Update : Bernie, Trumponavirus, Chomsky, Arizona, Back Home, Teaching Troubles, Research Rewards, and a Nice Note

It has been some time since my last article on either Algo-Stats or its companion activist site Scire Populum et Potentiam.  Since leaving Microsoft last August, I’ve relocated to Tucson, Arizona to reduce the proximity to family and to return to graduate school, hopefully for the last time this century.  I’ve been extraordinarily busy with teaching and coursework, along with qualifying exams, so much so that I’ve neglected a few book reviews I’ve intended, as well as a more critical analysis of the Democratic primaries, debates, and caucuses.  I would, however, highly recommend Democracy Now, David Swanson’s continued exceptional critical work, and the ongoing articles and tweets from Dean Baker on the Center for Economic Policy.

Democratic Races : Burying the Hatchet… Deeply in Bernie’s Back

I very much would like to comment more on the coalescing of Democratic candidates to defeat Bernie Sanders, despite the fact that Pete Buttigieg was performing decently leading up to Super Tuesday, only to resign the night before, joining Beto O’Rourke in an astonishing about-face, both candidates celebrated for following Bernie’s campaign strategy in accepting no PAC nor corporate donations.  My best friend back from my hometown, like many Beto supporters, was heartbroken, scraping bumper stickers off of his and his wife’s vehicles.   Buttigieg made a decision, the likes of which analysts such as Michael Moore quoted in Newsweek, decry as fear-mongering and unheard of in primary politics.  As Bernie has repeated, he has won the ideological debate, yet two now unemployed young Democratic politics, Mayor Pete and Congressman Beto seem to have betrayed the grassroots movements propelling them into their positions.  What did the DNC say to coerce Buttigieg, who claimed on NBC how he loved Bernie before “it was cool“, to about-face claim that Bernie wanted to “burn down the system.”  Salon labels the logical fallacy we can associate with Buttigieg’s absurd claims, the straw man argument.   The majority of Americans have a desire for a return to New Deal government (anti-socialists need take note that democratic socialism is nowhere near the cartoonish totalitarianism advertised in circa 1950s McCarthy brochures.)  But Democrats voting in the primaries fear Biden is the better candidate–yes, a misleading sounding sentence.  If you’re interested in misleading coverage, search for Bernie on Google, and all so-called “liberal” media, excepting a few genuinely progressive journals, all are dripping with “get the hell out of the way of the big man on campus”,

and so on and on and on.  When the reverse was true, and Bernie seemed like he could form a coalition, the best we could get was constant attacks (and attacks) on Medicare for All by CNN, with very little attention to where we could find endless money, namely, runaway military spending and endless war, described in a piece by Common Dreams.  The Physicians for a National Health Plan have long described all the relevant numbers one consider, and if we had such a plan in place now, we could expect a smaller death toll from COVID, a topic to which we’ll return.  The paucity of pro-Bernie articles such as Columbia Journalism Review’s “Coverage of Bernie Suffers from a Lack of Imagination require some internet digging.  Speaking of Common Dreams, they appear to be the only journal I’ve found so far which asserts a simple argument that CNN and NYT, for all their fantasy liberalism, seem utterly incapable of speaking this central truth: Bernie performs much better with independents and progressive-independents.  And as a strong and long-time supporter of Bernie’s, I receive a good deal of communication from the campaign arm, and as of a week ago, Bernie began asking for contributions NOT for his campaign, but for COVID relief.  That’s class.  Bernie’s fireside chats and speeches of late channel Franklin Delano Roosevelt, easily most important president in American history, with the obvious neck-in-neck Abraham Lincoln; we need Bernie’s socialism (or just New Deal policies) now more than ever.  I could go on and on about Bernie’s monumental role in reshaping the Democratic platform (Biden suddenly seems to be embracing everything Bernie embraces, but with the wink and nod that he’ll fold unnecessarily  to “scorch-the-earth” Republicans (even Paul Krugman agrees) once he steps back into the White House.)  Don’t get me wrong–a Biden administration, or an administration of any suit-wearing primate one might choose perhaps, would be better than the nest of oozing, craven, ignorant, festering, collusive cronies.  (And no, I’m actually holding back on my words here.)

Trump : He Knew He Was Right In Being Wrong, or Something Like That…

We can slacken blame on Herbert Hoover for policy ineptitude–he was a brilliant engineer, but a without a wonkish grasp of economics, say after the brands of John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White, he was only minimally able to mitigate the crisis of the Great Depression, his .  Trump, by contrast, loathes studies and knowledge.  He believes he knows everything, and that his actions have created the stock market gains since he assumed office.  And in the space of a few weeks, this one metric is  I saw in a gone.  Peter Wehner, a Republican who served in the administrations of Reagan and both Bushes, wrote in The Atlantic that “the Trump presidency is officially over“, as COVID leaves him badly unprepared after a gutted several agencies specifically in place to manage disaster and needed relief.  But never fear, I noticed a ticker on CNN last week or so that Jared Kushner, magical expert in all policy things, was “advising President Trump,” a president who wanted the world to know that coronavirus is the fault of the Chinese, not of the Americans.  Phew–for a moment there I was worried what we ought place on our headstones.  Trump, along with his enablers in Congress and the disgraceful far right organizations masquerading as media, has consistently downplayed the coronavirus outbreak, with references numbering too far to recite here.  A decent rundown appears in Rolling Stone, leading to his recent claim that he always knew it was a “pandemic.”  If the consequences weren’t so dire, I’d insist on laughter at Republican lawmaker Matt Gaetz mocking the outbreak by wearing a military gas mask during the relevant House votes, only to contract the virus a few days later.  These corrupt government officials ought be in jail.  How about global warming is a Chinese hoaxScientists are evil, per terminally ill hatemonger medal of freedom recipient Rush Limbaugh.  I read a copy of his book The Way Things Ought to Be several years ago, and his siding with the infinitesimal minority of scientists in denial was a retread of his debate with Al Gore that atmospheric chlorine released in a volcanic eruption dwarfed all possible chlorine since the industrial revolution.  Of course, the whole book read like talking points, mostly false.  I doubt he surrenders that he dodged the Vietnam War draft with an in-grown hair on his wide rear-end.  He never corrected that volcanic chlorine is water soluble, yet chlorine released through factory processes is not.  Rain won’t help us, it would appear, as weather is now much more extreme thanks to catastrophic climate change, but at least he’ll get out early.  I daresay when he passes, I’ll feel the urge to channel Gore Vidal, or maybe with more gentility, Noam Chomsky on the passing of William F. Buckley.

University of Arizona : The Home of Noam

Speaking of Noam, I’ve had the unique and special privilege of sitting in two of his courses at the University of Arizona, and, for reasons too inexplicably wonderful to imagine, I had my first sitdown discussion with him on a research aim near to his heart.  I won’t offer any details now, as he and I don’t want the let the cat out of the bag yet, but it’s a dream I couldn’t have ever envisioned.  Unfortunately, due to the outbreak, he is rightly quarantined, as the nonagenarian is robust, but nonetheless a nonagenarian.   I’ll have more to offer in the days ahead, depending on how the work goes.noam_neil One can note the large image of Bertrand Russell, a leading antiwar and progressive intellectual and activist in the United Kingdom, jailed for his iron opposition to the so-called “Great War,” later renamed, much like Star Wars IV: A New Hope, to World War I.  Speaking of Star Wars, I recall Yoda admonishing Luke that “wars don’t make one great.”  In any case, I’m seated next to the man in whose very large image I’ll have in my office, academic or otherwise, in the future.  A half-century of life experience sits between us, and I’m honored beyond words.

Arizona

I certainly have lost clarity around faith over the past several years, not, strictly speaking, because the evangelical tradition in which I was raised obviously would ostracize or mutilate me for my homosexuality, but rather because I simply could not reconcile a good-willed deity who would permit the ghastly, overwhelming third world suffering most of us in the western, or first, world will never know.  The story of Job offers nothing but confusion, as God and Satan bet on Job’s faithfulness, the story resolving with Job beckoning and thus foretelling the coming of the Intercessor, or Christ.  My aunt and uncle are (sort-of post)-evangelists who traveled about the world for many years.  I accompanied them on many spiritual meetings, and I’ll confess I’ve seen many, many things leading me to conclude that there’s much more to the human mind than we can imagine.  I’m in the process of helping them prepare a semi-exhaustive list of what you might think of as miracles, mind-reading, and the like, which I can promise you very well could be an extension of what little we understand about the warm goop between our ears.  John Cleese, a steadfast agnostic such as myself, discussed a series of studies during his fascinating interview at Google which demonstrate that the brain has predictive power over certain randomized experiments as conducted by Dean Rabin at the Institute of Noetic Sciences and other researchers at Cornell.  Whatever the case is to extrasensory perception, my aunt and uncle are the honest kind of ministers–they have only the long list of friendships they’ve cultivated, but no golden toilets or other Robert Tilton-styled frivolity (though sometime I’ll tell an interesting story involving their past interactions with him.)  I say all of this to point out that moving to Arizona to improve health conditions, return to school, volunteer music work with and be supportive of my aunt and uncle, be closer to my husband’s family in Scottsdale, and actually have this opportunity to work with Noam is incredible.  And in light of COVID, this is exactly where we should be.  But university work isn’t without its share of pitfalls, a topic to which we’ll return below.

Back Home for Tragedy

It’s rare I would delve into so much personal material in this venue, as I would rather keep to the title, the power and the people, but this is a time of personal challenge for us all, and the stories are common.  I returned home  to north Texas following the passing of my Uncle Allan, a successful businessman in Boston, Chicago, and Texas.  I brought my Uncle Charles along to surprise his sister Dowleen, Allan’s now widow, as I figured she would need some emotional support.  It was a grueling and terrible month of waiting and watching after Allan underwent emergency surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm, an operation from which he didn’t recover.  It gave me the opportunity to see my mother, her husband Tony Shotwell (a red town Democratic council member so beloved they named a center in his honor), sister, and my best friend Robin, his wife Molly, and my godchild Samantha.   Below from right counter-clockwise: sweetest of sweet little red-headed Sam (grinning with new teeth!), Molly, me, Uncle Charles, my sister Lindsey, Tony, my mother Tisha, her sister my aunt Dowleen, and Robin.)

Gainesville_Dowleen (2)Further, I had the blessed opportunity to see some of my favorite schoolteachers, my calculus teacher from high school E. Clyde Yeatts, and my college US history professor Pat Ledbetter.  Sadly, my other notable teachers from that region are retired and relocated (Candy, I’m thinking of you) or have passed on.  See below for our reunion picture–I reminded my former professors  that they are the good guys, and we need to stick together through this mess of political recklessness.  Both Clyde and Pat are amazing folks, so generous with their time and stewardship, and Pat is still teaching at North Central Texas College, where she helped to utterly transform my world-view.  Clyde has fully retired after an incredible career of teaching high school and college courses. Gainesville (2)

Teaching Again : The Migration Online, Shock and Reshock with Neither Awe Nor Aww

I had planned originally to do a more in-depth post on my return to the teaching clique after a five year mission to tech in the northwest, but other issues came up.  It seems like a good time to bring it up now, as the COVID pandemic leaves university leaders scrambling to relocate academia into cyberspace.  My teaching philosophy is actually relevant here, though I haven’t posted it before.  Before considering the current mess, I should pause to comment on my initial impressions in returning to teaching last semester.

To give a little context, I’ve worked in mathematics instruction either as a tutor, a teaching assistant, a teacher, a supervisor, or mentor since 1994.  I tutored my mother when she took elementary statistics from Clyde in the photograph above back in 1995.  I’ve very much enjoyed most of my teaching and mentoring experience, and coworkers know I’m happy to explain, perhaps in excruciating detail, artifacts of some oddball mathematical model.  And it’s something I do well.  A student of mine from Georgia Tech told me I was the best teaching assistant he’d known in all his four years of undergraduate study.  It was very, very touching to hear that.

Bear with me, as I should point out that most of what I’ll say here is pretty negative.  But if you’ve already read my political commentary earlier, this might not even surprise you.  And I probably wouldn’t have bothered to post about it had it not impacted me personally; I was, I suppose, expecting something of a song and a dance, as it was an opportunity for them to have a teacher return from the “real world” of industry to impart wisdom.  Ha.  What a narcissist I’m becoming.  On the contrary, I’ve come away feeling quite dissatisfied with the monolithic bureaucratization in the twenty-first century.

But it is worth mentioning a couple upgrades since I last dabbled in instruction.  On the side of light, the powers that be (or one single power, it would seem) here in the University of Arizona Department of Mathematics have (has) evolved the more basic classes into mostly participatory labs.  Students discuss problems and try to reach solutions.  It’s a cool idea with much promise, but it slows progress a bit.  One might think an extra credit hour is needed.  There also is an online tool the students must use something called ALEKS, though this part of the grading occurs outside of instructor or teaching assistant oversight.  Now on to what isn’t working.

It is apparent now that one person largely controls all teaching assignments, and chairs of the sub-departments aren’t willing, at least not to me, to asking for exceptions.  This is a conscious decision on the part of academic faculty to cede power to non-academic administration.  I don’t believe I’ve ever experienced this, nor did I know it was a thing.  I do recall when I was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Arlington that professors were quite unhappy with departmental proceedings on uniformity across classes.  And in those cases, it was faculty and some academic oversight.  I find this new norm to be curious, as I was permitted, as a TA, to teach my own classes any way I saw fit, including managing graders and crafting homework, lesson plans, and exams.  It’s the extreme opposite here–despite years of experience, one must do as one is told, and that includes other faculty who have much more on-hands teaching experience than myself–literally, when I asked to teach my own class, the explanation I was given was that, “you need to learn about our student population.”  I still don’t know what that means.  Perhaps I should have asked for clarification.  Instead, I accepted the beginning role, expecting things to change after they observed my work with my students.  What happened instead I won’t say explicitly here, but human resources is now involved.  It’s hard not to think that expressing my opinions, generally in a nicer version than you’ll see them here, is the culprit behind any difficulties I have with administration.

Returning to my rant, coordinators are very insistent about grading policies, requiring 2000 (!) fall students to take tests at exactly the same time on exactly the same day, with a logistical nightmare to assign rooms, proctors, and an essential guarantee of a late evening exam time.  And why?  They’re certain the students will cheat.  Smart phones and email and yada yada make it so easy to cheat on a twenty question multiple choice test.

Now I just listened to Carl Sagan mention in Cosmos that the human genome perhaps could express more individuated humans than can ever live in the history of our civilization.  But we can’t randomly permute questions on a multiple choice test so that answers don’t line up, nor are they the same on corresponding questions?  With twenty questions and four answer choices each, even if you had exactly the same questions, there are simply too lazy (they admitted this to me themselves) to generate different tests, or, heaven forbid, take the extra step of trusting students not to cheat, or for that matter trust instructors to run and grade their own classes the way they see fit.  These tests are unavailable to the instructor of record, as though even he/she is considered untrustworthy.  Hmm, we’ll return to that word later.  And the histrionics around student dishonesty is quite ingrained–the coordinators require a sitdown meeting preceding every midterm to repeat the same drivel about correct proctoring.  It seems like more thinking goes into preventing cheating than into nurturing learning.

From a game theoretic perspective, there are easy answers that don’t require factory solutions : I read an interesting experiment in which students were permitted to take tests unsupervised, and of course it’s immediately obvious which students cheated.  A similar strategy could work here.  Or perhaps simply have several versions, maybe individualized to each student but with essentially the same concepts.  Again, we can randomly generate these tests.  If they cheat with outside help, does it really matter?  The onus on extremely large classes to catch cheaters seems unfair, as it’s much easier to notice in smaller classes.

Further, they require the students stay in the room until half-way through the exam, and when I queried whether they understood that we probably couldn’t legally require they remain, I was told that these students are used to doing what they’re told, so threatening them was fine.  Other policies are shockingly broken–we were advised during teaching training that if a student expresses suicidality, we ought more-or-less personally take them into custody ourselves to take them to student health services.  I put my foot down in the orientation, explaining my opinion the very real danger in coercing kids, mostly 22-26 years-old with no psychiatric or counseling training, to assess the risk in attempting something so stupid.  I insisted that you call the police, period.  My husband is a psychiatrist, and that is his strong warning.   On the altruistic front, you don’t permit this suicidal student the opportunity to harm oneself or others, and purely from the perspective of protecting the university, you let professionals immediately take over the situation.  The half-hearted response was that students’ records could be tarnished if you require a police escort, so the risk is worth it.  Sigh.

Moving on, technologically, they’re required to buy a TI-83 calculator, evidently because anything with symbolic manipulation is a bridge too far, while graphing and performing mild-to-moderate calculations are too hard but symbolic manipulation isn’t.  I’ve reminded them that I have worked extensively in math and science since buying my TI-89 some years ago, and I never used it after school.  Because of path dependency, they compel the students to use the same technology I used a quarter century ago in high school algebra, trigonometry, and calculus.  Wow, am I really that old?   In any case, this would have been akin to my having to use a slide rule while in those courses, as one could argue that button mashing somehow left more to the machine than to the man.

Perhaps it’s better to ask what the goal is in requiring all the students to learn college algebra, when they’ll forget the material in the months to follow?  A class in logic would be far more useful for many if not most of the students required to take this class, as it is the last math signpost in the road.  Fact is I couldn’t even get a straight answer from what the coordinators believe the students should be learning and retaining.

I suppose the reader can sense me baring my own frustrated narcissism, but I can report that the lecturers to which I’ve been assigned very much have appreciated my jumping in to help them teach.  Yet the powers that be don’t bother to observe this interaction.  And I’ve received praise from my students for teaching them concepts in a uniquely clarifying style. Can you imagine my frustration when someone young enough to have been in grade school when I managed these very classes myself telling me that I was not trustworthy to the department?  Furthermore, to my knowledge, no one has taken complaints I’ve flagged seriously.  My cynicism tells me that my offering advice on how to run the ship better was very poorly received.  I get that–it’s human nature, as is my reviling against unfair criticism.

My sincere hope is that if anything positive comes out of COVID, it forces most business and classwork to more easily migrate online; this is the future.  Rich corporate executives might think otherwise, but work-from-home is a very good idea, and admits less stress.  We’re very much unprepared for this scenario, so it’s no time like the present to invest resources centrally into solving all of these problems across the board.  And it seems that may be happening.  I’m discovering that the powers that be are having to adopt suggestions  I made during orientation, as students may or may not have access to printers or their TI machines.  So we migrate to a paperless, online experience with exams proctored through the Zoom tool.   (Incidentally, Zoom stock has ballooned at the time of this writing.  Another missed opportunity to get rich, I suppose.)  And I’m helping students edit PDFs using online opensource tools since the department has no obvious solution, and their expectation in the past was that students would print out worksheets, write in their answers, then scan them into PDFs.  This, of course, was another component for which I had suggested we provide an end-to-end digital solution.  Can you imagine, even before this crisis, how badly that had gone with every assignment?  Badly.

So what’s the lowdown on all of this?  Is it that I feel insulted and not heard?  Or is it the overall risk to and effects on my students?  And they are my students, are they not?  Education is less and less what I recognize.  A university course is a sacred trust, a bond between the teacher and the taught, the scholar and the students.  You and your teacher work together to succeed.  I think the answer is both and all.  I feel insulted, and I don’t mind commenting publicly when the effects are deleterious to my students.

It is a deep shame, and many other educators, current and retired, have shared similar stories with me.  Junior college and university level instruction, to say nothing of that of secondary and below, seems to be fraying, and though I’ve always cared about teaching a great deal, as my teaching_philosophy clearly indicates, hope is waning, as we have many, many other battles to win in the days ahead.  So let’s now turn to the rest of the good news about returning to school.

Research Opportunities Everywhere

I’ve joined the department at a good time, certainly.  In the department of statistics, we confront the immense growth and demand for statistics.  My chair Joseph Watkins recently netted the university an immense grant for a data science foundation, an operation which will transcend the many research departments across the campus, including astronomy, biology, epidemiology, genomics, optical sciences, engineering, computer science, applied mathematics, and so on and on.  It’s an incredible grant he, Helen Zhang, and many others had quite a hand in creating.  I’m very honored to have the rare opportunity to offer a little bit of input here and there, and I plan to put my industry experience to good use.  I’ve noted how data science, statistics, and machine learning finds application across logistics, operations research, technological performance, market and ads testing, and community operations.  This is indeed exciting.

And another incredibly important piller here is the newly-appointed chair of applied mathematics, one Dr. Misha Chertkov, a faculty member from Los Alamos with an impressively varied research pedigree and an inslakable thirst for ground in the most fertile and forward reaches of applied mathematics, statistics, computer science, engineering, machine learning, and the like.  I think it’s safe to say I may have discovered my advisor.  Other interesting possibilities include astrophysics research, and of course, the project I mentioned earlier with Noam.

So I would argue, obviously, that returning to school was the correct decision for me.  And I’m incredibly blessed to be here.  So I’ll end on some more inspirational themes.

“Look for the Helpers”

As the late great Mr. Rogers said, “look for the helpers”, and you’ll know there is hope.  There are many good people out there doing good work to help each other.  This is a time through which we can demonstrate our resolve, both as Americans and as a species.  We can join together with countless others to look for the new political narrative, perhaps one like that described by George Monbiot, to ease our passage through this critical junction in our history.  COVID demonstrates how much alike we all really are, and, like the more ominous catastrophic climate change, how little discrimination and division makes any sense in today’s world.  Looking for something gentle to watch last  night, we returned to the original Cosmos series, and I was actually quite surprised at how moved I found myself in listening to Carl Sagan’s gentle words in the opening and closing pieces of the episode.  In closing to said series, he offered the following inspiration, and I’d invite you to listen.  I genuinely believe our species is worth saving, and maybe this is our opportunity to move forward.  With that, please, please be safe.  Here’s a beautiful sunset in Tucson right outside my door–enjoy.

sunset

On The Third Day of Chomsky

chomsky_booksToday is the ninetieth birthday of Noam Chomsky! Though impossible to summarize such an incredible life with a few short articles, I hope that our conclusion of commemorations is icing on the cake for the Chomsky aficionado while a pique to the interest for newcomers.  Today’s selection of videos glimpses his many discussions on geopolitics, activism, and history.  And I conclude with a very special gift for Noam, so please read on.

Manufacturing Consent : C-SPAN

Noam appeared on C-SPAN some years ago to discuss Manufacturing Consent, a media critique, his seminal media critique co-authored with the late Edward Herman.  Central to the book, the propaganda model identifies means through which corporate media must serve power in contravention to the stated purpose of a free press.  The book itself is a good deal more technical than most of his later analytic books, so it might serve just to watch the documentary.   Here, we present the book review.

Noam and Howard

Chomsky’s very close friend Howard Zinn was a titanic American historian who, to his professional peril, articulated the appropriately named A People’s History of the United States.  Having met in the 1960s while working within the civil rights movements, Noam and Howard appeared in many interviews over the years, and here’s a great one from April of 2007 appearing on Democracy Now.

In September of 2004, Chomsky and Zinn together in Boston discussed whether there was “Hope in These Times” for Spare Change street paper and the Homeless Empowerment Project.

Chomsky chatted about Zinn not long after his passing.  His reflections evoke heart-wrench, as Howard was a close personal friend.  The world is lesser without him.

1995 : Contract with America, NAFTA, and Other Idiocies

Noam spoke on campus in 1995 to Doug Morris for an hour on contemporary American politics; NAFTA, Gingrich, and other topics of the day dominated the discussion.

Self-Destruction of the Species?  Institutions versus People

Chomsky spoke in April of 2001 at MIT on the question of species self-destruction, arguing the crucial role of institutional stupidity.  See the section below on Daniel Ellsberg for more.

What is Anarchism?

At a philosophy forum at the Czech Palacký University Olomouc, elder Chomsky discusses his take on anarcho-syndicalism and possible latter forms.  One uppity whippersnapper argues that he’d prefer to be told what to do, with Noam’s response a rather clever one.

Chomsky on Dershowitz : “Just A Comic Figure”

Alan Dershowitz has recently indebted jingoists everywhere in his zany legal defenses of Donald Trump on Fox.  Chomsky  has debated Dershowitz several times through the years, describing him to me as “just a comic figure, desperate to defend his two clients, himself and the State of Israel, but smart enough to know that both are guilty as sin.”  This was a reference to particular points of contention he and I were discussing regarding Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and Dershowitz’ often ludicrous defense of it.  “All this smoke that was blown…” is a great derogation Chomsky uses in the following debate in 2005 at Harvard’s John Kennedy School of Government.

Dan and Noam

Daniel Ellsberg was a government analyst working within the RAND corporation during the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations.  He met Noam while working within the peace movement in the late 1960s.  Here’s a picture of Noam, Dan, and Howard together in the 1970s.

ellsberg_zinn_chomsky

In 1971, Noam defended his friend Daniel Ellsberg publicly after Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, the hidden, vicious history of the Vietnam War.  This release significantly contributed to the growing public discontent with the negligent, criminal actions of the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations.  Be prepared to be annoyed as hell at the Buckley-esque cross-examiner, clearly more interested in hearing his own voice.  I don’t even care enough to look up his name.

Noam and Daniel met at the University of Arizona this past spring to discuss Dan’s latest book, The Doomsday Machine, a book I hope to review here soon.  These icons don’t pull punches in their scathing condemnation of nuclear proliferation.  Don’t be depressed.  This is a call to action!

9/11 and the “Rebel Without a Pause”

In 2005, filmmaker Will Pascoe produced Rebel Without a Pause, a documentary detailing the sharp uptick in Chomsky’s speaking requests after the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York (not to be confused with the September 11, 1973 terror attack in Allende’s Chile.)  Chomsky discussed his book on the former attack at the fifteenth anniversary of the Fairness in Accuracy and Reporting (FAIR).  Almost overnight, institutions, agencies, citizens spanning America and beyond expressed desperation in understanding what would motivate a group of criminals to murder thousands of civilians, killing themselves in the process.  Listen for the most plausible explanation available, a summary and analysis of intelligence data and the historical, documentary record.

Bernie and Noam

Bernie Sanders is the most favorable political figure today, according to the far right news media Fox.  Though Bernie’s 2016 campaign for president didn’t reach out to Noam for analysis, commentary, and so on (Noam told me this himself), they’ve crossed paths throughout the years; in 1985, Chomsky delivered a talk called “Deciphering Foreign Policy Jargon” at Burlington City Hall.  Millennials will cheer when Bernie introduces Noam.

Noam and Gore

Noam and gay hero and activist Gore Vidal only occasionally appeared together; on the passing of Gore, Noam told me,

We were on similar paths,
but they didn’t cross 
much.  Moved in different 
circles.  We did have a 
long videotaped 
discussion once, arranged 
by Jay Parini, a novelist 
who’s a common friend.  
Don’t know what happened to it.
A fine person, in my view.  
And outstanding novelist, and 
honest and often discerning 
analyst.

Well, it just so happens I found that video for him.  Yesterday, we included Gore later recounting how no American media organization would release the video, not even in “San Francisco on a Sunday morning at four a.m.”  In other words, not even the most “liberal” district featured mainstream media brave enough to challenge the recently deceased George H.W. Bush’s criminal aggression in Iraq.

Requiem for the American Dream

A very recent work of Noam’s called Requiem for the American Dream  considers principles of wealth concentration in the post-industrial, neoliberal era.  Documented in the same-named compilation of interviews with him, the instant classic was quite hard to find in theaters, even in the tolerant urban sprawl of Seattle.  My husband and I could find only one venue, somewhat distant, and a cash-only operation.  So much for the bastion of liberalism.  One can find the full-length documentary here.

Randall Wallace and Chomsky Speaks

Randall Wallace, grandson of former vice president Henry Wallace, believes Chomsky to be perhaps the most important intellectual of the past century.  To that end, he founded Chomsky Speaks, a project aimed at capturing as much of this incredible man on film as we can in Noam’s time with us.  I’d invite you to take a look for yourself.

My Friendship with Noam

nps_anc_2_cutWhile studying computer science and the Georgia Institute of Technology, I came across Noam’s work repeatedly in courses on the theory of computation.  In a purely academic pursuit, I searched the internet for discussions of his professional work; I then stumbled on his activist work, finding for the first time an author and thinker who spoke my language.   Encyclopedic, diligent, and driven by integrity, his powerhouse talks became a significant time drain on me.  I began ordering his books by the satchel, eager to consume every detail-packed tidbit he had to offer on geopolitics, critical analysis of foreign policy, and prescriptions for a better future.  We began corresponding in 2012, remaining pen pals for these years since.  I believe there isn’t a man I respect more, past or present.  And it isn’t hero worship, as I, like Noam, stringently object to gladiators and saviors.  Noam’s role as activist has been, and continues to be, an analyst, a curator of history, and a staunch defender of victims everywhere.  Though he’d never admit it, it actually gratifies him to hear how his works have inspired generation after generation of activists.  It isn’t immodesty.  Each of us need validation that what we’re doing is meaningful, however minor or however impactful.

nps_anc_cutHere was my eager first meeting with the man himself.

So as Noam enters his tenth decade, let me close these three days of celebration with a song I composed and performed just for him; here are the lyrics.  And the recording is below.

 

 

Happy birthday, dearest Noam!!!

 

Marking a Solemn Week in A Sea of Solemnity

This week marks the seventy-second anniversary of an event showcasing both the ascent of the human species to the top of the evolutionary ladder and its descent into what could be the darkest and final chapter of our roughly 200,000 year run on this planet : the bombing of Japan by the United States with nuclear weapons.

On August 6, 1945, the United States Air Force deployed the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, incinerating a few thousand acres of densely populated city, killing anywhere from 70,000 to 100,000 people in the blast; perhaps another 70,000 died from exposure.  On August 9, the U.S. continued by dropping a plutonium bomb on Japan over the city of Nagasaki, killing maybe 40,000 instantly and another 40,000 from the aftermath.  American apologists offer that these mass murders were essential in ending the Second World War while minimizing Allied casualties.  Certainly, that’s what I learned growing up, the pertinent question being whether this is true; it wasn’t until I took world history under Dr. Pat Ledbetter, longtime activist, jurist, and professor, that I ever heard the decision to deploy the atom bomb against Japan come into question.

Quite relevant today is Donald Trump’s quite harsh rhetoric toward the nation of North Korea as reported by the New York Times.  His outrageous words,

[t]hey will be met with fire
and fury like the world has
never seen[,]

as usual exhibit the uncensored, grotesque gaffes we’ve come to expect from him.  They also eerily echo similar words by Harry S Truman, president at the conclusion of the Second World War :

[the Japanese can] expect a
rain of ruin from the air,
the like of which has never
been seen on this earth.

The parallel may have been on purpose, as Trump seems to fancy himself the most accomplished president of our time, and Truman, in Americana, is widely regarded to have successfully ended the single most destructive conflict in history.  Trump can rest at ease spiritually, according to “faith leader” Robert Jeffress : contravening Romans chapter twelve’s directive to refrain from repaying evil for evil, he suggests that God’s instructions don’t apply to the government, and thus this same, loving “god” has bestowed upon Trump license to obliterate North Korea.  Certainly some hearts, are indeed, “desperately wicked.”

Though the philosophies of extremist devotees of Trump might not be all that surprising in their rapacity and blood-lust, the the claim that the atomic bombs were necessary to save American lives at the conclusion of the second world war, is, in fact, propaganda.  It turns out that the Japanese had suggested a surrender months before the bombs landed, asking only that they keep their emperor, largely a figure head and cultural symbol.  Washington refused, despite General Eisenhower, among others, urging Truman that

it wasn't necessary to hit them
with that awful thing … to use
the atomic bomb, to kill and 
terrorize civilians, without even 
attempting [negotiations], was a 
double crime[.]

Additionally, Admiral William Leahy, Truman’s chief of staff, apparently argued that

[t]he use of this barbarous weapon…was
of no material assistance in our war
against Japan[;] [m]y own feeling was
that in being the first to use it, 
we had adopted an ethical standard common 
to the barbarians of the Dark Ages [...] 
I was not taught to make wars in that 
fashion, and wars cannot be won by 
destroying women and children.

The Nation suggested in an investigative report released on the seventieth anniversary of the bombings quite accurately that we Americans need to face the ugly truth that the war was ready for a bloodless conclusion before Truman ordered the mass execution of hundreds of thousands of people.  Military head after military head uniformly agreed that the bombing was unnecessary, raising the more serious question of why one would wreak such horrendous havoc unnecessarily on civilians, and why no one exacted a political price for it.

One can easily point to an incredible misinformation campaign demonizing the Japanese as subhuman, feral monsters, documented by Anthony Navarro in A Critical Comparison Between Japanese and American Propaganda during World War II.  He offers a critique of both sides, but the imagery is striking.  Lingering resentment about Pearl Harbor eased propagandizing Americans, despite the attack being retribution for America freezing supply lines in Manchuria and conducting war exercises a few hundred miles off the coast of Japan, facts conveniently missing from the American consciousness.  We Yankees, perhaps, simply didn’t think the Japanese deserved to live.

It’s reminiscent of the euphoria when Barack Obama announced that Osama bin Laden was dead, murdered by a special operation in Pakistan which incidentally risked nuclear war; elite media and governments alike believed murder of a suspect without a trial was a monumental achievement, documented on Wikipedia‘s summary of official statements.  It seemed lost on interested parties that constitutional protections, inherited from Magna Carta, simply don’t matter in certain cases where the state deems them unnecessary.  I myself was stunned at the hysterical outpouring of happiness on Facebook and other social media.  I found myself nearly alone asking whether the dissolution of basic human rights in the case of a defenseless suspect made any sense.  It’s true that if he were actually guilty of masterminding the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, his was a vicious, malevolent crime.  But then again, Harry S Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush committed atrocities, uncontroversially, so far off the spectrum by comparison that it’s impossible to even imagine, documented by Noam Chomsky.  Standing next in line are Barack Obama with the drone assassination campaign, Bill Clinton in Serbia, and, yes, even dear Jimmy Carter in complicity in the Indonesian invasion of East Timor under Suharto, documented by Joe Nunes.

In any case, historian Hanson Baldwin argued in The Great Mistakes of the War that Washington’s “unconditional surrender” demands needlessly cost lives and lengthened the duration of the war; he wrote

[b]ut, in fact, our only warning
to a Japan already militarily
defeated, and in a hopeless
situation, was the Potsdam demand
for unconditional surrender issued 
on July 26, when we knew Japanese
surrender attempts had started.

Even the conservative Mises Institute editorializes that the bombing was one of the greatest crimes ever committed; John Denson argued in The Hiroshima Myth that the bombing was knowingly unnecessary.  In a more recent article, Ralph Raico continued the critique with a quote from physicist Leo Szilard, one of the originators of the Manhattan project :

[i]f the Germans had dropped atomic
bombs on cities instead of us,
we would have defined the
dropping of atomic bombs on
cities as a war crime, and we
would have sentenced the Germans
who were guilty of this crime to
death at Nuremberg and hanged them.

Dr. Szilard was making the obvious point that what evils others do seem to resonate while our own crimes either languish in the vat of forgotten history or simply cease to be crimes.  I’ve long argued that if Hitler had won the war, we would have eventually either forgotten his crimes or exalted them; after all, isn’t this precisely what we’ve done with Truman and the atomic bombs, Jackson and the Trail of Tears, Washington and the extermination of the Iroquois in the Sullivan expedition, and so on.  At worst, state apologists would argue that these events, like the tragedies of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars, were perhaps strategic blunders rather than the more deserved casting of “fundamentally immoral,” a description with which 52% of Americans surveyed in 1995 by Gallup agreed; that of course requires the events to even remain in public consciousness.

Returning to the atomic bombs dropped in 1945, Japanese historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa summarized a lengthy search through official Japanese records, communiques, and memoranda in a 2007 article appearing in The Asia Pacific Journal, titled The Atomic Bombs and the Soviet Invasion: What Drove Japan’s Decision to Surrender?“,

what decisively changed the views
of the Japanese ruling elite was
the Soviet entry into the war [...]
[i]t catapulted the Japanese
government into taking immediate
action [...] [f]or the first time,
it forced the government squarely to
confront the issue of whether it
should accept the Potsdam terms.

That is, the overwhelming evidence is that the Japanese military elites acceded to the Potsdam requirements because of fear of Soviet aggression, further undermining the assertion that the nuclear bombs ended the war.  The hideous irony is that the Allied forces permitted Japan’s emperor to remain in place at the time of surrender, the only condition the Japanese leaders required in their earlier attempts.

The historical question is whether the Japanese really would have surrendered; I’ve unfortunately seen monstrous commentary online to this effect, suggesting that hundreds of thousands of lives were easily forfeit next to a demand made by the Allied leadership eventually tossed by the way side.   If there were even a chance for peace by accepting what really was a trivial request by comparison to the massive loss of life to follow, shouldn’t we, as activist David Swanson often suggests, give peace a chance?

Establishing that the dropping of the bombs wasn’t necessary to end the war seems academic; further, we know now the architects of said wanton decision were even aware it was unnecessary.  So why carry out such an action, as we asked earlier?  It turns out that the answer is akin to why a child might pull wings of of butterflies : just to see what happens.  Echoed later by Deputy Chief of Mission Monteagle Stearns in Senate testimony about escalating the bombing of civilians in Laos after Lyndon Johnson ordered a halt on the bombing of North Vietnam in 1968, the rationale boiled down to

[w]ell, we had all those planes
sitting around and couldn’t
just let them stay there with
nothing to do.

Further, Truman felt a display of force was necessary to place the tenuously-held alliance with Moscow on notice, intended to restrict the Soviet sphere of influence once the spoils of the Second World War became available, as Howard Zinn argues with much historical evidence in his final book, The Bomb.

The myopic jingoists over at The National Interest argue otherwise, suggesting the savage butchery of hundreds of thousands was an understandable price to pay :

would even one more Allied
death have been worth not dropping
the bomb, in the minds of the 
president and his advisors, after
six years of the worst fighting
in the history of the human race?

Tom Nichols goes on to argue that Truman would have faced impeachment if he’d revealed the existence of the bomb later to war-weary Americans, and that they would have thirsted for blood if they learned of a more expedient conclusion.  His argument is approximately the same as that from a propaganda piece from The Atlantic published in 1946, seventy years earlier : physicist Karl Compton argued, seriously if you can believe it, that the Japanese wouldn’t have ever surrendered, as a “well-informed Japanese officer” told him

[w]e would have kept on fighting
until all Japanese were killed,
but we would not have been
defeated[.]

Both arguments are absurd, as Americans can easily learn that a more expedient, less destructive conclusion was available as of May 1945, and yet only a few of us in the margins believe Truman should have faced a war crimes tribunal.  In a similar vein, the Taliban in Afghanistan offered to hand over Osama bin Laden, provided we offered him a fair trial and not continue to bomb their country.  Would they have?  We’ll never know, as Bush scoffed in his repulsive drawl, “We know he’s guilty.”  But then again, what is a couple hundred thousand Afghans, or 200,000 Japanese lives to America-first chauvinists, a question now coming to haunt us with Trump’s incisive, menacing rhetoric?

As we’ve discussed previously, nuclear war is one of two existential threats looming over human civilization, both of which the Republican party has committed to accelerating : escalate both ecological catastrophe and the growing atomic maelstrom.  Trump’s threats toward a small nation with whom we can genuinely pursue peace imperils millions of lives and risks war with both China and Russia.  Our series on Cuba aims to demonstrate that harsh sanctions, imperialism, and aggression universally backfire, as one can see with one example after another in our history, and to further expose the many near-misses the nuclear age has wrought on a hapless species, many of which appear in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, gatekeepers of the Doomsday Clock.

So during this solemn week, let’s remember that history can repeat itself if we allow it.  We Americans can stop Trump and the warmongering political elites, if only we organize and resist.  Some decent references on getting involved to move us to a nuclear-free world are Waging Peace, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and the Simon’s Foundation.

We’ll close with words from the only officially recognized survivor of both nuclear blasts, Tsutomu Yamaguchi :

[t]he only people who should
be allowed to govern countries
with nuclear weapons are mothers,
those who are still breast-feeding
their babies.

 

The Conservative Nanny State : A Book Review Part One : An Introduction

In a series of posts, we’ll be analyzing and reviewing Dean Baker’s The Conservative Nanny State, an excellent discussion of the mythology of conservatives with respect to the government, corporations, and economics.  Instructive is how this mythology can apply in recent events, a review of which follows.  Donald Trump may serve an ideology of nothing more than “me first,” but behind the scenes, the nanny state machine continues to perpetuate a heavily propagandized mythology of markets, capitalism, and government..

All in a Day’s Work : Conservative Market Mythology

Donald Trump’s recent tantrums around the Republican failure to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act adorn the craven, viciously insipid strategy of the Paul Ryan / Mitch McConnell crowd : for eight years, they’ve vowed incessantly to supplant Obamacare with a better version upon gaining both majority power in Congress and a rubber stamp in the White House, yet in those eight years, they’ve managed to formulate absolutely nothing in the way of a cogent substitute.  This bears repeating : despite more time than is necessary to complete a doctorate in the most abstract, difficult theoretical fields in mathematics, the devout acolyte of Ayn Rand that is the vapid Paul Ryan has formulated absolutely no solution to our healthcare quagmire, aside from the tired, intellectually bankrupt admonishments of impotency about poor people being lazy and workers not trying hard enough.  Subject to the market fanaticism they worship so completely, they should be fired immediately for such astonishingly blatant incompetence.  Trump, by slight contrast, seems to care nothing for the details, wanting only to piss all over every last accomplishment of Obama; never mind all the campaign promises of universal healthcare.  He prefers to destroy Obamacare now, perhaps unaware of the malevolence and cruelty in destabilizing the exchange and kicking off coverage at least twenty to thirty million people, a estimate reported by NPR.  He’s apparently too busy

and so on.  His character assassination of Sessions for attention seems to be the last straw among a mountain of bundles, drawing ire from his shrieking media base of support (documented in The Atlantic) since Sessions is an alternative right folk hero.  Noteworthy is a quote from an arch-conservative writer for The American Conservative, Rod Deher, who didn’t support Trump but bears rather preposterous ideas :

I believe the Democratic Party today wants to
do as much damage as it possibly can to social
and religious conservatism. I believe the
Democratic Party would empower some of the worst
people in America. But at least you know what
they’re going to do. Trump really is an unstable
lunatic whose word means nothing, and who sees no
higher obligation than serving himself.

Certainly, the fact-free fantasy land of the conservative establishment is nothing new, ranging from the Powell memorandum discussed in earlier posts, to Reagan’s supply-side blather denounced even by George H.W. Bush as “voodoo economics”, to Trump’s mind-numbingly stupid insistence of widespread voter fraud by illegals, to Mike Pence’s insistence that smoking isn’t harmful,  to Pat Robertson’s claims that Trump represents God’s will, and the list continues.  Supply-side economics, like the young earth hypothesis, seems immortally immune to the colossal three-decade record of failures, long documented by the Center for American Progress.  Take the recent shenanigans in Mississippi and Kansas : both state governments slashed taxes with the promise of economic boosts, and both states have subsequently slashed services, some with disastrous import, such as curtailing of medical school faculty salaries.  Astoundingly, the party of so-called “fiscal conservatism” seems not to understand why less water flows when one turns the faucet down.

Big Government and the Poor : Supervillains

Conservatives and so-called new Democrats have long argued that so-called “big government” is universally a bad thing, indicative of avaricious largesse at best and vicious totalitarianism at worst; from my early life, I’ve heard conservatives in my home state of Texas bemoan the overwhelming burden of government regulation and taxation asphyxiating an otherwise highly efficient, wealth-and-job-creating small businesses. They argue further that welfare, otherwise known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) poisons the resolve of potential workers and feeds a lazy, repulsive underclass always in the market for cheating hard-working business owners out of their hard-earned profits.  So deep was the racism and disdain for welfare recipients that we greatly feared the marginalized black community in my hometown, despite having been on the welfare rolls ourselves soon after my mother and father divorced back in 1987, the irony being that we as poor whites had more in common with the poor blacks than we did upper middle class Texans.  Despite my college curriculum lifting partly the veil of ignorance, at least with regard to history, I nonetheless took my first “big-boy” job at a defense contractor believing, rather naively, that the conservatives there really were serious about eliminating government waste and pursuing honest efficiency to benefit the organization.  Imagine my surprise to discover that almost the exact opposite is the case : with some notable exceptions (see my LinkedIn connections), the organization was rife with effete, wasteful protectionists, all-too-willing to bend contractual obligations with the U.S. government to butter their own bread and conceal their incompetence.  Supplanting genuine concern for the government customer was a sneering cynicism at even their most sacred public institution of all : the military.  They held contempt even for arch-conservative Dick Cheney himself, as he had a long history of opposing the Osprey V-22 program in the first Bush administration.  In the more religious pockets of my social sphere of those days, welfare recipients were the target of ire, with the lobotomous justification that “the heart is desperately wicked… who can know it?”  That is, the innate wickedness of the human creature discussed in the Bible suggests that helping a poor person ever is a mistake contravening the will of the Most High; only the filthy rich deserve a second thought.  Then again, local faith leaders in my home community offered social commentary on a vast array of topics, including dubious claims that Santa Claus, in fact, is a woman masquerading as a jolly old man (Santa somehow sounded female), that Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, is in fact an alcoholic (owing to a condition known as telangiectasia), and perhaps most intriguing, that devotees of Catholicism are, believe it or not, addicted to cats.  Serious analysis aside, ahem, Pat Robertson would no doubt explode with pride, as wealth is godliness in his refined estimation; after all, why else would Operation : Blessing feature more return shipments of diamonds from than food shipments to impoverished Zaire?  His cozy relationship with bloodthirsty Mobutu Sese Seko clearly paid dividends.  All of this seems underscores a profoundly destructive paradigm in which we measure a person’s worth, exclusively, by her capacity to generate capital.  Whether the means by which she raises the capital is good for society is largely irrelevant, but if she fails to generate said capital, she’s discounted.  The industrial revolution heralded this cruel dogma; Noam Chomsky suggests that though feudalism and slavery were horrendous, brutal tyrannies, the intrinsic value of a person in each caste at least wasn’t taken for granted; the caste values were viciously low,  but the value wasn’t questioned.  Post-industrial revolution and with the abolition of slavery, industry leaders discovered more profit in shrinking compensation for workers below that of a living wage.  Though the natural knee-jerk response to such a statement is understandable, one must bear in mind the effects of our state capitalist system on the global population, not just those in our own country.  Also bear in mind this is in no way an endorsement of either of the aforementioned antiquated, monstrous frameworks, but it’s worth noting the shift in values and its origins, something we’ll discuss later in this series.

Enter Dean Baker, Economist

It turns out that laissez-faire market ideology and small government are, in fact, grand hoaxes, the former of which we’ve discussed in a little depth previously as we referenced American-flavor state capitalism.  Quite instructive on the latter topic is The Conservative Nanny State : How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer, written by Dean Baker, economist and co-founder of the Center for Economic Policy and Research.   Weighing in at just over one hundred pages, the book is a treasure trove of powerful evidence-based arguments targeted at refuting the myths surrounding what he calls the conservative nanny state, an apt and resonant depiction of big government in support of the overclass.

He discusses in awesome detail

  • the sly yet devastatingly powerful protectionism for upper-income earners such as doctors, lawyers, and technocrats accompanying the better-known globalization and immigration policies leading to downward wage pressure on lower-income earners,
  • the union-busting governmental muscles flexed to diminish collective bargaining in America,
  • the skyrocketing CEO pay in the United States stemming from the corporation, a legal fiction conferred enormous power by the government,
  • the government supplied monopolies on inventions and creative work through patents and copyrights,
  • the government punishment of debtors down on their luck accompanying happy-go-lucky freedom from debt corporations enjoy, both a product of a thing dubiously labeled “bankruptcy reform,”
  • the government crackdown on individual’s capacity to sue run-away corporations and the decidedly one-sided nature of the two-way street of eminent domain and government investment,
  • the government protections for small businesses which are actually quite harmful to the economy and the environment,
  • the government coddling of high-dollar tax evaders while systematically demonizing recipients of the safety net,

among many others.  In this series of posts, we’ll analyze his arguments, addressing additional points and more recent evidence.

Why the Democrats Keep Losing

Donald Trump is arguably the most disliked president in the history of modern polling, according to Five-Thirty-Eight.  Haphazard, mean-spirited (even by Trump’s own admission) healthcare proposals, blatantly racist travel bans, and the growing Russia scandal leave Trump in a very weak bargaining position with respect to Congress.  Or perhaps the intention is to distract with whatever vulgar offering Trump and Bannon provide on Twitter away from the Paul Ryan/Mitch McConnell plot to eviscerate social programs and keep the rich rolling in the fat, as suggested by Noam Chomsky in an interview with Truthout.  Whatever the Republican strategy (or lack thereof), Trump’s extreme unpopularity has heralded close calls for Democrats in a few of the four special elections held this year which would otherwise be very strongly Republican.  Yet their strategy is broken.

Jon Ossoff very slightly lost a heavily Republican district very close to where I lived some years ago, and his defeat has predictably emboldened the hopelessly flat Trump to proclaim a landside 100%+ mandate for himself and his stupefying agenda.  More appropriately, the closeness of the race in Kansas, to which we’ll return shortly, demonstrates profound dissatisfaction with Trump, something no doubt imperceptible to the mad king in his choking fog of self-congratulatory reverie.  Georgia’s is the fourth special election in the months since Trump has become president, and this is the only one the Democratic National Committee cared to notice.  Vox noted rather cleverly that Ossoff’s loss occurred because of a lack of substantive policies, permitting sleazy, establishment career politician Karen Handel to smear him on where he lives, who’s funding him (mostly small-time donors through Act Blue), and the like, despite his being raised in the district and her not and her receiving heavy donations from the corporate Republican machine.  The issue becomes, rather strikingly, the simple fact that Ossoff, like Obama in 2008, ran only on the “I’m not Trump/Bush and never will be,” rather than actually offering strong policy.   One can visit Obama’s 2008 campaign website to find rather scant policy content, mostly platitudes about changing politics and rhetoric.  Obama, unlike Ossoff, won because of the previous increasingly frustrating years with warmongering liar Bush in charge, and that McCain, a fresh(ish) departure from Bush, was probably unelectable with Sarah Palin on the ticket.  Of course, if Obama had run for the House against McCain and Palin, or McCain and a gorilla for that matter, in Georgia’s sixth district in 2008, he would have walked away with a striking defeat.

The other, and perhaps most significant issue in many urban/suburban districts is a systematic, widespread campaign of voter suppression, long documented by investigative journalist Greg Palast of Democracy Now and of course in outstanding work by Ari Berman in Give Us the Ballot.  These two analysts unearth mountains of evidence of persistent voter suppression in the United States against minorities, quite remarkable in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections in that they very likely cost the Democratic candidates Al Gore and John Kerry, respectively, the electoral college.  Forms the suppression take are

  • extreme gerrymandering to weaken or dilute minority districts, such as a drawing ruled unconstitutional in North Carolina in May and likely unconstitutional in Wisconsin soon (interestingly the defense before the court was “partisan advantage”, a euphemism for racial discrimination, much like the role the term “states’ rights” has served with respect to various forms of local tyranny),
  • purging voter rolls because of fuzzy matching of voter names with those of convicted felons,
  • deceptive polling location announcements,
  • dilapidated voting machinery,
  • insufficient staffing, paper ballots, or machines,
  • early polling place closures,
  • legal yet highly unethical barriers to voter registration (see Kasdan below),
  • persecution of volunteer registrars, a widespread form of suppression documented by Diana Kasdan of the Brennan Center for Justice (an instructive read, as it turns out many state and local governments prefer for voting drives not to happen),

and so on.  Earlier, more hostile tactics included barring entry of African Americans to polling places at gun point, unbelievably difficult literacy tests, violence, murder, intimidation, and the list goes on and on.

Returning to strategy, the fundamental issue is that the DNC seems to think the pretty people with Hollywood money and empty platitudes will persuade heartlanders and southerners to pull the lever for a tepid return to establishment politics.  Despite Trump’s shriveling popularity, it seems unlikely that they’ll abandon him for an outsider with a shallow platform.  And though the Citizens United decision makes the Republican attack ads about outside money all the more absurd and hypocritical (after all they happily gobble up contributions from outside corporations and tycoons, as Think Progress has pointed out), public relations experts in the Republican camp certainly know how to twist that knife by portraying Ossoff as a “San Francisco candidate.”  The DNC’s push to moderate Ossoff’s position essentially tied his hands with respect to combating the unremitting propaganda machine, as he’s left largely silent on policy while being forced to defend its outlandish accusations.

The DNC had an excellent opportunity in filling the seat left by CIA director Mike Pompeo in Kansas : James Thompson lost to Ron Estes by four points in a district Trump carried by 27 points, despite virtually no underwriting from the DNC but a strong, populist anti-establishment message.  If there was an opportunity to be had, this was it.  Kansas folk likely felt at home with Thompson, a local civil rights attorney with deep community ties.  Ossoff’s defeat, by contrast, was by a larger percentage margin than Hillary Clinton’s in that same district.

The DNC continues to favor centrist, establishment figures, neither of which Trump’s working class base wants.  Bernie’s ascendancy and Trump’s slight electoral victory last year indicated a strong preference among younger and working class people from both parties for an attempt from outside the Beltway.

Though Trump is extremely unpopular, bland establishment shills won’t tempt moderate Republicans, even if they dislike Trump.  Though Trump may compulsively pat himself on the back for the victories, they’re actually quite revealing of his unpopularity, as Republicans have atypically only slightly held their seats with a new Republican president in office; Democratic leadership has yet to discover how to leverage it.  True upstarts who challenge politics as usual with authentic advocacy for constituency is much more likely to convince people to abandon party and energize activists; as usual, they begin locally.

We’ll return to Cuba next time.

The Spanish Pearl Part One: Trump’s Gambit

Donald Trump, with modest pomp and circumstance from American media, honored a campaign promise this week in reversing the Obama administration’s 2014 decision to begin normalization of relations with Cuba, surrounded by a militant cadre of Republicans hankering to hurtle us back to the good old days of the Cuban missile crisis.  From a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted last year, we have that a majority of Americans support lifting the decades-long embargo imposed on Cuba, yet Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered the tough guy stance on continued human rights abuses within the island nation.  Aside from the official response from Cuba reported by CNN  detailing the myriad human rights abuses within the U.S. going on right now,  one need not look far for the craven double standard present not just in Trump’s bungled, clumsily heavy-handed foreign policy, but in American foreign policy generally traversing the (narrow) political spectrum of post-war administrations.   For example, despite myriad internal abuses documented over the years by Human Rights Watch, perpetration of massacres in Yemen, generation of radicalized ISIS militants as documented by Patrick Coburn of the Independent, the murderous tyranny Saudi Arabia’s monarchy enjoys broad American dispensation; Trump gleefully boasts, disingenuously according to the Brookings Institute, of multi-hundred billion dollar Saudi arms deals after a visit featuring a sword dance and a strange glowing orb.  Cuba, by stark contrast, somehow continues to draw the ire of extremists both inside and out of the American political aristocracy.  Though we may face temptation to hypothesize that

none of Trump’s foreign policy, though perhaps unusually egocentric and idiotic, is particularly shocking when placed in proper historical context.  When George W. Bush delivered his first state of the union address in 2002, he thumbed his nose at Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, declaring them to be an “axis of evil,” reversing the meager efforts by his predecessor Bill Clinton in thawing relations with Pyongyang in the so-called Agreed Framework.  Bush, like Trump to follow and Reagan to precede, seemed to have only a very slight understanding of geopolitics or the incredibly dangerous, malevolent game of poking-the-bear that is harsh sanctions and embargoes.  Indeed, this unique combination of ignorance and possible malevolence is worth examining, notable resource being Neil Buchanan’s recent discussion in Newsweek.  But returning to Cuba, fully appreciating the gravity of Trump’s intention to frustrate normalization requires investigating the deeply intertwined history with the rest of Latin America, the United States, the Soviet Union, and indeed the European imperialists who conquered it 500 years past.  Over the next handful of articles, I’ll detail the post-colonial history of what was once called the “Pearl” of the Spanish Empire in the hopes that of sharing the moral and ethical legacy demanded of us as citizens responsible for our government’s deeds.

In 1492, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, on behalf of the Spanish monarchy, landed in Hispaniola and Cuba searching for a shorter trade route with the East Indies; upon arrival, he immediately set to the task of conquering and later exterminating the Taíno, the native peoples, installing a colonial government to oversee crop cultivation, resource extraction and, a very, very distant priority, Christianization of the fast-dying peoples.  An aside, one can find an instructive first-hand account of Columbus and his initial expedition in Howard Zinn’s Voices of a People’s History of the United Stateswith thematically familiar vignettes of generous, open-minded natives offering succor and sustenance to their strange European visitors, only to be repaid with savagery, rape, pestilence, and butchery.

For over two centuries, Spanish dominance remained in play despite frequent attempts at usurpation by other European powers, but for a brief interlude in the eighteenth century during the Seven Years’ War in which the British claimed Havana, introducing tens of thousands of African slaves to the island.  Demographically, non-white Cubans constituted roughly forty percent of the population in 1775, cresting at fifty-eight percent in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Liberation movements stirred, partly due to the French revolution and independence of the thirteen British colonies to the north; contributing perhaps more resonantly was a slave uprising in Haiti in 1791, together with independence efforts by both whites, blacks, and so-called mulattos, or mixtures.  Under pressure to close the slave trade (Britain had outlawed slavery in its colonies in 1807), Spain weakly complied, spurring uprisings throughout the middle decades of the 1800s.  Of particular note, documented by Jose Canton Navarro in his History of Cuba, was the Conspiración de La Escaleraa vicious campaign to quell slave revolts with torture, murder, and exile owing its name to torture involving a ladder and a whip.

Instructive is the influence beginning in the nineteenth century of the independent thirteen colonies to the north on Cuba, to which we’ll return in subsequent articles.