 15 years.

It is one thing to speak the standard “liberal” and “pragmatic” language of gradual, step-by-step progress—the discourse of “not making the perfect the enemy of the good”—when it comes to issues like poverty, inequality, mass incarceration, school funding, health care, taxation and the right to form unions. With these and other problems, Bill McKibben noted seven years ago, it is sometimes acceptable “to split the difference between different positions, make incremental change, and come back in a few years to do some more. It doesn’t get impossibly harder in the meantime—people will suffer for lack of health care, but their suffering won’t make future change impossible.”

Global warming is different for two reasons. First, as McKibben observed, it is “a negotiation between human beings on the one hand and physics and chemistry on their other. This is a tough negotiation, because physics and chemistry don’t compromise. They’ve already laid out their nonnegotiable bottom line: above 350 [carbon] parts per million [ppm in the atmosphere] the planet doesn’t work.” Second, as Klein writes, “Climate change … ha[s] a different relationship to time.” She further says:

With the politics of climate change … we don’t get to try again in four years. Because in four years, the earth will have been radically changed … in the interim, and our chances of averting an irreversible catastrophe will have shrunk. … Lots of social movements have adopted Samuel Beckett’s famous line: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better” as a lighthearted motto. I’ve always liked the attitude; we can’t be perfect, we won’t always win, but we should strive to improve. The trouble is, Beckett’s dictum doesn’t work for climate—not at this stage in the game. If we keep failing to lower emissions … there won’t be more opportunities to fail better.
Talk about what King called “the fierce urgency of now.” And talk about evil: The greenhouse gassing-to-death of life on Earth will make the Nazis, the sadistic Southern U.S. slave owners and the perpetrators of the Belgian genocide in the Congo all look like small-time criminals.

Mother Nature is a harsh and demanding mistress. We are anthrosuicidal fools to ignore her ever more pressing entreaties. 350? We passed 410 ppm earlier this year. We are on a pace for 500 by 2050 [which means so-long Antarctic, which means the end of the planet’s life-support system. As Klein notes, relaying what the world’s leading Earth scientists recently told her, “the window during which there is time to lower emissions sufficiently to avoid truly catastrophic warming is closing rapidly.”

If we are serious about averting environmental catastrophe in the next generation, we cannot take a “letter grades” approach. We are in pass-fail territory—and failing badly—in that policy realm. By all Earth science indications, it’s not about gaining a little bit this year, a little bit next year. We are approaching a chasm: We either take the leap or it’s game over, and, as Chomsky told Occupy Boston five years ago, “everything else we’re talking about won’t matter.” Hence the name of a recently formed Canadian statement platform for socially just, democratic, and environmentally sustainable policy: The Leap Manifesto.

Since Dr. King’s time, the United States has made some shining progress around questions of identity, civil liberties, bigotry and sexuality. It has made zero progress and, in fact, moved backward on economic justice and, most dangerously of all, on the intimately related environmental question, which now hangs over us like a great global Grim Reaper daring us to care about the fate of our own and countless other species.

A recent report on Moyers & Company shows that left-leaning social, political and environmental/climate progressives are the nation’s “new silent majority.” Now would be the time for that silence to find a voice. King’s line from the introduction to this essay bears repeating: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.”

 

Paul Street holds a doctorate in U.S. history from Binghamton University. He is former vice president for research and planning of the Chicago Urban League. Street is also the author of numerous books.

The Road to Charlottesville: Reflections on 21st Century U.S. Capitalist Racism

In Human rights, Justice, Politics, Public Health, Race on September 3, 2017 at 7:06 am

by PAUL STREET

 

https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/08/25/the-road-to-charlottesville-reflections-on-21st-century-u-s-capitalist-racism/

 

Racism’s Surface and Deeper Levels

The United States, where median Black household wealth is less than 7 cents on the white household dollar and where the mild slogan “Black lives matter” is considered controversial, is still very much a racist nation. Grasping the nature of this national racism in 21st century means looking at the different levels on which race operates here. One level is at the nation’s discursive and symbolic surface. It is about language, imagery, signs, the color of elite personnel, representation, and, well, symbols.

A different and deeper level is institutional and structural. It’s about how labor markets, the financial sector, the real estate industry, the educational system, the criminal justice complex, the military state, the corporate system, the dominant media, and capitalism more broadly all work to deepen, maintain, and/or reduce racial oppression and inequality.

At the surface and symbolic level, racism has experienced significant defeats in the United States since the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the middle and late 1950s. Open public bigotry has been largely defeated in the nation’s corporate-crafted public culture. Prejudiced whites face public humiliation when they voice openly racist sentiments in a nation that took “Whites Only” signs down half a century ago. Favorably presented Black faces are visible in high and highly public places across the national media and political landscape. The United States, the land of slavery, put a Black family in the White House in November of 2008.

Even in the South, a racially mixed Black couple now does not generally have to fear white violence and insults as they walk down a city street. The formerly all-white University of Kentucky basketball team now routinely competes for the NCAA championship with nearly all-Black teams before tens of thousands of screaming white fans and white cheerleaders. Black players dominate on the perennial college football champion in the heart of Dixie – the Alabama Crimson Tide. Nightly television news teams are racially mixed across metropolitan America. Images of smart and handsome Black people are standard in commercial advertising, public relations, and human resources programs.

At the deeper institutional and societal level, however, racism is alive and well beneath the public and representational surface. It persists in the more impersonal and the more invisible operation of social and institutional forces and processes in ways that “just happen” to reproduce Black disadvantage. This deeper racism is so ingrained in the social, political, and institutional sinews of capitalist America that it is taken for granted – barely noticed by the mainstream media and other social commentators. It includes widely documented racial bias in real estate sales and rental and home lending; the funding of schools largely on the basis of local property wealth; the excessive use of high-stakes standardized test-based neo-Dickensian “drill” and grill curriculum and related zero-tolerance disciplinary practices in predominantly black public schools; the concentration of black children into over-crowded and hyper-segregated, pre-incarceratory ghetto schools where a highly disproportionate share of the kids are deeply poor; rampant and widely documented racial discrimination in hiring and promotion; the racist “War on Drugs” and the related campaign of racially hyper-disparate mass black arrest, incarceration and criminal marking. The technically color-blind stigma of a prison history and felony record is “the New N word” for millions of Black Americans subject to numerous “new Jim Crow” barriers to employment, housing, educational and other opportunities.

Place and Race

Persistent de facto residential and educational race apartheid/segregation is a very underestimated underpinning of the institutional racism that lives on beneath the “color-blind” mythology supported by the rise of highly successful and publicly visible Black Americans like Oprah Winfrey and the Obamas. This is because place of dwelling is strongly connected to economic status and opportunity. As sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton noted in their important 1998 book American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass “housing markets…distribute much more than a place to live; they also distribute any good or resource that is correlated with where one lives,.” The relevant goods and resources include jobs, education, safety, access to green spaces, civic community, healthy food, public and social services, and wealth in the form of home equity.

By concentrating poor and working class Black people in a restricted number of geographical places, including “downstate” (in Illinois) and “upstate” (in New York and Michigan) prisons , U.S. de facto race apartheid reinforces Blacks’ persistently disproportionate presence in the lowest socioeconomic places. It also renders Black experience largely invisible to most whites. This makes many Caucasian Americans susceptible to fantastically exaggerated and socially decontextualized media-generated notions of Black success and power (LeBron James, Oprah Winfrey, and Barack Obama) and – on the evening news, often delivered by “good Black” newscasters – to equally inflated images of “bad Black” criminality and “thuggery.”

Slavery Lives

Another critical and underestimated part of the societal racism that lives on beneath the representational and symbolic surface is the steadfast refusal of the white majority nation to acknowledge that the long (multi-century) history of Black chattel slavery – the vicious torture system of mass racist labor exploitation (itself the key to the early rise of American industrial capitalism, as the historian Edward Baptist has shown) that the Confederacy arose to sustain in 1861 and which prevailed across the U.S. South until the Civil War – and its Jim Crow aftermath are intimately related to the nation’s stark racial disparities today. There is something significantly racist about the widespread white assumption that the white majority United States owes Black America nothing really in the way of special, ongoing reparation for the steep and singular Black disadvantages that have resulted from centuries of overt, explicitly racist, and brutal oppression and exploitation. As anyone who studies capitalism in a smart and honest way knows, what economic actors get from the present and future so-called “free market” is very much about what and how much they bring to that market from the past. And what whites and blacks bring from the living past to the supposedly “color-blind” and “equal opportunity” market of the post-Civil Rights present (wherein the dominant neoliberal authorities and ideology purport to have gone beyond “considerations of race”) is still significantly shaped by not-so “ancient” decades and centuries of explicit racial oppression. Given what is well known about the relationship between historically accumulated resources and current and future success, the very distinction between past and present racism ought to be considered part of the ideological superstructure of contemporary white supremacy.

Even if U.S. capitalism was being conducted without racial discrimination – and vast volumes and data demonstrate that it is not (see my own discussion here) there would still be the question of all the poker chips that white America – super-rich white capitalist America in particular – has stacked up on its side of the table over centuries of brutal theft from Black America. Those surplus chips are not quaintly irrelevant hangovers from “days gone by.” They are living, accumulated weapons of racial inequality in the present and future. (For a more detailed discussion of this question, please see my recent Truthdig essay, “A Lesson on Slavery for White America”)

Not Glass Half-Full

It is tempting, perhaps, to see America’s split race decision – anti-racist victory on the surface and doggedly persistent racial disparity and oppression underneath – as a case of glass half-empty versus glass half-full. It’s more dark and complicated than that. For, perversely enough, the deeper level of racism may be deepened by surface-level Civil Rights victories insofar as those victories and achievements have served to encourage the great toxic illusion that, as Derrick Bell once put it, “the indolence of blacks rather than the injustice of whites explains the socioeconomic gaps separating the races.”

It’s hard to blame millions of white people for believing that racism is dead in America when U.S. public life is filled with repeated affirmations of the integration and equality ideals and paeans to the nation’s purported remarkable progress towards achieving it and when we regularly celebrate great American victories over surface-level racism (particularly over the open racial segregation and terror of the South). As the Black law professor Sheryl Cashin noted in 2004, five years before the existence of a first black U.S. president, there are [now] enough examples of successful middle- and upper-class class African-Americans “to make many whites believe that blacks have reached parity…The fact that some blacks now lead powerful mainstream institutions offers evidence to whites that racial barriers have been eliminated; [that] the issue now is individual effort . . . The odd black family on the block or the Oprah effect — examples of stratospheric black success,” Cashin wrote, “feed these misperceptions, even as relatively few whites live among and interact daily with blacks of their own standing.”

One of the many ways in which Barack Obama’s presidency was problematic for the cause of racial justice is the way it proved to be something of a last nail in the coffin for many white Americans’ already weak willingness to acknowledge that racism is still a major problem for Black Americans. This is something that Martin Luther King, Jr. anticipated to some degree. “Many whites hasten to congratulate themselves,” King noted in 1967, “on what little progress [black Americans] have made. I’m sure,” King opined, “that most whites felt that with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, all race problems were automatically solved. Most white people are so removed from the life of the average Negro,” King added, “there has been little to challenge that assumption” (emphasis added).

Note the importance of segregated experience in King’s reflection half a century ago. The media image of black triumph and equality trumps the reality of persistent racial inequality in white minds so easily thanks in part to the simple fact that whites have little regular contact with actual, ordinary black Americans and little understanding of the very different separate and unequal ways in which most Blacks’ experience life in the United States. This is one of many ways in spatial and residential and school segregation – all still quite pronounced in the U.S. – matters a great deal.

More than just feeding illusions that racism has been overcome, the victories over surface-level racism and the related celebration of Black success in the reigning media-politics culture have helped feed the illusory belief that Blacks are getting more money and power than whites – that Black Americans are unfairly “getting over” on whites thanks to the nefarious actions of “liberal and left elites.” Poor, working-class, and middle-class whites who are struggling to keep their heads above water and not become “surplus Americans” (Charles Derber) in neoliberal New Gilded Age America (where half the population is poor or near-poor and the top tenth of the upper 1 Percent owns as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent while white working class life expectancy has gone into a chilling decline thanks to rampant alcoholism, opiate addiction, and related gun suicide) have shockingly little real-life contact with the nation’s disproportionately poor and struggling Black population. They do, however, regularly view images of wealthy Black celebrities and watch news broadcast by racially mixed and affluent talking heads. To many whites, these surface-level Black victories are no small status insult added to class-based economic injury. As the great Black American Marxist W.E.B. DuBois once noted, racism has long granted the white working-class a false but potent compensatory “psychological wage” of whiteness: the belief that while one may occupy a relatively low and insecure position in capitalist America one was at least more elevated and honored than “them”: that is, than Blacks.

To Defend “the Largest and Most Powerful System of Slavery in the Modern World”

This is essential context for understanding the terrible events in Virginia two Fridays and Saturdays ago. The shameful events there followed the decisions of the liberal University of Virginia-hosting campus down of Charlottesville to take down a statue of the Confederate War General Robert E. Lee and to rename the park in which that statue sits “Emancipation Park.” At the one level, the conflict is symbolic. Make no mistake: many of not most of the virulent racists (including Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis) who showed up the “Unite the Right” rally to protest Charlottesville’s courageous civic decisions would love to see Black chattel slavery re-instituted across the U.S. today. But most white defenders of the southern Confederate symbols claim that they are about “culture,” an appreciation of “history,” and “regional” identity, and a belief in “states’ rights,” not slavery. That’s how the history Confederacy and the Civil War are still taught in most southern U.S high schools to this day.

Falsely taught, I should say, for the simple textbook historical fact of the matter is that the Confederacy was formed to preserve, by any means deemed necessary, the South’s “peculiar institution” – the arch-racist and mass-murderous torture and exploitation regime of Black Chattel Slavery. The Confederacy was a secession government formed among southern states whose ruling elites had determined that the election of Abraham Lincoln spelled the end of their vicious slave system. As the retired University of Virginia historian Edward Ayers told the “P”BS NewsHour last eleven days ago, “even if …individual [Confederate] soldiers were not slaveholders [plenty were- P.S.], they were fighting to defend a nation that was based on slavery… The fact is, had they won, you would have had an independent nation overseeing the largest and most powerful system of slavery in the modern world.”

The Road to Charlottesville

But beneath the historical argument at the symbolic surface, three forces drove the madness of the racist white nationalists who flocked to Charlottesville, including a young man from Ohio, were three basic forces. The first is a deeply fear-based sense that Blacks are “getting over” on them, violating the “psychological wage” and threatening to obliterate good hard-working white Americans with the help of white middle and upper class liberal and left elites. The nationalists tellingly chanted “you will not replace us” – as if Robert E. Lee had been turned down on a job or college application because of affirmative action – as they marched through the University of Virginia campus. Their fear is rooted in the very real and long-running neoliberal global-capitalist assault on working- and middle-class economic security, a persistent racial-spatial apartheid that makes real Black lives largely invisible to most whites, and in an exaggerated celebration of Black advancement and success that oddly combined with an equally exaggerated reporting of Black criminality in the dominant media that provides most whites their main images of Black America. It reflects the underlying and interrelated, racially toxic impacts of capitalist class rule, racial segregation (persistent American race apartheid), and corporate media

The second driving force is the right-wing, fascist, white-supremacist, and “alt-right” (neofascist) political media, from FOX News and talk radio to Alex Jones and Breitbart and the Websites of the shockingly large number of white nationalist and neo-Nazi hate groups themselves (see the Southern Poverty Law Center’s chilling “Hate Map” for a geographical mapping and naming of the nation’s many white hate groups, very disproportionately concentrated in former Confederate states). These virulent manufacturers of “blood and soil” white nationalism fan the flames of white racial sentiment, feeding the paranoid-style conspiratorial sense that a nefarious liberal and Left elite (replete with back-stabbing white “race traitors”) is pushing whites down while elevating people of color – who are slated to out-number white Americans by 2050- above them. The white hate groups have, incidentally, killed significantly more Americans on U.S. soil than any Islamic extremist forces in the post-9/11 era. They are the leading agents of lethal terrorism in the U.S.

The Imperial Wizard in the White House

The third driving force has been the quasi-fascistic Trump phenomenon and presidency. There’s was something naïve about liberal calls for Trump to be more forceful and concerned for national racial healing and unity in his response to the fascist protests and violence in Charlottesville. This is a president, son of a man arrested at a Ku Klux Klan rally, who entered the last presidential sweepstakes by advancing the ultimate racist “blood and soil” argument that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. As a real estate developer, Trump was heard saying that he didn’t want Black people handling his money (he preferred Jews in that role, he said) and was sued repeatedly for racist housing discrimination. As a presidential candidate, Herr Donald:

+ Refused to disavow the support he received from the former Ku Klux Klan (KKK) Grand Wizard David Duke and otherwise failed to properly distance himself from the Klan.

+ Offered to pay the legal bills of a white man who viciously sucker-punched a black protester at a Trump rally.

+ Responded to the racial turbulence sparked by repeated video-captured police killings of Black Americans and the rise of Black Lives Matter by calling for the “restor[ation of] law and order” to “control our cities” and for a “national stop and frisk law”—that is, for a declaration of national racist martial law.

+ Continued his noxious backing for the malicious racist railroading of the “Central Park Five”—five young black men who were wrongfully convicted (with Trump leading the charge) of raping a white woman in New York City in 1989. (The subsequently exonerated five spent years in prison for a crime they didn’t commit).

+ Gave a commanding position in his campaign to Steve Bannon, the director of Breitbart, an openly white-nationalist, paranoid-style and alt-right (proto-fascistic) website.

+ Absurdly charged without evidence and in so many words that people of color would commit massive voter fraud in the 2016 president election.

As president, Trump appointed one of the nation’s leading elected racists (Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions) as Attorney General (of all things) and kept the white-nationalist “populist” Bannon and Steve Miller on as top political advisors. He appointed the Hungarian fascist Sebastian Gorka, as his top “Counter-Terrorism adviser” and hired Gorka’s anti-Muslim wife Katherine as a top “policy adviser” in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). He has exhibited a practically psychotic obsession with dismissing anything and everything remotely positive that might be associated with the nation’s first Black president. He has repeated the preposterous, racially loaded voter fraud charge, ridiculously claiming to have won the popular vote but for ballot shenanigans. (The charge turns history on its head, Orwell-style: Trump owned his victory in key battle ground states to the legal and illegal suppression of non-white votes). The Trump administration is actively stripping away civil rights protections and appointing enemies of racial justice and equality to a federal bench that is being made over the image of the right-wing Federalist Society. It is even turning the Orwellian table on race regarding college admissions by “preparing,” the New York Times reports, “to redirect resources of the Justice Department’s civil rights division toward investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants.”

Trump has given the white-nationalist movement good reason to think that they have their first real champion in the White House. Of course Trump has failed to properly condemn white supremacy, bigotry and Nazism and cloaked his condemnation of the racist violence in Charlottesville with dog-whistles to the “alt-right.” Trump isn’t merely “reluctant to alienate [white] backlash voters, who are among his most loyal supporters” (E.J. Dionne). He is himself a backlashing white nationalist, albeit an atypically super-wealthy one. Expecting heartfelt moral leadership on racial justice (or anything else) from Donald Trump is like expecting a beagle to write a respectable doctoral thesis on particle physics. It’s like expecting me to become a starting pitcher for the Chicago White Sox.

Towards Truth and Reconciliation

What should be done? Miller and the Gorkas and other vicious racist white nationalists in the White House need to follow Bannon out the door, either voluntarily or not. So does the shameful Orange Beast and Imperial Wizard Donald Trump, who has become a grave nuclear threat to national and global security (the former top national U.S. intelligence official James Clapper is right about that, darkly enough) and who is very possibly now fantasizing about how he can enlist the nation’s vast white police state in the suspension of the 2020 elections on the pretext of a civil emergency or a corrupted voting system. (Recall that Trump would promise to honor the results of the 2016 election only if he won. He would likely refuse to acknowledge the legitimacy of an Electoral College count not in his favor in 2020).

The neo-fascist white right-wing needs to be disarmed, its hate-mongering leaders silenced and placed along with their followers in psychological treatment programs like those run by “Life After Hate”– a highly successful organization run by a recovered former leading white supremacist. Trump’s DHS recently slashed a grant the Obama administration had slated for “Life After Hate.” That grant should be restored and dramatically expanded.

We need to convene a national truth and reconciliation commission on the racist crimes committed against Black people in British colonial North America and in the U.S. from original British settlement through the present day. A key mission behind such a commission would be to educate Americans on the difference between getting a few Black faces in high places and real racial equality and justice. Other key themes would include the living relevance of centuries of Black chattel slavery for understanding contemporary racial inequality; the role of segregation in reducing Black opportunity and making Black experience invisible; and the ways that American racial oppression has harmed ordinary middle and working class white Americans as well as Blacks. It has done so by undermining their ability to join with Blacks in forming powerful grassroots organizations to fight the capitalist elite and by offering them the poison and false-compensatory “psychological wage” of whiteness.

It is long past time to massively de-incarcerate Black America, transferring billions of dollars spent on surveilling, arresting, prosecuting, incarcerating (the racist Trump is an active champion for the private-, for-profit prison industry), and branding Black people into meeting the vast swath of dire social needs that go neglected in contemporary America: schools, housing, health care, green space, and so much more.

We need to begin accelerated racial literacy and empathy programs to bring white Americans into Black and other nonwhite communities to confront the harsh realities of American racial apartheid and disparity – and to make real and un-threatening human, face-face connections with real Black and other nonwhite people. (“Life After Hate” does good work in this vein). This will counter the exaggerated images of Black success and wealth and Black criminality purveyed in the dominant media and to put racially blind whites in contact with real and all to ghettoized and oppressed Black lives.

Beyond just tearing down Confederate (Slave Power) symbols and monuments, we need to litter the nation and especially the South with signs and monuments reminding ordinary Americans of the monumental racist torture regime and holocaust that was Black chattel slavery and its Jim Crow aftermath. Lynching sites should be marked, with the names of victims and the circumstances surrounding their deaths included. Places where Black slaves and neo-slaves were bought, sold, whipped, exploited, worked to death, tortured, raped, and beaten should be gravely commemorated with names and plaques providing basic historical descriptions of what happened there. Done right, such a monument construction project – to be built by racially mixed teams under Black supervision – would create literally thousands of structures across the country and not just in the South.

The commission must be charged among other things with the design of a reasonable and properly targeted and serious program of racial reparations for the monumental injustices imposed by centuries of racial oppression from slavery through Jim Crow oppression, ghettoization, and the age of racist mass incarceration and criminal branding. It is long past time for a monumental payback – paid out of giant taxes on the absurdly rich U.S. financial and corporate elite. The class specificity of the payment us critical. We shouldn’t charge lower- and working-class whites a penny for the sins of slavery. American racial oppression, it should always be remembered, has harmed ordinary middle and working class white Americans as well as Blacks. The point bears repetition and elaboration. From the nation’s colonial origins through the present, the Machiavellian, ruling class-imposed color line (see Edmund Morgan’s truly classic 1976 study American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia) has hurt ordinary whites as well as people of color. Elite-crafted racism has undermined working-class and poor whites’ willingness and ability to join with Blacks and other nonwhites in forming the powerful grassroots alliances and solidarities required to wrest a durably decent living and a democratic society from the Wealthy Few. In the place of these necessities, the pervasive and living culture of racism – so doggedly persistent that (to repeat) the mild phrase “Black lives matter” is somehow controversial more than half a century after the passage of the Civil Rights Act – has offered poor and working-class whites the poison, false-compensatory “psychological wage” of whiteness. The always embattled actual American Left has always said something else: “Black and White Unite and Fight” in solidary against the ruling class masters. That slogan was no small reflection of how the American industrial workers movement was built in the 1930s and 1940s.

Unlikely under capitalism….

Can reparations (due also to Native Americans and nations abroad where untold millions/billions of people have been devastated by U.S. imperialism) be properly and meaningfully introduced under the existing U.S. regime of class rule called capitalism? Almost certainly not – as with the demand for a shift to an ecologically sustainable economy and society. It must therefore be considered a revolutionary demand and be combined with multi-racial working-class struggle to remove the “One Percent” (a catchy euphemism for the capitalist ruling class) not just from its wealth but also and above all from its command of the structuring and purpose of “our” (their) political economy. It must be interwoven with the struggle for the broad redistribution of wealth and power and for peoples’ socialism. This is very different from the reactionary, “divisive,” and zero-sum way in which reparations is advanced by its bourgeois champions both white and Black.

 

Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

The Harm Caused by Radioactivity

In Human rights, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Nuclear powere, Politics, Public Health, Race, Radiation Standards on August 1, 2017 at 11:38 am

Prepared for the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan

by Gordon Edwards, Ph.D., July 2017.

 

Atoms and Molecules

 

All material things are made up of atoms.  There are 92 different kinds of atoms found in nature, ranging from hydrogen (the lightest) to uranium (the heaviest).

 

Every atom has a tiny but massive core called its nucleus. The nucleus is surrounded by orbiting electrons (one electron for hydrogen, 92 electrons for uranium).

 

Molecules are combinations of atoms.  For example a molecule of water is H2O – two hydrogen atoms bonded together with one oxygen atom.  The bond that holds the atoms together in a molecule is the force of electromagnetic attraction.  That force is the result of atoms sharing their orbiting electrons; it does not affect the nucleus.

 

The cells in our body contain a great many complicated organic molecules, the most important one being the DNA molecule.  DNA carries the genetic instructions that we inherited from our parents. DNA tells our cells how to reproduce properly.

 

All organic molecules have chains of carbon atoms bonded to numerous hydrogen atoms, and other types of atoms too. Such molecules are the building blocks of life.

 

Chemical energy does not involve the nucleus, it only involves the orbiting electrons. Nuclear energy refers to energy that comes directly from the atomic nucleus; it is millions of times more powerful than chemical energy. Science had no knowledge of nuclear energy until the end of the 19th century.

 

Ions and Ionizing Radiation

 

“Ionizing Radiation” refers to any form of energy that is powerful enough to break molecules apart by randomly smashing the bonds holding its atoms together.  The electrically charged fragments of broken molecules are “ions” (or “free radicals”).

 

Ions are unstable. Because they are electrically charged they repel and attract other ions, causing chaotic chemical reactions to take place rapidly. Chaos is unhealthy.

 

The most commonly encountered forms of ionizing radiation are (1) x-rays from an x-ray machine and (2) emissions from the disintegration of radioactive materials.

 

Most other forms of radiation, such as visible light, infrared, microwaves, radio and television waves, are non-ionizing.  They can not break molecular bonds.

 

Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation

 

Massive doses of ionizing radiation are deadly, killing any human being within days of exposure. So many molecules are destroyed, and so many organs are damaged, that the body cannot survive.  Such damage can be caused by a nuclear explosion.

 

Large but not lethal doses of ionizing radiation can cause nausea, vomiting, hair loss, sterility, eye cataracts, and severe burns that are very difficult to heal. Some of these symptoms are experienced by cancer patients undergoing radiotherapy.  In the case of pregnant women, such exposures to ionizing radiation can lead to the birth of deformed children, including babies with shrunken heads and impaired intelligence.  These effects are all well-documented in the scientific literature.

 

Low doses of ionizing radiation do not cause any immediately perceptible harm, but there is always damage to living cells within the body of the person so exposed.

 

The chaotic disruption caused by ionizing radiation is damaging to any exposed cell, often killing the cell, sometimes damaging it beyond repair. Fortunately, the body can replace such dead or non-functioning cells if the damage is not too extensive.

 

There are mechanisms available within the cell that can sometimes repair the damage done by ionizing radiation, but not always.  When repair fails, a cell crippled by ionizing radiation may go on living and reproducing with damaged DNA instructions.  It then multiplies in an abnormal fashion, yielding a cancer years later.

 

Although very few damaged cells develop into cancers, a wide variety of lethal and non-lethal radiation-caused cancers have been observed in populations exposed to low levels of ionizing radiation.  These are well described in the scientific literature.

 

Under a microscope one can see that blood changes occur even with low doses of ionizing radiation.  The blood cells most easily harmed are those that are needed by the body to fight infections. Thus ionizing radiation weakens the body’s immune system, making the individual more susceptible to a variety of infectious diseases.

 

In experimental animals it has been demonstrated beyond any doubt that even very small doses of ionizing radiation can damage the DNA of reproductive cells (eggs and sperm) of individuals.  Visibly defective offspring eventually result.  H. J. Muller won the Nobel Prize in 1946 for showing that there is no dose of ionizing radiation low enough to prevent harmful mutations from being caused by such exposures.

 

Similar evidence of radiation-induced mutations has not been found in human populations, but it is assumed that harmful mutations probably do occur in humans following exposure of their reproductive organs to ionizing radiation. All other species that have been studied have shown such effects.  This is the main reason that lead aprons are used to cover genitals when people are x-rayed in hospitals.

 

X-Rays – The Discovery of Ionizing Radiation

 

Ionizing radiation was unknown to science until 122 years ago.  Our first notice of ionizing radiation was the discovery of x-rays in 1895 by W. Roentgen in Germany.

 

An x-ray machine is powered by electricity. It can be turned on and off, like a light switch. When the x-ray machine is off it is harmless, but when it’s on it’s dangerous. That’s why, before giving an x-ray to a patient, the technician leaves the room.

 

When the x-ray machine is on, a powerful kind of invisible light – an x-ray – is given off.  While it can penetrate right through soft tissue as if it were made of glass, the   x-ray is blocked by denser material like bones. In this way doctors can examine the images of the bones of a human skeleton by catching their “shadows” cast by the x-rays on photographic paper or on an illuminated viewing screen.

 

The harmful effects of x-rays were discovered almost immediately.  Severe burns, eye cataracts, sterilization of experimental animals, and excess leukemia among radiologists, all caused by x-ray exposures, were recognized by the first decade of the 20th century.  And the ionizing character of x-rays was documented right away.

 

Doctors quickly realized that the destructive effects of x-rays could be used to advantage to fight malignant tumors (cancerous growths) by blasting them with     x-rays.  It works, at least partially.  Ironically, some of those same doctors years later died of cancers that were caused by their own repeated exposures to x-rays.

 

Radioactivity – The Discovery of Nuclear Energy

 

In 1896, just a year after the discovery of x-rays, a scientist in Paris named Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity. It was an accidental event.

 

Becquerel had a rock containing uranium in a desk drawer.  In that same drawer he had a photographic plate wrapped in black paper to block any light.  But when the photo was developed, there was a blurry image – apparently caused by the rock.

 

This was a stunning discovery. Somehow, the rock was giving off an invisible kind of light, penetrating right through the black paper that blocked all visible light, so as to create an unmistakable image on a photographic plate.  The rock was behaving like a miniature x-ray machine that could not be shut off. How is that possible?

 

Where was this powerful invisible light coming from? There was no external power source – no electricity, no sunlight, no chemical reactions. Over the next few years the mystery was unravelled.  It was discovered that some atoms have an unstable nucleus, and uranium is one of those.  Such unstable atoms are called “radioactive”.  The nucleus of a radioactive atom spontaneously emits ionizing radiation. And it doesn’t stop. It is an ongoing release of nuclear energy that cannot be shut off.

 

Dangers of Radioactivity 1 – Radium

 

In 1898, Marie Curie discovered two new radioactive elements that are much more intensely radioactive than uranium alone. She named them “radium” and “polonium”.  They were found in the same sort of rock that Becquerel had used.

 

Later that year, Becquerel carried a sealed tube of radium in his vest pocket. As a result he got a nasty “radiation burn” on his torso that was painful, very slow to heal, and left an ugly scar. Marie Curie’s hands also suffered painful radiation burns after she handled a thin metal box containing a small tube of radium.

 

Seeing these burns, doctors used radium-filled “needles” to shrink solid tumors. Such a needle inserted into an unwanted growth delivers most of its harmful ionizing radiation to the diseased tissue while minimizing the dose to healthy tissue. Workers preparing the needles, surgeons implanting them, and nurses attending patients often received substantial doses of ionizing radiation themselves.

 

In 1908 a radium-based paint was developed that makes things glow in the dark. The invisible ionizing radiation given off by disintegrating radium atoms is absorbed and converted into visible light by specialized paint molecules. The glow that results needs no battery or other power source, not even exposure to sunlight. It just glows.

 

This soon became big business.  Thousands of teenaged girls were hired to paint the dials of watches and instruments with this wondrous new kind of paint.  By 1914 radium had become the most expensive substance on earth, at $180,000 per gram. It was painstaking work; the girls often used their lips to put a fine tip on their brush.

 

By the 1920s many of the dial painters had developed severe anemia, in some cases fatal. Autopsies of the girls’ bodies revealed ionizing radiation emanating from their bones, spleen and liver, due to tiny amounts of radium deposited in their organs.

 

Many girls also had grave dental problems with teeth breaking and falling out due to bone deterioration, plus rampant bacterial infections. Dentists working on the girls’ teeth found the jaw bones to be soft and porous, even fracturing spontaneously.  Dr. Martland, a forensic pathologist, showed in 1925 that these symptoms (termed “radium jaw”) were caused by tiny amounts of radium that had embrittled the bone.

 

Before long, cases of bone cancer began to be observed among the surviving dial painters. Over 1200 deaths from bone cancer were ultimately recorded in that population. It was crystal clear that ionizing radiation from radium deposited in the girls’ skeletons was the cause. In every case, the lethal amount of radium in any girls’ body was less than a milligram (a milligram is one thousandth of a gram).

 

Years later, several hundred of the remaining dial painters developed head cancers – cancers of the sinus and mastoid – caused by a radioactive gas (radon) produced by disintegration of radium atoms in the bones and carried by the blood to the head.

 

Dangers of Radioactivity 2 – Radon Gas

 

For 400 years, underground miners in the Schneeburg region of Germany suffered from a mysterious lung ailment that killed up to half the mining population.  In the mid-19th century the disease was identified as lung cancer. The cause was unknown.

 

By the 1930s, scientists learned that the miners’ lung cancers were brought about by breathing a radioactive gas called radon. It was pervasive in the underground tunnels. Ionizing radiation given off by the inhaled gas turned lung cells cancerous.

 

Radon gas is one of the most powerful cancer-causing agents known to science. It is invisible, odourless, and tasteless. It is seven times heavier than air, so it stays close to the ground. It cannot be filtered out of the air. And it is continually being created, one atom at a time, by the disintegration of radium atoms.

 

When a radium atom disintegrates it does not disappear, it becomes an atom of radon gas. So radium, a radioactive heavy metal, is gradually transforming itself into a radioactive gas. Indeed, every atom of radon was once an atom of radium.

 

These men were mining for silver and cobalt, but the ore was also rich in uranium.  Wherever uranium is found, there also is radium, as Marie Curie demonstrated in 1898. So there will be radon too – the gas is a so-called “decay product” of radium.

 

Throughout the twentieth century, underground uranium miners around the world suffered excess lung cancers caused by their exposures to radon gas – from the Navajo Indians mining uranium on the Colorado Plateau, to underground miners in Sweden and South Africa, to Canadian miners in the Northwest Territories, Northern Saskatchewan, Elliot Lake Ontario, and Newfoundland – all experienced a dramatically elevated incidence of lung cancer caused by their radon gas exposures.

 

The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that currently, between 20,000 and 30,000 lung cancer deaths occur every year from American citizens breathing radon gas in their homes.  Radon gas enters homes when the soil has a higher than usual amount of radium, or when radium-contaminated materials are used in the construction of homes, as has happened in many communities.

 

Sometimes radon enters homes in the form of radioactively contaminated water (i.e. water containing dissolved radon).  In such cases high radon exposures often result from showering. Radon gas is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers.

 

Because radium is such a deadly substance, it is now considered too dangerous to use in commercial applications. So radium became a radioactive waste product of uranium mining. Since the mid-20th century, massive piles of radium-bearing wastes – over 200 million tonnes in Canada – have been stored at the surface in the form of a fine sand.  These sandy wastes constantly give off radon gas into the atmosphere.

 

Dangers of Radioactivity 3 – Polonium

 

When uranium atoms disintegrate, they change into about two dozen other radioactive materials – these are the “decay products” of uranium.  Among these decay products are radium, radon, and polonium.  That’s why uranium ore always contains radium and polonium; they are both natural byproducts of uranium.

 

Since the Chalk River Near Surface Disposal Facility is intended to store a very large amount of uranium (1000 tonnes!), there will be always more and more radium, radon and polonium in those wastes as the centuries go by, increasing without end, as more and more uranium atoms disintegrate into their natural decay products.

 

Polonium is a radioactive solid that occurs in nature as a decay product of radon. When an atom of radon disintegrates, it becomes an atom of polonium.  In fact there are 3 different varieties (called “isotopes”) of polonium : polonium-218, polonium-214, and polonium-210. They are all radioactive byproducts of radon gas. And, of course, every atom of radon was once an atom of radium, and every atom of radium was once an atom of uranium, so it’s all happening all the time – a “decay chain”.

 

It so happens that polonium is the deadliest element on earth. Scientists at Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, the place where they developed the explosive mechanism for the first atomic bomb, say polonium-210 is 250 billion times more toxic than cyanide. So whatever amount of cyanide is needed to kill a human being, that same amount of polonium-210 would be enough to kill 250 billion humans.

 

In 2008 a small amount of polonium-210 was dumped into a cup of tea in London, England, to murder an ex-Russian spy named Alexander Litvinenko.  He died an agonizing death as all his internal organs shut down one by one.  Polonium-210 attaches itself to red blood cells and so it spreads all over the body by normal blood circulation. The ionizing radiation given off by disintegrating polonium atoms is particular devastating to living tissue, wherever that tissue may be in the body.

 

When tobacco is grown, radon gas builds up under the thick leaves, and atoms of polonium are produced there. Polonium adheres to the sticky hairs on the leaves, so a very tiny amount ends up in the harvested tobacco. This situation is made worse when radioactive fertilizer is used to promote the growth of the tobacco plants.

 

The American Health Physics Society, specializing in monitoring radiation, estimates that 90 percent of the deaths attributed to cigarette smoking are actually caused by polonium-210 in cigarette smoke. So polonium is killing over 200,000 Americans per year, due to lung cancer, heart attacks and strokes caused by ionizing radiation.

 

Inuit people have more polonium in their bodies than the average Canadian because they eat a lot of caribou meat.  Caribou eat a lot of lichen, and the lichen absorbs the polonium dust that slowly settles out from radon gas atoms disintegrating in the air.

 

Is There a Safe Dose of Ionizing Radiation?

 

Large doses of ionizing radiation can cause death, radiation sickness, hair loss, sterility, radiation burns, cataracts, and many other harmful effects that are apparent within hours, days, or weeks of exposure – within a year, at least.  These are called “prompt effects”; they can all be prevented by lowering the exposure.

 

Low doses of ionizing radiation can cause cancers, leukemias, genetic damage to the DNA of reproductive cells, and a variety of other ailments that will often not become apparent for years or even decades after exposure.  These are called “delayed effects” of ionizing radiation.  (The technical term is “stochastic effects”.) Delayed effects cannot be altogether prevented just by lowering the level of exposure.

 

Many scientific bodies exist to sift through the scientific evidence and determine the truth as they see it.  These include UNSCEAR (United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation), the BEIR Committee of the NAS (National Academy of Sciences Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation), and the ICRP (International Committee on Radiological Protection).  These bodies have issued a series of reports over many years on the subject of ionizing radiation.

 

The scientific consensus of all these committees is that any dose of ionizing radiation, no matter how small, can in principle cause the delayed effects mentioned above: cancer, leukemia, or genetic damage.  But with very low doses of ionizing radiation, the fraction of the exposed population suffering such harm is also low.

 

All these scientific committees have accepted the “linear hypothesis” as the best guide.  The linear hypothesis implies that there is no safe threshold of exposure to ionizing radiation, because harmful effects – including lethal effects – can be experienced by individuals exposed to even low levels. To be more precise the linear hypothesis states that the number of damaged individuals in an exposed population is roughly proportional to the average dose multiplied by the size of the population.

 

It is worth noting that every nuclear regulatory body in the world has formally accepted the linear hypothesis. All radiation limits and standards are based on the linear hypothesis, with no assumed safe threshold.  This means that there is no absolutely safe dose of ionizing radiation, so all exposures should be kept to zero if possible.  The “permissible levels” of radiation exposure are based on the belief that some level of radiation-caused cancers or genetic defects is acceptable in exchange for the benefits of the radiation exposure that caused these harmful effects. It is also well-established that women and children are much more vulnerable than men.

 

When it comes to very long-lived radioactive waste materials that will be around for hundreds of thousands of years, the linear hypothesis becomes very worrisome, because the exposed population is not just those people who are living near the waste right now, but all the future generations of people who will live near the wastes for thousands of years to come.  As the exposed population grows larger and larger with time, the number of cancers and genetic defects becomes incalculable.

 

Radioactive Emissions: Alpha, Beta and Gamma

 

Sooner or later the nucleus of any radioactive atom will disintegrate (i.e. explode). Any emission given off during such a disintegration is called “atomic radiation”.  The half-life of a radioactive element is the time needed for half its atoms to disintegrate

 

Radioactivity is measured by how many disintegrations occur in one second. One disintegration per second is referred to as a “Becquerel” (Bq). A terabecquerel (TBq) is a trillion becquerels, indicating that a million million radioactive disintegrations are taking place every second. Many of the radioactive waste materials to be deposited in the Chalk River Near Surface Disposal Facility, according to authorities, are measured in terabecquerels, sometimes even thousands of terabecquerels.

 

When a nucleus disintegrates, it ejects an electrically charged particle, travelling incredibly fast, that can smash molecular bonds with ease.  There are two types of such particles. An “alpha particle” is positively charged, whereas a  “beta particle” is negatively charged. Almost all radioactive elements can be classified into one of two categories – either as an “alpha-emitter” or as a “beta-emitter”.  For example, polonium is an alpha-emitter, while tritium (radioactive hydrogen) is a beta-emitter.

 

In many cases, a disintegrating nucleus may also give off a burst of pure energy, very similar to an x-ray, but far more powerful. Such emissions are called “gamma rays”.  Any radioactive element that gives off gamma rays is called a “gamma-emitter”.  Technetium-99m, used in hospitals for diagnostic tests, is a gamma-emitter.

 

Since alpha particles, beta particles, and gamma rays all break molecular bonds, they are all classified as “ionizing radiation”.  As such, they are all able to cause any of the adverse effects described earlier as health consequences of ionizing radiation.

 

While alpha particles and beta particles are material projectiles, and not radiation at all, they are sometimes incorrectly referred to as “alpha rays” and “beta rays”. Being particles, however, they are much less penetrating than x-rays or gamma rays.

 

Gamma rays are the most penetrating form of atomic radiation, requiring heavy lead shielding to limit exposures.  Beta particles are much less penetrating. They can travel only a few centimetres in soft tissue, and can be stopped by an aluminum plate.  Alpha particles are the least penetrating, unable to pass through a sheet of writing paper or even a glass window. Despite the differences they’re all dangerous.

 

Due to limited powers of penetration, alpha-emitters and beta-emitters are mainly internal hazards (i.e. they normally must be inside the body to do severe harm). Once inside the body, alpha emitters are much more damaging than beta emitters.  An alpha particle is 7000 times more massive than a beta particle. If a beta particle is thought of as a kind of subatomic bullet, then an alpha particle is a kind of subatomic cannon ball : the cannon ball is less penetrating but more damaging.

Gamma rays, because of their great penetrating power, are external hazards as well as well as internal hazards (i.e. when gamma emitters are ingested or inhaled).

 

Special Dangers of Alpha and Beta Emitters

 

Gamma-emitters are easy to detect with radiation monitoring equipment. Even if a gamma emitter is inside your body it can set off a radiation alarm.  Alpha-emitters and beta-emitters are more difficult to detect even outside the body, and once inside the body they generally escape routine detection altogether. Laboratory analysis of urine or excrement or some other contaminated samples must then be carried out.

 

Canadian nuclear authorities have on occasion failed to detect alpha-emitters and beta-emitters for weeks, even while clean-up crews were being contaminated.

 

During a retubing operation at Pickering in the 1980s, workers were contaminated with a beta-emitting radioactive dust (carbon-14) for weeks. By the time authorities finally identified the danger, workers had been tracking the material to their homes on a regular basis. Bedclothes and some furniture had to be removed from workers’ homes and disposed of as radioactive waste.  Internal contamination of the worker’s bodies by inhalation and ingestion of radioactive carbon dust could not be undone.

 

More recently, during the refurbishment of the Bruce A nuclear reactors in 2009, over 500 contract workers – not regular employees of Bruce Power – inhaled alpha-emitting dust on the job for several weeks before the authorities detected the hazard. Those alpha-emitting radioactive materials are now lodged inside the worker’s lungs and other internal organs, and will be there for years to come.  Long after the job has ended, their bodies will continue to be irradiated from the inside.

 

Both of these episodes could have been avoided if nuclear authorities had tested air samples for radioactive contamination on a daily basis, or if workers had been issued respirators and protective clothing.  But incredible as it may seem, the regulator (CNSC) found none of the managers or inspectors guilty of negligence.

 

It is a fact that alpha-emitters have killed more people during the twentieth century than any other kinds of radioactive materials.  Radium, radon, polonium, and uranium are all alpha-emitters, and they have killed hundreds of thousands.

 

Inside every nuclear reactor, new man-made alpha-emitters are created, such as plutonium, neptunium, americium, and curium. These are among the alpha-emitting radioactive materials that were suspended in the air inside the Bruce reactor building while contract workers without respirators went about their work.

 

The Chalk River Near Surface Disposal Facility is intended to store a significant amount of plutonium and other alpha-emitting material – all of it difficult to detect, all of it highly dangerous even in tiny amounts. The main reason that the Chalk River radioactive waste will remain dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years is that many of the human-made alpha emitters have very long lives. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 24,000 years, but its decay product has a half-life of 700 million years.

 

Conclusion

 

Here are some statements from various official bodies in Canada and elsewhere:

 

  1. Report to the U.S. Congress by the Comptroller General of the United States

“Nuclear Energy’s Dilemma: Disposing of Nuclear Waste Safely” (Sept 1977)

 

“Radioactive wastes, being highly toxic, can damage or destroy living cells, causing cancer and possibly death depending on the quantity and length of time individuals are exposed to them.  Some radioactive wastes will remain hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years.  Decisions on what to do with these wastes will affect the lives of future generations….”

 

“To safeguard present and future generations, locations must be found to isolate these wastes and their harmful environmental effects.  A program must be developed for present and future waste disposal operations that will not create unwarranted public risk.  Otherwise, nuclear power cannot continue to be a practical source of energy.”

 

  1. Nuclear Policy Review, Background Papers (Report ER81-2E)

Energy Mines and Resources, Government of Canada, 1982

 

“Despite repeated assurances that nuclear waste disposal presents no insoluble scientific, engineering, or environmental problems, the issue remains in the minds of the public and some members of the scientific community as a serious unresolved issue associated with the development of nuclear energy….”

 

“Three general issues can be highlighted.  First, there is a concern that society is imposing a serious burden on future generations by leaving behind a legacy of radioactive wastes which may prove difficult to manage….

 

“This naturally raises a second question.  How can it be proven that waste disposal systems will perform adequately over very long periods of time? ….

 

 “Finally, there is the problem of establishing what the words “perform acceptably” mean.  A clear general statement of overall principles applying to radioactive waste management has yet to be agreed upon within Canada or internationally.”

 

  1. BEIR-VII – 7th Report on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (2008)

The National Research Council of the US National Academy of Sciences

 

“The scientific research base shows that there is no threshold of exposure below which low levels of ionizing radiation can be demonstrated to be harmless or beneficial. The health risks – particularly the development of solid cancers in organs – rise propor-tionally with exposure. At low doses of radiation, the risk of inducing solid cancers is very small. But as the overall lifetime exposure increases, so does the risk.”

 

Committee Chair Richard R. Monson, Professor of Epidemiology,

Harvard School of Public Health, Boston; Press Release, June 2007

  1. Nuclear Power and the Environment, Sir Brian Flowers (Sept 1976)

Sixth Report of the UK Royal Commission on the Environment

 

 “We must assume that these wastes will remain dangerous, and will need to be isolated from the biosphere, for hundreds of thousands of years.  In considering arrangements for dealing safely with such wastes man is faced with time scales that transcend his experience…. 

 

 “The creation of wastes which will need to be contained for such periods of time, and hence of a legacy of risk and responsibility to our remote descendants, is a matter of great concern to many people.  We think, however, that some continuity must be assumed in human affairs and institutions, and in the ability of future generations to maintain the necessary containment.”

 

 “We are confident that an acceptable solution will be found and we attach great importance to the search; for we are agreed that it would be irresponsible and morally wrong to commit future generations to the consequences of fission power on a massive scale unless it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that at least one method exists for the safe isolation of these wastes for the indefinite future.”

 

  1. Select Committee on Ontario Hydro Affairs, Ontario Legislature (June 1980)

The Management of Nuclear Fuel Waste, Final Report

 

 “The consensus of the Committee is that communities are not likely to easily accept the siting of what will be perceived as a garbage dump for frightening nuclear poisons.  The waste must be disposed of.  It must be disposed of safely and permanently.  In the Committee’s view, it is most likely that government will ultimately have to choose where the unpopular site will be located….”

 

 “One of the major problems AECL must overcome is the public’s perception that its entire program — from basic research to public information — is biased by its commitment to nuclear power and consequent desire to show that waste disposal is not an insuperable problem.  The Committee’s view is that AECL compounded its credibility problem by its one-sided, overly positive and broadly pro-nuclear presentation of information.”

 

  1. A Race Against Time, Interim Report on Nuclear Power In Ontario (Sept 1978)

Ontario Royal Commission on Electric Power Planning, Arthur Porter

 

“Given the very long life of these toxic materials, no man-made containment system can ever be predicted to give sufficient protection.  All over the world scientists are looking for ways to use nature as a final barrier.”

 

Articles by Dr. Gordon Edwards on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation

 

  Open Letter to Physicists:  http://www.ccnr.org/open_letter.html

     Report for Environmental Advisory Council: http://www.ccnr.org/CEAC_B.html

  Estimating Lung Cancers:  http://www.ccnr.org/lung_cancer_1.html

     Review of Tritium Report:  http://www.ccnr.org/GE_ODWAC_2009_e.pdf