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What Came Before #MeToo: The Himpathy That Shaped Misogyny

Sat, 07/14/2018 - 16:02

The #MeToo movement has brought unprecedented attention to sexual harassment and assault. It’s revealed just how many women feel besieged by sexually predatory behavior—especially in the workplace. The wave of women coming forward has shown that sexual harassment is the rule in many institutions.  

And #MeToo has only revealed a small piece of a much larger problem. Although the most high-profile #MeToo stories have focused on celebrities or executives, most victims are disproportionately young, low-income, and minority women. Also less evident in the #MeToo movement have been cases of sexual violence: where shaming, trolling, threats, and unwelcome advances have given way to rape, physical violence, and even forms of torture—of which choking is the most common. 

In its most extreme cases, it can literally be a matter of life and death, and yet sexual harassment and violence remain largely hidden by an elaborate system of denial, gaslighting, and retraction of accusations by women. Meanwhile, unrepentant abusers are often comforted or excused while victims are blamed. 

How did we get here? Moral philosopher Kate Manne’s book, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, helps explain. Thanks to Manne, the undue comfort that men receive now has a name: It’s called himpathy. And, together with how she defines misogyny, Manne provides a useful framework for understanding not just the present #MeToo moment, but what came before. 

For Manne, misogyny is not simply “men who hate women.” That’s far too simplistic, she says. Rather, it’s a far-reaching, punitive social system that keeps women in their place by rewarding compliance and punishing resistance to the gendered social order. This disciplining role of misogyny has escaped attention for a variety of reasons, chiefly, the social shield of himpathy. 

Himpathy, a term destined to become part of the feminist vocabulary, names a problem previously unrecognized—and perhaps that’s the first step in solving it. Manne defines himpathy as the “excessive sympathy sometimes shown to male perpetrators of sexual violence,” in the attempt to preserve their reputation, power, or status. Accused men, especially those with privilege, are broadly treated with deference by the media and the public, and if they’re brought to court are given lenient sentences. 

This is so common as to be a given for men in power. Harvey Weinstein is a case in point. Wielding control over the film careers of many and trading on his artistic reputation, he escaped unscathed for decades. Excuses are abundantly generated: alcohol, flirtation taken too far, or provocation on the part of the victim. Himpathy builds on the idea that sexual predators and rapists are creepy monsters, not “golden boys.” Correspondingly, the women in these situations are characterized as hysterical, misguided, or liars who misread the intentions of their attackers. 

Himpathy is a helpful explanation of the response after sexual abuse allegations are revealed. Over and over, we’ve seen victim blaming and rewriting of the story by friends, family, media, and sometimes even the victim. Responses to #MeToo revelations by close-at-hand onlookers are often characterized by shock and guilt for having looked the other way when powerful and respected men are involved. 

But himpathy is certainly not a recent phenomenon. Historically, misogyny and himpathy have been normal, if unrecognized, fare for women in the workplace. 

Sexual coercion at work had to be named before it could be fought, and feminists of the 1970s identified common experiences women suffered by naming marital rape and domestic abuse. The term “sexual harassment” in the workplace was defined by Lin Farley in her 1978 book, Sexual Shakedown: The Sexual Harassment of Women on the Job, as “unsolicited nonreciprocal male behavior that asserts a woman’s sex role over her function as a worker.” Farley joined the legal scholar Catharine A. MacKinnon in pressing the courts to consider it part of “sex discrimination” under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Act gave women and minorities new rights in employment. But there was still backlash. A law on the books is only the first step in triggering a cultural shift. And law is not useful unless some are willing to use it and make a claim.

The recognition of sexual harassment as a form of employment-related discrimination opened the floodgates: The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission began receiving tens of thousands of claims each year. Even with a rush of claims, many from low-wage workers, the definition of sexual harassment as interpreted by the courts is narrow and fails to consider the disadvantaged social circumstances of women that dissuade many from seeking legal recourse. Over the next 40 years, as women entered previously male-dominated fields, sexual harassment, though illegal under the law, persisted. 

Take, for example, the high-profile cases of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas in 1991 or Bill Clinton and Paula Jones in 1994. Despite attracting a great deal of attention, these failed to mobilize a mass movement. In both cases, the men involved were held by many to be blameless while Hill and Jones were scrutinized for ill intentions. Hill’s accusation on national television ultimately did not stop the Thomas confirmation, and Jones faded into obscurity. High-profile cases like these are easily dismissed as aberrations, a moral failure of one individual, a political plot, or gold-digging on the part of victims. Non-transgressing men benefit from a system that keeps women in their place, and low-profile cases continue to be invisible. 

The backlash against #MeToo, in an already global movement, has begun. Sometimes the case is taken up by women, such as the actress Catherine Deneuve, who evoked the French tradition of seduction against sexual puritanism: “Clumsy flirting is not a crime,” she said. Claire Berlinski, writing for The American Interest, charged that in #MeToo, “mass hysteria had set in [as] a form of moral panic” that misinterprets naturally romantic interactions as nefarious. 

This women-against-women narrative is part of the story of misogyny and himpathy—and it’s part of why it’s so difficult to remedy. By standing by their man, “good women” show their deference and act as enforcers. In exchange for upholding gender norms—and participating in misogyny by punishing those who don’t—they earn favors and advancement, which reinforces even further the social deviance of the victims.

 After all, women can say no, these defenders say. But if you are not a woman with executive power or Meryl Streep, saying no is difficult.

Women who work to support their families have few options. When the choice is between your job and your dignity, himpathy is likely to work as a silencing mechanism. Unless #MeToo successfully expands beyond professional women by reaching out to empower pink- and blue-collar women who suffer in silence under male supervisors, it will leave its mark but will not have done its most significant work. 

The post What Came Before #MeToo: The Himpathy That Shaped Misogyny appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Lessons From a Nazi-Persecuted Philosopher on the Rights of Refugees

Sat, 07/14/2018 - 15:38

Facing a political revolt over immigration policies from the Christian Social Union partner in her coalition government, German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed to a compromise, which would create “transit zones” or refugee camps along Germany’s southern border.

Under the agreement, migrants would be housed in designated transit areas, until German authorities determined their eligibility. If found to have registered in another EU country, immigrants would be turned back, assuming that country would accept them.

Merkel had earlier opposed this step, fearing it would trigger border closures. Already, Italy and Austria have refused to accept returnees. And these are not the only ones. In the United States, in Hungary, and in Italy, governments are justifying policies of expulsion and restrictive immigration. Inflammatory language is often being used to defend policies aimed against the most vulnerable peoples.

That millions of refugees exist in legal limbo, sadly, is not a new story. The twentieth century Jewish political theorist, Hannah Arendt, analyzed refugees’ plight in the period between and after the two world wars. As a scholar of Arendt’s political thought, I believe her writing is relevant to understanding today’s refugee crisis and their lack of rights.

Who Was Hannah Arendt?

Born in Hanover, Germany in 1906, Hannah Arendt studied theology and philosophy during her university years. The explosion of anti-Semitism in the late 1920s led Arendt to turn her attention to politics and questions of human rights.

A few months after the Nazis gained power in 1933, they deprived certain German citizens, particularly Jews and Communists, of basic rights, subjecting many to detention in prisons. Becoming stateless, Arendt fled to France, where she worked for Jewish causes. When France declared war on Germany in September 1939, the French government began ordering refugees to internment camps. In May 1940, Arendt was sent to a concentration camp in Gurs, France, along with thousands of other Jewish women considered to be “enemy aliens.”

Taking advantage of imperfect security at the camp, Arendt escaped. Helped by the American journalist, Varion Fry, who secured asylum for several thousand people in danger of being turned over to the Nazis, Arendt and her husband Heinrich Blücher, immigrated to the United States in 1941.

History of Suppressed Rights

In 1943 – two years after she arrived in New York – Arendt wrote “We Refugees,” an essay expressing her outrage at the existential crisis her people faced.

Driven from one country to another not because of anything they’d done, but simply because of who they were, she explained how Jews had been forced to seek refuge wherever they could find it in a world increasingly hostile to their existence. Seven years later, in her monumental work, “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” Arendt pursued the question of refugees’ rights further.

If human rights were inalienable, she asked, why hadn’t those rights protected asylum-seekers or precluded Jewish expulsion and extermination throughout Europe?

To Arendt, the answer lay in breakdown of the delicate balance between state and nation resulting in national interest taking priority over law.

Following World War I, European states redrew their boundaries, breaking up empires, such as czarist Russia and Austria-Hungary, into single nation-states populated by a dominant ethnic group, identified as citizen nationals or “state peoples.” Several minority groups also resided in the same territory, but lacked the same rights.

In these new states, minority rights were supposed to be protected through Minority Treaties guaranteed by the League of Nations, an organization established after World War I to foster international cooperation and prevent further conflict. Yet, increasingly in the 1920s, these treaties proved unenforceable, leaving millions subject to national governments arbitrarily denying minorities their rights. The treaties, along with the League, collapsed with the outbreak of World War II.

Minorities in newly formed states, such as Ukrainians and Jews in Poland and Croatians in Yugoslavia, lacked equal rights. At the same time, growing numbers of stateless peoples, deported or otherwise forced from their countries of origin as a result of civil wars or other conflicts, such as the Armenians in Turkey, were dispersed throughout Europe and the Middle East in this same period.

Arendt identified statelessness with the refugee question or the “existence of ever-growing new people … who live outside the pale of law.” She explained how these new refugees were persecuted “because of what they unchangeably were – born into the wrong kind of race or the wrong kind of class or drafted by the wrong kind of government.”

Without legally enforceable rights they were treated as less than human, forced to live under what Arendt called conditions of “absolute lawlessness.” Even if they were fed, clothed and housed by some public or private agency, their lives were being prolonged by charity, not rights. No law existed that could have forced the nations of the world to feed or house them.

The Right to Have Rights

The postwar presence of growing numbers of stateless refugees, who lacked the legal right to residence in countries to which they had been sent or sought to enter, brought into sharper relief a fundamental conflict at the heart of international law.

States had long recognized the right of someone persecuted in her home country to seek asylum in another country. Yet, these same states asserted the right to sovereign control over nationality, immigration and expulsion.

Arendt identified this conflict as a paradox at the heart of the long-held belief that human rights were inalienable. In the absence of enforceable laws mandating states accept asylum-seekers, refugees remained at the mercy of the receiving authority, which established its own rules governing who, if any, would be allowed to stay within its national borders.

Without legal residence, refugees lack basic rights long considered intrinsic to being human.

In reality, Arendt argued, human rights, supposedly independent of citizenship and nationality, are guaranteed only as the rights of citizens or, most restrictively, as the right of nationals of a “folk” or ethnic identity.

Thinking about the stateless led Arendt to identify something more fundamental than the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. She called it “the right to have rights,” or the right to belong fully to a political community, even if it was not one’s native land. She said,

“[T]he right to have rights, or the right of every individual to belong to humanity, should be guaranteed by humanity itself. It is by no means certain whether this is possible…[because] the present sphere of international law… still operates in terms of reciprocal agreements and treaties between sovereign states.”

Arendt’s Resonance Today

Indeed, there are international laws related to refugee protection. These laws and treaties create “exceptions” to a state’s sovereign right to control which “noncitizens” can enter and remain within its territory. In some case, they could grant at least temporary asylum to refugees.

However, no legal means currently exist that could require sovereign states to comply with international conventions and rules. Individual states, thus, retain the power to deny parts of humanity “the right to have rights” simply by asserting national sovereignty.

This is evident when far-right political parties in Germany, Austria, Italy and Hungary, along with the current administration in Washington, call for harsher, draconian border policies to prevent refugees from seeking asylum.

With the precarious conditions that are affecting ever-growing populations of minoritiesand the economically vulnerable refugees across the globe, Arendt’s words matter more than ever today.

The idea of humanity, excluding no one, Arendt wrote, “is the only guarantee we have that one ‘superior race’ after another may not feel obligated to follow the ‘natural law’ of the right of the powerful, and exterminate ‘inferior races unworthy of survival.’” As she herself witnessed, the first steps are the abrogation of minority rights and the refusal of asylum to refugees.

The post Lessons From a Nazi-Persecuted Philosopher on the Rights of Refugees appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

What Air Pollution and Police Violence Have in Common

Sat, 07/14/2018 - 15:13

In November, 30-year-old Summer Lee is expected to become the first Black woman to represent the Pittsburgh region at the state capital.

In May she won a landslide victory against incumbent Paul Costa, who has represented Pennsylvania’s District 34 for nearly 20 years and is a member of a multi-generational political family that’s deeply entrenched in Pittsburgh’s Democratic party.

As a result of this disruption and history making, Lee, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, has been profiled alongside a number of other millennial women shaking up the national political landscape, including Sara Innamorato, the newly elected representative of Pennsylvania’s District 21 (also in the Pittsburgh region, where she defeated another member of the Costa family), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who recently beat one of the top Democrats in Congress in a race to represent New York’s 14th District.

I recently sat down with Lee at a quiet coffee shop in East Pittsburgh’s Regent Square neighborhood (despite the fact that Lee dislikes the taste of coffee). Over an iced mocha, I asked her why she thinks young female candidates like herself, Innamorato, and Ocasio-Cortez have been so successful, and what their wins mean for the future of the country.

“We all ran very openly on democratic socialist platforms, and we all embrace that ideology,” Lee said, “which I think is something people are really ready for. But I think even more than that, what connects us is that we all ran grassroots, people-powered, people-centered campaigns with our community members at the center.”

She added, “We were all going up against strong Democratic incumbents, who I believe each miscalculated—who each had lost track of the trends in their communities and what folks on the ground in these communities really cared about.”

Injustice and pollution are interconnected

She said established politicians are missing an understanding that the most critical issues facing most Americans are linked—even if they may seem unrelated on the surface.

In recent weeks, Lee has been heavily involved with protests and the movement to demand justice for Antwon Rose, a Black 17-year-old boy who was shot three times in the back by a white police officer while running away unarmed in East Pittsburgh on June 19. Rose grew up in the East Pittsburgh neighborhood of Rankin, as did Lee. Rankin is among the poorest communities in the region, and in the last school year alone, the local high school lost four students to gun violence.

East Pittsburgh is also home to some of the region’s worst industrial polluters.

“You can’t talk about one of these issues without addressing all of them,” Lee said. “These communities are insular and are starved for resources, with education systems that are struggling, and with limited access to healthy food and healthcare. And the opportunities people have in these communities are so limited as to force some folks to go in a direction that they might not have wanted to. Meanwhile we’re also over-policing these areas.”

.@SummerForPA speaks about he violence in the Woodland Hills community. #AntwonRose went to school there, she speaks about him. 4th days of protests for Rose, who was shot and killed by police pic.twitter.com/yQmCvCl4g7

— Pittsburgh City Paper (@PGHCityPaper) June 23, 2018

“Anywhere you see communities like that,” she added, “you also see environmental hazards.”

Lee noted that US Steel’s Edgar Thomson Mill in neighboring Braddock, which is part of her district, is one of the biggest emitters of air pollution in the region. She’s also well aware that more than 30 percent of kids in Antwon Rose’s school district have asthma—compared with the national average of eight percent. (Environmental Health News explored the link between air pollution and the asthma epidemic in Pittsburgh’s poor neighborhoods in the recent four-part series, Breathless.)

Last year U.S. Steel also announced plans to put a fracking well on a portion of the land owned by the mill.

“There are studies showing that folks who live within a two mile radius of fracking are more likely to have kids who suffer from low birth weights,” Lee said. “If your child has low birth weight, they’re more likely to have worse lifetime outcomes than children who grew up in a more healthy environment. This impacts kids for life.”

Lee also acknowledged that environmental health impacts can last for generations. “Their kids’ kids are then also more likely to grow up in a community where they’ll have poor educational opportunities, poor water, bad air quality. And the cycle goes on.”

Bringing Her Convictions to Harrisburg

The message that these issues are all connected has helped Lee reach people who historically have been too disillusioned with politics to bother voting. Her district saw a nearly 54 percent increase in voter turnout from previous primary races in May, according to her campaign data, whereas voter turnout stayed about the same for Allegheny County as a whole.

“Conventional wisdom says go talk to the voters who are sure to vote, the ‘super voters,'” Lee said. “But we said ‘no,’ instead we’re gonna talk to the people who have felt disconnected from politics. We’re gonna talk to the people who are actually more impacted by these policies than the folks who do vote every time, but have never had someone come and say ‘Hey, this is how this system works. This is what’s going on, and this is how we can see some more power in our community.’ So we went to those people and we brought them out.”

Lee, like Innamorato, has no Republican challenger in November, so she has a head start before she actually heads to Harrisburg following the general election. She said she’s grateful for the extra time to build relationships, since she’s heading into a Republican-majority House.

“I will still have all the same convictions and priorities in November, but I’m going in with the understanding that my tactics have to be nuanced and multifaceted to get what we want,” Lee said. “You might find different allies for different causes, and maybe even make allegiances across the table on a particular issue for a particular reason. I want to be able to navigate that.”

“But,” she added, “wherever I go and in whatever capacity I serve, I’ll stay focused on the issues that matter most to my community. Issues like economic justice, educational equity, criminal justice reform, Medicare for all, and environmental justice—they’re more than just talking points for me.”

“I truly believe that when you look at poor communities and communities of color in particular, we have systemic issues, we have cyclical issues. They’re all connected, and if you want to address those issues in our community, you can’t do it without talking about them all at the same time.”

The post What Air Pollution and Police Violence Have in Common appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Vermont Nurses on Strike Demanding Hospital Put Patients Over Profits

Sat, 07/14/2018 - 14:52

Ranked 47th for pay in the nation. High turnover, stagnant wages, and chronic staffing shortages—sound familiar?

You’d be forgiven for thinking these figures refer to the working conditions of West Virginia teachers, or those in any of the red states that erupted in strikes during this spring’s teacher rebellion. But, in fact, these figures describe the daily realities confronting nurses in none other than the widely-hailed progressive state of Vermont.

On Thursday, 1,800 nurses and 300 health professionals at the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) began a two-day strike to demand more for themselves and their patients. At the center of the strike are issues related to safe staffing, competitive pay and calls for a hospital-wide $15 minimum wage.

One of the central demands is for safe-staffing ratios, which the union representing the nurses, the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals (VFNHP), sees as intimately connected to workers’ pay. The hospital ranks among the lowest for pay in a state that ranks 47th in the nation for nurses’ wages, adjusted for cost of living. The longest-serving nurses at the hospital have not received a pay increase in nine years.

The VFNHP reports that low wages contribute directly to staffing issues because the hospital cannot recruit and retain staff. The UVMMC, a level one trauma center and the second largest employer in the state, routinely has vacancies of between 130 and 180 positions. To compensate for these shortages, the hospital spends exorbitant sums of money to employ traveling nurses for 13-week stints. The union claims that in some cases the hospital gives scheduling preferences to these traveling nurses.

In addition to low wages, the UVMMC employs lean production methods that put both nurses and patients at risk. The union claims that the hospital has frequent shortages of support staff, including nurses’ aides and orderlies. According to Tristin Adie, a nurse practitioner and member of the bargaining committee, nurses in the rehabilitation unit routinely do laundry for up to an hour a day, while nurses in the oncology unit are consistently tasked with billing and coding duties, and nurses across the board are forced to regularly clean rooms and accompany patients to far off places in the building. Adie says that such practices directly contribute to an unsafe working environment: nurses cannot adequately care for patients when they are forced to do the work of support staff in addition to their primary duties.

Representatives for the UVMMC did not return a request for comment.

Striking nurses say that UVMMC management’s cutting of corners betrays the priorities of a hospital management more committed to profits than patients. The nonprofit hospital experienced financial problems after a former CEO’s fraud scandal and the recession, which it largely climbed out of by freezing wages in order to have more cash on hand, thereby increasing its bond rating. Since then, UVMMC has undergone a period of rapid expansion—buying out four hospitals and smaller clinics in New York and Vermont, and, in the process, becoming the single largest employer in the region.

UVMMC also has plans to begin construction on a new building for the Burlington hospital that would cost $187.7 million but has not released any information about how they plan to staff the new facility. Meanwhile, the hospital provides lavish salaries for its executives.

As Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders noted in a July 6 press conference in support of the nurses, “I find it really hard to believe that the hospital has enough money to pay nearly $11 million to 15 administrators, including more than $2 million to the CEO (John Brumsted), but apparently doesn’t have enough money to pay their nurses the same wages as nurses earn just across the lake in Plattsburgh, where the cost of living is, in fact, lower.” The hospital is also no longer hurting for cash: it’s total operating budget is $1.2 billion. Meanwhile, UVMMC’s chief financial officer Todd Keating disclosed that the hospital has more than 220 days of operating cash on hand.  

Core to the union’s demands is fair compensation for workers whose labor has fueled the hospital’s newly acquired wealth and expansion. The union is asking for a $15 minimum wage for all ancillary hospital staff, many of whom are not included in the bargaining contract. This expression of worker solidarity was supported by the vast majority of union members, notes Adie. “We recognized that we have power through our union that these people don’t have. Many of them are new Americans, and many came here through refugee resettlement programs. They are fearful of joining a union.”

The $15 minimum wage was one plank in a broader strategy of deep internal organizing by the union that began over a year ago. Frustrated over previous concessionary contracts, the union began building a network that would provide the rank-and-file with the confidence to stick it out at the bargaining table and win key demands, including a 24 percent wage increase on par with the salaries of nurses at Champlain Valley Physician’s Hospital in Plattsburgh, N.Y, which is also part of the University of Vermont Health Network. The VFNHP formed member action teams that put rank-and-file members in leadership positions and enabled the union to achieve a 94 percent vote to approve the strike from its membership.  

The nurses’ solidarity campaign also looked outward to labor and progressive allies in the Burlington community and beyond. The union made a point of reaching out to every other union in the region, including the Burlington bus drivers’ and teachers’ unions, both of which have gone on strike in recent years.

A coalition of left groups including the International Socialist Organization, the Democratic Socialists of America and the Vermont Workers Center formed the group “Alliance in Support of UVMMC Nurses,” holding educational events and a picket in support of the strike. A new hashtag and Facebook page, #RedforMed, is taking a cue from the solidarity campaign #RedforEd in support of the teacher’s strike in Arizona, encouraging supporters to post photos of themselves wearing red in support of the strike. On the picket line, community groups and nurses from the New York State Nurses Association and Massachusetts Nurses Association will be joining the VFNHP.

UVMMC’s management, on the other hand, has been intransigent. Late Wednesday night, union member Phillip Macomb noted in a Facebook post that the union had offered a compromise in“the hopes of settling this contract and avert a work stoppage,” but that management rejected the proposal and refused to negotiate. This refusal comes on the heels of a campaign of bullying and intimidation by management throughout the bargaining process, according to striking nurses. The union has filed a total of 21 unfair labor practice charges against management, including attempts to prevent union staffers from coming on site, taking down union fliers, and refusing to seat key decision makers—hospital executives—at the bargaining table.

The strike, slated to be one of the most significant in the region in years, comes on the heels of the wave of recent teachers’ strikes in the United States, as well as a massive, ongoing strike involving 30,000 nurses in New Zealand. Scholars have linked the labor activism of nurses and teachers, not only because they are both female-dominated professions but also because of the strategies they use to organize.

In their book Caring for America, Eileen Boris and Jennifer Klein refer to these strategies as “care worker unionism.” Boris and Klein argue that care worker unionism draws a straight line between working conditions and the broader social welfare system—healthcare for nurses, public education for teachers—which defines the conditions of “care.” Care workers have thus had to advocate for larger social goods as part of their demands for expanded workers’ rights.

That is certainly what we’re seeing in Vermont, as nurses are striking not only for a higher salary and better working conditions for themselves, but for a community hospital that puts patients above profits, and that offers all workers dignity and a living wage.

Nurses, like teachers, often face the sidelining of their concerns as workers in favor of the paramount needs of the recipients of their care. But what about the patients? is a common hypothetical question meant to discredit any strike or work disruption among healthcare providers. But Vermont nurses know that the two issues are not counterposed: if the care of patients is to be valued at all, the providers of that care must themselves be valued and materially supported.

The post Vermont Nurses on Strike Demanding Hospital Put Patients Over Profits appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

How the EPA and the Pentagon Downplayed a Growing Toxic Threat

Sat, 07/14/2018 - 13:52

The chemicals once seemed near magical, able to repel water, oil and stains.

By the 1970s, DuPont and 3M had used them to develop Teflon and Scotchgard, and they slipped into an array of everyday products, from gum wrappers to sofas to frying pans to carpets. Known as perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, they were a boon to the military, too, which used them in foam that snuffed out explosive oil and fuel fires.

It’s long been known that, in certain concentrations, the compounds could be dangerous if they got into water or if people breathed dust or ate food that contained them. Tests showed they accumulated in the blood of chemical factory workers and residents living nearby, and studies linked some of the chemicals to cancers and birth defects.

Now two new analyses of drinking water data and the science used to analyze it make clear the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense have downplayed the public threat posed by these chemicals. Far more people have likely been exposed to dangerous levels of them than has previously been reported because contamination from them is more widespread than has ever been officially acknowledged.

Moreover, ProPublica has found, the government’s understatement of the threat appears to be no accident.

The EPA and the Department of Defense calibrated water tests to exclude some harmful levels of contamination and only register especially high concentrations of chemicals, according to the vice president of one testing company. Several prominent scientists told ProPublica the DOD chose to use tests that would identify only a handful of chemicals rather than more advanced tests that the agencies’ own scientists had helped develop which could potentially identify the presence of hundreds of additional compounds.

The first analysis, contained in an EPA contractor’s PowerPoint presentation, shows that one chemical — the PFAS most understood to cause harm — is 24 times more prevalent in public drinking water than the EPA has reported. Based on this, the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization whose scientists have studied PFAS pollution, has estimated that as many as 110 million Americans are now at risk of being exposed to PFAS chemicals.

In the second analysis, ProPublica compared how the military checks for and measures PFAS-related contamination to what’s identified by more advanced tests. We found that the military relied on tests which are not capable of detecting all the PFAS chemicals it believed to be present. Even then, it underreported its results, sharing only a small part if its data. We also found that the military’s own research programs had retested several of those defense sites using more advanced testing technology and identified significantly more pollution than what the military reported to Congress.

Even before the troubling new information about PFAS chemicals emerged, the government had acknowledged problems relating to them were spreading. Past EPA water testing, however incomplete, identified drinking water contamination across 33 states that Harvard researchers estimated affected some 6 million people. The military suspected drinking water at more than 660 US defense sites where firefighting foam was used could be contaminated; earlier this year, it announced it had confirmed contamination in 36 drinking water systems and in 90 groundwater sites on or near its facilities.

The new analyses suggest these findings likely represent just a fraction of the true number of people and drinking water systems affected.

In written responses to questions, the EPA did not directly address whether it had understated contamination from PFAS chemicals. The agency said it had confidence in its current testing procedures and had set detection limits at appropriate levels. It also stated that it is taking steps towards regulating some PFAS compounds and registering them as “hazardous substances,” a classification that triggers additional oversight under waste and pollution laws.

The agency will “take concrete actions to ensure PFAS is thoroughly addressed and all Americans have access to clean and safe drinking water,” then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who recently resigned, said in the written statement to ProPublica in May.

The Department of Defense also responded to questions in writing, defending its testing methods as the best available and calling it difficult to fully assess risks from PFAS because the EPA has not regulated these chemicals. A DOD spokeswoman said the Pentagon’s research group has a program underway aimed at enhancing the test methods and detecting more PFAS compounds, but suggested that no alternatives were ready for use. She did not answer questions about why the agency reported contamination levels for only two chemicals to Congress when it would have had data on many more, stating only that the Pentagon “is committed to protecting human health and the environment.”

Environmental experts aren’t convinced.

“Widespread contamination may be harming the health of millions or even tens of millions of Americans and the government is intentionally covering up some of the evidence,” said Erik Olson, a senior director for health, food and agriculture initiatives at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in an interview. The EPA and Defense Department “have done all they can to sort of drag their feet and avoid meaningful regulatory action in making significant investment in cleanups.”

In May, a Politico report revealed that the EPA and the White House, along with the Defense Department, had pressured a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to withhold a health study expected to warn that people exposed to PFAS chemicals face greater health risks than were previously understood. That report was quietly released in mid-June and, indeed, estimated safe levels of exposure are seven to 10 times smaller than what the EPA has said.

Such a determination could spur stricter limits on exposure than the EPA appears to have considered. Paired with an emerging realization that testing by the EPA and DOD hasn’t captured the true extent of contamination, the government could be forced to reconceive its approach to these compounds, said David Sedlak, the director of the Institute for Environmental Science and Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, who helped develop one of the most advanced commercial tests for PFAS substances.

“Not talking about it isn’t going to make the problem go away,” Sedlak said. “And because these compounds are forever — they aren’t going to degrade on their own — eventually there is going to be a day of reckoning.”

* * *

The PFAS compounds might not exist if weren’t for a lab accident in 1938, when a frozen block of refrigerant turned into an extraordinarily slippery white, waxy mass. A decade later DuPont was manufacturing it as Teflon. 3M developed its own version, the molecularly similar PFOA in 1954, when a chemist inadvertently spilled a mixture of chemicals on her shoe and found the stain was impervious to soap or water. They called it Scotchgard.

These products work, in part, because the chemicals they contain are made up of some of the strongest and most resilient molecular bonds in existence, thanks to a unique structure that keeps them from breaking down. There are thousands of variations, all characterized by extremely strong daisy chains of carbon and fluorine molecules and differentiated mostly by the length of their “tails” — the string of carbon molecules that can be anywhere from two to 14 units long.

In the mid-1970s, with the use of the chemicals proliferating, Dupont and 3M began privately testing the blood of their plant workers and others. The companies had grown increasingly concerned about the toxicity of PFAS compounds, learning that they “bio-accumulate” in food and people and that they could cause harm. But it wasn’t until 2000, when 3M pulled Scotchgard from the market, that the EPA began to investigate PFAS’s potential damage to human health and the environment, and soon after, that the blood tests became public.

At first, the EPA took steps that suggested it would quickly get to the bottom of the problem. Citing the spread of contaminants in water supplies in Minnesota and Ohio, in 2002 the agency launched a “priority review” of some PFAS compounds. It wrote then that exposure can “result in a variety of effects including developmental/reproductive toxicity, liver toxicity and cancer.”

By 2003, the EPA launched its first draft risk assessment for PFOA, typically a substantial step towards establishing strict regulatory standards that limit a chemical’s use and mandate its cleanup. When the draft was released in early 2005, it said that while the epidemiological evidence remained inconclusive, rats tested with PFOA were more likely to develop liver and pancreatic cancers, and there were worrisome signs that workers in plants that manufactured PFOA had a higher risk of dying of prostate cancer.

The EPA also asked industries to voluntarily phase out PFOA-related products, including the firefighting foam, by 2015.

The question was then — and remains today — how much exposure to PFAS chemicals would make people seriously ill?

In 2009, the agency attempted an answer, issuing “provisional” voluntary guidelines for safe levels of the chemicals in drinking water. This meant that for the first time, the government offered a precise, scientific measure for how much of the compounds was too much. But it didn’t mandate those limits, or create a regulation enforceable by law. And even those limits — it would later become clear — proved too loose.

Meanwhile, other instances of water contamination — in Minnesota and Alabama — heightened concerns. One study of 60,000 residents in West Virginia and Ohio exposed to high levels of PFOS and PFOA from a DuPont manufacturing plant and an Army airfield showed they had high rates of thyroid malfunction, testicular and kidney cancers and preeclampsia. The study was completed as part of a roughly $107 million settlement of a lawsuit against DuPont. Studies on animals also linked the chemicals to structural birth defects and dramatic changes in hormone levels.

In 2013, with concern rising over the ubiquity of PFAS compounds, the EPA decided it would test for some of the chemicals in public drinking water systems. The agency regulates chemicals under the Safe Drinking Water Act and adds new substances to the list based on tests showing they’re widespread enough to pose a national threat. Listing a chemical for such testing is often a step toward creating enforceable regulations for it.

At the same time, the agency began to reconsider the health advisory limit it had established in 2009. In 2016, the agency announced a dramatically lower limit for how much PFAS exposure was safe for people, suggesting a threshold less than one-eighth the amount it had once assured would cause no harm. Under the new guidelines, no more than 70 parts per trillion of the chemicals, less than the size of a single drop in an Olympic pool, were deemed safe.

Yet even this standard remains voluntary and unenforceable. Until there’s a true limit on the concentration of PFAS compounds allowable in drinking water, soil and groundwater — and the classification of PFAS as a hazardous substance — the EPA can’t hold water utilities, companies or other polluters to account. It also can’t compel the Department of Defense to adhere to the standard or clean up contamination.

There is increasing evidence that PFAS contamination is more widespread on and around military bases than previously thought.

The Department of Defense launched a full-scale review of contamination in drinking water systems at its facilities in 2016, despite the lack of clear regulatory limits from the EPA.

This spring the Pentagon reported to Congress that 564 of the 2,445 off-base public and private drinking water systems that it had tested contained PFOS or PFOA above the EPA’s advisory limits. It also announced that groundwater at 90 out of 410 military bases where it tested contained dangerous levels of these two chemicals. A staggering 61 percent of groundwater wells tested exceeded the EPA’s threshold for safety, according to the presentation Maureen Sullivan, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for environment, safety and occupational health, gave to Congress in March. Attending to the problem, several news outlets have reported, would cost the Pentagon at least $2 billion.

In presenting its liabilities to Congress, the Defense Department took an important step in wrestling with a troublesome issue, much as the EPA had in undertaking national data collection.

But both agencies have quite deliberately chosen not to use the most advanced tools or to collect the most comprehensive data on contamination, researchers say.

* * *

To identify PFAS compounds in drinking water, the EPA uses a lab test called “Method 537,” which separates microscopic molecules so they can be more easily seen. It’s not the most sophisticated test available, but scientists have used it enough to give them — and regulators — extraordinary confidence in its results. This is the test the EPA chose in 2013, when it directed its labs across the country to test water samples to evaluate emerging PFAS chemical contaminants to help determine whether they should be regulated.

But even though the Method 537 test can detect 14 PFAS compounds, the EPA only asked for data on six of them. The EPA said this was to allow for testing of non-PFAS pollutants, since the agency is only allowed to target a certain number of emerging contaminants in each round of tests.

The agency also set detection thresholds for the six PFAS compounds included as much as 16 times higher than what the test was sensitive enough to detect — so high that only the most extreme cases of contamination were reflected in the federal drinking water dataset.

Indeed, according to a recent presentation by Andrew Eaton, vice president of Eurofins Eaton Analytical, the largest drinking water test lab in the country, which handled testing of more than 10,000 samples from 1,100 public water systems — about 30 percent of the EPA’s water samples overall — vast amounts of detected contamination was ignored by design.

Through its federal water quality reporting, the EPA has said publicly that PFOA was detected in just 1 percent of water samples across the nation. But when Eaton recently went back and reanalyzed the data the EPA didn’t want, he found PFOA was in nearly 24 percent of the samples his company tested.

Another chemical, PFBS, is considered a sentinel because in situations where it is a component of contamination also containing PFAS and PFOA, it travels further and faster in water and shows up months or years ahead in places where PFOA or PFOS are ultimately detected. The EPA has reported that PFBS was found in less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all its water samples — not even one in 100. Eaton’s re-analysis detected the sentinel chemical in nearly one out of eight of samples.

“It basically says the plume is on its way, that’s the leading indicator… PFOS and PFOA is likely on the way to your house,” said Jennifer Field, a professor of environmental and molecular toxicology at Oregon State University. Field is a leading expert on test methods for PFAS compounds. The Department of Defense helps fund her research. “If you are on the hydrological flow path it’s a matter of time and distance.”

The EPA defended its detection limits, saying its testing protocol is designed to yield consistent, reliable results even if labs conducting the tests are less sophisticated.

But the government is far from certain that lower levels of PFAS compounds than those that count as contamination by the EPA’s definition aren’t health threats. The EPA has repeatedly lowered how much exposure to PFAS compounds it considers acceptable. And when the CDC finally released its health analysis for PFAS compounds in June, it called for limits of one compound to be 10 times lower than the EPA’s current threshold, and another to be seven times lower. Such a standard would be more in line with some states, which already have tougher limits in place. New Jersey, for example, has set its exposure limit for PFOA at roughly one-fifth of what the EPA prescribes.

The EPA’s testing protocol — which only certifies the 537 test, with its limitations — also hasn’t kept up with fast-evolving science around PFAS chemicals. Researchers have identified new forms of the chemicals and, potentially, new dangers from these variants.

In 2016, Field and several other researchers — as part of a Defense Department research program examining water samples from 15 defense sites where firefighting foam was used (researchers declined to name them) — identified 40 new families of PFAS chemicals, consisting of some 240 compounds they’d never seen before.

“You’re starting to get this idea that more complex chemistry was used at these sites than was picked up in the tests, and that’s kind of the punchline,” said Field, of the firefighting foam sites in particular. “There is more mass down there, there are more species and in higher concentrations than what you see.”

Method 537, as a rule, is not capable of detecting these additional compounds. Yet when the Pentagon launched its own water testing program at US bases in 2016, it chose to use the EPA’s outdated testing process, even though a test capable of detecting the presence of dozens of additional PFAS compounds was available. That test, called the Top Assay, was even developed with Defense Department support.

Instead, the Defense Department relied exclusively on the 537 test and then, when it reported its findings to Congress this past March, it offered only the results for PFOS and PFOA and not the other 12 compounds the test process identifies, because that’s what Congress had asked for. Indeed, according to one memorandum from the Department of the Navy, the armed services were explicitly instructed to withhold their extra data — at least for the time being — because it was “not being used to make decisions.”

“If you were going to spend $200 million testing DoD sites across the country, wouldn’t you want to test for all of the chemicals you know you used?” asked Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, who has been active on chemical cleanup issues at Defense sites.

“It’s almost like a deliberate thing, where you’re going to tell people their water is safe to drink, and you know that you have a gap in your testing and you know that you haven’t found all of the chemicals in the water.”

Scientists are only now beginning to understand the importance of the information the government is choosing to leave out. Field has found, for example, not only that there are more variations of PFAS compounds, but that some degrade over time into PFOS or PFOA, or, like PFBS, travel faster in the environment, making them predictors for other contaminants soon to come.

Many of the variants with shorter “tails” — or shorter chains of molecules than the test methods can detect — “are likely to break through systems designed to capture” them, Field and others wrote in a 2017 paper published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. They are also more likely to elude the water treatment methods the EPA and the Department of Defense are using to clean water identified as contaminated.

The consequence of these systemic blind spots is that “by the time you see PFOS and PFOA you may have been drinking other things for a longer period of time,” Field said.

When Field retested water samples at several US defense sites using the most advanced testing available, she found that many of these obscure additional chemicals were nearly uniformly present — and in huge numbers. At one site, for example, where PFOS was detected at 78,000 parts per trillion, another obscure PFAS compound was present at nearly three times that concentration.

Based on Eaton’s higher-resolution detection rates, scientists at the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that researches the dangers of PFAS compounds, have generated new estimates of contamination linked to the chemicals.

They now think more than 110 million people have been exposed to the compounds through their drinking water, more than five times as many as the group had previously estimated.

The EPA “has really underplayed the extent of contamination,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at EWG. “The scope of the problem seems to be expanding.”

The post How the EPA and the Pentagon Downplayed a Growing Toxic Threat appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

New Film Highlights Women’s Role in the First Palestinian Intifada

Sat, 07/14/2018 - 13:29

The Palestinian struggle against settler colonialism has adopted many forms since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. These entailed individual and collective forms of violent resistance, but also extensive diplomatic efforts and an array of other nonviolent strategies.

In 1987, the first Palestinian Intifada erupted as a response to the brutal Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It included a vast assortment of tactics aimed at challenging the Israeli encroachment on Palestinian freedoms and rights, such as civilian disobedience in the forms of general strikes, boycotts, rejection of taxes and protest graffiti, as well as throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at Israeli army and police.

The Intifada also fostered a spontaneous, nonviolent, women-led collective uprising, which emphasized the importance of an intersectional approach to the Palestinian struggle.

Naila and the Uprising is a new documentary film that focuses on this unique and inspiring moment in Palestinian history through the vantage point of several of its leaders. The film was produced by the organization Just Vision, a nonprofit that highlights the power and reach of Palestinians and Israelis working to end the occupation and build a future of freedom, dignity and equality.

Julia Bacha is the director of Naila and the Uprising, a Peabody and Guggenheim award-winning filmmaker, media strategist and the creative director at Just Vision.

Suhad Babaa is the executive director at Just Vision and regularly speaks on the Palestinian struggle for justice with policy makers, community leaders, educators and students.

In this interview, Bacha and Babaa discuss the story of Naila and the Uprising, their motivations for creating the film and the lessons it can teach all those who wish to promote equality and justice in Palestine and beyond.

Yoav Litvin: Discuss your motivations for creating Naila and the Uprising. How do you perceive the film’s unique contribution within the vast number of books and documentaries dedicated to the plight of Palestinians? How does it relate to current events?

Julia Bacha: Naila and the Uprising reframes a critical historical moment — the First Intifada. The film presents this period as centered around the growth of a Palestinian national movement, but also a collective struggle for women’s liberation. The major role of women is largely unexplored in much of the available documentation or analysis of Palestinian civil society in general, and the First Intifada in particular. Naila and the Uprising seeks to rectify this gap.

We knew this was an important legacy to document, but we did not anticipate how relevant the film would be upon its release. Today, Palestinian women are still marginalized, and their role within the struggle overlooked. Women in Gaza, for example, [were] on the front lines once again during the recent Great March of Return. The broad-based popular nature of the recent Gaza protests allow[ed] women to participate and be visible to an extent not seen since the First Intifada. In fact, women organizers and activists in Gaza are making direct comparisons between the Great March of Return and the First Intifada. These events may indicate new opportunities for women to engage in the simultaneous struggles for Palestinian national and women’s liberation.

Describe a surprising discovery or epiphany you had throughout the process of filming Naila and the Uprising.

Bacha: Interestingly, my team at Just Vision and I did not set out to make a film about women leaders of the First Intifada. We wanted to make a film that revealed the incredible and highly effective civil resistance that characterized the uprising — something we knew held mythical weight in the history of the Palestinian struggle. As we delved into our research, however, we discovered a strong relationship between the incredible effectiveness of the civil resistance and the fact that women were central to leading it. Once we focused on this aspect, the story of Naila and the Uprising unfolded organically — one woman activist led to another until we had access to a whole network of female activists whose stories were waiting to be told.

Movements are far more likely to achieve their aims when women play a central role in civil society.

This phenomenon is by no means unique to Palestinians; the leadership and central role of women is well documented in the history of civil resistance movements and not unique to the First Intifada. In fact, movements are far more likely to achieve their aims when women play a central role in civil society because women are more inclined toward the tools and strategies of nonviolent resistance than are men. We tied the experience of the women leaders we interviewed to that research in our TED Talk.

What are your aims at Just Vision and methods for achieving them? How do you coordinate between Palestinians in the shatat (i.e. diaspora) and those in Palestine to achieve your goals?

Suhad Babaa: At Just Vision, we focus on the need to draw inspiration and learn from the long lineage of grassroots civil resistance leaders in Palestine and Israel. This is clearly conveyed in our previous film projects, Encounter Point, Budrus, My Neighbourhood and The Wanted 18.

For Naila and the Uprising, we employed a team of international, Palestinian and Israeli researchers and archivists, who pored through hundreds of hours of archival news footage, and worked with Dominique Doktor and Sharron Mirsky as our lead animators. It was a five-year journey from the moment we began research to our world premiere at DOC NYC [an annual documentary film festival] in November 2017.

We believe that effective storytelling is essential for shaping the public norms around Israel and Palestine, challenging prejudices, and creating the political space for courageous policy-making to end the Israeli occupation and build a region in which both Israelis and Palestinians can thrive.

For years before the First Intifada erupted, women were active and organizing.

Because we work simultaneously in Palestine, Israel and the US, we aim to connect activists and advocates in their struggles. That being said, the shatat is increasingly connected with local activism, whether in Haifa, Jerusalem, the Naqab, Gaza or Jenin. We see our films as resources that can inform and inspire a broad base of individuals who care about a just future, whether they are in the region or not.

Naila and the Uprising focuses much of its attention on a spontaneously created women’s collective struggle. Discuss some of your insights on how such a struggle formed, sustained itself and effectively confronted oppression. What were some of its mistakes? What lessons are to be gleaned by other movements that seek to confront patriarchy?

Bacha: A critical point was emphasized to us in nearly every interview we conducted with women activists from the First Intifada: The women’s collective struggle did not appear spontaneously out of thin air. For years before the First Intifada erupted, women were active and organizing — in women’s groups, student unions and collectives. This organizing effectively laid the ground work for the unified struggle that emerged with the uprising. The collective nature of the struggle is part of how it sustained itself — there was such a powerful sense of unity and purpose among Palestinians during that time.

In terms of confronting oppression, the uprising was largely grounded in unarmed, mass civil resistance. This allowed space for all segments of society to participate — the young, the elderly, students and particularly women. On every level, including economic, Palestinians withheld their consent to be occupied any longer, making it unsustainable for the Israelis to continue with “business as usual.”

One poignant and ironic element of this story is how cognizant the women were about the dangers of being sidelined if they were to succeed. They understood from the very beginning (and this understanding was borne out) how deeply entrenched patriarchy is, and how difficult it is to confront and challenge patriarchy in movement-building.

Azza, a leader in the First Intifada, says in the film, “We shouldn’t have ended the Intifada until our objectives were met.” This can be applied to the uprising’s goals related to women’s liberation, as well as the national liberation goals. Ending the mass, civil resistance did not yield progress on either front.

Their struggle for national liberation was and is informed by a simultaneous struggle for gender equality within their own patriarchal society.

This is as true today as it was during the First Intifada, and is equally true in movement struggles around the globe, including here in the United States. The greater the shared understanding between women and men allies that patriarchy is deeply entrenched in the power structures of so many of our movements, the more effective we can be at shifting these dynamics. Palestinian women during the First Intifada did not have enough political power to prevent their movement from being co-opted by more powerful forces. The film provokes the question: How can we design our movement structures and systems today to make that co-optation less likely?

The German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht famously said, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” What are your hopes for Naila and the Uprising? Is it simply meant to be informative, or to inspire action? If so, how and who?

Julia Bacha (Courtesy of Just Vision)Julia BachaJust Vision

Bacha: At Just Vision, we believe that stories and storytelling impact how an informed public makes decisions and takes action. In that sense, we hope the film educates audiences about the power of civil resistance and the crucial role that women play at the front lines, while also serving as a cautionary tale about the deleterious effects of sidelining women leaders.

On a grassroots level, Naila and the Uprising opens up space to connect the Palestinian struggle with other movements centered on liberation, justice and equality. We hope the film will provide inspiration for movement activists all over the world — including, of course, the ongoing struggle in Palestine — and provide a space for all our movements to learn from each other and build together.

Is there a hierarchy of oppressions within Palestinian society? How does Just Vision tackle the intersectionality of these different injustices?

Suhad Babaa (Courtesy of Just Vision)Suhad BabaaJust Vision

Babaa: As several Palestinian women in the film point out, their struggle for national liberation was and is informed by a simultaneous struggle for gender equality within their own patriarchal society. I think activist Sama Aweida put it best when she said: “We can’t be free as women unless we’re in a free country. And even if we are free of the occupation, we can’t know freedom as long as we are subjugated in our own society.” The sentiment is reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr’s now famous quote: “No one is free until we are all free.”

At Just Vision we also believe the many layers of human emancipation are inextricably linked. It is one reason why our body of work — from Local Call, our Hebrew-language news site, to our films — has always amplified the needs, concerns and effective strategies of communities struggling for freedom, dignity and equality for everyone in the region.

See here for future screenings of Naila and the Uprising.

The post New Film Highlights Women’s Role in the First Palestinian Intifada appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Trump’s Angry Tweets and Secret Deals Will Not Lower Drug Prices

Sat, 07/14/2018 - 13:05

We can only imagine how the Trump administration’s internal conversation about lowering the price of pharmaceuticals has been going.

President Trump campaigned on the issue and has repeatedly made bold promises to bring down the price of drugs since taking office. Trump chose a solid issue to stump on. Polls show that voters are furious about the cost of medicine and want lower prices to be a top priority in Washington.

Fulfilling these promises is another story. As Trump’s aides may have explained to him, sparking meaningful decreases in drug costs within a short period of time — say, the first few years of a presidential administration — would require government intervention in the pharmaceutical market and supply chain. Lawmakers may need to pass sweeping legislation, and new regulations are something that most Republicans, the health lobby and Trump himself generally oppose.

So, Trump tapped Alex Azar, a former Bush administration official who spent several years working as a top pharmaceutical executive, to come up with a plan. After weeks of delay and with much fanfare, Trump and Azar finally released a blueprint for lowering drug costs in May. Trump began making bold claims that drug makers would lower their prices within weeks in response.

It never happened. Biotech and pharmaceutical stock prices jumped after the blueprint was released because investors saw little long-term threat to their profit margins. By late June and early July, drug companies were once again raising prices for hundreds of drugs, just as they do every year.

So, predictably, Trump lashed out on Twitter earlier this week, saying Pfizer “and others” should be “ashamed” for raising drug prices “for no reason.” Then he got the company’s CEO on the phone. Pfizer caved and agreed to delay price hikes on 100 drugs until the blueprint “goes into effect” or the end of the year — whichever comes sooner. This would give the president “an opportunity to work on his blueprint,” according to the company’s statement.

Trump chalked the concession up to a win, but critics quickly pointed out that Pfizer did not lower any prices, nor does the agreement prevent other companies from continuing to raise prices. For example, the drug maker Celgene just hiked the price of the life-extending cancer drug Revlimid by 5 percent and has raised the price a total of 25 percent over the past 18 months, according to the non-partisan advocacy group Patients for Affordable Drugs.

“Pfizer’s PR stunt is unenforceable, unverifiable and non-binding,” said Charles Fournier, vice president of the Type 1 Diabetes Defense Foundation, a group that fights for lower insulin prices, in an email. “There is no substitute for full rebate pass-through and net price disclosure.”

Patients for Affordable Drugs President David Mitchell said he was “glad” to see Trump get tough on Pfizer, but one conversation with one pharmaceutical executive is not enough to fix the problem.

“There are other companies that have increased prices and could use the pressure of a Presidential tweet,” Mitchell said in a statement. “But one-off tweets do not fix the systemic problems we have with drug prices. We need long-term structural action to provide enduring relief.”

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) went even further, saying Trump’s deal with Pfizer is just the kind of “secret, sweetheart arrangement” that defines the broken drug pricing system.

“Instead of proposing meaningful changes that result in lower costs for families and taxpayers, Trump and his Administration are busy scoring cheap PR points that don’t address the fundamental challenges that lead to higher prices every year,” Wyden said in a statement.

Wyden is referring to the system of secret rebating agreements struck between drug companies, pharmacy benefit managers and insurance companies that systematically increase the sticker price of certain drugs. As Truthout has reported, all the players in this supply chain profit from higher drug prices, and they have used the system’s sheer opacity to blame each other for rising costs at the pharmacy, particularly for those with little or no health coverage.

In separate letters sent to Pfizer and Azar this week, Wyden demanded to know the details of the deal Trump struck with Pfizer. Did Trump agree to give Pfizer special consideration as his administration works to implement the drug-pricing blueprint in exchange for the price hike delay? And what about the federal statute that prohibits the government from negotiating drug prices in the Medicare Part D program, which Trump proposed lifting during his campaign but later backed away from? Trump can’t formally reject a proposal to repeal this rule and then attempt to negotiate drug prices himself, Wyden argues.

Wyden also asked Pfizer how its decision to delay the price hikes would impact its secret rebate negotiations with pharmacy benefit managers and insurance companies. Congressional Democrats and several states want to shed light on these backroom agreements, and Wyden has introduced legislation that would require transparency for companies participating in the Medicare program.

There is already evidence that such transparency can bring prices down. California passed an aggressive law requiring drug companies to notify insurers and government health plans at least 60 days before issuing major price hikes, and Bloomberg reported this week that a handful of drug makers have reduced or canceled previously announced price increases as a result.

The pharmaceutical industry has sued to block the law, arguing that watchdogs should examine how insurance companies distribute savings from rebate payments through their health plans instead. During a recent congressional testimony, Azar said that drug makers could lose a competitive advantage if they lower their prices, because high prices allow them to pay higher rebates to pharmacy benefit managers and insurance companies that control access to their customers.

Azar has threatened to take a “hard look” at the secret rebating system if all the players involved can’t figure out a solution for lowering prices on their own, but cautioned reexamining the entire drug supply chain would take time and potentially action from Congress. He has also threatened drug companies with rules requiring they put their drug prices in TV ads. As of now, however, these are just threats, and drug companies don’t appear to be responding.

Trump took matters into his own hands this week, a good sign that he is not interested in waiting for prices to come down. Meanwhile, Wyden’s office says that his transparency bill remains stuck in committee because Republicans refuse to support it. Maybe Trump should send some angry tweets their way as well.

The post Trump’s Angry Tweets and Secret Deals Will Not Lower Drug Prices appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Will Parents at the Border Be Forced to Separate Again to Win Asylum?

Fri, 07/13/2018 - 15:22

Two days after a court-imposed deadline, the Trump administration said Thursday that just 57 of more than 100 children under the age of 5 have been reunited with their parents after they were separated at the border under the “zero tolerance” policy. This comes as the Trump administration has announced a new asylum policy at the US-Mexico border, which instructs immigration officers to immediately reject asylum seekers who say they are fleeing gangs or domestic violence. We’re joined by Renée Feltz, Democracy Now! correspondent and producer who has long reported on the criminalization of immigrants, family detention, and the business of detention. Her new story for The Nation, reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, is headlined “For Some Migrant Families, a Second Separation Awaits.”

Please check back later for full transcript.

The post Will Parents at the Border Be Forced to Separate Again to Win Asylum? appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Activist: Piers Morgan Is an “Idiot” for Criticizing British Anti-Trump Protests

Fri, 07/13/2018 - 15:22

President Donald Trump said Friday that immigrants fleeing violence and seeking asylum in Europe are changing “the fabric of Europe. … And I don’t mean that in a positive way.” Trump’s xenophobic comments came during a shocking interview with the Rupert Murdoch-owned British tabloid The Sun. Massive protests have greeted President Trump during his two-day trip to Britain — including a 20-foot-long giant baby Trump blimp outside Parliament. We go to the streets of London to speak with Ash Sarkar, the anti-Trump coalition organizer who confronted Piers Morgan during a “Good Morning Britain” interview Thursday that went viral.

Please check back later for full transcript.

The post Activist: Piers Morgan Is an “Idiot” for Criticizing British Anti-Trump Protests appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Tech Industry’s Push to Hire Autistic Workers Could Lead to Hyper-Exploitation

Fri, 07/13/2018 - 15:18

For autistic people, employment prospects are grim. Using data collected in 2014 and 2015, a Drexel University study found that only 14 percent of autistic adults in the United States hold paying jobs. In 2016, the university reported that while 60 percent of autistic adults who complete vocational training secure jobs, the majority earn poverty-level wages. The issue isn’t limited to the United States: Gainful employment rates for autistic people remain comparatively low in a number of other nations, including the United Kingdom and Australia.

In recent years, major corporations — particularly those in tech — have purported to offer an antidote. Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, Google, Yahoo and German software company SAP, among others, have demonstrated a mounting interest in hiring autistic candidates, introducing programs ostensibly designed to recruit them. The logic: At once, these companies address an employment crisis and avail themselves of what Microsoft calls an “untapped” pool of talent.

Efforts to engage people on the autism spectrum interested in pursuing tech careers are, in theory, laudable, especially in light of the current labor landscape. What the work-in-tech narrative elides, however, is these initiatives’ exploitative, paternalistic treatment of the people they claim to exalt.

Conceived as a vehicle of self-actualization in the 1990s, the neurodiversity movement contends that neurological differences such as dyslexia and autism aren’t “disorders,” as much scientific literature classifies them, but natural human variations. More recently, some media outlets have appropriated neurodiversity as a corporate boon. Last year, the Harvard Business Review deemed workers on the autism spectrum a “competitive advantage” for companies, touting such reductive qualities as “loyalty” and “appreciativeness of having been given a chance,” while citing productivity growth and public relations boosts. In 2016, the BBC characterized autistic people as model employees, apt to be “immersed in their work” and attentive to detail. Relatedly, Peter Thiel’s 2014 book Zero to One exhorts companies to hire people on the autism spectrum in order to stimulate “innovation” and thwart “herd-like thinking and behavior.”

These claims, however, serve as a pretext for predatory business practices. Autistic rights activist Elena Chandler told In These Times that the celebration of autistic workers’ putative fealty has an ulterior motive: curtailing turnover. The tech industry has notoriously low rates of employee retention; at Microsoft and Google, the average worker’s tenure falls short of two years, amid such factors as stress and discrimination. Neurotypical people, said Chandler, are commonly “hired at companies like SAP and Microsoft. The company trains them up and helps them develop in the field, and after a few years, they leave and create a competing startup.” Companies seeking autistic people, she added, bank on those candidates’ low likelihood of leaving or asserting their rights as workers — from pay to intellectual property — due in large part to a dearth of alternative job options and limited work experience.

Game developer Ryan Holtz, who has worked for a company acquired by Microsoft, has further concerns. Microsoft, SAP and other companies, he maintains, assume “that people on the autism spectrum will happily work unpaid overtime as long as we’re enjoying ourselves, because we don’t have a social life and so don’t know any better. It belies a patronizing understanding of the autism spectrum.”

Chandler and Shaun Bryan Ford, who are both autistic, have  sought work in the tech industry. After applying for technical writing positions at Microsoft and SAP, Chandler said she heard nothing from either company, despite her Ph.D. and history of working in the field. Ford, a media scholar whose mathematical learning disability precludes him from coding jobs, recently participated in a virtual career fair held by Autism at Work, a hiring initiative spearheaded by SAP and adopted by a number of corporations including Microsoft. In a Medium essay, he detailed what he found to be apathy toward aspirants who weren’t white, male computer scientists. The reason, Ford posits, is that recruiting programs and companies such as Autism at Work and Danish company Specialisterne favor statistically well-paid demographics.

“It’s based on profit for them,” Ford told In These Times. “If they recruit high-wage-earning people from the very beginning to come to Microsoft or these other companies, SAP, etc. … they will get a share of this employee’s productivity from the very beginning.” (Microsoft declined to comment, and SAP didn’t respond to requests for comment.)

Those who progress to the interview incur a separate set of problems. Bucking the conventional approach of formal, conversation-oriented meetings, which may be challenging for people on the autism spectrum, a number of companies have designed formats wherein applicants complete engineering projects with materials like Legos and marshmallows on campus over the course of two or more weeks. While Microsoft and other corporations have garnered plaudits for heeding the needs of autistic people, the companies’ apparent lack of compensation for multiple weeks’ worth of labor goes unaddressed. (This issue has gained increased attention regarding more traditional tech interviews.)

According to Chandler, prospective tech employers place pressure on autistic applicants not only to perform a task competently, but to distinguish themselves via the aforementioned stereotype invoked by Thiel: what she calls a “magic autistic” tendency to “think outside the box.” This expectation thus begets a narrow hiring focus that sets a significantly high bar of ingenuity for people who already struggle to secure work.

If the experiences of Chandler, Holtz and Ford are any indication, these initiatives seek to include only a small fraction of the autistic population. People on the autism spectrum, then, aren’t spared by capitalism’s value system — they’re among those it harms the most profoundly. The agency and liberation of people of marginalized neurotypes doesn’t, and never will, depend on corporate campaigns to turn a chosen few into a new technical underclass, but on a holistic understanding of what it means to have a dignified, fulfilling existence that doesn’t hinge on corporate approval.

“If a corporation can’t use us to make money, we aren’t useful to society. That’s all of us,” said Ford. “Regardless of what it is their capabilities and ‘productivity’ are,” he added, autistic people “should be able to live a good life.”

The post Tech Industry’s Push to Hire Autistic Workers Could Lead to Hyper-Exploitation appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Backfire

Fri, 07/13/2018 - 15:13

The post Backfire appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Caravan of Grandmothers Heads to Mexico Border

Fri, 07/13/2018 - 15:05

Tina Bernstein remembers the Birmingham Church bombings in 1963 that killed four young school girls. She remembers the fear she felt during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“I remember nightmares of being separated from my family, unable to reach them,” the Beacon, New York, resident recalls. “In recent months, those nightmares have come back… they are nightmares of losing my children and granddaughter.”

When she learned about a caravan of concerned grandmothers heading to the Mexico border to deliver grandmotherly love to the migrant families there, she saw an opportunity to challenge this nightmare.

Grannies Respond/Abuelas Responden is a movement of grandmothers and their allies who have been similarly spurred to action by the humanitarian crisis unfolding on the southern border. Over six days, beginning July 31, their caravan will journey more than 2,000 miles, onboarding other “grannies” along the way. They will host rallies in strategic political districts in cities along the way to protest the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy for immigrants and asylum seekers.

Beginning with a rally in New York City, Grannies Respond will make stops in Reading and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Louisville, Kentucky; Montgomery, Alabama; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Houston, Texas; before finally reaching a detainment facility in either McAllen or Brownsville, Texas.

“We wanted to do something to stand apart,” Dan Aymar-Blair, an organizer who is executive director and co-founder of The Article 20 Network, which advocates for the freedom of peaceful assembly. “We wanted to push the message that this was more than just left versus right. It’s beyond politics. It’s a matter of basic common sense and humanity and things that are deep, deep in our hearts, not our minds.”

Aymar-Blair said that after learning about the separation and detention of migrant families brought about by Trump’s new policy, a group of like-minded activists began talking about effective ways to respond. They quickly ruled out the traditional sign-waving demonstrations: “Nothing scares them more than people with idle hands.”

Someone suggested putting the idea of grandmotherly concern — and literally grandmothers — at the front of the movement. The idea of the cross-country journey spread in much the way other movements have, taking root on social media and growing from there.

“It can be like a Richard Scarry book: anybody can come in any vehicle with us,” he said. “Bring their own bus, their own van, their own car,” he said. They are encouraging those coming from other parts of the country to start their own caravans and meet up at the final destination on Aug. 6.

“For us, in the beginning, this was just a bus full of grannies heading to the border. But there’s the potential, if we can make it go viral, for a lot of people to be part of it. That would be a pretty powerful summer protest.”

Bernstein said it took her a while to come around to the idea. She worried about it seeming like merely a “do-gooder” gesture. 

But then the reality of what’s happening to families who fled violence in their home countries only to be separated or prosecuted as criminals once they got here, hit a raw nerve, she said. “As a secular Jew, it was instilled in me that my freedom isn’t guaranteed if other people aren’t free,” she said. “If I don’t stand up for others, who will stand up for me? That principle is very strong.

“I don’t want to feel that my only role is to support what someone else is doing. I have an activist role to play.”

So she’s riding down to the Texas border not just as an ally, but because she believes the future of her own grandchild and others she loves is inextricably linked to a diverse and interwoven fabric of people in this country.

Organizers envision the caravan growing along the way, as momentum builds with each new stop. “There are people all across the country who are outraged about what is happening. We need to support each other and tell the stories of why this is not OK,” Bernstein said.

“It’s not like our movement or what we’re doing will locate the kids that are missing,” she said. “The intention is to motivate more people…to reinforce the idea that what is happening is unjust and encourage them to support those working toward justice. I’m not sure we’ll be able to impact policies, but maybe we can make an impression on the people we meet along the way.”

The group is keeping a close eye on news coming from the border, with plans to shift and adjust to reflect changes unfolding there. Most of the six planned rallies are in political districts with important political races for the upcoming mid-term election or with detention centers — or both.

At the stop in Louisville, Kentucky, Aymar-Blair said, they plan “to give Mitch McConnell hell.” The Senate majority leader is from Louisville, and in recent weeks has been hounded by protesters there over the immigration policies.

A Spanish music teacher onboard the bus will teach demonstrators Spanish songs that they might sing outside the detainment facility once they reach the border so that migrants inside know they are there. “The more people come, the louder it will be and the more families will hear us.” Protesters recognize that the disruption could be jarring for children so the idea is still being developed.

Sharon Kutz-Mellem of Louisville has two grandsons who sometimes refer to her as the “grammanator” when she’s being tough on them. She plans to join the caravan when it gets to town.

She volunteers with the Kentucky Refugee Ministries, which helps resettle refugees. Until a year ago, she was a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church USA, serving two small congregations in rural Indiana. One Sunday in August 2016, after delivering a message about justice and humility, Kutz-Mellem overheard a group of parishioners discussing where to get their Trump yard signs.

She heard a different calling. She retired early and left the church, losing her religion, she said, but not her faith. “I felt like I had failed to teach them the message that Jesus brought to this world, the one that wasn’t about building a wall but about welcoming the stranger, taking care of the sick and poor and widowed and visiting the prisoner; the Jesus who welcomed the little children instead of separating them from their parents and imprisoning them,” she said.

She’s not sure what will happen once she reaches the border, but she’s prepared to get arrested if that’s what it takes to make people pay attention.

“I’m not doing any more marches…I’ve done them all. I’m done,” she said. “We gotta step it up…we’re too deep into the fascism here. And if it means arresting a bunch of old people, fine. Whatever.”

The post Caravan of Grandmothers Heads to Mexico Border appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Out-of-Pocket Costs Put HIV Prevention Drug Out of Reach for Many at Risk

Fri, 07/13/2018 - 15:00

Public health officials are expanding efforts to get the HIV prevention pill into the hands of those at risk, in a nationwide effort to curb infections. But the officials are hitting roadblocks — the drug’s price tag, which has surged in recent years, and changes in insurance coverage that put a heftier financial burden on patients.

Since brand-name Truvada was approved for HIV prevention six years ago, its average wholesale price has increased by about 45 percent. Now, the drug — which rakes in billions of dollars in annual global revenue for its manufacturer, Gilead Sciences — carries a list price of close to $2,000 for a 30-day supply.

Most insurers cover the pill, also known as pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP. It has been shown to be more than 90 percent effective in HIV prevention when taken daily.

But patients can get stuck with out-of-pocket costs that make it unaffordable.

“If there is any example of the dysfunction in the American pharmaceutical system, it is this case,” said James Krellenstein, a member of the AIDS advocacy group ACT UP New York. “We have the most effective tool for ending the HIV epidemic, and one reason we’re unable to scale up is because it costs so [much] unnecessarily.”

As policymakers and the health system debate how to control ever-climbing drug prices, experts say this case underscores how patients are left holding the bag.

Private health plans are making patients responsible for a larger share of drug costs. And more are restricting use of the “copay coupons” pharmaceutical companies have used to shield patients from out-of-pocket expenses. Insurers say the drug companies use coupons to steer consumers toward pricier meds. One way health plans are limiting their use is by no longer allowing them to count toward patients’ deductibles.

“This is one more thing that is going to push people off their medications,” said Jim Pickett, a senior director at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago.

Jared Wile, who lives in Chicago, started taking PrEP about three years ago, when he was dating someone with HIV. Wile, who has a $2,750 deductible, used a coupon to obtain the drug. He never paid anything out-of-pocket, he said.

Gilead waives up to $4,800 in out-of-pocket expenses for commercially insured patients.

That changed for Wile this past May, when Wile learned the coupon no longer counted toward his deductible and that he would have to pay the full cost of the prescription — $1,600 per month — until he hit his deductible. Wile said he felt “blindsided” and stopped taking the medication.

Gilead spokesman Ryan McKeel said the company has made extra efforts to help patients overcome financial barriers. He cited assistance programs for uninsured and underinsured people.

“We have designed our assistance programs with the intent that people can benefit from their full value, and we cannot control the actions or decisions of health insurers,” McKeel said in an emailed statement.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 1 million people are at high risk of contracting HIV, but Gilead says only about 167,000 people currently take PrEP.

Beyond the Money Crunch

Price is one of many barriers — alongside patients’ lack of awareness and doctors’ hesitation to prescribe — that threaten to exacerbate the already stark disparities in PrEP use and HIV infection rates.

One major disparity is along geographic lines. The South, for example, accounts for over half of new HIV diagnoses but only about 30 percent of new PrEP users, according to data from AIDSVu, which maps HIV disease and PrEP use. HIV rates and PrEP use also vary by race and ethnicity.

“We are not necessarily seeing that those most at risk are the ones starting PrEP,” said Kristin Keglovitz Baker, chief operating officer of Howard Brown Health, a Chicago health center.

Gilead has recently gone all-in with advertising to reach people at risk, including print campaigns and TV ads that will air through the summer. Since 2012, it has spent $28 million to fund US organizations that seek to raise awareness of HIV, McKeel, the company spokesman, said.

“We recognize that many people who are at high risk for HIV infection still face challenges in accessing Truvada for PrEP, and we are in regular dialogue with public health officials, advocates and physicians to better understand and, where possible, help to address these challenges,” he added.

But price is also an impediment for publicly funded programs, which have limited budgets and are now shelling out more cash for the prevention effort.

“If it was only pennies … we would be throwing it around,” said Joey Mattingly, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy. “Because of how costly it is, we have to control it.”

Some states — California and Florida among them — have launched PrEP assistance programs that can help patients cover the cost of the medication, along with required lab work and medical visits.

Beyond these state-based programs, some public health departments and HIV service organizations are hiring PrEP navigators to help patients navigate the maze of copays and deductibles, and to improve recruitment and retention of new PrEP users.

Washington, DC’s health department has doubled down on prevention, and Truvada is key in that effort, said Michael Kharfen, the department’s senior deputy director for HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD and TB Administration.

Insurance usually covers PrEP, and patient assistance programs should fill any financial gaps, he said. But when that isn’t feasible, the department steps in, distributing free Truvada starter packs to at-risk patients.

Kharfen said the city has in the past three years spent almost a million dollars just on Truvada pills, which it purchases at a discounted rate through the federal 340B program, which benefits certain health care providers that treat low-income people. And because of new publicity efforts, he expects the department will need to buy and distribute more pills — posing a conundrum.

Treating more people is net positive, he said. But “how do we sustain this?”

Medicaid programs generally cover PrEP, so they confront a similar situation. Outreach efforts lead to more beneficiaries who take the drug, but that, in turn, could subject the states’ Medicaid budgets to financial hardship.

States are spending millions of dollars on the drug. California’s Medicaid program, for example, spent about $50 million in 2017 and expects the costs to continue climbing. But officials said the expense is offset by long-term savings in preventing new HIV cases.

Massachusetts’ Medicaid program spent about $22 million on Truvada that same year — about $18,000 per beneficiary, according to a spokeswoman for the agency’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services. Those figures don’t account for rebates the state receives from Gilead, which are undisclosed and considered proprietary information.

A Complex Solution, and No Competition

PrEP is only one part of HIV prevention, so help paying for the pill is only one piece of the puzzle.

Patients also need regular HIV testing and medical care, which add to the cost borne both by patients and the health system. Some experts warn that Truvada’s high price point could financially undermine such broad prevention efforts.

Competition could help.

A generic version of the drug, manufactured by Teva Pharmaceuticals, is available abroad and gained approval for use last year from the federal Food and Drug Administration. When it becomes available in the United States, it could bring down prices, though it’s unclear when that will happen. Gilead’s own forecasts reflect that expectation, showing declines in future revenue from Truvada.

“When generics enter, brands lose market share,” said David Howard, a health economist and professor at Emory University, who previously worked in the pharmaceutical industry.

For now, though, Truvada is the only PrEP option available in the US, he said. “From a company standpoint … their best strategy is to make as much money as they can.”

KHN’s coverage of these topics is supported by Laura and John Arnold Foundation and Blue Shield of California Foundation.

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Categories: News

Exploiting Pensions, Wall Street Cost Taxpayers $600 Billion Over Last Decade

Fri, 07/13/2018 - 14:48

In a frenzied bid for higher profits in the decade following the 2008 financial crisis, Wall Street pension fund managers have siphoned as much as $624 billion from Americans’ retirement savings — and, as a direct result, taxpayer coffers — through a vicious combination of high fees and foolish investment strategies, according to an analysis published Thursday by Yahoo Finance.

The steepest costs to taxpayers have stemmed from Wall Street pension managers’ commitment to so-called alternative funds, which invest in private equity and hedge funds rather than traditional stocks and bonds.

“The total amount pension funds could have saved by simply investing in index funds could be more than $1 trillion,” notes Yahoo Finance reporter Dion Rabouin. “Because pensions are guaranteed, the underperformance has hit taxpayers in the form of budget cuts for schools, hospitals, and libraries and decreased spending on infrastructure, healthcare, and other public projects.”

Responding to Yahoo’s analysis in a series of tweets on Thursday, Capital & Main journalist David Sirota observed that in five years of reporting on Wall Street’s investment tactics, he has found that “most people (including policymakers) still have no idea that skimming fees off public employees’ retirement savings has become one of the largest sources of profits for Wall Street moguls.”

Wall Street executives have sucked $600 billion out of public employees’ retirement savings in the last decade — and yet the political conversation over public pension shortfalls basically blames ripped-off public employees for being greedy. https://t.co/npxkzos9Ti

— David Sirota (@davidsirota) July 12, 2018

Despite their continued underperformance, “public pension fund managers have thrown increasingly more money at these complex and pricey alternative funds” in pursuit of “higher gains,” Yahoo notes.

Because these gains haven’t materialized, public pensions have lost hundreds of billions of dollars over the past decade, and taxpayers have been left to pick up the tab.

“The sales pitch of the alternatives community is, ‘We’ve got some kind of secret sauce. Our returns are going to be higher than stocks and bonds,'” Jeff Hooke, a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University who has authored several studies on public pensions, said in an interview with Yahoo Finance. “The only problem with the sales pitch is it doesn’t work.”

The Intercept’s Briahna Joy Gray concluded on Thursday that Wall Street’s continued abuse of public pensions in an effort to boost profits is a clear demonstration that “obscene wealth doesn’t come out of the blue, but that it’s a direct consequence of exploitation.”

Regular people are realizing more and more that obscene wealth doesn’t come out of the blue, but that it’s a direct consequence of exploitation.

Exiting times. https://t.co/ZgjWuNzNjX

— Briahna “Intersectionality Includes Class” Gray (@briebriejoy) July 12, 2018

The post Exploiting Pensions, Wall Street Cost Taxpayers $600 Billion Over Last Decade appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Donald Trump Threatens Theresa May as Republicans Stage Peter Strzok Circus

Fri, 07/13/2018 - 14:42

After all the fireworks at the NATO meeting on Wednesday, I assumed they would wind down on Thursday and President Trump would head off to jolly old England with a smile on his face for a nice visit with the queen and a few rounds of golf in Scotland. By acting like an unpredictable imbecile he had made his point: He’s got the biggest swinging hands in the free world and there’s nothing these pipsqueak allies can do about it.

Unfortunately, Trump wasn’t finished. He showed up late for another meeting, took it over and started browbeating everyone again about spending and trade, demanding they embark on a massive military buildup and insisting they spend that money on American equipment because it’s the best. Then he held a press conference and, much like the one he held after his Singapore pageant with Kim Jong-un, it was delusional. Trump declared himself a hero for getting the allies to agree to spend more (he didn’t) saying, “If you ask Secretary General Stoltenberg, he gives me total credit.” He said NATO is much stronger than it was two days before.

When asked if he would contradict any of these statements in a tweet after the meeting he actually repeated one of the most absurd comments he’s ever made, and that’s saying something. He said: “That’s other people that do that. I don’t. I’m very consistent. I’m a very stable genius.”

Fact check: False.

Trump isn’t just unstable. He seems to be coming apart at the seams. Politico reports that the NATO allies have concluded, in so many words, that the president of the United States is nuts.

British Prime Minister Theresa May might have thought her conversations with Trump were confidential, what with the “special relationship” between the two countries. She got a big surprise after the big state dinner with Trump in London on Thursday night:

A lot going on here (Trump trashing May while in UK, talking to Murdoch paper, blaming Khan for terror) but let’s not ignore the other thing:

Trump saying “migration is killing Europe” echoes rhetoric some of the continents most fringe parties, including white nationalists pic.twitter.com/EBIvnwTUwL

— Astead (@AsteadWesley) July 12, 2018

Trump told the tabloid that he had threatened May over her “soft” Brexit plan, telling her that if she followed through on it the US would not make a bilateral trade deal with Britain. I think we know that’s fatuous nonsense but he wanted to make sure it was public because May’s hold on her job is tenuous. It’s pretty clear Trump wants to topple her, apparently in order to install his pal Boris Johnson, her Conservative Party rival. This would be unusual for any other president, but Trump is a big fan of foreign interference in the democratic process on his behalf so he just went for it.

Trump also told the Sun that he’d told May how to do Brexit right but she wouldn’t listen. The Brits were not amused:

Text from calmest UK diplomat I know. Excuse the language: “we are all fuming right now. All month we’ve been preparing for tomorrow and he drops this shit right after the dinner?? Fucking ridiculous. Tomorrow will be a proper shit show now.”

— Juliette Kayyem (@juliettekayyem) July 13, 2018

By the time you read this, we’ll probably know just how bad it is.

Meanwhile, back in Washington my hoped-for congressional counterbalance took a hard right turn and went over the cliff. While the Senate had taken some symbolic bipartisan votes about NATO and trade earlier in the week, apparently sending a message that Trump’s diplomatic misconduct was not reflective of the entire US government, Republicans in the House of Representatives said, “You want crazy? We’ll give you crazy.”

The all-day House Oversight and Judiciary Committee grilling of Peter Strzok, the counter-intelligence FBI agent who had been involved in both the Clinton email case and the early months of the Russia investigation — until he was found to have texted rude remarks about Trump to his girlfriend — was a three-ring circus. The Republicans were the clowns.

Apparently believing that their best chance of deflecting whatever special counsel Robert Mueller finds out about the Russian interference is to destroy the reputation of the FBI and the Department of Justice, GOP committee members decided to become the human version of Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. It wasn’t pretty.

Wow pic.twitter.com/nyRwPTGojO

— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) July 12, 2018

“This is intolerable harassment of a witness!”

In a chaotic moment at House Judiciary hearing, Rep. Louie Gohmert asks FBI Agent Peter Strzok how many times he lied to his wife. The question drew cries of outrage from Democratic members. https://t.co/M3YsVmNmn5 pic.twitter.com/f0nEkO5ewO

— ABC News (@ABC) July 12, 2018

Strzok’s monumental bad judgment in using a government phone to insult Donald Trump has landed him in this hot water and will probably end his career. But he was an effective witness and it’s unlikely the Republican clown show played well outside the Fox News Big Top. He was straightforward about his contempt for Trump but made a sound case for why that didn’t and couldn’t have interfered in his investigation. He was passionate in his defense of the FBI and not intimidated by the Trumpian insults and browbeating from the Republicans.

His testimony once more showed the deeply illogical nature of the Republican counter-narrative that the FBI was out to get Trump and help Clinton. They insist that Strzok’s bias tainted the investigation but they cannot explain how it is that he never said a word in advance of the election. Indeed, the FBI put reporters off the scent rather than confirm information they’d obtained elsewhere. Hillary Clinton was the person sabotaged by FBI Director James Comey, not Trump.

At one point, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., asked Strzok about a text in which he wrote that Trump would have “no idea how destabilizing his presidency will be.” Issa seemed to think this was some sort of a threat from the “deep state.” Strzok explained that had come on the heels of comments by then-candidate Trump, who said he didn’t know whether or not the U.S. should honor its commitments under NATO, that it would depend on how he believed a particular ally had behaved. That’s not how it works.

Strzok was right about all that, as we’ve seen this week in Europe. Politico’s Michael Crowley aptly described Trump’s dealings with foreign leaders on MSNBC by quoting some lines from “Apocalypse Now”:

Capt. Benjamin Willard [the allies]: They told me that you had gone totally insane, and that your methods were unsound.

Colonel Kurtz [Trump]: Are my methods unsound?

Capt. Benjamin Willard: I don’t see any method at all, sir.

There is no method. But there is a pattern to Trump’s madness, which foreign leaders are starting to understand. He creates a phony crisis, then sweeps in, puts on a show insulting and bullying everyone and declares that he has now fixed the crisis that never existed in the first place. In the meantime he’s destroying America’s reputation and turning the world upside down, creating chaos for no reason beyond TV ratings and pleasing his rabid followers.

The allies can only try to contain the damage. After all, they are seeking stability and predictability. But adversaries have much to gain through the US self-destructing this way, and are figuring out how to take advantage of this ill-equipped man for their own ends. We’ll see how that plays out next week in Helsinki.

The post Donald Trump Threatens Theresa May as Republicans Stage Peter Strzok Circus appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Bradley Foundation Funds Web of Climate Change Deniers

Fri, 07/13/2018 - 14:36

Bradley Foundation internal documents reviewed by the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) reveal a concerted effort by the organization to delegitimize climate science, while promoting fossil fuel energy development in the United States.

An analysis of Bradley’s climate-related activities shows that the foundation has made significant grants to support energy policy think tanks, attack-dog groups that target environmentalists, and efforts to discredit climate science.

A 2013 internal foundation document details how Bradley “instructed staff to explore options…to make more energy-related grants.” The document also notes that the Board gave a “terminal grant” of $263,591 to the Sand County Foundation (SCF), which previously administered the Bradley Fund for the Environment.

The documents do not reveal Bradley’s motivation in splitting from SCF, but they do outline a serious effort to promote fossil fuel industry interests at the expense of the environment.

Centers for Climate Change Denial and Fossil Fuel Development

As part of its push to support studies and public relations to cast doubt on mounting scientific evidence on climate change, Bradley has focused its resources on “Energy Policy Centers,” many of which are housed in “Bradley-supported” State Policy Network (SPN) “think tanks.” SPN is a web of 156 right-wing groups in 49 states, Washington, DC, Puerto Rico, Canada, and the UK that receives funding from the billionaire Koch brothers, the Bradley Foundation, and the Roe Foundation, as well as many multi-national corporations.

The examined documents show that the Center for Energy Policy and the Environment (CEPE) at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MIPR), a member of SPN, received a total of $500,000 for its Center, with another $200,000 distributed in 2016(Manhattan Institute for Policy Research GPR, February 23, 2016) CEPE works to promote fossil fuel development despite the devastating effects of climate change. A background document on CEPE states its goal clearly: “The Center’s research and public education activity aims at demonstrating that the United States is poised to reap substantial economic benefits in the form of job creation, lower gasoline and electricity prices, and increased productivity provided public policies allow companies to access valuable energy resources and distribute them at home and abroad.”

A recommendation by Bradley staff on the Manhattan Institute’s 2016 grant proposal specifically states that CEPE is worth funding because, “They have succeeded in identifying and publicizing so many of the falsehoods that surround energy and the environment.” (Manhattan Institute for Policy Research GPR, February 23, 2016) An example of this “success” can be found in the work of CEPE senior fellow Mark Mills, who is recognized as originating the idea that North America can surpass the Middle East as the largest energy supplier in the world. (Manhattan Institute for Policy Research GPR, November 12, 2013)

The Energy Policy Center (EPC) at another SPN “think tank”, the Independence Institute, received $195,000 from the Bradley Foundation between 2012 and 2016.

Bradley documents examined show that EPC’s purpose is to “consciously counter-balance former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter’s environmental think tank” at Colorado State University, which promotes a “New Energy Economy.”

Bradley considers EPC to be highly successful in fighting local and federal environmental initiatives. The Bradley documents note that EPC was a “key coalition partner” in preempting local bans on fracking in Colorado, and that it “has developed a toolkit for policymakers, attorneys general, and other conservative state think tanks to help them push back against US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations.” (Independence Institute GPR, June 2, 2015)

In addition to these two centers, Bradley has funded the Center for Energy and Environment (CEE) at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), an “associate member” of SPN, and the Center for Energy Innovation and Independence at Consumers’ Research.

CEE is led by the prominent climate change denier Myron Ebell, who steered Trump’s EPA transition team. Ebell also chairs the Cooler Heads Coalition, which brings together right-wing activists and scholars for monthly meetings. The coalition was established on May 6, 1997, “to dispel the myths of global warming by exposing flawed economic, scientific and risk analysis.”

CEI was long tied to tobacco disinformation campaigns, but is now a leading organization in the movement to discredit climate science.

Bradley does not mention how much of its funding to CEI was designated for CEE operations. Between 1986 and 2015, Bradley Foundation gave $2.2 million to CEI, the majority of which was “to support general operations.” (Competitive Enterprise Institute GPR, June 2, 2015).

The Center for Energy Innovation and Independence received $250,000 from Bradley in 2013 to get the new group off the ground. According to a background document, the group “will closely monitor federal environmental regulations and potentially lay the foundation for multi-state litigation against them, similar to those actions in the Obamacare and Dodd-Frank lawsuits, of which aggressive (Scott) Pruitt was and is a part.” Pruitt is the former AG of Oklahoma and recently resigned as the EPA Administrator under Trump.

Smear Campaigns and Funding Efforts to Discredit Climate Science

At the same time Bradley rolled out funding for “Energy Policy Centers,” it was doling out cash to discredit environmental organizations and climate change science.

A grant proposal record for the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), a front group created by the close Bradley ally Rick Berman, details an organized effort to weaken the credibility of well-respected, national environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, the National Resources Defense Council, and Food and Water Watch. (The Center for Consumer Freedom GPR, November 12, 2013) Berman also founded Berman and Company, a notorious Washington, DC-based corporate lobbying and PR company known for creating numerous corporate “front groups” and astroturf propaganda campaigns.

Berman’s anti-environmental project at CCF was called Big Green Radicals and was seeded with a $150,000 “public education” grant from Bradley in 2013.

According to Bradley’s background document, the Big Green Radicals project would include the following components:

[N]ew, updated research profiles for NRDC, Food and Water Watch, and Sierra Club; standalone websites for all three organizations; a Facebook group seeded with several thousand fans to provide a base for the message; the production of two online videos to explain the real agenda of the environmental left; and Google keyword advertising for members of the media and the public searching for information about one of the targeted groups.

In addition to providing the start-up funding for Big Green Radicals, Bradley gave $85,000 to the Capital Research Center (CRC), a group led by former Berman and Company employee Scott Walter. The grant was designated for “general operations,” but it may have been used to support the publication Green Watch. A background document on CRC states that, “Green Watch tracks the money flow to environmental nonprofits and critiques their positions, and those of their allies, including their policymaking ones.” (Capital Research Center GPR, August 19, 2014)

Since 2014, the Bradley Foundation has distributed numerous grants to discredit the vast amount of scientific research demonstrating the harmful effects of climate change. In 2014, it gave $65,000 to the George C. Marshall Institute (GMI), a right-wing front group largely funded by oil and gas interests. Newsweek called GMI “a central cog in the denial machine” in 2007.

GMI folded in late 2015, so Bradley recommended $50,000 in “seed funding” the following year for its “successor organization,” the CO2 Coalition. The coalition is led by a Dr. William Happer, a well-known climate change denier. “We’re doing our best to try and counter this myth that CO2 is a dangerous pollutant. It’s not a pollutant at all,” Happer said at a Heritage Foundation event on energy and climate.

Another $10,000 Bradley grant in 2014 for the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change (CSCDGC) went to support its Science & Public Policy Institute (SPPI). A staff recommendation notes that SPPI “has helped demonstrate that no real-world data confirms that floods, draughts [sic], or hurricanes are becoming more frequent or severe, as global-warming alarmists allege. Neither is there any real-world data that sea levels are about to rise precipitously, inundating the world’s coasted [sic] lowlands, as is also often alleged.” (Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change GPR, June 17, 2014)

Energy Roundtables

Documents show that, beginning in 2013, Bradley provided funding to the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, also an SPN member, to host and organize two “energy roundtables” a year — one before the Heritage Foundation’s annual Resource Bank meeting, and the other before SPN’s annual fall meeting. (Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy GPR, November 10, 2015)

The $50,000-per-year grant from Bradley for the meetings was matched “by staff arrangement” by the Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA), a front group for the energy industry that promotes fossil fuel development and opposes efforts to regulate its activities.

“Planned and put on in close cooperation with the Consumer Energy Alliance (CEA), the roundtables allow state think tanks to better promote free-market energy and environmental policies,” one document states. (Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy GPR, November 12, 2013)

Attendance has been high at the roundtables, with as many as “67 SPN leaders” attending the event in Denver in September 2014. The agenda for that meeting details presentations from a number of fossil fuel lovers including: Artic Power, Consumer Energy Alliance, Vital for Colorado, Devon Energy, GOPAC (a political action committee that backs and trains Republican candidates), and Freedom Partners. Freedom Partners, a funding conduit for the billionaire Koch brothers, delivered a talk on “Messaging and State Action.” (Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy GPR, November 11, 2014)

Bradley Grantees Worked Together to Defeat Local Regulations on Fracking in Colorado

In 2014, the Independence Institute and Berman’s Big Green Radicals worked in lockstep in Colorado to defeat local fracking bans, such as the one that passed by ballot measure in Longmont in November of 2013. A 2015 Bradley backgrounder on the Independence Institute praises the anti-fracking work of Independence Institute’s Energy Policy Center, saying, “It has also been a key coalition partner in the movement to stop local and statewide bans on hydraulic fracturing. Last year, current Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper crafted a delicately balanced compromise on local control of oil and gas drilling that removed all initiatives on the issue from the state ballot.”

Berman’s Big Green Radicals rolled out an attack campaign to discredit anti-fracking efforts in the state in May of 2014. Big Green Radicals asserted that “extreme groups, mostly based far from Colorado in San Francisco, New York, or Washington DC, are spending millions and spreading their anti-science message to scare voters into approving ballot measures in November to send the oil and gas industry (and the jobs and affordable energy it provides) packing from the Centennial State.”

The efforts by these two groups were successful in overturning local fracking bans. Bradley agreed and decreased its funding recommendation for EPC to $25,000 in 2016, saying, “it is unlikely that there will be any significant developments for EPC in the upcoming months, and therefore staff believes this reduced award is important.”

It is uncertain where the next battleground for energy development will be for Bradley, but the documents demonstrate that they have the funds to bankroll infrastructure in place to discredit climate science and smear the opposition.

Other Notable Bradley Grants

Other significant Bradley grants to support fossil fuel development or dispute climate science in recent years include:

  • $150,000 to Opportunity Ohio for “program activities.” (2016)
  • $100,000 to Energy and Environment Legal Institute for “transparency practice general.” (2016)
  • $20,000 to Foundation for Research on Economics & the Environment for “general operations.” (2016)
  • $200,000 to Competitive Enterprise Institute for “general operations” and “litigation.” (2013, 2015)
  • $100,000 to The Sand County Foundation for “energy resource development.” (2014)
  • $100,000 to National Center for Policy Analysis for “general operations.” (2014)
  • $20,000 to Foundation for Research on Economics & the Environment for “general operations.” (2014)

The post Bradley Foundation Funds Web of Climate Change Deniers appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Armenian Youth End Soviet-Era Inertia in Velvet Revolution

Fri, 07/13/2018 - 14:26

It is a rare moment for Armenia: There is a resurgence of optimism, in no small part, because of the country’s youth.

This past April and May, it was the youth, under the leadership of opposition leader and journalist Nikol Pashinyan, who organized the country’s Velvet Revolution. The movement developed in response to President Serzh Sargsyan’s announcement that he would seek a third consecutive term as the most powerful figure in Armenia. Hundreds of thousands of citizens gathered in the capital’s Republic Square, some having walked for hours from neighboring rural towns to participate.

The protests began unassumingly. Even as sizable crowds took to the streets, there still remained widespread disbelief that Sargsyan would carry through on appointing himself prime minister after having already served two presidential terms. Demonstrations began more as a fervent reaction to the audacity of the regime’s move to maintain power by giving the role of prime minister new authority while disempowering the role of president. In the beginning, protesters didn’t even believe that forcing Sargsyan to resign was possible.

The country had endured dishonest presidential elections in the past, and Sargsyan’s announcement to transition presidential powers to the role of prime minister seemed only part of a longstanding history of corruption.

Under Sargsyan, the country suffered “major impediments to the economy,” says Khatchig Mouradian, a lecturer in Middle Eastern, South Asian and African studies at Columbia University. Another seven years under Sargsyan’s rule as prime minister would have further hampered economic growth, as monopolies would have continued to prevail under an oligarchic system.

Moreover, “the mood in the country would have continued to be one of resignation, pessimism and apathy,” says Mouradian. “People would have continued voting with their feet — by emigrating. The snail’s pace at which reforms were being implemented had done little to alleviate the people’s grievances. A reboot seemed essential, yet far out of reach.”

In early April, Sargsyan officially became prime minister, and the opposition movement gained new urgency. Quickly, protesters strategized. Demonstrations would occur during designated hours in the day, with times and locations announced over social media well in advance. Protesters would also avoid inciting police, who have, in the past, exerted force on crowds after sundown. Above all, protesters would preserve peace.

“No one predicted this outpouring of popular support, let alone calculated it,” says Mouradian. “History is often made through an amalgamation of contingencies, circumstance, the rapid seizure of opportunities and tactical decisions that determine the fate of a grand strategy. The Velvet Revolution was a successful, bloodless regime change because of the unflinching will of its leader, the sustained galvanization of the youth and the realization of the ruling Republican Party that a violent crackdown would not only be futile, but detrimental to the country.”

The youth had learned from prior iterations of protests in their country. Their parents and grandparents can still recall how, in 1988, they had gathered in Republic Square, a similar scene of thousands, then protesting the loss of the autonomous region, Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan. (A referendum held by a regional government of Nagorno-Karabakh had shown overwhelming support to unite with Armenia; however, the governments of Azerbaijan and the Soviet Union refused to recognize these results.) In 1988, however, protests only persisted for a week before Soviet tanks and the rumor of snipers disbanded crowds. Armenia would remain under the Soviet Union until 1991.

“It is important to emphasize that these changes did not occur overnight,” says Mouradian. “Civil society in Armenia has mobilized successfully on specific issues in the past, and there have been political leaders who have galvanized thousands yet failed to achieve regime change. These past experiences paved the way for the Velvet Revolution.”

It’s these past experiences that have cultivated an Armenian youth today who are unafraid. They are the first generation to grow up in an independent state, outside of Soviet influences. “For some of them, stories from that era seem like tales, why we would ever live behind the iron curtain,” says Aram Gyumishyan, former deputy director of the TUMO Center for Creative Technologies in Yerevan and a graphic designer. In the early years of Armenia’s independence, the gate to freedom had been opened, says Gyumishyan, but only partially.

Government officials remained wary of what complete freedom would entail. As a result, freedom persisted in a liminal space — somewhere between looking back at Soviet tactics of strongman leadership and giving more of a substantial voice to its people. This created a dissonance for youth who had only known this partial freedom but had never experienced the movement away from Soviet rule firsthand. Incited by Sargsyan’s particular actions, the youths’ demand for greater transparency and accountability speak to a larger desire to redress systemic unfairness on the executive and judicial levels.

“The biggest problem in Armenia is not only economic, but one related to justice,” says Gyumishyan. “When everyone is fair before the law, people will become tolerant and even thrive. From the leader to the end. Trust — this was missing, and it’s missing in most post-Soviet countries.”

After nearly two weeks of consistent protests, Sargsyan resigned as prime minister in late April, saying,” Nikol Pashinyan was right. I was wrong. There are a few solutions to the current situation, but I am not one of them.” What the youth had accomplished was not an isolated victory, but the counteraction of Soviet-era inertia.

“The Velvet Revolution touched all generations,” says Gyumishyan. In the last two months, he continued, people’s “ownership over their country is stronger.” His only hope is that “it’s a real [lasting change]” and that Pashinyan remains the voice of the people.

“Pashinyan is under tremendous pressure to deliver on a number of fronts within a short period of time,” says Mouradian. Abroad, one of Pashinyan’s priorities is to assure that Yerevan will maintain its close ties with Russia as well as further develop relations with Europe. Moreover, Yerevan’s international alliances will remain as strong as they had been prior to the revolution. Domestically, “Pashinyan faces the difficult but necessary challenge of uprooting corruption and unshackling the economy from the grip of the oligarchy — all the while charting a path towards economic growth,” Mouradian continues. It is imperative that Pashinyan encourages a meaningful engagement of the Armenian diaspora. Not only is the actualization of the “New Armenia” yet another challenge, Mouradian says, it is also an exciting opportunity.

It’s “not easy to move a country,” Gyumishyan says. Critical to the revolution’s success was the absence of external influences. This was a movement driven entirely from inside the country, by the willingness of its own people. Mouradian echoes a similar sentiment, saying, “It is important to note that the Velvet Revolution was an indigenous movement that channeled the aspirations of the Armenian people and not the product of direct foreign intervention.”

Of course, the possibility of foreign intervention remains a real concern in the wake of the Velvet Revolution. Moscow had expressed initial unease, which “stems from its concerns about maintaining Armenia within Russia’s sphere of influence,” says Mouradian. “Yet Moscow seems to be cautiously accepting the new reality on the ground — and Pashinyan’s reassurances have been crucial in this regard.” Azerbaijan is also “keenly invested in Armenia’s politics, and would seize any opportunity to resume hostilities with Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, should it sense an opportunity.”

The almost inconceivable achievement of Armenia’s Velvet Revolution also demands the question of whether a similar movement may be accomplished in other post-Soviet states. “Armenia seems to be an outlier in the region,” says Mouradian. “While its neighbors are becoming less free, and strongmen are concentrating power into their hands (the recent presidential election in Turkey is a case in point), Armenia has moved in recent months from a presidential to parliamentary system, and the Velvet Revolution has infused Armenia’s democracy with a much-needed breath of fresh air.”

Continuing, Mouradian says, “Although every country has its particularities, the protests in Armenia stand as a compelling example of the power of peaceful protests to transform societies and institute regime change.”

The main reason for the Velvet Revolution’s success, Gyumishyan says, was a shared desire for equality that surpassed other political differences. Even those with Soviet nostalgia, those who miss the sense of security that came from regular paychecks and the image of a fearless leader, even this class had supported the youth, says Gyumishyan. For “even they desire equality.”

Today’s Armenia is not even the Armenia of just three months ago. The country has awakened to a new level of political consciousness and witnessed the change that their own people have effected.

The post Armenian Youth End Soviet-Era Inertia in Velvet Revolution appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

As Trump Runs Wild in Brussels, GOP Senators Start to Back Away

Thu, 07/12/2018 - 15:35

In anticipation of Donald Trump’s Global Chaos Tour a couple of days ago I told everyone to get ready, because it was going to be wild. Upon his arrival in Brussels for the annual NATO meeting, the president opened the show with a fusillade of insults toward America’s allies, a grand display of ignorance on every key issue and a total disregard for history, diplomacy or the national security of the United States. And then it got really crazy.

He started off at a morning breakfast photo-op on Wednesday with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and members of their staffs. Trump proceeded to whine, complain and caterwaul once again about how the NATO countries aren’t contributing enough money to what he still portrays as some common NATO piggy bank and implied that they owe the US for overdue payments, which is simply daft. But he made big news when he claimed that Germany is “totally controlled by Russia,” which he apparently believes means that Chancellor Angela Merkel is Vladimir Putin’s puppet.

He based this upon a bogus claim that Germany gives vast sums of money to Russia in exchange for 70 percent of its energy and therefore, they are a “captive of Russia” and are the ones betraying the NATO charter. (As usual, he was wrong on the facts. Germany gets about 9 percent of its energy from natural gas, which is the energy in question. About 70 percent of that comes from Russia.)

When Stoltenberg tried to explain that NATO was not about trade, Trump replied:

How can you be together when a country is getting its energy from the person you want protection against or from the group that you want protection against? I think it is a very bad thing for NATO and I don’t think it should have happened and I think we have to talk to Germany about it.

The fact is that of course NATO countries trade with Russia. So does America. But there’s little point in trying to make sense of what he was saying because he clearly had no idea himself.

Later, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders released a statement saying that that instead of the 2 percent of GDP that the NATO countries have agreed to budget for military spending by 2024, Trump is now demanding that they double that to 4 percent. Shortly thereafter, Trump tweeted this, which slightly walked back his imperious demand:

What good is NATO if Germany is paying Russia billions of dollars for gas and energy? Why are there only 5 out of 29 countries that have met their commitment? The U.S. is paying for Europe’s protection, then loses billions on Trade. Must pay 2% of GDP IMMEDIATELY, not by 2025.

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 11, 2018

Before leaving Brussels, Trump held an unscheduled press conference on Thursday, during which he claimed that all NATO member nations had promised to “substantially up their commitment” to defense spending after he had told them he was “extremely unhappy.” As the Washington Post drily reported, “It was not immediately clear what specific new commitments had been made.”

No one quite understands why the president is so intent upon everyone arming themselves to the teeth, but we know it isn’t because he wants America to cut back. He wants to increase US defense spending as well. Evidently, he wants everyone putting vast amounts of resources into a global war machine. What could go wrong?

The truth is that this is completely unrealistic. So the more obvious explanation is that Trump is seeking to break up the NATO alliance the same way he tore up the Paris climate accords and the Iran nuclear deal. He also plans to abrogate NAFTA, withdraw from the WTO and who knows what else. ( He says right in that tweet: “What good is NATO …?”)

At least that was how Russian state TV saw it:

#Russia‘s state TV:
Tatyana Parkhalina:
“I never thought I’d live to see this—neither the USSR nor Russia, who tried many times to drive the wedge between transatlantic allies, but Washington is doing everything to break down the foundations of transatlantic alliance & unity.”©️ pic.twitter.com/AlG3QytN8S

— Julia Davis (@JuliaDavisNews) July 11, 2018

Perhaps that’s one of Trump’s “deliverables” for his upcoming summit with Putin in Helsinki.

Meanwhile, back at home there was some highly unusual activity in Congress. You may recall that a delegation of Republican senators visited Moscow over the July 4 holiday and were quoted as being extremely accommodating, if not downright servile, to their hosts. The leader of the delegation, Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said they were there to “strive for a better relationship, not accuse Russia of this or that or so forth.” Others were even more generous:

Sen. Ron Johnson reportedly said that Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election “is not the greatest threat to our Democracy,” after a group of Republican lawmakers returned from a trip to Moscow. pic.twitter.com/VXk3rkWHCP

— MSNBC (@MSNBC) July 12, 2018

Someone must have pointed out that they had come off as useful idiots because according to the Daily Beast, several senators who were there are now saying that the meetings were confrontational and tense, with the Russians leaning heavily on the senators on the issue of sanctions, while insisting that the election interference never happened.

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said the Russians had been under the impression that only Democrats believed that Russia had been involved. It’s not hard to understand why they would have made that assumption. This is the first time we’ve seen any Republican elected officials, beyond a handful of retiring senators, give even the slightest indication that they are concerned about it.

Somewhat surprisingly, both the House and the Senate passed nearly unanimous bipartisan resolutions affirming support for NATO. They don’t actually mean anything and they won’t do anything serious to restrain Trump, but it’s possible that Republicans making some slight attempt to tell the world that Trump’s bellicose comments are not endorsed by his party will provide some reassurance.

That wasn’t all. The Senate also voted 88-11 for a non-binding resolution to stop Trump from using national security as a rationale for imposing tariffs willy-nilly when he wakes up on the wrong side of the bed in the morning. Analysts are saying it was a test vote to see if they can override a veto. It’s unclear how many Republicans would hang tough if Trump actually bothers to veto the bill.

Finally, a bipartisan group of senators has introduced a resolution condemning the Russian incursion in Crimea and calling on the Trump administration not to recognize Russia’s land grab. That too will not be binding, but its timing just before the summit with Putin is not an accident.

Perhaps this is all just CYA behavior for Republicans who can see the handwriting on the wall in a tough election season. Or maybe they only manage to find their lost intestinal fortitude when the president is out of town. But it’s also possible that Trump is starting to scare some of them as much as he’s scaring the rest of the planet.

This NATO debacle was just the opening act of the Global Chaos Tour. Now he’s off to London, where he’ll meet the queen, encounter large protests and be followed around by a gigantic “Baby Trump” blimp. That should be highly entertaining. It’s when Vladimir Putin joins him on stage for the big finale in Helsinki that we’ll see the real pyrotechnics.

The post As Trump Runs Wild in Brussels, GOP Senators Start to Back Away appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

Protesters Hear Echoes of the Past in Germany’s New Police Laws

Thu, 07/12/2018 - 15:05

Legal moves to increase police powers in the name of fighting terrorism are hardly new territory for Europe. The UK’s 2016 Investigatory Powers Act is one recent example; Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 antiterrorism law, which ended France’s state of emergency by writing many of its provisions permanently into law, is another. But when Germany starts granting its police sweeping new powers of surveillance, arrest and detention, the symbolic and constitutional implications are extremely concerning.

Region by Region

That is precisely what is currently happening, although Germany’s federal structure disguises the fact. Of the sixteen states that make up the Federal Republic of Germany, only one (Thüringen) has not announced any plans to tighten its police laws. In May, 30,000 people took to the streets of Munich to protest a new law giving the Bavarian police unprecedented powers of surveillance, undercover policing and – most eyecatchingly – the right to carry hand-grenades. To no avail: the law was passed by the CSU majority in the Bavarian parliament: the same majority that in recent weeks threatened to unilaterally instruct the police to defy federal government policy and turn away refugees at the Austrian border.

This Saturday, an estimated 20,000 demonstrators marched in Düsseldorf to protest a similar piece of police legislation in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), Germany’s most populous federal state.

The Düsseldorf protest was notable for its diversity: unions, civil liberty groups and antifascists marched alongside football fans, lawyers and environmentalists. Placards from all corners of the spectrum displayed inscriptions referring to the lessons of Germany’s past – many of them referencing 1933, the year that the Gestapo (Secret State Police) was formed under the Nazis.

“We in Germany know full well what happens when a state takes complete control,” explains Nils Jansen, the mobilisation’s youthful spokesperson: “that’s why we’re saying now that it must never happen again.”

As in Bavaria, the crux of the new law hinges around the term ‘impending danger’. This legalistic formulation enables the police to act against an individual without having to produce concrete grounds for suspicion, meaning, Jansen argues, that “everyone” could potentially be a target: “strike organisers, demonstrators, whistleblowers, football fans, someone who clicks on the wrong website or happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – they could all end up in the police’s sights”. At the Düsseldorf demonstration it’s a message that seems to have resonated with everyone from the digital activists wanting the police to “stay out of our smartphones” to the football fans singing about just “wanting to get to the stadium in peace”.

Alongside the problematic concept of “impending danger”, the NRW police law introduces a whole suite of restrictive policing measures such as the use of tasers as service weapons, dragnet controls such as stop and search, increased video surveillance of public spaces, telephone hacking and digital data collection, temporary injunctions limiting a suspect’s right to freedom of assembly and freedom of association, electronic tagging and preventative custody of up to a month on suspicion of terrorism or seven days for the purposes of identification.

Free Citizens

Christian Mertens is a Cologne-based lawyer whose clients include environmental activists engaged in an ongoing struggle to protect the Hambach Forest, an area of ancient woodland caught in the path of energy giant RWE’s mammoth open-cast mining operation. “It is clear,” he says, “that there has been a conscious political decision to roll out this legislation region by region.”

Mertens sees environmental activists as being specifically targeted by the new law, claiming that the provision for seven day preventive custody for identification purposes is a direct response to tactics employed during recent anti-coal actions: “it’s not about ascertaining identity: they know who these people are! They do it as a punishment, or as a way of educating them. It’s like a kick in the backside to show them that they’re doing things the wrong way, and ninety nine per cent of the time it’s directed against environmental activists.” It is, Mertens speculates, likely to be “no accident” that the Kerpen police force, tasked with policing protest actions in and around the Hambach Forest, will be amongst the first to participate in a taser trial.

Mertens’ concerns are constitutional as well as practical. The German Constitution was signed into being in 1949, a document designed to set out the values and mechanisms of a Germany in which the horrors of the Nazi era could never be repeated. One of the values or ‘basic rights’ is privacy of correspondence and telecommunications: a fact which is likely to prove key should the law be taken before the federal constitutional court.

One of the mechanisms is the so-called “Trennungsgebot” or “separation order” which establishes a clear division between the executive powers of the police, and the surveillance powers of the federal intelligence agency. The hollowing out of this constitutional firewall represents a weakening of a legal structure born directly out of the German experience of state fascism. “The free citizen”, says Mertens, “should be allowed to do anything, as long as it’s not explicitly forbidden. The police should be allowed to do nothing, so long as it’s not explicitly allowed.”

Imprisoning the Innocent

NRW’s hardline Minister of the Interior, Herbert Reul, sees things differently: “where there’s an impending danger of terrorism, it’s constitutionally possible to give the police increased scope of action,” he told the Rheinische Post, “now we’re saying: with other crimes too, we need to be able to act before they can take place.” It’s a claim he has repeated on camera, saying that it is “better to lock up one innocent person, than risk the lives of many more.”

Lawyer Christian Mertens has a clear counter to that argument: “in the legal profession we have the saying: ‘better to let one hundred people go free, than imprison one single innocent’”. Verena Schäffer, spokesperson for the regional Green Party faction, puts it even more sharply: “Interior Minister Reul is himself a risk to freedom and to our constitutionally chartered rights.”

NRW, however, is not Bavaria. Interior Minister Reul does not enjoy the support of a one party majority in the regional parliament. Instead, the CDU is part of a slim-majority coalition with the (economically) liberal FDP, who, under the growing wave of public pressure, have already voiced significant enough concerns to result in the CDU abandoning its previous plans to push the law through before the summer recess.

There is, in other words, still all to play for and the consequences of Saturday’s showdown in Düsseldorf will reach far beyond the state of NRW. “The resistance”, says Nils Jansen of the No Police Law Alliance, “doesn’t stop here – it’s only just beginning”.

The post Protesters Hear Echoes of the Past in Germany’s New Police Laws appeared first on Truthout.

Categories: News

The High School Massacres Are Just the Tip of the Iceberg Among Youth Gun Deaths

Thu, 07/12/2018 - 15:02
The gun massacres at mostly white high schools are the ones that make the news for days. There is the usual search for motive, the formulaic hand-wringing and the inevitable presentation of arguments between pro-gun and anti-gun forces. However, as journalist Gary Younge reveals in Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives, the greatest loss of life by guns among young people occurs every day throughout the country in less sensational settings. Gary Younge gives a name, a life and a background to 10 young people killed by gunfire, who, in general, died without the media adequately recognizing their passing. In the following afterword to his book, Younge vents his rage at the “business-as-usual” gun deaths among young people in the United States.

At 11:15 a.m. on Sunday November 24, Cleveland police rushed to the 5500 block of Linton Avenue, where they found sixteen year-old Darnell Jones shot in the neck. Paramedics took him to the MetroHealth Medical Center, where he later died. There was no profile of who he was or wanted to be; no interviews with his parents. Beyond official records there is no further evidence that he was ever on the planet. And so it goes on. Another twenty-four hours and the first of yet another slew of slain children whose stories will not be told and whose passing will provoke no outrage.

Researching and writing this book has made me want to scream. I’ve wanted to scream at Edwin and Brandon that guns are not toys, at Jerry to either take the kids on his trucking run or stay home, at Stanley to quit hanging on the corner, at Gustin to watch who he hangs out with, and at Tyshon’s mother to move. I’ve wanted to scream at journalists and police to treat these deaths as though the lives mattered.

But more than its making me want to scream at anyone in particular, it has mostly made me want to just howl at the moon. A long, doleful, piercing cry for a wealthy country that could and should do better for its youth and children — for my children — but that appears to have settled, legislatively at least, on a pain threshold that is morally unacceptable.

I want to bay toward the heavens, because while kids like those featured in this book keep dying, the political class refuses to do not only everything in its power but anything at all to minimize the risks for the kids who will be shot dead today or tomorrow.

As I explained at the outset, this is not a book about gun control. The challenges facing the people profiled in this book are more thorny and knotted than that. Poverty and inequality foster desperation; segregation is a serious barrier to empathy. The more likely you are to be wealthy or white, the less likely you are to believe that these children could be your children. Statistically that is true, but the fact remains that they are somebody’s children, and those parents grieve like everybody else.

Better education, youth services, jobs that pay a living wage, mental health services, trauma counseling, a fair criminal justice system — in short, more opportunity, less despair — would contribute to the climate where such deaths were less likely.

You can’t legislate for common sense and human decency. Neither poverty nor racism puts a gun in anyone’s hand, let alone tells them to fire it. But they are a starting point for the conditions of alienation, anomie, and ambivalence in which a gun might be used and some gun deaths ignored. People have to take personal responsibility for what they do and live with the consequences. But societies have to take collective responsibility for what they do and live with the consequences, too.

As I argued in the introduction, this is a book about what happens when you don’t have gun control. Americans are no more inherently violent than anybody else. What makes its society more deadly is the widespread availability of firearms. Every country has its problems, unique to its own history and culture. But in no other Western society would this book be possible.

To defend this reality by way of the Second Amendment to the Constitution has about the same relevance as seeking to understand the roots of modern terrorism — either to condemn or to condone it — through readings of the Koran. To base an argument on ancient texts is to effectively abdicate your responsibility to understand the present by offloading it onto those who are now dead. It denies not only the possibility of new interpretations and solutions but the necessity for them.

None of the family members I spoke to raised the Second Amendment one way or the other. Almost all believed guns were too readily available; none believed there was anything that could be done about it. Brilliant community groups, often operating on a shoestring, like Mario’s in Charlotte, exist across the country and campaign tirelessly against gun violence or for commonsense gun legislation, or both. But those who concentrate on protecting “babes” and “angels” from felons and gangsters stand little chance of finding roots in the very communities where the problems are most acute. It would appear that, of all the parents who lost children that day, only Nicole, judging by her later Facebook postings (including a spoof children’s book called The Gun That Went Around Killing Children All By Itself ), seems to be engaged in some kind of advocacy around the issue. But even she clearly finds the broader conversation about gun control too toxic to engage with. Alongside portraits of hundreds of children shot dead since Sandy Hook, which included a photo of Jaiden, she wrote:

Jaiden was one of the hundreds of children under the age of 12 killed by gun violence in the one year after the Sandy Hook massacre….

As the 3rd anniversary approaches for Sandy Hook, there is going to be news coverage, memorials and articles about gun control etc — I don’t want to get into a debate about gun control or violence or mental health problems but what I would like is to ask each of you to take a moment and look at these beautiful gorgeous children and remember them and their families during this holiday season in addition to all those killed at Sandy Hook Elementary.

Otherwise, it’s as though each death took place in helpless, hopeless isolation: a private, discrete tragedy complete unto itself. The broader context of race and poverty was clear to many. But when I told them of other families that had lost children that day, all seemed genuinely shocked that their grief overlapped in real time with that of others. It’s as though they had lost a loved one in a war without any clear purpose, end, or enemy — a war they could do nothing about; a war they long knew existed but hoped by luck, judgment, discipline, and foresight that they might be able to protect their kids from; a war that is generally acknowledged in the abstract but rarely specifically addressed in the concrete. A war that took their children but offered them no allies or community in their grief. A war they knew was taking place elsewhere but experienced alone, as though it were happening only to them — when in fact it was happening to America. Every day.

The post The High School Massacres Are Just the Tip of the Iceberg Among Youth Gun Deaths appeared first on Truthout.

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