Independent Media Institute

Why America needs to go big on infrastructure

Chris Sova and his coworkers at Bay County Medical Care Facility endured years of staffing shortages before COVID-19 made a grim situation even worse.

Workers sacrificed vacations and other personal time to keep the Essexville, Michigan, facility operating as patients and staff members fell ill to the coronavirus and management struggled to recruit reinforcements.

Just like a road can be patched only so many times before falling apart, America's battered health care system and other long-neglected infrastructure can no longer continue functioning with Band-Aids and stopgap fixes.

That's why President Joe Biden's $2 trillion American Jobs Plan not only earmarks money for crumbling highways and bridges but also makes much-needed investments in school buildings, education and training, hospitals and airports, water systems, utilities, broadband, manufacturing facilities and health care services that are strained to the breaking point.

All these sectors require attention now because they work together like cement to keep society functioning.

"If you don't have healthy people, you don't need roads," remarked Sova, a licensed practical nurse, third-generation nursing home worker and unit president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 15301-1.

The pandemic underscored America's need both to make major investments in infrastructure and to take the sweeping, holistic approach that Biden laid out.

For example, it's crucial to revitalize manufacturing supply chains to ensure the nation can produce sufficient supplies of face masks and other critical items, upgrade transportation systems to speedily move goods around the country, modernize school facilities to produce globally competitive citizens and build the communications networks that enable Americans to learn and work from anywhere.

And the pandemic, which so far has claimed more than 564,000 lives and infected more than 31 million people in the United States, showed the importance not only of providing affordable health insurance but also of creating a more robust health care system with the capacity to meet Americans' needs.

"It's collapsing right now," Sova said of the nation's health care infrastructure.

He noted that facilities and providers around the country need higher Medicaid reimbursement rates so they can recruit adequate numbers of workers, provide decent wages and benefits, combat understaffing, improve workplace safety, offer opportunities for advancement and put an end to the grueling overtime that's dangerous for both caregivers and the people they serve.

While health care workers received wide praise for their professionalism during the pandemic, the reality is that, even in normal times, they're fighting an uphill battle to ensure patients receive top-level care. It's essential to make improvements now because retiring waves of baby boomers will put more pressure on the system, increasing the risk of catastrophic failures.

"Pizzas are nice, but that's not what we need," Sova said, referring to gifts of food that workers at his facility and other nursing homes received for their heroic efforts during the pandemic. "We need money. We need funding. We need resources."

Other kinds of infrastructure are also in dire straits.

The nation's drinking water systems struggle with lead contamination and rely on pipes so old that, on average, one springs a leak every two minutes. Malfunctioning locks and dams create juggernauts on inland waterways, costing U.S. industry about $44 million in delays every year. Nearly half of all Americans have no access to public transit, and those who do often have to travel on aging vehicles and rickety tracks.

A smoothly functioning society cannot afford any of this. Because of its wide-ranging investments, the American Jobs Plan will modernize the country, prepare it for the next crisis and provide work to millions of Americans hurt by the COVID-19 recession.

But the plan also provides a historic opportunity to dream big and rebuild better, to ensure a more equitable distribution of the nation's resources and create a society that works for everyone.

That's why Americans already support every major facet of the infrastructure program, with some parts—such as renovating veterans' hospitals, extending broadband, improving health care and establishing new job training programs—scoring approval ratings of 70 percent or even higher. As Biden travels the country to explain his vision, he's finding that people from all backgrounds want a stronger, more tightly knit America.

And so far, Biden revealed only half of his plan. He's scheduled to roll out the remaining portions—to include additional investments in health care and child care, among other initiatives—in coming weeks.

"I think he's absolutely on the right track," said Joel Buchanan, a longtime USW member from Pueblo, Colorado, and the vice president of Chapter 38-3 of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR). "In my area, we will benefit from almost every aspect of his infrastructure plan."

Local mills will profit from road and bridge projects, Buchanan noted. Residents in outlying areas will welcome better access to broadband, he added, while disadvantaged schools need upgraded facilities, and Pueblo area retirees, many of whom lost family-sustaining manufacturing jobs many years ago, desperately hope for better access to health care.

"We're investing in America and American workers and American society," Buchanan said of the infrastructure program. "We're building for the future. I think people are starting to realize we can make some great change happen."

Because he holds his neighbors' lives in his hands, Sova always considered health care to be part of the nation's infrastructure.

He wants more Americans to see his work in the same light—and to realize the potential the nation has right now to make transformational, stem-to-stern changes that will help them "live their lives better."

"Everything's codependent," he said. "You need healthy workers. You need them to build roads. You need roads to provide access to health care."

Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Trump launches bizarre attack over vaccine pause — as the right wing moves to weaponize doubt

News that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine can cause blood clots in about one in 1 million women under 50 has exploded across the social media world. Republicans, along with countries that hate America, are smiling.

A fellow who runs a couple of communities on a popular social media site called into my program yesterday saying that the vaccine news had caused an "absolute explosion" of vaccine denialism. People who'd been on the fence are now outright opposed to getting the jab.

And Trump and the GOP are making hay with the announcement.

Discouraging Americans from getting vaccinated, and thus preventing President Joe Biden from getting the economy back on track, has been the first order of business for the GOP ever since Trump lost the election.

It is now their primary Electoral Strategy going into 2022 and 2024.

And, if the spam I'm seeing in my inbox and the trolls I'm seeing on social media are any indication, several countries that would like to see America fail are also enthusiastically encouraging Americans not to get vaccinated.

Tucker Carlson and Fox News are also pushing the "uncertainty, be careful!" meme.

Trump, of course, tripled down on the news.

He floated a bizarre conspiracy theory of his own, that he had promoted back in December as well.

Feigning outrage and using it to trash our new president, Trump wrote: "The Biden Administration did a terrible disservice to people throughout the world by allowing the FDA and CDC to call a 'pause' in the use of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine."

This is the same Donald Trump who, along with his wife, were both vaccinated while he was still president but went out of his way to keep it secret until long after he had left the White House.

He's all about sabotaging Joe Biden. There's probably nobody in the world Trump hates more, at this moment, than the guy who beat him badly in 2020. And he partially blames Pfizer.

"Remember," Trump wrote yesterday, "it was the FDA working with Pfizer, who announced the vaccine approval two days after the 2020 presidential election. They didn't like me very much…"

Warning his followers, once again, not to trust the American government, he added that the FDA "has to be controlled" particularly because of the "long time bureaucrats within."

If you want to see what the US will look like if Trump and the GOP prevail and create widespread vaccine denialism and hesitancy, just look at Michigan right now. The British variant is ripping through that state, throwing huge numbers of people under 40 into hospitals.

This is exactly what Republicans want.

It's the reason why the Republicans who control the Michigan House and Senate forced through legislation over Governor Whitmer's unsuccessful veto requiring the state's website to point out that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was tested on fetal stem cells.

Now another whole cohort of Americans are all hysterical about "baby parts" in their vaccines (they're not) and vaccine compliance is starting to collapse in Michigan.

Sabatoge that Democratic governor!

It's also why about half of all the Republicans in the US Congress refuse to disclose whether they have been vaccinated, and Senators Paul and Johnson openly proclaim that they won't take a vaccine.

It has nothing to do with "freedom." It's all about sabotaging the Biden administration. And doing the same to any state with a Democratic governor.

Many Americans were shocked when they realized that Donald Trump's deadly push to "open the economy" in September and October was just to try to get the economic numbers up so he could win reelection.

They're even more dismayed now, learning that Trump and the GOP are actively working to sabotage any effort to get the pandemic under control so Democrats will lose next year's elections and in 2024.

Trump's attempt to overturn the 2020 election, and his encouragement of the January 6 insurrection against our republic, were both treasonous and seditionist. He has demonstrated beyond any doubt that he is a traitor to our ideals and our nation.

But encouraging the deaths of hundreds of thousands more Americans is taking treason and sabatoge to a whole new level.

It took our media about three years to figure out and explicitly point out that Donald Trump was intent on destroying democracy in America. It took them more than two years to use the word "lies" to describe his…lies.

As Americans today are dying all across our country because of the vaccine skepticism promoted by Trump and the GOP, it's more important than ever that all of us, including our media, call this what it is.

American genocide for political purposes. Treason.

Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and the author of The Hidden History of American Oligarchy and more than 30 other books in print. He is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute and his writings are archived at hartmannreport.com.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Why Republicans are betting the farm on attacking transgender people

The GOP's latest culture war is focused squarely on the nation's transgender community, specifically transgender youth. It isn't a new war, simply a new front in an old war that can be traced back to the famed "bathroom bills" from some years ago that spread across dozens of states. Those bills were introduced in tandem with former President Donald Trump's targeted federal government-led attacks that included the overturning of anti-discrimination statutes protecting trans people and an outright transgender ban in the U.S. military.

Now, in the wake of Trump's humiliating electoral loss, Republicans have accelerated the state-level attacks to a breathtaking level. In just the first three months of 2021, GOP-led state legislatures introduced more billsaimed at transgender people, especially youth, than they did over the entire previous year. There are now more than 80 bills introduced this year alone that, according to Alphonso David, president of the Human Rights Campaign, "are not addressing any real problem, and they're not being requested by constituents. Rather, this effort is being driven by national far-right organizations attempting to score political points by sowing fear and hate."

I recently spoke with Jules Gill-Peterson, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh and the author of the award-winning book Histories of the Transgender Child, in an interview, and she echoed this claim, saying, "A lot of authoritarian political movements are using trans people as their scapegoats." She called the latest wave of anti-trans legislation "an unprecedented assault in terms of just the magnitude of the bills and the severity of what they propose to do in terms of criminalizing basic access to health care and equal access to education."

She explained that "due to perhaps their general political incompetency, a lot of [Trump's attacks on transgender people] didn't really end up making it into practice." However, "on the state level, as is often the case, the GOP is much more successful at pursuing an anti-trans agenda than they ever are at the federal level." Gill-Peterson sees this as a culmination of efforts that can be traced back to North Carolina's 2016 passage of a bill banning transgender people from using facilities of the gender they identify with.

On April 5, North Carolina Republicans continued what they began five years ago, introducing a bill called the "Youth Health Protection Act," which blocks transgender minors from accessing the health care they need upon deciding to transition. Just as the GOP has often couched its attacks on communities under the guise of protecting them (think of anti-abortion legislation presented as "fetal personhood" bills), this bill, like several others in states like Arkansas, purports to protect trans youth.

Republicans also claim they want to protect "fair competition," in the words of Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, by banning transgender kids from sports. Lee, along with the governors of Arkansas and Mississippi, signed bills into law this year banning trans youth from playing sports in school. These transphobic bills are based on a theory that transgender kids, especially girls, have an unfair biological advantage over non-transgender girls.

Just as the GOP's stated war on voter fraud is based on an imagined assault on the nation's democracy in order to disguise the real war on voting, the conservative party's stated reason for going after transgender children's access to health care or participation in sports is based on an imagined crisis. Gill-Peterson said, "most of these lawmakers will admit, they've never heard of any issue with transgender participation in sports in their state, and they've never heard of any issue around trans health care in their state, and they don't actually know any trans children."

The GOP's war on voting offers another analog. If the GOP really cared about democracy, they would make voting easier, not harder. Similarly, if the party were truly interested in the safety of girls, it would offer up bills that protect transgender girls in particular, who face very real dangers. Gill-Peterson said, "young trans girls and trans women are extremely vulnerable to sexual harassment and violence because it's not taken seriously." Instead, the bills banning access to health care and sports only fuel greater violence against them. Every year, dozens of trans women are killed, and more transgender people were killed in the U.S. in the first seven months of 2020 than all of the previous year. It's no surprise that the spike in violence has coincided with legislative attempts to dehumanize the community.

Just as with anti-voter and anti-abortion bills, the GOP's tactic of pursuing transphobic legislation involves wasting legislative time and money by passing clearly unconstitutional bills that are invariably legally challenged, remain tied up in the courts for years and ultimately end up at the Supreme Court. Last summer, justices ruled against an attempt to legalize workplace discrimination against transgender employees, and then in the winter, they left in place a public school's accommodation of transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice.

Whether the GOP wins or loses on this issue in the nation's highest court is almost beside the point because the party's goal is to distract its anxious base from the fact that their leaders do little to nothing about pervasive problems around inequality and depressed wages, a stagnant job market and the ever-rising cost of living.

Moreover, the GOP's anti-trans bills fulfill part of a larger conservative agenda to create evermore exceptions to government-provided services such as health care and education, whittling away at the state's responsibility for resources to be available to all and rights to be respected universally. If hormone treatments, abortions, and medical treatments for immigrants are exceptions to government-provided health care; if public education is for everyone but transgender kids; then those services are weakened in service of libertarian fantasies of how society should function.

How to combat this brutality and inhumanity? Gill-Peterson pointed out, "the folks who are on the same side of this debate as the Republican legislators include a wide swath of extremist groups: white nationalists, anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers, anti-immigrant groups." To meet this threat will require an equally broad coalition of progressives to stand guard against attacks on transgender people.

The state of South Dakota has been a testing ground for state-level legislation aimed at trans rights. Bill after bill has failed in that state, thanks largely to a coalition that has stood firm at every turn to protest them. Alongside transgender activists are parents, teachers, and doctors as well as national organizations like the ACLU and the National Center for Transgender Equality. Having a president like Joe Biden who has reaffirmed the humanity and dignity of transgender people, rather than targeting them for violence as Trump did, is also a huge help. "We need to see trans rights as integral to a broader agenda for democracy, justice, and public good in this country," said Gill-Peterson.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for Allproject at the Independent Media Institute.

Inside the vexed fight over online voting

National disability rights organizations are urging the Senate to revise the massive House-passed election reform bill to allow an internet-based voting option for their constituents, who represent one-sixth of the national electorate, and to recognize online voting as a federally sanctioned and regulated voting technology.

Their concerns and online voting remedy have come into focus in recent months as upwards of 20 organizations representing voters with hearing, visual, cognitive and mobility impairments and sometimes requiring assistive technologies have formed a national coalition to press for more flexible voting options as Congress considers the most sweeping reforms in years.

The push for congressional approval of online voting could pose one of the most significant challenges yet for passage of the Democrat-drafted package. It pits two core constituencies—disability rights groups and cybersecurity advocates—against each other. These two cadres have clashed in the past when disability advocates successfully pressed Congress to spend billions on paperless voting machines in the early 2000s, the very systems that most states replaced after Russian interference in 2016's election due to cybersecurity threats.

"This has been a vexing problem for a long time," said Ion Sancho, who served for 28 years as supervisor of elections of Leon County, Florida, and retired after the 2016 election. "It's been a touchy and difficult issue for elections administrators for as long as I can remember."

The Push for Accessible Voting

The National Coalition for Accessible Voting's concerns begin with the mandate in the For the People Act of 2021 requiring that voters use a paper ballot. For most voters, that means hand-marking a ballot or using a touch screen computer that prints a filled-out ballot. Every poll also has at least one additional console specially designed for people with disabilities, which the disability rights advocates say draws unwanted attention and does not assist all of these voters.

In recent months, as the Democrats' major election reform bill has moved through Congress, the disability rights advocates have supported the bill's broad goals while also sharpening their critique and specifying proposed solutions, including calling for the option to vote online. Initially, their critique focused on the legislation's paper-ballot mandate.

"Paper-based ballot voting options have become the preferred voting system to many who believe mandating the use of paper ballots is necessary to ensure the security of our elections," said a January 29 statement by the National Disability Rights Network and other groups. "However, it must be made abundantly clear, that the ability to privately and independently hand mark, verify, and cast a paper ballot is simply not, and will never be, an option for all voters."

As the Senate Rules Committee began its review of the legislation in March, Curtis L. Decker, the National Disability Rights Network's executive director, wrote to the panel and said that current federal law did not ensure sufficient voting options for Americans with disabilities,—a group that includes "up to 56.7 million people," or "one-sixth of the total American electorate, during the 2020 elections."

"No paper ballot voting system today, ready for widespread use, is fully accessible. Even BMDs [computerized ballot-marking devices] require voters with disabilities to verify and cast a paper-based ballot, which does not ensure a private and independent vote," Decker said. "A fully accessible voting system by Federal law must ensure the voter can receive, mark, verify, and cast the ballot without having to directly visually inspect or handle paper. Most, if not all, market-ready voting systems cannot do this."

The national coalition's remedy is to amend the reform bill to allow people with disabilities—as well as overseas civilians and military personnel (who are covered under a different federal law)—to vote remotely on an accessible device, which means a computer or smartphone. In addition, Congress should include online voting among the voting systems that are federally sanctioned, regulated, studied and funded.

"The option to vote remotely is necessary for some voters with disabilities and improves access for voters to cast their ballot because they do not have to travel to a polling place, which can be a barrier for some voters," the coalition said. "Unfortunately, remote voting is inaccessible when a voter-verified paper ballot is mandatory, even though accessibility is a legal right."

There have been news reports about the difficulties of Democrats potentially breaking rank and threatening the chance to pass the massive election reform bill. However, the emerging demands by disability rights advocates could add a new hurdle. It revives an old divide in election circles, pitting disability advocates against cybersecurity advocates.

Nearly two decades ago, these two factions deeply disagreed over what kind of technology should replace the paper punch cards that led to Florida's presidential election meltdown in 2000. Today, with technologists such as Apple CEO Tim Cook telling the New York Times that people should be able to use their smartphones to vote, the disability advocates are not just seeking an exception from the For the People Act's paper-ballot mandate; they are seeking to prevent Congress from stifling hoped-for innovation—developments that the election world's cybersecurity experts say are not possible with today's internet.

"Understandably, confusion still exists as to why any paper-ballot mandate is harmful to some voters," said Erika Hudson, a National Disability Rights Network policy analyst. "We share with folks all the time that we simply do not know what technology will look like in five, 10 years… If in a couple of years, when experts develop new, more secure, and accessible voting technology, we should not be bound by a paper ballot mandate."

An Old Debate Resurfaces

The disability rights organizations' push for paperless voting is not new. After Florida's 2000 election, where paper punch-card ballots failed to clearly register voter intent and threw the results into disarray—leading the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene—some disability advocates teamed up with a major voting system manufacturer to lobby for paperless voting machines.

Back then, as today, the advocates' priority was using machinery with minimal-to-no assistance, which preserves their voters' privacy, dignity and equality with other voters. The organizations were persuasive in the congressional response to Florida's meltdown. When the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was passed in 2002, it included several billion dollars to help states to acquire all-electronic voting systems, called DREs or direct-recording electronic machines. HAVA also required that all polls had at least one station to assist voters with disabilities, with specialized features to help visually impaired people. For years after HAVA's passage, top-ranking House Democrats like Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer lauded HAVA's benefits for this community.

Typically, voting systems are replaced once a generation. During the HAVA debate and since, computer scientists criticized paperless voting systems as problematic. They largely have been proven right. The DREs offered no way to recover lost votes when memory cards failed. They offered no meaningful way to conduct recounts. Their off-the-shelf parts offered little security protection. This cadre of academic critics, which created the advocacy group Verified Voting, initially called for returning to paper-based voting systems. But neither Congress nor states were willing to spend the billions to do so. That status quo changed in 2016 with Russia's hacking of the Democratic National Committee, penetration into Illinois' state voter registration database and a Florida contractor who programmed voting machines. Suddenly, an insider debate was transformed into a national security threat demanding action.

Even though federal officials have since repeatedly said that no votes were altered in 2016's election, Russia's actions had consequences. They led the federal government to designate voting systems as critical infrastructure. They expanded cybersecurity assistance to help states. And most states installed a new generation of paper ballot-based systems before 2020's elections.

The academics who opposed all-electronic voting systems also turned their attention to online voting, which was drawing venture capitalists' interest. The critics worked with government panels assessing voting system technology and helped draft reports saying that online voting would not be secure for the foreseeable future and should be avoided.

At the same time, however, a handful of state and county governments began working with startups and testing using a smartphone as a ballot-marking device. The first pilots were with military voters and then people with disabilities. Those pilots—in West Virginia, Utah, and elsewhere—involved dozens, then hundreds of voters, not millions. They were well-received by voters and were not hacked.

Still, the opposition to online voting is as fervent as the push for remote voting by the disability rights community. Knowing this history and the emotional stakes of this debate, several longtime members of the cybersecurity cadre did not want to be directly quoted. But one cybersecurity expert said, attesting to how deep-seated this divide is, that online voting can never be secured.

"It's not going to happen in a couple of years. And it's not going to happen in 10 years," the expert said. "We have been saying this for 20 years now, and it's been true all along: if anything, the situation [with online threats] is getting worse, and we have to get that message across. The internet is a more toxic place than it has ever been before."

Republican Support for Online Voting?

Whether online voting can ever be sanctioned by federal law is one question. At the Senate Rules Committee's March 24 hearing, the first Republican witness to testify, West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, began his remarks by touting his state's smartphone pilot for overseas troops, which he later expanded to voters with disabilities.

"My most vehement objection to this [S. 1] is that by prohibiting the electronic transmission of ballots, it strips the most efficient and secure form of voting for our military, the people who put their very lives on the line for our democracy and way of life," Warner said. "When I was deployed, as were my two sons, my two daughters, my two sons-in-law, all of whom served in the U.S. Army… they have had difficulty voting. Therefore, when I became secretary of state, I was determined to fix this, and we did it through electronic transmission of ballots, using mobile devices. We proved the technology with our military, and then we extended it to voters with disabilities, giving them not just the right to vote but the opportunity to vote."

When Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-West Virginia, asked questions about an hour later, she returned to how the state "pioneered" efforts to offer mobile voting.

"The specific thing I would like to talk about is your mobile voting app," Capito said, turning to Warner. "You've talked about your overseas service members with electronic voting. But I think it's also important to know that you've expanded the use of—with the help of the legislature, I believe—online voting for disabled individuals. And I've heard from our deaf and blind community in West Virginia, about what S. 1 would do to prevent them from using this tremendous increased accessibility voting option that you've pioneered."

When considering the politics surrounding the Senate passage of S. 1, West Virginia's other senator, Democrat Joe Manchin, will have outsized influence. Not only has he opposed any change in the Senate rules to pass the bill—namely modifying the filibuster—but he also has called on fellow Democrats to work with Republicans to pass bipartisan election reform in an April 7 commentary in the Washington Post. "I have always said, 'If I can't go home and explain it, I can't vote for it,'" he wrote, underscoring his fealty to his state's election officials.

The disability rights community's proposals to fix the For the People Act include creating a "carve out," which is a legal exception, to allow their constituents—and overseas civilian and military voters—to use remote devices to receive, mark and cast ballots, which is internet voting. How many voters would actually seek this option, at least initially, has been the subject of research that was recently published by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC).

In the February report, "Disability and Voting Accessibility in the 2020 Elections," from Rutgers University professors Lisa Schur and Douglas Kruse, "1,782 citizens with disabilities and 787 citizens without disabilities" were asked about voting last year and about their preferred methods of voting in 2020 and for the future.

About three-fourths of voters with disabilities either voted early in person or by mail in 2020, a slightly higher percentage than other voters. Overall, turnout for voters with disabilities was about 7 percent lower than other voters, with the largest gap among visually impaired (11.6 percent) and cognitively impaired (10.3 percent) voters.

"About one in nine voters with disabilities encountered difficulties voting in 2020," the EAC's key findings said. "This is double the rate of people without disabilities, but a sizeable drop from 2012… During a general election that experienced a shift to mail and absentee voting, 5 percent of voters with disabilities had difficulties using a mail ballot, compared to 2 percent of voters without disabilities."

Deep in the report, on Table 24, voters were asked how they wanted to vote in the next election. Among voters with disabilities, 7.8 percent wanted to "vote fully online, using personal computer or smartphone," and 4.1 percent wanted to "fill out [a] ballot online, print it and mail." Among voters with no disability, 12.2 percent wanted to vote fully online and 3 percent wanted to fill out the ballot online and return it.

How the disability rights' community's push for an online voting option plays out is an open question, as is the fate of the Democrats' massive election reform bill. But these advocates have signaled they will be standing up for their constituents and pressing lawmakers who oppose expanded accessibility, including an online voting option.

"It is vital that voters with disabilities, who require technology to exercise their right to vote, must be afforded that opportunity," said the National Disability Rights Network's Erika Hudson. "If not, we must all be prepared to explain to some voters with disabilities why a paper-ballot mandate outweighs their right to a private and independent vote."

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

This anthropologist explains how humanity can realistically end war — forever

We live in a time in which we face many global challenges, including the climate disaster, dwindling biodiversity (due to international industrial practices), polluted oceans, nuclear proliferation and a worldwide pandemic, just for starters. Realistic solutions to the hurdles humanity faces will require international cooperation—which will require the adoption of viable alternatives to the predominant systems of conflict and war.

While conflict and war have written much of modern human history, they offer an incomplete narrative. Anthropological evidence suggests war is not innate to humanity, as detailed in a recent Independent Media Institute (IMI) article on the topic. Further, war can be successfully stopped and can be prevented in the future when societies shift their cultures and values and adopt intentional systems of peace, or what are now called peace systems, due in large part to the work of anthropologist Douglas P. Fry. Fry, a professor and chair of the department of peace and conflict studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, has studied existing clusters of neighboring societies that do not make war with each other, and how they operate, for years. These peace systems exist both in smaller, Indigenous groups like Brazil's Upper Xingu River Basin tribes and Aboriginal Australians, as well as in larger societies, the most obvious modern example being the European Union (EU)—a peace system which would have been assumed impossible, even ridiculous, just decades prior to its adoption.

Fry says peace systems like the EU demonstrate the ability for peace to eclipse systems of war.

"Today, the idea of the European nations waging war with each other is absurd," he says. Fry notes that humans are flexible, and sweeping changes in the way we operate are the rule, rather than the exception.

Fry was one of the leading authors of an article published on January 18, 2021, in the scientific journal Nature titled "Societies Within Peace Systems Avoid War and Build Positive Intergroup Relationships." It offers a comparative anthropological perspective to demonstrate not only that some human societies avoid war but also that peaceful social systems exist—and they work.

The article's abstract states:

"The mere existence of peace systems is important because it demonstrates that creating peaceful intergroup relationships is possible whether the social units are tribal societies, nations, or actors within a regional system. Peace systems have received scant scientific attention despite holding potentially useful knowledge and principles about how to successfully cooperate to keep the peace. Thus, the mechanisms through which peace systems maintain peaceful relationships are largely unknown."

The study's authors hypothesized that there are certain factors known to contribute to intergroup peace and demonstrated that those factors are more developed within peace systems than elsewhere. These factors include:

  • Overarching common identity
  • Positive social interconnectedness
  • Interdependence
  • Non-warring values and norms
  • Non-warring myths, rituals, and symbols
  • Peace leadership

The study explains that "a machine learning analysis found non-warring norms, rituals, and values to have the greatest relative importance for a peace system outcome." The findings of the analysis of peace systems also show that they may have policy implications regarding "how to promote and sustain peace, cohesion, and cooperation among neighbouring societies in various social contexts, including among nations. For example, the purposeful promotion of peace system features may facilitate the international cooperation necessary to address interwoven global challenges such as global pandemics, oceanic pollution, loss of biodiversity, nuclear proliferation, and climate change," the study abstract states.

April M. Short, reporting for IMI, recently interviewed Doug P. Fry about his work studying peace systems and their potentially global implications.

April M. Short: How did you first come to study alternatives to war, and what made you begin to question the predominant narratives around humans and war (which have typically assumed war is a given)?

Douglas P. Fry: This goes way back for me. I was a teenager toward the end of the Vietnam War, and in that time period I certainly picked up on the movements against the Vietnam War. Unlike more recent wars, there were, on the nightly news, pictures of bodies, Vietcong bodies, civilian bodies and American troops who'd been killed in combat. War was really ugly, and it came onto our TV sets. As a young person, I realized that I was going to turn 18 in a couple of years, and that really pushed me to a personal set of reflections. "Would I really engage in a war that I felt was wrong?" That was one. Then, much more philosophically, or deeply, I asked myself, "Could I really find it within myself to kill another human being?"

I went through exploration by reading and talking to a few friends, and talking to my father, who was very supportive, and reached the decision that I should apply for a conscientious objector status (and the military ultimately classified me as 1-H; H is for holding. It was like I was in limbo, and if they needed more troops, they would call me up, but they never did). At about the same time, I started university at UCLA and I discovered anthropology, and it has been a love affair ever since. I think anthropology is just a wonderful field… it takes into consideration all the world's cultures and what it means to be human. It asks, where did we come from in the past, and what's our nature, and so forth. For me, in particular, the guiding question was, at first, to understand human aggressiveness and the violence of war, and then I morphed over the decades to try to understand how we can get rid of war. What actions can we take as alternatives? How can we promote peace? How can we promote nonviolent forms of conflict resolution to deal with our differences without war?

AMS: How did you eventually come to study systems of peace and intergroup cooperation, or peace systems?

DPF: Around 2000, I realized that in anthropology there were not really any central books that dealt in a holistic or complete way with peace. So, I formulated a scheme to study peace (and eventually systems of peace). I was living in Finland at the time and working part-time. I thought, "I've got the ideas, I've got the time, this is an opportunity." I started working on a book that eventually became The Human Potential for Peace. For that book, I was reading avidly about internally peaceful societies and conflict resolution across cultures. I was thinking about archaeology and delving into the question of, "How old is war?" I was also looking at evolutionary theory and doing a bit of a critique of some of the primatological work that Brian Ferguson mentions in your recent interview.

Out of this exploration, I came across the work of Thomas Gregor, who is one of many anthropologists who had worked with societies in Brazil's Upper Xingu River Basin. What Gregor nicely summed up was that there are about 10 tribes there that have four different language groups represented, and that they are a peace system. He used that term, "peace system," and I just thought that was very cool. In chapter two of The Human Potential for Peace I gave a pretty thorough review of all of Gregor's work, as well as other anthropologists who had studied the region—and I mention this because it's rather unusual when you find a rich description from different people and they all pretty much correspond with each other over decades and over sources. These Upper Xingu River Basin societies really do not engage in warfare with each other.

They don't like violence. They perceive themselves as civilized, and morally superior to neighboring Indigenous groups that do engage in warfare because they don't believe in killing people. Now, they will engage in warfare to protect themselves, so they're not total pacifists, but they are non-warring among themselves. And that's the key way to define peace systems, or at least that's the way I've done it across a series of articles: clusters of societies that don't make war with each other. Sometimes they don't make war at all, but sometimes they do make war outside the system.

I enjoyed reading everything I could find on these societies and writing it up for chapter two, and that's how I discovered peace systems. Since that time, I've made many personal moves between different countries, different jobs, and focuses for my work, but I always somehow come back to peace systems. It happened that in 2014, I was invited by a colleague, Peter Coleman, who's an eminent peace psychologist and social psychologist at Columbia University, to be part of a project he was launching on mapping sustainable peace, now called the Sustaining Peace Project. I was a core member there, and my wife, Geneviève Souillac, is involved with the project as well. Early in 2014, I was considering how I could really contribute to this as an anthropologist. I went home after the first day of meeting for the project and woke up thinking: "Peace systems, of course!"

That was really the birth of the article in Nature. You'll notice there's a whole team that worked on that article, including my former students who collected a lot of the data and coded it. My wife, Geneviève Souillac, and I have been talking about, and thinking and writing on, this subject since we've known each other… Peter generated and pushed the button to start the whole thing by starting up this sustaining peace project and including us. It was very labor-intensive to find all these societies and code all this data. Here we are literally six years later, and it has finally come out in print.

AMS: In the article, it is noted that not only do some human societies not engage in war, but peaceful social systems or peace systems exist. Will you clarify the difference between simply an absence of war between groups and societies that actively engage in peace?

DPF: This is an interesting point. In peace studies, we sometimes talk about negative peace and positive peace. Negative peace is simply the absence of violence or the absence of war, and, therefore, there's peace. Sort of what the person on the street tends to think is, "Oh, we're at peace for now," or, "War is coming; we're now at war." That's a negative definition of peace, in peace studies.

Then there are all sorts of variations on what we call positive peace. These would include the positive elements, so not simply the opposites of violence. These are things such as people having equal rights or access to resources; being part of decision-making for the group (and democracy would be one model for this; another might be nomadic foragers who were egalitarian and made decisions out of discussion and consensus). Having your basic needs taken care of is generally thought to be positive peace, so things like safe drinking water, enough to eat, and access to health care. In a way, if you start ticking the boxes for what is a good life, in terms of having your needs taken care of and living safely and happily, that's where a whole variety of different positive peace elements come in.

For this article in Nature, I remember my wife and I were talking and discussing peace systems a year ago. She was telling me, "We've got to make really clear this distinction between positive and negative peace. The definition that you started with is a negative definition of these clusters."

She was absolutely right, and I hadn't thought of it that way. My next thought was that what we are actually looking at are the conditions and features that lead to a peace system.

There are some societies where it has just been noted in the literature that they don't engage in warfare, and there are different ways to look at this. There's been a big presumption on the part of anthropologists and others, as part of the traditional view, that, of course, everybody engages in warfare.

One interesting reflection of this, historically, is this monumental work done during World War II, by political scientist Quincy Wright and a whole team of scholars. When they looked at ethnographic data from many different angles that they pursued in the study of war, they only used four classifications for the different types of societies, for almost 600 societies. They said a society could either engage in warfare because it was a social phenomenon or economic phenomenon or political phenomenon, or defensive, and they classified it as defensive for only about 5 percent of those societies. In their descriptions, they said these people are not particularly warlike, but if they had encountered a fighting force, no doubt, they would have used their simple tools and their digging sticks to fight back and defend themselves. Hence, the label they put on these societies: defensive war.

I went through some of these "defensive war" societies. I looked at enough of them to realize that some and maybe all of them really were non-warring societies. And there had been a misclassification because of the starting presumption that all societies make war. There was no category called non-warring societies. That was one thing that I just found psychologically and historically pretty interesting as an apparent bias. And it was, otherwise, a very carefully done, and monumental, study of war.

What I did in writing The Human Potential for Peace is I started collecting a list of non-warring societies. And to classify them as such, it had to be very clear that they did not engage in warfare—the ethnographers or the historians had to really spell this out, I wasn't just taking vague statements like "these were peace-loving people." I came up with 74 examples, across different types of social organizations, of non-warring societies. So, most societies do partake in some sort of collective, violent engagement with other societies, but some do not. The difference there is that peace systems really are clusters. They could be as few as say three societies, or they could be 27, as with the European Union. They are a given number of clusters of neighboring societies that don't engage in war with each other.

Many of the non-warring societies might exist as members of a peace system, or they might be somewhat isolated in some cases, or it could be ethnographically or historically unclear as to how many societies they were in contact with. There is a wealth of further studies that need to be done, and could be done, on non-warring societies and peace systems. We're just touching the tip of the iceberg with our 16 examples of peace systems that we talk about in the recent article. What we have is a relatively small, well-described number of peace systems. Then we've got a larger number of societies that are just being reported by historians or anthropologists as non-warring. They sort of overlap, but that would be the distinction or the difference.

AMS: In the article, you hypothesize a list of features present in societies that contribute to peace systems. One of these is "overarching common identity." Would you explain that a bit further?

DPF: In working on the Nature article, these different features that would promote peace came to mind as hypotheses, based on the social science literature as well as our studies of existing peace systems. These include things such as having an overarching identity, not just a parochial identity. Rather than just identifying, for example, as, "I'm a Finn," it's, "I'm a Finn, and I'm a European." And that is happening in the EU as we speak. The idea is, there's this overall identity where people perceive themselves as Europeans.

Another example of a peace system is the United States (which is in some ways sort of a problematic one, because we did have a civil war in the middle of the country's history, among other issues)… but what's really telling to me is that when we were still 13 colonies and fighting that Revolutionary War and then grappling with what the way forward would be, people's identities were connected with that of the former colonies. People identified with their states. People from Virginia were Virginians and people from Georgia were Georgians, and that was their primary identity. At some point, this all shifted to include this higher level of identity of being American.

Overarching identity is just one of the features of positive peace, and it's a really important factor that promotes positive peace and a peace system. As you know from the article, there are others that we discuss as potential factors, and we could probably come up with a few other ones in addition to them.

AMS: I read the chapter you co-authored with your wife, Geneviève Souillac, for Ronald Edsforth's A Cultural History of Peace in the Modern Age (1920-present), which was titled "Human Nature, Peace, and War in the Modern Era Since 1920." In the chapter, you break down and confront the classic narrative of human history that says war is basically human nature and explain that this is a perspective that is at least as old as Greek civilization. What made you think to challenge the common assumptions around war and human nature?

DPF: I tend to take a very holistic view, as does my wife, meaning we look at information interdisciplinarily as much as we can. Now, the common theme for that particular chapter is on history, but there is also the thesis that we could take a totally new perspective. The dominant perspective is just steeped in Western tradition and it's basically not supported by evidence. That leads to the question, "What evidence are you talking about?" In the chapter you mention, we thought it would be good to just give a rather brief and understandable sampling of the various types of evidence that you can find across sub-disciplines, and across the disciplines that really support a totally new way of looking at humanity that's not in accordance with the traditional view. We look at evidence for nomadic foragers and ask whether or not they are warlike, and to what degree, and what sort of violence they practice. The reason anthropologists look at nomadic foragers is because we as a human species have lived as nomadic foragers for almost our entire existence.

In getting at human nature questions, there's going to be a mix of genes and environment, or nature and nurture and so forth to consider. We acknowledge epigenetics—the term used to consider gene-environment interaction—and in this case it plays into the way we live, the types of societies we lived in and the physical environments along with the social environments (both of which are important to take into consideration). So we consider, "How are we in the so-called state of nature?" The answer, shortly put, is that nomadic foragers are not particularly warlike. They're very egalitarian. They have a lot of space and low population density, and because they move around, they don't have material possessions. They don't really have much to fight over.

Then, of course, another line to look at is archaeology. In the traditional view, they usually acknowledge, somewhat begrudgingly, that there's no real evidence of warfare back beyond roughly 10,000 years ago, which is about the time agriculture started to come in. If you look at archaeology, the evidence really isn't there for war forever backward, as Brian Ferguson likes to put it.

What some of the proponents of the traditional view say is that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and I recall that was in the [IMI article with Brian Ferguson] and Ferguson explained that that's not a scientific claim because you can't disprove it, which I thought was a lovely point. There are also multiple sequences around the planet that show the origins of war, so if you think about it, the evidence sort of undermines this whole idea that war is ancient. If it had evolved long ago and always been with us, then why do we find archaeological sequences from Oaxaca, for example, in Mexico, or from several parts of the Northwest coast of America, or from the Kodiak Island area in Alaska and so on that show that there's a long period of nomadic foraging and no evidence of warfare; then people start settling down and they tend to settle down in specific places where there are resources? They develop surpluses, and this leads to social hierarchy, which is what I'm calling complexity or the complexity complex.

Complexity is new. It has occurred, generally speaking, within the last 12,000 to 13,000 years, at different times and at different places. And it's often much more recent than that. There may be a few cases that are older than that, but the pattern, which we've documented recently, is that when you have nomadic foragers that have become complex and settled down, you're much more likely to have war there. We can see these origins of war archaeologically, and they are recent, which is a whole other line of evidence in this chapter we wrote ["Human Nature, Peace, and War in the Modern Era Since 1920"].

Then, we can start looking at some other things, like what military science suggests. And there has not been a lot of research in this area, but there have been a few key studies that really are showing how humans and modern military or historical military situations are not really inclined to be so gung-ho for war. It's not the Hollywood movie that we've all been brainwashed with. On the contrary, if you start looking at the evidence during whatever war you pick—let's take World War II, for instance, there are numerous situations where German troops and U.S. troops understood that the enemy was right nearby, and decided, "We're not going to shoot at you. You don't shoot at us. You go your way. We'll go our way." There are many of these types of anecdotes, and there is also some more systematic evidence.

In one case that I like, somebody got the idea to examine all of the muskets collected off of the Gettysburg battlefield. I think they collected around 27,000 or so muskets. Many of the muskets were loaded twice, some were loaded thrice and a few were loaded 21 times or something absolutely crazy. Overall, 90 percent of all 27,000 muskets were loaded one or more times. If you work out the statistics around how long it takes to load a musket, and all the time there was a battle going, then if people are loading their musket and firing, you'd expect only about 5 percent to have been loaded. Of course, we don't have videotapes of what was going on, exactly, but it points to the idea that there was a whole lot of reluctance to actually be shooting at the enemy. Now, that's just one case from our own U.S. history, and there are others. There is a wonderful, descriptive book written by a military man and historian who served in the U.S. army [during WWII and the Korean War] named S.L.A. Marshall called Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command (published in 1947). He did a series of interviews and found out that a vast majority of the combat troops were not firing at the enemy. Some were firing into the air. Some were firing into the bushes. Some were firing over the heads of the enemy. Many weren't firing at all.

Most scientists are specialists who take on something specific and they try to research it carefully, and that's valuable. However, when you have larger questions around… human nature and whether or not we are warlike, what makes sense is to draw from all types of information that you can find, from history and prehistory, to social organization and, in this case, military science. What we're arguing in that chapter you mentioned is these multiple lines of evidence are all pointing in the same direction, and we are arguing that they demonstrate a new paradigm, or at least a new perspective, for looking at war, peace and human nature. Of course, we're capable as a species of engaging in warfare, that's obvious—we're not making some crazy argument that humans don't war, as we sometimes have been misunderstood as arguing, intentionally or not. That's silly. We're just saying that we're not necessarily inclined toward war, and especially across huge spans of our evolutionary history, there is an absence of war. Therefore, there's not something built into us, or hardwired into our genes evolutionarily, that pushes us toward warfare.

The application here is: If war is related to social organization, or socializing culture in a broader sense—and other circumstances, like economic factors coming in and complexity, as I was just discussing—then you can design systems where you don't have warfare. So, here we look back to peace systems once again.

AMS: In looking at peace systems that already exist, you've factored in smaller-scale tribal societies such as Brazil's Indigenous tribes and Aboriginal people in Australia. Then, you also look at broader peace systems like the EU. I find that to be significant, that non-warring systems can and do apply on a larger scale to developed-world nations and "aren't just curiosities of the ethnographic world," as you put it in your 2009 paper, "Anthropological Insights for Creating Non-Warring Social Systems." Would you expand a bit on the peace system that is the EU?

DPF: Historically, following World War II, people had just been through absolute hell. Just about every European had lost family, friends, colleagues, villagers. Even in small villages in rural France—almost all of them have a monument to those killed in World War I and killed in World War II—there's a list of names, and sometimes you can tell from the surname, they were probably brothers who lost their lives. Everybody was touched by this. Right after World War II in Europe, food shortages and infrastructure—bridges, railroad lines, and everything—had been destroyed. France was on the verge of starvation, at one point and the Dutch went through a starving winter. For five or six years, in some way or another, everybody had suffered the horrors of war, close up and personal.

You had a public who just recently had gone through this catastrophe of a huge magnitude and understood the horrors of war, but they were not really catalyzed to do something creative until Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the EU, came in with his message, sharing it with anybody who would listen. He was an influential and very clever man. He talked to people incessantly, he organized a think tank and he lobbied for a unified Europe. He was very explicit about why he was doing this: he was doing it to bring peace and prosperity. And the peace was the first part, after the horrible war. The prosperity was just something that would make sense, and it was easily sellable that you could have a much stronger economic basis and support people better through economic collaboration and cooperation. And all of this has proven to be true in the recent decades, since World War II.

The key idea that Monnet had early on was that we could make a supra-national organization that would be in charge of coal and steel, which were not only the foundational ingredients to warfare but also to a peaceful economy. He realized that across history, France and Germany, in particular, were often at the roots of wars in Europe and that they had access, literally along their border, to steel production and coal mining and so forth. He pulled this off through his magic of convincing, and also due to a willingness of people to try something new.

The first six countries that joined were the Benelux countries, along with France, Germany, and Italy, which was a good, solid core. The Brits were reluctant—and of course, they're the ones that have just exited [the EU]. When they tried to get the Brits into the union, they wanted special consideration. This might sound familiar after Brexit. Monnet conferred with the others and they said no, no special consideration for the Brits. It's, "we're all in, we're all equal." Long story short, as this evolved into the common market, the Brits wanted in, and the EU founders had predicted that would happen.

As I look at the European Union, I see it as a huge success story. I'm putting that label of peace system on it as I don't know of anybody else who has called it a peace system, but it absolutely is. It's a cluster of neighboring societies that don't make war with each other (ever since World War II, that's been the case). And, like some other peace systems—not all, but some—they have engaged in military expeditions elsewhere (the French going into Mali a few years ago and contributing some troops and forces in Afghanistan and so forth). I'm not making an argument that this is a peace system that is totally pacifist. They have their security forces and different countries, to different degrees, do engage in military expeditions elsewhere. But the key factor is they've set up certain structures of economic interdependence, beginning with the coal and steel community and evolving to the Commonwealth, the economic unification of Europe, and then ultimately the European Union. And they are a strong economy. They're giving the United States and other countries that are strong a real run for their money, economically. It's a peace economy, in a way. You could look at it that way.

Another great example that overlaps with the European Union is the Nordic countries that are sometimes called Norden. I was reading recently about the first Nordic non-war story where, in 1905, Norway declared its independence from Sweden. Troops lined up on both sides of the border and it looked like Sweden was going to go to war with Norway to keep it as part of Sweden, but that didn't happen. This became the first Nordic non-war. This whole region, which somewhat overlaps with the EU (but not totally, not all nations are members of the EU), has been at peace for over 200 years now. There have been no wars within this little sub-peace system. And there have been conflicts, but they have evolved a different way of dealing with conflicts. The idea that there would be warfare within the Nordic countries now is basically considered absurd, just as the idea that there would be war in the European Union is considered absurd (Europe is the most peaceful region on the planet, as is thoroughly documented).

In the case of Norden, the peace system doesn't have a lot of political bite. It is structured, it exists, there are agreements made in order to be part of it, there are ministers from all countries represented. But it's more of an agreement to cooperate because that's the right thing to do. There is a document that's available to download, from another entity that is supra-international, called the Nordic Council of Ministers, titled "New Nordic Peace: Nordic Peace and Conflict Resolution Efforts." This document blew me away, in a sense, because it basically argues that there is a "Nordic Peace brand," internally and externally. It's pretty cool.

AMS: You mentioned peaceful societies, and systems of peace, have typically received scant attention from historians, scientists and the academic world. Why do you think this is? Why has the traditional view been so self-assured that war is always the go-to in human societies?

DPF: I think, in part, it is that if you're so enthralled with looking at conflict, war, aggression and so forth, you don't look for peace, so you don't really recognize it. This has been reflected in the records. One of my colleagues in anthropology, Leslie Sponsel at the University of Hawaii, crunched the numbers. He looked at given examples. He did things like, "Let's look at all these journals and see how many articles are actually on conflict and how many are on peace." He found that these are really lopsided numbers, like 95 percent on conflict and 5 percent on peace. There are very few articles, relatively speaking, that deal with peace or nonviolence compared to all the ones on genocide and war and abuse and everything else. There's this academic bias.

I think there is also a person on the street type of bias. Hollywood, of course, has come up with the formula that violence sells, and to my thinking, some of this is because our culture is accustomed to violence. If you have a culture that's so steeped in violence then, yeah, it sells. You create a self-fulfilling prophecy, generation after generation, by promoting violence as something that's interesting. I'll share two things that I think illustrate this idea. First: in one of his popular books, the very famous primatologist Frans de Waal (who is from the Netherlands originally, but he's lived most of his life in the United States, working as a professor) said that in the Netherlands, people like breasts but are afraid of guns; in the U.S. people are afraid of breasts but love guns. He was comparing the converse values, as a cultural outsider commenting on America.

The second thing I'll share is about one of the non-warring and extremely internally peaceful societies, the Ifaluk of Micronesia. They are out in the Pacific with a low population density, living on this atoll and having some interaction with neighboring islands. They are extremely peaceful, according to various anthropologists who have described them. Catherine Lutz is the most recent anthropologist that I know of to observe them. When she did her fieldwork there, people told her how the United States Navy came by on goodwill visits and anchored their ship off the atoll. They brought projectors onto the beach and set up a screen, and they showed the people these lethal Westerns and other movies that were popular at the time—I think we're talking 1950s, 1960s.

Catherine Lutz discovered, when she did her fieldwork in the '80s, that people were traumatized by the films. It literally gave them trauma. Some of them said that they ran away in fear for their life. They refused to watch the movies after they saw what was going on. It led them to ask her questions like, "So in your country, people really do kill each other?" To which, of course, she answered yes. And they were just astounded at this. Three anthropologists that I've read, all on this same Ifaluk culture from different time periods, say that they could find no evidence of any rapes or murders. The most serious aggression they saw was when one time a guy was really agitated and put his hand on the shoulder of another guy, which was considered most inappropriate. This non-warring, peaceful Ifaluk culture was traumatized when they saw our Westerns, with people having fistfights and shooting each other with guns (I guess they didn't quite know what a gun was but they could see the person fall over and the ketchup come out, Hollywood style). I think an extreme case like this just gives us some perspective to reflect back on our own society.

Why have peace systems not been studied? There have been different people who have used the term peace system, but they've used it in different ways… When I became really interested in peace systems, I looped in some colleagues, and, hence, we started to approach it systematically for the first time. In 2009, I wrote an article that started by laying out just three of the factors of peace systems in a descriptive way, with no statistics. Then I was invited by Science to write an article called "Life Without War" in 2012. And when one of the reviewers wrote back and said, "This is a science journal, shouldn't these be hypotheses?" I thought, that's brilliant. Of course, they should be hypotheses. So, all of a sudden it turned into, at that point, six different hypotheses as to what could contribute to a peace system. That led to the first step toward [the] study published in Nature in 2021.

So, why are people not interested in peace? My hope, to be honest, is that this online publication in Nature, which is open access, will stir up a lot more interest in peace systems—whether the historical examples or the ethnographic examples. What's unique about this approach that we're taking is that people tend not to look at what the similarities are across all types of different cultures, from nomadic bands to modern states or regional entities like the European Union. Instead, people tend to look more locally, either with one pet theory or one model or in some sort of geographical regional context. We've really bitten off a huge chunk and tried to look across time and across culture and compare peace systems with non-peace systems, to really try to find out what are the special things that are going on with positive peace and peace systems. Why has somebody not done this before? Fundamentally, I don't know. But I think it is an area that shows real potential.

AMS: In the Nature study, you discuss the idea that the purposeful promotion of peace system features may facilitate international cooperation necessary to address interwoven global challenges such as global pandemics and ocean pollution. Do you think that now is the time when people are ready to look to peace systems and more global, widespread cooperation—because we need these new ways of thinking and looking at solutions to our global catastrophes?

DPF: Right. Here we are at this point in history—we're facing global warming, just to take one example. … I thought it was very interesting, or almost ironic, the number of the peace systems that seem to come into being due to an external military threat of some sort. So, that's one ingredient here. Perhaps, some groups hang together because then there will be more of them and they'll be able to put up a common defense. Many times, it's an external threat that causes people to adopt a peace system… Global warming is an example of a real, external threat. The classic example is, of course, the idea that Martians will invade and all of Earth will come together and defend ourselves against the Martians, creating global cooperation. No, the Martian is us, actually, manifested through various things like the pandemics and not being able to deal with them effectively; or pollution of our oceans, this lifeblood; species lost. We're going to be in really bad shape if we have an equal ecosystem collapse regionally bit by bit, or more globally. These are all really, really serious threats. If we can only adjust our mentality a bit to redefine things to understand that, really, the only way forward for humanity is going to be to pull together and address these common threats to our species survival, or else the future is not looking good.

But one thing about the peace system model is it shows time and time again that across history, in different cultures and space, humans do realize the necessity of cooperating when faced with an external threat. So again, if we can just do a little bit of reframing the narrative, the external threat is not necessarily the Russians or whatever. No, it's the conditions we've made and the conditions we face. So, we really have to pull together as a peace system.

AMS: Is there hope and potential, do you think, for global peace systems to become the more dominant model?

DPF: Yeah, of course, there is. You have to have some hope. In this case given our common, global threats, maybe we'll develop a global peace system. I don't know, but I hope so, or something similar to it. As we just talked about, I think it's really necessary to have much greater international cooperation. We would solve so many problems if we could develop that expanded level of identification all the way up to humanity, all the way up to the planet level, and basically think about the Earth also, and all the creatures on it, as being part of the same bio life system. We need to get this, as in Buckminster Fuller's book, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. We're all on the same spaceship, so we can't be fouling our nest with pollution and so forth. It's just foolish to be fighting among ourselves, or as the old saying goes, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. We need to actually be steering the ship away from icebergs. There is hope.

Another way to approach this, and I've done this in some of my writings, is to understand just how flexible we humans really are and how huge changes really are the rule, not the exception. Things that people thought just never would change, have. If you're talking about the fall of the Soviet Union into pieces, the breaking down of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany, in some way these are sort of child's play compared to the larger magnitude of changes between our lives today and all of us running around as nomadic foragers for millennia upon millennia. Now here we find ourselves with mobile phones and everything else. The immensity of the changes that have occurred and can take place in the human future is huge.

As I see it, if you're going to put forth the pessimistic view that we've always been this way and always will be, that we've always made war—well, first of all, that's totally wrong. That's just nearsightedness. And then if you follow that with a pessimistic view to the effect that this is just a mess we're in and there's nothing we can do about it, well, that's wrong, too. People all the time have been making huge social movements and improvements. I also like to look at social improvements such as reducing the chance of war or successfully tackling climate change as two steps forward and one step back. You just have to maintain some optimism. Sometimes it's two steps forward and four steps back. Okay. That's a real bummer. Don't get too depressed. Just work on going forward again.

April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California's weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Trump and the GOP have thrown evangelical Christianity into a full-blown crisis

Republican politicians are doubling down on exploiting religious people, and its now killing churches in a way not seen in living memory.

We've watched absolute depravity wash across our politics over the last few decades, promoted by the same politicians who wave a religious banner to get votes. It ranges from a stolen election in 2000, to being lied into two wars, and having four years of a presidency with nothing to show for it except a tax cut for billionaires, the destruction of international relationships, and 500,000 dead Americans.

We had a president who raped women; made fun of mentally disabled people; tried to take away Obamacare, Social Security, Medicare, food stamps and unemployment from American citizens; and intentionally tore America apart racially and religiously just for money and power.

He ripped children from their mother's arms on the border, and then tortured those kids for years, killing at least seven of them. He called Nazi white supremacists "very fine people," tried to eliminate healthcare for poor Amerians, and vilivied refugees — all in the name of Christianity.

Prominent among the mob that attacked the US Capitol on January 6 were "Jesus 2020" flags and Christian iconography. One group carried a large wooden cross, and hundreds of people knelt to pray before attacking the capitol on that terrible day.

The day before, January 5, a group of religious Trump supporters held a "Jericho March" in DC, carrying oversize crosses and singing hymns as they paraded in circles around the capital as if they were Joshua circling the ancient city of Jericho so its walls would supernaturally collapse.

This is not what Jesus would have done; supporting politicians was anathema to his ministry. He preached morality, not politics.

Throughout my lifetime, church attendance had been fairly steady, ranging from a high of 73% when I was born in 1951 to a low of around 65% when George W. Bush was sworn into office. This year, though, it hit 47%.

Fewer than half of Americans now attend church. Organized religion is collapsing across our nation.

Republican strategist Rick Wilson wrote a book titled Everything Trump Touches Dies. He's right, and religion is the latest casualty.

Back at the founding of our republic, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison had a running debate about religion and government throughout most of their lives.

Jefferson, like Thomas Paine, Ben Franklin and George Washington, was a Deist, essentially an atheist. He was convinced that one of the biggest threats to what he called "a republican form of government" was religion.

He was terrified that ministers or priests might run for political office, and even proposed what became Article VI of the Constitution, which says, "[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

Madison, a churchgoer, believed that America would be just fine with Christians in charge, but that the biggest threat to religion and our country's churches would be their corruption by the government.

When he became President, Madison's first veto was to reject a piece of legislation that would've given a federal subsidy to a church in Washington DC to feed needy people.

No government should be giving money to churches, Madison said, regardless of purpose, and the proposed law he vetoed would, he wrote in his veto message, "be a precedent for giving to religious societies as such a legal agency in carrying into effect a public and civil duty." He insisted the money go straight from the government to the poorhouses and not run through the churches, because he was convinced it would corrupt them.

Turns out they were both right. And the GOP has promoted both the harm to government and the harm to organized religion.

The Republican Party has been cynically manipulating Christians for political gain, particularly white evangelicals, ever since Ronald Reagan and his Vice President George HW Bush hired Bush's son, George W., to do "outreach" to the white Evangelical community.

In exchange for their votes, Republicans have repeatedly promised — and delivered — to block IRS enforcement of laws that a church cannot maintain their tax-exempt status if they engage in politics.

They've also poured literally billions of taxpayer dollars into churches to provide services from foster care to daycare to meals to medical services, all in ways that would've given President and "Father of the Constitution" Madison a heart attack.

Churches and multimillionaire televangelists, for their part, have returned the favor by preaching Republican politics from the pulpit and on thousands of religious radio stations across the country.

Rightwing pastors have become a fixture in Republican politics, as Jeff Sharlet chronicles in his book The Family. From $100,000 heated dog houses to multiple multimillion-dollar mansions to private jets, their embrace of the GOP has corrupted their own ministries and confused their followers.

And now, at the behest of Donald Trump and the Republican party, white Christians are literally killing each other. White evangelicals are the one, identifiable single group in America with the highest probability of refusing to get a vaccine.

Having lived inside the Reagan/Bush/Trump cult for decades, they've been conditioned to believe any old bullshit Republican politicians feed them.

So when Trump and his fellow homicidal Republican governors told them that wearing masks was not a good thing, and cast doubts on the vaccine (Trump and his wife got vaccinated, but in secret during the last weeks of his presidency), they were primed and completely vulnerable to crazed conspiracy theories promoted on the internet by hustlers and narcissists in America and hostile foreign governments pretending to be Americans.

As a Christian myself, and a person who agrees with John Donne's sentiment that "every man's death diminishes me," this saddens me deeply.

On the other hand, setting aside the unnecessary deaths, it might be a good thing. The rot in today's version of white Evangelical Christianity has grown so deep and so destructive that a wake-up call is necessary. Indeed, a reformation is needed, both in religion and politics.

From the days that Reagan was cutting deals with a generation of television preachers mostly interested in mansions and private jets through today's preachers pushing politicized vaccine misinformation, the corruption of religion by Republican politicians has become a full-blown crisis for many parts of the church and her followers.

The depravity of Republican politics is killing religion, or at least what we today call religion. At the same time, conservative "religious leaders" have done their best to fleece Republican parishioners.

Will Republican politicians stop exploiting religion for their own gain? Will people of faith turn away from the modern-day Republican Caesars whose gnarled, depraved fingers are reaching out to them every Sunday?

Or will America end up like most Scandinavian and Northern European countries, with churches relegated to ceremonial spaces for weddings and funerals and political parties avoiding the subject of faith?

I don't have an answer, but asking the question is vital.

How Austin is actually responding to the call to transform its police budget

Homelessness in the U.S., which was already on the rise prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, increased in 2020, exacerbated by the economic realities of the pandemic. Austin, Texas, is no exception, with an estimated 11 percent increase in homeless people counted in the city and Travis County between 2019 and 2020, according to the point-in-time (PIT) count reported in the Austin American-Statesman. Of Austin's population of roughly 1 million, an estimated 2,500 people experience homelessness on any given night, according to the 2020 PIT count. Austin City Council member Gregorio Casar says this is a number "a community of [more than] a million folks should be able to care [for]."

In an effort to do so, the city of Austin has been purchasing underutilized hotels and transforming them into housing and services for people experiencing homelessness. In a February 4 meeting, the Austin City Council approved the purchase of a fourth hotel—which will provide 150 new homes to the homeless population in the city. Casar says the city plans to move forward on purchasing a fifth and a sixth hotel in the future.

"We have found sufficient resources in the city budget to acquire more hotels because we really believe that it's a strategy for significantly reducing homelessness in the city," he says.

In addition to providing long-term and transitional housing to people experiencing homelessness, the hotels purchased by the city will also provide supportive services, including mental health services, trauma services and job services.

"We are working with trusted community groups and nonprofit organizations to provide services at the hotels because we know that there are lots of folks who have experienced real trauma while living on the street and who need support so that their homelessness can permanently end," Casar says. "And then there are lots of other folks who just need a connection to a job and a stable address for a while so that they can get back on their feet."

According to Tara Pohlmeyer, communications director for Council Member Casar, Integral Care and Caritas of Austin have submitted letters of interest in operating the hotels and providing services, and the Homeless Services Division (HSD) anticipates negotiating a contract with a service provider/operator for each hotel in April.

He says while shelters provide an important service, oftentimes, they're just temporarily addressing the issue. The plan for the converted hotels is for them to serve as a more permanent housing solution, to address the real needs of each person they house.

"That's the way that we can reduce the amount of homelessness in the city, instead of just sort of hiding it, or moving [the homeless population] around while the numbers grow," Casar says.

To pay for these supportive services, the city will reallocate dollars originally assigned to the police budget, as part of its project to reimagine safety, in response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and public demand. Funding for operations and services of the hotels will come from Austin Public Health, using a portion of the additional $6.5 million added to the Fiscal Year 2021 budget to address homelessness during the city council's efforts to reimagine public safety.

"We have never had so many people engage in local government before [the BLM movement]," he says. "There were tens of thousands of people that contacted my office alone. In the weeks of protest over the summer [in 2020], we had hundreds of people testifying at city council meetings, for hours, about the changes that they were calling on us to make. I think that was really important. It shifted all of our perspectives. The community here in Austin is calling on us to be real leaders for our community and for people across the state and across the country. Austin, I think, actually responded to the call to transform police budgets in a way that very few cities across the country did."

Casar says while cities often have the dollars to make the capital investment in property to house the homeless, the long-term funding for operating those buildings and providing supportive services tends to be the challenge. He says prior to last summer's BLM movement, which pressured cities across the nation to reallocate police funds into supportive services, one of Austin's greatest challenges regarding homelessness was related to finding that long-term funding.

"The dollars from the police budget are going to provide the services and operate the hotels," he says. "No matter how many changes I and some others have tried to make to the budget in years past, we've, oftentimes, struggled to make really transformative change because so many dollars get wrapped up in the police budget. This last year, there was finally an opportunity for us to rethink that budget and recognize that we were spending so many dollars on jailing folks experiencing homelessness and policing people experiencing homelessness—but that actually doesn't reduce homelessness."

Between the four hotels the city has purchased, there are about 300 rooms, some of which might be able to house a couple of people, and many of them just a single person. The plan is for the city to continue to purchase additional hotels and expand the programs offered, Casar says.

"We have to pull hundreds of people off the streets this year," Casar says. "I think that would make a really significant difference."

The extreme winter weather experienced in Texas through February and March makes the need to provide safe shelter and supportive services for people living on the streets all the more urgent.

"In a city as prosperous as Austin, no one should have to live on the streets, period. That became even more clear as we saw folks still sleeping out under bridges when we knew that zero-degree temperatures were coming—and sometimes there were hotels or lit-up buildings right across the streets where they could have safely stayed," Casar says. "It's clearly already so dangerous to live outdoors and without a home, and these extreme weather events make it even more clear why we can and should reorganize our resources and our priorities to make sure that everybody has a place to lay their head at night that is safe."

April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California's weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

How people of color are targeted in 'sacrifice zones'

The Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted how systemic racism disproportionately places danger and harm on low-income and minority populations. One harsh reality of this systemic racism is the existence of "sacrifice zones," which are communities located near pollution hot spots that have been permanently impaired by intensive and concentrated industrial activity, such as factories, chemical plants, power plants, oil and gas refineries, landfills and factory farms.

Designated by corporations and policymakers, these areas are a product of environmental racism, the systemic social, economic and political structures—including weak laws, lack of enforcement, corporate negligence and less access to health care—that place disproportionate environmental health burdens on specific communities based on race and ethnicity. Because they live in sacrifice zones, people of color in the United States are more likely to breathe polluted air, drink polluted water and be exposed to a variety of toxic chemicals and particulate matter.

The Center for Health, Environment & Justice, a nonprofit environmental activism group based in Falls Church, Virginia, asserts that "[d]ue to redlining, low property values, and other social factors, these communities have historically consisted of [low-income] and/or minority populations." The group adds, "Current federal air policies regulate facility emissions one stack at a time and one chemical at a time. Impacted communities, however, are exposed to the cumulative impact of multiple pollutants released over an extended period of time from a cluster of facilities."

In January, President Biden signed an executive order that creates a White House Council on Environmental Justice, which will specifically address the environmental impacts of systemic racism. "We must deliver environmental justice in communities all across America," the order says. "To secure an equitable economic future, the United States must ensure that environmental and economic justice are key considerations in how we govern." A separate executive order directed federal agencies to prioritize racial equity in their work, which incorporates racial and environmental justice across the federal government. However, without congressional action on the legislative front, the next president could reverse these orders.

President Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure plan has provisions that address longstanding racial inequities, including $20 billion to "reconnect" communities of color to economic opportunity. In addition, the proposal includes funds to replace lead water pipes that have harmed communities of color in cities like Flint, Michigan, and to clean up environmental hazards that have harmed Hispanic and tribal communities.

On April 4, the Hip Hop Caucus, a nonprofit advocacy group that tackles issues relating to health care, education and environmental and social justice, launched a public petition urging Congress to pass legislation that protects communities of color from the health risks posed by environmental degradation. The petition is co-sponsored by several other advocacy groups, including Progress America, Friends of the Earth Action, Coalition on Human Needs, Evergreen Action and the Progressive Reform Network. "Corporate polluters demand human sacrifices," wrote Mike Phelan, a spokesman for Progress America, in a recent email about the petition. "They each have a choice between profits and pollution―and every time, they choose profits."

In a 2004 report, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wrote that "the solution to unequal protection lies in the realm of environmental justice for all Americans. No community, rich or poor, black or white, should be allowed to become a 'sacrifice zone.'" In her 2014 book This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein writes that "running an economy on energy sources that release poisons as an unavoidable part of their extraction and refining has always required sacrifice zones—whole subsets of humanity categorized as less than fully human, which made their poisoning in the name of progress somehow acceptable."

Four years later, scientists at the EPA's National Center for Environmental Assessment released a study in the American Journal of Public Health called "Disparities in Distribution of Particulate Matter Emission Sources by Race and Poverty Status." The report confirmed that environmental racism presents a clear and present danger to people of color across the United States, as they are much more likely to live near polluters. The study found that poor communities (those living below the poverty line) have a 35 percent higher burden from particulate matter emissions than the overall U.S. population. The health burden carried by non-whites was 28 percent higher than the overall population, while African Americans had a 54 percent higher burden. The researchers cited economic inequality and historic racism as major factors in the siting of facilities emitting particulate pollution.

Particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter that are inhaled can become embedded deep in the lungs and enter the bloodstream. Such particle pollution exposure can cause a number of health impacts, including nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma and decreased lung function. For people with heart or lung disease, inhaling these particles can even lead to premature death.

"This report illustrates how people of color and people with limited means have been grossly taken advantage of by polluters who don't care about the misery they cause," said Leslie Fields, director of the Environmental Justice Program at the Sierra Club, an environmental nonprofit, in a statement. "The disadvantages that come with those health issues, like missing school, create a cycle of poverty and lack of access to opportunity that spans generations and shapes every part of the experience of being a person of color or low-income person in the United States."

Examining the study in an article for Colorlines, Ayana Byrd writes, "The findings show that 'those in poverty had 1.35 times higher burden than did the overall population, and non-Whites had 1.28 times higher burden. Blacks, specifically, had 1.54 times higher burden than did the overall population.' This translates to a 54 percent increase for Black people." She adds that environmental racism "has been called the new Jim Crow and continues to target Black, Latinx, Native, Asian and other communities of color, subjecting them to generations of poor health outcomes."

In fact, natural disasters like earthquakes, as well as those tied to climate change, like wildfires, floods and hurricanes, actually increase racial inequality. A 2018 study conducted by sociologists Junia Howell of the University of Pittsburgh and James R. Elliott of Rice University in Houston found that white Americans who experience disaster accumulate significantly more wealth than any other group after experiencing a natural disaster. "If you're white, over time, you're actually going to accumulate more than if you never had that disaster in the first place. But for black people, for Latinos, for Asians—it's not true," said Howell.

President Biden's executive actions to tackle the environmental racism that results in the creation of sacrifice zones are a much-needed change at the top of the government. Now Congress needs to back him up with legislation that puts an end, once and for all, to sacrifice zones.

Reynard Loki is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute, where he serves as the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life. He previously served as the environment, food and animal rights editor at AlterNet and as a reporter for Justmeans/3BL Media covering sustainability and corporate social responsibility. He was named one of FilterBuy's Top 50 Health & Environmental Journalists to Follow in 2016. His work has been published by Yes! Magazine, Salon, Truthout, BillMoyers.com, Counterpunch, EcoWatch and Truthdig, among others.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Biden and the backlash to standardized testing

Barely a month after President Biden was inaugurated, educators and public school advocates reeled in dismay when his administration announced it would enforce the federal government's mandate for annual standardized testing in public schools. During the Democratic Party's presidential primary, Biden had expressed strong opposition to the tests. In a video taken at a December 2019 forum for public school teachers, Biden, when asked, "Will you commit to ending the use of standardized testing in public schools," replied, "Yes… You're preaching to the choir."

Although the decision was made before he took office, Miguel Cardona, Biden's secretary of education, confirmed the Biden administration would not allow states to skip the exams.

So what happened to "the choir"?

It's not like there was a groundswell from across the country to resume the tests.

Prior to the Biden administration's announcement, Chalkbeat's national correspondent Matt Barnum reported, "Several states, including California, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York, [had] already asked for or said they planned to request a waiver from this year's testing requirements entirely." As of March 29, three states—Georgia, Oregon, and South Carolina—that had requested to offer alternatives to a statewide standardized test were denied, according to a later report by Barnum, but Colorado will be allowed to cut the number of tests it administers by half.

"The two national teachers' unions—the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers—have urged that waivers be given," Valerie Strauss reported for the Washington Post. "At least [11,000] people have signed a petition by the Center for Fair and Open Testing, a nonprofit organization known as FairTest, calling for waivers to be granted."

A Backlash to the Biden Decision

The announcement on testing triggered an immediate backlash. "Critics reacted swiftly to the decision to require the exams, flooding social media with condemnations," Strauss reported for the Washington Post. A notable critic, she pointed out, was New York City's outgoing school chancellor Richard Carranza, who "urged parents to refuse to let their children take the tests."

In surveys and widespread commentaries, teachers have long said the tests are of little to no use for their own teaching.

As education historian Diane Ravitch explains in the Washington Post, teachers see the scores months after the students have moved on to another grade, they're not allowed to see the questions on the tests or how their students answered questions, and the tests don't tell them which students need extra help, how their students compare to their classmates, or how they should change their teaching methods.

The tests are of little use to parents too, Ravitch states, because, other than ranking their children, the tests don't inform parents about more urgent concerns for their children's progress in school, such as how they're keeping up with and understanding the work, participating in class, and engaging with other students and with the school community as a whole.

The tests have their detractors among state and local policymakers too, reports Barnum. Although "many states" had already been planning to go forward with the tests, Barnum reports, numerous state and local education officials signaled they may ask the federal government for "additional flexibility, or appear to have disregarded the department's clear language entirely."

More than 500 education researchers have asked Cardona to reconsider the mandate. Cardona has claimed that test results will "ensure that we're providing the funds to those students who are impacted the most by the pandemic," even though plans for distributing the funds have already been determined.

Members of Congress have also spoken out against the tests. Several Democrats led by Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York have urged Cardona to reconsider the decision, Politico reports: "Bowman said that requiring testing this year would add stress to kids who are already traumatized and divert school administrators' resources and attention away from reopening safely."

This 'Mentality' Isn't Going to Work

So who believes we need the tests?

One of the congressional Democrats who signed Bowman's letter to Cardona, Rep. Mark Takano of California, previously gave me an interesting explanation for that.

In 2015, when President Obama's Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was such a huge proponent of testing he insisted test scores be used to evaluate teachers, I interviewed Takano, who, like Bowman, had been a public school teacher before being elected to Congress.

When I asked Takano about what he called the federal government's "test and punish" approach to education policy, he stated that the testing mandate, which began when No Child Left Behind was signed into law in 2002 but still dominates today, wasn't "designed for the types of realities in [his] school."

What do colleagues in Congress say when he tells them this? He told me the problem in Congress is that there are two types of people who tend to dominate Beltway ideology and the philosophy that drives problem-solving.

Most people, he explained, are either from the worlds of business and finance or they're attorneys. The former, due to their work experiences, tend to be driven by numbers and production outputs, while the latter, due to their advocacy interests, want to remedy societal problems, including those that are obvious in the education system, by "putting into place a law with all these hammers" to make someone accountable for any statistical evidence of injustice and inequality.

Neither "mentality [is] going to work in education," he told me, because at the heart of the education process is teachers being able to build trusting relationships with students and strategizing with other teachers on how to engage students. Having to hit a mark on the annual test or worry about an accountability measure closing your school or ending your employment just gets in the way.

A Pressure Campaign

Someone who fits the mold of those wanting to drop a hammer on educators is acting Assistant Education Secretary Ian Rosenblum, who signed the letter informing state education departments of the decision to carry on the testing mandate.

Rosenblum came to his position having previously served as executive director of Education Trust–New York. Prior to that, he had worked in the administrations of two governors who pushed standardized testing in their states, Andrew Cuomo in New York and Ed Rendell in Pennsylvania.

Rosenblum's previous organization is part of the national Education Trust, which is currently led by John King, who was secretary of education in the Obama administration after Duncan.

In the run-up to Rosenblum's announcement, the Education Trust organized a pressure campaign with a coalition of other like-minded organizations to advocate for the tests. As the campaign rolled out, the coalition expanded from a dozen civil rights and disability advocates to more than 40 groups with a broad spectrum of interests, including business, civil rights, charter schools, politics, and so-called education reform policies.

In a series of three letters sent to education department officials—in November 2020 and on February 3 and February 23, 2021—the argument the Education Trust and its allies put forth was that the "data" generated by the tests were "imperative" to determine how "scarce resources can be directed to the students, schools and districts that need them most" and "to address systemic inequities in our education system."

In his letter upholding the testing mandate, Rosenblum repeated the identical theme: "we need to understand the impact COVID-19 has had on learning and identify what resources and supports students need. We must also specifically be prepared to address the educational inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic."

There are three reasons this argument is mistaken, at best, or, at worst, purposefully deceptive.

First, throughout the pandemic, it has been well understood that students who chronically struggle the most in schools—students of color, Indigenous students, English learners, immigrant students, students with disabilities, students from low-income families, and students experiencing homelessness—are the ones who have been further disadvantaged by the crisis. No one needs test scores to inform them of this harsh reality.

Similarly, the assertion that test data are needed to reveal the inequities of the nation's education system is absurd. The inequities of the nation's education system were stark and apparent to all before the pandemic. Obviously, a historic health and economic crisis will only worsen inequities.

Finally, the belief that standardized testing will lead to allocating education resources more effectively is simply not borne out in the history of standardized testing.

As New York City art teacher Jake Jacobs states in the Progressive magazine, "Not only have achievement gaps persisted or widened throughout the standardized testing experiment, so-called 'help' has never come, year after year. In fact, the original No Child Left Behind Act meted out escalating punishments, defunding and closing low-scoring schools, or placing them on closure lists to the delight of charter school developers and investors."

The Biden administration has said that the test score data will not be used to discipline or punish low-performing schools, states, or districts. But does anyone really believe predictably low scores won't become fodder in the ongoing campaign to dismantle public schools?

Follow the Money

Because of these flawed arguments behind the demand for testing, public school advocates are suspicious that federal officials are simply doing the bidding of private foundations and political groups that tend to influence education policy.

As evidence of that, Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, posted on Ravitch's personal blog the names of all the organizations that signed on to the Education Trust's pressure campaign and included the amounts of funding each has received from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, two of the most influential philanthropies that have spent billions in an effort to transform K-12 education to conform to market-based policy ideas. Most of the organizations have taken donations from Gates and Walton foundations, and some have gotten tens of millions of dollars.

Another source of financial pressure could be coming from the testing industry itself.

Assessment companies have been estimated to rake in over $1.7 billion annually, according to findings from a 2012 Brookings Institution assessment, as reported by Education Week. A 2015 article by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post reported that testing companies spent more than $20 million on lobbying state and federal government officials from 2009 to 2014 and frequently hired them to do their lobbying.

When former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, under Trump, allowed states to cancel tests in 2020, one of the larger test companies, Cambium Assessment, took a revenue "hit," the company's president told a reporter for Education Week's Market Brief.

That article also notes that testing companies may take on additional "cost burdens" in 2021 because the Biden administration's requirements allow states to make some modifications to the length of tests and when they can be given.

Regardless of the money trail and its influence, it's not clear why the Biden administration made the decision to continue enforcing the testing mandate, and the effects of this perplexing call to continue testing during such an unprecedented school year could have far-reaching impacts, most of which, on balance, seem negative, while few seem positive.

One thing that appears to be certain though, is that, as Takano also told me, "If you liken education to bean counting, that's not going to work." And so far, the bean counters still seem to be in charge.

This article was produced by Our Schools. Jeff Bryant is a writing fellow and chief correspondent for Our Schools. He is a communications consultant, freelance writer, advocacy journalist, and director of the Education Opportunity Network, a strategy and messaging center for progressive education policy. His award-winning commentary and reporting routinely appear in prominent online news outlets, and he speaks frequently at national events about public education policy. Follow him on Twitter @jeffbcdm.

How the Supreme Court and the right wing found loopholes to erode the decades-old voting rights victories

On March 25, the day President Joe Biden held his first press conference and called bids by Republican state legislators to complicate voting "un-American," Georgia's legislature passed, and its Republican governor signed, 2021's most aggressive rewrite of voting rules. That same day in Texas' state legislature, a hearing was abruptly halted on a bill with arguably even more obstructive and punitive provisions before the chairs of its Black and Mexican American legislative caucuses were allowed to participate.

The Texas bill's author and Texas House Elections Committee chair, Rep. Briscoe Cain, a Houston-area Republican, apparently made a procedural mistake—the kind of technicality contained in his bill that would criminalize election officials, poll workers or neighbors who did not precisely follow the bill's new restrictions for absentee voting and its expanded rights for political party observers. The bill barred election officials from removing intentionally unruly partisans.

"This package of bills, along with many others being considered in the Texas House, could have the greatest impact on voting rights since the Jim Crow era," said Charlie Bonner, spokesman for MOVE Texas, a nonprofit championing voting rights for young adults, at a Zoom briefing after the hearing's halt. "Unlike Chair Cain, we don't seek to criminalize those simple mistakes that often happen and will put many people, particularly Black and Brown voters, in jail."

The interruption didn't stop the Texas bill. Another public hearing took place on April 1. As in Georgia and other battleground states—Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania—bills to curtail voting options and add unnecessary bureaucracy for election officials are moving through statehouses. But their momentum is having an opposite effect in the nation's capital; it is underscoring a moral imperative and political will among almost all Democrats to pass history-making election and voting reform.

"It is an apocryphal moment, one of those like [before] the 1964 Civil Rights Act, one of those moments where you just feel the change gathering in Washington, in addition to analyzing it," said Norman Eisen, a longtime anti-corruption policy analyst who led a Brookings Institution briefing on Senate Bill 1 — the Democrats' reform package — on the day of its first hearing in late March.

Revising election laws after presidential cycles is not new. And it's not the first time each party has tried to do so where it holds legislative majorities. But the GOP push in state legislatures since January is outsized in volume and intensity. Very few of these proposals have been endorsed by the officials who administer elections, whether Democrat or Republican, said David Becker, executive director for the Center for Election Innovation and Research. (In 2020, the center disbursed $64 million in grants to these state officials from Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan.)

Most unwanted and meddlesome bills are coming from Republican state legislators who, along with some of their constituents, did not like the 2020 presidential election's result, Becker said. Meanwhile, the response from voting rights advocates and Democrats has been as strident.

Georgia's Democratic Party, like the Texas advocates, compared the pernicious aspects of its newest voting law, Senate Bill 202, to the Jim Crow era — which began in the 1890s and lasted through the 1960s across the South. Under Jim Crow, the governing class, including that era's Democratic Party, unapologetically opposed empowering Black people, especially at the starting line for political representation — voter registration.

"This is a sad day for Georgia," said Congresswoman Nikema Williams, Georgia Democratic Party chair. "Senate Bill 202—the most flagrantly racist, partisan power grab of elections in modern Georgia history—is a slap in the face to Georgia's civil rights legacy. After losing elections because more voters of color made their voices heard, [Gov.] Brian Kemp and the GOP are now trying to outright silence Georgia voters by making it harder to cast a ballot and letting partisan actors take over local elections."

The same point was made about the early Republican opposition to Senate Bill 1. The massive bill is a compendium of two dozen separate voting rights, election administration, campaign finance and ethics reform proposals dating to 2007. (Democrats would have to revise the Senate's filibuster rule—ending debate—to pass it. Not all Democrats are on board with that strategy.) In the bill's opening hearing in the Senate Rules Committee, several Republicans recited ex-President Trump's lies about widespread Democratic voter fraud and said S. 1 would sully the purity of the ballot.

"If we actually compare what some people [like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz] are saying in the Senate to what we heard six or seven decades ago, where we would see people aiming to block civil rights legislation, it is very reminiscent," said Rashawn Ray, a Brookings fellow and University of Maryland professor who has studied racial and social inequities, including police brutality. "When we really think about how it relates to the Jim Crow South, we can go back to the 1950s."

"This is how much people actually don't want to see people being able to vote," Ray said. "We have to be very honest. Oftentimes, they don't want to see people of color vote. They oftentimes don't want to see immigrants vote—even people who are legal citizens. We really have to get down to the crux of what is going on. Through all of the noise, that was what I heard in the Senate. That unfortunately, some people, some of our elected officials, don't actually want to see some people really be able to express and embrace what it means to be American."

"What it means to be American" was at the heart of the Jim Crow era. For the ruling class, it meant white supremacy. As historian V.O. Key Jr. explained in his 1949 book based on hundreds of interviews, Southern Politics in State and Nation, these Southerners—politicians, judges, police, businessmen, editorial writers—did not want Black people to have power to make decisions affecting white people. Key called this effort a "disenfranchisement movement."

But is it apt to compare the Republicans' latest state-based moves to the Jim Crow era? Or is a more accurate parallel the GOP's more recent efforts to overly regulate voting with "surgical precision," as a federal appeals court put it in 2016 when describing suppressive laws that were quickly enacted in North Carolina after the Supreme Court in 2013 gutted the main enforcement tool of the Voting Rights Act of 1965? Morally, there may not be much difference. But politically and legally, it may matter quite a bit when considering the congressional and executive branch responses in 2021.

"Broadly considered, H.R. 1/S. 1 is a very sweeping election reform bill… They set out a floor, a set of rules that apply to all states for federal elections," said Becker. "Section 5 [of the Voting Rights Act] is a very targeted tool. It is a scalpel. I say this as someone who has enforced Section 5 for many years as a Justice Department lawyer. It is one of the most effective tools in the toolbox of voting rights enforcement that this nation has ever seen."

"That's because it is targeted only at those states that have a history of voter discrimination, and it requires those states to affirmatively request approval for any change [in voting laws or rules] before it can be implemented," he explained. "This means that the law enforcers don't have to go looking for violations. The state, or whatever smaller jurisdiction or county, has to send those [changes] directly to the Department of Justice, and they cannot implement them until they have been pre-cleared… It is not something that necessarily applies to everybody."

Already, some constitutional scholars are arguing that restoring the Voting Rights Act could counter the most regressive laws coming from state legislatures. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act could do this, they suggest, but that 2019 bill has not yet been introduced in the current Congress. Democrats, for now, are focusing on S. 1, the more sweeping bill.

The Early 1960s Versus Today

When President Lyndon Johnson, the first Southern president in decades, finally saw the need for voting rights legislation, he told his attorney general designee, "I want you to write me the goddamnest toughest voting rights act that you can devise."

The heart of that bill, which became the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was the act's Section 5 and enforcement formula in Section 4(b). In 2013, the Supreme Court, in a ruling written by Chief Justice John Roberts, threw out the VRA's pre-clearance formula. "There is no denying," the decision said, "that the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions."

Many books detail, in excruciating fashion, the violence surrounding that era's voting rights struggle. Local police, long before they dressed in leftover military gear as today, brandished cruder weapons against unarmed men, women and children. Protesters were chased, beaten, fire-hosed and tear-gassed. Bystanders were targeted. People were shot and killed. When charges were pressed, the victims were accused of assaulting the police. Because juries were drawn from rolls of registered voters, cases ended up before all-white juries.

The 1960s voting rights protests focused on the starting line of the democratic political process, voter registration. Since the 1890s, when Jim Crow began with the imposition of poll taxes and literacy tests (and exceptions for white people) blocking Black voter registration was seen, correctly, as the glue holding the South's political system together. The half-dozen years before and after the turn of the century saw the Supreme Court uphold segregation (Plessy v. Ferguson) and Mississippi and Alabama laws that disenfranchised Black voters. Over a decade, hundreds of thousands of Black Americans were cut from voter rolls, a status quo that lasted until the mid-1960s.

The federal government, led by presidents who did not want to interfere, was largely hands off until the mid-1950s. Dwight Eisenhower, the World War II commanding general whose military was integrated and who was president from 1953 to 1961, pushed for a civil rights bill. Early in his presidency, the Supreme Court ordered the integration of public schools in Brown v. Board of Education. But desegregating schools did not lead to Black citizens gaining political power, as the New Yorker's Louis Menand noted in an article that profiled the voting rights legacy that was undermined by the Supreme Court's Shelby v. Holder ruling in 2013. Eisenhower's legislation, which was a watered-down bill, passed in as the 1957 Civil Rights Act. Still, it was the first civil rights law passed since the Reconstruction era after the Civil War, which temporarily enfranchised Black Americans.

But the 1957 Act could not break Jim Crow's hold. While it allowed the Justice Department "to pursue litigation against local registrars who discriminated on the basis of race," Menand noted that the case law precedents at that time required prosecutors to prove intent—what was in the mind of those local officials accused of discrimination. That task was nearly impossible. It was not until after President John F. Kennedy's assassination in late 1963, when President Lyndon B. Johnson took up the dead president's civil rights bill, that the need for a voting rights bill emerged. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned segregation in public—hotels, restaurants, movie theaters and government offices. It passed after the longest filibuster in Senate history. But it, too, did not prevent Jim Crow tools like literacy tests for voters.

When Johnson told Nicholas Katzenbach to draft the "goddamnest toughest voting rights act," his attorney general designee came up with the pre-clearance regime. The covered states, counties and cities, meaning those with histories of racial discrimination in voting, had to gain Justice Department approval before implementing new voting laws or rules. Federal prosecutors no longer had to prove that it was the intent of officials and laws to intentionally disenfranchise. The government could look at the effect of any law, and, as Becker noted from his days as a DOJ Voting Section attorney a dozen years ago, covered jurisdictions had to proactively get approval from the Justice Department.

"The 1965 Voting Rights Act was the most successful piece of civil rights legislation our country has ever seen," said Mimi Marziani, the Texas Civil Rights Project president. "It completely changed who has a seat at the table."

Voting Rights Crossroads

There are important differences between the political and cultural landscape of today and the landscape of the early 1960s through the passage of the Voting Rights Act in August 1965. The violence surrounding integration, which predated the 1964 Civil Rights Act, became a national disgrace. In 1960, the country saw Black students in Greensboro, South Carolina—students from the state's largest all-Black university—mocked and attacked as they sat at a "whites-only" downtown lunch counter. As the disobedience deepened, the violence worsened.

Activists who went south to help with voter registration drives were brutalized and killed. Reporters, photographers and TV crews brought stories and images of the violence to the front pages and TV screens across America and internationally. By the end of the summer of 1964 in Mississippi, 35 churches and 30 other buildings had been firebombed. In that November's presidential election, five deep South states flipped from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican. But Johnson won in a national landslide.

Johnson's first elected term as president was a time of deepening upheaval. He escalated troop deployments to Vietnam. Civil rights leaders were told it was not time for voting rights reform. Like all protest movements, there were competing factions. On March 7, 1965, John Lewis and Hosea Williams led a march from a chapel in Selma, Alabama, toward the Edmund Pettus Bridge—named for a Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader—on the outskirts of the city. They planned to march to Montgomery, Alabama's capital, but they were met by a sheriff-led posse on horseback whose leader had been told by Alabama Gov. George Wallace to take "whatever steps necessary" to stop them. Like a 1920s lynching, many white people came out to watch.

ABC television crews were there. That night, the network broke into a movie on Nazi war crimes and broadcast 15 minutes of raw footage of police attack, tear gassing, beatings, yelling and screaming to 48 million viewers. Historians say that President Johnson knew that he could not win a Cold War abroad if he could not defeat anti-democratic institutions at home. By the time Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act that August, he surely knew that most of the South was lost to Republicans. But political machinations aside, Johnson put country before party, which no Republican in Congress seems willing to do in 2021 for voting rights and fairer elections.

There are other differences between the early 1960s voting rights struggles and today. In 2021, images of institutional racism—such as the video of George Floyd's killing by a police officer in Minneapolis—rocket around the nation and world in minutes. The protesters in the Black Lives Matter movement are not timid. They seek a deeper reckoning than merely cracking open the door that blocked Black Americans' path to political power in the 1960s: voter registration. Less than one week after Georgia's Gov. Kemp signed Senate Bill 202 into law, protesters pushed two of the state's largest corporations—Delta Air Lines and Coca-Cola—to speak out in opposition to the law. Georgia-based voting rights advocates had called for boycotts, a tactic echoing the early 1960s, when businesses across the South learned that losing Black customers was not a good business strategy.

In the early 1960s and early 2020s, the moral case for voting rights and more representative government has similar echoes. But the fine print of each era's obstacles is different, as are the potential solutions. "It's actually hard to compare today to 1965," said Richard Pildes, a New York University election and constitutional law scholar. "Because people too easily forget what that world looked like when something like only 6 percent of Black voters in Mississippi were even registered to vote, when there was economic retaliation against Black voters who sought to register, when the national government had largely been absent from the field since 1890. And now we are in a world in which Black turnout rates are higher than white ones in some states."

What is the best response to the Republican Party's recent efforts to narrow the options to get a ballot into a voter's hands in swing states and to add unneeded complexities for election workers before counting ballots? Is it passing major federal legislation comprised of democracy reforms that have been called for by Democrats for years? Is it reviving and updating the most successful civil rights tool ever passed, the VRA's pre-clearance, for this century? Is it some combination of the two?

Those on the front lines of battles for more representative government, like Texas' Marziani, quickly said today's demons are the technocratic rules that have ushered forth following the Supreme Court's gutting of the VRA in its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder ruling. Yesteryear's club-wielding sheriffs have been replaced by partisans who boast of upholding the purity of elections while pushing provisions targeting voting blocs. They are, as V.O. Key put it 1949, the "disenfranchisement movement."

"What we have been battling in the past 10 years, facilitated… by the Supreme Court and its chipping away at the Voting Rights Act, has been a new effort to pass what at times are called 'second-generation' restrictions on voting," Marziani said. "They are more subtle, I would say, than what we saw in the '50s and the '60s. They tend to be—one of the legal words is facially neutral—so they are not actually saying that they are discriminating, although I have to say that parts of these [2021] bills are probably not facially neutral."

But Marziani also said that there was an emotional and moral charge to today's voting rights battles that have been with the county since its founding—the slow arc of the progress over how inclusionary or exclusionary voting and government would be.

"I think there is an apt analogy; that kind of fundamental struggle against a changing electorate, using the election rules to try to keep yourself in power, is a very similar thing to what we've seen, honestly, several times in America's history."

The country faced a reckoning with electoral representation in the early 1960s. It did not end white supremacy. Nor did it fully empower Black people across the South, although the political and economic gains of recent decades are undeniable. Today, in the early 2020s, another voting rights reckoning is in the air in Washington.

This past March 7, 56 years after the "Bloody Sunday" march in Selma, President Biden signed an executive order to "increase access to voter registration services and information about voting" at federal agencies. The White House press office called the order "an initial step." It said, "The President is committed to working with Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act and pass H.R. 1, the For the People Act, which includes bold reforms to make it more equitable and accessible for all Americans to exercise their fundamental right to vote." As was the case in 1965, the open question is how forceful Democrats, including the president, will be.

This article was produced by Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, the American Prospect, and many others.

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