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Why We Need to See Trump’s Tax Returns

Mon, 09/17/2018 - 15:49

Once upon a time, there was a little-known energy company called Enron. In its 16-year life, it went from being dubbed America’s most innovative company by Fortune Magazine to being the poster child of American corporate deceit. Using a classic recipe for book-cooking, Enron ended up in bankruptcy with jail time for those involved. Its shareholders lost $74 billion in the four years leading up to its bankruptcy in 2001.

A decade ago, the flameout of my former employer, Lehman Brothers, the global financial firm, proved far more devastating, contributing as it did to a series of events that ignited a global financial meltdown. Americans lost an estimated $12.8 trillion in the havoc.

Despite the differing scales of those disasters, there was a common thread: both companies used financial tricks to make themselves appear so much healthier than they actually were. They both faked the numbers, thanks to off-the-books or offshore mechanisms and eluded investigations… until they collapsed.

Now, here’s a question for you as we head for the November midterm elections, sure to be seen as a referendum on the president: Could Donald Trump be a one-man version of either Enron or Lehman Brothers, someone who cooked “the books” until, well, he imploded?

Since we’ve never seen his tax returns, right now we really don’t know. What we do know is that he’s been dodging bullets ever since the Justice Department accused him of violating the Fair Housing Act in his operation of 39 buildings in New York City in 1973. Unlike famed 1920s mob boss Al Capone, he may never get done in by something as simple as tax evasion, but time will tell.

Rest assured of one thing though: he won’t go down easily, even if he is already the subject of multiple investigations and a plethora of legal slings and arrows. Of course, his methods should be familiar. As President Calvin Coolidge so famously put it, “the business of America is business.” And the business of business is to circumvent or avoid the heat… until, of course, it can’t.

The Safe

So far, Treasury Secretary and former Trump national campaign finance chairman Steven Mnuchin has remained out of the legal fray that’s sweeping away some of his fellow campaign associates. Certainly, he and his wife have grandiose tastes. And, yes, his claim that his hedge fund, Dune Capital Management, used offshore tax havens only for his clients, not to help him evade taxes himself, represents a stretch of the imagination. Other than that, however, there seems little else to investigate — for now. Still, as Treasury secretary he does oversee a federal agency that means the world to Donald Trump, the Internal Revenue Service, which just happens to be located across a courtyard from the Trump International Hotel on Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue.

As it happens, the IRS in the Trump era still doesn’t have a commissioner, only an acting head. What it may have, National Enquirer-style, is genuine presidential secrets in the form of Donald Trump’s elusive tax returns. Last fall, outgoing IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said that there were plans to relocate them to a shiny new safe where they would evidently remain.

In 2016, Trump became the first candidate since President Richard Nixon not to disclose his tax returns. During the campaign, he insisted that those returns were undergoing an IRS audit and that he would not release them until it was completed. (No one at the IRS has ever confirmed that being audited in any way prohibits the release of tax information.) The president’s pledge to do so remains unfulfilled and last year counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway noted that the White House was “not going to release his tax returns,” adding — undoubtedly thinking about his base — “people didn’t care.”

On April 17, 2018, the White House announced that the president would defer even filing his 2017 tax returns until this October. As every president since Nixon has undergone a mandatory audit while in office, count on American taxpayers hearing the same excuse for the rest of his term, even if Congress were to decide to invoke a 1924 IRS provision to view them.

Still, Conway may have a point when it comes to the public. After all, tax dodging is as American as fireworks on the Fourth of July. According to one study, every year the U.S. loses $400 billion in unpaid taxes, much of it hidden in offshore tax havens.

Yet the financial disclosures that The Donald did make during election campaign 2016 indicate that there are more than 500 companies in over two dozen countries, mostly with few to no employees or real offices, that feature him as their “president.” Let’s face it, someone like Trump would only create a business universe of such Wall Street-esque complexity if he wanted to hide something. He was likely trying to evade taxes, shield himself and his family from financial accountability, or hide the dubious health of parts of his business empire. As a colleague of mine at Bear Stearns once put it, when tax-haven companies pile up like dirty laundry, there’s a high likelihood that their uses aren’t completely clean.

Now, let’s consider what we know of Donald Trump’s financial adventures, taxes and all. It’s quite a story and, even though it already feels like forever, it’s only beginning to be told.

The Trump Organization

Atop the non-White House branch of the Trump dynasty is the Trump Organization. To comply with federal conflict-of-interest requirements, The Donald officially turned over that company’s reins to his sons, Eric and Donald Jr. For all the obvious reasons, he was supposed to distance himself from his global business while running the country.

Only that didn’t happen and not just because every diplomat and lobbyist in town started to frequent his money-making new hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. Now, according to the New York Times, the Manhattan district attorney’s office is considering pressing criminal charges against the Trump Organization and two of its senior officials because the president’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, paid off an adult film actress and a former Playboy model to keep their carnal knowledge to themselves before the election.

Though Cohen effectively gave Stormy Daniels $130,000 and Karen McDougal $150,000 to keep them quiet, the Trump Organization then paid Cohen even more, $420,000, funds it didn’t categorize as a reimbursement for expenses, but as a “retainer.” In its internal paperwork, it then termed that sum as “legal expenses.”

The D.A.’s office is evidently focusing its investigation on how the Trump Organization classified that payment of $420,000, in part for the funds Cohen raised from the equity in his home to calm the Stormy (so to speak). Most people take out home equity loans to build a garage or pay down some debt. Not Cohen. It’s a situation that could become far thornier for Trump. As Cohen already knew, Trump couldn’t possibly wield his pardon power to absolve his former lawyer, since it only applies to those convicted of federal charges, not state ones.

And that’s bad news for the president. As Lanny Davis, Cohen’s lawyer, put it, “If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?”

The bigger question is: What else is there? Those two payoffs may, after all, just represent the beginning of the woes facing both the Trump Organization and the Trump Foundation, which has been the umbrella outfit for businesses that have incurred charges of lobbying violations (not disclosing payment to a local newspaper to promote favorable casino legislation) and gaming law violations. His organization has also been accused of misleading investors, engaging in currency-transaction-reporting crimes, and improperly accounting for money used to buy betting chips, among a myriad of other transgressions. To speculate on overarching corporate fraud would not exactly be a stretch.

Unlike his casinos, the Trump Organization has not (yet) gone bankrupt, nor — were it to do so — is it in a class with Enron or Lehman Brothers. Yet it does have something in common with both of them: piles of money secreted in places designed to hide its origins, uses, and possibly end-users. The question some authority may pursue someday is: If Donald Trump was willing to be a part of a scheme to hide money paid to former lovers, wouldn’t he do the same for his businesses?

The Trump Foundation

Questions about Trump’s charity, the Donald J. Trump Foundation, have abounded since campaign 2016. They prompted New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood to file a lawsuit on June 14th against the foundation, also naming its board of directors, including his sons and his daughter Ivanka. It cites “a pattern of persistent illegal conduct… occurring over more than a decade, that includes extensive unlawful political coordination with the Trump presidential campaign, repeated and willful self-dealing transactions to benefit Mr. Trump’s personal and business interests, and violations of basic legal obligations for non-profit foundations.”

As the New York Times reported, “The lawsuit accused the charity and members of Mr. Trump’s family of sweeping violations of campaign finance laws, self-dealing, and illegal coordination with Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign.” It also alleged that for four years — 2007, 2012, 2013, and 2014 — Trump himself placed his John Hancock below incorrect statements on the foundation’s tax returns.

The main issue in question: Did the Trump Foundation use any of its funds to benefit The Donald or any of his businesses directly? Underwood thinks so. As she pointed out, it “was little more than a checkbook for payments from Mr. Trump or his businesses to nonprofits, regardless of their purpose or legality.” Otherwise it seems to have employed no one and, according to the lawsuit, its board of directors has not met since 1999.

Because Trump ran all of his enterprises, he was also personally responsible for signing their tax returns. His charitable foundation was no exception. Were he found to have knowingly provided false information on its tax returns, he could someday face perjury charges.

On August 31st, the foundation’s lawyers fought back, filing papers of their own, calling the lawsuit, as the New York Times put it, “a political attack motivated by the former attorney general’s ‘record of antipathy’ against Mr. Trump.” They were referring to Eric Schneiderman, who had actually resigned the previous May — consider this an irony under the circumstances — after being accused of sexual assault by former girlfriends.

The New York state court system has, in fact, emerged as a vital force in the pushback against the president and his financial shenanigans. As Zephyr Teachout, recent Democratic candidate for New York attorney general, pointed out, it is “one of the most important legal offices in the entire country to both resist and present an alternative to what is happening at the federal level.” And indeed it had begun fulfilling that responsibility with The Donald long before the Mueller investigation was even launched.

In 2013, Schneiderman filed a civil suit against Trump University, calling it a sham institution that engaged in repeated fraudulent behavior. In 2016, Trump finally settled that case in court, agreeing to a $25 million payment to its former students — something that (though we don’t, of course, have the tax returns to confirm this) probably also proved to be a tax write-off for him.

These days, the New York attorney general’s office could essentially create a branch only for matters Trumpian. So far, it has brought more than 100 legal or administrative actions against the president and congressional Republicans since he took office.

Still, don’t sell the foundation short. It did, in the end, find a way to work for the greater good — of Donald Trump. He and his wife, Melania, for instance, used the “charity” to purchase a now infamous six-foot portrait of himself for $20,000 — and true to form, according to the Washington Post, even that purchase could turn out to be a tax violation. Such “self-dealing” is considered illegal. Of course, we’re talking about someone who “used $258,000 from the foundation to pay off legal settlements that involved his for-profit businesses.” That seems like the definition of self-dealing.

The Trump Team

The president swears that he has an uncanny ability to size someone up in a few seconds, based on attitude, confidence, and a handshake — that, in other words, just as there’s the art of the deal, so, too, there’s the art of choosing those who will represent him, stand by him, and take bullets for him, his White House, and his business enterprises. And for a while, he did indeed seem to be a champion when it came to surrounding himself with people who had a special knack for hiding money, tax documents, and secret payoffs from public view.

These days — think of them as the era of attrition for Donald Trump — that landscape looks a lot emptier and less inviting.

On August 21st, his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was convictedin Virginia of “five counts of tax fraud, two counts of bank fraud, and one count of failure to disclose a foreign bank account.” (On September 14th, he would make a deal with Robert Mueller and plead guilty to two counts of conspiracy.) On that same August day, Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, also pled guilty to eight different federal crimes in the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office, including — yep — tax evasion.

Three days later, prosecutors in the Cohen investigation granted immunity to the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg. A loyal employee of the Trump family for more than four decades, he had also served as treasurer for the Donald J. Trump Foundation. If anyone other than the president and his children knows the financial and tax secrets of the Trump empire, it’s him. And now, he may be ready to talk. Lurking in his future testimony could be yet another catalyst in a coming Trump tax debacle.

And don’t forget David Pecker, CEO of American Media, the company that publishes the National Enquirer. Pecker bought and buried stories for The Donald for what seems like forever. He, too, now has an immunity deal in the federal investigation of Cohen (and so Trump), evidently in return forproviding information on the president’s hush-money deals to bury various exploits that he came to find unpalatable.

The question is this: Did Trump know of Cohen’s hush-money payments? Cohen has certainly indicated that he did and Pecker seems to have told federal prosecutors a similar story. As Cohen said in court of Pecker, “I and the CEO of a media company, at the request of the candidate, worked together” to keep the public in the dark about such payments and Trump’s involvement in them.

The president’s former lawyer faces up to 65 years in prison. That’s enough time to make him consider what other tales he might be able to tell in return for a lighter sentence, including possibly exposing various tax avoidance techniques he and his former client cooked up.

And don’t think that Cohen, Pecker, and Weisselberg are going to be the last figures to come forward with such stories as the Trump team begins to come unglued.

In the cases of Enron and Lehman Brothers, both companies unraveled after multiple shell games imploded. Enron’s losses were being hidden in multiple offshore entities. In the case of Lehman Brothers, staggeringly over-valued assets were being pledged to borrow yet more money to buy similar assets. In both cases, rigged games were being played in the shadows, while vital information went undisclosed to the public — until it was way too late.

Donald Trump’s equivalent shell games still largely remain to be revealed. They may simply involve hiding money trails to evade taxes or to secretly buy political power and business influence. There is, as yet, no way of knowing. One thing is clear, however: the only way to begin to get answers is to see the president’s tax returns, audited or not. Isn’t it time to open that safe?

The post Why We Need to See Trump’s Tax Returns appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Kavanaugh’s Confirmation Is About “Life and Death for Women”

Mon, 09/17/2018 - 15:45

As news of sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh breaks, his stance on Roe v. Wade is also under scrutiny. The New York Times reports that it received several leaked documents ahead of Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings earlier this month, including an email in which Kavanaugh questioned the accuracy of calling Roe v. Wade the “settled law of the land.” We speak with Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor at; and Ian Millhiser, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the justice editor of ThinkProgress.

Please check back later for full transcript.

The post Kavanaugh’s Confirmation Is About “Life and Death for Women” appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Facebook Censors Kavanaugh Story After a Conservative Site Calls It “Fake News”

Mon, 09/17/2018 - 15:45

Last week, ThinkProgress published a report by Senior Fellow Ian Millhiser headlined “Brett Kavanaugh said he would kill Roe v. Wade last week and almost no one noticed.” But then a Facebook fact-checker with the conservative outlet the Weekly Standard declared it “fake news,” leading the piece to be targeted and demoted by the social media site. The Intercept then re-published Millhiser’s piece, with editor-in-chief Betsy Reed writing, “The story was effectively nuked from Facebook, with other outlets threatened with traffic and monetary consequences if they shared it.” We speak with Ian Millhiser, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the justice editor for ThinkProgress.

Please check back later for full transcript.

The post Facebook Censors Kavanaugh Story After a Conservative Site Calls It “Fake News” appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Twenty-Five Zones Along Shell Falcon Pipeline Are at Risk of Explosions

Mon, 09/17/2018 - 15:43

Shell Pipeline Company has identified 25 locations that are prone to landslides in or near the route of its proposed Falcon Ethane Pipeline through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. Fourteen of those locations are in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

The Falcon Pipeline is just one piece of a massive network of unconventional oil and gas-related infrastructure being built by Shell and its affiliates and business partners in Pennsylvania with the aim of turning the region into a new petrochemical hub. The development has elicited concern from researchers, residents and environmental groups about the increased risk of explosions and spills, as well as the cumulative impact on air and water quality in the region.

Two of the sites identified by Shell as being prone to landslides along the proposed Falcon Pipeline route are in Allegheny County. The other 12 sites are in Beaver County — 35 miles west of Pittsburgh — where last Monday a natural gas pipeline not affiliated with Shell exploded, destroying one home, two garages, a barn, and several vehicles. The explosion and subsequent fire didn’t result in any serious injuries, but it forced the evacuation of 25 homes, shut down the interstate, and caused the local school district to close for the day.

The explosion, in a brand new section of Energy Transfer Partners’ Revolution Pipeline, is being attributed to a landslide following heavy rains over the weekend. This isn’t the first time a landslide has caused a natural gas pipeline to explode: In June, landslides resulted in the rupture and explosion of a TransCanada natural gas pipeline in Marshall County, West Virginia.

Shell is currently constructing a multi-billion dollar ethane cracker plant in Potter Township, just five miles from the site of the Energy Transfer Pipeline explosion. Shell’s proposed Falcon Pipeline would transport large volumes of natural gas and liquids to the ethane cracker plant to be converted into ethylene for use in plastics manufacturing.

In its permit application, Shell identified “landslide risk” areas along the proposed route for the Falcon Pipeline. The FracTracker Alliance, a Pittsburgh-based oil and gas industry watchdog group, has mapped those locations. In Pennsylvania, the 14 landslide-prone areas on or near the proposed pipeline route total 2.1 miles.

In Potter Township, where the ethane cracker plant is under construction, the Falcon Pipeline would cut through an approximately half-mile long landslide risk zone located about 800 to 1,000 feet from neighborhoods with 20 to 30 homes in them. One house in Potter Township sits 665 feet from a portion of the proposed pipeline route identified as being in a landslide risk zone.

In Independence Township, one home sits 396 feet from a landslide risk zone along the proposed pipeline route.

“According to our analysis, the blast radius for the Falcon pipeline there is about 900 feet, so if there were an accident, all those homes are in the impact radius near the landslide area,” Kirk Jalbert, a science and technology researcher and assistant professor at Arizona State University, told EHN. Jalbert previously served on the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) Environmental Justice Advisory Board, and as Manager of Community-Based Research and Engagement for the FracTracker Alliance.

The Pennsylvania DEP found 101 technical deficiencies in Shell’s initial Falcon Pipeline application, and Shell has since issued a response to those citations.

“It’s possible there are sections of the proposed pipeline route that were moved away from landslide areas in Shell’s responses,” Jalbert noted, “but it’s unlikely that all of them were moved.”

Shell did not respond to inquiries about whether the proposed pipeline route has been changed to avoid landslide risk areas.

“I Hope This Explosion Serves as a Wake-Up Call”

On September 6 — four days before the Energy Transfer Partners pipeline explosion — local environmental groups held a rally at the Pittsburgh office of the Pennsylvania DEP to urge the agency to deny Shell Pipeline Company’s permit application for the Falcon Ethane Pipeline, in part due to concerns over landslide risks.

“We think there are still significant problems with Shell’s application for the Falcon pipeline,” Matt Mehalik, executive director of environmental advocacy group The Breathe Project, told EHN. “This pipeline would go through a route that’s very close to many homes in Southwestern Pennsylvania. I hope this explosion serves as a wake-up call to homeowners about the serious risks associated with Shell’s plan.”

Record-setting precipitation in 2018 has caused hundreds of landslides across Southwestern Pennsylvania, prompting Allegheny County to seek a disaster declaration from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for emergency funds to help clean up the damage. The county estimated that landslides caused $18 million in damage in 31 municipalities, including Pittsburgh, between February and April.

Climate change is causing more extreme rainfall events across the US, resulting in an increase in the frequency and severity of flooding.

“People will say this explosion happened because of unusually heavy rains,” Mehalik said, “but if you’re building a pipeline that can’t withstand five inches of heavy rain over a weekend, something is wrong.”

Jalbert emphasized that the Energy Transfer Partners pipeline exploded just a week after being brought online.

“Representatives from oil and gas pipeline companies often say that explosions only happen on old pipelines, and that they’re using the most stringent design standards available to build these safe new pipelines,” he said. “They can’t say that anymore. This pipeline was brand new. Clearly something is wrong with the regulatory review process.”

The post Twenty-Five Zones Along Shell Falcon Pipeline Are at Risk of Explosions appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Kavanaugh Accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, Willing to Testify Before Senate

Mon, 09/17/2018 - 15:32

Putting new pressure on Republican Senators who would like to ram through a vote on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, the attorney for the woman who has accused him of attempted rape has said her client is willing to testify about the sexual assault she says took place when the two were in high school.

“She’s willing to do whatever it takes to get her story forth,” attorney Debra Katz said of her client, Christine Blasey Ford, during an interview with Savannah Guthrie on NBC’s “The Today Show” Monday morning.

“Is your client willing to testify before the Judiciary Committee publicly and tell this story?” –@savannahguthrie

“She is. She’s willing to do whatever it takes to get her story forth.” -Debra Katz, attorney for Kavanaugh accuser

— TODAY (@TODAYshow) September 17, 2018

Speaking directly at Republicans who are already attacking Ford for coming forth, Katz said it was that kind of reaction her client had feared.

“It’s not clear what the Republicans are saying,” Katz said in a separate interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America” with George Stephanopoulos. “I was listening to some reporting this morning saying that they’re going to fight this tooth and nail, that they’re going to grill her. That’s hardly an effort to get into a fair and thorough investigation of what has occurred. That’s a very intimidating statement and it really is designed to scare her and make her not want to come forward.”

“She’s willing to cooperate. What she’s not willing to do is to be part of this bloodletting that happens in Washington,” attorney of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser tells @ABC News’ @GStephanopoulos.

— ABC News (@ABC) September 17, 2018

Katz said that her client is willing to go through with testimony despite the violent and threatening reactions she has already received after she went public on Sunday. But also in the interview, Katz reiterating the strength of Ford’s credibility, saying that existing documentation and a polygraph bolster her claims.

“She has taken a polygraph. She is a credible person. These are serious allegations, and these should be addressed.”

Watch @savannahguthrie’s full interview with Debra Katz, attorney for Kavanaugh accuser

— TODAY (@TODAYshow) September 17, 2018

The post Kavanaugh Accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, Willing to Testify Before Senate appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Why Labor Is Holding Applause for Michigan’s Latest “Workers’ Rights” Measures

Mon, 09/17/2018 - 15:14

On September 5, the Michigan legislature seemed to take bold steps toward improving working conditions for its constituents: It passed legislation that would guarantee workers the right to earn paid sick leave, as well as a minimum wage increase to $12 an hour that mandates the same base wage for both tipped workers and non-tipped workers alike. These measures make the state the 11th in the nation to mandate paid sick days and the eighth to require that tipped workers be paid the same wage as all others.

But advocates are holding their applause. Both issues had been set to appear on the November ballot for voters to either approve or reject. By acting on them now, the legislature has ensured they will no longer appear on the ballot. Rather than requiring a three-quarter majority to change a voter-approved law, lawmakers will now only need a simple majority to change them later on.

And that seems to be exactly what they have planned. Even as they passed the measures, lawmakers made it clear that they did so not to enshrine them in law, but to create an opportunity to water them down later. “The Senate adopted the policy to preserve the ability for this legislature and future legislatures to amend the statute to better fit our state and our economy,” State Senate Republican Majority Leader Arlan B. Meekhof said in a statement after the vote. “The Senators heard from restaurant employees who fear they will earn less under the proposal and business owners who are concerned that they may have to reduce payroll in order to meet these new mandates. The Senate will be looking at options to improve the policies in the coming months.”

A number of Democrats, including all of those in the state Senate, voted against the measures. Democratic Rep. Leslie Love called the move “nothing less than voter suppression.”

The actions of the legislature didn’t shock Danielle Atkinson, founding director of Mothering Justice, who has been advocated for paid sick leave in the state for six years. “What happened [on September 5] was not a surprise,” she tells In These Times. The legislature has “pushed back on a number of occasions, starting with preemption and then just their hostility to moving legislation.”

Advocates are already vowing to fight back if the legislature does change the laws. “We believe the language of the [state] constitution is very clear that this is not an option available to the legislature,” Mark Brewer, an attorney who represents both the campaign to increase the minimum wage and the campaign to guarantee paid sick leave, tells In These Times. “We will sue to overturn any weakening of this law by the legislature.” He has been authorized by both groups to do research and gather evidence to be ready to file a lawsuit if and when the legislature acts.

The groups argue that the state constitution only affords lawmakers three options: adopt a ballot measure and make it law, reject it and send it in front of voters, or propose an alternative to appear alongside it on the ballot. A decision from the attorney general in 1964 stated that the legislature can’t amend such a measure the same year it enacted it “without violation of the spirit and letter” of the constitution. “We can declare victory now because there is no legal way to amend the legislation this year,” Michigan One Fair Wage said in a statement after the passage.

That organization, which had been advocating and collecting signatures for the minimum-wage ballot measure, has celebrated the passage while warning of retribution for future changes. “On behalf of the over one million workers and their families who will receive a raise, Michigan One Fair Wage is declaring victory in spurring the legislature to raise the minimum wage to $12 for all workers, including tipped workers who currently earn a subminimum wage of $3.52 an hour,” the group said in its statement. “This legislation would not have passed without the more than 400,000 Michigan voters who signed petitions demanding that One Fair Wage be on this November’s ballot.”

“It’s now the law of Michigan, which means that people are going to get a raise,” Brewer notes.

Atkinson sees it the same way. “We still consider it a victory because we know that the legislature [was] recognizing the importance of this issue, the popularity of this issue, the timeliness. They knew they couldn’t ignore it,” she says. “We are working to make sure that everybody knows that this is law.”

But the campaigns are also aware that this isn’t the end of the story. “The Republican legislature and their leadership and a lot of their members were very clear in saying that the only reason they were adopting this was to keep it off the ballot,” Brewer notes. And yet, he says, “No Michigan legislature has ever done that.”

A few of the top options lawmakers appear to be considering reinstating a lower minimum wage for tipped employees and slowing down the rate of the increase for everyone else, Brewer says. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Advocates are not just going to sit on their hands while they wait, however. The groups are “going to do a lot of public education,” Brewer says. “At this point, if the legislature votes to weaken the law they’re essentially taking away paid sick time or taking away a raise.”

“Our efforts right now are completely focused around to talking to every person we see,” Atkinson says. That includes knocking on doors, making phone calls and asking members to reach out to their friends and family. “It’s a right,” says Atkinson, “and if the legislature comes back and amends it, they are taking away a freedom that you have fought so dearly for.” Her group also plans to travel to Lansing to speak directly with lawmakers. “Hopefully they’ll listen to us before they listen to the lobbyists,” she says.

Michigan One Fair Wage and groups that support paid sick leave have vowed to turn people out to the polls in November, both to counter any dampening in enthusiasm with these issues off the ballot and also to show lawmakers that their constituents want them to stick to their promises. Ellen Bravo and Wendy Chun-Hoon, co-executive directors of Family Values @ Work, an organization that supports local paid-sick-leave campaigns, said in a statement, “All the partner groups in this coalition will mobilize to ensure that every legislator who voted for the bill hears from their constituents. They will do everything in their power to preserve the law they won. And they will work to achieve the highest possible turnout at the polls.”

“From Texas to Michigan, Americans are sending a message that they’re ready to do what politicians have failed to do: ensure no one [has] to choose between caring for a sick child and paying rent,” Jonathan Schleifer, executive director of The Fairness Project, which supports efforts to require paid sick leave, says in an email to In These Times. “Elected leaders who fail to listen will be held accountable.”

The post Why Labor Is Holding Applause for Michigan’s Latest “Workers’ Rights” Measures appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Henry A. Giroux on How Destroying Public Space Means Destroying Dissent

Mon, 09/17/2018 - 14:56

On last week’s podcast, This Is Happening was joined by Economist Henry Giroux, author of American Nightmare: Facing The Challenge of Fascism. Henry discusses his new article on how the starting point for fascism is in the destruction of those social spheres and public spaces that make community possible, dialogue crucial and dissent essential. When spaces disappear in which people can think, act, speak, organize and hold power accountable, politics is emptied of any substance and freedom loses its ability to resist an impending fascism.

The post Henry A. Giroux on How Destroying Public Space Means Destroying Dissent appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Cheap Tricks With Economic Statistics: The Democratic Version

Mon, 09/17/2018 - 14:31

We all know Donald Trump’s tendency to make up numbers to tell everyone what a great job he is doing as president. People are rightly appalled, both that Trump is not doing a great job, but also that he is lying to imply otherwise.

While Trump is clearly over the top in just inventing data to back his argument, Democrats are also often not very straightforward in assessing the data. We got a dose of that last week when there were complaints that the rate of income growth had slowed down in 2017 compared with 2016 and 2015.

Workers should be unhappy about the pace of income growth. They have much ground to make up following the losses of the Great Recession and the weak growth even prior to the downturn, but the main reason that income growth was slower in 2017 than in 2016 and 2015 is that oil, and energy prices more generally, rose in 2017 after falling the prior two years.

As a result of the reversal in oil prices, inflation was 2.1 percent in 2017, compared to 1.3 percent in 2016, and just 0.1 percent in 2015. This means that even though there was a very modest acceleration in nominal wage growth, and comparable gains in employment in all three years, the growth in income adjusted for inflation was far lower in 2017 than in the prior two years.

Workers have to pay for gas and heating oil, so the rise in energy prices does affect their living standards. In that sense, the weaker income growth in 2017 is very real, but this hardly represents some new failure of the political system. The speeding of income growth in 2015 and 2016, and its slowing in 2017, are just the story of fluctuating world oil prices, which any honest analyst should acknowledge.

This point is important for those of us who think that progressives are best served by being honest about numbers. Erratic numbers have a tendency to reverse themselves. While energy prices did jump in August, the big rises are most likely behind us.

As a result, inflation was 2.7 percent for the year ended in August, down from 2.9 percent in the year that ended in July. With last summer’s big gas price hikes falling out of the 12-month window, year-over-year inflation is likely to be down to 2.5 percent or even 2.4 percent with the September data.

With nominal wages rising at a 2.9 percent rate in the most recent data, that doesn’t translate into great wage growth, but 0.4 to 0.5 percent is better than zero. Those that made a big point of hyping the lack of real wage growth based on the July data may look a bit foolish in another month or two.

Those trying to push the zero real wage growth as an election issue may have the further problem that for the 64 percent of households who own their own home, it is even less true. Rent, and owners’ equivalent rent for the people who own their home, is by far the largest single contributor to inflation.

It is unlikely that people who own their home see the implicit rent they pay to themselves as a cost. For homeowners, a better measure of inflation is a price index that excludes rent.

If we exclude rent, inflation was 2.3 percent over the last year. This measure is likely to dip below 2.0 percent next month. That means that people who own their homes are seeing a respectable rate of real wage growth of close to 1.0 percent annually.

Of course, the good news for homeowners makes the story even worse for those who rent. Many renters are paying 40 percent or even 50 percent of their income in rent. For renters, the 3.6 percent rise in rents over the last year is a very big chunk of the inflation they see. Workers who rent may well be seeing an inflation rate that is more rapid than the growth in their wages.

The fact that wages are growing modestly does not mean that people should be satisfied with the current state of the economy. Workers took a huge hit in the Great Recession, as there was a massive transfer from wages to profits. Workers should be able to get back the ground they lost, and this will require wage growth that is considerably more rapid than 1.0 percent a year.

But we should be clear, wages are now moving in the right direction, even if not nearly fast enough. We may fool ourselves by trying to argue otherwise, but probably not too many other people.

The post Cheap Tricks With Economic Statistics: The Democratic Version appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

The West Ignores Afghanistan at Its Peril

Mon, 09/17/2018 - 14:27

With the recent passing of the 17th anniversary of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, it is essential to examine how Western neglect of Afghanistan contributed to that dreadful day.

The 1990s were a time of hope for many, with the Western press selectively focused on events that complemented the US’s Cold War victory: the end of apartheid in South Africa, the Good Friday agreement in 1998 which ended 30 years of ethnic and sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, and the famous handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993. One of the most popular books of the decade was Francis Fukayama’s The End of History, which touted the final victory of liberal free-market democracy.

But a tragedy was unfolding in Afghanistan that would have far-reaching consequences for the US and its liberal democratic allies in the early 21st century.

The Afghan Civil War, ignited by the 1979 Soviet invasion, tore the nation apart as seven different mujahideen groups slugged it out for control of Kabul, laying the city to waste by 1996 and paving the way for the Taliban’s ascension to power.

Starting with the Carter Doctrine — which stated that the US defend its national interests in the Persian Gulf, and would use military force, if necessary — the US provided the mujahideen with over $600 million in annual aid by 1987. In what some historians argue was the largest covert action in US history, the CIA channeled funds and training through Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, which opened training camps and Islamic religious schools for Afghan refugees in Pakistan. The Saudis, who found the holy war against godless communism in Afghanistan a convenient outlet for their own Islamic fundamentalists, matched US funds. The most famous Saudi “Afghan Arab” to join the jihad was Osama bin Laden. In 1988, bin Laden organized foreign mujahideen in Afghanistan into a terrorist organization called al-Qaeda, which would unleash a series of strikes on the West over the coming decades, including the September 11 attacks.

After the decade-long war in Afghanistan that left 1 million Afghans dead, by 1989, the US and its allies in Europe ignored the country. Much backslapping was going on in Western capitals with the defeat of the Soviet Union and Boris Yeltsin selling off his nation to the highest Western bidders. This — not the continuing of a civil war that tore Afghanistan apart — was the overriding story as the Berlin Wall fell and Eastern Bloc and former Soviet states adopted “economic shock therapy” that devastated local populations. Little discussed at the time or now was how Afghanistan was at the heart of the Soviet collapse and remains the origin of many of the West’s challenges with Islamic fundamentalism and the rise of anti-immigrant populism in Europe and the US.

Ignoring the Afghan Civil War now limits any thorough understanding of how that conflict has impacted the West. In its most basic form, the Afghan Civil War led to the rise of the Taliban in 1996. Although the Taliban is reviled today, it is often forgotten that some Clinton administration officials welcomed the movement as a force that could stabilize a country torn apart by war since 1979. A 1996 New York Times article stated, “The Taliban have found favor with some American officials, who see in their implacable hostility toward Iran an important counterweight in the region.”

By 1998, the Taliban took control of 90 percent of Afghanistan. The last holdout was the United Front, commanded by the Tajik Gen. Ahmad Shah Massoud, which held onto the Panjshir Valley in the north. Massoud’s United Front spokesman Haron Amin pleaded with Western governments for support. His pleas were ignored until September 11, 2001. Al-Qaeda assassins, believed to be acting on orders from Osama bin Laden, killed Massoud on September 9, 2001, and Navy Seals assassinated bin Laden in 2011.

Nevertheless, since 2001, the US and its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies have been bogged down fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and have undertaken brutal campaigns in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Libya to “degrade and destroy” Islamic fundamentalists inspired by the Taliban’s Wahhabi Islam. Refugees from these wars continue to flood into Europe and bolster populist anti-immigration and anti-European Union policies.

The Taliban’s rise to power also had important repercussions for the newly independent states of former Soviet Central Asia. In 1998, two Uzbeks – Tahir Yuldashev and Juma Namangani – teamed up to create the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), whose stated goal was to violently replace Uzbek President Islam Karimov’s regime with an Islamic caliphate. From bases in Afghanistan, the IMU nearly forced its way to Uzbekistan’s capital, Tashkent, in 1999 and 2000. This threat to regional stability was ignored by Western governments as the frenzy of self-congratulation of winning the Cold War and the potential riches of Central Asian oil and gas dominated discourse. Although Namangani was killed in a US airstrike in Afghanistan in 2001 and Yuldashev was killed by a US drone in Pakistan in 2009, Central Asian states – particularly Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – still face the threat of extremism due to Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan, weak education and economic collapse.

With many of ISIS’s most radical members hailing from Central Asia, the Western press neglect the region at their peril. A brief look at recent high-profile attacks in Turkey, Europe and the US highlights this danger. For example, last year’s attacks in St. Petersburg, Stockholm and New York are believed to have been carried out by Central Asian fundamentalists. The Istanbul Raina Nightclub attack on New Year’s Eve 2017 was allegedly perpetrated by an Uzbek national, and two of the three suspects in the Ataturk Airport bombing in June 2016 were from Central Asia. Last year, the US military reportedly killed Abdurakhmon Uzbeki, a close associate of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. US officials claimed that Uzbeki “had helped plot a deadly attack on a nightclub in Istanbul on New Year’s Day” and that he “facilitated the movement of ISIS foreign terror fighters and funds.”

The Afghan Civil War, then, did not only play a significant role in the rise of the Taliban, the US’s war on terror, the plunging of the Middle East into sectarian conflict and Europe’s refugee crisis, but also the radicalization of young impoverished men in neighboring Central Asia. Thus, any serious discussion of events that led to September 11 and shaped Western politics today must include an understanding and analysis of the Afghan Civil War’s impact on Central Asia and the West.

Sadly, war-torn and forgotten Afghanistan appears to have become simply a US testing ground for weapons like the MOAB, the largest non-nuclear bomb in history. Moreover, the fact that during the 2016 US presidential debates Afghanistan was hardly mentioned speaks volumes about the West’s unwillingness to address the root of many of the problems it faces today.

A re-examination of the West’s neglect of the Afghan Civil War and dismantling of the country after September 11 could help restore stability to the first nation the US unleashed its war on terror against. On the other hand, continuing to ignore the causes of Afghanistan’s descent into chaos restricts full understanding of why September 11 happened and why the US has been in perpetual war ever since.

The post The West Ignores Afghanistan at Its Peril appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

As the Biosphere Dies, So Do We: Using the Power of Nature to Heal the Planet

Mon, 09/17/2018 - 14:03

One only need look outside the window to understand that human-caused climate disruption is in overdrive.

Record warm temperatures, floods, droughts, wildfires and increasing incidents of extreme weather events have run rampant across the Northern Hemisphere this summer. These events, at least in part, stem from a global temperature increase of “only” 1 degree Celsius (1°C) above preindustrial baseline temperatures.

Harvard and MIT biogeochemist and climate and coral reef expert Dr. Thomas Goreau put this in stark perspective.

“Today’s carbon dioxide levels at 400 parts per million (ppm) [are] akin to bringing about a steady state temperature of 7°C higher and sea levels 23 meters higher than they are today,” Goreau, who is also president of the Global Coral Reef Alliance and coordinator of the Soil Carbon Alliance, told Truthout. In other words, the last time there was this much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it increased the Earth’s temperature to a point 7°C higher than it is today, and increased sea levels 23 meters above their current level. Hence, we are now only waiting for the planet to catch up to what we’ve done to the atmosphere.

More than three decades ago, Goreau and some of his colleagues were already pointing out that the only way runaway global warming could be avoided was by utilizing and expanding carbon sinks – a natural or artificial area where carbon is stored — as a way of sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Despite this not happening on the scale necessary to avert widespread impacts of runaway climate change, Goreau, along with many others, is as determined as ever to utilize various methods of “eco-restoration” to draw carbon out of the atmosphere.

These recommendations have gained more attention lately. A recent BBC headline stated, “Large-scale wind and solar power ‘could green the Sahara.'” The article touts the possibility that if massive numbers of solar panels and wind turbines were installed across the Sahara Desert, they could dramatically improve the amount of rainfall, lower temperatures and increase vegetation.

Goreau is not alone in his idea of large-scale projects that could lead to this sort of mitigation. Adam Sacks is the executive director of Biodiversity for a Livable Climate (Bio4Climate), an organization working to promote eco-restoration approaches. These include the reintroduction of abundant growth to billions of acres of land that has been severely degraded or turned into desert as a result of human mismanagement.

“Clearly, there are many steps along the way, and a primary one is to shift the climate narrative from one focused almost exclusively on alternative energy and reducing fossil fuel emissions to one that’s at least half about restoring global biodiversity and pulling carbon out of the atmosphere into the soils through photosynthesis,” Sacks told Truthout.

His approach is to focus on the extraordinary power of nature as a means of healing what ails the planet.

“Since the first microbes appeared over 3.5 billion years ago and began inventing all the biochemistry of life, living things have crafted planet Earth out of dead rock, water and gas,” Sacks said. “We have destroyed much of that life as our world population grew, and while humans are very clever about expanding carrying capacity, we have overdrawn our resource account and our talents have finally reached their limits. This has happened in many ways, but global warming is the culmination of millennia of hyper-technology.”

Sacks reminds us that if the biosphere itself is ill, so are humans, as we are simply one of its creatures.

“As the biosphere dies, so do we,” he added. “Fortunately there are thousands if not millions of people pulling in that direction on millions of acres. We need to multiply that a thousandfold to successfully address climate change.”

“We Already Know How to Do This”

Sacks feels that every country on Earth has grossly underestimated the severity, extent and rapidity of the impacts of climate disruption, and has been dismayed by how, as he sees it, “The full implications are only appreciated when the damage has been done and all that’s left is to watch as destruction and death have their way.”

This is why he founded Bio4Climate, as an attempt to avert these outcomes for millions of species, including humans.

For Goreau, who collaborates with Bio4Climate, this work is nothing new. He has been writing scientific papers on recycling carbon dioxide through the tropical biota to prevent runaway global warming for nearly 35 years. He made the first measurements of greenhouse gas emissions from deforested Amazonian soils and virgin jungles, and wrote the very first short paper on the subject.

Goreau’s 1987 paper even argued for a carbon tax, although at the time, he called it an “energy-growth” tax which would transfer income from fuel burners to environmentally sound tropical development.

Through books, talks and papers, Goreau has long been suggesting methods to the general public, as well as interested governments, for implementing the concept of regenerating carbon in soils and biomass while simultaneously pulling it out of the atmosphere.

“The idea is scientifically sound and has occurred independently to many people … as people try to think about solving climate change seriously,” Goreau said, though he noted that not many people seem to be familiar with the history of the concept of eco-restoration.

Last year, Goreau presented a paper at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization Global Symposium on Soil Organic Carbon that investigated how long it would take to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide at safe preindustrial levels by way of drawing carbon into soils.

“Stabilization could be achieved in decades only if we used the best existing carbon-farming practices, but never if we keep on doing what we are doing now,” Goreau said. “Thousands of farmers are out there doing the right thing and regenerating their soils, but the millions out there who are just running their soils down and amplifying the problem need to improve their act quickly for there to be any solution at all.”

Sacks is also realistic about what it would take. NASA climate scientist James Hansen sounded the alarm about anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) to Congress in 1988, and despite the ongoing efforts of tireless advocates, atmospheric greenhouse gas burdens have worsened almost every year, due in large part to burning fossil fuels.

“It should have been clear from the beginning that, even with effective sources of alternative energy, a global infrastructure would take a long time to reconstruct,” Sacks said.

But how feasible are projects like greening the Sahara? This one, in particular, would require nearly 3.5 million square miles of solar panels and wind turbines to produce the necessary change. What government on the planet is currently willing to invest in this scale of a project — even if we acknowledge that these kinds of projects may well be the last hope for mitigating some of the dramatically increasing impacts of runaway ACD?

Sacks readily admits that, on our current path, “there is no emissions scenario that can or will scale this large enough to truly mitigate the worsening impacts from human-caused climate disruption.”

“Even if we go to zero [emissions] tomorrow, the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and their committed effects are consigning us to a future that will make life for humans extremely difficult or impossible,” he said.

John Liu is the ecosystems ambassador for the Commonland Foundation, a group working towards the realization of large-scale landscape restoration with local farmers and land users. He is also a groundbreaking filmmaker who focuses on documenting ecological restoration around the planet.

Liu told Truthout he is “excited and hopeful” about the large amount of energy and interest in large-scale ecosystem restoration that he says is “exploding all over the world.”

In addition to the work of the Commonland Foundation, Liu, who is also a visiting research fellow at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology of the Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences, points to Ecosystem Restoration Camps Foundation (a group working to restore ecosystem functionality), which he sees as proof that people anywhere can self-organize and self-govern in a way that is restorative of the Earth.

While Liu acknowledges that our current situation is “fraught with danger,” he added that he believes “we are entering a new era of human civilization in which we are required to collectively understand that we all have a responsibility to act to restore the systems that naturally regulate the Earth’s life-support systems.”

Liu said his greatest hope is in the Earth’s resilience, and pointed out that it is not the planet that is most at risk, but human civilization.

While most people point towards the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as the primary issue that needs addressing, Liu sees this carbon disequilibrium in the atmosphere as an “indicator.”

“What I have learned is that we cannot simply consider carbon in the atmosphere and believe that sucking it down will solve our problems,” he said. “Even in terms of human impact on the greenhouse effect, carbon dioxide is not the greatest anthropogenic cause. Most people are unaware that moisture-laden air in the upper atmosphere caused by temperature increases from devegetation is a greater anthropogenic contributor to the greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide.”

Like Liu, Sacks and Goreau both believe it is possible to mitigate the worsening impacts.

“Nature can do the recovery if we help by putting the necessary pieces into place,” Sacks said. “Just as absent beavers or wolves in a formerly intact habitat can completely transform the ecosystem within a few years, humans are also a keystone species, and can help nature recover orders of magnitude faster than nature would recover on its own.”

Sacks’s organizational compendium shows, as he put it, how “we already know how to do this in virtually all habitats between the poles.” He describes the methods as inexpensive and low-tech, and believes they increase productivity significantly, improve local economies and self-sufficiency, restore local water cycles, mitigate droughts and floods, and reduce resource conflicts.

“The challenge is that we would have to move this effort to a global war footing immediately,” he said. “The ‘windows of opportunity’ to act on global warming have been opening and closing and opening again (and closing again) over the past 30 years, and those squandered opportunities are just about dried up.”

There is no way to seriously mitigate the impacts of runaway climate disruption without drawing vast amounts of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, and Sacks and Goreau are convinced that the fastest way to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is via the biological sink.

“We’ve destroyed half the biomass in the world and turned it into carbon dioxide, and we’ve lost about half the carbon in the soil by burning it off,” Goreau said. “But if we were doing what the best people are doing here, we could solve the problem in a manner of decades.”

Given that there is five times the amount of carbon in soils as there is in the atmosphere, Goreau believes it is possible to sequester an immense amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide back into the Earth via natural processes like increasing nutrients in soils, as well as restoring wetlands and mangroves on a mass scale.

“From my point of view, we’ve got to be restoring carbon in all habitats and ecosystems,” he said.

Both Sacks and Goreau feel a lot of the responsibility lies with farmers and those who manage pastures, who should be regenerating the areas where they work, as opposed to industrial agriculture which, as Goreau puts it, “runs land dry of carbon.” Of course, this would entail governments supporting farmers — financially and otherwise — in working towards this way of operating.

“When you look at how effective the good farmers are at sequestering carbon, it is well within our reach to sequester enough carbon dioxide, and if there were carbon credits so they were rewarded, it would happen,” he said.

What to Do?

It’s not only farmers who are capable of acting on eco-restoration. What steps can each of us take?

“The most important is to change the mindset from ongoing growth to reducing resource exploitation and steady-state, regenerative land management and economics,” Goreau said.

For starters, he suggests that people with homes can transform their lawns into native plant and food forests, and everyone should begin to work within their communities towards urban or suburban farming. Sacks also promotes the movement to depave (roads and parking lots, for example). Depavement removes unnecessary impermeable surfaces and replaces them with green, growing things wherever possible. Additionally, Sacks points to forest regeneration efforts, and suggests that those who are interested in exploring more options should visit the Regeneration International website.

Liu admits that the question of what to do is challenging “even to discuss,” and that “it isn’t very helpful to suggest small measures that are unlikely to really change the situation.”

Still, on a personal level, he tries to slow down and consider his motivations and intentions. He says that the dominant culture’s media and education system have instilled ambitions for him — and most of us — “to rush around, to buy and sell things, to desire the ‘conveniences’ that I thought I ‘needed,’ to meet the expectations of society that have been conditioned into me through socialization. “

Liu believes each of us needs to be mindful and question the forces that drive our pursuits.

“Is our worldview something that is truth, or does it emerge from the past through norms created by those who practiced genocide, slavery, greed, power, brutality?” he asks.

Liu points out that shifting consciousness must occur alongside efforts towards biospheric restoration.

“There is [an] enormous disparity between the wealthy and the poor. There is also a growing sense of hopelessness that manifests in depression, suicide, nihilistic acts like mass shootings and great unhappiness,” he said. “The types of social dysfunction that we are witnessing are similar to witnessing ecosystem dysfunction in various biomes. A logical conclusion could be that our human social ecosystem is degraded.”

Goreau, meanwhile, is working on coral reef restoration “because we’ve already lost most of them to global warming.”

He has been warning of coral bleaching from overly warm ocean waters since the 1980s, and believes the tipping point for coral bleaching already occurred during that decade. He reminds us that our current global climate crisis is already “much more dire than most people realize.”

His projects entail the use of very low electric currents to stimulate coral growth, by way of steel grids erected underwater onto which then limestone rock grows, hence the building of reefs. He has found that in this way, coral can be kept alive at warmer temperatures as well, but added, “This is only a temporary measure to buy us some time until we can get more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.”

Goreau is currently aiming to revive 400 reefs around the world, and admits this is but a fraction of what needs to happen.

“Death Is a Natural Part of Life”

Goreau reminds us that all of these projects are taking place against the backdrop of runaway ACD. The reality, he says, is even more devastating than most mainstream predictions show.

“This is far worse than the IPCC’s [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] worst-case scenarios,” he said. Goreau noted that even the IPCC’s worst-case scenarios are “so minimal” because it takes the oceans 1,500 years to mix and turn themselves over. This is relevant, he said, because oceans “are storing 95 percent of the heat we’ve generated.”

Hence, until the cold water of the depths mixes with the warmer surface water, “We’re still not feeling the full impact of the heat we’ve placed in the oceans.”

This means that we will not feel the full impact for another 1,500 years — yet, as Goreau pointed out, the IPCC ignores this “because they are only looking 100 years ahead, which is 1/15th of the time it takes for the oceans to mix. They are simply looking at the wrong time horizon.”

As we reflect on how conditions have gotten to this point, Liu also reminds us how “death is a natural part of life,” given that the dominant culture ignores this reality, with dangerous consequences.

In his view, this denial of death “has inflated our opinion of ourselves and limited our understanding and happiness. It can be hard to accept, but death is inevitable and being aware of it is very useful.”

From his perspective, it is important to remember this not just as humans, but to do so for all of life.

This is all the more reason to focus on eco-restoration — and relatedly, Liu says, on the importance of the natural world more broadly.

“We need to look carefully and compare our creations to the eternally evolving life systems on the Earth and realize that everything we have ever made and everything that we will ever make combined is worth less that the fragile atmosphere that was respirated by living things over prodigious time,” he said.

In order to undertake eco-restoration on the scale that would be necessary to mitigate the impacts of ACD, those in power in countries around the world would have to immediately prioritize that “fragile atmosphere” above all else.

The post As the Biosphere Dies, So Do We: Using the Power of Nature to Heal the Planet appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Pipeline that Exploded in Pennsylvania Part of Push for Petrochemical Network

Sun, 09/16/2018 - 17:00

Just before dawn Monday morning, Chuck Belczyk thought a jet had crashed near his home roughly 25 miles outside Pittsburgh — until he heard the sound of hissing gas.

“And that’s when it all hit us what was happening,” Belczyk told NPR’s State Impact. “You knew the pipeline went.”

A column of fire shot 150 feet in the air and destroyed a home, a barn, and several cars. Residents of over two dozen homes, including Belczyk, were evacuated, with one family barely escaping the flames that engulfed their home, neighbors said.

Interstate 376 was shut down amid concern over falling power lines, including a half-dozen high tension towers, which left 1,500 people temporarily without electricity. No one was injured or killed by the blast, authorities said, and because of recent rains, the possibility of a forest fire was averted.

The 24-inch diameter pipeline responsible for the blast had gone into service just seven days earlier. It’s owned by Energy Transfer Partners, the same pipeline company behind the Dakota Access pipeline project and the Bayou Bridge pipeline in Louisiana.

The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission has said it suspects that the blast was caused by heavy rainfall, which they believe may have caused the pipeline to slip on the saturated ground, break, and then explode.

Energy Transfer Partners dubbed its new “gathering” line the Revolution pipeline. Revolution was built to connect individual gas wells to a new cryogenic plant, the Revolution gas processing plant, where so-called “wet gas” from Marcellus wells would be separated into natural gas liquids and dry gas.

From the Revolution plant, that dry natural gas, a fossil fuel made of methane that’s used for electricity and heat, would be shipped west direction on the 725 mile Rover pipeline. Natural gas liquids like ethane, which is used to make plastics and petrochemicals, would head out on the Mariner East 2 pipeline to a shipping terminal near the Atlantic Coast, where it could be shipped to the Gulf Coast or abroad.

By providing a path for the liquids and gas to flow to market, the Revolution gathering line would facilitate the drilling and fracking of roughly 500 Marcellus and Devonian wells in just one Pennsylvania County, Butler County, alone, officials from the company building the cryogenic plant said in 2015, when the deal was announced.

Or at least that was Energy Transfer’s $1.5 billion plan. All three pipelines have been plagued by construction problems, particularly the much larger Mariner East natural gas liquids pipeline project. In the meantime, Energy Transfer Partners has faced strong pressure to finish the project from shale drillers, who aim to sell ethane for a higher price than it commands when it’s left mixed in with methane.

Drillers have publicly warned that more delays finishing the Mariner East system would impact their bottom lines. “If it is delayed to later in the year, that certainly has some costs to it,” Glen C. Warren, CEO of Antero Resources, a drilling company which has leased nearly half a million acres in the Marcellus shale, said during an April 26 earnings call, responding to a question from investors about the impacts of delays to the Mariner East project.

In February, Thomas Long, the CEO of Energy Transfer told investors that while Revolution was “mechanically complete,” the rest of the project was behind schedule. “We’re evaluating other options to move residue and natural gas liquids on Revolution before Rover and ME2 are ready for service,” he said on a Feb. 22 earnings call.

Center Township Police Chief Barry Kramer Kramer told Natural Gas Intelligence, an industry trade publication, that local authorities hadn’t been aware ETP had begun using Revolution to transport any gas or liquids. An ETP spokesperson told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the pipeline was being used as it would be commercially during a “commissioning” or testing phase when the explosion occurred.

Natural gas liquids are expected to play a growing role in the shale industry’s plans for Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and other parts of the Rust Belt.

A planned new petrochemical corridor in the region has already attracted over tens of billions of dollars in investment, as DeSmog earlier reported – $83 billion of that in West Virginia alone.

“I think the magnitude of some of these projects that we’re talking about here are hard for a lot of us and a lot of our communities to wrap their head around,” Chad Riley, CEO of The Thrasher Group, an oil and gas field and pipeline services firm, said at a petrochemicals conference in Pittsburgh this summer.

Not everyone is convinced that the coming plastics and petrochemicals build-out is a positive thing for the region — or for the rest of the world.

Much of the concern centers on the expansion of plastics manufacturing using fracked gas. “If all of this production capacity is constructed, it may lock in a massive expansion of cheap plastic production for decades,” a report last year by the Center for International Environmental Law found. “With expanded plastics production and consumption will come more spills and emissions from chemical plants, more plastic clogging shorelines and killing marine life, and more micro-plastic particles — and the pollutants they may absorb finding their way into food chains and tap water.”

At a more local level, safety concerns have fueled strong opposition to Energy Transfer’s Mariner East project, driven not only by the company’s troubling track record during construction but also by environmental concerns. Mariner East construction has been repeatedly shut down by the state after mishaps including sinkholes, spills and leaks. State regulators have hit the company with over $13.1 million in fines for violating state environmental and safety laws during Mariner East construction, including a $148,000 fine in August for breaking the state’s Clean Streams Law and the Dam Safety and Encroachment Act.

State Senator Andy Dinneman reacted to the Revolution pipeline blast on Twitter, connecting it to existing concerns over the Mariner East project.

These kinds of pipelines shouldn’t be so close to our schools, residential neighborhoods & community centers. Mariner East should be permanently halted until we get real assurance that they’re being installed, inspected and operated with safety as the top priority. 2/2

— Andy Dinniman (@SenatorDinniman) September 10, 2018

The post Pipeline that Exploded in Pennsylvania Part of Push for Petrochemical Network appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Trump Is Giving Protectionism a Bad Name

Sun, 09/16/2018 - 16:26

While it might not seem like it now, President Donald Trump is a gift to free market–oriented economists and policymakers. His clumsy approach to protectionism has ignited a trade war that inevitably will harm the US economy. When the pendulum inexorably swings the other way after the Trump fiasco, free-trade ideology will return with a vengeance. This is a potential tragedy for left-leaning policy analysts who have long been concerned about the excesses of neoliberalism and argued for a more measured use of tariffs to foster local economic development. As such, it critical that we distinguish between Trump’s right-wing nationalist embrace of tariffs and the more nuanced use of this tool to support infant industries.

As a development geographer and an Africanist scholar, I have long been critical of unfettered free trade because of its deleterious economic impacts on African countries. At the behest of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the majority of African countries were essentially forced, because of conditional loan and debt-refinancing requirements, to undergo free market– oriented economic reforms from the early 1980s through the mid-2000s. One by one, these countries reduced tariff barriers, eliminated subsidies, cut back on government expenditures, and emphasized commodity exports. With the possible exception of Ghana, the economy of nearly every African country undertaking these reforms was devastated.

This is not to say that there was no economic growth for African countries during this period, as there certainly was during cyclical commodity booms. The problem is that the economies of these countries were essentially underdeveloped as they returned to a colonial model focused on producing a limited number of commodities such as oil, minerals, cotton, cacao, palm oil, and timber. Economic reforms destroyed the value-added activities that helped diversify these economies and provided higher wage employment, such as the textile, milling, and food processing industries. Worse yet, millions of African farmers and workers are now increasingly ensnared in a global commodity boom-and-bust cycle. Beyond that cycle, they are experiencing an even more worrying long-term trend of declining prices for commodities.

One of the consequences of the hollowing out of African economies has been the European migration crisis. While some of this migration is clearly connected to politics, war, and insecurity in the Middle East and Africa, a nontrivial portion is related to grim economic prospects in many African countries.

After the global financial crisis of 2007, as well as the global food crisis of 2008, even mainstream economists and policy analysts began to realize that unfettered free markets were a problem for the development of African economies, not to mention other areas of the world. As a consequence, some in the development policy community began to reconsider the strategic use of limited tariffs and subsidies to protect and support infant industries. After being demonized for 30 years, import substitution—the idea that some goods could be produced at home rather than imported from abroad—was beginning to have a renaissance.

For example, the middle-income African nation of Botswana has long mined and exported diamonds. In fact, Botswana was and continues to be the largest exporter of gem-quality diamonds in the world. Nearly all of these were exported as rough diamonds, with the actual cutting and polishing done in countries like India and the Netherlands. Beginning in 2013, Botswana made a concerted attempt to onshore some of these value-added activities by subsidizing a domestic diamond-cutting and -polishing industry. Such industries take time to develop, since you need to cultivate a highly skilled labor pool. But the payoff is more and better-paid employment for a country’s population.

While the Botswana example is still unfolding, it is worth noting that both South Korea and Taiwan also skillfully protected industries in the 1960s and 1970s before breaking onto the world stage as export-oriented manufacturers.

Now the recent Trump fiasco with tariffs is threatening to tar and feather the whole idea of fostering local economic development for decades to come unless the left pushes back with a more nuanced perspective. After the inevitable crash of the American economy, not to mention the collateral damage, the global policy community, and broader publics, will likely reembrace free-market policies because they appear to be the opposite of Trump’s racist, nationalist, and nativist stance.

This potential scenario is eerily reminiscent of what unfolded in South Africa in the early 1990s. With the African National Congress (ANC) and Nelson Mandela coming to power, one would have expected that they would have adopted left-leaning, redistributive economic policies given their socialist history and the economic divisions in the country. Instead, what ensued was the full embrace of free-market policies. This remarkable shift has been attributed to a global policymaking community that deftly associated any use of tariffs, subsidies, and protection with the Apartheid regime and South Africa’s National Party. This sleight of hand allowed them to position free-market policies as the foe of Apartheid and the friend of the rainbow nation. Sadly, while these policies initially spawned economic growth, they also deepened inequality, creating a problem that continues to plague the ANC and South Africa today. We need to be sophisticated enough to disentangle policies that promote local economic development from the horrific antics of the Trump regime. Import substitution and the fostering of infant industries are critical aspects of economic development for many countries in the global South. These policies must not forever be associated with the right-wing nationalism of Donald Trump.

The post Trump Is Giving Protectionism a Bad Name appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Fighting for Freedom From Death Row: The Story of Kevin Cooper

Sun, 09/16/2018 - 16:26

This week, Better Off Red interviews Kevin Cooper, who has lived for more than three decades on death row in San Quentin prison for a quadruple homicide, despite clear evidence that he was framed by the San Bernadino County Sherriff’s Department.

Kevin talks to us about his long fight for freedom — including the darkest moments on February 9, 2004, when he came within four hours of being murdered by the state of California. He was saved that night by a last-minute court decision that was the result of a nationwide campaign of protests and “Live from Death Row” events in which Kevin spoke to thousands of people across the country.

Listen to this interview and you’ll quickly understand why Kevin Cooper was able to inspire so many people to get involved in the fight for his life and, as he always insists, the life of every single person threatened by the death penalty. Kevin also talks to us about his intellectual and political awakening over the long course of his fight, and in particular the role played by comrades in the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, a group we at Better Off Red worked closely with during those years.

Links for this episode:

Music and audio for this episode:

  • The Boy & Sister Alma, “Lizard Eyes” (Dead Sea Captains Remix)
  • Stevie Wonder, “They Won’t Go When I Go”
  • Public Enemy, “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos”
  • Gil Scott-Heron, “Lady Day And John Coltrane”
  • The Weeknd, Kendrick Lamar, “Pray For Me”
  • Bob Marley, “Redemption Song”

If you like this episode as much as we hope you do, please spread the word to your friends on and offline and consider giving us a review on iTunes so that as many people as possible learn about Kevin Cooper and his case.

As always, if you want to make a financial contribution to help make Better Off Red sustainable, go to

The post Fighting for Freedom From Death Row: The Story of Kevin Cooper appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Fighting to End the Other Death Sentence: Life Without Parole

Sun, 09/16/2018 - 14:55

When incarcerated people in 17 states initiated a 19-day prison strike last month, one of their 10 demands was that all “imprisoned humans have [the] possibility of rehabilitation and parole.” This includes the opportunity for early release, allowing prisoners both to exit before the end of their sentence and to serve their remaining time in the community.

The Lady Lifers at SCI Muncy sing, "This Is Not My Home" at TEDx in 2014.The Lady Lifers at SCI Muncy sing, “This Is Not My Home” at TEDx in 2014.Courtesy of Ellen Melchiondo and Naomi Blount

It also means an end to the harsh sentencing practice known as life without the possibility of parole (LWOP). In an August 26 interview with MSNBC, formerly incarcerated activist Darren Mack described LWOP as “death by incarceration,” explaining, “You will not leave prison until you die.”

Noted political scientist and author Marie Gottschalk has called life without parole “death in slow motion.” Pope Francis deemed it “a death penalty in disguise.” Kenneth Hartman, who served more than 37 years in prison before California governor Jerry Brown commuted his sentence, was the first to label it “the other death penalty.” When he was still behind bars, Hartman wrote for The Marshall Project that life without parole is “the sense of being dead while you’re still alive, the feeling of being dumped into a deep well struggling to tread water until, some 40 or 50 years later, you drown.”

Across the country, activists inside and outside prison are making headway in organizing to end this harsh sentencing practice. They say more and more people are realizing that the US is an outlier in extreme sentencing. Jonathan Simon, writing in Life Without Parole: America’s New Death Penalty by Charles Ogletree and Austin Serat, Jr., explains that the United States, unlike Europe, rejects the role of “dignity” in its sentencing practices. Joseph Dole, currently serving life without parole at Stateville Correctional Center in Illinois, and the author of numerous articles (several published in Truthout) discussed progress against harsh sentencing in a letter: “There has finally been an acknowledgment that long sentences are the main driver of mass incarceration, that people age out of crime and are thus less of a threat when they are older, and that longer sentences don’t deter or reduce crime.”

Ashley Nellis, senior research analyst at The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit research and advocacy center, reported in Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences (2016), “It is not ‘tough’ to imprison people long past their proclivity—or even physical ability—to commit crime; to the contrary, it is a poor use of resources that could be put toward prevention.”

How We Got Here

Marie Gottschalk wrote for Prison Legal News that in 1913, “a ‘life’ sentence in the federal system was officially defined as 15 years.” Many states at that time had similar rules. But political, social and economic interests pushed for a new system of punishment, wrote Nellis, in her article, “Tinkering With Life: A Look at the Inappropriateness of Life Without Parole as an Alternative to the Death Penalty.”

Thus, by the 1980s and 1990s elevated crime rates and a fear that crime would continue to rise added fuel to the fire. (It did not continue to rise.) Nellis wrote that “The rapid rise in [life without parole] sentences can partly be attributed to a desire for a reliable, terminal punishment to replace the death penalty after it was declared unconstitutional in 1972.” Another way of looking at it, per Gottschalk, is that states rebelled and there was a conservative backlash nation-wide. The Supreme Court, by a series of rulings, essentially opened the door for states to reinstate the death penalty. Today, 31 states allow the death penalty, but life without parole is often the required alternative if a prosecutor doesn’t succeed with his death sentence bid. Gottschalk said death penalty abolitionists helped to “normalize [this] sanction.”

In an interview, Kenneth Hartman, recently released by the California Parole Board that approves or disapproves commutations, said, “All the energy in the room is sucked up by the death penalty abolitionists because they believe we should trade the death penalty for [life without parole].” Of course, not all who believe in ending the death penalty advocate for life without parole, but it is important to note that replacing death with life without parole merely changes what Hartman called “the method of execution.” He said that these “hidden death sentences” mean prisoners must live the rest of their lives in “prisons with extraordinarily high suicide rates, with substandard medical, dental, and mental health care, and with scant rehabilitative programs. Prisons rife with gang violence, racism, and despair.”

Research has shown that despite historic crime lows and falling prison figures, the number of people serving life without the possibility of parole sentences has continued to rise, quadrupling since 1992. Still Life spelled out that there were 53,290 people serving life without parole sentences as of 2016, i.e. one in every 28 prisoners.

In relation to life without parole sentences, there is also extreme racial disparity: African Americans make up two-thirds or more of the life without parole population in nine states: Alabama, Illinois, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey and South Carolina. Additionally, a few states are responsible for half the prisoners sentenced to life without parole: Florida, Pennsylvania, California, Louisiana, and the federal system.

There has been some judicial relief, but so far, just for juveniles. In the 2010 Graham v. Florida decision, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled that sentencing juveniles convicted of non-homicidal crimes to life without the possibility of parole was unconstitutional. In 2012, Miller v. Alabama stated no juvenile could receive a life without parole sentence for any homicide without consideration of his or her age. In 2016, Montgomery v. Louisiana made the Miller decision retroactive. According to a 2017 Sentencing Project report, “States can remedy the unconstitutionality of mandatory juvenile life without parole sentences by permitting parole hearings rather than resentencing the approximately 2,100 people whose life sentences were issued mandatorily.”

Writing in the University of Miami Law Review, researchers concluded that most European countries and many others across the globe exist without the “other death penalty,” recognizing that no one is beyond redemption and that harsh sentencing does not promote public safety.

Organizing to End Life Without Parole in Pennsylvania

“There has definitely been more advocacy on LWOP [life without parole] in the past five years,” Pennsylvania activist Ellen Melchiondo told Truthout. She attributes this, in part to the legislative victories for juveniles, the cost of caring for elderly and dying prisoners, and the children and parents of lifers being more engaged in the fight against life without parole. Spearheaded by the Coalition to Abolish Death By Incarceration, which includes Decarcerate PA, Fight for Lifers, The Human Rights Coalition and Right to Redemption (an organization of people who are incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution of Graterford), rallies across the state have been held to end the other death sentence, garnering a lot of media attention. Legislative action is in the offing. Pennsylvania activists are working to pass Senate Bill 942 in 2018-9, which advocates for parole eligibility after 15 years.

The cost of extreme sentencing has also caught the attention of some district attorneys, such as Philadelphia’s Larry Krasner. The Morning Call reported that Paul A. Studenroth of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, now 72, “has been jailed for 54 years, costing $1.98 million.” Krasner is now rolling out reforms, some related to finance.

It is on-the-ground activists like Melchiondo, a stay-at-home mom earning her Master’s degree in 1996 when she began this work, who are the ones fighting to change minds. Melchiondo found prisoner Sharon Wiggins through a photo exhibit of adults convicted as juveniles, serving life sentences. She understood that Wiggins was sentenced to 44 years in Pennsylvania, close to what the Sentencing Project considers a virtual life sentence: 50 years. They began corresponding, and that led to Melchiondo fighting for women behind bars sentenced to life without parole.

Pennsylvania is second in the nation, following Florida, in the number of prisoners serving life without parole eligibility, reported The Morning Call in 2015. While there are 5,371 prisoners serving life without parole sentences in Pennsylvania, only 208 of them are women, what Melchiondo calls a “silent population,” because historically they have been relatively unnoticed by policy makers.

Wiggins tragically died in 2013, before the courts ruled that juveniles should not be sentenced forever. But before she died, she asked Melchiondo to be the megaphone for women behind bars.

In an interview, Melchiondo talked about the difficulty of building a consensus against life without parole among legislators and others in power. She said that in this climate, “I call organization a victory.” Her organizing “lays the groundwork to change minds and practice…to get more people thinking of how to release prisoners” sentenced to life without parole.

She is the co-developer of The Women Lifers Resumé Project of PA (WLRPPA), created with Darlene Williams, a mother whose daughter is in prison. They began the Resumé Project, Melchiondo said, “to highlight the accomplishments of women serving life without parole and change the conversation to what they have they been doing.” The WLRPPA solicits letters for support and is “data central” for Pennsylvania legislators, lawyers, and others who seek information about women serving life without parole.

The Resumé Project has served as a tool to help revive the underused practice of commutations, in which a governor (or president, at the federal level) reduces a person’s prison sentence. Marie Gottschalk wrote that “commutations were vital features of the US criminal justice system throughout the 19th century and much of the 20th century … a key mechanism to manage the prison population, correct miscarriages of justice, restore the rights of former offenders and make far-reaching public statements about the criminal justice system.” But signing off on commutations has become extremely political. Gottschalk said, “Between 1967 and 1994, Pennsylvania’s governors and pardon board commuted the life sentences of nearly 400 prisoners.” From 1994 to 2012, only six commutations were granted.

In Pennsylvania, it can take several years for a person’s commutation application to reach a public hearing where the Board votes for or against release of the petitioner. J.P. Kurish, the Press Secretary for the Lieutenant Governor and the Board of Pardons, told Truthout that Gov. Tom Wolf signed two commutations in 2017, out of 561 he received. (Those two people have been released.) Governor Wolf is currently considering three others, said Kurish.

Five women are waiting for merit reviews from the five-member Board and many more have applied. Melchiondo said that, so far, no woman has had her sentence commuted in 30 years. “That is a conversation starter,” she added. “People are asking, ‘Why not?’”

California on the Commutation Forefront
The covers of recently-released LWOP activist, Kenneth Hartman’s books. The anthology is by those serving LWOP sentences that Hartman edited while incarcerated.The covers of recently-released LWOP activist, Kenneth Hartman’s books. The anthology is by those serving LWOP sentences that Hartman edited while incarcerated.The Steering Committee Press

California has done much better on commutations than any other state in the country under Governor Jerry Brown, according to activists in New York who are calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo to follow his lead. This is in part due to organizing.

Geri Silva, who founded California’s Families to end LWOP (FUEL) said in emails that since 2017, Brown has commuted 64 people’s sentences, and of those commutations, 42 serving life without parole had their sentences reduced to 25 years to life. Many have since been released, after having been approved by the Board of Parole Hearings.

One such person, Kenneth Hartman, released in December 2017, began his activism against life without parole while he was incarcerated. He told Truthout that “The Other Death Penalty Project came about in 2000, to empower men and women’s voices.” They began by sending out postcards and flyers, aiming at death penalty groups, saying, “You shouldn’t be using us to make your argument against execution.”

Hartman said that 400 copies of Too Cruel, Not Unusual Enough were handed out to policymakers, judges, and thought leaders nationwide, “including death penalty abolitionists who argue for LWOP as a ‘reasonable alternative.’” He currently is taking his message to universities and schools around the country.

Geri Silva, also one of the key activists who fights against life without parole, initially founded Families to Amend California’s Three Strikes (FACTS), which fought to amend the harsh law in California. She told Truthout that meeting Ken Hartman added to her “radical quest for justice.”

She said, “FUEL began in mid-2017 and has grown significantly over the past year. When people are desperate for freedom and life, they kick in to make things happen.” FUEL is part of the Fair Chance Project, which is led by “liberated lifers (formerly incarcerated men & women), prisoners & loved ones of term to life prisoners organized around the demand for just sentencing laws and fair parole practices.”

FUEL is also pushing for legislative action, with prisoners’ lives and words leading the way. Silva immediately worked to get about 400 prisoners involved, and their stories are educating legislators. She said now they’re in touch with more than 1000 prisoners.

While she cannot say that the significant number of increases in commutations is directly due to activism, the correlation is certainly there. For example, California mother Lizzy Stewart created a petition for her son to get his LWOP sentence commuted. She garnered 57,000 signatures and sent the petition to the governor. Jeremy Stewart was granted a commutation in 2017 by Governor Brown. Silva believes this is a promising tactic.

Additionally, there has been strong grassroots activism from her group and others like Californians United for a Reasonable Budget (CURB) and the California Coalition for Women Prisoners (CCWP), which started a campaign called “Drop LWOP.” On August 6, more than 100 organizations joined CCWP and CURB to lobby and ask Governor Brown to commute the sentences of all 5000 people serving LWOP in California.

Fighting LWOP Behind Bars Comic by Joseph Dole, serving a LWOP sentence incarcerated in Illinois and posted on The Real Cost of Prisons Project website from 2016.Comic by Joseph Dole, serving a LWOP sentence incarcerated in Illinois and posted on The Real Cost of Prisons Project website from 2016.

Mark Wilson, a prolific writer for Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News is one of the thousands of incarcerated people who each year become jailhouse lawyers to gain familiarity with the law in their quest to change it or question its abuse. Considering that each state has its own sentencing practices, this means they must spend hours in the prison’s law library. They often begin with their own case and move on to helping others. Such is the situation with Wilson.

Wilson, in a letter to Truthout, described how he was sentenced at age 18, has so far served 32 years in the Oregon State Correctional Institution, and by 20, became what he called a “legal assistant.” While Wilson was not sentenced to LWOP, he wrote, “Oregon’s parole board commonly engages in practices which effectively convert life with the possibility of parole sentences to life without parole sentences.”

He has recently been working on filing cases so Oregon’s prisoners might get the benefit of the recent three juvenile SJC decisions, stating that “Oregon courts have displayed tremendous resistance to complying with the Supreme Court’s decisions.” As of 2017, according to the Associated Press, Oregon still has five prisoners serving life without parole and seven persons serving de-facto life sentences since they are not eligible for release until they are 65 years old.

Additionally, Wilson said he is filing cases to apply the law to people who were 18 or 19 at the time of their crimes, working with the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, which has crossed the country working to ban juvenile life without parole.

Joseph Dole, an incarcerated writer (whose comic is pictured above), also has worked on several legal cases for fellow prisoners to overturn their LWOP or de-facto LWOP sentences. However, his main work has been on a campaign to bring back discretionary parole for Illinois, since the state abolished a paroling system in 1978.

Illinois is one of 16 states, as of April 2018, that sentences people to what are called “determinate” sentences, not allowing for any chance of serving the remainder of their sentence in the community. According to the Chicago non-profit, Restore Justice, “When state legislatures across the nation began abolishing parole in the late 1970s, their rationale was often that parole failed to increase public safety or reduce repeat offenses…. More up-to-date research now shows discretionary parole can effectively reduce the likelihood of new crimes.” They add, “While not the only factor, the abandonment of parole has contributed directly to increased sentence lengths and more crowded prisons.”

In March 2018, Dole gave a speech to 18 Illinois state legislators on prosecutorial objections to parole. The speech was published in the San Francisco Bay View. Sadly, Dole’s program, the Justice Debate League, was suspended a few weeks later. But he has continued his activism., which was developed by people in and out of prison, is up and running, providing resources, highlighting stories, detailing policy, and fighting tooth and nail for the future. The prisoners were also able to introduce legislation they wrote on the issue to lawmakers at the debate. The name of the bill illustrates their commitment to ending harsh sentencing: The Transformative Release Bill.

The post Fighting to End the Other Death Sentence: Life Without Parole appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Why Los Angeles’ Upcoming Public Banking Ballot Initiative is a Huge Deal

Sun, 09/16/2018 - 14:28

On November 6th, the citizens of Los Angeles will have a chance to decide if their city should pave the path towards creating the first municipal public bank in the country. No doubt, a ‘yes’ vote for Charter Amendment B will be significant for the city, as it will put the immense power of banking in the hands of accountable officials bound by a mission of social good — a radical shift from the status quo of giving that business to Wall St.

Today, the privilege of financing city services is reserved for private speculators. As a result, the City of Los Angeles pays exorbitant costs to big banks and private investors that is siphoned away from the city’s tax fund annually. According to the city’s 2017 CAFR report, the city paid $170 million in banking fees and $1.1 billion in interest last year — money that could have been recycled into public coffers for reinvestment if Los Angeles had a public bank instead.

This means that if the public bank ballot measure passes, it will have profound effects on the city, not only developmentally but financially, making this measure particularly important for Angelinos.

But, if you’re not in Los Angeles, or generally apathetic towards municipal affairs, should you still care? Is this just one of the many measures that come and go over the years? Is it just some boring banking initiative that’s irrelevant to our daily lives? Is it just some local Los Angeles issue that doesn’t matter if you don’t live in Los Angeles?

In truth, this is much bigger than banking and it’s much bigger than Los Angeles. As a result, it’s one of the most important ballot measures in history.

The public banking measure in Los Angeles would empower the citizens of the city with a level of influence on the world rarely afforded to local ballot measures. Here are 4 reasons why it is a huge deal for everyone.

It Intersects With Many Other Causes You Probably Care About

“Banking” does not operate in a vacuum. If the economy is a circulatory system, with money circulating through businesses, organizations, individuals and public coffers, then banks are the heartbeat or ground zero of the economy, which injects money into the system through loans and currency creation, emanating to all the sectors of society. Therefore, the culture and design of the banking system has far reaching multiplier and ripple effects on the entirety of the economy and hence our everyday lives.

This means that the banking industry owes a massive responsibility to the commons, and by extension should be brought under its stewardship. Otherwise, a banking system beholden to the private profit motive will be inherently extractive and unstable by nature — as it currently is.

A municipal bank, by contrast, will still underwrite loans responsibly in order to return a profit — but the benefactors of that profit will be the commons in the form of public reinvestment. In time, it may even pay out dividends into the general fund, as the consistently profitable public Bank of North Dakota does for its state coffers.

If constructed correctly, a public bank will be designed as a “People’s Bank” — not only public, but triple bottom line. This means that rather than quarterly profits taking precedence over all else, profits are sought after but tempered by social and environmental considerations; in other words, it will be a bank designed to improve society.

As a result, such a bank can tailor its activities towards providing active solutions to policy needs in whatever capacity it’s capable, including aiding in disaster recovery.

For example, while the invisible hand of private developers tends to inherently favor luxury real estate development which puts upward pressure on home prices, leading to gentrification, and a tighter supply of affordable housing and in turn less money in working families’ pockets each month and rising homelessness, a public bank by contrast would aim to find solutions to affordable housing as directed by its social good and community development mandate. This means it will be incentivized to provide competitive funding for such housing while lowering its costs.

This then will have very real, everyday effects on communities of color and the working class in general, as the pressure to move due to the unaffordability of housing will be mitigated, providing much needed financial relief to vulnerable communities.

A public bank will also provide an upgraded means to develop green energy. Just as a concerted banking policy towards affordable housing can result in an economics that favors its development, so too would a green energy development policy produce an economics that hastens the green revolution.

Germany provides an excellent example that US cities can emulate. Their Sparkassen banking system, which are a network of regional public banks that resemble the upcoming LA municipal model, comprises only 41% of German banks in total, yet are responsible for over 72.5% of Germany’s renewable energy infrastructure. As a result of this program, Germany has been called “the world’s first major renewable energy economy.” If they can do it, so can we.

Crucially, all this can be done while saving money. Since each of these projects, even if financed for lower than private market rates, would nonetheless produce profits for the city. This means that public banking provides a rare case of being able to have our cake and eat it too.

That’s what makes it triple bottom line: social development, sustainability and profit. In turn, that’s what makes it capable of helping to solve some of the most pressing economic issues of our time, and that means a “yes” vote for the bank is in reality a “yes” vote for much more.

It’s Revolutionary

If Los Angeles succeeds in creating a municipal public bank, it will quite literally be history in the making, as it will be the first of its kind in the country.

To do so will project a shining example to the rest of the nation and to the world of the fact that popular resistance can produce systemic shifts in the power dynamics of society. Money is power, and the ability to create it and determine its directional flow even more so. Bringing that power into transparent democratic oversight changes everything.

Whereas the regulations and fines slapped onto Wall St. simply tinker with the current system, building new banks owned by and accountable to the people is nothing less than transforming the system itself.

The significance of such a project coming to fruition in the Trump era at the apex of deregulation and a pro-Wall St. political climate will officially mark the dialectical response of people power that will usher in the twilight of neoliberalism and its discontents.

It’s indeed true that this system, especially if proliferated, will mark a radical shift from what we currently have. But while the word “radical” might conjure images of extremist utopian experiments with no ground in practical reality, in the case of public banking, it’s a radical idea backed by empirical evidence.

While naysayers cling to dogmas and abstract ideas of public sector inefficiency, the Bank of North Dakota and the Sparkassen of Germany continue to be profitable and useful to their communities. By emulating the best of what already works while innovating their own solutions based on the local needs and will of their community, the architects of Los Angeles’ bank can partake in this radical idea prudently and effectively.

It’s the Solution We’ve Been Hoping For

The financial collapse of 2008 was a wake up call. It definitively proved the inherent instability of a system beholden to a banking oligarchy engaging in casino-like speculation that plays Russian roulette with common people’s homes, pensions and jobs. Luckily for the big banks, the public sector opted for bailouts under stewardship of a treasury secretary who was a former CEO of a major Wall St. bank.

Banks that are “too big to fail” know that they will be bailed out if anything goes wrong. As a result, there is little stopping them from engaging in hubris-fueled gambles that would never be justified otherwise. This moral hazard is now only exacerbated by further deregulation whose end result can’t be anything other than another inevitable bust.

The drama of bank failures, bailouts, collapsing markets and skyrocketing unemployment induced a new consciousness into the masses, especially as many of the bankers responsible for the collapse continued to reap in massive bonuses. Occupy Wall St. emerged on the scene, introducing the narrative of the 99%. People marched in anger and visceral discontent. They were dissatisfied, but where was the paradigm shift?

Some called to jail the bankers, and many still argue that the perpetrators of the fraudulent speculation that led to the collapse should face retribution, as they did in Iceland. It should be understood however that the bankers were playing into exactly what the system is designed to do. Replace the bankers without replacing the system, and an entirely new round of the same behavior would likely resume.

Considering Wall St.’s massive influence on Washington, it is simply highly unlikely that the solutions to this problem are found there.

Therefore, the power to change the system is at the local level. Instead of waiting for a top-down transfer of power from bank oligarchs to the people, the solution in reality lies in building a new banking system from scratch ourselves, from the bottom up. That way, by moving power from unaccountable profiteers to accountable public servants at the local level, we pull the rug from under the oligarchy and bring about a practical solution through creation rather than destruction.

The money will go from private to public, from big to small, from centralized to localized, from amoral to moral, from speculative to prudent. As a result, the next financial crash will be tempered and beyond that, we may build a system that greatly reduces, if not eliminates the boom-bust cycle itself, forever alleviating the populace from the dispensable uncertainties of economic volatility.

The banking system has already failed. The Banking Question was never resolved. The old, failed way was simply resurrected. A new era is now emerging where that which is failed may be pushed into the oblivion of its inevitable fate — to be replaced by something saner, wiser, more ethical and more rational.

If you marched, or even sympathized with those that marched against the big banks, if you lost your job as a result of the recession, if you’ve ever believed that we need something different — then the moment you’ve been waiting for is finally within the horizon. If the historic Public Bank of Los Angeles emerges, the first instance of a systemic solution will have sprouted from the seeds of the grassroots, and the implications of where that can lead are simply history-making in scale.

Even for those that don’t generally focus on municipal affairs, Charter Amendment B is different in scale and in scope, warranting your serious consideration. It’s not only a local ballot for a local issue. It’s a local ballot for a national, and arguably even global one.

It Could Cause a Chain Reaction

When it comes to implementing new laws and institutions, being the first is always hardest. The ponderous cynics, donning blinders of limitations of imagination fail to find inspiration when new ideas are unsupported by social proof. Yet the first city that manages to overcome this hurdle may open the floodgates, because once even a single city makes serious headway in creating a Public Bank, the likelihood of more cities deciding to try it for themselves increases significantly.

Just as proponents of Public Banking in general point to the Bank of North Dakota and Sparkassen to say, “if they can do it, why can’t we?” so too will cities across the US likely say the same of the trailblazing Los Angeles municipal bank. It will provide hope, inspiration and validation that it came to be from a popular vote, that it reflects the Will of the People.

That’s why this vote is about so much more than Los Angeles. It’s about Los Angeles being a leader for the rest of California and the rest of the nation as a whole.

If the point is to change the system, to bring about a paradigm shift in banking and in economics itself, LA isn’t going to do it by itself. Luckily, it’s not in a vacuum. If the people mobilize to secure the “yes” vote, they will have opened the first hole in the dam that is Wall St. hegemony over our society. In time, that hole will rapidly expand and the floodgates of change will pour open. In the midst of revolutionary fervor, cities “going public” may well come to be in vogue, and public banks may well spread like wildfire.

Now imagine if that happened. Imagine cities and regions everywhere creating local, ethical public banks, so that it becomes the norm rather than the exception. Not only will untold gargantuan funds be transferred from Wall St. to Main Streets all over, but the system as a whole will have quite literally undergone a paradigm shift.

Los Angeles voters, you have a very important election coming up, one that could have ripple effects into the annals of history. This vote is more than about your responsibility to yourselves and to your city. Even though it’s just a municipal measure, it’s truly a responsibility towards the state, the nation, and possibly even humanity itself.

Rarely does the constituency of a city have such profound weight of power in their hands to alter the history of the world. On November 6th Charter Amendment B will give the people of Los Angeles that power.

If you wanted a revolution, here you have it, now go get it.

The post Why Los Angeles’ Upcoming Public Banking Ballot Initiative is a Huge Deal appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Nobody in the White House Is Part of “the Resistance”

Sun, 09/16/2018 - 14:28

Last week, the White House continued its furious hunt for the anonymous official who proclaimed themselves part of “The Resistance” in a New York Times op-ed. Unsurprisingly, the president was “obsessed” with it, CNN reports.

What really set Trump off — perhaps understandably — was the suggestion that aides were deliberately undermining orders. “We want the administration to succeed,” the author said, before describing a coordinated effort to “thwart parts of [Trump’s] agenda and his worst inclinations.”

But not all of that agenda. The author praised Trump’s commitment to “effective deregulation, historic tax reform, [and] a more robust military,” and even complained about “near-ceaseless negative coverage” obscuring those supposed accomplishments.

The president’s behavior in pursuit of that agenda may be “detrimental to the health of our republic,” the author admits, but assures readers: “There are adults in the room. We fully recognize what is happening.”

This helps the rest of us understand what’s happening, too: Career Republicans are riding right along with someone they themselves describe as “anti-democratic,” “reckless,” and “erratic.” And they’ll do it just as long as he cuts taxes for billionaires, deregulates the corporations they own, and keeps the spigot open to the military-industrial complex.

He’s doing that.

So, what’s he doing wrong? The author specifies only Trump’s “preference for autocrats and dictators” like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un.

Trump’s admiration for those figures says a lot about his disdain for democracy. But the response the author describes sounds more like an effort to shut off diplomatic openings with nuclear-armed rivals than to curb Trump’s anti-democratic impulses. Feel better?

Beyond this, the author offers few specifics on what they’d actually like to prevent.

Pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accords? Not a problem, apparently. Deregulating the banks that caused the financial crisis, and the fossil fuel companies causing climate change? Go right on ahead.

Giving corporations and billionaires a $2 trillion tax break, then trying to cut food stamps, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid? Trying to throw 24 million Americans off their health care?

The author describes precisely no concern about any of these things, because virtually any Republican would have done them.

Remarkably, the author actually complains that Trump “shows little affinity for ideals long espoused by conservatives.” But it sure sounds like he’s governing as one.

Sure, Trump has made unique his own contributions to modern conservatism — alliances with white nationalists, concentration camps for babies, etc. But our anonymous “adult in the room” offers no objection here either, even as down-ballot Republicans increasingly embrace those extremes.

I can believe White House staffers really do find the president unstable and dangerous. But instead of constitutionally removing him by the 25th Amendment, they’re keeping him around so they can cut billionaires’ taxes, put over half of every taxpayer dollar into the military-industrial complex, and coddle corporations that loot the country and pollute the planet.

The writer pines for the late Senator John McCain, calling him “a lodestar for restoring honor to public life.” McCain was surely more honorable than the president he feuded with, but even he voted with Trump 83 percent of the time. Do we really think Trump’s pathologies reside entirely in the other 17 percent?

If Trump implodes, they’re going to act like his personality was the problem — not the policy agenda he’s executing on their behalf. They’ll say we haven’t gotten enough “real conservatism.”

Sorry, but I think the amazing social movements behind the real “resistance” would disagree. They’re not trying to rollback 17 percent of what this White House has done. They’re trying to transform it — and much of what came before it — 100 percent.

The post Nobody in the White House Is Part of “the Resistance” appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

The Problem With Singling Out Anti-Semitism on the Left

Sun, 09/16/2018 - 14:27

A sentiment I hear frequently articulated in some progressive Jewish spaces is that the left needs to be more concerned about anti-Semitism. This view posits that the left has not been sufficiently sensitive to recognizing and addressing Jewish suffering and anti-Semitism.

As a Jew who identifies as being part of the left, I have two main concerns with this formulation. For one, it is unclear who exactly is being referred to here (sometimes the description is “non-Jewish leftists”). Do people mean feminists of color who are organizing for racial justice? Prison abolition groups? Mostly white anti-racist groups? Immigrant rights organizers? Everyone in all those categories? I am not sure why the left, which has so many layers and dimensions to it, is lumped together as all being insensitive to Jews.

A second and bigger problem I have with this framing is why anti-Semitism is being singled out as a particular problem in cases where other injustices aren’t mentioned. I fully appreciate that these discussions come at a particular moment in which we are seeing an upsurge in anti-Semitism amongst white supremacists in this country. However, the way anti-Semitism is called out as a particular problem suggests that the “left” is more prone to being insensitive to anti-Semitism than it is, for example, to Islamophobia (or that it is more likely to lack compassion for Jews than for Muslims). What about classism as another of many examples of a real problem in some left spaces? Since the social justice communities that many of us are part of exist within the context of a broader society ripe with all forms of injustice, we will invariably see some, if not much, of that mirrored within our own spaces. Challenging these systems of oppression within our communities demands our attention, and this includes (but is not limited to) addressing anti-Semitism.

The arguments about anti-Semitism on the left are framed from a position of a commitment to racial justice — and I have no doubt that commitment is often true. But I believe that singling out anti-Semitism specifically in this way ends up feeding into a false and distorted narrative, which claims that nobody (on the left or otherwise) understands anti-Semitism or Jewish suffering.

It seems that there are a few things at work that promote this narrative. One is that, as the Palestinian and global call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) becomes more prominent and pervasive in social justice communities, and as Zionism becomes more fully recognized as one of the many injustices that needs to be challenged, supporters of Israel increasingly conflate anti-Zionism with being insensitive (or worse) to Jews and Jewish suffering.

This conflation is also true among some progressive and leftist Jews. Numerous groups and individuals may articulate strong opposition to the Israeli occupation of 1967, but are deeply uncomfortable with an anti-Zionist framework that addresses the injustices of 1948 (the Nakba, or the catastrophe that resulted in the displacement and expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians from their lands and homes before and during Israel’s creation).

There are also some Jewish progressive or leftist individuals and organizations that operate from a racial justice analysis and praxis that is only local or domestic, which excludes addressing Zionism as a form of racism; this contrasts with the many social justice movements today whose principles fundamentally connect the local to the global, compelling solidarity with Palestinians as integral to the work and ensuring that it is not excluded from racial justice spaces.

As there is a more widespread awareness and condemnation of the violence of Zionism and Zionist history in radical spaces, this sometimes plays out in false accusations of anti-Semitism or insensitivity to Jews and Jewish history.

Further, many of us in Jewish communities grew up learning that everybody, deep down, hates Jews and that we don’t fit in anywhere. There is certainly no shortage of examples throughout history of virulent anti-Semitism. However, of course, Jews are not alone in having faced unbridled hatred and enormous persecution at the hands of oppressors. I think in some Jewish communities, this learning has resulted in a privileging of Jewish suffering and a belief that nobody — on the left or right — really understands anti-Semitism. And, I believe, part of this framing is exacerbated by a discomfort among some progressive, white Jews that white Jews are being defined as “white” in activist spaces rather than as uniquely Jewish (that is, not really white).

Finally, as I mentioned above, we know there is an increase in anti-Semitism by white supremacists in this country as well as in other parts of the world today. And, at the same time, we also know that Jews (particularly white Jews) in the US do not experience the extreme structural forms of violence facing, for example, Muslims or Black people. However, I believe the fact of rising incidents of visible right-wing anti-Jewish hate has led some to claim that there is increasing anti-Semitism or anti-Jewish sentiment more broadly (e.g., on the left) that needs to be specifically centered as a problem.

For me, a more thoughtful response and framing would be the following: We — individuals and groups committed to challenging injustice and who identify as radical or leftist — always need to challenge ourselves from our own locations and identities about how we perpetuate or are insensitive to issues of, for instance, white supremacy or classism or Islamophobia or anti-Semitism or other oppressive systems that we oppose. That framing doesn’t erase anti-Semitism or minimize it. Rather, while recognizing and appreciating both commonalities and differences in the conditions and contexts facing different communities, it includes anti-Semitism but doesn’t exceptionalize it or categorize it as a unique problem more deserving of attention than other injustices needing to be challenged in our communities.

I believe those of us within Jewish social justice spaces who are concerned about anti-Semitism on the left would benefit from deep reflection about what it is we are centering and why. We should ask ourselves whose voices we are privileging, including the ways we are bolstering problematic narratives. Perhaps we can be more attuned to the specificities, contexts and frameworks propelling the multiplicity of movements for justice. This will be an ongoing learning process for us all, as we genuinely and compassionately join those committed to fighting for dignity for all our communities.

The post The Problem With Singling Out Anti-Semitism on the Left appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Curiosity Is Political: We Must Nurture It if We Hope to Change the World

Sun, 09/16/2018 - 14:26

Coming home a few months ago from yet another frustrating day of teaching, I had a sudden epiphany that crystallized my swirling emotions: Curiosity is political. The absence, presence, cultivation and extirpation of curiosity are all political tools of almost unimaginable power. They are also social outcomes with ubiquitous political consequences.

It has been clear to the left for a long time that the contours of knowledge are politically drawn. In recent years, an interest in the politics of ignorance has begun to take shape, too; agnotology, as the philosophical study of ignorance is named, builds connections among politics, psychology and public memory to describe a social construction of ignorance that mirrors the social construction of knowledge. We should observe that this basic insight of agnotology is actually longstanding. Upton Sinclair remarked in 1934 that, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it,” making a direct case for a standpoint theory of ignorance.

Unfortunately, neither epistemology (the field of philosophy which studies how we know what we know) nor agnotology has engaged in any notable way with the idea of curiosity, which is, after all, the means by which the mind is engaged both to know and to ignore. Curiosity as a concept and a phenomenon appears to be almost entirely ignored by academics, a gaping hole that led to my “epiphany” of the entirely obvious statement that curiosity is political.

Curiosity is something of a catchall term in English; despite its almost universally positive modern connotations, it is not necessarily or automatically an unmitigated good. A refusal of curiosity can be a moral choice, as in a lack of curiosity about how to create a neutron bomb, or a respectful choice, as in maintenance of privacy. Curiosity can also be an indulgence, a mere diversion or distraction, or even a thirst for power. Think of the unslakeable sort of curiosity of 19th-century imperialists and Victorian memento-seekers, seeking knowledge as a form of control, or of the greedy, entrepreneurial curiosity of prospectors of every sort.

But without a desire to know about the world, we will never want to change it, nor know how to begin that project. Further, without a desire to know about other minds, other beings and other ways of being, we will never build community, solidarity or a new world. While support for incuriosity and ignorance can have important moral standing in contexts such as military research or imperialist prospecting, as teachers, activists or a concerned public, we must also advocate for the political and moral value of certain kinds of curiosity — curiosity which, in the words of Michel Foucault, “evokes the care one takes of what exists and what might exist.”

We live in a highly emotional global moment in which populations stew in fear, anger, anxiety, alienation and even shame among the “unsuccessful,” while curiosity is fundamentally built on self-possession, intellectual openness and a potential willingness to accept the unknown. Since we all know with just a moment’s reflection that defensive people, aggressive people or despairing people are only curious despite themselves, it is obvious that our moment’s zeitgeist is not conducive to curiosity.

We are in a classic catch-22: To build and maintain alternative politics, communities and social worlds, we need to pursue a deep curiosity about other people, other beings and other ways of living. But in order to make room for curiosity in our society, we need to make fundamental social changes. Meanwhile, curiosity is being actively squelched as a threat by those in power, actively suppressed as a form of self-defense by those under cultural attack, and is everywhere displaced by free-floating cultural anxiety.

The molding of curiosity begins at birth. Although there are precious few characteristics innate in humans, curiosity is one of them. Yet it was quickly obvious to me years ago as a new mother that as children grow up in our society, they progressively lose curiosity, yielding a remarkably incurious adult population. Although family dynamics and parental styles obviously shape and sometimes dampen curiosity, the transformation of youngsters’ wonder from sparkling and delighted into dull and sullen can largely be laid at the feet of school.

Today’s children are reported to be losing interest in school as early as first grade.

The flattening of free-ranging curiosity in schools has been the subject of complaint for centuries. But kindergarten and the lower elementary grades used to be relatively free-form in spirit and design, leaving learning by rote and strong concern for standards to the later years. Sociologists and psychologists used to peg somewhere around fourth grade as the time when kids lost curiosity, when resentment and ennui overtook a joyful love of novelty and exploration.

Even back in the mid-1980s, when nursery schools prioritized play, Barbara Tizard and Martin Hughes’s 1985 study of preschoolers found that the average number of questions the children asked went from 26 per hour while at home to two per hour while in preschool. But now the “schools” for toddlers rehearse them in phonics. Not surprisingly, today’s children, subjected to planned curricula as early as nursery school and crushed by report cards with grades as early as kindergarten, are reported to be losing interest in school as early as first grade.

While standardized testing, overcrowding and underfunding undoubtedly have particularly toxic effects on the pursuit of inquiry in classrooms, the anaesthetizing of curiosity, in Paolo Freire’s phrase, occurs in any conventional educational institution. In her book, The Hungry Mind, Susan Engel devotes an entire chapter, entitled “Curiosity Goes to School,” to concretely describe how even the warmest, best-intentioned teachers who provide abundant hands-on learning situations kill curiosity in the quest to stay “on task” and cover required material.

Is steamrolling curiosity an actual purpose of school, or just a byproduct of other dynamics? Is curiosity a dangerous “casualness in regard to the traditional hierarchies of the important and the essential,” as Foucault described it, to be stamped out by the educational guardians of the status quo who eagerly enforce the hidden curriculum of obedience? Or does the deadening of intellectual quests merely result from schools’ pursuit of other agendas, with curiosity representing a failure to think in the capitalist terms of calculated opportunity costs, or presenting an obstacle to the smooth instruction in vocational skills or the imbuing of patriotism that could be taking place instead of wondering about the unsaleable? We can debate, but there’s no denying the essential school reality of crushed wondering and wonder.

If curiosity is doing so poorly in educational settings, what is happening to it in the wider world?

Students quickly learn to return the favor of disinterest that teachers and schools bestow on their questions. Herbert Kohl’s classic essay “I Won’t Learn From You” is just one articulation of what every teacher knows — namely, that curiosity can be withheld as a mark of disfavor, rejection or antagonism, and frequently represents an attempt at defense — defense of the self from accusations or fears of failure, defense of a culture belittled or attacked by arrogant and hostile content. In this way, too, curiosity and its absence is political, as attempts to pump children full of ideas unpalatable by virtue of their politics, as well as by virtue of their hierarchical imposition, are met with the Teflon wall of student boredom. Indeed, one of the marks of a good teacher is a wily ability to sneak through the cracks of student disengagement and arouse curiosity by creating subtle emotional alliances, while holding the school at arm’s length.

What goes on in schools is part-and-parcel of the larger culture, and often is a mere reflection of it. If curiosity is doing so poorly in educational settings, what is happening to it in the wider world?

Firstly, we see the co-optation of curiosity for the purposes of power. Justin E. H. Smith writes that in our times, “curiosity is coopted by the state.” He continues:

And so begins the next chapter, the late modern chapter, of curiosity’s history. Murals go up on the sides of public buildings depicting atoms, bridge builders, men in lab coats. … Now the state grows jealous of the curiosity of individuals, seeking not so much to squelch it as simply to channel it for the state’s own interests. Every competence must have a license, and every interest and official association.

Next, as realms of culture and education become incorporated as part of “The Establishment,” a refusal to be curious about them is one form of a politics of resistance. When, for instance, Shakespeare or laboratory science is seized to become the cultural property of the elite, a lack of curiosity is engendered about realms of culture and knowledge anointed as “highbrow” and complicit in power. We observe here a confirmation that a happy or healthy curiosity requires some general sense of equality. A sense of inferiority leads to the withering of an ability to inquire, as well as a resentment of the delineated realm of the socially “superior.”

Despite a notable dearth of academic writing or investigation of curiosity, we can draw on the slightly richer study of ignorance for insight into incuriosity. Since curiosity is the personal and emotional expression of a desire to eliminate ignorance, and curiosity is the necessary means to arrive at fully embraced, meaningful knowledge, then agnotology, the philosophical study of ignorance, is closely allied to considerations of incuriosity. Agnotologists describe, among many categories of classification, three forms of ignorance: a native state of ignorance, a selective choice to be ignorant and an active construction of ignorance. The two latter states of ignorance will be, must be, arrived at via a withholding or suppression of curiosity.

Attention and curiosity, as the opposites of apathy require hope.

Just as agnotologists talk of willful ignorance, perhaps it is time to start talking about a willful incuriosity. When we encounter willful incuriosity, we must consider whether it may embody classism, racism, sexism or other relations of power, as those filled with spite refuse to learn about those they despise. Withheld curiosity can be a mark of social disdain, as well as a means to create the convenient ignorance that allows an evasion of responsibility. Yet willful incuriosity may also embody a resistance to the knowledge that classism, racism or sexism has produced. Willful incuriosity should not be besieged as a matter of course. It may serve personally and politically useful functions.

But regardless of the roots of willful disinterest, and despite its occasional effectiveness in creating an insulation from personal or cultural assaults, a refusal to be curious has a disturbing double edge, creating dysfunction and toxicity at the same time as it provides certain kinds of protection. While we might applaud students’ strategy of mental and emotional absence from damaging classroom scenarios they are forced into, or adults’ refusal to attend to toxic material, the success of that strategy of disengagement bleeds into the rest of life. It is unlikely that children could spend their school hours in state of sulky disinterest or an adult could live workdays in a stolid emotional refusal, and yet emerge unscarred into a healthy and happy exploration and embrace of possibility after walking out of the doors of school or workplace. Habits of mind and emotion are sculpted through practice and repetition, and are not so easily donned and shed.

The sense of powerlessness and precarity that dominate our mood today directly displace and preempt curiosity.

Our curiosity erodes not only from willful disinterest. Deep curiosity requires attention, presence and alertness. A meaningfully alive public sphere requires a curiosity about, and an active perception and acknowledgment of, other humans. But we live in a world of disappearing attention, a failure to truly attend — which, after all, requires patience and waiting. Attention and curiosity, as the opposites of apathy in some sense, in turn require hope. Curiosity implies a sense of personal efficacy and possibility, a belief that one’s curiosity might be fulfilled by one’s own actions, as well as a sense of the future. The sense of powerlessness and precarity that dominate our mood today directly displace and preempt curiosity, creating instead contemporary capitalism’s dominant affect: anxiety. To occupy our anxious minds, which cannot attend, we replace attention with aimless or idle distraction.

The class session I left despondent those few months ago before my epiphany was one in which students idly scrolled through their handheld devices as a few of us held a conversation about climate change and the ecological state of planet. Maybe they just wanted to hide from the terror of the topic, but they’d had the same reaction another day when we’d played with plants I had picked on my way in to school, using the urban weed nature guides I’d brought to identify them. Was this apathy the result of a violent extinguishing of the students’ curiosity by educational institutions? Or a sullen, resistant refusal to be curious in a college program they didn’t really want to be in? Or was this a total failure of hope? A reactionary resentment of the politics of the course?

We’ll all have to figure such scenarios out if we want to reach across the communicative chasms created by compulsion, resistance, arrogance, anger, despair and anxiety. What my epiphany told me is that the very first thing we need to do is to recognize that a morally good curiosity is not only an intellectual and academic concern. It is also an emotional and a political state, in desperate need of cultivation and tender loving care.

The post Curiosity Is Political: We Must Nurture It if We Hope to Change the World appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Haiti’s Founding Father’s Black Revolution Was Too Radical for Thomas Jefferson

Sat, 09/15/2018 - 17:46

Crowds cheered as local lawmakers on August 18 unveiled a street sign showing that Rogers Avenue in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn would now be called Jean-Jacques Dessalines Boulevard, after a Haitian slave turned revolutionary general.

When Dessalines declared Haiti’s independence from France in 1804 after a 13-year slave uprising and civil war, he became the Americas’ first Black head of state.

Supporting the French colonial perspective, leaders across the Americas and Europe immediately demonized Dessalines. Even in the United States, itself newly independent from Britain, newspapers recounted horrific stories of the final years of the Haitian Revolution, a war for independence that took the lives of some 50,000 French soldiers and over 100,000 Black and mixed-race Haitians.

For more than two centuries, Dessalines was memorialized as a ruthless brute.

Now, say residents of Brooklyn’s “Little Haiti” – the blocks around Rogers Avenue, home to some 50,000 Haitian-Americans – it’s time to correct the record. They hope the newly renamed Dessalines Boulevard will burnish the reputation of this Haitian hero.

Opposition to Dessalines

Other New Yorkers aren’t so sure.

The New York City Council’s vetting committee labeled Dessalines a “possibly offensive historical figure,” tacitly referencing the massacre of French citizens that followed Haiti’s revolution.

Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Haiti’s founding father. Book of Paintings, by Renée Stout, CC BY-NC-ND

Just after declaring independence, in early 1804, Dessalines discovered that local French colonists were plotting to overthrow his new government. He ordered all remaining French citizens in Haiti, except for a few French allies, to be killed.

My research indicates that between 1,000 and 2,000 white landowners and their families, merchants and poor French were executed, always in a very public fashion. Some estimates are as high as 5,000.

Dessalines, who protected all British, American and other non-French white people living in Haiti, justified the killings as a response to acts of war by France. Despite Haiti’s declared independence, French imperial forces continued to threaten invasion from their military outpost in Santo Domingo, modern-day Dominican Republic.

To his critics, however, Dessalines’ massacre amounted to “white genocide.”

The Limits to Jefferson’s Vision of Equality

In researching Dessalines for the biography I am writing, I found that that he was in many ways cut from the same cloth as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and other American revolutionaries.

Dessalines was an Enlightenment thinker who espoused life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And he was willing to use strategic, bloody violence to free his people from colonial rule.

But in his commitment to Black equality he was far more radical than America’s founding fathers, who freed the US from England but let Black Americans stay in chains for another nine decades.

In June 1803, when Dessalines began planning for independence, he wrote to President Thomas Jefferson.

Like Americans, he reported, Haitians were “tired of paying with our blood the price of our blind allegiance to a mother country that cuts her children’s throats,” he said. They would fight for their freedom.

Jefferson never responded.

Dessalines’ vision of an autonomous Black state – a nation founded by enslaved people who killed their colonial masters – alarmed the patrician Virginia plantation owner, Jefferson’s letters show. The US was also being pressured by southern slave states and French and British diplomats to shun Haiti.

Rather than reckoning with the ills of racial oppression and colonialism, most prominent thinkers across the Americas and Europe interpreted Dessalines’ war as an example of African barbarity.

Haiti was run by a “hord of ferocious banditt” and led by “Barbarous Chieftains,” commented one British observer in 1804.

Pushing the Enlightenment Further

This racist view of Dessalines persisted for two centuries.

Today, modern scholarship is redeeming Haiti’s founding father.

Dessalines challenged the universalist rhetoric of the 1789 French Revolution, when idealists toppled their monarchy demanding “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” – freedom, equality and fraternity.

Yet the French continued to use enslaved labor to produce sugar, coffee and other crops in the Caribbean. Dessalines said France had shrouded their colonies in a “veil of prejudice.” He insisted that true egalité required Black liberty, too.

The author discovered the only remaining copy of Haiti’s original 1804 Declaration of Independence in 2010. Julia Gaffield, Author provided

This radical vision of Black empowerment is evident in Haiti’s 1804 Declaration of Independence, signed by Dessalines. In 2010 I located the only known extant copy of this stunning founding document, at the National Archives of the United Kingdom.

The 1805 Constitution that followed reaffirmed the abolition of slavery in Haiti, making it the first free Black state in the Western Hemisphere.

It also eliminated official racial distinctions. According to Haiti’s Constitution, all Haitians, regardless of skin color, would be considered Black in the eyes of the law. In Dessalines’ philosophy, race was an ideological concept. By securing Haitian citizenship, a person became Black.

Under Dessalines’ rule, Blackness was to be the source of freedom and equality – not bondage.

Haiti’s Rejection on the World Stage

Dessalines’ revolutionary fervor earned him international diplomatic isolation.

France refused to accept Haitian independence until 1825, when Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer agreed to pay 150 million francs – equivalent to US$21 billion today – for the loss of human and territorial “property.” To ensure compliance, French warships with loaded canons threatened the country from the harbor of Port-au-Prince.

Things also went badly for the newly independent Haiti in its own neighborhood.

Jefferson imposed an embargo on Haiti, cutting off trade with the country from 1806 to 1808, and the US refused to recognize Haitian independence until 1862.

Dessalines was assassinated in 1806 by opponents within his own government.

A Modern Black Hero

The international smear campaign almost succeeded in erasing Dessalines’ revolutionary legacy.

As one opponent to the Little Haiti street renaming claimed, Dessalines is “obscure to most Americans.”

Even within Haiti, Dessalines is overshadowed by the Black Haitian military leader Toussaint Louverture, allegedly a more restrained and diplomatic revolutionary.

But as scholars have revised the long-dominant racist narrative about Dessalines, public interest in the abolitionist has grown.

As the Haitian-American New York Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte said in Brooklyn, the newly named Dessalines Boulevard is “undoing in a concrete and tangible way centuries of the trivialization of our history.”The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Categories: News

National Park Officials Removed Climate Change From Report Due to “Sensitivity”

Sat, 09/15/2018 - 17:25
This story was originally published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at

Park officials scrubbed all mentions of climate change from a key planning document for a New England national park after they were warned to avoid “sensitive language that may raise eyebrows” with the Trump administration.

The superintendent of the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park in Massachusetts had signed off a year ago on a 50-page document that outlines the park’s importance to American history and its future challenges. But then the National Park Service’s regional office sent an email in January suggesting edits: References to climate change and its increasing role in threats to the famous whaling port, such as flooding, were noted in the draft, then omitted from the final report, signed in June.

The draft and the emails were obtained by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The documents provide a rare peek behind the usually closed curtains of the Trump administration. They illustrate how President Donald Trump’s approach to climate change impacts the way that park managers research and plan for future threats to the nation’s historic and natural treasures.

The editing of the report reflects a pattern of the Trump administration sidelining research and censoring Interior Department documents that contain references to climate science.

Earlier this year, Reveal exposed an effort by park service managers to remove references to human-induced climate change in a scientific report about sea level rise and storm surge at 118 national parks. The Guardian recently reported on the Trump administration’s efforts to stall funding for climate change research in the Interior Department by subjecting research projects to unprecedented political review by an appointee who has no scientific qualifications.

In a survey by the Union of Concerned Scientists, government scientists reported being asked to stop working on climate change and connecting their science to industry actions. These are just a few of the examples of science under siege compiled by Columbia University in its “silencing science” tracker.

The email suggesting changes in the New Bedford park report was sent in January by Amanda Jones, a community planner with the park service’s northeast region.

“You’ll see that anything to do with ‘climate change’ has been highlighted in these documents. In a nutshell, we’re being told that we can talk about climate change in terms of facts – if we have data to back our claim, that is ok. We should, however, avoid any speculative language – like what ‘may’ happen in the future,” she wrote to Meghan Kish, the New Bedford park’s superintendent.

Scientists say telling park managers to avoid references to “what may happen in the future” is worrisome.

Steven Beissinger, a professor of conservation biology at University of California, Berkeley who reviewed the emails and edits in the New Bedford report, called it “irresponsible to future generations of Americans” for the park service to direct managers to ignore research on the future risks of rising sea levels, risks to endangered species, worsening wildfires and other effects.

“We should have confidence in scientists’ projections and prepare for those kinds of scenarios,” Beissinger said. “We can hope they won’t happen, but we surely want to be prepared for them. We have to be looking at the future because places are going to be changing.”

A comparison of the draft and final documents shows all 16 references to “climate change” were removed.

Park service officials involved in editing the New Bedford report did not respond to repeated requests for interviews. But a park service spokesman said parks are told to “address issues like climate change … using the best available scientific information.”

“Sound management requires that we rely on specific, measurable data when making management and planning decisions,” Jeremy Barnum, chief park service spokesman, said in an email response to Reveal. “Climate change is one factor that affects park ecosystems, resources, and infrastructure.”

Barnum did not answer questions about the deletions from the New Bedford park report, which is known as a “foundation document.” But he said such documents are reviewed “to ensure that they are consistent with current policy and directives.”

The New Bedford park was created by Congress in 1996 to preserve 13 city blocks of a Massachusetts seaport that was home to the world’s largest whaling fleet in the 19th century. The park tells the broader history of American whaling.

Flooding from rising seas, increased snow melt and stormwater, larger storm surges and extreme heatwaves are among the threats from human-caused climate change to the park’s historic structures. A 1960s hurricane barrier that protects New Bedford is vulnerable to widespread failure in a 100-year storm if sea levels rise by 4 feet. A Category 3 hurricane could breach the barrier at current sea levels.

The original draft obtained by Reveal was dated Sept. 29, 2017, and signed by Kish. The final version, signed by Kish and Gay Vietzke, regional director of the park service’s northeast region, is dated June 2018. It is not yet available online, but the park sent Reveal a printed version of the 50-page booklet.

Among the sections highlighted for review and then deleted were references to climate change in charts outlining threats to New Bedford’s historic structures, port and natural resources.

This sentence was removed: “Climate change and sea level rise may increase the frequency of large storms and storm surge, rising groundwater tables, flooding, and extreme heat events, all of which have potential to threaten structures.” In its place, the final document says: “Large storms and storm surge, rising groundwater tables, flooding, and extreme heat events all of have the potential to threaten structures.”

Also, in a section about research needs, the original draft called for a “climate change vulnerability assessment.” That’s missing from the final version, which instead calls for an “assessment of park resilience to weather extremes.”

In several places, the phrase “changing environmental conditions” is substituted for the deleted term “climate change.”

Also deleted is a mention of how development near the park “could impact character and ambiance of historic district.” Elsewhere, a reference to “gentrification” is replaced with “urban renewal.” Mentions of declining park service funding and the limited control that managers have over privately owned buildings in the park are also removed. The museum in the park, which contains ships, skeletons and whaling artifacts, is privately owned.

The January email suggests that the edits are part of a broader review of foundation documents that Vietzke assigned a park service official named Ed Clark to conduct for the northeast region, which includes 83 national parks in 13 states.

“This late review came at Gay’s (Vietzke) request when she began her role as (regional director). Ed Clark was asked to review all foundation documents for sensitive language that may raise eyebrows especially with the current administration,” the email from Jones says. She wrote that the edits are “for your consideration, but not mandatory.”

Jonathan Jarvis, who headed the National Park Service under President Barack Obama, said that the direction to scrub the foundation documents must have originated from Trump administration officials, because he knows regional director Vietzke well.

“She would not be doing this of her own accord. This would have come down from on high, verbally,” he said.

Jarvis said career park service officials told him that their supervisors verbally directed them to make changes in a sea level rise report so that they did not leave anything in writing.

Scientists say climate change already is affecting parks and that the threats will increase if people continue to release greenhouse gases, which come largely from burning fossil fuels.

Jarvis was director of the agency in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy brought devastation to the northeastern coast, including several national parks. The parks incorporated climate change projections into rebuilding efforts, including moving utilities out of the basements in the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, both of which were flooded by the storm.

“Without considering climate change, we would have put them back in the basement. That’s why it has to be in a planning document,” Jarvis said.

In many national parks, flowers are blooming sooner and birds are nesting earlier, temperatures and seas are rising, and glaciers are disappearing.

Mary Foley retired in 2015 after 24 years as the chief scientist for the park service’s northeast region. She said she was frustrated during the Bush administration because the park service lacked permission and funding to solicit key research about climate change. But she said the Trump administration’s policy of sidelining climate science is much more concerning. Now much of the science has been done, but the unwritten policy seems to be to order park managers to ignore it, she said.

“Managing a park is a difficult and expensive task,” Foley said. “It’s pretty shortsighted to ignore future climate change. If you are going to plan for construction of a visitor center you wouldn’t want to put it where sea level rise is going to challenge that structure.”

But Foley and other former park service leaders said they hope that park managers will incorporate science into the planning for parks even if they scrub documents to please Trump’s team.

“Current managers are pretty knowledgeable of the implications of climate change. Whether or not that is written into formal documents, I don’t think that they will ignore it,” Foley said.

“The bottom line is, this is just paper,” Jarvis added. “You can’t erase in the superintendents’ minds the role of climate change. They’re going to do the right thing even if it’s not in the policy document.”

The post National Park Officials Removed Climate Change From Report Due to “Sensitivity” appeared first on Truthout.

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