Books

Is the doom of humanity really inevitable? Maybe not

Evidence reveals our remote ancestors were neither brutes nor innocents, but complex beings whose experiments in living have much to teach us. Welcome news as disaster looms in every direction.

David Graeber, the electrifying social thinker who helped spark the Occupy Movement and challenged our acceptance of crippling debt and bullshit jobs, died at the age of fifty-nine in 2020. Lucky for us, he left a parting gift completed just three weeks before his death — something as expansive, fresh, and invigorating as his mind.

Thought-provoking and even thrilling, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, co-authored with archaeologist David Wengrow, weaves a tale of human history unlike anything you’ve read before. Erudite, witty, and rigorous, the book complicates, if not outright smashes, what we thought we knew about homo sapiens’ 200,000-year journey on Earth so far. This is a book that playfully spins us around with new insights until we are dizzy with possibilities.

As we hunger for something — anything — to lift us from the grim suspicion that humanity is destined to burn, crash, or fade away in lonely desolation, Graeber has laid out a sumptuous feast for thought. Let’s dive in.

Past, Revisited

First consideration: We don’t see others as they are, but load them up with our own assumptions, fantasies, and biases. We do it to our neighbors, and we do it to our remote human ancestors who aren’t around to argue with us – those funny-looking people in western civ textbooks who supposedly march through orderly stages of development, finally arriving at what we call “civilization.” During the Enlightenment, this history-in-stages approach grew popular with intellectuals like Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose fanciful armchair speculations about how we got to where we are soon became taken as facts.

You were meant to pick a team – either Team Hobbes (all was brutish and nasty until kings and cops beat us into submission) or Team Rousseau (we were happy innocents until the Agricultural Revolution saddled us with sad but inevitable property and inequality). Thence you could assemble the kind of social science narrative that has dominated our thinking in one form or another ever since, most recently in Noah Harari’s smash-hit “Sapiens” (Team Rousseau).

Like all origin stories, these tales lodged in our collective psyches explain us to ourselves. And like all origin stories, they conceal as much as they reveal.

Napoleon Bonaparte asked, “What is history but a fable agreed upon?” Graeber and Wengrow come in to shake off the spell of prevailing fables — not as armchair theorists snatching ideas from thin air but as reviewers and synthesizers of a plethora of tantalizing recent discoveries, along with the work of neglected thinkers who (hello, feminist scholars) who drew ire for their attention to glaring inconsistencies in the established narratives. In doing so, they recover frameworks for the way ancient peoples experienced their world that help us to see that we could be organizing ourselves – socially, economically, politically — on principles much different from those that seem inevitable today. This is heartening.

Among the propositions of Graeber and Wengrow are these:

  • We barely have the language to express what our remote ancestors were up to 95% of the time.
  • The Agricultural Revolution wasn’t a revolution at all. The real story is much more complex – and interesting.
  • Ancient peoples lived with a rich variety of social and political structures, even varying according to the season. (Very flexible, those folks).
  • Humans aren’t just pawns on a chessboard of material conditions. We’ve been actively experimenting from the get-go.
  • Inequality in large-scale human communities isn’t inevitable, nor is it a product of farming. Ditto, patriarchy.
  • Past societies that valued women were happier places to live. (Duh).
  • We can do better. We have done better.

The authors begin by pointing out that eighteenth-century theories of human history were partly a reaction to critiques of European society offered by indigenous observers. Consider Kandiaronk, a Wendat chief so skilled in debate he could easily shut down a Jesuit, who blew the minds of listeners with penetrating insights on authority, decency, social responsibility, and above all, freedom. Kandiaronk’s critiques, presented in a dialogue form by the Baron de Lahontan in 1703, sparked a whole genre of books voicing criticisms from a “primitive” outsider. Graeber and Wengrow illuminate how profoundly these products influenced Enlightenment thought and helped give rise to social and political experiments (including the U.S. Constitution), as well as defensive strategies to discount such perspectives (also including the U.S. Constitution).

Madame de Graffigny’s epistolary novel of 1747, “Letters from a Peruvian Woman” (1747) tells the story of an Incan princess who rails against the inequality she observes in French society – particularly the ill-treatment of women. This volume, in turn, helped shape the thinking of the economist A.R.J. Turgot, who responded by insisting that inequality was inevitable. He outlined a theory of social evolution posited as progress from hunters to pastoralism to farming to urban commercial civilization that placed anybody not at the final stage as a vestigial life form that had better get with the program. Turgot’s scheme of social evolution started popping up in lectures of his buddy Adam Smith over in Glasgow, and eventually worked its way into general theories of human history proposed by several of Smith’s influential colleagues such as Adam Ferguson.

The new default paradigm formed the lens through which Europeans viewed Indigenous peoples the world over; namely as childish innocents or brutal savages living in deplorable static conditions. Everybody was to be sorted according to how they acquired food, with egalitarian foraging societies banished to the bottom of the ladder. The Kandiaronks causing anxiety by pointing out the grotesque conditions of so-called civilization — from the large numbers of starving people to the need for two hours for a Frenchman to dress himself — could now be dismissed. This mindset became prevalent in the emerging field of archaeology, where practitioners churned out biased interpretations of ancient societies that rendered them non-threatening to the modern, capitalist way of life.

Teleological history was the name of the game, and scholars played it endlessly.

Archaeologists fixated on what looked “civilized” to them — mainly large, stratified societies like Pharaonic Egypt, Imperial Rome, Aztec Mexico, Han China, or ancient Greece – the kinds of places where you get big monuments (archaeologists can easily study these), authoritarian rulers, and plenty of violence, usually accompanied by the subordination of women. This construct of civilization rests on the idea of sacrifice: we must give up basic freedoms, like the freedom to object to nonsensical orders, if we want the touted benefits. Maybe we should even give up life itself if the gods or the rulers say it must be so. We can see this today in our own society, with low-wage workers expected to sacrifice themselves for the gods of the market. (Females are deemed especially suitable offerings).

There is definitely something wrong with this picture. Whether you’re a young girl snatched up to serve an Aztec emperor or a woman used as a breeding machine by Texan politicians, “civilization” is not really working for you.

Graeber and Wengrow try to shed the bad habits of their colleagues by presenting multi-dimensional portraits of ancient peoples, going all the way back to the Stone Age, that make them appear less exotic and truer to life. We see them playing, preening, working, and arguing with one another. They build and blunder. They try new things, then toss them aside. Some create societies that are fair-minded and generous, others that are domineering and violent. All are trying to figure out how to live better, and often screwing up. The new narrative that emerges shows that flexibility, experimentation, and a drive to live with dignity and joy are a bigger part of our human heritage than we ever realized.

Graeber and Wengrow posit that certain basic freedoms, like the freedom to move away from a society that doesn’t suit you, or to disobey orders, were seen as precious in many ancient societies—particularly the ones that archaeologists haven’t known quite how to categorize. And these values didn’t disappear the first time somebody planted a crop. The authors provide copious evidence that just because a society feeds itself one way doesn’t mean that a particular social organization or orientation automatically follows.

The familiar story of human social evolution holds that foraging societies were little more than the prelude to the Agricultural Revolution, which purportedly changed everything. The picture was supposed to look like this: Foragers were mobile; farmers were sedentary. Foragers collected food; farmers produced it. Foragers didn’t have private property; farmers did. Foragers were innately egalitarian; farmers stratified. If social scientists found evidence of people who didn’t live by agriculture behaving differently from this formula, they were described as “emergent” or “deviant.”

But Graeber and Wengrow make a strong case that none of this is actually supported by the evidence. They highlight how in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, for example, there was never any “switch” from Paleolithic forager to Neolithic farmer. The transition from living mainly on wild resources to a life based on food production actually took place over 3,000 years – hardly a revolutionary timeframe. And while the authors acknowledge that agriculture allowed for the possibility of more unequal concentrations of wealth, in most cases this only began to happen millennia after farming got going. In the centuries before, people were effectively trying farming out, switching between modes of production, hunting a bit here, growing a bit there. Changing things up as new conditions emerged. Concentrations of wealth sometimes occurred, but other times they didn’t.

What looked like a static picture of the past starts to shift into a colorful kaleidoscope.

The authors argue that instead of an Agricultural Revolution, our ancestors engaged in a lengthy and complex process that didn’t lead to neat categories of social and political structures. They point out that in the Fertile Crescent, some people who were not dependent on agriculture could be quite stratified and violent, while others in neighboring farming areas look much more egalitarian, with women enjoying pronounced social and economic visibility.

There’s no reason, say the authors, to assume that agriculture in remote periods meant private land ownership, territoriality, or a no-return passage to hierarchical arrangements.

They point to Amazonia during the Holocene period, where a “playful tradition” of farming meant that people spent the rainy season in villages growing stuff in a rather haphazard way and living communally, and then abandoned their homes during the dry season to hunt and fish under an autocratic structure, only to start it all over somewhere else the next year. There was no clear line between domestic and non-domestic animals, but something more like traveling zoos of tamed forest creatures that went along with humans for the ride. Instead of a refuge of solitary peoples, Amazonia emerges as home to people with wide, intricate networks over vast distances and flexible arrangements that are difficult to study because they didn’t leave behind tax records and monuments. Amazonians didn’t do agriculture the way the standard narrative says they should for a simple reason: they didn’t have to. Food was abundant enough, and strategies to access it smart enough, that there wasn’t any reason to pick up a hoe or confine yourself to one place.

“Farming,” argue Graeber and Wengrow, “often started out as an economy of deprivation; which is why it tended to happen first in areas where wild resources were thinnest on the ground.” In other words, agriculture was the odd-person-out strategy for survival for much of human history. Its practitioners seem much more prevalent in the past because they built mud houses and stayed in place, thus leaving behind more visible signs.

Graeber and Wengrow point out that it has taken a long time for scholars – let’s face it, mostly white, male, western scholars — to understand evidence under their noses because they couldn’t help projecting themselves backward in time. They looked at a Mayan wall mural and saw a jumble of fantastic creatures rather than a storytelling device that provided detailed information in lieu of writing. They gazed on curvy female figurines and imagined that such bodies could only be valued for their fertility, rather than understanding that those curves were sagging breasts and rolls of fat representing the bodies of elder women in high political positions. Because “writing” in fantastic painted beasts and valuing older women with authority were alien concepts, scholars just made stuff up to fit with their own biases.

Blindness to the contributions of women has been a particular blight on our ability to see human history clearly. As the authors note (and many a feminist scholar could have told you), social scientists analyzing early cities and “mega-sites” have tended to concentrate particular types of cultural development, like the easily-visible knowledge of building pyramids or collecting taxes. But the knowledge of cooking and healing, far less visible, (though much more critical to survival), associated with the activities of women, got demoted far beneath the knowledge of things like how to wage war on somebody. More peaceful societies that emphasized the former were misunderstood and ignored.

Graeber and Wengrow show that if we look with fresh eyes, we can see ancient cities where even the most autocratic rulers are answerable to town councils and assemblies, many of them affording women equal status. Democracy, in their narrative, isn’t something that sprung up out of ancient Greece fully formed like Athena, but part of a heritage of ideas of governance along egalitarian lines that appeared over and over among ancient peoples. Some ancient cities developed an aristocratic ethos and favored charismatic authority figures, but others didn’t, even quite large ones. Interestingly, what they refer to the “heroic” type of settlements that organized around powerful and charismatic rulers appear to come after, and in reaction to, the more egalitarian cities. The authors discuss a theory of how settlements with entirely different social and political structures often arise in close proximity, suggesting the influence of “schismogenesis” – a sort of competitive relationship between groups of people that drive them to identify as opposite of each other (think Sparta and Athens).

Graeber and Wengrow suggest that it was by this process of schismogenesis that we got cities ruled by kings instead of councils: “Aristocracies, perhaps monarchy itself, first emerged in opposition to the egalitarian cities of the Mesopotamian plans,” they write.

The case Teotihuacan is one of their most vivid examples of how different things look when scholars put can put old habits aside. The largest urban center of Mesoamerica before the Aztecs, which peaked at about 100,000 people, Teotihuacan had autocratic overlords — but then got rid of them. What looked first to scholars like a static city dominated by monumental buildings and human sacrifice (an indication of powerful rulers and stratification) turns out to have abandoned this structure to focus on shared governance and top-quality public housing, possibly after some kind of revolution. At first, archaeologists took the fancy apartments of Teotihuacan to be palaces, but now it’s clear that most of the city’s residents lived in digs with drainage facilities, beautifully plastered floors and walls, and attractive communal spaces decorated with murals. Evidence of diets indicates that most everyone was eating well. But since the Teotihuacans didn’t leave written evidence, it has taken a long time for scholars to imagine a city likely organized by local assemblies answerable to a governing council — one in which everybody expected to live well.

OK, so what?

If we’re really honest, what passes for civilization today is frequently a system of dominance and deprivation for most people, and one that would have repelled many of our ancestors. Far from living in conditions that maximize our freedom and wellbeing, we struggle with inequality, distrust, powerlessness, and disillusionment. In the world’s richest country, a lot of us can’t even afford a doctor when we’re sick.

Graeber and Wengrow define the modern state, which most of us live in, as a political structure that combines at least two common forms of domination: control of violence, control of information, and dominance via personal charisma (see: American elections). They are societies where power is not widely shared, and where the values of caring and cooperation are emphasized far less than those of competition and possessing more than your neighbor.

The many forms of freedom and enjoyment that early humans obviously deemed essential to life are not accessible to the vast majority. Who can travel about freely with minimal vacation time and insufficient funds? Who can freely reject conditions that don’t suit them? Who can refuse the arbitrary commands that bombard us daily (pay for this crappy service, take this shitty job, do what this racist cop tells you to do)? No one but the very affluent.

It’s really hard to imagine it can be any other way because for the last couple thousand years, most of us have lived under kings or emperors, or, where those didn’t exist, patriarchy or other forms of violent domination. Graeber and Wengrow acknowledge that once established, these structures are hard to get rid of – especially in our mental habits.

But a close look at the diversity and richness of our human history ought to help us to gather the courage to reimagine how life can be better and to put these visions into action. Hints of social possibilities dropped in from the remote past can inspire us with the knowledge that we do not have to accept being bullied by tyrants or plutocrats. By bringing the there and then into the here and now, we can consider that unequal, warlike, patriarchal societies are not the human norm, and are far from normal. Just like our forebearers, we can make choices.

Author, activist and scholar bell hooks has died at 69

Author, cultural critic, and scholar bell hooks has died, her family announced in a statement. hooks died Dec. 15 at home in Berea, Kentucky. She was 69.

Born Gloria Jean Watkins in 1952 in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, hooks was one of seven children. As a child, she attended segregated schools. She went on to Stanford University, where she earned a bachelor's degree; the University of Wisconsin, where she received a master's degree; and the University of California at Santa Cruz, where she earned a doctorate in English Literature.

bells hooks was a pseudonym, intended to honor her great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks, a name which she first adopted in 1978 upon the publication of her poetry collection "And There We Wept," according to her family's statement. hooks utilized lower-case letters in her pseudonym because she wanted readers to center on the "substance of books, not who I am."

In 1981, hooks published "Ain't I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism." That was followed by the publication of over three dozen books from collections of essays to poetry to children's books, often focused on issues and stories of love, race, gender, socioeconomics, culture, and her native Appalachia. As the BBC wrote, "In particular, hooks wrote about how a person's race, gender and social class were interconnected."

In a 2000 interview with the NPR program "All Things Considered," hooks said, "I'm so moved often when I think of the civil rights movement, because I see it as a great movement for social justice that was rooted in love…I tell this to young people, you know, that we can love in a deep and profound way that transforms the political world in which we live in."

The bell hooks Institute at Berea College, where hooks taught since 2004, opened in 2010. In 2018, hooks was inducted into the Kentucky Writers' Hall of Fame.

The red flags of a religious cult — and what it's like to escape one

"I own me." This sentence, comprised of three short words, seems inarguable. But when attorney and author Faith Jones says them aloud, as she does in her 2019 TED Talk and in her new book, "Sex Cult Nun: Breaking Away from the Children of God, a Wild, Radical Religious Cult," they symbolize a lifetime of experience, learning and healing.

Jones was born into and raised within the powerful Children of God, later known as the Family, a religious group founded by her grandfather David Berg. She, like her parents and everyone else in their peripatetic community, was expected to be obedient and to distrust outsiders. It was, perhaps inevitably, a climate rife with abuse and exploitation. That Jones struck out on her own, attending Georgetown University and eventually becoming an attorney, is a testament to her internal strength and resolve. That she has since made it her mission to empower other women to similarly claim ownership of their lives is remarkable.

Salon spoke to Jones recently about her memoir, and her lessons in creating healthy boundaries and recovering from the unimaginable.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I want to start with this mantra of yours, this mission of yours, that you discuss in the book. What does it mean when you say, "I own me?"

"I own me" is recognizing that I have a property right in my body. My body is my sole property, which means like other property, nobody gets to tell me what to do with it. Without my express permission, nobody gets to access it. Nobody gets to enforce their will on me without my willing, free, unpressured permission. To me, that was such a revolutionary concept because I had grown up being told directly my whole life that my body was not my own. That it belonged to God, but really they meant it belonged to the group, and they got to tell me what to do with it. When I figured this out, that was the key for me to understand what had gone wrong in this group and in so many of these organizations, whether religious or family or governmental, where they try to take away our right of ownership in our body.

The way that you discuss the difference between what you were told but what your gut was telling you is something that not just people who grew up in cults can relate to. Being told that what you feel is not right. "Don't trust yourself, we're going to tell you what you feel." Talk to me about how you came to that understanding, and the people along the way who helped you trust yourself.

Learning to trust yourself is a continuing journey for all of us, especially for people who've experienced abuse and exploitation. That's one of the hardest lessons that we have to come to terms with, trusting ourselves. That is one of the reasons why this framework is so powerful because I believe it gives us the tools to understand and to trust that, if I'm feeling pressured, if I'm feeling a certain way, then I already know that's a red flag, that this is a violation. Something is happening here.

That's critical, because we're so used to being told that what we feel isn't true. So we try to keep trying to dismiss it instead of accepting it. One of the biggest issues we have is creating healthy boundaries when you've grown up without having boundaries, or when those boundaries have been violated. That's really what this framework is about — helping us who are recovering, but helping society in general, because these are the foundational principles of all society.

Later on in the book, you step back and look at your parents to get clarity on where they were coming from — because of what they brought to their parenting experience in this really, really strange environment. To see these patterns and where they come from, and to know that they don't come out of nowhere is important. How do you get to that place, though? Particularly for those who are survivors — to distinguish between understanding and distancing — because you've had to set those boundaries.

I've been on this journey of healing for many years, and there were certain things that were key turning points for me in that. One of the things that I read was Alice Miller. She's a psychologist, and she wrote a great book called "The Drama of The Gifted Child" and other work like that, where she looks at the effects of this type of abuse and where it comes from and how it persists generationally. Oftentimes abusers are people who have also been abused. That enabled me to take a step back and look at that, and say, "I can see where they're coming from, but I don't want to continue that pattern." That is the key responsibility of each of us, to step up and say, "Okay, I see what happened. I see my parents and the maybe abusive patterns that they had. It probably came from their parents and so on, but I am my own person and I get to step forward and say, it stops here. I get to work on the change in myself."

Writing this book, I spent hours interviewing my parents and other people to make sure my memories were accurate and details were correct. That was one of the interesting things I learned writing this book, just hearing more of the background stories to some of these things that happened. It gave me an even clearer understanding of things that I didn't really understand about them, their past experiences, what it was like for them in the moment they were going through. For instance, with my mother had basically left me for two months when I was a baby.

I was like, "How could you do that? How could anyone do that to their baby?" Understanding what had happened to her and how she had been threatened she could lose me if she didn't submit to this helped shift my mindset. Oftentimes, we're trapped in the narrative we know. Taking that time to explore it more can also bring us a kind of release because our reality is our story, the story we tell ourselves.

Your story is so unique, and yet, the scale was shocking to me. The number of people involved, the global scope of it, was huge.

Yes. Something like over 10,000 members, but thousands more moved in and out of the group over forty, fifty years. But it's much bigger than that. I talked to so many of my friends, men and women, who grew up in normal society and many, many have experienced child sexual abuse. Many have experienced some form of sexual assault, rape, sexual harassment, control. So many have experienced abusive beatings from their fathers or father figures.

The cult didn't start this. The cult took things that existed in society and it created a microcosm and an isolation and a validation that allow people to take it more to an extreme. But this stuff exists throughout society, which is why I'm so passionate about saying these are the principles we need to get really clear on and understand. That's the only way we can kind of inoculate people against these type of cults and anywhere in society where we say, "Hey, are they trying to get you to give over your body, your free will? Are they using manipulation? Are they trying to get you to give over your creations and saying you don't own this? Are they violating these principles?" Red flag, right?

People involved in these cults at the higher levels, or involved in these power dynamics in abusive relationships as the antagonists, don't see themselves as villains. The question that a lot of people reflexively ask of the victims or of the survivors is, "Well, why did you stay?" without understanding the escalation. Without understanding, "This was also the person who was caring for me. This is also the person who I was dependent upon." That's a crucial element, whether it's a cult or a marriage or a job.

You said something really important. These people don't see themselves as that. In fact, they see themselves as very, very good. "I am this great, good person. I am this prophet. I am hearing from God." They have this vision of themselves. Most people in the world, they don't see themselves as bad or evil, even murderers and serial killers have this vision of somehow, "I'm doing this for a greater, a better, higher purpose." Which is why you need a standard and principles. Because when you can take it, you can say, "Hey, I'm hearing from God, and God tells me to do this thing." If it's a violation of one of these principles, you already know, I'm in the wrong boat right away.

What happened to my mother, for instance. She joined this group. It wasn't a sex cult when she joined. It was this biblical missionary group that was out to save the world. It demanded extreme sacrifice and loyalty from its followers. But the sex stuff came in quite a few years later. It was seeded in slowly into the indoctrination of the people by my grandfather. He didn't just change overnight. He presented all of these letters, preparing his followers' minds over a year to get them into a place, prepping them for this.

I interviewed cult survivor Daniel Barban Levin recently, and he said, "Nobody joins a cult. They join a group of friends." Nobody signs up for an abusive relationship either. Nobody says, "I'm going to start a relationship with this person because this seems like someone who will really, really hurt me."

So let's talk about those principles. Whether you are in a group or in a one-on-one relationship, there are some of these red flags that you need to be thinking about and have top of mind.

It's first stating, "I own my body. It's my sole property." Therefore I own what I create with it, whether it's my services or products or invention. And then once I create something — and this is a constitutional right — I have the right to contract. I have the right to make a deal to exchange.

I think one of the main things that gets violated is there are five elements of any good exchange or contract. One of the main elements of this is something called no undue pressure. Because what is blackmail? It's blackmail when you apply undue pressure to somebody. For instance, in the group, I was subjected to pressure to have to have sex with other members where I really didn't want to, but I was told that I had to for God, or to avoid punishment basically.

When you coerce somebody into doing something through either implicit or direct threats, that is not a free choice. That is not a free exchange. You violated one of those principles. In that particular case that could even be considered rape. And then the final element is the effect. What is the impact? How much responsibility do I bear for impact beyond my direct control? My grandfather, how much responsibility does he bear, not just for the children that he molested himself, but for espousing those ideas in such a way that other people did that as well.

So that principles, and the red flags are: They put it always in very noble terms, that your body is for service or instead of saying, "You own you. You get to choose. You have free choice, and as long as your choice is not violating other people's rights, that's fine." Nobody gets to tell you who you are and what you need to do. That is your choice.

There's another thing, how vulnerable you make yourself in this story and your realization that, "What happened to me, that's called rape." For a lot of people, when they have that dawning, it's not necessarily because someone has jumped out of a bush in a dark alley. It's well after the fact. It's so important for someone reading that to understand that's often what it's like.

I think that's true. I think people who experienced child abuse are the same, they don't realize it until much later what happened to them and what was taken from them. As to how I get through it, there's a few resilience techniques which really helped me to come through it in a different way, that I used without realizing what I was doing. But also I didn't just sit around. I went after healing and happiness like a bulldog.

I was like, "I'm not going to suffer. This is not what life is for. Life is to grow." So yeah, bad stuff happened to me and I'm going to figure out how to heal in myself. That's what I did. I talk about some of the most powerful techniques that I used to heal and to recover. I wrote a guide for women called, "I Own Me." Talking about those experiences, talking about this framework and how learning to see ourselves and our bodies in a different way, really helps. There are certain psychological techniques that I used. I was helped with therapy to do certain healing processes that really helped to clear out I think some of the residual trauma locks that were in there.

Even after recognizing what had happened to me, I did not think of myself as a victim. That wasn't the role I wanted. That wasn't the part I wanted to play. I could say, "This bad thing happened to me, but here I am taking control of my life. This is my life now." I wasn't going to live in that story. I didn't talk about it all the time. In a healing process, it's one thing to bring it up and go through it, which you need to do, to access it. Some people don't do the healing because they're too afraid to access it, but you don't have to keep living in that story. You get to write a new story. And that's what I decided.

Going back and writing this book was tough, because you don't only have to write your most painful experiences once. You go over them a hundred times because you edit them and then edit them again and then edit them again. Every time I was like, "Oh no, I do not want to read that chapter again." I wouldn't have done it if it wasn't that I had a bigger purpose in this. This is really just a vehicle to express what happens when we, as a society, as a group, as individuals don't have clarity on what are these fundamental principles of human integrity.

What's the phrase you used? "Twenty-three years of in indoctrination doesn't disappear in an instance." I love that line, because it's true. Tell me a little bit about what it looks like now that you're doing this work and you're living within your own identity now.

The thing is, I think we get to change identities. I've done it a number of times in my life. We get to write our own story and our identity. When I initially thought about writing the story, I had thought, "We just had such a crazy life, it would be kind of interesting to write the story." I was more thinking of it from a perspective of wanting to show people who didn't have much that they could still achieve and do well. I became a lawyer and I work for some of the top law firms, and I wanted them to show them that path didn't have to be their story.

But as I grew and developed and healed and learned, I created the framework and began this journey of writing this book. All of these stories that I didn't think I was going to tell or write, especially not in such detail, were really the story that needed to be told. Even now, it's daunting because I've always been a very private person. But I think if it can help people to reconcile some of their own experiences, then it's worth it to me.

At the end, you make it clear that the other members of your family have made different choices and gone on very different paths. There isn't just one story from an experience like this, you can go in so many different directions from it.

That was why I tried to really stick to my story and my experiences, because each person who goes through this is affected differently. Each person has their own journey, their own story. My own family members, fortunately are all in their own stages of recovery from this, but they have learned and grown. My parents have as well. My mother, when I taught her this framework, had a lot of really good conversations. It gave her a lot more clarity on what had happened to her in the family. what some of those practices were, clearly defining what was wrong with them. When you don't have that framework in your mind, it's going to be hard to define exactly what was wrong.

Until you have the language to really articulate your experience, it is very, very hard to identify it. That's what this book is about. It's a very personal story, but it is also a guide for other people who are looking at their experiences and going, what is the word for this? What is the language for it?

This is why I want to get these principles taught in schools and to young people and in colleges and to people who've experienced abuse, because it does give them the language to express themselves. To say, "No, this is not what I want." To have a conviction that they are right. And also to say, "Well, this happened to me and it was wrong because..." It gives us the language to communicate about these topics and even gives us the language between men and women to communicate about these topics in a way that men appreciate. It allows us to talk about it. I think that's very important, whether it's in the corporate environment, talking about sexual harassment, but also in our schools, to teach children these principles so that they have the words.

What do you hope now for this book? Where do you want to see this book go in terms of who's going to read it and who's going to learn from it?

I hope that each person who reads it, if there's somebody who suffered some kind of abuse like this, that it can give them strength and insight. And if they haven't, that it will give them insight into what other people go through and then understanding perhaps things that have happened to friends or relatives. I hope that this is a door and a gateway to helping us to have bigger conversations about this stuff, particularly things like child abuse.

I think women and sexual harassment, while this is not solved, it's been brought much more to the forefront of human consciousness. But still a lot of stuff about children and how they are treated as property is not really discussed I think in the way it could be. My own personal work I'm doing now is both to help people achieve emotional independence and freedom through understanding these principles and other types of techniques.

A big part of what I am teaching now as well is, how do we create economic stability and freedom? My mother left the group for a while when I was a child and we were basically homeless for some time. She couldn't support us. So often the reason that people stay in bad environments, relationships, controlling groups, is they don't have a way economically to care for themselves outside. You both need to have the emotional freedom and understanding of what is true, and then you need to have the economic tools to be able to take care of yourself. Those are the two pillars that I'm working on, helping to share with people who are coming out of experiences like this.

The dark Trumptopia we inhabit is the world science fiction warned us about

Who knew that Martians, inside monstrous tripodal machines taller than many buildings, actually ululated, that they made eerily haunting "ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla" sounds? Well, let me tell you that they do — or rather did when they were devastating London.

I know that because I recently reread H.G. Wells's 1898 novel War of the Worlds, while revisiting an early moment in my own life. Admittedly, I wasn't in London when those Martian machines, hooting away, stalked boldly into that city, hungry in the most literal fashion imaginable for human blood. No surprise there, since that was almost a century and a quarter ago. Still, at 77, thanks to that book, I was at least able to revisit a moment that had been mine long enough ago to seem almost like fiction.

Yes, all those years back I had been reading that very same novel for the very first time under the covers by flashlight. I still remember being gripped, thrilled, and scared, at a time when my parents thought I was asleep. And believe me, if you do that at perhaps age 12 or 13, you really do feel as if you've been plunged into a futuristic world from hell, ululations and all.

But of course, scary as it might have been, alone in the dark, to secretly live through the Martian desolation of parts of England and the slaughter of countless human beings at their hands (actually, more like the tentacles of octopi), as if they were no more than irritating bugs, I was always aware of another reality as well. After all, there was still the morning (guaranteed to come), my breakfast, my dog Jeff, my bus trip to school with my friend Jim, my anything-but-exciting ordinary life, and my sense, in the ascendant Cold War America of the 1950s, of a future extending to the distant horizon that looked boring as hell, without even a stray Martian in sight. (How wrong I would turn out to be from the Vietnam War years on!)

I felt that I needed some Martians then. I needed something, anything, to shake up that life of mine, but the sad truth is that I don't need them now, nor do the rest of us. Yet, in so many ways, in an America anything but ascendant, on a planet that looks like it's in a distinctly War-of-the-Worlds-style version of danger, the reality is that they're already here.

And sadly enough, we Americans and humanity in general seem little more effective against the various Martian stand-ins of today than the human beings Wells wrote about were then. Remember that his Martians finally went down, but not at the hands of humanity. They were taken out, "after all man's devices had failed," as the novelist expressed it then, "by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth." The conquerors of those otherwise triumphant Martians were, he reported, "the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared."

If only we were so lucky in our own Wellsian, or do I mean Trumptopian (as in dystopian, not utopian) world?

Living in a Science-Fiction (or Science-Fact) Novel?

In the 1950s, I went on to read, among other books, John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids (about giant killer plants taking humanity apart), Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, and Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy which sent me into distant galaxies. And that was before, in 1966, I boarded the USS Enterprise with Captain James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock to head for deep space in person — at least via my TV screen in that pre-Meta era.

Today, space is evidently something left to billionaires, but in the 1950s and 1960s the terror of invading aliens or plants with a taste for human flesh (even if they had perhaps been bioengineered in the all-too-Earthbound Soviet Union) had a certain strange appeal for the bored boy I was then. The future, it seemed, needed a Martian or two or a Triffid or two. Had I known, it wouldn't have mattered in the least to me then that Wells had evidently created those Martians, in part, to give his British readers some sense of what it must have felt like for the Tasmanians, living on an island off the coast of Australia, to be conquered and essentially eradicated by British colonists early in the nineteenth century.

So, yes, I was indeed then fascinated by often horrific futures, by what was coming to be known as science fiction. But honestly, if you had told me that, as a grownup, I would find myself living in a science-fiction (or do I mean science-fact?) novel called perhaps Trumptopia, or The Day of the Heat Dome, or something similar, I would have laughed you out of the room. Truly, I never expected to find myself in such a world without either those covers or that flashlight as protection.

As president, Donald Trump would prove to be both a Martian and a Triffid. He would, in fact, be the self-appointed and elected stand-in for what turned out to be little short of madness personified. When a pandemic struck humanity, he would, as in that fictional England of 1898, take on the very role of a Martian, an alien ready to murder on a mass scale. Though few like to think of it that way, we spent almost two years after the Covid-19 pandemic began here being governed (to use a word that now sounds far too polite) by a man who, like his supporters and like various Republican governors today, was ready to slaughter Americans in staggering numbers.

As Trump's former White House Covid-19 response coordinator Deborah Birx recently testified, by rejecting everything from masking to social distancing in the early months of the pandemic (not to speak of personally hosting mass superspreader events at the White House and elsewhere), he would prove an all-too-literal murderer — though Birx was far too polite to use such a word. In the midst of a pandemic that has, by now, killed an estimated 17 million people globally and perhaps more than a million Americans, he would, she believed, be responsible for at least 130,000 of those early deaths. That's already slaughter on a monumental scale. (Keep in mind that, in the Trumpian tradition, from Florida's Ron DeSantis to Texas's Greg Abbott, Republican governors have continued in that distinctly murderous tradition to this very moment.)

Lights Off, Flashlights On?

And when it came to slaughter, the Trumpian/Republican response to Covid-19 will likely prove to be the milder kind of destruction they represented. As a climate denialist (it was a Chinese hoax!) and a major supporter of the fossil-fuel industry (no wonder the Saudis adored him!), The Donald would prove all too ready to all-too-literally boost the means to destroy this planet.

And wouldn't you say that the various Trump supporters who now make up what's still, for reasons unknown, called the Republican Party are ululating all too often these days, as they hover over dead and dying Americans, or at least those they would be perfectly willing to see wiped off this planet?

Sadly enough, however, you can't just blame Donald Trump and the Republicans for our increasingly endangered planet. After all, who needs giant Martians or monstrous human-destroying plants when carbon dioxide and methane will, in the long run, do the trick? Who needs aliens like Martians and Triffids, given the global fossil-fuel industry?

Keep in mind that more representatives of that crew were accredited as delegates at the recent Glasgow climate-change talks than of any country on the planet. That industry's CEOs have long been all too cognizant of climate change and how it could ravage this world of ours. They have also been all too willing to ignore it or even to put significant funds into climate-denial outfits. If, in 2200, there are still historians left to write about this world of ours, I have little doubt that they'll view those CEOs as the greatest criminals in what has been a sordid tale of human history.

Nor, sadly enough, when it comes to this country, can you leave the Democrats out of the picture of global destruction either. Consider this, for instance: after the recent talks in Glasgow, President Biden returned home reasonably triumphant, swearing he would "lead by example" when it came to climate-change innovation. He was, of course, leaving behind in Scotland visions of a future world where, according to recent calculations, the temperature later in this century could hit 2.4 to 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.32 to 4.86 degrees Fahrenheit) above that of the pre-industrial age. That, of course, would be a formula for destruction on a devastating scale.

Just to consider the first leading "example" around, four days after Glasgow ended, the Biden administration began auctioning off to oil and gas companies leases for drilling rights to 80 million acres of public waters in the Gulf of Mexico. And that, after all, is an administration headed by a president who actually seems committed to doing something about climate change, as in his ever-shrinking Build Back Better bill. But that bill is, of course, being Manchinized right now by a senator who made almost half a million dollars last year off a coal brokerage firm he founded (and that his son now runs). In fact, it may never pass the Senate with its climate-change elements faintly intact. Keep in mind as well that Manchin is hardly alone. One in four senators reportedly still have fossil-fuel investments and the households of at least 28 of them from both parties "hold a combined minimum of $3.7 million and as much as $12.6 million in fossil-fuel investments."

Take one small story, if you want to grasp where this country seems headed right now. As you may remember, the Trump administration worked assiduously to infringe upon national parks and indigenous lands to produce yet more fossil fuels. Recently, President Biden announced that his administration, having already approved a much-protested $9 billion pipeline to carry significant amounts of oil through tribal lands in Minnesota, would take one small but meaningful remedial step. As the New York Times described it, the administration would move "to block new federal oil and gas leasing within a 10-mile radius around Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, one of the nation's oldest and most culturally significant Native American sites."

I know you won't be shocked by what followed, sadly enough. The response was predictable. As the Times put it, that modest move "generated significant pushback from Republicans and from New Mexico's oil and gas industry." Natch! And that, of course, is but the smallest of stories at a time when we have a White House at least officially committed to dealing in some reasonable fashion with the overheating of this planet.

Now, imagine that the Republicans win the House and Senate in the 2022 elections and Donald Trump (or some younger version of the same) takes the 2024 presidential election in a country in which Republican state legislators have already rejiggered so many voting laws and gerrymandered so many voting districts that the results could be devastating. You would then, of course, have a party controlling the White House and Congress that's filled with climate-change denialists and fossil-fuel enthusiasts of the first order. (Who cares that this country is already being battered by fire, flood, and heat in a devastating fashion?) To grasp what that would mean, all you have to do is expand the ten-mile radius of that New Mexican story to the country as a whole — and then the planet.

And at that point, in all honesty, you could turn off the lights, flick on that old flashlight of mine, and be guaranteed that you, your children, and your grandchildren will experience something in your everyday lives that should have been left under the covers. As almost happened in The War of the Worlds, it's possible that we could, in essence, kiss this planet goodbye and if that's not science fiction transformed into fact of the first order, what is?

The Martians Have Arrived

You know, H.G. Wells wasn't such a dope when it came to the future. After all, his tripodal Martian machines had a "kind of arm [that] carried a complicated metallic case, about which green flashes scintillated, and out of the funnel of this there smoked the Heat-Ray." In 1898, he was already thinking about how heat of a certain sort could potentially destroy humanity. Today, the "Martians" stepping out of those space capsules happen to be human beings and they, too, are emerging with devastating heat rays.

Just ask my friend journalist Jane Braxton Little, whose town, Greenville, largely burned down in California's record-breaking Dixie Fire this fall, a climate-change-influenced inferno so vast and fierce that it proved capable of creating its own weather. Imagine that for our future.

Of course, in another sense, you could say that we've been living in a science-fiction novel since August 6, 1945, when that first American nuclear bomb devastated Hiroshima. Until then, we humans could do many terrible things, but of one thing we were incapable: the destruction of this world. In the nearly eight decades that followed, however, the Martians have indeed arrived and we human beings have taken over a role once left to the gods: the ability to create Armageddon.

Still, the truth is that we don't know how our own sci-fi tale will end. As in War of the Worlds, will some equivalent of those bacteria that took down the Martians arrive on the scene, perhaps some scientific discovery about how to deal so much better with the greenhouse gases eternally heading into our atmosphere? Will humanity, Greta Thunberg-style, come together in some new, more powerful way to stop this world from destroying itself? Will some brilliant invention, some remarkable development in alternative energy use, make all the difference in the world? Will the United States, China, and other key fossil-fuel burners finally come together in a way now hardly imaginable?

Or will we truly find ourselves living in Trumptopia?

Stay tuned.

Copyright 2021 Tom Engelhardt

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

A 76-year-old essay teaches us how to be free

I think we need to think about the meaning of freedom, and how the meaning is so often colored by the right-flank of history.

I think we need to think about it, because the fact that we don't is why all of us, including liberals, spend so much time talking about "positive" versus "negative" freedom, as if an "active" or "passive" government were really on the minds of ordinary citizens.

It's also why we all of us, including liberals, spend so much time talking about freedom as if it's doing whatever I want to whomever I want and whether doing whatever I want to whomever I want is good or bad.

I think we don't think about the meaning of freedom for a couple of reasons. One, those who have inhabited the right-flank of the history of the United States have tended to be white elites with the most money to spend and the most time to spend the most money on influencing how the rest of us think, about freedom, but much more.

The other reason is more subtle. Most people in America are white. I think whiteness has a kind of pacifying effect on many of us such that problems appear to be problems when and usually only when someone somewhere, usually non-white, brings white people's attention to it. In ways large and small, these forces conspire to create conditions in which freedom is conceived so narrowly as to be virtually invisible.

This is bad for nonwhite people. Their suffering ends up constituting the "freedom" white people feel. But it's also bad for white people. I think many of us don't feel free, because we have not used the feeling of being free to pursue more sophisticated feelings of freedom. We haven't pursued those feelings because white elites would rather we didn't. (Thinking is dangerous to the political order.) We haven't pursued those feelings, because whiteness pacifies many of us.

I don't think one must be nonwhite to see my point here, but I do think one must have been at some point on the receiving end of some variety of political violence. And given that most nonwhite people are on the receiving end of America's most visible variety of political violence, we might find among them examples of cultivating a sensibility of freedom despite living or having lived in conditions no one would call free.

How would that sensibility begin? In the beginning, Ralph Ellison said:

Human life possesses an innate dignity and mankind an innate sense of nobility; that all men possess the tendency to dream and the compulsion to make their dreams reality; that the need to be ever dissatisfied and the urge ever to seek satisfaction is implicit in the human organism; and that all men are the victims and the beneficiaries of the goading, tormenting, commanding, and informing activity of that imperious process known as the Mind.

This is from Ellison's essay "Richard Wright's Blues." It's about Wright's 1945 autobiography, Black Boy. I have read and reread and reread this essay. I profit each time. He does so well what I like to think I do only modestly well, which is getting his audience to see something familiar in new ways for the purpose of ennobling everyone. That familiar thing is Black suffering. What's new is how Black suffering led a young Richard Wright to forge a future for himself. Not only as a novelist. (He's the author of Native Son.) But also as a free man. "Wright's early childhood," Ellison writes, "was crammed with catastrophic incidents.

In a few short years his father deserted his mother, he knew intense hunger, he became a drunkard begging drinks from black stevedores in Memphis saloons; he had to flee Arkansas where an uncle was lynched; he was forced to live with a fanatically religious grandmother in an atmosphere of constant bickering; he was lodged in an orphan asylum; he observed the suffering of his mother who became a permanent invalid, while fighting off the blows of the poverty-stricken relatives with whom he had to live; he was cheated, beaten, and kicked off jobs by white employees who disliked his eagerness to learn a trade; and to these objective circumstances must be added the subjective fact that Wright, with his sensitivity, extreme shyness and intelligence was a problem child who rejected his family and was by them rejected.

His mother, however enfeebled, gave him a great gift. Wherever there's darkness, there's sweetness. Wherever there's horror, there's light. And so on. She seems to me to have been a mother who understood the suffering her young son would endure as a young Black man in the American South in the 1920s, as she had endured it, too. She seems to me to have been a mother who understood joy isn't something to relieve boredom. Joy is something to relieve pain. "The influence of his mother," Ellison said, "taught him … to revere the fanciful and the imaginative." How many people do you know who do that?

So despite Black Boy's "almost unrelieved picture of a personality corrupted by a brutal environment," Ellison said, "it also presents those fresh, human responses brought to its world by the sensitive child:

There was the wonder I felt when I first saw a brace of mountainlike, spotted, black-and-white horses clopping down a dusty road … the delight I caught in seeing long straight rows of red and green vegetables stretching away in the sun … the faint, cool kiss of sensuality when dew came on to my cheeks … the vague sense of the infinite as I looked down upon the yellow, dreaming waters of the Mississippi … the echoes of nostalgia I heard in the crying strings of wild geese … the love I had for the mute regality of tall, moss-clad oaks … the hint of cosmic cruelty that I felt when I saw the curved timbers of a wooden shack that had been warped in the summer sun … and there was the quiet terror that suffused my senses when vast hazes of gold washed earth-ward from star-heavy skies on silent nights.
from Black Boy by Richard Wright (italics Ellison's).

An "almost unrelieved picture of a personality corrupted by a brutal environment" means Wright's personal project is a political project. We cannot recognize what he has achieved — "the very essence of the human" — unless we remember "the full extent to which the Southern community renders the fulfillment of human destiny impossible."

I'll close with what I think is the high point of Ellison's essay. This political project — this cultivation of the sensibility of freedom, as I'm calling it, is a "human heritage," Ellison writes. It is "the right and the opportunity to dilate, deepen, and enrich sensibility — democracy. Thus the drama of Black Boy lies in its depiction of what occurs when Negro sensibility attempts to fulfill itself in the undemocratic South."

White, Black, North, South, free, unfree, democratic, undemocratic — these are America's binaries, because they are the binaries of Black suffering. Whiteness is quite literally whitewashing it from the view of most white people, however. If the white world saw it clearly, maybe many of us would not balance the feeling of freedom on broken Black backs. Perhaps many of us would learn something. Like how to be free.

What it’s like to watch a harpooned whale die right before your eyes

This excerpt is from Death of a Whale, by Captain Paul Watson (GroundSwell Books, 2021). This web adaptation was produced by GroundSwell Books in partnership with Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

In 1975, Robert Hunter and I were the first people to physically block a harpooner's line of fire when we intercepted a Soviet whaling fleet and placed our bodies between the killers and eight fleeing, frightened sperm whales. We were in a small inflatable boat, speeding before the plunging steel prow of a Russian kill boat. As the whales fled for their lives before us, we could smell the fear in their misty exhalations. We thought we could make a difference with our Gandhi-inspired seagoing stand. Surely these men behind the harpoons would not risk killing a human being to satisfy their lust for whale oil and meat. We were wrong.

The whalers demonstrated their contempt for our nonviolent protests by firing an explosive harpoon over our heads. The harpoon line slashed into the water and we narrowly escaped death. One of the whales was not so lucky. With a dull thud followed by a muffled explosion, the entrails of a female whale were torn and ripped apart by hot steel shrapnel.

The large bull sperm whale in the midst of the pod abruptly rose and dove. Experts had told us that a bull whale in this situation would attack us. We were a smaller target than the whaling ship. Anxiously, we held our breath in anticipation of sixty tons of irate muscle and blood torpedoing from the depths below our frail craft.

The ocean erupted behind us. We turned toward the Soviet ship to see a living juggernaut hurl itself at the Russian bow. The harpooner was ready. He pulled the trigger and sent a second explosive missile into the massive head of the whale. A pitiful scream rang in my ears, a fountain of blood geysered into the air, and the deep blue of the ocean was rapidly befouled with dark red blood. The whale thrashed and convulsed violently.

Mortally wounded and crazed with pain, the whale rolled, and one great eye made contact with mine. The whale dove, and a trail of bloody bubbles moved laboriously toward us. Slowly, very slowly, a gargantuan head emerged from the water, and the whale rose at an angle over and above our tiny craft. Blood and brine cascaded from the gaping head wound and fell upon us in torrents.

We were helpless. We knew that we would be crushed within seconds as the whale fell upon us. There was little time for fear, only awe. We could not move.

The whale did not fall upon us. He wavered and towered motionless above us. I looked up past the daggered six-inch teeth and into the eye the size of my fist, an eye that reflected back intelligence and spoke wordlessly of compassion and communicated to me the understanding that this was a being that could discriminate and understood what we had tried to do. The mammoth body slowly slid back into the sea.

The massive head of this majestic sperm whale slowly fell back into the sea. He rolled and the water parted, revealing a solitary eye. The gaze of the whale seized control of my soul, and I saw my own image reflected back at me. I was overcome with pity, not for the whale but for ourselves. Waves of shame crashed down upon me and I wept. Overwhelmed with horror at this revelation of the cruel blasphemy of my species, I realized then and there that my allegiance lay with this dying child of the sea and his kind. On that day, I left the comfortable realm of human self-importance to forever embrace the soulful satisfaction of lifelong service to the citizens of the sea.

The gentle giant died with my face seared upon his retina. I will never forget that. It is a memory that haunts and torments me and leaves me with only one course to chart toward redemption for the collective sins of humanity. It is both my burden and my joy to pledge my allegiance to the most intelligent and profoundly sensitive species of beings to have ever inhabited the Earth––the great whales.

Reykjavik, Iceland, November 1986

Despite the criticisms, the name-calling, and the controversy that have arisen from our work since 1975, one indisputable fact emerged from a raid made by my crew (which included Rod Coronado of the U.S. and David Howitt of the UK) on two whaling ships in Reykjavik in 1986 in order to enforce an international moratorium on commercial whaling that had been established that year: it was successful.

The two whaling ships were razed, although their electronics and mechanical systems had been totally destroyed. Insurance did not cover the losses because the owners had stated that terrorists sank the ships, and apparently they were not insured for terrorism.

Most importantly, from that day of November 8, 1986, to sixteen years later in the year 2002, the Icelanders did not take another whale. What talk, compromise, negotiations, meetings, letters, petitions, and protests had not accomplished, we achieved with a little monkey-wrenching activity in the wee hours of the morning.

Were we terrorists? No, not even criminals, for we were never charged with a crime, even though we made ourselves available for prosecution. We had simply done our duty, and we put an end to an unlawful activity.

The only repercussion was that Iceland moved before the International Whaling Commission (IWC) in 1987 that the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society be banned from holding observer status at the meetings of the IWC. After this passed, Iceland resigned from the IWC, leaving us with the distinction of being the only organization to enjoy the status of banishment from the IWC.

How ironic, I thought, to be the only organization banned from the IWC because we were the only organization to have ever enforced an IWC ruling.

It was not much of a punishment. I had never enjoyed listening to the delegates of the member nations barter whales like they were bushels of wheat or pork bellies. I also never had much use for the posturing of the nongovernmental organizations pretending that they were actually making a difference by attending this annual circus. All that we were interested in were the rulings of the IWC, and we fully intended to continue to enforce those rulings.

I have been asked many times why we consider the IWC rulings important. Why not just oppose all whaling everywhere? The answer is that we do oppose all whaling by everyone, everywhere. However, we only actively attack whaling operations that are in violation of international conservation law. The reason for this is simple: We do not presume to be the judges and jury. We simply execute the rulings of the IWC or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) or any rulings from international conservation authorities, and we do so in accordance with the definition of intervention as defined by the 1982 United Nations World Charter for Nature, Part III (Implementation), Principle 21, Section (e): "States and, to the extent they are able, other public authorities, international organizations, individuals, groups and corporations shall… Safeguard and conserve nature in areas beyond national jurisdiction."

As a seaman, I have a great and abiding respect for the traditions of the law of the sea. To attack without a vested authority would be piracy. Thus, the difference between a privateer like Sir Francis Drake and a pirate like Blackbeard was that the former was in possession of a letter of marque from a sovereign authority and the latter practiced the same trade solely upon his own authority.

I have never considered it my place to judge the illegal activities of others. However, I feel that when there are laws and international treaties that it is the responsibility of individuals and nongovernmental organizations to strive toward the implementation of these rulings, especially in light of the fact that there is no international body empowered to police these international laws. Nation-states intervene when it is advantageous for them to do so, but little enforcement is carried out in the interests of the common good of all citizens of the planet.

It is worth noting that it was not the British or Spanish navies that brought the piracy of the Caribbean under control in the 17th century. There were too many conflicts of interest, too much corruption, and too little motivation for any real action to have been taken. The bureaucracies in the British admiralty and the Spanish court did nothing because the very nature of a bureaucracy is the maintenance of the status quo. The achievement of first shutting down piracy on the Spanish Main is attributed to one man––a pirate himself.

Henry Morgan did what two nations chose not to do: he drove the pirates to ground and ended their reign of terror. As a result, the "pirate" was made governor of Jamaica, although history would show that the man was far more effective as a pirate than as a politician. In fact, he was more of a pirate as a politician than he was as an actual pirate.

When Andrew Jackson failed to get the support of the merchants of New Orleans to back his attack on the British, it was a pirate who came to his service in the personage of Jean Lafitte. When the United States successfully endeavored to cast off the yoke of British rule, it was a pirate who achieved the most dramatic and successful naval victory at sea. That person was captain John Paul Jones. Consequently, it is a pirate who was the founder of what is today the world's most powerful navy.

Today, with the pirates of corrupt industry aided by corrupt politicians plundering our oceans for the last of the fish, killing the last of the whales, and polluting the waters, we find that there is very little real resistance to their activities upon the high seas. Once again it is time for some good pirates to rise up in opposition to the bad pirates, and I believe that the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is just such an organization of good pirates.

When our critics call us pirates, I have no problem with that. In fact, we have taken their criticisms and in an aikido-like manner; we have incorporated their accusations into our image. Our ships are sometimes painted a monochromatic black. We have designed our own version of the pretty red [a flag which, when translated to French, becomes "joli rouge" and is rumored to have inspired the "jolly roger" phrase applied to pirate flags], and our black-and-white flag flies from our mast during campaigns. We even carry cannons, with the difference being that our guns fire cream pies and not red-hot balls.

As good pirates, we have evolved to suit the time and culture in which we live, and this being a media-defined culture, our primary weapons are the camera, the video, and the internet. Like modern-day Robin Hoods, we take from the greedy and give back to the sea. We don't profit materially, but we profit tremendously both spiritually and psychologically.

Captain Paul Watson is a Canadian-American marine conservation activist who founded the direct action group the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in 1977 and was more recently featured in Animal Planet's popular television series "Whale Wars" and the documentary about his life, "Watson." Sea Shepherd's mission is to protect all ocean-dwelling marine life. Watson has authored or co-authored more than a dozen books, including Death of a Whale (2021), Urgent! (2021), Orcapedia (2020), Dealing with Climate Change and Stress (2020), The Haunted Mariner (2019), and Captain Paul Watson: Interview with a Pirate (2013).

A new book's troubling revelations make Mike Pence look much worse than originally thought

In their forthcoming book "Peril," veteran journalist Bob Woodward — who is famous for his reporting on Watergate with Washington Post colleague Carl Bernstein during the 1970s — and reporter Robert Costa examine former President Donald Trump's final months in the White House. The reporting included new details on Trump's efforts to pressure former Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the 2020 presidential election results on January 6. Liberal Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent examines Woodward and Costa's reporting on Pence this week in his column, arguing that it's wrong to paint Pence as a heroic figure.

"Ever since Mike Pence announced, on January 6, that he lacked power to help Donald Trump overturn the 2020 election in Congress, it's been widely suggested that the vice president was one of the few heroes in this ugly tale," Sargent explains. "But new revelations in the forthcoming book by Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa cast doubt on this account."

According to Sargent, "The key details concern Trump's relentless pressure on Pence to help subvert the Electoral College count on January 6, pursuant to the vice president's role as president of the Senate. The day before, in the Oval Office, Trump angrily told Pence that various people believed he did have the power to somehow derail the count."

On January 5, Woodward and Costa report in their book, Pence told Trump, "I've done everything I could and then some to find a way around this. It's simply not possible." But Trump refused to accept that explanation, telling his then-vice president, "No, no, no! You don't understand, Mike. You can do this. I don't want to be your friend anymore if you don't do this."

Sargent writes, "I've done everything I could and then some — that's at odds with the portrayal of Pence as a heroic defender of the Constitution and the rule of law who bravely rebuffed Trump's corrupt pressure on him to help destroy them both. Obviously, Pence might have been exaggerating his efforts to placate Trump. But notably, the book also reports that Pence privately said the same to former Vice President Dan Quayle, who basically had to persuade him he had no power to help Trump."

Back in January 1993, Quayle was near the end of his four years as President George H.W. Bush's vice president when he oversaw Congress' certification of then-incoming President Bill Clinton's Electoral College victory in the 1992 election.

Quayle, as vice president, was president of the U.S. Senate — and by the end of the month, after Clinton's inauguration, that position was held by the new vice president, former Sen. Al Gore.

In "Peril," Woodward and Costa report that Pence repeatedly asked Quayle if there was any way he would be able to prevent the certification of now-President Joe Biden's Electoral College victory on January 6. Quayle told Pence, "Mike, you have no flexibility on this. None. Zero. Forget it. Put it away."

Pence, according to Woodward and Costa, told Quayle, "You don't know the position I'm in" — to which Quayle responded, "I do know the position you're in. I also know what the law is. You listen to the parliamentarian. That's all you do. You have no power."

Woodward and Costa's reporting in "Peril," according to Sargent, indicates that Pence didn't prevent Biden's Electoral College certification on January 6 because he didn't want to or because it was the right thing to do, but because he couldn't.

Sargent, in his column, points out that "Peril" offers valuable information for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's select committee on the January 6 insurrection. And Sargent interviewed one of the committee's Democratic members: Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland.

Raskin told Sargent, "We need to look and see how far things went in 2020 in order to determine what correctives we need to make for 2024…. Trump wanted to exploit every vulnerability and booby trap in the Electoral College."

The Maryland Democrat is obviously worried that another "coup" will be attempted in a future U.S. presidential election.

Raskin told Sargent, "The Electoral College system is a creaky antique, but it worked so long as everyone basically agreed to honor the popular vote in the states as controlling the award of Electoral College votes. The moment that understanding is breached, at that point, all bets are off…. So, the question is whether we can put the genie of coup and insurrection back in the bottle, or whether we need fundamental and sweeping reform of the Electoral College system in order to guarantee that we have a dependable democratic election."

New report finds a bizarre link between Steve Bannon and Jeffrey Epstein

Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon coached convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein for a "60 Minutes" interview months before he was arrested on child sex trafficking charges, according to a passage from a new book by Michael Wolff first reported by The New York Times' Ben Smith.

Bannon conducted more than a dozen hours of practice interviews with Epstein in 2019, aimed at making the latter appear less "creepy" ahead of the interview — which ultimately never happened — according to Wolff's forthcoming book "Too Famous." Wolff is best known for his recent trilogy of books on the Trump administration, "Fire and Fury," "Siege" and "Landslide."

Bannon, who led former President Donald Trump's first campaign and briefly served as his chief White House strategist before being fired, in part because of critical comments he made to Wolff, encouraged Epstein to speak to "60 Minutes" and recorded more than 15 hours of practice interviews with him at his Manhattan estate, according to Wolff.

Bannon interviewed Epstein while giving him tips, such as urging him to avoid looking at the camera so he doesn't come across as "stupid" and "advising him not to share his racist theories on how Black people learn," according to the report. Bannon reportedly also told Epstein to "stick to his message, which is that he is not a pedophile."

"You're engaging, you're not threatening, you're natural, you're friendly, you don't look at all creepy, you're a sympathetic figure," Bannon told Epstein toward the end of the session, according to interview transcripts obtained by Wolff.

Bannon confirmed to the Times that he had encouraged Epstein to talk to "60 Minutes" and had recorded more than 15 hours of interview footage with the deceased financier, but insisted he had "never trained anyone." Bannon told the Times he had recorded the interviews for an "previously unannounced eight- to 10-hour documentary" that was intended to show how Epstein's "perversions and depravity toward young women were part of a life that was systematically supported, encouraged and rewarded by a global establishment that dined off his money and his influence."

It's unclear how Wolff obtained the transcripts, though the author told the Times that Epstein wanted him to write a book about him.

"He wanted me to write something about him — a kind of a book — it wasn't clear why," Wolff said.

It's also unclear how Bannon and Epstein connected. Epstein, a millionaire financier who regularly socialized with wealthy businessmen, academics and even former presidents, was arrested months later on federal child sex trafficking charges. He had previously pleaded guilty to soliciting a person under 18 for prostitution in a controversial and remarkably lenient plea deal involving infamous attorneys Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr and future Trump Labor Secretary Alex Acosta, who ultimately resigned after new details of the Epstein deal were reported. Epstein later died by suicide in a Manhattan jail cell while awaiting trial. His alleged accomplice, Ghislaine Maxwell, has pleaded not guilty to charges that she recruited and groomed underage girls for him to sexually abuse and sometimes participated in the abuse.

It's not the first time Bannon has been linked to Epstein, a longtime friend of Trump's that the former president touted as a "terrific guy" who enjoys women "on the younger side." Page Six reported in 2018 that Bannon was seen entering Epstein's Manhattan mansion, where Epstein and Maxwell are accused of repeatedly abusing underage girls.

"Bannon needs money to bankroll his political agenda," a source told Page Six at the time, just months after Bannon had left the White House. "Epstein has plenty of money, and craves power and access."

Epstein's former butler at his Paris estate also claimed in 2019 that Bannon had stayed at Epstein's apartment in the fall of 2018, which a spokesperson for Bannon denied at the time.

New York Times columnist James Stewart also wrote in 2019 that Epstein invited him, Bannon and Wolff to a dinner in 2018 but it's unclear whether the dinner ever happened and Bannon has denied that he attended.

Wolff, who regularly writes about disgraced powerful figures, has his own extensive ties to Epstein. In 2003, the Times reported that Wolff organized a bid to buy New York magazine with investors that included Epstein as well as disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Wolff later continued to see Epstein at his office, New York reported in 2007. Wolff told the outlet at the time that he had first met Epstein in the late '90s, recalling how the millionaire was followed around by "three teenage girls" who were "not his daughters." In fact, it appears that Wolff coached Epstein himself when the millionaire first faced charges before his 2005 guilty plea.

"He has never been secretive about the girls," Wolff told New York. "At one point, when his troubles began, he was talking to me and said, 'What can I say, I like young girls.' I said, 'Maybe you should say, 'I like young women.'"

Even after Epstein's 2005 conviction, Wolff continued to try to help Epstein.

"A few years ago the journalist Michael Wolff wrote a profile of him for New York magazine that was meant to 'rehabilitate' Epstein's image and would tell of all the billionaires who still, secretly, hung out with Epstein," The Daily Beast's Vicky Ward reported in 2019. "The piece had 'fact-checking' issues and never ran."

Ex-staffer about to 'set fire' to Trumpworld by exposing 'surprising new scandals' in tell-all: report

A former White House official and chief of staff to Melania Trump is about to reveal what a publishing source calls "surprising new scandals" in a new tell-all memoir.

Stephanie Grisham, who served as White House press secretary and communications director without ever holding a press briefing, will publish "I'll Take Your Questions Now: What I Saw in The Trump White House" on Oct. 5 under the Harper Collins banner, reported Axios.

"There isn't enough water on earth to contain the fire she could set to all of Trump world, including parts like the first lady's orbit, which not many people are in a position to illuminate," said a former West Wing colleague. "It's hard to articulate how much anxiety this is going to cause."

A source close to the publication said Grisham "has receipts" from her time in the White House because, as the press secretary, her job required her to know what was happening.

"Grisham knows where all the bodies are buried because she buried a lot of them herself," that source said.

She resigned on Jan. 6, after four years in the White House, and is the only person who served under both Donald and Melania Trump, and one of the few who spent time in their private residence.

"When I heard this," the West Wing source said, "all I could think about was Stephanie surrounded by a lake of gasoline, striking a match with a grin on her face."

Former staffer about to 'set fire' to Trump by exposing 'surprising new scandals' in tell-all memoir www.youtube.com

Why George Orwell’s ideas remain relevant 75 years after 'Animal Farm'

by Mark Satta, Wayne State University

Seventy-five years ago, in August 1946, George Orwell's “Animal Farm" was published in the United States. It was a huge success, with over a half-million copies sold in its first year. “Animal Farm" was followed three years later by an even bigger success: Orwell's dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four."

In the years since, Orwell's writing has left an indelible mark on American thought and culture. Sales of “Animal Farm" and “Nineteen Eighty-Four" jumped in 2013 after the whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked confidential National Security Agency documents. And “Nineteen Eighty-Four" rose to the top of Amazon's best-sellers list after Donald Trump's Presidential Inauguration in 2017.

As a philosophy professor, I'm interested in the continuing relevance of Orwell's ideas, including those on totalitarianism and socialism.

Early career

George Orwell was the pen name of Eric Blair. Born in 1903 in colonial India, Blair later moved to England, where he attended elite schools on scholarships. After finishing school, he joined the British civil service, working in Burma, now Myanmar. At age 24, Orwell returned to England to become a writer.

During the 1930s, Orwell had modest success as an essayist, journalist and novelist. He also served as a volunteer soldier with a left-wing militia group that fought on behalf of the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War. During the conflict, Orwell experienced how propaganda could shape political narratives through observing inaccurate reporting of events he experienced firsthand.

Orwell later summarized the purpose of his writing from roughly the Spanish Civil War onward: “Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism."

Orwell did not specify in that passage what he meant by either totalitarianism or democratic socialism, but some of his other works clarify how he understood those terms.

What is totalitarianism?

For Orwell, totalitarianism was a political order focused on power and control. The totalitarian attitude is exemplified by the antagonist, O'Brien, in “Nineteen Eighty-Four." The fictional O'Brien is a powerful government official who uses torture and manipulation to gain power over the thoughts and actions of the protagonist, Winston Smith. Significantly, O'Brien treats his desire for power as an end in itself. O'Brien represents power for power's sake.

Much of Orwell's keenest insights concern what totalitarianism is incompatible with. In his 1941 essay “The Lion and the Unicorn," Orwell writes of “The totalitarian idea that there is no such thing as law, there is only power … ." In other words, laws can limit a ruler's power. Totalitarianism seeks to obliterate the limits of law through the uninhibited exercise of power.

Similarly, in his 1942 essay “Looking Back on the Spanish War," Orwell argues that totalitarianism must deny that there are neutral facts and objective truth. Orwell identifies liberty and truth as “safeguards" against totalitarianism. The exercise of liberty and the recognition of truth are actions incompatible with the total centralized control that totalitarianism requires.

Orwell understood that totalitarianism could be found on the political right and left. For Orwell, both Nazism and Communism were totalitarian.

Orwell's work, in my view, challenges us to resist permitting leaders to engage in totalitarian behavior, regardless of political affiliation. It also reminds us that some of our best tools for resisting totalitarianism are to tell truths and to preserve liberty.

What is democratic socialism?

In his 1937 book “The Road to Wigan Pier," Orwell writes that socialism means “justice and liberty." The justice he refers to goes beyond mere economic justice. It also includes social and political justice.

Orwell elaborates on what he means by socialism in “The Lion and the Unicorn." According to him, socialism requires “approximate equality of incomes (it need be no more than approximate), political democracy, and abolition of all hereditary privileges, especially in education."

In fleshing out what he means by “approximate equality of incomes," Orwell later says in the same essay that income equality shouldn't be greater than a ratio of about 10 to 1. In its modern-day interpretation, this suggests Orwell could find it ethical for a CEO to make 10 times more than their employees, but not to make 300 times more, as the average CEO in the United States does today.

But in describing socialism, Orwell discusses more than economic inequality. Orwell's writings indicate that his preferred conception of socialism also requires “political democracy." As scholar David Dwan has noted, Orwell distinguished “two concepts of democracy." The first concept refers to political power resting with the common people. The second is about having classical liberal freedoms, like freedom of thought. Both notions of democracy seem relevant to what Orwell means by democratic socialism. For Orwell, democratic socialism is a political order that provides social and economic equality while also preserving robust personal freedom.

I believe Orwell's description of democratic socialism and his recognition that there are various forms socialism can take remain important today given that American political dialogue about socialism often overlooks much of the nuance Orwell brings to the subject. For example, Americans often confuse socialism with communism. Orwell helps clarify the difference between these terms.

With high levels of economic inequality, political assaults on truth and renewed concerns about totalitarianism, Orwell's ideas remain as relevant now as they were 75 years ago.

[Explore the intersection of faith, politics, arts and culture. Sign up for This Week in Religion.]The Conversation

Mark Satta, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Wayne State University

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

Author of 'How Democracies Die' reveals why the US is in worse shape than he thought

During the 2020 presidential race, a wide range of Donald Trump critics — including arch-conservative columnist/author Mona Charen (who worked in the Reagan White House) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-described "democratic socialist" — slammed Trump as dangerously authoritarian. They warned that U.S. democracy itself was on the line. Now-President Joe Biden won the election, but the threat of authoritarianism was evident when Trump tried to overturn the election results and a violent far-right mob attacked the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6. Four months into Biden's presidency, journalist Susan B. Glasser examines the state of American democracy this week in an article for The New Yorker — and she warns that there is a lot to be worried about.

"Far from embracing Biden's call for unity," Glasser explains, "Republicans remain in thrall to the divisive rants and election conspiracy theories of their defeated former president. As a result, Congress is at such a partisan impasse that it cannot even agree on a commission to investigate the January 6 attack by a pro-Trump mob on its own building."

Glasser notes that during Biden's 2020 campaign, he "carried around" a copy of the 2018 book "How Democracies Die" — which was written by Harvard University professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt and warned that authoritarianism was prevailing over liberal democracy in many countries. And Biden has stressed that the United States needs to set a positive example for the world by showing how well democracy can work. But many Republican Trump supporters, according to Glasser, are showing themselves to be overtly anti-democracy.

Glasser observes, "GOP-controlled state legislatures are passing measures that will make it harder for many Americans to vote…. Trump has been putting out the word that he plans to run for reelection in 2024 — and exulting in polls showing that a majority of Republicans continue to believe both his false claims of a fraudulent election and that nothing untoward happened on January 6. Needless to say, these are not the signs of a healthy democracy ready to combat the autocratic tyrants of the world."

Ziblatt, during a recent interview, told Glasser that he finds the political climate in the U.S. in 2021 to be "much more worrisome" than the warnings he gave when he wrote "How Democracies Die" with Levitsky three years ago. "Turns out, things are much worse than we expected," Ziblatt lamented.

Glasser continued:

He said he had never envisioned a scenario like the one that has played itself out among Republicans on Capitol Hill during the past few months. How could he have? It's hard to imagine anyone in America, even when "How Democracies Die" was published, a year into Trump's term, seriously contemplating an American President who would unleash an insurrection in order to steal an election that he clearly lost—and then still commanding the support of his party after doing so.

The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a bill calling for a commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection, but that bill hit a brick wall in the U.S. Senate when most GOP senators — clearly afraid of offending Trump — refused to support it. The six Republican senators who did vote in favor of the bill were Maine's Susan Collins, Utah's Mitt Romney, Nebraska's Ben Sasse, Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, Louisiana's Bill Cassidy and Ohio's Rob Portman.

The state of U.S. democracy is also addressed this week in an editorial from the Washington Post's editorial board, which calls out Trump supporters in state legislatures who are trying to punish secretaries of state who refused to help him overturn the election results in their states — including Georgia's Brad Raffensperger, a conservative Republican who is facing a primary challenge from far-right Rep. Jody Hice.

"Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) is gunning to replace Mr. Raffensperger in Georgia, and he already has Mr. Trump's endorsement," the Post's editorial board explains. "Mr. Hice led House Republicans in voting against counting electoral votes from swing states that preferred Mr. Biden. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed a letter Mr. Hice sent to Georgia conservatives claiming that the 2020 vote was rife with 'systemic voting irregularities and fraud' and that the 'back-stabbing' Mr. Raffensperger worked 'arm and arm with Stacey Abrams to deliver the presidency and Senate to the radical left.' These are absurd lies; extensive investigation showed no fraud, and Mr. Raffensperger is a stern conservative who wanted Republicans to win — but simply refused to fix the system on behalf of Mr. Trump."

The Post's editorial board continues, "Mr. Hice is hardly the only threat to democracy. Politico points to candidates in Arizona, Nevada and Michigan running to take over the secretary of state's office in each key swing state…. Republicans of conscience must reject these extremists."

A theme in both Glasser's article and the Post's editorial is that the threat to U.S. democracy did not end when Trump lost the 2020 election and Biden was sworn into office in January.

Glasser writes, "Hopefully, we are not witnessing the slow-motion death of American democracy. At least, not yet." And the Post's editorial board warns, "It is seductive to imagine that the danger to U.S. democracy passed with Mr. Trump's departure. In fact, it may have only begun."

Did Joe Biden really just get 'lucky' in the 2020 election?

In their recently published book, journalists Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes argue that their main takeaway from Joe Biden's win in 2020 is that he got lucky.

Indeed, they choose that word as their title: "Lucky: How Joe Biden Barely Won the Presidency."

Is this really the right way to think about Biden's win? The concept of "luck" is actually surprisingly slippery — someone can be called both lucky and unlucky for the same event. If I get hit by a car while crossing the road but walk away uninjured, you might say I got lucky that it wasn't much worse. But I might fairly say that if I were really lucky, I wouldn't have gotten hit at all.

Allen and Parnes' subtitle gives a clue at what they mean by "lucky." They say Biden "barely" won the presidency, by which they mean he came very close to losing to Donald Trump in 2020. I made a very similar point, but to very different ends, in a piece arguing that American democracy is lurching from crisis to crisis with no clear path out.

Throughout the narrative, Allen and Parnes suggest that at the crucial moments, certain factors had to go just right for Biden to win, and they did. For example, just ahead of the Iowa caucuses, Pete Buttigieg's campaign was able to get a poll spiked on thin grounds that would have shown Biden likely to finish miserably in the state (Buttigieg's performance in the poll was also below expectations.) That fortunate event prevented Biden from going into the caucuses after a news cycle about how he looked surprisingly weak. And then again on the caucus night itself, a technological failure meant the results of the full caucus couldn't be readily ascertained. Suddenly, the national story was about the caucus's technical disaster, not Biden's poor showing in the state. Another lucky break for Biden, according to Allen and Parnes.

They point to other trends being broadly fortunate for Biden as well. The pandemic, they say, exposed Trump's weaknesses and gave Biden an excuse to stay out of the spotlight. Hunkered down in his basement, his approval ratings were able to stay high while the country went to hell on Trump's watch. Initially, too, they suggest that the George Floyd protests put Trump in a negative light — another unpredictable event that went Biden's way.

However, they later argue that the issue of police conduct put Biden in a bind (they don't address how this affects their thesis that he was "lucky.") Trump could hit Biden from both sides — attacking him on not doing enough to stand up for police and against rioters, while also dredging up his history with the 1990s crime bill to paint Biden as too harsh on crime.

The effects of the 2020 summer protests on the election remain hotly debated, and I won't get into most of that here. But I should note that there's not much reason to buy that Trump's attempt to come at Biden from both sides really made much sense. Biden presented himself with a clear, measured, coherent position — he wanted more funding for the police, not less, while enacting significant reforms to prevent abusive conduct from cops. He also repeatedly said he was against any violence in protests. Trump's positioning was much less coherent. He wanted to be the "tough-on-crime" president even while decrying the country as a crime-riddled mess and attacking his opponent as overly punitive of criminals.

Finally, the authors argue that, given that Biden only won the election with a slim cumulative margin of about 50,000 votes in the key swing states, his final victory was his last lucky break.

The narrative overall may seem compelling at first glance. But under scrutiny, it's far less persuasive. While acknowledging, as I have, that the concept of luck is fuzzy, it's more reasonable to describe Biden's position in the 2020 campaign as resilient rather than lucky. Despite significant obstacles in his way, Biden's candidacy was just strong enough on its own merits to succeed.

I don't mean to tell a heroic or hagiographic tale about Biden's victory. But the fact is that from the very start, looking at the 2020 primary polls, and the national head-to-head polls with Trump, Biden looked like the favorite nearly the entire time. You might say he was "lucky," then, in the sense of coming in some sense from a place of advantage privilege. He started with high name recognition and trust because he was Barack Obama's well-liked vice president for eight years, and he was a known quantity in troubled times. But this isn't the sense of "lucky" that Allen and Parnes seem to mean.

They frequently describe Biden's campaign as shambolic and dysfunctional, suggesting that he's lucky he was able to win despite this poor operation. This perspective, though, seems to reflect the preoccupations of campaign reporters more than Biden's objective standing in the race. Whatever flaws we might say Biden's campaign might have had, they don't seem to have affected his ability to win very much, because he succeeded regardless. That's because he entered the race strong due to his standing with public, and his network of formidable allies, and he stayed that way until the end. That wasn't a fluke — that's just who Biden is.

Take the case of the Iowa caucuses, which Allen and Parnes discuss at great length. They suggest Biden was lucky that other incidents distracted from his poor showing in the first contest of the primary. But another way to look at the situation is to say that Biden was unlucky to have the primary start in a state where his support was so minimal, given the fact that he had the largest base of support of all the candidates. That was a structural disadvantage for a campaign that on the merits looked to have most support among the Democratic Party voters — and appeared most likely to win in the general election. Biden was able to survive a poor showing in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada not because he lucked out — but because his national standing was so robust that even with three embarrassing losses, he could still turn it around.

After his initial losses, his polling dropped sharply, and it looked for a spell that Sanders was most likely to win. But it turned out his former voters didn't stray from, and they would soon be back. His apparent weakness at this time was more of a mirage than a veritable shift in the sentiment of the electorate.

Two of his closest opponents, Buttigeg and Amy Klobubchar, dropped out after Biden's definitive win in South Carolina, the primary that marked the start of his resurgence. But Klobuchar and Buttigieg did drop out because Biden got a lucky break — they dropped out because they realized they never had a chance to win. Biden always did, and they were convinced he was the right person to lead the party forward. Again, that's not a fluke — that's what happens when you're a strong candidate in an election.

Once the race came down to just Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, Biden won handily. He blew Sanders out even in states where he didn't try to compete. And in his one-on-one debate with Sanders, he showed himself to be much more competent than he had appeared in the multi-candidate debates that had occurred early on in the primary, when he consistently struggled. Again, this suggests that Biden was unlucky to face such a large field to start, even though he was able to overcome this disadvantage.

You might argue, as Allen and Parnes did, that it was "lucky" in a narrow sense for Biden's campaign that the coronavirus started dominating the entire world of politics by the spring of 2020, directing the spotlight away from the Democratic nominee. But the truth is that Biden led Trump in the polls in the fall of 2019, often by more than he did in the summer of 2020, so it's hard to say Biden needed the crisis to outshine his opponent.

As we learned, of course, the polls were misleading. Biden's final lead over Trump in the national popular vote was 4.4 points, but the polls had suggested it could easily have been double that. That was, actually, another disadvantage for Biden: the polling gave his side false confidence and a misleading sense of the nature of the race, which makes it difficult to find the right strategy.

Nevertheless, Biden won. And he won despite the fact that the Electoral College was heavily biased in Trump's favor. But once again, it's a little odd to describe this as Biden being lucky — this is Biden winning despite a systematic disadvantage against him. Biden was politically strong enough to win even though circumstances weren't all falling his way.

Allen and Parnes certainly don't try to claim that luck was the only factor in Biden's win — they admit he had to have genuine skill to end up occupying the Oval Office. But these are caveats to their central thesis and the title of their book. As a way of understanding the nature of the 2020 campaign, "Lucky" falls flat. The decision to frame an entire narrative around Biden's ascension as a series of flukes is fundamentally misguided. The American people might have gotten lucky not to end up with a second term of Trump — but Biden appears to have known what he was doing all along.

The crisis of American democracy is already here

We can stop waiting for the big constitutional crisis, the cataclysmic electoral breakdown, the fracturing of democracy that many have long feared in the United States of America.

The crisis is already here, and we've been living with it for years.

It's become conventional wisdom among many political observers that the Electoral College system for picking our presidents is an anti-democratic relic that we're nevertheless forced to work around. And yet the significance of this fact is far too easily elided. We hear warnings that the Electoral College may one day trigger a disaster, but we've yet to properly take stock of the world of crisis we've already made for ourselves. And American political discourse still hasn't accommodated the fact that, because of the Electoral College and the winner-take-all state rules that decide our presidential elections, our form of government is not as democratic and morally admirable as we like to think.

Within the last two decades, there have indeed been, arguably, four distinct crises in the Electoral College that have profoundly shaken our democratic ideals and even warped the course of world history. Lives have been lost and ruined; blood has been shed as a result. The Electoral College is not just an outdated institution. It's a shambolic mess. The wheels have completely come off, and the train is off the tracks. And there's no sign it's headed for any smoother terrain.

The first of the modern crises, of course, came in 2000. The presidential election came down to Florida, and that state came down to 537 votes. A wave of irregularities and clear errors in the process easily swamped that margin, but as the fight over a recount dragged on, the Supreme Court was asked to intervene. Its decision essentially gave George W. Bush the presidency over then-Vice President Al Gore, despite the fact that Gore had won nationally by about half a million votes.

Gore conceded graciously, but a disaster was set in motion. The 9/11 Commission cited the delayed transition as a potential factor in the failure to foresee the coming terrorist attack mere months down the road. Had the Clinton administration smoothly transitioned into a Gore administration as most American voters wanted, perhaps that calamity could have been avoided — along with the disastrous wars of choice that followed. The country might have started taking climate change seriously at a crucial point in history, rather than ignoring it for far too long. The legitimacy of the 2000 election's outcome has never been broadly accepted, as many Democrats were outraged that the Supreme Court had sided with Bush and resented a system that let a contested 537 votes hold more sway than the hundreds of thousands more Gore could boast in his total.

And it wasn't just Democrats who could see the problem with the Electoral College's structure outweighing the collective voice of the voters. Contemporary news reports suggested that if, as had seemed possible before the election, Bush had won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College, his team would have fought fiercely in favor of letting the popular vote control. They would have argued for the plausible view: For the only two nationally elected officers — the president and vice president — the nation's vote as a whole should be what matters.

But as we all know, that's not how the world works.

"There is no constitutional right to vote for the president," Jesse Wegman, a member of the New York Times editorial board and author of the book, "Let the People Pick the President: The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College," told me. "You and I and every other citizen have no right at all to play a role in choosing the president. It's just the state legislators' decision to let us do that."

In the American system, state legislators wield enormous power, though they tend to attract much less attention than the U.S. Congress. Under the Constitution, they get to decide how electors are selected every four years to join the Electoral College, which then gets to pick the president and the vice president. Because most states have elections with winner-take-all rules, giving all of the state's electors to a single candidate, it's possible for the winner of the national popular vote to fail to win a majority of the Electoral College votes.

After the 2000 election highlighted this glaring flaw, many demanded change. But amending the Constitution to reform or abolish the Electoral College is extremely difficult because the people who benefit from the current system have the power to veto any reform. And the unique circumstances of the 2000 election — such a narrow margin in Florida, and botch election administration that included hanging chads and butterfly ballots — could almost be dismissed as a fluke.

And then it happened again.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton decisively won the popular vote. She won by more than 2 points and nearly 3 million votes. But despite winning 48.2 percent of the vote, she lost in the Electoral College to Donald Trump, who won a mere 46.1 percent of the vote.

That, on its own, should've been considered a crisis. Once again, the candidate with much more support from the voters was denied the presidency in favor of her less popular — not to mention clearly unfit — opponent. But Clinton herself avoided such language, conceding graciously the day after the election.

Those were the rules of the game, of course, and Clinton and Trump knew that going in. Had the results been reversed, Clinton would have happily taken office while losing the popular vote. But that doesn't mean the result was acceptable or right. The fact that we don't set up any other important election to function in this way shows that this arrangement doesn't have any intuitive appeal or inherent moral legitimacy. It's just what we've come to accept. Wegman persuasively argues that it wasn't an ingenious solution developed by the American Founders, either — it was a last-minute agreement by deeply flawed men that no one was ever really satisfied with.

Because Clinton was widely expected to win in 2016, and Trump was such an outlandish character, much of the media coverage in the days after the election focused on the fact of the stunning upset. Many urged Democrats and Clinton supporters to re-evaluate their own assumptions about the electorate and to question why the country had found Trump so appealing.

But the country hadn't found Trump so appealing. Millions more voted for his opponent. The odd quirk about the Electoral College, though, is that despite the fact that everyone knows it doesn't adhere to our traditional assumptions about democracy, the political establishment implicitly assumes there's something inherently just about the winner's claim to office and that they represent the will of the voters.

Trump didn't represent the will of the voters, though, as the numbers made clear. For a second time since 2000, democracy failed for the single most important office in the country. And this failure was massively consequential. The winner picked three Supreme Court justices, completely reshaping the balance of the court. He rewrote the tax code, started trade wars, defied Congress, tormented immigrants, ordered assassinations and executions, manipulated the tools of justice. And he oversaw mass death and misery during the COVID-19 pandemic as public experts pleaded with him to stop lying and do more to stop the virus.

His foreseeably catastrophic and plutocratic presidency was forced upon the country and the world, even though a majority of Americans thoroughly rejected him and more voters cast their ballots for his opponent.

American democracy broke down, and it hasn't yet been fixed. Some people tried to implement a last-ditch solution in 2016 to his unjust rise, after all the votes were cast, as Wegman recounts in "Let the People Pick the President." A group of faithless electors tried to break with the expectation that they cast their votes in line with their states in an effort to deny Trump the presidency.

It didn't work, of course. Only seven electors voted out of turn — five from Clinton and two from Trump. It was nowhere near the number that would've been required to deny Trump the presidency.

But it was, on its own, a mini-crisis of democracy. It was a serious effort to undo the outcome that had been set in motion on Election Day. It was itself a response to an emergency, an attempt to set right a grave wrong. But had the effort been successful, it could have unleashed unprecedented chaos, and it's far from clear that would have been a preferable outcome.

When Trump tried to overturn the results of the 2020 election, some pointed to the 2016 faithless electors plan — which wasn't supported by Clinton, who had conceded — as evidence that the Democrats were hypocrites and had been just as unwilling to accept the verdict of the voters.

There are, however, two key differences in the faithless electors' plan and Trump's efforts to undo the 2020 election. First, the faithless electors' plan is actually in accordance with the constitutional design of the Electoral College — it says nothing about electors being pledged to certain candidates. The electors could argue that becoming faithless to block Trump's win was both in accord with the original vision for the Electoral College and an appropriately democratic representation of an electorate who had rejected him. This is the second key difference with the 2020 crisis: the faithless electors were trying to stop a person who had clearly lost the popular vote from taking office.

When Trump tried to overturn the 2020 election, he was doing the opposite. He was trying to stop Joe Biden — who not only won the popular vote but a substantial majority of American voters — from rightfully becoming president.

The crisis Trump triggered was not just a crisis of democracy, but a revolt against democracy. By pushing to have state legislatures overturn the result of the election procedures they had already put in place, and pressuring election officials to reject the proper results of those procedures, Trump undermined the bedrock of electoral governance. It was a rejection of the principles of democratic progress and an effort to install autocratic rule.

"It was outrageous that Trump and his allies were trying to do this," Wegman told me. "First of all, the election had already happened. Second of all, there was literally no evidence of fraud or irregularities at all, let alone on the level that they were claiming there was. So there was nothing to overturn."

He added that though it was "terrifying," the events were also "clarifying and illuminating" for the country. "Because it let the American people see just how contingent this whole process is on the state legislatures playing along."

He continued: "And while it was absurd and anti-democratic to try to force their hand after Nov. 3, in fact, at any point before then, the Constitution gave them free rein to change their rules about awarding electors. They didn't have to do it the way they did, which was a popular vote in their state. That's how every state does it, and that's how every state had done it since 1876, but they don't have to. They could change it in a day if they wanted to. And they could change it and say 'We're going to decide for ourselves.'"

Trump took it even further than that, of course. After his gambit with state legislatures failed, he tried to convince his vice president, Mike Pence, to intervene in Congress's counting of the Electoral College vote. Pence refused, and Trump, in response, sent a riotous mob after him and the nation's lawmakers. The violence was a predictable outcome of Trump's rejection of democracy and his cult-like following. Perhaps such an attack would have occurred even if the former president had lost under a pure national popular vote system, but the baroque nature of the existing process created many more opportunities for mischief that someone like Trump would be desperate to exploit. That gave his supporters hope he could remain in office if they just pushed hard enough.

At the same time, the Supreme Court is poised to give state legislatures even more power in setting the terms of elections, unconstrained by popular referendums or courts.

And even though Biden won the election, and Trump's efforts to overturn the outcome failed, he came much closer to winning than he should have.

David Shor, a data scientist for the progressive group Open Labs, which works on progressive causes, stressed how bad the skew of the Electoral College has become for Democrats.

"We got 52.2 percent, and if we had gotten 52 percent, we might have lost," he told me, referring to Biden's share of the two-party vote. "That's what the breakeven point was. The bias of the Electoral College went up. I think a lot of people forecast that it would go down. So that's bad. I think that's really bad. I think it's really under-remarked about."

He continued: "And it makes me think we're probably favored to lose in 2024. We barely scraped 52.2 against the most unpopular Republican incumbent to run in decades. And we still barely scraped by, so I think it's quite bad."

It's been a difficult truth for the media coverage to capture. On the one hand, Biden's Electoral College victory and his national popular vote share were substantial, so his win can be regarded as giving him a significant mandate and a rebuke of his predecessor. But the collective margins of victory in the decisive states that made Biden the winner are actually quite small, less than 50,000 votes. So it's not hard to imagine a very similar world where Trump had legally held on to power — even though he oversaw a world-historical disaster that made an overwhelming and record-setting 81 million voters turn out against him.

But because Trump's efforts to change the rules after Election Day and throw out votes was so outrageous, shameful, and potentially criminal, much less attention was paid to the institution that allowed it to happen at all.

In the wake of Trump's threat to democracy, some observers have boasted that the country's institutions held firm against the threat of autocracy, as they were designed to. But the Electoral College, a central pillar of our constitutional order, didn't protect us. It exacerbated the threat and made it possible to begin with.

Trump never had a hope of flipping any of the states that voted against him after the 2020 election — the margins were just too wide, unlike Florida in 2000. But even this hopeless and corrupt effort rested on a premise that should never be accepted in the first place — that it would be acceptable for Trump to hold on to the presidency even if he lost nationally by 7 million votes.

Wegman argued that there might nevertheless be an upside to Trump's post-election crisis.

"I actually hope it pushes us further in the direction of reforming what is so clearly a system that is not built for the 21st century and Americans' expectations of what it means to live in a modern democracy," he said.

In "Let the People Pick the President," Wegman endorses the idea of the National Popular Vote Compact. Under this scheme, already adopted by many legislatures in blue states, states agree to give their Electoral College votes to the winner of the national popular vote as long as enough other states representing 270 electors have agreed to do so, too. Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin, recently famous for his role as the lead impeachment manager in Trump's Senate trial, introduced the legislation in 2007 as a state lawmaker that allowed Maryland to become the first to adopt the compact.

It's a clever pathway to get around most of the problems with the Electoral College without needing to pass a constitutional amendment on the matter, which is widely regarded as politically impossible. The hope is that, if it were ever in effect, Americans would get used to the process and the right to pick the president by popular vote, so amending the Constitution to make it permanent would become feasible.

Getting there, though, is the tricky part. Republicans in state legislatures resist the idea because they're aware that their party currently benefits from the Electoral College. And swing states — which, by definition, are necessary to reach 270 electors — have the strongest incentives to keep the current systems in place because they benefit from it enormously.

Wegman suggested that red state legislatures who see their states trending Democratic in the future might be persuaded to adopt the popular vote compact. The winner-take-all system would, if the opposite party takes control, completely nullify any Republican votes for president in their state. So they may see the compact as a way to preserve their relevance and protect their voices.

But Shor is not so optimistic about the national vote compact, calling the plan a "dead end."

"You can only get solidly blue states to pass this thing," he said. "And we're not going to have trifectas in Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin, or Michigan, or any of these other places."

Shor said one plan that helps the Democratic position a bit would be making Puerto Rico a state — a change many have called for on separate grounds. He estimated that adding the island as a state "would erase something like 10 percent of the Electoral College bias." (D.C. statehood, on the other hand, makes no difference in the Electoral College, since it already selects electors.)

In his work, Shor spends more time thinking about how Democrats can cope with the structural bias against them, rather than whether the problem can be fixed. His main answer is that Democrats have to hone their messages to compensate for the game being rigged against them.

"The source of this Electoral College bias as it exists is that as education polarization goes up, generally speaking, that leads to a lot of wasted votes," he said. "Roughly speaking, who does well in these large midwestern states determines the presidency. As those places trend more Republican, unless we do better and reverse education polarization, it's unlikely to go away any time soon."

Basically, the problem for Democrats is that white people without college degrees — who are increasingly favoring Republicans — are overrepresented in swing states.

"We have to turn around and try to appeal to voters in these states that matter more. Which really sucks," he said. "We just have to care more about what midwestern white people think."

Of course, the fundamental idea in a democracy should be that nobody's vote counts more than anyone else's. That's the egalitarian commitment that underlies the system and gives it moral and popular legitimacy. The Electoral College as it's currently set up undermines all that — it says that the rational thing for politicians to do is to care more about certain voters than others, just as Shor advises.

That's the crisis we're living with. And it could easily get worse. Not only is the institution that picks the presidency skewed against the popular will, one of the two major parties is increasingly authoritarian and opposed to democracy. And now, Trump has blazed a path for future challenges to election results, even if it has failed so far.

"Now the sharks are circling, because now they know there's blood in the water," said Wegman. "The party that refuses to try to appeal to more people in a representative democracy has only one way to power, and that's through the manipulation of existing mechanisms to entrench minority rule. And that will kill American democracy. And that will kill the republic."

The GOP has been working hard at this for years. While it's widely known that Republicans heavily gerrymandered congressional districts to their advantage in 2010, Shor argued that even more significant is what happened to state legislatures — the bodies with the ultimate authority over how we pick the president.

"I think this is one of the most under-remarked things in politics," Shor said. "State legislative lines are substantially more gerrymandered than congressional ones. They have more districts to work with. People's intuitions on this are totally wrong. The more districts you have, the easier it is."

With Republicans in control of many key state legislatures, gerrymandering in Republicans' favor is likely going to get worse as we head into another round of redistricting. That means the people who control elections, including the Electoral College, will likely become even more disconnected from the voters and even more extreme. This week, the Arizona legislature even considered a proposal that could potentially let it override the way its people vote in a presidential election, if the legislators so chose.

What's most remarkable to me is that throughout all these crises, the leadership of the Democratic Party seems to lack all urgency. There's certainly a time for calm, stately leadership. But Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and Biden have rarely made the point that there is something fundamentally broken in American democracy. That encourages the media to treat the grossly skewed system of the Electoral College, which keeps throwing the country into chaos and corrupting politicians' incentives, as an acceptable part of the country. And it lulls the public into thinking this is just the way things are, and we have to learn to live with it.

At least until the next crisis.

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