The Status Quo Time Loop

The one unifying characteristic of both Donald Trump’s campaign and those who have mobilized to stop him is the concept of change. This is not piercing insight. Trump promises to remake how America relates to both itself and the rest of the world. Most of “the resistance” talks about unprecedented organization, a new type of activism. This rhetoric remains the same, whether the speaker is a loyal Democrat or an ardent revolutionary.

But one must always be wary of false promises. The opposition linked to the Democratic Party may march alongside radicals, but at the end of the day their participation is linked to getting people and money to win the 2018 midterms. Policy is not a major part of the pitch. Stop Trump, priorities #1, #2, and #3.

This focus on becoming the opposition to a person, rather than an ideology, is dangerous. Fortunately, we have lessons from history. In David Broder’s piece in Jacobin, “Being Anti-Trump Isn’t Enough”, he takes the example of Italy, whose politics have been dominated for over twenty years by Trump-esque populist Silvio Berlusconi. In a short time, the former Communist Party had shifted so far to the right that they mirrored the Democrats, both in their party name and outlook. They upheld neoliberalism and austerity, and focused on Berlusconi’s scandals and outrageous statements, attempting to win disaffected conservatives. The Left atrophied, no longer being seen as a way to power. And all this concerted campaign against one man did was reinforce the status quo and produce weak, unstable governments.

The election of Tom Perez as DNC chair, along with subsequent events, shows that the Democratic establishment wants to roll into 2018 with the same outlook and message that lost them the 2016 election (well, and the 2010, 2012, and 2014 ones too, minus Obama’s re-election). The energy created by Trump’s election among progressives is fuel for an attempt to reintroduce the status quo. And if the Democratic Party gets its wish, the time loop restarts- the status quo doesn’t work for many people, right-wing populist seizes on this disaffection, gains power, creates opposition, opposition funneled to Democratic Party.

Whatever your opinion on Bernie Sanders and his presidential campaign, he was offering a possible way out of this time loop. Fixing the major social and economic problems in the country, or at least trying to, helps prevent another Trump down the line. With the current strategy, the Democrats aim to fight the same divisive election every two years, with climate change and a hundred other serious problems charging through unfixed.

Resistance v. Collaboration in the Trump Era

Since the election of Donald Trump this past November, the term “resistance” has been everywhere. His policies must be disrupted and a new, stronger opposition must coalesce. While Democratic political leadership pledge resistance, the facts state otherwise.

When an oppressive force takes over a country, the opposition gravitates towards two ends of a continuum. On one side stands resistance, the other, collaboration. Erik Loomis correctly points out that building trade unions want to collaborate with Trump, despite the existential threat to the environment and unions themselves. It’s as if the Reagan administration never existed.

But it’s not just the conservative unions with memberships that swung towards Trump in the Rust Belt. Progressive champions are also guilty. Sens. Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren, who liberals usually speak fondly of, both say they support the utterly unqualified Ben Carson for Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary. All but one Democratic senator confirmed Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis for Secretary of Defense. This despite Mattis having what can only be called bloodlust; a military man who can’t wait to kill foreigners. These same senators will in a year’s time decry what Mattis does in office, but they chose to approve him. This is not resistance, not even close.

When the Germans invaded France in 1940, every person had a choice to make. Many rejected the Nazi occupation. They banded together to undermine enemy control, through intelligence gathering, noncooperation, and sabotage. The French Resistance was integral to Allied victory and the end of the Nazi state.

Others decided to seek peace and coexist with the occupation. Philippe Pétain, perhaps France’s greatest living military hero, turned the destroyed republic into a puppet regime based in the city of Vichy. Some collaborators were authoritarians eager for the chance. But others thought they were doing noble work, shielding France from the world of the Nazis. They were willing to work with a power that history knows was irredeemable.

Because the middle ground is treacherous between resistance and collaboration, accommodation, whatever you want to call it. For the last half century, activists have been trying to change the Democratic Party from within. This strategy failed in the past, and some Bernie supporters and Black Lives Matter activists are trying again today. But today’s activist can easily be tomorrow’s apologist, as social movements are co-opted. Given how much progressive work and resources went into campaigns like Warren’s senate run, it is disturbing to see her choice to work with Trump. If there is widespread belief that Trump is an illegitimate, dangerous precedent, confirming his extremist nominees and having chummy meetings to talk about pipeline jobs is not the way to go.

Those in the streets, blocking streetcars and shutting down intersections, they see Trump for what he is. To have a “wait and see” approach is a privilege many do not have. Women, people of color, LGBTQ+, indigenous peoples, they are under attack now. Accepting Trump as legitimate is to sanction their oppression. Green card holders and dual nationals are being denied entry to the US, creating international chaos and showing that whatever promises were made prior to Jan 20, they should be considered null and void. The progressives in Congress have rolled over and confirmed the officials who will defend the refugee ban. They had no problem spotting the neo-fascists an administration, and then maybe trying to fight that once it was built.

Total resistance is the only way forward. But the front lines need dedicated people. And as much as the Women’s March was a show of opposition, it seems to be headed towards more symbolic resistance that colors within the lines and plays friendly with authority. The economic and political structures that hold Trump and his ideology up are never under threat.

Just after the election, the Daily Beast, a ‘progressive’ media outlet tied to Chelsea Clinton, wrote this:

But if he is our next president, we will not question his legitimacy or hope he fails.

Instead, we will count ourselves members of the loyal opposition—loyal to the United States of America and opposed to the policies proposed by the president-elect during his campaign. And we will reflect on what has led so many of our fellow Americans to embrace such a messenger.

How does that strategy look today?

 

Clinton emails and the coup in Honduras

So I’ve been poking around the Hillary Clinton emails released by Wikileaks. Though the most recent dump pertains to wars in the Middle East, I’ve used to occasion to dive into earlier content about Honduras specifically.

 

Honduran troops clash with Zelaya supporters (by Roberto Breve; CC BY-SA 2.0 license)

While popular media focuses on Benghazi, it is clear that the worst event that is definitely connected to Clinton is the 2009 military coup in Honduras against democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya. Clinton has openly admitted her role in backing the military, under false pretenses concerning Zelaya setting himself up as a dictator. The story linked:

The question of Zelaya was anything but moot. Latin American leaders, the United Nations General Assemblyand other international bodies vehemently demanded his immediate return to office. Clinton’s defiant and anti-democratic stance spurred a downward slide in U.S. relations with several Latin American countries, which has continued. It eroded the warm welcome and benefit of the doubt that even the leftist governments in region offered to the newly installed Obama administration a few months earlier.

Clinton’s false testimony is even more revealing. She reports that Zelaya was arrested amid “fears that he was preparing to circumvent the constitution and extend his term in office.” This is simply not true. As Clinton must know, when Zelaya was kidnapped by the military and flown out of the country in his pajamas on June 28, 2009, he was trying to put a consultative, nonbinding poll on the ballot to ask voters whether they wanted to have a real referendum on reforming the constitution during the scheduled election in November. It is important to note that Zelaya was not eligible to run in that election. Even if he had gotten everything he wanted, it was impossible for Zelaya to extend his term in office. But this did not stop the extreme right in Honduras and the United States from using false charges of tampering with the constitution to justify the coup.

Not surprisingly, allowing the military to seize power has led to a Honduras that is substantially more violent, unsafe for women and LGBT+, and perpetuated the centuries-long cycle of civilian-turned-military rule in Latin America. If generals can seize power and face no lasting sanction from the United States, then every democratic government is perpetually on the edge. As we have seen all over the world, democratization is shallow when all policy is subject to a de facto veto by the military. There is a very real limit to how much progress can be made in the Americas if the State Department continues to sanction militarization.

Central American refugees flee violence.

I thought this passage from Hugo Llorens, the US ambassador, was very telling of how America really thought of Zelaya.

We found him unyielding in his position. He says that he is unwilling to return to the talks with the M [ed: interim president Roberto Micheletti] regime since he doesn’t believe they are acting in good faith.

He insisted that M was not interested in stepping down and would do everything in his power to ensure that he (Z) would never be restored. He stressed that if he was not restored the elections would not be legitimate and those involved in the coup would not be able to free themselves from the stigma of their actions. Z seemed totally out of touch and seemed completely focused on himself and that the future of Honduras and the future of democracy in the entire region hinged on his restoration to power prior to the elections. He predicted that if he was not restored that Honduras faced a bleak future led by a weak and discredited government and with a high probability of violence and civil conflict. I attempted to make him see the obligation he and M had in creating conditions for a workable step-by-step process that would allow for the regime to step down, ensure the holding of free and fair elections, and the smooth transfer of power, hopefully from the legitimate head of state to the newly elected president.

I will report the details on the high side, but at this moment I see no probability that Z will seek to go back to the table under the TSJA framework. He may be gaming it in order to put maximum pressure on M prior to the elections.

While on the surface the State Department backed the restoration, they saw no issue with a transition period that did not reverse the coup. As we can see in 2016, Zelaya was totally, totally right about how the coup affected Honduran democracy and a move towards violence and civil strife. Instead of seeing the fundamental legitimacy crisis caused when the peaceful transfer of power between administrations is interrupted, Clinton’s team saw vanity and pride.

This attitude has cost many lives. The unaccompanied minors surge across the southern border included many from a dysfunction post-coup Honduras. Central American stability can never be lasting if there is an exodus from some countries rife with murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault.

I don’t support Hillary Clinton. There are many reasons why, but it goes beyond her image, words, and political party. Her actions have hurt many. Honduras is a situation of her creation; it’s not something we paint by association with her husband’s presidency. Instead of Benghazi hysteria, citizens should remember something that is not only real, but that she publicly admits to.

Caught in the Brexit chess game

Capital in the UK can move with ease to other locations since the Brexit vote. Regular people? No, they’re pawns in a much larger game. In a matter of days we’re now at the point where the EU is threatening the status of UK citizens, and the UK threatening the status of EU citizens.

The macro question of how Brexit will affect the national and international economy has no certain answer. But even if on the aggregate nothing changes, there are thousands of individual stories of tumult, not business as usual.

Our American baggage: a July 4 reflection

Today marks the 240 years since an arbitrary point in time, one of several associated with the Declaration of Independence. It’s also a time to reflect on how irrelevant the Declaration is in the 21st century, despite constant references in political culture. Present American policy the antithesis of the right of revolution. The dismemberment of Occupy shows that even talking about revolution is taboo. This is to be expected- what kind of self-sustaining regime would ever recognize the right to be overthrown?

So even though it was created eleven years later, when we discuss our origins we speak, directly or indirectly, of the Constitution. Unlike almost every state with a written constitution, the US Constitution has undergone comparatively mild revision, even though it predates the French Revolution, and thus modern politics as we know it. In the past, I’ve talked about our origins as dead people’s baggage, and the problem of a pre-democratic Constitution. Consider this a third take on the same theme.

Taken from Library of Congress website.

Here’s a strange thing to consider. At this point, it is generally established that all-white clubs clash with civil rights law. This year, Harvard cracked down on single-sex clubs, indicating that even in bastions of privilege like the Ivy League, integration is now expected.

Were the Constitutional Convention assemble today, July 4, 2016, it would be a pariah. An all-white, all-male clique, who generally speaking despised the working class, and did not think of women or populations of color as citizens. Yet most people are okay with how the Constitution was created. This slides into the problematic “the times were different” defense, which has always been used to justify atrocity and injustice. All the institutions surrounding the Constitution have integrated in some sense- legislatures, courts, school boards, the Cabinet. But the roots remain the same. And when the three current female Supreme Court justices interpret the law, they wrestle with a legal history that women had no input on until a few decades ago.

The end result is a Constitution that is incredibly vague, which inherently supports existing privilege and white male supremacy. There are no protections for marginalized groups, because they were never thought to have political and social rights. In fact, one can say that constitutional change in American history is a story of turning universal rights into enforceable protections.

One reason a second Convention has never been called, despite Framers asking future generations to do so, is that the leap will be so dramatic. Can we imagine a Constitution ten times longer? Twenty? Can we imagine the Second Amendment remade? Can we imagine centuries of case law overruled?

So on this July 4th, we triumph the Declaration, as it remains pure, frozen in time. There is no sense of obligation to change it. On this day, we can travel to the past, and not bring its baggage on the return trip.

 

 

Brexit: more hate crimes, and the same austerity

The spike in hate crimes following the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom is not surprising. It also shows how democratic structures can be used to propel intolerance. Psychologically, the 52%-48% vote for leaving the European Union is giving people the feeling that their actions are sanctioned and justified. This is an issue with majoritarianism- there are too many Remain voters for their camp to treat the referendum as the final say. But the majority requirement allows a radical policy shift despite many key parts of the country rejecting Leave- often by a larger margin than the overall vote.

A halal butcher firebombed by a white arsonist after the UK’s Brexit vote. 

Since the late-90s Labour administration, the UK has become an increasingly federal system. The devolved parliaments and self-government creates a serious legitimacy crisis. In concrete terms, I think a vote that fundamentally changes the domestic and foreign policy of the whole country should have to win a majority in each of the components of the UK- Wales, England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Only the first two voted Leave; Scotland has the biggest gap of the four- Remain won by 24 points. To use an American example, a constitutional amendment (per Article V of the Constitution) requires 2/3 of the national legislature, followed by 3/4ths of the states to ratify. States are given equal weight in this case, so even though California has almost one hundred times the people of Wyoming, the interest of the latter matter just as much.

 

Austerity cuts
Credit: Chappatte in “NZZ am Sonntag” (Zurich)

It says something that despite immense conflict and terrible austerity, Greece never left the Eurozone, let alone the EU. They saw the worst that the EU has to offer- its stern demand for failed economic models, and the great financial power it has on struggling member states. The United Kingdom had the privilege of high status, with major benefits of membership. Such perks are now becoming clear in their likely absence going forward. Leave could have been motivated by a good reason- austerity. Instead the campaign was more about those gosh-darned immigrants and their problems.

The bizarre thing is that the vote is actually a vote against austerity in disguise. The core of working-class areas voting Leave is a result of deindustrialization and unending Tory cuts to services and housing. The one force that has actually been in favor of real solutions is Jeremy Corbyn. His reward is a coup against his leadership- despite Labour voters supporting Remain more than the Conservative party that called for the vote. It’s a convenient excuse, and it remains to be seen whether short of ballot-stuffing the right wing can actually win a leadership election. That’s because grassroots activists and regular working people see in Corbyn what they actually want- not the bullshit about the UK’s standing in the EU.

Much like after the general election, I see nothing but meaningless word salad from the mainstream opposition. Any person with the slightest insight could see that Labour lost in 2015 just like it did this week- it failed to provide an alternative to austerity. It says something about neoliberalism (which even the IMF is now admitting doesn’t work as advertised), that a party based on working people didn’t think to talk about schools, housing, food, legal aid, investment, job training, etc. To the casual voter, Labour’s plans have devolved to a semantic difference while talking about everything the Conservatives want to talk about- debt, spending, and the deficit. The first rule of politics is offer voters something they want. That the party leader who wants to do that is voted out by his colleagues after a year is absurd. A genuine component of the SNP’s pitch for an independent Scotland is that an inept, corporate Labour is never going to defeat Tory rule. Their anti-austerity chops, though not amazing, are enough that they may very well get something the party wants- independence- by offering voters all the obvious things regular working people want.

And that’s a hell of a better strategy to win a referendum than whatever happened this week.

Without the will to punish

the_death_chamber_640_08.jpg
Lethal injection chamber at San Quentin State Prison

The death penalty is an odd animal in the 21st century. It’s not that there is a shortage of violence and cruelty today, rather that nations try all they can to classify their state-sanctioned as something besides capital punishment. “Counter-terrorism” has the same outcome- dead accused criminals- but most states that have counter-terrorism units do not have the death penalty. Fundamentally, it seems that most societies have an issue with killing an unarmed, detained person, even if they are morally reprehensible. In political science there is the democratic idea- that even authoritarian societies feel an obligation to act democratic in structure. There is also the abolition idea- where brutal societies still feel the need to formally outlaw capital punishment.

A supermajority of Americans favor the death penalty as an option in murder cases. The question is asked at a general level, which is why I think it’s so high. Many polls ignore the mechanics of the death penalty- how does the justice system condemn people, and how does the state kill them? Popular support is premised on the death penalty being by lethal injection, and this lethal injection being perfectly quiet, hidden, and efficient.

Recent campaigns by anti-death penalty activists against lethal injection have been immensely successful. Created deliberately to avoid the criticism leveled at its predecessors, the three-drug system of anesthetic, paralytic, and an acid to stop was rapidly made unusable through international norms against producing chemicals for use in executions. As explored on the episode “Cruel and Unusual” by WNYC’s More Perfect podcast, Maya Foa from the British organization Reprieve has engaged in a worldwide skirmish with US states seeking lethal injection drugs. Manufacturers were often misled about the use of the chemicals they synthesized and exported, and the European Union has specific bans in supplying executions.

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 1.45.04 AM.png
From Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC): http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/innocence-and-death-penalty#inn-yr-rc

 

The inability to get drugs should not be surprising, and it underlies a central paradox. In order to soothe the conscience of the public, lethal injection is punishment through medicine. Pharmaceutical companies produce drugs to heal, and are compromised when asked to provide the same drugs to kill. Despite looking very similar to a hospital, the American Medical Association bars physicians from participating in any capacity. As pro-death penalty Professor Robert Blecker of NYU Law says, it is baffling that an execution has many of the same features as us sitting bedside with our dying relatives.

Botched executions have shown that lethal injection is only ideal in an imaginary, perfect world. The paralytic used as the middle drug serves no actual purpose, but to mask how incredibly painful it is to have acid eat your heart if the anesthetic doesn’t work. The process meant to cover its tracks in a way electrocution and hanging never could.

The conservative claim is that activists have ruined the foolproof lethal injection protocol with their work informing chemical companies. But really there is no foolproof plan, and further scrutiny has shown lethal injection to be far more arbitrary and unstable than many would like to believe.

Returning to the beginning: how hard is that 61% of Americans who support capital punishment? If our society had to end the medical façade and go back to capital punishment, would there still be 61% with their hands still up? How many states would have a majority in favor?

In 1851, a huge crowd gathered to watch the first execution in Wisconsin since it gained statehood. John McCaffary had been convicted of drowning his wife. His hanging was botched, and 3,000 people (1 in every 100 state residents at the time) saw him gasp as he was slowly strangled to death. It took twenty minutes for him to be declared dead. The first execution in Wisconsin turned out to be the last, and in 1853 the state abolished capital punishment. Even on the frontier, even in the 19th century when we all assumed people were a bit more Old Testament, being exposed to the consequences of state-sanctioned killing was a transformative experience. Vengeance is unsatisfying. An eye for an eye is not always the best recipe.

In the rationalized modern society we live in, we are shielded from processes we support in the abstract, but would be unable to stomach up close. Most people eat meat, but how many would if they had to kill the animals themselves? Detachment is a luxury; with meat it is a class divide: the commoner’s sheep is the aristocrat’s mutton.

It seems that if a society can only use its greatest punishment at a distance, and has to disguise its vengeance with medicine and the pretense of mercy, it should have nothing to do with killing. The system has twisted itself in knots because, fundamentally, there is no majority that wants to bear witness to this type of justice in its full, uncensored form.